Simone Weil once wrote about philosophy that it is “exclusively an affair of action and practice” (1970, 335). Weil, who was a Jewish intellectual, mystic, and political activist with Christian, Marxist and anarchist leanings, believed that philosophy could only be worth its while if it was willing to occupy itself with action and experience – with the reality of everyday concerns that give texture to everyday life. Her dedication to this idea is evident from Weil’s own life. Famously, she worked in factories, on fishing trawlers, and on farms; she also volunteered in the Spanish Civil War and (fruitlessly) attempted to advice De Gaulle on battlefield tactics during the Second World War. (Her suggestion, which was to parachute troops of nurses onto the battlefields of France, led De Gaulle to exclaim Weil was folle, a mad woman). All the while, these experiences became objects of Weil’s philosophical attention and were formative of the conceptual apparatus she eventually developed in her many essays, notebooks, and letters.
This, in a nutshell, is the central purpose driving David Zaretsky’s The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas: to examine Simone Weil’s thought through the prism of her life. In this lucid and knowledgeable book, which is both an introduction to Weil’s thought and a loose biography, Zaretsky starts from Weil’s insistence that “philosophy was neither theory nor discourse, but instead was practice” (10), and hence to be concerned with action and experience. The author, a historian who has previously written books on Albert Camus, James Boswell, and Denis Diderot, subsequently develops this idea by presenting the main philosophical concepts she developed in rich biographical detail to consider how she arrived at them and why they became important to her. In doing so, Zaretsky essentially argues that Weil’s philosophy is best read against the background of her biography, because her biography is inseparable from her philosophical ethos.
For Zaretsky, this ethos boils down to an unyielding attention for what he calls “the reality of life” (8) and her insistence that philosophy reckons with it. Citing Stanley Cavell, he writes that Weil was “exceptional in her refusal to be “deflected”; in her refusal to turn away from the reality of the other and the other’s suffering by way of philosophical skepticism. Cora Diamond (2003) has referred to this problem as “the difficulty of reality,” and she also mentions Weil as a “philosopher concerned with deflection” from it. To get a feel for how this ethos saturates Weil’s writing, it is worth reading a fragment from her essay Human Personality, also cited by Diamond (but not by Zaretsky).
Human thought is unable to acknowledge the reality of affliction. To acknowledge the reality of affliction means saying to oneself: “I may lose at any moment, through the play of circumstances over which I have no control, anything whatsoever that I possess, including those things which are so intimately mine that I consider them as being myself. There is nothing that I might not lose. It could happen at any moment that what I am might be abolished and replaced by anything whatsoever of the filthiest and most contemptible sort.” (2014, 81)
One way to read Weil’s oeuvre would then be as an attempt to acknowledge “the reality of affliction” and defuse the temptation of deflection. This also seems to be the reading of Weil proposed by Zaretsky in The Subversive Simone Weil.
It is a pity, then, that Zaretsky does not develop his allusion to Cavell in the introduction in the remainder of the book – at least not philosophically. In fact, although Zaretsky does compare Weil’s thought to the ideas of some other notable thinkers (George Orwell, Marcus Aurelius, and Hannah Arendt, to name a few), he rarely situates her in wider philosophical debates. He also does not provide fine-grained exegeses of her main philosophical works. But this does not seem to be the goal Zaretsky has set for himself in The Subversive Simone Weil. Indeed, this book should not so much be read as a philosophical interrogation of Weil’s thought than as an introduction to it, enriched by detailed biographical sketches that breathe life into her original ideas. Each of the book’s five chapters is devoted to a main concept of Weil’s vocabulary: affliction, attention, resistance, rootedness, and goodness. Zaretsky chooses these because he believes they “still resonate today. Or… should resonate” (11). Should resonate, because Zaretsky thinks that Weil’s concepts are not getting their proper due, and neither is Weil herself. He takes attention as an example: a popular topic amongst contemporary critics “in a world so deeply afflicted with attention deficit disorder” (12), but typically without any mention of Weil. One of Zaretsky’s aims here is to amend such oversights.
The five chapters that follow the introduction thus take as their subject a single concept of Weil’s – although, as Zaretsky professes in the introduction, “the terms often spill into one another” (12). The chapters are structured loosely, even impressionistically, their various sections separated not by subheadings but by asterisms. Each typically starts with a series of historical vignettes, setting the scene for how the concept in question began to matter to Weil. To elucidate the concepts he is investigating, Zaretsky cites liberally from Weil’s well-known books and essays, as well as from her notebooks and letters. He intersperses this exegetical work with brief forays into the work of like-minded thinkers, some of whom inspired Weil, some of whom were her contemporaries, and some of whom are inheritors of her ideas. Zaretsky’s writing throughout is outstanding: it is clear, to the point, and never needlessly complicated. It is also thoroughly absorbing. The way Zaretsky manages to weave together a coherent account of Weil’s thought from the different strands of her extensive oeuvre is nothing short of impressive.
The first chapter, “The Force of Affliction,” begins with Weil’s job interview at Alsthom, a factory manufacturing electronic equipment, when she was 25 years old. Weil had been working as a teacher in the south of France, where she had spent her evenings instructing French literature at a worker’s co-op. Seeking to strengthen her connections to the working class, Weil took a leave of absence from her teaching work and began her stint as a factory worker. It was in these “dim and deafening” (10) factories that Weil began contemplating the state of degradation and indignity she called le malheur, usually translated as “affliction”. Zaretsky cites Weil defining affliction as a condition that “deprives its victims of their personality and makes them into things” (19); it referred to a stripping away of one’s dignity and humanity that “rob[s] us of the power to say ‘I’” (quoted in Zaretsky, 20). For Weil, the factory was a principal site of affliction. The monotonous work, the vile managers, and the deafening clanging of machines turned workers into “slaves,” whose exhaustion gave way to the “strongest temptation that this life entails: that of not thinking anymore, which is the one and only way of not suffering from it” (quoted in Zaretsky, 14). Zaretsky embellishes his discussion of affliction with vivid accounts of the worker’s life taken from Weil’s notebooks.
Weil found the cause of affliction in what she called puissance, translated as “force” or “power”. Power, writes Zaretsky, was for Weil a “fundamental datum of human existence,” one as “omnipresent and overpowering as gravity” (14). Power, argued Weil, is not in anyone’s possession, and can never be secured for good. For this reason, it is constantly chased after by those seeking to possess it, to keep it from rivals, and to secure it from resistance of the powerless. It is this pursuit of power that Weil locates the cause of oppression – and finally, of affliction. Here, Zaretsky takes some time to discuss Weil’s essay on Homer’s Iliad, which for Weil was chiefly a poem about force: the true hero is not a warrior, but force itself, she wrote. The essay, Zaretsky notes, was written as Weil fled Paris for Nevers soon after France’s defeat to Germany in 1940. Weil saw mirrored in the destruction of Troy the suffering of her own and her fellow Parisians; this was the work of force.
Weil’s account of power calls to mind Nietzsche’s and also seems to presage Foucault’s, but Zaretsky leaves this resemblance unexplored. Instead, he turns to George Orwell, who like Weil had spent time in Paris in a working class job, as a plongeur washing dishes in the basement of the city’s restaurants. Orwell, too, discerned in the plight of the plongeur the markings of slavery and the gradual sapping away of one’s capacity to think. But unlike Weil, argues Zaretsky, he did not explore the spiritual meaning of their suffering; he focused on a critique of the worker’s material conditions. For Weil, on the other hand, affliction was an almost mystical experience, especially later in life, when she began edging closer to Christianity. After all, what sense was there to make of affliction in the face of God?
Soon after Weil left the factory, she joined her parents to a coastal town in Portugal. There, she overheard a group of fishermen’s wives perform a religious ritual. It proved to be a transformative experience for Weil, who saw as by revelation that “Christianity is pre-eminently the religion of slaves, that slaves cannot help belonging to it, and I among others” (19). In this connection to God, the state of affliction acquired a more ambivalent status for Weil. It was, as Zaretsky puts it, “ground zero of human misery” (19), but her attachment to affliction was unmistakable – it brought the slave closer to God. Citing Mary Dietz, Zaretsky admits that Weil risks “fetishizing” affliction in these writings. However, he also points out that affliction itself holds no value for Weil as such; its value lies in what we make of it. “Whether it can teach us anything as grand as wisdom depends on how we define wisdom. If virtues like comprehension and compassion, toleration and moderation are to constitute at least part of wisdom, we could do worse” (20).
The second chapter, “Paying Attention,” is devoted to what is perhaps Weil’s most famous notion: the work of attention. The chapter begins with an interesting reading of Weil’s ‘Essai sur la sur la notion de la lecture’, in which she argued that our “readings” of the world – our perceptions and observations – are inevitably inflected by our moral orientation. Or, as Zaretsky puts it, “the way in which we read the world turns on our particular location—moral, social, political, and economic—within the world” (21-22). In effect, Weil is essentially proclaiming the inseparability of fact and value, which, as Zaretsky points out, brought her in disagreement with most prevailing epistemologies of the time. Weil’s position seems a clear precursor of those taken by analytic moral philosophers such as Philippa Foot, Iris Murdoch, and Bernard Williams, but Zaretsky does not dwell on these parallels. Rather, he ponders another question of Weil’s: if our readings of the world are situated readings, is there “a single and right way to read”? (22). For Weil, a fervent Platonist, the answer would have had to be “yes”. And she looked for answers in her concept of attention.
To explain Weil’s concept of attention, Zaretsky takes his readers to her high school lessons, in which she instructed her students not to find answers to geometrical problems, but rather to contemplate the problems themselves. This principle, for Zaretsky, contains the essence of Weil’s conception of attention. For her, attention is not a “muscular effort” of concentration, but rather a “negative effort,” “one that requires that we stand still rather than lean in” (22). Attention requires the suspension of thought, so that one’s consciousness is cleared of self-concern and, as Weil put it, left “detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object” (quoted in Zaretsky, 23). Attention becomes a work of patient waiting, in which we diligently work at letting go of ourselves so as to make space for true understanding of fellow human beings. “In order for the reality of the other’s self to fully invest us,” writes Zaretsky, “we must first divest ourselves of our own selves” (23). It is in this way that attention becomes a method for discerning and responding to affliction. Attention is the moral work we must do to see what is “sacred” in the other.
Having defined the work of attention, Zaretsky makes brief excursions to Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations – comparing them to Weil’s notebooks – and to Kant’s discussion of reverence, which he likens to attention in Weil’s sense. Citing Murdoch again, he suggests that both concepts are concerned with “the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real” (1959, 51). The chapter then ends on a surprisingly personal note. Zaretsky ponders his own moral ineptitude as he faces a panhandler at an intersection as he is driving his car to work. (The scene, set in Houston, Texas, was not quite relatable for this European city-dweller who goes without a driving license.) Zaretsky berates his reluctance to witness the panhandler’s affliction with attention. “Let’s face it: she wants to be seen. Will I, though, allow myself to see her? Or will I allow the inevitable bottleneck of questions and rationalizations to come in between us?” (26). Zaretsky senses he is not up to the strict moral standard posed by Weil. But as he opens his car window to hand the panhandler some change, his children in the backseat, he hopes they will perhaps one day do so as well – and that even if they do not ask the panhandler, as Weil implores us to do, “What are you going through?”, then at least know that the question is important (quoted in Zaretsky, 27).
In the third chapter, “The Varieties of Resistance,” Zaretsky introduces the notion of resistance, which, he admits, is not strictly speaking a concept of Weil’s, but nonetheless a “a value that girds a great deal of her thought and merits a chapter of its own” (12). Zaretsky approaches resistance first of all as a common thread in Weil’s life. He narrates, for instance, her involvement in the Spanish Civil War and in the French resistance, both in the south of France and in London. He also chronicles how Weil rebelled against her own middle-class upbringing, by requesting to work on a fishing trawler (during a summer vacation), in a mine (whilst teaching in Le Puy), and on a farm – frequently egging on bemused workers to join her in protest. Zaretsky peppers these stories with great anecdotal details. For instance, he humorously describes how the family that let her work on the farm took offense in Weil’s insistence that their lives were wretched, poor, and altogether unhappy. “When their guest told them that she wanted to “live the life of the poor, share their burdens, and know their troubles,” the couple felt that Weil not only failed to recognize who they were, but also patronized them,” he writes (33). Such anecdotes paint Weil into a tragicomic figure: she was clumsy (her stint in Spain ended after she injured her foot stepping in boiling oil); she was inept (she fought in Spain with no idea of how to hold a gun); she made appalling mistakes (she dropped a suitcase full of secret Resistance pamphlets out in the streets). In many ways, Weil was unfit for the reality she was so eager to face – but which she nonetheless stubbornly kept close.
Throughout these experiences, argues Zaretsky, resistance also became an object of contemplation for Weil, even if not explicitly. He dives into Weil’s suspicion of the “collectivity,” which Zaretsky defines as “the convergence of the political, social, cultural, and economic forces that dictate our lives” (32). Collectivity, Weil believed, inhibits thought, and clear thinking is paramount to resisting the oppression caused by the vicissitudes of force. (Unsurprisingly, Weil was also suspicious of political parties.) This idea underlines once more Weil’s belief that the importance of thought lies in its connection to action. Zaretsky also discusses Weil’s complex form of pacifism, about which she changed her mind over time: having embraced pacifism for much of young adulthood, by 1939 she wrote in her diary that that “non-violence is good only if it’s effective” (quoted in Zaretsky, 35); a conviction she had already acted on several years earlier, when she joined the Spanish Resistance. As Zaretsky notes, Weil frequently “went to war on behalf of peace” (35); for her, in her own words, “[t]he struggle of those who obey against those command, when the mode of commanding entails destroying the human dignity of those underneath, is the most legitimate, most motivated, most genuine action that exists” (quoted in Zaretsky, 35). But if Weil valued resistance, she was not a dogged revolutionary: she was skeptical of the impulse to dehumanize and mistreat the oppressor one seeks to rise up against. Zaretsky closes this chapter with a reflection on the affinities between Weil and Camus (who was a great admirer of Weil’s), discerning traces of Weil’s “ethic of resistance” in Camus’ novels The Plague and The Rebel.
The fourth chapter, “Finding Roots,” starts with a discussion of Weil’s love for English pub culture, which she professed in her notebooks while living in London in the 1940s. What brought her to love the pub, argues Zaretsky, is their rootedness in the customs and traditions of what he calls an “English way of life” – which Weil discerned in the jolly atmosphere of the pub as much as in a performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. This notion of rootedness is also the thematic of Weil’s The Need for Roots, the last of her major works before her early death in 1943. In this book, Weil diagnoses the ills of modernity in terms of what she called déracinement or “uprootedness”: “the fact and feeling of homelessness” (41). For Weil, uprootedness conveys a sense of alienation from both place and tradition. Foreign invasion is one source of uprootedness, but Weil saw the condition epitomized in the factory, which uproots its workers both physically (by bringing them from the countryside into the city) and psychologically (through the rationalization of labour). Weil’s antidote to uprootedness is a “new patriotism” (50), which Zaretsky points out is to be nourished not by pride in one’s nation, but by compassion for others and an appreciation for the vulnerability of one’s nation. Zaretsky is careful to distinguish Weil’s conservatism from that of her right-wing contemporaries: he observes in her plea for a compassionate patriotism a more pacifying aspiration, as it “tightens the bonds of fraternity both between peoples and within a single people” (46). Her form of patriotism also causes Weil to denounce France’s colonial project. However, Zaretsky is critical of Weil’s reluctance to grand former colonies full independence, instead opting for a form of “protection” that would still tie them to “certain organized states”: “Weil,” he observes, “seemed either unwilling or unable to acknowledge that a growing number of the very people on whose behalf she spoke were no longer interested in such ties” (45).
The nation, then, emerges as a source of obligations to others. The content of these obligations is captured in Weil’s list of fourteen “needs for the soul,” which opens The Need for Roots. Zaretsky briefly discusses Weil’s famous critique of rights-based conceptions of justice in an essay called ‘Human Personality’: Weil was sceptical of the discourse of rights, which to her had a transactional undertone that she found painfully non-committal. To move away from the conditionality of rights, Weil proposed a discourse of obligation and duty based on the reality of human needs. Zaretsky then provides an insightful discussion of Weil’s similitude to Aristotle, in spite of her self-proclaimed love for Plato. He also does a good job linking Weil’s political thought to a variety of more contemporary thinkers. He likens her needs-based moral theory to Martha Nussbaum’s capability theory and compares her patriotic leftism to the communitarian impulse in writers such as Michael Sandel, Charles Taylor, and Amitai Etzioni. Disappointingly, Zaretsky fails to mention care ethicists like Joan Tronto (1993), who have built on Weil’s critique of rights in the well-known “care vs. justice” debate that was foundational for the formulation of care ethics in the 1980s and 90s. By skipping care ethics, he misses a notable body of work in which Weil’s thought does still, in Zaretsky’s words, resonate (Bourgault 2014).
Finally, in the fifth chapter, “The Good, the Bad, and the Godly,” Zaretsky offers a more prolonged examination of Weil’s engagement with Christianity and mysticism. Weil’s relationship to Christianity, as Zaretsky notes, was fraught with tension, as she was split between “the desire to surrender herself wholly to the church and her indignation at so much of its history and dogma that prevented her from doing so” (52). Weil’s dialogue with Christianity materialized in her conversations with two interlocutors: the Dominican priest Jean-Marie Perrin and “aspiring Catholic theologian” Gustave Thibon (52). After her death, she left both men with unpublished work, which they subsequently went on to publish, the former in Waiting for God and the latter in Gravity and Grace. Zaretsky mostly approaches Weil’s mysticism in terms of her idea of décreation, which loosely refers to the unmaking or undoing of the self in the face of God. This idea hinges on Weil’s image of God, who “shows his love to his creation by withdrawing from it” (54). God, in Weil’s understanding, cannot coexist in a cosmos with the non-divine, and for this reason, has no choice but to withdraw and hide. To love God is to join him in hiding: “Our being is nothing other than the will that we should consent not to be. He is forever begging from us the being which he gives. And he gives it so as to beg it from us” (quoted in Zaretsky, 54). Zaretsky is understandingly baffled by Weil’s descriptions of décreation. He deems her God “at best neurotic, at worst sociopathic,” and refers to our relationship to him as a “bizarre family dynamic” (54). To make more sense of Weil’s mysticism, he turns to one of her most famous readers: the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch. Murdoch, as Zaretsky puts it, adds another “o” to Weil’s “God,” and her notion of goodness turns décreation into a process of the gradual peeling away of the selfish ego, so as to open oneself to perceive and act on goodness. (Weil’s notion of attention, which became so important for Murdoch, is this idea’s backbone.)
This final chapter is briefer than the other four, and also a little less focused. Zaretsky oddly selects this chapter to expound on Weil’s distaste for political parties, where chapter three and four would probably have been more sensible choices. It is also surprising that Zaretsky has little to say here about the importance of Weil’s religious beliefs for her social and political thought. Especially towards the end of her life, these became increasingly indistinguishable. When, for instance, Weil writes that “the capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer… is almost a miracle” (quoted in Zaretsky, 23), this miracle is of God’s making; the miracle of goodness is also the miracle of God’s love. This is a thought Zaretsky hints at (especially in the first chapter), but he regrettably does not fully develop its ramifications here.
Zaretsky closes the final chapter with the observation that Weil’s thought is often impractical, even if it is important. Indeed, Weil’s “attraction to absolutes” (45) and the rigidity of her thought can encumber attempts to draw practical wisdom from her social and political philosophy. Or, as Raimond Gaita (2014, xxi) puts it, “[i]t is hard to be open to Weil’s political thought in a way that is consistent with both sobriety and idealism.” This is perhaps one reason why her thought does not resonate as strongly in contemporary thought as Zaretsky would like; but to Zaretsky, Weil’s severity is precisely her strength. Approvingly, he quotes Iris Murdoch, who once quipped that reading Weil is “to be reminded of a standard” (quoted in Zaretsky, 12). Indeed, Zaretsky sees in Weil an exemplary figure. Throughout The Subversive Simone Weil, his tone is reverential; and aside from some brief critical reflections (for instance, on her reading of the Iliad and on her position on colonialism), he refrains from scrutinizing her thought in much detail. Zaretsky frequently finds himself humbled by the unsparing nature of her thinking and of her personality, as well as of her insistence to engage with the world head-first. In the book’s epilogue, he refers to Weil’s friend and biographer Simone Pétrement, who poignantly observed: “Who would not be ashamed of oneself in Simone’s [Weil’s] presence, seeing the life she led?” (Quoted in Zaretsky, 60.)
In many ways, Weil embodies a picture of the intellectual that is much in vogue today: critical, uncompromising, and leaning towards activism. She is at least in this sense a timely figure. Nonetheless, Zaretsky does not fully make good on his promise in the introduction, which was to show how Weil’s core notions may resonate today. Sure enough, Zaretsky occasionally alludes to the relevance of Weil’s thought in our daily life (as in his encounters with panhandlers) or the present political moment (references to Trump’s administration abound). But the devil is in the details, and what sometimes misses from his discussions is a more sustained analysis of how Weil’s impractical stances may be rendered practical – or indeed, whether her rigidity and severity are not also in some ways flaws. If Weil really is so impractical, did she in fact succeed at avoiding “deflection” and face “the difficulty of reality”? By eschewing this question, or at most briefly hinting at answers (as he does in the epilogue), Zaretsky does not quite convince about the urgency of Simone Weil’s oeuvre for today.
