In their introduction to this volume, co-editors Stefano Marino and Andrea Schembari reveal how the idea for this book project was born at a 2017 Pearl Jam concert in Firenze while they were waiting for the band to kick off their gig. They emphasise how music, particularly rock music in this case, has the power to change and even save a life, echoing Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder’s remarks on how he is a living proof of this. Recalling their youth in Sicily, the co-editors note how the bands they followed afforded them “great passion, thrill, euphoria, exaltation, excitement, and enthusiasm” (3). As scholars and fans, the co-editors argue that there is a case to be made for considering Pearl Jam in the growing literature of pop culture and philosophy. Marino and Schembari point out that, rather than a philosophical system of Pearl Jam, what they attempted to point towards through this book was how Pearl Jam’s songs and career entail notions and themes that have troubled philosophers for centuries.These include themes of a particularly phenomenological nature such as the notions of experience, temporality, death, the human condition, significance and the meaning of life, authenticity and identity. Other, more broadly philosophical themes covered in this book also include the critique of mass society and the culture industry embodied by Pearl Jam, as well as resistance to conformist pressures. In their introduction, the editors present some pointers to Pearl Jam’s philosophy or, rather, their ethos: namely, their fight against censorship and oppression, their endorsement of democratic and progressive values, their attempt to be part of the culture industry without being swallowed by it, and their commitment to ecology, gender issues and human rights. The different chapters attempt different ‘gestures’. Some chapters engage with the ethos of Pearl Jam, what they stood for, their development over time as a band and the power of their music; while others conduct more specific ‘readings’ of particular songs or albums. Other chapters draw on Pearl Jam to reflect more broadly on political aesthetics, subcultural authenticity and postmodern fashion, while other authors attempt a more literary engagements with an aspect of Pearl Jam’s music.
The book opens with a foreword by Theodore Gracyk, himself the author of various books on the aesthetics of rock music. Gracyk connects Pearl Jam with ‘rockism’, which is a term that gained prominence in music commentary in the late 1980s. Rockism, as Gracyk explains, is the adoption of a core set of values associated with rock bands, such as refusal to define greatness in terms of commercial success, or an expression of progressive values by rock musicians and their audience, or recognising the value of music to unify, and, importantly, the use of guitars. By these criteria, Pearl Jam qualify as rockist. Gracyk recognises that rockism can also entail a lot of snobbery, sexism and whiteness. Hence, while Pearl Jam can be seen to be exponents of a kind of rockism especially in their early work, they are also a dynamic band that motivate us to go beyond the reductive understandings of rockism. So, if Pearl Jam supposedly moved away from ‘rockist’ tenets by obtaining commercial success, their ‘rockist’ ethos was seen in the way they challenged Ticketmaster for over-charging their fans. Pearl Jam defy easy categorisations. They embody contradictions, dynamism and fluidity; this is arguably what makes them a good band to ‘philosophise’ with.
In Chapter 1, “Contingency, (In)significance, and the All-Encompassing Trip: Pearl Jam and the Question of the Meaning of Life,” Marino takes his cue from Vedder’s lyrics questioning whether we are ‘getting something out of this all-encompassing trip.’ He connects this with Karl Jasper’s notion of ‘the encompassing,’ that is, reality in its richness and fullness. Marino reads Pearl Jam’s questioning of modernist narratives of progress and evolution through various twentieth century philosophers such as Walter Benjamin, Horkheimer, Adorno and Gadamer. In Pearl Jam, Marino identifies a preoccupation with the act of questioning itself, showing that, in their songs, Pearl Jam often refer to the insurmountable questions and the insufficiency of answers. Marino links this with Wittgenstein’s therapeutic understanding of philosophical questioning as being akin to trying to treat an illness, that is, to overcome the torment of excessive philosophical doubt. Similarly, in Pearl Jam, we encounter conflicting views on the role of philosophising in human life: on one hand, Pearl Jam point toward the questioning nature of mankind while at the same time highlight the eventual futility, if not harm, of excessive questioning which can come at the expense of life or experience. Marino points to the numerous questions asked in Pearl Jam’s lyrics – questions of what is real, what is truth, what is human, who are we? – yet ultimately the lesson he finds in Pearl Jam is that some questions remain open precisely because they are meant to remain open. Marino then turns to the notion of temporality, claiming that the western philosophical tradition (particularly in the modern age) has tended to place primacy on the temporal mode of the future. To show this, Marino foregrounds a section from Being and Time in which Heidegger identifies the futurality associated with being-towards-death, whereby anticipation is tied to Dasein’s authentic being. Marino notes that, through songs such as ‘Present Tense’, Pearl Jam challenge this privileging of the future at the expense of the present. Meaning is found not in omnipotence, but in finitude, contingency, imperfection and ephemerality. Instead of surrendering oneself to a defeatist attitude in the face of insignificance, Pearl Jam call for action, fueled also by anger against oppression. With apologies to Gramsci, Marino refers to how Pearl Jam’s intellectual pessimism is coupled with critical optimism of the will. Marino’s extensive essay ends with a reading of Pearl Jam’s ethos in light of Mark Fisher’s comments on Kurt Cobain. In Capitalist Realism, Fisher claims that alternative and independent music had become absorbed by the mainstream, recuperating its subversive potential by transforming it into a commodified lifestyle. For Marino, Pearl Jam recognise this tension and learn to dwell in the ‘in-between’ while surviving in a world of contradictions.
In Chapter 2, “‘Just Like Innocence”: Pearl Jam and the (Re)Discovery of Hope,” Sam Morris draws parallels between Pearl Jam and British Romanticism, arguing that the relationship between the two is not always a smooth and complementary one, not least because romanticism is not easily defined. The early material of Pearl Jam – for example, the Mamasan traumatic trilogy of ‘Alive’, ‘Once’ and ‘Footsteps’ – portrays a difficult relationship between the self and others, which Morris reads alongside some moments from Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads that depict guilt, the inadequacy of society, and innocence as childlike wonder. Yet Morris also notes that in some of their early songs (such as ‘Rearviewmirror’) there is already a hint of a transition from childhood to adulthood, akin to the transition from innocence to experience described by Blake. There are also traces of hope, Morris writes, in songs such as ‘Leash’ and ‘Not for You’, echoing lines from Blake and Wordsworth about the joys of youth and the innocence of nature. Morris argues that No Code represents a turning point for the band, which also represents some divergences from the Romantic tradition. He reads Pearl Jam’s expression of longing for a lost past innocence as not completely in line with Wordsworth and Blake’s critique of the temptation of nostalgia, even if they too acknowledge that the feeling of childhood wonder fades as one grows. However, Morris argues that if the romantic poets placed their hope in embracing mature experience, Pearl Jam seem to go on a search for a lost innocence in No Code. Morris reads Pearl Jam’s engagement with feelings of anxiety and fear of death as attempts to overcome them so as to not forget the wonder of experience. This attempt to sustain hope in appreciating the beauty in the world is read by Morris as re-connecting Pearl Jam with the British Romantic tradition, even if they diverge from the romantic journey that leads from innocence to experience. The romantic impulse in Pearl Jam is read by Morris in their exhortation of listeners to turn inward for hope and a future-looking utopian energy to be ultimately turned outward to transform the world.
In Chapter 3, “Who’s the Elderly Band Behind the Counter in a Small Town?” Radu Uszkai and Mihail-Valentin Cernea reflect on the metaphysics of the transtemporal identity of a rock band. They ask questions on whether changes in band name, group composition or music style alter a band’s identity. Referring to John Searle’s notion, the authors point out that the existence of a band belongs to the realm of ‘institutional facts’, that is, bands can survive severe changes while still being recognized as the same thing, in the same way that a government would still exist despite a change in leadership. The authors draw on conceptual tools such as Robert Nozick’s ‘closest continuer’ theory and Saul Kripke’s notion of ‘rigid designator’ to discuss how metaphysical questions surrounding the transtemporal identity of rock bands can be approached. Uszkai and Cernea argue that the name of a band does not seem to be essential for the identity of a band over time, as otherwise the band Mookie Blaylock – the name under which Pearl Jam played their very first gigs – would not be the same band as Pearl Jam. With lineup changes, perhaps the question complicates itself further, as Pearl Jam had several changes in their drummers and have also been joined by guest musicians such as Boom Gaspar in their live shows. The authors discuss questions such as what happens in the case of a fission of a rock band into two bands, and both claim continuity with the original band. The authors also engage with what changes in music style do to a band’s identity. While some ‘die-hard’ fans may feel that a band is no longer that band if it deviates from its ‘original sound’, the authors argue that it is quite hard to argue that a band loses its metaphysical identity due to such aesthetic transformations. The authors conclude by indicating that the cultural recognition of bands is a crucial component of appropriately designating whether a band is the same band or not.
In Chapter 4, “Making a Choice When There is No ‘Better Man’,” Laura M. Bernhardt foregrounds the theme of compromised agency as it is presented in Pearl Jam’s song, ‘Better Man’. Bernhardt engages with the song’s portrayal of a female narrator anguishing about leaving an abusive relationship but ultimately opting not to. She reads this alongside the band’s own struggles with the pressures of commodification at the time when the song was released. Bernhardt analyses such compromised agency through the work of Carisa Showden on how compromised agents, such as victims of abuse, are required to choose from a selection of bad possibilities under circumstances that are not quite of their choosing. The author highlights the complexity of such situations because it is not a matter of the victim not knowing that the situation is not in her interest, but rather that her freedom is constrained in such a way that her autonomy is compromised. The author calls for an outlook to this issue that moves beyond denying the victim’s agency as well as implying that the victim is somehow complicit in her situation. One way out of this conundrum, Bernhardt suggests, is by looking at Simone Weil’s notion of affliction. For Weil, an afflicted person is someone abandoned to misery or isolation, and someone who is reduced to an object by powerful forces, such as a factor labourer working under oppressive and dehumanising conditions. The afflicted person, Bernhardt notes, would resign herself to unhappiness and feel undeserving of salvation from the wickedness to which she is subjugated. For this reason, apart from systemic and material solutions to improve her agency, the author argues that something more is also needed, namely, radical empathy. The author concludes by proposing that recognition of another person as afflicted may help us to better understand the complexity and ambiguity involved in situations involving compromised agency when people stay in situations where they would not necessarily want to remain, such as the character described in ‘Better Man’.
Chapter 5, “That’s Where We’re Living: Determinism and Free Will in ‘Unthought Known’,” by Enrico Terrone revolves around philosophical themes from FlashForward. This is a 2009-2010 sci-fi television series that engages with the question of what remains of human free will in circumstances where the future seems to be determined and the characters have had ‘flashforwards’ that showed them the outcome of their future. The Pearl Jam connection is that an edited version of their song “Unthought Known” is used in a scene from one of the episodes of this series. Terrone reminds us that the notion of ‘unthought known’ originated in Freud, and was later developed further by psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas. This concept describes how “one can know things about which one is unable to think” (97). Terrone notes that ample metaphysicians argue that science encourages a conception of the universe as strictly governed by natural laws. This view problematises free will as an epiphenomenon which we are unable to do away with simply because it is such a deep-rooted feeling which gives coherence to emotional responses and moral judgements that regulate societies. Various movies and fiction have engaged with the theme of free will and determinism, in which characters are given powers of clairvoyance. Yet, as Terrone argues, some of these artistic attempts are riddled with an obvious inconsistency, namely that although the characters become aware of the future, somehow they manage to contradict what they would have foreseen, which is, of course, untenable with the original clairvoyant ‘visions’. Such a move is often done in the spirit of critiquing the deterministic outlook by insisting on a sort of ‘humanistic’ sentiment that privileges free will over a cold deterministic universe. With regard to the Pearl Jam song and its use in the TV series, “Unthought Known” reflects on the human condition, finitude, the role of the human within the immensity of the cosmos, and ultimately the beauty of the richness of human experience. The author concludes by arguing that the way in which the song is deployed in the context of the narrative points towards the difficulties surrounding a notion of free will, but that its stakes within our practical thought may be too high to let go of it.
In chapter 6, “No Code Aesthetics,” Alberto L. Siani engages with Pearl Jam’s fourth album, No Code, noting that the heterogeneity that marks this album makes for interesting philosophical reflection, not least on the role of ‘codes’ and their rejection in art. The author reads the aesthetics of this album in terms of the ‘end of art thesis,’ which holds that the traditional conception of art as an expressive medium that transmits metaphysical and ethico-political content no longer exists. Siani maintains that this ‘end of art’ is not necessarily something to be decried, because it has emancipatory aspects that allow for veering away from traditional systems of values and embraces plurality. No Code complements this thesis insofar as it represents a rejection of various codes, including a break from the code of their preceding three albums. In a point that is also explored in other chapters, Siani reflects on whether this rejection of codes ultimately becomes a code in itself, that is, the code of rejecting codes, which would lead to a contradiction. However, Siani notes that “we should keep in mind that No Code is an artwork, not a logical investigation” (116). This is a welcome clarification; rather than excessive and intricate philosophical argumentation, Pearl Jam are embracing this unsolvable existential tension, and in this regard they represent the ‘madness’ of the decision, and the leap of affirming life in the face of uncertainty. For Siani, this is perhaps what ‘no code aesthetics’ stands for, that is, the aesthetics of heterogeneity and disharmony which may prompt the listener to a more reflective experience of the music.
Chapter 7, “Can Truth Be Found in the Wild?” by Paolo Stellino focuses on the story of Christopher McCandless, which was made into a movie in 2007 with a soundtrack by Eddie Vedder. In his early 20s McCandless set off wandering around North America until he hitchhiked his way to Alaska to live in the wild. His decomposing body was found around four months after he entered the wild, with the cause of death being probably starvation or poisoning due to ingesting seeds that contained a toxin. Various critics claim that the story of McCandless is often romanticized, ideologized and commodified, with sympathetic commentators insufficiently calling out his naivety and arrogance. Stellino remarks that Vedder’s lyrics too can be seen as contributing to this idealization of McCandless. However, while acknowledging these critiques, Stellino highlights that the appeal of this story does not lie in the specific details of McCandless’ life but rather in its universal significance. Interestingly, Stellino also draws on insights from William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience to analyse McCandless’ story, particularly his notion of ‘the sick soul’. Stellino argues that McCandless was a ‘sick soul’ who suffered from the artificiality of consumer society, and thus opted to radically transform his life by seeking an asceticism through which he felt reborn. Drawing on Erich Fromm, Stellino writes that this transition marks McCandless’ preference for the authentic ‘being’ mode of existence, as opposed to the accumulative ‘having’ mode. The profound insight that McCandless seems to have had at the end of his spiritual search for truth is that authentic existence is relational; it requires the presence of others and is not a solitary mission. Hence, ‘happiness is only real when shared’, McCandless writes on the pages of the last book he was reading. This is why, Stellino concludes, although one may disagree with the specifics of McCandless’ diagnosis of society or with his decision to flee into the wild, what still remains admirable is the courage and honesty of the human pursuit of authentic existence. This is ultimately what Vedder gave voice to in the Into the Wild soundtrack, which highlights continuities with some of Pearl Jam’s lyrics.
Chapter 8’s title, “‘They Can Buy, But Can’t Put On My Clothes’: Pearl Jam, Grunge and Subcultural Authenticity in a Postmodern Fashion Climate” by Stephanie Kramer, makes reference to a verse from Pearl Jam’s song ‘Corduroy’. Kramer notes how the song was inspired from a corduroy jacket Vedder wore numerous times during his shows, including in their MTV Unplugged, and was remade by the fashion industry. According to Kramer, the song’s lyrics reflected the “band’s refusal to sell out as a grunge posterchild in the name of corporate greed” (158), with the jacket serving as a literal and metaphorical act of resistance. Kramer links the lyrics of this song with a ‘grunge’ fashion trend that picked up in 1992 where plaid flannel shirts, flamboyant hats, and other cheap and conventional clothing items that came to be associated with grunge were turned into fashionable icons and sold at higher prices. Kramer draws on the work of media theorist Dick Hebdige to note that although subculture fashion, like punk fashion, highlighted individuality, non-conformity, and resistance to mainstream social norms, with time these subversive trends become absorbed by the mass fashion industry and thus lost their subversive edge. According to Kramer, Pearl Jam refused to partake in the dynamic of fashion altogether and managed to resist artistic commodification itself. Pearl Jam always chose a convenient style of clothing comprising of t-shirts, shorts, boots or tennis shoes, with Ament wearing his flamboyant headdresses, and Vedder wearing plain t-shirts on which he could scribble political messages. Kramer argues that Pearl Jam did not give much weight to their outfits to the extent that the possible machismo associated with basketball jerseys and other sports symbols were in opposition to the feminist and political messages embedded in the band’s ethos and lyrics. The band members, ultimately, were after producing music and not becoming glorified symbols for imitation.
In Chapter 9, “Pearl Jam’s Ghosts: The Ethical Claim Made From the Exiled Space(s) of Homelessness and War – An Aesthetic Response-Ability,” Jacqueline Moulton considers Pearl Jam’s references to homelessness and war in their music and actions. She refers to the band’s 2018 gig in Seattle which they branded ‘The Home Shows’ since the band had not played in Seattle for some years. In fact, the juxtaposed theme of home/homelessness was central to this show as Pearl Jam raised money, awareness and knowledge on the homelessness crisis playing out at the time in Seattle. The author elaborates on what ‘home’ signifies in ethical terms, that is, “the ethical question of contemporary dwelling, the question of who is at home and who is not, of who is living exiled” (165). Referring to how the word ethos in ancient Greek signified both dwelling and mode of being, Moulton explores the ethical implications of being at home versus ‘not at-home’. She argues that this dichotomy unveils “the ideology of inside versus outside” (166). For this reason, those on the outside pose an ethical question to those on the inside, and for Moulton, the concept of home is always haunted by its constitutive outside – “the sense of being not at-home” (167). This unsettling and displacing feeling of foreignness and familiarity, for Moulton, is best grasped through Freud’s notion of the uncanny which brings this juxtaposed duality of homeness and foreignness into the realm of the aesthetic. According to Moulton, during ‘The Home Shows’, Pearl Jam conjured the audience to respond ethically and aesthetically to the ethical claim made from those who are ‘exiled’. The aesthetic displaces the hegemonic elements that structure language and helps to invert the antagonistic dichotomy between inside and outside. Indeed, Moulton follows Adorno’s assertion that ethics emerges from the outside. Moulton notes how Pearl Jam’s songs ‘Yellow Ledbetter’ and ‘Bu$hleaguer’ – embedded with references of war – echo the sense of ‘the uncanny’ as a haunting from within, “a fear that comes up from within, a fear which is familiar and therefore impactful, fear which is close” (169). For Moulton, this form of haunting cuts across the realms of ethics and aesthetics, and poses a new question of what the ethical claims and responses can be and how to translate them into “communal and equitable structures of living interdependently upon a shared world” (169).
Cristina Parapar’s contribution in Chapter 10, titled “Pearl Jam: Responsible Music or the Tragedy of Culture?” evaluates Pearl Jam’s ethos as a form of popular music. Parapar notes how Adorno distinguishes between responsible music and light music, arguing that light music is standardized, contributes to one-dimensional thinking and, unlike responsible music, plays into a capitalist system that seeks to alienate and passively entertain its consumers. Parapar challenges Adorno’s understanding of popular music through French philosopher and music Agnès Gayraud’s work, arguing that Adorno seems to ignore the fact that popular music denotes a broad variety of genres that can merge different traditions, scales, modulations, and influences from both high and low culture. Following from this defense of pop music, Parapar argues that Pearl Jam’s music can at least on occasion speak to its listeners about their own situation in the same way Adorno speaks of dissonance. Following Terry Eagleton’s take on left aesthetics, Parapar argues that a piece of art is in itself subversive because it refuses identification and reveals the impossibility of the union between “form and content, between language and meaning, and between the artistic form and empirical reality” (190). Pearl Jam’s music, according to Parapar, serves this purpose. The ‘dirty’ sounds of grunge, with its partially out of tune music together with its form-content, reflect the Zeitgeist of disillusionment with American society in the 1990s. Parapar argues that while some pop music fits within Adorno’s critique, other types of music contain the potential for critique. Following Gert Keunen’s typology of pop mainstream, underground, and alternative mainstream, Parapar argues that Pearl Jam’s music lies within the third category. This is because while they speak to a wider audience through mass distribution they still maintained “the authorship of their pieces, the less familiar sound of grunge, and the rejection of musical recipes” (197). Correspondingly, Parapar argues that Pearl Jam’s music requires a certain kind of listening. Pearl Jam listeners are, in a sense, negotiators, “negotiating between intellectualism and catharsis, between adequate and structural listening and enjoyment (jouissance)” (199). Thus, for Parapar, Pearl Jam’s listener can be best described as the ‘postmodern listener’, that is, a listener who enjoys the pleasure offered by the music, but at the same time is aware of the way in which the music reveals the ideological fantasy and its symptom. Ultimately, Parapar concludes that Pearl Jam’s music is both responsible and authentic.
