Peter Antich: Motivation and the Primacy of Perception, Ohio University Press, 2021

Motivation and the Primacy of Perception Book Cover Motivation and the Primacy of Perception
Series in Continental Thought, № 54
Peter Antich
Ohio University Press · Swallow Press
2021
Hardback $95.00
6 illus. · 264 pages

Emmanuel Falque: Nothing to It: Reading Freud as a Philosopher

Nothing to It: Reading Freud as a Philosopher Book Cover Nothing to It: Reading Freud as a Philosopher
Emmanuel Falque. Translators: Robert Vallier (DePaul University), William L. Connelly (The Catholic University of Paris)
Leuven University Press
2020
Paperback €25.00
136

Reviewed by: Matteo Pastorino (Deakin University)

In his book Nothing to It: Reading Freud as a Philosopher, Emmanuel Falque has provided a compact and dense argument in order to show the importance of Freud’s work for the phenomenological debate.

In the opening section, Falque chooses to present the affinities between Freud’s psychological theory and the ideas of Paul Ricoeur and Merleau-Ponty. As starting point, the author suggests that psychoanalysis as discipline, and in particular, Freudian psychoanalytic theory, can be studied independently of the practice underlying it. (24)

Thus, from the beginning, Falque abandons any issue concerning the practical aspects of psychoanalysis, following the lead of Ricouer. Previous philosophical approaches to Freudian psychoanalysis, like Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus (1972) or Jacques Derrida’s Resistances to Psychoanalysis (1996), were characterized, in the author’s view, by a polemic tone. (26) One may add that this line of criticism in France continues in the new millennium, for example in Michel Onfray’s The Twilight of an Idol: The Freudian Confabulation (2010).

However, Falque wants to focus on a more sympathetic, if minoritarian, current in French phenomenology. As example, he points at the work of Merleau- Ponty in the period from his Phenomenology of Perception (1945) to his death. Indeed, Merleau-Ponty has openly declared that the phenomenological method was developed with the contribution of psychoanalysis. Falque then concludes by saying:

In short, we need not to reconcile psychoanalysis and philosophy because in reality they have already been married for a long time. But we still have to nourish the link, and any fidelity demands not only self-denial, but instead a willingness to approach the other. (27-28)

After providing the historical precedent for his attempt, Falque considers which moments or stages of “fecundity” in psychoanalysis have produced a transformation in phenomenology.

The author describes them as ‘backlashes’ of psychoanalysis, producing a radical change of course in phenomenology. (28) The first moment is described in Ricouer’s Freud and Philosophy (1965), in which the earliest psychoanalytic theory is presented as one the greatest or even the principal authority of the unfurling of hermeneutics. (29)

In Ricoeur’s view, the conflict between psychoanalysis and phenomenology does not emerge from their original works, namely Freud’s Interpretations of Dreams (1899) and Husserl’s Logical Investigations (1900), which actually show a certain affinity, but rather in the

necessity, at least in Ricoeur’s eyes, to radicalize the theory of “signification” (Husserl) with a theory of “interpretation” (Freud). (29)

The second moment comes when Merleau-Ponty recognizes the shared interest in both psychoanalysis and phenomenology in applying reason to the irrational, which should be considered as a form of progress for reason (30). Yet, phenomenology, according to Falque, has not been able to move beyond the statement that “all consciousness is consciousness of something”.

The “below” of sense drills into spheres that do not reach the pair “sense” and “non-sense”. Deeper and more gaping, this stratum of the existent says nothing and has nothing to tell me, is not seen nor is demonstrable, is not understood, and does not let itself be read. (31)

So, it appears that psychoanalysis understood the multi-layered nature of the Id, Merleau-Ponty’s ‘raw nature’, and then phenomenology, influenced by Freud’s insight, developed its own theory.

The It is the pivotal point in Falque’s discussion, and he himself chooses this point to clarify his title, Nothing to It:

It only shows that “to see oneself”, following the Id, one first has to renounce seeing (…) because one is borne from below by the neuter of the “Self” of our existentiality. (32)

At this point, Falque develops his idea of a superiority of Freud’s idea of latency,

this hidden cache that stands in a place where there is nothing to “It” .(32)

compared to Husserl, Heidegger and Lévinas’ concepts of intuition, manifestation and invisible’s excess.

At this point, the author starts to expand his idea about the need to combine psychoanalytic insights and philosophical explorations. What makes the comparison harder to understand is the fact that Falque repeatedly compares a few notions of Freud’s theory, only his, and only his “second topography”, (37) with a variety of philosophers, usually French and broadly definable as phenomenologists, but sometimes including Nietzsche and even Kant as well. (35)

Chapter 1 opens with a few considerations about personal and historical events  shaping Freud’s worldview in the last decades of his life. Personal and social tragedies have both contributed to change Freud’s optimism about an enduring Enlightenment. (40-42)

Thus,

The First World War is thus for Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, not only a “crisis”, (…). It is properly speaking a “revolution”, the imposition of a change of paradigm and not merely the correction of an old system. (46)

At this point, Falque attempts to read “metaphysically” the impact of the Great War on psychoanalysis, claiming that

It introduces the ego and destroys not only the ego’s capacity to present or be represented, but the very idea that there is something to “present” or something “representable”. (46)

The impact of the historical event on the discipline of psychoanalysis, according to Falque, is analogous to that of the Second World War on Lévinas’s phenomenology, particularly about the question of “evil”. On the other hand, Freud’s contemporary philosophers, like Husserl, Bergson, and Russell, were unable to grasp this metaphysical level,

the “it” of the event of the war and the “id/it” of the submission or even of the annihilation of the ego. (47)

The discussion on Freud’s superior understanding of the Great War as the proof of humanity’s barbarism continues in Chapter 2, and Falque makes the claim that this barbarism is characteristic of the First but not of the Second World War:

One knows why people die, or rather why there is death in the Second World War, because it is thoroughly “rationalized” even if it is never “reasonable”. (…) Inversely, one does not die merely for nothing in the First World War, but one does not know why one dies, who dies, or where the people who die go or might want to go. (50)

Falque’s claims are debatable, not only for historical reasons, but also because Freud’s death before the Second World War prevented anyone from knowing if he would have shared Falque’s distinction between a “barbaric” First World War and an “ideological” Second World War, as the author seems to imply.  (51)

In any case, Falque’s focus in this section is on the impact of barbarism on psychoanalysis, and, specifically, on the discovery of the “death drive”, which, in Falque’s view, had always been the ‘unknown object’ of psychoanalysis since the beginning. (51-52)

What First World War brought to the fore was the presence of a violent “primitive man” lying just beneath the surface of civilization (probably meaning  Western Civilization, although Falque does not clarify).

The realization of the existence of a “death drive”, in the author’s opinion, makes Freud’s understanding of the conflict comparable with that of Franz Rosenzweig, author of The Star of Redemption (1921). (54)

The analogy between the experiences of a man fighting in the trenches, as was the case of Rosenzweig, with those of someone  “in the rear guard” is rather contestable, as Falque himself recognizes. (57) Yet, they reach very similar conclusions regarding the loss of Enlightenment’s illusions, wiped away by the sheer violence of the fighting. (56)

What Freud comes to call the “Id” emerges as the brutality of the “animal component” of the individual, revealed by the war in all its brutal power. (57)

The conclusion of this chapter is:

That there is an “Id” prior to an “Ego” (Freud) or a “Self” prior to the “me” (Nietzsche) is the lesson drawn from the conflict- not primarily military or political but metaphysical- from which Freud and we after him have not finished drawing the lessons for philosophy itself. (58)

The change occurred to psychoanalysis in the aftermath of the war is the starting point for Chapter 3:

not only thinking through the war, but thinking oneself thinking through the war, and showing that the thought of the war becomes the place of and the tool for the destruction of all thought. (60)

The consequences of this change is a new consideration for the “somatic” component, whose corporeality is understood differently by Freud, Jung and Lacan. (60) Falque mentions here other psychoanalytic schools in order to clarify that the concept of “drive” should be understood only as

the force in me that I do not recognize as being me- appears to me as “a known that is unknown”. (61)

As noticed before, Falque usually restricts his discussion of psychoanalysis to Freud’s theory, while covering a number of philosophers. At this point, he briefly considers Lacan’s “symbolic”, only to notice how it ignores the “somatic origin of the drive”. (63) While it is understandable to reduce sometimes the differences between psychoanalysis and phenomenology, some clarification about the choice of excluding in toto any other psychoanalyst may have been useful at this stage.