But perhaps this is beside the point, as the accomplishments of The Subversive Simone Weil lie elsewhere. To be sure, Zaretsky is hardly the first to discuss Weil’s life in conjunction with her thought. Indeed, Weil’s biographical details punctuate many philosophical discussions on Weil. (Her martyrlike death of starvation, in part a consequence of her refusal to eat more than her fellow citizens in Occupied France, has become near-legendary.) But if these references can sometimes appear gratuitous, more concerned with myth-making than with sense-making, Zaretsky’s achievement here is to render Weil’s biography a rich resource for understanding her main philosophical ideas – and, in doing so, to provide a vivid, compelling, and stimulating introduction to the ideas of this singular philosopher. Newcomers to Weil’s oeuvre will be amazed (if not humbled), no doubt; but Zaretsky’s impressive scholarship should ensure that even those familiar with her life and work will find plenty to discover in this rewarding book.
Bourgault, Sophie. 2014. “Beyond the Saint and the Red Virgin: Simone Weil as Feminist Theorist of Care.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 35 (2): 1. https://doi.org/10.5250/fronjwomestud.35.2.0001.
Diamond, Cora. 2003. “The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy.” Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas 1 (2): 1–26. https://doi.org/10.1353/pan.0.0090.
Gaita, Raimond. 2014. “Foreword.” In Letter to a Priest, by Simone Weil, xiii–xxiv. London and New York: Routledge.
Murdoch, Iris. 1959. “The Sublime and the Good.” Chicago Review 13 (3): 42. https://doi.org/10.2307/25293537.
Tronto, Joan. 1993. Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care. New York: Routledge.
Weil, Simone. 1970. First and Last Notebooks. Translated by Richard Rees. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
———. 2014. “Human Personality.” In Letter to a Priest, 57–90. London and New York: Routledge.
There is no doubt that hermeneutics today does not have the role of cultural koinè it enjoyed at the end of the last century. On the contrary, hermeneutical thought appears underestimated and misunderstood as fundamentally anti-modern. The rediscovery of the real essence of hermeneutics and the appreciation of its contemporary relevance requires that we critique several of its post-modern interpretations. This volume goes precisely in this direction. It is the product of a conference held on the 27th and 28th of September at the University of Montréal, where some of the most relevant scholars of hermeneutics aimed to rethink the relation between hermeneutics and metaphysics, traditionally considered antithetical.
Jean Grondin, the editor of the volume, immediately underlines that this signals a specific stance against those post-modern philosophers (Vattimo, Rorty, Ferraris), who have tried to read hermeneutics as “anti-metaphysical” or “post-metaphysical”, unbinding it from every “perennial structure” and underlining the heterogeneity of reality and languages with no possibility of a superior unity. These interpretations also differ, I can add, from Di Cesare’s conception of hermeneutics as “a-metaphysical” (Di Cesare 2013). The aim of this volume is to delineate a new way of connecting these two disciplines – a path already traced by Grondin’s fundamental works (Grondin 2004, 2013, 2019) – with the presupposition that metaphysics is only possible as hermeneutics just as hermeneutics is only possible as metaphysics.
As Jean Greisch notes in his contribution, this might appear as a “backward-looking operation” (18). Indeed, hermeneutics is based on the assumption of radical finitude and the centrality of history, which seems opposed to the metaphysical inclination to determine universal and perennial structures. However, the two most important heirs of Heidegger’s philosophy, i.e., Gadamer and Ricoeur, distanced themselves both from Heidegger’s critique of metaphysics and from post-metaphysical readings. Against the Nietzsche-Heidegger duo that criticizes metaphysics and claims its overcoming, the authors of this volume follow distinct paths that go in the same general direction: they try to show the intimate connection between hermeneutics and metaphysics. The relevance of this volume rests in this attempt to highlight some possibilities for the renewal of hermeneutics. At the same time, the contributors to this volume try to reassess the very concept of metaphysics, freeing it from exceedingly rigid interpretations and trying to harmonize metaphysics with contemporary needs.
The task of this volume is in this respect very ambitious and tackles two complex and variegated concepts, hermeneutics and metaphysics, both from historical and theoretical points of view. The risks of generalization or naiveté, sometimes incurred in the single contributions, is on the whole avoided. The different papers promote stimulating proposals that invite further development. In particular, the focus of the volume and its relevance consists in the fundamental aim just mentioned; namely, rethinking hermeneutics against its underestimation, an underestimation that derives from the association of hermeneutical thought with so called “weak thought” or with “new realism”. This accords with a recent recovery given to hermeneutics, in particular in the USA (George-Heyden, 2021), a path that could hopefully be developed in order to underline and exploit the import of hermeneutics with regard to contemporary questions. Paradoxically, its contemporaneity can be underlined only by reconnecting it with metaphysics: this is the fundamental challenge of this volume.
The contributions can be divided into three main parts: in the first, the authors (Greisch, Rodrìguez) try to rethink hermeneutics, while in the second, complementarily, the essays aim to renew metaphysics (Perrin, Beuchot). In the last part, the contributions focus on the main “hermeneutical thinkers” in order to see how they realize (Boutet, Jaran, Canullo) or trace (Vallée) a renewing of the relation between hermeneutics and metaphysics.
Rethinking Hermeneutics: Transcendence and Ontology
There are different ways to tackle the complex question of the relation between hermeneutics and metaphysics. Jean Greisch chooses a theoretical approach that moves from the conceptual analysis of the notions of “hermeneutics”, “metaphysics” and “transcendence”. He follows a thread that unites Dilthey, Rosenzweig and Heidegger, showing that they do not simply oppose metaphysics; rather, they stress the “meta” function of thought, which is a crucial element of metaphysics as such. Both Dilthey (in Introduction to the Human Sciences) and Rosenzweig (in The Star of Redemption) underline the need for a new understanding of metaphysics. The latter, moreover, talks not merely of philosophical anthropology, cosmology and theology, but rather of “meta-physics”, “meta-ethics” and “meta-logic”. Analogously, Heidegger talks of a “metaphysics of Dasein” that has its prerogative in the “transcendence of Dasein”, as it emerges in Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics and in the 1928-30 lessons in Freiburg and Marburg (Introduction to Philosophy, The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, and The Basic Problem of Phenomenology). The author stresses that for Heidegger (as for Dilthey) Dasein is intrinsically “transcendent”. As the fundamental quote of Heidegger emblematically explains, Dasein, as a monad, has no door and no windows because it does not need them. This is not because Dasein does not need to “go beyond”, but because it is “already beyond”. Indeed, Heidegger focuses on the concept of the “hermeneutic of transcendence” in relation to the concepts of “freedom”, “essence of ground”, and “essence of truth”. Greisch affirms that all of us “engage” an explicit metaphysical questioning, because we all are fundamentally the play of “originary transcendence” (23).
Greisch follows this path, aiming to underline the need to keep transcendence as an intrinsic characteristic of Dasein: this necessarily requires the elaboration of a “metaphysics of Dasein”. Moving from the strict connection between metaphysics and Dasein, reconnecting to a terminology used by Ricoeur (in Réflexion faite), he focuses on the double structure that characterizes metaphysics: expansion [enlargement] (with Aristotle’s refutation of Parmenides that shows the unification of the attributes in ousia) and hierarchisation [hiérarchisation] (with Plato’s discourse on the five categories of same, other, being, rest and movement). In this same direction, the author refers to Stanislas Breton, who, in Reflexion sur la function méta, analyses three aspects of the “meta” function, and which become four in Greisch’s own account (metaphor, metamorphosis, metastasis, metabolism). These issues of the function “meta” are connected by the author with those of transcendence. Transcendence relates to “trans-ascendance”, an idealization without elevation, and to “trans-descendance”, as incarnation. The author explains this structure by drawing a diagram that shows how the vertical axis (consisting of trans-ascendance and trans-descendance), intersects with the horizontal axis, encompassing the directions of “trans-possibility” (understood as the extension of Dasein into the future, with reference to Heidegger’s “project”) and “trans-passibility” (understood as excess and not as mere constriction, like Heidegger’s “thrownness”).
Ramon Rodrìguez’s contribution focuses on another fundamental pair of concepts, often considered opposites: historicity (the leading concept of the nineteenth century, indicating what is essentially becoming and situated in a specific context) and ontology (the emblem of perennial structures). The author analyses Gadamer’s conception, which has often been misinterpreted as “historicist”, with the intent to underline that, on the contrary, Gadamerian thought must be considered opposed to historicism [Historismus]. He thus reads Gadamer as capable of thinking a new way forward not only for hermeneutics, but also for metaphysics, by conceiving the concept of history in connection with truth.
At first glance, Gadamerian hermeneutics might appear clearly distinct from metaphysics, as several post-metaphysical thinkers claim. First of all, hermeneutics focuses on the concept of the “radical finitude” of the human being: only on that basis can every relation between Dasein and the world be understood. In this respect, we are in front of a thought that rejects every globalizing or exhaustive concept of existence. Secondly, hermeneutics opposes presence, which is characteristic of the structure of essence and being in metaphysics, with “the happening of the event [Geschehen]”. Hermeneutics in fact aims to think the constant motility and openness of understanding [Verstehen]. Despite this fundamental claim, Rodrìguez determinately claims that it is possible to talk of a “hermeneutical philosophia prima” (42).
The author aims to stress the relevance of Gadamer’s conception of history for a correct understanding of his conception of language. Analyzing the second part of Gadamer’s Truth and Method, he shows Gadamer’s intent to criticize historicism as the tendency, I claim, to historicize everything except the very subject who understands the historicized content. In opposition to this idea, Gadamer points to the relevance of tradition (as Überlieferung, and not as monolithic tradition, as the author correctly stresses). History is a specific spatial-temporal context where Dasein is situated and where comprehension begins. It is remarkable that here the author underlines Hegel’s influence over Gadamer’s philosophy. However, this fundamental reference is not fully developed. It might be relevant to analyze how Gadamer develops the insights of Hegel’s philosophy in contraposition to historicism, pointing to the fundamental issue of the connection between history and truth without returning to the concept of “absolute spirit”. This emerges not only in Truth and Method but also in a previous essay titled The Problem of Historical Consciousness. It is also notable for the relation with metaphysics that Gadamer often defines himself as a defender of the “bad infinite”.
Rodrìguez wants to show that only by focusing on this issue it is possible to correctly understand the famous and controversial Gadamerian saying “being that can be understood is language” (Gadamer, 1960). This sentence must be conceived neither as a classical metaphysical formulation, namely that language is the supreme being – in this respect I claim that it is important to stress that Gadamer himself returned to these questions, rethinking the role of language in relation to its limits (as the essay on The Limits of the Language testifies) – nor as a post-metaphysical complete absence of truth in the multiplicity of languages that lack any unity. The author claims that we need to understand language as the fundamental medium of our historical being (45). Passing from Geschichtlichkeit to Sprachlichkeit means that the famous concept of the “fusion of horizons” (between the interpreter and the text, between different cultures) is only possible in the communal horizon of language. When it comes to this fundamental claim, I think it is crucial to stress that speaking of language as a medium does not mean it is an instrument [Mittel], but rather is a center [Mitte] where the human being is inevitably situated, as Gadamer affirms with reference to Hegel.
At the end of his contribution the author aims to restate his claim: it is possible to conceive of a “philosophia prima” in Gadamer, but this does not imply the recovery of the idea of a final foundation of philosophy. The connection between being and history constitutes a path of Dasein open to experience and connected with its transcendence (as Heidegger understands it). It is my belief that this could be explained as the infinite possibility of the finite. In this direction, Rodrìguez stresses that there is no reference to an “onto-theological” conception, with a hierarchical classification of being. As the concept of the “classical” implied by Gadamer testifies, his conception of history does not entail an atemporal vision, but rather the way in which the past is able to talk to the present: “This atemporality is rather a way of historical being” (51).
Rethinking Metaphysics: Physis and Analogy
The next two contributions in the volume follow a complementary path, renovating the concept of metaphysics in order to show its compatibility with contemporary hermeneutics. Christophe Perrin’s paper inspects the conflictual relation between physics and metaphysics, aiming to underline the impossibility of doing away with metaphysics. In light of this, not even hermeneutics can surpass metaphysics: what must be done is to establish a ground for a “metaphysical hermeneutics”. The author moves from the famous assertion ascribed to Newton to “guard oneself against metaphysics”. This represented a fundamental warning to the positivists and, in general, for those thinkers who tried to overcome metaphysics. The author tries to show that the assertion does not mean a mere critique of metaphysics, but rather a “sage memento” (62), by appealing to the classical argument that criticizing metaphysics necessarily implies doing metaphysics. In this respect, the two disciplines – i.e., physics and metaphysics – appear strongly connected, despite having been considered separate since the modern age, with the former being focused on corporeal entities and the latter on the higher causes that account for the very possibility of those entities (God, the cosmos, the soul). The author follows this path by analyzing the conception expressed by Newton, showing that the exhortation to “guard oneself against metaphysics” does not refer to something external one must drive away, but rather to an intrinsic tendency that is always present in the physicist himself, a “metaphysical drive” that may lead physics to lose its purpose and dissolve in the “curiosity” mentioned by Aristotle. In this respect, the physicist must follow the advice presented in Voltaire’s Candide: cultivate your garden. In sum, Perrin aims to show the hermeneutical circularity that inhabits metaphysics: “In order to understand metaphysics we must think, but in order to think we must understand metaphysics” (68). The somewhat rhetorical conclusion of the author is that the perpetual stimulus to think metaphysically helps us understand that not even hermeneutics can escape the metaphysical temptation.
Mauricio Beuchot also engages with the concept of metaphysics in order to propose its reformulation. He focuses on ontology in particular, claiming, contra Vattimo, that hermeneutics without ontology would be “acephalous”. The author underlines that both Gadamer and Ricoeur – the two fundamental hermeneutical thinkers of the contemporary world – developed a kind of ontology (an ontology of art in Gadamer, an ontology of the self in Ricoeur). For the author it is possible to rethink metaphysics only by elaborating a concept able to face the objection raised by Nietzsche and Heidegger. In this direction, the author develops the concept of “analogical ontology” proposed by Paul Gilbert. He focuses on the role of analogy, moving from Aristotle’s intuition that “being can be said in many ways”. Analogy – as developed by Pseudo-Dionigi in the three phases of negation, affirmation, and excess – aims to affirm that God’s being neither coincides with that of other entities nor wholly transcends it; rather, it is analogically related to it, encompassing both similarity and differentiation. An analogical ontology makes use of the concept of symbol as what mediates between the universal and the particular. In light of this, the human being is a symbol of God in a way that is neither univocal (as in classical metaphysics) nor equivocal (as in post-modern thought). These categories are of course too schematic, but they are directed at exposing the author’s proposal: “The human is the metaphor of being in a metonymical way, as a part that is sign of the whole” (77). The focus is an ontology of man that follows Heidegger’s conception expressed in his fundamental Ontology: Hermeneutics of facticity. The author wants to present an intermediate way. The last part of the essay appears to be less cogent, for the author tries to show the need for this concept of metaphysics by considering the metaphysical tendency as a sort of “pharmakon” for the modern melancholia that would be aggravated by post-metaphysical thinking. The aim of analogical ontology should thus be ethical and political. It should be a concept able to take into account the motility of the modern philosopher and to answer Nietzsche’s and Heidegger’s critiques: an ontology that is both universal and concrete, based on the historical situation of man.
Dilthey, Heidegger, Gadamer, Ricouer: “Hermeneutical Metaphysics?”
Rudolf Boutet’s contribution aims to stress the connection between metaphysics and hermeneutics moving from the tendency, common to Gadamer and Ricouer, to hearken back to the metaphysical tradition. This approach, the author stresses, is not merely a kind of “history of philosophy”, but rather a “creative interpretation of metaphysics”. This is particularly evident in Ricouer’s The rule of metaphor where he recovers the Aristotelian conception of being with the aim of giving a metaphysical basis to the internal dynamism of being concealed by the historical assimilation of being to substance. He addresses the Aristotelian doctrine of being conceived of as a “poetic of being”: being reveals the metaphor as an actualization of being (Ricouer, 1975). Analogously, Gadamer concludes Truth and method by making referencing to the Platonic-Plotinian conception of beauty as the emblem of the manifestation of truth. Boutet claims that this is not just a historical reference but rather a movement that keeps together philosophy and history. He specifically analyses Ricouer’s conception of time developed in Time and narrative. Ricouer deals with the aporia of time, that is, time is at the same time both plural and unique. The author correctly affirms that this analysis is the basis for Ricouer’s conception of history and its criticism of both utopianism (that paralyses action) and the mere restatement of past structures. This approach to tradition is what the author defines as a “creative interpretation” of metaphysics that does not come down to a merely subjective decision. It is rather “an interpretation that, in order to be adequate to the object, decides to produce a sense” (91). The fundamental claim is to rethink the creation of sense through a symbolic interpretation connected to both the metaphorical and conceptual levels. Just like Beuchot proposes an intermediate way via analogy, Boutet claims a mediation between the metaphysical issue and the multiplicity of reality.
François Jaran’s paper contributes to the general aim of the volume by focusing on how hermeneutics is able to tackle fundamental metaphysical questions such as the existence of the external world. In particular he wants to show that Heidegger inherits the “resolution” of this problem from Dilthey, despite his critique of Dilthey’s philosophy. The author contends that the intent animating Dilthey’s thought is to “explain life with itself”. This informs his critique of metaphysics and in particular its separation between man and world, such as theory and praxis, as it appears in the Introduction to the Human Sciences. Even though Dilthey strongly criticizes metaphysics (Dilthey, 1924), the author affirms that it is possible to talk of a “Diltheyan ontology” (101). According to the author, the concept of Erlebnis (crucial for Dilthey) should constitute the analogy of being. In fact, for Dilthey, the problem of the justification of the external world does not exist, because man is naturally situated in this world, as it emerges from his lived experience. From here, the author comes to affirm that, for Dilthey, Erlebnis is substance and the external world its accidents. This entails that the external world is given immediately to human beings. In strong connection with this, Dilthey refers to the concept of Innewerden (to become aware) that perfectly fits the relation between man and reality. In this direction Jaran claims: “Erlebnis is a primitive datum, whose seizing gives access to the more fundamental reality” (104). The author also claims that the concept of Innenwende is at the center of Heidegger’s and Gadamer’s conception, as a sort of key word of hermeneutics – I would rather claim that this cannot be the case for Heidegger nor for Gadamer, even though they inherit Dilthey’s conception of the relation between human and world. Indeed, they distance themselves from a philosophy of mere interiority based on Erlebnis, opposing to it, as is well known, the concept of Erfahrung.
Dilthey’s claim is undoubtedly a rehabilitation of a kind of experience where there is no distinction between the perceiver and the perceived; as such, he is critical of the traditional metaphysical conceptions that separate man and world. So the author aims to stress the “metaphysical aspect” present in Dilthey’s philosophy: “It is a philosophy that criticized the so-called ‘metaphysical speculation’, but it is however itself a metaphysical speculation” (106). Using this interpretative key, Jaran stresses that this is the main thread that leads to Heidegger, in particular referencing paragraph 43 of Being and Time, defined by Jaran as one of the “most metaphysical” paragraphs of Heidegger’s book. Heidegger in fact, following Dilthey, affirms that there is no separation between man and the world, because Dasein is co-originary with the world: it is not possible to think the world and Dasein separately; in fact Dasein gibt es (is given) together with the world. Thus, the author wants to stress that both Dilthey and Heidegger provide a solution to a crucial metaphysical problem. One last remark: following this parallelism, it would seem that Heidegger’s Dasein has the same role as Dilthey’s Erlebnis, being (in the author’s view) the substance whose accidents make up the world. I think this could be problematic and could make us lose sight of the claim of Heidegger’s philosophy (the role of Dasein as a peculiar being and not at all as being), thereby implying an existentialist reading of Dasein.
Marc-Antoine Vallée’s intent is to investigate whether hermeneutics has the “sufficient resources” to elaborate a metaphysics, conceived in the widest possible sense as “a reflection on beings and on its principles” (114). The author has a prudent (and sharable) vision, claiming that in the main contemporary hermeneutical thinkers, namely Gadamer and Ricouer, there is only the basis for a further development of “metaphysical hermeneutics”. The author rightly wants to oppose Caputo’s criticism of Gadamer’s hermeneutics (Caputo, 1987) as still connected with metaphysics, proposing a “radical hermeneutics” that intertwines with deconstruction and refuses every metaphysical problem. On the contrary Vallée claims that we must recover the relation of Gadamer and Ricouer to the main metaphysical questions. He investigates two central metaphysical topics in Truth and method, namely, the role of language and the connection of beauty with truth. I think, however, that it could be useful to remind ourselves that, as far as the question of art is concerned, Gadamer has notably rethought the Platonic-Plotinian conception of art in a more “anthropological” direction, as we see in the fundamental essay The Relevance of the Beautiful. Vallée also focuses on Gadamer essay Phenomenology, Hermeneutics, Metaphysics, in which the author affirms that “phenomenology, hermeneutics and metaphysics are not different philosophical points of view, but rather the same expression of the philosophical act itself” (116). Analogously, the author indicates three possible metaphysical directions in Ricouer: the metaphysics of symbol (in Existence and Hermeneutics), the metaphysics of text (The Rule of Metaphor), and the metaphysics of the self (Oneself as Another).
