‘Persons are living beings, not programs’
Fuchs’ phenomenological theory of embodied anthropology
Thomas Fuchs is Karl Jaspers Professor of Philosophical Foundations at the Psychiatry Clinic of the University of Heidelberg. He chairs the research section „Phenomenological Psychopathology and Psychotherapy“ at the Psychiatric University Hospital Heidelberg.
His latest book, In Defense of the Human Being, meticulously demonstrates how corporeality, vitality, and embodied freedom are intertwined and defeat any attempt to reify human beings, either through identifying them with machines or through digitalizing their existence thanks to algorithms and the digitalization of the lifeworld.
Indeed, the book argues that the standard humanistic paradigm displayed by Western societies, especially since the Renaissance, is superseded by a technological and transhumanist view that aims to develop an even more predictable and controllable version of the human being. Fuchs explains: “It is not my concern to defend humanity against an accusation but against a questioning. Because today, in question is what one could call—with unavoidable imprecision—the humanistic image of man. At the center of this image is the human person as a physical or embodied being, as a free, self-determining being, and ultimately as an essentially social being connected with others.”
Challenging and questioning our image of humanity entails another questioning that targets the philosophical and anthropological validity of our moral and ethical claims (dignity, personhood, responsibility, etc.). In other words, defending humanity responds to the urgent need for grounding our anthropological image of the human being based on the findings of contemporary science. Far from debunking the humanistic paradigm, Fuchs argues that recent findings concerning embodied freedom, relationality, the plasticity of the brain, etc., prove authentic our relational and embodied experience as human beings, and defeat the mechanical view of the body as well as the chimera of artificial intelligence and other transhumanist projects. In so doing, Fuchs admirably shows that endorsing the latter will alienate rather than emancipate human beings and may lead to new psychological conditions if technology is not used appropriately. As such, Fuchs’s book deserves to be known and read as it successfully defeats the diagnosis and predictions of Yuval Noah Harari’s book: Homo Deus (2017), according to which „Homo sapiens is an obsolete algorithm“ (Harari, 2017, p. 381; Fuchs 2021: 3). To do so, Fuchs deconstructs three assumptions that lie behind this „scientistic view of humans“: reductionist naturalism, the elimination of the living, and functionalism according to which „phenomena of consciousness are attributed to processes of neuronal information processing. „The author puts forward a philosophical anthropology that insists on “embodiment and aliveness” to characterize the person:
“No abstract inwardness, disembodied consciousness or pure spirit are the guiding ideas of a humanistic view of the person, but the person’s concrete physical existence. Only when it can be shown that the person is present in her body itself, that the person feels, perceives, expresses, and acts with her whole body, do we escape confinement in a hidden inner space of consciousness, an inaccessible citadel from which only signals penetrate to the outside world, signals which can no longer be distinguished from the those of artificial intelligence. Furthermore, only when persons have an embodied freedom, i.e., determine themselves as organisms in decisions and actions, does subjectivity become more than an epiphenomenon, i.e., really effective in the world”.
The book is divided into three parts: 1/ Artificial Intelligence, Transhumanism, and Virtuality; 2/Brain, Person, and Reality; 3/Psychiatry and Society. The first two parts delve into the anthropological and existential implications of the brain paradigm already explored in the Ecology of the Brain (2017) to show their impact on the way individuals relate to themselves and each other. Fuchs demonstrates the philosophical inconsistencies of the assimilation of the brain to machines and algorithms, the self-reification at stake, and its psychological consequences for the subject. Part three illustrates the necessity to provide society with an adequate anthropological foundation to address pressing issues such as aging, dementia, or psychological conditions.
The first chapter clarifies the distinction between human and artificial intelligence. Debunking the dream of replacing humans with robots thanks to algorithms, Fuchs explains the epistemological and ethical implications of dematerialization and the disincarnating process at stake. His critical analysis of „information“ plays a key role as Fuchs rightly explains that “information only exists where someone understands something—that is, news as news signs as signs. Information exists only for conscious living beings or for persons.“ In other words, a computer does not „understand“ messages; it „computes“ them. This clarification brings to light how human beings project their abilities, states of mind, and emotions into machines. In other words, we should be aware that “we are only dealing here with metaphors.” Subsequently, this chapter retraces the history of the digital revolution to underline the categorical differences between human intelligence and AI. Fuchs claims that „there can be no real intelligence without life and consciousness“ and that, therefore, the idea of „artificial intelligence“ or „artificial life“ is self-contradictory. Opposing Harari’s claim that „organisms are algorithms,“ Fuchs claims that „programs“ are not persons and persons are not programs. Technological artifacts rely on simulation, yet they lack qualitative and differentiated experience. It also applies to the brain’s functioning: “The brain is not a control center, but an organ of resonance and relations (Fuchs, 2018). Only living beings are conscious, feel, sense, or think—not brains and not computers. Persons are living beings, not programs.“ Consequently, this chapter appraises the challenge addressed to medicine and scientific research by artificial intelligence as it unconsciously challenges the image we have of human beings, their finitude, and their capabilities. Ultimately, artificial intelligence addresses not only epistemological and ontological questions but ethical dilemmas as it pretends to become a new compass to consider our existence against its performance.
Chapter two expands on this idea by assessing the worldview and ideology developed by transhumanism. Transhumanism seems to do away with what is the most salient feature of humanity: namely, embodiment. Indeed, by considering human beings either as purely “biological machines” or “pure minds” to be programmed, transhumanism denies the very “foundation of our existence” and the irremissible power of “cultural shaping” in the way we conceive of our physical nature. In other words, instead of fully acknowledging life’s dynamism and the realization of freedom through the „embodied enactment of life,“ transhumanism reveals a process of self-reification that relies on a „false concept of consciousness.“ Moreover, the utopia of the „new man“ liberated from finitude and mortality eradicates the very idea of freedom and accomplishment, as limitations and resistance precisely confer its value to any endeavors: “transhumanist utopias thus counteract the very efforts that have so far supported the idea of improving the human world – the efforts to achieve social, cultural, and moral progress based on individual and collective efforts, progress that cannot be achieved by technical reconstruction of the human being but only by self-education, self-development, and the common shaping of the lifeworld.” The chapter ends with a consistent criticism of neuro-reductionism and the fantasy of “mind uploading” that relies on an epistemological and philosophical fallacy. The epistemological mistake consists in identifying the brain and the person; the philosophical dead-end annihilates freedom at the very moment it seeks to expand it: indeed, contrary to what transhumanism argues, „this embodied and thus, of course, mortal individuation is the price we have to pay in order to experience the freedom and wonder of earthly existence.“ Transhumanism is ultimately a form of neo-Gnosticism that carries significant ethical consequences.
Chapter three focuses on the impact of neuro-constructivist paradigms on our intersubjective relations through the example of virtuality. Does the virtual world help us develop and improve empathy, or does it compromise its flourishing? “What consequences may ensue for intersubjectivity and relationships in our society because of increasing virtualization of perception and communication? How is empathy transformed when it is increasingly directed to a virtual other?” According to Fuchs, empathy relies first and foremost on our corporeality and the embodied dynamics of inter-affectivity. Recalling Scheler’s conception of empathy, Fuchs explains that “we experience the other person primarily as a psycho-physical unity of expression.” What we generally understand as perspective-taking or imaginative transposition (putting oneself in the other’s shoes) reflected a different level of empathy that the author describes as “explicit empathy“: “it seems necessary to differentiate between a primary, implicit, or bodily empathy and an expanded, explicit, or imaginative empathy. The latter already involves an element of “as-if” and thus of virtuality.” The question thus arises whether we could disconnect primary bodily empathy and imaginative empathy, as it happens in “virtual empathy.” According to Fuchs, “the culture of growing virtuality and simulation is connected with disembodiment, a retreat from bodily and intercorporeal experience. Simultaneously, empathy tends to separate itself from these experiences and to shift into virtuality – into a space where we are confronted by hybrid forms of the other as a mixture of appearance, simulation, and illusion, and where the medium and the mediated reality intercorporeal pole toward the virtual and projective pole of the spectrum.” Consequently, the “media-based idealism” that inspires our digital age may well give us the impression that we are all easily interconnected, yet it considerably undermines the reality of the qualitative experience we undergo while facing – for real – the presence of the other. Indeed, virtual communication lacks non-verbal synaesthetic interaction. It modifies and structure our attention and often reinforces individual projections and ego-centeredness rather than achieving genuine empathy. Fuchs then concludes with an epistemological and ethical claim: „only when others become real for us in this manner can we become real for ourselves. Today, our relationships come increasingly to be mediated, even produced, by images. But no one encounters us through a smartphone. The virtual presence of the other cannot replace inter-corporeality. “
The second part of the volume provides a critique of cerebrocentrism and the way the brain paradigm shapes our conception of reality and self-identity.
Chapter four analyzes the abusive identification between person and brain and the way such an approach to personal identity lays further the ground for a simplistic approach of reality and subjectivity: “for neurobiology, the brain becomes the new subject, the thinker of our thoughts and doer of our actions; subjectivity itself is only a useful illusion.” This neurobiological conception disqualifies our ordinary conception of freedom and decision-making. It entails a deterministic conception of the human world as if thoughts and actions were governed by predictable movements and neuronal connections. According to this worldview: “persons are cerebral subjects, and images of the brain are the modern icons of the person.” On the contrary, Fuchs aims to show that “the brain is only an organ of the person, not the seat of the person. In other words: personhood means embodied subjectivity.” This chapter thus reinvests the previous critique of neuro-constructivism to show that the latter reinforces the Cartesian paradigm of exteriority that does not match the reality of our embodied interactions with ourselves and the world. Drawing on the analysis developed in The Ecology of the Brain, Fuchs shows that the person is not reducible to her brain, even if this organ – as a mediating organ – is key to her understanding of the world. Persons are “embodied subjects” and “living beings.” Neurosciences are thus wrong to undermine the role played by the body – as a lived body – in our understanding of the world as the brain cannot be dissociated from the living organism it draws upon: “this ‘cerebrocentrism’ neglects the interrelationships and circuits in which the brain is situated – as if one were to examine the heart without the circulation or examine the lungs without the respiratory cycle. The reason for this is that the neurosciences have no concept of a living organism. They are still trapped in the computer metaphor of the mind.” To Fuchs instead: “Conscious experience therefore only arises in the overarching system of organism and environment, through the interplay of many components to which the brain and the entire body with its organs, senses, and limbs belong, just as much as the appropriate objects of the environment. The brain is the organ that mediates these interactions; in short: an organ of mediation and relation. But, in the brain itself there is no experiencing, no consciousness, no thoughts. (…) the brain is therefore a crucial condition of the possibility of personal existence in the world. However, the person is not a part of the body, but the body-mind unity, the living human being. Persons have brains, they are not their brains.”
Chapter 5 concludes this critique of cerebrocentrism and argues for a libertarian conception of embodied freedom. Even if freedom may be philosophically challenged by determinism, we all have decisions to make in the experience of our day-to-day lives. Thus, our lived experience of freedom is irreducible and must be accounted for. Consequently, Fuchs develops a concept of embodied freedom that reflects the person’s life and does not limit its course to unfolding brain activities or the weight of individual determinations and constraints. According to the author: “If one wants to find the cause of a person’s actions, one must not look for them in an „I“ or in the brain but only in the person with all their mental and physical states, or in other words, in the person as an embodied subjectivity.” The person as an embodied subjectivity is thus the source of all decisions. This conception defeats linear causality and psycho-physical determinism to claim back our human sense of responsibility and freedom. To Fuchs, the critical element lies in the person’s self-relation. Drawing on the notion of „circular causality“ analyzed in depth in his previous book, The Ecology of the Brain, the author does not oppose the mind and the organism but instead merges the two poles into an „overarching structure“ that interrelates the level of life and the level of existence. This view is not only philosophical. Fuchs demonstrates that it corresponds to a true scientific conception of the human being as a person that is more realistic than the scientist accounts based on cerebrocentrism. He further argues that “we do not find any empirical findings in the scientific world that are insurmountably opposed to our experience of freedom of choice” and that it is the human being’s responsibility not to get trapped in a worldview that might lock herself „in the cage of determinism.“
Chapter 6 questions the worldview elaborated by neuro-constructivism and how it has disrupted our sense of the lifeworld to replace it with the „brain world.“ According to this worldview, reality is a construction and simulation of the brain, and our world of senses is “a world of illusion.” Fuchs shows that such a conception is not new and relies on a hidden Cartesian dualism that divides the world into artificial “inner” and “outer” dimensions. „Representationalism“ objectifies human reality and amounts to a process of „de-anthropomorphizing“ that divests the human being from its same characteristics as an embodied living being. Contrary to this perspective, Fuchs recalls his account of perception based on sensorimotor interaction. According to the enactive conception, „embodiment, lifeworld, and reality mutually ground each other.“ Mutual perception and recognition frame our perception of reality and prevent us from reducing our first-personal lived experience to brain mechanisms.
