Marie-Hélène Desmeules et Julien Farges présentent dans cet ouvrage pour la première fois une traduction française d’une partie du volume 37 des Husserliana qui reste jusqu’à présent non traduit en français. Ce volume contient des leçons sur l’éthique que Husserl donna entre 1920 et 1924. Toutefois cette traduction présente une partie de ces cours qui ne porte pas directement sur la question de l’éthique. C’est pourquoi précisément elle s’intitule Digression dans les Leçons (Exkurs in der Vorlesung). Cette version française traduit l’intégralité de la Digression, une partie des appendices ainsi qu’un choix de variantes.
Les traducteurs mettent au jour dans leur introduction deux thèmes fondamentaux qui structurent cette Digression, à savoir la normativité et la déconstruction. La question de la normativité est mue par la distinction opérée par Husserl entre les sciences d’objets (Sachwissenschaften) et les sciences normatives (Normwissenschaften), distinction dont le point culminant consiste selon les traducteurs dans l’élucidation phénoménologique du terme «évaluer» (werten). En effet, cette élucidation permet de démontrer au § 13 que les sciences normatives et l’éthique ne sont pas équivalentes.
Comme le montrent les traducteurs il y a l’œuvre dans ce texte de Husserl une réflexion sur la possibilité des sciences normatives, possibilité qui se conçoit par la structure intentionnelle de la conscience. Par là-même la normativité devient dans ce texte un objet d’étude en soi et n’est plus considérée à l’aune d’une simple application des sciences théoriques, approche que Husserl adopte dans le premier tome des Recherches logiques, Prolégomènes à la logique pure. Plus précisément, ce lien intrinsèque entre la normativité et la structure intentionnelle de la conscience se conçoit comme une relation intrinsèque entre le sens et l’objet visé, relation qui n’est pas réelle mais intentionnelle. En effet, cette relation implique une distance entre le sens et l’objet visé, ce qui fait que le sens subsiste même lorsque l’objet visé n’existe pas. Or c’est précisément cette distance qui fonde la possibilité des jugements normatifs puisqu’ils portent justement sur les visées de sens. Sur ce point l’explication des traducteurs est particulièrement éclairante : «s’il y a un sens à juger une visée de sens à l’aune de sa conformité à l’objet auquel elle se rapporte, c’est justement parce que la possibilité subsiste que l’objet ne soit pas tel qu’il est visé».
A partir de cette compréhension de la normativité l’on peut définir les sciences normatives comme des sciences qui reposent sur le rapport entre le sens et l’intuition. Comme le remarquent les traducteurs l’on retrouve cette compréhension des sciences normatives déjà dans les Ideen I, § 136-153. A partir de cette définition Husserl réinterprète la distinction entre les sciences de la nature et les sciences de l’esprit puisque seules les sciences de l’esprit admettent une orientation normative, les sciences de la nature ne pouvant avoir qu’une orientation objective.
Dans leur introduction Marie-Hélène Desmeules et Julien Farges offrent également une élucidation intéressante du rapport entre l’éthique et la normativité tel qu’il apparaît dans la Digression. Ils insistent sur l’idée développée par Husserl selon laquelle la valeur et la vérité ne sont pas équivalentes, ce qui permet justement de distinguer l’éthique de la normativité en fonction de ces concepts opérants qui leur sont respectivement propres. En effet, «la vérité ne « s’apprécie » (…) pas comme on apprécie la teneur affective et axiologique d’un objet ; elle consiste à vérifier que le sens est ajusté à l’attestation intuitive ». La vérité ne présuppose donc pas intrinsèquement un acte d’évaluation, raison pour laquelle elle est une catégorie qui n’est pas équivalente à la valeur. Par conséquent, l’éthique et les sciences normatives ne sont pas équivalentes. De façon très intéressante les traducteurs en concluent que la notion d’une éthique normative n’est pas pléonastique. Bien au contraire il est possible de concevoir également une éthique objective sur le modèle des Leçons sur l’éthique de 1914 de Husserl.
Toutefois. malgré cette distinction claire et nette entre l’éthique et les sciences normatives sur laquelle insistent les traducteurs force est de constater l’idée paradoxale soutenue par Husserl au § 13 de la Digression selon laquelle « l’éthique est de fait, parmi toutes les sciences normatives, la reine des sciences », semblant ainsi soutenir que l’éthique est bel et bien une science normative. Husserl justifie cette idée en affirmant que l’éthique « présuppose toutes les autres sciences et qu’elle les absorbe finalement en elle, et (…) qu’elle prête finalement à toutes les sciences une fonction éthique.» Marie-Hélène Desmeules et Julien Farges n’occultent pas dans leur introduction cette idée paradoxale.. Toutefois cette idée ne contredit pas à leurs yeux la distinction husserlienne entre l’éthique et les sciences normatives, étant bien plutôt un geste rhétorique censé exprimer l’idée selon laquelle l’éthique « transformerait en devoir pratique la normativité intentionnelle étudiée dans ces sciences », c’est-à-dire dans les sciences normatives.