The author’s main claim is that these philosophers are not metaphysical in a traditional sense (as Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel), but rather, following Grondin (2003), it is possible to talk of a “silent metaphysical dimension”. For Vallée, Gadamer and Ricoeur exhibit a sort of reticence to explicitly think metaphysically; moreover, there are some bases that prevent a complete development of a metaphysical conception. In fact, hermeneutics inherits the main claim of Heidegger’s thought as the openness of thinking and a refusal of every fundamental. From this point of view, going beyond the conceptions of Gadamer and Ricouer, hermeneutics could deal with a concept of “metaphysical rationality”. In his last remark, the author wants to recover the thought of Augustine, considered as a metaphysical thinker who set the stage for a “metaphysics of existence”. The message that emerges, I claim, is that, to promote hermeneutics nowadays, we need to recover a metaphysical conception, as proposed by Augustine.
The last article moves from Gadamer’s proposal in the above mentioned essay Phenomenology, Hermeneutics, Metaphysics, in which he claims that the question of metaphysics is “still open” in the contemporary age. Carla Canullo aims to show the intrinsic connection of metaphysics and hermeneutics by taking into account their etymologies. The two disciplines emerge in Greek philosophy: specifically, while metaphysics arises in Aristotelian thought in the aim of showing that being can be said in different ways, hermeneutics is conceived by Plato in his Ion, affirming that the poet’s interpretation is able to grasp the essence of reality. However, in modern metaphysics (since the Scholastics) being is thought in terms of a “fixed conception”, while hermeneutics is a discipline that allows for the openness of thought. In opposition to this conception, the author claims that since its birth, metaphysics represents a “second navigation” that moves from the investigations of natural beings to their essence. Since that time, metaphysics is always renovating itself. This can be confirmed by the term “meta” (already at the center of Greisch’s contribution) which, among different significances, means “between two”, i.e., the crack which metaphysics has always left open. Following the author’s argumentation, this implies that metaphysics is not a fixed discipline, but is rather in a constant, dynamic movement from and to physis – the movement expressed by the “meta” of metaphysics. On the other hand, hermeneutics, following the Greek “legein”, is connected with “collection”, keeping together. So, as metaphysics passes through physics, hermeneutics presupposes the need of “something” that must be collected: “Hermeneutics collects what the ‘meta’ prefix divides” (131). This recollection, however, does not imply the elimination of difference. The author affirms that metaphysics and hermeneutics mirror each other in a continuous work of renewal. This movement, which happens continuously, constitutes the emblem of the relation between the two, and can never arrive to an end.
Caputo, John D. 1987. Radical Hermeneutics. Indiana University Press.
Di Cesare, Donatella. 2013. Gadamer. A Philosophical Portrait. Translated by Niall Keane. Indiana University Press.
Dilthey, Wilhelm. 1924. Die geistige Welt. Einleitung in die Philosophie des Lebens. Teubner. Translated by R.A. Makkereel, F. Rodi, Introduction to the Human sciences. 1989. Princeton University Press.
Ferraris, Maurizio. 2014. Introduction to New Realism. Bloomsbury.
Gadamer, Hans-George. 1960. Wahrheit und Methode, Mohr Siebeck. Translated by J. Weinsheimer, D.G. Marshall. 2004. Truth and Method. Continuum.
George, Theodore, Gert, Jan Van der Heyden (eds.). 2021. The Gadamerian Mind. Routledge.
Grondin, Jean. 2004. Introduction à la métaphasique. Presses de l’Université de Montréal.
Grondin, Jean. 2013. Du sens de choses. L’idée de la métaphysique. Puf.
Grondin, Jean. 2019. La beauté de la métaphasique. Essais sur ses piliers herméneutiques. Puf.
Heidegger, Martin. 1927. Sein und Zeit, Niemeyer. Translated by J. Stambaugh, 2010. Being and Time. State University of New York Press.
Ricouer, Paul. 1975. La métaphore vive, Éditions du Seuil. Translated by R. Czerny. The Rule of Metaphor. 1977. University of Toronto Press.
Vattimo, Gianni, Rovatti Pier Aldo (Eds.). 2012. The Weak Thought. SUNY Press.
In Lev Shestov: Philosopher of the Sleepless Night, Matthew Beaumont gives us a long overdue reassessment of the mostly forgotten Russian philosopher Lev Shestov. History has been both substantially marked as well as unkind to Shestov’s legacy, and modern readers rarely come across his name but for the occasional comment by better known philosophers of the interwar Parisian milieu. Beaumont picks up the potential for a novel reading of the philosopher where Boris Groys’ chapter length treatment in his Introduction to Anti-Philosophers (Groys 2012) left off. In doing so, many of the previously overlooked possibilities for placing Shestov in a dialogue with post-modern and continental philosophies are brought to light as Beaumont carefully reveals the implicit connections between Shestov and anti-enlightenment philosophers such as Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Jacques Derrida, as well as many others.
Beaumont’s reading of Shestov is an ethical one rooted in a hyper-vigilant insomnia that cannot find rest until there is an accounting for all the suffering of our present time, as well as an impossible accounting for the suffering of the past. This endless vigilance is capable of distorting the world away from it’s current state into a world that does not permit of any suffering, no matter how idealistic this may seem. To accomplish this Beaumont gives us a detailed reading of Shestov’s reading of Pascal. These accounts are all characterized by Beaumont’s, Shestov’s and Pascal’s obsessive orbiting of the idea that “Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world: there must be no sleeping during that time” (Beaumont 2020, 20). This imperative is rooted in Jesus’ disciples failing Christ at his most vulnerable moment in the garden of Gethsemane when his despair was at its highest point due to his utter alienation from even those closest to him. Beaumont follows Pascal and Shestov in the need to remain absolutely vigilant, and he develops this theme of sleeplessness into a radical and constant rejection of any practice or institution, past or present, that justifies suffering at any level. In this way it is more so a modality of endless vigilance rather than any particular act or systematic way of thinking that can determine in advance how we are to interpret any given moment or event. What is demanded from Shestov then, as an ethical thinker, is constant and perpetual revolt. We can understand the direction, gravity, and force of Beaumont’s argument when he says that this ethics of eternal vigilance:
is […] about ‘staying awake,’ in some active and even agonistic sense. And, to this extent, though it does not address questions of race, it deliberately situates the political discourse of wakefulness, the resonance of which it emphatically underlines, in a rather different, more fully philosophical context, thereby defamiliarizing and displacing it in an attempt to restore a sense of its persistent, and urgent, importance. (Beaumont 2020, 3)
To develop this ethical state, Beaumont points to the idea of homo vigilans (waking man), as opposed to homo dormiens (sleeping man), found in Shestov’s writings.
For Beaumont homo vigilans is a state of engagement so intense that it is metaphorically brighter than the light outside of Plato’s cave, given that the glow of rationality itself can act as a narcotic if compared with his wakefulness. Beaumont shows us the ways in which, according to Shestov, reason can submerge and subordinate the individual to history, such as we find in Hegel, in a way that justifies their suffering as the necessary costs of historical progress and so rationalizes these casualties into a kind of indifferent acceptance (Beaumont 2020, 140-143). Yet we are also shown how the assurances of reason itself can lull us back to sleep with the peace and quiet found in formulations like the agreeable and eternal assurance that two times two is four (Beaumont 2020, 131-132). Beaumont’s homo vigilans is to be on guard against every one of these intellectual balms and is to always be present to the worlds failings. With this in mind, I would like to turn look more closely at Beaumont’s conceptualizing of homo vigilans.
The only locations in Shestov’s texts cited by Beaumont regarding Shestov’s use of homo vigilans are found where Shestov is attacking Husserlian phenomenology. Our first encounter with homo vigilans comes from a debates between Shestov and the Alsatian philosopher Jean Héring. To be exact, Shestov uses the term homo vigilans in “What is Truth? On Ethics and Ontology” (Shestov 1968c, 400-401); an essay that replies directly to Héring’s defense of Husserlian phenomenology. This essay itself, however, is part of a much larger debate that goes back to an essay titled “Memento Mori” (Shestov 1968c, 287-359), where Shestov argues that if we are to believe Husserl’s argument that the evidence of consciousness (i.e. the modality of objects given as actual/evidential) can ground a theory of knowledge, then there is no accounting for the fact that dreaming gives to homo dormiens a variety of seemingly real and evident moments that are indistinguishable from the way evidence is given to homo vigilans. To put it differently: while asleep, homo dormiens takes the objects given to consciousness as if they were evidential/actual in the same way that homo vigilans takes objects while awake, and so Shestov argues that Husserl’s notion of evidence cannot used to ground a theory of knowledge unless it can make a distinction between the way objects are given with the same degrees of evidence in both waking and dreaming alike (Shestov 1968c, 326-328). From this perspective, according to Shestov, homo dormiens and homo vigilans end up becoming two states that relativize each other in away that sets up a tension where one “devour[s]” the other (Shestov 1968c, 340).
With these remarks in mind, I feel it is fair to argue that Shestov does not seem to be offering any solid phenomenological state along the lines of homo vigilans in any of his texts. Instead, he is calling into question the possibility for any truly stable state at all – phenomenological or otherwise. The second use of the term homo vigilans is found where Shestov essentially repeats this argument almost two decades later in Athens and Jerusalem (Shestov 1968a, 432), with nothing new added in terms of the possibility for an ethical reading.
On the heels of these comments, Beaumont’s appropriation of homo vigilans as central to his ethical reading of Shestov might not be beyond questioning. While metaphorically sound and proper, this use of homo vigilans does not seem to be found anywhere in Shestov’s writings, and it is only ever spoken of in a problematic context. If there are other instances of Shestov’s use of homo vigilans then Beaumont has overlooked them, as the ones cited in his book only point to these pages that do not support homo vigilans as an ethical state.
There is another perspective taken by Beaumont that is worth considering. Throughout his book he often uses the term ‘anti-Necessity’ to characterize the unpredictable nature of being that marks Shestov’s philosophy, and this term serves as one of the cornerstones of Beaumont’s reading of Shestov as an original thinker. Yet, this phrase is not one used by Shestov himself. Instead, as Beaumont points out, it is one Czesław Miłosz uses to describe Shestov’s precarious understanding of being (Beaumont 2020, 43). While initially this may not appear significant, the use of anti-Necesity is not without a few unintended, though perhaps wide reaching consequences.
The first is the way in which the concept of revelation is replaced and essentially overlooked by this term. For Shestov, revelations are the point at which there may be effects without causes, when what is unpredictable and beyond any given situation comes in and violently disrupt the order of things. This concept of revelation seems to be the precursor to the concept of the event in post modernity, such as Alain Badiou’s understanding of events, and so overlooking this aspect of Shestov accidentally still keeps his impact on European thought in the dark. To truly consider the profundity of this concept, take the following example:
A thing was suddenly revealed to Descartes of which he had been in ignorance; that he, Descartes, really existed. It was revealed to him; it was a revelation which was in direct contradiction to all the principles of reason. Reason, which questions everything, this pure, super-individual reason, this «consciousness as such», without which all objective knowledge is impossible, had begun to question the existence of Descartes. And where reason is doubted, rational arguments cannot convince. When «the light of truth was revealed» to Descartes (as he himself describes his «cogito, ergo sum«), this was, I repeat, a true revelation which triumphantly dispersed all considerations of reason. (Shestov 1975, 110)
Were we to replace the ‘anti-Necessity’ with the word revelation in the quote above, it is clear that much of the sense will become lost or distorted, as it becomes specifically confusing to grasp the relationship between anti-Necessity and the sense of something being ‘revealed.’ It is for this reason that I believe Beaumont’s use of the term seems to further occlude Shestov’s relationship with future thinkers of the event.
The second problem with the term anti-Necessity is that it still seems to be beholden to necessity at some level; as if anti-Necessity exists insofar as it is a dialectical negation of necessity. Shestov’s understanding of revelation, however, is not in any relation to necessity, but instead is always coming from some kind excess. In this way, if anything, Shestov is more so a pre-Necessity thinker rather than one who champions any anti-Necessity, and if we do indeed attribute to his work any notion of anti-Necessity, I would argue that this is only ever half the story. Taking into account this perspective matters because framing Shestov as a messianic thinker by way of thinking towards anti-Necessity still further accidentally covers over a few of Shestov’s unconventional and novel arguments.
While there are some messianic elements in Shestov, if we would read him as a pre-Necessity thinker, rather than a thinker of anti-Necessity, it becomes merely a choice to either follow the totalizing claims of necessity (which, for Shestov, seems to be synonymous with reason, universality, eternal truths, etc), or to reject it’s claim as the last word in determining the nature of existence. It is of the utmost importance to point out how Shestov ceaselessly argues that we are in fact making a choice when we submit to necessity as the final authority governing reality, and that for him it is a choice, and so one that can be chosen against. Thus it is not a question of refuting necessity, of arguing against it’s alleged authority, but simply a rejection that does entertain the need for any refutation. This kind of rejection resembles Job when he rejects his friends (their reliance on wisdom, on the authority of tradition, their reasoning, etc), rather than engaging in any argument against them on their own terms. Yet there is still a further and more nuanced point to consider with respect to Beaumont’s messianic reading.
Throughout all his writings, Shestov quotes the Psalms, where it is unequivocally declared that “All things are possible.” Messianic along Beaumont’s reading yields the necessity of a future tense to be interjected into this statement, and we would rather need to believe that ‘All things will be possible.’ Yet such an element of futurity is almost entirely absent in Shestov’s oeuvre (and where it does exist, it does not seem to exist in a manner that could be called messianic [Shestov 1968a, 434).
More to the point, in In Job’s Balance we find Shestov reading Dostoyevsky’s The Dream of a Ridiculous Man to demonstrate how it is that necessity, as well as the knowledge of good and evil, are not essential characters of humanity but are instead the consequences of choosing to follow the knowledge of good and evil (Shestov 1975, 64-66). The fallen state of man is shown not to be an absolute state of being but rather a state that can one day be radically overturned, perhaps even by a cultivation of the docta ignorantia (Shestov 1968a. 412), and in this way spiritual liberation is not necessarily contingent on any messiah, and so not intrinsically based on something beyond an individual’s capacity at any given moment, including the present. Beaumont does not provide us with this insight, and if anything, he accidentally steers Shestov into a kind of emancipatory ideology rather than towards the existent as being always-already emancipated, yet curiously an existent who willingly turns themselves over to external authorities (ie. necessity, reason, etc.). I would like to focus on one of the last arguments made by Beaumont’s book before turning to some broader considerations of his argument.
In the conclusion Beaumont indicates that Shestov’s anti-Necessity grounds his claim that one day it may no longer be true that “the Athenians poisoned Socrates” (Beaumont 2020, 151-152). Here Beaumont offers a vivid and enlightening way in which Shestov can be read as one of the most hopeful of philosophers. Such an optimistic undoing of Socrates fate rests on the fact that as a truth is born so too may it perish, and one day Socrates will never have been poisoned. Beaumont tells us that Shestov “prophesies a universe in which anti-Necessity finally supervenes, transforming the conditions in which cause and effect unfold from one another in linear narrative sequence, terrible historical events that retrospectively seem to have been inevitable simply will not have taken place” (Beaumont 2020, 153). However, while this kind of thought does match Shestov’s writings, it seems unclear how it is that such anti-Necessity can supervene.
Necessity in Shestov, as well as Beaumont’s reading of Shestov, is a general concept who’s domain extends over all of existence thoroughly and blindly. I am left wondering: in what way can anti-Necessity, itself seemingly a kind of general concept, ‘supervene’ (Beaumont 2020, 153)? In light of this question with the previous considerations of this concept in mind, it becomes evident that Beaumont’s concept of anti-Necessity is still lacking the disruptive nature of Shestov’s understanding of revelation, given that this anti-Necessity more so has the register of something general, like necessity, which acts indiscriminately on all things at all times. It seems to resemble a special category of some sort rather than a specific particular moment of disruption or intervention. I would like to propose instead that, rather than pit anti-Necessity against necessity (which seems to be placing one kind of generality against another generality), we read Shestov’s reversal of the truth of Socrates death as a kind of anti-revelation, as this seems more suited to Shestov’s terms. Shestov’s argument that one day it may come about that Socrates has never in fact been poisoned is not to palimpsestically write over a truth so at to undo its presence, existence, or sense, but is rather for the truth to never have been written at all in the first place. It is to imagine some kind of anti-revelation whose polarity is one that covers what has been done altogether, and in this way is a revelation that is one particular devouring another particular – an anti-revelation that un-reveals what has been disclosed. Strangely enough this ethical idea of a great reversal could be familiar to contemporary readers of French philosophy, as it seems to be touched upon by French philosopher Quentin Meillassoux in similarities that are worth considering, even if lightly and in passing.
When Meillassoux says “the fourth World ought to be called the World of justice: for it is only the World of the rebirth of humans that makes universal justice possible, by erasing even the injustice of shattered lives” (cited from: Harman 2011, 190) it is almost impossible not to think back to Shestov’s undoing of Socrates death as it is outlined above. While it is not possible here to determine whether the connection here is accidental or not, this connection should perhaps not be seen as purely arbitrary. Where Beaumont has explored Shestov’s impact on Delueze, the impact of Deleuze on Badiou was not mentioned even in passing and yet aspects of Badiou’s heritage seem to have possibly retained something of Shestov’s radical thinking (whether implicitly or explicitly), and this interesting link deserves a few more words on the matter, as it could contain the link between Shestov and Meillassoux in terms of the degrees in which both of these thinkers are philosophizing on the fringes of thought.
The overlap between Shestov and Alain Badiou becomes evident if we compare the following three quotes. The first is Badiou arguing that there are nothing but differences between anything and everything, a claim fundamental to his differential ontology. Specifically, he says that:
Infinite alterity is quite simply what there is. Any experience at all is the infinite deployment of infinite differences. Even the apparently reflexive experience of myself is by no means the intuition of a unity but a labyrinth of differentiations […]. There are as many differences, say, between a Chinese peasant and a young Norwegian professional as between myself and anybody at all, including myself. (Badiou 2012, 25-26)
By contrast, we also find Shestov arguing in In Job’s Balance similarly, that:
It is impossible to speak of ‘man’ generally, so long as the metaphysical destinies of individual men are different […]. There is a Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, and Alexander’s groom, but each of these differs from the other far more strongly than he does from a rhinoceros, a peacock, a cypress, or a cabbage; perhaps even from a tree trunk or a rock. (Shestov 1975, 220-221)
And, furthermore, in Potestas Clavium, Shestov says:
Even when men pronounce the same words, they each mean and see different things. Two orthodox Moslems swear in the name of two different Allahs. And I would say more: every Moslem today worships a completely other Allah than the one for whom he risked his life yesterday. The principle of identity applies only in logic. (Shestov 1968c, 167)
With these quotes in mind that it seems clear to me that some aspects of the differential ontology that came to prominence in post World War 2 French thought can be traced back to Shestov at least at some level, and this claim can be rather well substantiated by Beaumont’s book under consideration, albeit by way of different avenues. And yet, perhaps even more to this point, we can consider an otherwise overlooked rapport between Shestov and Levinas that is absent from Beaumont’ text in question.
It seems clear that Levinas has borrowed (without any citation I am aware of) Shestov’s notion of Socrates and Abraham, while simply changing the name of Socrates to Ulysses (Shestov 1968a, 440) (Levinas 1963, 610). Moreover, both Shestov and Levinas share a strikingly similar perspective with respect to the violence of Socrates’ dialectic in Platonic dialogues (Shestov 1968c, 115-119) (Levinas 1969, 171 – specifically his criticism of ‘maieutics’). While more similarities could be drawn between Shestov’s never ending attack on Western ontology and Levinas’ own ontological deconstruction (though, undertaken in different terms), to explore this at any length is to diverge too far, and I can do nothing more here than encourage a curious reader to simply read In Job’s Balance and Athens and Jerusalem with such suggestions in mind. I have drawn these connections overlooked by Beaumont to indicate how there is still more work to be done in bringing to light Shestov’s profound impact on 20th century philosophy.
Perhaps, in the end, it is worth mentioning that Shestov himself seemed to be a thinker opposed to ethics of any kind, given there can be no form of ethics without an appeal to a concept that is universal, and his attacks on any and every form of universality as the ultimate criteria for truth, and so philosophy, are not few or far between. For example, take the following quote from his book on Kierkegaard:
Reason eagerly strives for universal and necessary truths which are uncreated and dependent upon no one! Is not reason itself in the power of some hostile force that has so bewitched it that the fortuitous and the transitory seem to it necessary and eternal? And ethics, which suggests to man that resignation is the highest virtue—is it not in the same position as reason? It, too, has been bewitched by mysterious spells; man’s destruction awaits him where ethics promises him happiness and salvation. One must escape from reason, escape from ethics, without trying to find out beforehand what the end of the journey will be. (Shestov 1968b, 100)
Yet this is not to say that Beaumont has taken too many liberties with his reading of Shestov, and I am primarily mentioning this to encourage readers to read Shestov for themselves, and not to discredit Beaumont’s ethical insomnia, one that Shestov would have probably approved of at some level. Vladimir Jankélévitch goes so far as to say “je me croyais Chestov lui-même, Chestov réincarné” (Suarès 1986, 79) and still goes further in developing his own ethics (cf. The Bad Conscience or Forgiveness), and it is thus perfectly reasonable for Beaumont to do the same; that is, to work within a Shestovian framework with the intentions of deriving some kind of ethics.
