Giulia Cabra: Il valore dell´altro. Intersoggettività, amore ed etica in Edmund Husserl

Il valore dell’altro: Intersoggettività, amore ed etica in Edmund Husserl Book Cover Il valore dell’altro: Intersoggettività, amore ed etica in Edmund Husserl
Itinerari filosofici
Giulia Cabra

Reviewed by: Celia Cabrera (CONICET/ National Academy of Sciences of Buenos Aires)

Giulia Cabra’s book, Il valore dell’altro. Intersoggettività, amore ed etica in Edmund Husserl, proposes an insightful analysis of the intersection between two central themes of Husserlian phenomenology: Intersubjectivity and ethics. As indicated by the title, the guiding question that runs through the work concerns the value of the other, a topic of great relevance in phenomenological ethics. The question can be resumed as follows: How is the other given as a subject of value? More specifically: What conceptual elements of Husserl´s phenomenology provide the basis for recognizing the value of the other? Answering this question makes it necessary and justifies Cabra’s proposal for a complementary approach, insofar as it is a theme that besides being addressed at the axiological-ethical level must be anchored in the most basic foundations of Husserl´s theory of the experience of the other. Cabra´s book shows that this overlap of themes is fruitful in both directions: Ethical-axiological analyses expose the deeper meaning of some basic elements of Husserl´s transcendental theory of intersubjectivity (especially, with regard to his understanding of the lived body), and the transcendental theory of intersubjectivity lays the groundwork for an ethical account of alterity that goes beyond its own means (especially, through the analysis of love). In the author´s own words, the hypothesis that serves as a point of departure of the work is that “a synergistic reading of Husserl’s reflections on intersubjectivity and ethics allows for theoretically original and fruitful outcomes for the deepening of both realms within the author’s thought” (p. 307). Certainly, the task is not easy and requires a reading of a wide range of texts in which Husserl devoted himself to reflections on both intersubjectivity and ethics, at various stages of his philosophical production and with different methodological approaches. Cabra’s work proposes a journey through multiple writings of Husserl, tracing a thread that extends from the analyses of the experience of the other in the Fifth Cartesian Meditation to the research manuscripts on ethics from the Freiburg years, and which covers static, genetic, transcendental, personalist, and communitarian approaches.

In the process of laying the groundwork for addressing the question of the value of the other, the book delves into various topics in detail, many of which cannot be fully covered in this review. In the following sections, I will outline the main aspects developed in the book and delineate its broader argumentative strategy.

The book is divided into two main sections, each of which follows one of the two proposed paths: The first section follows the path through the lived body (Leib), while the second section follows the path through love (Liebe). Broadly speaking, the three chapters that make up the first section of the book (entitled La via del Leib: Individuazione, libertà, valore) aim to shed light on the fundamental elements that explain the constitution of the experience of alterity. This is accomplished by first delving into Husserl´s analyses of the sphere of owness and later going deeper into the intersubjectively shared world.

The first chapter is devoted to the transcendental theory of the experience of the other (Fremderfahrung) as developed by Husserl in the Fifth Cartesian Meditation and in related research manuscripts published in volumes XIII, XIV, and XV of Husserliana. The key question posed by the author there is whether such transcendental analysis contains elements that make it possible to highlight how the other subject is experienced as a subject of value (cf. p. 21). The chapter begins with a focus on the primordial sphere. Against this background, the author aims at showing the centrality of the lived body as an organ of perception (Wahrnehmungsorgan) and an organ of the will (Willensorgan). The role of corporeality in the constitution of perception, as developed by Husserl in the Dingvorlesungen (Hua XVI),  is addressed showing that the lived body is a system of passive and free kinesthesia, on which perception depends. In order to clarify how the passage from the perceptual level to the volitional level is motivated, Husserl´s analyses of the “I can” in Ideas II are considered. The result of these analyses is that the lived body is the primary form in which the “awake subjectivity” (wache Subjektivität) manifests itself. Moreover, the Leib is the place where the perceptual-sensory layer and the personal-spiritual layer intermingle, and where the freedom of the incarnated transcendental ego is established (cf. p. 310). 

Chapter 2 turns to the dynamics of the encounter with the other subject. A special analysis is devoted to the phenomenon of expression (Ausdruck), i.e., to the fact that the other appears always through an expressive body that manifests different degrees of will. It is by virtue of expression that the other appears as a subject of free movement, as a free subject. This chapter introduces one of the most important ideas of the work, namely, the freedom of the person which the author anchors on Husserl´s conception of the lived body. According to Cabra, given the conditions that make it possible for the other subject to be recognized as a transcendental subject, the same conditions also enable their recognition as a free subject. The Leib makes this transition possible and indicates the fundamental freedom of the other (cf. p. 313). This freedom is evidence of the fact that the person has a value of its own (Eigenwert). The proper value of the person is linked to their status of being a free individual, capable of being an ethical subject (as she will show later, this means responding to the categorical imperative). As she claims later on: “This confers upon it the predicate of the value of dignity (Würde): freedom makes the person different from every other worldly being and confirms the initial intuition of inviolability by the personal subject, already indicated by the identification of the Eigenheitssphäre” (p. 313). Bringing the themes of freedom and dignity to the fore is one of the merits of this book. To my knowledge, few works in the exegesis of Husserl´s writings address these themes, which remain in the background of his ethical account of the human person.

In this point, it is noticed that those elements of the experience which are the conditions of possibility of the intersubjective experience are not completely reducible to the primordial sphere, but refer to a personal intersubjective dimension of the Umwelt that only are disconnected from the Eigenheitsphäre by means of abstraction. This indicates the path taken in Chapter 3, which serves as a bridge to the second part of the book devoted to the axiological and ethical analyses. Cabra shifts there to the personalist perspective to consider intersubjective experience as a part of the surrounding world (Umwelt), which is a shared world. This shift of perspective to the personalist attitude is a crucial step to approaching the topic of the work: the comprehension of the other as a subject of value. As Cabra explains, “The encounter with the other, which is made possible because they appear through the Leib, is always inserted in a personal horizon. Only from this perspective is it possible to find the value of the other” (p. 159).

The second section of the work (La via della Liebe: Dovere e chiamata, empatia, prossimità), divided into four chapters, proceeds along the lines of the previously announced change of perspective, from the attitude focused on the sphere of owness to the personalist attitude. This section focuses on Husserl´s reflections on ethics from the Freiburg years, especially, on his analyses of love published in the fourth section of Husserliana XLII, Grenzprobleme der Phänomenologie.

Having introduced the Husserlian approach to love in Chapter 1 of this section, in which the author highlights the intentional emotional nature of love and its normative dimension, Chapter 2 has the precise aim of elucidating its inherently intersubjective character. Love takes on various forms, one of which is love as a phenomenon between persons, distinct from love for an object, for science, nature, etcetera. According to the author, personal love is love in the original, primary, and fundamental sense (cf. p. 232) or, as she also points out, the “paradigm of love” in that, through the experience of love, the value of the other subject and the duty toward them are experienced. Love is, thus, the founding moment of ethics. Since the primary reference (Bezug) of love is the other person, “neighborly love” (Nächstenliebe) is characterized as the highest ethical form of love.

The consideration of love as inherently intersubjective calls for an elucidation of its intentional structure and fulfillment. This is the task of the third chapter which explores the relationship between love and empathy (Einfühlung). Love does not fully coincide with empathy, it is a special form of empathy and, in a certain sense, it transcends empathy (cf. p. 237).  In order to understand the connection between love and empathy, the double meaning of empathy, which goes back to Husserl´s manuscripts published in Hua XLII, is emphasized. On the one hand, empathy in a basic sense, which is analyzed by Husserl in the Fifth Cartesian Meditation, is a theoretical-cognitive form of grasping the other. This fundamental form of empathy is to be distinguished from empathy in an emotional sense, as a “participation in the life of the other” (p. 238) which enters into the individuality of the other person and is fulfilled through love. The introduction of the theme of individuality gives the reader a glimpse of the author´s aim: love grasps the other in their individuality, and this lays the grounds for grasping them as having a “value of uniqueness” (Einzigkeitswert). This aspect is developed in Chapter 4, which presents the guidelines for an axiology of love. I will discuss this final chapter in more detail since it introduces some complex ideas that deserve a deeper analysis, and it integrates the previous results of the investigation into its own argumentation.

While the previous chapters have reflected on the specific features of love as an intentional act -emphasizing its emotional and volitional character-, Chapter 4 aims to analyze the values of love (Liebeswerte). In other words, the focus now shifts from love as an act to what love is directed at. Among the aspects developed in this chapter, I would like to draw attention to three themes that hold a central place in the author´s line of reasoning: (1) The discussion of the subjectivity-objectivity of the values of love; (2) The comprehension of the relationship between the descriptive, axiological, and normative dimensions; (3) finally, the approach to the universality-singularity of the ought revealed through love. These aspects, which I separate only for the sake of exposition, are interrelated in the work.

With the first theme, Cabra addresses a classic problem of the philosophy of values: Is the value dependent upon the subject giving the value? And, if so, does this imply that the value is reducible to such act of giving? The question becomes more compelling when we consider that the focus of the work is the value of the other. That is, that the elucidation of the status of the values of love is a corollary to addressing the value of the other subject. In this context, the question can be reformulated as to whether the value of the other person is contingent upon the subjective turning towards in the act of valuing, or if it is an objective value “recognized” by the subject. In the author´s view, the values of love have both a subjective and an objective dimension. On the one hand, values of love are dependent upon the turning towards of the subject from her personal core, since they are connected to the innermost center of the person. In this regard, they possess a subjective dimension. On the other hand, love in a proper sense is directed toward that which holds value (cf. p. 271). In other words: Genuine love is love for what is worth loving. How is this dual character of values of love, both subjective and objective, to be understood? Cabra´s proposal can be summarized as follows: Values of love are objective values which have subjective relevance because they have a unique meaning for the singular person. In this way, the author seeks to illustrate the dynamics of constitution wherein something given as objective is apprehended through a subjective position taking. The textual foundation of her interpretation is to be found in the lecture Einleitung in die Philosophie from 1919/1920 where Husserl refers to values of love as “the same objective value as individual, subjective value of love” (Hua Mat IX, 146, note 1). In light of this, two implications can be drawn: (1) every value of love has an objective value and (2) every objective value can become a value of love (p. 266). With this, the author aims at distancing from the interpretations that “emphasize solely the subjective side of the constitution of the values of love without considering that subjective preference does not lack a fundamental objective level” (p. 267)

What is the outcome of this interpretation for the understanding of the value of the other? Applying the same dynamic between the subjective and objective dimensions, the conclusion is that the other subject is subjectively preferable (vorzüglich) and at the same time objectively endowed with value. The other is objectively a subject of value to the extent that they have a fundamental dignity as a person (p. 285).

At this point the work turns to the distinction between two forms of empathy developed in Chapter 3. The basis for recognizing the other as a subject of value is established by recognizing the other as a transcendental subject in empathy (in the first sense previously distinguished). What does love add to this level of recognition in empathy? The dimension of “exclusivity” and the “value of uniqueness” (Einzigkeitswert) of the other, which cannot be reduced to any of the previous levels of constitution (cf. p. 288). In the author´s words: “Love fulfills this first objective-formal level of personal valuation recognizing not only the `objective´ value of the other, that is, their being a transcendental subject with their individuality, but also considering them as a `unique´ subject, `subjectively preferable´ concerning other values, and deciding in their favor.” (p. 317) Interestingly, the general idea that the other is the primary value to be promoted, i.e., that love is primarily love for the other, which has been defended throughout the work, leads the author to an incisive proposal of a hierarchy of values of love, which could solve Husserl´s conclusion of a tragic “sacrifice” when confronted with the choice between values of love. Since, according to the author, each value of love derives from the value of the other, “the choice between different values of love would not have the character of a tragic conflict if it were a matter of Liebeswerte of different hierarchy according to different degrees to which love is realized as Nächstenliebe.” (p. 302)

With regard to the second point mentioned, although Cabra`s analyses in this chapter concentrate specifically on the values of love, her reflections also put forward a thesis regarding the broader question of the relationship between facts and values, broadly considered. In the author´s interpretation, Husserl´s theory of value responds to the demand to consider that facts and values are not opposing categories, and that there is no unbridgeable gap between the descriptive and normative moments (cf. p. 279). In fact, the idea that something has value because it is worth of value aims to express the close connection between empirical properties and value properties (although, as the author affirms, Husserl does not clarify the nature of this connection). This would bring Husserl´s position closer to that of Brentano and distance it from Schelerian axiology (cf. p. 277).

It is also interesting to note how the work thematizes the absolute ought (absolutes Sollen) that is manifested to the person through love. The values of love have a normative and motivational force that becomes a guiding principle for the person´s life. Because of its connection to values, it is argued that in love the absolute ought is manifested immediately to the person. This means that the normative level does not “supervene” or is superimposed, but is implicit in the axiological dimension (cf. p. 304). In this way, not only is the axiological level not extrinsic to the descriptive level but  also the  normative level is not extrinsic to the axiological level.

Finally, the transition from the axiological level of values of love to the normative level of the absolute ought provides the author with the opportunity to reflect on the special relationship between universality and singularity that love brings about: In the dynamics of love, the universal is manifested in the singular. The other subject is experienced as a value whose realization enables the fulfillment of the universal categorical imperative. In other words: Through love, the universal categorical imperative is unveiled to the singular individual. Thus, love and vocation represent the “singularized universal” ( p. 302) since it is only in the encounter with another subject that the person can respond to the call to act according to the categorical imperative.

A final aspect of this chapter that I would like to mention is that throughout the analyses devoted to Husserl´s phenomenology of values, the author offers a clarification of the meaning of concepts that can easily lead to ambiguities, and proposes its own interpretation regarding their distinction: Among other things, a special consideration is given to the use of the terms “value of love”, “personal value”, “subjective value”, and “individual value” (cf. pp. 267-270), and to the difference between “having value”, and “being a value” (cf. p. 271). These clarifications are important not only for the reader of this book but also for the reader of Husserl’s work, especially when dealing with texts on the emotional-evaluative sphere, which due to its elusive nature requires the use of a complex set of terminology for its description.

The work wraps up with a conclusion that summarizes how the two paths taken (Leib and Liebe) intersect and it offers a methodological reflection on how the static approach inherent in the analysis of the Fremderfahrung is complemented by the genetic perspective. According to this, love brings with it a revision of the static foundational model in that the other subject is immediately experienced as endowed with value, as a ‘phenomenological absolute’: “On the one hand, the analysis of the Fremderfahrung, and within it the primary role of the Leib, show the static conditions of possibility for recognizing the other subject as a subject of value, through the consideration of their freedom, expressed in the Leib. On the other hand, love as a gaze that reveals the genesis of the primary manifestation of the value of the other subject and the duty towards them, represents the place where intersubjectivity and ethics meet at its highest form” (p. 319).

Summing up, it is impossible not to notice that this book is the result of an extensive and meticulous research. In addition to the level of detail achieved in the analyses, and the careful interweaving of the different themes and methodological approaches in the construction of the work,  I would like to highlight the originality of Cabra’s proposal.  From the perspective of the precise question she aims to answer, she puts forward reading hypotheses on difficult aspects of Husserlian phenomenology of values that are still not settled by Husserl´s scholars. This is very fruitful in a context where Husserlian analyses of values are being rediscovered and increasingly debated, thanks to the publication of the Studien zur Struktur des Bewusstseins (Hua XLIII, 1-3). More generally, as the author affirms, with the exception of Janet Donohoe´s work Husserl on Ethics and Intersubjectivity from 2016,[1] the explicit connection between Husserl´s analyses of intersubjectivity and his ethical thinking has been missing in the critical literature on his work to date (cf. p. 5). Il valore dell`altro fills this gap through a deep study, documented in detail in Husserl’s texts that reveals to the reader a path to grasp the profound connection between these two themes. In addition to being a valuable tool for scholars, her work contributes to the understanding of the unity that permeates Husserl’s philosophical project, and to further promote the growing studies of Husserlian ethics and value theory.

[1]     Janet Donohoe. 2016. Husserl on Ethics and Intersubjectivity. From Static to Genetic Phenomenology. University of Toronto Press.

Hans-Jörg Rheinberger: Split and Splice: A Phenomenology of Experimentation

Split and Splice: A Phenomenology of Experimentation Book Cover Split and Splice: A Phenomenology of Experimentation
Hans-Jörg Rheinberger
The University of Chicago Press
Paperback $30.00

Reviewed by: Aloisia Moser (Katholische Privat-Universität Linz)

How to not cut nature at its joints or malapropisms in science


Those who have followed the discussions on metaphor and model may find it difficult to see what is new in Rheinberger’s book “Split and Splice.” His main claim being that in order to gain new knowledge there must be an unforeseen or rogue element in the research process. Metaphor specialists have made a similar claim about language and meaning. Max Black (Black 1955; 1981) and Mary Hesse (Hesse 1963) have proclaimed that what brings us to new meaning in metaphor and models is something that comes on top of using words to refer to something literally. Meaning, especially new meaning, comes from the way we constellate words in new and unforeseen ways, for example using a term that does not refer to a thing instead of another. They also pointed out that sometimes the very materiality of words, for example their sound, creates new meaning, especially but not only in poetry. Metaphor specialists like Hesse have compared the way metaphor works with how models work in science. Models in science must be represented or made visible in a similar way to how language refers to things that do not yet have a name. You cannot do that literally.

When we use language metaphorically, we are not following the theory that we share, we are going against it. “Juliet is the sun” is a sentence that is obviously not true according to how literal language works, but we get its meaning: that Juliet is bright and shining and warm and life-giving, just like the sun. Metaphor specialists tell us that by using language like this we learn something new about Juliet (and by juxtaposing it with Juliet, the sun becomes a little more like a woman called Juliet). If Rheinberger were simply to say that this is also true for scientific models, he would not be saying anything new.

But Rheinberger is not just saying that scientific theories or models are like metaphors – he goes one step further, as does Donald Davidson in his famous paper on malapropism. Davidson claims in this paper that we do not need to use language properly at all, we can basically make nonsensical propositions and they still bring out new meaning, namely through the materiality of the words strung together, through the sounds, or even through similarity of the letters in written language. Rheinberger calls this facet of randomness of the juxtaposition of words in their materiality as “serendipity” – it is malapropism inserted into the experiment. What Rheinberger is claiming is that the scientific method works like a malapropism, which is a much stronger claim than the one that says that models work like metaphors.

A malapropism is a use of language that is not literal and where there is no intention on the part of the author or speaker. With malapropism we are entering a different kind of territory, and Davidson struggled with this in his essay “A nice Derangement of Epitaphs”(Davidson 2005) because he had to explain how meaning could be created even though the speaker was not using words literally and her intentions were not aligned with the words that she used to say something. In fact, in some types of malapropism, the opposite of what is meant is being said and the meaning is still conveyed. Often in a malapropism the speaker makes a mistake, as in a Freudian slip. Or the speaker uses one word instead of another simply because it sounds similar and there was not enough time for the speaker to correct and use the correct word. Davidson goes on to explain that the listener can still deal with this. Whereas language theorists claim that the hearer must “shar[e][ing] a complex system or theory with the speaker” (Davidson 2005, 93), “an interpreter has, at any moment of a speech transaction, what I persist in calling a theory” (ibid. p. 100). But Davidson goes on to say that “as the speaker speaks his piece the interpreter changes his theory, enters hypotheses about new names, changes the interpretation of familiar predicates, and revises previous interpretations of particular utterances in the light of new evidence.” (Davidson, ibid.) So, the speaker starts with an initial theory of interpretation, that she thinks the interpreter shares with her. Then she can consciously dispense with it, and the interpreter must modify her initial theory into an incidental or passing theory. At the end of his paper on malapropism Davidson concludes that there is no such thing as language as philosophers have assumed. There is no clearly defined common structure. Nor is there communication by appeal to convention.

Rheinberger makes a point about scientific theories and methods in Split and Splice that is very similar to the one made about language and understanding in Davidson’s malapropism essay. We need to imagine that the ‘speaker’ in this model is that which we are investigating in a particular investigation, and how that presents itself to or affords itself to us. Things are not simply given. “Data” as Rheinberger aptly says in the first part of the book are not, as the word suggests, simply given, they are already configured from the traces, that the scientific investigator measures. Rheinberger’s point is that there is something rogue about the process of investigation in science, something akin to what happens in malapropism. The experiment is an event, and the scientific process is not literal and unambiguous, but fragmentary and subject to serendipity. And that this is the method by which we arrive at new knowledge.

In a text called Postscriptum (Rheinberger 2022) to the workshop and special issue On Epistemic Times: Writing History 25 Years after Synthesizing Proteins in the Test Tube Rheinberger writes not so much a conclusion, but an outlook on “Conjunctures, Traces and Fragments.” He points out that the title of his book Spalt und Fuge, English Split and Splice was chosen because spalten, to split and fügen, to splice are the two cardinal activities of experimentation and he deliberately avoids using the terms analysis and synthesis. The latter are the logical categories that he claims have been imported into the practice of experimentation. But they did not grow out of them, and they suggest too neat of a division and fusion. Rheinberger writes:

[…] experimentation, as a process of finding one’s way into the unknown, needs more practice-oriented categories in order to apprehend its moves. If you split a log, the wood resists, and the products of your wedging activity will show uneven faces, depending on the knots and inner structure of the trunk. The same holds true for the object of your experimental inquiry. Knowledge of these structures is of the utmost importance for experimental exploration. If you splice a rope or if you graft a twig onto your vine, the points of suture will remain visible as signs of a mutilation. So will the pieces of your experimental activity, if joined to form a whole again. And it is indeed of utmost epistemic importance for the ongoing experimental process not to forget that these sutures always are—and will have to be—provisional. The title of this phenomenology of experimentation, Split and Splice, aims at calling to mind these epistemic uncertainties, inherent in the life of epistemic things. (Rheinberger 2022, p. 517)

Rheinberger emphasizes the “movement of the aleatic” (p. 518), which allows us to see the unforeseen as materialized. A conjecture is triggered by something small but has great consequences. These events, or what Bachelard calls “life-worlds” as “cultures”, provide access to emergence. (Cf. Ibid.) And Rheinberger goes on to call this “serendipity,” like actors who claim that to have been in the right place at the right time. According to Robert K. Merton, serendipity becomes the term for the “eventfulness of the research process.” (Ibid.). In Split and Splice, such conjunctures are treated as grafting activities. They are generally concerned with the interface between instruments and the objects of research, epistemic things. Rheinberger argues that these interfaces are the main loci of resistance and surprise in the research process, which is what the constellation of words in their materiality/sound was in malapropism. He concludes the section on conjunctures with the phrase “Glückliche Fügungen“ – “Happy Splices” (this was the title of one of the papers presented at the workshop). Experiments are subject to happy splices, and we need them. At the end of Split and Splice, Rheinberger points out that the only way scientific experiments can produce new knowledge only if they pay attention to the splits and splices of their experiments and do not whitewash them into neat analyses and syntheses.

The book Split and Splice therefore aims to present a phenomenology of experimentation, which for Rheinberger means that we are looking at the “shapes and contours that scientific experimentation has acquired historically” (p. 1). Here we see the same focus on the materiality of the whole movement of experimentation, not just the individual experiment. It is particularly important for Rheinberger that experimentation is seen as a knowledge-generating process. The various facets of the shapes of the experience are examined both from an “infrascopic” and from a “suprascopic perspective” (ibid.) These shapes shape the form of the book, by looking below and beyond the threshold of perception.

1. The Infrascopic

In the first part of the book, called “the infrascopic” Rheinberger investigates the micrological aspects of experimentation, such as the production of traces, the construction of models, ways of making things visible, grafting and note-taking. These are aspects of the experimental infrastructure and its materialities. Central here is the difference between the experimental space of traces and that of data, as Rheinberger introduces it, the difference between “the order of the graphematic and the order of representation.” (p. 519). Traces that result from the interface between apparatus and target must be made permanent or stored in order to serve as data and to be manipulated in this space, outside of the temporal constraints of the experiment. “Here the traces undergo a change of medium”, Rheinberger writes, “from the medium of the experiment to a medium of a different grain and materiality, be it wire, paper, or the digital” (Ibid.). While he speaks of traces in the experiment, the French word “trace” also means track, path, or mark, and this is what must be kept in mind when reading “trace”. What the trace amounts to is that the meaning of a sign is generated by the difference it has from other signs, and this means that the sign also contains a trace of what it does not mean. In this sense, “trace” becomes a term for a “mark of the absence of a presence, an always already absent present.” (Of Grammatology, Spivak xvii). What then is the notion of trace in Rheinberger’s experiment? Like the meaning of the sign, the epistemic thing gradually gains significance and becomes reified step by step. The most pertinent observation here is that neither “the traditional epistemological conception of induction nor that of deduction will be of help to us” – indeed, Rheinberger thinks that even Charles Sanders Peirce’s notion of abduction will not do, even though it comes close and is usually credited with novelty in the process of scientific investigation. What we get is a notion that Rheinberger calls “subduction.” Abduction differs from deduction and induction in that it does not begin with a general from which the individual is deduced or from individuals which are generalized through induction, abduction is the assumption of a general hypothesis, usually from a singular, which leads to the truth through conjecture or guesswork. In subduction, finally “novelty can come about inadvertently, [that] the unprecedented can be made to happen.” (p. 11) And the space in which this happens is “between the agents of knowledge and their objects of their interest.” (ibid.).

Rheinberger starts with the notion that the original gesture of the modern sciences was to “try[ing] to make the invisible visible.” We try to reveal and make accessible to our senses things that cannot be observed immediately or unmediatedly. And here we see that an “instrumentally mediated disturbance” is needed to make contact with the material. Like the documentary filmmaker who tries to show how the life of a person “is,” she cannot help but interfere with that life through the camera. In the same way, we interfere with our scientific measurements through the instruments that we use and that lead us to new knowledge in the first place.

The point is that this media/technological landscape is the only way in which science exists, and more importantly, this landscape has emerged from the process of knowledge generation itself, Rheinberger writes. Traces are a form of “material manifestation—a form of palpability” (ibid.). They are more rudimentary than what we call a representation, their nature is indexical, it is the primary manifestation of an epistemic thing, and it predates the distinction between writing and imaging. Rheinberger adds here that writing and imaging are our traditional forms of representation, but the trace is their raw material, the raw material of the experimental semiosis. In this sense, the trace is asemic, it is not yet semantic, it does not yet have meaning. But this makes it a puzzle. A trace is a trace of something, but that something is always absent (ibid. p. 13). The trace convinced Derrida that there could be no simple origin. To put it in scientific terms, the supposed origin of the trace is absent “not only in the sense of no longer being here, but in a much stronger sense: it ever was before. We cannot catch the thing that generates the trace in flagrante. Were this possible, we could save ourselves the whole experimental effort” (p. 13.).

The central task is to reflect on the epistemic and technical constitution of trace-generating experimental systems and the experimental environments or landscapes that they form. And this is where Rheinberger’s harsh criticism of the sciences comes in: he argues that this has not found its place in the self-perception of the sciences. What counts for them is the result, the finding. Instead, Rheinberger focuses on the occurrences and events of the experiment. There is neither a knowing “I” nor completed knowledge, the book is positioned in between. And this in-between consists of the traces that are created. There are paths and trajectories in which this happens. Rheinberger points out that all experimentation moves along two different epistemic axes, “depending on whether it is about the exploration of spatial structure or the determination of temporal sequences” (p. 14). In short, what is too big must be miniaturized, what is too small must be enlarged. Processes must be sped up or slowed down. And these procedures are the instructions for generating traces and providing ways of transforming them into data., i.e. ordering and condensing them, so that patterns can emerge that give contours to the phenomenon under investigation. (Cf. Ibid.)

It is time to give an example of such a trace. Rheinberger chooses radioactive substances. Radioactive substances can be measured because they indicate the path they take through the body, and a small amount of the substance can indicate the whole. In short, the system produces and simultaneously registers the traces. But these sequence gels or other experimental traces are transient. They disappear after some time. To capture them, an additional manipulation is necessary, also to make visible what is happening. Here we make the change from medium to data. The invisible intensity pattern is transferred to a sensitive film. In this way, fleeting traces can be transformed into permanent data. Rheinberger uses a word play on data here: “unlike what the name suggests, nothing is “given”—it is all the result of a process. (p. 19).

This is what Rheinberger’s book is about: how experimentation can lead us to new knowledge. And it is the wilder and more material splitting and splicing rather than the controlled and intellectual analysis and synthesis that gets us there.

