Rosa Spagnuolo Vigorita: Di eredità husserliane: chair, corps, dinamiche del desiderio

Di eredità husserliane: chair, corps, dinamiche del desiderio. Emmanuel Lévinas, Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Henry Book Cover Di eredità husserliane: chair, corps, dinamiche del desiderio. Emmanuel Lévinas, Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Henry
Rosa Spagnuolo Vigorita
Paperback $31.95

Reviewed by: Bruno Cassara (Fordham University)

The title of the book reviewed here can be rendered in English as On Husserlian Legacies; Chair, Body, Dynamics of Desire: Emmanuel Lévinas, Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Henry. The book traces a philosophical genealogy seen seldom, if ever, in Anglophone scholarship. It is customary to read English-language works about Husserl’s influence on Heidegger or Derrida, or others on Husserl and one of the thinkers named in the title, or again on the significance of Heidegger’s thought for Lévinas or Sartre. But this book stands out in that it follows the fate of some of Husserl’s most significant but problematic ideas as they were translated, inherited, and transformed by Lévinas, Sartre, and Henry—an unusual yet fascinating mélange.

In this sense, the book complements its philosophical finesse with accurate historical work and (sometimes daring) philological speculation. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the book is that its three chapters do not simply discuss the Husserlian legacy to be found in each of the three French thinkers in turn, but rather treats the three themes put forth in the title—chair (flesh or Leib), corps (body or Leib/Körper depending on the context) and the dynamics of desire.[1] This thematic approach allows Spagnuolo Vigorita to uncover not only the way in which Husserl is received in the thought of these French authors, but also how they received, reinterpreted, and even rejected each other’s work.

On Husserlian Legacies will be of interest to phenomenologists working on Husserl, as well as those whose scholarship concerns any or all three French philosophers. But it provides crucial material also for historians of philosophy interested in Husserl’s impact at the international level, as well as in the genesis of French phenomenology. Finally, scholars who work on the philosophies of embodiment, affect, or desire are sure to find valuable insights in Spagnuolo Vigorita’s penetrating book.

Before I proceed to summarize the book, however, it should be known that the contents of the book rest on a fundamental assumption of which the reader should be aware for a full appreciation of the book’s accomplishments and shortcomings. The assumption is that

“the publication of Husserl’s unpublished materials does not keep us from continuing to consider the Méditations Cartesiennes not only the most complete formulation of transcendental phenomenology, but also—and this is the more relevant aspect for this work—the privileged and most detailed instance [luogo nevralgico] of the dialectical tension between own-body and object-body” (136).

In other words, the Méditations would remain the most complete account of the tension between Körper and Leib, as it was for Lévinas, Sartre, and Henry, even if Husserl’s unpublished materials are taken into consideration. But when made in the context of a work that mainly offers a historical and philological account of Husserl’s reception among these French thinkers, this statement becomes ambiguous. It has been thoroughly established that the first generation of French phenomenologists based their interpretations mostly on Ideen I and Méditations, as Spagnuolo Vigorita herself mentions. But the statement above appears in the context of a comparison between Merleau-Ponty, who visited the Husserl Archives in 1939 to study Husserl’s unpublished manuscripts (especially Ideen II) precisely to investigate the role of the body in the process of constitution, and our three thinkers, who limited their reading to Husserl’s published works and give rise, with respect to Merleau-Ponty, to “an alternative history of the body” (153). In this context, the comments on this divergence risk sounding apologetic rather than historical, especially when the author quotes an article that claims that “Husserl’s unpublished materials do not contain significant deviations from or explicit contradictions of his published works, but rather present a source of indications, developments, and insights into the themes already dealt with in his publications” (135). Thus, as much as the reading of Ideen II contributed to a broader understanding of the phenomena of embodiment and intersubjectivity, it would nevertheless be legitimate to treat the Méditations as Husserl’s definitive account of these phenomena. While the reader should defer to the author on the point that Lévinas, Sartre, and Henry believed this, from a theoretical perspective this position remains more than debatable. At the same time, this theoretical disagreement does not make the history of the body analyzed in the book any less relevant or legitimate.

The book is divided into three chapters. The first treats the transition, pioneered by our three thinkers, from epistemology to life as the central theme of phenomenology. The second gives an account of the “alternative history of the body” mentioned above; and the third chapter is devoted to the dynamics of desire. The first chapter opens with a prefatory section on Lévinas’ role in the reception of Husserl in France. This is not simply a historical account, however. The tacit argument here is that, although others before Lévinas had taken up Husserl in France (the author mentions Jean Hering and I would add Gabrielle Peiffer), the Lithuanian-born philosopher was the one who brought an epochal change to the French philosophy of that time: “Emmanuel Lévinas, translator and interpreter of Husserl: this is the philosophical shock that, in the 1930’s, marked the genesis of the receptive process of phenomenology in France” (26). This receptive moment begins, on one hand, with the publication of Lévinas’ doctoral dissertation (La théorie de l’intuition dans la phénomenologie de Husserl), and on the other, with his re-elaboration and translation of Husserl’s Paris Lectures of 1929, which were published under the title Méditations Cartesiennes. These publications would leave an indelible mark on French philosophy, as the phenomenologies of Sartre (especially in his La transcendence de l’ego) and Henry (in particular his Phénomenologie materielle). Spagnuolo Vigorita does not shy away from the complexity of the genealogy she traces, rightly acknowledging that Lévinas’ interpretation of Husserl is deeply influenced by Heidegger’s factico-existential phenomenology. Still, Lévinas’ anti-intellectualistic interpretation of phenomenology is not only to Heidegger’s credit, but depends just as much on Lévinas’ encounter with Husserl’s Paris Lectures, lectures that emphasized the lived body, intersubjectivity, and the lifeworld.

  Lévinas’ mediation of Husserl’s philosophy thus begins from concepts that allow him to recast the phenomenological enterprise as one that must be thoroughly embodied, affective, and relational. As such, phenomenology in France cannot but move away from the Bergsonism that tacitly reigned at that time. And yet, Bergson’s intuitionism presented “not only a method that contained a certain proximity to the thematic nucleus of Husserlian speculation, but also, in a certain sense, a disposition of thought that had already sensitized the French spirit to a philosophy hostile to all abstract structures and purely rational deductions” (41). In this sense, Lévinas’ interpretation of Husserl is ambiguous in that, on one hand, it heralds phenomenology as an authentic return to the things themselves, but, on the other, it rejects the centrality of representation that Husserl—at least in Lévinas’ reading—confers to the intentional relation. This does not allow a true follower of Husserl to account for the situation of the living, worldly, historical human being during the process of reduction. In this sense, Théorie de l’intuition is just as much an enthusiastic introduction of phenomenology as it is a rejection of some of Husserl’s most central themes. Intentionality “in the strong sense of the term” (66) means making explicit the point of convergence of thought and life, and in this way to understand intentionality more properly as transcendence toward and into the world. While Lévinas never forsakes his critique of Husserl’s reduction of lived experience to what is present for consciousness, he does find in the German philosopher’s unpublished writings the resources to push phenomenology away from representationalism and toward an account of transcendent life as first and foremost embodied and affective: “Reduction, intentionality, embodiment, [pre-predicative] perception: new themes [which], from now on, offer themselves as the fundamental concepts of phenomenology (81).

Sartre’s first works of phenomenology are also critical of Husserl’s intellectualism even as they praise the notion of intentionality. For Sartre as for Lévinas, it is a matter of actualizing the possibilities that the phenomenological revolution brought to French philosophy, and of thus being, as the saying goes, more Husserlian than Husserl himself. And the affinity between the French thinkers is no mistake, the author claims, as the determining moment for the Sartrean appropriation of phenomenology is his reading of Levinas’ Théorie de l’intuition. This is a daring moment of philological speculation, since there are hardly any references to Lévinas in Sartre’s entire oeuvre, but Spagnuolo Vigorita argues convincingly for it. The main themes of Lévinas’ interpretation—the emphasis on contingence, the historical situatedness of the subject, the importance of the reduction, and most of all the understanding of intentionality as a veritable explosion toward the world—all find a home in Sartre’s phenomenological work. And here, too, one cannot but notice that Husserl’s philosophy is filtered through Heidegger’s. For Sartre, phenomenology offers a third way that would evade both (subjective) idealism and scientific naturalism, and can even prepare the way for a new philosophy of emotion and passivity. “What seems to me indubitable,” the author writes, “is that the identification of affect as the privileged means of self-transcendence toward the world…became Sartre’s weapon against the false myths of the ‘interior life’” (85). It is not a matter of denying the cogito as much as it is a matter of scaling down its constitutive-representational powers in favor of the spontaneous self-revelation of the worldly phenomenon and the subject’s living praxis. Yet Sartre goes further than Lévinas. Where the latter sees in intentionality the possibility of thinking the primordial “how” of the relation to the world, Sartre appropriates the concept in order to sweep away any “thingly” aspect of consciousness that takes away from its absolute spontaneity. This, for Sartre, is the true sense of the reduction: the elimination of the ego as the last psychical remainder that characterizes consciousness as self-positing. After all, if the ego is absolutely self-transcendent, then it is a worldly thing posited along with the rest and, as such, it must be excluded.

A particularly brilliant part of the author’s analysis of Sartre shows that “his pre-reflective remodulation of phenomenology that begins with his works…seems to be inextricably tied to bodily experience” (97) even as the early Sartre seeks to expel all transcendent objects from the field of consciousness, even the ego. The body, as the most transcendent part of egoic experience, should be the first aspect of the ego to be reduced away, and yet there necessarily must be an “implicit body” (98) that plays a tacit but crucial role in Sartre’s early phenomenology. In La Transcendence de l’Ego, the body would thus be given as a visible and tangible sign of the ego understood not as the result of reflective thinking—the “I myself”—but as the unreflective pole of spontaneous praxis. After all, “it is evident that the support for…the motor functions [implied in praxis]…cannot but be the body” (101). Spagnuolo Vigorita’s argument for this implicit body is well grounded in the text and convincing.

The section on Henry is shorter than the previous two for two reasons. First, Henry himself is much more critical of Husserlian phenomenology than the others. If Lévinas and Sartre find in intentionality the conceptual resources for a philosophical revolution despite their disagreements with Husserl, “for Henry it is precisely in this concept that the forgetfulness of a more originary kind of manifestation, i.e., that of life, is accomplished” (110). In other words, there is less negotiation to be found in Henry’s engagement of Husserl because, for him, the intentional relation is what obscures life’s phenomenality. In this sense, Henry’s Phénomenologie Materielle and many of his subsequent works seek to unbind the conditions of phenomenality from the “outside” (dehors) or externality of the world. The title of this first chapter, “From Epistemology to Life,” fits Henry’s trajectory perfectly.

Nevertheless, the author gives an informative account of how Henry argues for his phenomenological rebellion and how Husserl’s thought informs it. As with Sartre and Lévinas, Henry certainly rejects the primacy that Husserl bestows upon representative and predicative thinking. Furthermore, he follows the two in recasting the process of phenomenological reduction, so that, for Henry, “the radicalization of the reduction coincides with the suspension of the ecstatic dimension of visibility” (115). A more radical reinterpretation of the reduction and its uses, since Henry does not seek to suspend only the representative powers of consciousness, but the very equivalence, always taken for granted, of visibility and manifestation. In other words, it is not only a matter of helping consciousness in making the phenomenon of sense visible through a sinngebenden Akt, but rather of letting manifest what most originarily self-manifests of its own accord—and this is life. As much as this might seem a complete rejection of Husserl’s thinking, it is through Husserl that the phenomenology of life becomes possible at all. In fact, Henry takes up Husserl’s account of hyletic givenness to argue that there is an intelligibility in the immanent passivity of hyletic affection that precedes and founds all active sense-giving. This precedence of affection over activity shows that the visibility of all objects appearing in the world necessarily depend on the invisible, immanent, and self-affecting life. As soon as consciousness “reduces the hyletic impression to the mere content of a noetic act…the material stratum becomes nothing but an opaque dimension subordinated to the higher functions of intentional apperception” (118, 119). The absolute scission between immanent life (with its material self-affection) and transcendent world (with its sense-receiving objects) is not an oppositional dualism, but a relation of founding and founded strata.

For all three philosophers, then, it is a matter of bracketing predicative, sense-giving activity, which Husserl is seen as privileging, in order to make manifest the living, practical, and carnal dimensions of experience that make manifest the more authentic themes of phenomenology.

The second chapter, titled “Between Ownness and Alterity: With and beyond Husserl,” takes up Husserl’s well-known account of the experience of other subjects in the fifth Cartesian Meditation and shows how Lévinas, Sartre, and Henry modify it in their own accounts of alterity. It is here that the author traces the “alternative history of the body” that, in her view, is not as widely recognized as Merleau-Ponty’s accounts of embodiment and intersubjective.

“To dispel the danger of the solipsism that the transcendental path of the pure ego necessitates,” Spagnuolo Vigorita states, “the fifth Méditation begins by  asking whether, in a gnoseological sense, the experiences of self-identity and alterity are reconcilable” (140). Husserl’s reduction to the sphere of ownness is here interpreted as a methodologically necessary step—one that excludes all traces of other subjects—that paves a via negativa to the experience of the other as someone who is not myself. In this sense, it is necessary to start from what belongs purely to the ego if the experience of the alter-ego is to be possible. The experience of one’s own body is the basis of all possible action, most crucially of actions aimed upon oneself. In touching my hand with my other hand, I discover the interchangeability of agent and patient that is unique to my Leib, and thus that the experience of my own body is constituted as an inescapable commixture of ownness and alterity, Leib and Körper. My body is not only available to me as the organ of my action, but always and also in the way that another subject would experience it, i.e., as extraneous. The alterity that my own body can always present me with is just as foundational as its ownness. Thus, there is no essential difference between my experience of an alter-ego, who manifests primarily through its physical body as Körper, and my experience of my own body as Körper. The similarity between my body and the other’s makes possible my recognition of it as always also the Leib of another subject and not merely a Körper indistinguishable from all other worldly objects.

The problem with such a “proof” of the alterity of the alter-ego, as Lévinas, Sartre, and Henry recognize, is that it makes this alterity depend on my experience of ownness: If Husserl can conclude that the alter-ego is not simply a duplicate of myself, it is because their objective body reproduces the mode of appearance that my own body would have if it were “there” rather than “here.” In other words, the existence of the alter-ego is always mediated by the objective experience of two Körpern. For this reason, Lévinas proclaims himself “très embarrassé” (171) by Husserl’s fifth Meditation. The alter is not truly alter if their very possibility is deduced through an analogy with myself. On the contrary, it is my ownness that is jeopardized by the experience of the Other, an experience that precedes all possible self-reflection. Material, embodied experience constitutively contains a degree of passivity in which alterity (and not just that of the alter-ego) is always active. Otherness affects the self so intimately that the very status of the “mineness” of my body is no longer a certainty, “because the existent, in the very moment in which it comes to itself, is already confronted with the internal sundering that constitutes it” (166). In this way, Lévinas rejects the Husserlian dictum that the “I-can” is the most distinctive characteristic of Leib, thus substituting for the principle of praxis a more original bodily ambiguity. Furthermore, Lévinas’ later reflections on the Face of the Other must be read against this phenomenological critique of Husserl, lest we take his mature philosophy to reject all lived experience in favor of an ethics that precedes all manifestation. That the Face precedes me is not simply an abstract ethical starting point, but most properly names the original vulnerability of the self to alterity in general and to the Other most of all.

As with Lévinas, so for Sartre the phenomenological experience of embodiment is most properly understood as a being vulnerable to others. When Sartre writes of the visage, he is referring to the way in which the corps vécu differs from the massiveness of worldly objects: “before any gnoseological definition, each movement of the body, that is, of the face, is first of all a gesture with a specific orientation and temporality that escape universality” (178). However, Sartre parts ways with Lévinas in that the former’s account of intersubjectivity revolves around sight and the visual. My own face shows its liveliness only when another looks at me and thus offers me his own face. The reverse is also true: when I see the other, I immediately recognize the excess of the human over the world of things, because the voracious eyes of the other betray their transcendence toward the in-itself. As far as Sartre is concerned, then, Husserl’s error would be in ascribing an extended, material body to the ego when, in fact, these objective attributes are only apparent to the gaze of another.

In the transition from Husserl’s idealism to Sartre’s existential phenomenology, the separation of Körper and Leib becomes sharper. This is true of Henry as well, for whom “the praxis of the body, an event that takes place in phenomenological silence, is accomplished in its pathos” (187). It is only when I take up a representational attitude that I can grasp my body as an object, for the lived body has nothing to do with the physical body composed of cells, molecules, and atoms. For both authors, the lived body has absolute precedence over the known body, but each will resolve the Leib/Körper aporia differently: where Sartre holds that bodily sensations, e.g., touch, only reveal something about the transcendent world of the in-itself, Henry sees in sensation the absolutely immanent self-sensation of Life. In both cases, the sensing body as liminal space between the immanent and the transcendent, is directed only one way, be this outward or inward, but never both at once—sensation is not double sensation. It is on this question of double-sensation that the path of French phenomenology splits. The “alternative” history of the body that the author sketches is an alternative to Merleau-Ponty’s account of embodiment and its influence in the French phenomenological scene. The sections on Merleau-Ponty close with remarks on the critiques that our three thinkers develop in response to his ideas of chiasmus and chair du mond.

If Sartre and Lévinas agree that bodily experience is the dimension in which all possible self-identity is always already contaminated, Henry’s position is significantly different. This discrepancy of views stems from Henry’s peculiar understanding of subjectivity. For where Lévinas and Sartre both conceive this contamination as a challenge to the ego’s self-coincidence, Henry holds that all difference and separation can only yield a false account of the subject, who is uniformly compact in its absolute immanence. The possibility of self-transcendence toward the world and toward others is not constitutive of subjectivity, but rather a modification of it insofar as it entails separation. Henry’s subject begins to resemble Sartre’s in-itself in that his affirmation, “je suis mon corp,” does not require any further analysis: to say “I am” is to say “I feel myself in my self-coinciding immanence.” Sartre cannot but appear, in Henry’s philosophy, as its foe. In this diametrical opposition between the two philosophers of transcendence (Lévinas, Sartre) and the philosopher of immanence (Henry), we can observe just how fruitful it is to trace the effects of the French reception of the Méditations Cartesiennes.

And yet, while radical transcendence and absolute immanence cannot coexist in one and the same phenomenology, Husserl’s account of the intersubjective relation provides a foil that brings the three French authors closer together. In all three, in fact, we find instances “that coincide with the common preoccupation of safeguarding the threads of pluralistic life against objective and objectifying knowledge” (258). For Sartre, this can be seen in the experience of shame where the separation between eyes and gaze is most evident; for Lévinas, the Face is the ungraspable mystery of the Other that nullifies and reverses the directionality of intentional consciousness; and for Henry, the experience of alterity is, paradoxically, an experience that takes place purely within myself, i.e., the ultimate test of his doctrine of absolute immanence. Perhaps, in rejecting all transcendence even in the experience of alterity, Henry necessarily misses the most captivating dimension of otherness (259), but his phenomenology of life does not fail to transform the Husserlian account of intersubjectivity into a philosophy that overcomes the paradigm of objectivity.

The third and final chapter discusses the “dynamics of desire” in our three thinkers, though the phrase “vicissitudes of desire” is just as appropriate a title. While the first two chapters contained detailed historical and philological research, along with relevant comparisons between the father of phenomenology and his French interpreters, this chapter is somewhat less admirable on these points. There is no discussion here on the fate of Husserl’s account of desire in the works of the three French authors, which would have been the most original analysis in the book and would keep to the promise of its title. Indeed, the only mention of Husserl that appears at all in this chapter is in reference to the French phenomenologists who saw fit to investigate the erotic phenomenon “as a privileged starting point for denouncing the ineffectiveness of the visual and cognitive relation, [which is] the presupposition of the classical notion of intentionality” (268). Nevertheless, this section is not limited to a simple exegesis of the texts where Lévinas, Sartre, and Henry discuss desire and its dynamics. It also offers fruitful comparisons between these three and shows how Lévinas’ account of eros succeeds in mediating between the carnal and transcendent aspects of desire where Sartre and Henry can only fail. The Lévinasian position is the successful culmination of the analyses of life and embodiment that the author carried out in the previous chapters.

This chapter begins with Sartre’s lengthy account of désir as it is discussed in L’Être et le Néant. In Sartre’s view, and as the reader might expect, desire fails to accomplish what the for-itself hopes it would do, because the carnal aspect of existence can only ever be constituted as an objectification of myself on the part of the other. The author warns us here not to reduce this account to a Sartrean version of Hegel’s master-bondsman dialectic, where two self-consciousnesses seek to achieve the desired recognition by reducing one another to material, servile existence. While Sartre certainly draws from Hegel here, he goes beyond the Phenomenology of Spirit by capturing the drama that carnal, specifically sexual desire implies for both the lover and the beloved. This drama is best understood as a cloudiness that contaminates water that would otherwise be limpid and transparent. In this sense, desire threatens the freedom of the for-itself by affecting it and thereby rendering it passive to its own carnality. The relation to the other is thereby already compromised and destined to fail. Nevertheless, through desire I attempt to objectify the other by possessing their body, and the other does the same with me. However, the use of my own carnality (read: facticity) as the means by which the other is objectified inevitably places my own freedom in peril: “the for-itself chooses its being-there on the basis of a process in which passivity does not mean a pure undergoing of affection and in which, at the same time, self-projection does not completely overcome the inertia [of the other’s facticity]” (282).

Desire, for Sartre, carves out a liminal space wherein carnal encounters are not immediately objectifying, though they will eventually result in objectification. The example of the caresse shows this well. Inasmuch as it is an expression of the will to subjugate the other, the caress remains an instance of carnal contact. However, the caress is not only this because it also signifies a will to express one’s own carnality, i.e., one’s vulnerability. Erotic desire thus represents the unique possibility of reciprocally abdicating one’s freedom in order to feel, through one’s own flesh, the flesh of the other. The “magic” of the caress inevitably fails, but “between the genesis and end of desire, something out of the ordinary takes place and it has to do neither with possession nor with the instrumentalization of the other. Rather, the space of a reciprocal desire is the possibility to make oneself and one another present as chair and to discover the event of incarnation” (296).

The dynamics of désir in Sartre’s works thus have an inevitable fate—not because of a pre-established teleology, but because in Sartre’s hands, desire must be a contradictory endeavor in the same way that the for-itself seeks to become like a god (a for-itself-in-itself) but can never accomplish this because of the opposition between the two structures. But Lévinas offers an alternative analysis in which desire, understood as eros, has a happier fate. Already in his Carnets de Captivité, he makes observations about the relation between eros and caresse that contradict Sartre’s erotic fatalism. The caress is the concrete form of the hope for the present. It does not say that things will get better (nor would anyone expect it to do so, given the context in which the Carnets were written), but it redeems from within the present.

In fact, the whole dynamics of eros promises, for Lévinas, to be the first gesture toward a true intersubjectivity, toward a communal existence. The Carnets offer a glimpse into the tormented reflections that would become the foundation of an ethics beyond ontology, and as sketches of living thought rather than crystallized publications, they sometimes go beyond what Lévinas restated for all to read. A particularly pregnant phrase, for instance, states “sexuality as the origin of the social,” a phrase that contains the aspiration to found communal being on desire, the body, the carnal relation with another: “because there is such a thing as sexual ‘intimacy,’ there is the phenomenon of the social as something more than the sum of individuals” (301). Far from being doomed from the start, bodily desire is for Lévinas the possibility of a relation that overcomes the fundamental ontology of the Daseinsanalyse. This is not limited to sexual desire or eros, but bodily needs [besoins] in general are the first step toward happiness. “If, in the case of bodily needs, satisfaction leads to an absorption of the object on the part of the subject…the peculiarity of the erotic relation lies in the impossibility of overcoming the separation [of subject from subject]” (302). But unlike in L’Etre et le Néant, this impossibility must be read positively in the sense that it always refers to something beyond simple fulfillment.

Where does Henry fit in here? The author compares three texts side by side, one from each philosopher, to show that Lévinas acts as mediator between the extreme positions of Sartre and Henry: “From the being-there of chair that Sartre’s caresse aspires to, to the secret of a sexuality hors du monde, through Lévinas and the violation that does not unveil” (329). It is difficult for Henry to account for the sexual relation, since a relation that is outside of the world-horizon and understood as something subjective and immanent, then it is hard to see how it is a relation at all. Henry is aware of this difficulty, but the author again proposes that the Life-World distinction must be read not oppositionally but foundationally: the non-appearing Life is what makes the appearing world and its objects possible. On the basis of autoaffective Life, all human gestures and not only the sexual relation must be rethought, according to Henry. The body of the other is a transcendent and objective body, but within its finitude I cannot help but glimpse something more. “This is the unspoken presupposition of sexual intentionality,” writes Spagnuolo Vigorita. “To seek, by means of something objective, what could never be touched nor seen because it is something essentially transcendent” (333). Here the reader cannot but intuit a certain closeness between Henry and Sartre, for in the works of both authors the essence of desiring consciousness is to seek the absolute beyond, or within, the contingent. But while Sartre thinks a consciousness so transcendent that its relation to others is part of its facticity, Henry seems unable to respond to the urgency of a phenomenological account of the carnal relation.

And yet, the phenomenology of Life does answer the question of inter-carnality, if only in an almost mystical, almost unintelligible manner: “Even when we go into the world, when we cross a space, we move—this is Henry’s conclusion—toward something that already exists in each living: the instinctual, impulsive community [comunità pulsionale] of which Life is the essence. We might assume that, if all relations obey the laws of originary autoaffection, the erotic community is no exception” (335). Pleasure would be the limit-experience that clarifies this conclusion. It is the same Life that pulses within each of us and that affects itself in perfect immanence, but a desiring consciousness that comes out of itself and into the world in order to feel the pleasure, the Life of the other, cannot but fail because it is precisely in the gesture of self-transcendence that Life is no longer given. In this sense, Sartre and Henry reach the same conclusion while standing at opposite extremes of the intentional spectrum.

On Husserlian Legacies is a work that has a lot to offer to scholars of phenomenology, for it has something to say on many issues surrounding questions of embodiment, affectivity, desire, and the phenomenological possibility of an authentic intersubjectivity. While its comments on Husserl serve more as a background for the investigation of points of contact between Lévinas, Sartre, and Henry, the study proposed by Rosa Spagnuolo Vigorita fills several lacunae in Anglophone research in phenomenology. Its historical acuity, philological depth, and theoretical grasp of the three French figures analyzed therein, will no doubt renew phenomenological research on the themes of embodiment, intersubjectivity, and affect, and will have Anglophone scholars reaching once again for the works of Lévinas, Sartre, and Henry.

[1] It should be noted that the English term “desire” is not perfectly equivalent to the French désir or to the Italian desiderio. The latter two are broader than the former and include connotations of yearning, longing for, aspiring to, or wishing, as well as connotations of craving, needing, lusting for, feeling an urge for, or coveting. The English “desire,” on the other hand, strikes me as more restricted in its extension, leaning more toward the appetitive than the aspirational.

Dorothea E. Olkowski: Deleuze, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty

Deleuze, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty: The Logic and Pragmatics of Creation, Affective Life, and Perception Book Cover Deleuze, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty: The Logic and Pragmatics of Creation, Affective Life, and Perception
Dorothea E. Olkowski
Indiana University Press
Paperback $28.00, Hardcover $75.00, eBook, $27.99

Reviewed by: Timothy Deane-Freeman (Deakin University)

At first glance, a monograph simultaneously dedicated to the philosophies of Henri Bergson, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Gilles Deleuze might seem an obscure, even capricious proposition. Why, after all, bring these particular thinkers into dialogue? Why instigate this particular “three body problem” (1)? The answer to this question is complex, but lies in part in the immense structural influence they succeeded one another in exerting over French philosophy. Throughout a period of over one hundred years, French thought was fundamentally coloured first by Bergsonian “vitalism,” then by existentialist phenomenology, and finally by a “post-structuralism” of which Deleuze is considered a primary, if sometimes unwilling figurehead. To trace the shifting conceptual lineages marbled throughout their work is therefore to map the very movement of 20th century French thought, such as has colonised a stubborn corner of the globe’s intellectual life. But there is more than just this profound institutional influence linking together these disparate philosophical projects. As Dorothea Olkowski argues, throughout her accomplished and intriguing study, Deleuze, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty: The logic and pragmatics of creation, these thinkers also share a common set of problems and an overlapping conceptual vocabulary, the complexities of which she draws out across six brief, rich, yet challenging essays.

Perhaps the foremost of these problems is a familiar dualism haunting philosophy, which here emerges in several guises. Thought and extension, reality and signs, the empirical and the transcendental, formalism and its “outside”- Olkowski returns frequently to this nebulous dialectic, and makes a compelling case for its centrality in the work of each of her subjects. As she writes, evoking the terms of Deleuze’s study of Bergson in Cinema I: The Movement-Image, and establishing one of the central argumentative lines of her own book:

…each of the three is engaged in the undoing of dualism -understood as the relation between thought and movements- by slightly different means […] providing an explanation of the relation between empiricist and formalist approaches to reality (18).

This latter schism is key, emerging as it does with the existential challenge posed to modern philosophy by the immense descriptive powers of post-Enlightenment science. For Olkowski, a strict division between empiricist and formalist approaches is intimately linked to this confluence, in particular to “the view that emerged, starting in approximately the sixteenth century, that science is autonomous, that it generates its own elements, that it stands outside time and outside the lived experience of a subject” (2) -in an epistemological splitting which establishes observer and observed as radically distinct. Against this view -which is far from synonymous with the self-problematising realities of scientific practice- Olkowski excavates a threefold project to reinject questions of genesis, vitality, subjectivity and temporality into a scientistic episteme which has perhaps tended to obscure them.