Il aurait été sans doute intéressant de mentionner le contexte polémique au sein duquel Husserl élabore la distinction entre la valeur et la vérité et par là-même aussi entre la valeur et la norme. En effet, Husserl développe cette distinction contre la pensée de Windelband et de son école à laquelle il reproche de confondre « l’acte d’« évaluer » au sens affectif avec l’acte de « normer ». » Il est vrai toutefois que Husserl se limite à évoquer ce point, ce qui explique sans doute son omission dans l’introduction.
Le deuxième volet de la Digression déploie ce que les traducteurs considèrent comme étant la « première (et quasiment la seule) exposition circonstanciée de la méthode de la déconstruction (Abbau) » sous la plume de Husserl, méthode qui sera reprise par Heidegger et Derrida entre autres. L’exposition détaillée de cette méthode ne se retrouve selon les traducteurs que dans un seul autre texte de Husserl, datant de 1926, édité dans le volume 39 des Husserliana.
La méthode de la déconstruction est étroitement liée selon les traducteurs à la dimension génétique de la phénoménologie dont l’objet d’étude est « l’histoire des objets dans la conscience et, de façon corrélative, l’auto-constitution « historique » de la subjectivité constituante elle-même ». L’objet de la phénoménologie génétique est donc le pouvoir constituant de la passivité à la fois primaire et secondaire. Or au sein de la passivité secondaire s’édifie la sédimentation que les traducteurs définissent de façon très éclairante comme un « phénomène de modification continue en vertu duquel les acquis des visées actives de la conscience ne disparaissent pas quand ces visées cessent d’être actuelles mais persistent à l’arrière-plan de la conscience sur un mode rétentionnel, comme des dépôts d’activités antérieures prêtes à être réactivés ».
Or, la méthode de la déconstruction consiste justement en une procédure inverse, à savoir en une procédure de dépouillement (entkleiden, abtun) ou encore de désédimentation, terme que les commentateurs reprennent à Jean-François Courtine et à Dominique Pradelle. C’est une procédure de clarification du sens qui consiste à dépouiller les objets du monde de leurs couches de signification avec lesquelles ils nous sont toujours prédonnés. Par là-même il s’agit de mettre au jour un « niveau originaire d’expérience » au sein duquel se constituent les prédicats de signification.
Une telle procédure de déconstruction aboutit à un monde d’objets in-signifiants, dont on ne peut jamais faire l’expérience et que Husserl nomme monde de l’expérience pure. Comme le soutiennent Marie-Hélène Desmeules et Julien Farges, le fondateur de la phénoménologie reprend consciemment ce terme au philosophe empiriste et positiviste Richard Avenarius, puisque dès le début des années 1910 Husserl met en avant l’affinité qui existe entre sa phénoménologie et la pensée d’Avenarius, notamment dans des cours réunis dans le volume 13 des Husserliana. Ici il aurait été sans doute intéressant de remarquer que l’on retrouve cette notion d’expérience pure également au sein de la pensée de William James que Husserl n’était pas sans connaître.
De façon très intéressante les traducteurs attirent notre attention sur le fait que la manière dont Husserl utilise la notion d’expérience pure évolue au cours de ses écrits. En effet, si dans la Digression le monde de l’expérience pure s’oppose au monde de la vie, dans les textes ultérieurs regroupés dans les volumes 6, 9 et 32 des Husserliana le monde de l’expérience pure est tout au contraire identifié au monde de la vie.
Pour finir, les traducteurs évoquent la question du sens de ce procédé de déconstruction, qui consiste selon leur formule en une « reconstruction philosophique du monde ». Plus précisément cette reconstruction peut avoir un double sens, à savoir celui d’une restitution du monde de l’expérience dans sa concrétude ou celui d’une construction d’un monde ambiant conforme aux normes, d’un nouveau monde vrai corrélatif d’une humanité vraie. Cela permet finalement de montrer le lien intime qui relie la question de la déconstruction à celle de la normativité dans la Digression. En effet, «la méthode de déconstruction sert l’idée de normativité telle que Husserl l’a élaborée dans la première partie de la Digression ».