In the next chapter we come to the model as a figuration that originates in the space of data. In addition to models, we can have lists, filters, orders according to variable criteria, storage, curating, and so on. The data space is quite malleable, writes Rheinberger, because we no longer have to deal with “resistances of the materiality of the experimental process.” However, Rheinberger emphasizes that the data manipulation comes with its own set of complications. We have seen a growth in data space that has been unprecedented in the last half century. This brings with it a new dynamic, that makes it appear as a real space in its own right. Data space now has its own materiality and an inherent unruliness of its own practices. We need to pay attention to this, too, Rheinberger argues.

What makes models both strong and weak is the simplification they offer. Their weakness is that we can forget for a moment that they are illusions. and their strength is that they can be easily reconfigured even as the data changes. (Recently, an Internet meme showed about 10 different kinds of model possibilities for the same kind of data, one of which was the shape or outline of a gorilla). Rheinberger points out that we oscillate between models of and models for. While science is concerned with models of, models for are found in art and architecture. Models of can be divided into functional and structural models. The example of a model organism comes from molecular genetics, we look at ribosomes, which are model organisms. The term “model organism” did not appear until the second half of the 20thcentury and played a decisive role in the development of molecular biology. The ideal model organism has material consequences because of its ideality. Why is that? Because one has to intervene in order to standardize the organism (cf. p. 27). The model organism has been modified and this “determines their character as a research tool” (ibid.). In that the model organism embodies previously acquired knowledge and becomes less an object of investigation than a technical condition of the experimental system. The models served in such a way that a picture “could be grasped at first sight and that suggested further, experimentally accessible questions on the basis of these synoptic premises” (p. 32). Rheinberger argues that the models, in their pictoriality, have the character of affordances, a term we know well from actor network theory and neo-materialistic philosophies. The model as an image becomes a kind of actant. The connection of this production of an illusion or image is not a deficiency of the model, but instead Rheinberger shows that it is an advantage. This is where the English translator curiously called or translated the restriction as malapropism, which triggered the analogy I made at the beginning of this review and my comparison of what Rheinberger does with Donald Davidson’s essay on malapropism. It is all about the new meaning in the metaphor as well as the new meaning that comes from the experiment found in the model. Because of this imaginary fiction, it is easier to formulate expectations and to address them experimentally. We have entered fully into the circularity between model and experiment full on, Rheinberger writes: “The model serves as an indirect source for an iterative process of producing of new experimental traces that, when transformed into data, can be reexamined for their compatibility with the existing model.” Rheinberger goes on to quote Alan Badiou from his early book the Concept of Model, in which he argues that the model, as a transitory aid is destined to deconstruct itself in the scientific process. What Rheinberger wants to point out is that the model represents under a specific synopsis and neglects aspects that do not come into view under the given experimental conditions. But new questions are generated, and the attempted answers continually modify the model.

There is so much more Rheinberger has to say about models; when he distinguishes structural models from functional models, it turns out that the latter attempt to associate functional states with components or regions, while structural models operate away from primary traces or data collections to a mediated form at the level of synopsis. This leads to feedback not only between models and experimental data production, but also between models themselves that refer to the same epistemic object (cf. S. 39). We are not dealing with the question of what the model means and what its reference is, but with a relation between different representations. It is nice how Rheinberger invokes Frege’s distinction between sense and reference by noting that the model either makes sense or it does not. Structural models are thus determined by two main parameters underlying their construction: “the external shape in three-dimensional space” as well as the “Internal articulation and positioning of dozens of macromolecular components with respect to each other” (p. 37). They are not primarily representational models, but rather “a tool of further knowledge production” (p. 39).

Finally, Rheinberger looks at computer graphics models, the latest addition. Here, too, the potential for gaining knowledge lies in the comparison of different models that alternative visualization technologies give us using different data sets. The different technologies are indeed different interferences, since they require different preparation procedures for the probes. “Native, untouched particles, however, cannot be seen or made visible, which makes the manipulation of their stature unavoidable. The only possibility of gaining a robust assessment of their shape is a permanent triangulation between the different results of such manipulations” (p. 44).

Rheinberger concludes the chapter on models with a brief excursion into computer simulations. As epistemic entities they are qualitatively different from other models in that they do not result from experimental traces transformed into data, accompanied by the change of medium in the transformation to data. Simulations operate on self-generated data. This gives them the advantage of allowing us to visualize origins and futures that are inaccessible in real experiment. Since we have computers, simulations have opened up additional space for experimentation that now makes models themselves the object of research. At the end of the chapter, Rheinberger points out something quite fascinating: that we are used to the precession of the simulation type of model from the fields of art and architectures. There, the models are not models of, but models for. “Here, the relation between the model and the modeled is inverted from the start” (p. 45). What this means for the relationship between the sciences and the arts is unfortunately beyond the scope of Rheinberger’s book, but it is widely discussed today, especially since we have begun to talk about artistic research.[1]

Chapter 3 of Split and Splice is entirely devoted to the trope of “making visible.” We have been circling this since the beginning of the book when we talked about synopsis and the imagery of models. Rheinberger believes that making visible is “the fundamental gesture of the modern sciences in their entirety,” and that it speaks directly to the moment of making inherent in the process. But “visualization is always bound to variegated forms of intervening,” (p. 46), Rheinberger continues.

The trace marks the beginning of the process of making something visible and lives from its proximity to the material and its proximity to the tools that bring it into being. “It therefore precedes the critical distinction between image and writing” (Ibid.). Even the practice turn in sociology, history and the philosophy of science has not yet looked closely enough at “what goes on in the space between the knower and the object of knowledge.” Meanwhile Goethe considered contemplation important and pointed to the middle ground. In his study of Newton’s theory of color, he refused to let the mediated quality of knowledge simply evaporate and to pretend that there was direct or immediate transparency. The chapter discusses examples of forms of visualization in the laboratory. We have moved from models to the actual procedures of visual representation that underlie models and preparations. Rheinberger discusses “configurations,” which are procedures of spatial and temporal compression and expansion. The second are procedures of enforcement or enhancement, and the third are procedures of schematization, in order to draw up a typology of visualizations in the sciences.

An exemplary form of compression is the map. Another is the curve, which can synoptically represent a whole series of measurements of one or more variables. This makes patterns visible. Enhancement means that structures, and even processes are made visible by coloring or placing contrasts. The means of enhancement become part of what is to be represented. Deformations must be inherent to the process. This was the earlier example of radioactive marking. One type of enhancement is particularly interesting: biological agents that are introduced to expand. We do not see the bacteria and viruses, but the space occupied by the destroyed bacteria and multiplied viruses. This is certainly not representation by depiction, but it does make the processes in question accessible for further study (cf. p. 60). Finally, schematization is used when processes are too complex. The umbrella term for the schematization is “diagrammatic,” which has recently received a great deal of attention from cultural studies. A pictorial language is developed, a kind of „image regime“ (p. 61). Rheinberger quotes Hertz, a student of Helmholtz, who is said to have said that the sciences produce “internal simulacra” of the things of the world, making possible “different images of the same objects”. Admissible, correct, and useful are the three terms he uses to describe the technical side rather than the epistemological side of experimentation. It is about “the insertion of new apparatus or procedures in already existing experimental setups (p. 67).

Most systems are transformed by apposition. Since with Rheinberger we also are dealing with the translator of Jacques Derrida, who has used the concept of grafting dealing with writing, we find a subchapter on the “Graft of Writing” which beautifully makes the connection between the natural science and the humanities. If grafting is a process of manipulation in which a new connection is made between two separate entities, then we can compare it to nomadic movements as Isabelle Stengers has described them, prerequisites for illuminating the differences in cultural techniques. Derrida spoke of the transposition of linguistic particles from one discursive context to the other, which he called an “iteration”.

Dissemination and grafting characterize the heteroclite and heteronomous, which he considered a crucial feature of the cultural technique of writing. What he meant by this was that meaning spreads like a disease, erratically through the body. Meaning is not linear and cannot be accurately depicted. Grafting is the insertion of something foreign, something that does not emerge from the pre-existing structure. But it requires the pre-existing structure to articulate itself as this other (cf. p. 70) For Derrida, to write is necessarily to graft. Bachelard used the concept of graft in the context of poetic work and images of the elements. The graft adds something new, that cannot be derived from it in the sense of an imaginative derivation. It is “material imagination” as a result of an apposition. Interestingly, the graft is here not understood as a metaphor, he takes it at face value, Rheinberger argues, and it is a figure of “material imagination” (p. 71).

After the grafts come the interfaces, the sutures between the grafted new technology and the pre-exiting technologies. There is also hybridization, which merges two independently established into a new construct. Grafting and hybridization are crucial to the iteration of experimental systems.

The last chapter of Part One deals with the protocols that must be written as an integral part of every experiment. Why are these primary written notes and records important? Because they constantly accompany the experimenter. Notes convey the concrete processes of knowledge formation. They are not an authoritative voice that knows where to go, they are tentative. And that is why they are productive and mostly neglected. As Friedrich Kittler said: “A writing system is an indispensable space of notation for emergent knowledge” (p. 95).

2. The Supra-Scopic

The second part of Rheinberger’s book is as fascinating as the first, because it is about time, but not as time as an object of experimentation, but the temporal course that epistemic processes can take. George Kubler was an art historian, a thinker in terms of structures like Thomas Kuhn, and obsessed with material objects. And with Rheinberger, Kubler is aligned with Derrida as concerned with the “diachronic flow structures of the historical process and its conceptualization” (p. 100). Time is not a fow, but a structure composed of units, each of which carries its own temporality. He departs from the distinction between longue and courte duree of biology and the individual development. He wants to focus on the characters and properties of the objects of culture, the things with which the arts are concerned. In short, he is interested in “figures of temporal condensation of a medium range that he calls “shapes” (p. 101).He wants to see the processes common to art and science in the same historical perspective, without blurring the differences between artistic and scientific things. Utility and beauty are, after all, very different. But the genesis of epistemic things and works of art is not entirely different, since they share at least the trait of invention, change, and obsolescence at least. (Cf. Ibid.) No wonder Rheinberger is interested in Kubler, but not in returning to the “genius religion” of the great man-inventors. Novelty may be an idea, but the sudden inspiration of gifted brilliance is not the answer. Rather, it is the “unprecedented result of a retrojection,” Kubler suggests. Here is the example: An artist and a miner are digging for ore. They can assess the tunnels dug, still there is no guarantee what direction to take. Both artists and scientists move in a terrain of materiality. They are scarred by the paths that have been trodden before. They must confront the materials head on. Like Kuhn Kubler sees the arts as moving towards no goal. We move toward what we want to know. We seize the moment in the given circumstances of possibility. We create a series or a sequence.

Rheinberger then thinks about epistemic trajectories in terms of Kubler. He repeats what Fleck thought, namely that experiments tend to be “carried along by a system of earlier experiments and decisions,” recalling Kubler’s imagery of tunnels and shafts. Rheinberger then lists five kinds of trajectories or sequences that can be specified in the empirical sciences: frames for the production of experimental traces and data. To demonstrate this, he takes a model organism, the flour moth Ephestia kühnella, and shows us how it was used as an object of study to study its spread and learn how to eradicate it. But he also shows how it was eventually replaced by other model organisms because its genetics were too complicated to read.

Epistemic and artistic matters are therefore similar in that what we call the “ingenious ideas” are mainly the researchers who become aware of an option that such a system offers and usually through a new technique or a signal that surfaced in a hidden corner. Cultural novelty, Rheinberger concludes the chapter, is realized in history as the history of things and are closely tied to the materials and the options that emanate from them (cf. p. 114).

The second chapter of Part II is about experiential cultures, which are the specific forms of spatial expansion of experimental systems. Such systems may form ensembles or bundles, in which case they are called experimental cultures. Here we have an interesting glitch in the otherwise excellent translation. Rheinberger writes that the concept of “Sich-Teilen-in” is central, which means literally, “To-Divide-Oneself-Into.” But the translation uses the word “sharing,” which is not the best choice because it brings the meaning too close to the symbolic. Culture is usually tied to the symbolic, but Rheinberger wants to focus on the “materialities of the scientific work in process.” And this is why it is a self-splitting, not a sharing, a division that is material. Rheinberger says the Sich-Teilen-in contains the core of why we speak of cultures here. Aspects of experimentation that are similar are called styles of scientific thought or practice, as well as ways of knowing or doing. But the notion of culture underscores the aspect of material interrelation between experimental systems, a meaning that only emerges as these systems emerge.

Most importantly, Rheinberger does not want to discuss experimental cultures as part of a history of disciplines that looks at institutions. Instead, he wants to define scientific communities in terms of their shared paradigms, and to try to characterize them in terms of shared experimental life forms. This explains at least why the translator has chosen the term “sharing” earlier. Such a shared culture or life form of experimentation is then presented by looking at “in vitro” – the biological test tube culture. The transition from a living system to a test tube system was not simply a transition from biology to organic chemistry – but it was the replication of life under different conditions. The question is: “do we still see nature in the mirror?” In a chapter on culture as an epistemological concept, we get a discussion of the modern use of the term, the distinction between man-made and naturally occurring things (cf. p. 126).

Chapter 8 is called Knowing and Narrating. Reflection of modern science in its own activity. The metaphor of the legibility of the world is used here, and that the letters of the book of nature are inherent in nature and all we do is look for them to be revealed. The image tells us that the scientific discourse is transparent and unadulterated by the media through which it is represented. Against this background, Rheinberger asks: do scientific texts narrate or not? Or are they really descriptive or hypothetico-deductive as we would like to believe. He brings up the distinctions between explanation and understanding, nomothetic and idiographic, knowledge of nature and knowledge of history.

First comes the question of authorship, the question of narrative. Experimental systems embody and realize a narrative structure. Since the experimental order is in a constant state of reorientation, experimental systems not only tell stories, but also change them (p. 136).

This is how we arrive at the poetology of research. Polanyi’s ideas about the agency of things are introduced. What we see here to is that epistemological acts allow us to take the next step in given research situations and that it is the “unexpected impulses” that determine the “course of scientific development” (Polyani p. 141). An experiment must introduce unintended effects, or unexpected results. In a chapter on epistemicity and experimentality knowledge things are characterized as things that leave something to be desired. Their relationship to the world is a search for knowledge. Quoting Claude Bernard, Rheinberger suggests that experimenters arrange situations so that finding becomes possible. He writes “One could describe such searching as a game of eventuation. It is an engagement with the material world that requires, first, an intimate acquaintance with the things at hand, and second (and at the same time) a distancing, the ability to let things appear strange” (p. 143). At this point the term “Serendipity” comes up again, and it stands for the serendipity of research, the fact that a serendipitous byproduct has effects on a theory and produces questions that could not have been asked before. It is about an epistemology of the unprecedented (ibid.)

And finally, towards the end of the book Rheinberger comes to the fragment. Traditionally, the fragmentary has been regarded as a deficient state of things to be repaired by a view from the whole. I recently heard the Slovenian writer and Ingeborg Bachmann Price Winner Ana Marwan, reading from her latest book, Zabubljena, in German “Verpuppt” (Marwan 2023) make the same eulogy or declaration of love for the fragmentary. She said about her novel that she did not want to write a narrative, a whole story that makes sense, but to give priority to small pieces of life. To the momentary beauty of a fragment in time and constellation with other people, and not to the implementation of that piece into a larger whole of a life that makes sense. She argues that this is closer to the way life is and feels as lived, as fragmentary.

Rheinberger wants the fragmentary to be a driving force of the research process and believes that it characterizes “both the natural sciences and the historical humanities” (Postscriptum p. 520). Again, he distinguishes between the scientific activity of dissecting materials in order to gain knowledge of their fine structure and the relations between the parts, and the kind of dissection and fragmentation that for the historical humanists has always been done by time. The humanist finds her material already in a fragmented state and must reconstruct it. For the biological and physical sciences of the past, we have a similar fragmentation by time.

Both epistemic intervention and representation (a distinction made by Ian Hacking) are built on the fragmentary. Our mappings of the world are based on intelligent economy.” Rheinberger gives the example of Borges’ scientist who wanted to make a 1:1 map, without leaving anything out, he wanted to represent the whole, not just a fragment, but such a map would make no sense. Fragments allow for a “resistance to plenitude: gaps, leftovers, omissions” and especially the thing that is absent but left its imprint and is thus an absent presence “at the point of contact as an absent origin.” Here we clearly hear Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, the translator of Jacques Derrida.

In conclusion, Rheinberger presents a book on scientific method that deals in the first part with the spatial and in the second with the temporal problems of discovering any new epistemic object in science. Since we are finding our way into the unknown we need to take epistemic uncertainties as part of the process. Resistance and the influence of our experimental activity are part and parcel of the life of epistemic things.

[1] See the workshop Zufall und Einfall. Medien der Kreativität in Wissenschaft und Kunst. November 9-11, 2023 at KU Linz. The collected papers will be published with Transcript in 2024.

Eugen Fink: Fashion: Seductive Play

Fashion: Seductive Play Book Cover Fashion: Seductive Play
Eugen Fink (Author) , Stefano Marino (Anthology Editor) , Giovanni Matteucci (Anthology Editor) , Ian Alexander Moore (Translator) , Christopher Turner (Translator)
Bloomsbury Publishing

Reviewed by: Chiara Tessariol


Fashion: Seductive Play is a monograph originally written in German by Eugen Fink in 1969 that focuses on the significance of fashion as an object of study that is also worthy of philosophical consideration. The book has been translated into English in 2023 and published in a new edition that is also enriched by an original Introduction written by Stefano Marino and Giovanni Matteucci. Through a detailed and in-depth contextualization of Fink’s thought, Marino and Matteucci (editors of this book) succeed in highlighting its topicality by comprehensively outlining his discourse on fashion as a philosophical question, being highly controversial today.

With a pragmatic stance, Fink points to a number of deficiencies that can be blamed on a certain typical dichotomous attitude that has characterized Western thinking and has often led to heedless disqualification of the aesthetic validity of fashion. However, a redefinition of popular culture that has taken place in the last few decades has made it possible to critically rethink and overcome the traditional oppositional division between high culture and low culture. Hence, one of the aims of this project is to propose what we can define as the first instance of legitimization of fashion and its play of forms, analyzed with an approach derived from phenomenological philosophy.

In their introduction, Marino and Matteucci circumscribe the origin of Fink’s book to a precise context within his philosophical development, making reference to Simona Bertolini’s work (a great expert of Fink’s thought) who has traced a specific timeline in the evolution of Fink’s philosophy (p. 7). Throughout his studies, Fink tackles various stages of philosophical reflection, which gradually lead him to also embrace fields such as anthropology and pedagogy. Eventually, his interests culminate in a pronounced scrutiny of the relation between human beings and their environment, and how human beings interact with the world through play —  understood as a vital thrust. This final stage in the development of Fink’s thought is precisely the stage in which we can place his fashion book. Besides this, through Marino’s and Matteucci’s essay the reader is immediately introduced to the specificity of Fink’s phenomenological investigation by means of an analysis of the concepts of play, appeal, seduction, leadership, and body. In particular, the latter is investigated in a somehow dialectical way: on the one hand, there is the level of the “alienated” body, i.e. the body understood as an object. On the other hand, there is the level of the body recognized as an organism and as the “instrument” through which we can have our unique and real-life experience. Fink, thus, emphasizes in a new way the importance of the bodily dimension, which has been severely undermined and repudiated by the Western tradition which is in favor of the spiritual sphere. Following the steps of this same reasoning, a second implication becomes apparent: by covering our body with clothes (which is distinguished from that of other animals because of its nakedness), we somehow enter into a second dimension. This extra layer differentiates us from all other species, because this “second skin” is culturally chosen, and delineates human beings as socially, artistically and intellectually refined creatures. So, fashion becomes the civilized, established medium that marks the individuals from the outside world, a cultural phenomenon that is surely worthy of study.

Through a theoretical-conceptual approach, the cardinal principles of Fink’s investigation are examined in this book and compared to other currents, to broaden the articulation of his philosophical proposal regarding fashion, eventually revealing the anthropological implications intertwined with it. Heir to the questions of philosophers such as Husserl and Heidegger, Fink succeeds in reconstituting his own original investigation, in which he takes up a new line of inquiry that delves into the expressive ambiguity of clothing and, more generally, into the polysemous field of aesthetics, understood as a complex system of symbols of ambivalent nature. It acknowledges the beauty of appearance, and its noteworthiness is revealed by retracing some dimensions that are viscerally linked to human existence and cannot be minimized by being reduced to a mere consumerist discourse. So, it becomes evident that clothes are a sort of bridge that connects the individual to the outside world and, likewise, delimits his/her physical presence, separating the body from the rest, circumscribing the subject’s individuality and making known its meaningful interaction with other organisms. The meaning that human beings assign to their own image and aesthetics, hence, acquires an actual importance, and this emphasizes the practical-operational character of appearance, rather than its purely conceptual nature.

Ultimately, the originality of Fink’s philosophical thinking is recognized by Marino and Matteucci in their Introduction specifically for its anthropological roots, which find their raison d’être in his historical perspective. From the author’s critical point of view, fashion is understood as a sort of compensation for the decline of human beings’ primary instincts during its evolution. Clothing, together with other forms of interaction, is constituted as an alternative form of transformation and personification of human beings’ surroundings, thus identifying art forms as a different way of expressing one’s being. On account of this, through a socio-anthropological excursus, it is shown how clothes function, firstly, as a barrier to safeguard the body from the gazes of the world, as a sort of social connection between the wearer and the observer. Secondly, clothes function as an active interaction of performative symbols that acquire an explanatory connotation when worn in front of others. Through an elaborate proposal, Fink develops his own theory on fashion, acknowledged as a necessary practice for human being’s existence. The dialectical reconstruction of the fashion phenomenon here serves as a common thread, capable of grasping the essential continuity in the author’s perspective.


The original version of the book was opened by a short Preface written by Walter Spengler (included also in this English edition) that makes another salient point. Although it is difficult to briefly define the concept of fashion because of its multifaceted nature, we cannot deny that it has a profound meaning for human beings. When we refer to “fashion”, we immediately tend to think of clothes; however, any aspect of the human experience, in principle, is fashionable. In its broadest sense, fashion can be applied to everyone — men, women, children — and everywhere — in architecture, in travel destinations, or even in ways of giving birth or dying. This human “fashion-ability” proves to be crucial, because when one misses its meaningfulness, one also risks to miss a whole set of values, symbols, and ideas that belong to that specific trend — given that, people can even be socially excluded when they do not possess fashionable features or do not follow certain biases. There is therefore a sort of unwritten rule that presses the human being in his/her appearance to be exposed to the judgment of others, who trivially can define him/her as “in” or “out” on the basis of tacit shared standards.

The first chapter of Fink’s book, after Spengler’s Preface, scrutinizes the roots of clothing, understood as a significant representational medium for humankind since its origins. Fink’s argumentation draws on a Kantian conception which reworks with elegant delicacy, the Biblical narration on how the human being became truly “human”. A dialectical traversal between Kant and Fink unfolds in many articulations that, although conditioned by the Kantian legacy, results in a series of genuine implications of thought. The main ideas about the anthropological “rise” of human beings are thereby retraced.

Initially, through the use of language, the human being enters into a thoughtful relationship with the world. Aware that he/she can make use of the light of reason, the human being is now also capable of rebelling against leadership and acquires, for the first time, the capacity to choose. The break between what we may call the pre-human condition and a properly human one (characterized by reason) is underscored by the Finkian reworking of this narration that stresses how individuals self-determine, refine themselves, and establish a leadership and a deeper relationship with the space they inhabit. People, uplifted from their primordial slavery condition, experience a freedom from which they will not return back. Secondly, Kant pointed out the difference in sexual drive and the concept of nudity that exists between non-human animals and human beings. While for the former, sexuality is dictated by the seasonal heat, the human being experiences his/her sexuality with greater constancy. Moreover, nudity is a concept peculiar only to the human experience of life, which, in fact, sees the use of fig leaf – an image laden with erotic symbolism – in covering one’s genitals. Fink takes up the reins of Kantian thought by admitting that the human being is adept at refining his/her drives and reworking his/her relationships in such a way as to give them an emotional and affective value. It follows a statement that postulates a dichotomy between a benign and a malevolent power of thought, which allows the individual to reflect on possible future scenarios, and yet, now aware of strains of life, has to deal with preoccupations that burden him/her. However, in this dialectical exchange Fink accentuates the concept of “care,” for which the capability of the human being to reflect on his/her past plays a central role and explains why he/she acts in favor of a better future, providing what is necessary for his/her existence, while recognizing that labor and pain are inescapable. To continue, the concept of human dominion over other animals, used as tools, is examined. There is, thus, a mutual respect between humans as co-rulers (p. 42), a kind of “self-proclamation” of human beings as a chosen species who live above all others, and whose freedom is only limited when the freedom of another human being begins. In this regard, Fink positively underlines that sociability is a covenant between humans that derives from reason and that our freedom is not limited by the other, but rather coexists with the other. Ultimately, an inherent reflection on freedom is provided: on the one hand, freedom offers us more choices; on the other hand, decision-making power forces us to face a situation to ponder and chart our own path. The human being, as creator of his/her own destiny, manages to give value to his/her own body, even with the use of material production.

In the Christian narrative, as opposed to the spirit, soul or mind (which elevate the individual), the body holds the individual in the earthly dimension, connoting it as a limitation to our proximity to a higher sphere. The body becomes the expedient that brings us closer to the animal realm and does not allow us to approach a divine existence. However, as the author stresses here, humans’ vital experience always takes place in an embodied manner; indeed, without the body, human beings could not open themselves to the world.


In the second chapter of Fink’s book, human society is contextualized in its forms and organizations, and the concept of “fashion” is analyzed within existing divergences of the system. In a broader sense of the term, fashion reflects the Zeitgeist of our time, providing the means by which we identify ourselves with the actual historical context. In truth, fashion influences our lives so much that those who contradict the Zeitgeist by dressing differently, for example, paradoxically confirm the influence of fashion and emphasize how far it has spread to all the different layers of society. Or else, in the strictest sense of the term, the fleetingness of fashion is also affirmed, which, in its continuous evolution, is manifested in a short time span. Once again, an assessment of Western thinking with regard to the significance of fleetingness is made, whereby the human being deciphers the importance and worth of things on the basis of their durability and temporal stability. This gives rise to one of the main prejudices against fashion: because of its intrinsic nature, it is unstable and constantly changing over time, for which it is popularly considered to have no moral depth. Fashion, therefore, has been wrongly considered as frivolous and has been often portrayed as an unnecessary vice that people fall prey to – all victims of fashion businessmen who, for their own financial gain, induce people to buy more and more. While admitting the importance of the quality and durability of clothes that serve to cover the human body, Fink also foregrounds the aesthetic aspects of clothes, which are just as real as their functional features. Indeed, the human being lives in a reality that is manifested concretely, materially, and he/she is self-aware of his/her corporeality, through which he/she expresses a series of values and ideas that go beyond mere functionality, such as social status, personal taste, sexual desire, and so on. Fashion finds further social significance in its ability to scan time and place, by decoding who we are and what we do, by revealing gender, age, and a host of features that otherwise would not be expressible except through the language of clothes. Finally, considering fashion from an exquisitely economic point of view, Fink argues its validity by stressing that the current economy goes beyond production strictly related to primary needs, and in textile production there is also creative and artistic work that elevates a simple piece of cloth to an intangible, but no less important, value.


The third chapter of Fink’s book further explores the different meanings of the word “public” to which fashion is related. On the one hand, the notion of “public” can connote a political, state institution, linked to a system of laws and regulations. In addition, it can be used as the opposite of “private” or “familiar”, when we refer to all those social and work roles that lie outside our most intimate family sphere. Alongside the concept of public, we find the notion of “publicity”, which differs from the first term because it refers to a lifestyle that is not entirely subjugated by external constraints, i.e., how a person acts, speaks, and dresses is explained as a result of a primordial instinct to the emulation of others. In this context, garments, thus, become an intelligible element, a sort of frontier between publicity and singularity, reflecting both the individual’s taste and personality and, at the same time, the influence of external vogues. This sort of guidance from the surrounding arises from the work of the designer, who must be able to grasp what the consumer’s innermost and unconscious desires are, launch new ideas that challenge popular taste within an unpredictable fashion market, and finally translate them into their design. It is precisely this extravagance that makes people amazed and constantly breaks a temporary balance that allows them to create new ones. Designers propose new ways of thinking through their artworks, although the uniqueness of their creativity is soon lost because the industrial reproducibility of a garment is almost immediate. Conversely, a consumer experiments and plays with forms and contents, and is able to appreciate fashion in its infinite manifestations.

