Sean Kirkland’s Heidegger and the Destruction of Aristotle. On How to Read the Tradition (hereafter: HDA) is an in-depth study of Heidegger’s relation to Aristotle, engaging the German thinker’s early works and lecture courses (1919-1927). Kirkland follows and discusses Heidegger’s contention that Aristotle should be studied as a “proto-phenomenologist.” As such, this work is also a study on Heidegger’s unique and original method in his readings of the philosophical tradition (as Kirkland clarifies: “intending specifically the tradition that was inaugurated by ancient Greek thinking”). This book is thus just as much as a work on Heidegger’s method as on his relation to Aristotle. The reader will easily recognize this method of the early Heidegger as that of Destruktion or destruction (taken in a positive sense, as Heidegger insists) and hermeneutics, as Kirland establishes from the outset: “In the lecture courses, papers, and other texts of this period, from 1919 to 1927, the year of Being and Time’s publication, Heidegger sometimes discusses this method, which he provocatively calls Destruktion or ‘destruction,’ in considerable depth and detail before applying it to whatever text he has before him. It is this interpretive approach, taken strictly on its own terms as a hermeneutic, that I strive to bring to light in the present volume” (HDA, viii). More specifically, Kirland attempts to approach “destruction” as an interpretive method (Heidegger developing what we might call a “destructive hermeneutics”), a destructive or deconstructive interpretation of our tradition going back to Aristotle.
In the introduction, Kirkland reminds us that, “Before becoming one of the most original and influential thinkers of the twentieth century, Martin Heidegger began his philosophical career, it could be argued, as an interpreter of Aristotle” (HDA, 3). In a 1937–38 short text, entitled “My Path So Far (“Mein bisheriger Weg”), Heidegger had described his path of thinking as being two-fold: a research on phenomenology and an interpretive work on the history of philosophy, in particular, “a resolute return to Greek philosophy in the figure of its first essential culmination—Aristotle” (cited in HDA, 3). This leads Kirkland to ask the question guiding his book: “Why? Why would the project that begins with Being and Time’s phenomenological analysis of lived human experience necessitate an elaborate historical detour through the work of this ancient Greek philosopher?” (HDA, 3). One could answer, following Heidegger’s indications at the beginning of paragraph 6 of Being and Time, that the question of being and of Dasein is a historical one, and that any access to the being of Dasein has to unfold in a historical fashion. One cannot grasp one’s being in an immediate way, as Descartes believed, but rather but going through the “detour” of our historical existence. Dasein is its past, states Heidegger. To that extent, philosophical questioning can only unfold as a radically historical enterprise. Further, Kirkland identifies another motive for this historical analysis, namely, that “there is also a certain Not or ‘distress’ and Notwendigkeit or ‘necessitation’… which Heidegger sees as belonging to our present historical moment” (HDA, 6). There is a peculiar distress to our age that requires the destruction/deconstruction of our historical provenance. As Kirkland summarizes: “if Distress and Historicality, then Destruction” (HDA, 8). Later in the text, Kirland states that it is from “a certain mood of dissatisfaction with our present” that Heidegger “sees us as being called upon to turn our attention to our past, to the distant Greek origin of philosophizing in the West and to Aristotle” (HDA, 50). Finally, we could add, a third aspect is that Heidegger characterizes our tradition as “obscuring” and thereby necessitating a “clarifying” destruction. Hence, as Kirkland writes, Heidegger believed that “our ignorance concerning what ‘to be’ even means and our general lack of concern about that ignorance are both rooted in ‘ancient ontology,’” and that the “ancient Greek answer, for Heidegger, was the reduction of the meaning of Being to the presence of present beings.” This metaphysical interpretation “found its definitive initial formulation in the thought of Aristotle,” the “Aristotelian substance ontology,” thereby giving the theme of this volume (the “destruction” of Aristotle) its meaning and necessity. The project of this book is thus reformulated more fully by Kirkland in this way”: “If Aristotle’s conception of substance ontology persists in and fundamentally still organizes our own pre-reflective experience, as Heidegger insists, then a destruction of the Aristotelian text will be more than a historical detour. It will be a journey of self-discovery or even, given the peculiar power of this method, a project of self-recovery” (HDA, 17).
The work is composed of three main parts or chapters: Chapter 1 endeavors to clarify what reading a text destructively, in the Heideggerian sense, means. Chapter 2 asks what the critical de-constructing of traditional concepts produces. Chapter 3 analyses Heidegger’s treatments of three fundamental Aristotelian concepts: ousia or “substance,” the definition of the human being as zôon logon echon (the living being endowed with logos), and finally dunamis or “potency.”
In Chapter 1, Kirkland focuses on the 1922 text, ““Phenomenological Interpretations with Respect to Aristotle: Indication of the Hermeneutical Situation,” as well as the 1924 course, Basic Concepts of Aristotelian Philosophy, where one can detect “clear anticipations” of Being and Time. Those early works elaborate what is known as Heidegger’s “hermeneutics of factical life,” prefiguring the later “analytic of Dasein,” both centered around the notion of concern for one’s own being. Kirkland shows how Aristotle figures in such a project, and how Heidegger approaches Aristotelian concepts, that is, how he retrieves their verbal and dynamic character, i.e., the process of their emergence. “Aristotelian concepts do not present themselves as abstract forms with already established exhaustive definitions, linked together logically, and exchangeable one for the other in various combinations. Rather, precisely in being destroyed they show themselves first and foremost as indicating movements of emergence by way of which what exceeds our grasp becomes nevertheless to some extent clear, illuminated, understood” (HDA, 34). The chapter develops through illuminating discussions Heidegger’s phenomenological reappropriation of the concept, i.e., of conceptuality itself, the language of conceptuality, via readings of Aristotle concept of definition (but also of Kant’s understanding of concepts). Each time the issue is reseize concepts in their Bodenständigkeit, their soil, in the process of their emergence. Conceptuality itself is approached in its “dynamic confrontation with and emergence out of what is not yet grasped and mastered by thought” (HDA, 48). A concept always reaches beyond itself.
As we mentioned above, Chapter 2 is concerned with what the destructive reading of the tradition produces, or seeks to produce, Kirkland evoking a certain “jolt” (HDA, 52) given to the present, precisely as to open up “an as-yet undetermined future,” in a relation to the tradition that would be neither repetition nor rejection (“neither solicitation and repetition nor quarantine and rejection”). As Kirkland states, “I wish to insist here that Heidegger’s destructive method of reading the texts of Aristotle amounts to neither a simple repetition nor a simple rejection of Aristotelian thought” (HDA, 53-54). Noting what Gadamer referred to as the deep ambivalence of the project of Destruktion, Kirkland advances that such destruction harbors a positive intent, in the following sense: its aim is to reveal an unsaid in the text that harbors a future and even a revolutionary potential (Hannah Arendt even calling Destruktion a “revolutionary thinking,” or even thinking itself having come to life), as it were preparing for a new beginning: “Heidegger was reading in such a way as to provoke these traditionary texts into saying something unheard of, unnoticed there, and, precisely thereby, something revolutionary” (HDA, 55). With respect to such unsaid, Kirkland cites an “extraordinary passage” in the 1924 text, “Being-There and Being-True According to Aristotle,” where Heidegger states the following: “For an interpretation is genuine [eigentliche] only when, in going through the whole text, it comes upon that which is not there [nicht dasteht] for a crude understanding, but which, although unspoken [unausgesprochen], nonetheless makes up the ground [Boden] and the genuine foundations of the kind of vision [Art des Sehens] from out of which the text itself was able to grow” (cited in HDA, 70, translation modified).
In contrast with Werner Marx’s interpretation of Heidegger’s relation to the philosophical tradition (in his well-known Heidegger and the Tradition), which consisted in emphasizing the negative scope of Heidegger’s method, and grasping the tradition as a monolithic whole from which Heidegger would eventually part, Kirkland makes the following intriguing claim: Destruktion reveals an excess in the tradition that one can only detect within such tradition, and not simply by going beyond it. “Contra Marx, and paradoxically, destruction will prove to make a positive contribution to thinking in excess of the tradition only through a complete descent into that very tradition, only through a radical immersion in the thinking of, for instance, Aristotle” (HDA, 58).
With respect to Aristotle, Kirkland focuses on a key passage in Heidegger’s 1924 course, Basic Concepts of Aristotelian Philosophy. A decisive claim is made by Heidegger, namely that the subject-matter of philosophy (as initiated by the Greeks), i.e., Being, is not simply laying there before us ready to be described. Being is not “already there,” open to view, “present and available for scrutiny, offering itself for exhaustive knowing and mastering.” In fact, the very subject-matter of philosophy is as it were hidden or withdrawn, even though as we will see it is also “accessible” in some way. Being is given yet withdrawn, “hidden” behind what comes to the fore, i.e., beings. “Crucial for us is Heidegger’s insistence here that, for the Greeks and for Aristotle in particular, Being, as the subject matter of this philosophical or critical scientific thinking, is confronted as ‘what does not lie there [was nicht vorliegt] for natural experience, but is rather hidden [verborgen], what never lies before and is nevertheless already and indeed always understood [nie vorliegt und doch schon und zwar immer verstanden]” (cited in HDA, 62)). In other words, the “Greek philosophers first confront Being in their texts as “initially unknown, closed off, inaccessible [zunächst unbekannt, verschlossen, unzugänglich]” (cited in HDA, 62), and yet, as we indicated above, and as Kirkland rightly notes, “as withdrawn behind or within beings but somehow nevertheless already experienced in its non-presence” (HDA, 62).
