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

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

Reviewed by: Matthew Clemons (Stony Brook University)

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

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

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

Conrad-Martius as Naturphilosophin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Realontologie at a Glance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concluding Remarks

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

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

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

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


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

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

Reviewed by: Matteo Pastorino (Deakin University)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The conclusion of this chapter is:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The epilogue lists the achievements of Freud:

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

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

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

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

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

Cézanne, Klee, Kandinsky: Zur Phänomenologie der Kunst des Sehens Book Cover Cézanne, Klee, Kandinsky: Zur Phänomenologie der Kunst des Sehens
Klaus Kienzler
Karl Alber
Paperback 49,00 €

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Images are Motion (Paul Klee)

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

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

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

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

A Brief Introduction to Phenomenology

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

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

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

Iconic — Phenomenology of Seeing

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

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

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

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

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

Iconic Difference

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

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

Plato — Allegory of the Cave

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

Paul Cézanne

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Klee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas Book Cover The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas
Robert Zaretsky
University of Chicago Press
Cloth $20.00

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gregory S. Moss: Hegel’s Foundation Free Metaphysics

Hegel’s Foundation Free Metaphysics: The Logic of Singularity Book Cover Hegel’s Foundation Free Metaphysics: The Logic of Singularity
Routledge Studies in Nineteenth-Century Philosophy
Gregory S. Moss
Hardback £120.00

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Philosophy’s Paradoxical Stance Toward Singularity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Thinking the Absolute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four Open Problems

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

4a. What Kind of Metaphysics?

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

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

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

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

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

4b. What Kind of Singularity?

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

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

4c. Syllogism

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

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

4d. Contradiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Conclusion

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

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

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

Hartmut Rosa: The Uncontrollability of the World

The Uncontrollability of the World Book Cover The Uncontrollability of the World
Hartmut Rosa. James Wagner (Translator)
Paperback €18.10

Reviewed by: Rein Raud

This slim volume provides the Anglophone reader with a perfect introduction to Hartmut Rosa’s thought. Written in a lucid and engaging style, it summarizes much of what Rosa has been arguing at more length in his previous work, notably Social Acceleration (2013) and Resonance (2019), but also for those already familiar with it, he also adds a few new nuances.

Rosa’s point of departure is a precise and merciless diagnosis of the current state of affairs, or late modernity, which, according to him, compounds four strivings or attitudes (15-17): first, to make everything knowable and to map it, second, to make it reachable or accessible, third, to make it manageable, and finally, to put it to good use. These four strivings correspond to science, technology, economy and politics respectively: science provides the knowledge, technology the access, economy tackles the causal handles of the process and politics subjugates the entire domain to administrative procedures that are supposed to ensure that all that happens serves some articulated goals. This, Rosa says, has defined our relationship with the world as an ongoing mutual aggression, with all our daily actions atomized into goal-oriented miniprojects oriented towards certain goals and reduced to checkboxes on an ever-growing to-do list (6-7). Importantly, the endpoint of such activities is not a definable state of satisfaction, but merely “dynamic stability” (9), in which constant growth, acceleration and innovation are needed merely to maintain the status quo, and “what generates this will to escalation is not the promise of improvement in our quality of life, but the unbridled threat that we will lose what we have already attained” (ibid.). As a result, we perceive ourselves as embedded in a hostile reality, a world that threatens us and needs to be contained, countered, subdued, controlled, or else it will do this to us. But we will not prevail. In chapter 3 of the book, Rosa traces a common thread through the works of Marx, Weber, Simmel and Durkheim and onwards to Arendt, Camus and Beckett, deploring the effects of the loss of a meaningful relation with the world on the mind and a person as a whole. (One could easily add more names, beginning with Heidegger, on this list.)

One of the main contributions of Rosa’s work to contemporary debate is an original elaboration of how such a meaningful relation to the world could be described — his theory of “resonance”. “The basic mode of vibrant human existence consists not in exerting control over things but in resonating with them, making them respond to us—thus experiencing self-efficacy—and responding to them in turn,” he says (31, italics in the original). Resonance, as he defines it, has four basic characteristics (32-38): it results from something described as a “call” or “appeal”, a feeling of being affected by a thing or an aspect of the world; this needs to be followed by a response, a movement within us; we need to feel transformed by the encounter, this movement; we need to accept that this resonance is not something we can control, plan, or produce, or even predict what kind of transformation it will bring about in us. Therefore, for example, planning a “perfect evening” or 100% quality time will not necessarily result in the desired outcome, combined, as it often is, with stress about whether everything is going according to the plan — and even if nothing unpredictable has intervened, there is much less joy in the flawless execution of a plan than there might be in the jazz of circumstances and unexpected, yet pleasurable turns and twists along the way.

Next, Rosa proceeds to investigate the balance between our striving to control and our ability to resonate with the world, because, as he admits, “we are able to resonate with other people or things only when they are in a way “semicontrollable,” when they move between complete controllability and total uncontrollability” (40) — in other words, what is deplored is not any need to feel confident about things, but an excessive desire to control things in which things themselves are forgotten, their meaningfulness erased. What is therefore needed is a balance between control and uncontrollability. He presents five theses on the topic (41-59), evoking “a relation of dynamic openness” (52) as the precondition of “semicontrollability”, or reaching out to things without trying to subjugate them or incorporate them completely in one’s own schemes: the basic mistake of modernity, he says, is the confusion of reachability and controllability resulting in an effort to always convert the former into the latter (57).

The next two chapters test the theory by mapping it onto practical realities: chapter 6 is dedicated to what Rosa calls the six stages of life (birth, education, career-planning,  adulthood, aging and death), chapter 7 to institutional realities such as the optimization drive, bureaucracy, quantified accountability, legalistic procedures and so on, showing in all cases how the striving for excessive control may result in overregulation and the complete opposite of the goals initially proclaimed by the ideologues of control (common happiness, justice, responsibility and so on). The last two chapters are essays on the topics of how resonance relates to desire and on how excessive control produces more, not less uncontrollability into the lifeworlds of people in the late modern world.

All in all, this compact book provides a sound, insightful and sharp socio-philosophical theory that connects very well with the daily experience of the prospective readers of the book, and provides a succinct introduction to Rosa’s theory of resonance for those intimidated by the 576 pages of his principal book on the subject. It can therefore be wholeheartedly recommended for any reader interested in phenomenological social theory.

There are nonetheless a few questions that can be asked of Rosa’s theory. First, what is the actual target of Rosa’s critique? In the book he has used the words “modernity” and “capitalism” almost as if they were synonymous. Rosa makes the equation explicitly on page 10 and repeats it throughout the book, in particular, through highlighting the strategy of commodity capitalism to translate the thirst for resonance into the desire for the acquisition of objects (38, 78, 107). But such usage limits the range of validity for his observations quite remarkably (as well as unnecessarily), making it a bit of a first-world problem. Nonetheless, history also knows other forms of modernity than that of the liberal capitalist West. For example, the Bolshevik project in Russia and the Maoist project in China both manifest clear characteristics of the accelerationist time regime that Rosa has outlined in Social Acceleration: the cult of over-completing “the plan” in Soviet Russia on the one hand and Mao’s Great Leap Forward on the other are both efforts at imposing a voluntaristically constructed time regime on the fabric of society, and the tendency of both these regimes to control the minds of its subjectively atomized citizens and to outroot all kind of resonance with their inherited past have been, if anything, much more vicious and damaging to these societies than the anonymizing effects of commercializiation and the replacement of organically grown personal identities with factory-made lifestyles that capitalist market economy has been so successful at. It would thus help to clarify the issue by specifying which, if any, of the alienating processes are specifically caused by capitalism, which have possibly only been enhanced by it and which are generally characteristic of the modern time-regime and its intrinsic drive for acceleration.

Another question that remained with me throughout this book is that of the status of “resonance” — is this a characteristic of the way in which I would be experiencing my life-world if there would be nothing interfering with my relation with it, or is it a quality that my relation with it acquires in special cases, depending on both my own state of mind and the nature of the things I am interacting with? Is it something learned or something lost in life? There are passages in the book that suggest both. On page 31, he writes that the capacity for resonance is “in a way, the “essence” not only of human existence, but of all possible manners of relating to the world; it is the necessary precondition of our ability to place the world at a distance and bring it under our control”, which seems to indicate that resonating with the world is the primary core of any experience, and later in the book Rosa talks about losing capability for resonance as a pathological condition; on the other hand, he also talks about the axes of resonance (44ff.) implying that certain things, but not others, are able to evoke resonance in a particular person, and that certain circumstances may be necessary for resonance to occur (53). This may empirically be so (a heartless administrator may occasionally have a meaningful relationship with, and only with, their cactus), but, taken more generally, intoduces a (to my mind unnecessary) bifurcation into the theory, dividing the things of the world into the potentially resonant and the rest. Arguably the theory would gain in explanatory power, were it to credit the entire world with the potentiality to resonate ceaselessly, for example, in the mind of a child, and to look at how this capacity is diminished and potentially lost as a result of certain misconceived socio-cultural practices of modernity.

This leads us to the next question: Rosa seems to programmatically oppose anything synthetic and technological to the natural and organic aspects of our environment, so that seemingly only the latter are those we can successfully resonate with, while the former are the source of losing touch with the rhythms of reality and the resulting alienation. This is an important issue in need of more argument. For example, studies in social psychology have indeed indicated a correlation between too much screen time and mental and physical health problems, especially for younger people, but the question remains whether this is a unidirectional issue — it has also been suggested that only excessive screen time has negative effects, while a certain (controlled!) amount of it is actually beneficial, and that children are more likely to engage with gadgets are those already in risk groups according to other indicators. It is also often the case that bonding with others is technologically mediated, for example, in watching a film together.

Thus, though intuitively plausible and supported by the Heideggerian view of technology as the soulless enforcer of inauthentic relations with the environment, the opposition of the technological to the organic is not necessarily warranted and also not a cultural universal: for example, in Shintō, the Japanese traditional worldview, no such qualitative difference is made between natural and technological aspects of the environment and they can both be perceived as sacred. The problem lies with the perceiver: after all, it is quite possible to develop an alienated, utilitarian and profit-driven gaze of the organic environment as well. Therefore, the question that possibly needs to be asked is whether resonance is not, after all, a human capacity or talent that needs to be fostered and cherished, and while some clearly beautiful and awe-inspiring aspects of the world may have more potential for eliciting it from any given individual than others, we cannot generalize about these aspects and correlate them with the physical provenance of particular things — at least not without further argument.

All that said, “The Uncontrollability of the World” is a remarkable book, packing a lot of insightful theory as well as analyses of its practical validity into a slim volume that, I hope, will find its way to the reading lists of many courses on social philosophy as well as the tables of fellow academics throughout the world.

Christopher Kul-Want (Ed.): Philosophers on Film from Bergson to Badiou: A Critical Reader

Philosophers on Film from Bergson to Badiou: A Critical Reader Book Cover Philosophers on Film from Bergson to Badiou: A Critical Reader
Christopher Kul-Want (Ed.)
Columbia University Press
Paperback $35.00 £28.00

Reviewed by: Michael Deckard (Lenoir-Rhyne University)

The Impenetrable Gaze

Images and stories provoke desire. To use an example from chapter 13 by Jean-Luc Nancy of this book under review, a group of refugees after an earthquake install a television antenna in order to watch the World Cup in their tents. “The filmmaker (character) asks him: ‘Do you find it appropriate to watch television these days?’ The man answers: ‘Truthfully, I myself am in mourning. I lost my sister and three cousins. But what can we do? The Cup takes place every four years. Can’t miss it. Life goes on.’” The Soccer Cup is for him, for them, pure image: television screens, as well as soccer imagery for all those who around bad balls on terrains of fortune, while dreaming vaguely of distant fame, of the kind achieved by Maradonna.” (246) This connection between images, stories, and desire are constitutive of what it means to think about film. When desire is invoked in viewing or making a film, eros pervades the gaze (see this earlier review for discussion of the gaze). The gaze can be impenetrable—is it of the camera, the viewer, the director, or culture at large? Is it one of acceptance or critique, analyzing or to accepting the images that come into being through the eye (I)? As seen in this book, feminists Irigaray and Kristeva describe films that toe the line between different gazes, surveying through male or female enjoyment, treading on each form of impenetrability. Yet each of these chapters attempt to penetrate the gaze. The same follows for other forms of intersectionality, whether it be orientalism, class, regionalism, etc. Exemplifying impenetrability, the theory or philosophy does not easily allow the viewer (or the film-maker) their own power/ agency in viewing or understanding film. Here is where several authors, names which include Bergson, Adorno, Merleau-Ponty, Benjamin, Lyotard, Agamben, Deleuze and others, can help or deter us. This collection, edited by Christopher Kul-Want, includes the history of film philosophy in 18 chapters, and exemplifies the impenetrable gaze—all that one could desire from 20th century philosophy and cinema.