The aforementioned expressive capacity of clothing differentiates us from the animal world, where all kinds of enclosures have the mere function of protection, while human beings also entrust a cultural and meaningful symbolism to what they wear. Through his/her work the designer identifies the impulses proper to his/her contemporary era, which, in the 1960s (that is, the time when Fink’s book was first published in Germany), were already displaying greater freedom concerning sexual attraction and fluidity between the sexes. The designer, stripped of all taboos, interprets the impulses and desires dictated by sexual charge that are inherent in human beings and creates clothes that reflect these energies and drives. In doing so, for Fink there is a division between interpreting the image of the man and that of the woman. In the former case, the sexual symbolism of the man is much less pronounced and obvious: as a matter of fact, the attraction to him is reinterpreted in a more subtle way in the form of values such as masculinity, power, and physical prowess, to transmit the idea of security, strength, and protection. In the women’s case, what is pointed out are the most forbidding areas, to directly outline forms and shapes of the female body. Hence, women’s physicality is emphasized in a harmonious way, through an intriguing game of veiling and unveiling, covering and uncovering, playing with the accessible and the forbidden, in order to enhance her appeal.


The fourth chapter of Fink’s book focuses on the notion of stimulus and how it works, even unconsciously, on human reactions, first at a biological level. Merely through a single detail, fashion manages to cause a response, a stimulus precisely, in the beholder. The human being, in his/her relationship with the other, is always subjected to new stimuli, which can give rise to different feelings such as sympathy or antipathy. Therefore, the relationship with the outside becomes meaningful, so that an interest can be aroused at different levels: it may derive from curiosity, from sexual interest or from an interest towards otherness, but anyway the totality of all those small reactions characterizes our interaction with the environment and form our cultural surroundings. Again, the role of the designer comes into play and takes part in the equation proposed by Fink. Appeal pervades human society and is cunningly read and interpreted by the designer with unobtrusive discretion, so as to elicit some reactions or emotions, almost on a subconscious level. There is, however, a political symbolism attached to appeal which can express a social status, or an erotic charge that manifests itself in different ways — according to the taste of the current Zeitgeist.

At any rate, it must be recognized that there is a fine line between what suggests a reaction and an interest in us and what overtly highlights certain parts of the human body. When physical characteristics are explicitly shown off, the opposite effect occurs, in which the naturalness of what one wants to show off is lost, hence mislaying that veiled je ne sais quoi that is typical of the fashion game of seeing-through. By analyzing the concept of appeal, a challenge is opened up to the reader whereby we no longer think of fashion as a mere game of concealing and revealing, as a way of exaggerating or hiding forms. Rather, we are now led to think of fashion as a true act of representing something deeper and more innate, which takes us back to the primordial human nature and our instincts: an innate response in the human being full of meaning that mediates with our deepest Self. So, when we judge clothing from a moral perspective, we miss the fact that attire remains in-between two opposed dimensions: one that refers to the idea of “civil”, that can be rationally understood and that aligns with socially accepted and promoted values, and another that is “natural”, that represents the physical tangible part of our body which is viscerally linked to the concept of nature — a blank canvas on which to express culturally established concepts.


So far, in examining Fink’s book, we have observed the world of fashion as a vehicle for certain values of appeal, status, or human artistic expression. However, in the fifth chapter of his book Fink shifts his attention to an understanding of fashion in relation to the question of human sociability. By analyzing leisure time, both on a philosophical level and from an economic-productive point of view, Fink shows the seriousness of both production time and leisure time, emphasizing the inability of the human being to make full use of the latter. Rest time and the need for sociability are phenomena that have always permeated humankind, although historically the possibility of enjoying spare time has been a prerogative of the élite, since the main part of the population was subjected for centuries to what we may call “dehumanizing working conditions”. Whilst anciently there were occurrences of participation and entertainment of the population, the dissonance between the more privileged and the less favored found a point of resolution that mainly coincided with the French Revolution, an historical moment that sanctioned an extended freedom for all social strata. Moreover, shortly before the publication of Fink’s book (originally appeared in 1969, as I said), we witnessed advances in the industrial sector, the affirmation of mass production, and the implementation of the assembly line as a productive organization. All these factors introduced and established tight rhythms in the working hours of men and women, who ultimately made this rhythmic progression of time their own. The notion of rhythm and organization of time turns out to be tricky: the human being, absorbed in this incessant tempo, is almost incapable of filling his/her free time spontaneously and creatively: somehow it seems that, once he/she acquired the coveted freedom, he/she became unable to enjoy it. The more society advances in its progress, the more urgent the need to structure leisure time is. Consequently, new industries are born to organize different activities for people, such as games, sports, and events which, although aimed at filling the people’s time in a creative, free and convivial manner, mirror and mimic the existing timing and dynamics of work and formal activities. So, in leisure time we witness a kind of performance in which the actors participate voluntarily where they dress with an established style, behave in a certain way, and create events and participate in a play for which they entertain themselves, but not without labels, behavioral patterns or tacitly agreed norms.

​​Fink, through an analysis of the human being’s daily splitting of time, highlights once again the limits of the dichotomous approach that has been typical of Western thought, according to which leisure time is less important than work time, since it neither produces nor is considered “serious”. As in the case of fashion, also in this case Fink succeeds in unhinging prejudices about what is popularly considered to be superfluous or less necessary to human existence, giving a demonstration of the validity of all the nuances of the beautiful and the pleasurable that human beings eventually wish to experience. Fink makes the investigation of beauty a cultural issue and evinces the adult’s intrinsic need to relate to the others in a playful context and how human beings manifest their sincere desire to show themselves to the others in so many ways, including through clothes. As follows, dress becomes a symbolic medium, a set of meaningful constructs that finds its own expression in leisure time, giving the person the opportunity to originally style his or her image.

Finally, the role of young people in the use of clothes is also theorized. As bearers of a new and often critical image of society, they challenge the taste and moral values of their time, in order to create new ones. It is precisely with them that fashion and, in general, aesthetic sensibility become a means of cultural redemption, demanding a pedagogical and societal responsibility to recognize, appreciate and enhance the beauty that accompanies human life in all its forms, both as artworks and as forms of design that adorn and embellish the play of the human being.


Thinking about fashion also means contextualizing it to different historical moments. As I have stated above, in the 1960s the transformation of the production industry was already evident. Mechanization enabled forms of reproducibility capable of responding to an ever-increasing demand for goods, finally allowing people, not only to meet their basic needs but also, to satisfy and enjoy their whims, reaching the less well-off social strata also (and not only) in matters of fashion. While the dichotomous approach between high culture and low culture has already been discussed above, in the sixth chapter of Fink’s book this precept again becomes indispensable in understanding the function of cultural industries which, in their multiplicity of ways of manifesting themselves, recognize the fundamental value of the free creativity of individuals.

Fink’s reflection investigates fashion as a cultural industry, disentangling it between the different accusations of being a constricting leadership or being a tempting seduction. If we interpret fashion as a coercive pressure, we admit that in every trend there is also a normative force that defines the most fashionable lines of the moment. Nonetheless, this drive mostly points in the direction of the current style, offering many different outfits from which a person can choose. In a broader context of analysis, there are several transformational leadership dynamics that stem from the experience of state authority or the pedagogical leadership of a teacher. Similarly, what is witnessed in fashion is a diktat that is proposed by a sort of unknown authority that shows us the next trends to follow to stay fashionable; for instance, in fashion newspapers the idea of “must have” often echoes between the pages. However, the human being, endowed with reason and awareness, accesses the phenomenon of dress in a process of self-determination, according to one’s cultivated taste. Thus, the aesthetic choice is an active stance by the individual, who freely plays with fashion and trends, relating to them more as suggestions than as despotic directives. Furthermore, referring to the concept of seduction, Fink illustrates the reasons why this concept must not be necessarily limited to a negative connotation, thus proposing a renewed consideration of aesthetics in virtue of its equally important positive attributes. The term “seduction”, as a matter of fact, has been traditionally used to indicate something sinful, something wrong, which can lead us into a trap. By contrast, for Fink there exists a pure, transparent and above all real beauty that individuals can discover and experience throughout their existence. The beauty of a design, whether from nature or man-made, brings a relief and, as Fink argues, a “positive illusion” (p. 109) that sustains the human being by alleviating the inevitable hard, tedious, sacrificial, and working experiences of life. Charme is necessary to save the human being from his/her situation of misery, whereas it provides a moment of contemplation, a consolation, at least apparent, from life’s hostilities.


In the last chapter, Fink draws his conclusions by deliberating on a possible existential justification for fashion. If considered in purely economic terms, it is evident that there exist goods that are far more important and useful than clothes, i.e., necessities. It is equally true that, from a market perspective, any good or activity reflects the economic possibilities of people who have purchasing power that allows them to own those goods and access those activities. So, assuming that the individuals’ economic well-being is used to achieve a specific power, image or relevance within a certain social group, it follows that the value we place on material goods no longer determines a purely economic value, but also a political one. Moreover, the fact that fashion is seen as unnecessary gives it, a fortiori, a negative connotation since, in the Western polarized approach, there is a division between useful goods, which are positively received, and useless goods, from which we morally tend to distance ourselves. Therefore, it becomes possible to interpret the choices of sharing and exhibiting one’s closeness to fashion from a mere moralistic point of view, but in doing so, for Fink, we overlook its most authentic and original value: its aesthetic value. Fashion is actually neither useful nor necessary. In its irrationality and elusiveness, it is an artistic expression and ultimately even a symbolic and political statement; its nature is ambiguous, dialectical and polysemous, just like the human being’s identity, and, like the human being, it essentially exists as such. Besides this, fashion is also strictly linked to human nature because of its capacity to transform the human beings’ physical life experience. Due to the complex phenomenon of the fashion system, it would be erroneous to simply judge it as positive or negative, or as worthy of existence or not: in fact, nowadays fashion permeates our lives and its existential character is a certain phenomenon. In this way, the intentionality of Fink’s reasoning lies not as much in the moral or utilitarian argumentation of la mode, but rather on what is, in universal terms, justified for its very own existence. By all appearances, such a question denotes the superficiality of the accusations leveled at fashion; after all, as Fink observes, there is no supreme authority with the power to decide what, in this world, is justified to exist or not.

Fashion belongs to the human dimension and diversifies the human being from all nonhuman animals: it is a cultural product and a complex signifying organism. Its ambiguity makes it unique and capable to creatively play with the wearer who, conversely, gives to the clothes a personal meaning, without discarding the relationship with the surrounding environment, but eventually establishing a continuous dialectical relationship between being and appearing, private and public, wearer and beholder. Indeed, fashion plays between multiple branches, revealing and concealing, playing with sex appeal, demonstrating a power, a social status, the membership to a group, and differentiating male and female gender, or mixing them.


In the 1960s, when Fink’s book was written, great changes were taking place within society. That decade represented a moment of political and social transformation, it gave new impetus to industry and looked towards modernization, as it offered space to a new freedom of expression for a hitherto, non-existent precariousness of identity, and forcing the young generation to ask new questions that need to be answered.

It is precisely in this context of cultural ferment that Fashion: Seductive Play becomes an instrument of ideological struggle, acquiring a profoundly pioneering significance. Its publication, indeed, can be understood as the concretization of a blatant awareness on the part of philosophy, which admits its role in the construction of a prospective critique, applicable to a tangible reality that is inevitably subject to change. Fink’s text is, thus, a rare proof of philosophical exploration of fashion, aesthetics and the corporeal dimension; a sort of enterprising and compelling prelude that opens a new path for philosophical fashion studies. Its argumentative richness lies in Fink’s realist attitude that, thanks to his dialectical ability, unhinges the groundless accusations moved towards fashion. It eventually replies to some questions and prejudices that have widely characterized Western culture and challenges some of its limitations and fallacies. Thanks to the editors’ accurate Introduction, the English edition of Fink’s book is also enriched with new insights that reveal an urgent — and, now more than ever, topical — need for a confirmation, still uncertain in some ways, of fashion’s legitimacy as a research topic.

Indeed, many of the stereotypes to which — according to Fink’s critical analysis — fashion was subjected, are still alive and popularly shared. However, thanks to a cultural profiling of trivializing logics, Fink allows us to understand the essentiality of the fashion phenomenon from a cultural-pedagogical point of view. Firstly, recognizing the essential value of our physical dimension and then, consequently, the symbolic system we adhere to by dressing ourselves. Finally, the publication of Fink’s book in English translation, many years after its original publication in German, proves to be a precious rediscovery and appreciation of fashion issues noteworthy for its unconventional character, an overture that has opened a dialogical encounter between philosophy and fashion that is still ongoing.

Patrizia Breil: Körper in Phänomenologie und Bildungsphilosophie. Körperliche Entfremdung bei Merleau-Ponty, Waldenfels, Sartre und Beauvoir

Körper in Phänomenologie und Bildungsphilosophie: Körperliche Entfremdung bei Merleau-Ponty, Waldenfels, Sartre und Beauvoir Book Cover Körper in Phänomenologie und Bildungsphilosophie: Körperliche Entfremdung bei Merleau-Ponty, Waldenfels, Sartre und Beauvoir
Wissenschaftliche Beiträge zur Philosophiedidaktik und Bildungsphilosophie
Patrizia Breil
Verlag Barbara Budrich

Reviewed by: Thomas Zingelmann (Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena)

­­­Die 2021 erschienene Arbeit, welche eine leicht veränderte Fassung der Dissertation der Autorin ist, macht eine klare Diagnose: Trotz einer differenzierten Debatte über Leib und Körper verpasste die Phänomenologie in weiten Teilen bisher körperliche Entfremdungserfahrungen zu beschreiben. Besser gesagt: Breil konstatiert, dass die phänomenologischen Diskussionen über Leib und Körper vornehmlich durch die Rezeption Maurice Merleau-Pontys geprägt ist, wobei aber die Schriften Jean-Paul Sartres und Simone de Beauvoirs Phänomene aufgreifen, die sich mit der Traditionslinie Merleau-Pontys und Bernhard Waldenfels‘ nicht beschreiben lassen. Dem möchte die Autorin Abhilfe verschaffen, indem sie dieser Problematik aus einer existentialistisch-phänomenologischen Perspektive begegnet und sich darum bemüht den Boden für eine Beschreibung körperlicher Entfremdung zu bereiten. Abseits der Beseitigung einer Leerstelle in der Phänomenologie sieht Breil hier eine pragmatische Notwendigkeit: Die Erziehungswissenschaft und Philosophiedidaktik haben keine passenden Konzepte für die Erfahrung der Heranwachsenden. Ihnen fehle das adäquate theoretische Instrumentarium, um beispielsweise Pubertäts- oder Gewalterfahrungen der Sache gemäß aufbereiten zu können. Insofern ist auch Breils erklärtes Ziel die existentialistischen Ansätze für Erziehungswissenschaft und Philosophiedidaktik fruchtbar zu machen. Ihr Vorhaben ist klar: „Unter Bezug auf Phänomenologien, die den Körper in seiner Materialität thematisieren, wird eine Theorie des unverfügbaren Körpers skizziert, die eine notwendige Ergänzung von phänomenologischer Erziehungswissenschaft und Philosophiedidaktik darstellt.“ (S. 163) Ihre Überlegungen werden durch die These getragen, dass körperliche „Unverfügbarkeit […] zentraler Aspekt des Menschseins“ sei. (S. 144)

Das Buch gliedert sich gleichmäßig in zwei Teile: Teil I behandelt „Pathologien des unverfügbaren Körpers“ in Auseinandersetzung mit Merleau-Ponty, Waldenfels, der phänomenologischen Erziehungswissenschaft und der Philosophiedidaktik. Teil II thematisiert „Unverfügbarkeit als Modus körperlicher Existenz“ in Auseinandersetzung mit Jean-Paul Sartre und Simone de Beauvoir, mit deren Hilfe Breil dann einen Ansatz für Lehrkonzepte in Aussicht stellt.

Breils Ausgangsbeobachtung ist, dass „der eigene Körper auffällig“ (S. 7) wird, und zwar in einer Weise, dass die bestehende oder sich verändernde Materialität des Körpers als unverfügbar, im Sinne von unkontrollierbar erfahren wird. Der Körper würde so in „Unabhängigkeit von dem leiblichen Gesamtzusammenhang“ (S. 9) erfahren. Darauf zielt auch die Rede von Entfremdung bei Breil ab, dass der Körper entweder als nicht dem Selbst zugehörig oder zumindest als widerständig erfahren würde. Der Körper, den man hat, wird als fremd und eigensinnig erfahren. Damit ist auch schon eine Dimension ihrer Arbeit angesprochen, die doch einen Mehrgewinn in der Debatte um Entfremdung darstellt. Denn ihr Ansatz ergänzt, wie Breil selbst anspricht, den sonst von der Gesellschaftstheorie dominierten Diskussionsbereich, in welchem der Gehalt der subjektiven Erfahrung von Entfremdung kaum eine Rolle spielt. Breil ist hier ganz deutlich: Ihr geht es um „die historisch unspezifische, individuelle Möglichkeit, den eigenen Körper als widerständiges und rein physisches Gegenüber zu erfahren, dessen Stellung zum Selbst in Frage steht.“ (S. 9) Im Raum steht nicht etwa die Frage, inwieweit polit-ökonomische Umstände, Strukturen und Bedingungen zur Erfahrung spezifischer körperlicher Entfremdung führen. Ihr Buch ist von der Frage geleitet, welches die Merkmale sind, die zu dieser Erfahrung überhaupt notwendigerweise gehören. Anders gesagt – und das ist typisch phänomenologisch: Es geht um die logisch-notwendigen Strukturen dieser Erfahrung, egal wer diese wann und wo macht. Hier stellt sich Breil die entscheidende Aufgabe klassische Begriffsarbeit zu leisten, da sie der Überzeugung ist, dass es überhaupt erst ein „geeignetes Vokabular“ (S. 9) bedürfe. Daran anschließend versucht sie für die Alltäglichkeit und entgegen der Pathologisierung – denn so erklärt sich auch die Überschrift von Teil I – dieser Erfahrung zu argumentieren: Sie ist unter Zuhilfenahme der Hegelschen Dialektik der Überzeugung, dass es der „zeitweisen Entfremdung“ (S. 10) bedarf, um Selbsterkenntnis zu erlangen. Diese These und Rezeption Hegels wird im philosophiedidaktischen Teil weiter ausgeführt: Die notwendige – das heißt hier unumgängliche – Erfahrung der Widerständigkeit des eigenen Körpers (wie etwa in der Pubertät), soll für die Bildung des Individuums zunutze gemacht werden, indem eine intensive reflektierte Auseinandersetzung ermöglicht wird (S. 288).

Breils Buch verfolgt also ein doppeltes Unterfangen: Sie versucht die Frage zu klären, was körperliche Entfremdung ist, indem sie Entfremdung als Erfahrung beschreibt. Ist dies einmal geklärt, soll die Rolle dieser Erfahrung für (Selbst-)Bildungsprozesse herausgestellt werden. Unerlässlich sei es, der Intersubjektivität für diesen Themenkreis eine fundamentale Rolle zuzuschreiben. Breil ist der Überzeugung, dass diese Dimension mit anerkennungstheoretischen Prämissen in Anschluss an Alexandre Kojève und Axel Honneth eingeholt werden könne – allerdings wird sie dies nicht weiter ausführen und lediglich in Aussicht stellen. Denn es verhalte sich so, dass Identität „nur über die Entäußerung und nur im vorgestellten oder realen Angesicht des Anderen erlangt werden kann.“ (S. 12) Insgesamt möchte Breil eine Perspektive auf die Entfremdungserfahrung eröffnen, die erst einmal nicht normativ, sondern rein deskriptiv ist. Wie gesagt: Breil versucht dieses Phänomen ganz nüchtern und unaufgeregt zu betrachten, weil es – zumindest was die Pubertät angeht – eh unumgänglich ist und man sich daher Gedanken machen muss, wie damit umzugehen sei.

Breils Ansatz besteht darin, zuerst zu klären „wie auf Basis dieser leibphänomenologischen Voraussetzungen ein Fremdwerden des Körpers theoretisch erfasst werden kann.“ (S. 14) Hier ist ihr Urteil eindeutig: Die wirkmächtige Traditionslinie von Merleau-Ponty, die sich in ihrer Rekonstruktion unteranderem über Waldenfels, Käte Meyer-Drawe und Wilfried Lippitz zieht, ist nicht dazu imstande diese Phänomene nicht pathologisierend zu beschreiben. Denn das ist Breil wichtig: Ihre Arbeit soll dazu verhelfen „einer Pathologisierung von Entfremdungserfahrungen entgegenzuwirken.“ (S. 296) Es sei wichtig „ein Vokabular aufzuarbeiten, das eine bessere Beschreibung der eigenen körperlichen Existenz ermöglicht.“ (S. 282)

Die Rekonstruktion Merleau-Pontys umspannt im Großen und Ganzen das Gesamtwerk mit besonderem Augenmerk für die Leib-Konzeption in der Phänomenologie der Wahrnehmung und der Theorie des Fleisches in seinem Spätwerk. Ihm hält sie insbesondere folgendes entgegen: „Dieses Hereinbrechen eines Körpers, der sich in seiner Bedeutungslosigkeit aufdrängt, kann mit dem Leibbegriff Merleau-Pontys nicht eingeholt werden.“ (S. 72) Warum dies nicht möglich sei, erklärt sie wie folgt: „Während Leiblichkeit vornehmlich als Grund des innerweltlichen Sinngeschehens thematisiert wird, präsentieren sich Erfahrungen körperlicher Objektivierung nachgerade sinnentleert.“ (S. 72) Es sei nicht nur so, dass er körperliche Entfremdung lediglich nicht thematisiere, Breil versucht darzulegen, dass er dies aufgrund „einer Theorielücke“ nicht könne. (S. 72) Weil dem Leib bei Merleau-Ponty eine bedeutungskonstituierende Dimension zugeschrieben wird, habe man es gleichzeitig mit einer Herabwürdigung des Sinnlosen und Kontingenten zu tun – was dann bei Jean-Paul Sartre positiv hervorgehoben werden wird.

Waldenfels, der wohl kaum wie ein anderer in der deutschen Phänomenologie das Werk Merleau-Pontys vertritt, als aber auch kritisch weiterentwickelt, wird von Breil ebenfalls einer genauen Prüfung unterzogen. Dies ergebe sich aus dem Umstand, dass beide für die phänomenologisch orientierte Erziehungswissenschaft und Philosophiedidaktik eine ausschlaggebende Rolle spielen. Waldenfels‘ Werk wird entlang der Theoriebausteine Responsivität, Fremdheit und Ordnung rekonstruiert. Im Gegensatz zu Merleau-Ponty werden Phänomene körperlicher Entfremdung zwar denkbar und auch beschrieben, aber Breil wendet ein, dass die Beschreibungen nicht adäquat, weil pathologisierend seien: „Obwohl mit Waldenfels‘ Konzeptualisierungen die Weichen für eine umfassende Analyse leiblich-menschlicher Verletzlichkeit gestellt sind, verhindert doch bereits die sprachliche Seite der Theoriebildung eine angemessene Erfassung der zugrundeliegenden Erfahrungen.“ (S. 108) Oder anders gesagt: „In Waldenfels‘ Theorie der Responsivität bleibt die Körpererfahrung – obzwar durchaus möglich – ein Fehler im System.“ (S. 110) Hier erläutert Breil auch, was ihr an so einer Einschätzung missfällt: „Eine solche Einschätzung muss vor dem Hintergrund einer Pädagogik der Leiblichkeit, die sich an der Lebenswelt von Schüler*innen orientiert […], fatal erscheinen. Statt einer Stigmatisierung des Körpers muss es vor allem im Hinblick auf physische Veränderungen in der Pubertät eine Möglichkeit geben, körperliche Entfremdung sowie körperliche Bedeutungslosigkeit als mitunter alltägliche Form der Fremdheit zu verstehen.“ (S. 110)

Hieran anschließend versucht sie aufzuzeigen „inwiefern die dargestellten Defizite der phänomenologischen Theorien sich in die phänomenologische Erziehungswissenschaft vererben“. (S. 115) Dazu werden vornehmlich die Arbeiten Meyer-Drawes und Lippitz‘ rekonstruiert, wenn aber auch Exkurse zu Eugen Fink und Otto Friedrich Bollnow gemacht werden. Für die Erziehungswissenschaft und Philosophiedidaktik kommt sie zu einem ähnlichen Urteil wie bei Merleau-Ponty: „Nennungen des Körpers sind lediglich einer Vereinfachung der Theoriebildung oder einer begrifflichen Ungenauigkeit zuzuschreiben, die den Körper zum Leib macht und Materialität so schließlich auch sprachlich jeder möglichen Theoretisierung entzieht.“ (S. 144) Anders gesagt: Es handelt sich „um eine fehlende Differenzierung der Begrifflichkeiten“. (S. 152) Alles in allem kommt sie zu dem Schluss, dass mit Merleau-Pontys schon ein Weichenstellung gestellt ist, die zu einer „Vergeistigung des Leibes“ (S. 158) führt. Deswegen ließe sich sagen, dass „eine anerkennende Theorie des unverfügbaren Körpers fehlt.“ (S. 162)

Wie weiter? Der zweite Teil „Unverfügbarkeit als Modus körperlicher Existenz“ lässt sich als Spiegelung zum ersten lesen. Breil schlägt vor die im Kontext von Erziehungswissenschaft und Philosophiedidaktik „nicht in ausreichendem Maß“ (S. 163) beachteten Phänomenologien Sartres und Beauvoirs einzubeziehen. Dabei ist nicht ihr Anliegen, die bis hierhin untersuchten Phänomenologien zu verwerfen, sondern zu erweitern. Sartre als existenzialistischer Phänomenologie biete sich deswegen an, weil „Erfahrungen der eigenen Körperlichkeit im Sinne eines materiellen Selbstseins durchaus einen zentralen Bestandteil seiner Phänomenologie darstellen.“ (S. 202) Dreh- und Angelpunkt ist für Breil bei Sartre sein dreifaltiges Körper-Konzept fruchtbar zu machen: „„Der Körper-für-Andere ist kein Objekt-Körper, sondern er ist die leibliche Möglichkeit einer Erfahrung des Objekt-Körpers. Auf diese Weise ist es mit Sartre möglich, den eigenen Körper als Objekt zu empfinden, ohne selbst Objekt zu sein. So können schließlich dualistische Erfahrungen auf Basis einer nicht-dualistischen Körperlichkeit thematisiert werden, ohne dass die Erklärung ins Pathologische abdriftet.“ (S. 214) Denn, was sie im ersten Teil den rekonstruierten Autoren und Autorinnen vorhält, ist, dass diese zwar versuchen den Körper-Geist-Dualismus zu überwinden, aber einem neuen verfallen, und zwar einem Körper-Leib-Dualismus. Insofern wird mit Sartre also die theoretische Schnittstelle bereitgestellt, um phänomenologisch Erfahrungen körperlicher Entfremdung beschreiben zu können, also was der Ansicht Breils nach mit Merleau-Ponty nicht möglich war.

Wo Sartre das Gegenstück zu Merleau-Ponty ist, ist dies nun Beauvoir gegenüber zu Waldenfels: So ist Breil der Überzeugung, dass Waldenfels zwar Phänomene körperlicher Entfremdung beschreiben könne, dies aber nur pathologisierend. Mit Beauvoirs Theorie wird „der Rückgriff auf ein Vokabular ermöglicht, mit dem körperliche Existenz affirmativ beschrieben werden kann.“ (S. 270) Beauvoirs Werk zeichne sich durch die „konkrete Auseinandersetzung mit der eigenen Existenz, also auch mit der eigenen Unverfügbarkeit“ aus. (S. 270) Hierdurch würde eine „Ethik des Scheiterns“ (S. 270) ermöglicht, welche nach Breils Ansicht unabdingbar für das Geschäft phänomenologischer Erziehungswissenschaft und Philosophiedidaktik sei. Denn das ist letztlich auch das Ziel von Breil: Die Zielgruppe der Erziehungswissenschaft und Philosophiedidaktik ist diesen Erfahrungen ausgesetzt, sie selber aber haben ihrer Ansicht nach nicht die Mittel, diese Erfahrungen theoretisch einzuholen. Insofern geht es ihr weniger um eine dezidierte Phänomenologie körperlicher Entfremdung als mehr der Vorarbeit hierfür und wie diese Theoriebausteine für besagte Bereiche fruchtbar gemacht werden können. Sie fordert aus diesen Gründen ein „Weiterdenken des Bildungsplans in Richtung der auch körperlichen Existenz“. (S. 270) Die Rezeption von Sartre und Beauvoir ermöglicht es nach Breil, einerseits das Kontigente und Sinnlose überhaupt zu denken und andererseits diesen Erfahrungen ihre Legitimität zuzugestehen.

