Matthew Beaumont: Lev Shestov: Philosopher of the Sleepless Night

Lev Shestov: Philosopher of the Sleepless Night Book Cover Lev Shestov: Philosopher of the Sleepless Night
Matthew Beaumont
Bloomsbury
2020
Paperback $39.95
216

Reviewed by: Benjamin Rees (KU Leuven)

In Lev Shestov: Philosopher of the Sleepless Night, Matthew Beaumont gives us a long overdue reassessment of the mostly forgotten Russian philosopher Lev Shestov. History has been both substantially marked as well as unkind to Shestov’s legacy, and modern readers rarely come across his name but for the occasional comment by better known philosophers of the interwar Parisian milieu. Beaumont picks up the potential for a novel reading of the philosopher where Boris Groys’ chapter length treatment in his Introduction to Anti-Philosophers (Groys 2012) left off. In doing so, many of the previously overlooked possibilities for placing Shestov in a dialogue with post-modern and continental philosophies are brought to light as Beaumont carefully reveals the implicit connections between Shestov and anti-enlightenment philosophers such as Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Jacques Derrida, as well as many others.

Beaumont’s reading of Shestov is an ethical one rooted in a hyper-vigilant insomnia that cannot find rest until there is an accounting for all the suffering of our present time, as well as an impossible accounting for the suffering of the past. This endless vigilance is capable of distorting the world away from it’s current state into a world that does not permit of any suffering, no matter how idealistic this may seem. To accomplish this Beaumont gives us a detailed reading of Shestov’s reading of Pascal. These accounts are all characterized by Beaumont’s, Shestov’s and Pascal’s obsessive orbiting of the idea that “Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world: there must be no sleeping during that time” (Beaumont 2020, 20). This imperative is rooted in Jesus’ disciples failing Christ at his most vulnerable moment in the garden of Gethsemane when his despair was at its highest point due to his utter alienation from even those closest to him. Beaumont follows Pascal and Shestov in the need to remain absolutely vigilant, and he develops this theme of sleeplessness into a radical and constant rejection of any practice or institution, past or present, that justifies suffering at any level. In this way it is more so a modality of endless vigilance rather than any particular act or systematic way of thinking that can determine in advance how we are to interpret any given moment or event. What is demanded from Shestov then, as an ethical thinker, is constant and perpetual revolt. We can understand the direction, gravity, and force of Beaumont’s argument when he says that this ethics of eternal vigilance:

is […] about ‘staying awake,’ in some active and even agonistic sense. And, to this extent, though it does not address questions of race, it deliberately situates the political discourse of wakefulness, the resonance of which it emphatically underlines, in a rather different, more fully philosophical context, thereby defamiliarizing and displacing it in an attempt to restore a sense of its persistent, and urgent, importance. (Beaumont 2020, 3)

To develop this ethical state, Beaumont points to the idea of homo vigilans (waking man), as opposed to homo dormiens (sleeping man), found in Shestov’s writings.

For Beaumont homo vigilans is a state of engagement so intense that it is metaphorically brighter than the light outside of Plato’s cave, given that the glow of rationality itself can act as a narcotic if compared with his wakefulness. Beaumont shows us the ways in which, according to Shestov, reason can submerge and subordinate the individual to history, such as we find in Hegel, in a way that justifies their suffering as the necessary costs of historical progress and so rationalizes these casualties into a kind of indifferent acceptance (Beaumont 2020, 140-143). Yet we are also shown how the assurances of reason itself can lull us back to sleep with the peace and quiet found in formulations like the agreeable and eternal assurance that two times two is four (Beaumont 2020, 131-132). Beaumont’s homo vigilans is to be on guard against every one of these intellectual balms and is to always be present to the worlds failings. With this in mind, I would like to turn look more closely at Beaumont’s conceptualizing of homo vigilans.

The only locations in Shestov’s texts cited by Beaumont regarding Shestov’s use of homo vigilans are found where Shestov is attacking Husserlian phenomenology. Our first encounter with homo vigilans comes from a debates between Shestov and the Alsatian philosopher Jean Héring. To be exact, Shestov uses the term homo vigilans in “What is Truth? On Ethics and Ontology” (Shestov 1968c, 400-401); an essay that replies directly to Héring’s defense of Husserlian phenomenology. This essay itself, however, is part of a much larger debate that goes back to an essay titled “Memento Mori(Shestov 1968c, 287-359), where Shestov argues that if we are to believe Husserl’s argument that the evidence of consciousness (i.e. the modality of objects given as actual/evidential) can ground a theory of knowledge, then there is no accounting for the fact that dreaming gives to homo dormiens a variety of seemingly real and evident moments that are indistinguishable from the way evidence is given to homo vigilans. To put it differently: while asleep, homo dormiens takes the objects given to consciousness as if they were evidential/actual in the same way that homo vigilans takes objects while awake, and so Shestov argues that Husserl’s notion of evidence cannot used to ground a theory of knowledge unless it can make a distinction between the way objects are given with the same degrees of evidence in both waking and dreaming alike (Shestov 1968c, 326-328). From this perspective, according to Shestov, homo dormiens and homo vigilans end up becoming two states that relativize each other in away that sets up a tension where one “devour[s]” the other (Shestov 1968c, 340).

With these remarks in mind, I feel it is fair to argue that Shestov does not seem to be offering any solid phenomenological state along the lines of homo vigilans in any of his texts. Instead, he is calling into question the possibility for any truly stable state at all – phenomenological or otherwise. The second use of the term homo vigilans is found where Shestov essentially repeats this argument almost two decades later in Athens and Jerusalem (Shestov 1968a, 432), with nothing new added in terms of the possibility for an ethical reading.

On the heels of these comments, Beaumont’s appropriation of homo vigilans as central to his ethical reading of Shestov might not be beyond questioning. While metaphorically sound and proper, this use of homo vigilans does not seem to be found anywhere in Shestov’s writings, and it is only ever spoken of in a problematic context. If there are other instances of Shestov’s use of homo vigilans then Beaumont has overlooked them, as the ones cited in his book only point to these pages that do not support homo vigilans as an ethical state.

There is another perspective taken by Beaumont that is worth considering. Throughout his book he often uses the term ‘anti-Necessity’ to characterize the unpredictable nature of being that marks Shestov’s philosophy, and this term serves as one of the cornerstones of Beaumont’s reading of Shestov as an original thinker. Yet, this phrase is not one used by Shestov himself. Instead, as Beaumont points out, it is one Czesław Miłosz uses to describe Shestov’s precarious understanding of being (Beaumont 2020, 43). While initially this may not appear significant, the use of anti-Necesity is not without a few unintended, though perhaps wide reaching consequences.

The first is the way in which the concept of revelation is replaced and essentially overlooked by this term. For Shestov, revelations are the point at which there may be effects without causes, when what is unpredictable and beyond any given situation comes in and violently disrupt the order of things. This concept of revelation seems to be the precursor to the concept of the event in post modernity, such as Alain Badiou’s understanding of events, and so overlooking this aspect of Shestov accidentally still keeps his impact on European thought in the dark. To truly consider the profundity of this concept, take the following example:

A thing was suddenly revealed to Descartes of which he had been in ignorance; that he, Descartes, really existed. It was revealed to him; it was a revelation which was in direct contradiction to all the principles of reason. Reason, which questions everything, this pure, super-individual reason, this “consciousness as such”, without which all objective knowledge is impossible, had begun to question the existence of Descartes. And where reason is doubted, rational arguments cannot convince. When “the light of truth was revealed” to Descartes (as he himself describes his “cogito, ergo sum“), this was, I repeat, a true revelation which triumphantly dispersed all considerations of reason. (Shestov 1975, 110)

Were we to replace the ‘anti-Necessity’ with the word revelation in the quote above, it is clear that much of the sense will become lost or distorted, as it becomes specifically confusing to grasp the relationship between anti-Necessity and the sense of something being ‘revealed.’ It is for this reason that I believe Beaumont’s use of the term seems to further occlude Shestov’s relationship with future thinkers of the event.

The second problem with the term anti-Necessity is that it still seems to be beholden to necessity at some level; as if anti-Necessity exists insofar as it is a dialectical negation of necessity. Shestov’s understanding of revelation, however, is not in any relation to necessity, but instead is always coming from some kind excess.[1] In this way, if anything, Shestov is more so a pre-Necessity thinker rather than one who champions any anti-Necessity, and if we do indeed attribute to his work any notion of anti-Necessity, I would argue that this is only ever half the story. Taking into account this perspective matters because framing Shestov as a messianic thinker by way of thinking towards anti-Necessity still further accidentally covers over a few of Shestov’s unconventional and novel arguments.

While there are some messianic elements in Shestov, if we would read him as a pre-Necessity thinker, rather than a thinker of anti-Necessity, it becomes merely a choice to either follow the totalizing claims of necessity (which, for Shestov, seems to be synonymous with reason, universality, eternal truths, etc), or to reject it’s claim as the last word in determining the nature of existence. It is of the utmost importance to point out how Shestov ceaselessly argues that we are in fact making a choice when we submit to necessity as the final authority governing reality, and that for him it is a choice, and so one that can be chosen against. Thus it is not a question of refuting necessity, of arguing against it’s alleged authority, but simply a rejection that does entertain the need for any refutation. This kind of rejection resembles Job when he rejects his friends (their reliance on wisdom, on the authority of tradition, their reasoning, etc), rather than engaging in any argument against them on their own terms. Yet there is still a further and more nuanced point to consider with respect to Beaumont’s messianic reading.

Throughout all his writings, Shestov quotes the Psalms, where it is unequivocally declared that “All things are possible.” Messianic along Beaumont’s reading yields the necessity of a future tense to be interjected into this statement, and we would rather need to believe that ‘All things will be possible.’ Yet such an element of futurity is almost entirely absent in Shestov’s oeuvre (and where it does exist, it does not seem to exist in a manner that could be called messianic [Shestov 1968a, 434).

More to the point, in In Job’s Balance we find Shestov reading Dostoyevsky’s The Dream of a Ridiculous Man to demonstrate how it is that necessity, as well as the knowledge of good and evil, are not essential characters of humanity but are instead the consequences of choosing to follow the knowledge of good and evil (Shestov 1975, 64-66). The fallen state of man is shown not to be an absolute state of being but rather a state that can one day be radically overturned, perhaps even by a cultivation of the docta ignorantia (Shestov 1968a. 412), and in this way spiritual liberation is not necessarily contingent on any messiah, and so not intrinsically based on something beyond an individual’s capacity at any given moment, including the present. Beaumont does not provide us with this insight, and if anything, he accidentally steers Shestov into a kind of emancipatory ideology rather than towards the existent as being always-already emancipated, yet curiously an existent who willingly turns themselves over to external authorities (ie. necessity, reason, etc.). I would like to focus on one of the last arguments made by Beaumont’s book before turning to some broader considerations of his argument.

In the conclusion Beaumont indicates that Shestov’s anti-Necessity grounds his claim that one day it may no longer be true that “the Athenians poisoned Socrates” (Beaumont 2020, 151-152). Here Beaumont offers a vivid and enlightening way in which Shestov can be read as one of the most hopeful of philosophers. Such an optimistic undoing of Socrates fate rests on the fact that as a truth is born so too may it perish, and one day Socrates will never have been poisoned. Beaumont tells us that Shestov “prophesies a universe in which anti-Necessity finally supervenes, transforming the conditions in which cause and effect unfold from one another in linear narrative sequence, terrible historical events that retrospectively seem to have been inevitable simply will not have taken place” (Beaumont 2020, 153). However, while this kind of thought does match Shestov’s writings, it seems unclear how it is that such anti-Necessity can supervene.

Necessity in Shestov, as well as Beaumont’s reading of Shestov, is a general concept who’s domain extends over all of existence thoroughly and blindly. I am left wondering: in what way can anti-Necessity, itself seemingly a kind of general concept, ‘supervene’ (Beaumont 2020, 153)? In light of this question with the previous considerations of this concept in mind, it becomes evident that Beaumont’s concept of anti-Necessity is still lacking the disruptive nature of Shestov’s understanding of revelation, given that this anti-Necessity more so has the register of something general, like necessity, which acts indiscriminately on all things at all times. It seems to resemble a special category of some sort rather than a specific particular moment of disruption or intervention. I would like to propose instead that, rather than pit anti-Necessity against necessity (which seems to be placing one kind of generality against another generality), we read Shestov’s reversal of the truth of Socrates death as a kind of anti-revelation, as this seems more suited to Shestov’s terms.[2] Shestov’s argument that one day it may come about that Socrates has never in fact been poisoned is not to palimpsestically write over a truth so at to undo its presence, existence, or sense, but is rather for the truth to never have been written at all in the first place. It is to imagine some kind of anti-revelation whose polarity is one that covers what has been done altogether, and in this way is a revelation that is one particular devouring another particular – an anti-revelation that un-reveals what has been disclosed.[3] Strangely enough this ethical idea of a great reversal could be familiar to contemporary readers of French philosophy, as it seems to be touched upon by French philosopher Quentin Meillassoux in similarities that are worth considering, even if lightly and in passing.

When Meillassoux says “the fourth World ought to be called the World of justice: for it is only the World of the rebirth of humans that makes universal justice possible, by erasing even the injustice of shattered lives” (cited from: Harman 2011, 190) it is almost impossible not to think back to Shestov’s undoing of Socrates death as it is outlined above. While it is not possible here to determine whether the connection here is accidental or not, this connection should perhaps not be seen as purely arbitrary. Where Beaumont has explored Shestov’s impact on Delueze, the impact of Deleuze on Badiou was not mentioned even in passing and yet aspects of Badiou’s heritage seem to have possibly retained something of Shestov’s radical thinking (whether implicitly or explicitly), and this interesting link deserves a few more words on the matter, as it could contain the link between Shestov and Meillassoux in terms of the degrees in which both of these thinkers are philosophizing on the fringes of thought.

The overlap between Shestov and Alain Badiou becomes evident if we compare the following three quotes. The first is Badiou arguing that there are nothing but differences between anything and everything, a claim fundamental to his differential ontology. Specifically, he says that:

Infinite alterity is quite simply what there is. Any experience at all is the infinite deployment of infinite differences. Even the apparently reflexive experience of myself is by no means the intuition of a unity but a labyrinth of differentiations […]. There are as many differences, say, between a Chinese peasant and a young Norwegian professional as between myself and anybody at all, including myself. (Badiou 2012, 25-26)

By contrast, we also find Shestov arguing in In Job’s Balance similarly, that:

It is impossible to speak of ‘man’ generally, so long as the metaphysical destinies of individual men are different […]. There is a Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, and Alexander’s groom, but each of these differs from the other far more strongly than he does from a rhinoceros, a peacock, a cypress, or a cabbage; perhaps even from a tree trunk or a rock. (Shestov 1975, 220-221)

And, furthermore, in Potestas Clavium, Shestov says:

Even when men pronounce the same words, they each mean and see different things. Two orthodox Moslems swear in the name of two different Allahs. And I would say more: every Moslem today worships a completely other Allah than the one for whom he risked his life yesterday. The principle of identity applies only in logic. (Shestov 1968c, 167)

With these quotes in mind that it seems clear to me that some aspects of the differential ontology that came to prominence in post World War 2 French thought can be traced back to Shestov at least at some level, and this claim can be rather well substantiated by Beaumont’s book under consideration, albeit by way of different avenues. And yet, perhaps even more to this point, we can consider an otherwise overlooked rapport between Shestov and Levinas that is absent from Beaumont’ text in question.

It seems clear that Levinas has borrowed (without any citation I am aware of) Shestov’s notion of Socrates and Abraham, while simply changing the name of Socrates to Ulysses (Shestov 1968a, 440) (Levinas 1963, 610). Moreover, both Shestov and Levinas share a strikingly similar perspective with respect to the violence of Socrates’ dialectic in Platonic dialogues (Shestov 1968c, 115-119) (Levinas 1969, 171 – specifically his criticism of ‘maieutics’). While more similarities could be drawn between Shestov’s never ending attack on Western ontology and Levinas’ own ontological deconstruction (though, undertaken in different terms), to explore this at any length is to diverge too far, and I can do nothing more here than encourage a curious reader to simply read In Job’s Balance and Athens and Jerusalem with such suggestions in mind. I have drawn these connections overlooked by Beaumont to indicate how there is still more work to be done in bringing to light Shestov’s profound impact on 20th century philosophy.

Perhaps, in the end, it is worth mentioning that Shestov himself seemed to be a thinker opposed to ethics of any kind, given there can be no form of ethics without an appeal to a concept that is universal, and his attacks on any and every form of universality as the ultimate criteria for truth, and so philosophy, are not few or far between. For example, take the following quote from his book on Kierkegaard:

Reason eagerly strives for universal and necessary truths which are uncreated and dependent upon no one! Is not reason itself in the power of some hostile force that has so bewitched it that the fortuitous and the transitory seem to it necessary and eternal? And ethics, which suggests to man that resignation is the highest virtue—is it not in the same position as reason? It, too, has been bewitched by mysterious spells; man’s destruction awaits him where ethics promises him happiness and salvation. One must escape from reason, escape from ethics, without trying to find out beforehand what the end of the journey will be. (Shestov 1968b, 100)

Yet this is not to say that Beaumont has taken too many liberties with his reading of Shestov, and I am primarily mentioning this to encourage readers to read Shestov for themselves, and not to discredit Beaumont’s ethical insomnia, one that Shestov would have probably approved of at some level. Vladimir Jankélévitch goes so far as to say “je me croyais Chestov lui-même, Chestov réincarné” (Suarès 1986, 79) and still goes further in developing his own ethics (cf. The Bad Conscience or Forgiveness), and it is thus perfectly reasonable for Beaumont to do the same; that is, to work within a Shestovian framework with the intentions of deriving some kind of ethics.

Let me clearly stress that none of my comments above are to detract from the brilliance of Beaumont’s work, which is distinguished for its skillful mixing of clarity and depth. Lev Shestov Philosopher of the Sleepless Night serves as the first overdue step towards bringing to contemporary readers an inspired and original interpretation of an otherwise forgotten philosopher. I cannot strongly enough recommend this book as a fresh and concise starting point for engaging with Shestov’s works as a whole. For these, and many of the other reasons a reader will find while reading this book, Beaumont’s work deserves a close and attentive reading.

Bibliography

Badiou, Alain. 2012. Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil. Translated by Peter Hallward. Verso.

Beaumont, Matthew. 2020. Lev Shestov. Philosopher of the Sleepless Night. Bloomsbury Academic.

Groys, Boris. 2012. Introduction to Anti-Philosophy. Trans. David Fernbach. Verso.

Harman, Graham. 2011. Quentin Meillassoux: Philosophy in the Making. Edinburgh University Press.

Levinas, Emmanuel. 1963. “La trace de l’autre.” Tijdschrift Voor Filosofie, vol. 25 (3): 605–623.

Levinas, Emmanuel. 1969. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Duquesne University Press.

Shestov, Lev. 1968a. Athens and Jerusalem. Clarion Books.

Shestov, Lev. 1975. In Job’s Balance. Ohio University Press.

Shestov, Lev. 1968b. Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy. Ohio University Press.

Shestov, Lev. 1968c. Potestas Clavium. Ohio University Press.

Suarès, G. 1986. Vladimir Jankélévitch Qui suis-je? La Manufacture.


[1] cf. Shestov 1975, 221 – “The Irrational Residue of Being”

[2] Shestov’s reading of Socrates’ poisoning argues that it was entirely needless and contrary to reason that the wisest individual had an unjust and lowly death. Repeatedly Shestov stresses that something is rationally wrong with seeing how Socrates’ drinking of hemlock is as logically equivalent to that of a dog’s being poisoned in the same manner, and the sheer absurdity of Socrates’ fate in itself seems to fit the bill of the definition of revelation in many respects (Shestov 1968a, 94), and this all the more so if we consider the following lines of the quote regarding Descartes above: “There is something in life which is above reason. What reason cannot conceive is not therefore always impossible. And conversely, where reason establishes a necessity the chain may nevertheless break” (Shestov 1975, 110-111). And so Socrates death itself proves how contingent, accidental, and unstructured the world may be, how the chain of necessity may be broken, and yet how we can be coerced by necessity into accepting this truth of Socrates’ dead as being just as reasonable as the death of a dog’s from being poisoned.

[3]It is precisely in this line of thinking that I would place any hope of approaching Shestov in an ethically fruitful way.

Peter E. Gordon, Espen Hammer, Max Pensky (Eds.): A Companion to Adorno

A Companion to Adorno Book Cover A Companion to Adorno
Blackwell Companions to Philosophy
Peter E. Gordon, Espen Hammer, Max Pensky (Eds.)
Wiley-Blackwell
2020
Hardback $190.00
680

Reviewed by: Conrad Mattli (University of Basel)

The WileyBlackwell Companions to Philosophy series is an encyclopedic project committed to delivering “a comprehensive and authoritative survey of philosophy as a whole” (ii). The 71st addition to the series is, however, an attempt at the impossible. It is determined to summarize a philosophy which rose up precisely against all ‘summary approaches’ to philosophy. “Essentially”, Adorno wrote in Negative Dialectics, “philosophy is not expoundable [referierbar]. If it were, it would be superfluous; the fact that most of it can be expounded speaks against it” (Adorno 2006, 33–34).[1] Luckily for us all, however, the editors of this volume—perfectly aware that “the very idea of a comprehensive summary would have aroused Adorno’s ire” (xv)—chose to disobey the master’s interdiction. And they are right in doing so. The desire to ‘expound’ Adorno’s philosophy is, after all, justifiable on Adornian grounds. For one, because the ability to ‘formalize’ complex matters without unduly reducing their complexity should count among a dialectician’s cardinal virtues. But even more so, because 55 years and counting after Negative Dialectics was published, philosophical academia still seems blissfully unaffected by the profound irritation of negative dialectics. The mere existence of volumes like A Companion to Adorno could help address such unaffectedness, together with the general eschewal of dialectical thought that seems to have become a matter of course, as a self-incurred immaturity.

It is thus all the more welcome that Peter E. Gordon, Espen Hammer, and Max Pensky did not shy away from the difficult task of expounding Adorno’s dialectical body of knowledge by compiling A Companion to Adorno. The volume is a grand endeavor at overcoming common inhibiting factors for ‘scholasticizing’ Adorno. The volume puts Adorno’s original insights in touch with state-of-the-art research. It aspires to cover nearly every aspect of Adorno’s multifaceted legacy and consists of an impressive 39 contributions by contributors from all over the world; thus, it mirrors the international recognition Adorno’s thought continues to receive, by both admirers and critics, since his death in 1969. Since the 2003 centennial, a gradual resurgence of Adornian thought—out from under the communicative paradigm established in the wake of the Habermasian line of critique—can be witnessed. Wiley-Blackwell now plays its part in this slow but steady rise of Adorno scholarship. Flanked by OUP’s forthcoming Oxford Handbook to Adorno, as well as precedent publications from the past[2], not to mention a general, unbroken interest in Adorno across the globe, A Companion to Adorno gives further rise to the hopes of Adorno scholarship that the ‘dialectical path’ will, at long last, engender broader discourse.

The book begins with the “Editors’ Introduction”, and is then divided into seven major subsections, each section covering a significant dimension of Adorno’s intellectual legacy. In addition to short notes on the contributing authors, it is furnished with a handy index at the end. In the following, I will provide brief sketches of each section, while taking up cues from selected contributions. Due to reasons of limited space, I am skipping over some chapters. This skipping-over does by no means imply a claim to their inferiority. I will conclude my discussion by addressing apparent difficulties for Adorno scholarship in general, and by considering the possible impact of the Companion on the field, today and tomorrow.

Intellectual Foundations

Part I of the volume is dedicated to Adorno’s “Intellectual Foundations”. Building on Peter E. Gordon’s lucid biographical sketch, the first part of the Companion already introduces a wide array of themes that are central to Adornian thought. However, Part I is not really a viable introduction for the beginner (aside from Gordon’s bio-essay, maybe), since the individual contributions already involve some previous knowledge of the core issues of Adorno’s philosophy. This, however, does not diminish their worth for the Companion. Tracing the foundations for all later developments of Adorno’s thinking, these chapters provide the contextual framework for the rest of the book. Gordon’s first of two chapters (not including his co-authorship in the editors’ introduction) “Adorno: A biographical sketch” traces the intellectual development of Adorno in his earliest influences (Kracauer, Cornelius, Benjamin, Horkheimer), to the years as an emigré, from rather fruitless interactions with English philosophers in Oxford to the re-establishing of the Institute in America during the War, up to the definite return to Germany which covers the prime years of his activities as a renowned philosopher in post–War Germany. Gordon’s sketch is of remarkable historical far-sightedness, but gets by without losing sight of informative details. Gordon eventually touches on the delicate subject of the APO student protest movement during the Kiesinger era, and sets the events of 1967–69 in correlation to Adorno’s personal downfall, leading to his untimely death in 1969. After reading Gordon’s sketch, one is left with the wish that some of these intellectual foundations received more attention in the book. I am primarily thinking of Adorno’s relationship to his teacher Hans Cornelius—that is, the intellectual upbringing in neo-Kantianism which is still a widely neglected aspect of Adorno’s allegedly purely Hegelian philosophy—as well as the young Adorno’s intense preoccupation with Husserlian phenomenology. Speaking of the constitutive role of neo-Kantianism for Adorno’s development, Roger Foster approaches Adorno’s vision of “philosophy as a form of interpretation” (22), developed early in his Frankfurt inaugural lecture in 1931, by way of placing it within both the broader neo-Kantian context and its subversions, respectively. Adorno’s early vision of philosophy is set in determinate contrast both to the alleged narrowing of the bourgeois concept of rationality in the Weimar Republic, as well as to the vitalist irrationalism that was on the rise at the time (eventually coinciding with the fascist uprising). Foster provides an interesting outlook on the development of Adorno between these extremes, displaying his thought as an attempt at rescuing the ‘actuality’ of philosophy on its way to a “critical social theory of instrumental reason” (33). That Walter Benjamin did of course play a decisive role in the intellectual formation of Adorno is vividly displayed in Alexander Stern’s contribution. Stern’s representation of the intellectual relationship between Adorno and Benjamin is a swift attempt at summing up their complicated intellectual history. This is a most welcome contribution, since it is still widely disputed where the differences and parallels between the two exactly lie, who inspired who—or stole from whom. Stern chooses to focus on their differing, but in certain respects coextensive, takes on language, and comes to the clear-cut but perhaps surprising conclusion that “Adorno’s project is ultimately irreconcilable with the one sketched in Benjamin’s Arcades Project” (62). This is a welcome clarification, for it delivers the young Adorno from the prejudice of having merely acted out Benjamin’s plans. Marcia Morgan’s contribution revolves around Adorno’s interpretation of Kierkegaard’s existentialism. Morgan thereby takes up problems recently discussed by Peter E. Gordon in his monograph on Adorno and Existence, with a firm foot in Kierkegaard scholarship (Morgan has authored the monograph Kierkegaard and Critical Theory, 2012). She successfully shows how Adorno’s early preoccupation with Kierkegaard in his (understudied) Habilitationsschrift plays a decisive role for Adorno’s intellectual formation. Finally, Part I is completed by Sherry D. Lee’s outlook on Adorno’s musical education. Theory and compositional practice generally go hand in hand for the young Adorno, who quickly found himself under the influence of the Second Viennese School and its towering figures Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern. Lee’s contribution covers an indispensable aspect of Adornian thought by providing a genealogical reconstruction of Adorno’s “path toward a complex philosophy of the New Music and its socio-historical position” (67). Adorno’s partial break with the Second Viennese School in “developing a sociological approach to the elucidation of modern music” (81) is to be seen in relation to his life-long fascination with the dialectic between musical form and musical material, leading him to embrace compositional practices that reflect his outlook on philosophy, and vice versa. Lee’s outlook is interesting, leaving the impression that Adorno’s philosophy of New Music is not really the apology of high-brow Avant-Garde culture it came to represent for many. Instead, Adorno’s life-long efforts for securing the possibility of New Music are scrutinized with great scholarly rigor and, more importantly, rendered more plausible than their reputation suggests.

