Language and Phenomenology is a collection of 15 essays edited by Chad Engelland. Doing what it says on the tin, these essays cluster around questions about the relationship between language and phenomenology, in a range of different ways and with different axes of analysis in view. The text is bookended by Engelland himself. In both his Introduction and the essay that culminates the text he draws our attention to the fact that phenomenological discourse is itself a language with its own vocabulary and grammar. As Richard Kearney tells us in his contribution on linguistic and narrative hospitality, ‘a mother tongue has many children’ (267). The text exemplifies these two points in its form and content. If all the contributing authors are fluent in the language of phenomenology, there are nevertheless different dialects, or – to use Engelland’s own terminology – ‘inflections’ (273) represented.
Reading the text as a whole presents as a question the extent to which there is agreement or disagreement between the authors that it gives voice to. The collection seems to offer different conclusions about the nature of the relationship between phenomenology and language, but there is a question in this reader’s mind as to how much of this difference is ultimately terminological, rather than substantively philosophical. These questions of interpretation themselves find a mirror in the questions that are put to us in the text. As reviewing a work involves mediation and a kind of ‘translation’ of the authors, I am minded of Kearney’s observation that ‘…each dialect has its secrets, whence the legitimate double-injunction of every guest language cries to its host: ‘Translate me! Don’t translate me!’ (265). I will explore some of the threads, themes and tensions that the text presents, then, whilst recognising the limits of this ‘translation’.
Between them these essays variously look at the possible relationships and connections between speech and language, language and thought, language and meaning, dialogue and language, dialogue and mood, dialogue and perceptual experience, experience and judgement, language and normativity, language and self-consciousness, experience and interpretation, language and embodiment and language and truth. The most prominent scholarly figures in this text are Husserl and Heidegger, with multiple essays dedicated to exegeting both the early and late work of this prominent pair. Merleau-Ponty, Gadamer and others are also brought into these overlapping and intersecting conversations. All of the essays are rooted in the phenomenological tradition, but many find a natural conversation partner with analytic philosophy, drawing the likes of Wittgenstein and Frege. Aristotle is another figure who makes several appearances, offering another bridging point between traditions, as Heidegger’s analysis of language interacts and modifies Aristotle’s account of language.
This bridging of traditions is perhaps in part a natural feature of the subject matter itself, where the philosophy of language has more typically been seen to be the domain of the of the Anglo-American tradition. As Engelland highlights at the off, the domain of ‘phenomenology of language’ ‘initially appears empty’…While philosophy as conceptual analysis obviously involves a close interaction with language and problems of language, it is not at all clear that the same holds for philosophy as description of the structure of experience. What is the specifically phenomenological contribution to language?’ (1). This text seeks to be part of clarifying and constituting this contribution. It succeeds in offering a rich contribution to ‘phenomenology of language’ as its own domain, tracing some central threads about the fundamental presuppositions such a domain has to grapple with, whilst also making space for detailed reflection on the lived experience of our linguistic lives. In this task the form of a multiplicity of voices is a strength, offering a snapshot of this field in both its depth and breadth. This text would not suit beginners to phenomenology, as it assumes a ready familiarity with the tradition. For those already engaged in phenomenological ideas, the writing is largely very accessible and illuminating.
The text is split into two parts, the first titled ‘Language and Experience’, the second ‘Language and Joint Experience’. The second part therefore takes a specific slant on the over-arching theme of the text, namely the relationship between language and experience in the light of the fact that both are inescapably tied to our intersubjective interactions with others. These two parts, Engelland tells us, seek to track both the first-person and the second-person character of language in our lived experience.
The first section offers eight contributions: Daniel O. Dahlstrom argues that language is the ‘light’ by which objects are illuminated. Taylor Carmen evaluates Merleau-Ponty’s account of the connection between language and the expressive body. Dominique Pradelle explores a way of understanding the ‘pre-predicative’ dimension of experience. Jacob Rump argues that perception has normativity ‘baked in’ and outlines why this is relevant to an understanding of the relationship between language and experience. Scott Campbell offers that Heidegger’s understanding of ‘taking notice’ offers a way of speaking that discloses rather than conceals our experience. Leslie MacAvoy outlines how Heidegger modifies Aristotle’s account by shifting logos to perceptual experience itself. Katherine Whitby offers us eight possible ways that language can disclose the world to us, landing with the centrality of dialogue as world-disclosing. Anna Gosetti-Ferencei focuses on poetry as a particular form of language, exploring the phenomenology of poetry and poetry as phenomenology.
The second section is comprised of seven essays. As the focus here is on the intersubjective dimensions of language and experience, many of these authors interface their analyses with analyses in developmental psychology. The joint attention contexts of language learning shared by infants and their caregivers shed light on connections between intersubjectivity, language and experience which are others hiding in plain sight in our adult experience. Andrew Inkpin argues that neither individualism not social holism are adequate ways of accounting for language, but that both the individual and social aspects of language are compound, complex and co-constitutive. Pol Vandevelde draws on the work of Vygotsky to argue both that language scaffolds thought and thought scaffolds language. Michele Averchi uses Husserl’s distinction between expressions and indications to make the case that while there are non-linguistic forms of information transfer, only linguistic forms can function as truly communicative acts. Lawrence Hatab argues for the priority and necessity of language in all forms of world-disclosure. With a different emphasis, Cathy Culbertson argues that forms of play mirror and prefigure spoken conversation. Richard Kearney offers both an analysis and a manifesto for what he calls ‘narrative hospitality’, characterised by flexibility, plurality, transfiguration and pardon. Engelland culminates with a meditation on the ways that we learn a phenomenological language, arguing that this is grounded in, and a completion of, our ordinary language learning. He sketches a distinction between linguistic and non-linguistic forms of communication in terms of the capacity of the former to reach beyond presence to that which is absent.
Whilst the polycentric nature of an essay collection means that there is not a straightforward over-arching argument to analyse here, the key thread that runs through the text as a whole – as the section headings suggest – is that of the nature of the relationship between language and experience. There are at least three different possible positions one might take to the question of the fundamental relationship between experience and language. Broadly speaking these are: (i) Language is imposed on or secondary to the ‘raw data’ of phenomenal experience, where these are two distinct kinds of thing. (ii) Phenomenal experience is in fact linguistic ‘all the way through’, and there is no such thing as pre-linguistic experience – this is a myth. (iii) There is some category of (something like) pre-linguistic experience but this aspect of our experience is nevertheless still structured in a way that is congruent with or isomorphic to linguistic structure.
If we were to caricature phenomenology, we might be inclined to say that it preaches the first of these positions. One might suppose that in the Husserlian exhortation to get ‘back to the things themselves’ the phenomenologist is seeking to analyse that which is prior to language itself. It soon becomes clear, however, that this is not necessarily the case, and indeed, not the tack that most phenomenologists take, despite the emphasis on lived experience as a methodological starting point. This is both because language survives the bracketing process as part of the content of our experience of the world, but also because it becomes clear that (in some way) language is a condition of the possibility of our experiencing the world in the way that we experience it.
Most phenomenologists want a more nuanced account of the relationship between language and phenomenology, but what is the nature of this relationship – or set of relationships? As Engelland makes foreground in his Introduction, we see in the work of classic and contemporary phenomenologists both that: ‘Experience takes the lead but it is an experience widened by speech. One can thereby identify a basic tension within the phenomenological treatment of language: on the one hand, phenomenology subordinates speech to experience. On the other hand, phenomenology identifies the reciprocity of speech and experience’ (3). Further, phenomenologists want to be ‘mindful of the linguisticality of experience’ (13). Engelland here roughly lays out the three emphases above, highlighting that the phenomenological tradition has included elements that imply (i), (ii) and (iii). These positions, when laid out beside each other, seem mutually incompatible. What then are we to make of these competing emphases? What are the arguments in favour of each? This collection seeks to help us think through this question, by together taking a long hard look at these tensions. Each of the essays in their own way make an attempt to ascertain a coherent understanding of where and how language sits in both the form and the content of our lived experience.
On the face of it, it seems as though different authors in the collection come to different conclusions with respect to the question of whether experience is linguistic ‘all the way through’ or not. Contributors such as Hatab make claims in favour of ‘the priority of language in world-disclosure’ (229), emphasising the way that human beings always already dwell in language – which looks like option (ii). Others such as Pradelle argue that the pre-predicative dimension of experience is more primitive than the linguistic dimension, yet there is a form of logos that structures this ‘lower order’ (58) of experience which bridges it to the linguistic – which looks like option (iii).
Another way of framing the key question here might be: Is logos simply the domain of language? And if not, how are we to understand pre- or extra-linguistic logos, or ‘logos in its nascent state’ (72)? Or again to re-frame, in the inverse: If there is some logical structure to our pre-verbal experience, is this because this pre-verbal content is in fact still in some way ‘linguistic’, so tracks the logos of language (as MacAvoy seems to argue with the claim that ‘perception already speaks’ (120))? Or is there a logic that is genuinely and distinctly pre-linguistic here (As Pradelle and Rump both seem to argue)?
These different suggested relationships cash out in a particular way in the second section of book, which focuses on the intersubjective contexts of both language and experience. These papers focus on communication between people, including both pre-verbal forms of communication and verbal dialogue. Mirroring the questions above, we might ask – when we talk about ‘pre-verbal’, ‘extra-verbal’ or ‘non-verbal’ communication (including, for example tone, gestures and body language) are we saying that there is a kind of ‘grammar’ built into these forms of communication that is quasi-linguistic? Or do these forms of interaction have their own logic which is distinct from language, only secondarily entering into some kind of relationship with the linguistic elements of an interaction? Again, we seem to get different answers to this question. Averchi argues that there is a distinct logical and structural difference between verbal and non-verbal forms of communication, which shows up in the difference between language’s capacity to communicate the absent and the abstract – this looks like option (i). Hatab argues that all communication is linguistic and denies the possibility of experience not already shaped by language, which looks like option (ii). A seemingly different position comes through in Culbertson’s article. She looks at the structural similarities between forms of play and spoken conversation, making a case for a structural similarity, congruence and interconnection of pre-verbal and verbal forms of dialogue in this way. A slightly different take but a similar conclusion comes from Pol Vandevelde, using Husserl, who highlights the difference between ‘semantic consciousness’ and ‘phonetic consciousness’ (199). Semantic consciousness is the ‘perceiving-as’ that we are most familiar with: when I hear someone speaking in English, I cannot hear this as ‘mere noise’ but I non-inferentially hear the meaning of the words and sentences. Phonetic consciousness however highlights a slightly different layer of meaning in my reception of speech. Even when I hear someone speaking in a foreign language that I don’t understand, I still grasp it as speech. This maps onto the development of speech in infants, where an infant can recognise speech patterns as speech, and join in proto-dialogue, before understanding the meaning of the words themselves. In Vygotsky’s words, there is ‘a prelinguistic phase in the development of thought and a preintellectual phase in the development of speech’ (195). Vandevelde’s endorsement of this here looks like option (iii).
