Michael Marder: Political Categories: Thinking Beyond Concepts

Political Categories: Thinking Beyond Concepts Book Cover Political Categories: Thinking Beyond Concepts
Michael Marder
Columbia University Press
2019
Paperback $30.00 £25.00
272

Reviewed by: Mees van Hulzen (Leipzig University)

Sometimes we come across a book that makes us feel uneasy, causes a degree of uncertainty and poses more questions than it answers. This does not have to be a bad thing, and it certainly is not in the case of Michael Marder’s latest book: Political Categories, with the telling subtitle: Thinking Beyond Concepts. In it he unfolds an ambitious project of developing a theory of political categories, based on a phenomenological reading of Aristotle’s Categories and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Not only does Marder wants to demonstrate how these classical categories can be translated to political philosophy, but he also aims to show that the constitution of the categories themselves is already political, as he elaborates in the two appendixes the book has. The boldness of this undertaking makes it an exciting book, filled with unexpected turns, and rich with various philosophical insights; only, one cannot help to feel a little lost at the end of it. In what follows I will give a commented summary of the book and a brief critical reflection at the end.

Marder has over the last years, in a rapid pace, published a great number of books. Not least of all on plants. Marder is probably one of the few experts on the planet when it comes to philosophy and plants. Most well-known is his book Plant-thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life (2013). Clearly his interest in the being of plants resonates in his other philosophical work where he writes about phenomenology, ecology and politics, such as in his book on Heidegger: Heidegger: Phenomenology, Ecology and Politics (2017). In it he tries to demonstrate how some of Heidegger’s major ideas support an ecological and leftist politics; a conclusion that Heidegger infamously failed to draw. Another noteworthy book is that on Carl Schmitt’s idea of the political: Groundless Existence: The Political Ontology of Carl Schmitt (2010). Many of the themes Marder discusses in his previous work reoccur in Political Categories. However, it is not to be thought of as a synthesis of his previous work, but rather a continuation of Marder’s explorative thinking, devoted to the project of developing from a phenomenological methodology, a critical political theory, that is directed at the political things themselves (xi).

I.

Marder begins chapter 1 of Political Categories by positioning himself in contrast to two extremes in the political landscape, who, according to him, both suffer from the same problem. The first extreme goes by many different names, such as ‘economicism’ (7), ‘neoliberalism’ (8), ‘progressivism’ (9) or ‘capitalism’ (1). The other extreme is that of ‘ultranationalism’ (98) or ‘reactionary modernism’ (7). Marder’s critique in the book is mainly directed at the former, partly because he holds the conviction that the latter is a consequence of the former. Hence, the predicate ‘reactionary’. The problem with both positions – that make up for the two evils that plague many societies today – is that they both represent a type of thinking that limits itself to one particular category, and reduces the whole of political reality to it. In the case of neoliberalism everything is reduced to that what is calculable and quantifiable. In the case of ultranationalism it is the exclusive and distorted application of the category of quality that poisons social relations by reducing social reality to different homogenous sorts.

By broadening the political categories, the theory of political categories provides, according to Marder, a solution to both extremes of the political spectrum. First of all, because the multiplicity of perspectives that the theory presents offers a better and more thorough understanding of political entities. Second, it would also lead to better politics, in so far as it would more adequately fit politics to the plurality of political reality (8). The idea that a theory of political categories can help to oppose neoliberalism and ultranationalism is promising, but how does Marder exactly substantiate this claim?

Key for understanding the theory of political categories is the Husserlian adage: ‘Zu den Sachen selbst!’ We should also in the case of political theory return to the things themselves, according to Marder, not merely by directing our attention to things that are political, but first of all by perceiving politics as a thing. Not only does politics revolves around a public thing (res publica) but the constitution of things in general is a public affair. (12). Things are not just simply there, but as Marder repeatedly phrases it: they ‘present’ themselves or ‘give’ themselves. He warns us not to think of things as objects. The thing does not stand in front of me as a complete alien entity, but rather I unfold myself in my perception of the thing: ‘The categories and self-consciousness do not lay siege of things, walling them behind freestanding conceptual structures. From the outset, they take the side of things, sometimes with such fanaticism that they do not longer recall who takes this side’ (15).

Categories are according to Marder crucial for the way in which a thing is interpreted by us. The role the categories play in our understanding of a thing should not be confused with classification. In classification a thing is ascribed certain fixed properties and is classified accordingly. Categories do not seek to do away with something but are directed at maintaining the borders of that which they categorize (21). They enable us to form judgments and help us to distinguish one from the other.

What does this have to do with politics? What makes the categories of quantity, relation, quality, substance etc. political? There is no political sphere for Marder per se, since he, on the one hand considers politics as a thing, and on the other hand thinks that the interpretation of things is political. However, for him this does not result in the meaningless expression: ‘everything is political’. Everything is only political in so far as everything is potentially political or ‘politicizable’ (24). That things are constantly politicized follows from the way in which Marder equates the ‘mobilization of the categories’ to politicization (22). ‘Political categories’ is in this sense a misnomer: there are no political categories but categories themselves are inherently political. They politicize the non-political by enabling the accusation of ‘this’ as ‘that’, without reducing the thing to one particular category. Categorization is not a static process, like classification, but rather it is the interplay of highlighting different modes of being of the thing that is given.

II.

After having introduced the political dimension of his theory, Marder gives in chapter 2, on the basis of Aristotle’s table of categories, a first description of the political workings of various categories. Aristotle distinguishes 10 categories, Marder however limits his discussion to 6 of them: ousia (beingness), quantity, space, relation, positionality and quality. He distances his own phenomenological position from that of Aristotle, by siding with Husserl. For Aristotle the categories belong to the things themselves, they are always of something. However, from the perspective of phenomenology the categories are always to something, according to the axiom of intentionality. Marder’s phenomenological critique of Aristotle remains unfortunately only limited to a few comments.

The most significant paragraph of this chapter is the first one: ‘Ousia-beingness-presence’ which can be read as the blueprint of Marder’s project.  In it he discusses the first category of Aristotle’s table of categories, that of ousia, beingness or substance (44). It is a special category and is different from the others, since in it the passage from the non-political to the political takes place. Marder describes the way in which a thing presents itself to us as the passage of ‘this’ singular being that presents itself ‘as that’. This passage he defines as the passage of the first to the second ousia. The undifferentiated singular being that presents itself as ‘this’ has to be interpreted ‘as that’, for example: this singular being presents itself to me as human. And it is in this passage from the first to the second ousia, that the other categories play a crucial role: ‘Other categories must be in place for us to make a hermeneutical leap bridging the divide between this and that, which is why, by itself, ousia eludes identification and is a category on the verge of the uncategorizable.’ (46). Because ousia is primary to interpretation, the possibility of various interpretations is inherent to it. The other categories are an actualization of the possibility to interpret this singular being in a particular way.

The passage from the first ousia to the second is primarily how Marder understands politics. This means that he primarily understands politics as politicization (122). But politicization can also be hindered or obstructed. He gives the example of someone who is denied interpretation as a human being based on her racial, ethnic, religious, sexual or gender identity (45).

Marder further argues that the passage from the first to the second ousia can help us to confront some of the most fundamental social problems of modernity. First of all, he argues that ousia holds the possibility of peace, in so far as it ensures the ‘equality of the incommensurables’, by which he means that no thing ‘is’ more than another thing, and also in the access they provide to political presence they are equal (51). Second, the category of ousia does not merely reveal the sameness between things, but in the transition from the first to second ousia also their differences. This corresponds to the idea that in this transition the gap between the singular to the universal is bridged, without reducing the one to the other. Something that is a necessary condition for the creation of political solidarity according to Marder (78).

The rest of the chapter consists of a discussion of other Aristotelian categories: how they help us to understand politics as a thing, how they complement each other, and how they become destructive when taken in isolation from each other. The tension between the category of quantity and quality is most noteworthy. In line with his general critique of the technocratic way in which neoliberalism reduces everything to quantifiable entities he points us to the inherent lack of meaning in the category of quantity. Like the category of ousia, the category of quantity does not have contraries (a square is for example not the contrary of a triangle, nor is 1 the contrary of 0), but whereas ousia, in the transition from the first to the second ousia, allows for differences, quantity remains on the level of a limitless sameness: unable to recognize real differences. This is why the reduction of political reality to the category of quantity proves to be most disastrous for politics. The focus on numbers in the census of representative democracies, for example, tends to neutralize and depoliticize the whole political spectrum to a form of ‘procedurally democratic bookkeeping’ (60).

The category of quality, in contrast to that of quantity, brings forward the differences within politics by asking: ‘what sort?’. The contrast with the category of quantity is that the category of quality reveals the differences of particular political orders and enables us to think of them as alternatives to each other. The quality, the sort, of one thing determines its limits in respect to the limits of others. This is why Marder emphasizes repeatedly that categories constitute the boundaries between things. The quality of a political order is reenacted and repeated in certain habits, such as democratic practices, but also the spatial embeddedness of a political order in a particular climate determines its quality. The reason why he probably wants to think of the spatiality of a political order as quality, is that it enables him to link it to his philosophy of ecology. However, it is also a dangerous move to take up the category of quality and spatial embeddedness within political theory, since it runs the risk of getting dangerously close the regressive parochial politics of ‘belonging to’ (82). Marder seeks to avoid this risk, by emphasizing that the categories form together one whole which forms a synthesis between the particular and the universal, as mentioned before in reference to the category of ousia. It is however questionable and in need of a more elaborate argument, if and in how far, the universality of being can form a counterbalance to nationalistic concepts of belonging.

