Michael L. Morgan (Ed.): The Oxford Handbook of Levinas

The Oxford Handbook of Levinas Book Cover The Oxford Handbook of Levinas
Michael L. Morgan (Ed.)
Oxford University Press
Hardback £125.00

Reviewed by: Tyler Correia (York University, Canada)

The Oxford Handbook of Levinas provides another key step on the way to entrenching the possibility of continued scholarship on the rich thought of philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, as well as providing an accessible entry-point into the ever-growing body of commentary on his works. Although at times the structure of the handbook makes gestures toward necessary contributions that are currently absent, both in outlining the field of Levinas’s influences or interlocutors, and in terms of key engagements with contemporary concerns, it has also amassed an exciting range of discussions from a diverse array of scholars. Contributions are well-researched, insightful, and make Levinas’s notoriously difficult thought comprehensible and intriguing. Further, certain departures with conventions of reference texts in the composition of contributions—he articles being of comparable length to those of scholarly journal’s—creates space not only for informative but critical treatments, as well as facilitating dialogue and challenge.

The editor, Michael L. Morgan is a prolific scholar in his own right in Jewish studies and on Levinas specifically. He has authored other introductory texts including Discovering Levinas (2007), The Cambridge Introduction to Emmanuel Levinas (2011), and recently published on his ethico-political thought and practice in Levinas’s Ethical Politics (2016).

There are certainly benefits to a handbook both of this magnitude and this breadth. The text is a nearly nine hundred page collection of thirty-eight entries, including contributions from notable Levinas scholars such as Robert Bernasconi, political philosopher Annabel Herzog, Levinas translator Bettina Bergo and editor of The Levinas Reader (2001) Seán Hand. Also certainly, a text of this kind provides a crucial opportunity for a multiplicity of scholars of varied backgrounds to contribute—scholars of history, religion, philosophy, ethics, politics, classics and art, who contextualize Levinas’ expansive works and biography through critical, interpersonal, dialogical, feminist, hermeneutic, theological frameworks. It is divided into six section with entries on a wide range of topics and themes by which one could enter into scholarship: covering Levinas’ life and influences, key philosophical themes, religious thought, ethics, and critical assessments of his work.

One of the potential drawbacks of a ‘handbook’—and consistent with all genres of reference texts more broadly—is the prefiguration of a conversation as one in which specialists communicate information to non-specialists, rather than opening the possibility of dialogue and interpretation. The pragmatic context of a ‘handbook’ still makes it unlikely that professional scholars will refer to this text as an entry-point into key controversies and as a site of engagement even over more specific collected volumes. A text like this, then, fills the space of a general reference and guide into the multiplicity of avenues that Levinas’ thought might open, and in its capacity as a general reference book it does well, even though it is competing with a number of more specific works on Levinas—whether reference volumes, essay collections or single-author monographs—that are also available for Anglophone scholars with an equally wide breadth; works on Levinas’ engagements with Martin Buber and other Jewish thinkers, with Asian thought and with ancient philosophy, on Levinas’ contributions to hermeneutics and theological exegesis, a swath of texts on Levinas’ ethics, on his interlocutions with poststructuralist and deconstructive thought, and texts that (re)situate and seek for his ethics to speak to their own and our socio-political contexts. In this way, a reference text of this sort helps best to locate oneself in relation to a veritable library of Levinas scholarship, and to identify those signposts, even if often as an index to an index.

Accordingly, the handbook attests to an emerging polarization of Levinas scholarship concerned with two key conceptual constellations in his ethical thought; on responsibility and vulnerability. The former has perhaps been considered the central aspect of Levinas’s work traced to the importance of the text most often called his magnum opus, Totality and Infinity (2011 [1961]). Not merely the outline of ‘responsibilities,’ Levinas’s conceptualization of responsibility grounds his fundamental claim that ethics is first philosophy. Not just in the content of responsibility, but in the provocation or the desire (later he will call this intrigue) to respond to and respond for the Other, Levinas finds the opening of ethics as an infinitely asymmetrical relation grounded in the unconditional command to be for the Other. In its poetic force and uncompromising gesture, one’s responsibility for the Other and on their behalf is perhaps the aspect of Levinas’s work that draws most scholars to him. It also becomes the rich ground from which he rejects conventional and general  practices of philosophy as projects of securing, organizing and reorganizing both ontology and metaphysics as the totalizing structure of ‘the Same.’ Beyond the sort of A=A identity, the structure of the Same is all that operates under the heading of ‘Being’ and at the disposal of the privileged Self. Thus, where philosophy in general and phenomenology in particular meet, Levinas finds a notion of the Self within a world that they might appropriate, incorporate, or otherwise violate as if it were exclusively ‘their own.

In contrast, Levinas finds an entirely unappropriable and thus infinitely transcendent disruption of the structure of the Same in the encounter with the Other, where the face to face meeting and the very face of the Other themselves, escapes all such appropriative attempts to fix them in place within the horizon of the world of the Same. Instead, the face of the Other seems to call to the Self with a commandment, the fundamental interdiction “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” further disrupting the absolute enjoyment (jouissance) that would otherwise be the prerogative and entitlement of the Self within its own world. In place of this enjoyment is the unsatisfiable desire to be with, and be for, the Other, the ground upon which an infinite and unconditional responsibility emerges. Then, all subsequent thought is a matter of bearing out the implications of this unconditional and infinite responsibility for the Other in its applications and tensions.

Incrementally, this picture, as outlined by readings of Totality and Infinity, has expanded as more scholarship has turned toward the ‘other pole’ of Levinas’s work as represented by Otherwise than Being (2016 [1981]). No longer willing to accept the ‘Self’ as originally in a position of comfort, chez soi, or at home with oneself, Levinas reconsiders the place of the encounter with the Other as both fundamental for thought and fundamental to the very existence of the subject before subjectivity can be claimed. In the exchange of the ‘word’—even the word that proclaims ‘I am I’—the Self is less so in proximity to an unchallenging world of their own, than they are in proximity to an Other. In this most basic sense, vulnerability is the fundamentally disruptive trauma of recognizing that the self comes after an encounter with the Other (see Bergo’s chapter as well as Staehler’s). Robert Bernasconi theorizes vulnerability in two particularly interesting ways. On the one hand, he notes that responsibility operates on the subject as disruptive enough to veritably tear the subject apart, what Levinas calls dénucléation. He explains, “Dénucléation is apparently a word used to refer to the coring out that doctors perform when, for example, they remove an eyeball from its socket while leaving everything intact. Levinas used this same word to describe breathing as a dénucléation of the subject’s substantiality, albeit in this context it also has an association with transcendence” (pp. 268-69).

Although Bernasconi will motivate a reading of Levinas that prefigures the need to defend both the subject and its subjectivity, he summarizes his exploration of the notion of vulnerability that is too traumatic to ignore: “I showed that he went out of his way to say that the exposure to outrage, wounding, and persecution was an exposure to wounding in enjoyment. This is what qualifies it as a “vulnerability of the me.” It touches me in my complacency. But vulnerability extends to the trauma of accusation suffered by a hostage to the point where that hostage identifies with others, including his or her persecutors” (p. 269). He continues that this fact of vulnerability, then, is compelling enough to enact an experience of substitution in the subject, as if the subject is provoked to experience themselves as Other.

Following these considerations, I would like to make note of two particularly useful aspects of the handbook, and to applaud Morgan and the contributors for them. Firstly, some of its richest content is the contribution to an Anglo-American readership on the scope of Levinas’ writings of which we currently do not have complete access. Pieces by Sarah Hammerschlag and Seán Hand rectify this condition with stimulating discussions of his wartime notebooks and his early poetry and novel fragments respectively. Still an English-speaking public does not have access in particular to either the Carnets de captivité, nor to his wartime literary works in Éros, littérature et philosophie, both of which were recently posthumously published in French.[i] With Hammerschlag’s survey of Levinas’s wartime notebooks, though, (spanning, in fact, from 1937-1950), and Hand’s reconceptualization of Levinas in light of the literary dimensions of these personal writings, they make stellar contributions to Anglophone Levinas scholarship by filling those gaps. For this alone, the handbook is already an invaluable resource for scholars of all sorts.

Secondly, the fourth section of the handbook, dedicated to applications of Levinas’ thought beyond his own sphere is truly effervescent. Special attention should be paid to this section in its eclectic reach, where the very notion of a foundation (the presumed objective constraining any ‘handbook’ faces) opens up into a display of generative and rich ideas. Exactly where the ‘cut and dry’ necessity of a text of this kind breaks down, we are treated to an array of interventions and interpretive supplements that carry Levinas scholarship forward in great leaps. Again, Seán Hand’s resituating of Levinas’ works in light of early literary engagements is a delight, as well as Kris Sealey’s far-reaching discussion of Levinas’s contributions to critical race theory (which I will discuss further below). Moreover, not a single contribution in this section fails to illuminate and extend the possibilities of scholarship—from more traditional surveys of the possibilities of attending to philosophical thought within other domains of academic inquiry, such as psychology (David M. Goodman and Eric R. Severson), law (William H. Smith) and Levinas’ comments on war (Joshua Shaw), as well as his contributions to pedagogy (Claire Elise Katz), film (Colin Davis), and his use of food metaphors (Benjamin Aldes Wurgraft).