Chapter 7, titled “Perception and Reality: Sketch of an interactive realism,” goes a step further by elaborating on the enactive approach to perception and embodiment to promote a „lifeworld realism.“ It argues that “the fundamental reality is not the world of measurable quantities and particles abstracted by the special sciences, in particular physics, but the common reality of the lifeworld constituted by implicit intersubjectivity.“ In other words, the brain should be conceived as a „mediating or relational organ, not as an internal producer of perception.“ Neuroconstructivist approaches seem to reproduce the type of disconnected sense of reality one founds in schizophrenia. According to Fuchs, “The “ego tunnel” in which one lives according to the neuroconstructivist conception, the movie-in-the-head that is supposedly presented to us by our brain, is only a pathological state that patients experience in psychosis (Fuchs, 2020). In everyday experience, on the other hand, we find ourselves in the shared world, constituted by the implicit intersubjectivity of perception“.
The third and last part of the book focuses more directly on the role and status of psychiatry in contemporary society and the scientific landscape.
Chapter 8, „Psychiatry: between psyche and the brain,“ investigates psychiatry’s relation to the spirit and analyzes its various discourses‘ epistemological and historical roots. Fuchs recalls the specific status of psychiatry and its historical relation to natural and human sciences. Contemporary reductionism makes psychiatry contingent upon a kind of neurobiological monism: „Mental disorders are brain disorders“ is the guiding principle of biological psychiatry today,” Fuchs explains. Following his previous critique of neuro-constructivism, the author offers an alternative account of psychiatry as “a comprehensive relational medicine” – a practice that reconnects with the interpersonal aspect of reality’s experience. According to this view, the impact of environmental and social factors on the individual is as much significant as the genetic and biological factors involved in mental illnesses. Following the tradition of phenomenological psychiatry (Binswanger, Straus), Fuchs defends a global approach of the person in this chapter. Indeed, psychiatry’s „primary object is not the brain, but the person living in relationships.“
Chapter 9 explores the relationship between embodiment and personal identity and how it may be disrupted in dementia. Personal identity is a „basal self-experience“ coextensive to embodied experience. It refers to a non-predicative sense of self that yet unifies our stream of consciousness. Echoing Merleau-Ponty’s description in The Phenomenology of Perception, this phenomenological account of personal identity does not require narrative skills or reflective processes to characterize one’s sense of self. Instead, it argues that the ecological and enactive approach of the subject includes the constitution of personal history at the level of the habitual body.
From this perspective, Fuchs analyzes contemporary approaches to dementia, primarily based on externalist or discursive accounts that miss the crucial role of embodiment in preserving the subject’s first-person perspective. According to Fuchs: “the concept of embodied personhood and history is able to change our image of dementia. In place of a brain and cognition-centered perspective, we may adopt the view of the patients in their own individual embodiment, which, for its part, is embedded in social and environmental contexts. (…) A concept of person grounded solely in rationality and reflection inevitably stigmatizes people with severe cognitive deficits. By contrast, bringing in a concept of person orientated towards embodiment and inter-corporeality, the response and relational capabilities of patients become a significant foundation of their personhood—such as the ability to give expression to joy, gratefulness, sorrow, or fear that is still preserved”.
Finally, the last chapter – chapter 10 – compares and contrasts the cyclical time of the body with the linear time of modernity. Expanding on the concept of physical memory, Fuchs analyzes the alterations of the experience of time in various mental illnesses and how they conflict with the demands of modernity. Modernity and, in particular, Western economies rely on a linear time that is always prone to be accelerated. The cyclical time of the organic body also matches the cyclical time of the unconscious brought to light by Freud in „repetition compulsion“ – a sense of time that is also profoundly disrupted in other mental illnesses. Fuchs gives the example of the manic patient and the one suffering from depression. Both conditions reveal a specific way to relate to the modern lifeworld or to be cut off from it. As the author explains: „precisely as a fundamental disorder of temporality, depression, like no other mental illness, reflects the conflict between the primary, cyclical structure of life processes and the rule of linear time, which has been established in Western culture since modern times. Desynchronization, falling out of linear world time, becomes a latent threat in our competitive and accelerated society, which has to be fought against continuously. In depression, these efforts fail, the individual lags hopelessly behind, and decoupling from the common time becomes a reality.“ Implementing back a rhythmization of one’s life, based on the cyclical time of the body, could help restore a connection to oneself and others.
In line with his previous book (The Ecology of the Brain), Thomas Fuchs continues his critical, epistemological and phenomenological work by offering us a book resolutely turned towards pressing contemporary issues: the virtual world, aging, the status of care for the most vulnerable in our Western societies. Far from the gnostic fantasies of transhumanism, Fuchs offers us a phenomenology of the life of the mind that is both resolutely human and existentially fruitful.
The legacy of Jaspers and existential psychiatry (Binswanger, Straus, Minkowski) is evident here. Any scientific project is the consequence of a specific anthropological vision of the human being. What we could call the de-anthropologization of the world in favor of a technocentric approach must also be considered a contemporary worldview. We are then facing the following alternative as a limit situation: either the headlong rush into the ideological consolidation of this worldview and the deadly reification of the human and the living as a whole or an existential leap that allows us to reconcile a scientific approach to the world and a critical phenomenology of our relationship to it. By offering us a salutary deconstruction of contemporary scientism, which claims to master and go beyond the limits of the body and consciousness through technology, Fuchs offers an approach as accurate as adjusted to science, denouncing the myths of its metaphors (information, dematerialization, etc.). The author admirably demonstrates that this worldview is based on a normative conception of normality and dictated by a representation of the human being designed to match our contemporary pleonexia.
The book is vibrant, and we would like to highlight three aspects of it: 1/ the phenomenological deconstruction of contemporary psychiatry and the highlighting of an expanded concept of consciousness that reintegrates its ethical dimension and its embodied anchorage; 2/ the defense of a humanism that is less the classical humanism of the spirit than a humanism of the living, embodied spirit. In other words, the philosophical critique of Cartesian ontology calls for its overcoming in a renewed humanism anchored in phenomenological realism. 3/ The crucial role of the concept of the lifeworld and the relational and interpersonal dimension of any properly human existence.
Fuchs would undoubtedly acknowledge the words of Erwin Straus, who already stated in his writings that: „The object of psychiatric action is not primarily the brain, the body, or the organism; it should be the integral man in the uniqueness of his individual existence as this discloses itself – independently of the distinction between healthy and sick – in existential communication“ (Philosophy and Psychiatry); or the words of Binswanger for whom psychiatry is a „science of man, of human existence.“ It is not a question of denying some illnesses‘ biological and organic dimensions. Instead, it is necessary to articulate this level of analysis and understanding with the existential and relational possibilities that give it meaning and inscribe the latter in the biography of a person. The richness of Fuchs‘ analysis shows that this is not a theoretical bias. Recent scientific findings make the phenomenology of embodied cognition and enaction more credible and inescapable. In other words, contrary to the contemporary ideology developed by novelists like Harari, freedom is not the founding myth of our humanity but its real and embodied fulfillment. Fuchs insists on this crucial point: „Humanism in the ethical sense, therefore, means resistance to the rule and constraints of technocratic systems as well as to the self-reification and mechanization of humans“ „The defense of man is, in this respect, not only a theoretical task but also an ethical duty. “ (Fuchs).
The high prevalence of mental illnesses in our contemporary times is explicitly correlated with a weakening of the social bond and atomization of the existence of individuals that can only increase in the schizoid world of the “technological mind.” Conversely, the examples of care, and in particular the care of older people with dementia, show the importance of interpersonal relationships and real socialization to guarantee the well-being and dignity, and self-esteem of one’s person. The ecology of the embodied self, therefore, requires us to question our modern systems based on the performance of individuals and self-sufficiency in order to consider the resources of our vulnerability and finitude, especially at the ethical and relational levels: “ As the other becomes real for us in his body, we also become real for ourselves, as bodily beings appearing in their bodies. Embodiment, lifeworld, and reality mutually ground each other” (Fuchs, 155). Isolating someone is undoubtedly the best attempt to destroy her humanity. The valorization of the disembodied spirit in our contemporary societies through digitalization – an ideological perversion of Cartesian ontology – alienates us at the very moment it thinks it can liberate us.
Fuchs‘ phenomenological realism insists on embodied cognition and its constitution in the lifeworld (Lebenswelt). It is constitutive of our free relationship with others and the world in that our choices and environments determine each other. Interactive realism goes beyond materialist monism and Cartesian dualism in favor of a relational ontology whose primary constituent is interdependency: „Because perception, according to my first thesis, is neither an activity of the brain nor a process in an inner mental world, but rather an active engagement of living beings with their environment, or in short: perception means sensorimotor interaction. (Fuchs, 158).
The aesthesiological and cosmological dimension of perception promoted by interactive realism allows us to overcome the explanatory gap. Indeed, „only humans can grasp objects and situations as such, i.e., independently of a purely subjective perspective“ (Ibid.) From this perception arises a form of responsibility towards other human and non-human forms of life. In other words, any epistemological perspective on the human being also implies an ethical perspective on freedom, truth, and reality. Such a perspective opens new philosophical ways to existential psychiatry, in the tradition of Straus, as we have said, but also of Minkowski.
We can only rejoice at this demonstration which brilliantly defeats the worldview of neuro-constructivism and the fallacy of the technological mind who pretends “to encounter us through a smartphone.” Fuchs‘ book keeps all its promises and offers an essential analysis that holds the human being and the world together. This phenomenological approach departs us from the paradigm of power and mastery that foments some posthuman conceptions in favor of a paradigm that resynchronizes life and embodiment to make us responsible for our ways of being and living together within the common world, here and now. As such, by defending the human being, Fuchs defends all forms of life against the reductionisms or relativisms alienating them.
Karsten Harries’ The Antinomy of Being, which is based on his final Yale graduate seminar, is a deeply ambitious study that brings to the table vast scholarship across a range of philosophical, as well as literary, theological, early modern scientific, and art historical sources. Focusing especially on what he presents as a key problematic in the work of Kant, Nietzsche and Heidegger, Harries demonstrates the way that this notion of the antinomy of Being is at the heart of the condition of possibility of truth, and thus for any response to the spectre of nihilism. When taken as a whole, his arguments make a compelling case not only for the centrality and irreducibility of this issue across a range of philosophical fields, but also for any rigorous meta-philosophical reflection. This welcome development in Harries’ work is a text that challenges contemporary thought across various fields.
The idea of the antinomy of Being is one that Harries has presented and discussed numerous times in his writings over the last decade and a half in particular, generally as part of a more finely focused argument that opens into this larger underlying set of concerns. However, in this 2019 monograph, Harries provides a fully developed account of what he describes as “the unifying thread of [his] philosophical musings” from over half a century of teaching, even if the term itself appeared in his work only comparatively recently (AB, 1).
“Antinomy” is associated with paradox; aporia; the limits of language; cognitive dissonance; and possibly even the limits of logic. More specifically (especially in a Kantian context), it relates to the clash between two apparently contradictory beliefs, each of which is entirely justifiable. Two of the four famous antinomies in Kant’s first Kritik (relating to space and time, freedom, substance and ultimate necessity) are the subject of explicit attention in this book, as is the way that the same fundamental problematic can be seen as being deeply at play in the work of Martin Heidegger and various other post-Kantian thinkers. The ways that these more specific cases arise in Harries’ text will be surveyed below. However, it is important also to note that Harries’ concern is not to simply paint his topic as an issue in the thought of a particular group of philosophers. To the contrary, his larger and more basic project is to show that the antinomy of Being is an irreducible element in all thought, cutting across all disciplines and genres. Consequently, its denial amounts to the distortion of thought, while coming to terms with it is the only pathway to intellectual (perhaps also existential) authenticity. For ultimately, it is a question of how it is possible to respond to the ever-present threat of nihilism (the topic of his 1962 doctoral dissertation). As he puts it early in his Introduction:
[O]ur thinking inevitably leads us into some version of this antinomy whenever it attempts to comprehend reality in toto, without loss, and that a consequence of that attempt is a loss of reality. All such attempts will fall short of their goal. What science can know and what reality is, are in the end incommensurable. Such incommensurability however, is not something to be grudgingly accepted, but embraced as a necessary condition of living a meaningful life. That is why the Antinomy of Being matters and should concern us. (AB, 2)
What is the nub of Harries’ contention? In a sense, the book is something of a manifesto for hermeneutical realism, and in such a way that places equal weight on both hermeneutics and realism as complementary poles of the antinomy of Being as a whole. On one hand, there is an absolute insistence on the finitude of all understanding (“hermeneutics goes all the way down” as the old adage has it), while on the other hand there is an equally strong insistence on the real as that which is finitely understood. In this way, the twin disasters of nihilism – i.e., idealism (nothing can be known; or there is no real as such) and dogmatism (in its many guises, be it scientism, religious fundamentalism, etc) – are both variations on the theme of denial of the ineluctable antinomy of Being. Both idealism and realism contain kernels of truth, but in canonising one side of the antinomy and marginalising the other, both are ideologies that destroy the balance required to underpin the possibilities of knowing in any genuine sense. On one hand, idealism absolutizes the rift between mind and world so that it is portrayed as an unbridgeable chasm that makes knowledge of the real impossible. On the other hand, in its claim to have captured and represented the real, there is something absurd and self-undermining in rationalistic realism, and in presenting a shrunken parody of the real it too vacates the space for nihilistic conclusions.
