Jerry Z. Muller: Professor of Apocalypse: The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes

Professor of Apocalypse: The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes Book Cover Professor of Apocalypse: The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes
Jerry Z. Muller
Princeton University Press
2022
Hardback $39.95 / £30.00
656

Reviewed by: Michael Maidan (Independent Scholar)

Woody Allen’s 1983 movie Zelig portrays an individual with an uncanny ability to adapt to his environment to the point that, like a chameleon, he transforms and becomes one with his surroundings. Examined by a psychiatrist, he declares himself a psychiatrist and starts using psychoanalytic terms. In the company of Irish customers in a bar during St. Patrick’s Day, his physiognomy changes, and he becomes Irish. But he is neither a psychiatrist nor Irish.

To some extent, this biography of Jacob Taubes (1923-1987), rabbi, philosopher of Judaism, and sociologist of religion who wandered from Vienna to Zurich, from Zurich to New York, Jerusalem, and Berlin, who cultivated close links with scholars both from the left and from the right, reads like the history of the Zelig character, never totally to ease with his milieu.

To disclose the secret of this enigmatic character and to paint a rich picture of his times is the aim of this book, six hundred pages strong, which documents Taubes’ life and works in exquisite detail. Muller worked on published books —including Taubes’ first wife’s penned Divorcing— archival materials and dozens of interviews with Taubes’ friends, colleagues, and acquaintances.

Muller mentions that he spent over ten years researching Taubes, trying to unveil the secret of his Zelig. This undertaking may raise some eyebrows, as Taubes’ contribution to scholarship is scarce, and some, including Muller, consider it derivative. When he died in 1987, Taubes left behind one book, published forty years earlier, and papers, book chapters, and reviews from the later fifties and early sixties of the last century. It fell to Muller to balance Taubes’ many personal failings, both as an individual and as a scholar, with his contributions to the study of apocalyptic religion as a form of social criticism. To some extent, Muller performs this balancing act by invoking Taubes’ less than stellar mental health, which in his late years exploded into full-blown clinical depression. It begs the question of why Muller, skeptical of the contents of Taubes’ ideas, invested ten years in writing Taubes’ intellectual biography. At least part of the answer can be found in the credits and acknowledgment section at the book’s end. Muller mentions there having met Taubes in Jerusalem. Muller was at that time looking for a subject to write his Ph.D. thesis. He was interested in processes of radicalization and de-radicalization of intellectuals, particularly of a group of New York intellectuals who had espoused leftist views but eventually became hard-core members of the neoconservative movement. Muller finally dropped the subject, writing a thesis on the case of sociologist Hans Freyer and his transition from Nazi sympathizer to liberal democrat. His approach, in this case, seems similar.

Muller’s account is thorough and starts with a portrait of Taubes’ family, which traced their roots to Talmudic scholars and Hassidic rabbis on both sides of the family. Taubes’ father, Zwi Taubes, was an orthodox rabbi, but his education also included secular studies. Taubes’ mother trained as a teacher of Judaic subjects. Muller takes time to explain the differences and nuances between traditional and the different streams of modern Jewish orthodox education. Finally, he refers to Zwi Taube’s main teachers and hints at some continuity between their teachings and Jacob Taubes’ lifelong fascination with early Christianity.

Jacob Taubes started his Jewish education early at home and later at a school that integrated secular and Jewish subjects. With his family, he left Vienna months before the Anschluss for Zurich, where his father took over the spiritual direction of a synagogue. There Taubes attended university while pursuing studies of Talmud and Jewish law at home and with private tutors. He also spends a period at Montreux’s yeshiva. He qualified, eventually, as a rabbi and teacher. In 1947 he also completed the requirements for a doctorate under the direction of sociologist René König. His thesis became the first and only book he published in his life, Occidental Eschatology. Occidental Eschatology grew from an interest in Marxism and religion; it “created a usable past for contemporary radicals, for religious folks inclined towards radicalism” (71). Muller traces the origins of Occidental Eschatology to a paper that Taubes wrote for René König’s seminar on “Karl Marx’s Justification of Socialism”.  Taubes claimed that the appeal of Marx’s doctrine was not its professed scientific claims but irrational longings. Unless we postulate a divine plan for the world leading to harmony, the mere development of the productive forces does not justify the triumph of harmony rather than meaninglessness or anarchy. The pathos of Marxism rests upon a theory of human salvation and the messianic vocation of the proletariat (72).

Occidental Eschatology takes these ideas and develops them further. Taubes’ work shows the influence of, among others, the Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthazar’s theses about the importance of apocalypticism in Christianity’s history and the teachings’ role of Joachim de Fiore in the secularization of eschatological thinking. According to Muller, Taubes was also influenced by Karl Löwith’s book, From Hegel to Nietzsche, and Hans Jonas’ book on Gnosticism. Taubes borrowed extensively from both. Muller also founds influences from Heidegger’s On the Essence of Truth. Ultimately, Muller concludes that the aspirations of the work exceeded its execution (75-6).

  The next chapter in our story deals with Taubes’ move to America. Taubes was able to get an invitation to pursue post-doctoral studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), which he attended between 1947-49. There he was tutored in Talmud by Saul Lieberman and in the thought of Maimonides by Leo Strauss. JTS’s mission was to educate and ordain rabbis subscribing to the Conservative movement’s beliefs. But Taubes was not interested in becoming a rabbi. Eventually, he was offered to continue postdoctoral studies in Jerusalem under the supervision of the Kabballah scholar Gershom Scholem.

Jerusalem was the background for the first of the many crises that would punctuate the life of Taubes. Taubes and Scholem had a falling apart. Scholem accused Taubes of having revealed to another student information that Scholem had shared with Taubes in confidence. The story is well known and has been told before. What is new is that Muller shows that the break between Scholem and Taubes was not as complete as it was previously understood to be (173-179; 322-323). We will see below how the personal conflict between Taubes and Scholem spills over to a conflict about how to interpret the legacy of Walter Benjamin.

Taubes returned to the USA, managing after a while to secure appointments first in Princeton and later in Columbia. In terms of publications, this period was the most productive in his intellectual life. It was also a period of intensive networking that put Taubes in touch with a generation of young Jewish New Yorker intellectuals. For example, Muller refers to a Passover seder at the Taubes’ home in 1955, attended by Susan Sontag, Phillip Rieff, Stanley Cavell, Herbert Marcuse, and the Swedish theologian and New Testament scholar Krister Stendahl, an occasion that Cavell and Stendahl recalled half a century later. But immediately, Muller adds that some suspected that such performances were a show and that there was no real faith and commitment (226-7). Muller also quotes from a letter written by sociologist Daniel Bell to his wife, describing an encounter with Susan and Jacob Taubes. Bell writes that the Taubes couple was full of interesting talk, but they seemed to lack “a sense of the concrete” (227). The letter that Muller quotes show the gap in their political positions, with some of the arguments presented by Jacob Taubes referring to the ideas developed in Occidental Eschatology. While Taubes referred to the political potential of the eschatological dimension of religion, Bell worried about the risks of false messianism. To this, Jacob Taubes seems to have answered: “When you believe in prophecy, you run the risk of false prophets” (228). Apparently, Bell did not think highly of Taubes. Leo Strauss and Hannah Arendt concurred in their evaluation (228). But among senior scholars, he gathered enough support to get an assistant professor position to teach History and Sociology of Religion at one of the best Universities in the USA. Muller accessed the records of the ad-hoc nominating committee, and he presents an impressive list of scholars who, in general, supported Taubes’ candidature, though they were some reservations. Muller explains the novelty of the academic study of religion, which was controversial at that time. In Columbia, Religion was granted the status of a department only in 1961. At the time of Taubes’ hiring, it lacked a well-defined undergraduate curriculum, and its graduate program lacked a unifying principle. This suited Taubes fine. His courses dealt with 19th and 20th thinkers that were not taught in Columbia mainly because they fell out of the disciplines as they were then defined. Characteristically, the chapter dealing with Taubes’ Columbia years is titled “The merchant of ideas.” A later chapter, this one dealing with his work in Germany, has the title “impresario of Theory.” A provisory title for the book was, apparently, “Jacob Taubes: Merchant of Ideas and Apostle of Transgression” (according to a CV dated 2019).

Muller emphasizes the role of Taubes as a ‘merchant of ideas’ rather than an original thinker or a profound scholar. Muller writes: Taubes knew what was going on in various contexts (241-2). Much of what he knew he learned in conversation. His knowledge was wide but lacked depth. While Muller does not tire of emphasizing the shortcomings of Taubes, he also recognizes that he had a talent for making connections between ideas from different sources and was generous in sharing his knowledge with his friends.  He also had the talent to organize intellectual encounters, of which Muller cites three in Columbia, which were very successful. One was a conference with Martin Buber that led to creating a permanent Colloquy on Religion and Culture. A second project became a forum for Religion and Psychiatry, and a third was a Seminar on Hermeneutics.

Despite these successes, and his good performance as a teacher, Taubes’ felt that his position at Columbia was not strong enough. Besides, his wife Susan was not happy in New York. Starting in 1959, he began looking for a position in Germany. And already in 1961, he was appointed visiting professor at the Berlin Free University (FU). Muller provides abundant information and background on the supporters of Taubes and their moves, on the idea of a chair to study Judaism in the FU, and on the circumstances of the FU itself, in the context of the Cold War. While the position was initially a summer assignment, negotiations were on track for establishing an institute of the Science of Judaism to be directed by Taubes. There were also talks about creating an additional position as head of a Division for Hermeneutics. But initially, he did not commit himself and shuttled between Columbia and FU on alternate semesters. Finally, he obtained an even better deal. The chair was renamed Judaistik (Judaism), and he also added to the title the label “Sociology of Religion”. To add to the exceptionality of the situation, Muller mentions that Taubes was not a German citizen, a prerequisite for a position in a public university in Germany, and he was not required to have a Habilitation, usually conferred after completing a second research project and additional requirements (270).

Chapter nine reviews Taubes’ interlocutors in Berlin and Germany in general. To put it briefly, Taubes was in dialogue with probably most of the leading and would-be leading intellectuals of this period. People like Dieter Henrich, a known specialist in German Idealism, who first learn through Taubes of Marcuse’s Reason and Revolution, and Eros and Civilization, and who will visit for the first time the USA with Taubes’ help. He also interacted with Habermas, with whom he shared a position as reader and editor for the influential publisher Suhrkamp. Taubes convinced Peter Unseld, the managing director of Suhrkamp, to publish books that were broadly sociological, covering both American and French authors. The quantity, quality, and variety of books that Taubes managed to recommend for publication led Muller to ask how Taubes related to books. He infers that there is a relationship between his brilliance and a certain superficiality (282-283). Taubes had also close relationship with several other intellectuals, such as Peter Szondi, Gadamer, Eric Voegelin, Ritter, Adorno, etc. All these interactions Muller characterizes as belonging to the realm of merchant or impresario of ideas, not of real scholarship or intellectual communion of ideas.

Of this period, one of the rare publications from Taubes, The intellectuals and the University, is the one he was most proud. Muller refers to the history of this lecture, its previous versions, and contents. To some extent, this lecture parallels Occidental Eschatology, with a broad exploration of the notion of the university and its development in different countries to arrive finally at a diagnosis of the institution and of the intellectual in contemporary society. The diagnostic section parallels Taubes’ Four Ages of Reason (1956, republished 1966). It draws on ideas of the Frankfurt School, though Taubes’ version seems more radical than what was advocated by Horkheimer and Adorno at that time (284-6).

Taubes was interested in movements that were unconventional and transgressive, such as Gnosticism and apocalypticism. And, in a rare coherence of theory and practice, he also had an uncommon relationship with women. Muller lists and depicts some of his love partners, starting with his wife, Susan, whom he divorced and later committed suicide, Margherita von Brentano, who chaired the philosophy department at FU and later quarreled with Taubes, Judith Glatzer, the poet Ingeborg Bachmann, and many others. A review of this book by Mark Lilla in the New York Times carried the title “The Man Who Made Thinking Erotic”. While some of his womanizing would be considered predatory by today’s standards, Muller brings many examples in which Taubes seem to have helped and supported many young women in their academic careers.

Chapter ten explores Taube’s activity as a fully committed faculty of FU, starting in 1966. As a teacher at FU, he was appealing to students that were politically engaged, intellectually curious, and disdainful of disciplinary boundaries. But Taubes was not very interested in the routines of academic work. He was not a good advisor for dissertations and habilitations, as he did not lay down clear guidelines to help his students to complete their work in a reasonable amount of time. But Muller acknowledges that this problem was not only Taubes’ but was common among the more charismatic teachers. He was indeed a charismatic teacher, and Muller describes in some detail his presentation mode (310-311). He also taught courses with colleagues that became leading German intellectuals, such as Dieter Henrich, Michael Theunissen, and Rolf Tiedemann (who will edit for Suhrkamp the work of Walter Benjamin). For many of his classes, he relied on his teaching assistants. Apparently, he had a flair for identifying and coopting up-and-coming intellectuals that he integrated into his classes. Taubes’ weakness in his teaching, as in his writing, was the systematic explication of concepts. But his talent for concretizing concepts, for making them seem relevant and vital to his students, was unmatched. He could explain Kierkegaard’s concept of anxiety (Angst) in a more vivid way than an expert on Kierkegaard could (312).

One of the Zelig-like characteristics of Taubes was his ability to insinuate himself into different intellectual projects. One example that Muller explores in some detail is Taubes’ participation in the multidisciplinary project Poetik und Hermeneutic, where scholars of literature, philosophy, history, and other disciplines met every two years to explore a topic together. Papers were circulated ahead of the meeting, and they were discussed face to face. The oral presentations were taped, transcribed, edited, and eventually published in a volume. Muller describes the leading participants and their background, which in many cases was very different from Taubes’. Taubes did not contribute but three papers to the colloquium, but his oral participation seemed to have been well received.

Taubes was involved also in another research project, this one focusing on the idea of political theology. Three volumes were published, with introductions by Taubes.

Chapter 11 deals with Taubes and his partner von Brentano’s role in supporting the “new left” movement and the radicalization of the FU’s students in the 1960s. Taubes was not the only one taking the side of the students against the administration and the West Berlin municipality, but apparently, his role was prominent. There is information in the chapter about Taubes’ activities, his invitation to Kojève to lecture in FU on the “End of History”, and the presence of Marcuse, who lectured on the “End of Utopia”. Marcuse is displayed in a photo with Taubes and other intellectuals (342). According to Muller, Taubes sought to influence the student movement and steer its energies away from the more anarchistic tendencies. In a letter to

Hans Robert Jauss, a member of the Poetik und Hermeneutik circle, Taubes wrote: “no stone should be left unturned to save the SDS [the socialist German student union] from the precipitous path of left-wing fascism” (344). At the same time, Taubes and von Brentano were involved in a struggle with other members of the philosophy department around the political orientation of the department.

Chapter 12 covers the period between 1969 to 1975 and is supposed to document the de-radicalization and crisis of Taubes. But a large part of the chapter is devoted to aspects of Taubes’ private life. Late in the chapter we learn about the conflict between Habermas and Taubes (369-372). Muller retraces the complex reaction of Habermas to the SDS and the student movement. Taubes advised Habermas to have a more conciliatory attitude towards the movement’s leaders, advising that Habermas apparently did not follow. Another section in the chapter talks about an indirect connection between Taubes and the founding members of the “Red Army Fraction” terror group, which brought Taubes to the interest of the police (372-373). There is also a section on a counteroffensive of the Professors (373-377).

The section “Deradicalization” starts early on, in 1971, with a story about Taubes’ colleague at FE, Peter Szondi’s suicide. While not likely the reason, it seems that many in FU suspected he was led to take his life by pressure from leftist groups. Taubes himself, who was one of the most active supporters of the activist students among the members of the chaired professors, felt by 1972 that students had become intellectually rigid and dogmatic. He even discouraged Marcuse from visiting again, fearing that he may be boycotted by the activists. There is also information on internal fights in the philosophy department about appointments. Apparently, Taubes was ambivalent, supporting critiques of the increasing influence of the Marxist-oriented candidates and advising colleagues and students to overcome their tendency to sectarianism. In this, Brentano was more radical than Taubes. The remaining section of the chapter deal with family and personal matters: Taube’s divorce from von Brentano and a serious episode of mental crisis that required his hospitalization.

Chapter 13 describes Taubes’ wanderings between Berlin, New York, and Jerusalem and his struggles against his colleagues in the philosophy department who wanted to force him into retirement. Muller chooses to illuminate this period in Taubes’ life through his acrimonious fight against fellow philosopher Michael Landmen (398-408), who was one of his original sponsors when he came to Berlin. During this period also, his association with the publisher Suhrkamp was terminated. One of the reasons, besides his inability to continue to perform his duties because of his mental health, was his insistence that the collection he and Habermas edited in Suhrkamp publish books by right-wing historian Ernst Nolte. Surprisingly, Suhrkamp kept Taubes on its payroll for several years, though not as co-editor of the Theorie library. When he was finally sacked, it was because of Suhrkamp’s financial difficulties.

The years-long personal conflict between Taubes and Scholem played out also regarding their interpretation of Walter Benjamin. As Benjamin became in the 1960s an icon of the left, and as the close friendship that bound both thinkers became known, some of the recognition given to Benjamin transferred to Scholem. Scholem was well known in West Germany in the small circle of specialists in the history of religion and Jewish studies. But with the publication in 1966 of Benjamin’s letters to Scholem, Scholem’s publication of interpretative essays that explored the Jewish dimension of Benjamin’s thought, and particularly with the publication of his memoirs Walter Benjamin: Geschichte einer Freundschaft (1975), and a few years later From Berlin to Jerusalem (1977), contributed to bring the figures of Benjamin and Scholem closer. The interest in Benjamin among the German young intellectuals led to discussions about how to interpret his legacy and how Scholem and Adorno handled the publication of his letters and unpublished manuscripts. Taubes was particularly interested in a few of Benjamin’s writings, including the “Political-Theological Fragment” and the “Theses on The Philosophy of History”, which he explored at a seminar in 1968. Taubes had written a letter to the Suhrkamp publishers objecting to a possible transcription mistake in one of Benjamin’s letters and complaining that Scholem and Adorno had disregarded the importance of Asja Lācis —a communist militant close to Brecht that was Benjamin’s lover at one point— for Benjamin’s intellectual development. Scholem reacted in a letter to Adorno, characterizing Taubes as laden with ressentiment (384).

The last act in the tragedy between Scholem and Taubes took place in 1977 and had to do with Taubes’ proposal to participate in a Festschrift in honor of Scholem, something rejected outright by Scholem. Finally, Taubes participated in a congress in Scholem’s honor in Jerusalem, where he presented a paper entitled “The price of messianism”, which is critical of Scholem’s approach.