Plusieurs écrits ont été consacrés au sein de la littérature contemporaine à la question de la normativité d’une perspective husserlienne et plus généralement phénoménologique. En ce sens cette traduction ainsi que son introduction permettent d’approfondir une question actuelle et importante pour la recherche phénoménologique contemporaine. Plus particulièrement, la distinction que proposent Marie-Hélène Desmeules et Julien Farges entre les notions de normativité, de normalité et d’optimalité est particulièrement féconde pour nuancer les lignes de recherche contemporaines autour de cette question. Selon les définitions proposées par les traducteurs, la notion de normativité désigne la rectitude en fonction d’une norme, la notion de normalité indique ce qui devrait normalement être notre perception de l’objet tandis que la notion d’optimalité définit ce qui devrait être idéalement notre perception de l’objet. Ces distinctions conceptuelles permettent aux traducteurs de démarquer l’objet propre de recherche de la Digression, à savoir la normativité, de l’objet de recherche de plusieurs études phénoménologiques contemporaines qui n’est pas la normativité telle que l’entend Husserl dans la Digression mais la normalité et l’optimalité.
En conclusion, nous saluons cette première traduction française de la Digression dans les Leçons sur l’éthique de 1920 ainsi que les éclaircissements apportés par les traducteurs qui sont à la fois très utiles pour une meilleure compréhension des enjeux de ce texte mais aussi féconds pour la recherche phénoménologique contemporaine.
 Edmund Husserl, Normativité et déconstruction, Digression dans les Leçons sur l’éthique de 1920, trad. fr. par Marie-Hélène Desmeules et Julien Farges, Paris, Vrin, 2020, p. 16.
 Ibid,, p. 31.
 Ibid., p. 151 / Hua 37, 319.
 Ibid., p. 33.
 Ibid,, p. 146 / Hua 37, 316.
 Ibid., p. 36.
 Ibid., p. 37.
 Ibid., p. 38.
 Cf. Jean-François Courtine, « Réduction, construction, destruction. D’un dialogue à trois : Natorp, Husserl, Heidegger » dans Archéo-Logique. Husserl, Heidegger, Patočka, Paris, P.U.F., 2013, p. 35 ; Dominique Pradelle, Généalogie de la raison, Essai sur l’historicité du sujet transcendantal de Kant à Heidegger, Paris, P.U.F., 2013, p. 309.
 Edmund Husserl, Normativité et déconstruction, Digression dans les Leçons sur l’éthique de 1920, p. 42.
 Ibid., p. 47.
 Voir par exemple Steven Crowell, Normativity and Phenomenology in Husserl and Heidegger, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2013 ; Maxime Doyon et Thiemo Breyer (éd.), Normativity in Perception, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015 ; Matthew Burch, Jack Marsh et Irene McMullin, Normativity, Meaning, and the Promise of Phenomenology, New York, Routledge, 2019.
 Edmund Husserl, Normativité et déconstruction, Digression dans les Leçons sur l’éthique de 1920, p. 24.
Simone Weil once wrote about philosophy that it is “exclusively an affair of action and practice” (1970, 335). Weil, who was a Jewish intellectual, mystic, and political activist with Christian, Marxist and anarchist leanings, believed that philosophy could only be worth its while if it was willing to occupy itself with action and experience – with the reality of everyday concerns that give texture to everyday life. Her dedication to this idea is evident from Weil’s own life. Famously, she worked in factories, on fishing trawlers, and on farms; she also volunteered in the Spanish Civil War and (fruitlessly) attempted to advice De Gaulle on battlefield tactics during the Second World War. (Her suggestion, which was to parachute troops of nurses onto the battlefields of France, led De Gaulle to exclaim Weil was folle, a mad woman). All the while, these experiences became objects of Weil’s philosophical attention and were formative of the conceptual apparatus she eventually developed in her many essays, notebooks, and letters.
This, in a nutshell, is the central purpose driving David Zaretsky’s The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas: to examine Simone Weil’s thought through the prism of her life. In this lucid and knowledgeable book, which is both an introduction to Weil’s thought and a loose biography, Zaretsky starts from Weil’s insistence that “philosophy was neither theory nor discourse, but instead was practice” (10), and hence to be concerned with action and experience. The author, a historian who has previously written books on Albert Camus, James Boswell, and Denis Diderot, subsequently develops this idea by presenting the main philosophical concepts she developed in rich biographical detail to consider how she arrived at them and why they became important to her. In doing so, Zaretsky essentially argues that Weil’s philosophy is best read against the background of her biography, because her biography is inseparable from her philosophical ethos.
