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.
Hannah Arendt on Educational Thinking and Practice in Dark Times: Education for a World in Crisis (ed. W. Veck & H. Gunter) is an edited collection which seeks to connect the thought of Hannah Arendt to education in the broadest possible sense. There are nine chapters in total, plus an extensive introduction that extensively prepares the themes considered in the book and a conclusion that takes stock of what has been achieved. Contributions cover a wide range. As the title suggests, there are interventions that are mostly practical in nature. Critical discussions of privatization in education (Gunter, chapter 5) and ‘Holocaust education’ (Morgan, chapter 7) are examples of this practical orientation. On the other, more theoretical end of the spectrum stand considerations on the notion of educational authority (Berkowitz, chapter 1) and the promise of narrative imagination in connection with the work of Paul Ricoeur (Dillabough, chapter 4). The volume as a whole is structured by the idea that we can today legitimately speak of “not only a crisis in education, but rather about the crisis of education”, which “encompasses the entire public realm” and thus creates “an existential crisis for the very idea of public education itself” (3). A sense of discomfort at the disorientation of adults, a general disconnect from the world, and the aforementioned privatization agenda pervades the volume. The public prominence of the likes of Greta Thunberg (1) and Malala Yousafzai (155) are included as convincing examples of admirable public action which is itself however a ‘symptom’:
“Nothing (…) could speak more loudly of the shunning of adult responsibility to the young than the situation in which newcomers feel themselves left with no other recourse than to take up responsibility for safeguarding the earth” (1).
But why is Arendt’s perspective the one that is chosen to explore this crisis of education? Arendt wrote two essays devoted to education, which means that from an exegetical perspective education plays a relatively minor role in her work. In the conclusion, the editors state the other structuring thought of the volume: of primary importance are Arendt’s “broader insights into the public realm that help educators and researchers to think about the purposes of education” (151). The typical approach of the contributions is thus as follows: first, a theme from Arendt’s writing on education is selected (authority, renewing the world, pearl-diving) and then, second, connected to more ‘mainstream’ writings by Arendt, mostly her political writings but also for instance her final, unfinished work The Life of the Mind (1977). Third, the elaborated theme is then either connected to a current challenge to education or put to the test on a conceptual level, depending on the practical/theoretical orientation of the chapter.
This three-step could have been a formulaic approach, but in truth this almost never shows. The only exception is the tendency of each author to once more explain Arendt’s The Crisis in Education (1954), which of her two essays on education is the main one that is referred to. The second, Reflections on Little Rock (1959), is controversial and does not receive as much attention in the volume – although Berkowitz (Chapter 1), Baluch (Chapter 2), and Nixon (Chapter 3) provide varying and thought-provoking evaluations of the latter. The editors seem to have avoided repetition with respect to themes from The Crisis in Education as much as possible, and the different emphases and points of departure of the contributions also mean that even when similar fragments from Arendt are selected, they are put to different uses. The only alternative seems to be to offer a ‘shared interpretation’ in the introduction, which contributors can then simply refer to – but this would somewhat break the integrity of the individual contributions. It thus seems that in volumes such as this one it is the nature of Arendt’s work itself that necessitates a certain level of ‘setting up’ and thus repetition. Future volumes would do well to follow the approach taken by the editors of Hannah Arendt on Educational Thinking and Practice in Dark Times.
The second step, which connects Arendt’s writing on education to her other writings, sees the contributors relate to a wide variety of Arendtian themes and writings. Popular choices in the volume are The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), The Human Condition (1958) and The Life of the Mind. This broadly reflects the general orientation of the volume: respectively the threat of the closure and destruction of the public sphere, Arendt’s technical notions of action and the world, and imagination, thinking and judgment. Still, the range of the references is impressive, featuring both the most well-known titles but also various more ‘minor’ writings. The references are laid out in a highly accessible fashion, following Bowring’s use of abbreviations of Arendt’s titles. This is clearly a good choice. At a few points in the volume references are made to entire works. When contributors simply refer to ‘(OT; HC)’, which happens in some of the chapters, one does wonder whether a more specific support for the contributors’ claim about Arendt would not have been preferable. In part this is perhaps a trade-off: the sheer inclusiveness of the volume with respect to Arendt’s work means that some ideas are not discussed in full. As a result of the wide range of works that is discussed, the volume has the considerable advantage that it can serve as an introduction to many of Arendt’s writings, for readers with an educational interest but also more generally for those interested in Arendt’s work as it speaks to our times. Authority in the Twentieth Century (1956) and Elemente und ursprünge totaler Herrschaft (1955) could have been consulted and Arendt’s doctoral thesis on Love and Saint Augustine (1929) is used quite sparsely considering the importance of Augustine for Arendt’s notions of action, temporality, and newcomers – all of which are important to the volume. Still, these are minor comments which reflect a specific approach to Arendt’s oeuvre. The volume breathes Arendtian scholarship throughout and on top of that makes Arendt highly relevant to current thinking about education. This is to be commended.
The third step takes us from Arendt on education and her other work to either a theoretical or practical area of interest where the Arendtian perspective on education is fully realized. Before we consider the success of this third step, we should reflect on the theoretical/practical continuum itself and the role it plays in the volume. The nine contributions are organized thematically in three parts of three chapters each: The Promise of Education, Education and Crisis, and Education for Love of the World. The three parts are set up dialectically: the first part “brings together new insights into the depth and complexity of Arendt’s thinking about and for education and its promise” (8), which then paves the way for reflections on the current crisis of education (3) in the second part through the perspective of “various social crises” (8). The final section is focuses on “prospects for education” (8). Much of the introduction is devoted to showing how the individual contributions fit into this thematic organization – however, the volume’s contents protest its dialectics. The contribution by Nixon (Chapter 3) in effect combines all three themes, reflecting on populism before connecting elements of Arendt’s ‘educational’ forays to possible strategies to move beyond today’s ‘dark times’. The following contribution by Dillabough (Chapter 4) indicates in its title that education theorizing is at stake, and does not connect to ‘social crises’ in the way Gunter (Chapter 5) does in connection to privatization in education, or in the way that Gunter (Chapter 6) does in connection to the education of refugee children. Chapters 5 and 6 do fit excellently. Whereas Nixon’s contribution seems to straddle the divides between the three parts, Dillabough’s contribution simply does not feel at home in the most practically oriented part of the volume. The third part is thematically the most open-ended and this is born out by the contributions: from ‘Holocaust education’ (Morgan, chapter 7), a comparison between Dewey and Arendt on the topic of their respective institutional-democratic proposals (Schutz, chapter 8), and, closing out the book, a reflection on Arendt’s notion of thinking and its connection to an educational perspective on her work (Duarte, chapter 9). There is thus more variety to the volume than it seemed to want to allow itself. This warrants a short discussion of the individual contributions.
The first chapter is by Roger Berkowitz, who is among other distinctions the academic director of the Hannah Arendt center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College. His contribution reengages with the notion of authority, which is central to Arendt’s work on education and is also part of her history of politics. Berkowitz convincingly problematizes Arendt’s view of education as taking place within the private sphere, while also showing the power of her educational thought without avoiding Reflections on Little Rock. The political aspect of authority is not really considered as such; nor is there a consideration of earlier work on educational authority by Mordechai Gordon, which is mentioned in the introduction to the volume. However, the reflection on the importance of privacy adds to both educational and political considerations of Arendt’s work and sets up a valuable notion of public education.
Faisal Baluch, who is a versatile political scientist, reflects on education and temporality. He uses the notion of ‘thinking with Arendt against Arendt’ (Sayla Benhabib) to unravel the interdependency between Arendt’s notion of education and her notion of the political, keeping in mind Arendt’s own “method of reading” (32). This methodological exploration is both interesting and convincing. The interdependency between education and the political is based on Arendt’s notion of temporality, according to Baluch. As above, Gordon’s work would have been a useful reference point; this is also where a reflection on Arendt’s Augustinian notion of time would have added further depth to the text. The argument itself is philosophically inspired and may make readers wish for a more long-form reflection.
Rounding off the first part is John Nixon’s chapter on worldliness and education in a world of difference. This is in part a continuation of Nixon’s project in Hannah Arendt and the Politics of Friendship (2015), one that in this volume is focused on the ‘dark times’ we live in and what this should mean for how we think about education. Important to this consideration is the threat of populism, which is mentioned at other points in the volume as well but here receives theoretical treatment – discussions of populism in other contributions can be overly general, which comes with the risk that the victory achieved by educational theory against populism is based on a strawman fallacy. In Nixon’s contribution populism is approached through the work of Jan-Werner Müller. Here, too, however, one may wonder whether this solves the problem completely. Müller’s work, while highly influential, offers a normative description of populism that does not sit well with Arendtian distinctions between morality and politics – and there are independent philosophical reasons to be critical of such a description as well. Here it shows that Arendtian notions of education and Arendt’s insight in public concerns more generally often intersect and interact with each other. Nixon’s educational answer to the threat of dark times itself is very interesting: he proposes to view education as a protected space devoted to and supportive of thoughtfulness, always in close connection with the world as it really is. This combines insights by Arendt on various topics, in various works, to produce a true synthesis.
