In this eloquently written book, a meaningful dialogue emerges between literature and philosophy, exploring the theoretical complexities and practical implications of the death penalty.
The book is composed of five chapters, an introduction and a conclusion which examine the death penalty as “the ultimate expression of sovereignty” (3). Each chapter develops a thesis that discusses the unavoidable progression of biopolitics into thanatopolitics and necropolitics. Following Aquilina’s argument, if the death penalty is not the exception of a political system that uses the lives of human beings as a way to teach order and respect of the law (biopolitics), but is “the paradigm of punishment itself” (43), then politics is based on death (thanatopolitics) rather than on living human beings. Accordingly, in a society of death, the anonymous νεκρός (nekros), the corpse, is the paradigm of justice, order and fair retribution of resources.
As the author writes:
“The death sentence is what founds the very structure of the law (…). Condemnation to death, as the foundation of human society, always denotes and necessitates a social and collective experience of putting to death” (42-3)
Societal order and well-being are based on the ultimate punishment of ripping human beings of their own identities and revoking the ownership over their own body. Accordingly, the foundation of political justice is based on death rather than life. For this reason, within this political context Aquilina examines what notion of subjectivity, agency and humanity are left to the citizens living in such a society, especially when their life is demanded and stripped off from their identity. To proceed in this analysis Aquilina uses the examples offered in literature from Blanchot to Sophocles, Dostojevski to Shakespear and Kafka. He starts from analyzing the phenomenon of depersonalization triggered by the instant of death, the moment in which it is decided that one’s life is demanded for the good of the State. Even if this life is saved and the condemned person is left free to walk back to life, this life is no longer there to embody them. The human being is reduced to homo phaenomenon, to use Kant’s expression (38), that is, to the shallowest form of being human. Humans of this kind are no longer considered a worthy human being (homo noumenon) capable of participating in rational and moral law, but they are comparable to animals incapable of telling their own story. As Aquilina shows using Heidegger “we die because we live– or rather because we are. (…) Unlike animals we do not simply perish” (45) Our death brings with itself an ontological and existential significance that reveals “its singularity because I die” (46). Human anxiety stems from this awareness. Hence, if the singularity of our death is taken away from us; if we are forced to be animals, our entire existence is at stake. Challenging Heidegger and using Dostojevski (as well as other numerous sources) the author employs the concept of relational death. While for “Heidegger it is incoherent to insist on any sort of relational death (…) because if I do not die then I am not I,” Aquilina believes that the notion of relational death is key to understanding the irreplaceability of our singularity (50). Using Stone, Aquilina insists on the Mit-Sein and sociality in death:
“one dies precisely as one forms these relations with the other, because it is ‘I’, as constituted by my death, that makes such relations. In a part of me dying with the other who becomes a corpse or a thing, it is only a quality of the self that dies, and not the self as a whole self; only a part of one’s psychological, social and ethical self – in Stone’s words, a ‘dimension’, ‘strand’ or ‘part of this person’, a part of one’s narrative or ‘story’ – comes to an end” (58)
As Stone’s words show, no human being is an island. We are all caught in a unique interrelation of meanings and goals that make our life significant. Our life does not end with the end of our life since the significant essence of our being lives on with the relationships that our life has established. As Butler writes:
“It is not as if an ‘I’ exists independently over here and then simply loses a ‘you’ over there, especially if the attachment to ‘you’ is part of what composes who ‘I’ am. If I lose you [. . .] then I not only mourn the loss, but I become inscrutable to myself. Who ‘am’ I, without you?” (95)
Another way in which the author puts it in his third chapter, Missing death, is “living life without life” (63). When I lose the main interlocutor of my life, the main referent of my deeds, then ‘I not only mourn the loss’ but I live without an important part of my life. I am without you. I am without life. The notion of relational death becomes even more crucial during the waiting time of the death penalty. In this life that “whitholds relations as opposed to annulling them”, time, too, becomes relational to our close ones and to the end. In this waiting the naturality of our lives becomes unnatural (as Oliver remarks, 67). From being animal, as in the phenomeninc human being, we become living corpses (nekroi) by law, because of the death penalty, “in suspension between life and death which leaves a mark that is no marker” (Butler, 71). We become living corpses because as the author remarks “it has been introduced death into one’s existence without recognition” (71).
The individuation of the self would be possible through alterity or, as in Levinas, the imperative of alterity, “the epiphany of the face qua face opens humanity” (101). Yet, this individuation does not find its place because the alterity is annulled through the death penalty. As Levinas remarks “justice is not a legality regulating human masses” because the judge, who is supposedly the person outside of the conflict, is in the conflict while should be the one who helps us to see the third possible way, to open our eyes to justice and its humanity. In this case, in a society where death penalty is possible, “the third can never save us from the death penalty because sociality is itself the death penalty; we can only survive without surviving” (105). The author once again concludes that in such a society we live as corpses. We are not horrified by the nothingness of death, as in Heidegger, but by the “condemnation ‘’ that is, becoming a Being which cannot be exited (111).
In such a necropolitical society, autobiography, as well, is impossible (127) because the death kills the authos (the person itself) and its interlocutor, so the only rendition of one’s life can be an “autothanatography (…) a literary realization of never having left this nothingness in the first place” (127). “The literature of the death penalty allows us to view ourselves as subjectless things” (135). The anonymous homo sacer, to use Agamben’s expression (145) is the one who knows the sovereignty of the non-social society. (145). As Agamben shows paraphrased by the author “politics is always a politics of death’ but death ultimately kills even the possibility of necropolitics” (147)
Hence, in this ontological survey of death as a punishment the author describes the progressive loss of our humanity as the political context in which this humanity should thrive becomes more and more constituted by death and its anonymity. No space is ultimately left to the particularity of the human being and its voice.
As a reader, what I missed most is the human being. Given the tragic nature of the topic I wish I had touched more lived experiences or at least mental experiments (the author proposes one at page 127, with the Lazarus phenomenon) that could show what actually means for the human being to live through the practical and theoretical implications of death and death penalty. Yet, half way through the book I found myself reading this book as an open conversation with John, the person to whom the book is dedicated. In this book John–”who survives with me” becomes the interlocutor of a universal experience that touches all of us in different modalities and makes the very essence of who we are.
Another note is about the choice of the title and its content. It is true that the main topic of the book is death penalty but this latter becomes an opportunity to reflect on the larger theme of death and its ramifications in the constitution of our present life. Hence, while reading I wondered, is this a book about an ontology of death or about an ontology of death as a penalty? At page 157 the author proposes a title that I found more descriptive but probably less effective than this one “The ontological ramifications of death penalty.”
In conclusion, I recommend this book to everyone who wants to dive into this theme for personal needs or those who are moved by scholarly purposes and are in need to build a robust bibliography on it. In fact, the concluding chapter at page 153-4 proposes a very interesting list of readings on the topic and more directions that could be taken to explore the theme from a philosophical and fictional point of view.
In its complexity this book adds an important voice on the death penalty. Maybe in continuity with Foucault, its major contribution is to help people think in depth on the theoretical and practical consequences of living in a country that accepts the death penalty as a capital punishment.
Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007.
Butler, Judith. Antigone’s Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.
Butler, Judith. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London and New York: Verso, 2004.
Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York and London: Harper and Row, 2008.
Levinas, Emmanuel. ‘Dying For . . .’. In Emmanuel Levinas, Entre Nous, translated by Michael B. Smith and Barbara Harshav, 207–18. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.
Stone, Alison. ‘Natality and Mortality: Rethinking Death with Cavarero’. Continental Philosophy Review 43, no. 3 (2010): 353–72.
Stone, Alison. ‘The Relationality of Death’. In On the Feminist Philosophy of Gillian Howie: Materialism and Mortality, edited by Victoria Browne and Daniel Whistler. Bloomsbury, 2016.
From a first look at the Table of Contents of Peter Dews’s Schelling’s Late Philosophy in Confrontation with Hegel (OUP USA, 2023), one gets already the impression of seeing the intertitles of Schelling’s works and central philosophical preoccupations: nature, agency, identity, thinking, being, idea, blind-existingness, mythological consciousness, reason, revelation, history, liberation, and genealogy. Already here the reader suspects an ambitious endeavor, which is then confirmed by the length of the work (311 densely written pages), which is accompanied by a Preface, Notes on Translations and References, Notes on Terminology, List of Abbreviations, and then includes an Introduction, 9 Chapters, 3 Figures, Bibliography and Index. This ambitious endeavor is then further confirmed but also achieved by the reading of the book.
As the author writes in the Preface, the aim of the book is the following:
Studying the confrontation between Schelling and Hegel promises not only to promote a better comprehension of the inner life of German Idealism as a whole, but can throw light on many questions which continue to surge up for those who seek to grapple philosophically with the modern world, and the forms of human existence, agency, and self-understanding which it has fostered. (Dews 2023, xii)
Thus, we already see the intention of not just another book on the history of philosophy recounting the theories and ideas of the philosophers announced in the title (Schelling, Hegel), but also, as justified by the reading of the book, nearly an overview of German Idealism and of the modern world, as well as of the notions examined, such as existence, being, agency, nature, etc. However, the book achieves much more than this. We see a parade of unsuspected philosophers along the pages, such as, except from Schelling and Hegel, Aristotle, Spinoza, Kant, Fichte, Leonhard Reinhold, Jacobi, Heidegger, Sartre, and others, including many scholars writing on them.