Im abschließenden Teil kritisiert Breil bisherige Bildungspläne in der Ethik vor dem Hintergrund der Erfahrung der Lernenden und plädiert dafür, das Thema körperlicher Unverfügbarkeit in den Lehrplan mitaufzunehmen. Denn „die Bezugnahme auf den Körper [zeichnet sich] durch eine fehlende Grundlagenreflexion aus, die sich nicht zuletzt in der undifferenzierten Verwendung der Begriffe Körper und Leib ausdrückt.“ (S. 282) Dies wird durch ihre Rekonstruktion begründet, die mit Sartre und Beauvoir zeigen sollte, wie Identität (auch) durch Entfremdungserfahrungen gestiftet wird: „Durch die vertiefte Kenntnis über Verfahren der Identitätskonstitution wird die Wichtigkeit von Entfremdungserfahrungen und Erfahrungen der Bedeutungslosigkeit für die Herausbildung eines authentischen und emanzipierten Selbst hervorgehoben.“ (S. 283) Insofern käme diesem Themenbereich eine „orientierende Funktion“ (S. 296) für die Lernenden zu.

Breil hat also versucht aufzuzeigen, dass das Phänomen körperlicher Entfremdung nicht nur eine Leerstelle in bestimmten Phänomenologien ist, sondern dass dieser Erfahrung auch eine identitätsstiftende Funktion zukommt, weswegen es begründet sei, diesem Themengebiet einen Platz im Bildungsplan einzuräumen. Sie charakterisiert ihre Ausführungen als Vorarbeit: „Diese Überlegungen stellen den theoretischen Unterbau eines noch weiter zu entwickelnden körper- und situationstheoretischen Ansatzes in der Philosophiedidaktik dar, der als Ergänzung zu bisherigen Ansätzen zu verstehen ist“. (S. 296)

Das Buch zeichnet sich durch eine enge Auseinandersetzung mit den genannten Autoren und Autorinnen aus. Es wird hier vornehmlich klassische Rekonstruktionsarbeit geleistet, denn eigene Phänomenbeschreibung geliefert. Anders gesagt: Die phänomenologische Tradition wird daraufhin überprüft, inwieweit sie das Phänomen körperlicher Entfremdung mitbedacht hat oder gar mit den je eigenen begrifflichen Mitteln denken kann. Das ist zugleich Stärke und Schwäche von Breils Arbeit: Sie kann begründet aufzeigen, dass das Phänomen körperlicher Entfremdung in den Diskussionen wenig bedacht ist und versucht anhand der Theoriebausteine Wege und Möglichkeiten zu finden, diese Erfahrung adäquat zu beschreiben. Zugleich bedeutet dies sehr viel Textdiskussion. Das ist insoweit eine verpasste Chance, als dass die wenigen Momente, in denen Breil selber als Phänomenologin in Erscheinung tritt, sehr vielversprechend sind.

Die Rekonstruktionen zeichnen sich durch eine enorme Belesenheit aus: Man kann mit Fug und Recht behaupten, dass sich Breil bei jedem der vier Autoren und Autorinnen nicht weniger als das Gesamtwerk zu eigen gemacht hat – und das umfasst in den Fällen Sartre und Beauvoir auch das literarische Werk. Insofern hat man es mit einer bedachten und sehr informierten Rekonstruktion zu tun. Diese bleibt allerdings auch immer diskutabel: Klopft Breil zwar jeweils das Gesamtwerk hinsichtlich ihres Themas ab, so liegt es in der Natur der Sache, dass jede Rekonstruktion einer tour de force gleicht. Hier wäre es womöglich besser gewesen entweder selektierter auf das Thema hin zu arbeiten und Voraussetzungen dann Voraussetzungen sein zu lassen oder aber mehr als Autorin und insbesondere Kommentatorin in Erscheinung zu treten, die sich deutlicher in den Diskussionen verortet. So wird zwar beispielsweise alles darangesetzt, das schwer verständliche Spätwerk Merleau-Pontys für ihr Thema nutzbar zu machen, aber eine Einordnung und Kommentierung dessen fehlt größtenteils. Man möchte wissen, wie sie zu dem steht, was sie da rekonstruiert – abseits der Engführung auf körperliche Entfremdung.

Ohnehin bewegen sich die Rekonstruktionen auf einem schmalen Grat zwischen thematischer Instrumentalisierung und einer Rekonstruktion des Gesamtwerks. Zwar ist die Gliederung jederzeit übersichtlich, indem Theoriebaustein nach Theoriebaustein dargelegt wird. Aber es gibt Passagen, wo nicht klar wird, wer hier der ideale Leser ist. Das kann für manchen Leser dazu führen, dass der Zugang verwehrt bleibt, weil die Rekonstruktionen zu viel voraussetzen oder aber es führt für andere hingegen dazu, dass sie sich hier mehr Tiefgang und Diskussion der einzelnen Argumente wünschen. Breil zeigt aber immer ihre tiefe Kenntnis der Materie, was sich zuletzt auch am Literaturapparat sehen lässt. In jeglicher Hinsicht ist der aktuelle Forschungsstand und die dazugehörigen Debatten miteingearbeitet und (in den Fußnoten) diskutiert. Das ist sicherlich auch eine Stärke ihrer Arbeit, die die breite Anschlussfähigkeit der Phänomenologie und den hier besprochenen Themen zeigt – andere mögen dann aber hier auch wieder Tiefgang vermissen, wenn beispielsweise über die „Digitalisierung der Lebenswelt“ gesprochen wird (S. 44 und 300).

Der Überzeugungskraft des ersten Teils wäre es entgegengekommen, wenn man zuerst die Defizite in der Erziehungswissenschaft und Philosophiedidaktik aufgezeigt hätte und woraus sich diese eigentlich speisen. So erscheinen Merleau-Ponty und Waldenfels – überspitzt gesagt – als Wurzel allen Übels in diesen Bereichen – ohne dass man ihnen hier aber die Verantwortung geben könnte. Denn Breils Anliegen gemäß sieht sie ja vielmehr das Versäumnis in den beiden Bereichen, denn bei den Autoren. Anders gesagt: Das Problem besteht weniger bei Merleau-Ponty und Waldenfels, denn vielmehr was in Erziehungswissenschaft und Philosophiedidaktik und wofür es rezipiert wird.

Für Breils These, dass Entfremdungserfahrungen identitätsstiftend sind, fragt man sich, warum dafür Hegel herangezogen werden muss, insbesondere vor dem Hintergrund, dass es sich ja um eine Arbeit im Bereich der Phänomenologie handelt. Denn dafür sind ja Sartre und Beauvoir geeignete Gesprächspartner – wie Breil ja selber zeigt. Hingegen kann eher noch angemerkt werden, dass Breil etwaige wichtige Gesprächspartner entgangen sind: Jens Bonnemann, Iris Marion Young und Susan Brison. Bonnemann versucht mit einer Phänomenologie des Widerfahrnis grundlegend die pathische Seite des Erlebens zu beschreiben[1]; Young unternimmt den Versuch sozialgenetische Erfahrungen körperlicher Unverfügbarkeit darzulegen[2]; Brison – zwar keine dezidierte Phänomenologin – beschreibt anhand ihrer erlebten Vergewaltigung und den Erfahrungen danach, was dies mit ihrer Identität macht.[3]

Breils Buch bietet für all diejenigen, die an der Leibphänomenologie interessiert sind einen guten Überblick über grundlegende Konzepte. Darüber hinaus besticht es durch weitumspannende Rekonstruktionen der genannten Autoren und Autorinnen. All dies wird entlang der Frage nach dem Verhältnis von Leib, Körper und Selbst entwickelt. Aufgrund dieser Charakteristika ist ihr Buch für all diejenigen empfehlenswert, die sich nur für bestimmte Teile interessieren. Die Kapitel sind in sich schlüssig und bieten einen guten Umfang, um einerseits einen Überblick zu bekommen, aber auch andererseits schon tiefer einzusteigen. Und aufgrund ihres interdisziplinären Ansatzes bietet es dann auch Anschlussmöglichkeiten für Erziehungswissenschaft und Philosophiedidaktik, hinsichtlich dieser Achse. Denn Breils Verdienst ist es Sartre und Beauvoir überhaupt in das Fachgespräch zu bringen. Beide sind bisher nämlich wenig rezipiert. Hier leistet Breil dann wichtige Vorarbeit, indem sie ausgehend von beiden Theorien einen körper- und situationstheoretischen Ansatz für die Lehre entwickelt.

[1] Jens Bonnemann. 2016. Das Widerfahrnis der Wahrnehmung. Eine Phänomenologie des Leib-Welt-Verhältnisses, Münster.

[2] Iris Marion Young. 2020 [1980]. Werfen wie ein Mädchen. Ein Essay über weibliches Körperbewusstsein, Stuttgart.

[3] Susan J. Brison. 2022. Aftermath.Violence and the Remaking of Self, Princeton.

Samir Gandesha, Johan F. Hartle, Stefano Marino (Eds.): The “aging” of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory. Fifty Years Later

The “aging” of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory. Fifty Years Later Book Cover The “aging” of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory. Fifty Years Later
Edited by Samir Gandesha, Johan F. Hartle, Stefano Marino

Reviewed by: Anna Angelica Ainio (PhD ETH Zürich)

The idea of aging seems, at first sight, to be at odds with the concept of theory itself. Theory is supposedly something immaterial that should encompass or anticipate the idea of a development with time, or at least this would be the case if we were talking about theory in the context of systematic or analytic philosophy. Instead, the concept of aging (Altern) in Adorno’s theory is at centre of a discourse tied to his conception of history with regards to critique. The very idea of critical theory, as the first generation of Frankfurt School intellectuals posited it, is a movement which intervenes on concepts, such as that of truth, that are to be understood historically. This entails that the question of aging assumes specific historical connotations and becomes an essential element in the process of criticism. Indeed, it is only because of its temporal core that a theory can become dialectical and therefore gain historical consistency for Theodor W. Adorno.

However, another question which might come to mind when thinking about aging is in which way the type of aesthetic theory that Adorno delineated would still have to do with today’s artistic development. It is through these lenses that the book, ‘The Aging of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory’, edited by Samir Gandesha, Joan Hartle and Stefano Marino, looks at Adorno’s aesthetics and gives a nuanced and multifaceted account of it. The book, which was published in 2021 by Mimesis International, presents fourteen critical essays by international scholars and an editorial introduction.

The editors choose to utilize the concept of aging, as explicated in the title, as they deem it to be central to the Adornian conception of criticism (Gandesha S., et al., 9). Indeed, aging is delineated as a dialectical quest for what remains of the philosopher’s aesthetics, conveyed through different writings among which his last and perhaps most enigmatic work: Aesthetic Theory (Ibidem, 11). As an unfinished manuscript, Adorno’s work has received renewed critical attention from the eighties onwards. In ‘The “Aging” of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory’, the authors frame their and their contributors’ approaches as a critical dialogue with Adorno. The multiplicity of texts that they include, as they put it, ‘often proceed dialectically “with Adorno” and simultaneously “against Adorno”’ in a productive dialogue that aligns with Adorno’s own understanding of a critical philosophical dialogue, as he himself outlines it with regards to Hegel (25).  Indeed, this type of approach considers how one can productively engage with Adorno’s aesthetic theory today by following the pathway of the Adorno’s own approach to Hegel – that is, thinking about what Hegel himself would have said with regards to the present (24). That means engaging in a critical understanding of the philosopher that neither is a defense nor is it an ‘exercise of distinguishing between “what is living and what is dead”’ (ibidem).

An instance of this re-evaluation from within Adorno’s theory is Gunter Figal’s essay ‘Is Art Dialectical? Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory Revisited’, where the author argues that one should critically assess the fact that, for Adorno, art ought to be necessary dialectical. Through a thorough analysis of Adorno’s aesthetics which goes back to its Hegelian and Kantian roots, Figal sustains that there is a need to overcome Adorno’s dialectical understanding of art as it is bound to the idea of ‘artistic rationality’ (87). Indeed, to build a dialectical understanding of art, Adorno needs to posit the existence of an artistic rationality which would resemble the determined rationality Adorno identifies to be constitutive of contemporary society. However, this is at odds with some instances of contemporary artistic endeavours where the creative act does not embrace the sort of all-encompassing controlling rationality that characterizes society, as Adorno describes it. Figal gives the example of Jackson Pollock’s dripping technique, where the element of chance is incorporated in the act of artistic creation (90). Figal’s is a provocative take on aesthetic theory, and one that wants to provoke discussion within the scholarly community.

Gerhard Schweppenhäuser’s essay, titled ‘Nature and Society in Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory’ cleverly considers the role played by natural beauty and its nuanced conception in Adorno’s aesthetics. Indeed, because the concept of natural beauty is at the basis of Adorno’s utopian conception of art, Schweppenhäuser tries to outline how this plays a part when one wants to consider the philosopher’s aesthetic theory together with his theory of society (105). Indeed, Adorno’s aesthetics and social philosophy inform one another as artworks ‘stand for the right of the suppressed nature to exist’ (96). Therefore, as the concept of natural beauty has become absurd in a reified society, the very utopian moment resides in the artworks that structurally aim towards this conception. At last, Schweppenhäuser quite on point emphasizes the reflective moment in Adorno as the kernel of both his theory of society and of art. Therefore, what is rendered visible in Adorno’s conception of art is its reflective character which lies bare art’s inherent contradictions (110-111). This in turn reflects the social sphere as art is a ‘fait sociale’ and becomes the ultimate source of criticism (105).

Another significant contribution on the topic of the formal structure of artworks is that of Giacchetti Ludovisi. In his essay ‘Aesthetic Form and Subjectivity in Adorno’, Ludovisi shifts from a viewpoint that necessarily wants to evaluate Adorno’s conception of autonomous art in contrast to non-autonomous art and argues that one productive way to look at Adorno’s aesthetics is by linking the formal structure of art to psychoanalytical interpretation. Ludovisi creatively draws parallelisms between psychoanalytical concepts and formal structures of art situating his essay within interpretations such as Joel Whitebook or Amy Allen’s (Whitebook 1996; Allen 2020). Moreover, Ludovisi productively emphasizes the formal aspects of Adorno’s artistic criticism drawing on Adorno’s own work as a composer within the context of atonal music.

The book is composed of five different sections, each of which collects two to three essays from international Adorno scholars. Each one of the different parts is thematic and aims at dealing with a specific aspect of today’s scholarly debate on Aesthetic Theory. The sections are titled Revisions, Conditions, Materiality, Constellations and Contemporaneity. While the division of the book into different parts presents a useful tool for navigating its structure, it may feel arbitrary at times. An instance of this are section two, ‘Conditions: On the (im)pulse of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory’ and three ‘Materiality: on the construction of the specific in Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory’, where the dividing line between the two is blurred at times. Hence, an essay such as Surti Singh’s ‘Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory: the artwork as a monad’ could have easily been placed in the second section, as it deals with the interpretation of Adorno’s aesthetic theory considering the Leibnizian conception of monads.

Moreover, while the book achieves its aim in giving a nuanced account of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory fifty years after its publication, the choice of including such a wide number of essays risks losing the common thread which ties them all together. Despite this lack of a unitary point of view, which might impact the reader which approaches this collection from beginning to end, the book’s eclectic character can be one of its strong points too. A prismatic collection of viewpoints on allegedly one of the thorniest parts of Adorno’s theory, this book represents a refreshing collection of original contributions, each one to be extracted and read singularly. Moreover, an excellent introduction by the three editors sets the tone of the book and signals that there is a harmonized critical approach from authors that have indeed collaborated in the past. The choice of essays present in the book shows the originality of the editors’ perspective on contemporary Adornian scholarship and makes the book a precious collection of scholarly essays.


Gandesha, S., et al. 2021. The “aging” of Adorno’s Aesthetic theory. Fifty Years Later. Milan: Mimesis International.

Whitebook, J. 1996. Perversion and Utopia: A Study in Psychoanalysis and Critical Theory. Cambridge. Mass: MIT Press.

Allen, Amy. 2020. Critique on the Couch: Why Critical Theory Needs Psychoanalysis. Vol. 73. New York: Columbia University Press.

David Farrell Krell: Three Encounters. Heidegger, Arendt, Derrida

Three Encounters. Heidegger, Arendt, Derrida Book Cover Three Encounters. Heidegger, Arendt, Derrida
David Farrell Krell
Indiana University Press

Reviewed by: Joeri Schrijvers (North-West University Potchefstroom)

Probably one of the best writers in contemporary continental philosophy, David Farrell Krell’s Three Encounters is a real treat to read, especially if you have, like me, an appetite for autobiographies. The book is, in a sense, an eyewitness account: Krell knew all three authors and here recounts his experiences and conversations with them—apparently, through some kind of archive fever, kept meticulously in his journal. One does not have to read this book in all too critical manner and can just enjoy the stories and insights that Krell shares along the way. Originally, I had planned to compare and converse with Krell’s other works which I kept track of, especially Derrida and Our Animal Others (2013), Ecstasy, Catastrophe (2015a) or his Phantoms of the Other (2015) which I have reviewed here a few years ago. The review will now however just retrace the main threads one might distill from the book but not before mentioning once again what a joy to read this book is—I haven’t read a book much faster than this the past year. It pays, probably, to have some traction in the field: readers who know, for instance, that J. Glen Gray produced one of the finest translations of Heidegger to date.

Krell, of course, has read enough of Derrida to be somewhat wary of autobiographies. No genre seems more susceptible to lies and errors than the autobiographies in which the ‘I’ claims to speak the truth once and for all. “Things will go better for the truth”, Krell later says, “if one could project autobiography into fiction, if one could translate every ‘I’ into a ‘He’, ‘She’ or ‘It’” (330). Underlying Krell’s attempt at autobiography, this “memoir” (308) as he hesitantly, that is, not without quotation marks, calls it, is the firm belief that thinking and living should not make two, for philosophy “has everything to do with existence” (xii). It would have suited Heidegger very well if one needed to know of Aristotle, or of any other philosopher, only that he lived and worked, yet it is in Heidegger’s case the living itself that at time falls short of thinking—something which Krell won’t hesitate to repeatedly advance against the thinker.

Krell’s first chapter, “Before the Beginning”, recounts how he got to philosophy in the first place, having started a history major first. Two sources, for Krell, stand out. First, his reading of William Barrett’s Irrational Man and, second, having moved to Duquesne to study with John Sallis, Nietzsche who would be the subject of Krell’s doctoral dissertation Nietzsche and the Task of Thinking. The title may show that Heidegger, too, was already present in Krell’s life and work. Three themes enamored Krell when reading Barrett: the theme of nothingness, which will would play a large role in existentialism, the concomitant freedom from all dogmatic religions it would entail, and the theme of finitude, where philosophy, supposedly, at last would see this finite world of ours as is, as a finite world that is. Krell then came to Heidegger through reading the latter’s Introduction to Metaphysics—which will probably have led him never to forget about the question of being (as readers of sole Sein und Zeit, rushing through its Introduction seems to befall somewhat). Heidegger, for Krell, was the first philosopher he encountered that at least took Nietzsche seriously, when stating that he, Heidegger, wanted to bring Nietzsche’s accomplishment to a full unfolding (12-3).

Chapter two deals with Krell’s early efforts to translate Heidegger—he, in fact was the American Jean Beaufret. Where the latter brought Heidegger to the French, it is to Krell’s credit that the Americans, early on, could read a bit of Heidegger. The Americans in fact owe to Krell two important volumes that, as far as I know, are still regularly used and quoted: Early Greek Thinking and Basic Writings. A few people, however, were involved with these first, early translations: Joan Stambaugh, who would later translate Being and Time, Glen Gray, who translated What is called thinking? and one Hannah Arendt. “For decades,” Krell tells us from the start, and notwithstanding “the events”, “she was every bit as active in overseeing the translation of Heidegger’s works” (17). Nothing would be published without her agreement. And there is a story or two about how strict she was about the quality of translations. Krell was admitted to the circle of translators because of his attempts at Der Spruch des Anaximander, an essay that needs, not to say, braucht, a good translator indeed. Reiner Schürmann, too, was still around, and led Krell (not) ever so gently to the insight that there is not such a thing as (the one) good translation (18-22). At best, one should realize that one is no master of a language at all: not of the target language and not even of one’s native language. In this sense too, one might need to think about the adage later Heidegger will communicate: we do not “have” language, rather language is “what holds us”.

Krell’s translation made its way to Hannah Arendt’s desk and led to their first meeting. A long discussion about how to translate “ein Gefälle” issued from it—incline, cascades, cases (23)? Translators among us will recognize how joyful these conversations can be, the weighing of words, the different senses and meanings one comes across when meeting other lovers of language! Krell reports, in his journal, to be struck about the theatricality that oozed around here (24). She could be gripped, he says, by an idea that allowed here to zone out for a while only to come back (to senses, to speech) ever so clever. Arendt’s position in the circle of translators was not a dominant one, however. There was something called “Grey’s law” (28): the more important a word for Heidegger was, the less certain they were how to translate it into English. Every so often, Heidegger himself was consulted, but being no master of the English himself, a final word, we would guess, could not be found.

In 1975, Early Greek Thinking was published. Soon after contracts for Heidegger’s Nietzsche volumes and the Basic Writings would be send and signed. The latter volume is intriguing because Heidegger himself had “direct input into the book’s contents” and was even willing to  have a translation of the introduction of Being and Time in the volume—an Introduction that, at the time of writing Sein und Zeit he updated almost on a daily basis I once read. Krell’s first encounter with Heidegger concerned this volume precisely. Krell and Grey wanted to include some of the central sections of Sein und Zeit, say the ones about anxiety and death, too. The master however asked: what is the principle of selection precisely (29)? It took Krell some time, and some courage, to admit that there was no such principle and, on that basis, they agreed to leave the Introduction to Being and Time in the book but refrained from using particular sections of Sein und Zeit. If there was no principle, there was, however, a goal: to let students see as many aspects of Heidegger’s thought as possible. That is why the essay on the Work of Art and the later Letter on Humanism (1946) were inserted.

Before we proceed with these encounters, a first thread should be mentioned. Krell will not hesitate to mention it himself quite often. “The generosity of spirit” (33) present in all these thinkers is what is most striking for him: no question was too much, no detail just a detail, no letters left unanswered. One can just imagine the impression these minds, and their willingness to assist him, made on the young Krell! These Basic Writings surely found his way to the English-speaking world (and even to a home in Belgium!): of the expanded edition of 1993 “about forty thousand copies” (38) were send out to buyers and libraries, and Krell adds that he is no idea what the first edition (running from 1977 to 1992) had done.

The translations of Heidegger’s Nietzsche volume started soon after that, and Krell admits that he has difficulties with the “caricature” Heidegger sometimes made of Nietzsche (41), stating that Nietzsche would merely be an upside-down version of Platonism, whereas Heidegger knew well enough that there never would be a simple end to metaphysics. Yet the chapter concludes on a remarkable note that I’ve missed in my own humble readings of Derrida. “Both Heidegger and Nietzsche [are] going into eclipse […] nowadays” and, along with this Derrida’s remark, that “thinkers are measured […] by the number of eclipses they survive” (42). Safe to say, almost, Krell’s conclusion: “no eclipse […] will obscure either Heidegger or Nietzsche for long, at least for those readers who […] think about ‘the intimate and the ultimate’” (ibid.).

During the time of editing the Basic Writings volume, and thereafter, Krell had at least four works sessions and several other brief meetings with Martin Heidegger, the topic of the third chapter. The then thirty year old Krell met with Heidegger between June 1974 and January 1976—these would be the last two years of Heidegger’s life—to discuss, mainly, the ongoing translation of Heidegger’s two Nietzsche volumes. Joan Stambaugh would accompany Krell this first time and Heidegger would inscribe Krell’s volume of the Nietzsche book with the intriguing sentence that “the battle between David and Goliath, in philosophy, is not yet decided” (53)—a riddle, if not a simple pun, on the fact that Krell’s doctoral supervisor introduced the dissertation at the defence with the remark that David had taken up Goliath—the Nietzsche volumes are after all no less than 1100 pages. Much later Krell would show Heidegger’s subscription to Derrida (220).

Krell recalls, especially, how small Heidegger was and ventures that perhaps his size was one of the reasons behind the polemic that accompanied Heidegger everywhere especially in his early days, complaining for instance about those academics that “travel from one meeting to the next” (54, Cf. GA 20, 376) and don’t have (or take) the time to properly work—a remark that Krell will repeat, although somewhat less politically, in his Derrida and Our Animal Others (Krell 2013, 6). Perhaps a “taller man, a Cassirer or a Jaspers, could afford to be more tolerant and easygoing” (54). Heidegger’s judgement of his philosophical contemporaries has always been severe and Krell notes that even in the fifties (in What is called thinking?) Heidegger noted that no matter how much philosophy one has read, this still is no guarantee that one finds oneself thinking. The two remarks make Krell ponder for a first time, in this book at least, about “Heidegger’s leap to the right” which of course, “no curbstone psychology can […] make clear” (55). Krell will make clear, however, that he follows the model of Glen Gray and Hannah Arendt who would, despite everything, remain dedicated to read Heidegger’s work but who would also remain “critical and perspicuous of about the man and his work. The only thing they were unable to do […] was to light a match to burn either the man or his work” (ibid.).

Next to his size, Heidegger’s voice gripped Krell. Krell takes note of Heidegger’s “high-pitched, raspy voice” (ibid.) that nonetheless, as Jaspers would write, is as eindringlich—we all know how the audiences were gripped, from the start, by Heidegger’s lectures—as succinct.

The banality and everydayness of these meetings is charming nonetheless. Heidegger gave some new editions of his work—the Reclam edition of The Origin of the Work of Art, for instance, which happens to sit in my own library too—to Krell during their second meeting. In this meeting Heidegger intervened on the question which essays to take up in the Basic Writings. On the Way to Language would be, according to him “Schwierig, zu schwierig” (60), to difficult, to deserve a place in the volume that would introduce his thought to the new continent. Gray and Krell had decided by then to exclude those essays that concerned the place of this or that thinker in the history of metaphysics, as for instance Hegel and the Greeks. Interesting, too, is that Heidegger himself requested that Time and Being be excluded from the volume too afraid perhaps that people would see in this essay the carrying out of the reversal that everyone then was talking about. In its stead, “[Heidegger] convinced me that the proper culmination of this thinking—fittingly a thoroughly questioning culmination, every bit as tentative as its companion piece despite its assertive title—was the essay The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking” (61). It is true: one of the most thought-provoking and readable essays it still is. Krell obediently notes: “Even when I inserted the language essay [The Way to Language, JS] into the second edition of Basic Writings, I made certain to let the ‘End’ essay appear at, and as, the end” (61).

Krell goes on to discuss Nietzsche lecture of 1938-39 (now taken up in GA 46), planned as a seminar or workshop even but turned into a lecture by Heidegger because simply too many people attended, because it is one of the few later instances in which Heidegger discusses life, animal life even. Apart from the volumes on Nietzsche (then still published with Neske) there is still other material on Nietzsche. Another essay, this one from a proper workshop in 1937 (see now GA 87, 161ff) is one of the few places Heidegger would discuss the question of love through an account of Nietzsche’s amor fati, here promoted even to “Nietzsche’s Basic Metaphysical Position” (66). In these pages, Krell worries about Heidegger’s, say differential, positioning of Nietzsche’s “eternal recurrence of the same” within the history of being, as the last metaphysical trick the last metaphysician has up his sleeve (a worry that would lead Reiner Schürmann, by the way, to the crucial remarks in Broken Hegemonies: “So, somewhere between 1844 and 1900 we just stopped thinking metaphysically?) and the other, somewhat contradictory, claim that no one since Nietzsche has “risen to the challenge of taking thought seriously enough” (67), a challenge at which Heidegger himself perhaps, in his best days, would accept to have failed and faltered—it is Nietzsche, after all, who broke Heidegger. Er hat mich kaputt gemacht.

Krell once asked Heidegger when he realized he wouldn’t be able to complete Sein und Zeit. To which Heidegger supposedly had answered: 1924-1925. It is possible, Krell says, that he misheard—the Kehre, and any intimation of it, is usually placed somewhere in the thirties—yet, Krell lets us note, attentive readers of the Prolegomena to the History of the Concept of Time, a lecture course from 1925 no less, will have noticed, first, that the interpretation of ecstatic temporality of Dasein is absent from these lectures and, secondly, that that the theme of the temporality of being is all the more present (70-71). It is possible that the (somewhat anthropological) turn to Dasein distracted even Heidegger from the question of being. Note to self (or to the readers): finally read this volume bearing this in mind. Don’t waste your time on meetings.

One more “whimsical matter” (74) deserves a mention, at least because James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake wanders through Krell’s book (and other reviewers than me possible will make more about this—although Krell made me laugh when discussing Derrida, and telephones, or was it gramophones?). Krell asked Heidegger to sign his copy of Sein und Zeit, forgetting for a while that, half in jester, Krell inserted a bit of Joyce at the first pages of his copy about all the things, and then some, that cause or otherwise entail “the ensuance of existentiality” (75). Krell’s heart must have skipped a beat. Heidegger did not notice, or pretended not to notice, Joyce’s odd words. The chapter closes with a moving report of Heidegger’s death Krell had received from Friedrich W. von Hermann mentioning that Elfride at first did not notice the passing of her husband properly, mistaking his death for sleep, so apparently not recognizing death as death. It is, furthermore, clear that Krell holds Heidegger’s acquaintance in high regard: “I felt respect an even affection for the man I met” (83) and respect and affection in effect shine through these pages.