The fourth chapter is by Jo-Anne Dillabough, who has researched a wide variety of topics related to youth culture and education, with a continued engagement with Arendt’s work. Using Ricoeur’s work, she argues for a notion of selfhood between self and other and shows how this links up naturally with Arendtian notions such as the plurality of public space. Dillabough suggests that ‘seeing each other as ethically meaningful’ requires a storied and interconnected rather than an isolated self. Education, then, is at its most powerful when it “moves us beyond ourselves precisely for the sake of others, and in the name of others” – and this again is connected to the Arendtian theme of the primary importance of action rather than the actor (78). Dillabough’s contribution, by adopting this perspective, also provides a strong argument against a bureaucratized notion of education “in the name of endless and perilous competition” (ibid). As indicated above, it is not clear that this chapter concerns ‘social crises’. Dillabough’s reflections on the ‘storied self’ and the way this is implied positively and negatively in different ways of thinking about education are highly memorable. It would be interesting to reflect more on the relationship between Berkowitz’ contribution, which insists on the ‘darkness’ of individual subjects, and this account of selfhood: this is simultaneously to ask to what extent – or perhaps in what sense – this account of selfhood remains Arendtian.
The two remaining contributions are by the editors – Helen Gunter writes on privatization and education policy, and Wayne Veck on providing education to refugee children. Both have written extensively on theory and philosophy of education as well as educational policy. These chapters are clearly the most practical in nature, addressing specific societal concerns and seeking to apply Arendt’s thought – not in order to generate clear-cut answers, but in order to offer another way of thinking about them. Gunter zooms into UK educational policy relevant to English schools and how its ‘privatism’ is depoliticized by references to biological determinism and eugenics, which she likens in Arendtian terms to the crystallization of totalitarian conditions (91-92). For Gunter, this has implications for social scientists who should avoid “becoming trapped by their own ideas” (79; 159) by seeing the “rationality in the segregation and disposability of children” and teachers, but instead should “challenge the attack on humanity” (92). All in all, this is a passionate knock-down argument against an entrenched normality, which could draw even more from The Origins of Totalitarianism than it currently does: for instance, related to the importance of the appeal to ‘anonymous’ forces such as History. Veck, in his own chapter, argues against ‘merely compensatory’ approaches to educating refugee children. Said children are ‘newcomers’ in a double sense and thus pose particularly pressing questions both of education and of the responsibility of educators (95). Here Arendt’s distinction between responsibility for the life of the child and responsibility for the education of the new person to orient them in a world that is not theirs is crucial. Approaches to the education of refugee children focus on the former at the expense of the latter, Veck convincingly argues; whereas refugee children, perhaps even more than other children, need to be introduced to the world as theirs. This enrooting in the world can take place precisely by allowing refugee children to withdraw from it at school, offering time and space for solitude (as opposed to loneliness, in Arendt’s technical sense) which allows “thinking and remembering” (105). This at the same time provides a powerful argument against narratives of assimilation. The contributions by Gunter and Veck are both exemplary applications of Arendt to pressing ‘social crises’, with Veck’s chapter especially demonstrating the sheer power of Arendt’s work, creating a new and forceful argument out of positions taken from different (sometimes less well-known) texts.
The third and final part starts with a reflection on ‘Holocaust education’ by Marie Morgan, who like Veck works at the University of Winchester and has written influentially on Post-Holocaust Jewish thought in America. Teaching on the Holocaust has difficult dimensions: disrupting and being disrupted is important, but in considering the Holocaust we are confronted with unimaginable suffering. Does this fit the protective environment of the school? Morgan shows how the freedom of the newcomer is not compromised by being exposed to suffering we may never understand, but rather enabled; but also that this makes the position of the educator particularly difficult, and that high demands are placed on his/her own ability to be at home in the world. The chapter is also instructive for the continuity it establishes between ‘the political’ and ‘the educational’, in the face of the threat posed by totality.
Aaron Schutz, in the penultimate chapter of the book, draws on his research into theories of democratic education in schools and collective action for social change. His contribution can be construed as a reflection on the relationship between those two fields. Schutz uses John Dewey and then Arendt as his guides, even though the questions relevant to the two thinkers are in fact different, as Dewey is interested in outcomes and Arendt in action as such. The central question is: how does small-scale collaborative democracy in the style of what Schutz calls ‘classroom democracy’ translate to institutional politics on a larger scale? Here lies the problem with what Jane Mansbridge termed the ‘paradox of size’. Dewey did not solve the problem of ‘the public’ to his own satisfaction; Arendt can be usefully seen as carrying forward the discussion in a different, more inherently democratic, way. Schutz, with James Muldoon, offers the democratic council system praised in Arendt’s On Revolution as a “proof of concept” for the requirements Arendt poses for politics in terms of the participation of each unique voice in the public realm (132). Schutz gives the Deweyan perspective further importance by using it to reflect on potential shortcomings of a council system. This chapter provides a very insightful piece of analysis of the requirements and accompanying difficulties besetting a truly ‘public’ form of politics.
In the final contribution, Eduardo Duarte, who is well-known for philosophical work on education and musicality, unearths deep philosophical roots for Arendt’s “almost dialectical” note on schools in The Crisis in Education: “the function of the school is to teach children what the world is like and not to instruct them in the art of living” (137). These roots reach back to ancient philosophy in an attempt to reconstruct the ontological meaning of the common world for Arendt. Epictetus stands for the art of living, in the Stoic mold, and Heraclitus stands for teaching what the world is like. The Stoic starts with powerlessness in the face of inexorable Logos which leads to “passivity and fatalism” (147), whereas Arendt, as quote by Duarte, sounds a Heraclitian note: “For us, appearance – something that is being seen and heard by others as well as by ourselves – constitutes reality” (136). The repair and renewal of the world is thus a mimesis of the ever-changingness and permanent flux of the world on an ontological level, and that helps us to understand Arendt’s somewhat puzzling remarks about the out-of-jointness of the world. While it may be too much “to recognize in the Stoic sophos the prototype of the banality of evil” (147), which according to Duarte is not difficult to do, the ancient philosophical positions brought in to bear witness to Arendtian themes succeed in their purpose overall. While Duarte makes the clearest reference to Augustine in the volume, here too one wonders to what extent it is the Augustinian influence that makes itself felt, either directly or via criticism of his works.
In the conclusion (‘The promise of education revisited’), the editors return to the “themes that have shaped the essays” in the volume (151). This is structured by the idea of the ‘promise of education’, which was also the first theme of the volume. It thus seems that the reflections on social crises and love of the world have enriched the theoretical material out of which an Arendtian approach to education can be constructed: they jointly form an account of the “reality, potential and challenges” of and to the promise of education (152). The conclusion provides a summary of the preceding positions and debates and ends on a call for thoughtful research.
Many enduring lessons are on offer in this volume, which advances Arendtian scholarship as well as educational thought, and itself embodies the thoughtful research it calls out for. There is still much exploring to be done, of course, but the intention of the book was never to provide the final word on issues of education. All contributions are just that – solid contributions that clearly show the continued importance of Arendt in our day and age. It establishes, among other things, the importance and the problematic nature of authority, the interconnection between education, politics and the public realm, and the idea of thoughtfulness in education secured by a protective space of solitude in which to think and remember. Above we have already expressed the view that the reflections on populism in this volume do not yet rise to the challenge of the current ‘populist moment’, in Chantal Mouffe’s term. In addition, it is surprising that, in a volume that opens with a discussion of Greta Thunberg, climate change is only listed as an example along with other examples. Especially in terms of education in (response to) a crisis, one would perhaps expect a more sustained reflection on climate change education ‘with and against Arendt’, for instance in terms of her notions of world and earth. While these are critical remarks, it is always a good sign when new scholarship leaves the reader not only happy to have encountered it, but also wanting more.
Hannah Arendt on Educational Thinking and Practice in Dark Times: Education for a World in Crisis makes a solid contribution to a research agenda that is theoretically promising and at the same time remains in touch with some of the most pressing problems of our age. It is an important document for anyone interested in Arendtian perspectives on education, and for many others, too.
This book is a contribution to phenomenological anthropology and to contemporary philosophy more broadly. Above all, it is the unique instance of a philosophical work that immediately contributes to knowledge for life without burdening the reader with technical vocabulary and complex argumentation. Avoiding a scholarly approach, it is not a theoretical treatise that analyzes the notion of a life-defining moment conceptually. Proceeding through the phenomenological method, Gabor Csepregi explores the first-person experience of moments or changes that often are definitive for the course of one’s life and personal development. To this end, as the author states in the Introduction, the work aims to further the philosophy of the human person (5). Written in a lively and accessible style, Csepregi’s book employs illuminating examples from literature, biography, and memoir. It also contains much thoughtful engagement with the work of other continental philosophers of the human person, most notably Max Scheler, Helmuth Plessner, and Eugène Minkowski to name a few.
