Dorothea Olkowski: Deleuze, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty. The Logic and Pragmatics of Creation, Affectiver Life, and Perception

Deleuze, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty: The Logic and Pragmatics of Creation, Affective Life, and Perception Book Cover Deleuze, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty: The Logic and Pragmatics of Creation, Affective Life, and Perception
Dorothea E. Olkowski
Indiana University Press
Paperback $28.00

Reviewed by: Adam Lovasz (Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest)

Dorothea Olkowski’s latest book, entitled Deleuze, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty, is at once an invitation and a challenge. It invites us to think of ideas as „chaotic attractors.” (2) As a mathematical concept, we can call any strange attractor chaotic if iterations commencing from any two arbitrarily close alternative initial points lead to points which are arbitrarily far apart and, after various iterations, then lead to points that are arbitrarily close together, leading to a structure that is locally unstable yet globally stable. And herein lies the interesting methodological challenge of Olkowski’s project: wherein does the border lie between pure arbitrariness and stability? Indeed, is there a clear-cut difference between wholly arbitrary association and locally unstable holistic stability? Is it even the job of philosophy to produce something akin to stability? These are just a few of the questions that arise in the reader from the outset. Olkowski’s goal is not the penning of yet another introduction to the separate and, for that matter, wholly distinct philosophies of Gilles Deleuze/Félix Guattari, Henri Bergson and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Rather, these three serve as the ingredients of a new theoretical hybrid, a pragmatically and phenomenologically-involved affective continuum that goes beyond such tired dualisms as mind vs. world and matter vs. idea. The judgement we must pass in the context of this review is not whether the work lives up to its own promises and goals – although that too shall be addressed. Rather, what interests us is how the author comes to terms with the fundamental issue of whether instability can be integrated into thought in a philosophically consistent manner and whether the work achieves this.

In Chapter One, entitled „Naturalism, Formalism, Phenomenology, and Semiology in Postmodern Philosophy,” the problematic of our current epoch is introduced. Alan Kirby’s influential 2006 text, „The Death of Postmodernism and Beyond” serves as Olkowski’s point of departure. (Kirby 2006) In Kirby’s view, one shared wholeheartedly by Olkowski and ourselves also, the authentically postmodern position, characterizable as the radical questioning of reality, has become all but extinct in both philosophy and the broader social Zeitgeist. (13) Instead of an uncompromising postmodernism willing to question all dogmas, we have what Kirby and Olkowski call a „pseudopostmodernism,” a position that can best be described as a harmlessly apolitical play with words, without the corresponding subversion of broadly accepted intersubjective realities. In large part, the author believes that the opacity of postmodern discourse is itself to blame for its own eclipse. As Olkowski writes, the defenders of postmodernism „have not been able to understand it well enough to translate its canonical terms into informative definitions.” (14) The backdrop of both the postmodernist movement and its subsequent relegation to the fringes of both political debate and scientific practice is characterized under the heading of scientism. Already critiqued exhaustively by, among others, Edmund Husserl, the scientistic worldview posits the ability of science to redeem humanity and the world, heralding progress through increasing the well-being of homo sapiens. On the scientistic worldview, science, while not having the answers to all of the major existential questions, is nonetheless our best bet, and we ought to give the final say in most social matters to quantified modes of knowledge, because only the latter have privileged access to „reality.” Of course, the problem with such a worldview is that it reduces the complexity of the world to the issue of representation, while also failing to account for the way reality evades any description. The complexity of the world makes it impossible for us, as finite beings, to ever produce a representation of the latter that is adequate to its real condition. Science, for Georges Cavailles, is characterized by an ever more pervasive self-referentiality. It constitutes a self-enclosed system which demonstrates truths independently of human sensation. The paradox here, as Cavailles recognizes, is that even formal systems need a corresponding ontology. (16) Differently put, self-referentiality is impossible without what systems theory has called „hetero-referentiality.” Without a world, there is no self. Without an uncoded (and uncodable) complex „outside” reality, there is no such thing as scientific knowledge. We may even say that without non-knowledge, there is no knowledge.

In opposition to scientism, which would reduce the whole world to quantity, several thinkers have posited the concept of „quality.” Among these philosophers, Olkowski emphasizes three in particular: Deleuze, Bergson and Merleau-Ponty. They are of key importance because they have all, in their own ways, cast doubt upon the distinction between the false opposition of qualitative „image” and quantitative „space.” (17-8) In particular, Bergson’s idea of qualitative multiplicity, as first expressed Time and Free Will, has proven immensely fruitful. In Olkowski’s view, Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze can both be read as constituting elaborations upon the basic Bergsonian theme of qualitative, or „heterogeneous multiplicity.” As distinct from a quantitative multiplicity, in the case of a qualitative multiplicity one cannot distinguish the elements which compose it. For instance, when we feel an emotion, „we find ourselves confronted by a confused multiplicity of sensations and feelings.” (Bergson 1910: 87) One cannot count states of consciousness, because these are not discrete objects that can be neatly separated from one another. In essence, what Olkowski attempts to prove is that Bergson’s idea is a key influence at play in both Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze, even if they diverge significantly from the former in other respects. For all three French philosophers, corporeality seems to be the key to transcending the false duality of idealism and materialism. In Bergson’s cosmology, given its most systematic expression in Matter and Memory, the world is made of images, which are neither representations nor things but rather, on Olkowski’s somewhat contentious reading, „affects” which have not yet solidified into perceptions. (19) So as to avoid anthropomorphic misunderstandings, the author hastens to add that under the term „body” we must basically understand movement, pure and simple. (ibid) In Bergson’s conception of the universe, there exists nothing whatsoever apart from indivisible yet heterogeneous movement. Pure change, nothing else.

Such a reading is not inaccurate, yet it is still somewhat surprising to encounter an equation of movement with, of all things, affect, as the latter implies an element of feeling. Be that as it may, we must also not forget that the „body,” considered as a „zone of indetermination” (Bergson’s expression) is merely a point of departure, and not the primary focus of Bergsonian thought. In this regard, Bergson differs radically from phenomenologists of the body such as Merleau-Ponty and so does Deleuze. Indeed, Deleuze and Guattari engage in a devastating critique of phenomenology. (43) The latter school, they claim, produces only opinion and not knowledge. Against Merleau-Ponty and the phenomenological tradition, Deleuze holds that Ideas actualize themselves in the word in a real manner, not merely through appearance. The weddedness of phenomenology to natural sensibility occludes taking the reality of change seriously enough. (21) Indeed, for Bergson and the „1980s Deleuze” of the Cinema books, duration is all there is. We do not concur with Olkowski’s remark, to the effect that in Bergson the „moment” cannot be considered as being durational. (20) Everything is duration. The late Deleuze is closer to Bergson than we would think. What Olkowski fails to address, much to our disappointment, is how, ironically, Deleuze himself, at least in earlier works such as the misleadingly-titled Bergsonism and Difference and Repetition also failed to take the reality of actualization seriously enough by privileging the concept of the „virtual” above and against the „actual.” There is a much greater distance between Deleuze’s earlier and later periods than Olkowski lets onto, which also occludes the very signifant distance between the pre-1980s „virtualist” Deleuzian philosophy and the Bergsonian view. The incompatibility of the Deleuzian „virtual” with Bergsonian duration is unfortunately not addressed in Chapter Three („Bergson and Bergsonism”) either, even though that section if the book is ostensibly dedicated to answering the question of „how Bergsonian is Deleuze’s Bergsonism?” (69)

The systems theoretical problematic of self-referentiality returns in Chapter Two („Deleuze and Guattari’s Critique of Logic”). In essence, the chapter constitutes a reconstruction of Deleuze and Guattari’s critique of self-referential systems of logic in their final co-authored book, What Is Philosophy? The problem is how to deconstruct the distinction between formalism and lived experience. Ever since Immanuel Kant, the gap between mathematical and physical space has been growing, to the point wherein we cannot bring the two into anything like a balance. (26) For Deleuze and Guattari, self-referential systems of logic are deeply problematic, for such modes of thinking ignore two key truths about the world: objects are not self-subsistent entities and concepts too are extensional. (31) We cannot distinguish between unextended abstract ideas and physical entities in the Deleuzian cosmology. Because they leak out into the real world, concepts are infinitely rich realities. It is impossible to do justice to a concept by reducing it to a proposition. (32) Olkowski’s aim is to radicalize postmodern philosophy. Drawing upon the Deleuzo-Guattarian attack on self-referentiality is undoubtedly an effective way of going about this subvserive refoundation of postmodernism, and our sentiments concur with such a project. On Deleuze and Guattari’s view, the crime of the logicians, one that cannot be forgiven lightly, is the reduction of concept to function. Real problems are simply not propositional; neither are concepts. They posit that philosophical concepts are „intensional,” always tending toward reality, while never achieving a coincidence with pure differentiation in itself. Instead of reducing complexity, as self-contained systems of logic do, we must strive toward „creations of all kinds in any possible world.” (36)

Following Deleuze’s lead, Olkowski comments on the work of the early American pragmatist philosopher, Charles Sanders Peirce. For non-specialists not well-versed in Peirce’s system, this makes for at times daunting reading. For our purposes, it suffices to furnish a brief summary of Peirce’s three fundamental logical-ontological categories, without claiming to do justice to Peirce’s system. Firstness refers to initial vagueness. Secondness refers to singularity, the „thisness” of something in particular. Thirdness refers to generality, defined as the connection between the first two. Interestingly, what Olkowski suggests is that a systems theoretical reading of Peirce is also possible, and Deleuze’s own commentary on Peirce also points in this direction. Firstness corresponds also to feeling, Secondness to the resistance of real objects pushing back against our feelings and Thirdness to the observation (and actually achieved synthetic connection) of the former two elements. For Deleuze, Peirce’s Thirdness makes possible the positing of thought as a real force in the world. (42) Yet thought, paradoxically, can only become such a force if it has already suffered the violence of reality. Peirce and Deleuze are in accord when they both affirm that consciousness only achieves Thirdness after it has been assailed by the uncontrollable resistance exhibited by reality against human designs. (41) As Olkowski writes, „thought begins as mis-sophia,” the „original violence” thrust upon us through involuntary changes, conditions and circumstances outside of any human control. (40) No thought without violence, no reality without prehuman resistance.

One may describe Peirce’s „Triad” in terms of the following equation:


In Peirce’s view, one that uncannily echoes Bergson’s idea of qualitative multiplicity, generality, characterized as „supermultitudinous” by Olkowski, forms a heterogeneous continuity. (46-7) As opposed to a standard continuum, where the differences between components have disappeared to the point of imperceptibility, the members of a supermultitudinous continuum retain their qualitative differences. In Olkowski’s words, a generality is „a collection so great that its constituents have no hypothetical existence except in their relations to one another.” (72) From Peirce’s generality, Olkowski, following Deleuze, draws the conclusion that „Ideas are multiplicities,” with multiplicity denoting „difference and differentiation” and „repetition” describing Thirdness (the reflection, mediation, or, to borrow a term from systems theory, the third-order observation  that synthesizes feeling with fact). (48) In all, this leaves us feeling doubtful that Deleuze has authentically escaped the grip of self-referentiality. As a description of the way mediation occludes the underlying reality of change, Deleuze’s system, as elaborated in Difference and Repetition, works well. As a process philosophy, it does not, for it does not get us back to anything like an intimate proximity with the reality of change. To say, with Deleuze, that states of affairs are merely „actualizations of virtual chaos” does not do justice to the brute reality of actualization. (49) Olkowski does not answer the following question: what, if anything, does Deleuze’s reactionary embrace of the already transcended concept of „possibility” add to philosophy after Bergson’s radical demolition of the idea of „possibility” in, among other texts, „The Possible and the Real”? (Bergson 1911: 107-126) Even accounting for the rechristening of possibility as „virtuality” or „virtual chaos” by Deleuze, we cannot on our part see why actualization ought to be fettered by such static Platonic Ideas as „possibility.”

Chapter Three, „Bergson and Bergsonism,” is dedicated to outlining the relationship between the philosophies of Bergson and Deleuze respectively. In Bergson’s ontology, there can be posited a continuity between past and present within the form of duration. (59) Against conventional readings of the Bergson-Einstein Controversy of 1922-3, Olkowski holds – and rightly so – that Bergson pushed relativity much further than Einstein. Rather than a merely phenomenological affirmation of lived, psychological time or time consciousness, Bergson argues for the relativity of all durations. Against Einstein, Bergson holds that there is no distinction between duration and content. (61) In other words, time, as the continuity of change, is a fundamental and real aspect of the material universe. Einstein’s block universe is not mobile enough for process philosophy. Time is not an illusion. The Bergsonian revolt against timelessness grounds itself upon cosmic time. While modernity promised a cosmic Aeon, even after postmodernity we are still awaiting the dawn of the cosmic era. (147) Change is not only in our minds, as Einsteinians hold: it is also located outside of consciousness as the duration of material images. If we take the continuity of change seriously, this means that duration is always active now. Hence, a dynamic presentism seems an unvoidable conclusion of Bergson’s process philosophy. (Lovasz 2021) Of the two thinkers, the philosopher was without question the more radical than the physicist. Merleau-Ponty’s description of Einstein is devastating: „Einstein himself was a classical thinker.” (Merleau-Ponty 1964: 193) Olkowski is in complete accord with Merleau-Ponty’s retrospective view, to the effect that Einstein simply misunderstood Bergson’s position as being a psychologizing one, rather than recognizing it as a relativism more radical and consequential than his own conservative view of reality. (67) The „classical” view of science, one that, through the mediation of scientism, is still popular today, consists of the following toxic ingredients: causal determinism; the supposed decomposition of complex realities into simples; and, finally, the spatialization of the world’s existence. (65) All three authors chosen by Olkowski struggled against this determinist view of the world. In this regard, we ourselves are allies of these three authors and their contemporary synthesizer also.

Scientism can only be undone if we remain true to the present, to pure duration. In our time, the forecast has become the dominant mode of temporality. We already live in a destitute future, anxious of catastrophe, fearful of change, and haunted by the spectre of uncontrollability. Complexity has become synonymous with risk, whereas indeterminacy is also the source of liberty and opportunity. Bergsonism offers an antidote to future-centrism. Against the spectre of the post-apocalyptic future, colored black by our civilizational ecophobic anxieties, we can posit an allegiance to the flowing present. As Olkowski emphasizes, „for a being that endures, the past remains in the present.” (71) Only in the present does the past or, for that matter, the future have any presence. Any other tense is an abstraction. Against all talk of future risks and existential threats, Bergsonism gives us an almost messianic hope that we can, against all odds, return to the present. Peirce’s statement, to the effect that „we are immediately aware only of our present feelings,” is more subversive than it would seem upon first impressions. (Peirce 1931: 167) This can be read today as a much needed reminder to prioritize the present against a past which is already absent and a contingent future about which not much is known apart from its unpredictability.