I found the Notes on Terminology especially helpful, clarifying and precise. With them we get in direct touch with the German original (Aufheben/Aufhebung; Das reine Daß; Potenz; Das Seyende; Das Existirende; Das Existiren; Das unvordenkliche Seyn; Das urständliche Seyn), we see the translation/transcription choices of the author being justified and juxtaposed with those of other philosophers/scholars, and we avoid many misconceptions, assumptions, and misinterpretations, since similar or the same words are also used by other philosophers, and we might read Schelling with their apparatus, or to cite Donna Haraway, with their “situated knowledges”. Peter Dews already mentions such confusion and misinterpretations, or even biases, when reading Schelling or any other philosophers, and when it comes to understanding or interpreting them through the lens, the nomenclature and the concepts of another, especially when this other has been more influential in their time, as it happens with the case of Heidegger, who seems to intrude in every understanding and interpretation of even philosophers before him. Especially so in the case of the philosophers that influence Heidegger, and the works of whom he un-remorselessly usurps, who become themselves, within scholarship, only as their Heidegger doppelgänger. Even more specifically in the case of Schelling, who “has been on” Heidegger since the moment that Heidegger “had been on him”. Peter Dews writes:
Although Schelling is not entirely consistent, his use of “das Seyende” and “das Seyn” can therefore be regarded, very roughly, as reversing the polarity which these terms have in Heidegger. This is worth noting since the Heideggerian influence on recent European philosophy has led even some translators of Schelling into error. One should also bear in mind that Schelling no doubt intended to replicate the grammar of Aristotle’s most general term for being, “το ὂν” (to on), a nominalized present participle. (xviii)
Following the Notes on Terminology, particularly helpful are also the Abbreviations, since apart from their necessity in looking back at them while reading the book, they are also, simultaneously, lists of the works of the main philosophers employed (Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Schelling, Sartre, and others) both in their original language and in English. Furthermore, I particularly appreciate the note on Gendered Language towards the end of the Abbreviations section, together with the notes on Orthography that add to the precision and the wide critical abilities demonstrated in this book, which are not limited into the usual and mere claustrophobic examination of a particular author or a particular historical philosophical era.
What I particularly appreciated in the Introduction, except from the very concise outline of the chapters, are some general comments regarding both the contemporary status of research on German Idealism and on Schelling, but also the historical milieu around Schelling’s thought, in relation to his contemporaries and especially Hegel. Concerning the first, Peter Dews notices that German Idealism (and in general the German Philosophy after Kant), as well as “its less systematic complement, Jena Romanticism” (1), are not only preoccupying the thought and scholarship of philosophers and scholars in the continental tradition, but there is an upsurge of interest by some analytic schools as well. This is something that, I would add, is seen not only with the employment of post-Kantian German philosophers by analytic philosophy, but also with other figures of continental thought, as for example the Phenomenologists. Moreover, as Peter Dews observes, in order to understand the “awkwardness in the reception of Schelling’s thought, we need to consider the dominant orientation of the new wave of research on the German Idealist period, which began in the late twentieth century, with an initial focus on Hegel” (2). And it is mostly this latter awkwardness that he clarifies in the Introduction. This constant juxtaposition and comparison not only of Schelling with his contemporaries, but also with “modern frames of reference” (14 and elsewhere; where with “modern” he means contemporary and not “modern” as a historical period), is something that constitutes the leitmotif of the book. In the Conclusion, Peter Dews even employs in his analysis the very modern-postmodern “hermeneutics of suspicion” (Marx, Nietzsche, Freud) (15; 281-283).
While studying the chapters one by one, –one can find a brief outline of them at the end of the Introduction (12-16), so that I do not merely repeat it here–, what I found most appealing and even positively surprising is how, despite having been studying Schelling for many years, many aspects of his philosophy have become much clearer to me, as I suppose will become for other readers, too. Moreover, the interconnections between notions, ideas, and theories all over his philosophy, or of ones used in specific works of his, have also been allocated a more concrete order of understanding. More so, concepts, theories, ideas, and notions from Aristotle, Hegel, Heidegger, and Sartre, have attained a clearer sense, through their interpretation by Shelling via Dews, and also through their comparison and juxtaposition with Schelling, who are, simultaneously, constantly compared, juxtaposed and interpreted through one another on the first stratum, and on the second stratum or “image of thought”, as Deleuze would say it, through or via Dews. I am referring here to notions major not only to these specific philosophers but paramount within Philosophy itself: myth-ology, reality, essence, not-being, non-being, becoming, nothing-ness, consciousness, nature, spirit, subject-object, agency, potentiality, actuality, dependency, freedom, necessity, autonomy, the “ontological argument”, etc. This book becomes, thus, nearly a storytelling narrative of characters and their exchanges, where the author becomes actively one of them. This is what philosophy is supposed to do, anyway, and Peter Dews has done it perfectly, with the end result becoming a book that is also pleasurable and grasping to read; another attribute or “virtue” sine qua non of good philosophizing.
I will now give some highlights from the book, which cannot be but bound to personal preferences and “decisions”, as is always the case, either when implicitly or explicitly stated. Taking the opportunity from the reference to “decisions”, and since I have a personal interest in “philosophical decisions”, especially as meant by François Laruelle, but also as implied by Friedrich Nietzsche (“ephexis from interpretation”) and others, I will at first mention some instances where in Peter Dews’s book I found some ideas that reminded me of these Laruellian philosophical “ideals”, either as interpretations and characterizations of certain philosophies and philosophers, or as direct quotations. Of course, almost certainly without the intention of Peter Dews, but still I find the mere fact of using or quoting these phases already as a testimony to a commitment to pluralism, democracy, and a withholding or suspension of a final decision (which would otherwise mean a dogmatism, and an authoritarianism, in which philosophers, according to Laruelle, engage as per usual, but which is unlike his ideals of Non-Philosophy that actually means his ideals of Philosophy itself, outside the discrepancies and the aberrances of its actual history). I am particularly referring to the characterization of “theoretical agnosticism” (146) (which, here, goes to Kant and specifically for his approach on the existence of the Ideal, but it can stand alone without Kant or this specific philosophical idea). Then in the section on the “transition from the Idea to the ‘External Existence’ in Hegel”, Peter Dews, gives attention to what Hegel emphasizes to be the reason for or the why of “the shift from the domain of logic to nature”. In Peter Dews’s words:
Hegel emphasizes that the shift from the domain of logic to nature is not a “having become” (Gewordensein) or a “transition” (Übergang), that it is “free” (that is, not a logical consequence), and that it is the result of a “decision” (Entschluβ—arguably, this follows from its characterization as free, once we rule out—as Hegel must—the existence of the world as random) (SL: 752– 753/W20, 6: 573). In light of this, the best sense to be made of the major scene- change within his system seems to be the following. The circular closure of the sphere of logic as a whole both confirms the internal self-sufficiency of the sphere and reveals it as determinate or limited—as the sphere of what is “still as yet logical” (noch logisch). This one-sidedness generates the philosophical drive to move into another sphere. (155)
Here, I shall boldly accentuate the words: decision (Entschluβ), self-sufficiency, and philosophical drive. This paragraph could have been written, I think, by Laruelle, too. Decision could take the notion of the “philosophical decision” that each philosopher arrives to when formulating a theory, with which decision one forms a sphere of thought, or an “image of thought”, which one believes it is philosophically “sufficient” or self-sufficient and thus becomes enclosed and limited by one’s own formulations and decision and by the sphere of thought one has created and attach oneself to. This “belief” in the sufficiency of their philosophical decision stems from the general illusion of a sufficiency of philosophical thought and in repercussion of one’s own philosophical thought, which can do without any other form of thought either philosophical or other. Here Peter Dews, through Hegel, or Hegel through Peter Dews, seems to have the same intuition or ideal for philosophy that Laruelle has, by saying that there exists a “philosophical drive” towards moving “into another sphere”. This “philosophical drive” seems quite Nietzschean as well, as Nietzsche sees the philosopher as the sapio <sapere>, that is, the one that tastes from idea to idea, without remaining or being grasped by or clinging to any of them; namely, without arriving at a final decision, but by keeping “an ephexis in interpretation” [Ephexis in der Interpretation], as Nietzsche says, where interpretation and decision, I propose, can be used interchangeably. This is how Nietzsche defines philology or the philological method, as “an ephexis in interpretation” [Philologie als Ephexis in der Interpretation], which he also employs in his philosophy as well. This ephexis is also at the core of the Nietzschean type of skepticism. A little bit later in the book, Dews examines the notion of dependency (156, 164-170, and elsewhere), which is also existing in Aristotle and is quite known in analytic philosophy as “ontological dependency” or “existential dependency”, and it can be also seen in a more Nietzschean, Laruellian and even Hegelian sense, where each idea, and each system, sphere, or “image of thought”, as well as, more broadly, each discipline of thought, and each discourse, is dependent on all others, thus one alone cannot be ontologically efficient and sufficient (self-sufficient), even if it can be separated for the sake of epistemological analysis. Peter Dews has a worth mentioning comment/conclusion on this epistemological/ontological separation, in connection with Schelling’s distinction/separation between Positive and Negative Philosophy:
Arguably, if we wish to sustain an explanatory project of the Idealist kind, committed to the ultimate satisfaction of reason, yet also to separate epistemological from metaphysical monism, we cannot avoid a distinction comparable to that drawn by Schelling between negative and positive philosophy. Negative philosophy is the domain of the “eternal truths.” Positive philosophy, as we shall explore in more detail in the next chapter, begins from the Daβ— which Schelling also terms the “un-pre-thinkable” (das Unvordenkliche), or, more disquietingly, “blind existing-ness” (das Blindexistierende). (170)
In order to clarify what is Negative Philosophy in Schelling, I quote some passages from Peter Dews:
Schelling’s negative philosophy is a large, complex structure, consisting of a philosophy of nature and a philosophy of spirit. (140)
[…] “purely rational” (reinrationale) philosophy […] “logical’ philosophy” […]. (117)
[…] negative philosophy elaborates an a priori theory of the structures of being; […]. (117)
In negative philosophy, thought turns back on itself, reflecting on the manner in which it is logically compelled to think pure being. (118)
[…] the legacy of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Schelling’s suggestion is that, in these thinkers, “dialectic” plays the role of negative philosophy […]. (118)
In the thought of Socrates, as portrayed by Plato, dialectic plays a ground-clearing role, destroying the illusory knowledge of Sophists and Eleatics, but it does not culminate in any positive theory. It is in this context that Socrates’ claim to uniqueness in knowing that he does not know acquires its significance. His lack of knowledge is a docta ignorantia, which refers both backwards and forwards. (118)
Aristotle’s thought presents a very different picture, however, since he purges Greek philosophy of its mythological dimension, and—in the Metaphysics—develops a style of thinking which Schelling regards as a precursor of his own negative philosophy. […] There are two fundamental features of Aristotle’s thinking which are significant in this respect. The first is Aristotle’s denial that the structure of the ideas, as understood by Plato, can play any role in explaining the existence of things. In this context, Schelling refers to Aristotle’s criticism of “the confusion which arises . . . when the logical order is confused with the order of being,” with the upshot that “inevitably the real causes of being are mistaken for the merely formal principles of science” (GPP: 160/SW, II/3: 101). (119)