The notion of a “life-defining moment” is the phenomenon most pregnant with ambiguity in the book’s premise. However, as Csepregi clarifies in the Introduction, this is not a concept whose occurrence can be identified with precision or marked out in the existential terms of an instantaneous “augenblick,” as characterized by historical philosophers like Heidegger and Kierkegaard. Csepregi understands the notion of “moment” in a quasi-Hegelian sense, as an often prolonged, but nonetheless definitive period or process of change in one’s life. Csepregi remarks that as an example, his college years stand out to him as a life-defining moment (9). Thus, a moment that is life-defining can be understood as an extended period of personal growth or change in perspective, where one is an ostensibly different person before and after. Entrance into spiritual or aesthetic transcendence may also be involved. Generalizing, Csepregi writes: “By moment, I mean a certain duration that, thanks to its deeper importance and transforming effect, stands out with regard to the past and to the future in our personal becoming and may even transport us into a timeless dimension” (10).
But what does it mean to talk of such moments as “life-defining”? In Csepregi’s account, life-defining moments are those in which possibilities sharply manifest themselves to one. Life-defining moments occasion a unique manner of temporal disclosure, such that in these moments we are lucidly able to perceive the relation of our own selves to the disjunctions in our life-courses. Life-defining moments often involve an encounter with the foreign, inviting the human subject to enter different ways of thinking and being. Phenomenologically decisive about these moments, the author writes, is that they reveal the primacy of sharp turns in development as inherent to human life in its highest realization. As such, they involve possibilities inherent in every person (7). Csepregi writes: “One of the implicit contentions I make in this book can be stated briefly: there is, in every human life, a possibility of transformation and of renewal” (Ibid.). Also decisive is that these moments are of a kind that reveal human life to transcend the fatalism posed by the external forces that often shape one’s fate. In other words, a life-defining is moment is one each of us has the potential to undergo in our role as agents of freedom. This is a phenomenon encountered in first-person experience, particularly when such moments present to us our own potential to shape the outcome of our lives. Csepregi writes “In this sense, we may become aware, under the pivotal impact of these experiences, of an invitation to shape our destinies” (Ibid.). A life-defining moment, then, is one in which a person distinctly perceives that they have standing before them an important and transformative change, a change they can undergo if they make the choice to do so.
Csepregi proceeds in the main body of the text by focusing on the first-person experience embodied in six unique types of life-defining moments. As he emphasizes in the Introduction, his interest is to highlight moments that occur in the positive sphere of life. He deliberately omits among his paradigm cases the bleaker sorts of transformative experiences that might come to mind, such as receiving a diagnosis of a terminal disease. More broadly, this reflects his wish to emphasize life-defining moments that manifest sheer possibility, modification of one’s own destiny, and new horizons of fulfillment. He comments “I wanted to single out those experiences that we find not only enriching but also invigorating on all levels of our existence, experiences that open up the future for us and offer occasions for steering our lives into a new direction” (6). On this score, the six types of life-defining moment Csepregi dissects are, respectively, making a moral decision; “breaking away” from one mode of life in order to enter another; being inspired by a model person in an educational context; immigrating to a foreign country; the experience of transport found in hearing beautiful music; and witnessing or performing an ethically worthwhile action, particularly in a situation of providing selfless generosity to a vulnerable other. In what follows I will briefly summarize four of Csepregi’s six types of life-defining moments.
The opening passages of the first chapter, entitled “The Logic of Exception,” invite the reader to consider situations of life that involve finding oneself at a crossroads, where one knows a certain and decisive choice must be made that will exclude its alternative (13-15). In such instances, a unique temporal mode of disclosure opens up for one. One is able to envision one’s past, present, and most importantly, future self, in reference to each decision that stands to be made (15). One has a decision to make. But what is it that causes a decision to become a life-defining moment? Many day-to-day choices do not involve making a “decision” in this deeper sense. Csepregi clarifies that a “decision” involves encountering a moment of life in which one genuinely cannot rely on a pregiven framework to determine which course to take. “We…make a decision when we can no longer rely on a habit, a code of conduct, a custom, or a law that clearly and unambiguously tells us what we should do. In these cases, we find ourselves outside the realm of personal or institutional rules” (16). Csepregi cites Hermann Lübbe here, to highlight that the logic of decision is the “logic of exception” (Ibid.). In other words, decisions in the robust, moral, and individually-realized sense are really instances of taking an exception to the social and habitual codes with which one is ingrained. Of significance here is the linguistic manifestation of the phenomenology involved in decisions. As the author highlights, expressions such as “I make up my mind, je me decide, Ich entscheide mich” reveal that making decisions entails a way of aligning one to oneself, of evaluating one’s own responsibility in the context of free choice (17). In this way, by committing to a decision, one reinforces one’s freedom, by consciously choosing one course of action whilst knowing that other possibilities will become closed.
This phenomenology of making decisions also entails steering through uncertainty. As Csepregi emphasizes, the difficulty of deciding one course of action over another is a fraught enterprise (21), often leaving one more inclined to shrink from making a choice at all. Decisions can be decisive moments in one’s life precisely because one can be unprepared to navigate the uncertainty of outcomes (24); making a decision entails making a genuine break with life as one has known it. As a result, not every person will make decisions when the right time comes. Many persons will cower in indecision, or else choose not to decide at all. Csepregi suggests that contemporary society in fact suffers from a dearth of passionate commitment to decisions, where the commonplace approach is constantly to “keep one’s options open” or otherwise to attempt to hold onto conflicting, irreconcilable possibilities (23). In other words, Csepregi comments, many people suffer from a kind of “miserliness” of decisions in their unwillingness to commit to definite life-decisions for themselves. And this disposition can have the result of a lack of personal development, by virtue of one having eschewed freely-chosen realizations of one’s self. “When a person does not learn to make a distinction of value between various possible views of the world – but rather considers them equivalent, and thus fails to express a firm attachment to any of them – the ability to make a lasting commitment in favor of a particular life path and purpose becomes atrophied” (24). Today, we know this factor has import for the education of children, as young people benefit from learning how to make independent decisions. Personal development can suffer if one’s decision-making is done for one ahead of time, or when decisions are overly curated in safe spaces and secure environments (25).
The second chapter, on the subject of “breaking away” from one way of life and adopting another, continues in the vein of the first’s chapter’s focus on decision-making. Of emphasis in the second chapter is the first-person experience of, as Csepregi describes it, “taking leave from a form of existence, rooted in a specific social and cultural condition, and adopting a new form of existence” (37). There is “a break in the temporal unfolding” (Ibid.) of one’s life, such that one’s course of life is fundamentally different before and after the break. One’s way of being and acting may have transformed, or one may have entered an altogether different world, into which one gradually adapts. For instance, religious conversion appears to comprise such an avenue. Conversion involves a “discernible change in convictions and attitudes which deeply affects the person’s life orientation in the world” (44). In its religious guise, conversion may entail an act of surrender to powers greater than oneself, such that one submits to reorientation from guidance beyond oneself (47). Similarly, conversions not be religious or spiritual; they can occur through “radical change in the principles and values guiding decisions and actions and affecting the meaning of human relations, of professional achievements, or of personal interests” (45-46.) Examples include the turn in allegiance sometimes shown by political leaders and soldiers in times of distress, as well as philosophical conversions (46-47). In sum, crucial in the phenomenon of breaking away is a “caesura,” a fresh start, a realignment of the principles by which one guide’s one’s life, and which in turn define one’s destiny (46, 63). Here Csepregi cites Eugène Minkowski to highlight the distinction of destiny and fate. Whereas fate comprises forces to which one is inevitably subject, destiny lay in “human becoming intimately tied to personal decisions” (41). Csepregi rounds out the chapter by raising the question: what prompts one to complete an act of breaking away? (51) In general, he suggests that breaking away often is occasioned by one’s realization of the adequacy of one’s living conditions, such as when a young person leaves their place of birth in order to achieve aspirations only achievable elsewhere. Csepregi summarizes that breaking away is indeed a phenomenon seemingly built into the human condition, where it can be triggered when necessary. Citing Kierkegaard, Csepregi highlights “a fundamental anthropological truth about the temporality of human existence,” namely, that breaking away from a stifling world can often be the only means one has for recovering one’s own possibilities” (52). Or to put it simply, human beings are existentially constituted to experience disclosures that reveal a way out, a way to save one’s future possibilities, in times when life becomes unbearable.
The third chapter, entitled “Moments of Real Learning,” explores the phenomenology bound up with inspirational, model personalities that strongly shape the course of a person’s life and development. These individuals are not necessarily what we often call “role models” so much as they are those personalities we encounter in our development who prompt us to change our worldview or otherwise inspire us to change ourselves. Most paradigmatic in Csepregi’s reckoning here are teachers and other mentors, although the concept of models is not limited to these. Decisive about such model individuals is that “we may come to realize what these persons added to our existence: they made us more passionate, more skillful, and more cultured. They are men and women who strongly affect the way we think, act, feel, and relate to our fellow human beings” (67). These individuals are those who have inspired us to “think and act in their manner of thinking and acting” (73). As in Chapter Two, this chapter articulates a moment in human experience that ostensibly expresses the potency for great personal change and development. As Csepregi observes, models are not merely people we like, admire, or emulate, but persons who inspire an entire adaptation of our being (68, 70). We re-orient our goals in light of the model’s achievements and values. Moreover, such models are not chosen because of characteristics we appraise in them. Rather, Csepregi remarks, we are drawn to them through a kind of seduction, through an inevitable intuition that the model is someone whose example we should follow (Ibid.). The values they invite us to adopt are attractive to us, though we may not yet know how to embody them (79). Realizing the value of the model for our life occurs for us as a kind of disclosure; it represents a distinct way in which select human beings are given to us. Csepregi finishes this discussion by highlighting the importance of models in educational settings. In one light, models help us to understand and work toward ideals (85). Models can lead us to appreciate intellectual and scientific rigor. In a deeper regard, “There is also a fundamental human impulse for self-realization, which can hardly be satisfied in the absence of the guidance and inspiration of models” (86). The educational development of young people shows that exposure to excellent models rather than mediocre or morally questionable individuals makes all the difference.
