Adam Lovasz: Updating Bergson: A Philosophy of the Enduring Present

Updating Bergson: A Philosophy of the Enduring Present Couverture du livre Updating Bergson: A Philosophy of the Enduring Present
Lexington Books
Lexington Books
2021
Hardback 49,00 €
332

Reviewed by: Giorgi Vachnadze (KU Leuven)

Henri Bergson paints a fascinating, slightly fear-provoking and highly counter-intuitive yet incredibly beautiful picture of the world greatly reminiscent of the Heraclitean universe. A world where one cannot step into the same river twice, where repetition is but an illusion, a temporary shell for the human mind surrounded by the eternal flux of becoming and a place where intuition reigns supreme over both reason and instinct. Adam Lovasz pays great homage to Bergson by reconstructing his thought, adding his own particular flavor to the style and defending the Bergsonian world from the most unrelenting critical attacks. Philosophy, if it is to approach the demiurgic vibration of the real, must resist the temptation to build cathedrals” writes Lovasz (16). Defending the continental tradition against vicious assaults from both the analytical camp as well as from those who seek answers exclusively from fact-minded scientists is no easy task. Despite being slightly repetitive at times Upgrading Bergson is a wonderful read, executed in the most beautiful literary style and showing incredible depth of comprehension in fields as seemingly distant as Einsteinian relativity theory and modern evolutionary biology. Not to mention the philosophical legacies of Bergson and Gilles Deleuze alike.

The book is made up of 5 chapters, an introduction and a conclusion. Chapter 2: Completing Relativity should pose the most difficult challenge to most readers, as it gets into the nuts and bolts of relativity theory. Lovasz however goes much further, attempting to reconcile two diametrically opposed worldviews of Albert Einstein and Henri Bergson, shedding a new light on the famous Bergson-Einstein debate and attempting a thorough renaissance of the Bergsonian position concerning the philosophical interpretation of time according to, as well as against – Einstein’s theory of relativity. As far as alternative narratives are concerned, Bergson via Lovasz offers us one of the most profound counter-ontologies.

Instability is a semantic attractor-state for Bergsonian philosophy. Chapter one of Adam Lovasz’ work is dedicated to Bergson’s La Penseé et le mouvement, often translated as Thought and Instability. A treatise on time and the flux of human experience. How does mind make sense of temporality in a real and material sense? Material patterns invoke new modes of thought, without presenting us with any general image or form(Lovasz 2021, 15) writes Lovasz. The absence of an ideal image is precisely what points to instability. The fact that entities persist in time is understood by Bergson as a variety of the miraculous. We have here the deconstruction of universals par excellence. Even scientific theories, according Bergson (via Lovasz), are subject to the constant change in virtue of their underlying methodologies. Behind the apparent unity; the stability of a scientific theory, there lies an ever-present, turbulent and hybrid-form of the method, it’s concrete manifestation in practical performance.

Reality does not offer itself up to mind, there is no one-to-one correspondence between mind and matter. Lovasz shows that Bergsonian cosmology has no room for the idea of progress or a meaningful teleology. History and human activity in the aggregate, have no finality nor a determined goal. Instead, the idea of a purpose-driven universe is only a useful fiction constructed for the purpose of avoiding collective despair and pessimism. Moreover, the deluded thinking which renders the past a servant to the present (or the present to the future) is the direct symptom of universalizing speculative thinking that Bergson aimed to challenge.

Such retrograde thinking serves a distinct political function of means-ends justification. It is often referred to as the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, or the retrospective movement of truth.” The essence of such wishful thinking and ideological manipulation is once again, the failure to admit the underlying instability of reality, an unmanageable substratum of contingency and chaos. This is a profound connection with serious epistemological and political implications. Bergson wants to underscore the importance of contingency simultaneously at both levels of immediate human experience and history. One might venture as far as to say that the very idea of progress itself is a form of ideology.

There is an internal excess within every object of immediate experience which can never be understood or analyzed completely. The TFP, which stands for the True-First Perception, refers to the uniqueness of an image generated by consciousness during every act of perception, each irreducible to the former and the next. Reality is in essence a perturbation. This way, Bergson is swimming against the current of traditional western philosophy, side-stepping or dissenting from, an enormous corpus of philosophical knowledge, the aim of which is to uncover the essence and the underlying foundation of reality. This leads us closer to the central argument. Bergsonian epistemology unpacks a phenomenological interpretation of time. Time as a duration is contrasted with time as displayed by the clock or time as seen through the eyes of a physicist. Bergson has little interest for the spatialized time of discrete units where every moment is identical to the next. Bergsonian duration is non-quantifiable.

The translation of the flow of time into discrete units instantiates a suppression of duration. It cannot be the case that the time of the clock measures real temporality (Lovasz 2021, 19-20).

The Bergsonian variety of essentialism is quite paradoxical. And understandably so, given Lovasz’ insightful and accurate reflections on the subject. For Bergson, change itself is the underlying structure; the substance of reality. Duration, in all of its heterogeneity, remains nonetheless a given throughout and for all reality. Higher levels of complexity are introduced in Bergsonian ontology, where the reader is confronted with multiple forms of differential durations, which nonetheless exhibit a certain level of invariance. A Bergsonian take on the theory of evolution arranges beings according to the kind of duration they belong to. Material duration refers to inanimate matter, organic duration to the realm of animal species and conscious duration to human temporal interiority.

The deconstruction of the atomistic, abstracted interpretation of time and the universe is followed by a positive theory of human intuition.

We are enjoined to return to a condition of immediacy before the colonization of thinking by ready-made concepts and fixed, static ideas. Intuition is a passive, reverent posture concerning the complexity of being/s that is nevertheless resolutely creative (Lovasz 2021, 27).

Intuition is a spiritual form of comprehension, which reaches into a pre-conceptual mode of understanding. For Bergson via Lovasz, concepts operate as distancing mechanisms, they obstruct the mind’s capacity to relate to the object directly without mediation.

Another element of Bergson’s process philosophy extends his epistemology, his ontology and his theory of time to a very unique account of free will. Without a doubt, one could see its potential emergence and attempt to reconstruct Bergson’s thought along the lines of an indeterminist position concerning freedom. A Bergsonian account of freedom and the conditions for its realization would most likely involve, first and foremost, the recognition of one’s ignorance by acknowledging the occlusion of reality by an invented conceptual framework. The deconstruction of universals and retrograde thinking would then be followed by more positive and active techniques for uncovering the hidden durations and temporalities of the universe thereby fostering one’s intuitive faculty for creative reasoning. One could therefore potentially identify both negative (critique of rigid conceptual systems and the illusion of stability) and positive (developing the intuitive forms of comprehension) forms of freedom in Bergson.

Completing the circle of the first chapter and returning to the question of thought and instability, we can see now how a Lovaszian reading of Bergson advocates for a destabilization of thought, with the purpose of uncovering a more spiritual, but also a finer and more accurate form of intuitive reflection. Bergson’s True Empiricism is a mystical anthropomorphism of inanimate matter and the environment. A mystical form of apprehension which listens to entities in a way that classical empiricism would find childish and pseudo-scientific. An intensified form of listening, as opposed to the indifferent gaze of an impartial bystander.  

The debate between Einstein and Bergson concerning the theory of relativity and the interpretation of time has been strangely neglected by history. At least as far as the Bergsonian view is concerned. The physicist’s conception of time has come to dominate the modern scientific paradigm. Time as duration on the other hand, has been entirely relegated to the realm of the subjective, artistic and the emotional. Lovasz believes that Bergson’s book Duration and Simultaneity, where Bergson offers a critique of specific metaphysical interpretations of Einsteinian relativity, despite all the accusations levelled against it; as being “unscientific” – deserves a second look. A much needed and overdue renaissance for the continental tradition. The purpose of the second chapter is to seek out a reconciliation, if any, for Bergsonian metaphysics and the theory of relativity.

Lovasz offers a shockingly original interpretation of relativity theory, perhaps much to the detriment of many superficial “post-modernists”. The view, which according to Lovasz was shared by Einstein, is that modern science, far from tackling universal truths and eternal verities, is only a useful convention used to solve particular human, all too human, problems. The position is largely reminiscent of Wittgenstein’s view of mathematics. Wittgenstein describes mathematics as a collection of various techniques of calculation – language games, in essence – the purpose of which is to solve particular mathematical problems. There is no overarching Truth or even a stable continuity of calculating practices across either the history of mathematics or within the internal development of any particular axiomatic system. Radical conventionalism has been around as an epistemological theory for a while now, but Lovasz seems to be one of the few people who ascribes this position to a famous revolutionary scientist.

No longer may we talk of absolute movement, mobility having no independent existence in the Einsteinian view. It is always a particular, relative development we talk of when we speak of change (Lovasz 2021, 83).

The larger point is that conventionalist methodological approaches imply the suppression of passions, emotions or other personal investments during the construction of scientific systems and this is what tends to draw a line between Bergsonism and relativity. However, the existence of multiple heterogeneous timelines and the constant discrepancy between clocks travelling at different speeds within different inertial frames of reference seems to hint at a universe that isn’t that different from Bergson’s!

Time itself is a heterogeneous multiplicity of temporal interrelations and mutual causalities. Does this not in itself resemble the Bergsonian affirmation of multiple durations? Real simultaneity is distorted by gravitational effects. Time has no relevance outside of a particular body of reference (Lovasz 2021, 83).

Lovasz’s project is little short of ambitious as he seeks to reconcile two enormous and radically divergent metaphysical systems.

Not only time, but extension itself becomes something relative with Einstein; as objects accelerate they change their shape and become elongated, mass and energy become interchangeable magnitudes, and reality itself becomes akin to a mathematical equation where objects morph and transform into one another according to fixed proportions and measurable quantities.

Momentously, relativity constitutes an upheaval that liquifies all constants by paradoxically utilizing a constant value—the speed of light—to decompose a previous cosmology (Lovasz 2021, 85).

The dissolution of object-identity in Einstein via Lovasz is absolutely fascinating. We spoke of an object-excess, with Bergson, where we can never conceptually grasp reality, but only describe its surface appearances. There seems to be a very similar situation with Einstein where things are not what they are per se; instead, things are what they do i.e. how fast and in which direction they travel, at what speed, how other things are behaving in their vicinity and so forth.

Lovasz takes things further. Much less than attempting to “excuse” Bergson’s critique of relativity theory, he levels his own criticism against Einstein, who, Lovasz claims, remained a crypto-absolutist by utilizing the concept of the speed of light as a constant invariant across space and time. But the weakest link in Einstein’s theory remains for us the famous Twin Paradox. The dissolution of objects qua objects, their mathematical intersubstitutability can be restated as an equivalence between space and time. In an Einsteinian universe time exhibits the properties of space, that is, time is entirely spatialized. The faster one travels the more time one “gathers”. One can monopolize on temporality by increasing the level of acceleration. “Aging is a matter of movement” (Lovasz 2021, 99). If a man is launched into space, traveling fast enough for an (un)certain amount of time, while his twin remains on earth, once he returns to earth, the second twin will have aged considerably more than the first. The problem arises when we decide to choose between the two (seemingly arbitrary) frames of reference. Whichever twin remains “motionless” ends up aging more than the other. What lies, to my mind, at the core of the insurmountable problem is the irreducible difference between Biology and Physics. As Lovasz clearly explains, the world of the physicist is a world of reversible processes, whereas the world of the Biologist, and to a certain extent the Bergsonian subject, both inhabit an irreversible timeline, where the same path cannot be taken twice nor travelled backwards. The essence of the problem then, in very blunt and oversimplified terms, is the artificial imposition of a quantitative universe of interchangeable magnitudes upon the lived and the real experience of time that Bergson aims to bring to our attention. Lovasz dedicates an entire section to the problem, one that is satirically and most adequately termed: The Tyranny of the Clock.

Physics is overwhelmingly concerned with an objective definition of time. Ironically, such a striving to get a handle on the physical reality of time drives Einsteinian relativity into a forgetfulness of time’s indivisible, enduring being. The accelerations and transformations of real processes cannot remain characterized by their relationships with clocks. Measurement invariably tends to decompose duration into a set of spatialized instances (Lovasz 2021, 106).

The main takeaway here is that time cannot be measured. And the obsessive compulsive intuition of the physicist is what lies at the root of the twin paradox. Duration is not, nor can it be made to be discrete. Time dilation which results in the desynchronization of clocks is precisely the result of the spatialized interpretation of time. Space becomes “parasitic” upon time and quite literally steals duration. Bergson via Lovasz argues that this is nothing but pure fiction: “Time dilation is an abstraction that does not correspond to physical reality. It is not unlike mistaking the distancing of a person from us with a real reduction in stature” (Lovasz 2021, 110).  The problem lies in the fact that choosing different inertial frames places us into different kinds of universes, where it is no longer a trivial matter which of the two twins’ position we adopt, as it will decide which one of them is accelerating. In a way, the chosen frame will also add more reality to one of the twins, leaving the other to suffer the consequences of Einstein’s abstractions.

Chapter 3 contains the core argument of the book and an abridged presentation of the entire Bergsonian corpus: Being is becoming. The point was already made earlier in different terms, when we spoke of change being substance, and of reality as essentially impermanent and unstable. Any kind of stability or order encountered in the world is the result of the activity of the mind and is therefore, entirely a construct. Our construct. Lovasz refers to Bergsonian ontology as organic temporality (Lovasz 2021, 121). The chapter also aims at investigating the question of whether Bergson was a monist or a dualist. That is, whether life and matter are in effect the same thing, or if there is a significant distinction that makes living beings stand out ontologically from the background of inorganic matter. Bergson’s book Creative Evolution offers a beautiful literary combination of evolutionary biology and abstract metaphysics, often referred to as philosophy of life.

The phenomenology of Bergsonian becoming is repeatedly compared to a mounting snowball, an analogy used by Bergson himself. The snowball, as it becomes larger tends to get increasingly impure and polluted with assimilated matter. Our experience of duration resembles this process. At any given moment the entire memory of our journey is reflected in our present moment, the path is present as a miniature map within the physiognomy of the actual.

According to Lovasz, process philosophy does not automatically entail holism. The statement concerning either the substantiality of change or the conceiving of reality as a series of hybrid durations, does not necessarily entail a holist-reductionist metaphysics. However, other difficulties come to light. For instance, the reality of individual objects and living beings becomes undermined. To take the theory of evolution as an example:

Movement alone is real, but if this is the case, then the individuation of species represents a halt and hence, an unreality” (Lovasz 2021, 128). And further on: “the privileging of processes and relations involves a slippery slope, leading inevitably to the negation of individual objects. Without individual substance, the very basis of individuation is supposedly endangered (Lovasz 2021, 128).

Bergsonian process ontology privileges change, immobility and movement, which results in a horrifying view of reality where all entities, including human or animal species have neither essence nor reality. What seems most beneficial to the species in the classical Darwinian axiology: their individuation, seems to be the beginning of the end, from the vantage point of process metaphysics.

Lovasz does not offer us a teleological Bergson, but he does aim to rescue him from the accusations of pessimism and holistic reductionism. One of the most common notions in Bergsonian philosophy used to argue in favour of an holistic interpretation is the vital impetus, or vital force. The elan vital was supposed to capture the essence of living beings; exhibiting a mysterious property that constantly eludes proper empirical investigation.

Lovasz argues one should not even speak of the vital force in the singular, but rather see it as a multiplicity of vitalisms, each with its own particular ontology. The functionalist-vitalist account of life relies only on identifying a particular form of arrangement, regularity or a set of relations that are found throughout nature indicating the presence of organic life-forms. There is no singular chemical reaction that would account for the emergence of life. Such indeterminist positions concerning the nature of living organisms has been widely confirmed throughout the sciences. More so, the irreducible complexity of living entities is used by Bergson as an epistemic contribution to his account of free will. Life as indeterminacy is also the very condition for the freedom of living beings. Duration is not a blanket term with Bergson, there is no overarching form of duration that could subsume all the others.

Returning to the question concerning science and its tendency to exclude time as duration in order make sense of reality. The scientific method proceeds in a way that is similar to the human cognitive process: It abstracts a significant portion of reality in order “discover” a handful of variables and identify a set of relations among them. In order to do so, it must operate through fixed concepts. Science, by spatializing time, in fact constructs an artificial edifice; a theory, the purpose of which is in effect to exorcise change and instability. If scientists operated through Bergsonian ontology and the epistemic “commitments” of process philosophy, then science would be in a permanent Kuhnian paradigm shift, an ongoing and ceaseless revolution in methodology. It would be the end of science as we know it.

Only fictional extracts, as molded by scientific or practical activity, have a relative immunity to the bite of time’s fangs, and even these are affected by longer term historical transformations of knowledge and society. Time is not a quantity but a quality (Lovasz 2021, 134).

And nonetheless, reality is not some insane muddle of pure difference, at least not unless we undergo a kind of traumatic limit-experience, which one could argue to be a form of revelation or direct insight into the mystery of substance as pure change. The reason we at least experience reality as relatively stable at moments is due to the variable, but nonetheless patterned distribution of durations. It is indeed the case, as we mentioned before, that the Bergsonian universe is essentially a collection of actions and processes, but there are similarities among them. Reminiscing once more, another Wittgensteinian notion; that of family-resemblances, we could say, despite the fact that no two durations are identical, that there are similarities which tend to crisscross and overlap without pointing to any comprehensive unity or universality. “An object exists to the extent that it endures, but this persistence is qualitative and not quantitative” (Lovasz 2021, 134).

An interesting hierarchy is present in Bergson via Lovasz. Scientific-analytical constructs borrow from, and are built upon the primal level of durations; not the other way around. For a classical philosopher of science, it would be very counter-intuitive to speak of foundation as something less fixed and more turbulent then the construction; more fluid then the facts themselves. Bergson is not exclusively concerned with the world of the scientists. His aim is to reconcile the everyday with the analytical. Bergson is not, properly speaking; a philosopher of science, despite the fact that he was always very careful to square his views with the latest developments in the natural sciences. Instead, Bergson brings the conceptual edifice down to the level of perturbations, demonstrating that theories, concepts and paradigms are subject to the same flux and constant change as the very objects they try to fix.

Bergson’s book Creative evolution is incompatible with either a mechanistic or a teleological world-view due to its insistent emphasis on the role of novelty in all becoming. It is entirely opposed to an unfolding of a pre-determined structure of being. Nothing is set in stone, nothing follows a plan (neither material nor divine) and there is no final end to the striving of turbulent durations. Whatever limited finality an organism might have, it is only an attempt to cling to a false and invented individuality, only to disperse once again into a whirlwind of pure change either in the act of reproduction or its own final termination. Let us conclude this part by quoting Bergson via Bergson this time:

That is why again they [scientists] agree in doing away with time. Real duration is that duration which gnaws on things, and leaves on them the mark of its tooth. If everything is in time, everything changes inwardly, and the same concrete reality never recurs. Repetition is therefore possible only in the abstract: what is repeated is some aspect that our senses, and especially our intellect, have singled out from reality, just because our action, upon which all the effort of our intellect is directed, can move only among repetitions (Bergson 1998, 52).

In chapter 4 Lovasz discusses another famous work by Bergson: Matter and Memory displaces the mind-body problem entirely and offers its own deconstructive version of the unnecessary dualism. The key to uncovering Bergson’s position lies in his theory of perception. The image is contraposed to representation, with the former exhibiting emergent and novel features irreducible to the latter, which in turn is always incomplete. In addition to the mind-body problem and in relation to it, Bergson via Lovasz simultaneously aims at dismantling the debate concerning the opposition between materialism and idealism.

Matter cannot be represented. Nor is it in any other way separate from the way it is uniquely, that is discontinuously perceived. Matter just is a multiplicity of images. There is neither a pure materiality; objective and inert, nor an ideal point of perception that could unite all individual durations into a whole. Neither subjectivism nor objectivism can dominate the Bergsonian metaphysic. Analogously, consciousness with Bergson is an emergent and highly dependent property of the brain, while simultaneously being irreducible to mere neurochemical processes. Memory, according to Bergson, is the meeting ground for mind and matter, the point of reconciliation and the central point of departure for his theory of subjectivity.

Movement is primary, while individual perception is but a sampling of images. What Bergsonism allows for is the introduction of pure, undomesticated mobility into philosophy. Nothing exists apart from images or movements (Lovasz 2021, 186).

We might add that the aforementioned ontology of mobility is further used to occupy a peripheral space between ideality and materiality, a space, it seems, where memory, intuition and images – present central oscillating points for the rest of the Bergsonian philosophy of the process.  

The closing chapter returns to the question of agency and free will in Bergson tending to the famous essay on Time and Free Will. The work aims at a similar project of rescuing duration from quantification, except; instead of challenging leading breakthroughs in modern physics, its purpose is to resist the temptations of psychophysics, neuroscience and other (what today we would term) cognitive sciences to reduce human subjectivity to a set of calculable problems and chemical processes. The project is similar to what is often encountered in classical phenomenology, where the reader is called on to return to “the things themselves”; her immediate given data of consciousness, in order discover a primordial presuppositionless way of seeing that has been covered up by the “natural attitude”. Such a return to immediacy would be consonant with the injunction to think differently, to train one’s intuitive faculty and thereby see through the veil of stability and structure.

Bergson does not, however offer a clear, distinct and positive definition of freedom. It is very difficult to apply his ideas to practical conduct and determine whether this or that course of action was self-determined. If duration is pure heterogeneity and each moment is intertwined with the next, there is no clear way of separating off the stimulus from the agent, the action from the reaction. Where in the chain of interpenetrating images could one separate oneself off and state without hesitation the moment she began to act, as opposed to the moment she was affected by something else? In many ways, Bergson plays on our ignorance, on human ignorance in general, equating freedom with contingency and pure spontaneity. Freedom is the irreconcilable eruption of agency amidst overdetermined necessity; an epistemic break in the series of concepts that bind us to an artificially assembled reality. Concepts, which just like everything else, are vulnerable to the tides of fluctuating perturbations. Our blind spots are effectively the source of our autonomy.

Adam Lovasz’s Upgrading Bergson is an exciting and difficult journey through a cosmology that is both beautiful and terrifying. It presents a real challenge to reassess our worldviews in a radical, almost pathological manner. A world where becoming determines being and order gives way to chaos. A thoroughly anti-Platonic vision, which dares to undermine our most cherished belief in the indisputable authority of modern science and Einsteinian relativity in particular. A turbulent universe of scaled difference, multiple durations and heterogeneous temporalities. And finally, an outstanding contribution to the much neglected field of Bergsonian scholarship. Upgrading Bergson deserves its own shelf-space in every continental philosopher’s personal library.

 

References & Bibliography:

Bergson, Henri. 1998 (1911). Creative Evolution. Trans. Arthur Mitchell. Mineola, NY: Dover.

Dupré, John, and Stephan Guttinger. 2016. « Viruses as Living Processes. » Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 59: 109-116.

Kuhn, Thomas. 2021. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Princeton University Press.

Lovasz, Adam. 2021. Updating Bergson: A Philosophy of the Enduring Present. Lexington Books.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 2010. Philosophical Investigations. John Wiley & Sons.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 2013. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Routledge.

Stuart Elden: The Early Foucault

The Early Foucault Couverture du livre The Early Foucault
Stuart Elden
Polity
2021
Paperback $26.95
288

Reviewed by: Michael Maidan (Independent Scholar)

Stuart Elden’s The Early Foucault is the third of a four-volume study of the origins and development of Michel Foucault’s thought. This book is the first one regarding the period it covers, basically the 1950s, but it is the third to be published. It will be soon followed by a fourth and final book, that will cover the ‘archaeological’ period and Foucault’s forays into art history and literary criticism. External factors explain the disconnect between the order of production and the chronology. Elden’s first two books dealt with the publication of Foucault’s lectures at the Collège de France.  The publication of the Lectures began in 1997, with the publication of the sixth lecture, Il faut défendre la société (1975-1876). Additional volumes followed it, released not in the order of their delivery by Foucault, but on the availability of audio recordings of the lectures. Foucault’s preparatory notes and other ancillary materials later supplemented and eventually displaced the recordings. Elden’s earlier books responded to the availability of the Lectures and the will to integrate the new material into a coherent picture. The First Foucault and the forthcoming book on Archaeology deal with the archive material made available to the public in recent years. This material includes reading and preparatory notes, lectures of the period before his appointment to The College de France, manuscripts in different degrees of development, philosophical diaries, bibliographies, etc.

Elden is one of the first to attempt a synthetic picture of this wealth of materials. He relies on archival material from Foucault and his contemporaries, detailed comparisons between different editions of published works, and a thorough familiarity with the secondary literature.

While we have three superb biographies of Foucault (Eribon, Miller, and Macey) and numerous specialized studies, these are primarily based on Foucault’s published work and interviews with Foucault and his contemporaries. But the opening of Foucault’s literary estate — deposited today in the Bibliothèque nationale de France — necessitates revisions, or at least qualifications, of our prior understanding of Foucault’s thought and development. Elden’s book is a thorough study of the archive. It also explores Foucault’s stay in Upsala (Sweden) and his use of its University Library’s significant collection of medical books and printed materials. Also, using documents unearthed in recent years by Polish historians, he sheds some light on the sordid story of how the communist Polish secret police attempted to entrap and possibly blackmail Foucault.

