Christopher Kul-Want (Ed.): Philosophers on Film from Bergson to Badiou: A Critical Reader

Philosophers on Film from Bergson to Badiou: A Critical Reader Couverture du livre Philosophers on Film from Bergson to Badiou: A Critical Reader
Christopher Kul-Want (Ed.)
Columbia University Press
Paperback $35.00 £28.00

Reviewed by: Michael Deckard (Lenoir-Rhyne University)

The Impenetrable Gaze

Images and stories provoke desire. To use an example from chapter 13 by Jean-Luc Nancy of this book under review, a group of refugees after an earthquake install a television antenna in order to watch the World Cup in their tents. “The filmmaker (character) asks him: ‘Do you find it appropriate to watch television these days?’ The man answers: ‘Truthfully, I myself am in mourning. I lost my sister and three cousins. But what can we do? The Cup takes place every four years. Can’t miss it. Life goes on.’” The Soccer Cup is for him, for them, pure image: television screens, as well as soccer imagery for all those who around bad balls on terrains of fortune, while dreaming vaguely of distant fame, of the kind achieved by Maradonna.” (246) This connection between images, stories, and desire are constitutive of what it means to think about film. When desire is invoked in viewing or making a film, eros pervades the gaze (see this earlier review for discussion of the gaze). The gaze can be impenetrable—is it of the camera, the viewer, the director, or culture at large? Is it one of acceptance or critique, analyzing or to accepting the images that come into being through the eye (I)? As seen in this book, feminists Irigaray and Kristeva describe films that toe the line between different gazes, surveying through male or female enjoyment, treading on each form of impenetrability. Yet each of these chapters attempt to penetrate the gaze. The same follows for other forms of intersectionality, whether it be orientalism, class, regionalism, etc. Exemplifying impenetrability, the theory or philosophy does not easily allow the viewer (or the film-maker) their own power/ agency in viewing or understanding film. Here is where several authors, names which include Bergson, Adorno, Merleau-Ponty, Benjamin, Lyotard, Agamben, Deleuze and others, can help or deter us. This collection, edited by Christopher Kul-Want, includes the history of film philosophy in 18 chapters, and exemplifies the impenetrable gaze—all that one could desire from 20th century philosophy and cinema.

Bergson uses the term image to relate a “dynamic, interrelated, and mutually affective relations…memory, as we have tried to prove, is not a faculty of putting away recollections in a drawer, or of inscribing them in a register. There is no register, no drawer…it follows us at every instant; all that we have felt, thought and willed from our earliest infancy is there, leaning over the present which is about to join it, pressing against the portals of consciousness that would fain leave it outside.” (37) Memories are “messages from the unconscious” – our character contains the “condensation of the history that we have lived from our birth” (38) – images, poems, music. This time period can tell us something about our reality now. What Adorno shows is the absolute force culture has on our consciousness. Did this not exist in the same way in previous centuries? Certainly advertising and media did not have the same power it has now. Adorno and Horkheimer continue, “When the detail won its freedom, it became rebellious and, in the period from Romanticism to Expressionism, asserted itself as free expression, as a vehicle of protest against the organization. In music the single harmonic effect obliterated the awareness of form as a whole; in painting the individual color was stressed at the expense of pictorial composition; and in the novel psychology became more important than structure.” (88) When each art form becomes precisely that, a form of manipulation or device – that is a sellable, buyable, transferable thing – then the work of art is no longer a magical or transcendent object. Film is one powerful example of this. “Real life is becoming indistinguishable from the movies.” There is no room for imagination or reflection, they write. We are transfixed, brought into a world for which there is no escape. “[T]he film forces its victims to equate it directly with reality.” Eager to find the next fix in any film, it doesn’t matter which one, the viewer empties himself of subjectivity. Not a single artist escapes censure. Orson Welles alongside Schönberg and Picasso, Wagner alongside Mozart. These are all of a piece, to express a sound, a picture, an image that sells, is consumed, and bought and sold for a few to gain thereby. And the sad fact of the matter is that most people who consume the art are not aware that they are being manipulated so. “[T]he workers and employees, the farmers and lower middle class” are the consumers, Adorno and Horkheimer point out (91). Film may capture this better than any other medium. But film also manipulates, curves desires towards it, leaving the perceiver dumb-founded (or shocked) by the tactile. “Such an experience of shock, Benjamin says, interrupts cognition, and leads the spectator to conclude, “I can no longer think what I want to think. My thoughts have been replaced by moving images.” (8)

For Merleau-Ponty, his film work is rather brief, one essay from 1945, the same year he published Phenomenology of Perception. When he discusses Descartes’s famous passage in the Meditations in which “hats and coats” pass by me on the street, Merleau-Ponty differentiates himself from the 17th-century philosopher and classical psychology by defending gestalt theory. “By resolutely rejecting the notion of sensation it teaches us to stop distinguishing between signs and their significance, between what is sensed and what is judged,” he writes (104). While many current psychologists might not recognize this thought as their own, Merleau-Ponty held a chair of child psychology at the Sorbonne and is often misread in philosophy circles. Reading this essay helps repair his view of how film as perceptual object follows a “temporal gestalt.” He finds much meaning in cinematographic rhythm: “Since a film consists not only of montage (the selection of shots or views, their order and length) but also of cutting (the selection of scenes or sequences, and their order and length), it seems to be an extremely complex form inside of which a very great number of actions and reactions are taking place at every moment.” (107) The rhythm exists as much for images as sounds, Merleau-Ponty thinks, and what both of these contains is “expressive force.” If Bergson seems as much a biologist as philosopher and Adorno bends his analysis towards sociology, Benjamin toward literary theory (as we now call it), then Merleau-Ponty is the psychologist of the group. The sight and sound together bring a “new whole” just as reading each of these thinkers separately allows us to think about the film in discrete but overlapping ways. Cinematography gains true allies if it is to be both critiqued and appreciated, and it requires the film maker(s) as much as the audience to recognize this. These first four chapters set the stage for the whole, encompassing 1907-1945, and alongside Kul-Want’s introduction (see 108) provide us enough context to see where the rest of 20th century film analysis will go.