Indeed in her first chapter, which recapitulates themes from 2012’s Postmodern Philosophy and the Scientific Turn, she introduces this epistemological backdrop, and the bifurcation by which we inherit “two” contemporary philosophies- an analytic approach grounded in formal logic, and a Continental tradition oriented by phenomenology and metaphysics. The former, of which a thinker like Frege is paradigmatic, seeks to “ground” the empirical findings of science through a purely formal analysis of logical relations. This approach turns to signs -to their relations and modes of reference- eschewing all discussion of ontology or the empirical, given that such discussion “violates the principles of formalist systems,” producing unfounded and speculative “nonsense” (26). And while Frege -like Russell, the logical positivists and Wittgenstein- thus seek to banish metaphysics from the philosophical enterprise, what unites Olkowski’s subjects is their determination to develop a metaphysics adequate to contemporary science, simultaneously drawing out the contingency of logic- an approach she will introduce via the French philosopher of mathematics Jean Cavaillès.

For Cavaillès, Olkowski notes, an important contemporary of her three primary subjects, “the logic of a formal system requires an ontology to complete it; in addition to the formal system, it requires reference to an exteriority, to objects, and not just to other signs in the system” (16). And this determination to think the compossibility of the empirical and its symbolisation beats at the heart of Olkowski’s text. Signs and their systems, are not, after all, “immaculate.” An ontology is implicit, indeed required, in order for us to ask questions about their affects, milieux and genesis. And one of the book’s central propositions is that these thinkers help us to understand the genesis of formal systems in and from an empirical and pre-signifying world which can only be sensed. This approach leads to a threefold philosophy of perception, and to the complex ways in which manifold sense-data becomes sensible, taking form under the aegis of a “sign,” “Idea” or “Gestalt” in an operation which is simultaneously pragmatic and creative.

Olkowski’s second chapter develops these themes via Deleuze and Guattari’s critique of logic, primarily as it appears in What is Philosophy? We’ve already spoken of Frege’s ambition to develop a philosophy homogenous with scientific description, moving it away from metaphysical “speculation” in favour of a systematic “science of logic” (30). At the heart of this endeavour is an idiosyncratic concept of the “concept,” inherited in part from Kant, which sees the concept become a logical function- a component of propositions which maps arguments to one of two truth vales (true or false). Thus, to use a well-known example, “is a man,” is a concept/function we can complete (or “saturate,” to use Frege’s intriguing term) by inserting the object “Socrates,” in a move which points us to the proposition’s ultimate referent- the truth-value “true.” But Deleuze and Guattari will claim that this approach, by virtue of its determination to avoid all empirical content, alongside its obliteration of particularity in positing only two possible referents for propositional sentences, gives us an empty formalism, applicable only to the most trivial and pre-determined propositions (32). What Frege gains in “perspicuity,” this argument suggests, he loses in consequence, and the possibility of meaningful philosophical engagement with the real.

Against this model, Olkowski sketches the Deleuzo-Guattarian “concept”- a concept which “belong(s) to a subject and not to a set,” constituting “a function of the lived” (33) as opposed to a purely formal abstraction. At the same time, they are eager to avoid the pitfalls of the “phenomenological concept,” which they see as rooted in the experience of a transcendental subject, and as such incompatible with a philosophy of immanence. One of Olkowski’s richest contributions, indeed, is a thorough mapping of this persistent Deleuzian critique of phenomenology- the charge that it establishes subjective, “natural” perception as a transcendent norm, elevating a particular and contingent relation to the status of a philosophical first principle. In so doing, claims Deleuze, it betrays philosophy’s task of breaking with doxa or opinion, establishing natural perception as Urdoxa, or original opinion, in a moment which is both conservative and anthropocentric. And while Olkowski is generally conciliatory, suggesting several times that Deleuze exaggerates the space between his and Merleau-Ponty’s thought, her identification of the numerous points at which their approaches diverge is a sophisticated complement to extant work by Wambacq (2018) or Reynolds and Roffe (2006).

Opposing themselves to both the Fregean (analytic) and phenomenological (transcendental-subjective) concept, Deleuze and Guattari sketch their own, intensional concepts, which Olkowski convincingly links to another key thinker threaded throughout her exegesis- the pragmatist philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce. For Deleuze and Guattari, concepts are “intensional” inasmuch as they constitute multiplicities whose unity is effected by their components’ internal (differential) relations. In this sense, Olkowski argues, they bear a striking resemble to Peircean “consistency” or “Thirdness” -habits, laws or generalities “to which future events have a tendency to conform” (42)- and which likewise produce continuity as the effect of multiple singular elements or events. Leaving aside the intricacies of Olkowski’s exegesis, it suffices to say that she does convincing and useful work here, tracing Peirce’s influence right across Deleuze’s oeuvre, particularly as it pertains to his recurrent conception of multiplicity as simultaneously “continuous” yet composed through differential relations.

Chapter three turns to Bergson, and an explication of his thought in the form of a rebuttal of the famous criticisms made by Bertrand Russell. Russell claims that Bergson’s thought reduces both distinction and abstraction to spatial phenomena, thereby demoting logic to a lesser branch of geometry (59). Graver than this, however, is Bergson’s apparent rejection of the mathematical model according to which change is apprehended as a series of discreet states. The indivisible continuity of Bergson’s “duration,” Russell argues, eschews the rigour of mathematics and science, opening the door to an irrational and irresponsible Cartesianism- a world in which things are never in any “state” at all, and the distinctions made by the intellect hover over of an indissoluble ontological mush. Olkowski links these criticisms to those made in the fallout of Bergson’s ill-fated encounter with Albert Einstein. While the latter is dedicated, by virtue of his theories of relativity, to a space-time continuum which is arguably “timeless” -with “any temporal event […] merely a geometric point in spacetime” (60), Bergson is interested in the qualitatively evolving and radically undetermined temporality of process, an approach which causes him to hesitate before the singular and unitary time of the physicist. In both cases, as Olkowski rightly notes, critics have sought to oppose the rigour of science and mathematics to Bergson’s “fuzzy” and “irrational” vitalism, effecting a discredit so fundamental as to cause even continental thinkers to “step[…] lightly around” (58) his thought.

Significant exceptions, of course, are Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty, and Olkowski devotes the rest of the chapter to their spirited defence of his concepts in the face of these attacks. For Merleau-Ponty, Bergson’s is a radical philosophy, one which breaks with Cartesianism by “present[ing] a being that is duration in place of an ‘I think’” (64). Further, Merleau-Ponty will argue that it is Bergson, rather than Einstein, who offers a temporality adequate to quantum physics, and a universe of indeterminacy and discontinuity ushered in by wave-particle duality (65). For Deleuze meanwhile, Bergson’s thought possesses an implicit mathematical rigour which renders it far closer to Russell than the latter himself supposes. In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze will refer to Russell’s distinction between lengths and distances, the latter of which cannot be divided into homogenous and interchangeable series but rather constitute “irreducible” series “derived in some way from perception” (69). As Olkowski notes, “Bergson too defines duration as a multiplicity or divisibility that does not divide without changing its nature, and so duration begins to sound like Russell’s concept of distance” (69). Deleuze will take up this hybrid Russellian-Bergsonian multiplicity in Difference and Repetition, using it as an image of ontogenesis- a mapping of the way in which intensive differences are explicated (differenciated) as “extensity” (or distance) in the context of individuation conceived as actualisation of the virtual. Olkowski’s work here is detailed and meticulous, illuminating the often-overlooked connections between Bergson, Deleuze and Russell.

In chapter four, Olkowski turns to Deleuze’s two volumes dedicated to film, Cinema I: The Movement-Image and Cinema II: The Time-Image, which she reads in the context of her central theme- a philosophical project to overcome the dualisms of thought and extension, reality and signs. Essential here, to Olkowski as to Deleuze, is Bergson’s idiosyncratic use of the term “image” as a means of effecting a rapprochement between realist and idealist accounts of reality. Prior to adopting either one of these positions, Bergson writes, “I am in the presence of images, in the vaguest sense of the word, images perceived when my senses are opened to them, unperceived when they are closed” (2005: 17). And this first principle, far from strictly phenomenological, becomes the staging ground for an immanent metaphysics of “images,” given that, he continues, “to make of the brain the condition on which the whole image depends is, in truth, a contradiction in terms, since the brain is by hypothesis a part of this image” (2005: 19). In this way, the brain becomes one image among many, perceiving or receiving movements from the images which surround it. Its apparent singularity stems not from any unique metaphysical status, but from a capacity to create a “gap” or “interval” (écart) between these received movements and reaction. As Olkowski explains, according to this model, “the brain is neither the origin nor the centre of the universe of images; it is the centre of indetermination in the interval between reception and reaction” (87), a centre of non-action which enables the organism to draw on virtual forces and escape the determinism of pure motricity.

This approach, which serves to render thought immanent to the interacting planes of “movement-images” which compose it, is then linked to another Deleuzian adaptation of Peirce, and his claim that the cinema volumes constitute a “taxonomy” of signs in the Peircean sense. Importantly, and against a then-dominant model in continental film theory, the “signs” of cinema do not resemble a language. Rather, and in keeping with the ontology Deleuze inherits from Bergson, signs are also “images”- catalytic reflective centres, situated on the same luminous register as their affects. This section of the book, it should be said, comprises a clear and insightful explication of the key ideas animating Deleuze’s work on cinema, albeit one which doesn’t offer a great deal which can’t be found in other works.

From here Olkowski shifts into a discussion of what Deleuze will call the cinematic time-image– the source of “pure” sonic and visual signs which confound action, and as such our habitual, action-oriented modes of thought. Paradigmatic are the signs/images of Italian neorealism, which confront both character and spectator with situations which are “unthinkable” in their magnitude, horror or banality. These images see the subject stripped of its capacities for action, and as such confronted with “the pure power of time that overflows all possibility of reaction and defeats, immobilizes and petrifies figures […] condemning them to a horrendous fate…” (93). For Deleuze, in keeping with a generalised hostility to the subject conceived as an autonomous and self-identical interiority, these images are thus immensely valuable to philosophy, enacting a temporal-semiotic deterritorialization of the cogito as the source and site of agency.

Against this fundamentally inhuman temporality -a time which fractures and problematises the subject- Olkowski will then contrast the approach of Merleau-Ponty, for whom “time and the subject communicate […] in virtue of an inner, interior necessity” (97). For Merleau-Ponty, Olkowski explains, both subjectivity and perception are fundamentally temporal, the persistence of bodies in space is “an expression of the network of temporal relations of a subject…” (97), and the subject is itself a “temporal wave that moves, particle to particle, through the matter of the world” (96). This approach, in keeping with Merleau-Ponty’s existentialist leanings, establishes the centrality of choice and engaged action as constitutive of a subject’s world- a vocabulary which is thoughtfully juxtaposed against Deleuze’s fundamentally “inhuman” time-image.

The book’s two final chapters continue in this comparative mode, embarking on a protracted discussion of the concept of the “Event,” as it appears in both phenomenology and Deleuze and Guattari, and as it pertains to the notion of freedom. For Merleau-Ponty, as we’ve seen, subjectivity is fundamentally temporal, simultaneously linked to a subject’s capacity to perceive spatial relations through time and to the way in which it is able to “inhabit” these relations. In this context, freedom is also temporal, given that “the stimulations an organism receives are possible only because its preceding movements have culminated in exposing the organism to these external influences,” such that, “the organism chooses the stimuli in the physical world to which it will be sensitive” (114). And while this suggests a rather limited remit of free action in the case of non-human organisms, integral is Merleau-Ponty’s conviction that “we are not simply a material plenum” (115)- that subjectivity exists across the fields of physical, physiological and mental “forms,” and as such is irreducible to simple “causal events” on any particular register.

Olkowski then returns to Deleuze, and to his critique of phenomenology in Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. Here, Deleuze will suggest that while phenomenology remains wedded to the forms of a particular “lived body,” his own (or rather Artaud’s) concept of the “body without organs,” “arises at the very limit of the lived body” (118), as a process which renders life unliveable– impelling it towards traumatic processes of (re)formation. For Deleuze, as we have seen, phenomenology thus embraces the affective and perceptual clichés of a particular lived experience, reifying them as philosophy. The task of philosophy, however, is that of breaking with these clichés (doxa)- a task the “anexact” concept of the BwO is designed to help us realise.

This vocabulary of perceptual and affective clichés also implicates art, and the aleatory methods Deleuze’s Bacon deploys in his diagrammatic “battle” against painterly cliché. Indeed, in the context of their cleft approach to “natural perception,” both Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty turn to painting, in particular to Cézanne, such that Olkowski rightly notes that “it is secretly Cézanne’s paintings that are the battlefield upon which the contest between the philosophy of the Event and phenomenology takes place” (121). For Deleuze, Cézanne “renders visible” the vital power of the body without organs -the pure, formless chaos which arrives as the Event- that which overturns all previous organisation. For Merleau-Ponty meanwhile, Cézanne’s canvasses capture organisation itself, the hesitant process of “matter taking on form and manifesting the birth of order…” (121), in a model Olkowski thoughtfully contrasts with Deleuze’s.

After appearing to hesitate for a moment between these two alternatives, or perhaps to think their compossibility, Olkowski’s final chapter renders her Deleuzo-Guattarian allegiances clear- particularly in its final pages, which see her embrace their ambiguous injunction that we need to open thought onto the deterritiorializing forces of the “Cosmos” (148). Whereas Merleau-Ponty, indeed, remains dedicated to a familiar concept of “freedom” as the remit of human subjectivity, Olkowski will follow Deleuze and Guattari in locating this problem in the “Cosmic” sphere, asking, and then answering: “Can the Earth become cosmic, and can the people of the Earth also become cosmic people? To the extent that this is possible, it is what takes the place of the old concept of freedom” (148).

Deleuze and Guattari take the concept of the Cosmos from Paul Klee, from whom they likewise borrow a model of art as that which does not “render the visible,” but rather “render[s] visible” (2003: 56). What it renders visible, Deleuze, Guattari and Olkowski claim, are the invisible forces of the Cosmos, the formless, imageless and non-thinkable “open” which is the condition likewise for science and philosophy. But how, exactly, does it do this? Here, Olkowski evokes the semiotic processes Deleuze and Guattari call “refrains” (ritournelles) -rhythmic, expressive repetitions which work to organise chaos as habitat. A little child sings in the dark to reassure herself; the colours of a bird’s plumage vibrate to communicate its territory:

In each case, milieus, blocks of space-time, are created by the rhythm, the vibration, the periodic repetition that holds back the intrusion of chaos, the milieu of all milieus. This means that the milieus are coded, and each serve as the basis for another coding and transcoding as one milieu passes continuously into another through the chaosmos, the rhythm-chaos (145).

Importantly, Olkowski draws out the fact that this process of rhythmic territorialization establishes not just a sheltering “inside,” but a simultaneous “outside” we might now venture out and begin to explore. This amounts to a semiotic transformation of the chaotic into the Cosmic, the “plane” upon which philosophy, art and science conduct their experiments. In this context, Olkowski explains, in a model of thought as free conceptual creation, “the philosopher […] makes thought into pragmatics, asking what a concept can do, enabling a force of the Cosmos that travels” (147).

The refrain, indeed, brings us back to the problem(s) with which the book began, that of the individuation of signs, ideas, or forms and of the ontogenetic conditions which enable it. Across the many models Olkowski treats, and of which I have selected only a handful, she creates a philosophical assemblage dedicated to logics of perception, affection and creativity which allow us to think across the apparently irrevocable empiricist/formalist division. This approach problematises traditional dualisms of observer and observed, signifier and signified, in an immanent pragmatics which reinstates the necessity of both semiotics and metaphysics.

In keeping with this approach, Olkowski is not content to lapse into an apparently “neutral” exposition, as though the reconstruction of these three projects might somehow avoid a similarly interested perception. Indeed, perhaps the richest aspect of the book is her attention to this often repressed “stylistic” dimension of exegesis, and the way in which explication is itself creation. Her numerous additions and digressions -through contemporary literature, science, and cinema- accentuate this fact, and renew her subjects’ thought as living bodies. At the same time, the author is herself implicated by this process -an “authority” which cannot but be problematic, as Olkowski herself acknowledges:

I have examined the relationship between the creation of ideas and their actualization in relation to semiology, logic, and the cosmos in the philosophies of Deleuze, Bergson, and Merleau-Ponty. It is not a linear path. It is more a question of periodic orbits following strange and unrepeated trajectories that have been generally unpredictable. In other words, in spite of what I think I know or understand, I have, at every instance, sought to remain attentive to alternatives to my former views in order to consider ideas, concepts, orientations, problems, and solutions that could unexpectedly erupt and so alter the orientation of my own thinking within the context of the problem I have set out (2).

And this brief precis proves instructive, given that the book is ultimately comprised less of clearly demarcated, linear arguments than a series of interwoven and recurrent conceptual refrains which, while generally compelling, can also feel occasionally disorienting.

Indeed readers looking for close, methodical explication and clearly identified lines of scholarly argumentation may want to look elsewhere, as Olkowski’s book constitutes more an image of thought-in-motion, which is occasionally unwieldy and often unpredictable. There are points at which her readings of each thinker are heterodox, and there is a tendency to overlook periodisation of their oeuvres in favour of a more thematic, and as such perhaps selective exegesis, which runs very different works together. I do not intend these remarks as “critical” in the non-philosophical sense. Olkowski herself gestures towards the ethic which I take to animate this approach in her final chapter, when she asks: “Can philosophers envisage a diagram for philosophy such that it is no longer philosophy as we now conceptualize or imagine it?” (149). Olkowski rightly notes that this is the challenge Deleuze and Guattari lay down with their own work. Deleuze, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty is a book which is both difficult and worthy because it takes this challenge seriously.

Works Cited

Bergson, Henri. 2005. Matter and Memory. Translated by Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer. New York: Zone Books.

Deleuze, Gilles. 2003. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. Translated by Daniel Smith. London: Continuum.

Reynolds, Jack & Roffe, Jon. 2006. “Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty: Immanence, Univocity and Phenomenology.” In Journal of the British Society of Phenomenology. Vol. 37, No.3. 229-225.

Wambacq, Judith. 2018. Thinking Between Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.

Jean-Luc Nancy: The Fragile Skin of the World

The Fragile Skin of the World Book Cover The Fragile Skin of the World
Jean-Luc Nancy, Cory Stockwell (Translated by)
Paperback $19.95

Reviewed by: Jonathan Wren (UCD School of Philosophy)

Aged 81, Jean-Luc Nancy passed away last year on 23rd of August 2021. As he remained prolific until his final months, he leaves behind a huge body of work that forms a significant contribution to philosophical, political, cultural, aesthetic and religious discourses. The Fragile Skin of the World[1], translated by Corey Stockwell, is a collection of essays, many of which were wrote in Nancy’s final years, that each embody the beauty of his writing, his poetic register and his philosophical flair. The essays contained centre around many of the most prominent and re-occurring themes throughout his works: finitude and finite thinking, politics, technology, the proliferation of globalized late-capitalism, the creation of the world and the exchange of sense. Additionally, the collection also includes interventions from Juan Manuel Garrido and Jean-Christophe Bailly, which provide both a counterpoint to and an extension of Nancy’s thinking on these topics.

Over the last two years, Nancy continued to provide an insightful commentary of the Covid-19 pandemic, including An All Too Human Virus (which Stockwell also contributed to the translation of) and his Libération article titled “Communovirus”. In this latter text, he considers the forms of collective effort and solidarity displayed in the early period of the pandemic in Europe as a possible juncture to a thinking of the question of the community, capable of disrupting the hyper-atomized mindset of late-capitalism. However, as Nancy warns that the omission of such a reckoning may mean that “we’ll end up at the same point”[2] it seems interesting, now, to read the essays that make up Fragile Skin and to reflect upon the fact that the concerns that haunt and provoke their writing are those that have pre-dated and persisted through the pandemic. Though not exclusively, these seem to be the looming climate emergency, the enmeshment of technology with domination, imperialism and colonialism and the relentless exercise of forms of power, sovereignty and parochialism that perpetuate the mentalities policing our external national borders and geopolitical thinking. Under his diagnosis, these familiar concerns exemplify the forms of levelling inequalities to be overcome when Nancy, in his earlier text, calls for a “creation of the world”, entailing heterogeneous processes of struggle “for a world” which “must form the contrary of global injustice against the background of general equivalence.”[3] Reverberating against this earlier call, Fragile Skin adds to this the suggestion that what also may be required is a temporality and a thinking of the “here and now” that enables such a creation.

As Nancy explains in the opening acknowledgements,

This book is born out of the desire to join to our worries for tomorrow a welcome for the present, by way of which we move towards tomorrow. Without this welcome, anxiety, and frenzy devastate us. [FSW: vi]

Fragile Skin is concerned precisely with this question of a finite interpretation of the “here and now”, which runs against those interpretations of the term which understand the present moment, as the dialectic exclusion of other possible “here and nows.”[4] Rather, Nancy suggests a temporality of the “here and now” as the site of passage,[5] a relation to the present which attests to our experience,  that “time will come because time comes […] even if it all comes to nothing.” [FSW: x] The stakes of this re-evaluation are high, as he argues it is our very orientation to time which characterizes the nature of our contemporary anxieties. Pressed up against the seemingly insurmountable issues that define the unease of our present setting, Nancy suggests that it is the ghosts of our attempts to master time, which haunt us today, as he writes,

If we’re worried, disorientated, and troubled today, as indeed we are, it’s because we’ve become accustomed to the here and now perpetuating itself by excluding every possible elsewhere. Our future was right there, ready-made: a future of mastery and prosperity. And now everything is falling apart: climate, species, finance, energy, confidence, and ever the ability to calculate of which we felt so assured, and which seems doomed to exceed itself of its own accord. [FSW: x]

Pre-empting an argument that he will reiterate over the course of the essays¸ Nancy suggests that our attempts to master time, (as succession or as progress) are today disrupted by the fact that we are heading towards the point of catastrophe; and that the supposed promises which accompanied these transformations of temporality (perpetuated economic development, growth and rising living standards) are losing their ability to provide us clear view of the future. As though we are in the second act of a play, climbing towards the climactic point, it is difficult to see exactly how the form of life that we attribute to the success of this progress (the development of carbon based globalized late-capitalism) will survive beyond this horizon. Even though we already know many of the particular injustices that have been enacted in building to this point (centuries of colonial and imperial exploitation) and that the consequences of reaching certain irreversible limits will be felt (and are already been felt) in disparate and uneven ways, we seem unable to change the trajectory course of this arc. In order to address the peculiar tension and anxiety that we experience in this position, Nancy suggests that what may be required is a thinking of time, and in particular of the present, that embraces the contingency of the “here and now” as the site of the singular-plural unfolding of existence.

Of course, when Nancy reminds us “we ourselves are the time that comes” [FSW: x] such a description will recall the language deployed by Heidegger in his magnus opus. However it is important to note how the former’s descriptions also set out several key differences between his pre-occupation with “presence”. While both seek to pick apart the linear thinking of temporality that emerges from Aristotle, the key difference is that Heidegger seeks to replace our conception of “the now” with an account of time as an essential unity (housing the ecstasies of past, present an future), whereas Nancy sees these ecstasies as the singular-plural dissemination of experience. This means that the linear understanding of time is transposed through the concept of différance; each now is the singular moment that contains the plural explosion of possibilities that may come to be as time passes. On this basis, Nancy reminds us that “the time will come and without question it will be unforeseen: without the unforeseeable, nothing would come.” [FSW: x] One may even venture further with this comparison and propose that the figure of authentic temporality as discussed by Heidegger, is the one who realises that their experience is always subjected to this temporal unity. The heroine wins themselves back against their history and through reflecting upon their death as their ownmost possibility, comes to welcome their destiny [Schicksal] as their freedom.[6] In contrast the silhouette traced by Nancy, is of the one (amongst the many) who sees the plural structure of this unity within the singularity of the present. Who recognises that their very participation (praxis) in this unity, is the condition that exposes them to the plural possibilities and contingency of the future. Nancy exceeds Heidegger, as the attempts to win one’s freedom through the reworking of time and denigration of plurality it entails, actually leaves Dasein prisoner, as authenticity is achieved through the enclosure of the future in one’s destiny. On the contrary, as will be set out further over the course of this review, Nancy’s diagnosis is that it is our efforts to master time which present a history of our attempts to close and control the passage of time. At stake in these two contrasting temporalities are two distinct attempts to give a finite interpretation of freedom.

The divergence between these two ontological undertakings is revealed further in ‘A Time to Come without Past or Future’, where Nancy weaves a narrative of how this sense of time grew with the West and how it has been exported around the globe. He suggests that our “sense of immobility or of hesitating suspension” is brought about by a focus on “’presentism’” which “has a theoretical meaning (the affirmation of the exclusive existence of the present) and a practical meaning”, exemplified in the call to “‘…focus on the present [as] the rest is out of our control’.” [FSW: 1] Referencing Aristotle, Nancy suggests that such an inheritance is symptomatic of a linear and teleological conception of history “linked to progress” concerned with “perfecting techniques with a view to a better life.” [FSW: 2] Against this, Nancy sets out his intentions to cultivate a sense of the present as the gift, as a site of withdrawal that constitutes of the passage of time. He explains this,

[I]s not a matter of installing oneself in the present. Its gift is not the gift of any kind of stance —of a stanza, of stability, of a stele. Perhaps it even steals away as it gives, and (like the present) essentially steals away in the coming of its own succession. In succeeding itself, it passes, and in passing it opens itself to succeed once more. It comes by losing itself; it receives itself as that which cannot be anticipated, like all coming. In a word, it is not a future. The future is a present represented as a certain or possible. [FSW: 2]

Following this passage, Nancy references Derrida for the first time in the book as he appeals to the descriptions of the “to-come” (as in democracy or justice “to-come”) to explain how the present is suspended between the interplay of presence and absence. Seeming to accord with Derrida,[7] the present is always pregnant, it is always “pre-senting.” The present “does not come out of the possible” or the “impossible either: it is not, and in not being it exposes us to an absence, which will only give us a fugitive present in its approach and its coming about.” [FSW: 3]

This point is explained further in ‘Accident and Season’ where Nancy, suggests that an overreliance on the form of time as “succession”, has come to drown out the different temporal experiences that are explored in psychology, art and literature whereby “succession has allowed itself to be composed with the present […] only with difficulty.” [FSW: 69] Rephrasing the ontological stakes of his meditation on the present he writes, “within this final horizon, the present could only exacerbate the character of non-being that it had always had.” [FSW: 69-70] In order to set up the playful distinction that this essay centres on, Nancy draws a parallel with Aristotle’s usage of the term “accident” to characterise the present that “does not belong to the essence of time” which “consists precisely in not having a present, in being nothing but the dissipation of being-present.” [FSW: 70] Against this Nancy invites a thinking of the “seasonality” of the present which amounts to re-evaluating the logic of presencing that makes each moment a “now”. He writes, “presence is always a coming into presence […] When we say that someone ‘has presence’, we’re not speaking of something static, but of a dynamics of approach of imminence, of the encounter.” [FSW: 75] He links this to both Heidegger’s Anwesen and Derrida’s differance, as a counterpoint to the “chronophagic time of a strict causality, of progression, of capitalization, and of calculation.” [FSW: 75] In contrast to the rigidity of the present as accident, Nancy muses the contingency of the season which “designates the time in which an event […] takes on its flavour […] Always already […] in the process of being transformed – in the process of coming to pass.” [FSW: 78] These ontological reflections have important political significance, as Nancy believes it is our inability to think this “coming to pass” of time that paralyses us today. Our pretensions to the mastery of time have brought us into an age in which our predictions spell out catastrophe; they “predict programmed futures” which as “predicted” are “thus present before being so.” [FSW: 3] These predictions do not so much as spell out the future to come, but by projecting a future “now”, actually rebound back on the present, afflicting our condition. For example, when we, “forecast the exhaustion of non-renewable energy” it “is no longer to come” as “[w]hat is foreshadowed has already happened, and encumbers what is to come instead of opening it.” [FSW: 79] In contrast a thinking of the seasonality of the present may help us to look to the future differently and to see the opportunity that contingency brings, “to see” and “not to discern contours and distances” but “experience the faint allure of approach that is not yet determined.” [FSW: 79]

Returning to the essay ‘A Time to Come”, it is here that Nancy presents the main body of his historical analysis concerning temporality. As he looks back to the early history of the West, ancient Greece and Rome, he asserts his entropic commitment that,

The world is an emergence: not only does it emerge from the non-world, but it ceaselessly emerges to itself, from energy to deflagration, from gatherings to explosions […] What precedes has never seen the coming of what follows. The space-time of the world – indeed, of plural worlds – is at bottom nothing but an emergence, one that is infinitely more ancient than antiquity. [FSW: 4]

The difference he states between western antiquity and the ancient cultures of Russia, China and the Islamic world, is that these “civilizations envelop time in a permeance” whereas western thought “sought to master succession.” [FSW: 7] In particular in Rome, Nancy suggests, this idea of succession is transformed into the idea of progression, through a sense of enterprise as the “edification and elaboration of the work.” [FSW: 7] His argument relies on an interpretation of the imperial ambitions of Rome, which relied upon an understanding of time that identified it with the progressive expansion of the empire; a work that consists in it’s own production, its successive annexation of local and regional cultures. Nancy further suggests that this thinking of expansion through time draws upon Greek concepts, such as autonomy, in such a way that it “entirely detaches it from the local and popular identity, and opens it to an enterprise that for the first time merits, on its own scale, the name ‘globalization’.” [FSW: 8] He continues, “Rome collapsed beneath its own weight: beneath the weight of its own incapacity to locate the sense of its enterprise.” [FSW: 8] As the empire expanded, and as increasing issues emerged around the centralization of Rome’s administration, the conceptual apparatus it relied upon in order to centre and evaluate the efforts of its own project became harder to determine.