Let me clearly stress that none of my comments above are to detract from the brilliance of Beaumont’s work, which is distinguished for its skillful mixing of clarity and depth. Lev Shestov Philosopher of the Sleepless Night serves as the first overdue step towards bringing to contemporary readers an inspired and original interpretation of an otherwise forgotten philosopher. I cannot strongly enough recommend this book as a fresh and concise starting point for engaging with Shestov’s works as a whole. For these, and many of the other reasons a reader will find while reading this book, Beaumont’s work deserves a close and attentive reading.
Badiou, Alain. 2012. Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil. Translated by Peter Hallward. Verso.
Beaumont, Matthew. 2020. Lev Shestov. Philosopher of the Sleepless Night. Bloomsbury Academic.
Groys, Boris. 2012. Introduction to Anti-Philosophy. Trans. David Fernbach. Verso.
Harman, Graham. 2011. Quentin Meillassoux: Philosophy in the Making. Edinburgh University Press.
Levinas, Emmanuel. 1963. “La trace de l’autre.” Tijdschrift Voor Filosofie, vol. 25 (3): 605–623.
Levinas, Emmanuel. 1969. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Duquesne University Press.
Shestov, Lev. 1968a. Athens and Jerusalem. Clarion Books.
Shestov, Lev. 1975. In Job’s Balance. Ohio University Press.
Shestov, Lev. 1968b. Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy. Ohio University Press.
Shestov, Lev. 1968c. Potestas Clavium. Ohio University Press.
Suarès, G. 1986. Vladimir Jankélévitch Qui suis-je? La Manufacture.
 cf. Shestov 1975, 221 – “The Irrational Residue of Being”
 Shestov’s reading of Socrates’ poisoning argues that it was entirely needless and contrary to reason that the wisest individual had an unjust and lowly death. Repeatedly Shestov stresses that something is rationally wrong with seeing how Socrates’ drinking of hemlock is as logically equivalent to that of a dog’s being poisoned in the same manner, and the sheer absurdity of Socrates’ fate in itself seems to fit the bill of the definition of revelation in many respects (Shestov 1968a, 94), and this all the more so if we consider the following lines of the quote regarding Descartes above: “There is something in life which is above reason. What reason cannot conceive is not therefore always impossible. And conversely, where reason establishes a necessity the chain may nevertheless break” (Shestov 1975, 110-111). And so Socrates death itself proves how contingent, accidental, and unstructured the world may be, how the chain of necessity may be broken, and yet how we can be coerced by necessity into accepting this truth of Socrates’ dead as being just as reasonable as the death of a dog’s from being poisoned.
It is precisely in this line of thinking that I would place any hope of approaching Shestov in an ethically fruitful way.
The Wiley–Blackwell Companions to Philosophy series is an encyclopedic project committed to delivering “a comprehensive and authoritative survey of philosophy as a whole” (ii). The 71st addition to the series is, however, an attempt at the impossible. It is determined to summarize a philosophy which rose up precisely against all ‘summary approaches’ to philosophy. “Essentially”, Adorno wrote in Negative Dialectics, “philosophy is not expoundable [referierbar]. If it were, it would be superfluous; the fact that most of it can be expounded speaks against it” (Adorno 2006, 33–34). Luckily for us all, however, the editors of this volume—perfectly aware that “the very idea of a comprehensive summary would have aroused Adorno’s ire” (xv)—chose to disobey the master’s interdiction. And they are right in doing so. The desire to ‘expound’ Adorno’s philosophy is, after all, justifiable on Adornian grounds. For one, because the ability to ‘formalize’ complex matters without unduly reducing their complexity should count among a dialectician’s cardinal virtues. But even more so, because 55 years and counting after Negative Dialectics was published, philosophical academia still seems blissfully unaffected by the profound irritation of negative dialectics. The mere existence of volumes like A Companion to Adorno could help address such unaffectedness, together with the general eschewal of dialectical thought that seems to have become a matter of course, as a self-incurred immaturity.
It is thus all the more welcome that Peter E. Gordon, Espen Hammer, and Max Pensky did not shy away from the difficult task of expounding Adorno’s dialectical body of knowledge by compiling A Companion to Adorno. The volume is a grand endeavor at overcoming common inhibiting factors for ‘scholasticizing’ Adorno. The volume puts Adorno’s original insights in touch with state-of-the-art research. It aspires to cover nearly every aspect of Adorno’s multifaceted legacy and consists of an impressive 39 contributions by contributors from all over the world; thus, it mirrors the international recognition Adorno’s thought continues to receive, by both admirers and critics, since his death in 1969. Since the 2003 centennial, a gradual resurgence of Adornian thought—out from under the communicative paradigm established in the wake of the Habermasian line of critique—can be witnessed. Wiley-Blackwell now plays its part in this slow but steady rise of Adorno scholarship. Flanked by OUP’s forthcoming Oxford Handbook to Adorno, as well as precedent publications from the past, not to mention a general, unbroken interest in Adorno across the globe, A Companion to Adorno gives further rise to the hopes of Adorno scholarship that the ‘dialectical path’ will, at long last, engender broader discourse.
The book begins with the “Editors’ Introduction”, and is then divided into seven major subsections, each section covering a significant dimension of Adorno’s intellectual legacy. In addition to short notes on the contributing authors, it is furnished with a handy index at the end. In the following, I will provide brief sketches of each section, while taking up cues from selected contributions. Due to reasons of limited space, I am skipping over some chapters. This skipping-over does by no means imply a claim to their inferiority. I will conclude my discussion by addressing apparent difficulties for Adorno scholarship in general, and by considering the possible impact of the Companion on the field, today and tomorrow.
Part I of the volume is dedicated to Adorno’s “Intellectual Foundations”. Building on Peter E. Gordon’s lucid biographical sketch, the first part of the Companion already introduces a wide array of themes that are central to Adornian thought. However, Part I is not really a viable introduction for the beginner (aside from Gordon’s bio-essay, maybe), since the individual contributions already involve some previous knowledge of the core issues of Adorno’s philosophy. This, however, does not diminish their worth for the Companion. Tracing the foundations for all later developments of Adorno’s thinking, these chapters provide the contextual framework for the rest of the book. Gordon’s first of two chapters (not including his co-authorship in the editors’ introduction) “Adorno: A biographical sketch” traces the intellectual development of Adorno in his earliest influences (Kracauer, Cornelius, Benjamin, Horkheimer), to the years as an emigré, from rather fruitless interactions with English philosophers in Oxford to the re-establishing of the Institute in America during the War, up to the definite return to Germany which covers the prime years of his activities as a renowned philosopher in post–War Germany. Gordon’s sketch is of remarkable historical far-sightedness, but gets by without losing sight of informative details. Gordon eventually touches on the delicate subject of the APO student protest movement during the Kiesinger era, and sets the events of 1967–69 in correlation to Adorno’s personal downfall, leading to his untimely death in 1969. After reading Gordon’s sketch, one is left with the wish that some of these intellectual foundations received more attention in the book. I am primarily thinking of Adorno’s relationship to his teacher Hans Cornelius—that is, the intellectual upbringing in neo-Kantianism which is still a widely neglected aspect of Adorno’s allegedly purely Hegelian philosophy—as well as the young Adorno’s intense preoccupation with Husserlian phenomenology. Speaking of the constitutive role of neo-Kantianism for Adorno’s development, Roger Foster approaches Adorno’s vision of “philosophy as a form of interpretation” (22), developed early in his Frankfurt inaugural lecture in 1931, by way of placing it within both the broader neo-Kantian context and its subversions, respectively. Adorno’s early vision of philosophy is set in determinate contrast both to the alleged narrowing of the bourgeois concept of rationality in the Weimar Republic, as well as to the vitalist irrationalism that was on the rise at the time (eventually coinciding with the fascist uprising). Foster provides an interesting outlook on the development of Adorno between these extremes, displaying his thought as an attempt at rescuing the ‘actuality’ of philosophy on its way to a “critical social theory of instrumental reason” (33). That Walter Benjamin did of course play a decisive role in the intellectual formation of Adorno is vividly displayed in Alexander Stern’s contribution. Stern’s representation of the intellectual relationship between Adorno and Benjamin is a swift attempt at summing up their complicated intellectual history. This is a most welcome contribution, since it is still widely disputed where the differences and parallels between the two exactly lie, who inspired who—or stole from whom. Stern chooses to focus on their differing, but in certain respects coextensive, takes on language, and comes to the clear-cut but perhaps surprising conclusion that “Adorno’s project is ultimately irreconcilable with the one sketched in Benjamin’s Arcades Project” (62). This is a welcome clarification, for it delivers the young Adorno from the prejudice of having merely acted out Benjamin’s plans. Marcia Morgan’s contribution revolves around Adorno’s interpretation of Kierkegaard’s existentialism. Morgan thereby takes up problems recently discussed by Peter E. Gordon in his monograph on Adorno and Existence, with a firm foot in Kierkegaard scholarship (Morgan has authored the monograph Kierkegaard and Critical Theory, 2012). She successfully shows how Adorno’s early preoccupation with Kierkegaard in his (understudied) Habilitationsschrift plays a decisive role for Adorno’s intellectual formation. Finally, Part I is completed by Sherry D. Lee’s outlook on Adorno’s musical education. Theory and compositional practice generally go hand in hand for the young Adorno, who quickly found himself under the influence of the Second Viennese School and its towering figures Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern. Lee’s contribution covers an indispensable aspect of Adornian thought by providing a genealogical reconstruction of Adorno’s “path toward a complex philosophy of the New Music and its socio-historical position” (67). Adorno’s partial break with the Second Viennese School in “developing a sociological approach to the elucidation of modern music” (81) is to be seen in relation to his life-long fascination with the dialectic between musical form and musical material, leading him to embrace compositional practices that reflect his outlook on philosophy, and vice versa. Lee’s outlook is interesting, leaving the impression that Adorno’s philosophy of New Music is not really the apology of high-brow Avant-Garde culture it came to represent for many. Instead, Adorno’s life-long efforts for securing the possibility of New Music are scrutinized with great scholarly rigor and, more importantly, rendered more plausible than their reputation suggests.
Part II immediately builds on these foundations and examines Adorno’s contributions to cultural analysis. There seems to be a ‘methodological’ problem pervading these contributions that I would like to address first. It consists in the fact that common objections raised against Adorno and Horkheimer’s conception of a ‘dialectic of enlightenment’ still treat it as a descriptive theory of ‘the way things were’. When read as a grand narrative, the thesis of a dialectic of enlightenment indeed presents substantial shortcomings. What Adorno and Horkheimer are actually doing, however, is not describing how things were, but precisely reflecting on the very drive to say ‘how things actually were’ in light of an analytic of a catastrophic present. Why else would they use a myth (The Odyssey) to display mankind’s emancipatory transition from the mythical totality to the confines of instrumental reason? Correspondingly, defending the theory of a dialectic of enlightenment must mean, in each case, specifying the modality of ‘critical theory’ as such. This implies showing how critical theorizing never merely consists of recognizing that which is, but in recognizing the rational possibilities obstructed by that which is. In short: the dialectic of enlightenment is not a scientific account of history and society, but the result of the critical self-reflection of ‘science’ regarding its role in history and society. Hence, a critical theory of history and society—in the sense of first-generation critical theory—can never be ‘plain’ historiography, nor exclusively ‘empirical’ sociology, but always entails a philosophy of history, reflecting on the very role of enlightenment in contexts of domination.
Walking through Part II, we can discern several instances where this methodological dilemma becomes pressing with regards to adequately interpreting Adornian cultural analysis: Fred Rush takes up the critical concept of a Kulturindustrie (culture industry) from the section of the same title in Dialectic of Enlightenment, and sets the stage for measuring its systematic role for Adorno’s philosophy in general. Rush’s fairly dense yet rewarding overview hits the nail on the head with the observation that Horkheimer and Adorno—despite their seeming advocacy for ‘high’ culture—are not supporting a decadence theory of allegedly ‘low’ mass culture (95). The values of ‘high’ and ‘low’ themselves become somewhat inadequate measurements, once they are recognized as interrelated moments in reflecting on the disrupted ‘unity’ of culture. Correspondingly, the culture of commodification requires of the dialectician to recognize the “truly horrible” dimension of “mass deception”, namely “that it is a product of structures that seem benign and ordinary” (95). Therefore, Adorno is not out to equip the elitist mind with a schematism of high and low culture. He is rather interested in learning about the very nature of such schematizations themselves—and, with it, the causes for the diremption of culture both sides partake in. Adorno thus uses the antagonistic pair of ‘high’ and ‘low’ primarily as a critical (i.e. not ‘merely’ descriptive) function, in order to dialectically overcome their complementary shortcomings. The merits of this critical function are now also exactly what appears to most as questionable with regards to Adorno’s disdain for jazz music. Andrew Bowie, who is not only a renowned philosopher, but a proficient jazz saxophonist himself, discusses the controversial subject in his lucid essay “Adorno and Jazz”. Adorno’s interpretation of jazz—overtly lacking complexity, often being “very wide of the mark” (135), mostly seeing jazz “through the prism of white European music” (126)—has unsurprisingly not benefited Adorno’s status as a philosopher of music. Bowie considers Adorno’s criticism of jazz, with its obvious shortcomings, within the broader scheme of Adorno’s philosophy. Considered as ‘its own time comprehended in thought’, Adorno’s failure to see jazz for what it is corresponds to “his era’s failure in relation to the understanding of the history of black oppression” (135), according to Bowie. The true Hegelian, it seems, is not exempt from also partaking in the blunders of his time. Charles Clavey’s chapter seeks explanations for similar contradictions in Adorno’s methods of empirical social research. Here, things are somewhat looking up again for Adornian cultural analysis; namely that it can namely be said to provide a standard for scientific reflection on empirical methods. The empirical methods Adorno developed and applied as an émigré in the US are, after all, not only the ones suited to an ‘inhumane world’, but, as Clavey convincingly shows, also the ones working towards the aim of Adorno’s philosophy “to use the strength of the subject to break through the fallacy of constitutive subjectivity” (Adorno 2006, xx; referred to on 166). Clavey ends with an interesting note on the proximity of Adorno’s theory of anti-Semitism to Jean-Paul Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew. It is such proximity which only serves, however, to show the difference between Adorno and the existentialists; namely that Adorno strictly refrained from integrating ‘empirical findings’ into his philosophical framework—apart from treating them as another ground for critique, of course. Fabian Freyenhagen wants to re-examine and re-evaluate (cf. 103) another major impulse from the Dialectic of Enlightenment: Horkheimer and Adorno’s (and Löwenthal’s) ‘theory’ of anti-Semitism. Freyenhagen tries to show how common objections raised against Horkheimer and Adorno (basically that their theory is lacking complexity) can be met. Of course, the rhetoric of Dialectic of Enlightenment can be considered ‘hyperbolic’, oftentimes deliberately lacking complexity, all in all promoting a totalizing critique, perhaps at the cost of providing fine-grained descriptions of the “multifaceted nature of anti-Semitism” (120). The crucial point is, however, to understand the specific level of complexity necessary to display the thesis that “civilization and its hatred are dialectically intertwined” (108) in anti-Semitism, thereby ‘crystallizing’ the dialectic of enlightenment. Freyenhagen’s detailed account of Adorno and Horkheimer’s theory of the multi-faceted nature of Anti-Semitism being united in hatred of civilization opens up ways to mitigate their polemic distortions, by virtue of a more complex account (primarily to be traced in the Institute’s typological research on anti-Semitism), without sacrificing overall coherence. Shannon Mariotti addresses the needs of contemporary political theory by bringing Adorno into the picture. Mariotti’s refreshing take on Adorno’s political thought gets by without the usual indignation surrounding Adorno’s alleged apoliticality. Mariotti convincingly shows that a broader picture of Adorno’s cultural analysis could even allow us to re-read Adorno “not just as a political theorist, but as a democratic theorist” (139, cf. also 150). Part II all in all opens up surprisingly new perspectives on Adorno’s critical analyses of culture, both with regards to their logical place in the Adornian framework and to their broader applicability today. Rush’s contribution stands out, inducing a wish for the concept of ‘Kulturindustrie’ to become adjusted to the needs of culture criticism today. Adorno could, after all, still provide the adequate means to face the methodological dilemmas that any ‘cultural analysis’ is confronted with in an incessantly ‘dialectical’ modernity.
History and Domination
Dedicating an entire section to the topic of “History and Domination” seems like a peculiar choice at first. Upon reading its chapters, however, it becomes clear why this actually makes a lot of sense. Part III turns out to harbor some of the volume’s most interesting contributions. Two chapters really stand out. Martin Jay for one, whose description in the list of contributors has unfortunately gone missing (luckily, he a known figure in the field, long before the recently published, brilliant collection of essays Splinters in Your Eye: Frankfurt School Provocations), examines the fascinating parallel between Adorno and Blumenberg with regards to “Nonconceptuality and the Bilderverbot”. Jay discusses Adorno’s and Blumenberg’s differing, and yet in many ways overlapping subversion efforts against the tyranny of analyticity and ahistorical definitions. They both “appreciated the performative contradiction entailed by conceptualizing the nonconceptual” (178). But while Adorno’s use of the concept of nonconceptuality amounts to the employment of a radically defamiliarizing strategy by way of “an apophatic term in negative theology, which can only indirectly gesture toward what it cannot positively express” (177), Blumenberg, as Jay shows, differs from Adorno by affirming the familiarizing function of myth and metaphor. Jay’s contribution is a perfect example for a fruitful approach to Adorno by means of confronting his key thoughts with those of others. The real gemstone in Jay’s essay is the discussion of the Bilderverbot. It is not only that which makes the difference between Adorno and Blumenberg; the Bilderverbot is moreover immensely important for understanding Adorno’s dialectic in general. Martin Jay is one of very few scholars who acknowledge Adorno’s Kantian critique of the Hegelian concept of the concept. (We’ll get to that later). This critique places trust in the concept’s ability to critically (not affirmatively) transcend itself, thereby—negatively—making room for nonconceptuality beyond absolute identity. It is thus that negative theology coincides with Adorno’s ‘imageless’ materialism. The other rather remarkable chapter is Iain Macdonald’s on Adorno’s “Philosophy of History”. It is important to see that Adorno’s philosophy as whole, if there is indeed a discrete theoretical body to be demarcated as such, relies heavily on the philosophy of history. Macdonald guides the reader in a few well-chosen steps (Kant-Hegel-Marx) to the Adornian core insight. Macdonald thereby manages to let aspects of systematicity and historicity converge into one comprehensive complex, that could well serve as an introductory framework to Adorno’s philosophy. The only point to criticize in Macdonald’s account is that he makes it look as if Kant’s philosophy of history, that is, the ‘constitutive’ role antagonism plays for progress, is a kind of naturalistic anthropological Heracliteanism. This neither does justice to Kant, nor to Adorno’s interpretation of Kant, considering that Kant’s concept of a ‘cosmopolitan purpose’ (‘weltbürgerliche Absicht’) is precisely not a ‘dogmatic’ presupposition; it is moreover unfounded, considering that Adorno’s philosophy of history delivers a ‘Kantian’ criticism of the Hegelian concept of Weltgeist. Adorno seeks to retain the cosmopolitan purpose—perpetual peace—by way of seeking to overcome natural antagonism. This entails precisely rendering antagonism merely ‘natural’, instead of rendering it absolutely necessary. Adorno’s critical method is to remind Hegelian spirit of what is lost in the unity of the absolute idea—the violent contingency of its origins. Such potential shortcomings regarding the relation between Kant and Hegel, which are controversial in themselves, however do not diminish the importance of the problems addressed by Iain Macdonald; the upshot of the discussion being, that Adorno’s philosophy of history stands between Kant’s teleological idealism of freedom on the one hand, and the Marxist subversion of Hegelian spirit on the other. All in all, Part III rewards the reader by elucidating a most fascinating aspect of Adorno’s legacy, his philosophy of history and utopia—that is, the well-founded, ‘metaphysical’ disappointment regarding the repeatedly failed windows of opportunity to leave our seemingly never-ending ‘prehistory’ behind.
Social Theory and Empirical Enquiry
The chapters in section IV are covering Adorno’s sociological project, the legacy of The Authoritarian Personality, his relation to Marx, and his “deep encounter with Freud’s work” (333), respectively—aspects which, especially the latter, permeated Adorno’s social theory from the very beginning of his ‘career’, until and including his intellectual activities in postwar Germany. The latter is examined in Jakob Norberg’s chapter. Although all chapters are worth considering, I would like to make a few remarks regarding Eli Zaretsky’s discussion of Adorno’s relation to Freud here. In fact, one could say that the early introduction of a sociologically disenchanted Freudianism into Adorno’s discussion of the transcendental doctrine of the soul marks the first time that the ‘social realm’ (as a transcendental substrate of our individual thought) openly interferes with the privacy of bourgeois subjectivity in Adorno (cf. Adorno 2020a, 320–322). The New School historian Zaretsky examines Adorno’s never fully ceasing, but eventually compromised Freudianism. The overall tone of Zaretsky’s essay is refreshing in the context of Adorno scholarship. It refrains from blindly accepting established lines of argument. The upshot of Zaretsky’s chapter, linking mass psychology and critical theory together, being that Adorno’s “three contributions” to social theory matter beyond their original scope, meaning today. The three contributions revolve around a sharpening of the speculative tools for mass and group psychology, especially in light of reiterating uprisings of fascism, eventually pushing towards the socio-historicization of ‘individualistic’ psychoanalysis. According to Zaretsky’s pointed analysis, “[a]s the fervor of the 1960s gave way to the constrains of the 1970s, the Dionysian crowds turned into Thermidorean scolds.” And he goes on to notice:
That trajectory holds lessons for the present. Building a progressive movement today entails turning the repressive egalitarianism of the crowd into a self‐reflective movement for structural change. The movements of the 1960s absorbed and generalized many Frankfurt School ideas including the critique of the Enlightenment as a source of domination; the idea that the forces of domination precede, even if they also include, capitalism; and the rejection of spurious totalities or universals in favor of alterity, otherness, and difference. Yet they rejected the Freudian heritage, including mass psychology, which is one reason we have not yet been able to truly move beyond the 1960s. (333)
This observation is striking. It alone should lead critical theorists to reconsider the (dialectical) insights of mass psychology—including the ones that not even critical theorists are safe from.