There is debt to Heidegger, for Krell, for many things: for the business dealt with—there were a lot of copyright issues, it seems, with these English translations, a lot of misunderstandings too—for the photos, letters and signatures received and of course for the philosophical teachings that the man of Todtnauberg brought to us all. There is a distance, too. This debt and this distance is the topic of Krell’s fourth chapter. At the same time, the debt and the distance is a short-hand of Arendt’s (and Gray’s) model how to deal with Heidegger, especially his positioning during those dark, black thirties and forties. Earlier on Krell had indicated that he would fill in the gaps in the time of his encounters with the biographies available of these thinkers (xiii). In this chapter, Krell therefore turns to Rüdiger Safranski’s Ein Meister aus Deutschland and Antonia Grunenberg’s Hannah Arendt und Martin Heidegger. One need read very little of Heidegger to know that there is, as Safranski also notes, a tendency to self-mythologize in his life and work (89). Krell heard from Arendt and Stambaugh that apparently only his brother Fritz “could mock Martin’s grand self-stylizations” (91) and that Elfride hated him for it. Heidegger had many talents, of course, but modesty and self-critique don’t seem to be part of them. The thinker that calls for Besinnung, pretty much everywhere, lacks all Besonnenheit in his later “polemics and plaidoyers in his own defense” (107).

Krell then relates Safranski’s story about Heidegger’s upbringing and youth: the dependency of conservative Catholicism for his education, the tension between the liberal education in the towns and the earlier conservative strand of these institutions that housed him, a tension, shadow perhaps, that Heidegger seems only difficult to shed. Antimodernism would indeed accompany Heidegger during his entire life, yet at the same time there was something of a revolutionary zeal about his early (and later) thinking which one would expect rather from a liberal-progressive mind. “Heidegger’s internal struggles with Catholicism” is well known (yet not sufficiently studied) and Krell takes pleasure in mentioning Max Müller’s report to church leaders in 1947 about Heidegger’s relation to the Church (“he is relentlessly circling about the question of the Absolute” (94, citing Grunenberg)) and in Safranski’s note that nothing of the antisemitism, then pervading in Catholic antimodernism, is present in Heidegger’s own “early ‘Catholic’ writings” (94). Krell has a few qualms about Safranki’s “throwing in the towel” (95) when it comes to the later Heidegger, mainly because “earth and sky are raging now, and mortals might do well to think about building for the sake of dwelling” (97). And if the likes of René Char value “The Thing” so highly and Hannah Arendt considered What is Called Thinking? as the best of Heidegger’s thinking (ibid.), then a thinker, any thinker, might do well to at least reconsiders one’s judgement. Krell’s judgement, on the other hand, is worth considering: “at his worst, Heidegger succumbed to the seductions of power, destructive power; at his best, he searched for the origins of that destructive power, and tried, without authority, to promulgate a different sort of thinking. I am unable to mock the effort” (97-98).

When meeting Heidegger, Krell knew very little about Heidegger’s own destructive path during the thirties and forties—and had he known, one might also wonder whether one would have dared asking him about that period. Heidegger’s fatal turn to politics, Safranski has argued, already starts with the criticism Sein und Zeit would receive from George Misch and Helmuth Plessner, arguing that there is no politics in the book. Slowly but surely, Heidegger would make his way, first in university politics, then in national politics (99) and by 1933 he is indeed “caught in a revolutionary fervor and furor” (ibid.). From the beginning, however, Heidegger seemed blind for all the politics around him: amidst of the mobs, the violence, and repression, Heidegger would still think, and say, that these are but a passing phase. One must, however, recall, that no one has the hindsight we now all have, and that Heidegger was not the only one not to see what was happening. (The only question here seems to be whether we, you and I, would be able to recognize what is happening if it would happen all around us).

The latter question in effect is forgotten in the “works” of those today that “devote oneself solely to ‘unmasking’ Heidegger’s texts” (100): these seem to “partake of that self-same militancy and decisionism” (100) to which Heidegger himself fall prey, when purging being of those elements foreign to it, from the Medieval “mania for security in sanctity”, to “modernity [as] the willful machination of Roman vulgarity” (100), up to the grandiose role Heidegger reserved for himself when finally detecting that it was being itself that erred. Except that in these latter-day devotees the purging works the other way: this or that sentence is clear evidence for this or that and therefore we bid good riddance to the entire work, not to mention that these devotees themselves are, apparently, pure and immune enough to undertake the task of such purging.

This obviously does not mean that Heidegger’s politics do not make us think. Krell mentions two things he thinks about quite often: those aspects in his life that pushed him in this fatal direction and his “callousness” (101) regarding his Jewish students. It is clear, too, that the Black Notebooks reveal something of an intellectual, cultural-spiritual antisemitism, not to say a “being-historical” (Trawny) variant (103). Krell’s assessment here is rather brief, a bit obscure even: the flowery language used might be a sign, too, that he is at a loss for words about just what happened to the thinker in this period. Krell indeed admits: there are “no signs of Heidegger’s suffering on account of the dangers to which his best students were exposed from 1933 onward” (ibid.) leaving Krell particularly “speechless and defeated” (ibid.). Heidegger’s “hardness of heart” was central already to Krell’s reading of the Black Notebooks (see 2015a, 157). Krell is clear, however, that recounting all these events as just a political error is not enough, and he will turn to Arendt more and more for the beginning of an answer. Here the question posed to Heidegger, “in a way that [he] would have understood” (104) is: should not such a disregard for your students and colleagues have made you, if only later, think? (ibid.). Does not your silence about the camps, liberated only six years earlier, “make a mockery” of the very question What calls for thinking? (108). To repeat, Heidegger’s life in effect might have fallen short of his thinking. An inkling about these thoughts, for Krell, lay in the question of love. Krell notes the distance he takes from Heidegger in and through his readings of Hölderlin. Whereas Heidegger focuses on Hölderlin’s reading of the homeland, Krell published a book on Hölderlin’s travels precisely (see Struck by Apollo). Is it the case that only through our travels the love for the other and the love for otherness truly awakens?

What can we learn from Hannah Arendt? She began to visit Heidegger again every summer after 1967. Here too, Krell says, he knew nothing about their earlier affair. Krell knew of her work, heard her speak in New York, and met up with her in Germany several times after the summer of 1974, where they had, after a period of exchanging letters, that “long conversation on [the] translation of ‘Der Spruch des Animander’” (119) mentioned earlier and in which Arendt showed herself particular patient “even though patience did not seem to be her strong suit” (ibid.). “I knew her as a person who loved above all else the vita contemplativa. Yet it is true to say that for her, thinking was never untroubled, tranquil contemplation. Rather, thinking had to wrestle with the problems of the world and with the ways in which we either rise to the occasion or falter and fumble when responding to those problems” (120-121).

In time, their exchanges become less formal and “Hannah” (120) was writing letters of recommendation for Krell who then was looking for a job. In any case, Krell featured enough in Arendt’s life to become a, say ‘character’ in it: it must be pretty odd to find yourself mentioned in a letter from Arendt to Heidegger (126)!

Krell now returns to Arendt’s admiration for Heidegger’s ‘Anaximander Fragment’, which perhaps is the place where the latter speaks most compassionate about our dealings with beings, about their coming and going, and our own finite coming and going, for if Heidegger cared a lot for ‘things that grow’ he did not seem to care much for ‘things that live’. Heidegger’s translation of the fragment would indeed impress many—not to mention Derrida’s wonderful essays on it. Heidegger speaks, with Anaximander, about justice and injustice, about things and time ‘being out of joint’. Usually, one translates Anaximander as saying that things “pay penalty” [tisis] to one another for their injustices, yet Heidegger has it—and I turn to Krell—that tisis is “not penalty but ‘mutual esteem,’ such that beings honor one another by not insisting on their own presence, not persisting in their own drive to prevail always and everywhere” (133). The passage is too beautiful not to think about. Krell adds that this thought of beings that are and need to be “considerate of one another” must have “touched on what Arendt was looking for” in her thinking of love as amor mundi and the Augustinian, ‘I will that you be’ (ibid.).

They discussed Heidegger’s Nazi involvement during what would be their last meeting in Summer 1976. Arendt called Heidegger a “lousy administrator” (135) and insisted that his resignation from the rectorate had nothing to do with politics, and certainly was not an act of resistance (136). She gestured strangely when Krell mentioned the reports about Heidegger’s antisemitism. At first Krell thought that this was because she thought the accusation senseless but, on second thought, and bearing Heidegger’s silence with regard to the suffering of his students in mind, Krell states, recalling Arendt’s own difficult years in Marburg, that these gestures “may have been a sign of something far more painful and confounding” (137). Krell is wise enough not to comment on the relationship Heidegger and Arendt entertained for quite a while, but we should at least mention that we owe him for helping Hannah out, carrying her suitcases around through the Freiburg railway. In that suitcase? Heidegger’s love letters to Arendt, which make for an inspiring yet baffling reading once one knows that all of these were written at the time of finishing Sein und Zeit which, as is well-known, only mentions love in a few odd cases.

To learn about the relationship between Arendt and Heidegger, Krell turns to Grunenberg’s account in the sixth chapter, “Arendt with and without Heidegger”. Even though it is clear from these letters that Heidegger was “overwhelmed with love” (146), “benumbed” (150) even, a term later reserved for the things that merely live,  here too some “skepticism”, worrying “about the possible self-deception in […] passion”—Am I in love with your love for me?—leading up to the refusal of “a friendship between souls” (ibid., the latter quote citing Grunenberg), arises, causing Krell, in turn, to worry about “Heidegger’s irremediable remoteness” and “insurmountable emotional distance [with] all his fellows” (146).

Heidegger destroyed Arendt’s letters to him, and all we have from their period together is a text from Arendt called “Shadow”, speaking of a certain tenderness to the world which, again, might have drawn her to Heidegger’s Anaximander. Inversely, if it is so difficult for Heidegger to describe a meeting of singular Dasein with singular Dasein in Being and Time—solicitude seems to be bare ontological minimum—one of the best definitions of love can be found in his letter to Arendt, and it is easy to imagine how this must have confused the writer of Sein und Zeit: “Love is being able to take only the singular ‘you’ as actual. When is I say that my joy in you is great and growing, that means that I also believe in everything that belongs to your history. I am not fabricating some ideal: the way you are and the way you will remain with your history—that is how I love you” (147, citing the letters between the two in German, 36). Soon, however, Heidegger would start to downplay and denigrate “the squalls of romantic love”—Krell indicates how in the course Einleitung in die Philosophie from Winter 1928 Dasein is “broken” by sexual difference—and Krell, significantly concludes: “As a Dasein that in addition to questioning also lives, however, he is often not smart enough to come in out of the rain” (148-149).

Well-known is Safranski’s statement that Arendt’s philosophy would complement Heidegger’s, as for instance her vision of the public realm would alleviate his stress on the struggle of singular Dasein. Krell, interestingly enough, has doubts. Far from insisting on the originality of her theme of natality, he says, she would point us to the few pages in Being and Time that mention that the phenomenon of birth truly poses a problem for Heidegger himself (153), even if it is the case that she gave each birth “a more positive resonance”, since “each new birth promis[es] enhanced possibilities for humankind” (154). The latter idea would enthrall Derrida but I would only subscribe with serious reservations: it may be true abstractly, it seems not to be true in practice.

There is worry enough about the public space in Arendt—“she lived long enough […] to see the public space all but entirely mediatized” (156). She, herself, worried about whether her passage about the public space in Origins of Totalitarianism, stating that in this place even ‘the mobs and the elite’ would gather (ibid.) had possibly (if not hopefully) hurt Heidegger. The mediatization, as such I would say, worries Krell. It is not the first time that one Donald Trump is mentioned in this book. “Arendt had no illusions,” he says, adding that “evil could be clownish as well as banal” (ibid).

Once again, understandably, Heidegger’s positioning against his students, his Jewish students in particular, come to mind. Krell states that one of the worst statements of Heidegger in the Black Notebooks is that he is all for the “unrestricted application” of the “principle of race” (161, cf. GA 96, 56), an “allusion to the Shoah,” perhaps, “if only prospectively” (ibid.).  Heidegger was no prophet, of course, and all these phrases, the ones about the “total annihilation” (e.g. GA 36/37, 90-91), Vernichtung, included, should be put in a serious historical context—all of these should be compared to what was known to the Germans, to certain of their leaders, in a given historical period. Not everyone knew everything, even though not everyone ‘had no knowledge of it’.  Yet Heidegger was not at Wannsee in 1942.

These pages are interesting, too, for those looking for a first contact with the ‘the trouble with Heidegger’. Krell closes by stating that whereas Grunenberg’s judgement is generous—Heidegger was less an antisemite than an opportunist and his involvement with the nazis possible rather than necessary—Arendt could be very harsh, although “not consistently” (166). She deems Heidegger charakterlos, excluding “both a good and a bad character” (ibid.). One might say, following Krell somewhat: he was too little ‘Mensch’ and too much ‘Dasein’.

After being in exile for eight years Arendt left Europe for the States in 1941 where she became an activist for fellow refugees, and pleaded for a “two-state solution,” (167) as later Derrida will also do. After the war, Arendt’s stirred controversy for not insisting on the ‘the guilt-question’ but rather on everyone taking responsibility for their deeds (168). On her first trip back (in 1950) she contacted Heidegger who would read some of his Was heisst Denken? to her. Heidegger was not allowed to teach just yet and suffered from it—he had had a severe depression in 1946. The confrontation between Arendt and Elfride, Heidegger’s wife, is not easy, to say the least, and Krell will write later that he surmises that it is because of this that the contact between the two thinkers will now, for a long time, be broken off. There are a few attempts on Heidegger’s part two alleviate the conflict, but writing a letter to your wife on Valentine’s day to explain your relationship with a mistress perhaps wasn’t his best idea. Krell once more notes Heidegger’s tendency to see himself as the victim (172), this time of his “states of excitement” (171) needed for his thinking, just to find the way from what at first is sensed to the sayable, as if the thinker of being needed to be inspirited, maddened by excitement and could enthusiastically—in a Greek sense—go about his ways. Krell concludes with Grunenberg that “Heidegger often enough betrays Sein […] for Geist, slipping back into that quasi-Hegelian position that he ought to have eschewed” (168, also 165)—as if being could only speak through him and it was with him alone that its history would reach, if not its consummation, then at least a ‘new beginning’. Here too Heidegger slipped into a lack of thinking that could go either way: either someone was to be applauded for hearing the voice of being or someone was to be castigated for not hearing this voice at all. That Heidegger even allowed such particular Seiendes to say all there is to Seyn is in Krell’s Ecstasy, Catastrophe once more underlined as a “failure of thinking” on Heidegger’s part (Krell 2015a, 170).

Of course Elfride alone did not cause Arendt not to visit Heidegger until 1967. Arendt suffered from the later Heidegger’s “mannerisms” as much as the next one. Above all, it is his silence about the extermination of the camps that unsettles her (174). Arendt refers to Heidegger being trapped, stumbled into a trap that he first set for others, in a parable about the fox in her Denktagebuch. One might paraphrase: if it is the case that Die Sprache spricht it is noteworthy that all actual and empirical words are improper and cannot heed Being, or could otherwise give words to being. Only a poet, here or there, can do so. Yet since fewer and fewer poets speak in this atom-age all this fox can do is listen to the silence of Being until Being itself, and all beings with it, grow mute.

Krell had been reading Derrida since 1979 and met him a few years later, the topic of the seventh chapter. A friendship developed between the two men, especially over Derrida’s Geschlecht-series, and they would meet three to four times a year. Krell will mostly use the letters between them in this chapter, although there are plenty of anecdotes, too, of the time they spend together—apparently Derrida kept all of Krell’s letters, which are now at the IMEC archive in Caen (208). Derrida’s first letter to Krell, in 1983, reveals “certain constants” (195). Krell mentions the lack of time, the enormous workload, the depletion of energy but especially Derrida’s gratitude for and generosity towards the engagement of others with his work. From my own reading of these letters, I would add all apologies Derrida uses in these letters (and which reflect a certain aspect of his work as well): apologies for not being on time, for responding too late, and so on, which would later lead to a genuine “mailophobia” (245).

Krell then recalls listening to Derrida’s lecture on Heidegger’s Hand in 1985, a lecture which would become Geschlecht II, and was the “most powerful presentation [he] had ever heard” (196) even though, as usual with Derrida, it lasted for hours. It is here, too, that the two men met for the first time: at the airport, Krell offered to carry Derrida’s suitcase to the taxi and, after the conference in Chicago, they traveled to Yale together (where Derrida presented what, decades later, would become Geschlecht III). Derrida, it seems, was almost always en route. Krell then narrates the conferences he was organizing where Derrida would be the main speaker, one of which in Essex where Krell worked at the time. For this conference, it was agreed that Derrida could focus on “his ‘hesitations’ concerning Heidegger’s thought” (208), later published as De l’esprit (1987). It is through this lecture that Krell, too, began to doubt about “Heidegger’s assurance that mortals could be readily distinguished from all other life-forms” (ibid.).

Krell especially remembers Françoise Dastur’s remark at the Essex conference, stating that Heidegger had not only argued for the major role of questioning when it comes to thinking but that it also, and more so, was the claim, the “address” of the question on us that was at issue (218-219). Derrida listened carefully and when revising his paper for publication, his answer to Dastur ended up being “may be the longest footnote in the history of philosophy” (219). Another exchange in Essex deserves our attention too, for it is important for anyone reading the Geschlecht-series and Derrida’s ‘critique’ of Heidegger’s account of ‘sammeln’ and gathering. Apparently, someone asked Derrida whether “a thought of unity that would not suppress differences” is at all possible. Derrida replied smilingly and answered immediately: “That is my dream. It is what I try to think. I can’t avoid dreaming [but] I try not to dream all the time” 220). The entire gist of the Geschlecht-series in one single sentence!

Another story from the Collegium Phaenomenologicum in 1987, where Derrida spoke and Jean-Luc Nancy presented as well, needs to be mentioned. Both men, apparently, were pretty good soccer players. Yet the scene ends when Derrida kicked the ball so hard that the ball went off terrain and onto the porch where it landed with a loud noise shattering a vase they then thought was an ancient one. All men hid—Derrida, Nancy and even Rodolphe Gasché, the organizer of the conference, were nowhere to be found (224). Il faut very much répondre, but clearly not all the time and everywhere!

A revised version of the Essex paper—now with the long footnote—was presented in Paris too. Levinas also attended. When Levinas gave his speech, Derrida and Krell wanted to join, but when Levinas saw Derrida, he got up from his chair asking him what he was doing there, chastising him quite severely: “you should be at home working!” (230). This is but an anecdote, of course, but nonetheless one that gives food for thought. One can easily imagine Derrida attending Levinas’ lecture out of courtesy, perhaps, or even to pay homage, who knows—Levinas was getting old and in the last years of his life—but how different is Heidegger’s approach to his work and his ‘whereabouts’, realizing that he was bored with and in the company of others, wishing he would have been able to work instead (Cf. GA 29/30, 165).

Before I dash off to a next meeting, let me conclude by narrating Krell’s eight chapter, mainly about 1987, a year filled with controversies for Derrida with the De Man-affair especially, a close friend of Derrida’s. De Man was the man who, in a sense, brought deconstruction to America but in this year it became evident that he was behind not a few antisemitic writings in his early journalistic writings, causing an even worse reputation to the ‘bad name’ deconstruction already had among quite a few ‘thinkers’. There was a quarrel, too, between Krell and Derrida over Levinas’ work, which Krell took as one more of the “usual sort of moralizing and policing typical of ethical sources” undergirded, once more, by the commands “from on High” (238). Krell presented this thesis at a conference at Vanderbilt in 1987, where Derrida also spoke. Derrida’s response to Krell’s paper is worth pondering: “is the priestly Levinas the only Levinas? Is it fair to remain with the rejection of the priestly Levinas?” (240), questions, we know, that triggered Derrida in both his classics on Levinas Violence and Metaphysics (1967) and A Dieu à Emmanuel Levinas (1996). And Derrida to proceed: “Is it not the case that infinite violence as such is not flat and boring, but, on the contrary, devilish and interesting? [As] the piety turns into the opposite of piety—that is interesting. Levinas’s violence cannot be reduced, but it can be turned” (ibid) and, a little bit later, “I read Levinas with the hypothesis in mind that he sacrificed God” (241). A certain God was certainly sacrificed by Levinas—Levinas was not the thinker of dogmas and creeds—and what remains is the raising of the stakes of the face to face encounter, which is now ‘guided’ by a call that comes literally from God knows where, anarchic if not diabolic, but a call nonetheless, an ‘intersubjective curvature’ if you will, that no one can easily put aside.

The nineties, for Derrida, were the years of “animality”, a question that had occupied Derrida from the beginning but that now comes to the fore. Along with this comes a rather strange confession of Derrida that he had rather that they would leave his work “to sleep peacefully” (247), that he himself even prefers to forget about insights that came to him during the writing of this or that work. This “need to protect his work” (249) occupies Krell quite a bit in this eight chapter. At the beginning of the nineties, Krell too taught in Paris and he would regularly meet up with Derrida and Françoise Dastur. Derrida was then teaching seminars about cannibalism, a continuation of his work on “Eating the Other”. Krell to comment: “What I remember most vividly about these lectures were Derrida’s imaginative yet quite concrete references to what are usually called ‘bodily functions’. I had always felt that […] Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of the flesh has somehow been left in abeyance by deconstruction, but the flesh came back with a vengeance [and] it would continue to come back throughout this decade dedicated to ‘animality’” (250). Krell also notes the intensity of these seminars of Derrida and, quite significantly, dares to echo the words that Hans Jonas once used to describe Heidegger’s lectures for these seminars.

These are also the years of Derrida’s Aporias, where his ‘hesitations about Heidegger’ become evident once again and where Derrida’s doubts about getting one’s death ‘into view’, properly, even as ‘the possibility of impossibility’ Heidegger spoke about, leads him to interrogate the ‘end of the living’, of what is alive, again. The aporia is an impasse or a limit, as a superficial reading would have it: what we get in view is our finite being-in-the-world, our being-in-the-world-together, but not, not properly, the ‘end’ of being-in-the-world, let alone what comes after. Krell adds: “toward the end of his address [Derrida] said something that would continue to obsess him for the rest of his days: if ‘my’ death does not come to appear as such, if there is no crossing that frontier, this means ‘nothing less than the end of the world, with each death, each time’” (261, referring to Aporias). “The theme of mourning,” Krell says, “[became] for me perhaps the central theme of Derrida’s thought” (262).

It is worth noting that this makes for Derrida’s concern about the general state of phenomenology—but a concern, too, that was present early on in Derrida. Just read his introduction to Husserl’s Geometry. “The confidence that underlay[s] the phenomenological project of the recuperation of evidence and the restitution of all things past to presence, in other words, the project devoted to keeping everything [a phrase from Sartre’s Les mots, JS] [is] a confidence that both Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy and [my] own Feu la cendre [are] dedicated to undermining” (264). Nothing, ever, is remembered, or present even, as such. One might say: Il y a la différance or, as Nietzsche once quite amusingly called ‘the thing-in-itself’ “das Derdiedas” (246). But remember, too, what we mentioned earlier: Derrida kept everything, even essays that Krell’s eight-year daughter had her father send to Derrida (209).

Chapter nine takes Benoît Peeters’ biography of Derrida as its point of departure, speaking of Derrida’s family and his attachment to the Jewish community. Community, in general, sparked an “allergic reaction” (282) in Derrida. Yet Derrida, for Krell, thought more about “our fractured polis and our fractious politics” (ibid.) than is usually assumed: his thought about a divided sovereignty in effect brings him close to Arendt’s view that the American innovation might lie in “the abolition of sovereignty within the body politic of the Republic” (ibid., quoting Jerome Kohn).

This chapter, “Each Time Unique” is, perhaps fittingly, “all about mourning” (287). Derrida’s work of mourning is well-known, and the title of this chapter bears the same name as Derrida’s French volume. For Derrida, mourning suffers from the same aporia as the other grand themes he broached. If there is such a thing as mourning, it is not, really, it is not successful that is: if mourning would be successful, over and done with, one would no longer be mourning the deceased any more. The deceased will then have been forgotten and mourning will not have taken place, say, properly. This sums up Derrida’s “[line] of resistance” (289) against Freud: there is no such a thing as successful mourning. One does not ‘move on’, one does not lose a particular someone or something, but one loses the world in its entirety, with every singular death one unfortunately comes across.

The chapter proceeds by recounting Derrida’s early reception in France. Although Derrida’s “genius” (297) was recognized by many, and not the least (Ricoeur, Althusser, Hyppolite, Canguilhem), academic averageness gave Derrida a hard time. Lacan, too, thought of Derrida as an imposter. Heidegger, on the other hand, “expressed a desire to meet Derrida” (298) and it is unfortunate for us that this did not happen, for Derrida would have kept everything. Heidegger, apparently, was intrigued by the notion of différance, where the French “forced [him] to admit that [this] language could do something that the German could not do” (298), namely signify at once difference and deferral.

Krell then takes on Derrida’s Circumfession, a text, I’m sure, that no one of us really understands. And Krell too seems to struggle. Krell speaks of a “pericardial thinking” (310). If Derrida’s seminar were truly a ‘thinking in action’, “without safety nets” (252), then one sees here a thinking tapping all of its veins until it bleeds, a thinking according to the heart.

In the “Concluding Reflections”, Krell rehearses the main themes of his ‘memoir’, the things he would like to remember having written the book, the things to keep at heart as it were. Krell’s life is indeed a remarkable bumping into geniuses and “is much the better and much the happier for these encounters” (324). Life is often better on paper, of course, yet this memoir should make us wonder whether we should not try to keep more, we, who encounter the thinkers of our admittedly somewhat thoughtless times, and smile at their e-mails just once before deleting them.

There is much to think about in Krell’s book, and having written this review which is surely too long, and looking into my notes, I see my scribbling mentioning that this is a book one best reads for oneself. That is true, perhaps. It will give teachers an anecdote or two to lighten up their classes. It will give thinkers an idea or two to think about, for there is something about the lives of philosophers that cannot be easily dismissed if one thinks about their philosophies. To be sure, one might have some misgivings about Krell’s book. It is rather conservative at times, even though even at those places it raises good questions: can there be such a thing as a contemplative e-mail? (302, also 293). I think there is, though—the matters of the heart have a way of finding its way through whatever medium available. We should just think more (and better) before just deleting these. It is, attempts to be rather, political at times: there are regular references to Trump, for instance. I did not find these, always, convincing, even though here too the question is whether we are able to recognize what is happening all around us and, especially, whether such recognition as such can take place. Philosophy’s procession into politics will always remain a delicate manner.

Sean D. Kirkland: Heidegger and the Destruction of Aristotle

Heidegger and the Destruction of Aristotle. On How to Read the Tradition Book Cover Heidegger and the Destruction of Aristotle. On How to Read the Tradition
Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy
Sean D. Kirkland
Northwestern University Press

Reviewed by: François Raffoul (Louisiana State University)

Sean Kirkland’s Heidegger and the Destruction of Aristotle. On How to Read the Tradition (hereafter: HDA) is an in-depth study of Heidegger’s relation to Aristotle, engaging the German thinker’s early works and lecture courses (1919-1927). Kirkland follows and discusses Heidegger’s contention that Aristotle should be studied as a “proto-phenomenologist.” As such, this work is also a study on Heidegger’s unique and original method in his readings of the philosophical tradition (as Kirkland clarifies: “intending specifically the tradition that was inaugurated by ancient Greek thinking”). This book is thus just as much as a work on Heidegger’s method as on his relation to Aristotle. The reader will easily recognize this method of the early Heidegger as that of Destruktion or destruction (taken in a positive sense, as Heidegger insists) and hermeneutics, as Kirland establishes from the outset: “In the lecture courses, papers, and other texts of this period, from 1919 to 1927, the year of Being and Time’s publication, Heidegger sometimes discusses this method, which he provocatively calls Destruktion or ‘destruction,’ in considerable depth and detail before applying it to whatever text he has before him. It is this interpretive approach, taken strictly on its own terms as a hermeneutic, that I strive to bring to light in the present volume” (HDA, viii). More specifically, Kirland attempts to approach “destruction” as an interpretive method (Heidegger developing what we might call a “destructive hermeneutics”), a destructive or deconstructive interpretation of our tradition going back to Aristotle.