In effect, on Schelling’s reading, Aristotle “suppressed” the elements of a positive philosophy which were already present in Plato’s dialogues in the form of a “mere anticipation” (GPP: 164/SW, II/3: 107); that is to say, in the form of the mythical or eschatological discourse to which Plato was unable to establish a strictly philosophical transition from the domain of dialectic. (120)
Negative Philosophy is a categorization having sense only next to what Schelling calls Positive Philosophy:
[…] “historical’ philosophy” (117)
[…] the task of positive philosophy is to confront the bare fact of the world’s existence, and—operating abductively—to frame the most comprehensive explanation it can for the inner dynamic of nature and the evolving history of human consciousness. (117)
In positive philosophy, by contrast, it begins from one supreme fact—that the world exists—and seeks to frame an account of nature and the history of human consciousness, which, in a hermeneutic circle, is both guided by, and constitutes an ongoing confirmation of, its inaugural hypothesis concerning the intelligibility of the world’s existence. (118)
[…] the concerns central to positive philosophy are explored primarily through the medium of myth. (118)
(He [Schelling] suggests that what can be classified as “positive” in Aristotle’s thought—in other words, not purely constructible by reason—is only the empirical data, which are examined for the purpose of framing definitions that can then be used in syllogistic inference.) (119)
This illusion of sufficiency or independency of each philosophy or philosophical decision, theory, system, etc., or of Logic over what Hegel calls Realphilosophie, or of Negative Philosophy over Positive Philosophy, as Schelling calls it, and vice versa, is evident here. There is, in fact, an intra-dependency of decisions within Philosophy and of types of Philosophy, and an inter-dependency between Philosophy and the other disciplines or domains of thought. All these types of philosophy or “kinds of philosophical activity” (117) or “modes of philosophizing”, as Dews calls them (118), both in Hegel and in Schelling, (Dews clarifies them throughout his book), are precisely, as I see it, what Hegel, too, tried to avoid through his dialectical method, and accordingly what the aforementioned philosophers (Laruelle, Nietzsche) attempted to avoid with their own approaches and methodologies. Peter Dews quotes the following passage from Hegel, where again there is an anachronistic “reference” to the Laruellian philosophical decision, and to what Hegel gives as the why of “the shift from the domain of logic to nature”, the answer to which is “decision”, which as he says in the passage quoted here, does not need to have “any inner reason, in actual fact, as the French say, sans rime ni raison”. These can also have correspondences with Deleuze’s philosophical presuppositions, which often become the reasons sans rime ni raison for a (philosophical) decision. I quote:
Because Hegel’s logical domain is entirely self-sufficient, we would be required to suppose that: The very idea which is first presented as the most perfect, and which no dialectic could have any further power over, that this idea, without having any inner reason, in actual fact, as the French say, sans rime ni raison, could break apart into this world of contingent things, opaque to reason and resistant to the concept. (SET: 63/SW, II/1: 584) (168)
As a further comment on the above, I think that all criticisms between philosophers are due to their illusion of the independency and sufficiency of their proper philosophy, and the reflex towards a direct proximity to interpretation (rather than an ephexis from it); this was, I think, Deleuze’s intuition too, and thus his disrelish for criticism. Edmund Husserl’s notion of “regional ontology” or “ontological region” is also relevant here as well as in connection to the aforementioned ideas/methodologies of Laruelle, but I will not go into more detail here.
Moreover, I think that Peter Dews in this book exemplifies what Laruelle, again, phrases as the “democracy of all thought”, since I did not anywhere catch any pejorative statement or a hierarchy or a court-like mono-defense of one or the other of his philosophical protagonists.
What I would also like to highlight is the extent to which Peter Dews’s book manages to both clarify and juxtapose the following fundamentally philosophical-ontological terms/concepts in Schelling, and the neighboring ones in Hegel, Aristotle, Spinoza, Fichte (see, especially, pp. 40-41, where the concepts/notions of reality, existence, and consciousness are also juxtaposed), Sartre (see Chapter 6, esp. pp., 172-185), and others, as well as “the ontological argument” in general (pp. 185-193): being [das Seyn]; being-ness [das Seyende]; being-ness itself [das Seyende selbst]; blind being [dem blinden Seyn]; the subject of being [das Subjekt des Seyns); what Is [Was Ist]; “that which is not able-not-to-be” [“das nicht Nichtsein-könnende”] (SdW: 28); “the able-to-be” [das Seynkönnende]; the primordial being [Ursein]; being-in-the-role-of-essence [“wesendes Sein”] (SdW: 28); the pre-jective [das Urständliche], objective [gegenständlich] (HMP: 52–53/SW, I/10: 18); “the necessarily existing mode of being” [des nothwendig existirenden Wesens] (HMP: 53–54/SW, I/10: 19; see also SdW: 8); essence [Wesen]; absolute emptiness [die absolute Leerheit]. (Enc.1: §87, Zusatz/W20, 8: 188); “mere being” (das blose Sein); “negatively not-being” (negativ nichtseiend); “positively not-being” (positiv nichtseiend); etc.
And then I think that one of the greatest achievements of this book, is to clarify in an anachronistic manner the famous Aristotelian distinction between the “μὴ ὂν” (mē on) and the “οὺκ ὂν” (ouk on), by juxtaposing it, as already Schelling does in his work, with Schelling’s “positively not-being” or “positive not-being”, and “negatively not-being” or “negative not-being”, and “nothing”, as well as with Hegel’s relevant terms. I will quote here some extended passages from Dews, which I consider to be stellar in achieving the aforementioned:
From Schelling’s point of view, Hegel’s argument that the thought of pure being collapses into—has always already passed over into—the thought of nothing fails to distinguish between two distinct ways in which “mere being” (das blose Sein) can be regarded, which he distinguishes in the lecture course System der Weltalter: it can be thought as “negatively not-being” (negativ nichtseiend) or as “positively not-being” (positiv nichtseiend). The positively not-being is the “not-being which is posited as such, thus nothing at all.” By contrast, the “negatively not-being” is the “not-being, which is only not-being where actual being is denied, but in which there is also the possibility to be some entity (ein Seiendes zu Sein)” (SdW: 113). Schelling frequently distinguishes these two negations of being by using the Greek expressions “μὴ ὂν” (mē on) and “οὺκ ὂν” (ouk on). Here he is drawing on Aristotle’s theory of potentiality and actuality, as Aristotle uses the term “μὴ ὂντος” (mē ontos) rather than “οὺκ ὂντος” (ouk ontos) (that is to say, the expression for the contrary rather than contradictory negation of being) in order to describe the existing of properties potentially (δυνάμει—dunamei) as the negation of their existence in actuality (ἐνεργείᾳ—energeiai) (see, for example, Metaphysics XII.1.1069b18– 20). In a later discussion of the same issue, Schelling uses an Aristotelian example: to describe a voice as “not white” one would use the negative “ouk,” whereas to describe a sunburned face as “not white” one would use “mē” (see DRP, SW, II/1, 306–307). He further points out that, when Aristotle states the fundamental principle that the same thing cannot be and not be, he writes “εἶναι καὶ μὴ εἶναι ̓ (einai kai mē einai) rather than “εἶναι καὶ οὐκ εἶναι” (einai kai ouk einai), using “mē” rather than “ouk” to express negation. According to Schelling, modern philosophers only give this principle the “formal meaning” connected with contradictory negation, whereas Aristotle uses the expression that gives the principle a “wider extension” (see DRP, SW, II/1: 308–309). […] The disagreement between Hegel and Schelling, therefore, hinges on whether the not-being of pure being should be understood as a distinctive negative mode of being, which cannot be accommodated by the Hegelian contrast between the thought of sheer being, on the one hand, and the thought—in intention absolutely opposed and yet, according to Hegel, logically indistinguishable—of its total absence or nullification, on the other. To register this important Schellingian distinction in a convenient form, I will from now on draw a contrast between not-being or nothing (das Nichts) and non-being (das Nichtsein). As Schelling himself points out, this opposition corresponds to the modern French distinction between “le rien” and “le néant” (e.g., DPE, SW, I/10: 285–286). (127-129)
At this stage, one can imagine a further Hegelian objection: that the concept of “potentiality” is simply not available at the radical beginning of pure thinking. Hence it is important to note that, at the start of the discussion of being, Hegel does in fact consider the possibility that the contrary negation of being (which he refers to as “das Nichtsein”), rather than its contradictory negation (which he terms “das Nichts”), could be taken as following from the thought of pure being. […] (129)
Hegel concedes, then, that treating “non-being” as the next logical stage after “being” is not an inherently illegitimate move. He simply thinks the result would be a direct transition to one of the two moments of the subsequent category of becoming, which combine being and nothing—specifically, the moment of transition from nothing to being. It seems clear that Hegel must also have Aristotle’s conception of the shift from potentiality to actuality— from dunamis to energeia—implicitly in mind here, and that he is using the expression “das Nichtsein” to render Aristotle’s “μὴ ὂν.” What is striking about this concession is that the phrase “nothing, as it is in becoming” renders rather precisely what Schelling describes as das gegenständliche Seyn (objective being), as opposed to das urständliche Seyn (pre-jective being). For das gegenständliche Seyn is pure, formless givenness—one might think here of unconceptualized Kantian intuitions which, as the first Critique says, would be “less than a dream” (A112), unless taken up into a process of categorial synthesis. (130)
So, thinking of pure being as “μὴ ὂν” rather than “οὺκ ὂν” does indeed involve thinking of it in mediated way. Das Subjekt des Seyns cannot entirely shake off its relation to the being of which it is the subject—as Schelling puts it at one point, potentialities “exist as waiting for” actuality (DRP, SW, II/1: 311). Yet, of course, this cannot be the whole story, else we would not find ourselves at any kind of radical beginning. It is fundamental to Schelling’s conception, in fact, that pure being should be double in this way. On the one hand, we apprehend it as immediately identical with its concept; in his lectures On the History of Modern Philosophy, Schelling refers to this moment of thinking as the “concept of concepts” or the “pure concept”—an apprehension of existence which abstracts from any determinate grasping of something as something […] (130)
[…] This is, Schelling asserts, “the point where thinking and being are one” (HMP: 52/SW, I/10: 18). […] Schelling’s critique of modern philosophy, then, hinges on the claim that the primordial identity of thought and being (“das urständliche Seyn”), the most abstract expression of the freedom or spontaneity of thinking, is almost inevitably forgotten or obliterated, with the result that philosophy fatefully makes a beginning not with the pure possibility of being, but with some version or other of the notion of substance. (131)
My only “criticism” is minimal, and it is the following, which is not quite a criticism in its usual sense, since I am against that practice, but more like a throwing of an opinion so as to initiate a problematization and a dialogue. It concerns the triadic schema of correspondences of Hegel’s categories (158):
Logic of Being –––––> Science of Logic
Logic of Essence –––––> Philosophy of Nature
Logic of the Concept –––––> Philosophy of Spirit
As Dews says, also referring to Vittorio Hösle’s Hegels System [(Hamburg: Felix Meiner, 1978), vol. 1, 101–104], there seems to be an incongruence or a difficulty between the three doctrines of Being, Essence, and Concept and their corresponding Philosophies. So, Peter Dews attempts a relocation of these correspondences in an attempt to solve the difficulty as follows (159):
Logic of Being –––––––> Philosophy of Nature
Logic of Essence –––––––> Philosophy of Spirit
Logic of the Concept –––––––> Science of Logic
It is with this attempt or any attempt of relocation of the Hegelian or of any philosopher’s correspondences and inner-system of thought that I would disagree, although it is a common practice of philosophers to criticize the “decisions” of other ones. I think that the difficulty in understanding the aforementioned schema of Hegel, as well as it is the case with other difficulties of understanding a philosopher’s thought and “decision”, lies in the names, that is, in the disagreement in definitions, which are not absolute but perspectival and “situated”. In the case of Hegel, I think that the major incomprehension of many aspects of his philosophy as well as a name that concentrates a heavy load of debates, obscurities, criticisms, etc., is the name of essence, that is, its definition in Hegel and subsequently in many feminists that were influenced by Hegel, such as Luce Irigaray. However, it is not of the present to dive into more detail on this, and I would refer the interested parties to my Thesis (Christodoulou 2022), where I discuss this in detail.