Cultural Analysis

Part II immediately builds on these foundations and examines Adorno’s contributions to cultural analysis. There seems to be a ‘methodological’ problem pervading these contributions that I would like to address first. It consists in the fact that common objections raised against Adorno and Horkheimer’s conception of a ‘dialectic of enlightenment’ still treat it as a descriptive theory of ‘the way things were’. When read as a grand narrative, the thesis of a dialectic of enlightenment indeed presents substantial shortcomings. What Adorno and Horkheimer are actually doing, however, is not describing how things were, but precisely reflecting on the very drive to say ‘how things actually were’ in light of an analytic of a catastrophic present. Why else would they use a myth (The Odyssey) to display mankind’s emancipatory transition from the mythical totality to the confines of instrumental reason? Correspondingly, defending the theory of a dialectic of enlightenment must mean, in each case, specifying the modality of ‘critical theory’ as such. This implies showing how critical theorizing never merely consists of recognizing that which is, but in recognizing the rational possibilities obstructed by that which is. In short: the dialectic of enlightenment is not a scientific account of history and society, but the result of the critical self-reflection of ‘science’ regarding its role in history and society. Hence, a critical theory of history and society—in the sense of first-generation critical theory—can never be ‘plain’ historiography, nor exclusively ‘empirical’ sociology, but always entails a philosophy of history, reflecting on the very role of enlightenment in contexts of domination.

Walking through Part II, we can discern several instances where this methodological dilemma becomes pressing with regards to adequately interpreting Adornian cultural analysis: Fred Rush takes up the critical concept of a Kulturindustrie (culture industry) from the section of the same title in Dialectic of Enlightenment, and sets the stage for measuring its systematic role for Adorno’s philosophy in general. Rush’s fairly dense yet rewarding overview hits the nail on the head with the observation that Horkheimer and Adorno—despite their seeming advocacy for ‘high’ culture—are not supporting a decadence theory of allegedly ‘low’ mass culture (95). The values of ‘high’ and ‘low’ themselves become somewhat inadequate measurements, once they are recognized as interrelated moments in reflecting on the disrupted ‘unity’ of culture. Correspondingly, the culture of commodification requires of the dialectician to recognize the “truly horrible” dimension of “mass deception”, namely “that it is a product of structures that seem benign and ordinary” (95). Therefore, Adorno is not out to equip the elitist mind with a schematism of high and low culture. He is rather interested in learning about the very nature of such schematizations themselves—and, with it, the causes for the diremption of culture both sides partake in. Adorno thus uses the antagonistic pair of ‘high’ and ‘low’ primarily as a critical (i.e. not ‘merely’ descriptive) function, in order to dialectically overcome their complementary shortcomings. The merits of this critical function are now also exactly what appears to most as questionable with regards to Adorno’s disdain for jazz music. Andrew Bowie, who is not only a renowned philosopher, but a proficient jazz saxophonist himself, discusses the controversial subject in his lucid essay “Adorno and Jazz”. Adorno’s interpretation of jazz—overtly lacking complexity, often being “very wide of the mark” (135), mostly seeing jazz “through the prism of white European music” (126)—has unsurprisingly not benefited Adorno’s status as a philosopher of music. Bowie considers Adorno’s criticism of jazz, with its obvious shortcomings, within the broader scheme of Adorno’s philosophy. Considered as ‘its own time comprehended in thought’, Adorno’s failure to see jazz for what it is corresponds to “his era’s failure in relation to the understanding of the history of black oppression” (135), according to Bowie. The true Hegelian, it seems, is not exempt from also partaking in the blunders of his time. Charles Clavey’s chapter seeks explanations for similar contradictions in Adorno’s methods of empirical social research. Here, things are somewhat looking up again for Adornian cultural analysis; namely that it can namely be said to provide a standard for scientific reflection on empirical methods. The empirical methods Adorno developed and applied as an émigré in the US are, after all, not only the ones suited to an ‘inhumane world’, but, as Clavey convincingly shows, also the ones working towards the aim of Adorno’s philosophy “to use the strength of the subject to break through the fallacy of constitutive subjectivity” (Adorno 2006, xx; referred to on 166). Clavey ends with an interesting note on the proximity of Adorno’s theory of anti-Semitism to Jean-Paul Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew. It is such proximity which only serves, however, to show the difference between Adorno and the existentialists; namely that Adorno strictly refrained from integrating ‘empirical findings’ into his philosophical framework—apart from treating them as another ground for critique, of course. Fabian Freyenhagen wants to re-examine and re-evaluate (cf. 103) another major impulse from the Dialectic of Enlightenment: Horkheimer and Adorno’s (and Löwenthal’s) ‘theory’ of anti-Semitism. Freyenhagen tries to show how common objections raised against Horkheimer and Adorno (basically that their theory is lacking complexity) can be met. Of course, the rhetoric of Dialectic of Enlightenment can be considered ‘hyperbolic’, oftentimes deliberately lacking complexity, all in all promoting a totalizing critique, perhaps at the cost of providing fine-grained descriptions of the “multifaceted nature of anti-Semitism” (120). The crucial point is, however, to understand the specific level of complexity necessary to display the thesis that “civilization and its hatred are dialectically intertwined” (108) in anti-Semitism, thereby ‘crystallizing’ the dialectic of enlightenment. Freyenhagen’s detailed account of Adorno and Horkheimer’s theory of the multi-faceted nature of Anti-Semitism being united in hatred of civilization opens up ways to mitigate their polemic distortions, by virtue of a more complex account (primarily to be traced in the Institute’s typological research on anti-Semitism), without sacrificing overall coherence. Shannon Mariotti addresses the needs of contemporary political theory by bringing Adorno into the picture. Mariotti’s refreshing take on Adorno’s political thought gets by without the usual indignation surrounding Adorno’s alleged apoliticality. Mariotti convincingly shows that a broader picture of Adorno’s cultural analysis could even allow us to re-read Adorno “not just as a political theorist, but as a democratic theorist” (139, cf. also 150). Part II all in all opens up surprisingly new perspectives on Adorno’s critical analyses of culture, both with regards to their logical place in the Adornian framework and to their broader applicability today. Rush’s contribution stands out, inducing a wish for the concept of ‘Kulturindustrie’ to become adjusted to the needs of culture criticism today. Adorno could, after all, still provide the adequate means to face the methodological dilemmas that any ‘cultural analysis’ is confronted with in an incessantly ‘dialectical’ modernity.

History and Domination

Dedicating an entire section to the topic of “History and Domination” seems like a peculiar choice at first. Upon reading its chapters, however, it becomes clear why this actually makes a lot of sense. Part III turns out to harbor some of the volume’s most interesting contributions. Two chapters really stand out. Martin Jay for one, whose description in the list of contributors has unfortunately gone missing (luckily, he a known figure in the field, long before the recently published, brilliant collection of essays Splinters in Your Eye: Frankfurt School Provocations), examines the fascinating parallel between Adorno and Blumenberg with regards to “Nonconceptuality and the Bilderverbot”. Jay discusses Adorno’s and Blumenberg’s differing, and yet in many ways overlapping subversion efforts against the tyranny of analyticity and ahistorical definitions. They both “appreciated the performative contradiction entailed by conceptualizing the nonconceptual” (178). But while Adorno’s use of the concept of nonconceptuality amounts to the employment of a radically defamiliarizing strategy by way of “an apophatic term in negative theology, which can only indirectly gesture toward what it cannot positively express” (177), Blumenberg, as Jay shows, differs from Adorno by affirming the familiarizing function of myth and metaphor. Jay’s contribution is a perfect example for a fruitful approach to Adorno by means of confronting his key thoughts with those of others. The real gemstone in Jay’s essay is the discussion of the Bilderverbot. It is not only that which makes the difference between Adorno and Blumenberg; the Bilderverbot is moreover immensely important for understanding Adorno’s dialectic in general. Martin Jay is one of very few scholars who acknowledge Adorno’s Kantian critique of the Hegelian concept of the concept. (We’ll get to that later). This critique places trust in the concept’s ability to critically (not affirmatively) transcend itself, thereby—negatively—making room for nonconceptuality beyond absolute identity. It is thus that negative theology coincides with Adorno’s ‘imageless’ materialism. The other rather remarkable chapter is Iain Macdonald’s on Adorno’s “Philosophy of History”. It is important to see that Adorno’s philosophy as whole, if there is indeed a discrete theoretical body to be demarcated as such, relies heavily on the philosophy of history. Macdonald guides the reader in a few well-chosen steps (Kant-Hegel-Marx) to the Adornian core insight. Macdonald thereby manages to let aspects of systematicity and historicity converge into one comprehensive complex, that could well serve as an introductory framework to Adorno’s philosophy. The only point to criticize in Macdonald’s account is that he makes it look as if Kant’s philosophy of history, that is, the ‘constitutive’ role antagonism plays for progress, is a kind of naturalistic anthropological Heracliteanism. This neither does justice to Kant, nor to Adorno’s interpretation of Kant, considering that Kant’s concept of a ‘cosmopolitan purpose’ (‘weltbürgerliche Absicht’)[3] is precisely not a ‘dogmatic’ presupposition; it is moreover unfounded, considering that Adorno’s philosophy of history delivers a ‘Kantian’ criticism of the Hegelian concept of Weltgeist. Adorno seeks to retain the cosmopolitan purpose—perpetual peace—by way of seeking to overcome natural antagonism. This entails precisely rendering antagonism merely ‘natural’, instead of rendering it absolutely necessary. Adorno’s critical method is to remind Hegelian spirit of what is lost in the unity of the absolute idea—the violent contingency of its origins. Such potential shortcomings regarding the relation between Kant and Hegel, which are controversial in themselves, however do not diminish the importance of the problems addressed by Iain Macdonald; the upshot of the discussion being, that Adorno’s philosophy of history stands between Kant’s teleological idealism of freedom on the one hand, and the Marxist subversion of Hegelian spirit on the other. All in all, Part III rewards the reader by elucidating a most fascinating aspect of Adorno’s legacy, his philosophy of history and utopia—that is, the well-founded, ‘metaphysical’ disappointment regarding the repeatedly failed windows of opportunity to leave our seemingly never-ending ‘prehistory’ behind.

Social Theory and Empirical Enquiry

The chapters in section IV are covering Adorno’s sociological project, the legacy of The Authoritarian Personality, his relation to Marx, and his “deep encounter with Freud’s work” (333), respectively—aspects which, especially the latter, permeated Adorno’s social theory from the very beginning of his ‘career’, until and including his intellectual activities in postwar Germany. The latter is examined in Jakob Norberg’s chapter. Although all chapters are worth considering, I would like to make a few remarks regarding Eli Zaretsky’s discussion of Adorno’s relation to Freud here. In fact, one could say that the early introduction of a sociologically disenchanted Freudianism into Adorno’s discussion of the transcendental doctrine of the soul marks the first time that the ‘social realm’ (as a transcendental substrate of our individual thought) openly interferes with the privacy of bourgeois subjectivity in Adorno (cf. Adorno 2020a, 320–322). The New School historian Zaretsky examines Adorno’s never fully ceasing, but eventually compromised Freudianism. The overall tone of Zaretsky’s essay is refreshing in the context of Adorno scholarship. It refrains from blindly accepting established lines of argument. The upshot of Zaretsky’s chapter, linking mass psychology and critical theory together, being that Adorno’s “three contributions” to social theory matter beyond their original scope, meaning today. The three contributions revolve around a sharpening of the speculative tools for mass and group psychology, especially in light of reiterating uprisings of fascism, eventually pushing towards the socio-historicization of ‘individualistic’ psychoanalysis. According to Zaretsky’s pointed analysis, “[a]s the fervor of the 1960s gave way to the constrains of the 1970s, the Dionysian crowds turned into Thermidorean scolds.” And he goes on to notice:

That trajectory holds lessons for the present. Building a progressive movement today entails turning the repressive egalitarianism of the crowd into a self‐reflective movement for structural change. The movements of the 1960s absorbed and generalized many Frankfurt School ideas including the critique of the Enlightenment as a source of domination; the idea that the forces of domination precede, even if they also include, capitalism; and the rejection of spurious totalities or universals in favor of alterity, otherness, and difference. Yet they rejected the Freudian heritage, including mass psychology, which is one reason we have not yet been able to truly move beyond the 1960s. (333)

This observation is striking. It alone should lead critical theorists to reconsider the (dialectical) insights of mass psychology—including the ones that not even critical theorists are safe from.

Aesthetics

It is an often-overlooked aspect of Adorno’s ‘anti-system’ (cf. Adorno 2006, xx) that the form in which he sought to publicize it more or less blends into the tripartite structure of Kant’s critical project. This becomes fully evident only towards the end of Adorno’s life, however. While his magnum opus Negative Dialectics could be said to be dedicated to ‘pure’ theoretical philosophy (in so far as ‘mediating’ metaphysics with the ‘impurity’ of historical experience by way of a ‘logic of decay’ still stands within that context), he appears to have made plans for a full book on the problems of moral philosophy (not to be mistaken with the homonymous lecture series); but most importantly, the book he was working on before he died was Aesthetic Theory. While the Adornian ‘critical project’ has thus sadly never been consummated, the ‘fragment’ called Aesthetic Theory nonetheless embarked on a steep career as a modern classic in the field. The idea of an ‘aesthetic theory’ is particularly worthwhile to study closely, because it connects and renders his accounts on aesthetic matters both relevant to the overall framework of his philosophy, and to his compositional practice. Both sides coalesce in Adorno’s reflections on the artwork. The concept of the artwork is the centerpiece of Adorno’s aesthetic, equally because of its function as an enigma, and as a product of ‘social labor’. But what is aesthetic theory exactly? The answer is far less simple than it seems—a difficulty mirrored by Eva Geulen’s contribution “Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory”. As Geulen notices, the proclivity to ‘fashion one’s own Adorno’ has often stood greatly in the way of seeing Aesthetic Theory for what it is. As a result, “much scholarship on Adornos Aesthetic Theory tends to be even more unreadable than the book itself, especially and precisely when critics try to live up to the high demands of their subject matter” (399)—a harrowing observation. Her attempt to do better justice to this situation is convincing at first: she places Adorno’s aesthetic theory ‘between Kant and Hegel’ (400). Thereby, Geulen is able to bring up problems that were all too often neglected in the discussion of Adorno’s aesthetic theory, first and foremost, the Kantian import of natural beauty. A possible shortcoming of Geulen’s reading is that she stops at a dualistic interpretation of Kant and Hegel as formalist-subjectivist vs. content-oriented-objectivist aesthetics. It is a seemingly imperishable prejudice that Kant founded aesthetics on the pole of the subject and, consequently, did not bother too much about objects and artworks. The third Critique tells a thoroughly different story. There simply is no subjective realm of judgment (be it aesthetic or teleological), apart from our reflecting on the subject’s relation to concrete objects; just as—yes, already in Kant—there is nothing under the sun that isn’t ‘mediated’ through judgment. Similarly, in Adorno’s reflections on art (and in his philosophy in general) subject and object are highly equivocal concepts (cf. Adorno 2020, 741). Adorno’s ‘dialecticizing’ of Kant and Hegel thus suggests an alternative to Geulen’s dualistic interpretation: Adorno reads Kant’s formalism precisely as object-oriented, while exposing Hegel’s idealist objectivism as absolute subjectivism, thereby limiting it. Adorno needs Kant to criticize Hegel, Hegel to criticize Kant—there is no synthesis between the two. Only in light of such a critical inversion of the usual dualist reading between “formalistic Kant and object-oriented Hegel” (400) can Aesthetic Theory come into its own, as a dialectical theory of artistic form and content—as Geulen then adequately shows—a theory determined to secure the possibility of the artwork in modernity. Another chapter that stands out is Henry Pickford’s “Adorno and Literary Criticism”. After a concise characterization of Adorno’s aesthetic theory, and lucid discussions of Adorno’s interpretations of Heine and Hölderlin, Pickford comes to the interesting conclusion, that “for Adorno ‘literary criticism’ means not only the criticism of literature in the objective sense, but also in the subjective sense of the genitive: literature, the experience of literature, can be a privileged activity of critique and resistance to the way of the world under late capitalism” (378). Pickford’s account is a great example of arranging a fruitful interplay between interpreting Adorno’s references to art and literature with regards to their content, while keeping in mind the determinant ethos of Adorno’s critical social theory. Eventually, Adorno’s literary criticism is displayed both as a ‘realist’ alternative to Lukács, and an ‘ethical’ alternative to the neo-Aristotelian ‘ethical criticism’ of Martha Nussbaum and others. Pickford thereby successfully sets Adorno’s literary criticism ‘into stark relief’ to these strands.

Negative Dialectics

Part VI is arguably the centerpiece of the book. Revolving around Adorno’s contribution to philosophy as such, the chapters minutely weigh key aspects of it against one another. Terry Pinkard sets the stage by looking at Adorno’s philosophy in light of its obvious relation to Hegel. Pinkard takes up the difficult task of determining the specific difference between Adornian negative dialectics with and against Hegel’s ‘affirmative’ dialectic. As Pinkard rightly notes, this double-headed outlook on Hegel is conferrable to the form of Adorno’s philosophy itself: “So it seems, for Adorno, we must be systematic and anti‐systematic, holist and anti‐holist, at the same time” (459). Accordingly, determining the nature of the dialectic in Adorno amounts to coming to grips with “a massive struggle or even potential contradiction at its heart” (459). It is interesting that Pinkard brings up the ‘anti-system’ in this context. The telos of Adorno’s ‘anti-system’ never was to dismiss systematicity altogether, but rather, quite like Hegel promises, to fully actualize the potential of systematic thinking. Like Hegelian logic, Adorno’s ‘anti-system’ relies on the self-transcending powers of the system itself: “It attempts by means of logical consistency to substitute for the unity principle, and for the paramountcy of the supraordinated concept, the idea of what would be outside the sway of such unity” (Adorno 2006, xx). For most Hegelian readers of Adorno, statements like these are evidence enough to consider negative dialectics a mere variation on Hegel’s absolute idealism. First, because for Hegelians, most of what Adorno says may be “what Hegel meant by the dialectic all along” (467)—the logicity of the absolute system is a synthetic unity of spirit and its externalizations to begin with. Secondly, because right in the moment Adorno subscribes to a dialectical notion of ‘logical consistency’, the anti-system retains the power of Hegelian thinking. Robert Pippin, for example, seems to promote such a reading, when saying: “If Adorno is leaning towards metaphysics, then we must think of his claim about the right ‘logical’ relation between identity and nonidentity as true – that is, as identical with, as saying, what is in fact the case. And we are then in Hegel’s space” (Pippin 2017). Such readings seem to provide the background to Pinkard’s gripping discussion. Pinkard namely seems to have noticed that they are misleading when it comes to grasping the true nature of negative dialectics. The central question of Pinkard’s chapter is what sets Adorno’s negative dialectic apart from ‘Hegel’s space’. Because without accounting for “[t]he negative in negative dialectics” (466) as the difference to Hegel, Adorno’s philosophical outlook collapses into absolute idealism. Pinkard, therefore, looks for ways to do justice to Adorno’s emancipation from Hegel. As Pinkard shows, Adorno, in a sense, follows Hegel in aspiring to the systematic unity of thought and being, but breaks with him by reviewing the role of negativity in the ‘unity’ of thought and being. Adorno’s ‘anti-system’ is the self-undermining consequence of the Hegelianism of the Phenomenology of Spirit. But in Adorno’s ‘anti-system’, diachronic history disturbs logic’s synchronicity. History does not merely enrich the system with the ‘outside’ that the logic had to neglect first for its abstract purity. That history is the medium in which spirit actualizes itself is more than a giant euphemism for Hegel; it is the very locus of dialectical truth. But for Adorno, even if returning to that locus for the truth of his dialectic, spirit will remain a giant euphemism, nevertheless—therefore, the absoluteness of spirit is wrong, until it undergoes a dialectical critique of reason. It is surprising, but perhaps very telling that Pinkard mobilizes an allegedly Heideggerian argument for radical finitude in order to deduce the negative in negative dialectics. (466) Even if we set aside that Pinkard is building his argument on what seems like a Wittgensteinian strawman-Heidegger, this is a wrong turn and missing the point. If Adorno was in any sense “crucially indebted to Heidegger” (466), it is rather because of the fact that his dialectic partly took shape as a critique of ontology. And I am not sure how far Pinkard’s paralleling Adorno to Schelling carries in this respect, either. (cf. 463f.) Pinkard is therefore right in looking to Kant for Adorno’s specific difference to Hegel. Adorno’s “siding with Kant” (464) remains a much-neglected aspect of Adorno’s philosophy. Adorno’s deep connection to Kant becomes somewhat obvious when considering a central systematic feature of Adorno’s Hegelianism: Adorno’s anti-system ‘thinks’ the negative but harbors no category of ‘negativity’.[4] If indeed the anti-system is thereby invoking an ‘experience’ of radical otherness against Hegel, it does so not by affirmatively picking ‘one side’ in the absolute conceptual unity of concept and otherness—namely otherness, like Pippin and others seem to think it does. Instead, the anti-system could be said to ‘be’ the difference of this absolute conceptual unity and radical otherness. This difference is precisely what makes theory critical, that is, of itself. Who else could reason criticize but itself? More than a brainy contradiction, the “massive struggle” (459) of Adornian thinking serves to rescue the nonidentical from the affirmative embrace of identity thinking. “Hegelians are not completely unconvinced” (467), Pinkard loosely concludes. But as long as their partial affirmation of Adorno entails denying negative dialectics its specific difference, they surely will never be convinced either. Espen Hammer’s contribution picks up another thread that permeates Adorno’s work – “Adorno’s Critique of Heidegger”. Adorno’s relation to Heidegger stands under the bad sign of a ‘refusal of communication’ (Kommunikationsverweigerung) first called out by the Heidegger scholar Hermann Mörchen. A synopsis of their communicative catastrophe goes something like this: Adorno developed key aspects of his dialectic in the form of a harrowing critique of Heideggerian existential ontology and its jargon, while Heidegger famously reacted by not reacting at all. Apparently perpetuating Heidegger’s silent treatment, it is a disturbing fact that the nature and scope of Adorno’s critique of Heidegger is still not being fathomed accordingly with regards to its content. After the controversy surrounding the publication of the Black Notebooks, working through Heidegger’s anti-Semitism must be of general interest. Its ramifications might extend well into Heidegger’s philosophy and the history of being (‘Seinsgeschichte’). Despite acknowledging that “Adorno pioneered the now widespread approach to Heidegger’s writings as politically motivated and ideologically compromised” (473), Hammer eventually fails to see Adorno’s polemic for what it is. Instead, he expresses doubts regarding the soundness of Adorno’s arguments, primarily concerning the ontological difference between being and beings. Hammer dismisses Adorno’s reading of Heidegger as “simply not correct”, claiming it does “not withstand scrutiny” (476). In Hammer’s eyes,

the fact that Adorno displays no real awareness of Heidegger’s actual ambition is striking. Adorno does not hold Heidegger to his own standards. He simply misunderstands the nature of his project. Given Adorno’s unquestionable abilities as a philosopher, this is both surprising and puzzling. It could be that Adorno does not reveal the true nature of his interpretation. (477)

This interpretation is in itself rather puzzling. Is it even conceivable that Adorno was simply not ‘aware’ of Heidegger’s true ambitions? And what does it even mean that Adorno could not have revealed ‘the true nature of his interpretation’? What if the opposite is the case? In line even with Hermann Mörchen (!) (1981, 292), it should be stressed that it is very hard to imagine that Adorno would have exposed himself to the public with blunt misreadings, even harder to think he would not get corrected by his colleagues—some of whom knew Heidegger’s philosophy considerably well—and moreover to sustain an overtly false argument throughout his whole intellectual career, and, on top of it, in his major outputs. Furthermore, attributing alleged misreadings to Adorno’s “competitive instinct”, or “hostility and aversion” (477) is an ad hominem argument that, even if it were true, made no difference to the success or failure of Adorno’s vindication of dialectics against the pretenses of existential ontology. The really pressing question is being avoided by Hammer, namely why Adorno consciously chose to raise these provocative accusations against Heidegger—that Heidegger is reverting back into subjectivism and idealism—despite the obvious fact that Heidegger understood his thought precisely as overcoming idealism. This would entail further scrutinizing of the nature of Adorno’s dialectical critique, perhaps even touching on a Socratic element in Adornian dialectics. In any case, showing that Adorno was ‘wrong’, in the sense attributed to him by Hammer, just doesn’t do justice to the rhetorical dimension of dialectical content. We should not forget, however, that, in line with a remark in Negative Dialectics, “contrary to popular opinion, the rhetorical element is on the side of content” (56), and not the other way around. Be that as it may, these shortcomings in Hammer’s otherwise highly informed account of the Adorno-Heidegger debate can only contribute to re-vitalizing the discussion. Jay Bernstein, too, addresses “deeply puzzling” (488) traits of Adorno’s dialectic and traces them in Adorno’s fruitful reception of Kant. Bernstein, who is known for having made seminal contributions to the field in the past, successfully lays new ground for discussions on the topic, showing that key aspects of Adornian thought (the concept of the concept; the critique of transcendental subjectivity; the alleged non-conceptuality of the nonidentical etc., in short: the relation between “Concept and Object”, as the chapter’s title indicates) can be traced in Adorno’s continuing preoccupation with Kant. Bernstein thereby makes a far-reaching observation:

Although Negative Dialectics is premised on a conversation with Hegel over dialectics, both its critical object, constitutive subjectivity, and its metaphysical promise, aesthetic semblance, derive fundamentally from a dialog with Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Getting this in plain view is the first task for a reading of Adorno’s philosophy (499).

Perhaps an equally far-reaching claim to this might be added: specifically, that the conversation with Hegel over dialectics should itself be seen within a Kantian framework, and not merely the other way around—the conversation with Kant within a Hegelian framework. Adorno took it “as a general guide for the understanding of the problem of dialectic that dialectic must, in an eminent sense, be regarded as Kantian philosophy which has come to self-consciousness and self-understanding” (Adorno 2017, 14). Following Adorno down that road entails reading Hegel himself as a Kantian (cf. Hindrichs 2020, 47), which of course exceeds the Companion’s purview. Nevertheless, seeing Adorno’s Hegelianism in a Kantian horizon could possibly affect the discussion of Adorno’s neglected ‘Kantianism’ in relation to modern idealists such as Robert Pippin, Robert Brandom, John McDowell, and those in their wake.[5] Adorno’s primacy of the object—disenchanting the myth of the myth of the given and promoting again the idea of otherness—can only be defended on Kantian and not on Hegelian grounds. Here, I cannot help but express puzzlement over one of Bernstein’s concluding remarks. Can Adorno really be said to have “always defended the now widely dismissed two-worlds version of Kant’s idealism” (499)? Isn’t Adorno’s own (widely ignored) contribution to the field that he reads Kant ‘dialectically’, whereby worlds and aspects necessarily coalesce in one sense, in order to then be set apart ‘negatively’ and thereby retain the idea of otherness? Apart from the discussion-worthy conclusion, Bernstein’s essay is easily one of the highlights of this volume, and everyone in the field is advised to read it. Kantian self-criticism of reason is, however, only one side of the coin. In keeping with Pinkard’s observation, the other side of Adorno’s ‘anti-system’ is that it must equally promote the seeming opposite of Kantian self-limitation. In accordance with Hegel’s program of a phenomenology of spirit, it both “demands that phenomena be allowed to speak as such—in a ‘pure looking-on’—and yet that their relation to consciousness as the subject, reflection, be at every moment maintained” (Adorno 2005, 74). Brian O’Connor and Peter E. Gordon accordingly examine the active contribution of Adorno to philosophy, that is, his account of the nature of philosophical truth. According to O’Connor, “Adorno offers us two notions of philosophical truth: the singular one and the critical one” (528). And of course, the two are interconnected, the singular truth being the ‘non-reportable’ correlate of a singular rhetorical engagement of a philosopher. These different notions of truth articulate a dialectic between the universal and the particular that is essential for the overall outlook of a ‘changed philosophy’. O’Connor thus provides a convincing ‘solution’ both to the problem mentioned in the beginning, that philosophy is ‘inexpoundable’ in essence, as well as to the double-headed nature of the anti-system that Pinkard hints at. ‘Metaphysical experience’ consequently is, according to Peter Gordon, “caught in an apparent self-contradiction” (549). It’s that same contradiction again, whose elucidation amounted to understanding Adornian thought for what it really is—genuinely philosophical dialectic. Gordon’s second independent contribution to the volume provides reflections on the place of Adorno’s philosophy in tradition. Departing from the relation to Classical Metaphysics (Ch. 2), Gordon delivers an intricate discussion of Adorno’s concept of metaphysical experience. Adorno’s philosophy can be said to draw from the insight that philosophy in general “rests on the texts it criticizes”—an insight, which, according to Adorno, “justifies the move from philosophy to exegesis, which exalts neither the interpretation nor the symbol into an absolute but seeks the truth where thinking secularizes the irretrievable archetype of sacred texts” (Adorno 2006, 55). How this coalition between philosophy and theology, between the most radical materialism and the ontological argument, comes about, can be read in Asaf Angermann’s chapter. Albeit mostly focusing on Anglophone discussions of the topic, the chapter nonetheless manages to show how a “Heretical Redemption of Metaphysics” is to be conceived—the upshot being that the union of theology and philosophy in Adorno is not a unio mystica but a unio in haeresia (between Adorno and Gershom Scholem), by virtue of which the dialectic of enlightenment stays in touch with its utmost extremes.