In the final sections of the essay, Nancy expands these points to look at the legacy that Christianity and capitalism cast over the West. Firstly, “Christianity at once diverts and galvanizes the energetic, achievement-orientated drive that the Roman mutation bore.” [FSW: 9] During the 14th century turn toward Protestantism the conceptual foundations for the development of capitalism crystallize, “technique, domination, and wealth arise” culminating in “the systematic development of” the principle of “investment.” [FSW: 10] Nancy suggests that the notion of investment is the extreme radicalisation of the same impulse towards time, as its meaning “is to surround, to envelop (to ‘vest’) a specific object in order to appropriate it.” [FSW: 10] From here, Christianity spills into capitalism as, the dominance of investment, “transforms social relations, to the point of dragging the greatest number into misery, reserving for an ever small majority an ever more insolent and powerful opulence.” Additionally, “it transforms the relations of subsistence between man and the rest of the world into a paralysis of such a nature that subsistence exhausts itself within it.” [FSW: 10-11] Nancy concludes, “what exhausts itself is the West itself […] this might be what is happening to us right now.” [FSW: 11] He suggests that “the investment underpinning the entire ensemble has begun to collapse” [FSW: 12] arguing that the “horizon of an endless expansion of technique and domination […] ends up in a complete self-exhaustion.” [FSW: 12] As the West cultivates the principle of investment, through transforming time as succession into progress, to enterprise and finally into investment and wealth, then we reach the point at which the logic of this transformation of temporality undercuts itself, as the pursuit of these ends prevents the future that we seek and we find ourselves unable to break from the temporal chain that spells out the catastrophe looming.

Nancy closes this essay, quoting the passage referenced earlier from the Creation of the World, in this context adding his thesis concerning temporality: a finite rethinking of the present which is open to the singular-plural contingent partage of existence. He muses,

Here, now, I am employed, used, called upon, exploited, enjoyed by an infinite that is neither a subject nor a scheme – that thus has nothing in store for me and makes no profit from me – but that is my very existence, […] this body, these words, […] are here now exposed, dedicated, abandoned to the infinitely more than themselves. [FSW: 15]

Echoing the calls presented in his other works this thinking of the present implies a thinking of freedom as existence which is both “a praxis and an ethos, a lived and living disposition that in a sense we are already familiar without even knowing.” [FSW: 15] Nancy’s approach to a finite interpretation of the present attempts to walk a tricky tightrope between acknowledging our inability to master the passage of time but which yet also retains an important active element, in which our experience of the present actively participates in the coming of the future. In proposing this he rejects existentialist accounts that claim the subject constantly projects themselves into the future, instead suggesting that the for of exposure which constitutes the passage of time, infinitely surpasses the category of subjectivity as the I is opened to the singular plurality of existence; it is therefore fundamentally un-masterable.

There are links in Nancy’s vocabulary here of being “employed”, “exploited” and “enjoyed” which link the discussion of finite temporality to his work on the nature of technology, or what he elsewhere refers to as “eco-technology.” This is the subject of the second full essay in the collection, ‘From Ontology to Technology’, where the focus switches slightly as Nancy traces the concept of automation through antiquity, Plato and Aristotle in particular, seeking to tie the history of western philosophy to this term, writing that “philosophy after automation would be nothing more than the fulfilment of philosophy.” [FSW: 25] What began as the endeavour to locate and perfect human autonomy, ends where,

[P]olitics becomes the self-regulation of an assemblage that slowly begins to transcend people […] the supposed autonomy of the Western subject finds itself challenged and overtaken by the autonomy of the technical and economic complex born of the development of techno-scientific and techno-economic mastery. [FSW: 25]

Nancy’s observation here is that many western democracies, which claim the liberal and enlightenment ideals as their foundations, are locked into a technological-economic complex, which despite being faced with insurmountable challenges, are unable to imagine an alternative. He suggests, these political philosophies which were intended to champion the autonomy of the individual and rational thought, are now cemented into a system predicated on the freedom of the market, which promised to enhance individual liberty but now holds a pervasive form of control over their lives. Though undoubtably Nancy may here invoke Marx in his critique of technological capitalism, he also suggests that the critique of autonomy stretches beyond the specific shape of the economy. He writes “this programme sometimes takes on the tint of ‘communism’ and sometimes of ‘social democracy’; it can make itself ‘anarcho-libertarian or indeed ultra-neoliberal; it can just as easily become national-conservative.” Rather, “what is at stake in all these forms […] is the consummation of a reasonably calculated well-being. Blind confidence in a certain know-how, a knowing-how-to-bring-oneself-about – as a self.” [FSW:26] For Nancy it is philosophy’s insistence on the thinking of subjectivity, as an autonomously operating being, that leads to the present relationship with technology, where the tools that were meant to increase human freedom, now call freedom into question.

Therefore the culmination of the essay proposes a rethinking of the relationship between technology, seen as the instrumental use and application of human autonomy to a more passive and malleable nature. Nancy explains,

Man is therefore the animal to whom nature gives the possibility of knowledge with a view to bringing about works that are prescribed neither by nature itself, nor by a virtuous disposition. […] This possibility arises from nature – from phusis […] Phusis gives man the capacity to go beyond merely doing what falls within the purview of phusis. In other words, the nature of man carries within it something that exceeds nature. [FSW: 31-2]

The point here that Nancy draws out is a refinement of his notion of eco-technology, with the specific emphasis being that “technique cannot be opposed to nature — indeed, it can only manifest itself as distorting or destroying nature from the standpoint of its natural provenance.” [FSW: 32] This does not amount to the mere collapsing of the distinction between the human and the natural, but rather to the fact that nature, as eco-technological contains its own surpassing and it’s own limits to be exceeded. [8] Therefore, the attempt to oppose nature and technology as something so clear as a binary distinction is problematic from the get go, firstly because to a degree, indeed the former is the condition of the latter (the artificial cannot be extracted from the natural) but secondly, that the latter emerges out of the former in a disclosive manner; our technological capacities are a gift precisely because nature does not pre-determine these capacities – this is what we traditionally understand as human ingenuity. Nancy explains that this means “nature, as the accomplishment of self by and through itself, escapes itself (and does in and of itself), steps outside of its own image” imposing us with “an allonomy that turns out to be more originary than autonomy.” [FSW: 36] Our pretension to technological liberation, to the mastery of natural and biological limitations, and autonomy turn out to be undermined by a thinking of nature which is itself technological; the dialectic of the technical and the natural will not hold in Nancy’s thought, “the real is as technical as the technical is real.” [FSW: 40]

Towards the close of the essay, Nancy returns to the political and ethical implications of his inquiry, calling for a “thought […] capable of subtracting itself from this framework” which “entrusts itself to a sense delivered from reasons and ends, exiting from nihilism by” acknowledging “the fundamental incompleteness of sense, of the world, and of existence.” [FSW: 42-3] Although this links the conversation concerning technology with the concept of world, it is not until the final two essays that we are introduced to Nancy’s references to the title of this collection. His usage of the term the “fragile skin” is interesting, firstly because it marks a novel way for him to describe his concept of world, one which as metaphorical, helps us to understand the complex interplay of interiority and exteriority in which our experience of the world consists. Like the largest organ of the human body, in our experience of the world, “everything that encounters my skin encounters me […] without my skin I would not encounter anything.” [FSW: 89] Additionally, neither does it “assure a function inside of an autonomous system” but rather “exposes […] this autonomy to all possible outsides.” [FSW: 88] Secondly, his appeal to the “fragile skin” of the world also helps to relate the discussion to his project to develop a materialist ontology, as set out in his earlier work Corpus. The world is not here to be considered in terms of a phenomenological concept, which risks being abstracted from the material; but rather the very site of the “effraction”[9] of sense, of finite bodily experience which as Ian James describes, “discloses a world […] not in a return to itself, in a gathering of its own identity and self-identity, but in a movement of dispersal, of dissemination or passage.”[10]

Following this tendency, the titular essay Nancy presents the disruptive features of this thinking of the world for any traditional concept of autonomy. His proposal of the skin of the world, is an attempt to oppose any hard binary between freedom and necessity, between an independently acting sphere and a mechanically determined background. The point is that freedom is experienced as the freedom of the world, not as something which is a characteristic possessed by a certain being in the world but as “the world” as “everything that passes between us […] everything that happens to us, everything that becomes of our contacts, our gazes, our breaths, our movements.” [FSW: 91] Through a rethinking of freedom as the freedom of existence, Nancy wants to assert the practical significance of this understanding of freedom, as he writes,

As long as it is ours, it is the act of an infinite emergence that is to itself all of its sense and all the sense there is: a sense that incessantly goes from skin to skin, that is itself never enveloped by anything. [FSW: 91-2]

It is a reiteration of Nancy’s strong claim that freedom is always relational, not only in the sense that it is necessarily reciprocal or mutually granted but rather that freedom is always only experience as a gift of our existence and it’s singular plural givenness. Any attempt to consider it otherwise risks losing this understanding, as the intricate plurality of the world is contracted.

This metaphor of the fragile skin carries over into the final essay, ‘Taking on Board (Of the World and of Singularity)’ where Nancy writes metaphorically of the sea and of the coasts, in order to invite such a re-thinking of the singular plurality of worldly existence. Similar to the way in which he wants us to think of the passage of the present, he also invites us to ask a similar form of question against the thinking of our national boundaries. Nancy contrasts the language of borders, “where the edge hardens and the limit closes” [FSW: 108] against the idea of “the shore […] the place one leaves from, the place one reaches […] a place that is not exactly limit or edge […] but passage.” [FSW: 106] Although he also discusses the obvious geological reality that our shores are always changing, subject to the processes of erosion and sedimentation which carve our coastlines, neither does he want to imply that the shore is a pure indifference, which draws no boundary and which envelops both shore and sea within a more amorphous overarching concept without distinction. Instead the fact that the shore serves as both the place of departure and arrival, seeks to enthuse the kind of boundary that it presents with a sense of wonder at the difference between one’s homeland and the foreign lands beyond it. Undoubtably, the language Nancy employs here has significant political connotations bringing to mind the inherent complexity involved with the conception of national borders and boundaries. In one sense Nancy’s intervention seems to be critical of the “Fortress Europe” stance taken by many nations in response to the so called migrant crisis, invoking a more basic anthropological assumption that “we have always wanted to depart and to cross over.” [FSW: 108] However at the same time, it is also of crucial significance that we remember that difference and distinction is also vitally important. Russia’s ongoing horrific invasion of Ukraine also reminds us of the importance of national identity for democratic politics; and of the sheer disregard for the people shown by the imperialist political powers seeking to expand or consolidate their influence.

Overall Fragile Skin constitutes a significant collection of Nancy’s work because its assemblage exposes the inherent link between his well known work on the struggle for the creation of the world and his critique of temporality. The motif of “passage” remains a key cornerstone throughout, whether this is applied to the here and now, or the border of a nation state, the stress of the term is important for comprehending Nancy’s interplay of identity and difference, how the experience of the limit is also that which exposes us to one another and incessantly to the in-common. Furthermore, there is a unique temporality to this experience of “passage” which may be useful to recall today.  In the essay, ‘Right here in the Present’ Nancy positions his reflections philosophically in relation to other thinkers (perhaps amongst others Arendt, Foucault and Ranciere). He criticises how such accounts may, “so as to remain dynamic while mistrusting revolution” privilege “beginnings: the force and grace of the uprising, insurrection, the moment of indignation, the revolt that evaporates just as it risks being overturned.” [FSW: 64] His point here is that alongside the presentism that has arisen in philosophy, thinkers that criticise the present and the vulgar conception of time as a series of “nows” may still be trapped inside a form of thinking the present by projecting politics as a moment (which is notably not now) of sudden eruption or rupture. In contrast Nancy’s emphasis on the present, reflects the fact that the world and the stakes of this world, as Bailly has noted, have “little to do with the glimmering of a consumed past or with that of a dawn distended by an exuberant promise.” Rather, the strength and relevance of Nancy’s thought is that “what he continually sought to bring about […] was above all in the closest proximity to the present, in the low light of what the days delivered to him.” Of this, “he fully assumed his responsibility as a philosopher in the city.”[11]


Bailly, Jean-Christophe, ‘Même l’ouvert Se Referme – Sur La Disparition de Jean-Luc Nancy’, AOC, 30 August 2021 <>

Hegel, G. W. F., Phenomenology of Spirit (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1988)

Hörl, Erich, ‘The Artificial Intelligence of Sense – The History of Sense and Technology after Jean-Luc Nancy (By Way of Gilbert Simondon)’, trans. by Arne De Boever, Parrhesia, 17 (2013), 11–24

James, Ian, The Fragmentary Demand: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Jean-Luc Nancy (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2006)

Nancy, Jean-Luc, ‘Communovirus’, Liberation, 24 March 2020 <> [accessed 5 February 2022]

———, Corpus, trans. by Richard A. Rand (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008)

———, The Creation of the World or Globalization, trans. by Francois; Raffoul and David Pettigrew (New York: State University of New York Press, 2007)

———, The Experience of Freedom, trans. by Bridget McDonald (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1993)

———, The Fragile Skin of the World, trans. by Corey Stockwell (Cambridge: Polity, 2021)

———, The Possibility of a World: Conversations with Pierre-Philippe Jandin, trans. by Travis Holloway and Flor Méchain (New York: Fordham University Press, 2017)

[1] Jean-Luc Nancy, The Fragile Skin of the World, trans. by Corey Stockwell (Cambridge: Polity, 2021). References to this text given in the main body in the following format [FSW: pg no].

[2] “…sinon nous nous retrouverons au même point ».  See Jean-Luc Nancy, ‘Communovirus’, Liberation, 24 March 2020 <> [accessed 5 February 2022].

[3] Jean-Luc Nancy, The Creation of the World or Globalization, trans. by Francois; Raffoul and David Pettigrew (New York: State University of New York Press, 2007). P. 54

[4] When in the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel describes the process of pointing to the “the now that is”, he explores how each time this pointing occurs, the now that is pointed to is no longer; it is a “now that has been.” It takes a double negation (Hegel claims, first from “the now that is” to the “now that has been” and secondly, from “the now that has been” to the “now that is”) which he claims highlights that the very act of gesturing to present is not “something immediate and simple, but a movement which contains various moments.” See G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1988). P. 63. It is this staccato thinking of the present that Nancy is here picking apart, against a “now” which needs to receive its truth from the process of an exclusion, a play on the binary of being and non-being, he suggests a thinking of the here and now as the site of passage.

[5] Interestingly there may a double meaning of the term passage here which gets lost in the English translation of the term, something akin to Nancy’s usage of the word partage, to mean both a sharing and dividing of the sens of the world. The concerns of the book are the “passage” of time and this word can be utilized in two distinct senses which might be useful to think about here, firstly the notion that time passes or the “passage of time” (passage du temps) but secondly, also understanding time as the “passage”, as in the space through which one can move, (i.e. the corridor, the alleyway) or access a new location. Nancy’s appeal to the word “passage” to refer to the present moment, speaks to the temporal and spatial transformation that he wishes to pursue in this collection of essays. Against understanding the “here and now” as a isolated moment in a line of succession, Nancy wants to invite a thinking of the “here and now” as the opening , or site of passage between  what we designate as the past and the future.

[6] Nancy notes, “Heidegger never stopped thinking […] something of ‘freedom’” he “was the first to take the measure of the radical insufficiency of our “freedoms” to think and open existence as freedom. But on the other hand, he still thought of “the free,” up to a certain point at least,  in the terms and in the tones of “destiny” and “sovereignty.” See Jean-Luc Nancy, The Experience of Freedom, trans. by Bridget McDonald (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1993). p. 166

[7] As is known Nancy always maintained a distance between his usage “to-come” and Derrida’s appeal to the messianism of the West. In an interview Pierre-Phillippe Jandin, Nancy explains that he is concerned “whether this is always an intellectual exercise that’s feasible for the people constituting a certain elite.” Additionally, Nancy suggests certain differences between his and Heidegger’s usage of the term “surprise”, suggesting that his remarks overload “this notion too heavily, perhaps to the point making it sort of appeal, to make something come to pass [faire advenir], which can be something dangerous.” In both these critical points Nancy seems to be clear to carve out his own position regarding our orientation to the future “to-come.” Whilst he embraces the contingency of the term “surprise”, for instance when he talks about the “surprise of liberty”,  he rejects the attempts to turn it into something quasi-religious, which he believes messianism also risks. In order to remain useful, Nancy seeks to establish a more practical openness to the contingency of the future. See Jean-Luc Nancy, The Possibility of a World: Conversations with Pierre-Philippe Jandin, trans. by Travis Holloway and Flor Méchain (New York: Fordham University Press, 2017). P.101  & 125.

[8] The point is that we live an age in which the sens of the world is given technologically, post what could be called the event [Ereignis] to technology. See Erich Hörl, ‘The Artificial Intelligence of Sense – The History of Sense and Technology after Jean-Luc Nancy (By Way of Gilbert Simondon)’, trans. by Arne De Boever, Parrhesia, 17 (2013), 11–24. As Nancy phrases this in Corpus “our world is the world of the “technical,” a world whose cosmos, nature, gods, entire system, is, in its inner joints, exposed as “technical”: the world of an ecotechnical. The ecotechnical functions with technical apparatuses, to which our every part is connected.” Nancy, Corpus, trans. by Richard A. Rand (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008). p. 89.

[9] Nancy, Corpus. p. 24.

[10] Ian James, The Fragmentary Demand: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Jean-Luc Nancy (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2006). p. 132

[11] Jean-Christophe Bailly, ‘Même l’ouvert Se Referme – Sur La Disparition de Jean-Luc Nancy’, AOC, 30 August 2021 <>.

Arnaud Dewalque, Charlotte Gauvry & Sébastien Richard (Eds.): Philosophy of Language in the Brentano School: Reassessing the Brentanian Legacy

Philosophy of Language in the Brentano School: Reassessing the Brentanian Legacy Book Cover Philosophy of Language in the Brentano School: Reassessing the Brentanian Legacy
History of Analytic Philosophy
Arnaud Dewalque, Charlotte Gauvry, Sébastien Richard (Eds)
Palgrave Macmillan
Hardback 117,69 €
XVII, 322

Reviewed by: R.A. Goodrich (ARC Centre for History of Emotions – University of Melbourne & ADI Philosophy & History of Ideas – Deakin University)

The publication of Philosophy of Language in the Brentano School is a valuable addition to the range of recent English language anthologies probing the impact of Franz Brentano upon philosophical enquiries. The past two decades has seen several collections: those edited by Denis Fisette and Guillaume Fréchette, Dale Jacquette, Uriel Kriegel, and Robin Rollinger come immediately to mind. The volume under review edited by Arnaud Dewalque, Charlotte Gauvry, and Sébastien Richard is also one of the latest volumes of the forty published since 2008 within the History of Analytic Philosophy series under the general editorship of Michael Beaney. Beaney’s series introduction (v-viii) not only upholds the need for analytical philosophers to delve into the formative debates and topics since the 1870s that anticipate contemporary analytical and phenomenological concerns and conceptions, but also to recognise the heterogenous contexts out of which analytical philosophy developed, even when such contexts appear to have been marginalised if not altogether neglected.

What immediately confronts contributors and readers alike is, as Beaney concedes, whether Brentano developed a substantial philosophy of language. Irrespective of how we might respond, there is sufficient evidence that, whilst probing the nature of mental phenomena, Brentano’s published and unpublished work demonstrates enquiries into the role and function of language and meaning. This, in turn, raises the issue of whether other intellectuals influenced by him during his quarter-century of teaching or thereafter pursued his linguistic concerns (apart from Anton Marty (see, e.g., 130-135)). Accordingly, we shall begin with the carefully crafted introductory chapter by the volume’s editors which subtly orients readers in the face of the above-mentioned doubts when providing a rationale for their anthology. Thereafter, rather than summarising all fourteen remaining chapters, we shall explicitly concentrate upon chapters from two phenomenological phases debated within Philosophy of Language in the Brentano School. The first focuses upon how Brentano himself engages the question of context which nowadays is still seen as central to analytic philosophy. The second focuses upon how Roman Ingarden, a student of two of Brentano’s influential students, fundamentally transforms phenomenological conceptions of language. Each pivotal chapter chosen will include a paired but contrasting contribution within this engrossing anthology.

Indeed, readers will become increasingly aware of the consistently interweaving nature of this anthology. Those encountering less familiar intellectuals for the first time will have little difficulty acquiring more background in later chapters. For example, the logician Bernard Bolzano first mentioned in Guillaume Fréchette’s second chapter (e.g. 42ff.) re-appears in Hélène Leblanc’s sixth chapter (e.g. 127ff.), Bruno Leclercq’s tenth chapter (e.g. 209ff.) and Maria van der Schaar’s twelfth chapter (e.g. 248ff.). Or again, the linguist Karl Bühler first mentioned in the introductory chapter (e.g. 3 & 25) re-emerges in Fréchette (e.g. 50-51) before dedicated explorations of him in Basil Vassilicos’ fourteenth chapter (279ff.) and Kevin Mulligan’s fifteenth chapter (299ff.). However, for those easing into this anthology’s breadth of reference may find at its deepest level a wrestling with Immanuel Kant’s challenge: “although all our cognition commences with experience, yet it does not on that account all arise from experience” (1787: Introduction B1).


Chapter One immediately announces “the basic assumption” said to be “arguably shared” by Brentano and his followers: a philosophical analysis of meaning is “inseparable” from considering “what goes on in the mind and what there is in the world” (1). The foregoing is reiterated more forcefully as a “shared conviction that a philosophical analysis of language—and, more pointedly, of what it is for signs and sounds to be endowed with meaning—cannot possibly be disconnected from a philosophical analysis of mind and reality” (4). This is next followed by a succinct explanation of the complexities facing the transmission of Brentano’s thinking amongst “the breadth of [his] intellectual progeny” (2), especially in the case of “language, sign and meaning” (4). Two generally familiar questions arise here. Irrespective of where his “outstanding students”—for example, Anton Marty, Alexius Meinong, Kazimierz Twardowski, and Edmund Husserl—subsequently located themselves within the Austro-Hungarian empire or beyond, did they share a relatively “unified” conception of what philosophy and thereby philosophy of language comprises, or should they be regarded as “a heterogeneous group of scholars working on similar topics in a similar way” (2)? To what extent is the foregoing further complicated in that “most of them founded … their own school” (2) such as Marty in Prague, Meinong in Graz, Twardowski in Lwów, and Husserl in Göttingen and then Freiburg?

Some readers might be tempted by an alternative approach here when considering Brentano’s widely disseminated appeal to the study of “mental phenomena as a science” outlined in Psychologie vom empirischen Standpunkte (1874: 2-14). The conjunction of science and philosophy, however construed, invites a marked contrast in perspectives. As Robert Merton contends, “scientists ordinarily publish their ideas and findings not to help historians reconstruct their methods but to instruct their contemporaries and, hopefully, posterity about their contributions to science” (1968: 5). Hence, it would be futile to search conventional scientific texts alone as a means of reconstructing the actual history of scientific enquiry, let alone its indebtedness to precedents grounded in the practice of generations past. In fact, it should not surprise us that, when Brentano observes that

psychologists in earlier times have already pointed out that there is a special affinity and analogy that exists among all mental phenomena … which physical phenomena do not share,

he firstly elaborates this as:

Every mental phenomenon is characterized by what the Scholastics of the Middle Ages call the intentional (or mental) inexistence of an object, and what we might call … reference to a content, direction toward an object … (1874: 68)

which is subsequently amended to read:

… all mental phenomena really appear to be unextended. Further … the intentional in-existence, the reference to something as an object, is a distinguishing characteristic of all mental phenomena. (1874: 74-75)

If simply alluding to the “Scholastics”—or metonymously to Thomas Aquinas—characterizes a “scientific” enquiry, this can, from an historical point of view, be characterized in Merton’s terms as one of the following: firstly, as re-discoveries involving “substantive identity or functional equivalence”; secondly, as anticipations where “earlier formulations overlap the later ones” but without “the same set of implications”; or, thirdly, as foreshadowings which, in extreme cases, proclaim “the faintest shadow of resemblance between earlier and later ideas as virtual identity” (1968: 13 & 21). Moreover, the bulk of scientific enquiry can function successfully without any knowledge of foundational precedents. Is this exemplified by the sheer succession of mediaeval logico-linguistic debates upon which conceptions of modes of being, understanding, and signifying and out of which the notion of intentionality was to emerge? Is this why only two of Boethius Dacus and Petrus Aliacensis, Duns Scotus and Gulielmus Occamus, to mention but four crucial figures, are passingly mentioned once by Brentano (1874: 178)? As Merton claims, the physical and biological sciences can function through a “process of obliteration by incorporation” unlike the humanities and social sciences where “previously unretrieved information is still there to be usefully employed as new points of departure” (1968: 35). However, despite Brentano’s apparent conjunction of science and philosophy, Dewalque, Gauvry, and Richard can always retort that they are principally dealing with the contributions of philosophers, not scientists per se.

To reconstruct Brentano’s approach to language, Chapter One seizes upon the manuscript Logik containing Brentano’s notes for his 1869/1870 and 1870/1871 courses at Würzburg and 1875 and 1877 courses in Vienna. The manuscript is interpreted as an interlocking set of tenets (6ff.). These tenets, Dewalque, Gauvry, and Richard believe, assume the form of a “research programme” for Brentano’s students and their students (10ff.). Even glimpsing a few tenets in Logik reveals how Brentano’s notion of language operates amidst a dense conceptual intersection, including communication, generality, meaning, thought, and translatability:

[1] “Language, in its essential meaning, is the sign of thinking” (EL 80, 12.978[9]);

[2] “Language has at first the purpose of communicating thoughts” (12.988[2]);

[3] “Because language is the expression of thought, they say, it reflects thought. Certainly the word is dissimilar to thought, and that is why people’s languages ​​can be different from each other, while thinking is the same, and we translate thoughts from one language into the other” (12.998[2]);

[4] “Language generally has the purpose of expressing … our mental phenomena … (expressing the content of our psychic phenomena; what is presented, judged, desired …)” (13.008[2]);

[5] “Only when combined with other words do [syncategorematic or non-self-contained expressions] contribute to the expression of a psychic phenomenon, e.g. “No stone is alive,” “He struck me,” etc.” (13.009[1]);

[6] “What would Jupiter [the Roman god] mean? Since there is no thing Jupiter? So here the name can only mean my idea of ​​Jupiter, otherwise it meant nothing” (13.013[2]);

[7] “… as Plato [inadmissibly] said, both [“ox” and “dog”] are similar to a general thing, “animal,” an animal in itself, an animal species? – Then we would have to accept something general besides individual things, a world of generalities, a world of ideas” (13.013[8]);

[8] “… the phenomenon in question is not an idea, but a judgment. That which is judged as such is the meaning” (13.020[6]).

What Dewalque, Gauvry, and Richard conclude from the Logik is twofold. On the one hand, “linguistic analyses should never be made in isolation” (8) and, on the other hand, because we cannot “infer the structure of thought from the structure of language,” “some expressions are misleading in a systematic way” to the point of needing to be paraphrased so that “the addressee will not be tempted to posit fictional entities” (10).

Before Chapter One ends with a brief chapter-by-chapter précis (21-25), readers are given a justification of the anthology’s purview by four suggestive ways in which analyses of language by Brentano and followers “anticipated four historical stages of the analytic tradition” (16ff.). Three of the four stages nominated are explicitly initiated by chapters in Part I. Denis Seron pursues Sprachkritik or the critique of epistemically opaque language in the case of Brentano and Fritz Mauthner (77ff.); Dewalque investigates the appeal to how misleading expressions are diagnosed by ordinary language in the case of Brentano and Gilbert Ryle (95ff.); and Leblanc approaches the intentionality of communicative functions largely by way of Marty (119ff.). The fourth stage nominated, the integration of mind and metaphysics, ontology and psycholinguistics, percolates throughout the anthology. Dewalque, Gauvry, and Richard (19-20) avoid committing themselves to an unduly linear progression of the ideas characterizing each stage. For instance, contrasting roles are apportioned for Brentano and Marty in anticipating the third stage of intentional theories of communication associated with Paul Grice whose seminal 1957, 1969, and 1980 papers make no mention of them. Nor do they presume that such a progression is inevitably a result of immediately proximate influences. Nonetheless, no mention is made here of the earlier role of Hermann Lotze recently debated by, for example, Nikolay Milkov (2018) and Denis Fisette (2021). At the same time, Chapter One concedes some noticeable reversals. Just as earlier analytic philosophers regarded logic to be an autonomous theoretical discipline, Brentano and followers construed it as a practical one; just as later analytic philosophers regarded linguistics to be an autonomous discipline, Brentano construed it as one subservient to psychology.

Proposals about the “historical stages” of analytic philosophy of language are constantly prey to alternatives. For example, in so far as Van Quine and Thomas Kuhn since the ‘sixties interrogated the nature of translatability and interpretation and that of scientific theories and commensurability respectively, do they represent another distinctive analytic phase that happens to investigate cognate topics probed by Brentano and his leading students? Surely this example in common with any other faces at least two questions: “From whose perspective?”  and “By what criteria?” The first question alerts us to the following kinds of considerations. When exploring the formation of one or more historical phases of analytic philosophy of language, we may well be in danger of conflating quite different cognitive perspectives. In the words of R.G. Collingwood, we are not engaging in an act of recollection where “the past is a mere spectacle”; rather, the past is “re-enacted in present thought” (1936: 293). When we explore formative processes purportedly involved in a designated stage, we are of course assembling evidence or probabilities retrospectively from our particular perspectives. Consequently, the past is not waiting to be discovered as if it were immutable or inert. The second question shifts our focus to the methods by which we construct historical explanations of any phase of analytic philosophy of language. Here, Paul Roth’s investigation of explanatory case-studies contends that “there is no separating the analysis of explanation from attention … to cases … taken to be exemplary instances of problem solving” (1989: 469). By so claiming, Roth provides us with a set of criteria by which any historian of analytic philosophy of language can be evaluated (1989: 473): how the historical account under examination establishes “the importance of the occurrence of the event” or phase; what “is problematic about this event” or phase; why “other rational reconstructions” fall short; and, how the account “solves the problem … set.”