This central question re-framed yet another way asks: Is language a broader category than we might ordinarily think it is (incorporating the seemingly non-verbal) or is logos a broader category than we might ordinarily think it is (incorporating the non-linguistic)? And – what is at stake in this difference, if anything? This is where the question of the philosophically substantive vs merely terminological comes into play. Does it make a difference if we think about this dimension of our experience as structured by pre-linguistic logos or by pre-verbal language? Are these two ways of saying the same thing? If not, what further might be needed to distinguish these two ways of thinking? This is a genuine question, but I don’t think that the collection as a whole can land us either way.
A slightly different take on this central question asks whether language is necessarily objectifying of our experience, with this question is addressed head on by Campbell. Again, the caricature of the phenomenologist in our minds might say that all language is theory-laden, and it brings a distorting or at least limited and limiting lens to the ‘given’ of experience. This perspective, which has a clear alignment with option (i) above, might argue that language is always re-presenting what is presented in experience. However, there is another suggestion, that language can also straightforwardly present our experience, and successfully communicate this experience to another. Here we have the thought that different types of speech do different kinds of things, in different ‘phenomenological registers’ (109) and perhaps disclose or conceal the world in different ways. Campbell looks at Heidegger’s analysis of the writings of St Paul as a case of ‘taking notice’. Gosetti-Ferencei’s account of the ‘phenomenological moments’ (150) in poetry also offers a picture of language which ‘presents’ rather than represents. ‘Taking notice’ is ‘a kind of pre-predicative and non-propositional language, that is, a language that is evocative, perhaps even stream of consciousness, narrative and exploratory instead of theoretical and objectifiying’ (96). This kind of language is to be distinguished from Heideggerian ‘idle talk’, which conceals the lived reality of our experience. We might read Campbell’s interpretation of Heidegger as akin to option (ii), particularly where he contrasts this with his interpretation of Husserl, which looks more like option (iii). He says: ‘Husserl…thought that predicative language could bring to light the inherent meaningfulness in pre-predicative experience. Heidegger on the other hand, explored a way of thinking about language that was itself pre-predicative’ (110). Whether Campbell’s interpretation of both Husserl and Heidegger is right here is its own question, but even if Campbell is right here, this is not necessarily a point that forces a further dialectic, as both positions could be true. These two articulations of how language might disclose the meaning of experience are not mutually exclusive. There is nothing in this analysis which can arbitrate between option (ii) or (iii) for us. Again, we might wonder how much is ultimately at stake between them, if anything.
Part of the difficulty in assessing where philosophical differences lie and where differences are merely terminological is connected to the fact that both ‘language’ and ‘experience’ ae themselves such wide and contested terms. Each have a cloud of (overlapping) concepts associated with them, and how one understands these associations makes all the difference for the conclusions one draws about the nature of other associations. How one understands the relationship between, for example, dialogue and language will shape how one understands the relationship between dialogue and experience and therefore between experience and language. What gets defined into the relata in question defines what is claimed about the nature and possibility of the relationship. For example, whilst Hatab makes the strong claim that ‘the disclosure of the world is gathered in language, not objects, perception, thought or consciousness’ (299), we find that he defines ‘language’ in such as way that includes ‘facial expressions, touch, physical interactions, gestures, sounds, rhythms, intonations, emotional cues, and a host of behavioral contexts’ (236). This to say, Hatab defines a host of non-verbal embodied interactions into what he means by language. With all manner of embodied meaning brought under the umbrella of language, the claim that language is the sole discloser of the world no longer looks like the narrow claim it initially did. And as above, once language is given a wide definition, it is less clear what is at stake, if anything, between a position like Hatab’s and a position like Pradelle’s. Perhaps Hatab’s non-verbal ‘language’ and Pradelle’s ‘pre-linguistic logos’ are the same thing, and there are ways of seeing option (ii) and option (iii) as the same thing viewed two different ways.
This point about definitional difference noted, a more fertile way of exploring further the possibility of extra-linguistic dimension of our experience might ask: how are we to understand the nature and structure of a pre-linguistic logos (or a pre-verbal language)? The suggestion from a number of authors is that this is given by the normativity that is built into perceptual experience itself. The structure of consciousness as intentionality, which means that seeing is seeing-as, hearing is hearing-as, and so on, gives us the logos embedded in perception. What are the conditions of possibility for consciousness so structured? As MacAvoy gestures towards in her essay, the structure of the world itself is relevant here, and further analysis of the networks of meaning embedded in the ‘interobjectivity’ of things might be part of this further exploration. There is also a possible theological direction in view here, as Kearney indicates – ‘there is no pure pristine logos, unless it is God’s’ (265). Indeed, further exploration of the pre-linguistic logos might take the famous opening lines of St John’s gospel as its starting cue: ‘In the beginning was the logos.’ Language and Phenomenology offers a springboard to further exploration of this logos baked into to fabric of reality and the logic of phenomenal consciousness, though the conversation is still unfolding.
Alfred J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic was first published in 1936, a second, revised edition appeared in 1946. Chapter 1 (‘The Elimination of Metaphysics’) of this book opens with the following paragraph:
“The traditional disputes of philosophers are, for the most part, as unwarranted as they are unfruitful. The surest way to end them is to establish beyond question what should be the purpose and method of a philosophical inquiry. And this is by no means so difficult a task as the history of philosophy would lead one to suppose. For if there are any questions which science leaves it to philosophy to answer, a straightforward process of elimination must lead to their discovery.” (Ayer 2001: 13)
The author of these words was only twenty-five when he finished writing a book which became a milestone in contemporary philosophy. It was indeed “a young man’s book” (…) “written with more passion than most philosophers allow themselves to show”, as Ayer admitted in the second edition (Ayer 2001: 173). “With these and similar assertions the young Ayer embarked on a course of discussion that was designed to shake the philosophical establishment” (Hanfling 1997: 4). And even though time has clearly demonstrated the flaws and shortcoming of Ayer’s text and its main ideas, it needs to be acknowledged that Language, Truth and Logic (henceforth LTL) is a major achievement in the field, with long lasting influence, provoking over the years vivid discussions and reactions, especially in the areas of philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, and ethics.
The volume edited by Adam Tamas Tuboly reconsiders the philosophical and historical importance of LTL, and discusses its more contemporary legacy in several different disciplines. Tuboly specifies that the questions that need to be asked and discussed: “are the following: how did Ayer preserve or distort the views and conceptions of the logical empiricists, especially those of Otto Neurath and Rudolf Carnap? How are Ayer’s arguments different from those he aimed to reconstruct? How influential was LTL really, and what are the factors that explain its success in Britain and especially at Oxford?” (3).
The book comprises an introduction and five parts (each consisting of two chapters). The introduction gives necessary background information, part one contextualizes Ayer’s book, part two concentrates on philosophy of language in LTL, part three discusses philosophy of mind and psychology, part four looks at epistemology and truth, and part five focuses on ethics and values. The individual chapters provide critical re-examinations of LTL, with the final chapter offering a highly critical analysis within a wide context of philosophy and culture. Each chapter is furnished with an extensive list of references.
In the first, introductory chapter, ‘From Spying to Canonizing – Ayer and His Language, Truth and Logic’, Tuboly traces Ayer’s road to LTL, his first encounters and contacts in Vienna, and provides a brief overview of the book’s content and its main theses. He observes that Ayer’s main task is “twofold: to show that all metaphysicians try to go beyond the empirical realm and to buttress his core thesis that only empirical propositions are meaningful in a literal sense” (12).
An important part of this chapter is devoted to discussing the controversy surrounding the significance and influence of LTL. Tuboly offers here a brief overview of the most important references on the subject and concludes this section observing that “the influence of LTL can be measured on two grounds. First, it was quite negatively received by the philosophical community, as it stepped on many toes and produced a mainly critical response among both philosophers and public intellectuals. (…) On the other hand, Ayer’s book was more than successful in other ways. LTL is one of the best-selling philosophy books of the twentieth century; every student of analytic philosophy has to read it at least once (…), and many educated laymen know it as a source of inspiration and a seminal text from the intellectual history of positivism – a distinction shared by only a few books in analytic philosophy. Whether institutional success is enough for philosophical success, however, is a different question” (27-28). Tuboly also stresses that LTL, though written when the Vienna Circle was past its peak, provides rather scarce information on logical positivism and its historical and theoretical developments. These remarks prepare the ground for more detailed analyses in the following parts of the volume.
Further contextualization of Ayer’s book is provided by the two chapters in Part One (‘The Book and Its Context’). Andreas Vrahimis discusses LTL and the Anglophone reception of the Venna Circle, he further investigates the issue of omissions made by Ayer in tackling the history of logical positivism, the debate around the Neurath-Haller thesis, and Ayer’s divergences with Carnap. Vrahimis observes that the linguistic Empiricism of LTL is presented as partly conceding the Rationalist critique of classical Empiricism, while rejecting the metaphysical conclusions the critique had driven them to; fortifying Empiricism by rejecting the mistaken assumptions of its classical proponents; and both aligning itself with the Empiricist side of the dispute, and also resolving the dispute in an Empiricist manner (47). In concluding remarks on the aftermath of the publication, Vrahimis observes that:
“Ayer’s book focused on discussions of particular problems and only very briefly touched upon the context in which they had initially been addressed by the Vienna Circle and its predecessors. The reception of his work also followed course, and the bold claims made by LTL resulted in bringing a critical debate over the viability of verificationism to the center of Anglophone philosophy during the 30s and 40s. Within this debate, there had been little concern about the acceptability of Ayer’s brief history of Logical Empiricism”. (63)
Chapter 3, by Siobhan Chapman, concentrates on ‘Viennese Bombshells’, i.e. reactions to LTL from Ayer’s philosophical contemporaries, especially John L. Austin, Arne Naess, and L. Susan Stebbing. All three philosophers found interesting elements in LTL but also had objections to the implications of Ayer’s study for the study of language. Chapman focuses on the reaction of these three philosophers to LTL, and on their further influence upon the study of language. Austin’s name is closely associated with ordinary language philosophy, one prominent version of the ‘linguistic philosophy’ (acknowledged by Ayer in his retrospective). Naess is less well known in Anglophone philosophy, “but was extremely influential in the development during the middle part of the twentieth century of philosophy in Norway, where he was celebrated as the founder of the school of empirical semantics” and finally Stebbing’s work “has been relatively neglected in recent decades, but in the 1930s and 1940s she was recognized as a leading figure in British analytic philosophy, particularly in relation to what became known as the Cambridge School of directional analysis” (71). In the remaining parts of the chapter Chapman discusses some subsequent developments connected with LTL and ordinary language philosophy in the fields of philosophy and linguistics, and she claims that after initial criticism connected with the fact that Ayer failed to recognize the disjuncture between philosophical inquiry and the assessment of ordinary linguistic usage, in the last few years “some analytic philosophers have returned to the idea that ordinary language might be of relevance, and even of vital methodological significance, to philosophical inquiry” (85). She also points at some interesting developments in Critical Discourse Analysis which might have been inspired by the close attention to different uses of language explicit in ordinary language philosophy (92).
