Matthew Beaumont: Lev Shestov: Philosopher of the Sleepless Night

Lev Shestov: Philosopher of the Sleepless Night Couverture du livre Lev Shestov: Philosopher of the Sleepless Night
Matthew Beaumont
Paperback $39.95

Reviewed by: Benjamin Rees (KU Leuven)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, furthermore, in Potestas Clavium, Shestov says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chad Engelland (Ed.): Language and Phenomenology

Language and Phenomenology Couverture du livre Language and Phenomenology
Routledge Studies in Contemporary Philosophy
Chad Engelland (Ed.)
Hardback £120.00

Reviewed by: Sarah Pawlett Jackson (St Mellitus College)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andreas Beinsteiner: Heideggers Philosophie der Medialität

Heideggers Philosophie der Medialität Couverture du livre Heideggers Philosophie der Medialität
Heidegger Forum 17
Andreas Beinsteiner
Paperback 29,00 €

Reviewed by: Daniel Neumann (Universität Klagenfurt)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Peter E. Gordon, Espen Hammer, Max Pensky (Eds.): A Companion to Adorno

A Companion to Adorno Couverture du livre A Companion to Adorno
Blackwell Companions to Philosophy
Peter E. Gordon, Espen Hammer, Max Pensky (Eds.)
Hardback $190.00

Reviewed by: Conrad Mattli (University of Basel)

The WileyBlackwell Companions to Philosophy series is an encyclopedic project committed to delivering “a comprehensive and authoritative survey of philosophy as a whole” (ii). The 71st addition to the series is, however, an attempt at the impossible. It is determined to summarize a philosophy which rose up precisely against all ‘summary approaches’ to philosophy. “Essentially”, Adorno wrote in Negative Dialectics, “philosophy is not expoundable [referierbar]. If it were, it would be superfluous; the fact that most of it can be expounded speaks against it” (Adorno 2006, 33–34).[1] Luckily for us all, however, the editors of this volume—perfectly aware that “the very idea of a comprehensive summary would have aroused Adorno’s ire” (xv)—chose to disobey the master’s interdiction. And they are right in doing so. The desire to ‘expound’ Adorno’s philosophy is, after all, justifiable on Adornian grounds. For one, because the ability to ‘formalize’ complex matters without unduly reducing their complexity should count among a dialectician’s cardinal virtues. But even more so, because 55 years and counting after Negative Dialectics was published, philosophical academia still seems blissfully unaffected by the profound irritation of negative dialectics. The mere existence of volumes like A Companion to Adorno could help address such unaffectedness, together with the general eschewal of dialectical thought that seems to have become a matter of course, as a self-incurred immaturity.

It is thus all the more welcome that Peter E. Gordon, Espen Hammer, and Max Pensky did not shy away from the difficult task of expounding Adorno’s dialectical body of knowledge by compiling A Companion to Adorno. The volume is a grand endeavor at overcoming common inhibiting factors for ‘scholasticizing’ Adorno. The volume puts Adorno’s original insights in touch with state-of-the-art research. It aspires to cover nearly every aspect of Adorno’s multifaceted legacy and consists of an impressive 39 contributions by contributors from all over the world; thus, it mirrors the international recognition Adorno’s thought continues to receive, by both admirers and critics, since his death in 1969. Since the 2003 centennial, a gradual resurgence of Adornian thought—out from under the communicative paradigm established in the wake of the Habermasian line of critique—can be witnessed. Wiley-Blackwell now plays its part in this slow but steady rise of Adorno scholarship. Flanked by OUP’s forthcoming Oxford Handbook to Adorno, as well as precedent publications from the past[2], not to mention a general, unbroken interest in Adorno across the globe, A Companion to Adorno gives further rise to the hopes of Adorno scholarship that the ‘dialectical path’ will, at long last, engender broader discourse.

The book begins with the “Editors’ Introduction”, and is then divided into seven major subsections, each section covering a significant dimension of Adorno’s intellectual legacy. In addition to short notes on the contributing authors, it is furnished with a handy index at the end. In the following, I will provide brief sketches of each section, while taking up cues from selected contributions. Due to reasons of limited space, I am skipping over some chapters. This skipping-over does by no means imply a claim to their inferiority. I will conclude my discussion by addressing apparent difficulties for Adorno scholarship in general, and by considering the possible impact of the Companion on the field, today and tomorrow.

Intellectual Foundations

Part I of the volume is dedicated to Adorno’s “Intellectual Foundations”. Building on Peter E. Gordon’s lucid biographical sketch, the first part of the Companion already introduces a wide array of themes that are central to Adornian thought. However, Part I is not really a viable introduction for the beginner (aside from Gordon’s bio-essay, maybe), since the individual contributions already involve some previous knowledge of the core issues of Adorno’s philosophy. This, however, does not diminish their worth for the Companion. Tracing the foundations for all later developments of Adorno’s thinking, these chapters provide the contextual framework for the rest of the book. Gordon’s first of two chapters (not including his co-authorship in the editors’ introduction) “Adorno: A biographical sketch” traces the intellectual development of Adorno in his earliest influences (Kracauer, Cornelius, Benjamin, Horkheimer), to the years as an emigré, from rather fruitless interactions with English philosophers in Oxford to the re-establishing of the Institute in America during the War, up to the definite return to Germany which covers the prime years of his activities as a renowned philosopher in post–War Germany. Gordon’s sketch is of remarkable historical far-sightedness, but gets by without losing sight of informative details. Gordon eventually touches on the delicate subject of the APO student protest movement during the Kiesinger era, and sets the events of 1967–69 in correlation to Adorno’s personal downfall, leading to his untimely death in 1969. After reading Gordon’s sketch, one is left with the wish that some of these intellectual foundations received more attention in the book. I am primarily thinking of Adorno’s relationship to his teacher Hans Cornelius—that is, the intellectual upbringing in neo-Kantianism which is still a widely neglected aspect of Adorno’s allegedly purely Hegelian philosophy—as well as the young Adorno’s intense preoccupation with Husserlian phenomenology. Speaking of the constitutive role of neo-Kantianism for Adorno’s development, Roger Foster approaches Adorno’s vision of “philosophy as a form of interpretation” (22), developed early in his Frankfurt inaugural lecture in 1931, by way of placing it within both the broader neo-Kantian context and its subversions, respectively. Adorno’s early vision of philosophy is set in determinate contrast both to the alleged narrowing of the bourgeois concept of rationality in the Weimar Republic, as well as to the vitalist irrationalism that was on the rise at the time (eventually coinciding with the fascist uprising). Foster provides an interesting outlook on the development of Adorno between these extremes, displaying his thought as an attempt at rescuing the ‘actuality’ of philosophy on its way to a “critical social theory of instrumental reason” (33). That Walter Benjamin did of course play a decisive role in the intellectual formation of Adorno is vividly displayed in Alexander Stern’s contribution. Stern’s representation of the intellectual relationship between Adorno and Benjamin is a swift attempt at summing up their complicated intellectual history. This is a most welcome contribution, since it is still widely disputed where the differences and parallels between the two exactly lie, who inspired who—or stole from whom. Stern chooses to focus on their differing, but in certain respects coextensive, takes on language, and comes to the clear-cut but perhaps surprising conclusion that “Adorno’s project is ultimately irreconcilable with the one sketched in Benjamin’s Arcades Project” (62). This is a welcome clarification, for it delivers the young Adorno from the prejudice of having merely acted out Benjamin’s plans. Marcia Morgan’s contribution revolves around Adorno’s interpretation of Kierkegaard’s existentialism. Morgan thereby takes up problems recently discussed by Peter E. Gordon in his monograph on Adorno and Existence, with a firm foot in Kierkegaard scholarship (Morgan has authored the monograph Kierkegaard and Critical Theory, 2012). She successfully shows how Adorno’s early preoccupation with Kierkegaard in his (understudied) Habilitationsschrift plays a decisive role for Adorno’s intellectual formation. Finally, Part I is completed by Sherry D. Lee’s outlook on Adorno’s musical education. Theory and compositional practice generally go hand in hand for the young Adorno, who quickly found himself under the influence of the Second Viennese School and its towering figures Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern. Lee’s contribution covers an indispensable aspect of Adornian thought by providing a genealogical reconstruction of Adorno’s “path toward a complex philosophy of the New Music and its socio-historical position” (67). Adorno’s partial break with the Second Viennese School in “developing a sociological approach to the elucidation of modern music” (81) is to be seen in relation to his life-long fascination with the dialectic between musical form and musical material, leading him to embrace compositional practices that reflect his outlook on philosophy, and vice versa. Lee’s outlook is interesting, leaving the impression that Adorno’s philosophy of New Music is not really the apology of high-brow Avant-Garde culture it came to represent for many. Instead, Adorno’s life-long efforts for securing the possibility of New Music are scrutinized with great scholarly rigor and, more importantly, rendered more plausible than their reputation suggests.

Cultural Analysis

Part II immediately builds on these foundations and examines Adorno’s contributions to cultural analysis. There seems to be a ‘methodological’ problem pervading these contributions that I would like to address first. It consists in the fact that common objections raised against Adorno and Horkheimer’s conception of a ‘dialectic of enlightenment’ still treat it as a descriptive theory of ‘the way things were’. When read as a grand narrative, the thesis of a dialectic of enlightenment indeed presents substantial shortcomings. What Adorno and Horkheimer are actually doing, however, is not describing how things were, but precisely reflecting on the very drive to say ‘how things actually were’ in light of an analytic of a catastrophic present. Why else would they use a myth (The Odyssey) to display mankind’s emancipatory transition from the mythical totality to the confines of instrumental reason? Correspondingly, defending the theory of a dialectic of enlightenment must mean, in each case, specifying the modality of ‘critical theory’ as such. This implies showing how critical theorizing never merely consists of recognizing that which is, but in recognizing the rational possibilities obstructed by that which is. In short: the dialectic of enlightenment is not a scientific account of history and society, but the result of the critical self-reflection of ‘science’ regarding its role in history and society. Hence, a critical theory of history and society—in the sense of first-generation critical theory—can never be ‘plain’ historiography, nor exclusively ‘empirical’ sociology, but always entails a philosophy of history, reflecting on the very role of enlightenment in contexts of domination.

Walking through Part II, we can discern several instances where this methodological dilemma becomes pressing with regards to adequately interpreting Adornian cultural analysis: Fred Rush takes up the critical concept of a Kulturindustrie (culture industry) from the section of the same title in Dialectic of Enlightenment, and sets the stage for measuring its systematic role for Adorno’s philosophy in general. Rush’s fairly dense yet rewarding overview hits the nail on the head with the observation that Horkheimer and Adorno—despite their seeming advocacy for ‘high’ culture—are not supporting a decadence theory of allegedly ‘low’ mass culture (95). The values of ‘high’ and ‘low’ themselves become somewhat inadequate measurements, once they are recognized as interrelated moments in reflecting on the disrupted ‘unity’ of culture. Correspondingly, the culture of commodification requires of the dialectician to recognize the “truly horrible” dimension of “mass deception”, namely “that it is a product of structures that seem benign and ordinary” (95). Therefore, Adorno is not out to equip the elitist mind with a schematism of high and low culture. He is rather interested in learning about the very nature of such schematizations themselves—and, with it, the causes for the diremption of culture both sides partake in. Adorno thus uses the antagonistic pair of ‘high’ and ‘low’ primarily as a critical (i.e. not ‘merely’ descriptive) function, in order to dialectically overcome their complementary shortcomings. The merits of this critical function are now also exactly what appears to most as questionable with regards to Adorno’s disdain for jazz music. Andrew Bowie, who is not only a renowned philosopher, but a proficient jazz saxophonist himself, discusses the controversial subject in his lucid essay “Adorno and Jazz”. Adorno’s interpretation of jazz—overtly lacking complexity, often being “very wide of the mark” (135), mostly seeing jazz “through the prism of white European music” (126)—has unsurprisingly not benefited Adorno’s status as a philosopher of music. Bowie considers Adorno’s criticism of jazz, with its obvious shortcomings, within the broader scheme of Adorno’s philosophy. Considered as ‘its own time comprehended in thought’, Adorno’s failure to see jazz for what it is corresponds to “his era’s failure in relation to the understanding of the history of black oppression” (135), according to Bowie. The true Hegelian, it seems, is not exempt from also partaking in the blunders of his time. Charles Clavey’s chapter seeks explanations for similar contradictions in Adorno’s methods of empirical social research. Here, things are somewhat looking up again for Adornian cultural analysis; namely that it can namely be said to provide a standard for scientific reflection on empirical methods. The empirical methods Adorno developed and applied as an émigré in the US are, after all, not only the ones suited to an ‘inhumane world’, but, as Clavey convincingly shows, also the ones working towards the aim of Adorno’s philosophy “to use the strength of the subject to break through the fallacy of constitutive subjectivity” (Adorno 2006, xx; referred to on 166). Clavey ends with an interesting note on the proximity of Adorno’s theory of anti-Semitism to Jean-Paul Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew. It is such proximity which only serves, however, to show the difference between Adorno and the existentialists; namely that Adorno strictly refrained from integrating ‘empirical findings’ into his philosophical framework—apart from treating them as another ground for critique, of course. Fabian Freyenhagen wants to re-examine and re-evaluate (cf. 103) another major impulse from the Dialectic of Enlightenment: Horkheimer and Adorno’s (and Löwenthal’s) ‘theory’ of anti-Semitism. Freyenhagen tries to show how common objections raised against Horkheimer and Adorno (basically that their theory is lacking complexity) can be met. Of course, the rhetoric of Dialectic of Enlightenment can be considered ‘hyperbolic’, oftentimes deliberately lacking complexity, all in all promoting a totalizing critique, perhaps at the cost of providing fine-grained descriptions of the “multifaceted nature of anti-Semitism” (120). The crucial point is, however, to understand the specific level of complexity necessary to display the thesis that “civilization and its hatred are dialectically intertwined” (108) in anti-Semitism, thereby ‘crystallizing’ the dialectic of enlightenment. Freyenhagen’s detailed account of Adorno and Horkheimer’s theory of the multi-faceted nature of Anti-Semitism being united in hatred of civilization opens up ways to mitigate their polemic distortions, by virtue of a more complex account (primarily to be traced in the Institute’s typological research on anti-Semitism), without sacrificing overall coherence. Shannon Mariotti addresses the needs of contemporary political theory by bringing Adorno into the picture. Mariotti’s refreshing take on Adorno’s political thought gets by without the usual indignation surrounding Adorno’s alleged apoliticality. Mariotti convincingly shows that a broader picture of Adorno’s cultural analysis could even allow us to re-read Adorno “not just as a political theorist, but as a democratic theorist” (139, cf. also 150). Part II all in all opens up surprisingly new perspectives on Adorno’s critical analyses of culture, both with regards to their logical place in the Adornian framework and to their broader applicability today. Rush’s contribution stands out, inducing a wish for the concept of ‘Kulturindustrie’ to become adjusted to the needs of culture criticism today. Adorno could, after all, still provide the adequate means to face the methodological dilemmas that any ‘cultural analysis’ is confronted with in an incessantly ‘dialectical’ modernity.