In seeking to do justice to both sides of the antinomy, Harries is not afraid to defend what he sees as the key insight of the Kantian antinomies that he links respectively (if unfashionably) to the transcendental and the transcendent dimensions of the real:
[T]he being of things has to be understood in two senses: what we experience are first of all phenomena, appearances, and as such their being is essentially a being for the knowing subject. Science investigates these phenomena. But the things we experience are also things in themselves, and as such they possess a transcendent being that eludes our comprehension. The identification of phenomena, of what science can know, with reality is shown to mire us in contradiction. (AB, 1)
I suggest that Harries’ stance invites comparison with other contemporary forms of hermeneutical realism, such as that developed by Günter Figal. Figal’s approach places the focus on the problem of objectivity: of the thing’s standing over against the subject as irretrievably other, even in its being understood and grasped. As Figal puts it, “[h]ermeneutical experience is the experience of the objective [das Gegenständliche]—of what is there in such a way that one may come into accord with it and that yet never fully comes out in any attempt to reach accord.” Similarly, it is this simultaneous knowability and unknowability of things that Harries highlights in his observation of the antinomy that characterises all understanding of the objective, of that which shows itself – only ever finitely and incompletely – as the real.
In the first chapter of the book, Harries sets out his account predominantly with reference not to Kant, but to Heidegger. These pages provide a condensed summary of some of the major aspects of his previously published readings of Heidegger that gather around this theme. For Harries, the confrontation with the antinomy of Being is at the heart of a key tension in Being and Time, a tension that Heidegger repeatedly returns to for the rest of his life. Even if Heidegger never used the term, Harries asserts that it is directly evoked in his notion of “the ontological difference” (the difference between beings and their Being [Sein]), for to attempt to think this difference Heidegger, he claims, “had to confront the Antinomy of Being” (AB, 15). As Heidegger outlines in §§43-44 of Being and Time, but more directly in his summer 1927 lecture course, there is a formidable problem here. On one hand, without Being, there would be no beings, and so Being is transcendental. Further, there is Being only when truth (and thus Dasein) exists, for without Dasein, there would be no revelation of beings. But on the other hand (and here the antinomy becomes evident), it cannot be said that beings, or nature as such, only are when there is Dasein. Nature does not need to be revealed to Dasein (there need be no event of truth) in order to be what it already is. We do not create beings; they “are given to us,” and our “experience of the reality of the real is thus an experience of beings as transcending Being so understood” (AB, 15). Being “transcend[s] … the Dasein-dependent transcendental Being to which Being and Time sought to lead us” (AB, 14). The antinomy of Being thus arises in this distinction Heidegger implicitly notes “between two senses of Being: the first transcendental sense relative to Dasein and in this sense inescapably historical, the second transcendent sense, gesturing towards the ground or origin of Dasein’s historical being and thus also of Being understood transcendentally” (AB, 15-16).
To be sure, with this Heidegger interpretation Harries intervenes in well-established debates within (especially American) Heidegger scholarship. However, unlike the way much of that debate circles around early Heideggerian thought (and sometimes only Division 1 of Being and Time), Harries is concerned with the way that this same issue continued to play out – albeit in different terms – in Heidegger’s later works. For example, he makes the interesting (unfortunately undeveloped) suggestion that Heidegger sometimes looks to differentiate these two senses of Being via the introduction of the Hölderlin-inspired spelling “Seyn” or in placing “Sein” under erasure. “Sein and Seyn are the two sides of my antinomy,” he explains: “Being understood as the transcendent ground of experience (Seyn) transcends Being understood transcendentally (Sein)” (AB, 16). However, the attempt to comprehend … the presencing (das Wesen) of Seyn will inevitably “become entangled in some version of the Antinomy of Being. Thus:
Any attempt to conceptually lay hold of that originating ground threatens to transform it into a being, such as God or the thing in itself and must inevitably fail. Here our thinking bumps against the limits of language. Being refuses to be imprisoned in the house of language. And yet this elusive ground is somehow present to us, calls us, if in silence, opening a window to transcendence in our world. (AB, 16)
For Harries, the notion of the Kehre in Heideggerian thought – understood as Heidegger himself presents it, as “a more thoughtful attempt to attend to the matter to be thought” – is a step made necessary by “the antinomial essence of Being, which denies the thinker a foundation.” Indeed, Harries goes still further in doubling back to Kant: the “Antinomy of Being shows us why we cannot dispense with something like the Kantian understanding of the thing in itself as the ground of phenomena, even as the thing in itself eludes our understanding” (AB, 16-17).
In Chapter 2 (“The Antinomy of Truth”), Harries continues his engagement with Heideggerian thought, specifically concerning the paradox of language. Accordingly, language is both the way that beings are revealed and thus (transcendentally) come to be for us, whilst also limiting us to a finite encounter with the real that in itself transcends the limits of linguistic and thus worldly presentation. In other words, as Heidegger emphasised time and again (though it is also an insight voiced throughout philosophical history, from Plato to Wittgenstein and beyond), language both reveals and conceals the real, both revealling and “necessarily cover[ing] up the unique particularity of things” (AB, 25). Harries illustrates this point by opening the chapter with citations from Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s evocative 1902 “Letter of Lord Chandos,” before then showing how Hofmannsthal’s insights were already voiced by figures as diverse as Aquinas, Kant and Nietzsche. After focusing on “the truth of phenomena” through a Kantian lens (in the course of which he illuminatingly quotes Copernicus on his own distinction between appearance and actuality in planetary observation), Harries then provides an extended analysis and critique of Heidegger’s account of truth. In partially sympathising with Tugendhat’s critique of Heidegger’s early notion of truth as alētheia, Harries goes on to maintain that transcendental subjectivity only makes sense in the context of transcendental objectivity. The real is only ever encountered and uncovered perspectivally, but the (infinite) array of possible perspectives (via the contingencies of worlding) points to a transcendent whole that is nonetheless inaccessible in its completeness to the finite subject:
To understand the subject as a subject that transcends all particular points of view is to presuppose that consciousness is tied to perspectives but transcends these perspectives in the awareness that they are just perspectives. The transcendental subject has its foundation in the self-transcending subject. (AB, 45)
In Harries view, in its focus on the finitude of phenomenological access, Heidegger’s early position fails to do justice to this larger context: Heidegger’s fundamental ontology “suggest[s] that the perspectival is prior to the trans-perspectival without inquiring into the meaning of this priority.” Further, it must be recognized that “the perspectival and the transperspectival cannot be divorced,” for human self-transcendence “stands essentially in between the two” (AB, 45). Nonetheless, even given this critique, Harries continues to insist, with Heidegger, on the ineluctability of finitude:
[T]he transcendental philosopher remains tied to a given language and subject to the perspectives it imposes, even as he attempts to take a step beyond them. The absolute of which he dreams must elude him. The pursuit of objectivity cannot escape its ground in the concrete. (AB, 45)
Chapter 3 (“The Architecture of Reason”) is largely devoted to the relationship between Kant and Nietzsche on this question. Focusing especially on the latter’s essay “On Truth and Lies in an Extra-moral Sense,” Harries is in agreement with Nietzsche in his staunch opposition to linguistic realism: words do not simply express the inner essence of the things they re-present. “What we can grant him is that the thing in itself remains quite incomprehensible,” and so “what we are dealing with are always only appearances.” However, Harries also wants to insist on the key distinction between the thing-in-itself and objective appearance as such. After all, if the phenomenon just is the self-giving of the thing as it is – albeit finitely and perspectivally – then this makes sense of the possibility of similar perceptions; and this in turn is what makes shared concept formation possible. Furthermore, he argues, it is only thus that Nietzsche is able to sustain his own “social contract theory of language” (AB, 55). But on the other hand, Nietzsche’s linguistic idealism produces a savage critique of scientific rationalism which, he suggests, fails to see that its concepts are really metaphors, the product of the imagination. Concepts are “the ashes of lived intuition”, and scientific rationalism is therefore nothing other than a chasing after shadows. In leaving behind lived experience, science leaves us with death: a “columbarium of concepts” (AB, 63).
This link between science and loss – of the dangers of intellectualism that imperils the natural human experience of the real – is accentuated in the following chapter (“The Devil as Philosopher”) that presents an intriguing diptych of Fichte and Chamisso. Harries’ engagement with the former – who is his major philosophical interlocutor in this chapter – surveys the train of thought that led Fichte to the nihilism of his absolute idealist conclusions. But he also addresses the sense in which Fichte’s path of thought equivocally led out the other side through his conception of “conscience” by which a disinterested intellectualism is replaced by a spirit of conviction. It is thus that Harries sees Fichtean thought as subject again to “the call of reality, which is submerged whenever the world is seen as the desiccated object of a detached, theoretical understanding” (AB, 77). The hinge of the aforementioned diptych is made possible by Fichte’s historical exile from Jena to Berlin, where he met and befriended the romantic poet Adelbert von Chamisso, author of the cautionary tale of Peter Schlemihl. In Harries’ interpretation, Schlemihl – a character who (Faust-like) bargains with a demonic (Mephistopheles-like) philosopher to trade his shadow for unending wealth – is emblemic of the dark side of Enlightenment reason that would have us lose our natural embodied selves, our cultural and social particularities, our “homeland,” in pursuit of the ashes and emptiness of objectivity, soulless freedom and universal reason. Only disembodied ghosts cast no shadows. As Nietzsche would later suggest, disembodied reason is a form of living death. The rationalistic road by which Fichte would propose the inescapable mirror of consciousness that posits the world through its own volition is yet another form of failing to think through both sides of the antinomy of Being.
This leads Harries the full circle back to Heidegger, in a chapter titled “The Shipwreck of Metaphysics”, but also to a very contemporary application of the Heideggerian problematic. He begins by recalling his diagnosis of the antinomy of Being that emerges from Heidegger’s early thought (two irreducibly opposed senses of Being), and he notes Heidegger’s own admission (in his 1946/47 “Letter on Humanism”) that “[t]he thinking that hazards a few steps in Being and Time has even today not advanced beyond that publication.” Harries has us dwell on this impass with Heidegger. Was the whole incomplete project of Being and Time was therefore a dead-end? For Heidegger, it was not simply a “blind alley” (Sackgasse), but something far more telling: a Holzweg. The path of his thought was a very particular kind of losing of one’s way that is typical of “a genuinely philosophical problem” as Wittgenstein would put it (AB, 86). The Holzweg of Heideggerian thought leads us directly into the to the aporia of Being as such.
Harries goes on in this chapter to provide a very contemporary and “concrete” illustration of how this plays out in our own time with regard to the contortions of scientific materialism. He might have chosen any number of interlocutors in this field, but instead (in another hint of Harries’ intellectual generosity) he selects an interlocutor close at hand: a philosophically-minded colleague from Yale’s computer science department, Drew McDermott. With a nod to the medieval doctrine of “double truth” (condemned at Paris in 1277), Harries notes the way that his colleague is completely committed to the basic proposition that the natural sciences hold the key to all that is, can be, and will be understood, even as he admits that science cannot explain key aspects of our first-person experience of the world, including values we hold to be true. In this, he was inspired by Heidegger’s account of Dasein’s Being-in-the-world (that undermined a materialist “present-at-hand” projection of the world) , even though his commitment to the scientific attitude puts him at loggerheads with Heidegger. Harries sees in McDermott’s apparent cognitive dissonance the very aporia with which Kant and Fichte wrestled, and to which Heidegger’s own work was also to point.
The following chapter (“Limits and Legitimacy of Science”) expands upon this problem of the incompatibility of science with meaning, seen through the lens of the nineteenth century German physicist Heinrich Hertz (in his search for simple comprehensive scientific principles to comprehend the world), the early Wittgenstein (who despite similar aspirations famously concluded that “the sense of the world must lie outside the world”), and Kant (who similarly wanted to entirely affirm the scientific attitude even as he affirmed the truth of dimensions that transcend, and are precluded by, the sciences: freedom, immortality, God).
What begins to emerge in Chapter 7 (“Learning from Laputa”) are twin themes that will come to dominate the later parts of the book: the notion of seeking to escape from the confines of earthly existence through rationality and scientific application, and the theme of being-at-home. Harries’ major inspiration here is Swift’s portrayal of the Laputians in Gulliver’s Travels, who in creating their flying island revel in their (albeit ambiguous) transcendence of standard physical constraints and social bonds. These men of Laputa literally “have their heads in the clouds,” as they exist detached from their earthy home. Indeed, Harries notes the allusions here to Aristophanes’ The Clouds, and he sees both productions as parodies of rationalistic hubris (AB, 119). Here we see the link made to Heidegger’s critique of technology, which not only involves the triumph of curiosity (seen also in the Laputians), but also the flight from grounded human dwelling. Like Peter Schlemihl, with technological enframing, we lose our shadows.
Harries’ upward orientation continues in Chapter 8 as he turns to the cosmological revolution of the sixteenth century. A key figure here is Giordano Bruno, whose execution is understood in the context of an absolute commitment to the sovereignty of rational freedom, and more specifically the implications of his championing of the idea of infinite time and space. In such a universe, conceptions of boundedness, constraint, society, embodiedness, home and homecoming – one might say facticity – are lost. As Nietzsche pointed out, there is no longer any horizon, no up or down. But Harries similarly points to the earlier tradition of Germanic mysticism (from Walther von der Vogelweide, to Ruysbroeck, to Eckhart and Suso) that made similar gestures toward the power of self-transcendence and freedom of thought to leave the body behind and even challenge the boundary between the human and the Divine. Here the thinking of space through intellectual freedom leads to antinomy. On one hand, space must be limited, since otherwise location would be impossible; but on the other hand, space cannot be limited since there can be nothing outside of space.