Two of the five chapters comprising Part I focus upon the degree to which Brentano’s construal of meaning as contextually sensitive directly connects to trends in Austro-Germanic philosophy as well as Anglo-American analytic philosophy. Here, we shall particularly focus upon Guillaume Fréchette’s Chapter Two. His contribution exemplifies at least three alternative ways of positioning the philosophy of language when re-assessing the legacy of Brentano: firstly, by examining Brentano’s actual texts and lectures; secondly, by contextualizing Brentano within the larger history of philosophical enquiry; and, thirdly, by contrasting Brentano’s dominant or successive claims with those defended by his students. Instead of probing the third alternative, this section shall conclude by raising the challenge in Charlotte Gauvry’s Chapter Three to a context principle in Brentano.

Fréchette rapidly identifies several related but not mutually implicit ways analytic philosophers construed the “context principle.” The principle, sourced to the introduction of Die Grundlagen der Arithmetik by Gottlob Frege (1884: x), is the second of three characteristically deployed by the vast majority of those espousing analytic philosophy, namely, “the meaning of the words must be asked in the sentence’s context, not in their isolation.” Fréchette (39-40) selects half-a-dozen re-formulations of Frege, particularly those associated with Michael Dummett and Van Quine, beginning with Frege’s subsequent elaboration indicative of his wariness of psychological appeals:

People suppose … that the concept originates in the individual mind [Seele] like leaves on a tree … and seek to explain it psychologically by the nature of the human mind [Seele]. (1884: §60, 71).

At first, Dummett appears to be elaborating Frege’s second principle in logico-linguistic terms:

the assignment of a sense to a word … only has significance in relation to the subsequent occurrence of that word in sentences …. for Frege, the sense of a word or expression always consists in the contribution it makes to determining the thought expressed by a sentence in which it occurs …. The sense of a word thus consists … in something which has a relation to the truth-value of sentences containing the word. (1981: 193-194).

This interpretation follows Dummett’s endorsement of another analytic principle nowadays often projected on to Frege and the opening of his 1923 article Gedankengefüge, the holistic principle of (semantic) “compositionality”:

For Frege, we understand the sense of a complex expression by understanding the senses of its constituents. In particular, we grasp the sense of a whole sentence by grasping the senses of the constituent expressions, and … observing how they are put together in the sentence…. When the complex expression is a complete sentence, Frege calls the sense which it expresses a ‘thought’ [or “a proposition”]. (1981: 152-153)

By extolling both principles, Dummett seems to shift ground when later claiming

What distinguishes analytical philosophy … is the belief that a philosophical account of thought can be attained through a philosophical account of language, and, secondly, that a comprehensive account can only be so attained (1993: 4)

before resorting to a psychological gloss when suggesting that “it is possible to grasp the sense of a word only as it occurs in some particular sentence” (1993: 97). Behind his so-called “linguistic turn,” Dummett’s contestable account of the origins of analytic philosophy virtually reflects Ludwig Wittgenstein’s radical contention about “certain forms of proposition in psychology, such as ‘A believes that p is the case’ and ‘A has the thought p’” (1921: 5.541). These together with “‘A says p’ are of the form ‘“p” says p’” (1921: 5.542). In other words, the psycho-linguistic relation between beliefs or thoughts and what they intend is the same as the relation between statements or sentences and what they intend. As a result, the logical structure of an ideal language reveals the structure of mental processes. So far, this group of analytic re-formulations appear to have a rather tenuous connection with Brentano as cited in our previous section.

Turning to Quine’s 1968 lecture “Epistemology Naturalized,” Fréchette (42ff.) dismisses the foundational role given to Frege because Quine assigns “the recognition of contextual definition, or … paraphrasis” to Jeremy Bentham (1968: 72). Without specifying Bentham’s posthumously published Essay on Logic on “exposition by paraphrasis” of propositions about “an entity of any kind, real or fictitious” (circa 1831: ch. 7, §7-8, 246-248), Quine regards that explaining an expression “need only show … how to translate the whole sentences in which [that expression] is to be used” and hence the “primary vehicle of meaning is seen no longer as the word, but as the sentence” (1968: 72). Elsewhere, by propounding the semantic primacy of sentences or propositions and thereby contextual definitions, Bentham is acclaimed by Quine (1975) as embodying the second of five historical “milestones” in the development of empirical philosophy.

By contrast, Quine is dubious about the worth of Brentano whom he regards as reviving “‘intentional’ … in connection with the verbs of propositional attitude” (1960: 219) exemplified by a person’s cognitive and affective relation towards a proposition (“Gianna believes that Gianfranco will buy her a gelato”; “Gianfranco hopes that Gianna can forget his promise”). Intentional idioms, he continues, create logically discordant divisions between, say, “referential” and “non-referential occurrences of terms,” “behaviorism and mentalism,” and “literal theory and dramatic portrayal” (1960: 219). Ultimately, Quine would not “forswear daily use of intentional idioms, or maintain that they are practically dispensable,” yet declares:

One may accept the Brentano thesis either as showing the indispensability of intentional idioms and the importance of an autonomous science of intention, or as showing the baselessness of intentional idioms and the emptiness of a science of intention. My attitude, unlike Brentano’s, is the second. (1960: 221)

Quine’s unease here with Brentano remains unremarked in Chapter Two as it delves into the latter’s Austro-Germanic intellectual background. Fréchette finds that the Prague-based Bernard Bolzano had already pre-empted Bentham’s appeal to paraphrasis in his 1810 monograph Beyträge zu einer begründeteren Darstellung der Mathematik [Contribution to a More Grounded Presentation of Mathematics]. He seizes upon Bolzano (1810: 55-56) stating that “any scientific exposition” must begin its “simple concepts and the word that [one] chooses for their designation” by distinguishing “such explications [Verständigungen] from a real definition” which Bolzano would call “paraphrases” [Umschreibungen (or, less charitably, “circumlocution”)] (cited 42). The notion of Verständigungen is later elaborated with reference to context [Zusammenhange] in Bolzano’s 1837 magnum opus, Wissenschaftslehre, Versuch einer ausführlichen und grössentheils neuen Darstellung der Logik [Theory of Science: An Attempt at a Detailed and Largely New Presentation of Logic]. Given the familiar circumstances of encountering an unknown sign [Zeichen] “with several others whose meanings are known,” then, in such cases, we come to recognise “the meaning of the sign from its use or from its context [aus dem Gebrauche oder Zusammenhange]” (1837: vol. 4, 547) (cited 42 & 52n.6). Furthermore, where expressions threaten to mislead us by their seeming referential function, Bolzano does not hesitate to paraphrase them. For example, he deals with the term “nothing” in the existential assertion “Nothing is more certain than death” by the following paraphrase “The idea of something that would be more certain than death has no object” (1837: vol. 2, 212ff.) (cited 43).

Having pinpointed Bolzano’s references to paraphrasis, context, and use, Fréchette (43-44) turns to examples in Brentano. The paraphrastic strategy concerning propositions about fictional entities emerges in correspondence with J.S. Mill where Brentano (1874: 170) notes:

The proposition, ‘A centaur is a poetic fiction,’ does not imply … that a centaur exists, rather it implies the opposite. But if it is true, it does imply that something else exists, namely a poetic fiction which combines part of a horse with part of a human body in a particular way. If there were no poetic fictions and if there were no centaurs imaginatively created by poets, the proposition would be false. In fact the sentence means just that, ‘There is a poetic fiction which conceives the upper parts of the human body joined to the body and legs of a horse,’ or (which comes to the same thing), ‘There exists a centaur imaginatively created by the poets

—or “There is a poet imagining a centaur.” This is succeeded by the Jupiter case we included as Tenet (6) from Logik (EL 80, 13.013[2]).

Brentano concludes:

The truth of the proposition does not require that there be a Jupiter, but it does require that there be something else. If there were not something which existed merely in  one’s thought, the proposition would not be true. (1874: 170)

However, the issue of Brentano’s notion of context is less straightforward. This is partly because of his intensely internal, tripartite psychological conception of any meaningful utterance or proposition. This involves first-person acts of perception, observation, and judgement, enhanced, for example, by memory and verbal communication (1874: e.g. 32 & 29). Gauvry’s hypothesis in Chapter Three is that “the so-called ‘context’” for any expression

to be meaningful is nothing more than the expressive sentence whose function is to express a mental act. That is the reason why the content of this meaningful sentence (which has not necessarily a propositional form and which can instead adopt the form of an ‘exclamation’ or a ‘request’) is nothing else than the mental content of the act expressed by the sentence.” (71)

Even when Brentano talks in passing of “an actual finished statement (a speech)” [ein eigentlicher fertiger Ausspruch (eine Rede)] in Logik (EL 80, 13.001[2]), there appears to be no example of the expression “context of sentence (or proposition)” [Zusammenhang des Sätzes]. Nor, Gauvry adds (70-71), does Brentano—unlike Wittgenstein (1945, §583)—focus upon the interactional and normative circumstances or surroundings in which speech occurs. To the extent that Brentano fixes upon the mental content of psychic acts, can he be regarded as upholding what analytic philosophers since Frege regard as context, be it sentential or social?


All five chapters comprising Part II focus upon the ways Brentano’s theory of meaning as subjective was strenuously debated by his students, especially Husserl, Meinong, and Twardowski, amongst themselves and their students. Each aimed to develop alternatives whereby meaning could be construed in objective terms. Although better known for his works in ontology and aesthetics translated into English since the ‘seventies, Polish phenomenologist Roman Ingarden, influenced by both Husserl and Twardowski, investigated language and meaning on numerous occasions. In what follows, we shall selectively examine Sébastien Richard’s Chapter Seven on Ingarden as “the peak” of efforts amongst Brentano’s lineage after Husserl (1894, 1901 & 1902) and Twardowski (1912) to reconcile “the subjective and objective aspects of meaning” (163). Attention will then be paid to Olivier Malherbe’s Chapter Eight which proposes how a close analysis of Ingarden (1931) leads to two distinct conceptions of meaning.

Initially Richard (esp. 147-158) provides brief summaries of critiques launched by Husserl, Meinong, and Twardowski accompanied by an illuminating set of charts. Thereafter, he emphasizes Ingarden’s discomfort with Twardowski and Husserl for variously suggesting that meaning’s objective and communicable character is somehow tantamount to what is instantiated by various meaningful acts. To the extent that Twardowski appeals to a contrast between the concrete and the abstract not unlike, say, various red garments and redness or various equilateral and isosceles, scalene and skewed triangular shapes and triangularity, the process of abstraction results in a second-order psychological act focused upon the actual first-order mental activity before it. To the extent that “Investigation II” in Husserl (1901) recognises much the same process, meaning by contrast is construed as an “ideal species” (or “ideation”) (158) underlying any manifestation of it. For Husserl, Richard states:

Meaning is neither something real in our thought (it is not a mental content) nor something in the real world (it is not an empirical object), but an ideal ‘species’ instantiated in the individual contents of mental acts. In this sense, meanings are ideal entities. (154)

However, Husserl does not deny a role for mental contents. To quote Richard, “it is still the content of the mental act that is responsible for the directedness toward the object of a name” (154). For Husserl, “ideal species” not only justifies the objectivity of meaning, it also rationalises its communicability by, it also seems, implicitly transforming Brentano’s Tenet (3) previously listed from Logik (EL 80, 12.998[2]). In Richard’s words again:

different language users can understand each other not because the content aroused in the mind of the listener is sufficiently similar to the content indicated in the mind of the speaker, but because their contents are instantiations of the same ideal species … (154)

In Das literarische Kunstwek, Ingarden (1931: §17, 91-95) finds that “ideal species” make meanings unchanging when the same words, each possessing its “intentional directional factor,” can assume different meanings owing to their logico-syntactic role within sentences. This, in turn, connects with determinate and indeterminate relationships or specifications. For example, for Gianfranco to assert, “Consuls in ancient Rome exerted enormous power” leaves open or relatively indeterminate who or what is specified by “consuls,” “ancient,” and “power” unlike Gianna stating, “The compact between consuls Iulius Caesar, Pompeius Magnus, and Licinius Crassus exerted supreme political and military power over ancient Rome from 60/59 B.C.” In his 1937 companion volume revised as Vom Erkennen des literarischen Kunstwerks, Ingarden on “verbal and sentence meanings” (1937/1968: §8, 24ff.) is taken by Richard to concede that, even if words or expressions “have only one meaning,” this is not a fixed state of affairs: a word’s meaning can shift with different contexts by being “tied to other words, pronounced or written by different speakers at different times, in different places and sentences” (159). To avoid communication becoming an interminable, if not random, “guessing game,” “an expression is something ‘intersubjective’”; an expression being “an entity whose meaning is accessible to different persons” (159).

Whilst Ingarden synthesizes aspects of both Husserl (e.g. 1901: Investigation 1, 206ff.) and Twardowski (e.g. 1912: 124ff.)—for instance, that “we confer meanings to words” and that “meaning is produced by subjective operations” (albeit temporally divisible) (160)—he construes meaning “not as part of a mental act, but as a unitary whole” (160). Alternatively expressed, Richard continues “that meaning exists potentially in expressions and can be actualised by different persons implies that it can be separated from them. In other words, meaning ‘transcends’ every mental act,” and, although we can “be mistaken when we re-actualise the meaning intention of a word,” this can usually be rectified (160). This, in turn, leaves Richard to sketch something of the complexity of Ingarden’s synthesis (drawn from 1931: §18, esp. 97ff.) of both his teachers:

the creation of meanings is not a creation ex nihilo. It is carried out from an ideal material that is structured into an expression by a cognitive agent. When someone produces an expression, on the one hand, she [or he] actualises some ‘pure qualities’ in its material parts and, on the other hand, she [or he] organises these ‘meaning elements’ into a whole. In other words, an expression does not instantiate a whole ideal meaning (Husserl), but contains (material) parts that instantiate pure qualities and that are structured (given a form) by subjective ‘forming operations’

—adding that “ideas” for Ingarden are not “types of mental content,” but “ideal concepts of objects, ideas that subsume the objects to which our words refer” whereas “pure qualities” are kinds of “‘bare universals’ that can be (ideally) concretised in ideas and instantiated in (realised in) real objects and (actualised in) meanings” (161).

A closer reading of the context of literary fiction enables Malherbe to examine amongst other factors Ingarden’s distinctive conception of language as an intentional multi-layered entity and its bearing upon the nature of meaning. The formation of language, especially the spoken (Sprachgebilde), whilst composed of various layers, comprises “unified homogenous elements” in each layer which “always maintains organic relations” with the other layers (172).

Alongside his overarching distinction between the completed work itself and its many individual concretisations by readers or listeners (1931: e.g. §8, 37-38; §62, 332ff.), Ingarden also introduces its many layers, the first three of which Malherbe (172) unhesitatingly regards as “essential”:

[a] the stratum of linguistic sound formations based upon the phonemes or distinctive significant sounds of a spoken language (for instance, forty-five in German, thirty-seven in Polish) and including rhythm and tempo as well as subsequent manifestations of Gestält qualities of tone;

[b] the “central” stratum of units of meaning which include categorematic or “nominal” and syncategorematic or “functional” words that project (entwirft) acts and attributes, events and persons, states and things. In combination with finite verbs that convey tense, aspect, etc., meaning unfolds in the form of sentences which can then combine to form segments and genres of discourses or texts. As Malherbe, who limits himself to individual words (173-176), succinctly states, this layer is “the core of linguistic signification” (172);

[c] the stratum of represented “objectivities,” that is, the objects, events, circumstances, etc. projected by units of meaning and their particular structural qualities—simple or paratactic, complex or hypotactic—which form the work’s style (e.g. “The fire began raging. Gianfranco gripped the person nearest to him tightly. Although frightened, Gianna sat still” and “When the fire began raging, Gianna, whom Gianfranco gripped tightly, sat still although frightened”); and

[d] the stratum of schematized aspects, which is “impossible for the reader to actualize with complete precision the same aspects that the author wanted to designate through the structure of the work,” nonetheless, for all their indeterminacies are “held in readiness” (paragehaltene) for readers or listeners by which they can picture the represented objectivities forming its plot and characters (1931: §42, 265ff.).

So far, as Malherbe argues, meaning is cognitive or intellectual (“rational”) which all works necessarily possess albeit in differing degrees.

Beyond that are metaphysical and aesthetic (“axiological”) qualities which Malherbe at first calls without pursuing “the stratum of writings” nor its “Gestalt quality” which may or may not form “a fifth layer” (172 & 185n.4), but acclaimed as such by, for example, René Wellek (1949: 152). Thereafter, Malherbe derives the second affective (or “irrational”) conception of meaning from metaphysical qualities which range from the grotesque and sorrowful to the sublime and tragic. Such qualities are “usually revealed” in “complex … disparate situations or events” pervading if not shaping all within them (1931: §48, 290-293). Metaphysical (and aesthetic) qualities can potentially define a work as artistic since their apprehension draws upon all layers although subject to the constraints upon concretisations mentioned above (1931: §49-51, 293ff.; cf. 1937/1968: e.g. §12. 62; §13a, 72ff.; §14, 90; etc.). As Malherbe concludes, the second conception of language is “value-driven” whose authors find themselves “in a particular attitude … more receptive to special types of value” and whose language itself is shaped (and words are chosen) in a very different way in order to allow some values to be enshrined in it, either as an end, or a … mean[s] to other ends. (183-184)


Limits upon length obviously prevent us from assessing Richard and Malherbe in light of, say, Anglo-American reviews of and reservations about Das literarische Kunstwerk since Paul Leon (1932) onwards. Some readers, too, might wonder why both authors have not included research since their co-edited 2016 volume on Ingarden’s ontology. Quibbles aside, a close reading of Philosophy of Language in the Brentano School teaches us that we ought not presume, in the words of Robert Hanna (2008: 149), that “the analytic tradition was all about logic and analyticity” and “the phenomenological tradition was all about consciousness and intentionality.” Hanna provocatively continues: “analytic philosophy and phenomenology alienated themselves from their Kantian origins,” yet could jointly renew themselves by “re-thinking and re-building their foundations” by reversing the foregoing trend (2008: 150). Clearly, Dewalque, Gauvry and Richard’s anthology begins this renewal.




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Wittgenstein, LJ.J. 1921. Logisch-philosophische Abhandlung / Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Translated by D.F. Pears & B.F. McGuinness. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963.

——-. 1945. Philosophische Untersuchungen / Philosophical Investigations, 4th rev. edn. Edited by P.M.S. Hacker & Joachim Schulte; translated by G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker & Joachim Schulte. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

Dietrich von Hildebrand: What is Philosophy?

What is Philosophy? Book Cover What is Philosophy?
Dietrich von Hildebrand. Introduction by Robert Sokolowski
Hildebrand Project
Paperback $18.25

Reviewed by: Peter Shum (University of Warwick)



Any philosopher’s epistemology will exert a considerable influence on his or her attitude toward the place and significance of religion in human life. Even for non-philosophers, and those of us who may not be academically inclined, our openness and receptiveness toward religion will be implicitly influenced by numerous general epistemological considerations. These might include our understanding of what kinds of things are amenable to being known, the possible modalities of their disclosure, and the appropriate criteria for confirming the validity of any ostensible discovery.

Dietrich von Hildebrand attaches particular significance to the place of religion in our lives, and to the kind of philosophical enquiry that can be conducive toward religious conviction and commitment. He thinks not only that philosophical knowledge has its climax in its knowledge of the existence and attributes of God, but that philosophy itself is the fundamental activity of the mind turned toward God, and that the proximity of an object’s relation to God is the yardstick by which philosophers ought to rate the importance of the objects of philosophical knowledge. He maintains that religious convictions count as knowledge, and that God is able to disclose Himself to, and communicate with ordinary religious practitioners who may not themselves have the requisite intellectual capacities for critical philosophical enquiry.

Impartial readers of What is Philosophy? are entitled to ask themselves whether Hildebrand’s epistemology has the resources to warrant such a trenchant affirmation of the importance of religion. Of particular relevance here is Hildebrand’s response to Kant’s revolutionary claim that human knowledge about the universe is necessarily delimited by subjective a priori features of the mind. An important part of Hildebrand’s reply centres on the idea that synthetic a priori truths can be discovered during metaphysical enquiry because at least some objects are capable of being given to us in their essential being. Let us examine closely how Hildebrand develops his position, before trying to assess its strengths and weaknesses.

Knowledge in General

An important starting point for Hildebrand lies in the anthropological question concerning the distinction between humans and animals. Hildebrand observes that humans, unlike animals, are inclined to wonder about the meaning of life, and the destiny of their own species. This is part of what it means to say that humans are “ordered toward eternity”. Philosophical questioning of this kind is an intrinsic part of being human. For this reason, Hildebrand regards epistemology as first philosophy, and begins the book with an account of knowledge in general. As the book proceeds, the epistemological enquiry narrows its focus to seek to clarify the true nature of a priori knowledge.

When Hildebrand accords knowing the status of a foundational phenomenological datum, he means that knowing as such is an act of consciousness that cannot be reduced to anything else. He seeks to investigate the phenomenology of knowing: to consider “what it is like” to know something, and to bring to light the essential structures of this fundamental act. For Hildebrand, knowing is an intentional participation in the world. In the first instance, knowing is essentially receptive: it is a receiving, not a producing. Yet this is not the whole story, for if knowing is receptive, it is not purely passive. Knowing has an active element, in that there is a mental “going with” the object. This “going with” the object is an intellectual penetration of it. It is a “making common cause” with the object. We find, then, that while it is true that the object discloses itself to the subject, there is an active cooperation on the part of consciousness with the self-disclosure of the object. Knowing is in this sense a mental possessing of the object, an intentional participation in the object’s being. I note en passant that there is a connection between Hildebrand’s  “going with” account of knowledge and the topic of empathy.

The subject’s response to the object may be an affective one, such as love. On the other hand, a response could be theoretical, like conviction or conjecture. Hence an important difference between conviction and knowing is that knowing is a receiving, whilst conviction is a response to that receiving. In other words, conviction is secondary with respect to knowing. Conviction posits not only the existence of the object, but a state-of-affairs pertaining to the object. The question of the metaphysical positing of the object of knowledge over against merely affirming that there is a fact of the matter about the object’s properties turns out to be an important theme in Hildebrand’s epistemology as the book proceeds.

Taking cognizance of something is predominantly passive, but judging and asserting are more active. A precondition of judging and asserting is a prior act of taking cognizance. The object of an act of judging is a state-of-affairs, i.e. a putative fact. Asserting objectifies knowing (taking cognizance) into a proposition.

Basic Forms of Knowledge

We find, then, that there are different kinds of knowledge, which can take place in different ways, and with different possible kinds of object being known. One kind of knowing involves the epistemic state of knowing about something, or knowing a fact, a set of facts, or a body of information. This kind of knowing can have varying levels of certitude. It is said to be superactual in the sense that I might happen to know [wissen], for example, that the capital of China is Beijing, regardless of whether I am thinking about this fact at the present time. Superactual knowing is possible due to the conserving power of the human mind. Superactual knowledge can influence my understanding of a given situation in an implicit manner, i.e. a manner which is not consciously foregrounded. Hildebrand wants to include religious convictions in this kind of knowing.

An important distinction that Hildebrand wishes to emphasise is between a static knowing and a dynamic coming to know something. An episode of taking cognizance is said to be (epistemically) dynamic because the subject comes to know something during the episode, something s/he did not know before. Static cases of knowing are normally the outcome of a dynamic episode of taking cognizance, or of multiple such episodes. An epistemological theme that Hildebrand develops is this idea of a dynamic taking cognizance “giving birth” to a static possessing.

The Nature of Philosophical Knowledge

In Chapter 3, Hildebrand elaborates in more detail upon his taxonomy of different types of knowledge. Two key distinctions that he draws attention to are (a) the distinction between pre-systematic and philosophical enquiry; and (b) the distinction between naïve and theoretical pre-systematic enquiry. As far as (a) is concerned, pre-systematic enquiry is the kind of enquiry we often undertake that falls short of the rigorous requirements of philosophy. As far as (b) is concerned, theoretical pre-systematic enquiry involves reflection, whilst naïve pre-systematic enquiry does not.

When Hildebrand looks more closely at instances of naïve pre-systematic enquiry, he discovers that they come in several different types. Some instances are completely unthematic, whilst others are tacitly thematic. Some instances are what Hildebrand calls “pragmatic”, such as a cook checking to see if a pan of water is boiling. Pragmatic object thematicity sees the object in instrumental terms. There is a particularly important form of non-pragmatic enquiry, which Hildebrand calls “special naïve taking cognizance”. When special naïve taking cognizance takes place, an object becomes “crystal clear […] in its deepest nature” to the observer. An example of this is suddenly seeing the true nature of someone’s personality.

Theoretical knowledge is knowledge that stems from reflection, over against knowledge that stems from perception. This is to say that in the transition from naïve enquiry to a theoretical attitude, something is gained, namely reflection, but something is also lost, namely proximity to the object. So-called “organic” theoretical knowledge grows “organically” out of episodes of naïve taking cognizance. It is a kind of condensation of episodes of naïve taking cognizance.

The foregoing discussion of non-systematic enquiry positions Hildebrand to specify some of the distinctive characteristics of a truly philosophical form of enquiry. In philosophical enquiry, the degree of certitude attached to a state-of-affairs is always commensurate with its level of givenness. Philosophical taking cognizance seeks to penetrate to an even deeper level of the concrete givenness of the object than naïve taking cognizance. Philosophical knowledge is always self-critical in the sense of examining its own (a) well-foundedness of premises; (b) stringency of arguments. (It is interesting to note in this context that notwithstanding the stress Hildebrand places on self-criticality and rigour in philosophy, he also maintains that there is a place under certain conditions for the transmission of philosophical truths by tradition.) A particularly high degree of knowledge thematicity is present during philosophical enquiry. Yet philosophical cognizance very often also foregrounds enquiry into the object in its own right. So there is in operation in philosophical enquiry both thematicity of enquiry and thematicity of the object. Sometimes the thematicity of enquiry predominates, and sometimes the thematicity of the object predominates. In all cases, however, there needs to be an organic stemming of philosophical conclusions from episodes of naïve taking cognizance.

We might say that Hildebrand perceives a “snake in the grass” threatening the philosophical project. He places this threat under the rubric of “superficial thinking”. Superficial thinking can be unself-critical, unsystematic, and liable to lose all authentic contact with the object. Hildebrand discusses a variety of possible causes of superficial thinking. Superficial thinking may rely on arguments that one has learned unquestioningly from someone else. It may involve an unjustified generalisation taken from a single perceptual episode. It may involve the unconscious acceptance of premises that are mistakenly presumed to be self-evident. Another mistake is to import a statement from science into philosophy and then treat the statement as metaphysical. An example of this would be claiming that miracles are impossible. The outcome of such lapses is often a prejudicing, impairment, or interruption of the accuracy of attempts at naïve taking cognizance. The superficial thinker’s enquiry fails to penetrate to the concrete givenness of the object.

The Object of Philosophical Knowledge

In Hildebrand’s phenomenology, there emerges an alignment of truth with being. One example of this alignment is to be found in Hildebrand’s view that the principle of non-contradiction is true not by virtue of being a tautology, but instead on the grounds that it is established by rational intuition. Hildebrand’s justification here is that when an existent object is brought to givenness, its existence is intuitionally self-evident. In this context, one sees that it is not possible for something to both be and not be. This renders the principle of non-contradiction synthetic (i.e. not analytic) in the Kantian terminology. Hildebrand thus upholds Kant’s synthetic/analytic distinction, even though he may on occasion use the term “tautological” in the place of analytic, and “non-tautological” in the place of synthetic.

In Hildebrand’s view, one of the most important aims of philosophy is to discover a priori states-of-affairs. But what exactly does Hildebrand mean by a priori? An a priori state-of-affairs is one which is intrinsically necessary. This does not mean that all a priori states-of-affairs are restricted to logic and mathematics. On the contrary, Hildebrand considers propositions like “Moral values presuppose a person as bearer”, “Love includes a desire for union”, “Moral guilt presupposes responsibility”, and “It is not possible for an object to both be and not be” to be synthetic a priori. When it is discovered, an a priori state-of-affairs is known with certainty. This view of a priori knowledge is strongly influenced by that of Plato in Meno. It is distinct from another sense of the a priori that is common in philosophy, which is that of a formal prerequisite.

For Hildebrand, it is certainly not the case that all a priori knowledge is obvious at first sight. Instead, a priori knowledge can be acquired by intuitional contact with the object, or by logical deduction, or by some combination of the two. Yet philosophers should be able to explain their a priori findings to others in such a way that they can become either self-evident or strictly proved by deduction. Deduction itself is ultimately founded upon an intuitional grasping of the truth of the laws of logic.

A priori givenness is completely different from empirical givenness. Ascertaining an essentially necessary state-of-affairs does not depend upon empirical evidence. It depends only upon the givenness of a necessary essence. A necessary essence could be given in a dream or in an act of the imagination. The foundation of the possibility of synthetic a priori knowledge is the faculty of the intuition of a necessary essence. So experience is involved here, but not empirical experience.