In the following section, the author underlines once more the importance and utility of a greater consideration of Freud’s ideas in phenomenology, suggesting that the latter could gain some insights, for psychoanalytic theory would lead phenomenology

back to its Urgrund or toward the “obscure ground” of the human, which it cannot avoid (…). (63)

It seems that it has already done so in some measure, since Merleau-Ponty’s “raw nature” and Derrida’s Khora derive from the backlash of psychoanalysis as they recover

the obscure point of what is below or beneath any signification intended by the Freudian “unconscious”(…). (63)

After this passage, as in others, one may expect some explanation of the link between three concepts which are quite complex and debated on their own right. Yet, Falque moves on without further discussion, and he also exits the field of phenomenology for drawing two short comparisons between the Freudian drive and an idea of force that is to be found in Nietzsche and Spinoza. Again, there is no further analysis, and the interesting possibilities are left open.

Chapter 4 suspends the comparison between phenomenology and psychoanalysis, considering instead the latter’s similarities with some “spiritual” work by Christian authors. Falque considers Freud’s concepts of “uncanny” (69-70), “death and repetition” (71), and “anorganic” (72-73), as similar to the spiritual experience of being “outside of time” and “outside of space”, defined as “acedia” by the authors he quotes. (76)

The following chapters mostly discuss Freud’s works in the last decade of his life, in particular the confrontation between the Ego and the Id, which Falque sometimes writes as the it, as in the title, making hard to distinguish in some case which meaning of the word “it” he is employing. He sometimes interrupts what would be an historical overview of Freud’s ouvre for showing some possible link with phenomenology, mostly Derrida, and the spiritual and theological concepts he briefly considered in Chapter 4.

The conclusion of his analysis is that the Id, in order to be understood, requires the combination of three disciplines. This is necessary since the self to be explored is not only of the human, but of God and of the world as well. And thus

One “crosses the Rubicon” from phenomenology into theology, and vice versa, but also from phenomenology to psychoanalysis, and vice versa. It is by learning and by being modified by its “other” that phenomenology will advance and will stop condemning every other science as “ontic”. (90)

The concluding chapter presents an almost religious undertone, discussing the Id as something to be “saved”, and the Ego presented as its saviour (93-94). This considerations are inspired by the notes Freud made in the last months of his life, in which a mystical allure clearly emerges.

The epilogue lists the achievements of Freud:

To bring the Enlightenment to an end, to conceive the inconceivable, to be rooted in the organic, not to fear the uncanny, to go all the way to the anorganic, to be lived by the Id, (…) such is the path lived simultaneously by Freud himself, and through him, the history of the development of psychoanalysis. (100)

Each of these results has been analyzed in the book, although rather shortly. As noticed by Philippe Van Haute in the Foreword, Falque’s book “leaves many questions open”. Sometimes it is also rather obscure, adopting concepts from Freud, Derrida and others without a proper explanation, which would be in some case necessary . The continuous changes of terminology are quite confusing as well, with a few chapters discussing psychoanalysis but employing a phenomenological lexicon and another doing the contrary.

Another potential weakness of the book is the considerable difference between the analysis of Freud’s works, often involving historical and biographical considerations, and, on the other hand, the ideas of philosophers, which are usually thrown in as means of comparison without any elaboration or contextualization.

Yet, this book is undeniably fascinating in its re-evaluation of Freud’s theories, and all the parts concerning the founder of psychoanalysis and his ideas are rich in insights and make a strong case for further philosophical explorations.

Klaus Kienzler: Cézanne, Klee, Kandinsky: Zur Phänomenologie der Kunst des Sehens

Cézanne, Klee, Kandinsky: Zur Phänomenologie der Kunst des Sehens Book Cover Cézanne, Klee, Kandinsky: Zur Phänomenologie der Kunst des Sehens
Klaus Kienzler
Karl Alber
2020
Paperback 49,00 €
480

Reviewed by: Isabel Jacobs (Queen Mary University of London)

Introduction

In Seeing the Invisible: On Kandinsky (1988), French philosopher Michel Henry argues that Kandinsky’s abstract art “ceases to be the painting of the visible.” [1] Instead, Kandinsky’s paintings reveal the invisible essence of life. In a similar vein, Klaus Kienzler’s new book opens with Paul Klee’s famous claim: “Art does not reproduce the visible; rather it makes visible.”

At the crossroads of phenomenology, art theory and existential thought, Kienzler explores three artists who embody the transition to modernism like no others: Paul Cézanne, Paul Klee, and Wassily Kandinsky. Engaging with their artistic visions as a phenomenologist and theologian, Kienzler examines the ways in which each artist deals with time (Zeit) and motion (Bewegung), two phenomena that already played a central role in Kienzler’s previous book on the theologian Klaus Hemmerle [2].

Rooted in the tradition of German phenomenology, Kienzler was over many years part of the German-French circle around Emmanuel Levinas, Paul Ricœur and Bernhard Caspar. A professor of fundamental theology in Augsburg, Kienzler is, unlike other members of this circle, virtually unknown in the Anglophone world. As his new book demonstrates, Kienzler’s perspective on phenomenology is less academic than it is enriched by his personal experience. The reader who expects a concise study that engages with recent scholarship on art and phenomenology will thus be disappointed.

Kienzler’s book invites on a stimulating yet lengthy journey through an enormous amount of material, including phenomenological texts, paintings, art theory, and correspondences. Kienzler’s ambitious goal is to make his readers see the world through the eyes of Cézanne, Klee, and Kandinsky. Rather than using phenomenology as a method of investigation, Kienzler explores how artistic visions intervene into phenomenological discourses on subjectivity, time, movement, and embodiment.

Besides Husserl and Heidegger, Kienzler’s phenomenological references are Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Bernhard Waldenfels, a prolific contemporary phenomenologist and translator of Merleau-Ponty. In the footsteps of Waldenfels, Kienzler aims to fuse French and German theory, drawing on phenomenology and Bildwissenschaft (image-science), a peculiar German art-historical discipline close to visual studies. Oscillating between eye and mind, image and concept, Kienzler explores how art and phenomenology mutually enlighten each other.

As the title shows, Kienzler’s book is not a study on the phenomenology of art or the phenomenology of vision, but rather a phenomenology of the art of vision; this is, a journey to a clearer way of seeing, or, in Paul Klee’s words, “to the land of better knowledge” (17). The aim of my review is to analyze how Kienzler pursues this intriguing project and whether his study lives up to his claims. While critically addressing the book’s major arguments, my focus is to reveal some of its productive potentialities.

The book is divided into eight chapters, sparse pathmarks on Kienzler’s tour de force through the history of modern art and phenomenology. We can roughly divide the book into two parts; firstly, an extended theoretical prelude comprising five chapters; secondly, three chapters on Cézanne, Klee and Kandinsky. Although the second part is interspersed with long cross-references to the prelude, the transition between the individual chapters is not always smooth. In fact, Kienzler’s theoretical apparatus becomes at times a bit overly complex, overshadowing his engagement with the artists. The study also comprises an appendix with 24 coloured images.

Images are Motion (Paul Klee)

The following extract from Klee’s Creative Confession, published in 1920, opens the introductory chapter and remains a leitmotif throughout Kienzler’s book:

Let’s make a small journey into the country of better knowledge by applying a topographic plan. Over the dead point be the first moving act (line). After a short time stop to catch breath. (An interrupted or, in case of repeated stops, an articulated line.) Review how far we are already. (Counter movement). Considering in our mind the way here and there (bundles of lines). (17) [3]

Klee’s description of lines taking a walk had already fascinated Merleau-Ponty who drew on both Klee and Cézanne. For Kienzler, Klee’s treatment of lines is essentially phenomenological. More than geometrical constructs, Klee’s lines dynamize both artist and viewer. Kienzler investigates how Klee’s artist-in-motion translates into a phenomenological description of subjectivity. Rather than an uninvolved observer, Klee’s subject is embodied, temporalized, and interwoven with the world through motion.