Chapter Four of Deleuze, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty, „Duration, Motion, and Temporalization,” is dedicated to conceptualizing the relationship between movement and time. Here again, we must point out our divergence of opinion from the author. Olkowski states that „while Deleuze expresses no preference for one type of image over the other, it is clear that bergson does”, going on to venture the claim that Bergson rejects the movement-image as a „cinematographic illusion.” (82) This would apparently go against the Bergsonian doctrine, which holds movement to be synonymous with duration. Bergson’s own philosophy is just as much a movement-image as a time-image, and emphasizing the latter aspect only seems erroneous to us. The supposed difference between the late Deleuze’s affirmation of cinematography and Bergson’s rejection of the „cinematic” view of reality does not take into account the latter’s reconsideration of cinema. If we affirm, as Olkowski also does, that „duration” can be defined as „the inner becoming of things,” the late Deleuze of the Cinema books is correct to claim that this applies also to cinematographic technologies of representation as well, for the latter too are parts of the world. (84) If reality is movement, consciousness is, ironically, the relative absence of movement, an immobility which manifests in the living organism as hesitation. Commenting upon Matter and Memory, Olkowski makes the point that „for Bergson, any unconscious material point has greater perception than an entity with consciousness.” (85) The reason for this lies in the function of the latter. Consciousness is a filtering mechanism, which serves to reduce noise, allowing the organism to select information from its environs. The brain is nothing more than an „acentered image,” to use Olkowski’s evocative phrase. (87) Here we do not wish to delve into the details of the late Deleuze’s cinematic ontology. Rather, we content ourselves with pointing out that it bears a much greater resemblance to Bergsonian philosophy than Deleuze’s earlier works. There is no virtual in Bergson or, for that matter, the Cinematic Deleuze. Rather, a complete coincidence can be identified between the time-image and the movement-image.  „Each time it occurs, the time-image is completely new,” writes Olkowski. (90) Occurence is always already a movement, an emergence. No time-image without a corresponding movement-image, no memory without „the appeals of the present state.” (91) What the time-image reveals is the desubjectified time of pure movement, the momentum of the moment. Indeterminacy is freedom, possibility, the opportunity to free new elaborations into the world, the chance to create what Olkowski calls „destiny,” the „pure power of time that overflows all possible reaction.” (93) A surrender to fate that nonetheless constitutes a liberation. Amor fati.

The fifth Chapter, „Phenomenology and the Event,” deals with Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology and its relationship with science, as well as Merleau-Ponty’s critique of scientism. For Merleau-Ponty, not unlike Deleuze and Bergson, reality is free and open. Against the primacy of quantified scientific observation and the natural (preperceptive) attitude, Merleau-Ponty posits the primacy of perception. (110) Far from being an anti-scientific move, this allows the phenomenologist to critique dominant modes of knowledge without falling back into any preperceptive, prereflective or prephilosophical condition. Perception is what synthesizes physical reality and behavior, being the bridge which links us to a world. Movement, for Merleau-Ponty, is based upon pre-objective experience. In other words, the present is made from sensation. Here again, we encounter a vibrant presentism, although one that is more phenomenological than Bergsonian ontology because of its grounding upon affect. Our duration, it should be added, is never ours alone. The heterogeneous continuity of qualitatively different durations also entails the mutual inseparability of different temporalities. As Olkowski states, „a living present is open not merely to the past and future but to temporalities outside of lived experience, including those of a social horizon.” (114-5) Outside of the present, none of these have relevance, yet when they coincide with a vibrant present, attentiveness is achieved. The challenge for Merleau-Ponty and Olkowski alike is to remain true to our perception, while distancing ourselves from alienating cognitive constructs. Our contemporary society is replete with forms of opinion that masquerade as knowledge. In a radical vein, Olkowski lists several of these at an earlier point in the book, highlighting computer science, sociology, marketing, design and advertising in particular as forms of opinion camouflaged as knowledge. (93) Aligning ourselves with perception, in the vein of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, we can mount a direct challenge to any and all alienating exteriorizations of cognition. We have grown accustomed to observing real processes through the lens of quantifiable data. Perhaps the time has come for us to see things differently. (Al-Saji 2009: 375-399). Against alienation, the Event, as conceptualized by Deleuze, is a direct attack on the computationalized human nervous system. (119) Olkowski’s book can be read as a sabotage of regularized modes of perception.

Chapter Six, entitled „The Philosophy of the Event,” is in many ways a Conclusion for the text as a whole. Olkowski affirms the Deleuzian view of philosophy. Instead of consensus-building, the job of philosophy is to sow discord and controversy. (131) The Deleuzian „dark precursor” is what systems theory calls the „blind spot,” an element that has escaped observation, in turn observing its would-be observers. Olkowski repeats the Deleuzian gestures of subversion in a refreshingly new way. Instead of clarity, the goal here coincides with the „disharmony of all the faculties.” (132) The creation of thought is the „rendering consistent” of chaos. (135) But has Olkowski succeeded in this task? Yes and no. The internal consistency of the book hinges upon its choice of authors. The subtitle refers explicitly to pragmatism, yet the connection between the key concepts of the work are at times tenuous. On our part, we would have been more satisfied had the pragmatism of Peirce been brought into a more direct correspondence with the views of Bergson, William James, John Dewey and Rosiah Royce, to name a few of the early 20th century’s most influential philosophers who were characterized as „pragmatists” by their contemporaries. A broader reflection upon pragmatism would, in our view, have been warranted. The final chapter functions well as an aesthetic and political reiteration of the fundamentally chaotizing Deleuzian project of absolute deterritorialization, yet it also raises questions regarding the positionality of the author. When all is said and done, Olkowski is a Deleuzian philosopher through-and-through, and this circumstance impacts the interpretation of Bergson and Merleau-Ponty. At key junctures, we find that Deleuze has the final say in most matters, while other perspectives and philosophical schools are mostly relegated to a supporting role at best. The endgoal of Deleuzian philosophy is absolute deterritorialization, the blowing apart of all semiotic systems. (142) If this truly is the case, then we are almost duty-bound as consistent Deleuzians to undermine our own systems of thought also on a constant basis. It would seem that Olkowski does not make enough of an effort to demolish Deleuzian philosophy from within. We ourselves must become abstract machines that cut across all significations, the doctrine of Deleuzianism included. Fealty to the constancy of change demands the undertaking of the risky philosophical task of permanent subversion. In the 21st century, it is very much the case that real thought begins where uncritical allegiance to scientism ends. Without the discord of philosophy, we shall remain entrapped within increasingly intolerant structures tending toward the scientistic regularization of life on this planet.


Al-Saji, Alia. 2009. „A Phenomenology of Critical-Ethical Vision. Merleau-Ponty, Bergson, and the Question of Seeing Differently.” Chiasmi International 11: 375-399.

Bergson, Henri. 1910. Time and Free Will. An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness. Trans. F. L. Pogson. London: George Allen & Unwin.

Bergson, Henri. 1911. „The Possible and the Real.” In: Bergson, Henri (1946) The Creative Mind. Trans. Mabelle L. Andison. New York: Philosophical Library, 107-126.

Kirby, Allan. 2006. „The Death of Postmodernism and Beyond.”

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

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1964. „Albert Einstein and the Crisis of Reason.” In: Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1964) Signs. Trans. Richard C. McCleary. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Olkowski, Dorothea E. 2021. Deleuze, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty. The Logic and Pragmatics of Creation, Affective Life, and Perception. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Peirce, Charles Sanders. 1931. The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce. Volume I. Ed. Charles Harshorne, Paul Weiss and Arthur Burks. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ambiguity of the term inner

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

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

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


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

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

Three kinds of interiorization

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

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

Ritual interiorization

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

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

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

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

Conceptual interiorization

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

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

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

Experiential interiorization

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

A history of the a-historical?

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewed by: Talia Welsh (University of Tennessee Chattanooga)


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

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

Overview of the Book

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

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

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

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

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

Part III: The Living Body and Ontology of Labor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part IV: Transcendentality and the Constitution of Worlds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Roman Ingarden: Ce que nous ne savons pas des valeurs

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

Reviewed by: Noëlle Miller (University of Vienna)

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

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

Ce que nous ne savons pas des valeurs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Ibid, 32.

[3] Ibid, 35.

[4] Ibid, 43.

[5] Ibid, 58.

[6] Ibid, 60.

[7] Ibid, 66.

[8] Ibid, 74.

[9] Ibid, 81.

[10] Ibid, 116.

Philippe P. Haensler, Kristina Mendicino, Rochelle Tobias (Eds.): Phenomenology to the Letter: Husserl and Literature

Phenomenology to the Letter: Husserl and Literature Book Cover Phenomenology to the Letter: Husserl and Literature
Volume 7 in the series Textologie
Philippe P. Haensler, Kristina Mendicino, Rochelle Tobias (Eds.)
De Gruyter
Hardback 109,95 €

Reviewed by: Fermín Paz (CIN / FFyL - UBA)

Phenomenology to the Letter. Husserl and Literature (2021), is a collection of thirteen essays that make explicit multifaceted theoretical implications between literature and Husserlian phenomenology. Volume number 7 of the collection Textologie by De Gruyter is edited by Philippe P. Haensler, Kristina Mendicino, and Rochelle Tobias.

Each of the papers making up this work present an original insight. Together they advance a common goal: a deep exploration of the immensely rich work of the father of phenomenology, tracing back what, in the words of the editors, are logical and poetological (1) implications between literature and his writing. Through the different articles that constitute it, this volume presents a broad and varied series of issues. In each essay, phenomenology and literature are presented as fields that are not a priori differentiated, but branch from diverse modes and axes of analysis.

The position the book confronts is characterized in the introduction by the editors: from the formula “to the things themselves” as key to Edmund Husserl’s proposal, phenomenology would have been accused of being “negligent” about language and other forms of mediation. Phenomenology to the Letter draws a historical line to characterize this reaction against phenomenology that has its more characteristic points in the deep oblivion of the language (abgründige Sprachvergessenheit) as proposed by Gadamer (1986, pág. 361), up to the Foucault’s accusation about the logophobie of phenomenology (1971). Moreover, this differentiation can also be read in the linguistic turn of analytic philosophy, or in the post-structuralist philosophy of Derrida. This work aggregates this accusation and highlights its incorrectness by linking Husserl with classic rhetoric, modern literature, aesthetic theory, and cultural criticism. However, the goal of the book implies a task that is not easy to solve. The response to these 20th Century accusations is not provided from a theoretical reconstruction of an exegesis of Husserlian corpus, but with a reading proposal from the collaborators of this volume that updates and explores the own limits of the phenomenologist’s task.

The logical and poetological implications of Husserlian writing are analyzed from a conjunction of literature and phenomenology. This conjunction not only revisits the inscription itself of the very same Husserlian letter as theoretical and textual corpus but also analyzes a phenomenological inscription in a wide range of literary works. Thus, this volume analyzes an implicit link between modern writers as Proust, Flaubert, Kafka, Rilke, Benjamin, Beckett, Olson, and Blanchot with certain modes of inquiry in the operations of the conscience, specifically phenomenological ones. The link between phenomenology and literature is not unilaterally constructed “outwards” from the Husserlian phenomenology towards the literary work, instead this volume draws a relation of reciprocal involvement that vindicates a literary task within the construction of phenomenology. The editors even discuss phenomenography[1], as they argue that for Husserl, “literature constitutes the medium in which the phenomenological analyses of transcendental subjectivity attain objective existence” (4). In this sense, literary language itself constitutes an immanent question to phenomenology as “both the method and existence of phenomenology depend upon a literary medium that cannot but be foreign to it” (5).

In its structure, the book is divided into four parts, each part addresses specific topics with a group of essays. In the first part, Husserlian phenomenology’s own language is thematized. Then, the second part discusses the relationship between experience and language, and the enrichment or challenges that the latter imposes upon the former. The third part focuses on the relationship between experience and literary works, fusing phenomenology and literature. Lastly, the problem of fiction is further explored as central to the methodological determination of phenomenology.

The first part of the book, Rhetoric and Thought: The Language of Phenomenology, addresses the issue of phenomenology’s own language in four essays that focus specifically on Husserl’s writing. The first part offers a series of explanations between Husserlian language and the developments of his phenomenology.

The first article is entitled Husserl’s Image Worlds and the Language of Phenomenology, by Michael McGillen. The author resumes the concepts used by Husserl to present his phenomenological method to establish that the technical language of phenomenology is built from a metaphorical language. McGillen suggests that the linguistic and pictorial aspects of images are briefly connected. To focus on this relation, the author resumes the theory of image consciousness by Husserl and proposes its applicability to literary metaphors. Thus, he links the experience of a metaphor with the experience of image-consciousness. In this point, it may be argued that the application of Husserl’s theory of image consciousness to metaphors or textual images requires further clarifications in light of the loss of frame (Bild) as a shared character between the object and the subject of the image. Nevertheless, this problematic parallel between metaphor and image, letter and experience, anticipates the theoretical position that guides the book proposal. 

In Au Coeur de la Raison: la phénomenologie, Claude Romano claims that material a priori can only be conceived from a theory that fundamentally has an anthropological base for essential determination. In the essay Auch für Gott: Finitude, Phenomenology and Anthropology, Tarek R. Dika argues that Romano holds two mutually contradictory theses: firstly, that the negation of material a priori necessities is inconceivable and secondly, that these necessities, due to their anthropologic bases, are only conditional and therefore, their negation must be conceivable. If the Husserlian material a priori is postulated as a necessity for any kind of experience, it is done to disengage the sense of experience from the sense of language. Only then can phenomenology propose a prelinguistic sense. Dika’s argumentation in favor of a priori material à la Husserl is a reassurance for the cornerstone of the phenomenological experience: informed perception with a prelinguistic sense, described with pretension of universality.

The third essay, irgend etwas und irgend etwas: Husserl’s Arithmetik and The Poetics of Epistemology, is written by Susan Morrow, who reads Husserl’s first published monograph, Philosophy of Arithmetic, accused of psychologism as a poetics of epistemology. This work establishes a relationship between the concerns of a young Husserl, focusing on the analysis on the concept of multiplicity, to the ones of maturity, that focus on the historicity of geometry and science as such, revealing a certain consistency. This consistency allows Morrow to articulate her reading proposal from a key term for the book proposal as a whole: the status of a poetics of the epistemology is supported by a reading that traces poetological implications in the arithmetic’s justification of the philosopher that pursued a rigorous science.

The last work, by one of the editors, Philippe P. Haensler, is titled Fort. The Germangled Words of Edmund Husserl and Walter Benjamin. With great erudition, Haensler’s comparative reading between Husserl and Benjamin chases a twofold goal: on the one hand, to reveal Benjamin’s anticipation of certain Husserlian developments, and on the other hand, the essay establishes for Husserl’s phenomenology a deep interest in the question of literary translation. Haensler reads      Husserl’s transhistorical concern for the foundation of sense and Benjamin’s messianic reconceptualization of the relationship between an original and its translation as “two pieces of the same vessel” (85).  However, this essay is not limited to the historical reconstruction of mutual readings between Husserl and Benjamin. With the presence of Jaques Derrida as a key mediator between the two authors, Haensler evidences for phenomenology, translation as a trans-performative act,      and the letter of the father of phenomenology as a subject for discussion in itself.

The second section, Phenomenology and Incommensurability: Beyond Experience is concerned with the issue of an experience possible through language, one that defies (and, in some cases, even exceeds) the limits of the described experience from a strictly phenomenological perspective.

This section begins with the work of Jean-Sébastien Hardy, Beyond Experience: Blanchot’s Challenge to Husserl’s Phenomenology of Time, who finds in the concept of disaster (desastre) by Maurice Blanchot a key for what the author calls a “phenomenology of anticipation”. Hardy maintains that Husserlian expectation has traces of an implicit prophetic paradigm and that the affectivity of protension may well be a product of an institution that is at the same time, original and historic. Meanwhile, the Blanchotian disaster as something that is “outside experience, outside the realm of phenomena” (Blanchot, 1986, pág. 9) does not answer to any expectation and constitutes a challenge for Husserl. Hardy wonders if the immanent consciousness of temporality is really as pure as Husserl desired or whether a radically different temporalization is possible (118). In line with Blanchot, Hardy concludes that our intern and immediate sense of time “is not so much constituted as it is instituted, when it comes to the anticipation of what is about to come” (130).