It is not possible to describe in detail the riches of the book in this review. Therefore, I will concentrate on a few issues previously insufficiently documented and on how newly discovered materials sheds light on the formation of Foucault’s thought. Ultimately, the book’s structure is strongly indexed to a foretold result, writing the two texts Foucault submitted for his doctoral degree (Doctorat d’État). This structure necessarily downplays the roads not taken. Elden is aware of this, and on several occasions, he considers projects that Foucault abandoned or reoriented into newer ones.

Chapter 1 discusses Foucault’s university studies in philosophy and psychology, with particular emphasis on a Master’s thesis that Foucault prepared under the supervision of Jean Hyppolite.  This work was presumed lost, but it was recently recovered and would be published soon. Chapter 2 investigates Foucault’s first teaching assignments at the University of Lille and the Ecole normale superieure (ENS) in Paris. Chapter three discusses Foucault’s earlier publications and describes several other projects that Foucault began in this period but left unfinished. Chapter 4 looks at his work as a co-translator of the existentialist psychiatrist Binswanger and the philosopher and essayist von Weizsäcker. Chapter 5 analyzes Foucault’s study of Nietzsche and Heidegger, his reading of the work of Dumezil, and his relationship with the composer Jean Barraqué. Chapter 6 covers Foucault’s postings in Upsala and Warsaw, while chapter 7 does the same for the Hamburg period. In Hamburg Foucault translated and commented Kant’s Anthropology, that he submitted as his secondary thesis for his Doctorat d’état. Finally, chapter eight deals with the defense, publications, and after story of Madness and Civilization, his principal doctoral dissertation.

One of the many strengths of Elden’s account is its attention to Foucault’s study of Hegel, Husserl, Kant, the Dasein analytical movement, and many more. This is particularly welcome because Foucault is not very loquacious about his readings. In particular, there is almost no explicit reference in Foucault’s published writings to his extensive reading of Husserl. Elden shows that Foucault studied Husserl intensively, even reading and annotating some of Husserl’s unpublished manuscripts. The same is true of other master thinkers, such as Freud, Binswanger, Nietzsche, and Heidegger.

Chapter 1 presents the teachers Foucault encountered first in Lycée Henri-IV during the preparation for the entrance examination to the École normale supérieure (ENS) and later at the ENS and the Sorbonne. These teachers were not only sources of knowledge and inspiration for Foucault but also incarnated the philosophical establishment, and Foucault will meet them as teachers, examiners, members of his doctoral jury, and later, as colleagues. Of particular interest is the figure of Jean Wahl, who played an essential role as a relay for German philosophy, was interested in the philosophy of Heidegger, but also in Hegel and Kierkegaard. Foucault attended Wahl’s courses on Heidegger in 1950 and possibly also in 1952.

Elden then presents the figure of Jean Hyppolite, and most importantly, the thesis that Foucault wrote under his direction and submitted in 1949. The dissertation asks three questions: (a) what are the limits of the field of phenomenological exploration and what are the criteria for the experience that serves as the point of departure; (b) what the limits of the transcendental domain in which experiences are made up; (c) what the relations of the transcendental world with the actuality of the world of experience (12).

Elden describes Foucault’s arguments (12-17) and adds that Foucault refers to Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit, other Hegel writings, and a wide range of secondary literature, including the work of Kojève, Lukacs, Hyppolite, Löwith, and Croce. Foucault also references Husserl and expositors of Husserl’s philosophy, such as Levinas, Fink, and Sartre. According to Elden, Foucault argues that The Phenomenology of Spirit is not an introduction to the Hegelian system or its first part, but rather an assessment of how a ‘system as the totality of knowledge… could be conceived’ (13).

Elden concludes that it is ‘an apprentice work’ and is surprised that Foucault does not evoke the famous ‘master slave’ theme. He points out some continuity between the thesis and Foucault’s later interests. For example, Elden lists the idea of the transcendental and the stress on the question of knowledge (16). Elden also notes the absence of references to Heidegger and Nietzsche (17). However, he seems less surprised by Foucault’s strikingly ‘unhegelian’ reading of the Phenomenology.

Foucault studied not only philosophy but also psychology and psychopathology. Elden refers to his teachers, Lagache and the psychiatrist and neurologist Ajuriaguerra.  Foucault also read the work of Georges Politzer, who proposed a Marxist oriented ‘concrete psychology,’ critical of psychoanalysis.  Foucault was also interested in the historical approach to psychology that  Ignace Meyerson developed. Regarding psychoanalysis, Elden refers briefly to Pierre Morichau-Beauchant, one of the earliest French psychoanalysts and a friend of his family. Foucault attended Lacan’s seminars. Based on Maurice Pinget, a close friend at that period, Elden writes that Foucault attended Lacan’s seminars in 1951 and until his departure for Upsala in 1955.  But while Pinget claims that Foucault was very enthusiastic about Lacan, other witnesses seem to remember that Foucault had little sympathy for Lacan’s project and philosophical ambitions (20). And Foucault’s early publications do not reflect Lacan’s teachings.  Elden promises more on the relationship between Foucault and Lacan in his forthcoming book about Foucault’s Archaeology (21).

Maurice Merleau-Ponty was another significant influence. Foucault attended Merleau-Ponty’s lectures in 1947-48 in the Sorbonne, but probably not his lectures at the College de France. Foucault wrote an unpublished manuscript on Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy (see chapter 4). Elden describes the influence of Merleau-Ponty as being significant for the young Foucault, in particular, because of Merleau-Ponty’s project to bridge between psychology and philosophy (23).

A section in this chapter deals with the preparation for the aggregation examination. Elden explains the mechanism of the exams (24-25) and portraits some important characters for Foucault in this period, mainly Althusser and Canguilhem. Foucault failed in his first attempt but retook the exam the next year and was graded second in philosophy. One anecdotical aspect of his exams is that Foucault’s subject for the oral exam was sexuality, a topic newly introduced by Canguilhem to the program. It seems that Foucault complained about the subject.

Chapter 2 deals with the Lille and ENS period, from 1949 to his departure for Upsala in 1955. Following his aggregation, Foucault applied for a scholarship to conduct doctoral research at the Foundation Thièrs. His proposal was the study of the problem of human science in post-Cartesian thought and the work of Malebranche and Bayle. Elden remarks that this subject seems to link back to Merleau-Ponty’s lectures on Malebranche and Maine de Biran. In this period, Foucault also worked as an assistant lecturer in psychology at the University of Lille. He taught contemporary psychology and its history, psychoanalysis, psychopathology, Gestalt theory, the work of Pavlov and other Soviet psychologists, Rorschach tests, and the existential psychologies of Roland Kuhn and Binswanger. He also taught psychology at the ENS, covering psychology, experimental psychology, Pavlov, and the psychoanalytical theory of personality.

In parallel to his teaching activities, Foucault obtained a certificate in psychopathology from the Institute of Psychology of Paris. The studies there included lectures and practical observations at the Sainte-Anne psychiatric hospital.

We have several archival materials from this period. Three ‘substantial manuscripts’ were preserved: ‘Connaissance de l’homme et réflexion transcendantale’ (Knowledge of man and transcendental reflection), an untitled manuscript on Binswanger, and one on phenomenology and psychology.  We also have indirect materials, such as student notes, which cover Foucault’s teaching at the ENS.  Elden describes and summarizes the content of this archival material.

Regarding ‘Knowledge of Man,’ the manuscript is in a binder labeled ‘Cours 1952-3’, and its content overlaps with a course that Foucault taught in 1954-5 at the ENS with a different title. Elden suspects these notes may be more than just teaching material, maybe material for a projected thesis. In these manuscripts, Foucault takes leave from his Master’s thesis and explores the notion of a ‘philosophical anthropology.’ The manuscript begins with references to the origins of philosophical anthropology in the early modern era. In a typical Foucauldian gesture, he dates the origins of the word ‘anthropology’ to the work of the physician and philosopher Ernst Platner, a Kant’s contemporary. Next, Foucault surveys the development of anthropology in early modern times, referring to Scheler, Husserl, and Binswanger. Finally, Foucault claims that philosophy did not recognize anthropology as an autonomous discipline because of the influence of dualism, theology, and the privilege given to abstract a priori rationality. Foucault refers abundantly to Leibnitz, Spinoza, Lessing, Malebranche, Descartes. Still, Elden suspects that these sections are most likely oriented to the curricular requirements and are not the kernel of Foucault’s project.  The second part of the course studies Kant’s anthropology in relation to the critical project overall.  A few pages inserted after the concluding chapter of the manuscript deal with ‘the end of anthropology,’ an idea that he powerfully develops many years later in The Order of Things. The final pages are devoted to a reading of Nietzsche, to the relationship of biology to psychology, and the criticism of psychologism, religion, and universal history.  Finally, Foucault reviews current views on anthropology, discussing Jaspers, Heidegger, Löwith, Kaufmann, and Vuillemin.

Elden dedicates a few paragraphs to the question of when and how Foucault knew about Heidegger’s reading of Nietzsche, which was still unpublished at that time. The question is whether Foucault developed his reading of Nietzsche independently of the influence of Heidegger, a query that Foucault himself addressed ambiguously.  Elden discusses this issue in chapter 5.

Another important manuscript of this period is the one on Binswanger.  This manuscript has been, in the meantime, published in a critical edition with the title Binswanger et l’analyse existentielle (2021).  Elden discusses the problems of dating the manuscript, presents Binswanger’s career, and his relationships with Freud, Husserl, and Heidegger.  According to Elden, one of the key themes of Foucault’s manuscript is whether Binswanger was able to move from a descriptive and pre-scientific apprehension of the human being to a rigorously scientific anthropology (34). Elden does not pursue this lead but concentrates instead on showing the extent of Foucault’s mastery of Binswanger’s work.  What attracted Foucault to Binswanger? Elden says that Foucault was attracted by Binswanger’s interest in ‘modes of being of the human.’ Binswanger also provided an alternative to Sartre’s anthropological-phenomenological project (37). Elden adds that while Foucault did not publish this text, it is quite developed. While the manuscript overlaps with his Introduction to Dream and Existence, Foucault did not use this manuscript as a basis for his later essay. Elden speaks of a road not taken, even if eventually the interest in Daseinsanlysis may have inspired Foucault to write History of Madness. But Foucault soon will reject the whole idea of philosophical anthropology and its impossible hermeneutical circle. In his later work, Foucault will castigate as an ‘empirico-transcendental doublet’ the pretension of a philosophical anthropology.

The third manuscript reviewed in this chapter has for title Phénoménologie et psychologie. Foucault gave a course with the same title in 1953-4 and the following year. A different manuscript on psychology in Husserl and Merleau-Ponty may also be part of the course. And a third manuscript, intitled Psychologie et phénoménologie’, seems to date from the same period, but it has only a thematic but not textual relation to the manuscript (40).

Foucault begins with the claim that ‘The tradition attributed two forms to psychological experience, recognizing each as an independent source: introspection…and objective observation…in the first psychology sought its philosophical foundation, in the other its scientific justification. The situation was clear, but it was an alibi: psychology was never where it was suspected to be’ (Foucault, quoted and translated by Elden, 41).

The manuscript follows with the claim that the death of God contributed to the division between subjective and objective forms of experience. But according to Elden, the reference throughout the manuscript is Husserl. Elden comments that Husserl was a major focus of Foucault’s research at this point in his career, even if he rarely discussed Husserl in his writings (42).

Archival material regarding Foucault’s lectures on psychology, child psychology, testing, etc., is not extant. Still, we know indirectly of Foucault’s lectures through notes from students at the ENS, Lagrange, and Simon in particular (43-46).

Elden also refers to Foucault’s internship in the Sainte-Anne hospital, collaborating with Jacqueline and George Verdeux on various testing and electroencephalography research. Foucault also participated in studies conducted at the Fresnes prison, part of a project to evaluate new inmates suitability for different institutions and programs.  Elden observes that Foucault seems to have had in this period an earlier exposure to many of the issues that he will explore in-depth in his mature work. Elden also mentions that Foucault never referred in detail to his previous work, and his recollections were not very consistent. For example, we know that Jacqueline Verdeux requested Foucault’s help for her translation of Binswanger’s work. But Elden does not say if Foucault knew Binswanger before his collaboration with Verdeux or how he came to be interested in his work.

Chapter 3 deals with Foucault’s first publications in the early ’50s. In this period, Foucault wrote three essays and one book, which reflect on Foucault’s interests in psychology and psychopathology. They are the Introduction to the French translation of Binswanger’s Dream and Existence, a review essay on the history of psychology from 1850 to 1950, and finally, one on scientific research and psychology. Maladie mentale et personnalité, a book, was published in 1954, reissued in 1962 with profound changes, and finally abandoned by Foucault. While these writings were published between 1954 and 1957, Elden estimates that they were written simultaneously.

Elden’s decision to separate the published from the unpublished works may be a disservice to himself and his readers, insofar as the detailed descriptions do not coalesce into a clear hypothesis about what drives Foucault’s explorations. We don’t know if Maladie Mentale et Personnalité and the Introduction to Dream and Existence represent the ideas developed in the early manuscripts or their abandonment.

Maladie Mentale et Personnalité was commanded by Jean Lacroix for the series ‘Initiation Philosophique’ published by the prestigious Presses Universitaires de France. The collection was planned as a series of introductions to philosophical subjects. Lacroix accepted Foucault’s proposal in February 1953, and Foucault delivered a manuscript in October 1953. In Chapter 8, Elden compares the original with the revised edition Foucault published after publishing Madness and Civilization. Elden summarizes the book and emphasizes that the way Foucault presents the problem of psychology and pathology is similar to the approach that he will develop in his mature works, namely, uncovering the structures that make possible forms of scientific knowledge (63). At this stage of Foucault’s evolution, the problem is still presented in philosophical anthropological terms: the approach must be grounded on Man itself, not on the abstraction of illness (Elden 65, quoting Foucault). Evaluating the impact of this book, Elden argues that as Foucault’s profile raised, more attention was paid to this book, especially to the (heavily edited) second edition, despite Foucault’s attempts to forget the book. Nonetheless, some have argued that if we want to examine ‘the archaeology of Foucault’s thought,’ we should consider the first edition (quoted by Elden, 78).

Summarizing his argument, Elden states that “it is striking how much of the work that Foucault undertook in the 1960s has its roots back in the period studied here (190). And he adds, ‘what seems striking in reading all of Foucault’s writings, published and unpublished, are links between periods, rather than clear breaks’ (190). Foucault himself characterized his evolution as a philosopher who moved on to psychology and from psychology to history. Elden shows that these transitions are not breaks but the reconfiguration of some initial questions and their development in new directions.

Elden’s book is undoubtedly a treasure trove for the student of Foucault. Elden says that ‘I have read what he [Foucault] read and analyzed what he wrote.’ The extent of his scholarship, the sources, and the available secondary literature are impressive. Elden benefited from access to Foucault’s papers and the work of a group of young researchers that are busy publishing critical editions of several of the documents that Elden refers to. A good example of this is the recent special issue of the journal Theory, Culture and Society, edited by Elden, Orazio Irrera and Daniele Lorenzini with the title ‘Foucault Before the Collège de France.’ And we should commend his selflessly sharing in his blog many facts, big and small, that he helped uncover.

When all is said and done, how is this going to impact our understanding of Foucault? It is too early to say how this will affect our future interpretation of the life and work of Michel Foucault. Most likely, not in a revolutionary way, but we will have a better context and insights on how some of his ideas developed and what they mean. But the philological and the reception dimensions of a work often do not run in parallel. The misunderstandings around Foucault are at least as productive as the historical record. The student of Foucault knows that a concept such as ‘biopolitics’ has a very short half-life in Foucault’s work. But we can argue that it becomes the inspiration for a renewed interest in Foucault’s work several years after his untimely death. The same is true of his criticism of the ‘repressive hypothesis,’ the idea of the ‘death of man,’ the ‘ontology of the present’ and other metaphors easy to weaponize that, tend to disappear from Foucault’s conceptual universe as soon as coined, only to reappear later in a new metaphor.

Martin Koci: Thinking Faith after Christianity: A Theological Reading of Jan Patočka’s Phenomenological Philosophy

Thinking Faith after Christianity: A Theological Reading of Jan Patočka's Phenomenological Philosophy Couverture du livre Thinking Faith after Christianity: A Theological Reading of Jan Patočka's Phenomenological Philosophy
SUNY series in Theology and Continental Thought
Martin Koci
SUNY Press
2020
Paperback $32.95
301

Reviewed by: Erin Plunkett (University of Hertfordshire)

Jan Patočka is not an obvious place to go looking for Christian theology. While his writings have a clear emphasis on Europe and its Greek-Christian heritage, his explicit remarks on Christianity appear most often as a matter of intellectual history, part of the attempt to understand the intellectual and spiritual framework of modernity. The philosopher is of course best known for inspiring a generation of Czech intellectuals and dissidents in his role as spokesperson for the human rights appeal Charter 77, a role which ultimately cost him his life. Drawn to this dissident legacy and to Patočka’s vision of a post-European Europe, there has been a renewed interest in Patočka among contemporary political philosophers.[i] His work as a scholar of Husserl continues to be read and appreciated in Husserlian circles. But there have been few attempts to read him as a religious or Christian thinker.

One might expect otherwise, given Patočka’s closeness to Heidegger on a number of issues, and given Heidegger’s importance to the so-called ‘theological turn’ in phenomenology in the latter part of the twentieth century. Judith Wolfe, author of Heidegger and Theology characterises this turn as ‘an attempt to responding to the call of the divine without turning God into an idol by metaphysical speculations’ (Wolfe 2014, 193-194). Beyond what Patočka has to say about Christianity explicitly, many themes in his work—sacrifice, conversion, the nothing, care for the soul—are ripe for a theological reading in the above sense. Jean-Luc Marion and Jacques Derrida’s efforts in this direction are perhaps the best known and most thought-provoking; both read Patočka’s conception of sacrifice in a religious light, as a phenomenology of the gift. Yet a religious approach to Patočka’s work has yet to be taken up in any sustained way in contemporary scholarship.

In English-language scholarship, the special issue of The New Yearbook for  Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy 14 (2015), on ‘Religion, War, and the Crisis of Modernity’ in Patočka’s work, edited by Ludger Hagedorn and James Dodd, is the most substantial offering on Patočka’s religious  import and his thinking about Christianity. Hagedorn, Martin Ritter, Eddo Evink, Nicolas De Warren, and  Riccardo Paparusso have given important readings in this vein though none in a book-length study. Martin Koci’s book is therefore a welcome and important contribution to an underdeveloped field. It reflects an extensive knowledge of continental theology and offers an admirably clear view of the terrain at the present moment, as well as suggesting how Patočka may help  to shape this terrain.

Patočka as Post-Christian Christian Thinker

Koci sees Patočka as anticipating the theological turn in phenomenology that began with Marion’s Dieu sans l’etre (1982). Although, in Koci’s view, Patočka’s social and political environment did not permit him to fully explore the religious resonances in his own thought, he can credibly be read as a post-secular thinker avant la lettre. Koci’s aim to establish Patočka as a serious thinker of Christianity contrasts with the standard line taken by Czech scholarship that Patočka is ‘a pure-blooded phenomenologist with no interest in theology’ (216). Those who are sceptical of a theological approach have plenty of support from Patočka’s texts, where he insists on a definite boundary between philosophical activity and religion. However, this need not prevent a reading of Patočka as a phenomenological thinker of theological import. Furthermore, there are reasons to think such an approach is not against the grain of Patočka’s own thinking. Patočka was raised by a Catholic mother and was a believer as a young man, though he grew dissatisfied with a religious framework as he began to study philosophy. He engaged seriously with numerous theological thinkers, in particular his fellow Bohemian John Amos Comenius (1592-1670), and he maintained a long friendship with the (Barthian) Protestant theologian Josef Bohumil Souček, with whom he discussed matters of faith and the meaning of Christianity. In his later years, Patočka gave lectures on theological topics to his students. Patočka’s engagement with Christianity increases in his writings from the prolific period of the 1960s and 70s, which present his mature thought.

Following Ludger Hagedorn, Koci’s study is an exercise in what he calls ‘after’ thinking, in this case, as the title suggests, thinking what Christianity might continue to mean after the death of God, and in the face of the various (related) crises of modernity. Yet, he explains, the project is not to develop a Christianity that ‘works’ in a postmodern context. It is rather to develop a Christian theology that challenges and questions the status quo and offers the possibility for transformation. ‘Christianity after Christianity does not therefore refer to the current state of religion in a post-Christian age. The “after” is not a relation to the past but an opening to the future’ (171-172). Christianity, as Koci understands it, always involves this dimension of ‘after’, since it a way of thinking that is oriented toward the not yet, harbouring the seeds of its own undoing and remaking. Within this framework, it becomes clearer how Patočka can be of value. Patočka’s own conception of history or historical life (a life in truth) involves an awareness of ‘problematicity’, a radical openness to possibility that calls for a repeated dismantling of what one takes to be solid truths.

A single sentence from Patočka’s late work Heretical Essays provides the refrain throughout Koci’s study:

By virtue of this foundation in the abysmal deepening of the soul, Christianity remains thus far the greatest, unsurpassed but also un-thought-through human outreach (vzmach, upsurge, élan) that enabled humans to struggle against decadence. (Patočka 1999, 108).

Koci attempts to make sense of this suggestive and somewhat obscure remark by exploring a number of interrelated issues in Patočka’s thought: from the crisis of modernity, issuing in nihilism or ‘decadence’ (Ch 2) to his critique of metaphysics (Ch 3), to ‘negative Platonism’ (Ch 4), to the three movements of existence (Ch 5) to ‘care for the soul’ and sacrifice (Ch 6-7). The emphasis of Koci’s analysis of the above remark falls heavily on the notion of the ‘unthought’ dimension of Christianity to which Patočka alludes, and he interprets this along the lines that Hagedorn develops in his article ‘“Christianity Unthought”—A Reconsideration of Myth, Faith, and Historicity’ (2015). Quoting Hagedorn,

Christianity unthought would then indicate the maintenance of some core of Christianity even after its suspension, and through its suspension […] in the sense of metaphorically reclaiming some resurrection after the Cross. […] It is the signal for an investigation into what is left of the Christian spirit without being confessional or credulous (Hagedorn 2015, 43).

The Anselmian understanding of theology of fides quaerens intellectum—faith seeking understanding—in Koci’s hands becomes both 1) an affirmation that faith is ‘a way of thinking’ and 2) an explanation for why Christian theology must involve the continual questioning of itself, must relate to its own unthought. Christianity is, in this sense, a thinking of the unthought. Yet this could easily be misconstrued. Thinking the unthought does not mean ‘neutralizing’ (59) the unthought by bringing it in into the totalising framework of closed reason (the framework of modernity). Put in Heideggerian terms, the unthought signifies an openness and responsiveness to being, beyond the metaphysics of beings. Koci reads Patočka’s account of Christianity in the context of his account of the crisis of modernity and modern rationality, which has become closed in on itself (Patočka contrasts the ‘closed’ and the ‘open’ soul). In Koci’s words, ‘religion breaks with the modern enclosure precisely because it allows the others, the otherwise, and, last but not least, the Other to enter the discussion’ (60).

Regarding Christianity’s ‘abysmal deepening of the soul’ Patočka places special emphasis on the soul’s ‘incommensurability with all eternal being’ (Patočka 1999, 108) because of the soul’s placement in history and its call to responsibility by virtue of being in the world (See the fifth heretical essay for this discussion). Quoting Koci, the soul becomes:

the locus of our engagement with problematicity; it is where we experience the upheaval of being-in-the-world. The soul is the organ of reflection upon the concrete historical situation into which we are thrown; it is the flexibility to think, to question, to challenge given meaning in order to search for a deeper meaning, time and again. The soul is what leads us into thinking (194).

The final word of this exposition is key. Christianity is the ‘greatest, unsurpassed’ struggle against decadence, against any account that would seek to settle things once and for all and close off further thinking. This is important for the overall project here, which is, in part, to use the un-thought of Christianity to challenge both philosophical and theological thinking. The proposal is that we take Christianity seriously as a way of thinking and continual questioning that can help to awaken us from our dogmatic slumber, whether the content of this dogmatism is instrumental rationality, nihilism, secularism, or traditional metaphysics.

It might be wise to pause and return again to Patočka’s claim that Christianity is the ‘greatest, unsurpassed’ movement in the fight for meaning. At first glance, this remark looks like an example of what Koci calls ‘Christian triumphalism’, proclaiming the supremacy of Christianity. Indeed, Christianity does occupy a privileged philosophical position in Patočka’s thought, for reasons that have been explained in part above. But I agree with Koci’s assessment that reading Patočka as a Christian triumphalist, as John D. Caputo does in The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida (1997), mistakes his aim altogether; he is not calling for the triumphal return of Christendom as a political power (Koci surmises that the only way Caputo could make such an error is by not having read any Patočka). On the other hand, Koci’s insistence that ‘for Patočka, Christianity is not “better” than other religions’ (193) is less convincing. He claims that:

Patočka does not understand Christianity in Hegelian terms and is far from situating Christianity on top of the religious tree. Neither does Patočka understand Christianity in Kantian terms as the highest moral call […] I see the “unsurpassed” nature of Christianity [in Patočka’s remark quoted above] as referring to a recontextualization of the soul advanced by Christianity.’ (194).