A clarification is necessary here. For Heidegger being withdraws, is the withdrawal. “By revealing itself in the being, being withdraws” [Das Sein entzieht sich, indem es sich in das Seiende entbirgt].” The thinking of being is hence always grappling with an irreducible opaqueness and mystery. This accounts for Heidegger’s late pronouncement that phenomenology, in its very essence, is a phenomenology of what does not appear, a phenomenology of the inapparent [Phänomenologie des Unscheinbaren].” As letting be seen, phenomenology (the method of ontology) is a wrestling with the inapparent, with an irreducible concealment and expropriation at the heart of the event of being. This claim might seem at first paradoxical and even go against the very definition that Heidegger gives of the phenomenon in paragraph 7 of Being and Time: “Thus we must keep in mind that the expression ‘phenomenon’ signifies that which shows itself in itself, the manifest.” Now, we should clarify from the outset that for Heidegger a phenomenon — that is, the phenomenon with which phenomenology is concerned — is not an empirical intuition or an ontical given, a present being. The phenomenon is approached by Heidegger in its verbal sense, as “the-showing-itself-in-itself” (das Sich-an-ihm-selbst-zeigen)” (SZ, 31). The term “phenomenon” thus immediately refers to the event of a self-showing, and the “given” is consequently assigned to the event of its givenness. The phenomena are to be referred, not to a constituting consciousness, but to the event of being as such. This is why for Heidegger phenomenology is the very method of ontology. Unlike his former mentor Husserl, who approached phenomenology in relation to a constituting consciousness, Heidegger defines phenomenology in relation to ontology, as giving us access to the being of beings. “With regard to its subject-matter, phenomenology is the science of the being of entities – ontology” (SZ, 37). Phenomenology consists in revealing, not simply the appearance, but the appearing in the appearance. Here one glimpses for the first time the emergence of the problematic of the inapparent in phenomenology: the phenomenon is not what appears, the appearance, but the appearing of the appearance, an appearing that, precisely to the extent that it itself is not an appearance, does not appear.
There is an invisibility sheltered in the visible, an invisibility of phenomenality itself. This appears in Heidegger’s thinking of presence. By understanding being in distinction from beings, Heidegger approaches being itself as an event, the event of presence. Now, the very event of presence seems to harbor a certain withdrawal. In fact, the very term Anwesenheit reveals a withdrawal at the heart of manifestation. The an– in An-wesen or An-wesenheit suggests a coming into presence, a movement, a motion, from concealment to unconcealment, from withdrawal and invisibility to visibility. Thus, to characterize a being as an-wesend also shows that the preposition an suggests the dynamic tension between a movement of coming into presence and a movement of withdrawal, a play between unconcealment and concealment already captured by the Greeks in the contrast between the prepositions para and apo in parousia and apousia. This implies, in turn, a break with the model of constant presence, that is, with a kind of “stability” that represses the temporal happening in the phenomenon of presence, including the phenomenon of withdrawal that seems to affect, each time, the event of presence. In fact, the very concept of phenomenology, insofar as it is defined as a ‘letting be seen” (sehen lassen), necessarily implies the withdrawal of the phenomenon. Indeed, if phenomenology is a letting be seen, then the phenomenon of phenomenology cannot be simply that which is apparent or manifest; if the phenomenon was simply the given, there would be no need for phenomenology. “And just because the phenomena are proximally and for the most part not given, there is need for phenomenology” (SZ, 36). This is why Heidegger could write that the phenomenon, precisely as that which is to be made phenomenologically visible, does not show itself, although this inapparent nonetheless belongs to what shows itself, for Heidegger also stresses that “‘behind’ the phenomena of phenomenology there is essentially nothing” (SZ, 36). The inapparent is not some noumenal reality hidden behind the phenomenon, but a dimension that belongs to it. What, then, is called a phenomenon in a distinctive sense? What is the full, phenomenological concept of the phenomenon? Here is Heidegger’s answer: “What is it that must be called a `phenomenon’ in a distinctive sense? What is it that by its very essence is necessarily the theme whenever we exhibit something explicitly? Manifestly, it is something that proximally and for the most part does not show itself at all: it is something that lies hidden, in contrast to that which proximally and for the most part does show itself; but at the same time it is something that belongs to what thus shows itself, and it belongs to it so essentially as to constitute its meaning and its ground” (SZ, 35). Now, for Heidegger at the time of Being and Time, what does not appear in what appears is being: “Yet that which remains hidden in an egregious sense, or which relapses and gets covered up again, or which shows itself only ‘in disguise,’ is just not this entity or that, but rather the being of entities” (SZ, 38).
This is why Kirkland stresses that the first decisive claim that Heidegger makes is that Greek, Aristotelian philosophy “engineers” (that is, lets emerge) a differentiation between being and beings, so that precisely being begins to come into view from its concealment as such. This requires a genuine phenomenological forcing, the goal of which is to elucidate, to bring to light and to uncover that which remains hidden, covered over or dissimulated. There is thus an unavoidable violence of thought or interpretation, implicit in Destruktion. This necessity of a philosophical violence turned against the self-concealment of being is described in the early courses Heidegger gave when he was engaged in the so-called “hermeneutics of factical life.” It was then a matter for him of deriving “the phenomenological interpretation out of the facticity of life itself.” Now Life is characterized by a constant moving-away from itself (Abfallen), a constant fleeing from itself, a movement that is a falling away. Heidegger speaks indeed of this falling away as “the ownmost character of movement belonging to life,” and the expropriation of what he calls “ruinance” is thus the most “proper” movement of life. In this movement of falling away into ruins, life is opened to its own possibility and becomes an issue for itself in an originary self-estrangement. Thinking begins in life’s self-estrangement or expropriation from itself, and is itself a part of this movement of life, a sort of counter movement, a response to the event of life, a counter-event to such event.
That is the origin of what Heidegger calls the “counter-motion” of thought, going against life’s “own” tendency to fall into expropriation. Thinking originates from the need to go counter to life’s tendency to move away from itself. “Philosophy is a mode of life itself, in such a way that it authentically ‘brings back,’ i.e., brings life back from its downward fall into decadence, and this ‘bringing back’ [or re-petition, ‘re-seeking’], as radical re-search, is life itself.” (PIA, 62). Heidegger writes of “the constant struggle of factical, philosophical interpretation against its own factical ruinance, a struggle that accompanies the process of the actualization of philosophizing” (PIA, 114). Thought: a movement going against life’s ruinance. Thought is counter-ruinance. “Phenomenological interpretation… manifests by its very essence a ‘counter-movedness’” (PIA, 99). Thought is a counter-violence to the originary violence of the ruinance and self-estrangement of life. The violence of interpretation responds to the violence of the self-estrangement of life and goes against it. In Being and Time, the necessity of this violence was explained by reference to Dasein’s hermeneutic situation: the ontological interpretation of this being must go “against” its own tendency to conceal, and can only be “won,” Heidegger explains, by “following an opposite course (im Gegenzug)” from the tendency that distances Dasein from its being by throwing it towards beings. “The laying-bare of Dasein’s primordial being must rather be wrested from Dasein by following the opposite course from that taken by the falling ontico-ontological tendency of interpretation” (SZ, 311). The existential analytic thus recognizes its phenomenological violence. “Existential analysis… constantly has the character of doing violence (Gewaltsamkeit), whether to the claims of the everyday interpretation, or to its complacency and its tranquilized obviousness” (SZ, 311). The entire ontologico-phenomenological problematic is thus rooted in the concealment of being, its non-appearing.
Now Greek philosophy, and metaphysics, think being as constant presence, and as presence of beings. “Aristotle, arrives at the interpretation of Being as presence—’being’ is nothing other than the presence and availability of present beings” (HDA, 64). This substantialist interpretation of being as constantly the same, always oriented towards beings, forecloses both the difference between being and beings and the dimension of withdrawal proper to being itself. “With this, Being is reduced to its positive role in allowing beings to present themselves to us, and their problematic relation to Being is thereby overcome as they settle into an exhaustive and comforting intelligibility. Being is seen as a feature universally distributed over all present beings. Nothing else.” Heidegger seeks to show that being exceeds the horizon of the universal. Being is “not exhausted by even the sum total of all beings. It is not a universal like other universals, but one that transcends its instantiations” (HDA, 64-65). It is at this point that Kirkland shows the destructive reading at work in Heidegger’s reading of Aristotle. First (first krisis), by differentiating Being from beings. Second (second krisis), by revealing another sense of being than presence, namely the event of its withdrawal. As Kirkland defined it later in the text, the second krisis is an indication of Being, “not as the presence of present beings, but as what withholds itself behind such beings as the essentially question-worthy dynamic event of emergence into presence” (HDA, 89). Destructive hermeneutics thus attempts to twist free another meaning of being: no longer simply the presence of beings, but the very event of being as withdrawal. “Destruction then takes up the Aristotelian text in this sense and attempts to activate the distinction or differentiation between that positive aspect of Being, as the presencing of present beings, and the negative aspect of Being, its withdrawal behind beings” (HDA, 65). In other words, in these early works on Aristotle, “Heidegger approaches the task of thinking Being, first along with the Greeks and then against them, as essentially and irremediably withdrawn, hidden, concealed” (HDA, 65). Destruction reveals that it is when Being is differentiated from beings that the concealed ground of Aristotle’s analyses (as that determination of being in terms of the presence and availability of beings) comes to the fore.
