Arnaud Dewalque, Charlotte Gauvry & Sébastien Richard (Eds.): Philosophy of Language in the Brentano School: Reassessing the Brentanian Legacy

Philosophy of Language in the Brentano School: Reassessing the Brentanian Legacy Book Cover Philosophy of Language in the Brentano School: Reassessing the Brentanian Legacy
History of Analytic Philosophy
Arnaud Dewalque, Charlotte Gauvry, Sébastien Richard (Eds)
Palgrave Macmillan
Hardback 117,69 €
XVII, 322

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

The publication of Philosophy of Language in the Brentano School is a valuable addition to the range of recent English language anthologies probing the impact of Franz Brentano upon philosophical enquiries. The past two decades has seen several collections: those edited by Denis Fisette and Guillaume Fréchette, Dale Jacquette, Uriel Kriegel, and Robin Rollinger come immediately to mind. The volume under review edited by Arnaud Dewalque, Charlotte Gauvry, and Sébastien Richard is also one of the latest volumes of the forty published since 2008 within the History of Analytic Philosophy series under the general editorship of Michael Beaney. Beaney’s series introduction (v-viii) not only upholds the need for analytical philosophers to delve into the formative debates and topics since the 1870s that anticipate contemporary analytical and phenomenological concerns and conceptions, but also to recognise the heterogenous contexts out of which analytical philosophy developed, even when such contexts appear to have been marginalised if not altogether neglected.

What immediately confronts contributors and readers alike is, as Beaney concedes, whether Brentano developed a substantial philosophy of language. Irrespective of how we might respond, there is sufficient evidence that, whilst probing the nature of mental phenomena, Brentano’s published and unpublished work demonstrates enquiries into the role and function of language and meaning. This, in turn, raises the issue of whether other intellectuals influenced by him during his quarter-century of teaching or thereafter pursued his linguistic concerns (apart from Anton Marty (see, e.g., 130-135)). Accordingly, we shall begin with the carefully crafted introductory chapter by the volume’s editors which subtly orients readers in the face of the above-mentioned doubts when providing a rationale for their anthology. Thereafter, rather than summarising all fourteen remaining chapters, we shall explicitly concentrate upon chapters from two phenomenological phases debated within Philosophy of Language in the Brentano School. The first focuses upon how Brentano himself engages the question of context which nowadays is still seen as central to analytic philosophy. The second focuses upon how Roman Ingarden, a student of two of Brentano’s influential students, fundamentally transforms phenomenological conceptions of language. Each pivotal chapter chosen will include a paired but contrasting contribution within this engrossing anthology.

Indeed, readers will become increasingly aware of the consistently interweaving nature of this anthology. Those encountering less familiar intellectuals for the first time will have little difficulty acquiring more background in later chapters. For example, the logician Bernard Bolzano first mentioned in Guillaume Fréchette’s second chapter (e.g. 42ff.) re-appears in Hélène Leblanc’s sixth chapter (e.g. 127ff.), Bruno Leclercq’s tenth chapter (e.g. 209ff.) and Maria van der Schaar’s twelfth chapter (e.g. 248ff.). Or again, the linguist Karl Bühler first mentioned in the introductory chapter (e.g. 3 & 25) re-emerges in Fréchette (e.g. 50-51) before dedicated explorations of him in Basil Vassilicos’ fourteenth chapter (279ff.) and Kevin Mulligan’s fifteenth chapter (299ff.). However, for those easing into this anthology’s breadth of reference may find at its deepest level a wrestling with Immanuel Kant’s challenge: “although all our cognition commences with experience, yet it does not on that account all arise from experience” (1787: Introduction B1).


Chapter One immediately announces “the basic assumption” said to be “arguably shared” by Brentano and his followers: a philosophical analysis of meaning is “inseparable” from considering “what goes on in the mind and what there is in the world” (1). The foregoing is reiterated more forcefully as a “shared conviction that a philosophical analysis of language—and, more pointedly, of what it is for signs and sounds to be endowed with meaning—cannot possibly be disconnected from a philosophical analysis of mind and reality” (4). This is next followed by a succinct explanation of the complexities facing the transmission of Brentano’s thinking amongst “the breadth of [his] intellectual progeny” (2), especially in the case of “language, sign and meaning” (4). Two generally familiar questions arise here. Irrespective of where his “outstanding students”—for example, Anton Marty, Alexius Meinong, Kazimierz Twardowski, and Edmund Husserl—subsequently located themselves within the Austro-Hungarian empire or beyond, did they share a relatively “unified” conception of what philosophy and thereby philosophy of language comprises, or should they be regarded as “a heterogeneous group of scholars working on similar topics in a similar way” (2)? To what extent is the foregoing further complicated in that “most of them founded … their own school” (2) such as Marty in Prague, Meinong in Graz, Twardowski in Lwów, and Husserl in Göttingen and then Freiburg?

Some readers might be tempted by an alternative approach here when considering Brentano’s widely disseminated appeal to the study of “mental phenomena as a science” outlined in Psychologie vom empirischen Standpunkte (1874: 2-14). The conjunction of science and philosophy, however construed, invites a marked contrast in perspectives. As Robert Merton contends, “scientists ordinarily publish their ideas and findings not to help historians reconstruct their methods but to instruct their contemporaries and, hopefully, posterity about their contributions to science” (1968: 5). Hence, it would be futile to search conventional scientific texts alone as a means of reconstructing the actual history of scientific enquiry, let alone its indebtedness to precedents grounded in the practice of generations past. In fact, it should not surprise us that, when Brentano observes that

psychologists in earlier times have already pointed out that there is a special affinity and analogy that exists among all mental phenomena … which physical phenomena do not share,

he firstly elaborates this as:

Every mental phenomenon is characterized by what the Scholastics of the Middle Ages call the intentional (or mental) inexistence of an object, and what we might call … reference to a content, direction toward an object … (1874: 68)

which is subsequently amended to read:

… all mental phenomena really appear to be unextended. Further … the intentional in-existence, the reference to something as an object, is a distinguishing characteristic of all mental phenomena. (1874: 74-75)

If simply alluding to the “Scholastics”—or metonymously to Thomas Aquinas—characterizes a “scientific” enquiry, this can, from an historical point of view, be characterized in Merton’s terms as one of the following: firstly, as re-discoveries involving “substantive identity or functional equivalence”; secondly, as anticipations where “earlier formulations overlap the later ones” but without “the same set of implications”; or, thirdly, as foreshadowings which, in extreme cases, proclaim “the faintest shadow of resemblance between earlier and later ideas as virtual identity” (1968: 13 & 21). Moreover, the bulk of scientific enquiry can function successfully without any knowledge of foundational precedents. Is this exemplified by the sheer succession of mediaeval logico-linguistic debates upon which conceptions of modes of being, understanding, and signifying and out of which the notion of intentionality was to emerge? Is this why only two of Boethius Dacus and Petrus Aliacensis, Duns Scotus and Gulielmus Occamus, to mention but four crucial figures, are passingly mentioned once by Brentano (1874: 178)? As Merton claims, the physical and biological sciences can function through a “process of obliteration by incorporation” unlike the humanities and social sciences where “previously unretrieved information is still there to be usefully employed as new points of departure” (1968: 35). However, despite Brentano’s apparent conjunction of science and philosophy, Dewalque, Gauvry, and Richard can always retort that they are principally dealing with the contributions of philosophers, not scientists per se.

To reconstruct Brentano’s approach to language, Chapter One seizes upon the manuscript Logik containing Brentano’s notes for his 1869/1870 and 1870/1871 courses at Würzburg and 1875 and 1877 courses in Vienna. The manuscript is interpreted as an interlocking set of tenets (6ff.). These tenets, Dewalque, Gauvry, and Richard believe, assume the form of a “research programme” for Brentano’s students and their students (10ff.). Even glimpsing a few tenets in Logik reveals how Brentano’s notion of language operates amidst a dense conceptual intersection, including communication, generality, meaning, thought, and translatability:

[1] “Language, in its essential meaning, is the sign of thinking” (EL 80, 12.978[9]);

[2] “Language has at first the purpose of communicating thoughts” (12.988[2]);

[3] “Because language is the expression of thought, they say, it reflects thought. Certainly the word is dissimilar to thought, and that is why people’s languages ​​can be different from each other, while thinking is the same, and we translate thoughts from one language into the other” (12.998[2]);

[4] “Language generally has the purpose of expressing … our mental phenomena … (expressing the content of our psychic phenomena; what is presented, judged, desired …)” (13.008[2]);

[5] “Only when combined with other words do [syncategorematic or non-self-contained expressions] contribute to the expression of a psychic phenomenon, e.g. “No stone is alive,” “He struck me,” etc.” (13.009[1]);

[6] “What would Jupiter [the Roman god] mean? Since there is no thing Jupiter? So here the name can only mean my idea of ​​Jupiter, otherwise it meant nothing” (13.013[2]);

[7] “… as Plato [inadmissibly] said, both [“ox” and “dog”] are similar to a general thing, «animal,» an animal in itself, an animal species? – Then we would have to accept something general besides individual things, a world of generalities, a world of ideas” (13.013[8]);

[8] “… the phenomenon in question is not an idea, but a judgment. That which is judged as such is the meaning” (13.020[6]).

What Dewalque, Gauvry, and Richard conclude from the Logik is twofold. On the one hand, “linguistic analyses should never be made in isolation” (8) and, on the other hand, because we cannot “infer the structure of thought from the structure of language,” “some expressions are misleading in a systematic way” to the point of needing to be paraphrased so that “the addressee will not be tempted to posit fictional entities” (10).

Before Chapter One ends with a brief chapter-by-chapter précis (21-25), readers are given a justification of the anthology’s purview by four suggestive ways in which analyses of language by Brentano and followers “anticipated four historical stages of the analytic tradition” (16ff.). Three of the four stages nominated are explicitly initiated by chapters in Part I. Denis Seron pursues Sprachkritik or the critique of epistemically opaque language in the case of Brentano and Fritz Mauthner (77ff.); Dewalque investigates the appeal to how misleading expressions are diagnosed by ordinary language in the case of Brentano and Gilbert Ryle (95ff.); and Leblanc approaches the intentionality of communicative functions largely by way of Marty (119ff.). The fourth stage nominated, the integration of mind and metaphysics, ontology and psycholinguistics, percolates throughout the anthology. Dewalque, Gauvry, and Richard (19-20) avoid committing themselves to an unduly linear progression of the ideas characterizing each stage. For instance, contrasting roles are apportioned for Brentano and Marty in anticipating the third stage of intentional theories of communication associated with Paul Grice whose seminal 1957, 1969, and 1980 papers make no mention of them. Nor do they presume that such a progression is inevitably a result of immediately proximate influences. Nonetheless, no mention is made here of the earlier role of Hermann Lotze recently debated by, for example, Nikolay Milkov (2018) and Denis Fisette (2021). At the same time, Chapter One concedes some noticeable reversals. Just as earlier analytic philosophers regarded logic to be an autonomous theoretical discipline, Brentano and followers construed it as a practical one; just as later analytic philosophers regarded linguistics to be an autonomous discipline, Brentano construed it as one subservient to psychology.

Proposals about the “historical stages” of analytic philosophy of language are constantly prey to alternatives. For example, in so far as Van Quine and Thomas Kuhn since the ‘sixties interrogated the nature of translatability and interpretation and that of scientific theories and commensurability respectively, do they represent another distinctive analytic phase that happens to investigate cognate topics probed by Brentano and his leading students? Surely this example in common with any other faces at least two questions: “From whose perspective?”  and “By what criteria?” The first question alerts us to the following kinds of considerations. When exploring the formation of one or more historical phases of analytic philosophy of language, we may well be in danger of conflating quite different cognitive perspectives. In the words of R.G. Collingwood, we are not engaging in an act of recollection where “the past is a mere spectacle”; rather, the past is “re-enacted in present thought” (1936: 293). When we explore formative processes purportedly involved in a designated stage, we are of course assembling evidence or probabilities retrospectively from our particular perspectives. Consequently, the past is not waiting to be discovered as if it were immutable or inert. The second question shifts our focus to the methods by which we construct historical explanations of any phase of analytic philosophy of language. Here, Paul Roth’s investigation of explanatory case-studies contends that “there is no separating the analysis of explanation from attention … to cases … taken to be exemplary instances of problem solving” (1989: 469). By so claiming, Roth provides us with a set of criteria by which any historian of analytic philosophy of language can be evaluated (1989: 473): how the historical account under examination establishes “the importance of the occurrence of the event” or phase; what “is problematic about this event” or phase; why “other rational reconstructions” fall short; and, how the account “solves the problem … set.”


Two of the five chapters comprising Part I focus upon the degree to which Brentano’s construal of meaning as contextually sensitive directly connects to trends in Austro-Germanic philosophy as well as Anglo-American analytic philosophy. Here, we shall particularly focus upon Guillaume Fréchette’s Chapter Two. His contribution exemplifies at least three alternative ways of positioning the philosophy of language when re-assessing the legacy of Brentano: firstly, by examining Brentano’s actual texts and lectures; secondly, by contextualizing Brentano within the larger history of philosophical enquiry; and, thirdly, by contrasting Brentano’s dominant or successive claims with those defended by his students. Instead of probing the third alternative, this section shall conclude by raising the challenge in Charlotte Gauvry’s Chapter Three to a context principle in Brentano.

Fréchette rapidly identifies several related but not mutually implicit ways analytic philosophers construed the “context principle.” The principle, sourced to the introduction of Die Grundlagen der Arithmetik by Gottlob Frege (1884: x), is the second of three characteristically deployed by the vast majority of those espousing analytic philosophy, namely, “the meaning of the words must be asked in the sentence’s context, not in their isolation.” Fréchette (39-40) selects half-a-dozen re-formulations of Frege, particularly those associated with Michael Dummett and Van Quine, beginning with Frege’s subsequent elaboration indicative of his wariness of psychological appeals:

People suppose … that the concept originates in the individual mind [Seele] like leaves on a tree … and seek to explain it psychologically by the nature of the human mind [Seele]. (1884: §60, 71).

At first, Dummett appears to be elaborating Frege’s second principle in logico-linguistic terms:

the assignment of a sense to a word … only has significance in relation to the subsequent occurrence of that word in sentences …. for Frege, the sense of a word or expression always consists in the contribution it makes to determining the thought expressed by a sentence in which it occurs …. The sense of a word thus consists … in something which has a relation to the truth-value of sentences containing the word. (1981: 193-194).

This interpretation follows Dummett’s endorsement of another analytic principle nowadays often projected on to Frege and the opening of his 1923 article Gedankengefüge, the holistic principle of (semantic) “compositionality”:

For Frege, we understand the sense of a complex expression by understanding the senses of its constituents. In particular, we grasp the sense of a whole sentence by grasping the senses of the constituent expressions, and … observing how they are put together in the sentence…. When the complex expression is a complete sentence, Frege calls the sense which it expresses a ‘thought’ [or “a proposition”]. (1981: 152-153)

By extolling both principles, Dummett seems to shift ground when later claiming

What distinguishes analytical philosophy … is the belief that a philosophical account of thought can be attained through a philosophical account of language, and, secondly, that a comprehensive account can only be so attained (1993: 4)

before resorting to a psychological gloss when suggesting that “it is possible to grasp the sense of a word only as it occurs in some particular sentence” (1993: 97). Behind his so-called “linguistic turn,” Dummett’s contestable account of the origins of analytic philosophy virtually reflects Ludwig Wittgenstein’s radical contention about “certain forms of proposition in psychology, such as ‘A believes that p is the case’ and ‘A has the thought p’” (1921: 5.541). These together with “‘A says p’ are of the form ‘“p” says p’” (1921: 5.542). In other words, the psycho-linguistic relation between beliefs or thoughts and what they intend is the same as the relation between statements or sentences and what they intend. As a result, the logical structure of an ideal language reveals the structure of mental processes. So far, this group of analytic re-formulations appear to have a rather tenuous connection with Brentano as cited in our previous section.