Chapter Four highlights a different flavor of life-defining moment than those in the first three: the experience of being a foreigner in a country not one’s own, and of adapting oneself and one’s worldview to this new place. Csepregi does not mean here the experience of being a tourist or short-term visitor (89). He means the process of relocating to a new country or culture and becoming absorbed into foreign ways of thinking, speaking, and perceiving, such that one’s very way of being alters. The paradigmatic instance of this type of moment is the life-change experienced by an immigrant, for instance, Europeans who relocated to America during the economic boom of the early 20th century, or refugees who flee their home country during times of war or oppression. Cspregi comments that this life-defining moment has informed his own experience; Hungarian by birth, he came to America with his family as a young man. In Csepregi’s estimation, citing Eugen Fink, the experience of the foreign poses an encounter with other human beings across an initially unbridgeable gap. Encountering individuals in a foreign culture involves experiences of another that are not one’s own. Lacking is a community of shared experience (90). Noteworthy, then, about adapting to a foreign place is the deep extent to which it reveals to one the complex structures underlying human community and interaction. As Csepregi comments, “In order to actively feel and understand and, after an extended acquaintance, integrate the foreign, we have to enter into a more personal communication with individuals and their worlds, to find a common ground of interest in deeds and not merely in words” (91).
A few words about the remaining chapters of this book. The fifth chapter discusses the life-defining moment that occurs through appreciation of beautiful music, particularly Western classical music. Although the initial premise of this chapter is attractive, in its execution I found myself wanting the chapter to focus a bit less on technical aspects of music, and more on the specific phenomenology of how hearing music can be life-defining. The author is clearly a musician himself as well as an least intermediate scholar of music theory. Although I am knowledgeable about both the history of Western classical music and the technical vernacular of music, I was often at a loss to follow Csepregi’s account in his discussions that have a more technical register. I believe some of this burden causes the phenomenological analysis to suffer. The chapter probably succeeds better simply as a phenomenological account of music appreciation. Perhaps more crucially, Csepregi neglects to discuss other kinds of music than classical, such as tribal music and popular music. Insofar as his book aims to describe possibilities latent in every person, it may have been more apposite to give attention to the more common types of music appreciated by people in today’s world. Focusing just on Western classical music seems to preclude the life-defining music appreciation experienced by those outside of academia and the fine arts.
Finally, the sixth chapter explores the life-defining moment of witnessing or performing an ethically worthwhile action, particularly in a situation of providing selfless generosity to a vulnerable other. While philosophically rich and quite persuasive in its premise and execution, I found that this chapter seems to overlap with the scope and phenomenological accounting of the first two chapters. I did not find the book’s aim to be advanced significantly by the inclusion of this chapter.
This book is a fine contribution to philosophical anthropology and will be accessible for readers of many persuasions, in both philosophy and other fields. Educators and university administrators interested in the phenomenology of education may especially benefit from study of this work. The book should invite readers to reconsider the question of what sorts of events do ultimately change the course and outcome of our lives. Is one’s life ultimately impacted by one or more instantaneous moments that occur unnoticed or in the blink of an eye? Or are the fundamental shifts that guide our lives more prolonged, more reflective, and more predicated on private decision-making and appropriation of one’s own possibilities? Gabor Csepregi’s book invites us to reflect on the latter.
Our daily life is influenced deeply and massively by technical devices, while their effects on our economic, social or even political behaviour are largely unknown. It seems obvious that we are not yet at the end of the story regarding technology but rather at the very beginning of an unforeseeable change, a downright revolution whose real import only the future will show. Given that technologies always had a crucial impact on human mindsets we have now entered a new realm of reality in terms of a global digitization. What determines this new era as truly new relates to intricate challenges on every field of human activity or thought, touching upon our very self-image as human beings. Can we still take for granted that we only change our equipment without, in turn, being equally changed by it? How can we cope with this new situation? And how can we develop a proper understanding of what is going on around us – or even with us?
In this state of affairs Heidegger’s reflections on technology and his equally famous and opaque notion “das Gestell” have gained renewed attention. For addressing our current situation on an “ontological”, or to be precise: a “seinsgeschichtlichen” level, his approach provides the reader with deeper “insights in that what is” than a mere description of surface phenomena. Philosophically speaking, we are dealing with a technical mode of unconcealing that not only transforms both our practical and theoretical encounters with a mostly concealed world. For in doing so it increases the same concealment to an extent such that we even forget about its very “nature” or “essence” (“Wesen”, or rather “Unwesen” in this case). According to this setting the expectations run high where a publication like the present “Heidegger on Technology” is concerned, which not only lays claim to clarifying Heidegger’s relation to technology but even engages in a broader discussion, following the editor’s appeal “to apply Heidegger’s analysis of technology to some of the most pressing ethical and political problems we confront today.” (8)
“Heidegger on Technology” contains instructive contributions that provide its readers with plenty of insights concerning Heidegger’s development of thought, whether it be its breaks or its continuities. Like any other companion it offers useful hints, much needed clarifications, even congenial interpretations; but also mere recapitulations of already prominent ideas. The book contains 17 articles, starting with a former presentation by Mark A. Wrathall, first given at the University of Sussex in 2016 which is representative for the inner tension between “Gestell” and “Gelassenheit” (“releasement”) both in the outline of the volume and of our time in general.
In The Task of Thinking in an Technological Age Wrathall argues for a reconfiguration of the academic curricula based on a late Heideggerian approach which abandons homogenisation, forgetfulness, and efficacy in favour of what Heidegger calls “thinking”. Wrathall advocates a certain “sensibility” (“Besinnung”, 31) towards contingency and whatever is questionable in our lifeworld, a kind of sense for possibilities and options that we are to choose for the purpose of an alternative way of life: “to accomplish Heidegger’s purposes, an education in history needs to highlight the discontinuities in style, and emphasize the breaks and ruptures between worlds which show those worlds to be lacking in determinate foundations.” (33)
It is worth mentioning, however, that Wrathall does not stop at this point. May teaching first be conceptualized as a close collaboration of learning subjects (which finds an echo in Iain Thomson’s article)[i], he hereafter goes deeper into a “apprenticeship in skilful behaviour” (34) by stating: “All of this suggests that an education in thinking requires a curriculum that includes fostering bodily skills, even if–especially if–those skills have no ready value in the global economy. For instance, the inclusion of sports in educational curricula […] should not be on training a few athletes to play a role in the entertainment industry”. (36) Should “releasement” from the Gestell finally lead to sports in terms of a “non-calculable” flow, representing “the surprising, the genuinely risky, the open-ended”? (36)
In fact there is some evidence that this is indeed a genuinely Heideggerian line of thought, considering his affections for the former German team leader Franz Beckenbauer but also his attempts during his rectorship to militarize the academic curriculum. The latter rather foils Wrathall intentions but at the same time it sheds some light on the inherent dialectics of this case: playfulness seems to be an essential condition of releasement but when it comes to a normative structuring for the purpose of social engagement, like in the case of an academic schedule, the Gestell comes nearer and, finally, the game could be over before it begins. In other words: Unless we are not willing to serve the Gestell, could Gelassenheit remain something else than an end in itself? For taken as a means, instead, we have been already caught in the trap of gamification, understood as the post-industrial revenge of the Gestell, instrumentalizing creativity, inspiration, flow etc. for its own ends. From this perspective the question whether there could be other ways to (re)interpret Heidegger’s notion of releasement, and what they should look like becomes crucial.
Bret W. Davis’ reading of the Country Path Conversations appears to offer such a way: Heidegger’s Realeasement From the Technological Will. In a well-informed recapitulation of Heidegger’s intellectual development since Being and Time Davis shows that the concept of the will plays a central role during all periods. For the will is already literally present in the “umwillen” of Dasein’s care-structure, and thus marks an episode directly leading into Heidegger’s commitment to National socialism.[ii] But it was only after Heidegger resigned from his rectorship and his deeper study of Hölderlin and Nietzsche that he saw clearer: his own existential voluntarism had in a way imitated the ‘will to will’, carried out to its devastating consequences in WWII especially by the Nazis but also by the Communists or even the ‘Americans’. According to this late insight Davis states a “second turn”: “Heidegger’s thought-path also underwent a ‘second turn’ around 1940, a turn from a tendency to think the relation between human being and being (beyng) in terms of will, and a turn to a sustained attempt to think this relation in terms of a non-willing releasement and letting-be.” (136) This willing, however, exhibits a well-known dialectic: the “willing to/of non-willing”, in order to be successful, requires a releasement from quasi any “to”. And while releasement “to” is not under the dictate of being or a result of our mute obedience, every releasement “to” remains a willing, even in the case of a “non-willing” and is therefore no proper releasement (We will come back to this point later).