It is an often-overlooked aspect of Adorno’s ‘anti-system’ (cf. Adorno 2006, xx) that the form in which he sought to publicize it more or less blends into the tripartite structure of Kant’s critical project. This becomes fully evident only towards the end of Adorno’s life, however. While his magnum opus Negative Dialectics could be said to be dedicated to ‘pure’ theoretical philosophy (in so far as ‘mediating’ metaphysics with the ‘impurity’ of historical experience by way of a ‘logic of decay’ still stands within that context), he appears to have made plans for a full book on the problems of moral philosophy (not to be mistaken with the homonymous lecture series); but most importantly, the book he was working on before he died was Aesthetic Theory. While the Adornian ‘critical project’ has thus sadly never been consummated, the ‘fragment’ called Aesthetic Theory nonetheless embarked on a steep career as a modern classic in the field. The idea of an ‘aesthetic theory’ is particularly worthwhile to study closely, because it connects and renders his accounts on aesthetic matters both relevant to the overall framework of his philosophy, and to his compositional practice. Both sides coalesce in Adorno’s reflections on the artwork. The concept of the artwork is the centerpiece of Adorno’s aesthetic, equally because of its function as an enigma, and as a product of ‘social labor’. But what is aesthetic theory exactly? The answer is far less simple than it seems—a difficulty mirrored by Eva Geulen’s contribution “Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory”. As Geulen notices, the proclivity to ‘fashion one’s own Adorno’ has often stood greatly in the way of seeing Aesthetic Theory for what it is. As a result, “much scholarship on Adornos Aesthetic Theory tends to be even more unreadable than the book itself, especially and precisely when critics try to live up to the high demands of their subject matter” (399)—a harrowing observation. Her attempt to do better justice to this situation is convincing at first: she places Adorno’s aesthetic theory ‘between Kant and Hegel’ (400). Thereby, Geulen is able to bring up problems that were all too often neglected in the discussion of Adorno’s aesthetic theory, first and foremost, the Kantian import of natural beauty. A possible shortcoming of Geulen’s reading is that she stops at a dualistic interpretation of Kant and Hegel as formalist-subjectivist vs. content-oriented-objectivist aesthetics. It is a seemingly imperishable prejudice that Kant founded aesthetics on the pole of the subject and, consequently, did not bother too much about objects and artworks. The third Critique tells a thoroughly different story. There simply is no subjective realm of judgment (be it aesthetic or teleological), apart from our reflecting on the subject’s relation to concrete objects; just as—yes, already in Kant—there is nothing under the sun that isn’t ‘mediated’ through judgment. Similarly, in Adorno’s reflections on art (and in his philosophy in general) subject and object are highly equivocal concepts (cf. Adorno 2020, 741). Adorno’s ‘dialecticizing’ of Kant and Hegel thus suggests an alternative to Geulen’s dualistic interpretation: Adorno reads Kant’s formalism precisely as object-oriented, while exposing Hegel’s idealist objectivism as absolute subjectivism, thereby limiting it. Adorno needs Kant to criticize Hegel, Hegel to criticize Kant—there is no synthesis between the two. Only in light of such a critical inversion of the usual dualist reading between “formalistic Kant and object-oriented Hegel” (400) can Aesthetic Theory come into its own, as a dialectical theory of artistic form and content—as Geulen then adequately shows—a theory determined to secure the possibility of the artwork in modernity. Another chapter that stands out is Henry Pickford’s “Adorno and Literary Criticism”. After a concise characterization of Adorno’s aesthetic theory, and lucid discussions of Adorno’s interpretations of Heine and Hölderlin, Pickford comes to the interesting conclusion, that “for Adorno ‘literary criticism’ means not only the criticism of literature in the objective sense, but also in the subjective sense of the genitive: literature, the experience of literature, can be a privileged activity of critique and resistance to the way of the world under late capitalism” (378). Pickford’s account is a great example of arranging a fruitful interplay between interpreting Adorno’s references to art and literature with regards to their content, while keeping in mind the determinant ethos of Adorno’s critical social theory. Eventually, Adorno’s literary criticism is displayed both as a ‘realist’ alternative to Lukács, and an ‘ethical’ alternative to the neo-Aristotelian ‘ethical criticism’ of Martha Nussbaum and others. Pickford thereby successfully sets Adorno’s literary criticism ‘into stark relief’ to these strands.
Part VI is arguably the centerpiece of the book. Revolving around Adorno’s contribution to philosophy as such, the chapters minutely weigh key aspects of it against one another. Terry Pinkard sets the stage by looking at Adorno’s philosophy in light of its obvious relation to Hegel. Pinkard takes up the difficult task of determining the specific difference between Adornian negative dialectics with and against Hegel’s ‘affirmative’ dialectic. As Pinkard rightly notes, this double-headed outlook on Hegel is conferrable to the form of Adorno’s philosophy itself: “So it seems, for Adorno, we must be systematic and anti‐systematic, holist and anti‐holist, at the same time” (459). Accordingly, determining the nature of the dialectic in Adorno amounts to coming to grips with “a massive struggle or even potential contradiction at its heart” (459). It is interesting that Pinkard brings up the ‘anti-system’ in this context. The telos of Adorno’s ‘anti-system’ never was to dismiss systematicity altogether, but rather, quite like Hegel promises, to fully actualize the potential of systematic thinking. Like Hegelian logic, Adorno’s ‘anti-system’ relies on the self-transcending powers of the system itself: “It attempts by means of logical consistency to substitute for the unity principle, and for the paramountcy of the supraordinated concept, the idea of what would be outside the sway of such unity” (Adorno 2006, xx). For most Hegelian readers of Adorno, statements like these are evidence enough to consider negative dialectics a mere variation on Hegel’s absolute idealism. First, because for Hegelians, most of what Adorno says may be “what Hegel meant by the dialectic all along” (467)—the logicity of the absolute system is a synthetic unity of spirit and its externalizations to begin with. Secondly, because right in the moment Adorno subscribes to a dialectical notion of ‘logical consistency’, the anti-system retains the power of Hegelian thinking. Robert Pippin, for example, seems to promote such a reading, when saying: “If Adorno is leaning towards metaphysics, then we must think of his claim about the right ‘logical’ relation between identity and nonidentity as true – that is, as identical with, as saying, what is in fact the case. And we are then in Hegel’s space” (Pippin 2017). Such readings seem to provide the background to Pinkard’s gripping discussion. Pinkard namely seems to have noticed that they are misleading when it comes to grasping the true nature of negative dialectics. The central question of Pinkard’s chapter is what sets Adorno’s negative dialectic apart from ‘Hegel’s space’. Because without accounting for “[t]he negative in negative dialectics” (466) as the difference to Hegel, Adorno’s philosophical outlook collapses into absolute idealism. Pinkard, therefore, looks for ways to do justice to Adorno’s emancipation from Hegel. As Pinkard shows, Adorno, in a sense, follows Hegel in aspiring to the systematic unity of thought and being, but breaks with him by reviewing the role of negativity in the ‘unity’ of thought and being. Adorno’s ‘anti-system’ is the self-undermining consequence of the Hegelianism of the Phenomenology of Spirit. But in Adorno’s ‘anti-system’, diachronic history disturbs logic’s synchronicity. History does not merely enrich the system with the ‘outside’ that the logic had to neglect first for its abstract purity. That history is the medium in which spirit actualizes itself is more than a giant euphemism for Hegel; it is the very locus of dialectical truth. But for Adorno, even if returning to that locus for the truth of his dialectic, spirit will remain a giant euphemism, nevertheless—therefore, the absoluteness of spirit is wrong, until it undergoes a dialectical critique of reason. It is surprising, but perhaps very telling that Pinkard mobilizes an allegedly Heideggerian argument for radical finitude in order to deduce the negative in negative dialectics. (466) Even if we set aside that Pinkard is building his argument on what seems like a Wittgensteinian strawman-Heidegger, this is a wrong turn and missing the point. If Adorno was in any sense “crucially indebted to Heidegger” (466), it is rather because of the fact that his dialectic partly took shape as a critique of ontology. And I am not sure how far Pinkard’s paralleling Adorno to Schelling carries in this respect, either. (cf. 463f.) Pinkard is therefore right in looking to Kant for Adorno’s specific difference to Hegel. Adorno’s “siding with Kant” (464) remains a much-neglected aspect of Adorno’s philosophy. Adorno’s deep connection to Kant becomes somewhat obvious when considering a central systematic feature of Adorno’s Hegelianism: Adorno’s anti-system ‘thinks’ the negative but harbors no category of ‘negativity’. If indeed the anti-system is thereby invoking an ‘experience’ of radical otherness against Hegel, it does so not by affirmatively picking ‘one side’ in the absolute conceptual unity of concept and otherness—namely otherness, like Pippin and others seem to think it does. Instead, the anti-system could be said to ‘be’ the difference of this absolute conceptual unity and radical otherness. This difference is precisely what makes theory critical, that is, of itself. Who else could reason criticize but itself? More than a brainy contradiction, the “massive struggle” (459) of Adornian thinking serves to rescue the nonidentical from the affirmative embrace of identity thinking. “Hegelians are not completely unconvinced” (467), Pinkard loosely concludes. But as long as their partial affirmation of Adorno entails denying negative dialectics its specific difference, they surely will never be convinced either. Espen Hammer’s contribution picks up another thread that permeates Adorno’s work – “Adorno’s Critique of Heidegger”. Adorno’s relation to Heidegger stands under the bad sign of a ‘refusal of communication’ (Kommunikationsverweigerung) first called out by the Heidegger scholar Hermann Mörchen. A synopsis of their communicative catastrophe goes something like this: Adorno developed key aspects of his dialectic in the form of a harrowing critique of Heideggerian existential ontology and its jargon, while Heidegger famously reacted by not reacting at all. Apparently perpetuating Heidegger’s silent treatment, it is a disturbing fact that the nature and scope of Adorno’s critique of Heidegger is still not being fathomed accordingly with regards to its content. After the controversy surrounding the publication of the Black Notebooks, working through Heidegger’s anti-Semitism must be of general interest. Its ramifications might extend well into Heidegger’s philosophy and the history of being (‘Seinsgeschichte’). Despite acknowledging that “Adorno pioneered the now widespread approach to Heidegger’s writings as politically motivated and ideologically compromised” (473), Hammer eventually fails to see Adorno’s polemic for what it is. Instead, he expresses doubts regarding the soundness of Adorno’s arguments, primarily concerning the ontological difference between being and beings. Hammer dismisses Adorno’s reading of Heidegger as “simply not correct”, claiming it does “not withstand scrutiny” (476). In Hammer’s eyes,
the fact that Adorno displays no real awareness of Heidegger’s actual ambition is striking. Adorno does not hold Heidegger to his own standards. He simply misunderstands the nature of his project. Given Adorno’s unquestionable abilities as a philosopher, this is both surprising and puzzling. It could be that Adorno does not reveal the true nature of his interpretation. (477)
This interpretation is in itself rather puzzling. Is it even conceivable that Adorno was simply not ‘aware’ of Heidegger’s true ambitions? And what does it even mean that Adorno could not have revealed ‘the true nature of his interpretation’? What if the opposite is the case? In line even with Hermann Mörchen (!) (1981, 292), it should be stressed that it is very hard to imagine that Adorno would have exposed himself to the public with blunt misreadings, even harder to think he would not get corrected by his colleagues—some of whom knew Heidegger’s philosophy considerably well—and moreover to sustain an overtly false argument throughout his whole intellectual career, and, on top of it, in his major outputs. Furthermore, attributing alleged misreadings to Adorno’s “competitive instinct”, or “hostility and aversion” (477) is an ad hominem argument that, even if it were true, made no difference to the success or failure of Adorno’s vindication of dialectics against the pretenses of existential ontology. The really pressing question is being avoided by Hammer, namely why Adorno consciously chose to raise these provocative accusations against Heidegger—that Heidegger is reverting back into subjectivism and idealism—despite the obvious fact that Heidegger understood his thought precisely as overcoming idealism. This would entail further scrutinizing of the nature of Adorno’s dialectical critique, perhaps even touching on a Socratic element in Adornian dialectics. In any case, showing that Adorno was ‘wrong’, in the sense attributed to him by Hammer, just doesn’t do justice to the rhetorical dimension of dialectical content. We should not forget, however, that, in line with a remark in Negative Dialectics, “contrary to popular opinion, the rhetorical element is on the side of content” (56), and not the other way around. Be that as it may, these shortcomings in Hammer’s otherwise highly informed account of the Adorno-Heidegger debate can only contribute to re-vitalizing the discussion. Jay Bernstein, too, addresses “deeply puzzling” (488) traits of Adorno’s dialectic and traces them in Adorno’s fruitful reception of Kant. Bernstein, who is known for having made seminal contributions to the field in the past, successfully lays new ground for discussions on the topic, showing that key aspects of Adornian thought (the concept of the concept; the critique of transcendental subjectivity; the alleged non-conceptuality of the nonidentical etc., in short: the relation between “Concept and Object”, as the chapter’s title indicates) can be traced in Adorno’s continuing preoccupation with Kant. Bernstein thereby makes a far-reaching observation:
Although Negative Dialectics is premised on a conversation with Hegel over dialectics, both its critical object, constitutive subjectivity, and its metaphysical promise, aesthetic semblance, derive fundamentally from a dialog with Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Getting this in plain view is the first task for a reading of Adorno’s philosophy (499).
Perhaps an equally far-reaching claim to this might be added: specifically, that the conversation with Hegel over dialectics should itself be seen within a Kantian framework, and not merely the other way around—the conversation with Kant within a Hegelian framework. Adorno took it “as a general guide for the understanding of the problem of dialectic that dialectic must, in an eminent sense, be regarded as Kantian philosophy which has come to self-consciousness and self-understanding” (Adorno 2017, 14). Following Adorno down that road entails reading Hegel himself as a Kantian (cf. Hindrichs 2020, 47), which of course exceeds the Companion’s purview. Nevertheless, seeing Adorno’s Hegelianism in a Kantian horizon could possibly affect the discussion of Adorno’s neglected ‘Kantianism’ in relation to modern idealists such as Robert Pippin, Robert Brandom, John McDowell, and those in their wake. Adorno’s primacy of the object—disenchanting the myth of the myth of the given and promoting again the idea of otherness—can only be defended on Kantian and not on Hegelian grounds. Here, I cannot help but express puzzlement over one of Bernstein’s concluding remarks. Can Adorno really be said to have “always defended the now widely dismissed two-worlds version of Kant’s idealism” (499)? Isn’t Adorno’s own (widely ignored) contribution to the field that he reads Kant ‘dialectically’, whereby worlds and aspects necessarily coalesce in one sense, in order to then be set apart ‘negatively’ and thereby retain the idea of otherness? Apart from the discussion-worthy conclusion, Bernstein’s essay is easily one of the highlights of this volume, and everyone in the field is advised to read it. Kantian self-criticism of reason is, however, only one side of the coin. In keeping with Pinkard’s observation, the other side of Adorno’s ‘anti-system’ is that it must equally promote the seeming opposite of Kantian self-limitation. In accordance with Hegel’s program of a phenomenology of spirit, it both “demands that phenomena be allowed to speak as such—in a ‘pure looking-on’—and yet that their relation to consciousness as the subject, reflection, be at every moment maintained” (Adorno 2005, 74). Brian O’Connor and Peter E. Gordon accordingly examine the active contribution of Adorno to philosophy, that is, his account of the nature of philosophical truth. According to O’Connor, “Adorno offers us two notions of philosophical truth: the singular one and the critical one” (528). And of course, the two are interconnected, the singular truth being the ‘non-reportable’ correlate of a singular rhetorical engagement of a philosopher. These different notions of truth articulate a dialectic between the universal and the particular that is essential for the overall outlook of a ‘changed philosophy’. O’Connor thus provides a convincing ‘solution’ both to the problem mentioned in the beginning, that philosophy is ‘inexpoundable’ in essence, as well as to the double-headed nature of the anti-system that Pinkard hints at. ‘Metaphysical experience’ consequently is, according to Peter Gordon, “caught in an apparent self-contradiction” (549). It’s that same contradiction again, whose elucidation amounted to understanding Adornian thought for what it really is—genuinely philosophical dialectic. Gordon’s second independent contribution to the volume provides reflections on the place of Adorno’s philosophy in tradition. Departing from the relation to Classical Metaphysics (Ch. 2), Gordon delivers an intricate discussion of Adorno’s concept of metaphysical experience. Adorno’s philosophy can be said to draw from the insight that philosophy in general “rests on the texts it criticizes”—an insight, which, according to Adorno, “justifies the move from philosophy to exegesis, which exalts neither the interpretation nor the symbol into an absolute but seeks the truth where thinking secularizes the irretrievable archetype of sacred texts” (Adorno 2006, 55). How this coalition between philosophy and theology, between the most radical materialism and the ontological argument, comes about, can be read in Asaf Angermann’s chapter. Albeit mostly focusing on Anglophone discussions of the topic, the chapter nonetheless manages to show how a “Heretical Redemption of Metaphysics” is to be conceived—the upshot being that the union of theology and philosophy in Adorno is not a unio mystica but a unio in haeresia (between Adorno and Gershom Scholem), by virtue of which the dialectic of enlightenment stays in touch with its utmost extremes.
The framework by which Adorno’s Ethics is introduced and discussed is its specific historical situation. The historical outlook of Adornian ethics is essentially articulated through “the new categorical imperative” imposed on humanity by Hitler: “to arrange their thinking and conduct, so that Auschwitz never repeats itself, so that nothing similar ever happens again” (Adorno 2006, 365). According to Christian Skirke,
Adorno’s reflections on life after Auschwitz strike a chord with these urgent concerns of our times. The least his reflections can do for us is to train us to see the dehumanizing logic of those practices. His reflections can forewarn those who are on the safe side of these practices that not to resist this logic amounts to passing over in silence the worst transgressions against others. (580)
Skirke then draws the memorable conclusion that “It is not unlikely that Adorno’s diagnosis would be exactly the same today”. The concluding chapters of the volume all revolve around Adorno’s negatively normative imperative. A shared problem of these chapters seems to be if we should, and if yes, how to extract positive normative purports from Adorno’s negativism. The section on ethics is thus an interesting end note that provides a rich discussion of Adorno’s negativism—a discussion likely to develop further in the near future.
Interpretive Uncertainty: The Fate of Adorno Scholarship?
Upon reviewing these sections covering Adorno’s lifework in its entirety, one thing especially stands out: Contrary to the apparent wording in the passage quoted at the outset, Adorno is a ‘systematic’ thinker in his own right. As a consequence, the apparent contradiction between affirming and criticizing systematic thinking engenders what I would call an interpretive uncertainty that every Adorno scholar has to come to grips with, at some point. The uncertainty arises from the double-headed nature of the dialectic between critique and theory. Needless to say, this interpretive uncertainty has not exactly matched ‘scholasticizing’ tendencies in academia. Beyond a growing circle of Adorno scholars, Adorno’s dialectic is still mostly met with shoulder shrugs, superficial criticism, or allergic reactions. Its negativistic character, the result of these aporetic ‘placements’, seems to present an unspeakable irritation to academia. And it still appears to be the prime inhibiting factor for a successful scholastic cultivation of negative dialectics.
In spite of such inhibiting factors, A Companion to Adorno manages to brave the challenge of ordering a heterogeneous field of scholarly activities into one integral approach, albeit mostly (and thankfully) by means of fleshing out problems, rather than by throwing clear-cut solutions at the reader. As a bottom-line from this integral approach of the Companion, the following methodological problems for Adorno scholarship can be identified:
1) There is, without a doubt, such a thing as ‘Adorno’s thought’—it can be called ‘critical theory’ or ‘negative dialectics’ (for Adorno, these two titles essentially mean the same thing).
2) Critical theory qua negative dialectics cannot be expounded or summarized. The best of it is lost when taking the form of a positive system of fixed concepts and ideas.
3) Key tenets of Adorno’s philosophy can, therefore, only be ‘traced’ and expounded indirectly, that is, when taking into consideration Adorno’s critical interactions with society, capitalism, art, artists, writers, and importantly with other philosophers. Examples of the latter include refined criticisms of Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, most importantly Kant and Hegel, but also Schelling and Fichte, Marx, Kierkegaard, Husserl, Freud, Nietzsche, Lukács, and Walter Benjamin, of course. (The most notable ‘interlocution’ with a contemporary being the one with Heidegger, who in turn remained as silent as the dead.)