In Chapter 11, “Pearl Jam/Nirvana: A Dialectical Vortex that Revolves Around the Void,” Alessandro Alfieri discusses the dialectic opposition of Pearl Jam and Nirvana. Alfieri argues that, as opposed to the music scene of the 1980s such as glam rock, grunge represented a turn to a sober, existential and introverted music scene that expressed the void experienced by a whole generation. He notes that, paradoxically, this wave of existential dread came at a time of expansion of well-being as discourses around mental health expanded in the 1990s. According to Alfieri, Nirvana was one of the few bands that reflected this existential dissatisfaction with their “message of pain and death” (207), in comparison to that of, for example, Madonna and Michael Jackson. Although both Nirvana and Pearl Jam originate from this sense of existential crisis, the bands have long been seen as rivals. Alfieri notes how on many occasions Kurt Cobain was critical of Pearl Jam, although once he admitted that he actually liked Eddie Vedder and came to appreciate him more. Alfieri argues that Pearl Jam fall on the side of the vitalistic dynamic rock of the 1990s and 2000s, whereas Nirvana was more nihilistic, self-destructive, visceral and transgressive. Alfieri notes how the two bands are caught up in a dialectical vortex. Cobain’s aesthetic made Nirvana attractive to mass media even though their ethos was linked to the rejection to success and social prestige. Cobain himself was caught up in this unsolvable contradiction of detesting success while at the same time basking in it and becoming paranoid when it recedes. Pearl Jam turned to mass distribution, but were more reserved in front of the cameras, with Vedder turning down many interviews. Alfieri also argues that Pearl Jam had a more mature stance, with their music reflecting more intellectual and political awareness. For Alfieri, Pearl Jam manage to negotiate the melancholic existential dread of our time through a ‘nostalgia for the present’ set between “anhedonic nihilism and vitalism” (214) where rage, dissent and a dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs are expressed alongside the life-affirming pleasure that the experience of their music provides.
In the concluding Chapter 12, “The Tide on the Shell: Pearl Jam and the Aquatic Allegories of Existence,” Andrea Schembari notes how in their music Pearl Jam express the experience of living through aquatic allegories and metaphors, such as navigation, the ocean and the river. Schembari illuminates these dimensions through the work of other thinkers who, like Pearl Jam, recognized how these dimensions can express the condition of life. Schembari argues that the work of Pearl Jam often reflects an understanding of being as if one is navigating a ship out at sea. He reads this alongside the work of Blaise Pascal who maintains that to live one must always face the opposition between taking the plunge ‘into the sea’ and the inclination toward stability. However, stability and safety are never guaranteed, as depicted in the band’s song ‘Force of Nature’ and as expressed through the Roman poet Lucretius. The songs ‘Oceans’ and ‘Release’ reflect water as a form of energy that directs one to a desired goal, where nothing remains static or unmoving, whereas ‘Big Wave’ speaks of human adaptation – ‘surfing the waves’ – to whatever life brings. As Pascal’s wager reveals, one cannot avoid making choices, and this inevitability to make choices is outlined in the band’s song ‘Infallible’ which, according to Schembari, denounces “the arrogance and distortions of an economic progress disjointed from a true social and cultural progress” (226-7). The band also explores aquatic metaphors of love keeping swimmers afloat reflected in ‘Amongst the Waves’. From allegories of the condition of living to allegories of time, Schembari takes us through instances where Pearl Jam refer to the passage of time as “phenomenological time” and a “time of consciousness” (230) as outlined by Husserl and Heidegger respectively. These allegories of time become more apparent in Pearl Jam’s later albums, particularly their 2020 Gigaton but also in earlier songs like ‘I am Mine’. Finally, Schembari also engages with Pearl Jam’s aquatic metaphors on the meaning of life, such as like murmuring and hollow shells washed ashore, which he reads alongside reflections by Paul Valéry and Italo Calvino.
All in all, Marino and Schembari have completed an interesting curation of high-quality essays that capture the diversity of affects and themes in Pearl Jam songs, as well as their engagement, oftentimes critical, with the culture industry. The title of this project may, at first glance, raise an eyebrow (if not an eyeroll), for example, of those for whom ‘low culture’ is no place to look for serious theorising; or of those who perhaps due to an anti-intellectualist stance perceive such a project as unnecessary intellectual posturing. But this book strikes a good balance in this regard. In no way does it pretend that an appreciation of such chapters is necessary in order for one to understand the true depths of Pearl Jam. Yet, on the other hand, the authors appreciate that the band that originated in 1990 in Seattle during the golden days of grunge is one of those bands that lend themselves to theoretical engagement. Ultimately, the chapters that compose this book are written by scholars who are also fans. It is not incidental that some of the authors make references to the role, big or small, that Pearl Jam has played in their personal lives. In this positive way that this book seems like it was a labour of love.
This is a book for fans: the reader must have great familiarity with Pearl Jam’s music, as well as the band’s history, actions and position within rock history. Do some of the chapters engage in over-reading? Maybe. And if a listener knows what it is like to feel undone by ‘Black’, or to feel goosebumps during ‘Alive’, or to go crazy with ‘Porch’, then perhaps they may not need this book to tell them what they are feeling. But, nonetheless, the chapters that constitute this book will be appreciated by philosophically-inclined fans of the band who, for years, have lived with the band’s music, or perhaps have even witnessed the deep experience that is a Pearl Jam concert; have experienced the wild exhilaration that the band provides. In other words, if you get it, then you get it. Not unlike a lot of philosophy, ultimately, Pearl Jam can be seen to embody a fundamental question: what does it mean to be alive?
Edith Stein’s best known work is her phenomenological investigation of affectivity and philosophy of mind, and especially her treatment of empathy. Relative to these, her ontology is somewhat neglected even though it is of great interest, both as a transition between her academic and theological writings and as a development of concepts of essence implicitly present in phenomenology more widely. This is an acknowledged gap in Stein scholarship which Thomas Gricoski aims to bridge with Being Unfolded, a rigorous and insightful philosophical-theological interrogation of Stein’s Finite and Eternal Being (Endliches und ewiges Sein, hereinafter EeS).
Gricoski’s opening chapter lays the foundations for his characterisation of Stein’s ontology as a correlational realism. Contextualising Stein’s work within two philosophical traditions, the Husserlian phenomenology of her academic beginnings and the neo-Scholasticism with which she engaged in her later phenomenological inquiries, he argues that Stein developed a correlational philosophy in which phenomenological method is used to address traditional Thomist metaphysical questions. The result is an ontology of multiple modes of being whose common attribute is unfolding:
Finite being is the unfolding of meaning; essential being is the atemporal unfolding beyond the contraries of potency and act; actual being is the unfolding outward of an essential form, from potency toward act, in time and space. Mental being is unfolding in multiple senses… (10, citing Stein, EeS 284-285)
Stein’s own work is notoriously unspecific about the concept of Entfaltung, ‘unfolding’ or ‘blooming’, and it is this gap that Gricoski seeks to fill in Being Unfolded. He proposes that for the unfolding which characterises being throughout Stein’s ontology is a “self-transcending relationality”:
The key to understanding Stein’s sense of being…is the transcending nature of the relations between being and meaning, and between each mode of being. (32)
Clearly, such a proposal stands in need of further elaboration, and Gricoski unpacks it over subsequent chapters, offering a close reading of Stein’s texts which moves from the logical questions arising from the concept of being itself, through different aspects of being and meaning, to conclude with a reaffirmation of unfolding as transcendence.
The motivation for Stein’s concept of unfolding is located in the tensions in Aristotelian philosophy between actuality and potentiality, acting and resting. Traditional ontological formulations of this dichotomy tended to situate ‘real’ existence in acting; this was especially true of Scholastic interpretations, which drew parallels with Christian concepts such as creator and soul. Gricoski demonstrates in the second chapter how Stein’s own work on potency and act underpins her concept of unfolding. Refusing the need for selecting between potency and act, Stein insists that they are unique modes of being, potency as ‘resting’ essential being and acting as actual being, inextricably related in what Stein calls ‘close belonging-together’. Gricoski’s argument is careful in following Stein’s text so as to show that her ontological project retains a recognisably phenomenologist character in its recognition of a diversity of modes of being and meaning which, rather than being hierarchically related, are drawn together in her correlational principle of unfolding. Within this complex analysis, he argues, there is a harmony in which “a transcending relation holds the relata in a creative tension, without resolving the tension through overcoming difference” (59).
While Stein’s engagement with Thomist philosophy is her unique contribution, there is nonetheless an implicitly Aristotelian flavour to the phenomenological project of seeking to grasp essential meanings. Underlying Stein’s resolution of the acting-resting dilemma is the problem of how to characterise the meaning of essential being, and this is Gricoski’s theme in the third chapter. As with the potency-act question, Stein seeks to refute a philosophical tradition in which different elements of being are ordered as to precedence: in this case, the priority of essence over existence. Arguing that being is non-identical with existence, since existence is temporal whereas being can also be atemporal, and that essence without instantiation cannot count as being, she posits that essential being is irreducibly constitutive of meaning in all being. Gricoski clearly sees this move as pivotal to Stein’s philosophy. It enables her to avoid traditional critiques of essentialism while incorporating essential being into her ontology rather than simply ‘bracketing’ it in Husserlian mode. More significantly, it motivates her evocation of ‘unfolding’ as characterisation of the relation among different modes of being:
Without splitting being into apparently irreconcilable ‘modes’ and arranging them in such a way that the modes ‘overlap’ or coincide in beings, there would be no need for the correlational principle of unfolding to bring the modes together. (252)
Here one may query whether Gricoski imputes too much to Stein in his elaboration of her concept of unfolding. Stein’s own underdeveloped treatment of unfolding might seem to undermine the thesis that it cements her ontology in the way that he indicates. Indeed, Gricoski acknowledges that the more conventional reading of ‘unfolding’ is as a bridge between the demands of Stein’s dual philosophical tradition, phenomenology on the one hand and Thomism on the other. Whether Stein scholars will find his case for viewing unfolding in a strong ontological sense is an interesting question.
The defence of Stein’s concept of essential being provides a springboard for subsequent chapters where Gricoski, turns his attention from being to meaning. Like being, meaning in Stein’s later work is multiple and relational; the different modes of being are all meaning-bearing, as are the relations among them. Gricoski proposes that the relationality present in being is not only reflected in meaning is constituted by the connections among actual beings which derives from their participation in essential meanings:
Through actualised essential structures, every individual actual thing is related in some way to every other actual thing that shares one of the same essentialities. Actual things are connected to each other through the nexus of essential meanings. (109)
Again, the question arises of how far this is Gricoski’s picture and how far it is Stein’s. It seems as though the delicate balance and parity of ontological standing which Gricoski perceives in Stein’s philosophy is threatened by situating the source of their relationality in essential meanings and hence implicitly in essences. If actual things derive their meaning form the meanings of essences, then why not their being also? This is a question which Gricoski takes himself already to have settled but readers may find it pressed anew by chapter five, where Stein’s theistic commitments come to the fore in an exploration of the origin of meaning.
Here, Gricoski’s exposition of Stein’s work takes what appears to be a more traditionally Scholastic turn. Finite being is “the dim analogue of eternal being” (110); actual being qua act echoes the actus purus of divine being; the intrinsic meaningfulness of essential being resembles Logos. It is challenging to read this other than as a hierarchy of meaning, and thus as at least potentially reductive; this suggestion becomes more forceful in the claim that essentialities reflect only the meaning aspect of divine being, so that finite acts of actual being are closer to God than finite instances of meaning which have only essential being. With such a structure in play, can Gricoski uphold his thesis that Stein’s ontology avoids hierarchy by foregrounding the relationalities within being and between being and meaning? Stein’s own answer is reminiscent of theological mysteries:
We can only conclude that everything finite – its quid as well as its being – must be predetermined as being-in-God, because both [principles] come from him. The final cause of all being and quiddity must however be both in perfect unity. (111, fn3, citing Stein, EeS)
More compelling is Gricoski’s account of how Stein takes herself to have overcome not only the intrusion of hierarchy into her adaptations of ontological categories but also the problems of Aristotelian teleology. While the suggestion that every object has meaning which it unfolds is undeniably reminiscent of a form-matter ontology of substances, Gricoski persuasively proposes that Stein balances the priority of actual being in its closeness to God with the argument that essential being is prior to actual being insofar as actual being aims at a goal, and thus at the rest represented by essential being. While essentialities bear the meaning of finite beings, those meanings can only be unfolded by finite beings; further, since being and meaning are correlative and not reducible to one another, there are no unfolded essentialities waiting in some metaphysical realm to be unfolded into being. This delicately contrived equilibrium indicates the scale of the challenge inherent in Stein’s project of articulating a Thomist phenomenology.
In Chapter Six Gricoski moves to explore the implications of Stein’s posited mode of actual being in relation to meaning. The unfolding of essential, atemporal structures of meaning in temporal finite being is characterised as “an ontological ‘conversion’ or ‘translation’” (129). On this picture, the essences of existent things are properly understood as unfoldings of meaning, such that existence realises an “irreducible” relationality of co-dependence between being and meaning in the ontologically distinct domains of essential, actual and mental. Unfolding emerges as a self-relation in which being and meaning transcend themselves both within each ontological domain and beyond any one domain. Unfolding reveals both the limitations and the powers of actual being, which Gricoski characterises in terms of deficit and surplus: deficit, in that the temporal existence of an actual object can only partially or inadequately unfold its essence, but surplus in that Stein insists on the “ontological brilliance” of actuality, without which essence cannot be realised. Indeed, according to Gricoski, actual beings represent for Stein “a leap of transcendence”: an enacting in which essence retains its essentiality even while becoming actual and in which the actual qua activity also participates in the eternity of essence. This relation of temporal, changing existence to essence’s atemporality and intransience renders existent things intelligible, capable of bearing meaning.
The complexity of this parsing of the relations among different elements in Stein’s ontology is reflected in the following two chapters, which are perhaps less successful than others in the book. Chapter 7, Matter and Meaning, presents a detailed exposition of Stein’s explorations of the relation between form and matter. Gricoski seeks to defend Stein against interpretations which take her to prioritise essence over actuality, but this defence is only partially persuasive. The challenge, as Gricoski acknowledges, is that the tensions between Stein’s phenomenology and her later Thomism are not always fully reconcilable. This chapter effectively shows how Stein’s phenomenological focus on the uncovering of meaning through essences reads into her commitment to articulating a hylomorphism which synthesises immanent and transcendent (Aristotelian and Platonic) concepts of form and in which form and matter are reciprocal, co-sustaining aspects of actuality. However, while Gricoski sees unfolding as the key to appreciating how this works out in Stein’s ontology, it is not clear that he has defeated suggestions that form takes priority over matter, or essence over existence, as a source of meaning. This difficulty is reiterated in Chapter 8, Material Beings, in which Gricoski seeks to illustrate the workings of Stein’s hylomorphism in “case studies” of the unfolding of material things of different kinds.
The case studies demonstrate the sheer intricacy of Stein’s ontology and the complexities involved in using it to illuminate the meanings of phenomena – it is tempting to wonder whether Stein’s work shows the prudence of Husserl’s strategey of epochē towards ontological questions. Gricoski is diligent in drawing the different levels and elements of Stein’s treatments of essence and being into his case studies, perhaps at the expense of a full exposition of his own thesis that her ontology is ultimately relational, based in unfolding. To be sure, the examples of organic beings have unfolding baked into their descriptions, but this is hardly surprising given the Aristotelian roots of Stein’s hylomorphism. More insightfully, Gricoski elaborates unfolding as a relational term in that material beings of all kinds depend on external beings and essential structures in order to accomplish their unfolding: the nourishment that living things require for their development; the openness to meaning that enables emotional and intellectual experience and willful acting; the processes communication and interactions which generate fuller unfolding of meaning in all beings involved in them. This seems quite true to Stein’s emphasis on the exteriority in which spirit transcends itself and in which all meaning, knowledge and creativity reside, and it would have been good to see more clearly how Gricoski’s own thought develops the insights gleaned from his exegetical work.
In addressing the mode of mental being in Chapter Nine, Gricoski touches on one of the most interesting aspects of Stein’s philosophy, the ontological characterisation of concepts, creativity and knowing. The medium of mind, he proposes, exhibits unfolding analogously to the other spheres of being:
Between an actual thing and my knowledge of it, a gap or discrepancy necessarily emerges. This discrepancy likewise reveals the dynamic process of unfolding. (196)
The discrepancies alluded to here relate to given meaning given and acquired meaning, and themselves underlie familiar mental processes of experience, concept formation, creative thinking and so forth. In each case, meaning qua acquired unfolds relative to meaning qua given, as being unfolds relative to essence: that is, into something which only partially resembles or manifests the original. Gricoski reads Stein as holding that such gaps in meaning reveal that essence and being cannot be identical, and argues that their persistence through the different layers of Stein’s ontology points to both correlational unfolding and transcendence as intrinsic features of it.
It is not clear, however, that Gricoski does full justice to Stein’s philosophy here. While epistemologically Stein certainly speaks of a “discrepancy” of knowledge relative to meaning, of knowledge “lagging behind”, ontologically she imparts a greater reciprocity to the unfolding of mental being:
Mental being is unfolding in multiple senses: the original genesis of genuine mental constructs is as temporal as the thinking action through which they were constructed. The ‘finished’ structures have something of the timelessness of the beings according to which they were constructed, and in which they were predetermined as ‘possible’.” (200, citing Stein, EeS 285)
While Gricoski recognises this additional feature of mental being to some extent, he relates this primarily to the primacy of human minds and the intellectual capacity associated with spirit. This seems like a missed opportunity to further develop his insight of the significance of relationality in Stein’s philosophy, since the mental realm brings into relations of unfolding beings which otherwise – that is, in their actual or material existence – are not related.
The culmination of Being Unfolded comes in Chapter Ten, Unfolding, Analogy and Transcendence, where Gricoski lays out the motivation for his project of attributing to Stein an ontology of unfolding:
By unfolding, being ‘becomes’ meaningful, and meaning ‘becomes’ real. Even if being and meaning are considered analytically separable, then each ‘gains’ something in the process of unfolding…[T]he being/meaning dependent pair itself authentically ‘gains’ something by unfolding itself or being unfolded. Unfolding creates surplus even as it causes deficits.
In Stein, then Gricoski discerns an ontology of dynamism, (non-spatial) expansion and creativity. Stein’s allusions to ‘unfolding’ offer a means of elaborating this insight; and if the allusions sometimes sound metaphorical then on Stein’s own terms that is no reason for not taking ‘unfolding’ seriously:
The metaphorical figures of speech of our language express an inner correlation between the different genera of beings and thus also a correlation with the divine archetype. (176, citing Stein, EeS 213)
If unfolding pervades all the layers and entities of Stein’s ontology for Gricoski, then so does analogy, in that he takes analogy to be the relation between that which unfolds and that which is unfolded. Similarly, from the pervasiveness of analogy is inferred a universal transcendence which occurs as beings come into relation with other beings or with aspects of themselves. Transcendence and analogy are both constitutive and characteristic of unfolding: “Unfolding appears now as both transcending difference by maintaining similarity and creating difference by analogous similarity” (246).
While Gricoski’s project is firmly rooted in Stein’s ontology, the book could have benefited from greater acknowledgement of her philosophy of emotion and empathy, and from consideration of how that earlier work may have influenced her unique and productive perspective on Thomist metaphysics. If unfolding is relational, as Gricoski persuasively argues, then relations among beings will be of as much ontological significance as intra-being relations. Indeed, Gricoski emphasises that, in Stein’s ontology, “relationality respects difference in order to enable mutual enrichment” (p58). In Being Unfolded, however, there is a great deal more self-unfolding tha being-unfolded. This is a regrettable gap in Gricoski’s treatment of Stein’s philosophy, especially since one of his concerns is to demonstrate continuity between Stein’s academic phenomenology and her later work in Thomist metaphysics. Stein’s own life offers a stark illustration of just how significant are relations among beings for opening up or circumscribing the possibilities of unfolding. Nonetheless, Being Unfolded is a lucid and valuable work of scholarship. Despite the technicalities of Stein’s philosophy it is also engaging and readable for the non-specialist, offering an intriguing introduction to a relatively neglected twentieth-century thinker. Gricoski has demonstrated good grounds for taking unfolding as a pivotal element in Stein’s ontology and an ineliminable force in the creation of meaning.