Bergson uses the term image to relate a “dynamic, interrelated, and mutually affective relations…memory, as we have tried to prove, is not a faculty of putting away recollections in a drawer, or of inscribing them in a register. There is no register, no drawer…it follows us at every instant; all that we have felt, thought and willed from our earliest infancy is there, leaning over the present which is about to join it, pressing against the portals of consciousness that would fain leave it outside.” (37) Memories are “messages from the unconscious” – our character contains the “condensation of the history that we have lived from our birth” (38) – images, poems, music. This time period can tell us something about our reality now. What Adorno shows is the absolute force culture has on our consciousness. Did this not exist in the same way in previous centuries? Certainly advertising and media did not have the same power it has now. Adorno and Horkheimer continue, “When the detail won its freedom, it became rebellious and, in the period from Romanticism to Expressionism, asserted itself as free expression, as a vehicle of protest against the organization. In music the single harmonic effect obliterated the awareness of form as a whole; in painting the individual color was stressed at the expense of pictorial composition; and in the novel psychology became more important than structure.” (88) When each art form becomes precisely that, a form of manipulation or device – that is a sellable, buyable, transferable thing – then the work of art is no longer a magical or transcendent object. Film is one powerful example of this. “Real life is becoming indistinguishable from the movies.” There is no room for imagination or reflection, they write. We are transfixed, brought into a world for which there is no escape. “[T]he film forces its victims to equate it directly with reality.” Eager to find the next fix in any film, it doesn’t matter which one, the viewer empties himself of subjectivity. Not a single artist escapes censure. Orson Welles alongside Schönberg and Picasso, Wagner alongside Mozart. These are all of a piece, to express a sound, a picture, an image that sells, is consumed, and bought and sold for a few to gain thereby. And the sad fact of the matter is that most people who consume the art are not aware that they are being manipulated so. “[T]he workers and employees, the farmers and lower middle class” are the consumers, Adorno and Horkheimer point out (91). Film may capture this better than any other medium. But film also manipulates, curves desires towards it, leaving the perceiver dumb-founded (or shocked) by the tactile. “Such an experience of shock, Benjamin says, interrupts cognition, and leads the spectator to conclude, “I can no longer think what I want to think. My thoughts have been replaced by moving images.” (8)

For Merleau-Ponty, his film work is rather brief, one essay from 1945, the same year he published Phenomenology of Perception. When he discusses Descartes’s famous passage in the Meditations in which “hats and coats” pass by me on the street, Merleau-Ponty differentiates himself from the 17th-century philosopher and classical psychology by defending gestalt theory. “By resolutely rejecting the notion of sensation it teaches us to stop distinguishing between signs and their significance, between what is sensed and what is judged,” he writes (104). While many current psychologists might not recognize this thought as their own, Merleau-Ponty held a chair of child psychology at the Sorbonne and is often misread in philosophy circles. Reading this essay helps repair his view of how film as perceptual object follows a “temporal gestalt.” He finds much meaning in cinematographic rhythm: “Since a film consists not only of montage (the selection of shots or views, their order and length) but also of cutting (the selection of scenes or sequences, and their order and length), it seems to be an extremely complex form inside of which a very great number of actions and reactions are taking place at every moment.” (107) The rhythm exists as much for images as sounds, Merleau-Ponty thinks, and what both of these contains is “expressive force.” If Bergson seems as much a biologist as philosopher and Adorno bends his analysis towards sociology, Benjamin toward literary theory (as we now call it), then Merleau-Ponty is the psychologist of the group. The sight and sound together bring a “new whole” just as reading each of these thinkers separately allows us to think about the film in discrete but overlapping ways. Cinematography gains true allies if it is to be both critiqued and appreciated, and it requires the film maker(s) as much as the audience to recognize this. These first four chapters set the stage for the whole, encompassing 1907-1945, and alongside Kul-Want’s introduction (see 108) provide us enough context to see where the rest of 20th century film analysis will go.

The next five chapters, encompassing 1970-1985, take a leap since nothing from the period of Krakauer among others is included here. Jean Baudrillard’s “On Contemporary Alienation or the End of the Pact with the Devil” (1970) contains a detailed discussion of the film, The Student of Prague (1913, 1926). When teaching this chapter in a philosophy of film class, most students really resonated with this film and analysis. The plot is a recognizable one: a student sells his image to the Devil in order to be accepted and to have pleasure. How one sees oneself in the mirror by means of commodity culture shapes one’s identity and the more we buy an image of ourselves the more we are alienated from ourselves. Baudrillard writes, “The mirror image here symbolically represents the meaning of our acts. These build up around us a world that is in our image. The transparency of our relation to the world is expressed rather well by the individual’s unimpaired relation to his image in a mirror: the faithfulness of that reflection bears witness, to some degree, to a real reciprocity between the world and ourselves.” (117) Since marketing has become so powerful, even Baudrillard thinks this modern Faustian story is outdated since there is no originary subject from which we are alienated. The bargain with the devil is so complete that there is no going back to some authentic self free of the market. “For Baudrillard, the devil in these fables can be read as the capitalist system of commodification, while the loss of the protagonists’ likenesses (in other words, their very souls) to the devil represents the alienation and objectivization of labor power in the market place, ‘the image is not lost or abolished by chance: it is sold.’” (114) The more one buys, the more one is alienated. The dramatic demonstration of this alienated human being “is a being turned inside out, changed into something evil, into its own enemy, set against itself. This is, on another level, the process Freud describes in repression.” (119) This is what drives a human or a culture to its death or to madness. But it is still possible, says Baudrillard to save one’s soul. We have dominated nature so completely, our sexual drives and human relations, “including even fantasies…is taken over by that logic…in which everything is spectacularized…there is no longer any soul, no shadow, no double, and no image in the specular sense.” (120-1) We are purely and entirely haunted by this ancestral fable, the Devil being just a filmic memory of what used to be, “there is only a shop window—the site of consumption, in which the individual no longer produces his own reflection, but is absorbed into the order of signifiers of social status, etc.” (121)

Luce Irigaray, in “The Looking Glass, From the Other Side,” achieves a new language in speaking of film, exemplifying l’écriture feminine through what Kul-Want calls “performative writing.” This chapter, originally published in 1973, becomes the first in her This Sex Which Is Not One and provides a fine-grained and profound analysis of the film The Surveyors (Les Arpenteurs, 1972). A review such as this cannot do justice to her style. Irigaray’s lyrical form, displaying women’s libidinal desire and gaze, cannot be that of the surveyor in Soutter’s film and “is rooted in a critique of patriarchy and its conception of identity as formed by means of a metaphysical, structural opposition between the One and its lack.” (124) Such thinking needs to be dissolved, says Irigaray, “conceiv[ing] of the notion of woman as a radical absence of identity—zero rather than One—for which there is no definition.” (ibid.) The point of a woman discovering herself without seeing herself through the man’s gaze:

So at four o’clock sharp, the surveyor goes into her house. And since a surveyor needs a pretext to go into someone’s house, especially a lady’s, he’s carrying a basket of vegetables. From Lucien. Penetrating into ‘her’ place under cover of somebody else’s name, clothes, love. For the time being, that doesn’t seem to bother him. He opens the door, she’s making a phone call. To her fiancé. Once again he slips in between them, the two of them. […] Does his intervention succeed? Or does he begin to harbor a vague suspicion that she is not simply herself? He looks for a light. To hide his confusion, fill in the ambiguity. Distract her by smoking. She doesn’t see the lighter, even though it’s right in front of her… (127)

The analysis of this scene of The Surveyors points to missed and captured attention, unfettered desire, and the subtleties of consent and patriarchy brought into the light. The play of characters, male and female, stand in for mirrors, front and back. Here is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland from the other side. As Kul-Want perceives,“[W]oman puts into question all prevailing economies and their calculations since ‘she’ does not possess an identity and nor does ‘she’ lack one.” (17)

Jean-François Lyotard claims that the importance of movement in cinema has two forms, a static and an excessive, and that even the gaze is not simple voyeurism. As in “gaps, jolts, postponements, losses, and confusions,” the pyrotechnics of film ensure that the “entire erotic force invested in the simulacrum be promoted, raised, displayed, and burned in vain.” (145, 143) The static movement, however, is not only immobilizing since the image “give[s] rise to the most intense agitation through its fascinating paralysis.” (149) Crucial to his line of analysis is the point of view of the director, how the director sees the thing which we wishes to represent in terms of these varied movements. Cinematography, then, captures e-motion in the way that Agamben in a later chapter will describe gesture. They are each in their own way expanding upon Merleau-Ponty’s “understanding of the genealogy of the Kantian philosophy of subsumption beyond Descartes, proposing that it underlies the very notion of identity in the West as this pertains to all aspects of subjective experience and thought.” (14) As in Žižek’s analysis below, and following Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), the “unfettered libidinal drives” and “unconscious investments—formless movements of jouissance—are denied by the culture industries in their relentless interpellation of the consumer.” (16) For the sake of space, I will not discuss the two chapters on Deleuze here, but Kul-Want’s selections and introductory material are really valuable for the student trying to approach these themes for the first time.

Philosopher, literary critic, and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva may help with some of this frustration of understanding impenetrable thoughts in her chapter, “The Malady of Grief: Duras,” taken from her book, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia (1987). Along with Cixous and Irigaray, Kristeva has done more regarding the term jouissance than almost anyone, barring possibly Lacan. “Such jouissance in these contexts is violent and painful and yet, part of the violence of this experience, its excess, is that it is also joyful and ecstatic.” (200) Grief encompasses the experience of watching a film and the “despoliation of nature” (202). Kristeva is interested in interrogating the existence of states largely overlooked: “Psychosis, depression, manic-depressive states, borderline states, false selves.” Among others, Dostoyevsky and Hans Holbein are inspirations for her work. Another person she believes to have looked into grief is Marguerite Duras, whose script for the film Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), allows one to think about postwar melancholy and the future of our emptiness as a national and global community.

Slavoj Žižek looks at Hitchcock through a Lacanian lens. He doesn’t repeat here his analysis in the documentaries, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema and Ideology, but supplements them. Hitchcock’s storytelling pervades what Žižek calls the “continuous filmic gaze” (226), that is, referring to the title of this chapter which originates in Racine’s Phèdre, “In his bold gaze my ruin is writ large.” While much of this chapter is an analysis of Psycho (1960), Hitchcock’s earlier film, The Lady Vanishes (1938), is also discussed. What Žižek tries to show, in Kul-Want’s words, is how in the latter film “the window function as a symbolic screen lining ‘diegetic reality’ and thwarting the Real, while the writing upon the screen are signifiers […] —that is, symptoms— of a subjective void that cannot be framed and represented but around which signification revolves: in this instance the vanished lady. […] As Lacan says, language speaks (ça parle, it speaks) of an absence within itself.” (220) The narrative of desire is that we are always already driven and will be forever by different objects, different stories. Curiosity for the new and the hidden accentuate this desire. When we want to see more than we are allowed to see by the gaze that is all powerful, our ruin is writ large. The reality of what we are looking at destroys us. “In the guise of the Other’s gaze,” he concludes,

Hitchcock’s entire universe is founded upon this complicity between ‘absolute Otherness,’ epitomized by the Other’s gaze into the camera, and the viewers look—the ultimate Hegelian lesson of Hitchcock is that the place of absolute transcendence, of the Unrepresentable which eludes diegetic space, coincides with the absolute immanence of the viewer reduced to pure gaze. (234)

Norman of Psycho is “the quintessence of the disembodied drive” (22), but the filmic gaze points beyond to the space between the symbolic and the Real. The themes of desire, otherness, and ideology are brought together and yet hidden from our view.