It is true that Patočka does not understand Christianity in either a Hegelian or a Kantian light; these would be grave misreadings (Caputo appears to be the main target here, since he is guilty of mistaking Patočka for a Hegelian). But it is nevertheless apparent across Patočka’s texts that Christianity is the only religion Patočka takes seriously as properly historical-philosophical; others are relegated to mythical thinking. So by Patočka’s own philosophical standards Christianity is ‘better’ than other religions, better not by virtue of its confessional content but by its contribution to being in the world. In Christianity, the soul is understood in all its problematicity and openness. This is a controversial claim, to be sure, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Patočka does in fact situate Christianity ‘on top’.

Koci argues that there are three features of Christianity that Patočka allows us to see which have serious bearing on contemporary philosophical and theological thinking. First, Patočka:

reintroduces the centrality of Christianity as a new “religiosity” of thinking. In thinking, Christianity overcomes both mythos [a mythical thinking is characterised by the maintenance of life and by adherence to the past] and logos [closed rationality]. (172)

This religiosity of thinking goes in the opposite direction of a demythologization of Christianity. In Patočka’s picture, the world is reenchanted, in contrast to the disenchantment of the scientific-rationalist picture. We open ourselves to the world anew. Koci reads this shift as proposing ‘more Christianity rather than less of it […] Of course, this is not a return to anything from the past. Nonetheless, something is coming, and this something is related to Christianity’ (172).

Second, Christianity ‘becomes an existential category whose basic expression is faith as openness to the future’, ‘faith that is a radicalized, philosophical notion—the care for the soul’ (172). This rather dramatically removes the specific confessional content of Christianity, a move to which I will return below. Third, Christianity is an ‘existential thinking’ that realises itself in ‘acting and living’, living as a person who cares for the soul (173). The authenticity of such an attitude is found in the willingness to take responsibility for life through self-surrender or sacrifice, ‘in the name of a truth beyond positive contents’ (173). Patočka’s emphasis on the ‘experience’ [or activity] of sacrifice, in Koci’s reading, contrasts with the language of ‘participation’ in the absolute gift in both Derrida and Marion, which he reads as more of a conceptual schema than an existential one (see Ch 6 and 7 for an extended discussion).

Does Koci make a convincing case for the value of reading Patočka theologically? I had not been inclined to interpret Patočka along these lines prior to reading Koci’s book, but I see enormous value for Patočka scholarship in opening up this line of thought. Koci’s reading of Patočka as a post-Christian Christian thinker is creative and thought-provoking for those familiar with Patočka and for anyone interested in how to think about faith meaningfully in a contemporary postmodern context.

I have two criticisms, centred around the style of exposition in the book and the unresolved tension between the philosophical and the specifically Christian.

One feels that there is a good deal of stage setting in this work: offering context for Patočka’s thought by way of an exploration of the death of God, the crises of modernity, twentieth-century phenomenological thought, and contemporary continental theology. This is all relevant and helpful to the project of thinking about what Patočka has to offer, but the sustained engagement in the details of Patočka’s own account, especially sustained reflection on the writings that are meant to be of theological interest, is less developed. Koci is well-versed in both continental philosophy-theology (see his recent edited volume on the French philosopher Emmanuel Falque) and in Patočka’s writings, yet the former threatens to swallow up the latter in this book; it is only toward the end of Chapter 5 that Koci asks the question: ‘what is Patočka’s Christianity?’ (p 165), and only in Chapters 6 and 7, in comparisons with Derrida and Marion, that one sees a sustained attention to the details of this Christianity. What I miss in the breadth of the author’s treatment is the depth that comes from close textual analysis, especially when dealing with texts as condensed as Patočka’s.

There are perhaps unavoidable reasons for the thinness of detail in the present account of Patočka’s post-Christian Christianity. It may be the result of Patočka’s own writing, which does not lend itself well to systematic treatment, especially in the case of his writings that might be deemed of theological value, which are naturally scattered across various works. Furthermore, Patočka’s writings often have a provisional quality, not lacking in depth but with a tendency toward ellipses, presenting many rich ideas but often leaving the reader wanting further explication. Whether the root of this elliptical quality is to be found in Patočka’s philosophical commitments, in his own idiosyncrasies as a writer, or in the extremely straitened historical circumstances in which he was forced to work is a question with no definitive answer. However, this quality of Patočka’s writing is especially pronounced when he speaks about quasi-Christian themes such as sacrifice and mystery (see 233-234 for an example). Koci intelligently reads these silences—pace Kierkegaard and Derrida—as pregnant with significance. One of Koci’s examples of this is Patočka’s failure to explicitly name Christ in his writings, though he makes significant allusions to him, as in the discussion of sacrifice in the end of the 1973 Varna lecture and the reference to the Passion narrative in the ‘Four Lectures on Europe’. Koci also speculates that Patočka might well have developed his post-Christian ideas more explicitly given a different intellectual and political climate. Both assessments seem plausible to me.

That said, other than the excellent description of kenotic sacrifice in Chapter 7, the present book is rather thin on the details of what Patočka’s Christianity might look like. One example is the very truncated discussion of Christian community that ends the book. These considerations were, to me, very ripe for development, and I would have liked to hear more of Koci’s own vision of what forms a Patočkian Christian community could take, what forms of worship, what shared rituals. Koci is inspired by Patočka’s key idea of the ‘solidarity of the shaken’ from the Heretical Essays, and other scholars could certainly build on Koci’s groundwork. Naturally questions of post-Christian ritual and worship go beyond the scope of Patočka’s own writings, but Koci’s reading of Patočka raises these questions and invites imaginative responses. Such exercises in filling out Patočka’s own account may risk heresy to the master, yet without them, one is left with a portrait of Christianity that does not differ very much from a purely philosophical account: each person strives to ‘care for the soul’, living in a full awareness of the problematicity of finitude, dedicating themselves to a truth that is not embodied in anything present or actual.

Beyond Patočka’s writing style, there may be another reason for the sense of thinness I noted earlier, and this is one that Koci addresses directly, namely that Patočka’s understanding of Christianity is not a positive theology. There is no content, per se, no dogma in Patočka’s understanding of the divine or in the way of relating to the world that is taken up in an attitude of faith. While this kind of theological approach has an impressive pedigree, reading Patočka in this tradition raises the question anew of how and to what extent Patočka’s Christianity differs from a wholly philosophical account. Christianity in Patočka can easily be seen as having philosophical value, value for the question of how to orient oneself in the world, but I remain unconvinced that the lessons that Patočka draws from it are fundamentally different from the lessons he draws from Socrates. A distance from true being and a recognition of the limits of knowledge are, to Patočka’s mind, the distinctly Christian intellectual contributions. This is distinct from Platonism, to be sure, but Hannah Arendt, for one, draws the same lessons from Socrates.

Koci to his credit directly tackles the question of whether the features that he identifies as Christian in Patočka’s work may just as well be called Socratic. Patočka’s ‘care for the soul’ and ‘sacrifice’ can—and have—been read either way. On the topic of sacrifice, Koci offers a comparison of the deaths of Socrates and Christ to see which best accords with Patočka’s understanding of a sacrifice for nothing, elaborated in his 1973 lecture ‘The Dangers of Technicization in the Sciences According to E. Husserl and the Essence of Technology as Danger in M. Heidegger’ and in the Heretical Essays. In Patočka, sacrifice for nothing, as opposed to a transactional sacrifice for some specific end, is a central concept; sacrifice in the radical, non-transactional sense discloses the ontological difference, elaborated by Heidegger, between specific beings or things—taken individually or as a set—and being proper, which is no-thing and is not of the order of beings (see the postscript of Heidegger’s ‘What is Metaphysics?’ for the origin of this discussion). In an act of sacrifice, an individual brings this ontological difference, otherwise hidden and supressed, into view. A new understanding of truth is thus affirmed.

Construed in this way, Socrates and Christ both seem equally apt examples of a sacrifice for nothing—both die for a truth that is not obvious or present (and certainly not recognised by those around them) but which they nonetheless affirm by being willing to give their lives. Neither of these deaths could be thought of as transactional. Koci’s reading of these deaths focusses on a different feature, however. Socrates is serene, even happy in the face of death, requesting that his friends remember to sacrifice a cock to Asclepius—for ridding him of the malady of life. Koci points to this attitude and to passages in the Phaedo as evidence that Socrates thought of death as a welcome release from life, that his serenity came from the certainty that he would finally be in direct contact with higher being and would be able to know what he only glimpsed in part. Christ, by contrast, utters the anguished cry ‘eli eli lama sabachthani’. While Christ accepts that he must sacrifice himself, he does not understand it. Rather than embracing death in the certain knowledge that immortality was preferable, he holds onto finitude and it remains problematic for him. Patočka quotes Christ’s final words in his ‘Four Seminars on Europe’ (Patočka, ‘Čtyři semináře k problému Evropy’, 403–404 and 412–413), suggesting his attention to this aspect of the passion narrative. Christ’s kenosis or self-emptying is, for Koci:

a scandalous provocation to shift from a simple life and its preservation to thinking about human being. It seems that herein lies the motivation behind Patočka’s plea for fighting for the Christian legacy, albeit in a deconstructed and demythologized manner, for the post-Christian world (215).

Ultimately Koci admits that one cannot decide on a purely Greek or Christian reading of sacrifice since Patočka himself tends to read Socrates through the lens of Christ and Christ through the lens of Socrates. For Koci, this ambiguity reflects a deeper one in Patočka’s work: Christian theology is a response to (Greek) philosophy, but philosophy must learn lessons from Christianity if it to break free from its own dogma. It is only in the relationship between the two that an authentic orientation to the world emerges.

I am sympathetic to the project of this book, and I am greatly attracted to ‘Patočka’s Christianity’, as Koci presents it. However, I remain unsure of the legitimacy and value of putting this account under the heading of ‘Christianity’, or even ‘post-Christian Christianity’, I freely admit that this may have more to do with my own understanding of Christianity, and it is certainly rooted in my understanding of philosophy. Koci writes in Ch 4, ‘I am convinced that Patočka invites us to think about a certain vision of philosophical faith (147).’ I agree much more readily with this formulation. I am convinced that the texts themselves authorise a ‘post-secular’ reading; it seems to me the natural result of good philosophical thinking, that, like Patočka’s, it remain open to transcendence.

 

References:

Hagedorn, Ludger and Dodd, James, eds. 2015. The New Yearbook for Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy XIV. Religion, War and the Crisis of Modernity: A Special Issue Dedicated to the Philosophy of Jan Patočka. London: Routledge.

Hagedorn, Ludger. 2015. ‘“Christianity Unthought”—A Reconsideration of Myth, Faith, and Historicity’. The New Yearbook for Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy 14: 31–46.

Patočka, Jan. 1999. Heretical Essays in the Philosophy of History. Translated by Erazim Kohák and edited by James Dodd. Chicago: Open Court.

Patočka, Jan. 2002. In Sebranné spisy Jana Patočky, vol. 3. Péče o duši, III: Kacířské eseje o filosofii dějin; Varianty a přípravné práce z let 1973–1977; Dodatky k Péči o duši I a II. Edited by Ivan Chvatík and Pavel Kouba. Prague: Oikoymenh.

Wolfe, Judith. 2014. Heidegger and Theology. London: Bloomsbury.


[i] See e.g. Meacham, Darian and Tava, Francesco, eds. 2016. Thinking after Europe: Jan Patočka and Politics. London: Rowman and Littlefield.

*For those interested in reading more of Patočka, the forthcoming Care for the Soul: Jan Patočka Selected Writings (Bloomsbury, 2022) will offer a number of his texts available in English for the first time.

Rodolphe Gasché: Locating Europe: A Figure, a Concept, an Idea?

Locating Europe: A Figure, a Concept, an Idea? Couverture du livre Locating Europe: A Figure, a Concept, an Idea?
Rodolphe Gasché
Indiana University Press
2021
Paperback $30.00
256

Reviewed by: Jacob Saliba (Boston College)

Rodolphe Gasché’s latest book Locating Europe: A Figure, a Concept, an Idea? is a collection of interrelated philosophical essays which employ the phenomenological and post-phenomenological traditions in order to answer the question of what it means to live in Europe or, to put it more precisely, what Europe means in itself.  The fundamental premise of the text is that many today have taken for granted the ongoing layering process of meaning within Europe since Greek antiquity. Europe, as Gasché sees it, requires an intellectual recalibration in which it can come to terms with its prior heritage, overcome its past mistakes, and enable its hopes for the future. In today’s climate that is keen on pursuing either reparations for past mistakes or protections for previous agendas, it is altogether fitting to approach these judgments on theoretical grounds thus laying bare the inner motivations for guilt or defensiveness. In so far as Locating Europe: A Figure, a Concept, an Idea? answers the question in its own title it also helps us better understand political and cultural turmoil today. Importantly, what makes this text unique is that it is sophisticated enough to confront present problems in a manner that avoids hyperbole and remains rooted in philosophical insights. In other words, Locating Europe is a much-needed investigation of Europe’s role in not only strengthening appeals for progress and reform but also emboldening calls for self-criticism and reevaluation.

The book’s elevens chapters challenge older attempts at a phenomenology of Europe and reposition more recent ones. Indeed, as the title suggests, there are three basic sections to the text: Europe as a figurative meaning, Europe as a conceptual meaning, and Europe as an idea. Gasché constructs each sphere (i.e., figure, concept, or idea) and shows their implications in relationship to the past, present, and future. The overall argument is that Europe is more than a political or economic entity; it is a highly dynamic expanse in which all forms of life are embraced in thought and deed. According to Gasché, Europe is a mode of living and thinking which opens itself up to new beginnings and harnesses the discoverability of new paths despite threats of decay or degeneration. In the twenty-first century, some critics assert that Europe no longer has a legitimate place in the world due to its imperial projects since the onset of Western colonialism. Others, paradoxically, argue that Europe’s trajectory as a political project is too self-consumed in utopian ideals such as the European Union.  Gasché rejects the false choice between dismissal and idealization by teasing out deep continuities in European culture that have remained since ancient Greece: “rationality, self-accounting, self-criticism, responsibility toward the other, freedom, equality (including for the different sexes), justice, human rights, democracy, and the list goes on” (ix). To question these values would be to question Europe itself.

Following Maria Zambrano’s line of thought, Locating Europe begins by showing that Europe’s origins come from the periphery, namely, Classical Greece and ancient North Africa. This preliminary point is integral. If it is true to say that Europe’s way of thinking and living is conducive to the ‘new’ or the ‘different’, then one must be able to locate these standards within the structures and narratives of Western thought. The point is to say neither that Europe is privileged in nature nor that it is monolithic in scope (xi). Rather, what is imperative is showing that the plane on which this issue is discussed and debated is itself a demonstration of what Europe’s inherent purpose is all about. In other words, the make-up of Europe as debatable, as contestable, as a forum of reflection serves as the self-evidence for its redemptive qualities for the purpose of “constant renewal” (xi). It is, thus, the perennial goal of Europe to maintain an unrelenting reflection of itself without which it could not achieve a conscious understanding of its traditional inspirations, creative aspirations, and lived ambitions.

So, what does it mean for Europe to be a figure, a concept, or an idea? Which rubric offers the best representational status?  Gasché asserts that a figurative Europe revolves around notions of intuited spaces or interactive intelligible schemas such as “the archipelago, the horizon, or indistinguishable from light” (xiv). Or, perhaps Europe is more aptly understood as a concept linked to language development, idiomatic gestation, or universal communicative capacities. Lastly, Europe as an idea—which Gasché primarily focuses on as most feasible—manifests the highest form of representation in the sense that it provides a regulative function for understanding which “does not exhaust itself” and perpetually leaves open opportunity as a metaphysical possibility. As Gasché puts it: “It is, in particular, this identification of Europe as an idea that undergirds all the distinct essays collected in this volume, which also feature studies such as the intrinsic interweaving of the notion of Europe with the question of responsibility to the other, primarily Europe’s responsibility toward its twofold (and aporetic) heritage of Greek and Christian and Judaic thought” (xiv). In effect, by lending legitimacy to this last approach of Europe as an idea, Gasché allows for conceiving Europe in a more dynamic cognizable space.

Europe as a Figure

The first major section of the text involves three chapters: “Archipelago,” “Without a Horizon,” and “In Light of Light.”  Though distinct in their own rights, each chapter coheres with the first proposition of Europe as a figure.  “Archipelago” centers on the notion of plurality and diversity of figures as intrinsic to Europe’s trajectory and growth through history since its inception in the ancient Mediterranean world. For instance, drawing from the philosophy of Massimo Cacciari, the Archipelago stands as the perennial figure by which the dialogue of home and abroad, far and near, different and same all synchronize with one another to formulate an origin story of variance and similarity that can still account for progress. In other words, the ancient traditions which speak of an archipelago of nations, ports, and tribes co-existing with one another despite their differences and distances seems to suggest that it may very well still be possible today, especially in view of the fact that Us versus Them mentalities remain. The essential issue at hand is how Europe can account for basic individuality while at the same time foster interconnectivity. Can the figurative meaning of the Archipelago still be operative to answer urgent cultural questions of divisiveness today? Or, to put it in metaphysical terms: how can the part cohere with the whole, how can the One bond with the Many?  For Gasché this possibility is rooted in a conversion, a movement to self-transcendence (6). Although this movement may come with the dangers of loss of identity, of conquest of the Other, or even inter-subjective friction, the very acceptance of this kind of fractious reality may be the key to unlocking a bright future. By accepting difference as fundamental to the origin of Europe—as seen in the Archipelago—then perhaps the notion of self-transcendence will appear all the more intelligible as a purposive task rather than an accidental fate.

“Without a Horizon” further expands the notion of spatial perception as it relates to Europe’s figurative meaning. Here, Gasché employs the philosophy of Jean-Luc Nancy to explain the components and impediments latent in a ‘universal vision’ (15). If the gaze of the twenty-first century European is cast forward as a conscious aim, then it is also possible to redirect it as a lived reappropriation. ‘The look’ as construed by Nancy is that which can go beyond as well as move within. In short, the look has the deepest proximity with itself. “It is a seeing that before having the power of sight, ‘sees’ seeing nothing. It is seeing affected by itself in advance of all ‘itself’, and, hence, before all seeing that sees something particular” (16). Accordingly, the goal of self-identity is made further dynamic once realized as a perceptive consciousness endowed with the capacity to both look from itself as well as look at itself.  In this way, the viewer can touch the vision and maintain intimacy with the act (17-18). More than this, the viewer stretches the outer limits of the horizon, thus, going beyond what was previously held to be a self-contained universal scope. In this way, the infinite becomes intelligible and the beyond appears possible.  “At the extreme border of the horizon, the world appears in its horizonless infinity, a finite world, and hence an infinite one” (24). If there is a blind spot of the European gaze, then Europe need only to recast its look beyond the status quo horizon into darker untested spaces.

“In Light of Light” marks the final portion of the book’s first section. Though it moves in the direction of Europe as a concept, it nonetheless maintains the character of Europe a figure. Gasché starts by framing the chapter in terms of Husserl’s work “The Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology.” If Husserl is correct to assert that Europe is the idea of progress par excellence he inherently upgrades Europe to a conceptual level in which case the entity (i.e., Europe) represents the task of knowledge acquisition itself (i.e., philosophy or science properly construed). On the flip-side, however, perhaps Europe as an idea is nothing more than a spiritual figure with a mythical pregnancy and legendary birth. This philosophical dilemma, according to Gasché, is an intrinsic tension to Europe as figure, concept, and idea. Either Europe is a conceptual standard on universal grounds, or it is particular only to itself and its own figurative germinations. Gasché, therefore, employs Jan Patočka’s seminal work Plato and Europe in order to reorient Husserl’s conception of Europe from theoretical grounds toward more pragmatic attitudes. Patočka marks a departure from Husserl’s ‘things in themselves’ to a form of how things ‘present themselves’, most especially the human being (35). What was previously held to be non-real or non-phenomenological in the Husserlian sense now functions in a deeply human way that, as Patočka suggests, centers on the Greek conception of the soul. “The soul is what properly distinguishes the human being; that precise instance in us to which the totality of being shows itself, hence becoming phenomenon” (36). In so far as the soul is the ‘becoming’ of the human it is also that which summons a response and realization from the non-real to the real. In other words, the importance of the Greek conception of the soul was not so much its theoretical insights but rather the intimacy and transparency by which the human being manifests itself in the world through actualization. Furthermore, this manifestation process is the guiding light that the Greeks sparked first and through which hidden appearances become truly tangible. Just as the care of the soul persists, so, too, does the light continue to beam forth.

Europe as a Concept

The second set of texts deals with Europe as a concept. In “The Form of the Concept,” Gasché employs Hans-Georg Gadamer’s philosophy as a way to frame a conceptually robust representation of Europe by utilizing the phenomenon of ‘world-shaping’. For Gadamer, Europe’s role as an arbiter on the world-stage is more than simply a political or economic intervention; it is one that holds together the fabric of higher questions in which disagreement, synthesis, and transformative change can cohere with one another in a dynamic unity.  Understood conceptually, Europe is the “differentiation that calls for science” as well as the “unifying power of science that allows differentiation to take place from within” (51). In short, a conceptual Europe is one that can account for the Other in a way that also enables a revivifying encounter with Oneself. Additionally, European philosophy and science have allowed for such progression since the birth of Greek theoria so that ‘higher questions’ maintain within themselves an inertia of enlightening proportions. Moreover, Indo-Germanic languages have facilitated a form of knowledge-seeking that relies fundamentally on the Western grammatical form. To the extent that meaning is extracted from its deep, hidden deposits by virtue of transmittable grammar, it also allows for its recognition as a continuous human affair.  Literature, religion, and history testify to this reality in the sense that they all rely on a communicability which allows for the unfolding of the meaning in an intelligible manner—whether it be in the mold of storytelling, theological mystery, or accounts of human events.  Europe as a civilization would not be what it is if it could not muster a unity between the diversity of disciplines. The form of Western disciplines is the center of gravity—the glue of togetherness—by which Europe can determine itself conceptually. “The discovery of the form of the concept is Europe’s most distinguishing trait” (57).

“Axial Time” relies on Karl Jaspers interpretation of the Axial Period, an era or event that goes to the historical root of itself. “The Axial Period is an empirically evident formation of meaning that can be intuited by everyone and can be understood as a measure against which to judge history” (67). Its purpose, or, rather its parameters, involves that of renewal or the process by which renewal can be an empirically possible reality. For Jaspers, the Axial Period is a Greek phenomenon in which for the first time Western man reached beyond itself into the realm of Being and participated in issues larger than natural life; moreover, it was mirrored by break-through ideas in the Middle East and Asia. It is “the emergence of the individual person in the shape of the philosopher, the traveling thinker, the prophet, and so forth” (69). However, Jaspers laments that twentieth century humankind has lost touch with this prior Axial Period. According to Gasché, this has occurred because modern man has forgotten that the conceptual project of Europe is as much tied to others (e.g., the East) in as much as it is linked to Europe (e.g., the West).  What was so incredible about the Greek breakthrough is that it was carried forth and intimated in ways that resembled the Middle East and Asia. In so far as the Greeks vied to go beyond practical and mythical attitudes, so, too, did the great minds of the Eastern world. Though two distinct worlds, each sphere constitutes each other on a more profound level in which cohesions succeeds not because of isolation but by an appreciation of uniqueness.  “In fact, it is a difference that is constitutive of Europe and implies the recognition that every spiritual phenomenon is divided, and comes to life only when the spiritual heeds the difference that divides it from within, thus establishing it in relation to another recognized as capable of truth” (83). The question is to what extent Europe can live up to its end of the bargain.

“Eastward Trajectories” encompasses nicely what the previous two chapters laid forth. In short, Gasché traces how major thinkers in the twentieth century shifted their philosophical lens to the East in order to improve what was most prized in the West.  The principal example is Karl Löwith’s travels to Japan during Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s and 1940s.  Fundamentally, Löwith asserts that to grasp Europe conceptually in the modern moment requires that it be approached from the outside looking in. What is perhaps most surprising about his account is that the more he explored Japan the more that he realized the similarities between it and Europe. The spiritual affinities at the level of the natural world, the preoccupation with the cosmos, and mythical attitudes toward the divine each resembled structures which he found to be true also in Greek antiquity. Moreover, Löwith blames the ‘new Europe’ of the contemporary situation for forgetting these essential qualities of Europe’s origin story. In so far as hyper-nationalism parallels the grave travesties of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, so, too, does a naïve self-love incur loss of identity on a metaphysical level. Simply put, what Europe lacks is an awareness of being wrong—of being conceptually mistaken. In dialectical terms, Europe is impoverished by its inability to accept that which is other and outside of itself—another consciousness without which its own consciousness could not realize itself (102). A renewed philosophical attitude “is predicated on a critical self-distancing of the human being that allows for a contemplation of this order in all its otherness, as other than the passing concerns of humans within the historical world, but that also makes it possible for human beings to be, as Hegel put it, with themselves precisely in being-other” (106).

Europe as an Idea

The third and final section of Locating Europe is that of Europe as an idea; it is the largest and most intellectually striking part of the book. Each chapter is preoccupied with the challenge of Europe as an idea which, for Gasché, is either a doubtful illusion or an empowering authenticity.