Ethics

The framework by which Adorno’s Ethics is introduced and discussed is its specific historical situation. The historical outlook of Adornian ethics is essentially articulated through “the new categorical imperative” imposed on humanity by Hitler: “to arrange their thinking and conduct, so that Auschwitz never repeats itself, so that nothing similar ever happens again” (Adorno 2006, 365). According to Christian Skirke,

Adorno’s reflections on life after Auschwitz strike a chord with these urgent concerns of our times. The least his reflections can do for us is to train us to see the dehumanizing logic of those practices. His reflections can forewarn those who are on the safe side of these practices that not to resist this logic amounts to passing over in silence the worst transgressions against others. (580)

Skirke then draws the memorable conclusion that “It is not unlikely that Adorno’s diagnosis would be exactly the same today”. The concluding chapters of the volume all revolve around Adorno’s negatively normative imperative. A shared problem of these chapters seems to be if we should, and if yes, how to extract positive normative purports from Adorno’s negativism. The section on ethics is thus an interesting end note that provides a rich discussion of Adorno’s negativism—a discussion likely to develop further in the near future.

Interpretive Uncertainty: The Fate of Adorno Scholarship?

Upon reviewing these sections covering Adorno’s lifework in its entirety, one thing especially stands out: Contrary to the apparent wording in the passage quoted at the outset, Adorno is a ‘systematic’ thinker in his own right. As a consequence, the apparent contradiction between affirming and criticizing systematic thinking engenders what I would call an interpretive uncertainty that every Adorno scholar has to come to grips with, at some point. The uncertainty arises from the double-headed nature of the dialectic between critique and theory. Needless to say, this interpretive uncertainty has not exactly matched ‘scholasticizing’ tendencies in academia. Beyond a growing circle of Adorno scholars, Adorno’s dialectic is still mostly met with shoulder shrugs, superficial criticism, or allergic reactions. Its negativistic character, the result of these aporetic ‘placements’, seems to present an unspeakable irritation to academia. And it still appears to be the prime inhibiting factor for a successful scholastic cultivation of negative dialectics.

In spite of such inhibiting factors, A Companion to Adorno manages to brave the challenge of ordering a heterogeneous field of scholarly activities into one integral approach, albeit mostly (and thankfully) by means of fleshing out problems, rather than by throwing clear-cut solutions at the reader. As a bottom-line from this integral approach of the Companion, the following methodological problems for Adorno scholarship can be identified:

1) There is, without a doubt, such a thing as ‘Adorno’s thought’—it can be called ‘critical theory’ or ‘negative dialectics’ (for Adorno, these two titles essentially mean the same thing).

2) Critical theory qua negative dialectics cannot be expounded or summarized. The best of it is lost when taking the form of a positive system of fixed concepts and ideas.

3) Key tenets of Adorno’s philosophy can, therefore, only be ‘traced’ and expounded indirectly, that is, when taking into consideration Adorno’s critical interactions with society, capitalism, art, artists, writers, and importantly with other philosophers. Examples of the latter include refined criticisms of Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, most importantly Kant and Hegel, but also Schelling and Fichte, Marx, Kierkegaard, Husserl, Freud, Nietzsche, Lukács, and Walter Benjamin, of course. (The most notable ‘interlocution’ with a contemporary being the one with Heidegger, who in turn remained as silent as the dead.)

4) Since Adorno’s dialectical path is—in contrast with Hegel’s—terminally negative, the universal functionality of dialectical thought must saturate itself with ‘material’ themata (hence its proclivity towards Cultural Analysis, History, Sociology, Aesthetics, etc.) in order to fulfill the promise of philosophical truth. This need for ‘materiality’ is, however, not merely an epistemic virtue of Adornian dialectics and surely not an end in itself, like Hegelian readings of Adorno tend to suggest. To the contrary, being a mere “ontology of the wrong state of things” (Adorno 2006, 11) dialectics both expresses and stands in the way of philosophical truth, in other words, in the way of actualizing the “cognitive utopia” (Adorno 2006, 10). Until utopia becomes actual (never?) the isomorphy between the dialectic of the philosophical system and the all-too ‘real’ antagonisms must be interpreted as the ultimate ground for a critique of absolute reason, i.e. precisely not as an index that the rational always already is, or is about to become, real. The dialectic of form and matter is a vice, a profound irritation to logical thought, and an index to the finitude of universal forms—ultimately an articulation of the all-too real experiences of catastrophes during the age of extremes. In short, dialectics is the absolute limit of philosophy, drawn from within, with no possibility for transgression but through relentless self-criticism. To deem dialectics a virtue of the philosopher is to be blind to the fact of mediation continually jeopardizing the absolute status of philosophical truth.

5) Therefore, the fundamental question for ‘Adorno scholarship’ is how to examine Adorno’s philosophy as a self-standing theoretical body of knowledge while, at the same time (!) taking into account that, qua critique, Adorno’s philosophy can only ever be thematized indirectly, by taking into account its critical, and oftentimes polemic, interactions with tradition.

It is this interplay between theoretical autonomy and dialogical ‘indirectness’ which is constitutive of Adorno’s dialectics, and which, coming full circle, promotes interpretive uncertainty. All in all, the uncertainty revolves around the one fundamental difficulty of how to account for the systematicity of Adorno’s anti-system. Much like Plato’s, Adorno’s dialectical body of work inevitably gives rise to the wearisome question of an ‘unwritten doctrine’, while equally making it impossible to pinpoint it as a static system. ‘Adorno scholarship’ is an aporia. Its only ‘way out’ is to show that it articulates the very aporia of philosophy itself.

Conclusion

Aspiring to a comprehensive survey of a philosophy, there is always a fine line between unduly reducing its complexity and doing it justice in recognizing its overall coherence. Correspondingly, Blackwell’s comprehensive summary of Adorno seeks to avoid undue simplifications and reductive schematizations and maintain a high level of differentiation at all times. This greatly inspires further scholarly investigation and the concentrated reader is rewarded with a challenging yet fascinating read. On the downside, however, its high level of differentiation makes the Companion not any easier to ‘expound’ than the philosophy it is supposed to help comprehend in the first place. One is sometimes tempted to ask, if a more ‘systematic’ approach to Adorno really amounted to a cardinal sin.

A Companion to Adorno will hopefully be received as a call to reactivate the critical dialogue between Adorno and academic philosophy—past, present, and future. But will it convince the majority of philosophers who still find negative dialectics either too brainy and complex, a mere variation on the grand Hegelian theme, or—even worse—no dialectic proper? It probably won’t. Stuart Walton, in a recent review of this very Companion, commented on the book’s material richness by mobilizing Brecht “who scarcely took the first generation of Frankfurt thinkers seriously” and his remark “that nobody who lacked a sense of humour would stand a chance of understanding dialectics” (Walton 2020, 175).[6] Meanwhile, the challenge of ‘taking in the entirety of Adorno’s thought’ may have become a rather serious one, however. For it resonates a little too perfectly with ‘academic’ philosophy today, by which I mean with the challenge to remain relevant and in touch with its time, on the one hand, and not to defect to the powers that are trying to instrumentalize it, on the other. In light of such challenges, philosophy may be well advised to take dialectics more ‘seriously’, if only to account for the dilemma it finds itself in. This, however, entailed taking Adorno’s philosophical wit seriously, at long last.

To conclude, although the volume cannot (and does not) aspire to become a surrogate for the richness of Adorno’s anti-system itself, it succeeds in showing us where and how to look for its treasures. Luckily, however, these contributions mostly refrain from cherry-picking, sorting out what’s still ‘useful’ and what’s not, and from patronizingly assigning Adorno his place on the basis of the dubious privilege of being born later. The Companion’s integral approach thus helps Adorno’s dialectic come into its own, as a mode of thinking aimed at securing the sheer possibility of philosophical truth. “There is solidarity between such thinking and metaphysics at the time of its fall” (Adorno 2006, 408) reads the last sentence of Negative Dialectics. Congruously, A Companion to Adorno is an impressive testimonial for Adorno’s unrelenting solidarity with philosophy, aesthetics, and critical social theory in a catastrophic time. Thereby, the lines of what Brian O’Connor calls “a changed philosophy” (cf. 520–522) have become more visible than ever before. This philosophy should be both determinately critical and ‘modern’ (in the emphatic sense of lat. modo = just now), all the while keeping in mind its aporetic starting point from after “the moment to realize it was missed” (Adorno 2006, 3). The Companion can moreover help students first become familiar with Adorno’s philosophy, by promoting awareness of the unique fashion Adorno had addressed philosophical problems with. And quite possibly, it will thus even help engender broader discourse in the long run. If the book is not received as a compilation of last words on these matters, of course.

References

Adorno, Theodor W., and Edmund F. N. Jephcott. 2005. Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life. London: Verso.

Adorno, Theodor W. (1966) 2006. Negative Dialectics. Transferred to digital printing. London: Routledge.

Adorno, Theodor W. 32020a. Philosophische Frühschriften. Gesammelte Schriften Band 1. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Adorno, Theodor W. 82020b. Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft II: Eingriffe–Stichworte. Gesammelte Schriften Band 10.2. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Gordon, Peter Eli, Espen Hammer, and Max Pensky (eds.). 2020. A Companion to Adorno. First edition. Hoboken: Wiley Blackwell.

Jay, Martin. 2020. Splinters in Your Eye: Frankfurt School Provocations. London: Verso Books.

Hindrichs, Gunnar. 2020. Der Weltbegriff der Philosophie. In: Merkur. Deutsche Zeitschrift für europäisches Denken. Nr. 854. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta.

Kant, Immanuel, Paul Guyer, and Allen W. Wood. (1781=A/1787=B) 182016. Critique of Pure Reason. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Meillassoux, Quentin. 2008. After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. Translated by Ray Brassier. New York: Continuum.

Mörchen, Hermann. 1981. Adorno und Heidegger. Untersuchung einer philosophischen Kommunikationsverweigerung. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta.

Morgan, Marcia. 2012. Kierkegaard and Critical Theory. Lanham: Lexington Books.

Pippin, Robert. 2017. Review of Peter E. Gordon. Adorno and Existence. In: Critical Inquiry. [https://criticalinquiry.uchicago.edu/robert_pippin_reviews_adorno_and_existence/] Accessed 15 Feb. 2021.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1948. Anti-Semite and Jew. Translated by George J. Becker. New York: Schocken Books.

Walton, Stuart. 2020. Review of ‘A Companion to Adorno.’. In: Journal of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics, vol. 43, no. 3, 2020, p. 175–178. (Online: Gale Literature Resource Center. Accessed 2 Mar. 2021.)


[1] Brian O’Connor translates ‘referierbar’ as ‘reportable’ (526), which seems a more elegant solution.

[2] To be mentioned are (in no specific order): Huhn, Tom (ed.). 2004. The Cambridge Companion to Adorno. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Cook, Deborah (ed.). Theodor Adorno: Key Concepts. Stocksfield: Acumen, 2008; Klein, Richard (ed.). 2011. Adorno-Handbuch: Leben–Werk–Wirkung. Stuttgart: Metzler; Honneth, Axel, and Christoph Menke (eds.). 2010. Theodor W. Adorno: Negative Dialektik. Berlin: Akademie Verlag; Hindrichs, Gunnar (ed.). 2013. Max Horkheimer/Theodor W. Adorno: Dialektik der Aufklärung. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

[3] Tellingly, and in accordance with the dialectic of teleological judgment in the third Critique, ‘Absicht’ is sometimes translated as ‘purpose’ or ‘aim’, sometimes as ‘point of view’ or ‘perspective’.

[4] “[…] for the category is a mere function of thinking, through which no object is given to me, but rather only that through which what may be given in intuition is thought” Kant 2016, 349 [A 253/B 308].

[5] Whoever subscribes to Adorno’s neglected ‘Kantianism’ might, on another note, also have a word to say regarding the widespread allergy of modern ‘realists’ to so called ‘correlationism’ (see Meillassoux 2008, 5). The upshot of an Adornian rejoinder would be that the negativistic nature of the dialectic manages to break with ‘strong correlationists’ such as Heidegger without claiming to have gained epistemic access to the thing-in-itself (and thereby falling behind Kant and Hegel) but by vindicating the only absolute correlation: the one between dialectics and the critique of reason. It may not be impossible, after all, that there are things we—being ‘finite’ beings—cannot know.

[6] The upshot of Walton’s (2020, 175) analogy being: “By much the same token, nobody who lacks a gigantic range of cultural and philosophical reference, and one that is ever vigilant for the first trace of oxidation into ideology in any of its component parts, will find themselves equipped to take on the entirety of Adorno’s thought.”

Michael L. Morgan (Ed.): The Oxford Handbook of Levinas

The Oxford Handbook of Levinas Book Cover The Oxford Handbook of Levinas
Michael L. Morgan (Ed.)
Oxford University Press
2019
Hardback £125.00
880

Reviewed by: Tyler Correia (York University, Canada)

The Oxford Handbook of Levinas provides another key step on the way to entrenching the possibility of continued scholarship on the rich thought of philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, as well as providing an accessible entry-point into the ever-growing body of commentary on his works. Although at times the structure of the handbook makes gestures toward necessary contributions that are currently absent, both in outlining the field of Levinas’s influences or interlocutors, and in terms of key engagements with contemporary concerns, it has also amassed an exciting range of discussions from a diverse array of scholars. Contributions are well-researched, insightful, and make Levinas’s notoriously difficult thought comprehensible and intriguing. Further, certain departures with conventions of reference texts in the composition of contributions—he articles being of comparable length to those of scholarly journal’s—creates space not only for informative but critical treatments, as well as facilitating dialogue and challenge.

The editor, Michael L. Morgan is a prolific scholar in his own right in Jewish studies and on Levinas specifically. He has authored other introductory texts including Discovering Levinas (2007), The Cambridge Introduction to Emmanuel Levinas (2011), and recently published on his ethico-political thought and practice in Levinas’s Ethical Politics (2016).

There are certainly benefits to a handbook both of this magnitude and this breadth. The text is a nearly nine hundred page collection of thirty-eight entries, including contributions from notable Levinas scholars such as Robert Bernasconi, political philosopher Annabel Herzog, Levinas translator Bettina Bergo and editor of The Levinas Reader (2001) Seán Hand. Also certainly, a text of this kind provides a crucial opportunity for a multiplicity of scholars of varied backgrounds to contribute—scholars of history, religion, philosophy, ethics, politics, classics and art, who contextualize Levinas’ expansive works and biography through critical, interpersonal, dialogical, feminist, hermeneutic, theological frameworks. It is divided into six section with entries on a wide range of topics and themes by which one could enter into scholarship: covering Levinas’ life and influences, key philosophical themes, religious thought, ethics, and critical assessments of his work.

One of the potential drawbacks of a ‘handbook’—and consistent with all genres of reference texts more broadly—is the prefiguration of a conversation as one in which specialists communicate information to non-specialists, rather than opening the possibility of dialogue and interpretation. The pragmatic context of a ‘handbook’ still makes it unlikely that professional scholars will refer to this text as an entry-point into key controversies and as a site of engagement even over more specific collected volumes. A text like this, then, fills the space of a general reference and guide into the multiplicity of avenues that Levinas’ thought might open, and in its capacity as a general reference book it does well, even though it is competing with a number of more specific works on Levinas—whether reference volumes, essay collections or single-author monographs—that are also available for Anglophone scholars with an equally wide breadth; works on Levinas’ engagements with Martin Buber and other Jewish thinkers, with Asian thought and with ancient philosophy, on Levinas’ contributions to hermeneutics and theological exegesis, a swath of texts on Levinas’ ethics, on his interlocutions with poststructuralist and deconstructive thought, and texts that (re)situate and seek for his ethics to speak to their own and our socio-political contexts. In this way, a reference text of this sort helps best to locate oneself in relation to a veritable library of Levinas scholarship, and to identify those signposts, even if often as an index to an index.

Accordingly, the handbook attests to an emerging polarization of Levinas scholarship concerned with two key conceptual constellations in his ethical thought; on responsibility and vulnerability. The former has perhaps been considered the central aspect of Levinas’s work traced to the importance of the text most often called his magnum opus, Totality and Infinity (2011 [1961]). Not merely the outline of ‘responsibilities,’ Levinas’s conceptualization of responsibility grounds his fundamental claim that ethics is first philosophy. Not just in the content of responsibility, but in the provocation or the desire (later he will call this intrigue) to respond to and respond for the Other, Levinas finds the opening of ethics as an infinitely asymmetrical relation grounded in the unconditional command to be for the Other. In its poetic force and uncompromising gesture, one’s responsibility for the Other and on their behalf is perhaps the aspect of Levinas’s work that draws most scholars to him. It also becomes the rich ground from which he rejects conventional and general  practices of philosophy as projects of securing, organizing and reorganizing both ontology and metaphysics as the totalizing structure of ‘the Same.’ Beyond the sort of A=A identity, the structure of the Same is all that operates under the heading of ‘Being’ and at the disposal of the privileged Self. Thus, where philosophy in general and phenomenology in particular meet, Levinas finds a notion of the Self within a world that they might appropriate, incorporate, or otherwise violate as if it were exclusively ‘their own.

In contrast, Levinas finds an entirely unappropriable and thus infinitely transcendent disruption of the structure of the Same in the encounter with the Other, where the face to face meeting and the very face of the Other themselves, escapes all such appropriative attempts to fix them in place within the horizon of the world of the Same. Instead, the face of the Other seems to call to the Self with a commandment, the fundamental interdiction “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” further disrupting the absolute enjoyment (jouissance) that would otherwise be the prerogative and entitlement of the Self within its own world. In place of this enjoyment is the unsatisfiable desire to be with, and be for, the Other, the ground upon which an infinite and unconditional responsibility emerges. Then, all subsequent thought is a matter of bearing out the implications of this unconditional and infinite responsibility for the Other in its applications and tensions.

Incrementally, this picture, as outlined by readings of Totality and Infinity, has expanded as more scholarship has turned toward the ‘other pole’ of Levinas’s work as represented by Otherwise than Being (2016 [1981]). No longer willing to accept the ‘Self’ as originally in a position of comfort, chez soi, or at home with oneself, Levinas reconsiders the place of the encounter with the Other as both fundamental for thought and fundamental to the very existence of the subject before subjectivity can be claimed. In the exchange of the ‘word’—even the word that proclaims ‘I am I’—the Self is less so in proximity to an unchallenging world of their own, than they are in proximity to an Other. In this most basic sense, vulnerability is the fundamentally disruptive trauma of recognizing that the self comes after an encounter with the Other (see Bergo’s chapter as well as Staehler’s). Robert Bernasconi theorizes vulnerability in two particularly interesting ways. On the one hand, he notes that responsibility operates on the subject as disruptive enough to veritably tear the subject apart, what Levinas calls dénucléation. He explains, “Dénucléation is apparently a word used to refer to the coring out that doctors perform when, for example, they remove an eyeball from its socket while leaving everything intact. Levinas used this same word to describe breathing as a dénucléation of the subject’s substantiality, albeit in this context it also has an association with transcendence” (pp. 268-69).

Although Bernasconi will motivate a reading of Levinas that prefigures the need to defend both the subject and its subjectivity, he summarizes his exploration of the notion of vulnerability that is too traumatic to ignore: “I showed that he went out of his way to say that the exposure to outrage, wounding, and persecution was an exposure to wounding in enjoyment. This is what qualifies it as a “vulnerability of the me.” It touches me in my complacency. But vulnerability extends to the trauma of accusation suffered by a hostage to the point where that hostage identifies with others, including his or her persecutors” (p. 269). He continues that this fact of vulnerability, then, is compelling enough to enact an experience of substitution in the subject, as if the subject is provoked to experience themselves as Other.

Following these considerations, I would like to make note of two particularly useful aspects of the handbook, and to applaud Morgan and the contributors for them. Firstly, some of its richest content is the contribution to an Anglo-American readership on the scope of Levinas’ writings of which we currently do not have complete access. Pieces by Sarah Hammerschlag and Seán Hand rectify this condition with stimulating discussions of his wartime notebooks and his early poetry and novel fragments respectively. Still an English-speaking public does not have access in particular to either the Carnets de captivité, nor to his wartime literary works in Éros, littérature et philosophie, both of which were recently posthumously published in French.[i] With Hammerschlag’s survey of Levinas’s wartime notebooks, though, (spanning, in fact, from 1937-1950), and Hand’s reconceptualization of Levinas in light of the literary dimensions of these personal writings, they make stellar contributions to Anglophone Levinas scholarship by filling those gaps. For this alone, the handbook is already an invaluable resource for scholars of all sorts.

Secondly, the fourth section of the handbook, dedicated to applications of Levinas’ thought beyond his own sphere is truly effervescent. Special attention should be paid to this section in its eclectic reach, where the very notion of a foundation (the presumed objective constraining any ‘handbook’ faces) opens up into a display of generative and rich ideas. Exactly where the ‘cut and dry’ necessity of a text of this kind breaks down, we are treated to an array of interventions and interpretive supplements that carry Levinas scholarship forward in great leaps. Again, Seán Hand’s resituating of Levinas’ works in light of early literary engagements is a delight, as well as Kris Sealey’s far-reaching discussion of Levinas’s contributions to critical race theory (which I will discuss further below). Moreover, not a single contribution in this section fails to illuminate and extend the possibilities of scholarship—from more traditional surveys of the possibilities of attending to philosophical thought within other domains of academic inquiry, such as psychology (David M. Goodman and Eric R. Severson), law (William H. Smith) and Levinas’ comments on war (Joshua Shaw), as well as his contributions to pedagogy (Claire Elise Katz), film (Colin Davis), and his use of food metaphors (Benjamin Aldes Wurgraft).

Similarly, Kevin Houser’s attempt to position Levinas across the Continental-Analytical divide is admirable. This is similar to Morgan’s attempts himself to have Levinas’ work placed in proximity to Bernard Williams, Charles Taylor, Christine Korsgaard, Stanley Cavell and others. In this piece, Houser finds Levinas speak to concerns of linguistic objectification embedded in the notion of reason as metaphysics against which he poses what he calls the ‘absolute interlocutor.’ He extends this discussion by placing him in conversation with P.F. Strawson on freedom and resentment. Houser’s claim is that “de-facing reason,” and not “reason itself as the practice of de-facing generalization,” is what is at issue in Levinas’s work. However, perhaps Houser’s reading can come off as reductive given that he seems not to be willing to take his own critical stance as far as Levinas would. That ultimately an analytical account of reason is valorized through a complementary reading of Levinas and Strawson would also be a grounding condition for the possibility of such reconciliation between reason and the face of the Other. Yet, this is something Levinas seems consistently to reject, and why Houser must work so hard to reconcile the positions in the first place; the position of reason itself with the positioning of a refusal of reason (not merely an ‘unreasonable’ or even ‘pre-rational’ stance).

Houser’s final discussion regarding the generalizability of ‘reason’—as something that is specifically not my reason, but a reason (p. 604)—bears many possibilities to build from, perhaps also anticipating a challenge to Levinas by deconstructionist linguistics. One can also imagine such a reading figuring importantly into the prefiguration of Otherwise than Being, which seems to bear out the not-yet-subject specifically in light of the pre-existence of language in the demand to speak as ‘giving reasons’ (see Baring, Coe and of course Bernasconi’s chapters). It also helps to reconcile how, for example, in Oona Eisenstadt’s chapter, she finds Levinas capable of saying that three rabbis in the Talmud—Ben Zoma, Ben Nanus and Ben Pazi—can offer three different answers to the question, “which verse contains the whole of the Torah?” where each will make a different universal claim as a manner of expanding upon the last (p. 462). Nevertheless, it would seem that the reason-and-objectivity oriented language of analytical thought does not prepare one to bear out this tension between the particular and the general in a way that is non-totalizing; it answers the question of responsibility rather than responding to it. As such, it substitutes the sphere of representational description in place of the vocative dimensions of language as address. In the end, even capturing the dialogical subject in relation to the absolute interlocutor, one is still speaking about language as if no one else is there, a sort of monological ‘dialogue,’ lest the reason they give may be contradicted. The Other seems to have faded into the background.

I would like to address, though, a potential drawback of the handbook. What is at times a lack of much needed general study of Levinas’ engagements not merely with particular thinkers—both predecessors and contemporaries, if not friends but fields of scholarship—can often leave the reader without proper orientation. No doubt, the task of presenting an exhaustive groundwork specifically for Anglo-American scholarship is at best aspirational, and to his credit, Morgan himself identifies certain oversights in the handbook that should be noted. In terms of groundworks, he rightly mentions that the handbook would have benefited from contributions that survey Levinas’s engagements with foundational Jewish thinkers from Maimonides to Buber and Rosenzweig. There is also no specific account of Levinas’s debts to Russian literature. Finally, general overviews of both Levinas’s situation within French thought broadly from the 1930s to the 60s would have been extremely helpful to orient readers, even if they still find much needed context especially in Kevin Hart’s discussion of the relationship between he and Blanchot, and Edward Baring’s account of his encounters with Derrida. This is so as well for the absence of a general account of Levinas’s predecessors ‘at large,’ although one is able to orient themselves with texts on Husserl (Bettina Bergo), Heidegger (Michael Fagenblat), as well as Platonic or Aristotelian thought (Tanja Staehler), early modern thought (Inga Römer), and the German Idealists (Martin Shuster).

There are other oversights that a large reference text is especially beholden to ensure don’t go unnoticed that we might categorize as ‘essential additions’ to these groundworks. Increasingly important is a critical appraisal of eurocentrism and colonialism. It would also be imperative to outline Levinas’ reading of the Torah on ‘Cities of Refuge,’ something only tangentially touched upon by Annabel Herzog in her daring discussion of Levinas and Zionism.  One might argue that Levinas’s statements on the State of Israel in particular are critical for understanding some of the most recent explorations of a sort of Levinasian cosmopolitanism—especially where it intersects with Jacques Derrida’s (1999) explorations on the issue (and because it would seem Derrida’s encounter with the notion of cosmopolitanism is in large part due to their relationship). This is perhaps a particularly difficult oversight to reconcile because, as Morgan notes, readers of Levinas “…are drawn to him by the centrality of his insight that our responsibilities to others are infinite. To them, Levinas is the philosopher of the dispossessed, the displaced, the refugee, the impoverished, the suffering, and the hungry. He is the spokesperson for the weak and the oppressed; his philosophy, for all its difficulty and obscurity, in the end speaks to our most humane and caring sentiments” (pp. 4-5). Unfortunately, these concrete engagements are conspicuously absent in the handbook.

Kris Sealey has the sizeable task, then, of orienting readers looking for critical responses to Levinas relating to Eurocentrism, colonialism, and theories of race and racism. In that measure, Sealey does a spectacular job finding inroads between Levinas with both critical race and postcolonial scholars including Paul Gilroy, Orlando Patterson, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Michael Monahan. She also performs such an important task of bridging scholarship on critical race theory and Levinas studies by focusing her discussion on a review of literatures published in the 2012 volume of Levinas Studies contending with race, which included contributions from  Lisa Guenther, Oona Eisenstadt (also present in this handbook), John Drabinski and Simone Drichel.