To conclude, Peter Dews’s Schelling’s Late Philosophy in Confrontation with Hegel achieves what it prepares one to do in the title, in the contents, in the Introduction, and much more. This is a book that is worth reading not only for its original contributions to Schelling, Hegel, and especially Schelling’s later philosophy, on which latter, dedicated secondary bibliography is scarce, but also to the research on fundamental ontological notions existing diachronically in Philosophy. It is also a book that is not only to be read once and archived, but to which one can return so as to consult for various issues, not only regarding Schelling, and only in case they are a Schelling scholar, but also if they are thinking on any of the terms/notions/concepts mentioned above and many others. In this regard, it is also worthwhile as a textbook and even a didactic one within academic classrooms, but at the same time it avoids the dryness that such books are often characterized with, and it is pleasurable to read both to the academic but also to any other reader who is a philosopher or is interested in philosophy.
 This paper is prepared as part of my postdoctoral research project “Ontological Exhaustion: Being-Tired, and Tired-of-Being: a philosophy of fatigue, exhaustion, and burnout” at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, implemented with the financial support of the National Programme “Early-stage and Postdoctoral researchers” – 2, Stage 1, 2022–2024.
 I am making reference here to some sections from my Thesis, especially the one entitled “Heidegger “Being-on-Schelling”: A Beginning to Schelling and a Closing to Heidegger”, where I use this phrasal verb to denote an intoxication/addiction of Heidegger to Schelling, and Heidegger’s usurpation of his philosophy. This expression/phrase is based on David Clark’s “Heidegger’s Craving: Being-on-Schelling,” in Anna Alexander and Mark S. Roberts (eds.), High Culture: Reflections on Addiction and Modernity (Albany, New York: SUNY Press, 2003), 95-131, or Clark, David. “Heidegger’s Craving: Being-on-Schelling.” Diacritics, vol. 27, no. 3 (1997): 8-33. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1566331. See, Marina Christodoulou, Life as Addiction, PhD Diss., University of Klagenfurt & University of Toulouse –Jean Jaurès, 2022.
 See, my Thesis (Christodoulou 2022), and especially the Introduction and the Conclusion, and my following two articles: Marina Christodoulou, “Neither «pathimaton», nor «symptomaton», or «kataphaseon» katharsin. The non-cathartic philosophy of «non- decision» and «ephexis in decision»,” Systasis 40: Special thematic section: “Παθημάτων κάθαρσιν or πραγμάτων σύστασιν? Professor Michail D. Petruševski’s Solution of the Problem of Tragic Catharsis 80 Years Later” (2022): 86-146; and Marina Christodoulou, “Essaying-in-philosophy as an ephexis in decision” in Odradek: Studies in Philosophy of Literature, Aesthetics, and New Media Theories 8, no.2: ‘Heretical Voices: The Reasons of the Essay in Modern and Contemporary Literature’ (Edited by Paolo Bugliani) (2022): 23-63.
In the contemporary philosophical landscape, Gregory S. Moss’s book stands out for many different reasons, and even though it should be considered a major contribution to the understanding of Hegel’s logic, its worth cannot be limited to the narrow boundaries of Hegelian scholarship. In this review I would like to illustrate some of the merits of this book, and I will try to show why Hegel’s Foundation Free Metaphysics can be read as an autonomous philosophical work, an exciting occasion to continue and renew the debate on some fundamental philosophical questions.
The Author’s first monograph on Cassirer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms addressed the question of the autonomy of language. While dealing with partially different issues – the nature of language and the philosophy of culture – this book already discusses some topics that are the main focus of Moss’s philosophical work, and shows methodological elements that remain unaltered in his second book. Aside from the general interest in the history of German thought, the book already deals with the problem of autonomy and of universality, discussing the relationship between language and logic and introducing the question about interculturality.
More importantly, in Ernst Cassirer and the Autonomy of Language Moss already showed his deeply theoretical approach to the analysis of the authors of the past. His reconstruction of Cassirer’s philosophy of language does not simply aim at offering an accurate sketch of the author’s thought, but rather it is an attempt to show how that theory can still find a place in the contemporary debate.
Following the same methodological inspiration, Hegel’s Foundation Free Metaphysics offers a monumental reconstruction of Hegel’s metaphysics, often underlining some aspects of his thought that have been lost in the most successful trends of the Hegelian research in the English-speaking world. However, it is also a striking attempt to show why Hegel’s metaphysics continues to be relevant. This may be the greatest achievement of Moss’s work: it does not just illustrate Hegel’s own position, but also and foremost shows what it means to have a Hegelian approach to philosophy today.
Despite its remarkable internal coherence, the impressive size of the book – around 500 pages – makes it almost impossible to provide a comprehensive summary of its content. Instead of doing so, I will start by introducing the main focus of the book – the relation between singularity and absoluteness. After that, I will discuss some pivotal elements of Moss’s interpretation of Hegel’s thought. Finally, I will try to point out some issues that remain open at the end of the analysis, in the attempt to show how this book can be understood as the starting point for a productive debate on Hegel, on the contemporary debate, and on the future of philosophy.
1. Philosophy’s Paradoxical Stance Toward Singularity
Since Plato, the relationship between philosophy and singularity has been complicated, even paradoxical. On the one hand, philosophy has been constantly presented as the kind of knowledge that addresses the universal rather than the singular. The tradition offers us a bunch of formulas in order to clarify this taxonomy: while philosophy is knowledge of the universal, art or history address what is singular. While thought only grasps the universal, only intuition has access to individual things.
On the other hand, however, philosophy has always been obsessed with singularity. The greater part of the philosophical effort since Plato and Aristotle is devoted precisely to understand how singular being (ta ekasta) are structured, how they are generated, how we think and say things about them, how they relate to each other. While the singular is banned from the domain of philosophy, nonetheless philosophy’s main task has always been the discovery and the elaboration of the structure of singularity in itself.
But what is singularity? Even this question, along with the distinction between singular and universal, is quite problematic. We are accustomed to identify singularity as the lower limit of thought, namely as what lies beyond any possible specific difference in the great taxonomy of genera and species. Yet, what is singular is also what lies beyond the upper limit of thought, namely what exceeds any possible genus: it is epekeina tes ousias, to use Plato’s formulation. In a sense, “singular” is the opposite of “universal”; in another sense, it is the opposite of “plural”. I know it is a schematic oversimplification, but this could account for the main difference between Aristotle and Plato: according to Plato, ideas are the true “singulars”: there is only one Beauty, it is one, eternal, and determinate, whereas sensible things are always plural, changing, indeterminate and temporal. In this context, what is most universal is at the same time utterly singular. On the contrary, Aristotle’s attempt to “save phenomena” – a formula used by Simplicius – is precisely the attempt to think sensible things as singular, determinate beings. Universals are plural, they are instantiated and thus have specific, but not numeric unity. Only individual things – both sensible and supra-sensible – are singular. For the sake of discussion, this oversimplification could be useful to identify this basic difference between a Platonic and an Aristotelian attitude towards singularity: on the one side, the singular is the absolute; on the other side, the singular is first and foremost finite, individual being.
2. Hegel’s Thought as a New Theory of Singularity
Now, how do we place Hegel’s philosophy in this frame? First of all, it’s worth mentioning that Hegel’s thought has traditionally been accused of having a complete lack of interest in singularity. Hegel is the “philosopher of universality” par excellence. Universality, necessity and subjectivity are the three key notions that structure most traditional interpretations of Hegel’s idealism, in which singularity, contingency and objectivity are therefore accounted for only as partial and lower steps of a more comprehensive dialectical process.
Already right after Hegel’s death, his first commentators criticized his disregard for singularity. According to Ludwig Feuerbach, the distinction between logical and sensible being is the inescapable mark of Hegel’s failure in thinking the individual: «Die Sprache gehört hier gar nicht zur Sache. Die Realität des sinnlichen einzelnen Seins ist uns eine mit unsern Blute besiegelte Wahrheit» (Sämtliche Werke, II, 212). This is Hegel’s major fault, not recognizing that „reality of singular sensible being” that we cannot help but feel as an immediate truth.
The strongest critic of Hegel’s philosophy of singularity, however, is Kierkegaard, who polemically used the term “Einzelheit” in his philosophy precisely to rescue the singular from Hegel’s monistic and universalistic account. Since idealism is “abstract thought”, Kierkegaard’s aim is to highlight the philosophical significance of existence, whereas what exists is precisely that singular being that abstract thought keeps overlooking.