The sheer amount of analysis of film can become overwhelming. In Jean-Luc Nancy’s chapter, “And Life Goes On,” the emphasis is on “ideas of withdrawal, spacing, and separation.” (241) The film Nancy uses to show this is by the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, Life and Nothing More (1992). Following the earthquake and the men who watch football mentioned in the first paragraph above, the film reveals how the flow of life continues after mourning and catastrophe. The automobile is a major character in the film (“it moves by itself, it moves ahead, outside of itself, it carries what presents itself, toilet seat or stove, occasional passengers…” (248), as is the landscape and the rubble. In addition to human interaction, the villages have been broken by faults, both inside and between. Nevertheless, “the film remains a film, and never lets us forget it—precisely by means of its contrasts and its insistence on the framing—always the car, its windows, its doors, and the sides of the road, always on the verge of being out of focus; but also and just as well the patient arrangement of everything…[as] a document about ‘fiction’: not in the sense of imagining the unreal, but in the very specific and precise sense of the technique, of the art of constructing images.” (249) This film between documentary and fiction does not Orientalize or Romanticize. Rather, “[i]t is their simultaneous continuation and the continuation of each other: the road, the automobile, the image, the gaze” that goes on like “the vast, permanent expanse of the countryside and its people.”

The right to tell one’s story and the search for story is behind much of 20th century film and philosophy. In Contesting Tears, Stanley Cavell analyses American films from the 1930s and 1940s that concern themselves with “the female protagonists [who] desire recognition from their partners, not just in the private, domestic sphere of their lives, but in the public realm too.” (18) Unlike Laura Mulvey’s famous “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” (1975) Cavell defends the gaze as when the protagonist of Stella Dallas (1937) “watches her daughter through a window that is framed like the proverbial cinematic silver screen.”  How marriage, divorce, and finding one’s father or mother can be both Freudian and reconciling in a peaceful rather than conflictual way allows one to mirror filmic selves by recognizing aspects of characters (for example, Greta Garbo in Camille, 1936) who find themselves in the film story that reinvents “love [as] mysterious, in its crossing of torture and bliss.” (268) A definition of marriage as a “meet and happy conversation” defended by Cavell through two genres of film where the distinction between desire and law in relation to the past and memory becomes elemental in understanding power relations. In one of the best passages if Contesting Tears, Cavell writes, “the struggle between the sexes can play itself out without interruption (for example, by children, or by economic need), on the sublime level of difference mutually desired and comically overcome. In the melodramas the education of the woman is still at issue, but within their mood of heavy irony, since her (superior, exterior) knowledge becomes the object-as prize or as victim-of the man’s fantasy, who seeks to share its secrets (Now, Voyager), to be ratified by it (Letter from an Unknown Woman), to escape it (Stella Dallas), or to destroy it (Gaslight), where each objective is (generically) reflected in the others…” (265) There are very few American authors on film who can measure up to many of the philosophers in this book, but Cavell can.

In the last four chapters, we are brought from the 20th into the 21st century. Jacques Rancière analyses one film in detail, Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps (1955). The film is a fable of “the bodily movements and exchange of glances that cast these schemers into always unstable relationships of inferiority or superiority.” (276) Each of the characters produces a mask to hide their own power. The way in which film is capable of reproducing this fable contrasts Deleuze’s account since for Rancière, “[film] is composed of a constant tension between classical narrative construction, ultimately derived from Aristotle’s idea of a ‘story well told’ (muthos), and its visual and sensate affects that have the potential to exceed signification (opsis).” (26) This means that cinema not only reproduces ideology, but potentially arrests it such as when “the murderer stands like a parent beside a young girl in front of a shopwindow…for a few moments, these scenes in front of shopwindow displays are not simply pauses or moments of rest in the narrative but an ‘empty time, the lost time of a stroll or the suspended time of an epiphany’ that changes the very meaning of the notion of an ‘episode.’” (272) The notion of mimesis as in any way linear is put into question. Lang inverts Aristotle. The notion of the gaze becomes a point of dissension and yet a “change from ignorance to knowledge” (in the Aristotelian sense of recognition) requires a comprehension of Oedipus Rex: “here’s the man that was the child.” (277) The lost time of the stroll and the time of projects or the time of narrative are put into opposition. The way in which “speech,” “gaze,” and “hands” operate between the camera and the living room, the murderer and the lover, the projection and maturity all come into focus, as when Rancière describes the scene: “Mobley faces the murderer as he would face his kid brother who never left the stage of intellectual and manual masturbation and of papa and mama stories, and is still wondering whether it was for wanting him that a man and a woman performed the series of movements known as making love.” (285-6) As a German emigrant to America, the scene is one of recognition and disillusionment, knowledge and loss by means of the “new apparatus of the visible that cinema as such has to confront.”

Alain Badiou, in his Cinema as Philosophical Experimentation, also believes that cinema thinks. It can challenge and prod us to move beyond – but it is also a product of capitalism and thus can equally captivate and numb. It is a question of image, time, painting, music, and novelty. All of these are equally political and ethical, since “cinema deals with courage, with justice, with passion, with betrayal.” (297) As examples of this thinking and this challenge, Badiou discusses Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin, Hitchcock’s Rebecca, Rebecca, Rosellini’s Journey to Italy, and others. He speaks here of the ‘event’ meaning radical political events such as 1968 and changes within epistemology. “Truth-event” is his word for Plato’s Idea of absolute truth, as Kul-Want points out, and yet for Badiou, “the event is true in an absolute sense because it is radically multiple, irreducible to its causes and conditions.” (292) Like many of the authors in this collection, Badiou believes cinema to have the power and the capacity to transform our fantasies. Cinema as philosophy means the love and the truth contained in its origins, and films such as Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai or Mizoguchi’s The Crucified Lovers exemplify a difference between cinema and philosophy, learning from each other through “rupture.” Cinema is a transformative ‘event’ (as Benjamin, Adorno and Horkheimer thought) “that both reinforces and reproduces the fantasies of the social imaginary.” (27) By engaging the audience in a struggle against oppression, “something almost miraculous happens when cinema manages to extract a little bit of purity from all that is worst in the world.” (306)

In Technics and Time, 3: Cinematic Time and the Question of Malaise, extracted here, Bernard Stiegler, who passed away tragically while writing this review in 2020, begins by taking up the desire for stories, which he thinks is an ancient desire. Modern society is “animated by the most complex, and most secret, of social movements.” This is precisely what Adorno and Horkheimer mean by culture industry, which now “constitute the very heart of economic development, whose most intimate power is clearly always the most ancient desire of all stories.” All of cinema and media then, for Stiegler, with their “technics of image and sound—now including informatics and telecommunications—re-invent our belief in stories that are now told with remarkable, unparalleled power.” (311) The important point here, which I cannot emphasise enough, is how Stiegler takes up the history of philosophy, including Plato, Kant, Husserl, Heidegger and others alongside Simondon and Leroi-Gourhan, and reads the history of technology, that is, the relationship of techne and episteme, and considers how it affects our consciousness, including and perhaps especially children (see his Taking Care of the Youth). He writes, “Consciousness is affected in general by phenomena presented to it, but this affect occurs in a special way with temporal objects. This is important to us in the current investigation because cinema, like melody, is a temporal object. Understanding the singular way in which temporal objects affect consciousness means beginning to understand what gives cinema its specificity, its force, and its means of transforming life leading, for example, to the global adoption of ‘the American way of life.’” (318) Consciousness, and thus the gaze, is already cinematographic, Stiegler claims, combining a form of montage through a unified flux. Stiegler’s use of films like Fellini’s Intervista, Kazan’s America, America, or Resnais’s My American Uncle are cases in point “in which memory is a dense fabric of cinematographic citations.” (324-5) Kul-Want describes this process in the following way: “for Stiegler, the flow of temporality involved in listening to music or watching a film is always a matter of ‘imaginative’ and selective recombinations of experience through what Stiegler refers to as a tertiary form of retention, that is, in actual fact, constitutive of primary and secondary forms of retention. Such shifts in consciousness depend on the important fact that memory is a process of forgetting.” (310) Our notions of consciousness are not only impacted by what we watch and take in technologically in our everyday lives, but also by what we have forgotten as when we watch a film we’ve seen before and do not remember what happens. New stories then emerge such that the “American mythmaking” or Streetcar Named Desire (1951) or Gone with the Wind (1939) become more real than reality, a “symbol of freedom and hope…by virtue of being a land of emigrants who do not have a mythical shared oriding upon which a regulated, common future can be founded.” (311) This essay by Stiegler can be compared to that of Agamben’s “Notes on Gesture”, which Kul-Want points out “is also informed by the reproducible as a singular event involving forgetting and loss.” (20) For Agamben, then, we can even unlearn gestures and bodily postures or movements due to this forgetting. A decomposition of film, as in Marey, Muybridge, or the Lumière brothers, in which 24 frames per second define movement, intersects with experimental psychology and Nietzsche’s “ballet of a humankind” (213) The image is both broken off from and includes the whole. “And when the age realized this, it then began (but it was too late!) the precipitous attempt to recover the lost gestures in extremis. The dance of Isadora Duncan and Sergei Diaghilev, the novel of Proust, the great Jugendstil poetry from Pascoli to Rilke, and finally and most exemplarily, the silent movie trace the magic circle in which humanity tried for the last time to evoke what was slipping through its fingers forever.” (213) Cinema, says Agamben, is gesture and not image, thus belonging to ethics and politics.

The final essay, by Kaja Silverman, brings us back to where we began in Bergson. When Bergson wrotes, “What are we, in fact, what is our character, if not the condensation of the history that we have lived from our birth, since we bring with us prenatal dispositions…from this survival of the past it follows that consciousness cannot go through the same state twice,” (38) the same can be said for the gaze. In Silverman’s analysis, using Proust alongside Sartre and Merleau-Ponty as well as the Belgian filmmaker Chantal Ackerman, the gaze (le regard) is transformed into ‘the miracle of analogy’. Merleau-Ponty’s word for this is chiasmus, which Silverman says is the “name for the ontological thread stitching the seer to what is seen, the toucher to what is touched, and sight and visibility to touch and tactility.” (331) This intertwining at the heart of Merleau-Ponty’s The Visible and the Invisible means that there is not an “I” cut off from another: we are touched when looking and art allows us, says Proust, “to emerge from ourselves.” (332) The entire history of film (and of philosophy) can be contained in this imagined image of the gaze, to be able to see oneself through another lens transforms the self and the other. Silverman’s use of Ackerman’s The Captive (2000), a take on Proust’s À la recherche, vol. 5, explores “non-invasive” sexual pleasure and the meaning loving a lot, or loving well. In place of possessive grasping or obsessive jealousy, the camera “relies heavily upon the shot/reverse shot formation.” (336) While this technique is typically used to construct sexual difference, concealing the presence of the camera, Ackerman uses it to reveal the fourth wall: “Ariane and Andrée are separated from Simon by the fourth wall, so they shouldn’t be able to return his look, but they miraculously do. After he acknowledges the interdependence of his desire for Ariane, and hers for Andrée, and affirms the girls’ right to say ‘je vous aime bien’ to each other, they respond by smiling first at each other, and then at him.” Ever since Ackerman’s La chambre (1972), she has proven herself as a filmmaker of extraordinary innovation and a living incarnation of the miracle of analogy; though Ackerman passed away in 2015 we may still “see” her work. “Acgkerman shows these two looks meeting at the site of Ariane’s body, like the landscape invoked by Proust, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty. If we were to translate this meeting into language, it would read: ‘je…vous…je vous.’” (337)

All of the themes of 20th century film and philosophy are contained brilliantly within Kul-Want’s collection. I cannot speak highly enough of its range and depth. Beginning with Bergson’s 1907 Creative Evolution and ending with Silverman’s 2015 The Miracle of Analogy, with Christopher Kul-Want’s aid all along, we can follow a trajectory of thinking and viewing without losing ourselves in the mindlessly numbing, not to mention impenetrable, weeds of the gaze.