This is the kind of book one hates to review. Not because it is bad; it is an excellent work, rich and profound and relevant at least to: the scholar of half a dozen areas in the history of philosophy (from medieval through early modern, modern, Kant, post-Kantian, to the early analytic philosophy), the philosopher of language, the metaphysician, the philosopher of logic, and the epistemologist. But it is complex – much more complex even than your average 1069-page philosophy collection. Perhaps this is to be expected: one way to think of The Logical Alien is as a commentary (on steroids) of James Conant’s 1991 “The Search for Logically Alien Thought: Descartes, Kant, Frege, and the Tractatus”, itself a long, seminal, profound and – dealing as it does with history and theory and some of the heavyweights of the last five hundred years of philosophy – multitasking paper. The papers collected in the book are written for one third by different authors engaging with Conant’s 1991 paper, and for two thirds by Conant engaging with his former self and with each of the other contributors, occasionally with more than one at the same time. The parts of the book end up being so interconnected at so many levels, that it takes several readings just to find one’s way through it – never mind figuring out what to make of even one of the numerous debates involved or convey it to prospective readers with something resembling accuracy. Yet the book is as difficult to review as it is exhilarating to read. Once you get hooked up (and you do get hooked up), you won’t be finished for a long time.
The central question is taken from Frege and is simple enough: Is there such a thing as thought which is logical but whose logical laws are different from, and incompatible with, ours? Put this way, there would seem to be an equally simple answer: yes. Consider systems with different and incompatible rules of inference: in a classical setting, Excluded Middle and Full Double Negation are laws; in an intuitionistic setting, they aren’t – yet nobody from either camp seriously thinks that the other just isn’t thinking logically. After all, intuitionistic and classical logic are equiconsistent (a proposition is classically provable if and only if its double negation is intuitionistically provable). Of course there is a qualification to make in this case: some logical laws are in common. For example, Non-Contradiction – which in any case seems to be needed for concepts like ‘consistency’, ‘incompatibility’ and ‘disagreement’ to even make sense. What about, then, thought which shares none of our logical laws – not even Non-Contradiction? Conant’s original paper, and much of the discussion in the book, revolve around this insight: that since at least some of what we call logical laws are constitutive of thought as such, thought which does not conform to them is in fact not thought at all. In one form or another is attributed by Conant, past and present, to Frege, Wittgenstein and Putnam (or Putnam at some point of his career).
The insight – which we shall call the Insight – develops in interesting ways. Consider the following way of putting the central question: Are the laws of logic necessary? If the Insight is correct, then, one might say, they are. Not so – at least on the view Conant and his critics are interested in. Since what we call logical laws are constitutive of thought as such, logically alien thought is an impossibility. Discourse about it, then, is what Conant calls philosophical fiction (768). The contrast is with empirical fiction. The latter invites us to contemplate a scenario which happens not to be the case, but which ‘falls within the realm of the possible’. The former invites us to contemplate something which is not even possible. So that in philosophical fiction we ‘only apparently grasp what it would be for [the scenario] to obtain: its possibility can only seemingly be grasped in thought’. But, the view concludes, if logically alien thought is philosophical fiction, then the project of establishing its possibility or impossibility is in fact a non-starter: for in order to affirm or deny that logically alien thought is possible, or even ask whether it is possible, we first need to grasp ‘it’ – the thought with content ‘logically alien thought’ – but that is exactly what we cannot do. Far from being able to answer the question, we seem to have no question to answer. It looked as though we had one; but it turns out we never did. It was a mock-question. Hence, for example and according to Conant (past and present), the austere – non-mystical – Wittgensteinian stance at the end of the Tractatus: the necessity of logic isn’t a question which logic cannot answer; it is a non-question. Hence, too, the Wittgensteinian idea that philosophy should be conceived of not as doctrine, not even as research, but as something called ‘elucidation’: the activity of recognising that some or all of what we take to be profound philosophical problems are in fact simply nonsense.
In the original 1991 paper, Conant follows the development of this line of thought – call it elucidativism about logic – from Descartes through Aquinas, Leibniz, Kant, Frege, to Wittgenstein and Putnam. He does not defend elucidativism, but he clearly favours it. In the first part of The Logical Alien, his critics either follow up on 1991-Conant’s historical claims in the paper (which is included in the book), or take issue with theoretical claims, or both. The following is an overview of the contributions. A.W. Moore’s is about Descartes and what he ought to have thought about modality. In particular, whereas 1991-Conant claims that Descartes’ official view was that necessary truths (amongst which are the laws of logic) are contingently necessary, Moore argues that statements to that effect to be found in Descartes are aberrations rather than expressions of the official view. Matthew Boyle’s chapter is about Kant’s and Frege’s conceptions of logic and of the formal. Arata Hamawaki’s paper is about a distinction between Cartesian and Kantian skepticism. I have to say that, while the former contributions are excellent reads, I found this one rather difficult to follow and, despite the theme, somewhat underwhelming. Barry Stroud’s paper is the skeptical contribution: historically, doubts are cast on 1991-Conant’s reading of Frege; theoretically, issue is taken with the notion that necessary truths are apt to being explained. Peter Sullivan objects to 1991-Conant’s view of Frege, and argues that the latter is more Kantian than is usually thought. The contribution also contains a very good summary of the dialectic of the 1991 article (in case you struggle to follow it). Along with Moore’s, perhaps the best of the (mainly) historical contributions (to my taste). Martin Gustafsson and Jocelyn Benoist concentrate on post-tractarian Wittgenstein: the former to examine the relations between language use and rule-following, the latter to show how Wittgenstein’s treatment of private languge is an exercise in elucidation. Finally, Charles Travis’ chapter, the longest, discusses Frege, Wittgenstein and the heart of the elucidative enterprise. Undoubtedly the most important of the critical essays. I agree with many points he makes, and I will be saying something similar in the remainder of this review – but from a very different perspective. The second part of The Logical Alien consists of present-day Conant discussing both his 1991 paper and the critics’ contributions. I see no point in saying anything here, except that he (and probably the editor, Sophia Miguens) did an excellent job of making the Conant’s own chapters a single narrative rather than a collection of discrete replies.
Now, upon my first reading of the 1991 paper, and on every subsequent reread, and indeed as I was ploughing through the book, I thought it a shame that there was (virtually) no reference to the phenomenological tradition at all. This is not to say that there should have been: as far as I can tell, phenomenology has never been among Conant’s interests, and that this should be reflected in a book about his work is, after all, only natural. On the other hand, at least some of the debates in The Logical Alien might have benefited from a phenomenological voice; and others are relevant to discussions within the phenomenological tradition. And since I am writing this review for a journal called Phenomenological Reviews, I will allow myself to expand on the above and bring phenomenology into the melee.
I have already said what the central view at stake in the book is: that the question as to whether there can be logically alien thought is a non-question, because its formulation involves something akin to a cognitive illusion. The further question, however, is: Why is grasping a thought about an impossibility itself impossible? Why, in other words, should we buy the claim that in philosophical fiction, as Conant says, we only seem to grasp a thought but we really do not? Why is the thought that there may be logically alien thought, despite appearances, no thought at all?
The reason lies in the following view, endorsed at lest to some extent by Frege, embraced by tractarian Wittgenstein and assumed in Conant and his critics’ discussions: To grasp a thought is to grasp what the world must be like for the thought to be true and what the world must be like for the thought to be false. A thought for which either of these things cannot be done is a thought for which, as Frege would put it, the question of truth does not genuinely arise. It is then not a thought but a mock-thought. This is the basis of Wittgenstein’s notion that tautologies and contradictions have no content: for we just cannot imagine what the world what have to be like for tautologies to be false or contradictions true. For all the depth and complexity of the debates which Conant’s 1991 paper has sparked, and which are well represented in The Logical Alien, if what we may call the Assumption falls it is hard to see how the rest might stand. For if grasping the content of a thought is decoupled from grasping its truth-(and-falsity-)conditions, or from even bringing truth into the picture, then even if philosophically-fictitious scenarios are impossible we can still grasp them – if only to deem them impossible. Thoughts about them are not mock-thoughts; or, if they are, they are so in a weaker sense than Conant seems to envisage – too weak for the work he wants mock-thoughts to do.
Conant is aware of this. In his reply to Stroud he highlights how the 1991 paper pinpoints a tension in Frege between 1) his elucidative treatment of the logical alien in the foreword to Grundgesetze, and 2) his commitment to the idea that tautologies and axioms are true. If the Insight and the Assumption are true, then 1) and 2) are (or very much seem to be) incompatible. Conant suggests that the ‘deeper wisdom’ to be found in Frege, which is also the strand of Frege’s thought which Wittgenstein develops, is 1). The claim that axioms and tautologies, despite having negations which are absurd, are true is treated by Conant as stemming from Frege’s conception of content (thought) as ‘explanatorily prior’ to judgement. So that it is only if we think that the content of a judgement pre-exists the judgement that we can take judgements about impossible scenarios to have a content. Otherwise we would have to say: there is no judgement to be made here, and therefore there is no content.
I will not go into the minutiae – or even the nitty-gritty – of Fregean scholarship. But surely the move only pushes the problem a step further. Grant that judgeable content should not be thought of as explanatorily prior (whatever that means exactly) to judgement, the question is: Why buy the claim that we cannot judge about impossibilia – not even to say that they are impossibilia? If we can, there is judgement; and therefore there is content. Are there views on the market which do not take judgeable content as explanatorily prior to judgement, and according to which we can and do judge about impossibilia?
Husserl held just such a view throughout his career. There are several ways to see this. Begin with the Investigations. There, meanings are ideal objects (universals) instantiated by the act-matter of classes of meaning-intentions. The latter are intentional acts through which a subject intends, or refers to, an object. Their matter is, with some oversimplification, their content. Notice that the content of a meaning-intention is not the meaning: without an act there is no content – though there is a (perhaps uninstantiated) meaning. So even in the early Husserl, despite his ostensible Platonism, it is not obvious that judgeable content is prior to, or even independent of, judgement. In the fourth Logical Investigation, a distinction is made between nonsensical (Unsinnig) and absurd (Widersinnig) meanings. A nonsensical meaning is a non-meaning: an illegal combination of simpler meanings (illegal, that is, with respect to a certain set of a priori laws). A syntactical analogue would be a non-well-formed string of symbols: ‘But or home’. So, when it comes to nonsensical meanings, there just is no content (no act-matter). An absurd meaning, by contrast, is a (formally or materially) contradictory one: ‘Round square’. In this case there are both a meaning and an act matter; it’s just that to intentional acts whose matter or content instantiates the absurd meaning there cannot correspond an intuition – intuition being the sort of experience which acquaint us with objects: perception, memory, imagination. So we cannot see or remember or imagine round squares, but we can think about them, wonder whether they exist, explain why they cannot exist, and so on. Moreover, the very impossibility of intuitively fulfilling an absurd meaning-intention is, in Husserl, itself intuitively constituted and attested: attempting to intuit the absurd meaning leads to what Husserl calls a synthesis of conflict.
Say, then, that whilst engaging in philosophical fiction we try to make sense of logically alien thought, and we fail. This failure consists, in Husserlian phenomenology, in the arising of a conflict in our intuition, as a consequence of which we deem the scenario impossible. In the Husserlian framework this failure does not entail that there was never any thinking taking place with the content ‘logically alien thought’: it was ‘merely signitive’ thinking – thinking to which, a priori, no intuition can correspond – but contentful thinking nonetheless. We cannot intuit the impossible, but we can think about it.
So in Husserl the impossibility – the philosophical-fictitiousness – of logically alien thought does not entail that, when we think of logically alien thought, we only seem to do so. When we think of logically alien thought, we actually do think about logically alien thought; and one of the things we reckon when we think about logically alien thought is that it is impossible. All of this, notice, without appealing to the explanatory priority of judgeable content over judgement – which is what Conant finds disagreeable in Frege. Husserl, then, seems to be in a position to agree with Conant that judgeable content doesn’t come before judgement, and yet disagree with Conant that there is any wisdom whatever in Frege’s elucidative treatment of the logical alien.
All this is reflected in Husserl’s view of logic. From the Investigations throughout his career, Husserl maintained that logic comes in layers. In the official systematisation (Formal and Transcendental Logic, §§ 12-20) these are: 1) the theory of the pure form of judgements; 2) the logic of non-contradiction; 3) truth-logic. The first of the three is what in the fourth Investigation was called ‘grammar of pure logic’, and its job is to sort the meaningless – combinations of meaning which do not yield a new meaning – from the meaningful. It is the job of the logic of non-contradiction to sort, within the realm of the meaningful, the absurd meanings from the non-absurd. It is debatable whether truth is operative in this second layer of logic; I understand Husserl as denying that it is. But in any case, truth is not operative in the first layer. When Conant and his critics discuss the laws of logic, they take them to be such that, first, they are constitutive of thought, and second, truth plays a crucial role in them; and they take thoughts which misbehave with respect to truth, such as tautologies and contradictions, not to be thoughts at all (giving rise to tension in Frege). From a Husserlian perspective, what makes a thought a thought is not the laws of truth, but the laws of the grammar of meanings. Truth has nothing to do with it – nor, as a consequence, with what it is to be a thought.
The second part of Conant’s reply to Stroud (roughly, from p. 819 onwards) connects the above to another phenomenologically relevant strand of The Logical Alien: Kant and the project of a transcendental philosophy. The starting point is the difference between Frege’s approach on the one hand, and Kant’s and Wittgenstein’s on the other. The issue is, again, the central one of the relations between thoughts and judgements. Conant’s aim is to show that Frege can conceive of thought as separate from judgement – of content as distinct from the recognition of the truth of content – only by committing himself to the following conjunctive account: whenever an agent S judges that p, a) S thinks that p, and b) S recognises that p is true. These are two distinct acts on the part of S. This is contrasted with Kant’s (and, later on, Wittgenstein’s) disjunctive approach: there is a fundamental case of judgement in which S simply judges that p; and there are derived cases, different in kind from the former, in which S entertains the thought that p without recognising its truth – for example, in what Kant calls problematic judgements (‘Possibly, p’). Conant does not seem to provide a reason why we should be disjunctivists rather than conjunctivists – other than the claim that conjunctivism is at odds with the wider Kantian transcendental project. The implication being that if one buys into the latter at all, then one ought to be a Kantian rather than a Fregean when it comes to the relations between content and judgement.
What is, for Conant, Kant’s transcendental project? This is spelled out in the excellent reply to Hamawaki and Stroud. To be a Kantian is first of all to put forward transcendental arguments. According to Conant, a transcendental argument is something close to an elucidative treatment of what he calls Kantian Skepticism: the worry, not that the external world may not be as experienced or not exist all, but that we may not be able to ‘make sense of the idea that our experience is so much as able to afford us with the sort of content that is able to present the world as seeming to be a certain way’ (762). Kant’s way to resolve the worry is to show that the scenario in which our experience is not able to present the world at all is philosophical fiction: if we probe the Kantian-skeptical worry enough, we find it unintelligible.
I don’t believe Conant reads Kant as endorsing elucidativism – that is, I don’t believe Conant reads Kant as making the final step: if the scenario in which experience does not present us with a world is unintelligible, then so is the scenario in which it does. But he does say that this ‘is arguably the closest Kant ever comes to an extended philosophical engagement with something approximating the question of the intelligibility of the idea of a form of cognition that is logically alien to ours’ (772). If one is a transcendentalist, in any case, one has to put forward transcendental arguments; and if Conant is right in his reading of what a (Kantian) transcendental argument is, then a transcendentalist needs to be in a position to reason from the unintelligibility of a scenario to the unintelligibility of the question as to whether the scenario is possible. But to do so – recall the (alleged) tension between Fregean conjunctivism and the Kantian project – a transcendentalist ought to avoid seriously distinguishing between content and judgement.
Another strand of Conant’s discussion of Kant, and at some level a consequence of the nature of transcendental arguments as described above, is the recognition that any account of our cognitive capacity must be given from within the exercise of our cognitive capacity – so that no account of the latter can be given in non-cognitive terms. Conant calls this ‘the truth in idealism’ (776). And this is what, for Conant, ultimately is to be a Kantian: to pursuse a philosophical project in the light of the truth in idealism. Needless to say, Wittgenstein counts as a Kantian par excellence; and so does the elucidativist half of Frege.
The phenomenologically alert reader will not have missed the fact that the truth in idealism is in fact a central tenet of Husserl’s post-Investigations philosophy. Suffice it to quote the title of Section 104 of Formal and Transcendental Logic: “Transcendental phenomenology as self-explication on the part of transcendental subjectivity”. I am less sure about Conant’s reading of transcendental arguments: granted that they do involve the recognition of the unintelligibility of skeptical scenarios, it is unclear why that should not simply be thought of as some sort of reductio ad absurdum, or perhaps of a quasi-aristotelian elenchos, rather than as something pointing to elucidation. Be that as it may, Husserl’s mature philosophy is a view in which the truth in idealism is preserved and in which, however, elucidativism is avoided – because even in the mature Husserl absurd thoughts are contentful.
Consider the relation between content and judgement. In the mature Husserl the interdependence of content and the mental is reasserted and strengthened with the notion of meaning as noema, introduced alongside the old Platonistic one in the 1908 Lectures on the Theory of Meaning, and center-stage in the first volume of Ideas in 1913. The main difference here is that the noema, one of whose component is intentional content, exists only insofar as the relevant mental act – in our case, the relevant thinking episode – does. As to the relations of noema and judgement, Husserl does think that it is possible to thematise a propositional content without judging that it is true. Yet this is claimed within a broader story – genetic phenomenology – of how more sophisticated intentional performances, together with their productions (including propositional contents), arise from more fundamental ones. The chief text here is Experience and Judgement. So Husserl could be said to hold something like what Conant calls the disjunctive account: the act of merely entertaining a thought is derivative of the act of straightforwardly judging. But this is not to say that one cannot merely entertain a thought! It simply means that we would not be able to mereley entertain thoughts if we were not able to straightforwardly judge. Indeed, for Husserl the existence of a noema such as, say, ‘ABCD is a round square’, while dependent on the relevant meaning-intention, is independent of the possibility of there being round squares at all. We can and do entertain the thought whether round squares exist, ask ourselves whether they do, and judge that they don’t. (The simplicity of the example might lead to error: it might appear as though, in this case, phenomenologically or introspectively, there were no distinction between entertaining and judging, for it is immediately clear that there are no round squares. All you have to do is try with more covert absurdities; to take a pertinent example, Frege’s very own Basic Law V.)
It really does seem to be a phenomenological fact that content and judgement are distinct. As the Husserlian case shows, one can maintain that that is so while still allowing the distinction to be derived rather than fundamental. Not only this: one can maintain the distinction, thereby blocking elucidativism, and still subscribe to the truth in idealism and be counted as a Kantian by Conant’s own standards. Or so, at any rate, it seems.
So being a Husserlian may be one way of being a Kantian without being an elucidativist. I hope it is and I hope there are others. Elucidativism usually divides people into three categories: those who buy it, those who don’t, and those who dismiss it as empty gobbledegook. I don’t dismiss it – but I don’t buy it either. For example, the argument for it discussed, and indeed put forward, by Conant seems to me to prove too much. This is a point Stroud makes in his contribution. In the reply, Conant is, I think, too concerned to show Stroud’s (alleged) misunderstandings to take his commonsense worries seriously. Regardless of that dialectic, consider any proof by contradiction in mathematics: we set up a proposition, we show that the proposition is inconsistent (either with itself or with other assumptions), we conclude that the negation of the proposition is true. If the elucidativist is right, the latter step is unwarranted: if a proposition turns out to be nonsense (which it does, being a proposition about an impossible scenario) then its denial is also nonsensical. So, if the view is correct, a large part of mathematics either is merely a cognitive illusion or, at best, is an exercise in elucidation. And yet the proposition, say, that there are infinitely many primes – whose negation is absurd in the same sense in which logically alien thought is – seems to be a perfectly legitimate proposition. So does the question whether there is a greatest prime, even though, it turns out, it makes no sense to suppose that there is. For some of us, intuitions in this respect are just too strong. In comparison, the elucidativist manoeuvre really seems sleight of hand of sorts.