On the basis of this extensive groundwork, in Chapters 9 and 10 Harries turns, respectively, to other Kantian antinomies: concerning freedom and time. With reference also to Fichte, he sets out the terms of Kant’s antinomy of freedom: that on one hand there are two kinds of causality in the world (via laws of nature, and via the law of freedom, since otherwise it would be impossible to account for spontaneous events that are not reducible to natural cause and effect), while on the other hand freedom is clearly precluded by the necessary laws of nature (since otherwise the flow of events would lose their regularity). He follows this line of thought into Kant’s Critique of Judgment, in which freedom is defended “from a practical point of view” in terms of the experience of persons (AB, 159). But again, Harries is keen to show the perennial nature of this problem, returning to the Paris Condemnations to show that these same irresolvable issues are at play both in terms of the understanding of God’s freedom (Divine voluntarism vs rationalism) and human freedom (in the context of knowledge and sin).
The richly textured chapter on Kant’s antinomy of time (that draws in also Plato’s Timaeus, Aristotle, Rilke and Heidegger), takes a series of perspectives on the theme. On one hand, time must be bounded (and the world must have a beginning), since otherwise there could be no foothold in time within which events could occur. But on the other hand, it makes no ordinary sense to conceive of an event outside of time, so time must be infinite. As Harries points out concerning the latter, Kant is thinking here of the idea of time as a complete and infinite whole, an incomprehensible “noumenal substrate.” Here the notion of the sublime in the third Kritik is helpful. Sublime nature, for example, cannot be phenomenonally comprehended as a whole, but it can be thought, and here reason comes to the fore even as imagination and understanding are outstripped. This power of reason to think the infinite, points to the human capacity to transcend its finitude in a certain sense at least that nonetheless conflicts with the ongoing finitude of understanding. The noumenal is thinkable, but not understandable.
It is perhaps something of a shortcoming of the book that Harries doesn’t do the detailed work of relating the structure of the Kantian antinomies in general to his proposal about the antinomy of Being as such. However, the main outlines can be inferred. The logic would seem to be that the “thesis” and “antithesis” sides of Kant’s antinomies speak to the two senses of Being that Harries delineates: the transcendental and the transcendent (or the phenomenological and the noumenal). If, for Kant, transcendental idealism was the means by which these two were held in tension, Harries would seem to be suggesting that we need a robust sense of the Holzwege that both joins and separates what Heidegger wrote of as Realität and des realen: worldly reality and the inaccessible real.
The final chapters of the book (Chapter 11 on “The Rediscovery of the Earth”, and Chapter 12 on “Astronoetics”) focus on this notion of the tension between human finitude and our attractedness to the heavens, to the infinite. We live with a double truth here: we are at home in our local domestic communities even as we are aware that we dwell on a planet that is spinning through space at extraordinary speed. Some of us long to realise the ubiquitous human desire to transcend our earthly dwelling place (as seen in ancient theories and myths, from Thales, to Vitruvius, to Icarus, to Babel, to modern hot air balloons and space flight), and the recent innovation of literal astronautical transcendence of the earth’s atmosphere has given us a taste of what this might mean. In our own times, there is talk of humanity becoming a space-travelling, multi-planetary species. However, Harries insists that we remain mortals, and (for the foreseeable future) creatures of the earth. The brave new world of space flight remains parasitic on the rich and nurturing resources of our home planet. He goes on to reminds us of the long tradition of Christian suspicion of pagan hubris (Augustine vs Aristotle): yes, we are made in God’s image, but human curiosity is also at the root of the fall.
These many themes are continued into the chapter on Astronoetics. The key question here concerns the human relationship to our origin: our earthly home. Are there limits to human self-manipulation and our manipulation of the earth? In order to think through such questions, aeronautics needs to be complemented by what Hans Blumenberg termed astronoetics: the act of thinking or dreaming our way imaginatively through space while remaining “safely ensconced at home.” (AB, 189). This is eventually a matter of thinking deeply about what is at stake in human ambition. Harries presents Jean-François Lyotard and the artist Frank Stella as representatives of the alternative he terms “postmodern levity.” This approach is uninterested in what they characterise as the modern (philosophical and artistic) nostalgic longing for a “lost centre or plenitude,” instead freely revelling in immanence and innovation. If modern art, in its “unhappy consciousness” is “never quite at home in the world,” the post-modern is characterised by a resolute this-worldliness (AB, 204). If modernity looks to evoke that which is finally unpresentable, artists like Frank Stella strive to create works of art that simply satisfy, are fully present, and eschew any ambition to point beyond themselves to obscured dimensions of truth or reality. Needless to say, such an approach is the antithesis of Harries’ account of the incomprehensible presence of the real in things as ordinary and precious as the experience of other human beings and the beauty of nature (see AB, 209).
It cannot be said that Harries’ Conclusion (titled “The Snake’s Promise”) succeeds in pulling together the various threads of his rich and ambitious book. But then again, for a book that deals with the the irreducible antinomy of Being, this seems apt. There are no neat resolutions to be had here. Perhaps this is already intimated in the re-encapsulation of the meaning of the antinomy of Being with which the chapter begins: that “reality will finally elude the reach of our reason, that all attempts to comprehend it will inevitably replace reality with more or less inadequate human constructions.” (AB, 216) In musising further on Heidegger’s critique of technology, Harries shows himself to be largely on the same page as Heidegger, though he is slightly sceptical about a simplistic nostalgic call to return to a pre-industrial golden age. Science and technology have profoundly changed our context, and there is no lineal return.
However, what the final pages do provide is a concluding and scathing critique of the distortions and banishments of the real by science, by art, in education and in popular culture. Science “seeks to understand reality in order to master it” (AB, 233), but in this never-ending quest, it reduces the real through perspectivalism and objectification, alienating us from it. Second, “aestheticizing art” obscures the real insofar as in simply looking to entertain it asks nothing of us. In both cases, the real lies inaccessible and largely forgotten behind the image. In fact, neither the artist, nor the scientist, are second Gods (as per the snake’s promise in the garden), for the work of both is parasitic on the underlying reality that make them possible. Third, and worse still, is the aestheticization of thinking itself: “the transformation of humanistic scholarship into an often very ingenious intellectual game.” (AB, 233) Fourth, and worst of all, is the attempt to aestheticize reality, especially by technological means, for in this way, reality is counterfeited; the real becomes the surreal.
Where does Harries’ extraordinary book leave us? Perhaps most of all with a plea to respect the real, by making a space for its unexpected appearings, to await its uncontrolled showings, and to resist the temptation (driven by our own anxieties) to partialize or even falsify it. I can do no better than to end with Harries’ own appeal:
[E]very attempt to [manipulate reality] … makes us deaf to its claims, denies us access to its transcendence in which all meaning finally has its ground, a ground that by its very essence will not be mastered. To open windows to that reality we must find the strength to abandon the hope to take charge of reality, the hope to be in this sense like God. Only such strength will allow us to be genuinely open to the claims persons and things place on us, will let us understand that we do not belong to ourselves, that we cannot invent or imagine what will give our lives measure and direction, but have to receive and discover it. (AB, 233-34)
 See Karsten Harries, “The Antinomy of Being and the End of Philosophy,” in Division III of Heidegger’s Being and Time: The Unanswered Question of Being, ed. Lee Braver (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015), 133-47; Harries, “The Antinomy of Being: Heidegger’s Critique of Humanism,” in The Cambridge Companion to Existentialism, ed. Steven Crowell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 178-198; and Harries, Wahrheit: Die Architektur der Welt (München: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 2012). For a thoughtful engagement with the last of these, see Steven Crowell, “Amphibian Dreams: Karsten Harries and the Phenomenology of ‘Human’ Reason,” in Husserl, Kant and Transcendental Phenomenology, ed. Iulian Apostolescu and Claudia Serban (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2020), 479-504.
 For more on this, see my “Thomism and Contemporary Phenomenological Realism: Toward a Renewed Engagement,” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 95, no. 3 (2021): 411–432 (esp. 417ff).
 Günter Figal. Objectivity: The Hermeneutical and Philosophy. trans. Theodore George (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010), 2.
 For a not dissimilar reading of the dynamics at play in this area of early Heideggerian thought, and of how this plays out in his later thought, see my “The Incomprehensible ‘Unworlded World’: Nature and Abyss in Heideggerian Thought,” forthcoming in The Journal of the British Society of Phenomenology.
 See, e.g., Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (Oxford: Blackwell, 1962), 255 [SZ: 212]; Heidegger, History of the Concept of Time (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), 217 [GA20: 298].
The aim of Frank Schalow’s book is to offer a valid alternative to all those political readings of Martin Heidegger that, from Farías (1989) to Faye (2009), from Trawny-Mitchell (2017) to Di Cesare (2018), focus their analysis on the relationship of the author of Sein und Zeit to Nazism or, more recently, on the disruptive impact of the Black Notebooks on Heidegger’s Denkweg. “Yes, Heidegger was a Nazi, not a very important Nazi, just an ordinary one, a provincial petit-bourgeois Nazi”, wrote Alain Badiou, adding however that, “Yes, Heidegger is unquestionably one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century” (Badiou-Cassin, 2014: 14). Schalow’s work thus seems to adhere to such a thesis, explicitly aiming to open up a new path of thought that attempts to draw on Heideggerian conceptual tools without necessarily running into the outcomes mentioned above. The author’s aim, made clear since the preface, is in fact to “elicit new pathways of thinking that begin to reappear from the shadows of the most poignant criticisms,” using Heideggerian writings “as harboring untapped possibilities for future interpretation” (Schalow, 2022: IX).
Schalow is aware of how his work – and perhaps this is one of its merits – goes against the current with respect to his contemporaries. In a framework in which “most of the scholarly terrain is overgrown with numerous books, which proceed from the same premise of condemnation and foreclose other attempts to re-open what remains ‘unthought’” (Schalow, 2022: 10), he tries in full awareness to open the way to a different operation. Going against the tide of the “vitriolic climate” (Schalow, 2022: 1) in which current Heideggerian studies move, the question, a direct consequence of Badiou’s remark just mentioned, is therefore the following: “How do we stand towards Heidegger’s thinking?” (Schalow, 2022: 1). Can Heideggerian thought still have something to give us? The answer, for the author, is positive: “We cannot preclude the possibility of appropriating Heidegger’s texts in a positive way, in order to elicit insights that withdraw within the subterranean recesses of what is ‘unsaid’ and ‘unthought’” (Schalow, 2022: 6-7).
A necessary consequence of this perspective is the awareness that Schalow’s work proposes itself as an original interpretation of Heideggerian work, explicitly taking on what is “an unconventional way to ‘read’ Heidegger” (Schalow 2022: 7). Drawing on multiple places in his Denkweg, in a theoretical operation that denotes an excellent command of the author, his complexity and his traditional periodizations, Schalow establishes, over the course of five chapters, a reinterpretation of how Heideggerian work can provide the conceptual tools for the development of a new, non-anthropocentric ethics that, by leveraging the notions of dwelling and stewardship, gives rise to a new conception of the political that can cope with the current environmental crisis. Defining the question of the political as “the open-ended question of the origin of law, to its enactment as a measure rooted in the ethos (of dwelling) and the re-inscribing of a language to address the elements of the polis according to formally indicative concepts which underscore our capacity to be free (e.g., by ‘letting-be’), albeit as finite human beings” (Schalow, 2022: X), the author, analyzing Heidegger’s work, wonders whether this does not offer the theoretical tools necessary to answer the following question: “Is it possible to create a space for the polis, which through our capacity to dwell (on the earth) engenders openness outside the dominant paradigm of technocratic rule?” (Schalow, 2022: 2). Beginning with some insights we find in Heidegger’s Letter on “Humanism”, we read that “thinking builds upon the house of Being, the house in which the jointure of Being, in its destinal unfolding, enjoins the essence of the human being to dwell in the truth of Being”, and that, for this reason, “this dwelling is the essence of ‘being-in-the-world’” (Heidegger, 1998: 272). Schalow intends to follow up on Heideggerian statements such as the thesis that “nómos is not only law but more originally the assignment contained in the dispensation of Being”, and consequently “only the assignment is capable of dispatching man into Being”, in the conviction that “more essential than instituting rules is that human beings find the way to their abode in the truth of Being” (Heidegger, 1998: 274). If Heidegger writes that “one day we will, by thinking the essence of Being in a way appropriate to its matter, more readily be able to think what ‘house’ and ‘dwelling’ are” (Heidegger, 1998; 272), Schalow intends to pursue this suggestion. On this bases, he illustrates how “the development of a community must be forged at the juncture between the human and the non-human” (Schalow, 2022: XI), giving rise to a socio-biotic community such as to respond positively to the challenge to which we are called by today’s environmental crisis. The intent, very concrete, is to outline the tracks of “a new nexus of political engagement”, to allow that “the fissure of Heidegger’s thinking (of being) opens the ‘other’ side of praxis” (Schalow, 2022: XIII). The purpose of Schalow’s work thus goes in a pragmatic direction, towards the delineation of a praxis that results in the necessary redefinition of our relationship with the world – in other words, “are we to continue using and exploiting the earth only as a resource, or are we to safeguard the earth as a place of dwelling?” (Schalow, 2022: 5).