The next five chapters, encompassing 1970-1985, take a leap since nothing from the period of Krakauer among others is included here. Jean Baudrillard’s “On Contemporary Alienation or the End of the Pact with the Devil” (1970) contains a detailed discussion of the film, The Student of Prague (1913, 1926). When teaching this chapter in a philosophy of film class, most students really resonated with this film and analysis. The plot is a recognizable one: a student sells his image to the Devil in order to be accepted and to have pleasure. How one sees oneself in the mirror by means of commodity culture shapes one’s identity and the more we buy an image of ourselves the more we are alienated from ourselves. Baudrillard writes, “The mirror image here symbolically represents the meaning of our acts. These build up around us a world that is in our image. The transparency of our relation to the world is expressed rather well by the individual’s unimpaired relation to his image in a mirror: the faithfulness of that reflection bears witness, to some degree, to a real reciprocity between the world and ourselves.” (117) Since marketing has become so powerful, even Baudrillard thinks this modern Faustian story is outdated since there is no originary subject from which we are alienated. The bargain with the devil is so complete that there is no going back to some authentic self free of the market. “For Baudrillard, the devil in these fables can be read as the capitalist system of commodification, while the loss of the protagonists’ likenesses (in other words, their very souls) to the devil represents the alienation and objectivization of labor power in the market place, ‘the image is not lost or abolished by chance: it is sold.’” (114) The more one buys, the more one is alienated. The dramatic demonstration of this alienated human being “is a being turned inside out, changed into something evil, into its own enemy, set against itself. This is, on another level, the process Freud describes in repression.” (119) This is what drives a human or a culture to its death or to madness. But it is still possible, says Baudrillard to save one’s soul. We have dominated nature so completely, our sexual drives and human relations, “including even fantasies…is taken over by that logic…in which everything is spectacularized…there is no longer any soul, no shadow, no double, and no image in the specular sense.” (120-1) We are purely and entirely haunted by this ancestral fable, the Devil being just a filmic memory of what used to be, “there is only a shop window—the site of consumption, in which the individual no longer produces his own reflection, but is absorbed into the order of signifiers of social status, etc.” (121)

Luce Irigaray, in “The Looking Glass, From the Other Side,” achieves a new language in speaking of film, exemplifying l’écriture feminine through what Kul-Want calls “performative writing.” This chapter, originally published in 1973, becomes the first in her This Sex Which Is Not One and provides a fine-grained and profound analysis of the film The Surveyors (Les Arpenteurs, 1972). A review such as this cannot do justice to her style. Irigaray’s lyrical form, displaying women’s libidinal desire and gaze, cannot be that of the surveyor in Soutter’s film and “is rooted in a critique of patriarchy and its conception of identity as formed by means of a metaphysical, structural opposition between the One and its lack.” (124) Such thinking needs to be dissolved, says Irigaray, “conceiv[ing] of the notion of woman as a radical absence of identity—zero rather than One—for which there is no definition.” (ibid.) The point of a woman discovering herself without seeing herself through the man’s gaze:

So at four o’clock sharp, the surveyor goes into her house. And since a surveyor needs a pretext to go into someone’s house, especially a lady’s, he’s carrying a basket of vegetables. From Lucien. Penetrating into ‘her’ place under cover of somebody else’s name, clothes, love. For the time being, that doesn’t seem to bother him. He opens the door, she’s making a phone call. To her fiancé. Once again he slips in between them, the two of them. […] Does his intervention succeed? Or does he begin to harbor a vague suspicion that she is not simply herself? He looks for a light. To hide his confusion, fill in the ambiguity. Distract her by smoking. She doesn’t see the lighter, even though it’s right in front of her… (127)

The analysis of this scene of The Surveyors points to missed and captured attention, unfettered desire, and the subtleties of consent and patriarchy brought into the light. The play of characters, male and female, stand in for mirrors, front and back. Here is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland from the other side. As Kul-Want perceives,“[W]oman puts into question all prevailing economies and their calculations since ‘she’ does not possess an identity and nor does ‘she’ lack one.” (17)

Jean-François Lyotard claims that the importance of movement in cinema has two forms, a static and an excessive, and that even the gaze is not simple voyeurism. As in “gaps, jolts, postponements, losses, and confusions,” the pyrotechnics of film ensure that the “entire erotic force invested in the simulacrum be promoted, raised, displayed, and burned in vain.” (145, 143) The static movement, however, is not only immobilizing since the image “give[s] rise to the most intense agitation through its fascinating paralysis.” (149) Crucial to his line of analysis is the point of view of the director, how the director sees the thing which we wishes to represent in terms of these varied movements. Cinematography, then, captures e-motion in the way that Agamben in a later chapter will describe gesture. They are each in their own way expanding upon Merleau-Ponty’s “understanding of the genealogy of the Kantian philosophy of subsumption beyond Descartes, proposing that it underlies the very notion of identity in the West as this pertains to all aspects of subjective experience and thought.” (14) As in Žižek’s analysis below, and following Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), the “unfettered libidinal drives” and “unconscious investments—formless movements of jouissance—are denied by the culture industries in their relentless interpellation of the consumer.” (16) For the sake of space, I will not discuss the two chapters on Deleuze here, but Kul-Want’s selections and introductory material are really valuable for the student trying to approach these themes for the first time.

Philosopher, literary critic, and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva may help with some of this frustration of understanding impenetrable thoughts in her chapter, “The Malady of Grief: Duras,” taken from her book, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia (1987). Along with Cixous and Irigaray, Kristeva has done more regarding the term jouissance than almost anyone, barring possibly Lacan. “Such jouissance in these contexts is violent and painful and yet, part of the violence of this experience, its excess, is that it is also joyful and ecstatic.” (200) Grief encompasses the experience of watching a film and the “despoliation of nature” (202). Kristeva is interested in interrogating the existence of states largely overlooked: “Psychosis, depression, manic-depressive states, borderline states, false selves.” Among others, Dostoyevsky and Hans Holbein are inspirations for her work. Another person she believes to have looked into grief is Marguerite Duras, whose script for the film Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), allows one to think about postwar melancholy and the future of our emptiness as a national and global community.

