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.
This volume contains letters, spanning nearly fifty years, between the Protestant theologian Rudolf Bultmann and the Jewish philosopher Hans Jonas. It also includes a helpful editor’s introduction and a nine-part appendix, containing, among other documents, Martin Heidegger’s and Bultmann’s previously unpublished evaluations of Jonas’s 1928 dissertation on Gnosticism, as well as Jonas’s brief, previously unpublished correspondence with Heidegger.
In the first substantive letter (13 July 1929), which is more of a book proposal than a letter properly speaking (Jonas called it a Briefmonstrum, an “epistolary monster,” 7), Jonas attempts phenomenologically to derive a universal truth about humanity from St. Paul’s famous description of his struggle to fulfill the Law in Romans 7:7–25. The existential, hence not specifically Christian structure of Paul’s statements consists, according to Jonas, in the tension between a free, primordial self-willing (volo me velle) and its inevitable lapse into the objectification of the universe and, correlatively, of the self (cogito me velle). Here we have Entmythologisierung (“demythologization”) avant la lettre.
But, it should be noted, we are not far before the letter: the very next year, in his first book, Jonas would introduce the language of demythologization, which would become one of the defining and most controversial features of Bultmann’s theology, into the scholarly world. This important, but still-untranslated book, titled Augustin und das paulinische Freiheitsproblem: Ein philosophischer Beitrag zur Genesis der christlich-abendländischen Freiheitsidee (Augustine and the Pauline Problem of Freedom: A Philosophical Contribution to the Genesis of the Christian-Western Idea of Freedom), builds on Jonas’s “epistolary monster.” Bultmann published it in 1930 in his prestigious series “Forschungen zur Religion und Literatur des Alten und Neuen Testaments” (“Research on the Religion and Literature of the Old and New Testament”).
Although, apart from a few largely perfunctory letters, the extant correspondence does not resume in earnest until 1952, Jonas and Bultmann remained in contact in the interim. For example, in a later memorial tribute to Bultmann (included in the appendix to the correspondence), Jonas relates that Bultmann was the only teacher whom he had visited before emigrating from Germany in 1933 in response to the SA troops’ harassment and persecution of Jews. Bultmann, moreover, would also be one of the first teachers Jonas would visit when he returned to Germany fifteen years later as a soldier in the victorious Allied forces. It is worth reproducing Jonas’s recollections here, as they attest not only to his intellectual respect for his teacher (which he also had for Heidegger, for instance), but above all to his respect for Bultmann’s character and ethical bearing (which, to his great dismay, he found tragically lacking in Heidegger). After reading this, it should come as little surprise that Jonas kept a picture of Bultmann by his desk in New York (108), or that, in 1934, Bultmann was bold enough to write a preface for the publication of the first volume of his Jewish student’s work on Gnosticism and even to confess an intellectual debt to Jonas (117–18; see also XIX–XX, 143). As Jonas tells it:
It was in the summer of 1933, here in Marburg. […] I related what I had just read in the newspaper, but he [Bultmann] not yet, namely, that the German Association of the Blind had expelled its Jewish members. My horror carried me into eloquence: In the face of eternal night (so I exclaimed) the most unifying tie there can be among suffering men, this betrayal of the solidarity of a common fate—and I stopped, for my eye fell on Bultmann and I saw that a deathly pallor had spread over his face, and in his eyes was such agony that the words died in my mouth. In that moment I knew that in matters of elementary humanity one could simply rely on Bultmann, […] that no insanity of the time could dim the steadiness of his inner light.
Of their next meeting, amid the ruins of war, Jonas recalls:
barely done with the hurried exchange of first welcomes, scarcely over the emotion of this unexpected reunion—we were both still standing—he said something for which I recount this highly personal story. I had come by military transport from Göttingen and held under my arm a book which the publisher Ruprecht had asked me to take to Bultmann, as civilian mail services had not yet been restored. Bultmann pointed at this parcel and asked, “May I hope that this is the second volume of the ‘Gnosis’?” At that, there entered into my soul too, still rent by the Unspeakable I had just learned about in my erstwhile home—the fate of my mother and of the untold others—for the first time something like peace again: at beholding the constancy of thought and loving interest across the ruin of a world. Suddenly I knew: one can resume and continue that for which one needs faith in man. Countless times I have relived this scene. It became the bridge over the abyss; it connected the “after” with the “before” which grief and wrath and bitterness threatened to blot out, and perhaps more than anything else it helped, with its unique combination of fidelity and soberness, to make my life whole again. (125–26; see also 99, 118–19)
The next major highlight of the correspondence pertains to Jonas’s text “Immortality and the Modern Temper,” which he delivered as the annual Ingersoll lecture at Harvard University in 1961. Jonas sent a copy of the lecture, which attempts to explain what sense immortality could have in today’s disenchanted world, to Bultmann in January 1962. In his prefatory letter, Jonas explains that he felt compelled to go in the opposite direction of his erstwhile mentor: whereas the don of demythologization strives, as Jonas had earlier in his career (see especially 115–116), to uncover the true, existential content of myth behind its fantastical garb, Jonas thinks that myth, in the manner of Plato, is the best we have to go on when it comes to questions such as the meaning of immortality and the meaning of God after Auschwitz. Of his lecture, Jonas writes—and here I quote and translate at length, since it is uncertain if and when the correspondence will be translated in its entirety—
It was a daring attempt at a metaphysical statement. When developing it, I saw myself compelled to have recourse to myth—to a self-invented myth. This was not intended as a general method of metaphysics, but as a personal form of symbolic answer to a question that I could not answer in any other way but whose right to an answer was undeniable.
[Es wurde ein gewagter Versuch zu einer metaphysischen Aussage, in deren Entfaltung ich mich genötigt sah, zum Mythos—einem selbsterdachten—Zuflucht zu nehmen. Das war nicht als generelle Methode der Metaphysik gedacht, sondern als persönliche Form der symbolischen Antwort auf eine für mich nicht anders beantwortbare, aber in ihrem Recht auf Antwort unabweisbare Frage.]
It is not enough, Jonas continues, to refer to the authentically human content of mythological form, as Bultmann would have it. Myth itself can, and must, also be deployed—consciously and with full recognition of its inherent inadequacy—in service of being as such:
when, in a seriously non-dualist fashion, the authentic reality of the human points back to the authentic reality of the universe […] and when it is necessary to speak also of this—of the totality of being and its ground—without there being any identifiable terminology for it, then we are directed to the path of the objectifying, indicative symbol; then a momentary, as it were experimental mythologization, a mythologization that holds itself in suspense, can again come closer precisely to the mystery. And here the revocability of the anthropomorphic symbol would have to wait to be replaced by other, for their part likewise revocable symbols, not, however, for a subsequent demythologization, which would have to relinquish what was to be signified only in the symbol.
[wo, ernsthaft undualistisch, die eigentliche Wirklichkeit des Menschen auf die eigentliche Wirklichkeit des Universums zurückweist […] und also auch davon—vom All des Seins und seinem Grunde—gesprochen werden muss, ohne dass es die ausweisbare Begrifflichkeit dafür gibt, da sind wir auf den Weg des objektivierend andeutenden Symbols gewiesen und da kann vielleicht eine momentane, gleichsam experimentelle, sich selber in der Schwebe haltende Mythologisierung gerade dem Geheimnis wieder näher kommen. Und hier würde die Widerruflichkeit des anthropomorphen Symbols auf Ersetzung durch andere, ihrerseits ebenso widerrufliche Symbole zu warten haben, nicht aber auf eine nachkommende Entmythologisierung, die preisgeben müsste, was nur im Symbol zu bedeuten war.] (51–52)
In his myth, which he would later develop in such essays as “The Concept of God After Auschwitz: A Jewish Voice” and “Matter, Mind, and Creation: Cosmological Evidence and Cosmogonic Speculation,” Jonas imagines a god who, in the beginning, divested itself of its power and gave itself wholly over to the becoming of the cosmos. It now falls to the radical freedom of the human being to reshape the face of God, whether by restoring it to its former glory through good deeds, or by creating a disfigured perversion of it through evil deeds.