III.

The third chapter on Kant, undoubtedly presents the biggest challenge to the reader who cannot directly reproduce the ins and outs of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. However, it never becomes a real Kant exegesis, and the parts that deal with the details of the Kantian categories are clearly subordinate to Marder’s attempt of developing a theory of political categories. One might wonder why it is at all necessary for Marder to invoke the Kantian apparatus after having developed a first understanding of political categories on the basis of the Aristotelian framework. The reason for this can be found in the different orientations of both chapters. In the second chapter he discusses the Aristotelian categories in relation to politics as a thing. However, in the third chapter he redirects his attention from politics as a thing to the experience of politics, using thereby Kant’s framework of the categories. Where one might have the impression at the end of the second chapter that Marder fails to stay loyal to his phenomenological method, this is adequately reestablished when he shifts his focus to political experience.

The third chapter he begins with the dramatic statement: ‘We have forfeited, or perhaps never had access, to, the experience of politics’ (91). By this he does not mean that politics today takes place far removed from everyday life, but that we, in the first place, have lost the capacity for political experiences. The reason for this is that we have lost the form that provides the conditions for political experiences (92). Without form, the content of experiences, such as voting or resistance, becomes empty and meaningless. For Marder this is also the reason for the impossibility of the constitution of a political ‘we’ under the conditions of neoliberalism (97). This is one of the central claims of the book.

The way in which categories form the condition for political experience, should not be understood as taking up different categories at various occasions. Marder uses the Kantian conception of synthesis to explain the interplay between, and the mutual dependence of, various categories in experience. He uses the unity of the various categories and experience as an important normative benchmark: below the experiential threshold of the categories, things can no longer be interpreted, and all appear the same in their singularity. Above the experiential threshold we have the well-known problem of rigidity and abstract conceptualism (96 -97).

However, Kant does not hold all the answers Marder is looking for. The major problem of Kant’s epistemology for Marder is its hierarchical structure based on the divide between the transcendental and the empirical. Political categorial reason is according to Marder ‘transtranscendental’. He introduces this neologism to describe that political categories go beyond ‘the beyond’. They do this on the one hand by helping us to understand the political make-up of the categories (which is worked out in the two appendixes of the book), and on the other hand by going beyond the political themselves, like he shows in reference to the nonpolitical stage of first ousia. With the term transtranscendental he attempts to put Kant upside-down, denying the hierarchical order of the transcendental and the empirical. As exciting as his suggestions are for those who like to annul the subject-object divide, it is unlikely that it will convince devoted Kant scholars.

IV.

After having set up the theoretical framework in chapters 2 and 3, he puts it to full use in chapter 4, as the title of the chapter already indicates: ‘Categories at Work’. Here he discusses four political themes: state, revolution, power and sovereignty, thereby using and mixing up both the Aristotelian and the Kantian categories. In the case of the state for example he explains how people that view it merely from the perspective of its territorial boundaries, limit themselves to the Aristotelian category of quantity. This perspective is inherently imperialistic since the only way it can be improved is through expansion (148). Kant, however, points out that boundaries are not given by quantitative but by qualitative categories. Marder implies here that taking up the category of quality impedes imperialistic tendencies: ‘limits give the thing its particular qualities, and, in exchange for this service, it gives up its drive towards a potentially infinite expansion in a general atmosphere of indeterminacy’ (149). Not only in reference to the state, but limits and borders play overall a prominent role in this last chapter, and forms a welcome critique of meaningless popular expressions like ‘everything is political’ or ‘everything is connected’.

Take for example the section on power in which he develops a critique on Michel Foucault’s conception of power. Although his critique becomes at this point a bit repetitive, it is interesting that his theory of political categories is not only directed against the proponents of neoliberal politics, but also at various other continental (leftists) philosophers, such as Jacques Rancière, Alain Badiou, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri et al. Like the other positions criticized in the book he also criticizes Foucault for reducing social reality to one particular category within his conception of power, namely that of relation. According to Marder power is not merely relational but simultaneously ‘substantive, (…) qualitative and quantitative, active and passive, (…) potential and actual’ (169). It is especially the category of substance, ousia, to which Marder pays most attention in relation to power. What Foucault fails to see is that in the interpretation of ‘this’ as ‘that’, there already is a pregiven, concrete subject (174). Marder’s claim here, in line with his interpretation of ousia, is that Foucault denies the non-political reality of being. This is of crucial importance for him since his whole theoretical framework rests on the non-political being of a thing, or its political potentiality, that offers the possibility of politicization and thereby of politics.

To conclude, Political Categories is undoubtedly one of the most interesting books today for a new phenomenological approach to political theory. The central theme of developing a theory of political categories is highly original and inventive, but also somewhat problematic. Especially when it comes to the normative horizon that Marder believes is offered by them. The difficulty for him is not to convince the reader that they offer an alternative to neoliberalism. The descriptions of the ways in which the political categories unfold the plurality and the singularity of particular beings, make up for to the most convincing parts of the book. More problematic, is the way in which he believes that a theory of political categories also gives an answer to regressive anti-modern nationalism. His answer that the political categories form a synthesis of sameness and difference, that includes the universality of the incommensurable sameness of the first being of things, seems to be too far removed from political experience, and needs at the very least extensive elaboration. This last point is a general structural weakness of the book: due to its programmatic character, it touches upon many different themes and authors, without discussing any of them at length. When he puts the categories ‘to work’ in the last chapter this is not any different. However, it sparks the curiosity of the reader to see what the political categories bring to the surface when they are really put to work, maybe, and hopefully, in a follow-up to this thought-provoking book.

Frode Kjosavik, Camilla Serck-Hanssen (Eds.): Metametaphysics and the Sciences: Historical and Philosophical Perspectives, Routledge, 2019

Metametaphysics and the Sciences: Historical and Philosophical Perspectives Book Cover Metametaphysics and the Sciences: Historical and Philosophical Perspectives
Routledge Studies in Metaphysics
Frode Kjosavik, Camilla Serck-Hanssen (Eds.)
Routledge
2019
Hardback £115.00
292

Hamid Taieb: Relational Intentionality: Brentano and the Aristotelian Tradition, Springer, 2018

Relational Intentionality: Brentano and the Aristotelian Tradition Book Cover Relational Intentionality: Brentano and the Aristotelian Tradition
Primary Sources in Phenomenology
Hamid Taieb
Springer
2018
E-book
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Mauro Antonelli, Federico Boccaccini (Eds.): Franz Brentano, Routledge, 2018

Franz Brentano Book Cover Franz Brentano
Critical Assessments of Leading Philosophers
Mauro Antonelli, Federico Boccaccini (Eds.)
Routledge
2018
Hardback
1,484

Dana S. Belu: Heidegger, Reproductive Technology, & The Motherless Age

Heidegger, Reproductive Technology, & The Motherless Age Book Cover Heidegger, Reproductive Technology, & The Motherless Age
Dana S. Belu
Palgrave Macmillan
2017
E-book $39.99
IX, 137

Reviewed by: Tamara Cashour (The New School, New York City)

Introduction

This book succeeds as a phenomenological project guided securely by Heideggerian principles, in its philosophical assessment of assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs), which conspire literally, in the making of mothers.  Belu draws almost exclusively and analogously upon Heidegger’s concepts outlayed in The Question Concerning Technology (most overarchingly:  the principle of Gestell [Enframing]) to fashion a critique of ARTs protocols and practices, which, since their initial inception/acceptance in the last quarter of the 20th century, have achieved globalized integration into the process of bringing a new human into the world.  Although in-vitro fertilization (IVF), the premier ART, was successfully employed to fertilize a human egg in 1944; not until 1977 was an in-corpus pregnancy achieved; it’s outcome was unsuccessful.  A year later in 1978, the famous ‘test-tube’ baby Louise Joy Brown was conceived via IVF technologies and successfully birthed.  Today, some forty years hence, several variations of ARTs are in common use not only by heterosexual couples experiencing negative fertility, but by same-sex couples, single-mothers or fathers seeking to start a family or add an additional family member, and others who claim a banner along the now-evolved gender identity spectrum.  Belu relates how the original IVF procedure has morphed into ever-more sophisticated technologies and methods designed to assist in the coming to fruition of a live birth, such as cytoplasmic transfer, the use of donor eggs and/or gestational surrogates.  She also makes clear how the latter two protocols function as particularly egregious political economies which implicate younger and older women alike in a market project of conception:  younger women sell their viable eggs, and surrogates of proven child-bearing capacity ‘sell’ the services of their wombs, to those [often older] women or couples who desire a child but who are either infertile, cannot physically carry to term or who simply cannot, or do not, wish to participate in the pregnancy process.  The ARTs industry has succeeded in “medical fragmentation” of a women’s reproductive system into components–eggs, womb, tubes, ovaries and cycles–which are ‘optimized’ via drugs and various surgical procedures and kept primed in the manner of Heidegger’s standing reserve for use in achieving the desired goal of conception of an embryo.  The reproductive parts no longer need be attached to or within the singular corpus of an intact female body, in fact, more often they are not.  Such mechanistic fracturing destroys women’s bodies as wholistic “autonomous agents” according to Belu (5, 23), and has ushered in what she terms the ‘Motherless Age’.