For Zaretsky, this ethos boils down to an unyielding attention for what he calls “the reality of life” (8) and her insistence that philosophy reckons with it. Citing Stanley Cavell, he writes that Weil was “exceptional in her refusal to be “deflected”; in her refusal to turn away from the reality of the other and the other’s suffering by way of philosophical skepticism. Cora Diamond (2003) has referred to this problem as “the difficulty of reality,” and she also mentions Weil as a “philosopher concerned with deflection” from it. To get a feel for how this ethos saturates Weil’s writing, it is worth reading a fragment from her essay Human Personality, also cited by Diamond (but not by Zaretsky).
Human thought is unable to acknowledge the reality of affliction. To acknowledge the reality of affliction means saying to oneself: “I may lose at any moment, through the play of circumstances over which I have no control, anything whatsoever that I possess, including those things which are so intimately mine that I consider them as being myself. There is nothing that I might not lose. It could happen at any moment that what I am might be abolished and replaced by anything whatsoever of the filthiest and most contemptible sort.” (2014, 81)
One way to read Weil’s oeuvre would then be as an attempt to acknowledge “the reality of affliction” and defuse the temptation of deflection. This also seems to be the reading of Weil proposed by Zaretsky in The Subversive Simone Weil.
It is a pity, then, that Zaretsky does not develop his allusion to Cavell in the introduction in the remainder of the book – at least not philosophically. In fact, although Zaretsky does compare Weil’s thought to the ideas of some other notable thinkers (George Orwell, Marcus Aurelius, and Hannah Arendt, to name a few), he rarely situates her in wider philosophical debates. He also does not provide fine-grained exegeses of her main philosophical works. But this does not seem to be the goal Zaretsky has set for himself in The Subversive Simone Weil. Indeed, this book should not so much be read as a philosophical interrogation of Weil’s thought than as an introduction to it, enriched by detailed biographical sketches that breathe life into her original ideas. Each of the book’s five chapters is devoted to a main concept of Weil’s vocabulary: affliction, attention, resistance, rootedness, and goodness. Zaretsky chooses these because he believes they “still resonate today. Or… should resonate” (11). Should resonate, because Zaretsky thinks that Weil’s concepts are not getting their proper due, and neither is Weil herself. He takes attention as an example: a popular topic amongst contemporary critics “in a world so deeply afflicted with attention deficit disorder” (12), but typically without any mention of Weil. One of Zaretsky’s aims here is to amend such oversights.
The five chapters that follow the introduction thus take as their subject a single concept of Weil’s – although, as Zaretsky professes in the introduction, “the terms often spill into one another” (12). The chapters are structured loosely, even impressionistically, their various sections separated not by subheadings but by asterisms. Each typically starts with a series of historical vignettes, setting the scene for how the concept in question began to matter to Weil. To elucidate the concepts he is investigating, Zaretsky cites liberally from Weil’s well-known books and essays, as well as from her notebooks and letters. He intersperses this exegetical work with brief forays into the work of like-minded thinkers, some of whom inspired Weil, some of whom were her contemporaries, and some of whom are inheritors of her ideas. Zaretsky’s writing throughout is outstanding: it is clear, to the point, and never needlessly complicated. It is also thoroughly absorbing. The way Zaretsky manages to weave together a coherent account of Weil’s thought from the different strands of her extensive oeuvre is nothing short of impressive.
The first chapter, “The Force of Affliction,” begins with Weil’s job interview at Alsthom, a factory manufacturing electronic equipment, when she was 25 years old. Weil had been working as a teacher in the south of France, where she had spent her evenings instructing French literature at a worker’s co-op. Seeking to strengthen her connections to the working class, Weil took a leave of absence from her teaching work and began her stint as a factory worker. It was in these “dim and deafening” (10) factories that Weil began contemplating the state of degradation and indignity she called le malheur, usually translated as “affliction”. Zaretsky cites Weil defining affliction as a condition that “deprives its victims of their personality and makes them into things” (19); it referred to a stripping away of one’s dignity and humanity that “rob[s] us of the power to say ‘I’” (quoted in Zaretsky, 20). For Weil, the factory was a principal site of affliction. The monotonous work, the vile managers, and the deafening clanging of machines turned workers into “slaves,” whose exhaustion gave way to the “strongest temptation that this life entails: that of not thinking anymore, which is the one and only way of not suffering from it” (quoted in Zaretsky, 14). Zaretsky embellishes his discussion of affliction with vivid accounts of the worker’s life taken from Weil’s notebooks.