Following the Country Path Conversations, Tobias Keiling compellingly demonstrates that only in respect to particular beings a ‘will to thinking’ in terms of generalising subsumptions can be overcome. In his radical reading of Heidegger’s “Seinsgeschichte” the notion of “being” itself tends to occupy the horizons of possible interpretations when it comes to singular beings. By presupposing that there is one final horizon of all horizons, we fail to recognize (the basic insight of set theory) that the plurality of things is accompanied by a plurality of ontologies (108), settled in a strictly open “horizon”, and, therefore, open to a transfinite series of encounters. We only get in touch with “things for themselves”, instead of “things in themselves”, or things for us, if we learn to let things be in such a way that we cease our ontological commitment (104). Releasement in this sense means letting, not even letting be – and thus enables, in turn, the freeing of thinking from its own will to think only for itself. Correspondingly, one could say, released thinking is letting things be ends in themselves, and what is more: a thinking on behalf of things.
So far, so good. But does this apply only to a released thinking in Heidegger’s sense or also to a released thinking of the Gestell itself – a thinking that thinks on behalf of the Gestell by letting it be for itself? Looking for an answer, one of the first things that comes to mind could be the reply: Like science, the Gestell doesn’t think. But like in science, there is still a calculative intelligence at work, even if Heidegger is not willing to call it thinking. But then “was heißt denken”? Heidegger’s general answer amounts to letting beings be as well as thinking led by being. Now, Technology is a mode of disclosure, and the Gestell is the very “Wesen” of technology, a “Wesen” of being, thus even if the Gestell itself does not think, it lets think for itself by leading our thoughts (into itself). So, the question arises: Must we distinguish a ‘good’ from a ‘bad’ thinking – as two modes of being’s disclosure?
In fact it is not Gelassenheit whose opponent is the Gestell, but the “Geviert”. And so releasement turns out to be a mere vehicle of transition on the way from Gestell to Geviert. According to this characteristic of Gelassenheit, as a vehicle or device, it shows striking resemblance to Husserl’s epoché, understood as the enabling condition of a phenomo-logic. As Christos Hadjioannou reconstructs in his text Heidegger’s Critique of Techno-science as a Critique of Husserl’s Reductive Method Heidegger’s early notion of a “formal indication” lays ground to his critique of a so-called “care about certainty” (66) in Husserl’s concept of phenomenology as transcendental science: “So, formal indication lets everything stand as is, without referring, without imposing on things any pre-judged order. By indicating phenomena, it unassumingly releases them into the open, allowing them to show themselves from themselves. Thus, with ‘formal indication’, Heidegger attempts to replace Husserlian phenomenological analysis with a hermeneutic praxis that does not objectify, that does not posit any sort of order or classification, that does not assume an indifferent stance towards the content of phenomena, hiding the enactmental character of the philosophical praxis, and that does not slip into an attitudinal/theoretical comportment.” (71)
Sounds familiar. But here we see now that Heidegger, right from the beginning, is engaged in the methodological question of how to let things be, in order to let them show themselves. “Hermeneutical praxis” in this sense shall overcome “phenomenological analysis” by giving things a voice in the conversation of being, whereas Husserlian phenomenology seems to objectify things by quasi scrutinizing them only in respect of its own ‘worldview’. In other words: Heidegger’s methodological ground (or unground) is language, rather than the supposed ocularcentrism of Husserlian phenomenology. Therefore, Heidegger’s own philosophical praxis approaches poetry. Until this reversement from scientific classifications to the inner heart of the named holy, the Geviert, is executed, there will be no releasement from the Gestell according to Heidegger.
A deeper discussion of this relation is found in Susanne Claxton’s Poetry and the Gods. From Gestell to Gelassenheit, and here again, the emphasis lies on Gelassenheit. While not being wrong, this constitutes only one half of the way towards Heiddegger’s language as a phenomenology of poetry. As Claxton herself knows, Heidegger’s evoking of gods, the mortals, sky, and earth within the Geviert is not metaphorical in a pejorative sense. Instead, he truly believes in gods that rise to speak through their prayer-like addressing by mortals. As Claxton puts it: “For myths are not explanations, but rather ways of creatively conceptualizing experiences, experiences felt and perceived by mortals to be encounters with something outside themselves, something that has force.” (238) And later: “A given god, as such, can feel nothing in himself; the god needs a mortal to feel for him. Understood in this way, divinities may be seen as affective powers intending toward manifestations via mortals as embodied expressions thus experienced. In the coming together of mortal and divinity, fullness of experience is achieved.” (239) In other words: What is to be saved from the Gestell are certain extraordinary “feelings” (“Stimmungen”) that are conveyed, articulated, and experienced through a quasi-divine poetical language. These “Stimmungen” need “Stimmen” (“voices”) in order to not be ignored and forgotten. And so, it is not only for the sake of the gods that “Dasein” shall listen attentively to what ‘his’ experiences tell him.
Yet as we have already heard, gods are not the only ones who “need” or “use” (“brauchen”) Dasein as a kind of resonator. Moreover, the question seems to be whether gods simply do not feel or whether they do not think either. If the latter, there could very well be other gods than the mythological ones – for instance, technical ones or what we tend to call artificial intelligences. Without going too much into detail here, it seems quite obvious that they (still) need and are (already) using (“brauchen”) us, as well. Whereas the Geviert, in Heidegger’s view, stands for the holy shrine of the mystery (“Geheimnis”), the Gestell could turn out to be the secular shrine of the “need of needlessness” (“Not der Notlosigkeit”)[iii]. To put it another way: Are we still in need (and use) of Heidegger’s gods? – I’m not sure. Maybe in need and use of others? But why call them gods any longer?
Moving on from the gods some of the contributions to the volume rightly stress the point that there is still a lot to concerning big issues of our time such as the need for a new ecology (Michael E. Zimmerman and Trish Glazebrook) or the outcomes of an “audit society” (Denis McManus). In all the three cases Heidegger’s notion of the Gestell (or its forerunner “Machenschaft”) functions like a guideline to conceptualize what is going wrong, even if there might be no complot or genius malignus behind the scenes. Especially in the case of the audit society we are facing developments that foil the intended results: “So despite audit’s ‘promise of accountability and visibility’ (Power 1997, 127)[iv], there is reason to think it makes it significantly harder to see where power actually lies.” (277) If we cede our powers of decision to anonymous evaluation systems or even algorithms we get lost in our own lifeworld when it comes to human politics.
To be clear on this point, I do not deny that it is crucial to engage in such critiques as supported by Heidegger’s conceptual framework. Releasement is fine and I acknowledge the policy of emphasizing this notion in place of the Geviert. Yet I side with McManus here when he asks at the end of his chapter: “even if we accept that Heidegger’s diagnosis of our contemporary situation sheds light on the phenomena that Power describes, is it the best diagnosis?” I think it is one of the best, and two out of four names which McManus mentions subsequently even based their own diagnosis on Heidegger’s (Foucault and Arendt, while Marx and Weber undergo Heidegger’s critique). The only question I am asking here is, how far one can get, sticking to Heidegger original attempt. Of course, there are still points to be made, for instance, against Habermas, when Julian Young points out that a Habermasian communicative rationality ignores a certain “need for dwelling” (205 et passim). Or when Aaron James Wendland shows that the Kuhnian concept of “paradigm shifts” still emphasizes assimilation tendencies after the break where Heidegger rightly sees a needful release (297). And even when Taylor Carman, regarding the controversy between Heidegger and Heisenberg, argues that ‘science still doesn’t think’ because of its reductionist concept of “physis” (309 et passim). But does this lead to Heidegger’s final insight that only a god can save us–a god of poetry and a poetry of gods?
I am afraid it does, but only if we accept that Hölderlin is the greatest poet and that dwelling means to ensconce oneself in Heidegger’s ‘house of being’, viz. in his private language of thinking under the advice of being, including his idiosyncrasies, wrong etymologies, and ‘mystery’ lecture performances. Then we might believe that we live in times of the “Not der Notlosigkeit” in an era of a self-accomplishing forgetfulness of being, of self-deceit, which manages to ignore its own need to be saved. And even today there are still several believers among Heidegger’s readers. But maybe (according to Heidegger’s late reticence) there will be no saving needed anymore. Not because everything is just fine, but because the Gestell, along with its essence, the “danger” (“Gefahr”), could be in itself already the saving (“Rettung”)–not the saving from it, but the saving for itself. In other words: Could there be a saving of the Gestell by letting it be (for itself)? Having said this, what would this actually mean?