The ‘Motherless’ Age

Belu’s use of the term motherless seems at first blush metaphysical meaninglessness[i]–an ontological dystopia or ontically obtuse ‘teaser’.[ii]  Mothers are in fact in existence in our epoch–we do not lack mothers, per se, yet the traditional mother-child biological dyad relationship, which begins at conception and ends with the death of either the mother or child (some would argue against that as well), has experienced a post-modern existential crisis (if late in the game), brought on by the extended, if not ubiquitous, use of ARTs on a worldwide scale.[iii]  Belu’s position sets forth (and ostensibly argues against) the phenomenological logic of ARTs which has encouraged ‘the splitting of the atom’ in relation to the term mother, historically defined as a secure subject with distinct boundaries and a single physical corporeal existence.  Motherhood is now conceptually plural across an array of subjectivities that all qualify to be defined by, or at least attached to, the term.  It is now possible for a baby born via gestational surrogacy to potentially have four different mothers if cytoplasmic transfer is employed:  two genetic mothers (one who has lent her eggs and the other who lends her cytoplasm) (Belu, 59, fn 80), the gestational mother who bears and births the fetus, and the ‘social’ mother who rears the child (Belu, 45).  In market terms, the first two mothers are the sellers, the third the worker or laborer, and the fourth and final (who is responsible for the child’s care) is the buyer, or consumer.  Conversely, IVF also allows the production of offspring with no living genetic mothers at all–as viable eggs are collected from the ovarian tissue of aborted fetuses, and coaxed into near maturity via hormone stimulants.   Thus a child can now be borne from a ‘mother’ who was never an actual fully grown person, much less an adult (Belu, 70).  It is the offspring i.e. the child, in this process, who must ultimately face the “motherless” aspects of his/her birth.   As the situation presents itself, it may even be more appropriate to use the term motherfull; the latter suffix however, conveying a generally positive connotation of maternal agency which Belu clearly argues that ARTs subvert (Belu, 79, 105).

Belu establishes ontological erasure of the ‘mother’ in the original etymological sense, at virtually every turn, particularly in Chapter 4 wherein she engages and privileges Heidegger’s concept of enframing over Aristotle’s causal concepts of physis and techné, in the argument over whether IVF processes ‘assist’, or ‘replace’, natural conception.  Belu does not so much detail the legal ramifications of determining “the spark of life” (Belu, 61)[iv], but urges phenomenological clarity and currency as it might reroute a prevailing cultural attitude of “complacency” toward human artificial reproduction.  We shrug off the extent of IVF’s practical ramifications for humanity, because we persist in (along Aristotelian lines), and even dote on, the misunderstanding of the role of technological prowess as a handmaid  to, and not creator of, human life.  This is of course, the “forgetting of the clearing”  (Lichtungvergessenheit) which  Heidegger says chiefly enables the chokehold of  Enframing.  As we do not do what Heidegger urges:  “experience its unthought essence first of all”, or else we broach  it superficially, we cannot see “the extent that the essence of enframing does not appear as the danger, and the essence of the danger does not appear as Beyng [sic]”; which “accounts for our misunderstanding” [of] above all technology” (Belu, 12-13, 21, fn. 26).

Citing the wry ‘twist’ of analogizing Aristotle’s male-active/female-passive principle of nature to IVF procedures within our causa efficiens-hegemonic techno-modernity (Belu, 68), Belu seriously implicates the medical establishment in the authority of its arché position, which allows it to usurp the agency of a natural mother in order to supervise the engineering of life.  Ultimately, in the motherless world, the mother-effect, a term first coined by Kelly Oliver,[v] obliterates both the participation of the ‘real’ mother and ‘mother nature’, such representatives of our lingering cultural dedication to biological ownership.  Moreover, these absences are “covered over” in the persistent need to preserve normativity:  the arché role of the fertility doctor and the techné role of the IVF procedure are minimized as the birthed child is attributed to nature’s grace, or termed something like a miracle “Child of God”.  Belu states:

IVF participants (the women, doctors, and media) can be seen to reproduce the mother-effect, caught up in a play of affirming the significance of technology for conception and gestation, yet undermining this significance in the final product, calling it (mother) nature (Belu, 71).

A Feminist Phenomenology of ARTs

In her zeal to establish a feminist phenomenology for ARTS, Belu details various reproductive enframing processes, where human life is engineered from start to finish (challenged forth).  It is still startling to read, in 2017, how, after a woman’s body is shot through with hormones [via extremely painful injections] to spur superovulation (wherein her ovaries will produce up to 10 eggs or more at once) that “the eggs are then sucked out of the woman’s ovaries” and

fertilization is engineered in the Petrie dish.  These procedures reveal the woman’s reproductive body as passive, fungible material, a biological system that is broken up into its component parts of uterus, tubes, eggs, endometrium and hormone cycles that are worked upon by the technités (Belu, 66).

Belu notes as well the striking ambivalence toward women, such as surrogates and/or egg/cytoplasm donors, who have offered up their body and/or its reproductive components to the commercial market toward the end goal of a live birth.[vi] Often, a woman’s psyche is outrightly neglected as it undergoes this process. The woman is treated as a “purely functional” resource (Belu, 32).  Feenberg terms this autonomization, “the interruption of the reflexivity of technical action, its impact on the user, so that the subject can affect the object of technical production seemingly without being affected in return.” (Belu, 32).  Heidegger’s concept of fungibility rears its significance in an extremely ugly duality in this situation:  the laboring subject is also the object of technical imposition, yet any mental or physical distress she may encounter in her dual role is downplayed or remains unaddressed by the life-engineers (Belu, 32).

Belu is also keen to cite the lack of medical follow-up studies over the years on certain groups of women who have participated in any part of the IVF process (Belu, 58, fn 66).  She particularly notes the plights of young women egg donors (27) which have not been studied in depth.  Moreover, there is a lack of research on the children who have been borne from these procedures, in terms of issues surrounding their mental and physical health (58, fn 66).

Ultimately, Belu sufficiently establishes patriarchal bias of IVF procedures, particularly when healthy women undergo IVF in the service of men whose sperm are unhealthy or otherwise deficient (Belu, 35), or when cross-fertilization (the use of sperm from many different men in a ‘lottery’ setup in order to determine which will fertilize a woman’s egg) is employed (Belu, 34).  However, she misses an opportunity to make certain inroads as to how ARTs may functionally chip away at patriarchy; she instead places their use and control firmly in the hands of patriarchy as powerful instrumentum.

Chapter Layout

Belu’s introductory chapter states her intent to devise a feminist phenomenology of ARTs and summarizes content of succeeding chapters.  Chapters 2-6 each open with a brief abstract which functions as a sort of a mini-“Heidegger 101” for the uninitiated.  Belu weaves each chapter’s argument in strong relation to stated Heideggerian terms or tenets, which she evidences have proven themselves as prescient ontological reasoning vis-a-vis ARTs proliferation. The book’s through-line leads from Belu’s attempt to solidify a binarist interpretation of Heidegger’s concept of Enframing as partial or total–which reinterpretation holds serious implications for female agents as they experience reproductive enframing via the IVF process; to an engagement of Heideggerian thought with Aristotelian concepts of physis and technê in determining the authority of IVF procedures to ignite “the spark of life” (Belu, 61); continuing through technophilic and technophobic representations of modern-age childbirth; and culminating in Belu’s ‘solution’ (to what she perceives are complications and difficulties caused by technical childbirth) via poiésis.  Belu’s  compelling argument and concluding proposal in themselves embody Heidegger’s concept of safeguarding,[vii] the idea that Being (life) is granted as a gift, which we must foster and husband via Heidegger’s suggestions of meditation, waiting, and careful use of artisanal methods, rather than mindless challenging forth via quantization, endless ordering and stockpiling.  ARTs processes, Belu is saying, are often hell-bent on a singular result (conception of Life) while heedlessly disregarding of the suffering of those (mothers) who are used or even abused, to obtain such result.

Belu’s Heideggerian Debt

Acknowledging Heidegger’s The Question Concerning Technology as a key resource,[viii] Belu is quick to note that Heidegger “writes virtually nothing about reproductive technology” although from his chronological position in history he does foresee processes of “artificial breeding of human material” (witness his 1954 essay Overcoming Metaphysics). Whether Heidegger’s comment of foresight launched this book (given current ART practices), Belu does not make clear, but the extended analogy of enframing to reproductive enframing holds sway.  Throughout, Belu engages phenomenologically with select other philosophers, both of antiquity (Aristotle, and to a lesser extent, Plato) and modernity (Arendt, Feenburg, Oliver, Marcuse, Ruddick, others).