Jonas received countless replies to his lecture, none, however, more profound and impressive (see 63, 77) than that found in Bultmann’s letter from 31 July 1962. Indeed, Jonas would later publish an edited version Bultmann’s response, together with his own subsequent reply to Bultmann, in his book Zwischen Nichts und Ewigkeit: Drei Aufsätze zur Lehre vom Menschen (Between Nothing and Eternity: Three Essays on Anthropology). Jonas even claims in a letter from 1963 that, without their epistolary exchange, “my immortality-essay would seem very incomplete to me” (“Ohne es käme mir jedenfalls mein Unsterblichkeitsaufsatz jetzt sehr unvollständig vor”) (77). Here Jonas refers to the essay as his “fragmentary and searching philosophical manifesto” (“mein fragmentarisches und versuchendes philosophisches Manifest”) (78).
Bultmann, in his response to “Immortality and the Modern Temper,” makes several objections, chief of which is that Jonas’s perspective on God’s relation to the universe is, first, aesthetic and, second, external to the existential situation of the being that, in Heidegger’s language, is in each case mine. Jonas contests the first, since he aims not at the final reconciliation of oppositions, but at the triumph of good over evil through the free choice of human beings. His view is ultimately ethical, not aesthetic. Regarding the second, Jonas concedes that it is necessary to take an external perspective if one wishes to interpret the whole. Today, there is little interest in such speculation. But Jonas takes it to be imperative:
For precisely this is now my conviction: that ethics must be grounded in ontology, that is, the law of human comportment must be derived from the nature of the whole; and this is so because self-understanding follows from understanding the whole (thus “from without”)—namely when the whole is understood in such a way that it comes about that the human being is there for the whole, and not the whole for the human being.
[Denn eben dies ist nun meine Überzeugung, dass die Ethik auf der Ontologie gegründet sein muss, das heisst: das Gesetz menschlichen Verhaltens aus der Natur des Ganzen abgeleitet werden muss; und dies, weil das Selbstverständnis aus dem Verständnis des Ganzen folgt (also “von aussen”)—dann nämlich, wenn das Ganze so verstanden ist, dass sich ergibt, dass der Mensch für das Ganze da ist, und nicht das Ganze für den Menschen.] (67)
Bultmann also invites a consideration of the relation between Jonas’s myth of the fate of God and Heidegger’s idea of the destiny of being (Seins-Geschick). Jonas ignores this invitation in his rejoinder to Bultmann, although he will later take it up in his famous critique of Heidegger, “Heidegger and Theology,” first delivered before a group of theologians at Drew University in 1964. (Jonas describes the event on 84).
Despite Jonas’s often scathing critique of Heidegger’s thought and person, it is interesting to note that, in a letter to Bultmann from July 1969, Jonas relates that he had met with Heidegger and had “finally reconciled [endlich … ausgesöhnt] with him” (92). Moreover, in 1972, Heidegger supported Jonas’s efforts to receive reparations from the German government for the difficulties inflicted on his academic career under National Socialism. At Jonas’s request, Heidegger promptly wrote the following official explanation of Jonas’s circumstances at the time, testifying to his respect and admiration for his one-time student:
I, Martin Heidegger, was a full professor of philosophy at the Philipps-University in Marburg between 1923 and 1929. / Hans Jonas, who graduated with his doctorate summa cum laude under my directorship in 1928, was one of the most gifted students at the university and predestined to be a university lecturer. Before I left Marburg, Dr. Jonas had discussed with me the basic conception of the work he intended as a habilitation thesis on the position of Gnosticism in the entire thought of late antiquity. The finished work was published in 1934 as a book under the title “Gnosticism and the Spirit of Late Antiquity” (1st part). I read it. There is and there was no doubt for me that this work was outstandingly qualified to be a habilitation thesis. If I had still had something to do with this work as a habilitation thesis, I would have warmly recommended it without reservation.
[Ich, Martin Heidegger, war von 1923 bis 1929 Ordinarius für Philosophie an der Philipps-Universität in Marburg. / Hans Jonas, der bei mir 1928 summa cum laude promovierte, war einer der begabtesten Studenten der Universität und prädestiniert zum Dozenten. Die Grundkonzeption seiner als Habilitationsschrift gedachten Arbeit über die Stellung der Gnosis im Gesamtdenken der Spätantike hatte Dr. Jonas mit mir noch vor meinem Weggang von Marburg besprochen. Die fertige Arbeit ist 1934 als Buch unter dem Titel “Gnosis und spätantiker Geist” (1. Teil) erschienen. Ich habe es gelsen. Es besteht und bestand für mich kein Zweifel, dass diese Arbeit als Habilitationsschrift in hervorragendem Masse qualifiziert war. Hätte ich noch mit dieser Arbeit als Habilitationsschrift zu tun gehabt, so hätte ich sie ohne Einschränkung aufs wärmste empfohlen.] (122)
Other noteworthy moments in the correspondence with Bultmann include Jonas’s description of his research in 1952, which, he says, is directed entirely at “an ontology in which ‘life’ and thus also the human being obtain their place in nature” (“Alle meine theoretischen Bemühungen gehen um eine Ontologie, in der das ‘Leben’ und damit auch der Mensch seinen Platz in der Natur erhält”) (18); Jonas’s critique of Eric Voegelin’s sweepingly pejorative use of the term “Gnosticism,” and his conclusion that Voegelin himself “is the modern gnostic” (32–34); Bultmann’s claim, made in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to convince Jonas to assume a professorship at Marburg University, that “you are the only one who has the strength today to take up and continue the great tradition that has developed in the history of philosophizing in Marburg” (“Sie sind der Einzige, der heute die Kraft hat, die große Tradition aufzunehmen und fortzuführen, die in der Geschichte des Philosophierens in Marburg erwachsen ist”) (44); and a debate on authenticity (Eigentlichkeit), in which Jonas relates it to his pursuit of an ethics grounded in ontology, whereas Bultmann sees it, with Heidegger, in opposition to the life of das Man (“the they”) and as outside the sphere of the ethical (72–76).
Fortunately, some of the most important correspondence is already available in English. Jonas’s own translation of the aforementioned “epistolary monster” is available, with additions and emendations, under the title “The Abyss of the Will: Philosophical Meditation on the Seventh Chapter of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.” The two main letters about “Immortality and the Modern Temper” are in Bultmann and Jonas, “Exchange on Hans Jonas’ Essay on Immortality.” Furthermore, the seventh document in the appendix, a memorial tribute to Bultmann, exists in a translation by Jonas himself as “Is Faith Still Possible?: Memories of Rudolf Bultmann and Reflections on the Philosophical Aspects of His Work.” The final part of the appendix is a republication, in English, of Jonas’s 1984 tribute to Bultmann on the centenary of the latter’s birth.
 Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1930. For the second edition (1965), Jonas changed the subtitle to Eine philosophische Studie zum pelagianischen Streit (A Philosophical Study on the Pelagian Controversy) and appended a revised version of the “epistolary monster.” Jonas speaks of “a demythologized consciousness” (“ein entmythologisiertes Bewußtsein”) in the first appendix “Über die hermeneutische Struktur des Dogmas” (“On the Hermeneutic Structure of Dogma), which appeared in both editions. See p. 82 of the second for the reference. For discussion, see pp. 14–17 of James M. Robinson’s introduction to the second edition, as well as Hans Jonas-Handbuch: Leben–Werk–Wirkung, ed. Michael Bongardt et al. (Berlin: Metzler, 2021), 78 (contribution by Udo Lenzig).
 It is noteworthy that, in his controversial 1941 lecture “Neues Testament und Mythologie: Das Problem der Entmythologisierung der neutestamentlichen Verkündigung,” Bultmann twice refers to Jonas’s works. See Rudolf Bultmann, “New Testament and Mythology: The Mythological Element in the Message of the New Testament and the Problem of Its Re-Interpretation,” in Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate, ed. Hans Werner Bartsch (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), 12n1, 16. See Bultmann’s discussion of the lecture on pp. 21–22 of the correspondence.
 Translation in Hans Jonas, Mortality and Morality: A Search for the Good after Auschwitz, ed. Lawrence Vogel (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1996), 146–47. See also Hans Jonas, Memoirs, trans. Krishna Winston (Waltham, Mass.: Brandeis University Press, 2008), 74, 144–45.
 In, for example, Jonas, Mortality and Morality, chapter 5.