Similarly, Kevin Houser’s attempt to position Levinas across the Continental-Analytical divide is admirable. This is similar to Morgan’s attempts himself to have Levinas’ work placed in proximity to Bernard Williams, Charles Taylor, Christine Korsgaard, Stanley Cavell and others. In this piece, Houser finds Levinas speak to concerns of linguistic objectification embedded in the notion of reason as metaphysics against which he poses what he calls the ‘absolute interlocutor.’ He extends this discussion by placing him in conversation with P.F. Strawson on freedom and resentment. Houser’s claim is that “de-facing reason,” and not “reason itself as the practice of de-facing generalization,” is what is at issue in Levinas’s work. However, perhaps Houser’s reading can come off as reductive given that he seems not to be willing to take his own critical stance as far as Levinas would. That ultimately an analytical account of reason is valorized through a complementary reading of Levinas and Strawson would also be a grounding condition for the possibility of such reconciliation between reason and the face of the Other. Yet, this is something Levinas seems consistently to reject, and why Houser must work so hard to reconcile the positions in the first place; the position of reason itself with the positioning of a refusal of reason (not merely an ‘unreasonable’ or even ‘pre-rational’ stance).

Houser’s final discussion regarding the generalizability of ‘reason’—as something that is specifically not my reason, but a reason (p. 604)—bears many possibilities to build from, perhaps also anticipating a challenge to Levinas by deconstructionist linguistics. One can also imagine such a reading figuring importantly into the prefiguration of Otherwise than Being, which seems to bear out the not-yet-subject specifically in light of the pre-existence of language in the demand to speak as ‘giving reasons’ (see Baring, Coe and of course Bernasconi’s chapters). It also helps to reconcile how, for example, in Oona Eisenstadt’s chapter, she finds Levinas capable of saying that three rabbis in the Talmud—Ben Zoma, Ben Nanus and Ben Pazi—can offer three different answers to the question, “which verse contains the whole of the Torah?” where each will make a different universal claim as a manner of expanding upon the last (p. 462). Nevertheless, it would seem that the reason-and-objectivity oriented language of analytical thought does not prepare one to bear out this tension between the particular and the general in a way that is non-totalizing; it answers the question of responsibility rather than responding to it. As such, it substitutes the sphere of representational description in place of the vocative dimensions of language as address. In the end, even capturing the dialogical subject in relation to the absolute interlocutor, one is still speaking about language as if no one else is there, a sort of monological ‘dialogue,’ lest the reason they give may be contradicted. The Other seems to have faded into the background.

I would like to address, though, a potential drawback of the handbook. What is at times a lack of much needed general study of Levinas’ engagements not merely with particular thinkers—both predecessors and contemporaries, if not friends but fields of scholarship—can often leave the reader without proper orientation. No doubt, the task of presenting an exhaustive groundwork specifically for Anglo-American scholarship is at best aspirational, and to his credit, Morgan himself identifies certain oversights in the handbook that should be noted. In terms of groundworks, he rightly mentions that the handbook would have benefited from contributions that survey Levinas’s engagements with foundational Jewish thinkers from Maimonides to Buber and Rosenzweig. There is also no specific account of Levinas’s debts to Russian literature. Finally, general overviews of both Levinas’s situation within French thought broadly from the 1930s to the 60s would have been extremely helpful to orient readers, even if they still find much needed context especially in Kevin Hart’s discussion of the relationship between he and Blanchot, and Edward Baring’s account of his encounters with Derrida. This is so as well for the absence of a general account of Levinas’s predecessors ‘at large,’ although one is able to orient themselves with texts on Husserl (Bettina Bergo), Heidegger (Michael Fagenblat), as well as Platonic or Aristotelian thought (Tanja Staehler), early modern thought (Inga Römer), and the German Idealists (Martin Shuster).

There are other oversights that a large reference text is especially beholden to ensure don’t go unnoticed that we might categorize as ‘essential additions’ to these groundworks. Increasingly important is a critical appraisal of eurocentrism and colonialism. It would also be imperative to outline Levinas’ reading of the Torah on ‘Cities of Refuge,’ something only tangentially touched upon by Annabel Herzog in her daring discussion of Levinas and Zionism.  One might argue that Levinas’s statements on the State of Israel in particular are critical for understanding some of the most recent explorations of a sort of Levinasian cosmopolitanism—especially where it intersects with Jacques Derrida’s (1999) explorations on the issue (and because it would seem Derrida’s encounter with the notion of cosmopolitanism is in large part due to their relationship). This is perhaps a particularly difficult oversight to reconcile because, as Morgan notes, readers of Levinas “…are drawn to him by the centrality of his insight that our responsibilities to others are infinite. To them, Levinas is the philosopher of the dispossessed, the displaced, the refugee, the impoverished, the suffering, and the hungry. He is the spokesperson for the weak and the oppressed; his philosophy, for all its difficulty and obscurity, in the end speaks to our most humane and caring sentiments” (pp. 4-5). Unfortunately, these concrete engagements are conspicuously absent in the handbook.

Kris Sealey has the sizeable task, then, of orienting readers looking for critical responses to Levinas relating to Eurocentrism, colonialism, and theories of race and racism. In that measure, Sealey does a spectacular job finding inroads between Levinas with both critical race and postcolonial scholars including Paul Gilroy, Orlando Patterson, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Michael Monahan. She also performs such an important task of bridging scholarship on critical race theory and Levinas studies by focusing her discussion on a review of literatures published in the 2012 volume of Levinas Studies contending with race, which included contributions from  Lisa Guenther, Oona Eisenstadt (also present in this handbook), John Drabinski and Simone Drichel.

Sealey’s contribution, though, may also give pause especially insofar as there remain some crucial tensions in her work with Levinas’s. Particularly, she draws her conclusions in a way that notions of race are ‘reified’ not on biological but communal and relational grounds that are perhaps difficult to square with Levinas’ statements on the ‘nudity of the face’—as much as they are in tension with Paul Gilroy’s (2000) rejection of both biological and cultural formations of ‘race.’ Sealey’s turn toward Michael Monahan seems to authorize the possibility that, “we can be against racism without being against race” (p. 653 n. 41). The statement from which this note arises is quite important, and perhaps should be quoted at length:

In an important sense, a creolizing subjectivity bears witness to her rootedness in the world, insofar as she is constituted by the ways of that world. But, as creolizing, she also bears witness to her transcending of that world, insofar as her antiracist praxis will invariably be an active contestation of the meaning of race. In other words, she is both obliged to her materiality and positioned to take a critical stance against that materiality as well. That critical stance calls for a vigilance that never ends, lest she succumbs to the inertia of a purity politics and the racist structures for which it codes. Might we not see, in this, echoes of what Levinas calls for in “The Philosophy of Hitlerism”? Is this not a recognition of incarnation (of one’s rootedness in, or entanglement with, history) without the essentialization and stagnation of biological determinism? (p. 644)

Here we might identify a key contention—the ground for what may be a generative controversy in the transposition of Levinas’ thought to an Anglo-American context. Levinas’ contention against the ideology of Hitlerism is not reducible to its relation exclusively to biologism, but speaks to a desire to escape the very notion of ‘incarnation’ itself (see Eaglestone, Fagenblat, and Giannopoulos’s chapters). Hitlerism itself is not exclusively a biologist ideology; rather it binds a notion of spirit with the materiality of the ‘body as much as it fetishizes that body as the material symbol of ‘racial purity,’ or the ‘spirit of a people,’ as an incarnation—the becoming-flesh of spirit. It’s not clear if any notion of identity, not even one proposed to be hybridized, socially and historically determined, or relational escapes this logic. One might point out how Sealey’s creolizing subject, recognizing their rootedness and transcendence, isn’t necessarily difficult, as both are already coded as positive identifiers in an unambiguous metaphysical structure, even if they contradict one another, and occlude the disruptive primacy of the Other. Being rooted—rather than being imprisoned or entangled—and transcendence—above, beyond, outside of the world—both already speak to their own ideals. But one finds in Levinas’ work instead both a potentially failed desire to escape (On Escape [2003/1982]being an aptly titled expression of this unabiding arrest in his early works), and an uneasy navigation of the rooted interior of identity.

We find further that the not merely biological implications of Hitlerist ideology entails also that—as Annabel Herzog notes of Levinas’ critical stance against the State of Israel—the entrenchment of the ‘Self’ within the soil (as in the Nazi slogan, ‘blood and soil’), and the attachment to land or territory remains also a critical site upon which Levinas rejects this manner of reification. That is, rather than being—or under the pretense that one ‘recognizes themselves to be’—rooted in their world, Levinas finds instead in political practices of justice a certain exilehood on Earth represented in the call of the Other and the asymmetrical responsibility that follows. This grounds the particularity of his claims on Judaism and often against the State of Israel (see below), even when he concedes that an otherwise uncompromising ethic needs account for survival. Thus, there remains a tension between justice and survival that is not comfortably set aside in order to commend one’s being ‘rooted in their transcendence,’ but always uneasily attested to as the disruptive and traumatic condition upon which a foundational ethics preceding ontology, an ‘ethics without ground’ which refuses to appeal to the world and the comfort of being rooted in it is asserted.