Of course, even we must bow to argument. And in any case, since the stakes could not be higher, high-quality discussion is always welcome. The Logical Alien provides plenty – as I said, enough to go on for a long time. That is one reason to recommend the book – eve if, like me, you are not in the elucidativist camp. Another reason, relevant to the phenomenologically-minded reader, is that there seems to me to be a family resemblance, however faint, between elucidativism and certain strands of the phenomenological tradition broadly construed: Deleuze’s operation in Logic of Sense, Derrida with his différance, Sartre’s manoeuvres in Critique of Dialectical Reason. The Logical Alien might add something meaningful to those discussions, too.
 J. Conant. 1991. “The Search for Logically Alien Thought: Descartes, Kant, Frege, and the Tractatus” Philosophical Topics 20 (1): 115-180.
 Part II, Section X, “Reply to Hamawaki and Stroud on Transcendental Arguments, Idealism, and the Kantian Solution of the Problem of Philosophy”: 758-782. Arabic numerals in parentheses in the main text refer to pages in The Logical Alien.
 I say ‘assumed’, but it is in fact at the heart of Travis’ piece. Sullivan discusses it, too.
 Part II, Section XI, “Reply to Stroud on Kant and Frege”: 783-829.
 For an excellent overview of Husserl’s philosphy of language and its development, see Simons 1995.
 Part II, Section X: “Reply to Hamawaki and Stroud on Transcendental Arguments, Idealism, and the Kantian Solution to the Problem of Philosophy”: 758-782.
 Part I, “Logical Aliens and the ‘Ground’ of Logical Necessity”: 170-182.
The purpose of Normativity, Meaning, and the Promise of Phenomenology is to study the way in which phenomenology addresses the multiple connections between normativity and meaning. The content of the book is based on a fundamental presupposition, namely, that the structure of meaning is normative. This thesis is grounded on the phenomenological studies started by Husserl and in this spirit the book explores from different points of view the structure of meaning and its conditions of possibility.
Since the authors of this book attribute this thesis directly to the views of Steven Crowell, all the articles present themselves as an explicit dialogue with Crowell’s work, to wit, Husserl, Heidegger, and the Space of Meaning: Paths Toward Transcendental Phenomenology (2001), and Normativity and Phenomenology in Husserl and Heidegger (2013). The book includes then an afterword with Crowell’s with his comments and replies.
For this review, I focus on the direct objections to Crowell’s philosophical positions and his attempts at answering them. For doing so, I follow the order proposed by the editors of the book. The book is divided into five sections: (1) “Normativity, Meaning and the Limits of Phenomenology”, (2) “Sources of Normativity”, (3) “Normativity and Nature”, (4) “Attuned Agency”, and (5) “Epistemic Normativity”. At the beginning of each section in this review, I offer a brief summary of the main ideas in each section of the book and then a brief commentary on each single chapter.
I. Normativity, Meaning, and the Limits of Phenomenology
This section is focused on the link between the question of normativity and that of meaning as it is addressed in phenomenology. Thus, normativity of meaning appears to be one of the main questions of phenomenology. However, several questions remain open which the following articles try to solve. First of all, the concept of norm can be understood in different ways and opens thus the question to the possibility of different normative structures for different meaningful experiences. This question is raised by Sara Heinämaa in her article which opens this section. A second question is raised by Leslie MacAvoy regarding the legitimacy of considering the structure of meaning as fundamentally normative, arguing that this would go against Husserl’s virulent critique of psychologism. She thus distinguishes the validity of meaning from its eventual manifestation for us as an ought or as a claim. The third one is raised by Zahavi, Cerbone, and Kavka. They challenge the idea in itself that the normativity of meaning is one of the main concerns of phenomenology. Thus, some realms such as metaphysics (Zahavi), epistemology (Cerbone), or philosophy of religion (Kavka) seem to be out of reach for the phenomenological method understood as a “metaphysically-neutral reflective analysis of the normative space of meaning” (Burch, Marsh & McMullin, 2).
- Constitutive, Prescriptive, Technical, or Ideal? On the Ambiguity of the Term “Norm”, Sara Heinämaa
The starting point of this article is the claim that all intentionality, from a phenomenological point of view, has a normative structure, because all intentionality can be fulfilled or disappointed. Thus, every intentional object is a norm that can be fulfilled or disappointed. Heinämaa calls this type of norm a “standard”. However, following Husserl’s distinction between interested perception and thing-appearances, she shows that the intentional object as norm can have a second meaning, which is an unachievable goal and thus also an optimum. Indeed, thing-appearances can never be fully given to us in all their richness.
This polysemy of the notion of norm leads Heinämaa to analyze its different meanings by drawing on the work of the logician and philosopher Georg Henrik von Wright Norm and Action: A Logical Enquiry (1963). Wright himself takes over a distinction which he finds in the works of Max Scheler and Nicolai Hartmann, namely that between norm as actuality, which is at stake for what Husserl calls practical intentionality, and norm as ideality, which is essential for axiological intentionality. This distinction corresponds to Scheler’s distinctions between “Tunsollen” and “Seinsollen” and between “normative ought” (normatives Sollen) and “ideal ought” (ideales Sollen). The normativity of doing, which is a “normative ought”, is based on the concept of rule-following while the normativity of being, which is a “ideal ought” is based on the concept of seeking to achieve something. Both types of normativity should be kept strictly distinguished. Thus, although both types of normativity are goal-oriented, ideal norms “are not motivational causes for our actions but are conditions that define ways of being” (Heinämaa, 20).
Heinämaa applies this distinction to the question of the normativity of intentionality by arguing, against Crowell, that both Heidegger and Husserl, share the idea that norms of actions but also of thinking are founded in ideal norms. Thus, one of the roles of phenomenology is “to illuminate the fundamental role that ideal principles of being have in both epistemic and practical normativity” (Heinämaa, 23-24).
Steven Crowell insists, however, on the fact that the concept of ideales Sollen is not a proper “ought” but a “should” in order to preserve the clear distinction between normative and theoretical disciplines.
2. The Space of Meaning, Phenomenology, and the Normative Turn, Leslie MacAvoy
The leading question of this article concerns the proper object of phenomenology: is it meaning or normativity? First, Leslie MacAvoy shows how phenomenology, in its concern with meaning, takes over the neo-Kantian question of validity (Geltung). The neo-Kantians understand the validity of a logical law in terms of normativity, contrary to Husserl and Heidegger, and this explains the concern of this article.
Husserl argues in the Logical Investigations that logical laws are not normative because they are not prescriptive, and consequently that they are not practical rules but theoretical laws. Although these laws have normative power for our thought, normativity is not part of their content. In that way, what is opposed to the law of nature is not, contrary to what neo-Kantians thought, a normative law, but an ideal law. Therefore, contrary to Neo-Kantianism, phenomenology distinguishes validity from normativity. According to a phenomenological criticism, “the phenomenological critique of the neo-Kantian notion of validity as normativity transforms the space of validity into a space of meaning” (MacAvoy, 41). What is thus at stake are not the laws that “hold” but the intelligible structures of content. According to MacAvoy those structures are a priori and it is due to them that sense or meaning presents to us as valid. Here MacAvoy refers to Heidegger’s theory of the fore-structures of meaning as a model to understand this a priori, but she concludes, nevertheless, that phenomenology should investigate the sense of this a priori with more depth. All in all, while MacAvoy agrees with Crowell’s claim that phenomenology opens us the “space of meaning”, against Crowell’s Normativity and Phenomenology in Husserl and Heidegger, she disagrees with the idea that this space is normative.
3. Mind, Meaning, and Metaphysics, Another Look, Dan Zahavi
Zahavi’s concern in this article is the role of metaphysics in Husserl’s transcendental (and not early) phenomenology. Is his transcendental phenomenology metaphysically committed or does the epoché on the contrary entail metaphysical neutrality? By developing his argument, Zahavi critically assesses Crowell’s claim that Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology is metaphysically neutral. Crowell’s argument is that phenomenology is not interested into metaphysics but into “understanding the sense of reality and objectivity” (Zahavi, 50).
To this argument Zahavi presents two counterarguments. First of all, the fact that phenomenology is not primarily interested into metaphysics does not entail the fact that it does not have metaphysically implications. Secondly, Zahavi puts forward texts of Husserl where he explicitly claims the metaphysical commitment of phenomenology. In the Cartesian Meditations Husserl states that “phenomenology indeed excludes every naïve metaphysics that operates with absurd things in themselves, but does not exclude metaphysics as such” (Husserl 1950, 38-39). In order to understand the meaning of this metaphysical commitment of phenomenology, Zahavi distinguishes between three definitions of metaphysics: (1) “a theoretical investigation of the fundamental building blocks, of the basic “stuff” of reality” (Zahavi, 51); (2) “a philosophical engagement with question of facticity, birth, death, fate immortality, the existence of God, etc.” (Zahavi, 52); (3) “a fundamental reflection on and concern with the status and being of reality. Is reality mind-dependent or not, and if yes, in what manner?” (ibid). Zahavi further argues, that it is the second and most of all the third definition of metaphysics that is of interest for Husserl’s phenomenology.
Zahavi’s argument, drawing on an argument presented already by Fink in an article from 1939, “The Problem of the Phenomenology of Edmund Husserl”, is that transcendental phenomenology does not investigate the structures and meaning of a mental realm, but of the “real world” and of its modes of givenness (Zahavi, 59). Similarly, Fink insists on the distinction between the psychological noema and the transcendental noema, which is “being itself” (Fink 1981, 117). The distinction between noema and the object itself is not valid anymore within the transcendental attitude, but makes sense only within the psychological one.
To Crowell’s argument that Husserl is not dealing with being or reality itself but with its meaning for us, Zahavi answers that transcendental phenomenology entails a metaphysical claim about the existence of consciousness. However, the question remains open regarding the metaphysical commitment to the existence of a being which is independent from our consciousness, and this question is raised for example in Quentin Meillassoux’ book After Finitude, in which the author claims that phenomenology is unable to think being itself, independent from its correlation to consciousness. Of course, one could argue that Husserl dismisses this question, which he identifies as the Kantian question about things in themselves, as being absurd. However, perhaps we should investigate more why this question is considered being absurd by Husserl: is it not precisely because, according to him, it makes no sense to consider a being without presupposing a consciousness for whom this being has a meaning? There is, according to me, something very intriguing about this argument, in that it cannot be classified neither as metaphysical, since it does not claim that being is ontologically dependent on our consciousness, nor as semantically epistemic, since it does not claim that there is something as a neutral being which is then given to us through meaning. It would be interesting to, first, identify what type of argument Husserl actually uses here in order to deepen the question regarding the metaphysical commitment of phenomenology.
Opposing Zahavi’s argument, Crowell maintains his position concerning the metaphysical neutrality of phenomenology, which is guaranteed, following him, by the distinction between the existence of some entities, which is mind-independent, and the access to their reality, which is possible only for a conscience. Accordingly, however, this distinction still leaves the question unanswered concerning the metaphysical status of this reality to which we have access, since it still does not say how far this reality, as we have access to it, is mind-dependent.
4. Ground, Background, and Rough Ground, Dreyfus, Wittgenstein, and Phenomenology, David R. Cerbone
The aim of this article is to challenge Dreyfus’ interpretation of Heidegger’s concept of background as the understanding of being. According to Dreyfus, there is something as a background for our understanding which is there and that we can reach. Or, Cerbone argues for a deflationary sense of background which entails that there is no something as an ultimate background for our understanding, but always a changing and indeterminate background that we can never reach as such. Every time we try to explicate this background we always remain in his space. Thus, this background has an “illusory depth” (Cerbone, 76), since we can never get at its bottom.
In order to argue this, the author is drawing on Wittgenstein’s concept of explanation of the Philosophical Investigations. According to Wittgenstein, there is no absolute explanation of the background of the understanding, for example of the meaning of a word, but it is always relative to one specific situation and to the specific knowledge of our interlocutor. In that sense, explanations respond to a specific question or problem. They end when they fulfill that purpose.
This reassessing of the concept of background opens according to Cerbone the possibility to reassess the idea of phenomenology as infinite task. Indeed, the infinite task of phenomenology is not that of explicating the background of every understanding but that of addressing “the ongoing ethical challenge of making sense of and to one another” (ibid).
Steven Crowell objects however that Cerbone’s argument “seems to conflate the transcendental project of clarifying meaning with the mundane project of explaining some meaning by making the background explicit” (Crowell, 336). Crowell further argues that this argument makes it impossible to determine what is the world, since it is a category. Categories however are not explicated by ““digging deeper” into some specific horizon … but by phenomenological reflection on the eidetic structure of being-in-the-world” (Crowell, 337).
5. Inauthentic Theologizing and Phenomenological Method, Martin Kavka
This article examines the possibility of an authentic phenomenology of religion, which would be based on the authentic thinking of God. Martin Kavka understands here the concept of authentic thinking in the Husserlian sense in the way it is presented in the Logical Investigations, i.e. as the fulfillment of claims made in statements through the intuition of states of affairs.
Drawing on Heidegger’s analysis of Husserl’s concept of categorial intuition, from his 1963 essay “My Way to Phenomenology”, Kavka comes to the conclusion that an authentic phenomenology of the ‘inapparent’ must be possible, since categorial intuition is the intuition of an inapparent, i.e. a senseless, being. However, Kavka does not consider that God could be the object of such a phenomenology, as it is for instance in the case of Marion’s phenomenology of revelation, since religious figures such as Jesus are not fully dissimilar from the horizon of human expectations. The criterion of the phenomenon of revelation according to Marion lies precisely in its radical heterogeneity “to any conceptual scheme and horizon” (Kavka, 93); and since we could argue here that Jesus cannot precisely be simply identified to God, the question of Marion’s revelations is left open to possibility.
Following the question which Heidegger inquires in On Being and Time, Kavka asks himself what is the ground of meaning, and implicitly, if this ground can be considered as being God. He argues, following Hannah Arendt, that in any case God cannot be considered as commanding to our consciousness since this would “not lead Dasein back to itself and its own-most potentiality-for-Being” (Kavka, 90). Indeed Dasein cannot be ruled by any predetermined norm but can only respond to the call of normativity by responding for norms and making them its own.
Finally Kavka endorses Crowell’s horizontal analysis of discourse in order to explain the primacy of alterity in Levinas’ sense, suggesting perhaps that such an analysis could also be of use for an authentic phenomenology of God, but most of all, for a critical philosophy of religion.
Steven Crowell argues however that a theological phenomenology would not be a phenomenology anymore since it would go beyond the “askesis of transcendental phenomenology” (Crowell, 352) due to which phenomenological investigations cannot but remain the realm of the evidence. Ending on a Kantian note, Crowell writes: “We are finite creatures, and so meaning is finite. We can grasp the world as it is, though never as a whole; and if there is anything beyond that, it is a matter for faith, not philosophy” (ibid).
II. Sources of Normativity
This section explores the sources of normativity both from a phenomenological and from an analytical point of view. John Drummond argues, from a Husserlian perspective, that these sources lie in the teleological structure of intentionality, whereas Inga Römer highlights, from a Levinasian approach the role of the other. Finally, Irene McMullin is arguing for the plurality of these sources (first-, second-, and third-personal) highlighting an unexpected feature of normativity: gratitude.
- Intentionality and (Moral) Normativity, John Drummond
In this article John Drummond argues against Crowell’s Heideggerian approach of the sources of normativity as being pre-intentional, For John Drummond, the intentionality is a “’basic’ notion” (Drummond, 102) which can ground by itself normativity. First of all, against Crowell’s reading of Husserl according to which the pre-intentional flow of consciousness constitutes intentional acts, the author argues that this flow is also intentional but is structured by a type of intentionality which Husserl calls in On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time horizontal intentionality (Langsintentionalität), which has the specificity of not being oriented towards an object, contrary to the transverse intentionality (Querintentionalität). Thus, “intentionality … belongs primarily to mind ‘as a whole’” (Drummond, 105), whereby mind has first of all the meaning of a gerund: “mind is ‘minding’ things” (ibid).
Secondly, Drummond highlights the fact that mind pertains to a person, i.e. to a concrete social, historical, embodied subject, which is for him equivalent, just as for Crowell, to the transcendental ego. Thus normativity has to be understood as the telos of the intentional experiences of a personal subject, which is aiming to truthfulness. This truthfulness presupposes that the person is responsible for acting and leading his/her life in the light of this telos.
The author concludes that this telos governs our lives as individuals and communities. My question would be however: what allows the author to be so sure about the universality of this telos? Could we thus say that truthfulness is still the goal of a totalitarian society for instance?
Steven Crowell objects to Drummond’s argument that horizontal intentionality, although it belongs to the ground of reason, is not however “governed by a telos of reason” (Crowell, 338). He argues instead, along with Heidegger, that what clarifies intentionality is the categorial structure of “care”. Thus it is in this structure of care that normativity is ultimately grounded.
2. The Sources of Practical Normativity Reconsidered – With Kant and Levinas, Inga Römer
Just as Steven Crowell showed that there is a “line of continuity” (Römer, 120) between the phenomenology of Heidegger of Being and Time and the philosophy of Kant, Inga Römer argues in this article that there exists such a line of continuity between Levinas’ phenomenology and the thought of Kant.
First of all, she shows how Levinas’ reading of Kant evolves, from a very critical one (until the 1960s) to a positive one, especially regarding the second Critique, from the 1970s. Thus Levinas starts to consider Kantian philosophy of pure practical reason as a “philosophy of the sense beyond being, a sense that is essentially ethical” (Römer, 123). At the same time, Levinas transforms Kant’s idea of pure practical reason by anchoring pure practical reason in the desire for the infinite, by grounding the autonomy of the self in the ethically signifying call of the Other and finally by reinterpreting Kant’s idea of pure practical reason as an anarchic reason. This anarchic reason involves a tension between the claim of the Other and the claim of the third, and thus a “pure disturbance, confusion, restlessness, and refusal of synthesis.” (Römer, 125)
Secondly, Römer considers in details and criticizes Korsgaard’s and Crowell’s arguments for grounding ethics in a first-personal perspective, by arguing that Levinas’ perspective is more convincing because “it is impossible to generate ethical rationality within myself … without falling into a sort of ethical self-conceit” (Römer, 132) which would make us unable to feel obliged towards the Other. Perhaps it would have been interesting to develop this concept of “self-conceit” since it is essential for the author’s argument.
Thirdly, Römer shows how Levinas’ thought is closer to the argument of the second Critique than to that of the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, because it is also based on the idea that ethical rationality, as a mere fact, institutes my autonomy. Levinas and the later Kant thus agree on one essential point: “it is impossible to generate ethical rationality by starting with my very own freedom and then extending it towards others” (Römer, 134). An important distinction remains however between these two thinkers, according to the author: contrary to Kant, ethical significance remains, following Levinas, threatened by nihilism, especially nowadays.
Steven Crowell answers to Römer’s critique by arguing that Levinas’s thought encounters the same problem as that of Heidegger, namely that the identity of the addresser of the call remains enigmatic and leads to metaphysics. On the contrary, the concept of categorial answerability for reasons, does not require metaphysics.
3. Resoluteness and Gratitude for the Good, Irene McMullin
In this article Irene McMullin’s aim is to understand deeper the original Heideggerian concept of resoluteness, which allows the agent to overcome Angst in order to act in a norm-responsive way. More precisely, she studies the affective dimension of resoluteness by studying what Heidegger calls “readiness for anxiety”. One of the main claims of this article is that this readiness is not a merely negative experience, because it implies also gratitude, which is “an essential affective component of resoluteness” (McMullin, 137).
First of all, McMullin nuances Heidegger’s idea according to which there are mainly two sources of normativity: the public conventions of the das Man and our private norms. She argues indeed that there is a third normativity source, which are second-person claims. She, then, insists on the importance of readiness for anxiety, which she interprets as a latent state of anxiety through which the Dasein takes into account the plural sources of normativity. This readiness is an affect and not a project, since the world matters to me through it. Finally the author insists on the dimension of joy which is essential for this readiness, since I experience gratitude when I consider the possibility of losing everything (for example a child), but which has not yet realized itself. We experience, thus, gratitude for the meaning of our life, because precisely we become conscious, through readiness for anxiety, of the contingency of this meaning. Thus, “gratitude is the orientation that responds to grace – meaning a manifestation of goodness over which we have no power, but to which we find ourselves gratefully indebted” (McMullin, 150). I remain however with one pending question: is it still possible to experience this gratitude when all meaning is lost, when we do not experience anymore the world as “overflowing with meanings that we do not create or control”? (ibid). Or is the absolute loss of meaning a necessary possibility following from the characterization of the meaning of our lives as being precisely contingent? Steven Crowell deduces from McMullin’s argument the interesting idea that “the phenomenological focus on meaning prior to reason does not lead to nihilism, then, but to fröhliche Wissenschaft” (Crowell, 342).