Sealey’s contribution, though, may also give pause especially insofar as there remain some crucial tensions in her work with Levinas’s. Particularly, she draws her conclusions in a way that notions of race are ‘reified’ not on biological but communal and relational grounds that are perhaps difficult to square with Levinas’ statements on the ‘nudity of the face’—as much as they are in tension with Paul Gilroy’s (2000) rejection of both biological and cultural formations of ‘race.’ Sealey’s turn toward Michael Monahan seems to authorize the possibility that, “we can be against racism without being against race” (p. 653 n. 41). The statement from which this note arises is quite important, and perhaps should be quoted at length:

In an important sense, a creolizing subjectivity bears witness to her rootedness in the world, insofar as she is constituted by the ways of that world. But, as creolizing, she also bears witness to her transcending of that world, insofar as her antiracist praxis will invariably be an active contestation of the meaning of race. In other words, she is both obliged to her materiality and positioned to take a critical stance against that materiality as well. That critical stance calls for a vigilance that never ends, lest she succumbs to the inertia of a purity politics and the racist structures for which it codes. Might we not see, in this, echoes of what Levinas calls for in “The Philosophy of Hitlerism”? Is this not a recognition of incarnation (of one’s rootedness in, or entanglement with, history) without the essentialization and stagnation of biological determinism? (p. 644)

Here we might identify a key contention—the ground for what may be a generative controversy in the transposition of Levinas’ thought to an Anglo-American context. Levinas’ contention against the ideology of Hitlerism is not reducible to its relation exclusively to biologism, but speaks to a desire to escape the very notion of ‘incarnation’ itself (see Eaglestone, Fagenblat, and Giannopoulos’s chapters). Hitlerism itself is not exclusively a biologist ideology; rather it binds a notion of spirit with the materiality of the ‘body as much as it fetishizes that body as the material symbol of ‘racial purity,’ or the ‘spirit of a people,’ as an incarnation—the becoming-flesh of spirit. It’s not clear if any notion of identity, not even one proposed to be hybridized, socially and historically determined, or relational escapes this logic. One might point out how Sealey’s creolizing subject, recognizing their rootedness and transcendence, isn’t necessarily difficult, as both are already coded as positive identifiers in an unambiguous metaphysical structure, even if they contradict one another, and occlude the disruptive primacy of the Other. Being rooted—rather than being imprisoned or entangled—and transcendence—above, beyond, outside of the world—both already speak to their own ideals. But one finds in Levinas’ work instead both a potentially failed desire to escape (On Escape [2003/1982]being an aptly titled expression of this unabiding arrest in his early works), and an uneasy navigation of the rooted interior of identity.

We find further that the not merely biological implications of Hitlerist ideology entails also that—as Annabel Herzog notes of Levinas’ critical stance against the State of Israel—the entrenchment of the ‘Self’ within the soil (as in the Nazi slogan, ‘blood and soil’), and the attachment to land or territory remains also a critical site upon which Levinas rejects this manner of reification. That is, rather than being—or under the pretense that one ‘recognizes themselves to be’—rooted in their world, Levinas finds instead in political practices of justice a certain exilehood on Earth represented in the call of the Other and the asymmetrical responsibility that follows. This grounds the particularity of his claims on Judaism and often against the State of Israel (see below), even when he concedes that an otherwise uncompromising ethic needs account for survival. Thus, there remains a tension between justice and survival that is not comfortably set aside in order to commend one’s being ‘rooted in their transcendence,’ but always uneasily attested to as the disruptive and traumatic condition upon which a foundational ethics preceding ontology, an ‘ethics without ground’ which refuses to appeal to the world and the comfort of being rooted in it is asserted.

We might fashion two contrapuntal examples of scholarship that refuse these dynamics in the extremely careful readings offered by Annabel Herzog on Levinas’s relation to Zionism and Cynthia Coe’s feminist analysis of his works. Herzog has quite admirably explored a controversy well beyond even the scope of the academy by contending squarely with Levinas’s writings on Zionism in relation to his conceptions of ethics and politics. Even in the form of her analysis we can see a principled refusal to allow her representation of him to be anything other than embroiled in a complex set of concerns, where she presents first his defense, and then his criticism of the State of Israel. Of the former, it would seem that Levinas finds in the State of Israel the every-present possibility—a particularist possibility for Judaism—for the concrete actualization of his ethical ideal as justice. Such a state could make an ethic of dialogical solidarity, refusal of violence, and refuge for the Other practically real. It is also one that merges these ideals with the enduring need for survival following the Holocaust. Perhaps this rendering bears similarities to Sealey’s account of a creolizing subject.

On the other hand, though, the State of Israel is also always in a position to reject or neglect these ideals; where notions of space and place are re-instituted in the territory, in the very soil, or where the Other is banished from that territory. This is much like Sealey’s comment that valorizations of the logic of ‘race’ demands constant vigilance lest one find themselves once again under the inertia, and in the realm of a politics of purity. Herzog cites a telling instance in which Levinas refused to leave the tour bus while attending a conference on Martin Buber after hearing that Bedouin communities in Be’er-Sheva were required to burn their tents to be eligible to receive stone houses from the government (p. 478).[ii] She follows this tension up until the events of the First Lebanon War, and the Sabra and Shatila massacres in 1982 when his statements on the matter of Israel become dispersed and infrequent, even if he does not waver in his defense by the time of his 1986 interview with Francois Poirié. It would seem, in this case, that the vigilance Sealey advises, and the enduring possibility of ‘purity politics’ reemerging finds a real example in Levinas’s subsequent silence. But leaving this possibility open seems already to speak to the need to refuse attenuation of a Levinasian ethic in the first place both in practice, and in the theoretical refusal of ‘rootedness’ or ‘incarnation.’

Cynthia Coe’s reading of Levinas is equally nuanced in its ability to balance a careful analysis of his works with an unwavering commitment to feminist scholarship. This is so even where she marks a delineation between—and within—texts of his that represent heterocentric and masculinist presumptions in his philosophy, and where concepts and arguments are coded in gendered language, while also being potentially capable of disrupting those structures. Particularly early Levinas (as Simone de Beauvoir attests regarding Time and the Other) seems to find ground for a narrative framework where a masculine protagonist is compelled to depart from totality. He does so by situating him in the dichotomy of a conception of the feminine as inessential and inabsolute alterity to a totalizing and interiorized masculine counterpart.

However, in this, and especially in her reading of Otherwise than Being, there remains a seed from which the disruption of this framework is enacted or can be enacted. Firstly, the reversal of values in Levinas’s work—rejecting totality in favour of a more ambiguous infinity, and subsequently masculinity for the feminine—begins this process, if in a way that remains deeply flawed. Secondly, Levinas’s subject is increasingly characterized, even by the time of Totality and Infinity, by events and experiences that are wildly outside of their control, not least of which is the face to face encounter with the Other. Thus, the notion of a masculine subjectivity ‘always in control’ is undone by their vulnerability to the Other. Finally, in Otherwise than Being, Levinas begins with the incomplete subject, one who is subjected to a responsibility primordial to themselves, before themselves as a traumatic disruption Coe also terms vulnerability. As well, she finds in Levinas (without romanticizing) the possibility that a mother might pass away in childbirth to be an expression of vulnerability which demands one reckons with a responsibility that interrupts their self-possession. This, by the way, is rendered also in Giannopolous’s discussion of Levinas and transcendence in terms of ‘paternity’; where one—coded as the ‘father’ in this case—must reckon with the birth of their child as “a way of being other while being oneself” (p. 230).[iii]

Potential tensions one might identify in one or another contribution are perhaps another way of branching some key difficulties the handbook faces on a structural level with its own self-contextualization. Morgan identifies the handbook as being a resource specifically for Anglo-American scholarship on Levinas—perhaps because in English-speaking contexts globally, or in the European context, Anglophone philosophy is already in proximity to Francophone and multi-lingual continental thought to ignore it. However, the reductive potential of such a translation—not merely into an English idiom, but into an Anglo-American one—seems to allow the possibility that conclusions like Housers’s which valorize rather than critique a notion of reason, and Sealey’s which affirms rather than contending with the logical structures of race, find little response in other places in the handbook. Morgan should be lauded for gathering together a diverse array of scholars from many backgrounds, even when he already notes that most are located in North America. It is also, perhaps, not feasible to engage a global scope of scholarship for a project like this. However, the implications of a foundational reference-work bearing such absences are reflected in the non-universal dialogue that manifests itself within its pages.

Even with these problems in view, there is no doubt that The Oxford Handbook of Levinas makes an important contribution to scholarship in the diversity and richness of its philosophical engagements, and in the explorations and controversies attested to. If it is any indication, studies of the profound works of Emmanuel Levinas are likely to continue, and perhaps even to expand in new and unforeseen ways. If so, this handbook will stand as a testament and signpost for all those looking to enter the field.

References

Derrida, Jacques. 1999. Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas. Translated by Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.

Gilroy, Paul. 2000. Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Levinas, Emmanuel. 2003. On Escape. Translated by Bettina Bergo. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

———. 2009. Carnets de captivité suivi de Écrits sur la captivité et Notes philosophiques diverses. Edited by Rodolphe Calin and Catherine Chalier. Paris: Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle, IMEC Éditeur.

———. 2011. Parole et silence, Et autres conferences inédites. Edited by Rodolphe Calin et Catherine Chalier. Paris: Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle, IMEC Éditeur.

———. 2011 [1961]. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

———. 2013. Éros, littérature et philosophie: Essais romanesques et poétiques, notes philosophiques sur le thème d’éros, Edited by Jean-Luc Nancy and Danielle Cohen-Levinas. Paris: Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle, IMEC Éditeur.

———. 2016 [1981]. Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

Malka, Salomon. 2006. Emmanuel Levinas: His Life and Legacy. Translated by Michael Kigel and Sonia M. Embree. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

Morgan, Michael L. 2007. Discovering Levinas (2007). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 2011. The Cambridge Introduction to Emmanuel Levinas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 2016. Levinas’s Ethical Politics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press

Morgan, Michael L. ed. 2019. Oxford Handbook of Levinas. Oxford University Press.


[i] Emmanuel Levinas, 2009, Carnets de captivité suivi de Écrits sur la captivité et Notes philosophiques diverses, ed. Rodolphe Calin and Catherine Chalier, (Paris: Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle, IMEC Éditeur). Emmanuel Levinas, 2013, Éros, littérature et philosophie: Essais romanesques et poétiques, notes philosophiques sur le thème d’éros, ed. Jean-Luc Nancy and Danielle Cohen-Levinas, (Paris: Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle, IMEC Éditeur). These two texts were issued as part of a (currently) three-part collection by publishing house, Éditions Grasset, of the complete works of Levinas. The other volume gathers early lectures given at the invitation of jean Wahl to the Collège Philosophique. See: Emmanuel Levinas, 2011, Parole et silence, Et autres conferences inédites, ed. Rodolphe Calin et Catherine Chalier, (Paris: Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle, IMEC Éditeur).

[ii] This anecdote was quoted from: Salomon Malka, 2006, Emmanuel Levinas: His Life and Legacy, trans. Michael Kigel and Sonia M. Embree, (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press): p. 217.

[iii] The passage is a quotation from: Emmanuel Levinas, 1969, Totality and Infinity, trans. Alphonso Lingis, (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press): p. 282.

Cynthia D Coe (Ed.): The Palgrave Handbook of German Idealism and Phenomenology, Palgrave Macmillan, 2021

The Palgrave Handbook of German Idealism and Phenomenology Book Cover The Palgrave Handbook of German Idealism and Phenomenology
Cynthia D Coe (Ed.)
Palgrave Macmillan
2021
Hardback 187,19 €
XIII, 774

Johan de Jong: The Movement of Showing: Indirect Method, Critique, and Responsibility in Derrida, Hegel, and Heidegger

The Movement of Showing: Indirect Method, Critique, and Responsibility in Derrida, Hegel, and Heidegger Book Cover The Movement of Showing: Indirect Method, Critique, and Responsibility in Derrida, Hegel, and Heidegger
SUNY series in Contemporary French Thought
Johan de Jong
SUNY Press
2020
Paperback $33.95
386

Reviewed by: Sarah Horton (Boston College)

Johan de Jong’s The Movement of Showing opens with the observation that “Hegel, Heidegger, and Derrida consistently characterize their thought in terms of a development, movement, or pathway, rather than in terms of positions, propositions, or conclusions” (xix). In other words, they do not stake out a definite position that they defend against all comers; rather, they call attention to the movement that carries us beyond each apparently fixed position that a work might seem to present. Indeed, not only do they not aim to delineate a fixed, complete, and fully consistent position, they regard such a delineation as impossible, so noting that they fail to accomplish it does not suffice as a criticism of them. Readers, or would-be readers, of Derrida in particular often stop here, dismissing his work as so much nonsensical relativism. De Jong instead asks how we are to understand this movement that resists any fixed position and how we might critique it without taking it for a failed attempt to establish a fixed position. These questions, which de Jong addresses in an admirably nuanced fashion that makes this book well worth reading, ultimately point us to questions about justice and responsibility.

Thus we as readers find ourselves confronted with the question of what it means to read de Jong’s text responsibly. How do we engage with the impossibility of reducing it to a single determinate position about the three philosophers – G.W.F. Hegel, Martin Heidegger, and Jacques Derrida – with which it primarily deals? For what is here called a “movement” must exceed de Jong’s stated positions as it exceeds theirs. Asking “how such a discourse of movement can be understood and criticized,” he maintains that “answering this question does not, as some may think, itself require indirectness, textual extravagance, or a poeticization of philosophical method (even though these cannot in principle be excluded from the realm of philosophical efficacy)” (xxii). What, though, does it mean to say that answering a question does or does not require indirectness? “Indirectness” is the word de Jong has chosen to name the “undercutting gesture” by which “Derrida’s claims and conclusions are invariably repeated, reversed, retracted, contradicted, visibly erased, or otherwise implicitly or explicitly complicated” according to the movement that cannot be contained within any fully determined position (xxii). Yet if indeed thought itself cannot be thus contained – if any position that one might suppose to be fully determined in fact always already undercuts itself – then it is less a matter of indirectness being required than of indirectness being impossible to avoid, at least in implicit form, no matter how hard one tries. De Jong’s style does differ considerably from Derrida’s; readers who regard Derrida’s style, or styles, as obfuscatory should not be able to make the same complaint about de Jong’s, and if they read The Movement of Showing they ought, moreover, to come away with a better understanding of why Derrida wrote as he did. That said, de Jong implicitly recognizes that indirectness is also at work in his own book when he writes that “the very term ‘indirect’ is itself also not the adequate, definite, final or right word for what is investigated here” (xxii). I will return, at the conclusion of this review, to the question of indirectness in de Jong’s text. For the moment, let us note that the impossibility of finding any “adequate, definite, final or right word” will be a recurring theme throughout, and it is one that we must bear in mind when reading any text, whether a book by Derrida, The Movement of Showing, or, for that matter, this review. At the same time, we cannot escape words, however inadequate and indefinite they may be, nor should we desire to – and the joint impossibility and undesirability of such an escape will prove central to ethical responsibility.

Part I, “Sources of Derrida’s Indirectness,” examines, with remarkable nuance and precision, Derrida’s manner of writing. In chapter 1, De Jong begins by arguing that, contrary to what some commentators have supposed on the basis of certain of Derrida’s more direct assertions, Derrida does not and cannot offer a theory of language. Readers of Of Grammatology at times make the mistake of deriving a theory of language from it, which they then attribute to Derrida, according to which speech, traditionally considered superior to writing because of its immediacy, is in fact just as mediated as writing and should therefore be understood as arche-writing, or writing in a more general sense of the term. Derrida’s point, however, is that this theory is already in Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics, Saussure’s intentions to the contrary notwithstanding. Taking it as Derrida’s theory fails to understand that there can be no definitive theory of language. Arche-writing is not writing understood more broadly, as if we could fully understand language once we worked out the proper definition of “writing”; rather, it marks the impossibility of attaining some ideal meaning that would be unmediated and fully present. Derrida does not offer a theory, explains de Jong, but seeks rather to show the movement that reveals the limits of all theories, even as they try to present themselves as complete.

Readers of Derrida who recognize that neither he nor anyone else can offer a complete and consistent theory of language often interpret him as an opponent of metaphysics, but de Jong shows in chapter 2 that this interpretation also fails. There is no way out of metaphysics, and Derrida does not propose to offer one. Seeking to overcome metaphysics is itself metaphysical, for any attempt to get outside metaphysics already depends on metaphysics to define itself. What is more, the history of metaphysics is the history of this attempted overcoming. Questioning metaphysics is not, therefore, a matter of opposition, and this questioning even calls itself into question precisely because any attempt to think metaphysics necessarily occurs within the language of metaphysics. That theories are limited in no way entails that we can step outside or overcome their limits.

Having demonstrated the problems with certain popular interpretations of Derrida’s texts – that he offers a theory of language and that he calls for the overcoming of metaphysics – de Jong asks, in chapter 3, whether Derrida can be justified. If Derrida argues that all positions are incomplete and undo themselves, then pointing to omissions or inconsistencies in his work hardly serves to refute him, but it is equally unclear what grounds one might find to justify a work that disclaims the very attempt to produce a complete and consistent position – and de Jong insists that Derrida’s would-be defenders must recognize the latter point just as much as the former. It is not that Derrida makes a virtue of mere contradiction, as if one ought to embrace inconsistency itself as final and definitive. But de Jong emphasizes that “Derrida cannot be completely safeguarded against the accusations from which his works must nevertheless be tirelessly distinguished” (76). Derrida is not the mere relativist that he has often been accused of being, and yet “the risk of assimilation and supposed misreading is not an extrinsic one, but intrinsic to the operation of deconstruction” (78). There is a real sense, therefore, in which Derrida cannot be justified – which is not to say that his work can be dissociated from justice (a point to which de Jong will return). De Jong warns us against the “reassurance mechanism” that consists in saying, “Never mind [Derrida’s] critics; they clearly haven’t read the texts” (78). The point is apt, but I suggest that one might ask the critics whether they have read their own texts. For a more careful reading might show them that misreading and reading can never be neatly separated; nor, for that matter, can writing and what one might call miswriting. As deconstruction operates within any text, it is not only Derrida’s texts that cannot be safeguarded from any possibility of misreading – and this point is one that merits greater emphasis than de Jong gives it in this chapter. He rightly points out what he calls the vulnerability of Derrida’s texts, at the risk of suggesting that Derrida’s texts are unusually vulnerable. Still, Part I is an excellent reading of Derrida, and since reading and misreading cannot be disentangled, there is no way to exclude every possible misinterpretation. De Jong’s argument that Derrida does not call us to overcome metaphysics, as if going beyond metaphysics were possible, is a particularly valuable contribution to the literature.

De Jong now turns to Hegel in Part II and then to Heidegger in Parts III and IV. Since Derrida cannot be outside the metaphysical tradition, his relation to Hegel and Heidegger cannot consist, as it has often been thought to do, in rejecting them as still too metaphysical. This reexamination of Hegel and Heidegger thus follows from the analysis in Part I, and it shows that they are rather less different from Derrida than they are generally imagined to be – without, however, assimilating them into a single position. All three thinkers reveal the limits of any thought that seeks to establish a fixed position, while they also recognize that we cannot step outside or beyond the limits of thought itself.

Part II, “Movement and Opposition,” begins with the argument, in chapter 4, that for Hegel as for Derrida, philosophical questioning cannot itself be detached from its object. Indeed, de Jong writes that “Hegel is the first philosopher to explicitly locate the aforementioned entanglement right at the heart of the philosophical enterprise” (85). It is for this reason that philosophy cannot arrive at a conclusive end to its investigations: philosophy is always investigating itself. Hegelian dialectic is often interpreted to mean that philosophy will progressively free itself from its own limits and reach Absolute Knowing, a final position in which alterity is no more, and Derrida’s own readings of Hegel have fueled this misconception. Through a consideration of the development of Hegel’s thought, de Jong shows that Hegel does not propose that philosophy’s movement can or should be brought to a halt. Precisely because the absolute is not the cessation of movement, “Hegel’s ‘absolute’ idealism must be interpreted as an affirmation of the limits of reflection” (121): reflection does not transcend its limits but is carried along within them, and it is within its limits that it finds itself haunted by the alterity that can never be made fully present.

What, though, of Derrida’s own readings of Hegel, in which Derrida seems to regard Hegel as an opponent of alterity and himself as an opponent of Hegel? De Jong turns to this question in chapter 5 and argues, without denying the differences between the two philosophers, that Derrida’s relation to Hegel is not, and cannot be, one of simple opposition. In any case, opposition is never simple, since the sides of a dichotomy are necessarily dependent on each other to the very extent that they are defined by their opposition. What is more, Derrida offers multiple readings of Hegel – or, to put it another way, the name “Hegel” does not stand for the same figure every time it appears in his texts. At times, as for instance in “Tympan,” it does stand for a figure who seeks to eliminate the risk posed by negativity or alterity – but “Tympan” is less a supposedly definitive reading of Hegel and more an attempt “to stage a confrontation of philosophy with that in which the philosopher would not recognize himself, not so foreign to philosophy as to leave it undisturbed, and not so close to philosophy as to do no more than repeat it” (134). It is, in short, an attempt to call attention to philosophy’s limits so that it will not mistake itself for the final, complete answer. Derrida’s target is not Hegel but a complacent Hegelianism that believes that all that is worthwhile is, or at least can be, subjected to its comprehension. Reading “Hors livres, préfaces” in Derrida’s Dissemination, de Jong finds that Derrida first describes the Hegel of Hegelianism before coming to the Hegel who is a thinker of movement and of difference – a Hegel who is not Derrida but in whom Derrida finds a “point of departure” (149) that is not simply the basis for opposition. Or, as de Jong puts it, “Derrida needs Hegel’s ‘speculative dialectics’ as a point of contrast, but he is aware that Hegel cannot be reduced to those terms. […] The more radical [sic] Derrida presents himself as moving beyond Hegel, the more emphatically his allegiance to Hegel is reaffirmed” (151). Derrida needs Hegel because of how Hegel can be read and misread: the thinker of movement who has been misinterpreted as a thinker of overly definitive absolutism is a fitting interlocutor for another writer who, precisely because he is also a thinker of movement, is profoundly concerned with questions of interpretation, questions of reading, misreading, and the complex interplay thereof. Indeed, one should not suppose that reading and misreading are independent and readily distinguishable – a point implicit in de Jong’s insistence on the impossibility of safeguarding Derrida from misreadings.

Part III, “Heidegger: The Preservation of Concealment,” reads Heidegger’s Being and Time and Contributions to Philosophy (Of the Event) in order to explore the theme of indirectness in Heidegger. In chapter 6, considering Heidegger’s criticisms of the language of Being and Time, de Jong argues that the problem was not that the language of Being and Time failed by remaining too much within metaphysics, nor can the Kehre be understood as a turn to looking for a language that would adequately say being. Rather, the language of Being and Time was, in Heidegger’s later view, insufficiently attentive to the inevitability of a certain failure, and Heidegger came to seek “a language that would take into account, recognize, and preserve a certain necessary failure-to-say with respect to (the question of) being” (156). This language would still be metaphysical since the overcoming of metaphysics is itself metaphysical, but it would strive to reveal the very impossibility of finding a location outside metaphysics from which to philosophize. Already in Being and Time questioning is no straightforward matter, however: that Dasein questions being from within being is crucial to the book – an obvious point in itself, but what has been neglected is that the middle and late Heidegger’s works, including those written post-Kehre, therefore represent not a break with his early thought but a deepening of themes and problems that were in play from the start.

Chapter 7 pursues this analysis via a reading of the Contributions. De Jong emphasizes that the forgetfulness of being is neither a problem that can be solved nor an error that can be fixed. Heidegger’s goal is not and cannot be to overcome this forgetfulness but is “to recognize and preserve that forgetfulness as such, or interpret it originally” (200). Indeed, overcoming the forgetfulness, as though it could be left behind, would amount to forgetting it again. What is essential is that we strive not to forget the forgetfulness, that we strive to recognize the limits of thought – which is precisely not stepping beyond them as if they could become negligeable. This recognition, moreover, is a movement that never becomes a completed process.

Part IV, “Of Derrida’s Heideggers,” shows that Derrida’s relation to Heidegger, like his relation to Hegel, is not simply a matter of opposition. In Derrida’s texts, the name “Heidegger” is no more univocal than the name “Hegel.” Chapter 8 explores this complex relation through a reading of Derrida’s Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles. The key point is that Heidegger’s reading of Nietzsche risks closing off the meaning of Nietzsche’s texts by arriving at some result that is then taken as definitive and final, yet Heidegger’s texts cannot themselves be closed off by interpreting them once and for all as the refusal of indirectness and undecidability. And as de Jong observes, “[Derrida] does not make a simple choice between these two Heideggers. The virtue of that undecidability lies in its potential to open the texts of these thinkers and resist reducing them to the content of an unequivocal thesis” (240). This remark also has worthwhile implications for the question of what it might mean to critique Derrida, though de Jong does not make them wholly explicit: that Derrida cannot be reduced to a purveyor of definite theses means that there are multiple Derridas, and a fruitful critique – fruitful in that it would recognize the limits of thought without seeking to go past them – would then be one that draws out this multiplicity rather than presenting a univocal Derrida who is assigned the role of opponent.

Chapter 9, turns, finally, to the question of responsibility. Here the question of critique or justification gives way to the question of justice. De Jong notes that “in the debate about the ‘ethics of deconstruction,’ interpretations have tended to work within a Levinasian framework, which understands ethics primarily with reference to the ‘other.’ That is quite right, but there is a risk if the other is confused with the external” (242). It is worth explicitly noting what is implicit here: that the other in Levinas is not a matter of externality, as alterity would then be one pole of the externality-internality dichotomy and so would fall within totality. In any case, de Jong’s analysis, which emphasizes complicity and proceeds through a reading of Derrida’s Of Spirit, is excellent. De Jong recognizes the indirectness of Derrida’s texts as a gesture of responsibility. What might appear as an irresponsible refusal to be associated with any position, and hence as a withdrawal from potential criticisms, is an attempt to grapple responsibly with the failure of any position – yet it is a responsibility that can never escape its own complicity with those failures. Heidegger’s own complicity has struck many as uniquely grave, and de Jong notes that Derrida does regard Heidegger’s use of the term Geist, in his 1933 rectorial address, as complicit with Nazism. It does not follow, however, that we can purify our own thought by rejecting Heidegger; Derrida himself cautions us against such an attempt to achieve purity. For Heidegger’s complicity with Nazism took place, writes de Jong, “by way of a mechanism or a ‘program’ of complicity and reaffirmation that Derrida himself does not claim to be able to escape. The program itself consists in the very attempt to escape, the thought that one can exceed racism or biologism by elevating oneself above it to a position of reassuring legitimacy” (251). More broadly, the quest for absolute purity cannot be untangled from a drive to declare oneself innocent – that is, not complicit in anything or, to put it another way, not responsible. But “the ‘fact’ that not all forms of complicity are equivalent” (252) does not mean we can avoid complicity, that we can overcome or go beyond it. We are responsible in advance, inescapably responsible, unable to establish a position that would justify us, free us from complicity, and let us relax in the security of non-responsibility. De Jong’s emphasis on complicity ties back to his earlier argument that Derrida’s texts cannot be made safe from misreading. By resisting the opposition between Derrida’s critics and his defenders, de Jong resists the temptation to safeguard thought, thereby reminding us of our limits. It is because we will never be able to present the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, as the saying goes, that we are complicit – which is a call not to despair but to the responsibility that, as de Jong’s The Movement of Showing skillfully reminds us, we cannot evade.

An afterword begins by addressing the question of indirectness in de Jong’s own text, and here he proves a less skillful reader than he did when interpreting Hegel, Heidegger, and Derrida – though his failings are instructive and perhaps unsurprising, given that we cannot escape complicity with the attempt to arrest the movement of showing to arrive at some fixed position. De Jong asks “why, if [he] ha[s] been successful, [his] own exposition will not have displayed the implicit or explicit self-complication that has been [his] theme” (264). One response, which he admits is “facile,” is that “[he] ha[s] set out to do nothing more than to provide a commentary, and to provide a way of reading that goes against certain ideas about how to interpret the work of Hegel, Heidegger, and Derrida. […] There is no reason why that reading could not be explicated unequivocally” (264). Granted, he himself calls this response “facile,” yet that it should be offered at all indicates the durability of the opposition between a commentary and the work commented upon, with the commentary appearing as merely secondary and derivative. Derrida, let us recall, commented on works by Hegel and Heidegger, and as I noted above, de Jong’s own analysis suggests (though without explicitly saying so) that there are multiple Derridas, as there are multiple Hegels and Heideggers. I do not mean to suggest that all Derridas, Hegels, or Heideggers on whom one might comment are equally valid or fruitful. The Derridas, Hegels, and Heideggers whom one encounters in de Jong’s text are remarkably well interpreted, whereas, to take an extreme example, anyone who attempts to read Of Grammatology as a guide to birdwatching is likely to be disappointed. Consider, however, Derrida’s remark in “Des tours de Babel,” concerning translation, that “the original is the first debtor, the first petitioner; it begins by lacking [manquer] – and by pleading for [pleurer après] translation” (Derrida 2007, 207). The so-called original text never stands on its own but is already a translation, is already separated from itself by its inevitable equivocity. Commentary is not exempt from this condition: it is never “nothing more than […] commentary.” De Jong’s writing is clear in that it is easy to follow – easier than Derrida’s, Hegel’s, or Heidegger’s often is – but that does not mean it is univocal. Commentary too is separated from itself – and, moreover, it is a way of translating the so-called original. The texts signed by Hegel, Heidegger, or Derrida call out for commentary because they are not summed up in what they say – nor in what any commentary or translation could say. The commentary and the translation plead as well, and they are not safe from misreading. Whether de Jong’s text displays self-complication and whether it does complicate itself are two different questions, and besides, one might well argue that it does display self-complication precisely by calling our attention to our inevitable complicity.