We might fashion two contrapuntal examples of scholarship that refuse these dynamics in the extremely careful readings offered by Annabel Herzog on Levinas’s relation to Zionism and Cynthia Coe’s feminist analysis of his works. Herzog has quite admirably explored a controversy well beyond even the scope of the academy by contending squarely with Levinas’s writings on Zionism in relation to his conceptions of ethics and politics. Even in the form of her analysis we can see a principled refusal to allow her representation of him to be anything other than embroiled in a complex set of concerns, where she presents first his defense, and then his criticism of the State of Israel. Of the former, it would seem that Levinas finds in the State of Israel the every-present possibility—a particularist possibility for Judaism—for the concrete actualization of his ethical ideal as justice. Such a state could make an ethic of dialogical solidarity, refusal of violence, and refuge for the Other practically real. It is also one that merges these ideals with the enduring need for survival following the Holocaust. Perhaps this rendering bears similarities to Sealey’s account of a creolizing subject.

On the other hand, though, the State of Israel is also always in a position to reject or neglect these ideals; where notions of space and place are re-instituted in the territory, in the very soil, or where the Other is banished from that territory. This is much like Sealey’s comment that valorizations of the logic of ‘race’ demands constant vigilance lest one find themselves once again under the inertia, and in the realm of a politics of purity. Herzog cites a telling instance in which Levinas refused to leave the tour bus while attending a conference on Martin Buber after hearing that Bedouin communities in Be’er-Sheva were required to burn their tents to be eligible to receive stone houses from the government (p. 478).[ii] She follows this tension up until the events of the First Lebanon War, and the Sabra and Shatila massacres in 1982 when his statements on the matter of Israel become dispersed and infrequent, even if he does not waver in his defense by the time of his 1986 interview with Francois Poirié. It would seem, in this case, that the vigilance Sealey advises, and the enduring possibility of ‘purity politics’ reemerging finds a real example in Levinas’s subsequent silence. But leaving this possibility open seems already to speak to the need to refuse attenuation of a Levinasian ethic in the first place both in practice, and in the theoretical refusal of ‘rootedness’ or ‘incarnation.’

Cynthia Coe’s reading of Levinas is equally nuanced in its ability to balance a careful analysis of his works with an unwavering commitment to feminist scholarship. This is so even where she marks a delineation between—and within—texts of his that represent heterocentric and masculinist presumptions in his philosophy, and where concepts and arguments are coded in gendered language, while also being potentially capable of disrupting those structures. Particularly early Levinas (as Simone de Beauvoir attests regarding Time and the Other) seems to find ground for a narrative framework where a masculine protagonist is compelled to depart from totality. He does so by situating him in the dichotomy of a conception of the feminine as inessential and inabsolute alterity to a totalizing and interiorized masculine counterpart.

However, in this, and especially in her reading of Otherwise than Being, there remains a seed from which the disruption of this framework is enacted or can be enacted. Firstly, the reversal of values in Levinas’s work—rejecting totality in favour of a more ambiguous infinity, and subsequently masculinity for the feminine—begins this process, if in a way that remains deeply flawed. Secondly, Levinas’s subject is increasingly characterized, even by the time of Totality and Infinity, by events and experiences that are wildly outside of their control, not least of which is the face to face encounter with the Other. Thus, the notion of a masculine subjectivity ‘always in control’ is undone by their vulnerability to the Other. Finally, in Otherwise than Being, Levinas begins with the incomplete subject, one who is subjected to a responsibility primordial to themselves, before themselves as a traumatic disruption Coe also terms vulnerability. As well, she finds in Levinas (without romanticizing) the possibility that a mother might pass away in childbirth to be an expression of vulnerability which demands one reckons with a responsibility that interrupts their self-possession. This, by the way, is rendered also in Giannopolous’s discussion of Levinas and transcendence in terms of ‘paternity’; where one—coded as the ‘father’ in this case—must reckon with the birth of their child as “a way of being other while being oneself” (p. 230).[iii]

Potential tensions one might identify in one or another contribution are perhaps another way of branching some key difficulties the handbook faces on a structural level with its own self-contextualization. Morgan identifies the handbook as being a resource specifically for Anglo-American scholarship on Levinas—perhaps because in English-speaking contexts globally, or in the European context, Anglophone philosophy is already in proximity to Francophone and multi-lingual continental thought to ignore it. However, the reductive potential of such a translation—not merely into an English idiom, but into an Anglo-American one—seems to allow the possibility that conclusions like Housers’s which valorize rather than critique a notion of reason, and Sealey’s which affirms rather than contending with the logical structures of race, find little response in other places in the handbook. Morgan should be lauded for gathering together a diverse array of scholars from many backgrounds, even when he already notes that most are located in North America. It is also, perhaps, not feasible to engage a global scope of scholarship for a project like this. However, the implications of a foundational reference-work bearing such absences are reflected in the non-universal dialogue that manifests itself within its pages.

Even with these problems in view, there is no doubt that The Oxford Handbook of Levinas makes an important contribution to scholarship in the diversity and richness of its philosophical engagements, and in the explorations and controversies attested to. If it is any indication, studies of the profound works of Emmanuel Levinas are likely to continue, and perhaps even to expand in new and unforeseen ways. If so, this handbook will stand as a testament and signpost for all those looking to enter the field.


Derrida, Jacques. 1999. Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas. Translated by Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.

Gilroy, Paul. 2000. Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Levinas, Emmanuel. 2003. On Escape. Translated by Bettina Bergo. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

———. 2009. Carnets de captivité suivi de Écrits sur la captivité et Notes philosophiques diverses. Edited by Rodolphe Calin and Catherine Chalier. Paris: Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle, IMEC Éditeur.

———. 2011. Parole et silence, Et autres conferences inédites. Edited by Rodolphe Calin et Catherine Chalier. Paris: Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle, IMEC Éditeur.

———. 2011 [1961]. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

———. 2013. Éros, littérature et philosophie: Essais romanesques et poétiques, notes philosophiques sur le thème d’éros, Edited by Jean-Luc Nancy and Danielle Cohen-Levinas. Paris: Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle, IMEC Éditeur.

———. 2016 [1981]. Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

Malka, Salomon. 2006. Emmanuel Levinas: His Life and Legacy. Translated by Michael Kigel and Sonia M. Embree. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

Morgan, Michael L. 2007. Discovering Levinas (2007). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 2011. The Cambridge Introduction to Emmanuel Levinas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 2016. Levinas’s Ethical Politics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press

Morgan, Michael L. ed. 2019. Oxford Handbook of Levinas. Oxford University Press.

[i] Emmanuel Levinas, 2009, Carnets de captivité suivi de Écrits sur la captivité et Notes philosophiques diverses, ed. Rodolphe Calin and Catherine Chalier, (Paris: Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle, IMEC Éditeur). Emmanuel Levinas, 2013, Éros, littérature et philosophie: Essais romanesques et poétiques, notes philosophiques sur le thème d’éros, ed. Jean-Luc Nancy and Danielle Cohen-Levinas, (Paris: Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle, IMEC Éditeur). These two texts were issued as part of a (currently) three-part collection by publishing house, Éditions Grasset, of the complete works of Levinas. The other volume gathers early lectures given at the invitation of jean Wahl to the Collège Philosophique. See: Emmanuel Levinas, 2011, Parole et silence, Et autres conferences inédites, ed. Rodolphe Calin et Catherine Chalier, (Paris: Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle, IMEC Éditeur).

[ii] This anecdote was quoted from: Salomon Malka, 2006, Emmanuel Levinas: His Life and Legacy, trans. Michael Kigel and Sonia M. Embree, (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press): p. 217.

[iii] The passage is a quotation from: Emmanuel Levinas, 1969, Totality and Infinity, trans. Alphonso Lingis, (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press): p. 282.

Lorenzo C. Simpson: Hermeneutics as Critique, Columbia University Press, 2021

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D.J. Hobbs: Towards a Phenomenology of Values: Investigations of Worth, Routledge, 2021

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Jean Cavaillès: On Logic and the Theory of Science, Urbanomic/Sequence Press, 2021

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Jean Cavaillès. Introductory notice by Georges Canguilhem and Charles Ehresmann. Introduction by Knox Peden. Translated by Translated by Knox Peden and Robin Mackay
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Paperback $18.95

Anja Jauernig: The World According to Kant, Oxford University Press, 2021

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François Jaran: La huella del pasado: Hacia una ontología de la realidad histórica

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Reviewed by: César Gómez Algarra (Université Laval)

L’histoire jette ses bouteilles vides par la fenêtre.