Turning to Quine’s 1968 lecture “Epistemology Naturalized,” Fréchette (42ff.) dismisses the foundational role given to Frege because Quine assigns “the recognition of contextual definition, or … paraphrasis” to Jeremy Bentham (1968: 72). Without specifying Bentham’s posthumously published Essay on Logic on “exposition by paraphrasis” of propositions about “an entity of any kind, real or fictitious” (circa 1831: ch. 7, §7-8, 246-248), Quine regards that explaining an expression “need only show … how to translate the whole sentences in which [that expression] is to be used” and hence the “primary vehicle of meaning is seen no longer as the word, but as the sentence” (1968: 72). Elsewhere, by propounding the semantic primacy of sentences or propositions and thereby contextual definitions, Bentham is acclaimed by Quine (1975) as embodying the second of five historical “milestones” in the development of empirical philosophy.

By contrast, Quine is dubious about the worth of Brentano whom he regards as reviving “‘intentional’ … in connection with the verbs of propositional attitude” (1960: 219) exemplified by a person’s cognitive and affective relation towards a proposition (“Gianna believes that Gianfranco will buy her a gelato”; “Gianfranco hopes that Gianna can forget his promise”). Intentional idioms, he continues, create logically discordant divisions between, say, “referential” and “non-referential occurrences of terms,” “behaviorism and mentalism,” and “literal theory and dramatic portrayal” (1960: 219). Ultimately, Quine would not “forswear daily use of intentional idioms, or maintain that they are practically dispensable,” yet declares:

One may accept the Brentano thesis either as showing the indispensability of intentional idioms and the importance of an autonomous science of intention, or as showing the baselessness of intentional idioms and the emptiness of a science of intention. My attitude, unlike Brentano’s, is the second. (1960: 221)

Quine’s unease here with Brentano remains unremarked in Chapter Two as it delves into the latter’s Austro-Germanic intellectual background. Fréchette finds that the Prague-based Bernard Bolzano had already pre-empted Bentham’s appeal to paraphrasis in his 1810 monograph Beyträge zu einer begründeteren Darstellung der Mathematik [Contribution to a More Grounded Presentation of Mathematics]. He seizes upon Bolzano (1810: 55-56) stating that “any scientific exposition” must begin its “simple concepts and the word that [one] chooses for their designation” by distinguishing “such explications [Verständigungen] from a real definition” which Bolzano would call “paraphrases” [Umschreibungen (or, less charitably, “circumlocution”)] (cited 42). The notion of Verständigungen is later elaborated with reference to context [Zusammenhange] in Bolzano’s 1837 magnum opus, Wissenschaftslehre, Versuch einer ausführlichen und grössentheils neuen Darstellung der Logik [Theory of Science: An Attempt at a Detailed and Largely New Presentation of Logic]. Given the familiar circumstances of encountering an unknown sign [Zeichen] “with several others whose meanings are known,” then, in such cases, we come to recognise “the meaning of the sign from its use or from its context [aus dem Gebrauche oder Zusammenhange]” (1837: vol. 4, 547) (cited 42 & 52n.6). Furthermore, where expressions threaten to mislead us by their seeming referential function, Bolzano does not hesitate to paraphrase them. For example, he deals with the term “nothing” in the existential assertion “Nothing is more certain than death” by the following paraphrase “The idea of something that would be more certain than death has no object” (1837: vol. 2, 212ff.) (cited 43).

Having pinpointed Bolzano’s references to paraphrasis, context, and use, Fréchette (43-44) turns to examples in Brentano. The paraphrastic strategy concerning propositions about fictional entities emerges in correspondence with J.S. Mill where Brentano (1874: 170) notes:

The proposition, ‘A centaur is a poetic fiction,’ does not imply … that a centaur exists, rather it implies the opposite. But if it is true, it does imply that something else exists, namely a poetic fiction which combines part of a horse with part of a human body in a particular way. If there were no poetic fictions and if there were no centaurs imaginatively created by poets, the proposition would be false. In fact the sentence means just that, ‘There is a poetic fiction which conceives the upper parts of the human body joined to the body and legs of a horse,’ or (which comes to the same thing), ‘There exists a centaur imaginatively created by the poets

—or “There is a poet imagining a centaur.” This is succeeded by the Jupiter case we included as Tenet (6) from Logik (EL 80, 13.013[2]).

Brentano concludes:

The truth of the proposition does not require that there be a Jupiter, but it does require that there be something else. If there were not something which existed merely in  one’s thought, the proposition would not be true. (1874: 170)

However, the issue of Brentano’s notion of context is less straightforward. This is partly because of his intensely internal, tripartite psychological conception of any meaningful utterance or proposition. This involves first-person acts of perception, observation, and judgement, enhanced, for example, by memory and verbal communication (1874: e.g. 32 & 29). Gauvry’s hypothesis in Chapter Three is that “the so-called ‘context’” for any expression

to be meaningful is nothing more than the expressive sentence whose function is to express a mental act. That is the reason why the content of this meaningful sentence (which has not necessarily a propositional form and which can instead adopt the form of an ‘exclamation’ or a ‘request’) is nothing else than the mental content of the act expressed by the sentence.” (71)

Even when Brentano talks in passing of “an actual finished statement (a speech)” [ein eigentlicher fertiger Ausspruch (eine Rede)] in Logik (EL 80, 13.001[2]), there appears to be no example of the expression “context of sentence (or proposition)” [Zusammenhang des Sätzes]. Nor, Gauvry adds (70-71), does Brentano—unlike Wittgenstein (1945, §583)—focus upon the interactional and normative circumstances or surroundings in which speech occurs. To the extent that Brentano fixes upon the mental content of psychic acts, can he be regarded as upholding what analytic philosophers since Frege regard as context, be it sentential or social?


All five chapters comprising Part II focus upon the ways Brentano’s theory of meaning as subjective was strenuously debated by his students, especially Husserl, Meinong, and Twardowski, amongst themselves and their students. Each aimed to develop alternatives whereby meaning could be construed in objective terms. Although better known for his works in ontology and aesthetics translated into English since the ‘seventies, Polish phenomenologist Roman Ingarden, influenced by both Husserl and Twardowski, investigated language and meaning on numerous occasions. In what follows, we shall selectively examine Sébastien Richard’s Chapter Seven on Ingarden as “the peak” of efforts amongst Brentano’s lineage after Husserl (1894, 1901 & 1902) and Twardowski (1912) to reconcile “the subjective and objective aspects of meaning” (163). Attention will then be paid to Olivier Malherbe’s Chapter Eight which proposes how a close analysis of Ingarden (1931) leads to two distinct conceptions of meaning.

Initially Richard (esp. 147-158) provides brief summaries of critiques launched by Husserl, Meinong, and Twardowski accompanied by an illuminating set of charts. Thereafter, he emphasizes Ingarden’s discomfort with Twardowski and Husserl for variously suggesting that meaning’s objective and communicable character is somehow tantamount to what is instantiated by various meaningful acts. To the extent that Twardowski appeals to a contrast between the concrete and the abstract not unlike, say, various red garments and redness or various equilateral and isosceles, scalene and skewed triangular shapes and triangularity, the process of abstraction results in a second-order psychological act focused upon the actual first-order mental activity before it. To the extent that “Investigation II” in Husserl (1901) recognises much the same process, meaning by contrast is construed as an “ideal species” (or “ideation”) (158) underlying any manifestation of it. For Husserl, Richard states:

Meaning is neither something real in our thought (it is not a mental content) nor something in the real world (it is not an empirical object), but an ideal ‘species’ instantiated in the individual contents of mental acts. In this sense, meanings are ideal entities. (154)

However, Husserl does not deny a role for mental contents. To quote Richard, “it is still the content of the mental act that is responsible for the directedness toward the object of a name” (154). For Husserl, “ideal species” not only justifies the objectivity of meaning, it also rationalises its communicability by, it also seems, implicitly transforming Brentano’s Tenet (3) previously listed from Logik (EL 80, 12.998[2]). In Richard’s words again:

different language users can understand each other not because the content aroused in the mind of the listener is sufficiently similar to the content indicated in the mind of the speaker, but because their contents are instantiations of the same ideal species … (154)

In Das literarische Kunstwek, Ingarden (1931: §17, 91-95) finds that “ideal species” make meanings unchanging when the same words, each possessing its “intentional directional factor,” can assume different meanings owing to their logico-syntactic role within sentences. This, in turn, connects with determinate and indeterminate relationships or specifications. For example, for Gianfranco to assert, “Consuls in ancient Rome exerted enormous power” leaves open or relatively indeterminate who or what is specified by “consuls,” “ancient,” and “power” unlike Gianna stating, “The compact between consuls Iulius Caesar, Pompeius Magnus, and Licinius Crassus exerted supreme political and military power over ancient Rome from 60/59 B.C.” In his 1937 companion volume revised as Vom Erkennen des literarischen Kunstwerks, Ingarden on “verbal and sentence meanings” (1937/1968: §8, 24ff.) is taken by Richard to concede that, even if words or expressions “have only one meaning,” this is not a fixed state of affairs: a word’s meaning can shift with different contexts by being “tied to other words, pronounced or written by different speakers at different times, in different places and sentences” (159). To avoid communication becoming an interminable, if not random, “guessing game,” “an expression is something ‘intersubjective’”; an expression being “an entity whose meaning is accessible to different persons” (159).

Whilst Ingarden synthesizes aspects of both Husserl (e.g. 1901: Investigation 1, 206ff.) and Twardowski (e.g. 1912: 124ff.)—for instance, that “we confer meanings to words” and that “meaning is produced by subjective operations” (albeit temporally divisible) (160)—he construes meaning “not as part of a mental act, but as a unitary whole” (160). Alternatively expressed, Richard continues “that meaning exists potentially in expressions and can be actualised by different persons implies that it can be separated from them. In other words, meaning ‘transcends’ every mental act,” and, although we can “be mistaken when we re-actualise the meaning intention of a word,” this can usually be rectified (160). This, in turn, leaves Richard to sketch something of the complexity of Ingarden’s synthesis (drawn from 1931: §18, esp. 97ff.) of both his teachers:

the creation of meanings is not a creation ex nihilo. It is carried out from an ideal material that is structured into an expression by a cognitive agent. When someone produces an expression, on the one hand, she [or he] actualises some ‘pure qualities’ in its material parts and, on the other hand, she [or he] organises these ‘meaning elements’ into a whole. In other words, an expression does not instantiate a whole ideal meaning (Husserl), but contains (material) parts that instantiate pure qualities and that are structured (given a form) by subjective ‘forming operations’

—adding that “ideas” for Ingarden are not “types of mental content,” but “ideal concepts of objects, ideas that subsume the objects to which our words refer” whereas “pure qualities” are kinds of “‘bare universals’ that can be (ideally) concretised in ideas and instantiated in (realised in) real objects and (actualised in) meanings” (161).

A closer reading of the context of literary fiction enables Malherbe to examine amongst other factors Ingarden’s distinctive conception of language as an intentional multi-layered entity and its bearing upon the nature of meaning. The formation of language, especially the spoken (Sprachgebilde), whilst composed of various layers, comprises “unified homogenous elements” in each layer which “always maintains organic relations” with the other layers (172).

Alongside his overarching distinction between the completed work itself and its many individual concretisations by readers or listeners (1931: e.g. §8, 37-38; §62, 332ff.), Ingarden also introduces its many layers, the first three of which Malherbe (172) unhesitatingly regards as “essential”:

[a] the stratum of linguistic sound formations based upon the phonemes or distinctive significant sounds of a spoken language (for instance, forty-five in German, thirty-seven in Polish) and including rhythm and tempo as well as subsequent manifestations of Gestält qualities of tone;

[b] the “central” stratum of units of meaning which include categorematic or “nominal” and syncategorematic or “functional” words that project (entwirft) acts and attributes, events and persons, states and things. In combination with finite verbs that convey tense, aspect, etc., meaning unfolds in the form of sentences which can then combine to form segments and genres of discourses or texts. As Malherbe, who limits himself to individual words (173-176), succinctly states, this layer is “the core of linguistic signification” (172);

[c] the stratum of represented “objectivities,” that is, the objects, events, circumstances, etc. projected by units of meaning and their particular structural qualities—simple or paratactic, complex or hypotactic—which form the work’s style (e.g. “The fire began raging. Gianfranco gripped the person nearest to him tightly. Although frightened, Gianna sat still” and “When the fire began raging, Gianna, whom Gianfranco gripped tightly, sat still although frightened”); and

[d] the stratum of schematized aspects, which is “impossible for the reader to actualize with complete precision the same aspects that the author wanted to designate through the structure of the work,” nonetheless, for all their indeterminacies are “held in readiness” (paragehaltene) for readers or listeners by which they can picture the represented objectivities forming its plot and characters (1931: §42, 265ff.).

So far, as Malherbe argues, meaning is cognitive or intellectual (“rational”) which all works necessarily possess albeit in differing degrees.

Beyond that are metaphysical and aesthetic (“axiological”) qualities which Malherbe at first calls without pursuing “the stratum of writings” nor its “Gestalt quality” which may or may not form “a fifth layer” (172 & 185n.4), but acclaimed as such by, for example, René Wellek (1949: 152). Thereafter, Malherbe derives the second affective (or “irrational”) conception of meaning from metaphysical qualities which range from the grotesque and sorrowful to the sublime and tragic. Such qualities are “usually revealed” in “complex … disparate situations or events” pervading if not shaping all within them (1931: §48, 290-293). Metaphysical (and aesthetic) qualities can potentially define a work as artistic since their apprehension draws upon all layers although subject to the constraints upon concretisations mentioned above (1931: §49-51, 293ff.; cf. 1937/1968: e.g. §12. 62; §13a, 72ff.; §14, 90; etc.). As Malherbe concludes, the second conception of language is “value-driven” whose authors find themselves “in a particular attitude … more receptive to special types of value” and whose language itself is shaped (and words are chosen) in a very different way in order to allow some values to be enshrined in it, either as an end, or a … mean[s] to other ends. (183-184)


Limits upon length obviously prevent us from assessing Richard and Malherbe in light of, say, Anglo-American reviews of and reservations about Das literarische Kunstwerk since Paul Leon (1932) onwards. Some readers, too, might wonder why both authors have not included research since their co-edited 2016 volume on Ingarden’s ontology. Quibbles aside, a close reading of Philosophy of Language in the Brentano School teaches us that we ought not presume, in the words of Robert Hanna (2008: 149), that “the analytic tradition was all about logic and analyticity” and “the phenomenological tradition was all about consciousness and intentionality.” Hanna provocatively continues: “analytic philosophy and phenomenology alienated themselves from their Kantian origins,” yet could jointly renew themselves by “re-thinking and re-building their foundations” by reversing the foregoing trend (2008: 150). Clearly, Dewalque, Gauvry and Richard’s anthology begins this renewal.




Bentham, Jeremy. ca. 1831. Essay on Logic. In The Works of Jeremy Bentham. Edited by John Bowring, vol. 8, 213-293. Edinburgh: William Tait, 1843.

Brentano, F.C. 1869-1877. Logik [EL 80, 12.956-13.491]. Edited by R.D. Rollinger. Graz: Franz Brentano Archiv Graz, 2010 [accessible at: (reviewer’s translation)].

——-. 1874. Psychologie vom empirischen Standpunkte / Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint [2nd edn., 1924]. Edited by Oscar Kraus & Linda McAllister; translated by A.C. Rancurello, D.B. Terrell & L.L. McAllister. London & New York: Routledge, 1995.

Collingwood, R.G. 1936. “History as Re-enactment of Past Experience.” In The Idea of History with Lectures 1926-1928. Edited by W.J. van der Dussen, rev. edn., 282-302. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.

Dummett, Michael. 1981. Frege: Philosophy of Language, 2nd edn. London: Gerald Duckworth & Co.

——-. 1993. Origins of Analytical Philosophy. London: Gerald Duckworth & Co.

Fisette, Denis. 2021. “Hermann Lotze and the Genesis of Husserl’s Early Philosophy (1886-1901).” In The Idealism-Realism Debate among Edmund Husserl’s Early Followers and Critics. Edited by R.K.B. Parker, 27-53. Cham: Springer Nature.