In the next essay, Absehen – Disregarding Literature (Husserl/Hofmannsthal/Benjamin), Henrik S. Wilberg reads Husserl’s famous letter to Hofmannsthal, retrieving the frequently exposed link between the phenomenological method and the purely aesthetic attitude, as both imply a deviation from the natural attitude. The artist and the phenomenologist share before the world the neutralization of the positionality of the objects of experience. What is new in this article is the incorporation of a young Benjamin into that dialogue. Wilberg affirms that “when the Young Benjamin first enters into the orbit of phenomenology, he does so accompanied by the same figure who – and the same text that – occasioned Husserl’s reflections on the relation between literature and philosophy” (139/140). The historical reconstruction of mutual readings between authors is at the service of the “poetized” as the foundation of the experience of reading. There is therefore a link between the Husserlian modification of neutralization with what Benjamin calls Gedichtete as the indecipherable, the unanalyzable, specific to a reading experience. Benjamin’s reading of Husserl goes beyond direct mentions and is in the notion of “poetized” where affinities with Husserl can be read, a notion used to characterize a new dimension of the poetic. For Wilberg, it is in this state or in the modification of the view of the reader towards the poeticized of the poem where the potentialities of the Husserlian modification of neutralization comes into play, transcending the explicit comments of Husserl himself.

This conceptualization of a      reading experience       shares its goal with the work of another editor, Kristina Mendicino. In Drawing a Blank – Passive voices in Beckett, Husserl and the Stoics, Mendicino links Husserl’s phenomenology with Stoicism on the basis of the theorization of the material aspect of language, finding the most extreme consequences of the position that both schools would share in The Unnamable, by Beckett. That concern that Beckett takes to the extreme is homologated with the Stoic notion of lékton, which characterizes the discursive instance as an ambivalent phenomenon. If the materiality of language offers an experience that surpasses the meaning of language, both for Husserl and for the Stoics, the link with Beckett can be read when he affirms that “the things that language speaks of may always be elsewhere, speeches may seduce with their movement, and words can take wing so as to fly from the strictures or comprehensive grasp” (150). Mendicino recognizes the links between Frege, Bolzano, Meinong and, evidently, Husserl, with the Stoics. However, the Beckettian way acquires a new sense within this volume. Beckett’s reference to the Stoics is made in poetological terms. In the Stoics, Mendicino traces back an importance to the thetic character within phenomenology and inherent to perception: “between sense and expression comes a moment of making sense that resists translation into categorial forms of predication and whose logical character cannot be rendered with a predicative syntax” (167). The author finds an “aphenomenal páthos of language” (171), being the use of the passive voice in Beckett the master expression of a poetology of the experience of language.

The link between literary works and phenomenology is more strongly established in the third part of the book. In Phenomenology of the Image and the text Corpus, literature appears as a corpus with which a wide group of theoretical developments of phenomenology is faced. At the same time, the link between the experience of the image and its description in a literary language is further analyzed.

The first work is Charles Olson: Phenomenologist, Objectivist, Particularist by Stefanie Heine exposes the poetry of Charles Olson as a complement of Husserl’s philosophy of language in Logical Investigations. The essay reconstructs in Olson a theoretical development inseparable from the practice of writing, taking as a starting point the work of unpublished manuscripts, transcribed or attached in this book. Even though Olson echoes Merleau-Ponty, this work shows Olson’s complement to Husserlian phenomenology, borne from his interest as a poet, of considering words as physical entities, and of taking the word as Leib before taking it as Körper in the specific moment of writing. On the one hand, is the sensible experience of words that comes at play in his “poeticness”. On the other hand, the Husserlian notion of “Wort-Leib” is revealing for the execution of Olson’s writing, where language is left behind to grasp the material sense of the physical word, the gap between words, and even shapes, and written lines that are not associated with specific words.

In the second work, Icon as Alter Ego? Husserl’s Fifth Cartesian Meditation and Icons of Mary in Chronicles of the Teutonic Order, Claire Taylor Jones examines two chronicles of the Teutonic Order: Chronica terrae Prussiae (1326) and Kronike von Pruzinlant (1340). These texts offer a narrative of the conversion to Christianism from an experience of acknowledging the suffering and spiritual agency in icons of the Virgin Mary. Taylor Jones finds in these chronicles, taken as literary corpus, issues for the perception of the alter ego that Husserl describes in the Fifth Cartesian Meditation. From artistic cultural objects, imbued in certain “saintly presence” in this case, the distinction between Leib and cultural objects must be revisited. The author finds in these texts a challenge to the Husserlian theory that demands a new description of intersubjectivity, one that does not rest in the apperception of an animated body, but recognizes this apperception of suffering, that does not require movement in order to be perceived.

Complements to Husserlian phenomenology can also be read in the cultural critique, as Thomas Pfau illustrates in the last work of this section: Absolute Gegebenheit: Image as Aesthetic Urphänomen in Husserl and Rilke. The author reads Rilke’s texts about Rodin and Cézanne’s letters, where he finds a phenomenology of image experience that would complement Husserl’s one. If, as Pfau asserts, Husserl focuses on the noematic pole of experience, it is the noetic dimension that Rilke centers his attention on when he reflects on the aesthetic experience. In the Rilkenian comments on Cézanne’s works Pfau reads an anticipation of the idea of transcendental reduction. The point here is that the epistemological contribution to the theory of image occurs, as demonstrated again and again in the volume reviewed here, in poetological terms, intended as a supplement to phenomenological description.

The funding relation between phenomenology and fiction insistently tematized in this volume finds greater depth in the fourth and final section of the book: Fictional Truths: Phenomenology and Narrative.

The section is inaugurated with The Virtuous Philosopher and the Chameleon Poet: Husserl and Hofmannsthal, by Nicolas De Warren. De Warren rereads Husserl’s letter to Hofmannsthal, in which the philosopher reveals the inspiration he received from the poet for his phenomenological method. However, De Warren’s reading examines how Husserl imagined this source of inspiration, and from that conception, offers an aesthetic for Hofmannsthal’s work. De Warren reconstructs the context of the encounter between Husserl and Hofmannsthal, the poet’s assistance to the reading of the phenomenologist, and the epistolary exchanges between these figures. The point that De Warren makes is that Hofmannsthal’s silence demonstrates that his aesthetic would have been a source of inspiration for the phenomenological method merely imagined by Husserl himself. The importance of this reading lies in putting the attention on fiction as a basis for Husserlian inspiration, while the letter could itself be read as literary fiction. De Warren undertakes this task, carrying out a detailed analysis that evidently could be described as literary, from Husserl’s letter to Hofmannsthal and reconstructing in that same letter the appearance of elements belonging to the philosophical method that Husserl would have arrived for his phenomenology.

The second paper of the section is A Now Not toto caelo a Not Now: the “Origin” of Difference in Husserl, from Number to Literature, by Claudia Brodsky. The paper draws a historical path in Husserlian thinking in which, through a series of “steps”, Brodsky explains that the understanding of the notion of number is achieved in relation to other concepts. For the author, this overlapping of theories, in a formal excursus of Husserl’s conscience, is quite similar to the developments made by Lukács and Proust. In their formal aspects, there would be common issues between Husserl and the literary theory.

The last essay of this volume is written by its third editor, Rochelle Tobías. In Gregor Samsa and the problem of Intersubjectivity, the author exhibits how The Metamorphosis by Kafka presents certain issues to the Husserlian perception of the alter ego. The challenge to the Husserlian theory is not found in the acknowledgment of another body as an alter ego, but in the recognition of another conscience like mine. Tobias’s paper does not focus on this difference of positions, but on the fiction as a privileged mode of representing other minds in the third person. Thus, what is thematized is a method for thinking based on fiction as proposed and shared by Kafka and Husserl.

As I have outlined thus far, Phenomenology to the Letter does not directly answer the concerns presented in its introduction. The aim of the book is achieved through a comprehensive reading that implies a work from the reader that does not demand little effort. On this point, it is important to highlight that each one of the parts neither offers a justification of the articles assembled therein nor a conclusion that determines an explicit conjoint thesis. To be able to answer the accusation put forward in the introduction, it is necessary to undertake a global reading that surpasses the questions posed by each essay. Thus, the enormous project proposed in this volume loses the strength of a joint individual answer. This is not however a limitation, but rather a demonstration of the fruitful possibilities of relating Husserlian phenomenology with literature, via a multiplicity of papers that address various goals and issues. This book clarifies that there is no oblivion of the language but rather that language, literature, writing, and fiction are present from the origin and during the development of the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl.

Phenomenology to the Letter is not a book about literature and phenomenology in general: there is no development of the conception of language by Merleau-Ponty or Heidegger, nor is there an offering of the problems of a phenomenological aesthetic that recovers Dufrenne’s, or an ontology of literature as Ingarden thematized. This volume focuses specifically on the Husserlian work and when links are established with other authors, they do not properly belong to the phenomenological school. The rejection of the phenomenological thematization of literature following its greatest exponent, Roman Ingarden, explains the general proposal of the book. According to the editors, Ingarden starts from phenomenology, when, as read in this volume, it is all about mutual implications between phenomenology and language, to the point of claiming a philological complement for phenomenological investigation.

While the essays contained in this book are written at a sophisticated academic level, including quotations in their original languages and detailed works in a scholar register, the volume offers something beyond a series of exegetical articles about phenomenology. Still with Husserlian phenomenology as a topic, the novelty of this volume is neither a proposal of building a Husserlian literary theory, a treaty about language theory by Husserl, nor is limited to a series of examples of Husserlian theory within the literature. To my understanding, the methodological proposal that guides these essays has an interdisciplinary character; what is pursued are the theoretical constructions in fields that are traditionally separated, without abandoning the specificities of each one.

This volume offers then, an actualization of Husserlian thinking. The philosophical importance of Phenomenology to the Letter nowadays, claim its editors, lies in its proposal facing biological and psychological paradigms that dominate praxis and current thinking. It is not only a proposal of actualization of phenomenology or the determination of an aesthetic movement, but rather a path to rethink affections, experience, and language. A proposal can be read to extend the Husserlian contributions so present today in the cognitive sciences and the neurosciences, whose     approach to “the mind” confront several Husserlian warnings, as the editors state. The challenge to mind studies has its weight from fantasy and fiction as the cornerstone of the phenomenological method, both for the eidetic variation from the Logical Investigations as well as the reduction from Ideas I. In sum, the starting point for this book can be read in Husserl’s affirmation in Ideas I: “‘fiction’ is the vital element of phenomenology, as all its eidetic knowledge” (Hua III/I, 148).

In thirteen essays, Phenomenology to the Letter achieves its goal where the relationship between phenomenology and literature has been at the heart of reflection and it has not been seen as a point of arrival. The specificity of the issues that each essay addresses, together with a great variety of resources and different textual corpora does not introduce a relation between Husserlian phenomenology and literature, it simply puts it into evidence. The project proposed by the book is accomplished not by the refinement of each essay in light of the objectives established separately but rather because of the reading as a whole they offer, made possible by the excellent job of the editors. The reader is offered a collection of essays that implies an astute reading exercise, an essential task whose effort can be well compared to the reading of a literary work.


Blanchot, M. 1986. The Writing of the Disaster. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press.

Foucault, M. 1971. L’orde du discours: Leçon Inaugurale au Collège de France prononcée le 2 décembre 1970. Paris: Gallimard.

Gadamer, H.-G. 1986. Destruktion und Dekonstruktion. En H.-G. Gadamer, Gesammelte Werke. Vol 2. (361-372). Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.

Husserl, E. 1976. Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie I: Allgemeine Einführung in die reine Phänomenologie, 2nd edn. Den Haag: Nijhoff.

[1] Following Detlef Thiel. 2003. “Husserls Phäenomenographie” in Recherches Husserliennes 19: 67 – 108.

Sylvie Avakian: Being Towards Death: Heidegger and the Orthodox Theology of the East

‘Being Towards Death’: Heidegger and the Orthodox Theology of the East Book Cover ‘Being Towards Death’: Heidegger and the Orthodox Theology of the East
Volume 191 in the series Theologische Bibliothek Töpelmann
Sylvie Avakian
De Gruyter
Hardback 89,95 € Ebook 89,95 €

Reviewed by: Vanessa Freerks (St. Kliment Ohridski University of Sofia)


In “Being Towards Death: Heidegger and the Orthodox Theology of the East”, Sylvie Avakian (19) considers Martin Heidegger’s thought in relation to Orthodox Christianity by dealing with the “early Fathers of the Church”, as well as the “religious existentialism” of Nikolai Berdyaev (19).

Heidegger’s most central themes of “being, openness to the Mystery, freedom, the human being, the human condition, death, letting be, authenticity, existential falsehood” are all compatible, according to Avakian (17), with central theological concerns and especially with the works of Berdyaev and the Orthodox theological heritage. Avakian emphasises also that methodically, Heidegger and Berdyaev share a style of writing that “challenges the abstract-speculative constructions of most philosophical and theological enterprises and aspires to attain meaning and inner (spiritual) freedom” (1).

Indeed, Berdyaev’s strong focus on personal freedom and human creativity made him a very “unorthodox” Christian thinker. In a footnote (49) that should perhaps be in the main text (19) of her “Introduction”, Avakian states that Berdyaev was a critic of conservative approaches in Orthodoxy. For Berdyaev, no institution (secular or sacred) and no fact (psychological, sociological, scientific or historical) can grasp or explain the unique mystery of the human personality. As a personalist philosopher, Berdyaev had an intense belief in the unique and absolute value of every person, which is the cornerstone of his philosophy. In Berdyaev’s work, we see the inextricable link between truth and personal experience. Berdyaev saw personal involvement as crucial to theology and philosophy (4).

In her attempt to solidify the relation between Heidegger and Berdyaev, and in a ‘personalist’ vein, Avakian refers to Heidegger’s own close relation to Christianity with the support of a quote drawn from Heidegger’s “Mein Bisheriger Weg” (1937/38). Despite being part of the intricate fabric of his youth and upbringing, Heidegger simultaneously sought to free himself from Christianity (18). Heidegger’s struggle against the dogmas of religion led him to an interminable quest to find an absent God.

On the relation between Heidegger and Berdyaev, Avakian (13) starts by making the following preliminary remarks and assumptions (13):

  • both authors shared sources harking back to ancient Greek philosophical writings, towards early Christian thought, Meister Eckhart and Jacob Böhme and to Friedrich Schelling. For instance, both authors followed Schelling’s focus on existence, the primacy of being and the limits of human reason (7, footnote 17; 297, footnote 165).
  • Berdyaev referred on several occasions to Heidegger’s works, whereas the same cannot be said of Heidegger.
  • Heidegger might not have been “aware of the compatibility of his thinking with the Russian Orthodox tradition; yet several thinkers who influenced him, such as Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926), were deeply indebted to Russian thought” (13). In a footnote (38), Avakian mentions that Heidegger also did not acknowledge the “great influence of Rilke” on him (13).
  • both thinkers “played the role of spiritual resistance, whether against Soviet Communism or against the highly technical-objectified world of modernity in Europe” (13).

Like the thinkers she tackles, Avakian (32) aims to represent theological claims in a way that is free of the dogmas of religion, the ideologies of politics and the systematisations of science. The main title of Avakian’s own book indicates a resistance to ‘orthodox’ perspectives, considering that Orthodox Christianity is centred on “rebirth” and “resurrection” rather than the crucifixion of Christ. Specifically, the book seeks to open dialogue in contemporary theology by arguing that Heidegger’s phrase “‘being towards death’ is the core and true nature of the Christian faith” (20).

Avakian associates ‘being towards death’ with “becoming”; as a bridge between “temporality and eternity”; a unification of the material and immaterial worlds (2). As Avakian rehearses in her “Introduction”, the Heideggerian phrase ‘being towards death’ is not to be regarded as a journey to a final static destination (2-3). Life and death are intertwined, as phenomena. In addition, ‘being with others’ and ‘being towards death’ are inextricably linked. The human acquires an openness towards others as well as itself, by ‘being towards death’. Avakian says that

“[t]he human being who experiences ‘care’ in the world necessarily experiences ‘being towards death’ and only then does one truly comport oneself towards one’s inner reality” (2).

The person who cares has an increased awareness of human finitude by anticipating threats and recognising the fragility of human existence. According to Avakian’s relational emphasis on Heidegger’s notion of ‘being towards death’, human beings are never alone in dealing with mortality. In addition, ‘care’ and openness to others are important conflictual dimensions of the human being’s trajectory towards authenticity and “inner reality” (2; 181-184).