It is clearly a matter, as already remarked, of taking Heidegger beyond his limits. It is evident, first of all, as Schalow himself acknowledges, that “his [Heidegger’s] understanding of the political remains limited” (Schalow, 2022: XII), just as it is trivially obvious that “Heidegger did not address specifically ‘climate change’, the ‘greenhouse effect’, ‘global warming’, and the ruptures in the ecosystem from which the virus (or other pathogens) of pandemics may arise” (Schalow, 2022: XII). The intent, however, is precisely to focus on das Ungedachte, on the unthought of Heideggerian thought, thus amplifying some elements that, starting from the aforementioned passages of the Letter on “Humanism”, allow Schalow to argue that, “put simply, in the overturning and subversion of anthropocentricism, we see the beginnings of what we today would call an ‘ecological turn’” (Schalow, 2022: XII).
The first chapter (Seeking New Guidelines for Interpretation, pp. 12-39) serves as a necessary methodological premise to justify the reappropriation of Martin Heidegger’s thought for the purposes previously indicated. Deepening the dialogue with Kant around which the 1928 course entitled Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics is centered, Schalow, moving from the metontology that here arises, outlines a “new topography” from which to question the political without slipping into that “‘monological reductionism’ that falsely equates his philosophy with Nazi ideology” (Schalow, 2022: 13-14). Heidegger, through “his ‘destruction’ of Kant” (Schalow, 2022: 21), arrives at “unraveling the presuppositions on which the metaphysical tradition rests”, presuppositions that, “beginning with the static conception of being as permanent presence, lay the sediments of tradition, which erects rigid metaphysical dichotomies”, thus laying the foundations for “the attempt to undo each of these metaphysical dualisms” (Schalow, 2022: 18). The Kantian dichotomy between freedom and nature, in particular, is subverted by Heidegger through our connection to the earth, with the author of Sein und Zeit explicitly writing that “the problem of freedom arises from and as the problem of world” (Heidegger, 2002: 145), allowing Schalow to express the crux of the matter by arguing that “Heidegger relocates the origin of freedom in Dasein’s way of belonging to and reciprocal responsiveness to being” (Schalow, 2022: 24). What emerges is our role, an affinity with the ecological framework in the guise of “earthbound creatures”, as Schalow points out, referring to Hannah Arendt (Arendt, 1992: 27). Cartesian dualism is overturned through the reference to our belonging to the earth, in turn made possible by the changed conceptual framework within which, instead of the dichotomy between subject and object, Heidegger replaces the notion of Dasein with its in-der-Welt-sein. Human freedom comes then to make its own deeper roots, anchoring itself directly in Being and in its relationship with Being and giving rise to the centrality of the notion of ‘responsiveness’, which Schalow defines as “the fostering of a reciprocal relationship with what is radically other, as conferred by being, rather than as a power discharged by an exclusively human capability such as the will” (Schalow, 2022: 29), from which it follows that “this act of reciprocating, then, defines the first and foremost overture or primarily gesture of freedom” (Schalow, 2022: 30). It is evident where Heidegger, in Schalow’s reading, is going to aim when it comes to the ethical and practical side: “Human freedom now no longer means freedom as a property of man, but man as a possibility of freedom” (Heidegger, 2002: 94).
The second chapter (A New Leaping-Off Place for Ethical Inquiry, pp. 40-66) develops the peculiar proprietorial relation to Being that emerges from the belonging of Dasein to Being mentioned above. In the light of that overcoming of anthropocentrism inherent in the Kehre, which, as mentioned, Schalow interprets as “the vestiges of an ecological turn (if only in retrospect he may be considered a proto-ecologist)” (Schalow, 2022: 41), the author of the text wonders what role is now concretely due to the ‘subject’ of his discourse, answering with reference to the notions of stewardship or guardianship as diriment models to outline the practical guidelines of living. As we have seen, for Heidegger, in spite of Kantian ethics and its opposition between freedom and nature, it happens that “the presencing of nature reserves to animals their own potential for flourishing”, and that “it is the source of that flourishing, or what is ownmost or endemic to it, which turns the pendulum of his ethical inquiry in an ecological direction, namely, the allocation of a habitat (requisite for the livelihood of any animal)”. Switching to a Heideggerian lexicon, this means that, “ontologically speaking, the earth provides the grounding for any such habitats, and, indeed, in connection with our capacity for dwelling” (Schalow, 2022: 44). It is as a consequence of such dwelling that a more original ethics, which Schalow calls the “ethos of situated dwelling” (Schalow, 2022: 43) can finally develop and which the author addresses in relation to the possibility of a socio-biotic community and with reference to future generations. The mirroring of ethics and politics is the consequence of all this. In this sense, “the political must be addressed anew through the development of that site – in connection with the unconcealment of being – through which Dasein’s capacity to dwell first becomes apparent, namely, the ethos” (Schalow, 2022: 51). In this sense, “to do so is to allow the possibility of the ethos of dwelling to inform the political, rather than vice versa” (Schalow, 2022: 51). Through his analysis of the notion of measure and of the difference of readings of history between Heidegger and Marx, Schalow answers the question related to “how to rediscover the origin of praxis outside the self-contained sphere of human identity, […] that is, a form of pure (self-)presence” (Schalow, 2022: 59) through the proprietorial relation between being and man, with stewardship assuming the role of “the highest level of formality that is emblematic of specific instances for exercising care over beings, i.e., in our comportments in being-in-the-world” (Schalow, 2022: 60). The thesis proposed is therefore that of dwelling as a fundamental notion to justify our role on earth and consequently the political implication that derives from it. For Schalow, in short, “dwelling has the key perquisite for the enactment of any governance of the polis” (Schalow, 2022: 64), consistent with the Heideggerian statement that “mortals dwell in that they save the earth” (Heidegger, 1971a: 148). The determination of the new role of the politician can only pass through this constitutive bond of ours with the earth.
The third chapter (The Global Stage of Politics and the Return to the Earth, pp. 67-84) considers “the assimilation of the political to the ends of techno-capitalism”, which “unleashes the forces of machination on a global state, assimilating all human activities to the cycle of production and consumption” (Schalow, 2022: 67), showing how an appeal to Heidegger allows one to disengage from such a reading of the political. Through a comparison with the Heideggerian overcoming of the Marxist vision of history, Schalow comes to argue that “the phenomenological maxim ‘back to the things itself’ reverberates anew as a call to a ‘return to the earth’”, thus outlining “an eco-phenomenology, or alternatively, a phenomenology that speaks of a ‘return to the earth’”, which stands as “a form of attunement, an environmental ‘listening’ to nature and its diverse habitats” (Schalow, 2022: 68).
The fourth chapter (Temporality, Freedom, and Place, pp. 85-132) focuses on two crucial themes. On the one hand, the “deconstruction of modern politics as legitimizing the anthropocentric ends of domination, exploitation”, and, on the other, “the emergence of a trans-human perspective of freedom as a countermeasure to the assimilation of the political to the gestalt of machination” (Schalow, 2022: 86), both of which are necessary in view of the ecological turn mentioned above. As a consequence of Dasein’s peculiar relationship with freedom, already outlined in the first chapter, there is a shift of the axis of the political in a non-anthropocentric direction, in which governance must be built on the observation of our constitutive being-with-others. Schalow therefore identifies “three corollaries that comprise the ‘pillars of the polis,’ namely, the elements for its construction on a trans-human axis of dwelling” (Schalow, 2022: 87): the reciprocity of freedom (pp. 100-109), the people of future generations (pp. 109-118) and the epochal character of a measure (pp. 118-129). It is clear, however, that if “the polis brings to fruition, as a distinctive historical act, the challenge posed to man to fulfill the mandate of belonging to being and thereby build a political realm that is anchored in humanity’s capacity to dwell” (Schalow, 2022: 92), the reconfiguration of the political can only start from an analysis of this notion, central to delineating the dwelling and consequently a trans-human community. The thesis advanced is that leaving the technocratic rules prevailing today, the authentic notion of polis finds a new reconfiguration: “Being is not to be determined via the authoritarian rule of the polis”, but, on the contrary, it now means that “to re-establish the polis is to seek its origin in compliance with a new ‘measure’, which can counterbalance human and animal interests, the claim of future generations and the task of safeguarding the earth” (Schalow, 2022: 129). In this way, therefore, the polis manages to be anchored to human dwelling.
The fifth chapter (The Turn Toward Stewardship. Is a Socio-Biotic Community Possible?, pp. 133-184) extends what emerged in the previous chapter to a collective dimension, namely the possibility of belonging to a socio-biotic community, since “the stewardship by which we inhabit the earth calls into question the priorities of any (world-) citizenship, such that the development of a community (das Gemeinwesen) through the grounding of a site must be forged at the juncture between the human and the non-human” (Schalow, 2022: 134). With reference also to topical elements, such as the Covid-19 pandemic (p. 137) or the racial divisions in the U.S. (p. 147-150), Schalow focuses on that “further social-political dimension as the flipside to the responsiveness, the responsibility, by which mortals become answerable to or heed the voice of being” (Schalow, 2022: 137), a necessary consequence of that “counter resonance of the earth, nature, and animal life” (Schalow, 2022: 138) that has emerged since the first chapter. Schalow argues that “environmental practice is intrinsic to dwelling […] not as a value, but rather as an extension of freedom as ‘letting-be’” (Schalow, 2022: 150). What emerges is the thesis that “the task assigned to us through our dwelling” is to be “tenants of the earth” (Schalow, 2022: 161). Rewriting Protagoras’ famous statement for which “man is the measure of all things” (Plato, 1973: 17), the author argues that, “when divested of his anthropocentric focus, and thereby embracing his/her transience, ‘man’ become the ‘measure’ again”. It is enough not to lose sight of the fact that “Dasein is simultaneously ‘measured-by’ the proprietorship of ‘belonging to’ and thereby can ‘set the measure’ for any compliance and possible governance” (Schalow, 2022: 162) in that “poetic dwelling” that echoes Heidegger’s reading of Hölderlin (Heidegger, 1971b: 209-227). The notion of measure, recurring in several places in Schalow’s text and fundamental “to offset or counter the one-sidedness of human interests” (Schalow, 2022: 169), is essential to the conclusion reached by the author: “The socio-biotic community provides a setting in which human beings can ‘think globally, act locally’ (through their enactment of building, dwelling, thinking)”, with the proprietorship of dwelling that “restores limits, by granting space non-human dimensions of the earth to thrive and flourish” (Schalow, 2022: 166).
The call for a trans-human egalitarianism that flows from Heidegger’s overcoming of anthropocentrism is also the crux of the work’s conclusion, with Schalow arguing how, in light of the creation of that socio-biotic community that flows from our dwelling on earth, “a new kind of equality becomes possible as mortals protect the habitats of the diverse creatures that ‘co-habit’ the earth with us” (Schalow, 2022: 178). Once again, it is the notions of stewardship and dwelling that redefine our peculiar role on this planet: “The ‘to be’ of mortals as ‘tenants of the earth’ deepens the meaning of the ‘who’ of human beings as ‘world-citizens’” (Schalow, 2022: 178). The way of belonging to the earth that is proper to Dasein leads the author to think of a “new ‘egalitarianism’” with the role of “formal indicator of how we can characterize practices that prioritize environmental concerns over against the anthropocentric focus of modernity” (Schalow, 2022: 178). Thus, only in this way “a concern for the welfare of the earth and nature, humans and animals, can spark a conversation about the future of our historical sojourn and the fate of those generations still to come” (Schalow, 2022: 179). Through the five chapters of which the text is composed, we understand how the theses stated in the preface and introduction – above all, “the political must be housed in the eco-logical, that is, in the ‘eco’ or residence of dwelling” (Schalow, 2022: 3) – are confirmed through a careful reading of Heidegger’s work.
The overall result of Frank Schalow’s work can only be valued in a positive way. In an age in which Martin Heidegger’s thought seems to be more and more the exclusive prerogative of a type of literature aimed at illustrating his complicity with Nazism, this book certainly stands out for the original and proactive use that can still be made today of the complex Denkweg of the author of Sein und Zeit. Obviously, some questions remain open. In the first place, one could raise doubts about the legitimacy of basing, from a theoretical and methodological point of view, the guidelines of such a project on ontological justifications advanced by someone who, like Heidegger, is moved by theoretical interests apparently unrelated to similar intentions – in short, one might ask, “why refer to Heidegger?”. Similarly, as far as the moral side is concerned, we could question the opportunity, repeatedly highlighted by today’s detractors of his work, to make a figure such as Martin Heidegger, whose compromise with the Nazi regime went far beyond the convenience of the facade and career of many of his contemporaries, the ‘tutelary deity’ of an ethical project. On the other hand, however, Schalow makes no secret of his aim to propose an interpretation that from the beginning is subordinate to practical purposes; a rereading that intends to “reap tangible results” and “not to become merely an “academic’ exercise” (Schalow, 2022: 8). From this point of view, Heidegger’s Ecological Turn can be seen as a perfectly successful attempt.