There are different types of unity. A heap of trash is an accidental unity. Secondly, the essence of gold, and of the lion species are known as morphic unities. Thirdly, in Hildebrand’s terminology, there are necessary essential unities, which are the same as intrinsically necessary unities. Hildebrand also refers to these as genuine essences. Examples of genuine essences are love, triangle, person, number, moral value.

This brings us to Hildebrand’s notion of intelligibility. The heap of trash mentioned above is intelligible as a unity, but only just. It is lacking in meaningfulness. It has the character of being accidental or contingent. Of greater intelligibility are the morphic unities and the regularities in nature that can be discovered by science. These entities and patterns have a kind of necessity to them, but it is a natural necessity as opposed to an intrinsic necessity. We might say that they are naturally intelligible. Hildebrand reserves the highest level of intelligibility, which he calls incomparable intelligibility, for entities and states-of-affairs that are intrinsically necessary. Entities and states-of-affairs having the property of being incomparably intelligible are capable of being known with certainty. They become self-evident in the course of phenomenological enquiry. An example of an incomparably intelligible state-of-affairs is “Moral values presuppose a person as bearer.”

Having intuitional access to a genuine essence is not the same as being able to define it. The essence of love, for example, is amenable to phenomenological investigation, but it is not amenable to being defined. In Hildebrand’s view, it is a mistake to think that the intuition of genuine essences is somehow less philosophically respectable than (a) finding a definition; (b) formulating a concept; or (c) deductive reasoning. A genuine essence, by virtue of its incomparable intelligibility, can be known with certainty by philosophers. This, however, is not the same as indefeasibility on the part of the knower. This is to say that philosophers are justified in attributing certainty to their knowledge of a genuine essence in the case that it becomes self-evident to them, but the findings of philosophers always remain defeasible. Hildebrand regards it as an absolutely certain philosophical discovery that genuine essences have their own autonomous being in their own ideal metaphysical sphere.

Hildebrand understands metaphysics to be the philosophy of real being, both possible and actually existing. The metaphysical picture that he sets out involves a concrete sphere of individual objects and an ideal sphere of essences. Both the concrete and the ideal spheres count as real in Hildebrand’s metaphysics. Hildebrand’s main criticism of Kant is that Kant was wrong to think that metaphysical enquiry could not disclose synthetic a priori truths about the noumenal world. Hildebrand argues that he has disproven this key Kantian tenet, by showing that it is possible to acquire a priori knowledge of genuine essences. Statements affirming what we intuit about genuine essences are synthetic a priori truths about the way things are in themselves, which will hold true in any universe.

Hildebrand admits that he does not provide a very detailed explication of how the ideal and concrete spheres interact with each other, saying that this is a very mysterious problem. What he is prepared to say on this matter is that the two spheres are “bonded” very closely, and that there is significant variation between such things as numbers, colours, moral values, and persons, in their modes of existence, and in the modes of “bonding” that can take place between the concrete and ideal spheres. The relation between the concrete sphere and the ideal sphere is one of “partaking”. Hildebrand also maintains that it is plausible to hypothesise that genuine essences exist “in God” in some sense or senses that remain to be clarified.

This brings us to the question of the place and significance of God in Hildebrand’s philosophy. Hildebrand’s concept of God is that of an infinite person who is the ground and source of all existence. Hildebrand believes the Cosmological Argument validly shows the existence of such a God. This God has a sui generis mode of existence that Hildebrand calls “necessary real existence”, which is a different mode of existence from that possessed by genuine essences.

Objectivity and Independence from the Human Mind

One of the main questions considered in Chapter 5 concerns the relation between electromagnetic waves and colours. Are they the same kind of thing? Is one more real than the other? Are colours fully objective? This discussion helps to illuminate Hildebrand’s metaphysics, clarifying his view of which entities can be regarded as metaphysically real, and the place of the objects of science in this metaphysical picture.

Hildebrand’s investigation into the phenomenology of perceiving a colour concludes that colours are different from the objects of science, on the grounds that something cannot be such-and-such a colour mind independently, but instead can only be such-and-such a colour for a perceiving consciousness. Colours, then, cannot be said to be mind independent, because truth claims about the colour of objects presuppose the cooperation of the human mind. Hildebrand notes that the term “subjective” has many possible senses in philosophy, and that it is for this reason ambiguous to assert that colours are subjective. However, if “subjective” is taken strictly and solely in the sense of presupposing the cooperation of the human mind, then propositions of the form “X is subjectively such-and-such a colour” are capable of being objectively true or false, with the proviso that such statements do not belong to science. This is sufficient, in Hildebrand’s view, to make colours objectively real. An important corollary of this latter conclusion is that some things are objectively real without being mind independent. Colours and electromagnetic waves are on different “levels” of being, because electromagnetic waves are mind independent whilst colours are not.

One of the most distinctive and unusual features of Hildebrand’s account of our perception of the natural world lies in his view that some (and only some) phenomenal properties are capable of bearing a “message” character. The message characteristic consists in the relevant phenomenal property appearing as if it were a message, ostensibly from God. Colours are capable of bearing this characteristic. For a believer in God, this message character amounts to “God-willed”. If something is “God-willed” it is thereby meaningful. Possessing a message character is evidence for the observer that an object is real. An example of this message character could be an apprehension by an observer that a blue sky is intended by God to look blue to humans. This gives the blueness of the sky an objective validity.

Hildebrand’s account of the message characteristic of certain phenomenal properties is bound up with his view that God created the world, and that humans are intended by God to be masters of creation. The manner in which an object appears to humans is held to be pertinent to its objective meaning, on the grounds that God created this world for humans. This line of reasoning supports Hildebrand’s conclusion that colour has an objective meaning for humans. According to this view, one of the reasons God created electromagnetic waves was to make colours visible to humans. The red colour of a rose is no mere illusion. Instead, if a rose looks red, it does so because it is intended to look like that by God.

The Two Basic Themes of Knowledge

The title of Chapter 6 turns out to be somewhat ambiguous, since it could refer either to the distinction between perceptual and non-perceptual knowledge or to the distinction between cognitive and contemplative knowing, both of which are relevant to what is discussed. Perceptual knowledge is more foundational than its non-perceptual counterpart, in Hildebrand’s view, on the grounds that during perception [Wahrnehmung] the object is given presentationally to consciousness. Perceptual knowledge is what preoccupies Hildebrand in this chapter, and his main finding is that perception can contain both cognitive and contemplative moments. These are supplementary to the moment of “taking cognizance” that is discussed earlier in the book. Intellectual intuition supports both the cognitive and the contemplative parts of knowing an essence. Cognitive knowing, which precedes contemplative knowing, is a grasping or apprehension of the object for what it is. Cognitive knowing, in Hildebrand’s terminology, is “notional”, enabling the subject to “appropriate” the object. Contemplative knowing, by contrast, is more intimate, involving a “dwelling within” the object by consciousness. Contemplation is only appropriate in relation to certain kinds of “spiritual” object, such as an artwork, a personality, or a value. Taken collectively, Hildebrand proposes that the three perceptual moments of taking cognizance, cognition, and contemplation are able to “fecundate” the subject’s mind in an especially “intimate” and “plentiful” way.

Characteristic Features of Philosophical Knowledge and Enquiry

When it comes to the question of philosophical method, Hildebrand sets great store on rigour. This is what Hildebrand means when he says that philosophical enquiry must always be “critical”. Premises must be justified; intuitions must be evident; arguments must be stringent. There can be no place for whimsical or fanciful thoughts. Indeed, philosophy, in Hildebrand’s view, should be no less rigorous than science. However, Hildebrand does recognise that there is a difference between scientific rigour and philosophical rigour. Science and philosophy go about their business in different ways, and have differing methods. When it comes to valuing scientific and philosophical rigour, Hildebrand regards the form of exactness to be found in philosophy to be superior to that of science.

Hildebrand recognises that this attitude toward rigour in philosophy raises a problem. If the highest quality philosophy really does proceed in such a rigorous way, why do so many philosophical questions remain mired in controversy? One would have thought that if the kind of rigour Hildebrand aspires to were attainable, then the field of philosophical knowledge would be expanding in much the same fashion, and with as little controversy, as mathematical and scientific knowledge. To be sure, controversies do arise from time to time in mathematics and science, but they are normally resolved relatively quickly. The situation is quite different in philosophy.

In the course of Chapter 7, Hildebrand indicates three ways of defending himself against this objection. The first way is to argue that the view that philosophical debates seem to be intractably mired in controversy is excessively bleak. He contends that many important philosophical insights are completely uncontroversial. Examples of these are Augustine’s “Si fallor, sum”, Plato’s distinction between a priori and empirical knowledge, and Kant’s distinction between synthetic and analytic propositions. Such great philosophical discoveries are never “dethroned”. This claim leads Hildebrand to suppose that there is no reason in principle why philosophical controversies should not be resolved satisfactorily, even if the time it might take for such controversies to be resolved should happen to be de facto longer than is the norm in mathematics and science.

Hildebrand’s second line of response is to argue that there are two special reasons peculiar to the way humans carry out philosophical activity that are conducive to controversies arising. Firstly, not everyone develops the requisite philosophical capacities properly. This can result in some so-called “philosophers” departing from the strict requirements of critical philosophy. Secondly, some philosophical truths are opposed because people have a subconscious reluctance to accept the implications of such truths for their personal and moral life.

Hildebrand’s third line of response is to suggest that science is more controversial than we might think. From an historical perspective, we find that science continually replaces one theory with another. So science is “controversial” in that sense. Hildebrand fails to note, however, that mathematics is not “controversial” in this sense.

The Meaning of Philosophy for the Human Person

In the concluding chapter of What is Philosophy?, Hildebrand makes the case for an especially central role for philosophy in human life, by arguing that philosophical knowledge has its climax in our knowledge of the existence and attributes of God. Philosophy is continuous with the pre-scientific view of the world, which is a naïve living contact. This means that instead of pulling the rug away from under the naïve understanding of the world, as science often seems to do, philosophy starts from, and clarifies what is already given in, our naïve living contact with the world. Philosophical enquiry is for this reason a more fundamental “position” of the human mind than the scientific attitude, and is able, furthermore, to grant the subject a participation in the being of its objects.

Only from the philosophical standpoint does the real meaning of things become clear. This affects our understanding of their relative value and consequently shapes the human personality in accordance with philosophical truth. Grasping philosophical truth, or coming into contact in some way with others who have themselves grasped philosophical truth, helps the individual to maintain and deepen his living contact with the world. The complaint that philosophy may seem abstruse and disconnected from real life is therefore mistaken.

Not everyone can be a philosopher. Hildebrand considers some ways in which the enormous benefits flowing from philosophical knowledge might be shared with those who lack the intellectual wherewithal to grasp it directly. The answer is to begin at the level of naïve living contact and then distil out of it the philosophical principle. Ordinary people rooted in a naïve living contact with reality are endowed with a latent sense for truth. Such non-philosophers have a “receptivity” to philosophical truth since it is continuous with their own naïve experience. This receptivity makes possible an encounter between the ordinary person and genuine philosophical findings. The bringing of philosophical truth to ordinary people is important in Hildebrand’s eyes, since he regards philosophy as constituting the proper foundation for the formation of people’s political views, and the foundation of a society’s culture, art, and literature. Philosophy is thus capable of exerting a pervasive influence on the lives of ordinary people.

The most important role that Hildebrand assigns to philosophy, however, is that it should be a preamble to faith. It orientates the mind toward the eternal, and prepares the soul for God’s revelation. Yet it is worth noting that for a book stressing the foundational importance of philosophy for human life, the final chapter has a surprising claim embedded within it, for Hildebrand maintains that that which “[…] is disclosed by revelation remains beyond what is accessible to philosophy.” This raises the problem of epistemological justification for what is putatively disclosed by revelation.

Objection 1: The Question of Philosophical Rigour

In support of his claim that philosophy is in the process of building up a generally accepted and uncontroversial body of knowledge, Hildebrand cites a number of important philosophical findings that attract few objections. This line of reasoning is not compelling for two reasons. Firstly, I note that the list of uncontroversial philosophical discoveries that Hildebrand cites is very short. Secondly, the premise that there exists a set of core philosophical discoveries that all or most philosophers can agree upon does not imply that the philosophers involved are working in a highly rigorous fashion. A group of art critics may agree, for example, that Shakespeare’s King Lear and Mozart’s The Magic Flute are indisputably great works of art, but it does not follow from this that the activity of art criticism is proceeding in a manner capable of building up a generally accepted and uncontroversial body of knowledge.

One of the drawbacks of Hildebrand’s intuitionism is that it can in itself be conducive toward philosophical controversy arising. If one philosopher affirms the intuitional self-evidence of X and another denies it, it is difficult to see how the matter can be settled, either by empirical evidence or the evidence of rational argumentation. Hildebrand’s claim that some philosophers may be disinclined to accept self-evident moral truths due to a subconscious reluctance to accept the implications of such truths for their personal life seems speculative and unverifiable. It would have been more prudent of Hildebrand to investigate the reasons that such dissenters have provided for doubting the truth of such allegedly “self-evident” claims.

Objection 2: Existence of God     

An important part of Hildebrand’s overall philosophical system is the view that there are good grounds for believing in the existence of God, understood as an infinite person who is the ground and source of all existence. This premise is not treated as a given by Hildebrand, but instead is found to be amenable to investigation and justification by philosophical activity itself. This is why Hildebrand inserts into Chapter 4 a brief two page discussion supporting the validity of the Cosmological Argument for the existence of God [136-7]. I wish to suggest that Hildebrand’s discussion of the Cosmological Argument is inadequate for a number of reasons.

Firstly, I would have expected some response from Hildebrand to Kant’s objection to the cosmological proof of God contained in his First Critique. Kant argues that the cosmological proof relies on an ill-founded concept, namely that of an absolutely necessary being. Kant also objects that the cosmological proof applies the category of causation beyond the realm of possible experience. More generally, Hildebrand must have been aware of the significant philosophical controversy that has built up over many centuries surrounding the Cosmological Argument. A twentieth-century philosopher whose system relies heavily on the presumed existence of God cannot simply wind back the clock and pretend he is writing in the Middle Ages.

Secondly, the God that Hildebrand believes in is a personal God, and the Cosmological Argument, even if valid, does not purport to show the existence of a personal God, merely a first cause. This is another reason why Hildebrand’s decision to cite the Cosmological Argument in Chapter 4 is slightly puzzling, when alternative philosophical arguments exist in favour of the existence of a personal God.

Thirdly, if there were a personal God, one would have thought that such a God would wish to make Himself accessible to us in the expressly intuitional fashion that Hildebrand places so much emphasis upon. I would have expected Hildebrand’s argumentation in support of the existence of God to be intuitional and phenomenological, as opposed to cosmological.

Objection 3: Colour

The phenomenology of colour perception is a topic Hildebrand returns to on numerous occasions throughout this book. It is, however, not essential to the book’s main theme, which is the perception of genuine essences. Hildebrand thinks colour in general, and individual colours, count as examples of genuine essences. I find Hildebrand’s discussion of colour problematic for the following reasons.

Firstly, there is the claim that one of the reasons God created electromagnetic waves was to make colours visible to humans. This is a speculative claim about the content of God’s thoughts. No evidence, be it phenomenological, empirical, or rational, is provided to support it. The claim is philosophically baseless.

Secondly, there is the claim that colours are among the phenomenal properties of an object capable of bearing the so-called “message” character, which consists in a colour appearing as if it were a message, ostensibly from God. This, in contrast to the claim about electromagnetic waves just discussed, is a phenomenological claim, but one which I believe is mistaken. I do not concur with it, on the grounds that an investigation into the phenomenology of colour perception could at best make the case for colours possessing an expressive quality, as opposed to a communicative quality. Communication is distinct from expression. Hence Hildebrand’s claim about the communicative quality, or message characteristic, qua phenomenological claim, is in my opinion at odds with the descriptive facts.

Objection 4: Ideal and Concrete Spheres

One way of objecting to a metaphysical position is to point out that it raises a new problem, one which would not have arisen if a different metaphysical approach had been adopted. Hildebrand’s metaphysical position is susceptible to this line of objection, for it raises the question of how the ideal realm of essences and the concrete realm of individuals are supposed to interact. If the essence of the colour red is metaphysically real, and a red rose is metaphysically real, then the nature of their interaction also becomes a metaphysical question. Hildebrand registers his awareness of this problem in at least two ways. One way is to claim that he wishes to avoid a two-world metaphysics. Another way is to concede that the nature of the interaction between the ideal and concrete spheres must be very mysterious, and that he is unable, in this book at least, to make much headway in explicating it.

Objection 5: Purely Subjective Transcendence

According to Hildebrand, there is an essence not only of triangle as such, but an essence of every triangle. I have a worry, however, that Hildebrand is overlooking the distinction between the existence of an essence of a triangle T, and there being a fact of the matter about the properties of the triangle T. Suppose T is the triangle whose vertices are at the points (2,1), (5,9), and (17,3) in the plane. Mathematicians are able to investigate and meaningfully discuss the properties of T because T is fully defined and there is a fact of the matter about its properties, such as the length of its sides, and the internal angles at its vertices. I am not free to imagine the properties of T being anything I like, but am instead constrained by the facts of the matter. This is to say that T is subjectively transcendent to my mind, or any other mind. There is no obvious reason to commit ourselves to the claim that T exists metaphysically or that the essence of T exists metaphysically. T is a construct of the mind, a purely notional thing. T is an idea, and hence ideal, but not real. There is no obvious reason to think that ideal things such as T are real. On the contrary, T is what Husserl would term irreal, that is, something that can be the object of meaningful intersubjective discussion and investigation, but which need not exist metaphysically. This line of reasoning seems to suggest that to assert that a genuine essence is real is metaphysically inflationary.

Objection 6: Relation between philosophy and religion

In Chapter 8, Hildebrand concludes his book’s discussion by sharing with us his understanding of the relation between philosophy and religion. Man has an innate orientation toward God and the eternal. The overarching mission of philosophy is to be a “preamble to faith”, by cultivating this orientation. This is what Hildebrand means when he refers to philosophy’s obligation to prepare our souls “for the acceptance of the revelation of God”. Yet what is disclosed by revelation remains “beyond what is accessible to philosophy.” By this Hildebrand means that the contents of such revelation are not amenable to discovery by the modalities of enquiry discussed in earlier chapters of his book.

There is a problem here. The truth of such putative revelation is treated by Hildebrand as a given. Revelation from God is held to be true on the grounds that God is the source of all truth. Yet even in theological circles, there is legitimacy in a discussion concerning how any putative revelation can be confirmed as genuine. It is not clear why Hildebrand would regard such a discussion as non-philosophical, and why he chooses not include the premises and constraints of any such discussion within the parameters of his epistemology. This leads the reader to conclude, in particular, that the account of knowledge in general that is contained in Chapter 1 is incomplete.


From an historical perspective, Hildebrand’s What is Philosophy? can be situated within the context of a twentieth-century realism-idealism controversy sparked by Husserl’s turn toward a version of transcendental idealism. Realists like Hildebrand had previously seen Husserl’s early phenomenology as offering a potential way of returning to a form of enquiry that might overcome the constraints placed by Kant upon the limits of metaphysical knowledge. Unfortunately Hildebrand’s attempt to break out of the Kantian epistemological constraints turns out to be susceptible to the objections that I have detailed: (1) Hildebrand’s advocacy of philosophical rigour is undermined by the conduciveness of his intuitionism toward controversy; (2) Hildebrand does not make a convincing philosophical case for the existence of a personal God; (3) Hildebrand’s phenomenological claim about the communicative quality of colour is at odds with the descriptive facts; (4) Hildebrand does not provide an adequate metaphysical account of the supposed interaction between the ideal realm of essences and the concrete realm of individuals; (5) It is metaphysically inflationary to think that it follows from there being a fact of the matter about the properties of X that X exists metaphysically; (6) Any putative revelation from God remains liable to a confirmation condition, and Hildebrand fails to include a discussion of such a confirmation condition within his epistemology.

Corijn van Mazijk: De Wereld als Verschijning

De Wereld als Verschijning: Fenomenologie en de Twintigste Eeuw Book Cover De Wereld als Verschijning: Fenomenologie en de Twintigste Eeuw
Corijn van Mazijk
Paperback €22,50

Reviewed by: Ward Huetink

Dr. Corijn van Mazijk is an assistant professor at the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, the Netherlands, who specializes in Kant and post-Kantian philosophy, particularly phenomenology. De Wereld als Verschijning: Fenomenologie en de Twintigste Eeuw (The World as Appearance: Phenomenology and the Twentieth Century, all translations from the Dutch are my own) is his second book, following a monograph on the nature of reality, perception and the relation between the two, in the work of Kant, Husserl and McDowell.[1]

De Wereld als Verschijning is a step back from the highly specialized research conducted in the earlier publication. Van Mazijk sets out to provide an introduction into phenomenology that is “as easily accessible as possible” (32). And that is exactly what he delivers. The book comprises five chapters and each chapter treats one of the four most influential phenomenologists of the 20th century; Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, respectively. The final chapter discusses six lesser known phenomenologists, including Edith Stein and Emmanuel Levinas.

Each chapter follows an identical structure. It opens with a short column detailing the main themes of this particular philosopher’s thought, as well as his or her influence on the development of the phenomenological tradition. This is followed by a few pages of biographical information, detailing the life of the thinker and the cultural-intellectual climate of the time, and how this influenced the work he or she went on to produce. With this setting-the-stage out of the way, the main part of each chapter is dedicated to a discussion of the philosophical substance itself. Van Mazijk emphasizes that although the book is intended to introduce phenomenology, the subject matter by itself is by no means simple, and so the main objective is to expound the ideas as clearly as possible, where needed aided by illustrations. The chapters then conclude with an overview of the main ideas of each thinker, complemented by a short list of important concepts and their definitions.

The work of each thinker is discussed in largely chronological order. For example, the first chapter, on Husserl, starts out with a discussion of the Logische Untersuchungen (1901) and ends with Die Krisis der Europäischen Wissenschaften und die Transcendentale Phänomenologie (1936). Of the five, this chapter is the longest. This is not surprising, considering the amount of work Husserl produced and his importance as the founder of the phenomenological tradition. As such, this chapter serves not only as an introduction to Husserl, but to the themes and philosophical considerations that continue to define phenomenology more broadly. It starts out, for instance, with Husserl’s critique of psychologism and naturalism, and the aim of returning to the description of things as they are given to consciousness, guaranteeing the clarity and absolute certainty of the outcome of his investigations. Van Mazijk then introduces the reader to Husserl’s work on intentionality, the natural attitude, the phenomenological reduction and the epoche. Then follows a more in-depth explanation of eidetic variation and the difference between constitutive and genetic phenomenology, the latter marking a shift in focus from Husserl’s earlier to his later work. The chapter concludes with a discussion of Husserl’s concept of ‘horizons’ and his analysis of time. By the end of these 36 dense pages, the reader is acquainted with many concepts and themes essential to understanding the other thinkers, although it is likely that those novel to phenomenology will have to return to this chapter for clarifications later on.

As the previous one, the chapter on Heidegger is divided between the early and later works. The priority is given, understandably, to the earlier work, Sein und Zeit (1927) in particular. Van Mazijk spends some time establishing the relationship between Husserl and Heidegger, and consequently the personal and intellectual rift between the two. He emphasizes Heidegger’s deviation from Husserl, especially where it concerns their respective epistemological positions by highlighting Heidegger’s recognition of human finitude and “the insignificance of every human attempt at knowledge” (p. 72). Simultaneously, he shows how Heidegger employs a kind of phenomenological reduction in carrying out his existential analytic of Dasein to uncover the ‘meaning of Being’. The main part of this chapter is dedicated to examining the results of this analysis, including the ontological difference between beings and in general, being-in-the world as human existence, care, the distinction between Vorhanden and Zuhanden through the classic example of the hammer, and the different modes of human existence in fallen-ness and authentic being. The chapter concludes by referring to Heidegger’s later works, of which only The Question Concerning Technology is discussed somewhat extensively.

The third chapter, on Sartre, is almost a third shorter than the preceding two and by far the most critical of the author discussed. In the introduction Van Mazijk makes it clear that, rather than a rigorous philosophical teaching, Sartre’s existentialism was more of a cultural movement, “comparable to the American beat generation” (109). Sartre, he argues, uses Husserl and Heidegger’s phenomenology primarily to ground his theory of the radical freedom of human beings. According to Sartre’s analyses, expounded in his main works Le Transcendence de l’Ego (1936) and L’Être et le Néant (1943), consciousness is essentially nothingness, an apersonal, transparent process without fixed properties. It is this essential nothingness, being-for-itself, that constitutes the freedom against the being-in-itself, the massive presence of the outside world. Thinking one is ‘something’ or a definite ‘someone’ is living in bad faith, a denial of the true, free essence of human life; hence Sartre’s famous proclamation that “existence precedes essence”. Van Mazijks main critique of Sartre’s brand of phenomenology is that it is flawed and inconsistent. It is flawed, since it denies the limiting constraints put on freedom by concrete reality. It is inconsistent, on the other hand, because Sartre modifies his theory on multiple occasions to undercut objections raised against him, or to avoid unwanted conclusions that seem to follow from his premises. For example, he rejects the possibility of radical egoism by introducing a kind of Kantian deontology in his lecture Existentialism is a Humanism, without much ground for these kind of ethical constraints on human freedom present in his earlier works. All in all, it seems Van Mazijk includes Sartre in the book more because of his historical influence in popularising phenomenology in Europe mid 20th century, rather than his philosophical accomplishments in their own right.

The fourth chapter discusses the work of Merleau-Ponty. The shortest chapter of the book limits itself to discussing La Structure du Comportement (1942) and Phénoménologie de la Perception (1945). Van Mazijk stresses Merleau-Ponty’s achievements in his analysis of perception as the fundamental way in which subject and object, or consciousness and world, interact. For each work, he shows how Merleau-Ponty’s dialectical style of doing philosophy results in a new understanding of this interaction. He shows how Merleau-Ponty uses insights from Gestalt-psychology to show how the intellectualist and physiologist paradigms of human behaviour are both lacking in their own right when it comes to describing and explaining behaviour, while his own position ambiguously oscillates between these subjectivist and objectivist poles, resisting a reductive interpretation. Similarly, in Phénoménologie de la Perception Merleau-Ponty shows how both empiricism and intellectualism remain stuck in the natural attitude towards the world, whereas perception as the portal to this world cannot itself be understood in terms of it. His own phenomenological analysis, combined with insights from empirical research, again paints a more holistic and ambiguous picture of the relation between man and world, in which the living body is the locus of this interaction. Van Mazijk emphasises that Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology is much closer to Heidegger and Husserl than it is to Sartre – although the deviations from Husserl are significant, including the integration of empirical research in his philosophical works, leading to a more interdisciplinary phenomenology.

The fifth and final chapter of De Wereld als Verschijning explores the work of six lesser known phenomenologists in brief. These are, in order, Max Scheler, Edith Stein, Eugen Fink, Alfred Schutz, Emmanuel Levinas and Jan Patočka. Here, too, a brief biographical introduction is followed by a discussion of their work. Since only a few pages are dedicated to each thinker, their treatment is condensed to a defining theme. For Scheler, this is love; for Stein, empathy; for Fink, phenomenology itself and the possibility of philosophy in general; for Schutz, philosophy of the social world and the foundations of sociology; for Levinas, the Other; and for Jan Patočka, the care for the soul. This chapter is a nice addition to an introduction to phenomenology, since it shows the influence and scope of phenomenological research. The choice of authors seems somewhat arbitrary, though; certainly, other writers in the phenomenological tradition could have been considered, such as Frantz Fanon, Ludwig Binswanger, Luce Irigaray or Iris Marion Young. Their influence today is certainly no less than Patočka or Schutz, and the inclusion of especially Young and Fanon would have added some diversity. They opened the door to what is now called Critical Phenomenology, and have been instrumental in pointing out how the supposedly ‘neutral’ consciousness of classical phenomenologists obscures latent presuppositions on what it is to be human. It is also notable that Simone the Beauvoir receives no more than a passing mention in the chapter on Sartre, while she is from a philosophical perspective undoubtedly as influential as her life-partner.

The book starts out with the question ‘what is phenomenology?’, and by the end the reader has a good idea of what Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty thought on this matter. However, Van Mazijk’s own view on the matter is not discussed in detail. In the conclusion, he briefly discusses the modern, specialized applications of phenomenology in different branches of science, such as psychiatry and artificial intelligence. It appears he laments this development and prefers the ‘grander’, more ambitious transcendental and existential projects of the past. He writes: “Only the future can tell whether the phenomenology of the 20th century had maybe more to offer than a reservoir of ideas for scientific application”, and it is clear that he certainly thinks so, but how exactly remains obscure. Throughout the book, he mentions these modern applications of phenomenology, but never elaborates in detail. This is a missed opportunity, since it could have emphasized the importance and relevance of the tradition, and potentially inspire those readers not strictly interested in abstract philosophy.

All in all, Van Mazijk provides a detailed and supremely readable introduction into phenomenology, which will undoubtedly be of great value to those interested in learning about the tradition and its main figures, or students looking for a good overview. De Wereld als Verschijning is the first book of its kind published in Dutch by a Dutch author in several decades, and it is a testament of the knowledge, passion and dedication the author has for his field of expertise.