 Jonas quotes from Bultmann’s recently published “Zum Problem der Entmythologisierung,” in Il problema della demitizzazione, ed. Enrico Castelli (Padua: CEDAM, 1961): 19–26. In English as “On the Problem of Demythologizing,” trans. Schubert M. Ogden, The Journal of Religion 42, no. 2 (1962): 96–102.
 In Mortality and Morality, chapters 6 and 8.
 Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1963, 63–72.
 Translation in Rudolf Bultmann and Hans Jonas, “Exchange on Hans Jonas’ Essay on Immortality,” trans. Ian Alexander Moore, Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 40, no. 2 (2020): 491–506 (quote on p. 503).
 See Hans Jonas, “Heidegger and Theology,” in The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2001), Tenth Essay. For more on this point, and Jonas’s relation to Heidegger more broadly, see Ralf Elm’s contribution in Hans Jonas-Handbuch, 28–34.
 For the latter, see especially Hans Jonas’s 1963 lecture “Husserl und Heidegger,” in Kritische Gesamtausgabe der Werke von Hans Jonas, vol. III/2, ed. Dietrich Böhler et al. (Darmstadt: WBG, 2013), 205–224. For discussion, see Ian Alexander Moore’s contribution in Hans Jonas-Handbuch, 172–75.
 In Hans Jonas, Philosophical Essays (New York: Atropos, 2010), chapter 18. Also, with the subtitle as sole title, in James M. Robinson, ed., The Future of Our Religious Past: Essays in Honour of Rudolf Bultmann (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), chapter 15.
 Op. cit.
 In Jonas, Mortality and Morality, chapter 7.
 Also in Edward C. Hobbes, ed., Bultmann, Retrospect and Prospect: The Centenary Symposium at Wellesley (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985): 1–4.
The emergence of totalitarianism in the 20th century not only marked a destructive turning point in modern history, but it also led to a ‘political turn’ in the phenomenological movement. Philosophers with a phenomenological background, such as Hannah Arendt, Claude Lefort, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Paul Ricœur, started to apply phenomenological insights to the study of political life in order to understand the emergence of Nazism and communism. This resulted in original and nuanced accounts of both totalitarianism and democracy, which are still relevant today, especially in the face of the growing popularity of nationalist and populist movements.
When it comes to the reception of their work, it is interesting to note that one almost never reads discussions of ‘political phenomenology’ as a coherent movement with its own method and beliefs. Apparently, the work of these philosophers is considered to be too idiosyncratic and incommensurable to be discussed together as part of a single movement. It is here that the originality lies of Le corps politique by Agnès Louis: by analysing the work of Arendt, Lefort, Merleau-Ponty and Ricœur – mainly focusing on similarities and how they complement each other – she provides an account of ‘political phenomenology’ as a coherent movement.
The central concept with which Louis tries to tie together the work of these four philosophers is the body politic, which is somewhat surprising since this is at most a marginal concept in their work. In the introduction to the book, Louis gives a brief historical reconstruction of the use of the concept of ‘body politic’ in political philosophy, followed by an explanation why she thinks this concept is fruitful for framing the movement of political phenomenology.
When people today talk about the political community they live in, they usually refer to it as ‘nation’, ‘country’, or ‘society’, but – as Louis reminds us – it used to be common to speak of the ‘body politic’. By looking at three paradigmatic thinkers of the body politic—Aristotle, John of Salisbury and Thomas Hobbes—Louis shows how the notion of the body politic was accompanied by three central claims about political life. The first claim is that individuals can only truly realize themselves when they are part of a political community; by becoming political, human life takes on a superior form that it otherwise would not take. For example, in Aristotle’s picture ‘mere’ life (focused on reproduction) becomes the good life (focused on the actualization of moral and political capacities), and in Hobbes’s account a violent state of nature becomes a peaceful Leviathan. The notion of the body politic thus expresses the idea that liberation and belonging to a political community go hand in hand.
Secondly, the metaphor of the body politic entails that the form that human life takes in a political community is particular and that therefore there exists a plurality of political bodies. The possibility of a single political body that includes all of humanity is rejected, which we find clearly expressed in Hobbes, who famously rejected the possibility of a universal sovereign.
Thirdly, the notion of the body politic is informed by a certain conception of the body, which reinforces a certain conception of political life. For example, the conception of the body in Aristotle and Salisbury, in which the distinction between body and soul is central, leads to a different picture of political life than Hobbes’s mechanistic conception of the body. Despite these differences, they agree that there is an analogy between bodily life and political life.
Given these three claims, Louis says, it is not surprising that the notion of the body politic became problematic and disappeared in modern democratic societies. First of all, democratic societies give primacy to the individual, and individual freedom is now understood as having the possibility to escape any pregiven identity. The idea that individuals can only liberate and realize themselves by belonging to a political community therefore becomes suspect. Secondly, the understanding of humanity in modern democracies becomes broader and more abstract: humanity now consists of all individuals independent of their political and cultural attachments, which conflicts with the notion of humanity as being divided into a plurality of different body politics, each having their own form of life. As Louis says, the metaphor of the body politic thus seems to be too demanding for us when it comes to the individual, and too limited when it comes to our interpretation of humanity.
In modern political life there thus emerges a permanent tension between freedom and belonging, or freedom and embeddedness. And unfortunately, modern political history has showed a tendency to resolve this tension one-sidedly, either absolutizing the pole of individual freedom (i.e. imagining that the individual can liberate him or herself without belonging to any political community) or absolutizing the pole of communal embeddedness (i.e. the individual belongs to a community where political existence does not lead to any kind of liberation).
It is here, Louis thinks, that phenomenology can make a valuable contribution. In its analysis of embodied subjectivity and the life-world, the phenomenological movement has provided nuanced insights about the way in which freedom and embeddedness are always intertwined in human experience. What would happen if these phenomenological insights be applied to the analysis of political life? This brings us back to the concept of ‘body politic’ and to the third claim mentioned above: that the body politic is always informed by a certain conception of the body. What Louis aims to do in her book is to rehabilitate the notion of ‘body politic’ by connecting it to a phenomenological conception of the body. In this way she wants to explore how phenomenology can help us to better understand the tension in modern political life between freedom and embeddedness.
The book consists of three parts. In the first part Louis gives a general introduction to some basic aspects of the phenomenological tradition—most notably the phenomenological method and the phenomenological conception of the body—which are necessary for understanding the presentation of political phenomenology in the rest of the book. Louis says the phenomenological method consists of an analysis that is characterized by a respect for phenomena and a sensitivity to the way in which subjective existence is embedded in the world. And even though Husserl and Heidegger were never directly concerned with issues of political philosophy, Louis shows that the phenomenological method can be fruitfully applied to political life in order to do justice to political phenomena by avoiding various forms of reductionism, and to become aware of how subjective existence is embedded in the political world. And indeed, it has been the merit of political phenomenologists like Arendt and Lefort to have done justice to political phenomena in an intellectual climate dominated by Marxism and sociology, in which it was very common to reduce politics to a supposedly more fundamental reality, either economic or sociological. Furthermore, they have contributed to a better understanding of the experience of living in a totalitarian or democratic society, as opposed to positivist approaches that reduce political life to a collection of objective empirical data.
The second aspect of the phenomenological tradition that Louis discusses—its conception of the body—is especially crucial for the argument in the rest of the book. Since Louis wants to introduce a concept of the body politic that is informed by a phenomenological account of the body, she has to explain how to understand this and how it plays a role in the work of Arendt, Lefort, Merleau-Ponty and Ricœur. Louis is aware that this is not an easy task since the four philosophers use the concept of ‘body politic’ in different ways, if they use it at all. Merleau-Ponty and Lefort seem to prefer the notion of ‘flesh’ over the notion of ‘body’ when speaking of modern political life. And although there are passages in Arendt’s work where she uses the notion of body politic, this is not informed by a phenomenological conception of the body. Only Ricœur uses the notion of body politic to refer to modern democracies while at the same time drawing an analogy between political life and embodied subjectivity.