Frege, Gottlob. 1884. Die Grundlagen der Arithmetik: Eine logisch mathematische Untersuchung über den Begriff der Zahl. Breslau: Wilhelm Koebner (reviewer’s translation).

——-. 1923. “Gedankengefüge / Compound Thoughts.” Translated by R.H. Stoothoff. Mind 72(285), 1963: 1-17.

Grice, H.P. 1957. “Meaning.” In Studies in the Way of Words, 213-223. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989.

——-. 1969. “Utterer’s Meaning and Intentions.” In Studies in the Way of Words, 88-116. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989.

——-. 1980. “Meaning Revisited.” In Studies in the Way of Words, 283-303. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Hanna, Robert. 2008. “Kant in the Twentieth Century.” In The Routledge Companion to Twentieth Century Philosophy. Edited by Dermot Moran, 149-203. London & New York: Routledge.

Husserl, Edmund. 1894. “Twardowski’s Zur Lehre vom Inhalt und Gegenstand der Vorstellungen: Eine psychologische Untersuchung.” In Aufsätze und Rezensionen (1890–1910). Edited by Bernhard Rang, 349-356. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1979.

——-. 1900 & 1901. Logische Untersuchungen / Logical Investigations. Edited by Dermot Moran; translated by J.N. Findlay [second 1913 edition; two volumes]. London & New York: Routledge, 2001.

Ingarden, R.W. 1931. Das literarische Kunstwek / The Literary Work of Art. Translated by G.G. Grabowicz. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973.

——-. 1937/1968. Vom Erkennen des literarischen Kunstwerks / The Cognition of the Literary Work of Art. Translated by R.A. Crowley & K.R. Olson. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973.

Kant, Immanuel. 1787. Kritik der reinen Vernunft / Critique of Pure Reason, 2nd edn. [“B”]. Edited and translated by Paul Guyer & A.W. Wood. Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Leon, Paul. 1932. “Critical Notice: Das Literarische Kunstwerk.” Mind 41(161): 97-106.

Merton, R.K. 1968. “On the History and Systematics of Sociological Theory.” In Social Theory and Social Structure, 3rd edn., 1-38. New York: The Free Press.

Milkov, Nikolay. 2018. “Hermann Lotze and Franz Brentano.” Philosophical Readings 10(2): 115-122.

Quine, W.V.O. 1960. “Flight from Intension.” In Word and Object, 191-232. Cambridge, Mass: The M.I.T. Press.

——-. 1968. “Epistemology Naturalized.” In Ontological Relativity and Other Essays, 69-90. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969.

——-. 1975. “Five Milestones of Empiricism.” In Theories and Things, 67-72. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Richard, Sébastian & Malherbe, Olivier (eds.). 2016. Forme(s) et modes d’être: L’ontologie de Roman Ingarden / Form(s) and Modes of Being: The Ontology of Roman Ingarden. Brussels, Bern, Berlin: Peter Lang.

Roth, P.A. 1989. “How Narratives Explain.” Social Research 65(2): 449-478.

Twardowski, Kazimierz. 1912. “Actions and Products.” In Kazimierz Twardowski on Actions, Products and Other Topics in Philosophy. Edited by Johannes Brandl & Jan Woleński; translated by Arthur Szylewicz, 103-132. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1999.

Wellek, René. 1949. “The Analysis of the Literary Work of Art.” In René Wellek & Warren Austin, Theory of Literature, 139-158. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co.

Wittgenstein, LJ.J. 1921. Logisch-philosophische Abhandlung / Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Translated by D.F. Pears & B.F. McGuinness. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963.

——-. 1945. Philosophische Untersuchungen / Philosophical Investigations, 4th rev. edn. Edited by P.M.S. Hacker & Joachim Schulte; translated by G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker & Joachim Schulte. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

Corijn van Mazijk: De Wereld als Verschijning

De Wereld als Verschijning: Fenomenologie en de Twintigste Eeuw Book Cover De Wereld als Verschijning: Fenomenologie en de Twintigste Eeuw
Corijn van Mazijk
Paperback €22,50

Reviewed by: Ward Huetink

Dr. Corijn van Mazijk is an assistant professor at the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, the Netherlands, who specializes in Kant and post-Kantian philosophy, particularly phenomenology. De Wereld als Verschijning: Fenomenologie en de Twintigste Eeuw (The World as Appearance: Phenomenology and the Twentieth Century, all translations from the Dutch are my own) is his second book, following a monograph on the nature of reality, perception and the relation between the two, in the work of Kant, Husserl and McDowell.[1]

De Wereld als Verschijning is a step back from the highly specialized research conducted in the earlier publication. Van Mazijk sets out to provide an introduction into phenomenology that is “as easily accessible as possible” (32). And that is exactly what he delivers. The book comprises five chapters and each chapter treats one of the four most influential phenomenologists of the 20th century; Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, respectively. The final chapter discusses six lesser known phenomenologists, including Edith Stein and Emmanuel Levinas.

Each chapter follows an identical structure. It opens with a short column detailing the main themes of this particular philosopher’s thought, as well as his or her influence on the development of the phenomenological tradition. This is followed by a few pages of biographical information, detailing the life of the thinker and the cultural-intellectual climate of the time, and how this influenced the work he or she went on to produce. With this setting-the-stage out of the way, the main part of each chapter is dedicated to a discussion of the philosophical substance itself. Van Mazijk emphasizes that although the book is intended to introduce phenomenology, the subject matter by itself is by no means simple, and so the main objective is to expound the ideas as clearly as possible, where needed aided by illustrations. The chapters then conclude with an overview of the main ideas of each thinker, complemented by a short list of important concepts and their definitions.

The work of each thinker is discussed in largely chronological order. For example, the first chapter, on Husserl, starts out with a discussion of the Logische Untersuchungen (1901) and ends with Die Krisis der Europäischen Wissenschaften und die Transcendentale Phänomenologie (1936). Of the five, this chapter is the longest. This is not surprising, considering the amount of work Husserl produced and his importance as the founder of the phenomenological tradition. As such, this chapter serves not only as an introduction to Husserl, but to the themes and philosophical considerations that continue to define phenomenology more broadly. It starts out, for instance, with Husserl’s critique of psychologism and naturalism, and the aim of returning to the description of things as they are given to consciousness, guaranteeing the clarity and absolute certainty of the outcome of his investigations. Van Mazijk then introduces the reader to Husserl’s work on intentionality, the natural attitude, the phenomenological reduction and the epoche. Then follows a more in-depth explanation of eidetic variation and the difference between constitutive and genetic phenomenology, the latter marking a shift in focus from Husserl’s earlier to his later work. The chapter concludes with a discussion of Husserl’s concept of ‘horizons’ and his analysis of time. By the end of these 36 dense pages, the reader is acquainted with many concepts and themes essential to understanding the other thinkers, although it is likely that those novel to phenomenology will have to return to this chapter for clarifications later on.

As the previous one, the chapter on Heidegger is divided between the early and later works. The priority is given, understandably, to the earlier work, Sein und Zeit (1927) in particular. Van Mazijk spends some time establishing the relationship between Husserl and Heidegger, and consequently the personal and intellectual rift between the two. He emphasizes Heidegger’s deviation from Husserl, especially where it concerns their respective epistemological positions by highlighting Heidegger’s recognition of human finitude and “the insignificance of every human attempt at knowledge” (p. 72). Simultaneously, he shows how Heidegger employs a kind of phenomenological reduction in carrying out his existential analytic of Dasein to uncover the ‘meaning of Being’. The main part of this chapter is dedicated to examining the results of this analysis, including the ontological difference between beings and in general, being-in-the world as human existence, care, the distinction between Vorhanden and Zuhanden through the classic example of the hammer, and the different modes of human existence in fallen-ness and authentic being. The chapter concludes by referring to Heidegger’s later works, of which only The Question Concerning Technology is discussed somewhat extensively.

The third chapter, on Sartre, is almost a third shorter than the preceding two and by far the most critical of the author discussed. In the introduction Van Mazijk makes it clear that, rather than a rigorous philosophical teaching, Sartre’s existentialism was more of a cultural movement, “comparable to the American beat generation” (109). Sartre, he argues, uses Husserl and Heidegger’s phenomenology primarily to ground his theory of the radical freedom of human beings. According to Sartre’s analyses, expounded in his main works Le Transcendence de l’Ego (1936) and L’Être et le Néant (1943), consciousness is essentially nothingness, an apersonal, transparent process without fixed properties. It is this essential nothingness, being-for-itself, that constitutes the freedom against the being-in-itself, the massive presence of the outside world. Thinking one is ‘something’ or a definite ‘someone’ is living in bad faith, a denial of the true, free essence of human life; hence Sartre’s famous proclamation that “existence precedes essence”. Van Mazijks main critique of Sartre’s brand of phenomenology is that it is flawed and inconsistent. It is flawed, since it denies the limiting constraints put on freedom by concrete reality. It is inconsistent, on the other hand, because Sartre modifies his theory on multiple occasions to undercut objections raised against him, or to avoid unwanted conclusions that seem to follow from his premises. For example, he rejects the possibility of radical egoism by introducing a kind of Kantian deontology in his lecture Existentialism is a Humanism, without much ground for these kind of ethical constraints on human freedom present in his earlier works. All in all, it seems Van Mazijk includes Sartre in the book more because of his historical influence in popularising phenomenology in Europe mid 20th century, rather than his philosophical accomplishments in their own right.

The fourth chapter discusses the work of Merleau-Ponty. The shortest chapter of the book limits itself to discussing La Structure du Comportement (1942) and Phénoménologie de la Perception (1945). Van Mazijk stresses Merleau-Ponty’s achievements in his analysis of perception as the fundamental way in which subject and object, or consciousness and world, interact. For each work, he shows how Merleau-Ponty’s dialectical style of doing philosophy results in a new understanding of this interaction. He shows how Merleau-Ponty uses insights from Gestalt-psychology to show how the intellectualist and physiologist paradigms of human behaviour are both lacking in their own right when it comes to describing and explaining behaviour, while his own position ambiguously oscillates between these subjectivist and objectivist poles, resisting a reductive interpretation. Similarly, in Phénoménologie de la Perception Merleau-Ponty shows how both empiricism and intellectualism remain stuck in the natural attitude towards the world, whereas perception as the portal to this world cannot itself be understood in terms of it. His own phenomenological analysis, combined with insights from empirical research, again paints a more holistic and ambiguous picture of the relation between man and world, in which the living body is the locus of this interaction. Van Mazijk emphasises that Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology is much closer to Heidegger and Husserl than it is to Sartre – although the deviations from Husserl are significant, including the integration of empirical research in his philosophical works, leading to a more interdisciplinary phenomenology.

The fifth and final chapter of De Wereld als Verschijning explores the work of six lesser known phenomenologists in brief. These are, in order, Max Scheler, Edith Stein, Eugen Fink, Alfred Schutz, Emmanuel Levinas and Jan Patočka. Here, too, a brief biographical introduction is followed by a discussion of their work. Since only a few pages are dedicated to each thinker, their treatment is condensed to a defining theme. For Scheler, this is love; for Stein, empathy; for Fink, phenomenology itself and the possibility of philosophy in general; for Schutz, philosophy of the social world and the foundations of sociology; for Levinas, the Other; and for Jan Patočka, the care for the soul. This chapter is a nice addition to an introduction to phenomenology, since it shows the influence and scope of phenomenological research. The choice of authors seems somewhat arbitrary, though; certainly, other writers in the phenomenological tradition could have been considered, such as Frantz Fanon, Ludwig Binswanger, Luce Irigaray or Iris Marion Young. Their influence today is certainly no less than Patočka or Schutz, and the inclusion of especially Young and Fanon would have added some diversity. They opened the door to what is now called Critical Phenomenology, and have been instrumental in pointing out how the supposedly ‘neutral’ consciousness of classical phenomenologists obscures latent presuppositions on what it is to be human. It is also notable that Simone the Beauvoir receives no more than a passing mention in the chapter on Sartre, while she is from a philosophical perspective undoubtedly as influential as her life-partner.

The book starts out with the question ‘what is phenomenology?’, and by the end the reader has a good idea of what Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty thought on this matter. However, Van Mazijk’s own view on the matter is not discussed in detail. In the conclusion, he briefly discusses the modern, specialized applications of phenomenology in different branches of science, such as psychiatry and artificial intelligence. It appears he laments this development and prefers the ‘grander’, more ambitious transcendental and existential projects of the past. He writes: “Only the future can tell whether the phenomenology of the 20th century had maybe more to offer than a reservoir of ideas for scientific application”, and it is clear that he certainly thinks so, but how exactly remains obscure. Throughout the book, he mentions these modern applications of phenomenology, but never elaborates in detail. This is a missed opportunity, since it could have emphasized the importance and relevance of the tradition, and potentially inspire those readers not strictly interested in abstract philosophy.

All in all, Van Mazijk provides a detailed and supremely readable introduction into phenomenology, which will undoubtedly be of great value to those interested in learning about the tradition and its main figures, or students looking for a good overview. De Wereld als Verschijning is the first book of its kind published in Dutch by a Dutch author in several decades, and it is a testament of the knowledge, passion and dedication the author has for his field of expertise.

[1] van Mazijk, C. 2020. Perception and Reality in Kant, Husserl, and McDowell. New York, NY: Routledge.  For a review of this book in this journal:

Jan Patocka: The Selected Writings of Jan Patocka: Care for the Soul, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2022

The Selected Writings of Jan Patocka: Care for the Soul Book Cover The Selected Writings of Jan Patocka: Care for the Soul
Jan Patocka. Erin Plunkett (Anthology Editor), Ivan Chvatík (Anthology Editor), Alex Zucker (Translator)
Bloomsbury Publishing
Hardback $90.00

Katherine Mansilla Torres: Resignificar la violencia. El pensamiento político de Maurice-Merleau Ponty

Resignificar la violencia. El pensamiento político de Maurice-Merleau Ponty Book Cover Resignificar la violencia. El pensamiento político de Maurice-Merleau Ponty
Katherine Mansilla Torres
SB / Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México
Paperback $16.90

Reviewed by: Luz Ascarate (Université de Franche-Comté / Université Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne)

Selon Paul Valéry, « la connaissance a le corps de l’homme pour limite »[1]. Un grand paradoxe se présente donc si nous essayons de penser philosophiquement la violence, un sujet urgent et d’actualité : la violence nous renvoie immédiatement au corps, et la connaissance philosophique trouverait sa limite dans le corps. Nous pouvons cependant considérer la réflexion philosophique comme une réflexion qui dépasse les limites de la connaissance, et en ce sens, qui ne peut se réaliser que dans la considération du corps. En tout état de cause, toute la difficulté est de savoir si la philosophie est la discipline la plus adéquate pour traiter le sujet de la violence. Le philosophe est-il capable d’apporter quelque point de vue d’importance à ce sujet ? Katherine Mansilla le pense, en suivant Maurice Merleau-Ponty, un philosophe qui est parvenu à développer une réflexion philosophique sur le corps. Mansilla présente la pensée de Merleau-Ponty afin de soulever des questions et de proposer des réponses possibles aux différentes significations qui découlent du thème de la violence. Mansilla estime que l’importance de la perspective élaborée par Merleau-Ponty est qu’elle nous permet de comprendre la violence à partir de la contingence : l’histoire, les relations collectives, notre pays. En ce sens, le livre de Mansilla est aussi une refonte de la pensée politique de Merleau-Ponty basée sur le concept de violence. Mais le texte de Mansilla est loin de diviser la pensée de Merleau-Ponty entre une partie théorique et une partie pratique, entre sa phénoménologie et sa philosophie politique. Mansilla relève le défi de penser, enrichi par la perspective gestaltiste de la figure et du fond, l’unité de la philosophie de Merleau-Ponty, de sa phénoménologie de la perception à sa dernière ontologie, en tenant compte du fait que l’unité de la production philosophique est encadrée par le fond historico-politique qui traverse toute la pensée de Merleau-Ponty.