[1] van Mazijk, C. 2020. Perception and Reality in Kant, Husserl, and McDowell. New York, NY: Routledge.  For a review of this book in this journal:

Samantha Matherne: Cassirer

Cassirer Book Cover Cassirer
The Routledge Philosophers
Samantha Matherne
Paperback GBP £19.99

Reviewed by: Nikolaus Schneider

The Ernst Cassirer renaissance is in full order. Since Massimo Ferrari’s anticipation and prediction that the German philosopher would be lifted from the realms of semi-forgottenness in 1994 different lines of reception have swept through the German-, Italian- and English-speaking world. (cf. Ferrari, 1994) It was only a matter of time until this resurgence would carry over to Anglo-American departments, where, along with a renewed interest in Neo-Kantianism, more and more research on Cassirer is being conducted.[1] The newly translated and edited edition of his three volume magnus opum The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms by Routledge is a case in point here. Accordingly, the present work by Samantha Matherne, assistant professor of philosophy at Harvard University, is perhaps only the logical conclusion to a new wave of Cassirer reception in the English-speaking world, appearing in the renowned The Routledge Philosophers series edited by Brian Leitner. Primarily aimed at undergraduate students, the book will surely complement many syllabi on the German philosopher in the English-speaking academy for years to come, especially as the hitherto existing English introduction to Cassirer, John Michael Krois’ Symbolic Forms and History, is by now 34 years old.

In the contemporary reception Cassirer’s philosophy is explicitly advertised as being able to bridge “gaps not only between the so-called ‘analytic-continental divide’ in philosophy, but also between philosophy and other disciplines in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences” (p.2)[2] Indeed, apart from purely historical considerations the primary aim of contemporary research on Cassirer seems to be the development of a transcendental philosophy of culture as the investigation of the conditions of possibility that enable cultural artifacts and their world by means of an analysis of the different modalities of symbolization. (cf. Endres et al., 12f.; Luft 2021, 215) Following the influential studies of Peter Gordon (Gordon, 2010) and Michael Friedmann (Friedmann, 2000) the peculiar position of Cassirer in 20th century (German) philosophy is  recognized and contextualized and with it a philosophy that seemingly does not outright reject modernity’s proliferation of cultural and life-forms in either a rural conservative individual flight to authenticity (Heidegger) or a detached logic-semantical analysis of scientific propositions (Carnap). Hans Sluga, a reviewer of Gordon’s book, however, expressed his doubts about deriving a reconciliation of culture via Cassirer:

Cassirer was no doubt an accomplished philosopher, an influential teacher, and above all a thoroughly decent and admirable human being, but he does not get close in stature to the much more problematic Heidegger, and he certainly also lacks the philosophical radicalism of a Wittgenstein, Foucault, or Derrida and the incisive scientific acumen of a Russell, Quine, or Rawls. Attempts to revive his fortunes are, I am afraid, doomed to failure. (Sluga, 2011)

However, the contemporary reception of Cassirer wagers that the German philosopher has still a lot to offer for present-day problematics. (cf. Gordon 2021, xiv; cf. Luft/ Ferrari 2021, passim)

How the background of this reception and its repercussions along with the different ‘geophilosophical’ context vis-à-vis existing German introductions (Sandkühler/ Pätzold, 2003; Graeser, 1994; Recki, 2004, 2013; Paetzold, 2014) have shaped the task of presenting a summary and overview of Cassirer’s philosophy will form the frame of this review. The author’s aim to “offer an overview of Cassirer’s philosophical system as a whole that can help the reader navigate his corpus” will determine its immanent threshold of success. (p.2) I will provide a summary of its contents before engaging in a more critical reading.

After setting out from a brief biography of Cassirer, the book unfolds via a historical contextualization of Cassirer within the broader movement of Marburg Neo-Kantianism as the general frame of reference and conceptualization Cassirer worked and philosophized within. “For all the shifts and developments in Cassirer’s body of work, his philosophical system remains, throughout, that of a Neo-Kantian.” (p.18) It is transcendental spontaneity that for Matherne is the central motif of Cassirer’s effort for a philosophy of culture and in connection with the methodological impetus of accounting for the conditions of possibilities of cultural facts the decisive trait of his intellectual lineage. Hence this, after setting the general picture of Marburg Neo-Kantianism as being primarily scientifically oriented right, amounts to a transcendental investigation of the conditions of possibility of meaning-creating/ – making in a shared world. In this sense, (Marburg) Neo-Kantianism tout court had always already been on the way to a philosophy of culture, though it is Cassirer’s merit to conduct this investigation in a way that would do justice to the concept of culture. (cf. p. 31f.)

In practice, this configures the subject’s capability to confer meaning- and form – making processes freely and spontaneously upon the world. Matherne decisively accounts for this by contextualizing Cassirer’s indebtedness to Cohen’s and Natorp’s intellectualist interpretation of Kant’s theory of cognition – the actual conceptuality of what had been forms of intuition, space and time, in Kant. (cf. p. 39ff.) In other words, all forms of cognition and perception remain relative to the transcendental subject’s employment of a range of categories. On this view, Cassirer’s central philosophical innovation consists in invoking the ‘softer’ notions of form and symbol/ function against ‘law’ – the former two permitting a greater range of phenomena attributable to the ‘world of meaning’. (cf. p. 37.)

Accounting for this in more detail, Matherne sets out to retrace the younger Cassirer’s work on epistemology and a theory of concept-formation, largely neglecting the first published monograph Leibniz’ System in its Scientific Foundations and the first volume of Das Erkenntnisproblem in der Philosophie und Wissenschaft der neueren Zeit. Rather, Cassirer’s first central philosophical innovation is said to have first and foremost occurred within the theory of concepts and the adjacent philosophy of mathematics to form conceptual and scientific basic distinctions, which, insisting on the continuity of Cassirer’s thought, remain invariant up to The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms and beyond. In this way, Cassirer’s elaboration of the distinction between substance-concept and function-concept in the eponymous book are employed to account for the respective processes of objectification (Ver-gegenständlichung) yielding the symbolic forms and their ranges of perception and cognition. This amounts essentially to the primacy of the category of relation over substance from Kant’s transcendental logic to prevent a notion of concepts as being mere copies of pre-existing objects attained by way of abstraction. (cf. Truwant 2015, 291) A spontaneously conceived function – later to be extended as symbolic form – posits a law of succession and orders a series of representations according to it. (cf. 53ff.)

The remaining chapter presents Cassirer’s consequent views in the philosophy of arithmetic and geometry. Matherne summarizes the attained position under the heading of  ‘logical structuralism’, “according to which mathematics has its basis in functions of relations that belong to logic and mathematical objects are ideal structures generated on the basis of those functions or relations.” (p. 75) Although introducing Cassirer’s first philosophical innovation in this way diminishes the methodological role of the Neo-Kantian’s historiography of philosophy as a history of problems (Problemgeschichte) in relation to the historization of the a priori and its relevance for the establishment of the function-concept, the presented difference between the two respective views is presented clearly and convincingly.

The historical character of functions comes back in Cassirer’s ‘philosophy of natural science’, which is the topic of the ensuing chapter. In dialogue with the natural scientist, it is the transcendental philosopher’s task to account for the conditions of possibility of the facts of science by means of a reconstruction of the corresponding transcendental functions, which remain relative to the overall scientific context of experience (cf. p. 81 In the context of natural science this task amounts to the elaboration of the fundamental concepts employed by the natural scientist and the positions the yielded concepts occupy within their empirical theories. Hence the elaboration of a taxonomy of the scientific statements of measurement, laws and principles as instantiations of a different order of generality. In turn, the philosopher should, according to Cassirer, make out the invariant relations on a purely conceptual level. (cf. p. 98.) In the last instance, these figure as the transcendental categories, that is, the functions continuously employed in all scientific endeavors such as time, space, or number. Although these may be configured differently over history they serve as the functional a priori building blocks of any scientific theory.

Subsequently, the discussion moves on to the philosophy of symbolic forms proper, that is, not just the elaboration of the eponymous trilogy, but also the dispersed articles and texts written between 1920 and 1945. Matherne chooses to frame the philosophy of symbolic form as a philosophy of culture throughout, and, although not outright neglecting its later transformation into a philosophical anthropology, takes her “cue from his early formulations of it in The Philosophy Symbolic Forms and other texts from the 1920s”. (p. 116) While it is conceded that Cassirer’s thought evolved in newer directions at a later stage of his career, the conception of a ‘philosophy of culture’ is by definition a narrower one than that of a philosophical anthropology. And although the reason for this concession is provided for in the continuity of the central status of symbolization as seen in the dictum of the human as animal symbolicum, questions why this should not compel one to conceive of his philosophy of culture as a philosophical anthropology[3] are unanswered. (cf. 116f.) It is perhaps by way of the general relevance of Cassirer for a contemporary philosophy of culture that this conception is motivated. Rather than going the whole way of conceiving of the philosophy of symbolic forms as a philosophical anthropology the more modest task of investigating meaning-making processes fairs equally well with the ascribed position of the German philosopher with regard to the analytic-continental split. Thus, the task of the philosophy of symbolic forms “is ultimately organized around an effort to elucidate the conditions of culture.” (p. 119)

Matherne follows the common distinction between the different forms of culture along the subjective and objective lines. The former is comprised of the different modalities of representation as the triad of expressive, presentative and significative functions, the latter as the continuous progression of objective spirit, that is, culture’s overall context of signification as an “a priori intersubjectively shared structure and activity, which unites human beings […] together.” (p. 120) The different symbolic forms encompass respective “perceptive, intuitive and cognitive” structures and in this way the philosophy of symbolic forms aims to tie an analysis of the transcendental functions of the subject with its objective cultural expressions together (p.125) In contrast to the discussion of the cognitions of mathematics and natural science, the investigation shifts to the broader notion of the various kinds of ‘understanding’ in the human cultural sciences. (p.121) Cassirer posits their specific modality of concept-formation as being aligned with the general model detected in the natural sciences, foreclosing an anticipated discussion of their status as form- or style-concepts. (Form- oder Stilbegriffe)

Matherne then goes on to discuss the methodological requirements to conduct an analysis of the conditions of possibility of culture. The transcendental method is once again evoked, this time in Natorp’s “bi-directional conception”. (p. 124) The correlation of objective and subjective spirit is bifurcated along a reconstructive axis for the subjective side of the equation and constructive axis for its objective side. The latter posits a specific analysis of culture (‘constructive’) and the former accounts for the conditions of possibility of it by reconstructing a corresponding synthesis of transcendental subjectivity. (cf. Freyberg/ Niklas 2019, passim) It would perhaps have been worthwhile to extend and contrast the presented account with the manuscript for a Metaphysics of Symbolic Forms and its thoughts on ‘Basis Phenomena’ for a more rounded account. Matherne’s presentation gives the impression that Cassirer’s seems to privilege the reconstructive side over their correlativity or ‘work-relatedness’ (Werkbezogenheit), though the account remains thus firmly faithful to her overall interpretation of Cassirer. Subsequently the details of symbolization by means of categorial function-concepts, such as cause, time, thing or property, to yield the respective symbolic forms are discussed. (cf. p. 129) These figure as  “the concepts that remain constant across all our spiritual activities because they are the a priori conditions that make all spiritual ‘forming’ possible in the first place.” ( p. 129) Matherne takes up Cassirer’s distinction between a category’s quality – its basic logical impetus of ordering series – and its modality, the particular ‘content’ “indexed to ‘regions of culture’ a[s] context” that orders representations. (p.130) With regard to spirit, Cassirer draws  attention to ongoing discussions concerning the autonomy of the respective symbolic forms vis-à-vis the others (‘irreducibility thesis’) and whether their consecutiveness is to be conceived of teleologically as progress (‘teleology thesis’), although the latter question is answered affirmatively.

After the determination of the general functional context, Cassirer moves on towards the elaboration of the individual symbolic forms. The triad of expressive, presentative and significative symbolization as different functional modalities of representation provide the guidelines for this elaboration, relating the individual to respective realizations of her own freedom as spontaneity. Accordingly, religion and myth are relegated toward the expressive, language, history, and technology toward the presentative and mathematics, the natural sciences, morality and right toward the significative function of consciousness. (cf. p. 152) Philosophy entertains neither a position of a totalized god-like view of their overall cohesion nor does it count as one symbolic form among the others but figures as a toll to reflect on the symbolic forms. The specific functions and ‘worldviews’ of both myth and religion are presented in clear and minute detail before going over to art as the ‘objective’ demonstration of ‘subjective’ presentation – thereby “revealing to us that we are not passive with respect to our affects and emotions.” (p. 166) Objectification is reflected from the objective side of the dichotomy by the symbolic form of language, which, while still remaining bound to intuition and a substance-based view of categories, fosters the recognition of self-consciousness by the liberated understanding of reality it enables. It is interesting that Matherne specifically mentions that language and technology foster both practical and theoretical recognition of freedom and one wonders to what extent that can be said of the other symbolic forms. While this realization would be imaginable for myth, religion and the latter distinction between specific recognitions of this contention in morality and natural science, respectively, is left unaccounted for.

Both history and technology remain tied to the presentative functions of consciousness and spirit, the former by revealing reality’s distinctively human texture by means of the objective presentation of the past, the latter as the realization of the will’s striving for power toward the free configuration of the world. (cf. p.175f; p.178f.) Lastly, it is, on the side of theoretical reason, mathematics and natural science, that exemplify the significative functions of spirit. Following Cassirer’s views on the philosophy of mathematics, it is the fact that these symbolic forms are devoid of any relation to intuition or perception as to the yielded concepts and ‘things’ that elevates them towards the highest ranks of culture as most grasped realizations of transcendental freedom. It is precisely because these forms remain purely self-referential as expressions of freedom that “spirit truly discovers itself”. (Cassirer in Matherne, p. 184.)

The elaboration of the theoretical accomplishments of subjectivity is followed by their practical counterpart and the question over their position within the overall cohesion of the philosophy of symbolic forms. Recounting Cassirer’s refutation of emotive cognitivism in Axel Högerstrom Matherne insists on the employment of the transcendental method in the realms of morality and right. “ Cassirer endorses a critical approach [to practical philosophy] in which he analyzes morality and right in terms of ‘functions’ that serve as conditions of the possibility of the ‘facts’ of the ‘world of willing and action’. (p. 193, my amendments, N.S.) This deployment of the transcendental method is thereby connected to the demand of a regulative principle, the categorical imperative its claim to a universal, objectifiable moral principle. “Thus, a universal principle is one that enables us to most closely approximate the idea of ‘unity of willing’” thereby conferring objectivity on the ethical progress of consciousness via Sittlichkeit.(p. 194) Right, on the other hand, functions as a symbolic form in the overall context of Cassirer’s philosophy as self-binding to juridical lawfulness. Cassirer’s ‘philosophy of right’ posits a version of natural right that fosters the practical recognition of freedom by means of the postulation of and adherence to collective autonomy via laws. (cf. p. 214) Lastly, the teleological underpinnings of Cassirer’s progressivist understanding of theoretical and practical consciousness are posited as contingent. This is demonstrated in Cassirer’s analysis of National-Socialism in his The Myth of the State. Fascism re-introduced myth in modern consciousness via the symbolic form of technology and the ideas of hero worship, race and the dominance of the state. It is these late analyses that prompted Cassirer to also revise his conception of philosophy late in his career. Against the merely scholastic concept of philosophy, he brought forward its ‘cosmopolitan’ counterpart. Culture’s contingent accomplishments are not to be taken for granted but are to be achieved and upheld by means of struggle. To assign the task of this struggle had been the last innovation of Cassirerean philosophy.

The last chapter aims to reconstruct Cassirer’s influence on the development of not only philosophy but also (art) history, social science, ethnology, and Critical Theory. The presentation is focused on direct engagements with and influences of Cassirer on figures and movements. Accordingly, one learns about, for instance, the German philosopher’s influence on such diverse figures as Langer, Goodmann, Merleau-Ponty, Panofsky, Blumenberg, Habermas Cassirer’s possible inspiration to contemporary positions in the philosophy of science, such as logical structuralism and ontic scientific realism are addressed. (cf. p. 249f.)

It is puzzling, though, that, given the general narrative of Cassirer, an explicit contextualization of Cassirer within and relation to ‘philosophy of culture’ and its major movements and figures is lacking. This is even more relevant as, despite presenting the philosophy of symbolic forms as a philosophy of culture, Cassirer’s specific concept of culture remains unaccounted for. It appears that, following his Neo-Kantian heritage, the latter can only ever be the constructed empirical totality of culture at a given moment in history. Accordingly, one wonders whether the philosophy of symbolic forms is not prone to becoming ‘sociologized’: an investigation of the constituents and subsequent diversity of culture that would, by means of the quid iuris, be retied to an investigation of the correlative conception of subjective spirit. In the German context, this could be understood along the lines of Luhmann’s project of a ‘system theoretical’ approach to culture and society and its ‘autopoietic’, subjective sources.

Whether one concurs with Matherne’s way of framing Cassirer and his philosophy as being ‘organically’ culturally oriented or not, it is unquestionable that she is an informed and avid reader of the German philosopher. Via the transcendental method, Matherne is able to provide a coherent narrative of Cassirer’s philosophy. The book neatly ties the multi-faceted aspects of the oeuvre together in a rigorous and convincing manner and presents them in a remarkably cohesive way. Indeed, another title for it could have been: Cassirer: A Study on the Unity of his System. It is beyond doubt that the new reception of Cassirer has found a corresponding introduction to its subject.


Endres, Tobias/ Favuzzi, Pellegrino/ Klattenhoff, Timo. 2016. “Cassirer, globalized.” In Philosophie der Kultur- und Wissensformen. Ernst Cassirer neu lesen, edited by Endres, Tobias/ Favuzzi, Pellegrino/ Klattenhoff, Timo, Philosophie im Kontext von Gesellschaft und Wissenschaften, vol. 78, Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang Edition, 9 – 22.

Ferrari, Massimo. 1994. “La ≫Cassirer-Renaissance≪ in Europa“,  Studi Kantiani 7: 111–139.

Friedmann, Michael. 2000. A Parting of the Ways. Carnap, Cassirer, and Heidegger. Chicago/ La Salle, IL: Open Court.

Freyberg, Sascha, Niklas, Stefan. 2019. “Rekonstruktive Synthesis. Zur Methodik der Kulturphilosophie bei Ernst Cassirer und John Dewey.” In Ernst Cassirer in seinen systematischen Beziehungen. Zur kritisch-kommunikativen Bedeutung seiner Kulturphilosophie. Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie Sonderbände Vol. 40, edited by Breyer, Thiemo and Niklas, Stefan, 47-68, Berlin/ Boston: De Gruyter.

Graser, Andreas. 1994. Ernst Cassirer. München: Beck.

Gordon, Peter. 2010. Continental Divide. Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos. Cambridge, MA/ London: Harvard University Press.

Gordon, Peter. 2021. “Foreword.” In Cassirer, Ernst. The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Volume 3: Phenomenology of Cognition. Trans. by Steve G. Lofts. viii-xv. Oxon/ New York: Routledge.

Luft, Sebastian. 2021. “Cassirer’s Place in Today’s Philosophical Landscape. ‘Synthetic Philosophy,’ Transcendental Idealism, Cultural Pluralism.” In Interpreting Cassirer. Critical Essays, edited by Simon Truwant. Cambridge/ New York: Cambridge University Press, 214-236.

Luft, Sebastian/ Ferrari Massimo. 2021. “Cassirer’s Children”, Special Topics Issue, Journal of Transcendental Philosophy 2(1):1-5.

Paetzold, Heinz. 2002. Ernst Cassirer zur Einführung. Hamburg: Junius.

Recki, Birgit. 2004. Kultur als Praxis: eine Einführung in Ernst Cassirer’s Philosophie der symbolischen Formen. Berlin: Akademie Verlag.

Recki, Birgit. 2013. Cassirer. Stuttgart: Reclam.

Sandkühler, Hans Jörg and Detlev Pätzold (Ed.). 2003. Kultur und Symbol. Ein Handbuch zur Philosophie Ernst Cassirer. Stuttgart/ Weimar: Verlag J.B. Metzler.

Schwemmer, Oswald. 1997. Ernst Cassirer. Ein Philosoph der europäischen Moderne. Berlin: Akademie Verlag.

Sluga, Hans. 2011. “Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos.” Review of Continental Divide, by Peter Gordon. Accessed November 1, 2021.

Truwant, Simon. 2015. “The Concept of ‘Function’ in Cassirer’s Historical, Systematic, and Ethical Writings.“ In The Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer: A Novel Assessment, edited by  Friedman, J. Tyler and Luft, Sebastian, 289-312, Berlin: De Gruyter.

[1] See cf. Endres et al, “Cassirer, globalized”, in: Philosophie der Kultur – und Wissensformen. Ernst Cassirer neu lesen. Endres/ Favuzzi/ Klattenhoff (Eds.), pp. 9 -22. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang Edition, 2016, for an overview of recent research conducted on Cassirer.

[2] Where in text citations refer to page numbers only the addressed book is Matherne, Cassirer. Routledge, 2021.

[3] For cf. Schwemmer 1997, it is precisely the case that Cassirer’s philosophy of culture is always already a philosophical anthropology  – “because that which defines the human being – spirit – consists in the configuration and usage of cultural symbolisms. (Ibid., p. 3145, my translation, N.S.)

Hanne Jacobs (Ed.): The Husserlian Mind

The Husserlian Mind Book Cover The Husserlian Mind
Routledge Philosophical Minds
Hanne Jacobs (Ed.)
Hardback GBP £190.00

Reviewed by: Mitchell Atkinson III (IFiS PAN)



I am not aware of any recent collection of pieces by Husserl scholars that includes so many of the most important names in the field. Hanne Jacobs has demonstrated an astonishing prowess at organizing not only the material within the text but also in choosing and arranging contributors for this compilation. The book has, in its substance, aspirations to be the definitive introduction to Husserl—and by implication to phenomenological philosophy—in the English language. As philosophers and good critical readers, we must assess these aspirations in light of the works we already have while attempting to bring Husserl to a wider readership within and outside of the academy.

Perhaps it’s appropriate to examine for a moment the question why one makes such a fuss over Husserl in the first place. There has been a line of discussion in phenomenology, and several “post”-phenomenological disciplines, that makes of Husserl a sort of spastic Cartesian, chastised by Frege for psychologism, flailing ineffectually between an outdated dualism, an outdated essentialism, and a metaphysics he dare not name. This sort of dismissal can be found among so-called analytic as well as continental philosophers, although the level and volubility of the attack tends to differ between the schools. Strong phenomenologists have published doubts of central Husserlian notions, including essence and the epoche. Others have attempted to refine or expand Husserl’s work into new domains of human experience. Still others have attempted to use parts of the phenomenological method to deepen work in adjacent disciplines, most notably the social sciences, psychology, and cognitive science. But the question of Husserl’s value remains, nonetheless. We can ask ourselves, as Adorno’s imagined interlocutor says of Hegel, “Why should I be interested in this?”[1] Are there not many other philosophers, many other more contemporary dealers in concepts whose work will bring me closer to the intellectual promised land? The question is related intimately with the question why one does philosophy to begin with. The money’s no good and hardly anyone reads it. If J.K. Rowling or Stephen King wrote a text on transcendental epistemology, would anyone care to read it? Philosophers, as a group, have given weak answers to the question of the utility of philosophy. Socrates, in line 38a of Plato’s apology, famously says the unexamined life is not worth living. Wittgenstein seems to have thought sometimes that philosophy isn’t good for much at all. Philosophers like Schopenhauer see in philosophy the path to a kind of resignation to the dreariness of life. The existentialists give us angst and its attendant pleasures.  And what of Husserl? How would he answer this question? And might we, if we tease out a possible answer for him, not see something penetrating about what it is that Husserl has to offer us today?

One of the problems with trying to catch hold of Husserl’s motivations for doing his philosophy—and by extension what he thought philosophy could do—is that Husserl wrote so much that had implications for so many disciplines. One need only glance at the list of works in Husserliana to get a sense of the dizzying and perhaps dismaying depth of Husserl’s Nachlass. What this means in practice is that one must always interpret Husserl with a certain air of humility. It is always possible that a new page, maniacally scribbled over in his modified shorthand, will be discovered, and one’s prize interpretation will be sent to pot. This difficulty has been noted before, and it haunts all scholars who choose to tangle with prolific thinkers. There is always the threat of another level or dimension in the work which one has not quite reached, an aspect of the work which, having remained obscure to you for years, comes into focus just in time to obliterate the paper you’re currently writing. If our Husserl presents himself as such a bottomless pit of philosophical insight, perhaps the power of philosophy was for him also bottomless. In which case, the answer to the question, what for Husserl, can philosophy do? would be exceedingly simple: everything.

Now, invocations of “everything” are not so common in good philosophy without adequate justification, and we certainly have not yet provided it. Further, if we take a step back and examine our aims in this little review, we will find a much more satisfying route toward the answer that we seek. It is not an undifferentiated omnipotence that Husserl saw in philosophy. What is more differentiated than the work of Edmund Husserl? Rather it is a multifarious form of experiential description, questioning, analysis and elaboration—according to a sharply defined method—that he sees in philosophy. The value of the activity and method we’ll say ever-so-few words about at the end of this text.

In the meantime, it would be nice to get straight about what it is philosophy can do by Husserl’s lights. It so happens the book currently being reviewed is beautifully structured to do just that. Jacobs’ collection is divided into seven parts: (1) Major works, (2) Phenomenological method, (3) Phenomenology of consciousness, (4) Epistemology, (5) Ethics and social and political philosophy, (6) Philosophy of science, (7) Metaphysics. A naive interpretation of the structure of the book would be that Husserl’s thought fits comprehensively within these categories. To the extent that it does, we can say the book captures the Husserlian mind, thereby living up to its title. Where such a set of categories misses Husserl, where he slips away, may mark territory where this collection refuses to follow him.

Major Texts

The book appropriately opens with an overview of Husserl’s major texts. Pierre-Jean Renaudie writes on the Logical Investigations, Nicolas de Warren on Ideas I, Sara Heinämaa on the Cartesian Meditations, Mirja Hartimo on Formal and Transcendental Logic, and Dermot Moran on The Crisis. We can see the logic in this selection of texts. We begin with Husserl’s first mature philosophical book and end with his last one. We have the lynchpin of the transcendental turn in Ideas I. Sara Heinämaa writes persuasively on Husserl’s egology in the Cartesian Meditations, as well as helping us to contextualize the extent to which Husserl can be called a Cartesian. Heinämaa writes, “Husserl presents Descartes’ doubt as a great methodological innovation which provided the possibility of reforming all philosophy. However, he immediately points out Descartes made a series of fundamental mistakes that blocked the entry to the transcendental field that radicalized doubt laid open” (p. 41). Heinämaa shows that Husserl is a Cartesian in a rather qualified sense, in the sense of having received a limited inspiration in the theme of Cartesian skepticism. The themes in Descartes that are most commonly attacked, most notably a rather untenable mind-body dualism, are not at all operant features of Husserl’s mature philosophy. Nicolas de Warren, in his contribution, tells us something illuminating of Husserl’s approach to doing philosophy. The title of his piece, “If I am to call myself a philosopher,” refers to a line from a 1906 writing in which Husserl, characteristically, sets himself a task in order to gain philosophy as such. While de Warren’s contribution is eminently useful as an elucidation of difficult phenomenological concepts like noesis and noema, the natural and naturalistic attitudes, and many others, perhaps the greatest insight it provides is given in this short quotation. Still in 1906, Husserl was writing things like “If I am to be…” He had not, on some level, settled into an image of himself. Or perhaps better, he was still challenging himself to develop in order to match the philosophical aspirations he held so dear.

When setting out a philosopher as prolific as Husserl’s “major works,” there will necessarily be some difficult omissions. Here, one might like to see a chapter on either the Analysis Concerning Passive and Active Synthesis or Experience and Judgment. In that way, with one or both represented, the importance of the theme of genesis, the technique of genetic phenomenology all told, would receive a fuller exposition. No text as comprehensive as this one can possibly avoid the genetic theme altogether, but it would be helpful to see one of the major genetic texts included with the ”major works.”

Phenomenological Method

The second part of this book is, to my mind, the most important for young philosophers. The method of phenomenology must always be front and center because phenomenology is something philosophers do; it is not a list of conclusions other philosophers have already reached. Those who focus on and reiterate the method as Husserl’s major discovery enact a tradition of phenomenology that allows it to be a living, dynamic branch of philosophical practice as opposed to a stodgy cul-de-sac of philosophical history. In this collection, we have Dominique Pradelle discussing transcendental idealism, Andrea Staiti on the transcendental and the eidetic in Ideas I, Rochus Sowa on eidetic description, Jacob Rump on reduction and reflection, Jagna Brudzińska on the genetic turn, and Steven Crowell on Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology. Pradelle’s text is absolutely essential for unlocking the association between Kant and Husserl, and the ways in which Husserl suffers under the Kantian influence. An under-appreciation of the nuances in both thinkers might tempt us to characterize the phenomenological reduction as merely a restatement of Kant’s Copernican revolution. Such a reading would see the Kantian transcendental and the Husserlian transcendental as one and the same; their differences, as philosophers, would be relegated to style and method. Pradelle writes that for Husserl, “Kant discovers the region of pure consciousness or subjectivity, which is not intra-worldly but supra-worldly, which is not objective but constitutes all objectivity, and which is not inserted in the spatio-temporality or causality of the world but is fundamentally different from any worldly entity” (77). But for Husserl, as a central feature of his philosophy, the Kantian thing in itself is inimical to consciousness, a strange exteriority to conscious life that can’t, in the end, have anything whatsoever to do with a philosophy grounded in the transcendental as a method as well as a theme.