This interpretation of Hegel’s philosophy has survived up to contemporary philosophy. In particular, French thought used the term “singularity” in order to develop an anti-Platonic and anti-Hegelian concept of individuality. Gilles Deleuze is the philosopher who expresses this critique in the most explicit way: «Hegel substitutes the abstract relation of the particular to the concept in general for the true relation of the singular and the universal in the Idea» (Difference and repetition, 10). Quite ironically, while Hegel is one of the first philosophers to use the word “singularity” as a technical term, clearly distinguishing between a commonsensical and a speculative use of the notion, the whole post-structuralist tradition uses the term “singular” as an anti-Hegelian device, tracing it back to Spinoza in contraposition with Hegelian dialectic.
A second element that is useful to point out, in order to understand the novelty of Gregory S. Moss’s approach, is that this criticism of Hegel’s notion of singularity goes along with a critique of Hegel’s systematic and anti-foundational idea of philosophy. Feuerbach and Kierkegaard, but also many other early commentators of Hegel’s system, such as Karl Werder, Kuno Fischer, Schelling, and Friedrich A. Trendelenburg, criticized Hegel’s disregard for the individual and at the same time stated the impossibility to obtain a complex categorical structure starting from the absolute simplicity of being. In other terms, the impossibility to get difference starting from identity.
Now, this close connection between systematic metaphysics and the problem of singularity is at the core of the theoretical analysis of Hegel’s Foundation Free Metaphysics. The so-called Hegel-renaissance in the English-speaking world has already rediscovered the importance of Hegel’s account of individuality. Paul Redding highlighted in the clearest way how the Pittsburgh school – Robert Brandom in particular – has managed to read Hegel’s philosophy as a semantic theory of individuation. However, these interpretations have systematically underplayed the systematic aspect of Hegel’s thought, along with its strictly metaphysical character. Following the oversimplified frame that I’ve proposed before, Robert Brandom’s inferentialism is – in a way – an Aristotelian reading of Hegel’s theory of singularity, since it understands singular beings only as finite, individual objects.
In this context, Gregory Moss’s book offers a timely and original reading of Hegel’s logic, since it finally highlights some aspects of Hegel’s philosophy that have been structurally neglected by many commentators. Three aspects are particularly worth mentioning.
In the first place, the author clarifies that Hegel’s notion of singularity not only refers to individual, finite beings, but also – and foremost – to that peculiar singular being that is the Absolute. In a way, therefore, Hegel’s speculative use of the notion of singularity overcomes the difference between the Platonic and the Aristotelian approach.
Secondly, Moss shows how it is impossible to understand Hegel’s use of the notion of “singularity” without taking into account the necessary relationship between these two dimensions. There is no account of the singularity of finite being without addressing the singularity of the Absolute, and any account of the Absolute that does not illustrate the metaphysical status of singular finite being is incomplete and partial.
Finally, the book puts a very strong accent on necessity to highlight the general aim of Hegel’s philosophical enterprise. It is impossible to understand Hegel’s use of the notion of “singularity” without considering the metaphysical character of his logic. Here it is important to grasp Hegel’s own understanding of what metaphysics is, rather than applying some contemporary use of the term to the Hegelian text, which forces Hegel into a theoretical frame that does not have much to do with his own methodology.
As I will point out later, these three elements also identify three problematic aspects of Moss’s theoretical and interpretative framework, or at least three questions that are still open after reading the book. However, before going deeper into the critical analysis, I will briefly illustrate the main structure of the book.
3. Thinking the Absolute
One of the most striking elements of Moss’s book is that it emphasizes the strict relationship between infinite and finite thought. While tradition generally accepted that we cannot think the Absolute in the same way we think finite being, one of the key contributions of Classic German Philosophy is the idea that if we fail to think the Absolute, even thinking finite being becomes impossible. If I’m not misunderstood, this is what is at stake in what Moss calls the “problem of nihilism”. I won’t go into it in detail, but a general consequence of this approach is precisely Moss’s attempt to show how Hegel’s philosophy is a unification of Plato’s and Aristotle’s approaches: if the Absolute is absolute, and therefore there is nothing outside of it, then it is impossible to differentiate between two faculties or two different methods, as if, for instance, understanding were to be identified with the faculty of finite being, and reason with the faculty of the Absolute. So, by developing a critical discussion of how the Absolute has been thought in the metaphysical tradition, we are at the same time questioning the way we think finite being. This traditional view is what the Author calls the “duality of principles”, the idea that knowledge – and reality – cannot be grounded on one principle, but rather require at least two: intuitions and concepts, matter and form and so on. Against this position, the Author defends a strongly monistic account of Hegel’s metaphysics, according to which the true Singular – the Absolute – self-differentiates in a way that can be compared to the Neoplatonic One.
The thesis of the duality of principles is grounded on another assumption, namely the impossibility of self-reference. If there is only one principle, then identity and difference must stem from the same source, and this source has no external matter on which to operate. According to Moss, the history of Western thought has mostly rejected this idea because of the undisputed adherence to the principle of non-contradiction. If identity generates difference, then the same thing is at once identical and different, namely contradictory.
These three metaphysical assumptions, the principle of non-contradiction, the rejection of self-reference, and the duality of principles, are presented by the Author as the fundamental argumentative structure that undermines at the basis the very possibility to think the Absolute, and that can be found in the history of Western metaphysics from Plato up to Kant.
For this reason, Moss’s analysis starts with a critical assessment of some basic problem of traditional metaphysics. While the author does not have philological or reconstructive interests, his confrontation with some authors of the past is extremely useful in order to grasp his fundamental orientation. For instance, while Plato, Aristotle and Kant are examples of the duality of principles approach, the brief but intense reconstruction of early German idealism aims at showing that Fichte’s and Schelling’s objective was precisely to overcome Kant’s dualism, and to re-introduce a self-referential first principle as the metaphysical and epistemological ground of a new philosophy. At the same time, this approach is strongly connected by Moss to Plotinus and Neoplatonic philosophy, with a long and dense excursus on ancient philosophy that reveals the Author’s tendency to offer a somewhat Neoplatonist interpretation of Hegel’s logic.
After having offered a critical reconstruction of these three metaphysical assumptions, Moss shows how they inevitably lead to five paradoxes that can be found throughout the history of philosophy.
The Problem of Instantiation: if particulars and universals are indebted to different (epistemological/ontological) principles, it’s impossible to clarify their relationship.
The Missing Difference: if conceptuality is not the source of its own differentiation, then the source of this differentiation is non-conceptual. «The essential difference that distinguishes one thing from another cannot be accounted for by appealing to what the thing is ‘in virtue of itself’» (165).
Absolute Empiricism: since the differentiated content of the conceptual dimension is not conceptual, the source of conceptuality is entirely empirical.
The Problem of Onto-Theology: the most universal notion is indicated as both universal and particular.
The Third Man: if the Concept is not self-differentiating, then every instance of the Concept, as a particular concept, cannot be the Universal Concept. Every attempt to find the universal concept leads to new particular concepts.
The largest part of the book’s first section is devoted to the historic and theoretical analysis of these paradoxes. The second section, instead, shows how – by positing the Concept as one self-referential and dialetheic principle – Hegel’s logic manages to overcome them.
Surprisingly, the book does not use the classic difference between understanding and reason as an instrument throughout this analysis. The question of the difference between understanding and reason is of course present, but it is not always clear whether these issues could be addressed as the result of an intellectualistic and non-speculative understanding of the domain of conceptuality. For instance, and here I’m forcing and radicalizing the issue in order to facilitate the discussion, the problem of the missing difference could be analysed as a specific formulation of a more general issue that concerned British and Italian idealism for a long time, namely the insufficient and contradictory nature of the forms of judgment. In fact, since every judgment, as Kant states, is in the form “The singular is universal”, and since the singular is not universal, an intellectualistic approach to the nature of conceptuality already finds itself entangled in a contradiction.
However, rather than appealing to this methodological instrument, the Author prefers addressing these problems systematically, retracing their origin in the three metaphysical assumptions listed above. This choice gives a very strong conceptual unity to the book, even though it could lead to some forced passages, in particular when it comes to analysing these issues through examples taken from the history of philosophy.
For instance, the first two paradoxes – the problem of instantiation and the missing difference – are addressed by quoting many passages from Plato’s Parmenides and the Book B of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Now, while these passages are in fact very good examples of the problems the Author is discussing, both the Parmenides and Metaphysics Beta are, so to say, “partes destruentes”, critical preliminary moments of a new theory. In other words, it is possible to find already in Aristotle’s and Plato’s work – as Hegel himself recognizes in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy – speculative solutions to the problems they raise in some of their texts.
The difference between intellectualistic and speculative thought seems to be a very good way to account for this internal evolution in Plato’s and Aristotle’s thought. For instance, Plato’s generative account of the koinonia ton genon in the Sophist does not look to be still subject to these paradoxes. In it, for instance, the self-referential character of ideas is no longer problematic, but at the same time it is not trivialized through the reference to empirical concepts as it happens in the Parmenides. Another example is Aristotle’s philosophy: following Ferrarin, Moss concedes that Aristotle’s metaphysics is speculative and belongs to the domain of the concept. But then, how can we integrate this idea with the paradoxes of Aristotle’s account of conceptuality? Isn’t this account, as it is presented in the book, utterly intellectual rather than speculative?
In other words, while the author manages to provide a strikingly coherent and dense systematic account of some fundamental metaphysical issues, a more extensive analysis of Plato’s and Aristotle’s own solutions to these problems, along with a comparison with Hegel’s own interpretation of their works, could give the chance to highlight how there is more than one way to think speculatively. The author does discuss Aristotle’s solutions to some of the problems he listed in Metaphysics Beta, but the historical reconstruction of Aristotle’s approach is not the main focus of Moss’s research, and it is only mentioned in order to highlight some aspect of Aristotle’s thought that the author recognizes in Hegel’s work.
However, given the book’s size, focusing on the systematic aspect of the issue has been a wise choice: this remark only aims at pointing out, once again, that this monumental book must not be interpreted as the end of a research, but rather as an exciting proposition for a new approach to the study of Hegel’s logic, of the history of philosophy and of metaphysics in general.