In “Feeling Anew for the Idea of Europe,” Gasché sets the stage for what an idea of Europe might possibly look like and if it can hold as the identity of Europe. Following Jacques Derrida’s deconstructive focus on difference, Gasché asserts that Europe as ‘a heading’ (i.e., trajectory) cannot ignore the possibility of there being another ‘heading’ that proliferates all around us in everyday terms (114). If the goal is to achieve an idea of Europe that can account for all modes of living and thinking, then perhaps it is worthwhile to destabilize the previous concept of Europe and bring about new ideas of it. In so far as Europe differs from its own Europe-ness as well as from Eastern cultures, it discovers what kind of identity it could be tomorrow rather than remain with its conceptual stagnation of yesterday. As Gasché writes: “It is about the always possible change of that identity” (116). In short, feeling for a new Europe amounts to what it is as much as what it is not. “Differently put, this feeling that registers an essential debt to the other heading, and the other of the heading, a debt so essential that the possibility of change is intrinsically tied into the positivity of identity, hence, that an element of unpredictability is inevitably part of identity, is the ‘new’ felt identity of what it means to be European” (117). Although Europeans may feel their identity, they feel it in differences and not in sameness. Alas, they have lost sight of what is unique about all perspectives available in the landscape of the everyday.

Gasché also permits the reader to consider Kant’s definition of the idea or, as the title of the next chapter suggests, ““An Idea in the Kantian Sense?.” The premise is that if Europe is a task to be fulfilled, then it follows that one must have ‘an idea’ of what needs to be done. In this way, Kant’s notion of the idea as regulative might shed some light; the idea is not self-contained slice of information but rather the ground for further reflection. Or, as Gasché defines it: “an idea in the Kantian sense is not only a representation to which no congruent sensory or empirical object corresponds but which, nonetheless, is necessary to the function of reason” (135). Kantian ideas supposedly maximize psychological space and push the boundaries by which reason can operate, irrespective of empirical reality.  However, Gasché argues that to accept an idea of Europe in the Kantian sense presupposes that all regulation of reason succeeds in its aims towards systematic unity. In other words, Kant misunderstands that purposive unity cannot account for all thoughts and deeds; what it forgets is the everyday. And, to Derrida’s point, it is the everyday that Europe has forgotten.

“Responsibility, a Strange Concept” appears to be Gasché’s own way of answering the call to the everyday, suggested in the previous chapter. In short, this chapter demonstrates the inner complexity of an appeal to responsibility—meant absolutely as well as inter-personally. In this way, Europe might be better positioned to balance its heritage of moral philosophy, on the one hand, and current demands for decentering arcane laws of morality, on the other. The modern subject is indebted to previous notions, but it does not de facto obey them. “Our relationship to heritage is a critical relationship” (153). To render an ethics proper to the contemporary situation requires that it be put in doubt, that is, experimented and tested for its cultural endurance. If Europe is to have a future, it must be responsible. At the same, however, responsibility is not synonymous with obedience. Rather, it is more germane to the notion of response. By stepping outside of rules and duties and into the domain of intuitive contact, one opens up what a response could and ought to be. The goal is to meet the Other as the Other rather than to create or define them. Therein, lies the truth of responsibility.

Importantly, if the previous conception of responsibility is compelling, then it follows that Derrida’s phenomenological approach deserves more investigating. Or, to put it differently, what actually remains of Derrida’s deconstruction of Europe? Such is the subject-matter of “An Immemorial Remainder: The Legacy of Europe.” According to Gasché, there is something that remains with us from Derrida: “It is a legacy that concerns the formal possibility of legacy itself, or, more precisely, since without such remaining no such thing as a heritage would exist, it concerns the very (‘performative’) imparting of legacy itself” (169). What is crucial to the legacy of Derrida is the way in which he pushes abstraction into contestation with itself in order to render lived experience more conducive to the inter-subjective world. His goal is to open up a khora (i.e., a place of middle-ground) so indefinable yet indispensable that it resists appropriation and therefore remains a place of sacredness. Indeed, this place’s unconditional purpose is that of tolerance which respects singularity and allows for distance.  Moreover, it is: “a place where each discrete singularity would be able to have a place, or rather, to take place” (188). For Gasché, the khora allows for the idea.

Having considered Gasché’s three options of Europe as figure, concept, and idea, it is necessary to point out a significant tension within the text. This tension is not an adverse feature of Gasché’s phenomenology, rather its appearance serves more as a reminder of the deep complexity within his question. Gasché admits that he is partial to the notion of Europe as an idea (xiv). However, he also confesses that if Europe is taken as an idea in the Derridean sense and not in the Kantian sense, then the stance leaves itself vulnerable to vague representation or naïve abstraction, even if the idea of Europe is grounded in responsibility to the Other as Other.  “It reveals itself as incapable of sufficiently and adequately thematizing what responsibility is and must be,” he writes (165). In this case, the Derridean idea of Europe as responsible cannot provide logical cohesion for its future operations; it becomes mere accident. A proper idea of Europe would have to meet the richness of what Europe actually means. It would need to go beyond itself in this regard.

According to Gasché, it is precisely phenomenology itself that not only tolerates this dilemma but also is equipped to respond to it. In other words, to be able to identify the problem (e.g.., the idea of European decay) necessitates a discourse that can support this endeavor for all its intricacies, rather than subsuming the problem into traditional philosophical positions (e.g., Kant’s definition of the idea of reason). “This is the very reason why [phenomenology], more than any other one, has the necessary resources to think responsibility otherwise. Paradoxically, it is the motifs of giving and appearing that are so dominant in phenomenology that permit us to bring our attention to what it is in responsibility that necessarily escapes thematization and phenomenology itself” (166). Moreover, it is due to phenomenology that responsibility has attained such a championed status in the history of Western thought.  “Given all that we have seen, it now seems obvious that if responsibility has been able to become a thematic priority in phenomenological reflection, then it is because the character of its response to a prior demand—one that emanates from the other— corresponds to a structure of phenomenal being insofar as the latter offers itself to an intuitive look and issues the demand to understanding as such that which then manifests itself” (164). The issue is not that Europe is an idea, the issue is what we have turned the idea of Europe into (216). “The end of Europe and the beginning of a post-European world makes it incumbent on Europe, which has understood itself so far from the idea of reason and universality, to revisit the concept of the idea with which it represented itself” (217). This is fundamentally the essential character of phenomenology in the twentieth and twenty-first century—to open up the totality of lived experience and enter into the various essences that comprise it for the betterment of each.

Overall, Locating Europe: A Figure, a Concept, an Idea? is a superb addition to the European phenomenological tradition. The collected essays demonstrate the multiple attitudes one might take in responding to the European question as well as defend the privileged role of phenomenology in reflecting on that question. In so far as the reader encounters divergent positions, they also become familiar with major streams of Western thought in a new and improved lens. Gasché further emboldens continental philosophy to assert its ability to ask profoundly urgent questions in the hopes of arriving at sound conclusions. Indeed, this text is a testament to the effort necessary to unveil the inner brilliance of such an approach.

Hartmut Rosa: The Uncontrollability of the World

The Uncontrollability of the World Couverture du livre The Uncontrollability of the World
Hartmut Rosa. James Wagner (Translator)
Polity
2020
Paperback €18.10
140

Reviewed by: Andrei-Valentin Bacrău (former graduate researcher at the University of Zurich)

Rosa’s “Uncontrollability of the World” is an accessible read, regardless of philosophical background and training. The minimal use of jargon and social analysis remain engaging through the text, while providing a fresh outlook towards what it means to be an individual in the 21st century, surrounded by constant notions of “progress”, which we do not sufficiently examine towards our well-being. As consumers of goods, we often engage with financially unreliable planning and aspirations. Simultaneously, even the notion and strategy of being a good parent is undergoing significant transitions (64-65). The growing concern of parents has changed from trying to offer children what is best, to at least ensuring that they are not falling behind in terms of financial security and professional success.

The initial German for “uncotrollability” is translated from “unverfügbar”. Rosa clearly acknowledges the peculiarities and minimal use in the German language of such concept. He begins the book with a nomological investigation about “unverfügbar”. Although the translation of “unpredictability” has also been considered, Rosa eventually defers to “uncontrollability”, for thematic reasons:

This is exactly what this book is about: modernity’s incessant desire to make the world engineerable, predictable, available, accessible, disposable (i.e. verfügbar) in all its aspects (viii).

Additionally, Rosa is also examining the extent to which we enjoy unpredictability and uncontrollability as well. If we look at sports or board games, it seems that part of the reason why we continuously practice and engage in these activities, is because we do not know who the winner is eventually going to be (3). The randomness involved in all combinatorial possibilities, strategies and moves by a team or individuals within a game, are unpredictable: and that is what instigates our curiosity and desire for continuous re-construction of such playful events.

Although the book is strictly discussing our modern age, these notions of predictability, engineering and disposability have been within the minds of Western Europeans since the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, respectively. The constant desire to manipulate nature, events and our social ecosystem has resulted in a change of how our families, work space and countries interact. Rosa does not specifically address the aforementioned events and their relationship to modernity. However, he does mention that our resultant modern ecosystem has been emerging for the past three centuries, due to our human nature’s disposition to expand relentlessly (8). Rosa’s transition into his central arguments is the position of a realist in political science: regardless of boundaries, walls and other political aspirations, the international world remains anarchic, uncontrollable and unpredictable (20).

Prior to explaining the five main theses of the book, there is a secondary, auxillary concept evoked almost as often as uncontrollability itself. The notoin of resonance plays a significant role in showing the instrumental limits of control, as well as how we socially cope with the uncontrollable aspects of our experiences in the world. “Resonance” itself does uptake multiple meanings, and in some points it could be as easily substituted with the use of “uncontrollability”. However, it seems that the primary role of “resonance” is to evidentiate what makes our experiences “uncontrollable”, and which features of these can become, eventually, within our reach and hence “semi-controllable” (44). Resonance is not as elusive as uncontrollability (4), so it rather behaves as some sort of intersubjective dynamic that enhances our experience of the world.

Gradually, the concept of resonance also uptakes an existentialist baggage. By evoking Merleau-Ponty (31), we as subjects mainly respond and react to experiences, others and events. Rosa further extends this responsiveness as an outcome of resonance. Resonance is a necessary precondition of experience, for an individual to have the reactionary capacity Merleau-Ponty is describing. Consequently, Rosa frames the notion of resonance as a “mode of relation”, which displays the following four features (32-36):

  1. Being Affected: Primarily explained as some inward, aesthetic experience- a song can have such capacity.
  2. Self-Efficacy: An emotoinal and outward movement or reaction. The exchanges of gaze, or a warm dialogue would satisfy such denotation.
  3. Adaptive Transformation: There are numerous examples illustrated under this particular denotation. In summary, it can have something to do either with the gap between expectations and satisfying one’s desires, or the typical imprint we think of when we are changed or influenced by someone.
  4. Uncontrollability: Rosa uptakes the rather conventional use of uncontrollability in this case. It is the dynamic itself of experiencing a change from knowing someone or a particular event. The uncontrollable aspect of it is not only epistemic, in the sense of often not knowing what the experiential outcome is of the transition, but also the difficulties and novelties of adjusting to the particular change.

There are segments, as exemplified by the fourth denotation, where it can be unclear whether or not Rosa evokes uncontrollability as a denotation of resonance or not. It seems that in most uses, “uncontrollability” is unexplainable without some entailment relationship to “resonance”. Both of these concepts, however interchangeable they might be through Rosa’s book, definitely attempt to guide us through the same social phenomena. The more we try to engage in meaningful discussions about predictions, control and the satisfaction of our desires (however these dispositions themselves might in turn be controlled by the invisible hand of the market), our experiences as consumers and beings in the world are not fully satisfied- simply said, unhappy. To further elucidate the relationship between “uncontrollability”, “resonance” and our human experience, Rosa advances five primary arguments through the book:

§1 The inherent uncontrollability of resonance and the fundamental controllability of things do not constitute a contradiction per se (41).

In this passage we can notice additional clarification between the two main concepts of the book. We have a human disposition to react towards what we are affected by, a sensorial experience which is mediated by resonance. Rosa argues that both other subjects, as well as objects (in themselves) have such embedded property of “somehow” projecting “resonance” towards us. Although it is not quite clear how or why other features of the world beyond us have this “resonance” to them, the conclusive remarks of the unit is that there is some sort of relationship towards an “inherent uncontrollability” both in ourselves, as well as in the external world. This thesis becomes slightly difficult to really grasp, especially since the verbatim of the first assertion is that there is no contradiction between the uncontrollability of resonance and the controllability of things. We may uncontrollably become attracted to a wonderful piece of music, wich we eventually resonate to. Afterwards, we can play the song whenever we desire, which does seem to be in our control. Hopefully this elucidates what Rosa was trying to convey with the first thesis.

§2 Things we can completely control in all four dimensions lose their resonant quality. Resonance thus implies semicontrollability (44).

Once we obtain some sense of controllability over what we resonate with, it becomes “semicontrollable”. This is quite a fascinating approach for balancing between the things that are and are not within our control. Therefore, the external world with subjects, objects and events, do possess this feature of resonating with us. Once we correctly internalize this experience and resonate with it, both the external manifestations, as well as resonance itself, becomes semicontrollable. According to Rosa, there are conditions for response from our own subjective side via the sensorial mediation of resonance, and once we have gained some mastery over these phenomena, resonance transforms its features from uncontrollable to semicontrollable. This outcome would also suggest that there is some feature of the external world and others, which will remain uncontrollable, despite any potential conditions of transforming resonance into something semicontrollable.

§3 Resonance demands a form of uncontrollability that “speaks,” that is more than just contingency (48).

Now Rosa is guiding us through the aspects of resonance which remain uncontrollable, despite any transformative conditions. Rosa himself admits this is the most difficult one to demonstrate. He further elaborates on some feeling that we establish towards a song or natural sight (49). The terms chose to describe such relationship, however unexplainable, include “harmony and beauty”. By deferring to Erich Fromm, during the contact phase with natural beauty, for example, the modes of existence shift from “being” to “having” (51).

§4 An attitude aimed at taking hold of a segment of world, mastering it, and making it controllable is incompatible with an orientation toward resonance. Such an attitude destroys any experience of resonance by paralyzing its intrinsic dynamism (52).

Although §2 was emphasizing that eventually, we can obtain some mastery over resonance which leads to a semicontrollable relationship to the external world, §4 has a normative reading to it. Firstly, Rosa introduces a mechanism through which this intrinsic dynamism happens: subjective dimension, object dimension and process dimension (53). This was surely an interest addition to his work, and it would have been helpful to understand what he had in mind with the dynamics of resonance, controllability and uncontrollability via this particular explanation. Rosa does guide us through some fundamentals. The subject dimension is our willingness (and perhaps, openness) to be touched or changed in unpredictable ways. This argument could have been further explored to understand what Rosa thought about the limits of our self-control and autonomy, in relationship to the extent to which we ourselves can transform the external uncontrollable circumstances into semicontrollable ones. At the same time, §4 suggests that once we do obtain that state of semicontrollability, resonance changes its functional applications and interaction with us, thus overall, the entire dynamic of mind and world experiences something else.

Additionally, resonance here is argued as “vulnerability and a willingness to make ourselves vulnerable” (53). We must exercise our autonomy in such a way that we allow ourselves to be opened to vulnerabilities and unpredictable, uncontrollable changes from the external world. The object process seems quite difficult to understand, though hopefully the readers see it as an invitation to further explore Rosa’s work for themselves:

On the object side, uncontrollability means that what we encounter must resist us in at least one of the four dimensions of calculation and control. There must be at least one “obstinate remainder” that has something to say to us, that is meaningful to us in the sense of a strong evaluation (53).

What makes resonance dynamic, is that we cannot control it either with our beliefs or desires. Wanting to be happy on Christmas, or excited for a first date, are not attitudes within our reach or control (56). Now we turn to the fifth thesis:

§5 Resonance requires a world that can be reached, not one that can be limitlessly controlled. The confusion between reachability and controllability lies at the root of the muting of the world in modernity (58).

For the rest of the book, this fifth thesis becomes the most significant one. Rosa argues that Hermann Dueser initially coined the term “Unverfügbarkeit(uncontrollability), by looking at Kierkegaard’s existential philosophy, while attempting to show an opposition to humanity’s complete technological takeover (58). The book continues to be filled with numerous sociological examples about the implications for resonance theory in our daily activities, work, family lives, and religion. The readers should also be wary that in the religious context, Rosa uses “uncontrollability” and “inaccessibility” interchangeably. Whereas inaccessibility can denote the same kind of “unreachability” or “unavailability” that “uncontrollability” does, “unreachability” could also denote that it is not resonant at all, since it is completly beyond our reach or comprehension. Two other significant examples are about modern medical and political practices. Our methodology to any disease is to control it, subdue it and overcome it as quickly as possible (76). In the political ecosystem, however, voters become quite surprised when policies do not go their way. We expect our institutions to control and correctly predict the outcome of political events, in such a way that there are not any unwanted surprises and everyone achieves their respective agenda (91).

The rest of the book is filled with daily, relatable examples of how these dynamics of resonance and uncontrollability affect aspects of our lives. I would highly suggest this book to anyone that wants to further understand some difficult predicaments about modernity, whether at the individual or collective level. The smoothness and approachable language of the text is quite clear and engaging.

James G. Hart: Hedwig Conrad-Martius’ Ontological Phenomenology

Hedwig Conrad-Martius’ Ontological Phenomenology Couverture du livre Hedwig Conrad-Martius’ Ontological Phenomenology
Women in the History of Philosophy and Sciences, Vol. 5
James G. Hart. Rodney K. B. Parker (Ed.)
Springer
2021
Softcover 67,59 €
XII, 272

Reviewed by: Matthew Clemons (Stony Brook University)

As James G. Hart notes in the opening chapter of his Hedwig Conrad-Martius’ Ontological Phenomenology, the German phenomenologist and Naturphilosophin Hedwig Conrad-Martius is a marginally known figure. Prior to the last half decade, what limited consideration she received in the English-speaking world is primarily in the context of her relationship with Edith Stein, particularly in the role that she played in Stein’s conversion to Catholicism in the early 1920s. There are several plausible reasons for Conrad-Martius’ obscurity: the absence of translations of her work; the political and bureaucratic challenges and sometimes outright opposition she encountered as one of the first women to enroll in and complete studies at a German university; the personal and professional hardships—including the death of numerous colleagues and a publication ban due to Jewish ancestry—that resulted from the socio-political upheavals of the early 20th century; the ascendency and predominance of the hermeneutical-existential mode of phenomenology to the exclusion of phenomenological realism movement of which she was a leading figure. Whatever the reasons for her obscurity, the quality of her work is certainly not one of them, even a passing familiarity with which would confirm.

I am the sort of reader of Hart’s monograph on Conrad-Martius that qualifies as having passing familiarity with her work. I know enough about her lifelong project, the Realontologie, or the investigation into the essence and metaphysical foundations of reality, to want to know more. But resources for knowing more are limited. A cursory search of the Kösel-Verlag archives, the publisher now owned by Penguin Random House that originally printed Conrad-Martius’ work, yields no results. To the best of my knowledge, her work is no longer in print and only available only second-hand via private handlers. There are no translations. As far as secondary material, at the time of its publication in 2020, Hedwig Conrad-Martius’ Ontological Phenomenology was the only extended treatment of Conrad-Martius’ thought available in English. According to Hart, the only other monograph, which is in German, is Alexandra Pfeiffer’s Hedwig Conrad-Martius: Eine phänomenologische Sicht auf Natur und Welt. A monograph on Conrad-Martius, then, is a welcome contribution. A monograph on Conrad-Martius by James Hart is even more so. Hart’s work is consistently of the highest level, combining an immense scholarly and philosophical comprehensiveness with clarity and a sharp eye for the germane in the matter-at-hand. His two-volume work Who One Is (Springer 2009) is an absolute gem, a must-read for anyone interested in any number of themes even remotely related to transcendental and existential phenomenology. Needless to say, I anticipated Hedwig Conrad-Martius’ Ontological Phenomenology with excitement, and it mostly met those expectations.

The book itself is composed of eight chapters and an appendix. The appendix is a selection translated by the book’s editor Rodney K.B. Parker of HCM’s unfinished and eventually abandoned manuscript Metaphysik des Irdischen (or Metaphysics of the Earthly). Hart tells us that she originally intended the work to be a “unifying opus magnum” (4), but that it remained incomplete due to extenuating health and financial circumstances. Parker implies that disagreements with the publisher were also a contributing factor. As for the body of the book, chapter one is a general introduction to Conrad-Martius’ life and thought, presenting relevant biographical material and acquainting us with her project and its primary influences; the final chapter is a conclusion. Chapters two through five contain the bulk of the exposition of Conrad-Martius’ thought and are the most challenging of the book. Chapters six and seven are Hart’s own creative appropriation of one of the basic theses of Conrad-Martius’ work, namely that theological-cosmological categories have an ontological-metaphysical referent, which he applies to the theme of heaven. In what follows, I’ll summarize (by no means exhaustively) Hart’s presentation of Conrad-Martius’ thought and conclude with a few reflections on the work and on its contemporary relevance.

Conrad-Martius as Naturphilosophin

All of the subsequent analysis depends on Hart’s exposition of Conrad-Martius’ thought. HCM is a philosopher of nature in the ancient sense. Her notion of nature as “reality under the aspect of its radical ‘basic motion’ of self-genesis” (80) reflects a more typically Aristotelean designation: nature as “that which by virtue of itself…and out of itself (the founding hyle) brings forth itself (its eidos and morphé)” (80). She employs familiar philosophical notions such as substance, potency, and entelechy, and makes use of well-known medieval distinctions like that between essence and existence. HCM asks typically natural-philosophical questions: what is time; what is space; what is mass? What are the constitutive features of matter or of light? How do we conceive of the phenomenon of organic life on both a macro and micro scale? Her work demonstrates deep familiarity with the natural sciences of her day and with the revolutionary 20th century developments in, e.g. physics. There are, however, at least two features of her general approach that make it unique: 1) her commitment to eidetic-phenomenological analysis; 2) her fundamentally Christian cosmological outlook.

1) In chapter two, Hart details Conrad-Martius’ involvement in the early phenomenological movement and its effect on her methodological and philosophical commitments. HCM was a member of the Munich and Göttingen circles of phenomenology. Members of these circles had in common an admiration for Husserl’s rejection in the Logical Investigations of philosophical psychologism and the overcoming of epistemological standstills and reductivism of all kinds that it represented. Freed from these concerns, they were able to take up Husserl’s exhortation to return to die Sachen selbst and embody his vision of a community of interdependently working researchers conducting investigations into the essential features of the various regional ontologies. For Conrad-Martius, a philosophy of the region of nature meant, as stated above, investigating nature in an effort to discover its essential sources and structures.

Aiding this task was the method of the eidetic-reduction in which the existence of an actual object (but not the world as such) is bracketed so as to investigate the object via ideation, a process of imaginatively altering an object to bring its essential structures into relief (cf. section 2.2.). For Conrad-Martius, this involved a second aspect, namely a horizon analysis in which the limiting presuppositions and prejudices that predetermine what counts as legitimate are brought to light. In relation to the natural sciences, the general interpretive framework tends to be one of quantification and mathematization.

As an aside on method, the early phenomenologists were as a rule not concerned with epistemological questions. They unanimously lamented Husserl’s “transcendental turn” and his forays into the subjective sources of meaning as a regression into the bogs of critical philosophy. One of the merits of Hart’s presentation of HCM’s method is his pointing out the challenges that the products of Husserl’s genetic investigations, particularly the role of temporality and history in the constitution of meaning, present for her conception of essences and the kosmos noétos. For more on this, see sections 2.4-2.6.

Phenomenology’s insistence on attending to the thing in the fullness of its appearance produced, according to Hart (10), the fundamental convictions in Conrad-Martius that the way in which nature appears is reflective of what it is. There can be no irreconcilable conflict between what appears and the way it appears. This means, “on the one hand, that there was no abyss between nature as it appears and the positions of the physical sciences, and, on the other hand, that appearing is, as such, not a veil of some unknown ‘in itself’” (53). Given, for instance, the developments in quantum physics that contest the more intuitive conceptions of matter found in classical, Newtonian physics, this is quite the radical thesis. But the thesis also represents a break from the temptation of dividing nature’s appearing into primary qualities, or the real features of the physical, and secondary qualities, or sensible, merely mental features, as a consequence of which the secondary qualities are dismissed as irrelevant and the primary are conceived of inertly and mathematically. Against this quantification of nature, Conrad-Martius insisted on a qualitative analysis in which all modes of appearing are appearances of something. Conrad-Martius’ nature is a cosmology, an ordered whole of interwoven regions and parts that Hart compares to a tapestry or symphony (157).

2) If the predominant horizon of the natural sciences is quantification and mathematization, HCM’s is Christian. One of the dominant trends in the theology of her day was demythologization in which “the content of the ontological referent [of cosmological notions] is fully replaced by an existential and symbolic interpretation” (205). In contrast to this tendency, Conrad-Martius sought to “remythologize” the cosmos, i.e. to affirm a cosmological meaning and referent for Christian cosmological notions, for example, heaven as a region of world space (see 7.3). Hart quickly adds two qualifications: a) that this doesn’t mean that we should altogether reject the fruits, much less the impulses and motivations, of existential and hermeneutical theology; b) that this in no way implied for Conrad-Martius a fundamentalism that eschews the evidence of, e.g. paleontology, and seeks to return to the pre-Copernican picture of a storied-universe of heaven physically above. As I mention above, chapters six and seven contain Hart’s attempt to appropriate this move with regard to heaven. While the content of these chapters is undeniably interesting, it seems to me disproportionately focused on existential and hermeneutical meanings of the religious cosmological categories. This is an issue only insofar as the Hart’s main objective is to show that Christian cosmological notions can be interpreted cosmologically.