Karl Kraatz: Die Methodologie von Martin Heideggers Philosophie

Die Methodologie von Martin Heideggers Philosophie. Über die Grenzen der neuzeitlichen Wissenschaft und die Möglichkeiten der Philosophie Book Cover Die Methodologie von Martin Heideggers Philosophie. Über die Grenzen der neuzeitlichen Wissenschaft und die Möglichkeiten der Philosophie
Karl Kraatz
Königshausen & Neumann
Paperback 68,00 €

Reviewed by: Nikolaus Schneider (Kingston University, London)

In a recently published very short introduction to philosophical method, a British philosopher recounts an Italian continental colleague wondering about the Anglo-Saxon’s understanding of philosophy not being primarily confined to historical research and conduct. His line of thought proceeds as follows: “I am sometimes asked which philosopher I work on, as though that is what any philosopher must do. I reply Oxford-style: I work on philosophical problems, not on philosophers.” (Williamson, 2020, 103)

With regard to philosophical methodology, however, one’s understanding need not be confined to the exclusivity of either the formation of a problem or a purely reconstructive-historical approach. Rather, how problems and historicity are interwoven and, in particular, what counts as a contemporary problem is more often than not determined by a particular understanding of historical conjectures or, at a more abstract level, of historicity itself. A case in point is the work of Martin Heidegger, whose understanding of the relation between historicity and philosophical methodology is put to the test in the recently published dissertation of Karl Kraatz, Die Methodologie von Martin Heideggers Philosophie. Über die Grenzen der neuzeitlichen Wissenschaft und die Möglichkeiten der Philosophie. This work constitutes an exciting case in quarrels concerning the alleged irrationality of Heidegger’s work and questions over the absence of methodology. This discussion, arguably in place ever since the publication of Being and Time in 1927, becomes much more pronounced with the idiosyncratic later philosophy and culminate in Heidegger’s complicity, it is argued, with National-Socialism and his status as a main inspiration for the alleged ‘postmodern‘ destruction of reason and the legacy of the enlightenment. Notwithstanding the constructed character of some of these allegations, Kraatz’s work serves as a defense of Heideggerian philosophy against its harsher critics by offering a walkthrough of selected texts and lectures of the German philosopher’s oeuvre tied together by the questions of truth, justifiability, and cognition. Kraatz’s underlying premise is the ongoing continuity of Heidegger’s work, whose transition from Heidegger 1 to Heidegger 2 is less motivated by a fundamental ‘turn’ than by a deepening and radicalization of previous concerns. Die Methodologie von Martin Heideggers Philosophie serves, in this sense, as a reminder to envision the radicality and uncompromising – though by no means impeccable – impetus of its protagonist, all the while offering a compelling interpretation of Heidegger’s philosophy. To demonstrate the continuing allegiance of Heideggerian philosophy to justifiability, it is Kraatz’s aim to show its necessary thematization of the philosophizing I, something that he terms the “methodological necessity for the experience of individuation” (17, [methodische Notwendigkeit der Vereinzelungserfahrung]). The Heideggerian ontologization of the I and the connection of world to I constitute, for Kraatz, the fundamental thread running through the work of the German philosopher. In particular, it is the I’s avoidance of the full responsibility that is thereby conferred upon it that leads to the formation of various ‘defense mechanisms’, whose negativity is to be overcome to drive the process of philosophizing further (19). It is this thesis that will guide the author’s reconstruction of Heideggerian method throughout the book. Die Methodologie von Martin Heideggers Philosophie is comprised of four parts, with part two being further partitioned into a and b, and accordingly, they don’t amount to equal argumentative importance. I will provide a summary of each of the parts before going to comment more on the composition of Kraatz’s book and his reconstruction of Heidegger’s methodology.

Chapter one acts as an introduction to Kraatz’s thesis, the individual’s retreat of being by way of various mechanisms of delusion or typification so as to yield a ‘happy consciousness’. This is developed primarily through a historical reconstruction of Heidegger’s early lectures and culminates with Being and Time. These reflections are ignited through the central problem of phenomenology: the self-reflective exploration of to what extent cognition is structured by its origin in factual life (30f). Tying together transcendental philosophy with an investigation of the structures of experience it is the question of the scientific nature of this enterprise that proved pathbreaking for the young Heidegger. Phenomenology’s primary subject matter, factical life, preserves character traits that are irreducible to conceptions of modern scientific rationality, for which, in conjunction with the reifying character of science and the corresponding mediocrity of the everyday, a particular method is necessary to philosophize adequately (38). Heidegger proposes an equivalence between the tendencies for typification (or the reification of daily life through routine and mundane monotony) and the continuous prevalence of the theoretical in life. Both cause the suppression of the I. This deadlock can be broken through the merger of a hermeneutic of facticity, or factical life, and a hermeneutic of the self so as to methodologically ground cognition and non-reified objectivity (47). It is the motivational character of the hermeneutic of facticity that elaborates the next step in the argument. Having located the common denominator in the suppression of the I, of which the aforementioned tendencies are examples, these typifications need to be removed to arrive at a true conception of self – a methodological requisite (54f). ‘Something’- as of yet unobtainable – causes the self to seek the bios theoretikos and to avoid self-knowledge, which, in this tradition, amounts to a proper knowledge of the world altogether (68). One can anticipate the central method of Heidegger in its relation toward recovering the I: destruction. Phenomenologically, destruction is accomplished by removing the layers of typification, which are of one common origin, and are the condition of possibility for reencountering the I. What initially sounds like armchair psychology becomes, however, more elaborated upon over the course of Heidegger’s philosophical development and it is to Kraatz’s credit that he pushes the texts for an actual rationale that ties the hermeneutic of the self and of facticity together in a convincing manner (106). It is the conception of the self’s relation to being that eventually enables the German philosopher to merge the hermeneutic of facticity with the self and, subsequently, the further identification of the tendencies for the suppression of the I with the reified status of life as antecedents to the suppressed I (108). The world’s dependence upon the being of the I accounts for the former’s transformation in terms of the configuration of the latter. In Being and Time, where these concerns are most explicitly developed, the method of destruction becomes initiated through the function of care, which drives the investigation further to the negativity of anxiety and being-towards-death (112). Anxiety’s undirected negativity reverses into a positive function, once Dasein grasps its individuation from das Man and can be authentically. This existential is, however, nothing more than the further realization of one’s being as being-towards-death (141). Kraatz puts this into perspective with the consciousness of Dasein’s empty groundlessness. The lack of Dasein is the fact that its thrownness amounts to nothing more than being-towards-death. Inauthentic Dasein takes flight from this realization through the described tendencies of typification, which constitutes its culpability (154).  Conversely, if realized, these characteristics function as modes of foundation in the double sense for Heidegger. Because the world is functionally dependent upon the being of the self, whose access is phenomenologically obstructed, it has to be recovered by realizing its lack, which accomplishes destruction and sets the self free to found the disclosure of the world. In turn, the task is set for Dasein after accomplishing destruction to answer to being’s groundlessness through an authentic grounding of being, letting-be. Only the authentic realization of this relation can ground a true opening of sociality, justifiability for being and, in turn, community.

Kraatz’s reconstruction of Being and Time makes the case to conceive of uncanniness, anxiety and being-towards-death as inhabiting a productive negativity and is, in this sense, of quintessential methodological importance. It is, however, rather negligent of the role of temporality in this process. Insofar as being is time the inversion of the self is to be accompanied by the temporal ecstasies whose elaboration takes place at the end of the book. The precise role of Dasein’s temporal self-differentiation for the role of methodology are, given Kraatz’s concerns regarding his thesis of flight, however, underdeveloped. This significance has been elaborated upon in relation to methodological issues brilliantly by Karin de Boer’s Thinking in the Light of Time. Whereas Kraatz views the counter-ruinant tendency of anxiety and being-towards-death as experiences, de Boer manages to address the temporality of these functions as the opening up of the horizon through which the formal indications of these concepts can be attained (De Boer, 2000, 106ff). For instance, once destruction is initiated through the realization of being-towards-death, Dasein has already entered a mode of ecstatic temporality, being-ahead-of-oneself (De Boer, 2000, 110). This thematic focus notwithstanding, Kraatz’s account of the methodological position of these paragraphs is convincing. The ensuing manifold of conceptions of being is termed Seinsrelativität (being’s relativity), establishing Being and Time as the metaontological fundamental ontology, comprising different regional ontologies (165). Through it, beings remain relative to respective conceptions of the I. This is the methodological function granted to the self-knowledge, which is preceded by the yet ahistorical enforcement of destruction, the removal of the layers of typification, yielding disclosure.

The avoidance of potential misunderstandings and the overall cohesion of the first chapter is the aim of the second. To do so, the need of the Heideggerian account of the relativity of being and his conception of the I to others is underscored. Clearly, the constitution of Dasein is not to be understood as a Tathandlung but binds the conception of a ground of being sui generis together with the concrete engagement of phenomenology. Kraatz deploys the notion of an originary synthesis so as to render intelligible the constitution of the self through being (173). The danger of circularity is managed through the notion of thrownness, which acts as an anchor towards facticity and responsibility. Keeping the original insight of transcendental philosophy, Dasein entertains a ‘theoretical’ and an ethical side to it. Kraatz subsequently draws on the work of fellow Heidegger scholar Steven Crowell to demonstrate Dasein’s sociality and the justifiability constitutive of normative claims, a characteristic allegedly lacking from Being and Time and one taken to be missing from Heidegger’s work generally. The being of the self is taken to be an essentially normative one, leading to the cultivation of a true ethical life and an ideally well-founded community on responsible conceptions of being and self by way of the truthful character of letting-be as disclosure (183ff). Because the I is the ground of the world in the sense of fundamental ontology, Dasein bears responsibility for the being of others, which Kraatz circumscribes, citing Crowell, with the dictum that care is prior to reason (182). Attention is drawn to the similarity of Adorno’s conceptions of a non-instrumental rationality and the interplay between contemplation and normativity and it is in this sense that responsibility functions as the properly a priori foundation for any rational discourse – at least as Kraatz, following Crowell, develops it (195). Against claims for the incoherent character of Heidegger’s work, Kraatz rather demonstrates that it renders legible the constitutive aspects of rationality and normativity altogether. This line of thought, again very much inspired by Crowell, appears almost Brandomian in intention as the making explicit of the conditions of possibility of normativity and rationality.

Part b of the second chapter elucidates on the notion of the relativity of being more broadly conceived and takes the published writings after Being and Time into account. Kraatz summarizes its content aptly by the “fact that the being of the world is dependent on the being of the I,” a move attainable through the ontologization of the I (165). Letting-be functions as a stand-in for the Heideggerian notion of truth as disclosure and ties the ethical and temporal-existential (‘theoretical’) sides together. In passing, Kraatz addresses the frequent strawman that labels Heidegger as a fatal relativist by both sketching out the merely potentially disagreeable properties of relativism and demonstrating how the transcendental approach avoids them. Through the accountability of Dasein, the Heideggerian self is rather the precise opposite of the threat the relativist bogeyman is supposed to embody. Rather, morality and rationality are jointly implicated in this fundamental approach (203). The remainder of the second part of chapter two is devoted to Heidegger’s philosophical development from the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, where the relation of the grounding self and the historicity of factical life is expounded. This is further developed through the metaphysical ontic, metontology, which asks fundamentally – ontologically after beings (221). Dasein’s self founds its own thrownness. So as to further thematize Dasein’s relation to thrownness, the modalities of ground take center stage. Sketching a theory of ontological constitution leaves Dasein as the placeholder for the responsibility of ground that is conferred upon it. This decision is described in inherently voluntaristic terms, as one toward transcendental freedom and ground. Hence, responsibility functions as a methodological concept, as it ties the decision towards freedom and the grounding function together (254ff.). As fundamentally tied to facticity this decision takes, however, not place in pure sphere of principles, but in the historical realm of freedom, leading to the formation of a “transcendental-ontological genealogy” (224). The thesis of the flight remains intact, largely unaltered. The tension between thrownness and transcendentality remains constitutive of the ensuing reflections, in particular the three-fold modality of ground or grounding. Part two is concluded with the transition to beyng-historical thought, wherein primary thrownness is attained by way of the event of beyng (283ff.). Accordingly, the responsibility and the concomitant culpability that is conferred upon Dasein is only potentialized: “It is now localized in the ontological dimension, which deals with the possibility of letting-be logical spaces of modalities” (286, [Sie wird nun in der ontologischen Dimension verortet, in der es um das Seinlassen und Nichtseinlassen von Möglichkeitsspielräumen geht].)