Following Merleau-Ponty, Kienzler considers art an expression of corporeal consciousness or Leibbewusstsein (31). The post-Cartesian subject of “I walk therefore I am” is developed at the example of Klee’s 1923 painting “Der L=Platz im Bau” (20). In his insightful interpretation, Kienzler claims that Klee’s defamiliarized forms embody the way in which our gaze moves through the world. In this sense, Klee did not imitate the visible, but made visible. The movement of the gaze is temporalized, while the artwork itself is timeless (35). Kienzler’s notion of timelessness can be interpreted as the actualization of the work through the viewer’s eyes; this is, our gaze both temporalizes and detaches the image from its temporal limitations.

A Brief Introduction to Phenomenology

The second chapter elaborates a dense theoretical apparatus, focusing on Waldenfels’s theory of perception. The way in which Kienzler interlinks phenomenology, hermeneutics, and image-science breaks some new ground. However, the complex conceptual framework does not always serve the overarching goal to develop a phenomenology of artistic vision directly from the works of Cézanne, Klee, and Kandinsky. When tracking Kienzler’s theory back to Klee, it is particularly Waldenfels’s responsive phenomenology that cuts across. For Waldenfels, in Kienzler’s words, experience and perception are intersubjective:

This is how experiences and perceptions come about: we are hit, addressed, moved by something outside of ourselves. That is, something comes towards us before we go towards it from ourselves. The decisive factor here is the double direction of vision. It is a double event: on the one hand, the claim, an experience, a sight or an address, which Waldenfels calls “pathos (Widerfahrnis)”, triggers an answer, a “response” in the sense mentioned above. The pathos happens to me and hits me, and on the other hand, it is I myself who gives the response. The pathos is not an objective event that can be stated as a fact, but the pathos happens to me. (53)

Images affect us as a pathos to which we respond. For Waldenfels, art is thus an emotional event (“iconopathy”) between image, artist, and viewer (54). Kienzler’s distillation of Waldenfels is a good entry point to further explore the notion of responsivity in the reception of art.

Iconic — Phenomenology of Seeing

“Where to find the center of seeing between the eye and the world?” (77)

The third chapter introduces the term Ikonik (Iconic), a method by art historian Max Imdahl. Recalling the intricate connection between aesthetics and perception (aisthēsis), Kienzler traces the so-called “iconic turn” in visual studies of the early 1990s back to its phenomenological roots. He argues that the iconic turn in visual studies was indeed facilitated by Husserl’s radical rehabilitation of sensuality. Kienzler brings Imdahl in dialogue with Merleau Ponty, arguing that through Cézanne, Merleau-Ponty realized that the Cartesian conception of the image was inadequate (75).

Drawing on Waldenfels, Kienzler interprets the image as a simultaneous process of making visible and becoming visible (79). Kienzler frames the perception of art as a mode of phenomenological epoché. Another productive encounter with phenomenology is Kienzler’s interpretation of Merleau-Ponty’s theory of vision as an inversion of the gaze:

If our body is both seeing and visible, then why should not things, as annexes of the body, also be both visible and seeing? […] This leads to a reversal of the gaze, a renversement, as Paul Klee expresses it with the feeling “that the things, for example the trees in the forest, look at me (me regardent).” (78)

Here Kienzler successfully shows how artistic vision reflects on phenomenological theory. Kienzler reads the “me regardent” in the double sense of “looking at me” and “concerning me,” stating a responsive (Waldenfels) relation between subject and world. Although Kienzler does not mention Jacques Lacan, his theory of a reversal of the gaze could be productively read with Lacan’s idea that objects, reflecting our lack, look back at us. In a Lacanian spirit, Kienzler defines the image as a mirror of our own gaze, a mediating third of our seeing body (87). This potential encounter between Kienzler and Lacan is one of the many horizons Kienzler’s book opens up.

Iconic Difference

In the fourth chapter, Kienzler further entwines phenomenology and image theory, importing Gottfried Boehm’s iconic difference into the phenomenological discourse. Iconic difference means the structural principles or the “logic of images” different from language (94). Kienzler interlinks iconic difference with the phenomenological reduction. Images, Kienzler claims, are in themselves silent, they are not logos, instead we have to make them speak. Kienzler examines Cézanne’s paintings as a net of differential relations. While the elements are silent in themselves, “there is an unexpected ‘potentiality’ that we mobilize when we bring the individual elements into a context, ‘realise’ them as constellations of a whole.” (100)

We make images speak by moving the gaze from the whole to the parts and back. Kienzler suggests that this movement of the gaze, realizing endless potentialites, is time itself. While Kienzler’s voracious enthusiasm for theory may lead the reader into some dead ends, Boehm’s iconic difference has its reasonable place in Kienzler’s analysis of temporality and composition. Throughout the second part of the book, Kienzler will return to difference and temporality, particularly to the three modes inherent in vision: simultaneity, succession and potentiality (96).

Plato — Allegory of the Cave

The fifth chapter is an excursus on Plato’s famous analogies of the cave, the sun and the line from Plato’s Republic. Most attention is paid to the allegory of the line, which evokes previous ideas around visibility, movement and cognition. In the cave allegory, seeing only begins when the body moves away from its fixed position in the cave. With Waldenfels, Kienzler interprets the allegory as a story of kinesthesis (the perception of body movements) (119). Before shifting his attention to Cézanne, Kienzler further develops these notions through the lens of Mischa Kuball’s platon’s mirror (2007), a series of installations, projections and photographs.

Paul Cézanne

After this extensive prelude, stretching over nearly 130 pages, the sixth chapter finally arrives at Cézanne. With a focus on motion, Kienzler argues that Cézanne’s new realism emerged from a radical abandonment of the central perspective. Cézanne’s “copernican turn of vision” (129) was to realize that the way in which we see the world does not correspond with the static construction of the central perspective. In Kienzler’s view, Cézanne’s studies demonstrate that perception is neither geometric nor photographic; in other words, an eye is not a camera. Vision is instead moved by spontaneous shifts in perspective that fuse into a general impression or gestalt.

How did Cézanne make the invisible visible? Drawing on Boehm’s iconic difference, Kienzler describes Cézanne’s method as “starting from the individual, the differences, and keeping an eye on the whole” (140). The first elements in Cézanne’s painting are patches (taches) of colour, insignificant in isolation yet meaningful in their relational network. Like Klee’s “Der L=Platz im Bau,” Cézanne’s “carpet of colour patches” (141) modulates surfaces and sequences, visualizing different perspectives at once. Do Cézanne’s patches of colour represent the parts of the whole? Or do they refer to natural phenomena? For Kienzler, Cézanne’s paintings create a closed philosophical system, in which all individual elements have a meaningful relation to the whole.

Analyzing different commentaries on Cézanne, Kienzler concludes that Cézanne’s art makes visible by disclosing how we perceive. With Cézanne, Kienzler claims, we realize that it is not the mind that sees, but our eye that meets the world in the realm of colour (155). Kienzler dedicates the rest of the chapter to Cézanne’s notions of motif, sensation and réalisation. Here, Kienzler’s reading becomes increasingly interesting. Kienzler defines Cézanne’s realization as “transposing the visible into the visible, i.e. to bring the non-visible into the picture” (155). Kienzler explores Cézanne’s take on his motif in the repeated depiction of the Mont Sainte-Victoire (162). Borrowing extensively from Imdahl’s description of Cézanne’s series, Kienzler interprets the color patches as sensations of the motif, disparate optical impressions of the mountain that reveal new dimensions of its being.

Delving into various philosophical theories of colour, Kienzler defines Cézanne’s art as an ontology of colours. In Cézanne’s ontology, the colour sensation overcomes the divide between subject and object. Inspired by Boehm and Gilles Deleuze’s Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation (1981), Kienzler interprets Cézanne’s sensation as a uniquely ambivalent entwinement between subject and world:

The sensation, therefore, is a tense fusion of what we see with how we see. It can be assigned neither to the world of objects nor to that of subjects alternatively and unambiguously; it thus breaks through a fundamental epistemological distinction. Sensation combines the energy of the human senses with that of external reality. This gives it an oscillating status. (178)

Kienzler’s original interpretation of Cézanne catapults us back into the centre of phenomenology. Evoking Heidegger’s concept of Befindlichkeit, Kienzler describes Cézanne’s sensation as an existential state of being (178). Through colours, the artist expresses her Dasein, transforming what she sees until it matches with what she feels; or, recalling Waldenfels, what she is taken by (pathos). In Cézanne’s view, there is no world, but “only colours and in them the clarity, the being, which cogitates them” (179). The goal of Cézanne’s artistic process, realization, means the congruence of vision and sensation. In the process of realization, the object is not given, but gradually constructed. Kienzler points out that Cézanne’s realization, just like the phenomenological reduction, does not gain truth through reflection of a given reality, but in an act of creation (212).