Couching “Motherless Age” as a Useful/Critical Resource

Heidegger, Reproductive Technology and the Motherless Age is first and foremost a phenomenological critique of social (medical) practices which have in the 21st-century become institutionalized.  That is to say, ARTS are now viewed as mainstream medical procedures marketed to women of all strata as viable options for live birth, rather than “luxury” alternatives to natural sex in the service of conceiving a live human.  It is still the case however, that women who enjoy economic freedom and possess excellent health insurance to pay for the still-astronomical cost of these procedures, are most often slated to benefit from the ARTS industry.[ix]

As such, this book will most likely not find a table or shelf position in the reading rooms or professional libraries of ARTS medical professionals.  Such industry professionals are essentially selling a service [technological assistance] to produce a product [a live birth], in Belu’s overwhelming view.  Yet some women (including the range of ARTS participant mothers) do not have a problem with this type of economic exchange, and in fact happily undergo these procedures in committed fashion, hoping for a successful outcome.  A major drawback of this book is that Belu virtually ignores the scores of women and men whose lives changed toward the better via the use of ARTS technologies by granting them children–however and by whomever these children were conceived, gestated and borne.  Belu sets up an overarching negative polemic of  Technology (ARTS Doctor) vs. Subject (Patient) at the beginning of her argument; such polemic holds sway until the end of the book.  Additionally, Belu concerns herself neither  with individual case studies reflecting either positive or negative outcomes, nor with applications of ARTS to male-gendered subjects.   Finally, Belu’s text is also woefully deplete of statistical input; while it does remain primarily a work of critical theory, a chart or two inserted to support her claims–particularly those regarding ARTS damages to the psyches and physical bodies of women–would not hurt.  (In her defense, Belu does state that the industry itself has largely failed to undertake either national or international studies that would statistically emphasize the negative aspects of ARTS (Belu 58, fn 66)).  Ultimately, Belu’s phenomenological argument holds many truths, which are corroborated by a number of current texts on this issue which are more sociological and/or statistical in nature, in particular: Reassembling Motherhood:  Procreation and Care in a Globalized World, also published in 2017.

Conclusion:  Interdisciplinary Dialogue/Action is Needed

In conclusion, this text reflects the state of dialogue, conversation and problem-solving among the disciplines in place to move civil society forward:  that is to say, these types of interdisciplinary activities are still in their infancy.   Inter- and trans-disciplinary dialogue between and among medical ARTS professionals, academic philosophers, sociologists and social workers, ethics consultants and economists to improve the conditions and levity for all those across the board who seek to conceive/bear a child could only work for the good of these persons, and ultimately, for the human race.  Unwittingly, Belu’s critical stance points the way forward toward such a dialogue even as her text concludes in what technophiliacs might consider highly Ludditian fashion:  with an accent on waterbirth as an alternative to technologically-ruled live births.  (A water birth assumes there is something to be born, whether technology has assisted in conception/gestation or not).

As we move into an ever-increasing technologically-mediated age for nearly every human activity or thought, a return to Heidegger’s prescient phenomenological warning to humanity is seemingly warranted.  This, Belu accomplishes, with deft reverence to Heideggerian principles.

Epilogue

Dr. Belu ethically provides a short epilogue to her main text, explaining her position on Heidegger’s Black Notebooks (as revealing of his anti-Semitism.) Belu points out, but does not de-crypt, Heidegger’s “equivocation” (Belu, 122)  regarding the ontic or ontological origins of machination.  Confirming Heidegger’s conflation of machination and “World Jewry” (via causality) as “racist and condemnable” (Belu 122), Belu nevertheless finds that Heidegger’s expression/espousement of a political stance that is overwhelmingly viewed as reprehensible does not specifically deconstruct the actual application of  the phenomenological principle of enframing to a study of ARTS as implicated in women’s reproductive processes (Italics mine).


[i] See Michael Wheeler, “Martin Heidegger”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/metaphysics/. Section 5. “Is Metaphysics Possible?”

[ii] Belu explains her quasi-titular use of the term motherless thusly: “I do mean…that in the age of reproductive enframing the figure of the mother is being replaced by various technologies and maternal figures who perform maternal work. In this new context, almost anyone can be seen to be a mother–so that no one is the mother” , 51.

[iii] Linda G. Kahn and Wendy Chavkin, “Assisted Reproductive Technologies and the Biological Bottom Line” in Reassembling Motherhood:  Procreation and Care in a Globalized World, (New York:  Columbia University Press, 2017), Kindle version,39.  The authors note the sociobiological implications of the proliferation of ARTs use from 1978-2012, during which period “five million babies had been born worldwide using IVF”.  See also Belu,  25.

[iv] Belu offers  an explorative footnote in this regard.  See fn 14, 75.

[v] Kelly Oliver, Technologies of Life and Death:   From Cloning to Capital Punishment  (New York:  Fordham University Press, 2013).  Oliver defines mother-effect as “the result of the absence of a real mother who is therefore mythologized and romanticized as the origin and plentitude of Nature, but whose disappearance is a prerequisite for the myth itself”, 57.

[vi] The one exception to this ambivalent treatment of the female ‘resource’ is the surrogacy market in India, whose surrogacy clinics take great pains to ensure that their ‘worker’ mothers (gestational surrogates for wealthy individuals and couples) are “as comfortable as possible, healthy, well feed, well rested, entertained, and well paid”  See Belu, 50; Bailey, 19.

[vii] See Martin Heidegger, Building, Dwelling, Thinking p. 352 in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (New York:  Harper & Row, 1977) (http://designtheory.fiu.edu/readings/heidegger_bdt.pdf) and Michael Wheeler, “Martin Heidegger”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Section 3.4, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/heidegger/.

[viii] Belu also references, to a lesser extent, material from Heidegger’s earlier essays The Danger, The Turning and Building, Dwelling, Thinking, (as well as Being and Time) the first two of which he drew upon significantly in writing The Question Concerning Technology.

[ix] Reassessing Motherhood notes the lack of agency for women situated in disadvantaged economic strata in terms of their ability to choose ARTS procedures for their own wombs, rather than lending their own wombs to those women who can easily afford to “purchase” their services. A double standard based on economic capability is firmly in place in which poor women are implicated as “tools” for economically secure women.  This produces a “double whammy” for women from underdeveloped countries, who find themselves in the position of “seller”, although this phenomenon is not necessarily a Western/underdeveloped nation problem.  See pp. 185, 224 and 295..

Hans Burkhardt † (Founding Editor), Johanna Seibt, Guido Imaguire, Stamatios Gerogiorgakis ( Eds.): Handbook of Mereology, Philosophia Verlag GmbH, 2017

Handbook of Mereology Book Cover Handbook of Mereology
Analytica
Hans Burkhardt †( Founding Editor), Johanna Seibt, Guido Imaguire, Stamatios Gerogiorgakis ( Eds.)
Philosophia Verlag GmbH
2017
Hardcover € 248.00
629

Dan Zahavi (Ed.): The Oxford Handbook of the History of Phenomenology, Oxford University Press, 2018

The Oxford Handbook of the History of Phenomenology Book Cover The Oxford Handbook of the History of Phenomenology
Dan Zahavi (Ed.)
Oxford University Press
2018
Hardback £110.00
784

Paul Livingston: The Logic of Being: Realism, Truth, and Time, Northwestern University Press, 2017

The Logic of Being: Realism, Truth, and Time Book Cover The Logic of Being: Realism, Truth, and Time
Paul Livingston
Northwestern University Press
2017
Paper Text $34.95
280

Chad Engelland: Ostension: Word Learning and the Embodied Mind

Ostension: Word Learning and the Embodied Mind Book Cover Ostension: Word Learning and the Embodied Mind
Chad Engelland
MIT Press
2014
Hardcover $42.00
336

Reviewed by: María Jimena Clavel Vázquez (St. Andrews/Stirling Philosophy Graduate Programme)

How do children come to learn their first words? One key term in answering this question is ostension: lacking linguistic resources, language speakers recur to ostensive acts or movements –such as gestures and pointing– to teach someone the name of an object. This is the phenomenon that concerns Chad Engelland in his book Ostension: Word Learning and the Embodied Mind. For Engelland, the question regarding first-word acquisition involves several other matters: how are the intentions of the language speaker available for the infant? (i.e. the phenomenological problem); if intentions are available through animate movement, what is the concept of the mind that allows such availability? (i.e. the intersubjective problem); how can infants understand an ambiguous movement such as an ostensive act? (i.e. the epistemological problem); and, finally, what is the place of animate movement in nature and its relationship with language? (i.e. the metaphysical problem).