History and Domination

Dedicating an entire section to the topic of “History and Domination” seems like a peculiar choice at first. Upon reading its chapters, however, it becomes clear why this actually makes a lot of sense. Part III turns out to harbor some of the volume’s most interesting contributions. Two chapters really stand out. Martin Jay for one, whose description in the list of contributors has unfortunately gone missing (luckily, he a known figure in the field, long before the recently published, brilliant collection of essays Splinters in Your Eye: Frankfurt School Provocations), examines the fascinating parallel between Adorno and Blumenberg with regards to “Nonconceptuality and the Bilderverbot”. Jay discusses Adorno’s and Blumenberg’s differing, and yet in many ways overlapping subversion efforts against the tyranny of analyticity and ahistorical definitions. They both “appreciated the performative contradiction entailed by conceptualizing the nonconceptual” (178). But while Adorno’s use of the concept of nonconceptuality amounts to the employment of a radically defamiliarizing strategy by way of “an apophatic term in negative theology, which can only indirectly gesture toward what it cannot positively express” (177), Blumenberg, as Jay shows, differs from Adorno by affirming the familiarizing function of myth and metaphor. Jay’s contribution is a perfect example for a fruitful approach to Adorno by means of confronting his key thoughts with those of others. The real gemstone in Jay’s essay is the discussion of the Bilderverbot. It is not only that which makes the difference between Adorno and Blumenberg; the Bilderverbot is moreover immensely important for understanding Adorno’s dialectic in general. Martin Jay is one of very few scholars who acknowledge Adorno’s Kantian critique of the Hegelian concept of the concept. (We’ll get to that later). This critique places trust in the concept’s ability to critically (not affirmatively) transcend itself, thereby—negatively—making room for nonconceptuality beyond absolute identity. It is thus that negative theology coincides with Adorno’s ‘imageless’ materialism. The other rather remarkable chapter is Iain Macdonald’s on Adorno’s “Philosophy of History”. It is important to see that Adorno’s philosophy as whole, if there is indeed a discrete theoretical body to be demarcated as such, relies heavily on the philosophy of history. Macdonald guides the reader in a few well-chosen steps (Kant-Hegel-Marx) to the Adornian core insight. Macdonald thereby manages to let aspects of systematicity and historicity converge into one comprehensive complex, that could well serve as an introductory framework to Adorno’s philosophy. The only point to criticize in Macdonald’s account is that he makes it look as if Kant’s philosophy of history, that is, the ‘constitutive’ role antagonism plays for progress, is a kind of naturalistic anthropological Heracliteanism. This neither does justice to Kant, nor to Adorno’s interpretation of Kant, considering that Kant’s concept of a ‘cosmopolitan purpose’ (‘weltbürgerliche Absicht’)[3] is precisely not a ‘dogmatic’ presupposition; it is moreover unfounded, considering that Adorno’s philosophy of history delivers a ‘Kantian’ criticism of the Hegelian concept of Weltgeist. Adorno seeks to retain the cosmopolitan purpose—perpetual peace—by way of seeking to overcome natural antagonism. This entails precisely rendering antagonism merely ‘natural’, instead of rendering it absolutely necessary. Adorno’s critical method is to remind Hegelian spirit of what is lost in the unity of the absolute idea—the violent contingency of its origins. Such potential shortcomings regarding the relation between Kant and Hegel, which are controversial in themselves, however do not diminish the importance of the problems addressed by Iain Macdonald; the upshot of the discussion being, that Adorno’s philosophy of history stands between Kant’s teleological idealism of freedom on the one hand, and the Marxist subversion of Hegelian spirit on the other. All in all, Part III rewards the reader by elucidating a most fascinating aspect of Adorno’s legacy, his philosophy of history and utopia—that is, the well-founded, ‘metaphysical’ disappointment regarding the repeatedly failed windows of opportunity to leave our seemingly never-ending ‘prehistory’ behind.

Social Theory and Empirical Enquiry

The chapters in section IV are covering Adorno’s sociological project, the legacy of The Authoritarian Personality, his relation to Marx, and his “deep encounter with Freud’s work” (333), respectively—aspects which, especially the latter, permeated Adorno’s social theory from the very beginning of his ‘career’, until and including his intellectual activities in postwar Germany. The latter is examined in Jakob Norberg’s chapter. Although all chapters are worth considering, I would like to make a few remarks regarding Eli Zaretsky’s discussion of Adorno’s relation to Freud here. In fact, one could say that the early introduction of a sociologically disenchanted Freudianism into Adorno’s discussion of the transcendental doctrine of the soul marks the first time that the ‘social realm’ (as a transcendental substrate of our individual thought) openly interferes with the privacy of bourgeois subjectivity in Adorno (cf. Adorno 2020a, 320–322). The New School historian Zaretsky examines Adorno’s never fully ceasing, but eventually compromised Freudianism. The overall tone of Zaretsky’s essay is refreshing in the context of Adorno scholarship. It refrains from blindly accepting established lines of argument. The upshot of Zaretsky’s chapter, linking mass psychology and critical theory together, being that Adorno’s “three contributions” to social theory matter beyond their original scope, meaning today. The three contributions revolve around a sharpening of the speculative tools for mass and group psychology, especially in light of reiterating uprisings of fascism, eventually pushing towards the socio-historicization of ‘individualistic’ psychoanalysis. According to Zaretsky’s pointed analysis, “[a]s the fervor of the 1960s gave way to the constrains of the 1970s, the Dionysian crowds turned into Thermidorean scolds.” And he goes on to notice:

That trajectory holds lessons for the present. Building a progressive movement today entails turning the repressive egalitarianism of the crowd into a self‐reflective movement for structural change. The movements of the 1960s absorbed and generalized many Frankfurt School ideas including the critique of the Enlightenment as a source of domination; the idea that the forces of domination precede, even if they also include, capitalism; and the rejection of spurious totalities or universals in favor of alterity, otherness, and difference. Yet they rejected the Freudian heritage, including mass psychology, which is one reason we have not yet been able to truly move beyond the 1960s. (333)

This observation is striking. It alone should lead critical theorists to reconsider the (dialectical) insights of mass psychology—including the ones that not even critical theorists are safe from.


It is an often-overlooked aspect of Adorno’s ‘anti-system’ (cf. Adorno 2006, xx) that the form in which he sought to publicize it more or less blends into the tripartite structure of Kant’s critical project. This becomes fully evident only towards the end of Adorno’s life, however. While his magnum opus Negative Dialectics could be said to be dedicated to ‘pure’ theoretical philosophy (in so far as ‘mediating’ metaphysics with the ‘impurity’ of historical experience by way of a ‘logic of decay’ still stands within that context), he appears to have made plans for a full book on the problems of moral philosophy (not to be mistaken with the homonymous lecture series); but most importantly, the book he was working on before he died was Aesthetic Theory. While the Adornian ‘critical project’ has thus sadly never been consummated, the ‘fragment’ called Aesthetic Theory nonetheless embarked on a steep career as a modern classic in the field. The idea of an ‘aesthetic theory’ is particularly worthwhile to study closely, because it connects and renders his accounts on aesthetic matters both relevant to the overall framework of his philosophy, and to his compositional practice. Both sides coalesce in Adorno’s reflections on the artwork. The concept of the artwork is the centerpiece of Adorno’s aesthetic, equally because of its function as an enigma, and as a product of ‘social labor’. But what is aesthetic theory exactly? The answer is far less simple than it seems—a difficulty mirrored by Eva Geulen’s contribution “Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory”. As Geulen notices, the proclivity to ‘fashion one’s own Adorno’ has often stood greatly in the way of seeing Aesthetic Theory for what it is. As a result, “much scholarship on Adornos Aesthetic Theory tends to be even more unreadable than the book itself, especially and precisely when critics try to live up to the high demands of their subject matter” (399)—a harrowing observation. Her attempt to do better justice to this situation is convincing at first: she places Adorno’s aesthetic theory ‘between Kant and Hegel’ (400). Thereby, Geulen is able to bring up problems that were all too often neglected in the discussion of Adorno’s aesthetic theory, first and foremost, the Kantian import of natural beauty. A possible shortcoming of Geulen’s reading is that she stops at a dualistic interpretation of Kant and Hegel as formalist-subjectivist vs. content-oriented-objectivist aesthetics. It is a seemingly imperishable prejudice that Kant founded aesthetics on the pole of the subject and, consequently, did not bother too much about objects and artworks. The third Critique tells a thoroughly different story. There simply is no subjective realm of judgment (be it aesthetic or teleological), apart from our reflecting on the subject’s relation to concrete objects; just as—yes, already in Kant—there is nothing under the sun that isn’t ‘mediated’ through judgment. Similarly, in Adorno’s reflections on art (and in his philosophy in general) subject and object are highly equivocal concepts (cf. Adorno 2020, 741). Adorno’s ‘dialecticizing’ of Kant and Hegel thus suggests an alternative to Geulen’s dualistic interpretation: Adorno reads Kant’s formalism precisely as object-oriented, while exposing Hegel’s idealist objectivism as absolute subjectivism, thereby limiting it. Adorno needs Kant to criticize Hegel, Hegel to criticize Kant—there is no synthesis between the two. Only in light of such a critical inversion of the usual dualist reading between “formalistic Kant and object-oriented Hegel” (400) can Aesthetic Theory come into its own, as a dialectical theory of artistic form and content—as Geulen then adequately shows—a theory determined to secure the possibility of the artwork in modernity. Another chapter that stands out is Henry Pickford’s “Adorno and Literary Criticism”. After a concise characterization of Adorno’s aesthetic theory, and lucid discussions of Adorno’s interpretations of Heine and Hölderlin, Pickford comes to the interesting conclusion, that “for Adorno ‘literary criticism’ means not only the criticism of literature in the objective sense, but also in the subjective sense of the genitive: literature, the experience of literature, can be a privileged activity of critique and resistance to the way of the world under late capitalism” (378). Pickford’s account is a great example of arranging a fruitful interplay between interpreting Adorno’s references to art and literature with regards to their content, while keeping in mind the determinant ethos of Adorno’s critical social theory. Eventually, Adorno’s literary criticism is displayed both as a ‘realist’ alternative to Lukács, and an ‘ethical’ alternative to the neo-Aristotelian ‘ethical criticism’ of Martha Nussbaum and others. Pickford thereby successfully sets Adorno’s literary criticism ‘into stark relief’ to these strands.

Negative Dialectics

Part VI is arguably the centerpiece of the book. Revolving around Adorno’s contribution to philosophy as such, the chapters minutely weigh key aspects of it against one another. Terry Pinkard sets the stage by looking at Adorno’s philosophy in light of its obvious relation to Hegel. Pinkard takes up the difficult task of determining the specific difference between Adornian negative dialectics with and against Hegel’s ‘affirmative’ dialectic. As Pinkard rightly notes, this double-headed outlook on Hegel is conferrable to the form of Adorno’s philosophy itself: “So it seems, for Adorno, we must be systematic and anti‐systematic, holist and anti‐holist, at the same time” (459). Accordingly, determining the nature of the dialectic in Adorno amounts to coming to grips with “a massive struggle or even potential contradiction at its heart” (459). It is interesting that Pinkard brings up the ‘anti-system’ in this context. The telos of Adorno’s ‘anti-system’ never was to dismiss systematicity altogether, but rather, quite like Hegel promises, to fully actualize the potential of systematic thinking. Like Hegelian logic, Adorno’s ‘anti-system’ relies on the self-transcending powers of the system itself: “It attempts by means of logical consistency to substitute for the unity principle, and for the paramountcy of the supraordinated concept, the idea of what would be outside the sway of such unity” (Adorno 2006, xx). For most Hegelian readers of Adorno, statements like these are evidence enough to consider negative dialectics a mere variation on Hegel’s absolute idealism. First, because for Hegelians, most of what Adorno says may be “what Hegel meant by the dialectic all along” (467)—the logicity of the absolute system is a synthetic unity of spirit and its externalizations to begin with. Secondly, because right in the moment Adorno subscribes to a dialectical notion of ‘logical consistency’, the anti-system retains the power of Hegelian thinking. Robert Pippin, for example, seems to promote such a reading, when saying: “If Adorno is leaning towards metaphysics, then we must think of his claim about the right ‘logical’ relation between identity and nonidentity as true – that is, as identical with, as saying, what is in fact the case. And we are then in Hegel’s space” (Pippin 2017). Such readings seem to provide the background to Pinkard’s gripping discussion. Pinkard namely seems to have noticed that they are misleading when it comes to grasping the true nature of negative dialectics. The central question of Pinkard’s chapter is what sets Adorno’s negative dialectic apart from ‘Hegel’s space’. Because without accounting for “[t]he negative in negative dialectics” (466) as the difference to Hegel, Adorno’s philosophical outlook collapses into absolute idealism. Pinkard, therefore, looks for ways to do justice to Adorno’s emancipation from Hegel. As Pinkard shows, Adorno, in a sense, follows Hegel in aspiring to the systematic unity of thought and being, but breaks with him by reviewing the role of negativity in the ‘unity’ of thought and being. Adorno’s ‘anti-system’ is the self-undermining consequence of the Hegelianism of the Phenomenology of Spirit. But in Adorno’s ‘anti-system’, diachronic history disturbs logic’s synchronicity. History does not merely enrich the system with the ‘outside’ that the logic had to neglect first for its abstract purity. That history is the medium in which spirit actualizes itself is more than a giant euphemism for Hegel; it is the very locus of dialectical truth. But for Adorno, even if returning to that locus for the truth of his dialectic, spirit will remain a giant euphemism, nevertheless—therefore, the absoluteness of spirit is wrong, until it undergoes a dialectical critique of reason. It is surprising, but perhaps very telling that Pinkard mobilizes an allegedly Heideggerian argument for radical finitude in order to deduce the negative in negative dialectics. (466) Even if we set aside that Pinkard is building his argument on what seems like a Wittgensteinian strawman-Heidegger, this is a wrong turn and missing the point. If Adorno was in any sense “crucially indebted to Heidegger” (466), it is rather because of the fact that his dialectic partly took shape as a critique of ontology. And I am not sure how far Pinkard’s paralleling Adorno to Schelling carries in this respect, either. (cf. 463f.) Pinkard is therefore right in looking to Kant for Adorno’s specific difference to Hegel. Adorno’s “siding with Kant” (464) remains a much-neglected aspect of Adorno’s philosophy. Adorno’s deep connection to Kant becomes somewhat obvious when considering a central systematic feature of Adorno’s Hegelianism: Adorno’s anti-system ‘thinks’ the negative but harbors no category of ‘negativity’.[4] If indeed the anti-system is thereby invoking an ‘experience’ of radical otherness against Hegel, it does so not by affirmatively picking ‘one side’ in the absolute conceptual unity of concept and otherness—namely otherness, like Pippin and others seem to think it does. Instead, the anti-system could be said to ‘be’ the difference of this absolute conceptual unity and radical otherness. This difference is precisely what makes theory critical, that is, of itself. Who else could reason criticize but itself? More than a brainy contradiction, the “massive struggle” (459) of Adornian thinking serves to rescue the nonidentical from the affirmative embrace of identity thinking. “Hegelians are not completely unconvinced” (467), Pinkard loosely concludes. But as long as their partial affirmation of Adorno entails denying negative dialectics its specific difference, they surely will never be convinced either. Espen Hammer’s contribution picks up another thread that permeates Adorno’s work – “Adorno’s Critique of Heidegger”. Adorno’s relation to Heidegger stands under the bad sign of a ‘refusal of communication’ (Kommunikationsverweigerung) first called out by the Heidegger scholar Hermann Mörchen. A synopsis of their communicative catastrophe goes something like this: Adorno developed key aspects of his dialectic in the form of a harrowing critique of Heideggerian existential ontology and its jargon, while Heidegger famously reacted by not reacting at all. Apparently perpetuating Heidegger’s silent treatment, it is a disturbing fact that the nature and scope of Adorno’s critique of Heidegger is still not being fathomed accordingly with regards to its content. After the controversy surrounding the publication of the Black Notebooks, working through Heidegger’s anti-Semitism must be of general interest. Its ramifications might extend well into Heidegger’s philosophy and the history of being (‘Seinsgeschichte’). Despite acknowledging that “Adorno pioneered the now widespread approach to Heidegger’s writings as politically motivated and ideologically compromised” (473), Hammer eventually fails to see Adorno’s polemic for what it is. Instead, he expresses doubts regarding the soundness of Adorno’s arguments, primarily concerning the ontological difference between being and beings. Hammer dismisses Adorno’s reading of Heidegger as “simply not correct”, claiming it does “not withstand scrutiny” (476). In Hammer’s eyes,

the fact that Adorno displays no real awareness of Heidegger’s actual ambition is striking. Adorno does not hold Heidegger to his own standards. He simply misunderstands the nature of his project. Given Adorno’s unquestionable abilities as a philosopher, this is both surprising and puzzling. It could be that Adorno does not reveal the true nature of his interpretation. (477)

This interpretation is in itself rather puzzling. Is it even conceivable that Adorno was simply not ‘aware’ of Heidegger’s true ambitions? And what does it even mean that Adorno could not have revealed ‘the true nature of his interpretation’? What if the opposite is the case? In line even with Hermann Mörchen (!) (1981, 292), it should be stressed that it is very hard to imagine that Adorno would have exposed himself to the public with blunt misreadings, even harder to think he would not get corrected by his colleagues—some of whom knew Heidegger’s philosophy considerably well—and moreover to sustain an overtly false argument throughout his whole intellectual career, and, on top of it, in his major outputs. Furthermore, attributing alleged misreadings to Adorno’s “competitive instinct”, or “hostility and aversion” (477) is an ad hominem argument that, even if it were true, made no difference to the success or failure of Adorno’s vindication of dialectics against the pretenses of existential ontology. The really pressing question is being avoided by Hammer, namely why Adorno consciously chose to raise these provocative accusations against Heidegger—that Heidegger is reverting back into subjectivism and idealism—despite the obvious fact that Heidegger understood his thought precisely as overcoming idealism. This would entail further scrutinizing of the nature of Adorno’s dialectical critique, perhaps even touching on a Socratic element in Adornian dialectics. In any case, showing that Adorno was ‘wrong’, in the sense attributed to him by Hammer, just doesn’t do justice to the rhetorical dimension of dialectical content. We should not forget, however, that, in line with a remark in Negative Dialectics, “contrary to popular opinion, the rhetorical element is on the side of content” (56), and not the other way around. Be that as it may, these shortcomings in Hammer’s otherwise highly informed account of the Adorno-Heidegger debate can only contribute to re-vitalizing the discussion. Jay Bernstein, too, addresses “deeply puzzling” (488) traits of Adorno’s dialectic and traces them in Adorno’s fruitful reception of Kant. Bernstein, who is known for having made seminal contributions to the field in the past, successfully lays new ground for discussions on the topic, showing that key aspects of Adornian thought (the concept of the concept; the critique of transcendental subjectivity; the alleged non-conceptuality of the nonidentical etc., in short: the relation between “Concept and Object”, as the chapter’s title indicates) can be traced in Adorno’s continuing preoccupation with Kant. Bernstein thereby makes a far-reaching observation:

Although Negative Dialectics is premised on a conversation with Hegel over dialectics, both its critical object, constitutive subjectivity, and its metaphysical promise, aesthetic semblance, derive fundamentally from a dialog with Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Getting this in plain view is the first task for a reading of Adorno’s philosophy (499).