In accordance with these two unique features of Hedwig Conrad-Martius’ approach, Hart seems to discern two promises: 1) a qualitative philosophy of nature that is the product of essence-investigations and integrates the developments of the natural sciences into an overarching cosmological unity which leads to 2) the possibility of giving Christian cosmological notions an ontological-cosmological foundation rooted in a serious philosophy of nature.

The Realontologie at a Glance

A. Substantiality and Time: If chapter two delineates Conrad-Martius’ method, chapters three through five deal with her thought as such. Chapter three begins with an analysis of the various kinds of being that culminates in the decisive distinction between ideal and real being. This distinction is the point of departure for the Realontologie, or ontology of the real, and for the philosophy of nature insofar as nature is, as we saw, “reality under the aspect of its radical ‘basic motion’ of self-genesis.” The section in which the distinction is introduced (3.2) is a bit convoluted. I get the impression that Hart has here the unenviable task of mapping out the critical theme that is at once the juncture of several intersecting trains of thought and the point of departure for the whole show. Probably for this reason, the terms of explanation seem to shift just as you begin to get your teeth into them. It can feel a bit like biting air. At any rate, the gist of the distinction is clear enough. Whereas “the ‘being’ of ideal objects is exhausted totally in their ‘being something’ or being such” (66)—in more traditional metaphysical parlance, in their essence—real being exists. Inherent in the meaning of real being is not just the essential moment (what something is) but also the existential moment (that something is) without which a real being would not be real. By existence, HCM seems to mean the brute thereness, the in-the-flesh character of facticity. This leads her to the notion of substantiality, which for her refers to being that is self-grounding. A being exists, is “really there” because it stands in itself. Substantial being, for Conrad-Martius, is real being.

To be self-grounded is sometimes characterized as standing-in-itself, and other times as stand-under-itself: “Substance as such stands under its own being; it is the self-grounding of itself which is the standing under (sub-stans). It stands under (grounds) itself…Substance is a being’s standing in its own existential potency to its own being” (79). Although it seems like an unintentional equivocation or an exploitation of the etymology of substance, it is actually a purposive and important equivocation. It takes some rearranging to figure out why. As far as I can tell, “itselfness” is for Conrad-Martius both a technical term and an operative concept, the meaning of which changes depending on context. Hart confirms the latter (cf. 78) and implies the former. I note that one of the difficulties with the use of “itselfness” as a technical term, beyond its being an operative concept, is the possibility of its conflation with the reflexive pronoun “itself.” This is probably less of an issue in the original German.

One of the meanings of “itselfness” in the case of real being is “the potency to exist, to be or not to be.” What makes a being “stand-in-itself” is its having “itselfness” (technical sense) within itself (this second use of “itself” has a slightly different meaning), i.e. it has within itself the potency to be or not to be. But “itselfness,” insofar as it means the potency to exist, grounds or is the source of the actually existing being. The formulations standing-it-itself and standing-under-itself foreground different aspects of substantiality. The second is crucial. Insofar as the potency to be “stands under” an entity, the theme of potentiality as the real, but not actual source of actual being is emphasized. It is that from which real, actual being comes to be. Moreover, it implies that the actually finished being, insofar as it is potential, precedes itself. Potential being is not finished being; it is pre-finished being. This leads to the central question for Conrad-Martius of the “place” of these potencies themselves. If the cosmos is an ordered whole with various kinds of regions, we here have an indication of what one of the regions would be. In short, in the analysis of real being, we are led to substantiality. The essence-analysis of substantiality leads us to the notion of pre-actual potential sources that generate and sustain actual being. Investigating these sources is the project of the Realontologie. As Hart puts it, “for the full constitution of real substances, the form-giving active (entelechial) and passive, purely potential powers must be studied” (47)—I’ll say more about the “form-giving active powers” in the next subsection.

For Conrad-Martius, that an entity is grounded in its possibility to be does not mean that it has absolute power over its potential to be. Such a capacity belongs only to absolute being. Insofar as potential being is a form of non-being, she can say that to be real is to be suspended over an abyss of nothingness that requires an ontological motion of “incessant flight from nothingness” (70). Its existence is something which is incessantly “slipping away” (78) and simultaneously won anew. This is an important observation because, for Conrad-Martius, this motion inherent in the mode of existence of real being is that which constitutes time. Time is not some pre-existing container into which being steps. Time follows on existence and not the other way around. As Hart puts it, “time is a mode of the existence of something” (137). Again, “time is a dimension corresponding to the being or existence of something” (150). In contrast to this real-motion of time is what she refers to as the transcendental imaginative time—think Husserl’s time-consciousness in which the present is held onto in retention and on the basis of this holding arises protention, an expectation of what is to come. In this context, it makes sense to speak of past and future and of a motion between the two through the present. For HCM, this flowing time along with the categories of past and future are not real, but only features of transcendental imaginative time. The real motion of time is not one from the past into the future or vice versa. Just as a being is incessantly losing and winning its existence, the real motion of time is a discontinuous “relentless coming forth of the world into being as it is a constant vanishing from actuality” (76). An analogy with number is helpful:

The number, e.g., 5, means more than that it stands in line at the fifth place after preceding rows of unities. The eidos of the number lies in its being a complex unity which contains the total series of numbers leading up to its place of order. Only secondarily does it indicate its place of order in the series of numbers. The number is the expression of a quantitative monad-like ‘sum value.’ One value cancels out the preceding by including it and going beyond it [Aufhebung]. Conrad-Martius’ point here is that the nows are analogous to numbers. And as numbers are monadic sum-values, so are the moments of actuality monadic being-values. And as with each individual number the preceding (and coming) numbers are conceptually and terminologically negated, because this number presents a sum-value which is valid only for it, so with each definite moment of actuality [Aktualitätsjetzt] are all other moments ontologically negated. (77)

Theologically, that real being is situated on the “knife-edge of nothingness” (190) is indicative of nature’s being non-integral, i.e., being fallen. If incessantly negated time follows on the mode of real existence, HCM speculates on what a different mode of “eternal” or “blessed” existence might mean for time (see section 5.1 and 5.3). As for the question of the source of this motion, Hart returns to it in chapter five.

B. Matter (hyle) and Space: I noted above that “itselfness” seems to be an operative concept. Beyond referring to the potency to exist that underlies real being, it also seems to refer to the potency for an entity to be what it is, to be its essence, which it also stands in. The “‘basic motion’ of self-genesis” by which Conrad-Martius delimits the region of nature would then signify that substantial being both stands in its possibility to exist and has its potency within itself to be what it is. This sheds light on obscure locutions like nature’s definition as “that which is by reason of its own power to be—to be itself. That is, to be what it is in its own essence” (80), which Hart follows up by quoting HCM as saying “existential substantiality is essential substantiality” (again, the major difficulty with these locutions seems to be that the terms shift, e.g. if we say that something constitutes itself out of itself, we could mean several different things (out of its hyle, out of its potency to be, etc.), and all of them might highlight different aspects of constitution. This is probably a difficulty inherent in ontology).

This consideration prepares us for Hart’s remark that there are two different modes of standing-in-itself that are constitutive of the cosmos, the hyletic and the pneumatic. As constitutive of actual, finished entities, Hart cautions us against thinking of these modes themselves as actual, finished entities. Again, the notion of regions is not far. Conrad-Martius refers to the region of these potentialities that are the source of actual entities as the trans-physical potential realm (see section 3.5). In some sense, the distinction between the hyletic and the pneumatic seems to cut along the lines of living and non-living, although pneumatic in the strict sense refers to “the eidos of I-ness” (section 3.7)). Two qualifications are necessary: 1) we are talking about the sources of living and non-living beings, and so not of a living or non-living being. The basis for, e.g. the essence-analysis of matter is not empirical matter (e.g. the chemical elements). 2) It would be wrong to think of matter along the lines of dead, brute stuff. As Hart insists, finished material being like all nature is self-generative. The difference between living and non-living is more that essences of living beings are uniquely delivered over to them to become (88). The analysis of organic nature occupies much of the beginning of chapter four, which unfortunately I can’t consider further here. That discussion treats HCM’s position in debates within biology between wholism and preformism, her understanding of evolution and genetics, and the important concept of entelechy and related notions of causality, power, and energy. If interested, see sections 4.1-4.4.

Whereas not all finished entities share in pneumatic substance, all of nature participates in hyletic being (83). According to Conrad-Martius, there are two paradoxical but intertwined moments of material being. One is an ecstatic self-othering such that nothing remains behind; the other is an absolute sinking inwards. The first is a potency that “inexhaustibly releasing or scattering, the other is inexhaustibly sinking or centering” (102). The two are intimately bound together in a reciprocal relationship such that Hart can dub hyle a “selfless being-burdened-with-itself.” The primary reason for highlighting this distinction here is the important role that it plays in the context of several other discussions. It is crucial for her interpretation of quantum physics and the notion of aether (section 4.5), is generative of her conception of space, and representative of the various metaphysical regions of the cosmos. The treatment of space begins with a modified version of the Kantian antinomies. For her, the problem of infinite space—that I can neither conceive of space as ending nor of it as endless—is a product of the transcendental given-along-with of the milieu in perception. But it does indicate a paradox in the act of making space, namely that of how the untraversable because immeasurable, what HCM calls the apeiron, becomes traversable and measurable, or turns into metric space. I think what she is getting at is the problem of how, without a pre-existing definite dimension, a being comes to have definite dimensions. The solution is similar to the one we saw in the case of time. Just as time follows upon the mode of existence of a being, space follows upon the kind of being that something is (e.g. 182). More specifically, “space is the dimension created by hyletic being in its substantial self-transcendence” (84). Hart points out that the German verb räumen, the nominative of which [Raum] is German word for “space,” can mean to clear out or to make room, which is the fundamental meaning of space as the dimension that follows outwardly upon the ecstatic self-othering and inwardly on the sinking inwards of hyletic substance (85). For more, see section 3.8.

C. The Fundamental Structures: The Aeonic World-Periphery and World-Center. I have outlined HCM’s position that time follows on the mode of existence of a thing and space on the kind of being something is. I have pointed to the notion of “itselfness” as the potential for a being to be (existence) and to be what it is (essence), and have indicated that in each case, the question of sources, structures, and regions is not far. All of these topics together led to what is maybe the central topic of HCM’s philosophy of nature, namely the pre-finished sources, both actual and potential, that are responsible for nature’s coming to be and the regions that they inhabit. In chapter four (4.4), Hart treats the notions of causality and the relationship between actuality and potentiality. Central to the notion of causality is that the cause must be proportionate and appropriate to its effect. Otherwise, the effect can never come about. One of the ways in which a cause is proportionate to its effect is that in order to be capable of setting the power into motion, it must itself be in motion. This rehashes the ancient doctrine of actuality and potentiality. The question then arises: whence these trans-physical, trans-empirical pre-finished actualities that set the corresponding potentialities into motion such that we have, e.g., the motion of time, the paradoxical duality of matter, the generation of particular entities? Whence the potencies themselves? As Hart puts it, “a question that is at the heart of the cosmology and ontology of Conrad-Martius: What is the ontological place or point from out of which substantial being or the whole of nature unfolds itself into the essential forms of the cosmos? This is not meant to be a genetic question within or previous to finished nature. It is a question about essential structures” (80).

There is no way to do this question justice here. It’ll have to suffice to indicate in broad strokes the architecture of these regions. It’s worth saying again that the notion of “region” is metaphorical. The structures of finished nature are not themselves finished nature, and so are not 3D. Generally, all motions require an actualizing feature and a hyletic ground on, in, and through which to act. The motion of nature’s self-genesis with all of the other motions that this implies is no difference. For this, HCM conceives of two foundational regions (which correspond to matter’s ecstatic and instatic moments) of the world-center and the world-periphery. The world-periphery is the place of the essence-entelechies that actualize the world, as well as the ever actual source of the real motion of time (there is an interesting parallel here to Aristotle’s prime mover). The world-center, on the other hand, is the hyletic dimension on which the actualizing powers act. With the notions of regions, we come back to the theological promise I pointed to in the previous section, namely, that of finding ontological referents for Christian cosmological notions. Related to these regions are, for example, referents for the notion of the New Heaven and New Earth. This is a crude sketch of the cornerstone of HCM’s thinking, but it’ll have to do here. See chapter five for more.

Concluding Remarks

The remarks of the last section are by no means exhaustive, but give an overview of the major themes of Conrad-Martius’ thought as Hart presents it, which the interested reader should be able to use for orientation in the book. While I get the impression that Hart faithfully portrays Conrad-Martius’ thought, and while I don’t envy the task of summarizing the life’s work of a metaphysician, there are a few facets of the book that are underwhelming. As I indicated at points in the previous section, Hart’s exposition can be hard to follow. In a certain way, this is unavoidable. Part of the difficulty lies in becoming acquainted with HCM as a thinker, any evaluation of whom demands a thorough familiarity with the natural sciences. It’s also necessary to get used to her idiosyncratic terminology. In another way, however, there are sections in which terms are confusing, formulations are exchanged without explanation, and the explanandum sometimes seems to drop out of sight. It is not always clear when Hart is paraphrasing or providing commentary, so it can be difficult to parse out exactly what his contribution is verses what a given thinker is arguing (though I stress that materials are always adequately cited). I suspect that this is the culprit behind errors such as the one in the first full paragraph on pg. 11 in which the example changes halfway through from “cabinet” to “table.” On that note, there are numerous and frequent typographical errors that, because of their frequency, can be distracting. For stretches of the book, errors in punctuation occur on nearly every page and sometimes multiple times per page. One of the most frequent errors, substituting the word “or” when the context calls for “of,” occurs four times in the concluding five sentences of the book. Hart tells us in his preface that the book is the belatedly published version of his 1972 doctoral thesis and that, for practical reasons, he couldn’t update it. Many of these errors I think, are reflective of that.

At any rate, I am grateful to have the dissertation in published form. I mentioned at the beginning of this review that HCM is a marginally known figure, and that at the time of its publication it was the only extended treatment of Conrad-Martius’ thought in English. If the last few years are any indication, the situation is changing. Since the publication of Hart’s book, the Springer Series Women in the History of Philosophy and Sciences, of which Hart’s work is the fifth volume, has published another book-length collection of essays by Ronny Miron on Conrad-Martius’ thought.[1] The Center for the History of Women Philosophers and Scientists at the Universität Paderborn whose director, Ruth Hagengruber is an editor for the Springer Series, is conducting a project called “Women in Early Phenomenology,” one of the goals of which is to foreground and make available Conrad-Martius’ oeuvre.[2] There is also, of course, anecdotal evidence—a panel dedicated to her thought at a prominent conference, a reading group dedicated to her work, etc.—of an increasing interest.

Can her work gain broad traction? Hedwig Conrad-Martius is as unconventional a thinker as she is comprehensive and profound. As far as I know, she is the only western philosopher of the 20th century (besides maybe Whitehead) to attempt in conversation with the natural sciences a comprehensive philosophy of nature in terms of its essential structures. We may have to go back as far as St. Thomas to find someone else who attempts it from an explicitly Christian perspective. The climate in academia may not be amenable such a project. In an era of specialization, of general (warranted or not) suspicion of eidetic claims, following a century of the devaluation of philosophy in scientific practice, with all of the old doubts concerning the possibility of a Christian philosophy, this explicitly theological, comprehensive philosopher of the essence of nature might seem like an odd one out. In some ways, that is precisely what makes her extremely refreshing. And beyond the vicissitudes of the Zeitgeist, there are the perennial questions of the whence and whither of our coming to be, questions that Conrad-Martius is asking. I, for one, am eager to see her answers heeded.


[1]     Ronny Miron: Hedwig Conrad-Martius: The Phenomenological Gateway to Reality (Springer 2021).

[2]https://historyofwomenphilosophers.org/project/women-in-early-phenomenology/

Emmanuel Falque: Nothing to It: Reading Freud as a Philosopher

Nothing to It: Reading Freud as a Philosopher Couverture du livre Nothing to It: Reading Freud as a Philosopher
Emmanuel Falque. Translators: Robert Vallier (DePaul University), William L. Connelly (The Catholic University of Paris)
Leuven University Press
2020
Paperback €25.00
136

Reviewed by: Matteo Pastorino (Deakin University)

In his book Nothing to It: Reading Freud as a Philosopher, Emmanuel Falque has provided a compact and dense argument in order to show the importance of Freud’s work for the phenomenological debate.

In the opening section, Falque chooses to present the affinities between Freud’s psychological theory and the ideas of Paul Ricoeur and Merleau-Ponty. As starting point, the author suggests that psychoanalysis as discipline, and in particular, Freudian psychoanalytic theory, can be studied independently of the practice underlying it. (24)

Thus, from the beginning, Falque abandons any issue concerning the practical aspects of psychoanalysis, following the lead of Ricouer. Previous philosophical approaches to Freudian psychoanalysis, like Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus (1972) or Jacques Derrida’s Resistances to Psychoanalysis (1996), were characterized, in the author’s view, by a polemic tone. (26) One may add that this line of criticism in France continues in the new millennium, for example in Michel Onfray’s The Twilight of an Idol: The Freudian Confabulation (2010).

However, Falque wants to focus on a more sympathetic, if minoritarian, current in French phenomenology. As example, he points at the work of Merleau- Ponty in the period from his Phenomenology of Perception (1945) to his death. Indeed, Merleau-Ponty has openly declared that the phenomenological method was developed with the contribution of psychoanalysis. Falque then concludes by saying:

In short, we need not to reconcile psychoanalysis and philosophy because in reality they have already been married for a long time. But we still have to nourish the link, and any fidelity demands not only self-denial, but instead a willingness to approach the other. (27-28)

After providing the historical precedent for his attempt, Falque considers which moments or stages of “fecundity” in psychoanalysis have produced a transformation in phenomenology.

The author describes them as ‘backlashes’ of psychoanalysis, producing a radical change of course in phenomenology. (28) The first moment is described in Ricouer’s Freud and Philosophy (1965), in which the earliest psychoanalytic theory is presented as one the greatest or even the principal authority of the unfurling of hermeneutics. (29)

In Ricoeur’s view, the conflict between psychoanalysis and phenomenology does not emerge from their original works, namely Freud’s Interpretations of Dreams (1899) and Husserl’s Logical Investigations (1900), which actually show a certain affinity, but rather in the

necessity, at least in Ricoeur’s eyes, to radicalize the theory of “signification” (Husserl) with a theory of “interpretation” (Freud). (29)

The second moment comes when Merleau-Ponty recognizes the shared interest in both psychoanalysis and phenomenology in applying reason to the irrational, which should be considered as a form of progress for reason (30). Yet, phenomenology, according to Falque, has not been able to move beyond the statement that “all consciousness is consciousness of something”.

The “below” of sense drills into spheres that do not reach the pair “sense” and “non-sense”. Deeper and more gaping, this stratum of the existent says nothing and has nothing to tell me, is not seen nor is demonstrable, is not understood, and does not let itself be read. (31)

So, it appears that psychoanalysis understood the multi-layered nature of the Id, Merleau-Ponty’s ‘raw nature’, and then phenomenology, influenced by Freud’s insight, developed its own theory.

The It is the pivotal point in Falque’s discussion, and he himself chooses this point to clarify his title, Nothing to It:

It only shows that “to see oneself”, following the Id, one first has to renounce seeing (…) because one is borne from below by the neuter of the “Self” of our existentiality. (32)

At this point, Falque develops his idea of a superiority of Freud’s idea of latency,

this hidden cache that stands in a place where there is nothing to “It” .(32)

compared to Husserl, Heidegger and Lévinas’ concepts of intuition, manifestation and invisible’s excess.

At this point, the author starts to expand his idea about the need to combine psychoanalytic insights and philosophical explorations. What makes the comparison harder to understand is the fact that Falque repeatedly compares a few notions of Freud’s theory, only his, and only his “second topography”, (37) with a variety of philosophers, usually French and broadly definable as phenomenologists, but sometimes including Nietzsche and even Kant as well. (35)

Chapter 1 opens with a few considerations about personal and historical events  shaping Freud’s worldview in the last decades of his life. Personal and social tragedies have both contributed to change Freud’s optimism about an enduring Enlightenment. (40-42)

Thus,

The First World War is thus for Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, not only a “crisis”, (…). It is properly speaking a “revolution”, the imposition of a change of paradigm and not merely the correction of an old system. (46)

At this point, Falque attempts to read “metaphysically” the impact of the Great War on psychoanalysis, claiming that

It introduces the ego and destroys not only the ego’s capacity to present or be represented, but the very idea that there is something to “present” or something “representable”. (46)

The impact of the historical event on the discipline of psychoanalysis, according to Falque, is analogous to that of the Second World War on Lévinas’s phenomenology, particularly about the question of “evil”. On the other hand, Freud’s contemporary philosophers, like Husserl, Bergson, and Russell, were unable to grasp this metaphysical level,

the “it” of the event of the war and the “id/it” of the submission or even of the annihilation of the ego. (47)

The discussion on Freud’s superior understanding of the Great War as the proof of humanity’s barbarism continues in Chapter 2, and Falque makes the claim that this barbarism is characteristic of the First but not of the Second World War:

One knows why people die, or rather why there is death in the Second World War, because it is thoroughly “rationalized” even if it is never “reasonable”. (…) Inversely, one does not die merely for nothing in the First World War, but one does not know why one dies, who dies, or where the people who die go or might want to go. (50)

Falque’s claims are debatable, not only for historical reasons, but also because Freud’s death before the Second World War prevented anyone from knowing if he would have shared Falque’s distinction between a “barbaric” First World War and an “ideological” Second World War, as the author seems to imply.  (51)

In any case, Falque’s focus in this section is on the impact of barbarism on psychoanalysis, and, specifically, on the discovery of the “death drive”, which, in Falque’s view, had always been the ‘unknown object’ of psychoanalysis since the beginning. (51-52)

What First World War brought to the fore was the presence of a violent “primitive man” lying just beneath the surface of civilization (probably meaning  Western Civilization, although Falque does not clarify).

The realization of the existence of a “death drive”, in the author’s opinion, makes Freud’s understanding of the conflict comparable with that of Franz Rosenzweig, author of The Star of Redemption (1921). (54)

The analogy between the experiences of a man fighting in the trenches, as was the case of Rosenzweig, with those of someone  “in the rear guard” is rather contestable, as Falque himself recognizes. (57) Yet, they reach very similar conclusions regarding the loss of Enlightenment’s illusions, wiped away by the sheer violence of the fighting. (56)

What Freud comes to call the “Id” emerges as the brutality of the “animal component” of the individual, revealed by the war in all its brutal power. (57)

The conclusion of this chapter is:

That there is an “Id” prior to an “Ego” (Freud) or a “Self” prior to the “me” (Nietzsche) is the lesson drawn from the conflict- not primarily military or political but metaphysical- from which Freud and we after him have not finished drawing the lessons for philosophy itself. (58)

The change occurred to psychoanalysis in the aftermath of the war is the starting point for Chapter 3:

not only thinking through the war, but thinking oneself thinking through the war, and showing that the thought of the war becomes the place of and the tool for the destruction of all thought. (60)

The consequences of this change is a new consideration for the “somatic” component, whose corporeality is understood differently by Freud, Jung and Lacan. (60) Falque mentions here other psychoanalytic schools in order to clarify that the concept of “drive” should be understood only as

the force in me that I do not recognize as being me- appears to me as “a known that is unknown”. (61)

As noticed before, Falque usually restricts his discussion of psychoanalysis to Freud’s theory, while covering a number of philosophers. At this point, he briefly considers Lacan’s “symbolic”, only to notice how it ignores the “somatic origin of the drive”. (63) While it is understandable to reduce sometimes the differences between psychoanalysis and phenomenology, some clarification about the choice of excluding in toto any other psychoanalyst may have been useful at this stage.

In the following section, the author underlines once more the importance and utility of a greater consideration of Freud’s ideas in phenomenology, suggesting that the latter could gain some insights, for psychoanalytic theory would lead phenomenology

back to its Urgrund or toward the “obscure ground” of the human, which it cannot avoid (…). (63)

It seems that it has already done so in some measure, since Merleau-Ponty’s “raw nature” and Derrida’s Khora derive from the backlash of psychoanalysis as they recover

the obscure point of what is below or beneath any signification intended by the Freudian “unconscious”(…). (63)

After this passage, as in others, one may expect some explanation of the link between three concepts which are quite complex and debated on their own right. Yet, Falque moves on without further discussion, and he also exits the field of phenomenology for drawing two short comparisons between the Freudian drive and an idea of force that is to be found in Nietzsche and Spinoza. Again, there is no further analysis, and the interesting possibilities are left open.