There is one moment in his Bremen Lectures where Heidegger comes close to this point: “Das Wesen der Technik ist das Seyn selber in der Wesensgestalt des Ge-Stells. Das Wesen des Ge-Stells aber ist die Gefahr. […] Die Gefahr ist das Ge-Stell nicht als Technik, sondern als das Seyn. Das Wesende der Gefahr ist das Seyn selbst, insofern es der Wahrheit seines Wesens mit der Vergesslichkeit dieses Wesens nachstellt.“ (GA 79, 62)
Can being be forgotten, or even forget itself? In this passage Heidegger reflects on the essence not only of the Gestell and on what is meant to be the Gefahr, but also on the essence (or ‘the essenceing’ = “das Wesende”) of the Gefahr: “das Seyn” being after itself (“nachstellen”), and in so doing, disguising (‘verstellen’) itself with the “Ge-Stell”. Hence, the danger is, according to Heidegger, that there seems to be no danger. Like the “need of needlessness”, Heidegger conceives of a danger of “safety” (“Gefahrlosigkeit”, literally ‘dangerlessness’). According to its own dialectics, the essence of danger is un-essence (“Unwesen”), an essence (“Wesen”) that denies itself and in doing so finally would become the ‘essencelessness’ (= “Wesenlosigkeit”) of being, if it is not recalled by Dasein anymore as the danger of being or the threat of its own forgetfulness.
To let the Gestell be for itself would therefore mean not to ignore the danger of forgetting, but to recognize the danger of forgetting as that what it truly is: our fear of death, angst. The real danger seems to be that not even danger will remain when we are gone. But that is probably going to happen. In contrast, the inherent ‘nihilism’ of the Gestell reminds us not of death, but of the forgetfulness of death (expressed through the loss of angst). As a result, the threat to Heidegger’s own thinking, as a permeant contemplation of the meaning of death, is simply that it could be pointless–because of the meaninglessness of death. This, in turn, doesn’t mean that there is no being and yet it means that the meaning of being is not necessarily the being of meaning, or what Heidegger would call the “Ereignis” of meaningfulness.
To conclude I return to the Country Path Conversations and listen to what Steven Crowell has to say about the correlation between “Sein” and “Dasein” in his chapter: The Challenge of Heidegger’s Approach to Technology. A Phenomenological Reading: “The first thing to note is that Heidegger’s attempt to overcome representational thinking does not abandon correlationism […]. Heidegger is quite clear about this: ‘das Seyn braucht den Menschen’ (GA 65: 261), the worlding of world requires the thinking being (GA 77: 147). But one might wonder whether Heidegger’s late notion of thinking as the ‘indwelling releasement to the worlding of world’ retains the feature of the care-structure that […] is the phenomenological ground of meaning–namely, trying to be (Worumwillen). Is the ‘relation to the essence of the human being’ that allows the Open ‘to be as it is [wesen…wie es west]’ (GA 77: 146), a relation that involves my being at issue in trying to be a thinker?” (89)
In the last sentence before this passage Crowell added an endnote. In this endnote Crowell replies to Quentin Meillassoux in defence of Heidegger’s correlationism: “Calling something an arche-fossil or a hammer or an electron–or a jug or a Gegnet or a Geviert, for that matter–has a determinate meaning only in a normative context grounded in the speaker’s commitment. The ‘realism’ which opposes this is perfectly suited to Ge-stell since, by denying the correlational conditions of meaning, it does away with meaning altogether and bottoms out in nihilism.” (94)
This punchline is remarkable, not primarily, however, as a critique but rather in the sense that Crowell laudably clarifies the relation (or correlation?) between a so-called “speculative realism” (or in the case of Meillassoux: speculative materialism) and the prevailing Gestell. Indeed, we are living in the Gestell, and Meillassoux somehow approves this insight by transcending every correlationism stemming from an anthropocentric vision of thinking. Now, is there a contradiction implied in what Crowell refers to? So far as I can see, none that Meillassoux hasn’t already dealt with elsewhere. Instead, there are consequences that concern not least the Heideggerian concept of releasement. Whereas Heidegger tries to free thought from the Gestell in order to gain a free relation to technology, speculative realism takes the opposite view: the freeing of thought from “Dasein”.
There still might be “the correlational conditions of meaning” but only for us as a species which cannot cease to make sense of everything, even nothing. But unfortunately that does not guarantee that beyond human comprehension meaning exists at all. Instead, we are today facing a situation wherein an intelligent form of calculation takes command without any proper understanding of its own agenda. And the same holds for philosophical speculations on the necessity of contingency, necessitating us to think the end of thinking as a possible, although unthinkable event (or rather “Enteignis”). Therefore, to talk about releasement under present conditions points, if anything, to a releasement into “nihilism” – according to our human, all-to-human presuppositions and expectations. Even though this does not mean that meaning does not mean anything to us, we find ourselves alone, surrounded by silicon and silence.
The German term “Gelassenheit” has its Latin equivalent in the Christian notion of “resignatio”. What in English still echoes the expression “resignation” or “resign” is translated into German as “Entlassung” – another, often unmentioned morphological derivation of “lassen”. Could it be that Heidegger’s own “releasement” from onto-theo-technology only renamed his resigning, his resignation by the Gestell, seine Entlassung durch die Seinsgeschichte? In this case he would have been the first and last thinker of the complete “Enteignis”: ‘The end of philosophy and the task/capitulation (“Aufgabe”) of thinking’ within the Gestell…a releasement from a self-annihilating being (“Sein”), and into a new substantial commitment with beings (“Seienden”)…the reversal from resigning to designing?
[i]See Technology, Ontotheology, Education, p. 185: “At the heart of Heidegger’s reontologization of education is a rethinking of what is called ‘learning,’ in which teaching itself becomes ‘the highest form of learning,’ an exemplary art of ‘learning-in-public,’ from which students learn how to learn by example, and learning comes to stand higher than being learned or knowing. (In what I have called ‘the pedagogical truth event,’ teachers learn to come into their own as teachers by showing students how to disclose the being of entities creatively, responsively, and responsibly, thereby helping students, things, and being all come into their own together.)” This “pedagogical truth event”, as Thomson calls it, seems to be already a common praxis, especially in demographic societies where youthfulness represents a rare good, whereas maturity is believed to be a kind of sale out.
[ii]For a closer reading of Heidegger’s thinking having an affair with National Socialism see Aaron James Wendland contribution to the present volume: Heidegger’s New Beginning. History, Technology, and National Socialism.
[iii]The German expression “Not” has also the connotation of “misery”.
[iv]McManus is quoting the inventor of the term “Audit Society” Michael Power in his book: The Audit Society: Rituals of Verification, Oxford: Oxford University Press 1997.
This study by junior scholar Anna Kouppanou proposes to recast Martin Heidegger’s conceptions of nearness, technology, and imagination in terms that show their interrelated phenomenological character as this speaks to the philosophy of education. Drawing substantially on the work of Bernard Stiegler, as well as Jacques Derrida, her method of analysis is less oriented in a Heidegger-studies approach per se, and more geared toward re-directing Heideggerian themes in service of specific questions. Kouppanou reads Heidegger from a persuasion such that the latter’s critique of technology is one-sided and negligent of considering how technology may overlap with other, more originary modes of being’s disclosure. She entertains a number of provocative theses. Among these theses are the following: nearness characterizes the event of truth and an essential aspect of education; technology affords nearness; imagination and temporality are co-constitutive; language, perception, and imagination are metaphorical; and the philosophy of education demands rethinking the interrelation of technology, imagination, language, and truth. All in all this project is an ambitious one, but Kouppanou gracefully weaves together a number of Heideggerian concepts and gives us new insights for understanding the scope of Heidegger’s notion of technology. I will say at the outset that I believe the study is actually much more effective on this score than it is on a philosophy of education front. To my mind this book’s most significant and groundbreaking contribution is its inventive interpolation of the connection between imagination, nearness, language, and technology in Heidegger’s philosophy. The concept of imagination in particular has historically been neglected in Heidegger studies, given Heidegger’s dismissal of imagination as a vestige of aesthetics and Cartesianism. Kouppanou’s book should broaden current understanding of imagination in Heidegger, especially in its positive sense.
Kouppanou prefaces the study in the Introduction by raising the question of how the concept of technology might be reconciled with Heidegger’s notion of authentic nearness. Kouppanou suggests that nearness ultimately concerns imagination, given that for something to be near entails that one sees it “as” this or that. Or vice versa, to see something in a particular aspect is to have it phenomenologically near. In other words, following Kant, the schematizing condition of perception is imaginative. This notion restates the hermeneutic turn in Heidegger, that any state of human understanding, any state of meaning, is always already interpretive. Kouppanou regards imagination (Einbildungskraft) as a core concept here because it unifies the schematization bound up in technology as Gestell with education conceived as Bildung (4). In this light there is a connection between technology’s enabling of nearness and education’s model of culturation; a guiding idea Kouppanou borrows from Véronique Fóti is that Heideggerian Gestell possesses a formative character similar to education. In other words, maybe there is not as sharp a distinction between Gestell and other, more originary manifestations of being as one may think.