Central to Avakian’s book is the connection she sees between Heidegger’s ‘being towards death’ and Berdyaev’s path to ‘spiritual freedom’ (303). ‘Being towards death’ is ‘being towards freedom’. Both involve the movement of the self to the unknown, to the Other (God or the other person), or being as such, and then, the return to the free, genuine self. ‘Being towards death’ enables a twofold movement: a mutually dependent move involving the divine and the human (304).

In her conclusion, Avakian takes the liberty of adapting William J. Richardson’s (1962, 75)[1] neologism (“mittence”) for her theological purposes:

“the journey that ‘being towards death’ entails is, then, essentially a mittence, a sending to an Other, which being, or God, conveys to the person as it bestows itself/Godself on him/her. And yet, in order for the journey to occur, the human subject must let him/herself be seized by being, or God, as by offering itself, being, or God, entrusts the person with guarding the Mystery which it itself is” (306).

For Avakian, being a Christian does not mean looking to ‘God’ for stability; it does not involve a purely intellectual endeavour of abstract theorising; it is a gift. ‘God’ is mysteriously and immanently found in the depths of historical life. Avakian claims that the nature of ‘God’ can only be caught sight of in a historical journey of self-disclosure.

Most significantly, throughout her book, Avakian places much emphasis on poetry (also by originally composing her own to close all chapters). She takes care to highlight the importance of the German poets Friedrich Hölderlin and Rainer Maria Rilke on Heidegger’s thought.  Thanks to Hölderlin, Heidegger understood that it is only through “letting-be – that is through death – that one can allow being as such to come to presence through beings” (31). Poetry can express what Avakian calls ‘divine Mystery’, or the non-objective, non-empirical presence of God in faith (1). Heidegger saw poetry as a potentially powerful resource for the theoretical project of articulating Christian faith from ‘within’.

Overall, Avakian’s project aims to overcome the rift between religious fundamentalism and what she (32) calls a “fear of religiosity”. Where can the Christian of today stand when faced with the “popular religiosity of the pre-modern – or anti-modern – era and the implicit religiosity of a ‘religious-less’, secular age” (17).  The author seeks to find a balance between apparent extremes and to bring

“philosophy and theology together, the West and the East, Europe, Russia and the Middle East, as well as Christianity in its relationship with other religious traditions, so that the Christian is addressed as a free spirit – in the world – and Christianity is perceived as authenticity and freedom” (20).

She wishes to promote dialogue in contemporary theology through an existential focus, symbolic perception and an openness to the “divine Mystery” (20).

Throughout her book, Avakian equates philosophy and theology, as they both, in her view, lack a direct object of inquiry. Neither ‘being’ nor ‘God’ can be scrutinised ‘as such’, and both must accept their own inadequacy regarding the attainment of absolute or certain knowledge (12).

In her first chapter “Openness to the Mystery” (34-78), Avakian starts by sketching how Berdyaev conceives “true theology as mystical and apophatic, as it is about the spiritual perception of divine Mystery” (35). The apophatic view is that God is not objectifiable, because God is the ultimate mystery with no possible rational concept.  Apophatic theology accepts that theological language is unable to demonstrate divine truth. Maintaining the analogical-symbolic nature of all theological assertions, it claims that absolute mystery is beyond human grasp (15). Unlike cataphatic theology, apophatic theology “requires the abandonment of all knowledge of beings, so that the divine is truly beyond every affirmative description, namely it is the nothing” (21).

Avakian links the apophatic-mystical approach of Eastern theology to Heidegger’s view regarding the incomprehensible nature of being as such. For Heidegger, the “human being remains incapable of any knowledge of its essence, maintaining that the true path is a mystical path” (36). Avakian emphasises that in Heidegger’s work, ‘pure thinking’ is conceived as openness to mystery and astonishment (52-58), which involves passion, suffering (54-55) and inwardness (57) – this is because things or beings “emerge from their own ground” (73). ‘Being’ or ‘truth’ in Heidegger is necessarily related to an ongoing process of “revelation” or becoming unhidden (45).

In the final section of the first chapter, “The Mystery and the Necessity of the Leap” (71-80), Avakian scrutinises Heidegger’s quest to find a realm free from modern science and reason. With regards to Heidegger‘s reformulation of Leibniz’s “Principle of Sufficient Reason” (“Der Satz vom Grund”), Avakian discusses Heidegger’s play on the German word Grund (which can either mean reason/justification or ground/foundation). According to Avakian (74-5), Heidegger subverts Leibniz’s Principle by claiming that:

“being as such is the ground of every being, and things carry within themselves their own grounds and reasons, without their need to supply any reasons for their existence. Thus, the basic question for philosophy – and theology – is the question of being (or God), which is simultaneously the same as the question of truth. This basic question is, however, of a particular kind, since it has to be approached ‘without why’” (74).

In chapter two, Avakian goes on to delineate Heidegger’s view that a “true understanding of technology, science and art” belongs essentially to the poetic way of being in the world rather than the mere objective perception of the world (83).

Furthermore, regarding especially the question of technology, Avakian says “Heidegger resorted to particular theological language and terminologies, though through an abstruse and veiled framework” (106). The themes of science and technology enable Heidegger to address major theological questions: “God the Creator, the whole of creation as a gift, the human being – the creature – in his/her relation to the Creator, and the question of salvation” (106).

Taking a clear position with regards to Heidegger, Avakian (103) says that his critique of technology is not altogether satisfying. Berdyaev went further than Heidegger, because he saw that when technology is used unreflectively it conceals and distorts the real, and brings “the human being into an illusionary world and forged relations” (104). What Avakian means by “forged relations” becomes clearer thanks to a quote by Berdyaev pertaining to how (104) “the mechanization of life” results in an artificial “collective reality” which inaugurates the end of individual existence (104). For Berdyaev, man now comes second to technology.

Technology does not enable the real (or ‘being as such’) to manifest itself; it does not merely allow the human to control nature. Technology permits humans now to have power over people’s lives. Avakian (104) says that Berdyaev understood the crisis of his day as being a matter of technology, and he saw this as a “primarily spiritual crisis”.  Berdyaev calls on Christian theology to wake up to the new human reality by intensifying “the inner spiritual power of the human being” so that the spirit does not “become a tool used for the purposes of technical organizations” (104). In contrast to Berdyaev’s clear verdict on technology, Avakian suggests that several statements by Heidegger seem to be too optimistic (104).

In addition to dealing with Berdyaev and Heidegger’s views on technology (98-106), their critiques of rationality and science (88-98), Avakian also dedicates chapter two to a discussion of art (106-111), freedom (130-5) and poetry (142-6).

Chapter three (“The Human Spirit and the Divine”) goes on to deal with the role of “spirit” in Berdyaev and Heidegger, a notion which Avakian (176) claims permeates all of Heidegger’s work even when not directly referred to. Berdyaev’s immanent conception of the divine also collapses the opposition between the divine and the human, the spiritual and physical world (161). In addition, religious revelation is conceived in his work as an interactive, rather than a passive, top-down experience (166).

While considering the relation between theological language and the poetic, Avakian discusses the distinction between symbols, allegory, signs (168-171), with the overall aim of bringing to light the relation between revelation, art, meaning and spirit.

Avakian concludes (181) chapter three by linking Berdyaev and Heidegger’s analysis on the “fallenness” of the human being (which is defined as the failure to know the self as spirit). Avakian regards “fallenness” as a comparable but a highly preferable alternative to the problematic notion of sin, which she claims in a footnote (129) has a “disadvantageous history” (184).

The subsection “Spirit and Human Consciousness as Care and Resoluteness” (190-201) starts with an important discussion of “care” in Heidegger’s work and reconstructs its Kierkegaardian lineage (191-2). Avakian explains that the “human being in the world is necessarily there for an Other, and, hence, his being is actualized in and though care in relation to that Other” (192). In this respect, Avakian raises the distinction between care and humanism: unlike humanism, care does not simply focus on the “objective existence of the human subject”, it draws persons towards their “essence” (193) As opposed to care, humanism “fails to realize the appropriate dignity of the human being” (193).

Both care and freedom are based upon experiencing life as openness (194). It is in this context that Avakian goes on to discuss how care in Berdyaev is expressed through “the biblical notion of love” (194) – for him, it signifies, also in a Kierkegaardian vein, “carrying within oneself the pain and the injustice that the whole of mankind goes through” (194).

The subsection “The Call of Conscience” (194-199) explores how “guilt” is key to understanding the notion of the “spirit” in Berdyaev. Similarly in Heidegger, the call of conscience is the call to the realisation of guilt (199) which in turn leads to the authentic self.  In addition, an authentic being in the world and being-with-the-Other requires a process of resolutely being ready for anxiety. In this resoluteness, “one takes upon oneself one’s utmost potentiality for being, that is one’s ‘being towards death’” (200).

This smoothly inaugurates the next chapter four, entitled “Christianity as Authenticity”, in which Avakian turns specifically to her main theme (and the title of her book) ‘being towards death’, before relating it directly to the central concerns of Christian theology, including the meaning of creation, incarnation and resurrection.

Avakian recapitulates the link between ‘being towards death’, care and authenticity, (203-4) all of which are based upon the importance of the existential acceptance and inner consciousness of one’s death and of the temporality of being. Avakian links Heidegger’s notion of ‘anticipatory resoluteness’ with Berdyaev’s notion of ‘spiritual development’ (205), which both involve a resolve to progress to that which is still outstanding (death). This is the “responsibility of the inner self and the free and creative nature of one’s spirit” (205).

Chapter five (“Temporality and Eternity”) (253) deals with how “movement, repetition, temporality, finitude and eternity – lie in (sic) the foundations of ‘being towards death’”. Avakian starts the chapter with a discussion of how Berdyaev’s work conceives of “eternity” as the guarantor of meaning. Eternity, emphasises Avakian on two consecutive occasions, does not refer to a “natural” realm and cannot be “objectified” (254; 255). Neither is eternity a separate otherworldly dimension, outside of time as it “has its past in every moment…It has its present and future elements in like manner” (255).

Berdyaev’s sense of eternity is Kierkegaardian in Avakian’s eyes as it is not based upon the denial of change and becoming. In the subsection on “Movement and Repetition” (256-265), after a short overview of time and motion in Plato and Aristotle (257-8), Avakian thus goes on to provide an exposé of Kierkegaard’s notion of “becoming and continuous movement” (258-264).  Importantly for the purposes of the book, Avakian notes that “Kierkegaard’s thought and philosophical concerns correspond significantly to the spiritual theology of Eastern Orthodoxy, which has the early Greek Fathers of the Church as its foundation” (259).

Avakian makes special references to Clare Carlisle’s work on Kierkegaard’s “philosophy of becoming” (257-8; 260-3) in order to conclude that “Kierkegaard set existential and spiritual becoming in sharp contrast to pure metaphysical speculation, and thereby overturned the dominating philosophical-metaphysical project and gave room for introspection and spiritual passion” (263).

As mentioned above, Avakian dedicates sections of her book to presenting and reconstructing how Kierkegaardian elements are mobilised in the works of Heidegger and Berdyaev, especially with regards to the concept of care and temporality. This is because, as Avakian rightly states (31) in her “Introduction”, Heidegger and Berdyaev’s works do not sufficiently acknowledge the influence of other thinkers, such as Kierkegaard, Eckart and Nietzsche, on their philosophy (see also footnote 18, on page 151).  In her “Conclusion”, Avakian again mentions that both Heidegger and Berdyaev do not make the ‘origins’ of their thinking clear. References to previous thinkers are minimised and their importance reduced (301).

As the Kierkegaardian notion of “movement and repetition” discussed by Avakian attests to however, and although it is indeed important to clarify influence (one might even reveal how a work is merely derivative or the effect of an original cause) – this does not say anything of the unity and strength of the work at hand. The character of all significant thought after all is that in repeating the influences upon it, it makes something else of them. As Avakian herself puts it: “after repetition the being no longer remains the same, but becomes another” (271).

Via Kierkegaard’s sense of “movement and repetition”, Avakian links Berdyaev’s notion of ‘eternity’ with Heidegger’s concept of ‘authenticity’, both of which involve the present, past and future. In Berdyaev, when one encounters death without fear or anxiety one “is given to experience eternity” (254). “[I]t is through the willingness of the person to take upon oneself his/her own death that he/she conquers death itself” (255).

Similarly, in Heidegger, “it is only through such being towards one’s end that the human subject exists as ‘authentically whole’, and it is this perception of the self that makes ‘being towards death’, or ‘care’ possible” (274). Authenticity (like ‘eternity’ in Berdyaev) hinges on the resolute acceptance of one’s ‘being towards death’ and nothingness. Ontologically speaking, death is the possibility of no-longer-being-there, and at the same time, it is what makes our being-in-the-world possible. Being towards death opens up possibilities ontically for Dasein because it is the projection to what lies beyond actuality and what is positively there. The human being moves from the past towards his/her self as “authentically futural” (274). This also implies that any understanding or discovery of the self aspires repeatedly to approach otherness.

Concluding Remarks

“Being Towards Death: Heidegger and the Orthodox Theology of the East” is a post-doctoral degree (Habilitationsschrift) completed in January 2018 for the Protestant faculty of the University of Tübingen. In Germany, most candidates qualify for a university professorship by means of such a habilitation process – and this includes writing a habilitation treatise to certify the ability to teach in an academic subject.

In the spirit of ‘personalist philosophy’, Avakian begins her work by emphasising her personal background, involvement and justification for the project (20) and she occasionally intersperses contextual paragraphs appealing to the practical fallout of her work, e.g., regarding her aim of addressing and bridging the divide between what she calls a fear of religiosity vs fundamentalism (17; 190).

The habilitation-turned-book (published by de Gruyter) was not however conceived with a wide audience in mind or even scholars in general. The research is of a tightly knit scope. The insular style intertwines thematic interconnections between Berdyaev and Heidegger, makes explicit the influence of key figures such a Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and establishes original in-depth links between Heidegger and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, the 5th century Christian theologian and “father of mysticism” (21-2; 29; 60; 242; 306). Since mysticism is a major theme of her study, Avakian could also have widened her contextual scope by referring to commentators who draw parallels and differences between Heidegger and Asian mysticism.


Carlisle, Clare. 2005. Kierkegaard’s Philosophy of Becoming: Movements and Positions. New York: State University of New York Press.

Gungov, Alexander. 2012. “From Living Tradition to Cosmic Transfiguration: Six Elements of Eastern Orthodox Theology.” Bulgarian in Religiya, tzennosti, ortodoksalnost i interculturen dialogIdei filosofsko spisanie, Sofia (Religion, Values, Orthodoxy and Intercultural Dialogue, Sofia), a supplement to Philosophical Journal Ideas, pp. 54-63.

Kockelmans, Joseph. 1973. “Heidegger on Theology.” The Southwestern Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 4, No. 3, Heidegger Issue (Fall, 1973), pp. 85-108. University of Arkansas Press.

Law, David R. 2000. “Negative Theology in Heidegger’s ‘Beiträge zur Philosophie.’” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Vol. 48, No. 3 (Dec), pp. 139-156 Springer.

Miller, James. 1996. “Heidegger’s Guilt.” Salmagundi, No. 109/110 (Winter-Spring), pp. 178-243. Skidmore College.

Richardson, William J.  1962. “Heidegger and the Problem of Thought.” Revue philosophique de Louvain, Vol. 60, pp. 58-78. Peeters Publishers.

Zernov, Nicholas. 1948. “Nicholas Berdyaev.” The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 27, No. 68 (Dec), pp. 283-286. The Modern Humanities Research Association and University College London, School of Slavonic and East European Studies.