Slavoj Žižek looks at Hitchcock through a Lacanian lens. He doesn’t repeat here his analysis in the documentaries, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema and Ideology, but supplements them. Hitchcock’s storytelling pervades what Žižek calls the “continuous filmic gaze” (226), that is, referring to the title of this chapter which originates in Racine’s Phèdre, “In his bold gaze my ruin is writ large.” While much of this chapter is an analysis of Psycho (1960), Hitchcock’s earlier film, The Lady Vanishes (1938), is also discussed. What Žižek tries to show, in Kul-Want’s words, is how in the latter film “the window function as a symbolic screen lining ‘diegetic reality’ and thwarting the Real, while the writing upon the screen are signifiers […] —that is, symptoms— of a subjective void that cannot be framed and represented but around which signification revolves: in this instance the vanished lady. […] As Lacan says, language speaks (ça parle, it speaks) of an absence within itself.” (220) The narrative of desire is that we are always already driven and will be forever by different objects, different stories. Curiosity for the new and the hidden accentuate this desire. When we want to see more than we are allowed to see by the gaze that is all powerful, our ruin is writ large. The reality of what we are looking at destroys us. “In the guise of the Other’s gaze,” he concludes,

Hitchcock’s entire universe is founded upon this complicity between ‘absolute Otherness,’ epitomized by the Other’s gaze into the camera, and the viewers look—the ultimate Hegelian lesson of Hitchcock is that the place of absolute transcendence, of the Unrepresentable which eludes diegetic space, coincides with the absolute immanence of the viewer reduced to pure gaze. (234)

Norman of Psycho is “the quintessence of the disembodied drive” (22), but the filmic gaze points beyond to the space between the symbolic and the Real. The themes of desire, otherness, and ideology are brought together and yet hidden from our view.

The sheer amount of analysis of film can become overwhelming. In Jean-Luc Nancy’s chapter, “And Life Goes On,” the emphasis is on “ideas of withdrawal, spacing, and separation.” (241) The film Nancy uses to show this is by the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, Life and Nothing More (1992). Following the earthquake and the men who watch football mentioned in the first paragraph above, the film reveals how the flow of life continues after mourning and catastrophe. The automobile is a major character in the film (“it moves by itself, it moves ahead, outside of itself, it carries what presents itself, toilet seat or stove, occasional passengers…” (248), as is the landscape and the rubble. In addition to human interaction, the villages have been broken by faults, both inside and between. Nevertheless, “the film remains a film, and never lets us forget it—precisely by means of its contrasts and its insistence on the framing—always the car, its windows, its doors, and the sides of the road, always on the verge of being out of focus; but also and just as well the patient arrangement of everything…[as] a document about ‘fiction’: not in the sense of imagining the unreal, but in the very specific and precise sense of the technique, of the art of constructing images.” (249) This film between documentary and fiction does not Orientalize or Romanticize. Rather, “[i]t is their simultaneous continuation and the continuation of each other: the road, the automobile, the image, the gaze” that goes on like “the vast, permanent expanse of the countryside and its people.”

The right to tell one’s story and the search for story is behind much of 20th century film and philosophy. In Contesting Tears, Stanley Cavell analyses American films from the 1930s and 1940s that concern themselves with “the female protagonists [who] desire recognition from their partners, not just in the private, domestic sphere of their lives, but in the public realm too.” (18) Unlike Laura Mulvey’s famous “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” (1975) Cavell defends the gaze as when the protagonist of Stella Dallas (1937) “watches her daughter through a window that is framed like the proverbial cinematic silver screen.”  How marriage, divorce, and finding one’s father or mother can be both Freudian and reconciling in a peaceful rather than conflictual way allows one to mirror filmic selves by recognizing aspects of characters (for example, Greta Garbo in Camille, 1936) who find themselves in the film story that reinvents “love [as] mysterious, in its crossing of torture and bliss.” (268) A definition of marriage as a “meet and happy conversation” defended by Cavell through two genres of film where the distinction between desire and law in relation to the past and memory becomes elemental in understanding power relations. In one of the best passages if Contesting Tears, Cavell writes, “the struggle between the sexes can play itself out without interruption (for example, by children, or by economic need), on the sublime level of difference mutually desired and comically overcome. In the melodramas the education of the woman is still at issue, but within their mood of heavy irony, since her (superior, exterior) knowledge becomes the object-as prize or as victim-of the man’s fantasy, who seeks to share its secrets (Now, Voyager), to be ratified by it (Letter from an Unknown Woman), to escape it (Stella Dallas), or to destroy it (Gaslight), where each objective is (generically) reflected in the others…” (265) There are very few American authors on film who can measure up to many of the philosophers in this book, but Cavell can.

In the last four chapters, we are brought from the 20th into the 21st century. Jacques Rancière analyses one film in detail, Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps (1955). The film is a fable of “the bodily movements and exchange of glances that cast these schemers into always unstable relationships of inferiority or superiority.” (276) Each of the characters produces a mask to hide their own power. The way in which film is capable of reproducing this fable contrasts Deleuze’s account since for Rancière, “[film] is composed of a constant tension between classical narrative construction, ultimately derived from Aristotle’s idea of a ‘story well told’ (muthos), and its visual and sensate affects that have the potential to exceed signification (opsis).” (26) This means that cinema not only reproduces ideology, but potentially arrests it such as when “the murderer stands like a parent beside a young girl in front of a shopwindow…for a few moments, these scenes in front of shopwindow displays are not simply pauses or moments of rest in the narrative but an ‘empty time, the lost time of a stroll or the suspended time of an epiphany’ that changes the very meaning of the notion of an ‘episode.’” (272) The notion of mimesis as in any way linear is put into question. Lang inverts Aristotle. The notion of the gaze becomes a point of dissension and yet a “change from ignorance to knowledge” (in the Aristotelian sense of recognition) requires a comprehension of Oedipus Rex: “here’s the man that was the child.” (277) The lost time of the stroll and the time of projects or the time of narrative are put into opposition. The way in which “speech,” “gaze,” and “hands” operate between the camera and the living room, the murderer and the lover, the projection and maturity all come into focus, as when Rancière describes the scene: “Mobley faces the murderer as he would face his kid brother who never left the stage of intellectual and manual masturbation and of papa and mama stories, and is still wondering whether it was for wanting him that a man and a woman performed the series of movements known as making love.” (285-6) As a German emigrant to America, the scene is one of recognition and disillusionment, knowledge and loss by means of the “new apparatus of the visible that cinema as such has to confront.”