Weil found the cause of affliction in what she called puissance, translated as “force” or “power”. Power, writes Zaretsky, was for Weil a “fundamental datum of human existence,” one as “omnipresent and overpowering as gravity” (14). Power, argued Weil, is not in anyone’s possession, and can never be secured for good. For this reason, it is constantly chased after by those seeking to possess it, to keep it from rivals, and to secure it from resistance of the powerless. It is this pursuit of power that Weil locates the cause of oppression – and finally, of affliction. Here, Zaretsky takes some time to discuss Weil’s essay on Homer’s Iliad, which for Weil was chiefly a poem about force: the true hero is not a warrior, but force itself, she wrote. The essay, Zaretsky notes, was written as Weil fled Paris for Nevers soon after France’s defeat to Germany in 1940. Weil saw mirrored in the destruction of Troy the suffering of her own and her fellow Parisians; this was the work of force.
Weil’s account of power calls to mind Nietzsche’s and also seems to presage Foucault’s, but Zaretsky leaves this resemblance unexplored. Instead, he turns to George Orwell, who like Weil had spent time in Paris in a working class job, as a plongeur washing dishes in the basement of the city’s restaurants. Orwell, too, discerned in the plight of the plongeur the markings of slavery and the gradual sapping away of one’s capacity to think. But unlike Weil, argues Zaretsky, he did not explore the spiritual meaning of their suffering; he focused on a critique of the worker’s material conditions. For Weil, on the other hand, affliction was an almost mystical experience, especially later in life, when she began edging closer to Christianity. After all, what sense was there to make of affliction in the face of God?
Soon after Weil left the factory, she joined her parents to a coastal town in Portugal. There, she overheard a group of fishermen’s wives perform a religious ritual. It proved to be a transformative experience for Weil, who saw as by revelation that “Christianity is pre-eminently the religion of slaves, that slaves cannot help belonging to it, and I among others” (19). In this connection to God, the state of affliction acquired a more ambivalent status for Weil. It was, as Zaretsky puts it, “ground zero of human misery” (19), but her attachment to affliction was unmistakable – it brought the slave closer to God. Citing Mary Dietz, Zaretsky admits that Weil risks “fetishizing” affliction in these writings. However, he also points out that affliction itself holds no value for Weil as such; its value lies in what we make of it. “Whether it can teach us anything as grand as wisdom depends on how we define wisdom. If virtues like comprehension and compassion, toleration and moderation are to constitute at least part of wisdom, we could do worse” (20).
The second chapter, “Paying Attention,” is devoted to what is perhaps Weil’s most famous notion: the work of attention. The chapter begins with an interesting reading of Weil’s ‘Essai sur la sur la notion de la lecture’, in which she argued that our “readings” of the world – our perceptions and observations – are inevitably inflected by our moral orientation. Or, as Zaretsky puts it, “the way in which we read the world turns on our particular location—moral, social, political, and economic—within the world” (21-22). In effect, Weil is essentially proclaiming the inseparability of fact and value, which, as Zaretsky points out, brought her in disagreement with most prevailing epistemologies of the time. Weil’s position seems a clear precursor of those taken by analytic moral philosophers such as Philippa Foot, Iris Murdoch, and Bernard Williams, but Zaretsky does not dwell on these parallels. Rather, he ponders another question of Weil’s: if our readings of the world are situated readings, is there “a single and right way to read”? (22). For Weil, a fervent Platonist, the answer would have had to be “yes”. And she looked for answers in her concept of attention.
To explain Weil’s concept of attention, Zaretsky takes his readers to her high school lessons, in which she instructed her students not to find answers to geometrical problems, but rather to contemplate the problems themselves. This principle, for Zaretsky, contains the essence of Weil’s conception of attention. For her, attention is not a “muscular effort” of concentration, but rather a “negative effort,” “one that requires that we stand still rather than lean in” (22). Attention requires the suspension of thought, so that one’s consciousness is cleared of self-concern and, as Weil put it, left “detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object” (quoted in Zaretsky, 23). Attention becomes a work of patient waiting, in which we diligently work at letting go of ourselves so as to make space for true understanding of fellow human beings. “In order for the reality of the other’s self to fully invest us,” writes Zaretsky, “we must first divest ourselves of our own selves” (23). It is in this way that attention becomes a method for discerning and responding to affliction. Attention is the moral work we must do to see what is “sacred” in the other.