I. Le fond socio-historique

Que la philosophie ne puisse être détachée de son contexte ou de son fond socio-historique est une intuition qui a accompagné Merleau-Ponty tout au long de son œuvre. Cependant, cette appartenance ne peut être comprise qu’à travers l’effort de comprendre cet arrière-plan comme la condition de possibilité d’une expérience constitutive. Comme on le lit dans Éloge de la philosophie, « la philosophie habite l’histoire et la vie, mais elle voudrait s’installer en leur centre, au point où elles sont avènement, sens naissant. Elle s’ennuie dans le constitué. Étant expression, elle ne s’accomplit qu’en renonçant à coïncider avec l’exprimé et en l’éloignant pour en voir le sens »[2]. Mansilla parvient à rendre compte de la dialectique qui s’établit entre le constitué et le constituant dans la pensée de Merleau-Ponty. Une dialectique qui, selon elle, est présente dès ses premières œuvres, dans lesquelles il tente d’élucider la structure de la perception. Elle se consacre donc non seulement à situer la pensée de Merleau-Ponty dans son contexte socio-historique, mais, à partir de là, elle délimite le rôle des concepts les plus importants de sa pensée en général – tels que le corps propre, l’intentionnalité opérante, la temporalité, l’être-au-monde – afin de comprendre sa pensée sur la violence. Cette pensée ne doit pas être comprise comme une position « politique » mais plutôt comme une pensée sur « le politique », qui répond à des concepts tels que la dialectique sans synthèse, l’anonymat social et l’institution.

C’est le premier chapitre, intitulé « Merleau-Ponty sur le fond social de l’entre-deux-guerres », qui sert de base à ce fond socio-historique. Mansilla se place dans le contexte biographique de Merleau-Ponty afin d’établir une relation entre la violence vécue par le philosophe en temps de guerre et sa critique de la philosophie de « survol ». Un événement important souligné par l’auteure est la participation de Merleau-Ponty à la fondation, avec Sartre, du groupe Socialisme et Liberté en 1941, qui a soutenu la Résistance dans ses publications. C’est à cette époque que le philosophe prépare les bases de ce qui deviendra la Phénoménologie de la perception dans sa thèse dirigée par Émile Bréhier. À cette époque, parmi les lectures les plus importantes de Merleau-Ponty figurent les textes de Trosky, de Lénine et l’ouvrage de Renaudet sur Machiavel. Dans le contexte mondial, à la fin de la guerre, l’idéologie totalitaire est en plein essor, ce qui entraîne une opposition entre le libéralisme et le communisme.

II. L’héritage husserlien

Mais de cet arrière-plan ou fond biographique émerge l’exigence philosophique héritée de la phénoménologie husserlienne du retour aux choses elles-mêmes qui, dans la vision de Merleau-Ponty, prend le sens d’un retour de la réflexion philosophique au sujet de son propre corps dans un monde marqué par la violence. À cet égard, les conférences de Paris données par Husserl à la Sorbonne en 1929 ont été fondamentales pour la conception de la phénoménologie de Merleau-Ponty. Mais l’héritage husserlien est également fondamental pour comprendre le sens de la liberté que Merleau-Ponty articule afin de donner un sens au politique. Il est intéressant de noter que l’auteure reprend la distinction ricœurienne entre la politique, domaine ontique des pratiques institutionnelles rationnellement assumées par la philosophie politique, et le politique[3], domaine ontologique ou structurel des relations de pouvoir, afin de situer la perspective de Merleau-Ponty dans la dialectique de ces deux domaines, que l’auteure comprend comme la dialectique de l’institué et de l’instituant.

En ce sens, la liberté est comprise dans une perspective génétique qui permet à l’auteure de revenir sur les aspects constitutifs du politique. Cette sphère précède la sphère de la connaissance ou de la délibération. Ainsi, les intérêts socio-historiques sont ici fondamentaux pour comprendre l’orientation des analyses de la Phénoménologie de la perception dans la perspective de Mansilla. Ces intérêts radicalisent la description de Merleau-Ponty grâce à la perspective génétique héritée de Husserl. Mansilla emprunte ici les instruments de cette orientation de la méthode husserlienne pour comprendre Merleau-Ponty, ce qui ne trahit pas le sens de la réduction husserlienne. Comme on le sait, en tant que dévoilement ou thématisation de la constitution, la réduction husserlienne est toujours une «interrogation rétrospective» (Rückfrage)[4] qui peut avoir deux orientations, correspondant à un fondement de validité (Geltungsfundierung), et à un fondement génétique (Genesisfundierung)[5]. Ces deux types de fondement correspondent au sens philosophique de « fondement ». Mais c’est cette dernière qui nous permet d’expliciter, selon les termes de Fink, la « pauvreté, la plus extrême qu’on puisse imaginer »[6] de la subjectivité.

Mansilla découvre le même geste dans la pensée de Merleau-Ponty. Il nous exhorte, précisément, à revenir à une expérience originelle du monde, une expérience qui précède toute connaissance. C’est à ce niveau que nous nous reconnaissons comme des êtres vivants face à un monde qui nous est inéluctable (p. 42). Mansilla nous fait ainsi lire ce fragment de la Phénoménologie de la perception : « la perception n’est pas une science du monde ce n’est pas même un acte, une prise de position délibérée, elle est le fond sur lequel tous les actes se détachent et elle est présupposée par eux »[7]. Selon Mansilla, le travail de Merleau-Ponty sur la perception nous permet de prendre conscience que nous sommes des corps qui forment un seul système avec le monde, ce qui peut être compris comme la signification du monde par le corps dans une relation circulaire. Le sensible demande au monde d’être mis en forme par le corps. Le corps répond à cette demande et met le monde en forme. Cette mise en forme est comprise par Mansilla comme expression ou signification, ce qui lui permet de voir la continuité entre les analyses merleau-pontiennes consacrées à la perception et celles consacrées plus tard à l’expression. Dans cette perspective, nous lisons précisément dans la Phénoménologie de la perception une radicalisation du thème de l’expression en vue de l’orientation génétique qui annonce déjà ce qui va suivre dans la philosophie de Merleau-Ponty :

 « C’est la fonction du langage de faire exister les essences dans une séparation qui, à vrai dire, n’est qu’apparente, puisque par lui elles reposent encore sur la vie antéprédicative de la conscience. Dans le silence de la conscience originaire, on voit apparaître non seulement ce que veulent dire les mots, mais encore ce que veulent dire les choses, le noyau de signification primaire autour duquel s’organisent les actes de dénomination et d’expression »[8].

Selon Mansilla, Merleau-Ponty poursuit ainsi les analyses génétiques de Husserl, renouvelle l’héritage phénoménologique qu’il assume de manière rigoureuse sans cacher ses paradoxes et dont il explore différents horizons thématiques pour développer sa propre réflexion. En ce sens, le corps et le langage sont compris dans l’héritage génétique de la phénoménologie husserlienne. C’est ce même héritage qui lui permet de surmonter les dichotomies qui découlent du sentiment de violence. Ainsi, dans le deuxième chapitre intitulé « Violence et humanisme », l’auteure échange les analyses génétiques contre une vision profonde du politique.

Le texte clé est ici le célèbre ouvrage Humanisme et terreur[9]. Sur la base de ce texte, et sans négliger le contexte socio-historique marqué à cette époque par la participation de Merleau-Ponty à la revue Les temps modernes, l’auteure retrace le lien entre les différentes significations de la violence chez Merleau-Ponty. Le premier a trait aux phénomènes politiques que le philosophe traverse entre 1945 et 1947, qui peuvent être compris comme le conflit entre libéraux et communistes sur la violence que les uns rencontrent chez les autres. Cette violence est appelée, par l’auteure, violence idéologique. Merleau-Ponty trouvera une forme de violence pré-prédicative et pré-rationnelle qui lui permettra de dépasser les dichotomies des idéologies de la guerre froide. Cette forme de violence qui répond au second sens peut être explicitée grâce à une perspective humaniste de la violence, qui comprend la violence comme matériellement constitutive de toute praxis politique.

Un troisième sens de la violence est la violence de l’histoire, qui est le fondement des deux autres formes de violence. Merleau-Ponty reprend ici, selon l’aurore, ses analyses de la perception en identifiant en elle un corps traversé par son intentionnalité opératoire située dans une temporalité perceptive. En bref, l’histoire, en sédimentant les sens dans le temps, et en demandant aux hommes de marcher en un sens, change. Selon Mansilla, « l’histoire est violente parce qu’elle est contingente et ambiguë » (p. 57). Merleau-Ponty nous invite donc à aborder l’histoire à partir d’un sujet acteur dans une histoire ouverte, violente, sauvage. L’avenir politique est donc un acte révolutionnaire dans un sens existentialiste, créatif et révolutionnaire. Dans chaque type de violence, nous trouvons une structure de plus en plus fondamentale et constitutive du social. Ainsi, dans le troisième chapitre de cet ouvrage intitulé « L’anonymat social », l’auteure revient sur l’influence husserlienne de l’analyse génétique chez Merleau-Ponty pour comprendre ce dernier type de violence. Nous sommes confrontés à une radicalisation du fondement contingent du politique et de l’expérience. C’est cette radicalisation qui aurait conduit Merleau-Ponty à se rapprocher de Machiavel.

III. De Machiavel à Marx

Machiavel permet à l’auteure de plonger dans le contexte socio-politique révélé par les analyses de la perception. Le texte clé ici est une conférence sur Machiavel présentée au Congrès de Florence de 1949 et publiée dans Signes[10]. Mansilla identifie ici une confluence entre la préoccupation merleau-pontienne pour le langage et pour la contingence fondamentale du politique. Au fond, c’est cette préoccupation commune qui aurait conduit Merleau-Ponty à chercher chez Marx certaines réponses à la réflexion philosophique sur les problèmes politiques et sociaux qui traversent son contexte socio-historique, comme le montrera Mansilla dans le cinquième chapitre de son livre intitulé « Merleau-Ponty, lecteur de Marx ».

L’auteure comprend la relation de Merleau-Ponty avec le marxisme comme une relation constante et dialogique. Elle identifie ainsi les mentions de Marx depuis la Phénoménologie de la perception jusqu’à Les aventures de la dialectique[11]. Le concept clé ici est celui de production, un concept que Merleau-Ponty comprendra dans une perspective existentielle et humaniste. Mansilla parvient également à rendre compte de la discussion de Merleau-Ponty avec les marxistes de son temps sur la défense du Parti communiste français, ainsi que de la rupture avec Sartre. Selon l’auteure, il s’agit dans les deux cas d’une radicalisation de la perspective de la contingence par rapport au social.

Dans le dernier chapitre intitulé « Expression, institution et contingence », l’auteure propose une vue d’ensemble du politique dans la perspective de Merleau-Ponty, en s’appuyant sur les aspects explorés dans les chapitres précédents. Le concept clé ici est celui de l’expression, qui permet à l’auteure de comprendre la dialectique entre l’institué et l’instituant. L’auteure identifie un lien primordial entre la contingence du langage et la contingence de la politique. Cela permet au philosophe d’expliciter les relations dialectiques comme étant les siennes, dans une vie commune contingente qui s’enracine dans sa communication et son action avec les autres. Nous nous retrouvons donc avec une conception purement contingente de l’histoire qui place dans un cadre phénoménologique génétique divers événements historiques qui traversent la vie de Merleau-Ponty. L’expression comprise dans le cadre de la communication entre individus et cultures diverses nous permet de reconnaître une universalité ouverte fondée sur un anonymat originel. Merleau-Ponty nous permettrait ainsi de nous interroger sur un sens profond de la violence qui implique ses significations historiquement sédimentées et une approche de notre réalité sociale.

Mansilla nous permet enfin de poser certaines questions qui dépassent le cadre de la philosophie merleau-pontienne et s’adressent à la philosophie en général : la philosophie peut-elle dire quelque chose de radical sur la constitution politique du monde dans lequel nous vivons ? Est-il possible de réaliser une philosophie engagée dans la réalité ? Cet engagement est-il accessoire ou nécessaire au travail philosophique ? Le pari de Mansilla est un pari qui défend l’unité de la théorie et de la pratique philosophiques, une unité incarnée dans un contexte socio-historique vital que nous ne pouvons pas « survoler ». En ce sens, il est impossible de ne pas rapprocher l’ouvrage de Mansilla, dont nous recommandons absolument la lecture, aux tentatives qui ont déjà été faites en phénoménologie pour défendre cette unité chez des penseurs comme Claude Lefort, Tran Duc Thao et Enzo Paci.

[1] P. Valéry, Cahiers. Tome 1. Paris : Gallimard, 1973, p. 1124.

[2] M. Merleau-Ponty, Éloge de la philosophie, Paris, Gallimard, 1953, p. 59.

[3] Cf. P. Ricœur, « Le paradoxe politique » (1957), in : Histoire et vérité, Paris : Seuil, 1964.

[4] E. Fink, Sixième Méditations cartésienne. L’idée d’une théorie transcendantale de la méthode, traduit par Nathalie Depraz, Grenoble, Jérôme Millon, 1994, p. 62.

[5] Cf. ibid.

[6] Cf. ibid., p. 103.

[7] M. Merleau-Ponty, La phénoménologie de la perception, Paris, Gallimard, 1945, p. V.

[8] Ibid., p. X.

[9] M. Merleau-Ponty, Humanisme et terreur. Essai sur le problème communiste, Paris, Gallimard, 1948.

[10] M. Merleau-Ponty, « Notes sur Machiavel. Chapitre 10 », dans Signes, Paris, Gallimard, 1960.

[11] Cf. M. Merleau-Ponty, Les aventures de la dialectique, Paris, Gallimard, 1955.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty: The Possibility of Philosophy, Northwestern University Press, 2022

The Possibility of Philosophy: Course Notes from the Collège de France, 1959–1961 Book Cover The Possibility of Philosophy: Course Notes from the Collège de France, 1959–1961
Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy
Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Translated by Keith Whitmoyer. Foreword by Claude Lefort. Edited by Stéphanie Ménasé
Northwestern University Press
Paperback $34.95

Philippe P. Haensler, Kristina Mendicino, Rochelle Tobias (Eds.): Phenomenology to the Letter: Husserl and Literature

Phenomenology to the Letter: Husserl and Literature Book Cover Phenomenology to the Letter: Husserl and Literature
Volume 7 in the series Textologie
Philippe P. Haensler, Kristina Mendicino, Rochelle Tobias (Eds.)
De Gruyter
Hardback 109,95 €

Reviewed by: Fermín Paz (CIN / FFyL - UBA)

Phenomenology to the Letter. Husserl and Literature (2021), is a collection of thirteen essays that make explicit multifaceted theoretical implications between literature and Husserlian phenomenology. Volume number 7 of the collection Textologie by De Gruyter is edited by Philippe P. Haensler, Kristina Mendicino, and Rochelle Tobias.

Each of the papers making up this work present an original insight. Together they advance a common goal: a deep exploration of the immensely rich work of the father of phenomenology, tracing back what, in the words of the editors, are logical and poetological (1) implications between literature and his writing. Through the different articles that constitute it, this volume presents a broad and varied series of issues. In each essay, phenomenology and literature are presented as fields that are not a priori differentiated, but branch from diverse modes and axes of analysis.

The position the book confronts is characterized in the introduction by the editors: from the formula “to the things themselves” as key to Edmund Husserl’s proposal, phenomenology would have been accused of being “negligent” about language and other forms of mediation. Phenomenology to the Letter draws a historical line to characterize this reaction against phenomenology that has its more characteristic points in the deep oblivion of the language (abgründige Sprachvergessenheit) as proposed by Gadamer (1986, pág. 361), up to the Foucault’s accusation about the logophobie of phenomenology (1971). Moreover, this differentiation can also be read in the linguistic turn of analytic philosophy, or in the post-structuralist philosophy of Derrida. This work aggregates this accusation and highlights its incorrectness by linking Husserl with classic rhetoric, modern literature, aesthetic theory, and cultural criticism. However, the goal of the book implies a task that is not easy to solve. The response to these 20th Century accusations is not provided from a theoretical reconstruction of an exegesis of Husserlian corpus, but with a reading proposal from the collaborators of this volume that updates and explores the own limits of the phenomenologist’s task.