Paul Klee

The seventh chapter, the heart of Kienzler’s study, examines Klee’s voluminous body of writings and notes from the Bauhaus era (1921-32), known in English as the “Paul Klee Notebooks” [4]. Kienzler explores Klee’s views on motion and time in succession to Cézanne. The chapter opens with a phenomenological interpretation of Klee’s diagram for Ways of Studying Nature (1923). Retracing the relations between artist, object, and world, Kienzler emphasizes the responsive nature of Klee’s metaphysics of vision (245). In this network of relations, there are “optical force lines” (Kraftlinien) and invisible relations, interlacing into a cosmic totality that Klee calls “world” (Welt) in contrast to “earth” (Erde) (244).

Klee’s art strives for totalization, this is the “unity of inside and outside, […] the view of the whole [and] the visualization of the whole” (249). Kienzler claims that Klee’s totalization significantly influenced Heidegger’s The Origin of the Work of Art, especially his notions of Geviert, Sichtbarmachen and Erde (250). Kienzler does not elaborate on this claim. However, precisely this relation between Klee and Heidegger might be one of the book’s fruitful yet unrealized routes into a parallel historiography of phenomenology and modernist art.

Kienzler closely reads Klee’s lecture notes, the Bildnerische Formlehre (Visual Theory of Form) and the later Bildnerische Gestaltungslehre (Visual Theory of Design). Why did Klee change the title from form to gestalt? Quoting Klee, Kienzler argues that a theory of Gestaltung (design) comes closer to the dynamic nature of Klee’s thought. While form refers to “a solid figure,” design traces the ways that lead to this form (255). Kienzler considers Klee’s visual theory an organic theory of life and movement.

Interpreting the Bildnerische Formlehre, Kienzler describes how Klee developed a formal order of basic pictorial elements: point, line, surface and space. These elements can be read through the prism of phenomenology. For Klee, motion, space and time are initiated from the point (with Husserl, the “zero point”) as an active element (268). With phenomenology in mind, Kienzler analyzes how Klee’s lines create rhythm and space:

The line makes visible, it is a mediator between the visible and the invisible world. […] Klee knows how to activate the line and suggest movement. He lets it tread paths in curvatures, angles, tensions and bends in an eternal up and down. The viewer feels movement, dynamically experiences the rhythm and free play. (271)

Kienzler explores Klee’s playful “physiognomics of motion” as a two-folded movement: the artist retraces movement with lines, the viewer retraces the lines with their bodies. Klee’s art is thus both productive and receptive (329). After analyzing other pictorial elements such as surface, space or weight, Kienzler moves into the depths of Klee’s compositional process. Kienzler stresses the cosmological dimension of Klee’s theory of colors, before shifting to the Bildnerische Gestaltungslehre, the sequel to Klee’s earlier lectures.

Focusing on creation and cosmos, this second part deepens the understanding of Klee’s theory, while not adding too much new insight. Kienzler is particularly interested in Klee’s idea of the artist-creator embedded in a dynamic cosmos. An organic totality in motion, Klee’s “polyphonic images appear here as a metaphor for the world as a whole, that is, in its cosmic dimension.” (316) One example for such a polyphonic image is Klee’s 1921 watercolor “Fugue in Red,” an experimental realization of Bach’s composition style.

Kienzler has a particular interest in Klee’s relationship to music and the use of rhythm, tonality, and repetition (287). For Kienzler, Klee’s paintings visualize rhythm following a strict composition scheme. Composition for Klee means defining the structure of living organisms and its interacting parts. Like in the Cézanne chapter, Kienzler understands Klee’s systems of pictorial composition as a philosophical universe. In Klee’s case, the system is a living organism, a metamorphosis, expressed in Klee’s natural motifs like plants or crystals. Klee’s paintings, for Kienzler, create a pictorial Gesamtkunstwerk, the “simultaneous vision of up and down, back and front, inside and outside, left and right, evoked by the movement of the viewer around the object, which is itself in motion” (298).

Kandinsky

Kienzler opens the last chapter with an overview of Kandinsky’s artistic development, starting at the decisive encounter with Claude Monet’s Haystacks in Moscow. Kienzler focuses on Kandinsky’s early texts On the Spiritual in Art (1912; written from 1904 onward) and “On the Question of Form” (1912) as well as Point and Line to Plane (1926) from the Bauhau time. As Kienzler demonstrates, Kandinsky’s philosophy strongly resonates with the phenomenological paradigm. Not paying much attention to Michel Henry’s Kandinsky book, Kienzler sides with Henry claiming that Kandinsky developed a phenomenology of the invisible life (347).

Kandinsky’s phenomenology visualizes inner experience through colour and form, based on the principle of inner necessity. Kienzler understands Kandinsky’s thought as “strict essentialism or substantialism,” stressing its religious-spiritual orientation (377). As a theologian, Kienzler follows the well-trodden path of reading Kandinsky’s oeuvre through the lens of spirituality, arguing that Kandinsky’s notion of the spiritual refers to “the Christian spirit.” (381). This interpretation is certainly justifiable regarding Kandinsky’s early writings. It is more difficult though when it comes to Kandinsky’s later writings in which he abandons a simple anti-materialism towards an ambiguous notion of abstraction.

Starting his phenomenological reading, Kienzler correlates Kandinsky’s distinction between interiority [Innen] and exteriority [Außen] with the phenomenological modes of “Aktmodus” and “Gegenstandsmodus” (372). Form, Kienzler continues, is “the expression [Äußerung] of the inner content” (373) and thus entwines inner and outer experience. Kandinsky’s method is described as a phenomenological reduction, switching between abstraction and realism. This reduction revolves to the essence of the things, or what Kandinsky calls the spiritual.

Kienzler persuasively argues that Kandinsky’s art does not represent, but rather “phenomenologize” the world (376). The act of seeing is an intentional act, transitioning from functionality to “the mode of action of things.” (378) The new world, phenomenologically revealed by Kandinsky, is spiritual, pure, and abstract. As Kienzler emphasizes, Kandinsky was fascinated by time, motion and tension (Spannung), a term he introduced at the Bauhaus. In contrast to motion, Kandinsky’s tension describes the inner forces of elements that lead to movement (384). With regard to Klee, László Moholy-Nagy, and Ludwig Klages, Kienzler retraces the origins and meanings of Kandinsky’s notions of tension and force (Kraft) (385).

Indeed, there is something like a missed encounter between Kandinsky and Klages here. Rather than exploring the potential overlaps between phenomenology and Kandinsky’s project, Kienzler  seems to lose track in Kandinsky’s writings. In what follows, Kienzler provides a summary of On the Spiritual in Art that barely leaves familiar terrain. Once again, Kienzler has an interest in the intimate relation between painting, colour, and music, especially Kandinsky’s synaesthesia as a new way of seeing with all senses (394).

Kienzler’s argument becomes more original when he shifts attention to Kandinsky’s “On the Question of Form” from the Blauer Reiter almanac. It is quite odd that Kienzler refers to this text as “Über die Formlehre,” maybe an erratum due to Klee’s similarly titled lectures? However, Kienzler’s auspicious reading leads us into the heart of Kandinsky’s thought. Circling around Kandinsky’s notions of abstractness and concreteness (Gegenständlichkeit), Kienzler aims to elucidate why Kandinsky later called his paintings concrete rather than abstract (402). How can abstract paintings be concrete?