Engelland focuses on the phenomenological question, a matter he takes to be prior to other issues. For him, phenomenology is necessary to make sense of ostension because it is a matter of availability. He claims that the question of ostension “asks how the intentionality of the other is intersubjectively available in a prelinguistic way (…) ostension concerns how specific items in the public world can be mutually manifest as the target of joint attention” (xxvii). Only when we have an adequate grasp of the phenomenon we can answer the epistemological question and advance into the metaphysical problems of the nature of the mind, and language. According to Engelland, phenomenology is an adequate method to tackle the problem of first-word acquisition because it is concerned with making explicit the way something is manifested in our everyday experience. Phenomenology grasps the interplay between presence and absence, manifestation and hiddenness, an interplay that lies at the heart of Engelland’s account of ostension. Ostension is, for him, the prelinguistic means by which infants enter the public game of language, a character that necessitates a phenomenological account.

This understanding of phenomenology allows Engelland to engage with philosophers within the phenomenological tradition such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Hans Georg Gadamer, and Robert Sokolowski, but it also allows him to read Wittgenstein, Aristotle and Augustine on this basis. Besides recurring to historical figures, he engages with contemporary thinkers, within both philosophy and psychology, such as W.V.O. Quine, Donald Davidson, Paul Bloom, and Michael Tomasello. The dialogue with philosophers that belong to different traditions and times is part of Engelland’s strategy. Philosophy is, for him, a conversation that inevitably ends up facing questions regarding human nature. In that respect, he claims that: “The restlessness of conversation, its incessant movement back and forth, is rooted in the natural aims of human like. To reflect on language in terms of conversation is to reflect on those who desire to converse with one another, with those who wish to share a life with one another. The turn to conversation necessarily involves the question concerning human nature” (216).

Part I. Contemporary Resources

Engelland begins this philosophical dialogue conversing with contemporary thinkers and scientists. In the first chapter, he starts by looking into the theory of language acquisition of Quine and Davidson. Quine gave a central role to behaviour in his explanation of language learning. He takes behaviour to be intrinsically ambiguous, an ambiguity that can only be (partially) remedied through repetition. However, Engelland considers that Quine’s external account of behaviour results in an artificial reconstruction of ostension and fails to see that, in an ostensive act, an item of the world is jointly disclosed but from different embodied perspectives: “[o]stension makes something jointly present to each, and presence involves people for whom it is present, people who together experience the world but from different points of view. In this way, there is an ineluctably ‘inward’ dimension to ostension, and there is more to behaviour than the behaviorist can see” (5).

Donald Davidson follows Quine in his account of ostension, but he emphasizes an important relational feature of the phenomenon. Language learning is the result of triangulation, that is, of the interaction between two agents, and other items in the world. The language learner associates the intention underlying the behaviour of the other agent with changes occurring in their surroundings.

Quine and Davidson are clear in that ostension is the prelinguistic means that allows first word acquisition. But, as mentioned earlier, for Engelland, ostension can only be properly unpacked phenomenologically. Phenomenology can answer “how the intentions of others are on display” in our actions (11). The movement Engelland is concerned with is not mere behavior, rather he is interested in intentional actions, actions in which one’s affective engagement is advertised. Even perception is among this kind of actions: it is not a passive process. He follows Ava Noë and Kevin O’Regan in their enactive account of perception, according to which perception is an embodied activity. Perception advertises intentionality and affectivity just like any other action; and just like any other action, perception takes place in the world and not just in our heads. Engelland also draws on the enactivist movement to account for the intersubjectivity that is constitutive of experience. Finally, Engelland draws on Gadamer’s concept of “play”, a concept that bring action and manifestation together. Play involves turn-taking and mirrored actions; players are interacting between each other, they are presenting their actions to themselves, to other players, and to spectators; it displays actions that are directed to the world and which are structured with a distinction between means and ends. This will turn out to be important features of ostensive actions.

In the second chapter, Engelland turns to scientific accounts of first-word acquisition, a matter he qualifies to be “a burning issue” in contemporary psychology. He draws mainly, on the one hand, on the work of Paul Bloom, who recovers an Augustinian proposal of language learning; and on the other, on the work of Michael Tomasello, who offers, in turn, a Wittgensteinian account. The psychological studies recovered by Engelland show that infants do not learn new words unless both the language speaker and the named item are present. For language learning, presence and intersubjective interaction is crucial. Ostension presupposes what Colwyn Trevarten identifies as the first and second stages of intersubjective development: (1) first, an understanding of others as “fellow animate beings” to whom a newborn child pays attention and with whom she interacts by imitating and by taking turns in their interactions; (2) second, an understanding of others as “intentional agents” with whom an infant engages in joint situations. It is not only that the infant can understand gestures and follow gazes, she recognizes “that these actions have reciprocal possibilities” (28). To explain the phenomenon of mirroring, Engelland recurs to the mechanism of mirror neurons, which fire when seeing the actions of another agent.

At the end of this chapter, Engelland reaches the following definition of ostension: it is “[a]n unintentionally communicative bodily movement, arising from a pattern of meaningful human action, that makes an item in the world jointly present and affords the opportunity for an eavesdropper to identify a certain kind of item in the world and/or to learn the articulate sound used to present the identified item” (36). It differs from ostensive definition in that (a) it does not necessarily have communicative intentions; and (b) it arises from a meaningful pattern of action.

Part II. Historical Resources

The historical conversation held throughout the second part of this book sets the stage for the final philosophical discussion. Although Engelland chooses four thinkers that come from different backgrounds and contexts, the way he guides the discussion enables a productive intertwining that enlightens the problem of ostension. While Augustine, Wittgenstein, and Merleau-Ponty explicitly deal with the problem of language acquisition, Aristotle does not. This is one of the virtues of the text. Engelland shows that Aristotle has the conceptual resources to deal with the issue of world learning; furthermore, Aristotelian philosophy allows the clarification of problems that arise within the other views, such as the nature of movement, and of animal life.

In the third chapter, Engelland starts this historical journey analysing Wittgenstein’s position which he reads in a phenomenological manner: the task of philosophy is not to raise scepticism, but to clarify the phenomena that appear in our everyday experience. Wittgenstein develops his account in opposition to Augustine’s. Firstly, he regards Augustine’s theory to apply only to naming; secondly, he takes it not to involve ostension, but ostensive definition which supposes the infant to have some kind of mental language; finally, he emphasizes the ambiguity of ostension as a central aspect of ostension, one that Wittgenstein considers to be missing in Augustine’s account.

Engelland argues that these objections are due to a misconstruction of Augustine’s position which, without realizing, is a lot closer to Wittgenstein’s own account in the following aspects: (1) firstly, ostensive acts (i.e. gestures) enable infants “to follow intentional cues and, when coupled with training, find their way into a language game” (52); (2) secondly, there are some human voluntary movements that are universal and which reveal our intentions; (3) gestures reveal the consciousness of another, (4) facial expressions betray our attention, (5) and the tone of voice and its modulation reveal emotions; (6) finally, all of these reveal affections, they “serve to make manifest one’s affections in the pursuit or avoidance of things” (53). Given that our body manifests our intentions, one can perceive the other’s affective life. Per Wittgenstein, minds are not private, they rather seem hidden when we are facing an ambiguous behavior. Despite the similarities of Wittgenstein’s account with Augustine, there is one central difference. For the former, ostension is disambiguated thanks to training, because the infant cannot surpass ambiguity without the help of a teacher. Engelland rejects this picture of the passive child and instead takes Augustine’s perspective of a ripe infant who desires to participate in the language game.

In the next chapter, Engelland revisits Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s position regarding language learning. The phenomenological perspective of Merleau-Ponty allows Engelland to account for the intersubjective interplay that lies at the basis of ostension. For Merleau-Ponty it is not so much that the child acquires language, rather she gets habituated to the language game. In learning to speak, the infant is learning to play a role and, thus, is acquiring not language but a whole world of meaning. In that sense, Engelland claims with Merleau-Ponty that “the body gains a ‘figurative significance’” (71).

To understand the communicative powers of the body, Merleau-Ponty abandons the opposition between a material world governed by causal relations, and consciousness. The body “must become the intention” if it is to account for our communicative interplay. The reciprocity of communication is possible in virtue of a common world to which both the language speaker and the infant belong. Engelland follows Merleau-Ponty in claiming that intersubjectivity is constitutive of the body. The flesh, a term that the French philosopher coined to refer to the basis of this embodied intersubjectivity, brings together the activity of the lived body and the passivity of the perceived body. Engelland claims that “the twofold or chiasm of flesh places each of us in a world together, enabling gesturing and joint attention” (81). For Engelland, Merleau-Ponty captures in a brilliant way “how the body is the best picture of the mind” (82). However, he fails to account just how it is that the body is twofold, a task that can be accomplish by two classical programs.

In the fifth chapter, Engelland addresses the first of these programs: Augustine’s account of word learning. With Jean-Luc Marion, Engelland takes Augustine to be concerned with the phenomenological question regarding ostension. In De Doctrina Christiana, Augustine notices that there are signs that are instituted or conventional, and, therefore, are arbitrary. However, that poses a problem for word acquisition: if these signs are arbitrary, how can they be acquired? To explain this, it is necessary to account for the joint attention that precedes language learning. Augustine recalls the context in which he acquired language: “a context of interpersonal affection nourished by expressive bodily movements” (93). In that context, the infant fails to disclose her needs, affections, and desires, and “discovers the ability to do so by understanding the bodily movement of language speakers” (94). Unlike the passive infant in Wittgenstein’s account, Augustine’s infant wishes to participate in the language game. This infant learns in an important sense by eavesdropping the conversations that take place in daily routines. Context controls ambiguity in an important way.