Four Open Problems
With this spirit in mind, I would like to point out some specific issues that I find of particular importance in Moss’s book. Of course, as already mentioned, this is a monumental piece of scholarship, and there are many topics worth discussing. There are many arguments and analyses that deserve a much deeper discussion than I can provide here. Nevertheless, I will try to avoid discussing specific matters or individual passages of the book, since I would like to keep the debate on a more general and fundamental level, and discuss some structural aspects of Moss’s proposal rather than specific topics. In particular, I will try to propose a brief critical assessment of four questions that remain open.
4a. What Kind of Metaphysics?
In the final part of his critical analysis, the Author thoroughly discusses different metaphysical and non-metaphysical accounts of Hegel’s logic. In particular, he also highlights Hegel’s intention to reform metaphysics beyond any dogmatic understanding of it. The interpretation of Hegel’s own understanding of metaphysics is deeply connected with the relationship between logic, nature and spirit. While Moss does not expressly analyse this aspect of Hegel’s system, the passage from logic to nature is a crucial point of his reading.
As we know, one of the main arguments of the book is that Hegel’s logic introduces a self-referential and self-differentiating account of the Concept. As Roberto Morani has shown in his monumental book on the evolution of Hegel’s dialectics, this aspect of Hegel’s philosophy is also the main focus of the auto-reformation of his own logic in the Second Edition of the Doctrine of being, when he stresses that objective logic already is subjective logic in disguise. This issue is closely related to the question of the “formal” character of logic. According to Hegel, logic is not formal because it has logical forms as its own content: logical forms are at the same time form and content of the logical process, that in this way is truly noesis noeseos:
But logical reason is itself the substantial or real factor which, within itself, holds together all the abstract determinations and constitutes their proper, absolutely concrete, unity. There is no need, therefore, to look far and wide for what is usually called a matter; it is not the fault of the subject matter of logic if the latter seems empty but only of the manner in which this subject matter is grasped. (SL, trans. Di Giovanni, 28)
Elena Ficara has stressed the importance of this passage, which shows Hegel’s opposition to any formalistic understanding of logic as a discipline. However, Moss radicalizes this aspect and points out how this unity of form and matter generates a self-determining progression. But what is the limit of this activity?
The logic is a self-generating process, through which the concept determines itself as concept: while we discover a great variety of conceptual determinations, these determinations never become empirical. In other terms, the logical development of the category of quality never generates the concept of “colour” or of “green”. In other words, what does never happen is what Fichte talks about in his lectures on the Tatsachen des Bewusstseins: if we radicalize this monistic self-generating activity, then everything must be deduced starting from the first principle, even this singular blade of grass. It is the same conception of systematic metaphysics that Wilhelm Traugott Krug presents as a critic to Idealism, and that Hegel ridicules. For instance, when Hegel talks of the ontological proof, the point is that the Concept has logical objectivity. Nevertheless, Moss is right to highlight how important it is to understand the Concept as a creative activity, and by doing so he defends a strong metaphysical interpretation of Hegel’s logic that many passages in Hegel’s work seem to confirm. While the author recognizes that the creative activity of the Concept does not entail the deterministic deduction of all empirical content, establishing the precise nature and the limits of this self-particularizing activity is one of the tasks that remain open after having read his analysis, and it is a crucial element to test the hermeneutical validity of his interpretation.
4b. What Kind of Singularity?
I would like to go back to the notion of singularity, which is the main focus of the book as a whole. In Moss’s book it is clearly stated that each category of the logic cannot be used exclusively to think the Absolute, since the Absolute is not separated from finite being. Therefore, singularity does describe both “limits” of thought—the Absolute and finite being. Nevertheless, Moss’s reconstruction strongly privileges the “Platonic” side of the analysis. In other words, the Author seems to be much more interested in showing how singularity expresses the logical structure of the Absolute, rather than explaining how the same notion can be used to describe the nature of finite being. For instance, Hegel writes that singularity is the principle of every “individuality and personality” (SL, 547). In order to complete the analysis of Hegel’s use of the notion of singularity, it would be very interesting to integrate Moss’s interpretation with a focus on this dimension.
This does not mean, of course, that Moss’s reading is a Platonic one. As I’ve already highlighted, if it is true that Platonism and Neo-Platonism play a pivotal role in the development of his reading of Hegel, Moss aims at showing both the Platonic and Aristotelian aspects of Hegelian dialectics, in particular by emphasising the importance of Aristotle’s notion of the «self-particularizing universal». This interpretation of Aristotle’s notion of Form is also quite interesting, and it would be worth discussing it in a further analysis of Hegel’s own historical sources.
One of the most surprising aspects of Moss’s book is his analysis of syllogism. Usually judgment and syllogism are analysed as logical developments of the abstract concept, and Hegel also expressly indicates them as such in the Science of Logic. Nevertheless, the Author seems to understand judgment and syllogism as a logically impoverished form of the first section, identifying them with a «self-alienated» form of the Concept (374). While this strong accent on the Concept is quite original, it is very hard to explain Hegel’s own statement at the beginning of the section on the syllogism, where he writes that «the syllogism is the completely posited concept; it is, therefore, the rational» (SL, 588). More generally, Hegel repeatedly highlights the syllogistic character of his system: the end of the Encyclopaedia is maybe the strongest example.
This issue leads to another question on the relationship between syllogism and inference. Moss’s critique of Robert Brandom’s account of Hegel’s philosophy as a form of inferentialism is very convincing, and does show the partiality of neo-pragmatist, non-metaphysical readings of Hegel. Nevertheless, by criticizing Brandom, the Author seems to share with him one core assumption, namely that syllogism is inference, and that when Hegel speaks about syllogism, he’s always talking about a formal structure of reasoning. This identification could be the main reason for Moss’s scepticism against the importance of syllogism in Hegel’s thought. For instance, in the Science of Logic Hegel expressly writes that «All things are a syllogism, a universal united through particularity with singularity; surely not a whole made up of three propositions» (SL, 593). Of course, Hegel does heavily criticize the form of inference (even in his Lectures on history of philosophy), but this passage seems to show that we must distinguish the subjective form of inference from the logical, objective form of syllogistic unity. For this reason, while Moss’s interpretation of the relationship between the concept and syllogistic forms is quite original and in some cases very convincing, it does need further discussion.
Finally, I would like to briefly discuss the question of contradiction. One of the structural aspects of the book is to show that, in order to think the Absolute, we must accept dialetheism, namely the position according to which some contradictions are true. In the case of Hegelian thought, this question is closely connected with the meaning of the term “speculative” as Hegel uses it throughout his work. While it is hardly debatable that only speculative thought is able to grasp the Absolute in its concrete and actual form, the question is whether such a way of thinking necessarily entails a violation of the principle of non-contradiction (PNC) in its Aristotelian formulation.
A good start for illustrating the issue is a passage quoted by the Author while analysing the relationship between speculative thought and contradiction:
Speculative thought consists solely in holding on to the contradiction, and thus to itself. Unlike representational thought, it does not let itself be dominated by the contradiction, it does not allow the latter to dissolve its determinations into other ones or into nothing/ (SL, 383)
Right after this passage Hegel does give some examples, and his choice are determinations of relation — above/under, father/son – that can hardly be seen as violation of Aristotle’s PNC. The interpretation of this passage is very contentious and I won’t go into it. Instead, I would like to argue that there are two possible interpretations of the nature of speculative thought. According to the first, speculative thought is necessarily dialetheic, since it requires to accept that the same x is and is not P. Here it is important to clarify that “not being P” is not the same than “being non-P”.
According to the second interpretation, speculative thought generates a new understanding of the predicates and of their reciprocal relationship. In this case, x can be P and non-P, according to a meaning of non-P that does not entail not being P.
For instance: the proposition “the particular is universal” is contradictory only as long as we assume that “being universal” entails “not-being particular”. This implication is different from the simple fact that universal and particular are different concepts, namely that “universal” is not “particular”. I do believe that it is possible to make the case that, in his subjective Logic, Hegel shows how universality, particularity and singularity, as conceptual determinations, are not reciprocally exclusive.
Moss does provide an exhaustive analysis of many different interpretations of Hegel’s account of contradiction. Again, his criticism of Robert Brandom’s strong coherentist reading is very compelling. Nevertheless, while it is clear that, according to Hegel, speculative thought somehow “deals” with contradictions, this statement must be compatible with other two explicit Hegelian theses: that contradiction is a defining aspect of finite being and finite concepts, and that contradiction itself is used throughout the system as a criterion to identify the finite and false character of the categories.
This could mean, in a way, that the Absolute cannot be contradictory in the same way finite concepts and beings are. Moss’s analysis of the difference between explosive and non-explosive contradictions could be a way to express this fundamental difference. However, it seems clear that Hegel’s foundation free metaphysics is an exciting contribution to a debate that is still open and is impossible to close simply by choosing one option over the other, be it coherence or contradiction.
At the end of this brief critical assessment of some aspects of the book, there would be much more worth mentioning. Gregory S. Moss’s book offers a compelling reconstruction of Hegelian metaphysics as a form of strong monism and shows how it can be profitably used to discuss some contemporary philosophical positions. Moss is also the translator of the English edition of Markus Gabriel’s Why The World Does Not Exist, and Gabriel’s pluralistic metaphysics is one of the main critical references throughout the book. By using Hegel’s philosophy to debate with Alain Badiou, Quentin Meillassoux, Graham Priest, Robert Brandom and others, Moss brilliantly shows how the study of Classic German Philosophy can still offer a valid contribution to the contemporary debate on metaphysics.
Another aspect that resonates throughout the book is Moss’s interest for intercultural philosophy, as well as for the mystic tradition. There is no doubt that this book is a vital and promising contribution to the contemporary debate on Hegelian philosophy. However, it is also much more than that, since it provides a very compelling theoretical framework for the discussion of many different questions in contemporary continental metaphysics. Finally, it also offers a profitable exchange between philosophy, theology, and the study of other cultures.
Despite its remarkable size, Hegel’s Foundation Free Metaphysics does offer an extremely coherent and well-argued account of some of the most important theoretical issues in the history of metaphysics. By doing so, it succeeds at showing the ground-breaking nature of Hegel’s approach to logic and provides a very original interpretation of the Doctrine of the Concept. It is an ambitious example of Hegelian scholarship, but it is also a very good example of a truly Hegelian approach to philosophy today.