Perhaps an equally far-reaching claim to this might be added: specifically, that the conversation with Hegel over dialectics should itself be seen within a Kantian framework, and not merely the other way around—the conversation with Kant within a Hegelian framework. Adorno took it “as a general guide for the understanding of the problem of dialectic that dialectic must, in an eminent sense, be regarded as Kantian philosophy which has come to self-consciousness and self-understanding” (Adorno 2017, 14). Following Adorno down that road entails reading Hegel himself as a Kantian (cf. Hindrichs 2020, 47), which of course exceeds the Companion’s purview. Nevertheless, seeing Adorno’s Hegelianism in a Kantian horizon could possibly affect the discussion of Adorno’s neglected ‘Kantianism’ in relation to modern idealists such as Robert Pippin, Robert Brandom, John McDowell, and those in their wake.[5] Adorno’s primacy of the object—disenchanting the myth of the myth of the given and promoting again the idea of otherness—can only be defended on Kantian and not on Hegelian grounds. Here, I cannot help but express puzzlement over one of Bernstein’s concluding remarks. Can Adorno really be said to have “always defended the now widely dismissed two-worlds version of Kant’s idealism” (499)? Isn’t Adorno’s own (widely ignored) contribution to the field that he reads Kant ‘dialectically’, whereby worlds and aspects necessarily coalesce in one sense, in order to then be set apart ‘negatively’ and thereby retain the idea of otherness? Apart from the discussion-worthy conclusion, Bernstein’s essay is easily one of the highlights of this volume, and everyone in the field is advised to read it. Kantian self-criticism of reason is, however, only one side of the coin. In keeping with Pinkard’s observation, the other side of Adorno’s ‘anti-system’ is that it must equally promote the seeming opposite of Kantian self-limitation. In accordance with Hegel’s program of a phenomenology of spirit, it both “demands that phenomena be allowed to speak as such—in a ‘pure looking-on’—and yet that their relation to consciousness as the subject, reflection, be at every moment maintained” (Adorno 2005, 74). Brian O’Connor and Peter E. Gordon accordingly examine the active contribution of Adorno to philosophy, that is, his account of the nature of philosophical truth. According to O’Connor, “Adorno offers us two notions of philosophical truth: the singular one and the critical one” (528). And of course, the two are interconnected, the singular truth being the ‘non-reportable’ correlate of a singular rhetorical engagement of a philosopher. These different notions of truth articulate a dialectic between the universal and the particular that is essential for the overall outlook of a ‘changed philosophy’. O’Connor thus provides a convincing ‘solution’ both to the problem mentioned in the beginning, that philosophy is ‘inexpoundable’ in essence, as well as to the double-headed nature of the anti-system that Pinkard hints at. ‘Metaphysical experience’ consequently is, according to Peter Gordon, “caught in an apparent self-contradiction” (549). It’s that same contradiction again, whose elucidation amounted to understanding Adornian thought for what it really is—genuinely philosophical dialectic. Gordon’s second independent contribution to the volume provides reflections on the place of Adorno’s philosophy in tradition. Departing from the relation to Classical Metaphysics (Ch. 2), Gordon delivers an intricate discussion of Adorno’s concept of metaphysical experience. Adorno’s philosophy can be said to draw from the insight that philosophy in general “rests on the texts it criticizes”—an insight, which, according to Adorno, “justifies the move from philosophy to exegesis, which exalts neither the interpretation nor the symbol into an absolute but seeks the truth where thinking secularizes the irretrievable archetype of sacred texts” (Adorno 2006, 55). How this coalition between philosophy and theology, between the most radical materialism and the ontological argument, comes about, can be read in Asaf Angermann’s chapter. Albeit mostly focusing on Anglophone discussions of the topic, the chapter nonetheless manages to show how a “Heretical Redemption of Metaphysics” is to be conceived—the upshot being that the union of theology and philosophy in Adorno is not a unio mystica but a unio in haeresia (between Adorno and Gershom Scholem), by virtue of which the dialectic of enlightenment stays in touch with its utmost extremes.


The framework by which Adorno’s Ethics is introduced and discussed is its specific historical situation. The historical outlook of Adornian ethics is essentially articulated through “the new categorical imperative” imposed on humanity by Hitler: “to arrange their thinking and conduct, so that Auschwitz never repeats itself, so that nothing similar ever happens again” (Adorno 2006, 365). According to Christian Skirke,

Adorno’s reflections on life after Auschwitz strike a chord with these urgent concerns of our times. The least his reflections can do for us is to train us to see the dehumanizing logic of those practices. His reflections can forewarn those who are on the safe side of these practices that not to resist this logic amounts to passing over in silence the worst transgressions against others. (580)

Skirke then draws the memorable conclusion that “It is not unlikely that Adorno’s diagnosis would be exactly the same today”. The concluding chapters of the volume all revolve around Adorno’s negatively normative imperative. A shared problem of these chapters seems to be if we should, and if yes, how to extract positive normative purports from Adorno’s negativism. The section on ethics is thus an interesting end note that provides a rich discussion of Adorno’s negativism—a discussion likely to develop further in the near future.

Interpretive Uncertainty: The Fate of Adorno Scholarship?

Upon reviewing these sections covering Adorno’s lifework in its entirety, one thing especially stands out: Contrary to the apparent wording in the passage quoted at the outset, Adorno is a ‘systematic’ thinker in his own right. As a consequence, the apparent contradiction between affirming and criticizing systematic thinking engenders what I would call an interpretive uncertainty that every Adorno scholar has to come to grips with, at some point. The uncertainty arises from the double-headed nature of the dialectic between critique and theory. Needless to say, this interpretive uncertainty has not exactly matched ‘scholasticizing’ tendencies in academia. Beyond a growing circle of Adorno scholars, Adorno’s dialectic is still mostly met with shoulder shrugs, superficial criticism, or allergic reactions. Its negativistic character, the result of these aporetic ‘placements’, seems to present an unspeakable irritation to academia. And it still appears to be the prime inhibiting factor for a successful scholastic cultivation of negative dialectics.

In spite of such inhibiting factors, A Companion to Adorno manages to brave the challenge of ordering a heterogeneous field of scholarly activities into one integral approach, albeit mostly (and thankfully) by means of fleshing out problems, rather than by throwing clear-cut solutions at the reader. As a bottom-line from this integral approach of the Companion, the following methodological problems for Adorno scholarship can be identified:

1) There is, without a doubt, such a thing as ‘Adorno’s thought’—it can be called ‘critical theory’ or ‘negative dialectics’ (for Adorno, these two titles essentially mean the same thing).

2) Critical theory qua negative dialectics cannot be expounded or summarized. The best of it is lost when taking the form of a positive system of fixed concepts and ideas.

3) Key tenets of Adorno’s philosophy can, therefore, only be ‘traced’ and expounded indirectly, that is, when taking into consideration Adorno’s critical interactions with society, capitalism, art, artists, writers, and importantly with other philosophers. Examples of the latter include refined criticisms of Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, most importantly Kant and Hegel, but also Schelling and Fichte, Marx, Kierkegaard, Husserl, Freud, Nietzsche, Lukács, and Walter Benjamin, of course. (The most notable ‘interlocution’ with a contemporary being the one with Heidegger, who in turn remained as silent as the dead.)

4) Since Adorno’s dialectical path is—in contrast with Hegel’s—terminally negative, the universal functionality of dialectical thought must saturate itself with ‘material’ themata (hence its proclivity towards Cultural Analysis, History, Sociology, Aesthetics, etc.) in order to fulfill the promise of philosophical truth. This need for ‘materiality’ is, however, not merely an epistemic virtue of Adornian dialectics and surely not an end in itself, like Hegelian readings of Adorno tend to suggest. To the contrary, being a mere “ontology of the wrong state of things” (Adorno 2006, 11) dialectics both expresses and stands in the way of philosophical truth, in other words, in the way of actualizing the “cognitive utopia” (Adorno 2006, 10). Until utopia becomes actual (never?) the isomorphy between the dialectic of the philosophical system and the all-too ‘real’ antagonisms must be interpreted as the ultimate ground for a critique of absolute reason, i.e. precisely not as an index that the rational always already is, or is about to become, real. The dialectic of form and matter is a vice, a profound irritation to logical thought, and an index to the finitude of universal forms—ultimately an articulation of the all-too real experiences of catastrophes during the age of extremes. In short, dialectics is the absolute limit of philosophy, drawn from within, with no possibility for transgression but through relentless self-criticism. To deem dialectics a virtue of the philosopher is to be blind to the fact of mediation continually jeopardizing the absolute status of philosophical truth.

5) Therefore, the fundamental question for ‘Adorno scholarship’ is how to examine Adorno’s philosophy as a self-standing theoretical body of knowledge while, at the same time (!) taking into account that, qua critique, Adorno’s philosophy can only ever be thematized indirectly, by taking into account its critical, and oftentimes polemic, interactions with tradition.

It is this interplay between theoretical autonomy and dialogical ‘indirectness’ which is constitutive of Adorno’s dialectics, and which, coming full circle, promotes interpretive uncertainty. All in all, the uncertainty revolves around the one fundamental difficulty of how to account for the systematicity of Adorno’s anti-system. Much like Plato’s, Adorno’s dialectical body of work inevitably gives rise to the wearisome question of an ‘unwritten doctrine’, while equally making it impossible to pinpoint it as a static system. ‘Adorno scholarship’ is an aporia. Its only ‘way out’ is to show that it articulates the very aporia of philosophy itself.


Aspiring to a comprehensive survey of a philosophy, there is always a fine line between unduly reducing its complexity and doing it justice in recognizing its overall coherence. Correspondingly, Blackwell’s comprehensive summary of Adorno seeks to avoid undue simplifications and reductive schematizations and maintain a high level of differentiation at all times. This greatly inspires further scholarly investigation and the concentrated reader is rewarded with a challenging yet fascinating read. On the downside, however, its high level of differentiation makes the Companion not any easier to ‘expound’ than the philosophy it is supposed to help comprehend in the first place. One is sometimes tempted to ask, if a more ‘systematic’ approach to Adorno really amounted to a cardinal sin.

A Companion to Adorno will hopefully be received as a call to reactivate the critical dialogue between Adorno and academic philosophy—past, present, and future. But will it convince the majority of philosophers who still find negative dialectics either too brainy and complex, a mere variation on the grand Hegelian theme, or—even worse—no dialectic proper? It probably won’t. Stuart Walton, in a recent review of this very Companion, commented on the book’s material richness by mobilizing Brecht “who scarcely took the first generation of Frankfurt thinkers seriously” and his remark “that nobody who lacked a sense of humour would stand a chance of understanding dialectics” (Walton 2020, 175).[6] Meanwhile, the challenge of ‘taking in the entirety of Adorno’s thought’ may have become a rather serious one, however. For it resonates a little too perfectly with ‘academic’ philosophy today, by which I mean with the challenge to remain relevant and in touch with its time, on the one hand, and not to defect to the powers that are trying to instrumentalize it, on the other. In light of such challenges, philosophy may be well advised to take dialectics more ‘seriously’, if only to account for the dilemma it finds itself in. This, however, entailed taking Adorno’s philosophical wit seriously, at long last.

To conclude, although the volume cannot (and does not) aspire to become a surrogate for the richness of Adorno’s anti-system itself, it succeeds in showing us where and how to look for its treasures. Luckily, however, these contributions mostly refrain from cherry-picking, sorting out what’s still ‘useful’ and what’s not, and from patronizingly assigning Adorno his place on the basis of the dubious privilege of being born later. The Companion’s integral approach thus helps Adorno’s dialectic come into its own, as a mode of thinking aimed at securing the sheer possibility of philosophical truth. “There is solidarity between such thinking and metaphysics at the time of its fall” (Adorno 2006, 408) reads the last sentence of Negative Dialectics. Congruously, A Companion to Adorno is an impressive testimonial for Adorno’s unrelenting solidarity with philosophy, aesthetics, and critical social theory in a catastrophic time. Thereby, the lines of what Brian O’Connor calls “a changed philosophy” (cf. 520–522) have become more visible than ever before. This philosophy should be both determinately critical and ‘modern’ (in the emphatic sense of lat. modo = just now), all the while keeping in mind its aporetic starting point from after “the moment to realize it was missed” (Adorno 2006, 3). The Companion can moreover help students first become familiar with Adorno’s philosophy, by promoting awareness of the unique fashion Adorno had addressed philosophical problems with. And quite possibly, it will thus even help engender broader discourse in the long run. If the book is not received as a compilation of last words on these matters, of course.


Adorno, Theodor W., and Edmund F. N. Jephcott. 2005. Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life. London: Verso.

Adorno, Theodor W. (1966) 2006. Negative Dialectics. Transferred to digital printing. London: Routledge.

Adorno, Theodor W. 32020a. Philosophische Frühschriften. Gesammelte Schriften Band 1. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Adorno, Theodor W. 82020b. Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft II: Eingriffe–Stichworte. Gesammelte Schriften Band 10.2. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Gordon, Peter Eli, Espen Hammer, and Max Pensky (eds.). 2020. A Companion to Adorno. First edition. Hoboken: Wiley Blackwell.

Jay, Martin. 2020. Splinters in Your Eye: Frankfurt School Provocations. London: Verso Books.

Hindrichs, Gunnar. 2020. Der Weltbegriff der Philosophie. In: Merkur. Deutsche Zeitschrift für europäisches Denken. Nr. 854. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta.

Kant, Immanuel, Paul Guyer, and Allen W. Wood. (1781=A/1787=B) 182016. Critique of Pure Reason. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Meillassoux, Quentin. 2008. After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. Translated by Ray Brassier. New York: Continuum.

Mörchen, Hermann. 1981. Adorno und Heidegger. Untersuchung einer philosophischen Kommunikationsverweigerung. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta.

Morgan, Marcia. 2012. Kierkegaard and Critical Theory. Lanham: Lexington Books.

Pippin, Robert. 2017. Review of Peter E. Gordon. Adorno and Existence. In: Critical Inquiry. [] Accessed 15 Feb. 2021.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1948. Anti-Semite and Jew. Translated by George J. Becker. New York: Schocken Books.

Walton, Stuart. 2020. Review of ‘A Companion to Adorno.’. In: Journal of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics, vol. 43, no. 3, 2020, p. 175–178. (Online: Gale Literature Resource Center. Accessed 2 Mar. 2021.)

[1] Brian O’Connor translates ‘referierbar’ as ‘reportable’ (526), which seems a more elegant solution.