4) Since Adorno’s dialectical path is—in contrast with Hegel’s—terminally negative, the universal functionality of dialectical thought must saturate itself with ‘material’ themata (hence its proclivity towards Cultural Analysis, History, Sociology, Aesthetics, etc.) in order to fulfill the promise of philosophical truth. This need for ‘materiality’ is, however, not merely an epistemic virtue of Adornian dialectics and surely not an end in itself, like Hegelian readings of Adorno tend to suggest. To the contrary, being a mere “ontology of the wrong state of things” (Adorno 2006, 11) dialectics both expresses and stands in the way of philosophical truth, in other words, in the way of actualizing the “cognitive utopia” (Adorno 2006, 10). Until utopia becomes actual (never?) the isomorphy between the dialectic of the philosophical system and the all-too ‘real’ antagonisms must be interpreted as the ultimate ground for a critique of absolute reason, i.e. precisely not as an index that the rational always already is, or is about to become, real. The dialectic of form and matter is a vice, a profound irritation to logical thought, and an index to the finitude of universal forms—ultimately an articulation of the all-too real experiences of catastrophes during the age of extremes. In short, dialectics is the absolute limit of philosophy, drawn from within, with no possibility for transgression but through relentless self-criticism. To deem dialectics a virtue of the philosopher is to be blind to the fact of mediation continually jeopardizing the absolute status of philosophical truth.
5) Therefore, the fundamental question for ‘Adorno scholarship’ is how to examine Adorno’s philosophy as a self-standing theoretical body of knowledge while, at the same time (!) taking into account that, qua critique, Adorno’s philosophy can only ever be thematized indirectly, by taking into account its critical, and oftentimes polemic, interactions with tradition.
It is this interplay between theoretical autonomy and dialogical ‘indirectness’ which is constitutive of Adorno’s dialectics, and which, coming full circle, promotes interpretive uncertainty. All in all, the uncertainty revolves around the one fundamental difficulty of how to account for the systematicity of Adorno’s anti-system. Much like Plato’s, Adorno’s dialectical body of work inevitably gives rise to the wearisome question of an ‘unwritten doctrine’, while equally making it impossible to pinpoint it as a static system. ‘Adorno scholarship’ is an aporia. Its only ‘way out’ is to show that it articulates the very aporia of philosophy itself.
Aspiring to a comprehensive survey of a philosophy, there is always a fine line between unduly reducing its complexity and doing it justice in recognizing its overall coherence. Correspondingly, Blackwell’s comprehensive summary of Adorno seeks to avoid undue simplifications and reductive schematizations and maintain a high level of differentiation at all times. This greatly inspires further scholarly investigation and the concentrated reader is rewarded with a challenging yet fascinating read. On the downside, however, its high level of differentiation makes the Companion not any easier to ‘expound’ than the philosophy it is supposed to help comprehend in the first place. One is sometimes tempted to ask, if a more ‘systematic’ approach to Adorno really amounted to a cardinal sin.
A Companion to Adorno will hopefully be received as a call to reactivate the critical dialogue between Adorno and academic philosophy—past, present, and future. But will it convince the majority of philosophers who still find negative dialectics either too brainy and complex, a mere variation on the grand Hegelian theme, or—even worse—no dialectic proper? It probably won’t. Stuart Walton, in a recent review of this very Companion, commented on the book’s material richness by mobilizing Brecht “who scarcely took the first generation of Frankfurt thinkers seriously” and his remark “that nobody who lacked a sense of humour would stand a chance of understanding dialectics” (Walton 2020, 175). Meanwhile, the challenge of ‘taking in the entirety of Adorno’s thought’ may have become a rather serious one, however. For it resonates a little too perfectly with ‘academic’ philosophy today, by which I mean with the challenge to remain relevant and in touch with its time, on the one hand, and not to defect to the powers that are trying to instrumentalize it, on the other. In light of such challenges, philosophy may be well advised to take dialectics more ‘seriously’, if only to account for the dilemma it finds itself in. This, however, entailed taking Adorno’s philosophical wit seriously, at long last.
To conclude, although the volume cannot (and does not) aspire to become a surrogate for the richness of Adorno’s anti-system itself, it succeeds in showing us where and how to look for its treasures. Luckily, however, these contributions mostly refrain from cherry-picking, sorting out what’s still ‘useful’ and what’s not, and from patronizingly assigning Adorno his place on the basis of the dubious privilege of being born later. The Companion’s integral approach thus helps Adorno’s dialectic come into its own, as a mode of thinking aimed at securing the sheer possibility of philosophical truth. “There is solidarity between such thinking and metaphysics at the time of its fall” (Adorno 2006, 408) reads the last sentence of Negative Dialectics. Congruously, A Companion to Adorno is an impressive testimonial for Adorno’s unrelenting solidarity with philosophy, aesthetics, and critical social theory in a catastrophic time. Thereby, the lines of what Brian O’Connor calls “a changed philosophy” (cf. 520–522) have become more visible than ever before. This philosophy should be both determinately critical and ‘modern’ (in the emphatic sense of lat. modo = just now), all the while keeping in mind its aporetic starting point from after “the moment to realize it was missed” (Adorno 2006, 3). The Companion can moreover help students first become familiar with Adorno’s philosophy, by promoting awareness of the unique fashion Adorno had addressed philosophical problems with. And quite possibly, it will thus even help engender broader discourse in the long run. If the book is not received as a compilation of last words on these matters, of course.
Adorno, Theodor W., and Edmund F. N. Jephcott. 2005. Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life. London: Verso.
Adorno, Theodor W. (1966) 2006. Negative Dialectics. Transferred to digital printing. London: Routledge.
Adorno, Theodor W. 32020a. Philosophische Frühschriften. Gesammelte Schriften Band 1. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
Adorno, Theodor W. 82020b. Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft II: Eingriffe–Stichworte. Gesammelte Schriften Band 10.2. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
Gordon, Peter Eli, Espen Hammer, and Max Pensky (eds.). 2020. A Companion to Adorno. First edition. Hoboken: Wiley Blackwell.
Jay, Martin. 2020. Splinters in Your Eye: Frankfurt School Provocations. London: Verso Books.
Hindrichs, Gunnar. 2020. Der Weltbegriff der Philosophie. In: Merkur. Deutsche Zeitschrift für europäisches Denken. Nr. 854. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta.
Kant, Immanuel, Paul Guyer, and Allen W. Wood. (1781=A/1787=B) 182016. Critique of Pure Reason. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Meillassoux, Quentin. 2008. After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. Translated by Ray Brassier. New York: Continuum.
Mörchen, Hermann. 1981. Adorno und Heidegger. Untersuchung einer philosophischen Kommunikationsverweigerung. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta.
Morgan, Marcia. 2012. Kierkegaard and Critical Theory. Lanham: Lexington Books.
Pippin, Robert. 2017. Review of Peter E. Gordon. Adorno and Existence. In: Critical Inquiry. [https://criticalinquiry.uchicago.edu/robert_pippin_reviews_adorno_and_existence/] Accessed 15 Feb. 2021.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1948. Anti-Semite and Jew. Translated by George J. Becker. New York: Schocken Books.
Walton, Stuart. 2020. Review of ‘A Companion to Adorno.’. In: Journal of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics, vol. 43, no. 3, 2020, p. 175–178. (Online: Gale Literature Resource Center. Accessed 2 Mar. 2021.)
 Brian O’Connor translates ‘referierbar’ as ‘reportable’ (526), which seems a more elegant solution.
 To be mentioned are (in no specific order): Huhn, Tom (ed.). 2004. The Cambridge Companion to Adorno. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Cook, Deborah (ed.). Theodor Adorno: Key Concepts. Stocksfield: Acumen, 2008; Klein, Richard (ed.). 2011. Adorno-Handbuch: Leben–Werk–Wirkung. Stuttgart: Metzler; Honneth, Axel, and Christoph Menke (eds.). 2010. Theodor W. Adorno: Negative Dialektik. Berlin: Akademie Verlag; Hindrichs, Gunnar (ed.). 2013. Max Horkheimer/Theodor W. Adorno: Dialektik der Aufklärung. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.
 Tellingly, and in accordance with the dialectic of teleological judgment in the third Critique, ‘Absicht’ is sometimes translated as ‘purpose’ or ‘aim’, sometimes as ‘point of view’ or ‘perspective’.
 “[…] for the category is a mere function of thinking, through which no object is given to me, but rather only that through which what may be given in intuition is thought” Kant 2016, 349 [A 253/B 308].
 Whoever subscribes to Adorno’s neglected ‘Kantianism’ might, on another note, also have a word to say regarding the widespread allergy of modern ‘realists’ to so called ‘correlationism’ (see Meillassoux 2008, 5). The upshot of an Adornian rejoinder would be that the negativistic nature of the dialectic manages to break with ‘strong correlationists’ such as Heidegger without claiming to have gained epistemic access to the thing-in-itself (and thereby falling behind Kant and Hegel) but by vindicating the only absolute correlation: the one between dialectics and the critique of reason. It may not be impossible, after all, that there are things we—being ‘finite’ beings—cannot know.
 The upshot of Walton’s (2020, 175) analogy being: “By much the same token, nobody who lacks a gigantic range of cultural and philosophical reference, and one that is ever vigilant for the first trace of oxidation into ideology in any of its component parts, will find themselves equipped to take on the entirety of Adorno’s thought.”
L’histoire jette ses bouteilles vides par la fenêtre.
Chris Marker, Sans soleil
Après un travail consacré au problème de la phénoménologie de l’histoire chez Husserl et Heidegger, où, malgré tout ce qui séparent ces deux phénoménologues, un rapprochement essentiel était mené à bien, François Jaran se tourne maintenant vers une recherche de nature explicitement ontologique. Cette enquête vient compléter et développer, pour ainsi dire, son travail précédent pour se pencher en profondeur sur le problème de la réalité historique. En quel sens pouvons-nous ou devons-nous parler de « réalité historique » ? Face aux thèses réductionnistes que l’auteur nomme « matérialistes » ou « subjectivistes », celles qui ne considèrent le monde que comme un agrégat de choses physiques auxquelles on ajouterait le caractère culturel, politique ou historique, il s’agit de défendre une conception plus riche de la réalité. Pour cela, il faut montrer que la « réalité » se donne déjà chargée de plusieurs sens, de plusieurs caractères, qu’on ne peut lui soustraire sans la réduire fatalement. La « réalité » n’est donc jamais neutre, elle se donne « déjà teintée » par ces caractères, selon la belle expression que nous trouvons dans l’introduction, et c’est celui d’être historique qui sera analysé en détail dans cette œuvre (21).
Plus concrètement, l’auteur tente d’appréhender le mode d’être d’un étant en tant qu’étant historique. Pour ce faire, la grande majorité du travail conceptuel se fonde sur le projet philosophique de Heidegger, depuis les cours de jeunesse jusqu’à Être et temps. Mais à ce noyau argumentatif du livre précèdent deux chapitres consacrés au néokantisme et à Dilthey, dont le but est de clarifier les bases philosophiques du débat dont surgit l’herméneutique de la facticité et les interrogations du jeune Heidegger. Finalement, et c’est un ajout remarquable, les derniers chapitres sont consacrés à la ré–effectuation (re-enactment) chez Collingwood et à la trace chez Ricœur. Le recours à ces deux auteurs permet de compléter l’analyse en montrant une proximité et familiarité avec le travail de l’historien qui nuance et dépasse largement les positions heideggériennes, trop radicales ou limitées (23). S’il fallait regretter l’absence d’un nom fondamental dans ces investigations, ce serait celui de Gadamer. Cependant, bien qu’aucun chapitre ne lui soit entièrement consacré, ses apports apparaissent à plusieurs moments de l’argumentation, là où, justement, son travail herméneutique s’avère d’une grande clarté et utilité.
Les deux premiers chapitres sont donc consacrés au problème de la fondation (fundamentación) des sciences humaines ou de l’esprit, notamment au débat entamé par Dilthey, Rickert et Windelband à la fin du XIXème siècle et au début du XXème, débat dont l’influence sur le jeune Heidegger est maintenant bien connue. La question, relevant en principe d’une problématique épistémologique et gnoséologique dans le contexte complexe du positivisme et de l’avancée des sciences de la nature, permet à l’auteur, de façon par moments surprenante, d’en tirer des conséquences d’ordre métaphysique. Dès ce premier chapitre, nous trouvons important de souligner une qualité remarquable de l’ouvrage : la capacité à dégager le contenu essentiel de façon très condensée, résumant en quelques pages les problèmes plus prégnants de ces grandes œuvres et des polémiques qui lui sont attachées, tout en redirigeant la question vers l’enjeu principal.
Il s’agit donc de montrer qu’à partir des distinctions développées par Dilthey entre esprit et nature et entre expliquer et comprendre pour préserver la spécificité du savoir propre aux sciences humaines, les réponses des néokantiens ont nourri une problématique sur les différentes façons dont nous appréhendons la réalité. Du refus de Windelband à l’acceptation de ce dualisme ontologique considéré dominant dans la tradition occidentale jusqu’à Hegel, l’auteur en vient à décrire la division logico-formelle par laquelle universel et particulier sont différenciés. Là où les sciences de la nature peuvent émettre des lois générales, les autres sciences devront rendre compte du singulier et irrépétible. C’est donc le cas, entre autres, de la science historique. Puis, avec plus de détails, F. Jaran consacre plusieurs pages à rendre explicite la contribution de Rickert, qui approfondit les concepts antérieurs en insistant sur la différence entre la tendance généralisatrice et la tendance individualisatrice (30). Ainsi, nous avons une seule réalité effective, conçue de double façon : d’une part, à travers la généralisation qui fait de la réalité nature, et d’autre part, de la particularisation qui fait histoire. Ce qui nous intéresse spécialement ici, c’est de voir comment, dans le cadre de ce débat sur la fondation des sciences, l’auteur dégage des thèses sur le mode d’être de la réalité. Malgré ce monisme ontologique constatable chez Rickert, l’essentiel est surtout que l’être humain appréhende cette réalité à travers ses propres moyens : dans cette ordination de la réalité, le néokantien considère les généralités des abstractions, qui seraient dépassées dans le rang hiérarchique par l’objet individuel auquel nous faisons face. Bien que, en termes kantiens, l’individualité « en soi » de l’objet ne soit pas atteignable, les analyses montrent que, malgré tout, l’appréhension de la réalité par le sujet fonctionne grâce à un type particulier d’individualisation. D’où la conséquence suivante, importante pour la suite du livre : la réalité que l’être humain appréhende est plutôt individuelle avant d’être générale et légiférée comme nature (37). Cependant, comme le relève la dernière section du chapitre, à partir des apports de Kroner, le monisme ontologique des néokantiens ne va pas sans difficultés. En effet, considérer la réalité à partir d’une seule dimension implique aussi de dérober la signification individuelle propre aux objets ou événements historiques : un tableau ne serait qu’un amas de matériaux sans aucun sens au-delà d’ajouts postérieurs. Ceci ne correspond certainement pas à sa réalité la plus propre et significative. Malgré tout, et c’est le thème du deuxième chapitre, il ne va pas de soi que l’essai diltheyéen de sauver la spécificité de l’histoire soit réductible, comme il l’était pour les néokantiens, à un dualisme esprit-nature des plus orthodoxes.
En effet, Dilthey a développé plutôt un monisme ontologique de l’expérience vécue (Erlebnis, vivencia). Contre un appauvrissement de l’expérience, il s’agit de redonner une force et une légitimité à celle-ci dans les sciences humaines, passant de la caractérisation du sujet comme rationnel et froid à sa compréhension en tant qu’être historique dans son être propre. Notons aussi que par le biais de cette caractérisation s’éclaire une autre conception de l’être humain, comme étant capable de radicaliser ses tendances naturelles de compréhension vers tout ce qui est historique, afin d’élargir et d’appréhender son champ de connaissance.
L’analyse de la notion d’expérience vécue menée à bien par l’auteur permet de dégager l’originalité de Dilthey dans le contexte philosophique de son époque. Avant toute abstraction, toute différenciation comme celle d’objet physique et de représentation psychique, nous avons la donation de quelque chose de plus originaire : l’Erlebnis dans toute sa puissance. L’expérience vécue se donne immédiatement, avec des valeurs, des sentiments, etc. Et dans le domaine des sciences humaines, dont font partie l’histoire et ce qui est historique, ce sera à partir des expériences vécues que nous, êtres historiques, pourrons avoir accès aux intériorités passées, à leurs mondes vécus et à leur caractère spirituel, à partir des expressions humaines, de ses œuvres et de leur culture. Leur sens et leur signification ne sont surtout pas réductibles à leur limitation dans d’autres sciences naturelles. L’intérêt de ce chapitre est alors de mettre en avant une dimension originaire de l’expérience vécue qui permette de contrer la compréhension matérialiste plus vulgaire, et ce, à travers d’une lecture des thèses de Dilthey qui se veut expressément métaphysique.
Dans les dernières sections, ce point de vue est développé davantage avec la notion d’Innewerden (saisie, se rendre compte de ; percatación). Avant toute différenciation ou abstraction, nous avons donc l’expérience vécue, à laquelle nous avons un accès immédiat : elle se donne avant toute réflexion, de façon préthéorique, sans qu’on puisse parler de distinction entre le « capter » et le « capté ». Autrement dit, il n’y a pas encore de relation entre sujet-objet, pas de rapport de l’ordre de la connaissance pivotant autour de la perception. La prétention de l’auteur, en mobilisant la notion de l’Innewerden, complétée par des références à Heidegger et à Gadamer, qui ont relié le concept au νοεῖν grec en tant que « perception préréflexive », est d’abandonner le cadre épistémologique et la réduction matérialiste de toute réalité au simplement physique. La compréhension de l’Innewerden fait signe vers un des points clés de l’ouvrage et annonce les chapitres suivants sur le jeune Heidegger. En interprétant de façon ontologiquement forte la conceptualisation diltheyéenne, F. Jaran souligne qu’avec l’expérience vécue nous retrouvons une revalorisation de ce qui est significatif, ce qui a un sens, et donc surtout un sens historique, face aux démarches abstractives propres aux sciences de la nature. Dans la mesure où l’expérience vécue est première, plus originaire et précède les démarches épistémologiques postérieures, et contre le privilège moderne de la perception sensible, nous pouvons nous accorder avec Dilthey pour suivre ce fil comme accès à une réalité plus pleine, où l’être humain se tient avant toute distinction ( 62-63).
Ces deux premiers chapitres offrent une pertinente et très claire vue d’ensemble sur la façon dont le problème et ses enjeux étaient posés et seront reçus par Heidegger, et cela, dès ses premiers cours. C’est à partir de cette question que nous passons maintenant à la deuxième partie du livre, donc aux trois chapitres consacrés au projet heideggérien dans ses diverses ramifications.
L’auteur ouvre cette partie en expliquant l’importance de l’histoire et l’historicité chez Heidegger. Particulièrement intéressante dans ce contexte est la citation d’une lettre à Bultmann, où il est question de l’élargissement de la région du domaine d’objets nommé « histoire ». Cet élargissement, dans le cadre du projet ontologique du livre, ne doit pas être compris seulement comme relevant du caractère éminemment historique du Dasein, mais aussi et surtout comme une élaboration versant sur le mode d’être des étants historiques. Les tentatives de dépassement de l’appréhension de la réalité comme Vorhandenheit fonctionnent alors comme fil conducteur, et c’est ce point qui représente la nouveauté heideggérienne ici reprise. Cependant, en suivant ce fil conducteur, l’auteur va préciser aussi l’évolution du questionnement de Heidegger, remarquant le processus génétique qui va de la thématisation de la vie facticielle à l’ontologie fondamentale de 1927.
Pour ce faire, le troisième chapitre (« Penser l’histoire à partir de l’expérience facticielle de la vie ») est consacré plus concrètement à l’analyse des cours de jeunesse, notamment Phénoménologie de la vie religieuse et Phénoménologie de l’intuition et de l’expression. Il s’agit donc de mettre en avant les acquis plus féconds de Dilthey sur l’expérience vécue et sur la vie pour capter le mouvement de celle-ci dans son inquiétude, et donc dans ce qu’elle m’est propre, se séparant davantage des fixations épistémologiques du néokantisme. À partir de cette orientation, l’histoire n’est plus à considérer comme un « objet » du savoir, auquel on applique des concepts généraux, mais doit être saisie dans la facticité elle-même. Mais pour autant, ce qu’est à proprement parler l’historique, sans se borner tout simplement à le voir comme ce qui « a lieu dans le temps », doit être mieux délimité. Ceci permet à Heidegger de critiquer Rickert dans sa quête d’une historicité plus « vivante » et plus originaire, qui nous détermine et affecte de fond en comble. Avant toute étude scientifique et théorique, notre expérience vitale de l’histoire est déjà là (77).
Cependant, si l’histoire surgit au sein de la vie facticielle elle-même, nous devons comprendre la structure de cette détermination, comprendre aussi comment elle se donne dans le Dasein. L’auteur se prête à ce travail en dégageant la pluralité des modes dans lesquels, selon Heidegger, l’histoire se manifeste dans la vie facticielle, élaborant ainsi une hiérarchie fondamentale. Certes, l’histoire peut être comprise comme un savoir que nous étudions en lisant des textes, documents, etc. Elle peut aussi et surtout être conçue comme la totalité de ce qui est passé ou advenu, voir comme une partie significative de cette totalité. Mais ces manifestations ne sont pas aussi originaires, notamment la dernière, puisque, bien que surgissant d’une pensée humaine, elles fonctionnent plutôt comme une idée spéculative et régulatrice, qui ne concerne pas de façon essentielle notre présent. Pour Heidegger, les modes authentiques de l’histoire nous concernent plus directement, nous « dévorent » pour ainsi dire : c’est plutôt l’histoire comme tradition, comme magistrae vita ou, tout simplement, comme la mienne propre. C’est ainsi que nous nous rapportons à l’histoire, que nous apprenons d’elle. Et c’est là un point essentiel pour son projet ontologique que l’auteur souligne dans ce chapitre : ces rapports à l’histoire sont caractérisés de plus authentiques, dans la mesure où celle-ci se donne ainsi comme existant facticiellement, comme une réalité historique (85-86). Cependant, les réflexions heideggériennes sur le problème ne s’arrêtent pas ici, dans le terrain de la vie facticielle, et vont acquérir un caractère plus ontologique à partir de la reprise du débat Dilthey-Yorck. C’est le thème du quatrième chapitre : « Placer Dilthey sur le terrain de l’ontologie ».