Chapter 3 focuses on what Kirkland calls a few “case studies” in the destruction of Aristotelian concepts, namely ousia, zôon logon echon, and dunamis. Kirkland begins by noting that Aristotle is known “as the thinker of ousia (usually translated as ‘substance’),” while also insisting that Aristotle is not a doctrinal thinker (HDA, 80). The destruction of this fundamental concept of Aristotelian philosophy takes several stages in Heidegger’s reading. First, Heidegger recalls the “pre-philosophical” meaning of the term, its everyday usage, namely: “property, possession, possessions and goods, estate.” The term evokes “’means’ (as in “a person of means”), “possessions” or “goods” belonging to an individual, or also one’s “property, household stock,” and “estate” (HDA, 88). All these characteristics refer to beings insofar as they are fully usable and available to us, as being present to us. Kirkland states that “the term ‘ousia’ most of all evokes beings with the mode of present, finished, identifiable, estimable, exchangeable, masterable things” (HDA, 88-89). Heidegger thus retrieves the ontological meaning of ousia as presence, as constant presence. Such a destructive reading will lead Heidegger to rethinking the meaning of Being, from the presence of present beings to “what withholds itself behind such beings as the essentially question-worthy dynamic event of emergence into presence” (HDA, 89). For prior to the (constant) presence of things there is the mysterious emergence into presence. “Heidegger finds Aristotle’s refinement of ordinary experience into a concept, as well as the trace of an aspect of Being that Aristotle never experiences, much less thinks, but which can be intimated here through a destructive reading” (HDA, 85). In this shift lies the phenomenological destruction of Aristotle’s ousia.
Kirkland then takes up Heidegger’s destruction of Aristotle’s definition of the human being as the zôon logon echon, the living being endowed with reason, or “rational animal.” Beginning with Heidegger’s treatment of logos, Kirkland shows how Heidegger rejects the abstract definition of logos as “the statement or proposition as the fundamental linguistic unit and the basic element of truth or falsity.” Rather, logos is retrieved as a fundamental feature of being-in-the-world, as an original phenomenon. “Behind or beneath this Aristotelian definition of truth as a feature of statements, Heidegger finds an original complex experience of logos” (HDA, 95). The expression zôon logon echon, understood as a genus (living thing) with a species-defining difference (language or reason), is “destroyed” in order to reveal its ontological significance. “The human does not exist as a living thing, to which we then add the faculty of language or reason. Rather, its very mode of being is its receiving of the world’s appearing in and through language.” The issue is to show that the human is “a being whose being is accomplished in logos… The human does not exist as a living thing, to which we then add the faculty of language or reason” (HDA, 96). Interestingly, Kirkland notes that this radicalization of the very meaning of logos represents “a sort of modification or intensification of the way of being of the zôon or ‘living thing’.” In other words, in contrast with later texts, where Heidegger distinguishes between life, animality, and being, in these early texts on Aristotle, in these early texts Kirkland suggests that there is a continuity between the animal and the human being. As Heidegger put it, “Ζῳή is a concept of being: ‘life’ refers to a mode of being [Seinsweise], indeed a mode of being-in-the-world [Sein-in-der-Welt]. A living thing is not simply at hand [vorhanden], but is in the world in that it has its world [daß es seine Welt hat]. An animal is not simply moving down the road, pushed along by some mechanism. It is in the world in the manner of “having it [the world]” [in der Welt in der Weise des Sie-Habens] (cited in HDA, 96). Here again, the destruction of Aristotle signifies the retrieval of a hidden ontological ground of an abstract characterization of the human being as a living being endowed with logos. This is why in Being and Time, Heidegger would clarify that the way “of interpreting this definition of man in the sense of the animal rationale, ‘something living which has reason’, is not indeed ‘false’ (falsch), but it covers up the phenomenal basis for this definition of ‘Dasein’” (SZ, 165).
Despite the seemingly frontal opposition between Heidegger’s pronouncement that “Higher than actuality stands possibility” (SZ, 38) and Aristotle’s statement that “It is clear that actuality is prior to potency [phaneron hoti proteron energeia dunameôs estin]” (Meta. IX.1049b5), Kirkland argues that Heidegger’s claim in fact constitutes “a sort of retrieval and appropriation of Aristotle’s recognition of dunamis as a legitimate mode of being at all.” Even if Aristotle “will ultimately subordinate dunamis to energeia, at least he grants it ontological legitimacy,” Kirkland insists (HDA, 100). Kirkland pursues this interpretation by focusing on the 1924 Aristotle course, where Heidegger develops an ontological interpretation of change and potency, and proposes a dynamic or kinetic way of being, another example of his destructive/appropriative reading.
In a concluding chapter, Kirkland argues that the early method of destruction (and of phenomenology as well) are not so much abandoned as radicalized in Heidegger’s later work, the latter displaying a “faithful adherence to the principle of the earlier destructive project” (HDA, 109). The perdurance of “Destruktion” can be glimpsed for example in Heidegger’s problematization of an “other beginning” in relation to a “first beginning,” and in the attention always given to a “history of being,” a history which as we saw was the ground for the problematics of destruction. As a whole, this work constitutes a major contribution to an understanding of Heidegger’s relation to Aristotle, and more broadly, an understanding of his method. The book sheds light, not only on the early Heidegger, but also on the ground from which the later work sprang. Even when Kirkland goes over well-known texts, he does so with an originality and thoughtfulness such that one is as it were led to engages those passages as if for the first time.
 Martin Heidegger. Holzwege, ed. Friedrich-Wilhelm von Hermann (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 1977), GA 5, p. 337. Off The Beaten Track, ed. and trans. Julian Young and Kenneth Haynes (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 253.
 Martin Heidegger, Sein und Zeit (Tübingen, Germany: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1953), p. 28. English translations: Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper, 1962), and Being and Time, trans. Joan Stambaugh, rev. Dennis J. Schmidt (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010). Hereafter cited as SZ, followed by the German pagination.
Martin Heidegger. Phänomenologische Interpretationen zu Aristoteles. Einführung in die phänomenologische Forschung, eds. Walter Bröcker and Käte Bröcker-Oltmanns (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 1994), GA 61, p. 87. Phenomenological Interpretations of Aristotle: Initiation into Phenomenological Research, trans. Richard Rojcewicz (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), p. 66. Hereafter cited as PIA.
The fourteen essays in this volume are exercises in what the author terms “applied phenomenology” (ix) in contrast to the formal analyses found in his Presence and Absence: A Philosophical Investigation of Language and Being. The aim of both volumes is to recover the question of being by reclaiming the truth of appearances.
The essays in this book are attempts to describe various ways in which things can appear: as pictured, quoted, measured, distinguished, explained, meant, and referred to, and also as coming to light in moral conduct. The description of each of these forms is made more vivid and exact by being placed alongside the descriptions of the others. And because appearance always involves that which appears and the one to whom it appears, my essays are meant to be not only an analysis of appearance but also a venture into the question of being and a clarification of what we are. (xiii)
The fourteen essays, arranged in six parts, cover central topics of interest to students and specialists in phenomenology, philosophy of language, philosophy of science, and ethics. Sokolowski exercises a sovereign philosophical voice that plainly and without fuss lays bare the being of things—and in doing so infectiously invites us to do the same.
In the first part on representations in image and in speech, Sokolowski explores ways of referring to absent things as well as to beliefs other than our own. Picturing requires a unique intentional relation that makes present something that is absent. Naming, by contrast, targets something whether present or absent without making it present in any way. Quoting allows us to target things as intended by others so that we can toggle between our own present articulation of things and those of others without, however, necessarily adopting others’ views as our own.
In the second part on coping with intelligibility, Sokolowski reflects on the explanatory power of strategically distinguishing one thing from another: making sense is not principally a matter of argument or dialectic; it is principally a matter of elucidation by identification with the appropriate kind. For example, pictures are other than quotations and sense is other than reference.
In the third part, Sokolowski details the part-whole structure of time and space and considers themes that arise in the ambit of science concerning the intentionality of timing and of measurement. He also includes a rewarding essay on the relation between the complex world in which we live and the exact one arrived at through the idealizations of science.