Chris Marker, Sans soleil


Après un travail consacré au problème de la phénoménologie de l’histoire chez Husserl et Heidegger[1], où, malgré tout ce qui séparent ces deux phénoménologues, un rapprochement essentiel était mené à bien, François Jaran se tourne maintenant vers une recherche de nature explicitement ontologique. Cette enquête vient compléter et développer, pour ainsi dire, son travail précédent pour se pencher en profondeur sur le problème de la réalité historique. En quel sens pouvons-nous ou devons-nous parler de « réalité historique » ? Face aux thèses réductionnistes que l’auteur nomme « matérialistes » ou « subjectivistes », celles qui ne considèrent le monde que comme un agrégat de choses physiques auxquelles on ajouterait le caractère culturel, politique ou historique, il s’agit de défendre une conception plus riche de la réalité. Pour cela, il faut montrer que la « réalité » se donne déjà chargée de plusieurs sens, de plusieurs caractères, qu’on ne peut lui soustraire sans la réduire fatalement. La « réalité » n’est donc jamais neutre, elle se donne « déjà teintée » par ces caractères, selon la belle expression que nous trouvons dans l’introduction, et c’est celui d’être historique qui sera analysé en détail dans cette œuvre (21).

Plus concrètement, l’auteur tente d’appréhender le mode d’être d’un étant en tant qu’étant historique. Pour ce faire, la grande majorité du travail conceptuel se fonde sur le projet philosophique de Heidegger, depuis les cours de jeunesse jusqu’à Être et temps. Mais à ce noyau argumentatif du livre précèdent deux chapitres consacrés au néokantisme et à Dilthey, dont le but est de clarifier les bases philosophiques du débat dont surgit l’herméneutique de la facticité et les interrogations du jeune Heidegger. Finalement, et c’est un ajout remarquable, les derniers chapitres sont consacrés à la effectuation (re-enactment) chez Collingwood et à la trace chez Ricœur. Le recours à ces deux auteurs permet de compléter l’analyse en montrant une proximité et familiarité avec le travail de l’historien qui nuance et dépasse largement les positions heideggériennes, trop radicales ou limitées (23). S’il fallait regretter l’absence d’un nom fondamental dans ces investigations, ce serait celui de Gadamer. Cependant, bien qu’aucun chapitre ne lui soit entièrement consacré, ses apports apparaissent à plusieurs moments de l’argumentation, là où, justement, son travail herméneutique s’avère d’une grande clarté et utilité.


Les deux premiers chapitres sont donc consacrés au problème de la fondation (fundamentación) des sciences humaines ou de l’esprit, notamment au débat entamé par Dilthey, Rickert et Windelband à la fin du XIXème siècle et au début du XXème, débat dont l’influence sur le jeune Heidegger est maintenant bien connue. La question, relevant en principe d’une problématique épistémologique et gnoséologique dans le contexte complexe du positivisme et de l’avancée des sciences de la nature, permet à l’auteur, de façon par moments surprenante, d’en tirer des conséquences d’ordre métaphysique. Dès ce premier chapitre, nous trouvons important de souligner une qualité remarquable de l’ouvrage : la capacité à dégager le contenu essentiel de façon très condensée, résumant en quelques pages les problèmes plus prégnants de ces grandes œuvres et des polémiques qui lui sont attachées, tout en redirigeant la question vers l’enjeu principal.

Il s’agit donc de montrer qu’à partir des distinctions développées par Dilthey entre esprit et nature et entre expliquer et comprendre pour préserver la spécificité du savoir propre aux sciences humaines, les réponses des néokantiens ont nourri une problématique sur les différentes façons dont nous appréhendons la réalité. Du refus de Windelband à l’acceptation de ce dualisme ontologique considéré dominant dans la tradition occidentale jusqu’à Hegel, l’auteur en vient à décrire la division logico-formelle par laquelle universel et particulier sont différenciés. Là où les sciences de la nature peuvent émettre des lois générales, les autres sciences devront rendre compte du singulier et irrépétible. C’est donc le cas, entre autres, de la science historique. Puis, avec plus de détails, F. Jaran consacre plusieurs pages à rendre explicite la contribution de Rickert, qui approfondit les concepts antérieurs en insistant sur la différence entre la tendance généralisatrice et la tendance individualisatrice (30). Ainsi, nous avons une seule réalité effective, conçue de double façon : d’une part, à travers la généralisation qui fait de la réalité nature, et d’autre part, de la particularisation qui fait histoire. Ce qui nous intéresse spécialement ici, c’est de voir comment, dans le cadre de ce débat sur la fondation des sciences, l’auteur dégage des thèses sur le mode d’être de la réalité. Malgré ce monisme ontologique constatable chez Rickert, l’essentiel est surtout que l’être humain appréhende cette réalité à travers ses propres moyens : dans cette ordination de la réalité, le néokantien considère les généralités des abstractions, qui seraient dépassées dans le rang hiérarchique par l’objet individuel auquel nous faisons face. Bien que, en termes kantiens, l’individualité « en soi » de l’objet ne soit pas atteignable, les analyses montrent que, malgré tout, l’appréhension de la réalité par le sujet fonctionne grâce à un type particulier d’individualisation. D’où la conséquence suivante, importante pour la suite du livre : la réalité que l’être humain appréhende est plutôt individuelle avant d’être générale et légiférée comme nature (37). Cependant, comme le relève la dernière section du chapitre, à partir des apports de Kroner, le monisme ontologique des néokantiens ne va pas sans difficultés. En effet, considérer la réalité à partir d’une seule dimension implique aussi de dérober la signification individuelle propre aux objets ou événements historiques : un tableau ne serait qu’un amas de matériaux sans aucun sens au-delà d’ajouts postérieurs. Ceci ne correspond certainement pas à sa réalité la plus propre et significative. Malgré tout, et c’est le thème du deuxième chapitre, il ne va pas de soi que l’essai diltheyéen de sauver la spécificité de l’histoire soit réductible, comme il l’était pour les néokantiens, à un dualisme esprit-nature des plus orthodoxes.

En effet, Dilthey a développé plutôt un monisme ontologique de l’expérience vécue (Erlebnis, vivencia). Contre un appauvrissement de l’expérience, il s’agit de redonner une force et une légitimité à celle-ci dans les sciences humaines, passant de la caractérisation du sujet comme rationnel et froid à sa compréhension en tant qu’être historique dans son être propre. Notons aussi que par le biais de cette caractérisation s’éclaire une autre conception de l’être humain, comme étant capable de radicaliser ses tendances naturelles de compréhension vers tout ce qui est historique, afin d’élargir et d’appréhender son champ de connaissance.

L’analyse de la notion d’expérience vécue menée à bien par l’auteur permet de dégager l’originalité de Dilthey dans le contexte philosophique de son époque. Avant toute abstraction, toute différenciation comme celle d’objet physique et de représentation psychique, nous avons la donation de quelque chose de plus originaire : l’Erlebnis dans toute sa puissance. L’expérience vécue se donne immédiatement, avec des valeurs, des sentiments, etc. Et dans le domaine des sciences humaines, dont font partie l’histoire et ce qui est historique, ce sera à partir des expériences vécues que nous, êtres historiques, pourrons avoir accès aux intériorités passées, à leurs mondes vécus et à leur caractère spirituel, à partir des expressions humaines, de ses œuvres et de leur culture. Leur sens et leur signification ne sont surtout pas réductibles à leur limitation dans d’autres sciences naturelles. L’intérêt de ce chapitre est alors de mettre en avant une dimension originaire de l’expérience vécue qui permette de contrer la compréhension matérialiste plus vulgaire, et ce, à travers d’une lecture des thèses de Dilthey qui se veut expressément métaphysique.

Dans les dernières sections, ce point de vue est développé davantage avec la notion d’Innewerden (saisie, se rendre compte de ; percatación). Avant toute différenciation ou abstraction, nous avons donc l’expérience vécue, à laquelle nous avons un accès immédiat : elle se donne avant toute réflexion, de façon préthéorique, sans qu’on puisse parler de distinction entre le « capter » et le « capté ». Autrement dit, il n’y a pas encore de relation entre sujet-objet, pas de rapport de l’ordre de la connaissance pivotant autour de la perception. La prétention de l’auteur, en mobilisant la notion de l’Innewerden, complétée par des références à Heidegger et à Gadamer, qui ont relié le concept au νοεῖν grec en tant que « perception préréflexive », est d’abandonner le cadre épistémologique et la réduction matérialiste de toute réalité au simplement physique. La compréhension de l’Innewerden fait signe vers un des points clés de l’ouvrage et annonce les chapitres suivants sur le jeune Heidegger. En interprétant de façon ontologiquement forte la conceptualisation diltheyéenne, F. Jaran souligne qu’avec l’expérience vécue nous retrouvons une revalorisation de ce qui est significatif, ce qui a un sens, et donc surtout un sens historique, face aux démarches abstractives propres aux sciences de la nature. Dans la mesure où l’expérience vécue est première, plus originaire et précède les démarches épistémologiques postérieures, et contre le privilège moderne de la perception sensible, nous pouvons nous accorder avec Dilthey pour suivre ce fil comme accès à une réalité plus pleine, où l’être humain se tient avant toute distinction ( 62-63).