Having defined the work of attention, Zaretsky makes brief excursions to Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations – comparing them to Weil’s notebooks – and to Kant’s discussion of reverence, which he likens to attention in Weil’s sense. Citing Murdoch again, he suggests that both concepts are concerned with “the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real” (1959, 51). The chapter then ends on a surprisingly personal note. Zaretsky ponders his own moral ineptitude as he faces a panhandler at an intersection as he is driving his car to work. (The scene, set in Houston, Texas, was not quite relatable for this European city-dweller who goes without a driving license.) Zaretsky berates his reluctance to witness the panhandler’s affliction with attention. “Let’s face it: she wants to be seen. Will I, though, allow myself to see her? Or will I allow the inevitable bottleneck of questions and rationalizations to come in between us?” (26). Zaretsky senses he is not up to the strict moral standard posed by Weil. But as he opens his car window to hand the panhandler some change, his children in the backseat, he hopes they will perhaps one day do so as well – and that even if they do not ask the panhandler, as Weil implores us to do, “What are you going through?”, then at least know that the question is important (quoted in Zaretsky, 27).
In the third chapter, “The Varieties of Resistance,” Zaretsky introduces the notion of resistance, which, he admits, is not strictly speaking a concept of Weil’s, but nonetheless a “a value that girds a great deal of her thought and merits a chapter of its own” (12). Zaretsky approaches resistance first of all as a common thread in Weil’s life. He narrates, for instance, her involvement in the Spanish Civil War and in the French resistance, both in the south of France and in London. He also chronicles how Weil rebelled against her own middle-class upbringing, by requesting to work on a fishing trawler (during a summer vacation), in a mine (whilst teaching in Le Puy), and on a farm – frequently egging on bemused workers to join her in protest. Zaretsky peppers these stories with great anecdotal details. For instance, he humorously describes how the family that let her work on the farm took offense in Weil’s insistence that their lives were wretched, poor, and altogether unhappy. “When their guest told them that she wanted to “live the life of the poor, share their burdens, and know their troubles,” the couple felt that Weil not only failed to recognize who they were, but also patronized them,” he writes (33). Such anecdotes paint Weil into a tragicomic figure: she was clumsy (her stint in Spain ended after she injured her foot stepping in boiling oil); she was inept (she fought in Spain with no idea of how to hold a gun); she made appalling mistakes (she dropped a suitcase full of secret Resistance pamphlets out in the streets). In many ways, Weil was unfit for the reality she was so eager to face – but which she nonetheless stubbornly kept close.
Throughout these experiences, argues Zaretsky, resistance also became an object of contemplation for Weil, even if not explicitly. He dives into Weil’s suspicion of the “collectivity,” which Zaretsky defines as “the convergence of the political, social, cultural, and economic forces that dictate our lives” (32). Collectivity, Weil believed, inhibits thought, and clear thinking is paramount to resisting the oppression caused by the vicissitudes of force. (Unsurprisingly, Weil was also suspicious of political parties.) This idea underlines once more Weil’s belief that the importance of thought lies in its connection to action. Zaretsky also discusses Weil’s complex form of pacifism, about which she changed her mind over time: having embraced pacifism for much of young adulthood, by 1939 she wrote in her diary that that “non-violence is good only if it’s effective” (quoted in Zaretsky, 35); a conviction she had already acted on several years earlier, when she joined the Spanish Resistance. As Zaretsky notes, Weil frequently “went to war on behalf of peace” (35); for her, in her own words, “[t]he struggle of those who obey against those command, when the mode of commanding entails destroying the human dignity of those underneath, is the most legitimate, most motivated, most genuine action that exists” (quoted in Zaretsky, 35). But if Weil valued resistance, she was not a dogged revolutionary: she was skeptical of the impulse to dehumanize and mistreat the oppressor one seeks to rise up against. Zaretsky closes this chapter with a reflection on the affinities between Weil and Camus (who was a great admirer of Weil’s), discerning traces of Weil’s “ethic of resistance” in Camus’ novels The Plague and The Rebel.
The fourth chapter, “Finding Roots,” starts with a discussion of Weil’s love for English pub culture, which she professed in her notebooks while living in London in the 1940s. What brought her to love the pub, argues Zaretsky, is their rootedness in the customs and traditions of what he calls an “English way of life” – which Weil discerned in the jolly atmosphere of the pub as much as in a performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. This notion of rootedness is also the thematic of Weil’s The Need for Roots, the last of her major works before her early death in 1943. In this book, Weil diagnoses the ills of modernity in terms of what she called déracinement or “uprootedness”: “the fact and feeling of homelessness” (41). For Weil, uprootedness conveys a sense of alienation from both place and tradition. Foreign invasion is one source of uprootedness, but Weil saw the condition epitomized in the factory, which uproots its workers both physically (by bringing them from the countryside into the city) and psychologically (through the rationalization of labour). Weil’s antidote to uprootedness is a “new patriotism” (50), which Zaretsky points out is to be nourished not by pride in one’s nation, but by compassion for others and an appreciation for the vulnerability of one’s nation. Zaretsky is careful to distinguish Weil’s conservatism from that of her right-wing contemporaries: he observes in her plea for a compassionate patriotism a more pacifying aspiration, as it “tightens the bonds of fraternity both between peoples and within a single people” (46). Her form of patriotism also causes Weil to denounce France’s colonial project. However, Zaretsky is critical of Weil’s reluctance to grand former colonies full independence, instead opting for a form of “protection” that would still tie them to “certain organized states”: “Weil,” he observes, “seemed either unwilling or unable to acknowledge that a growing number of the very people on whose behalf she spoke were no longer interested in such ties” (45).