The logical and poetological implications of Husserlian writing are analyzed from a conjunction of literature and phenomenology. This conjunction not only revisits the inscription itself of the very same Husserlian letter as theoretical and textual corpus but also analyzes a phenomenological inscription in a wide range of literary works. Thus, this volume analyzes an implicit link between modern writers as Proust, Flaubert, Kafka, Rilke, Benjamin, Beckett, Olson, and Blanchot with certain modes of inquiry in the operations of the conscience, specifically phenomenological ones. The link between phenomenology and literature is not unilaterally constructed “outwards” from the Husserlian phenomenology towards the literary work, instead this volume draws a relation of reciprocal involvement that vindicates a literary task within the construction of phenomenology. The editors even discuss phenomenography[1], as they argue that for Husserl, “literature constitutes the medium in which the phenomenological analyses of transcendental subjectivity attain objective existence” (4). In this sense, literary language itself constitutes an immanent question to phenomenology as “both the method and existence of phenomenology depend upon a literary medium that cannot but be foreign to it” (5).

In its structure, the book is divided into four parts, each part addresses specific topics with a group of essays. In the first part, Husserlian phenomenology’s own language is thematized. Then, the second part discusses the relationship between experience and language, and the enrichment or challenges that the latter imposes upon the former. The third part focuses on the relationship between experience and literary works, fusing phenomenology and literature. Lastly, the problem of fiction is further explored as central to the methodological determination of phenomenology.

The first part of the book, Rhetoric and Thought: The Language of Phenomenology, addresses the issue of phenomenology’s own language in four essays that focus specifically on Husserl’s writing. The first part offers a series of explanations between Husserlian language and the developments of his phenomenology.

The first article is entitled Husserl’s Image Worlds and the Language of Phenomenology, by Michael McGillen. The author resumes the concepts used by Husserl to present his phenomenological method to establish that the technical language of phenomenology is built from a metaphorical language. McGillen suggests that the linguistic and pictorial aspects of images are briefly connected. To focus on this relation, the author resumes the theory of image consciousness by Husserl and proposes its applicability to literary metaphors. Thus, he links the experience of a metaphor with the experience of image-consciousness. In this point, it may be argued that the application of Husserl’s theory of image consciousness to metaphors or textual images requires further clarifications in light of the loss of frame (Bild) as a shared character between the object and the subject of the image. Nevertheless, this problematic parallel between metaphor and image, letter and experience, anticipates the theoretical position that guides the book proposal. 

In Au Coeur de la Raison: la phénomenologie, Claude Romano claims that material a priori can only be conceived from a theory that fundamentally has an anthropological base for essential determination. In the essay Auch für Gott: Finitude, Phenomenology and Anthropology, Tarek R. Dika argues that Romano holds two mutually contradictory theses: firstly, that the negation of material a priori necessities is inconceivable and secondly, that these necessities, due to their anthropologic bases, are only conditional and therefore, their negation must be conceivable. If the Husserlian material a priori is postulated as a necessity for any kind of experience, it is done to disengage the sense of experience from the sense of language. Only then can phenomenology propose a prelinguistic sense. Dika’s argumentation in favor of a priori material à la Husserl is a reassurance for the cornerstone of the phenomenological experience: informed perception with a prelinguistic sense, described with pretension of universality.

The third essay, irgend etwas und irgend etwas: Husserl’s Arithmetik and The Poetics of Epistemology, is written by Susan Morrow, who reads Husserl’s first published monograph, Philosophy of Arithmetic, accused of psychologism as a poetics of epistemology. This work establishes a relationship between the concerns of a young Husserl, focusing on the analysis on the concept of multiplicity, to the ones of maturity, that focus on the historicity of geometry and science as such, revealing a certain consistency. This consistency allows Morrow to articulate her reading proposal from a key term for the book proposal as a whole: the status of a poetics of the epistemology is supported by a reading that traces poetological implications in the arithmetic’s justification of the philosopher that pursued a rigorous science.

The last work, by one of the editors, Philippe P. Haensler, is titled Fort. The Germangled Words of Edmund Husserl and Walter Benjamin. With great erudition, Haensler’s comparative reading between Husserl and Benjamin chases a twofold goal: on the one hand, to reveal Benjamin’s anticipation of certain Husserlian developments, and on the other hand, the essay establishes for Husserl’s phenomenology a deep interest in the question of literary translation. Haensler reads      Husserl’s transhistorical concern for the foundation of sense and Benjamin’s messianic reconceptualization of the relationship between an original and its translation as “two pieces of the same vessel” (85).  However, this essay is not limited to the historical reconstruction of mutual readings between Husserl and Benjamin. With the presence of Jaques Derrida as a key mediator between the two authors, Haensler evidences for phenomenology, translation as a trans-performative act,      and the letter of the father of phenomenology as a subject for discussion in itself.

The second section, Phenomenology and Incommensurability: Beyond Experience is concerned with the issue of an experience possible through language, one that defies (and, in some cases, even exceeds) the limits of the described experience from a strictly phenomenological perspective.

This section begins with the work of Jean-Sébastien Hardy, Beyond Experience: Blanchot’s Challenge to Husserl’s Phenomenology of Time, who finds in the concept of disaster (desastre) by Maurice Blanchot a key for what the author calls a “phenomenology of anticipation”. Hardy maintains that Husserlian expectation has traces of an implicit prophetic paradigm and that the affectivity of protension may well be a product of an institution that is at the same time, original and historic. Meanwhile, the Blanchotian disaster as something that is “outside experience, outside the realm of phenomena” (Blanchot, 1986, pág. 9) does not answer to any expectation and constitutes a challenge for Husserl. Hardy wonders if the immanent consciousness of temporality is really as pure as Husserl desired or whether a radically different temporalization is possible (118). In line with Blanchot, Hardy concludes that our intern and immediate sense of time “is not so much constituted as it is instituted, when it comes to the anticipation of what is about to come” (130).

In the next essay, Absehen – Disregarding Literature (Husserl/Hofmannsthal/Benjamin), Henrik S. Wilberg reads Husserl’s famous letter to Hofmannsthal, retrieving the frequently exposed link between the phenomenological method and the purely aesthetic attitude, as both imply a deviation from the natural attitude. The artist and the phenomenologist share before the world the neutralization of the positionality of the objects of experience. What is new in this article is the incorporation of a young Benjamin into that dialogue. Wilberg affirms that “when the Young Benjamin first enters into the orbit of phenomenology, he does so accompanied by the same figure who – and the same text that – occasioned Husserl’s reflections on the relation between literature and philosophy” (139/140). The historical reconstruction of mutual readings between authors is at the service of the “poetized” as the foundation of the experience of reading. There is therefore a link between the Husserlian modification of neutralization with what Benjamin calls Gedichtete as the indecipherable, the unanalyzable, specific to a reading experience. Benjamin’s reading of Husserl goes beyond direct mentions and is in the notion of “poetized” where affinities with Husserl can be read, a notion used to characterize a new dimension of the poetic. For Wilberg, it is in this state or in the modification of the view of the reader towards the poeticized of the poem where the potentialities of the Husserlian modification of neutralization comes into play, transcending the explicit comments of Husserl himself.

This conceptualization of a      reading experience       shares its goal with the work of another editor, Kristina Mendicino. In Drawing a Blank – Passive voices in Beckett, Husserl and the Stoics, Mendicino links Husserl’s phenomenology with Stoicism on the basis of the theorization of the material aspect of language, finding the most extreme consequences of the position that both schools would share in The Unnamable, by Beckett. That concern that Beckett takes to the extreme is homologated with the Stoic notion of lékton, which characterizes the discursive instance as an ambivalent phenomenon. If the materiality of language offers an experience that surpasses the meaning of language, both for Husserl and for the Stoics, the link with Beckett can be read when he affirms that “the things that language speaks of may always be elsewhere, speeches may seduce with their movement, and words can take wing so as to fly from the strictures or comprehensive grasp” (150). Mendicino recognizes the links between Frege, Bolzano, Meinong and, evidently, Husserl, with the Stoics. However, the Beckettian way acquires a new sense within this volume. Beckett’s reference to the Stoics is made in poetological terms. In the Stoics, Mendicino traces back an importance to the thetic character within phenomenology and inherent to perception: “between sense and expression comes a moment of making sense that resists translation into categorial forms of predication and whose logical character cannot be rendered with a predicative syntax” (167). The author finds an “aphenomenal páthos of language” (171), being the use of the passive voice in Beckett the master expression of a poetology of the experience of language.

The link between literary works and phenomenology is more strongly established in the third part of the book. In Phenomenology of the Image and the text Corpus, literature appears as a corpus with which a wide group of theoretical developments of phenomenology is faced. At the same time, the link between the experience of the image and its description in a literary language is further analyzed.

The first work is Charles Olson: Phenomenologist, Objectivist, Particularist by Stefanie Heine exposes the poetry of Charles Olson as a complement of Husserl’s philosophy of language in Logical Investigations. The essay reconstructs in Olson a theoretical development inseparable from the practice of writing, taking as a starting point the work of unpublished manuscripts, transcribed or attached in this book. Even though Olson echoes Merleau-Ponty, this work shows Olson’s complement to Husserlian phenomenology, borne from his interest as a poet, of considering words as physical entities, and of taking the word as Leib before taking it as Körper in the specific moment of writing. On the one hand, is the sensible experience of words that comes at play in his “poeticness”. On the other hand, the Husserlian notion of “Wort-Leib” is revealing for the execution of Olson’s writing, where language is left behind to grasp the material sense of the physical word, the gap between words, and even shapes, and written lines that are not associated with specific words.

In the second work, Icon as Alter Ego? Husserl’s Fifth Cartesian Meditation and Icons of Mary in Chronicles of the Teutonic Order, Claire Taylor Jones examines two chronicles of the Teutonic Order: Chronica terrae Prussiae (1326) and Kronike von Pruzinlant (1340). These texts offer a narrative of the conversion to Christianism from an experience of acknowledging the suffering and spiritual agency in icons of the Virgin Mary. Taylor Jones finds in these chronicles, taken as literary corpus, issues for the perception of the alter ego that Husserl describes in the Fifth Cartesian Meditation. From artistic cultural objects, imbued in certain “saintly presence” in this case, the distinction between Leib and cultural objects must be revisited. The author finds in these texts a challenge to the Husserlian theory that demands a new description of intersubjectivity, one that does not rest in the apperception of an animated body, but recognizes this apperception of suffering, that does not require movement in order to be perceived.

Complements to Husserlian phenomenology can also be read in the cultural critique, as Thomas Pfau illustrates in the last work of this section: Absolute Gegebenheit: Image as Aesthetic Urphänomen in Husserl and Rilke. The author reads Rilke’s texts about Rodin and Cézanne’s letters, where he finds a phenomenology of image experience that would complement Husserl’s one. If, as Pfau asserts, Husserl focuses on the noematic pole of experience, it is the noetic dimension that Rilke centers his attention on when he reflects on the aesthetic experience. In the Rilkenian comments on Cézanne’s works Pfau reads an anticipation of the idea of transcendental reduction. The point here is that the epistemological contribution to the theory of image occurs, as demonstrated again and again in the volume reviewed here, in poetological terms, intended as a supplement to phenomenological description.

The funding relation between phenomenology and fiction insistently tematized in this volume finds greater depth in the fourth and final section of the book: Fictional Truths: Phenomenology and Narrative.

The section is inaugurated with The Virtuous Philosopher and the Chameleon Poet: Husserl and Hofmannsthal, by Nicolas De Warren. De Warren rereads Husserl’s letter to Hofmannsthal, in which the philosopher reveals the inspiration he received from the poet for his phenomenological method. However, De Warren’s reading examines how Husserl imagined this source of inspiration, and from that conception, offers an aesthetic for Hofmannsthal’s work. De Warren reconstructs the context of the encounter between Husserl and Hofmannsthal, the poet’s assistance to the reading of the phenomenologist, and the epistolary exchanges between these figures. The point that De Warren makes is that Hofmannsthal’s silence demonstrates that his aesthetic would have been a source of inspiration for the phenomenological method merely imagined by Husserl himself. The importance of this reading lies in putting the attention on fiction as a basis for Husserlian inspiration, while the letter could itself be read as literary fiction. De Warren undertakes this task, carrying out a detailed analysis that evidently could be described as literary, from Husserl’s letter to Hofmannsthal and reconstructing in that same letter the appearance of elements belonging to the philosophical method that Husserl would have arrived for his phenomenology.

The second paper of the section is A Now Not toto caelo a Not Now: the “Origin” of Difference in Husserl, from Number to Literature, by Claudia Brodsky. The paper draws a historical path in Husserlian thinking in which, through a series of “steps”, Brodsky explains that the understanding of the notion of number is achieved in relation to other concepts. For the author, this overlapping of theories, in a formal excursus of Husserl’s conscience, is quite similar to the developments made by Lukács and Proust. In their formal aspects, there would be common issues between Husserl and the literary theory.

The last essay of this volume is written by its third editor, Rochelle Tobías. In Gregor Samsa and the problem of Intersubjectivity, the author exhibits how The Metamorphosis by Kafka presents certain issues to the Husserlian perception of the alter ego. The challenge to the Husserlian theory is not found in the acknowledgment of another body as an alter ego, but in the recognition of another conscience like mine. Tobias’s paper does not focus on this difference of positions, but on the fiction as a privileged mode of representing other minds in the third person. Thus, what is thematized is a method for thinking based on fiction as proposed and shared by Kafka and Husserl.

As I have outlined thus far, Phenomenology to the Letter does not directly answer the concerns presented in its introduction. The aim of the book is achieved through a comprehensive reading that implies a work from the reader that does not demand little effort. On this point, it is important to highlight that each one of the parts neither offers a justification of the articles assembled therein nor a conclusion that determines an explicit conjoint thesis. To be able to answer the accusation put forward in the introduction, it is necessary to undertake a global reading that surpasses the questions posed by each essay. Thus, the enormous project proposed in this volume loses the strength of a joint individual answer. This is not however a limitation, but rather a demonstration of the fruitful possibilities of relating Husserlian phenomenology with literature, via a multiplicity of papers that address various goals and issues. This book clarifies that there is no oblivion of the language but rather that language, literature, writing, and fiction are present from the origin and during the development of the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl.

Phenomenology to the Letter is not a book about literature and phenomenology in general: there is no development of the conception of language by Merleau-Ponty or Heidegger, nor is there an offering of the problems of a phenomenological aesthetic that recovers Dufrenne’s, or an ontology of literature as Ingarden thematized. This volume focuses specifically on the Husserlian work and when links are established with other authors, they do not properly belong to the phenomenological school. The rejection of the phenomenological thematization of literature following its greatest exponent, Roman Ingarden, explains the general proposal of the book. According to the editors, Ingarden starts from phenomenology, when, as read in this volume, it is all about mutual implications between phenomenology and language, to the point of claiming a philological complement for phenomenological investigation.

While the essays contained in this book are written at a sophisticated academic level, including quotations in their original languages and detailed works in a scholar register, the volume offers something beyond a series of exegetical articles about phenomenology. Still with Husserlian phenomenology as a topic, the novelty of this volume is neither a proposal of building a Husserlian literary theory, a treaty about language theory by Husserl, nor is limited to a series of examples of Husserlian theory within the literature. To my understanding, the methodological proposal that guides these essays has an interdisciplinary character; what is pursued are the theoretical constructions in fields that are traditionally separated, without abandoning the specificities of each one.

This volume offers then, an actualization of Husserlian thinking. The philosophical importance of Phenomenology to the Letter nowadays, claim its editors, lies in its proposal facing biological and psychological paradigms that dominate praxis and current thinking. It is not only a proposal of actualization of phenomenology or the determination of an aesthetic movement, but rather a path to rethink affections, experience, and language. A proposal can be read to extend the Husserlian contributions so present today in the cognitive sciences and the neurosciences, whose     approach to “the mind” confront several Husserlian warnings, as the editors state. The challenge to mind studies has its weight from fantasy and fiction as the cornerstone of the phenomenological method, both for the eidetic variation from the Logical Investigations as well as the reduction from Ideas I. In sum, the starting point for this book can be read in Husserl’s affirmation in Ideas I: “‘fiction’ is the vital element of phenomenology, as all its eidetic knowledge” (Hua III/I, 148).