Chapter fifteen is dedicated to Taube’s fascination with the ideas of the jurist and unrepentant former Nazi supporter, Carl Schmitt. Taubes was not only interested in Schmitt’s ideas. He also tried and ultimately succeeded in meeting Schmitt face to face. This is a complicated chapter in Taubes’ life, which puzzled friends and acquaintances, and is one of the components of the complicated appeal of his personality. Muller list several grounds for Taubes’ interest in Schmitt. One is Schmitt’s claim that there is an inextricable link between theology and politics. Second, Schmitt’s erudition, his knowledge of intellectual history, and long-forgotten intellectual debates. Third, according to Taubes’ recollections, he turns to Schmitt’s concept of constitutional law to have a better understanding of modern philosophy. Another motivation was understanding how intellectuals of Schmitt’s caliber could have been involved with the Third Reich. But there was also a shared disdain for bourgeois mentality and for liberalism. Finally, Muller finds “another factor, difficult to evaluate but impossible to overlook, was that in many of the circles in which Taubes traveled (though not all), his professed admiration for Schmitt served to scandalize, thus allowing him to engage in an exhibitionist performance as a bad boy” (454). Some of the main lines of the story are well known, as they were published in a small volume published in 1987, and Taubes refers to his relationship with Schmitt in his lectures on Paul, which were published posthumously. Muller adds to the story a portrait of the person who served as an intermediary between Taubes and Schmitt, the radical German nationalist Hans-Dietrich Sander (456-460). Taubes was not the only intellectual to be in touch with Schmitt. Hans Blumenberg, among others, was also corresponding with Schmitt. But probably no major intellectual not identified with the right-wing was making it publicly.

There is another reason for the interest of Taubes in Schmitt, one that probably influenced the future reception of Schmitt among left-wing intellectuals. From Sander, Taubes learned of a supposed connection between Walter Benjamin and Schmitt. Sander shared with Taubes a letter from Benjamin to Schmitt, in which Benjamin claimed to have based his book on the Origins of Baroque Drama on Schmitt’s discussion of the idea of sovereignty. Benjamin also used Schmitt’s idea of the ‘state of exception’ in his Thesis on the Philosophy of History (Thesis 8). However, the role of this expression in Benjamin’s argument is totally different from the one used by Schmitt. After Schmitt’s death, Taubes gave a lecture entitled Carl Schmitt – Apocalyptic Prophet of the Counterrevolution. In his lecture, Taubes discussed Schmitt’s relationship to the Third Reich and a series of anecdotes about Taubes’ encounters with Schmitt’s work, beginning with his student years in Zurich. Muller is quite severe with the content of this lecture, showing several inconsistencies, mistakes, and wild claims.

To a large extent, Taubes’ posthumous fame hangs on the lectures on Paul that he presented shortly before his death. Muller details the process that led to the preparation of the lectures, starting with a lecture in 1986 at a Lutheran research center in Heidelberg on the experience of time, a seminar in Salzburg, and an interview published in a collective published by Suhrkamp. In this intervention, Taubes defended the interpretation that what marked the experience of time of the West is neither time as eternal nor the recurrency of time but an experience of urgency. From Paul, Taubes takes not the theological substance of his teachings but Paul’s emotional stance towards the world. It is the idea that the Kingdom of God is nearby. A few months later, Taubes was invited again to lecture at the Lutheran center. But by the time he had to give his seminar, his health had declined further. He prepared his lectures with the help of Aleida Assmann. She also arranged for the lectures to be taped and transcribed. Besides the framework, Muller provides a general description of the contents and a summary of Taubes’ lectures (488-494). Muller characterizes the lectures as follows: “Taubes had been thinking about Paul since at least the time of his father’s 1940 sermon, which prefigured some of Taubes’s own themes, and he poured into his Heidelberg lectures nuggets of learning and speculation gathered over a lifetime. It was this range of reference that made the lectures an intellectual feast to some but a chore to others. Taubes developed his themes in good part through stories about the figures with whom he had discussed Paul over the course of his life… All of which added an air of exoticism and cosmopolitanism to the presentation. It made for an intellectually sparkling brew” (494).

A final chapter recounts the story of how Jacob Taubes’ legacy was preserved and multiplied in the years after his demise. Muller starts with the obituaries by Aleida and Jan Assmann, which characterized him as a Jewish philosopher, an “Arch Jew, and Primordial-Christian.” In the same newspaper, a second obituary was published by Peter Gäng, Taubes’ last doctoral student, who wrote about the difficulty of classifying Taubes from a political point of view. Muller notes other obituaries, but in his view, the most important one was by Taubes’ old friend Armin Mohler. Mohler, who was well acquainted with Taubes’ life story, mentioned it in his article Susan Taubes’ Divorcing. In Muller’s view, the reference to Divorcing set off a chain reaction that would contribute to the posthumous reputation of both Susan and Jacob (499). That means, again, that it was not what Taubes taught, thought, or wrote that made his posterity but a series of unforeseeable events. With the demise of “really existing socialism,” left-wing intellectuals, such as Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben, and Slavoj Žižek, turned to Taubes’ interpretation of Paul as a model for a post-Marxists theory of revolution. Even if Badiou does not mention Taubes directly, the references in his book clearly align with Taubes’ position. Only in one issue did Badiou diverge from Taubes. While Taubes always emphasizes Paul’s Jewish background, Badiou adopts a neo-Marcionite position, claiming that Paul broke completely with the religion of the Hebrew bible (509-10). Agamben’s book on Paul was published two years later, and it was dedicated to Taubes (510-511). Finally, Žižek does not directly quote Taubes but refers to him implicitly raising the issue of Paul in several of his books (511-12). And around this idea, a cottage industry of translations (515-6) and interpretations developed, first in Europe and later in the USA. Muller explains the success of ideas taken from or inspired by Taubes as a symptom of a double crisis. On the one hand, a crisis in the appeal of the Christian faith in large parts of Western Europe, while at the same time, there is a crisis of confidence among the radical and left-wing intelligentsia (512). Muller’s account ignores other reasons for a renewed interest in the intersections between religion and politics, some older, such as liberation theology, and some newer, such as the rise of fundamentalism.

Undoubtedly this is an exceptional book, both by the quality and quantity of the research supporting it and by its lively style. It would be of interest not only for people interested in the life and works of Jacob Taubes but also for those interested in the intellectual life both in the USA and in Germany in the period between the end of WWII and the crumbling of the Berlin wall.

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

Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism Book Cover Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism
Aaron Jaffe (Anthology Editor), Michael F. Miller (Anthology Editor), Rodrigo Martini (Anthology Editor)
Bloomsbury Academic
2021
ebook $93.60 Hardback $117.00
368

Reviewed by: Sarvesh Wahie (University of Jena)

Vilém Flusser’s Consciousness in ‘Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism’

Considering the scarceness of Vilém Flusser’s citability, Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism is a much-needed current toward reiterating a Flusserian significance in the contemporary philosophical discourses. The reasons for such a scarcity may vary from diversification of philosophical themes to canonical sympathies in specific disciplines, but all variation ultimately condenses down to a simple thesis of Flusser’s own writing elegance. The epilogue to the Volume rightfully calls this elegance “thinking in freestyle.”[i] One may therefore question: How to approach a freestyle thought along disciplined axes? Spontaneously, two possibilities come to mind: Either reading Flusser’s oeuvre ‘for itself’ or interpreting Flusser ‘through’ other thinkers. The editors or the book, Aaron Jaffe, Michael F. Miller, and Rodrigo Martini, seem to subscribe to a rather agnostic approach where a majority of contributions engage handpicked themes from Flusser’s writings. This neither-nor approach diversifies itself into three meta-sections: ‘Processing Flusser’, ‘Flusser’s Expanded’ Modernism, and ‘Flusser’s Toolkit’. This grounds the overarching thesis of the volume: the collection is understood as a regulating principle between straining Flusser’s speculations on the one end and emanating a specific Modernism on the other end[ii]. With an assortment of short, long, provocative, and specialized essays, each of these sections are oriented toward opening up dialogical spaces between the ever-concretizing disposition of Flusser as a media-theorist and the fresh amplitude of him as a prolific Modernist. Going by this editorial introduction to the book, such an agnostic approach seems to be well suited for Flusser’s own writing style because the departing atmosphere for Flusser is neither philosophy, anthropology, physics and biology nor language, media, information, digitalism, existentialism and translation. Quite the reverse, the atmosphere of departure for Flusser has been text, where philosophy, anthropology, physics, biology, language, media, information, digitalism, existentialism, and translation appear as themes. Therefore, the 2021 published essay-collection on Vilém Flusser in the series Understanding Philosophy, Understanding Modernism is undoubtedly a textual atmosphere of conversation between philosophical and Modernist currents colored in Flusserian inks.

The goal of this essay-collection is not a Flusser hagiography or an introduction of kinds. Thus, as mentioned by the editors, one of the striking features of the volume is to treat Flusser as an event, as opposed to a biographical subject[iii]. This stance immediately sets Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism apart from other books on Flusser such as Rainer Guldin & Gustav Bernanado’s Vilém Flusser, Ein Leben in der Bodenlosigkeit (2017),  Oliver Bidlo’s  Vilém Flusser: Einführung (2008), and Nils Röller & Silvia Wagnermaier’s Absolute Vilém Flusser (2003). Such a contrast translates into a reading of Flusser as an occurrence in the prevalent academic discourses. Specifically, these discourses are situated in the scene of German Media-theory, where Flusser arrived with his philosophy of communication (Kommunikologie) and gained a reputation of a prophetic media-theorist. This situatedness of event Flusser in German media theory is the departing atmosphere for the essay-collection. However, Modernism is also explored along with this situation. This is apparent in the structure of the book in the first two sections. Section one processes Flusser in the German media theoretical situatedness and section two introduces an expanded Flusserian view of Modernism. To put it simply, the essay-collection is an account of German media-theoretical handling of event Flusser as received by researchers in the Anglophone world. Therefore, it can be said, that this essay-collection is meant for a reader that desires to be informed about Flusser research on a transnational paradigm. Conversely, the volume also demands the reader to self-study and be familiar with Flusser’s writings because the essays in the collection rarely clarify Flusserian concepts as they work on a discursive plane with them. This verdict does not hold true for the third section of the book entitled ‘Flusser’s Toolkit’ though. This section is dedicated to explicating Flusserian concepts relevant for this book. Thus, on the structural scheme of things, Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism suggests also an opening to a reader not familiar with Flusser’s writings.

The section, Processing Flusser, opens with an import of Flusserian question ‘Does writing have a future?’ into the present day scenario of machine learning and artificial intelligence. The essay ‘Does AI have a future?’ seeks to locate the prominence of AI in Flusser’s writings and with it to analyze the futures invoked in asking this question. The essay posits Flusser’s prophetic writing tone as a function of the implicit temporality of apparatus like linear writing, images, and programs. Thus, from a vantage point of such temporalities the essay argues, one is able to make a prognosis about a future. In the case of this essay, the future is invoked by dealing with the question, whether AI enhances or destroys a historical future. This historical future is by extension Post-history. As propounded by Flusser, with the advent of programming and computers, history calls for a reconsideration of its values: it can no longer be thought of as unidirectional movement of a subject. On the contrary, multidirectional and multidimensional models must be thought in movement. Certainly, an AI, an automation, can do this job of making multi-directional movement faster than humans would do. But, it is not only linear history at stake, AI can be employed in various walks of life, like garden mowing, making business deals, running economy, and even writing poems. Humans can concentrate on something else then – pain and suffering. Thus, the human paradigm features as uncritically alienated in this essay. However, the confident tone that Flusser always broadcasts in his writings appears at the end of the essay as well. A creative dialogical consciousness is suggested as a feature of post-historical apparatus and therefore it promises a potentiality that can be realized in either direction of total control or total freedom. The ideas played out in this essay also function as debate-openers for the entire first section. The later contributors of the essay-collection touch upon these ideas in myriad capacities.

Take, for instance, the second and third essays. If a creative dialogical consciousness correlates to post-historical apparatuses, then it makes sense to question the design and shape of such apparatuses. This question is discussed with Flusser’s philosophy of design in the second essay of the collection, titled ‘Design/Shape’. Design for Flusser is both, process and projection into the future. The essay is in line with the Flusserian argument, but also introduces a thought that Flusser’s Design philosophy is ultimately a philosophy of language. Of course, language is not design, but is Flusser’s ‘model of all models’ that he uses to design his philosophy. Thus, by virtue of a methodological identicalness language becomes a tool for designing the future. As depicted by the essay this identification results not only in designing objects of use and programs after Auschwitz, but also in projecting a new humanness. With this understanding, the essay touches upon a Modernist point-of-view, by locating Flusser’s Design philosophy in the trajectory of an unfinished modernization from Martin Heidegger through Sigfried Giedion and toward Bruno Latour. However, in the limited scope of the essay, this trajectory is not discussed in detail. Nevertheless, the Flusserian idea of designing objects becomes known: A designed object is an object of use (Gebrauchsgegenstand) as opposed to being an object (Gegenstand) that resists communication. Immediately, one can think of guns as objects of ‘use’. The question of an intentional communication remains unanswered in the thesis portrayed in the essay. This thesis moreover stays as simple as it is. Toward the end of the essay, the very attitudes that design objects of use, except featuring a choice of value creation, remain uncommented on a theoretical plane. The third essay picks up this node of designing communication by engaging in dialogues on the plane of video images. The essay mentions Flusser’s famous video collaboration with the artist Fred Forest in 1972-74, in which Flusser appears in the video, philosophizing and attempting dialogues. This essay is a treat for anyone who desires to get informed about various collaborations that Flusser was a part of with other artists, such as from the Fluxus movement. Flusser shared sympathies for creating a participatory art experience, which would also translate to a creative dialogical consciousness. Thus, “dialogical video” as a term came out of Forest’s collaboration with Flusser. This is opposed to Film because a dialogical video involves a telepresence as evinced by Zoom-Meetings or Skype today. Other than exhibiting the term dialogical video, which in fact was coined by Forest, the essay provides a detailed view of Flusser’s engagement with artists, but shies away from describing a sound theoretical intervention.

In a similar vein, the fourth essay of the collection depicts Flusser’s involvement with the intellectuals in Europe. Specifically, the Ars Electronica Symposium of 1988 in Linz, Austria where media theorists such as Heinz von Foerster, Jean Baudrillard, Freidrich Kittler, Peter Weibel, and Hannes Böhringer each presented their theories. This was an important symposium as far as chalking out contrasts between the perspectives of these theorists is concerned and the essay takes up this job willingly. Staying true to the ethos of the volume, the essay portrays Flusser as an event where perspectives of other theorists intersect. The point of intersection is cybernetics: Flusser perhaps the strongest proponent, Baudrillard the detractor, and others drenched in the cybernetic discourse as shown by the essay. Thus, the essay argues Flusser’s influence in shaping the media theory as one knows it today. It is important to note that this essay also brushes on the questions raised by the first essay of the volume: namely, the creative dialogical consciousness and the post historical apparatus. The essay briefly puts forward the Flusserian concept of gestures as a capacity of impressing information onto objects. This feature brings together, if one wants, the philosophy of design. Since, designing is an activity of processing and projecting, it can be argued that designing memories (also Flusser’s topic at the symposium. In German: Gedächtnisse) at the subatomic level, for instance in computer chips, is an ontology of impressing information onto objects. With this, an undercurrent of modernity comes to the forefront. For Flusser this changes thinking subjects acting on objects by virtue of work to thinking of Projects projecting models/shapes/designs onto objects in order to transform them into objects of use. This is the post historical apparatus, memories to use Flusser’s term, which is programmed by multidirectional designs. To design dialogically or creatively is then to program imaginatively enough to bring about a cybernetics of conversation. For this reason, a programmer for Flusser is no less than an artist, or trickster in his words. In a theoretical discourse of the dialectic between the program and the functionary, Flusser’s theory establishes a sharp contrast because it seeks to theorize the very act of creating a program. However, it is important to note that the act of creating a program cannot be thought of in terms of individual or global for Flusser, because by virtue of its ontological credence designing objects of use is an intersubjective atmosphere. The next essay entitled ‘Flusser in the light of radiation’ explicates this atmosphere with the metaphor of radiation, but still works in the individual and global realms. Not only can programers create computers for communicating between humans and machines, but they can also create self-destructive nuclear weapons. Once again, this essay strikes back with the ethics of programing against the backdrop of Flusser’s essay-series called “Curie’s Children” written for the Artforum magazine from 1986. Apart from interpreting these writings as an apocalyptic warning, the essay introduces Flusserian concept of ‘backlash’ from an unpublished essay that bears the same name. Designing objects of use or tools according to Flusser has the capacity to strike back or backlash at the programer. For instance, the invention of a lever backlashed at the arm to make it function like a lever. Surely, the thesis is contestable, but as a fair warning to a programmer/human, it definitely makes its case. What kind of a human does the post historical radiation enlighten?

‘On being human in the universe of technical images’ is the next essay in the collection that takes up this question and inserts ‘game and play’ as prospective answers.  If one thinks of ‘play’ in general, then Freidrich Schiller promptly comes to mind. ‘Game’ thought in linguistic terms summons Ludwig Wittgenstein. The essay considers both of these traditions, but also briefly discusses Flusser’s other influences in Brazil that affected his thought toward writing Ins Universum der technichen Bilder (1985). The essay argues that in his writings Flusser uses ‘game’ as a noun – to look at an object from non-participatory distance – and he uses ‘play’ as a verb – to emphasize a first-person or an involved perspective. The differentiation between game and play, the essay also suggests, is possible in the English language, which perhaps made Flusser use the capacity to chart out a conceptual difference in a short piece called ‘Games’. In ‘Games’ Flusser seeks to define human existence as Homo ludens, which the essay expertly points out is a Flusserian acknowledgement of Johan Huizinga’s conceptualization. For Flusser, the essay shows, Homo ludens is not only involved in playing, but also the very capacity of play is able to differentiate between the player and the game. This is the link to Schiller, where this differentiation results in an aesthetic experience of humanness. The essay further states that experiencing aesthetics of humanness speaks to Flusser because it is rooted in the phenomenological description from the perspective of the player (first-person perspective). The essay is aware of the boldness of this statement and readily mentions that Schiller wrote in a time where a Husserlian Phenomenology was still a century away. Nevertheless, the essay brings to forefront that in order to understand the experience of playing, Phenomenology is categorically crucial to Flusserian thought. Talking about game, the essay describes Flusser’s piece ‘Games’ in detail and firmly concedes that for Flusser there is no outside of a game, but there are open and closed games. Language, for instance, is an open game because it has no fixed ending and it continues to gain and lose components in its movement of play. Chess, on the other hand, is an example of a closed game, because its scope of elements are fixed and it has a definite end.  A game then, like most Flusserian concepts, relate to a communicative structure of discourses and dialogues among others like philosophy, anthropology, and translation. Thus, a player is always already rooted in myriad games, playing with and against the program of the game. In further sections of the essay, this ontology of play explores possibilities in designing, projecting, and creating alternative worlds digitally, thereby reinstating the atmosphere of post-history where all objects have disappeared “into whirling particles”[iv] and left the human subject isolated. The future then opens to humans as projects, designing alternative worlds in the universe of technical images.

At this point into the reading of the book, one may surely question the coherency of Flusser’s references and influences. Seasoned readers of Flusserian thought already know Flusser’s reluctance on citing or quoting his sources. One may also see that Flusser writes from his own experience or from a first person perspective. This, of course, is not always true. But, on several occasions, Flusser clearly remarks that subjects and objects are extrapolations or abstractions elevated from a field of concrete relations. Does this make a case for Flusser’s phenomenological praxis? “Flusser’s Philosophical Backgrounds,” the next essay in the collection, surely makes a ground for Flusser’s phenomenological orientation. The essay concretely not only mentions Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger as phenomenologists to Flusser’s inspirations, but also contested phenomenologists such as Martin Buber and José Ortega y Gasset. Other than these thinkers, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Franz Kafka make for pivotal changes in Flusserian thought as shown by the essay.