Dans les années 1924-25, s’acheminant vers la question de l’être qui sera décisive par la suite, l’interrogation sur l’histoire et l’historicité se concrétise en partant de façon explicite du traitement d’un étant qui est caractérisé par l’histoire : le Dasein en tant qu’être que nous sommes. Heidegger reprend ainsi, notamment dans les conférences sir Le concept de temps, la philosophie de Dilthey et les critiques du comte Yorck pour modifier le traitement de la vie, passant ainsi à une considération sur les structures ontologiques de l’existence humaine, qui est d’emblée et essentiellement historique. Par ce biais, il va s’éloigner davantage des limites de l’approche propre à la théorie de la connaissance. L’enquête historique ne peut pas partir du privilège de la perception, omniprésent dans la philosophie moderne et dans les sciences de la nature, mais de ce qui est vécu. Réélaboré par Heidegger, le travail sur la vie que Dilthey avait mené doit être maintenant progressivement ontologisé. Il s’agit donc d’une opération de déplacement qui ramène la vie et la réalité historique à sa constitution ontologique, à ses modes de donation. Nous devons, comme le prône Heidegger dans ces textes, nous questionner sur l’être et non sur l’étant, sur l’historicité et non tout simplement sur ce qui est historique. S’offre ainsi une méthode d’interrogation qui n’est pas réductible au traitement de ce qui est vorhanden : c’est seulement ainsi que l’histoire pourra être traitée de façon effective.
Cependant, cette nouvelle approche implique surtout de comprendre l’historicité au sein du Dasein lui-même, donc de se demander en quoi celui-ci est un être essentiellement historique. Ce que veut souligner l’auteur dans ces pages est comment, en comprenant la façon dont tout rapport du Dasein à l’étant est déjà marqué par l’histoire, nous pouvons accéder, à travers cette marque du passé, à une nouvelle prégnance de la réalité historique. En effet, le philosophe fribourgeois s’efforce d’écarter l’idée traditionnelle selon laquelle le passé serait un présent sans actualité, sans être. Contre cette idée bien inscrite dans notre conceptualité depuis Augustin, Heidegger rétorque que le passé se donne sous une forme particulière : celle du Gewesen-sein, de l’être-été (ser-sido). C’est ce statut d’être qu’a le passé, et non celui de présent prétérit, qu’il faut garder à l’esprit pour une recherche sur l’ontologie historique. Ainsi, en 1924 un jalon fondamental était déjà placé, qui sera complété dans Être et temps afin de mieux comprendre quel rapport entretient le présent avec l’historicité.
Le chapitre se clôt par une analyse des conférences de Kassel et de sa reprise dans le cours du semestre d’été 1925, les Prolégomènes pour une histoire du concept de temps. Le recours au premier texte sert à montrer comment Heidegger établit la distinction, devenue désormais « canonique », entre l’histoire comme savoir ou science historique (Historie) et l’histoire comme événement (Geschichte), et un événement qui nous concerne au premier plan. Dans le second texte, il est plus facile d’apprécier le chemin vers une ontologie. En laissant derrière-lui les approches de la vie facticielle, qui ne voulaient pas trancher entre le domaine de la nature et celui de l’histoire, Heidegger souligne néanmoins la possibilité d’approcher la réalité historique vraie, en procédant par une démarche phénoménologique qui capte sa constitution originaire. Mais cela ne sera possible que si l’ontologie grecque, qui relie la présence constante, la oὐσία, à l’être, est rompue par une nouvelle ontologie capable de rendre compte de l’histoire au-delà de cette réduction. Le chemin vers Être et temps est maintenant dégagé, où F. Jaran voit la solution heideggérienne au problème de l’ontologie de l’historique.
Le cinquième chapitre, « L’histoire dans le cadre de l’ontologie fondamentale », se penche alors sur l’opus magnum de 1927. En se concentrant particulièrement sur les paragraphes 72 à 77 de la seconde partie, l’auteur cherche à mettre en lumière le sens et la portée de l’historicité originaire du Dasein dans ce qui l’intéresse davantage : son rapport à l’étant. Pour abandonner radicalement l’idée du présent comme réalité et les thèses subjectivistes de l’histoire il faut tirer toutes les conséquences de la structure temporelle du Dasein, son rapport à l’historicité. En effet, celui-ci n’est pas de prime abord anhistorique pour, par après, se voir octroyer ces qualités : il est de façon essentielle marqué par le temps, et donc le temps arrive (geschehen) en lui, de la naissance à la mort. Dans le questionnement ontologique du livre, il nous faut cependant comprendre aussi comment cette historicité se rapporte à ce qui n’est pas le Dasein.
L’auteur consacre alors une partie du chapitre à commenter l’analyse de l’antiquité, en tant qu’étant historique par excellence, telle qu’elle se déploie dans Être et temps. Cette première approche confirme d’abord l’idée qu’à travers un étant ancien nous avons accès à un monde passé, un monde qui n’existe plus mais qui appartenait à un Dasein, et qui maintenant s’ouvre à nous à partir de cet étant lui-même. Ce monde est caractérisé comme welt-geschichtlich, comme ce qui est mondain-historique (mondo-historial dans la traduction d’E. Martineau). Mais cette façon de considérer le problème n’est pas suffisante : le fil de l’antiquité ici suivi permet de découvrir la relation des étants intramondains comme étants historiques avec un monde aussi bien historique. Malgré tout, il nous reste à comprendre en quel sens plus précisément le monde a lieu comme historique et quelles conséquences nous pouvons tirer par rapport à l’étant historique tel quel.
Ici, la difficulté que l’auteur souligne conséquemment tient à ce que Heidegger lui-même a affirmé dans Être et temps, à savoir, qu’une recherche ontologique de ce qui est « mondain-historique » suppose d’aller au-delà de la recherche qui est la sienne. F. Jaran cherche alors à expliquer ce point et à faire comprendre qu’on ne peut malgré tout ni soutenir que l’histoire est une région ontologique parmi d’autres ni que le caractère historique est simplement un mode d’être à ajouter à la liste que forment la Vorhandenheit, la Zuhandenheit et les autres. Au contraire, l’historicité, pour ainsi dire, se décline historiquement et est à retrouver dans plusieurs modes d’étants, soit subsistants, utiles, existants, etc. (137). Et c’est dans le cours de 1927 sur Les problèmes fondamentaux de la phénoménologie que Heidegger lui-même jette une nouvelle lumière sur la question. Une des particularités de l’étant historique est son caractère nécessairement intramondain : contrairement à l’étant naturel, qui surgit de et à partir de lui-même, l’étant historique est produit (comme le seraient, dans l’exemple de l’ouvrage, les produits de la culture, etc.), et produit de façon nécessaire par un Dasein. L’étant historique comme intramondain relevant donc de l’intervention d’un Dasein comme causalité ontique, la question ne peut pas être complètement résolue dans une recherche sur les structures ontologiques de l’étant, et donc sur les conditions de possibilité de compréhension de l’être telles que constituent le projet de l’ontologie fondamentale.
Pour conclure ce chapitre et bien exposer les acquis et les voies malgré tout ouvertes de la pensée heideggérienne, l’auteur se tourne vers les remarques « métontologiques » des textes postérieurs à 1927. Compte tenu que la projection transcendantale de l’historicité originaire du Dasein sur l’étant est insuffisante pour expliquer l’étant dans son caractère historique et son appartenance au monde, ce pas est cohérent et semble fécond. De ce point de vue, le retournement vers l’étant comme point de départ permet de penser la manifestation de l’étant comme d’emblée historique. Malheureusement, Heidegger ne traite pas en détail ce thème, se bornant à quelques remarques. Ceux-ci s’avancent vers la possibilité d’une ontologie de l’histoire qui s’appuierait sur le problème du mondain-historique, et a fortiori si elle ne veut pas s’épuiser dans la projection transcendantale du Dasein et de sa compréhension de l’être. En effet, comme le relèvent les dernières pages du chapitre, le caractère mondain-historique ne correspond pas, tout simplement, à un mode d’être qui déterminerait que l’étant se manifeste sous telle ou telle forme. Bien au contraire, l’étant historique se donne dans le monde lui-même, et dans sa particulière référence aussi bien au monde passé du Dasein qu’au problème du monde en tant que tel. Ayant dégagé ce point fondamental pour son projet, F. Jaran peut maintenant compléter sa recherche ontologique en s’appuyant, dans une troisième section, sur des auteurs doués d’une sensibilité différente à l’histoire.
Le sixième chapitre est donc consacré à R. Collingwood, et bien que sautant à l’analyse d’un philosophe et historien anglais, l’auteur souligne que la source des influences demeure la même : Dilthey. Par rapport aux avancées antérieures, Collingwood met en avant la conception de la ré-effectuation (re-enactment) comme mode de reconstitution historique, que F. Jaran va expliciter en comparaison avec la répétition heideggérienne d’Être et temps. Il s’agit alors de bien appréhender comment l’historien est capable de redonner une certaine effectivité aux événements passés, et quel sens épistémologique précis cela possède dans sa recherche.
À partir de ces interrogations, la question est de voir comment Collingwood envisage la possibilité de connaître l’histoire, en admettant que c’est un objet qui dépasse certainement ce qui est « réel », et qu’elle est douée d’un statut d’idéalité et d’inactualité qui doit se révèler malgré tout comme accessible par le travail de l’historien. Ce qui intéresse particulièrement l’auteur est de voir précisément comment cette réactualisation de l’effectivité de l’histoire se déploie, notamment dans une perspective ontologique : c’est par les étants ou artefacts historiques que nous pouvons comprendre les propos humains qui les sous-tendent, les nécessités auxquelles il répondait.
Plus concrètement, Collingwood propose une division entre aspect externe et interne de l’étant historique, donc entre sa dimension physique et psychique, et octroie la primauté absolue de l’interprétation à ce qui est interne en tant que lieu des intérêts humains. L’activité critique de la ré-effectuation consiste alors à repenser dans l’esprit de l’historien ce que les personnages historiques ont dû penser, redonnant une effectivité au passé qui serait justifiée par la capacité humaine de penser la même chose. C’est à ce niveau que tient une des difficultés majeures de la ré-effectuation : la justification de cette mêmeté du pensé doit dépasser l’irrépétable, comme les perceptions et les sentiments, mais elle doit atteindre un sens intemporel de l’événement qui aurait acquis réalité dans le monde.
Cette dimension de la ré-effectuation pose problème ; elle risque de constituer une sorte de phantasme de résurrection absolue du passé dans le présent, apparence qui se radicalise davantage par la position de Collingwood sur la justesse et l’adéquation totale de ce qui est ré-effectué. Contrairement à l’herméneutique, dans laquelle F. Jaran n’a cessé de puiser les ressources de son argumentation, les thèses du philosophe anglais mènent à une compréhension du passé qui pourrait être caractérisée par une certaine naïveté : nous, comme chercheurs, nous recréons dans notre esprit ce qui s’est effectivement passé, tel quel. Face à cela, les travaux de Heidegger, mais aussi et surtout de Ricœur et de Gadamer nous ont montré à quel point la distance historique est un abîme infranchissable qui permet justement une compréhension autre des événements, tout en écartant les soupçons de psychologisme, dont sa présence chez Collingwood est difficilement contestable.
Et c’est donc sur Ricœur que porte le dernier chapitre, où la réponse précise au problème global de l’ouvrage est atteinte. Il s’agit pour l’auteur de voir en quoi la thématisation de la trace, présente dans le troisième volume de Temps et récit, constitue justement ce qu’une ontologie de la réalité historique cherche depuis le début de l’ouvrage. Pourquoi ? Principalement car la visée de Ricœur correspond à ce qui était recherché, notamment parce que la trace relève d’une dimension ontique, elle est bel et bien un « reste visible » qui fait partie de ce qui est arrivé, donc de l’événement historique.
En outre, la trace dépasse les autres étants capables de nous révéler quelque chose du passé, puisque dans sa neutralité elle n’est pas suspecte, comme le monument ou le document, d’être entachée par une forme ou une autre d’idéologie. Bien plus, F. Jaran souligne que dans son rapport à l’événement, la trace a un statut ontologique spécifique : il y aurait un certain rapport de métaphoricité, d’évocation de ce qui est arrivé dans le document, en tant que signe qui fait signe vers quelque chose d’autre, tandis que la trace reste, dans toute sa simplicité, une chose parmi les choses.
À travers cette notion de trace, nous sommes aussi amenés à une critique des limites de l’antiquité et de la position heideggérienne dans Être et temps. En effet, Ricœur cherche à réenvisager cette primauté de l’originaire dont l’œuvre de Heidegger semble porter l’étendard : la trace, par le dérivé et l’ontique, enrichit la compréhension originare de l’histoire et nous montre que l’historicité du Dasein et le savoir historique (Historie) se déterminent mutuellement beaucoup plus qu’ils ne s’opposent. Mais la trace dépasse aussi l’unilatéralité de la conception de Collingwood, qui privilégie l’aspect interne des étants au détriment absolu de l’extériorité, de l’étantité historique de la trace. En elle-même, la trace est la preuve matérielle de la prégnance de l’histoire. Elle n’est pas, telle quelle, une représentation d’autre chose, mais elle « tient lieu de ». Elle garde sa dimension ontique manifeste tout en permettant d’atteindre l’histoire, nous révélant pleinement ce qu’était le but recherché tout au long du livre : ce qu’est un étant historique, une réalité historique en soi qui va au-delà de toute projection subjective et de toute réduction scientifique. La trace nous permet alors d’accomplir notre désir, « un peu puéril » comme le souligne l’auteur, mais néanmoins essentiel pour nous, êtres historiques : celui de « pouvoir toucher avec les mains ou voir avec les yeux un objet qui provient du passé » (175).
 François Jaran. 2013. Phénoménologies de l’histoire. Husserl, Heidegger et l’histoire de la philosophie. Louvain: Peeters.
What does it mean to say something is real? It is exactly this question—Was heißt ‘etwas sei wirklich’?—that serves as the epigraph of Realität und Realismus, one of the most recent publications from Hans Blumenberg’s Nachlass. The texts that are collected in this volume do not so much answer this question as they show what it implies and why we keep asking it. They address a pathos of realism that has been operative throughout the history of philosophy, manifesting itself in different conceptions of reality over time, and which ultimately appears to be rooted in the human condition: a fundamental need to distance oneself from and master reality at the same time, both in theory and praxis. In these texts, Blumenberg shows that the human relation to reality is originally not a fixed, immediate and self-evident rapport but something that must be established and maintained, changing over time depending on its functionality, and shining forth in theoretical constructs, cultural expressions and other ‘detours’ through which we have learned to deal with the demands of the real. Consequently, the titular themes of this book do not refer to the metaphysical, ontological or epistemological problems and discussions characteristic of many of today’s ‘realisms’ – whether it is speculative, new, neutral, material, scientific, phenomenological or otherwise qualified. There is no talk of a mind-independent world, of constructivist or correlationist conundrums, and the whole word idealism is conspicuously absent from these texts. As such, Blumenberg approaches the topic of reality and realism from a rather fresh and original perspective, both in a historic and systematic manner.
Realität und Realismus appeared last year on the occasion of Blumenberg’s much celebrated centennial together with a series of other books from and on Blumenberg, most importantly the long awaited publication of Blumenberg’s dissertation (Beiträge zum Problem der Ursprünglichkeit der mittelalterlich-scholastischen Ontologie, originally from 1947), a voluminous Hans Blumenberg Reader with a diverse selection of his finest essays that are almost all translated for the first time into English, and two sweeping intellectual biographies that present Blumenberg in a detailed and delightful way to a broader public. Until now, Realität und Realismus has been somewhat overshadowed by this outburst of celebrations and publications, which is not very surprising since the volume looks prima facie like a rather tentative, technical and fragmented collection of texts. Indeed, this publication does not exactly present a general and accessible entry to Blumenberg’s thought, let alone a very straightforward and comprehensive account of ‘reality and realism’, despite its alluring and fashionable title. Nevertheless, as the editor Nicola Zambon writes in his afterword, Realität und Realismus certainly does not uncover terra incognita either: it expands and explicates a key-aspect of Blumenberg’s writings, which the well-versed reader could already find scattered throughout his published texts, but that is only now for the first time brought into clear view.
Indeed, within Blumenberg’s vast, meandering and increasingly available oeuvre, reality and realism are a central focus of interest, albeit not always from the same perspective or with the same intensity. As we can now very clearly see, the notion of reality is already a prominent motive in Blumenberg’s dissertation, where he takes up the theme of a historically conditioned experience and understanding of reality in a critical discussion with Heidegger’s history of Being. Most notably however, Blumenberg thematised and analysed reality throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s in a series of essays on the ‘concept of reality’ (Wirklichkeitsbegriff) in relation to art, myth, political theory and the lifeworld, some of which have been translated and included in the aforementioned Hans Blumenberg Reader. These and many other of Blumenberg’s ‘smaller’ essays are often considered marginal or premature in comparison to his major studies, but what is clearly explicated at the periphery of his work often leaves significant traces in the centre of his thinking, playing an implicit but no less important role on the operative level of his thematic analyses. The case of reality is no different in this regard. Not only Blumenberg’s famous historical works such as Legitimität der Neuzeit (1966) and Die Genesis der kopernikanischen Welt (1975), but also his metaphorological studies and anthropological explorations in Arbeit am Mythos (1979) and Höhlenausgänge (1989) appear to have been developed against the backdrop of a particular understanding of reality that underpins many of his analyses. Although it will probably remain a matter of dispute whether there ever was one central question or concern for Blumenberg, reality is certainly a very important methodical and thematic leitmotif that accompanied his writings from the very beginning to the end.
The nine longer and shorter texts – all written between 1970 and 1984 – that make up Realität und Realismus can very roughly be divided into two categories: the first half deals with reality from a historical point of view and enters into a discussion with Plato, Descartes, Leibniz, Nietzsche and Husserl, among others. These texts contain an explicit and extensive treatment of the four epochal concepts of reality that we already know from Blumenberg’s earlier essays – this time however not in order to thematize socio-cultural phenomena, but to provide these concepts with a theoretical and methodical framework that was largely lacking in other writings. This already makes the volume a very valuable and insightful contribution to Blumenberg’s oeuvre. The second half of the book is more varied and fragmented, but one of the themes that stand out is an anthropological approach to reality and an investigation into the human being as a ‘realist’, most clearly in the longer texts Illusion und Realität and Zur Anthropologie des Realisten, but also in a short text on the reality of the Eigenleib. This second half also contains an intriguing and topical text on the reality of invisible threats (in casu quo: germs, war gas, and radiation), and covers other realism related themes in the domains of aesthetics, rhetoric and theology as well. In this review however, I will focus on Blumenberg’s historical and anthropological approach to reality and realism as it can be traced throughout this volume. Although much more could be discussed, these two perspectives seem to me to strike at the core of his thinking on reality and contain moreover a very interesting and fundamental tension.
Blumenberg’s Historical Approach to Reality
On the very first page of Realität und Realismus, Blumenberg explains that the notion of reality has a very pragmatic meaning for him. He emphatically distances himself from any kind of ontology or philosophy of being and does not wish to speak of reality in a traditional metaphysical manner as a comprehensive theory of everything. Instead, reality refers for Blumenberg to that instance which determines our behaviour, which binds us together and upon which we rely in our everyday speech and action: “Das Wirkliche ist das, worauf man sich beruft” (11). He understands reality as a kind of pregivenness, which we take for granted in our everyday life; a meaningful background which enables and conditions practical orientation, common sense, and theoretical reflection. Rightly so, it has been compared to Kuhn’s paradigms and Foucault’s epistemologies: a concept of reality seems to be a historical horizon of meaning and understanding – at one instance Blumenberg speaks of an “epochalen Horizont von Wirklichkeit” (34) – that determines what is noteworthy and significant and what not; what can be thought and what not, in short: what is real and what not.[i]
Characteristic of this pregivenness is that it is always already conceived in a particular manner—as a concept of reality—but this conception remains at the same time implicit and mute (Stumm) as long as it fulfils its function. A concept of reality is self-evident (Selbstverständlich) to such a high degree that it usually does not reach the threshold of explicit propositional language or thought, it is not even understood as being self-evident. Hence, reality is operative and functional as reality to the extent that it remains unnoticed, unquestioned and inconspicuous. Of course, the question then immediately arises how we are able to thematize reality if it its defining characteristic denies this very possibility. The answer lies in the historicity of our relation to and conception of reality, which cannot always uphold its implicit and self-evident nature but is subject to change. A concept of reality only comes to the fore the very moment it starts to be questioned or criticized:
Nur dadurch, daß das Verständnis von Wirklichkeit selbst Geschichte hat, daß es abgelöst werden kann durch ein neues Verhältnis zur Wirklichkeit und diese Ablösung sich gerade als Kritik am Wirklichkeitsverständnis der Vergangenheit formuliert, nur auf diese indirekte Weise gewinnen wir einen Zugang zur Geschichte des Wirklichkeitsbegriffs (11).