The two chapters in Part Two are explicitly devoted to philosophy of language in LTL. Nicole Rathgeb discusses Ayer’s stance on analyticity, and Sally Parker-Ryan studies Ayer and early ordinary language philosophy. Ayer’s definition of analyticity is of great significance for his whole philosophy, not least because he regards philosophical truths as analytic propositions, hence his conception is often cited as ‘truth in virtue of meaning’ (101). Rathgeb carefully traces the inspirations and sources for Ayer’s ideas, the developments of this conception, changes between the first and second edition of LTL, and objections voiced against this approach. In the conclusion, the author suggests that Ayer’s account of analyticity is fundamentally correct, and that “the two definitions of analyticity given in LTL and in the introduction to the second edition can be brought into accord, that the truth of analytic propositions so understood is not contingent upon the existence of language, and that the different factors Ayer appeals to in his explanation of the necessity of analytic propositions are all important, although one of them is more fundamental than the others” (120).
In chapter 5, Parker-Ryan examines the development of two approaches to language: the concept of ideal language, and the concept of ordinary language. The former is connected with Ayer’s views expounded in LTL, whereas the latter is discussed by Parker-Ryan with reference to the work of John Wisdom. The author briefly presents the origins of the method of linguistic analysis, the influence of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus and of his later views, succinctly introduces ordinary language philosophy and contrasts it with theories advocating ideal language. In conclusion, Parker-Ryan claims that Ayer and the positivists “understood linguistic analysis as the weeding out of nonsense, such that the ‘logic of science’ could emerge. Such a language would be ideal, in the sense of being perfectly transparent logical form, and comprised exhaustively of empirically verifiable propositions, logical propositions and nothing else” (146). On the other hand, for ordinary language philosophy, the aim was also to resolve philosophical confusion; proponents of this movement “believed that a closer and more thoughtful examination of how language really is used, in various circumstances, can be philosophically revealing” (147).
Part Three is devoted to philosophy of mind and psychology. Gergely Ambrus traces the evolution of Ayer’s views on the mind-body relation, whereas Thomas Uebel investigates the puzzle about other minds in early Ayer. Ambrus observes that the analysis of Ayer’s views, “beyond being interesting in itself, is also important in that it provides further details about the large-scale development of analytic philosophy, stretching from the logical positivists’ radical anti-metaphysicalism in the 1930s to the 1960s when (some) classical metaphysical problems like realism or idealism, and the mind-body problem, were treated as being meaningful and legitimate once more” (153). The chapter discusses the phenomenalist background, focuses on the relations between the mental and physical events (a core issue in contemporary philosophy of mind) and on reinterpretations of the psychophysical relation within Ayer’s ‘sophisticated realist’ framework. Ambrus sums up the developments in Ayer’s thought in the following way: “the changes in Ayer’s views about the nature of the psychophysical relation were embedded in the evolution of his overall approach to philosophy. He departed from the radically anti-metaphysical attitude of logical positivism and arrived at a sort of pragmatist realism” (187). The shift from radical anti-metaphysical to ‘soft’ metaphysical views (with simultaneous faithfulness to earlier empiricist foundations) is characteristic of developments in Ayer’s thought (188).
Chapter 7 provides additional evidence for Ayer’s changing views in what today might be referred to as proto-philosophy of mind. Uebel concentrates on the account of knowledge of other minds as formulated in LTL, provides different interpretations and reinterpretations, and discusses Ayer’s approach to logical behaviorism: “once it is noted how his verificationism limited his options, it is of course difficult to dispute Ayer’s conclusion that no knowledge of other minds is provided at all, but this limitation does not apply unless the doctrine of logical behaviorism is also reinterpreted” (211). Uebel also points to the discrepancies between the argument as presented in LTL, and as later interpreted by Ayer himself (240), a very interesting observation connected with authorial methodological consciousness (or lack of it).
Part Four deals with epistemology and truth. First Hans-Joachim Glock takes a close look at Ayer’s verificationism, next László Kocsis focuses on the problem of truth and validation. Truth, the second element in the title of Ayer’s book, was crucial both for the author’s line of investigation, and for the interpretation of his theory. Glock opens his chapter observing that the most fundamental aspiration of LTL is meta-philosophical: “Its stated aim is to argue for a positivist, anti-metaphysical conception of philosophy, its tasks and proper methods” (251). Further in this chapter, Glock discusses the importance of verificationism in LTL, different criteria of verifiability, the principle of verification, and the differences between the two (also in the context of Wittgenstein’s use-theory of meaning); it follows from this discussion that “there remains more to be said both against and for Ayer’s verificationism” (275).
In chapter 9, Kocsis starts with examining the difference between the definition and the criterion of truth and how they can be connected; next, he devotes some space to Ayer’s deflationism about the nature of truth and his place in the famous protocol-sentence debate, including his defense of a correspondence conception of the criterion of truth. In the final section he shows that Ayer’s deflationism about the nature of truth is not in conflict with his correspondence conception of the criterion of truth. This is because, contrary to his logical positivist contemporaries, Ayer did not admit any intimate connection between the two above-mentioned truth-theoretical tasks. According to Kocsis, “Ayer was convinced that the correspondence criterion could be applied to synthetic propositions, but as a fallibilist he did not distinguish between epistemically basic and incorrigible propositions (…) and all other non-basic propositions (hypotheses)” (301).
Part Five brings two chapters dealing with ethics and values. In chapter 10, Krisztián Pete compares Ayer and Berkeley, and their concepts of the meaning of ethical and religious language. Ayer starts the preface of the first edition of LTL with the following claim: “The views which are put forward in this treatise derive from the doctrines of Bertrand Russell and Wittgenstein, which are themselves the logical outcome of the Empiricism of Berkeley and David Hume” (Ayer 2001: 9). Berkeley’s and Hume’s influence on Ayer, and Ayer’s interpretation of Empiricism have already been discussed in chapters 1 and 2. Pete discusses in some detail Ayer’s and Berkeley’s views on emotional and theological use of language, he also explores the claim that Ayer is indebted to Berkeley “not only for the core ideas of his phenomenalism but also for his emotivism” (307), and provides a Berkeleyan reinterpretation of Ayer. Pete concludes that “by examining the semantic theory of one of Ayer’s distant empiricist predecessors, we can get some guidance on how to modify the ethical theory that Ayer outlined in LTL” (330).
The last chapter, by Aaron Preston, is significantly entitled ‘Ayer’s Book of Errors and the Crises of Contemporary Western Culture’. Preston offers a highly critical reading of LTL, with an equally critical assessment of its influence:
“Given that its flaws were both grievous and fairly obvious to many, LTL and the simplistic positivism it exemplified would be mere curiosities in the annals of a very curious century if it weren’t for the fact that they had massively harmful effects on culture, effects which persist to this day. (…)
LTL’s real significance lies here, in its role as a sophisticated and successful bit of propaganda for an ideology that played a critical role in loosing Western culture from its moral and epistemic moorings”. (334; 335)
Preston considers the rise of positivism in the light of the crises of contemporary western culture, including contemporary politics, fake news and post truth politics. Parts of this chapter sound rather like a political manifesto; however, it is interesting to see the line of argumentation leading the author from flaws in LTL to analyses (neither very deep nor original though) of Trump’s presidency. The tenor of the conclusion is predictable: “What, then, is the real significance of LTL? Sadly, its significance is overwhelmingly negative. It resides in the fact that it gave a distinctive and rhetorically powerful voice to a form of scientistic naturalism which has played a powerful role in fouling our relations to moral truth” (361). A brief critical remark with respect to these claims is included earlier in the volume, in chapter 8, where Glock observes that Preston’s dismissive attitude is precipitate, for:
“A. Ayer’s later assessment leaves open that LTL also includes important truths. B. Mistakes can be philosophically significant. C. By its own lights, LTL aims at introducing and implementing a method of clarification and critical thinking rather than at propounding a true doctrine.” (273-4)
The above points provide a good coda to this final chapter; however, it would be interesting to see a chapter polemic with regard to Preston’s stance.
In the conclusion of his brief introduction to Ayer’s work, Oswald Hanfling observed that “just as one must admire the bravado of his early book, so one must be impressed, when reading his later work, by his cautious and painstaking treatment of the questions at issue, and his constant striving to do justice to alternative views before arriving at his own conclusion” (Hanfling 1997: 51); and Ben Rogers added that the greatness of LTL resides in the fact that “it exudes a rare and inspiring passion for truth” (Rogers 2001: xvi). The papers collected in the reviewed volume attest to the depth and breadth of Ayer’s thought, they demonstrate that the shortcomings of his early work cannot overshadow its lasting influence in several philosophical disciplines.
Ayer’s book provoked reaction also within literary studies, and its title inspired at least two publications – Hamm (1960) and Martin (1975) – with both authors consciously alluding to the original title, and both investigating the benefits and shortcomings of logical positivism as applied to literary analyses. This aspect of Ayer’s influence is not discussed in the reviewed book, however, it additionally confirms the importance of LTL for various developments in several disciplines.
The Historical and Philosophical Significance of Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic provides an excellent overview of the topics discussed by Ayer, the controversies surrounding the publication and its influence. Additionally, it provides important (not only historical) considerations connected with the developments in philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, and ethics.
Ayer, Alfred J. [1936/1946] 2001. Language, Truth and Logic. London: Penguin Books.
Hamm, Victor M. 1960. Language, Truth and Poetry. The Aquinas Lecture 1960. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press.
Hanfling, Oswald. 1997. Ayer. Analysing What We Mean. London: Phoenix.
Martin, Graham Dunstan. 1975. Language, Truth, and Poetry. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Rogers, Ben. 2001. “Introduction.” In: Ayer (2001), ix-xviii.
Michael Naas’ 2019 book, Derrida à Montréal: Une pièce en trois actes, is an interesting reconstruction of the three lectures Jacques Derrida gave in Montreal between 1970 and 1997. We also learn of a fourth ‘unofficial’ lecture which is presented as an appendix to the ‘official’ narrative of the three main events. Naas reconstructs the three episodes by placing them within a consistent line inside Derrida’s philosophy. According to him, even though the three lectures do not fit a purposely announced continuum, they form a common thread within Derrida’s philosophical project. This project is already evident in the first of those episodes in 1971: his presentation of “Signature Event Context” for the French Language Philosophy Association Annual Conference. It is fundamental to understand that Naas is not pointing at this instance as an original or originary source of Derrida’s philosophy. This is not an unambiguously demarcated origin but rather the first of several instances within a chronological fragment presented by Naas.
Derrida’s most significant contribution in that text is assessing John Austin’s theory of performance and its relevance to a theory of communication by arguing that it is not just an addition to the established understanding of language as a descriptive force but a challenge to the idea of description itself. Naas is clearly aware that this was perhaps Derrida’s most polemic text sparking controversy not only within the ‘opposing’ philosophical field, analytic philosophers represented by John Searle, but also within Derrida’s ‘home base’ as Naas recounts that Paul Ricœur, the keynote at the event where Derrida read his article, was uncomfortable with Derrida’s reconstruction of Austin’s theory. Even though Derrida’s occupation with an analytic philosopher such as Austin might be surprising, Naas points to Derrida’s exchange at Harvard, where the lectures that later became How to Do Things with Words took place, to argue that this was not an unconventional choice of subject. In that sense it was not an empty provocation.