In the fourth part, Sokolowski turns explicitly to the philosophy of language and develops, in a phenomenological voice, the difference between sense and reference. He argues that we should “exorcise concepts” as nothing more than a baleful prejudice that, while explaining nothing, generates a host of intractable pseudo-problems. Philosophy’s habitual appeal to concepts comes from a continual failure of nerve, a continual failure to realize that we can and do refer to absent things without the mediation of some sort of present mental entity; in fact, the positing of such an entity is a matter of falling prey to what Sokolowski calls a “transcendental mirage,” a matter of thinking something is there when it is not. Instead, we can handle everything about the phenomenon of language by positing a speaker, speaking about something, to someone. The speaker presents something to someone by means of a “slant” on things. Positing concepts undermines the intentional relation to things; slant-talk reestablishes the fact that speaking is at bottom an issue of the presentation of something to someone. Sokolowski’s analysis of referring nicely displays the advantages of the phenomenological method for exploring the intentionality of naming; it defends both the integrity of ordinary ways of reference and the value of philosophical idealizations of the sort operative in mathematical logic.
In the fifth part, Sokolowski attends to the part-whole structure of sentences and images. Grammar signals not only the thoughtful activity of the speaker but also the need for the listener to undertake the same activity to achieve understanding. Despite a surface similarity between words and pictures, they present things with different conditions of satisfaction.
In the sixth and final part, Sokolowski presents a phenomenology of ethical performance, which develops themes from his Moral Action: A Phenomenological Study. Abstraction stands in the way of moral understanding, which is by nature embodied in the very behavior of morally good agents: “To be able to respond to the natural law—indeed to let it become actual as law, to show by one’s actions what can be done, and thus to make others see what should be done—is to be a certain kind of person: not one who simply conforms to things set down, but one who lets the good appear, to himself and to others, in what he does” (291).
With Sokolowski, the practice of philosophy may be fruitfully understood as a matter of explaining or exhibiting intelligibility by means of carefully distinguishing one thing from another, and of doing so for ourselves and each other together. Hypothesized mental entities only gum up our understanding of language and being; exorcising them allows language to spring again to life so that the wonder-inducing operation of presentation and articulation can once again be registered and appreciated. Those who wish to follow concrete paths into the heart of being could not do better than to pick up this illuminating collection. Highly recommended.
In Adorno, Politics, and the Aesthetic Animal, Caleb J. Basnett defends two major claims: first, that Adorno’s political thought cannot be separated from his concerns with art and animality; second, that Adorno’s unification of these themes delivers us the “surest guidance” for transforming ours into an emancipatory society (4). In my view, Basnett renders the first claim compelling but not the second. Nevertheless, Basnett’s book makes an important contribution to Adorno scholarship and post-humanist debates in political theory. It is recommended for specialists in these fields. It will also be of interest to students looking for an introduction to Adorno’s political thought.
Basnett structures his book argumentatively and thematically, not chronologically or textually. He unfolds his argument across a roughly four-step arc, although one that does not exactly map onto the book’s four chapters:
- the establishment of a hegemonic and domination-perpetuating theory of human capacities found in Aristotle, grounded in the biological differentiation of the human from the non-human, that Basnett calls the “Aristotelian problematic”;
- the development of Adorno’s conceptual framework of negative dialectic as responding to the metaphysics of identity found in Aristotle and Hegel;
- an investigation of the consequences of Adorno’s alternative conceptual framework of non-identity for his views on human reconciliation as a new kind of animality;
- the resolution of the Aristotelian problematic in Adorno’s revitalization of aesthetic education as a promise for radical subjective transformation, a utopian subjectivity that Basnett calls the “aesthetic animal.”
In what follows, I summarize each of these four interpretive claims advanced by Basnett vis-a-vis Adorno. After that, I return to my doubt regarding the persuasiveness of Basnett’s claim that Adorno’s theory of the aesthetic animal provides the most promising guide to transformative or revolutionary politics available to us today.
1. The Aristotelian Problematic (Introduction)
Basnett begins by discussing Aristotle’s famous claim from the Politics: the human being is by nature a political animal (13–22). The naturalness of human society asserted by Aristotle, Basnett argues, cannot be understood independently from his biological writings. This is because, for Aristotle, there exist non-human animals who are political in ways that differ from the political activity of human beings. So to specify the sense in which the human animal is political, Aristotle must distinguish between the political activity of human beings and that of other non-human animals. This differentiation requires Aristotle to introduce a politicized human-animal distinction based on a hierarchical ranking of organisms.
According to Basnett, Aristotle must articulate this human-animal distinction in terms of capacities. For Aristotle, an animal is essentially a soul constituted by a bundle of capacities (14). Animals can therefore only be distinguished from one another by their capacities. According to Aristotle’s comparative zoology, human beings uniquely possess nous, the divine capacity for intellection which underwrites our related capacities for speech and reason. The political life of human being, then, is that which best actualizes those capacities most closely associated with nous. Basnett concludes that Aristotle’s distinctly biological conception of the human capacity for nous amounts to nothing less than an “ur-politics” (17), since such a theory of human capacities necessarily institutes a normative hierarchy of living beings.
For Basnett, this identification of the political with the biological, one which determines genuinely human capacities by contrasting humans with animals, lies at the heart of the Western tradition of political theory. And this tradition is not dead. It forms what Basnett calls the Aristotelian problematic. This problematic has two diverging consequences for contemporary political thought. The first is regressive with respect to human emancipation. Since in this problematic what is valued is what is most distinctly human, a hierarchical ranking of individual organisms according to the barometer of humanity is unavoidable, both within human societies and between humans and non-humans. This hierarchy inheres in any animal-contrastive definition of the human and leads unavoidably, on Basnett’s view, to political practices of violence and domination. This is the same basic violence and domination that characterizes our societies today (3–5).
But Aristotle’s politicized separation of the human from the animal also contains two transformative dimensions, capable of being unleashed by later theorists like Adorno. First, Aristotle recognizes that humanity does not hold exclusive rights to politics. Since there exist non-human political animals, the realm of the political extends beyond the human. Second, against himself, Aristotle demonstrates in the Poetics the constitutive role of aesthetic education in the process of becoming human (21–22). For Aristotle, aesthetic education functions as a means of subjective transformation. In art, we not only learn what counts as human through mimesis but are also taught to recognize which possible capacities we ought to realize to become free individuals. Poetry, in other words, develops and transforms our subjective potentials. This transformative function of art thus shows us not only that human beings undertake cultural processes to learn how to be human and so to identify as “something other than simply animal” (22); it also teaches us that we can be otherwise (126). So although Aristotle “[fails] to recognize the role art plays in shaping the identity of the human being,” he nonetheless provides the theoretical resources for thinking about the politics of non-human animals and the transformative dimension of aesthetic experience (3).
Enter Adorno. Adorno’s political thought, Basnett argues, can be read in its entirety as responding to the Aristotelian problematic (23). This problematic also identifies Adorno’s argumentative strategy: radicalize art, ditch humanity. In the remainder of the book, Basnett portrays Adorno as developing across his writings an immanent critique of the human-animal distinction and its complicity in practices of human domination in the West.
Some readers may object to Basnett’s presumption that Adorno’s work forms “more or less a coherent whole” insofar as it responds to, or is “constellated around,” the intertwining of politics and animality in the Aristotelian problematic (22–23). However, this assumption is likely unavoidable for productive engagement with Adorno’s work on this topic. Moreover, the course of the book justifies, in my view, this assumed continuity in Adorno’s relation to Aristotle’s politics. Basnett’s careful attention to the understated but essential role of Aristotle in Adorno’s political thinking, often downplayed by his commentators (29–32), is a welcome contribution to the scholarly literature on Adorno.
2. Hegel’s Idealism and Negative Dialectics (Chapter 1)
In chapter one, Basnett draws on this Aristotelian framing of Adorno’s political thought to explicate the conceptual landmarks well-known to readers of Adorno, what we might call Adorno’s metaphysics. The most important of these landmarks for Basnett’s argument is Adorno’s negative dialectic or theory of conceptual non-identity. Basnett aims to elucidate the political import of negative dialectics, so his highly original account remains justifiably non-exhaustive.
As with Adorno’s encounter with humanism, Basnett reconstructs Adorno’s negative dialectic genetically. In particular, Basnett presents it as a developmental resolution of unresolved problems in Aristotle (29–40) and Hegel (43–50). These problems, Basnett argues, turn on the issue of conceptual mediation.
In the case of Aristotle, Basnett sees Adorno’s negative dialectic as addressing two obstacles in Aristotelian metaphysics: the possibility of change and the relation between universal and particular. Aristotle, lacking an appreciation of the dialectical interaction between particular things and universal concepts, cannot account for the way in which particular things necessarily supersede their original meaning and constitution and therefore always “pass beyond the limit that defines them” (40). A properly dialectical theory of mediation, one which tarries with the non-identity of objects to themselves and so with their perpetual escape from conceptual identification, is therefore necessary in order to give a satisfactory account of the possibility of objective change and, therefore, the futurity of objects and their potential transformations of subjects.