III. Normativity and Nature
This section investigates the relationship between phenomenology and naturalism, reinterpreted respectively as the relationship between the “space of meaning” and the “space of causes”, according to the expression used by Steven Crowell in his work Husserl, Heidegger, and the Space of Meaning: Paths toward Transcendental Phenomenology. All authors of this section aim to bridge the gap between the natural and the normative realm whether by showing that there is no essential distinction between human and nonhuman animal “selves”, by arguing for a “relaxed naturalism” or by showing that human intentionality can be understood as a natural phenomenon.
- On Being a Human Self, Mark Okrent
Mark Okrent investigates in this article what constitutes the human self. He first examines the classical answers to this question, from Descartes to Kant, by showing finally that Kantian answer is problematic for two reasons: it is not able to explain why a human agent could have a specific reason to act; it has a restricted view on rationality, reducing it to its deductive aspect. Korsgaard’s concept of “practical identity” can offer a response to the second problem. One of the essential dimensions of this practical identity is the overcoming of a passive dimension that we share with other nonhuman agents, i.e. the goal of self-maintenance. Thus, being a human agent entails overcoming the passive dimension that we share with nonhuman agents in order to become normative agents. However, according to Okrent, Korsgaard is not able to explain for which reasons one should adopt a certain practical identity.
Secondly, Okrent examines Heidegger’s idea according to which one does not represent oneself a certain practical identity in order to act according to it, since it could offer an answer to the problem mentioned above. However, this idea is unable, according to Okrent, to make clear how a certain identity is one’s own achievement. Crowell’s answer to this objection is that no practical identity is merely given to us, even when we are not in the mood of anxiety, but that we have on the contrary to strive constantly to achieve this identity. Thus, if animals respond instinctively to their identity, human beings inhabit an indefinite identity to whose norms they try to respond. However, as Okrent mentions it, recent animal studies have shown, that animal identities are not merely instinctive, but can evolve in function of environmental conditions.
Okrent attributes however another possible meaning to the concept of trying to achieve an identity which Crowell uses: it does not mean to “alter” it “in the direction of greater success”, but also to “justify” it with reasons (Okrent, 173). However, this interpretation is confronted with the aporia of the Wittgensteinian regress, which thus puts into question Crowell’s argument for the radical difference between human and animal identity as agents.
Steven Crowell responds to Okrent’s argument by arguing that it involves a deep pragmatic “reconstruction” of Heidegger’s text and that it would be thus more “elegant” to leave aside pragmatism (Crowell 344).
2. Normativity with a Human Face: Placing Intentional Norms and Intentional Agents Back in Nature, Glenda Satne and Bernardo Ainbinder
The aim of this article is to prolong McDowell’s attempt to replace norms in nature in order to avoid Sellar’s and Davidson’s separation of the space of causes from that of reasons, to which belongs, according to Sellar, intentionality. Crowell considers however that McDowell lacks the necessary phenomenological account of perception, in order to show that perception belongs to the space of norms, without being conceptual, and thus in order to achieve empiricism.
In order to achieve this project, Satne and Ainbinder argue that it is essential to place intentional agents in nature, even if Crowell denies the possibility of an account of rationality in natural terms. According to the authors, Husserlian genetic phenomenology can provide us with a method in order to describe this, because it can show how our normative capacities emerge from more basic capacities that we share with children and animals, and thus with other nature beings. They posit thus themselves against Crowell’s view according to which there is a radical gap between human intentionality, which is the proper intentionality and animal intentionality, or against Davidson’s view according to which we lack the proper vocabulary in order to describe the mental states of other animals. This is what allows them to give an evolutionary account for human intentionality.
In order to achieve this project, Satne and Ainbinder criticize what they call the uniformity thesis according to which intentionality is “the exclusive province of semantic content” (Satne & Ainbinder, 188). This requires showing how a phenomenological understanding of “life” allows to pluralize the “forms of life” and thus to pluralize intentionality. For this aim, the authors broaden the concept of nature so that it can include consciousness and so also intentionality. However, one question remains open: how is it possible, according to the authors‘ projects, to reunite intentionality with the realm of nature understood in its mere biological sense, and thus with the neurological part which could correspond to intentionality?
Steven Crowell presents an objection to the argument presented in this article by advancing that it presupposes the use of genetic phenomenology and thus “a construction that transcends the kind of Evidenz to which transcendental phenomenology is committed” (Crowell 346-347).
3. World-Articulating Animals, Joseph Rouse
The aim of this article is to reunite, against Crowell’s and Heidegger’s views, our biological animality with our intentionality and normative accountability. Both Crowell and Heidegger insist on the incommensurability between animal environment and the openness to the world of the Dasein which creates a radical difference between animals and human beings. That is why it is not possible according to Crowell to ground normativity nor intentionality on the basis of “organismic teleology” (Rouse, 206). What allows us to attribute intelligibility to other animal forms of life is precisely the “transcendentally constituted space of meaning and reasons” (ibid).
In order to reject this argument, Rouse is arguing for a non-dualistic conception of normativity and nature. He thus proposes an “ecological-developmental conception of biological normativity” (Rouse, 207). which accounts for the development of normativity through social practices inside of which human beings grow up and live. These practices presuppose the essential interdependence of human being’s actions that is based on a mutual accountability of human being’s performances. Their normativity reside in this accountability and not in specific norms which would govern these practices.
This normativity without norms of social practices constitutes the specificity of human normativity, because it is two-dimensional: “whereas other organisms develop and evolve in ways whose only measure is whether life and lineage continue, our discursively articulated practices and their encompassing way of life introduce tradeoffs between whether they continue and what they ‘are’” (Rouse, 210). A question remains however unanswered: on the basis of which arguments can we be so sure that our normativity presupposes a biological dimension which urges us to continue life and is thus two-dimensional? What allows us to argue that the evolutionary development of our normativity did not on the contrary suppress this dimension?
Crowell’s reply to Rouse’ criticism is that he does not take the dualism between nature and normativity in a metaphysical but only in a methodological sense, since phenomenology is metaphysically neutral. Further, Crowell’s argues that we are led to deduce from Rouse’ account the problematic idea that phenomenological categories are contingent.
IV. Attuned Agency
This section investigates the affective dimension of normativity. The first article challenges the view that we are not responsible for our moods, while the second one nuances from a phenomenological point of view the traditional description of akrasia and its relationship to conscience. Finally, the third article investigates how normativity is intricate in the experience of erotic love.
- Moods as active, Joseph K. Schear
The aim of this article is to challenge the idea that moods are a mere expression of our passivity, by arguing that they are on the contrary “an expression of agency for which we are answerable” (Schear, 217). Here, Schear criticizes the classical interpretation of Heidegger’s concept of Befindlichkeit (as that of Dreyfus or Mulhall for example) as manifesting the “passive” dimension of our being-in-the world.
The objective of Schear is radical, since he does not simply try to show that we can act on our moods, but that the fact in itself of being in a mood is already an expression of our agency, and thus of our responsibility. First of all, the author elucidates the concept of being active as “being responsive to reasons” (Schear, 222). The fact that we can ask someone why he is in a certain mood displays already a piece of evidence for the fact that moods are active. We are thus expecting answerability for our moods.
The author distinguishes this answerability from moral responsibility. Answerability means here rather the possible “demand for intelligibility” (Schear, 225). Finally, this demand for intelligibility is not a demand for rationality, since what is at stake, is not asking for a reason which justifies the mood, but for “an account that makes manifest, that expresses, the shape or tenor of one’s situation as it shows from one’s perspective” (Schear, 228).
The author seems however to presuppose that someone has enough self-knowledge in order to answer this demand for intelligibility. However, it can happen that someone does not know oneself why he/she feels in a special mood (this can be the case for example when someone suffers from depression or anxiety) or that he /she does not understand rightly what makes him /her feel in a special mood. I can thus think that I am anxious because of my work whereas what makes me actually anxious is a certain heavy perfume I wear. Consequently, this understanding would not be immediately obvious to me, but would require an exercise of critical self-reflection.
2. Against our Better Judgment, Matthew Burch
The scope of this article is to show that what is usually called akrasia, meaning the fact of acting against our own judgment, regroups actually two distinct phenomena that Burch describes from a phenomenological point of view. He thus defines the first phenomenon as “intention-shift: action taken freely and intentionally against my explicit plan (or future intention) and with a clear conscience” (Burch, 233) and the second phenomenon as akrasia in its proper sense, or more precisely: “action taken freely and intentionally against my explicit plan (or future intention) and accompanied by some self-critical emotion (e.g. guilt, shame, self-directed anger) or a mixture of such emotions” (ibid). The fundamental difference between these two phenomena lies in the negative, self-critical feeling that accompanies the second phenomena. Remarkably, both phenomena presuppose the free and intentional action, against the classical understanding of akrasia, which interprets it as a “conflict between rational judgment and irrational desire” (Burch 240). Burch shows on the contrary that what is at stake is a conflict between two interests, that he understands as being self-reflexive and normative. This conflict is understood by the author as a shift from a specific interest to another one, due to “affective and circumstantial changes” (Burch 242). According to the author, our interests are self-reflexive, because they concern ourselves. In the case of the intention-shift there is no betrayal of ourselves but only of our “prior plan” (Burch, 243) contrary to the akrasia in its proper sense. Thus, in this second case, shifting to another interest means also betraying another interest (e.g. being faithful to my partner), and thus betraying myself.
The author seems to presuppose that in the case of akrasia there is an asymmetry between two interests, which presupposes that satisfying one interest can lead to a feeling of self-betrayal (e.g. when I cheat on my partner), while this is not the case for the another interest (e.g. meeting other erotic partners than my wife/husband). Could we however think that this second type of interest can also lead to a feeling of self-betrayal when it is not satisfied?
3. Everyday Eros: Toward a Phenomenology of Erotic Inception, Jack Marsh
This article focuses on the phenomenological account of the earliest stage of erotic experience, that Marsh calls erotic inception. The author distinguishes several moments inside of erotic inception. The first moment is what he calls the standing-out-among, when the other catches suddenly our eye through a particular detail. The second moment is the stepping-out-from, when I step out toward this other who caught my eye. Through this second moment the other as potential erotic partner steps into my world. According to the author, this second moment is a modification of the Heideggerian concept of “world-entry” (Welteingang).
The author deepens then the understanding of this concept as applied to erotic inception, by deepening its Heideggerian description as upswing (Überschwingende). Marsh characterizes this upswing as an “ ‘oscillation’ between my possibilities and my facticity, my abilities and limits, my possible futures and actual past” (Marsh 260) and thus as an “excess of possibility” (ibid) or as “an expansive opening upon the world that is empowering and enriching” (Marsh, 261). This expansive opening upon the world leads finally to a world-modification that characterizes the unfolding couple. However, the excess of possibilities that characterize erotic inception contains also the possibility of its own demise, or as the author puts it, of the “We-death” (Marsh, 264).
One question remains however open for me: what place does the author attribute to normativity inside the erotic inception? Could we thus say that the experience of erotic inception is characterized by certain norms, like for example the norm of what it is to be an erotic partner, and that each of us can be called to transform these norms through one’s own experience?
V. Epistemic Normativity
This final section investigates the specific modality of normativity involved in our epistemic practices. The first article challenges the view itself that normativity is involved in knowledge acquisition, while the second article analyzes how norms are intricate in our perceptual experience. Finally, the last article investigates the link between the natural and the transcendental attitude from a phenomenological point of view.
- Normativity and Knowledge, Walter Hopp
In this article Walter Hopp deepens Crowell’s view according to which intentionality can be exercised only inside of a “context of practices” (Hopp, 271). Thus, “the world is not the intentional correlate of a transcendental ego, but the environment of the embodied and socialized human person” (ibid). Hopp argues that this idea could have two possible interpretations: either intentionality can be carried out only by persons who act conform to a context of practices and thus of norms, or intentionality is constitutively normative. Hopp is arguing for the first interpretation, by advancing that if intentionality were constitutively normative, then this would be the case for knowledge as well. He aims to show in this article that knowledge is not precisely constitutively normative, and so nor intentionality.
Hopp’s argument is based on Husserl’s theory of normative science from the Logical Investigations. A normative science according to Husserl is always based on one or several non-normative, theoretical sciences, like for instance medicine that is based on biology, chemistry, etc. Consequently, sciences that do no rest on other non-normative disciplines, like for example logic, cannot be normative. Non-normative scientific propositions can however endorse the role of norms, without being normative in their content. Hopp applies this argument to epistemology, by showing that its content does not indicate what we ought to believe but what can be hold as being true; or, truth can endorse the role of a norm but is not normative by its content. Here, Hopp specifies Crowell’s characterization of truth as a “normative notion” (Crowell 2013, 239) which is, according to him, ambiguous. The author is thus arguing clearly for a clear distinction between ethics and epistemology against Terence Cuneo for example.
Nevertheless, Husserl defines noetics as the “theory of norms of knowledge” (Husserl 2008, 132) whereas evidence as self-givenness is characterized by him as the “ultimate norm … that lends sense to knowledge” (Husserl 1999, 45). Here however Hopp uses Husserl’s own criterion of normative science by asking on which non-normative discipline Husserl’s most fundamental concepts of his epistemology, i.e. truth and evidence do rest, in order to show that these concepts do not have normative content. This allows Hopp to define epistemology as an ideal science in the Husserlian sense.
Steven Crowell agrees with Hopp’s argument, but he points to the fact Husserl’s analysis of truth cannot be reduced to the Logical Investigations, which are essential for Hopp’s argument. According to Crowell, there is however a sense of normativity in Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology which “eludes Husserl’s distinction between normative and theoretical disciplines” (Crowell, 332) because transcendental phenomenology is not considered as an explanatory theory but as a method of clarification.
2. Appearance, Judgment, and Norms, Charles Siewert
The aim of this paper is to argue, by using the phenomenological approach, that our perceptual experiences are “subject to norms of its own” (Siewert 290). In order to show this, Siewert starts by analyzing the case of visual agnosia, by arguing that it does not involve a deficit of visual appearance but rather of capacity of recognition. Visual appearance is thus conceptually distinct from visual recognition, or recognitional appearance, which is on its turn distinct from judgment. Indeed, I can withhold judgment when I recognize two persons as looking the same, i.e. when I recognize that they look alike but in two different tokens. Visual recognitions “take thing as” (Siewert, 299) whereas judgments “represent things to be” (ibid). Contrary to Travis, Siewert does distinguish however altogether visual experience from accuracy, and thus does not attribute accuracy exclusively to judgment. Thus, I can accurately recognize a sign as an arrow, while it actually represents an alligator. In this case I made a “creative use of the appearance” (Siewert, 301). Siewert draws here a parallel with the Kantian scheme, since just as the scheme makes both theoretical judgment and aesthetic imagination possible, the recognitional appearance can support both a judgment and a creative use.
On the basis of this distinction between visual recognitional experience and judging experience, the author argues that these two types of experiences are governed by two different kinds of normativity. He agrees on this point with Susanna Siegel, but not on the specific form of normativity that characterizes visual recognition. Indeed, Siewert identifies visual recognition with a “looking-as-act” (Siewert, 303) which he understands as the active experience of looking, contrary to the “looking-as-appearance”, and which thus can be done well or badly, or which can be improved. Perceptual experiences can be thus subject to normative assessment because visual recognitions can be an activity.
3. Husserl’s and Heidegger’s Transcendental Projects, Dermot Moran
In this article Dermot Moran aims at understanding the meaning of phenomenology as transcendental philosophy. Inspired by Merleau-Ponty’s essay “The Philosopher and His Shadow”, he investigates how the transcendental and the natural attitude are intertwined and how the idea of such an intertwining relates to Husserl’s and Heidegger’s phenomenology.
Based on a very detailed studied of Husserl’s and Heidegger’s texts, Moran shows first how Husserl’s view on the natural and transcendental attitude evolves from the Ideas I until the Crisis, as well as how Heidegger criticizes the Husserlian concept of natural attitude, which according to him is a comportment (Verhalten) and not an attitude as such. At the same time, the author points to ambiguous points in Husserl’s thought, like the relationship between the natural attitude and naturalism, which leads to the reification of the world. Despite this ambiguity, Husserl is clear on the distinction between transcendental and natural attitude, which is relative to the first attitude as the only absolute attitude, because of its “self-awareness and self-grounding character” (Moran, 313). One can become aware of the natural attitude as such only through a “shift in the ego’s mode of inspectio sui” (Moran, 314) which is the transcendental reduction though which we can adopt the transcendental attitude. Thus one of the key roles of transcendental phenomenology is that of allowing us “to investigate attitudes” (ibid) such as the theoretical attitude which masks the original position of the transcendental subject.
Moran further reflects on the meaning of transcendental phenomenology with the aid of Merleau-Ponty’s reading of Husserl’s texts according to which the natural and the transcendental attitudes are deeply intertwined. This reading could explain why Husserl calls in the § 49 of the Ideas II the transcendental attitude as being natural.
Merleau-Ponty finds such an intertwining in Husserl’s idea of a passive pregiveness of the world which underlies all intentional acts and which is not the object of act intentionality but of what Husserl calls in Formal and Transcendental Logic fungierende Intentionalität and that Merleau-Ponty translates in the Phenomenology of Perception as operative intentionality (intentionnalité opérante), a concept which is equivalent according to Merleau-Ponty with the Heideggerian concept of transcendence.
Moran identifies this operative intentionality with what Husserl calls, also in § 94 of Formal and Transcendental Logic living intentionality. He further reflects on this concept of living intentionality, by arguing, based on a thorough study of Husserl’s texts, that the task of transcendental phenomenology is to aim towards a living not in the world but within the life of consciousness, which Moran interprets, following Husserl’s expression in Formal and Transcendental Logic as the realm of our internality (Innerlichkeit), a concept for which Moran discerns a Heideggerian resonance. Only transcendental reduction, and the transcendental attitude it leads to, can give us access to this internality, and not the natural reflection that is proper to the natural attitude. Thus, “the aim of transcendental phenomenology” is “to uncover this life of functioning consciousness underlying the natural attitude” (Crowell, 320).
In conclusion, this book allows us to have a renewed reading of one of the main problems of phenomenology, i.e. the problem of meaning. Particularly, the problem of meaning is treated in the light of the question of normativity. At the same time it links in multiple ways the phenomenological question of meaning with various contemporary compelling questions like that of naturalism. This makes this book particularly interesting. Yet, the question of meaning is unfortunately not always on the foreground, leaving sometimes the task of making the explicit link between the problem of meaning and the content of the articles to the reader. Perhaps however it is a mere consequence of the richness of its various perspectives on this topic.
Crowell, Steven. 2002. “Authentic Thinking and Phenomenological Method.” In: The New Yearbook for Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy 2: 23-37
Crowell, Steven. 2013. Normativity and Phenomenology in Husserl and Heidegger. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Cuneo, Terence. 2007. The Normative Web. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Fink, Eugen. 1981. “The Problem of the Phenomenology of Edmund Husserl.” Translated by R.M. Harlan. In: Apriori and World: European Contributions to Husserlian Phenomenology, edited by W. McKenna, R.M. Harlan, and L.E. Winters, 21-55. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.
Husserl, Edmund. 1950. Cartesianische Meditationen und Pariser Vorträge. Edited by S. Strasser, Husserliana 1. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.
Husserl, Edmund. 2008. Introduction to Logic and Theory of Knowledge: Lectures 1906/07. Translated by Claire Ortiz Hill. Dordrecht: Springer.
Husserl, Edmund. 1999. The Idea of Phenomenology. Translated by Lee Hardy. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
 Steven Crowell, 2002.