Still, despite this conceptual confusion, Louis thinks that a phenomenological conception of the body politic can function as a helpful focal point for discussing the similarities between Arendt, Lefort, Merleau-Ponty and Ricœur. Louis therefore presents a Husserlian account of the ‘flesh-body’ (corps de chair) in which there is an intertwinement of activity and passivity. On the one hand, the flesh-body plays an active role in human experience: for example, it is the place from which objects and the world can be experienced as a unity, and it plays an active role in the experiencing of others. At the same time, there is a passive side to the flesh-body: it is something given to us at birth and it remains something opaque and strange, something that we can never completely appropriate or control. The flesh-body is thus paradoxical in the sense that it is both active and passive, both personal and impersonal.
Louis sees a parallel between this paradoxical character of the Husserlian flesh-body and the way in which Arendt, Lefort, Merleau-Ponty and Ricœur describe political experience in a healthy political community as an intertwinement of freedom and embeddedness. In their different ways, they all show how freedom (or political action) is embedded in a social, institutional and historical situation that can never be completely known or controlled. So both in the Husserlian account of the flesh-body and in the account of political life by the four political phenomenologists freedom is never absolute, since it is always preceded by something—the flesh-body or social-historical reality—that can never be fully controlled or made fully transparent. Louis’ notion of a ‘phenomenological body politic’ thus refers, simply put, to a political community in which this interdependency between freedom and embeddedness, or activity and passivity, is acknowledged.
In the second part of the book Louis explores the way in which totalitarianism destroys the ‘phenomenological body politic’ by turning to the critical reflections on Nazism and communism by Arendt, Lefort, Merleau-Ponty and Ricœur. Louis starts by discussing Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism in which totalitarianism is described as a phenomena that manifests itself as a permanent movement, which aims to realize total domination with the help of terror and ideology. Two visible effects of this permanent movement are central in Arendt’s description: first of all, the atomization of society, whereby the totalitarian Party uses terror and ideology to destroy the common world, thereby isolating individuals and preventing them from forming a meaningful community in which political action is possible. Secondly, since total domination is only possible when it encompasses all humanity, totalitarianism cannot settle for a limited territory nor acknowledge the existence of a plurality of political bodies, but it has to remain a de-territorialized movement. Arendt’s analysis of totalitarianism thus shows how totalitarian power refuses to become embedded in any body politic whatsoever.
For Lefort, the main characteristic of totalitarian power is that—in its quest for complete control and domination—it suppresses all internal division, such as the division between different spheres of human activity (economy, politics, religion, science, art, etc.), the divisions within society (no autonomous associations) and within politics (no diversity of opinion within the Party), the division between the political and the social (since totalitarian power denies any separation between itself and society), and finally the division between the real and the symbolic.
This striving for unity is accompanied by both an organic representation of society as a giant body or organism and a mechanistic conception of society as a machine. Together, they fuse into a conception of society as a mechanical body, which points to the ideal of a society that can be completely known and fabricated. As Louis says, this is the opposite of the flesh-body, which is always characterized by division: there is a part that is intimate and a part that is opaque and strange, and therefore our power to master experience is always limited. It is this limit to power that the totalitarian Party does not acknowledge; it wants to be autonomous without being embedded, thus destroying the phenomenological body politic.
Merleau-Ponty and Ricœur have not provided full-blown theories of totalitarianism, but their work contains interesting critiques of communism. For Merleau-Ponty the main problem of communism is its gradual disconnection – visible both in the Soviet Union and in Sartre’s ‘ultra-bolshevism’ – between the Party (the will) and the social-historical experience of the proletariat (the flesh). As soon as the Party stops understanding itself as being embedded in the proletarian experience, Merleau-Ponty argues, it becomes a will without flesh, thus destroying the emancipatory possibilities of communism.
Ricœur argues that communism is problematic because it is unable to clearly distinguish between social-economic and political reality and to acknowledge the relative autonomy of the latter. This is illustrated by the fact that communism cannot conceive of an evil that is properly political; it reduces all forms of evil to the social-economic evil that results from the inequality of the relations of production. Once a socialist regime is established, all evil should therefore be abolished. But by denying the possibility of political violence, it also becomes impossible to control or limit it; this explains, according to Ricœur, the unleashing of terror in communist states.
In sum, Louis shows in the second part of the book how the four philosophers criticize totalitarian power for running amuck and refusing to be embedded, thereby destroying the phenomenological body politic. Whereas the second part of the book thus provides a ‘negative’ picture of the destruction of the body politic, in the third part Louis tries to extract a ‘positive’, substantial picture of the phenomenological body politic from the work of Arendt, Lefort, Merleau-Ponty and Ricœur. She does this by focusing on three areas where the tension between freedom and embeddedness manifests itself: political action, history, and the symbolic unity of the social.
Louis explores the area of political action by looking at the work of Arendt and Ricœur. Similar to Aristotle, Arendt associates biological life with servitude and determinacy, and political life with freedom and action, that is, our capacity to create something new and to escape from the repetitive patterns of biological life. But, as Louis asks, if freedom is about starting something new and breaking with repetitive patterns, is there still a need for the agent to be embedded in a political community in order to realize freedom?
Arendt’s answer is affirmative: action needs to be embedded, first of all, in what she calls ‘plurality’. In order for action to become an objective reality, the presence of others is needed, which creates a space of visibility in which action can appear, a space of signification where action can become interpreted and meaningful, and it creates the possibility for an action to be fully accomplished, since this requires bringing others to act. Secondly, action needs to be embedded in the physical and juridical reality of the political community, which together create a common space between people where action has a chance to realize itself not just in exceptional circumstances but in a regular manner.
Arendt thus illustrates how in a free political community autonomy and embeddedness are intertwined and – despite her association of ‘the biological’ with servitude – she refers to such a community as a ‘body politic’. However, her concept of body politic remains vague and she does not draw an analogy between the body politic and embodied subjectivity. This is why Louis complements Arendt’s analysis with that of Ricœur, who largely agrees with Arendt but who explicitly draws an analogy between the duality of political action (starting something new and being dependent on others and institutions) and the duality of embodied subjectivity.
A second area where the tension between freedom and embeddedness manifests itself is history. Louis explores this tension by focusing on the work of Merleau-Ponty and Lefort, who both speak of the ‘flesh of history’ to refer to the complex interdependency of freedom and historical embeddedness. In the last chapter of the Phenomenology of Perception, where Merleau-Ponty gives his account of freedom, he argues that freedom is effective in human life only insofar as it is not absolute: the subject is always already embedded in a specific personal history that provides certain options and motivations on which he or she can decide to act or not. The same goes for collective history: every historical period offers certain options and roles to be taken up, between which individuals can choose and which they can play good or bad. Merleau-Ponty’s account of the relation between freedom and history thus rejects the two extremes of absolute freedom (which denies historical embeddedness) and historical necessity (which denies individual freedom).
In his later work, Merleau-Ponty further developed these reflections on historical embeddedness by introducing a specific understanding of the notion of institution. Against Durkheim, who understood institutions as social facts that restrict human behavior, Merleau-Ponty understands an institution as a symbolic matrix that opens up a field of possibilities for giving form and meaning to human co-existence.
Louis then shows how Lefort further developed Merleau-Ponty’s reflections by connecting this understanding of institution as a symbolic matrix to the question of the political. According to Lefort, every society is the result of a political institution of the social, that is, by a process in which form and meaning is given to human relations based on a common understanding of the nature of society. However, this political institution is executed in different ways, as Lefort illustrates by comparing different ‘forms of society’.
For example, in primitive societies, which Lefort also calls ‘societies without history’, the political institution of the social is understood as something that has been done by ancestors, gods or heroes in a distant past, and it is now beyond anybody’s power to change. The nature of society is thus fixed once and for all, and this explains, according to Lefort, why primitive societies suppress all conflict and why they resist all novelty and social transformation: only in this way can society’s identity remain stable and be preserved over time. Democratic societies, however, operate differently: they deny a transcendent foundation of the social and instead allow permanent conflict and debate over the nature of society. This explains the emergence of ideologies in modern democratic societies, such as liberalism, socialism or conservatism, each painting a different picture of the nature of society and each presenting a different program of the changes and transformations that are needed in order to realize such a society.
Unlike primitive societies, democratic societies thus embrace both conflict and transformation, and in this way, Lefort says, they become truly historical societies. In democratic societies we find ourselves embedded in a historical situation that presents several options for transforming society (liberal, socialist, progressive, conservative, etc.), and democratic politics consists in debating which option makes the most sense to pursue based on past experiences (failures, successes, unintended consequences, etc.). Lefort thus paints a similar picture to Merleau-Ponty of the connection between freedom and historical embeddedness – or of the ‘flesh of history’ – but he gives it a political twist by showing that it is only in democratic forms of society that a healthy balance can be realized between the two.