Hegel provides Adorno with just this sort of theory of dialectical mediation, according to Basnett. But in order to foreclose Hegel’s drive towards conceptual totalization, Adorno must separate Hegel’s idealism from his dialectic. This separation amounts to saving the dialectic’s ceaseless negativity from the “closure” of Hegel’s idealism (48). Such a separation has the further consequence of opening up the dialectic to the future and the historical horizon of redemption (ibid.). Dialectic without idealism is Adorno’s negative dialectic. It seeks the “non-identical in the identical,” the negative dynamics of the naturally selfsame, rather than purporting, as Hegel’s did, to discover “identity in non-identity” (43) and so “crush[ing]” and “devour[ing]” the non-conceptual into the concept (44). In this way, Adorno preserves Hegel’s insights into the conflictual dynamics of modern experience without taking on board the totalizing consequences endemic to Hegel’s idealistic system. Moreover, this separation entails that, pace Jay Bernstein, Adorno breaks completely with Hegel’s idealism (but not, of course, with Hegel’s thinking tout court); Adorno does not, according to Basnett, “[accept] the rudiments of Hegelian idealism” as Bernstein claims (quoted on 46). Only in breaking totally with Hegel’s idealism can the dialectic open itself up to the future possibility of a radical transformation of the sociopolitical world.
I have moved quickly through Basnett’s arguments in this chapter. Nevertheless, it is clear that some of the interpretive claims required by Basnett’s account of Adorno’s “determinate negation” of Aristotelian and Hegelian metaphysics will remain controversial (39), especially as regards Adorno’s “appropriation” of Hegel (43n8). For example, the meaning and significance of Hegel’s idealism remain quite obscure. Basnett suggests that Hegel’s idealism has something to do with spirit’s, or the absolute subject’s, projections onto objects. This sounds much like Charles Taylor’s “cosmic spirit” reading of Hegel, or, if not that, then the old ontological reading of “idealist monism.” However, this interpretation of Hegel’s idealism has been met by influential criticisms from Robert Pippin and many others. However, Basnett does not acknowledge this literature on Hegel’s idealism in the book. Does Basnett intend his reading of Hegel, attributed to Adorno, to be compelling for us today? Moreover, if Hegel’s dialectic cannot be separated from his idealism as argued by at least some of his readers, then Bernstein’s contention that Adorno must accept some aspects of Hegelian idealism, if he is to retain the dialectic, begins to appear more plausible than Basnett’s suggestion of a complete break. But given the mode of exposition adopted by Basnett, it is difficult to say where Adorno ends and Basnett begins. I will return to this issue in §5.
3. Reconciled Humanity and Animality (Chapters 2 and 3)
Over the next two chapters, Basnett argues that Adorno’s theories of reconciled humanity and utopian animality form the relevant dialectic immanent to the Aristotelian problematic.
In chapter two, Basnett presents Adorno as using the image of reconciled humanity as a way of dialectically rethinking social progress. A reconciled humanity would be a humanity that no longer struggles: against nature, against other animals, and against itself (65). Basnett reasonably concludes that Adorno’s vision of reconciled humanity amounts to a set of “utopian speculations” that hold open the possibility of radical change to humanity in the future, changes which would put into question the very idea of humanity as inherited from Aristotle (66). This utopian vision of humanity is negative and non-identical. Negative because it carries no positive program for what this escape from struggle might look like. Non-identical because, in radically transforming the meaning of humanity, this transformation can only be conceived if we also recognize that the human being is not reducible to its natural determinations and so must be capable of being otherwise—in other words, that the human being is non-identical to itself. It is this possibility of an anti-naturalizing reconstitution of the subject to which Adorno refers when, in the Problems of Moral Philosophy, he announces, “if humanity [Humanität] has any meaning at all, it must consist in the discovery that human beings [Menschen] are not identical with their immediate existence as the creatures of nature” (quoted on 66).
In being non-identical to itself, humanity also resists domination. Non-identical humanity refers “not to a transcendental subject whose basic potentials are already given in advance of their actualization, but rather a subject constituted in resistance to the forms of domination that organize the objective world.” Human subjects, conceived non-identically, are thus “always pushing against the forces of compulsion” (61). We therefore have, on the one hand, a concept of the human being that is identical to struggle, domination, and violence. But, on the other, one which, like all concepts, is never exhausted by its identifications; it always maintains a non-identical side, a “preponderance of the object” (50–51, 61). In the case of the human being, the relevant non-identity lies precisely in the possibility of reconciliation. Realizing this redemptive possibility, one which inheres in the very idea of humanity itself, would, therefore, be the “end of humanity” as we know it in its self-identity (58). Naturally, we would like to know something about this reconstituted subject, even if our knowledge of it necessarily remains negative. This is the task of the book’s next chapter.
In chapter three, Basnett relates the notion of reconciled humanity to Adorno’s thinking about animals. In particular, Basnett advances a surprising interpretive thesis: the kind of thing that participates in Adorno’s reconciled humanity cannot be said to be a human being at all, but must instead count as a new kind of non-human animal (73, 77). The primary inspiration for this animalist interpretation of reconciled humanity comes from Adorno’s memorable imperative in Negative Dialectics, wherein we are told to live “so that one may believe himself to have been a good animal” (quoted on 106). But why must reconciled humanity be an in- or non-humanity? While Basnett does not present his argument in the following way (see his summary 77–78), his line of thought can, I think, be condensed into a sequence of three claims: first, that the idea of humanity is fundamentally tied up with compulsion, domination, and violence; second, that, since reconciled humanity demands the overcoming of such forms of struggle and since struggle is inherent in the idea of humanity, reconciliation must involve the determinate negation of humanity; third, that the appropriate determinate negation of humanity, one capable of producing a community free of constitutive struggle, is animality. Reconciled humanity therefore requires for its realization that the human subject become a utopian animal, that is, an animal which is no longer caught up in relations of violence and domination towards others, world, and self. In short, reconciled humanity is no longer identifiably human.
It strikes me that this part of the book will incur the most skepticism. There are two likely sticking points. One has to do with Adorno’s stipulation that the human being cannot be thought without necessarily invoking violence to self, world, and others. For Basnett, Adorno bakes violence into the very idea of humanity; violence is “deeply embedded in the human constitution” (166). There can be no instance of humanity, in thought or in the world, that does not contribute to domination: “the concept of humanism, and even the word ‘human,’ are deeply misleading and encourage the perpetuation of a cycle of violence” (58). The second sticking point concerns emancipation. Why must a successful redressing of the violence historically associated with humanity take us outside the realm of the human? Must we not invoke values, and thus enter the realm of the human, to justify our attempts to overcome violence (and, indeed, to justify any course of action)? This, at any rate, would be the humanist response to the challenges so far identified. But for Basnett, reconciled humanity cannot be an emancipation of humanity as we currently understand it—it cannot be an “emancipated humanity.” It must instead be “humanity emancipated from humanity” (58n8), and therefore a humanity “for whom the word ‘human’ would be an anachronism” (23).
These sticking points, closely related and perhaps even identical from a logical point of view, will elicit at least three responses. First of all, if it true that the very word ‘human’ misleads and anarchonizes, then it becomes difficult to understand why Adorno maintains his use of the concept across his writings, such as in reconciled humanity. By Basnett’s admission, such use of the human amounts at best to a ruse played by Adorno on his readers, since humanity turns out to be constitutively irreconcilable. This consideration suggests to me that Adorno does not conceive of emancipated humanity as strictly non-human.
Second, while it remains a historical truism that the human correlates with violence and domination, there remains an obvious humanist response to this fact: namely, that this correlation is just that, a coincidence, not a necessary connection; moreover, the humanist will also claim that the means of overcoming this historical connection between violence and humanity, so far more or less co-terminus, is to become more human, i.e., to further realize our human values (such as non-violence and non-domination), and not to abandon them. In short, we eliminate violence through humanity, not by overcoming it. Basnett addresses this humanist rejoinder on more than one occasion and is clear enough that he intends the book to provide an extended defense of the necessity of welding humanity with violence, both in humanity’s identity to violence and its surplus resistance. In effect, however, it is the Aristotelian problematic which provides this linkage for Basnett, since it is in it that we see how a differentiation of biological species based on their capacities necessarily entails a normative hierarchy, one that can later be recapitulated in a political community. But to generalize this claim to all forms of humanism clearly supposes that all humanism must be Aristotelian in the specific sense laid out in the Politics. And this further claim is by no means obviously true, either for Adorno or for us. If we instead permit the possibility of separating humanity from violence, things become quite different. In that world, Adorno could be suspicious of the legacy of humanism without affirming animality as its proper remedy.
Finally, there remains the general abstractness of these claims. Despite Basnett’s reasonable assurance that Adorno remains a deeply historical thinker, the violence, domination, and self-preservation that confront the reader throughout the book are nowhere historically differentiated. This makes it appear as if the violence in question bears no traces of its historical specificity in Adorno’s account. It is today the same violence to which Aristotle attested in antiquity. I will return to the issue of abstractness in §5.