[2] To be mentioned are (in no specific order): Huhn, Tom (ed.). 2004. The Cambridge Companion to Adorno. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Cook, Deborah (ed.). Theodor Adorno: Key Concepts. Stocksfield: Acumen, 2008; Klein, Richard (ed.). 2011. Adorno-Handbuch: Leben–Werk–Wirkung. Stuttgart: Metzler; Honneth, Axel, and Christoph Menke (eds.). 2010. Theodor W. Adorno: Negative Dialektik. Berlin: Akademie Verlag; Hindrichs, Gunnar (ed.). 2013. Max Horkheimer/Theodor W. Adorno: Dialektik der Aufklärung. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

[3] Tellingly, and in accordance with the dialectic of teleological judgment in the third Critique, ‘Absicht’ is sometimes translated as ‘purpose’ or ‘aim’, sometimes as ‘point of view’ or ‘perspective’.

[4] “[…] for the category is a mere function of thinking, through which no object is given to me, but rather only that through which what may be given in intuition is thought” Kant 2016, 349 [A 253/B 308].

[5] Whoever subscribes to Adorno’s neglected ‘Kantianism’ might, on another note, also have a word to say regarding the widespread allergy of modern ‘realists’ to so called ‘correlationism’ (see Meillassoux 2008, 5). The upshot of an Adornian rejoinder would be that the negativistic nature of the dialectic manages to break with ‘strong correlationists’ such as Heidegger without claiming to have gained epistemic access to the thing-in-itself (and thereby falling behind Kant and Hegel) but by vindicating the only absolute correlation: the one between dialectics and the critique of reason. It may not be impossible, after all, that there are things we—being ‘finite’ beings—cannot know.

[6] The upshot of Walton’s (2020, 175) analogy being: “By much the same token, nobody who lacks a gigantic range of cultural and philosophical reference, and one that is ever vigilant for the first trace of oxidation into ideology in any of its component parts, will find themselves equipped to take on the entirety of Adorno’s thought.”

Jacques Derrida: Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation

Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity Couverture du livre Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity
Jacques Derrida. Edited by Geoffrey Bennington, Katie Chenoweth, and Rodrigo Therezo. Translated by Katie Chenoweth and Rodrigo Therezo
University of Chicago Press
Cloth $27.50

Reviewed by: Harrison Lechley (University of Brighton)


For someone so enthralled by ghosts, it seems fitting that a ‘long-lost’ manuscript should appear within Jacques Derrida’s oeuvre posthumously. Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity (University of Chicago Press), a text produced from the ghosts of Derrida’s archive, constitutes the third instalment of Derrida’s four essays on Geschlecht – a word which has no equal translation in English nor French but refers to sex, nation, race, generation, humanity, lineage in ambivalent measure. This posthumous reconstruction is based on: Derrida’s 1984-1985 seminar on philosophical nationalism (Ghost of the Other) at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS); and an ‘incomplete’ version of its seminars 7-8 distributed to participants at Loyola University, Chicago in March 1985 where Derrida had intended to present this manuscript (titled Geschlecht III) but instead presented Heidegger’s Hand (Geschlecht II). As such this volume comprises two parts: the first being the ‘unfinished and incomplete’ Geschlecht III manuscript; the second, Sessions 9-13 of Ghost of the Other.

Despite the impossible task at hand, the volume is perhaps as ‘faithful’ a reconstruction as Derrida scholars could hope for. The editors have gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure as much of Derrida’s original material has been kept intact: where necessary Derrida’s own French translation is kept alongside Heidegger’s German, the original French translation and now their English translation; and ambiguous or illegible words (much has been transcribed from Derrida’s hand-written notes) remain and are marked out. As far as possible attempts have been made to ensure this reconstruction preserves the polysemy of the text and ensure no interpretation is foreclosed through editorial procedure.

That the lost should re-appear is a fitting place to start. It would be tempting to classify the publication of this text as a missing puzzle piece that completes the Geschlecht-series jigsaw and answers long-standing questions. David Krell (2007; 2012) has become a leading authority on this lost piece and poses the following: (a) ‘what sense are we to make…[of this] tranquil childhood’ (p. 178, 2007) or peaceful division of Geschlecht that Heidegger demands?; (b) the importance of animality (and its refusal) in the fundamental ontology of Dasein and Geschlecht; and (c) that ‘gathering is always a privileged signifier for Heidegger’ which ‘protects the unborne’ (p. 180; p. 189, 2007). It would be a mistake to argue that Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity reveals hidden answers that remained entirely elusive until now. The idea of a singular location which resolves disparate issues is precisely the problem Derrida targets here. This volume does provide crucial answers – but these answers are not entirely absent from Derrida’s other works. Nevertheless this is crucial reading for those interested in Derrida’s thought on the dangers of gathering as a privileged signifier; the ways in which polysemy remains distinct from dissemination for Derrida; and, finally, the problems of demarcating any characteristics as proper to the human. In sum, Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity threads these together in order to demonstrate a nascent political thought propelling Derrida’s earlier works which remain more radical than his later ‘political’ writings such as Rogues (2005).

Geschlecht III

Derrida opens Geschlecht III by drawing the audience’s attention to Heidegger’s interpretation of the German poet George Trakl in order to determine to whether a ‘Heideggerian reading’ succeeds in destroying or ‘extend[ing] beyond’ the ‘metaphyisco-aesthetic representation’ (p. 4), or whether it walls up to and becomes entangled and caught within its snare. In short, the entire volume centres around this singular question – how can Heidegger’s position be understood through his Trakl interpretation? – and Derrida’s dismay at this position. This should come as no surprise to those who have read Krell (2007; 2012): he suggested as much of Geschlecht III.

To begin Derrida analyses two pairs of literary criticism terms that Heidegger employs when interpreting Trakl’s poetry: Gedicht (poetic style or essence, oeuvre) and dichtendes Sagen (poetic speech, poetic expressions, poems); Erläuterung (elucidation, clarification) and Erörterung (situation but also contextualisation, discussion, debate) – rooted in the German Ort (place; location). Heidegger names Zwiesprache (dialogue) as the relation between Gedicht and dichtendes Sagen: ‘a two-way speech, exchanged here between Denken [thought] and Dichten [writing]’ (p. 23). It is thus a case of translation. Writing is exchanged for thought. For Derrida, this institutes a propriety to speech. To delimit Zwiesprache as the ‘most appropriate’ form of speech – that which defines the ‘Greatness’ of the Great Poet – is to situate (situation; Erörterung) thought as the Ort (place) where Greatness resides: Gedicht.

For Heidegger, the wandering path of Fremd (the root of stranger (Fremder) and the strange (das Fremde)) is a symbol in Trakl’s poems for accessing Gedicht. Following the Stranger leads to difference but not conflict. This is the Greatness of humanity that Heidegger envisions: peaceful difference. This path distinguishes the ‘thinking animal’ from bestiality for him. It marks the ‘tranquil childhood’ Krell (2007) implored us to make sense of. For Heidegger, humanity (Geschlecht) must follow this path, but designation or inauguration of a new Geschlecht (humanity, generation) is a two-step process: ‘there are…two blows, two strikes [Schlag], two stamps’ (p. 46) of Geschlecht. The first mark (Schlag) is discord or difference and the second is the inscription of that discord in grapheme as conflict or decomposition. The former attempts to mark the neutrality of Dasein without effacing the differences that comes with being-in-the-world.  The Stranger is a return to this first step and enables peaceful difference as humanity’s salvation.

This wandering path and its facilitation of difference evokes an erratic drifting which refuses the propriety of any direct path. Derrida argues this is an illusion: ‘the wandering of [this] Stranger we won’t call “nomadic”: he is not “countryless” or “destinationless”’ (p. 29). This gathering of heterogeneous elements can always be traced back to a singular Ort (place): the first step of Geschlecht. The desire to return to the origin, to find ‘the true’ (wahre) and safeguard (verwahren) it, is troubling for Derrida: it is an attempt to gather ‘our primitive language and we are not far from Fichte here’ (p. 17). Obliquely, Derrida infers the political implications of such a philosophical position: the expansionist logic of the nation and the exceptionalism that propels it. These themes of Ort, nationhood (Geschlecht) and gathering are, as the rest of the volume illustrates, caught within a politics of propriety.

Session 9

Geschlecht III thus seems to provide an overview of Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity with Sessions 9 to 13 each further elucidating an aspect of this overture. Session 9 focuses on: the role of Platonic-Christian metaphysics in Heidegger; the role of the untranslatable idiom and the importance of place (Ort); and finally, the difference between polysemy and dissemination. It is this last part which most demonstrates the difference Derrida wishes to institute between his own work and Heidegger’s. I would argue that it is this distinction which marks the difference between a politics of propriety and a politics which attempts to displace propriety and the violence it authorises.

First, Derrida proposes that Heidegger’s emphasis on the unicity of place (Ort) fails to be reducible to Platonic-Christian metaphysics, and yet also remains unable to think beyond it. Krell (2007) argues that Heidegger thinks of himself as offering a ‘reversal and overcoming of, or coming to terms with, Platonism’ (p. 184). Here we see Derrida dismiss the idea of any ‘reversal’ and argue instead that Heidegger’s emphasis on the unicity of Ort reveals a foregrounding to Plantonic-Christianity: a ‘more-originary’ place which is non-temporally ‘before’ or ‘prior to’ the Platonic-Christian ontological oppositions. Gedicht is not a spiritual place but a place of the material world, a place in-the-world. It is only the poems written (dichtendes Sagen) which enables the possibility of accessing the unspeakable Gedicht. Despite this, Gedicht gathers these ‘material’ polysemic poems into a singular and univocal, that is a proper, understanding. In sum, Derrida argues that Heidegger destrukts (not deconstructs) the metaphysical opposition of spiritual-material and reanimates it to think it differently. Yet, he merely tethers them to another singular site of origin (Geschlecht, Being or Dasein).

Second, Derrida focuses on the role of the untranslatable idiom in the ‘second step’ or second blow/mark (Schlag) which institutes division and, as Krell (2012) argues, ‘magnetises’ Derrida. Here, Elis, a young boy in Trakl’s An den Knaben Elis (‘To The Boy Elis’), is introduced alongside the Stranger which, for Heidegger, also promises salvation and the new Geschlecht. Both enable the possibility of resisting the conflict of the ‘second blow’ by returning to this ‘pre-originary’ first step: peaceful difference. Derrida argues this ‘pre-originary’ foundation is not neutral. The figures of Elis and Stranger can only be understood through the ‘Old and High, secret, idiomatico-poetic’ German (p. xxix) – not everyday German. Elis and Stranger are not universal nor ahistorical conceptions but deeply historical ones: they are impossible to translate, and only a deep, rich understanding of this history and its linguistic connotations allows for the possibility of their comprehension. Consequently, Derrida is concerned that Geschlecht, this new humanity, is delimited by the propriety of Old and High German as the proper thought of any ‘thinking animal’. Contingent characteristics are here made proper, neutral and universal. The Geschlecht that can salvage humanity must properly apprehend and understand this idiomatic and untranslatable history and be part of it.

This brings us to the third part of Session 9 and to the heart of Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity as a project (perhaps even the entire Geschlecht series itself): the gathering and untranslatability of Ort as ‘a difference between polysemy and dissemination’ (p. 52). Polysemy is not a word Heidegger himself uses. It is Derrida’s own translation of mehrdeutig (ambiguous) which aims to: a) capture the multiplication of difference that Being inaugurates; and b) to differentiate from his own conception of dissemination which, unlike Heidegger’s mehrdeutig (ambiguous) or polysemy, does not gather these differences into a singular unicity. For Heidegger, difference is coterminous with singularity but the former must converge or gather in a singular place: for instance, poems and Gedicht do not efface or annul one another, but the former are possible because of the singular Gedicht. For Derrida, this is highly problematic. It privileges this singular, idiomatic place above all others as the necessary starting point for humanity’s salvation from decomposition. Dissemination then is difference tout court; perpetual deferral and displacement. Any attempt to gather or locate is always a violent imposition. As Noah Martin (2015) wryly comments: ‘the kind of dissemination [polysemy] that is not in opposition to gathering is a watered-down dissemination’ (p. 3). A polysemic conception of difference continues to institute a proper place amongst perpetual difference. It is a violent and always unjust imposition which installs boundaries of propriety: moving from the metaphysical origin to the ‘pre-originary’ Being. What is proper to humanity’s salvation then is a thinking animal contingent on the boundaries of Old and High German: others can exist but the future begins here.

Session 10

If Session 9 is critical of Heidegger’s polysemic gathering, which privileges a contingent historical Ort (place) as proper to humanity, then Session 10 explores the violent implications of this boundary demarcation. Derrida argues that this privileging of historical place (Ort) enables a quasi-nationalism, one tied to myths of a discreet language, land and history, to overwhelm Heidegger’s account of the new Geschlecht.

Session 10 opens with a clarification: Gedicht is not something other than the Dichtung (poetry). Gedicht is rather the fundamental tone (Grundton) of the Dichtung; it is a silence that marks what is really being said when we speak. Grundton is not elsewhere with regard to the poems of Dichtung; it is the unspokenness of these poems. Gedicht is the unspoken, ‘true’ meaning of these poems. Heidegger finds this unspoken meaning by metonymically linking of words and phrases from everyday German to Old and High German. Gedicht, like Being, is always an essence of becoming: made through poems but not existing outside them. This negotiation means that the supposed neutrality of Gedicht and Being is then always marked by a discreet linguistic history: Old and High German. Derrida here summarises the fear that has stalked his reading of Heidegger thus far: it is not merely a form of nationalism, but a propriety of Being dependent upon these contingent, historical conditions and something far more delimiting in its scope. Session 10 argues then that just when Heidegger is at his most radical, he stutters, redoubles back on himself and imposes a quasi ‘philosophical nationalism’. This ‘proper thought’ of Erörterung, the thinking animal and Geschlecht act as necessary pre-conditions for humanity – reaffirming the propriety of those who can have access to it and can enter subjectivity. Anything less is bestiality or non-human. In this singular move, some humans then become sub-human and this marks the ultimate danger of any politics or philosophy of propriety.

Session 11

If Session 10 outlines the violent implications of delineating Geschlecht as a proprietary foundation for humanity’s salvation, then Session 11 hammers these home. First, Derrida situates the Stranger and Elis between and against two concepts of modernity and German Idealism: cosmopolitanism and humanism. Second, Derrida argues that Heidegger’s conception of the Occident (Europe, the West) is integral to this positioning. Moreover, Derrida argues that a Geschlecht which retains the Occident as its home is a dangerous form of proprietary violence which radically excludes.

The Stranger and Elis, unlike humanism or cosmopolitanism, refuse the human being as the foundation for the human experience: ‘what throws [the throwing, das Werfende] in such projection is not the human being but being itself, which sends [schickt, which destines] the human being into the ek-sistence of Da-sein that is his essence’ (p. 97; my italics). Heidegger turns to Holderlin’s Heimkunft (‘Homecoming’) to designate Heimat (homeland) as this thrownness [das Werfende] of Da-sein. Yet this homeland, Derrida argues, must be thought, not nationalistically nor patriotically, but rather ‘in term of the history of being’ (p. 98). Moreover, for Heidegger this history, this Heimat, must be understood as Abendland – a phrase Trakl uses in his oeuvre to denote the Occident and which literally translates as Land of the Evening. Heidegger eulogises that the evening prepares and clears the way for the morning and the new to come, just as Being is a site (Ort) which prepares and clears the way for the unborne Geschlecht to come. For Derrida then, Heidegger’s assimilation of Holderin’s Heimat and Trakl’s Abendland announce the limits of the new configurations that can emerge from Being (that pre-originary place) and which can resist the decomposition of the second step, the bad Geschlecht. The Heimat’s “countrymen” are not the citizens of the German nation; countrymen refers to those who inherit the history of being. In other words, it is those who retain ‘a belongingness to the destiny of the West’ (p. 98) – those who understand this history and inherit through Old and High German. Consequently, Derrida argues this move to steer clear of nationalism only violently reaffirms the propriety of ‘the West’ as the origin of Being thus destined (Geschickt) as the future of humanity’s salvation.

Session 12

Session 12 sees Derrida, in knowingly provocative fashion, name this discourse a ‘revolutionary promise’. The new Geschlecht, inheritors of Old and High German and descendents of Abendland, and thus destined (Geschickt) by virtue of this unique place (Ort) they hold in history, is this singular subjectivity – it may spawn others but this is where it all begins. Derrida further argues that Heidegger’s emphasis on the “Ein” (one) in Ein Geschlecht promises the possibility of a ‘completely other experience’ (p. 128): peaceful difference. Yet he concludes that it is this very demand for the Ein, for the singular and the securing of it, which ‘guarantees the ultimate foundation of every nationalism’ (p. 132) and thus reanimates the possibility of exclusion, dispossession and violence that Ein Geschlecht promises to release us from.