The third aspect of the phenomenological body politic that Louis discusses concerns the enigma that democratic societies can be both divided and united at the same time. Democratic societies are divided into relatively autonomous spheres of action, such as the economy, politics, religion, science, art, etc., each with their own norms. This raises the question why life in democratic societies can still be experienced as a unity, which Louis tries to answer by turning to the work of Merleau-Ponty, Lefort and Ricœur.
As Louis says, an important concern in Merleau-Ponty’s body of work has been to show the unity that penetrates the variety of domains of experience. However, in doing so, he has always resisted reductionist solutions – either materialist, sociological or idealist – that reduce the social world to an economic principle, a social fact, or a determined idea. Such explanations of social life remain abstract and cannot do justice to the variety of experiences, nor to their internal coherence. Instead, Merleau-Ponty conceives of social life as a totality, which he sometimes calls ‘civilization’; even though society is divided into different social spheres, these spheres communicate and interact because they are all informed by a specific understanding of the human, that is, a background understanding that pervades social life in all its dimensions.
As Louis shows, it is again Lefort who gives a political twist to Merleau-Ponty’s reflections by arguing that the specific understanding of the human that penetrates a society is of a political nature, and that it is closely related to the way in which power is organized in a society. Louis illustrates this by comparing Lefort’s accounts of the Ancient Regime and of democratic societies. According to Lefort, the society of the Ancient Regime was pervaded by a corporatist and mystical understanding (i.e. individuals had their place in corporations and this organization of society had a religious foundation), which went hand in hand with a form of government where the King was both the highest corporation and his authority had a sacred quality. Democratic societies, on the other hand, are informed by an understanding of man as articulated in the Declaration of Human Rights – as both autonomous and indeterminate – and this is accompanied by a paradoxical organization of power, which appears to be both emerging from society (the people are sovereign, which secures autonomy) but at the same time as being external to society (nobody can legitimately appropriate and embody power, which secures indeterminacy). A democratic regime thus secures a specific understanding of the human as both autonomous and indeterminate, initiating a permanent process of attempting to give substance to the human. In this sense, a democratic society is divided and symbolically united.
Louis’ discussion of Ricœur revolves around his critical analysis of Michael Walzer’s Spheres of Justice. In this book, Walzer argues – pace John Rawls – that a theory of distributive justice should take into account the plurality of goods that have to be distributed. However, Ricœur thinks that Walzer, in discussing this plurality of goods, does not emphasize enough that citizenship and political power cannot be discussed as goods to distributed like other goods. Citizenship, according to Ricœur, is a general condition for having access to social goods, whereas political power (or the state) is the central instance of distribution. In other words, the division of society into different spheres of distributive justice is only conceivable within a political community, or body politic, in which citizenship and the state are already instituted. Ricoeur conceives the nation-state to be the concrete form of the body politic within which complex justice can be established. The nation-state can both guarantee the autonomy of the different spheres of justice, but it can also prevent their complete dissociation: it is because citizens in the end feel themselves members of a nation-state that their pursuit of a plurality of goods in different social spheres does not lead to a radical dissociation.
Despite their differences, Louis thinks that the accounts of Merleau-Ponty, Lefort and Ricœur can be understood as a plea for the securing of a phenomenological body politic in which a healthy balance can be realized between the autonomy of social spheres and their embeddedness in the symbolic unity of a political community. The phenomenological body politic thus serves as an antidote to both totalitarian unity (in which the diversity of social life is abolished by the reign of ideology) and radical dissociation (where a particular social sphere, such as the capitalist economy, emancipates itself completely from all political frameworks).
In sum, Louis uses the third part of the book to extract insights from the work of Arendt, Lefort, Merleau-Ponty and Ricœur about the intertwinement of freedom and embeddedness in different areas of political life, and she ties these insights together with the help of the metaphor of the phenomenological body politic. In this way, Louis gives a convincing presentation of ‘political phenomenology’ as a coherent movement that wants to do justice to political phenomena and defend democratic political life as the privileged place for establishing a healthy balance between freedom and embeddedness (or, put more abstractly, between indeterminacy and determinacy). This account of political phenomenology is similar to the one given by Robert Legros (1996, 548), whose work seems to have been an important influence on Louis’ thinking.
In the final pages of the book Louis tells us that political phenomenology does not tell us which political position we should adopt, but it can help us to avoid the two pathologies of ‘absolute freedom’ and ‘stagnant embeddedness’. Even if we avoid these pathologies, Louis says, there is still plenty of room for political maneuvering – from a flexible conservatism to a radical reformism – and, depending on our situation, we have to decide if we need to secure more freedom or more embeddedness.
I want to conclude with three critical remarks. The first remark concerns Louis’ silence about the differences between Arendt and Lefort. This silence is partly understandable since she wants to focus mainly on similarities so that she can present political phenomenology as a coherent movement, but I think the differences between Arendt and Lefort are of such a fundamental nature that they cannot be ignored. For example, whereas Arendt makes a rigid distinction between ‘the social’ (as a sphere of determinacy and the biological) and ‘the political’ (as a sphere of freedom), for Lefort the social and the political are closely intertwined: the political refers for him to the complex process in which the social gets symbolically instituted.
And indeed, as Wim Weymans (2012) has argued, Arendt’s lack of attention to the symbolic dimension of democratic life is at the heart of many differences between Arendt and Lefort. Whereas Arendt has a tendency to interpret political phenomena in a concrete-empirical way, Lefort interprets them in the light of their symbolic dimension, which explains for example their different evaluation of human rights. Lefort considers human rights as emancipating because of their symbolic dimension: the fact that they are indeterminate and can never be fully realized in social reality creates a permanent possibility for citizens to criticize the existing state of society. Arendt instead perceives human rights as problematic because, in concrete reality, they are not protected by a particular state. One could list more differences between Arendt and Lefort (for example concerning equality, representation, or ideology) but I think this suffices to show that these differences are not unimportant but touch on central aspects of a political phenomenology: how to understand ‘the political’ and how to perceive and interpret political phenomena.
The second remark is related to the phenomenological metaphor of the body politic. Although I think Louis shows convincingly that there is an analogy between political life and embodied subjectivity when it comes to the tension between freedom and embeddedness, in the end this is just one of the tensions in modern political life. As soon as one analyses modern democracies more closely and concretely – as it has been done for example by some of Lefort’s students, such as Pierre Rosanvallon – then there emerge many other structural tensions, such as the tension between liberalism and democracy, the individual and the citizen, reason and will, expertise and opinion, representation and participation, juridical generality and identity, self-responsibility and solidarity, etc. All these tensions structure our democratic experience but, one could argue, they are of a much more incommensurable or ‘tragic’ nature than the tension between freedom and embeddedness. It remains to be seen if the phenomenological metaphor of the body politic can also help to illuminate these ‘tragic’ tensions in our democratic experience or if we would need other metaphors and imaginaries for that.
Thirdly, although Louis’ book convincingly shows that political phenomenology deserves a place in the landscape of contemporary political philosophy, one would still like to hear more about how it relates to other approaches. For example, political phenomenologists are not the only ones who have studied the relation between freedom and embeddedness; there has been a long tradition of Hegelian scholars who have reflected on this problem by rethinking Hegel’s notion of Sittlichkeit (e.g. Honneth 2014). And although Louis justly characterizes Heidegger’s phenomenology as apolitical, there has been a growing interest lately in ‘political ontology’ (e.g. Marchart 2007), which takes its inspiration largely from Heidegger. By comparing political phenomenology to these closely related approaches, I think its specific contribution to contemporary political philosophy could become even more clear.
Honneth, Axel. 2014. Freedom’s Right. The Social Foundations of Democratic Life. New York: Columbia University Press.
Legros, Robert. 1996. “Phénoménologie politique.” In Dictionnaire de philosophie politique, edited by Philippe Raynaud and Stéphane Rials, 544-551. Paris: PUF.