4. Aesthetic Education (Chapter 4)
Finally, Basnett must show us how reconciled humanity, now understood as a new kind of animal, can be actualized in history. How are we to bridge the gap between our present humanity, tied up with domination, and the future utopia of a world populated by non-human political animals who no longer struggle? Accounting for the possibility of realizing this post-human world is the task of the book’s final chapter, wherein Basnett argues that such a transformation occurs only with the aid of a new kind of aesthetic education. It is through art that we “learn to live as good animals” (116).
What does this aesthetic education towards animality look like? Basnett’s most pertinent answer is that aesthetic education cultivates animal impulses through passive and active relations to art. As he puts it, aesthetic education
would attempt to cultivate animal impulses so as to enable them to resist human capture and thereby facilitate the kind of displacement of the subjective coordinates that constitute the human by turning toward non-identity through the addendum. In this way, Adorno’s aesthetics can be seen to address the question of producing an aesthetic animal, in the sense of an animal being constituted not simply through the senses, through its bodily comportment towards objects, but through the arts. (148–49)
Art reactivates our animal drives, mobilizing them against what we identify as our humanity and so “liberat[ing] the animal from the human through aesthetic experience” (26). In the remainder of the chapter, Basnett goes on to explain the distinct contributions made in aesthetic experience by the passive moment of reception and the active one of production in an illuminating reading of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory.
Two things stand out to me as noteworthy in Basnett’s presentation of Adorno’s politics of the aesthetic animal. First, Basnett recognizes that the subjective transformation of the human into the animal, as theorized by Adorno, is not sufficient to realize sociopolitical transformation. Consciousness-raising about humanity’s inherent domination cannot on its own produce sociopolitical change. Adorno’s contribution is, after all, only a “theory of the subject” (1); it tells us how our agency and relation-to-self are constituted and how they could be constituted otherwise. It is in the very nature of this kind of theory of subjectivity that it describes only possibilities of subjective reconstitution. Thus Basnett rightly tells us that Adorno’s theory of subjective transformation only “might make possible” radical social change (26). Aesthetic experience, then, also offers merely “the possibility of sociopolitical transformation” (151). This important qualification makes it clear that Basnett sees aesthetic education into animality as necessary but insufficient for social change (173). Realizing a world of utopian animals would require other transformations of sociopolitical reality, too. We might imagine that this transformation would also require, for example, the development of labor-saving technologies.
Second, Basnett presents Adorno’s views on aesthetic education as responding primarily to Aristotle. This is a local instantiation of the book’s global claim, viz. that Adorno’s politics is, as a whole, best understood in its relation to the Aristotelian problematic. However this version of the global claim presents novel issues not found in the metaphysical questions discussed in chapter one, i.e., the relation between universals and particulars and the nature of the dialectic. Part of the problem is that the theme of aesthetic education is itself never explicitly thematized by Aristotle in the Poetics, a point, of course, acknowledged by Basnett. This omission is, after all, the reason why Aristotle fails to appreciate the full scope of art in constituting the human despite his own unconscious insights into the matter. The implicitness of Aristotle’s theory of aesthetic education makes Basnett’s task of presenting Adorno as primarily in dialogue with Aristotle more demanding than it was in the prior cases, where we found Aristotle addressing the issues explicitly and in some of his most famous works. Moreover, in the case of aesthetic education there exists other, more immediate figures standing in the way. Given the affinities between Adorno’s views on aesthetic education with those of Hegel and especially Schiller, why not see these figures as at least equally important as Aristotle in the development of Adorno’s views (148–49)? Finally, given Adorno’s insistence on treating specifically modern art, it is difficult to see how his views on aesthetic education can be understood as responding to what is naturally only a theory of ancient art in Aristotle. As a result of these concerns, some readers will remain understandably skeptical that Adorno develops his theory of aesthetic education primarily as a response to Aristotle’s Poetics. Unfortunately, Basnett provides no direct textual evidence in support of this claim, either. He instead provides a sophisticated account showing how one can read Adorno’s theory of aesthetic education as responding to problems which arise for Adorno in Aristotle’s Poetics and shows that, in responding to these problems, Adorno in turn address other aspects of Aristotle’s practical philosophy (thaumazein, praxis, theoria, etc.), forming a constellation (154–59). But this kind of argument, while philosophically compelling in many ways, cannot rule out the possibility that, pace Basnett, figures like Hegel and Schiller play equal or even more important roles than Aristotle in Adorno’s aesthetic theory.
5. Adorno Today
Finally, I would like to address what I take to be the second major contention of Basnett’s book, viz. that Adorno’s theory of the aesthetic animal provides the best available way of thinking about our present social and political moment. Here is how Basnett puts the point in the book’s final paragraph:
I have argued that Adorno is the most apt guide to our current political juncture and the theorizing of its transformation, for he allows us to see our own animality as it has emerged through the history of humanism and to take the possibilities for transformation as beginning from this situation. Moreover, unlike those who might through their focus on ontology or even their focus on particular struggles inadvertently reify the current place of struggle in political life, Adorno shows us that we cannot get rid of the utopian dimension of political struggle. Rather, we must hold dear to this utopian promise, even if, as Adorno himself admits, the moment of its realization may never arrive. (184)
As I have already noted, I find this first-order claim unconvincing despite finding much of value in Basnett’s project of reading Adorno’s political thought holistically and in dialogue with Aristotle’s. My recalcitrance lies in the general abstractness of Basnett’s argument and his conflation between Adorno’s standpoint and our own. Let me give a sense of what I mean.
First, Basnett’s exposition of Adorno’s politics occurs at a high level of abstraction. Perhaps such an altitude is unavoidable in a work of political theory that connects moderns with ancients, or is a product of the unrelenting negativity of Adorno’s thinking. Or maybe it simply reflects an arbitrary choice made by Adorno. In any case, the high level of abstraction in Basnett’s presentation of Adorno’s political theory lessens, in my opinion, its attractiveness for us today.
In §§3 and 4, I mentioned the abstract nature of the violence, domination, and struggle (characteristic of the human) and sociopolitical transformation in Basnett’s Adorno. Regarding the former, Basnett seems to claim that the distinctly human activities of struggle and violence have remained constant across history, at least insofar as they are capable of defining the human. All human history has been uniform insofar as it has been a history of domination, and it will continue to be so long as history remains human. If this were not so, we would no longer be in the grip of the Aristotelian problematic. Regarding the latter, we not only do not receive a set of conditions sufficient for achieving utopia (only necessary ones), but we also receive little assurance regarding the direction of sociopolitical transformation. Things can be otherwise, which means they can also get worse. To be sure, Basnett does provide some reasons for believing that the direction of this transformation will be positive, reasons grounded in the human necessity of resisting suffering and art’s solidarity with this suffering. But, again, this suffering and its resistance in art and life become historical constants, universals whose progressive credentials and even continued existence are open to reasonable doubt.
I found myself surprised to be worried about the abstractness of Basnett’s Adorno. Basnett makes it clear that he takes the concreteness of Adorno’s thought, his attentiveness to the historical and the material, as one of the primary reasons why Adorno remains more relevant for us today than other twentieth-century Continental philosophers. Indeed, Basnett criticizes Deleuze and Derrida for locating in animality something “inherently liberating” and therefore perniciously independent of “particular sociopolitical outcomes” (178); such approaches are “too abstractly theorized” (179). Honneth’s theory of rational capacities and their pathologies suffers the same verdict (48–49). Merely “abstract negations” should be avoided (98, cf. 49n77). But I struggle to see why, or in what sense, this criticism of abstraction does not equally apply to Adorno as interpreted by Basnett, given the ahistoricality of the Aristotelian problematic and the rudiments of its resolution in Adorno (against this see 182).
Second, Basnett nowhere distinguishes his own standpoint from Adorno’s. This conflation, unavoidable to some degree, to be sure, in any philosophical reconstruction, nevertheless introduces some challenges for accepting Basnett’s claim that Adorno offers us the surest guide to contemporary political theory. I have already mentioned in §2 that Adorno’s reading of Hegel, at least as presented by Basnett, does not appear to me very plausible in light of contemporary Hegel scholarship. Distinguishing between Adorno’s standpoint and our own would allow us to reengage with this sort of interpretive disagreement more productively. Such a distinction would also be the condition of a genuinely critical reading of Adorno, one in which we would need to evaluate the degree to which Adorno accomplishes the tasks that he sets for himself. True to Adorno’s principles, such a reading would also require us to theoretically acknowledge changes in our objective circumstances. In my view, a critical reading of this sort would be a precondition for defending the Basnett’s first-order claims about the usefulness of Adorno’s political thought. To put the point differently, one has the sense that, lacking a distinction between these two standpoints, Basnett’s book will do little to convince readers who have not already been converted to Adorno’s side.