Rather, Naas presents Derrida’s account of communication and language as covering most of his philosophical enterprise. Not in a manner that summarizes or contains all of the subjects Derrida will occupy himself with throughout his work nor in a sense that Derrida continually returns to that text as if it was somehow a foundational moment in his career (50). Instead, Naas’ adoption of that text as a central piece in his reconstruction of Derrida’s theory serves to demonstrate that Derrida’s arguments there could be translated into two fundamental methodological points that Naas adopts as his guidelines for assessing Derrida: performativity and iterability.
The performative aspect is evident in how Naas structures the book. He chooses to present Derrida’s interventions as acts in parallel to a theatrical play. In that way, he is not only describing Derrida’s work but also performing it to a great extent. As Georges Leroux and Ginette Michaud argue in their introductory note, he thinks towards Derrida in an act of reaching out to him. Instead of the perhaps ordinary descriptive movement of dissecting something stable, Naas offers an act of Derrida’s act: an attempt of ‘mimicking’ without copying or of tracing the movements of Derrida as its partner in a dance. The fact that, similar to Derrida’s texts analyzed by Naas, the texts in the book were originally performed in a conference have great significance in this context. Naas is very literally performing the piece Derrida à Montréal: Une pièce en trois actes.
According to Naas, Derrida’s interventions form a three act play chronologically ordered with two additional interludes and an encore where he discusses the fourth unofficial intervention. Naas argues that each of the three main interventions could be portrayed as examining one of the three concepts in Derrida’s initial talk. Despite presenting the interventions in chronological order, Naas argues that the first one (“Signature Event Context”) is centered on context, the second one (“Otobiographie de Nietzsche”) on signature and the final one (“Une certaine possibilité impossible de dire l’événement”) is associated to the event.
The iterability factor comes about in the fact that Naas is not arguing that Derrida is repeating himself in the three supposedly unrelated lectures; he is arguing that when considering Derrida’s argument about iterability, one must carefully reflect on what is being iterated in the three themes that at first sight show no communality. Naas argues that what is being iterated is Derrida’s original deconstructive impetus and, in that sense, a proper understanding of the larger piece in its three acts should provide the reader with an account of what is the deconstructive project.
The first act of Naas’s play comments on Derrida’s “Signature Event Context” (hereby SEC, as Derrida refers to it) focusing on the last concept of the title. The central argument being that Derrida’s text aims directly at challenging any possible contextualization of the performative iteration. According to Naas, context is, from a Derridean perspective, not a ground that solidifies the iteration into a clear and precise address where communication takes place. It is precisely the indeterminacy that permeates any attempt of certitude. This is not merely a contingent element of the specific contexts or an empirical barrier encountered by the transition between the theory of communication and its real occurrences. According to Derrida, this is a structural condition of communication per se. In other words, in the context of communication there is neither a departure address nor an arrival point that could solidify the communicative event. The context is marked by absence rather than by presence: it is characterized more by the lack of determining factors than by their presence.
Naas argues that Derrida’s point about context passes through his assessment of the relation between speech and writing in Austin’s How to Do Things with Words since it is by first problematizing and then offering an inverse logic that Derrida deconstructs the notion of context. Naas describes this movement as a transition from placing Austin within the philosophical tradition that privileges speech over writing by thinking of writing as merely the supplement of speech, towards finding in Austin’s performative theory a breaking point to that logic. The first step is Derrida’s reference to Étienne Bonnot de Condillac and the idea that writing is marked by absence: the writer or the receiver are absent. In imitating/representing speech, writing allows for a non-synchronous timeframe opening the space for absence in communication. This absence, however, is portrayed as a temporary lack that must be supplemented. In that sense, the ‘natural’ communicative order of speech is preserved.
Derrida challenges this perspective by arguing that the absence in writing is not a contingent element but rather its very condition. Naas explains that the fact that writing must be ‘readable’ makes absence a constitutive factor of writing. Writing is for some absent other but, moreover, it is also the limit of my intentionality. Using a concept that he explores elsewhere (“Miracle and machine: Jacques Derrida and the two sources of religion, science, and the media”), Naas argues that writing is like a machine for Derrida since it keeps working in the absence of the original impetus. Besides the obvious absence of the reader in a written communication, Derrida argues that the writer is also absent in the act of making their writing readable: their presence and intentionality are relevant but not conditions of its communicative force.
Derrida then reverts this logic back to what is allegedly the ‘original’ logic of speech (43). According to him, this logic of absence is not exclusive to writing but permeates communication as a whole since even the spoken word needs to remain ‘readable’ without the presence of both the speaker and the listener. In order for language to work, it must have some ‘durability’ as Naas points with his emphasis on the concept of restance. Language is only understandable if it could be understandable in all possible contexts. Naas reconstructs this fundamental step by referring to Plato’s Pharmacy in order to demonstrate how this deconstructive movement is consistent in Derrida’s work. It fundamentally amounts to Derrida’s suspicion of a metaphysics of presence.
Naas goes great lengths to explain Derrida’s argument by emphasizing that he is not arguing that absence is a necessary condition of communication, as if to argue that it is exclusively in the context of the absence of determining factors that communication is possible. That is, Derrida is not making a normative argument in defense of emptying out the communicative act towards anonymity and transparency. Instead, as Naas clearly illustrates, Derrida’s argument is that such anonymity and transparency is impossible precisely because despite any possible content one might be able to associate to context, it will remain invariably permeated by an absence. Derrida is opposing the possibility of a fully charged context where in the absence of any ambiguity, one would reach a transparent communicative act (71). Derrida demonstrates that such interference-free communication is supposedly achieved not by the clearing of the context but rather by overcharging it.
Naas notices he does this by referencing McLuhan, which, as Naas argues, is a clear reference to the context of Derrida’s speech in Canada. Still, it is Toronto and not the same French speaking Canada of his speech. By pointing to this perhaps anecdotal fact, Naas is performing a deconstructive act: remarking a context that is not the exact context, staging the marginalia of the act to show its importance.
Moreover, Naas demonstrates the power of Derrida’s argument by translating it into its fundamental principles: in order for something to be communicable, it must work beyond its context. A communication that is absolutely grounded on its contexts would not communicate anything, so in every instance of communication the context must be invariably extrapolated (42). The presence of contextual elements is always permeated by some elements of absence. In that way, Naas successfully demonstrates how Derrida challenges the metaphysics of presence.
Here lies the strength of Naas reconstruction: with this argument, Derrida, unlike many of his critics argue, is not dismissing intention—he is merely arguing that it is not the governing force in language. In the same way that Derrida’s arguments about absence do not entail the disappearance of presence, intention does not provide us with a fundamental and defining context. But this does not mean that it is irrelevant. To large extent, this is the power of the deconstructive movement that Naas captures with precision. Naas explains this to be the meaning of Derrida’s argument: that language must be iterable, it must make reference to the already known while being the singular event of communication, i.e., communicating a new sense (61). In order for a performative to work, it must make reference to codes already established beyond its context and, in that sense, it is a citation of a previous iteration that is taken out of context. Both in the theatre or in ‘real life’, when a couple gets married, they must use (or at least reference) the appropriate code. The possibility of extrapolating the context, inherent to any citation, is not marginal to the force of language but its very ground.
This is the point of connection that Naas finds between Derrida and Austin. Despite the fact that Derrida finds problematic arguments in Austin and, if we consider Austin’s ‘heirs’ to legitimately represent his philosophical project, the reverse is also true: Derrida and Austin are both committed to opposing the ‘descriptive illusion’ that language exists as a manner of referencing things rather than doing things (52). In other words, they are both concerned with the power/force or language not with its truth values.
Still, Naas argues that Derrida tries to overcome Austin’s reliance on the context via his assessment of the role that intentions play in Austin’s theory. More specifically, Austin’s dismissal of infelicities (Naas uses the French word for failures, which is also the word for chess, ‘échecs’) which is to a great extent evident in his attempt to secure the source of every speech act. Derrida, on the other hand, adopts failure and indeterminacy as his model. For Naas, more important than who is right or how they disagree, this difference is crucial for understanding Derrida’s philosophy. The possibility of failure is not a marginal possibility of the successful instance, it is what grounds the possibility of success. In the same manner that writing is not the shadow of speech, failure is not the negative of success but its structural condition.
Naas wants to show that the structural condition of absence (failure, parasitology…) are the central marks of Derrida’s deconstructive project. In doing that, he is able to point at a fundamental principle in Derrida’s philosophy. Naas is not reducing it to one fundamental principle that is reproduced in different instances. Instead, he is showing the invariable iterability of the deconstructive project: precisely the impossibility of ever reducing it to one individual context that securely grounds it beyond any other movements. Naas’ piece is not an ‘pure’ enactment of Derrida’s theory. In a more daring argument, but perhaps consistent with Derrida’s project, he is showing that even Derrida himself is unable to purely perform his project considering that the three acts are not one consistent exposure of a systematic theory. It is only their iteration in Naas, in their removal from their original context, that they become a unified piece. In themselves, the three acts somewhat ‘fail’ to connect to each other, they are only parasitic of each other.
Naas dedicates the intermission to the controversy between Derrida and Searle. He reconstructs some of the general argument and fundamentally blames Searle for the aggressiveness that marked the debate. This is somewhat ironic considering that it seems to resort to the same problematic quest for the source as Derrida opposes in Austin. Regardless of ‘who started it’, there is reverbing dispute over Austin’s heritage. This dispute fundamentally boils down less to the proper interpretation and application of Austin’s theory but, more importantly, to the power to speak on his behalf: who is entitled to sign in Austin’s name or whose is the proper citation/iteration of Austin’s performance. In other words, it is a dispute over the force of speech not its descriptive power. In that sense, Naas demonstrates the relevancy of performative speech theory to understand this dispute. He is clearly picking a side here but the final verdict on whose theory is more loyal to Austin is only established later. As in any proper theater piece, he is only showing the gun that is going to be fired in the third act.
This is perhaps the most political section of the play. It follows an interlude where Naas clearly establishes that the dispute between Derrida and Searle is much more political than philosophical. He ends the intermission with a provocation of his own by requesting that people stop passing notes because the second act is about to start. This is a clear and very direct reference to what is presented as a very weak objection by Searle to Derrida. And he begins the second act with an epigraph by Derrida on the importance of lies, false reality and illusion as part of real life as much as everything that might be ordinarily considered more ‘real’. Again, this movement has several layers. As mentioned, it is another poke that Naas is throwing while he is on the roll, but it is also a change in tone since in this chapter Naas will discuss Derrida’s ‘possibly’ and its political power. More specifically, the power to declare something real via Derrida’s assessment of the Declaration of Independence. In other words, the reality of all the ‘fictitious’ elements within that declaration and their performative power of establishing reality.