Kienzler traces Kandinsky’s understanding of concreteness back to the artist’s notions of thing [Ding] and image-thing (Bild-Ding). Kandinsky, in Kienzler’s view, liberated the image from the thing, creating an image-thing that ceases to refer to any external object (see 403). Kandinsky’s image, Kienzler argues, is not mimesis or Abbild, but “an inner relational structure that initially refers only to itself and not to an external shape” (375). As Kienzler rightly points out, Kandinsky’s understanding of abstraction is ambivalent and polysemous. In contrast to Cubism, Kandinsky’s abstract art “creates the forms of expression itself”, thereby constructing a new concrete reality (405). Beyond purely non-figurative painting, Kandinsky understands all art as essentially abstract:

Kandinsky’s abstract image transcends the distinction between non-objectivity and objectivity, since it lies before the latter. In demonstrating something, it also always illustrates the conditions under which the demonstration takes place. Signifiers and signified are distinguishable, but do not exclude each other a priori. Kandinsky’s figurative works, too, are already no longer real representations. They do not represent what appears to be, but how it shows itself, represents itself. (406)

Kienzler traces the origins of Kandinsky’s concrete art back to Theo van Doesburg, Jean Arp, and Max Bill, referring to Doesburg’s conceptual twist of calling figurative painting abstract and non-figurative painting concrete (406). Kandinsky’s concrete art expresses the inner gaze, aiming to capture the spiritual, this is the nature of things (406). Kienzler analyzes in-depth Kandinsky’s attempt to synthesize realism and abstraction, as expressed in his terms of “Große Realistik” (Great Realism) and “Große Abstraktion” (Great Abstraction) (408).

Borrowing extensively from Kandinsky’s writings, Kienzler’s analysis culminates in an interpretation of various sketches and watercolours leading to Kandinsky’s “Komposition VII”, painted shortly before the First World War. Kienzler retraces the development of the final version, exploring Kandinsky’s method and composition. The chapter closes with a brief section on time and motion in Kandinsky’s art, contrasting Kandinsky’s Bild-Zeit (image-time) (440) with Klee’s philosophy of time. Kienzler leaves the reader without a satisfying conclusion, ending with the claim that art is influenced by different conceptions of time and motion.

Conclusion

What can we take from this nearly 500 page-long journey through modern painting and phenomenology? In short, Kienzler’s book is ambitious, open-ended, and potentially verbose. Readers looking for a systematic and concise account of phenomenological thought in the works of Cézanne, Klee, and Kandinsky, will remain rather dissatisfied. Roaming through the material without a clear roadmap, Kienzler’s book does not really come together as a whole. However, Kienzler leads various productive ways into the mutually entwined history of art and phenomenology. His book will hopefully be read as a rich theoretical conceptual toolbox that bears unfulfilled potentialities and opens up new horizons. It is particularly Kienzler’s fusion of phenomenology (Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger, Waldenfels) and image theory (Imdahl, Boehm) that can be valuable for scholars working at the borders of French and German thought, from visual studies and art theory to embodiment and philosophy of perception.


[1] Michel Henry, Seeing the Invisible: On Kandinsky, London; New York: Continuum, 2009, 8.

[2] Klaus Kienzler, Bewegung in die Theologie bringen: Theologie in Erinnerung an Klaus Hemmerle, Freiburg i.Br.: Verlag Herder, 2017.

[3] This and all following quotes are my translation from the original German.

[4] Klee’s Bauhaus notebooks are digitized, transcribed, and accessible online via the Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern. http://www.kleegestaltungslehre.zpk.org/ee/ZPK/Archiv/2011/01/25/00001/

Dorothea E. Olkowski: Deleuze, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty, Indiana University Press, 2021

Deleuze, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty; The Logic and Pragmatics of Creation, Affective Life, and Perception Book Cover Deleuze, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty; The Logic and Pragmatics of Creation, Affective Life, and Perception
Dorothea E. Olkowski
Indiana University Press
2021
Paperback $28.00
180

Chad Engelland (Ed.): Language and Phenomenology

Language and Phenomenology Book Cover Language and Phenomenology
Routledge Studies in Contemporary Philosophy
Chad Engelland (Ed.)
Routledge
2020
Hardback £120.00
318

Reviewed by: Sarah Pawlett Jackson (St Mellitus College)

Language and Phenomenology is a collection of 15 essays edited by Chad Engelland. Doing what it says on the tin, these essays cluster around questions about the relationship between language and phenomenology, in a range of different ways and with different axes of analysis in view. The text is bookended by Engelland himself. In both his Introduction and the essay that culminates the text he draws our attention to the fact that phenomenological discourse is itself a language with its own vocabulary and grammar. As Richard Kearney tells us in his contribution on linguistic and narrative hospitality, ‘a mother tongue has many children’ (267). The text exemplifies these two points in its form and content. If all the contributing authors are fluent in the language of phenomenology, there are nevertheless different dialects, or – to use Engelland’s own terminology – ‘inflections’ (273) represented.

Reading the text as a whole presents as a question the extent to which there is agreement or disagreement between the authors that it gives voice to. The collection seems to offer different conclusions about the nature of the relationship between phenomenology and language, but there is a question in this reader’s mind as to how much of this difference is ultimately terminological, rather than substantively philosophical. These questions of interpretation themselves find a mirror in the questions that are put to us in the text. As reviewing a work involves mediation and a kind of ‘translation’ of the authors, I am minded of Kearney’s observation that ‘…each dialect has its secrets, whence the legitimate double-injunction of every guest language cries to its host: ‘Translate me! Don’t translate me!’ (265). I will explore some of the threads, themes and tensions that the text presents, then, whilst recognising the limits of this ‘translation’.

Between them these essays variously look at the possible relationships and connections between speech and language, language and thought, language and meaning, dialogue and language, dialogue and mood, dialogue and perceptual experience, experience and judgement, language and normativity, language and self-consciousness, experience and interpretation, language and embodiment and language and truth. The most prominent scholarly figures in this text are Husserl and Heidegger, with multiple essays dedicated to exegeting both the early and late work of this prominent pair. Merleau-Ponty, Gadamer and others are also brought into these overlapping and intersecting conversations. All of the essays are rooted in the phenomenological tradition, but many find a natural conversation partner with analytic philosophy, drawing the likes of Wittgenstein and Frege. Aristotle is another figure who makes several appearances, offering another bridging point between traditions, as Heidegger’s analysis of language interacts and modifies Aristotle’s account of language.

This bridging of traditions is perhaps in part a natural feature of the subject matter itself, where the philosophy of language has more typically been seen to be the domain of the of the Anglo-American tradition. As Engelland highlights at the off, the domain of ‘phenomenology of language’ ‘initially appears empty’…While philosophy as conceptual analysis obviously involves a close interaction with language and problems of language, it is not at all clear that the same holds for philosophy as description of the structure of experience. What is the specifically phenomenological contribution to language?’ (1). This text seeks to be part of clarifying and constituting this contribution. It succeeds in offering a rich contribution to ‘phenomenology of language’ as its own domain, tracing some central threads about the fundamental presuppositions such a domain has to grapple with, whilst also making space for detailed reflection on the lived experience of our linguistic lives. In this task the form of a multiplicity of voices is a strength, offering a snapshot of this field in both its depth and breadth. This text would not suit beginners to phenomenology, as it assumes a ready familiarity with the tradition. For those already engaged in phenomenological ideas, the writing is largely very accessible and illuminating.

The text is split into two parts, the first titled ‘Language and Experience’, the second ‘Language and Joint Experience’. The second part therefore takes a specific slant on the over-arching theme of the text, namely the relationship between language and experience in the light of the fact that both are inescapably tied to our intersubjective interactions with others. These two parts, Engelland tells us, seek to track both the first-person and the second-person character of language in our lived experience.

The first section offers eight contributions: Daniel O. Dahlstrom argues that language is the ‘light’ by which objects are illuminated. Taylor Carmen evaluates Merleau-Ponty’s account of the connection between language and the expressive body. Dominique Pradelle explores a way of understanding the ‘pre-predicative’ dimension of experience. Jacob Rump argues that perception has normativity ‘baked in’ and outlines why this is relevant to an understanding of the relationship between language and experience. Scott Campbell offers that Heidegger’s understanding of ‘taking notice’ offers a way of speaking that discloses rather than conceals our experience. Leslie MacAvoy outlines how Heidegger modifies Aristotle’s account by shifting logos to perceptual experience itself. Katherine Whitby offers us eight possible ways that language can disclose the world to us, landing with the centrality of dialogue as world-disclosing. Anna Gosetti-Ferencei focuses on poetry as a particular form of language, exploring the phenomenology of poetry and poetry as phenomenology.