The first chapter begins by addressing these issues further, taking up the concept of education from the critical standpoint of Heidegger’s concept of Gestell. Kouppanou highlights the current trend in education to demand measurement in terms of assessment, outcomes, research outputs, and so forth. The implicit notion is that, as “enframed” in a Heideggerian sense, education is removed of all freedom. The human subject in this situation is understood according to a pre-defined set of conditions, and her education is directed toward predetermined measures for future productivity. A text of focus for Kouppanou is Heidegger’s essay “Plato’s Doctrine of Truth,” particularly in its pertinence to Heidegger’s notion of education qua aletheia. As a reader of this essay would know, Heidegger interprets Plato’s Cave allegory in terms of the precedence of aletheia, truth as discovery, in paideia, education. According to this text, education means being brought into light from out of darkness. Kouppanou emphasizes the equally decisive presence here of “nearness.” The cave prisoners experience aletheia and enact paideia by being brought nearer to the real things they formerly saw in shadow form. As the story relates, education has its apex when one’s intellection attains nearness to the original sources of sight and being. Importantly in Kouppanou’s reading, this allegory introduces the distinction of truth as aletheia from truth as orthotes, or correct judgment, which is predicated on one being in the presence of the actual thing. As Heidegger holds, this moment is the advent of metaphysics, and likewise of knowledge conceived as adequate representation modelled after the actual thing (13). For Kouppanou, this distinction is emblematic of Heidegger’s accounts elsewhere of the epistemological commitments of “productionist metaphysics,” where the human being achieves knowledge by receiving and grasping the model. Pre-given standards are contained in the model, rather than discovered in the nearness afforded by aletheia. Another way to understand the phenomenon of nearness occurs in the later Heidegger, particularly in Heidegger’s accounts of the poetic image. These accounts concern production that is not derived metaphysically (16). This distinction is perhaps best borne out, as Kouppanou observes, in Heidegger’s notion of the work of art, where the work affords an originary instance of aletheia, not a mere copy of an externally existing thing (17). As Chapter One concludes, a principal question for Kouppanou becomes that of a middle ground between originary presencing and subjective imagination; that is, are there modes in which human beings can conjure or fashion images which nonetheless emerge from out of the originary presence of things? For Kouppanou, this is a question as to whether technologically-mediated images can afford nearness in a fashion akin to the nearness afforded by works of art (19). Kouppanou writes:
The distinction between poetic and non-poetic image opens up a whole new discussion concerning types of images (Bild), types of forming (Bilden), their relation to imagination (Ein-Bildungskraft) – as the one being affected in receiving and producing forms of imagining, and ultimately their connection with Bildung as the very process concerned with human formation (19).
Employing a more expansive notion of this concept than Heidegger, the author understands “nearness” as a mode of knowing and connectedness to the world that allows the human being to participate in the unfolding of life through formative procedures (19-20). Thus, she regards nearness as intimately bound up with education.
The second chapter explores these issues in relation to the dimensions of nearness afforded by Heidegger’s conception of phenomenology, especially the spirit of phenomenology’s dictum to allow the things to show themselves. For Kourannou, this overlaps with the phenomenon of authentic temporality, by which one allows the voice of conscience to be heard. This overlap is made evident in the temporal aspect in which everyday engagement with things derives from a temporal, historical origin. As Heidegger observes in Being and Time, perception is grounded in “seeing-as.” Nearness to things is predicated upon their presence “as” this or that. Our everyday world-involvement is already interpretive, and this interpretation is typically framed by the historical reception of the given (25). In other words, as Kouppanou describes, Heidegger’s brand of phenomenology “affirms an openness that lets beings be received” (25). This as-structure works forwards as well as backwards in time. Authentic temporality entails a seeing-as that frames what is to come, from out of the nearness of what is present. Language is likewise a mode for Heidegger through which the nearness of things is gathered. As Kouppanou highlights, a key distinction that emerges in Heidegger’s conception of language lay in language’s tie to phenomenology – language is the logos of the phaino. Kouppanou cites a passage from Being and Time according to which discourse or logos in the guise of spoken language allows for things to be “sighted,” in the Greek, phone meta phantasias. The term phantasia here is decisive for Kouppanou precisely because it at once entails the originary character of bona fide phenomena (through its root pha-, which refers to “appearing” and “showing”) while it also refers to the later Aristotelian notion of imagination, the more familiar brand of seeing-as (27-28). This later notion of phantasia as imagination characterizes the way something appears to one, as when a blip on the horizon of a desert landscape is “imagined,” seen as an oasis. The point Kouppanou leverages here is that the Greek conception of phantasia, understood as a microcosm for nearness and imaging, is at once passive and active. On one hand, it characterizes the human capacity for receiving appearances from outside oneself – of having appearances show up – in the form of images. On the other hand, phantasia is the capacity of image-formation, for imaginatively bringing an absent something near to one through one’s own constructive powers. The challenge is to understand how Heidegger can regard the active dimension of phantasia in terms other than the representational, when he holds at the same time that phantasia comprises the “sighting” of what appears. As Kouppanou describes this tension, the task for Heidegger is to “reimagine imagination in terms of a knowing that is transformative and yet responsive to things” (28). To resolve this dilemma, Kouppanou cites Heidegger’s own engagement with Kant on the question of imagination’s relation with subjectivity. The key to resolving the dilemma of phantasia conceived as representation versus phenomenological disclosure is the temporal nature of imagination, in the mould of Kant’s account in the first Critique. Imagination not only figures into Kant’s account of the conditions for the possibility of experience in the First Critique’s A-Deduction; imagination also drives Kant’s account of schematism, the subjective component of perception by which one forms images while also deriving such formation from things. Kouppanou cites John Sallis to emphasize that transcendental imagination is identical with originary time, writing “[i]magination thus lies at the heart of the unity of time, since temporality necessitates, above everything, connection and association” (32). Another way to describe this structure, Kouppanou continues, is to understand nearness as coextensive with temporal experience as Heidegger understands the latter. As Kouppanou puts it,
Taking this reorientation into account, image, formation, and imagination become indistinguishable from Heidegger’s temporality. For Heidegger, time is the result of synthesis, an originary association that allows past, present, and future to come together and give time. This original nearness of moments allows time consciousness and consciousness in general. Without this bringing-near of past and present, and presence and absence, time cannot be formed (32).
So in this light, imagination (Einbildungskraft), education (or “formation,” Bildung), and image (Bild) consciousness are co-constituted through temporality. Or what is the same, Heideggerian temporality is conditioned by the underlying synthesis or formation manifested in imagination, with nearness operating as a crucial component. A question that remains to be taken up in the third chapter concerns the nature of future-directed imagination, or what Kouppanou calls “in advance formation.” If imagination transcends mere subjective representation, then the question becomes one of how imagination’s future-oriented, schematizing mode avoids this limitation. The question she poses is whether there are other structures involved that make this possible – and in particular – what is language’s role, insofar as it plays into the formation of originary poetic images?
The third chapter explores these issues in greater depth. One aspect Kouppanou highlights in further analyzing the futural character of imagination is the moment of vision, the augenblick, as a poetic image. Here she invokes the three ecstatic modes underlying temporality in Heidegger’s account from Division II of Being and Time. The mode of futurity lay in Dasein’s character of being-ahead-of-itself, of projecting forward interpretively from one’s own factical state. Yet, Dasein’s futural orientation also possesses an imaginative aspect insofar as it can be influenced by Dasein’s authentic acknowledgement of the voice of conscience. Dasein’s potential for authentic temporality has its seat in allowing conscience to be heard and in wanting to respond to this voice. Imagination would seem to be a crucial component here in that Dasein’s responding to the voice of conscience is necessarily a seeing-as, a hermeneutic moment of vision that is poetically gathered for one and disclosed in image form by virtue of Dasein’s self-understanding through heeding its own death. Similarly, as was observed in the look at imagination in Kant, the notion is that the image-formation of authentic temporality does indeed stem from both a subjective foundation and one that responds to things. As Kouppanou summarizes this point, authentic temporality instantiated in one’s owning of death is a process of bringing-near, to make present what is absent (38-39). However, she also adds the rejoinder that nearness is not a concept that can be expressed propositionally. “[N]earing, just like the originary image, is less of a designation and more of a metaphor, an irony, and a paradox” (39). For “nearness” itself is a metaphorical idea. It does not refer to an objective orientation in space or a property neatly predicable in a sentence. Rather, it is an interpretive mode in which things appear to one. In this light, Kouppanou suggests that the linguistic origin of the notion of nearness qua metaphor merits further discussion. On one hand, metaphors are antithethical to Heidegger’s attempt to transcend metaphysics insofar as they postulate a divide between sensuous and nonsensuous reality. On the other hand, as Kouppanou suggests, Heidegger’s accounts of perception in various texts suggest that he understands sensation (aisthesis) as subject to metaphorical transformation in perception. This is to say, everyday human perception occurs through metaphorizing of sensation, given that all seeing is in fact seeing-as. Kouppanou writes: “The world as phenomenon, as Heidegger seems to argue, is perceived with the assistance of both aisthesis (the senses) and phantasia (imagination), or better yet: aisthesis perceives imaginatively and through the modification of sense data” (42). To say that perception metaphorizes the stuff of things is to regard perception as imaginative, as a kind of image formation. (An aside Kouppanou hints at here is that language’s metaphorical character is likewise imaginative, based in image-formation, similar to Nietzsche’s account of metaphor.) Kouppanou finishes out the chapter by again invoking the role of productive imagination by way of Kant. If one concedes that perception is imaginative, this assumes that perception requires “exterior images” (44). This is to say that, as concomitant with productive imagination, perception also engages the retentive aspect of time-consciousness by which images are frozen as schemas that inform future experience. In brief, perception is imaginative reproduction. In the chapter’s conclusion, the primary question asks whether nearness is confined to the relation of imaginative schematization and language, or whether there are other media in which nearness can occur.