Johan de Jong’s The Movement of Showing opens with the observation that “Hegel, Heidegger, and Derrida consistently characterize their thought in terms of a development, movement, or pathway, rather than in terms of positions, propositions, or conclusions” (xix). In other words, they do not stake out a definite position that they defend against all comers; rather, they call attention to the movement that carries us beyond each apparently fixed position that a work might seem to present. Indeed, not only do they not aim to delineate a fixed, complete, and fully consistent position, they regard such a delineation as impossible, so noting that they fail to accomplish it does not suffice as a criticism of them. Readers, or would-be readers, of Derrida in particular often stop here, dismissing his work as so much nonsensical relativism. De Jong instead asks how we are to understand this movement that resists any fixed position and how we might critique it without taking it for a failed attempt to establish a fixed position. These questions, which de Jong addresses in an admirably nuanced fashion that makes this book well worth reading, ultimately point us to questions about justice and responsibility.
Thus we as readers find ourselves confronted with the question of what it means to read de Jong’s text responsibly. How do we engage with the impossibility of reducing it to a single determinate position about the three philosophers – G.W.F. Hegel, Martin Heidegger, and Jacques Derrida – with which it primarily deals? For what is here called a “movement” must exceed de Jong’s stated positions as it exceeds theirs. Asking “how such a discourse of movement can be understood and criticized,” he maintains that “answering this question does not, as some may think, itself require indirectness, textual extravagance, or a poeticization of philosophical method (even though these cannot in principle be excluded from the realm of philosophical efficacy)” (xxii). What, though, does it mean to say that answering a question does or does not require indirectness? “Indirectness” is the word de Jong has chosen to name the “undercutting gesture” by which “Derrida’s claims and conclusions are invariably repeated, reversed, retracted, contradicted, visibly erased, or otherwise implicitly or explicitly complicated” according to the movement that cannot be contained within any fully determined position (xxii). Yet if indeed thought itself cannot be thus contained – if any position that one might suppose to be fully determined in fact always already undercuts itself – then it is less a matter of indirectness being required than of indirectness being impossible to avoid, at least in implicit form, no matter how hard one tries. De Jong’s style does differ considerably from Derrida’s; readers who regard Derrida’s style, or styles, as obfuscatory should not be able to make the same complaint about de Jong’s, and if they read The Movement of Showing they ought, moreover, to come away with a better understanding of why Derrida wrote as he did. That said, de Jong implicitly recognizes that indirectness is also at work in his own book when he writes that “the very term ‘indirect’ is itself also not the adequate, definite, final or right word for what is investigated here” (xxii). I will return, at the conclusion of this review, to the question of indirectness in de Jong’s text. For the moment, let us note that the impossibility of finding any “adequate, definite, final or right word” will be a recurring theme throughout, and it is one that we must bear in mind when reading any text, whether a book by Derrida, The Movement of Showing, or, for that matter, this review. At the same time, we cannot escape words, however inadequate and indefinite they may be, nor should we desire to – and the joint impossibility and undesirability of such an escape will prove central to ethical responsibility.
Part I, “Sources of Derrida’s Indirectness,” examines, with remarkable nuance and precision, Derrida’s manner of writing. In chapter 1, De Jong begins by arguing that, contrary to what some commentators have supposed on the basis of certain of Derrida’s more direct assertions, Derrida does not and cannot offer a theory of language. Readers of Of Grammatology at times make the mistake of deriving a theory of language from it, which they then attribute to Derrida, according to which speech, traditionally considered superior to writing because of its immediacy, is in fact just as mediated as writing and should therefore be understood as arche-writing, or writing in a more general sense of the term. Derrida’s point, however, is that this theory is already in Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics, Saussure’s intentions to the contrary notwithstanding. Taking it as Derrida’s theory fails to understand that there can be no definitive theory of language. Arche-writing is not writing understood more broadly, as if we could fully understand language once we worked out the proper definition of “writing”; rather, it marks the impossibility of attaining some ideal meaning that would be unmediated and fully present. Derrida does not offer a theory, explains de Jong, but seeks rather to show the movement that reveals the limits of all theories, even as they try to present themselves as complete.
Readers of Derrida who recognize that neither he nor anyone else can offer a complete and consistent theory of language often interpret him as an opponent of metaphysics, but de Jong shows in chapter 2 that this interpretation also fails. There is no way out of metaphysics, and Derrida does not propose to offer one. Seeking to overcome metaphysics is itself metaphysical, for any attempt to get outside metaphysics already depends on metaphysics to define itself. What is more, the history of metaphysics is the history of this attempted overcoming. Questioning metaphysics is not, therefore, a matter of opposition, and this questioning even calls itself into question precisely because any attempt to think metaphysics necessarily occurs within the language of metaphysics. That theories are limited in no way entails that we can step outside or overcome their limits.
Having demonstrated the problems with certain popular interpretations of Derrida’s texts – that he offers a theory of language and that he calls for the overcoming of metaphysics – de Jong asks, in chapter 3, whether Derrida can be justified. If Derrida argues that all positions are incomplete and undo themselves, then pointing to omissions or inconsistencies in his work hardly serves to refute him, but it is equally unclear what grounds one might find to justify a work that disclaims the very attempt to produce a complete and consistent position – and de Jong insists that Derrida’s would-be defenders must recognize the latter point just as much as the former. It is not that Derrida makes a virtue of mere contradiction, as if one ought to embrace inconsistency itself as final and definitive. But de Jong emphasizes that “Derrida cannot be completely safeguarded against the accusations from which his works must nevertheless be tirelessly distinguished” (76). Derrida is not the mere relativist that he has often been accused of being, and yet “the risk of assimilation and supposed misreading is not an extrinsic one, but intrinsic to the operation of deconstruction” (78). There is a real sense, therefore, in which Derrida cannot be justified – which is not to say that his work can be dissociated from justice (a point to which de Jong will return). De Jong warns us against the “reassurance mechanism” that consists in saying, “Never mind [Derrida’s] critics; they clearly haven’t read the texts” (78). The point is apt, but I suggest that one might ask the critics whether they have read their own texts. For a more careful reading might show them that misreading and reading can never be neatly separated; nor, for that matter, can writing and what one might call miswriting. As deconstruction operates within any text, it is not only Derrida’s texts that cannot be safeguarded from any possibility of misreading – and this point is one that merits greater emphasis than de Jong gives it in this chapter. He rightly points out what he calls the vulnerability of Derrida’s texts, at the risk of suggesting that Derrida’s texts are unusually vulnerable. Still, Part I is an excellent reading of Derrida, and since reading and misreading cannot be disentangled, there is no way to exclude every possible misinterpretation. De Jong’s argument that Derrida does not call us to overcome metaphysics, as if going beyond metaphysics were possible, is a particularly valuable contribution to the literature.
De Jong now turns to Hegel in Part II and then to Heidegger in Parts III and IV. Since Derrida cannot be outside the metaphysical tradition, his relation to Hegel and Heidegger cannot consist, as it has often been thought to do, in rejecting them as still too metaphysical. This reexamination of Hegel and Heidegger thus follows from the analysis in Part I, and it shows that they are rather less different from Derrida than they are generally imagined to be – without, however, assimilating them into a single position. All three thinkers reveal the limits of any thought that seeks to establish a fixed position, while they also recognize that we cannot step outside or beyond the limits of thought itself.
Part II, “Movement and Opposition,” begins with the argument, in chapter 4, that for Hegel as for Derrida, philosophical questioning cannot itself be detached from its object. Indeed, de Jong writes that “Hegel is the first philosopher to explicitly locate the aforementioned entanglement right at the heart of the philosophical enterprise” (85). It is for this reason that philosophy cannot arrive at a conclusive end to its investigations: philosophy is always investigating itself. Hegelian dialectic is often interpreted to mean that philosophy will progressively free itself from its own limits and reach Absolute Knowing, a final position in which alterity is no more, and Derrida’s own readings of Hegel have fueled this misconception. Through a consideration of the development of Hegel’s thought, de Jong shows that Hegel does not propose that philosophy’s movement can or should be brought to a halt. Precisely because the absolute is not the cessation of movement, “Hegel’s ‘absolute’ idealism must be interpreted as an affirmation of the limits of reflection” (121): reflection does not transcend its limits but is carried along within them, and it is within its limits that it finds itself haunted by the alterity that can never be made fully present.
What, though, of Derrida’s own readings of Hegel, in which Derrida seems to regard Hegel as an opponent of alterity and himself as an opponent of Hegel? De Jong turns to this question in chapter 5 and argues, without denying the differences between the two philosophers, that Derrida’s relation to Hegel is not, and cannot be, one of simple opposition. In any case, opposition is never simple, since the sides of a dichotomy are necessarily dependent on each other to the very extent that they are defined by their opposition. What is more, Derrida offers multiple readings of Hegel – or, to put it another way, the name “Hegel” does not stand for the same figure every time it appears in his texts. At times, as for instance in “Tympan,” it does stand for a figure who seeks to eliminate the risk posed by negativity or alterity – but “Tympan” is less a supposedly definitive reading of Hegel and more an attempt “to stage a confrontation of philosophy with that in which the philosopher would not recognize himself, not so foreign to philosophy as to leave it undisturbed, and not so close to philosophy as to do no more than repeat it” (134). It is, in short, an attempt to call attention to philosophy’s limits so that it will not mistake itself for the final, complete answer. Derrida’s target is not Hegel but a complacent Hegelianism that believes that all that is worthwhile is, or at least can be, subjected to its comprehension. Reading “Hors livres, préfaces” in Derrida’s Dissemination, de Jong finds that Derrida first describes the Hegel of Hegelianism before coming to the Hegel who is a thinker of movement and of difference – a Hegel who is not Derrida but in whom Derrida finds a “point of departure” (149) that is not simply the basis for opposition. Or, as de Jong puts it, “Derrida needs Hegel’s ‘speculative dialectics’ as a point of contrast, but he is aware that Hegel cannot be reduced to those terms. […] The more radical [sic] Derrida presents himself as moving beyond Hegel, the more emphatically his allegiance to Hegel is reaffirmed” (151). Derrida needs Hegel because of how Hegel can be read and misread: the thinker of movement who has been misinterpreted as a thinker of overly definitive absolutism is a fitting interlocutor for another writer who, precisely because he is also a thinker of movement, is profoundly concerned with questions of interpretation, questions of reading, misreading, and the complex interplay thereof. Indeed, one should not suppose that reading and misreading are independent and readily distinguishable – a point implicit in de Jong’s insistence on the impossibility of safeguarding Derrida from misreadings.