The chapter is dedicated to “Otobiographie de Nietzsche” from 1979 where Derrida discusses the notion of autonomy via the notion of autobiography. Naas highlights Derrida’s performance here by elaborating on the purposeful ‘glitch’ in his title. The prefix oto- references the Greek word for ear and is the homonym of auto-. This is something that remains unnoticeable unless one is either very attentive (considering that the speaker also pronounces it in a way that allows such perception) or if one is reading rather the hearing (using one’s ears) the text. Naas highlights that with this small detail Derrida conveys two main messages. Firstly, the importance of the text in the assessment of language. And secondly, but in direct line with the first point, that the notion of selfhood (auto-) as presented in any account of oneself, such as an autobiography, must invariably pass through textualization, to the possibility of presenting selfhood in a manner that is ‘readable’ by some other. In that sense, the other’s ear (oto-) is a crucial element of any account of selfhood.
The notion of signature plays a fundamental role here because it is the mark of such autonomous act of self-recognition and awareness. Naas argues that his political reading is not a stretch from Derrida’s text on personal autonomy since the version of the text presented in Montreal is ‘missing’ a fundamental section dedicated precisely to independence declarations. Before properly assessing the content of the chapter and the important role the missing section plays in it, it is fundamental to draw attention to Naas’ use of deconstruction as a methodological tool in his assessment of Derrida’s deconstructive project. Taking into account the structure he established in the previous act, one should not ignore the fact that Naas employs a text that was not given in Montreal. In fact, the absent text plays a fundamental role in the account of the context he is trying to establish in the chapter. Naas is clearly performing Derrida’s theory in his engagement with it. The play of Derrida in Montreal is not confined to the context of Montreal, it invariably entangled with its other iterations, with the possibility of the absent, with everything that occurs beyond the three acts. In the same way that Derrida’s theory is not bound by his acts, Naas acts out of his title to provide us with performance of a Derridean moment.
Naas demonstrate the importance of the performative in Derrida’s assessment by highlighting the point in Derrida’s account of the Declaration of Independence where he points to the fact that god merely serves to establish that which is already the case. In the Declaration, the text argues that the rights established there are natural god-given rights, so god serves as the ultimate ‘signature’ of the new status; but if they were in fact natural, they would not need god to declare them in the first place (98). The declaration is precisely the performative act of establishing that which is already the case: of securing it with an ultimate signature.
Naas points to the fact that what appears as a descriptive act, is in fact a performative. This relation between the constative and the prescriptive refers back to the epigraph: America does not exist in an autonomous manner; it is not absolutely real since it must be declared in a manner that naturalizes it. In very simple terms, does the Declaration of Independence merely state the ‘facts on the ground’ or does it make a claim: does it come after or before the independence? Naas points to the fact that for Derrida it is both. The declaration invents that which is already the case. It performs as if it was real, therefore making it real.
Once again Naas begins his intermission with a provocation to Searle. This time it is even more explicit by referencing Derrida’s comment in Limited Inc that if Searle was present in Montreal during his reading of SEC he would pass him a note asking him to pay attention to the most important part. Naas’ choice must be assessed from within his arguments in the previous section. What could be the motivation for Naas’ constant provocation? One would be surprised if Searle took the time to read Derrida’s comment in its original iteration, so it would be all the more surprising if he reads Naas’. Perhaps to a lesser extent it is still valid to assume that Naas’ book will not be widely read within the analytical field, (i.e., Searle’s scholarship) so what is the gain in constantly provoking him? If one ignores the balance of power and the hegemony of analytic philosophy, one could even present it as cruel mocking or beating him after he is already down, but this is evidently not the case. This is precisely the point: in behaving as if there was a fight, Naas is declaring war on an enemy that deems him irrelevant. The simple fact that analytic philosophy is able to erase its counterpart merely by ignoring it demonstrates the force of speech. Moreover, Naas demonstrates it by employing the absence of speech which further reinforces Derrida’s argument. By engaging with Searle, who is alive and capable of responding, Naas is inventing a reality where his philosophy has as much claim as Searle’s.
This is exactly the topic explored in the intermission: the dispute between Derrida and Searle via the angle of the latter’s refusal to even be considered within the context of the dispute. Searle pretends as if it did not happen. Naas demonstrates this by highlighting that, when the texts were collected in 1990, Searle did not allow his reply to be part of it. This refusal by Sarl (the way Derrida, in another beautiful provocation, refers to Searle and his colleagues using the French word for company) is most evident in the copyright mark signed by Searle. Naas does not occupy himself with refuting Searle’s arguments. Instead, he shows that speech act theory should not be concerned with refuting arguments. In other words, the discussion should not surround the precision or imprecision of the arguments but rather their force: whether what they are doing is consistent with Austin’s opposition to the descriptive illusion. In that sense, in refusing to debate, to operate with language and engage in the game, Searle proves to be disloyal to Austin even if he adheres to some notion of precision. Derrida does the exact opposite.
This chapter is dedicated to “Une certaine possibilité impossible de dire l’événement” from 1997. Once again, one must pay attention to the epigraph to find the connections Naas is trying to draw. This chapter uses two quotations by Derrida as epigraphs. The first arguing that the question whether something happens or not was the main issue in SEC and the second arguing that the question of the event is the main question of the performative. The chapter is mostly dedicated to connecting the two statements but, before diving in, it is important to emphasize the connection to the intermission here: how to determine whether the dispute really took place? If there was ever such a thing as a conflict over a philosophical claim or if it was just two parallel lines that never met? Or, in more direct terms, did Derrida do something with his text or did he not: did he manage to perform/invent an event or not? Moreover, even if it is possible to do something with words, is it possible to comment on that which one does, using words to state that which one does with them? This is the tension present in a possible distinction between the two readings in Derrida’s title. What does it mean to say the event? Does it mean saying something about the event or does it mean making the event by saying it?
Going into the chapter, Naas begins by stating that this was an improvised intervention by Derrida. And without directly connecting it, since no connection is needed for such obvious parallel, he summarizes Derrida’s definition of event as: that which is unpredictable, which cannot be ordered or expected (117). At the same time, Naas highlights that in Derrida’s treatment of the event, or more specifically, in his question about the possibility of the event, there is a certain acceptance that is always already presupposed: a preliminary ‘yes’ before any actual engagement. In other words, one finds oneself already within the event by the sheer existence of its possibility. Naas highlights that this ‘yes’ makes the event (122). It is not an engagement that provides any information, it is the adventure into the possibility of something happening. So, in that sense, it is neither of the realm of the performative nor of the constative since it has neither inventive force nor descriptive information. It escapes the declarative act previously explored.
Naas assesses how this ‘possible impossibility’ is consistent with Derrida’s deconstructive project as a whole. On the one hand, the event must be unpredictable and therefore escape language, on the other hand, it fits a certain code. According to Naas this is an expansion of the logics in SEC into the overall field of linguistics interactions. This implicit acceptance of the occurrence of a communicative act invites both the unpredictable and the code (124). Each event is one instance of an iterable act, it is both unique, and therefore unrepeatable, and, in being readable, dependent both on possibilities of referring to previous codes and serving as reference for future iterations.
Naas refers back to Derrida’s biographer, Benoît Peeters, to tie this logic back to Derrida’s loyalty to Austin. As mentioned before, this lecture was not a prepared text, it is Derrida’s attempt to perform his philosophy: to turn his speech into an event. He is coherently philosophizing by performing his claims. An improvised speech by Derrida on philosophy is unpredictable at the same time that it operates within a certain code. It is not as if he was asked to comment on nanotechnology or microbiology, on which he might have had something to say, but it would certainly be more surprising (especially that he would be invited to comment on them at an official event). Derrida is a philosopher and as such comments on notions such as the event or language at events dedicated to philosophy. At the same time that his talk is certainly unique and unrepeatable it refers to previous interactions (as is the point of Naas’ book). It becomes a textual reference not only as a published text but, more importantly, as a textual corpus whose logic can be reproduced as Naas evidently demonstrates by actually reproducing/reconstructing it in his texts both in terms of actual arguments but also in its performative methodology.
With this Naas demonstrates that the notion of ‘possibly’ (my translation of the French ‘peut-etre’) is the fundamental category for understanding the event. Derrida’s investigation of the event is concerned with the possibility of something occurring. Again, not with the ‘descriptive illusion’ of determining the truth value of the event, whether it occurs or not, but with the performative force of making it happen. The way the event is acted out: this threshold between its possibility and impossibility.
Naas calls the encore “the cocoon (a signature of the self)”. In this section he will comment on the ‘bonus’ act given by Derrida in Montreal. An unofficial talk given the day after the text explored in the previous chapter. This, Naas tells the reader, was not an event he witnessed nor an event that is registered. It was a reading of “Un ver à soie” in its draft form. With these final words, the curtains fall and reveal everything; it reveals that there is nothing to reveal, nothing hidden from the eyesight. Derrida’s performance is not a magic trick where at the end he pulls the cloth and shows the rabbit, there are no surprises or last-minute revelations, all there is this cocoon of the performative to wrap oneself around.
In his postface, Leroux contextualizes Derrida’s lectures in the Quebecois philosophical scene. Along with Michaud’s and his introduction and preliminary remarks, they create the scenario for Naas’ intervention. Naas’ performance, his piece in three acts, has a deeper meaning than merely reconstructing Derrida’s philosophy where the enactment serves merely as a pedagogical tool. The enacting gains importance under the circumstances that it is being presented. In the most direct and blatant manner, it is a book written in French in Canada by an USA American (as a South American, I feel the need for more precision than using merely American or North American). The choice of French is not trivial in this context. There is the obvious nationalistic Quebecois dispute but on a deeper level, as presented in the surrounding texts, there is a dispute over the philosophical legacy of Quebec. As the field becomes more hegemonically analytic and Anglo-Saxon, the choice of doing French philosophy in French must be understood as laying a claim over a disputed territory. Maybe not a declaration of independence like the one assessed in the second act but perhaps a declaration of war. Hence making the possible radio-silence response of the other side even more significant.
This possibly failed declaration of war reverberates Derrida’s argument about the importance of failure in success. One could even say that in not responding, SARL is doing Derrida a favor: proving his point. It is showing exactly the importance of impotence in understanding the performative force of language. Naas’ text places us exactly at the verge of the unpredictability of the event: it can either be ignored as his tradition has continuously been hence showing the importance of the performative force of speech acts or it can successfully stoke a debate and actually accomplish that which it aims at first glance. Either way, one finds oneself at the preliminary ‘yes’ described in his last act since something has already happened: in both cases Naas has undoubtedly done something with his words.
Johan de Jong’s The Movement of Showing opens with the observation that “Hegel, Heidegger, and Derrida consistently characterize their thought in terms of a development, movement, or pathway, rather than in terms of positions, propositions, or conclusions” (xix). In other words, they do not stake out a definite position that they defend against all comers; rather, they call attention to the movement that carries us beyond each apparently fixed position that a work might seem to present. Indeed, not only do they not aim to delineate a fixed, complete, and fully consistent position, they regard such a delineation as impossible, so noting that they fail to accomplish it does not suffice as a criticism of them. Readers, or would-be readers, of Derrida in particular often stop here, dismissing his work as so much nonsensical relativism. De Jong instead asks how we are to understand this movement that resists any fixed position and how we might critique it without taking it for a failed attempt to establish a fixed position. These questions, which de Jong addresses in an admirably nuanced fashion that makes this book well worth reading, ultimately point us to questions about justice and responsibility.