In thirteen essays, Phenomenology to the Letter achieves its goal where the relationship between phenomenology and literature has been at the heart of reflection and it has not been seen as a point of arrival. The specificity of the issues that each essay addresses, together with a great variety of resources and different textual corpora does not introduce a relation between Husserlian phenomenology and literature, it simply puts it into evidence. The project proposed by the book is accomplished not by the refinement of each essay in light of the objectives established separately but rather because of the reading as a whole they offer, made possible by the excellent job of the editors. The reader is offered a collection of essays that implies an astute reading exercise, an essential task whose effort can be well compared to the reading of a literary work.


Blanchot, M. 1986. The Writing of the Disaster. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press.

Foucault, M. 1971. L’orde du discours: Leçon Inaugurale au Collège de France prononcée le 2 décembre 1970. Paris: Gallimard.

Gadamer, H.-G. 1986. Destruktion und Dekonstruktion. En H.-G. Gadamer, Gesammelte Werke. Vol 2. (361-372). Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.

Husserl, E. 1976. Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie I: Allgemeine Einführung in die reine Phänomenologie, 2nd edn. Den Haag: Nijhoff.

[1] Following Detlef Thiel. 2003. “Husserls Phäenomenographie” in Recherches Husserliennes 19: 67 – 108.

Harald Seubert: Philosophiegeschichte des 20. Jahrhunderts: Das Strahlen im Zeichen triumphalen Unheils, Nomos, 2021

Philosophiegeschichte des 20. Jahrhunderts: Das Strahlen im Zeichen triumphalen Unheils Book Cover Philosophiegeschichte des 20. Jahrhunderts: Das Strahlen im Zeichen triumphalen Unheils
Harald Seubert
Hardback 98,00 €

David Carr: Historical Experience: Essays on the Phenomenology of History

Historical Experience: Essays on the Phenomenology of History Book Cover Historical Experience: Essays on the Phenomenology of History
Routledge Approaches to History
David Carr
Hardback £96.00

Reviewed by: Quentin Gailhac (Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne)

“History is not something separated from life or remote from the present” (5). It is within the horizon of Dilthey’s affirmation that David Carr resolutely sets out to think about historical experience in a book gathering twelve of his articles, published between 2006 and 2021, under the title Historical Experience: Essays on the Phenomenology of History. The book approaches the question of historical experience from various points of view, and in particular from that of the philosophy and theory of history. The classical problems of this point of view are treated here with the means of a phenomenology open to the exploration of many other traditions of thought. In the introduction (1-7), Carr follows in the footsteps of Dilthey and Ricoeur. He starts from the observation of the irreducible historicity of the human experience in order to identify the various ways in which history embraces us. For Carr, we can only make known and experience a historical event on the condition that we ourselves are involved in history.

The book is divided into three parts, all of which interrogate themes and concepts central to historical experience. The first part deals with three key concepts: historicity, narrative and time, through a fruitful dialogue with Dilthey, Koselleck and Levi-Strauss, among others. The second part confronts the problem of teleology in history, which, as is well known, has occupied Husserl and his commentators. Finally, the third part, entitled “Embodiment and Experience”, focuses on the corporeal, spatial and temporal aspects of historical existence. The relation of embodiment to intersubjectivity, the notion of orientation in history, the concept of Erlebnis in Dilthey, and the relations that exist between experience and history constitute the research directions of this third part.

In the first chapter of Part I, entitled “On historicity” (11-23), Carr attempts to grasp the meaning that the concept of historicity has had in Europe, from Dilthey to François Hartog. The central point of the chapter is to find a way of understanding historicity in the distinction made by the German historian Reinhart Koselleck between two historically attested ways of linking the past and the future. On the one hand, a relationship marked by the idea of a history magistra vitae, typical of pre-modern worldviews. On the other hand, a relationship that rather gives the future as a human reality to be constructed, typical of the Enlightenment. What François Hartog has called “regimes of historicity” (Hartog, 2015) serves here to identify the type of historicity that has gradually been imposed in Europe, thanks to the turning point constituted by French structuralism in the reversal of the relationship between the past and the future. Lévi-Strauss’s famous distinction between cold, non-historical societies and warm, historically marked societies is thus re-characterised, since we are dealing here with two very specific forms of historicity. The decline of the idea of progress in the twentieth century gradually reoriented the question of history within the horizon of heritage and memory (Ricoeur 2006; Nora 1997), to the point of suggesting, with Lévi-Strauss, that Western society, in its fear of progress and becoming, had transformed itself into a cold society. This is a step that Lévi-Strauss himself did not take, but that Carr’s study encourages us to consider, based on a study of the vocabulary of historians, particularly French historians, of the second half of the twentieth century (Pierre Nora’s “places of memory” are thus understood in all their historical depth).

The second chapter (24-33), while not directly addressing the issue of historicity, does approach it from a slightly derivative point of view, by focusing on the issue of temporal perspective. Carr does so through a study of the advantages and disadvantages of hindsight, which Arthur Danto said was the very essence of historical discourse. The main risk of hindsight is to fall into the trap of presentism, whereby the past is judged solely by the present. The present point of view, while it may have the advantage of distance from the event, also condemns us to an exit from time, since the event appears there once and for all. But the time of the past historical event is never the only one to exist, since it is in fact superimposed on the time of the person who recounts it. Thus, Carr devotes a brief section to “superimposed temporalities” (31-32) in history. Historicity is thus implicated in the historian’s own work, insofar as the writing of history is itself a temporal process that can never quite be taken out of history.

The third chapter, “Stories of our lives. Aging and narrative” (34-45), focuses on the unity to which our life in time can aspire, despite differences and by virtue of consciousness and experience itself. It is about bringing out the temporal aspects of awareness and self-awareness. We live in the present, and it is of this that we are aware. The question is, however, to characterise the awareness we can have of the past and the future. Carr thus proposes to distinguish between “awareness of past and future, on the one hand, and our memories and expectations and plans, on the other” (35-36). Through a phenomenological approach that the author himself calls “undoctrinaire”, the question of the relationship between life and time is extended by a study of the narrative, in its link with life, which leads to questions about biography and autobiography. The author insists on their difference by considering the impossibility for the autobiographer to possess a complete point of view on his or her life. The writing is always situated in a point of time of the life, and that this irreducible situation implies that the point from which one speaks determines the very interpretation of events as well as the (re)construction of the unity of the life itself.

Autobiographical reflection is thus confronted with two pitfalls, that of an insufficiently coherent succession, and that of an overly coherent succession. This is why the search for coherence amounts to rewriting a story. The concept of autobiographical reflection is therefore not unrelated to the idea of a narrative identity, and it is regrettable that Carr makes no study here of Ricoeur’s philosophy (see however, Carr 2014, 223-231). Narrative identity is described at length, notably in Time and Narrative (Ricœur 1984-1988). For Carr, Narrative identity, far from being fixed in stone, is always being rewritten, and this is due to the fact of the ever-changing temporal situation from which identity (i.e. also uniqueness) thinks itself, tells itself in autobiographical reflection. Narrative identity thus implies, in the horizon of the philosophies of authenticity (Heidegger 1996; Sartre 2003), thinking oneself as the author responsible for one’s own life, to the point of giving Charles Taylor’s “ethics of the authenticity” (Taylor 1991) to be understood in narrative terms (44). The third chapter closes with a reflection on the notion of aging, which the author tells us is in fact the main topic of the whole chapter, since it designates, not an accumulation in time, but the very becoming of the point of view we can adopt on our life. In this sense, the notion of aging must be understood in the perspective of narrative identity and autobiographical reflection. It also implies that the awareness of our finitude is itself changing and cannot be fixed once and for all. Aging is therefore a personal and creative way of thinking about the relationship between past and future on the scale of an individual life. The phenomenological point of view adopted here by Carr comes close to a hermeneutical perspective. Aging, together with narrative identity and autobiographical reflection, could constitute the bases, not indicated by the author, of a new phenomenological hermeneutic of our individual life in time.

It is to a theme of wider scope that chapter four, “On being historical” (46-58), is devoted, as it attempts to answer the question “What is it to be historical?” This question emerges from the inadequacy of the philosophies of history, in its two main orientations. The first orientation, of the Hegelian type, wants to find a global meaning to what happens in history, ultimately seeking to give a moral meaning to events as a whole. This metaphysical orientation is rivalled by a second, epistemological one, which is more concerned with the conditions of possibility of historical knowledge. However, both orientations assume in the same way that the past concerns us, without explaining why. The concept of historicity (Geschichtlichkeit) comes into play precisely in order to answer this question left unanswered by the philosophy of history. The discussion shows Dilthey’s perspective, developing the idea that the historical world “is always there” (47). What it is to be a historical being. Our interest in the past is thus explained here on the basis of the difference in principle between the past and the future, a difference that has its origins in Jewish thought. By showing in what sense interest in the past is not unique to all societies, Carr thus questions the fundamental cultural presuppositions of our relationship to the past.

The question of historicity then takes a more properly phenomenological path. Carr considers the unity of the subject in time, not as a given, but as an act of projection, with regard to my own temporal coherence and my relation to others. The question of my being with others is therefore not primarily a relationship between an I and a Thou, but is inscribed, as Husserl and Heidegger already wanted, in the horizon of the concept of historicity. Carr, translator of Husserl’s Krisis into English (Husserl 1970), briefly returns to the role given to intersubjectivity in the theoretical investigation, insofar as the research of others forms the starting point of the present research. The notion of group thus appears fundamental to understanding in what sense scientific enquiry can be linked to intersubjectivity, since this research is first and foremost that of a community, and not that of a set of isolated individuals. Carr thus engages in a brief phenomenology of “we”, understood as the capacity of an individual to identify with a group (53-56), and to maintain a direct and living relationship to history. The very suggestive character of this chapter would have deserved, it seems to us, more extensive developments on Husserl and on the generative horizon that the thesis of the chapter seems to imply. If it is true that “to be historical” is to be integrated into a “We” that possesses its own heritage, then we find precisely Husserl’s reflections on the necessity of a generative orientation of the phenomenological method, as an explicitation of the “at home”, of the familiar and historical world carried by a succession of generations that form the unity of historicity (Husserl 1973).

It is, moreover, an eminently Husserlian question that underpins the whole of the second part, namely the question of teleology in history. The fifth chapter, “Teleology and the experience of history” (61-74), starts from the observation that the idea of teleology has a certain longevity, from Hegel and Marx to Francis Fukuyama or Niall Ferguson, via the last Husserl of the 1930s. It is therefore a question of understanding the reason for the maintenance of teleology despite his numerous factual and theoretical refutations. The idea supported by Carr is to assert that teleology functions as a transcendental illusion, in the Kantian sense of the term. Beginning with a brief history of the idea of teleology since Hegel, he then focuses more specifically on the experience of history, which he clearly distinguishes from the representation of history (to which the idea of teleology belongs). The question of the experience of history is thus first of all that of its possibility and its distinction from other types of experience. Our experience is both temporal and intersubjective, and the experience of the most common objects is always linked to a horizon of the past that we experience in the present. History is thus a dimension of our very experience. Here Carr uses the Husserlian concept of retention to explain how this history and past are involved in all present experience (67-69), even though retention is different in nature from memory. Indeed, retention is not dealing with past itself (Husserl  1991). On the other hand, the end of the chapter proposes an interesting re-characterisation of the idea of teleology. Doubly determined by the past and by the future, by our memories and by our expectations, the present must be thought of within the framework of a temporal structure which is also, by its very orientation, a teleological structure: “we can call this temporal structure a teleological structure in that the whole complex of mutually determining meanings is oriented toward the fulfillment of our expectations and plans” (73). This structure must thus apply not only to individual experience, but also to social experience. Historicity is thus understood from a reorientation of the controversial notion of teleology.

Carr expands his reflection on teleology in the sixth chapter, entitled “Husserl and Foucault on the historical a priori. Teleological and anti-teleological view of history” (75-85). The title of this 2016 article is very close to the title of an article, not mentioned by Carr, by Wouter Goris (Goris 2012), also on the subject of the historical a priori. Despite the proximity of the title, Carr takes a significantly different view and method. Goris proposed a very precise reconstruction of the notion of historical a priori in Husserl and then in Foucault, showing that the variations in the meaning of this notion to Husserl corresponded to the different stages of the internal evolution of his phenomenology. On the contrary, Carr looks “from a broader perspective at the views of history that are reflected in the different uses of this expression” (75). The aim is to understand in what sense this expression was born from the topicality of a Europe in crisis, to which Husserl gives an epistemological meaning, by proposing a reconstruction of the birth of European science. In doing so, Carr gives an account of Husserl’s subjectivation of teleology, as opposed to Foucault’s antisubjectivism, which he considers incoherent and based on an apocalyptic vision of history. Goris note that the difference in the meaning attributed to the historical a priori in Husserl and Foucault stemmed from the fact that both diagnosed the crisis itself differently, and that the Husserlian solution of a reactivation of meaning was, for Foucault, the very consequence of the crisis to be overcome. Carr, who more explicitly takes sides against Foucault, nevertheless seems to want to reconcile the two authors on certain points, despite the strong differences between them and criticisms that he addresses to the French philosopher. Indeed, Foucault’s rejection of the teleology of history is related to the subtlety of the Husserlian thesis on this question, to such an extent that Carr seems to bring the two philosophers closer together in their understanding of what a historical a priori is:

“As for Husserl, while he seems at first glance to subscribe to a teleological view of history, his position, as we’ve seen, is actually much more subtle. He sees that his own historicization of the philosophy of science could open him to the charge of historical relativism, as if he were arguing that each historical epoch or people has its own truth and can never escape its boundaries. On this view, “every people has its ‘logic’ and, accordingly, if this logic is explicated in propositions, ‘its’ a priori” (Husserl 1970, 373). What Husserl describes here is, I think, very close to Foucault’s idea of the “historical a priori.” Husserl’s use of scare-quotes makes clear that such a historically limited a priori is for him a contradiction in terms. For him such historical configurations would be instances of a genuine historical a priori, that is, an essential structure of any and all historical configurations: “historical present in general, historical time generally” (372). That is, any array of historical a prioris in Foucault’s sense (he uses the plural) would presuppose the historical a priori which is not itself historically variable” (84).

By considering the historical a priori as an unexplained presupposition, Foucault would thus only be reiterating Husserl’s essentialism. That is why the critique of teleology is studied through a very critical reading of Foucault, and this allows us to understand the status of Carr’s essay on the question of teleology. In the review of the collective book intitled Historical Teleologies in the Modern World (Trüper, 2015) which constitutes the seventh chapter of his book (86-96), Carr considers that the various authors of the collective work (among them Peter Wagner and Etienne Balibar) have not engaged, unlike him, in an evaluation of the teleological view of history. Far from reducing teleology to a question of the history of ideas or the history of philosophy, which would consider the notion obsolete, our author really seeks to examine it as a living notion, even giving it validity under certain conditions.

The question of teleology has been intimately linked to the philosophy of history since the 19th century. This is why the second part closes with a chapter entitled “On the metaphilosophy of history” (97-111), devoted to a study of the classical philosophy of history, based on a new characterisation of the “metahistory” of the famous American historian Hayden White. In his book Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in 19th Europe (White 1973), White defined historical work as a narrative discourse, focusing on the interpretation of the works of nineteenth-century historians. However, by showing that White’s sources were not only historians, but also philosophers of history such as Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche or Croce, Carr proposes to rename White’s enterprise as “metaphilosophy of history, or the philosophy of the philosophy of history” (98). Rather than a reading of White’s work, this chapter is a study of the philosophy of history, after its critics, and aims to overcome the idea that the philosophy of history is dead. This implies, moreover, a slightly different understanding of the philosophy of history, moving us away from the idea of a purely speculative philosophy to one of a practical enterprise. The philosophy of history is thus brought closer here to the historical discipline, contrary to the traditional opposition. The idea of a philosophy of history “not as a cognitive or theoretical embodiment of the teleological structure, but as a practical embodiment of it” (105), allows Carr to read the philosophy of history in a different way, first by opposing the speculative orientation of Hegel to the practical orientation of the philosophy of history and teleology of Kant and Marx, and finally by re-reading Hegel in the sense of a practical narrative, directed towards the realisation of human freedom. Although White’s theses are not directly discussed for their own sake, they guide the whole chapter, and especially this new and very suggestive reading of Hegel. This reading could be the subject of a whole book, by taking into consideration the work of Hegel on the philosophy of history.