Alain Badiou, in his Cinema as Philosophical Experimentation, also believes that cinema thinks. It can challenge and prod us to move beyond – but it is also a product of capitalism and thus can equally captivate and numb. It is a question of image, time, painting, music, and novelty. All of these are equally political and ethical, since “cinema deals with courage, with justice, with passion, with betrayal.” (297) As examples of this thinking and this challenge, Badiou discusses Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin, Hitchcock’s Rebecca, Rebecca, Rosellini’s Journey to Italy, and others. He speaks here of the ‘event’ meaning radical political events such as 1968 and changes within epistemology. “Truth-event” is his word for Plato’s Idea of absolute truth, as Kul-Want points out, and yet for Badiou, “the event is true in an absolute sense because it is radically multiple, irreducible to its causes and conditions.” (292) Like many of the authors in this collection, Badiou believes cinema to have the power and the capacity to transform our fantasies. Cinema as philosophy means the love and the truth contained in its origins, and films such as Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai or Mizoguchi’s The Crucified Lovers exemplify a difference between cinema and philosophy, learning from each other through “rupture.” Cinema is a transformative ‘event’ (as Benjamin, Adorno and Horkheimer thought) “that both reinforces and reproduces the fantasies of the social imaginary.” (27) By engaging the audience in a struggle against oppression, “something almost miraculous happens when cinema manages to extract a little bit of purity from all that is worst in the world.” (306)

In Technics and Time, 3: Cinematic Time and the Question of Malaise, extracted here, Bernard Stiegler, who passed away tragically while writing this review in 2020, begins by taking up the desire for stories, which he thinks is an ancient desire. Modern society is “animated by the most complex, and most secret, of social movements.” This is precisely what Adorno and Horkheimer mean by culture industry, which now “constitute the very heart of economic development, whose most intimate power is clearly always the most ancient desire of all stories.” All of cinema and media then, for Stiegler, with their “technics of image and sound—now including informatics and telecommunications—re-invent our belief in stories that are now told with remarkable, unparalleled power.” (311) The important point here, which I cannot emphasise enough, is how Stiegler takes up the history of philosophy, including Plato, Kant, Husserl, Heidegger and others alongside Simondon and Leroi-Gourhan, and reads the history of technology, that is, the relationship of techne and episteme, and considers how it affects our consciousness, including and perhaps especially children (see his Taking Care of the Youth). He writes, “Consciousness is affected in general by phenomena presented to it, but this affect occurs in a special way with temporal objects. This is important to us in the current investigation because cinema, like melody, is a temporal object. Understanding the singular way in which temporal objects affect consciousness means beginning to understand what gives cinema its specificity, its force, and its means of transforming life leading, for example, to the global adoption of ‘the American way of life.’” (318) Consciousness, and thus the gaze, is already cinematographic, Stiegler claims, combining a form of montage through a unified flux. Stiegler’s use of films like Fellini’s Intervista, Kazan’s America, America, or Resnais’s My American Uncle are cases in point “in which memory is a dense fabric of cinematographic citations.” (324-5) Kul-Want describes this process in the following way: “for Stiegler, the flow of temporality involved in listening to music or watching a film is always a matter of ‘imaginative’ and selective recombinations of experience through what Stiegler refers to as a tertiary form of retention, that is, in actual fact, constitutive of primary and secondary forms of retention. Such shifts in consciousness depend on the important fact that memory is a process of forgetting.” (310) Our notions of consciousness are not only impacted by what we watch and take in technologically in our everyday lives, but also by what we have forgotten as when we watch a film we’ve seen before and do not remember what happens. New stories then emerge such that the “American mythmaking” or Streetcar Named Desire (1951) or Gone with the Wind (1939) become more real than reality, a “symbol of freedom and hope…by virtue of being a land of emigrants who do not have a mythical shared oriding upon which a regulated, common future can be founded.” (311) This essay by Stiegler can be compared to that of Agamben’s “Notes on Gesture”, which Kul-Want points out “is also informed by the reproducible as a singular event involving forgetting and loss.” (20) For Agamben, then, we can even unlearn gestures and bodily postures or movements due to this forgetting. A decomposition of film, as in Marey, Muybridge, or the Lumière brothers, in which 24 frames per second define movement, intersects with experimental psychology and Nietzsche’s “ballet of a humankind” (213) The image is both broken off from and includes the whole. “And when the age realized this, it then began (but it was too late!) the precipitous attempt to recover the lost gestures in extremis. The dance of Isadora Duncan and Sergei Diaghilev, the novel of Proust, the great Jugendstil poetry from Pascoli to Rilke, and finally and most exemplarily, the silent movie trace the magic circle in which humanity tried for the last time to evoke what was slipping through its fingers forever.” (213) Cinema, says Agamben, is gesture and not image, thus belonging to ethics and politics.

The final essay, by Kaja Silverman, brings us back to where we began in Bergson. When Bergson wrotes, “What are we, in fact, what is our character, if not the condensation of the history that we have lived from our birth, since we bring with us prenatal dispositions…from this survival of the past it follows that consciousness cannot go through the same state twice,” (38) the same can be said for the gaze. In Silverman’s analysis, using Proust alongside Sartre and Merleau-Ponty as well as the Belgian filmmaker Chantal Ackerman, the gaze (le regard) is transformed into ‘the miracle of analogy’. Merleau-Ponty’s word for this is chiasmus, which Silverman says is the “name for the ontological thread stitching the seer to what is seen, the toucher to what is touched, and sight and visibility to touch and tactility.” (331) This intertwining at the heart of Merleau-Ponty’s The Visible and the Invisible means that there is not an “I” cut off from another: we are touched when looking and art allows us, says Proust, “to emerge from ourselves.” (332) The entire history of film (and of philosophy) can be contained in this imagined image of the gaze, to be able to see oneself through another lens transforms the self and the other. Silverman’s use of Ackerman’s The Captive (2000), a take on Proust’s À la recherche, vol. 5, explores “non-invasive” sexual pleasure and the meaning loving a lot, or loving well. In place of possessive grasping or obsessive jealousy, the camera “relies heavily upon the shot/reverse shot formation.” (336) While this technique is typically used to construct sexual difference, concealing the presence of the camera, Ackerman uses it to reveal the fourth wall: “Ariane and Andrée are separated from Simon by the fourth wall, so they shouldn’t be able to return his look, but they miraculously do. After he acknowledges the interdependence of his desire for Ariane, and hers for Andrée, and affirms the girls’ right to say ‘je vous aime bien’ to each other, they respond by smiling first at each other, and then at him.” Ever since Ackerman’s La chambre (1972), she has proven herself as a filmmaker of extraordinary innovation and a living incarnation of the miracle of analogy; though Ackerman passed away in 2015 we may still “see” her work. “Acgkerman shows these two looks meeting at the site of Ariane’s body, like the landscape invoked by Proust, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty. If we were to translate this meeting into language, it would read: ‘je…vous…je vous.’” (337)