Arendt, Hannah. 1992. Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy. Edited by Ronald Beiner. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Badiou, Alain; Cassin, Barbara. 2016. Heidegger. His Life & His Philosophy. Translated by Susan Spitzer. New York: Columbia University Press.
Di Cesare, Donatella. 2018. Heidegger and the Jews. The “Black Notebooks”. Translated by Murtha Baca. Cambridge-Medford: Polity Press.
Faye, Emmanuel. 2009. Heidegger. The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy in Light of the Unpublished Seminars of 1933-1935. Translated by Michael B. Smith. New Haven-London: Yale University Press.
Farías, Victor. 1989. Heidegger and Nazism. Edited by Joseph Margolis and Tom Rockmore. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Heidegger, Martin. 1971a. “Building Dwelling Thinking”. Poetry, Language, Thought. Translated by Albert Hofstadter. New York: HarperCollins. pp. 141-159.
Heidegger, Martin. 1971b. “‘… Poetically Man Dwells…’”. Poetry, Language, Thought. Translated by Albert Hofstadter. New York: HarperCollins. pp. 209-227.
Heidegger, Martin. 1998. “Letter on ‘Humanism’”. Pathmarks. Edited by William McNeill. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 239-276.
Heidegger, Martin. 2002. The Essence of Human Freedom. An Introduction to Philosophy. Translated by Ted Sadler. London-New York: Continuum.
Plato. 1973. Theaetetus. Edited by John McDowell. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Schalow, Frank. 2022. Heidegger’s Ecological Turn. Community and Practice for Future Generations. New York-London: Routledge.
Trawny, Peter; Mitchell, Andrew J. (Ed.) 2017. Heidegger’s “Black Notebooks”. Responses to Anti-Semitism. New York: Columbia University Press.
The topic of this new Routledge Handbook is Phenomenology of agency. It is a very well selected topic and a nicely edited volume. The aim of a handbook should be to provide the reader with a selection of essays that cover the most important aspects of a given research focus. The editors must choose contributions carefully to achieve this goal. Before describing the structure and content of this volume in greater detail, some words about the subject of the book will be helpful to better understand the editors’ aim.
Very briefly, Phenomenology of agency is any kind of theorizing about and reflecting on agents’ experiences while performing actions. This theorizing and reflecting, or more generally philosophizing, can be either an attempt at achieving a better understanding of what actions are, or one might be interested in how it feels to act. Contemplating phenomenology of agency can thus lead to manifold findings for the interested reader. Further, the topic of this handbook has several anchor points in different areas of philosophy, among which philosophy of mind and philosophy of action feature most prominently, as well as being of interest for other research fields such as psychology, sociology, political science, cognitive and neuroscience.
Two aims of the handbook are specified by the editors (2). The first is to highlight writings of phenomenologists such as Edith Stein, Hans Reiner and Alexander Pfänder. All belong to a first generation of Husserl followers and worked mainly before 1940. Contributions presenting their work are to highlight the continuity of the phenomenological tradition after Husserl. The second aim is to increase awareness of how significant phenomenology of agency is for any philosophical account of action. Several contributions discuss phenomenological influences on debates about intentionality, freedom, rationality and morality.
In the introduction, Christopher Erhard and Tobias Keiling not only provide an overview of the book but they also explicate some considerations behind the selection of the contributions. They describe three notions of the term phenomenology. First, the historical tradition founded by Edmund Husserl, second the philosophical method to prefer the “first-person-perspective” in the analysis of philosophical problems, and third the “what-it-is-like” notion of phenomenology. The editors admit that those differentiations might not be accepted without restrictions by every philosopher; however, the selected contributions are to include any of the three notions of the term phenomenology (2). And so, the reader will find chapters describing the work of Husserl and his companions, for example by Karl Mertens, who provides a good overview of Husserl and Pfänder’s writing on action theory (15-28). Besides the historic route, readers can explore methodological points of view on agency in several chapters, for example by Tobias Keiling on László Tengelyi’s discussions of first-person experience of action (235-259). A few chapters further widen the scope of this handbook to the experiential “what-it-is-like” notion of phenomenology, for example Shaun Gallagher’s contribution on phenomenological perspectives in cognitive science (336-350). Although the better part of contributions is concerned with historical or methodological rather than experiential notions of phenomenology, which is most widely spread in interdisciplinary research areas, the handbook does integrate all three perspectives.
Hence, in 27 Chapters and over more than 400 pages this handbook provides an overview of important figures, systematic disputes, and further aspects of the phenomenology of agency. The editors, Christopher Erhard and Tobias Keiling, both mainly interested in the philosophical tradition of phenomenology founded by Edmund Husserl, attempted to select authors and topics from a wide range of relevant areas in philosophy. The handbook is divided into two parts. Part I (5-259) introduces important figures and follows a mainly historical route through the landscape beginning with Franz Brentano. Part II is itself divided into two sections. The first (264-350) dealing with more general systematic questions and the second (352-413) highlighting further aspects such as freedom, morality, and rational action. The handbook also includes an index (415-424) of used terminology, which will be much appreciated by experienced users searching for specific references.
In the following, some chapters of each part will be reviewed to give the reader an impression of what to expect from this volume, beginning with the first chapter “Franz Brentano’s critique of free will” by Denis Seron (7-14). Franz Brentano never provided a full account of action, nor did he discuss the phenomenology of agency in greater detail. Phenomenology of agency is only mentioned in reference to how Brentano grounds his determinism in his radical empiricism. This is so because radical empiricism does not accept an ability to perceive possibilities. According to radical empiricism we can only perceive what is actual and not what is possible. This premise renders indeterminism necessarily false because indeterminism is based on the principle of alternative possibilities, which states that we can at least want to act otherwise. If the reader is interested in how this argument unfolds, chapter one of this volume is a well-crafted starting point.
Denis Seron contributed a short but concise chapter on Brentano’s critique of free will. For the reader it might be of great interest to learn more about Brentano’s radical empiricism. In particular, how he understands immediate consciousness and why he thinks that empirical arguments can only be given based on experience. Brentano’s assumption that one cannot perceive oneself doing otherwise opens up many questions about phenomenology of agency. How can humans be curious and creative in performing bodily movements (e.g. in dancing) if one is only able to perceive oneself doing what one is determined to do?
In a short and fast flowing chapter, Michael L. Morgan describes Levinas’ perspective on agency and ethics (147-157). Morgan’s central aim is to try and explain to the reader what Levinas meant when he wrote “to be a ‘self’ is to be responsible before having done anything” (as cited in Morgan, 2021, 148). In the course of the text, Morgan cleverly uses descriptive stories, such as the one of a judge in court, to clarify how Levinas understands freedom as given to the subject. Especially the notions of responsibility-for-the-other and radical disinterestedness are important to understand Levinas’ profoundly ordinary story about freedom of agency.
Michael L. Morgan delivers a precise text full of intuitively accessible argument. This chapter is especially interesting for readers interested in a perspective on phenomenology of agency that is not inherently fused with a subjective self. Levinas’ writing about agency is interested in the role of interpersonal responsibility and a societal dimension as opposed to viewing agency from a capacities and abilities of agents’ point of view. This chapter adds a further dimension to the topic of phenomenology of agency, highlighting once more the diversity of approaches to the debate.
In chapter fourteen, Thomas Baldwin provides a well-structured overview of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s writings about agency (175-188). The significance of phenomenology of agency for any account of action in general becomes stringently clear in this chapter. Baldwin first summarizes Merleau-Ponty’s critique of traditional dualism, the body viewed as an independent physical entity which is moved by a will, which surmounts to a differentiation between an objective body and a phenomenal body. In what follows, Baldwin describes how this ambiguous view of the body helps Merleau-Ponty give an embodied account of agency: “Hence we should replace the conception of agency as the control of a physical body by an abstract mind, and view it instead as the interplay between the pre-personal being in the world of our organism and a personal self which uses this being in the world to understand and change it.” (181)
The next two paragraphs on agency and the will are intended to connect this embodied account to further issues, for example intentionality and rationality. In this context, it is useful that Baldwin directs us to further literature related to these questions, such as Davidson, O’Shaughnessy and McDowell.
In general, this chapter fits well into the context of this volume, and Merleau-Ponty is an important Philosopher whose work bridges some wider gaps between philosophical traditions. His thinking certainly originates in Husserl’s idea of phenomenology but never became a one-sided affair. His writing contains many references to empirical science and Philosophers from the analytic tradition. Finally, it is beneficial for the reader to gain insights not only into Merleau-Pontys main work ‘Phenomenolgy of Perception’ but also some rather unknown texts such as ‘The Structure of Behavior’.
This written dialogue between Martine Nida-Rümelin and Terry Horgan is a well-structured text in which two philosophers discover the precise details about their disagreement on satisfaction conditions of agentive phenomenology (264-299). The central debate between both concerns whether satisfaction conditions of agentive phenomenology can be formulated in alignment with a materialist metaphysics of mind. However, a rather intriguing aspect of this chapter is Nida-Rümelin and Horgans’ discussion about the precise understanding of each other’s view. It is a delight to read an argument in which participants consistently reflect on their opponent’s point-of-view and attempt to represent this viewpoint as accurately as possible before formulating any critique.
Henceforth, it is not surprising that Nida-Rümelin and Horgan discover that their main disagreement covers conflicting background assumptions. This chapter thus provides the reader with two learning possibilities. First, a densely packed debate about two opposing accounts of phenomenology of agency. Second, an expert lesson in how to take part in a philosophical debate.
Chapter twenty-one discusses how the will, the body and action are connected (314-335). Robert Hanna guides the reader through his own work while highlighting influential work by O’Shaughnessy, Frankfurt and Kant. Brian O’Shaughnessy explicated one of the most detailed embodied theories of the will and Robert Hanna is one of only a few philosophers’ who have extended their views on this foundation. He starts by introducing trying theories of action and shows how those theories can establish free agency as a natural fact of life. After having considered other options for theories of agency, for example causal theories, Hanna moves on to introduce his own account of the veridical phenomenology of essentially embodied free agency. One aspect of this account is that it entails that “we must not only have veridical psychological freedom, but also be at least fully disposed to believe, or actually believe, ourselves to have an unfettered, non-epiphenomenal, real causally spontaneous will.” (329) In fact, a central aspect of Robert Hanna’s theory about free agency is that phenomenology of agency is essentially an experience of free agency. The remainder of the chapter is committed to debunking strategies from defenders of hard determinism by showing that they themselves will not experience their actions as not-free, because if they did it would most likely cause them to lose their mind.
Hanna tells one of the most interesting stories of the whole volume. For beginners, it might be hard to follow parts of the argument because Hanna presupposes some basic philosophical knowledge. Nevertheless, this chapter is a well-chosen addition to the mostly Husserl influenced texts of the first part of this handbook.
The underlying structure of mechanisms and functions involved in bringing about the sense of agency has been the topic of cognitive science. Shaun Gallagher has greatly influenced this research in recent years. In chapter twenty-two of this volume, he takes stock of what has been achieved and where the research needs refinement and a new direction (336-350).
Three main areas of theoretical debate can be identified. First, defining phenomenology of agency in terms suitable for empirical investigation. Distinguishing between a sense of agency, the feeling of doing something and a sense of ownership, the feeling of owning a body has turned out to be useful but not uncontested. Second, identifying cognitive mechanisms responsible for the sense of agency and ownership. Empirical investigations have since provided extensive grounds for the assumption that some form of comparator mechanism gives rise to both senses. Third, the role of intentions for agency and the relation of both. This turns out to be the most slippery debate as several researchers still contest different notions of intention as well as agency.
Gallagher has an in-depth knowledge of the field and draws a well-structured picture of the status quo. Readers will find a surprisingly inspiring perspective in the last paragraph of the chapter. Here Gallagher points out some of the main challenges of empirical research on the phenomenology of agency. WEIRED (White, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) samples and few interdisciplinary exchanges have led to a one-sided picture painted by cognitive sciences so far. This might seem like a straightforward critique of the field, but Gallagher rather wants to point to a new direction for the years to come.
This chapter is a delight for the interdisciplinary motivated reader and one of the few outlining future directions for researchers to explore.
Galen Strawson explains in a dense and fast flowing chapter how the experience of freedom relates to the experience of responsibility (352-361). The reader might be surprised to see an author who himself defends a strict determinism point of view about agency write about the experience of the exact opposite. As it turns out, Galen Strawson believes that everything we do is determined and nevertheless we feel as if we are free to act otherwise.
The chapter follows a clear structure. First Strawson discusses whether experience of freedom involves only sense-feeling phenomenology or if it goes further and involves cognitive phenomenology as well. In the next part, he introduces his own notions of radical freedom and ultimate responsibility and shows how those terms help to clarify relations between experience of freedom and questions for responsibility. Finally, Strawson outlines how experience of freedom is included in compatibilist and incompatibilist positions. Most refreshingly, this chapter analyses one of the oldest philosophical questions in relation to illustrative content. Strawson adequately uses thought experiments, pathological case studies and empirical experiments to strengthen the expressiveness of his text.
Constructing large handbooks is a generally challenging undertaking. In the present case, Christopher Erhard and Tobias Keiling committed to an especially complex project, editing a handbook about a yet to be clearly defined research topic. Phenomenology of agency turns out to be a topic of great variety and yet the editors of this volume managed to select interesting contributions. The first part of the volume provides the reader with an overview of influential writers from the past, beginning with Franz Brentano. In the second part of the volume, the reader will find informative links between phenomenology of agency and action theory in general.