Part three carries this walkthrough almost seamlessly forward. Kraatz’s reconstruction commences until Contributions to Philosophy, where these issues are elaborated in a new manner. Relatively little attention is devoted to Heidegger’s second major work regarding its composition and re-formulation of older investigations. The distinction between the ontological and historical dimension of the event, so central to Contributions to Philosophy, appears somewhat flimsy and neither the terminological shift from Dasein to Da-sein is mentioned or explained. (Heidegger, 2012, passim) Rather, convinced to have demonstrated the possibility to move past these shifts and accentuations, Kraatz devotes his attention almost exclusively to the diagnostical parts in Heidegger’s book. Clearly, paragraphs on machination serve more than a cursory function, something that Kraatz acknowledges when he speaks of them as methodological (294).  Subsequently, Dasein is stripped of its (however weak) voluntarism and the relativity of being reconfigured as the release of beyng in historical epochs or conceptions. This later conception aims at filling out all possible onto-logical spaces while itself remaining mostly obscured or, as Heidegger would say, withdrawn. Kraatz devotes comparatively little attention to the historicization of truth this conception accomplishes, other than by way of invoking the transcendental ontological genealogy, but no attention is devoted to whether this undertaking might be in need of new methodological underpinnings other than remaining relative to the self. Taking only Heidegger’s ‘critical accomplishments’ into account, the fourfold or the later seminars in Thor and Zähringen are not mentioned at all. Having conceptualized beyng as the totality of all logical spaces of possibility he continues his critique of the tendencies of typification, the now historical configuration of modernity, to prove the continuity of destruction and its relevance for the self as method (286). Individuation, which the aforementioned process is to accomplish, pushes forward into the concrete, historical situation which can then, presumably, be transformed (288ff.). Kraatz follows Heidegger in declaring modern science as the best possible option for Dasein to conduct its flight successfully. The method deployed mirrors in this respect the one already used beforehand: demonstrating that an otherwise merely negative aspect of analysis is, in fact, crucial to an elaborated issue or could not have been adequately theorized at all were it not to be counter-posed through its negation

Having demonstrated the need for the self to take flight from the ontological responsibility the ground (beyng) confers upon it, modern science and modernity, whose essence the former is supposed to constitute, come into the picture. The ground of all regional ontological spaces – beyng – and the accompanying culpability and responsibility are too much for the lacking being that the I is and, accordingly, invents a mode of worldmaking that obscures this characteristic (278). Kraatz terms this product the ‘implicit ontology’ that underlies modern science and that becomes further obscured as it progresses (308). While the author admirably demonstrates the overall cohesion of said critique in the greater context of the Nietzsche lectures and attempts to relate enframing to the formation of data-science as the pinnacle of that process, the chapter appears rather tame in comparison to its precursors both in terms of significance for the book’s overall topic and contribution to scholarship (385ff). It acts, rather, as an exemplary demonstration of the possibility of this beyng-historical destruction, tying together the critique of technology or machination with the reading of Nietzsche as the closure of metaphysics and the advent of modern science. Though admirable in depth and rigor, it does rather little in comparison to push the investigation of methodology further in thematic terms.

Chapter four ties the aforementioned questions over methodology and justifiability together. Refuting the influential claims of the irrational character of Heideggerian philosophy made by Habermas in the Philosophical discourse of modernity acts as the threshold for setting Heidegger’s philosophy and functions as a summary and conclusion of the survey – something that is achieved thoroughly and convincingly. To recap, Heidegger’s method is conceptualized as a process of individuation through the mechanism of an experience of destruction which aims at removing layers of said experience and enables a formal indication of different concepts. The conceptuality of philosophical cognitions is thus not abandoned; Heidegger merely transforms the concept sufficiently so as to yield a different understanding of experience and of itself. What it achieves is a conceptual demonstration of the freedom of Dasein. Kraatz frames this as individuation and the struggle of a self toward existential orientation or, more negatively, the avoidance of that experience. The later Heidegger’s chief merit lies in historicizing that experience or relation between Dasein and its ontological epistemology by making recourse to an inaccessible origin or absolute ground, beyng. As has been mentioned, the different ‘negative’ instances of typification drive the analysis itself forward as ‘obstacles’ to be overcome and are, in this sense, themselves of methodological relevance, as Kraatz repeatedly insists with regard to, for instance, modern science. For the author, the innovation and radicality of the German philosopher lie thus in the possibility to provide justification of both practical and theoretical instances while avoiding the counter-intuitiveness and abstraction of more traditional framings of transcendental philosophy. Against what might be perceived as an all-too sympathetic approach, Kraatz does lament the tendency of Heidegger to largely abstain from clarifying these methodological and grounding theoretical attitudes as well as his continuing denial to expose oneself to criticism from other philosophical positions. While this abstinence is philosophical it does make for appearance of esotericism and a secret doctrine.

While Kraatz’s book is admirable for its insistence for justification towards and competence of Heideggerian philosophy, what remains missing, however, is an explicit reconstruction of the Heideggerian methodology within the greater context of historical approaches to the subject. Although a brief paragraph addresses the “historio-philosophical place of Heidegger’s philosophy” (416) this glance refers only to Husserl and, given the similar thematic of a critique of reified life, developments from the Frankfurt school. This is all the more surprising given the title of the chapter. In the following one, Kraatz once again reiterates the basic concepts of Heidegger’s philosophical methodology cognition, truth and justifiability. An elaboration of the extent to which the method of the German philosopher is to be conceived of as a radicalized version of neo-Kantianism, phenomenology or existentialism would have shed light on its novelty. This would involve a negotiation of these different forms of philosophy and their respective methods, read with recourse to Heidegger’s engagement with the former two and how he remains potentially indebted to them. Despite the fact the Heidegger’s philosophical development marked of course decisive breaks with both Neo-Kantianism and phenomenology it would have been interesting to see the extent to which his attempt of releasing himself from the metaphysical tradition was eventually reflected in his approach to methodology. This concerns in particular the Neo-Kantian notion of a history of problems whose similarity to the ‘history of beyng’ is rather apparent. This omission is all the more unfortunate given the various programmatic titles of Heidegger’s lecture courses and publications such as The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics, and the frequent invocation of philosophy as ‘questioning’. This reflects in the last instance Kraatz’s own concept of methodology, which, although frequently invoking the triad of justifiability, cognition and truth, does not seem to take this aspect of Heidegger’s philosophy worthy of further investigation. Hence, terms such as ‘problem’ or even the more Heideggerian ‘question’ are largely absent in terms of thematic concern.[1] Guiseppe Bianco contraposes this difference and similarity succinctly:

Heidegger’s philosophy started to be dominated by a series of structuring oppositions: he juxtaposed the Neo-Kantian conception of the history of problems (Problemgeschichte) with his history of being (Seinsgeschick), and philosophical “problems” (Problemen) with a set of ontological “questions” (Fragen). In a regressive series he related the “guiding question” (Leitfrage) proper to philosophy qua metaphysics (“what is the being of entities?”) to a “basic question” (Grundfrage) concerning the ground of metaphysics (“what is the meaning of being?”), which he then related to a final “ontological question” (Seinsfrage) concerning being (“what does it mean to be?”). […] Heidegger’s dual operation of the “repetition” (Wiederholung) of problems and “destruction” (Destruktion) of concepts inherited from the philosophical tradition consisted in the syncretism of religious hermeneutics and philology, resulting in an erudite but mostly uncontrolled appeal to etymology. This method attempted to remove (from the Latin de-struere) layers (or strues) that, through time, ossified as concepts, in order to return to “original experiences” and “grounding questions.” (Bianco, 2018, 20f.)

While it would seem unfair to demand a properly historical recontextualization of Heideggerian method in the overarching trajectory of early twentieth century philosophy from a book whose primary concerns are exegetical, such an undertaking would perhaps, with the advantage of hindsight, make of Heidegger a more conventional and, in turn, more a comprehensible author. While Kraatz does achieve an eventual tying of the philosophy of Heidegger with the themes of rationality and reasonability it remains open whether historicizing him would not have been the more fruitful approach rather than to provide textual coherence. This circumstance is reflected in the literature the author draws primarily on: with the few exceptions of avowed names of Heidegger scholars or pupils the book makes reference primarily to the quasi-analytical reconstruing of Heidegger in certain places of Germany and the United States. Crowell is a case in point here. This fact is not necessarily one to be lamented – it just puts Heidegger closer to someone like Brandom than, say, Derrida.

This criticism notwithstanding, Kraatz’s study is remarkable in its rigor, clarity and cogency. Whether one concurs with Kraatz’s central thesis that Heideggerian philosophy ultimately occupies a therapeutic, almost ‘eudaimonic’ relevance for the self or not, his reading is remarkably coherent in terms of exegesis and formulates a new approach in Heidegger scholarship. Although the later part of the oeuvre is put in second place pursuing the outlined approach and devoting an independent study of it might shed even more light on the constructive part of Heidegger’s work and Kraatz’s reconstruction. While the aspect of methodology proper is primarily viewed in the purview of destruction and its relation to the negativity of the tendencies of typification, or their methodological position, the account exposes various options for developing its approach further and in different directions. The book constitutes a valuable resource concerning the legacy and continuing relevance of its subject and puts a challenge to all those negligent approaches and readers who dismiss Heideggerian philosophy out of hand because of its mere appearance.


Bianco, Guiseppe. 2018. ‘The Misadventures of the “Problem” in “Philosophy.” Angelaki 23 (2): 8-30.

De Boer, Karin. 2000. Thinking in the Light of Time. Heidegger’s Encounter with Hegel. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Feher, Istvan M. 1997. ‘Die Hermeneutik der Faktizität als Destruktion der Philosophiegeschichte als Problemgeschichte. Zu Heideggers und Gadamers Kritik der Problembegriffes.’ Heidegger Studies 13: 47-68.

Heidegger, Martin. 2012. Contributions to Philosophy (Of the Event). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Kraatz, Karl. 2020. Die Methodologie von Martin Heideggers Philosophie. Über die Grenzen der neuzeitlichen Wissenschaft und die Möglichkeiten der Philosophie. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann.

Williamson, Timothy. 2020. Philosophical Method. A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[1] Feher provides an elaboration of the preference of questions over problem for Heidegger’s methodology, although this issue would need to be configured differently for the later philosophy.

Philipp von Wussow: Leo Strauss and the Theopolitics of Culture

Leo Strauss and the Theopolitics of Culture Book Cover Leo Strauss and the Theopolitics of Culture
SUNY series in the Thought and Legacy of Leo Strauss
Philipp von Wussow
SUNY Press
Paperback $33.95

Reviewed by: Andrew Oberg (Associate Professor, Faculty of Humanities, University of Kochi, Japan)

The “Faith”-ful Social: von Wussow on Leo Strauss’ Legacy


I. Orienting: A Premise

Philipp von Wussow has given us an excellent and engaging study of Leo Strauss’ oeuvre in his compact and accessible Leo Strauss and the Theopolitics of Culture (SUNY Press, 2020). In the below, although I will consider the book generally, particular focus shall be given – as von Wussow himself does – to the centrality and importance of Philosophy and Law, Strauss’ publication of 1935, and then to a lesser extent his 1967 talk/essay “Jerusalem and Athens: Some Preliminary Reflections”, which repeated Philosophy and Law’s underlying thematic thrust. With the reader’s permission I will endeavor to do so from my own perspective, one prompted both by Strauss and by von Wussow’s interaction with Strauss, a viewpoint which situates itself around the idea that, as with every human structuring, politics of course always gets involved in religion; but further: religion itself (as revelation, as a social(ly-oriented) phenomenon) is political. What this means for praxis, ritually and conceptually, we shall try to draw out, and thus we join the game of Strauss that von Wussow teaches and illumines. While we may be unlikely to find any hard conclusions therefrom, we might nevertheless arrive at some enlightening reflections of our own.