All of the themes of 20th century film and philosophy are contained brilliantly within Kul-Want’s collection. I cannot speak highly enough of its range and depth. Beginning with Bergson’s 1907 Creative Evolution and ending with Silverman’s 2015 The Miracle of Analogy, with Christopher Kul-Want’s aid all along, we can follow a trajectory of thinking and viewing without losing ourselves in the mindlessly numbing, not to mention impenetrable, weeds of the gaze.

Nikolay Milkov: Early Analytic Philosophy and the German Philosophical Tradition

Early Analytic Philosophy and the German Philosophical Tradition Couverture du livre Early Analytic Philosophy and the German Philosophical Tradition
Nikolay Milkov
Bloomsbury Academic
Hardback £76.50
x + 296

Reviewed by: R.A. Goodrich (ARC Centre for History of Emotions – University of Melbourne & ADI Philosophy & History of Ideas – Deakin University)

The four sections of this review essay will each pursue a major facet of Nikolay Milkov’s monograph, a monograph mainly directed at professional philosophers and their postgraduate students, but not without interest for historians of ideas. Within the space available, we shall give particular attention to the opening chapters. Indeed, it is in these chapters that the fundamental framing of Early Analytic Philosophy and the German Philosophical Tradition is erected. They are finally re-engaged in the concluding pair of chapters, chapters that portray two dominant conceptions of analytic philosophy influencing its subsequent factional development; the consequent proliferation of incomplete often methodological definitions of analytic philosophy; and, finally, what amounts to the author’s manifesto for the future renewal of analytic philosophy. The questions governing the four sections of this critique can be summarised as follows. Firstly, how does Milkov construe the context of historical enquiries into early analytic philosophy? Secondly, what does he believe ought to be the task and goal of such endeavours? Thirdly, how do the demands of a case-study of the impact of a controversial major intellectual upon early analytical philosophers demonstrate his actual historical practice? Finally, to what extent do other significant, contemporaneous historical approaches invite further questions? Or, to recast this issue, do the assumptions Milkov makes about the very nature and crafting of the history of philosophy raise closer scrutiny and debate?


Milkov’s re-framing of the history of the early phase of analytic philosophy comes a half-generation after Daniel Garber’s reflection upon attitudes to the intellectual past by so many of its practitioners.  Garber’s own generation was “reacting against … a bundle of practices” that could be characterized by several trends (2004: 2). These included the tendencies “to substitute rational reconstruction of a philosopher’s views for the views themselves,” “to focus upon an extremely narrow group of figures,” “to focus on just a few works … that best fit with … current conception[s] of the subject of philosophy,” “to work exclusively from translations and to ignore secondary work … not originally written in English,” and “to treat philosophical positions as if they were those presented by contemporaries” (2004: 2).

Before assessing how Milkov differs in his historical approach, let us focus upon the first two theoretical chapters of his sixteen-chapter volume in order to examine the underpinnings of that approach. Whereas the vast majority of chapters draw upon a dozen articles and chapters published between 1999 and 2012, both introductory chapters implicitly provide Milkov’s readers with his most recent thinking. It occurs within the statement of his over-arching aim of transforming the “largely disparate efforts” (4), notably but not exclusively since the ‘’seventies when Michael Dummett (1981: 628ff. & 665ff.) began probing the development of Gottlob Frege and the philosophy of language (also succinctly critiqued by George Duke (2009)). Milkov believes this can be achieved by “developing a comprehensive account of early analytic philosophy as a movement that both inherited and transformed an entire spectrum of themes … in mainstream German philosophy” (4). A significant factor amongst English-speaking commentators in avoiding, if not disparaging, the role of Germanic thinking from the twentieth century’s first world war to the aftermath of the second was “socio-cultural animosity and clashing ideologies” (4).

Milkov is well aware that his effort to construct “a theoretically balanced and comprehensive, ideologically unbiased account” involves him in pursuing “pioneering figures” of analytic philosophy such as B.A.W. Russell and G.E. Moore. More particularly, it demands that he demonstrates how they probed “inherited problems and doctrines” originating in Germanic philosophical thinking “in the language and theoretical idiom of a far different cultural and intellectual environment” (5). By so doing, we find that Milkov overtly opposes five historical conceptions of what many scholars construe as the Anglo-Germanic intellectual relationship (or lack thereof) during the initial period of the analytic movement (and subsequently elaborated when dealing with “incomplete definitions” of the extended analytic movement’s “methodological” and “defining themes” (208-212)). In brief, they comprise the following objections:

[i] that, as the twelfth and sixteenth chapter in the first volume of Scott Soames (2003) might be interpreted, Kant’s analytic-synthetic dichotomy was central to early analytic projects (5, cf. 8, 11-12);

[ii] that, despite efforts to reconnect two historically divorced yet aligned traditions in Paul Redding (2007) and thereby contend that Hegel’s “grand … theories” were central, but not his methods which Milkov specifically upholds subsequently (e.g. 46ff.) (5);

[iii] that, as promoted by the likes of Kevin Mulligan and Barry Smith, Kant and his followers operated “in principle” with a “universe of ideas” totally independent of the analytic movement (5-6);

[iv] that neo-Kantians, notably Ernst Cassirer of the Marburg school, “were largely preoccupied with the philosophy of culture,” thereby ignoring their continuation of “the logicalization of philosophy initiated by Kant” (6, cf. 7, 221); and,

[v] as Dummett (e.g. 1981: xlii, 665-684) influentially maintained, that “Frege alone introduced analytic philosophy as a kind of philosophy of language” (6, cf. 12, 111, 209-210).