The new Geschlecht appear through Schlag – a mark or strike which clears the decomposition and inaugurates the unborne Geschlecht of Abendland. Two things remain important for Derrida. First, this mark (Schlag) is not only a singular mark. It announces the singularity of Being and the differences of all beings which might emerge from this singular Geschlecht. There is both Einfalt (oneness) and Zwiefalt (two-fold). Singularity does not efface difference; differences are maintained alongside the singular place (Ort) even as they are gathered into it. Second, Schlag, as strike or mark, does not merely mean destruction but operates as ‘an opening and a path-breaking’ (p. 130). This makes sense given singularity does not efface difference for Heidegger and it is the Schlag which clears decomposition for a new Geschlecht to break forth. It is for this reason that Derrida argues Schlag is untranslatable from German because any translation fails to carry over Schlag’s inextricable relationship to Weg (path). The mark of the singular (ein Geschlecht) is thus a pathway to multiplicity wherein all the new, unborne Geschlechter of the future gestate.

Schrijvers (2017) proposes that Derrida hopes for a unisexuality, a singular Geschlecht which ‘resists (even his) deconstruction’ (p. 2). However, Session 12 demonstrates that even this polysemic, path-breaking (Weg) Schlag, which promises difference alongside singularity (Ein) and a future of possibility over closure, ‘remains a path of return’ (p. 131).  Derrida argues, the pathway (Weg) of the Schlag (the mark) and the Ein (the one) ‘gives way to the more ancient, the more matutinal of the night before’ (p. 131). That which is closest to the most Ancient civilisation (this ‘first’ civilisation) – Ancient Greece, the West, Abendland –  structures Geschlecht (humanity, species, races, sexualities) and can be considered proper to the future to come of humanity and its true descendants. Proximity to Heimat determines Ein Geschlecht. Thus, this account of Being, for Derrida, remains an act of enclosure within the field of difference. Schrijvers misses what Derrida always targets: enclosure, the demarcation of boundaries and propriety. His hope, if one can exist, is to resist unjustified enclosure.

For Derrida, Heimkunft (homecoming) organises Heidegger’s thought on the proper and commands and enables all possible forms of nationalism and nationalist claims. The polysemic differences of Geschlecht are organised through the singularity of Heimkunft. Derrida understands Heimkunft as a ‘return to the source [which] can be a withdrawal or preparation for a new morning or new leap…this nationalist circle’ (p. 132). The homecoming is then a ‘path-breaking step’ which clears the way forward for national and colonial exploitation to operate. It is a harkening back to the ‘most original’ in order to justify venturing forth and appropriating all that is ahead. It is not simply then that those improper differences outside the singular propriety of Heimkunft (i.e. those other, non-Western Geschlecht or ‘races’, nations, ‘species’) are eviscerated – they are eviscerated through their interpolation into this ‘most original’ logic of Being. The Other is only understood through the terms of the self – ‘neutralising’ any sense of Other-ness. This propriety of self therefore eviscerates the Other by appropriating it into the self and this ‘most original’ logic.

Session 13

Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity’s final session, Session 13, provides the clearest indication yet of what decomposition means for Heidegger: modernity. It is against this backdrop Derrida argues, that the new Geschlecht of the Stranger and Elis must be understood as an arche-origin. Derrida claims that Heidegger’s differentiation between Historie (history as representation), Geschichte (history as that which happens but also tale or narrative) and Geschick (destiny) demonstrates how he constructs a certain history of Old and High German, descended from Abendland, as the arche-origin of humanity (Geschlecht). In naming the new Geschlecht as an arche-origin Derrida forcefully shows what has been latently pointed to throughout the book: this new Geschlecht as Stranger and Elis are proprietary claims, which replay in dissimulated fashion the metaphysical trap it seeks to escape.

In Die Sprache im Gedicht (1953) Heidegger rallies against those who argue that Trakl’s work is ahistorical because it does not contain ‘historiographical objects’ (p. 149). For Heidegger, there is no need for these when dealing with history of the ‘highest sense’ (p. 150). Failure to understand this is a ‘modern and metaphysical objection [which] stems from this objectivism and this philosophy of representation that is the mark of post-Cartesian philosophy’ (p. 149).  The distinction between Historie, Geschichte and Geschick is then Heidegger’s attempts to return to the past and articulate a different account of history altogether – one that Trakl apparently pronounces perfectly: ‘his poem is Geschichtlich [historical] in the highest sense’ (p. 149-150). Geschichte literally translates to history, story, tale, narrative, saga. Trakl’s poetry may not name historical objects, but it does mark Stranger and Elis; symbols of the new Geschlecht, the bearer of history and the future, and the destiny (schickt/Geschick) of the history of ‘the West’. Like the path-breaking Schlag (mark), these symbols carry history forth – continue its story – by returning to the ‘most original’ mark of humanity (Geschlecht) and making way for the future.

For Derrida, reanimating history cannot mean a return to an origin. This ‘movement toward the future is a return toward the arche-origin’ (p. 153). There is no undecidability nor uncertainty regarding this future. It is rather determined by the false construction of an originary moment which then legitimises ensuing violence. Here the ‘arche-origin’ legitimates Ein Geschlecht as both (a) the historical and proper subject of Abendland and ‘the West’, which has always existed; and (b) the one which is also its future and can act as its salvation. Derrida argues that Heidegger’s circular account of history only serves to ‘save what is proper to man’ (p. 152). It designates and delimits a Geschick (destiny), Ein Geschlecht, to ‘give humanity its proper stamp and make it come into itself, into its essence, saving it from what it is not or must not be’ (p. 152). This may be an essence of becoming: the future Geschlecht enables the fulfilment of this promise of history. Nevertheless, this future and this promise are always premised upon a return that is not ‘accidental or supplementary predicate of dwelling or the homeland [Heimat], it is the essential movement that originarily constitutes the homeland or country as a promise of dwelling. The country begins with the promise of return’ (p. 153). As such even an ‘arche-origin’ of becoming such as the Heimat of Ein Geschlecht (like all arche-origins) is an act of ownership over the future, which denotes what can appear within it by demarcating a past and a future (Abendland, ‘the West’ and the Occident) which do not exist. This demarcation and delimitation of the future thus marks its proper bounds. It institutes what does and does not count.


After reading Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity some might be tempted to argue that if gathering, even in the polysemic fashion Heidegger suggests, is so problematic, it must be avoided at all costs such that nothing is ever united. As responses to Spectres of Marx (1994) demonstrated, some will affirm then that deconstructive politics is no politics at all. Others would lament the lack of overt references to sex and sexuality, which Krell (2007; 2012) promised were the ‘proper subjects’ of Geschlecht III. Both responses would be short-sighted. In refusing the propriety of gathering and affirming dissemination as a form of anti-proprietary politics, Derrida argues we cannot rely upon the histories and systems we inherit. Gathering is possible; it happens all the time. But, in ‘protecting the unborne’, it will necessarily exclude, and failure to acknowledge any ‘arche-origin’ as contingent is fundamentally dangerous. Reading sex and sexuality through this lens disavows the imposition of boundaries that binary logics of sex designate. Male and female must be understood as limits which govern the propriety of bodies, determine our political horizons and authorises violence (be it the absence of appropriate and socialised healthcare or vigilante attacks) against those who defy these limits. These borders always overlap and coalesce with those of the human, race, nation, lineage to institute forms of propriety. This is the reason, it seems, that Derrida is so intrigued by Geschlecht – a phrase which points to these intersecting forms of properness and cannot be reduced to any single one.

Derrida’s concern throughout Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity is that Heidegger replays a metaphysical trick. A ‘Heideggerian reading’, Ein Geschlecht, Elis, Abendland cannot be reduced to the metaphysical, but neither do they entirely escape that metaphysical inclination for propriety: a proper way to write, a proper way to read the poem, a proper path to follow and more significantly a proper locale of Being – a properness to humanity. It is this propriety which threads each of the sessions in Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity as Derrida elucidates the violence which is authorised by any stalwart defence of propriety to humanity:  be it thought (over animality), a race, a sex, a sexuality, a nation, a lineage and so forth. Dissemination is positioned as the perpetual displacement of any attempt at gathering or enclosure and, as such, the perpetual disavowal of any propriety. It is therefore the possibility of resisting rather than replaying the violences of racism, colonialism and sexism (but also heteropatriarchy) (and so forth), which attempt to designate the kinds of bodies that are proper and improper. What is most interesting then is not necessarily what this volume  says about Heidegger (nor Derrida’s reading of him) but the dormant political force which  Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity and other earlier works (1978; 1982; 1992) reveal – that most radical energy which becomes more cautious in texts such as Rogues (2005). It is that energy that Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity provides today and it is this Derrida we cannot forget and must inherit.


Derrida, Jacques. 1978. Writing and Difference. Great Britain: Routledge.

Derrida, Jacques. 1982. Margins of Philosophy. Brighton: Harvester Press Limited.

Derrida, Jacques. 1992. “Force of Law: The ‘Mystical Foundation of Authority.’” In Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, edited by Drucilla Cornell, Michael Rosenfeld and David Gray Carlson, 3-67. New York: Routledge.

Derrida, Jacques. 1994. Spectres of Marx. New York: Routledge.

Derrida, Jacques. 2005. Rogues: Two Essays on Reason. California: Stanford University Press.

Heidegger, Martin. 1953. “Die Sprache im Gedicht.” In Unterwegs zur Sprache (On the way to Language). 1982. Harper Collins.

Krell, David Farrell. 2007. “Marginalia to Geschlecht III: Derrida on Heidegger on Trakl.” The New Centennial Review 7, no 2 (Fall): 175-199.

Krell, David Farrell. 2012. Phantoms of the Other. Albany: Suny Press.

Martin, Noah Gabriel. 2015. “Review of ‘Phantoms of the Other: Four Generation of Derrida’s Geschlecht.’” Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.

Schrijvers, Joeri. 2017. “Review of ‘Phantoms of the Other.’” Phenomenological Reviews.

[i] My thanks to Viktoria Huegel for help with editing and proofreading, and for being kind to my butchering of the German language.

Klaus Hemmerle: Theses Towards a Trinitarian Ontology

Theses Towards a Trinitarian Ontology Couverture du livre Theses Towards a Trinitarian Ontology
Klaus Hemmerle. Foreword by Dr. Rowan Williams
Angelico Press
Paperback: $14.95 / Hardcover: $25

Reviewed by: Elisa Zocchi (University of Münster)

After many years of waiting, Klaus Hemmerle’s Thesen zu einer trinitarischen Ontologie finally finds an English translation. Written in 1975 on the occasion of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s 70th birthday, this short essay is considered one of the richest expressions of Hemmerle’s thought, particularly important for the recent rebirth of interest towards trinitarian ontology. Little known in the English speaking world for many years, in recent times Hemmerle’s trinitarian reflection has in fact gained the attention of more and more scholars, as fully expressed in the conference on “New Trinitarian Ontologies”, first held in Cambridge in September 2019 and holding in 2021 its third edition. This renewed interest certainly must have played a role in the decision of translating this essay, on which scholars can finally work directly. What is, though, trinitarian ontology, and why is it so important today?

To answer this question we have to look at Hemmerle’s major inspiration in thinking trinitarian ontology, the man to which the Theses are dedicated. In the preface to the book Hemmerle introduces the thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar as “an alternative to a theology with a merely anthropological approach” and, at the same time, “also an alternative to a static and deductive theological thinking”. Trinitarian ontology is for Hemmerle exactly the alternative to these two approaches to theology, so common in the second half of 20th century. Between an utterly deductive, analytic approach and one that can only stay within anthropological limits, Hemmerle recognized the necessity for post-Conciliar theology to find a third way, that same third way so often invoked by Balthasar in his many works. What was needed was not only a new way of thinking theology, but rather a new way to approach the whole of reality, of life. Hemmerle sketches this new approach in 33 theses, divided into four chapters.

In the first chapter, ontology is clearly defined as that which became superfluous, when compared to disciplines more interested with the “needs and practical consequences” of facts. This superfluity directly affects theology: the problematic Hellenization of Christianity is something that has to be fixed by “getting back behind ontology”, to a pre-metaphysical and pre-theological thinking, as suggested by Heidegger and many others. Hemmerle, although agreeing with the necessity of a “conversion”, disagrees with the method to achieve it, suggesting that the way for shaping a true ontology might come exactly from theology. In order to articulate this claim, Hemmerle starts by listing some basic elements of theology.

The first is  what he calls a “double a priori” of theology: if God has to be understood by man he has to speak a human language, but at the same time, for the human language to grasp revelation, man has to be open to God’s speaking.

Secondly, he classifies two types of theology: theology of translation and theology of witness. In the first, the content of revelation is “translated” thanks to the use of “a human, historical, philosophically pre-formed mode of questioning and understanding” (18); this is the case of Aquina’s use of Aristotelian thinking. Theology of witness instead, exemplified by Bonaventure, implies man’s abandonment to “God’s radical beginning”, acquiring new “possibilities of thinking and speaking” (18).

In both theologies the double a priori comes into play, as it did in the conciliar formulations of Christological and Trinitarian dogmas. As an example Hemmerle brings the so called Hellenization of Christianity: if it is true that Christianity took its shape on a Greek background, it is also true that it maintains its originality, resisting a complete submission to Greek categories and developing fundamental concepts not previously available, like the doctrine of the Trinity. Among these doctrines developed by theology however we do not find, for Hemmerle, a fully comprehensive meaning of Being: there is no proper Christian Ontology, and Christianity was always “a guest among multiple philosophical projects and systems, the sources of whose formation lay elsewhere” (21). This deficiency and lack of a common ground became even more profound in the modern time, with the multiplying of approaches and models.

In the second chapter Hemmerle delves into the characteristic that a Christian ontology should have: as per the title of the chapter, he opens an “Entry into the Distinctively Christian Element”. To understand what is distinctively Christian Hemmerle asks the core question of the book: “in what way are the fundamental human experiences and fundamental understanding of God, the world, and human beings altered when faith in Jesus Christ breaks in upon them?” (23).

To find an answer Hemmerle introduces two categories. First, the phenomenon of religion, i.e. the experience of displacement: the comprehension of reality is not anymore from the point of view of the human subject, but rather from the point of view of an Other, an Other upon which man and the world “are most intimately dependent” (24). Secondly, the experience of the Logos, of the inter-connectedness of every aspect of reality graspable by man.

Hemmerle applies these two categories to the Ancient Covenant, from which comes a first answer to the question on the proprium of Christianity; in it these two categories are included but somehow overcome, surpassed. In the Old Testament we discover that the experience of displacement is that of an Other who, although transcendent, “stands on the side of human beings” (28) and provokes a change in every aspect of life; the experience of the Logos is seen in the fact that God is transcendent but not in competition with human wisdom.

With the New Covenant the question finds a definitive, more radical answer: as for the phenomenon of religion, man is called to put aside the old age and exchange it for a new one, the age of Christ; as for the experience of the Logos, God enters now physically in history, in a specific time and space. God is not anymore playing a role in history with sporadic intervention and episodic revelations; with Christ, “our history becomes His epiphany”, “history becomes the word spoken by the God who is revealed in it” (30). This is the core of what is precisely Christian, what Hemmerle has been guiding us to: in Jesus Christ, “God shares all of what is ours and all of what is His”. In Jesus, God comes into history and yet remains above history. Christianity’s uniqueness is therefore the experience of “a God above us who encounters and answers the God who is among us”: transcendence and immanence are maintained in a unique tension,  they are united by unconditional love – the Holy Spirit. What is uniquely Christian is, therefore, the trinitarian doctrine experienced by men when they believe in Jesus Christ; if God is threefold, human thinking experiences a radical conversion [Umkehrung]. It will not be enough to simply reformulate a previous ontology, and a new ontology is needed – indeed, a trinitarian ontology, that can no longer take Being for self-subsistence or independent. Hemmerle is clear: if God is Trinity, the whole structure of being is involved.