Chapters Four, Five, and Six explore the concept of nearness according to its various treatments in the early, middle, and late periods of Heidegger’s thought, respectively. Chapter Four takes up nearness as it is implicated in the early Heidegger’s concept of things “ready-to-hand.” Chapter Five examines the role of nearness in Heidegger’s political thought, particularly as it pertains to Heidegger’s thought on homeland and native soil. Chapter Six focuses on Heidegger’s perhaps best-known discussions of nearness, from the later writings on poetic experience and the life of the “thing” (Das Ding), where nearness is conceived as an alternative mode of dwelling to modern technology. In what follows I will summarize these studies briefly before taking up the final two chapters of the book.
Chapter Four analyzes the early Heidegger’s account of nearness as revealed in things ready-to-hand (such as Being and Time’s tools) in order to better understand Heidegger’s attempt to “eliminate the technological aspects of being from his theorization of authentic time” (51). Kouppanou suggests that Heidegger’s avoidance of emphasizing aspects of existence such as “materiality, embodiment, spatiality, and prostheticity” (51) in his accounts of perception and world are reflective of his disinclination to include technology in the sphere of authentic temporality. Whereas, Kouppanou wants to suggest here that such a divide between the poetic or originary, and the technological, is artificial, given that technology is embedded in historicality. Technological being informs the imaginative character of perception no less than the rooted and homely in Heidegger’s early account of Dasein’s being-in-the-world.
Chapter Five examines Heidegger’s notion of nearness in its guise as a “political scheme.” The primary goal of Kouppanou’s focus here is to highlight Heidegger’s recasting of nearness into the political dimension of rootedness (76). Technology is to blame, according to Heidegger, for creating a false sense of nearness that results in rootlessness. Citing Stiegler, Kouppanou argues in contrast that technology does in fact have a constitutive role in the formation of the polis and the emergence of nearness; she emphasizes that “time cannot be a single destiny,” nor can time circumvent the mediation of technology (81). Simply put, authentic temporality cannot occur outside the sway of technology. Part of Heidegger’s error here, Kouppanou suggests, is to absolutize space as a metaphysical principle, whereas in Being and Time, he makes a stronger case that the nearness of space is a metaphor disclosed by Dasein. Kouppanou comments: “Heidegger’s return to space [in the critique of technology] coincides with the distortion of the very process that his thinking attempts to become: the poetic image. Instead of letting poetic imagery to be freely received, Heidegger imposes interpretations that temporalize space and emphasize the historicality of the homeland” (77).
Kouppanou transitions to Chapter Six by highlighting the later Heidegger’s move away from thinking nearness in terms of the futural, spiritual, and cultural. In particular, she emphasizes Heidegger’s remark in “The Origin of the Work of Art” that the poetic can no longer be understood from the standpoint of the imagination, but instead relies on a freely-received letting-be of the historical manifested in the interplay of world and earth (84-85). In other words, the later Heidegger seems to allow for historical being to occur as a disclosure of truth from without. However, Kouppanou suggests that the concept of imagination remains in play for Heidegger by virtue of informing his position on the relation of truth, language, and art. In particular, the function of metaphor as a proto-linguistic imaginative stuff underlying poetic experience suggests that imagination still figures into the primordial disclosures of being occasioned by art. Thus, poetic experience can still be regarded as imaginative in its foundations. In this vein Kouppanou writes:
While language is presented as the basic process that lets things be and affords nearness, Heidegger’s own metaphorical language says much more about the way nearness and the poetic realm unfold than his explicit argumentative language. What’s more, his discussion concerning the work of art, as a site for truth, emphasizes the spatiotemporal dimensions of revealing and accounts for the material and embodied aspects of its unfolding. This in turn provides us with an opportunity to reconsider poetic image as a mode of presencing that does not belong to language exclusively (90).
In the ending sections of Chapter Six, the final chapters of the book are previewed in some explorations of how Heidegger understands true nearness in the lived world of “things” (as in the essay “The Thing”) versus his view of the alienated state of being afforded by technology. Kouppanou highlights the primacy of the human hand for Heidegger in the creation of works fostering true nearness, as the hand is integral to both traditional handicraft and originary language conceived as gesture. Heidegger highlights this phenomenon when he contrasts the hand’s use in speaking and writing with the hand’s diminished capacity in these activities upon the advent of the typewriter. A pervasive ambiguity Kouppanou identifies here in Heidegger is the equal role of the hand in making use of differentiated, external being. It would be a mistake to claim, as Heidegger seems to suggest, that works of the hand constitute self-contained, holistic processes of creation. As Kouppanou suggests, there appears not to be a sharp underlying divide between Heidegger’s notion of the lived experience associated with tools and “things” of handicraft, which are derivative upon metaphorizing imagination, and robust manifestations of modern technology. Both make use of beings external to themselves in fostering their brands of nearness. It is not sufficient to claim that modern technology is problematic simply because it maximizes nearness and totally removes distance. The thrust of Kouppanou’s argumentation is that there seems not to be a fundamental difference between the imaginative disclosure afforded through, say, the hammer and the disclosure given through 21st-century computing.
The final two chapters of the book engage the findings of Chapters One through Six as they pertain to education and technology in current times. Of particular emphasis for Kouppanou is the type of nearness fostered by the imaginative schematization prevalent in the World Wide Web and social media. Kouppanou’s central argument in these final portions of the book rests on the claim that the nearness availed by modern technology is coextensive with Heidegger’s core assumptions about the relation of nearness, language, metaphor, and imagination. She writes that “technology is always already constitutive for our ways of seeing-as,” and “[a]ll technology participate in our hermeneutical processes” (119). In sum, “hermeneia is itself a material exterior and embodied metaphorical process unfolding through a twofold process of discretisation and synthesis instantiated through both language and technology” (Ibid.). For Kouppanou, this last view is decisive because it drives home the imaginative, metaphorical basis equally latent within “gestures, tools, words, and stories.” Metaphoricity is simply a constitutive element of things and their lived meaning (Ibid.). Kouppanou then grafts this reasoning onto the digital being of the contemporary computerized world. The digital world is not simply the alienated world of technology; for human Dasein the digital world is still being-in-the-world. (This view has been developed by other Heideggerian philosophers including Michael Eldred.) Online experience is coextensive with the worldhood of everyday, “real” experience. The metaphorized images of online being are equally meaningful as the “real” world of meaning (123). A core assumption of these passages is that the online experience fostered in media such as Facebook is always derivative from the meaning-structures embedded in intentionality.
In the final chapter, Kouppanou addresses these issues as they pertain to the philosophy of education. The primary question concerns whether modern technology’s current manifestation fundamentally alters the outlook for education conceived in its original guise as Bildung, formation through images. On one hand, she notes, the temporal form of “nowness” or constant immediacy created in online being would seem to encourage a pervasive lack of freedom. Online experience in this light is one of the individual perpetually being formed or educated from without (145). The danger Kouppanou sees here is the metaphorization or formation of the human latent in the pervasive reach of computing technology. For, technology, like handicraft is not merely metaphorized being in its own right; technology also leads its user to become metaphorized. This phenomenon has been documented in empirical science, as research has shown different types of media cause the human brain to rewire itself. Therefore, Kouppanou’s position here argues that technology’s power to completely metaphorize and rewire the educational process risks undermining the processes of discovery, scaffolded learning, and above all, hermeneutical freedom that are integral to education (150).
This book is a very impressive piece of scholarship for an early-career researcher. Its reassessment of Heidegger’s philosophy of technology in terms of the concepts of nearness and imagination is especially fruitful. Stylistically I believe the chapters proceed somewhat quickly at times, jumping from one dense source to another in often rapid fashion, when the author might in fact benefit from covering less material and proceeding more slowly. The connections between the chapter topics also sometimes suffer from a similar feeling of disjointedness, where the inclusion of certain topics and subtopics comes off as unmotivated and ad hoc. The fifth chapter on Heidegger’s political agenda struck me particularly strongly in this regard. The first four chapters of the book, along with Chapter Six, come across much more cohesively in contrast. However, these are all small caveats given the strong total contribution of the book. As I noted at the beginning, the book’s principal shortcoming may be that its conclusions vis-à-vis the philosophy of education are relatively lukewarm and prefatory. The final chapter in which education takes center stage reads somewhat more like an appendix, whereas the chapters dedicated to Heidegger are more focused on making sense of a complex line of inquiry in his thought.