From the pivotal occurrence of Kant’s “recalibration” of occidental philosophy by “synthesizing logic with the rest of the field” (7), Milkov proposes the next major pivot to be neither Hegel nor Frege but Hermann Lotze. His investigations would later be identified, if not always acknowledged, as “signature concerns” of early Cambridge analyses, ranging “from the proposition, objective content—both conceptual and perceptual—of knowledge, and intentionality to the theory of logical forms, the objective nature of values and logical validity” (7). As Hans-Johann Glock (1999: 141ff.) emphasizes, the “logocentric” factor in what he regards as German analytic philosophy saw the pronounced rejection of the naturalist trend of reducing philosophy to an empirical science such as psychology to which the laws of logic were subservient and thereby functioning as little more than empirical, inductive generalisations.

The subsequent questioning of logocentric constraints rationalises Milkov upholding a distinctive, “discrete” second (or “middle”) phase of analytic philosophy initially associated with the Vienna Circle’s focus upon “problems of explanation in science” (9). Thereafter, he observes, a “clearly distinguishable” third (or “late”) phase emerged from the ’sixties with Van Quine, Thomas Kuhn, and John Rawls epitomizing “leading exemplars” of shifts into questions of translatability and interpretation, scientific revolutions and commensurability, and socio-political rules and cohesion. In sum, synoptic attempts to define analytic philosophy fail to “discriminate … different stages” (10) and thus distort historical actualities of its “multifacteted” development (11).

Chapter One ends by returning to its goal of “a fine-grained” investigation of topics “from alternative perspectives” that were “formative” of early analytic philosophy to be treated by way of its “methodology … which was more focused on descriptions than explanations” (11). Rather than impose a “monothematic,” if not hierarchical, interpretation upon actual analytic development, such as Soames’ singular notion of analysis or Dummett’s one of language (11-12), Milkov points elsewhere. We, in fact, face “concepts that survived the demise of the grand theories in which they originally figured” (13). At the same time, when “later recast by thinkers,” the “supersession of historically successive philosophical contexts, whereby seminal ideas make their way through history, explains why philosophically formative ideas are often difficult to recognize” (13). Furthermore, “the progress of these ideas was not always linear … nor was it always a function of a proximate influence” (13).


Chapter Two ends Milkov’s theoretical introduction by initially surveying attitudes of philosophers, be they analytic or other, towards their intellectual antecedents. Whilst so doing, he notes that even philosophers “cannot, in principle, write down their completely finished story” (18). This state of affairs holds irrespective of whether their successors, be they “friends or rivals,” develop “steps” suggested or even when others, attempting to demonstrate how their ideas are “constructed” or related, typically interpret such ideas as contributing to a “completely new problem” (18-19). Curiously, for a chapter devoted to the logical, systematic history of philosophy, Milkov does not pursue the conceptual consequences of history as retrospective narrative, a point to be expanded in our fourth section.

Milkov contends that the task of an historian of philosophy is fourfold, namely:

[i] explicating “elements” of the “different range and level of specific philosophical works”;

[ii] relating these elements within “a logical net” or, still metaphorically speaking, mapping them;

[iii] logically relating them to “the ideas of other philosophers: predecessors, contemporaries, successors” irrespective of whether they are “members of the philosopher’s school or group”; and, finally,

[iv] aiming to “develop them further in their authentic sense” (19).

That said, Milkov makes allowance for more implications arising from his four designated tasks. These include, for example, the need for historians—especially for those pursuing “logical connections” aiming to detail “a map without omissions” (26)—to adopt two directions. On the one hand, there is a diachronic quest for the “origins of particular concepts, problems, and theories” (20). On the other hand, there is a synchronic “reporting” about how other philosophers deploy these differently in order to “delineate … how the systematic philosophical problems and concepts, past and present, interrelate in formally determinate ways” (20). In his penultimate chapter, Milkov reframes this dual task along the lines of what Peter Strawson (1992: 17-28) once called “connective” as opposed to “reductive” analysis (203).

The foregoing may nonetheless leave readers wondering if Milkov’s fourfold set of tasks above is sufficiently explicated. Consider, for instance, why Milkov’s preferred “elements”—concepts, problems, theories—gradually focus upon the first two at the expense of the third. Consider again, how one is to construe Milkov’s metaphorical notions of “net” and “map.” The latter, as we shall consider in our final section, reveals some questionable presuppositions bedevilling theories of history applied to the realm of ideas. Finally. consider why his reference to “specific … works” omits the interpretive nature, let alone assumptions and consequences, of translations, transcriptions, and reconstructions of published and unpublished work or works; all the more so, when pitted against the goal of approaching its or their “authentic sense” (19). Is this appeal to “authentic sense” in danger of becoming embroiled in a potential dilemma? As argued in more literary circumstances by Saam Trivedi (2001), the underlying conception of communication ultimately “implies a commitment” to “the view that the correct meanings and interpretations … are fixed” or “at least … constrain[ed]” by their authors’ “actual intentions” in constructing their works (195). In other words, the problem is “an epistemic dilemma, a dilemma with redundancy as one of its horns, and indeterminancy as the other” (198). Imagine a situation in which Antonio and Alessia, archaeologists and keen students of accounts of the settlement of the Azores archipelago begin reading the fifteenth chapter of the 1894 Raymond Beazley history of “one continuous thread of Christian” European exploration and expansion across the Atlantic which “treat[s] the life of Prince Henry as the turning point” albeit one “clouded by the dearth of compete knowledge… but enough … to make something of … a hero, both of science and of action” (xvii). Both sense the above-mentioned danger of confronting them, namely, whether or not Beazley’s textual or oral sources are pervaded by ambiguity. If ambiguity is pervasive according to Antonio, the historian’s attempt to appeal to contexts if not conventions as a sufficient constituent of his sources’ meaning in cases of failed or indeterminate intentions begins to crumble. The dilemma remains if, as Alessia contends, ambiguity here is not pervasive because the sources threaten to become superfluous especially in the face of Beazley’s ideological pre-occupations.