But, what happens when the context is not enough to disambiguate? For Augustine, the infant possesses some kind of perception or receptivity that allows disambiguation. The child conjectures that “bodily movement signifies soul” (101). But this conjecture is not an inference, it is rather an awareness we share with other animals and that is rooted in our inner sense. The infant develops this awareness when developing motor control. Nonetheless, interanimal awareness is not enough to make sense of this phenomenon. The child requires understanding as well to grasp bodily movement as an intentional action. Engelland intends to show, contra Wittgenstein, that Augustine does consider ambiguity as a problem. Not only that, Augustine realizes that ambiguity is a central feature of language learning, and that it is an obstacle that is not easy to surpass.

The last stop in Engelland’s historical route is Aristotle. As mentioned earlier, Aristotle does not have an account of word acquisition, however, Engelland reconstructs what would be the Aristotelian account of language learning, an account that offers some important concepts that were lacking in Augustine’s view. Engelland begins his reconstruction with the argument against the denier of PNC (the Principle of Non-Contradiction). For Engelland, this refutation shows that the PNC accounts for the possibility of intelligibility. But, what accounts for the possibility of joint intelligibility?

For Aristotle, animals communicate on the basis of natural significations: they express pleasure and pain. Humans, on the other hand, transcend this and institute conventional terms to express something other. However, these conventional terms are problematic in that they must communicate the way the world appears individually to each of us. This inward dimension of affectivity does not represent a problem, because it can be shared through our bodily movement. Aristotle’s account of movement differs from that of modern physics. For him, natural movement reveals the power to move. Animate movement, which is common to all animals, has a discriminatory character because it “targets a good or avoids a bad” (116). What is specific of deliberate human gestures is that they invite the other to look beyond them and to rest their attention in something else. Human joint activity goes beyond coordination, and turns into political cooperation (i.e. into a “share[d] belief about what makes for a good life” (124)). According to Engelland, the reciprocity of understanding in Aristotle’s description of friendship, sheds light to the meaning of cooperation: in friendship, we understand ourselves by understanding others.

Part III. Philosophical Investigations

These two conversations –the one with contemporary thinkers and the historical one– allow Engelland to set the stage for his philosophical investigations. In chapter seven, he gives a phenomenological account of ostension, according to which the intention of ostensive bodily movements is manifested, and not inferred. Engelland draws on the theory of the perception of emotion developed by J. L. Austin for whom: “one’s body advertises the movement of emotions to all those who have eyes to see” (p. 134). For Engelland, the advertisement of our affections is not reduced to emotion, but extends to action and perception in general.

Engelland rejects the inferential position because it assumes the “Cartesian bifurcation of internal and external evidence” (136). This bifurcation implies that, in order to go from behavior to internal intentions, the infant would need to experience such an internal realm. Inference requires the experience of internal intentions as evidence. Without it, the child has no basis for inference. He claims that: “[The inferential view] assumes a flawed framework in which the terms inside and outside, private and public, self and other, are mutually exclusive. The chasm separating these two domains cannot be bridged by endowing the infant with mindboggling powers of inference; it can be bridged only by uncovering the perception of animate movement. On this view, the infant appears more naturally as an understanding animal, not an inferring scientist” (138).

Per Engelland, ostension is not the coordination of the inner lives of two agents through behavior, it is rather joint perception. Joint perception requires spatial and temporal presence not only of the agents, but of the perceived item as well. Our individual perspective of the perceived object does not cancel joint perception because we perceive the public appearance or look of the item. Things have a public dimension and it is this dimension that we perceive and intend. In ostension, my bodily movement manifests the intended object, thus, bringing it to presence or making it an object of joint attention to anyone who is attentive to my movements.

In the following chapter, Engelland tackles the problem of other minds. The inferential view of ostension claims that, in analogy to ourselves, we take the other to be an agent. Wittgenstein notes that underlying this view is the notion of the body as a machine inhabited by a consciousness. However, for Engelland, this is an odd view: it would seem more natural to “perceive fellow animate minds at work” (155). He follows several phenomenologists, such as Edith Stein, Hans Jonas, and Evan Thompson, in claiming that our body is not properly understood as a machine, it is rather a lived body. We live among animate bodies, and our own animate movements “puts us into spontaneous communion with one another” (p. 155). Engelland takes one step forward from these phenomenological considerations in that, for him, although it is the case that we take the others to be animate beings because we understand ourselves as such, it is also that we are aware of our own life because we perceive it in the others.

The notion of mind that is at play in Engelland’s view is one that recovers an Aristotelian hylomorphism according to which “[p]oints of view are essentially embodied” (p. 170). Engelland enriches this position with the phenomenological account, thus, resulting in a view that takes the mind to be animate: “The mind is not incidentally attached to a body; the mind is essentially embodied and on display in animate action” (170).

And how does this account of ostension and of the animate mind deal with ambiguity? The ninth chapter of the book deals with the epistemological challenge regarding ambiguity. Although ostension recurs to similar resources to those of ostensive definition to control ambiguity –for instance, movement and novelty–, it also has “unique disambiguating cues”: (a) natural wants and desires, (b) daily routines and games, and (c) repetition across contexts. However, Engelland, inspired by Aristotle’s and John McDowell’s reflections on human nature, also argues that we are naturally inclined to the development of specific habits. To explain what he means by natural inclinations, Engelland draws on the concept of life-form developed by Michael Thompson. Life-forms are judgments that we use to “make sense of each other” (181), in that they afford ways of “generalizing or profiling” (183). Human inclinations are natural because they belong to our common nature, one that is available in the intersubjective realm of our perception. When learning a language, infants risk acts of identification and profiling. Engelland claims that “[t]he ostensive act affords the interlocutor or eavesdropper the opportunity to achieve something like a nominal definition, that is, an understanding that allows him or her to identify the spoken item and distinguish it from other sorts of similar things” (188).

In the final chapter of the book, Engelland focuses on the metaphysical problems concerning ostension. For him, what makes ostension logically possible is the structure of our experience. Given that experience is dominated by rest and sameness, movement and change call our attention. The relevance of movement and difference make ostension possible.

In this chapter, Engelland also discusses the relationship between phenomenological movement of disclosure and manifestation, and physical motion. For him, physical happenings are necessary for phenomenological movement, nonetheless, the latter does not identify with mere physical happenings. He claims that “[p]henomenological movement needs all this physics to happen, but it is something other than the physical happening” (198). Furthermore, we can only make sense of physical motion if it is immersed in our phenomenological experience.

This distinction leads Engelland to discuss the relation between scientific explanation and phenomenology. Although Engelland does not explicitly refer to this debate, I believe he engages with the problem of naturalization of phenomenology when dealing with the question about the relation between these two kinds of explanations. Engelland adopts Sokolowski’s notion of lensing to account for the role the brain, the nervous system, and our senses have in our experience. These do not appear in our everyday experience since they are transparent. These physical structures enable experience and “[make] the world available” (201).

Given their transparency, Engelland considers that a phenomenological account of consciousness is irrelevant for biological explanations. For him, there is an uncontroversial division of labor between phenomenology and science: biology is equipped to understand life, while philosophy is equipped to understand the manifestation of life. Philosophy, then, cannot contribute to biology as such, but it can make a non-biological contribution. In that vein, Engelland shows that joint presence is a condition of possibility of scientific discourse. Philosophy contributes in our understanding of the world, a world to which science belongs. Engelland would seem to claim that phenomenology cannot be naturalized in the sense that: “philosophers have no reason to adopt the scientific image as their point of departure or their point of return” (214). If that is so, why engage with science at all? Engelland is right in distinguishing the tasks of philosophy and science, but such a distinction should not amount to the claim that philosophy does not depart nor return to science. Claiming the latter inevitably leads to philosophical solipsism, something that Engelland himself avoids throughout his book by taking philosophy as conversation.

Concluding Remarks

Ostension invites the reader into a dialogue that not only goes through different disciplines, but also through different philosophical traditions and problems. It offers a treatment of first-word acquisition that takes into account traditional and contemporary considerations, but goes beyond them by introducing a new perspective that is enriched by phenomenology and psychology. Its originality lies in the explicit formulation of the phenomenological question regarding first-word acquisition. This book will be valuable to anyone who is interested in theories of meaning, language acquisition, and the dialogue between phenomenology, analytic philosophy, and science.