Chapter 4 suspends the comparison between phenomenology and psychoanalysis, considering instead the latter’s similarities with some “spiritual” work by Christian authors. Falque considers Freud’s concepts of “uncanny” (69-70), “death and repetition” (71), and “anorganic” (72-73), as similar to the spiritual experience of being “outside of time” and “outside of space”, defined as “acedia” by the authors he quotes. (76)

The following chapters mostly discuss Freud’s works in the last decade of his life, in particular the confrontation between the Ego and the Id, which Falque sometimes writes as the it, as in the title, making hard to distinguish in some case which meaning of the word “it” he is employing. He sometimes interrupts what would be an historical overview of Freud’s ouvre for showing some possible link with phenomenology, mostly Derrida, and the spiritual and theological concepts he briefly considered in Chapter 4.

The conclusion of his analysis is that the Id, in order to be understood, requires the combination of three disciplines. This is necessary since the self to be explored is not only of the human, but of God and of the world as well. And thus

One “crosses the Rubicon” from phenomenology into theology, and vice versa, but also from phenomenology to psychoanalysis, and vice versa. It is by learning and by being modified by its “other” that phenomenology will advance and will stop condemning every other science as “ontic”. (90)

The concluding chapter presents an almost religious undertone, discussing the Id as something to be “saved”, and the Ego presented as its saviour (93-94). This considerations are inspired by the notes Freud made in the last months of his life, in which a mystical allure clearly emerges.

The epilogue lists the achievements of Freud:

To bring the Enlightenment to an end, to conceive the inconceivable, to be rooted in the organic, not to fear the uncanny, to go all the way to the anorganic, to be lived by the Id, (…) such is the path lived simultaneously by Freud himself, and through him, the history of the development of psychoanalysis. (100)

Each of these results has been analyzed in the book, although rather shortly. As noticed by Philippe Van Haute in the Foreword, Falque’s book “leaves many questions open”. Sometimes it is also rather obscure, adopting concepts from Freud, Derrida and others without a proper explanation, which would be in some case necessary . The continuous changes of terminology are quite confusing as well, with a few chapters discussing psychoanalysis but employing a phenomenological lexicon and another doing the contrary.

Another potential weakness of the book is the considerable difference between the analysis of Freud’s works, often involving historical and biographical considerations, and, on the other hand, the ideas of philosophers, which are usually thrown in as means of comparison without any elaboration or contextualization.

Yet, this book is undeniably fascinating in its re-evaluation of Freud’s theories, and all the parts concerning the founder of psychoanalysis and his ideas are rich in insights and make a strong case for further philosophical explorations.

Klaus Kienzler: Cézanne, Klee, Kandinsky: Zur Phänomenologie der Kunst des Sehens

Cézanne, Klee, Kandinsky: Zur Phänomenologie der Kunst des Sehens Couverture du livre Cézanne, Klee, Kandinsky: Zur Phänomenologie der Kunst des Sehens
Klaus Kienzler
Karl Alber
2020
Paperback 49,00 €
480

Reviewed by: Isabel Jacobs (Queen Mary University of London)

Introduction

In Seeing the Invisible: On Kandinsky (1988), French philosopher Michel Henry argues that Kandinsky’s abstract art “ceases to be the painting of the visible.” [1] Instead, Kandinsky’s paintings reveal the invisible essence of life. In a similar vein, Klaus Kienzler’s new book opens with Paul Klee’s famous claim: “Art does not reproduce the visible; rather it makes visible.”

At the crossroads of phenomenology, art theory and existential thought, Kienzler explores three artists who embody the transition to modernism like no others: Paul Cézanne, Paul Klee, and Wassily Kandinsky. Engaging with their artistic visions as a phenomenologist and theologian, Kienzler examines the ways in which each artist deals with time (Zeit) and motion (Bewegung), two phenomena that already played a central role in Kienzler’s previous book on the theologian Klaus Hemmerle [2].

Rooted in the tradition of German phenomenology, Kienzler was over many years part of the German-French circle around Emmanuel Levinas, Paul Ricœur and Bernhard Caspar. A professor of fundamental theology in Augsburg, Kienzler is, unlike other members of this circle, virtually unknown in the Anglophone world. As his new book demonstrates, Kienzler’s perspective on phenomenology is less academic than it is enriched by his personal experience. The reader who expects a concise study that engages with recent scholarship on art and phenomenology will thus be disappointed.

Kienzler’s book invites on a stimulating yet lengthy journey through an enormous amount of material, including phenomenological texts, paintings, art theory, and correspondences. Kienzler’s ambitious goal is to make his readers see the world through the eyes of Cézanne, Klee, and Kandinsky. Rather than using phenomenology as a method of investigation, Kienzler explores how artistic visions intervene into phenomenological discourses on subjectivity, time, movement, and embodiment.

Besides Husserl and Heidegger, Kienzler’s phenomenological references are Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Bernhard Waldenfels, a prolific contemporary phenomenologist and translator of Merleau-Ponty. In the footsteps of Waldenfels, Kienzler aims to fuse French and German theory, drawing on phenomenology and Bildwissenschaft (image-science), a peculiar German art-historical discipline close to visual studies. Oscillating between eye and mind, image and concept, Kienzler explores how art and phenomenology mutually enlighten each other.

As the title shows, Kienzler’s book is not a study on the phenomenology of art or the phenomenology of vision, but rather a phenomenology of the art of vision; this is, a journey to a clearer way of seeing, or, in Paul Klee’s words, “to the land of better knowledge” (17). The aim of my review is to analyze how Kienzler pursues this intriguing project and whether his study lives up to his claims. While critically addressing the book’s major arguments, my focus is to reveal some of its productive potentialities.

The book is divided into eight chapters, sparse pathmarks on Kienzler’s tour de force through the history of modern art and phenomenology. We can roughly divide the book into two parts; firstly, an extended theoretical prelude comprising five chapters; secondly, three chapters on Cézanne, Klee and Kandinsky. Although the second part is interspersed with long cross-references to the prelude, the transition between the individual chapters is not always smooth. In fact, Kienzler’s theoretical apparatus becomes at times a bit overly complex, overshadowing his engagement with the artists. The study also comprises an appendix with 24 coloured images.

Images are Motion (Paul Klee)

The following extract from Klee’s Creative Confession, published in 1920, opens the introductory chapter and remains a leitmotif throughout Kienzler’s book:

Let’s make a small journey into the country of better knowledge by applying a topographic plan. Over the dead point be the first moving act (line). After a short time stop to catch breath. (An interrupted or, in case of repeated stops, an articulated line.) Review how far we are already. (Counter movement). Considering in our mind the way here and there (bundles of lines). (17) [3]

Klee’s description of lines taking a walk had already fascinated Merleau-Ponty who drew on both Klee and Cézanne. For Kienzler, Klee’s treatment of lines is essentially phenomenological. More than geometrical constructs, Klee’s lines dynamize both artist and viewer. Kienzler investigates how Klee’s artist-in-motion translates into a phenomenological description of subjectivity. Rather than an uninvolved observer, Klee’s subject is embodied, temporalized, and interwoven with the world through motion.

Following Merleau-Ponty, Kienzler considers art an expression of corporeal consciousness or Leibbewusstsein (31). The post-Cartesian subject of “I walk therefore I am” is developed at the example of Klee’s 1923 painting “Der L=Platz im Bau” (20). In his insightful interpretation, Kienzler claims that Klee’s defamiliarized forms embody the way in which our gaze moves through the world. In this sense, Klee did not imitate the visible, but made visible. The movement of the gaze is temporalized, while the artwork itself is timeless (35). Kienzler’s notion of timelessness can be interpreted as the actualization of the work through the viewer’s eyes; this is, our gaze both temporalizes and detaches the image from its temporal limitations.

A Brief Introduction to Phenomenology

The second chapter elaborates a dense theoretical apparatus, focusing on Waldenfels’s theory of perception. The way in which Kienzler interlinks phenomenology, hermeneutics, and image-science breaks some new ground. However, the complex conceptual framework does not always serve the overarching goal to develop a phenomenology of artistic vision directly from the works of Cézanne, Klee, and Kandinsky. When tracking Kienzler’s theory back to Klee, it is particularly Waldenfels’s responsive phenomenology that cuts across. For Waldenfels, in Kienzler’s words, experience and perception are intersubjective:

This is how experiences and perceptions come about: we are hit, addressed, moved by something outside of ourselves. That is, something comes towards us before we go towards it from ourselves. The decisive factor here is the double direction of vision. It is a double event: on the one hand, the claim, an experience, a sight or an address, which Waldenfels calls “pathos (Widerfahrnis)”, triggers an answer, a “response” in the sense mentioned above. The pathos happens to me and hits me, and on the other hand, it is I myself who gives the response. The pathos is not an objective event that can be stated as a fact, but the pathos happens to me. (53)

Images affect us as a pathos to which we respond. For Waldenfels, art is thus an emotional event (“iconopathy”) between image, artist, and viewer (54). Kienzler’s distillation of Waldenfels is a good entry point to further explore the notion of responsivity in the reception of art.

Iconic — Phenomenology of Seeing

“Where to find the center of seeing between the eye and the world?” (77)

The third chapter introduces the term Ikonik (Iconic), a method by art historian Max Imdahl. Recalling the intricate connection between aesthetics and perception (aisthēsis), Kienzler traces the so-called “iconic turn” in visual studies of the early 1990s back to its phenomenological roots. He argues that the iconic turn in visual studies was indeed facilitated by Husserl’s radical rehabilitation of sensuality. Kienzler brings Imdahl in dialogue with Merleau Ponty, arguing that through Cézanne, Merleau-Ponty realized that the Cartesian conception of the image was inadequate (75).

Drawing on Waldenfels, Kienzler interprets the image as a simultaneous process of making visible and becoming visible (79). Kienzler frames the perception of art as a mode of phenomenological epoché. Another productive encounter with phenomenology is Kienzler’s interpretation of Merleau-Ponty’s theory of vision as an inversion of the gaze:

If our body is both seeing and visible, then why should not things, as annexes of the body, also be both visible and seeing? […] This leads to a reversal of the gaze, a renversement, as Paul Klee expresses it with the feeling “that the things, for example the trees in the forest, look at me (me regardent).” (78)

Here Kienzler successfully shows how artistic vision reflects on phenomenological theory. Kienzler reads the “me regardent” in the double sense of “looking at me” and “concerning me,” stating a responsive (Waldenfels) relation between subject and world. Although Kienzler does not mention Jacques Lacan, his theory of a reversal of the gaze could be productively read with Lacan’s idea that objects, reflecting our lack, look back at us. In a Lacanian spirit, Kienzler defines the image as a mirror of our own gaze, a mediating third of our seeing body (87). This potential encounter between Kienzler and Lacan is one of the many horizons Kienzler’s book opens up.

Iconic Difference

In the fourth chapter, Kienzler further entwines phenomenology and image theory, importing Gottfried Boehm’s iconic difference into the phenomenological discourse. Iconic difference means the structural principles or the “logic of images” different from language (94). Kienzler interlinks iconic difference with the phenomenological reduction. Images, Kienzler claims, are in themselves silent, they are not logos, instead we have to make them speak. Kienzler examines Cézanne’s paintings as a net of differential relations. While the elements are silent in themselves, “there is an unexpected ‘potentiality’ that we mobilize when we bring the individual elements into a context, ‘realise’ them as constellations of a whole.” (100)

We make images speak by moving the gaze from the whole to the parts and back. Kienzler suggests that this movement of the gaze, realizing endless potentialites, is time itself. While Kienzler’s voracious enthusiasm for theory may lead the reader into some dead ends, Boehm’s iconic difference has its reasonable place in Kienzler’s analysis of temporality and composition. Throughout the second part of the book, Kienzler will return to difference and temporality, particularly to the three modes inherent in vision: simultaneity, succession and potentiality (96).

Plato — Allegory of the Cave

The fifth chapter is an excursus on Plato’s famous analogies of the cave, the sun and the line from Plato’s Republic. Most attention is paid to the allegory of the line, which evokes previous ideas around visibility, movement and cognition. In the cave allegory, seeing only begins when the body moves away from its fixed position in the cave. With Waldenfels, Kienzler interprets the allegory as a story of kinesthesis (the perception of body movements) (119). Before shifting his attention to Cézanne, Kienzler further develops these notions through the lens of Mischa Kuball’s platon’s mirror (2007), a series of installations, projections and photographs.

Paul Cézanne

After this extensive prelude, stretching over nearly 130 pages, the sixth chapter finally arrives at Cézanne. With a focus on motion, Kienzler argues that Cézanne’s new realism emerged from a radical abandonment of the central perspective. Cézanne’s “copernican turn of vision” (129) was to realize that the way in which we see the world does not correspond with the static construction of the central perspective. In Kienzler’s view, Cézanne’s studies demonstrate that perception is neither geometric nor photographic; in other words, an eye is not a camera. Vision is instead moved by spontaneous shifts in perspective that fuse into a general impression or gestalt.

How did Cézanne make the invisible visible? Drawing on Boehm’s iconic difference, Kienzler describes Cézanne’s method as “starting from the individual, the differences, and keeping an eye on the whole” (140). The first elements in Cézanne’s painting are patches (taches) of colour, insignificant in isolation yet meaningful in their relational network. Like Klee’s “Der L=Platz im Bau,” Cézanne’s “carpet of colour patches” (141) modulates surfaces and sequences, visualizing different perspectives at once. Do Cézanne’s patches of colour represent the parts of the whole? Or do they refer to natural phenomena? For Kienzler, Cézanne’s paintings create a closed philosophical system, in which all individual elements have a meaningful relation to the whole.

Analyzing different commentaries on Cézanne, Kienzler concludes that Cézanne’s art makes visible by disclosing how we perceive. With Cézanne, Kienzler claims, we realize that it is not the mind that sees, but our eye that meets the world in the realm of colour (155). Kienzler dedicates the rest of the chapter to Cézanne’s notions of motif, sensation and réalisation. Here, Kienzler’s reading becomes increasingly interesting. Kienzler defines Cézanne’s realization as “transposing the visible into the visible, i.e. to bring the non-visible into the picture” (155). Kienzler explores Cézanne’s take on his motif in the repeated depiction of the Mont Sainte-Victoire (162). Borrowing extensively from Imdahl’s description of Cézanne’s series, Kienzler interprets the color patches as sensations of the motif, disparate optical impressions of the mountain that reveal new dimensions of its being.

Delving into various philosophical theories of colour, Kienzler defines Cézanne’s art as an ontology of colours. In Cézanne’s ontology, the colour sensation overcomes the divide between subject and object. Inspired by Boehm and Gilles Deleuze’s Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation (1981), Kienzler interprets Cézanne’s sensation as a uniquely ambivalent entwinement between subject and world:

The sensation, therefore, is a tense fusion of what we see with how we see. It can be assigned neither to the world of objects nor to that of subjects alternatively and unambiguously; it thus breaks through a fundamental epistemological distinction. Sensation combines the energy of the human senses with that of external reality. This gives it an oscillating status. (178)

Kienzler’s original interpretation of Cézanne catapults us back into the centre of phenomenology. Evoking Heidegger’s concept of Befindlichkeit, Kienzler describes Cézanne’s sensation as an existential state of being (178). Through colours, the artist expresses her Dasein, transforming what she sees until it matches with what she feels; or, recalling Waldenfels, what she is taken by (pathos). In Cézanne’s view, there is no world, but “only colours and in them the clarity, the being, which cogitates them” (179). The goal of Cézanne’s artistic process, realization, means the congruence of vision and sensation. In the process of realization, the object is not given, but gradually constructed. Kienzler points out that Cézanne’s realization, just like the phenomenological reduction, does not gain truth through reflection of a given reality, but in an act of creation (212).

Paul Klee

The seventh chapter, the heart of Kienzler’s study, examines Klee’s voluminous body of writings and notes from the Bauhaus era (1921-32), known in English as the “Paul Klee Notebooks” [4]. Kienzler explores Klee’s views on motion and time in succession to Cézanne. The chapter opens with a phenomenological interpretation of Klee’s diagram for Ways of Studying Nature (1923). Retracing the relations between artist, object, and world, Kienzler emphasizes the responsive nature of Klee’s metaphysics of vision (245). In this network of relations, there are “optical force lines” (Kraftlinien) and invisible relations, interlacing into a cosmic totality that Klee calls “world” (Welt) in contrast to “earth” (Erde) (244).

Klee’s art strives for totalization, this is the “unity of inside and outside, […] the view of the whole [and] the visualization of the whole” (249). Kienzler claims that Klee’s totalization significantly influenced Heidegger’s The Origin of the Work of Art, especially his notions of Geviert, Sichtbarmachen and Erde (250). Kienzler does not elaborate on this claim. However, precisely this relation between Klee and Heidegger might be one of the book’s fruitful yet unrealized routes into a parallel historiography of phenomenology and modernist art.

Kienzler closely reads Klee’s lecture notes, the Bildnerische Formlehre (Visual Theory of Form) and the later Bildnerische Gestaltungslehre (Visual Theory of Design). Why did Klee change the title from form to gestalt? Quoting Klee, Kienzler argues that a theory of Gestaltung (design) comes closer to the dynamic nature of Klee’s thought. While form refers to “a solid figure,” design traces the ways that lead to this form (255). Kienzler considers Klee’s visual theory an organic theory of life and movement.

Interpreting the Bildnerische Formlehre, Kienzler describes how Klee developed a formal order of basic pictorial elements: point, line, surface and space. These elements can be read through the prism of phenomenology. For Klee, motion, space and time are initiated from the point (with Husserl, the “zero point”) as an active element (268). With phenomenology in mind, Kienzler analyzes how Klee’s lines create rhythm and space:

The line makes visible, it is a mediator between the visible and the invisible world. […] Klee knows how to activate the line and suggest movement. He lets it tread paths in curvatures, angles, tensions and bends in an eternal up and down. The viewer feels movement, dynamically experiences the rhythm and free play. (271)

Kienzler explores Klee’s playful “physiognomics of motion” as a two-folded movement: the artist retraces movement with lines, the viewer retraces the lines with their bodies. Klee’s art is thus both productive and receptive (329). After analyzing other pictorial elements such as surface, space or weight, Kienzler moves into the depths of Klee’s compositional process. Kienzler stresses the cosmological dimension of Klee’s theory of colors, before shifting to the Bildnerische Gestaltungslehre, the sequel to Klee’s earlier lectures.

Focusing on creation and cosmos, this second part deepens the understanding of Klee’s theory, while not adding too much new insight. Kienzler is particularly interested in Klee’s idea of the artist-creator embedded in a dynamic cosmos. An organic totality in motion, Klee’s “polyphonic images appear here as a metaphor for the world as a whole, that is, in its cosmic dimension.” (316) One example for such a polyphonic image is Klee’s 1921 watercolor “Fugue in Red,” an experimental realization of Bach’s composition style.

Kienzler has a particular interest in Klee’s relationship to music and the use of rhythm, tonality, and repetition (287). For Kienzler, Klee’s paintings visualize rhythm following a strict composition scheme. Composition for Klee means defining the structure of living organisms and its interacting parts. Like in the Cézanne chapter, Kienzler understands Klee’s systems of pictorial composition as a philosophical universe. In Klee’s case, the system is a living organism, a metamorphosis, expressed in Klee’s natural motifs like plants or crystals. Klee’s paintings, for Kienzler, create a pictorial Gesamtkunstwerk, the “simultaneous vision of up and down, back and front, inside and outside, left and right, evoked by the movement of the viewer around the object, which is itself in motion” (298).

Kandinsky

Kienzler opens the last chapter with an overview of Kandinsky’s artistic development, starting at the decisive encounter with Claude Monet’s Haystacks in Moscow. Kienzler focuses on Kandinsky’s early texts On the Spiritual in Art (1912; written from 1904 onward) and “On the Question of Form” (1912) as well as Point and Line to Plane (1926) from the Bauhau time. As Kienzler demonstrates, Kandinsky’s philosophy strongly resonates with the phenomenological paradigm. Not paying much attention to Michel Henry’s Kandinsky book, Kienzler sides with Henry claiming that Kandinsky developed a phenomenology of the invisible life (347).

Kandinsky’s phenomenology visualizes inner experience through colour and form, based on the principle of inner necessity. Kienzler understands Kandinsky’s thought as “strict essentialism or substantialism,” stressing its religious-spiritual orientation (377). As a theologian, Kienzler follows the well-trodden path of reading Kandinsky’s oeuvre through the lens of spirituality, arguing that Kandinsky’s notion of the spiritual refers to “the Christian spirit.” (381). This interpretation is certainly justifiable regarding Kandinsky’s early writings. It is more difficult though when it comes to Kandinsky’s later writings in which he abandons a simple anti-materialism towards an ambiguous notion of abstraction.

Starting his phenomenological reading, Kienzler correlates Kandinsky’s distinction between interiority [Innen] and exteriority [Außen] with the phenomenological modes of “Aktmodus” and “Gegenstandsmodus” (372). Form, Kienzler continues, is “the expression [Äußerung] of the inner content” (373) and thus entwines inner and outer experience. Kandinsky’s method is described as a phenomenological reduction, switching between abstraction and realism. This reduction revolves to the essence of the things, or what Kandinsky calls the spiritual.

Kienzler persuasively argues that Kandinsky’s art does not represent, but rather “phenomenologize” the world (376). The act of seeing is an intentional act, transitioning from functionality to “the mode of action of things.” (378) The new world, phenomenologically revealed by Kandinsky, is spiritual, pure, and abstract. As Kienzler emphasizes, Kandinsky was fascinated by time, motion and tension (Spannung), a term he introduced at the Bauhaus. In contrast to motion, Kandinsky’s tension describes the inner forces of elements that lead to movement (384). With regard to Klee, László Moholy-Nagy, and Ludwig Klages, Kienzler retraces the origins and meanings of Kandinsky’s notions of tension and force (Kraft) (385).

Indeed, there is something like a missed encounter between Kandinsky and Klages here. Rather than exploring the potential overlaps between phenomenology and Kandinsky’s project, Kienzler  seems to lose track in Kandinsky’s writings. In what follows, Kienzler provides a summary of On the Spiritual in Art that barely leaves familiar terrain. Once again, Kienzler has an interest in the intimate relation between painting, colour, and music, especially Kandinsky’s synaesthesia as a new way of seeing with all senses (394).

Kienzler’s argument becomes more original when he shifts attention to Kandinsky’s “On the Question of Form” from the Blauer Reiter almanac. It is quite odd that Kienzler refers to this text as “Über die Formlehre,” maybe an erratum due to Klee’s similarly titled lectures? However, Kienzler’s auspicious reading leads us into the heart of Kandinsky’s thought. Circling around Kandinsky’s notions of abstractness and concreteness (Gegenständlichkeit), Kienzler aims to elucidate why Kandinsky later called his paintings concrete rather than abstract (402). How can abstract paintings be concrete?

Kienzler traces Kandinsky’s understanding of concreteness back to the artist’s notions of thing [Ding] and image-thing (Bild-Ding). Kandinsky, in Kienzler’s view, liberated the image from the thing, creating an image-thing that ceases to refer to any external object (see 403). Kandinsky’s image, Kienzler argues, is not mimesis or Abbild, but “an inner relational structure that initially refers only to itself and not to an external shape” (375). As Kienzler rightly points out, Kandinsky’s understanding of abstraction is ambivalent and polysemous. In contrast to Cubism, Kandinsky’s abstract art “creates the forms of expression itself”, thereby constructing a new concrete reality (405). Beyond purely non-figurative painting, Kandinsky understands all art as essentially abstract:

Kandinsky’s abstract image transcends the distinction between non-objectivity and objectivity, since it lies before the latter. In demonstrating something, it also always illustrates the conditions under which the demonstration takes place. Signifiers and signified are distinguishable, but do not exclude each other a priori. Kandinsky’s figurative works, too, are already no longer real representations. They do not represent what appears to be, but how it shows itself, represents itself. (406)

Kienzler traces the origins of Kandinsky’s concrete art back to Theo van Doesburg, Jean Arp, and Max Bill, referring to Doesburg’s conceptual twist of calling figurative painting abstract and non-figurative painting concrete (406). Kandinsky’s concrete art expresses the inner gaze, aiming to capture the spiritual, this is the nature of things (406). Kienzler analyzes in-depth Kandinsky’s attempt to synthesize realism and abstraction, as expressed in his terms of “Große Realistik” (Great Realism) and “Große Abstraktion” (Great Abstraction) (408).

Borrowing extensively from Kandinsky’s writings, Kienzler’s analysis culminates in an interpretation of various sketches and watercolours leading to Kandinsky’s “Komposition VII”, painted shortly before the First World War. Kienzler retraces the development of the final version, exploring Kandinsky’s method and composition. The chapter closes with a brief section on time and motion in Kandinsky’s art, contrasting Kandinsky’s Bild-Zeit (image-time) (440) with Klee’s philosophy of time. Kienzler leaves the reader without a satisfying conclusion, ending with the claim that art is influenced by different conceptions of time and motion.

Conclusion

What can we take from this nearly 500 page-long journey through modern painting and phenomenology? In short, Kienzler’s book is ambitious, open-ended, and potentially verbose. Readers looking for a systematic and concise account of phenomenological thought in the works of Cézanne, Klee, and Kandinsky, will remain rather dissatisfied. Roaming through the material without a clear roadmap, Kienzler’s book does not really come together as a whole. However, Kienzler leads various productive ways into the mutually entwined history of art and phenomenology. His book will hopefully be read as a rich theoretical conceptual toolbox that bears unfulfilled potentialities and opens up new horizons. It is particularly Kienzler’s fusion of phenomenology (Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger, Waldenfels) and image theory (Imdahl, Boehm) that can be valuable for scholars working at the borders of French and German thought, from visual studies and art theory to embodiment and philosophy of perception.