In the introduction, Kirkland reminds us that, “Before becoming one of the most original and influential thinkers of the twentieth century, Martin Heidegger began his philosophical career, it could be argued, as an interpreter of Aristotle” (HDA, 3). In a 1937–38 short text, entitled “My Path So Far (“Mein bisheriger Weg”), Heidegger had described his path of thinking as being two-fold: a research on phenomenology and an interpretive work on the history of philosophy, in particular, “a resolute return to Greek philosophy in the figure of its first essential culmination—Aristotle” (cited in HDA, 3). This leads Kirkland to ask the question guiding his book: “Why? Why would the project that begins with Being and Time’s phenomenological analysis of lived human experience necessitate an elaborate historical detour through the work of this ancient Greek philosopher?” (HDA, 3). One could answer, following Heidegger’s indications at the beginning of paragraph 6 of Being and Time, that the question of being and of Dasein is a historical one, and that any access to the being of Dasein has to unfold in a historical fashion. One cannot grasp one’s being in an immediate way, as Descartes believed, but rather but going through the “detour” of our historical existence. Dasein is its past, states Heidegger. To that extent, philosophical questioning can only unfold as a radically historical enterprise. Further, Kirkland identifies another motive for this historical analysis, namely, that “there is also a certain Not or ‘distress’ and Notwendigkeit or ‘necessitation’… which Heidegger sees as belonging to our present historical moment” (HDA, 6). There is a peculiar distress to our age that requires the destruction/deconstruction of our historical provenance. As Kirkland summarizes: “if Distress and Historicality, then Destruction” (HDA, 8). Later in the text, Kirland states that it is from “a certain mood of dissatisfaction with our present” that Heidegger “sees us as being called upon to turn our attention to our past, to the distant Greek origin of philosophizing in the West and to Aristotle” (HDA, 50). Finally, we could add, a third aspect is that Heidegger characterizes our tradition as “obscuring” and thereby necessitating a “clarifying” destruction. Hence, as Kirkland writes, Heidegger believed that “our ignorance concerning what ‘to be’ even means and our general lack of concern about that ignorance are both rooted in ‘ancient ontology,’” and that the “ancient Greek answer, for Heidegger, was the reduction of the meaning of Being to the presence of present beings.” This metaphysical interpretation “found its definitive initial formulation in the thought of Aristotle,” the “Aristotelian substance ontology,” thereby giving the theme of this volume (the “destruction” of Aristotle) its meaning and necessity. The project of this book is thus reformulated more fully by Kirkland in this way”: “If Aristotle’s conception of substance ontology persists in and fundamentally still organizes our own pre-reflective experience, as Heidegger insists, then a destruction of the Aristotelian text will be more than a historical detour. It will be a journey of self-discovery or even, given the peculiar power of this method, a project of self-recovery” (HDA, 17).

The work is composed of three main parts or chapters: Chapter 1 endeavors to clarify what reading a text destructively, in the Heideggerian sense, means. Chapter 2 asks what the critical de-constructing of traditional concepts produces. Chapter 3 analyses Heidegger’s treatments of three fundamental Aristotelian concepts: ousia or “substance,” the definition of the human being as zôon logon echon (the living being endowed with logos), and finally dunamis or “potency.”

In Chapter 1, Kirkland focuses on the 1922 text, ““Phenomenological Interpretations with Respect to Aristotle: Indication of the Hermeneutical Situation,” as well as the 1924 course, Basic Concepts of Aristotelian Philosophy, where one can detect “clear anticipations” of Being and Time. Those early works elaborate what is known as Heidegger’s “hermeneutics of factical life,” prefiguring the later “analytic of Dasein,” both centered around the notion of concern for one’s own being. Kirkland shows how Aristotle figures in such a project, and how Heidegger approaches Aristotelian concepts, that is, how he retrieves their verbal and dynamic character, i.e., the process of their emergence. “Aristotelian concepts do not present themselves as abstract forms with already established exhaustive definitions, linked together logically, and exchangeable one for the other in various combinations. Rather, precisely in being destroyed they show themselves first and foremost as indicating movements of emergence by way of which what exceeds our grasp becomes nevertheless to some extent clear, illuminated, understood” (HDA, 34). The chapter develops through illuminating discussions Heidegger’s phenomenological reappropriation of the concept, i.e., of conceptuality itself, the language of conceptuality, via readings of Aristotle concept of definition (but also of Kant’s understanding of concepts). Each time the issue is reseize concepts in their Bodenständigkeit, their soil, in the process of their emergence. Conceptuality itself is approached in its “dynamic confrontation with and emergence out of what is not yet grasped and mastered by thought” (HDA, 48). A concept always reaches beyond itself.

As we mentioned above, Chapter 2 is concerned with what the destructive reading of the tradition produces, or seeks to produce, Kirkland evoking a certain “jolt” (HDA, 52) given to the present, precisely as to open up “an as-yet undetermined future,” in a relation to the tradition that would be neither repetition nor rejection (“neither solicitation and repetition nor quarantine and rejection”). As Kirkland states, “I wish to insist here that Heidegger’s destructive method of reading the texts of Aristotle amounts to neither a simple repetition nor a simple rejection of Aristotelian thought” (HDA, 53-54). Noting what Gadamer referred to as the deep ambivalence of the project of Destruktion, Kirkland advances that such destruction harbors a positive intent, in the following sense: its aim is to reveal an unsaid in the text that harbors a future and even a revolutionary potential (Hannah Arendt even calling Destruktion a “revolutionary thinking,” or even thinking itself having come to life), as it were preparing for a new beginning: “Heidegger was reading in such a way as to provoke these traditionary texts into saying something unheard of, unnoticed there, and, precisely thereby, something revolutionary” (HDA, 55). With respect to such unsaid, Kirkland cites an “extraordinary passage” in the 1924 text, “Being-There and Being-True According to Aristotle,” where Heidegger states the following: “For an interpretation is genuine [eigentliche] only when, in going through the whole text, it comes upon that which is not there [nicht dasteht] for a crude understanding, but which, although unspoken [unausgesprochen], nonetheless makes up the ground [Boden] and the genuine foundations of the kind of vision [Art des Sehens] from out of which the text itself was able to grow” (cited in HDA, 70, translation modified).

In contrast with Werner Marx’s interpretation of Heidegger’s relation to the philosophical tradition (in his well-known Heidegger and the Tradition), which consisted in emphasizing the negative scope of Heidegger’s method, and grasping the tradition as a monolithic whole from which Heidegger would eventually part, Kirkland makes the following intriguing claim: Destruktion reveals an excess in the tradition that one can only detect within such tradition, and not simply by going beyond it. “Contra Marx, and paradoxically, destruction will prove to make a positive contribution to thinking in excess of the tradition only through a complete descent into that very tradition, only through a radical immersion in the thinking of, for instance, Aristotle” (HDA, 58).

With respect to Aristotle, Kirkland focuses on a key passage in Heidegger’s 1924 course, Basic Concepts of Aristotelian Philosophy. A decisive claim is made by Heidegger, namely that the subject-matter of philosophy (as initiated by the Greeks), i.e., Being, is not simply laying there before us ready to be described. Being is not “already there,” open to view, “present and available for scrutiny, offering itself for exhaustive knowing and mastering.” In fact, the very subject-matter of philosophy is as it were hidden or withdrawn, even though as we will see it is also “accessible” in some way. Being is given yet withdrawn, “hidden” behind what comes to the fore, i.e., beings. “Crucial for us is Heidegger’s insistence here that, for the Greeks and for Aristotle in particular, Being, as the subject matter of this philosophical or critical scientific thinking, is confronted as ‘what does not lie there [was nicht vorliegt] for natural experience, but is rather hidden [verborgen], what never lies before and is nevertheless already and indeed always understood [nie vorliegt und doch schon und zwar immer verstanden]” (cited in HDA, 62)). In other words, the “Greek philosophers first confront Being in their texts as “initially unknown, closed off, inaccessible [zunächst unbekannt, verschlossen, unzugänglich]” (cited in HDA, 62), and yet, as we indicated above, and as Kirkland rightly notes, “as withdrawn behind or within beings but somehow nevertheless already experienced in its non-presence” (HDA, 62).

A clarification is necessary here. For Heidegger being withdraws, is the withdrawal. “By revealing itself in the being, being withdraws” [Das Sein entzieht sich, indem es sich in das Seiende entbirgt].”[1] The thinking of being is hence always grappling with an irreducible opaqueness and mystery. This accounts for Heidegger’s late pronouncement that phenomenology, in its very essence, is a phenomenology of what does not appear, a phenomenology of the inapparent [Phänomenologie des Unscheinbaren].” As letting be seen, phenomenology (the method of ontology) is a wrestling with the inapparent, with an irreducible concealment and expropriation at the heart of the event of being. This claim might seem at first paradoxical and even go against the very definition that Heidegger gives of the phenomenon in paragraph 7 of Being and Time: “Thus we must keep in mind that the expression ‘phenomenon’ signifies that which shows itself in itself, the manifest.”[2] Now, we should clarify from the outset that for Heidegger a phenomenon — that is, the phenomenon with which phenomenology is concerned — is not an empirical intuition or an ontical given, a present being. The phenomenon is approached by Heidegger in its verbal sense, as “the-showing-itself-in-itself” (das Sich-an-ihm-selbst-zeigen)” (SZ, 31). The term “phenomenon” thus immediately refers to the event of a self-showing, and the “given” is consequently assigned to the event of its givenness. The phenomena are to be referred, not to a constituting consciousness, but to the event of being as such. This is why for Heidegger phenomenology is the very method of ontology. Unlike his former mentor Husserl, who approached phenomenology in relation to a constituting consciousness, Heidegger defines phenomenology in relation to ontology, as giving us access to the being of beings. “With regard to its subject-matter, phenomenology is the science of the being of entities – ontology” (SZ, 37). Phenomenology consists in revealing, not simply the appearance, but the appearing in the appearance. Here one glimpses for the first time the emergence of the problematic of the inapparent in phenomenology: the phenomenon is not what appears, the appearance, but the appearing of the appearance, an appearing that, precisely to the extent that it itself is not an appearance, does not appear.

There is an invisibility sheltered in the visible, an invisibility of phenomenality itself. This appears in Heidegger’s thinking of presence. By understanding being in distinction from beings, Heidegger approaches being itself as an event, the event of presence. Now, the very event of presence seems to harbor a certain withdrawal. In fact, the very term Anwesenheit reveals a withdrawal at the heart of manifestation. The an– in An-wesen or An-wesenheit suggests a coming into presence, a movement, a motion, from concealment to unconcealment, from withdrawal and invisibility to visibility. Thus, to characterize a being as an-wesend also shows that the preposition an suggests the dynamic tension between a movement of coming into presence and a movement of withdrawal, a play between unconcealment and concealment already captured by the Greeks in the contrast between the prepositions para and apo in parousia and apousia. This implies, in turn, a break with the model of constant presence, that is, with a kind of “stability” that represses the temporal happening in the phenomenon of presence, including the phenomenon of withdrawal that seems to affect, each time, the event of presence. In fact, the very concept of phenomenology, insofar as it is defined as a ‘letting be seen” (sehen lassen), necessarily implies the withdrawal of the phenomenon. Indeed, if phenomenology is a letting be seen, then the phenomenon of phenomenology cannot be simply that which is apparent or manifest; if the phenomenon was simply the given, there would be no need for phenomenology. “And just because the phenomena are proximally and for the most part not given, there is need for phenomenology” (SZ, 36). This is why Heidegger could write that the phenomenon, precisely as that which is to be made phenomenologically visible, does not show itself, although this inapparent nonetheless belongs to what shows itself, for Heidegger also stresses that “‘behind’ the phenomena of phenomenology there is essentially nothing” (SZ, 36). The inapparent is not some noumenal reality hidden behind the phenomenon, but a dimension that belongs to it. What, then, is called a phenomenon in a distinctive sense? What is the full, phenomenological concept of the phenomenon? Here is Heidegger’s answer: “What is it that must be called a `phenomenon’ in a distinctive sense? What is it that by its very essence is necessarily the theme whenever we exhibit something explicitly? Manifestly, it is something that proximally and for the most part does not show itself at all: it is something that lies hidden, in contrast to that which proximally and for the most part does show itself; but at the same time it is something that belongs to what thus shows itself, and it belongs to it so essentially as to constitute its meaning and its ground” (SZ, 35). Now, for Heidegger at the time of Being and Time, what does not appear in what appears is being: “Yet that which remains hidden in an egregious sense, or which relapses and gets covered up again, or which shows itself only ‘in disguise,’ is just not this entity or that, but rather the being of entities” (SZ, 38).

This is why Kirkland stresses that the first decisive claim that Heidegger makes is that Greek, Aristotelian philosophy “engineers” (that is, lets emerge) a differentiation between being and beings, so that precisely being begins to come into view from its concealment as such. This requires a genuine phenomenological forcing, the goal of which is to elucidate, to bring to light and to uncover that which remains hidden, covered over or dissimulated. There is thus an unavoidable violence of thought or interpretation, implicit in Destruktion. This necessity of a philosophical violence turned against the self-concealment of being is described in the early courses Heidegger gave when he was engaged in the so-called “hermeneutics of factical life.” It was then a matter for him of deriving “the phenomenological interpretation out of the facticity of life itself.”[3] Now Life is characterized by a constant moving-away from itself (Abfallen), a constant fleeing from itself, a movement that is a falling away. Heidegger speaks indeed of this falling away as “the ownmost character of movement belonging to life,” and the expropriation of what he calls “ruinance” is thus the most “proper” movement of life. In this movement of falling away into ruins, life is opened to its own possibility and becomes an issue for itself in an originary self-estrangement. Thinking begins in life’s self-estrangement or expropriation from itself, and is itself a part of this movement of life, a sort of counter movement, a response to the event of life, a counter-event to such event.

That is the origin of what Heidegger calls the “counter-motion” of thought, going against life’s “own” tendency to fall into expropriation. Thinking originates from the need to go counter to life’s tendency to move away from itself. “Philosophy is a mode of life itself, in such a way that it authentically ‘brings back,’ i.e., brings life back from its downward fall into decadence, and this ‘bringing back’ [or re-petition, ‘re-seeking’], as radical re-search, is life itself.” (PIA, 62). Heidegger writes of “the constant struggle of factical, philosophical interpretation against its own factical ruinance, a struggle that accompanies the process of the actualization of philosophizing” (PIA, 114). Thought: a movement going against life’s ruinance. Thought is counter-ruinance. “Phenomenological interpretation… manifests by its very essence a ‘counter-movedness’” (PIA, 99). Thought is a counter-violence to the originary violence of the ruinance and self-estrangement of life. The violence of interpretation responds to the violence of the self-estrangement of life and goes against it. In Being and Time, the necessity of this violence was explained by reference to Dasein’s hermeneutic situation: the ontological interpretation of this being must go “against” its own tendency to conceal, and can only be “won,” Heidegger explains, by “following an opposite course (im Gegenzug)” from the tendency that distances Dasein from its being by throwing it towards beings. “The laying-bare of Dasein’s primordial being must rather be wrested from Dasein by following the opposite course from that taken by the falling ontico-ontological tendency of interpretation” (SZ, 311). The existential analytic thus recognizes its phenomenological violence. “Existential analysis… constantly has the character of doing violence (Gewaltsamkeit), whether to the claims of the everyday interpretation, or to its complacency and its tranquilized obviousness” (SZ, 311). The entire ontologico-phenomenological problematic is thus rooted in the concealment of being, its non-appearing.

Now Greek philosophy, and metaphysics, think being as constant presence, and as presence of beings. “Aristotle, arrives at the interpretation of Being as presence—’being’ is nothing other than the presence and availability of present beings” (HDA, 64). This substantialist interpretation of being as constantly the same, always oriented towards beings, forecloses both the difference between being and beings and the dimension of withdrawal proper to being itself. “With this, Being is reduced to its positive role in allowing beings to present themselves to us, and their problematic relation to Being is thereby overcome as they settle into an exhaustive and comforting intelligibility. Being is seen as a feature universally distributed over all present beings. Nothing else.” Heidegger seeks to show that being exceeds the horizon of the universal. Being is “not exhausted by even the sum total of all beings. It is not a universal like other universals, but one that transcends its instantiations” (HDA, 64-65). It is at this point that Kirkland shows the destructive reading at work in Heidegger’s reading of Aristotle. First (first krisis), by differentiating Being from beings. Second (second krisis), by revealing another sense of being than presence, namely the event of its withdrawal. As Kirkland defined it later in the text, the second krisis is an indication of Being, “not as the presence of present beings, but as what withholds itself behind such beings as the essentially question-worthy dynamic event of emergence into presence” (HDA, 89). Destructive hermeneutics thus attempts to twist free another meaning of being: no longer simply the presence of beings, but the very event of being as withdrawal. “Destruction then takes up the Aristotelian text in this sense and attempts to activate the distinction or differentiation between that positive aspect of Being, as the presencing of present beings, and the negative aspect of Being, its withdrawal behind beings” (HDA, 65). In other words, in these early works on Aristotle, “Heidegger approaches the task of thinking Being, first along with the Greeks and then against them, as essentially and irremediably withdrawn, hidden, concealed” (HDA, 65). Destruction reveals that it is when Being is differentiated from beings that the concealed ground of Aristotle’s analyses (as that determination of being in terms of the presence and availability of beings) comes to the fore.

Chapter 3 focuses on what Kirkland calls a few “case studies” in the destruction of Aristotelian concepts, namely ousia, zôon logon echon, and dunamis. Kirkland begins by noting that Aristotle is known “as the thinker of ousia (usually translated as ‘substance’),” while also insisting that Aristotle is not a doctrinal thinker (HDA, 80). The destruction of this fundamental concept of Aristotelian philosophy takes several stages in Heidegger’s reading. First, Heidegger recalls the “pre-philosophical” meaning of the term, its everyday usage, namely: “property, possession, possessions and goods, estate.” The term evokes “’means’ (as in “a person of means”), “possessions” or “goods” belonging to an individual, or also one’s “property, household stock,” and “estate” (HDA, 88). All these characteristics refer to beings insofar as they are fully usable and available to us, as being present to us. Kirkland states that “the term ‘ousia’ most of all evokes beings with the mode of present, finished, identifiable, estimable, exchangeable, masterable things” (HDA, 88-89). Heidegger thus retrieves the ontological meaning of ousia as presence, as constant presence. Such a destructive reading will lead Heidegger to rethinking the meaning of Being, from the presence of present beings to “what withholds itself behind such beings as the essentially question-worthy dynamic event of emergence into presence” (HDA, 89). For prior to the (constant) presence of things there is the mysterious emergence into presence. “Heidegger finds Aristotle’s refinement of ordinary experience into a concept, as well as the trace of an aspect of Being that Aristotle never experiences, much less thinks, but which can be intimated here through a destructive reading” (HDA, 85). In this shift lies the phenomenological destruction of Aristotle’s ousia.

Kirkland then takes up Heidegger’s destruction of Aristotle’s definition of the human being as the zôon logon echon, the living being endowed with reason, or “rational animal.” Beginning with Heidegger’s treatment of logos, Kirkland shows how Heidegger rejects the abstract definition of logos as “the statement or proposition as the fundamental linguistic unit and the basic element of truth or falsity.” Rather, logos is retrieved as a fundamental feature of being-in-the-world, as an original phenomenon. “Behind or beneath this Aristotelian definition of truth as a feature of statements, Heidegger finds an original complex experience of logos” (HDA, 95). The expression zôon logon echon, understood as a genus (living thing) with a species-defining difference (language or reason), is “destroyed” in order to reveal its ontological significance. “The human does not exist as a living thing, to which we then add the faculty of language or reason. Rather, its very mode of being is its receiving of the world’s appearing in and through language.” The issue is to show that the human is “a being whose being is accomplished in logos… The human does not exist as a living thing, to which we then add the faculty of language or reason” (HDA, 96). Interestingly, Kirkland notes that this radicalization of the very meaning of logos represents “a sort of modification or intensification of the way of being of the zôon or ‘living thing’.” In other words, in contrast with later texts, where Heidegger distinguishes between life, animality, and being, in these early texts on Aristotle, in these early texts Kirkland suggests that there is a continuity between the animal and the human being. As Heidegger put it, “Ζῳή is a concept of being: ‘life’ refers to a mode of being [Seinsweise], indeed a mode of being-in-the-world [Sein-in-der-Welt]. A living thing is not simply at hand [vorhanden], but is in the world in that it has its world [daß es seine Welt hat]. An animal is not simply moving down the road, pushed along by some mechanism. It is in the world in the manner of “having it [the world]” [in der Welt in der Weise des Sie-Habens] (cited in HDA, 96). Here again, the destruction of Aristotle signifies the retrieval of a hidden ontological ground of an abstract characterization of the human being as a living being endowed with logos. This is why in Being and Time, Heidegger would clarify that the way “of interpreting this definition of man in the sense of the animal rationale, ‘something living which has reason’, is not indeed ‘false’ (falsch), but it covers up the phenomenal basis for this definition of ‘Dasein’” (SZ, 165).

Despite the seemingly frontal opposition between Heidegger’s pronouncement that “Higher than actuality stands possibility” (SZ, 38) and Aristotle’s statement that “It is clear that actuality is prior to potency [phaneron hoti proteron energeia dunameôs estin]” (Meta. IX.1049b5), Kirkland argues that Heidegger’s claim in fact constitutes “a sort of retrieval and appropriation of Aristotle’s recognition of dunamis as a legitimate mode of being at all.” Even if Aristotle “will ultimately subordinate dunamis to energeia, at least he grants it ontological legitimacy,” Kirkland insists (HDA, 100). Kirkland pursues this interpretation by focusing on the 1924 Aristotle course, where Heidegger develops an ontological interpretation of change and potency, and proposes a dynamic or kinetic way of being, another example of his destructive/appropriative reading.

In a concluding chapter, Kirkland argues that the early method of destruction (and of phenomenology as well) are not so much abandoned as radicalized in Heidegger’s later work, the latter displaying a “faithful adherence to the principle of the earlier destructive project” (HDA, 109). The perdurance of “Destruktion” can be glimpsed for example in Heidegger’s problematization of an “other beginning” in relation to a “first beginning,” and in the attention always given to a “history of being,” a history which as we saw was the ground for the problematics of destruction. As a whole, this work constitutes a major contribution to an understanding of Heidegger’s relation to Aristotle, and more broadly, an understanding of his method. The book sheds light, not only on the early Heidegger, but also on the ground from which the later work sprang. Even when Kirkland goes over well-known texts, he does so with an originality and thoughtfulness such that one is as it were led to engages those passages as if for the first time.

[1] Martin Heidegger. Holzwege, ed. Friedrich-Wilhelm von Hermann (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 1977), GA 5, p. 337.  Off The Beaten Track, ed. and trans. Julian Young and Kenneth Haynes (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 253.  

[2] Martin Heidegger, Sein und Zeit (Tübingen, Germany: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1953), p. 28. English translations: Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper, 1962), and Being and Time, trans. Joan Stambaugh, rev. Dennis J. Schmidt (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010). Hereafter cited as SZ, followed by the German pagination.

[3]Martin Heidegger. Phänomenologische Interpretationen zu Aristoteles. Einführung in die phänomenologische Forschung, eds. Walter Bröcker and Käte Bröcker-Oltmanns (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 1994), GA 61, p. 87. Phenomenological Interpretations of Aristotle: Initiation into Phenomenological Research, trans. Richard Rojcewicz (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), p. 66. Hereafter cited as PIA.

Nicolai K. Knudsen: Heidegger’s Social Ontology

Heidegger’s Social Ontology. The Phenomenology of Self, World, and Others Book Cover Heidegger’s Social Ontology. The Phenomenology of Self, World, and Others
Part of Modern European Philosophy
Nicolai K. Knudsen
Cambridge UP

Reviewed by: Joeri Schrijvers (North-West University, Potchefstroom)

The aim of this work is to examine Heidegger’s social ontology, roughly the human being’s relation to others. In eight chapters Knudsen elaborates Heidegger’s thinking of being-with, different forms of being-with (such as shared action) and, say, the politics of being-with. Knudsen, understandably, focuses on the early Heidegger and attempts to relate Heidegger’s thinking concerning social relations to fields that, quite often, have not studied Heidegger at length to develop their positions: one will find, for instance, accounts of Hilary Putnam alongside Heidegger.

This dialogue between the two big strands of contemporary philosophy is perhaps not always successful even though it at times surely is illuminating. Knudsen’s book, however, takes a slow start and at times gets lost somewhat in the definition-craze that haunts much of analytical philosophy (a craze that is a bit ironic when compared to Heidegger’s questioning of what a being actually “is”, for Heidegger obviously never allowed a definition to exhaust the being of an entity). Knudsen throughout offers a very lucid account of Heidegger’s positions—certainly when it comes to Being and Time—and of contemporary thinkers in the field of social ontology. It is clear, too, that Knudsen is somewhat enamored with phenomenology—who can blame him! Yet, although Knudsen for instance assumes the normativity of phenomenology—one must “get the phenomenology right” (130-1)—it is hard to imagine whether this alone will convince his dialogue partners. It is this that makes this reader wonder whether the dialogue between the two strands of philosophy here has always succeeded.

In the Introduction already, Knudsen describes Heidegger as an externalist: the reality of the outside world, better, the “solicitations of the environment” (2), make for the fact that the human being is always caught in, and claimed by, a network of relations on which he or she, in turn “constitutively depends” which puts Heidegger “at odds with […] contemporary analytical social ontology as well as recent social phenomenology” (5) which both see individuals or the dyadic relation between the other and me as the ultimate level of explanation. Using a term from Donald Davidson, Knudsen describes Dasein’s relation to the world and to others as triangulation: Dasein understands itself through the world which it always shares with others.

Chapter one sets out to elaborate Heidegger’s social ontology by pointing to a transcendental social structure according to which entities, properties, social and natural alike, appear as they do because “subjectivity itself implies a set of necessary and a priori social relations” (19) that is, the transcendental structure of intentionality as such already “implies a form of intersubjectivity” (22). I am who I am only by virtue of others. Sociality, then, is not something that is construed, constructed or constituted afterwards, after, that is, the ego is fully erected. This is why social ontology is an ontology precisely: it does not pertain to just a domain of existence, but rather is a dimension of existence itself (23).

Knudsen then proceeds by showing how Heidegger early on attempted to integrate “social ontology into fundamental ontology” (23), an attempt that, for Knudsen, is complete only in 1924 in Heidegger’s The Concept of Time, when he finally abandons all ambiguous distinctions between the surrounding world, the self-world and the with-world by pointing to a fundamental Miteinandersein of all beings with all beings. (24-28). Other Dasein are strictly speaking not a part of the world, a “form of world” (29), they share world with us because being-in-the-world, as an ontological dimension, is itself shared and spread out through all Dasein. Of course, the world of the other is different than my world. Yet the social ontological dimension of ‘being-in-the-world’ points to an underlying structure which is shared in all different and particular worlds. Being-in-the-world therefore consists in a “non-thematic awareness” (32) that is only “tacitly operative in our thematic awareness of an object” (32): we are hammering with this particular hammer long before this hammer shows up as a hammer precisely. Being-in-the-world, then, ultimately “is the relational whole of significance that makes our involvement with entities possible” (33). Our being-in-the-world is, however, not strictly formal or void. The world of the other and my world both share certain characteristics. Heidegger points here to in-order-to relations (Umzu) and the for-sake-of-which of these relations (Worumwillen). I hammer with the hammer in order to build the shed for the sake of the dog. Knudsen likens these in-order-to’s to the contemporary concept of affordances and the for-the-sake-of-which to a form of commitment (33).

Knudsen then quite poignantly warns us not to see this being-in-the-world solely as a “basic layer” or rather as “the non-social building blocks needed to understand all features of social life” (35). It is not because Dasein always and already has this transcendental make-up that it can turn to others. On the contrary: it is because Dasein is already turned to others that this transcendental-make up can be detected in the various particular worlds. Knudsen concludes by stating, intriguingly, that “there is a very minimal sense of the word to share at stake here” (38)

Chapter two compares the transcendental social ontologies of Husserl and Heidegger. In Husserl, there are for Knudsen two approaches, the one beginning from empathy—which Heidegger for the most part rejects—and the other starting from “open subjectivity” which is closer to Heidegger (38-45). Meaning is neither constructed by or given to a subject (which it then compares to the meaning of and for others), meaning has meaning only because it ‘shows up’ between us and because there are others in the first place. There is no meaning for one alone. Herein too lies Heidegger’s critique of Husserl’s layered ontology (48): there is no real and objective meaning that then needs to be traced back to the transcendental structure of an ego that then builds a spiritual community with other egos. On the contrary, for Heidegger, all of these are there quite immediately. Knudsen concludes that Husserl, for Heidegger, “proceeds in an unphenomenological way” (51).