II. Philosophy and Law: Finding the Religiopolitico

Von Wussow declares this text to be “one of the greatest philosophical works of the twentieth century, along with the Tractatus, Being and Time, and Dialectic of Enlightenment” (p. xvi; referencing Wittgenstein 1921, Heidegger 1927, and Adorno and Horkheimer 1944, respectively). These are extraordinarily illustrious fellows, and the assertion immediately alerts us to the esteem with which von Wussow holds Strauss’ book. We are advised to read Strauss as an author who made “directional” arguments, indicative of and instructional on comprehensive movements. He wrote philosophy as drama, with the concepts being the characters in the play (and I do intend “play” here in both senses of “theatre” and of “amusement”); already we may remark on how such an informed approach stands philosophy against yet within religion: exterior to the sturdiness of a belief as that-which-is-accepted (full stop), but interior to the shifting flow(s) of a being-in-the-world. Strauss indeed is said to be a proponent of the rational in the ‘reason versus revelation’ debate (as “Jerusalem and Athens” would consider too), but the outright impression one gets from von Wussow is that this was never definitively settled for Strauss, that even for him the question was one of (perhaps undecidable) struggle. Each was a type of wisdom, and the tension in the dialogue between we shall need to consider in the next section of our review. Still, for Strauss (and, we might add, for us) it is necessary for philosophy to differentiate itself from the thinking of a numinous lifeworld; whether or not such is truly (totally) achievable in any philosophy which includes a robust metaphysics and does not merely parade logical tools and/or associated analyses as its entirety may also be an open question. (In philosophy – as we who practice it know all too well – sooner or later one often simply has to take a stand; at such times any boundary between that “stand” and an arguably quasi-faith type “belief” is a blurry line at best, a broken one at worst.)

Von Wussow begins by giving a background to the book and its historical setting, doing so in a very accessible manner which is open to all readers regardless of familiarity with Strauss and his works (and kudos to the author are well deserved on this). Moving first through the text’s Introduction we are informed of Strauss’ fundamental position that “compromises and syntheses are untenable”, that “a new movement remains entangled in the premises of what it opposes” (68), and thus in his (i.e. Strauss’) reaching back to Maimonides and medieval reasoning in the manner he does a way of thinking/approach might thereby be found which need neither be one of the Enlightenment nor of the orthodox sort vis-à-vis a rational methodology fit for the present age. The insight here Strauss yields is that:

one can believe in miracles, in God’s creation of the world, and His [sic.] revealing Himself [sic.] to man [sic.]; and there is no decisive counterargument as long as one believes in a thorough and sincere manner… Religious or nonreligious beliefs and attitudes are a matter of choice, an act of the will. Religious and antireligious discourses are a matter of rhetorical persuasion. (71)

Every matter within these discourses (and indeed every other) are already interpreted, we come to understand, and interpretation itself is a matter of the will (this point is given its Nietzschean due); hence ultimately, we might infer, the entire issue – the “clearing” in which we stand and wherefrom our vantage point extends (stealing (and slightly distorting) some Heideggerean imagery here) – becomes non-consciously derivative from the default influence(s) of said prior choice (employing our own terms now; the emphasis being on the aspect’s absence of cognitive awareness while it yet retains a deep psychological reach). Let us then think about what it might entail to “take a stand” in such a manner in light of our own opening (our orienting) central premise that religion is itself political.

Maimonides (or Rambam) and his Islamic predecessors and contemporaries (a member of the Sephardic Jewish community, he was born in Spain in 1138 CE and died in Egypt in 1204 CE, living in and under the rule of the Islamic Golden Age) placed philosophy (“reason”) as justified through revelation, indeed even divinely commanded to be pursued by those capable of it (the born thinkers; this is an elite). Thus for these medieval theo-philosophers there simply was no ‘battle’ to be had between reason and revelation: one stood under the other, and it took its place and purpose from that positioning, as did its practitioners. Although – to my knowledge – this was not explicitly stated in the historical record that has been bequeathed to us, upon examination the profoundly political stance of such is manifest: reason/philosophy is hereby a device designed (by “Heaven”?) to be employed for the service of revelation (religion), as both apart from yet paradoxically housed within. (We might further add that in this facet at least it is not terribly unlike how Christian medieval theologians were arguing, only with very different means and – as compared with the Christians – vastly more unfettered in form). Philosophy here, as under Law (Torah), is one of a suite of tools for the service of religious self-structuring and religiously inflected societal edifice building. This is critically not an interplay, not an interaction, but instead is the twinned existence of religion and the appended political functioning of the metaphysical, the ontological conclusions; in short, the result is an emergent religiopolitico: a singularity. Conceptually, and probably practically, Law does have precedence in that philosophy takes its rationale thence; yet given its divine sanction – and again, even command – philosophy becomes not merely a potentiality of religion but a necessary aspect of it. Revelation instructs (demands) reason to be a part of it; revelation does not ‘birth’ reason so much as bodily adhere it: analysis as a prophetological prosthesis, and that carried always into the social realm. (The call of the prophet may be a voice in the wilderness, but it is one that is heard.)

If the Enlightenment Project was designed to safely rid the world of orthodoxy (but notably, as is visible from such systems as Deism, not eliminate faith per se) – and this orthodoxy is understood as a cipher for Law – then clearly it has failed, as Strauss pointed out, von Wussow discusses, and we can surely agree with. This reflection in itself shines fascinating new light (from an older source) on the current ‘culture wars’ and reaffirms how very relevant Strauss’ book is for our times today, already approaching a century from its publication (which itself is hard to think; 1935 a century ago?). Revelation, religion, the meanings for and in human lives; these are impulses apparently destined to ever be with us (there are echoes here of Pascal’s famous “God-shaped vacuum”). Strauss, in this work, calls on us to return (a supremely Jewish idea: our, everyone’s, teshuvah); not, of course, to an orthodoxy for ourselves, but rather that we re-attune our comportment in facing the challenges that confront us. As von Wussow puts it, quoting from Strauss:

Strauss instructed his imaginary readers to make a change in perspective and consider the possibility that the situation is insoluble only “as long as one clings to the modern premises.” Hence, the entire discourse on orthodoxy and the Enlightenment, and the indefatigable insistence on the insolubility of the conflict between the two, serves as a preparation for the turn to medieval philosophy: “One sees oneself induced…to apply for aid to the medieval Enlightenment, the Enlightenment of Maimonides.” (p. 89; p. 38 in Philosophy and Law)

Having thus placed his audience/partner, Strauss moves to a consideration of his contemporary Julius Guttmann’s efforts on the history of Jewish philosophy, arguing against many of Guttmann’s conclusions based on understandings of the parameters and implications of “culture” (as variously defined, and over whose definition many arguments were themselves then being made, particularly in wider extant scholarly contexts). Here Strauss proposes that religion (and the political) cannot be found within a cultural framing since such “are not spontaneous products of the human mind” but somehow “transcend” culture (p. 97). This is somewhat curious, and unless one is willing (again: a willed, determinedly chosen interpretation) to grant a literalness to revelation (an actual exotericism to it) it is hard to accede that what are ultimately abstractions may exist prior to the brain processing them. Personally I have difficulty agreeing with Strauss on this point since I take whatever numinousness there might be in the cosmos (about which I have no unshakable dogmas) to of necessity work through the existentially given; in this I suppose Strauss might accuse me of being insufficiently Maimonidean (i.e. reason within revelation, philosophy under Law), and he may be right. Perhaps then we have a clear example of the need for the very third path Strauss has been proposing, and I am revealed to be ‘too Enlightenment’ myself.

Strauss continues working with/against Guttmann to present a “resolute return” wherein the political philosopher’s task is to take revelation as relevant; it certainly was heavily influential in medieval thought. For Islamic and Jewish philosophy of the period (which is represented in Strauss by Averroes (Ibn Rushd, 1126-1198 CE), Maimonides, and Gersonides (Levi ben Gershon (or Gershom), 1288-1344 CE)), “philosophy is commanded by the law, free before the law, and bound by the authority of the law… By presupposing the law, the Islamic and Jewish philosophers of the Middle Ages are continuously referred to something beyond human reason.” (p. 112; emphasis in the original) A presumption of this sort would obviously provide the foundation for the transcendence which I seem to be having trouble with; our question is: Why accept it? Why should we – in will, in chosen lifeworld interpretation – follow suit? Strauss thinks this allows us to philosophize better, that revelation can therefore become a topic (an object) for reason, but “not the first or most important one…although – or precisely because – the law is not the most important topic of philosophy, it attains a systematic omnipresence in the whole of philosophy”, and – to my mind the most tenuous – “this inconspicuous systematic omnipresence of the law ultimately safeguards the rationality of philosophy.” (117) Philosophy can certainly become midrash (as it were), but Strauss has still not convinced me of why this stance if preferable over one which, for example, simply rejects revelation as a grounding for religion and shears it away from religion, replacing the latter as a culture (product of the human mind) and tabling the former (epoché) for sheer inability to know what to do with it (the struggle over/for a faith). Nevertheless, in its incessant referral to the Law, Strauss saw in medieval philosophy a radical foundation whereby its version of rationalism attained superiority over modern incarnations. Von Wussow very helpfully summarizes Strauss’ endpoint:

for a rationalism with belief in revelation there is no excess of revelation over the sphere of reason. Nothing in the content of revelation transcends reason [recall that the transcendence alluded to above was over culture]. The content is identical with reason, and reason is capable of knowing this content. There is no conflict between reason and revelation. (118)

That last – “there is no conflict” – is perhaps the ultimate consequence in that it therefore ‘solves’ the conflict inherent in the entire revelation versus reason debate, transforming its entirety to the effect that the “versus” becomes an “encompassing”, or maybe even a “cradling”: revelation as mother to reason, whose babe then looks upon her with eyes of a loving search. This establishes Strauss’ other contention – with which I have no qualms about agreeing – that prophetology must be taken as a part of the political. Only thusly, Strauss argues, can there be an explanation for its purpose and “final end”: why else rely on prophets? There is a kind of Platonic element at work here (I am thinking along lines drawn from Republic), but the added layer of revelation certainly does contribute to the interest of the view being espoused. Further, Strauss puts forth that such a comprehension, as against the psychological take on prophetology, enables political objectives to override any mantic ones. This is quite striking, and so let us briefly pause at this juncture: what is being claimed is that the politics – which we understand as social, as policy for the body politic – actually supersedes the divinatory aspects of the prophetic utterance. Reason as within revelation has already blurred the distinctions that might have been made, but ‘the political’ is not necessarily ‘the rational’. (Indeed, looking around one the thought hits that it is hardly ever so!) However, in the doubly tweaked religiopolitico monad we have proposed this does make sense; yet it does so without the need for a substantive revelation, and thus we are still somewhat at odds with Strauss (unless of course I misunderstand him, which is entirely possible).

Strauss has an answer for this, and it too calls upon Plato, in explaining how the medieval philosophers (and therefore too how we ought to become) were contextualized as bound, but thereby unexpectedly free:

The Platonism of these philosophers is given with their situation, with their standing in fact under the law. Since they stand in fact under the law, they admittedly no longer need, like Plato, to seek the law, the state, to inquire into it: the binding and absolutely perfect regimen of human life is given to them by a prophet. Hence they are, as authorized by the law, free to philosophize in Aristotelian freedom (p. 130; pp. 132-133 in Philosophy and Law; emphases in the original)

By having the outlines, their being-in-the-world, defined and determined at the outset through revelation (or “revelation” if we do not will the belief as such), philosophers of this ilk are declared liberated to thereby pursue other issues. Yet I must protest here that for me at least the really crucial question in being is that of being: I want to search a being-in-the-world, even if I recognize how much easier life is in having such gifted. Perhaps I am ungrateful in this desire, but the reader may understand. Whatever we might or might not feel in this regard, I think von Wussow is correct to highlight that Philosophy and Law “forces us to rethink the social and political responsibility of philosophy” (132), and if our small offering in this review (religiopolitico) is at all valid then that duty must apply within any religious system possibly even more so than it does without, for the two – the religious and the political – are not two, they are one.

III. “Jerusalem and Athens”: Thinking further on the Religiopolitico

Von Wussow judges “Jerusalem and Athens” to be a beautiful text but one without a great deal of depth; in the large I agree. It is very readable, highly interesting in parts, contains some wonderful remarks and comments, but does not boast any particularly provocative prods. Perhaps this is due to its inception as an inaugural address in a series of public talks (the Frank Cohen Memorial Lectureship at City University of New York), or for other reasons personal, mundane, or the like. (The entirety can be found in the collection: Leo Strauss, Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity: Essays and Lectures in Modern Jewish Thought, ed. and intro. by Kenneth Hart Green (Albany, New York: SUNY Press, 1997); pp. 377-405.) As von Wussow explains, “the guiding question of ‘Jerusalem and Athens’ is how to approach the Bible and Greek philosophy.” (p. 262; emphases in the original) Does one favor one or the other? It seems impossible not to; yet which? Why? On this query of method, Strauss begins by stating that, “By saying that we wish to hear first and then to act to decide, we have already decided in favor of Athens against Jerusalem” (in Jewish Philosophy, p. 380). In other words, through the assertion of an initial openness one has – possibly without meaning to – enacted a closure: revelation is shut off because it, by its nature, requires an initial act of acceptance, not restraint. Choosing not to choose is itself a choice, and it is the philosopher’s (Athens’) choice.