Marchart, Oliver. 2007. Post-Foundational Political Thought. Political Difference in Nancy, Lefort, Badiou and Laclau. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Weymans, Wim. 2012. “Defending Democracy’s Symbolic Dimension: A Lefortian Critique of Arendt’s Marxist Assumptions.” Constellations 19 (1): 63-80.
Dietrich von Hildebrand’s Ethics is a rigorously argued treatment of many important problems in the philosophy of morals. He puts forth a coherent and insightful realist perspective which strives to be founded in lived moral experience. And this realist aspect is in fact most important to him. As will become evident, in every way he tries to emphasize and secure the utter objectivity and autonomy of the sphere of values from all possible reductions to something else. But his treatment lacks a certain critical awareness of the transcendental-hermeneutical structure of experience. Hildebrand seems to consider that because the experience of value has an intentional character, it is therefore a direct and immediate “contact” with an objective reality that gives itself as it is. Intentionality is taken as securing realism straightaway. This is how he tries to offer a phenomenological argument from the intentionality of consciousness against various forms of value-relativism. Hildebrand wishes to understand the human being as by nature open to an ontologically independent sphere of value. But the counterargument to be given below is that the experience of the world is both of the world (intentional) and inevitably mediated (transcendental-hermeneutical). What one experiences is not simply an “in itself” but rather an “in itself for us.” This lack of transcendental awareness fatally undermines his attempt to demonstrate the pure objectivity of values. The only possible solution to this problem would be that of adopting an “anthropocentric ontology” in which the meaning of everything is its possible meaning for human beings. The “in itself” would thus correspond totally with the “in itself for us,” and the hermeneutical structure of human experience would be revelatory of things as they are. But this would be contrary to the purposes of Hildebrand, who wishes to situate human beings within the greater context of a non-anthropocentric reality. The goal in the following review is to summarize the substance of Hildebrand’s work and to pursue this line of critique in greater detail.
In the chapter titled “Prolegomena,” Hildebrand announces the method he is to adopt in the present work in addition to making certain requests of the reader. Although he does not use these terms, one could say that Hildebrand’s method attempts to be simultaneously phenomenological and realist. It attempts to be phenomenological because he desires that we be “on our guard against all constructions and explanations that are incompatible with the nature of moral data as presented in experience or that in any way fail to do full justice to them” (2). He wishes to engage in an inquiry into the moral by way of starting from “‘the immediately given,’ that is, from the data of experience” (2). And he calls upon his readers to perform along with him a kind of epoché, in which one “hold[s] in abeyance for a while all theories that are familiar to him, and that provide him with a set of terms that he is accustomed to use in sizing up that which is immediately given” (2). The reader is called to “listen to the voice of being” (3) and to pay close attention, in as unbiased and unprejudiced manner as possible, to the real given of experience. But what is this “given” of experience, and how does one arrive at it? Hildebrand is emphatic that his intended sense of the “given” is not a reference to what is experienced naïvely in everyday life, nor does it reduce to what “everyone knows,” i.e. what is taken as a matter of course in some community. Rather, the given is “the object that imposes itself on our intellect, that reveals and validates itself fully when we focus on it in an intellectual intuition” (10). The “given” in this sense would therefore seem to amount to a genuine “in itself” that has become transparent and visible to the inquiring intellect. And Hildebrand also proposes a method for attaining to it. More precisely, he proposes that one return to naïve prephilosophical experience and purify it of the distortions and malformations imposed upon it unthinkingly and perhaps “inauthentically” by conforming it to the reigning doxa of the thought-world a person happens to inhabit. This means not only refusing to deny the reality of something given in experience simply because it cannot be reduced to the categories dominating the time and place in which the experience happens, as when a modern person takes great offense at a crime but then goes on later to say that morals are a matter of subjective preference, but also rejecting the pragmatic obsession with usefulness which blinds a person to any other aspect of a thing than that which is useful. This is the substance of Hildebrand’s suggestion for what amounts to a preparation of oneself so as to attain to knowledge of a given, i.e. of a true “in itself” which has become transparent to the inquiring intellect. The method is thus phenomenological insofar as it turns to experience as the source of knowledge rather than to speculation or theorizing or hypothesizing, and it is realist insofar as Hildebrand emphasizes that knowledge is essentially a passive reception of the self-disclosure of an external “in itself.” Finally, Hildebrand cautions against the temptation to premature systematizing for a variety of reasons, the most fundamental of which seems to be that excessive zeal for the development of a system inevitably translates into an aprioristic method which can only ever disconfirmed by experience. As he says, “as soon as we believe that from certain general principles we can deduce the rest of the universe, we are bound to build up a system that is not in conformity with reality” (13). One must always prefer the truly given to the desire for a system, always prefer honesty and faithfulness to the given rather than faithfulness to a system (16-19). One could therefore summarize these points by noting that Hildebrand’s method strives to be phenomenological, realist, and non-systematizing out of a concern to be properly “empirical” or experientially founded.
Hildebrand’s ethics begins with the notion of “importance” (ch. 1). A thing presents itself as important, rather than as neutral or indifferent, when it gives itself as possessing the power to motivate a specific response on the part of the person to whom it shows itself. Its motivating power may be either positive – as when it motivates desire, or joy, or enthusiasm, etc. – or negative – as when it motivates aversion or some other such response. The positively important is designated “good” (bonum), whereas the negatively important is designated “bad” (malum).
The motivational power of things can be different from case to case (ch. 2). Some things are good in the sense that they are desirable. But desire is not the only way in which a person can relate to the good. Some good things are desired for the sake of being possessed, whereas others are good as sources of joy and to be desired even when they cannot be personally appropriated (e.g., the conversion of a sinner). And some good things are desired insofar as the formal object of the desire is its coming into existence, whereas other good things are venerated and esteemed as already existing.
Hildebrand distinguishes between three different categories of importance (ch. 3). First, there is the distinction between value and the subjectively satisfying. Value is importance-in-itself. The value imposes itself in experience as being good independently of the way in which it happens to affect a person, e.g. an act of moral heroism. The morally heroic act imposes itself as something whose positive importance is independent of the effect it happens to have upon those who are witness to it. On the other hand, the subjectively satisfying is only important because of the way it happens to affect a person in some circumstances, e.g. a warm bath or an enjoyable party. But in addition to value and the subjectively satisfying, there is also that which is objectively good for a person. This category is presupposed by the Socratic maxim that it is better to suffer injustice than to commit it, which would be unintelligible if the only way for a thing to be good for a person would be for it to be subjectively satisfying. It is better to suffer the subjectively unsatisfying than to commit an injustice, and this is because to be just is objectively good for a person, to be unjust – objectively bad. Hildebrand also emphasizes that the sphere of value is incommensurate with the sphere of the subjectively satisfying. It is not merely that one happens to be more valuable than another. A person forced to choose between caring for a friend in grave moral need and attending a social gathering is not choosing between two values on the same scale, but rather between two incommensurate forms of importance which appeal to different aspects of a person in order to move her to action. Value, mere subjective satisfaction, and the objective good for the person thus suggest themselves as the three fundamental categories of importance. And Hildebrand notes against Aristotle (63) that human freedom extends not merely to the means one chooses for the pursuit of any of these categories of importance, but also to which category of importance for which one opts in the course of life.
Although the useful is a genuine ethical category, it does not represent a category of importance on its own (ch. 4). A thing can be useful or not only relative to some important thing, whether this be value or mere subjective satisfaction or the objective good for the person. And Hildebrand is emphatic that of the three categories of importance, value — the important-in-itself — is primary (ch. 5). In fact, the primacy of value is so evidently a part of a meaningful human life that it often goes unnoticed and even obscured by theories which measure everything by the standard of the merely subjectively satisfying.