Ces deux premiers chapitres offrent une pertinente et très claire vue d’ensemble sur la façon dont le problème et ses enjeux étaient posés et seront reçus par Heidegger, et cela, dès ses premiers cours. C’est à partir de cette question que nous passons maintenant à la deuxième partie du livre, donc aux trois chapitres consacrés au projet heideggérien dans ses diverses ramifications.

L’auteur ouvre cette partie en expliquant l’importance de l’histoire et l’historicité chez Heidegger. Particulièrement intéressante dans ce contexte est la citation d’une lettre à Bultmann, où il est question de l’élargissement de la région du domaine d’objets nommé « histoire ». Cet élargissement, dans le cadre du projet ontologique du livre, ne doit pas être compris seulement comme relevant du caractère éminemment historique du Dasein, mais aussi et surtout comme une élaboration versant sur le mode d’être des étants historiques. Les tentatives de dépassement de l’appréhension de la réalité comme Vorhandenheit fonctionnent alors comme fil conducteur, et c’est ce point qui représente la nouveauté heideggérienne ici reprise. Cependant, en suivant ce fil conducteur, l’auteur va préciser aussi l’évolution du questionnement de Heidegger, remarquant le processus génétique qui va de la thématisation de la vie facticielle à l’ontologie fondamentale de 1927.

Pour ce faire, le troisième chapitre (« Penser l’histoire à partir de l’expérience facticielle de la vie ») est consacré plus concrètement à l’analyse des cours de jeunesse, notamment Phénoménologie de la vie religieuse et Phénoménologie de l’intuition et de l’expression. Il s’agit donc de mettre en avant les acquis plus féconds de Dilthey sur l’expérience vécue et sur la vie pour capter le mouvement de celle-ci dans son inquiétude, et donc dans ce qu’elle m’est propre, se séparant davantage des fixations épistémologiques du néokantisme. À partir de cette orientation, l’histoire n’est plus à considérer comme un « objet » du savoir, auquel on applique des concepts généraux, mais doit être saisie dans la facticité elle-même. Mais pour autant, ce qu’est à proprement parler l’historique, sans se borner tout simplement à le voir comme ce qui « a lieu dans le temps », doit être mieux délimité. Ceci permet à Heidegger de critiquer Rickert dans sa quête d’une historicité plus « vivante » et plus originaire, qui nous détermine et affecte de fond en comble. Avant toute étude scientifique et théorique, notre expérience vitale de l’histoire est déjà là (77).

Cependant, si l’histoire surgit au sein de la vie facticielle elle-même, nous devons comprendre la structure de cette détermination, comprendre aussi comment elle se donne dans le Dasein. L’auteur se prête à ce travail en dégageant la pluralité des modes dans lesquels, selon Heidegger, l’histoire se manifeste dans la vie facticielle, élaborant ainsi une hiérarchie fondamentale. Certes, l’histoire peut être comprise comme un savoir que nous étudions en lisant des textes, documents, etc. Elle peut aussi et surtout être conçue comme la totalité de ce qui est passé ou advenu, voir comme une partie significative de cette totalité. Mais ces manifestations ne sont pas aussi originaires, notamment la dernière, puisque, bien que surgissant d’une pensée humaine, elles fonctionnent plutôt comme une idée spéculative et régulatrice, qui ne concerne pas de façon essentielle notre présent. Pour Heidegger, les modes authentiques de l’histoire nous concernent plus directement, nous « dévorent » pour ainsi dire : c’est plutôt l’histoire comme tradition, comme magistrae vita ou, tout simplement, comme la mienne propre. C’est ainsi que nous nous rapportons à l’histoire, que nous apprenons d’elle. Et c’est là un point essentiel pour son projet ontologique que l’auteur souligne dans ce chapitre : ces rapports à l’histoire sont caractérisés de plus authentiques, dans la mesure où celle-ci se donne ainsi comme existant facticiellement, comme une réalité historique (85-86). Cependant, les réflexions heideggériennes sur le problème ne s’arrêtent pas ici, dans le terrain de la vie facticielle, et vont acquérir un caractère plus ontologique à partir de la reprise du débat Dilthey-Yorck. C’est le thème du quatrième chapitre : « Placer Dilthey sur le terrain de l’ontologie ».

Dans les années 1924-25, s’acheminant vers la question de l’être qui sera décisive par la suite, l’interrogation sur l’histoire et l’historicité se concrétise en partant de façon explicite du traitement d’un étant qui est caractérisé par l’histoire : le Dasein en tant qu’être que nous sommes. Heidegger reprend ainsi, notamment dans les conférences sir Le concept de temps, la philosophie de Dilthey et les critiques du comte Yorck pour modifier le traitement de la vie, passant ainsi à une considération sur les structures ontologiques de l’existence humaine, qui est d’emblée et essentiellement historique. Par ce biais, il va s’éloigner davantage des limites de l’approche propre à la théorie de la connaissance. L’enquête historique ne peut pas partir du privilège de la perception, omniprésent dans la philosophie moderne et dans les sciences de la nature, mais de ce qui est vécu. Réélaboré par Heidegger, le travail sur la vie que Dilthey avait mené doit être maintenant progressivement ontologisé. Il s’agit donc d’une opération de déplacement qui ramène la vie et la réalité historique à sa constitution ontologique, à ses modes de donation. Nous devons, comme le prône Heidegger dans ces textes, nous questionner sur l’être et non sur l’étant, sur l’historicité et non tout simplement sur ce qui est historique. S’offre ainsi une méthode d’interrogation qui n’est pas réductible au traitement de ce qui est vorhanden : c’est seulement ainsi que l’histoire pourra être traitée de façon effective.

Cependant, cette nouvelle approche implique surtout de comprendre l’historicité au sein du Dasein lui-même, donc de se demander en quoi celui-ci est un être essentiellement historique. Ce que veut souligner l’auteur dans ces pages est comment, en comprenant la façon dont tout rapport du Dasein à l’étant est déjà marqué par l’histoire, nous pouvons accéder, à travers cette marque du passé, à une nouvelle prégnance de la réalité historique. En effet, le philosophe fribourgeois s’efforce d’écarter l’idée traditionnelle selon laquelle le passé serait un présent sans actualité, sans être. Contre cette idée bien inscrite dans notre conceptualité depuis Augustin, Heidegger rétorque que le passé se donne sous une forme particulière : celle du Gewesen-sein, de l’être-été (ser-sido). C’est ce statut d’être qu’a le passé, et non celui de présent prétérit, qu’il faut garder à l’esprit pour une recherche sur l’ontologie historique. Ainsi, en 1924 un jalon fondamental était déjà placé, qui sera complété dans Être et temps afin de mieux comprendre quel rapport entretient le présent avec l’historicité.

Le chapitre se clôt par une analyse des conférences de Kassel et de sa reprise dans le cours du semestre d’été 1925, les Prolégomènes pour une histoire du concept de temps. Le recours au premier texte sert à montrer comment Heidegger établit la distinction, devenue désormais « canonique », entre l’histoire comme savoir ou science historique (Historie) et l’histoire comme événement (Geschichte), et un événement qui nous concerne au premier plan. Dans le second texte, il est plus facile d’apprécier le chemin vers une ontologie. En laissant derrière-lui les approches de la vie facticielle, qui ne voulaient pas trancher entre le domaine de la nature et celui de l’histoire, Heidegger souligne néanmoins la possibilité d’approcher la réalité historique vraie, en procédant par une démarche phénoménologique qui capte sa constitution originaire. Mais cela ne sera possible que si l’ontologie grecque, qui relie la présence constante, la oὐσία, à l’être, est rompue par une nouvelle ontologie capable de rendre compte de l’histoire au-delà de cette réduction. Le chemin vers Être et temps est maintenant dégagé, où F. Jaran voit la solution heideggérienne au problème de l’ontologie de l’historique.

Le cinquième chapitre, « L’histoire dans le cadre de l’ontologie fondamentale », se penche alors sur l’opus magnum de 1927. En se concentrant particulièrement sur les paragraphes 72 à 77 de la seconde partie, l’auteur cherche à mettre en lumière le sens et la portée de l’historicité originaire du Dasein dans ce qui l’intéresse davantage : son rapport à l’étant. Pour abandonner radicalement l’idée du présent comme réalité et les thèses subjectivistes de l’histoire il faut tirer toutes les conséquences de la structure temporelle du Dasein, son rapport à l’historicité. En effet, celui-ci n’est pas de prime abord anhistorique pour, par après, se voir octroyer ces qualités : il est de façon essentielle marqué par le temps, et donc le temps arrive (geschehen) en lui, de la naissance à la mort. Dans le questionnement ontologique du livre, il nous faut cependant comprendre aussi comment cette historicité se rapporte à ce qui n’est pas le Dasein.