The interest in the philosophy of history will continue in the third part, although the general orientation of its four chapters is quite different. Indeed, this third and final part, “Embodiment and experience” (113-167), returns to what is perhaps the most fundamental aspect of historical experience, namely the question of the body. Historical experience is essentially an experience of the common. It is phenomenology that has studied, since Husserl, the role of the body in the question of intersubjectivity. This evidence is however questioned here by Carr, in the ninth chapter that opens the third part, entitled “Intersubjectivity and embodiment” (112-127), and which constitutes a deepening of the phenomenology of the “We” outlined in chapter 4. This chapter establishes the question of whether the body is always a necessary condition of intersubjectivity. While the experience of the face-to-face encounter with another has become a classic starting point in the problem of intersubjectivity, it does not resolve the question. The face-to-face encounter is indeed an encounter of my body with the body of another, but this direct bodily relationship cannot be applied to the we-experience, which requires a different point of view. Where the face-to-face encounter started from the first-person experience, the we-experience implies expanding this starting point to the idea of a non-metaphysical, but properly phenomenological Gemeingeist, in the way Husserl tried to think it. This superpersonal subject is, in fact, linked to the possibility for the I to identify itself with a group, and which precisely characterised the “we” in the fourth chapter, “On being historical”. Therefore, the we-subject, instead of being thought of as a metaphysical hypostasis, is rather phenomenologically constituted by the individuals who produce it. However, what role exactly should the body play in such a subject? By means of numerous examples taken from recent and contemporary history, Carr attempts to determine phenomenologically the role of the body in the we-subject, starting from different Husserlian points of departure (the organism, the community of will), in order to finally attest to the intentional character of the embodied we-subjectivity. The embodiment thus appears essential to collective subjectivity, although it is not necessary for all forms of intersubjectivity, as can be seen, for example, in the communities that are created in the Internet sphere.

Without an explicit transition to the question of embodiment, the tenth chapter, entitled “History as orientation. Rüsen on historical culture and narration” (128-143) is a review of two books of the German historian Jörn Rüsen, respectively Geschichte im Kulturprozess and History: Narration-Interpretation-Orientation (Rüsen 2002, 2005 respectively). The connection is actually ensured by the starting point of Rüsen’s research, in that knowledge of the past, far from being of interest only to historical studies, must be understood in its context, which is that of our historicity and our intersubjective historical experience. The three concepts of Rüsen on which Carr chooses to focus thus find the fundamental themes of the whole book. The concept of “historical culture” is linked to the developments on historicity, as is the concept of “orientation”, which implies inscribing our present in a certain relationship to the past and the future. Finally, the concept of “narrative” is intimately linked to Carr’s developments on historical knowledge and consciousness. Moreover, the typology of modes of narration proposed by Rüsen allows, according to the German historian himself, the deployment of a theory of the “ontogenetic development of historical consciousness” (132), within which the form of critical narration constitutes a historical pivot, between pre-modern and modern historical thought. In this sense, Rüsen’s study gives decisive importance to nineteenth-century historicism in its various forms (especially Ranke and Dilthey). Carr emphasises the links between Rüsen’s three concepts in the historical context of the nineteenth century, since the upheavals of that period were significant. The way in which history is told is thus linked to the way in which we orient ourselves in it, which in turn shapes our historical culture. By recalling the many criticisms that have been levelled against historicism since the beginning of the twentieth century (starting with Husserl himself), Carr attempts to go beyond the postmodern critique of historicism and to find a way to make it more effective. In order to do so, Carr defends the compatibility of narrative and objectivity, against the idea of a pure fictionalization of historical narrative, but also against the idea of an opposition between historical objectivity only interested in the restitution of the past for its own sake and the concept of orientation. According to this concept, knowledge of the past is linked to our future and to our situation in time.

These considerations lead Carr, in chapter 11, entitled “Erlebnis and history” (144-152), to clarify the meaning of the phenomenological emphasis on experience for history. This involved first returning to Dilthey’s relationship to the philosophy of history. Indeed, Dilthey is not a speculative philosopher of history in the sense of Hegel, but a philosopher of history in a much more contemporary sense which, rooted in a critique of historical reason, is understood as an epistemology of our historical knowledge, close to what the analytical philosophy of history does. Working on the key concepts of representation and memory in the contemporary philosophy of history, from Ricœur to White, Carr asks “the problem to which the philosophy of history addresses itself: how does history bridge the gap, overcome the distance, which separates it from its object, the past?” (147), in order to find a way out in the phenomenological approach, based on experience. Critiquing the linguistic turn in the philosophy of history, this approach restores the notion of experience to history, but not without ambiguity. According to Carr, it is Dilthey’s concept of Erlebnis that provides a better understanding of what experience can mean in this context. Responding to the ambiguity of the term Erfahrung, Erlebnis allowed Dilthey to designate not only the unity, coherence and connectedness of the individual life, but also the link that we necessarily have with a social and historical context. Erlebnis is thus inseparable, for Dilthey, from the notion of historicity, to which Carr devotes the last remarks of the chapter, against all forms of relativism.

The book concludes with a chapter significantly entitled “Experience and history” (153-166), in which Carr returns to the temporal, intersubjective and historical dimension of experience, in order to answer the question that has animated the whole book: what is the experience of history? The originality of this last chapter consists, in this respect, in giving an essential function to the notion of discontinuity, according to four orientations. The discontinuity inherent in the question of the We-subject, the discontinuity implied by intergenerational continuity, the discontinuity of historical events, and finally the discontinuity inscribed in temporality itself. These different types of discontinuity, which allow us to enrich the contemporary philosophical debate on history and time, lead Carr to assert three fundamental things, joined together, that any phenomenology of history must be able to take into account, and which constitute an “ontology of our lives” (163). 1) Historical events are experienced as historical events. 2) We are conscious of time by being conscious of events in time. 3) The subject of these historical experiences is a collective subject, a We-subject.

The phenomenological interest and significance of these twelve studies by D. Carr thus lies, in our view, in the re-qualification of the starting point of phenomenology itself when confronted with the problematic question of history. Against the accusations of anhistoricism sometimes levelled at Husserl’s philosophy, Carr restores the importance of phenomenological perspective to the fundamentally historical understanding of our experience. He inscribes this perspective in a decentred and irreducibly collective subjectivity, which constitutes both the ground and the horizon of our relationship to the past.


Goris, Wouter. 2012. “Das historische Apriori bei Husserl und Foucault – Zur philosophischen Relevanz eines Leitbegriffs der historischen Epistemologie.” Quaestio, 12: 291-342.

Hartog, François. 2015. Regimes of Historicity. Presentism and Experiences of Time, tr. S. Brown. New York: Columbia University Press.

Heidegger, Martin. 1996. Being and Time, tr. J. Stambaugh. Albany: SUNY Press.

Husserl, Edmund. 1970. The Crisis of European Sciences and the Transcendendal Phenomenology, tr. D. Carr. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Husserl, Edmund. 1973. Zur Phänomenologie der Intersubjektivität. Dritter Teil: 1929-1935. The Hague. Nijhoff.

Husserl, Edmund. 1991. On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time, tr. J. Brough. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Nora, Pierre (ed.). 1997. Les lieux de mémoire. Paris: Gallimard.

Ricœur, Paul. 1984–88. Time and Narrative, 3 vols, tr. K McLaughlin and D. Pellauer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ricœur, Paul. 2006. Memory, History, Forgetting, tr. K. Blamey and D. Pellauer. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Rüsen, Jörn. 2002. Geschichte im Kulturprozess. Köln, Weimar, Wien: Bohlau Verlag.

Rüsen, Jörn. 2005. History: Narration-Interpretation-Orientation. New York, Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. 2003. Being and Nothingness: A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology, tr. H. Barnes. New York: Washington Square Press.

Taylor, Charles. 1991. The Ethics of Authenticity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Trüper Henning, Chakrabarty Dipesh, Subrahmanyam Sanjay (ed.). 2015. Historical Teleologies in the Modern World. London: Bloomsbury.

White, Hayden. 1973. Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in 19th Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Michel Foucault: Phénoménologie et Psychologie, Seuil, 2021

Phénoménologie et Psychologie Book Cover Phénoménologie et Psychologie
Hautes Etudes
Michel Foucault
Paperback 26.00 €

Jean Cavaillès: On the Logic and Theory of Science

On Logic and the Theory of Science Book Cover On Logic and the Theory of Science
Jean Cavaillès. Introductory notice by Georges Canguilhem and Charles Ehresmann. Introduction by Knox Peden. Translated by Translated by Knox Peden and Robin Mackay
Urbanomic/Sequence Press
Paperback $18.95

Reviewed by: Massimiliano Simons (Ghent University)

Why read an obscure, enigmatic and technical treatise on philosophy of science by a half-forgotten philosopher of mathematics, let alone translate it? It seems that there are plenty of reasons to do so. The work of Jean Cavaillès (1930-1944), and especially his final work Sur la logique et la théorie de la science, is typically seen as the starting point of a ‘philosophy of the concept’. Together with Gaston Bachelard, Georges Canguilhem and Michel Foucault, Cavaillès is labeled as one of the main representatives of the French tradition of historical epistemology.

The project of a philosophy of the concept mainly gained fame due to Foucault, who popularized it in his foreword to the English translation of Canguilhem’s The Normal and The Pathological in 1978. Here he claims that to understand Canguilhem, one needs to fall back on the work of Cavaillès. Taking Husserl’s Paris 1929 lecture series as their starting point, phenomenology was developed in France in two radically different ways. On the one hand there is the well-known existential phenomenology, starting with Sartre’s ‘Transcendence de l’Ego’ (1935). But on the other hand there was Cavaillès, who put Husserl’s philosophy of science and mathematics at the center. According to Foucault, these two opposing phenomenological projects shaped 20th-century French philosophy:

It is the line that separates a philosophy of experience, of sense and of subject and a philosophy of knowledge, of rationality and of concept. On the one hand, one network is that of Sartre and Merleau-Ponty; and then another is that of Cavaillès, Bachelard and Canguilhem. In other words, we are dealing with two modalities according to which phenomenology was taken up in France, when quite late – around 1930 – it finally began to be, if not known, at least recognized. Contemporary philosophy in France began in those years. (Foucault 1978, 8)

The source of this ‘philosophy of the concept’ lies in the last few, rather enigmatic pages of Cavaillès ultimate work, here delivered in a new translation by Robin Mackay and Knox Peden for Urbanomic Press. The notion itself is in fact only introduced in the penultimate line of the book: “It is not a philosophy of consciousness but a philosophy of the concept that can yield a doctrine of science. The generative necessity is not that of an activity, but of a dialectic.” (p. 136) The book itself, which is both dense and short, is mainly a critique of the existing philosophies of science in early 20th-century philosophy with a focus on Kant, Carnap and Husserl. Only in the final pages Cavaillès makes some suggestions on what his alternative would be. For sure, Cavaillès intended to develop this alternative elsewhere, perhaps in the intended introduction he wanted to write. These plans did not materialize due to his early death.

Nevertheless, his promise of an alternative to the ‘philosophy of consciousness’ was taken up in French philosophy, in the form of a mythology around the figure of Cavaillès. When I say ‘myth’ I do not so much mean ‘wrong’ or ‘false’, but first of all that it functions as a myth. This means that the truth value of the myth is secondary to its effects – which have been plenty in the self-understanding of a number of French philosophers. The myth consists of three parts: (1) Cavaillès’ essay contains a set of devastating arguments against Husserlian phenomenology, making any phenomenological philosophy untenable; (2) Cavaillès replaced phenomenology with his own alternative, a philosophy of the concept; and (3) this alternative boils down to a form of Spinozism. Let us have a closer look at these three components of this mythology.

The first part is that Cavaillès’ work contains a number of knock-out arguments against Husserlian phenomenology. The final part of the book indeed deals with Husserl’s philosophy of science, as developed by the latter in Formale und transzendentale Logik (1929). Though Cavaillès formulates numerous criticisms, two main objections stand out: the issue of incompleteness and the dilemma of Cavaillès.

The incompleteness issue concerns Husserl believe that it is both possible and desirable to develop a fully-formalized mathematics in the line of David Hilbert’s formalism. That entails that it is capable to articulate and prove its own completeness: any true statement that can be articulated within the formal axiomatic system concerning its object of research can also be proven within that system. And though a common belief when Husserl’s book was published, a few years later it was radically shattered when in 1931 Kurt Gödel published his incompleteness theorems, showing that Hilbert’s program was impossible. Cavaillès was one of the first who saw the consequences of Gödel’s theorems for the Husserlian project, since it too relied on Hilbert’s program, endorsing its ideal of completeness as a central aspect of the phenomenological logic:

For we are familiar with Gödel’s result: any theory containing the arithmetic of whole numbers – which is to say basically any mathematical theory – is necessarily non-saturated. […] For the Husserlian conception of logic and mathematics this affair is particularly serious. In the first place, the very notion of a theory that can be fully dominated and isolated can no longer be maintained. (pp. 128-129)

A second issue consists in a fundamental dilemma that Cavaillès presents to Husserl. The latter aims not only for mathematical completeness, but also for a foundation of science that is both transcendental and absolute. Husserl had the ambition to ground all logical norms in the transcendental subject and its subjective acts. But simultaneously, Husserl hoped for an absoluteness of these norms: they cannot be questioned or relativized in any way. For Cavaillès the trouble arises if one combines both claims: if logical norms are constituted through subjective acts, these acts themselves call for a set of norms to ground them. But these underlying norms would in turn demand a foundation in subjective acts. To avoid an infinite regress, Husserl has to choose between the transcendental and the absolute character of his project. Hence the dilemma of Cavaillès: “If transcendental logic truly grounds logic then there is no absolute logic (i.e., a logic governing absolute subjective activity). If there is an absolute logic it can draw its authority only from itself; it is not transcendental.” (p. 120)

Similar to Husserl and Hilbert, and many other early 20th-century philosophers and scientists, Cavaillès was concerned with the new scientific developments, provoking a foundational crisis of mathematics: if radical historical transformations of mathematics were possible, what then was the foundation of rationality, mathematics, science? In a typical French manner, Cavaillès searched for the answer not in the atemporal, but in the historical: mathematics was rational not despite, but because of its history. The normative force, required to elevate mathematics above contingency, was to be found in its historical developments, where each new result bolstered the past results, but also provoked the next steps. In his primary thesis Méthode axiomatique et formalisme, Cavaillès would define understanding in a similarly dynamic way: “to understand is to capture the gesture, and to be able to continue it” (Cavaillès 1994, 186). Mathematics, and science in general, is understood, not so much as a set of thoughts, but rather in terms of gestures, which Cavaillès often referred to, somewhat misleadingly, under the banner of ‘experience’ (see Cortois 1996).

While terms such as gesture and experience suggests a philosophy of consciousness, this is countered through the third part of the mythology: Spinozism. Cavaillès was the face of a revival of interest in Spinozism, again seen as the alternative to phenomenology. In the words of Gilles-Gaston Granger, another proponent of this myth, it came down to “Jean Cavaillès or the climb to Spinoza” (Granger 1947). Cavaillès, sive Spinoza. The Spinozist reading it provided must have indeed sounded as music in the ears of the anti-humanist turn in the 1960s. Cavaillès, according to this reading, “set out to develop a philosophy without a subject” (Canguilhem 1994, 686).