Considering the background of the radical contention between media-theory and phenomenology in the German academia[v], reading Flusser as a phenomenologist is a venture doomed to isolation. On the one hand, media theorists have welcomed Flusser prophetically as the deciding element in shaping the future of media theory in general – the Ars Electronica Symposium is a good example in this regard. On the other hand, Flusser has been dubbed as a phenomenographist by key phenomenologists[vi] in Germany. For the context, Phenomenology literally orients itself to the ‘logic of the phenomenon in question and Phenomenography is a mere ‘description’ of any phenomenon. The eighth essay in the collection, ‘Vilém Flusser’s Quasi-Phenomenology’, however responds to this debate and agrees on reading Flusser both as a genuine phenomenologist and as a phenomenographer, but rejects reading Flusser as a media-theorist as half-truth. The essay splits Flusser’s oeuvre into phenomenographic writings such as Gestures and Things and Non-Things and phenomenological writings such as Kommunikologie (communicology). The reasons for this split, as argued by the essay, is Flusser’s inability to break the dialectics of thesis and anti-thesis in order to reach at a universal synthesis. A universal synthesis is claimed by the essay to be prevalent in Flusser’s philosophy of communication. Despite engaging with Flusserian brand of Phenomenology at an intricate level, the essay does not comment of the debate between media theory and phenomenology, where the point of contention is essentially regarding the quality of experience – mediated experience (reading books, watching television, scrolling social media etc.) as opposed to immediate experience (writing books, painting images, programming computers etc.). Flusser, surely talks about both of these experiences. An open question that arises then: What is a phenomenology of mediation?

Ironically enough, playing on post-historical consciousness where it focuses on other things such as pain and suffering, the next essay in the collection invokes Georg W.F. Hegel’s dialectics of an unhappy consciousness into ‘Processing Flusser’. The essay however argues that Flusser posits the figure of a Migrant against the Hegelian unhappy consciousness to overcome the dialectics of losing/finding oneself and finding/losing the world. A migrant, in analysis of the essay, projects herself into the uncertain future openly. The logic of this act is then not to find oneself or the world, but to find home. The essays further quotes Flusser in commenting on Hegel, where he suggests that without a home a self would be unconscious and therefore home (also dwelling in Flusser) is primary to self-consciousness and world-consciousness. Surely, this can be interpreted as being-in-the-world, but the essay does not go along this Heideggerian terrain. Instead, the essay explores Flusserian irony as a gesture of freedom. Irony for Flusser is sort of rising-above contingence and moving away from irony is engaging contingence in order to change it. Both these acts, engagement and disengagement, result in freedom for Flusser. Teleological, if one so desires, irony is itself ironical. The essay further sees potential in this kind of irony as a mode of criticism in a post-historical scenario, because Flusserian irony suggests a free being-in-the-world, which is always already capacitated to critique various determinisms or searches for freedom. A similar point is made again by the next essay entitled ‘Vampyroteuthis infernalis as Media Theory’. For the context, Vampyroteuthis infernalis, originally written in German and published in 1987, is undoubtedly Flusser’s weirdest book. It seeks to describe humanness in mode of a fable by means of an inversion from the perspective of a deep-sea organism called The Vampire Squid from Hell (Vampyroteuthis infernalis). The essay comments on media theories by stating that they must confront their “inner Hegel”[vii] This inner Hegel is another name for determinisms and searches of freedoms. In the scope of the essay, determinisms such as Darwinism are discussed. The Vampire Squid (Vampy) then becomes a metaphor for a new kind or Flusserian media theory where the human project is posited as free and is required to design inter-subjective communicative apparatus. Thus, Flusser’s goal, as interpreted by the essay, is to review mediated immediacy of technology through the fable of Vampy. This translates into reviewing projects like designing a residue-free communication, total coordination in dialogue, and unison in conversations. It is precisely these kind of projects that the essay identifies not only as vampyroteuthic, but also as third kind of super-organisms like de-individualized anthills or swarm of bees. The danger posed then is clear: The movement of technology toward becoming immediate or residue-free. To the essay, this danger is of media-literate super-fascist regimes and in doing so, the essay has transformed the inner Hegel into a super-Hegel. The last essay of the section also echoes this danger with its references to the Covid-19 outbreak in the contemporary world. As such, the questions concerning freedom remain unresolved.

In a nutshell, the first section ‘Processing Flusser’ is more of an unpacking of event Flusser than a processing. Since a plethora of themes is exploded under the common denominator of post-history, a concrete processed Flusser still manages to escape a formal vantage point. Perhaps, providing such a vantage point was not the intention of the section in the first place. Perhaps, all the essays in the section feature as a multidirectional standpoint. Nevertheless, it remains unpacking of event Flusser because at least three mutually exclusive currents can be summarized from the section: media theory, phenomenology, and critical media theory. Media theory and phenomenology already show indifference on the quality of experience and a critical media theory does not speak of phenomenology at all. Hence, these three currents lie unpacked on the table for the reader to decide herself on weaving a process out of them.

On such considerations, a reader not familiar with Flusser’s Philosophy is definitely out of the scope of the volume. The section ‘Flusser’s expanded Modernism’ makes this issue even more complicated. As a Flusserian reader, one is compelled to go back to Flusserian writings in order to make sense of the essays in this section. For instance, both the essays ‘“Naked little spasms of the self ” In search of an authentic gesture in posthistorical times’ and ‘The ‘Pataphysical Span: Alfred Jarry and Vilém Flusser’, work with the Flusserian concept of Gestures and even employ similar quotes from Flusser’s writings to comment on Modernity but miss out on a phenomenological relevance of the theme. Phenomenology as a term is mentioned in various contexts in these two essays, but a theoretical working out of the concept Gesture in attunement with phenomenology is not to be read. Hence, a reader wonders what statements like “a phenomenology of phenomenology”[viii] and “historical stages of phenomenological consciousness”[ix] actually seek to deliver. Partly this confusion is a result of using the English translation of Gestures as the reference text for these essays. In the English version, Gestures (2014) the opening text of the book, where Flusser’s seeks to contrast attunement with gestures in order to define them, ‘attunement’ has been replaced by ‘affect’[x]. In the German version Gesten, Versuch einer Phänomenologie (1991) attunement is called ‚Gestimmtheit‘(a mood, in which a person/thing positions themselves – attunement). The Spanish translation, Los Gestos (1994) uses ‘acordamiento[xi] (accord/agreement). Flusser’s own English variant was ‘sentimentality’[xii]. The translator of the English version mentions Flusser’s variant and also acknowledges that ‘attunement’ has already appeared as a word in translation for German philosophy in English to emphasize the idea of intentionality (directedness of consciousness) in Husserlian Phenomenology. Yet, ‘affect’ is preferred over ‘attunement’, so that it opens the scope of Flusser’s theory across various disciplines and with that, the word is supposed to retain the quality of uniting the internal and external worlds. Of course, the German writing can also not be considered as the so-called original text because Flusser himself wrote the text in French and during the first publication of the book in 1991, it was translated into German with the title ‘Geste und Gestimmtheit. Einübung in die Phänomenologie der Gesten’. Keeping this in mind, it cannot be argued if ‘affect’ as translation of ‘Gestimmtheit’ is correct or not. But, what can be argued is how much the translation affects the relevance of Phenomenology in Flusser’s theory of gestures. In the mentioned essay Flusser argues, Gestures are bodily movements that express an intention[xiii] and goes on to revise the definition by introducing a symbolic communication[xiv] to gestures. Now, if gestures are to express an intention, it is necessary that the mode of expression be attuned to the symbolic intention a gesture communicates. A simple gesture of an eye contact made by a person wearing spectacles can bring out the difference between ‘affect’ and ‘attunement’. If my spectacles merely affect my intention to make an eye contact, it would mean that my glasses affect my eyes in a way that helps me make an eye contact. As such, the affect my glasses have on my eyes link the inner intention of looking the other person into the eyes and the outer objectivity of an eye contact. Phenomenologically, if ‘affect’ is understood as ‘affection’ (Affektion) it would make a direct reference to Husserlian Phenomenology and Gestures would be understood as intentional acts. However, my spectacles do not merely affect my eyes; the affect is encoded in a specific intentionality that lets me see the world according to the strength of my eyes in the first place. This means that my glasses feature the same nature of intentionality that I would be directed toward without glasses (that is if my eyes were not weak) – making an eye contact.  Hence, an attunement, so that my glasses work in accordance with the strength of my eyes, is primary to express an intention in my gesture of an eye contact. If the glasses are not attuned, I must forget about an eye contact because the world would appear in a haze of colors[xv].  Both the mentioned essays in the collection Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism do not engage with this difference of translations and hence spin-off at the tangent of interpreting Flusser’s theory of gestures in the light speculative journalism and negentropic movement in post-history. As such, these essays call for a closer reviewing of Flusser’s concept of Gesture.

On the contrary, the collection also features essays that comment on a phenomenological relevance of Flusser’s philosophy. Take, for instance, the essays titled ‘An Intersubjective Style’, ‘Flusser’s New Weird’, and ‘A Philosophy of Refraction’. Each of these essays not only grounds phenomenology in Flusser’s writings, but also comments on how Modernism can be understood through Flusser’s spectacles. “Flusser understood intersubjectivity to be both the substrate and goal of Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology”[xvi], immediately clarifies that Flusser sees the ground of concrete relations as being intersubjective and thereby critiques the technological tendency of media becoming objective. Such a reference speaks volume for the debate if Flusser at all can be considered as phenomenologist. The most controversial work from Flusser, Vampyroteuthis infernalis that has unbearable fixation for the entire volume is also contested to be phenomenological in nature. “The important thing for Flusser is that the cephalopod’s message is intentional: it is preceded by an experience; the creature’s attitude, reaction, or concept of that experience; the desire to transmit that information; and finally the information’s encoding and transmission via chromatophoric inscription on the skin.”[xvii] Of course, from a phenomenological view, it can be argued, if at all ‘other’s’ experience as one’s own can be spoken of when the other is not located in an immediate proximity. Vampy dwells the oceanic depths where an immediate experience for a human phenomenologist is impossible. Nevertheless, the following quotation makes this argument debatable. “Heidegger not only provides some of the conceptual raw material for Flusser’s fable, as it rests heavily on the notion of Dasein, but Flusser also takes up ideas from Heidegger’s metaphysics that address the question of whether or not we, as humans, can transpose our being onto the place of another.”[xviii] On such grounds, cutting into Flusser’s work with phenomenology, may not necessarily prove Flusser to be a “phenomenologist”[xix] but Flusser’s writings can definitely provide a discourse for Phenomenology to consider media technologies in the Lifeworld. Among others, these mentioned essays speak of Husserl, Heidegger, Gasset, and Buber – a valid contribution of the book to the contemporary academic discourse that perhaps results in understanding Flusser’s Modernism.

However, the essay ‘On Synthesis and Synthetic Reality’ argues that the entirety of Flusser’s work cannot simply be called Modernist or Post-Modernist because similar to the contradictions and similarities between the two positions Flusser’s writings feature a self-contradictory style of thinking. This self-contradictory nature has been described by illustrating the concepts of Synthesis and Synthetic reality – both that run through the length of Flusser’s work. Synthesis, close to etymological sense for Flusser, is way of bringing differences and contradictions between various philosophical positions into a kind of amalgamation – a Modernist penchant for unity. Synthetic Reality, according to the essay, first appeared to describe the notion of technical images – a post-Modernist confession toward the artificiality of reality. Both synthesis and synthetic reality imply a mutual-inclusion of Sinngebung[xx] (sense giving) by virtue of Flusserian concept of projecting models onto the world. Thus, the essay argues, Flusser shares a similarity with Slavoj Žižek’s philosophy because both positions describe all reality as virtual. This sets Flusser immediately apart from Jean Baudrillard, for whom reality is hidden by simulation. This notion is again clarified in ‘Surface and Simulation Vilém Flusser and Jean Baudrillard’ in the toolkit section, where Flusser is posited as a phenomenologist as opposed to Baudrillard’s disposition as a post-structuralist. This piece also features Flusser’s direct remark on Baudrillard from an unpublished interview where Flusser holds the concept of simulation for a nonsensical proposition because of the lack of availability of an ontological tool to differentiate simulation from non-simulation. Despite this remark, Flusser agrees on a differentiation between concentricity and abstractness[xxi]. Thus, one may think of concentricity as a Modernist affinity toward unification and abstractness as a post-Modernist assertion of artificiality. Yes, Flusserian thought feature both of these positions, which by extension also bring out the difference between phenomenological concrete relations and media theoretical abstractness.

Conclusively, it can be said that section two and three of Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism make for a more engaged reading of the research on Flusser’s work. Section two, ‘Flusser’s Expanded Modernism’, also illustrates Flusser’s works in literary heritage of Modernism relating it to the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, and Jules Verne. This has not been discussed in the scope of this review, but as such, they surely open new paradigms of Flusser-research in literary studies. In line with this assertion, the epilogue, ‘Between Languages and Without Discipline: A Twentieth-Century Intellect Drafted for the Twenty-First Century’ illustrates five non-disciplinary aspects into uncovering Flusser’s Modernism. The fall of classical Modernism and humanism (Eurocentric) after the Auschwitz, result in ‘No Fatherland’, ‘No Mother Tongue’, ‘Dialogical existence’, ‘Thinking in Freestyle’, and ‘Philosophy in Motion’[xxii]. Taken together with Phenomenology, Media-theory, and Literary studies all these aspects may be seen as the departing atmosphere of an expanded Modernism that the book desires to communicate. Over-simply put, after the fall of classical Modernism, Flusser’s consciousness synthesizes a project of humanity in a Post/Modern synthetic reality.

Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism is definitely a keystone for a scholar who desires to deepen the arc of disciplined and non-disciplined research. Nevertheless, this deepening requires reviewing and self-study of the positions engaged in this book because ultimately the collection is not open to a reader not familiar with Flusserian consciousness.


[i] Siegfried Zielinski. 2021. “Between Languages and Without Discipline: A Twentieth-Century Intellect Drafted for the Twenty-First Century”, translation Daniel Raschke. In: Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism, edited by Aaron Jaffe, Michael F. Miller, and Rodrigo Martini, 323, USA: Bloomsbury Publishing.

[ii] ———. 2021. “Introduction” In: Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism, edited by Aaron Jaffe, Michael F. Miller, and Rodrigo Martini, 9, USA: Bloomsbury Publishing.

[iii] Ibid., 7.

[iv] Nancy Roth. 2021. “Games and Play On Being Human in the Universe of Technical Images”, Ibid,. 64.

[v] Friedrich A. Kittler. “Phänomenologie versus Medienwissenschaft”, Accessed May 20, 2022. http://hydra.humanities.uci.edu/kittler/istambul.html

[vi] Andreas Max Ströhl. 2021.” Vilém Flusser’s Quasi-Phenomenology”, In: Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism, edited by Aaron Jaffe, Michael F. Miller, and Rodrigo Martini, 79, USA: Bloomsbury Publishing.

[vii] Geoffrey Winthrop-Young. 2021. “Vampyroteuthis Infernalis as Media Theory”, Ibid,. 98.

[viii] Judith Roof. 2021. “The ‘Pataphysical Span Alfred Jarry and Vilém Flusser”, Ibid,.148.

[ix] Ibid,. 146.

[x] Nancy Roth. 2014. “Gestures and Affect the Practice of Phenomenology of Gestures”, In: Vilém Flusser. 2014 “Gestures”, translated by Nancy Roth, 1- 9, USA: University of Minnesota Press.

[xi] Claudio Gancho. 1994. “Gesto y acordiamento Ejercitación en la fenomenología de los gestos”, In: Vilém Flusser. 1994. “Los Gestos: fenomenología y comunicación”, translated by Claudio Gancho, 7-18, Spain: Herder.

[xii] Nancy Roth. 2014. “Translator’s Notes”, In: Vilém Flusser. 2014 “Gestures”, translated by Nancy Roth, 178, USA: University of Minnesota Press.

[xiii] Vilém Flusser. 1994. “Geste und Gestimmtheit Einübung in die Phänomenologie der Gesten”, In: Flusser. 1994. “Gesten Versuch einer Phänomenologie”, 7, Germany: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag.

[xiv] Ibid,. 11.

[xv] See: Die Frage lautet nicht, ob das Darstellen einer Stimmung lügnerisch ist, und noch weniger, ob eine dargestellte Stimmung wahrheitsfähig ist, sondern ob sie den Betrachter berührt.” Ibid,. 14.

See also: “The question is not whether the representation of a state of mind is false, still less whether a represented state of mind has the capacity to be true. Rather, it concerns whether the observer is touched.” In: Nancy Roth. 2014. “Gestures and Affect the Practice of Phenomenology of Gestures”, In: Vilém Flusser. 2014 “Gestures”, translated by Nancy Roth, 6, USA: University of Minnesota Press.

[xvi] Frances McDonald. 2021. “An Intersubjective Style”, In: Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism, edited by Aaron Jaffe, Michael F. Miller, and Rodrigo Martini, 123, USA: Bloomsbury Publishing.

[xvii] Keith Leslie Johnson. 2021. “Flusser’s New Weird”, Ibid,. 154.

[xviii] David Bering-Porter. 2021. “A Philosophy of Refraction Vilém Flusser’s Speculative Biology and the Study of Paramedia”, Ibid,. 166.

[xix] See: “Without hesitation, Edith Flusser replied that Vilem had always considered himself a phenomenologist more than anything else.” Andreas Max Ströhl. 2021. “Vilém Flusser’s Quasi-Phenomenology”, Ibid,. 77.

[xx] Rainer Guldin. 2021. “On Synthesis and Synthetic Reality Post/Modernism in Flusser’s Thinking”, Ibid,. 199.

[xxi] Thomas Tooley. 2021. “Surface and Simulation Vilém Flusser and Jean Baudrillard”, Ibid,. 300.

[xxii] Siegfried Zielinski. 2021. “Between Languages and Without Discipline: A Twentieth-Century Intellect Drafted for the Twenty-First Century”, translation Daniel Raschke. Ibid. 314 – 328.

Maria Gyemant: Husserl et Freud, un héritage commun

Husserl et Freud, un héritage commun Book Cover Husserl et Freud, un héritage commun
Philosophies contemporaines, n° 14
Maria Gyemant
Classiques Garnier
2021
Paperback 29,00 €
160

Reviewed by: Rayyan Dabbous (University of Toronto)

Psychoanalysis and phenomenology are the two fruits of the same seed – except different gardeners cared for their roots. That image encapsulates Maria Gyemant’s objective in Husserl and Freud: a common heritage, a book with historical and philosophical relevance.

In this review, I walk you through the author’s main discussions: the psychological theories of 19th century philosophers, the status of the unconscious prior to Freud, the relevance of truth before Husserl, the notion of trauma between psychoanalysis and phenomenology, and whether either two thinkers can fairly be called philosophers.

It is a history of philosophy that is at stake in Maria Gyemant’s account – a history intimately related to the origins of psychoanalysis and phenomenology. In 1900, Europe was simultaneously discussing the publication of The Interpretation of Dreams and that of Logical Investigations. Thanks to Maria Gyemant, we now have a proper explanation as to how the rival creeds that divided the 20th century – psychoanalysts and phenomenologists – have common origins.