The nation, then, emerges as a source of obligations to others. The content of these obligations is captured in Weil’s list of fourteen “needs for the soul,” which opens The Need for Roots. Zaretsky briefly discusses Weil’s famous critique of rights-based conceptions of justice in an essay called ‘Human Personality’: Weil was sceptical of the discourse of rights, which to her had a transactional undertone that she found painfully non-committal. To move away from the conditionality of rights, Weil proposed a discourse of obligation and duty based on the reality of human needs. Zaretsky then provides an insightful discussion of Weil’s similitude to Aristotle, in spite of her self-proclaimed love for Plato. He also does a good job linking Weil’s political thought to a variety of more contemporary thinkers. He likens her needs-based moral theory to Martha Nussbaum’s capability theory and compares her patriotic leftism to the communitarian impulse in writers such as Michael Sandel, Charles Taylor, and Amitai Etzioni. Disappointingly, Zaretsky fails to mention care ethicists like Joan Tronto (1993), who have built on Weil’s critique of rights in the well-known “care vs. justice” debate that was foundational for the formulation of care ethics in the 1980s and 90s. By skipping care ethics, he misses a notable body of work in which Weil’s thought does still, in Zaretsky’s words, resonate (Bourgault 2014).
Finally, in the fifth chapter, “The Good, the Bad, and the Godly,” Zaretsky offers a more prolonged examination of Weil’s engagement with Christianity and mysticism. Weil’s relationship to Christianity, as Zaretsky notes, was fraught with tension, as she was split between “the desire to surrender herself wholly to the church and her indignation at so much of its history and dogma that prevented her from doing so” (52). Weil’s dialogue with Christianity materialized in her conversations with two interlocutors: the Dominican priest Jean-Marie Perrin and “aspiring Catholic theologian” Gustave Thibon (52). After her death, she left both men with unpublished work, which they subsequently went on to publish, the former in Waiting for God and the latter in Gravity and Grace. Zaretsky mostly approaches Weil’s mysticism in terms of her idea of décreation, which loosely refers to the unmaking or undoing of the self in the face of God. This idea hinges on Weil’s image of God, who “shows his love to his creation by withdrawing from it” (54). God, in Weil’s understanding, cannot coexist in a cosmos with the non-divine, and for this reason, has no choice but to withdraw and hide. To love God is to join him in hiding: “Our being is nothing other than the will that we should consent not to be. He is forever begging from us the being which he gives. And he gives it so as to beg it from us” (quoted in Zaretsky, 54). Zaretsky is understandingly baffled by Weil’s descriptions of décreation. He deems her God “at best neurotic, at worst sociopathic,” and refers to our relationship to him as a “bizarre family dynamic” (54). To make more sense of Weil’s mysticism, he turns to one of her most famous readers: the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch. Murdoch, as Zaretsky puts it, adds another “o” to Weil’s “God,” and her notion of goodness turns décreation into a process of the gradual peeling away of the selfish ego, so as to open oneself to perceive and act on goodness. (Weil’s notion of attention, which became so important for Murdoch, is this idea’s backbone.)
This final chapter is briefer than the other four, and also a little less focused. Zaretsky oddly selects this chapter to expound on Weil’s distaste for political parties, where chapter three and four would probably have been more sensible choices. It is also surprising that Zaretsky has little to say here about the importance of Weil’s religious beliefs for her social and political thought. Especially towards the end of her life, these became increasingly indistinguishable. When, for instance, Weil writes that “the capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer… is almost a miracle” (quoted in Zaretsky, 23), this miracle is of God’s making; the miracle of goodness is also the miracle of God’s love. This is a thought Zaretsky hints at (especially in the first chapter), but he regrettably does not fully develop its ramifications here.