That said, it is easy to recommend Adorno, Politics, and the Aesthetic Animal to several audiences. Since Basnett deftly synthesizes across Adorno’s major works, the book functions well as a politically-minded introduction to Adorno. Basnett’s mastery of the literature on his subject also makes the book a helpful guide through the burgeoning field of Adorno studies. Moreover, Basnett redresses the state of this field, convincingly re-centering Aristotle in our understanding of Adorno. The book will therefore be essential for anyone concerned with Adorno’s relationship to ancient philosophy. Finally, Basnett’s leveraging of the Adornoian wedge in posthumanism will be of interest to interdisciplinary scholars wondering what Frankfurt School critical theory might contribute to these debates. In sum, Adorno, Politics, and the Aesthetic Animal is a philosophically astute reconstruction of Adorno’s political thought that anyone with an interest in this topic will want to discuss.
 Basnett writes: “For Hegel, it is only through the activities of consciousness culminating in an absolute subject that all particulars find unity and so are assigned fixed identities in a totality. The absolute subject, or spirit, is at once found to be the origin of the process and its goal—the constitutive conception of the subject needed for dialectic noted by Adorno above becomes in Hegel the ultimate guarantor of objects in their particularity, for the subject does not simply project concepts onto objects; rather, the truth of the objects themselves is for Hegel to be found in these projections, in their ideality. Thus there is a preponderance of the subject and the concept over the object in Hegel that, like Aristotle’s metaphysics, falls back into a static conception of the totality of the world and of the positive identities of the objects therein” (44–45). Hegel’s “theodicy” is discussed on 45–46.
This book consists of two lectures given by Foucault in the last years of his life. The first, a recently discovered recording of a talk on Parrēsia at the University of Grenoble in 1982. A transcript of this lecture was originally published in 2012 in the journal Anabases. It was preceded by a study of the text by Henri-Paul Fruchaud et Jean-François Bert, not included in this volume. The second consists of transcripts of a seminar given in English by Foucault at Berkeley in 1983. These lectures have been published earlier, with the title Fearless Speech (2001). This volume is based on a new and more accurate transcription of the original audio recordings. According to the ‘Preface,’ Foucault’s preparatory French notes, today deposited in the BNF, have been consulted and were relevant, printed as notes (xii).
The original impulse for this publication was to make the Berkeley seminar available to the French public. The English version follows the text established for the 2016’s French translation. This book is part of a sustained effort to create an authoritative Foucauldian text, one that is as close as possible to the original voice and to delegitimize and marginalize the independent publications made over the years following his death.
We will later deal with some of the differences between this new edition and the precedent one. Still, we can point out to the quantity and quality of the Editor’s notes, which not only refer the reader to parallel sections in the lectures in the Collège de France but also to Foucault’s sources.
The book is introduced by Frédéric Gros, who also edited many of Foucault’s Collège de France’s lectures. Gros retraces the history of Foucault’s interest in the concept of parrēsia, first developed in the three last lecture series in the College de France. Parrēsia (in previous publications, the term was transliterated ‘parrhesia’ and in French parrhêsia) is a Greek term that means to ‘say everything,’ in an unfiltered and uncensored way. Parrēsia can also be translated, according to Gros, as ‘frank speech,’ ‘courage of speech’ or ‘freedom of speech.’ Foucault pays a lot of attention to the transformations of this concept from its Greek origins, through the Hellenistic and Roman periods, and finally early Christian forms. Foucault claims that earlier references can be found in Euripides’ tragedy Ion, where parrēsia refers to the prerogative of a citizen to speak his mind publicly. Later, in Plato, the concept indicates the freedom that a wise king grants its counselors to express themselves. Finally, in philosophical circles in the Hellenistic and Roman period, parrēsia becomes a quality or virtue of a person that assumes the role of a ‘spiritual director.’ Gros shows that Foucault explores the concept of parrēsia in two directions: a re-evaluation of wisdom in antiquity and a redefinition of philosophy in the sense of critique. Gros claims that ‘for Foucault, from the clarity of the Greeks to the “Enlightenment” of the moderns, philosophy finds something like a metahistorical resolve through its critical function, one that refuses to dissociate questions of the government of self, the government of others, and speaking-truly…’ (xix).
As Gross points out, Foucault’s understanding of parrēsia evolved in this period. In Grenoble’s lecture, Foucault rejects the idea of a Cynic or Socratic parrēsia. Still, in Berkeley, he discusses for the first time Plato’s Laches and shows interest for the Cynics. Furthermore, in Berkeley, he adds an analysis of Euripides’s Orestes. Foucault will develop these ideas further in the 1983-1984’s lectures in the Collège de France.
Parrēsia (Grenoble conference)
According to Fruchard and Bert, Foucault was invited to lecture in Grenoble in May 1982, shortly after the last session of the Hermeneutique du Sujet lectures. His host was Henry Joly, a Greek philosophy specialist also interested in the study of language. Joly and Foucault knew each other from their previous postings at the University of Clermont Ferrand in the early 1960s. Joly was curious about Foucault’s ‘Greek turn,’ and Foucault was interested in Joly’s feedback.
Foucault asked not to publicize the venue to allow a more intimate gathering and discussion, but more than one hundred people attended. However, as Foucault needed to return the same night to Paris, no real discussion ensued except for some general exchanges between Foucault and Joly (Fruchard and Bert, 2012).
Foucault starts the Grenoble lecture with a programmatic statement connecting his current interests and his previous work. He formulates his project as an inquiry into the question, central in our occidental culture, of the ‘obligation to tell the truth,’ obligation to tell the truth about oneself. This probe into the forms of truth-telling about ourselves, Foucault explains, is what he researched in the domain of 19th century psychiatry, in the modern judicial and penal institutions, and finally in Christianity and the problem of the flesh (2). It is by looking at the history of the forms of telling the truth about ourselves in Christianity that Foucault discovers the existence, before the institutionalization of the sacrament of confession in the 12th century, of two different forms of truth-telling in Christianity. One, the obligation to manifest the truth about ourselves, which originated in the sacrament of penance (exomologesis). Penance consists of dramatic representation of oneself as a sinner. Penance, it was not primarily verbal but rather dramatized in external symbols, such as torn clothes, fast, and corporal expression. Foucault explored this practice in his 1981 lectures at the University of Louvain, now collected in Mal faire, dire vrai (2012). The other form of telling the truth about ourselves originates in the monastic practices (exagoreusis). It consists of the novice’s obligation to disclose to his spiritual advisor every thought, desire, and agitations of his mind. This ‘obligation to tell everything’ retains Foucault’s attention and will serve as a unifying thread for his research in pursuit of the roots of this extraordinary demand and its aftermath in the development of the Western concept of subjectivity. For Foucault, the origins of this confessional practice are correlated with changes in the function of parrēsia, and with the shift on the responsibility to tell the truth from the master to the pupil.
In the Grenoble conference, Foucault proposes to limit himself to the two first centuries of the Roman empire. However, before the Roman, he introduces the early Greek forms of parrēsia. Foucault mentions Polybius, Euripides, and Plato. In Euripides, parrēsia refers mostly to a political right of the citizen, whereas in Plato’s Gorgias seems to refer to a test and touchstone for the soul. In the Roman empire, ‘franc speech’ operates primarily in the context of the techniques of spiritual direction. Even in the political context, advice given to the sovereign does not apply to the conduct of the affairs of the State, but to the prince’s soul. Parrēsia is here restricted to a context of spiritual direction. Foucault explains that his approach would be that of a ‘pragmatics of discourse,’ but he does not elaborate on the meaning of this expression (15). The same claim appears in more detail in the Hermeneutics of the Subject and the Berkeley seminar, but also in those occurrences, Foucault prefers not to develop his position. Regarding the Roman period, Foucault refers to texts from Epictetus’ disciple Arrian, and Galen. Arrian’s problem is the effect of the words of Epictetus on his students and how to communicate them in writing in a non-rhetorical way. In Galen, the problem is how to identify a person who can help us in our self-examination. Instead of a list of technical capabilities, Galen suggests that a proper choice is a person who is capable of speaking the truth, who is not a flatterer, etc.
Summing up, Foucault emphasizes three features of parrēsia: (1) is the opposite of flattery, in a context of self-knowledge; (2) is a discourse attuned not to the rules of rhetoric but of Kairos (the right timing); (3) is a technique used in an asymmetrical interpersonal relation intended to foster the self-knowledge of the student. (20-21). The lecture concludes with a brief exchange with Joly and others regarding the exact meaning of parrēsia in Plato and Aristotle. Foucault and Joly also disagree whether the ‘obligation to tell it all’ has its roots in the judicial sphere.
Foucault’s reply to Joly incidentally reveals how this ancient notion comes to have such an essential place in his late thought:
Notwithstanding the etymology of parrēsia, telling all does not seem to me, really or fundamentally, entailed in the notion of parrēsia…I think it is a political notion that was transposed, if you like, from the government of others to the government of oneself, that it was never a judicial notion where the obligation to say exactly the truth is a technical problem, concerning confession, torture, and so on. But the word parrēsia and, I think, the conceptual field associated with it, has a moral profile (37; my emphasis).