L’auteur consacre alors une partie du chapitre à commenter l’analyse de l’antiquité, en tant qu’étant historique par excellence, telle qu’elle se déploie dans Être et temps. Cette première approche confirme d’abord l’idée qu’à travers un étant ancien nous avons accès à un monde passé, un monde qui n’existe plus mais qui appartenait à un Dasein, et qui maintenant s’ouvre à nous à partir de cet étant lui-même. Ce monde est caractérisé comme welt-geschichtlich, comme ce qui est mondain-historique (mondo-historial dans la traduction d’E. Martineau). Mais cette façon de considérer le problème n’est pas suffisante : le fil de l’antiquité ici suivi permet de découvrir la relation des étants intramondains comme étants historiques avec un monde aussi bien historique. Malgré tout, il nous reste à comprendre en quel sens plus précisément le monde a lieu comme historique et quelles conséquences nous pouvons tirer par rapport à l’étant historique tel quel.

Ici, la difficulté que l’auteur souligne conséquemment tient à ce que Heidegger lui-même a affirmé dans Être et temps, à savoir, qu’une recherche ontologique de ce qui est « mondain-historique » suppose d’aller au-delà de la recherche qui est la sienne. F. Jaran cherche alors à expliquer ce point et à faire comprendre qu’on ne peut malgré tout ni soutenir que l’histoire est une région ontologique parmi d’autres ni que le caractère historique est simplement un mode d’être à ajouter à la liste que forment la Vorhandenheit, la Zuhandenheit et les autres. Au contraire, l’historicité, pour ainsi dire, se décline historiquement et est à retrouver dans plusieurs modes d’étants, soit subsistants, utiles, existants, etc. (137). Et c’est dans le cours de 1927 sur Les problèmes fondamentaux de la phénoménologie que Heidegger lui-même jette une nouvelle lumière sur la question. Une des particularités de l’étant historique est son caractère nécessairement intramondain : contrairement à l’étant naturel, qui surgit de et à partir de lui-même, l’étant historique est produit (comme le seraient, dans l’exemple de l’ouvrage, les produits de la culture, etc.), et produit de façon nécessaire par un Dasein. L’étant historique comme intramondain relevant donc de l’intervention d’un Dasein comme causalité ontique, la question ne peut pas être complètement résolue dans une recherche sur les structures ontologiques de l’étant, et donc sur les conditions de possibilité de compréhension de l’être telles que constituent le projet de l’ontologie fondamentale.

Pour conclure ce chapitre et bien exposer les acquis et les voies malgré tout ouvertes de la pensée heideggérienne, l’auteur se tourne vers les remarques « métontologiques » des textes postérieurs à 1927. Compte tenu que la projection transcendantale de l’historicité originaire du Dasein sur l’étant est insuffisante pour expliquer l’étant dans son caractère historique et son appartenance au monde, ce pas est cohérent et semble fécond. De ce point de vue, le retournement vers l’étant comme point de départ permet de penser la manifestation de l’étant comme d’emblée historique. Malheureusement, Heidegger ne traite pas en détail ce thème, se bornant à quelques remarques. Ceux-ci s’avancent vers la possibilité d’une ontologie de l’histoire qui s’appuierait sur le problème du mondain-historique, et a fortiori si elle ne veut pas s’épuiser dans la projection transcendantale du Dasein et de sa compréhension de l’être. En effet, comme le relèvent les dernières pages du chapitre, le caractère mondain-historique ne correspond pas, tout simplement, à un mode d’être qui déterminerait que l’étant se manifeste sous telle ou telle forme. Bien  au contraire, l’étant historique se donne dans le monde lui-même, et dans sa particulière référence aussi bien au monde passé du Dasein qu’au problème du monde en tant que tel. Ayant dégagé ce point fondamental pour son projet, F. Jaran peut maintenant compléter sa recherche ontologique en s’appuyant, dans une troisième section, sur des auteurs doués d’une sensibilité différente à l’histoire.

Le sixième chapitre est donc consacré à R. Collingwood, et bien que sautant à l’analyse d’un philosophe et historien anglais, l’auteur souligne que la source des influences demeure la même : Dilthey. Par rapport aux avancées antérieures, Collingwood met en avant la conception de la ré-effectuation (re-enactment) comme mode de reconstitution historique, que F. Jaran va expliciter en comparaison avec la répétition heideggérienne d’Être et temps. Il s’agit alors de bien appréhender comment l’historien est capable de redonner une certaine effectivité aux événements passés, et quel sens épistémologique précis cela possède dans sa recherche.

À partir de ces interrogations, la question est de voir comment Collingwood envisage la possibilité de connaître l’histoire, en admettant que c’est un objet qui dépasse certainement ce qui est « réel », et qu’elle est douée d’un statut d’idéalité et d’inactualité qui doit se révèler malgré tout comme accessible par le travail de l’historien. Ce qui intéresse particulièrement l’auteur est de voir précisément comment cette réactualisation de l’effectivité de l’histoire se déploie, notamment dans une perspective ontologique : c’est par les étants ou artefacts historiques que nous pouvons comprendre les propos humains qui les sous-tendent, les nécessités auxquelles il répondait.

Plus concrètement, Collingwood propose une division entre aspect externe et interne de l’étant historique, donc entre sa dimension physique et psychique, et octroie la primauté absolue de l’interprétation à ce qui est interne en tant que lieu des intérêts humains. L’activité critique de la ré-effectuation consiste alors à repenser dans l’esprit de l’historien ce que les personnages historiques ont dû penser, redonnant une effectivité au passé qui serait justifiée par la capacité humaine de penser la même chose. C’est à ce niveau que tient une des difficultés majeures de la ré-effectuation : la justification de cette mêmeté du pensé doit dépasser l’irrépétable, comme les perceptions et les sentiments, mais elle doit atteindre un sens intemporel de l’événement qui aurait acquis réalité dans le monde.

Cette dimension de la ré-effectuation pose problème ; elle risque de constituer une sorte de phantasme de résurrection absolue du passé dans le présent, apparence qui se radicalise davantage par la position de Collingwood sur la justesse et l’adéquation totale de ce qui est ré-effectué. Contrairement à l’herméneutique, dans laquelle F. Jaran n’a cessé de puiser les ressources de son argumentation, les thèses du philosophe anglais mènent à une compréhension du passé qui pourrait être caractérisée par une certaine naïveté : nous, comme chercheurs, nous recréons dans notre esprit ce qui s’est effectivement passé, tel quel. Face à cela, les travaux de Heidegger, mais aussi et surtout de Ricœur et de Gadamer nous ont montré à quel point la distance historique est un abîme infranchissable qui permet justement une compréhension autre des événements, tout en écartant les soupçons de psychologisme, dont sa présence chez Collingwood est difficilement contestable.

Et c’est donc sur Ricœur que porte le dernier chapitre, où la réponse précise au problème global de l’ouvrage est atteinte. Il s’agit pour l’auteur de voir en quoi la thématisation de la trace, présente dans le troisième volume de Temps et récit, constitue justement ce qu’une ontologie de la réalité historique cherche depuis le début de l’ouvrage. Pourquoi ? Principalement car la visée de Ricœur correspond à ce qui était recherché, notamment parce que la trace relève d’une dimension ontique, elle est bel et bien un « reste visible » qui fait partie de ce qui est arrivé, donc de l’événement historique.

En outre, la trace dépasse les autres étants capables de nous révéler quelque chose du passé, puisque dans sa neutralité elle n’est pas suspecte, comme le monument ou le document, d’être entachée par une forme ou une autre d’idéologie. Bien plus, F. Jaran souligne que dans son rapport à l’événement, la trace a un statut ontologique spécifique : il y aurait un certain rapport de métaphoricité, d’évocation de ce qui est arrivé dans le document, en tant que signe qui fait signe vers quelque chose d’autre, tandis que la trace reste, dans toute sa simplicité, une chose parmi les choses.

À travers cette notion de trace, nous sommes aussi amenés à une critique des limites de l’antiquité et de la position heideggérienne dans Être et temps. En effet, Ricœur cherche à réenvisager cette primauté de l’originaire dont l’œuvre de Heidegger semble porter l’étendard : la trace, par le dérivé et l’ontique, enrichit la compréhension originare de l’histoire et nous montre que l’historicité du Dasein et le savoir historique (Historie) se déterminent mutuellement beaucoup plus qu’ils ne s’opposent. Mais la trace dépasse aussi l’unilatéralité de la conception de Collingwood, qui privilégie l’aspect interne des étants au détriment absolu de l’extériorité, de l’étantité historique de la trace. En elle-même, la trace est la preuve matérielle de la prégnance de l’histoire. Elle n’est pas, telle quelle, une représentation d’autre chose, mais elle « tient lieu de ». Elle garde sa dimension ontique manifeste tout en permettant d’atteindre l’histoire, nous révélant pleinement ce qu’était le but recherché tout au long du livre : ce qu’est un étant historique, une réalité historique en soi qui va au-delà de toute projection subjective et de toute réduction scientifique. La trace nous permet alors d’accomplir notre désir, « un peu puéril » comme le souligne l’auteur, mais néanmoins essentiel pour nous, êtres historiques : celui de « pouvoir toucher avec les mains ou voir avec les yeux un objet qui provient du passé » (175).