Rochus Sowa and Andrea Staiti together help us to clarify the eidetic method as we see it in Husserl. Sowa takes us from Husserl’s insistence that descriptions are facts, due to the factual nature of experience, to an analysis of Husserl’s descriptive eidetic laws which Husserl needs to motivate a view of phenomenology as general enough to undergird other forms of human enquiry. Key to this generality of application is the distinction between empirical concepts and pure descriptive concepts, the latter of which apply to possible or ”thinkable” objects and states of affairs irrespective of their empirical instantiation. Sowa also helps us to see that in eidetic work, the examples brought before the mind, whether objects in the world as experienced or possibilities in phantasy, are not the theme of the analysis; the examples are there to help guide us to an essential relation or an eidetic law. It is against such precise considerations that we can read Andrea Staiti’s contribution on the relation between eidetics and the transcendental. Staiti points to a tendency in the literature to treat the suspension of the being of the world as an instant path to essential description, as if all one had to do was dunk one’s head in the transcendental waters to see the colorful essential fish. This idea is sharply incongruous with Husserl’s work ethic, with his almost superhuman drive to add, distinguish, complexify. At the same time, those who acknowledge the need for eidetic work can draw too sharp a distinction between the transcendental and the eidetic, the implication being that we can pick one or the other to motivate our phenomenology. Staiti concludes that the eidetic and transcendental are “inextricably linked’ (96). Although this may sound obvious, it has implications. Perhaps most importantly, it places rigorous limitations on the degree to which phenomenologists are doing phenomenology when they engage in interdisciplinary work. On Staiti’s view, phenomenologists may have much to say about case-specific, empirically oriented studies in the human sciences but their properly phenomenological contributions will be bound by the transcendental and characterized by the eidetic.

Jagna Brudzinska gives us a penetrating overview of Husserl’s turn to a genetic phenomenology, a development in his thinking that is increasingly seen as crucial for understanding his later works. Brudzinska points out that even today many phenomenologists view the eidetic method as purely static. If phenomenology is meant to be anything like a theory of subjectivity, however, a static methodology is bound to be inadequate. The experience of the subject is dynamic, flowing, changing in our awareness of time’s passage. Brudzinska gives us a quick historical overview, making the claim that the importance of the genetic theme was there for Husserl as far back as the Logical Investigations. From there, Brudzinska develops the expansion of the field of inquiry that the genetic method achieves. She says, “In this context, it becomes possible to take into account not only present and immediately intuitive experiences. In addition to consciousness of the past we also gain the possibility to consider alien and future consciousnesses.” (132). Phenomenology needs this breadth of enquiry if it is to become the philosophy of subjectivity, for experiencing subjects are constituted and constituting in time.

Steven Crowell’s contribution is in many ways a commentary on the other pieces in the methodology section. His aim is to further clarify Husserl’s phenomenology by examining his notion of the transcendental and distinguishing it from Kant’s.

Phenomenology of Consciousness

Although the papers on method are some of the most important in this collection for young philosophers, part three, on consciousness, will no doubt be of interest to many seasoned Husserl researchers. Christopher Erhard introduces us to Husserlian intentionality by exploring three questions, why intentionality matters philosophically, what intentionality is, and finally what the lasting impact of intentionality is. He develops, through a reading motivated by a tight logical style, a view of Husserl’s idealism that shows its fundamental differences from both Kant and Berkeley. Maxime Doyan works through the normative turn in intentionality, citing a normative theme in Husserl’s studies of intentionality that is seldom observed. Doyan identifies the most important norms for this discussion as identity and recognition, identifying them with noema and noesis respectively. This allows a discussion of illusion and hallucination to unfold alongside a Husserlian rejection of the conjunctivist/disjunctivist distinction. Doyan here sides with Zahavi and Staiti, claiming that from the Husserlian view the question whether perceptions, illusions and hallucinations are the same kind of experience hardly makes sense at all.

Lanei Rodemeyer’s work on inner time consciousness is required reading for anyone attempting to understand Husserl and his place in the literature today. In her contribution here, she provides an overview of Husserl’s phenomenology of internal time consciousness, displaying as ever her unique pedagogical powers. She reiterates Husserl’s claim that the phenomenology of time is the most difficult of philosophical topics. Indeed, getting the phenomenology of time in a digestible package is difficult for various reasons. Husserl changed his mind concerning the structure of inner time consciousness in at least one major way and his ideas on time are scattered throughout his works. Rodemeyer treats us to a general introduction to the problem in Husserl, discusses the place of content in inner time consciousness and describes levels of constitution in Husserl. There are few practitioners in contemporary phenomenology as helpful in introducing the reader to Husserl’s work on temporalization.

Chad Kidd, in his contribution, seeks to rescue the theme of judgment from philosophical obscurity. His approach outlines Husserl’s theory of judgment while avoiding a reiteration of the commonplace debates concerning psychologism. Roberto Walton provides us with an excellently researched elaboration of Husserl’s work on language as a ground of the common world. Among the piece’s many useful contents, it stresses the distinction between Wittgenstein’s insistence on language as a “proto-phenomenon” and Husserl’s understanding of prelinguistic modes of consciousness that “condition the general structure of predicative statements” (255). Walton’s work sets the stage beautifully for Phillip Walshes’s text on other minds. Walsh is keenly aware that one of the most common charges against phenomenology is that of solipsism, or even more—Cartesian methodological solipsism. Walsh notes that the problem of intersubjectivity, of the constitution of the other in consciousness, is a fundamental phenomenological problem to which Husserl returned again and again. Zahavi’s chapter on three types of ego is the last in the section on consciousness. Because of Zahavi’s extraordinary precision as a scholar and reader of Husserl, his papers on changes to phenomenology, false starts and complete reversals, are incredibly valuable. Here, he unveils the steps Husserl took from an almost absolute disinterest in the ego concept to placing it so prominently in later works like the Cartesian Meditations. The chapter has extraordinary pedagogical value, not least because Zahavi synthesizes Husserl’s complex egology into the three phases given in the title while at the same time going painstakingly over the important details in the body of the text.


Clinton Tolley’s is the first paper on epistemology in Husserl. Here, he helps us understand Husserl’s project as a clarifying of cognition. This task is placed in a Kantian shadow that Husserl labored in throughout his career. Many of his pages were filled with responses to neo-Kantians like Natorp, Cohen, and Rickert. The chapter helps bring into focus the extent to which Kant’s preoccupation with (human) reason is taken up by Husserl. Walter Hopp begins his work with a nod to the challenge posed by the philosophical zombie. He develops an argument whereby we come to see the notion of unconscious intentionality as absurd on its face. Philipp Berghofer’s seeks to establish the sources of knowledge available in phenomenological work. He provides a typology of knowlege that includes types of object, experience, givenness and evidence. Using these categories, we can better understand the range of knowledges available to philosophical discussion. In John Drummond’s contribution, Husserl’s concept of objectivity is explored. Here, we begin by rejecting any reliance on either subjectivism or objectivism. If these categories, as naive theoretical types, are cast aside, the question of what it is to be an object for consciousness remains. Drummond motivates his discussion with what he calls putative and intersubjective objectivity. Hanne Jacobs, the editor of the volume, makes her contribution by discussing Husserl on epistemic agency. Jacobs uses a reading of Husserl to challenge deflationary accounts of epistemic agency, accounts that would minimize the role of our active participation in the formation of beliefs. Husserl’s emphasis on the centrality of attention in our holding of any proposition to be true as epistemic agents. Jacobs takes the reading of Husserl to the realm of personal responsibility, arguing that, for Husserl, one can be responsible not only for positively held beliefs but also for what one does not believe, doesn’t know, or doesn’t want to know.

Ethics, Social, and Political Philosophy

The fifth division of the book collects chapters on ethics, social and political philosophy. One might fault this section for being a kind of grab bag of “social” topics, but in reading the chapters here, one sees how they are inter-related as levels of exploration of the intersubjective theme in Husserl’s phenomenology. Inga Romer imagines Husserl’s history of ethics as a battlefield, pitting reason and feeling against one another. Romer’s text is a deep resource for understanding the works in philosophical history that informed Husserl’s development as an ethical thinker. The chapter also lays bare a tension in Husserl’s sometimes stated aims with respect to formal and material axiology and praxis as a science of ethics and the view of ethics toward which his late phenomenology pulled him. Mariano Crespo situates Husserl’s ethics among his contemporaries, including Lipps, Pfänder and Geiger. In the discussion, Crespo uncovers insights related to live issues in phenomenology, including especially the need for a phenomenology of the will. Sonja Rinofner-Kreidl writes about evaluative experience in prose whose grace is a relief after many turgid lines. Rinofner-Kreidl reminds us that Husserl does not hold that evaluative experiences infringe upon our rationality. The axiology Husserl develops is nonetheless complex, involving top-down formal axiology and formal praxis with bottom-up descriptions of associated experiences. We are even given an analysis of Husserl’s Kaizo articles and a discussion of the complex late ethics, culminating in a teleological view that grants us a universalism, as it were, from within. Sophie Loidolt writes on the fragility of the personal project. Loidolt moves from Husserl’s claim in Ideas II that motivation is the “basic law that governs the life of the person” (393) to a discussion of various topics guiding the debate on personhood and practical agency in Husserlian phenomenology. We end up with the claim that the person for Husserl is not defined as an achieved unity; the person is rather a fragile potential unity, ever missing its ultimate aim. Indeed, Loidolt ends with the rumination that it may only be through the support of others that our fragile projects of personhood can be maintained. Sean Petranovich takes us through Husserl’s work on social groups, exploring Husserl’s mereological work to draw attention to Husserl’s relevance to contemporary discussions regarding mereology and the social. The final chapter in this section of the book is by Esteban Marín-Ávila, discussing Husserl’s conception of philosophy as a rigorous science and its influence on his axiology and ethics. Marín-Ávila tackles the problem of Eurocentrism in Husserl with candor, refusing to dismiss it as an idle charge yet at the same time insisting that a Husserlian ethics, as elaborated in works like the Crisis, have much to say to non-European peoples. Husserl’s unfortunate writings on the impossibility of European peoples “Indianizing” themselves are referenced here, as well as his apparent belief that the achievements of Europe were such as to motivate a kind of rationally motivated mimicry in all other peoples of the world. Marín-Ávila ends with an affirmation of transcendental phenomenology that sees it as an already critical discipline capable of leading us toward a philosophy that matters.

Philosophy of Science

The sixth division of the text takes up Husserl’s work on the philosophy of science. We begin the division with Marco Cavallaro’s text which attempts to outline Husserl’s theory of science and posits a distinction between pure and transcendental phenomenology. Cavallaro sees ”pure” phenomenology as related to the project of a theory of science and transcendental phenomenology as related to ultimate epistemic foundations. Cavallaro is quick to point out this distinction is not made explicitly by Husserl. Jeff Yoshimi is the first in this collection to focus on the deepening field of phenomenological psychology. In this chapter we encounter Husserl’s main contemporary psychological influences (Wundt, Stumpf, Brentano, Dilthey). Yoshimi wants to link phenomenological psychology with transcendental phenomenology, phenomenological with empirical psychology and finally phenomenological psychology with philosophy of mind. One might misconstrue this as an effort to naturalize phenomenology, but it seems Yosimi is after a much more Husserlian move—establishing a transcendental dimension in the philosophies of mind and cognitive science. David Carr’s contribution looks to history as a science and its relation to phenomenology. This piece has pedagogical value as a general introduction to philosophy of history as well as an example of good Husserl scholarship. Carr helps us to see history as a study of the natural attitude in temporal development. Carr’s important Husserlian claim is that in the Crisis phenomenology takes on a decidedly historical character, for it is here that Husserl makes of philosophy as such a human endeavor with a history. The proper description for the historical a priori is something, Carr reminds us, Husserl struggled with until the very end. We are once again in full view of Husserl as a philosopher forever unsatisfied and unwilling to yield to his own limitations. The final contribution on the philosophy of science is Harald Wiltsche’s text on physics. Wiltsche quickly contextualizes the early twentieth century as a time of great upheaval in the sciences, noting above all others the arrival of relativity theory and quantum theory as fundamental disruptions to the way we view the world. He associates these shifts with changes in dominant philosophical discourses. Wiltsche shows that while Husserl himself may have demonstrated limited interest in the cutting edge physics of his day, in the person of a one-time student, Hermann Weyl, Husserlian ideas found their way into the scientific mainstream. Wiltsche also, rightly, points out that the discursive divide between analytic and continental philosophy is still far too robust today, despite our best efforts to pretend its dissolution a thing already achieved.


The final division of the text is devoted to metaphysics. We may find the inclusion of these chapters strange because, as Daniele De Santis points out, Husserl’s relationship to metaphysical philosophy is all-too-often taken for granted. If for no other reasons (and of course there are other reasons) the chapter is useful in that it contributes to the literature refuting the charge that Husserl is a naive metaphysician of presence. De Santis is a systematic thinker whose penetrating Husserl scholarship attempts to make the development of the metaphysical in Husserl something clear and useful for scholars. Claudio Majolino takes on the Herculean task of mapping Husserl’s ontology. The difficulty, as Majolino points out, is that Husserl is so vast and many of his works have ontological elements and implications. Majolino’s work here—using Burnyeat and Aristotle to seek out contours of Husserl’s ontology—is too original for a few lines in a review such as this. The chapter is worth serious study. Timo Miettinen’s contribution begins with a general introduction to the theme of teleology, moving quickly to a detailed exposition of the place of teleology in Husserl’s phenomenology. Miettinen notes the importance of genetic method in exploring the development of experiential structures demonstrating immanent teleological character. This means that early static analyses of teleology were not sufficient given the temporal requirements of goal-directed experience. Miettinen also, here, deepens our understanding of Husserl’s alleged Eurocentrism, responding to an accusation by Derrida that, Miettinen shows, relies on a crucial misreading. One unresolved question in the chapter is whether and how all of Husserl’s teleological descriptions can be subsumed under transcendental phenomenology. The final chapter of the final section of the book is Emiliano Trizio’s paper on teleology and theology. Trizio, more than any other scholar in this compilation, is concerned with Husserl’s investigations of the nature of God and what they can do to deepen our phenomenological understanding. For Trizio, God is a necessary theme of phenomenology. Trizio shows how theology fits within Husserl’s overall phenomenology. And, finally, Trizio develops a non-objectivist reading of Husserl’s most theological passages.

Concluding Remarks

Having commented on these contributions, we are left dizzied by the depth and variety of Husserlian concern. Beginning this review, we confronted two basic questions. The first, Why Husserl?, asks us to assess Husserl as a thinker today. The second, What for Husserl can philosophy do?, is a refinement and extension of the first. What perhaps a collection like The Husserlian Mind gives us is the scope to determine, for ourselves, the answers to these questions. At the very least, we have within these pages the first lengths of many different paths one might take through the mind of Edmund Husserl and accordingly through philosophy as such. In so doing, we can discover for ourselves the value of great minds and the philosophies they make.


Adorno, Theodor W. 1993. Hegel: Three Studies. Translated by Shierry Weber Nicholsen. MIT Press.

Husserl, Edmund. 2001. Analyses Concerning Passive and Active Synthesis: Lectures on Transcendental Logic. Translated by Anthony J. Steinbock. Kluwer Academic Publishers.

———. 1970. The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy. Translated by David Carr. Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press.

———. 1973. Experience and Judgment. Translated by James Spencer Churchill and Karl Ameriks. Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press.

[1] Adorno (1993: 109).

Stefano Marino, Andrea Schembari (Eds.): Pearl Jam and Philosophy

Pearl Jam and Philosophy Book Cover Pearl Jam and Philosophy
Stefano Marino, Andrea Schembari (Eds.)
Bloomsbury Publishing
Hardback $108.00

Reviewed by: Kurt Borg (University of Malta), Raylene Abdilla (University of Malta)

In their introduction to this volume, co-editors Stefano Marino and Andrea Schembari reveal how the idea for this book project was born at a 2017 Pearl Jam concert in Firenze while they were waiting for the band to kick off their gig. They emphasise how music, particularly rock music in this case, has the power to change and even save a life, echoing Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder’s remarks on how he is a living proof of this. Recalling their youth in Sicily, the co-editors note how the bands they followed afforded them “great passion, thrill, euphoria, exaltation, excitement, and enthusiasm” (3). As scholars and fans, the co-editors argue that there is a case to be made for considering Pearl Jam in the growing literature of pop culture and philosophy. Marino and Schembari point out that, rather than a philosophical system of Pearl Jam, what they attempted to point towards through this book was how Pearl Jam’s songs and career entail notions and themes that have troubled philosophers for centuries.These include themes of a particularly phenomenological nature such as the notions of experience, temporality, death, the human condition, significance and the meaning of life, authenticity and identity. Other, more broadly philosophical themes covered in this book also include the critique of mass society and the culture industry embodied by Pearl Jam, as well as resistance to conformist pressures. In their introduction, the editors present some pointers to Pearl Jam’s philosophy or, rather, their ethos: namely, their fight against censorship and oppression, their endorsement of democratic and progressive values, their attempt to be part of the culture industry without being swallowed by it, and their commitment to ecology, gender issues and human rights. The different chapters attempt different ‘gestures’. Some chapters engage with the ethos of Pearl Jam, what they stood for, their development over time as a band and the power of their music; while others conduct more specific ‘readings’ of particular songs or albums. Other chapters draw on Pearl Jam to reflect more broadly on political aesthetics, subcultural authenticity and postmodern fashion, while other authors attempt a more literary engagements with an aspect of Pearl Jam’s music.

The book opens with a foreword by Theodore Gracyk, himself the author of various books on the aesthetics of rock music. Gracyk connects Pearl Jam with ‘rockism’, which is a term that gained prominence in music commentary in the late 1980s. Rockism, as Gracyk explains, is the adoption of a core set of values associated with rock bands, such as refusal to define greatness in terms of commercial success, or an expression of progressive values by rock musicians and their audience, or recognising the value of music to unify, and, importantly, the use of guitars. By these criteria, Pearl Jam qualify as rockist. Gracyk recognises that rockism can also entail a lot of snobbery, sexism and whiteness. Hence, while Pearl Jam can be seen to be exponents of a kind of rockism especially in their early work, they are also a dynamic band that motivate us to go beyond the reductive understandings of rockism. So, if Pearl Jam supposedly moved away from ‘rockist’ tenets by obtaining commercial success, their ‘rockist’ ethos was seen in the way they challenged Ticketmaster for over-charging their fans. Pearl Jam defy easy categorisations. They embody contradictions, dynamism and fluidity; this is arguably what makes them a good band to ‘philosophise’ with.

In Chapter 1, “Contingency, (In)significance, and the All-Encompassing Trip: Pearl Jam and the Question of the Meaning of Life,” Marino takes his cue from Vedder’s lyrics questioning whether we are ‘getting something out of this all-encompassing trip.’ He connects this with Karl Jasper’s notion of ‘the encompassing,’ that is, reality in its richness and fullness. Marino reads Pearl Jam’s questioning of modernist narratives of progress and evolution through various twentieth century philosophers such as Walter Benjamin, Horkheimer, Adorno and Gadamer. In Pearl Jam, Marino identifies a preoccupation with the act of questioning itself, showing that, in their songs, Pearl Jam often refer to the insurmountable questions and the insufficiency of answers. Marino links this with Wittgenstein’s therapeutic understanding of philosophical questioning as being akin to trying to treat an illness, that is, to overcome the torment of excessive philosophical doubt. Similarly, in Pearl Jam, we encounter conflicting views on the role of philosophising in human life: on one hand, Pearl Jam point toward the questioning nature of mankind while at the same time highlight the eventual futility, if not harm, of excessive questioning which can come at the expense of life or experience. Marino points to the numerous questions asked in Pearl Jam’s lyrics – questions of what is real, what is truth, what is human, who are we? – yet ultimately the lesson he finds in Pearl Jam is that some questions remain open precisely because they are meant to remain open. Marino then turns to the notion of temporality, claiming that the western philosophical tradition (particularly in the modern age) has tended to place primacy on the temporal mode of the future. To show this, Marino foregrounds a section from Being and Time in which Heidegger identifies the futurality associated with being-towards-death, whereby anticipation is tied to Dasein’s authentic being. Marino notes that, through songs such as ‘Present Tense’, Pearl Jam challenge this privileging of the future at the expense of the present. Meaning is found not in omnipotence, but in finitude, contingency, imperfection and ephemerality. Instead of surrendering oneself to a defeatist attitude in the face of insignificance, Pearl Jam call for action, fueled also by anger against oppression. With apologies to Gramsci, Marino refers to how Pearl Jam’s intellectual pessimism is coupled with critical optimism of the will. Marino’s extensive essay ends with a reading of Pearl Jam’s ethos in light of Mark Fisher’s comments on Kurt Cobain. In Capitalist Realism, Fisher claims that alternative and independent music had become absorbed by the mainstream, recuperating its subversive potential by transforming it into a commodified lifestyle. For Marino, Pearl Jam recognise this tension and learn to dwell in the ‘in-between’ while surviving in a world of contradictions.

In Chapter 2, “‘Just Like Innocence”: Pearl Jam and the (Re)Discovery of Hope,” Sam Morris draws parallels between Pearl Jam and British Romanticism, arguing that the relationship between the two is not always a smooth and complementary one, not least because romanticism is not easily defined. The early material of Pearl Jam – for example, the Mamasan traumatic trilogy of ‘Alive’, ‘Once’ and ‘Footsteps’ – portrays a difficult relationship between the self and others, which Morris reads alongside some moments from Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads that depict guilt, the inadequacy of society, and innocence as childlike wonder. Yet Morris also notes that in some of their early songs (such as ‘Rearviewmirror’) there is already a hint of a transition from childhood to adulthood, akin to the transition from innocence to experience described by Blake. There are also traces of hope, Morris writes, in songs such as ‘Leash’ and ‘Not for You’, echoing lines from Blake and Wordsworth about the joys of youth and the innocence of nature. Morris argues that No Code represents a turning point for the band, which also represents some divergences from the Romantic tradition. He reads Pearl Jam’s expression of longing for a lost past innocence as not completely in line with Wordsworth and Blake’s critique of the temptation of nostalgia, even if they too acknowledge that the feeling of childhood wonder fades as one grows. However, Morris argues that if the romantic poets placed their hope in embracing mature experience, Pearl Jam seem to go on a search for a lost innocence in No Code. Morris reads Pearl Jam’s engagement with feelings of anxiety and fear of death as attempts to overcome them so as to not forget the wonder of experience. This attempt to sustain hope in appreciating the beauty in the world is read by Morris as re-connecting Pearl Jam with the British Romantic tradition, even if they diverge from the romantic journey that leads from innocence to experience. The romantic impulse in Pearl Jam is read by Morris in their exhortation of listeners to turn inward for hope and a future-looking utopian energy to be ultimately turned outward to transform the world.

In Chapter 3, “Who’s the Elderly Band Behind the Counter in a Small Town?” Radu Uszkai and Mihail-Valentin Cernea reflect on the metaphysics of the transtemporal identity of a rock band. They ask questions on whether changes in band name, group composition or music style alter a band’s identity. Referring to John Searle’s notion, the authors point out that the existence of a band belongs to the realm of ‘institutional facts’, that is, bands can survive severe changes while still being recognized as the same thing, in the same way that a government would still exist despite a change in leadership. The authors draw on conceptual tools such as Robert Nozick’s ‘closest continuer’ theory and Saul Kripke’s notion of ‘rigid designator’ to discuss how metaphysical questions surrounding the transtemporal identity of rock bands can be approached. Uszkai and Cernea argue that the name of a band does not seem to be essential for the identity of a band over time, as otherwise the band Mookie Blaylock – the name under which Pearl Jam played their very first gigs – would not be the same band as Pearl Jam. With lineup changes, perhaps the question complicates itself further, as Pearl Jam had several changes in their drummers and have also been joined by guest musicians such as Boom Gaspar in their live shows. The authors discuss questions such as what happens in the case of a fission of a rock band into two bands, and both claim continuity with the original band. The authors also engage with what changes in music style do to a band’s identity. While some ‘die-hard’ fans may feel that a band is no longer that band if it deviates from its ‘original sound’, the authors argue that it is quite hard to argue that a band loses its metaphysical identity due to such aesthetic transformations. The authors conclude by indicating that the cultural recognition of bands is a crucial component of appropriately designating whether a band is the same band or not.

In Chapter 4, “Making a Choice When There is No ‘Better Man’,” Laura M. Bernhardt foregrounds the theme of compromised agency as it is presented in Pearl Jam’s song, ‘Better Man’. Bernhardt engages with the song’s portrayal of a female narrator anguishing about leaving an abusive relationship but ultimately opting not to. She reads this alongside the band’s own struggles with the pressures of commodification at the time when the song was released. Bernhardt analyses such compromised agency through the work of Carisa Showden on how compromised agents, such as victims of abuse, are required to choose from a selection of bad possibilities under circumstances that are not quite of their choosing. The author highlights the complexity of such situations because it is not a matter of the victim not knowing that the situation is not in her interest, but rather that her freedom is constrained in such a way that her autonomy is compromised. The author calls for an outlook to this issue that moves beyond denying the victim’s agency as well as implying that the victim is somehow complicit in her situation. One way out of this conundrum, Bernhardt suggests, is by looking at Simone Weil’s notion of affliction. For Weil, an afflicted person is someone abandoned to misery or isolation, and someone who is reduced to an object by powerful forces, such as a factor labourer working under oppressive and dehumanising conditions. The afflicted person, Bernhardt notes, would resign herself to unhappiness and feel undeserving of salvation from the wickedness to which she is subjugated. For this reason, apart from systemic and material solutions to improve her agency, the author argues that something more is also needed, namely, radical empathy. The author concludes by proposing that recognition of another person as afflicted may help us to better understand the complexity and ambiguity involved in situations involving compromised agency when people stay in situations where they would not necessarily want to remain, such as the character described in ‘Better Man’.

Chapter 5, “That’s Where We’re Living: Determinism and Free Will in ‘Unthought Known’,” by Enrico Terrone revolves around philosophical themes from FlashForward. This is a 2009-2010 sci-fi television series that engages with the question of what remains of human free will in circumstances where the future seems to be determined and the characters have had ‘flashforwards’ that showed them the outcome of their future. The Pearl Jam connection is that an edited version of their song “Unthought Known” is used in a scene from one of the episodes of this series. Terrone reminds us that the notion of ‘unthought known’ originated in Freud, and was later developed further by psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas. This concept describes how “one can know things about which one is unable to think” (97). Terrone notes that ample metaphysicians argue that science encourages a conception of the universe as strictly governed by natural laws. This view problematises free will as an epiphenomenon which we are unable to do away with simply because it is such a deep-rooted feeling which gives coherence to emotional responses and moral judgements that regulate societies. Various movies and fiction have engaged with the theme of free will and determinism, in which characters are given powers of clairvoyance. Yet, as Terrone argues, some of these artistic attempts are riddled with an obvious inconsistency, namely that although the characters become aware of the future, somehow they manage to contradict what they would have foreseen, which is, of course, untenable with the original clairvoyant ‘visions’. Such a move is often done in the spirit of critiquing the deterministic outlook by insisting on a sort of ‘humanistic’ sentiment that privileges free will over a cold deterministic universe. With regard to the Pearl Jam song and its use in the TV series, “Unthought Known” reflects on the human condition, finitude, the role of the human within the immensity of the cosmos, and ultimately the beauty of the richness of human experience. The author concludes by arguing that the way in which the song is deployed in the context of the narrative points towards the difficulties surrounding a notion of free will, but that its stakes within our practical thought may be too high to let go of it.

In chapter 6, “No Code Aesthetics,” Alberto L. Siani engages with Pearl Jam’s fourth album, No Code, noting that the heterogeneity that marks this album makes for interesting philosophical reflection, not least on the role of ‘codes’ and their rejection in art. The author reads the aesthetics of this album in terms of the ‘end of art thesis,’ which holds that the traditional conception of art as an expressive medium that transmits metaphysical and ethico-political content no longer exists. Siani maintains that this ‘end of art’ is not necessarily something to be decried, because it has emancipatory aspects that allow for veering away from traditional systems of values and embraces plurality. No Code complements this thesis insofar as it represents a rejection of various codes, including a break from the code of their preceding three albums. In a point that is also explored in other chapters, Siani reflects on whether this rejection of codes ultimately becomes a code in itself, that is, the code of rejecting codes, which would lead to a contradiction. However, Siani notes that “we should keep in mind that No Code is an artwork, not a logical investigation” (116). This is a welcome clarification; rather than excessive and intricate philosophical argumentation, Pearl Jam are embracing this unsolvable existential tension, and in this regard they represent the ‘madness’ of the decision, and the leap of affirming life in the face of uncertainty. For Siani, this is perhaps what ‘no code aesthetics’ stands for, that is, the aesthetics of heterogeneity and disharmony which may prompt the listener to a more reflective experience of the music.

Chapter 7, “Can Truth Be Found in the Wild?” by Paolo Stellino focuses on the story of Christopher McCandless, which was made into a movie in 2007 with a soundtrack by Eddie Vedder. In his early 20s McCandless set off wandering around North America until he hitchhiked his way to Alaska to live in the wild. His decomposing body was found around four months after he entered the wild, with the cause of death being probably starvation or poisoning due to ingesting seeds that contained a toxin. Various critics claim that the story of McCandless is often romanticized, ideologized and commodified, with sympathetic commentators insufficiently calling out his naivety and arrogance. Stellino remarks that Vedder’s lyrics too can be seen as contributing to this idealization of McCandless. However, while acknowledging these critiques, Stellino highlights that the appeal of this story does not lie in the specific details of McCandless’ life but rather in its universal significance. Interestingly, Stellino also draws on insights from William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience to analyse McCandless’ story, particularly his notion of ‘the sick soul’. Stellino argues that McCandless was a ‘sick soul’ who suffered from the artificiality of consumer society, and thus opted to radically transform his life by seeking an asceticism through which he felt reborn. Drawing on Erich Fromm, Stellino writes that this transition marks McCandless’ preference for the authentic ‘being’ mode of existence, as opposed to the accumulative ‘having’ mode. The profound insight that McCandless seems to have had at the end of his spiritual search for truth is that authentic existence is relational; it requires the presence of others and is not a solitary mission. Hence, ‘happiness is only real when shared’, McCandless writes on the pages of the last book he was reading. This is why, Stellino concludes, although one may disagree with the specifics of McCandless’ diagnosis of society or with his decision to flee into the wild, what still remains admirable is the courage and honesty of the human pursuit of authentic existence. This is ultimately what Vedder gave voice to in the Into the Wild soundtrack, which highlights continuities with some of Pearl Jam’s lyrics.