The third chapter is the most intense and complex one: here Hemmerle lays the foundations of a new trinitarian ontology. First of all, Hemmerle makes it clear that the Trinity is not a new formal principle from which everything is logically inferred, in Aristotelian fashion. Thinking the Trinity is rather the beginning of a phenomenology in which everything is interpreted from the standpoint of the core element of the Trinity itself: the act of self-giving. What remains, for Hemmerle, is not a speculative principle, but the element that draws the Trinity together: love, agape. This love is what  “articulates the original self-showing of Being and beings” (36). In this phenomenology the main role is played by the verb rather than the noun: an object can for Hemmerle be understood only in its action, which is a “communication, a delimitation, and an adaptation to an overarching context” (38). The unity of each object is only preserved in the process, which involves a plural origination, as Hemmerle explains using the example of language. Each word has three origins that “spring up mutually: I, language, and you”. Exemplar are also cases like identity and time: they all remain themselves exactly in virtue of their process of becoming “more”. Their internal unity comes from their plural origination. This new approach to the object, from the standpoint of process and of the plural origination, causes a radical revolution in our way of thinking.

Hemmerle faces then the foreseeable objection: what about the ineliminable resistance of things? This objection would subsist for those philosophies in which process and plural origination are taken as principles of deduction, blocks of a system. But in Hemmerle’s trinitarian theology the thing plays a different role, “giving itself over into what takes place in self-giving” (43). Self-giving is therefore the pivotal element of this ontology, not as an added element to an object, but as the fundamental structure that allows an object to be what it is. Only by bringing itself to the other does something arrive at itself; Hemmerle gets to the point of saying that “substance comes to transubstantiation, to communion” (44). The main examples are once again given by language (“when I say something, I bring it to light in what is proper to it”, 46) and thought (“when something gives itself to be thought, it comes into its own brightness”, 45). In the same way, Being “is” only as the fulfillment of passing-over, of communion of self-giving, only as for-each-other. Everything finds itself in the midst of a play with multiple origins: the play between being, thinking, and speaking; everything owes its existence to the game, and yet we are responsible for our actions and answers.

Hemmerle seems then to acknowledge that in multiple occasions the philosophical tradition has seen attempts to modify and replace the classic ontology of the static substance: Aquina’s analogy, Bonaventure’s ars aeterna, Nicholas of Cusa’s mereology, Descartes’ system, Schelling’s late philosophy, the eucharistic understanding of the world of Baader, Rosenzweig’s reflection about language, Heidegger’s Being and Time, Rombach’s structural ontology. These, however, were all approaches “from below”, and could not reach the very depth of “the threefold mystery of God, which is revealed to us in faith” (50). It becomes clear that for Hemmerle a new ontology can only be based on revelation, the very mystery of self-giving itself. This has its ground in Jesus’s death and resurrection, a gift that transformed the whole world. In this way, the analogy of Being becomes the analogy of the Trinity: the way to fulfillment is nothing else than entering into relatedness.

Finally, Hemmerle analyses the “levels of trinitarian happening”. The access is given by the event of the economic trinity, which is not an external supplement to the internal being of God, but rather his deepest mystery: the economic trinity reveals the immanent trinity. This way, the economy of creation is included in the trinitarian life, as an anticipation of the trinitarian fulfillment, and the believers live their life in the awareness of being-in-Christ. This originates a new way of living, dictated by the very ethos of Jesus’s relation to the Father.

The fourth chapter is an appendix, “Consequences of a Trinitarian Ontology”. Hemmerle draws three types of consequences: philosophical, theological, and practical. In the end however, he states that these three levels are deeply united.

The philosophical and theological consequences concern especially the unity of freedom and necessity; in God, necessity is an interpretation of freedom. Jesus’s freedom to obey the Father is the most incomprehensible act of self-giving, and therefore the moment where God is most himself. As for the practical consequences (“for how we think, speak, and exist”), Hemmerle insists strongly on the idea that every individual performance is deeply united with the performance of partners: society is not utterly the sum of individuals, but a unity, a single common life in which every person is “the point of departure, the goal and the middle of a movement” (63).

When talking of society, Hemmerle claims that trinitarian ontology allows one to step beyond the profound modern separation of theory and praxis – its contemplative spirituality naturally points out towards “the We”, towards the others. The most profound moment of contemplation is in fact the Cross, which also coincides with the greatest act of self-giving, the most revealing and opening instant. For this reason, it is a spirituality that in being contemplative is also active, a communitarian spirituality of service, and so is the theology that results from this new ontology: both traditional and contemporary, communitarian and of service.

The first question that emerges when closing this book is very simple: are these 33 theses enough to shape the Christian philosophy that Hemmerle wishes for, and to present the new life generated by discovering the centrality of the trinitarian self-giving?

The answer has to be negative: it is Hemmerle himself that defines this work “fragmentary and incompletely demonstrated in its argumentations and conclusions” (8). Multiple thinkers are now continuing the work of Hemmerle; as for the foundational work, we could say much lies already in Balthasar’s trinitarian thought, as Hemmerle himself acknowledges. What do we gain, then, in engaging a detailed reading of this work, rather than a more inclusive manual on the discipline? What Hemmerle is uniquely able to express in this short essay is more and more necessary, with the multiplying of voices talking about trinitarian ontology: a focus precisely on what is at stake. Why is a new way of thinking ontology so important? And why do we need to re-think Being not merely in light of the categories of relationship (as many thinkers in the last centuries did not fail to notice), but first and foremost in light of the trinitarian relationship?

From Heidegger onwards, it has become normal to think of ontology as something to reshape, something “gone wrong”. Heidegger was certainly an important influence, but Hemmerle takes a position that is the complete opposite to the Heideggerian accusation of ontotheology and of the forgetfulness of the ontological difference. Trinitarian ontology is precisely about the non-difference of being and beings. This non-difference is not identity, but rather the being-in-God of every being. Every being is originated from the intra-trinitarian love. This love, as Balthasar will later say, is not the absolute Good beyond being, but rather the depth, height, length and breadth of being itself. Trinitarian ontology does not therefore imply a triadic structure of reality, as one might think, but rather that the totality of reality has its origin in the self-giving of the trinitarian love. This movement of self-giving is therefore the rhythm of being, without turning movement into a principle: the only principle is agape. This makes it clear that what is at stake, for Hemmerle, is not only the possibility of a Christian philosophy, that has so vehemently been denied in the first half of the century by many philosophers, but also life itself, our way of living. Communal life is the main place where trinitarian life can be experienced in this world, to the point that Hemmerle claims that “the sky is among us”, as per the title of another of his works (Der Himmel ist zwischen uns). A Christian ontology does not merely change the way we think, but is a true revolution of the way we live. “It is play and process that once more interest human beings, at the end of modern age, and at the end of objective metaphysics: life, for example, freedom, meaning. Such processes are about me – but not about me alone; are about the whole – but not about a whole from which I can abstract myself, are about society – but about a society which may not once more become a Subject devouring the individual” (42). For Hemmerle it is clear that a trinitarian God changes our entire way of living, because our history is His history, so that we see and form everything in the image of the Trinity.

This takes a concrete shape in the experience of the Focolare Movement, whose history is profoundly intertwined with the life and thought of Klaus Hemmerle. The profound unity of contemplation and spirituality is just one reflection of the central role played by the notion of unity for the Focolare charisma. It is not of minor importance to notice how the two men involved in the foundation of a trinitarian ontology, Hans Urs von Balthasar and Klaus Hemmerle, had a profound friendship with two mystics: respectively, Adrienne von Speyr and Chiara Lubich. Lubich’s mystical experience of the unitive presence of Divine Love influenced Hemmerle from 1958, date of their first meeting, and Hemmerle will claim that “Chiara has conveyed to us a school of life. This school of life, however, is also a school for theology. The result is not so much an improvement of theology, as a living theology that originates from revelation”[1]. This is a pivotal element of Hemmerle’s thought: there is no real barrier between the mystical experience and the theological reflection, between experience and thought, between philosophy and theology. This can happen because all these elements are originated by the one and only principle at the core of the Trinity, the act of self-giving.

This also answers the second question that can emerge while engaging this reading: how is this ontology any different from the many “relational ontologies” blossomed in the 20th century, ontologies that see the “other” as the pivotal element? What is the difference between a relational ontology and a trinitarian ontology, and why shouldn’t we just talk of relation?

Hemmerle is clear that relationship and process are not to become “some new principle from which everything would once again be inferred in a lonely deduction. Only one thing remains: active participation in that movement which agape itself is” (35). Against the deductive method, Hemmerle shapes an ontology which does not begin from invariance, but from self-giving, and not every relation is a place of self-giving. Ontology can only start from the most original self-giving, that of the Trinity itself – from the kenotic event intended in its radical sense, thus not limited to the Cross but including the whole self-giving of the Trinity. That being is self-giving cannot in fact be disclosed from below, claims Hemmerle: it needs a revelation. Ontology needs therefore to be trinitarian, and not simply relational, because, to quote Balthasar, “only love is [a] credible” answer to the question on Being.

Hemmerle might not be particularly original in some of his reflections ­– the description of the process of the world as a play, or the idea of a  reciprocity without beginning, had already been described by the first volume of Balthasar’s Theo-Drama a few years before. Hemmerle himself mentions in the Theses the many names that attempted a reflection on trinitarian ontology. And yet, the sharp and clear focus on “what is distinctively Christian” is unique of this work. The major strength of this essay is the clarity with which Hemmerle expresses the need for his time (and, we could say, for our times) of a renewal of the relationship between theology and philosophy. Ontology is for him the fundamental place where to set this renewal into movement. Not always as clear is however the way in which this capsizing of ontology has to take place – these Theses are the first stone of a project that Hemmerle himself didn’t pursue, at least not in a clearly systematic form. Hemmerle is in fact not exhaustive in his arguments – Balthasar rightly describes the Theses as “highly concentrated and aphoristic”. Especially the third chapter, where Hemmerle exposes the core of his trinitarian ontology, is particularly intense and not always easy to follow. This is however not to be seen only as a flaw of the work itself. On the contrary, it becomes one of its major virtues: it allows scholars, as it did in recent years, to draw from it in order to open new paths, as witnessed by the many conferences and publications on trinitarian ontology. These are not limited to scholars belonging to the Focolare movement, and involve thinkers of multiple origins and backgrounds. Examples are to be found in the reflections of Thomas Norris in Ireland and Klaus Kienzle in Germany, but especially in Italy, where Hemmerle has been known and translated already in 1986 and where he is at the center of the speculative work of the Sophia Institute of Loppiano, especially with the work of Piero Coda. Coda draws from Hemmerle and expands on the theological elements of his reflections, those that did not receive in-depth analysis in the Theses; central in Coda’s reflection is the crucified and abandoned Christ and the role of “non-being” within the Trinity. Italy hosts also the fruitful  reflection of Giulio Maspero, who thinks trinitarian ontology especially in relation to the Church Fathers. The availability of Hemmerle’s texts in the Italian language (together with the influence of Chiara Lubich’s movement) certainly plays a pivotal role in the abundance of reflections on trinitarian ontology in Italy, and shows how precious this English translation can be for future outcomes in the English speaking theological and philosophical community. The recent increase in interest in trinitarian ontology functions itself as a sign that Hemmerle’s intuitions are correct and require time and attention to bare their fruits. The conference on New Trinitarian Ontologies, which will see in 2021 its third edition, is enriched by contributions that stretch from ancient to modern philosophy and theology, but also to economic, political, and ecological ontologies. This is the power of this work, defined by Elmar Salmann as the most important book published in the post-conciliar years: not only are Hemmerle’s Theses potentially able to open multiple paths and include a variety of Denkformen, enriching therefore the contemporary debate on the relation between theology and philosophy; they also invite theology to draw from metaphysics and ontology, after the long lasting prevalence of a stale analytic approach. Trinitarian ontology is certainly open to criticisms, more or less original – those same criticisms moved to almost every theory based on an analogical approach. Similarly to Balthasar however, Hemmerle’s strength is to insert the analogical approach into a bigger picture, that of the profound unity of metaphysics and mystic, of thought and prayer. Lived in this profoundly symphonic unity, metaphysics is not at the end, and Hemmerle’s Theses can be one of the starting blocks for its new beginning.

[1] Klaus Hemmerle, “Tell Me about Your God”, Being One 1 (1996): 20.

Rudolf Bultmann, Hans Jonas: Briefwechsel 1928–1976

Briefwechsel 1928–1976: Mit einem Anhang anderer Zeugnisse Couverture du livre Briefwechsel 1928–1976: Mit einem Anhang anderer Zeugnisse
Rudolf Bultmann, Hans Jonas. Edited by Andreas Großmann
Mohr Siebeck
Paperback 69,00 €
XXV, 161

Reviewed by: Ian Alexander Moore (Loyola Marymount University; Faculty Member, St. John’s College)

This volume contains letters, spanning nearly fifty years, between the Protestant theologian Rudolf Bultmann and the Jewish philosopher Hans Jonas. It also includes a helpful editor’s introduction and a nine-part appendix, containing, among other documents, Martin Heidegger’s and Bultmann’s previously unpublished evaluations of Jonas’s 1928 dissertation on Gnosticism, as well as Jonas’s brief, previously unpublished correspondence with Heidegger.

In the first substantive letter (13 July 1929), which is more of a book proposal than a letter properly speaking (Jonas called it a Briefmonstrum, an “epistolary monster,” 7), Jonas attempts phenomenologically to derive a universal truth about humanity from St. Paul’s famous description of his struggle to fulfill the Law in Romans 7:7–25. The existential, hence not specifically Christian structure of Paul’s statements consists, according to Jonas, in the tension between a free, primordial self-willing (volo me velle) and its inevitable lapse into the objectification of the universe and, correlatively, of the self (cogito me velle). Here we have Entmythologisierung (“demythologization”) avant la lettre.

But, it should be noted, we are not far before the letter: the very next year, in his first book, Jonas would introduce the language of demythologization, which would become one of the defining and most controversial features of Bultmann’s theology, into the scholarly world. This important, but still-untranslated book, titled Augustin und das paulinische Freiheitsproblem: Ein philosophischer Beitrag zur Genesis der christlich-abendländischen Freiheitsidee (Augustine and the Pauline Problem of Freedom: A Philosophical Contribution to the Genesis of the Christian-Western Idea of Freedom), builds on Jonas’s “epistolary monster.” Bultmann published it in 1930 in his prestigious series “Forschungen zur Religion und Literatur des Alten und Neuen Testaments” (“Research on the Religion and Literature of the Old and New Testament”).[1]

Although, apart from a few largely perfunctory letters, the extant correspondence does not resume in earnest until 1952, Jonas and Bultmann remained in contact in the interim. For example, in a later memorial tribute to Bultmann (included in the appendix to the correspondence), Jonas relates that Bultmann was the only teacher whom he had visited before emigrating from Germany in 1933 in response to the SA troops’ harassment and persecution of Jews. Bultmann, moreover, would also be one of the first teachers Jonas would visit when he returned to Germany fifteen years later as a soldier in the victorious Allied forces. It is worth reproducing Jonas’s recollections here, as they attest not only to his intellectual respect for his teacher (which he also had for Heidegger, for instance), but above all to his respect for Bultmann’s character and ethical bearing (which, to his great dismay, he found tragically lacking in Heidegger). After reading this, it should come as little surprise that Jonas kept a picture of Bultmann by his desk in New York (108), or that, in 1934, Bultmann was bold enough to write a preface for the publication of the first volume of his Jewish student’s work on Gnosticism and even to confess an intellectual debt to Jonas (117–18; see also XIX–XX, 143).[2] As Jonas tells it:

It was in the summer of 1933, here in Marburg. […] I related what I had just read in the newspaper, but he [Bultmann] not yet, namely, that the German Association of the Blind had expelled its Jewish members. My horror carried me into eloquence: In the face of eternal night (so I exclaimed) the most unifying tie there can be among suffering men, this betrayal of the solidarity of a common fate—and I stopped, for my eye fell on Bultmann and I saw that a deathly pallor had spread over his face, and in his eyes was such agony that the words died in my mouth. In that moment I knew that in matters of elementary humanity one could simply rely on Bultmann, […] that no insanity of the time could dim the steadiness of his inner light.