The Berkeley Seminar:
Foucault taught this seminar at Berkeley during October and November of 1983. The ‘Note’ to the English edition explains some of the editorial considerations and also refers to the previous edition of these texts. The editors state the criteria used to select English translations of the classical texts quoted by Foucault. This is important because Foucault used some translations, which in the meantime, have been superseded by new ones. We are told that the criteria finally employed were to retain the translations chosen by Foucault whenever those have been identified, and otherwise to use the ones selected for the English translation of the Lectures in the Collège de France. There is also a discussion of how the Editor decided to render Foucault’s English.
In one of his concluding remarks to the last session of the Berkeley seminar, Foucault explains that:
The point of departure: my intention was not to deal with the problem of truth, but with the problem of the truth-teller or of truth-telling, or of the activity of truth-telling. I mean that it was not for me a question of analyzing the criteria, the internal or external criteria through which anyone, or through which the Greeks and the Romans, could recognize if a statement was true or not. It was a question for me of considering truth-telling as a specific activity, it was a question of considering truth-telling as a role. But even in the framework of this general question, there were several ways to consider the role of the truth-teller in a society. For instance, I could have compared truth-telling, the role and the status of truth-tellers in Greek society and in other Christian or non-Christian societies— for instance, the role of the prophet as a truth-teller, the role of the oracle as a truth-teller, or the role of the poet, of the expert, of the preacher, and so on. But in fact my intention was not a sociological description of those different roles for the truth-teller in different societies. What I wanted to analyze and to show you is how this truth-telling activity, how this truth-teller role has been problematized in the Greek philosophy (222-223).
Elsewhere in the text, Foucault describes his project as the study of the history of the obligation of telling-all, and its roots in Greco-Roman philosophy and the in the theoretical practices and techniques related to the ‘care of the self.’
Foucault opens the first seminar declaring that the subject of the seminar is parrēsia and proceeding to describe the meaning and grammatical forms of the word. Only after, he proposes some English translations. This initial examination leads to a preliminary finding: parrēsia does not refer to the content of what is said, but to the personal relationship between the speaker and his speech. For the Greeks, according to Foucault, such a personal relationship guarantees the truth of the content. Parrēsia also involves an element of danger. There is danger in exercising parrēsia. Parrēsia is the courage of speaking the truth when facing risk from the potential reaction of the interlocutor.
As in Grenoble’s conference, Foucault sets up to study the first two centuries of the Roman empire, and as in Grenoble, he provides some additional background, referring to Euripides, Plato, and Polybius. As in the conference, Euripides’ references to parrēsia are mostly framed as the problem of citizenship. Who is a citizen, why it is vital to be one, what is the relationship between citizenship and being able to speak one’s mind? But Euripides also knows the meaning of parrēsia in the context of unequal relationships between a servant and his master. Foucault summarizes his views: parrēsia is a verbal activity in which the speaker has a particular relationship to truth, to danger, to law, and to other people in the form of critique. This can take the form of self-criticism or of criticism of other persons. We see here how Foucault connects the dots between all the seemingly diverse areas he is exploring at that time: ‘criticism’ as in his reading of Kant, ‘care of the self’ and its eventual metamorphoses in Roman, Christian, Modernity and as forms of resistance. The evolution of parrēsia from its early Greek forms to the Christian form follows three main stages: a) parrēsia as opposed to rhetoric; b) parrēsia in relation to the political field; c) parrēsia as part of the art of life or ‘care of the self’. For Foucault, parrēsia is not the only form of truth-telling. Foucault refers to different roles of truth-tellers, such as prophetic, wise man, teacher, etc. These forms of truth-telling, which in some cases overlap, are also present in our societies. A section of Foucault’s manuscript, placed as a note by the editors, explains that the role of the parrhesiast (here the transliteration adopted for this form is different of the one chosen for the noun) shows in specifics figures like the moralists, or social and political critics (69). The rest of the seminar studies parrēsia in the relationship between man and the Gods.
The main difference with previous analyses are the repeated references to Sophocles’ Oedipus. Foucault evoked in several Collège lectures the figure of Oedipus. Foucault sees in Oedipus the emergence of a new paradigm of truth, as opposed to the old model of the seer. Comparing Euripides’s Ion with Sophocles’ Oedipus, Foucault claims that in Ion, the gods are silent, they cheat, etc. It is not the divine but the emotional reaction of the human characters that opens up the path to truth. However, truth itself requires inquiry, because the inquiry is the specific human way to get to the truth. Foucault sees in Euripides tragedy examples of two different forms of parrēsia: a discourse of blame, which is addressed against somebody that has much more power, and the second in which somebody tells the truth about himself. It is the combination of these two discourses that make possible the disclosure of the total truth at the end of the play (98).
The next session of the seminar refers again to Euripides, but now the context is political. Foucault introduces the term Athurostōmia, as the form of speech that is the opposite of parrēsia. Athurostōmia is to speak in an uncontrolled way. According to the editors, this opposition is idiosyncratic of Foucault and not shared by other scholars. He uses the opposition to illustrate the criticism of democracy, and the emergence of a different relationship to truth, one that is not solely based in courage and frankness, but in attributes that require a process of personal development (114). This section also contains an interesting discussion of the difference between Foucault’s approach –which he calls in this text ‘history of thought’ and ‘history of problematizations’– and the ‘history of ideas’ (115-116; cf. also 224-226).
Foucault turns then to Plato’s criticism of parrēsia. Foucault is trying to illustrate the turn from a relatively unrestricted right to free speech to a situation were ‘franc speech’ is more dependent on the personal qualities of both speaker and receiver. In Laches, Plato introduces a different form of the parrhesiastic game. In this form, bios (life) appear as the main element, besides the traditional elements of logos, truth, and courage (146). The second novelty that Foucault detects in this platonic account is the dyadic element, two individuals, only two, that confront each other. There is a harmony between logos and bios, which serves as ground, as the visible criterion of the parrhesiastic function, and as the goal of the parrhesiastic activity (147).
The following two sessions of the seminar look into the development of this new form of parrēsia, and with the relations individuals can have with themselves. Foucault claims that our moral subjectivity is rooted, at least partially in this relations. To that effect, Foucault looks into the forms of parrēsia that developed in the different philosophical schools of late Greek and Roman society. He differentiates between: a) community relationships in the framework of small groups, characteristic of the Epicureans; b) parrēsia as an activity or attitude in the context of community life, which is typical of the cynics; c) finally, parrēsia in the personal relationships between individuals, like in the stoa.
The first part of the November 21 session explores the first two. Foucault refers to the discussion of the Epicureans using Philodemus’ book in an account similar to that of the Grenoble conference. Foucault dedicates a large section of the November 21 session to a discussion of the cynic practice of parrēsia. Then, finally, on November 30 and the last session, Foucault addresses the interpersonal dimension of franc speech.
Foucault ends his presentation with remarks about the shift between a paradigm were franc speech meant to be able to say the truth to other people, to a different practice, which consists of telling the truth about oneself. This new model appears as askēsis or practical training. Foucault explains that asceticism came to mean a practice of renunciation of the self, and explains the difference between the Greek and the Christian take on this notion.
‘Discourse and Truth’ versus ‘Fearless Speech’:
The Berkeley conferences were published in 2001, and this version was used for a number of translations. As this new edition seems to relegate the former one to oblivion, it is worthwhile to look at some of the main differences between these two editions.
First of all, both editions are based on the same audio recordings (deposited in Berkeley and the IMEC, and also available on the Internet. The new edition benefited from the recent opening of Foucault’s archives, and of a better understanding of the preparatory work, bibliography and alternatives weighted by Foucault.
Beyond those differences, the main difference is that Fearless Speech has the aspect and organization of a summary rather than of transcription of Foucault’s lectures. Particularly in the first lecture, but also to some extent on the next ones, Foucault’s dialogue with the public is wholly elided in Fearless Speech. We miss not only the livelihood of the event but also the background to Foucault’s comments that are made in answer to questions and not part of a prepared text. Therefore, Fearless Speech appears as a more compact text, whereas Discourse on Truth is more rumbling and dialectic.
Engel, Pascal. Michel Foucault. 2011. “Verité, connaissance et éthique.” In: Artières, Phillipe, Jean François Bert, Frédéric Gros, Judith Revel (Eds.), Cahiers de l’Herne: Foucault, Paris, 318-325.
Foucault, Michael. 2012. Mal faire, dire vrai: function de l’aveau en justice, edition etablié par Fabianne Brion et Bernard E. Harcourt. University of Chicago Press and Presses Universitaires de Louvain.
Fruchaud, Henri-Paul et Jean-François Bert. 2012. Un inédit de Michel Foucault: ‘La Parrêsia’. Note de présentation, Anabases, 16: 149-156; (http://journals.openedition.org/anabases/3956; DOI: 10.4000/anabases.3956;
Consulted on September 11, 2019. Their account follows the statement of Patrick Engel, who was at that time teaching in Grenoble. Cf. Pascal Engel (2011), p. 324 note 6.