Chapter 8’s title, “‘They Can Buy, But Can’t Put On My Clothes’: Pearl Jam, Grunge and Subcultural Authenticity in a Postmodern Fashion Climate” by Stephanie Kramer, makes reference to a verse from Pearl Jam’s song ‘Corduroy’. Kramer notes how the song was inspired from a corduroy jacket Vedder wore numerous times during his shows, including in their MTV Unplugged, and was remade by the fashion industry. According to Kramer, the song’s lyrics reflected the “band’s refusal to sell out as a grunge posterchild in the name of corporate greed” (158), with the jacket serving as a literal and metaphorical act of resistance. Kramer links the lyrics of this song with a ‘grunge’ fashion trend that picked up in 1992 where plaid flannel shirts, flamboyant hats, and other cheap and conventional clothing items that came to be associated with grunge were turned into fashionable icons and sold at higher prices. Kramer draws on the work of media theorist Dick Hebdige to note that although subculture fashion, like punk fashion, highlighted individuality, non-conformity, and resistance to mainstream social norms, with time these subversive trends become absorbed by the mass fashion industry and thus lost their subversive edge. According to Kramer, Pearl Jam refused to partake in the dynamic of fashion altogether and managed to resist artistic commodification itself. Pearl Jam always chose a convenient style of clothing comprising of t-shirts, shorts, boots or tennis shoes, with Ament wearing his flamboyant headdresses, and Vedder wearing plain t-shirts on which he could scribble political messages. Kramer argues that Pearl Jam did not give much weight to their outfits to the extent that the possible machismo associated with basketball jerseys and other sports symbols were in opposition to the feminist and political messages embedded in the band’s ethos and lyrics. The band members, ultimately, were after producing music and not becoming glorified symbols for imitation.

In Chapter 9, “Pearl Jam’s Ghosts: The Ethical Claim Made From the Exiled Space(s) of Homelessness and War – An Aesthetic Response-Ability,” Jacqueline Moulton considers Pearl Jam’s references to homelessness and war in their music and actions. She refers to the band’s 2018 gig in Seattle which they branded ‘The Home Shows’ since the band had not played in Seattle for some years. In fact, the juxtaposed theme of home/homelessness was central to this show as Pearl Jam raised money, awareness and knowledge on the homelessness crisis playing out at the time in Seattle. The author elaborates on what ‘home’ signifies in ethical terms, that is, “the ethical question of contemporary dwelling, the question of who is at home and who is not, of who is living exiled” (165). Referring to how the word ethos in ancient Greek signified both dwelling and mode of being, Moulton explores the ethical implications of being at home versus ‘not at-home’. She argues that this dichotomy unveils “the ideology of inside versus outside” (166). For this reason, those on the outside pose an ethical question to those on the inside, and for Moulton, the concept of home is always haunted by its constitutive outside – “the sense of being not at-home” (167). This unsettling and displacing feeling of foreignness and familiarity, for Moulton, is best grasped through Freud’s notion of the uncanny which brings this juxtaposed duality of homeness and foreignness into the realm of the aesthetic. According to Moulton, during ‘The Home Shows’, Pearl Jam conjured the audience to respond ethically and aesthetically to the ethical claim made from those who are ‘exiled’. The aesthetic displaces the hegemonic elements that structure language and helps to invert the antagonistic dichotomy between inside and outside. Indeed, Moulton follows Adorno’s assertion that ethics emerges from the outside. Moulton notes how Pearl Jam’s songs ‘Yellow Ledbetter’ and ‘Bu$hleaguer’ – embedded with references of war – echo the sense of ‘the uncanny’ as a haunting from within, “a fear that comes up from within, a fear which is familiar and therefore impactful, fear which is close” (169). For Moulton, this form of haunting cuts across the realms of ethics and aesthetics, and poses a new question of what the ethical claims and responses can be and how to translate them into “communal and equitable structures of living interdependently upon a shared world” (169).

Cristina Parapar’s contribution in Chapter 10, titled “Pearl Jam: Responsible Music or the Tragedy of Culture?” evaluates Pearl Jam’s ethos as a form of popular music. Parapar notes how Adorno distinguishes between responsible music and light music, arguing that light music is standardized, contributes to one-dimensional thinking and, unlike responsible music, plays into a capitalist system that seeks to alienate and passively entertain its consumers. Parapar challenges Adorno’s understanding of popular music through French philosopher and music Agnès Gayraud’s work, arguing that Adorno seems to ignore the fact that popular music denotes a broad variety of genres that can merge different traditions, scales, modulations, and influences from both high and low culture. Following from this defense of pop music, Parapar argues that Pearl Jam’s music can at least on occasion speak to its listeners about their own situation in the same way Adorno speaks of dissonance. Following Terry Eagleton’s take on left aesthetics, Parapar argues that a piece of art is in itself subversive because it refuses identification and reveals the impossibility of the union between “form and content, between language and meaning, and between the artistic form and empirical reality” (190). Pearl Jam’s music, according to Parapar, serves this purpose. The ‘dirty’ sounds of grunge, with its partially out of tune music together with its form-content, reflect the Zeitgeist of disillusionment with American society in the 1990s. Parapar argues that while some pop music fits within Adorno’s critique, other types of music contain the potential for critique. Following Gert Keunen’s typology of pop mainstream, underground, and alternative mainstream, Parapar argues that Pearl Jam’s music lies within the third category. This is because while they speak to a wider audience through mass distribution they still maintained “the authorship of their pieces, the less familiar sound of grunge, and the rejection of musical recipes” (197). Correspondingly, Parapar argues that Pearl Jam’s music requires a certain kind of listening. Pearl Jam listeners are, in a sense, negotiators, “negotiating between intellectualism and catharsis, between adequate and structural listening and enjoyment (jouissance)” (199). Thus, for Parapar, Pearl Jam’s listener can be best described as the ‘postmodern listener’, that is, a listener who enjoys the pleasure offered by the music, but at the same time is aware of the way in which the music reveals the ideological fantasy and its symptom. Ultimately, Parapar concludes that Pearl Jam’s music is both responsible and authentic.

In Chapter 11, “Pearl Jam/Nirvana: A Dialectical Vortex that Revolves Around the Void,” Alessandro Alfieri discusses the dialectic opposition of Pearl Jam and Nirvana. Alfieri argues that, as opposed to the music scene of the 1980s such as glam rock, grunge represented a turn to a sober, existential and introverted music scene that expressed the void experienced by a whole generation. He notes that, paradoxically, this wave of existential dread came at a time of expansion of well-being as discourses around mental health expanded in the 1990s. According to Alfieri, Nirvana was one of the few bands that reflected this existential dissatisfaction with their “message of pain and death” (207), in comparison to that of, for example, Madonna and Michael Jackson. Although both Nirvana and Pearl Jam originate from this sense of existential crisis, the bands have long been seen as rivals. Alfieri notes how on many occasions Kurt Cobain was critical of Pearl Jam, although once he admitted that he actually liked Eddie Vedder and came to appreciate him more. Alfieri argues that Pearl Jam fall on the side of the vitalistic dynamic rock of the 1990s and 2000s, whereas Nirvana was more nihilistic, self-destructive, visceral and transgressive. Alfieri notes how the two bands are caught up in a dialectical vortex. Cobain’s aesthetic made Nirvana attractive to mass media even though their ethos was linked to the rejection to success and social prestige. Cobain himself was caught up in this unsolvable contradiction of detesting success while at the same time basking in it and becoming paranoid when it recedes. Pearl Jam turned to mass distribution, but were more reserved in front of the cameras, with Vedder turning down many interviews. Alfieri also argues that Pearl Jam had a more mature stance, with their music reflecting more intellectual and political awareness. For Alfieri, Pearl Jam manage to negotiate the melancholic existential dread of our time through a ‘nostalgia for the present’ set between “anhedonic nihilism and vitalism” (214) where rage, dissent and a dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs are expressed alongside the life-affirming pleasure that the experience of their music provides.

In the concluding Chapter 12, “The Tide on the Shell: Pearl Jam and the Aquatic Allegories of Existence,” Andrea Schembari notes how in their music Pearl Jam express the experience of living through aquatic allegories and metaphors, such as navigation, the ocean and the river. Schembari illuminates these dimensions through the work of other thinkers who, like Pearl Jam, recognized how these dimensions can express the condition of life. Schembari argues that the work of Pearl Jam often reflects an understanding of being as if one is navigating a ship out at sea. He reads this alongside the work of Blaise Pascal who maintains that to live one must always face the opposition between taking the plunge ‘into the sea’ and the inclination toward stability. However, stability and safety are never guaranteed, as depicted in the band’s song ‘Force of Nature’ and as expressed through the Roman poet Lucretius. The songs ‘Oceans’ and ‘Release’ reflect water as a form of energy that directs one to a desired goal, where nothing remains static or unmoving, whereas ‘Big Wave’ speaks of human adaptation – ‘surfing the waves’ – to whatever life brings. As Pascal’s wager reveals, one cannot avoid making choices, and this inevitability to make choices is outlined in the band’s song ‘Infallible’ which, according to Schembari, denounces “the arrogance and distortions of an economic progress disjointed from a true social and cultural progress” (226-7). The band also explores aquatic metaphors of love keeping swimmers afloat reflected in ‘Amongst the Waves’. From allegories of the condition of living to allegories of time, Schembari takes us through instances where Pearl Jam refer to the passage of time as “phenomenological time” and a “time of consciousness” (230) as outlined by Husserl and Heidegger respectively. These allegories of time become more apparent in Pearl Jam’s later albums, particularly their 2020 Gigaton but also in earlier songs like ‘I am Mine’. Finally, Schembari also engages with Pearl Jam’s aquatic metaphors on the meaning of life, such as like murmuring and hollow shells washed ashore, which he reads alongside reflections by Paul Valéry and Italo Calvino.

All in all, Marino and Schembari have completed an interesting curation of high-quality essays that capture the diversity of affects and themes in Pearl Jam songs, as well as their engagement, oftentimes critical, with the culture industry. The title of this project may, at first glance, raise an eyebrow (if not an eyeroll), for example, of those for whom ‘low culture’ is no place to look for serious theorising; or of those who perhaps due to an anti-intellectualist stance perceive such a project as unnecessary intellectual posturing. But this book strikes a good balance in this regard. In no way does it pretend that an appreciation of such chapters is necessary in order for one to understand the true depths of Pearl Jam. Yet, on the other hand, the authors appreciate that the band that originated in 1990 in Seattle during the golden days of grunge is one of those bands that lend themselves to theoretical engagement. Ultimately, the chapters that compose this book are written by scholars who are also fans. It is not incidental that some of the authors make references to the role, big or small, that Pearl Jam has played in their personal lives. In this positive way that this book seems like it was a labour of love.

This is a book for fans: the reader must have great familiarity with Pearl Jam’s music, as well as the band’s history, actions and position within rock history. Do some of the chapters engage in over-reading? Maybe. And if a listener knows what it is like to feel undone by ‘Black’, or to feel goosebumps during ‘Alive’, or to go crazy with ‘Porch’, then perhaps they may not need this book to tell them what they are feeling. But, nonetheless, the chapters that constitute this book will be appreciated by philosophically-inclined fans of the band who, for years, have lived with the band’s music, or perhaps have even witnessed the deep experience that is a Pearl Jam concert; have experienced the wild exhilaration that the band provides. In other words, if you get it, then you get it. Not unlike a lot of philosophy, ultimately, Pearl Jam can be seen to embody a fundamental question: what does it mean to be alive?

Frank Schalow: Heidegger’s Ecological Turn

Heidegger’s Ecological Turn: Community and Practice for Future Generations Book Cover Heidegger’s Ecological Turn: Community and Practice for Future Generations
Routledge Studies in Twentieth-Century Philosophy
Frank Schalow
Hardback GBP £120.00

Reviewed by: Davide Pilotto (Sorbonne Université – Università del Salento)

The aim of Frank Schalow’s book is to offer a valid alternative to all those political readings of Martin Heidegger that, from Farías (1989) to Faye (2009), from Trawny-Mitchell (2017) to Di Cesare (2018), focus their analysis on the relationship of the author of Sein und Zeit to Nazism or, more recently, on the disruptive impact of the Black Notebooks on Heidegger’s Denkweg. “Yes, Heidegger was a Nazi, not a very important Nazi, just an ordinary one, a provincial petit-bourgeois Nazi”, wrote Alain Badiou, adding however that, “Yes, Heidegger is unquestionably one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century” (Badiou-Cassin, 2014: 14). Schalow’s work thus seems to adhere to such a thesis, explicitly aiming to open up a new path of thought that attempts to draw on Heideggerian conceptual tools without necessarily running into the outcomes mentioned above. The author’s aim, made clear since the preface, is in fact to “elicit new pathways of thinking that begin to reappear from the shadows of the most poignant criticisms,” using Heideggerian writings “as harboring untapped possibilities for future interpretation” (Schalow, 2022: IX).

Schalow is aware of how his work – and perhaps this is one of its merits – goes against the current with respect to his contemporaries. In a framework in which “most of the scholarly terrain is overgrown with numerous books, which proceed from the same premise of condemnation and foreclose other attempts to re-open what remains ‘unthought’” (Schalow, 2022: 10), he tries in full awareness to open the way to a different operation. Going against the tide of the “vitriolic climate” (Schalow, 2022: 1) in which current Heideggerian studies move, the question, a direct consequence of Badiou’s remark just mentioned, is therefore the following: “How do we stand towards Heidegger’s thinking?” (Schalow, 2022: 1). Can Heideggerian thought still have something to give us? The answer, for the author, is positive: “We cannot preclude the possibility of appropriating Heidegger’s texts in a positive way, in order to elicit insights that withdraw within the subterranean recesses of what is ‘unsaid’ and ‘unthought’” (Schalow, 2022: 6-7).

A necessary consequence of this perspective is the awareness that Schalow’s work proposes itself as an original interpretation of Heideggerian work, explicitly taking on what is “an unconventional way to ‘read’ Heidegger” (Schalow 2022: 7). Drawing on multiple places in his Denkweg, in a theoretical operation that denotes an excellent command of the author, his complexity and his traditional periodizations, Schalow establishes, over the course of five chapters, a reinterpretation of how Heideggerian work can provide the conceptual tools for the development of a new, non-anthropocentric ethics that, by leveraging the notions of dwelling and stewardship, gives rise to a new conception of the political that can cope with the current environmental crisis. Defining the question of the political as “the open-ended question of the origin of law, to its enactment as a measure rooted in the ethos (of dwelling) and the re-inscribing of a language to address the elements of the polis according to formally indicative concepts which underscore our capacity to be free (e.g., by ‘letting-be’), albeit as finite human beings” (Schalow, 2022: X), the author, analyzing Heidegger’s work, wonders whether this does not offer the theoretical tools necessary to answer the following question: “Is it possible to create a space for the polis, which through our capacity to dwell (on the earth) engenders openness outside the dominant paradigm of technocratic rule?” (Schalow, 2022: 2). Beginning with some insights we find in Heidegger’s Letter on “Humanism”, we read that “thinking builds upon the house of Being, the house in which the jointure of Being, in its destinal unfolding, enjoins the essence of the human being to dwell in the truth of Being”, and that, for this reason, “this dwelling is the essence of ‘being-in-the-world’” (Heidegger, 1998: 272). Schalow intends to follow up on Heideggerian statements such as the thesis that “nómos is not only law but more originally the assignment contained in the dispensation of Being”, and consequently “only the assignment is capable of dispatching man into Being”, in the conviction that “more essential than instituting rules is that human beings find the way to their abode in the truth of Being” (Heidegger, 1998: 274). If Heidegger writes that “one day we will, by thinking the essence of Being in a way appropriate to its matter, more readily be able to think what ‘house’ and ‘dwelling’ are” (Heidegger, 1998; 272), Schalow intends to pursue this suggestion. On this bases, he illustrates how “the development of a community must be forged at the juncture between the human and the non-human” (Schalow, 2022: XI), giving rise to a socio-biotic community such as to respond positively to the challenge to which we are called by today’s environmental crisis. The intent, very concrete, is to outline the tracks of “a new nexus of political engagement”, to allow that “the fissure of Heidegger’s thinking (of being) opens the ‘other’ side of praxis” (Schalow, 2022: XIII). The purpose of Schalow’s work thus goes in a pragmatic direction, towards the delineation of a praxis that results in the necessary redefinition of our relationship with the world – in other words, “are we to continue using and exploiting the earth only as a resource, or are we to safeguard the earth as a place of dwelling?” (Schalow, 2022: 5).

It is clearly a matter, as already remarked, of taking Heidegger beyond his limits. It is evident, first of all, as Schalow himself acknowledges, that “his [Heidegger’s] understanding of the political remains limited” (Schalow, 2022: XII), just as it is trivially obvious that “Heidegger did not address specifically ‘climate change’, the ‘greenhouse effect’, ‘global warming’, and the ruptures in the ecosystem from which the virus (or other pathogens) of pandemics may arise” (Schalow, 2022: XII). The intent, however, is precisely to focus on das Ungedachte, on the unthought of Heideggerian thought, thus amplifying some elements that, starting from the aforementioned passages of the Letter on “Humanism”, allow Schalow to argue that, “put simply, in the overturning and subversion of anthropocentricism, we see the beginnings of what we today would call an ‘ecological turn’” (Schalow, 2022: XII).

The first chapter (Seeking New Guidelines for Interpretation, pp. 12-39) serves as a necessary methodological premise to justify the reappropriation of Martin Heidegger’s thought for the purposes previously indicated. Deepening the dialogue with Kant around which the 1928 course entitled Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics is centered, Schalow, moving from the metontology that here arises, outlines a “new topography” from which to question the political without slipping into that “‘monological reductionism’ that falsely equates his philosophy with Nazi ideology” (Schalow, 2022: 13-14). Heidegger, through “his ‘destruction’ of Kant” (Schalow, 2022: 21), arrives at “unraveling the presuppositions on which the metaphysical tradition rests”, presuppositions that, “beginning with the static conception of being as permanent presence, lay the sediments of tradition, which erects rigid metaphysical dichotomies”, thus laying the foundations for “the attempt to undo each of these metaphysical dualisms” (Schalow, 2022: 18). The Kantian dichotomy between freedom and nature, in particular, is subverted by Heidegger through our connection to the earth, with the author of Sein und Zeit explicitly writing that “the problem of freedom arises from and as the problem of world” (Heidegger, 2002: 145), allowing Schalow to express the crux of the matter by arguing that “Heidegger relocates the origin of freedom in Dasein’s way of belonging to and reciprocal responsiveness to being” (Schalow, 2022: 24). What emerges is our role, an affinity with the ecological framework in the guise of “earthbound creatures”, as Schalow points out, referring to Hannah Arendt (Arendt, 1992: 27). Cartesian dualism is overturned through the reference to our belonging to the earth, in turn made possible by the changed conceptual framework within which, instead of the dichotomy between subject and object, Heidegger replaces the notion of Dasein with its in-der-Welt-sein. Human freedom comes then to make its own deeper roots, anchoring itself directly in Being and in its relationship with Being and giving rise to the centrality of the notion of ‘responsiveness’, which Schalow defines as “the fostering of a reciprocal relationship with what is radically other, as conferred by being, rather than as a power discharged by an exclusively human capability such as the will” (Schalow, 2022: 29), from which it follows that “this act of reciprocating, then, defines the first and foremost overture or primarily gesture of freedom” (Schalow, 2022: 30). It is evident where Heidegger, in Schalow’s reading, is going to aim when it comes to the ethical and practical side: “Human freedom now no longer means freedom as a property of man, but man as a possibility of freedom” (Heidegger, 2002: 94).

The second chapter (A New Leaping-Off Place for Ethical Inquiry, pp. 40-66) develops the peculiar proprietorial relation to Being that emerges from the belonging of Dasein to Being mentioned above. In the light of that overcoming of anthropocentrism inherent in the Kehre, which, as mentioned, Schalow interprets as “the vestiges of an ecological turn (if only in retrospect he may be considered a proto-ecologist)” (Schalow, 2022: 41), the author of the text wonders what role is now concretely due to the ‘subject’ of his discourse, answering with reference to the notions of stewardship or guardianship as diriment models to outline the practical guidelines of living. As we have seen, for Heidegger, in spite of Kantian ethics and its opposition between freedom and nature, it happens that “the presencing of nature reserves to animals their own potential for flourishing”, and that “it is the source of that flourishing, or what is ownmost or endemic to it, which turns the pendulum of his ethical inquiry in an ecological direction, namely, the allocation of a habitat (requisite for the livelihood of any animal)”. Switching to a Heideggerian lexicon, this means that, “ontologically speaking, the earth provides the grounding for any such habitats, and, indeed, in connection with our capacity for dwelling” (Schalow, 2022: 44). It is as a consequence of such dwelling that a more original ethics, which Schalow calls the “ethos of situated dwelling” (Schalow, 2022: 43) can finally develop and which the author addresses in relation to the possibility of a socio-biotic community and with reference to future generations. The mirroring of ethics and politics is the consequence of all this. In this sense, “the political must be addressed anew through the development of that site – in connection with the unconcealment of being – through which Dasein’s capacity to dwell first becomes apparent, namely, the ethos” (Schalow, 2022: 51). In this sense, “to do so is to allow the possibility of the ethos of dwelling to inform the political, rather than vice versa” (Schalow, 2022: 51). Through his analysis of the notion of measure and of the difference of readings of history between Heidegger and Marx, Schalow answers the question related to “how to rediscover the origin of praxis outside the self-contained sphere of human identity, […] that is, a form of pure (self-)presence” (Schalow, 2022: 59) through the proprietorial relation between being and man, with stewardship assuming the role of “the highest level of formality that is emblematic of specific instances for exercising care over beings, i.e., in our comportments in being-in-the-world” (Schalow, 2022: 60). The thesis proposed is therefore that of dwelling as a fundamental notion to justify our role on earth and consequently the political implication that derives from it. For Schalow, in short, “dwelling has the key perquisite for the enactment of any governance of the polis” (Schalow, 2022: 64), consistent with the Heideggerian statement that “mortals dwell in that they save the earth” (Heidegger, 1971a: 148). The determination of the new role of the politician can only pass through this constitutive bond of ours with the earth.

The third chapter (The Global Stage of Politics and the Return to the Earth, pp. 67-84) considers “the assimilation of the political to the ends of techno-capitalism”, which “unleashes the forces of machination on a global state, assimilating all human activities to the cycle of production and consumption” (Schalow, 2022: 67), showing how an appeal to Heidegger allows one to disengage from such a reading of the political. Through a comparison with the Heideggerian overcoming of the Marxist vision of history, Schalow comes to argue that “the phenomenological maxim ‘back to the things itself’ reverberates anew as a call to a ‘return to the earth’”, thus outlining “an eco-phenomenology, or alternatively, a phenomenology that speaks of a ‘return to the earth’”, which stands as “a form of attunement, an environmental ‘listening’ to nature and its diverse habitats” (Schalow, 2022: 68).

The fourth chapter (Temporality, Freedom, and Place, pp. 85-132) focuses on two crucial themes. On the one hand, the “deconstruction of modern politics as legitimizing the anthropocentric ends of domination, exploitation”, and, on the other, “the emergence of a trans-human perspective of freedom as a countermeasure to the assimilation of the political to the gestalt of machination” (Schalow, 2022: 86), both of which are necessary in view of the ecological turn mentioned above. As a consequence of Dasein’s peculiar relationship with freedom, already outlined in the first chapter, there is a shift of the axis of the political in a non-anthropocentric direction, in which governance must be built on the observation of our constitutive being-with-others. Schalow therefore identifies “three corollaries that comprise the ‘pillars of the polis,’ namely, the elements for its construction on a trans-human axis of dwelling” (Schalow, 2022: 87): the reciprocity of freedom (pp. 100-109), the people of future generations (pp. 109-118) and the epochal character of a measure (pp. 118-129). It is clear, however, that if “the polis brings to fruition, as a distinctive historical act, the challenge posed to man to fulfill the mandate of belonging to being and thereby build a political realm that is anchored in humanity’s capacity to dwell” (Schalow, 2022: 92), the reconfiguration of the political can only start from an analysis of this notion, central to delineating the dwelling and consequently a trans-human community. The thesis advanced is that leaving the technocratic rules prevailing today, the authentic notion of polis finds a new reconfiguration: “Being is not to be determined via the authoritarian rule of the polis”, but, on the contrary, it now means that “to re-establish the polis is to seek its origin in compliance with a new ‘measure’, which can counterbalance human and animal interests, the claim of future generations and the task of safeguarding the earth” (Schalow, 2022: 129). In this way, therefore, the polis manages to be anchored to human dwelling.

The fifth chapter (The Turn Toward Stewardship. Is a Socio-Biotic Community Possible?, pp. 133-184) extends what emerged in the previous chapter to a collective dimension, namely the possibility of belonging to a socio-biotic community, since “the stewardship by which we inhabit the earth calls into question the priorities of any (world-) citizenship, such that the development of a community (das Gemeinwesen) through the grounding of a site must be forged at the juncture between the human and the non-human” (Schalow, 2022: 134). With reference also to topical elements, such as the Covid-19 pandemic (p. 137) or the racial divisions in the U.S. (p. 147-150), Schalow focuses on that “further social-political dimension as the flipside to the responsiveness, the responsibility, by which mortals become answerable to or heed the voice of being” (Schalow, 2022: 137), a necessary consequence of that “counter resonance of the earth, nature, and animal life” (Schalow, 2022: 138) that has emerged since the first chapter. Schalow argues that “environmental practice is intrinsic to dwelling […] not as a value, but rather as an extension of freedom as ‘letting-be’” (Schalow, 2022: 150). What emerges is the thesis that “the task assigned to us through our dwelling” is to be “tenants of the earth” (Schalow, 2022: 161). Rewriting Protagoras’ famous statement for which “man is the measure of all things” (Plato, 1973: 17), the author argues that, “when divested of his anthropocentric focus, and thereby embracing his/her transience, ‘man’ become the ‘measure’ again”. It is enough not to lose sight of the fact that “Dasein is simultaneously ‘measured-by’ the proprietorship of ‘belonging to’ and thereby can ‘set the measure’ for any compliance and possible governance” (Schalow, 2022: 162) in that “poetic dwelling” that echoes Heidegger’s reading of Hölderlin (Heidegger, 1971b: 209-227). The notion of measure, recurring in several places in Schalow’s text and fundamental “to offset or counter the one-sidedness of human interests” (Schalow, 2022: 169), is essential to the conclusion reached by the author: “The socio-biotic community provides a setting in which human beings can ‘think globally, act locally’ (through their enactment of building, dwelling, thinking)”, with the proprietorship of dwelling that “restores limits, by granting space non-human dimensions of the earth to thrive and flourish” (Schalow, 2022: 166).

The call for a trans-human egalitarianism that flows from Heidegger’s overcoming of anthropocentrism is also the crux of the work’s conclusion, with Schalow arguing how, in light of the creation of that socio-biotic community that flows from our dwelling on earth, “a new kind of equality becomes possible as mortals protect the habitats of the diverse creatures that ‘co-habit’ the earth with us” (Schalow, 2022: 178). Once again, it is the notions of stewardship and dwelling that redefine our peculiar role on this planet: “The ‘to be’ of mortals as ‘tenants of the earth’ deepens the meaning of the ‘who’ of human beings as ‘world-citizens’” (Schalow, 2022: 178). The way of belonging to the earth that is proper to Dasein leads the author to think of a “new ‘egalitarianism’” with the role of “formal indicator of how we can characterize practices that prioritize environmental concerns over against the anthropocentric focus of modernity” (Schalow, 2022: 178). Thus, only in this way “a concern for the welfare of the earth and nature, humans and animals, can spark a conversation about the future of our historical sojourn and the fate of those generations still to come” (Schalow, 2022: 179). Through the five chapters of which the text is composed, we understand how the theses stated in the preface and introduction – above all, “the political must be housed in the eco-logical, that is, in the ‘eco’ or residence of dwelling” (Schalow, 2022: 3) – are confirmed through a careful reading of Heidegger’s work.

The overall result of Frank Schalow’s work can only be valued in a positive way. In an age in which Martin Heidegger’s thought seems to be more and more the exclusive prerogative of a type of literature aimed at illustrating his complicity with Nazism, this book certainly stands out for the original and proactive use that can still be made today of the complex Denkweg of the author of Sein und Zeit. Obviously, some questions remain open. In the first place, one could raise doubts about the legitimacy of basing, from a theoretical and methodological point of view, the guidelines of such a project on ontological justifications advanced by someone who, like Heidegger, is moved by theoretical interests apparently unrelated to similar intentions – in short, one might ask, “why refer to Heidegger?”. Similarly, as far as the moral side is concerned, we could question the opportunity, repeatedly highlighted by today’s detractors of his work, to make a figure such as Martin Heidegger, whose compromise with the Nazi regime went far beyond the convenience of the facade and career of many of his contemporaries, the ‘tutelary deity’ of an ethical project. On the other hand, however, Schalow makes no secret of his aim to propose an interpretation that from the beginning is subordinate to practical purposes; a rereading that intends to “reap tangible results” and “not to become merely an “academic’ exercise” (Schalow, 2022: 8). From this point of view, Heidegger’s Ecological Turn can be seen as a perfectly successful attempt.


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