[1] Michel Henry, Seeing the Invisible: On Kandinsky, London; New York: Continuum, 2009, 8.

[2] Klaus Kienzler, Bewegung in die Theologie bringen: Theologie in Erinnerung an Klaus Hemmerle, Freiburg i.Br.: Verlag Herder, 2017.

[3] This and all following quotes are my translation from the original German.

[4] Klee’s Bauhaus notebooks are digitized, transcribed, and accessible online via the Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern. http://www.kleegestaltungslehre.zpk.org/ee/ZPK/Archiv/2011/01/25/00001/

David Zaretsky: The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas

The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas Couverture du livre The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas
Robert Zaretsky
University of Chicago Press
2020
Cloth $20.00
200

Reviewed by: Simon van der Weele (The University of Humanistic Studies, Utrecht, The Netherlands)

Simone Weil once wrote about philosophy that it is “exclusively an affair of action and practice” (1970, 335). Weil, who was a Jewish intellectual, mystic, and political activist with Christian, Marxist and anarchist leanings, believed that philosophy could only be worth its while if it was willing to occupy itself with action and experience – with the reality of everyday concerns that give texture to everyday life. Her dedication to this idea is evident from Weil’s own life. Famously, she worked in factories, on fishing trawlers, and on farms; she also volunteered in the Spanish Civil War and (fruitlessly) attempted to advice De Gaulle on battlefield tactics during the Second World War. (Her suggestion, which was to parachute troops of nurses onto the battlefields of France, led De Gaulle to exclaim Weil was folle, a mad woman). All the while, these experiences became objects of Weil’s philosophical attention and were formative of the conceptual apparatus she eventually developed in her many essays, notebooks, and letters.

This, in a nutshell, is the central purpose driving David Zaretsky’s The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas: to examine Simone Weil’s thought through the prism of her life. In this lucid and knowledgeable book, which is both an introduction to Weil’s thought and a loose biography, Zaretsky starts from Weil’s insistence that “philosophy was neither theory nor discourse, but instead was practice” (10), and hence to be concerned with action and experience. The author, a historian who has previously written books on Albert Camus, James Boswell, and Denis Diderot, subsequently develops this idea by presenting the main philosophical concepts she developed in rich biographical detail to consider how she arrived at them and why they became important to her. In doing so, Zaretsky essentially argues that Weil’s philosophy is best read against the background of her biography, because her biography is inseparable from her philosophical ethos.

For Zaretsky, this ethos boils down to an unyielding attention for what he calls “the reality of life” (8) and her insistence that philosophy reckons with it. Citing Stanley Cavell, he writes that Weil was “exceptional in her refusal to be “deflected”; in her refusal to turn away from the reality of the other and the other’s suffering by way of philosophical skepticism. Cora Diamond (2003) has referred to this problem as “the difficulty of reality,” and she also mentions Weil as a “philosopher concerned with deflection” from it. To get a feel for how this ethos saturates Weil’s writing, it is worth reading a fragment from her essay Human Personality, also cited by Diamond (but not by Zaretsky).

Human thought is unable to acknowledge the reality of affliction. To acknowledge the reality of affliction means saying to oneself: “I may lose at any moment, through the play of circumstances over which I have no control, anything whatsoever that I possess, including those things which are so intimately mine that I consider them as being myself. There is nothing that I might not lose. It could happen at any moment that what I am might be abolished and replaced by anything whatsoever of the filthiest and most contemptible sort.” (2014, 81)

One way to read Weil’s oeuvre would then be as an attempt to acknowledge “the reality of affliction” and defuse the temptation of deflection. This also seems to be the reading of Weil proposed by Zaretsky in The Subversive Simone Weil.

It is a pity, then, that Zaretsky does not develop his allusion to Cavell in the introduction in the remainder of the book – at least not philosophically. In fact, although Zaretsky does compare Weil’s thought to the ideas of some other notable thinkers (George Orwell, Marcus Aurelius, and Hannah Arendt, to name a few), he rarely situates her in wider philosophical debates. He also does not provide fine-grained exegeses of her main philosophical works. But this does not seem to be the goal Zaretsky has set for himself in The Subversive Simone Weil. Indeed, this book should not so much be read as a philosophical interrogation of Weil’s thought than as an introduction to it, enriched by detailed biographical sketches that breathe life into her original ideas. Each of the book’s five chapters is devoted to a main concept of Weil’s vocabulary: affliction, attention, resistance, rootedness, and goodness. Zaretsky chooses these because he believes they “still resonate today. Or… should resonate” (11). Should resonate, because Zaretsky thinks that Weil’s concepts are not getting their proper due, and neither is Weil herself. He takes attention as an example: a popular topic amongst contemporary critics “in a world so deeply afflicted with attention deficit disorder” (12), but typically without any mention of Weil. One of Zaretsky’s aims here is to amend such oversights.

The five chapters that follow the introduction thus take as their subject a single concept of Weil’s – although, as Zaretsky professes in the introduction, “the terms often spill into one another” (12). The chapters are structured loosely, even impressionistically, their various sections separated not by subheadings but by asterisms. Each typically starts with a series of historical vignettes, setting the scene for how the concept in question began to matter to Weil. To elucidate the concepts he is investigating, Zaretsky cites liberally from Weil’s well-known books and essays, as well as from her notebooks and letters. He intersperses this exegetical work with brief forays into the work of like-minded thinkers, some of whom inspired Weil, some of whom were her contemporaries, and some of whom are inheritors of her ideas. Zaretsky’s writing throughout is outstanding: it is clear, to the point, and never needlessly complicated. It is also thoroughly absorbing. The way Zaretsky manages to weave together a coherent account of Weil’s thought from the different strands of her extensive oeuvre is nothing short of impressive.

The first chapter, “The Force of Affliction,” begins with Weil’s job interview at Alsthom, a factory manufacturing electronic equipment, when she was 25 years old. Weil had been working as a teacher in the south of France, where she had spent her evenings instructing French literature at a worker’s co-op. Seeking to strengthen her connections to the working class, Weil took a leave of absence from her teaching work and began her stint as a factory worker. It was in these “dim and deafening” (10) factories that Weil began contemplating the state of degradation and indignity she called le malheur, usually translated as “affliction”. Zaretsky cites Weil defining affliction as a condition that “deprives its victims of their personality and makes them into things” (19); it referred to a stripping away of one’s dignity and humanity that “rob[s] us of the power to say ‘I’” (quoted in Zaretsky, 20). For Weil, the factory was a principal site of affliction. The monotonous work, the vile managers, and the deafening clanging of machines turned workers into “slaves,” whose exhaustion gave way to the “strongest temptation that this life entails: that of not thinking anymore, which is the one and only way of not suffering from it” (quoted in Zaretsky, 14). Zaretsky embellishes his discussion of affliction with vivid accounts of the worker’s life taken from Weil’s notebooks.

Weil found the cause of affliction in what she called puissance, translated as “force” or “power”. Power, writes Zaretsky, was for Weil a “fundamental datum of human existence,” one as “omnipresent and overpowering as gravity” (14). Power, argued Weil, is not in anyone’s possession, and can never be secured for good. For this reason, it is constantly chased after by those seeking to possess it, to keep it from rivals, and to secure it from resistance of the powerless. It is this pursuit of power that Weil locates the cause of oppression – and finally, of affliction. Here, Zaretsky takes some time to discuss Weil’s essay on Homer’s Iliad, which for Weil was chiefly a poem about force: the true hero is not a warrior, but force itself, she wrote. The essay, Zaretsky notes, was written as Weil fled Paris for Nevers soon after France’s defeat to Germany in 1940. Weil saw mirrored in the destruction of Troy the suffering of her own and her fellow Parisians; this was the work of force.

Weil’s account of power calls to mind Nietzsche’s and also seems to presage Foucault’s, but Zaretsky leaves this resemblance unexplored. Instead, he turns to George Orwell, who like Weil had spent time in Paris in a working class job, as a plongeur washing dishes in the basement of the city’s restaurants. Orwell, too, discerned in the plight of the plongeur the markings of slavery and the gradual sapping away of one’s capacity to think. But unlike Weil, argues Zaretsky, he did not explore the spiritual meaning of their suffering; he focused on a critique of the worker’s material conditions. For Weil, on the other hand, affliction was an almost mystical experience, especially later in life, when she began edging closer to Christianity. After all, what sense was there to make of affliction in the face of God?

Soon after Weil left the factory, she joined her parents to a coastal town in Portugal. There, she overheard a group of fishermen’s wives perform a religious ritual. It proved to be a transformative experience for Weil, who saw as by revelation that “Christianity is pre-eminently the religion of slaves, that slaves cannot help belonging to it, and I among others” (19). In this connection to God, the state of affliction acquired a more ambivalent status for Weil. It was, as Zaretsky puts it, “ground zero of human misery” (19), but her attachment to affliction was unmistakable – it brought the slave closer to God. Citing Mary Dietz, Zaretsky admits that Weil risks “fetishizing” affliction in these writings. However, he also points out that affliction itself holds no value for Weil as such; its value lies in what we make of it. “Whether it can teach us anything as grand as wisdom depends on how we define wisdom. If virtues like comprehension and compassion, toleration and moderation are to constitute at least part of wisdom, we could do worse” (20).

The second chapter, “Paying Attention,” is devoted to what is perhaps Weil’s most famous notion: the work of attention. The chapter begins with an interesting reading of Weil’s ‘Essai sur la sur la notion de la lecture’, in which she argued that our “readings” of the world – our perceptions and observations – are inevitably inflected by our moral orientation. Or, as Zaretsky puts it, “the way in which we read the world turns on our particular location—moral, social, political, and economic—within the world” (21-22). In effect, Weil is essentially proclaiming the inseparability of fact and value, which, as Zaretsky points out, brought her in disagreement with most prevailing epistemologies of the time. Weil’s position seems a clear precursor of those taken by analytic moral philosophers such as Philippa Foot, Iris Murdoch, and Bernard Williams, but Zaretsky does not dwell on these parallels. Rather, he ponders another question of Weil’s: if our readings of the world are situated readings, is there “a single and right way to read”? (22). For Weil, a fervent Platonist, the answer would have had to be “yes”. And she looked for answers in her concept of attention.

To explain Weil’s concept of attention, Zaretsky takes his readers to her high school lessons, in which she instructed her students not to find answers to geometrical problems, but rather to contemplate the problems themselves. This principle, for Zaretsky, contains the essence of Weil’s conception of attention. For her, attention is not a “muscular effort” of concentration, but rather a “negative effort,” “one that requires that we stand still rather than lean in” (22). Attention requires the suspension of thought, so that one’s consciousness is cleared of self-concern and, as Weil put it, left “detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object” (quoted in Zaretsky, 23). Attention becomes a work of patient waiting, in which we diligently work at letting go of ourselves so as to make space for true understanding of fellow human beings. “In order for the reality of the other’s self to fully invest us,” writes Zaretsky, “we must first divest ourselves of our own selves” (23). It is in this way that attention becomes a method for discerning and responding to affliction. Attention is the moral work we must do to see what is “sacred” in the other.

Having defined the work of attention, Zaretsky makes brief excursions to Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations – comparing them to Weil’s notebooks – and to Kant’s discussion of reverence, which he likens to attention in Weil’s sense. Citing Murdoch again, he suggests that both concepts are concerned with “the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real” (1959, 51). The chapter then ends on a surprisingly personal note. Zaretsky ponders his own moral ineptitude as he faces a panhandler at an intersection as he is driving his car to work. (The scene, set in Houston, Texas, was not quite relatable for this European city-dweller who goes without a driving license.) Zaretsky berates his reluctance to witness the panhandler’s affliction with attention. “Let’s face it: she wants to be seen. Will I, though, allow myself to see her? Or will I allow the inevitable bottleneck of questions and rationalizations to come in between us?” (26). Zaretsky senses he is not up to the strict moral standard posed by Weil. But as he opens his car window to hand the panhandler some change, his children in the backseat, he hopes they will perhaps one day do so as well – and that even if they do not ask the panhandler, as Weil implores us to do, “What are you going through?”, then at least know that the question is important (quoted in Zaretsky, 27).

In the third chapter, “The Varieties of Resistance,” Zaretsky introduces the notion of resistance, which, he admits, is not strictly speaking a concept of Weil’s, but nonetheless a “a value that girds a great deal of her thought and merits a chapter of its own” (12). Zaretsky approaches resistance first of all as a common thread in Weil’s life. He narrates, for instance, her involvement in the Spanish Civil War and in the French resistance, both in the south of France and in London. He also chronicles how Weil rebelled against her own middle-class upbringing, by requesting to work on a fishing trawler (during a summer vacation), in a mine (whilst teaching in Le Puy), and on a farm – frequently egging on bemused workers to join her in protest. Zaretsky peppers these stories with great anecdotal details. For instance, he humorously describes how the family that let her work on the farm took offense in Weil’s insistence that their lives were wretched, poor, and altogether unhappy. “When their guest told them that she wanted to “live the life of the poor, share their burdens, and know their troubles,” the couple felt that Weil not only failed to recognize who they were, but also patronized them,” he writes (33). Such anecdotes paint Weil into a tragicomic figure: she was clumsy (her stint in Spain ended after she injured her foot stepping in boiling oil); she was inept (she fought in Spain with no idea of how to hold a gun); she made appalling mistakes (she dropped a suitcase full of secret Resistance pamphlets out in the streets). In many ways, Weil was unfit for the reality she was so eager to face – but which she nonetheless stubbornly kept close.

Throughout these experiences, argues Zaretsky, resistance also became an object of contemplation for Weil, even if not explicitly. He dives into Weil’s suspicion of the “collectivity,” which Zaretsky defines as “the convergence of the political, social, cultural, and economic forces that dictate our lives” (32). Collectivity, Weil believed, inhibits thought, and clear thinking is paramount to resisting the oppression caused by the vicissitudes of force. (Unsurprisingly, Weil was also suspicious of political parties.) This idea underlines once more Weil’s belief that the importance of thought lies in its connection to action. Zaretsky also discusses Weil’s complex form of pacifism, about which she changed her mind over time: having embraced pacifism for much of young adulthood, by 1939 she wrote in her diary that that “non-violence is good only if it’s effective” (quoted in Zaretsky, 35); a conviction she had already acted on several years earlier, when she joined the Spanish Resistance. As Zaretsky notes, Weil frequently “went to war on behalf of peace” (35); for her, in her own words, “[t]he struggle of those who obey against those command, when the mode of commanding entails destroying the human dignity of those underneath, is the most legitimate, most motivated, most genuine action that exists” (quoted in Zaretsky, 35). But if Weil valued resistance, she was not a dogged revolutionary: she was skeptical of the impulse to dehumanize and mistreat the oppressor one seeks to rise up against. Zaretsky closes this chapter with a reflection on the affinities between Weil and Camus (who was a great admirer of Weil’s), discerning traces of Weil’s “ethic of resistance” in Camus’ novels The Plague and The Rebel.

The fourth chapter, “Finding Roots,” starts with a discussion of Weil’s love for English pub culture, which she professed in her notebooks while living in London in the 1940s. What brought her to love the pub, argues Zaretsky, is their rootedness in the customs and traditions of what he calls an “English way of life” – which Weil discerned in the jolly atmosphere of the pub as much as in a performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. This notion of rootedness is also the thematic of Weil’s The Need for Roots, the last of her major works before her early death in 1943. In this book, Weil diagnoses the ills of modernity in terms of what she called déracinement or “uprootedness”: “the fact and feeling of homelessness” (41). For Weil, uprootedness conveys a sense of alienation from both place and tradition. Foreign invasion is one source of uprootedness, but Weil saw the condition epitomized in the factory, which uproots its workers both physically (by bringing them from the countryside into the city) and psychologically (through the rationalization of labour). Weil’s antidote to uprootedness is a “new patriotism” (50), which Zaretsky points out is to be nourished not by pride in one’s nation, but by compassion for others and an appreciation for the vulnerability of one’s nation. Zaretsky is careful to distinguish Weil’s conservatism from that of her right-wing contemporaries: he observes in her plea for a compassionate patriotism a more pacifying aspiration, as it “tightens the bonds of fraternity both between peoples and within a single people” (46). Her form of patriotism also causes Weil to denounce France’s colonial project. However, Zaretsky is critical of Weil’s reluctance to grand former colonies full independence, instead opting for a form of “protection” that would still tie them to “certain organized states”: “Weil,” he observes, “seemed either unwilling or unable to acknowledge that a growing number of the very people on whose behalf she spoke were no longer interested in such ties” (45).

The nation, then, emerges as a source of obligations to others. The content of these obligations is captured in Weil’s list of fourteen “needs for the soul,” which opens The Need for Roots. Zaretsky briefly discusses Weil’s famous critique of rights-based conceptions of justice in an essay called ‘Human Personality’: Weil was sceptical of the discourse of rights, which to her had a transactional undertone that she found painfully non-committal. To move away from the conditionality of rights, Weil proposed a discourse of obligation and duty based on the reality of human needs. Zaretsky then provides an insightful discussion of Weil’s similitude to Aristotle, in spite of her self-proclaimed love for Plato. He also does a good job linking Weil’s political thought to a variety of more contemporary thinkers. He likens her needs-based moral theory to Martha Nussbaum’s capability theory and compares her patriotic leftism to the communitarian impulse in writers such as Michael Sandel, Charles Taylor, and Amitai Etzioni. Disappointingly, Zaretsky fails to mention care ethicists like Joan Tronto (1993), who have built on Weil’s critique of rights in the well-known “care vs. justice” debate that was foundational for the formulation of care ethics in the 1980s and 90s. By skipping care ethics, he misses a notable body of work in which Weil’s thought does still, in Zaretsky’s words, resonate (Bourgault 2014).

Finally, in the fifth chapter, “The Good, the Bad, and the Godly,” Zaretsky offers a more prolonged examination of Weil’s engagement with Christianity and mysticism. Weil’s relationship to Christianity, as Zaretsky notes, was fraught with tension, as she was split between “the desire to surrender herself wholly to the church and her indignation at so much of its history and dogma that prevented her from doing so” (52). Weil’s dialogue with Christianity materialized in her conversations with two interlocutors: the Dominican priest Jean-Marie Perrin and “aspiring Catholic theologian” Gustave Thibon (52). After her death, she left both men with unpublished work, which they subsequently went on to publish, the former in Waiting for God and the latter in Gravity and Grace. Zaretsky mostly approaches Weil’s mysticism in terms of her idea of décreation, which loosely refers to the unmaking or undoing of the self in the face of God. This idea hinges on Weil’s image of God, who “shows his love to his creation by withdrawing from it” (54). God, in Weil’s understanding, cannot coexist in a cosmos with the non-divine, and for this reason, has no choice but to withdraw and hide. To love God is to join him in hiding: “Our being is nothing other than the will that we should consent not to be. He is forever begging from us the being which he gives. And he gives it so as to beg it from us” (quoted in Zaretsky, 54). Zaretsky is understandingly baffled by Weil’s descriptions of décreation. He deems her God “at best neurotic, at worst sociopathic,” and refers to our relationship to him as a “bizarre family dynamic” (54). To make more sense of Weil’s mysticism, he turns to one of her most famous readers: the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch. Murdoch, as Zaretsky puts it, adds another “o” to Weil’s “God,” and her notion of goodness turns décreation into a process of the gradual peeling away of the selfish ego, so as to open oneself to perceive and act on goodness. (Weil’s notion of attention, which became so important for Murdoch, is this idea’s backbone.)

This final chapter is briefer than the other four, and also a little less focused. Zaretsky oddly selects this chapter to expound on Weil’s distaste for political parties, where chapter three and four would probably have been more sensible choices. It is also surprising that Zaretsky has little to say here about the importance of Weil’s religious beliefs for her social and political thought. Especially towards the end of her life, these became increasingly indistinguishable. When, for instance, Weil writes that “the capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer… is almost a miracle” (quoted in Zaretsky, 23), this miracle is of God’s making; the miracle of goodness is also the miracle of God’s love. This is a thought Zaretsky hints at (especially in the first chapter), but he regrettably does not fully develop its ramifications here.

Zaretsky closes the final chapter with the observation that Weil’s thought is often impractical, even if it is important. Indeed, Weil’s “attraction to absolutes” (45) and the rigidity of her thought can encumber attempts to draw practical wisdom from her social and political philosophy. Or, as Raimond Gaita (2014, xxi) puts it, “[i]t is hard to be open to Weil’s political thought in a way that is consistent with both sobriety and idealism.” This is perhaps one reason why her thought does not resonate as strongly in contemporary thought as Zaretsky would like; but to Zaretsky, Weil’s severity is precisely her strength. Approvingly, he quotes Iris Murdoch, who once quipped that reading Weil is “to be reminded of a standard” (quoted in Zaretsky, 12). Indeed, Zaretsky sees in Weil an exemplary figure. Throughout The Subversive Simone Weil, his tone is reverential; and aside from some brief critical reflections (for instance, on her reading of the Iliad and on her position on colonialism), he refrains from scrutinizing her thought in much detail. Zaretsky frequently finds himself humbled by the unsparing nature of her thinking and of her personality, as well as of her insistence to engage with the world head-first. In the book’s epilogue, he refers to Weil’s friend and biographer Simone Pétrement, who poignantly observed: “Who would not be ashamed of oneself in Simone’s [Weil’s] presence, seeing the life she led?” (Quoted in Zaretsky, 60.)

In many ways, Weil embodies a picture of the intellectual that is much in vogue today: critical, uncompromising, and leaning towards activism. She is at least in this sense a timely figure. Nonetheless, Zaretsky does not fully make good on his promise in the introduction, which was to show how Weil’s core notions may resonate today. Sure enough, Zaretsky occasionally alludes to the relevance of Weil’s thought in our daily life (as in his encounters with panhandlers) or the present political moment (references to Trump’s administration abound). But the devil is in the details, and what sometimes misses from his discussions is a more sustained analysis of how Weil’s impractical stances may be rendered practical – or indeed, whether her rigidity and severity are not also in some ways flaws. If Weil really is so impractical, did she in fact succeed at avoiding “deflection” and face “the difficulty of reality”? By eschewing this question, or at most briefly hinting at answers (as he does in the epilogue), Zaretsky does not quite convince about the urgency of Simone Weil’s oeuvre for today.

But perhaps this is beside the point, as the accomplishments of The Subversive Simone Weil lie elsewhere. To be sure, Zaretsky is hardly the first to discuss Weil’s life in conjunction with her thought. Indeed, Weil’s biographical details punctuate many philosophical discussions on Weil. (Her martyrlike death of starvation, in part a consequence of her refusal to eat more than her fellow citizens in Occupied France, has become near-legendary.) But if these references can sometimes appear gratuitous, more concerned with myth-making than with sense-making, Zaretsky’s achievement here is to render Weil’s biography a rich resource for understanding her main philosophical ideas – and, in doing so, to provide a vivid, compelling, and stimulating introduction to the ideas of this singular philosopher. Newcomers to Weil’s oeuvre will be amazed (if not humbled), no doubt; but Zaretsky’s impressive scholarship should ensure that even those familiar with her life and work will find plenty to discover in this rewarding book.

References:

Bourgault, Sophie. 2014. “Beyond the Saint and the Red Virgin: Simone Weil as Feminist Theorist of Care.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 35 (2): 1. https://doi.org/10.5250/fronjwomestud.35.2.0001.

Diamond, Cora. 2003. “The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy.” Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas 1 (2): 1–26. https://doi.org/10.1353/pan.0.0090.

Gaita, Raimond. 2014. “Foreword.” In Letter to a Priest, by Simone Weil, xiii–xxiv. London and New York: Routledge.

Murdoch, Iris. 1959. “The Sublime and the Good.” Chicago Review 13 (3): 42. https://doi.org/10.2307/25293537.

Tronto, Joan. 1993. Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care. New York: Routledge.

Weil, Simone. 1970. First and Last Notebooks. Translated by Richard Rees. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

———. 2014. “Human Personality.” In Letter to a Priest, 57–90. London and New York: Routledge.

Gregory S. Moss: Hegel’s Foundation Free Metaphysics

Hegel’s Foundation Free Metaphysics: The Logic of Singularity Couverture du livre Hegel’s Foundation Free Metaphysics: The Logic of Singularity
Routledge Studies in Nineteenth-Century Philosophy
Gregory S. Moss
Routledge
2020
Hardback £120.00
524

Reviewed by: Alessandro De Cesaris (Università degli Studi di Torino)

In the contemporary philosophical landscape, Gregory S. Moss’s book stands out for many different reasons, and even though it should be considered a major contribution to the understanding of Hegel’s logic, its worth cannot be limited to the narrow boundaries of Hegelian scholarship. In this review I would like to illustrate some of the merits of this book, and I will try to show why Hegel’s Foundation Free Metaphysics can be read as an autonomous philosophical work, an exciting occasion to continue and renew the debate on some fundamental philosophical questions.