[1] William J. Richardson’s (1962, 75) writes: “Being is conceived as sending itself unto its There. We may speak of this self-sending as proceeding from Being and call it a ‘self-emitting’ , or if we may be permitted a neologism to designate a completely new concept, a ‘mittence’ (Geschick) of Being” .

Christopher Erhard and Tobias Keiling (Eds): The Routledge Handbook of Phenomenology of Agency

The Routledge Handbook of Phenomenology of Agency Book Cover The Routledge Handbook of Phenomenology of Agency
Routledge Handbooks in Philosophy
Edited By Christopher Erhard, Tobias Keiling
Hardback £133.00 eBook £27.99

Reviewed by: Florian Markus Bednarski (PhD researcher at Leipzig University and The Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences)

The topic of this new Routledge Handbook is Phenomenology of agency. It is a very well selected topic and a nicely edited volume. The aim of a handbook should be to provide the reader with a selection of essays that cover the most important aspects of a given research focus. The editors must choose contributions carefully to achieve this goal. Before describing the structure and content of this volume in greater detail, some words about the subject of the book will be helpful to better understand the editors’ aim.

Very briefly, Phenomenology of agency is any kind of theorizing about and reflecting on agents’ experiences while performing actions. This theorizing and reflecting, or more generally philosophizing, can be either an attempt at achieving a better understanding of what actions are, or one might be interested in how it feels to act. Contemplating phenomenology of agency can thus lead to manifold findings for the interested reader. Further, the topic of this handbook has several anchor points in different areas of philosophy, among which philosophy of mind and philosophy of action feature most prominently, as well as being of interest for other research fields such as psychology, sociology, political science, cognitive and neuroscience.

Two aims of the handbook are specified by the editors (2). The first is to highlight writings of phenomenologists such as Edith Stein, Hans Reiner and Alexander Pfänder. All belong to a first generation of Husserl followers and worked mainly before 1940. Contributions presenting their work are to highlight the continuity of the phenomenological tradition after Husserl.  The second aim is to increase awareness of how significant phenomenology of agency is for any philosophical account of action. Several contributions discuss phenomenological influences on debates about intentionality, freedom, rationality and morality.

In the introduction, Christopher Erhard and Tobias Keiling not only provide an overview of the book but they also explicate some considerations behind the selection of the contributions. They describe three notions of the term phenomenology. First, the historical tradition founded by Edmund Husserl, second the philosophical method to prefer the “first-person-perspective” in the analysis of philosophical problems, and third the “what-it-is-like” notion of phenomenology. The editors admit that those differentiations might not be accepted without restrictions by every philosopher; however, the selected contributions are to include any of the three notions of the term phenomenology (2). And so, the reader will find chapters describing the work of Husserl and his companions, for example by Karl Mertens, who provides a good overview of Husserl and Pfänder’s writing on action theory (15-28). Besides the historic route, readers can explore methodological points of view on agency in several chapters, for example by Tobias Keiling on László Tengelyi’s discussions of first-person experience of action (235-259). A few chapters further widen the scope of this handbook to the experiential “what-it-is-like” notion of phenomenology, for example Shaun Gallagher’s contribution on phenomenological perspectives in cognitive science (336-350). Although the better part of contributions is concerned with historical or methodological rather than experiential notions of phenomenology, which is most widely spread in interdisciplinary research areas, the handbook does integrate all three perspectives.

Hence, in 27 Chapters and over more than 400 pages this handbook provides an overview of important figures, systematic disputes, and further aspects of the phenomenology of agency. The editors, Christopher Erhard and Tobias Keiling, both mainly interested in the philosophical tradition of phenomenology founded by Edmund Husserl, attempted to select authors and topics from a wide range of relevant areas in philosophy. The handbook is divided into two parts. Part I (5-259) introduces important figures and follows a mainly historical route through the landscape beginning with Franz Brentano. Part II is itself divided into two sections. The first (264-350) dealing with more general systematic questions and the second (352-413) highlighting further aspects such as freedom, morality, and rational action. The handbook also includes an index (415-424) of used terminology, which will be much appreciated by experienced users searching for specific references.

In the following, some chapters of each part will be reviewed to give the reader an impression of what to expect from this volume, beginning with the first chapter “Franz Brentano’s critique of free will” by Denis Seron (7-14). Franz Brentano never provided a full account of action, nor did he discuss the phenomenology of agency in greater detail. Phenomenology of agency is only mentioned in reference to how Brentano grounds his determinism in his radical empiricism. This is so because radical empiricism does not accept an ability to perceive possibilities. According to radical empiricism we can only perceive what is actual and not what is possible. This premise renders indeterminism necessarily false because indeterminism is based on the principle of alternative possibilities, which states that we can at least want to act otherwise. If the reader is interested in how this argument unfolds, chapter one of this volume is a well-crafted starting point.

Denis Seron contributed a short but concise chapter on Brentano’s critique of free will. For the reader it might be of great interest to learn more about Brentano’s radical empiricism. In particular, how he understands immediate consciousness and why he thinks that empirical arguments can only be given based on experience. Brentano’s assumption that one cannot perceive oneself doing otherwise opens up many questions about phenomenology of agency. How can humans be curious and creative in performing bodily movements (e.g. in dancing) if one is only able to perceive oneself doing what one is determined to do?

In a short and fast flowing chapter, Michael L. Morgan describes Levinas’ perspective on agency and ethics (147-157). Morgan’s central aim is to try and explain to the reader what Levinas meant when he wrote “to be a ‘self’ is to be responsible before having done anything” (as cited in Morgan, 2021, 148). In the course of the text, Morgan cleverly uses descriptive stories, such as the one of a judge in court, to clarify how Levinas understands freedom as given to the subject. Especially the notions of responsibility-for-the-other and radical disinterestedness are important to understand Levinas’ profoundly ordinary story about freedom of agency.

Michael L. Morgan delivers a precise text full of intuitively accessible argument. This chapter is especially interesting for readers interested in a perspective on phenomenology of agency that is not inherently fused with a subjective self. Levinas’ writing about agency is interested in the role of interpersonal responsibility and a societal dimension as opposed to viewing agency from a capacities and abilities of agents’ point of view. This chapter adds a further dimension to the topic of phenomenology of agency, highlighting once more the diversity of approaches to the debate.

In chapter fourteen, Thomas Baldwin provides a well-structured overview of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s writings about agency (175-188). The significance of phenomenology of agency for any account of action in general becomes stringently clear in this chapter. Baldwin first summarizes Merleau-Ponty’s critique of traditional dualism, the body viewed as an independent physical entity which is moved by a will, which surmounts to a differentiation between an objective body and a phenomenal body. In what follows, Baldwin describes how this ambiguous view of the body helps Merleau-Ponty give an embodied account of agency: “Hence we should replace the conception of agency as the control of a physical body by an abstract mind, and view it instead as the interplay between the pre-personal being in the world of our organism and a personal self which uses this being in the world to understand and change it.” (181)

The next two paragraphs on agency and the will are intended to connect this embodied account to further issues, for example intentionality and rationality. In this context, it is useful that Baldwin directs us to further literature related to these questions, such as Davidson, O’Shaughnessy and McDowell.

In general, this chapter fits well into the context of this volume, and Merleau-Ponty is an important Philosopher whose work bridges some wider gaps between philosophical traditions. His thinking certainly originates in Husserl’s idea of phenomenology but never became a one-sided affair. His writing contains many references to empirical science and Philosophers from the analytic tradition. Finally, it is beneficial for the reader to gain insights not only into Merleau-Pontys main work ‘Phenomenolgy of Perception’ but also some rather unknown texts such as ‘The Structure of Behavior’.

This written dialogue between Martine Nida-Rümelin and Terry Horgan is a well-structured text in which two philosophers discover the precise details about their disagreement on satisfaction conditions of agentive phenomenology (264-299). The central debate between both concerns whether satisfaction conditions of agentive phenomenology can be formulated in alignment with a materialist metaphysics of mind. However, a rather intriguing aspect of this chapter is Nida-Rümelin and Horgans’ discussion about the precise understanding of each other’s view. It is a delight to read an argument in which participants consistently reflect on their opponent’s point-of-view and attempt to represent this viewpoint as accurately as possible before formulating any critique.

Henceforth, it is not surprising that Nida-Rümelin and Horgan discover that their main disagreement covers conflicting background assumptions. This chapter thus provides the reader with two learning possibilities. First, a densely packed debate about two opposing accounts of phenomenology of agency. Second, an expert lesson in how to take part in a philosophical debate.

Chapter twenty-one discusses how the will, the body and action are connected (314-335). Robert Hanna guides the reader through his own work while highlighting influential work by O’Shaughnessy, Frankfurt and Kant. Brian O’Shaughnessy explicated one of the most detailed embodied theories of the will and Robert Hanna is one of only a few philosophers’ who have extended their views on this foundation. He starts by introducing trying theories of action and shows how those theories can establish free agency as a natural fact of life. After having considered other options for theories of agency, for example causal theories, Hanna moves on to introduce his own account of the veridical phenomenology of essentially embodied free agency. One aspect of this account is that it entails that “we must not only have veridical psychological freedom, but also be at least fully disposed to believe, or actually believe, ourselves to have an unfettered, non-epiphenomenal, real causally spontaneous will.” (329) In fact, a central aspect of Robert Hanna’s theory about free agency is that phenomenology of agency is essentially an experience of free agency. The remainder of the chapter is committed to debunking strategies from defenders of hard determinism by showing that they themselves will not experience their actions as not-free, because if they did it would most likely cause them to lose their mind.

Hanna tells one of the most interesting stories of the whole volume. For beginners, it might be hard to follow parts of the argument because Hanna presupposes some basic philosophical knowledge. Nevertheless, this chapter is a well-chosen addition to the mostly Husserl influenced texts of the first part of this handbook.

The underlying structure of mechanisms and functions involved in bringing about the sense of agency has been the topic of cognitive science. Shaun Gallagher has greatly influenced this research in recent years. In chapter twenty-two of this volume, he takes stock of what has been achieved and where the research needs refinement and a new direction (336-350).

Three main areas of theoretical debate can be identified. First, defining phenomenology of agency in terms suitable for empirical investigation. Distinguishing between a sense of agency, the feeling of doing something and a sense of ownership, the feeling of owning a body has turned out to be useful but not uncontested. Second, identifying cognitive mechanisms responsible for the sense of agency and ownership. Empirical investigations have since provided extensive grounds for the assumption that some form of comparator mechanism gives rise to both senses. Third, the role of intentions for agency and the relation of both. This turns out to be the most slippery debate as several researchers still contest different notions of intention as well as agency.

Gallagher has an in-depth knowledge of the field and draws a well-structured picture of the status quo. Readers will find a surprisingly inspiring perspective in the last paragraph of the chapter. Here Gallagher points out some of the main challenges of empirical research on the phenomenology of agency. WEIRED (White, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) samples and few interdisciplinary exchanges have led to a one-sided picture painted by cognitive sciences so far. This might seem like a straightforward critique of the field, but Gallagher rather wants to point to a new direction for the years to come.

This chapter is a delight for the interdisciplinary motivated reader and one of the few outlining future directions for researchers to explore.

Galen Strawson explains in a dense and fast flowing chapter how the experience of freedom relates to the experience of responsibility (352-361). The reader might be surprised to see an author who himself defends a strict determinism point of view about agency write about the experience of the exact opposite. As it turns out, Galen Strawson believes that everything we do is determined and nevertheless we feel as if we are free to act otherwise.

The chapter follows a clear structure. First Strawson discusses whether experience of freedom involves only sense-feeling phenomenology or if it goes further and involves cognitive phenomenology as well. In the next part, he introduces his own notions of radical freedom and ultimate responsibility and shows how those terms help to clarify relations between experience of freedom and questions for responsibility. Finally, Strawson outlines how experience of freedom is included in compatibilist and incompatibilist positions. Most refreshingly, this chapter analyses one of the oldest philosophical questions in relation to illustrative content. Strawson adequately uses thought experiments, pathological case studies and empirical experiments to strengthen the expressiveness of his text.

Constructing large handbooks is a generally challenging undertaking. In the present case, Christopher Erhard and Tobias Keiling committed to an especially complex project, editing a handbook about a yet to be clearly defined research topic. Phenomenology of agency turns out to be a topic of great variety and yet the editors of this volume managed to select interesting contributions. The first part of the volume provides the reader with an overview of influential writers from the past, beginning with Franz Brentano. In the second part of the volume, the reader will find informative links between phenomenology of agency and action theory in general.

Overall, readers will discover well written essays from experts on specific topics related to a common theme. Given that the target group for handbooks is mostly students of philosophy and related fields, some critical aspects need to be mentioned.

Although all contributions included in these twenty-seven chapters have some connection to the topic ‘Phenomenology of Agency’, the novice reader might be surprised by the variety of perspectives represented here. Erhard and Keiling describe three notions of the term phenomenology in their introduction to this handbook. Both conclude that concerning this terminological query they “expect this volume to stir rather than settle a discussion of that question.” (2) Some contributors included a paragraph about their own position on the dispute in the beginning of their essays. This manifold of opinions about the topic ‘Phenomenology of Agency’ of this handbook makes it hard to find a larger common ground between the individual texts. For the reader it will be helpful to have a specific question or viewpoint of interest in mind when using this handbook. Thus, rather than introducing a research topic, the volume is a reference book for either historically interested readers or students with already formulated research questions.

While the contributions present a wide range of views on agency, one aspect that is essentially neglected throughout the volume is the close connection of agency and development. This aspect is probably one of the most overlooked perspectives in Philosophy and it has been missed by the editors of this volume as well. Developmental aspects of psychological phenomena are rarely given much attention in philosophical projects. This is the case for the 27 chapters of this handbook. Furthermore, the development of phenomenology of agency in infancy is neither mentioned nor discussed in any detail. Despite recent debates in developmental psychology and cognitive sciences (Jacquey et al., 2020; Sen & Gredebäck, 2021), developmental aspects are rarely recognized in philosophical debates today. Philosophers tend to disregard how fascinating questions about phenomenology of agency are inherently linked to early cognitive development. Including a chapter about the current states of these discussions would have increased the value of this book for students and experienced readers alike.

While reviewing this volume, a further aspect of the editing process became obvious: The selection of contributors for the individual chapters. The handbook has 27 chapters, of which twenty-two were written by male contributors and four by women. Chapter nineteen is a collaboration between Martine Nida-Rümelin and Terry Horgan. Further, the better part of contributors work in the Western Scientific Hemisphere. Only Genki Uemure from Okayama University in Japan stands out. This leads to a biased representation of views on the topic of this volume. Perspectives from researchers from South America, Africa and Asia would have been a valuable and unique addition to this book. The reader might be interested in learning about views of Buddhist Philosophers on the relation between agency, phenomenology, and non-self. Selecting contributors and topics with a more diverse background would display the debate taking place on a global stage.

The editors stated that Terry Horgan, John Tienson and George Grahams’ assessment of the neglect of phenomenology of agency in philosophy of mind (2003) encouraged them to take on the project of producing this handbook (1). The result of their efforts is a textbook that will encourage many discussions about a fascinating topic.



I thank Elizabeth Kelly for her careful comments and suggestions about the manuscript.


Horgan, T., Tienson, J. and Graham, G. 2003. “The Phenomenology of First-Person Agency.” In S. Walter and H.-D. Heckmann (eds.), Physicalism and Mental Causation: The Metaphysics of Mind and Action. Exeter: Imprint Academic, 323–340.

Jacquey, L., Fagard, J., O’Regan, K., & Esseily, R. 2020. “Development of body know-how during the infant’s first year of life.” Enfance (2): 175-192.

Sen, U., & Gredebäck, G. 2021. “Making the World Behave: A New Embodied Account on Mobile Paradigm.” Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience, Mar 1, 15:643526. doi: 10.3389/fnsys.2021.643526.