The question is in what way Heidegger’s approach then is still to be considered transcendental. Knudsen correctly points to Heidegger’s use of “transcendence” in Being and Time. “Transcendence is the primordial surpassing of entities towards the structure that makes them intelligible [which is] the world. Transcendence names the phenomenological correlation between mind and world, and the investigation of this correlation is rightly called transcendental” (56). In a beautiful definition, Knudsen defines Heidegger’s phenomenological approach as follows: “Phenomenologically, to be a subject is to exist in an experiential field as the one to whom experiences are given” (57). One will then see that the “mind is intrinsically world-directed and -engaged, while the world is phenomenologically senseless apart from the mind” (ibid.). Heidegger so adds a worldly, experiential, almost empirical, but in any case utterly historical dimension to transcendental thinking. Indeed, “our surpassing entities towards the world always take place in a particular or finite way” (58). Dasein’s transcending is always particular—it transcends to this rather than that, at this particular place rather than there—but it is a transcending nevertheless. It is open to the field of possibilities opened up to it by this particular place in time.

Chapter three’s worry about this historical dimension is that it might be an instance of relativism. If “different people have different understandings of being” (69), how then can they “refer to the same objects” (71)? The chapter focuses on Lafont’s account of linguistic idealism and Dreyfus’ pragmatic conventionalism but sometimes seems to get lost somewhat in the peculiarities of these positions. It takes Knudsen a long time to get their points straight and to bring his own point home. Let us therefore turn to its conclusion and Heidegger’s take on the problem mentioned. Knudsen finds in Heidegger’s Introduction to Philosophy (from 1928/29) an example of joint attention, in which “there is a mutual non-thematic awareness between the co-intenders, who are thematically oriented towards an object that is, accordingly, experienced as a shared object of attention” (78). Here Heidegger had in fact asked “what enables several people to intend the same piece of chalk?” (ibid.) when attending his lecture. All of them are looking at the piece of chalk, for a while unawares of the precise educational point of the shared attention for this object and non-thematically aware that the others, too, are watching this piece of chalk held up by Heidegger. Yet all, because their field of possibilities in this case too is determined by their particular situation and backgrounds will look at the object differently. The teacher looks at the chalk differently than the students do: for the teacher it is a tool in order to teach, whereas for the student the tool is unnoticed—surpassed say—in order to focus on what will be taught. “This leads Heidegger to argue that a strict similarity in our practical comportment is simply too demanding a criterion for determining what constitutes their jointness” (79)—“even if we see things differently, we do not see different things” (78).

It is this play of sharing and dividing that now attracts Knudsen’s attention: for Heidegger, “we share and divide ourselves in [the] unconcealment [of entities]” (81, cf. GA27, 105)—we share the very looking at this object yet are divided in the meaning our comportment towards them attributes to these objects. “Two Dasein can intend the same object in roughly similar ways if they share an understanding of being by being raised in the same social practices” (82). Yet this doesn’t make Heidegger a relativist or a strong social externalist like Lafont or Dreyfus, where (social) meaning solely determines reference. Instead, “Heidegger endorse a weak or open-ended social externalism according to which meaning depends on ongoing social interaction” (83). These Dasein, however foreign to one another, will figure it out simply because Dasein is such a figuring out (of potential uses for objects).

This “figuring-out” is used here figuratively, although it is described by Heidegger quite literally as a “non-thematic other-awareness” (84) even when no others are around. Objects take on meaning because their use is useful if and only if it can be, sooner or later, related to others. Usefulness only ever arises because each Dasein is as the sharing of world with others. Knudsen emphasizes rightly that this transcendental-ontological condition of being-with, this non-thematic awareness is a form of communication. For Knudsen, “Heidegger’s point is that whenever another Dasein shows up in my realm of manifestation, his behavior will affect how I comport myself towards the surrounding entities” (85) because, in effect, we are constitutively open towards others” (86). It is because we are constitutively open to others—share ourselves in and as world, are broken open toward world—that not one object is without a reference to others even when no others are around to communicate with.

Knudsen likens this openness to Donald Davidson’s idea of triangulation where, on the one hand, we adjust our understanding of objects in light of other’s behavior, of social relations, and, on the other hand, we adjust our understanding of these others through sharing the environment, through objective relations (87). Such, if I may, transcendental triangulation is first. Prior to “shared conventions, rules, or routines” (88) there is, Heidegger says, an “originary, essential agreement” of human beings with one another (ibid., Cf. GA 29/30, 447f) and through which Dasein, throughout, comport themselves to entities in roughly the same ontological way. The remainder of the chapter explores the differences between Heidegger’s take on language and that of Davidson, Lafont, or Dreyfus who all, in one way or another, want to trace this linguistic condition of possibility back to propositional attitudes or at least shared linguistic conventions whereas for Heidegger the sharing of world goes “beyond the exchange of linguistic utterances” (92).

Heidegger’s “pre-reflective triangulation” (93) is such that even if we would meet someone who is totally other, we would still see and use the same entity, simply because our diverse interactions with it, and the possible uses the other of this entity that the other might manifest to us. Even if we do not share the same understanding of being, we will nonetheless both have an understanding of being. In the case of the lectern or the piece of chalk, this open interaction would show “the lectern not simply in light of the usage characteristic of the social practices that he is socialized into” (94) but as an entity toward which other comportments are possible too. Knudsen, quite rightly, concludes that “the idea that different people live in different worlds should be rejected” (95).

The second part of the book focuses on different forms of being-with, and opens with a chapter on interpersonal understanding. What indeed do we know about others? What do others know and how do we know others? Knudsen explores the phenomenological tradition of empathy, ranging from Theodor Lipps up to Edith Stein and Husserl as well as more contemporary (but analogous) debates on social cognition. Heidegger however was no clear partisan of these theories of empathy: the fact that an ego would need to ‘think about’ how the other would possibly feel only then to imagine if and whether the ego ‘would feel’ roughly the same thing, simply contradicts Heidegger’s non-reflective, immediate dealing with the other and others where we recognize the other as other before we would even try to project upon or reproduce artificially the other’s supposedly mental states. Heidegger, in this sense, “effectively dissolves the traditional problem of other minds” (109), since this problem is from the outset regulated by “non-thematic awareness”. It is because the other shares a world with me, constituted by a similar Umzu and Worumwillen, that we can “read [intentional statements] off the practical comportment of others” (109).

When we see a human being, we do not first wonder whether this is in fact a human being who thinks, feels and senses like me, we simply see a human being with whom we are interacting. This turns Heidegger, for Knudsen, into a “proto-enactivist” (ibid.), one of those recent theories nowadays advocated by Hanne De Jaegher’s research into participatory sense-making. Over and against the theoretical and cognitive bias of many of contemporary theories, Heidegger also criticizes the older phenomenological tradition for wrongfully prioritizing the face-to-face relation. Our understanding with others is “cut from the same holistic cloth as our understanding of ourselves” (112). For Knudsen’s Heidegger, this means that “interpersonal understanding cannot be a relation between two distinct entities. It can only take place by virtue of the transcendence of the shared world in which I and you coexist as different polarisations of a field of possibilities” (114). I understand the other, and the other understands me, because both of us live similarly in a roughly similar world with roughly similar entities at hand. It is by “going along with”—Mitgehen—the other seeing how he or she is and comports his-or herself that we discover what it is like to be this entity. It is therefore through an immediate non-reflective Versetzen or “transposition” that we understand the place of the other (Cf. 114-5; GA 29/30, 296) and discover that the other’s behavior is appropriate for a being that is being-in-the-world. There is little interaction with the stone, for instance. The stone, for Heidegger, does not have a world: it lack all Worumwillen and Umzu. In this regard, the other turns out to be just another “polarization of the same matrix of salience” living in a world which is “meaningful” and “makes sense” from the very start.

Here Knudsen disagrees with some commentators of Heidegger who argued that his account of solicitude—roughly: the care for the other—contains an “inauthentic” mode in which the other would be, à la Kant, reduced to a mere means to an end. Knudsen, interestingly, argues that all forms of solicitude, even those where we leap in for others and take their tasks away from them, “involve a minimal level” (119) of the acknowledgement of the other’s Dasein-like character. The distinction between leaping-in and leaping ahead is then not an ethical one (where the former would be bad and the latter good) but rather an ontological one: it depicts two ontological extremes of intersubjective care for the other (120). Knudsen convincingly concludes this discussion with some examples of his own that in effect carefully deconstruct why leaping-in would always be a bad thing and leaping-ahead would everywhere be a good thing.

Is there a transpositioning, a “going-along-with”, a walking the ways, with dogs, animals and stones? Heidegger’s example of the dog “under the table” became famous (notably through Jacques Derrida’s unrelenting analysis). Heidegger, one might say, directs his attention phenomenologically to the dog: he goes up the stairs with us, eats with us, and walks the same pathways as Heidegger once did. “There is a going-along-with […] a transposedness, and yet not” (121, GA 29: 308). Something is different. Heidegger says: the animal is poor in world. The animal, Knudsen states, “can only experience entities as correlates of its drives and capabilities” (125). The dog’s world only pertains to his next meal, say, whereas the world of humans is open-ended and characterized by a multiplication, Vermehrbarkeit (GA 29, 285) through which ever more entities can obtain ever more uses. This makes for the fact that, in the end, for Heidegger “the world sharing is asymmetrical” (127): we can transpose ourselves in the dog, know immediately to run away from a snake, and know not to run away from the gorilla if he’s in a cage in a zoo. We transpose ourselves into animals but animals cannot be expected to transpose themselves into us (127).

Chapter five focuses on shared action and opens with the constatation that many of the contemporary accounts—Knudsen mentions Gilbert, Searle, and Bratman—are overly intellectualistic and should be complemented with a phenomenology of action, which will speak, again, of a “pre-reflective agency” (131) responding as it does to solicitations of the surrounding world. Knudsen pays attention to “small-scale, egalitarian, and temporary group formations” (ibid.), say, people involved in dancing, in order to argue for a “plural pre-reflective self-awareness” (ibid.) whereas existential phenomenology, in its early days at least, tended to focus on rather individualistic actions.

Shared action meets three conditions: we are with more than one, we are forming a group, and we are aware of us forming a group (132). We are doing things together when we know that we are doing things together. It is on the latter, quite intellectualistic, aspect that Gilbert and Bratman focus. Once more Knudsen shows himself to be enamored with phenomenology: “we often engage in intentional activity without being aware of the desire and beliefs that supposedly distinguish our actions from mere bodily movement” (136). Yet such “pre-reflective action” does carry some awareness with it: I know that I am dancing and know that we are dancing without consciously representing a desired goal for this action. It is clear that most of our actions are in this sense pre-reflective. The rest of the chapter asks whether such a prereflective awareness is also present in groups. In this regard, Knudsen discusses Hans Bernhard Schmid’s work on plural action and argues that it misses precisely an account of “holistic singular self-awareness” (141) through which actions are always and already a response (rather than a reaction) to what is happening in the surrounding world: we go dancing, for instance, because suddenly there is a good tune or a good ‘vibe’. At best, Schmid arrives at a “formal social mind” (144)—we are aware that we are dancing—but not at an, say, empirical one, one that is “unified by the solicitations that prompt us to respond” (144): it is this particular song that got us on the dancefloor. To elaborate such an awareness, Knudsen then develops and expands an example of Heidegger describing the joint goals and joint actions of two campers (GA 27, 91).

Interestingly, Knudsen returns to Heidegger’s account of language—Gerede—to show how individual action is transformed into shared action. The simple exclamation, ‘Dance with me’, for instance, changes one kind of solicitation into another kind, shared this time, of solicitation of the environment (152). More than in the earlier chapters on intersubjectivity, Knudsen focuses on the ontological aspects of Heidegger’s social ontology, for just as we are with others even when we are alone, just so are we speaking even when we are silent or just listen or read (154, Cf GA 12, 9). There is an overlap between world and speech: world is what is spoken about, what “makes sense” prior to being put into one or the other proposition. In this regard, the song that get us on the dancefloor is just the empirical case that expresses, makes salient, an environment that already is “inherently shared [,] inherently expressive [and to which we are] inherently responsive” (156).

Chapter six discusses social normativity. Here too Heidegger’s account, for Knudsen, is “phenomenologically crucial” (166) amidst the ongoing contemporary debates. Heidegger was no fan of social conventions and his discussion of Das Man—the anyone—makes this quite clear. Knudsen engages in very detailed and intriguing reading of the ambiguities in Heidegger’s thinking of the anyone’s mediocrity where everyone does, reads, and says what everyone does, reads and says. Knudsen argues that “the anyone [is] reproduced by the weight of precedent alone” (168): we read what everyone reads, in a sense, because people have been reading this all along. Heidegger’s ultimate aim here is to “uncover the ontological foundation of our responsiveness to social norms” (170) rather than describe Dasein’s “desire for social affirmation”, as Fredrik Westerlund has it (ibid.). With Haugeland, Knudsen explores the ‘weight of precedent’: we do as always has been done because we are “temporal creatures with habits and memories” (171) and so tend to “reproduce” certain behavioral norms rather than others. This process of “stabilization” (ibid.), as Haugeland names it, will for Heidegger always amount to a sort of primacy of averageness and levelling down. “We unconsciously accept a standard way of doing things” (172).

Knudsen quite convincingly shows that there is no one-way ticket from the inauthenticity of the Anyone to the authenticity of a “proper” Dasein. Instead, the Anyone for Knudsen is a “necessary feature of Dasein” (173) that, at times however, can be reconciled with the quest for an authentic self. Dasein does “have options” (174): it is not condemned to the unfreedom dominating the Anyone. Knudsen ultimately argues that the Anyone or the “public” covers up aspects of the accepted and prevailing social norms in a very peculiar way: it tends to turn the current and standard set of social norms into an ahistorical, absolute set of social norms (175). Our way of doing things then becomes the way of doing things. With this thesis, we have reached the heart of Knudsen’s book—at least for this reader coming from the phenomenological tradition. For Knudsen, it is, on the one hand, necessary “that there are social norms”—this is the transcendental, existential aspect—yet what these norms concretely and empirically are differs throughout history—they are ontic, historical indeed, and therefore provisional. It is these latter chapters, in which Knudsen develops this insight, that one finds the most read-worthy passages of the book.

Especially interesting is Knudsen’s take on Heidegger’s odd, if not awkward, stress on the “destiny of the people” which, as we all know, starts in Being and Time and only keeps worsening after 1927. Knudsen turns to Heidegger’s account of historicity, late in Being and Time, and considers that there is a distinction between the Anyone and the concrete “happening of community” (176, SZ, 384) what Knudsen calls “historical social normativity” and through which “the same content, the same social norms are […] disclosed as historical rather than as universal defaults” (176).

Yet what to make of Heidegger’s thinking of the “people”, the Volk? Knudsen makes a great deal of Heidegger’s statement in Being and Time that it is possible for us to disclose “history emphatically” (SZ, 376). This would make it possible for an authentic self to both recognize the normative content of social norms and their historical, provisional character (179). It is in this sense that, to echo Heidegger’s wording, authenticity is a “new modality” (ibid.) of the existence of the Anyone. “In resoluteness […] social norms are handed down as handed down. We thereby come to see our socially inflected factical possibilities as heritage rather than as defaults” (180). We have inherited this possibility of organizing a society rather than that one, yet it is entirely possible and legitimate for a society to organize itself in an entirely other way. If we want to belong to a certain group and certain people then there is always, apart from awareness of all historicity of these social norms, the possibility of explicitly repeating them. In effect, “repetition”, is the more or less explicit choice to hand down the earlier norms again. “Dasein now chooses to follow a precent as a precedent or as heritage” (181), yet that still is “an ultimately contingent product of our historical situation” (ibid.). Dasein so becomes aware of its own historical community as a particular community which happens here, now and for the time being: the “destiny of this people”, of this particular community, is nothing more than the co-happening of all its constituents for this particular amount of time. I can decide to take part in, say, the Belgian community, to claim this as “my own”, to use the possibilities and habits and memories the Belgian community offers me, and so commit myself to the prolongation of this community by realizing that these possibilities are offered up here, now as possibilities next to a dozen of other, historical possibilities (of others, of other communities).

It is clear that Knudsen sees in Being and Time no “precursor to Heidegger’s fatal politics” (182) as early on Karl Löwith did. This is quite right. Being and Time was one of the first metaphysical works ever to be immersed in historicity that it would be downright strange if it in its concluding pages would settle for one or the other predestined destiny. Such a thing comes to Heidegger’s mind only later. But one needs to acknowledge, too, that Being and Time was not finished (and breaks off quite suddenly, with a question that was already present at the beginning): it is possible that Heidegger realized that with the “destiny” of the people, why not of being, other, less commendable, options were opened and that the book “failed” for the simple reason that its author could not decide where he wanted to stand, what choices had to be made. Knudsen concludes: “there is no necessary connection between Heidegger’s conception of history and his political engagement” (184). Let it be noted indeed.

It is true that in the thirties and early fourties Heidegger thinks he must, and can, think politically. “The general idea is that Hölderlin’s poetry can bring about an awareness of and a commitment to the particularity of the community” (185). At the very least, there is the willingness and desire to make people commit to a certain community. One might suspect that existentialism’s insistence on the freedom of the individual was, at best, a productive misunderstanding. In this period, though, Knudsen states Heidegger is occupied by three themes: the fragility of communal life, the pressure toward social coherence and the significance of communal commitments (186). At one of the rare moments Knudsen turns to late Heidegger, he reads this important distinction into the difference between polis and dike: the first is equivalent “to the existential-ontological sense of the shared world”, the latter “names the particular regime of historical normativity” (187) to which Dasein, always already, falls prey (and commits to, or not). This is why the latter is labelled as strife or conflict: decisions need to be made, there needs to be education, and institutions to enable these decisions. The question remains: if one realizes the utter contingency of one’s own community, how and why prolong this community? (Existentialism’s questions are philosophically legitimate). Yet, “on a personal level’, Knudsen states, “Heidegger took this idea to imply authoritarianism and nationalism” (192): someone will tell us that and how we need to commit and that we should commit to this particular community. However, and Knudsen is right here, one might just as well find oneself within a particular community without perhaps too much commitment, and just ask questions as Heidegger used to do: why and what does it mean to be in this community for seventy odd years or so, and why should I commit to these norms rather than others? There is indeed no need for “reactionary politics” like Heidegger’s very particular stance (192).

“Heidegger’s answer to why we should hold exactly these communal commitments is [more] interesting” (199). Indeed it is. Chapter seven opens with precisely this question. At least from 1935 onward, Heidegger believed that the historical task fell to Germany to prevent, as Derrida stated in Of Spirit, the phenomenon of the world from becoming obscured. It was the German state, with the aid of a thorough educational system, in which the people, Das Volk, would give itself a lasting body in which the people becomes an issue for itself (203). It is known, especially from the account of the seminars gathered in Nature, History, State, that Heidegger endorsed, perhaps somewhat unthoughtfully, the Führerprinzip. Yet, Knudsen argues, “Heidegger never offers any argument for this authoritarianism, but it is an intrinsic part of his politics” (ibid.). Authoritarianism is needed to enforce the goal of the state and of the people. Yet Heidegger, here too, wants that these people actually adhere to these goals, and consciously will them by committing to them. In this regard, “Heidegger sees education as a way of tying studentS to the state” (204), as a way of making them aware of the “historical task” weighing on them when taking part in the state and the community.

With Löwith, Knudsen therefore contends that Heidegger’s politics is built upon his conception of historicity from Being and Time onward. Yet, Knudsen, contra Löwith, wants us to distinguish between the need and possibility of communal commitments—an adherence to a particular, historical community—and authoritarianism or fascism (206). There is something to be said about the fact that Heidegger’s fascism is tied up with his notion of the “history of being”. But Knudsen is lucid enough to pinpoint the “highly ambiguous” (206) character of this concept in Heidegger’s writings and offers no less than five different definitions of the term of which only a moderate version is “fine-grained enough to yield convincing phenomenological analysis” (208). This moderate version instruct us “that each historical age is characterized by a particular understanding of being” (206). This, say, historicity of being is incompatible with the larger (and somewhat grandiose) claim that this history of being is nothing but a history of decline and that only a particular state is able to remedy or otherwise turnaround this nihilistic unfolding of being. In this sense, the “geopolitical knot” that Heidegger superimposed on the historicity of being, through which certain people are more (or less) nihilistic than others simply does not hold (209). Heidegger’s “politics”, in that sense, was never a “political philosophy”: these politics, Knudsen argues, were only indirectly important and were to aid the “metaphysical revolution” (208) Heidegger deemed necessary through which his students, through studying “relentlessly the craft of interpreting the great thinkers” (ibid.; GA 94, 389), would awaken to a new understanding of being that stepped outside of nihilism.

Heidegger’s efforts “to [map] different peoples onto the history of being” (212) are obviously “appalling” (209). Yet it should not make us blind for the fact that, in the Notebooks recording his disappointment with the movement, Heidegger realized that the ease with which he spoke of the “Russians”, the “Americans” and the “Jews” did not hold even for the “Germans”: “somewhat despite himself, [he] realized that the Germans are not a unified people with a single fate” (212). Heidegger realized, in effect, and to put it bluntly, that these students couldn’t care less about his metaphysical revolution—“they are disappointing all along the line” (GA 94, 116). Will he have realized that there was no way to educate the nazis, that they were “without world”, so to say, or at least without German Bildung? Perhaps.

In any case, Heidegger abandons all hope in the movement for a metaphysical revolution. The point is, Knudsen says, that “from this tension emerges another conception of the history of being” (213) no longer bound to “geopolitics and communal commitments” (ibid.): Only a God, supposedly the last one, can save us now. The importance of this chapter lies, however, elsewhere, in the mistakes against his own social ontology Knudsen mentions. First, Heidegger’s insistence that the Führer can act as an “ontological sovereign” (215) that can inaugurate a new epoch of being disregards the fact that no one can “step outside” being-with, where “meaning is an indeterminate product of social interaction. [Now] Heidegger takes meaning to be the product of creative acts of creative individuals” (ibid). Over and against the “high-brow” accounts of poets, leaders, and, why not, philosophers, there still stands the phenomenological messiness of being-with certain people in a certain place at a certain time. Next comes, with this, the confusion between ontic and ontological conceptions of community: “the world is no longer shared by equals” (216). Rather, someone steps out to once and for all distribute the terms and goals of this world-sharing. Meaning is then no longer open-ended, surging forth to speak like late Heidegger, from our different interactions, meaning is stabilized—a word Heidegger did not like—in its distribution from the leader to the all members of a community. What is more, once the “phenomenological sense of the historical” (217), through which we become aware of our historical norms as just that, contingent and historical norms, loses its formal character but “concerns content” (ibid.) through which certain people are lesser (or more) able to disclose historicity, “an element of historiological historicity [is] incorporated (ibid.). In other words, something very ontic enters into the mix which Heidegger, in Being and Time at least (but later too, when distinguishing between Historie and Geschichte) always wanted to avoid. Yet, the phenomenological sense mentioned above would “have avoided these problems […] different people or different communities instantiate this condition [of being-with] in different ways depending on their facticity but they never inhabit different worlds” (218). Heidegger’s historicism is, Knudsen concludes, no longer radical enough, no longer able to combine transcendentalism and historicity through which the transcendental take on being-in-the-world becomes aware of its own historical stance as well—we all have world but the world we have differs from people to people and from era to era.

Knudsen’s last chapter discusses Heidegger’s early take on authenticity. How are we take up our own historical fate, especially given no poets or philosophers can tell us once and for all what to do? Knudsen’ aim is “to dispel”, here too, “th[e] individualistic worry” (227). Knudsen understands authenticity first and foremost as a formal framework: I am not authentic when I understand my self from out of one or the other innerworldly entity or activity. Very much like one needs to become aware of social historical normativity as a historical normativity, so too Dasein must become aware of itself as a particular being that ‘is’ only as this particular, individual historical being. It is here, obviously, that the analysis of death plays a prominent role: nothing makes me more aware of my own contingency than a sense of my mortality. Dasein now understands that “it lives its life with reference to the possibilities afforded to it by its being along things and with others” (247) as a “being-possible” (246) amidst all finite possibilities. This formal being-possible is the only constancy that determinate Dasein is granted amidst all “ontological insecurity” (247). It is this ontological transparency—we become a question to ourselves precisely because we understand ourselves as a question, that is, as being thrown into a contingent, open-ended, finite world—that makes for a “non-political way in which the philosopher might become the leader […] of others” (256) by awakening these others too to this ontological question mark that we all are, yet, that we all are together.

Knudsen’s book contains some very thoughtful analysis and shows a deep understanding of Being and Time especially. Certainly, one needs patience to read Knudsen’s book, but such a slow read will pay off and one will be thoroughly instructed about Heidegger’s rightful place within the field of social ontology, mainly through Knudsen’s useful overviews of the extant secondary literature. The links between the sometimes quite diverse chapters, however, might have been somewhat better elaborated.

Yet one can wonder what the target-audience, as publishers call it these days, of the book precisely is: it risks to leave both Heideggerians and the analytical audience somewhat unsatisfied. Readers of Heidegger will at times be bothered by the overly anthropological reading of his work and, certainly the readers of later Heidegger, will search in vain for the ontological viewpoint that is present even in Heidegger’s history of being and thinking of Ereignis. As mentioned, the author is clearly enamored with the discipline of phenomenology and I have listed those instances when it is commended that we must get the phenomenology right. Yet, his appeal to phenomenology is at times somewhat naïve, if not superficial. There’s more to phenomenology than just an appeal to the immediacy of experience. Heidegger’s entire endeavor, furthermore, is an account of what is, not of what we experience—there’s a subtle difference to be noted. As it now stands, this account of phenomenology is far from convincing for those who still think that truth is indeed a property of a set of propositions. That there is a social ontology in Heidegger, however, and one that is thoroughly to be reckoned with in the current debates, that is shown more than convincingly.

Hannah Lyn Venable: Madness in Experience and History

Madness in Experience and History: Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology and Foucault’s Archaeology Book Cover Madness in Experience and History: Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology and Foucault’s Archaeology
Hannah Lyn Venable
Paperback GBP £34.99
258 Pages 4 B/W Illustrations

Reviewed by:  Giorgi Vachnadze (University of Louvain)

It would be fitting, perhaps to start speaking of Madness in Experience and History by refusing to begin at the beginning and stepping right into the centre oscillating towards the periphery through a long and patient outwards spiral. The battleground of reason and unreason, the site of power and resistance; a space where the inside of the embodied subject meets the outside of institutional constraints; the structures offered up by history to consciousness – is the concept of the Flesh. Flesh, for Foucault, unifies the discursive practices of society and the techniques of the self, bringing together the practices which act on the self with those which are acted by the self” (Venable, 2021). The notion of the flesh is the space of reconciliation, the fundamental schematism that could harmonize the embodied ontology of Merleau-Ponty and the historical ontology of Michel Foucault. Seeking the unified approach, Hannah Lyn Venable offers the reader a comparative analysis between the two prominent representatives of 20th century French thought and a complementary, integrated methodology for interrogating modern psychiatric discourse.

For Merleau-Ponty, Flesh is the body in motion, the human subject embedded in the world through her interactive capacities; the “I can” as opposed to the Cartesian “I think” is what sustains the order of things through the human perspective. Underneath the apparent stability of our empirical observations, the propositions of science and mathematics – facts, objects and states of affairs – the domain of the non-rational both sustains and threatens to undermine our sense of self and others; our relationship to the world. Flesh is where the subject and object come together. The primordial experience of the world is neither thought, speech nor observation, but action. In truth, it is not therefore “the subject” that sustains the world; it is the body. Flesh is already meaningful. This is the meaning of perception.

For Foucault, on the other hand, Flesh is the contested object, it is the apparatus that sustains one’s way of life. The body as an object to be governed, managed and disciplined can offer resistance to the series of objectifications imposed on it through power, which operates vicariously through the institutions of modern science and psychology. The “enfleshed” subject can constitute herself through alternative techniques of the self as a way to refuse the technologies of the self that attempt to render her docile. Flesh is the political battleground sustained by history.

Phenomenological analysis and archaeological historization come together in order to shed light on the history and experience of madness: The non-rational – divided into the pre-rational of Merleau-Ponty and the irrational of Michel Foucault – is juxtaposed against the rational as it is given to us in perceptual (i.e., corporeal) experience and throughout history. An archaeology and phenomenology of madness, according Venable, can shed a new and interesting light on our contemporary understanding of “mental illness” (a recent invention). With this aim in mind, Venable takes us on an uneasy yet beautiful and hopeful journey beyond the rational-nonrational divide into tragedy, the sense of loss and the wisdom of madness.