The second section is comprised of seven essays. As the focus here is on the intersubjective dimensions of language and experience, many of these authors interface their analyses with analyses in developmental psychology. The joint attention contexts of language learning shared by infants and their caregivers shed light on connections between intersubjectivity, language and experience which are others hiding in plain sight in our adult experience. Andrew Inkpin argues that neither individualism not social holism are adequate ways of accounting for language, but that both the individual and social aspects of language are compound, complex and co-constitutive. Pol Vandevelde draws on the work of Vygotsky to argue both that language scaffolds thought and thought scaffolds language. Michele Averchi uses Husserl’s distinction between expressions and indications to make the case that while there are non-linguistic forms of information transfer, only linguistic forms can function as truly communicative acts. Lawrence Hatab argues for the priority and necessity of language in all forms of world-disclosure. With a different emphasis, Cathy Culbertson argues that forms of play mirror and prefigure spoken conversation. Richard Kearney offers both an analysis and a manifesto for what he calls ‘narrative hospitality’, characterised by flexibility, plurality, transfiguration and pardon. Engelland culminates with a meditation on the ways that we learn a phenomenological language, arguing that this is grounded in, and a completion of, our ordinary language learning. He sketches a distinction between linguistic and non-linguistic forms of communication in terms of the capacity of the former to reach beyond presence to that which is absent.

Whilst the polycentric nature of an essay collection means that there is not a straightforward over-arching argument to analyse here, the key thread that runs through the text as a whole – as the section headings suggest – is that of the nature of the relationship between language and experience. There are at least three different possible positions one might take to the question of the fundamental relationship between experience and language. Broadly speaking these are: (i) Language is imposed on or secondary to the ‘raw data’ of phenomenal experience, where these are two distinct kinds of thing. (ii) Phenomenal experience is in fact linguistic ‘all the way through’, and there is no such thing as pre-linguistic experience – this is a myth. (iii) There is some category of (something like) pre-linguistic experience but this aspect of our experience is nevertheless still structured in a way that is congruent with or isomorphic to linguistic structure.

If we were to caricature phenomenology, we might be inclined to say that it preaches the first of these positions. One might suppose that in the Husserlian exhortation to get ‘back to the things themselves’ the phenomenologist is seeking to analyse that which is prior to language itself. It soon becomes clear, however, that this is not necessarily the case, and indeed, not the tack that most phenomenologists take, despite the emphasis on lived experience as a methodological starting point. This is both because language survives the bracketing process as part of the content of our experience of the world, but also because it becomes clear that (in some way) language is a condition of the possibility of our experiencing the world in the way that we experience it.

Most phenomenologists want a more nuanced account of the relationship between language and phenomenology, but what is the nature of this relationship – or set of relationships? As Engelland makes foreground in his Introduction, we see in the work of classic and contemporary phenomenologists both that: ‘Experience takes the lead but it is an experience widened by speech. One can thereby identify a basic tension within the phenomenological treatment of language: on the one hand, phenomenology subordinates speech to experience. On the other hand, phenomenology identifies the reciprocity of speech and experience’ (3). Further, phenomenologists want to be ‘mindful of the linguisticality of experience’ (13). Engelland here roughly lays out the three emphases above, highlighting that the phenomenological tradition has included elements that imply (i), (ii) and (iii). These positions, when laid out beside each other, seem mutually incompatible. What then are we to make of these competing emphases? What are the arguments in favour of each? This collection seeks to help us think through this question, by together taking a long hard look at these tensions. Each of the essays in their own way make an attempt to ascertain a coherent understanding of where and how language sits in both the form and the content of our lived experience.

On the face of it, it seems as though different authors in the collection come to different conclusions with respect to the question of whether experience is linguistic ‘all the way through’ or not. Contributors such as Hatab make claims in favour of ‘the priority of language in world-disclosure’ (229), emphasising the way that human beings always already dwell in language – which looks like option (ii). Others such as Pradelle argue that the pre-predicative dimension of experience is more primitive than the linguistic dimension, yet there is a form of logos that structures this ‘lower order’ (58) of experience which bridges it to the linguistic – which looks like option (iii).

Another way of framing the key question here might be: Is logos simply the domain of language? And if not, how are we to understand pre- or extra-linguistic logos, or ‘logos in its nascent state’ (72)? Or again to re-frame, in the inverse: If there is some logical structure to our pre-verbal experience, is this because this pre-verbal content is in fact still in some way ‘linguistic’, so tracks the logos of language (as MacAvoy seems to argue with the claim that ‘perception already speaks’ (120))? Or is there a logic that is genuinely and distinctly pre-linguistic here (As Pradelle and Rump both seem to argue)?

These different suggested relationships cash out in a particular way in the second section of book, which focuses on the intersubjective contexts of both language and experience. These papers focus on communication between people, including both pre-verbal forms of communication and verbal dialogue. Mirroring the questions above, we might ask – when we talk about ‘pre-verbal’, ‘extra-verbal’ or ‘non-verbal’ communication (including, for example tone, gestures and body language) are we saying that there is a kind of ‘grammar’ built into these forms of communication that is quasi-linguistic? Or do these forms of interaction have their own logic which is distinct from language, only secondarily entering into some kind of relationship with the linguistic elements of an interaction? Again, we seem to get different answers to this question. Averchi argues that there is a distinct logical and structural difference between verbal and non-verbal forms of communication, which shows up in the difference between language’s capacity to communicate the absent and the abstract – this looks like option (i). Hatab argues that all communication is linguistic and denies the possibility of experience not already shaped by language, which looks like option (ii). A seemingly different position comes through in Culbertson’s article. She looks at the structural similarities between forms of play and spoken conversation, making a case for a structural similarity, congruence and interconnection of pre-verbal and verbal forms of dialogue in this way. A slightly different take but a similar conclusion comes from Pol Vandevelde, using Husserl, who highlights the difference between ‘semantic consciousness’ and ‘phonetic consciousness’ (199). Semantic consciousness is the ‘perceiving-as’ that we are most familiar with: when I hear someone speaking in English, I cannot hear this as ‘mere noise’ but I non-inferentially hear the meaning of the words and sentences. Phonetic consciousness however highlights a slightly different layer of meaning in my reception of speech. Even when I hear someone speaking in a foreign language that I don’t understand, I still grasp it as speech. This maps onto the development of speech in infants, where an infant can recognise speech patterns as speech, and join in proto-dialogue, before understanding the meaning of the words themselves. In Vygotsky’s words, there is ‘a prelinguistic phase in the development of thought and a preintellectual phase in the development of speech’ (195). Vandevelde’s endorsement of this here looks like option (iii).

This central question re-framed yet another way asks: Is language a broader category than we might ordinarily think it is (incorporating the seemingly non-verbal) or is logos a broader category than we might ordinarily think it is (incorporating the non-linguistic)? And – what is at stake in this difference, if anything? This is where the question of the philosophically substantive vs merely terminological comes into play. Does it make a difference if we think about this dimension of our experience as structured by pre-linguistic logos or by pre-verbal language? Are these two ways of saying the same thing? If not, what further might be needed to distinguish these two ways of thinking? This is a genuine question, but I don’t think that the collection as a whole can land us either way.

A slightly different take on this central question asks whether language is necessarily objectifying of our experience, with this question is addressed head on by Campbell. Again, the caricature of the phenomenologist in our minds might say that all language is theory-laden, and it brings a distorting or at least limited and limiting lens to the ‘given’ of experience. This perspective, which has a clear alignment with option (i) above, might argue that language is always re-presenting what is presented in experience. However, there is another suggestion, that language can also straightforwardly present our experience, and successfully communicate this experience to another. Here we have the thought that different types of speech do different kinds of things, in different ‘phenomenological registers’ (109) and perhaps disclose or conceal the world in different ways. Campbell looks at Heidegger’s analysis of the writings of St Paul as a case of ‘taking notice’. Gosetti-Ferencei’s account of the ‘phenomenological moments’ (150) in poetry also offers a picture of language which ‘presents’ rather than represents. ‘Taking notice’ is ‘a kind of pre-predicative and non-propositional language, that is, a language that is evocative, perhaps even stream of consciousness, narrative and exploratory instead of theoretical and objectifiying’ (96). This kind of language is to be distinguished from Heideggerian ‘idle talk’, which conceals the lived reality of our experience. We might read Campbell’s interpretation of Heidegger as akin to option (ii), particularly where he contrasts this with his interpretation of Husserl, which looks more like option (iii). He says: ‘Husserl…thought that predicative language could bring to light the inherent meaningfulness in pre-predicative experience. Heidegger on the other hand, explored a way of thinking about language that was itself pre-predicative’ (110). Whether Campbell’s interpretation of both Husserl and Heidegger is right here is its own question, but even if Campbell is right here, this is not necessarily a point that forces a further dialectic, as both positions could be true. These two articulations of how language might disclose the meaning of experience are not mutually exclusive. There is nothing in this analysis which can arbitrate between option (ii) or (iii) for us. Again, we might wonder how much is ultimately at stake between them, if anything.