Our previous section has in passing questioned Milkov’s conception of the goal and task of historians of (early) analytic philosophy in terms of retrospective narratives and metaphors of mapping. However, before turning to these issues in our final section, we shall pursue, albeit briefly, how the demands of a significant philosophical case-study demonstrate his actual practices. Here, we find a rich array from Chapter Three onwards. In practical terms, we would hardly expect a volume of under three hundred pages to present a fully “comprehensive,” let alone an “unbiased,” account (5); rather, it acts as a corrective by challenging engrained scholarly perspectives with alternative ones. An example of a complex major German thinker, initially rejected by Russell and Moore as intersecting with early analytic philosophy, should suffice, namely, Hegel, a pivotal figure for what is popularly called the European idealist movement.

Milkov acknowledges the recent role of Redding (2007) and Angelica Nuzzo (2010) in drawing parallels between analytic philosophy and Hegel’s approach to concepts (46). However, he elects to highlight an “unexplored” perspective of the “methods employed” not as the “genealogical connection between … two theoretical orientations, but rather … [as] their kinship” (47). His prime candidate is the “economic method of elimination” (as distinct from the “reductive” conception of analysis in which particular concepts were assigned to specific classes (cf. 49)). Early analytic philosophers, beginning with its “only one founding father,” Russell (221), deployed elimination to rid analysis of “a superfluous duplication of terms” (47). For instance, if Antonio knows the words comprising a proposition (“The Azores is Europe’s largest volcanic archipelago”), then by that very fact he knows its meaning. If his colleague Alessia can confirm that the hypogea of the Azores are products of human activity at least a millennium before European settlement from 1433, then, ipso facto, she can prove that there were ancient people and things before and beyond herself.

This method, asserts Milkov, is akin to Hegel’s mereological approach in logic to analysing the relationship between a whole or totality and its parts or elements. By so analysing the connections between parts of a whole by “the most economic type of connection between them,” Hegel can simultaneously characterize those between the parts and the whole which “are unities of individuals” (48), the latter, citing Hegel (1830: §158), functioning as “only moments of one whole.” Nonetheless, Milkov concedes that the above method specifically “related to Hegel’s dialectics” was “a major trend” amongst fin de siècle philosophers ranging from William James, a key contributor to the North America pragmatist movement, to Edmund Husserl, a major instigator of the European phenomenological movement, and not peculiar to the early analytic movement as such (49).

For Milkov, only the early Wittgenstein (1922) fully embodies Hegel’s dialectics where “every concept transforms into another concept” and thereby making it “more precise” (50). His other nominee is Rudolf Carnap who, during the middle or second period of the analytic movement’s trans-Atlantic debates over the logical quest for conceptual or definitional precision, “called the practice of analysis explication” (50). Thereafter, the relatively open-ended use of “explication”—nowadays known as “conceptual (re)engineering”—by advocates in philosophical and psychological fields has seized upon experimentally or experientially driven applications of theoretical enquiries. Whereas Milkov subsequently concentrates upon Susan Stebbing’s criticisms (e.g. 186-187), the contested arguments of Quine and Strawson amongst others continue to reverberate. These include, for example, the viability of securing necessary and sufficient conditions; the validity of distinctions between analytical and empirical truths; the separation of denotative and connotative meanings; the division between semantic and pragmatic kinds of context and reference; and the methodological question of whether “explication” ultimately alters the subject of enquiry or forcibly resolves it by way of implicit stipulation.

Hegel’s mereological approach above carries implications for its relationship to the “absolute” or “absolute idea” which Milkov construes more generally amongst German idealists as determining “the characteristics and behavior of all individuals that fall under it with necessity of a law” (62). Later, focusing upon the early Russell under the specific influence of Lotze, Milkov claims that Russell, when first emphasizing “the logical discussion of metaphysical problems,” conceptually distinguished between space and time “as consisting of relations” and “as adjectives to the absolute” (89). What is ignored here is an alternative account of the “absolute idea” which, according to Markus Gabriel (2016), is grounded in “methodological assumptions designed to guarantee the overall intelligibility of what there is, regardless of its actual natural, social or more broadly normative structure” (181). Gabriel’s challenging perspective centres upon “how reality as a whole is the main topic of Hegel’s philosophy” which includes the crucial task in the face of scepticism of “accounting for the presence of self-conscious thinking in nature” (2018: 383). Irrespective of the merits of this alternative, it compels intellectual historians to ask if early analytic philosophers realised that Hegel’s “absolute idea” was not a first-order metaphysical method for disclosing, in Gabriel’s words, “the composition of ultimate reality in the sense of the furniture of mind-independent fundamental reality” (2016: 185).

There is something else Milkov largely seems to overlook in his treatment of Hegel’s mereological mode of dialectical analysis which only tangentially comes to the fore when his sixth and seventh chapters delve into Lotze’s focus upon the logical relations within judgements and its influence upon Russell and Moore (e.g. 73-74 & 76-77). For many readers, especially those more familiar with the third (or “late”) phase of analytic philosophy and its persistent debates about semantic holism, curiosity centres upon the extent to which the early analytic phase and its German antecedents wrestled with holistic assumptions. Yet only passing mention of Moore’s widely disseminated and influential Principia Ethica is made. Milkov simply remarks that the volume was “developed around the concepts of ‘organic unity’” or organic whole in a “quasi-Hegelian manner” (49)—notably, it may be added, in terms of the intrinsic and non-intrinsic values of whole and parts (e.g. 1903: §18-23, 27-36)—without any explicit mention of Lotze.

From an historical perspective, amongst the basic conceptions upheld by the generation of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the organic kind, as Dennis Phillips has long argued, took root in efforts to deny the adequacy of atomistic or mechanistic assumptions associated with the physical and chemical sciences of the day when applied, for example, to conscious beings, human societies, or even “reality as a whole” (1976: 6). Why? Because the “parts of an organic system are internally related to each other” (1976: 7). Internal relations are commonly explained by such propositions as the “whole determines the nature of its parts”; “parts cannot be understood … in isolation from the whole”; and, parts are “dynamically” inter-dependent or -related (1976: 6). To accept internal or intrinsic relations, continues Phillips, rapidly leads to the contestable belief that “entities are necessarily altered by the relations into which they enter” (1976: 8). Hegel’s mereological approach in, for example, The Science of Logic is replete with holistic assumptions. This becomes all the more so as Hegel probes the “essential relation” in that work’s 1813 The Doctrine of Essence as “the relation of the whole and the parts” wherein the whole “consists of the parts, and apart from them it is not anything” (1813: 449-450). Because the whole “is only relative, for what makes it a totality is rather its other, the parts” (1813: 451), Hegel unhesitatingly declares:

Nothing is in the whole which is not in the parts, and nothing is in the parts which is not in the whole. The whole is not an abstract unity but the unity of a diversified manifoldness; but this unity within which the manifold is held together is the determinateness by virtue of which the latter is the parts. (1813: 452)

In sum, we might ask, would focusing upon Hegel’s holistic commitments give us a more cohesive framework for explaining why the development of early analytic philosophy hinged upon overtly rejecting them for several decades at least? Or, if Milkov’s cryptic remarks about Hegel’s dialectical approach (e.g. 46-51, 75-76) tempt us to accept the reconstruction proposed by Gabriel (2011: 104-119), might this, in turn, explain why early analytic philosophers misinterpreted Hegel’s concept of the absolute in so far as it was premised on the “dialectical failure of transcendent metaphysics” from Kant onwards?