The values of things are properties which belong to beings independently of our motivations (ch. 7). These values reveal themselves in contemplation if a person is appropriately disposed, e.g. not beset by concupiscence and vice. The notion of an objective good for the person presupposes value, whether it be the value of the being the possession of which is an objective good or else the value of the human person whose enjoyment of various agreeable things is itself a value. Moreover, value is irreducible to the satisfiability of some relation to an urge or impulse of the human person (ch. 8). On the one hand, value imposes itself in experience independently of the disposition of those witnessing it, as when even a selfish person can be moved by a display of generosity. On the other hand, attempts at reducing value to a relation to some human disposition (e.g., an impulse toward admiration) all implicitly presuppose the value of the fulfillment of that disposition. These considerations lead to a refutation of relativism (ch. 9). Hildebrand responds to the argument from the diversity of moral opinions that such a diversity does not entail that there is no truth of the matter in morality and that the reality of an objective truth is in any case presupposed by the very act of taking up a moral opinion. In response to the claim of the “French sociological school” that morality is an invention and illusion owing to social pressures and cultural tradition, he responds that the moral sphere is in fact characterized by a certain essential intelligibility and necessity which puts it closer to mathematics than to mythology. Furthermore, these same relativists nevertheless inconsistently take up moral stances in response to evils such as Nazism. And Hildebrand has no patience for the view that says that the alleged value of things is in fact a feeling produced in us by the object, rather than a property of being itself, because this is contrary to the intentional nature of the experience of value itself. This is a point to which it will be important to return later.
There is a distinction to be made between ontological and qualitative value (ch. 10). Qualitative value is the value that characterizes qualities which may be possessed by different persons and is as such indifferent to each of them, e.g. the value of humility or charm or whatever. Ontological value is the value that a thing possesses simply in virtue of the fact that it is what it is, e.g. the value and intrinsic dignity of the human being as such. Hildebrand notes that the qualitative values (and disvalues) are related to each other in a way characterized by what he calls “polarity” (ch. 11). For example, thing cannot simultaneously be grand and delicate, menacing and boring, charming and imposing. Hildebrand also distinguishes various forms of polarity, some of which involve a kind of fruitful antagonism or opposition while others involve complementarity. And with respect to the relation between value and being (ch. 12), Hildebrand argues that these are distinct notions such that the grasp of one does not entail the grasp of the other. He grants that there is a formal value which belongs to every being simply qua being, but this must be distinguished from the ontological value of that being qua something as well as its qualitative values, i.e. the various valuable qualities it might possess. And it is possible for a thing to possess such ontological and qualitative disvalue that it would be better if it did not exist at all.
Speaking more generally of the connection between being and value, it is evident that the world in which human beings live is full of both good and evil, value and disvalue (ch. 13). But the presence of value alongside disvalue and indifference itself suggests that at the foundation of created being lies God who is Absolute Value. The ultimate reality could not be disvalue insofar as this would empty value of its meaning and turn it into a lie. This shows something of the relationship between God and value (ch. 14). Hildebrand compares it to the relationship between God as necessary and the creature as contingent: although it is possible to grasp a thing as contingent or valuable apart from the recognition of God, nevertheless the contingent or valuable thing depends upon God as its precondition. And the various values of things are in different ways reflections of the supreme unity of value in God.
Leaving aside questions of the relation between value and being, Hildebrand turns to the matter of moral values in particular (ch. 15). These are first and foremost values of a person, whereas nothing impersonal could be said to possess a moral value such as wisdom or temperance or the rest. And yet they are distinguished from other qualitative values of persons by the fact that it is demanded of every person as such to possess them, thus presupposing freedom of the will and in which regard the success or failure to possess them leaves one deserving either of reward or punishment. The distinctly Christian values of the saint include but also go beyond the values of “natural” morality available to all people whatsoever. With respect to the matter of moral value and its relation to nature (ch. 16), Hildebrand is firmly committed to the notion that the sphere of value cannot be subordinated to that of the human, as if value were merely a human phenomenon. This means that the morally valuable is not simply whatever is in accordance with human nature. Rather, human being is itself ordered toward the autonomous sphere of value, including the distinct sphere of moral value to which the human being has access as a result of its capacity for reason.
Hildebrand puts forth an extended discussion of the nature of value-response which is so fundamental to ethics (ch. 17). He begins by distinguishing intentional acts of consciousness, which imply a relation between a person and an object, from those nonintentional states such as exhaustion or cheerfulness. Among intentional acts, a distinction is to be made between the cognitive acts such as perception, through which an object is made present to a person, the direction of intentionality being principally from object to subject, and responses from the subject to the object which presuppose these prior cognitive acts. Responses may be of different sorts. Theoretical responses have to do with believing or disbelieving, accepting or doubting, and are aimed at the state of affairs as such. Volitional responses have to do with willing or not willing, which are principally aimed at state of affairs recognized not presently to be real, but which at least are possibly so. And there are also affective responses such as joy or sorrow, love or contempt. Some of these are principally characterized by the cognition of a value in their object, such as the admiration one feels for a saint or virtuous person. These are called value-responses. They are distinguished from other affective responses principally through the fact that they express themselves through a form of self-abandonment and self-transcendence, as when one worships God or commits oneself to the cause of justice. Some value responses such as love may manifest themselves in a manner similar to urges and impulses like thirst or strong desire, but they must nevertheless be distinguished from these in virtue of the fact that they are responses to an independently possessed value of some object. And the intentionality and object-directedness of the value response is not compromised by the thought that the human being is naturally disposed toward or benefited by certain values. The value of a thing is grasped in a special form of intentional cognition which Hildebrand calls value-perception. Hildebrand notably differs with Socrates in that he does not believe that mere indubitable value perception is sufficient to result in moral action; it is also necessary to be affected by them and to will in conformity with them.
It is essential to respond and relate appropriately to the values in things (ch. 18). There is an evident disharmony in dismissing Plato as vapid or thinking of St. Francis as “merely a lovely religious troubadour” (257). Similar considerations apply in the case of a person who responds with admiration and veneration to her robbers. And it is not merely a person or a valuable thing but rather the value itself that demands a proportionate response. Among these value-responses is the will to be good (ch. 19). One might also call this the fundamental option for moral value. Hildebrand is clear that the choice to be moral is first and foremost a response to the importance-in-itself of moral value and only secondarily a pursuit of what is objectively good for the human person. The difference between morally conscious person and morally unconscious person is that the former has considered and made this fundamental option for goodness whereas the latter has not. The morally unconscious person conforms to the moral order only accidentally, to the extent that it is natural or normal for her to do so. The morally unconscious person may also be strictly indifferent to the question of moral value while finding herself contingently inclined toward certain values which are genuinely morally good. The appropriate response to moral value in general requires moral consciousness.
Hildebrand also considers the role of the will in the response to value (ch. 21). On the one hand, the freedom of the will makes it possible for the human being to respond to the disclosure of value either positively or negatively, appropriately or inappropriately. On the other hand, the will is also what makes it possible for human beings to initiate causal sequences and to intervene in the flow of events in the world. Freedom implies the consciousness that some state of affairs both should and will obtain as a result (at least in part) of one’s own agency. Moreover, freedom is the presupposition of all moral evaluation and social action. It is distinct from the forms of voluntariness which are found even among animals (ch. 22). Contrary to the assertion of Aristotle, human freedom extends not only to the means but also to the end (ch. 23). Humans are free to choose between the merely subjectively satisfying or the important-in-itself as ends for their actions and not merely as means for the procurement of happiness. Insofar as human responsibility is coextensive with human freedom, it must be recognized that there is a distinction between things for which humans are directly responsible and those for which humans are only indirectly responsible (ch. 24). The existence of the former can be assured by an act of the will, whereas for the existence of the latter all one can do is prepare the way by means of free choices. One may not be capable of bringing about a virtue in oneself directly, but one can nevertheless be blamed for a failure of virtue if one does not at least prepare the way by willing to do the virtuous thing.
Human freedom also plays a role in the response to one’s being affected or affective responses to other things (ch. 25). It is not a matter of human freedom that one be affected or respond affectively to things, nor would it be right for it to be so, since the affective response is precisely a response to quality perceived in the object and not a matter of choice. But it is nevertheless a matter of freedom whether one “cooperates” with how one has been affected by something, e.g. whether one pursues a joy or submits to a felt offense. The morally conscious person is distinguished by the fact that she exercises her capacity to sanction or disavow her spontaneous attitudes. The morally unconscious person simply takes these affective responses for granted, whatever they might be. But this capacity can also be exercised by the morally conscious immoralist or enemy of God who specifically identifies with immoral attitudes and suppresses any noble affections that may arise within her. In general, the zone of affective responses is an area in which the human being can exercise indirect influence by either sanctioning or disavowing certain responses for the sake of preparing a ground for the advent of the appropriate ones. And in general, the factors which influence the development of a person’s character are numerous and vary with respect to the freedom a person has over them (ch. 26). One’s natural endowment with respect to temperament and body is one thing, whereas the way in which a person internalizes her own experiences and understands her own life is another. These analyses therefore yield the fundamental elements composing a moral act: it must be a free value-response to some relevant moral value perceived and pursued precisely as such, i.e. as a moral value (361).