De Jong offers, as a “more principled answer,” the reply that “an awareness of the performative complexity of philosophical texts does not in itself necessitate a specific style” (265). This answer still tends to assume that self-complication must be blatantly visible as such, but de Jong rightly observes that “it is not a matter of doing away with representation or opposition, nor with the traditional form of an academic treatise. At issue is precisely an ‘inner excess,’ or how in what presents itself as proposition, representation or claim, something more, less, or other than what is ‘posited’ in them is taking place” (265). Indeed. Derrida’s styles are not the only ones in which worthwhile thinking may occur. And as there are multiple Derridas, there are multiple de Jongs, whom this review certainly does not exhaust, and I recommend that anyone interested in Hegel, Heidegger, Derrida, or questions of indirectness more broadly read The Movement of Showing and encounter them for him- or herself. If I have dwelt at some length on the brief and admittedly “facile” response, and if I still reproach the “more principled” response with suggesting, in defense of the book’s clarity, that it is possible to avoid self-complication through the choice of a particular style, it is to highlight a certain complicity with the overly definite and determinate that inevitably accompanies writing. Indirectness cannot, however, simply be opposed to directness, as if one were pure and the other not – a point de Jong does not make explicit but that he could well have. Complicity with the overly definite and determinate is the only way to speak or write at all, and refusing to speak or write out of a desire for purity is an attempt to abdicate responsibility.

Indeed, de Jong in his afterword goes on to observe that “even given the limitations of the propositional form, of representation, and of oppositional determination, it is in and through them that we can and in fact do say more, less, or something else than what is merely ‘contained’ in those determinations” (272). Hence the limits of language are not to be regretted, which is a crucial point. Thus de Jong refuses to take “a negative or skeptical view on language as inadequate or as failing,” calling instead for “a productive view on propositions and claims such that they might carry or co-implicate more than the content that is ‘contained’ in them” (272, emphasis in original). That a text is “lacking,” to recall the above quotation from “Des tours de Babel,” does not mean that it has failed, as though it would have been better for it to lack nothing so that there was no call for translation’s creativity. Complicity does not put an end to creativity – far from it. Because there is no manual telling us precisely how to live out the responsibility by which we are committed in advance, our responses must be creative ones. One of the virtues of The Movement of Showing, though by no means the only one, is that it warns us against considering language—and hence what is expressed through language—a failure because of its limits, and that it points out that language even owes its richness to those very limits. In short, The Movement of Showing is a text that rewards attentive reading, and it makes a valuable contribution to the field.

Reference

Derrida, Jacques. 2007. “Des tours de Babel.” Translated by Joseph F. Graham. In Psyche: Inventions of the Other, vol. 1, edited by Peggy Kamuf and Elizabeth Rottenberg. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Hanne Jacobs (Ed.): The Husserlian Mind, Routledge, 2021

The Husserlian Mind Book Cover The Husserlian Mind
Routledge Philosophical Minds
Hanne Jacobs (Ed.)
Routledge
2021
Hardback £190.00
576

Andrea Staiti: Etica Naturalistica e Fenomenologia

Etica naturalistica e fenomenologia Book Cover Etica naturalistica e fenomenologia
Percorsi
Andrea Staiti
Società editrice il Mulino
2020
Paperback
160

Reviewed by: Roberta De Monticelli (Director of the Research Centre PERSONA; San Raffaele University, Milan)

La teoria dei valori che ci manca

Dialogando con  Andrea Staiti (2020), Etica naturalistica e fenomenologia, Bologna: Il Mulino

 

  1. Tre osservazioni preliminari

La prima cosa da dire è che questo è un bellissimo libro[1]. La seconda, che era un libro necessario, e comincia a riempire una lacuna che i colpevoli ritardi dei fenomenologi, non solo italiani, e fra i più colpevoli quello di chi scrive, avevano lasciato spalancata come un grido di Munch.

Sì, perché non si tratta genericamente di filosofia morale, e neppure specificamente di etica normativa – le quali da almeno una ventina d’anni sono sotto la lente dei fenomenologi, anche se – a mio avviso – in modo ancora troppo esegetico o filologico, o non abbastanza fenomenologico.  Qui si tratta di metaetica, per l’essenziale, e in particolare di metaetica naturalistica, oggi di gran lunga la più gettonata anche fra i non specialisti (si vedano recenti dibattiti anche sul nostro www.phenomenologylab.eu).  E quindi, bene o male, di teoria dei valori: lasciata finora quasi senza interlocuzione proprio dalla fenomenologia, che quasi era nata per parlare di questo! Un vero scandalo, attenuato soltanto dalla presenza di pochi, troppo pochi e ancora troppo iniziali contributi, quasi tutti rigorosamente citati nel testo di Staiti.

Che esagerazione, penserete: la fenomenologia nata per parlare di questo! Ma sì, questa è la terza cosa da dire, prima di entrare in materia. Basta che pensiate ai valori epistemici: chiarezza, evidenza, rigore-scientificità, buona fondazione, verificabilità, conoscenza – e naturalmente avrete tutto ciò di cui anche la più tradizionale e poco immaginativa esposizione della fenomenologia – specie classica, specie poi husserliana – si preoccupa. Ma, tanto per andare più a fondo, e giustificare il mea culpa sui ritardi: penso che un’assiologia fenomenologica sia oggi il più urgente dei nostri bisogni intellettuali, un bisogno teorico ma anche culturale. Questa assiologia fenomenologica da farsi oggi salirà certamente sulle spalle dei suoi classici, ma altrettanto naturalmente dovrà pur discutere con i filosofi contemporanei – specie se condividono almeno implicitamente un impegno verso i valori epistemici, oltre che eventualmente trattarne al livello metateorico, e quindi dovrà tradurre il suo gergo in termini universalmente accessibili, come già sta facendo questo libro eccellente.

Quest’ultima considerazione era necessaria proprio per entrare in materia. Perché mette subito le carte in tavola: non si è mai tanto interessati ai libri quanto se ci si sta occupando proprio delle cose di cui parlano. Perciò questa mia discussione non sarà distaccata o neutrale: avrà sullo sfondo alcune delle tesi che mi stanno a cuore[2]. Non invasivamente spero, perché ora è delle tesi di Andrea Staiti che stiamo parlando. Ma per dare già un’idea di come voglio procedere, espliciterò subito l’essenziale della mia lettura. L’approccio di Andrea Staiti alla metaetica dà tutto quello che si poteva dare sfruttando il versante noetico dell’analisi fenomenologica – fuori dal gergo, il versante della riflessione sugli atti e i vissuti del soggetto, quelli che in terminologia più standard, e pur con una perdita di un dettaglio di informazione, si chiamerebbero stati intenzionali. Ma, come perdiamo contenuti rilevanti di analisi se riflettiamo sul vedere e il guardare senza tener conto delle caratteristiche proprie dei contenuti del visibile, così accade o può accadere se descriviamo i modi della cognizione assiologica – del valutare ad esempio – indipendentemente dai loro oggetti, o meglio dalla “materia” di questi oggetti, i valori: specifici oggetti di un’assiologia “materiale”, che la sua materia desume dal versante noematico dell’analisi, cioè dall’indagine sulla natura dei valori – ovviamente in quanto dati al loro specifico modo d’esperienza.

Procederò quindi affiancando questioni di assiologia materiale – o noematica, o a parte objecti – all’esposizione di alcuni fra i problemi e le soluzioni che Staiti propone, con una importante eccezione nel cap. III, a partire dalle risorse della fenomenologia noetica o a parte subjecti. Solo alla fine di questa disamina potremo capire se la prospettiva noematica è solo complementare rispetto a quella noetica caratteristica di questo libro, o è anche in qualche senso più fondamentale proprio da un punto di vista fenomenologico, ossia quanto alle fonti di evidenza, o riempimento intuitivo, dei principi di un’assiologia fenomenologica. Né nell’una né nell’altra ipotesi il valore della ricerca portata a termine in questo libro ne risulterà minimamente diminuito.

  1. Uno sguardo d’insieme

Cominciamo da uno sguardo sulla strategia generale del libro. Staiti sceglie di non disperdere la nostra attenzione nell’elenco sistematico delle posizioni possibili riguardo a alla questione fondamentale della metaetica, che riguarda l’esistenza e la natura delle proprietà assiologiche, e specificamente morali, posizioni che si dispongono intorno a quello che a partire da Moore (1903, 1964), ma in effetti già da Hume, appare un dilemma: se le proprietà assiologiche sono proprietà reali, che qualificano e modificano la realtà di questo mondo, sembrano perdere la normatività che pure le distingue, nel senso che dettagliano il mondo com’è, e non come dovrebbe essere; ma se vogliamo preservare questa distintiva normatività, dove le metteremo, per così dire, se non in un altro mondo, un mondo di modelli ideali, molto simile alle idee platoniche? In metaetica il “naturalismo” si origina qui, come rigetto più o meno argomentato del dualismo platonico che il secondo corno del dilemma comporta.

Staiti invece ci introduce subito in medias res, attraverso un’agile esposizione delle forme che prende il naturalismo metaetico, e del modo in cui la fenomenologia (come stile e metodo di pensiero filosofico che ha radice nei suoi classici)  si posiziona utilmente nel dibattito, proprio a partire dall’esigenza che in questo dibattito si fa sentire di rendere conto della fenomenologia del discorso morale (p. 21): cosa intendiamo dire quando diciamo che un’azione è sbagliata? Questa prima mossa permette di lasciare da parte, per così dire, quelle posizioni che risultano prima facie irrilevanti al senso e ai riferimenti, quindi alle condizioni di verità, del discorso morale, e fra questi ci sono già alcune delle più classiche e ricorrenti posizioni: quelle del cosiddetto non-cognitivismo, emotivismo ed espressivismo, che da Hume a Ayer a Blackburn e Gibbard  riducono le proprietà assiologiche a stati dei soggetti, in particolare stati emotivi, e i loro giudizi a espressioni di questi stati, e quelle dei fisicalisti che affrontano la questione delle proprietà assiologiche solo per denunciare l’illusorietà dei discorsi morali, riferiti a entità che non esistono – nell’ipotesi che esistano soltanto le entità riconosciute dalla fisica o a queste riducibili. La fenomenologia del discorso morale induce quindi anzitutto a specificare il senso in cui si può essere “naturalisti” in etica: sia accettando la distinzione fra naturalismo scientifico e naturalismo “liberalizzato” (De Caro 2013), che si riduce al requisito assai modesto di non ammettere entità che violino apertamente le leggi naturali (come gli interventi “divini”, in una forma piuttosto rude di teologia miracolistica o magica), sia accettando una parte dell’argomento mooriano secondo cui le proprietà assiologiche sono indefinibili nei termini di quelle naturali (Cuneo 2007, Crisp 2011).

Il cap. I ha così istruito la questione che occuperà, sotto prospettive complementari, gli altri tre capitoli: come render conto del rapporto fra proprietà naturali e proprietà assiologiche, in modo da rendere ragione, da una parte, all’esigenza del naturalismo (liberalizzato) che valutazioni e giudizi portino su fatti di questo mondo e non di un altro, e d’altra parte, al requisito di apriorità che la stessa “fenomenologia del discorso morale” ci presenta come inaggirabile? Perché se affermiamo che la tortura è inammissibile, noi riteniamo che la verità di questa tesi non dipenda certo dall’induzione empirica, che al contrario ci mostra la tortura praticata e impunita in molti luoghi della terra. Staiti intende mostrare che la fenomenologia (questa volta nel senso dello stile di pensiero e del metodo filosofico che portano questo nome) ha risorse per suggerire risposte illuminanti a questa questione, rispettivamente: dal punto di vista epistemologico (Cap. II), dove si mette a fuoco la nozione di intuizione morale in un utile confronto con Robert Audi; dal punto di vista ontologico (Cap. III), dove la relazione di sopravvenienza delle proprietà assiologiche su quelle naturali, tirata in direzioni diverse da naturalisti e anti-naturalisti per sottolineare rispettivamente la riducibilità e l’irriducibilità delle prime alle seconde, viene ad essere inclusa come caso particolare di Fundierung, o vincolo di (co)variazione fra parti dipendenti di un intero. Un bel risultato, perché la teoria husserliana degli interi e delle parti (III Ricerca Logica) è l’ossatura ontologico-formale di tutta la fenomenologia, e la misura della sua generalità e insieme della sua precisione analitica in quanto, potremmo dire (ma il termine non è di Staiti), teoria delle varietà apparenti, cioè di ogni possibile scenario concreto.   Infine, armato di questa doppia strumentazione epistemologica e ontologica, Staiti offre nel IV e ultimo capitolo una lettura squisitamente noetica del famoso Open Question Argument (OQA) di Moore, ovvero della ragione ultima per resistere alla naturalizzazione delle proprietà assiologiche. Riassumo informalmente: non è affatto l’idealità, cioè in definitiva il contenuto normativo della proprietà assiologica, a sfuggire alla sua definizione in termini di proprietà naturali, che lasciano sempre aperta la domanda decisiva (supponiamo che il bene sia il piacevole: ora questo caso di piacevolezza è anche cosa buona?). No: ma è, in definitiva, la sua vuotezza! E’ il fatto che ogni, come oggi diremmo, impegno assiologico (x è generoso, coraggioso, temperante) deve ancora ottenere un “riempimento intuitivo” adeguato, esemplare (“questa è quella che chiamiamo un’azione generosa!” – “questo è quello che chiamiamo un buon coltello!”) perché la proposizione assiologica in questione abbia anche solo la possibilità di essere vera. In altri termini, l’OQA misura semplicemente la differenza fra l’atto di comprensione “vuota” della qualità intesa, e l’atto (potremmo dire: l’incontro) che offre, in tutta la sua ricchezza descrittiva e tipizzabile, la cosa stessa come era intesa ancora non intuitivamente, non data in carne ed ossa, nella posizione assiologica.

  1. Analisi di temi per capitoli. A partire dalla conclusione, Capitolo IV

Cominciamo dalla fine, ma solo per dare la direzione della riflessione e poi affrontare nel merito una minuscola scelta degli argomenti di questo libro breve ma molto denso. Possiamo notare due cose: da un lato la sorprendente generalità della conclusione, che in definitiva sembra risultare valida per qualunque tipo di proposizione, ad esempio botanica o geometrica (pensate ai solidi platonici, e alla differenza fra saperne le definizioni e visualizzarli) o di teoria musicale o di tecnica alpinistica.  Ma questa generalità si ottiene al prezzo di dismettere come irrilevante l’angoscia quasi “munchiana” della Domanda Aperta di Moore, più formalmente quell’eccedenza dell’ideale sul reale – quel possibile sguardo su altri mondi che l’ideale, l’utopico, comportano;  insomma, quella loro possibile, caratteristica opposizione che i filosofi hanno sempre a loro modo concettualizzato, a partire dalla classica teoria di Platone del bene “al di là dell’essere”, epekeinas tes ousias. Quell’opposizione che ha in effetti del paradossale, perché è proprio l’esperienza di situazioni in cui non c’è giustizia, o in cui c’è positiva ingiustizia, che ci fa “vedere” cosa sia giustizia. C’è un sapore specifico dell’assiologico che si perde in questa conclusione.

  1. Sopravvenienza o fondazione. Capitolo III

Ma dall’altro lato possiamo apprezzare la coerenza e linearità dell’intero discorso, che riesce a sdrammatizzare l’opposizione fra due realismi, quello naturalistico e quello metafisico e dualistico dei non-naturalisti (Shafer Landau (2006), Enoch (2011), ma prima di loro Tommaso d’Aquino e il giusnaturalismo classico) “stemperandolo” prima nell’appello fenomenologico all’esperienza (Cap. II), che ci riporta a un confronto serrato proprio fra teorie della percezione (della natura dell’atto percettivo); e poi riassorbendo, per così dire, nella teoria degli atti perfino il problema della relazione fra proprietà reali o fattuali e proprietà assiologiche (Cap. III). Questo problema infatti, che i filosofi analitici nostri interlocutori risolvono in termini di sopravvenienza, viene affrontato da Staiti a partire dal “versante ‘soggettivo’ che ci è ormai familiare” (p. 100). In realtà, suggerisce Staiti, il mistero della sopravvenienza, o se preferite il dilemma della metaetica, si risolve a partire dalla teoria husserliana, tutta noetica, della fondazione degli atti non oggettivanti (emotivi e volitivi) sugli atti oggettivanti (percezioni e giudizi). E così anche la fondazione o non indipendenza, anzi proprio la fondazione unitaria o non indipendenza di ciascuna delle parti relativamente alle parti stesse e all’intero, questo potentissimo strumento analitico capace di descrivere con precisione estrema, come scrive Husserl, “ciò che tiene insieme tutte le cose […] i rapporti di fondazione”[3] (il dono dei vincoli, per così dire) – si riconduce a quel caso particolare che sarebbe la fondazione degli atti non oggettivanti sui quelli oggettivanti. Ma questo caso particolare, che governa la vita della coscienza, mi chiedo, è veramente più fondamentale delle fondazioni che scopriamo nelle cose stesse, nei fatti e nel loro rapporto coi valori? Non sarà anche qui, come dovunque in fenomenologia, la natura delle cose stesse a prescrivere il tipo di cognizione che le cose richiedono, e quindi a decidere anche della correttezza delle riflessioni noetiche? E perché mai, se no, aprire un capitolo nuovo e straordinario dell’ontologia formale fenomenologica, la teoria della varietà apparenti ovvero la mereologia (io la chiamo piuttosto olologia) husserliana? Intendiamoci, e Staiti lo sa bene, la teoria della ragione, cioè dei nessi motivazionali che legano gli atti, fa della fenomenologia della coscienza husserliana una teoria dell’esperienza sotto la “giurisdizione della ragione”, appunto, e non una semplice psicologia. Ma appunto: se questa teoria della ragione fosse sufficiente a descrivere con fedeltà lo specifico tipo di richieste poste ai soggetti dalla natura delle cose stesse (in quanto oggetti DATI nei modi in cui lo SONO, ovviamente), che bisogno ci sarebbe di una teoria della realtà oltre la teoria della ragione e prima di essa, di un’ontologia fenomenologica, formale e materiale o regionale? Quale sarebbe il senso di quel principio di priorità del dato sul costruito che è il motto stesso della fenomenologia, “alle cose stesse”?

Qui però la mia domanda è molto più specifica. L’assiologia non è una regione ontologica materiale a parte, e non potrebbe proprio! La circostanza che il valore né si riduce al fatto né sta in altri mondi che quello dei fatti, l’eccedenza e l’opposizione fra ideale e reale, stanno lì ad impedirlo: sono l’osso duro che resta inalterato e che nutre ancora il dilemma della sopravvenienza normativa (altrimenti ci potremmo comprare un qualunque neoplatonismo che riduce l’esse al bonum, o un qualunque spinozismo che riduce il bonum all’esse: gli errori “continentali” più frequenti).  L’osso duro che, io ne convengo pienamente, il fenomenologo proverà a sciogliere in termini “olologici” (io credo, e ho provato a mostrarlo altrove in diversi casi specifici[4], che i valori siano in definitiva qualità globali del secondo ordine, intuitivamente vincoli di variazioni di strutture (“essenze”) di concreta, strutture o essenze che sono a loro volta vincoli di variazione di contenuti dati). E tuttavia, la stessa assiologia formale – perché ad essa appartiene evidentemente la tesi sulla natura dei valori, che dovrebbe esserne la proposizione fondamentale – in tanto ha ragione di esistere, in quanto, appunto, formalizzazione di un’assiologia materiale. Ma la vera  questione è: cosa riusciamo a illuminare dell’esperienza dei valori, degli oggetti stessi o materie di questa esperienza, e soprattutto del pensiero che se ne nutre (dopotutto, il pensiero assiologico sta alla base delle strutture normative che sorreggono le civiltà umane) a partire soltanto dalle strutture formali della coscienza emotiva e volitiva? Forse non è un caso che la questione degli atti oggettivanti/non oggettivanti sia rimasta tanto più oscura di molte altre dottrine di Husserl, anche se Staiti offre un notevole contributo a dirimerla.

  1. Modi della presenza in carne ed ossa. Capitolo II

Questa considerazione, che come dicevamo riguarda il cap. III, mi permette di risalire al II con la domanda che ne è la prosecuzione. Siamo sicuri di poter rispondere adeguatamente alla teoria di Robert Audi della percezione morale, prima di aver presente l’intenzionalità specifica caratteristica degli atti di Wertnehmen, ovvero del sentire assiologico? E si può descrivere questa intenzionalità specifica senza indagare, da un lato, lo specifico oggetto intenzionale che questo sentire presenta, i beni e i mali, le cose stesse (oggetti fatti eventi situazioni etc. ) assiologicamente cariche; e dall’altro lato, però, la specifica posizionalità degli atti corrispondenti, la posizionalità assiologica? Questione tanto più cruciale in quanto il concetto di posizionalità gioca un ruolo decisivo nella conclusione di questo libro, cioè nella rilettura fenomenologica dell’intuizionismo di Moore, conclusione che io ho riassunto sopra (§2) in termini molto informali, precisamente perché non eravamo ancora entrati nel vivo della questione di cosa la posizionalità assiologica sia.

Mi spiego. Quello che colpisce nei testi di Audi è la completa assenza di contenuto, non-concettuale o concettuale, della qualità “morale” del percetto. Secondo Audi (2015) si può, letteralmente, “vedere l’ingiustizia” compiuta da qualcuno, nel senso che si vede l’oggetto o il fatto o l’evento con tutte le sue proprietà reali, fattuali:  in virtù delle quali il fatto costituisce un’ingiustizia, ad esempio un omicidio. Proprio come nel famoso esempio di Hume (1739)[5]: esaminate bene il fatto in questione, vi troverete la dinamica dell’azione, la forza e la direzione del movimento, i motivi e le passioni, ma non vi troverete alcuna proprietà o relazione corrispondente alla sua ingiustizia. Che differenza c’è allora fra Audi e Hume? Piuttosto dottrinale, direi: di dottrina che non modifica essenzialmente la visione, solo la reinterpreta. L’omicidio in questione un effetto me lo fa: un’impressione di unfittingness. Perché questo non è soltanto, come voleva Hume, uno stato soggettivo (eventualmente, intersoggettivo, una risposta socialmente appresa), privo di portata cognitiva sul mondo? Per la maggior complicazione della teoria della percezione di Audi, che prevede almeno tre componenti fra loro connesse: una componente “fenomenologica” (“l’effetto che fa”), una componente rappresentativa (la mappa mentale che corrisponde, ad esempio in termini di colori, forme, movimenti, all’evento fisico), e una componente causale (l’evento in questione che impatta sul sistema percettivo). A queste si aggiunge una ulteriore componente che è esperienziale o “fenomenologica” (quale, effetto-che-fa) ma non rappresentativa, ed ecco la nostra unfittingness. Ma questa aggiunta non basterebbe a rendere magicamente oggettiva e non soltanto soggettiva l’impressione, se non venisse in soccorso l’ausilio ontologico della sopravvenienza, per cui l’ingiustizia è “fondata” (grounded) o, in una versione precedente (Audi 1997) “ancorata” nelle proprietà reali dell’omicidio, e quindi infine inerisce al percetto – sia pure come uno stigma negativo, una bandiera non-verbale che dice “così non va”. Per rendersi conto dell’assenza di contenuto descrittivo, di “materia” della “percezione morale” di Audi, si può immaginare un caso di eutanasia che abbia le identiche qualità visibili di un accorto assassinio, e chiedersi come farebbe un’impressione assiologica tutta diversa ad “ancorarsi” in una scena percettiva identica. Eppure, del tutto a prescindere dal giudizio morale che l’osservatore finirà per darne, una qualità assiologica tutta diversa permea l’azione (diciamo ad esempio la pietà tragica che permea i gesti accorti dell’agente).  Generalizzando, si può parlare con Audi di “intuizione morale” quando l’impressione morale riguarda non questo fatto particolare ma, poniamo, l’omicidio in generale, che è sbagliato. Ma queste intuizioni appaiono altrettanto vuote di materia assiologica – altrettanto thin. Prive di componente assiologica descrittiva, ridotte alla componente formale normativa (giusto, sbagliato).

Ma a questa, in fondo assai mooriana, assenza di contenuto descrittivo delle proprietà assiologiche, Staiti ha qualcosa da obiettare, da fenomenologo? Posso sbagliarmi: ma mi pare di no. Qui la sua linea di difesa  “noetica” – che insiste su quale sia l’atto piuttosto che sulla sua materia – rischia, per aver troppo concesso a Robert Audi, di farci smarrire per via gli atti rilevanti: che non sono quelli della percezione sensoriale, ma sono quelli del sentire e degli approfondimenti riflessivi delle ricchissime qualità assiologiche delle cose (e delle relazioni fra qualità assiologiche), in tutto il loro spessore. La grazia di questo gesto, la gentilezza di questa persona, la crudeltà di questa azione, il nesso eidetico fra brutalità e violenza, ma non fra crudeltà e violenza. Se non la fraintendo, la strategia critica di Staiti è la seguente: 1. Contrapporre alla teoria della percezione di Audi quella fenomenologica (cioè una teoria non rappresentazionalista ma diretta, secondo cui percezione è presenza diretta dell’oggetto nel come, fallibile e sempre inadeguato o prospettico, del suo darsi); 2. Contrapporre alla teoria dell’intuizione morale di Audi quella fenomenologica dell’intuizione come riempimento di un’intenzione, fuor del gergo come verifica in modalità di presenza “in carne ed ossa” dell’oggetto di un giudizio (non necessariamente verbale o concettualmente articolato), cioè del positum di una posizione dossica.

  1. La questione della posizionalità

Ed eccoci alla famosa posizionalità. Io credo che poche nozioni siano importanti come questa in fenomenologia, perché è precisamente in sua assenza che la nozione non fenomenologica di intenzionalità si riduce a quella di aboutness. Uno stato mentale è intenzionale se è riferito a un oggetto. Punto. Ma se i fenomenologi preferiscono parlare di atti piuttosto che di stati, è precisamente perché “tutta la vita è prendere posizione”[6] : ogni stato intenzionale è un atto personale in quanto include una posizione, attraverso la quale soltanto rispondiamo al mondo, e rispondiamo sempre più o meno correttamente e adeguatamente a seconda che le posizioni siano corrette o no. Che siano dossiche (o di esistenza), come nelle esperienze e nei giudizi di fatto; che siano assiologiche (o di valenza), come nelle esperienze e nei giudizi di valore; che siano pratiche (o di endorsement), come nelle decisioni e nelle azioni. Che poi le posizioni e le loro modificazioni siano corrette o scorrette (e questa possibilità le pone tutte sotto la “giurisdizione della ragione”) dipende precisamente dalle cose stesse, che in tutte le loro dimensioni (di realtà, di valore, di praticabilità) sono fonti infinite di informazione, forniscono cioè contenuti o “materie” di indefinita ricchezza e “spessore”, mai esaurientemente note, sempre di nuovo da indagare. Ma se invece dovessimo ammettere, come Staiti suggerisce (pp. 87-89), che gli atti emotivi e quelli volitivi non hanno posizionalità propria, ma la loro “qualifica posizionale” è tratta da altri atti (i famosi atti “oggettivanti”), come potremmo, da fenomenologi, argomentare contro lo scetticismo non solo logico, ma anche assiologico e pratico? (E non c’è dubbio che fin dall’inizio della sua vita filosofica lo stesso Husserl abbia soprattutto avuto a cuore la questione dello scetticismo in tutte le sue forme, del confronto continuo con se stesso in cui essa pone il filosofo, e del modo in cui rispondervi sempre di nuovo). Come potremmo, dicevo, anche soltanto porre la questione della validità delle valutazioni e delle decisioni? Come potremmo cioè mostrare, non certo se una data valutazione è valida o no, che non spetta al filosofo, ma dove occorre continuare a “guardare”, come approfondire la cognizione e proseguire l’esperienza della cosa stessa, per vedere se lo è, infine, o no? Come può esserci una indefinita possibilità di approfondimento e ricerca anche nei campi d’esperienza assiologica (e pratica), se non ci sono posizioni originalmente assiologiche e pratiche, o almeno se anche i valori corrispondenti non sono dati “in carne e ossa”?