Thus we as readers find ourselves confronted with the question of what it means to read de Jong’s text responsibly. How do we engage with the impossibility of reducing it to a single determinate position about the three philosophers – G.W.F. Hegel, Martin Heidegger, and Jacques Derrida – with which it primarily deals? For what is here called a “movement” must exceed de Jong’s stated positions as it exceeds theirs. Asking “how such a discourse of movement can be understood and criticized,” he maintains that “answering this question does not, as some may think, itself require indirectness, textual extravagance, or a poeticization of philosophical method (even though these cannot in principle be excluded from the realm of philosophical efficacy)” (xxii). What, though, does it mean to say that answering a question does or does not require indirectness? “Indirectness” is the word de Jong has chosen to name the “undercutting gesture” by which “Derrida’s claims and conclusions are invariably repeated, reversed, retracted, contradicted, visibly erased, or otherwise implicitly or explicitly complicated” according to the movement that cannot be contained within any fully determined position (xxii). Yet if indeed thought itself cannot be thus contained – if any position that one might suppose to be fully determined in fact always already undercuts itself – then it is less a matter of indirectness being required than of indirectness being impossible to avoid, at least in implicit form, no matter how hard one tries. De Jong’s style does differ considerably from Derrida’s; readers who regard Derrida’s style, or styles, as obfuscatory should not be able to make the same complaint about de Jong’s, and if they read The Movement of Showing they ought, moreover, to come away with a better understanding of why Derrida wrote as he did. That said, de Jong implicitly recognizes that indirectness is also at work in his own book when he writes that “the very term ‘indirect’ is itself also not the adequate, definite, final or right word for what is investigated here” (xxii). I will return, at the conclusion of this review, to the question of indirectness in de Jong’s text. For the moment, let us note that the impossibility of finding any “adequate, definite, final or right word” will be a recurring theme throughout, and it is one that we must bear in mind when reading any text, whether a book by Derrida, The Movement of Showing, or, for that matter, this review. At the same time, we cannot escape words, however inadequate and indefinite they may be, nor should we desire to – and the joint impossibility and undesirability of such an escape will prove central to ethical responsibility.
Part I, “Sources of Derrida’s Indirectness,” examines, with remarkable nuance and precision, Derrida’s manner of writing. In chapter 1, De Jong begins by arguing that, contrary to what some commentators have supposed on the basis of certain of Derrida’s more direct assertions, Derrida does not and cannot offer a theory of language. Readers of Of Grammatology at times make the mistake of deriving a theory of language from it, which they then attribute to Derrida, according to which speech, traditionally considered superior to writing because of its immediacy, is in fact just as mediated as writing and should therefore be understood as arche-writing, or writing in a more general sense of the term. Derrida’s point, however, is that this theory is already in Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics, Saussure’s intentions to the contrary notwithstanding. Taking it as Derrida’s theory fails to understand that there can be no definitive theory of language. Arche-writing is not writing understood more broadly, as if we could fully understand language once we worked out the proper definition of “writing”; rather, it marks the impossibility of attaining some ideal meaning that would be unmediated and fully present. Derrida does not offer a theory, explains de Jong, but seeks rather to show the movement that reveals the limits of all theories, even as they try to present themselves as complete.
Readers of Derrida who recognize that neither he nor anyone else can offer a complete and consistent theory of language often interpret him as an opponent of metaphysics, but de Jong shows in chapter 2 that this interpretation also fails. There is no way out of metaphysics, and Derrida does not propose to offer one. Seeking to overcome metaphysics is itself metaphysical, for any attempt to get outside metaphysics already depends on metaphysics to define itself. What is more, the history of metaphysics is the history of this attempted overcoming. Questioning metaphysics is not, therefore, a matter of opposition, and this questioning even calls itself into question precisely because any attempt to think metaphysics necessarily occurs within the language of metaphysics. That theories are limited in no way entails that we can step outside or overcome their limits.
Having demonstrated the problems with certain popular interpretations of Derrida’s texts – that he offers a theory of language and that he calls for the overcoming of metaphysics – de Jong asks, in chapter 3, whether Derrida can be justified. If Derrida argues that all positions are incomplete and undo themselves, then pointing to omissions or inconsistencies in his work hardly serves to refute him, but it is equally unclear what grounds one might find to justify a work that disclaims the very attempt to produce a complete and consistent position – and de Jong insists that Derrida’s would-be defenders must recognize the latter point just as much as the former. It is not that Derrida makes a virtue of mere contradiction, as if one ought to embrace inconsistency itself as final and definitive. But de Jong emphasizes that “Derrida cannot be completely safeguarded against the accusations from which his works must nevertheless be tirelessly distinguished” (76). Derrida is not the mere relativist that he has often been accused of being, and yet “the risk of assimilation and supposed misreading is not an extrinsic one, but intrinsic to the operation of deconstruction” (78). There is a real sense, therefore, in which Derrida cannot be justified – which is not to say that his work can be dissociated from justice (a point to which de Jong will return). De Jong warns us against the “reassurance mechanism” that consists in saying, “Never mind [Derrida’s] critics; they clearly haven’t read the texts” (78). The point is apt, but I suggest that one might ask the critics whether they have read their own texts. For a more careful reading might show them that misreading and reading can never be neatly separated; nor, for that matter, can writing and what one might call miswriting. As deconstruction operates within any text, it is not only Derrida’s texts that cannot be safeguarded from any possibility of misreading – and this point is one that merits greater emphasis than de Jong gives it in this chapter. He rightly points out what he calls the vulnerability of Derrida’s texts, at the risk of suggesting that Derrida’s texts are unusually vulnerable. Still, Part I is an excellent reading of Derrida, and since reading and misreading cannot be disentangled, there is no way to exclude every possible misinterpretation. De Jong’s argument that Derrida does not call us to overcome metaphysics, as if going beyond metaphysics were possible, is a particularly valuable contribution to the literature.
De Jong now turns to Hegel in Part II and then to Heidegger in Parts III and IV. Since Derrida cannot be outside the metaphysical tradition, his relation to Hegel and Heidegger cannot consist, as it has often been thought to do, in rejecting them as still too metaphysical. This reexamination of Hegel and Heidegger thus follows from the analysis in Part I, and it shows that they are rather less different from Derrida than they are generally imagined to be – without, however, assimilating them into a single position. All three thinkers reveal the limits of any thought that seeks to establish a fixed position, while they also recognize that we cannot step outside or beyond the limits of thought itself.
Part II, “Movement and Opposition,” begins with the argument, in chapter 4, that for Hegel as for Derrida, philosophical questioning cannot itself be detached from its object. Indeed, de Jong writes that “Hegel is the first philosopher to explicitly locate the aforementioned entanglement right at the heart of the philosophical enterprise” (85). It is for this reason that philosophy cannot arrive at a conclusive end to its investigations: philosophy is always investigating itself. Hegelian dialectic is often interpreted to mean that philosophy will progressively free itself from its own limits and reach Absolute Knowing, a final position in which alterity is no more, and Derrida’s own readings of Hegel have fueled this misconception. Through a consideration of the development of Hegel’s thought, de Jong shows that Hegel does not propose that philosophy’s movement can or should be brought to a halt. Precisely because the absolute is not the cessation of movement, “Hegel’s ‘absolute’ idealism must be interpreted as an affirmation of the limits of reflection” (121): reflection does not transcend its limits but is carried along within them, and it is within its limits that it finds itself haunted by the alterity that can never be made fully present.
What, though, of Derrida’s own readings of Hegel, in which Derrida seems to regard Hegel as an opponent of alterity and himself as an opponent of Hegel? De Jong turns to this question in chapter 5 and argues, without denying the differences between the two philosophers, that Derrida’s relation to Hegel is not, and cannot be, one of simple opposition. In any case, opposition is never simple, since the sides of a dichotomy are necessarily dependent on each other to the very extent that they are defined by their opposition. What is more, Derrida offers multiple readings of Hegel – or, to put it another way, the name “Hegel” does not stand for the same figure every time it appears in his texts. At times, as for instance in “Tympan,” it does stand for a figure who seeks to eliminate the risk posed by negativity or alterity – but “Tympan” is less a supposedly definitive reading of Hegel and more an attempt “to stage a confrontation of philosophy with that in which the philosopher would not recognize himself, not so foreign to philosophy as to leave it undisturbed, and not so close to philosophy as to do no more than repeat it” (134). It is, in short, an attempt to call attention to philosophy’s limits so that it will not mistake itself for the final, complete answer. Derrida’s target is not Hegel but a complacent Hegelianism that believes that all that is worthwhile is, or at least can be, subjected to its comprehension. Reading “Hors livres, préfaces” in Derrida’s Dissemination, de Jong finds that Derrida first describes the Hegel of Hegelianism before coming to the Hegel who is a thinker of movement and of difference – a Hegel who is not Derrida but in whom Derrida finds a “point of departure” (149) that is not simply the basis for opposition. Or, as de Jong puts it, “Derrida needs Hegel’s ‘speculative dialectics’ as a point of contrast, but he is aware that Hegel cannot be reduced to those terms. […] The more radical [sic] Derrida presents himself as moving beyond Hegel, the more emphatically his allegiance to Hegel is reaffirmed” (151). Derrida needs Hegel because of how Hegel can be read and misread: the thinker of movement who has been misinterpreted as a thinker of overly definitive absolutism is a fitting interlocutor for another writer who, precisely because he is also a thinker of movement, is profoundly concerned with questions of interpretation, questions of reading, misreading, and the complex interplay thereof. Indeed, one should not suppose that reading and misreading are independent and readily distinguishable – a point implicit in de Jong’s insistence on the impossibility of safeguarding Derrida from misreadings.
Part III, “Heidegger: The Preservation of Concealment,” reads Heidegger’s Being and Time and Contributions to Philosophy (Of the Event) in order to explore the theme of indirectness in Heidegger. In chapter 6, considering Heidegger’s criticisms of the language of Being and Time, de Jong argues that the problem was not that the language of Being and Time failed by remaining too much within metaphysics, nor can the Kehre be understood as a turn to looking for a language that would adequately say being. Rather, the language of Being and Time was, in Heidegger’s later view, insufficiently attentive to the inevitability of a certain failure, and Heidegger came to seek “a language that would take into account, recognize, and preserve a certain necessary failure-to-say with respect to (the question of) being” (156). This language would still be metaphysical since the overcoming of metaphysics is itself metaphysical, but it would strive to reveal the very impossibility of finding a location outside metaphysics from which to philosophize. Already in Being and Time questioning is no straightforward matter, however: that Dasein questions being from within being is crucial to the book – an obvious point in itself, but what has been neglected is that the middle and late Heidegger’s works, including those written post-Kehre, therefore represent not a break with his early thought but a deepening of themes and problems that were in play from the start.