Of their next meeting, amid the ruins of war, Jonas recalls:

barely done with the hurried exchange of first welcomes, scarcely over the emotion of this unexpected reunion—we were both still standing—he said something for which I recount this highly personal story. I had come by military transport from Göttingen and held under my arm a book which the publisher Ruprecht had asked me to take to Bultmann, as civilian mail services had not yet been restored. Bultmann pointed at this parcel and asked, “May I hope that this is the second volume of the ‘Gnosis’?” At that, there entered into my soul too, still rent by the Unspeakable I had just learned about in my erstwhile home—the fate of my mother and of the untold others—for the first time something like peace again: at beholding the constancy of thought and loving interest across the ruin of a world. Suddenly I knew: one can resume and continue that for which one needs faith in man. Countless times I have relived this scene. It became the bridge over the abyss; it connected the “after” with the “before” which grief and wrath and bitterness threatened to blot out, and perhaps more than anything else it helped, with its unique combination of fidelity and soberness, to make my life whole again. (125–26; see also 99, 118–19)[3]

The next major highlight of the correspondence pertains to Jonas’s text “Immortality and the Modern Temper,” which he delivered as the annual Ingersoll lecture at Harvard University in 1961.[4] Jonas sent a copy of the lecture, which attempts to explain what sense immortality could have in today’s disenchanted world, to Bultmann in January 1962. In his prefatory letter, Jonas explains that he felt compelled to go in the opposite direction of his erstwhile mentor: whereas the don of demythologization strives, as Jonas had earlier in his career (see especially 115–116), to uncover the true, existential content of myth behind its fantastical garb, Jonas thinks that myth, in the manner of Plato, is the best we have to go on when it comes to questions such as the meaning of immortality and the meaning of God after Auschwitz. Of his lecture, Jonas writes—and here I quote and translate at length, since it is uncertain if and when the correspondence will be translated in its entirety—

It was a daring attempt at a metaphysical statement. When developing it, I saw myself compelled to have recourse to myth—to a self-invented myth. This was not intended as a general method of metaphysics, but as a personal form of symbolic answer to a question that I could not answer in any other way but whose right to an answer was undeniable.

[Es wurde ein gewagter Versuch zu einer metaphysischen Aussage, in deren Entfaltung ich mich genötigt sah, zum Mythos—einem selbsterdachten—Zuflucht zu nehmen. Das war nicht als generelle Methode der Metaphysik gedacht, sondern als persönliche Form der symbolischen Antwort auf eine für mich nicht anders beantwortbare, aber in ihrem Recht auf Antwort unabweisbare Frage.]

It is not enough, Jonas continues, to refer to the authentically human content of mythological form, as Bultmann would have it.[5] Myth itself can, and must, also be deployed—consciously and with full recognition of its inherent inadequacy—in service of being as such:

when, in a seriously non-dualist fashion, the authentic reality of the human points back to the authentic reality of the universe […] and when it is necessary to speak also of this—of the totality of being and its ground—without there being any identifiable terminology for it, then we are directed to the path of the objectifying, indicative symbol; then a momentary, as it were experimental mythologization, a mythologization that holds itself in suspense, can again come closer precisely to the mystery. And here the revocability of the anthropomorphic symbol would have to wait to be replaced by other, for their part likewise revocable symbols, not, however, for a subsequent demythologization, which would have to relinquish what was to be signified only in the symbol.

[wo, ernsthaft undualistisch, die eigentliche Wirklichkeit des Menschen auf die eigentliche Wirklichkeit des Universums zurückweist […] und also auch davon—vom All des Seins und seinem Grunde—gesprochen werden muss, ohne dass es die ausweisbare Begrifflichkeit dafür gibt, da sind wir auf den Weg des objektivierend andeutenden Symbols gewiesen und da kann vielleicht eine momentane, gleichsam experimentelle, sich selber in der Schwebe haltende Mythologisierung gerade dem Geheimnis wieder näher kommen. Und hier würde die Widerruflichkeit des anthropomorphen Symbols auf Ersetzung durch andere, ihrerseits ebenso widerrufliche Symbole zu warten haben, nicht aber auf eine nachkommende Entmythologisierung, die preisgeben müsste, was nur im Symbol zu bedeuten war.] (51–52)

In his myth, which he would later develop in such essays as “The Concept of God After Auschwitz: A Jewish Voice” and “Matter, Mind, and Creation: Cosmological Evidence and Cosmogonic Speculation,”[6] Jonas imagines a god who, in the beginning, divested itself of its power and gave itself wholly over to the becoming of the cosmos. It now falls to the radical freedom of the human being to reshape the face of God, whether by restoring it to its former glory through good deeds, or by creating a disfigured perversion of it through evil deeds.

Jonas received countless replies to his lecture, none, however, more profound and impressive (see 63, 77) than that found in Bultmann’s letter from 31 July 1962. Indeed, Jonas would later publish an edited version Bultmann’s response, together with his own subsequent reply to Bultmann, in his book Zwischen Nichts und Ewigkeit: Drei Aufsätze zur Lehre vom Menschen (Between Nothing and Eternity: Three Essays on Anthropology).[7] Jonas even claims in a letter from 1963 that, without their epistolary exchange, “my immortality-essay would seem very incomplete to me” (“Ohne es käme mir jedenfalls mein Unsterblichkeitsaufsatz jetzt sehr unvollständig vor”) (77). Here Jonas refers to the essay as his “fragmentary and searching philosophical manifesto” (“mein fragmentarisches und versuchendes philosophisches Manifest”) (78).

Bultmann, in his response to “Immortality and the Modern Temper,” makes several objections, chief of which is that Jonas’s perspective on God’s relation to the universe is, first, aesthetic and, second, external to the existential situation of the being that, in Heidegger’s language, is in each case mine. Jonas contests the first, since he aims not at the final reconciliation of oppositions, but at the triumph of good over evil through the free choice of human beings. His view is ultimately ethical, not aesthetic. Regarding the second, Jonas concedes that it is necessary to take an external perspective if one wishes to interpret the whole. Today, there is little interest in such speculation. But Jonas takes it to be imperative:

For precisely this is now my conviction: that ethics must be grounded in ontology, that is, the law of human comportment must be derived from the nature of the whole; and this is so because self-understanding follows from understanding the whole (thus “from without”)—namely when the whole is understood in such a way that it comes about that the human being is there for the whole, and not the whole for the human being.

[Denn eben dies ist nun meine Überzeugung, dass die Ethik auf der Ontologie gegründet sein muss, das heisst: das Gesetz menschlichen Verhaltens aus der Natur des Ganzen abgeleitet werden muss; und dies, weil das Selbstverständnis aus dem Verständnis des Ganzen folgt (also “von aussen”)—dann nämlich, wenn das Ganze so verstanden ist, dass sich ergibt, dass der Mensch für das Ganze da ist, und nicht das Ganze für den Menschen.] (67)[8]

Bultmann also invites a consideration of the relation between Jonas’s myth of the fate of God and Heidegger’s idea of the destiny of being (Seins-Geschick). Jonas ignores this invitation in his rejoinder to Bultmann, although he will later take it up in his famous critique of Heidegger, “Heidegger and Theology,” first delivered before a group of theologians at Drew University in 1964.[9]  (Jonas describes the event on 84).

Despite Jonas’s often scathing critique of Heidegger’s thought and person,[10] it is interesting to note that, in a letter to Bultmann from July 1969, Jonas relates that he had met with Heidegger and had “finally reconciled [endlich … ausgesöhnt] with him” (92). Moreover, in 1972, Heidegger supported Jonas’s efforts to receive reparations from the German government for the difficulties inflicted on his academic career under National Socialism. At Jonas’s request, Heidegger promptly wrote the following official explanation of Jonas’s circumstances at the time, testifying to his respect and admiration for his one-time student:

I, Martin Heidegger, was a full professor of philosophy at the Philipps-University in Marburg between 1923 and 1929. / Hans Jonas, who graduated with his doctorate summa cum laude under my directorship in 1928, was one of the most gifted students at the university and predestined to be a university lecturer. Before I left Marburg, Dr. Jonas had discussed with me the basic conception of the work he intended as a habilitation thesis on the position of Gnosticism in the entire thought of late antiquity. The finished work was published in 1934 as a book under the title “Gnosticism and the Spirit of Late Antiquity” (1st part). I read it. There is and there was no doubt for me that this work was outstandingly qualified to be a habilitation thesis. If I had still had something to do with this work as a habilitation thesis, I would have warmly recommended it without reservation.

[Ich, Martin Heidegger, war von 1923 bis 1929 Ordinarius für Philosophie an der Philipps-Universität in Marburg. / Hans Jonas, der bei mir 1928 summa cum laude promovierte, war einer der begabtesten Studenten der Universität und prädestiniert zum Dozenten. Die Grundkonzeption seiner als Habilitationsschrift gedachten Arbeit über die Stellung der Gnosis im Gesamtdenken der Spätantike hatte Dr. Jonas mit mir noch vor meinem Weggang von Marburg besprochen. Die fertige Arbeit ist 1934 als Buch unter dem Titel “Gnosis und spätantiker Geist” (1. Teil) erschienen. Ich habe es gelsen. Es besteht und bestand für mich kein Zweifel, dass diese Arbeit als Habilitationsschrift in hervorragendem Masse qualifiziert war. Hätte ich noch mit dieser Arbeit als Habilitationsschrift zu tun gehabt, so hätte ich sie ohne Einschränkung aufs wärmste empfohlen.] (122)

Other noteworthy moments in the correspondence with Bultmann include Jonas’s description of his research in 1952, which, he says, is directed entirely at “an ontology in which ‘life’ and thus also the human being obtain their place in nature” (“Alle meine theoretischen Bemühungen gehen um eine Ontologie, in der das ‘Leben’ und damit auch der Mensch seinen Platz in der Natur erhält”) (18); Jonas’s critique of Eric Voegelin’s sweepingly pejorative use of the term “Gnosticism,” and his conclusion that Voegelin himself “is the modern gnostic” (32–34); Bultmann’s claim, made in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to convince Jonas to assume a professorship at Marburg University, that “you are the only one who has the strength today to take up and continue the great tradition that has developed in the history of philosophizing in Marburg” (“Sie sind der Einzige, der heute die Kraft hat, die große Tradition aufzunehmen und fortzuführen, die in der Geschichte des Philosophierens in Marburg erwachsen ist”) (44); and a debate on authenticity (Eigentlichkeit), in which Jonas relates it to his pursuit of an ethics grounded in ontology, whereas Bultmann sees it, with Heidegger, in opposition to the life of das Man (“the they”) and as outside the sphere of the ethical (72–76).

Fortunately, some of the most important correspondence is already available in English. Jonas’s own translation of the aforementioned “epistolary monster” is available, with additions and emendations, under the title “The Abyss of the Will: Philosophical Meditation on the Seventh Chapter of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.”[11] The two main letters about “Immortality and the Modern Temper” are in Bultmann and Jonas, “Exchange on Hans Jonas’ Essay on Immortality.”[12] Furthermore, the seventh document in the appendix, a memorial tribute to Bultmann, exists in a translation by Jonas himself as “Is Faith Still Possible?: Memories of Rudolf Bultmann and Reflections on the Philosophical Aspects of His Work.”[13] The final part of the appendix is a republication, in English, of Jonas’s 1984 tribute to Bultmann on the centenary of the latter’s birth.[14]

[1] Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1930. For the second edition (1965), Jonas changed the subtitle to Eine philosophische Studie zum pelagianischen Streit (A Philosophical Study on the Pelagian Controversy) and appended a revised version of the “epistolary monster.” Jonas speaks of “a demythologized consciousness” (“ein entmythologisiertes Bewußtsein”) in the first appendix “Über die hermeneutische Struktur des Dogmas” (“On the Hermeneutic Structure of Dogma), which appeared in both editions. See p. 82 of the second for the reference. For discussion, see pp. 14–17 of James M. Robinson’s introduction to the second edition, as well as Hans Jonas-Handbuch: Leben–Werk–Wirkung, ed. Michael Bongardt et al. (Berlin: Metzler, 2021), 78 (contribution by Udo Lenzig).

[2] It is noteworthy that, in his controversial 1941 lecture “Neues Testament und Mythologie: Das Problem der Entmythologisierung der neutestamentlichen Verkündigung,” Bultmann twice refers to Jonas’s works. See Rudolf Bultmann, “New Testament and Mythology: The Mythological Element in the Message of the New Testament and the Problem of Its Re-Interpretation,” in Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate, ed. Hans Werner Bartsch (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), 12n1, 16. See Bultmann’s discussion of the lecture on pp. 21–22 of the correspondence.

[3] Translation in Hans Jonas, Mortality and Morality: A Search for the Good after Auschwitz, ed. Lawrence Vogel (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1996), 146–47. See also Hans Jonas, Memoirs, trans. Krishna Winston (Waltham, Mass.: Brandeis University Press, 2008), 74, 144–45.

[4] In, for example, Jonas, Mortality and Morality, chapter 5.

[5] Jonas quotes from Bultmann’s recently published “Zum Problem der Entmythologisierung,” in Il problema della demitizzazione, ed. Enrico Castelli (Padua: CEDAM, 1961): 19–26. In English as “On the Problem of Demythologizing,” trans. Schubert M. Ogden, The Journal of Religion 42, no. 2 (1962): 96–102.

[6] In Mortality and Morality, chapters 6 and 8.

[7] Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1963, 63–72.

[8] Translation in Rudolf Bultmann and Hans Jonas, “Exchange on Hans Jonas’ Essay on Immortality,” trans. Ian Alexander Moore, Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 40, no. 2 (2020): 491–506 (quote on p. 503).

[9] See Hans Jonas, “Heidegger and Theology,” in The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2001), Tenth Essay. For more on this point, and Jonas’s relation to Heidegger more broadly, see Ralf Elm’s contribution in Hans Jonas-Handbuch, 28–34.

[10] For the latter, see especially Hans Jonas’s 1963 lecture “Husserl und Heidegger,” in Kritische Gesamtausgabe der Werke von Hans Jonas, vol. III/2, ed. Dietrich Böhler et al. (Darmstadt: WBG, 2013), 205–224. For discussion, see Ian Alexander Moore’s contribution in Hans Jonas-Handbuch, 172–75.

[11] In Hans Jonas, Philosophical Essays (New York: Atropos, 2010), chapter 18. Also, with the subtitle as sole title, in James M. Robinson, ed., The Future of Our Religious Past: Essays in Honour of Rudolf Bultmann (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), chapter 15.

[12] Op. cit.

[13] In Jonas, Mortality and Morality, chapter 7.

[14] Also in Edward C. Hobbes, ed., Bultmann, Retrospect and Prospect: The Centenary Symposium at Wellesley (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985): 1–4.

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

The Oxford Handbook of Levinas Couverture du livre 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.

Alexander Schnell: Qu’est-ce que la phénoménologie transcendantale ?

Qu’est-ce que la phénoménologie transcendantale ? Fondements d’un idéalisme spéculatif phénoménologique Couverture du livre Qu’est-ce que la phénoménologie transcendantale ? Fondements d’un idéalisme spéculatif phénoménologique
Alexander Schnell
Jérôme Millon
Paperback 22.00 €

Reviewed by: Alexandre Couture-Mingheras (Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne – Université de Bonn)

La force d’Alexander Schnell tient à ce qu’il est l’un des rares philosophes de notre temps à défendre l’idéalisme transcendantal, idéalisme dont on sait qu’il constitue pour Husserl l’essence même de la phénoménologie, en le rapportant d’une part à l’idéalisme allemand et plus particulièrement à la Bildslehre de Fichte, dont il est l’un des plus éminents spécialistes, et d’autre part au « réalisme » dominant aujourd’hui et plus particulièrement au réalisme spéculatif de Quentin Meillassoux. La défense du projet husserlien se fera donc dans ce nouvel ouvrage, ambitieux et de haute facture, sous deux angles.

Tout d’abord, une auto-fondation de la phénoménologie à la fois sujet et objet de la démarche de légitimation, de sorte que l’on pourrait parler d’un « discours de la méthode » à condition que le methodos soit son propre telos (sans quoi, à raison, il faut avec l’auteur en rejeter l’expression) : il s’agit là de la perspective indiquée par le sous-titre de l’ouvrage, à savoir des fondements, dont le pluriel lui-même indique qu’il ne saurait s’agir d’un simple retour à l’unique fundamentum inconcussum de la subjectivité absolue, et de fait la réflexion sur l’anonymat du sens se faisant, dans l’horizon heideggérien de l’herméneutique, invitera à un dépassement de la structuration purement égologique de la phénoménologique. Ensuite, et c’est le sens de « l’idéalisme spéculatif », cette auto-réflexion méthodologique – étant entendu que la méthode encore une fois ne s’applique pas de l’extérieur à un objet mais est le Tout même de la phénoménologie comme la réduction transcendantale en est l’Alpha et l’Omega, l’objet de la phénoménologie en en étant le Sujet -, doit être elle-même ontologiquement fondée, la réflexivité fondementielle du projet étant sise en l’autoréflexivité de l’Être. La spécularité de l’essai de « phénoménologie de la phénoménologie » transcendantale dont l’auteur reprend à Fink le projet, jamais conduit à terme, se trouve donc associé à une pensée de la spécularité ontologique, la réflexion sur ce qui est reposant sur l’essence -flexive de l’être : pas de retour sur soi – ce qu’est la philosophie en son essence -, sans être spéculaire, ou, pour le dire autrement, pas de fondation disciplinaire sans spécularité réelle, pas de réflexion sur le phénomène sans réflexivité de la phénoménalité.