Madness in Experience and History, quite unlike the object of its investigation, exhibits a beautiful, structured architectonic. The book is neatly laid out and easy to navigate. This makes its otherwise difficult subject matter incredibly accessible to the reader. The book is organized into five parts and eight chapters. The first part offers a helpful diagram of the larger textual cartography laying out the outline, a series of definitions and key terms, the general aims of the text and the underlying methodology of the work. The second part of the book analyzes Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological approach to madness and the pre-rational as a stand-alone intervention in contrast to the third part, which similarly engages with the Foucauldian archaeology of madness and the irrational. The fourth part is where the process of theoretical integration begins. It starts out by tracing the real historical encounters between Merleau-Ponty and Foucault and their mutual influence (mostly the influence of Ponty’s lectures on Foucault), through a biographical study of their lives and the development of their thought. The section further advances into a detailed analysis of the seemingly divergent, irreconcilable differences between some of the important concepts employed by the philosophers. Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological subject is posed against Foucault’s bracketed subject and the perceptually situated subject is contrasted with the historically situated subject. The section concludes through the summary of their differences, bearing in view their potential complementarity and the possibility of reconciliation.

Chapter seven begins the strategic synthesis. Venable starts out by reviewing the existing, yet incredibly scarce, literature that attempts to bridge a sustainable dialogue between Merleau-Ponty and Foucault. According to Venable (2021), “…there are only two scholars, Nick Crossley (British sociologist) and Judith Revel (French philosopher) who have produced full books which attempt a complementary approach to the philosophies of Merleau-Ponty and Foucault…”. With the added difficulty, that Crossley remains nonetheless the only scholar (aside from Venable) to have written a book-length study of the matter in English. Venable continues to reconcile the differences concerning the respective theories of the (implied) subject, the alleged conflict between perception and history, the respective influences each writer had on psychology (mostly Merleau-Ponty) and Medical Sociology together with Disability Studies (Foucault), concluding the section through a summary discussion of the potential contributions that the integrated approach could offer to contemporary approaches in psychology.

The final section, part five of the book, extrapolates on the benefits of the aforementioned contributions through three particular case studies of Schizophrenia, Major Depressive Disorder and Bipolar I Disorder to develop an extensive critique of the bio-medical and reductive models of mental illness. The latter, often unbeknownst to medical practitioners, tend to draw on outdated techniques of governmentality to repress, isolate and subdue the underlying non-rational of mental illness (i.e., madness), through one-sided pharmaceutical interventions. Instead, a phenomeno-archaeological strategy could help identify the social and existential causes of mental suffering and provide an alternative method to the diagnostic model, which tends to compartmentalize the problem and add unnecessary stigma to the patient.

Venable advocates for a return to the seemingly outdated notion of “madness” to expose the deficiencies of the medicalized term “mental illness”. “… “madness” contains certain colloquial meanings which remind us of the broadness and ambiguity of human experience, unlike other more technical terms such as “mental disorder,” “mental illness” or “psychopathology.” (Venable, 2021). Both Foucault and Merleau-Ponty use the term “madness” in their discussions on psychopathology. Venable further introduces the term non-rational. The non-rational is divided into two subsets: the pre-rational and the irrational. The two different modalities of the non-rational aim to capture the distinct ways that our experience of madness tends elude strict systems of classification and sharp conceptual boundaries.

The pre-rational can be understood as the condition of possibility for the rational. It refers to the multiplicity of embodied processes, activities and ways of going-about-in-the-world that have to take place, before the clear and distinct ideas, facts and observations can be given to consciousness. The pre-rational can refer to the simplest non-reflective experience of our day to day lives. Playing sports, driving a car, dancing etc. Anything that involves putting conscious reflection out of play can be safely placed in the domain of the pre-rational. All instrumental and technical know-how belongs to this category as well. To the contrary, the irrational represents everything that stands in the way of reason. The irrational is opposed to reason, it creates ambiguity, problems, misunderstandings, errors in judgment as well as more intense experiences of anxiety, sense of loss, existential dread and melancholia. The irrational, unlike the pre-rational, tends to subvert reason in one way or another. The irrational could also manifest in transgressive behavior and the violation of social norms, bearing a complex relationship to crime and deviance. Finally, the non-rational cannot be understood without reference to the rational. In reconciling the differences between Foucault and Merlau-Ponty, Venable, in her holistic approach to mental illness, seeks to eliminate the sharp boundary separating the rational from the non-rational.

As we mentioned previously, the concept of the pre-rational is attributed to Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of madness. In order to develop this idea, Venable draws parallels with Aristotle. According to Aristotle, every single thing bears a form (eidos) which pertains to the essence of the thing. “For Aristotle, the form is what brings the elements together to make it a whole, such as bringing two letters into one sound of a syllable or the forces of nature into one flesh of a living creature” (Venable, 2021). The mentioning of the word “flesh” in the sentence is of course no mere coincidence and as we spiral outwards from that central term, we are soon going to see how it forms a conceptual network with the notions of experience, history, madness, reason, the non-rational and the idea of restlessness employed by St. Augustine. The ancient idea of the whole being more than the sum of its parts plays a crucial role in Venables’s account of the essence of human experience – madness. “…madness arises out of this shared way of experiencing the world instead of being something separate from it…,” explains Venable (2021). The Phenomenology of the pre-rational aims precisely at this; to uncover our common experience of an embodied “being-in-the-world” (Heidegger, 2010) and the integral role of the non-rational in constituting that experience.

The unity of human experience is decisive for Venable and Merleau-Ponty in understanding the importance of the pre-rational and vice versa. An anti-Cartesian sentiment of rejecting mind-body dualism as well as the anti-Kantian sentiment of rejecting the subject-object division, both very important endeavors in the work of Foucault and Merleau-Ponty, are found throughout Venable’s Madness in Experience and History. According to Merleau-Ponty, consciousness is indivisible and “indecomposable” (Indécomposable). Venable successfully monopolizes on the French variation of the term to reveal the richness of the meaning underneath. She explains that the term refers to “something that cannot be divided into parts, broken down, taken apart or separated; it refers to the French concepts of inseparability (inséparable) and nonfragmentation (non fragmentable)” (Venable, 2021). The indivisibility of the human consciousness and the pre-rational manifest themselves in the body as they pertain to the fluidity of the total (reflective and non-reflective) experience, an immersed embeddedness in the world.

In this way, the pre-rational or the pre-logical, vis-à-vis the reflective and the logical, bears the same dialectic relationship to reason, which the non-rational bears to the rational; they are the same. One of the key take-aways in the discussion of the pre-rational as well as the irrational, is to reveal the complexity of the relationship between the rational/nonrational distinction on the one hand and the normal/abnormal distinction on the other. A very important insight offered by Venable, is that we cannot simply group the rational with the normal and the non-rational with the abnormal, as was often done. And we will see further through our journey, it is neither the pre-rational nor even the irrational that cause human suffering, it is in fact the aforementioned relationship; the connecting line between the rational and the non-rational for each individual, or even entire communities. Psychological suffering, according to Venable, is the result of a deformation of that relation, their “falling out of tune” with each other. This discrepancy manifests in the body, within the flesh of our performed selves.

It is true, that perceiving and the awareness of perception can be separated, some perceptions are clearly more “cerebral” or “cognitive”, while others are enacted “unreflectively” and “without conscious awareness”, but the distinction is arbitrary, or methodological, to be more precise. It is a technique of speaking about human experience, much less than a representational model. The division admits of degrees. In other words, we have a scaled understanding of those distinctions, which Descartes and Kant wanted to separate categorically. In this sense, when Venable (2021) and Merleau-Ponty address “the primordial” relation humans have with the world, they are not advocating for a clear division between the pre-logical and the reflective; Venable’s goal specifically is to build on Foucault’s project of an “expanded reason” in order to take into account both the irreducible mystery of the irrational as well as the spontaneous activity of the pre-rational.

The empirical world of a trained and socialized subject and the discourse of science (which today more than ever, plays an important political function in how we constitute ourselves as subjects) is a derived language, it is posterior to the primordial experience of the world. Where the first can be conceptualized as a series of spatial relationships between objects, the latter operates as a field of interactive capacities and actualities. “…the point”, writes Venable (2021), “is that through reflection on the primordial field, we can see the human in the fullest sense, beyond the subject and object divide, and this demonstrates how the human relies on an area of a field, known as the unreflected.” The affective perceptual field is therefore primary and anterior to what we would normally call a world. It is a field of affects. This primordial world can be accessed through various techniques, including of course, phenomenological philosophy, but also the arts, sport activities and limit-experiences.

The center of the primordial field of habitual behavior is the body. The body, once again, is not an empirical object for study, the body objectified through i.e., the disciplines of biology, anatomy, neuroscience etc. The latter is a derived body that bears close to no resemblance to the affective body. This is not a body made up of atoms, genes, cells and molecules. Merleau-Ponty’s body is that which administers affects and re-arranges habits. It is not the metabolic body, rather it is a body of actions, a multiplicity comprised of a dynamic series of affecting-and-being-affected. Without the dynamic body, the empirical body cannot come to being. “The body, as the first, most basic habit, is the platform of nonrational behavior upon which other habits can be built. The process of growing habits is continuous because habits are always in a state of renewal” (Venable, 2021). According to the description, the body bears a direct resemblance to the previous Aristotelian characterization of form. Hence, the body is not a thing among things, but rather the general form of human behavior.

In contrast to Foucault’s “implied” understanding of the body, which does not possess an inside, Merleau-Ponty’s account portrays the body as a center of activity; the pre-rational nucleus of human experience wherefrom habits, actions, capacities and in short: perceptions emerge. Unlike the body of passivity described by Foucault, which always is and can only be inscribed from the outside, even by the subject herself in her negotiations with power, the active body of Merleau-Ponty is a creative actor of the flesh, structuring and re-structuring its own habitual patterns. Venable’s central argument is that the two bodies are perfectly reconcilable, more so, each can account and compensate for the deficiencies in the other.

Entering the Foucauldian realm of the archaeology of madness and the irrational, the opening lines of the third section of the book introduce St. Augustine’s writings on human restlessness. “Augustine’s portrayal of the restlessness of humanity sets an excellent framework for considering Foucault’s account of unreason: both see unspoken pain at the heart of the human experience and both call us to acknowledge the depth of the pain rather than ignore it” (Venable, 2021). Needless to say, unlike Augustine, Foucault does not identify the source of human restlessness in either sin or eternal damnation, nor still would Foucault find the solution to human suffering in seeking refuge with God. Instead, Foucault calls for a historical analysis of unreason to uncover the various forms taken by men’s and women’s anxious relationship to themselves and analyze the different constructions of madness employed by the ages in their attempts to manage and domesticate the irrational.

Venable (2021) argues for an essential unity, which brings together the multiple manifestations of the irrational throughout European history labelling it the “overarching non-rational”. Foucault’s unreason or “(déraison)”, writes Venable, can be understood as something that is opposed or contrary to reason. The Foucauldian unreason is specifically opposed to the Christian and Latin (late Roman) conception of reason: ratio. The latter should not be conflated with the Greek logos. Unlike the former, the latter is not pitted against déraison, such valorization of reason as separate and superior to unreason, Venable states, would bear a closer relationship to Greek hubris i.e., arrogance. Instead, the logos, unlike ratio, offers an expanded understanding of reason having no trouble entering into a dialectical relationship with unreason.

Venable continues to trace the multiple forms of madness describing the ways in which societies chose to govern the mad by following Foucault’s work; the History of Madness, throughout three distinct epistemic formations: The Renaissance, the Classical Age and Modernity. At this point Venable begins to combine Foucauldian and Pontyesque terminology to speak of the “perception of the rational” and the “perception of the irrational” as different manifestations of the same rational/non-rational divide which (unlike Foucault), Venable tends to take as the universal constant in the history of reason and madness. And once again, unlike Foucault’s work, Venable’s seemingly innocent attunement of phenomenology to archaeology begins to sound increasingly Hegelian[1].

Aside from the three distinct historical epochs, Venable introduces what Foucault terms the four consciousness of madness: the critical, the practical, the enunciatory and the analytical. As we will see, none of these techniques of managing the irrational can be found as stand-alone and entirely separate from the other three. However, with the introduction of each epistemic break separating one discursive formation from the other, we find some of these techniques becoming predominant, while others recede to the background.

Beginning with the 16th century: The play of light and dark is the main motif behind the Renaissance understanding of the rational and the non-rational. The Renaissance was the most tolerant of the three ages. During this period, madness, despite its terrifying manifestations, was seen as something necessary. As an essential counterweight to the light of reason, unreason was perceived as the frightful, tragic path one had to take to achieve light and clarity. Finding multiple expressions in the works of notorious Renaissance artists such as Hieronymus Bosch, Matthias Grünewald and Pieter Brueghel, the age of Renaissance would embody a metaphysics of the tragic, which takes contradiction seriously, but not as a problem to resolve or a sickness to be cured, but rather an irreducible mystery; a cosmic antagonism that needs to be confronted by coming to terms with it. “To try and tear away the illusory and the chimerical would also be to tear away the real and the true. The illusory aspect of the irrational is woven together with the reality of the rational” (Venable, 2021).

The Ship of Fools would come to express the social pragmatics of madness in the age of the Renaissance. The mad were “entrusted” to sailors as useless cargo occupying the decks of traveling merchants and fisherman. As the general undesirables, banished from the cities, they were trapped within the wet liminal spaces of turbulent waters, roaming endlessly from harbor to harbor. Water became the master-signifier for madness. The Renaissance would embody the critical consciousness of unreason, where the opposition between reason and unreason would not preclude and even further; would necessitate the dialectical relationship between them.

The human monster was the caricature for the Renaissance conception of madness. The monster, despite being an aberration, an exception to the taxonomic system, a deviation from a classifiable species-being[2], served as a reflection of the very human struggle against tragedy, unnaturalness, illusion and the decentered relationship between the subject and the world. “The mad person on the boat and the peasant in the town share the same world: the presence of the wandering boat reminds the peasants on shore of the difficulty in seeking after truth and the reality of the tragic all around them” (Venable, 2021). Both the madman and the man of reason would share a common experience of the unnatural and the monstrous as an essential possibility for mankind.

The Classical age, like the Renaissance, recognized the darkness of the irrational, but unlike the latter, it broke off the dialogue between reason and unreason and modified the critical attitude by exorcising the dialectical relationship. The Classical age, marked by The Great Confinement, is the defining historical period, which according to Foucault, has played the most important role in constituting the modern (our) attitude towards what eventually became known as mental illness. With this in mind, Venable brings our attention to the purpose of Foucault’s project by reminding us of the full title of what is arguably Foucault’s magnum opus:[3] Madness and Unreason: History of Madness in the Classical Age.

The classical irrational, in stark contrast to the Renaissance, far from a natural predisposition of man, was now identified with moral failure. The Classical age therefore activates a new attitude towards madness, which sees the non-rational as a serious problem that requires correction. Unreason was now perceived as the regression of man to a primordial level of development. The madman was labeled as primitive and beastly. The animality of madness was used as a pretext to create distance between reason and unreason, to isolate, confine and place madness out of sight. The radical expulsion of madness was followed by an excess of reason. Every immoral, irrational act was reduced to a series of causes, effects and reasons to the point where madness itself became overdetermined by reason without thereby being assimilated to it. An extreme repression of madness by reason led to an ontological metamorphosis of unreason, where the irrational transformed into a persistent presence of nothingness. “…these three qualities show the steps that the irrational takes toward nothingness: first, the irrational is opposed to the rational, and then it is driven into the void between madness and the rational; here, madness becomes the place-marker for the irrational and is judged by the rational according to some unknown forces. The rational, in the end, appears to dominate, but its foundation remains insecure” (Venable, 2021). This tripartite transfiguration of unreason into nothingness offered by Venable shows how the Classical age, in its desperate attempt to annihilate madness, flies in the face of a paradox and ends up subverting its own foundations of reason. Another, somewhat extensive but very insightful quote will illustrate this point more clearly: “At its root, the content of madness signifies an absence, a nothing, because experiences of madness can be explained only by something positive in the categories of the rational. Paradoxically, this positive display of something real in madness is actually a display of nothingness. This means that the experience of the irrational, which is summed up in the experience of madness, must mask itself as its opposite to be understood” (Venable, 2021).

The Classical age is representative of the critical and the practical consciousness of madness. The separation between reason and unreason is no longer accompanied by a dialectical understanding of their reciprocity. Instead, the practical consciousness is used to divide and conquer madness entirely, until nothing remains but the pure visibility of a totalizing and undisputed rationality. The enunciatory and the analytic consciousness of madness are also present in the classical age. Where the first serves to label anyone and everyone, especially those considered idle and “purposeless,” as insane leading to their immediate or eventual confinement, the latter was used give support and lend weight to the initial superficial “diagnosis” by drawing on “objective scientific claims” about “the nature of madness.” Very different from the Renaissance, where the mad were “let loose” to roam the seas and sometimes the streets, the Classical age sought to confine, cure and correct the incorrigible individual.

Where the rationality of the Classical age can be described as the privileging of order, morality and positive truth, the Modern age would deal with madness through the notions of objectivity (carried over from the Classical age), science and the norm. But most importantly, the Modern age has set itself up as the first discursive formation that attempts to ignore the non-rational altogether. In this way, the irrational becomes alienated, exiled and silenced (Venable, 2021). The analytic consciousness of madness dominates our age. The break in the dialogue with madness is no longer deployed as an active turning toward and excommunication of madness, but rather its alienation and thereby its own self-alienation, the latter being pragmatically implied in the former. Madness is no longer forced into nothingness; it has gone mute.

The Modern age, building on the exclusionary practices of the Classical age becomes the age of humane treatments, cures and rehabilitation programs. “…the modern approach builds on the reality of the already confined mad and takes this preexisting condition as an opportunity for new medical studies and experiments” (Venable, 2021). The transition from the Classical to the Modern age results in the transformation of the incorrigible individual (the human monster of the 16th century Renaissance) into the sexual pervert. The abnormal individual is now portrayed as a threat to the nuclear family, which in turn serves as the foundation for civil society. No longer held morally accountable for his deviance, the pathologized person is pronounced sick; in need of help and treatment.

It goes without saying that the irrational isn’t going anywhere just because we decided to ignore and medicalize it. But it has become easier to fail to acknowledge it for what it is due to the incessant covering-over of madness by modern discourse. “Anxiety”, “Panic Attack”, “Depression,” “Perversion”; the labels used to channel the violent flows of the non-rational act as chimeras that foster substitute experiences in place of the confrontation with the tragic. “Like a teenager rebelling against the strict rules of his or her parents, the irrational revolts against the modern reduction of madness to mental illness; the more it is oppressed and pushed aside, the louder it bursts onto the scene” (Venable, 2021). Perhaps the work on the self in our age, implies a new confrontation with unreason beyond prescription pills and therapeutic interventions and maybe the courage for truth implies a courage for madness. What is the price that needs to be paid to refuse the biomedical model? Alternatively, what is the price paid for acceding to it? Or is this a false dilemma?

An expanded understanding of reason drives Venable’s work on Merleau-Ponty and Foucault. And according to Venable, it is also what motivates both Foucault and Merleau-Ponty to engage with the history and phenomenology of madness. Whether this is indeed the case, especially for Foucault, is a question that needs to be further addressed. Venable seeks to bypass several difficulties in her aim to reconcile Merleau-Ponty and Foucault, especially given Foucault’s explicit rejection of phenomenology, his refusal to formulate any clear theory of the subject, the methodological approach of archaeology and finally, his skeptical attitude towards psychology.

Among phenomenological philosophers Foucault is known as the author of the bracketed subject, while to the comparatively larger circle of scholars he is also known as the author of the implied subject. The bracketed subject can be viewed as a strategic anti-phenomenological deployment. The Husserlian notion of “bracketing” refers to the mental act of suspending or putting the natural attitude out of play. Its purpose is to prepare the philosopher for performing phenomenological analysis. The phenomenological reduction or the epoche is central to the phenomenological method. The act of bracketing is performed by the transcendental subject and the subject is thereby the founding element for the method. By bracketing the subject, Foucault thereby annihilates phenomenology itself, claiming that the subject, far from an undeniable given, as is the case with Descartes, is in fact a complex product of power-relations. The unity of the subject is one of the contested grounds between phenomenologists and Foucauldians. Granted, Merleau-Ponty’s theory of the subject is significantly different from the Husserlian subject due to the emphasis on the role of the body, Venable’s take on the matter is that the Pontyesque body nonetheless exhibits an indivisible (non decomposable), albeit experiential, unity. This unity, either implicitly or explicitly, I argue, is not found with Foucault.

The subject in Merleau-Ponty is the starting point and the ultimate foundation of reality. Ponty takes care to show that the essence of the phenomenon is not simply observation, but an embodied and interactive relationship with the world. As we mentioned before, perception is action, or the capacity to act within a milieu – the ‘I can’. “Everything must begin with my own perspective as a subject for I cannot ever entirely escape myself,” writes Venable (2021). This is clearly not the case for Foucault. Foucault privileges discourse over the subject, claiming that the subject is in fact a product of multiple discourses. One produces oneself through discourse, an on-going narrative of the self about the self; the self is constantly sustained through institutional mediation. In this sense, contra Venable, it seems that the Foucauldian account of experience is one of fragmentation, rather than unity. The subject is dispersed via discourse and all unity is merely an a/effect.

Venable is not the only phenomenologist who levels the accusation against Foucault for him having neglected the role of the body. It is thought that Foucault has somehow “forgotten” or otherwise ignored the body, the lived body as it is experienced from within, in order to address the “more urgent” matters concerning the body of power inscribed from the outside. Another accusation involves labeling Foucault a determinist due to his “one-sided” approach to the body. If the body is exclusively the product of inscriptions and power-effects, how does one negotiate for freedom? Both of these questions will be addressed shortly towards the end.

By speaking of the unity of experience or the unity of the body, Venable does not thereby concede to the existence of a determined or determining human nature; neither do Foucault and Merleau-Ponty. And yet, Venable (2021) argues, “that the body has a certain “universal arrangement” which operates according to common patterns and allows us to discover through perception and through exploration the order of the world.” Why does this universality have to pertain either to the lived body or the inscribed body remains unfortunately quite unclear and in need of further support. In her attempt to link phenomenology with archaeology, Venable seems to do little justice either to Merleau-Ponty, who in his later work abandons phenomenology altogether, or to Foucault, by discarding several of the central theses orchestrating his entire oeuvre[4].

Venable attempts to respond to these questions in chapter seven and begins the process of reconciliation between the Foucauldian and the Pontyesque views on subjectivity, the role of history and their relationship to psychology. Using a “complementary” approach, Venable offers the reader a strategic synthesis, whereby the dialogue is supposed to result in the mutual enhancement of the two philosophers and their methods. We must ask, once again, how much of the actual content of their work is sacrificed for the presumed effectiveness of the integrated approach? Venable makes a profound point, one rarely encountered in contemporary Foucauldian scholarship; Foucault was indeed interested in the question of experience. And it is without a doubt, that human experience is a problem that gripped Merleau-Ponty as well. But unfortunately, Venable takes a rather unsubstantiated leap, by attempting to link this mutual fascination with experience to a shared understanding of subjectivity. To reiterate, the Foucauldian conception of experience, to my mind, does not by any means imply unity. Quite the opposite. The experience of madness, maybe even by definition, is the experience of dispersed fragmentation. There is, I argue, no implied subject behind this idea of experience. It is fundamentally different from the actual experience of the phenomenological subject. The phenomenological and Pontyesque body may or may not necessarily support the idea of unity, but the Foucauldian conception of flesh at its most “fundamental” level is necessarily disjointed.

The final section of Madness in Experience and History offers novel approaches to mental illness by suggesting several routes for the application of the integrated method. After claiming to have reconciled the differences between phenomenology and archaeology, Venable attempts to introduce her method to contemporary problems in psychology. Starting with the case of Schizophrenia, a modern disorder broadly defined as discord between emotion, thought and behavior and the presence of hallucinatory symptoms, Venable first points out that the element of fantasy never achieves its full expression. The subject’s relationship with reality is never entirely broken down. Perception remains as an invariant structure between the “normal” and the “pathological” experiences of reality. “Both experiences, hallucinatory and perceptual, come from the same structure of human experience… … the primordial relation to the world” (Venable, 2021). The patient therefore, is not cut off from reality, but simply bears a different relationship to it. The pre-reflective non-rational is equally present in the perceptions of the normal as well as the abnormal individual, the difference is, as mentioned before, the relationship between the rational and the non-rational. It is almost as if there was a failure of executing a technique or exercising a capacity, rather than the absence of a faculty.

Melancholia, better known today as Major Depressive Disorder leads to the second diagnosis discussed in the book. Similar to cases of Schizophrenia, Venable via Merleau-Ponty, shows that the melancholic subject engages with the same structures of the common, rational order to “distort” and recreate a world of desperation and hopelessness. Once again, the connection is not severed, the patient “takes what she needs” in order to maintain an anesthetized morbid reality of her own. Paradoxically, the patient uses the world to push it away, maintaining a radical relationship of heterogeneity and exteriority with the social. The “abnormal” individual flees subjectivity. “Even when we feel trapped by grief and sorrow, our senses are still taking in the world around us, such as seeing a brightly colored object across the room” (Venable, 2021). By pointing out, once again, the shared structure of the embodied pre-rational, Venable’s approach helps us see what is left of our shared experience; the non-rational between us and those who suffer from mental distress. And this is more than enough to bridge the gap and overcome the stigma that often accompanies a diagnosis. Where Merleau-Ponty should help us see the common phenomenological experience that allows us to relate with those affiliated with mental illness, Foucault helps us see the bigger picture and the historical horizon that links all cultures and epochs in their attempts to deal with madness, unveiling the larger social determinants of psychological suffering. Both approaches either “reach beneath” or see beyond the compartmentalized logic of the bio-medical model.

Bipolar I Disorder characterized by violent mood swings and alterations between mania and depression is characterized by a movement from the general sense of being lost or “decentered” (Venable, 2021) vis-à-vis “normal” experience, to an intense state of concentration and lucidity. Venable identifies a pattern similar to the one found with the other two cases: “As we have consistently seen in other disorders, there is not a total loss of the rational in the distortion of space, for even during a manic episode a person can often still distinguish between objective space and the “me-centered” reality” (Venable, 2021). Once again, we should refuse to give in to our outdated modes of relating with the other by othering them further and reducing them to their diagnosis. The phenomenology of bipolar disorder repeatedly demonstrates that those who suffer under the label have more in common with those who don’t than may be noticed at first glance. Similarly, Foucault’s historical approach shows that the diagnosis of bipolar disorder leaves much to be desired in terms of rigor and accuracy, revealing, as before, the need for a more inclusive and broader understanding of its socio-historical origins.

Hannah Lyn Venable’s Madness in Experience and History: Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology and Foucault’s Archaeology is a beautifully written, clear and concise work of exemplary academic scholarship. It’s ambitious aims of reconciling two hostile schools of philosophy has not gone unnoticed and will remain relevant for years to come. The original integrated approach holds much promise in improving psychological care and providing a better understanding of the history and sociology of mental illness. But despite the lucidity, usefulness and relevance of the work, it does little justice to the archaeological method. Foucault’s work repeatedly emphasizes the importance of dispersions. The Foucauldian subject is a non-subject scattered throughout discourse and the only unity offered to the self is that which is artificially imposed or self-imposed through power. The flesh cannot exhibit unity, since the self is itself an event, a site of power and resistance where freedom is fought for. There is no inside, because the distinction between inside and outside is itself a structure maintained through discourse. Arguing for an implied theory of the unified subject tends to ignore the real theoretical breakthroughs achieved in Foucault’s work. The reduction of Foucault’s notion of experience to the unity of the phenomenological, albeit embodied, subject of actual experience is too high of a price to pay for the sake of a well-rounded theory of the self.


Crossley, N. (1994). The Politics of Subjectivity: Between Foucault and Merleau-Ponty. Avebury Series in Philosophy

Foucault, M., Murphy, J., & Khalfa, J. (2013). History of Madness. Routledge.

Foucault, M. (2013). Archaeology of Knowledge. Routledge.

Heidegger, M. (2010). Being and Time. Suny Press.

Merleau-Ponty, M., Landes, D., Carman, T., & Lefort, C. (2013). Phenomenology of Perception. Routledge.

Venable, H. L. (2021). Madness in Experience and History: Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology and Foucault’s Archaeology. Routledge.

[1] In fact, on page 146, Venable almost explicitly labels Foucault a Hegelian, which in my reading of Foucault, especially his interviews, is simply wrong.

[2] For present purposes a slightly modified, but strictly speaking an incorrect use of the Marxist-Hegelian term.

[3] Perhaps only second or even third in importance to the voluminous work on the history of sexuality and The Order of Things, which was first to bring wide critical acclaim and attention to Foucault.

[4] I.e., Foucault’s rejection of all universals, as well as his portrayal of the human subject, including the embodied subject, as a historico-political construct.