We thus have a philosophy of science seen from the perspective of gestures. But these gestures are not grounded in a transcendental subject, but, following Spinoza, in the effective development of the successive theoretical concepts. The legitimacy of the concepts is found in these concepts themselves, in the normative force by which they call forth, by a form of necessity, one another. It is in this sense that another famous passage of the book is typically read:

Yet one of the essential problems for the doctrine of science is precisely that progress cannot be a mere increase in volume by juxtaposition, the prior subsisting with the new, but must be a perpetual revision of contents by way of deepening and erasure [rature]. What is after is more than what was before, not because it contains it or even because it extends it, but because it exists from it necessarily and bears within its content the singular mark, each time, of its superiority. There is more consciousness in it – and not the same consciousness as before. (pp. 135-136)

As a result, and especially from the 1960s onwards, Cavaillès’ work was used in French philosophy as an argument for the obsolescence of phenomenology. For instance, when Sartre attacked Foucault’s Les mots et les choses as a reactionary work, Canguilhem responded by invoking the authority of Cavaillès:

Cavaillès assigned the phenomenological enterprise its limits even before that enterprise had exhibited its unlimited ambitions – even in France itself, which is to say, with a certain lag – and he assigned, twenty years in advance, the task that philosophy is in the process of accepting today – the task of substituting for the primacy of experienced or reflexive consciousness the primacy of concepts, systems, or structures. (Canguilhem 1994, 92)

This mythological authority similarly found its way in to the work of many prominent French scholars, ranging from Jean-Toussaint Desanti, Gilles-Gaston Granger, Étienne Balibar to Alain Badiou. Despite the lack of any substantial elaboration by Cavaillès’ of what this philosophy of the concept entailed, his work was nevertheless used as a shovel to bury the philosophies of the past, most notably phenomenology and existentialism. Cavaillès’ alternative was indeed often quite easily equated with the structuralism and anti-humanism of the 1960s. These ideas not only inspired Canguilhem or Foucault, but were central to the Marxism of Louis Althusser as well, who mobilized Spinoza to purge Marxism from any form of Humanism. When Althusser, in his later self-criticisms, turned his gaze to his previous work, he could proudly proclaim that he was no structuralist: “We were guilty of an equally powerful and compromising passion: we were Spinozists.” (Althusser 1976, 132)

But Cavaillès’ biography gave this Spinozism an additional, political dimension. Similar to his friend Albert Lautman and Canguilhem, Cavaillès joined the resistance. While Canguilhem survived, both Cavaillès and Lautman tragically died. In the case of Cavaillès, he was first arrested in Narbonne in 1942, by the French police and ended up in a prison camp in Montpellier. It was during this imprisonment that he wrote this book, which partly explains the dense character of the text and the often liberal quotations, since Cavaillès was restricted in time and resources (though Lautman brought him several books). But with the manuscript in hand, he soon escaped from the prison camp though, due to betrayal, he was arrested again in August 1943 and eventually shot. The book On Logic and the Theory of Science was thus only published posthumously in 1947, by Georges Canguilhem and the mathematician Charles Ehresmann, who also picked the generic title for the book. In a letter of 1941 to Brunschvicg, Cavaillès announced that he was writing a work called L’expérience mathématique, while to Canguilhem and Ehresmann he spoke of a Traité de la logique. The truth seemed to be somewhere in between.

This political dimension of Cavaillès’ biography has been mobilized extensively in this mythology. Raymond Aron, who was a good friend of Cavaillès, later reported how Cavaillès entrusted to him in 1943 that “I am a Spinozist. I believe that we are seizing the necessary everywhere. The necessary in the sequences of mathematics, the necessary even in the stages of mathematical science, the necessary also in this struggle that we lead.” (quoted in Canguilhem 1976, 31) Or, in a variation that Aron cites in his own preface to Cavaillès’ Philosophie mathématique: “I am a Spinozist, we must resist, fight, face death. This is what truth and reason demand.” (Aron 1962, 14) Philosophers such as Canguilhem or Foucault did not hesitate to use this political activism against their opponents. In the same reply of Canguilhem to Sartre, he immediately added:

Shot by the Nazis for his Resistance activity, Cavaillès, who called himself a Spinozist and did not believe in history in the existential sense, refuted in advance – by the action he felt himself impelled to undertake, by his participation in the history that he lived out tragically until his death – the argument of those who seek to discredit what they call structuralism by condemning it to generate, among other misdeeds, passivity in the face of reality. (Canguilhem 1994, 92)

Foucault, in a similar vein, invokes this image in an interview in the 1980s, when he was focusing on Greek philosophy and techniques of the self:

The key to the personal poetic attitude of a philosopher is not to be sought in his ideas, as if it could be deduced from them, but rather in his philosophy-as-life, in his philosophical, life, his ethos. Among the French philosophers who participated in the Resistance during the war, one was Cavaillès, a historian of mathematics who was interested in the development of its internal structures. None of the philosophers of engagement – Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty – none of them did a thing. (Foucault 1984, 374)

It is thus this triple mythology – Cavaillès burying phenomenology, replacing it with a philosophy of the concept, inspired by Spinoza – that still motivates many philosophers to take up this otherwise challenging and technical treatise on the philosophy of science. The fact that this book is now translated in English (again) testifies to a similar growing interest in the Anglo-American world. There has indeed been a booming cottage industry of Anglophone papers dealing with Cavaillès’ philosophy of the concept, and its criticisms of Husserlian phenomenology (e.g. Hyder 2003; Thompson 2008; Peña-Guzmán 2020). Most of this literature tends to take over this mythology, though often stressing more continuity with phenomenology – an element already found in Foucault. The most exemplary case, perhaps, is an earlier book by Knox Peden, who helped realize this novel translation of Cavaillès and provided it with a helpful introduction. In his Spinoza Contra Phenomenology (2014) Peden repeated this mythology of how Cavaillès is the source of an anti-phenomenological tendency in France, continued by Bachelard, Desanti, Althusser and Gilles Deleuze.

Ironically, while this productive mythology is spreading in the Anglophone world, it is more and more problematized in France. The last decades of scholarship on Cavaillès have further substantiated a number of doubts concerning this triple narrative. First of all, the central role of Spinoza have been questioned, or at least completed with an acknowledgment that Cavaillès’ philosophy of the concept was inspired by other authors as well, such as Hegel (e.g. Sinaceur 2013).

The second main question is whether Cavaillès’ criticisms of Husserl are indeed as devastating as often portrayed. For instance, the young Jacques Derrida already tried to defend Husserl’s project against Cavaillès’ use of Gödel. In his master thesis on Le problème de la genèse dans la philosophie de Husserl (only published in 1990), he suggested that completeness is merely a kind of regulative ideal for Husserl, one that does not need to be realizable. Another option is offered by the daughter of Gaston, Suzanne Bachelard (1957) who suggests that there are multiple notions of completeness at work in Husserl’s philosophy, and that only some of them were refuted by Gödel. Hence, Husserl’s project can remain meaningful, even if one acknowledges the incompleteness theorems.

As part of the secondary literature has noticed, Cavaillès is at many points not that far off from phenomenology itself. It could thus be read, not so much as the destruction, but as a transformation of phenomenology. This is also announced in the lines immediately following Cavaillès’ dilemma: “Perhaps subsequent phenomenological investigations will allow us at least to contest such a brutally posited dilemma.” (p. 120) And to his credit, Peden seems to follow this suggestion in his introduction, playing down his earlier claims in Spinoza contra Phenomenology, and acknowledges that “it is both anachronistic and an overstatement to suggest that there was anything anti-phenomenological about Cavaillès’s work in its original conception. Moreover, criticizing Husserl for his errant steps is par for the course in the phenomenological tradition and Cavaillès is no exception to this tendency.” (p. 11)

And indeed the work of Cavaillès is a reminder of an alternative way phenomenology could have been developed in France, one not focused so much on anthropology and daily experience, but one that continued the Husserlian ambition to explore science in a phenomenological manner. In fact, this tradition exist, but not so much associated with a philosophy of the concept, but rather with authors such as Suzanne Bachelard, Trần Đức Thảo and Jean-Toussaint Desanti. Each in their own way attempted to use phenomenological methods to analyze the methods and products of science.

But even such a reappraisal of Cavaillès as a phenomenologist still risk to fall for another form of anachronism, as if phenomenology was the dominant and only philosophy around in France in the 1930s. This is indirectly suggested by Peden’s introduction (as well as most other Anglophone literature), ignoring Cavaillès’ interactions with other forms of philosophy of science. In the secondary literature, the motivation to focus on phenomenology seems to be one of relevance: given that Cavaillès is nowadays anachronistically classified as continental philosophy, the audience expects a focus on Husserl, not David Hilbert or Rudolf Carnap. This is somewhat surprising, since most of Cavaillès’ essay is focused on other theories, ranging from Kantianism to Logical Positivism. What is therefore perhaps missing in the introduction of Peden, is a sketch of these debates as well.

Moreover, in its current form, the book risks to fall prey not only to a form of anachronism, but also to a typical Anglophone tendency to canonize. The danger is not only to forget minor philosophers (a fate that Cavaillès shared for a long time), but also to immediately canonize newly discovered philosophers in an abstract, contextless hall of fame. This leads to abstract discussions where Cavaillès is compared to Spinoza, Kant, Husserl and Heidegger in a ahistorical fashion, as if they were all part of an eternal and continuous philosophical debate. This tends to forget that the history of philosophy is often more fragmentary.

First of all, it is necessary to ask how the work of the ‘great’ philosophers reached Cavaillès: who introduced him to Spinoza or Kant? The main interpreter of Kant and Spinoza in the early 20th-century was Léon Brunschvicg (1869-1944), supervisor of, among others, (Gaston) Bachelard, Cavaillès, Lautman and Aron. Brunschvicg was the most influential French philosopher at that time, with the possible exception of Henri Bergson (see Terzi 2022). But both Brunschvicg and Bergson were two very divergent products of the French tradition of spiritualism, the specific way how Kant was taken up in France, with a stress on the faculty of judgment and the notion of reflexivity. Though originally opposed to scientific philosophy, it transformed itself at the end of the 19th century, under the name of reflexive analysis (analyse réflexive), represented by authors such as Jules Lagneau and Jules Lachelier, in a Kantian philosophy that developed an interest in science as well, exemplified by the work of Émile Boutroux and Brunschvicg. It was this French Kantianism that fundamentally shaped the thought of Bachelard, Cavaillès and Canguilhem.

Being a clear form of subject-centered philosophy, it is most likely that Cavaillès’ attacks on a ‘philosophy of consciousness’ are not merely aimed at the new, and at that time in France still mostly ignored movement of phenomenology, but at French spiritualism as well. From this angle, the fact that he starts his book with Kantianism appears in a new light, and Cavaillès does extensively engage with the work of his supervisor, Brunschvicg (59-61). Therefore the claim that the philosophy of the concept came into being through a confrontation with phenomenology might be misleading. Quite telling, when Foucault later published a French version of his introduction, he left phenomenology out of the picture and broadened his claims: “Without doubt, this cleavage comes from a long way and we could trace it back through the 19th century: Bergson and Poincaré, Lachelier and Couturat, Maine de Biran and Comte.” (Foucault 1985, 4)

Such a broader history of the philosophy of the concept raises a number of additional questions, well-articulated by Cassou-Noguès and Pascale Gillot (2009): is the philosophy of concept a normative project, to be realized in a future philosophy, or a descriptive claim, referring to an eternal and recurrent constant in the history of philosophy? And against what is a philosophy of the concept precisely opposed? Too often terms such as consciousness, subjectivity, experience and meaning are simply used interchangeably in these often rash oppositions. It becomes especially difficult once one acknowledges that several of the early protagonists of the philosophy of the concept, such as Gaston Bachelard, Alexandre Koyré or the early Canguilhem, defended philosophies that had a clear place for the subject, exemplified perhaps best by Bachelard’s ‘new scientific spirit’ (Bachelard 1934). Only after the Second World War did the anti-humanism and anti-psychologism, that are typically associated with the philosophy of the concept, become dominant.

The originality of Cavaillès resides in the fact that his philosophy was indeed one of the first French philosophies who did – but never as radical as later generations would have it – take a distance from a philosophy of science centered around the subject. Cavaillès’s motivations to do so most likely were linked to the fact that he was one of the first in France to really engage with the new German developments in logic and philosophy of science. But again, it would be misleading to simply assume that this was bound to happen and that France was simply one of the last resisting strongholds doomed to fall for the new logic. The real history of philosophy of science is more contingent. That these developments would become so central for philosophy of science’s self-identity was never a necessity. Cavaillès’ fate could equally have been one of complete oblivion.

This leads us to our second correction of the mythology: there was also an atmosphere of complete ignorance and even dismissal of what was going on in philosophy outside of France. Though it was Brunschvicg who co-invited Husserl to Paris in 1929, he was not that interested. He did not even attend his lectures, but only met Husserl a few days later, when the latter went to the doctoral defense of Alexandre Koyré (who had studied with Husserl). Gaston Bachelard was similarly absent. It highlights how far apart philosophical worlds at that time were.

Cavaillès’ interest in and familiarity with German philosophy was rather exceptional at that time. In 1930-1931 he would stay in Germany on a Rockefeller scholarship to study German Protestantism, during which he met Husserl. He also attended the infamous Davos debate between Cassirer and Heidegger (see Cavaillès 1929) and the Wiener Kreis Vorkonferenz in Prague in 1934, where the Vienna Circle presented itself to the international philosophical scene for the first time (see Cavaillès 1935). Though Brunschvicg and Bachelard were invited, they declined. This highlights another perhaps underappreciated dimension of Cavaillès book, namely that the main perceived threat for Cavaillès was perhaps not so much phenomenology or French spiritualism, but the new movement of logical positivism. More than phenomenology, logical positivism challenged French philosophy, even at home. In 1935, logical positivism held its first international conference in Paris. And despite attempts by French representatives of logical positivism, such as Louis Rougier, to invite Brunschvicg, Bachelard and Cavaillès, most French philosophers responded with indifference and hostility (see Dewulf and Simons 2021). French philosophers of science, exemplified by Brunschvicg, had a distaste for logic, rejecting the idea that science and mathematics could be reduced to them.

Again Cavaillès was the exception in taking this movement seriously. But again this engagement should not be simply understood as the moment when the great lessons of German and British philosophy – Cavaillès discusses Russell and Wittgenstein as well – finally seeped into French philosophy. Cavaillès absorptions of these developments was one that immediately also digested them in order to produce something new. Cavaillès was not the only to do so. In fact, in 1938 Rougier reported to Hans Reichenbach how, in response to the 1935 conference, French philosophers were closing ranks and aimed for a counteroffensive. One first step towards this project was a gathering in September 1938 at Amersfoort in the Netherlands. Ferdinand Gonseth, the central organizer, would write about this conference: «We were quite a large group, from which I still recall Bachelard and his daughter Suzanne, Barzin, Bayer, Dupréel, Destouches, Paulette Février, Ebbinghaus, Tarski, Tatarkiewicz, and especially Jean Cavaillès.” (quoted in Emery 2000, 177-178)

Whether and in what form such a French counter-alliance would have taken shape could never be tested, since it was interrupted, literally during the conference, by incoming news: the first mobilization. Germany and France were at the brink of war. Cavaillès and some others, such Bachelard, decided to leave the conference and return to France. Bachelard returned to Paris and mainly start writing on poetics and imagination; Gonseth went back to Switzerland; both Cavaillès and Lautman joined the war effort and tragically died. No genuine French counter-alliance was formed, but for both Cavaillès and Lautman it was clear that the Vienna Circle was the adversary, and hence the reason why it plays a prominent part in the second part of this book. Especially Carnap was the opponent. While in captivity, Cavaillès would write to Lautman about Carnaps as “their old enemy of the Logische Syntax der Sprache” (quoted in Ferrières, 1950: 164).

Cavaillès’ On Logic and the Theory of Science is thus misleadingly technical in its content, as if what is at stake is nothing but highly specialized arguments in philosophy of science and mathematics. In truth, the stakes were higher and the book is a witness to a genuine struggle for identity: what is the task of philosophy of science? What is the correct way to approach scientific practices and their history? This little book is the battleground of all the major candidates at the beginning of the 20th century: spiritualism, logicism, phenomenology, logical positivism, intuitionism, formalism, and so on. Cavaillès did not pick sides, but attempted to develop his own alternative. In that sense, he practiced what he preached: to understand is to capture the gesture, and to be able to continue it. It is this aborted continuation that, though often shed of its contextual skin, has been the fertilizer for the philosophy of the concept in France and historical epistemology in general.


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