Zaretsky closes the final chapter with the observation that Weil’s thought is often impractical, even if it is important. Indeed, Weil’s “attraction to absolutes” (45) and the rigidity of her thought can encumber attempts to draw practical wisdom from her social and political philosophy. Or, as Raimond Gaita (2014, xxi) puts it, “[i]t is hard to be open to Weil’s political thought in a way that is consistent with both sobriety and idealism.” This is perhaps one reason why her thought does not resonate as strongly in contemporary thought as Zaretsky would like; but to Zaretsky, Weil’s severity is precisely her strength. Approvingly, he quotes Iris Murdoch, who once quipped that reading Weil is “to be reminded of a standard” (quoted in Zaretsky, 12). Indeed, Zaretsky sees in Weil an exemplary figure. Throughout The Subversive Simone Weil, his tone is reverential; and aside from some brief critical reflections (for instance, on her reading of the Iliad and on her position on colonialism), he refrains from scrutinizing her thought in much detail. Zaretsky frequently finds himself humbled by the unsparing nature of her thinking and of her personality, as well as of her insistence to engage with the world head-first. In the book’s epilogue, he refers to Weil’s friend and biographer Simone Pétrement, who poignantly observed: “Who would not be ashamed of oneself in Simone’s [Weil’s] presence, seeing the life she led?” (Quoted in Zaretsky, 60.)
In many ways, Weil embodies a picture of the intellectual that is much in vogue today: critical, uncompromising, and leaning towards activism. She is at least in this sense a timely figure. Nonetheless, Zaretsky does not fully make good on his promise in the introduction, which was to show how Weil’s core notions may resonate today. Sure enough, Zaretsky occasionally alludes to the relevance of Weil’s thought in our daily life (as in his encounters with panhandlers) or the present political moment (references to Trump’s administration abound). But the devil is in the details, and what sometimes misses from his discussions is a more sustained analysis of how Weil’s impractical stances may be rendered practical – or indeed, whether her rigidity and severity are not also in some ways flaws. If Weil really is so impractical, did she in fact succeed at avoiding “deflection” and face “the difficulty of reality”? By eschewing this question, or at most briefly hinting at answers (as he does in the epilogue), Zaretsky does not quite convince about the urgency of Simone Weil’s oeuvre for today.
But perhaps this is beside the point, as the accomplishments of The Subversive Simone Weil lie elsewhere. To be sure, Zaretsky is hardly the first to discuss Weil’s life in conjunction with her thought. Indeed, Weil’s biographical details punctuate many philosophical discussions on Weil. (Her martyrlike death of starvation, in part a consequence of her refusal to eat more than her fellow citizens in Occupied France, has become near-legendary.) But if these references can sometimes appear gratuitous, more concerned with myth-making than with sense-making, Zaretsky’s achievement here is to render Weil’s biography a rich resource for understanding her main philosophical ideas – and, in doing so, to provide a vivid, compelling, and stimulating introduction to the ideas of this singular philosopher. Newcomers to Weil’s oeuvre will be amazed (if not humbled), no doubt; but Zaretsky’s impressive scholarship should ensure that even those familiar with her life and work will find plenty to discover in this rewarding book.
Bourgault, Sophie. 2014. “Beyond the Saint and the Red Virgin: Simone Weil as Feminist Theorist of Care.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 35 (2): 1. https://doi.org/10.5250/fronjwomestud.35.2.0001.
Diamond, Cora. 2003. “The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy.” Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas 1 (2): 1–26. https://doi.org/10.1353/pan.0.0090.
Gaita, Raimond. 2014. “Foreword.” In Letter to a Priest, by Simone Weil, xiii–xxiv. London and New York: Routledge.
Murdoch, Iris. 1959. “The Sublime and the Good.” Chicago Review 13 (3): 42. https://doi.org/10.2307/25293537.
Tronto, Joan. 1993. Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care. New York: Routledge.
Weil, Simone. 1970. First and Last Notebooks. Translated by Richard Rees. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
———. 2014. “Human Personality.” In Letter to a Priest, 57–90. London and New York: Routledge.
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. 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. 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. 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.
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.
 cf. Shestov 1975, 221 – “The Irrational Residue of Being”
 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.
It is precisely in this line of thinking that I would place any hope of approaching Shestov in an ethically fruitful way.
The Wiley–Blackwell 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). 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, 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.
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.
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’) 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.
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.
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’. 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. 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.
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.
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). 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.
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.)
 Brian O’Connor translates ‘referierbar’ as ‘reportable’ (526), which seems a more elegant solution.
 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.
 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’.
 “[…] 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].
 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.
 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.”
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 ). 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 ). 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.
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 . 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 . 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.