Chapter 7 pursues this analysis via a reading of the Contributions. De Jong emphasizes that the forgetfulness of being is neither a problem that can be solved nor an error that can be fixed. Heidegger’s goal is not and cannot be to overcome this forgetfulness but is “to recognize and preserve that forgetfulness as such, or interpret it originally” (200). Indeed, overcoming the forgetfulness, as though it could be left behind, would amount to forgetting it again. What is essential is that we strive not to forget the forgetfulness, that we strive to recognize the limits of thought – which is precisely not stepping beyond them as if they could become negligeable. This recognition, moreover, is a movement that never becomes a completed process.
Part IV, “Of Derrida’s Heideggers,” shows that Derrida’s relation to Heidegger, like his relation to Hegel, is not simply a matter of opposition. In Derrida’s texts, the name “Heidegger” is no more univocal than the name “Hegel.” Chapter 8 explores this complex relation through a reading of Derrida’s Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles. The key point is that Heidegger’s reading of Nietzsche risks closing off the meaning of Nietzsche’s texts by arriving at some result that is then taken as definitive and final, yet Heidegger’s texts cannot themselves be closed off by interpreting them once and for all as the refusal of indirectness and undecidability. And as de Jong observes, “[Derrida] does not make a simple choice between these two Heideggers. The virtue of that undecidability lies in its potential to open the texts of these thinkers and resist reducing them to the content of an unequivocal thesis” (240). This remark also has worthwhile implications for the question of what it might mean to critique Derrida, though de Jong does not make them wholly explicit: that Derrida cannot be reduced to a purveyor of definite theses means that there are multiple Derridas, and a fruitful critique – fruitful in that it would recognize the limits of thought without seeking to go past them – would then be one that draws out this multiplicity rather than presenting a univocal Derrida who is assigned the role of opponent.
Chapter 9, turns, finally, to the question of responsibility. Here the question of critique or justification gives way to the question of justice. De Jong notes that “in the debate about the ‘ethics of deconstruction,’ interpretations have tended to work within a Levinasian framework, which understands ethics primarily with reference to the ‘other.’ That is quite right, but there is a risk if the other is confused with the external” (242). It is worth explicitly noting what is implicit here: that the other in Levinas is not a matter of externality, as alterity would then be one pole of the externality-internality dichotomy and so would fall within totality. In any case, de Jong’s analysis, which emphasizes complicity and proceeds through a reading of Derrida’s Of Spirit, is excellent. De Jong recognizes the indirectness of Derrida’s texts as a gesture of responsibility. What might appear as an irresponsible refusal to be associated with any position, and hence as a withdrawal from potential criticisms, is an attempt to grapple responsibly with the failure of any position – yet it is a responsibility that can never escape its own complicity with those failures. Heidegger’s own complicity has struck many as uniquely grave, and de Jong notes that Derrida does regard Heidegger’s use of the term Geist, in his 1933 rectorial address, as complicit with Nazism. It does not follow, however, that we can purify our own thought by rejecting Heidegger; Derrida himself cautions us against such an attempt to achieve purity. For Heidegger’s complicity with Nazism took place, writes de Jong, “by way of a mechanism or a ‘program’ of complicity and reaffirmation that Derrida himself does not claim to be able to escape. The program itself consists in the very attempt to escape, the thought that one can exceed racism or biologism by elevating oneself above it to a position of reassuring legitimacy” (251). More broadly, the quest for absolute purity cannot be untangled from a drive to declare oneself innocent – that is, not complicit in anything or, to put it another way, not responsible. But “the ‘fact’ that not all forms of complicity are equivalent” (252) does not mean we can avoid complicity, that we can overcome or go beyond it. We are responsible in advance, inescapably responsible, unable to establish a position that would justify us, free us from complicity, and let us relax in the security of non-responsibility. De Jong’s emphasis on complicity ties back to his earlier argument that Derrida’s texts cannot be made safe from misreading. By resisting the opposition between Derrida’s critics and his defenders, de Jong resists the temptation to safeguard thought, thereby reminding us of our limits. It is because we will never be able to present the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, as the saying goes, that we are complicit – which is a call not to despair but to the responsibility that, as de Jong’s The Movement of Showing skillfully reminds us, we cannot evade.
An afterword begins by addressing the question of indirectness in de Jong’s own text, and here he proves a less skillful reader than he did when interpreting Hegel, Heidegger, and Derrida – though his failings are instructive and perhaps unsurprising, given that we cannot escape complicity with the attempt to arrest the movement of showing to arrive at some fixed position. De Jong asks “why, if [he] ha[s] been successful, [his] own exposition will not have displayed the implicit or explicit self-complication that has been [his] theme” (264). One response, which he admits is “facile,” is that “[he] ha[s] set out to do nothing more than to provide a commentary, and to provide a way of reading that goes against certain ideas about how to interpret the work of Hegel, Heidegger, and Derrida. […] There is no reason why that reading could not be explicated unequivocally” (264). Granted, he himself calls this response “facile,” yet that it should be offered at all indicates the durability of the opposition between a commentary and the work commented upon, with the commentary appearing as merely secondary and derivative. Derrida, let us recall, commented on works by Hegel and Heidegger, and as I noted above, de Jong’s own analysis suggests (though without explicitly saying so) that there are multiple Derridas, as there are multiple Hegels and Heideggers. I do not mean to suggest that all Derridas, Hegels, or Heideggers on whom one might comment are equally valid or fruitful. The Derridas, Hegels, and Heideggers whom one encounters in de Jong’s text are remarkably well interpreted, whereas, to take an extreme example, anyone who attempts to read Of Grammatology as a guide to birdwatching is likely to be disappointed. Consider, however, Derrida’s remark in “Des tours de Babel,” concerning translation, that “the original is the first debtor, the first petitioner; it begins by lacking [manquer] – and by pleading for [pleurer après] translation” (Derrida 2007, 207). The so-called original text never stands on its own but is already a translation, is already separated from itself by its inevitable equivocity. Commentary is not exempt from this condition: it is never “nothing more than […] commentary.” De Jong’s writing is clear in that it is easy to follow – easier than Derrida’s, Hegel’s, or Heidegger’s often is – but that does not mean it is univocal. Commentary too is separated from itself – and, moreover, it is a way of translating the so-called original. The texts signed by Hegel, Heidegger, or Derrida call out for commentary because they are not summed up in what they say – nor in what any commentary or translation could say. The commentary and the translation plead as well, and they are not safe from misreading. Whether de Jong’s text displays self-complication and whether it does complicate itself are two different questions, and besides, one might well argue that it does display self-complication precisely by calling our attention to our inevitable complicity.
De Jong offers, as a “more principled answer,” the reply that “an awareness of the performative complexity of philosophical texts does not in itself necessitate a specific style” (265). This answer still tends to assume that self-complication must be blatantly visible as such, but de Jong rightly observes that “it is not a matter of doing away with representation or opposition, nor with the traditional form of an academic treatise. At issue is precisely an ‘inner excess,’ or how in what presents itself as proposition, representation or claim, something more, less, or other than what is ‘posited’ in them is taking place” (265). Indeed. Derrida’s styles are not the only ones in which worthwhile thinking may occur. And as there are multiple Derridas, there are multiple de Jongs, whom this review certainly does not exhaust, and I recommend that anyone interested in Hegel, Heidegger, Derrida, or questions of indirectness more broadly read The Movement of Showing and encounter them for him- or herself. If I have dwelt at some length on the brief and admittedly “facile” response, and if I still reproach the “more principled” response with suggesting, in defense of the book’s clarity, that it is possible to avoid self-complication through the choice of a particular style, it is to highlight a certain complicity with the overly definite and determinate that inevitably accompanies writing. Indirectness cannot, however, simply be opposed to directness, as if one were pure and the other not – a point de Jong does not make explicit but that he could well have. Complicity with the overly definite and determinate is the only way to speak or write at all, and refusing to speak or write out of a desire for purity is an attempt to abdicate responsibility.
Indeed, de Jong in his afterword goes on to observe that “even given the limitations of the propositional form, of representation, and of oppositional determination, it is in and through them that we can and in fact do say more, less, or something else than what is merely ‘contained’ in those determinations” (272). Hence the limits of language are not to be regretted, which is a crucial point. Thus de Jong refuses to take “a negative or skeptical view on language as inadequate or as failing,” calling instead for “a productive view on propositions and claims such that they might carry or co-implicate more than the content that is ‘contained’ in them” (272, emphasis in original). That a text is “lacking,” to recall the above quotation from “Des tours de Babel,” does not mean that it has failed, as though it would have been better for it to lack nothing so that there was no call for translation’s creativity. Complicity does not put an end to creativity – far from it. Because there is no manual telling us precisely how to live out the responsibility by which we are committed in advance, our responses must be creative ones. One of the virtues of The Movement of Showing, though by no means the only one, is that it warns us against considering language—and hence what is expressed through language—a failure because of its limits, and that it points out that language even owes its richness to those very limits. In short, The Movement of Showing is a text that rewards attentive reading, and it makes a valuable contribution to the field.
Derrida, Jacques. 2007. “Des tours de Babel.” Translated by Joseph F. Graham. In Psyche: Inventions of the Other, vol. 1, edited by Peggy Kamuf and Elizabeth Rottenberg. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Dzwiza-Ohlsen’s book presents us with a thorough, systematic study of Husserl’s phenomenology along two axes of problems: on the one hand, it reconstructs—and argues for—a developmental history of the central phenomenological concept of lifeworld in Husserl’s works, following Manfred Sommer in tracing its roots back to a first “Göttingian” conception. On the other hand, the study focuses on language and particularly on Husserl’s theory of essentially occasional expressions (OE) from the Logical Investigations (LI, Hua XIX-01), which, further reconstructed, developed and complemented by the author, comprises a fundamental tool of analysis for the structure and levels of the lifeworld, both in its first Göttingian manifestation and in its mature “Freiburgian” form. The book thus proceeds in a zig-zag manner between, on the one hand, an exegetical and historical reconstruction of Husserl’s intellectual development, and a conceptual, critical analysis of the different problems related to the lifeworld, horizon-intentionality and OE on the other, consequently arriving at the main thesis of the work: that the concept of lifeworld in Husserl’s intellectual history represents a continuous development and reveals in all stages the idea of an occasional horizon.
The first section reconstructs the path from the LI to the Ideas (Hua III, IV and V), starting with an analysis of OE as “lifeworldly disturbances” [lebensweltliche Störungen] to pure logic. OE are known in the analytic literature as indexical expressions, such that vary their meaning according to the context of the utterance: “here”, “now”, “I” are typical examples. According to Dzwiza-Ohlsen, the LI are marked by a stark focus on pure logic and particularly on a logical conception of truth as apodictic and immutable, which renders Husserl’s analysis of OE, as Husserl himself would later claim, an “act of violence” [Gewaltstreich] against pure logic. The core of the argument is that, while OE are essentially situated and context-sensitive, pure logic does not admit of such variability and therefore Husserl lacked the appropriate theoretical tools to successfully analyze them. Though both theses are true, it is not quite clear that the context of the LI would prevent an interesting analysis of the OE. The author relies for this thesis on two premises, which are, in my opinion, a bit too strong.