I. Freud and Husserl, a question of generation

Maria Gyemant first immerses us in the post-Kantian world to which Freud and Husserl belong. “Since all human thoughts unfold in the psyche of subjects,” she notes of the intellectual rationale of the time, “and since the sciences cannot produce except within mental activity, it is the laws of psychology that govern all other human activities,” (15). The Kantian revolution, at the turn of the nineteenth century, severed the bond between objectivity and subjectivity, and Gyemant populates that century of the fractured ego with a set of characters who wished to pick up the pieces; to re-stitch the link between pure mental life and pure reality.

For example, in the post-Kantian response of Wilhelm Wundt, a predecessor to Freud and Husserl, his objective is not to “be dragged into the excess of its opposite and deal with nothing but the will and emotions, but rather to consider that voluntary and intentional action is the paradigm of all psychical processes,” (23). It is a “dynamic vision of psychic life” that Wundt is promoting, as though the presuppositions of his own processors did not allow that dynamism to occur. We notice a similarly-withdrawn intellectual position in Frantz Brentano who “advocated prioritizing description over explanation,” (24) which is also a way to let the psyche speak for itself; rather than repeat what we wish it to speak. These intellectual positions are fertile from a gender studies angle. Were these two thinkers unwittingly responding to the masculine posture of psychology at the time? Or is it rather against the individualistic ethos of Kant’s philosophy – masculinity and individualism belonging together – that the Wundt-Brentano backlash targets in the field of 19th century psychology?

One would assume, at this point, that the responses of Wundt and Brentano suffice to deliver psychology from its Kantian shackles. Yet it is hard to see where the smoke is coming when   one stands too close to the fire – and indeed Gyemant succinctly shows the reasons that psychoanalysis or phenomenology could come not from the generation born in the 1830s but the one quarter of a century later. Gyemant indeed notes how “according to an idea traced back to Kant, the psychic cannot be the object of science because it is not measurable,” (39). The objective of Wilhelm Wundt would be to “show that psychology can be an exact science.” With this goal, “the objective of Wundt, like Brentano’s, was to banish all forms of metaphysics that postulated the existence of a soul,” (40). Of course the problem arising from this banishment is not the taboo against the soul, but the taboo to discuss metaphysics at all; talking about an invisible unconscious or an all-encompassing phenomenological method included. One could argue that such a taboo remains alive nowadays after the usefulness of exact science triumphed post-Einstein.

Gyemant’s book is insightful because it sees Freud and Husserl not as our contemporaries, us who still dabble in psychoanalysis or phenomenology, but as standalone figures who were part of a lost generation. This generation, more or less, is stuck between the philosophically-informed scientific ambitions of the 1830s generation (Wundt, Brentano, but also Ernst Mach, who thought the ego could not be ‘saved’) and the mathematical geniuses born after the mid 1870s, Einstein among them; the generation that abolished metaphysics (and philosophy) for good when physics became the most exact way to measure the world.

We also notice in Gyemant a marriage between these two generations. A student of Wilhelm Wundt, Moritz Geiger (b. 1880), wrote how “it is impossible to describe emotions when they are lived out,” (48). It would take an astute historian to analyse the use of the word ‘impossible’ around the time of Einstein’s revolution. Yet Husserl’s critique against Geiger meant to focus rather on the possible: he “shows that it is not emotions, but reflection in general, that causes the problem,” (49). This inversion – from the im/possibility of quantifying human emotions to the im/possibility of counting on our human intellect – is not only typical of Husserl and Freud, but also their contemporary Henri Bergson, whose critique of the intellect, and quarrel with Einstein, are well known. In any case, whether with Husserl, Freud, or Bergson, we are facing the limits not of ungraspable nature of human emotions (or the human soul) but the limits of the human intellect.

The subject of time, so central in Bergson’s controversy with Einstein, is also what distinguishes Husserl or Freud from the generations that preceded and followed them. For Gyemant notes how “for Husserl as much for Brentano it is time that creates the necessary distance for introspection, but unlike Brentano’s view, it is not because emotion has passed that it is over,” (52). Bergson held a similar view of time, and though Freud will not go as far in words, the continued liveliness of memories is central to his psychoanalysis.

II. Freud, defending the unconscious

After situating Freud and Husserl in their common intellectual context, Gyemant moves to isolate the psychoanalyst and explore the novelty of his theory of the unconscious. The idea that Freud’s unconscious is not new is an attractive topic for all philosophically-minded students of history, who will find parallels with Nietzsche or Schopenhauer. Freud’s snobbery is well known about this subject – he does not read philosophers, he often repeated. Gyemant’s account, in some way, justifies Freud’s claim of uniqueness. She keenly focuses on Brentano’s rejection of the unconscious, manifest in the following claim: “on the question of whether there exists an unconscious consciousness […] we can therefore respond with a categorical no,” (55). For Brentano, “psychical phenomena are all conscious,” (68).

Between a categorical no and the use of all, we begin to understand the animosity against the underground level of our mind which would vindicate Freud’s snobbery against the philosophers. Wundt, him, would also dismiss the unconscious by “relegating it to the rank of physiological processes,” (79). Or there is worse – Gustav Fechner’s view, that “the unconscious is another name for psychical phenomena that are too weak in intensity to cross the threshold of consciousness.” (80). This dismissal should strike us in the same way philosophers since Freud have downplayed his psychoanalysis. Clearly it is a chief concern of philosophy, to ban the unconscious. Perhaps philosophy itself, to preserve its legitimacy, requires its banishment.

It is one thing to be deemed a heretical philosophy – but a hysterical philosopher! Of course Gyemant rightly shows that it is not the philosophers who are heretics – a kind of philosophical establishment rises in her account, one keen on the motto, ‘all is conscious!’ Here we have strayed from the anti-masculine posture of contenting oneself with the description of phenomena rather than its explanation. Even a concession to masculinity remains masculine! Perhaps the queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick was right, that it is masculinity itself, diluted or not, that is epistemologically restrictive.

But Gyemant points to one predecessor to Freud who accepted the unconscious: Theodor Lipps. Lipps is not too older than Freud, so he does belong to relatively the same generation, but Gyemant makes sure to note that “before Freud, Lipps said in his conference that the unconscious ‘does not appear as an occasional fact but rather as the general base of psychical life,” (77). This is an important claim to locate because within Freud’s originality lies his insistence that the unconscious is constantly working, namely through how “repression does not happen once and for all but it is must be permanently maintained,” (83).

Gyemant very well pins down the important facet of Freud’s psychoanalysis, whose emphasis on the unconscious, ironically, will be downplayed by future psychoanalysts as Elizabeth Young-Bruehl analyzed in her own works. But Gyemant interestingly shows that Freud still has claim for originality over Lipps, for whom “it is essential to preserve a continuity between the conscious phases and the unconscious phases of psychical processes,” (85). Meaning, there cannot be for Lipps an independent unconscious operating on its own. Freud himself would not be opposed to the idea of continuity between conscious and unconscious, but it is true that there cannot be any psychoanalytic methodology if the unconscious is not given its rightful throne through which it could exercise its powers. In some way, with Freud, there must be an impasse in the psyche, there must remain one road or channel of communication completely blocked between the conscious and the unconscious (otherwise, the unconscious itself would be overthrown).

It may be in Freud’s acquiescence to the unconscious, in giving it a throne of its own, that lies philosophy’s aversion to psychoanalysis, for it is philosophy who ought to be the queen of thinking. In some sense, what Freud was claiming for the unconscious was the right for its own empire. The journey of his unconscious, so long persecuted by philosophy, is therefore not unlike the story of prince Abd al-Rahman, whose family, the ruling Umayyads, were overthrown in Damascus by the Abbasid Revolution. Alone this disinherited prince would flee to the extremity of the rising Abbasid Empire, Spain, to establish his own caliphate. Does psychoanalysis not continue to live in a similar way today, it ruling discretely from Cordoba, whereas philosophy rules the lands and the seas comfortably from Damascus?

III. Husserl, defending truth

After sketching the reasons that lead Freud to assiduously defend his theory of the unconscious, Gyemant moves onto tracing the path that led Husserl to defend truth. That truth needed to be defended at all in the nineteenth century is a complex landscape draw out. Reasons for confusion surely arose when the search for objective facts under the emerging scientism of the time collided with the prevailing individualism of the century. How could we assert that truth existed if everyone – poets, philosophers, peoples – claimed their own? Hannah Arendt, herself affiliated to Husserl through Heidegger, was right when she characterized the nineteenth century as a clash between individualism and collectivism, ego mentality and class mentality.

Husserl, according to Gyemant, is cognizant of that clash between subjectivity and objectivity. She interestingly reminds us his interest in the work of his predecessor Bernard Bolzano, who “concludes that truths must have an existence in themselves, whether they were thought or not,” (91). This is a great quote, because it points us to the those few voices in the early-to-mid nineteenth century (Bolzano was born in 1781) who had to insist against both the prevailing subjectivism and idealism of the time that truth did exist. But would Husserl, through Bolzano, be ushering a return to Platonic Ideas, which have an existence of their own? According to Gyemant, it would be the work of another predecessor, Hermann Lotze (b. 1817), which helped Husserl understand that “while Ideas are not, since only things are, they are also not nothing, they have their own ontological status: a validity,” (93). Thus Husserl synthesized his readings of Bolzano and Lotze to reach the conclusion that “it is not the subjective character of acts that are primary when it comes to knowledge, but the objective character of its truths,” (94).

It is not surprising that philosophically-minded mathematicians at the time wondered whether a square existed. Following another student of Brentano, Alexius Meinong, “some philosophers wished to attribute a certain form of minimal existence to inexistent objects,” (94). We learn thanks to Gyemant that Husserl solves this debate in a very cheeky way: “an “inexistent object is not an object at all,” (98) which might be another way of saying that existence is not necessarily the imperative of objects alone. For sometimes “this projection does not meet its target in the real world,” meaning that for Husserl, “even when there is nothing to refer itself to, there is always, in all acts, an objective content,” (99). All acts have an objective content – that is a provocative thought, because it denies the futility of any action, but also of any thought; and hence it is strange that existentialism, concerned with nothingness, would branch off from Husserl’s own disciples, Heidegger and Jaspers, and from them through Sartre and the French existentialists. That is why I qualified Husserl and Freud as belonging to a lost and lone generation – Gyemant’s account demonstrates how their ideas were as strange and revolutionary to those who preceded them as to those who followed them.

Moreover, Gyemant dwells on Husserl’s notion of ‘filledness’ – and that is reminiscent once again of Bergson, who in Creative Evolution deemed ridiculous that philosophers opposed the whole with nothingness, since according to him that meant to oppose the whole with the whole. We are still here circling around the notion of existence; and how could we not think about Rene Descartes’s I think, therefore I am? Of course both Bergson and Husserl (and Freud, but through a detour) stand opposite of Descartes, since they wish to surpass the ego, the I, and look at existence from a general viewpoint.

But Gyemant rightly paints Husserl as a kind of heir of Descartes, when she singles out one quote from his journal: “I have tasted enough the torments of obscurity, of doubt which comes and go. I must arrive to an intimate assurance,” (107). These two sentences encapsulate the brave journey Descartes embarked on to find a similar assurance; except that while Descartes found himself to exist, it seems Husserl landed upon the existence of everything. By finding that totality existed, truth, that last bastion Husserl wished to defend against the scepticism, romanticism, and idealism of his time, appeared to exist along with it.

IV. The notion of trauma

One of the last and curious inquiries Gyemant wages in her book is the question of trauma. She is very right to square Freud and Husserl against each other on the issue, and frankly this moment in her inquiry is the gem in the crown. Gyemant postulates that “psychical trauma, understood as such, seems radically incompatible with the phenomenological idea of an absolute consciousness, which encompasses all psychical possibilities,” (120). Yet trauma, under Freudian inquiry, is precisely that which escapes the conscious; Gyemant rightly notes that it is that which “is impossible to integrate without bringing with it the collapse of the coherence of our world,” (114). Hence why we repress traumatic events; it is a trade-off which our unconscious brands for the greater good. What should we then make of Husserl’s loyalty to the conscious, to its professed ability to grasp everything, including traumatic events?

The disagreement between Freud and Husserl here is about categories and degrees as Gyemant points out: whereas there is a qualitative difference in Freud, between the conscious and the unconscious; for Husserl, there is only a quantitative difference; there is “never night but always dawn,” that is, “there is no distinction of categories but only a gradual distinction,” (128-129). Admittedly, this is a very poetic difference between Freud and Husserl; because their disagreement is about rupture or continuity, the beginning of sin following the irredeemable departure from Eden or the continued love of God in spite of human fault, the final collapse of a long-standing empire or the refusal of nostalgia for a reign not completely lost.

If anyone brought forth such a distinction to Freud’s ears, it would have been Lou Andreas-Salomé, whose psychoanalysis seems to follow a similar aversion to rupture as Husserl’s phenomenology. Hence the disagreement about trauma is not so much between psychoanalysis and phenomenology as between Freud and Husserl, between the founders of these two disciplines, as though the problem were indeed about the very act of founding something; that the founder must decide on very essential laws to their enterprise.

It is a philosophical question on its own to begin musing over whether Freud or Husserl was right, whether categories should exist or whether changes in degree are not neutral. But I do want to dwell on a very provocative insight that Gyemant draws from the debate. “Shouldn’t we then conclude,” she asks, “that trauma is an experience that is inconceivable unless it is attached to an individual subject, imprisoned in a personal history?” (121). Gyemant is telling us that it is only when feel to be individually ourselves, separate and isolated, that trauma becomes relevant to us; that the I feels traumatized only when there is an I.

Here is a very common example illustrating Gyemant’s argument. Many of us will say, after a breakup with a love partner, that we did not feel the pain that the relationship caused throughout its life. We will say, ‘gosh, this was so toxic, I don’t know why only now I am feeling the pain it caused.’ This common experience reveals that when we are not individuals, when we are with someone, as a twoness, trauma does not knock on our doors; it does not or cannot make itself felt, not even symptomatically. It is only when we regain our individuality that pain begins to make sense to us, both psychically and physiologically.

Where does this push our Husserl-Freud debate? For Gyemant, the subject of trauma “creates a hole in the phenomenological coherence of the transcendental ego,” (123). But does it? I am not sure, and I don’t fault Gyemant for not probing further, because the matter appears to be an intellectual rabbit hole. Yet it is so interesting, and we might need another Freud and another Husserl to settle the debate in outlandish terms; for the next frontier of that debate, clearly, has to do with seemingly mystical notions of the self that neither Freud neither Husserl wished to entertain. And maybe they were right not to go there? Jung did, and the rest was history!

V. Freud, Husserl… philosophers?

The last subject Gyemant entertains in her book concerns Freud’s status as a philosopher. She tells us the Freud’s earliest ambitions, regardless of his later dismissal of philosophers, was a “step toward philosophy,” (139). When I read this sentence, I felt compelled to write in the margin: “or poetry?”. For after reading Gyemant’s book, our view of philosophers is rather poor. Freud and Husserl strike to us as anomalies in their epochs, misunderstood poetic insights, and it is of the ironies of history that we remember them both very well today though we might have better understood them had their works remained in obscurity. Husserl is part of the philosophical canon, Freud to a lesser extent – but what does it mean for their respective revolutions, when their works were finally ‘admitted’ into the academy? Gyemant’s book, after all, is a reminder that we misread them both equally. But at what cost do we wish to rehabilitate the images of these two figures; and does rehabilitation mean to call them philosophers?

It may be loftier, to call them poets! But it is also fairer, for while Husserl is regarded as a philosopher, his thinking defied, like Freud’s, the regal innocence of philosophy; or more generally that of the human intellect. But Gyemant’s hunch at the end of her book is right, that after clarifying our relationship with Freud and Husserl, it is our / their rapport with philosophy that should be made clear. This task, too titanic to embark on, might be more suited to the philosophers themselves, who, if we understand Gyemant well, should be critical of their reliance on Husserl if they dismiss Freud, their loyalty to Freud if they dismiss Husserl.

Conclusion

How often did Freud think of Husserl and Husserl of Freud? That is a question Gyemant rightly chooses to ignore: her book brought them closer together in the same way one reminds two estranged brothers that their origins are common. If Freud and Husserl are deemed irreconcilable, it is because they are in some way brothers; that is, by growing up so close, it was natural for them to grow apart. I salute Gyemant’s effort, because she did not succumb to the lassitude with which we normally distinguish both thinkers; a too intellectual lassitude which we ought to discard, and replace with the childlike confidence that no, sometimes, two things, so seemingly different, are one and the same.

Anthony Rudd: Painting and Presence: Why Paintings Matter, Oxford University Press, 2022

Painting and Presence: Why Paintings Matter Book Cover Painting and Presence: Why Paintings Matter
Anthony Rudd
Oxford University Press
2022
Hardback £55.00
256

Constantin Noica: The Romanian Sentiment of Being

The Romanian Sentiment of Being Book Cover The Romanian Sentiment of Being
Constantin Noica. Translated by Octavian Gabor and Elena Gabor
punctum books
2022
Paperback $23
238

Reviewed by: Elena Gabor (Associate Professor of Communication at Bradley University) and Octavian Gabor (Professor of Philosophy at Methodist College)

Being “întru” (within) a language: Bending time and space while translating The Romanian Sentiment of Being by Constantin Noica

Aristotle’s Metaphysics Z, perhaps one of the most difficult of his works, begins by his famous claim that being is said in many ways. Aristotle refers to the Categories, where he explains the various ways in which one thing is said to be. He writes about being in a language that, after all, is no longer spoken today. Nevertheless, his ideas influenced generations of philosophers who could not work in ontology without first referring to his work. The greatness of Aristotle as philosopher makes it so that when we speak of being we do it as if we were analyzing a universal idea. But is it possible that being itself always appears in a body, a language, and due to this, is always particular to a culture?

Noica’s The Romanian Sentiment of Being seems to make such a claim: being in a universal sense is only an abstraction. Being, though, is embodied, and thus it manifests particularly in a particular environment.

While this final claim may be appealing to many, a philosopher focused on metaphysical concepts would not readily agree. In 1978, existential philosopher Emil Cioran (1911-1995), friend of Constantin Noica (1909-1987), wrote him a short letter. The epistle ended with some words about Noica’s newly published volume, The Romanian Sentiment of Being: “Your last book is excellent; the only thing is that it could have been called just as well The Paraguayan Sentiment of Being. In your place, I would return to Logic: where, if not there, can one engage in delirium  better?”[1] Indeed, what would make the Romanian sentiment of being both unique and also interesting to other peoples?