Hildebrand posits three spheres of morality: the sphere of action; the sphere of concrete responses to things, whether volitional or affective; and the sphere of the lasting qualities of a person’s character (ch. 27). These spheres are not reducible or subordinated to each other. For example, it is possible for a morally noble person to fall into some sin as a result of temptation, in which case a distinction is to be made from the evaluation of character (she is noble), the evaluation of concrete responses (she is tempted by something), and the evaluation of action (she performs an evil action). An action is the intentional realization of a state of affairs perceived both as realizable and as valuable in a certain way. Affective responses to things can become the subject of moral evaluation when they are sanctioned or disavowed, i.e. when volition is brought into the equation. Virtues are deeply embedded qualities of a person’s character which are founded upon certain basic value-responses. This raises the question of moral “rigorism” (ch. 28). Although for Hildebrand the true drama of morality is the choice between the merely subjectively satisfying and the important-in-itself, it is nevertheless true that one should prefer the more valuable to the less. But it is also possible that in various situations it be morally required to give preference to something which otherwise would be considered a lesser value. And a distinction must be posited between what is morally praiseworthy and what is morally obligatory. “Rigorism” collapses this distinction and in this way erases the category of the merely permissible. Hildebrand also considers the question of the objective good for the person (ch. 29). There are four categories of the objective good: to be endowed with values; to possess something that makes happy because it is valuable; to have things which are indispensable for life; and to enjoy things which are legitimately agreeable.
The final chapters address the sources of moral evil. These are identified as pride and concupiscence (ch. 30). In fact, Hildebrand identifies three moral “centers” in the human being (ch. 31). These “centers” are not ontological constituents of the human person, but rather “a kind of fundamental approach to the universe and to God, a qualitatively unified ‘ego’ that is always more or less actualized when the person accomplishes a morally good act” (437). These centers are identified on the basis of certain qualitative affinities between various virtues and vices. The virtues — love, humility, reverence, justice, generosity, and so on — are united around what Hildebrand calls the “loving, reverent, value-responding center,” whereas there are two centers of evil: pride, which is the source of vices such as revengefulness, hard-heartedness, envy; and concupiscence, which is the source of covetousness, impurity, laziness, and other such. Hildebrand proposes an analysis of five possible manifestations of the coexistence of the good and evil centers in the typical human being (ch. 32). The merely subjectively satisfying can be a legitimate pursuit, but only if it is done in a recognition of the precedence and priority of value (ch. 33). Otherwise, one falls victim to pride and concupiscence. The discussions terminate with analyses of concupiscence (ch. 34) and pride (ch. 35) as distinct yet related ways of failing in the matter of value-response, concupiscence consisting in a loss of self in the pursuit of the satisfying, pride consisting in a preoccupation with self to the negation of value.
The book terminates with reflections on distinctly Christian ethics (ch. 36). Christian morality includes but also goes beyond and fulfills “natural” morality, understood as that moral knowledge which is available apart from revelation. This Christian ethics is distinguished in at least a few ways: its principal manifestation is humility; it brings together values which in natural morality are often thought exclusive (e.g., zeal for justice and meekness); it is principally founded upon the core of charity; and it conceives of the ethical life as a response to God in Jesus Christ.
Hildebrand’s discussion spanning some nearly five hundred pages is coherent, detailed, and in many places compelling without being aprioristic or unduly systematizing. His analyses of the different ways in which virtues and vices, moral battles and weaknesses manifest themselves in distinct types of persons are very astute and insightful. He demonstrates a profound and nuanced vision of the details of the moral landscape, for example in appreciation of the irreducibility of value even to the sphere of human entelechy as in some species of natural law ethics. At the same time, his writing lacks a certain transcendental awareness of his own hermeneutical situatedness. Sometimes the result is quaint, as when he takes for granted the obviousness of certain moral intuitions and attitudes typical of a faithful Roman Catholic writing decades before the Second Vatican Council. On other occasions, however, it serves to undermine the cogency of his arguments and compromises the genuinely phenomenological character of his work. Consider his discussion of the intentional character of value-response and its phenomenal quality as a perception of a value in the object itself.
Hildebrand distinguishes between cognitive acts and responses as two forms of intentional consciousness. The cognitive act is fundamentally receptive insofar as it consists in the grasping of the self-presentation of an object given to consciousness. The response is fundamentally active in that it consists in the adoption of a particular attitude toward the object grasped in the cognitive act (206-207). Although Hildebrand does not formulate it in precisely these terms, one could say that the cognitive act is a form of categorial intuition in which one grasps a state of affairs of such a nature as to motivate the adoption of some attitude in response to the grasped object. The quality which the object is grasped to possess is the motivation for the response. Insofar as some responses clearly have to do with the supposed value or disvalue of a thing to which one is responding, it therefore would seem to follow that these responses presuppose the prior cognitive grasp of a thing as possessing some value or disvalue relevant for motivating the response in question. For example, one feels admiration for a person in whom one perceives admirable qualities, e.g. moral values. The value-response is thus founded upon a form of value-perception in the way that responses more generally are founded upon cognitive acts such as perception or categorial intuition.
By way of response, one should note that Hildebrand seems to disregard the essentially hermeneutical nature of world-experience. One does not simply experience world-objects and grasp their properties directly. The external world-object is grasped through the dual hermeneutical filter of the lived body and thought-life of the individual. A door looks blurry from a distance, not because it is blurry, but because one has bad eyesight. So also, a skyscraper may appear massive, not because it is in itself massive, but because it is much larger than one’s own body. Likewise, the fact that a man does not experience his wife and his sister-in-law in the same way does not owe to a difference in the two women, nor to a difference in his body, but to a difference in his thought-life: he understands the one to be his wife and not the other. So also, a woman might experience her parents differently after learning that she was adopted, not because something is different in them or in her body but because she now understands them differently. This is what is meant by the assertion that the external world-object is grasped through the dual hermeneutical filter of the lived body and the thought-life. One does not only experience the object but rather the object as related to oneself.
Hildebrand’s arguments for the objectivity of value therefore seem unsuccessful. It is true that one experiences an object as possessing some value which motivates a particular form of response to it. But it is another matter whether one has grasped a value in the object on its own or in the object as it is related to oneself in experience. Food is experienced as delicious, but there is no property of gustatory value inhering objectively in chicken tikka masala. It can be appetizing to one but not to another. Or consider that human beings love fruit, but dogs and cats generally do not. Similarly, a purported moral value can be “noble” in the eyes of the “virtuous” but repellent to the “profligate.” It could well be that the difference in perception is accounted for merely in terms of the different structures of the persons involved. Hildebrand thus does not succeed in demonstrating the pure objectivity of value because he does not show a critical awareness of the hermeneutical contribution of the lived body and thought-life to every world-experience. This seems to be the greatest shortcoming of an otherwise quite valuable treatment of the philosophy of morals. It remains a possibility that the perception of value is accounted for by the human body and thought-life rather than in the world-objects themselves. Value could be just like food, where tastes differ.
Hildebrand could escape this conclusion if he were to opt for an “anthropocentric ontology.” Such a perspective maintains that the meaning of things is their possible meaning for human life and purposes. On this view, the hermeneutical structure of human experience would not supply merely one more possible perspective among others but would rather constitute the total framework within which every possible perspective is included. The human being is not related to a prior world which could exist independently of him, but rather the being and meaning of the world its precisely its being and meaning for the human being. Reality is subordinated to the human rather than the other way around. Adopting this perspective would be a way of admitting the fundamentally anthropo-hermeneutical character of the experience of value without compromising the reality of values, since reality is precisely reality-for-humans. This also undermines the argument for relativism, which apparently presupposes a “realist” ontological stance within which human beings are merely one more kind of beings within a greater non-anthropocentric reality that is strictly indifferent to them. But it would also be incompatible with Hildebrand’s greater project of conceiving the human being as intrinsically open to a sphere of objective values which transcends him and exists independently of him. One must therefore choose between “anthropocentric ontology” or an uncertain realism and the specter of value-relativism.