Io credo che sia questa la questione cruciale, dove un umanismo fenomenologico si distingue da uno semplicemente kantiano, oltre che, certamente, da un “naturalismo”, sia pure liberalizzato e quindi pericolosamente tendente a un grado zero di informazione, ontologica ed epistemologica (dato che esclude soltanto, come la filosofia ha sempre fatto dai tempi di Socrate, entità e fonti di conoscenza “soprannaturali”).

La questione è relativamente indipendente da quella del rapporto di fondazione fra atti, sulla quale ritorneremo. Possiamo riformularla così: da fenomenologi, possiamo essere “realisti” in materia di giudizi di valore come lo siamo in materia di giudizi di fatto? Intendo qui per “realismo” la tesi che la veridicità di un’esperienza e la verità di una proposizione non dipendono da norme in ultima analisi poste o costruite, ma da vincoli dati : dati tuttavia inesauribilmente, e in qualche modo anche imprevedibilmente, passibili di essere “scoperti” attraverso sempre nuova esperienza (e ricerca), nonostante la loro apriorità, eideticità, essenzialità (come ci sono e sempre ci saranno scoperte matematiche). L’apriorità dei vincoli eidetici non si oppone alla loro reperibilità “sperimentale” (semplicemente, non è per induzione empirica che li troviamo, come del resto non troviamo così le leggi gestaltiche dei percetti): e su questo non credo ci sia disaccordo rispetto a Staiti. Dove potrebbe esserci, invece, è proprio sulla metaetica, cioè in definitiva sulla risposta fenomenologica alla questione di che cosa sia l’etica, che naturalmente ha come sotto-questione quella sulla natura dei valori specificamente morali. Ma siccome l’etica è una disciplina dell’assiologia, il disaccordo riguarderebbe in definitiva quest’ultima. La questione sarebbe allora: ma c’è veramente posto, in questa garbata conciliazione di etica naturalistica (liberalizzata) e fenomenologia, per una adeguata descrizione  dell’esperienza quotidiana che noi facciamo di tutti i beni e i mali di ogni tipo e rango in cui siamo immersi, per una tematizzazione dei modi specifici della cognizione assiologica? (Un insieme di direzioni di ricerca che riguarda praticamente tutte le professioni, da quelle che riguardano la salute, l’abitazione, il benessere, a quelle che si prendono cura del funzionamento economico e civile delle società, a quelle che riguardano la sua struttura normativa politica, fino  alle professioni artistiche e scientifiche, e per chi vi si interessa, a quelle in vari modi intente ai valori del divino).

Mi sono lasciata prendere la mano. Non c’è peggior errore che quello di accusare un libro di non parlare di quello di cui non voleva parlare. E quindi, torno indietro. Questa apertura sugli orizzonti dell’assiologia materiale però non la cancello, perché offre a tutti e non soltanto agli specialisti di qualche testo sacro lo sfondo sul quale si staglia la mia tesi che l’etica presuppone essenzialmente l’assiologia materiale, e questa tesi è invece, mi pare, pertinente alla discussione di questo libro.

Concludiamo allora sulla questione della posizionalità e degli atti oggettivanti, prima di tentare una conclusione, per parte mia, di questa lettura e di questa discussione delle tesi di Andrea Staiti. La questione che sopra ho definito cruciale riguarda la conoscenza morale, specificamente. E’ la questione se l’esperienza morale che ne è alla base sia passibile di essere, da un lato, concettualizzata sempre meglio (con sempre maggiore precisione e finezza) e dall’altro sempre ulteriormente approfondita, in modo che la verifica e la correzione delle nostre posizioni possa far crescere, qui come in ogni altro campo, la conoscenza. Se ora, per scrupolo secondario (perché è la cosa stessa che conta, non i testi) apriamo il testo husserliano che Staiti cita più frequentemente dopo le Ricerche logiche, cioè le Lezioni di etica e teoria dei valori del 1908-14[7], andiamo a vedere che cosa si dice sulla questione della conoscenza morale, ci troviamo, senza stupore, che il solo “primato” della ragione logica[8] è nella circostanza che i contenuti assiologici e quelli pratici devono pur accedere al pensiero proposizionale (e dunque al linguaggio) per poter essere sottoposti al vaglio critico e alla verifica cognitiva, vale a dire per poter acquisire condizioni di verità[9]. E quindi, non è un caso che Husserl parli di “predicati logici” e non di “proprietà naturali”, come Staiti stesso ci fa notare (p. 91): per quanto ne sappiamo, infatti, qualunque questione, sia essa fattuale, assiologica o pratica, riceve condizioni di verità solo quando è articolata in una proposizione, e in questo senso, che non ha nulla a che fare con la questione della sopravvenienza normativa, non c’è dubbio che c’è un primato della “ragione logica”, vale a dire delle “posizioni dossiche”, necessarie a formulare tesi assiologiche (“Non c’è giustizia senza libertà”), e anche a mettere in questione la verità di giudizi di valore particolari (“Non è vero che Gianni è generoso”). In effetti è altrettanto evidente che il primato passa alle posizioni assiologiche e alla ragione pratica se ci chiediamo a cosa serva la logica (a ragionare bene, cioè con inferenze valide e sane) o perché mai dovremmo preferire la conoscenza del vero all’errore o all’ignoranza, o preferire un bene epistemico come una tesi ben fondata a un male epistemico come un’asserzione confusa e arbitraria: tanto è vero che nelle più mature lezioni di Introduzione all’etica del 1920-24[10] Husserl preferisce parlare dell’”intreccio” fra ragione logica e pratica.

  1. Essenze e sopravvenienze

Una piccola ma acuta conseguenza questa dissociazione del problema dell’accesso delle “materie” di qualunque atto al pensiero proposizionale e alla questione della verità dalla questione della relazione fra fatti e valori, o fra proprietà “reali” e proprietà assiologiche c’è: e riguarda precisamente quest’ultima questione. Staiti cita un testo dall’ultimo volume della Husserliana[11]:

“Un oggetto è ‘ciò che è’ anzitutto indipendentemente dall’esser  bello, buono ecc. Il predicato di valore presuppone un oggetto, un oggetto completo. (….) Un oggetto ha la sua natura e ha valore soltanto attraverso questa natura”.

Ebbene: veramente possiamo intendere questa tesi nel senso di una distinzione fra le proprietà “subvenienti” (non assiologiche) e  “sopravvenienti” (assiologiche)? Si noti: le prime corrisponderebbero alle proprietà “naturali” della metaetica, salvo godere (a differenza di queste) di un criterio per essere individuate come subvenienti, vale a dire che se immaginiamo di sopprimerle (o di variarle oltre certi limiti), viene soppressa l’unità oggettuale delle cose, “prive di valore ma pur sempre unitarie e perduranti secondo la loro essenza propria” (p. 91).

In effetti questo “criterio” ci dice con precisione che cos’è l’essenza di una cosa, il vincolo di covarianza violando il quale la cosa perde la sua identità specifica, cessa di essere una cosa di quel tipo: negli esempi offerti, la Nona Sinfonia di Beethoven cessa di essere l’oggetto che è se facciamo astrazione da proprietà temporali quali la durata, o il Davide di Donatello se facciamo astrazione dalle sue proprietà spaziali. Ma dovremmo davvero credere che perveniamo all’unità oggettuale della cosa soltanto se passiamo “dall’atteggiamento valutativo che caratterizza la vita quotidiana a un atteggiamento puramente teoretico e naturalistico (….), cioè l’atteggiamento delle scienze naturali, in cui si fa astrazione proprio dai predicati assiologici delle cose” (p. 91)? Se Staiti applicasse veramente il suo ottimo criterio, la risposta sarebbe certamente: no! La Nona Sinfonia cesserebbe di essere una sinfonia ben prima di cessare d’essere un oggetto temporalmente esteso (tale sarebbe anche lo sferragliare di un tram), appena si violassero vincoli ben più stringenti, come sono addirittura una struttura armonica, con tutte le relazioni tonali presupposte, uno svolgimento tematico, relazioni timbriche eccetera. Cesserebbe poi di essere la Nona di Beethoven anche solo toccando quella struttura armonica etc. (Cioè, come direbbe Husserl, variando anche una soltanto delle singolarità eidetiche che la caratterizzano come l’essenza individuale che è, anche prima di qualunque sua esecuzione o token concreto). E lo stesso avverrebbe con i gialli di Van Gogh o le morbidezze plastiche di Donatello.

Già qui risulta arduo individuare proprietà subvenienti separabili dalle qualità che all’intero (poniamo, a un movimento, a un tema, a un dipinto) sono conferite dalle posizioni tonali reciproche  delle parti (o dai contrasti cromatici degli elementi). Ma attenzione: questo vuol dire che queste qualità sono semplicemente parte dell’essenza. Dell’essenza specifica di una sinfonia e dell’essenza individuale della nona sinfonia. Sono i contenuti della sua concreta unità oggettuale, ne fanno la cosa che è.   Ora, queste qualità sono proprietà assiologiche. Dunque non è vero che l’unità oggettuale si preserva astraendo dalle proprietà assiologiche. Non è vero sul piano ontologico[12]. E non è vero su quello fenomenologico, o noematico e noetico: proprio non potrei distinguere una sinfonia dallo sferragliare di un tram se non udissi e sentissi, col flusso di suoni, il senso musicale che la composizione gli presta.

D’altra parte, il testo dell’ultimo volume della Husserliana citato sopra lo conferma (come fanno innumerevoli altri): “Un oggetto ha la sua natura e ha valore soltanto attraverso questa natura”. “Attraverso” qui è proprio la preposizione adatta a evocare la fondazione unitaria. Staiti, lo abbiamo visto nell’analisi del Cap. III, legge la fondazione unitaria come una specificazione della sopravvenienza. Ma se non giochiamo con le parole, non può allora al contempo comprare il tipo di taglio fra fatti e valori che la relazione, forte o debole, di sopravvenienza presuppone: per due ragioni.

La prima ragione è che questa relazione presuppone che le proprietà assiologiche non hanno materia o contenuto indagabile all’infinito, ma sono soltanto normative: tutto il “descrittivo” fa parte delle “proprietà naturali”. Staiti “compra” questa tesi (p. 113)[13], che in effetti fa parte dell’eredità mooriana dell’intera metaetica, nonostante i tentativi di metterla in questione, quali furono quelli di Iris Murdoch e di pochi altri. Se non fraintendo il suo testo, riportato in nota, finisce per condividere con Bernard Williams proprio l’idea che un concetto thick può essere analizzato in due componenti: quella “descrittiva”, che in effetti si riduce a un sottoinsieme di proprietà reali o naturali (quelle in virtù delle quali un’azione è crudele) e quella normativa, che aggiunge appunto un semplice operatore deontico, un “non dovrebbe”, o se vogliamo, una valutazione. E con questa osservazione ci avviamo alla sezione conclusiva di questa lettura, cioè all’esposizione della mia domanda fondamentale: si può far luce sull’esperienza assiologica senza respingere con decisione questa tesi, e senza accogliere la thickness, la ricchezza di contenuto o materia descrivibile in proposizioni vere (o false), come costitutiva di tutte le qualità di valore? Si può in fenomenologia proporre una metaetica senza basarsi su un’assiologia materiale?

La seconda ragione per respingere il tipo di dicotomia fra fatti e valori che la relazione di sopravvenienza, forte o debole, presuppone, è che l’unità oggettuale di ciascun bene è data precisamente dal tipo di valore che definisce quel tipo di bene. La stessa fondazione unitaria è assiologica, appare nel fenomeno come l’unità ideale dei suoi contenuti,  fra i quali ci sono certamente qualità assiologiche “subvenienti”, ogni volta che la cosa appartiene alla classe dei beni. Dei quali, come ben sappiamo, è popolato il mondo della vita, il mondo dell’atteggiamento naturale. Dove ci sono beni utili, che sono la gran maggioranza degli artefatti: come potremmo mai descrivere l’unità oggettuale di una sedia prescindendo dalla sua funzione, che è quella cui risponde la sua forma, che ne fa una cosa in un senso assai preciso utile? Certo, una sedia è una sedia prima di essere bella o brutta: ma questo è perché l’unità oggettuale che la costituisce sedia è la sua funzione o utilità, dopodiché potrà essere più o meno bella senza che il suo valore costitutivo ne sia affetto. Questo è ciò che succede ogni volta che ci troviamo di fronte a un bene. Un bene non è affatto semplicemente un oggetto naturale, che contingentemente riceve o acquista un valore. L’unità cosale di un bene è costituita dal valore o dal campo di valori che nel bene, parzialmente e più o meno perfettamente, si realizza. Nel mondo della vita ci sono ogni sorta di beni d’uso, beni artistici, beni (semplicemente) estetici come i paesaggi, beni come le istituzioni, eccetera[14].

Per concludere davvero su questo disaccordo parziale, va detta un’ultima cosa: includere componenti assiologiche nelle essenze non vuol dire affatto rinunciare alla distinzione fatti/valori, che ha certamente una sua legittimità di principio (p.92) – e su questo concordo pienamente. Vuol dire che la sua “origine fenomenologica” (p. 92) non è quella individuata da Staiti, e che in ultima analisi rinvierebbe alla distinzione fra atti oggettivanti e non oggettivanti. La sua origine fenomenologica è, io credo, l’opposizione fra l’ideale e il reale, quella – in un certo senso – che ci richiama l’angoscia del grido di Munch: e non ha veramente più a che fare né col naturalismo scientifico né col dualismo, né forse con un loro liberale incontro a metà strada. Perché, lungi dall’espungere la normatività dallo IS, il fenomenologo vi ingloba ogni sorta di OUGHT. Mi sia permessa, per rapidità, un’autocitazione:

“Le essenze o idee, dicevamo,  sono sempre portatrici di un elemento normativo. Poiché essere dato è essere strutturato, ecco la profusione di essenze, invarianti “eidetiche” che contraddistingue il mondo della vita secondo i fenomenologi, e anche implicite direttive di tutto il nostro percepire, sentire e fare. La sua infinita ricchezza racchiude ovunque ordine, significato, struttura, norme. Questo pensiero attraversa l’opera di Husserl dalle Ricerche logiche alla Crisi delle scienze europee.”[15]

Così, un cane a tre zampe non è un buon esemplare della sua specie, e un coltello che non taglia neppure, come non è un buon guerriero un guerriero che non sia coraggioso, o un buon palo della banda uno che, come nella canzone di Jannacci, non ci vede un accidente. La salute ha la sua norma vitale, fondata in biologia, e uno Stato che non sia in grado di assicurare ai suoi cittadini almeno la pace civile ha perduto la sua ragion d’essere.

 E tuttavia, l’angoscia assiologica perdura: meno drammaticamente,  perdura l’opposizione fra il reale e l’ideale. Perché se in definitiva ogni cosa è un esemplare del suo eidos, o dell’unità ideale della sua specie (nel linguaggio delle Ricerche logiche), non ogni cosa ne è un buon esemplare. Quanti insegnanti abbiamo conosciuto che non sono proprio insegnanti ideali. E le repubbliche ideali abbiamo cominciato a studiarle da quando viviamo in quelle reali. Lo scarto fra essere e dover essere è tutto nella realtà com’è, che sia naturale o che sia artifattuale, istituzionale, sociale, personale – e la perfezione non è di questo mondo.

  1. Conclusioni sull’etica e l’assiologia

 Riprendo dunque la domanda che ho formulato all’inizio di questa analisi: la prospettiva noematica, o sulla natura dei valori, che ora forse risulta più chiaramente incentrata sull’assiologia materiale (che questa prospettiva richiede di sviluppare), è solo complementare rispetto alla prospettiva noetica caratteristica di questo libro, o è anche in qualche senso più fondamentale proprio da un punto di vista fenomenologico, ossia quanto alle sue fonti di evidenza, alle fonti della conoscenza (rigorosa) che il filosofo non rinuncia a cercare? Per le ragioni che nell’analisi ho cercato di evidenziare, propendo per la seconda. Ma ora debbo spiegare in che modo l’assunzione di questa prospettiva più fondamentale farebbe maggior luce anche sugli stessi problemi che Staiti affronta.

Il disaccordo, ipotizzavo nella sezione 6, potrebbe vertere proprio sulla metaetica, cioè in definitiva sulla risposta fenomenologica alla questione di che cosa sia l’etica, che naturalmente ha come sotto-questione quella sulla natura dei valori specificamente morali.

Cominciamo a levar di mezzo le questioni secondarie. Staiti cita fra le fonti storiche principali  della ricerca fenomenologica i volumi dell’edizione critica delle opere di Husserl espressamente dedicati all’Etica, che sono rimasti per molto tempo inediti e hanno cominciato ad essere pubblicati solo dalla metà degli anni Novanta (p. 36). E cita anche Max Scheler e il suo Formalismo, solo recentemente riscoperto e rivalutato[16]. C’è però una ragione di questo ritardo, che coinvolge un intero universo di ricerche di assiologia materiale di straordinaria portata e radicate precisamente in quell’angoscia munchiana per la pianta bifronte dell’arbitrarismo o antiumanesimo teoretico e pratico, logico ed etico, che sempre si riproduce nel confronto fra il filosofo e il sofista: un confronto che avviene ogni giorno nell’anima stessa del filosofo ed è tutt’altro che accademica. Ai tempi di Husserl e ancora per tre quarti di secolo dopo la sua morte vinse, nel mondo e nell’accademia “continentale”, il sofista. E furono praticamente dimenticati i nomi degli assiologi che dal ceppo fenomenologico fiorivano e fuggivano o morivano: Herbert Spiegelberg, Aurel Kolnai, Roman Ingarden, Dietrich von Hildebrand, Moritz Geiger e molti altri. Ora, non c’è dubbio che l’eredità di Scheler non si fa molto sentire in questo libro. Ma questo è infinitamente secondario, anzi il suo pregio è che semmai vi si facciano tanti altri nomi di interlocutori vivi oggi.

Andiamo al dunque, invece. Cosa sono i valori specificamente morali?  Io credo che abbia molto senso cercarli nel mondo, ma non certo indipendentemente dalla messa a fuoco, del tutto fenomenologica, dei portatori ultimi di questi valori, che sono in definitiva gli agenti personali, ossia le loro decisioni, azioni, comportamenti, e alla base motivazionale di questi, le loro esperienze. E’ così fastidiosa, in tutta la metaetica mooriana e post-mooriana, l’oscillazione perpetua e oscura  fra un discorso sulla natura dei valori e uno su quelli specificamente morali, che poi dà il nome alla disciplina, “metaetica”. Che cosa sono il bene e il male morali? La tradizione fenomenologica fornisce una risposta ovvia anche se illuminante: buone o cattive moralmente sono le azioni e i comportamenti, e dunque le situazioni e le realtà cui danno luogo, e dunque in ultima analisi le volontà esplicite o implicite che animano azioni e comportamenti. Ebbene, quando sono buone moralmente queste volontà? Evidentemente, quando realizzano in ogni data situazione, e in funzione delle date possibilità e capacità dell’agente, i valori relativamente superiori accessibili e non quelli relativamente inferiori, o addirittura i corrispettivi disvalori, ad esempio: a supporre che io sappia nuotare, diciamo che salvando la vita a un bambino ho preservato un bene (realizzato un valore) superiore a quello del mio comfort che avrei preservato evitando di buttarmi nell’acqua gelata. Ovviamente sia la vita del bambino sia il mio comfort sono beni o parti di beni, quindi hanno valori: ma non certo valori morali! La salute non è certamente un valore morale, ma è certamente immorale danneggiare quella altrui per i propri interessi, e così via. Una tesi fondamentale della metaetica fenomenologica dovrebbe dunque essere che il valore morale della volontà presuppone tutti i valori non morali delle cose del mondo (e, in effetti, le loro relazioni)[17], e in un senso preciso ne dipende. Se la tua vita non avesse alcun valore, che male sarebbe sopprimerla? Se nessuna cosa avesse valore, perché ci sarebbero norme sulla proprietà e che male sarebbe il furto?

Naturalmente, per quanto antikantiana sia questa tesi, c’è una cosa su cui Kant ha assolutamente ragione, ed è che la volontà non e buona o cattiva in ragione dei beni che realizza, ma dell’intenzione che la muove. Ma come può definirsi la bontà dell’intenzione se non in riferimento al valore cui mira? E perché il dovere mi obbliga, se non in quanto deriva dal valore? Dunque c’è un elemento fortemente cognitivo della bontà morale, perché le decisioni dipendono dalle valutazioni e quindi dall’adeguatezza del sentire: ma questa a sua volta dipende da quella disposizione libera, volontaria, che è la veglia del sentire, l’attenzione della mente e del cuore.  In ultima analisi, dunque, moralmente buona è la persona in quanto veglia, non solo in quanto decide e agisce. Di più: in quanto è disponibile alla verifica continua delle relazioni fra i puri contenuti assiologici, fra i valori, o piuttosto a rimettere in questione tutte le proprie certezze, a fare ogni volta nuove scoperte assiologiche.

Queste due tesi impattano su alcune tesi di fondo di questo bel libro che ho forse un po’ troppo appassionatamente voltato e rivoltato. Insieme esprimono il cognitivismo assiologico in generale, e il cognitivismo etico in particolare.

Vediamo prima l’impatto di quest’ultima tesi, che esprime il cognitivismo etico così profondamente caratteristico del fenomenologo. Staiti all’inizio del libro risponde validamente all’obiezione secondo cui “la natura descrittiva della fenomenologia le impedirebbe di occuparsi di fenomeni etici, in quanto prescrittivi”. Questa obiezione, risponde Staiti, è quanto meno fuorviante: “Sono proprio i fenomeni prescrittivi dell’etica a dover essere anzitutto descritti per scoprirne la configurazione essenziale e le condizioni di validità” (pp. 36-37). Un primo punto con il quale non si può che concordare. Staiti prosegue: “Vi è però un nucleo di verità nel riferimento alla natura descrittiva, anziché normativa, della fenomenologia: la prospettiva fenomenologica non intende proporre un’etica normativa autonoma, distinta dalle tre canoniche alternative di eudemonismo utilitarismo e deontologia” (37). Ancora d’accordo: ma qui bisogna intendersi sulla portata della tesi. Quella che le conferisce Staiti è modesta, indulgente e affabile: si tratterà soltanto di un lavoro di chiarificazione, “che riporti le nozioni cardine delle tre tradizioni etiche alle loro fonti esperienziali e provi a rettificare eventuali pretese eccessive avanzate da ciascuna di esse”. La portata che conferirei io a questa tesi è invece più ambiziosa, e quindi molto meno indulgente e affabile: a ciascuna delle tradizioni rimprovererebbe un vero e proprio fatale errore, precisamente radicato nell’ignorare le tesi fondamentali di un’etica materiale dei valori. Alla tradizione eudemonistica imputerebbe la confusione di valori e fini, che porta ad agire con in vista non il maggior bene che posso portare al mondo ma lo stato personale (sia esso il mio piacere o la mia perfezione), eticamente irrilevante (non è vero che la propria felicità sia il fine, né d’altronde men che meno la ricompensa, dell’agire moralmente buono, anche se è vero, probabilmente, che ne è una fonte, o forse che solo il felice è veramente buono). Alla tradizione consequenzialista imputerebbe, come farebbe un kantiano, la confusione di beni e valori in quanto inficia l’incondizionatezza delle ragioni morali; a un kantiano imputerebbe la confusione di valori e beni, cioè l’ascrizione di ogni contenuto o materia delle motivazioni alle realizzazioni finite, relative, contingenti e contendibili dei valori nei beni, cioè l’inconcepibilità di determinanti del volere morale che siano insieme materiali (contenutistiche, thick) e apriori. Altro che pretese eccessive: errori fondamentali. Ma a questa minore affabilità fa riscontro un terzo punto, rispetto alla questione normativo/descrittivo, che a mio parere dovrebbe far parte delle tesi fenomenologiche di metaetica, ma che non so se possa dato l’impianto del libro, essere con questo compatibile: la giustificazione di ogni norma rinvia a una cognizione descrittiva, lungo le due direttive del dover essere e del dover fare: cioè lungo quella dei valori di perfezione eidetica, menzionati sopra, e lungo quella dei valori pratici o d’azione (in particolare quelli morali, come le virtù) quindi delle relazioni assiologiche pure di volta in volta in gioco. I valori infine non sono che una sottoclasse di eide, quella sottoclasse costituita dalle qualità con valenza positiva o negativa. La ricchezza delle loro materie ci rende tutti principianti nei vari domini delle assiologie materiali, ancora di più che in quelli delle ontologie materiali.

Infine, resta da verificare l’impatto che la tesi più generale del cognitivismo assiologico ha su tesi proprie di questo libro. E forse, allora, è la sua conclusione stessa a venire in questione. Un testo famoso di Peter Geach[18]  offre a Staiti la base per questa conclusione, sull’interpretazione fenomenologica dell’Open Question Argument di Moore. Per Geach, “buono” e “cattivo” sono sempre aggettivi “attributivi” e non “predicativi” – dove con “attributivi” si intende che “buono” non predica una proprietà ulteriore di una cosa di tipo X che possiede già le proprietà EFG , ma serve precisamente ad attribuire a questa cosa le proprietà che lo costituiscono: un coltello è buono se la sua lama è tagliente, il suo manico solido etc., e ogni volta vediamo dal sostantivo che cosa costituisca la “bontà” attribuita alla cosa: un buon cavallo, un buon romanzo, un buon filosofo, una persona buona. Dal punto di vista di Geach, dunque, il carattere “speciale”, “non naturale” che un mooriano attribuirebbe all’idea del buono, è del tutto illusorio, e dipende dall’aver considerato “predicativo” un aggettivo “attributivo”. Ora, non è difficile per un fenomenologo riconoscere in EFG le qualità che fanno di un coltello, un cavallo, un filosofo, un buon esemplare del suo tipo: ma questo non ci basta affatto per negare che un buon X sia in effetti un X ideale, o come anche diciamo un X “esemplare”. E naturalmente  questo non toglie alcuna normatività alla qualità di “buon” X. Riferito a un coltello, l’aggettivo seleziona tutte le qualità funzionali che il coltello deve possedere per essere utile, riferito a un cavallo le qualità vitali,  lo slancio, il vigore, la potenza che distinguono un purosangue da un ronzino; riferito a un romanzo la capacità di avvincere senza banalità e tutte le altre qualità estetiche che distinguono un’opera narrativa degna del nome da un report sconclusionato di fatti casuali, e così via. Perché dunque Geach non si accorge che la sua distinzione fra “attributivo” e “predicativo” non confuta affatto l’Argomento della Domanda Aperta, il quale mostra pur sempre che non posso analizzare proprietà normative in termini di proprietà non normative? A mio avviso, perché non si avvede dell’errore più fatale di Moore, che sta purtroppo avvinghiato alla sua più geniale scoperta: perché è vero che le proprietà assiologiche non sono analizzabili in termini di proprietà non assiologiche, ma è falso che non siano analizzabili in assoluto. Lo sono inesauribilmente, in termini di altre proprietà assiologiche. Ne abbiamo appena dato una serie di esempi.

Questo errore fatale è a mio avviso quello che ha dato adito a tutte le “soluzioni” del dilemma della metaetica che tagliano il “descrittivo” dal “normativo” nel modo sbagliato, cioè – come suggerì Bernard Williams, analizzando i concetti assiologici “thick”, dotati di un ricco contenuto (come vigoroso o aggraziato, banale o impudente eccetera) in due parti: da una parte materia e contenuto, cioè il descrittivo, l’insieme delle proprietà “naturali”; e dall’altra un operatore normativo generico, vuoto, universale – in ultima analisi espressivo di una prescrizione sociale, di un comando soggettivo, di una convenzione, di una pressione culturale.

Ecco: l’assiologia materiale, si potrebbe dire, è nata precisamente contro questo tipo di errore, che ha precedenti in molte forme classiche di nominalismo assiologico. There is a matter of values, not just a matter of facts! Perché le qualità assiologiche dei beni esperibili, come la comodità di una sedia, la potenza di un cavallo o la bontà morale di un uomo, tutte senza eccezione, sono thick e non thin, ricche di contenuto. Concetti assiologici “sottili”, come “buono” (ma anche “bello”) sono proxy per designare tutte le varietà di qualità assiologiche positive, o la valenza positiva che le accomuna: gli aggettivi di una lingua umana non bastano neppur lontanamente a designarle tutte, e l’esperienza assiologica più comune è quella di una sorta di ineffabilità, sempre superabile ma mai del tutto. Utilizzando la distinzione di Geach  possiamo dunque dire che l’aggettivo “buono” nel significato “attributivo” che qualifica un certo tipo di bene è una variabile che varia sulle qualità assiologiche materiali positive dei buoni esemplari di quel tipo di bene.