First (28), he takes—following Derrida—Husserl’s analysis of expressions in solitary life (LI, §8) to be an anticipation of the phenomenological reduction and elevates it to the status of a methodological principle. Dzwiza-Ohlsen ends up criticizing Husserl for violating this “methodological restriction”: “Husserl analyses occasional expressions within a conversational situation […] and thus violates one of his central methodological premises, namely the reduction to solitary life” (35). So even though Husserl does analyze OE within communicative contexts, Dzwiza-Ohlsen criticizes that analysis on the ground of violating a methodological restriction. Arguably, there is no such methodological restriction in LI, but in any case, since the solitary life is not explicitly presented by Husserl as a methodological principle, it would fall upon Dzwiza-Ohlsen to make the case for such an interpretation, which he does not do. Given that Husserl does not declare himself beholden to such a restriction, as the case analyzed by the author and many others show, I do not see this claim as justified.
The author’s second premise is that the LI only present a logical notion of truth and, therefore, are unable to account for the truth of perception-based statements about individual objects: “For the appropriate interpretation [of OE], he would have needed a concept of truth that could apprehend the concrete, such as individual objects, people and their relations in events, insofar as he is reflecting on the conditions for reference. Because he does not do this, the determination of their empirical significance remains a riddle” (38-9). But we do not find in Dzwiza-Ohlsen’s analyses any mention of §§ 9-14 of the first LI, where Husserl presents his conception of reference and of meaning-fulfillment, or of § 5 of the sixth LI, appropriately titled “Perception as significance-determining act”, or of § 39, where Husserl presents four different conceptions of truth.
After arriving at the conclusion of OE as lifeworldly disturbances to pure logic, Chapter Two presents OE as a framework to interpret the history of the Husserlian conception of the lifeworld. The author makes use of Karl Bühler’s theory of language, introducing the notion of a ‘here-now-I-’ system of orientation under the rubric of “origo”. This term, sometimes used in pragmatics, stems from the Latin for “origin” and designates the point of reference for a given speaker. The OE are divided into four classes: spatial, personal, temporal and others. Together with Husserl’s original conception of OE in the LI, the theoretical tools presented by Bühler open the door for an exhaustive and example-rich analysis of the different classes of OE. Dzwiza-Ohlsen’s analysis of each class culminates in a general analysis (§ 7), where OE are defined as situated, context-sensitive, horizon-dependent and praxis-oriented. OE are no longer seen as somehow faulty or incomplete, but their possible vagueness and variability are vindicated as elements that necessarily belong to our everyday communication practices and, to that extent, as essential for our relation to the lifeworld.
Chapters Three to Five provide a further, in-depth analysis of OE mediated by a “triple jump” (69): (1) temporally, from the LI to 1907; (2) methodologically, from a logic-oriented phenomenology to the first considerations for a transcendental phenomenology as the basis of universal knowledge and (3) content-wise, by presenting the first concrete descriptions of lifeworldly situations within the natural attitude. Thus, Chapter Three focuses first on the spatial class of OE by drawing on Husserlian materials going back as far as the early, mathematical studies on space from 1894. It then moves to the Main Pieces [Haupstücke] (Hua II/XVI) and the lectures on Thing and Space (Hua XVI), where we find the first descriptions of the phenomenological reduction and an explicit thematization of the natural attitude as the terminus a quo of phenomenological philosophy: our world-experience as a reference point for phenomenological description and source for all eidetic analyses. Here Dzwiza-Ohlsen sees “the correlate of the natural attitude named by its later name: the lifeworld” (81). § 1 of Thing and Space, in which Husserl offers a very detailed description of the “natural spiritual-disposition” [natürliche Geisteshaltung], is offered by Dzwiza-Ohlsen as a clear anticipation of what would later be named the lifeworld.
Chapter Three concludes with further analyses of spatiality based mainly on the constitution of perceptual objects, which is taken as a point of departure for the analysis of our experience of reality and, in turn, of the lifeworld itself. The relation between intersubjectivity (as the source of objectivity) and perception marks the passage to Chapter Four, where the personal class of OE (such as personal and possessive pronouns) are analyzed in connection with empathy, motivation and the social world. Basing primarily on the Fundamental Problems of Phenomenology (Hua XIII), the close relation between the spiritual world, our “deictic” experience of our environment and, primarily, other human beings, is revealed as central. Dzwiza-Ohlsen proposes to understand our experience within the natural attitude as a kind of “index”, leading to an eidetic ontology of the lifeworld. The important point the author argues for is that our lifeworldly experience in the natural attitude already makes certain concepts available which can later be more rigorously or scientifically clarified. But the task of clarifying them in their lifeworldly being is precisely the task of phenomenology and the ontology of the lifeworld.
Chapter Five closes Section One of the book with the remaining class of OE: the temporal indexicals. The analysis of these is understood as the key for a theory of empirical meaning (as opposed to the theory of ideal meaning of the LI). The analyses are based on the Lectures on inner Time-Consciousness (Hua X), going through the innovations of the 1908 Lectures on Theory of Meaning (Hua XXVI), arriving finally at the revised sections of the LI (Hua XX/2) and Ideas I. An in-depth analysis of temporality allows the author to describe an “occasional horizon of empirical reference” (148), which together with a theory of meaning for empirical objects, aims to complement the otherwise logically one-sided conceptual elaborations of Husserl in the LI.
The terrain is thus set for Section Two: early and late phenomenology of the lifeworld. The Göttingian early concept of lifeworld is located in Ideas II (Hua IV), where concepts such as “social world”, “cultural world”, “surrounding world” and especially “communicative world” serve as candidates for an early version of the concept of lifeworld. The author focuses on the intersection of three dimensions to analyze this early concept: (i) phenomenological analyses of constitution; (ii) regional ontology, with a special focus on nature and spirit; and (iii) the theory of attitudes. Thus, the early concept of lifeworld is to be phenomenologically analyzed via constitutive performances within the region of spirit and in the corresponding personal attitude. An interesting, critical point raised by the author concerns how to understand the relation between the natural and the personal attitudes. While it is clear that the naturalistic (as opposed to the natural) attitude and all other scientific ones imply an active change and an abstraction of the objects and corresponding regions being thematized, both the natural and personal attitudes are those in which we typically find ourselves in our daily lives. All scientific attitudes also imply a reference to the natural attitude and to our experience within the lifeworld. If the natural and personal attitudes are not to be conflated, then the personal must imply a specific focus on, precisely, personal elements of the lifeworld. The personal attitude abstracts from certain elements that appear in the natural attitude so as to make salient what is properly personal.
In Section Two, Chapter Two, the differences between the early and late conception of the lifeworld are explicitly treated. According to the author, the core difference is that the late conception “has less to do with a phenomenology of the lifeworld, but rather with a critical theory of the historical misdevelopment [Fehlentwicklung] of the sciences departing from the lifeworld” (242). For Dzwiza-Ohlsen, Husserl’s project in the Crisis (Hua VI) consists in analyzing the crisis of European humanity, science and culture through a teleological history, but lacks “detailed phenomenological descriptions and constitution-analyses of our natural, personal attitude within our cultural lifeworld” (249). Dzwiza-Ohlsen extracts and reconstructs seven desiderata for a science of the lifeworld according to Crisis (247-8), which he sees as better realized—“more detailed and universal” (253)—in the phenomenology of the lifeworld found in Ideas II than in the theory of the lifeworld presented in Crisis. This is because the descriptive results of Ideas II hold true in any world, even if there were no science at all, while the Crisis project is dependent both on the analysis in Ideas II and on the existence of a science that can be diagnosed as being in crisis and offered a therapy through self-reflection [Selbstbesinnung] and teleological orientation. Thus, the basic thesis of Crisis can only be properly understood against the background of an analysis of persons living in the natural and personal attitude within the spiritual lifeworld. And such analysis is precisely what we find in the early conception of the lifeworld.
This main point of comparison could profit from some further argumentation by the author, since many questions remain open: by stating that the project of Crisis is not really a phenomenology, what conception of phenomenology does the author assume? Phenomenology is an eidetic science and Crisis presents us with countless eidetic analyses of the a priori structure of the lifeworld and of its being a ground for sense and experience, and not “just” the reconstruction of the history of science. In the third section of the Crisis, Husserl aims to develop precisely an ontology of the lifeworld that is previous to and independent of science. This ontology is the one that explains how it is that science can emerge on the basis of our experience, and how it remains always tied to it. On the other hand, the question arises: is the project of Ideas II focused exclusively on offering “situated” descriptions within the natural attitude? Is it not the attempt to clarify the constitutive performances foundational to the distinction between natural sciences and the humanities? In this regard, it is therefore not clear at all that the analyses offered in Ideas II would hold true in a world without science.
The Section Two, Chapter Three deals with the “skipped nature-concept of the lifeworld” (255). While Husserl’s analyses of the constitution of natural objects in Ideas II focus almost exclusively on these objects as conceived from the perspective of natural science, Dzwiza-Ohlsen claims that the constitution of these objects should also be phenomenologically clarified for the personal and natural attitudes within the lifeworld, which mainly means including not only the theoretical, but also the evaluative, practical and aesthetic attitudes. Thus, Husserl “skipped” a “nature-concept” that accounts for our natural (as opposed to theoretical) experience of nature, where nature is understood as the correlate of our personal, spiritual, lifewordly experience and not as the correlate of natural science. The chapter closes by going deep into the analysis of our experience in the natural attitude, with its focus on natural objects. Aesthetics, praxis, will and feelings are analyzed as essential elements permeating our daily life and the way in which we experience the world.
The third and final section of the book is a “concluding meditation” about Husserl’s contributions regarding the language, structure and truth of the lifeworld and of science in his late period. These fundamental dimensions of the lifeworld are now presented in an integrated fashion, making use both of Husserl’s own earlier analyses presented in this book as well as the scheme of OE. Thus, we learn that the structure of the lifeworld is situated in an intentional-horizon that is both typical and occasional; that the language we use is correlated with this typicality and occasionality, allowing us to express ourselves in relevant, situated ways; that truth is understood in reference to a notion of normality that emerges from the different communities, meaning that what matters in the lifeworld is the optimal realization of goals rather than an accurate description of an external reality. For this last purpose, our natural, lifeworldly language is said to be perfectly well suited.
Finally, in the “concluding meditation”, lifeworld and science are contrasted following the foundational thesis of the Crisis, and the notion of truth is treated in its own right for each domain. The objective truth of science rests upon intersubjective agreement which takes place in the praxis of the lifeworld and especially communicative praxis. Communicative praxis is disclosed as a condition of possibility for science and objective truth or, as the author says, “supra-occasional truth” (296).
Dzwiza-Ohlsen deals with several fundamental and significant problems in phenomenology from both a historical, reconstructive perspective and from a philosophical, critical attitude. The book offers rich analyses for those interested in the concept of lifeworld and its historical development, but is also to be noted for bringing the dimension of language to the foreground. The analyses of OE, abundant in examples, and its subsequent application to the diverse elements treated in the book, results in an in-depth phenomenological and historical description of one of Husserl’s most important philosophical contributions: the notion of lifeworld.