Yet when regarding this topic, this “and/versus”, we are dangerously apt to apply anachronisms, and these manifest clearly in the “tension between its [the West’s] double heritage [i.e. Jerusalem and Athens, revelation and reason], or its two foundational traditions”, as per von Wussow (271). For example, it is a simple enough matter for a contemporary person to reject miracles outright, without the slightest bat of an eye, and thence dispose of large parts of revelation and its sacred books; Strauss, however, wisely teaches that “we cannot ascribe to the Bible the theological concept of miracles, for that concept presupposes that of nature and the concept of nature is foreign to the Bible.” (Jewish Philosophy, p. 381) Hermeneutically we start from our “prior defaults” (as above), and busily go about reading into what was never intended (since not thought: disparate “prior defaults”) in any body of a claimed revelation. How does this affect the debate, the dialogue, the flowing and the tremor betwixt letter and eye?

It is a matter of some importance, particularly for Strauss, of whom von Wussow writes, “By the late 1920s, Strauss had convinced himself that the conflict between belief and unbelief was the everlasting theme of philosophy”, and that “the right and the necessity of philosophical reason could become evident only vis-à-vis revelation” (i.e., it could only be questioned or challenged on religious grounds; 272 and 274, respectively). Reason (philosophy), it seems, is not only justified by revelation (religion) – as with Maimonides – but actively needs it to establish itself; one apparently cannot even have reason without revelation, if we correctly follow this lecture and its place within Straussean thought. Again, though, we have hereby circled back to the issue of transcendence, and whence to our same doubts, our troubles – our discomfort – in what appears a necessitated embrace of the unempirical and the aethereal; what (for or by us) is to be done? Strauss, regarding the “ingredients” of the admixture here (Plato/reason/human nature as unchangeable on the one hand (Athens) over that of prophets/revelation/human nature as changeable (Jerusalem) on the other), states: “Since we are less certain than Cohen [i.e., referencing the context of the Memorial series] was that the modern synthesis is superior to its pre-modern ingredients, and since the two ingredients [i.e., the two triads just mentioned] are in fundamental opposition to each other, we are ultimately confronted by a problem rather than by a solution.” (Jewish Philosophy, p. 399) Or, as von Wussow expresses it, we arrive at a “standstill”: summarizing the figurative argument of “Jerusalem and Athens” as a “Socratic atheism” – i.e., the restraint on human thought and the refusal of divine thought preceding revelation (and that last presumably agreed upon as being undeniable) – he writes: “The enigmatic figure of Socrates assisting the god by trying to disprove the god’s reply [re: Apollo proclaiming through the oracle at Delphi that no one was wiser than Socrates, which Socrates then set out to challenge], only to find out that it is true, is the image in which the whole semantic process eventually came to a standstill.” (282)

In reading through and trying to work out along with Strauss – ‘along with’, but also alongside-cum-beside(s) (paralleling) him – this abiding doubled call of revelation and reason as alternative foundations, we discover the forked path remains forked (a dead end?), and we are yet adrift. That is, unless perhaps we might trade out that conjunctive in the title (and further still: all conjunctives) such that there is neither an “and” nor a “versus” in our “Jerusalem…Athens” binary, but rather a grouping more akin to: “Jerusalem under/with/enclosing Athens”, or “Athens on/of/in Jerusalem”. If we decide here – if we will it – a positivity, then we might understand the complex as a required never-ending work in progress, a dialectic bound to give more strength than it takes. (To borrow a phrase from Torah study: We turn the religiopolitico and turn it again, for all is in it.). We might do this; we might seek a resolution through an either/both and a neither/nor: it is a choice, it is a will, it is a belief. Religion is political, reason is political; what politics do we want? What social do we seek?

IV. Generalities: Contents and Tangibility

Strauss, in later university courses he gave on his chosen “great books” of collective Western heritage, encouraged his students to read so that they might “free the text from the debris of its own afterlife” (285) as von Wussow puts it, and naturally he would have us do that for Strauss too; and so we should, indeed. In this excellent labor on, over, and within the decades of Strauss’ scholarship, von Wussow surveys: Part I: Strauss’ relationship with the Neo-Kantians of his time, the then relevant debates over the categorization and systematic elements of ethics and politics (five chapters); Part II: the main work Philosophy and Law (in great detail, as expressed above; four chapters); Part III: his arguments on “German Nihilism” and the roots of National Socialist thought (two chapters); Part IV: ideas on culture and relativism (especially as related to developments in anthropology; four chapters); and Part V: “Jerusalem and Athens” (one chapter) with a final conclusion on the “natural way” of reading (one chapter). Throughout von Wussow’s book is highly readable, always enjoyable, and often quite gripping. Von Wussow writes with evident passion for his topic and displays an enviable erudition.

Physically speaking (I was sent an e-copy for review, but who can stomach e-copies? I bought the paperback), the work is very attractive, packaged exceedingly well by SUNY Press in a pleasant layout with a becoming format, logically adjusted margins and a font and print size that are easy on one’s eyes (if only Routledge could learn a thing or two from SUNY on these matters). As one might expect, there are numerous notes to the main text; these are grouped together in a single section at the end. While I typically prefer footnotes, in this case von Wussow’s extras beyond the usual referencing material are not overly done, and thus they might be skipped without any harm coming to one’s comprehension of and appreciation for the subject. Here again we can compliment von Wussow and the production team. I would happily recommend this book to any reader interested in twentieth century German and/or German Jewish thought and culture, its interstices with American schools during and after the Second World War, and of course with the nexus that is religion and politics as bound into culture: what we have called the religiopolitico. To such may we find ourselves “faithful”.

Hanneke Grootenboer: The Pensive Image: Art as a Form of Thinking

The Pensive Image: Art as a Form of Thinking Book Cover The Pensive Image: Art as a Form of Thinking
Hanneke Grootenboer
The University of Chicago Press
Cloth $35.00

Reviewed by: Kayla Dold (Master’s of Arts student in the Department of Political Science, Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario)

Why is there being instead of nothing? Hanneke Grootenboer’s The Pensive Image: Art as a Form of Thinking takes this Heideggerian question as it’s starting point. Like Martin Heidegger, Grootenboer’s task is to reflect on what constitutes philosophical thinking about being. In a discipline like philosophy, with its wide array of methodological approaches, traditions, and applications, it is easy to lose sight of simple yet profound questions like Heidegger’s. In this sea of approaches, Grootenboer’s book provides an accessible, clear, and innovating means of thinking about being by revealing a new philosophical subject: artworks.

In a succinct five chapters, Grootenboer describes a means of doing philosophy with pensive images. This is an ambitious task; however, for all its brevity (its body is approximately 170 pages), The Pensive Image remains philosophically vigorous and firmly rooted in the philosophical traditions that precede it, including German idealism, romanticism, phenomenology, post-structuralism, and of course, modern and contemporary art history. It is a blend of modern Western philosophy and art history; while Grootenboer discusses some contemporary artworks (like Richard Estes’ photorealism in chapter five), their focus is on seventeenth century Dutch artworks and modern continental philosophy. Its blend of continental philosophy and modern art produces a hybrid means of philosophizing and expands our conception of what is philosophically relevant to include modern artworks.

Despite their blend of philosophy and art, Grootenboer’s attention to detail and clear prose is consistent throughout, making The Pensive Image a valuable resource for art historians, philosophers, students, and the general public. Its clarity and wide range of commentary makes The Pensive Image interesting and accessible for a general audience, while its theoretical contributions to philosophical methods makes it valuable to the undergraduate and highly trained researcher alike.

Grootenboer’s The Pensive Image describes a novel philosophical subject—the pensive image—and prepare it for application in art history (15). Grootenboer justifies this task by arguing that philosophy (insofar as it is interested in reflection, being, essence, and thinking) needs artworks to articulate complex and layered clusters of concepts that are difficult, or impossible, to articulate with words (5). Visual arguments articulate clusters of concepts that are related yet cannot be systematically explained using cause and effect, logic puzzles, or thought experiments. Therefore, visual arguments add invaluable tools to our philosophical tool belts; however, this methodological implication is not the book’s sole source of value.

The Pensive Image does not only describe a new philosophical subject and means of thinking about being. Grootenboer’s meticulous invocation of the Western philosophical tradition, ranging from Descartes to Deleuze, offers us clear and descriptive secondary literature on great philosophical minds. The Pensive Image provides excellent commentary on those whom Grootenboer builds their theory (including Descartes, Diderot, Kant, Locke, Hegel, Herder, Goethe, Heidegger, Barthes, Lessing, Rancière, and Deleuze, amongst others). For example, the description of Heidegger’s conception of uncanniness [unheimlich] from Being and Time in chapter three is as clear and succinct as the description of dewdrops on flower petals in chapter four. Its balance between commentary and description makes The Pensive Image an indispensable handbook to anyone interested in the history of the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of art, and their intersection in the Western continental tradition.

While The Pensive Image provides clear and detailed commentary on other thinkers, it is primarily methodological. Despite its engagement with artwork, it is not hermeneutical. Instead, it follows Edmund Husserl’s original phenomenological directive: to pay close attention to things themselves. Grootenboer’s approach depends on describing artworks as autonomous philosophical subjects. Through a careful consideration of images and their effects on their viewers, Grootenboer describes a relationship between artwork and viewer that does not depend on interpretation, cracking a code, or deciphering a message. Instead, Grootenboer pays close attention to the visuals presented—a open door, a vast black background, the translucent shine of dew on a flower petal—and how these direct our thoughts. Throughout The Pensive Image, Grootenboer acknowledges that these effects may or may not have been the intension of the artist (5, 59, 60, 97, 99, 122, 146). Either way, intentionality (or lack thereof) does not change the artwork’s effect, its capacity to mediate our process of reflection, or to direct our thoughts (10-11). Whether or not Grootenboer’s description and conclusions are possible without an interpretive element is the topic for another book; regardless, Grootenboer describes interactions with artworks readers have likely experienced themselves. It is their description of our shared experience of artworks that makes Grootenboer’s conception of the pensive image and its application so compelling.

What exactly is a pensive image, and what are its effects? Grootenboer’s first section, “Defining the Pensive Image,” describes this philosophical subject and justifies its relevance to modern continental philosophy and art history. Grootenboer sets up their description with an account of the relationship between philosophical thinking and artworks over time. They situate the pensive image in two related traditions: the phenomenology and the relationship between modern artworks and contemplation. Thus, Grootenboer does more than simply revive Heidegger’s question of why there is being. They also situate the pensive image in a tradition of phenomenological approaches to art taken by Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1-5).

Grootenboer then surveys the historical relationship between modern artworks and philosophy. Grootenboer describes their thesis as a secular extension of the medieval tradition of contemplation, which uses images as mnemonic devices to transcend the secular domain (3). Grootenboer also notes how many modern philosophical ideas were explained using visual representation, though the intimate relation between art and philosophy generally declines after the seventeenth century (4). Thus, Grootenboer’s thesis revives and expands upon a previous philosophical tradition and is legitimized by its relation to phenomenological approaches to artworks.

The Pensive Image argues for the relevance of artworks to philosophy on multiple levels. Broadly speaking, it argues that artworks are a form of thinking. Artworks offer viewers entrance into a mode of thinking we would not enter on our own (1). This does not mean the artwork offers a particular narrative or meaning but that it inspires a new train of thought (22). Grootenboer writes that pensive images are “those that confront us in such a way that our wondering about the work of art—its subject of meaning—is transformed into our thinking according to it” (6). Rather than offering a narrative, a pensive image offers us the opportunity to think by guiding our thoughts in ways we might not have gone without its inspiration. This presupposes artworks can be effective: they do something to us. Therefore, pensive images are not meant to be interpreted but experienced.