David Carr: Historical Experience: Essays on the Phenomenology of History

Historical Experience: Essays on the Phenomenology of History Book Cover Historical Experience: Essays on the Phenomenology of History
Routledge Approaches to History
David Carr
Hardback £96.00

Reviewed by: Quentin Gailhac (Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne)

“History is not something separated from life or remote from the present” (5). It is within the horizon of Dilthey’s affirmation that David Carr resolutely sets out to think about historical experience in a book gathering twelve of his articles, published between 2006 and 2021, under the title Historical Experience: Essays on the Phenomenology of History. The book approaches the question of historical experience from various points of view, and in particular from that of the philosophy and theory of history. The classical problems of this point of view are treated here with the means of a phenomenology open to the exploration of many other traditions of thought. In the introduction (1-7), Carr follows in the footsteps of Dilthey and Ricoeur. He starts from the observation of the irreducible historicity of the human experience in order to identify the various ways in which history embraces us. For Carr, we can only make known and experience a historical event on the condition that we ourselves are involved in history.

The book is divided into three parts, all of which interrogate themes and concepts central to historical experience. The first part deals with three key concepts: historicity, narrative and time, through a fruitful dialogue with Dilthey, Koselleck and Levi-Strauss, among others. The second part confronts the problem of teleology in history, which, as is well known, has occupied Husserl and his commentators. Finally, the third part, entitled “Embodiment and Experience”, focuses on the corporeal, spatial and temporal aspects of historical existence. The relation of embodiment to intersubjectivity, the notion of orientation in history, the concept of Erlebnis in Dilthey, and the relations that exist between experience and history constitute the research directions of this third part.

In the first chapter of Part I, entitled “On historicity” (11-23), Carr attempts to grasp the meaning that the concept of historicity has had in Europe, from Dilthey to François Hartog. The central point of the chapter is to find a way of understanding historicity in the distinction made by the German historian Reinhart Koselleck between two historically attested ways of linking the past and the future. On the one hand, a relationship marked by the idea of a history magistra vitae, typical of pre-modern worldviews. On the other hand, a relationship that rather gives the future as a human reality to be constructed, typical of the Enlightenment. What François Hartog has called “regimes of historicity” (Hartog, 2015) serves here to identify the type of historicity that has gradually been imposed in Europe, thanks to the turning point constituted by French structuralism in the reversal of the relationship between the past and the future. Lévi-Strauss’s famous distinction between cold, non-historical societies and warm, historically marked societies is thus re-characterised, since we are dealing here with two very specific forms of historicity. The decline of the idea of progress in the twentieth century gradually reoriented the question of history within the horizon of heritage and memory (Ricoeur 2006; Nora 1997), to the point of suggesting, with Lévi-Strauss, that Western society, in its fear of progress and becoming, had transformed itself into a cold society. This is a step that Lévi-Strauss himself did not take, but that Carr’s study encourages us to consider, based on a study of the vocabulary of historians, particularly French historians, of the second half of the twentieth century (Pierre Nora’s “places of memory” are thus understood in all their historical depth).

The second chapter (24-33), while not directly addressing the issue of historicity, does approach it from a slightly derivative point of view, by focusing on the issue of temporal perspective. Carr does so through a study of the advantages and disadvantages of hindsight, which Arthur Danto said was the very essence of historical discourse. The main risk of hindsight is to fall into the trap of presentism, whereby the past is judged solely by the present. The present point of view, while it may have the advantage of distance from the event, also condemns us to an exit from time, since the event appears there once and for all. But the time of the past historical event is never the only one to exist, since it is in fact superimposed on the time of the person who recounts it. Thus, Carr devotes a brief section to “superimposed temporalities” (31-32) in history. Historicity is thus implicated in the historian’s own work, insofar as the writing of history is itself a temporal process that can never quite be taken out of history.

The third chapter, “Stories of our lives. Aging and narrative” (34-45), focuses on the unity to which our life in time can aspire, despite differences and by virtue of consciousness and experience itself. It is about bringing out the temporal aspects of awareness and self-awareness. We live in the present, and it is of this that we are aware. The question is, however, to characterise the awareness we can have of the past and the future. Carr thus proposes to distinguish between “awareness of past and future, on the one hand, and our memories and expectations and plans, on the other” (35-36). Through a phenomenological approach that the author himself calls “undoctrinaire”, the question of the relationship between life and time is extended by a study of the narrative, in its link with life, which leads to questions about biography and autobiography. The author insists on their difference by considering the impossibility for the autobiographer to possess a complete point of view on his or her life. The writing is always situated in a point of time of the life, and that this irreducible situation implies that the point from which one speaks determines the very interpretation of events as well as the (re)construction of the unity of the life itself.

Autobiographical reflection is thus confronted with two pitfalls, that of an insufficiently coherent succession, and that of an overly coherent succession. This is why the search for coherence amounts to rewriting a story. The concept of autobiographical reflection is therefore not unrelated to the idea of a narrative identity, and it is regrettable that Carr makes no study here of Ricoeur’s philosophy (see however, Carr 2014, 223-231). Narrative identity is described at length, notably in Time and Narrative (Ricœur 1984-1988). For Carr, Narrative identity, far from being fixed in stone, is always being rewritten, and this is due to the fact of the ever-changing temporal situation from which identity (i.e. also uniqueness) thinks itself, tells itself in autobiographical reflection. Narrative identity thus implies, in the horizon of the philosophies of authenticity (Heidegger 1996; Sartre 2003), thinking oneself as the author responsible for one’s own life, to the point of giving Charles Taylor’s “ethics of the authenticity” (Taylor 1991) to be understood in narrative terms (44). The third chapter closes with a reflection on the notion of aging, which the author tells us is in fact the main topic of the whole chapter, since it designates, not an accumulation in time, but the very becoming of the point of view we can adopt on our life. In this sense, the notion of aging must be understood in the perspective of narrative identity and autobiographical reflection. It also implies that the awareness of our finitude is itself changing and cannot be fixed once and for all. Aging is therefore a personal and creative way of thinking about the relationship between past and future on the scale of an individual life. The phenomenological point of view adopted here by Carr comes close to a hermeneutical perspective. Aging, together with narrative identity and autobiographical reflection, could constitute the bases, not indicated by the author, of a new phenomenological hermeneutic of our individual life in time.

It is to a theme of wider scope that chapter four, “On being historical” (46-58), is devoted, as it attempts to answer the question “What is it to be historical?” This question emerges from the inadequacy of the philosophies of history, in its two main orientations. The first orientation, of the Hegelian type, wants to find a global meaning to what happens in history, ultimately seeking to give a moral meaning to events as a whole. This metaphysical orientation is rivalled by a second, epistemological one, which is more concerned with the conditions of possibility of historical knowledge. However, both orientations assume in the same way that the past concerns us, without explaining why. The concept of historicity (Geschichtlichkeit) comes into play precisely in order to answer this question left unanswered by the philosophy of history. The discussion shows Dilthey’s perspective, developing the idea that the historical world “is always there” (47). What it is to be a historical being. Our interest in the past is thus explained here on the basis of the difference in principle between the past and the future, a difference that has its origins in Jewish thought. By showing in what sense interest in the past is not unique to all societies, Carr thus questions the fundamental cultural presuppositions of our relationship to the past.

The question of historicity then takes a more properly phenomenological path. Carr considers the unity of the subject in time, not as a given, but as an act of projection, with regard to my own temporal coherence and my relation to others. The question of my being with others is therefore not primarily a relationship between an I and a Thou, but is inscribed, as Husserl and Heidegger already wanted, in the horizon of the concept of historicity. Carr, translator of Husserl’s Krisis into English (Husserl 1970), briefly returns to the role given to intersubjectivity in the theoretical investigation, insofar as the research of others forms the starting point of the present research. The notion of group thus appears fundamental to understanding in what sense scientific enquiry can be linked to intersubjectivity, since this research is first and foremost that of a community, and not that of a set of isolated individuals. Carr thus engages in a brief phenomenology of “we”, understood as the capacity of an individual to identify with a group (53-56), and to maintain a direct and living relationship to history. The very suggestive character of this chapter would have deserved, it seems to us, more extensive developments on Husserl and on the generative horizon that the thesis of the chapter seems to imply. If it is true that “to be historical” is to be integrated into a “We” that possesses its own heritage, then we find precisely Husserl’s reflections on the necessity of a generative orientation of the phenomenological method, as an explicitation of the “at home”, of the familiar and historical world carried by a succession of generations that form the unity of historicity (Husserl 1973).

It is, moreover, an eminently Husserlian question that underpins the whole of the second part, namely the question of teleology in history. The fifth chapter, “Teleology and the experience of history” (61-74), starts from the observation that the idea of teleology has a certain longevity, from Hegel and Marx to Francis Fukuyama or Niall Ferguson, via the last Husserl of the 1930s. It is therefore a question of understanding the reason for the maintenance of teleology despite his numerous factual and theoretical refutations. The idea supported by Carr is to assert that teleology functions as a transcendental illusion, in the Kantian sense of the term. Beginning with a brief history of the idea of teleology since Hegel, he then focuses more specifically on the experience of history, which he clearly distinguishes from the representation of history (to which the idea of teleology belongs). The question of the experience of history is thus first of all that of its possibility and its distinction from other types of experience. Our experience is both temporal and intersubjective, and the experience of the most common objects is always linked to a horizon of the past that we experience in the present. History is thus a dimension of our very experience. Here Carr uses the Husserlian concept of retention to explain how this history and past are involved in all present experience (67-69), even though retention is different in nature from memory. Indeed, retention is not dealing with past itself (Husserl  1991). On the other hand, the end of the chapter proposes an interesting re-characterisation of the idea of teleology. Doubly determined by the past and by the future, by our memories and by our expectations, the present must be thought of within the framework of a temporal structure which is also, by its very orientation, a teleological structure: “we can call this temporal structure a teleological structure in that the whole complex of mutually determining meanings is oriented toward the fulfillment of our expectations and plans” (73). This structure must thus apply not only to individual experience, but also to social experience. Historicity is thus understood from a reorientation of the controversial notion of teleology.

Carr expands his reflection on teleology in the sixth chapter, entitled “Husserl and Foucault on the historical a priori. Teleological and anti-teleological view of history” (75-85). The title of this 2016 article is very close to the title of an article, not mentioned by Carr, by Wouter Goris (Goris 2012), also on the subject of the historical a priori. Despite the proximity of the title, Carr takes a significantly different view and method. Goris proposed a very precise reconstruction of the notion of historical a priori in Husserl and then in Foucault, showing that the variations in the meaning of this notion to Husserl corresponded to the different stages of the internal evolution of his phenomenology. On the contrary, Carr looks “from a broader perspective at the views of history that are reflected in the different uses of this expression” (75). The aim is to understand in what sense this expression was born from the topicality of a Europe in crisis, to which Husserl gives an epistemological meaning, by proposing a reconstruction of the birth of European science. In doing so, Carr gives an account of Husserl’s subjectivation of teleology, as opposed to Foucault’s antisubjectivism, which he considers incoherent and based on an apocalyptic vision of history. Goris note that the difference in the meaning attributed to the historical a priori in Husserl and Foucault stemmed from the fact that both diagnosed the crisis itself differently, and that the Husserlian solution of a reactivation of meaning was, for Foucault, the very consequence of the crisis to be overcome. Carr, who more explicitly takes sides against Foucault, nevertheless seems to want to reconcile the two authors on certain points, despite the strong differences between them and criticisms that he addresses to the French philosopher. Indeed, Foucault’s rejection of the teleology of history is related to the subtlety of the Husserlian thesis on this question, to such an extent that Carr seems to bring the two philosophers closer together in their understanding of what a historical a priori is:

“As for Husserl, while he seems at first glance to subscribe to a teleological view of history, his position, as we’ve seen, is actually much more subtle. He sees that his own historicization of the philosophy of science could open him to the charge of historical relativism, as if he were arguing that each historical epoch or people has its own truth and can never escape its boundaries. On this view, “every people has its ‘logic’ and, accordingly, if this logic is explicated in propositions, ‘its’ a priori” (Husserl 1970, 373). What Husserl describes here is, I think, very close to Foucault’s idea of the “historical a priori.” Husserl’s use of scare-quotes makes clear that such a historically limited a priori is for him a contradiction in terms. For him such historical configurations would be instances of a genuine historical a priori, that is, an essential structure of any and all historical configurations: “historical present in general, historical time generally” (372). That is, any array of historical a prioris in Foucault’s sense (he uses the plural) would presuppose the historical a priori which is not itself historically variable” (84).

By considering the historical a priori as an unexplained presupposition, Foucault would thus only be reiterating Husserl’s essentialism. That is why the critique of teleology is studied through a very critical reading of Foucault, and this allows us to understand the status of Carr’s essay on the question of teleology. In the review of the collective book intitled Historical Teleologies in the Modern World (Trüper, 2015) which constitutes the seventh chapter of his book (86-96), Carr considers that the various authors of the collective work (among them Peter Wagner and Etienne Balibar) have not engaged, unlike him, in an evaluation of the teleological view of history. Far from reducing teleology to a question of the history of ideas or the history of philosophy, which would consider the notion obsolete, our author really seeks to examine it as a living notion, even giving it validity under certain conditions.

The question of teleology has been intimately linked to the philosophy of history since the 19th century. This is why the second part closes with a chapter entitled “On the metaphilosophy of history” (97-111), devoted to a study of the classical philosophy of history, based on a new characterisation of the “metahistory” of the famous American historian Hayden White. In his book Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in 19th Europe (White 1973), White defined historical work as a narrative discourse, focusing on the interpretation of the works of nineteenth-century historians. However, by showing that White’s sources were not only historians, but also philosophers of history such as Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche or Croce, Carr proposes to rename White’s enterprise as “metaphilosophy of history, or the philosophy of the philosophy of history” (98). Rather than a reading of White’s work, this chapter is a study of the philosophy of history, after its critics, and aims to overcome the idea that the philosophy of history is dead. This implies, moreover, a slightly different understanding of the philosophy of history, moving us away from the idea of a purely speculative philosophy to one of a practical enterprise. The philosophy of history is thus brought closer here to the historical discipline, contrary to the traditional opposition. The idea of a philosophy of history “not as a cognitive or theoretical embodiment of the teleological structure, but as a practical embodiment of it” (105), allows Carr to read the philosophy of history in a different way, first by opposing the speculative orientation of Hegel to the practical orientation of the philosophy of history and teleology of Kant and Marx, and finally by re-reading Hegel in the sense of a practical narrative, directed towards the realisation of human freedom. Although White’s theses are not directly discussed for their own sake, they guide the whole chapter, and especially this new and very suggestive reading of Hegel. This reading could be the subject of a whole book, by taking into consideration the work of Hegel on the philosophy of history.

The interest in the philosophy of history will continue in the third part, although the general orientation of its four chapters is quite different. Indeed, this third and final part, “Embodiment and experience” (113-167), returns to what is perhaps the most fundamental aspect of historical experience, namely the question of the body. Historical experience is essentially an experience of the common. It is phenomenology that has studied, since Husserl, the role of the body in the question of intersubjectivity. This evidence is however questioned here by Carr, in the ninth chapter that opens the third part, entitled “Intersubjectivity and embodiment” (112-127), and which constitutes a deepening of the phenomenology of the “We” outlined in chapter 4. This chapter establishes the question of whether the body is always a necessary condition of intersubjectivity. While the experience of the face-to-face encounter with another has become a classic starting point in the problem of intersubjectivity, it does not resolve the question. The face-to-face encounter is indeed an encounter of my body with the body of another, but this direct bodily relationship cannot be applied to the we-experience, which requires a different point of view. Where the face-to-face encounter started from the first-person experience, the we-experience implies expanding this starting point to the idea of a non-metaphysical, but properly phenomenological Gemeingeist, in the way Husserl tried to think it. This superpersonal subject is, in fact, linked to the possibility for the I to identify itself with a group, and which precisely characterised the “we” in the fourth chapter, “On being historical”. Therefore, the we-subject, instead of being thought of as a metaphysical hypostasis, is rather phenomenologically constituted by the individuals who produce it. However, what role exactly should the body play in such a subject? By means of numerous examples taken from recent and contemporary history, Carr attempts to determine phenomenologically the role of the body in the we-subject, starting from different Husserlian points of departure (the organism, the community of will), in order to finally attest to the intentional character of the embodied we-subjectivity. The embodiment thus appears essential to collective subjectivity, although it is not necessary for all forms of intersubjectivity, as can be seen, for example, in the communities that are created in the Internet sphere.