We should not rush into believing that Noica claims that cultures have no way of communicating among themselves because of their unicity. Their particular way of being is, to use Noica’s word, întru, oriented within. However, the particularity in which they express being gives beauty to the diversity of the world. So, if we refer to one of the questions above, one reason for anyone to understand the particular way of being in Romanian culture is to further enjoy the beauty of this world. Furthermore, as Anna Marmodoro and Erasmus Mayr remind us, “metaphysical questions are not just questions about language […]. But nonetheless, natural language can be an important guide in many cases, since it usually encapsulates ways of thinking about the structure of reality which come naturally to us and which have proved useful and viable over the time the language evolved.”[2] Noica would add this: “But every language is, after all, the wisdom of the world in one of its versions. This wisdom of the world needs the particular wisdom of language in order to explore reality in all the ways and to transfer its knowledge into words.”[3]

Noica finds six ways of being in Romanian, all of them expressed grammatically in a doubling of the verb to be. These expressions are used quite often in typical interactions and feel natural to the native Romanian speaker. In English, the doubling of the verb to be poses challenges of meaning making, since English-speakers rarely employ such constructions that invite rather imprecise temporality. Here they are:

It was not to be (n-a fost să fie)

It was about to be (era să fie)

It may well be to be (va fi fiind)

It would be to be (ar fi să fie)

It is to be (este să fie)

It was to be (a fost sa fie)

The Romanian language, then, has a grammatical peculiarity in all of these cases: the doubling of the verb to be. For Noica, this is a very important philosophical aspect: all of these modulations of being are întru Being itself. Some of them, such as the first four, are moving toward Being, but they do not achieve it. The fifth one is on the border of being, while the last is accomplished being. This doubling of to be allows for both becoming and being in the same expression: the suggestion of becoming within (or întru) being. English, however, does not allow for this doubling in all of the previous expressions. We can, of course, rely on philosophical terminology and say that the six modulations of being from Romanian can be organized in the following categories: impossibility, possibility, contingency, necessity, and existence. Here, though, we lose the slight modulations taking place in Romanian, as for example the difference between va fi fiind (it may well be to be) and ar fi sa fie (it would be to be). None of these modulations expresses the fulfillment of being. The first one, though, is a region of being that is somehow exterior to it, as Noica says, while the second is a modulation that has almost all of the conditions to be, but it cannot fulfill its calling.

What is one to do in such a situation? The problem is as old as translation is. Eugenio Refini, for example, writes about Antonio Colombella, an Augustinian friar, who translated in the vernacular Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics sometime at the beginning of the 15th century. In his prologue, he writes about the difficulty of the translation, pointing to the distinction between what he calls words and sense. The translator must find himself in this dichotomy: to be faithful to the words of the author (in our case, to expressing modulations of being by doubling the verb to be) or to be faithful to the sense of the ideas. It is the enduring “debate over verbum de verbo and ad sensum translations.”[4]

The beauty of Noica’s volume is that mediation and translation already happened at various levels. His text is a philosophical endeavor that deals with literary works, bringing into dialogue different approaches to culture. Translation between the philosophical language of necessity, possibility, or contingency to the folk language of children stories or to the elevated literary language of a poem considered the chef-d’oeuvre of Romanian culture make out of his book a feast of words. Indeed, “Translators mediate between cultures (including ideologies, moral systems and socio-political structures), seeking to overcome those incompatibilities which stand in the way of transfer of meaning.”[5] In this volume, mediation is at work in the original language prior to even encountering its English version. The children’s story and Eminescu’s poem “The Evening Star,” both of them protagonists of Noica’s philosophical thought, are not included in the original volume. Known by every Romanian reader, they appear in Noica’s text in the beauty of his interpretation only. The English edition could not have rendered this mediation without bringing forward the texts themselves, and so readers will find original, new translations of both these jewels of Romanian thought.

It is here that we can rediscover the dialogical nature of translation, as some scholars call it: the translator must attempt to live in two cultures at the same time, and transfer one’s way of being from one culture to another. How can this be done, especially since this particular work raises deeper problems, because it is not directly about universal philosophical problems, which would offer a common philosophical language, but it is rather about knowing the Romanian soul itself, the Romanian expression of being in the world. Implicitly, the question becomes, how can one know the soul of a people?

Folktales are the source of inspiration for Noica. Even Eminescu’s poem, “The Evening Star,” has a folktale as its origin, Noica says. The story is about a young princess who falls in love with the Evening Star and calls upon him every night. He descends from heaven and invites her to take a place next to him:

Oh, come my one and only love,

Thy world behind leave, dear!

I am the evening star above,

Be thou my bride sincere.

She refuses, inviting him to give up his immortality instead. At the end, it is a story of unfulfillment of being. The maiden asks the Evening Star to offer her necessity: the individual nature asks from the general to receive a law. The way she asks for it and the way he can offer it do not match, so the story is a failed encounter between contingency and necessity.

What do thou care, oh, face of clay,

If it’s me or some other…

In narrow circle you relive,

Your luck is daily master,

But I, in my world, always live

Immortal and cold aster.

However, Noica says, the story shows that, at least, the two called each other. While the poem shows unfulfillment in this relationship, Noica believes fulfillment is shown in the second example, a centuries old folk story, Ageless Youth and Deathless Life, first documented and published by Petre Ispirescu in the 19th century and identified with the Romanian ethos ever since.

As Noica says, the story is quite straightforward and down to earth in the way it accounts for the essence of the activity of being.

I don’t know another work in prose of the Romanian genius that has so much substance, from the first to the last word, and such rigorous writing or saying. I wouldn’t dare to interpret any other Romanian work in prose, verse by verse, as I plan on doing, […]—the only one which does not have a positive ending, as it has been observed, and still the only one that expresses, not indirectly, as any other fairytale, but directly, the fulness, the measure, and the truth of that which can be called: being.[6]

Here is a quick summary of the story: a child of a royal couple cries from within his mother’s womb, not wanting to be born into this world of becoming. His father makes him many earthly promises, he offers him the entire world itself and the most beautiful wife he could have, but the baby is not convinced. The only promise that makes him be born is ageless youth and deathless life.

When he grows up, he searches for it himself, since the father reveals he cannot offer it after all. After many trials, he reaches the realm of ageless life and dwells there without time. One day, however, he is struck by memory and wants to go back. Regardless of the advice from the princesses of the realm, he goes back to his parents’ castle, finds that centuries have passed and everything is changed, and death, his own death, finally finds him and slaps him dead.

Reading it or trying to translate it, one can feel how verb-driven and action-oriented the narrative is. In two-three sentences the reader is already in Fat-Frumos’ next stage of life. The story is out of balance at times, with certain less important details being given more space than key magical events in the prince’s journey. You almost get a sense that the story was captured from a capricious storyteller, as if told while doing some other activity. The text is only four pages and a half long, single spaced, but it contains the whole life of a soul inside and outside time. An example of “outside time” is when the unborn soul of the prince refuses to be born and to begin his linear temporal lifepath before his father promises him eternity in the offering of ageless youth and deathless life. The story normalizes a relative view of time long before Albert Einstein wrote about the relativity of space/time. The few pages of this folk tale contain the entire life story of Fat Frumos with accelerations and decelerations, with ascensions and descensions both physical (in the magical flight of the horse) and emotional (sadness and happiness). Memory also transcends the physical body, since the nine-month-old fetus remembers what he was promised before becoming an egg in his mother’s womb. As part of the process of translation, the translator has to believe that the English reader will accept this Romanian story of being that bends time and space without much explanation.

And this is where knowledge comes in: reading the English translation of “Ageless Youth and Deathless Life” can stimulate our own reflecting on the detours we take in life, the importance of challenges and encounters that affect us for decades and even impact how we die. This centuries old fairytale has the potential to be not just an old Romanian folk story but a story of the human soul, with universal appeal and resonance.

Perhaps this volume reminds us that we don’t need to be universalists or relativists to be able to know and accept others. One doesn’t have to be Romanian to know a Romanian, just like one doesn’t need to be Russian to understand Dostoevsky. This doesn’t mean that our knowledge of Dostoevsky is the same with the knowledge a Russian or someone else may have of him. But this is perfectly fine. It is our or your personal knowledge of him—not in a relativist sense, but rather in a truly personal fashion. This means that one can know the Romanian “soul” by accepting who one is, a unique person that belongs to a unique people, American, Ukrainian, Indian, or Paraguayan. Once we know where we come from, once we know how we greet every morning of our lives, we can have a genuine relationship with anyone else.


[1] Emil Cioran. 1995. Scrisori către cei de acasă (Letters for Those Who Remained Home). Bucureşti: Humanitas, p. 310.

[2] Aristotle. 2019. Metaphysics: An Introduction to Contemporary Debates and Their History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 8.

[3] C. Noica, The Romanian Sentiment of Being. Punctum Books, 2022, p. 58. The one term/idea that has been at the core of our work proceeds from Noica’s philosophy. The Romanian notion of întru can be rendered in English by using both “within” and “toward.” “Întru” originates from the Latin prefix intro (to the inside, inward—as in, for example, the English word “introduction”: intro—inward + ducere—to lead). Alistair Ian Blyth has translated the title of Devenirea întru fiinţă as Becoming within Being (Marquette University Press, 2009). Noica’s “întru” captures the idea that becoming does not only take place within a nature of something, but also always toward a nature: it is perhaps the path a translation takes, a becoming into something that it already is, but not yet manifested prior to the completion of a project.

[4] Eugenio Refini. 2020. The Vernacular Aristotle, Cambridge University Press, p. 101.

[5] Anthony J. Liddicoat. 2016. Translation as intercultural mediation: Setting the scene, Perspectives, 24:3, 347-353, DOI: 10.1080/0907676X.2015.1125934

[6] C. Noica, op. cit., p. 122.

Gioia Laura Iannilli: L’estetico e il quotidiano

L’estetico e il quotidiano: Design, Everyday Aesthetics, Esperienza Book Cover L’estetico e il quotidiano: Design, Everyday Aesthetics, Esperienza
Esperienze dell’estetico
Gioia Laura Iannilli
Mimesis
2019
Paperback 22,80 €
300

Reviewed by: Asia Brunetti (University of Bologna)

Questa è la storia di un tentativo di emancipazione: quello del concetto dell’”estetico”, o meglio, della cosiddetta dimensione estetica. Si tratta di un concetto che per lungo tempo ha rischiato di fossilizzarsi irrimediabilmente sullo scoglio della propria dimensione istituzionale e istituzionalizzata, e al quale oggi, invece, è finalmente concesso prendere aria. La concezione tradizionale dell’estetico, infatti, che lo voleva come membro dell’equazione quasi monolitica “estetico = artistico” – la quale ha segnato la storia dell’estetica filosofica per diversi secoli -, è stata fatta scendere finalmente dal piedistallo che l’aveva ospitata fin quasi alla metà del XX secolo. Oggi, fortunatamente, possiamo revocare in dubbio questa idea (pur ancora fortemente consolidata nell’opinione pubblica, oltre che in quella di alcuni esperti in materia); ci è concesso di guardare al di là dei rigidi bordi del concetto dell’estetico, di avvicinarci sempre di più a questi confini – un tempo concepiti come rigidi e netti – per scoprire, man mano che ci avviciniamo, che sono in realtà ampiamente sfumati e tutt’altro che ben definiti.

È bene ricordare inoltre come questa stessa sorte toccata all’estetico sia efficacemente rimbalzata anche sul secondo termine della nostra monumentale equazione: l’artistico. Anche il concetto di arte nell’ultimo secolo ha subito un affascinante ridimensionamento, volgendo la propria natura ad una nuova capacità inclusiva e di “apertura”, talmente evidente da garantire un’accoglienza entro il novero degli oggetti d’arte persino a quei prodotti di consumo costruiti in serie come risultato di un’opera di progettazione, ossia gli oggetti di design. Sarà allora possibile, in maniera quasi paradossale, elaborare persino un’estetica del design; oppure, rendendo all’estetico ciò che da sempre gli appartiene  ma che ha portato a lungo con sé solo nel nome come radice etimologica, – ossia il suo riferimento alla sensibilità, all’esperienza sensibile – pensare ad un’estetica che non comprenda più al suo interno solo il campo semantico dell’artistico, ma, letteralmente qualsiasi cosa, fino a ciò che più si discosta dalla straordinarietà delle opere artistiche, persino le cose ordinarie, quotidiane, la nostra everydayness.

Proprio di questi temi tratta ampiamente l’opera di Gioia Laura Iannilli, L’estetico e il quotidiano, che fa di “Design, Everyday Aesthetics ed Esperienza” i tre cardini o pilastri sui quali installare la riflessione, come recita appunto il sottotitolo del testo. Sono proprio queste tre grandi tematiche, appunto, a scandire il flusso delle considerazioni dell’autrice, nonché a dividere il testo in altrettante sezioni volte al loro approfondimento. Ciò che si vuole sostenere con fermezza è la preziosità che contraddistingue elementi di per sé difficilmente accostabili all’ambito dell’estetico – poiché esso è stato a lungo marcato dal profondo pregiudizio arte o natura-centrico – come l’ambito quotidiano, le pratiche ordinarie e la progettazione di oggetti quotidiani (il design), per una riflessione sull’esperienza estetica che voglia aspirare ad una certa completezza.

Per quanto riguarda il primo elemento di questa triade, il design, esso viene messo in rilievo nel testo per la sua potenzialità nel far emergere la dimensione pratica dell’estetico, una sfaccettatura di quest’ultimo raramente presa in considerazione negli studi dell’estetica filosofica. L’autrice, nel delineare le categorie concettuali – principalmente coppie di concetti, dicotomie – e tutto l’apparato interpretativo attraverso il quale è stato studiato il design a livello istituzionale (utile/bello; funzione/forma; consumo/immagine), rivendica una modalità nuova di avere a che fare con questo tema: «È necessaria un’analisi estetologica sul design che si concentri sulla categoria dell’esperienzialità (o della relazionalità) che trova riscontro nelle pratiche quotidiane». Il migliore amico del design, d’altra parte, è proprio il quotidiano, la dimensione della “everydayness”, dalla quale esso appunto risulta estremamente inscindibile. In secondo luogo l’autrice rivolge la trattazione verso l’analisi della genesi e degli sviluppi di un ambito di studi relativamente recente, sorto in seno all’indagine estetica; una linea di ricerca che si potrebbe quasi definire “oscura”, incerta, sulla quale l’autrice, perciò, vuole tentare di gettare un po’ di luce e di chiarezza: si tratta della cosiddetta “Everyday Aesthetics”, sub-disciplina dell’estetica sviluppatasi pressappoco negli ultimi tre decenni.

La valutazione dell’autrice in merito a questo nuovo ambito di studio risulta chiaro fin dalle prime pagine del testo: si tratta di un vero e proprio congedo. Infatti, pur mettendo in campo elementi essenziali nel gioco della riflessione estetica – in primo luogo proprio i fenomeni quotidiani – tuttavia essa tende a ricadere troppo spesso nella trappola dei pregiudizi e delle impostazioni tradizionali degli studi estetici; una grande “pecca” dell’Everyday Aesthetics sarebbe ad esempio, quella di conferire troppa poca importanza all’ambito del design. Tuttavia, l’analisi dell’Everyday Aesthetics compiuta dall’autrice in questa sede risulta molto accurata e particolareggiata; il suo intento principale è quello di sistematizzare quelli che sono i più importanti contributi sorti in grembo alla disciplina, scandendoli in base al criterio della loro vicinanza e adesione oppure rifiuto e lontananza rispetto alla tradizione estetica consolidata. Vengono a delinearsi in tal modo da un lato degli approcci “deboli, continuisti o straordinaristi”, cioè fedeli alla tradizione, e dall’altro degli approcci “forti, discontinuisti o familiaristi”, che appunto se ne distanziano in maniera evidente. Tra i grandi autori dei quali l’autrice esamina i contributi, cioè i maggiori esponenti dell’Everyday Aesthetics, si può rintracciare nel primo gruppo Thomas Leddy con la sua Aesthetics of Aura Experience e Ossi Naukkarinen con la sua Aesthetics of Everydayness, nel secondo Yuriko Saito, fautrice di una Aesthetics of Care, Arto Haapala, di una Aesthetics of Lacking e Kevin Melchionne, propugnatore di una Aesthetics of Well-Being.

Dopo aver trattato approfonditamente le posizioni di questi teorici, da considerarsi i veri e propri “pilastri” dell’Everyday Aesthetics, l’autrice passa in rassegna quelli che denomina i suoi “meta-teorici”. Questi ultimi, i quali si sarebbero spesi in una revisione critica degli approcci teorici dell’Everyday Aesthetics, sarebbero a suo avviso i responsabili della svolta normativa della disciplina in una direzione intersoggettivo-continuista. Tutto ciò vuol significare il rientro in campo con piena dignità di una colonna portante del discorso estetico tradizionale, specialmente di matrice kantiana: la dimensione della condivisione dei giudizi di gusto, dell’intersoggettività, appunto. Ma ciò non significa affatto che i “meta-teorici” dell’Everyday Aesthetics convergano tutti verso una medesima prospettiva: tutt’altro; anche per quanto riguarda i più recenti approcci “critici” ciò che emerge è un’aria di disaccordo ed un certo attrito. L’autrice prende in considerazione in particolare i contributi di Cristopher Dowling, Dan Eugen Ratiu, Jane Forsey e la prospettiva dell’Egalitarian Aesthetics avanzata nel 2016 da Giovanni Matteucci, i quali concordano appunto nel riconoscere la necessità di rintracciare un aspetto normativo entro la cornice della nuova sub-disciplina dell’estetica; inoltre essi tendono a condividere, non a caso, una linea di pensiero di carattere continuista.

Il binomio intersoggettività-continuità, che dunque qualifica in maniera determinante la linea teorica dei cosiddetti approcci “meta-teorici”, è evidentemente sotteso ad una fondamentale dimensione dell’estetico, ossia al suo carattere di relazionalità. Scrive infatti l’autrice: «La relazionalità […] è indubbiamente cifra specifica dell’estetico in quanto è proprio in un contesto fondamentalmente intersoggettivo, ossia espressivo (sia esplicito sia implicito, sia proposizionale sia gestuale), che l’esperienza estetica ha luogo». Ma, come ribadisce l’autrice in un altro punto, questa relazione che connota l’estetico in quanto tale in ogni suo dispiegarsi, è sempre “da qualche parte”, cioè è sempre situata, e quindi «specificata e vincolata topograficamente». Quest’ultimo aspetto ci spinge ad aprire un ulteriore contesto di riflessione: quello che riguarda gli “spazi estetici”, e in particolare gli spazi estetici quotidiani. Essi vengono ripartiti dall’autrice nelle seguenti categorie: gli spazi estetici privati, pubblici, istituzionalizzati, virtuali-globali e commerciali. Si vuol far emergere in tal modo una caratteristica di fondo dello spazio estetico quotidiano, ovvero la dimensione di benessere che esso tende a produrre: «Gli spazi estetici quotidiani sono spazi in cui “si sta bene”», che garantiscono una qualche gratificazione, e far risaltare inoltre l’intreccio che attraverso questi spazi viene a configurarsi tra l’estetico e l’economico.

L’autrice sofferma infine la propria attenzione su una configurazione del design di origine molto recente: il cosiddetto Experience Design – risultato del recentissimo processo (cominciato all’incirca negli anni ’80 ma sempre più diffuso) di «smaterializzazione, diffusione e integrazione del design nelle pratiche quotidiane» -, facendone un caso esemplare per dispiegare ulteriori concetti sottesi alle dinamiche estetiche quotidiane. Esso consiste generalmente nella produzione di esperienze nelle quali la componente materiale decresce progressivamente d’importanza a favore di una dimensione interattiva sempre più rilevante. Tale ambito viene introdotto dall’autrice soprattutto al fine di rimarcare e giustificare la caduta e risoluzione delle dicotomie e delle storiche antinomie tra “soggetto” e “oggetto” e tra “natura” e “tecnica” o “artificio”. I due settori ai quali l’autrice fa riferimento nell’esame di questo recente sviluppo del design sono quelli della moda e dell’interazione con le interfacce.