 See Christine Korsgaard, The Sources of Normativity, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996 and also Christine Korsgaard, Creating the Kingdom of Ends, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
 Cuneo 2007. Cuneo is arguing that just as there are no “moral facts”, there are no “epistemic facts” either. (113)
In Meaning and Intentionality: A Dialogical Approach, Mohammad Shafiei’s project is to develop a theory of meaning. The book is divided in four chapters preceded by an introduction and followed by a conclusion. Already in the introduction, the author makes it clear that he will propose a theory of meaning methodologically grounded in the transcendental phenomenology of Edmund Husserl. According to Shafiei, any theory of meaning should deal with the meaning of logical constants and thus one of the main objectives of this work is to use the transcendental method to explain the constitution of these logical ‘entities’ (180).
In the first chapter, “The Possibility of Inner Dialogue and its Primordiality,” Shafiei sets himself the task of arguing that an inner language is possible. By inner language “we mean a language which can be originated in solitude, i.e. by a person considered in isolation, thus this language is ‘inner’ because it is not originally created for external uses, namely uses in community” (9). Initially, this might appear surprising as to why the author would start exploring the possibility of inner dialogue. Yet, “if we can demonstrate that inner dialogue is primordial in a way that it can be accomplished without any prior dependence on outer dialogue it means that the outer, concrete language, i.e. the ordinary language, is not a necessary condition for the possessing concepts and performing intellectual activity” (8). And, to take it further, this would mean that we could investigate the a priori or eidetic structures through which a person, as transcendental intentionality, constitutes their meanings.
As one could expect from a point of view of the history of philosophy, the author starts with exploring Wittgenstein’s so-called private language argument. Shafiei provides a long analysis of the argument based on the mainstream reading of Wittgenstein according to which there can be no possibility of private language. Shafiei’s task is to prove otherwise. This task starts in the section entitled “Husserl’s Acceptance of Genuineness of Inner Dialogue” (27). Although “Husserl has not dealt with the subject of inner dialogue and its probable importance in full details,” Shafiei attempts to pull out textual evidence to justify that we can infer from Husserl’s writings that such inner language is possible – or that “the possibility of inner dialogue is taken for granted” by Husserl (28). This attempt starts by citing Derrida who “equates the possibility of phenomenological reduction with the possibility of interior monologue” (28) and then tries to show how Husserl’s concept of expression as acts which produce meaning relates to various uncommunicative acts which could reveal the possibility of inner dialogue. In this chapter, Shafiei provides an extensive analysis of different ways that ‘meaning’ has been (philosophically) approached. This analysis allows him to advance an interesting conceptual distinction between ‘indication,’ ‘sense,’ and ‘meaning.’ When it comes to ‘sense’ Shafiei proposes to use of the term for meaning “in the sense relating to real or possible phenomena” (40). ‘Sense’ is related to reference and indication which is different from expression as the primitive act of meaning. Moreover, “indication depends, at least on its origin, on communicative interactions” (53). Meaning thus becomes “the correspondent product of a primordial act of expression” (69) whose “archetype” (88) is the capacity of “inner dialogue” which is wordless (ibid.) and which makes the phenomenon of private language possible.
Chapter Two, “Meaning and the Unintuitive,” provides a discussion concerning expressions – in the phenomenological sense as meaning-making, intentional acts – and attempts to show which of these expressions are primordial and which are not.. In this chapter, Shafiei provides a thorough analysis of the differences between signitive intention, categorial, and aesthetic synthesis (128). Meaning can be constituted through signitive intentions (96) which are not directly related to immediate sensibility (aesthesis) or what in classical phenomenology is called givenness or intuition. Such “unintuitive thought” (162) allows Shafiei to extend Husserl’s thought and show how Husserl, while not having set for himself “the task of providing a phenomenologically acceptable logical system does not mean that we would accept the science of logic as it is given” (177). And this science of logic is to be linked with the primordiality of expression at the transcendental level.
Having explored how there can be a genuine private language of a transcendental constituting intentionality, and having shown how this intentionality has a dialogic structure, Shafiei moves on to introduce dialogical logic “in the line of the phenomenological method in order to reach a comprehensive framework for logic and to explain the meaning of logical entities as well” (180). This takes place in Chapter Three, entitled “Phenomenology and Dialogical Semantics.” The chapter begins with an attack on Stephen Strasser’s interpretation of Husserl in The Idea of Dialogal Phenomenology. Shafiei is not content with the revision of phenomenology proposed by Strasser as it is deemed to be based on “psychologism and naturalism” (191). Following this attack there is a short introduction on dialogical semantics and an analysis on the meaning of logical connectives (207). The remainder of the chapter constitutes an attack on Dummett’s intuitionism and the verification theory of truth. While the author agrees that intuitionist logic can take us closer to pure logic than classical logic does, he finds Dummett’s pragmatism wanting because for Dummett “it is not the speaker who makes a relation between a sign and a meaning” (230) – “for Husserl this is [sic] the speaker who makes such a relation – of course in an original manner” (ibid.).
Finally, in Chapter Four (“Dialogical Apophantics: Formal Analyses”), Shafiei engages in an extensive exploration of the meaning of logical operators and functions. The chapter features an interesting discussion on negation, which distinguishes between weak and strong negation and by exploring their relation with absurdity. Strong negation “occurs in a judgment asserting that p is objectively rejected” and the weak negation “occurs in a judgment asserting that there is no evidence for p” (261). Consistent with the overall proposed outlook of the book, Shafiei attempts to show which type of negation is primordial. By such an analysis, Shafiei provides the ground to move into a more technical analysis of “the phenomenological explanation of some logical connectives” (326). Such an explanation allows the tools of logic to be explained through the phenomenological account of intentionality and thus link them to the possibility of private language as the structures of a transcendental intersubjective expression.
Despite the author’s erudite knowledge of Husserlian texts, there are couple of issues with respect to the way he approaches them. The way that Shafiei grounds his theory of meaning on transcendental phenomenology makes it somewhat difficult to assess. One can accept Shafiei’s reading of the Husserlian texts and engage directly with the validity of his theory of meaning; or, one can engage with his hermeneutic approach and then draw implications to his derived theory. Essentially, one can assess whether his theory of meaning is indeed grounded in Husserlian phenomenology or whether the theory of meaning itself has merit despite its hermeneutic evaluation. For this review, I shall highlight a couple of hermeneutical points. Since Shafiei’s interpretation of Husserl’s phenomenology comes to be the ground of/for (t)his theory of meaning then such choice is warranted.
Shafiei reads Husserl as if he is a proponent of transcendental intentionality and subjectivity throughout his work. To what extent is this accurate, or better yet, to what extent does such a reading do justice to Husserl’s entire body of work? To use another phenomenological sense of ‘indication’ which Shafiei does not take into account, there is no indication or appreciation of the fact of the different ways that Husserl approached the issue of transcendental subjectivity. In the Logical Investigations Husserl makes it clear that the subject is constituted in reflection, while subjectivity is not something in particular but consciousness as (a) transcendental field. Consciousness, in these investigations, is an undifferentiated stream whereas the ‘ego’ or ‘I’ is constituted when an act-experience is put in relief – or to use Husserl’s term ‘naturalized’. The ego in the Logical Investigations is a transcendent (intended) object, not something transcendental. A similar approach is indicated in Experience and Judgment where identity does not exist in itself but progressively determined. Just like anything else, any kind of object or object substrate on which ‘logic’ is grounded is temporal.
Issues of temporality appear in Husserl as early as in the Logical Investigations (1900-1). However, in Shafiei’s reading of Husserl there is no discussion about temporality at all. Neither is there any discussion on protention and retention and how these could relate to ‘pure logic’ or the possibility of a private language. Now, this is of crucial importance especially because these structures are related with the issues of apprehension, constitution, institution and intuitive fulfillment. The issue of primal constituting in Husserl – i.e genesis – is of vital importance. Are there primordial ‘objects’ given or are they (always) constructed? Shafiei passes over in silence all the discussions of givenness, schematization, analogizing apprehension, motivation, repetition and signitive fulfillment on the grounds that “it is not the theme of Experience and Judgment” (138). Shafiei takes this work as bedrock for his project of a Husserlian inspired theory of meaning yet all these concepts are extensively investigated in this work and Shafiei negates them altogether.
Another worry is that this theory of meaning would require the a lot of charity to be stamped as authentically inspired by classical phenomenology. In Husserl’s terms such theory which takes logic primordial grounded in expression without any kind of bodily involvement in this expression would, in Husserl’s terms from Experience and Judgment be a manifestation of the “irreality of objectivities of understading.” If anything, Husserl reinstated, that is, brought back our attention to the philosophical importance of the body and its horizons. The body is utterly absent from Shafiei’s theory of meaning. Can a theory of meaning be phenomenological without the body? While it is interesting to see developments in logic inspired by Husserl, one should be careful about what kind of logos Husserl is talking about. Logos for Husserl is not only intended as logic in the modern sense. For instance, Shafiei claims that the meaning of numbers like “1 and 2 are able to be grasped by the intuition” (100) and that they have an immediate fulfillment. This cannot be an authentic Husserlian idea. In the Ideas Husserl wonders whether it would be possible that the world be given itself arithmetically if we had not learnt to count it, that is constitute it, in (particular) numbers. He also problematizes whether the principle of non-contradiction should be placed under the epoche. None of this is mentioned in Shafiei’s logical analyses. Certainly, ascribing a thought of immediate fulfillment of ‘logical’ constitutions to Husserl cannot not be controversial. To give only an example, the origin of negation in Experience and Judgment is traced by Husserl to the passivity of receiving sensuous content. The heterogeneity of the given marks the primitive limit, the genetic moment of negation and not a moment of expression.
Another worry derives from the perspective of the history of philosophy. Shafiei accepts the mainstream analytic reading of Wittgenstein’s private language argument, according to which Wittgenstein is trying to show us that a private language must be impossible. This is a transcendental reading – that private language must be impossible. But one could read these investigations differently. Later Wittgenstein does not make an argument but explores the extent to which a private language is possible. We can read his writing as an invitation to think how could such a private language be possible. In one way this is Shafiei’s own project minus the transcendental necessary universalization. Derrida’s analysis of Artaud’s theater of cruelty is exploring this possibility of private language. An authentic expression of a language-less transcendental subjectivity would not be some kind of reasoning or logic but pure emotional expressions, discharges of feeling as Nietzsche would have it. Similarly, for Lévinas, a self-contained hypostasis (self) which does not have an opening to an other hypostasis (other) does not give full support to his argument as Shafiei thinks (58). Lévinas talks about the ‘dialogue’ of oneself as another in terms of contentment, that is feeling, not in terms of expression.
Overall, Shafie’s attempt to provide a ‘theory’ of meaning grounded in the Husserlian phenomenology can provide a lot of insights to those who take phenomenology cognitively or logically in the modern sense of the term. There are several inspiring points of discussion in his technical rendering, or constitution in the phenomenological sense, of Husserlian ideas. However, the contribution of this attempt to more recent phenomenological discussions which appreciate the importance of the body in the constitution of meaning is minimal.
Caputo, John D. 1999. God, the Gift, and Postmodernism. Indiana: Indiana University Press.
Derrida, Jacques. 1967. Writing and Difference. London: Routledge, 1967.
Hanfling, Oswald. 2002. Wittgenstein and the Human Form of Life. London: Routledge.
Husserl, Edmund. 1948. Experience and Judgment. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Lévinas, Emmanuel. 1987. Time and The Other [and additional essays]. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1993. Being and Nothingness. Reprint First Edition. Washington: Washington Square Press.
—. 1988. The Transcendence of the Ego: A Sketch for a Phenomenological Description. London: Routledge.
Steinbock, Anthony J. 1998. „Husserl’s static and genetic phenomenology: Translator’s Introduction to Two Essays.“ Continental Philosophy Review, Volume 31, Issue 2, 127–134.
Welton, Donn. 1999. „Soft, Smooth, Hands: Husserl’s Phenomenology of the Lived-Body.“ In Welton, Donn. The Body. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 38-56.
 Cf. Sartre’s analyses (1988); (1993) and Marion’s avowal in Caputo (1999).
 Cf. Derrida (1967) and Steinbock (1998).
 Cf. Husserl (1948 253-270).
 Cf. Leder (1990) and Welton (1999).
 Cf. Derrida (1967) and Hanfling (2002).
 Cf. Lévinas (1987).
Disruption and Remembrance in Arendt’s Theory of Political Action
Trevor Tchir’s monograph, “Hannah Arendt’s Theory of Political Action”, covers a wide spectrum of Arendt’s works in providing a framework for her theory of political action. Tchir draws upon a range of thinkers, such as Heidegger, Kant, Augustine and Montesquieu, who influenced aspects of Arendt’s theory, and upon those thinkers whom Arendt explicitly criticized, such as Marx, to demonstrate how she both breaks with the tradition of western political thought and recollects and revises some of the concepts within that tradition in order to re-conceptualize “political action” in the modern age of secular politics. Thus, Tchir also highlights how Arendt transforms and revises aspects of others’ philosophies, in significant ways, when she does borrow from them. Moreover, his inclusion of commentary and criticisms of Arendt’s approach to political action by numerous contemporary thinkers helps him to illuminate the tensions within Arendt’s thought and to delineate his own thesis and argument. However, much of his book is devoted to an exegesis and interpretation of Arendt’s diverse works in respect to her theory of political action, as she encounters the Western tradition of political thought in general, and the aforementioned thinkers in particular. Although he slowly integrates his own voice into his interpretation, it isn’t until the final chapter of the book that he fully draws out how the tensions within Arendt’s thought are fruitful for contemporary politics.
Although Tchir’s book is very comprehensive in its approach to Arendt’s theory of political action, much of the territory he covers has been traversed by other commentators, especially as regards Arendt’s conceptual distinctions between the public and the private sphere, and the political and social/economic spheres. His own primary contribution to the extensive literature on Arendt is his discussion, in chapter 3, of the importance of the metaphor of the “daimon”, as introduced in The Human Condition in respect to the political actor, as she individuates herself through speech and action in the public sphere of a plurality of spectators. (89) The metaphor of the “daimon” is used by Arendt to indicate how the political actor does not have a self transparent to herself, but, whose self can only be “known” through the diverse judgments and narratives of the plurality of spectators to her actions, as if the “daimon” sat on her shoulder concealed from her view but visible to all those who witness her. Tchir also contends that that this metaphor of the daimon gestures towards a divine or transcendent origin of the capacity of humans to act and think (and, thereby, judge the actions of the actor that appear in the political sphere). The daimon, as a mediator between men and gods, expresses that the origins of these human capacities are ultimately unknowable. In this way, Arendt encounters the residual language of transcendence in modern political thought. Within the context of modern revolutions, such as the French Revolution and American Revolution, there was an overturning of traditional authority of religion within the realm of politics, but the language of rights often retained an appeal to transcendent sources of these “natural” rights of mankind. (12) Thus, there is a tension within Arendt’s own thought on the relationship of the secular and the religious within modern politics, and within political theory generally in the modern era.
This also opens the question as to whether or not there are any “foundations” to political theory in the modern age. However, this enables Arendt to introduce a conception of freedom suitable to an age without such religious, metaphysical, or natural foundations – one that is self-grounding within a political space of appearances (rather than grounded in an invisible sphere of divine or metaphysical laws). Her notion of freedom is one that is not based on a notion of the will that masters itself or directs its actions from pre-determined principles, whether metaphysical or religious or based on reason or nature, nor is it grounded in a notion of political sovereignty, where a ruler crafts laws which subjects obey. It is this western political tradition of freedom that lies in sovereignty and rule, one that promotes relationships of domination and an illusory control over what the subjects can do and their environment, that she is disrupting, while retrieving a freedom that arises from isonomia, that is, the agonistic politics that occurs in a sphere of formal equality, as practiced in ancient Greece. (135) The disclosure of the unique, daimonic “who” is the disclosure of a non-sovereign self.
However, Tchir also shows how the metaphor of the “daimon” has existential import for human dignity and the “meaning” of existence for humans in a world of uncertainty and contingency, rather than in a world where moral or religious absolutes, whether based on revelation or reason, could guide our political actions and insure mastery. (32) This existential impact demonstrates why the realm of political action is so centrally important to human existence for Hannah Arendt, and it is why she sometimes characterizes the “political world” as also a “spiritual world”. (79) It would seem to me that this latter characterization would make the divine element in human existence immanent rather than transcendent, and would point to a fundamental mystery at the core of human existence which amplifies its uncertainty and makes complete unconcealment of origins impossible.(84) Nonetheless, Tchir argues by the end of his book that Arendt would not exclude religion from the public sphere, and this is important to understanding the conduct of politics in today’s world. At the same time, he makes the point that uncertainty plays a central role in Arendt’s re-conceptualization of political action, as the success of any political actions remain uncertain and their effects remain unpredictable in an agonistic political world of plurality of actors and spectators with conflicting wills and cross-purposes. (25) Thus, Arendt has an understanding of both politics and existence as based in a fragility of a common political world shared by a plurality of actors and spectators, and a vulnerability of humans in the face of their “passive givenness” and in their attempts to actualize their historically situated possibilities from that givenness through action. (32) Although she dispenses with a concept of “human nature” as the basis of the political, she does not argue that political action can fundamentally change our givenness so much as actively disclose our individuality, which exceeds this givenness. This actualization of our individuality remains opaque to each of us, as individual actors. However, through political action, we can assert our human dignity as we confront this givenness as well as when we encounter the contingencies of our historical situations.
Action itself, as characterized by natality, is the source of freedom, which is the other major focus of Tchir’s exegesis. If one of the ontological conditions of the political space of appearances is that of plurality, the other one is that of natality, as a spontaneous beginning, and the capacity to initiate or give birth to something new and unprecedented into a world that is otherwise characterized by natural or historical processes, chains of causes and effects, and normalizing routines. Arendt’s conception of natality is borrowed from the Christian tradition of miracles, as that which interrupts natural processes, especially as found in Augustine’s works. (24) This is how action is differentiated from behavior and from being simply another cause in a chain of causes and effects, although action has unpredictable and uncontrollable ramifications by setting off many chains of causes and effects in unprecedented ways. Through natality, new aspects of the shared world of appearances are themselves disclosed, along with the disclosure of the unique “who” of the actors. Thus, individuality is dependent upon the witnessing of others, and political freedom is relational. This is a realm that discloses “meaning” rather than “truth”, although Arendt will complicate this picture by insisting that spectators enlarge their mentality so that their interpretations deal with “facticity” rather than with inaccurate distortions of what happened. (173) However, one of Arendt’s presumptions appears to be that people want or seek such meaning in their lives, and not solely the accomplishment of goals, social or otherwise. This is another way in which the political realm is also a spiritual realm.
Although plurality is also a condition of the public sphere, individuation occurs within that public sphere as actors perform in front of spectators who are characterized by both their equality and distinction. (23) The shared world is not one of a common vision of the good shared by a predetermined community, as in communitarianism, (5) but one of a material world of cultural artifacts, which themselves are subject to interpretation by participants in that world, and the “web of interrelationships” that occurs in that world. “Distinction” is presupposed in the plurality of participants, while “equality” is a formal feature of the public sphere where all participants’ perspectives play a role, rather than one of material equality.
Fundamental to the possibility of individuation is Arendt’s distinction between the “existential who” and the “constative what” (4, 85). The “who” that is disclosed in the public sphere is not simply a collection of character traits and talents or of a pre-established identity, such as that of socioeconomic status, gender or race, which could be generally applied to similarly situated others, all of which would be an aspect of the person’s “whatness”. The “who” is disclosed through the performance of her acts and the virtuosity of her deeds in the political space of appearances and is not “made” as a product of a craft. The “who” transcends the “what”. However, the “meaning” of her acts is disclosed in the narratives, stories, and histories composed by spectators who judge her acts, and which show how these acts, in disclosing the principles that inspired them, serve as “valid examples” for future action within that community. (31) Tchir proposes that this plurality is not only a plurality of “opinions” (or doxa), although it is especially that, but also a plurality of “whats” that insert themselves into this public sphere wherein they can renegotiate their identities as “whats” through their individuating actions and judgments of actions. (6) In this manner, pluralities are not a diversity of predetermined “whats” along ethnic, racial, gender, economic or social lines, but the latter are not so much excluded from the public sphere as augmented and revised within that sphere. As Tchir will argue in chapter 6 of the book, it is important that spectators do not surrender their individual judgments of actions to the prejudices and “whats” of others, even though they should be taking into consideration all the diverse perspectives of those who are physically present in the public sphere, as well as the perspectives of past historical actors within that sphere. Thus, there is a nuanced attempt to make room for the entry of the whatness of participants into this sphere, without subordinating that sphere to their “whatness” or to what has been loosely called “identity politics” (my term, and not the author’s).