[1] François Jaran. 2013. Phénoménologies de l’histoire. Husserl, Heidegger et l’histoire de la philosophie. Louvain: Peeters.

David Kettler & Detlef Garz (Eds.): First Letters After Exile by Thomas Mann, Hannah Arendt, Ernst Bloch, and Others, Anthem Press, 2021

First Letters After Exile by Thomas Mann, Hannah Arendt, Ernst Bloch, and Others Book Cover First Letters After Exile by Thomas Mann, Hannah Arendt, Ernst Bloch, and Others
David Kettler & Detlef Garz (Eds.)
Anthem Press
Hardback £80.00, $125.00

Friedrich-Wilhelm von Herrmann, Francesco Alfieri: Martin Heidegger. Adevărul despre „Caietele negre”, Ratio et Revelatio, 2021

Martin Heidegger. Adevărul despre „Caietele negre” Book Cover Martin Heidegger. Adevărul despre „Caietele negre”
Friedrich-Wilhelm von Herrmann, Francesco Alfieri. Romanian translation by Paul Gabriel Sandu, Alexandru Bejinariu, Dragoș Grusea
Ratio et Revelatio

Ron Margolin: Inner Religion in Jewish Sources: A Phenomenology of Inner Religious Life and Its Manifestation from the Bible to Hasidic Texts, Academic Studies Press, 2021

Inner Religion in Jewish Sources: A Phenomenology of Inner Religious Life and Its Manifestation from the Bible to Hasidic Texts Book Cover Inner Religion in Jewish Sources: A Phenomenology of Inner Religious Life and Its Manifestation from the Bible to Hasidic Texts
Emunot: Jewish Philosophy and Kabbalah
Ron Margolin. Translated by Edward Levin
Academic Studies Press
Hardback $159.00

Adam Tuboly (Ed.): The Historical and Philosophical Significance of Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic

The Historical and Philosophical Significance of Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic Book Cover The Historical and Philosophical Significance of Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic
History of Analytic Philosophy
Adam Tamas Tuboly (Ed.)
Palgrave Macmillan
Ebook 93,08 €
XV, 370

Reviewed by: Piotr Stalmaszczyk (University of Lodz, Poland)

Alfred J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic was first published in 1936, a second, revised edition appeared in 1946. Chapter 1 (‘The Elimination of Metaphysics’) of this book opens with the following paragraph:

“The traditional disputes of philosophers are, for the most part, as unwarranted as they are unfruitful. The surest way to end them is to establish beyond question what should be the purpose and method of a philosophical inquiry. And this is by no means so difficult a task as the history of philosophy would lead one to suppose. For if there are any questions which science leaves it to philosophy to answer, a straightforward process of elimination must lead to their discovery.” (Ayer 2001: 13)

The author of these words was only twenty-five when he finished writing a book which became a milestone in contemporary philosophy. It was indeed “a young man’s book” (…) “written with more passion than most philosophers allow themselves to show”, as Ayer admitted in the second edition (Ayer 2001: 173). “With these and similar assertions the young Ayer embarked on a course of discussion that was designed to shake the philosophical establishment” (Hanfling 1997: 4). And even though time has clearly demonstrated the flaws and shortcoming of Ayer’s text and its main ideas, it needs to be acknowledged that Language, Truth and Logic (henceforth LTL) is a major achievement in the field, with long lasting influence, provoking over the years vivid discussions and reactions, especially in the areas of philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, and ethics.

The volume edited by Adam Tamas Tuboly reconsiders the philosophical and historical importance of LTL, and discusses its more contemporary legacy in several different disciplines. Tuboly specifies that the questions that need to be asked and discussed: “are the following: how did Ayer preserve or distort the views and conceptions of the logical empiricists, especially those of Otto Neurath and Rudolf Carnap? How are Ayer’s arguments different from those he aimed to reconstruct? How influential was LTL really, and what are the factors that explain its success in Britain and especially at Oxford?” (3).

The book comprises an introduction and five parts (each consisting of two chapters). The introduction gives necessary background information, part one contextualizes Ayer’s book, part two concentrates on philosophy of language in LTL, part three discusses philosophy of mind and psychology, part four looks at epistemology and truth, and part five focuses on ethics and values. The individual chapters provide critical re-examinations of LTL, with the final chapter offering a highly critical analysis within a wide context of philosophy and culture. Each chapter is furnished with an extensive list of references.

In the first, introductory chapter, ‘From Spying to Canonizing – Ayer and His Language, Truth and Logic’, Tuboly traces Ayer’s road to LTL, his first encounters and contacts in Vienna, and provides a brief overview of the book’s content and its main theses. He observes that Ayer’s main task is “twofold: to show that all metaphysicians try to go beyond the empirical realm and to buttress his core thesis that only empirical propositions are meaningful in a literal sense” (12).

An important part of this chapter is devoted to discussing the controversy surrounding the significance and influence of LTL. Tuboly offers here a brief overview of the most important references on the subject and concludes this section observing that “the influence of LTL can be measured on two grounds. First, it was quite negatively received by the philosophical community, as it stepped on many toes and produced a mainly critical response among both philosophers and public intellectuals. (…) On the other hand, Ayer’s book was more than successful in other ways. LTL is one of the best-selling philosophy books of the twentieth century; every student of analytic philosophy has to read it at least once (…), and many educated laymen know it as a source of inspiration and a seminal text from the intellectual history of positivism – a distinction shared by only a few books in analytic philosophy. Whether institutional success is enough for philosophical success, however, is a different question” (27-28). Tuboly also stresses that LTL, though written when the Vienna Circle was past its peak, provides rather scarce information on logical positivism and its historical and theoretical developments. These remarks prepare the ground for more detailed analyses in the following parts of the volume.

Further contextualization of Ayer’s book is provided by the two chapters in Part One (‘The Book and Its Context’). Andreas Vrahimis discusses LTL and the Anglophone reception of the Venna Circle, he further investigates the issue of omissions made by Ayer in tackling the history of logical positivism, the debate around the Neurath-Haller thesis, and Ayer’s divergences with Carnap. Vrahimis observes that the linguistic Empiricism of LTL is presented as partly conceding the Rationalist critique of classical Empiricism, while rejecting the metaphysical conclusions the critique had driven them to; fortifying Empiricism by rejecting the mistaken assumptions of its classical proponents; and both aligning itself with the Empiricist side of the dispute, and also resolving the dispute in an Empiricist manner (47). In concluding remarks on the aftermath of the publication, Vrahimis observes that:

“Ayer’s book focused on discussions of particular problems and only very briefly touched upon the context in which they had initially been addressed by the Vienna Circle and its predecessors. The reception of his work also followed course, and the bold claims made by LTL resulted in bringing a critical debate over the viability of verificationism to the center of Anglophone philosophy during the 30s and 40s. Within this debate, there had been little concern about the acceptability of Ayer’s brief history of Logical Empiricism”. (63)

Chapter 3, by Siobhan Chapman, concentrates on ‘Viennese Bombshells’, i.e. reactions to LTL from Ayer’s philosophical contemporaries, especially John L. Austin, Arne Naess, and L. Susan Stebbing. All three philosophers found interesting elements in LTL but also had objections to the implications of Ayer’s study for the study of language. Chapman focuses on the reaction of these three philosophers to LTL, and on their further influence upon the study of language. Austin’s name is closely associated with ordinary language philosophy, one prominent version of the ‘linguistic philosophy’ (acknowledged by Ayer in his retrospective). Naess is less well known in Anglophone philosophy, “but was extremely influential in the development during the middle part of the twentieth century of philosophy in Norway, where he was celebrated as the founder of the school of empirical semantics” and finally Stebbing’s work “has been relatively neglected in recent decades, but in the 1930s and 1940s she was recognized as a leading figure in British analytic philosophy, particularly in relation to what became known as the Cambridge School of directional analysis” (71). In the remaining parts of the chapter Chapman discusses some subsequent developments connected with LTL and ordinary language philosophy in the fields of philosophy and linguistics, and she claims that after initial criticism connected with the fact that Ayer failed to recognize the disjuncture between philosophical inquiry and the assessment of ordinary linguistic usage, in the last few years “some analytic philosophers have returned to the idea that ordinary language might be of relevance, and even of vital methodological significance, to philosophical inquiry” (85). She also points at some interesting developments in Critical Discourse Analysis which might have been inspired by the close attention to different uses of language explicit in ordinary language philosophy (92).

The two chapters in Part Two are explicitly devoted to philosophy of language in LTL. Nicole Rathgeb discusses Ayer’s stance on analyticity, and Sally Parker-Ryan studies Ayer and early ordinary language philosophy. Ayer’s definition of analyticity is of great significance for his whole philosophy, not least because he regards philosophical truths as analytic propositions, hence his conception is often cited as ‘truth in virtue of meaning’ (101). Rathgeb carefully traces the inspirations and sources for Ayer’s ideas, the developments of this conception, changes between the first and second edition of LTL, and objections voiced against this approach. In the conclusion, the author suggests that Ayer’s account of analyticity is fundamentally correct, and that “the two definitions of analyticity given in LTL and in the introduction to the second edition can be brought into accord, that the truth of analytic propositions so understood is not contingent upon the existence of language, and that the different factors Ayer appeals to in his explanation of the necessity of analytic propositions are all important, although one of them is more fundamental than the others” (120).