L’Experience Design viene analizzato alla luce di una contrapposizione di fondo tra due concetti: quello di Lebenswelt e quello di Everydayness, proprio per sottolineare l’impatto che esso produce su tali dimensioni. L’intento dell’autrice è mostrare l’inadeguatezza ai nostri scopi di questi termini e proporre dunque una sostituzione di questi ultimi con le nozioni di “habitus” da un lato e di “campo” dall’altro, dove la prima dev’essere intesa sulla scorta di Bourdieu come «strutture strutturate predisposte a funzionare come strutture strutturanti, cioè in quanto principi generatori e organizzatori» e la seconda come «contesto dinamico in cui interagiscono energie significative», o meglio, bisognerebbe parlare di: «Mondo della vita, dinamicizzato in habitus, e quotidianità restituita alla sua funzione di campo di gioco». L’autrice ritrae tale nuovo settore come una vera e propria radicalizzazione odierna del design, la quale porta con sé l’«intreccio tra esteticità e quotidianità in una prospettiva centrata sulla intersoggettività e sulla continuità tra i vari livelli dell’estetico». Scrive inoltre che: «L’Experience Design […] plasma in modo sempre più significativo la nostra realtà proponendo un tipo di esperienzialità basata sulla “immediatezza”, sulla “superficialità”, sulla disponibilità, e sul piacere che deriva proprio dalla facilità con cui è possibile realizzare le esperienze che esso progetta, propone o innesta nella vita quotidiana».

Alla luce di quanto emerso è facile notare come il problema fondamentale per noi sia quello di cercare una risposta ad un tale interrogativo: se, dato che la progettazione (il design) sembra orientare sempre di più e in modo maggiormente pervasivo le nostre esperienze estetiche, tale circostanza conduca ad una alienazione oppure consenta, al contrario, dei margini di spontaneità e libertà. L’estetico può essere inteso come un mezzo di emancipazione dell’individuo contemporaneo oppure no? Per usare le parole dell’autrice: «Non potrebbe forse l’estetico rivelarsi un fattore di disincantamento dalla metafisica dualistica, piuttosto che propriamente di alienazione, e dunque essere un mezzo di emancipazione per l’individuo contemporaneo?».

Oggi le dinamiche esperienziali quotidiane sono modellate con un’incidenza sempre maggiore dal design, dalla progettazione, spesso attaccato come se fosse causa dell’estinzione della spontaneità. È innegabile quanto l’esperienza sia «oggi sempre più evidentemente in oscillazione tra spontaneità e natura progettata»; ma questa dinamica, risultata dallo sviluppo sempre più incredibilmente rapido e inarrestabile delle pratiche umane, ed in questo caso specialmente delle arti, ci accompagna davvero necessariamente di fronte ad un baratro oltre il quale non c’è più umanità (intesa qui come spontaneità naturale dell’uomo)? Per quanto possa sembrare difficile rispondere a questi interrogativi, ciò che è evidente – e questa è l’opinione portante del testo – è il bisogno di elaborare ai nostri fini «un’estetica generale che si occupi anche di quotidianità avendone acquisito i motivi al proprio interno senza farli diventare caratteri essenziali, ma relazionalmente e dinamicamente strutturali dell’estetico»; infatti «è proprio su queste basi, ovvero su basi relazionali, o intersoggettivo-continuiste, che andrebbe elaborata una teoria generale dell’estetica (del quotidiano), di fatto non ancora disponibile». Solo in tali condizioni, infatti, potremmo essere in grado di riflettere ampiamente ed apertamente sulle recenti acquisizioni dell’ambito estetico e sulle sue nuove promesse, liberati finalmente dal giogo del pensiero più tradizionalista e diretti verso un nuovo mondo, il mondo ordinario, quello che da sempre tutti abbiamo ed abbiamo avuto sotto gli occhi, ancora tutto da scoprire.

John Sallis: On Beauty and Measure

On Beauty and Measure: Plato's Symposium and Statesman Book Cover On Beauty and Measure: Plato's Symposium and Statesman
The Collected Writings of John Sallis
John Sallis. Edited by S. Montgomery Ewegen
Indiana University Press
2021
Paperback $25.00
160 Pages, 22 graphs

Reviewed by: Marina Marren (Assistant Professor of Philosophy, UAE University)

Translating Plato Back into Greek: A Review of Sallis’s On Beauty and Measure: Plato’s Symposium and Statesman

I. Sallis’s Method of Reading Plato

John Sallis’s On Beauty and Measure: Plato’s Symposium and Statesman, expertly edited by Shane Montgomery Ewegen, offers an illuminating and nuanced interpretation of Plato’s texts.[1] This volume contains Sallis’s lectures on the Symposium and the Statesman. Sallis’s reading of Plato gives direction, unwavering focus, and elicits insights into the most meaningful truths. If one reads Sallis carefully and without prejudice – if one really reads him – one stands a very good chance to find heretofore untreaded paths in Plato’s dialogues.

From the start, Sallis calls our attention to the manner in which we should engage with Plato. It is only when we set aside any “ready-made preconceptions” (3) that we may have the meaning of Plato’s writing, and that we “begin to learn how to read” (3) the Symposium, the Statesman, or any of the dialogues. It should go without saying, but Sallis’s text should be read just as Plato’s: with great care, slowly, and with Plato’s original side by side. If we adopt this kind of measured approach, then we can experience in Plato’s and in Sallis’s writing the “wonder—which, for the Greeks, was the beginning of philosophy” (3). Part of Sallis’s methodology to which he calls our attention time and again is his focus on the difference and the distance between Plato and the dialogical characters. This is an absolutely essential insight that Sallis articulates for us when he writes that “Plato is an unusual kind of author. … [I]n all of the dialogues attributed to Plato—Plato never speaks in his own name. … Plato never says a word. … Of course, many people are prone to using the phrase ‘Plato says …’; however, as soon as one says this, one has become careless and has failed to attend to the character of the Platonic dialogues” (73). This distance between Plato, the author, and any of his dialogical characters serves to alert the readers and interpreters of Plato to the fact that nothing of what any given character says can simply be equated with what Plato himself thinks. Whatever doctrines, theories, models, or beliefs may enter into the discussion taking place between the dialogical characters – and Socrates is no exception – we have to keep in mind that Plato as the author need not uphold any of these. However, Plato’s writing presents for our consideration a dialogical and (this is Sallis’s point) a dramatic interplay of the various opinions and ideas. And yet, to take any of them on faith as Plato’s own is to foreclose one’s understanding of Plato’s dialogical philosophizing.

For example, and although none of the characters in any of Plato’s dialogues ever claim to have a “Theory of Ideas” or to be adherents of a “Theory of Forms,” such theories are so often attributed to Plato as to be virtually identified with the main subject of his philosophy. However, and as Sallis warns, it is a mistake to hold this preconceived view according to which “Plato is supposed to have held something like a theory of forms or ideas. More nonsense has been written about this than about almost any other topic in Greek philosophy. [However,] [s]eldom has it even been considered that the very concept of theory (and of concept) relies upon, and indeed presupposes, what was said about the εἰδη in the Platonic dialogues” (54, fn. 25).[2] Sallis also explains why, given the common Greek use of the words εἶδος and ἰδέα it is precipitous to always translate textual instances of these as either a mental “form” or an “idea” instead of a “look” or a visible form. This is just one concrete example of the way in which Sallis’s exceptional sensitivity to Plato’s text – its language, as well as its historical and its cultural situatedness – constitutes nothing short of an opening of a new field of Plato studies. It is a field of thought attuned to the sensible and sense-bound dimension of Plato’s texts. It is an interpretive method, which finally allows us to see that Platonism cannot be attributed to Plato; that the two-world doctrine is something that has been imposed upon Plato’s texts; and that there is a way to read the dialogues so as to allow the equal primacy of the sensible and the intelligible to shine forth (instead of denigrating the world of sense and experience, making them inferior in respect of some otherworldly noetic reality). This is what happens when instead of bringing sedimented, preconceived views to the dialogues (be these the views of the establishment or our own), we actually read Plato – with the gratitude and care that is due to the texts of a world-shaping thinker.

Another methodological insight that Sallis offers for our interpretation of Plato is the fact that we are well-advised to “give up thinking that Plato’s texts consist primarily of so-called logical arguments, and to abandon the belief that whatever does not belong to these arguments can safely be ignored, or at least be passed quickly by as if it were a mere ornament” (3). If, as Sallis indicates, “in the Platonic dialogues there are virtually no insignificant details” (3), then to speed-read through Plato’s text to get to the so-called “arguments” (“the latter of which is a post-Platonic invention,” 74) is to do utter violence to the dialogues and a great disservice to one’s understanding thereof.

Another set of methodological reflections has to do with mythical speeches, playfulness, and the relationship between the form and content of the dialogues (74-75). The fact that the “textuality” of Plato’s dialogues “includes the stories of the sort that one would readily call mythical” of course does not mean that Plato meant to have these mythical elements as something that would appeal to the non-learned reader, reserving the so-called arguments for the scholarly type. Instead, the mythical elements often situate the other dialogical speeches in such a way as to play up the radical incompleteness of the seemingly most coherent ideas that human beings have about the world – be they discussed by Plato’s characters or applied to our own lives. This does not exhaust the function of the mythical accounts in Plato, but it rather serves to underscore “another feature that is often found in Platonic dialogues: namely, their playfulness, as well as their character as plays, as dramas” (75).[3] This claim about the dramatic nature of Plato’s texts, leads Sallis to observe the importance of paying heed to the relationship between the dialogues’ dramatic form and their content. This means that the form has to be part and parcel of our understanding of the content; both are philosophically pertinent, and we ought to see them as belonging together. In Sallis’s own words “this entails that one must take into account not only what is said in the dialogues, but also how it is said (i.e., in what kind of speech), as well as by whom and at what place and time. In a dialogue, all of these various moments have an appropriateness to one another and to the whole of the dialogue” (75). Sallis’s own engagement with the dialogues, which always remains faithful to these recommendations, is extraordinarily fruitful as it unearths for us Plato’s dialogical philosophizing, retrieving it from underneath the layers of sedimented views and rescuing it from the deadening effects of dogmatic approaches.

There are then these methodological elements which, following Sallis, we should observe: 1) we should read slowly and with utmost attention to even the minutest details of Plato’s text. 2) We should practice interpreting the dialogues on the basis of a realization that Plato is not any of his dialogical characters and that Plato never says anything in the dialogues attributed to him. 3) It is critically important to realize that Plato does not, strictly speaking, offer for us any such systems of philosophy that are readily recognizable, for example, as in 19th Century German thought. Therefore, we cannot simply look for Plato’s systematic “arguments,” avoiding any serious engagement with the other, e.g., mythical speeches in his texts. 4) The “multitextured character” (74) of Plato’s dialogues should alert us to “their playfulness” and to the fact that Plato’s play is also dramatic. 5) The “dramatic form of the dialogues” (75) cannot be separated from their content. In other words, to philosophize along with Plato, we must take into consideration the way in which the drama of the dialogues informs their meaning.

II. Sallis’s Engagement with Plato’s Symposium

Sallis observes that the “Symposium is the only dialogue devoted to speeches in praise of a god” – Eros (10). Sallis’s discussion of the opening scene of the dialogue serves as an example of his method of interpreting Plato’s dialogues, whereby we have to make sense of the coincidence between the dialogical drama and content. For example, one of the insights that comes to light on the basis of Sallis’s nuanced examination of the dialogical frame of the Symposium, is that Glaucon (the only named person who is said to be listening to Apollodorus’ narration of the events and speeches that constitute the Symposium) had no frame of reference according to which he could situate his hearsay acquaintance with the speeches exchanged in praise of ἔρως (10-12).[4] More specifically, prior to speaking with Apollodorus, Glaucon could not have known what occasion prompted the gathering where the speeches about ἔρως were exchanged; who the speakers were (besides Socrates); or where they were congregating. Thus, Glaucon was only aware of the intellectual content of the speeches (badly retold to him, at that), but not of the concrete situatedness of those speeches. To extend this realization a bit further, we can say that the content of the Symposium hovers in a vacuum unless we attempt to work out the concrete details surrounding its characters, history, religion, and even politics. This is precisely what Sallis’s analysis of the opening frames of the dialogue accomplishes. It is only through this concretization of the intellectual narrative that we gain a perspective necessary to engage with the dialogue (but also with any of the dialogues of Plato) in a philosophically fruitful manner.

More generally, Sallis’s focus on the opening frames of the Symposium stresses the manifold removal of us – the readers – from the content of the speeches that constitute this dialogue (12). The Symposium’s setting highlights the importance of being mindful of the perspectival distance that memory, transmission and reception of ideas, and human finitude play in philosophizing. The distance that separates the reader and the text also qualifies the sorts of philosophical views we adopt and conclusions we arrive at when interpreting this dialogue. It is likewise important to keep in mind that an individual reader, whoever she may be, brings to the text a certain set of presuppositions, opinions, cultural and personal views that inform her encounter with the dialogue. Therefore, one is well advised to follow an injunction that appeared at the entrance of the ancient temple of Apollo at Delphi. Apollo is one of the divinities (the other one being Dionysus) who according to Sallis preside over the unfolding of the Symposium. Apollo’s injunction says: “Γνῶθι Σεαυτόν” or “Know Yourself” and it is this divine imperative that in the Phaedrus, Socrates tells Phaedrus he (Socrates) is as of yet unable to fulfill (229e-230a).[5] In the Symposium, and right before Phaedrus (who, as Sallis underscores, is the “father of the λόγος,” Symp., 177d, 20) speaks in praise of ἔρως, Socrates limns this question of self-knowledge.

Sallis underscores the proximity between Socrates’ statement: “I claim to know about nothing but erotics (Symp. 177e)” and the question which comes up in the Apology, i.e., the question of the relationship between ignorance and wisdom. Sallis asks about Socrates’ knowledge of erotics, “How is this claim of Socrates’s to be squared with his attestation in the Apology that his wisdom (of which the Delphic Apollo had spoken) consists in knowing only that he does not know (Ap. 23b)? Is it the case that knowing about ἔρως amounts somehow to knowing the limits of one’s wisdom?” (20). Taking up Sallis’s question, we can say that in relation to oneself, questioning about one’s ἔρως would amount to thinking about or even analyzing that which characterizes one’s strongest longings, excitations, and pangs of desire, as well as one’s vulnerabilities and insecurities that have to do with ἔρως. We are well advised to hear a wide breadth of meanings in the use of this term, which might include one’s social or political and not only strictly personal ἔρως. Therefore, Socrates’ knowledge of erotics in the first instance has to do with the question of self-knowledge – with the problem of the forces that shape one’s life but, which nonetheless, are not entirely within one’s own power to control. Second, Socrates’ knowledge of erotics is also a capacity to interrogate and look into ἔρως as it manifests in others. Socrates’ practice of erotics is a questioning of ἔρως as it shapes and forms, but also warps, the lives of other human beings and even cities. In this double aspect, Socrates’ study and knowledge of ἔρως, in Sallis’s language, “amounts somehow to knowing the limits” (20) as well as continuously interrogating the limits of one’s rationality and of one’s power to rationally shape the course of one’s life. Moreover, in Socrates’ philosophical person (who questions others and himself in response to the Delphic injunction), pursuit of self-knowledge, knowledge of ἔρως, and philosophizing coincide.

As Sallis works through each of the speeches in the Symposium, he shows how each consequent interlocutor is appropriating certain key moments of the preceding speech. This culminates in Socrates’ recitation of Diotima’s speech about ἔρως that to some extent includes refractions of all of the preceding accounts. Such refractions happen also prior to Diotima, when Pausanias picks up on a motif from Phaedrus’ opening praise of ἔρως.

In Phaedrus’ speech, the lovers are praised for the sacrifices they suffer for the sake of their beloveds. The longing that the lovers have for their beloveds – at least to some extent – is being idealized or elevated in Phaedrus’ speech. Pausanias goes as far as to separate out the lowly “Pandemian Eros” from the “Uranian Eros” of the select few. As Sallis writes, “the worthless people (ὁι φαῦλοι) … being only concerned with the sexual act, are no less in love with women than with boys, are in love with their bodies rather than with their souls, and are in love with the stupidest sort of people. But Uranian Eros, like Uranian Aphrodite,” Sallis continues, “partakes only of male, and not of female: in other words, it is the love of boys (pederasty)” (24). Therefore, the motif of idealization of ἔρως that Phaedrus introduced is further accentuated in Pausanias’ speech, and brought to a point where a separation is made between the better and the worse sort of erotic longing.

Another thing that would be interesting to trace out is the treatment of women, which is rather dismissive in Pausanias’ view of ἔρως. Arguably, the preferential treatment of men and male love is also inscribed into Phaedrus’ presentation of the relationships between Alcestis and Admetus or Eurydice’s and Orpheus, which Phaedrus opposes to that of Patroclus and Achilles. As Sallis makes clear, Plato oftentimes uses motifs and ideas that are worked out not only in speech, but also in the action of both the characters and the dialogue itself. For example, in the Symposium, Eryximachus’ avowed attempts at subduing, managing, and regulating the body and its erotic expressions are undermined in the very actions of the next speakers, i.e., in the comedic unruliness of Aristophanes’ bodily expressions (20).[6]

Aristophanes is a comic playwright, and in the Symposium, not only the involuntary expressions of his body, but also his “speech [are] … comical” (32). “And yet, Aristophanes’ speech is not merely a comedy of a usual sort” (32). Sallis develops the idea that “[w]hereas comedy of the usual sort is directed against individuals or particular groups or types, Aristophanes’s speech is about all human beings, about human beings as such: in this respect, it is more akin to tragedy than to comedy” (32). We can take this insight to heart and, moving from all to one, bring Sallis’s observation about the tragi-comic character of Aristophanes’ speech to bear on the question of philosophical self-knowledge. In this case, we can say that tragedy transpires or ensues if comedy is not also applied to oneself. In other words, if we are blind to the comic, lowly, fallible aspects of ourselves, then we tend to idealize and value ourselves above others. This attitude to life is likely to lead to tragic outcomes.

More specifically, in terms of the content of Aristophanes’ speech, Sallis argues that Aristophanes presents the tragicomedy of human beings in terms of our erotic ignorance. The latter has to do with the fact that in longing for an erotic relationship with another, we really seek ourselves – or even and in stronger terms – we desire to love ourselves. Thus, we can reposition the relationship between comedy, tragedy, and self-knowledge (the opposite of self-knowledge, of course, is ignorance) in one more way. We can say that tragedy comes onto the scene if we remain blind to the (comic) reality that it is our self-love that inspires our ἔρως for the other. Such comically grotesque egoism is bound to end up in tragic ὕβρις, unless we work to lay bare the self-infatuation at the core of our erotic lives. However, if we do work to expose this self-love, then we become aware of the tragicomic core of our ἔρως. In this case we stop idealizing our erotic personas and attachments. Instead, we become open to a more joking and lighthearted attitude to ourselves. We invite ridicule, and thereby – by becoming a subject of a joke – we reckon with our downfalls, weaknesses, and flaws, thereby entering on a path of self-examination.