Without an explicit transition to the question of embodiment, the tenth chapter, entitled “History as orientation. Rüsen on historical culture and narration” (128-143) is a review of two books of the German historian Jörn Rüsen, respectively Geschichte im Kulturprozess and History: Narration-Interpretation-Orientation (Rüsen 2002, 2005 respectively). The connection is actually ensured by the starting point of Rüsen’s research, in that knowledge of the past, far from being of interest only to historical studies, must be understood in its context, which is that of our historicity and our intersubjective historical experience. The three concepts of Rüsen on which Carr chooses to focus thus find the fundamental themes of the whole book. The concept of “historical culture” is linked to the developments on historicity, as is the concept of “orientation”, which implies inscribing our present in a certain relationship to the past and the future. Finally, the concept of “narrative” is intimately linked to Carr’s developments on historical knowledge and consciousness. Moreover, the typology of modes of narration proposed by Rüsen allows, according to the German historian himself, the deployment of a theory of the “ontogenetic development of historical consciousness” (132), within which the form of critical narration constitutes a historical pivot, between pre-modern and modern historical thought. In this sense, Rüsen’s study gives decisive importance to nineteenth-century historicism in its various forms (especially Ranke and Dilthey). Carr emphasises the links between Rüsen’s three concepts in the historical context of the nineteenth century, since the upheavals of that period were significant. The way in which history is told is thus linked to the way in which we orient ourselves in it, which in turn shapes our historical culture. By recalling the many criticisms that have been levelled against historicism since the beginning of the twentieth century (starting with Husserl himself), Carr attempts to go beyond the postmodern critique of historicism and to find a way to make it more effective. In order to do so, Carr defends the compatibility of narrative and objectivity, against the idea of a pure fictionalization of historical narrative, but also against the idea of an opposition between historical objectivity only interested in the restitution of the past for its own sake and the concept of orientation. According to this concept, knowledge of the past is linked to our future and to our situation in time.

These considerations lead Carr, in chapter 11, entitled “Erlebnis and history” (144-152), to clarify the meaning of the phenomenological emphasis on experience for history. This involved first returning to Dilthey’s relationship to the philosophy of history. Indeed, Dilthey is not a speculative philosopher of history in the sense of Hegel, but a philosopher of history in a much more contemporary sense which, rooted in a critique of historical reason, is understood as an epistemology of our historical knowledge, close to what the analytical philosophy of history does. Working on the key concepts of representation and memory in the contemporary philosophy of history, from Ricœur to White, Carr asks “the problem to which the philosophy of history addresses itself: how does history bridge the gap, overcome the distance, which separates it from its object, the past?” (147), in order to find a way out in the phenomenological approach, based on experience. Critiquing the linguistic turn in the philosophy of history, this approach restores the notion of experience to history, but not without ambiguity. According to Carr, it is Dilthey’s concept of Erlebnis that provides a better understanding of what experience can mean in this context. Responding to the ambiguity of the term Erfahrung, Erlebnis allowed Dilthey to designate not only the unity, coherence and connectedness of the individual life, but also the link that we necessarily have with a social and historical context. Erlebnis is thus inseparable, for Dilthey, from the notion of historicity, to which Carr devotes the last remarks of the chapter, against all forms of relativism.

The book concludes with a chapter significantly entitled “Experience and history” (153-166), in which Carr returns to the temporal, intersubjective and historical dimension of experience, in order to answer the question that has animated the whole book: what is the experience of history? The originality of this last chapter consists, in this respect, in giving an essential function to the notion of discontinuity, according to four orientations. The discontinuity inherent in the question of the We-subject, the discontinuity implied by intergenerational continuity, the discontinuity of historical events, and finally the discontinuity inscribed in temporality itself. These different types of discontinuity, which allow us to enrich the contemporary philosophical debate on history and time, lead Carr to assert three fundamental things, joined together, that any phenomenology of history must be able to take into account, and which constitute an “ontology of our lives” (163). 1) Historical events are experienced as historical events. 2) We are conscious of time by being conscious of events in time. 3) The subject of these historical experiences is a collective subject, a We-subject.

The phenomenological interest and significance of these twelve studies by D. Carr thus lies, in our view, in the re-qualification of the starting point of phenomenology itself when confronted with the problematic question of history. Against the accusations of anhistoricism sometimes levelled at Husserl’s philosophy, Carr restores the importance of phenomenological perspective to the fundamentally historical understanding of our experience. He inscribes this perspective in a decentred and irreducibly collective subjectivity, which constitutes both the ground and the horizon of our relationship to the past.


Goris, Wouter. 2012. “Das historische Apriori bei Husserl und Foucault – Zur philosophischen Relevanz eines Leitbegriffs der historischen Epistemologie.” Quaestio, 12: 291-342.

Hartog, François. 2015. Regimes of Historicity. Presentism and Experiences of Time, tr. S. Brown. New York: Columbia University Press.

Heidegger, Martin. 1996. Being and Time, tr. J. Stambaugh. Albany: SUNY Press.

Husserl, Edmund. 1970. The Crisis of European Sciences and the Transcendendal Phenomenology, tr. D. Carr. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Husserl, Edmund. 1973. Zur Phänomenologie der Intersubjektivität. Dritter Teil: 1929-1935. The Hague. Nijhoff.

Husserl, Edmund. 1991. On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time, tr. J. Brough. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Nora, Pierre (ed.). 1997. Les lieux de mémoire. Paris: Gallimard.

Ricœur, Paul. 1984–88. Time and Narrative, 3 vols, tr. K McLaughlin and D. Pellauer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ricœur, Paul. 2006. Memory, History, Forgetting, tr. K. Blamey and D. Pellauer. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Rüsen, Jörn. 2002. Geschichte im Kulturprozess. Köln, Weimar, Wien: Bohlau Verlag.

Rüsen, Jörn. 2005. History: Narration-Interpretation-Orientation. New York, Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. 2003. Being and Nothingness: A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology, tr. H. Barnes. New York: Washington Square Press.

Taylor, Charles. 1991. The Ethics of Authenticity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Trüper Henning, Chakrabarty Dipesh, Subrahmanyam Sanjay (ed.). 2015. Historical Teleologies in the Modern World. London: Bloomsbury.

White, Hayden. 1973. Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in 19th Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Anja Jauernig: The World According to Kant

The World According to Kant: Appearances and Things in Themselves in Critical Idealism Book Cover The World According to Kant: Appearances and Things in Themselves in Critical Idealism
Anja Jauernig
Oxford University Press
Hardback £80.00

Reviewed by: Michael Blézy (University of Toronto)

The aim of Anja Jauernig’s project is to provide nothing less than a comprehensive interpretation of Kant’s critical idealism understood as an ontology. In The World According to Kant, Jauernig tackles Kant’s theoretical philosophy in particular, highlighting the ways in which Kant’s views on cognition, God, and, most importantly, the distinction between appearances and things in themselves, contribute to the establishment of Kant’s overall “ontological position” (xi; 1-2).

The first of two main studies (the second study, still forthcoming, will deal with the ontological implications of the practical philosophy), the book revolves around a number of issues regarding how it is Kant conceives of “the world.” From the outset, Jauernig flags that, at least in the Inaugural Dissertation and his lectures on metaphysics, Kant understands “the world” to be “a unified whole of substances that stand in mutual interactions” (16) – a description that technically only applies to what the Kant of the first Critique will call “outer appearances” (A24/B49; A106). Taken in a less strict sense, however, Jauernig argues that Kant can be interpreted as providing an ontology of “the world,” where “the world” is more generally understood to be the sum total of all that has realitas:

[The] book … is devoted to an examination of Kant’s critical idealism, understood as an ontological position. Less technically put, it is about Kant’s account of what there is in the world, understood as the sum total of everything that has reality, including, in particular, his account of appearances and things in themselves and their relation to one another. (xii; See also 25; 355)

From her initial depiction of “the world” understood in this more general sense, it is clear it refers to all existents that possess reality, both sensible, as well as supersensible:

Appearances and things in themselves are distinct existents … Kantian things in themselves [however] are supersensible and ground Kantian appearances. (27)

Although recognizing the Kantian twist given to metaphysical inquiry inaugurated by the Copernican revolution – and so the complications that metaphysical investigation faces once questions are posed about the conditions under which one could possibly come to possess knowledge, including the metaphysical – Jauernig’s account of Kant’s ontology thus proceeds in remarkedly traditional terms. This is especially true regarding the ontological status of things in themselves and their relation to appearances; the issue in the book she most thoroughly engages with.

One the one hand, Jauernig raises uniquely Kantian concerns with just how it is we might gain ontological knowledge of things in themselves. Granting that things in themselves, like the objects of traditional metaphysical inquiry, belong to the “supersensible realm” (38), she rightly wonders along with Kant: “In virtue of what can our concepts refer to [things in themselves]? How can we manage to cognitively access them through our thinking? What sort of cognition of them, if any, is possible for us?” (xi). On the other hand, Jauernig’s interpretation of Kant’s ontology sets out, in pre-Kantian fashion, to answer a number of questions about things in themselves conceived of as simply a subset of all that has reality:

[O]ne can take [the question about how to think things in themselves] as a broadly ontological question about Kant’s conception of things in themselves. What sort of things are they? What are their properties? What is their ontological status in Kant’s critical philosophy? (xi)

Of course, whether or not and to what extent answers can be given to these questions (about knowledge of supersensible things such as things in themselves, including their ontological status) will all be determined by the answers given to the first questions (about under what conditions and in virtue of what can we have knowledge, including metaphysical). Sure enough, things in themselves will play a decisive role in critical idealism and a proper account of it will require grappling with ontological questions in some sense. But just how it is that ontology, as first philosophy (one of two main branches of traditional metaphysis, mind you) is to be construed on the Kantian picture will be decided by how it is we understand the philosophical consequences of Kant’s theory of cognition and the revolution in metaphysics it initiated.

Fortunately, at least with regard to her account of how Kant reaches his position on the ontological status of things in themselves and their relation to appearances, Jauernig’s book is a model of clarity. Fully laying her cards on the table, Jauernig tells her readers right out of the gate exactly where her reading is heading. Outlining the core tenants of what she refers to as Kant’s “fundamental ontology” (39; 43; 44; 247), the book aims to defend six main theses regarding appearances and things in themselves (15-16):

(1) Appearances and things in themselves are not numerically identical, but are distinct existents

(2) Appearances and things in themselves are both “things,” although they are not the same things. Appearances and things in themselves in no way ontologically overlap, but they are closely related: appearances are grounded in things in themselves

(3) The distinction between appearances and things in themselves is an ontological  distinction

(4) Empirical objects are appearances

(5) Appearances and, hence, empirical objects are fully mind-dependent. This entails that Kant is a genuine idealist about empirical objects

(6) Things in themselves actually exist

Taken together, Jauernig claims these six theses add up to a new version of the “classical” two-world theory of appearances/things in themselves. Appearances, and hence empirical objects, are wholly mind-dependent existents in virtue of their being given under the formal conditions of sensibility, whereas things in themselves are the distinct, wholly mind-independent existents that provide the ground of these appearances. As this is an unabashedly, “ontological” reading of the distinction, Jauernig tells us, and so one of the main targets of the book is the two-aspect theories of appearances/ things in themselves (especially methodological, two-aspect theories) that have dominated Anglo-American Kant scholarship in the second half of the twentieth century (4-5). Indeed, methodological, two-aspect views in particular are either “unfathomably mysterious” insofar as they maintain “that the properties of things truly vary according to how we consider them” or “disappointingly modest,” insofar as they maintain “that considering things as they are in themselves amounts to no more than abstracting from some of their properties” (15n).

In order to establish her “classic,” two-world reading, Jauernig first offers an account of where she stands on some basic interpretive questions regarding Kant’s critical idealism. After outlining the basic tenants of Kant’s “fundamental ontology” in chapter one, chapter two relies principally on some well-known (and hotly debated) passages from the Critique (e.g., B59/A42; B164; A383) to make the case that, for Kant, “the world” is comprised of various “levels” of reality. Consider, for instance, B59/A42:

Thus we wanted to say: that all our intuition is nothing but the representation of Appearance … and that if we take away the subject or even merely the subjective quality of the senses in general, all quality, all relations of objects in space and time, indeed even space and time themselves, would disappear and can as appearances not exist in themselves but only in us.

On Jauernig’s account, appearances are identified with intentional objects of experience or the objects that make up the mind-dependent level of reality. Due to these appearances only existing “in” us or “in our representations” – even when passively given in perception, for instance – their “ontological ingredients” or properties and “modes of being” all presuppose the human mind. In contrast, things in themselves are to be identified with existents understood to be wholly apart from any human mind, and so make up the mind-independent “level” of reality (27). Things in themselves have “ontological ingredients” and “modes of being,” but these ingredients and modes are thus fully mind-independent (30-33; 42-50). What is more, if a mind represents anew given appearances through the power of imagination, it can bring into existence intentional objects, but, due to the flexibility of the mind’s representational capacities, these representations need not faithfully represent the objects as they have been originally given (say, once again, in perception). Some objects (for example, fictional creatures like dragons) have “pseudo-existence” insofar as they are intentional objects that exist in thought, but cannot be found anywhere in given experience (36-42).

Chapters three and four are primarily concerned with demonstrating that empirical objects, as appearances, are not things in themselves, but appear under certain a priori conditions (notably, the formal conditions of space and time). Although on the Kantian picture we are certainly able to distinguish between “inner” and “outer,” “subjective” and “objective,” and so Kant ought not be charged with reducing all objects of representation to our mind à la Berkeley, the notion that space and time are “nothing” but forms of sensibility entails that empirical objects are spatial-temporal existents that fully depend on the mind, and this further entails that Kant is a genuine idealist about such objects (129-141). Once again, that we are only acquainted with appearances, as representations “in” us and whose ontological ingredients and modes all presuppose our mind and its forms of sensibility, means that even passively given, spatial-temporal things and their sensible characteristics are mind-dependent (204-244).

Chapters five and six deal with Jauernig’s positive account of things in themselves. Skirting around long-standing issues regarding just how it is possible to achieve genuine knowledge of things that are wholly mind-independent (much less know for certain that they are), her interpretation takes its guidance primary from passages in which Kant claims that things in themselves “ground” appearances (B61/A44) and “affect” the mind (B522/A494). Jauernig is clear that the way things in themselves relate to appearances ought not be confused with the way in which an objective reality underlies and gives rise to our merely subjective (even potentially deceptive) experience of the world (248-256); nor with the way in primary qualities relate to secondary qualities (257-266). However, in some sense, things in themselves exist, ground our passively receiving representations in sensibility, and are genuinely affective. Indeed, Jauernig advances a version of what she calls “bold critical idealism” in which Kantian appearances are grounded on other, finite things that are “outside us” in a transcendental, and not merely spatial, sense. What is more, these finite things in themselves are genuinely affective, yet still mind-independent in that at least one such thing exists and is distinct from both the totality of human minds and even God (295-302).

Chapter five concludes with a discussion of how it is we can know things in themselves are in fact finite existents and sets the stage for the argument that things in themselves possess the various positive features Jauernig attributes to them (295-318). To my mind the most interesting section of the book, Jauernig provides the reader with a series of carefully laid out syllogisms that move from showing that we can go from the existence of empirical objects to the “existence” of things in themselves, by demonstrating that the passivity of sensibility and the unoriginality of thought and imagination require that there is something other than sensibility and thought.