Credo che Staiti possa aver in mente qualcosa di non dissimile quando usa la distinzione di Geach per arrivare a un’”interpretazione fenomenologica dell’argomento della domanda aperta” di Moore. Per farlo, la sviluppa nel senso che “è buono” sta alla posizionalità assiologica come “esiste” sta alla posizionalità dossica. Ossia, “è buono”, esprime la posizione assiologica, la risposta alla valenza positiva della cosa intesa o incontrata. E fin qui saremmo più che d’accordo. Ma qui salta fuori quella che a me pare un’incongruenza. Staiti compra di Geach proprio la parte dell’argomento che contesta a Moore l’idealità, la non-riducibilità in termini di proprietà naturali, non normative, dell’idea di buono. Per questo abbiamo detto sopra, nella sezione 2 commentando questa conclusione, che secondo Staiti non è affatto per la sua idealità o la sua eccedenza normativa,  che l’esplicazione del valore in termini di proprietà naturali lascia aperta la domanda (“ma è davvero buono”?), ma per la sua vuotezza. Vale a dire, ci sarebbe un’intrinseca mancanza di contenuto del positum assiologico (forse perché correlato di un atto non oggettivante?), per la quale “quando sostituiamo “buono” con un qualunque altro aggettivo (“piacevole”, “salutare” … ecc.) la nostra domanda non si riferisce più a un positum, ma torna a riferirsi a un oggetto ordinario” (140). Ma perché, la poltrona che mi appare buona, quella che ho davanti consentendo con delizia, o che sogno per quando sarò tornato a casa, non è, in questa terminologia, un positum ?  E che cosa posso intendere con la mia posizione assiologica, se non che la poltrona è comoda?  Come potrei mai assentire con delizia o aspirare alla mia buona poltrona, se non “intendessi” questa sua invitante affordance, la sua comodità? E quand’è che la poltrona diventa “un oggetto ordinario”? Quando, abbandonandomici, ne verifico la comodità? Se spiego a qualcuno che è una buona poltrona perché è comoda, non c’è alcuna eccedenza mooriana: la domanda “ma è davvero buona?”, non ha senso. Altra cosa sarebbe se spiego a qualcuno che è buona perché è fatta di lana, materassi, molle. Allora avrebbe senso chiedere: ma è davvero buona? E’ comoda?

Ma tant’è : abbiamo già visto (sez. 7, con riferimento a Staiti p. 113) che per Staiti la vuotezza di un aggettivo thin come “buono” non può essere semplicemente quella di una variabile su predicati thick, su qualità assiologiche materiali, come comodo. Che il primo non può che esprimere la vuotezza oggettuale di una posizione assiologica e il secondo la proprietà di un oggetto (ordinario). Non riesco ad accedere all’evidenza fenomenologica per questa tesi: ma se non la fraintendo, è un netto rifiuto del cognitivismo assiologico. E infatti ecco la conclusione: la costante “apertura” delle domande mooriane

“non deriva dalla supposta non-naturalità del bene, bensì dalla “natura” peculiare degli oggetti di cui esso si predica: posita e non oggetti ordinari”. (141)

Una conclusione che, mentre leva a Moore la sua sola unghia, la tesi che la normatività non è naturalizzabile, leva anche il bene e il male dal mondo degli oggetti ordinari.

Non mi resta che ringraziare Andrea Staiti per questo – lo ribadisco – bellissimo libro. Forse, leggendo queste note, penserà che esse lo rimproverino di non aver scritto un altro libro. Invece io l’ho trovato appassionante proprio perché è questo. Per avermi dato materia per questo confronto serrato, e la gioia per ciò che ho imparato leggendolo: perché se non sono riuscita a rendergli ragione, ho forse, con il suo aiuto, capito meglio quanto resta da fare, quanto da chiarire, perché la vocazione assiologica della fenomenologia riesca infine a esplicarsi nel mondo della vita, ma soprattutto nel mondo dei vivi oggi – che ne ha molto bisogno.

 

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Cuneo, T. 2007. Recent Faces of Moral Nonnaturalism, in “Philosophy Compass”, 2.6, pp. 850-879

De Caro, M. 2013. Naturalismo scientifico e naturalismo liberalizzato, in “Metodo. International Studies in Phenomenology and Philosophy”, 1,2, pp. 27-37

De Monticelli. 2020. Perceiving Values: A Phenomenological Approach, in: M. Mühling, D. A. Gilland, Y. Foerster (Eds.), Perceiving Truth and Values. Interdisciplinary Discussions on Perception as Foundation of Ethics, Series Religion Theology Natural Sciences at Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen – Bristol (CT), ISBN Print 9783525573204 e-Book 9783647573205, pp. 43-62

De Monticelli. 2018. “The Paradox of Axiology – A Phenomenological Approach to Value Theory”, Phenomenology and Mind, 15, 2018, ed. by S. Bacin and F. Boccuni, ISSN 2280-7853 (print)  ISSN 2239-4028 (online), pp. 116-128  https://oaj.fupress.net/index.php/pam/article/view/7327

De Monticelli, R. 2018bis. Il dono dei vincoli. Per leggere Husserl. Milano, Garzanti, Engl. Transl. Springer forthcoming.

De Monticelli, R. 2016. Sensibility and Values. Toward a Phenomenological Theory of the Emotional Life, in Analytic and Continental Philosophy – Methods and Perspectives. Proceedings of the 37th International Wittgenstein Symposium, Ed. by Rinofner-Kreidl, Sonja / Wiltsche, Harald A., Series: Publications of the Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein Society – New Series (N.S.) 23, ISBN: 978-3-11-045065-1, pp. 381-400

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[1] Di cui, infatti,  non sono la prima ad occuparmi: segnalo almeno le recensioni di Susi Ferrarello, e Bianca Bellini (2020). Anche per questo la mia lettura, più che una recensione, è una discussione approfondita, che prende questo libro molto sul serio come contributo a un campo di studi di enorme importanza, e che solo oggi rivede finalmente una ripresa da parte fenomenologica: questo può in parte giustificare, anche se non forse scusare, l’inusuale lunghezza di questa analisi, e la sua passione.

[2] Le principali fra queste sono esposte sinteticamente nel cap. VI di Towards a Phenomenological Axiology. Discovering What Matters, Palgrave, 2021, forthcoming, e in italiano nel cap. V di Al di qua del bene e del male. Per una teoria dei valori, Torino: Einaudi, 2015.

[3] Husserl (1900-1901), 1964, 22 p. 69 (trad. lievemente modificata).

[4] De Monticelli (2020, 2018, 2016).

[5] Hume (1739), 1978, p. 335.

[6] Husserl (1911), 2005, p. 97. Per una discussione di questa tesi e del concetto di posizionalità, che vi è strettamente connesso, v. De Monticelli (2018), pp. 158-163. Da questo punto di vista, a me pare che l’assenza di menzione, da parte di Staiti, del nesso fra Stellungnehmen e Saetze lo privi di un’importante risorsa analitica. La posizionalità di un Satz corrisponde in effetti alla “forza assertoria” con cui è intrattenuto, in un giudizio, il contenuto proposizionale. Il positum di cui parla Staiti (129-137) è certamente “l’unità del senso e del carattere tetico” di cui parla Husserl in Ideen I, § 133. Tuttavia mi sembra che Staiti non faccia uso della potente generalizzazione che Husserl fa del “carattere tetico” (che è poi la “forza assertoria” di Frege, ciò che Austin svilupperà nella pragmatica degli atti illocutori) nel senso di uno Stellungnehmen o  impegno caratteristico di ogni sfera di atti, dove dobbiamo tenere la sfera degli atti emotivi, a differenza che in Brentano, distinta da quella degli atti conativi). Voglio dire che è un punto rilevante in tema di posizionalità assiologica!

[7] Husserl (1908-14), 2002, cit. da Staiti a p. 90.

[8] Ma sacrosanto, nella sua modestia! Pensate ai deliri, che si avvieranno presto a diventare criminali, di Heidegger con il suo “tanto peggio per la logica” dell’operatore di negazione che si perde nel vortice di un nulla più originario….

[9] “La ragione logica ha però questa straordinaria prerogativa: essa formula l’istanza di giudizio, determina la legittimità e predica le leggi della correttezza in quanto leggi non soltanto per ciò che comprende il proprio campo, ma anche per ciò che concerne il campo di ogni altro genere di intenzione, e dunque per ogni altra sfera della ragione. La ragione valutativa e quella pratica sono, per così dire, mute e in un certo senso cieche. Il vedere in senso stretto e in senso lato, e dunque anche il vedere nel senso del “cogliere con evidenza” è un atto dossico”. (…) Si deve dunque tenere alta la fiaccola della ragione logica, poiché solo così quanto di forme e norme è rimasto nascosto nella sfera emotiva e della volontà, può manifestarsi ora in piena luce. Gli atti logici sono tuttavia soltanto la luce che rende visibile unicamente ciò che vi è già” Husserl (1908-14), 2002, pp. 85-86.

[10] Husserl (1920-24), 2009. Per la tesi dell’”intreccio” v, De Monticelli (2018bis), pp. 123-127.

[11] Husserl (2020), Hua XLIII/3, Staiti p. 99.

[12] Si veda, per la migliore ontologia fenomenologica dell’opera musicale, il classico Ingarden (1955), 1989.

[13] Nella nota 1 all’ultimo capitolo, parlando della distinzione introdotta da Bernard Williams fra concetti etici “sottili” (thin) e “spessi” (thick), Staiti afferma di considerarla filosoficamente fuorviante, perché “La differenza, ad esempio, fra il concetto di bene e il concetto di crudeltà non è una differenza di grado o di spessore, bensì una differenza che rispecchia quella tra proprietà di oggetti ordinari (la crudeltà) e proprietà di Sätze, cioè di oggetti meramente intesi (il bene”

[14] La distinzione fra beni e valori e la teoria dei beni come unità assiologiche concrete costituisce il capitolo iniziale e fondamentale del Formalismo (Scheler 2013). Recentemente, Emanuele Caminada ha attirato l’attenzione su quel caso di fondazione unitaria di tipo assiologico che Scheler esprime con il participio “durchdrungen” (GW II, 44), “permeato”: come l’utilità che “permea” la sedia, legando tutti gli aspetti essenziali alla sua funzione, pur nel variare possibile di materiali, fogge, dimensioni, stili…. Caminada (2016), «omnes ens est aestimativum»: On Scheler’s Formal Axiology and Metaphysics presentato alla conferenza Feeling, Valuing, and Judging: Phenomenological Investigations in Axiology, St. John’s University, New York City 19-21 May 2016. Ringrazio Emanuele Caminada anche per avermi segnalato Caminada ( forthcoming, 2021) “Things, goods, and values”.

[15] De Monticelli (2018), p. 77.

[16] Lo cita, mi sia permesso di sottolinearlo, meritoriamente nella bellissima traduzione italiana (ma con testo a fronte) di Roberta Guccinelli, che ha portato un po’ di luce su un capolavoro ignorato anche per l’illeggibilità di precedenti traduzioni: Scheler 2013.

[17] Mi permetto di rinviare per questo all’ultimo capitolo di R. De Monticelli (2015).

[18] Geach (1956).

Annabel Herzog: Levinas’s Politics: Justice, Mercy, Universality

Levinas's Politics: Justice, Mercy, Universality Book Cover Levinas's Politics: Justice, Mercy, Universality
Haney Foundation Series
Annabel Herzog
University of Pennsylvania Press
2020
Cloth $55.00
208

Reviewed by: David Ventura (Royal Holloway, University of London)

In Levinas’s Politics, Annabel Herzog attempts to articulate whether there might be something like a positive and coherent political philosophy in Levinas’s thought. As Herzog is the first to admit, for many critics of Levinas this effort will seem doomed from the outset. For if it cannot be denied that Levinas’s works frequently mention politics and political reasoning, these considerations seem merely peripheral to what is generally considered Levinas’s ‘real’ philosophical interest, that is, the ethical (or moral) relation between the subject and the absolute alterity of the other person. What is more, Levinas regularly opposes this ethical relation to politics, seemingly emphasising only the essential violence and irrelevance of politics for morality. Indeed, one need only turn to the very first page of Totality and Infinity to find a clear expression of this sentiment: “The art of foreseeing war and of winning it by every means—politics—(….) is opposed to morality, as philosophy to naïveté” (Levinas, 1979: 21).

From this standpoint, it might indeed seem that Herzog will be hard pressed to find a positive and nuanced conception of politics in Levinas’s work. As Herzog opens her book by countering, however, even in those texts where Levinas speaks of an opposition between politics and morality, there is more than a simple relation of mutual exclusivity between the two domains. In Totality and Infinity, for instance, this involvement between politics and morality is conceptually signalled by the “entrance of the third party”, who is said by Levinas to introduce the considerations of politics into the ‘dual’ ethical relation between the subject and the other. Crucially, far from conceiving this third party as wholly external and somehow posterior to morality, Levinas explicitly holds that its presence is always already felt in the ethical relation with the other: “The third party looks at me in the eyes of the other” (Levinas, 1979: 213). That being the case, the relation between politics and morality is certainly much more complex than Levinas’s own assertions on the opposition between those two domains might at first lead us to believe—and indeed, than some of Levinas’s critics give him credit for.

The majority of Levinas’s Politics directs itself to this intricate relation that  is posited between the fields of politics and morality in Levinas’s thought. Now, Herzog is of course not the first scholar to recognise that Levinasian politics and morality are in a certain sense “inseparable and contained within one another” (Fagan, 2009: 7, cited in LP 2-3). Instead, the major contribution of Levinas’s Politics consists of its attempt to explore this inseparability “in light of a close reading of [Levinas’s] Talmudic readings—that is, Levinas’s ‘Jewish’ works” (3).[1] As Herzog notes, the traditional approach to Levinas’s philosophy has tended to consider these Talmudic commentaries as distinct and separable from the more central ‘philosophical-phenomenological’ works. Following Levinas’s own insistence on the distinction between the two bodies of work, traditional scholarship has also tended to regard these ‘religious’ or ‘confessional’ writings as being of merely illustrative interest for the philosophical substance of Levinas’s thought. By contrast, Levinas’s Politics studies Levinas primarily from the perspective of his Talmudic writings, and it turns to the phenomenological works only in order to “document [its] interpretations of the readings, thereby inverting the traditional approach to Levinas’s work” (6).

In her Introduction, Herzog begins to defend this decision by insisting that both of Levinas’s corpuses should be considered philosophical. The distinction between the two sets of texts is not therefore that is one ‘philosophical’ and the other merely ‘confessional’. Rather, according to Herzog, this distinction is best understood in terms of differences in approach. “The ethical philosophy published in the phenomenological books expresses an unconditional and immemorial call [to responsibility] that can be considered ‘prophetic’. One hears the call and accepts it as it is” (7). The Talmudic readings, by contrast, are said to confront this apodictic and unconditional call to ethical responsibility with concrete situations. “The readings ask the question: What does ethics mean in situations that involve more than the ego and the other?” (9). In other words, though both sets of texts are similarly concerned with philosophical questions of ethical responsibility towards otherness, they each respond to these questions from a differing perspective: “the phenomenological books present a utopian and impracticable ethics, while the Talmudic readings reflect a political, and at times pragmatic, mode of thought” (5).

Herzog’s wager is that this difference in approach makes the Talmudic readings a particularly fruitful place to unearth Levinas’s positive conception of politics. Indeed, because those readings focus specifically on the meaning of ethics in concrete situations, they “constitute a genre subject to different constraints and impositions compared with Levinas’s phenomenological style” (10). That is, the situational focus of the readings gives Levinas the scope to think politics otherwise than through some of the guiding presuppositions of his phenomenological works. Significantly, they allow Levinas to “moderate” (10)  what the phenomenological texts call the absolute precedence of ethics: the idea that ethics is first philosophy, or that the ethical relation constitutes the primary reference point for any philosophical investigation. And in moderating this presupposition, Herzog argues, the Talmudic readings not only “manifest a political thinking that challenges the ethical analyses offered in Levinas’s phenomenological works” (5, emphasis added), but they also offer a radically different conception of Levinasian politics. In Herzog’s own words: “In the readings (…), Levinas tried to do two things that he could not do in the phenomenological works: first, prevent politics from bringing about the failure of ethics; and second, construct politics positively, and not as the interruption and collapse of ethics” (10).

The first chapter of Levinas’s Politics begins to advance this political portrayal of Levinas by further reflecting on what distinguishes his Talmudic from his phenomenological writings. According to Herzog, the unique character of the Talmudic readings can be approached from the perspective of Levinas’s famous distinction between the “saying” and the “said”—that is, in terms of the distinction between “the manifestation of presence through discourse” (the said), and “a form of language that does not reduce (…) otherness into sameness” (the saying) (20-21). Following Ricoeur’s reading of this distinction, which emphasises a complex mutual interplay between said and saying, Herzog’s argument is that the form of Levinas’s Talmudic writings “must be understood as part of a larger expression of the relationship between ‘saying’ and ‘said’, in which ‘saying’ and ‘said’ cannot exist without each other—indeed must confront each other” (28). For whilst, as Herzog demonstrates, Levinas certainly considers the Talmud to be the expression of an ethical saying that is irreducible to the said, his Talmudic commentaries—because they seek the unity of the many disparate texts that make up the Talmud—can be regarded as attempting to “integrate these ‘sayings’ into a thematised philosophical ‘said'” (26).

Though somewhat technical, this discussion on the form of the Talmudic readings allows Herzog to successfully articulate some of the guiding threads of her political reading of Levinas. In particular, Herzog uses this discussion to posit an essential inseparability between the domains of ethics and ontology in Levinas: “The inseparability of ‘saying’ and ‘said’ comes from the concreteness of life itself, in which ethics and ontology develop together” (28). Now, for Herzog, this inseparability is crucial from the point of view of Levinas’s politics not only because politics and ontology are regularly equated in his philosophy. More broadly, the interplay between saying and said that is formally expressed by Levinas’s Talmudic writings also tells us something about their positive political content. Specifically, it points to a substantive conception of Levinasian politics—“a livable politics” (15)—where political activity is that which simultaneously confronts and materialises the irreducible ‘saying’ of ethics.

Herzog further expounds this Levinasian conception of politics in Chapter 2. Here, Levinasian politics is introduced as an institutional enterprise that concerns itself with how responsibility and goods should be shared across humanity. On this reading, Levinas defines politics neither as a monopoly of power, nor as the guardianship of individuals’ natural rights. Rather more starkly, the Talmudic readings define politics “as concern and care for people’s hunger” (40). “To think of men’s hunger is the first function of politics” (Levinas, 1994: 18). This means that in distinction to ethics, politics also does not consist of the absolute obligation to give oneself wholly to the other. Politics is not exactly “the duty to give to the other even the bread out of one’s own mouth”, as Otherwise than Being defines ethics (Levinas, 1998a: 55). Indeed, as Herzog states, though the other’s hunger is in a certain sense the problem that unites both politics and ethics in Levinas, each of those domains develops a radically different solution to that problem. “Ethics is the name of the principle by which the other has priority over the ego. (….) That is, ethics calls for giving the other everything, now” (LP 41). Politics, on the other hand, concerns itself with calculating how some hunger can be institutionally appeased “through the practice of sharing and distributing responsibility and goods” (41).

As well as elucidating this conception of politics, Herzog’s second chapter also offers the intriguing claim that Levinasian politics is that which  in a certain sense realises ethics. Taking her cue from Levinas’s text on “Judaism and Revolution”, Herzog’s argument is that “ethics alone has no materiality. It becomes material and receives meaning only in the form of something that is very different from—and indeed, opposed to—it: politics” (41). Now, insofar as it finds clear textual evidence in Levinas’s Talmudic readings, this argument is largely successful in dispelling the “common misconception” that Levinas is wholly ‘against’ politics (42). Importantly, in pursuing this argument, Herzog also innovatively identifies a conception of Levinasian justice that finds no clear expression in the phenomenological writings: merciful or non-indifferent justice. Under this conception, justice “is synonymous with neither ethics nor politics but consists in the relation between the two” (11). Put differently, justice is that differential which expresses the extent to which the infinite responsibility of ethics has become fulfilled, or materialised, through the institutional calculation and distribution of politics.

Chapter 3 deals with another unique contribution of Levinas’s Talmudic work, namely, its conception of the social. According to Herzog, in works like “Messianic Texts” and “Cities of Refuge”, Levinas thematises a distinctive social domain that can be called neither ethical nor political. This social domain, which Levinas equates with both contemporary urban life and Western liberal democracies, is one that is characterised by individualism, conflict, and a lack of concern for others. In Herzog’s words: “the social [is] a domain of indifferent care for the self, unaffected by ethical responsibility” (54). As such, the social clearly distinguishes itself from both ethics and the political: “[it] consists of neither infinite responsibility nor the implementation of those laws of justice that that would transform the ethical demand into viable practices” (46). Nevertheless, far from being simply irrelevant to Levinas’s overall conception of politics, for Herzog, this conception of the social in fact further highlights the positive role that Levinasian politics can play in realising ethics. Indeed, Herzog’s conclusion in this chapter is that if there is never any responsibility or concern for others in the social, then “politics—understood as institutions and leadership [of shared responsibility]—is the sole way to concretely implement the ethical principle (….) the sole way, for Levinas, to give some materiality to ethics” (53).

Having in the first three chapters presented a mostly positive vision of Levinasian politics, in Chapter 4 Herzog begins to focus on the necessary connection between this politics and the problem of violence. Herzog opens this chapter by noting that the critique of politics that famously appears in Totality and Infinity—where politics is defined as the violent art of war—is not entirely absent from Levinas’s Talmudic readings (55). In essays like “The State of Cesar and the State of David”, Levinas continues to attribute an essential violence to politics: “‘By serving the State one serves repression’ (….) by which Levinas means that all State servants, like police officers, use or condone violence or repression” (60). But unlike Levinas’s phenomenological writings, Herzog adds, the Talmudic readings do not entirely reject the value of politics and the state. Indeed, despite continuing to describe politics as violent, Levinas’s Talmudic writings also insist that political violence is necessary for the task of fighting evil (60). In this particular sense, and as Herzog persuasively demonstrates, Levinas not only judges politics to be violent, but he also “accepts that the aim of political violence, namely, the fight against evil, is important and legitimates its means” (66).

In Chapter 5, Herzog further develops this account of political violence by reflecting on what Levinas understands by evil. Drawing on the notion of merciful justice introduced in Chapter 2, Herzog’s central contention in this chapter is that “evil in the Talmudic readings is the impossibility of justice” (64). Put differently, evil is a kind of disjunction between politics and ethics: it is the antithesis of that productive relation where ethics is realised or materialised by politics. “Evil is the situation of an unattainable relationship between ethics and politics, a situation in which politics and ethics cannot coexist” (64). Now, Herzog’s claim is that Levinas considers the phenomenon of evil to be possible in three different contexts. First, evil can occur when an individual—or its political community—chooses to build a private domain (or home) that is detached from otherness and collective action. Evil “is the attempt to build a fortified self—be it an individual or national home—erected against the world” (71). Second, evil for Levinas is what happens when the state, instead of fighting injustice and oppression, becomes dominated by “ideology” and “idolatry”—that is, by two deceptive forms of language that disguise themselves as moral reason, but which are in fact mystifications intended to oppress and dominate (74). Third, “evil is linked to animality, namely to a certain understanding of being” (65). More accurately, evil is what happens when we choose to give our biological and psychological inclinations—our ontological or animal desires—a preponderance over political responsibility (77).

As well as bringing Levinas into a productive dialogue with a number of significant political thinkers (including Arendt, Weil and Nussbaum), Herzog’s account of evil also begins to illustrate one of the key claims of Levinas’s Politics, namely, the idea that the Talmudic readings moderate some of the positions of Levinas’s phenomenological writings. In short, Herzog’s contention is that because the Talmudic readings conceive evil as “the choice of an order of things” (79), they are also able to develop more nuanced accounts of phenomena like dwelling and ontology than the phenomenological writings. Thus, for instance, because in the Talmudic readings “evil is not anchored in biological or psychological inclinations but in choosing to give these dispositions precedence over responsibility, (….) the extreme claim of Levinas’s 1948 book Time and the Other, that ‘Being is evil’, is, in the readings, moderated into a more complex view: Being is evil, but only when it is not subordinated to ethics” (78-79).

This line of thinking is extended in Chapter 6, which focuses on Levinas’s conception of nature in the Talmudic readings. Herzog opens this chapter by stating that due to their largely anti-Spinozist slant, it is not always easy to find an appreciation of the ethical value of nature in Levinas’s phenomenological writings, where “transcendence, or God, is not nature, and is other than nature” (81). Contrastingly, the Talmudic readings do sometimes connect the uncanny infinity of transcendence to the natural world. Indeed, as Herzog reveals, despite maintaining a distinction between the human and the natural, Levinas’s Talmudic writings do intriguingly consider non-human animals, like dogs, to in certain cases “sense or express ‘transcendence'” (88). Furthermore, this expression of transcendence in nature is not limited to the case of humanity’s ‘best friend’. Indeed, in what is this chapter’s main contribution, Herzog also attempts to demonstrate that “Levinas uncovers the complicated relationship between the ontological and the ethical in all parts of nature” (91). Specifically, Herzog sees the Talmudic readings as providing a unique notion of “elevation”, within nature as a whole, which makes nature more than a simple perseverance in being or conatus (93). In other words, for Levinas, there is “an otherwise than nature in nature” (94). And for Herzog, this idea is politically charged because it shows that Levinas’s philosophy can open onto a sort of “prudent environmentalism” (94). That is, with Levinas, we can reassess our political relation with nature, and come to regard it as a domain that mixes both conative, an-ethical struggles and moments of genuine ethical rupture.

In Chapter 7, Herzog turns to what is potentially the thorniest aspect of Levinas’s Talmudic readings: their defence of Zionism and the modern State of Israel. Herzog is of course eminently aware that such defences have led many critics to classify Levinas’s philosophy as anti-Palestinian and even racist. And in this chapter, Herzog by no means denies that there are certain problems with Levinas’s reflections on Zionism. However, and in response to such critiques, Herzog holds “that Levinas’s take on Zionism is a specific instance of his broader conception of the relation between ethics and politics” (96). In other words, Herzog’s claim is that Levinas’s thought on Zionism receives its broad outlines from the more general political philosophy of the Talmudic readings—and not vice versa. Thus, Herzog’s first argument in this chapter is that Levinas defends the State of Israel because he sees it as the only way to politically ensure the survival of the Jewish people, and thus, as the only way to concretely implement or realise the “particular version of justice” that is expressed in the Torah (99). However, Herzog also tries to demonstrate that, in line with the notion that politics is necessarily violent, Levinas repeatedly criticises and holds the State of Israel to account for its violent tendencies. As she puts it: “despite the fact that the State of Israel serves an ethical purpose and is, indeed, necessary for the survival of the Jewish people, it nonetheless puts Jewish existence in physical and spiritual danger because it entails an embrace of ontology—idolatry of the land, rootedness, conquest, and destruction” (102). For Herzog, therefore, the ‘problem’ with Levinas’s thought on Zionism is not its silence or failure to denounce the violence and oppression of the modern State of Israel. Instead, “the main weakness of Levinas’s Zionism” is that it still lends itself too readily to the dialectical Hegelianism that Levinas elsewhere so strongly criticises (96).

The final chapter of Levinas’s Politics continues to clarify Levinas’s relation to Hegel, but this time from the perspective of the general issue of political messianism. Herzog’s effort in this chapter is two-fold: first, to clarify the relation between Levinasian eschatology and concrete political laws; and second, to elucidate the relation between messianism and history. In both cases, Herzog’s key argument is that Levinasian messianism, despite signifying an anarchic divine Law that is entirely irreducible to—and even ‘ends’ the temporality of—political laws and historical realities, nonetheless relies on those same entities to find its expression in the world. As Herzog, quoting Levinas, writes: “the ethical law needs the support of political laws: ‘The Messiah is king. The divine invests history and the State rather than doing away with them. The end of History retains a political form” (116). In upholding this idea, Herzog argues further, the Talmudic readings also significantly nuance the conception of history that emerges in Levinas’s phenomenological works. Indeed, where in the latter Levinas frequently opposes ethical eschatology to history (cf. Levinas, 1979: 21), in the Talmudic readings “there is no contradiction between recognising the importance of political history and holding to an ethical messianism, because political history is the instrument that allows redemption to enter the phenomenal world” (120). Thus, for Herzog, even in their most ‘utopian’ of dimensions, that is, even where they speak of a Law that is in a certain sense irreducible to political realities, Levinas’s Talmudic readings remain political through and through.