After Aristophanes’ account of ἔρως, Agathon – the man in whose honor the entire proceedings of the Symposium are held – delivers his praise of ἔρως. Just as with the previous speeches, certain elements of the speech that preceded Agathon’s, i.e., certain elements of Aristophanes’ speech, are preserved in Agathon’s own account. Although it is not entirely on the surface of Agathon’s praise of ἔρως (and Sallis’s analysis is absolutely indispensable if we wish to move past the surface of Agathon’s speech), what his speech amounts to is a kind of performative explication of one of the core ideas that Aristophanes’ account relates. Agathon’s praise of ἔρως embodies the haughty, self-centered attitude that Aristophanes’ speech both disclosed and – in some sense – seeks to dispel. As Sallis puts its (after offering a very nuanced and very helpful break down of the key compositional elements of Agathon’s eulogy of ἔρως), in his praise of ἔρως “Agathon is elevating himself” (41). Agathon’s adoration of ἔρως “is a veiled self-evaluation, a eulogy in praise of his own youth, beauty and virtue that blurs the distinction between himself and the god so that,” Sallis continues, “at this event that is his [Agathon’s] celebration, he can praise himself without incurring reproach that outright self-praise would bring” (41). In this brilliant interpretive turn, Sallis gathers together the historical occasion of the dialogical event (Agathon’s victory at the 416 BCE Lenaia, 13); the historical backdrop of the recitation of the speeches that took place on the day of Agathon’s victory (the mutilation of the Herms, the profanation of Eleusinian mysteries, and Athens disastrous Sicilian engagement, 13-16); as well as the questions of ἔρως, ὕβρις, tragic lack of self-knowledge, comedy, and the importance of self-examination. All of these elements align in Agathon’s ridiculous self-aggrandizement, which is not dissimilar in spirit from the impulse that possessed those warmongering Athenians who favored the Delian imperial aggression and rallied with Alcibiades for the ill-fated Sicilian campaign.

Before Alcibiades appears on the scene, as if an ivy-crowned Dionysus, Socrates speaks about ἔρως. In the Apology, Socrates tells us about his determination to test the oracle of Apollo (Ap.; 20d-21e, 5). He sees this as his service to the god. However, despite this, Socrates is charged, among other things, with impiety and ὕβρις (5-6). Whereas, in Alcibiades’ drunken, but maybe therefore more honest, outburst we find a portrayal of Socrates, in Socrates’ recitation of Diotima’s speech, we find a gathering and a rearticulation of the key moments of all of the speeches that have been presented prior to Socrates’ account.

Sallis’s elucidations of Socrates’ (42-58) and Alcibiades’ (59-67) speeches are groundbreaking and must be attended to with utmost care on one’s own. For example, such elements of Sallis’s interpretation as Socrates’ snubbing of Pausanias’ disregard for women (44); or the insidiousness of the ascent toward the Beautiful (57-58); or the Five Images of Socrates that Alcibiades produces in his speech, reposition the many extant scholarly accounts of the Symposium in critical ways. Another crucial insight that emerges when one reads Sallis’s text is the fact that in Socrates’ speech about ἔρως, Socratic philosophizing re-enters the scene. What I mean is that despite the fact that Socrates, following the form that others keep to, offers a soliloquy, his speech explodes this monological form from within. This is the case because since Socrates is retelling a conversation he allegedly once had with Diotima, he is able to insert the question-and-answer structure into his narrative. In this, Plato’s dialogical method becomes conspicuous again – the method whereby dramatic presentation often undermines or at least alters (and presents in the new light) the meaning of that which is being said.

III. Sallis’s Engagement with Plato’s Statesman

It is in his analysis of the Statesman that Sallis makes one of his most poignant remarks regrading Plato when he speaks about the need to “translate Plato back into Greek” (90). This remark appears in the context of Sallis’s disambiguation of the much used (and abused) language of ἰδέα and εἶδος. These terms have undergone so much interpretive sedimentation that it is all but impossible for someone working in ancient Greek philosophy or even in classics to hear the originary meaning of these words. All the same, ἰδέα and εἶδος have less to do with mental states, let alone extra- or supra-mental realities, and more to do with the immediacy of the sensible look or shape of something. It is through this kind of a sensitive engagement with Plato’s texts that Sallis opens for us untreaded pathways of interpretation.

For example, at the start of his Statesman chapter, Sallis observes that the interlocutors (whose historical background Sallis presents to start, 78-83) initiate a movement of abstraction.[7] In the dialogue that deals with readily practical matters such as the governance of a state, the interlocutors who do the lion’s share of speaking (young Socrates and the Eleatic Stranger), present their task of finding the best statesman in the guise of cognitive science (γνωστική ἐπιστήμη). Moreover, they proceed according to the method of dialectic and “theoretical arithmetic” (87). The latter is problematic as far as the search for the statesman is concerned, because it installs an artificial equality among all those who may be considered as candidates for the role. Thus, when we deal with theoretical arithmetic and “number becomes a number of pure units” (87), these units or “pure ones to which the number would refer are identical” (87). Therefore, abstracting from the singular character of things presages the failure of the initial attempts at situating the best ruler in the Statesman. Instead of a single best ruler, numerous contestants (such as “for example, merchants, farmers, food makers, trainers, and physicians,” 109) show up demanding to be considered for the role of the statesman.

The inadequacy of the arithmetic and the divisionary procedure in the search for the statesman is announced most clearly by what Sallis sees as comedy. “There are five ways,” Sallis writes, “in which the λόγος underway within the Statesman plays out as comedy” (107). These five ways include 1) a “digression … away from anything having to do with knowledge” (107); 2) “a comic disregard of differences between the human and the merely animal” (107). 3) The third comedic element has to do with a mismatch and a mixing of professions – a confusion that has to do with the initial abstraction of the differences between humans and non-human animals. This mismatch eventuates in “the statesman … running along with his herd of pigs” (107; and Sallis’s graphs on 97, 102, 108-109). 4) The fourth comedic moment arises when the supposedly rigid difference between the “tame” and the “wild” animals is introduced into the diaresis (107-108). 5) Lastly, the fifth comedic element is the Stranger’s explicit announcement of the “comedic character of their undertaking … (Stat. 266b)” (109).

Although the initial diaretic searches end up in comedy, and the interlocutors agree to proceed differently, some elements of the opening discussion are preserved and carried over into the subsequent attempts at identifying the best ruler. For example, the Stranger’s and young Socrates’ attempts to secure the statesman through a mythic account include the comedic confusion that arises when differences between human and non-human animals are removed. At the height of the Stranger’s mythic narration – during the halcyon time of Cronos – humans and animals are mixed up to such a degree that none of them can be meaningfully differentiated from one another. In fact, the confusion is so thoroughgoing that humans (who no longer partake of sexual reproduction) and animals (none of which prey on one another) are said to philosophize together (272c). However, this fantastical time comes to an end, and the age of Zeus ushers in violence, destitution, but also politics.

As Sallis observes, the mythical reversal of the two ages (i.e., the age of Cronos and the age of Zeus) does not abide by a one-directional causal principle, but rather exhibits an oscillating movement (117). This mutually affective backward and forward directionality is a principle according to which later in the dialogue, the Stranger will describe the manner in which we should measure the appropriateness of something. Concretely, and in Sallis’s words, “the appropriate length of a λόγος is determined by what the λόγος is aimed at making manifest—more precisely it is determined by the manifestation that it aims to bring about” (125). This is but one example of Sallis’s expansive reading strategies. This example leads us to realize, among other things, how reversible the causal nexus is. The antecedent-consequent relationship is such that the λόγος ceases to dominate that which is supposed to be brought into the light by it, and instead the subject matter determines the strictures of the manifestation. However, the λόγος is not insignificant either, and it still determines the lines along which the manifestation takes place. This mutually implicative arrangement is even more pronounced in Sallis’s reading of the Stranger’s myth.

As Sallis notes, the reversal or rather the ever alternating back and forth between the age of Cronos and the age of Zeus is presaged in the Stranger’s remarks about the original myth on which the Stranger draws in order to offer his own mythical narration. The Stranger himself denies that he means to draw the young Socrates’ attention to the reversal in the course of the sun or to the cosmological dimension of the original, older myth (Stat., 268e-269a). However, it is precisely, the alteration in the course of the cosmos that plays the key role in the Stranger’s own myth. The latter speaks about the suffering and violence that enter into the picture once “the heaven (or cosmos) … ‘turns back in the opposite direction’ (Stat. 269c-d)” (113). Critically, the motif of violence – unthinkable, gruesome violence – is first indicated in the older myth that the Stranger says he will borrow from in order to introduce his own mythic story.

Sallis discusses the gory violence of the older myth that the Stranger has in mind (112). This discussion calls to our attention the explicitly violent elements that surface at the end of the Stranger’s own mythical narration when he describes the time of Zeus. However, and perhaps even more importantly, Sallis’s presentation of the awful brutality in the myth of Atreus and Thyestes (the myth on which the Stranger claims to base his story), sheds some light on the sinister underbelly of the carefree time that the Stranger says reigns in the age of Cronos. For the students and scholars of the Statesman, Sallis’s analysis puts his work in conversation with such authors as Seth Benardete (1984), Melissa Lane (1998), and Mitchell Miller (1980), all of whom take note of address the various instances of violence in the Statesman. Based on Sallis’s discussion of violence in the original myth as well as of the work that comedy does in the Statesman, we can say that the comedic element. The comedy in the myth echoes the earlier diaretic comedy that abstracted from the differences between human and non-human animals. The erasure of distinctions leads to the possibility of the homogeneous and halcyon life in the age of Cronos where both animals and humans are all overseen or herded together by the divinities. However, this peaceful time falls away according to the strictures of preordained fate (Stat., 272e). It is superseded by the aggression that marks the onset of the age of Zeus.

The question of violence never quite leaves the dialogue, and perhaps in its persistence, we ought to see something having to do with the nature of ruling and being ruled. It is the kind of enterprise that, in virtue of what it is, includes harmful abstraction (from the particulars of life, from the uniqueness of the elements that make up the state, and so on). Sallis takes note of this, the inherent violence of ruling, when in his analysis of the division of the “πολιτική or βασιλική” from the various arts and occupations that constitute the polis, he highlights the Stranger’s recommendation that we should “divide them, as if it were a sacrificial victim, limb by limb … (Stat. 287c).”

The very art of the statesman is supposed to be identified according to the paradigmatic method (the method that Sallis addresses in his discussion of the paradigm, 120-122). In identifying this art, Sallis states, the “Stranger … strikes—and he says that he is striking—a dissonant note, one that sounds against the assumption regarding the delimitation of the right regime. In a sense,” Sallis continues, “he reaches all the way back to the beginning of the Statesman, back to that from which the initial series of divisions proceeded—a beginning that, despite all of the modifications and displacements, has remained at play. That beginning was knowledge” (132). Thus, the true statesman will leave other considerations aside (even the ones that have to do with the strictures and prescriptions of the law) and govern only relying on the knowledge of statesmanship.

Regarding the role of law in politics the dialogue makes a point, as Sallis observes, that the law is “poorly fitted to human affairs” (133). Sallis states that “[t]here are three points to consider regarding the Stranger’s discussion concerning law” (133). The first point has to do with the arithmetic character of the law, which abstracts from uniqueness and particularity, and therefore addresses all as if they were interchangeable units or ones (133-134). The second point is the “difficulty—if not impossibility—of prescribing for each one,” that is each particular individual, the proper course of political action (134). The third issue has to do with the alteration that the, so to speak, “living” spirit of the law undergoes once the law has been securely laid down in writing (134).

Hence, the dialogical discussion arrives at the conclusion that the best regime would be that in which the king ruled not necessarily in accordance with the written law, but through the knowledge of the king. However, this is a paradoxical conclusion. As Sallis observes, “the true statesman” can only be “found … in a regime that is removed … as a god is separated from human beings” (138). There is an unbridgeable distance between any human, law-governed regimes, and the allegedly best regime. “One could say, then, that the true statesman withdraws. … [W]e might venture to say that one can pursue these traces [of withdrawal], and so imitate the withdrawing statesman, only by engaging in that very withdrawal—that is, only by letting oneself be drawn along in the withdrawal. As to what such engagement requires—this remains an open question” (139). An answer to this question is ventured in such works as Shane Montgomery Ewegen’s, The Way of Platonic Socrates.[8]


[1] Ewegen’s editorial work, which includes many helpful notes on Sallis’s text, as well as excellent indexes in the English and Greek, is superb. Sallis’s own notes are indispensable to a thoroughgoing engagement both with Sallis’s lectures on the Symposium and the Statesman as well as with Plato’s own texts.

[2] On the issue of the “Theory of the Forms” or the “Theory of Ideas,” see also Drew Hyland, Finitude and Transcendence in the Platonic Dialogues (New York, NY: SUNY Press, 1995), 165-96.

[3] On Plato’s play, see further, John Sallis, Being and Logos: Reading the Platonic Dialogues (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996); Bernard Freydberg, The Play of the Platonic Dialogues: Literature and the Sciences of Man (New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, 1997.

[4] See also Sallis’s discussion of the Symposium’s dialogical frames in “Frames,” Comparative and Continental Philosophy Journal, 12(3) (2020): 245-53.

[5] See also Sallis, On Beauty and Measure, 30, 33. On the ridiculousness or the comedic nature of “lack of self-knowledge,” see the same, 32.

[6] See also Sallis’s observation about the way in which themes from Eryximachus’ account reappear in Agathon’s speech, 40.

[7] Sallis also helpfully situates the dramatic dating of the Statesman and includes a discussion of the dramatic progression from the Theaetetus to the Phaedo, 77.

[8] The notion of withdrawal can be traced back to Martin Heidegger’s thought, e.g., in What is Called Thinking (1954), Fred D. Wieck and J. Glenn Gray trans. (New York, NY: Harper and Row Publishing, 1968).

Martin Heidegger, Karl Löwith: Correspondence: 1919–1973

Correspondence: 1919–1973 Book Cover Correspondence: 1919–1973
New Heidegger Research
Martin Heidegger, Karl Löwith. Translated by J. Goesser Assaiante, S. Montgomery Ewegen
Rowman & Littlefield
2021
Hardback $125.00 • £96.00
334

Reviewed by: Taylor J. Green (Carleton University)

A fifty-four-year correspondence between teacher and student is what Correspondence: 1919-1973: Martin Heidegger and Karl Löwith brings to English readers. Part of a larger series of The Collected Letters of Martin Heidegger, Correspondence 1919-1973 is a compiled set of one hundred and twenty-four letters, postcards, and telegrams, seventy-six from Martin Heidegger and forty-eight by Karl Löwith, published with helpful annotations, supplementary material, and biographical information. The relationship of Heidegger and Löwith is, certainly, marked by Heidegger’s actions in 1933, but also by an enduring and distinguished bond between two philosophical giants of the twentieth century. The final two letters in 1973 of these compiled correspondences are not sent to Karl Löwith but to his wife after his passing. Heidegger, outliving his former student by three years to the exact day, remarks to Frau Löwith, “may the mercifulness of your husband’s death diminish the pain of his departure, and with time transform it into thoughtful remembrance…The circle of those awakened for thinking during the 1920s grows ever smaller. Soon, at the very most, they will only live on in the memory of a few individuals” (156).

The warmth, trust, erudition, and philosophical conversion that Heidegger and Löwith share in these correspondence exposes a past philosophical era of the previous century, one of which thinking was the central tenet. Translators Assaiante and Ewegen capture the keen philosophical wit of a young Karl Löwith navigating early adulthood through philosophical discourse with one of the greatest German philosophers. In the translation, they also capture the essence of Heidegger’s mentorship and strict academically centric mind. As the translators state upfront, references to lost letters not compiled in this edition “are not in the possession of the estate” (ix). Any shortcomings in compilation does not mean, however, that these letters, as they stand, are nothing short of enlightening for scholars to gain insight into two excellent minds of our contemporary age. The explanatory annotations, the careful translation, unabridged correspondence, and the thoughtful editor’s forward and afterward provides a book easily recommendable to those interested in either or both philosophical minds, in their own written words, as they matured through the early twentieth century.

The language of the letters is “causal and friendly” and lacks the “specialized language” of Heidegger’s lecture courses. Yet there are times when Heidegger prioritizes supervising and guiding the young Löwith by engaging in dense philosophical discourse. Löwith more than obliges and, eventually, extends Heidegger’s existential thinking to-be-with-others in his 1928 habilitation. Captured correctly in the translation is Heidegger’s radicality, his growing disregard for Husserl, his dissonance with the arid bureaucratic structure of the university, and his prescient formulation of the arguments of Being and Time (1927). The translators, attempting the difficult task of uncovering Heidegger’s own self-references, convey the meaning of Eigendestruction in English as destructuring, self-destructuring, or destructing one’s own. This concept is important as Heidegger refers to the term often in the years leading up to the publication of his first major work.

In the “Editor’s Afterward”, it is stated that the letters represent four distinct periods in the relationship between Heidegger and Löwith (288). Classifying the letters in this way is helpful: (1) 1919-1925, Löwith is a student of Heidegger’s until the time he leaves for Italy. This period by far contains the most letters between them. (2) 1925-1929, Heidegger has become a proper professor, as Löwith prepares for his habilitation (successfully habilitated in 1928). (3) In the 1930s, notably, Heidegger becomes rector of University of Freiburg. On page 165, the translators provide an “Excerpt from Karl Löwith’s Italian Diary (1934-1936)”, detailing the last encounter Löwith had with his mentor prior to the war, where Heidegger does not take off the party insignia on his lapel, translated unabridged and with a different tone from what is printed in Richard Wolin’s The Heidegger Controversy. The last phase (4) is a “reconciliation” between Heidegger and Löwith. The impact of Heidegger embracing the rectorship of Freiburg in 1933 does not heal for Löwith, as evidence in Löwith’s documentation of their last encounter and in the salient lack of correspondence. This period contains the least exchanges. One is a birthday wish to Heidegger for his sixtieth birthday in 1949. Another is Heidegger consoling Löwith on his deathbed. Heidegger attaches a poem, or rather, “a series of Thoughts”, entitled Pathways, that reads “Pathways, footsteps loosening up, echoing a humble fate. And once again the distress of dusk, hesitant, in the waiting light” (156).

I review and reconstruct much of the conflating narratives and major themes throughout the work. I analyze the letters in each phase in the chronological structure the editors have provided. In this way, we gain the most detailed insight into the correspondence, as each period builds on the previous. A distinct relation between the two thinkers further defines each period of exchange. Thematically, we read the correspondence initially as two intellectuals yearning for philosophical discourse and influencing each other in the early days of the 1920s. This relationship is strengthened through the habilitation period but is abolished and forever ruptured by 1933. As Heidegger’s later work, post-denazification trials, became as important as his early work, essays such as “The Question Concerning Technology” and “A Letter on Humanism” for example, Löwith would take up the theme of Heidegger’s political decision deriving from his philosophy in such works as “The Political Implications of Heidegger’s Existentialism” and “Heidegger: Thinker in a Destitute Time”. Although the centrepiece of this volume is the teacher-student relationship, 1933 perhaps persistently looms as a shadow cast over the dialogue, as we read into the historicity of the exchange knowledge of the present.