Essentially outlining the way in which the Kantian “levels” of reality relate to and presuppose each other, Jaurenig’s argument takes a few key steps. First, she makes the case that, due to its essentially unoriginal nature, the imagination can produce pseudo-existents (e.g., intentional objects or representations of inner experience) only by reproducing and recombing sensations. Second, for their part, sensations, are passively delivered via sensibility and the forms of sensibility. Third, due to its passivity, sensibility can only deliver sensations by the mind being transcendentally affected by something other than the mind (namely, things in themselves). Fourth, we in fact have sensations and can think of pseudo-existents (as well as distinguish between them). From the first three premises it follows that these sensuous representations exist and are a response to the more fundamental things in themselves which exist and must affect us (313).

This argument requires that we extend the scope of Kant’s “fundamental ontology” given so far so as to include an ontology of the human mind – the very finite existent that the other finite existents and their “ontological ingredients” and “modes” presuppose (or do not presuppose). That is, unlike the divine intellect, which can bring about the existence of the object or create objects in virtue of its thinking (and so has an “intellectual intuition” of objects), the finite human being’s thought must passively receive sensible materials from without (in sensible intuition) to occasion the representing via thought that constitutes its experience of objects.

For simplicity sake, Jauernig calls the idea that, as essentially finite, the human mind is ontologically uncreative and thus, unlike the divine mind, incapable of originally generating the matter of its objects of representations “UNCREATIVITY” (314). This ontology of the human mind underlies and provides the fundamental support for drawing the conclusion that the existence of things in themselves follows from the fact that we have the material with which to think at all.

On Jauernig’s account of things we can rightly wonder, however, how it is that Kant arrives at and justifies this ontology. How, for instance, can we conclusively establish that it must be something finite that affects our mind and, as it were, kick cognition into gear. Indeed, are there not equally compelling accounts of how we come to have the material by which we think provided by other ontologies, equally as “fundamental”? For his part, Berkeley notoriously made the case that it is only God that can supply our representations with the totality of their matter – the so-called “material” world itself being an extraneous posit. This is not to say we should simply follow Berkeley here, but how exactly can Kant know for certain what supplies the mind with its matter? Indeed, to take another worry, how do we know for certain that is not we who create such matter – that is, that transcendental idealism does not ultimately collapse into idealism proper? Indeed, given that Kant grants the mind some creative power (such as when it represents to itself pseudo-existents) and argues that the a priori forms of the mind (as the very conditions of the possibility of experience) are not capable themselves of being derived from any experience of objects, how exactly does he justify drawing a solid line between passivity and reproduction, between constitutive a priori structuring and creation? As Jauernig puzzles:

[T]here is not much difference with respect to creative power between a mind that actively brings about the “matter” of empirical objects and a mind that brings about the “matter” of empirical objects by affecting itself … If my uncreativity is compatible with me constituting … without any assistance from things in themselves that are distinct from my transcendental mind, why would it not also be compatible with me constituting empirical objects without any assistance from things in themselves that are distinct from my transcendental mind? (316)

But why assume that this [Kantian] uncreativity manifests itself in that we are incapable of actively generating any “matter” for the objects of our representations? Why could it not manifest itself in that we cannot actively generate the “form” of the objects of our representations, or their “form” or their “matter”? (316n)

Jauernig’s response to these worries is not to tackle them head on. There is no attempt to locate the difference between reception and reproduction or formal structuring and creation by appealing to the distinctive characteristics of the various Kantian “representations” themselves (for instance, unlike the representations occasioned by imagination, sensible intuitions obey natural laws). Nor does she provide a Kantian-style argument (not unlike Descartes’ in the Mediations) that the human mind does not have enough creative power to bring about an entire world of objects. Somewhat surprisingly, Jauernig claims when philosophizing about fundamental ontology, there are some features and principles that are ultimately not capable of justification or further argumentation:

All versions of critical idealism … depend for their justification on UNCREATIVITY … It appears futile to attempt a justification for these basic commitments, commitments that one could characterize as being among critical idealism’s constitutive principles, so to speak … [however] the unjustifiability of [critical idealism’s] constitutive principles by further arguments is neither a special problem for critical idealism nor a real problem at all. All arguments for substantive views must start from some substantive assumptions. So, all philosophical positions must incorporate some basic commitments that are not justifiable by any further arguments. (318)

Now, Jauernig’s book has to be admired for its rigor and precision. At key points in her presentation of Kant’s ontology she provides arguments in concise, syllogistic form – no small accomplishment given the complexity of Kant’s thought and the obscurity of the issues tackled. Rigor and precision aside, however, there are many curious features of Jauernig’s account of Kant’s “fundamental ontology” – features that I think are highlighted by the position she arrives at in the passage above regarding basic ontological commitments and their inability to be justified.

What I find most puzzling about The World According to Kant is the very way Jauernig approaches the issue of ontology in Kant’s work. As I have been gesturing at, to frame the issue of Kant’s ontology in terms of a number of issues regarding the ontological status of the existents that populate “the world,” seems to attribute to Kant a traditional metaphysical approach that is – at least on the Kantian picture of knowledge – incapable of furnishing us with any genuine knowledge. To put it succinctly, to conceive of ontology as the investigation into “what there is” in “the world” (at least as Jauernig understands it) is an entirely unKantian move insofar as it disregards the way in which Kant’s revolution in metaphysics fundamentally transforms the ontological issues and shifts them into an entirely different (namely, transcendental) register.

My main concern with Jauernig’s presentation of Kant’s ontology is not simply that it ignores the way in which Kant’s critical system rethinks basic ontological notions such as “reality,” “category,” “being,” “mode,” etc. That being said, it is worth flagging that The World According to Kant gets into trouble with its loose use of ontological terms. For example, after the Copernican revolution inaugurated by the first Critique, “reality” comes to be one of the mathematical categories of the understanding (A70/B95; A161/B200). This category of is to be conceived of as an object’s “what-content” – the essential determinations that constitute or make an object the kind of thing it is. As a Kantian category, however, it is a concept that strictly belongs to the determinations of objects of possible experience. Insofar as “reality” no longer refers to the determinations of a thing (res) as such and in general, but to the determinations of appearances, there is no sense in which it can serve for Kant as a way to think of a general ontology that would include both of appearances and things in themselves. Far from being an innocent terminological move, approaching the distinction in this way suggests that both existents are somehow available to us to be the subject of philosophizing – a commitment that has direct philosophical consequences for how we construe things in themselves.

In a similar vein, being in general (what is to be something, as opposed to nothing) is not to be a member of “the world” in the sense of being an existing thing with reality. To be in general is rather to be posited by a judgment; to have a value relative to a judging cognizer. Hence Kant’s famously arguing that “being” is (1) not a real predicate (does not add anything to an object’s “what-content”), (2) does not add anything to the concept of a thing, and (3) is to be identified with the mere positing of a thing or of certain determinations in themselves (A599/B262). Whether what is posited is merely possible or exists (to be an “existent”) for Kant is a whole different matter.

That there is little to no discussion of the way in which Kant rethinks such notions as “reality” or “being” (much less a take on Kant’s theory of modality or his account of “nothing” as laid out in the table of “nothing” (A2902/B345-9)) in a book-length study of Kant’s ontology seems like an oversight. However, once again the most puzzling aspect of the book is not that it omits such a discussion. Rather, its most puzzling feature is that it does not deal with Kant’s revolution in metaphysics and the consequences this revolution has for the pursuit of traditional ontological knowledge.

We might expect that any attempt to give an account of Kant’s ontology should pay heed to the way in which Kant takes himself to have fundamentally transformed this branch of metaphysics. Consider his two clearest statements on the subject of ontology in the first Critique:

The Transcendental Analytic accordingly has this important result: That the  understanding can never accomplish a priori anything more than to anticipate the form of a possible experience in general, and, since that which is not appearance cannot  be an object of experience, it can never overstep the limits of sensibility, within which alone objects are given to us. Its principles are merely principles of the exposition of appearances, and the proud name of an ontology, which presumes to offer synthetic a priori cognitions of things in general in a systematic doctrine … must give way to one of a mere analytic of the pure understanding. (A247/B303)

[Metaphysics’] speculative part … considers everything insofar as it is … on the basis of a priori concepts, is divided in the following way … Metaphysics … consists of transcendental philosophy and the physiology of pure reason. The former considers  only the understanding and reason itself in a system of all concepts and principles, that are related to objects in general, without assuming objects that would be given (Ontologia); the latter considers nature, i.e., the sum total of given objects, and is therefore physiology (though only rationalis). (A845/B873)

As the first passage states, a key finding of the Transcendental Analytic – the transcendental investigation into the a priori contribution made on behalf of the understanding to the possibility of objects of experience – is that the move to consider objects as they appear under certain a priori conditions leads to us to give up the “proud name of an ontology.” By this, Kant means that insofar as objects are given under these intellectual conditions, the traditional attempt to straightforwardly provide an ontology gives way to two critical tasks. First, expounding transcendental conditions and the a priori knowledge of objects these conditions allow for (i.e., the a priori knowledge of objects generated by the anticipatory intellectual forms that structure our representation of any possible object of experience whatsoever). Second, as these transcendental contributions to our representation of objects (the source of our transcendental knowledge) simultaneously circumscribe what can possibly appear as an object of experience, and so expose the attempt to gain a priori knowledge of objects (including ontological knowledge of them) independently of these conditions (or in themselves) as unable to furnish us with any genuine knowledge.

The undermining of the traditional attempt to secure ontological knowledge is further expanded upon in the second passage, wherein Kant also shows that the faculty of reason – the faculty metaphysicians prior to Kant most heavy relied upon to supply them with a priori knowledge of objects that goes beyond what is made available by sensibility and understanding – also cannot assist us in our quest for traditional metaphysical knowledge. As Kant makes clear here, speculative metaphysics considers “everything insofar as it is” on the basis of reason alone and so according to a priori concepts. Utilizing “pure” reason or reason within which nothing empirical is mixed, we can achieve knowledge through both transcendental philosophy and what Kant calls the “physiology” of pure reason. The former allows for transcendental knowledge, i.e., a priori knowledge (of both understanding and reason) of “objects of in general … without assuming they would be given [in sensibility].” The latter gives us knowledge of objects through reason or rationalis alone, however, it deals strictly with the sum total of “given objects,” i.e., our purely rational, a priori knowledge of the objects (objects of experience) that make up “nature.”

Now, we might expect that a “physiology” of pure reason, insofar as it supplies us with knowledge of objects by way of reason alone, might be able to supply us with ontological knowledge of objects in themselves. However, as Kant makes clear, it is limited to the given objects of nature even when pure reason makes transcendental contributions, and so, in the end, merely gives us the system of the a priori concepts or ideas supplied by reason required to represent this given nature as nature (A846/B874).

Transcendental philosophy, both the kind made possible by the transcendental contributions of the understanding and reason, in contrast, deals with a priori knowledge of “everything insofar as it iswithout objects being “given” in sensibility and is itself explicitly identified by Kant as Ontologia or ontology. Notice, however, that this Kantian ontology is limited to possible (given) objects of experience as the very conditions of their appearing. Although transcendental philosophy does not depend on experience or any particular objects being given in order to establish its transcendental knowledge, it is limited, as the anticipatory forms that structure this experience, to the sphere of objects that can be possibly given in sensibility.

Indeed, after transcendental philosophy, genuine metaphysical knowledge – knowledge of objects achieved a priori, yet would extend our grasp of them and not simply analytically draw out their marks – comes to be transformed and limited to the knowledge of the transcendental sphere, namely, knowledge of the conditions of the possibility of objects of experience. The main idea is that the same “anticipated” form of the understanding and reason that lets objects appear also provides us with a new source of a priori knowledge (the “fundamental predicates” of objects insofar as they are represented under the categories) that enlarges our cognition of objects without turning to any particular experience (e.g., that objects appear as substances standing in community relations of cause and effect). Transforming metaphysics in this way enables it to take the secure course of a Kantian “science.” Metaphysics is no longer the attempt to gain knowledge of objects beyond all possible experience by way of the analysis of concepts alone, but a systematic body of knowledge that can ground its claims, like other sciences that contain an a priori component, on something over and above our concepts (namely, the very possibility of the intellect representing objects of experience).

Keeping this fundamental re-construal of metaphysics in mind, Jauernig’s presentation of critical philosophy as offering an “ontological,” “two-world” account of the appearance/ thing in itself distinction, as well as positively attributing characteristics to things-in-themselves, seems to attribute to Kant an ontological theory that would lapse back into the traditional metaphysical approach to knowledge that Kant sought to show can never result in genuine knowledge, at least in the theoretical sphere. Indeed, from what knowing perspective could make claims about the appearance/ thing in itself distinction or the way things in themselves are that would allow us to properly ground such claims? As claims about the very “relation” between the different kinds of existents that make up “the world” (those that appear under the mind’s transcendental conditions, those that do not), what resources can Jauernig draw upon to ground her knowledge of this very set up? From which relation to existents do we have access to such that this can be established knowledge? Kant reworks and limits genuine ontological knowledge to transcendental philosophy precisely in order to move beyond the antimonies and the seemingly endless “mock combat” that characterized metaphysical debates prior to his metaphysics as a science. Such debates seemed endless because they were groundless – deploying the mere resources of the intellect and their logical coherence, metaphysicians came up with competing, contradictory systems, with no way, no “touchstone,” to ultimately settle their metaphysical disputes.

As Jauernig’s ultimate worries about her reading of Kant’s “fundamental ontology” attests, there is no way to secure our claims about the basic, ontological set up of transcendental philosophy (at least on her reading) that can be justified by any of the criteria for the establishment of genuine knowledge within its own framework. There is no view from which, in other words, we can concretely establish how (or if) the mind passively receives its objects from without. This leads Jauernig to conclude that we ultimately cannot justify fundamentally ontology – indeed, Kant’s or any others – and so we ought simply, within the bounds of logic, to choose which basic assumptions or position seems most agreeable to us:

But unless we adopt the implausible epistemic norm that, under any circumstances,  only claims that can be justified by an argument of some kind are epistemically permissible, or reasonable, we are within our epistemic rights to choose the most basic assumptions on which to build our philosophical positions according to what seems most agreeable to us, provided these assumptions are internally consistent and cohere with the rest of all claims that we accept, all necessary truths, and the totality of the available empirical evidence. Whether to opt for timid critical idealism or bold critical idealism or a version whose strength lies somewhere between these extremes ultimately is a matter of taste. Kant seems to like bold critical idealism best, and I do not blame him. (318)

And at an earlier point she remarks:

Everybody is entitled to their own intuitions about what is plausible when it comes to matters of fundamental ontology. (31)

Taking this route, however, leads right back to the situation Kant wanted to remedy: contradictory metaphysical arguments with no grounding beyond logical coherence. Kant’s lesson is that what allows us to move forward is not to demonstrate that metaphysical claims are merely logically possible; much less does he think metaphysics is simply based on the necessary of conceptual truths or empirical evidence. Rather, he shows us that the only non-sensible a priori knowledge we can have of objects is limited to knowledge of the (non-sensible) transcendental conditions and that supersensible knowledge of objects apart from these conditions (objects as they are in themselves) is not possible. This would include knowledge of how it is the mind fundamentally, ontologically relates to the source of its cognitions’ material.

Jauernig’s pointing out that there is an entire “fundamental ontology” presupposed by Kant’s move of ontological issues into a transcendental register certainly puts a finger on a lasting problem with Kant’s philosophy. It is no surprise that thinkers from Hegel to Nietzsche, the Neo-Kantians to Heidegger, have all pursued the question of how it is the transcendental philosophy of the first Critique (including its reworking of the traditional ontological project) is itself possible. However, to lapse back into a pre-Kantian approach to metaphysical issues or to ignore Kant’s revolution in philosophy altogether does not seem like a promising approach.