Overall, Levinas’s Politics is a hugely successful text. Pace Levinas’s critics, Herzog’s text develops a compelling portrayal of Levinas as a thinker who does not exclusively consider politics and the state as hindrances to ethics and justice. Indeed, although from a certain perspective the aims of Levinasian politics and morality are indeed opposed, from another angle, as Herzog convincingly shows, those two domains in fact support and mutually complement one another. In this respect, there is indeed a political philosophy to be found in Levinas’s work. Furthermore, Levinas’s Politics persuasively demonstrates that this political philosophy attains a certain coherence throughout Levinas’s Talmudic writings, consistently manifesting itself in discussions of topics as varied as evil, violence, nature, and messianicity. In treating these and a breadth of other subjects with admirable clarity and succinctness, Herzog also demonstrates a commanding grasp of what is undoubtedly an underappreciated part of Levinas’s corpus. Readers of Levinas that are unfamiliar with the ‘religious’ aspects of his work will undoubtedly find a wealth of valuable new material in Levinas’s Politics, and they will likewise benefit from Herzog’s concise but supremely informative explanations of Levinas’s unique approach to religious material.

For all its scholarly richness and breadth, there are nonetheless some notable absences in Levinas’s Politics. Crucially, the text makes no reference to Bergson, a philosopher who Levinas famously described as one of the most important for his thought (second only to Heidegger and Husserl), and whose metaphysical conception of time as duration is well known to have influenced Levinas throughout his career. Yet, it is not exactly this metaphysical Bergson that might have been of interest to Herzog’s project, but rather the Bergson of The Two Sources of Morality and Religion. In that text, as Levinas himself explains in a 1988 interview, what Bergson had previously understood as the metaphysical intuition of duration becomes “interpreted as a relationship with the other and with God” (1998b: 244). Furthermore, in a move that bears a striking similarity with what Herzog calls one of the key ideas of Levinas’s political thinking, The Two Sources continually maintains that for this ethical relationship with the other and God to be upheld, it must find its “point of support” in, and even “pass through”, a set of concrete political organisations and instruments, which, in their isolation, can be seen as opposed to the aims of ethics (Bergson, 1977: 309-310). As Bergson writes, though politics has historically tended to promote violence and war, it is only “with the advent of [Western] political and social organisations which proved experimentally that the mass of people was not doomed [to hunger and poverty] (…) [that] the soul could open wide its gates to a universal love [of humanity or God]” (226-227).

Now, in fairness to Herzog, the avowed aims of Levinas’s Politics are interpretative more than they are historical (LP 9). In that respect, Herzog can be forgiven for not tracing every single one of Levinas’s influences in the political writings. That said, the conception of the interaction between ethics and politics that emerges in Bergson’s The Two Sources is clearly not without relevance to what Herzog considers to be one of the central theses of Levinas’s political thinking, namely, the idea that ethics “becomes material and receives meaning only in the form of something that is very different from—and indeed, opposed to—it: politics” (41). At the very least, it seems that Levinas might have found inspiration for this political idea in Bergson. More strongly, we might say that just as the preface of Totality and Infinity famously considers Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption as being “too often present in [the] book to be cited” (Levinas, 1979: 28), so too, perhaps Bergson’s The Two Sources plays the same role for Levinas in the Talmudic readings—particularly if, as Herzog strongly argues, those readings establish a relation where morality, far from dispensing with politics, in fact depends upon it for its concretisation. In this context, a closer examination of Bergson’s influence on Levinas’s political thinking would not only have further enriched, but even seems to be demanded by, Herzog’s own chosen focus in Levinas’s Politics.

Another potential weakness of Levinas’s Politics concerns its treatment of Levinas’s phenomenological works. Unfortunately, and perhaps because Herzog is avowedly more interested in the “‘central unity'” of Levinas’s thinking (9), the text often speaks of works like Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being in a monolithic way, as if these were one and the same phenomenological text. For example, Herzog at times freely switches between the two texts as a way of explaining Levinas’s presumed ‘opposition’ to ontology (cf. 24). Now, it is true that in some respects, both Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being oppose ontology—particularly if by ontology we mean thematisation and the politics of identification this involves. But it is equally the case that in other respects Totality and Infinity ascribes a much more positive role to ontology than Otherwise than Being. This is especially true of the sections in the last part of Totality and Infinity where Levinas speaks positively of fecundity as “an ontological category” (Levinas, 1979: 277). Far from being opposed, ontological fecundity is there thought as that which “establishes [the subject’s] relationship with the absolute future, or infinite time” (268).

Now, it is true that these kinds of exegetical considerations are not where Levinas’s Politics claims to make its contribution to the scholarship. But these considerations are nonetheless important to Levinas’s Politics, and that is because, as Herzog herself concedes (LP 5-6), the text continually refers to the phenomenological works as a way of elucidating the ‘unique’ and ‘interruptive’ character of Levinas’s political philosophy in the Talmudic readings. For example, in the chapter on “Evil as Injustice”, Herzog asserts that Levinas’s Talmudic writings insist on the importance of the home for the project of justice (68). In Levinas’s own words: “There is no salvation except in the reentry into oneself” (Levinas, 1996: 190). Crucially, Herzog adds further that these remarks on the need for a home moderate and “contradict Levinas’s general critique of interiority formulated at length in Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being” (LP 68). To be sure, in the very next line, Herzog shows some awareness that this thesis is perhaps more strongly upheld in the later text. But still left out of this analysis is the recognition that Totality and Infinity by no means contradicts the general affirmation that “a home is necessary to see the other” (68). Indeed, if, as Herzog claims, this idea appears in the Talmudic readings, likewise, in Totality and Infinity, not only is it dwelling which “accomplishes” the separation between the I and the Other (Levinas, 1979: 151), but even more strongly, “the whole dimension of interiority—the articulations of separation—are necessary for the idea of Infinity, the relation with the Other” (148).

These similarities are relevant for Levinas’s Politics because in a certain sense they blunt one of Herzog’s central claims in the text, specifically, the notion that “the readings manifest a political thinking that challenges the ethical analyses offered in Levinas’s phenomenological works” (LP 5). As we have already seen Herzog claim, this challenge boils down to a difference in approach between the two bodies of work: “the phenomenological books present a utopian and impractical ethics, while the Talmudic readings reflect a political, and at times pragmatic, mode of thought” (5). But if what grants the Talmudic readings a ‘political’ and ‘pragmatic’ character are ideas like the necessity of a home for justice, then surely, if the phenomenological works can be shown to offer similar affirmations, they cannot be easily be characterised as wholly ‘utopian’ and ‘impractical’.[2] Perhaps, there is also a latent ‘politics’ and a latent ‘pragmatism’ in the phenomenological works themselves, particularly in those places—like the affirmations on interiority and the home cited above—where they come closest to the Talmudic readings. What this also suggests is that on some levels, at least, there is a greater reconciliation between the Talmudic texts and the phenomenological writings than Herzog’s reading of the essential ‘challenge’ or ‘moderation’ of one by the other is capable of accommodating. And perhaps Levinas’s Politics might have achieved an even more nuanced and unified account of Levinas as a political thinker had it further excavated these latent possibilities for reconciliation between the two bodies of work.

All that said, these criticisms will perhaps be of interest only to the expert, and they nowise undermine the immense of value of Herzog’s more general contribution to the field. More than any other scholar to date, Herzog has succeeded in dispelling the false idea that Levinas’s thought has nothing to contribute to the field of political philosophy. Indeed, Herzog has not only clearly shown that Levinas’s Talmudic texts do present a coherent political philosophy, but even one that is potentially valuable in highlighting the many tensions and opportunities of contemporary, Western liberal democracies. For these reasons, but also for its clarity, depth, and scholarly richness, Levinas’s Politics deserves to find a wide and attentive readership among Levinas scholars and political philosophers alike.

Bibliography

Bergson, H. 1977. The Two Sources of Morality and Religion. Translated by Ashley Audra and Cloudesley Bereton. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.

Levinas, E. 1979. Totality and Infinity: An Essay of Exteriority. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. London: Martinus Nijhoff.

Levinas, E. 1994b. Beyond the Verse: Talmudic Readings and Lectures. Translated by Gary Mole. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Levinas, E. 1996. New Talmudic Readings. Translated by Richard Cohen. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

Levinas, E. 1998a. Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

Levinas, E. 1998b. Entre Nous. Translated by Michael Smith and Barbara Harshav. New York: Columbia University Press.

Ventura, D. 2020. “The Intensive Other: Deleuze and Levinas on the ethical status of the Other”, The Southern Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 58:2, 327-350.


[1] Herzog clarifies that by “Talmudic readings” she means “the body of texts related to the Talmud and other Jewish sources, which look different from Levinas’s phenomenological work” (5-6).

[2] Though for reasons of space I have here referred only to Levinas’s thought on the home, there are other points where the phenomenological works bear more similarity to the Talmudic readings than Herzog perhaps acknowledges. To cite another example, in the chapter “On Nature”, Herzog argues that where the phenomenological writings refuse to characterise nature as ethical, the Talmudic readings posit a “complicated relationship between the ontological and the ethical in all parts of nature” (91). But once again, this argument ignores that Otherwise than Being, for instance, also posits a complex relation of co-contamination between the realms of ethics and nature, particularly in those passages on enjoyment where Levinas insists that the immediacy of the sensibility to the elements is also the immediacy or the proximity of the other (1998a: 74). For a more extended account of this relation, see my: Ventura, 2020: esp. 341-348.

Uriah Kriegel: Brentano’s Philosophical System: Mind, Being, Value

Brentano's Philosophical System: Mind, Being, Value Book Cover Brentano's Philosophical System: Mind, Being, Value
Uriah Kriegel
Oxford University Press
2018
Hardback £49.99
320

Reviewed by: Daniel Herbert (University of Sheffield)

Although his admiration for the British philosophical tradition is widely recognised, Brentano’s antipathy to classical German philosophy is no less well-known. That Brentano may be at all committed to the construction of a grand system in the tradition of Kant or Hegel seems to run contrary to the most basic wisdom regarding this pivotal figure in the history of the phenomenological movement, and several of his most well-regarded interpreters have explicitly rejected any suggestion that he might helpfully be understood as a systematic philosopher. This, however, is precisely the claim which Uriah Kriegel defends with such force and clarity in his impressive study, Brentano’s Philosophical System: Mind, Being, Value. According to Kriegel, Brentano ranks amongst the greatest systematic philosophers of the Western tradition, offering a comprehensive account of the true, the good, and the beautiful, ultimately grounded in an understanding of the modes of consciousness which facilitate the mental representation of these ideals.

In spite of his systematic aspirations, however, Brentano’s philosophical style bears closer comparison to the analytic tradition than to the works of Kant and his idealist successors, according to Kriegel. Indeed, Brentano is, for Kriegel, a kind of analytic philosopher avant la lettre, whose concerns and priorities belong not to an outmoded nineteenth-century agenda, but to the domain of contemporary philosophy. There remains, however, a sense in which Brentano has less in common with analytic philosophy than with its nineteenth century predecessors, insofar as his focus is very firmly upon consciousness rather than language as the principal object of philosophical investigation. Brentano does not participate in the linguistic turn which is partly constitutive of the switch from idealist to analytic philosophy, and his focus on consciousness is an enormous part of his legacy to later phenomenologists (with the possible exception of Heidegger and his followers). This is, however, something of a pedantic objection, and Kriegel leaves little doubt that Brentano’s philosophical style is one which should make his work accessible to contemporary analytic philosophers. Across nine well-argued and engaging chapters, Kriegel elucidates Brentano’s compelling and highly original contributions to philosophy of mind, metametaphysics, metaethics, normative ethics and other fields of current philosophical interest, repeatedly showing that Brentano merits a place in contemporary debates within each of these thriving areas. As such, Kriegel’s study should be of interest not only to scholars of Brentano and early phenomenology, but also to researchers in several areas of contemporary analytic philosophy.

Part One, ‘Mind’, opens with a chapter on ‘Consciousness’. For Kriegel, Brentano’s interest in consciousness is an interest in what today’s philosophers of mind call ‘phenomenal consciousness’ – its felt qualitative character. As such, many of Brentano’s remarks concerning consciousness rest ultimately upon appeals to phenomena with which it is assumed that all subjects are immediately acquainted insofar as they are conscious at all. According to what Kriegel calls Brentano’s ‘awareness principle’, one cannot be conscious without being conscious of being conscious. Such awareness of one’s own mental states is the source, Brentano maintains, of immediate and infallible self-knowledge resulting from what he famously labels as ‘inner perception’ and distinguishes from introspection or ‘inner observation’.

In an impressive display of scholarly engagement with the relevant primary and secondary literature, Kriegel advocates a novel and compelling interpretation of Brentano’s position, according to which the same mental state may be viewed either as the ‘consciousness of x’ or as the ‘consciousness of the consciousness of x’. As such, inner perception owes its unique epistemic merits to the identity between (i) a conscious state and (ii) the consciousness of that very state. Kriegel clearly distinguishes his interpretation from those offered by other Brentano scholars, such as Textor. Moreover, Kriegel credits Brentano with a position which he argues is more compelling than many modern theories of consciousness, such that Brentano’s approach is of more than merely historical interest.

Kriegel also notes however, the implausibility of Brentano’s commitment to the co-extensionality of mental states and conscious states. As he aims to show throughout the remaining chapters however, this is a position which may be excised from Brentano’s system with minimal repercussions. All the same, Kriegel maintains, it is important to note that Brentano’s philosophy of mind is, for this reason, more properly a philosophy of consciousness.

In Chapter Two, ‘Intentionality’, Kriegel advances an original interpretation of the concept with which Brentano’s name is most associated. Parting company with widely-held ‘immanentist’ interpretations, such as Crane’s, Kriegel denies that Brentano understands intentionality as a relation between a mental act and a subjective content internal to that act. Indeed, according to Kriegel’s ‘subjectist’ interpretation, intentionality is not, for Brentano, a relation at all, but a modification of the subject. Their misleading surface grammar notwithstanding, sentences appearing to commit one to the existence of a relation between a conscious state and an object thereof are more accurately understood as statements concerning a condition of the subject, according to Kriegel. As he interprets Brentano, non-veridical experiences have no intentional object at all, Kriegel maintains, rather than a merely private intentional object. To think of dragons, then, is not to be related to a fictitious object but to inhabit a state of a certain kind. By the same token, it is not constitutive of one’s thinking about the Eiffel Tower that it is indeed the intentional object of such a mental state. All that matters, in either case, according to Kriegel, is that the subject occupies such a state that, were certain conditions to be satisfied, that state would have an intentional object. Talk of ‘merely intentional objects’ is, as Kriegel understands Brentano, admissible only as a convenient fiction, as shorthand for the unsatisfied veridicality-conditions of some mental state.

While it is distinct from adverbialism, according to Kriegel, the position thus attributed to Brentano may, he acknowledges, appear vulnerable to an objection similar to that which Moran raises against the adverbialist. The last part of the chapter offers an answer to this revised criticism, showing again that Brentano’s views remain plausible. Kriegel proceeds with clarity and precision throughout in recognisably analytical fashion.

Chapter Three concludes Part One with a detailed account of Brentano’s taxonomy of the various kinds of conscious states. As Kriegel notes, Brentano’s interest in the systematic classification of mental states – and its centrality to his philosophical project – is characteristic of the taxonomically-fixated nineteenth century, but seems quite foreign to the priorities of contemporary philosophers of mind in the analytic tradition. Kriegel further remarks that Brentano is in disagreement with late twentieth and early twenty-first century orthodoxies in consequence of his anti-functionalist classification of mental states according to attitudinal properties rather than inferential role. Related to such anti-functionalism is Brentano’s notorious claim that disbelief-that-p is not equivalent to belief that not-p – a position starkly opposed to Frege’s.

All the same, Kriegel maintains, Brentano’s philosophy of mind loses much of its unfamiliar appearance when the scope of its claims are limited to the domain of the conscious, whereupon they become compatible with a broader functionalist outlook. With slight qualifications, Brenatano’s foundational distinction between judgement and interest may be understood to correspond to a familiar distinction between mental states, on the one hand, with a mind-to-world direction of fit and those, on the other, with a world-to-mind direction of fit. Brentano treats the distinction between propositional and non-propositional content as of secondary importance, however, and Kriegel takes it that there is nothing in contemporary classifications of the mental corresponding to Brentano’s treatment of presentation as a category of phenomena no less fundamental than judgement or interest. Much of chapter three is devoted to a reconstruction and defence of Brentano’s commitment to such an account of presentation – a position which Kriegel regards as persuasive and correct, but detachable from the rest of the Brentantian system without need for significant revisions elsewhere. Judgement and interest, however, remain of crucial systematic importance, according to Kriegel.

The second part of Kriegel’s fascinating and well-argued study concerns Brentano’s metaphysics, opening with a chapter on ‘Judgement’. As Kriegel re-iterates, Brentano’s account of judgement differs radically from more familiar theories in several respects. Firstly, no judgement is ever merely predicative, according to Brentano, but every judgement either affirms or denies something’s existence. Secondly, affirmative and negative judgements differ not in content but in attitude, and are therefore able to share the same content. Thirdly, the content of any judgement is always some putative individual object, rather than a proposition or state of affairs. In spite of its remarkable heterodoxy, however, Kriegel judges that Brentano’s account is astonishingly compelling and can be defended against several possible objections while facilitating a nominalistic ontology which is likely to appeal to current trends of metaphysical opinion. Kriegel ably and methodically proceeds to assess the prospects for Brentanian paraphrases for various forms of judgement, aiming in each case to show whether that judgement is reducible to an affirmation or denial of some particular object’s existence. In most cases, Kriegel maintains, adequate paraphrases are indeed available, although he expresses some doubt that such paraphrases accurately match the phenomenology involved in judgements of that kind. According to Kriegel, the best available Brentanian paraphrase of the negative compound judgement “­­­~ (p & q)” would be something along the lines of “there does not exist any sum of a correct belief in p and a correct belief in q”. While respecting the strictures of Brentano’s theory of judgement, Kriegel maintains, such a conceptually elaborate paraphrase – which involves second-order beliefs – is questionable as a description of the conscious experience involved in the judgement, “~ (p & q)”: a potential shortcoming in a theory alleged to rest upon no other foundation than the accurate description of immediately accessible conscious states.

Brentano’s metaontology – his account of what one does when one commits to the existence of something – provides the focus for Chapter Five. After summarising what he takes to be the three most prominent approaches in contemporary metaontology – those which he attributes to Meinong, Frege, and Williamson – Kriegel proceeds to distinguish Brentano’s position from each of these. Unlike any of the more familiar positions, Brentanto’s holds that nothing is predicated of anything – whether a subject or a first-order property – when something is said to exist. Rather, to say that something exists is to say that it is a fitting object of a certain kind of mental attitude – that of belief-in, or affirmative judgement. To say that x is a fitting object of belief-in, moreover, is to say that were a subject capable of deciding the matter on the basis of self-evidence then the attitude they would take to x would be one of belief-in. In view of serious problems attending Brentano’s analysis of belief-fittingness in terms of hypothetical self-evidence, however, Kriegel offers the revisionary proposal that belief-fittingness be understood as no less primitive than self-evidence. Belief-fittingness would be unanalysable in that case, although particular instances of belief-fittingness would be distinguishable by comparison against contrasting cases.

It is, for Kriegel, a liability of Brentano’s position that, by interpreting existence-statements as disguised normative claims, it fails to accommodate the phenomenology of such judgements, which do not seem at all, to those who make them, like statements about the mental attitude appropriate to one or another intentional object. Nonetheless, Kriegel maintains, Brentano’s position impressively circumvents a host of problems which have confronted the three most familiar metaontological approaches, and is entirely unburdened by any implicit commitment to objects which lack the property of existence without failing to qualify as beings of another exotic variety.

Brentano’s unorthodox theory of judgement and metaontology are largely motivated by a strong aversion to abstract entities, and it is to the nominalistic upshot of these Brentanian innovations that Kriegel turns his attention in chapter six. As Kriegel explains, however, Brentano’s ‘reism’ is quite unlike familiar ‘ostrich’ and ‘paraphrase’ forms of nominalism and is not vulnerable to the kinds of objection which have often been raised against such positions. As a form of ‘strict’ nominalism, it is not only abstracta which Brentano’s position rejects, but also universals, such that the Brentanian ontology condones no other entities than concrete particulars. The truth-maker for “Beyoncé is famous”, to take one of Kriegel’s own examples, is not a proposition or state of affairs, but the concrete particular “famous-Beyoncé”. “Famous-Beyoncé” is a curious entity, however, being co-located with a host of other complex concrete particulars, each of which makes true a certain statement about one and the same Beyoncé to which they are related as accidents of a substance.

Kriegel readily acknowledges, however, that a number of counter-intuitive commitments result from Brentano’s ‘coincidence model’. While recognising Beyoncé as a proper part of Famous-Beyoncé, Brentano is unwilling to risk the admission of abstract entities into his ontology by permitting Famous-Beyoncé to consist of any other proper part than Beyoncé. Although he thereby avoids any commitment to an abstract ‘fame’ supplement, the addition of which to Beyoncé results in Famous-Beyoncé, Brentano is also driven to the odd result that Beyoncé is a proper part without need of supplementation by any further part – a conclusion firmly at odds with the principles of classical mereology. In spite of its shortcomings, however, Brentano’s reism is, according to Kriegel, at least as plausible as any of the nominalist positions currently available, and provides a novel response to the truth-maker challenge.

With Part Three, ‘Value’, Kriegel turns his attention to Brentano’s much-overlooked account of the good. Chapter Seven offers an inventory of the main forms of interest – that basic genre of conscious states, all of the species of which present their objects as either good or bad in some way. Much as Brentano’s metaphysics rests upon his analysis of judgement, so does his theory of value bear a similar relation to his account of interest in its various forms – such as emotion, volition, and pleasure/displeasure. Because Brentano did not complete the projected Book V of his Psychology, in which he had intended to focus on interest in general, several of Kriegel’s proposals in this chapter are offered as ‘Brentanian in spirit’ and Kriegel is forthcoming in appealing to various scattered primary texts in supporting an interpretation of Brentano which he admits may seem anachronistic in its terminology and dialectical agenda.

All the same, Kriegel persuasively shows that Brentano’s works provide the resources for a distinction between will and emotion which respects their common evaluative-attitudinal status. Kriegel develops Brentano’s somewhat sketchy distinction between interests in compatible and incompatible goods by distinguishing between presenting-as-prima-facie-good and presenting-as-ultima-facie-good. Before deciding between incompatible alternatives, both might be emotionally presented as similarly good or bad, but one cannot rationally have incompatible alternatives as an object of volition. Volition differs from emotion, therefore, by presenting its object as ultima facie good, to the exclusion of objects with which it is incompatible. Although he does not suppose that Brentano would draw the distinction in such a fashion, Kriegel also maintains that pleasure and displeasure may be distinguished from emotions in a Brentanian spirit by treating algedonic states as presenting-as-immediately-present some good or ill, whereas emotions do not distinguish, in the presentation of an object, between present and absent goods.

Proceeding in chapter eight to an account of Brentano’s metaethics, Kriegel argues that Brentano may qualify as the original fitting attitude theorist. To call something ‘good’, according to Brentano, is to say that it is fitting to adopt a pro-attitude towards that thing. As such, the good is to interest, for Brentano, as the true is to judgement. The analogue for self-evidence, with respect to interest, is what Kriegel terms ‘self-imposition’ – a feature of those positive or negative value-assessments which irresistibly command our agreement, and which is directly available to inner perception. Those interests are fitting, Brentano maintains, which are either self-imposing or which would be given in inner perception to any subject with a self-imposing attitude towards the intentional object in question.

While highlighting the originality of Brentano’s metaethics – which he claims to anticipate Moore’s celebrated open question argument in certain important respects – Kriegel views self-imposition as a liability for Brentano, inasmuch as it is tasked with both normative and psychological-descriptive functions. For Kriegel, Brentano’s metaethics is an unstable combination of naturalist and non-naturalist features. Nonetheless, Kriegel shows Brentano to argue compellingly against a number of rival accounts and to circumvent certain difficulties which confront such competitors. What is more, Kriegel helpfully locates Brentano’s metaethics within a wider systematic context, returning throughout to parallels between his fitting attitude accounts of judgement and interest. Brentano’s aesthetics, or theory of beauty, is also seen to occupy a location within the same system and to involve a ‘fitting delight’ account, according to which that is beautiful the contemplation of which is itself the fitting object of a pro-attitude. The beautiful is therefore a species of the good, as Kriegel understands Brentano, and is distinct from moral value insofar as it involves the adoption of a pro-attitude towards the contemplation of a presentation.

With the ninth and final chapter, Kriegel turns his focus to Brentano’s normative ethics. Brentano is shown to advocate a pluralistic consequentialism which recognises four intrinsic goods: consciousness, pleasure, knowledge, and fitting attitudes. Whatever is instrumentally valuable in promoting the realisation of these intrinsic goods is therefore of derivative value, according to Brentano, and the right course of action to pursue in any given situation is that from which the greatest good shall result. Although he admits pleasure as an unconditional good – irrespective of its source – Brentano avoids certain counter-intuitive implications of cruder consequentialist positions by acknowledging fitting attitudes as further intrinsic goods. As such, Brentano can admit painful feelings of guilt at one’s own wrongdoing as being of intrinsic value. Whereas, however, Kantians can deny that there is any value in a pleasure derived from wrongdoing, this option is not open to Brentano, for whom the issue of weighing the various goods against one another therefore becomes especially pressing.

Kriegel takes Brentano to face a challenge here, however, and expresses concern that Brentano’s ethics may be unhelpful as a guide to moral action. Having highlighted, in the previous chapter, certain difficulties confronting the notion of self-imposition, Kriegel notes that it is to this same concept that Brentano appeals in attempting to distinguish between which of any two goods is preferable to the other. The fitting preference in any such case is that which the subject would take were their attitude self-imposing, but Kriegel argues that for most such comparisons this moral equivalent of self-evidence will presuppose a measure of knowledge unavailable to any recognisably human agent. As Kriegel observes, it is of little use to advise someone to act as they would were they endowed with perfect impartiality and all of the facts relevant to the case in question.

There is much to recommend Kriegel’s ambitious and scholarly text, which certainly achieves its stated task of demonstrating Brentano’s relevance for contemporary debates across several fields of analytic philosophy. Kriegel impressively avoids the dual perils which confront the historian of philosophy, by locating Brentano’s original contributions within their historical context without, however, denying their relevance to today’s debates. Kriegel perhaps sails uncomfortably close, for some tastes, to an anachronistic reading of Brentano’s arguments and commitments, by phrasing these in terms of a conceptual vocabulary which owes much to late Twentieth and early Twenty-First Century analytic philosophy. Kriegel is forthcoming, however, in admitting his departures from the letter of the relevant Brentanian texts in order to facilitate comparisons between Brentano’s positions and those of more contemporary analytic philosophers. Kriegel also admits to contributing ‘Brentanian’ theses of his own where necessary, in order to fill certain gaps in Brentano’s system or to accommodate objections which Brentano did not anticipate. As such, Kriegel’s account is explicitly revisionary in certain places, such as his recommendations concerning the nature of ‘fittingness’ and his proposals concerning a Brentanian aesthetics. At no point, however, does Kriegel depart significantly from Brentano’s stated position without having already clearly motivated the appeal of a broadly Brentanian contribution to some on-going philosophical debate.

If Kriegel’s Brentano is too much the analytic philosopher for some historians of the phenomenological movement then no doubt he is too much of a system-builder for others. As Kriegel recognises, Brentano’s works are not typically regarded as contributions to a systematic philosophical enterprise, and much of Kriegel’s effort is devoted to correcting this oversight. Here too, Kriegel admits to making ‘Brentanian’ contributions of his own in order to clarify possible links between different parts of Brentano’s system and to provide possible details for areas which Brentano himself left only in outline sketches. That Brentano’s various contributions to ontology, metametaphysics, metaethics, normative ethics and other fields merit interpretation as parts of an overarching system is left in no doubt, however, and this would be sufficient achievement for Kriegel’s impressive monograph, were it not also to highlight the originality and insight which Brentano brought to each of these fields. Most importantly, however, Kriegel admirably shows Brentano’s work to deserve the attention of researchers in several areas of philosophical research, and to reward careful study not only by historians of philosophy and scholars of phenomenology, but also contemporary analytic philosophers.

Dietrich von Hildebrand: Ethics, Hildebrand Project, 2020

Ethics Book Cover Ethics
Dietrich von Hildebrand. Introductory study by John F. Crosby
Hildebrand Project
2020
Paperback $26.99
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