The Author’s first monograph on Cassirer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms addressed the question of the autonomy of language. While dealing with partially different issues – the nature of language and the philosophy of culture – this book already discusses some topics that are the main focus of Moss’s philosophical work, and shows methodological elements that remain unaltered in his second book. Aside from the general interest in the history of German thought, the book already deals with the problem of autonomy and of universality, discussing the relationship between language and logic and introducing the question about interculturality.

More importantly, in Ernst Cassirer and the Autonomy of Language Moss already showed his deeply theoretical approach to the analysis of the authors of the past. His reconstruction of Cassirer’s philosophy of language does not simply aim at offering an accurate sketch of the author’s thought, but rather it is an attempt to show how that theory can still find a place in the contemporary debate.

Following the same methodological inspiration, Hegel’s Foundation Free Metaphysics offers a monumental reconstruction of Hegel’s metaphysics, often underlining some aspects of his thought that have been lost in the most successful trends of the Hegelian research in the English-speaking world. However, it is also a striking attempt to show why Hegel’s metaphysics continues to be relevant. This may be the greatest achievement of Moss’s work: it does not just illustrate Hegel’s own position, but also and foremost shows what it means to have a Hegelian approach to philosophy today.

Despite its remarkable internal coherence, the impressive size of the book – around 500 pages – makes it almost impossible to provide a comprehensive summary of its content. Instead of doing so, I will start by introducing the main focus of the book – the relation between singularity and absoluteness. After that, I will discuss some pivotal elements of Moss’s interpretation of Hegel’s thought. Finally, I will try to point out some issues that remain open at the end of the analysis, in the attempt to show how this book can be understood as the starting point for a productive debate on Hegel, on the contemporary debate, and on the future of philosophy.

1. Philosophy’s Paradoxical Stance Toward Singularity

Since Plato, the relationship between philosophy and singularity has been complicated, even paradoxical. On the one hand, philosophy has been constantly presented as the kind of knowledge that addresses the universal rather than the singular. The tradition offers us a bunch of formulas in order to clarify this taxonomy: while philosophy is knowledge of the universal, art or history address what is singular. While thought only grasps the universal, only intuition has access to individual things.

On the other hand, however, philosophy has always been obsessed with singularity. The greater part of the philosophical effort since Plato and Aristotle is devoted precisely to understand how singular being (ta ekasta) are structured, how they are generated, how we think and say things about them, how they relate to each other. While the singular is banned from the domain of philosophy, nonetheless philosophy’s main task has always been the discovery and the elaboration of the structure of singularity in itself.

But what is singularity? Even this question, along with the distinction between singular and universal, is quite problematic. We are accustomed to identify singularity as the lower limit of thought, namely as what lies beyond any possible specific difference in the great taxonomy of genera and species. Yet, what is singular is also what lies beyond the upper limit of thought, namely what exceeds any possible genus: it is epekeina tes ousias, to use Plato’s formulation. In a sense, “singular” is the opposite of “universal”; in another sense, it is the opposite of “plural”. I know it is a schematic oversimplification, but this could account for the main difference between Aristotle and Plato: according to Plato, ideas are the true “singulars”: there is only one Beauty, it is one, eternal, and determinate, whereas sensible things are always plural, changing, indeterminate and temporal. In this context, what is most universal is at the same time utterly singular. On the contrary, Aristotle’s attempt to “save phenomena” – a formula used by Simplicius – is precisely the attempt to think sensible things as singular, determinate beings. Universals are plural, they are instantiated and thus have specific, but not numeric unity. Only individual things – both sensible and supra-sensible – are singular. For the sake of discussion, this oversimplification could be useful to identify this basic difference between a Platonic and an Aristotelian attitude towards singularity: on the one side, the singular is the absolute; on the other side, the singular is first and foremost finite, individual being.

2. Hegel’s Thought as a New Theory of Singularity

Now, how do we place Hegel’s philosophy in this frame? First of all, it’s worth mentioning that Hegel’s thought has traditionally been accused of having a complete lack of interest in singularity. Hegel is the “philosopher of universality” par excellence. Universality, necessity and subjectivity are the three key notions that structure most traditional interpretations of Hegel’s idealism, in which singularity, contingency and objectivity are therefore accounted for only as partial and lower steps of a more comprehensive dialectical process.

Already right after Hegel’s death, his first commentators criticized his disregard for singularity. According to Ludwig Feuerbach, the distinction between logical and sensible being is the inescapable mark of Hegel’s failure in thinking the individual: «Die Sprache gehört hier gar nicht zur Sache. Die Realität des sinnlichen einzelnen Seins ist uns eine mit unsern Blute besiegelte Wahrheit» (Sämtliche Werke, II, 212). This is Hegel’s major fault, not recognizing that „reality of singular sensible being” that we cannot help but feel as an immediate truth.

The strongest critic of Hegel’s philosophy of singularity, however, is Kierkegaard, who polemically used the term “Einzelheit” in his philosophy precisely to rescue the singular from Hegel’s monistic and universalistic account. Since idealism is “abstract thought”, Kierkegaard’s aim is to highlight the philosophical significance of existence, whereas what exists is precisely that singular being that abstract thought keeps overlooking.

This interpretation of Hegel’s philosophy has survived up to contemporary philosophy. In particular, French thought used the term “singularity” in order to develop an anti-Platonic and anti-Hegelian concept of individuality. Gilles Deleuze is the philosopher who expresses this critique in the most explicit way: «Hegel substitutes the abstract relation of the particular to the concept in general for the true relation of the singular and the universal in the Idea» (Difference and repetition, 10). Quite ironically, while Hegel is one of the first philosophers to use the word “singularity” as a technical term, clearly distinguishing between a commonsensical and a speculative use of the notion, the whole post-structuralist tradition uses the term “singular” as an anti-Hegelian device, tracing it back to Spinoza in contraposition with Hegelian dialectic.

A second element that is useful to point out, in order to understand the novelty of Gregory S. Moss’s approach, is that this criticism of Hegel’s notion of singularity goes along with a critique of Hegel’s systematic and anti-foundational idea of philosophy. Feuerbach and Kierkegaard, but also many other early commentators of Hegel’s system, such as Karl Werder, Kuno Fischer, Schelling, and Friedrich A. Trendelenburg, criticized Hegel’s disregard for the individual and at the same time stated the impossibility to obtain a complex categorical structure starting from the absolute simplicity of being. In other terms, the impossibility to get difference starting from identity.

Now, this close connection between systematic metaphysics and the problem of singularity is at the core of the theoretical analysis of Hegel’s Foundation Free Metaphysics. The so-called Hegel-renaissance in the English-speaking world has already rediscovered the importance of Hegel’s account of individuality. Paul Redding highlighted in the clearest way how the Pittsburgh school – Robert Brandom in particular – has managed to read Hegel’s philosophy as a semantic theory of individuation. However, these interpretations have systematically underplayed the systematic aspect of Hegel’s thought, along with its strictly metaphysical character. Following the oversimplified frame that I’ve proposed before, Robert Brandom’s inferentialism is – in a way – an Aristotelian reading of Hegel’s theory of singularity, since it understands singular beings only as finite, individual objects.

In this context, Gregory Moss’s book offers a timely and original reading of Hegel’s logic, since it finally highlights some aspects of Hegel’s philosophy that have been structurally neglected by many commentators. Three aspects are particularly worth mentioning.

In the first place, the author clarifies that Hegel’s notion of singularity not only refers to individual, finite beings, but also – and foremost – to that peculiar singular being that is the Absolute. In a way, therefore, Hegel’s speculative use of the notion of singularity overcomes the difference between the Platonic and the Aristotelian approach.

Secondly, Moss shows how it is impossible to understand Hegel’s use of the notion of “singularity” without taking into account the necessary relationship between these two dimensions. There is no account of the singularity of finite being without addressing the singularity of the Absolute, and any account of the Absolute that does not illustrate the metaphysical status of singular finite being is incomplete and partial.

Finally, the book puts a very strong accent on necessity to highlight the general aim of Hegel’s philosophical enterprise. It is impossible to understand Hegel’s use of the notion of “singularity” without considering the metaphysical character of his logic. Here it is important to grasp Hegel’s own understanding of what metaphysics is, rather than applying some contemporary use of the term to the Hegelian text, which forces Hegel into a theoretical frame that does not have much to do with his own methodology.

As I will point out later, these three elements also identify three problematic aspects of Moss’s theoretical and interpretative framework, or at least three questions that are still open after reading the book. However, before going deeper into the critical analysis, I will briefly illustrate the main structure of the book.

3. Thinking the Absolute

One of the most striking elements of Moss’s book is that it emphasizes the strict relationship between infinite and finite thought. While tradition generally accepted that we cannot think the Absolute in the same way we think finite being, one of the key contributions of Classic German Philosophy is the idea that if we fail to think the Absolute, even thinking finite being becomes impossible. If I’m not misunderstood, this is what is at stake in what Moss calls the “problem of nihilism”. I won’t go into it in detail, but a general consequence of this approach is precisely Moss’s attempt to show how Hegel’s philosophy is a unification of Plato’s and Aristotle’s approaches: if the Absolute is absolute, and therefore there is nothing outside of it, then it is impossible to differentiate between two faculties or two different methods, as if, for instance, understanding were to be identified with the faculty of finite being, and reason with the faculty of the Absolute. So, by developing a critical discussion of how the Absolute has been thought in the metaphysical tradition, we are at the same time questioning the way we think finite being. This traditional view is what the Author calls the “duality of principles”, the idea that knowledge – and reality – cannot be grounded on one principle, but rather require at least two: intuitions and concepts, matter and form and so on. Against this position, the Author defends a strongly monistic account of Hegel’s metaphysics, according to which the true Singular – the Absolute – self-differentiates in a way that can be compared to the Neoplatonic One.

The thesis of the duality of principles is grounded on another assumption, namely the impossibility of self-reference. If there is only one principle, then identity and difference must stem from the same source, and this source has no external matter on which to operate. According to Moss, the history of Western thought has mostly rejected this idea because of the undisputed adherence to the principle of non-contradiction. If identity generates difference, then the same thing is at once identical and different, namely contradictory.

These three metaphysical assumptions, the principle of non-contradiction, the rejection of self-reference, and the duality of principles, are presented by the Author as the fundamental argumentative structure that undermines at the basis the very possibility to think the Absolute, and that can be found in the history of Western metaphysics from Plato up to Kant.

For this reason, Moss’s analysis starts with a critical assessment of some basic problem of traditional metaphysics. While the author does not have philological or reconstructive interests, his confrontation with some authors of the past is extremely useful in order to grasp his fundamental orientation. For instance, while Plato, Aristotle and Kant are examples of the duality of principles approach, the brief but intense reconstruction of early German idealism aims at showing that Fichte’s and Schelling’s objective was precisely to overcome Kant’s dualism, and to re-introduce a self-referential first principle as the metaphysical and epistemological ground of a new philosophy. At the same time, this approach is strongly connected by Moss to Plotinus and Neoplatonic philosophy, with a long and dense excursus on ancient philosophy that reveals the Author’s tendency to offer a somewhat Neoplatonist interpretation of Hegel’s logic.

After having offered a critical reconstruction of these three metaphysical assumptions, Moss shows how they inevitably lead to five paradoxes that can be found throughout the history of philosophy.

The Problem of Instantiation: if particulars and universals are indebted to different (epistemological/ontological) principles, it’s impossible to clarify their relationship.

The Missing Difference: if conceptuality is not the source of its own differentiation, then the source of this differentiation is non-conceptual. «The essential difference that distinguishes one thing from another cannot be accounted for by appealing to what the thing is ‘in virtue of itself’» (165).

Absolute Empiricism: since the differentiated content of the conceptual dimension is not conceptual, the source of conceptuality is entirely empirical.

The Problem of Onto-Theology: the most universal notion is indicated as both universal and particular.

The Third Man: if the Concept is not self-differentiating, then every instance of the Concept, as a particular concept, cannot be the Universal Concept. Every attempt to find the universal concept leads to new particular concepts.

The largest part of the book’s first section is devoted to the historic and theoretical analysis of these paradoxes. The second section, instead, shows how – by positing the Concept as one self-referential and dialetheic principle – Hegel’s logic manages to overcome them.

Surprisingly, the book does not use the classic difference between understanding and reason as an instrument throughout this analysis. The question of the difference between understanding and reason is of course present, but it is not always clear whether these issues could be addressed as the result of an intellectualistic and non-speculative understanding of the domain of conceptuality. For instance, and here I’m forcing and radicalizing the issue in order to facilitate the discussion, the problem of the missing difference could be analysed as a specific formulation of a more general issue that concerned British and Italian idealism for a long time, namely the insufficient and contradictory nature of the forms of judgment. In fact, since every judgment, as Kant states, is in the form “The singular is universal”, and since the singular is not universal, an intellectualistic approach to the nature of conceptuality already finds itself entangled in a contradiction.

However, rather than appealing to this methodological instrument, the Author prefers addressing these problems systematically, retracing their origin in the three metaphysical assumptions listed above. This choice gives a very strong conceptual unity to the book, even though it could lead to some forced passages, in particular when it comes to analysing these issues through examples taken from the history of philosophy.

For instance, the first two paradoxes – the problem of instantiation and the missing difference –  are addressed by quoting many passages from Plato’s Parmenides and the Book B of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Now, while these passages are in fact very good examples of the problems the Author is discussing, both the Parmenides and Metaphysics Beta are, so to say, “partes destruentes”, critical preliminary moments of a new theory. In other words, it is possible to find already in Aristotle’s and Plato’s work – as Hegel himself recognizes in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy – speculative solutions to the problems they raise in some of their texts.

The difference between intellectualistic and speculative thought seems to be a very good way to account for this internal evolution in Plato’s and Aristotle’s thought.  For instance, Plato’s generative account of the koinonia ton genon in the Sophist does not look to be still subject to these paradoxes. In it, for instance, the self-referential character of ideas is no longer problematic, but at the same time it is not trivialized through the reference to empirical concepts as it happens in the Parmenides. Another example is Aristotle’s philosophy: following Ferrarin, Moss concedes that Aristotle’s metaphysics is speculative and belongs to the domain of the concept. But then, how can we integrate this idea with the paradoxes of Aristotle’s account of conceptuality? Isn’t this account, as it is presented in the book, utterly intellectual rather than speculative?

In other words, while the author manages to provide a strikingly coherent and dense systematic account of some fundamental metaphysical issues, a more extensive analysis of Plato’s and Aristotle’s own solutions to these problems, along with a comparison with Hegel’s own interpretation of their works, could give the chance to highlight how there is more than one way to think speculatively. The author does discuss Aristotle’s solutions to some of the problems he listed in Metaphysics Beta, but the historical reconstruction of Aristotle’s approach is not the main focus of Moss’s research, and it is only mentioned in order to highlight some aspect of Aristotle’s thought that the author recognizes in Hegel’s work.

However, given the book’s size, focusing on the systematic aspect of the issue has been a wise choice: this remark only aims at pointing out, once again, that this monumental book must not be interpreted as the end of a research, but rather as an exciting proposition for a new approach to the study of Hegel’s logic, of the history of philosophy and of metaphysics in general.

Four Open Problems

With this spirit in mind, I would like to point out some specific issues that I find of particular importance in Moss’s book. Of course, as already mentioned, this is a monumental piece of scholarship, and there are many topics worth discussing. There are many arguments and analyses that deserve a much deeper discussion than I can provide here. Nevertheless, I will try to avoid discussing specific matters or individual passages of the book, since I would like to keep the debate on a more general and fundamental level, and discuss some structural aspects of Moss’s proposal rather than specific topics. In particular, I will try to propose a brief critical assessment of four questions that remain open.

4a. What Kind of Metaphysics?

In the final part of his critical analysis, the Author thoroughly discusses different metaphysical and non-metaphysical accounts of Hegel’s logic. In particular, he also highlights Hegel’s intention to reform metaphysics beyond any dogmatic understanding of it. The interpretation of Hegel’s own understanding of metaphysics is deeply connected with the relationship between logic, nature and spirit. While Moss does not expressly analyse this aspect of Hegel’s system, the passage from logic to nature is a crucial point of his reading.

As we know, one of the main arguments of the book is that Hegel’s logic introduces a self-referential and self-differentiating account of the Concept. As Roberto Morani has shown in his monumental book on the evolution of Hegel’s dialectics, this aspect of Hegel’s philosophy is also the main focus of the auto-reformation of his own logic in the Second Edition of the Doctrine of being, when he stresses that objective logic already is subjective logic in disguise. This issue is closely related to the question of the “formal” character of logic. According to Hegel, logic is not formal because it has logical forms as its own content: logical forms are at the same time form and content of the logical process, that in this way is truly noesis noeseos:

But logical reason is itself the substantial or real factor which, within itself, holds together all the abstract determinations and constitutes their proper, absolutely concrete, unity. There is no need, therefore, to look far and wide for what is usually called a matter; it is not the fault of the subject matter of logic if the latter seems empty but only of the manner in which this subject matter is grasped. (SL, trans. Di Giovanni, 28)

Elena Ficara has stressed the importance of this passage, which shows Hegel’s opposition to any formalistic understanding of logic as a discipline. However, Moss radicalizes this aspect and points out how this unity of form and matter generates a self-determining progression. But what is the limit of this activity?

The logic is a self-generating process, through which the concept determines itself as concept: while we discover a great variety of conceptual determinations, these determinations never become empirical. In other terms, the logical development of the category of quality never generates the concept of “colour” or of “green”. In other words, what does never happen is what Fichte talks about in his lectures on the Tatsachen des Bewusstseins: if we radicalize this monistic self-generating activity, then everything must be deduced starting from the first principle, even this singular blade of grass. It is the same conception of systematic metaphysics that Wilhelm Traugott Krug presents as a critic to Idealism, and that Hegel ridicules. For instance, when Hegel talks of the ontological proof, the point is that the Concept has logical objectivity. Nevertheless, Moss is right to highlight how important it is to understand the Concept as a creative activity, and by doing so he defends a strong metaphysical interpretation of Hegel’s logic that many passages in Hegel’s work seem to confirm. While the author recognizes that the creative activity of the Concept does not entail the deterministic deduction of all empirical content, establishing the precise nature and the limits of this self-particularizing activity is one of the tasks that remain open after having read his analysis, and it is a crucial element to test the hermeneutical validity of his interpretation.

4b. What Kind of Singularity?

I would like to go back to the notion of singularity, which is the main focus of the book as a whole. In Moss’s book it is clearly stated that each category of the logic cannot be used exclusively to think the Absolute, since the Absolute is not separated from finite being. Therefore, singularity does describe both “limits” of thought—the Absolute and finite being. Nevertheless, Moss’s reconstruction strongly privileges the “Platonic” side of the analysis. In other words, the Author seems to be much more interested in showing how singularity expresses the logical structure of the Absolute, rather than explaining how the same notion can be used to describe the nature of finite being. For instance, Hegel writes that singularity is the principle of every “individuality and personality” (SL, 547). In order to complete the analysis of Hegel’s use of the notion of singularity, it would be very interesting to integrate Moss’s interpretation with a focus on this dimension.

This does not mean, of course, that Moss’s reading is a Platonic one. As I’ve already highlighted, if it is true that Platonism and Neo-Platonism play a pivotal role in the development of his reading of Hegel, Moss aims at showing both the Platonic and Aristotelian aspects of Hegelian dialectics, in particular by emphasising the importance of Aristotle’s notion of the «self-particularizing universal». This interpretation of Aristotle’s notion of Form is also quite interesting, and it would be worth discussing it in a further analysis of Hegel’s own historical sources.

4c. Syllogism

One of the most surprising aspects of Moss’s book is his analysis of syllogism. Usually judgment and syllogism are analysed as logical developments of the abstract concept, and Hegel also expressly indicates them as such in the Science of Logic. Nevertheless, the Author seems to understand judgment and syllogism as a logically impoverished form of the first section, identifying them with a «self-alienated» form of the Concept (374). While this strong accent on the Concept is quite original, it is very hard to explain Hegel’s own statement at the beginning of the section on the syllogism, where he writes that «the syllogism is the completely posited concept; it is, therefore, the rational» (SL, 588). More generally, Hegel repeatedly highlights the syllogistic character of his system: the end of the Encyclopaedia is maybe the strongest example.

This issue leads to another question on the relationship between syllogism and inference. Moss’s critique of Robert Brandom’s account of Hegel’s philosophy as a form of inferentialism is very convincing, and does show the partiality of neo-pragmatist, non-metaphysical readings of Hegel. Nevertheless, by criticizing Brandom, the Author seems to share with him one core assumption, namely that syllogism is inference, and that when Hegel speaks about syllogism, he’s always talking about a formal structure of reasoning. This identification could be the main reason for Moss’s scepticism against the importance of syllogism in Hegel’s thought. For instance, in the Science of Logic Hegel expressly writes that «All things are a syllogism, a universal united through particularity with singularity; surely not a whole made up of three propositions» (SL, 593). Of course, Hegel does heavily criticize the form of inference (even in his Lectures on history of philosophy), but this passage seems to show that we must distinguish the subjective form of inference from the logical, objective form of syllogistic unity. For this reason, while Moss’s interpretation of the relationship between the concept and syllogistic forms is quite original and in some cases very convincing, it does need further discussion.

4d. Contradiction

Finally, I would like to briefly discuss the question of contradiction. One of the structural aspects of the book is to show that, in order to think the Absolute, we must accept dialetheism, namely the position according to which some contradictions are true. In the case of Hegelian thought, this question is closely connected with the meaning of the term “speculative” as Hegel uses it throughout his work. While it is hardly debatable that only speculative thought is able to grasp the Absolute in its concrete and actual form, the question is whether such a way of thinking necessarily entails a violation of the principle of non-contradiction (PNC) in its Aristotelian formulation.

A good start for illustrating the issue is a passage quoted by the Author while analysing the relationship between speculative thought and contradiction:

Speculative thought consists solely in holding on to the contradiction, and thus to itself. Unlike representational thought, it does not let itself be dominated by the contradiction, it does not allow the latter to dissolve its determinations into other ones or into nothing/ (SL, 383)

Right after this passage Hegel does give some examples, and his choice are determinations of relation – above/under, father/son – that can hardly be seen as violation of Aristotle’s PNC. The interpretation of this passage is very contentious and I won’t go into it. Instead, I would like to argue that there are two possible interpretations of the nature of speculative thought. According to the first, speculative thought is necessarily dialetheic, since it requires to accept that the same x is and is not P. Here it is important to clarify that “not being P” is not the same than “being non-P”.

According to the second interpretation, speculative thought generates a new understanding of the predicates and of their reciprocal relationship. In this case, x can be P and non-P, according to a meaning of non-P that does not entail not being P.

For instance: the proposition “the particular is universal” is contradictory only as long as we assume that “being universal” entails “not-being particular”. This implication is different from the simple fact that universal and particular are different concepts, namely that “universal” is not “particular”. I do believe that it is possible to make the case that, in his subjective Logic, Hegel shows how universality, particularity and singularity, as conceptual determinations, are not reciprocally exclusive.

Moss does provide an exhaustive analysis of many different interpretations of Hegel’s account of contradiction. Again, his criticism of Robert Brandom’s strong coherentist reading is very compelling. Nevertheless, while it is clear that, according to Hegel, speculative thought somehow “deals” with contradictions, this statement must be compatible with other two explicit Hegelian theses: that contradiction is a defining aspect of finite being and finite concepts, and that contradiction itself is used throughout the system as a criterion to identify the finite and false character of the categories.

This could mean, in a way, that the Absolute cannot be contradictory in the same way finite concepts and beings are. Moss’s analysis of the difference between explosive and non-explosive contradictions could be a way to express this fundamental difference. However, it seems clear that Hegel’s foundation free metaphysics is an exciting contribution to a debate that is still open and is impossible to close simply by choosing one option over the other, be it coherence or contradiction.

5. Conclusion

At the end of this brief critical assessment of some aspects of the book, there would be much more worth mentioning. Gregory S. Moss’s book offers a compelling reconstruction of Hegelian metaphysics as a form of strong monism and shows how it can be profitably used to discuss some contemporary philosophical positions. Moss is also the translator of the English edition of Markus Gabriel’s Why The World Does Not Exist, and Gabriel’s pluralistic metaphysics is one of the main critical references throughout the book. By using Hegel’s philosophy to debate with Alain Badiou, Quentin Meillassoux, Graham Priest, Robert Brandom and others, Moss brilliantly shows how the study of Classic German Philosophy can still offer a valid contribution to the contemporary debate on metaphysics.

Another aspect that resonates throughout the book is Moss’s interest for intercultural philosophy, as well as for the mystic tradition. There is no doubt that this book is a vital and promising contribution to the contemporary debate on Hegelian philosophy. However, it is also much more than that, since it provides a very compelling theoretical framework for the discussion of many different questions in contemporary continental metaphysics. Finally, it also offers a profitable exchange between philosophy, theology, and the study of other cultures.

Despite its remarkable size, Hegel’s Foundation Free Metaphysics does offer an extremely coherent and well-argued account of some of the most important theoretical issues in the history of metaphysics. By doing so, it succeeds at showing the ground-breaking nature of Hegel’s approach to logic and provides a very original interpretation of the Doctrine of the Concept. It is an ambitious example of Hegelian scholarship, but it is also a very good example of a truly Hegelian approach to philosophy today.