 

Stefan Roski: Bolzano’s Conception of Grounding

Bolzano’s Conception of Grounding Book Cover Bolzano’s Conception of Grounding
Studies in Theoretical Philosophy vol. 5
Stefan Roski
Vittorio Klostermann
January 2017
Paperback 59,00 €
X+270

Reviewed by: Petter Sandstad (University of Rostock)

Bernard Bolzano (1781-1848) was a Catholic priest and held, until his politically-motivated dismissal by the Austrian Emperor Franz in 1819/20, a professorship on religious doctrine at the University of Prague.  He was a polymath, writing on philosophy of religion, political philosophy, ethics, aesthetics, and social reform (and engaged in philanthropic work). Yet his most notable and original work, largely ignored during his life, is on mathematics, logic, and philosophy of science. This part of Bolzano’s work was influential upon many students of Franz Brentano (Smith 1994:156), e.g., Carl Stumpf, Alexius Meinong, Kazimierz Twardowski, and not least Edmund Husserl, who wrote: “Bernard Bolzano’s Wissenshaftslehre… far surpasses everything the world-literature has to offer in the way of a systematic sketch of logic… we must count him as one of the greatest logicians of all time” (Prolegomena, appendix to §61, Husserl 2001:142).  Bolzano’s notion of “proposition in itself” (Sätze an sich) is a predecessor of Brentano’s “immanent content,” Frege’s “thought” (Gedanke), and Husserl’s “ideal meaning.” And more generally, Bolzano’s view that propositions are, in Husserl’s terminology, ideal or abstract entities was highly influential (Smith 1994:185-190).

There has recently been a vast expansion in the literature on Bolzano’s theoretical philosophy.  In 2014 the first complete English translation of Bolzano’s main work from 1837, the Wissenschaftslehre (Theory of Science), was published in four volumes (Bolzano 2014).  Some noteworthy recent monographs are Morscher’s (2008) Bolzano’s Life and Work and Lapointe’s (2011) Bolzano’s Theoretical Philosophy. For a brief introduction see Morscher (2014) and Šebestik (2016).  What is of interest for the purpose of this review is the fact that Bolzano was, as claimed by Roski, perhaps the first to have a proper, though tentative and fragmentary, theory of grounding (55; here and henceforth references to page numbers alone refer to the book under review).

Grounding is a topic which has received immense attention these last 15 years or so (see Correia and Schnieder 2012; Bliss and Trogdon 2016). It is often seen as a replacement for the controversial notions of truth-makers and of supervenience, where it is taken as a virtue of all these notions that they allow for non-eliminative theories, for instance of the mental or of social reality. Still, grounding is perhaps an even more controversial notion. For instance, the notion is criticized for being too coarse-grained (Wilson 2014). Some examples of grounding especially conducive to Bolzano’s conception are (216):

  • Moral facts obtain because non-moral ones do. E.g. Metternich’s actions are bad because they yield to a decrease of the overall distribution of happiness.
  • It is true that p because p. E.g. it is true that Socrates is brave because Socrates is brave.
  • A conjunction is true because its conjuncts are true. E.g. Socrates is Greek and Socrates is a philosopher because Socrates is Greek, and because Socrates is a philosopher.

The use of  “because” indicates that a relation of grounding holds between two true propositions (the relata). “Because” is here not used in an evidential and epistemological sense, but rather to express an explanatory metaphysical priority-relation.

Roski’s Bolzano’s Conception of Grounding is the first book-length treatment solely devoted to Bolzano’s theory of grounding. The author is concerned with Bolzano’s mature theory of grounding as expressed in his main work, the Wissenschaftslehre (especially WL §198-221).  Aside from a few notes, the book does not discuss Bolzano’s transition from his early theory to his mature theory (especially, both from 1810, the Aetiologie and the Beyträge zu einer begründeteren Darstellung der Mathematik; but cf. Centrone 2016). Nor does it discuss Bolzano’s influence on his successors, e.g., Husserl. By all meanings of the term, this is a scholarly work—both in its varied use of texts from Bolzano’s collected works (the Bernard Bolzano Gesamtausgabe), and in its discussion of relevant secondary literature. As I am no scholar of Bolzano, I will not engage with Roski’s interpretation. Rather, I will focus on the value of this book for a general reader, who is either already familiar with the recent grounding-literature and interested in learning more on Bolzano’s view, or interested in an historically-guided introduction to grounding.

The book is a revision of Roski’s 2013 doctoral dissertation, from which two chapters have been omitted (one on Bolzano’s early work and one on his conception of science) and one chapter added (ch.5).  It consists of an introduction (ch.1); a presentation of key notions from the Wissenschaftslehre, especially deducibility (ch.2); one chapter on Bolzano’s pure logic of grounding (ch.3), and a very long chapter on his impure logic of grounding (ch.4).  Roski takes the distinction between pure and impure from Fine (2012).  The pure logic of grounding “contains principles that hold for every case of grounding, irrespective of…the relata,” whereas impure logic of grounding “consists of more specific principles that mostly apply only to truths from deductive or a priori sciences” (16).  The book concludes with a comparison between Bolzano’s theory and contemporary theories of grounding (ch.5).

Chapter 1. Introduction

The introduction not only contains the customary brief description and motivation of the book, methodological remarks, and outline of the chapters. It further gives a brief description of grounding. Bolzano’s terminology is that of a relation of grounding (Abfolge) which holds between two relata (both truths), the ground (Grund) and the consequence (Folge).  Unfortunately, the translation of Abfolge as “grounding” is nowhere defended in the book; in Bolzano (2014) it is translated as “the relation of ground and consequence,” and “grounding” might be a misleading translation. Roski characterizes grounding as an explanatory consequence relation—thus, the consequence not only follows deductively (Roski explains this notion in ch.2, see below) from the ground(s), but the ground is also explanatory of the consequence (2). Further, grounding is an ordering relation and is as such asymmetric: a grounds b, yet b does not ground a.  Roski presents two of Bolzano’s examples of grounding (for both these examples, though presumably not in general, either proposition is deducible from the other).  First, the truth that the atmospheric pressure has dropped partially grounds the truth that the barometer stands lower.  Second, from Euclid’s Elements (Proposition I.1), the truth that for every two points a and b, there is a point c such that lines ab = ac = bc grounds the truth that the circumferences of any two circles with common radius ab and centres a, b, lying on the same plane, intersect at a point c equidistant from a and b.

Historically, Roski situates Bolzano within what he names, following Betti and de Jong (2010), the Classical Model of Science.  This model goes back to Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics, and Roski says that similar views are defended inter alia by Arnauld and Nicole’s Port Royal Logic, Leibniz, and Wolff.  Its central idea is that science should be structured axiomatically (e.g., Euclid’s axiomatization of geometry).  Earlier discussions of this model simply call it the Ancient Axiomatic Theory (Scholz 1930/1975).  This accords with the traditional interpretation of Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics (dating back at least to Philoponus’ 6th century commentary), although it is by no means the only possibility (for an interpretation more along the line of a Husserlian formal ontology, where each science is a regional ontology, see my (2016)).  In the remainder of the book Euclid, not Aristotle, will represent this model (although Bolzano considered Euclid’s Elements to be highly flawed).

Roski notes strong similarities between Bolzano’s two examples (especially the barometer) and Aristotle’s example that “it is not because the planets [C] do not twinkle [B] that they are near [A] – rather, because they are near they do not twinkle” (APo I 13, 78a37-38).  For one, we have a similar use of “because.”  Further, Aristotle says that either truth deductively follows from the other: “B belongs to C, and A belongs to B, therefore A belongs to C” is a valid syllogism, but it gives the wrong explanation (aitia).  The correct explanation has A (being near) as the explanatory middle term: “A belongs to C, B belongs to A, therefore B belongs to C.”  This illustrates Aristotle’s distinction between a merely valid and a demonstrative (explanatory) syllogism (a modern variant is Bromberger’s flagpole-counterexample to the Hempel-Oppenheim-account).  Similarly, Bolzano speaks of demonstrations (Begründungen) which present the objective ground for a truth (10-11).  A further similarity, unremarked by Roski, is Bolzano’s distinction between objective and subjective grounds, where the latter corresponds to the evidential/epistemological use of “because.”  Thus, while the fall in atmospheric pressure is the objective ground of the fall of the barometer, conversely the fall of the barometer is the subjective ground of the fall in atmospheric pressure.  This is the same as Aristotle’s distinction between what is prior to us and what is prior in nature/simpliciter (APo I 2, 72b25-32).  Third, Roski does not mention the strong similarity between Aristotle’s view throughout the Posterior Analytics and Bolzano’s view that the “generality of the premises is thus, as it were, measured in terms of the terminus medius…the highest possible generality is given by the case in which terminus medius and predicate idea have the same extension” (179).

Finally, Roski presents six claims central to Bolzano’s conception of grounding (12):

  1. Grounding proceeds from more to less general truths.
  2. Grounding proceeds from simple to more complex truths. (Roski argues in ch.4 that Bolzano came to reject this claim.)
  3. The grounds of a given consequence are uniquely determined.
  4. There are ungrounded truths.
  5. Grounding is an asymmetric relation.
  6. Grounding gives rise to deductive economy.

Chapter 2. Objective truth, variation & truth-preservation

Roski presents some key notions from Bolzano’s Wissenschaftslehre, which are prerequisites for understanding Bolzano’s theory of grounding.