Period 1: 1919-1925

From 1919-1922, Löwith studies with Heidegger and Husserl in Freiburg. Although Löwith received his Ph.D. in 1923 under Moritz Geiger, already in 1920, Löwith is writing to Heidegger that “I am not merely being polite when I admit to you quite readily that it is solely your lectures that I miss” (13). Löwith, in 1922, writes to Heidegger that “Geiger is familiar with every last bit of hastily published modern shit, but with nothing decent. He is interested in my dissertation. A few days ago, I gave him a fully corrected and typed copy. He is somewhat amazed by the fact that one can learn quite a bit more in Freiburg than here” (53). The four letters we have from 1919 suggest that Heidegger has an intellectual interest in the gifted student but, initially, maintains formal relations. In early 1920, Heidegger shows gratitude to Löwith for “that excellent presentation of yours, in which I detected actual intellectual spirit without adherence to a specific scholarly dogmatism (which is the death of all philosophy)” (4). From 1920 onwards, the letters grow long with philosophical discourse, criticisms of academia, criticisms of Husserl, academic gossip, and book suggestions. Heidegger often uses Löwith as a springboard for lecture course topics to pursue. According to a 1920 letter, Heidegger asserts, “I have nixed the entire summer lecture course and am now reworking it anew…Perhaps I will dare to try this experiment in the coming semesters after all. Even we in philosophy are so weighed down by tradition, so unhistorical {unhistorisch}, that we no longer know ourselves. I have again thought about the Hegel seminar, and must say that there is no way he [Jonas Cohn] could have chosen a more inappropriate text than the Encyclopedia of Logic; it is evidence of the absolute innocuousness of everything when compared to Hegel, and also of the sort of dallying with philosophy that is so often practiced here” (5).

During this period Heidegger is a Privatdozent, a lecturer, and not the “secret king of thought” he would become after 1927’s publication of Being and Time. From 1919-1923, Heidegger is an assistant to Edmund Husserl at the University of Freiburg. In the letters of 1920, Heidegger often advises his student on many matters of the state of philosophy in Weimar Germany, and what Löwith can do to combat this pervasive philosophical shallowness. In Document 7, Heidegger elucidates to the young Löwith that “Spenglerizing seems to be subsiding, and it is now finally time for one to engage these ideas philosophically…You are still in those pleasant years during which one has time to read; only rarely do I have occasion to do so, and when I do read, it is always ‘with a particular purpose’…for we do not practice philosophy in order to stockpile bits of knowledge and propositions, but rather to shape life” (6). We also find quips in Documents 9 and 10 where Heidegger warns “against making relativism into a standpoint”; or muses “to become a Hegelian is only half as bad as becoming a Kierkegaardian”; or advises that “chattering on about the religious based on what one has read in an encyclopedia”; or imparts that “one should not desire to create proselytizers” (7-10). Around this time of exchange, the letters become intellectually dense and engaging. Heidegger writes to Husserl about taking on Löwith as a student, where Husserl is in “heartfelt agreement” (9). Heidegger, however, hesitates soon after by saying he is overworked and that he “is too poor at the moment to buy books” (9) and that “I myself am not even seen as a ‘philosopher’ anymore, for I am in fact only still a theologian” (12).

Löwith responds a month later in a moving letter demonstrating the student’s intellectual gifts. “For as much as I agree with you,” Löwith suggests, “about the separation of philosophy and scholarship, the problem nevertheless remains unsolved, given that today one cannot allow oneself to posit philosophical claims in the manner of Schelling or even Hegel” (14). He further claims that Max Weber comes close to “lifting such a heavy burden” for philosophy as at one time Hegel did (15). But after some skepticism, matched, in the previous letter, by Heidegger’s doubts on German philosophy, Löwith affirms, “given such doubts and such hesitancies regarding scholarly activity, it is difficult to justify making philosophy into a career” (15). To comment on Heidegger’s growing disinterest but incredible academic powers, Löwith ends the letter by requesting of Heidegger if he can speak truthfully. In describing his soon-to-be mentor, Löwith boldly expounds that he understands Heidegger on a spiritual level: “One senses a certain unease and humane insecurity within you, whose consequence is a slightly overcomposed acerbity and mistrust, and one seeks in you that indefinable inner freedom and ability to be in control of oneself. I am sure you yourself are suffering the most from this, and I would never mention it if I myself were not able to empathize all too well” (15).

Due to such statements and lengthy philosophical discourse, throughout the 1920s, Heidegger’s trusts his pupil immensely. Heidegger, for example, says to Löwith that the new volume of Kant Studien is worthless in its entirety (16). Löwith frequently criticizes Husserl attempting, I believe, to impress Heidegger, and Löwith appears to approach philosophy more in line with Heidegger than any other major German philosopher. In a 1923 letter, Heidegger asserts, “never in his life, not even for a second, was Husserl a philosopher. He is becoming increasingly ridiculous” (63). One can only imagine the substantial content of their in-person philosophical diatribes, as many of the letters confirm dates to meet in various German cities, while roaming the state for invited talks and conferences. Heidegger, on occasion, invites Löwith to his hut in the Black Forest. In Supplement 5, the editors include Karl Löwith’s written entry at the Heidegger family hut in Todtnauberg (1924). Although on that day, “philosophy of language came to expression in such a way that philosophy was not discussed” (169). “And now you have a letter full of gossip,” Heidegger writes in 1922, “but this is the only way that one can write about one’s situation; to speak of other matters in between would be a shame, it’s better to do that in person” (57). During these exchanges, Heidegger must have shown his increasing irritation with Plato philosophically and Husserl personally, although still dedicating Being and Time to the latter. Löwith convinces Heidegger that he is able to “strip off all of that rationalistic Platonism” (17). Later on, Löwith cites an encounter where during his second semester he voiced to Heidegger that he had a “vehement resistance to [Husserl’s] philosophical cast of mind. Today it is absolutely clear to me that Husserl, on the deepest level, is not a great philosopher, and that it is a massive delusion to put him on the same pedestal as Kant; his whole disposition is infinitely far removed from reality—it is without life and is doctrinally logical” (21).

Aside from a shared criticism of Husserl, which persists through the decade, Heidegger’s predisposition towards a pedagogy guided by philosophy shines forth from the text. Whatever can be said about Heidegger, these letters expose Heidegger’s devotion to teaching philosophy. In Document 25, there are ambivalent statements for Löwith to unpack, such as Heidegger’s ideal of “one’s mastery of things [which] arises out of the clearest and most stringent expertise—but in the philosophy itself, one should not notice this. These days, it is particularly difficult to advance toward a vibrant and enlivened philosophizing and to accomplish what it demands. And that is why you must not work at half strength, but must rather fuse reflection into, and with, philosophizing. Philosophy is not fun—one can be destroyed by it; and he who does not risk this will never come to it” (20). Although Heidegger desires an ambitious philosophical career, he does not wish to “make the world better—even less so university philosophers; everyone should say what they want to say, and then apply themselves accordingly” (20). Moreover, in a particularly chasten letter addressed to him, Löwith, on his teacher’s request, must take philosophy more seriously. Almost challenging Löwith forward into the path of higher learning, Heidegger evaluates, “you must become more disciplined in your work—not in regard to quantity, but in regard to quality. The meaning and sense of philosophizing is itself historical {historisch}, and what matters is to find one’s own—and to leave aside all the yardsticks of earlier philosophers…One should not unduly hasten the formation of one’s thoughts” (20).

The translators have correctly captured Heidegger’s incisive play on the word existence by leaving the term existentiell untranslated. Heidegger changes the word for existence in his later works to distinguish from conventional notions of the term. Engaging with Löwith on interpretations of his work, Heidegger seeks to charm the young scholar into following “the existentell interpretation of facticity” (37). We find the use of the term Dasein (again, correctly untranslated) as early as 1921, in perhaps a set of letters that provides the deepest philosophical dialectic between the interlocutors. In Document 25, Heidegger denies a definition of philosophy proposed by Löwith in a previous letter by stating philosophy is pointless in isolation. Philosophy only matters as belonging to existentell facticity. By claiming he does not follow Kierkegaard, Heidegger notes that tailoring one’s philosophical work to suit the “cultural tasks” of the “common man” is absurd (37). Instead, university philosophers must be tied essentially to factical-existentell life; however, Heidegger is “not hereby asserting that philosophy only exists within the university, but rather that philosophizing, precisely because of its foundational purpose at the university (understood in an existentiell way), therein has the facticity of its own enactment, and with that, its own limits and restrictions” (37). Löwith’s rebuke of this claim concerning inherent limitations in facticity would become the foundation of his thought for the rest of his philosophical career.

These early letters are filled with advice for Löwith to become a scholar in his own right. Admitting that he does not wish his time as a student upon anyone, Heidegger acknowledges he is today a great thinker because of his resolve as a student (39). What Löwith shows in Document 24, his most extensive and erudite letter, is extraordinary. He receives the lessons of his mentor’s pedagogy, proving so by claiming that one cannot “exist in the proper sense within just any and all sorts of scholarly philosophical questioning…One can only exist in a true and complete way when asking questions about existence, and existence does not coincide with scholarly fanaticism” (32). The self-discovery process through philosophical rigor is the quality, it appears, Heidegger holds in the highest regard, not only for himself, but also for his most promising pupil. From these letters preceding Being and Time, we can conclude that Heidegger’s early pedagogy is one of existentiell authenticity for himself and his student.

Period 2: 1925-1929

Löwith stays in Italy in 1924-1925. In summer 1923, Heidegger informs Löwith that he has “obtained an appointment in Marburg with the rights and status of an Ordinarius Professor beginning on October 1st” (73). In the following letter, Document 74, Löwith’s warm adoration of the good news presupposes that he and Heidegger, by this point, are close friends and philosophical confidants. As early as 1922, a year before the Beer Hall Putsch, Löwith writes to Heidegger, “frighteningly, hidebound nationalism and anti-Semitism (fueled by Bavarian beer) are spreading. Campaign posters are being hung in the lecture halls…They demand, for example, that the university should only be allowed to have 1 percent Jewish professors, because this correlates to the percentage of the population at large” (57). Löwith’s letters, from 1923 forward, reflect an anxiety about a career in philosophy, an existential concern voiced in previous letters. This time, however, the reason of concern is material subsistence. Löwith writes, “the little bit of money that [I] earn here doesn’t go very far given this ever-rising inflation. There won’t be many other opportunities for money in a small city like Marburg…Please excuse these tiresome financial matters, but unfortunately, nothing is possible without them” (75). Weimar inflation, Heidegger’s new position, lack of employment opportunity, anxiety about material goods, and growing anti-Semitism in Germany are the reasons we gain by reading the correspondence for why Löwith accepts a job to work at a bookstore in Rome (87).

Indeed, despite his student residing in Italy, Heidegger accepts Löwith to habilitate under him. In Document 56, Heidegger lays out his demands, should Löwith have plans to habilitate, “then the only thing that matters is to submit a solid work; apart from that do not let the intention become explicit in any way. On this occasion, I must tell you once again that the prospects of a position as a professor in the next decades are poorer than ever, owing to the fact that chairs in philosophy will most likely be reduced…The career track is a matter of luck. If you put effort into it, you will have my help. However, beyond that, I don’t want the aggravation of having to lead you by the hand” (85).

Despite his location, Löwith wishes for the prospect of habilitation. Habilitating only depends on “(1) if I produce a work that meets your expectations and that leads you to advocate for me, and (2) on the faculty…If you share my view, I would be very happy if you could send me this in your reply…” (86). “Naturally,” Löwith continues, “I am not in good spirits right now, but I am also not without hope…for I believe myself not to be in error when I take the two weeks…to be a sign that nothing was in vain, that I have not been given a burden too heavy to shoulder, and that my philosophical—scholarly abilities have continued to grow silently along with me, despite, and because of everything” (87). Heidegger confers his student to keep his head high as things are not so bad (126), despite Löwith’s sick father and the turmoil surrounding lack of career prospects. Heidegger responds, “I come from a very poor family—all that my parents scrimped and saved, without ever understanding what I was studying or what I planned to do—all of that was still so meager that I had to endure my time as a student with far greater privation than is the case today among ‘poor’ students. And it worked out because I never gave up…You will not starve to death, but life is not pleasant; not even when one is an Ordinarius Professor” (89). In a 1928 letter, Heidegger writes that every semester he started with nothing in his pockets. He had to go into debt and go hungry; he implores Löwith to persist through the adversity (126).

After his time in Italy, Löwith interprets Heidegger’s Being and Time for his habilitation thesis. In 1927, Löwith asks Heidegger to think back to his time under Husserl in Freiburg to “recognize the thankfulness within my unevenly matched assault” (111). Löwith is now thirty years old, and ready to defend his habilitation. In his own work, he has tried to present what he understands to be a problem of Heidegger’s thought (111). Whereas Heidegger’s Being and Time is about the authenticity of the ontological against the ontic of the das Mann or the they, the inauthentic crowd, Löwith’s central focus of his thesis is that Dasein is a being-with-others [Miteinanderseins] that “lies on the same plane of conflict as one’s authentic existence, and through ‘nature’ (sensibility) it does not become unproblematic but rather concretely and specifically problematic” (117).

Heidegger accepts Löwith’s habilitation thesis. Document 77 is a technical response from Heidegger to many of Löwith’s charges that Dasein must be-with-others. Defending his own work against Löwith’s interpretation, Heidegger is unwavering in his conviction that ontology is only founded ontically, and that he is the first person to have fully articulated this claim (121). The interlocutors write back and forth for the rest of 1927 and part of 1928 about the faculty process of passing Löwith.

In Supplement 2, the editors have printed in full “Martin Heidegger’s Assessment of Karl Löwith’s Habilitation Thesis (1928).” The thesis is entitled Der Individuum in der Rolle des Mitmenchen. The assessment outlines a shared world from being-with-others, another concept that has remained untranslated in English, Miteinanderseins, where subjects create relations of “personae” playing roles for others in a shared world (162). Out of this shared world, individuals determine their existential subjectivity by the world of things belonging before that of people (162). The adoption of a shared world is limited by the individual, as each shares a responsibility to individuality as such so that others maintain this existential process. In his assessment, Heidegger calls this the “I-You” relationship (162). Heidegger admits in prior letters that psychoanalysis and anthropology are irrelevant to crucial issues and not of much interest to him. But in the evaluation of the thesis, Heidegger praises the work as it shows “a scholarly independence that exceeds what is typical of habilitation theses in philosophy” (163).

Period 3: 1930s

In a letter dated April 29, 1928, Heidegger writes to Löwith that the committee “stands in agreement; thus your work can be disseminated to the faculty as quickly as possible” (127). After the habilitation period, Löwith searches for academic positions. Löwith becomes a Privatedozent in Marburg—from 1928 until Hitler’s ascension in 1933—where Heidegger advises him to “hold at least a three-hour a week lecture concerning the history of modern philosophy since Descartes. You have to immerse yourself and take from it what you can get…In the future, do not be too surprised if you come to experience more, and more powerfully, the demoralization of the university” (130-131).

In 1929, Löwith marries Elisabeth Ada Kremmer. Heidegger sends his best. Then, the relationship of the decade-long pen mates turns tense. Document 96 displays Heidegger’s disregard for superficiality, especially among the university elites, as he is thankful to Fate that he is “truly made of stuff that cannot be harmed by all this whispering and whining. Despite the inner necessity of the creative process, I would rather choose to remain in utter silence than have my work be dependent on this profession” (136). He criticizes the fact that Löwith cannot get away “from Dilthey, Nietzsche, and psychoanalysis”, which was proven “during your first semester when you did not follow my advice to study a wide range of historical lectures, which would have forced you into other matters. But how could I blame you for such things! Then, I could have quite easily and effortlessly prevented your habilitation” (136). As a lecturing academic, and no longer a student, Löwith defends the claims of his habilitation thesis against the charges. According to Löwith, “for then it would indeed be tautological to say that the human only ‘is’ the human on the basis of the Dasein within him…in reality it is neither tautological nor self-evident; and a justification for why this is so was lacking from Being and Time, a jettisoning of the ‘neutrality’ of essential ontological claims, and I see the first signs of such an attempt on pages 17 and 18 of your lecture [What is Metaphysics], where this purity of Dasein is proven on the basis of the one…who experiences anxiety, and where you say that anxiety ‘transforms’ the human into pure Dasein” (138). Nevertheless, Löwith confesses to Heidegger that “an astonishing number of students have learned an unconditional respect for philosophy through you, and you have probably experienced more joy with some of them than you did with me” (141).

1931 and 1932 hold many of the same previous themes of going over lecture topics and explication of philosophical concepts, besides the fact that now Löwith is asking for Heidegger’s advice on lecture topics. Just before the new year in 1932, Heidegger sends his sincere condolences for the loss of Löwith’s father. In the tumultuous year for the relationship when Heidegger embraces the Nazi party, we have three letters and one telegram from 1933, all from Heidegger. We are missing at least two because Heidegger thanks Löwith for letters mid-1933, which is after the April date of Heidegger’s rectorship of Freiburg University. Also, Heidegger congratulates Löwith on a stipend in July. One of the omissions is Löwith asking if he could dedicate his book to Heidegger (the editors suggest the book in question is Löwith’s Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, or the Philosophical and Theological Overcoming of Nihilism). Heidegger responds, “in reality I know well how you feel about me, even when your work goes in other directions. Also, with an eye toward possible situations in which I might be asked to render a judgement about you, I suggest that you omit the dedication” (149). Two letters appear from Heidegger in 1936-1937. Löwith emigrates to Japan in 1936, as living in Europe grows calamitous.

Period 4: Reconciliation

Löwith would ride out the war in America, teaching at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut (1941-1949) and at the New School for Social Research (1949-1952). In 1952, he moves back to Germany to become an Ordinarius Professor at Heidelberg. From New York, Löwith sends a telegram in 1949 giving Heidegger best wishes on his sixtieth birthday. In Document 113 Löwith writes Heidegger from his new position at Heidelberg. After almost two decades of silence, interrupted only by the birthday telegram, Löwith discusses academic conferences and interpretations of Nietzsche. While 1966 is the year Heidegger claims that “only a god can save us now” in the famous Der Spiegel interview, a year later Heidegger and Löwith reconnect when Löwith is in Freiburg for a two-day colloquium on “Modern Atheism and Morality” (277). The return letter from Heidegger indicates that they did plan to visit each other. Unclear is how close the relationship is immediately afterwards. In the 1970s, nothing of substance is exchanged in letters. Heidegger writes Löwith in 1973 when he learns from Gadamer about his illness. During time of sickness, Heidegger writes, “the world contracts and withdraws into the simple. In our old age, we think of the end—but also of the beginning—of our paths” (155). This remark undoubtedly draws attention to the good moments they had discussing philosophy and gossiping about Husserl in the early 1920s. After Löwith’s death, we draw the correspondence to a close when Heidegger receives a photo of the departed from Frau Löwith to which Heidegger says shows him “in a state of calm and collected contemplation” (156).

What Correspondence 1919-1973 brings to English readers is indispensable. It uncovers a foregone age of thinking between two monumental figures. The major linchpin thematically is the year Heidegger becomes a figurehead for National Socialism. Before then, in the correspondence, Löwith is an astute student, and after, the relationship fragments. While Löwith would finally embrace a professional career in philosophy, after all his written anxiety about the pursuit, his insight into 1933 becomes a topic of an autobiography originally published as an essay for a competition at Harvard in 1939 “My Life in Germany Before and After 1933”. Indeed, many of Löwith’s later writings find Heidegger’s existentell analytic a reason for his political involvement with National Socialism. Undoubtedly due to Heidegger’s unique philosophical pedagogy in early 1920s, Löwith would make a laudable philosophical career searching for limits in a time when society removes traditional constraints. What these exchange of letters makes known with clarity is that Löwith, while habilitating under Heidegger, already finds the concepts of authenticity and facticity problematic for their lack of ground for being-with-others. The translators of this volume capture all the necessary components to make sense of Heidegger’s early thinking, while the editors carefully provide more than enough supplementary material to contextualize and situate the often-perplexing references. By providing English readers with Heidegger and Löwith’s erudite relationship, in their own written words, Correspondence 1919-1973 is essential reading for anyone interested in twentieth-century continental thought.

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