Specifically, The Pensive Image argues that modern Dutch painting includes pensive images that guide our thoughts and reflections on being. (Though its focus is modern Dutch art, the book includes commentary on film and photography that helps us understand how different forms of art are concerned with different questions.) The first chapter, “Theorizing Stillness,” is devoted to describing the particulars of the pensive image as it applies to Dutch painting. The pensive image has two chief characteristics: firstly, while its meaning is indeterminant, a pensive image redirects our thoughts to contemplate being in new ways. It initiates a line of thinking we can follow indefinitely (9). It is not there to draw conclusions but to serve as an opening that allows a multiplicity of ideas to exist at the same time. Secondly, a pensive image visualizes a snapshot in time. This frozen moment, the anticipation of something more that is not visually articulated, is what directs our thoughts (24). A pensive image is therefore characterized by a movement paradox. Its stillness arrests us and from this arrest comes a flow of thought; pensive images generate “a passive, uneasy, and indeterminant state of openness that allows for the unthought to surface” (26).  A pensive image is open, tense, and suggests the possibility of movement (37). It stops our thoughts to redirect them in a new direction undetermined by specific signs or signifiers, meanings or narratives.

If the pensive image does not signify meaning nor tell stories, what does it contain, or, in other words, what is its essence? Chapter two, “Tracing the Denkbild,” answers this question. Instead of a specific signification, the pensive image is the embodiment of thought. This chapter describes different means of understanding an image as embodied thought over time. Through an analysis of stillness, it argues that the pensiveness of a pensive image can be understood as a moment of anticipation (47). Here, stillness is characterized by the theoretical potential for movement, rather than a lack of movement. Thus, tension, anticipation, and potential define a pensive image; it is open, uneasy, and ambiguous. Its openness and ambiguity make the pensive image a valuable philosophical subject worthy of our engagement.

While the idea that painting can be more than images on a canvas is not new, Grootenboer invites us to see painting as a partner in philosophizing that guides us where ‘it’ wants us to go (11). This metaphor of movement, guidance, and journey is central to Grootenboer’s pensive image and recurs through the book. For example, landscape paintings are “maps” that help viewers shape their interior selves, “entrances” into the pictorial realm (2, 1). They invite us to “dwell” within them, they reach out and touch us, set things in motion, and vibrate with potential (5, 26, 43). We are invited to get lost in the image, to rest in it, or to bord it like a vehicle (77, 78). Like Lucy, Edmond, and Eustice in C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, who are literally pulled into a painting of an ocean, allowing the pensive image to direct our thoughts is like being carried away by a wave (58). The tension between stillness and motion, journey and rest are fundamental to the pensive image.

Chapter three expands upon these relationships to think through what Grootenboer pithily calls philosophy’s housing problem. In this chapter, Grootenboer’s philosophical subjects include paintings of bourgeois Dutch homes and a dollhouse. These artworks provide a place for our thoughts to dwell, or, in Grootenboer’s words, “a home for the philosophical self,” by offering the opportunity to reflect on the permeable membranes between publicity and retreat, inside and outside (79). This chapter describes how artworks serve as metaphorical spaces where we can house our thoughts and subjectivities, thereby solving philosophy’s housing problem.

Drawing theoretical support from René Descartes’ construction metaphor and Heidegger’s conception of dwelling, Grootenboer demonstrates how Emanuel De Witte’s Interior with Woman at a Virginal (c. 1660–1667) and Petronella Oortman’s dollhouse (1686– 1710) host our thoughts. Descartes compares self-reflection to construction: in order to achieve self-understanding, we must clear away old foundations and build anew (81). Descartes himself formulated this approach while traveling. In his home-away-from-home, Descartes constructs himself a metaphorical home to house his thoughts and reflections (82). To philosophize is therefore conceived of as being on a mental journey while physically at rest. This implies that the philosopher’s home is not an actual resting place but their journey: the act of philosophizing itself.

Grootenboer builds on this tension between journey and rest by invoking Heidegger’s conception of dwelling. Heidegger argues that constructing something implies we already dwell there (85-86). To dwell implies a movement towards materiality. For Heidegger, dwelling is not a static condition but a constant movement towards something that cannot be achieved (to achieve it would no longer be to dwell). It is to be drawn towards something without ever arriving, a constant becoming (87). De Witte’s interior painting, as a pensive image, helps us understand this situation. It allows our thought to dwell within it. Our eyes and subsequent thoughts are drawn through doorways to the vanishing point beyond, a point we will never actually behold.

While we cannot inhabit De Witte’s painting, Oortman’s dollhouse appears inhabitable. Yet, because the dollhouse replicates Oortman’s home on a miniature scale, it is ultimately uninhabitable, what Grootenboer calls “a borrowed home” (105). That being so, the dollhouse contains elements, like a collection of seashells, that provide an opportunity to think through the dialectics of inside and outside and journey and rest. For example, what was once the travelling home of a sea creature is now an empty shell. The dollhouse allows us the opportunity to think through the uncanny nature of uninhabitable spaces that appear inhabitable. What these artworks offer us is not the ability to determine what is inside and outside, on journey or at rest, but to recognize that as philosophical subjects, we are wanderers (109). It is the pensive image, which offers a temporary place to dwell, that saves us from getting lost.

In chapter four, “The Profundity of Still Life,” Grootenboer analyzes pensive images that guide us through the relationship between finitude and infinity. For example, Adriaene Coorte’s Three Medlars and a Butterfly (1696-1705) mediates our understanding of the relationship between the infinitively large and the finitely small by visualizing a small butterfly approaching three fruits against a black background (119). The painting serves as a plot point between two extremes: the expansive background and the small butterfly. We can use this point as a reference when thinking through the implications of each extreme. This pensive image provides perspective; the butterfly and fruit in the foreground impose a sense of proportion, direction, and space onto a painting that would otherwise stretch into infinity. Grootenboer’s analysis suggests that as situated subjects, we are unable to think through the implications of limitlessness or infinity without a mental anchor or reference point. We can only understand infinity through its comparison with the finite, which Three Medlars and a Butterfly provides. By describing Three Medlars and a Butterfly in detail, Grootenboer demonstrates its philosophical relevance. By mediating our conceptualization of infinity, it embodies a form of thinking and self-reflection (133).

Grootenboer moves past self-reflection in the final chapter, “Painting as Space for Thought,” to invoke G. W. F. Hegel’s conception of self-consciousness. Hegel writes that painting’s function is not to reflect the world, but to provide some permanence for contemplation (135). For Grootenboer and Hegel, what inspires contemplation is shine. Painting is unique amongst artistic mediums in its capacity to represent light and to, therefore, shine (136-138). In this chapter, Grootenboer contrasts Hegel’s conception of self-consciousness with self-reflection, arguing that photorealism is a self-conscious genre whose self-consciousness helps us better understand Hegel’s concept. Grootenboer argues this point via an analysis of shine in Richard Estes’s photorealism.

Where does a reflection lie? In the object that reflects, or the subject that is reflected? Richard Estes’s Central Savings (1975) mimics a photograph of a storefront, in which the objects on the street are reflected and layered on top of each other so that we are unsure what is inside or outside the store. Estes’s painting serves as a means to reflect on reflection, visualizing both the reflected subjects and objects in which they are reflected. The painting is therefore both itself and its negation or mirror image, providing us an opportunity to think through the dialectic of self and other. The painting, whose self-consciousness comes from its ability to facilitate a synthesis of reflected and reflection, helps us think past this dialectic and synthesize the two (142-143).

Estes’ painting does not separate inside from outside nor opacity from transparency. Instead, it allows us to see how what is reflected always meets itself in its reflection, preventing an endless cycle of reflection in a synthesis of reflection and reflected (156). Central Savings, like Hegel’s conception of self-consciousness, is bold enough to think through and overcome oppositions (159). Grootenboer’s analysis of Central Savings reveals that the philosophical tradition of reflecting on reflection is not exclusive to written philosophy. It is enacted by pensive images as well.

Grootenboer concludes The Pensive Image with commentary on the relationship between philosophy and wonder. Grootenboer reminds us that according to Plato, Socrates believed wonder was the beginning of philosophy (167). Do artworks offer a similar starting point? For Heidegger, wonder is a basic element of ordinary life (168). According to Grootenboer, the association between wonder, philosophy, and ordinary life is what makes seventeenth century Dutch artworks such fruitful contributors to philosophical investigations of being. Their focus on the ordinary and their reward of slow looking leads us to new discoveries. Ultimately, the pensive image is a valuable philosophical subject because it provides the opportunity to philosophize from, and about, ordinary experience. They stop us in our tracks and suggest a new courses for our philosophical journeys. In contrast to trompe l’oeil, panorama, of other kinds of illusionism that overwhelm us by enchantment and delight to lift us out of our ordinary experience, pensive images slowly overtake us. They do not to lift from the ordinary but to push us deeper into it, guiding us home (169). The Pensive Image thus concludes with all the optimism a new philosophical approach deserves, the hope for new discoveries that bring us home to ourselves.

The Pensive Image has the potential for broad application. Its description of the pensive image, its commentary on painting, film, and material culture, and its overlapping imagery with literary analysis implies the possibility of using the pensive image to understand the philosophical importance of other cultural products. The pensive image, applied metaphorically to literary imagery, might reveal an intimate relationship between image, text, and mind, in which the text’s imagery compels us to follow its logic. This, combined with its phenomenological approach, provides a framework we can apply to the existential literature of Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and others. For example, Beauvoir’s imagery of barren wastelands in her 1946 novel All Men Are Mortal guides us through a similar meditation on finitude and infinity as Grootenboer describes in chapter four, implying an opportunity for comparison and new perspectives. Grootenboer’s The Pensive Image describes an approach potentially more far reaching than its introduction’s humble proposal, which could potentially be applied to imagery in literature, film, performance art, and even music.

While it is sometimes difficult to discern whether Grootenboer argues in favour of artworks as aids to understanding philosophical ideas articulated elsewhere (as is the case for Heidegger’s dwelling or Hegel’s self-consciousness) or as containing autonomous philosophical arguments themselves (as is the case for Three Medlars and a Butterfly), their oscillation between the two demonstrates that for artworks to be taken seriously as philosophical subjects, we do not have to decide between one and the other. As a philosophical subject, a pensive image can clarify an idea articulated elsewhere without depending on others’ ideas to articulate its own arguments. Its status as independent philosophical subject does not preclude its ability to aid our understanding of others.

Some aesthetic purists might balk at the idea of using artworks this way. They could argue that art is meant to be enjoyed, valued for its own sake, rather than used for philosophical ends. Grootenboer successfully counters such arguments by describing how the pensive images’ effects are part of its being. We do not use a pensive image for our own purposes. Instead, we let it guide our thoughts according to its own logic. Grootenboer thus avoids accusations of the ‘use and abuse’ of artworks for philosophical ends by focusing on the artworks themselves, their effects, and their autonomous properties. Rather than using a pensive image to achieve our own goals, we enter into a relationship with it. We following it where it needs to go without the added baggage of hypotheses, interpretive frameworks, or ulterior motives. Engagement with pensive images allows us to engage in a philosophy of free play, curiously, and wonder, rather than one of hermeneutic or analytical investigation. It is an appreciation of the things themselves without contorting them by imposing artificial frameworks and hypothesis.

In addition to its methodological implications, The Pensive Image challenges the artificial distinctions between art and philosophy, perceiving and thinking, reason and emotion. It models how to challenge disciplinary boundaries, which can get in the way of innovative thinking. Grootenboer conceptualizes the pensive image as a “predisciplinary blueprint” because it directs the thinker on a journey that knows no disciplinary bounds, be they philosophical, historical, literary, or artistic (71). Its most valuable contribution to philosophy is its emphasis on philosophy as a conscious reflection unbound by discipline, subject, or object.

In chapter three, Grootenboer writes that their main concern is not what thought is but how artworks help house it. The Pensive Image might not focus on defining thought but implies a simple yet profound definition of philosophy: a free flow of reflection, contemplation, and investigation mediated by permeable boundaries, boundaries that allow for movement so that dwelling and journeying merge. The Pensive Image provides us with a vision of philosophy and art in a mutually constituting relationship, a roadmap to theoretical places yet unexplored, and thereby a philosophical home.