Le projet, qui a ici un caractère inaugural – appelant à une reprise et collaboration, dans la droite ligne de la réflexion husserlienne -, et qui pose les jalons de l’idéalisme spéculatif en ramassant sous forme « systématisée » (ou plutôt « méthodologique ») ce qui avait été exposé dans les ouvrages précédents de l’auteur, est assurément original. Au-delà même du dialogue fécond qu’il instaure avec le passé et notre temps, il surmonte l’opposition entre le phénoménologique et le spéculatif : c’est d’ailleurs la force de l’essai que de montrer – il s’agit là du fil rouge à mon sens qui en traverse les sections -, que le dehors historique de la phénoménologique, le spéculatif, est en réalité non tant un dehors qu’un dedans non surmonté qui en constitue la vérité insigne. S’annonce en filigrane l’ouverture de la phénoménologie à son Autre comme à ce qui lui est le plus intérieur, le Métaphysique comme « interior intimo » de la phénoménologie, ce dont témoigne le dernier chapitre sur « le sens de la réalité », réel qui n’est ni dedans ni dehors, comme une torsion spéculaire où l’extase est l’envers de l’enstase, ce que l’auteur exprime en termes d’« endo-exogénéité de l’être ». Cette originalité est d’autant plus saisissante lorsqu’on confronte le projet de l’auteur à l’orientation majoritairement réaliste aujourd’hui de la phénoménologie : au réalisme qui prend pour fil directeur l’objet prédonné s’oppose l’idéalisme qui passe de l’objet à la réflexion sur la phénoménalité du phénomène, en une réflexion sur la possibilité de la phénoménologie qui appelle l’interrogation sur la possibilité même de la phénoménalité, en un transcendantalisme spéculatif qui se démarque, A. Schnell y insiste, du transcendantalisme kantien qui concerne les conditions de possibilité non de l’être mais de la seule connaissance. Encore cet idéalisme se donne-t-il moins pour l’opposant du réalisme que pour son fondement puisque la question posée d’entrée de jeu est celle de la conciliation entre d’un côté la reconduction à la subjectivité transcendantale (l’idéalisme) et de l’autre la fondation d’un concept fort d’être ou de réalité capable de rendre compte de la transcendance du monde (le réalisme), que si on ne saurait faire l’économie du sujet – contre cet appel généralisé au XXème siècle à la « mort du sujet » (et de « l’auteur ») -, on ne saurait pas plus résorber l’absoluité de la transcendance en l’intentionnalité d’une visée. On comprend que l’agent de liaison, ou de sursomption de l’opposition, sera établi par la redéfinition spéculative de l’idéalisme transcendantal, et que le spéculatif sera la clé permettant de sortir du conflit entre l’approche essentiellement gnoséologique de Husserl avec son projet de légitimation de la connaissance et l’ontologie phénoménologique de Heidegger où l’horizon du sens et du comprendre est irréductible au schème de la constitution transcendantale.

Est en jeu, cela est évident dès l’introduction, l’avenir même de la phénoménologie, qui se trouve forclos par une double attitude, de soumission à l’empiricité d’un objet pré-donné – c’est là le positivisme au double sens de ce qui sert la science mais aussi de ce qui est de l’ordre du « trouvé-d’avance » -, et de subordination historiographique de la philosophie à son passé. Le transcendantal, c’est précisément cet arrachement de la pensée au règne du fait déjà tout fait au profit d’une pensée pensante. Si la philosophie consiste à retourner à l’originaire, alors la phénoménologie en assume-t-elle la vocation, elle qui, « science des premiers commencements », ne cesse de recommencer pour interroger l’origine du sens et de l’être ou de ce que Husserl appelait « l’Énigme du Monde », c’est-à-dire non un problème mais une aporie qui exige que l’on se place à sa hauteur : le retour aux « choses mêmes » n’est pas de l’ordre d’un retour aux « faits » – en une dangereuse mythologie du Fait qui semble sous-tendre aujourd’hui bien des « ontologies » plates ou feuilletées orphelines de leur Sujet -, mais, suspendant l’en-soi à titre de préjugé, il consiste à faire de l’a priori de la corrélation entre ce qui se donne et son appréhension subjective son thème propre comme l’écrit Husserl dans un passage célèbre de la Krisis (§ 48). En effet, interroger l’être c’est questionner le sens d’être, ce en quoi la corrélation est a priori, originaire, irréductible qu’elle est au rapport entre deux termes hétérogènes. La corrélativité constitue la structure interne de la phénoménalité, ce que met au jour l’épochè phénoménologique, laquelle opère le passage de l’objet à la conscience d’objet. La corrélation désigne la structure sujet-objet inhérente à tout étant apparaissant, faisant tomber l’évidence apparente de la chose, la naturalité précisément d’une perception dont le propre est de s’effacer devant son objet. En d’autres termes, il s’agit de réfléchir la perception, de conduire la vision, obnubilée par la chose vue, à se saisir en un voir du voir : bref, le spéculatif est bien l’essence du phénoménologique, et l’enjeu de l’ouvrage est d’en décliner le thème en trois sections – qu’il est bien sûr impossible de « résumer » : il s’agit, encore une fois, d’un methodos et non de micro-thèses dont on pourrait transposer le contenu de façon ramassée -, la première exposant des considérations méthodologiques, la deuxième établissant un dialogue « historico-systématique » avec l’idéalisme allemand et l’empirisme anglo-saxon (humien), la troisième enfin, affrontant l’idéalisme spéculatif au réalisme spéculatif de Q. Meillassoux.

Le premier temps est consacré au concept même de méthode en phénoménologie et à ce qui fait la spécificité de l’attitude transcendantale, laquelle engage les notions de science eidétique (contre la « cécité spirituelle » des empiristes selon Husserl), d’expérience transcendantale (contre le transcendantal abstrait – apagogique – de Kant), de sens (contre l’être « en-soi ») et enfin de corrélation, en vue d’une rapproche renouvelée du problème de la compréhension, dans l’effort de conciliation de l’approche herméneutique chez Heidegger et de la légitimation transcendantale de la connaissance chez Husserl : l’idéalisme spéculatif met en jeu ce « comprendre transcendantal » irréductible à la face subjective et psychologique d’un savoir dont la connaissance objective et scientifique serait l’autre face, comme ce « sens se faisant » de l’ordre de l’entre-deux, inassignable à une instance, subjective ou objective, entre l’activité de l’esprit (il faut un interprétant) et un champ prédonné de compréhension (qui oriente l’interprétation, la soustrayant à tout arbitraire). Autrement dit, la description qui était définitoire de la phénoménologie se trouve dépassée par la construction : le spéculatif, c’est déjà ce « comprendre », cette monstration du sens – occulté dans l’attitude naturelle -, une « donation génétisée ». Spéculer, ce n’est pas spéculer dans le vide, mais ce n’est pas non plus, tel est l’enjeu de cette section, rapporter une construction à un étant qui lui préexisterait.

La deuxième section vise à rapporter la phénoménologie comme idéalisme spéculatif à l’idéalisme postkantien, passant de l’approche strictement méthodologique à une approche historique dont l’objectif est clair : justifier l’idéalisme spéculatif en inscrivant le projet de fondation de la phénoménologie dans l’horizon de l’idéalisme allemand, permettant ici encore de dépasser le caractère descriptif de la phénoménologie – le « principe des principes » qu’est l’intuition et qui est eo ipso légitimante pour Husserl -, au regard de la Wissenschaftslehre – et de l’image – de Fichte où il s’agit bien de construire le fait et ses conditions de possibilité de façon génétique, non à partir de faits (pure description) mais à partir d’un acte de construction (ici de la Tathandlung) par quoi la construction (ou spécularité) coïncide avec l’intuitivité de ce qu’elle construit et donne à voir. Comme le dit A. Schnell, l’intuitivité est ici un voir de la genèse. Cette interrogation sur les fondements spéculatifs de l’unité de la phénoménologie – conditionnement mutuel, possibilisation, construction génétique, redoublement possibilisant, autant de concepts analysés par l’auteur -, se double d’une confrontation subséquente de la phénoménologie à l’empirisme humien sous l’angle de la thématique de la Lebenswelt. Si le mérite de Hume est en effet d’engendrer le monde, montrant que ce qui paraît aller de soi n’a rien d’assuré, que les vérités objectives sont des formations de vie – une subjectivité voilée -, bref de retourner au monde de la vie comme sol de notre rapport au monde et a priori subjectif au fondement de l’a priori objectif de la science, il s’agit en revanche pour Husserl, on le sait, de concilier cette « fiction » du monde à son projet de légitimation de l’objectivité de la connaissance en intégrant le débat de la validité menée par le néo-kantisme de l’école de Baden dans la problématique de l’être. Contre l’objectivisme, l’auteur étudie la formation transcendantale du sens en prenant en compte le concept de vérité exposé dans la Sixième recherche logique et la thèse heideggérienne de la vérité comme existential. L’idéalisme spéculatif se trouve ici approfondi, permettant de sortir de la perspective purement gnoséologique en vue d’un « rendre compréhensible transcendantal » – mis en avant surtout par la Krisis -, et la mise en avant du plan anonyme, pré-égotique, de la Sinnbildung. Autrement dit, de la seconde section ressortent l’irréductibilité de la phénoménologie à la description et intuition, le rôle fondamental joué par les modes de conscience « non-présentants » (la fameuse phantasia) et enfin le primat du plan du procès du sens sur la constitution égologique (le spéculaire), idée d’un auto-anéantissement du moi conduisant à une « Sinnbildung anonyme » pré-égotique (ou « subjectivité anonyme ») – ici évoquée seulement mais dont on peut imaginer la fécondité à la rapporter par exemple au champ transcendantal sans ego (Sartre) ou au plan d’immanence de conscience absolue et impersonnelle (Deleuze), c’est-à-dire à ce dont Jean Hyppolite avait avancé l’idée en 1959, à savoir la possibilité de dériver le « Je » transcendantal – le « Je » comme pôle qui accompagne toutes mes représentations -, d’un champ antérieur au partage entre Moi et non-Moi, pré-subjectif et pré-objectif, et ce contre l’égocentrisme de la donation transcendantale.

Mais c’est à l’aune de la confrontation au réalisme spéculatif dans la troisième section que l’on saisit l’un des motifs au principe de l’essai : sauver la phénoménologie contre l’attaque menée par Q. Meillassoux contre ce qu’il a appelé dans Après la finitude le « corrélationisme ». Si on comprend mal la référence au « Nouveau Réalisme » de Markus Gabriel dans la mesure où il s’agit d’un réalisme sans Réalité – « tout existe, sauf le Tout » -, qui ouvrant l’ontologie aux sens de l’être et aux laissés-pour-compte de l’ontologie traditionnelle comme les licornes se détourne de son principe et abolit l’idée de « réalité du réel » et de nature fondamentale de ce qui est, au nom d’un pluralisme ontologique et épistémologique si radical qu’il en perd tout sens – l’ouverture de l’être aux fictions reposant sur l’idée de fiction de réalité -, en revanche la discussion menée avec le réalisme spéculatif permet, par contraste, de légitimer le projet de fondation de l’idéalisme spéculatif phénoménologique. Au-delà de la critique de l’argument de l’ancestralité qui fait fond sur une confusion selon l’auteur entre l’empirique et le transcendantal – l’expérience possible ne doit pas être confondue avec la possibilité empirique, si bien qu’il n’est de sens à inscrire la survenue du sujet (transcendantal) dans la ligne temporelle objective -, c’est bien à mon sens la façon dont l’absolu se trouve revisité à l’aune de l’idéalisme allemand qui ressort de l’analyse : d’un absolu qui n’est plus pensé comme absolu objectif mais comme réel subjectif et pré-égotique contre l’ontologisation de l’irraison et l’absolutisation de la contingence de la corrélation. La réflexivité de l’être – sa « corrélativité » -, le procès du sens comme structure transcendantale tendant à l’auto-explicitation réflexive du réel, d’un être se réfléchissant comme sens sans en passer tout d’abord par la figure de l’ego, tel est au final ce qui justifie ontologiquement le projet de fondation de l’idéalisme spéculatif, l’auteur répondant au défi lancé par Q. Meillassoux qui invitait la phénoménologie à s’élever aux hauteurs spéculatives de l’idéalisme kantien et postkantien. Pari tenu.

Que serait un en-soi qui serait pensé non comme chose mais comme sujet, en-soi comme Soi ? Si l’on se plaît depuis Wittgenstein à parler d’un « mythe de l’intériorité », la démarche radicale d’immanentisation chez Husserl consistait au contraire, tirant le fil cartésien, à interroger ladite « réalité du réel » et à rebours de l’attitude naturelle à mettre au jour ce qu’on pourrait appeler un « mythe de l’extériorité », révélant le dehors du dedans au sens du génitif subjectif. La phénoménologie procédait à une libération spectaculaire (mais n’est-ce pas le sens même de l’amour du Vrai, de la Philalethia en son sens originaire, i.e. initiatique ?) : libération de la conscience à l’égard du monde, renvoyé à son insuffisance ontologique et au caractère immanent de sa transcendance, libération de la conscience à l’égard d’elle-même dans son auto-appréhension limitante comme « moi psychophysique » – si l’épochè est l’acte inaugural de la philosophie c’est bien en tant que nul ne saurait se mettre en quête de Vérité qui reste prisonnier du sens de son identité -, et libération contre la philosophie moderne à l’égard de Dieu en tant qu’absolument Autre. Il ne faudra plus chercher le fondement ailleurs qu’en soi-même, quitte à ce que cet en-soi soit le lieu de révélation de la Vie divine, que l’égologie soit un théocentrisme, que l’ego soit porté par ce qui, plus haut, est ego transsubjectif, en un solipsisme transcendantal au fondement de l’intersubjectivité, intra au principe de l’inter. C’est là une direction qui me paraît passionnante, en une pensée de l’intériorité transcendantale et « cosmique », comme l’appelait Ravaisson, dont une confrontation cette fois-ci avec la Métaphysique du Veda, le Vedanta, permettrait de renouveler l’approche. Au-delà du cercle strictement phénoménologique ainsi tracé – avec son style parfois sibyllin et elliptique -, la phénoménologie eût pu s’ouvrir à un public plus large, dans le renouvellement urgent de la question originaire de la Vérité de Soi et de celle du Monde dont l’identité ouvre le rationnel à son autre en un rationalisme élargi. Mais c’est là ce dont le positivisme encore latent – mais Husserl était aussi fils de son temps – de la Strenge Wissenschaft, ce qu’engage la thématique de la validité, de laquelle participe l’essai de fondation de la phénoménologie, nous détourne. Certes Husserl concluait ses Méditations cartésiennes par un passage aussi beau qu’exigent : « L’oracle de Delphes gnôthi seauton acquiert alors une signification nouvelle. La science positive devient science en perdant le monde. Il faut commencer par perdre le monde avec l’épochè pour le reconquérir dans l’auto-réflexion universelle. Noli foras ire, dit Augustin, in te redi, in interiore homine habitat veritas ». Ce serait toutefois emprunter une voie différente, celle d’un philosophique roulant sur l’écume des catégories de l’entendement occidental et nourri par l’océan du philosophal : la « porte du dedans », ainsi que l’appelait Rûmî, conduirait alors à un immanentisme radical, intériorité qui n’est plus celle d’un « moi » mais d’un « nous » qui n’est Nous que d’être Un, et dont la réalisation, sans doute, nécessiterait de déchirer le voile des phénomènes – l’image dudit « réel » – de faire de la phénoménologie le tremplin vers son auto-dépassement.

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

La huella del pasado: Hacia una ontología de la realidad histórica Couverture du livre La huella del pasado: Hacia una ontología de la realidad histórica
François Jaran
Herder Editorial
Paperback 16.90 €

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.