The last two chapters deftly portray three key issues motivating Milkov’s monograph which some readers may find worthwhile reading first of all before retracing earlier chapters for the expository details. These key issues include the emergence of two dominant conceptions of analytic philosophy influencing its subsequent factional development which, as Gordana Jovanović (2010) unwittingly demonstrates, echoes tensions within the early history of psychological theory and practice. Thereafter, Milkov turns to the resultant proliferation of incomplete, and often implicitly reified methodological, definitions of analytic philosophy. Finally, he ends Early Analytic Philosophy and the German Philosophical Tradition with what amounts to a manifesto for the future renewal of analytic philosophy partly by contrasting its fundamentally asymmetric relationship with “continental” philosophy and partly by looking to how reconnecting to scientific developments promises its theoretical interdisciplinary enrichment (217ff.).

Milkov’s closing chapters seek “to articulate a clear definition” based upon “the findings” of his preceding chapters and to “foster a more historically informed and theoretically nuanced understanding of analytic philosophy in general” (208). This statement returns us to his initial one about the ideal goals and tasks facing the historian of philosophy: “a theoretically balanced and comprehensive, ideologically unbiased account” (5). As noted in our previous sections, this left at least two historical issues in abeyance which we rather tersely associated with the retrospective character of narratives and the misleading metaphors of mapping. We shall briefly conclude by questioning the presuppositions of these and related issues whilst drawing upon recent re-conceptualisations of the crucial explanatory dimension of history of philosophy.

To ask Milkov what the criteria are that mark an historical account of analytic philosophy as balanced, comprehensive, and unbiased may well be accompanied by such questions as “From whose perspective?” or “By what objective measure?” More unsettling here is the possibility that we are dealing with an idealised set of attributes. How, were this the case, would we ever recognise a comprehensive or an unbiased historical account? The contrast with actual historical accounts immediately shifts our focus. For example, the question might now become whether any historical narration of the occurrences and persons said to be instrumental in the formation of the analytic movement—the role, for instance, assigned to the neglected Dimitri Michaltschew and Johannes Rehmke (153ff.) or Jacob Fries and Leonard Nelson (167ff.)—changes with each re-description by the historians involved, irrespective of whether their chronological, let alone intellectual, scope is relatively narrow or expansive.

Or, to change tack, do individual re-descriptions multiply other kinds of consequences facing historians of analytic philosophy? For example, if Dummett identifies Frege, Redding identifies Hegel, and Milkov identifies Lotze as pivotal to the development of early analytic philosophy, have we become trapped between Scylla and Charybdis, between accepting, on the one hand, a multiplicity of different pasts, different formative occurrences and persons, different causal sequences and accepting, on the other hand, an incapacity for historical accounts to become synthesized and for historical understanding to accumulate? Again, do we confront another consequence? To what extent is any historical narration ultimately a product of imaginative re-enactment where the historian has, as R.G. Collingwood proposed, “no direct or empirical knowledge of … facts … no transmitted or testimonial knowledge of them” (1936: 282)? Hence, when probing the formation of analytic philosophy, the historian is not engaging in an act of recollection where “the past is a mere spectacle” as distinct from being “re-enacted in present thought” (1936: 293). If so, how are we to defend the historical reconstruction’s claim to have disclosed the truth of the matter? Would it be feasible here to appeal to all narrated propositions within the account as not only constituting the facts but also corresponding to a past and actual state of affairs? Or would it feasible to presume that the narrative account is simply justified by an appeal to generalisations about intellectual influences, the Zeitgeist, which map particular occurrences and persons as necessary to the historical terrain being explored, namely, how the nineteenth-century German philosophical tradition or a pivotal figures within it influenced the early twentieth-century analytic movement? In turn, is that historical act of mapping or charting the means for automatically justifying what is therefore construed as significant and hence worthy of inclusion?

The foregoing questions, drawing upon the concerns of Louis Mink (1987) amongst others with the very idea and practice of history, emphasize that the past is not somehow immutable and unchanging, that the past is not somehow awaiting historical discovery to be told (by analogy with the excavations undertaken by our archaeologists, Antonio and Alessia, in the Azores archipelago). Rather, as Mink (1987: 140 & 79) contends, historical enquiries plumb developmental processes retrospectively. Being written from at least one particular perspective at the historian’s time and place, his or her account is thereby characterized by its “conceptual asymmetry” with the antecedent time and place under examination. In that respect, Milkov can be rightly seen as taking particular care over what might be implied and thus translated by Lotze’s concepts (e.g. 98ff.) that have misled Anglophone commentators and translators. Furthermore, Mink portrays a distinctive feature of historical accounts. Their significant conclusions are not so much a mathematical quod erat demonstrandum as what the preceding narrative “argument” aims to have “exhibited”: “they are seldom or never detachable” so that “not merely their validity but their meaning refers backward to the ordering of evidence” (1987: 79).

Finally, as Paul Roth (1989: 468ff.) suggests, there is a “logic internal” to the way in which a narrative account proves explanatory by using “cases … taken to be exemplary instances of problem solving.”  In the course of so saying, Roth seems to have provided us with a set of criteria by which any historian of philosophy, Milkov included, can be evaluated. Does the historical account under examination establish the significance of the occurrence or the event, the person or the puzzle; what is problematic about that occurrence or event, person or puzzle; why have other rational reconstructions failed; and how has the narrative presented solved the problem set (1989: 473).


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