Part of the difficulty in assessing where philosophical differences lie and where differences are merely terminological is connected to the fact that both ‘language’ and ‘experience’ ae themselves such wide and contested terms. Each have a cloud of (overlapping) concepts associated with them, and how one understands these associations makes all the difference for the conclusions one draws about the nature of other associations. How one understands the relationship between, for example, dialogue and language will shape how one understands the relationship between dialogue and experience and therefore between experience and language. What gets defined into the relata in question defines what is claimed about the nature and possibility of the relationship. For example, whilst Hatab makes the strong claim that ‘the disclosure of the world is gathered in language, not objects, perception, thought or consciousness’ (299), we find that he defines ‘language’ in such as way that includes ‘facial expressions, touch, physical interactions, gestures, sounds, rhythms, intonations, emotional cues, and a host of behavioral contexts’ (236). This to say, Hatab defines a host of non-verbal embodied interactions into what he means by language. With all manner of embodied meaning brought under the umbrella of language, the claim that language is the sole discloser of the world no longer looks like the narrow claim it initially did. And as above, once language is given a wide definition, it is less clear what is at stake, if anything, between a position like Hatab’s and a position like Pradelle’s. Perhaps Hatab’s non-verbal ‘language’ and Pradelle’s ‘pre-linguistic logos’ are the same thing, and there are ways of seeing option (ii) and option (iii) as the same thing viewed two different ways.

This point about definitional difference noted, a more fertile way of exploring further the possibility of extra-linguistic dimension of our experience might ask: how are we to understand the nature and structure of a pre-linguistic logos (or a pre-verbal language)? The suggestion from a number of authors is that this is given by the normativity that is built into perceptual experience itself. The structure of consciousness as intentionality, which means that seeing is seeing-as, hearing is hearing-as, and so on, gives us the logos embedded in perception. What are the conditions of possibility for consciousness so structured? As MacAvoy gestures towards in her essay, the structure of the world itself is relevant here, and further analysis of the networks of meaning embedded in the ‘interobjectivity’ of things might be part of this further exploration. There is also a possible theological direction in view here, as Kearney indicates – ‘there is no pure pristine logos, unless it is God’s’ (265). Indeed, further exploration of the pre-linguistic logos might take the famous opening lines of St John’s gospel as its starting cue: ‘In the beginning was the logos.Language and Phenomenology offers a springboard to further exploration of this logos baked into to fabric of reality and the logic of phenomenal consciousness, though the conversation is still unfolding.

Tomáš Koblížek: La conscience interne de la langue, Lambert-Lucas, 2021

La conscience interne de la langue: Essai phénoménologique Book Cover La conscience interne de la langue: Essai phénoménologique
Philosophie et langage
Tomáš Koblížek. Préface de Claude Imbert
Lambert-Lucas
2021
Paperback 18,00 €
152

Frank Chouraqui: The Body and Embodiment: A Philosophical Guide, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2021

The Body and Embodiment: A Philosophical Guide Book Cover The Body and Embodiment: A Philosophical Guide
Frank Chouraqui:
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
2021
Paperback $31.95
220

Véronique M. Fóti: Merleau-Ponty at the Gallery: Questioning Art beyond His Reach

Merleau-Ponty at the Gallery: Questioning Art beyond His Reach Book Cover Merleau-Ponty at the Gallery: Questioning Art beyond His Reach
SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
Véronique M. Fóti
SUNY Press
2020
Paperback $31.95
164

Reviewed by: David Collins (McGill University)

Overview

There are at least two approaches to what may be called ‘applied phenomenology’: one involves performing a phenomenological analysis of one’s own by closely attending to, describing, and critically interrogating one’s first-personal experiences of some phenomenon; the other involves applying existing phenomenological theory—i.e., the results of another’s, or one’s own, prior phenomenological analysis—to some phenomenon in order to understand it in phenomenological terms. (These are not the only approaches, of course, and they need not be mutually exclusive.) With respect to art and aesthetic experience, the first approach can be seen in Mikel Dufrenne’s The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience (1973) and in Samuel Mallin’s Art Line Thought (1996). (For an example of an analysis of a painting that employs Mallin’s body phenomenology, see Crippen 2014.) The second approach is more common, not only in phenomenological reflections on art but in applied phenomenology generally. Done well, it is a matter of putting some phenomenon into dialogue with an established phenomenologist so as to explore how his or her theory can inform and enrich our understanding and, ideally, our experience of the phenomenon—and, reciprocally, how the phenomenon can clarify, challenge, or modify the theory. (For an example of such a dialogue between Merleau-Ponty’s thought and art, see Hacklin 2012.) However, there is a risk of merely translating our pre-existing understanding of the phenomenon into the language of the theory in a way that adds neither to our understanding nor to the theory, but merely fits the phenomenon into the theory’s framework.

Véronique M. Fóti’s new book, Merleau-Ponty at the Gallery, takes the second approach, promising to put Merleau-Ponty’s reflections on visual art—along with other elements of his philosophy—into dialogue with the work of five 20th century artists in a way that will shed new light on these artists’ works and practices while illuminating, and in places challenging, Merleau-Ponty’s thinking. Unfortunately it does not live up to this promise or to the precedent set by Fóti’s previous work on both Merleau-Ponty and the phenomenology of art (see, e.g., Fóti 1992, Fóti 1996), which includes her recent volume exploring the notion of expression in Merleau-Ponty’s aesthetics, ontology, and philosophy of biology (Fóti 2013). This is not to say that Fóti’s new book is not interesting or valuable, only that it is not as valuable as it might have been. It will interest readers familiar with Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception but who are less familiar with his aesthetic reflections or his late ontology, since one of the strengths of the book is Fóti’s explications of these elements of his thought. Another strength is her discussion of the works and practices of the artists she has selected and her use of them to illustrate Merleau-Ponty’s ideas. In this respect, Fóti’s book is valuable for showing how well his ideas fit the work of artists beyond those he himself wrote on. Fóti’s research here into and engagement with art historical and critical work on the artists she considers is admirably thorough.

That being said, it is not clear that Fóti’s framing of these works and artists in terms of Merleau-Ponty’s thought reveals aspects of the works and practices that are not already noted in the art historical and critical scholarship she cites; the discussion often amounts to Fóti noting similarities or convergences between some aspect of an artwork or an artist’s practice and something Merleau-Ponty wrote, or showing how existing interpretations of these works can be put in his terms. Similarly, it is not clear that this book will offer many new insights into Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy for readers already familiar with his work and the secondary literature on it, since his thought is not significantly complicated, questioned, supplemented, etc. in the ways one would expect from a genuine dialogue. Nevertheless, Fóti’s discussion and descriptions of works by artists who—with the exception of Cy Twombly—are under-attended to in philosophical aesthetics will interest philosophers of art, and her explication of Merleau-Ponty’s ideas will be useful for art historians and critics with an interest in phenomenology or a wish to ground their work in an amenable ontology. Fóti’s final chapter, which considers the disavowal of beauty in much 20th century art and art theory, and suggests what she calls ‘strong beauty’ as a way to reclaim the notion while avoiding its purportedly problematic aspects, is worth further consideration—and perhaps further development in a future work—, although this chapter feels somewhat disconnected from the others since it draws significantly on only one of the artists from the preceding chapters, with the significance being minor.

With these six chapters, plus introduction and conclusion, coming to 112 pages before endnotes, bibliography, and index, this book is on the short side, which makes it easy to read and to refer back to, e.g., for locating particular examples of artworks. However, the lack of any illustrations is unfortunate: this is a book that calls for high quality colour reproductions of the works discussed. (To be fair, the choice to omit illustrations may not have been Fóti’s but an editor’s. There are also a number of minor typographical errors that hopefully will be corrected in future printings, e.g., parenthetical comments with the second parenthesis misplaced or simply missing, which leaves the reader to intuit where the comment ends and the sentence into which it is inserted resumes.) As mentioned, chapter 6 sketches a theory of beauty that is meant to avoid worries about links between the idea of beauty as traditionally understood and the morally troubling practices it is sometimes thought to support. Fóti draws on Merleau-Ponty to develop this theory but goes beyond his writings which, as she notes, contain a “near-silence concerning beauty” (95); this chapter is where most of Fóti’s original ideas can be found.