Part III, “Heidegger: The Preservation of Concealment,” reads Heidegger’s Being and Time and Contributions to Philosophy (Of the Event) in order to explore the theme of indirectness in Heidegger. In chapter 6, considering Heidegger’s criticisms of the language of Being and Time, de Jong argues that the problem was not that the language of Being and Time failed by remaining too much within metaphysics, nor can the Kehre be understood as a turn to looking for a language that would adequately say being. Rather, the language of Being and Time was, in Heidegger’s later view, insufficiently attentive to the inevitability of a certain failure, and Heidegger came to seek “a language that would take into account, recognize, and preserve a certain necessary failure-to-say with respect to (the question of) being” (156). This language would still be metaphysical since the overcoming of metaphysics is itself metaphysical, but it would strive to reveal the very impossibility of finding a location outside metaphysics from which to philosophize. Already in Being and Time questioning is no straightforward matter, however: that Dasein questions being from within being is crucial to the book – an obvious point in itself, but what has been neglected is that the middle and late Heidegger’s works, including those written post-Kehre, therefore represent not a break with his early thought but a deepening of themes and problems that were in play from the start.
Chapter 7 pursues this analysis via a reading of the Contributions. De Jong emphasizes that the forgetfulness of being is neither a problem that can be solved nor an error that can be fixed. Heidegger’s goal is not and cannot be to overcome this forgetfulness but is “to recognize and preserve that forgetfulness as such, or interpret it originally” (200). Indeed, overcoming the forgetfulness, as though it could be left behind, would amount to forgetting it again. What is essential is that we strive not to forget the forgetfulness, that we strive to recognize the limits of thought – which is precisely not stepping beyond them as if they could become negligeable. This recognition, moreover, is a movement that never becomes a completed process.
Part IV, “Of Derrida’s Heideggers,” shows that Derrida’s relation to Heidegger, like his relation to Hegel, is not simply a matter of opposition. In Derrida’s texts, the name “Heidegger” is no more univocal than the name “Hegel.” Chapter 8 explores this complex relation through a reading of Derrida’s Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles. The key point is that Heidegger’s reading of Nietzsche risks closing off the meaning of Nietzsche’s texts by arriving at some result that is then taken as definitive and final, yet Heidegger’s texts cannot themselves be closed off by interpreting them once and for all as the refusal of indirectness and undecidability. And as de Jong observes, “[Derrida] does not make a simple choice between these two Heideggers. The virtue of that undecidability lies in its potential to open the texts of these thinkers and resist reducing them to the content of an unequivocal thesis” (240). This remark also has worthwhile implications for the question of what it might mean to critique Derrida, though de Jong does not make them wholly explicit: that Derrida cannot be reduced to a purveyor of definite theses means that there are multiple Derridas, and a fruitful critique – fruitful in that it would recognize the limits of thought without seeking to go past them – would then be one that draws out this multiplicity rather than presenting a univocal Derrida who is assigned the role of opponent.
Chapter 9, turns, finally, to the question of responsibility. Here the question of critique or justification gives way to the question of justice. De Jong notes that “in the debate about the ‘ethics of deconstruction,’ interpretations have tended to work within a Levinasian framework, which understands ethics primarily with reference to the ‘other.’ That is quite right, but there is a risk if the other is confused with the external” (242). It is worth explicitly noting what is implicit here: that the other in Levinas is not a matter of externality, as alterity would then be one pole of the externality-internality dichotomy and so would fall within totality. In any case, de Jong’s analysis, which emphasizes complicity and proceeds through a reading of Derrida’s Of Spirit, is excellent. De Jong recognizes the indirectness of Derrida’s texts as a gesture of responsibility. What might appear as an irresponsible refusal to be associated with any position, and hence as a withdrawal from potential criticisms, is an attempt to grapple responsibly with the failure of any position – yet it is a responsibility that can never escape its own complicity with those failures. Heidegger’s own complicity has struck many as uniquely grave, and de Jong notes that Derrida does regard Heidegger’s use of the term Geist, in his 1933 rectorial address, as complicit with Nazism. It does not follow, however, that we can purify our own thought by rejecting Heidegger; Derrida himself cautions us against such an attempt to achieve purity. For Heidegger’s complicity with Nazism took place, writes de Jong, “by way of a mechanism or a ‘program’ of complicity and reaffirmation that Derrida himself does not claim to be able to escape. The program itself consists in the very attempt to escape, the thought that one can exceed racism or biologism by elevating oneself above it to a position of reassuring legitimacy” (251). More broadly, the quest for absolute purity cannot be untangled from a drive to declare oneself innocent – that is, not complicit in anything or, to put it another way, not responsible. But “the ‘fact’ that not all forms of complicity are equivalent” (252) does not mean we can avoid complicity, that we can overcome or go beyond it. We are responsible in advance, inescapably responsible, unable to establish a position that would justify us, free us from complicity, and let us relax in the security of non-responsibility. De Jong’s emphasis on complicity ties back to his earlier argument that Derrida’s texts cannot be made safe from misreading. By resisting the opposition between Derrida’s critics and his defenders, de Jong resists the temptation to safeguard thought, thereby reminding us of our limits. It is because we will never be able to present the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, as the saying goes, that we are complicit – which is a call not to despair but to the responsibility that, as de Jong’s The Movement of Showing skillfully reminds us, we cannot evade.
An afterword begins by addressing the question of indirectness in de Jong’s own text, and here he proves a less skillful reader than he did when interpreting Hegel, Heidegger, and Derrida – though his failings are instructive and perhaps unsurprising, given that we cannot escape complicity with the attempt to arrest the movement of showing to arrive at some fixed position. De Jong asks “why, if [he] ha[s] been successful, [his] own exposition will not have displayed the implicit or explicit self-complication that has been [his] theme” (264). One response, which he admits is “facile,” is that “[he] ha[s] set out to do nothing more than to provide a commentary, and to provide a way of reading that goes against certain ideas about how to interpret the work of Hegel, Heidegger, and Derrida. […] There is no reason why that reading could not be explicated unequivocally” (264). Granted, he himself calls this response “facile,” yet that it should be offered at all indicates the durability of the opposition between a commentary and the work commented upon, with the commentary appearing as merely secondary and derivative. Derrida, let us recall, commented on works by Hegel and Heidegger, and as I noted above, de Jong’s own analysis suggests (though without explicitly saying so) that there are multiple Derridas, as there are multiple Hegels and Heideggers. I do not mean to suggest that all Derridas, Hegels, or Heideggers on whom one might comment are equally valid or fruitful. The Derridas, Hegels, and Heideggers whom one encounters in de Jong’s text are remarkably well interpreted, whereas, to take an extreme example, anyone who attempts to read Of Grammatology as a guide to birdwatching is likely to be disappointed. Consider, however, Derrida’s remark in “Des tours de Babel,” concerning translation, that “the original is the first debtor, the first petitioner; it begins by lacking [manquer] – and by pleading for [pleurer après] translation” (Derrida 2007, 207). The so-called original text never stands on its own but is already a translation, is already separated from itself by its inevitable equivocity. Commentary is not exempt from this condition: it is never “nothing more than […] commentary.” De Jong’s writing is clear in that it is easy to follow – easier than Derrida’s, Hegel’s, or Heidegger’s often is – but that does not mean it is univocal. Commentary too is separated from itself – and, moreover, it is a way of translating the so-called original. The texts signed by Hegel, Heidegger, or Derrida call out for commentary because they are not summed up in what they say – nor in what any commentary or translation could say. The commentary and the translation plead as well, and they are not safe from misreading. Whether de Jong’s text displays self-complication and whether it does complicate itself are two different questions, and besides, one might well argue that it does display self-complication precisely by calling our attention to our inevitable complicity.
De Jong offers, as a “more principled answer,” the reply that “an awareness of the performative complexity of philosophical texts does not in itself necessitate a specific style” (265). This answer still tends to assume that self-complication must be blatantly visible as such, but de Jong rightly observes that “it is not a matter of doing away with representation or opposition, nor with the traditional form of an academic treatise. At issue is precisely an ‘inner excess,’ or how in what presents itself as proposition, representation or claim, something more, less, or other than what is ‘posited’ in them is taking place” (265). Indeed. Derrida’s styles are not the only ones in which worthwhile thinking may occur. And as there are multiple Derridas, there are multiple de Jongs, whom this review certainly does not exhaust, and I recommend that anyone interested in Hegel, Heidegger, Derrida, or questions of indirectness more broadly read The Movement of Showing and encounter them for him- or herself. If I have dwelt at some length on the brief and admittedly “facile” response, and if I still reproach the “more principled” response with suggesting, in defense of the book’s clarity, that it is possible to avoid self-complication through the choice of a particular style, it is to highlight a certain complicity with the overly definite and determinate that inevitably accompanies writing. Indirectness cannot, however, simply be opposed to directness, as if one were pure and the other not – a point de Jong does not make explicit but that he could well have. Complicity with the overly definite and determinate is the only way to speak or write at all, and refusing to speak or write out of a desire for purity is an attempt to abdicate responsibility.
Indeed, de Jong in his afterword goes on to observe that “even given the limitations of the propositional form, of representation, and of oppositional determination, it is in and through them that we can and in fact do say more, less, or something else than what is merely ‘contained’ in those determinations” (272). Hence the limits of language are not to be regretted, which is a crucial point. Thus de Jong refuses to take “a negative or skeptical view on language as inadequate or as failing,” calling instead for “a productive view on propositions and claims such that they might carry or co-implicate more than the content that is ‘contained’ in them” (272, emphasis in original). That a text is “lacking,” to recall the above quotation from “Des tours de Babel,” does not mean that it has failed, as though it would have been better for it to lack nothing so that there was no call for translation’s creativity. Complicity does not put an end to creativity – far from it. Because there is no manual telling us precisely how to live out the responsibility by which we are committed in advance, our responses must be creative ones. One of the virtues of The Movement of Showing, though by no means the only one, is that it warns us against considering language—and hence what is expressed through language—a failure because of its limits, and that it points out that language even owes its richness to those very limits. In short, The Movement of Showing is a text that rewards attentive reading, and it makes a valuable contribution to the field.
Derrida, Jacques. 2007. “Des tours de Babel.” Translated by Joseph F. Graham. In Psyche: Inventions of the Other, vol. 1, edited by Peggy Kamuf and Elizabeth Rottenberg. Stanford: Stanford University Press.