In this quote, we find Blumenberg’s historical approach to reality in a nutshell: different historical epochs are assumed to have different ‘concepts of reality’, because our relation to reality as it is established in a particular and implicit understanding of ourselves and the world changes over time. Concepts of reality replace one another once they become dysfunctional and no longer provide the means for our practical and theoretical orientation. Blumenberg aims to trace this changing understanding and these different conceptions, but he can only do so in an indirect way, since an epoch ‘uses’ its concept of reality to the degree that it does not talk about it. A history of the concept of reality cannot be a conceptual history, Blumenberg argues, but must instead proceed via negativa: it is only when a concept of reality collapses under critical scrutiny and loses its validity – i.e. when a secure and stable sense of self and world is lost in a collective crisis of understanding – that it can be determined and reconstructed in retrospect, distilled from the traces it left in philosophical and scientific writing, literature and other documentations.
Interestingly, Blumenberg argues that these crises manifest themselves primarily in a growing unease about the use of language: the feeling that concepts, categories or claims appear increasingly empty, instable, or insubstantial; the experience that words lose their ‘substrate’ that was always taken for granted as reality and now appear frictionless spinning in the void instead. On a more general level, it is a fear of semblance and pretence, a preoccupation with the illegitimacy of prejudices and idols, and an awareness of the inadequacy and insufficiency of established theories and explanations, which can give rise to another concept of reality. The critical demand to go back to ‘the things themselves’ and not be led astray by the deceiving powers of language or time-honoured ideas is therefore a characteristic realist appeal according to Blumenberg. Plato’s suspicion of sophistry, the medieval adagio res, non verba!, the attempted rejection of all prejudices by the likes of Bacon and Descartes, Husserl’s call to return to the Sachen selbst, and the positivist critique on language are all mentioned in Realität und Realismus as examples of such an appeal. Blumenberg emphasises that these theories and philosophies do not themselves present but reflect a changing conception of reality; they are not the cause, but a consequence of an acute experience of a loss of self-evidence – an experience of unreality – which critique, thought and theory aim to remedy:
‘Kritik’ wetzt sich an dem, was schon nicht mehr selbstverständlich ist. So paradox es klingen mag: nicht Wirklichkeit wird als Wirklichkeit erfahren, sondern Unwirklichkeit als Unwirklichkeit. Das heißt: Realität ist ein implikatives Prädikat, da sie schon kein reales Prädikat mehr ist (39).
The notion of reality as an implicit or ‘implicative’ predicate is not new: one finds it also at the end of Höhlenausgänge or the text Vorbemerkungen zum Wirklichkeitsbegriff, where Blumenberg gives a similar explanation. Yet, the texts in Realität und Realismus provide these rather short and esoteric passages with some clear and substantial context that help us understand better what Blumenberg is after. To say that reality is implicative means that it is always implied in an experience – often an experience of unreality, when something turns out other than it appeared to be – without becoming explicit in this experience itself. It is for this reason Blumenberg calls reality also a ‘contrast concept’ (Kontrastbegriff) and a residue (Residuum): reality is a reticent remainder after the unreal is experienced, exposed and eliminated. Our understanding of reality is historical because the criteria for this elimination process vary, and it is indeterminate because elimination is in theory an infinite process. Thus the only formal description Blumenberg can give of reality is a seeming tautology, and appears to serve him more as a heuristic rule than a definition proper: “Wirklich ist, was nicht unwirklich ist.” Blumenberg explains this cryptic formula as follows:
Diese Formel verweist auf den Umweg über das, was jeweils unter der Schwelle nicht so sehr der Wahrnehmbarkeit als vielmehr der Wahrnehmungswürdigkeit, der Beachtbarkeit, der Einkalkulierbarkeit liegt (39).
Reading these formal and methodical characterisations, one becomes curious as to their practical application: how does Blumenberg deduce and distil a concept of reality as it is characteristic for a specific time and age? What criteria are used to delineate different epochs? What historical sources are consulted to infer and attribute a particular conception of reality to them? Unfortunately, this does not become very clear in Realität und Realismus. Much like in his large historical studies such as Legitimität der Neuzeit, Blumenberg seems to engage in a speculative hermeneutics without much methodical justification, and at times it seems he simply draws on authors and texts that allow him to write his grand historical narratives precisely the way he wants to. More specifically, it is not always clear whether Blumenberg actually reconstructs a concept of reality on the basis of his reading of history, or if he reads the history of thought already through the lens of preconceived concepts of reality. Of course, these two perspectives necessarily complement each other, but because a concept of reality cannot be found in a text but must be inferred from a text as its implicit and conditional horizon of meaning, it remains quite a speculative endeavour. As a result, Blumenberg’s concepts of reality seem to function more often than not as heuristic instruments or tools for thought that allow him to analyse historical tendencies and cultural developments, instead of accurate characterisations of epochal understanding. Nevertheless, what seems to count in the end for Blumenberg is the explanatory and descriptive potential of a concept of reality – its Leistungsfähigkeit – and the four concepts he describes certainly live up to this demand. We will now take a look at each of these concepts themselves.
Blumenberg’s Four Concepts of Reality
The first concept of reality Blumenberg describes belongs to antiquity and is defined as instantaneous evidence (Realität der momentanen Evidenz). What is implied in this concept is that reality presents itself in the very moment of its presence as undoubtedly real, as something that is final (letztgültig) and unsurpassable (unüberbietbar) in its reality. And it is instantaneous insofar as there is no temporal and intersubjective process in which reality is realized: reality is understood as something that can be perceived at once, in one look, by one person. As such, reality is quite literally self-evident: “Wirklichkeit ist etwas unmittelbar und an sich selbst Einleuchtendes, eine unwiderstehlich Zustimmung ernötigende Gegebenheit” (16). Blumenberg speaks repeatedly in this context of an “implicit assertion” (Behauptungsimplikation) of reality, a concept he admittedly borrowed from Alexander Pfänder who coined it as a ‘logical translation’ for the Greek phainesthai, but which Blumenberg understands in more a figurative manner:
Es steckt in diesem Wirklichkeitsbegriff eine Metapher: das Wirkliche stellt sich uns vor mit einer Art von impliziter Behauptung, das Vorgestellte auch wirklich zu sein, nicht von einer anderen Instanz her ins Unrecht gesetzt werden zu können (17).
Of course, this does not mean people knew nothing of deceiving appearances in antiquity, but the point is that it was never questioned that ‘real reality’ would be recognised as such once it presented itself. For Blumenberg, this is the “Kerngedanke” of Greek thought: “Wenn der Schein aufgehoben ist, kommt die Sache selbst zutage” (77). Plato’s cave allegory is taken to be the exemplary expression of this understanding: it presupposes an ‘ontological comparative’ with different ‘levels of reality’ each constituting a māllon on, a surplus of being, which ultimately culminates in a superlative of the ideas that are indeed described as a final and unsurpassable instance.
The second concept of reality comes into play once we entertain the idea of an infinite series of ‘comparatives’, the suspicion that every given reality might always be surpassed by an even higher degree of reality. From this perspective, reality is less and less understood as self-evident; its evidence needs to an increasing extent to be guaranteed by something other than itself. As Blumenberg claims: “Sobald das Sehenlassen nicht mehr das Sichsehenlassen ist, kommt eine dritte Instanz ins Spiel, die zur momentanen Evidenz nicht mehr paßt” (47). The moment reality is taken to be completely dependent on this third instance, when reality can no longer be understood and experienced as a final and definitive reality, instantaneous evidence becomes impossible and the ancient concept of reality gives way to the second concept, which Blumenberg attributes to the Middle Ages: reality as guaranteed reality (garantierte Realität), to which he also refers as the ‘scheme of the third position.’ Not surprisingly, Descartes figures here as paradigmatic thinker: he wants reality to be as it appears to be, but his radical doubt denies him any such straightforward acceptance. Consequently, he needs to revert to an absolute witness, i.e. God, which guarantees the validity of our knowledge and perception of reality (as it is given in clear and distinct ideas), and ensures that we are not living an all-encompassing yet undetectable illusion.
Blumenberg finds a third concept of reality, that of the modern age, in a critique on Descartes by Leibniz. Specificities left aside, this critique comes down to the simple observation that an all-encompassing and undetectable illusion or deception is a meaningless assumption, which, even if it is true, has no consequences whatsoever. Descartes’ need for a divine guarantee is the result of the suggestion that all aspects of reality might be simulated by an evil demon without producing that very reality itself, together with the demand that reality must really be as it appears to be. It is this belief that motivates Descartes’ doubt, but Leibniz considers this to be an excessive and misguided demand. Excessive because Descartes’ genius malignus is in principle an irrefutable hypothesis; misguided because for Leibniz, our sense of reality does not rely on a correspondence of our ideas and appearances to a transcendent ground. Appearances do not appear real because they refer to a ‘real’ reality; instead, reality and illusion only concern the immanent consistency of what is given to us:
Die Einstimmigkeit der Gegebenheiten untereinander, ihr gleichsam horizontaler Konnex, die Konstitution eines lückenlosen, sprungfreien, nicht in Enttäuschung zerbrechendes Prospektes gibt uns jene kategorische Gewißheit, mit eine Realität konfrontiert zu sein (23).
This modern concept of reality implies moreover an essential relation to time, in contrast to the other two concepts: reality is not understood as something that gives itself immediately or is guaranteed forever, but it is realized in a process – constantly adapting to new situations, correcting for irregularities, anticipating novelties or deceptions and taking into account (possibly diverging) contexts of other persons. Hence, Blumenberg often speaks of this modern concept of reality as a provisional and “open context” that is oriented towards the future, regulated by the never realizable and hence ideal limit of one coherent intersubjective totality. Any reader familiar with Husserl will recognize this as a phenomenological description of reality, and this is no coincidence: Leibniz’s change of perspective on reality – from a transcendent implication to an immanent consistency – is explicitly understood by Blumenberg as phenomenology avant la lettre (88); a figure of thought that underlies many modern idealist philosophies, with Husserl’s phenomenological idealism as its most decisive and dogmatic exponent (98).
A fourth concept of reality appears to follow in a dialectical way from the third. The idea of reality as a coherent and consistent context almost naturally invites us to think the opposite: the idea of reality as something that resists this consistency, which does not conform or comply but manifests itself as stubborn, contradictory and unyielding. This is “der Wirklichkeitsbegriff der Ungefügigkeit und Unverfügbarkeit des Widerstreits” (178). Blumenberg likes to illustrate this understanding with a Kafka quote that reoccurs in other writings as well: “Wirkliche Realität ist immer unrealistisch” (175). Unfortuntately, he says little about this concept of reality from a historical perspective in Realität und Realismus, although he does explicitly claim that it is a concept which appeared after the third concept: the notion of a resisting inconsistency makes only sense against the background of a consistent context. The two last concepts thus seem to complement each other, and Blumenberg hints occasionally at the idea that there might be more than one concept of reality at work in the modern age. In contrast with the other three concepts of reality, Blumenberg does not provide us with a paradigmatic philosophy in which this concept is expressed or reflected. This is quite surprising since there has been a long standing tradition of thinking reality in terms of resistance. To name but one significant example: it figures prominently in Scheler’s essay Idealismus-Realismus (1927) and in his lecture Die Stellung des Menschen im Kosmos (1928); two influential texts with which Blumenberg was very familiar but to which he never refers in this context. Much like for Scheler, the notion of a resisting reality does play an important role in Blumenberg’s phenomenological anthropology and his description of the constitution of our consciousness of reality, a topic which is explored at greater length in the second half of Realität und Realismus.
Blumenberg’s Anthropological Approach to Reality and Realism
In the third text of the volume, which deals with the modern concept of reality, we find a surprising and insightful footnote in which Blumenberg seems to question his own historical approach of a series of successive concepts of reality:
Müssen sie [die Wirklichkeitsbegriffe – mv] überhaupt eine Reihe bilden? Ist nicht möglich, daß sich das Wirklichkeitsbewußtsein aufspaltet in zwei Spezies, Konsistenz und Kontrast? Wo bleibt die Epoche zum Wirklichkeitsbegriff IV sonst (79)?
With this remark, Blumenberg seems to suggest that our consciousness of reality might very well have a constant ahistorical structure, conditioned by the two opposing tendencies of consistency and contrast. To what extent this implies a downright contradiction with his historical approach is not immediately clear and Blumenberg does not further elaborate on this, but we see at least a very stark shift of emphasis in the following texts: whereas the concept of reality was first understood as a tacit horizon of meaning and understanding operative in the self- and world-conception of a specific epoch, Blumenberg now enquires into the conditions of the possibility of our experience and awareness of reality in general, and the question is posed where our concept and sense of reality comes from, regardless of its specific historical expression.
These questions are partly addressed in a critical discussion with Husserl’s phenomenology—one of the texts is explicitly dedicated to the Welt- und Wirklichkeitsbegriff der Phänomenologie—but most importantly, they are marked by the anthropological turn that is characteristic of many of Blumenberg’s writings from the 1970’s. The concept of reality is now understood in relation to the human condition, which Blumenberg postulates as a Mängelwesen, a creature of deficiencies. In a nutshell, the argument goes as follows: insofar as the human being lacks adaptive instincts and a specialised physiology, his relation to reality is not regulated in a fixed, immediate and automated manner—he is not naturally equipped with a ‘realism’ (168)—which leaves him particularly vulnerable to threats and uncertainties of the outside world or ‘absolutism of reality’ (127). Reality is thus understood as something over and against which the human being has to maintain and assert itself, an achievement which Blumenberg thematizes throughout his work in many different ways, but most importantly in terms of distance:
Der Mensch, so muß die These lauten, ist ein Wesen, welches nicht zwangsläufig und aus Existenznot jederzeit realistisch sein muß, weil es alle Arten und Grade von Distanz zur Realität ausgebildet hat (168).
Blumenberg describes some of the steps this distancing process must have taken in the development of the human being: from devouring and dragging along (no distance), and touching and pointing (some distance), to symbolising and negating (maximum distance), to name some of them. More generally, this distance is cultivated in all kinds of cultural manifestations, scientific theories, social institutions and technological artefacts, which create the conditions under which the human being can afford to not take reality into account. The actio per distans, as Blumenberg likes to call it, provides a shelter that wards off the burdensome demands of an uncertain and unknown reality, and which frees the human being of a constant need to readapt to his environment. Hence, our relation to reality is in principle and to a very high degree indirect, mediated and circuitous. Blumenberg defines the human being therefore as “ein Wesen, das auch als Nichtrealist existieren kann” (167). Even more, realism is considered to be an exceptional disposition (Ausnahmezustand): the appeal to get real – to act and think realistically, i.e. directly adapted to the demands of reality – always serves as a correction, it refers to a situational discrepancy or mismatch that cannot be ignored but must be dealt with (175).
From this anthropological perspective, reality manifests itself precisely in the case of such an unavoidable discrepancy: real is what resists and interrupts a seamless flow of life. As Blumenberg puts it: “Sie [die Wirklichkeit] ist ihrem Wesen nach Anpassungszwang.” (124) In a similar manner, reality is defined as: “Gegeninstanz” (111), “Versagung von Erfüllung” (113), “Rücksichtslosigkeit gegen Subjektivität” (205), or that “was zum Umweg zwingt.” (130). Occasionally, this conception is couched in more psychanalytic terms: real is anything that interferes with our wishes and desires, which causes shock, trauma and pain. Conversely, an absolute and continuous satisfaction of the pleasure principle would render our sense of reality void: “Würde der Lustanspruch vollkommen erfüllt, gäbe es kein Wirklichkeitsbewußtsein” (155). This is nicely illustrated in a description of how one experiences the reality of one’s own body, der Eigenleib (153-154). Insofar as the human body serves as a medium to get in touch with the world, it becomes less noticeable the more it succeeds in this; like any other medium, it disappears in its functionality and manifests itself only when it malfunctions. The body becomes more real when it gets hurt or sick; when somebody is not at ease or gets anxious, but less real when somebody is healthy and flawlessly immersed in an activity.
This example of the body supports Blumenberg’s claim that our consciousness and experience of reality is constituted in a reciprocal interplay between consistency and contrast, reliability and uncertainty, self-evidence and surprise (133). Exposed to a constant and overwhelming uncertainty, shock and adversary, we would not be able to make sense of reality, but neither would we in the case of an omnipresent reliability and self-evidence.[ii] Our experience of reality is constituted between these two limit situations and a concept of reality organizes this experience: it provides a relatively stable and reliable horizon of meaning that regulates our relation vis-à-vis the world. Hence, the rule which underlies and propels the history of thought on a macro level – ‘real is what is not unreal’ – reappears here as a condition of our consciousness of reality. What follows from this, and what is essential to our consciousness for Blumenberg, is our ability to negate. With reference to Kant, Blumenberg argues that our categories of reality and existence ultimately presuppose those of negation and possibility. We know of reality because we know it can turn out otherwise than it appears to be; because it often opposes our wishes and expectations or obstructs our paths and can correct for this. It is only because we can readjust in case of a misfit between us and the world, only because we can experience unreality, that reality gains relief and becomes – real.
In Beschreibung des Menschen, the posthumous collection of Blumenberg’s anthropological manuscripts, we find the revealing remark that there is an obvious “Exklusionsverhältnis von Anthropologie und Geschichtsphilosophie.”[iii] This tension clearly applies to Blumenberg’s different approaches to reality and realism as well: on the one hand, Blumenberg historicizes reality by his series of epochal concepts of reality that underlie the history of thought and determine what is regarded to be real in a specific time and age, but on the other hand he postulates an ahistorical source for this historical development in the form of a continuous human need to furnish the world with a secure and stable sphere of self-evidence so as to keep the absolutism of reality at bay. What remains particularly ambiguous is the way Blumenberg’s last two historical concepts of reality – reality as the actualization of a consistent context on the one hand and reality as resistance on the other hand – inform this ahistorical anthropology.
More generally, this raises the question to what extent our thought is inherently bound to a concept of reality. Can we somehow transcend the concept of reality that regulates our thinking and understanding characteristic for this time and age? Like any other epistemology which radically historicises the conditions for our knowledge, Blumenberg appears to run into a self-reflexive problem: either his own theory is itself a product of a time-bound concept of reality, which would render its claims about other epochs at least doubtful if not illegitimate, or his theory can in fact transcend the historical horizon that it considers to be conditional for every other theory, thereby creating an exception that seriously affects the scope and potential of the theory itself. Blumenberg’s anthropological explanation seems to side with the latter option, and although his formal and functional account of the history of reality might be a remedy for the problems involved, it lacks in the end methodical justification and clear theoretical support.
That being said, Realität und Realismus is a very rich and interesting volume, containing much more material than we have discussed here. Although many of its topics and themes are treated in other works as well, this book is certainly invaluable for future Blumenberg research, as it clearly shows the extent and significance of Blumenberg’s thinking on reality and realism in the broader context of his oeuvre. In the end, however, it serves more than academic interest: with its many creative insights, surprising associations and keen observations Realität und Realismus is really a valuable read for any realist philosophy in need of some serious inspiration, and for anyone wondering what it implies to ask if something is real.
Bajohr, Hannes. 2017. “History and Metaphor: Hans Blumenberg’s Theory of Language.” PhD diss., Columbia University.
Bajohr, Hannes et al. (Eds.). 2020. History, Metaphor, Fables: A Hans Blumenberg Reader. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Blumenberg, Hans. 1979. Arbeit am Mythos. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.
Blumenberg, Hans. 2020. Beiträge zum Problem der Ursprünglichkeit der mittelalterlich-scholastischen Ontologie. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.
Blumenberg, Hans. 2006. Beschreibung des Menschen. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.
Blumenberg, Hans. 1975. Genesis der kopernikanischen Welt. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.
Blumenberg, Hans. 1989. Höhlenausgänge. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.
Blumenberg, Hans. 1986. Lebenszeit und Weltzeit. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.
Blumenberg, Hans. 1966. Legitimität der Neuzeit. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.
Blumenberg, Hans. 2018. Phänomenologische Schriften. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.
Blumenberg, Hans. 2010. Theorie der Lebenswelt. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.
[i] Among others, Hannes Bajohr draws this link in his dissertation: Hannes Bajohr, “History and Metaphor: Hans Blumenberg’s Theory of Language” (PhD diss., Columbia University, 2017), 71.
[ii] Readers familiar with Blumenberg will recognise this as his description of the lifeworld. Although this concept itself does not frequently occur in Realität und Realismus, it certainly plays a prominent role in the background of Blumenberg’s thinking on reality, both in his historical and anthropological approach. It exceeds the purpose of this review to engage in a discussion on the relation between reality and the lifeworld, but the reader is well-advised to read Realität und Realismus in combination with, among others: Lebenszeit und Weltzeit (in particular its first and last part, Das Lebensweltmißverständnis and Die Urstiftung respectively), Theorie der Lebenswelt (in particular the essay Lebenswelt und Wirklichkeitsbegriff), Beschreibung des Menschen (in particular chapter X: Leib und Wirklichkeitsbewußtsein), and Phänomenologische Schriften (for example the highly illuminative text Rückblick von der Lebenswelt auf die Reduktion).
[iii] Hans Blumenberg, Beschreibung des Menschen (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2006), 485.