For Bolzano, the relata of grounding are true propositions (Sätze an sich).  Propositions are abstract objects (Bolzano merely speaks of non-existing objects), bearers of truth and falsity, and composed of ideas in themselves (Vorstellungen an sich) (20-21).  Ideas are in turn either complex (zusammengesetzt), e.g. [prime number] and also [prime], or simple (einfach), e.g. [not] (as is customary in Bolzano-scholarship, square brackets indicate propositions or ideas).  Further, ideas can either refer to one or more objects, or to no object at all.  Both propositions and ideas Bolzano sharply distinguishes from their corresponding mental items, viz. judgements and subjective ideas (in Husserlian terminology, propositions and ideas are ideal, not immanent, contents).

Bolzano understands the distinction between intuitions (Anschauungen) and concepts (Begriffe) somewhat different from Kant.  An intuition “is defined as a simple idea that has exactly one object” (24), e.g., “this pen,” and a concept is “(a)ny idea that is not an intuition and that does not contain an intuition as a part” (25).  The third group, “ideas that aren’t intuitions, but contain at least one intuition as a part” (25), Bolzano calls mixed ideas (gemischte Vorstellung).  Correspondingly, Bolzano distinguishes between intuitional propositions, i.e. propositions containing at least one intuition, and conceptual propositions: for Bolzano roughly equivalent to a posteriori and a priori truths (26).

Bolzano holds that all propositions have the form [A has b]; [has] is an objectless idea (copula), [A] is a subject-idea and [b] is a predicate-idea.  This requires Bolzano to heavily paraphrase ordinary propositions, e.g. “there are cows” into [[Cow] has objectuality] and “there are no real square roots of -1” into [[Real square root of -1] has lack of objectuality].  A proposition, [A has b], is then defined by Bolzano as true “just in case A is objectual and all objects that fall under [A] have at least one of the properties that fall under [b]” (29).

Bolzano’s notion of deducibility (Ableitbarkeit) constitutes not only a significant improvement compared to his contemporaries’ alternative accounts (19), but is also, with its focus on truth-preservation under variation, close to the now standard Tarskian definition (43-44).  However, it is highly unorthodox in that it is a ternary relation: deducibility holds “between a collection of premises, a collection of conclusions and a collection of ideas that are considered to be variable” (45).  Thus “Bolzano’s notion validates many arguments that are not logically valid on a modern understanding of the notion” (47).  Fortunately, Bolzano also has a binary relation of logical deducibility which is close to our modern understanding, defined such that the collection of premises Δ is logically deducible from Γ iff Δ is deducible from Γ when all non-logical ideas are considered to be variable.  It is logical deducibility that is important for Bolzano’s theory of grounding (47).  Further relevant to grounding, Roski presents a notion of mutual deducibility/equivalence (Gleichgüldigkeit), e.g. as in the example of the barometer; and a notion of exact deducibility (genaue Ableitbarkeit), i.e. an argument containing no redundant premises or ideas.

Chapter 3. Explanatory priority: Bolzano’s pure logic of grounding

Roski reconstructs Bolzano’s theory of the pure logic of grounding, i.e. the logical properties of grounding independent of its relata.

Bolzano distinguishes between complete and partial grounds, and between immediate and mediate grounds.  A partial ground is a part of a complete ground, e.g., the truth of a conjunct is a partial ground of the truth of a conjunction.  A mediate ground is a ground of an immediate ground, e.g., in Euclid’s Elements Postulate I.1 is a mediate ground of Proposition I.19, while Propositions I.5 and I.18 are its immediate (complete) ground (64).  Bolzano only applies the partial/complete distinction to immediate grounds (65), and thus we have a tripartite distinction between partial immediate grounds, complete immediate grounds, and mediate grounds (and correspondingly for consequences).  Bolzano explicitly takes the complete immediate ground to be the only genuine case of grounding (66).  However, Bolzano scholars disagree on which of the following two cases should be considered basic: either the relation of a complete ground to its complete consequence, or the relation of a complete ground to one of its partial consequences.  Roski favours the second alternative, thus naming this relation “grounding.” The first he names “complete grounding.”

Roski first roughly follows Bolzano’s presentation of immediate grounding (WL §198-215) in his section 3.4, and then gives a more concise reconstruction in 3.5. In the latter, Roski shows that most properties of pure grounding can be derived from three basic principles: the asymmetry of partial grounding, the uniqueness of grounding (i.e., there is only one complete ground of a consequence), and the existence of fundamental truths (i.e., some truths are ungrounded). Both partial grounding and complete grounding are defined in terms of the primitive notion of grounding. From this Roski derives, first, the theorem that there is no overlap between any complete ground and its complete consequence; second, the asymmetry of complete grounding; third and fourth, the irreflexivity of complete grounding and partial grounding; fifth, that complete consequences do not overlap; sixth, the uniqueness of complete grounds; seventh and eighth, anti-monotonicity of grounding and of complete grounding; and, ninth, failure of transitivity and cut. In order to derive the last properties of pure ground, two further principles must be supplied, corresponding to what is sometimes called Aristotle’s insight (cf. Metaphysics Θ 9, 1051b6-9; and Categories 5, 4b8-10 and 12, 14b18-22): “Every truth φ and every collection of truths {φ1,…,φn}is the complete ground of a truth of the form [φ is true] and [Each proposition in {φ1,…,φn} is true] respectively” (71). From this Roski derives, first, the seriality of complete grounding, grounding, and partial grounding (i.e., every collection of truths has another collection of truths as its complete consequence, every collection of truths is a complete ground of another truth, and every truth is a partial ground of another truth); second, linkedness of partial grounds (i.e., there are truths φ, θ, ψ such that φ partially grounds θ and θ partially grounds ψ); third, internal dependence (i.e., “that truths which form the complete ground of a given truth may themselves stand in grounding relations” (97)); and fourth, anti-amalgamation (i.e., pairs of complete grounds and consequences cannot be fused).

The chapter also discusses mediate grounding, showing it to be irreflexive, transitive, and asymmetrical (103), and briefly discusses the possibility of infinite grounding trees.

Chapter 4. Simplicity and economy: Bolzano’s impure logic of grounding

The main source for Bolzano’s impure logic of grounding, where only conceptual truths are the relata of impure grounding, is WL §221. In what is by far the longest chapter of the book (109-213), Roski gives a very thorough discussion of §221 (most of which I am unable to discuss here for reasons of space), including a discussion of some tensions between Bolzano’s pure and impure logic.

The fundamental notion in this chapter is complexity.  Grounds are required to be less complex than their consequences. Bolzano strictly defines complexity in terms of the number of “simple parts” in a proposition, such that a proposition with more simple parts is more complex than a proposition with less simple parts.  Roski here argues that the relevant parts are not the type but rather the token occurrences (e.g. of the simple idea [not]) (115).  In addition, grounds should avoid redundancy and therefore not contain logically analytic truths nor consist of logically dependent propositions.

Here enters the tension with Bolzano’s pure logic, which says that every truth and every collection of truths grounds some other truth.  Yet, not every truth satisfies the simplicity and economy principles.  To resolve this tension, Roski argues that “Bolzano should let go of the seriality of grounding, and consequently of (Truthcoll)” (159), where “(Truthcoll)” is Aristotle’s insight applied to collections of truths.

Chapter 5. Bolzano’s logic of grounding and the logic of metaphysical grounding

Roski generally notes much convergence between Bolzano’s and contemporary theories of grounding, most strongly for his pure logic of ground.  However, Bolzano held pretty much the opposite view from the contemporary, regarding ground of quantificational truths (229-231).  He took truths containing an existential quantifier, e.g., “there is something,” as basic, rather than as grounded in a truth without the existential quantifier; and he took a truth containing a universal quantifier as partially grounding one of its instances.

Further, Roski earlier (10) notes that grounding does not hold among two truths because a relation of ontological dependence holds between the objects mentioned in the truths.  Dependence- or priority-relations have no further explicit role in Roski’s discussion of Bolzano, yet they are central to many contemporary theories of grounding (especially to Benjamin Schnieder’s work).  I would have liked some discussion on this point.

Summary

The book is written in clear and concise English, and does not presuppose previous knowledge of Bolzano.  There are some typos, none of which should present any obstacle to understanding the text.  The logical notation used is introduced and explained, and a list of symbols, definitions, and principles is included.  However, I must note some shortcomings of the index.  Preferably, the index should have contained names of other scholars of Bolzano discussed in the book.  Similarly, some of the entries are incomplete (e.g., a number of passages mentioning Aristotle have not been included in the index).  Further, the Bolzano scholar would, I think, appreciate an index locorum for passages from Bolzano.

While the book is mainly a scholarly work rather than a theoretical contribution, Roski is too modest when he asserts that “the book will not contribute anything new to the debate on metaphysical grounding” (2-3).  For he later says: “Bolzano did not merely anticipate many views that are part and parcel of the current debate. He also went beyond them in interesting ways” (232).  The presentation of these ideas can be said to be an addition to the debate, even though this still leaves the possible application and defence of these ideas as a task for future research. In conclusion, Roski’s book should be of strong interest to anyone interested in Bolzano or grounding.

 

Acknowledgements

Ansten Klev, Ludger Jansen, and Georg Fuellen provided helpful feedback to a draft of this review.

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