This public realm and its freedom are fragile because they can only be sustained by the renewal of actions and judgments within the sphere. The space of appearances has no institutional infrastructure that can guarantee its presence, although Arendt does comment on structures that may encourage or facilitate such a sphere, such as a legal framework that makes such free exchange of “opinions” possible. She proposes a “council system” in On Revolution. (28) She also comments upon those structures that tend to interfere with such a free exchange of “opinion”, such as parties and some schemes of political representation. Because Tchir’s thesis is focused on the existential implications of Arendt’s theory of political action, he tends to omit detailed discussion of alternative structures of governance implied by her theory, although he does make observations about potential deliberative spaces for global actors in his concluding chapter, and explains why Arendt proposed federalism rather than a world government as a means to insure a “right to have rights” in chapter 5.
Although this book is devoted to the disclosure of the “existential and unique who” in political action, it also attempts to characterize and clarify what constitutes political action, a subject of great controversy in the literature on Arendt. Political action is a performance that invokes inspiring principles, examples of which might include “honor, glory, equality, and excellence, but also hatred, fear, and distrust” (29). Through these examples of inspiring principles, it becomes evident that some principles might sustain freedom within the public sphere better than others. Along these lines, Arendt will suggest that the principle of “rectifying social inequality” will most likely destroy the public sphere, as she contends happened when the “impoverished Sans-Culottes entered the scene of the French Revolution. (152) When this principle inspires actions in the public sphere it tends to destroy the plurality of perspectives and opinions, and obliterate individuality through single-mindedness of an instrumental goal, and, it is here that we can see a tension between the who and what in the plurality of the public sphere. Despite Tchir’s own argument, Arendt seems to favor the plurality of opinions, which she does not treat as confined to socioeconomic factors or status. (136) I will reserve further discussion of Arendt’s view of the social and its relationship to the political to later in this review.
Actions thereby spring from principles, as understood by Montesquieu, but also may “exemplify” and “sustain a principle” (30). Although such principles are “too general to prescribe specific courses of action”, they are “greater and longer lasting than immediate ends”, thereby contributing to the continuity of the shared public world. (31) However, these principles are not transcendent metaphysical principles or determined by reason prior to action. They are exhibited in the actions themselves, and, thus, they too must be repeated in narratives to inspire future actions, and in those future actions themselves, in order to sustain their role in the public space. In this manner, political action is for the sake of itself – that is, for the sake of maintaining a sphere of plurality in which action can continue to occur, and for the sake of its inspiring principles. (26) Political action contains its own end, rather than occurring “in order” to achieve instrumental goals. (30) Some critics find this approach to political action empty, a criticism to which Tchir responds in chapters 5 and 6, and which I will address later in this review. However, his discussion of inspiring principles is one of the most interesting parts of his book, and one which he revisits in later chapters in responding to criticisms of the emptiness of the public sphere – what does anyone talk about there? – and to criticisms of the formal but not material equality of that sphere, which could influence who is included or excluded from that sphere and the communication that occurs within that sphere.
My above discussion of the “daimon” metaphor and its existential impact, as well as my discussion of freedom, plurality, natality, and the political space of appearances, are drawn primarily from the first three chapters of Tchir’s book, although, as I indicate above, I anticipate where Tchir is going in the rest of his book. Thereafter the book is organized by chapters on Arendt’s encounters and interactions with the thought of other philosophers within the Western tradition. The rest of my review will briefly survey some of the main points made in each of these chapters in order to draw out some of the main strands of the argument delineated above.
In chapter 4,”Aletheia: The Influence of Heidegger”, Tchir shows how “Arendt incorporates Heidegger’s notion of Dasein’s (the human being’s) resolute action as disclosure of both the `who’ of Dasein and of the action’s context” into her theory of political action. (97) Arendt’s attempt to “rescue political action from its historical and contemporary concealment” in conceptions of sovereignty bears an affinity to her teacher, Heidegger’s attempt to rescue Dasein from the historical concealment of Being. Both Heidegger and Arendt share a concern for “Aletheia“, as an “un-concealment” or “un-forgetting” (97), and with the various modes in which arche (sources) of Being can be disclosed. Arendt’s distinction between a “who” and a “what” is drawn from Heidegger, who, in turn, found it in Aristotle’s distinction between poiesis and praxis. In poeisis, an external product is produced by a process of what Arendt will call “work”, and in praxis, there is no external product to be generalized. Instead, the end lies within the activity itself, as Arendt characterizes political action. However, unlike Heidegger’s adoption of Aristotelian concepts, Arendt rejects the idea that action becomes “fully transparent”, (109) and proposes that “the judgment of spectators can indeed change.” (109) Moreover, Arendt’s notion of plurality, although influenced by Heidegger’s “notion of Mitsein (Being-with)”, significantly revises how the “who” is disclosed. For Heidegger, the authentic “who” of Dasein can only be disclosed by the contemplative withdrawal of the individual from the routine, normalizing discourses of the “everydayness” and “idle talk” of the “They”, while Arendt locates the disclosure of the daimonic “who” within the “web of relationships” and the plurality of opinions – that is, the talk – of the public world. “Talk” and “opinions” of ordinary members of a community can be valuable. (114) Moreover, Arendt “reverses Dasein’s primacy of `being-toward-death’, in favor of the notion of `natality’….”. (115)
In chapter 5, “Labor and `World Alienation”: Arendt’s Critique of Marx”, Tchir addresses Arendt’s distinctions between the social and the political, and between the public and the private, in the context of her critique of Marx’s conception of what she calls “socialized humanity”. (125) Arendt’s rejection of Marx’s conception of freedom rests partly on her prioritization of the disclosure of the individual in the political realm over the other realms of the Vita Activa, those of labor and work, which she claims that Marx favors. Labor is the realm of biological necessity, in which people are simply “specimens” to be preserved, so that Marx’s focus on labor and its liberation is misplaced. (130) Arendt proposes that one can only enter the public sphere where freedom occurs when biological and economic needs have already been met in the private sphere of labor. Whereas, in ancient times, all economic activity also took place in the private household, today economic activity is public, found in the realm of the “social”, which still addresses the arena of mere preservation of life. Although Arendt agrees with Marx that capitalism has had world alienating effects – it is through capitalism that economics entered the public sphere (129) – she sees his solution as “perpetuating” the problem by “glorifying labor”(126) and by focusing on the cultivating of talents (which are an aspect of “whatness”) as the source of freedom when the classless society is achieved, rather than upon political action and the disclosure of the “who” as the source of freedom. (135) By treating speech as inescapably determined by social relations of production” (127), Marx denies the possibility of an individual unique “who” who transcends the constative characteristics of that individual’s “whatness”, as well as denying the plurality of perspectives that constitute a political realm.
I cannot do justice to Tchir’s survey of the literature on this aspect of Arendt’s thought, or to how he indicates with which commentaries he agrees or disagrees. However, it is within this chapter, as well as the next chapter, that Tchir explicitly addresses issues of inclusion and exclusion within a public sphere, revisits the relationship between the “who” and the “what”, and complicates the latter distinction by the introduction of Arendt’s conception of a private “place” (133) from which we emerge to insert ourselves into the public sphere – is such a “place” an aspect of a person’s “what” or only a precondition to participating in the political world? After all, “For Arendt, it as though classes are as unavoidable as labor itself” (135), so are they aspects of “whatness” or of “place”? At the same time, she proposes that the expansion of technological and productive forces may make it possible to give every person in a society such a place, that is, to alleviate poverty to the extent that everybody may be able to “transcend” the sphere of preservation of “mere life” to that of political action and the freedom it entails. (133) This is not entirely unlike Marx’s prediction that the productive forces of capitalism will usher in an age of the end of poverty. In this way, Arendt does want the public sphere to be inclusive, but without sacrificing a plurality of opinion that isn’t reducible to self-interest or to the “whatness” of the participants.
Furthermore, Arendt claims that when social questions based on urgent needs enter the public sphere, they become dominated by the self-interests of those who need to preserve their “mere life”, and this lends itself to the violence and rage that occurred during the French Revolution. Arendt’s conception of non-sovereign freedom and political action are introduced just to reduce the role of violence and domination in political life, although she does realize that violence and exploitation played a role in the private sphere of ancient Greece, and can play a role in producing poverty. (156) Moreover, she doesn’t think that social questions and the elimination of poverty can be successfully eliminated through political means. (152)
However, what then is talked about in the political sphere? Her answer is that questions with no certain conclusions properly belong in the political sphere. (163) For example, the question of “adequate housing” has a certain solution (in Arendt’s view), so it should be dealt with administratively, while the question of “integrated housing” is a properly political issue. (163) In that Arendt considers the provision of “adequate housing” important to establishing a place for every potential participant to enter the public sphere, (156-157) she is not insensitive to social and economic questions, although she does ignore the possibility of normative dimensions to what counts as “adequate”, as well as ignoring the question as to whether or not there should be political interference in the economic housing market in order to provide adequate housing. (159) At the same time, she herself states there is no firm distinction between political and non-political issues and that engagements with one’s historical situation means that what is talked about in the public realm will vary over time. (160) However, one commentator, Lucy Cane, suggests that other inspiring principles than that of eliminating material equality, such as one of “solidarity”, could be disclosed in the actions of political actors in such a way to address some of the concerns of those who are oppressed or exploited. (161)
The problem remains as to whether the formal equality that characterizes the public sphere can be maintained without material equality, and this is where many commentators criticize Arendt. Moreover, there are other types of racial and gender oppression which could distort the exchanges of opinion within the public sphere. However, I suggest that many of Arendt’s critics on these points are operating under different assumptions as to what constitutes power and power relations than those of Arendt. Thus, Tchir’s analysis could benefit from a discussion of Arendt’s own conception of “power”, as numbers of people “acting in concert”, and as distinct from violence which relies on “implements”. (On Violence, 44-46) This would not resolve all the differences between Arendt and her critics, but it would further illuminate her disruption of sovereignty as the basis of freedom, and would help support those commentators who make a case for civil disobedience as political action along Arendtian lines. (139) The role of civil disobedience comes up in Tchir’s discussion of Arendt’s conception of the “right to have rights”, which is “the right to have one’s destiny not be decided merely by how one’s given `what’ is defined and ruled by an external authority but rather by interactions with others who will judge one based on their words and deeds and allow one’s unique `who’ to appear.” (141) The “right to have rights” is the right to live in such a framework, to belong to such a community, which is denied now to those who are stateless or refugees. I suggest that equalizing the conditions of participants within the public sphere might be facilitated by multiple public spheres, based not so much on the features of “whatness” as upon diverse material worlds of cultural artifacts that those with such identities might share, and then federate these various “councils” into larger public spheres, as some protest movements form coalitions with each other. In this way, participants could immanently let their individuality shine through many lights.
In chapter 6, “The Dignity of Doxa: Politicizing Kant’s Aesthetic Judgment”, Tchir addresses in more detail how the judgments of spectators occur. Arendt draws upon Kant’s conceptions of reflective and aesthetic judgments, adapting them to the political sphere, because reflective judgments are not determinative of actions, (177) they involve the use of the imagination, and they make possible the exercise of responsibility. (173) Although each spectator judges differently, and partly from the standpoint of their “whatness”, that is, social class, gender, race, religion, etc., the imagination allows each spectator to enlarge her mentality to take into consideration the perspectives of all those physically present or those past participants in the public sphere. Such an “enlarged mentality” (163) involves a position of “disinterestedness”,(179) one in which we achieve some “distance” by “forgetting ourselves” (180), which implies that we transcend self-interest and considerations of instrumentality or usefulness. (179-180) However, it is unclear how much it involves direct exchange of opinions within the public sphere. In any case, the spectator tries to assess the meaning of acts, but not from a “higher standpoint” than those who participant within the political space.
The “shared judging community” is the sensus communis, now detranscendentalized from Kant’s conception of it. (183) Again many commentators criticize Arendt’s conception of the judging community because of inequities in the position of different spectators in the communication among them.(182ff) However, the role of such inequities in distorting communications, depends partly on the relationship of “whats” and “who’s” within the public sphere, a situation that remains somewhat unresolved, despite the fact that Arendt doesn’t want communication to be marked by conflict among publicly pre-determined identities. However, equality (of a formal rather than material sort) may serve as an inspiring principle, as could mutual respect. (185) It would seem that the maintenance of such a space would require tolerance of potential conflict, openness to listening to different perspectives, and courage to act and retain the personal element in judging, in ways that would always be subject to subversion. (86) Consensus does not appear to be the aim of the judging community, so much as the disclosure of the meaning of their common world. Thus, in these ways, Tchir returns to existential questions.
In the end, there is no hard separation between the position of the actor and that of the spectator. (193) Arendt borrows Kant’s idea of an original compact, in such a way that the inspiring principles of this compact bring the actor and spectator together as one, and an actor can always become a spectator and vice versa. Moreover, a spectator’s judgments are always revisable. Arendt also appropriates Kant’s notion of “exemplary validity”, which implies that “particular deeds may be taken as valid examples by which to judge other cases.” (195) In this way, a tradition may be established, and this also plays a role in Arendt’s conception of history as storytelling that displays such valid examples.
In chapter 7, “Forgotten Fragments: Arendt’s Critique of Teleological Philosophies of History”, Tchir discusses how Arendt criticizes the philosophies of history of Kant, Hegel and Marx, which, according to her, eliminate the possibility of natality, that is, the spontaneous birth of the unprecedented and new that characterizes political action, and subordinate the freedom of the political sphere, which should be for its own sake and for the plurality of that sphere, to the telos of history, and to the agent of historical forces themselves as they march towards that ultimate end without regard to the plurality of humankind. Individuals are reduced to functions in the movement of history itself, one that lends itself to totalitarianism. She proposes an “alternative method of fragmentary historiography,” (205) as influenced by Walter Benjamin. It is from this alternative method that I have pulled the title of my book review, as I contend, and, I have tried to show in this review, how Arendt tends, in her very theory of political action, to perform the type of disruption of historical continuity that she says has occurred in the modern era, but, at the same time, retrieve some ancient practices to re-conceptualize political action and freedom. In so doing, she performs both an action and a judgment, which has generated, in turn, a diverse set of interpretations and judgments of her own “storytelling”, many of which Tchir surveys in his monograph.
In his concluding chapter, Tchir recapitulates some of his main points, and draws together some of the loose threads of his observations into a brief argument as to the relevance of Arendt’s theory of political action in today’s world, which is characterized by divisive discourses of populism; (236) disillusionment by people in a public sphere dominated by corporations and sensational media (242) and a neoliberal security state that relegates people to pre-determined categories of “whatness” in order to control their movements and to deny them freedom and access to a framework in which they can act and judge freely. He makes a few suggestions about the possibility of bringing Arendt’s conception of political action into the international arena, and religion into the public sphere without it dominating that sphere with absolute metaphysical principles. This chapter would be more fruitful if expanded, but, given the monumental job Tchir has already accomplished, it might be beyond the scope of his book to do so.
Arendt, Hannah. 1970. On Violence. Harcourt, Brace and Company, San Diego.
Perception and its Development in Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology (henceforth Perception and its Development) is a volume of fifteen papers from different authors, each addressing the most significant (or at least the most explicitly addressed) topic of the philosophical path of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, that is perception. Each chapter focuses on a specific subset of philosophical issues related to perception, all of them initially addressed by Merleau-Ponty in The Phenomenology of Perception (henceforth the Phenomenology).
Perception and its Development has two strikingly original aspects. First, although the authors use ideas thematized by Merleau-Ponty in the Phenomenology as guidelines for their expositions, their understandings of these ideas are not limited to this context. Rather, the authors commonly enlarge the scope of their analyses beyond the Phenomenology, tracking conceptual developments through Merleau-Ponty’s later works. This strategy both offers us a different and broader perspective on the Phenomenology, and opens the door to new hermeneutical possibilities of this work that are unexplored in other companion readers. Secondly, while the authors do considerable hermeneutical work to reach this wider perspective, they do not subject us to extensive commentaries of Merleau-Ponty’s original texts. Instead, they usually appeal to more contemporary problems in diverse areas of philosophy, science, arts, and even politics, a method that unveils through demonstration the similar approach used by Merleau-Ponty in his work to the philosophical problems of his concern.
The fifteen chapters are separated in four sections. The logic behind the section divisions, the editors claim (8), is to reproduce the progressive advance made by Merleau-Ponty in the Phenomenology, from the most basic aspects of our perceptual experience (i.e. our practical engagement with the environment as individuals), to the most complex contexts where our perception is at work—namely, in arts and politics, those activities proper to human culture. Despite the general similitude in the organization of Perception and its Development with the Phenomenology, the structure of this volume also displays a very different order of exposition. For instance, Perception and its Development begins by explicitly addressing the questions of passivity, intersubjectivity, and even freedom—all subjects that are addressed much later in the Phenomenology. This new order has both negative and positive consequences. The fact that there is no detailed account of the notions of “perception” and “the body” in the context of Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology before deeper consequences of this phenomenological approach (especially those in later periods of his philosophy) are addressed may prove a real challenge for the novice reader of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy who, without first being lead to the proper conceptual clarity, may find themselves confused by claims made in Perception and its Development. Nevertheless, the alternative would be to follow the less original path already taken by most companion readers to the Phenomenology. In a positive light, then, the reordering of the topics of the Phenomenology, together with their integration with his later accounts of expression (a fundamental aspect of his post-phenomenological period) and his unfinished ontology highlights the pertinence of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy for addressing the ongoing philosophical concerns on particular aspects of perception like intersubjectivity.
Given their depth and complexity, a detailed description of the ideas posited in each chapter surpasses the scope of this review. In what follows, I shall summarize the main proposals of each author, focusing on the four conceptual divisions of this book.
Part I is titled “Passivity and Intersubjectivity” and deals explicitly with these topics, but it quickly becomes clear that freedom is also a crucial concept for immersing ourselves in the question of passivity in our perceptual lives. In chapter one, John Russon describes the act of (paying) attention as an act of freedom. This freedom is, however, not to be understood as the independent will of our minds (25), but as an act shaped and constrained by the organic nature of our bodies, the physical conditions of the environment, and, fundamentally, our engagement with others in shared projects (28-29). This is because our perceptual attention exhibits the capacity of our bodies to be responsive to particular conditions of the environment that call for a specific set of actions (i.e. bodily skills) on particular features of the environment, which appear as possibilities for action or affordances (30). This responsiveness of the body is generated through a process of habituation (31), but the normative process of habit acquisition is importantly determined by the intersubjective dimension. This is because the plasticity of the world and of the body is not enough to establish the necessary conditions for the criteria of adequateness needed to make our bodies responsive to worldly situations (32). Work and communication are described by Russon as further expressions of our freedom in human contexts (35-36).
In chapter two, we find a more detailed description of the nature of the interrelation of the body and the environment in what Maria Talero calls experiential workspace. This experiential workspace describes “the enactive coupling of bodily and environmental potentialities” (45). That is, the space where the bodily skills and the affordances of the environment are related. In this regard, the attunement of the body and the environment, in Talero’s metaphor, is like catching the rhythm of a piece of music when we dance. It is by understanding the rhythm of music in my body that I am able to coordinate my body movements with those of my partner, and effectively dance (49).
In chapter three, Kym Maclaren employs two further concepts to improve our understanding of the body/environment entanglement: institution and emotion. In Merleau-Ponty’s later work, the notion of institution clarifies how the body, the world, and their interrelation are not set in advance of their actual interaction. Maclaren names this process an entre-deux dialogue between an embodied being and the environment (52). The open-ended nature of the body-world entanglement, become stabilized (instituted) in a narrative form (56), like a story that help us to understand where something comes from (its past), but also, by setting the orientation of its future developments, where something is going, thus establishing “a matrix for future elaborations” (56). Maclaren offers three examples of institution: artistic expression, perception, and emotion, the most intriguing of which is the latter. Emotions, such as the love described by Merleau-Ponty in his lectures of Institution, are not psychological states of individuals, but the very relation through which two people are entangled (66). The expressive behavior of the other (their gestures, words, and actions) shapes the way I open toward them, and vice versa, such that the realm of emotion institutes a way of being with the other, a “binary rhythm” (66). Maclaren draws on an example of this from Merleau-Ponty’s essay “The Child Relations with Others,” (in The Primacy of Perception) in which a child needs to reconfigure his emotional relation with his family after the birth of a new brother. Essentially, this child needs to “institute” a new form of interrelation with his family, given the loss of his position as the youngest son. This process of institution is possible only when the child reestablishes the equilibrium of the interfamilial relations (69).