Overall, readers will discover well written essays from experts on specific topics related to a common theme. Given that the target group for handbooks is mostly students of philosophy and related fields, some critical aspects need to be mentioned.
Although all contributions included in these twenty-seven chapters have some connection to the topic ‘Phenomenology of Agency’, the novice reader might be surprised by the variety of perspectives represented here. Erhard and Keiling describe three notions of the term phenomenology in their introduction to this handbook. Both conclude that concerning this terminological query they “expect this volume to stir rather than settle a discussion of that question.” (2) Some contributors included a paragraph about their own position on the dispute in the beginning of their essays. This manifold of opinions about the topic ‘Phenomenology of Agency’ of this handbook makes it hard to find a larger common ground between the individual texts. For the reader it will be helpful to have a specific question or viewpoint of interest in mind when using this handbook. Thus, rather than introducing a research topic, the volume is a reference book for either historically interested readers or students with already formulated research questions.
While the contributions present a wide range of views on agency, one aspect that is essentially neglected throughout the volume is the close connection of agency and development. This aspect is probably one of the most overlooked perspectives in Philosophy and it has been missed by the editors of this volume as well. Developmental aspects of psychological phenomena are rarely given much attention in philosophical projects. This is the case for the 27 chapters of this handbook. Furthermore, the development of phenomenology of agency in infancy is neither mentioned nor discussed in any detail. Despite recent debates in developmental psychology and cognitive sciences (Jacquey et al., 2020; Sen & Gredebäck, 2021), developmental aspects are rarely recognized in philosophical debates today. Philosophers tend to disregard how fascinating questions about phenomenology of agency are inherently linked to early cognitive development. Including a chapter about the current states of these discussions would have increased the value of this book for students and experienced readers alike.
While reviewing this volume, a further aspect of the editing process became obvious: The selection of contributors for the individual chapters. The handbook has 27 chapters, of which twenty-two were written by male contributors and four by women. Chapter nineteen is a collaboration between Martine Nida-Rümelin and Terry Horgan. Further, the better part of contributors work in the Western Scientific Hemisphere. Only Genki Uemure from Okayama University in Japan stands out. This leads to a biased representation of views on the topic of this volume. Perspectives from researchers from South America, Africa and Asia would have been a valuable and unique addition to this book. The reader might be interested in learning about views of Buddhist Philosophers on the relation between agency, phenomenology, and non-self. Selecting contributors and topics with a more diverse background would display the debate taking place on a global stage.
The editors stated that Terry Horgan, John Tienson and George Grahams’ assessment of the neglect of phenomenology of agency in philosophy of mind (2003) encouraged them to take on the project of producing this handbook (1). The result of their efforts is a textbook that will encourage many discussions about a fascinating topic.
I thank Elizabeth Kelly for her careful comments and suggestions about the manuscript.
Horgan, T., Tienson, J. and Graham, G. 2003. “The Phenomenology of First-Person Agency.” In S. Walter and H.-D. Heckmann (eds.), Physicalism and Mental Causation: The Metaphysics of Mind and Action. Exeter: Imprint Academic, 323–340.
Jacquey, L., Fagard, J., O’Regan, K., & Esseily, R. 2020. “Development of body know-how during the infant’s first year of life.” Enfance (2): 175-192.
Sen, U., & Gredebäck, G. 2021. “Making the World Behave: A New Embodied Account on Mobile Paradigm.” Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience, Mar 1, 15:643526. doi: 10.3389/fnsys.2021.643526.
Henri Bergson paints a fascinating, slightly fear-provoking and highly counter-intuitive yet incredibly beautiful picture of the world greatly reminiscent of the Heraclitean universe. A world where one cannot step into the same river twice, where repetition is but an illusion, a temporary shell for the human mind surrounded by the eternal flux of becoming and a place where intuition reigns supreme over both reason and instinct. Adam Lovasz pays great homage to Bergson by reconstructing his thought, adding his own particular flavor to the style and defending the Bergsonian world from the most unrelenting critical attacks. “Philosophy, if it is to approach the demiurgic vibration of the real, must resist the temptation to build cathedrals” writes Lovasz (16). Defending the continental tradition against vicious assaults from both the analytical camp as well as from those who seek answers exclusively from fact-minded scientists is no easy task. Despite being slightly repetitive at times Upgrading Bergson is a wonderful read, executed in the most beautiful literary style and showing incredible depth of comprehension in fields as seemingly distant as Einsteinian relativity theory and modern evolutionary biology. Not to mention the philosophical legacies of Bergson and Gilles Deleuze alike.
The book is made up of 5 chapters, an introduction and a conclusion. Chapter 2: Completing Relativity should pose the most difficult challenge to most readers, as it gets into the nuts and bolts of relativity theory. Lovasz however goes much further, attempting to reconcile two diametrically opposed worldviews of Albert Einstein and Henri Bergson, shedding a new light on the famous Bergson-Einstein debate and attempting a thorough renaissance of the Bergsonian position concerning the philosophical interpretation of time according to, as well as against – Einstein’s theory of relativity. As far as alternative narratives are concerned, Bergson via Lovasz offers us one of the most profound counter-ontologies.
Instability is a semantic attractor-state for Bergsonian philosophy. Chapter one of Adam Lovasz’ work is dedicated to Bergson’s La Penseé et le mouvement, often translated as Thought and Instability. A treatise on time and the flux of human experience. How does mind make sense of temporality in a real and material sense? “Material patterns invoke new modes of thought, without presenting us with any general image or form” (Lovasz 2021, 15) writes Lovasz. The absence of an ideal image is precisely what points to instability. The fact that entities persist in time is understood by Bergson as a variety of the miraculous. We have here the deconstruction of universals par excellence. Even scientific theories, according Bergson (via Lovasz), are subject to the constant change in virtue of their underlying methodologies. Behind the apparent unity; the stability of a scientific theory, there lies an ever-present, turbulent and hybrid-form of the method, it’s concrete manifestation in practical performance.
Reality does not offer itself up to mind, there is no one-to-one correspondence between mind and matter. Lovasz shows that Bergsonian cosmology has no room for the idea of progress or a meaningful teleology. History and human activity in the aggregate, have no finality nor a determined goal. Instead, the idea of a purpose-driven universe is only a useful fiction constructed for the purpose of avoiding collective despair and pessimism. Moreover, the deluded thinking which renders the past a servant to the present (or the present to the future) is the direct symptom of universalizing speculative thinking that Bergson aimed to challenge.
Such retrograde thinking serves a distinct political function of means-ends justification. It is often referred to as the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, or the “retrospective movement of truth.” The essence of such wishful thinking and ideological manipulation is once again, the failure to admit the underlying instability of reality, an unmanageable substratum of contingency and chaos. This is a profound connection with serious epistemological and political implications. Bergson wants to underscore the importance of contingency simultaneously at both levels of immediate human experience and history. One might venture as far as to say that the very idea of progress itself is a form of ideology.
There is an internal excess within every object of immediate experience which can never be understood or analyzed completely. The TFP, which stands for the True-First Perception, refers to the uniqueness of an image generated by consciousness during every act of perception, each irreducible to the former and the next. Reality is in essence a perturbation. This way, Bergson is swimming against the current of traditional western philosophy, side-stepping or dissenting from, an enormous corpus of philosophical knowledge, the aim of which is to uncover the essence and the underlying foundation of reality. This leads us closer to the central argument. Bergsonian epistemology unpacks a phenomenological interpretation of time. Time as a duration is contrasted with time as displayed by the clock or time as seen through the eyes of a physicist. Bergson has little interest for the spatialized time of discrete units where every moment is identical to the next. Bergsonian duration is non-quantifiable.
The translation of the flow of time into discrete units instantiates a suppression of duration. It cannot be the case that the time of the clock measures real temporality (Lovasz 2021, 19-20).
The Bergsonian variety of essentialism is quite paradoxical. And understandably so, given Lovasz’ insightful and accurate reflections on the subject. For Bergson, change itself is the underlying structure; the substance of reality. Duration, in all of its heterogeneity, remains nonetheless a given throughout and for all reality. Higher levels of complexity are introduced in Bergsonian ontology, where the reader is confronted with multiple forms of differential durations, which nonetheless exhibit a certain level of invariance. A Bergsonian take on the theory of evolution arranges beings according to the kind of duration they belong to. Material duration refers to inanimate matter, organic duration to the realm of animal species and conscious duration to human temporal interiority.
The deconstruction of the atomistic, abstracted interpretation of time and the universe is followed by a positive theory of human intuition.
We are enjoined to return to a condition of immediacy before the colonization of thinking by ready-made concepts and fixed, static ideas. Intuition is a passive, reverent posture concerning the complexity of being/s that is nevertheless resolutely creative (Lovasz 2021, 27).
Intuition is a spiritual form of comprehension, which reaches into a pre-conceptual mode of understanding. For Bergson via Lovasz, concepts operate as distancing mechanisms, they obstruct the mind’s capacity to relate to the object directly without mediation.
Another element of Bergson’s process philosophy extends his epistemology, his ontology and his theory of time to a very unique account of free will. Without a doubt, one could see its potential emergence and attempt to reconstruct Bergson’s thought along the lines of an indeterminist position concerning freedom. A Bergsonian account of freedom and the conditions for its realization would most likely involve, first and foremost, the recognition of one’s ignorance by acknowledging the occlusion of reality by an invented conceptual framework. The deconstruction of universals and retrograde thinking would then be followed by more positive and active techniques for uncovering the hidden durations and temporalities of the universe thereby fostering one’s intuitive faculty for creative reasoning. One could therefore potentially identify both negative (critique of rigid conceptual systems and the illusion of stability) and positive (developing the intuitive forms of comprehension) forms of freedom in Bergson.
Completing the circle of the first chapter and returning to the question of thought and instability, we can see now how a Lovaszian reading of Bergson advocates for a destabilization of thought, with the purpose of uncovering a more spiritual, but also a finer and more accurate form of intuitive reflection. Bergson’s True Empiricism is a mystical anthropomorphism of inanimate matter and the environment. A mystical form of apprehension which listens to entities in a way that classical empiricism would find childish and pseudo-scientific. An intensified form of listening, as opposed to the indifferent gaze of an impartial bystander.
The debate between Einstein and Bergson concerning the theory of relativity and the interpretation of time has been strangely neglected by history. At least as far as the Bergsonian view is concerned. The physicist’s conception of time has come to dominate the modern scientific paradigm. Time as duration on the other hand, has been entirely relegated to the realm of the subjective, artistic and the emotional. Lovasz believes that Bergson’s book Duration and Simultaneity, where Bergson offers a critique of specific metaphysical interpretations of Einsteinian relativity, despite all the accusations levelled against it; as being “unscientific” – deserves a second look. A much needed and overdue renaissance for the continental tradition. The purpose of the second chapter is to seek out a reconciliation, if any, for Bergsonian metaphysics and the theory of relativity.
Lovasz offers a shockingly original interpretation of relativity theory, perhaps much to the detriment of many superficial “post-modernists”. The view, which according to Lovasz was shared by Einstein, is that modern science, far from tackling universal truths and eternal verities, is only a useful convention used to solve particular human, all too human, problems. The position is largely reminiscent of Wittgenstein’s view of mathematics. Wittgenstein describes mathematics as a collection of various techniques of calculation – language games, in essence – the purpose of which is to solve particular mathematical problems. There is no overarching Truth or even a stable continuity of calculating practices across either the history of mathematics or within the internal development of any particular axiomatic system. Radical conventionalism has been around as an epistemological theory for a while now, but Lovasz seems to be one of the few people who ascribes this position to a famous revolutionary scientist.
No longer may we talk of absolute movement, mobility having no independent existence in the Einsteinian view. It is always a particular, relative development we talk of when we speak of change (Lovasz 2021, 83).
The larger point is that conventionalist methodological approaches imply the suppression of passions, emotions or other personal investments during the construction of scientific systems and this is what tends to draw a line between Bergsonism and relativity. However, the existence of multiple heterogeneous timelines and the constant discrepancy between clocks travelling at different speeds within different inertial frames of reference seems to hint at a universe that isn’t that different from Bergson’s!
Time itself is a heterogeneous multiplicity of temporal interrelations and mutual causalities. Does this not in itself resemble the Bergsonian affirmation of multiple durations? Real simultaneity is distorted by gravitational effects. Time has no relevance outside of a particular body of reference (Lovasz 2021, 83).
Lovasz’s project is little short of ambitious as he seeks to reconcile two enormous and radically divergent metaphysical systems.
Not only time, but extension itself becomes something relative with Einstein; as objects accelerate they change their shape and become elongated, mass and energy become interchangeable magnitudes, and reality itself becomes akin to a mathematical equation where objects morph and transform into one another according to fixed proportions and measurable quantities.
Momentously, relativity constitutes an upheaval that liquifies all constants by paradoxically utilizing a constant value—the speed of light—to decompose a previous cosmology (Lovasz 2021, 85).