In chapter 5, Parker-Ryan examines the development of two approaches to language: the concept of ideal language, and the concept of ordinary language. The former is connected with Ayer’s views expounded in LTL, whereas the latter is discussed by Parker-Ryan with reference to the work of John Wisdom. The author briefly presents the origins of the method of linguistic analysis, the influence of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus and of his later views, succinctly introduces ordinary language philosophy and contrasts it with theories advocating ideal language. In conclusion, Parker-Ryan claims that Ayer and the positivists “understood linguistic analysis as the weeding out of nonsense, such that the ‘logic of science’ could emerge. Such a language would be ideal, in the sense of being perfectly transparent logical form, and comprised exhaustively of empirically verifiable propositions, logical propositions and nothing else” (146). On the other hand, for ordinary language philosophy, the aim was also to resolve philosophical confusion; proponents of this movement “believed that a closer and more thoughtful examination of how language really is used, in various circumstances, can be philosophically revealing” (147).

Part Three is devoted to philosophy of mind and psychology. Gergely Ambrus traces the evolution of Ayer’s views on the mind-body relation, whereas Thomas Uebel investigates the puzzle about other minds in early Ayer. Ambrus observes that the analysis of Ayer’s views, “beyond being interesting in itself, is also important in that it provides further details about the large-scale development of analytic philosophy, stretching from the logical positivists’ radical anti-metaphysicalism in the 1930s to the 1960s when (some) classical metaphysical problems like realism or idealism, and the mind-body problem, were treated as being meaningful and legitimate once more” (153). The chapter discusses the phenomenalist background, focuses on the relations between the mental and physical events (a core issue in contemporary philosophy of mind) and on reinterpretations of the psychophysical relation within Ayer’s ‘sophisticated realist’ framework. Ambrus sums up the developments in Ayer’s thought in the following way: “the changes in Ayer’s views about the nature of the psychophysical relation were embedded in the evolution of his overall approach to philosophy. He departed from the radically anti-metaphysical attitude of logical positivism and arrived at a sort of pragmatist realism” (187). The shift from radical anti-metaphysical to ‘soft’ metaphysical views (with simultaneous faithfulness to earlier empiricist foundations) is characteristic of developments in Ayer’s thought (188).

Chapter 7 provides additional evidence for Ayer’s changing views in what today might be referred to as proto-philosophy of mind. Uebel concentrates on the account of knowledge of other minds as formulated in LTL, provides different interpretations and reinterpretations, and discusses Ayer’s approach to logical behaviorism: “once it is noted how his verificationism limited his options, it is of course difficult to dispute Ayer’s conclusion that no knowledge of other minds is provided at all, but this limitation does not apply unless the doctrine of logical behaviorism is also reinterpreted” (211).  Uebel also points to the discrepancies between the argument as presented in LTL, and as later interpreted by Ayer himself (240), a very interesting observation connected with authorial methodological consciousness (or lack of it).

Part Four deals with epistemology and truth. First Hans-Joachim Glock takes a close look at Ayer’s verificationism, next László Kocsis focuses on the problem of truth and validation. Truth, the second element in the title of Ayer’s book, was crucial both for the author’s line of investigation, and for the interpretation of his theory. Glock opens his chapter observing that the most fundamental aspiration of LTL is meta-philosophical: “Its stated aim is to argue for a positivist, anti-metaphysical conception of philosophy, its tasks and proper methods” (251). Further in this chapter, Glock discusses the importance of verificationism in LTL, different criteria of verifiability, the principle of verification, and the differences between the two (also in the context of Wittgenstein’s use-theory of meaning); it follows from this discussion that “there remains more to be said both against and for Ayer’s verificationism” (275).

In chapter 9, Kocsis starts with examining the difference between the definition and the criterion of truth and how they can be connected; next, he devotes some space to Ayer’s deflationism about the nature of truth and his place in the famous protocol-sentence debate, including his defense of a correspondence conception of the criterion of truth. In the final section he shows that Ayer’s deflationism about the nature of truth is not in conflict with his correspondence conception of the criterion of truth. This is because, contrary to his logical positivist contemporaries, Ayer did not admit any intimate connection between the two above-mentioned truth-theoretical tasks. According to Kocsis, “Ayer was convinced that the correspondence criterion could be applied to synthetic propositions, but as a fallibilist he did not distinguish between epistemically basic and incorrigible propositions (…) and all other non-basic propositions (hypotheses)” (301).

Part Five brings two chapters dealing with ethics and values. In chapter 10, Krisztián Pete compares Ayer and Berkeley, and their concepts of the meaning of ethical and religious language. Ayer starts the preface of the first edition of LTL with the following claim: “The views which are put forward in this treatise derive from the doctrines of Bertrand Russell and Wittgenstein, which are themselves the logical outcome of the Empiricism of Berkeley and David Hume” (Ayer 2001: 9). Berkeley’s and Hume’s influence on Ayer, and Ayer’s interpretation of Empiricism have already been discussed in chapters 1 and 2. Pete discusses in some detail Ayer’s and Berkeley’s views on emotional and theological use of language, he also explores the claim that Ayer is indebted to Berkeley “not only for the core ideas of his phenomenalism but also for his emotivism” (307), and provides a Berkeleyan reinterpretation of Ayer. Pete concludes that “by examining the semantic theory of one of Ayer’s distant empiricist predecessors, we can get some guidance on how to modify the ethical theory that Ayer outlined in LTL” (330).

The last chapter, by Aaron Preston, is significantly entitled ‘Ayer’s Book of Errors and the Crises of Contemporary Western Culture’. Preston offers a highly critical reading of LTL, with an equally critical assessment of its influence:

“Given that its flaws were both grievous and fairly obvious to many, LTL and the simplistic positivism it exemplified would be mere curiosities in the annals of a very curious century if it weren’t for the fact that they had massively harmful effects on culture, effects which persist to this day. (…)

LTL’s real significance lies here, in its role as a sophisticated and successful bit of propaganda for an ideology that played a critical role in loosing Western culture from its moral and epistemic moorings”. (334; 335)

Preston considers the rise of positivism in the light of the crises of contemporary western culture, including contemporary politics, fake news and post truth politics. Parts of this chapter sound rather like a political manifesto; however, it is interesting to see the line of argumentation leading the author from flaws in LTL to analyses (neither very deep nor original though) of Trump’s presidency. The tenor of the conclusion is predictable: “What, then, is the real significance of LTL? Sadly, its significance is overwhelmingly negative. It resides in the fact that it gave a distinctive and rhetorically powerful voice to a form of scientistic naturalism which has played a powerful role in fouling our relations to moral truth” (361). A brief critical remark with respect to these claims is included earlier in the volume, in chapter 8, where Glock observes that Preston’s dismissive attitude is precipitate, for:

A. Ayer’s later assessment leaves open that LTL also includes important truths.  B. Mistakes can be philosophically significant. C. By its own lights, LTL aims at introducing and implementing a method of clarification and critical thinking rather than at propounding a true doctrine.” (273-4)

The above points provide a good coda to this final chapter; however, it would be interesting to see a chapter polemic with regard to Preston’s stance.

In the conclusion of his brief introduction to Ayer’s work, Oswald Hanfling observed that “just as one must admire the bravado of his early book, so one must be impressed, when reading his later work, by his cautious and painstaking treatment of the questions at issue, and his constant striving to do justice to alternative views before arriving at his own conclusion” (Hanfling 1997: 51); and Ben Rogers added that the greatness of LTL resides in the fact that “it exudes a rare and inspiring passion for truth” (Rogers 2001: xvi). The papers collected in the reviewed volume attest to the depth and breadth of Ayer’s thought, they demonstrate that the shortcomings of his early work cannot overshadow its lasting influence in several philosophical disciplines.

Ayer’s book provoked reaction also within literary studies, and its title inspired at least two publications – Hamm (1960) and Martin (1975) – with both authors consciously alluding to the original title, and both investigating the benefits and shortcomings of logical positivism as applied to literary analyses. This aspect of Ayer’s influence is not discussed in the reviewed book, however, it additionally confirms the importance of LTL for various developments in several disciplines.

The Historical and Philosophical Significance of Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic provides an excellent overview of the topics discussed by Ayer, the controversies surrounding the publication and its influence. Additionally, it provides important (not only historical) considerations connected with the developments in philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, and ethics.


Ayer, Alfred J. [1936/1946] 2001. Language, Truth and Logic. London: Penguin Books.

Hamm, Victor M. 1960. Language, Truth and Poetry. The Aquinas Lecture 1960. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press.

Hanfling, Oswald. 1997. Ayer. Analysing What We Mean. London: Phoenix.

Martin, Graham Dunstan. 1975. Language, Truth, and Poetry. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Rogers, Ben. 2001. “Introduction.” In: Ayer (2001), ix-xviii.