Maclaren’s descriptions of emotions working as institutions of our relations with others preludes the central idea of chapter five, in which Susan Bredlau shows that perception may involve the active role of others as a form of incorporation. Merleau-Ponty argues in the Phenomenology that a blind person using a cane to navigate, given their habitual use of it, may incorporate the tool to the sensibility of their body. Likewise, for Bredlau, our perception extends its reach by involving the active participation of other people (82). An incorporation, Bredlau explains, involves a new form of sensitivity: the use of the cane is not the transformation of tactile experience in vision-like experience. Rather, it entails the acquisition of a new form of spatial navigation. Thus, “both perceiver and perceived take on new identities” (82). Bredlau distinguishes three types of scaffoldings based on other people incorporations: placement, engagement, and handling. The first type concerns the role of others drawing the paths of movement; the second refers to the influence of other people in constraining the possible actions that can be afforded in particular situations; and the third involves their participation in the development of the bodily skills necessary to function in such situations (95).
In part II, “Generality and Objectivity” the focus is turned from the most basic layers of our immediate perceptual experience of and ability to cope with the world to what gives to perception its “general” or even “objective” character, that is, that we naturally experience the world of perception as an independent reality given the stable structures of our perceptual field. In this regard, Kristen Jacobson, in chapter five, focuses on the virtual dimension of the body (the set of bodily skills learned by the body in his developmental path to cope with the environmental conditions) and the establishment of spatial orientation in what Merleau-Ponty names spatial levels (the meaning of the situation that is revealed through “calls,” or possibilities for action, corresponding to the acquired bodily skills) (103). From this perspective, Jacobson addresses the case of spatial neglect, a condition where people, having suffered brain damage, are incapable of moving one side of their bodies, and equally incapable of explicitly perceiving this same side in their visual field (104). In Jacobson interpretation, patients neglect one side of their visual fields because, while their “habitual” body (the body as structurally instituted in the past) is able to perceive the actual set of affordances in the environment, their actual bodily capacities, given their new physical condition, impede their ability to adequately respond to this environment such that they are no longer capable of making sense of this part of their visual field (113). They have lost the capacity to actualize their body/world relation—a condition that is similarly analyzed by Merleau-Ponty in the Phenomenology, in cases such as that of Schneider (111). Thus, what is at stake in this condition is the incapacity of their lived bodies to create new spatial levels by actualizing the relation between their actual bodily skills and the present environmental conditions, a capacity we normally possess, and through which we adapt ourselves to the ever-changing realm of worldly situations (115).
The nature of the constitution (or institution, in the proper vocabulary of Perception and its development and of Merleau-Ponty’s late philosophy) of these spatial levels and the habitual body is a temporal process that Don Beith describes in more detail in chapter six. The crucial step of this chapter is to highlight that the habitual body grounds its own stability through movement. As it has been argued in the previous chapters of this volume, the body “learns” to respond to situations by establishing patterns of movement, or motor habits, in developmental time (127), which are seen to be physical constraints on the scale of evolutionary time (128). The differences between the living bodies of humans and octopuses provide a good example of the peculiarities of movement and the institution of their bodies. Octopuses do not possess joints like us, their bodies are quite flexible. Joints, however, are fixed points of articulation that enable the opposition of different parts of our body and support further sequences of movement and patterns of locomotion. Since an octopus lacks these joints in its physical body, it needs to create the fixed points in its own patterns of movement—that is, in moving, it creates its own joints (126). By contrast, we have joints that certainly constraint the flexibility of our limbs, but at the same time increases the possibilities of movement for our whole body. Thus, paradoxically, the reduced flexibility of our limbs increases the range of freedom of our bodily movements (129). An interesting comparison between perceiving and learning to read is made by Beith at the end of this chapter. Beith believes that we learn to read by writing, and only understand the meaning of read words by also being actively engaged in the motor task of speaking and writing (135).
Although the editors say that the second part of Perception and its development would directly deal with the concepts of generality and objectivity in perception, it is not until chapters seven and eight that such concepts are explicitly addressed. In chapter seven, Moss Brender turns our attention from the perceptual realm of lived space to the perceptual experience of objective space, and in particular our perception of things. Drawing on two of Koehler’s experiments with chimpanzees, both quoted by Merleau-Ponty in the Structure of Behavior (his first important philosophical work), Moss Brender argues that chimpanzees do not possess the capacity to understand the localization of a thing in space if this localization is not relative to the motor actions of their own bodies (145); they remain attached to the present demands of a given situation (147). Humans, by contrast, are capable of understanding the position of things by virtually positioning their own body as if they were occupying the position of the thing, thus possessing a “mobility of perspective” (149). The key to understand the difference between lived and objective spatiality is the exercise of symbolic conduct (150): a sort of second order capacity, a second power (152), that turns the habitual motor significances into explicit or thematic objects of our experience (152). Moss Brender further describes how space has a crucial temporal dimension. On the one hand, space, as grounded in the developmental nature of the body, has an unfixed meaning that is open to the constant changes of that body. On the other hand, the meaning of space cannot be reduced to the activity of this body since space also involves a general or impersonal dimension that precedes the very existence of any-body (154). Hence space has a meaning or a particular orientation before the birth of my body, such that my body and the space it accesses is inherited by a past that is general, like its “evolutionary history” (154). Therefore, the space in which the body participates, the general space embodied by the orientation of the general past, is a tradition or an institution (155), but one that cannot be made fully explicit insofar as it transcends every possible individual body.
In chapter eight, David Ciavatta explicitly approaches the subject of time, and in particular its generality. He argues that, although our notion of time as an objective dimension of the world is rooted in the lived time of the embodied subject, it is the cyclical nature of time that gives it its generality, which does not correspond to any particular experience, but makes all of them possible. Essentially, the cyclical nature of the organic aspects of our bodies (such as breathing) and of natural events (such as day/night patterns) engender an attitude of indifference in experience of any particular moment of these cycles (161). Nonetheless, there is a discontinuity within this generality that makes these recurrent patterns identifiable as episodes of an even more general (or continuous) time, just like this present moment is part of the present day of the present week, and so on. (172). These temporal episodes, always nested in broader cycles, do not represent a simultaneous happening of all of them at once (173), but a disintegration of cycles into more general fields of presence (174). However, since the generality of time is grounded on the existence of individual cycles, each episode of time has an individuality that makes it unique in the general field of time (175). In this regard, any experiential subject has a limited duration marked by the start of their own birth. The time before their birth cannot, nonetheless, be experienced by them, though it can be experienced by someone else. The experience of natural cycles has the same historical or episodic feature. Consequently, the world has its own duration, its own history, its own episode, that is also part of a more general time. But here, we face a level of generality that cannot be lived by anybody—that is, the world has a past that has never been present, and this reveals some sort of natural a priori of time (177).
Part III, “Meaning and Ambiguity,” addresses the eponymous themes in terms of perceptual experience. In keeping with the question of time, David Morris, in chapter nine, lead us deeper into the question of how the temporally open-ended relation of living beings and the environment grounds the emergence of meaning. Morris’s metaphor of “balancing” is helpful in understanding Merleau-Ponty’s description of meaning as something “never fully present” for a subject, but instead present only as a temporal phenomenon of expression and institution. Although “balance” might be “represented” as a point in the idealized space of Newtonian physics, this “point” is actually unreachable in the temporal unfolding of the world. This balance, though, still might be considered as real if we consider it as a phenomenon of time—that is as balancing (201). Briefly, the balancing movement might be oriented towards an optimal state of balance, but this optimality depends on the forces already at work at any particular moment of the movement (such as gravity, momentum, inertia). Thus a balancing object moves towards this never fully given point of balance (its future) that carries on its past (the preset of the dynamic forces) (201). The establishment of (spatial) levels exhibits the same characteristic of balance in terms of the body. The habitual response of the body to the call of different situations is guided by a norm that is not fixed or set in advance of the actual history of embodiment and enactment of the space of any particular situation (198). However, in this latter case, the past of the body is not only the immediate past of its movement, but also the stable structure of the past represented by the habitual or virtual body, and the actualization of his actions when coping with the present conditions of the environment (199). This same phenomenon occurs in perception, where significant changes take place at the level of the stable structure of the environment (200). Finally, to understand the logic of perceptual development, in this normative sense, Morris turns our focus to the questions of expression and institution in Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy. Basically, Morris argues that perception is an expressive act that involves the generation of new meanings through an institutional process (203). Perception articulates new levels by generating new optimal points of balance (meaning), from the already given forces (the instituted past) in its encounter with the present. However, since this expressive act generates a never fully given meaning, the indeterminateness of meaning leaves room for the institution of new meanings (205). This indeterminateness, however, possess a directedness which is an excess, or a pregnancy of potential for new meanings. This excess, Morris argues, is temporality itself (212).
In chapter ten, we find one of the most peculiar texts of this volume. Ömer Aygün, begins by addressing Merleau-Ponty’s characterizations of binocularity from the Structure of Behavior to his posthumous work The Visible and the Invisible. Later, Aygün contrasts the different modes of existence implicated in binocularity and in the monocular vision of Cyclopes, as described in ancient Greece literature. Fundamentally, Aygün argues that binocularity, for Merleau-Ponty, cannot be grounded on the Cartesian idea of two already given separated (retinal) images that are later unified by consciousness. Neither the physical stimuli nor an act of consciousness are enough to explain its unified nature (223-24). This raises the problem of the integration of two different perspectives unified in the visual experience we habitually have. A more holistic approach to binocularity is taken by Merleau-Ponty as early as the Structure of Behavior, but it is in the Phenomenology that Merleau-Ponty offers an account of this issue in terms of an existential project (225)—that is, in terms of the articulation of the body in light of a particular situations soliciting movement. The synthesis of binocular visual fields is thus reached through the seeing subject’s the being-in-the-world rather than in consciousness. Moreover, the kind of unification represented by this binocularity is more than a synthesis. In the Visible and the Invisible, Merleau-Ponty describes this synthesis as a metamorphosis that expresses the power on perception (perceptual faith) to reveal the world as a unified whole where communication with others is possible (228). This communication, like binocular vision, also entails the ambiguity of two perspectives looking at the same object, but nonetheless engaged in one single project (237). By contrast, for the monocular view of the cyclops, the world is revealed as a sheer positivity (that is, presences without ambiguity) (230). This makes him an isolated being, enclosed in his solipsism, and thereby excluded from the normative domain of law, language and love, characteristic of humans.
In chapter eleven, Marrato responds to Levinas criticisms on Merleau-Ponty’s account of alterity. For Levinas, Merleau-Ponty ignores the radical separation between the self and the other (243). Marrato identifies three main lines of criticism. First, Levinas considers that the reversible experience of the body, of touching and being touched, is not equivalent to the experience of touching and being touched by another person’s body. Secondly, he argues that Merleau-Ponty’s account of expression does not highlight the fundamental communicative role of this phenomenon. Finally, Marrato argues, for Levinas, Merleau-Ponty’s focus on visual perception for his philosophical inquiries makes him more concerned with questions about the knowledge of the world than about the ethical engagement with the other (243). In response, Marratto argues that Merleau-Ponty’s account of vision is not the typical theoretical model found in Western philosophy, where the perceiver is detached from the perceived. Instead, vision is an act very similar to touch. But unlike touch, vision is a distancing experience that further emphasizes the inherent depth of the horizons of the world (245). To perceive is, indeed, an active engagement of the body in its response to the solicitations of the environment, Perception, that is, is already an expressive behavior, and the art of painting “prolongs” this power of expression (244). Painting, thereby, does not represent the world but articulates new forms of meaning, a new way to look at the world. Painting, Marratto argues, is already an ethical act since a normative dimension is already present in the very act of expression (246). Expression is achieved when the painter or the seer gives birth to a new meaning—but this meaning is not merely the creation of the painter or the seer. Rather, the visible imposes its own criteria of correctness on the act of expression (246), even as the visible is itself not fully determined in advance (246-47). In this regard, vision opens up to something that is other than itself, questioning and responding through the expressive act of painting and perception. It is in the distance between the question and the response that “the spade of alterity” emerges (247). This space of alterity inhabits the body itself since the reversible act of the hand touching and being touched exhibits a never fully given coincidence within itself (248). A similar account is given across the different modalities of perception (such as vision and touch, 248) and in binocularity (249). Hence the expressive act of perception always involves some degree of alterity.
The last part of the book— “Expression”—is comprised of four texts that turn our attention from Merleau-Ponty’s account of perception towards his inquiries into expression and ontology, and lead us beyond the Phenomenology. In chapter twelve, Mathew J. Goodwin explores the notion of aesthetic ideas. Instead of adopting the traditional position, which considers thinking and sensation as two separated realms, Goodwin argues that aesthetic ideas make our perception more profound, by revealing the sensible in “its lining and depth” (253). Goodwin starts by introducing us to the distinction made by Merleau-Ponty (adapted from Leonardo da Vinci) between two different kinds of artistic expressions: prosaic lines and flexuous lines. Prosaic lines aim to define, once and for all, the positive attributes of things, like “an eidetic invariant that is never actually perceived” (257)—namely, it is a mere process of abstraction. By contrast, flexuous lines aim to bring our aesthetic experience toward the very genesis of our perceptual experience, the lived space where things are situated and where they become enacted by our bodily activity. Likewise, an object is drawn “…according to whatever interior forces of development originally brought it into being…”. (258). Thus, it is by revealing this genesis that an artist gives us an aesthetic idea, making visible the usually invisible depth of a thing (258). Goodwin later argues in this chapter that Mata Clark’s sculptural performances are a good instance of these aesthetic ideas.
Stefan Kristensen, in chapter thirteen, makes reference to another artist’s work: that of Ana Mendieta. He argues that phenomenal space and the ontological notion of the flesh in Merleau-Ponty entail the phenomenon of mourning. Phenomenal Space or depth are concepts that redefine our traditional notions of space and time (273). Instead of conceiving space and time as already given dimensions where objects and events are juxtaposed and mutually excluded, depth is the dimension where they are seen to encroach upon one another (273). Kristensen is especially interested in the phenomenon of mourning as it is implicated in the temporal dimension of depth (275). Merleau-Ponty describes our experience of the world as involving not only its presence, but also its past. This past is not the discovery of a pre-existence, but the formation of something “that appears as having already been there” (276). Hence when we understand, for instance, a sentence or perceptual gestalt, we make a “backwards movement.” Likewise, the meaning of an utterance or a picture is given only afterwards (276). For perception, it is the structure of the body schema that establishes the “ground of praxis” for individuals’ action and perception (277). However, this foundational dimension of the body represents the already-being-there of the body, its past that cannot be seen but afterwards (278). Mourning, then, is the process of restructuring bodily spatiality (279) insofar as it is a process that set us free from the past, allowing us to become newly instituted in the present. Nonetheless, the divergence of the body from itself is a process of loss, through which the subject of perception has already vanished even before they try to look at themself. Ana Mendieta’s work, for Kristensen, exhibits the intertwining of presence and absence that make manifest the overlapped temporality of the body and space where the past (that has never been present) and the present (enacted by the presence of the past) converge (280).
In chapter fourteen, Peter Costello reveals the political dimension of the ontological descriptions of the flesh in Merleau-Ponty’s late philosophy. The immersion of the body in the world, becoming part of the flesh (the ontological basis of meaning) exhibits its dual form of appearance as seeing and being seen. This phenomenon, for Costello, is analogous to the Aristotelian affirmation that democracy requires the capacity of citizens to govern and being governed (285). The flesh is also defined as the “formative medium of the object and the subject” (285), and represents the prior dimension of that traditional dichotomy. Moreover, the immersion of the body in the flesh involves the interrelation of the body with multiple (anonymous) other bodies, and thus has an intercorporeal aspect to it (285). This means that the flesh enables an anonymous dimension of visibility (286), like the space of the intertwining with other people—that is, the public space where we are always already interrelated one each other. Nevertheless, the full access to this public space involves our explicit engagement in it, by mutually caring for one another so as to create a community (288). In this regard, Costello considers that for Merleau-Ponty, Cézanne incarnates the democratic nature of the flesh in his paintings by considering color not as an already given property of things (292)—what Cézanne calls “the tyranny over color”—but as symptomatic of the relational space of things and the body, where colors emerge as a spontaneous organization (ibid) only insofar as we participate in their visibility. This makes the observers part of the enactment of colors in Cézanne’s paintings, thereby introducing us to the public space in which things, the painter, and the observer are intertwined in the visual experience (296).
The volume ends with an exquisite text from Laura McMahon, where phenomenology is described as (the reflection on) first order perception. McMahon begins her argument by distinguishing between first- and second-order expression. For Merleau-Ponty, a thought or an idea cannot be given before its linguistic expression since it is in the process of its concrete articulation in language that thought become explicit for the thinker themself, and for the others. Consequently, it is in the moment of speaking or writing that thoughts acquire their particular meaning, their existence (310). However, linguistic expression involves two possibilities: the banal enunciation of already given meanings in second-order speech; and the first-order speech that involves the first-time enunciation of a meaningful utterance, such as when children first begin speaking, or when a poet or philosopher opens a new field of meaning or “world” (314). The institution of a new meaning, therefore, does not constrain the individual to expressing themself through the already given network of significations of the human world, but allows them to break the “primordial silence” of the world (315) by enacting new manners of experiencing it. Expression, nonetheless, is not limited to human speech, since perception is already an expressive act that maintains a “creative dialogue with the things of the world” (316); perception itself is a “nascent logos” (ibid.). The meaningful wholes of perception (Gestalten) are the analogous unities of meaning to sentences in speech (317). In here, McMahon argues, it is also possible to find a second order of perception where things appear as already made objects, fully given in advance to our encounter, as if our own presence were irrelevant for their appearance. This second-order perception describes the experience of the world in a natural or unreflective attitude (320). By contrast, first order perception looks at the very genesis of things: the lived space where we, as perceivers, are already involved in the genesis of the appearance of things. In this regard, the act of perception looks at itself, and not only at what is perceived (321). This kind of self-perception leads Merleau-Ponty in the Visible and the Invisible to talk about what he calls radical reflection. This kind of reflection uncovers its own roots (322), by revealing the genesis of signification in the already given meaning of things. The implicit order of the world experience in second-order perception and in second-order reflection is best carried out by “positive” scientific thought (323). By contrast, the task of radical reflection, analyzing first-order perception, is the task of phenomenology itself. (324).
At the end of the introduction (18-19), the editors mention two important aspects of what they hope this book will achieve. One is to use this book as a companion for the Phenomenology; another is to treat Merleau-Pontian phenomenology as a practice rather than an object. In terms of the first target, I believe the success of this book depends on the degree of Merleau-Pontian expertise that reader brings to their reading. The novice reader may find the multiple terms and metaphors used by the authors, corresponding to different periods of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy, confusing. Furthermore, a semantic promiscuity is pervasive across the different chapters, and readers might get confused by the multiple names used to refer to what seems to be the same concept, or at least concepts more closely linked than any author lets on (e.g. lived space, phenomenal space, depth and flesh). Without a further clarification, it is not clear if these terms are used as synonyms or if a nuanced sense is developed through the use of each term. By contrast, for someone already immersed in the vocabulary and general ideas of the Phenomenology, the use of this book as a companion piece will help them deepen their reading of the Phenomenology, explore Merleau-Ponty’s later philosophy, and track the development of certain concepts. In respect of the second purpose, I find this volume undoubtedly successful. The fresh approach to the subject of perception that incorporates Merleau-Ponty’s late thought, as well as topics of more immediate, contemporary philosophical concern, avoids the repetitive enunciation of the concepts that one can already find in other companions to the Phenomenology. In conclusion, the works bound in Perception and its Development in Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology certainly open new possibilities for our practice of reading Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy, and for the use of his ideas in addressing contemporary concerns.
Cited Works by Merleau-Ponty
The Structure of Behavior. Trans. Fisher, Alden L. Vol. 3: Beacon Press Boston, 1942/1967. Print.
Phenomenology of Perception. Trans. Landes, Donald A. New York, NY: Routledge, 1945/2012. Print.
The Visible and the Invisible: Followed by Working Notes. Northwestern University Press, 1964/1968. Print.
The Primacy of Perception: And Other Essays on Phenomenological Psychology, the Philosophy of Art, History, and Politics. Northwestern University Press, 1964. Print.
Institution and Passivity: Course Notes at the College De France (1954-1955). Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2003/2010. Print.