The dissolution of object-identity in Einstein via Lovasz is absolutely fascinating. We spoke of an object-excess, with Bergson, where we can never conceptually grasp reality, but only describe its surface appearances. There seems to be a very similar situation with Einstein where things are not what they are per se; instead, things are what they do i.e. how fast and in which direction they travel, at what speed, how other things are behaving in their vicinity and so forth.
Lovasz takes things further. Much less than attempting to “excuse” Bergson’s critique of relativity theory, he levels his own criticism against Einstein, who, Lovasz claims, remained a crypto-absolutist by utilizing the concept of the speed of light as a constant invariant across space and time. But the weakest link in Einstein’s theory remains for us the famous Twin Paradox. The dissolution of objects qua objects, their mathematical intersubstitutability can be restated as an equivalence between space and time. In an Einsteinian universe time exhibits the properties of space, that is, time is entirely spatialized. The faster one travels the more time one “gathers”. One can monopolize on temporality by increasing the level of acceleration. “Aging is a matter of movement” (Lovasz 2021, 99). If a man is launched into space, traveling fast enough for an (un)certain amount of time, while his twin remains on earth, once he returns to earth, the second twin will have aged considerably more than the first. The problem arises when we decide to choose between the two (seemingly arbitrary) frames of reference. Whichever twin remains “motionless” ends up aging more than the other. What lies, to my mind, at the core of the insurmountable problem is the irreducible difference between Biology and Physics. As Lovasz clearly explains, the world of the physicist is a world of reversible processes, whereas the world of the Biologist, and to a certain extent the Bergsonian subject, both inhabit an irreversible timeline, where the same path cannot be taken twice nor travelled backwards. The essence of the problem then, in very blunt and oversimplified terms, is the artificial imposition of a quantitative universe of interchangeable magnitudes upon the lived and the real experience of time that Bergson aims to bring to our attention. Lovasz dedicates an entire section to the problem, one that is satirically and most adequately termed: The Tyranny of the Clock.
Physics is overwhelmingly concerned with an objective definition of time. Ironically, such a striving to get a handle on the physical reality of time drives Einsteinian relativity into a forgetfulness of time’s indivisible, enduring being. The accelerations and transformations of real processes cannot remain characterized by their relationships with clocks. Measurement invariably tends to decompose duration into a set of spatialized instances (Lovasz 2021, 106).
The main takeaway here is that time cannot be measured. And the obsessive compulsive intuition of the physicist is what lies at the root of the twin paradox. Duration is not, nor can it be made to be discrete. Time dilation which results in the desynchronization of clocks is precisely the result of the spatialized interpretation of time. Space becomes “parasitic” upon time and quite literally steals duration. Bergson via Lovasz argues that this is nothing but pure fiction: “Time dilation is an abstraction that does not correspond to physical reality. It is not unlike mistaking the distancing of a person from us with a real reduction in stature” (Lovasz 2021, 110). The problem lies in the fact that choosing different inertial frames places us into different kinds of universes, where it is no longer a trivial matter which of the two twins’ position we adopt, as it will decide which one of them is accelerating. In a way, the chosen frame will also add more reality to one of the twins, leaving the other to suffer the consequences of Einstein’s abstractions.
Chapter 3 contains the core argument of the book and an abridged presentation of the entire Bergsonian corpus: Being is becoming. The point was already made earlier in different terms, when we spoke of change being substance, and of reality as essentially impermanent and unstable. Any kind of stability or order encountered in the world is the result of the activity of the mind and is therefore, entirely a construct. Our construct. Lovasz refers to Bergsonian ontology as organic temporality (Lovasz 2021, 121). The chapter also aims at investigating the question of whether Bergson was a monist or a dualist. That is, whether life and matter are in effect the same thing, or if there is a significant distinction that makes living beings stand out ontologically from the background of inorganic matter. Bergson’s book Creative Evolution offers a beautiful literary combination of evolutionary biology and abstract metaphysics, often referred to as philosophy of life.
The phenomenology of Bergsonian becoming is repeatedly compared to a mounting snowball, an analogy used by Bergson himself. The snowball, as it becomes larger tends to get increasingly impure and polluted with assimilated matter. Our experience of duration resembles this process. At any given moment the entire memory of our journey is reflected in our present moment, the path is present as a miniature map within the physiognomy of the actual.
According to Lovasz, process philosophy does not automatically entail holism. The statement concerning either the substantiality of change or the conceiving of reality as a series of hybrid durations, does not necessarily entail a holist-reductionist metaphysics. However, other difficulties come to light. For instance, the reality of individual objects and living beings becomes undermined. To take the theory of evolution as an example:
Movement alone is real, but if this is the case, then the individuation of species represents a halt and hence, an unreality” (Lovasz 2021, 128). And further on: “the privileging of processes and relations involves a slippery slope, leading inevitably to the negation of individual objects. Without individual substance, the very basis of individuation is supposedly endangered (Lovasz 2021, 128).
Bergsonian process ontology privileges change, immobility and movement, which results in a horrifying view of reality where all entities, including human or animal species have neither essence nor reality. What seems most beneficial to the species in the classical Darwinian axiology: their individuation, seems to be the beginning of the end, from the vantage point of process metaphysics.
Lovasz does not offer us a teleological Bergson, but he does aim to rescue him from the accusations of pessimism and holistic reductionism. One of the most common notions in Bergsonian philosophy used to argue in favour of an holistic interpretation is the vital impetus, or vital force. The elan vital was supposed to capture the essence of living beings; exhibiting a mysterious property that constantly eludes proper empirical investigation.
Lovasz argues one should not even speak of the vital force in the singular, but rather see it as a multiplicity of vitalisms, each with its own particular ontology. The functionalist-vitalist account of life relies only on identifying a particular form of arrangement, regularity or a set of relations that are found throughout nature indicating the presence of organic life-forms. There is no singular chemical reaction that would account for the emergence of life. Such indeterminist positions concerning the nature of living organisms has been widely confirmed throughout the sciences. More so, the irreducible complexity of living entities is used by Bergson as an epistemic contribution to his account of free will. Life as indeterminacy is also the very condition for the freedom of living beings. Duration is not a blanket term with Bergson, there is no overarching form of duration that could subsume all the others.
Returning to the question concerning science and its tendency to exclude time as duration in order make sense of reality. The scientific method proceeds in a way that is similar to the human cognitive process: It abstracts a significant portion of reality in order “discover” a handful of variables and identify a set of relations among them. In order to do so, it must operate through fixed concepts. Science, by spatializing time, in fact constructs an artificial edifice; a theory, the purpose of which is in effect to exorcise change and instability. If scientists operated through Bergsonian ontology and the epistemic “commitments” of process philosophy, then science would be in a permanent Kuhnian paradigm shift, an ongoing and ceaseless revolution in methodology. It would be the end of science as we know it.
Only fictional extracts, as molded by scientific or practical activity, have a relative immunity to the bite of time’s fangs, and even these are affected by longer term historical transformations of knowledge and society. Time is not a quantity but a quality (Lovasz 2021, 134).
And nonetheless, reality is not some insane muddle of pure difference, at least not unless we undergo a kind of traumatic limit-experience, which one could argue to be a form of revelation or direct insight into the mystery of substance as pure change. The reason we at least experience reality as relatively stable at moments is due to the variable, but nonetheless patterned distribution of durations. It is indeed the case, as we mentioned before, that the Bergsonian universe is essentially a collection of actions and processes, but there are similarities among them. Reminiscing once more, another Wittgensteinian notion; that of family-resemblances, we could say, despite the fact that no two durations are identical, that there are similarities which tend to crisscross and overlap without pointing to any comprehensive unity or universality. “An object exists to the extent that it endures, but this persistence is qualitative and not quantitative” (Lovasz 2021, 134).
An interesting hierarchy is present in Bergson via Lovasz. Scientific-analytical constructs borrow from, and are built upon the primal level of durations; not the other way around. For a classical philosopher of science, it would be very counter-intuitive to speak of foundation as something less fixed and more turbulent then the construction; more fluid then the facts themselves. Bergson is not exclusively concerned with the world of the scientists. His aim is to reconcile the everyday with the analytical. Bergson is not, properly speaking; a philosopher of science, despite the fact that he was always very careful to square his views with the latest developments in the natural sciences. Instead, Bergson brings the conceptual edifice down to the level of perturbations, demonstrating that theories, concepts and paradigms are subject to the same flux and constant change as the very objects they try to fix.
Bergson’s book Creative evolution is incompatible with either a mechanistic or a teleological world-view due to its insistent emphasis on the role of novelty in all becoming. It is entirely opposed to an unfolding of a pre-determined structure of being. Nothing is set in stone, nothing follows a plan (neither material nor divine) and there is no final end to the striving of turbulent durations. Whatever limited finality an organism might have, it is only an attempt to cling to a false and invented individuality, only to disperse once again into a whirlwind of pure change either in the act of reproduction or its own final termination. Let us conclude this part by quoting Bergson via Bergson this time:
That is why again they [scientists] agree in doing away with time. Real duration is that duration which gnaws on things, and leaves on them the mark of its tooth. If everything is in time, everything changes inwardly, and the same concrete reality never recurs. Repetition is therefore possible only in the abstract: what is repeated is some aspect that our senses, and especially our intellect, have singled out from reality, just because our action, upon which all the effort of our intellect is directed, can move only among repetitions (Bergson 1998, 52).
In chapter 4 Lovasz discusses another famous work by Bergson: Matter and Memory displaces the mind-body problem entirely and offers its own deconstructive version of the unnecessary dualism. The key to uncovering Bergson’s position lies in his theory of perception. The image is contraposed to representation, with the former exhibiting emergent and novel features irreducible to the latter, which in turn is always incomplete. In addition to the mind-body problem and in relation to it, Bergson via Lovasz simultaneously aims at dismantling the debate concerning the opposition between materialism and idealism.
Matter cannot be represented. Nor is it in any other way separate from the way it is uniquely, that is discontinuously perceived. Matter just is a multiplicity of images. There is neither a pure materiality; objective and inert, nor an ideal point of perception that could unite all individual durations into a whole. Neither subjectivism nor objectivism can dominate the Bergsonian metaphysic. Analogously, consciousness with Bergson is an emergent and highly dependent property of the brain, while simultaneously being irreducible to mere neurochemical processes. Memory, according to Bergson, is the meeting ground for mind and matter, the point of reconciliation and the central point of departure for his theory of subjectivity.
Movement is primary, while individual perception is but a sampling of images. What Bergsonism allows for is the introduction of pure, undomesticated mobility into philosophy. Nothing exists apart from images or movements (Lovasz 2021, 186).
We might add that the aforementioned ontology of mobility is further used to occupy a peripheral space between ideality and materiality, a space, it seems, where memory, intuition and images – present central oscillating points for the rest of the Bergsonian philosophy of the process.
The closing chapter returns to the question of agency and free will in Bergson tending to the famous essay on Time and Free Will. The work aims at a similar project of rescuing duration from quantification, except; instead of challenging leading breakthroughs in modern physics, its purpose is to resist the temptations of psychophysics, neuroscience and other (what today we would term) cognitive sciences to reduce human subjectivity to a set of calculable problems and chemical processes. The project is similar to what is often encountered in classical phenomenology, where the reader is called on to return to “the things themselves”; her immediate given data of consciousness, in order discover a primordial presuppositionless way of seeing that has been covered up by the “natural attitude”. Such a return to immediacy would be consonant with the injunction to think differently, to train one’s intuitive faculty and thereby see through the veil of stability and structure.
Bergson does not, however offer a clear, distinct and positive definition of freedom. It is very difficult to apply his ideas to practical conduct and determine whether this or that course of action was self-determined. If duration is pure heterogeneity and each moment is intertwined with the next, there is no clear way of separating off the stimulus from the agent, the action from the reaction. Where in the chain of interpenetrating images could one separate oneself off and state without hesitation the moment she began to act, as opposed to the moment she was affected by something else? In many ways, Bergson plays on our ignorance, on human ignorance in general, equating freedom with contingency and pure spontaneity. Freedom is the irreconcilable eruption of agency amidst overdetermined necessity; an epistemic break in the series of concepts that bind us to an artificially assembled reality. Concepts, which just like everything else, are vulnerable to the tides of fluctuating perturbations. Our blind spots are effectively the source of our autonomy.
Adam Lovasz’s Upgrading Bergson is an exciting and difficult journey through a cosmology that is both beautiful and terrifying. It presents a real challenge to reassess our worldviews in a radical, almost pathological manner. A world where becoming determines being and order gives way to chaos. A thoroughly anti-Platonic vision, which dares to undermine our most cherished belief in the indisputable authority of modern science and Einsteinian relativity in particular. A turbulent universe of scaled difference, multiple durations and heterogeneous temporalities. And finally, an outstanding contribution to the much neglected field of Bergsonian scholarship. Upgrading Bergson deserves its own shelf-space in every continental philosopher’s personal library.
References & Bibliography:
Bergson, Henri. 1998 (1911). Creative Evolution. Trans. Arthur Mitchell. Mineola, NY: Dover.
Dupré, John, and Stephan Guttinger. 2016. „Viruses as Living Processes.“ Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 59: 109-116.
Kuhn, Thomas. 2021. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Princeton University Press.
Lovasz, Adam. 2021. Updating Bergson: A Philosophy of the Enduring Present. Lexington Books.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 2010. Philosophical Investigations. John Wiley & Sons.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 2013. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Routledge.