Chapter-by-Chapter Synopsis

In the introduction, Fóti outlines her approach to applying Merleau-Ponty’s aesthetics and details the common threads or convergences to be found between his thought and the works of the artists she has selected for her focus. She notes twin tendencies in the scholarship on Merleau-Ponty’s aesthetics: “to focus predominantly on the very same artists or artistic movements with which he himself engaged,” such as Cézanne, Klee, Matisse, Rodin, and post-impressionism and cubism, and “to concentrate on the issues that he himself discusses in his aesthetic writings, rather than engaging directly with artworks and the practices of artmaking” to bring them “into dialogue with Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology” (1-2). She is right that a tendency to repeat the same examples that ‘big-name’ philosophers have used is limiting and can be a sign of a lack of original understanding or a lack of familiarity with the range of phenomena from which the usual examples are drawn, and that it would make for better scholarship to engage directly with a new range of artworks and examples. It would also lead to better phenomenology, since it would make the results of individual phenomenological analyses less likely to be reified as universal claims about the nature of art when these results may have been specific to those examples.

The choice to focus on artists who, except for Morandi (whose was a near-contemporary of Merleau-Ponty’s), were part of an artworld slightly after his time avoids these limitations and lets her test whether Merleau-Ponty’s views map onto works and practices from a later period in visual art’s history with new developments, directions and styles. However, as noted above, the work of these  artists is not always brought into mutual dialogue with Merleau-Ponty’s thought,  or at least the claim that her consideration of these works “did not simply confirm [his] analyses but also … deepened or complicated them or introduced critical perspectives” (3) is not reflected in what is said about each one in the subsequent chapters. Instead, the areas of convergence that she finds between these artists’ works and Merleau-Ponty’s ideas are often presented by noting similarities between what an artist does and an observation or a view of Merleau-Ponty’s, where these similarities are not always clearly explicated and where more could be done to explain how a particular work exemplifies or embodies Merleau-Ponty’s claims. These convergences are: ‘interweaving dualities’, i.e., the collapsing of binary dichotomies between figuration and abstraction, subject and object of perception, etc.; the relation between image and writing, including the nature of written texts as both visual and linguistic; the ‘thingness’ of artworks, i.e., their in-between status as more than ‘mere’ things but distinct from tools or equipment for use, and their relation to materiality; the question of the artist’s historical situatedness and the ‘timeliness’ of their work. The biological need for beauty is also listed as a convergence, but it is not clear how this counts given Merleau-Ponty’s (and some of the five artists’) relative lack of concern with beauty.

Chapter 1 focuses on Giorgio Morandi, whose work Fóti sees as converging with Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy with respect to his explorations of vision and visibility and his refusal to draw a hard-and-fast distinction between figuration and abstraction. The suggestion is that Morandi’s still lifes of ordinary objects such as bottles and vases work to subtly defamiliarize these objects while keeping them recognizable; as Fóti puts it, they “unhinge things and their configurations from customary identification without, however, treating them as mere pretexts for painterly innovation” (17). This is linked to the idea of suspending or bracketing ‘profane’ vision to leave room for ‘primordial’ vision, which idea is fundamental to Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of phenomenology and his notion of visual art’s ability to disclose and thematize this primordial vision and its workings, and thereby to “rende[r] visible what could not otherwise be so” (14). In other words, the claim is that the familiar character of the objects Morandi paints, e.g., bottles, is placed in the background (rather than being removed entirely) so that their character as visible, or things-that-appear, and the ways in which they appear to us, can be brought to the fore.

This is a fertile point of convergence between Morandi’s painting and Merleau-Ponty’s thinking, although it would be nice if how Morandi’s paintings do these things were explained rather than it being just asserted that they do. The concrete, practical details of the paintings or Morandi’s process that Fóti describes do not sufficiently explain this; instead, not all of these points are clearly relevant to the rest of the discussion, e.g., noting that Morandi often uses “a rich and subtle palette of grayed earth tones, siennas, golds and whites, or earth greens and muted violets [which] is restrained, with a somewhat melancholy echo of classical antiquity” (16). This works well as a description of Morandi’s use of colour, but it does not obviously relate to or explain how “things constellate and configure themselves in space” in his paintings, as Fóti claims (Ibid.). Seeking out and viewing Morandi’s paintings does not help to make these claims concrete in the same way that one can easily see the fittingness of what Merleau-Ponty says about, e.g., Cézanne’s paintings from looking at them. There is a nice description of Morandi’s Still Life with Yellow Cloth, but what this painting is described as doing is not significantly different from what Merleau-Ponty already describes Cézanne’s still lifes as doing, such as the absence of a fixed perspective; moreover, it is unclear how this description relates to the point about the “mutual precession” of seer and seen that follows it (18). Since what Fóti is claiming about Morandi’s paintings here is much the same as what Merleau-Ponty claimed of Cézanne’s, it would have been helpful if more attention had been paid to the ways in which Morandi’s work differs from Cézanne’s and the implications of these differences for Merleau-Ponty’s thought.

Another theme that is discussed in this chapter is the place of ‘thingness’ in Morandi’s work, given his frequent depictions of commonplace objects in ways that emphasize both their materiality and what Merleau-Ponty would call their ambiguity or ‘perceptual nonresolution’. However, most of the discussion of this theme is done in relation to Heidegger and not Merleau-Ponty; while it is true that Heidegger dwells more on the nature of ‘thingness’ (i.e., the being of things qua things), it feels somewhat disjointed for the focus to switch to Heidegger so early on in a book that is meant to be primarily about Merleau-Ponty.

Chapter 2 turns to Kiki Smith, whose work is linked to Merleau-Ponty’s thought insofar as she is concerned with the body and its vulnerability, organic nature and animality, and exploring our relations to the usually invisible insides of bodies by opening them out to view. As with the chapter on Morandi, the main convergence discussed here is the intertwining of dualities; however, where the dualities that were found to be intertwined in Morandi’s work have to do with perception and with painting as an expression of vision, those in terms of which Smith’s work is discussed have to do with the overlap or blending (‘inter-being’/Ineinander) of conceptual categories such as humanity and animality, life and elemental nature, nature and cosmos, in their “ecological coexistence” (27).  This is seen in examples discussed of works in which Smith defamiliarizes not the visual appearances of objects but the themes and symbols of traditional folklore, such as her sculpture Daughter, which presents Red Riding Hood as a wolf-girl.

The connections Fóti draws between Smith and Merleau-Ponty are more tenuous than those drawn between the philosopher and Morandi in the previous chapter. There is, for example, an extended discussion of play and imagination as the transcendence of a fixed perspective on actuality (33-34), but this is not linked to Smith and instead the discussion moves from this to some remarks on her work’s relationship to ideas of beauty. Also, just how each one handles the common theme of our corporeality is not discussed in a way that adds to or informs our understanding of either. Instead, the discussion often takes the form of noting a theme in Smith’s work, describing an example or two of particular works that explore this theme, and then noting what Merleau-Ponty says about that theme. For instance, Fóti mentions that pregnancy is a recurring theme in Smith’s work and that Merleau-Ponty used the concept of pregnancy as a metaphor (29), but nothing more is made of this and it is not shown why the fact that both explored this metaphor is important: how do the ways in which they explored or employed it compare or differ, and what can this tell us about either their work or the concept itself? Similarly, Smith may have linked her concern with the body to her background in Catholicism, and Merleau-Ponty, sharing this background, may have written about the importance of the body and the idea of incarnation to Christianity (31), but—at the risk of being blunt—so what?

Without saying more to connect these themes in their work at more than a superficial level, what is meant to be a dialogue between their work and ideas fails (ironically) to intertwine the two: their work and ideas are not put into the sort of ‘inter-being’ that is found between, say, humanity and animality in Smith’s work, and instead the discussion becomes something closer to a listing of similarities that keeps these similarities side-by-side, rather than a dialogical exchange in which they are made to commingle. At the end of the chapter there is a passage suggesting how Fóti thinks Smith’s work might inform and supplement Merleau-Ponty’s ideas, where she writes that “[a]lthough Merleau-Ponty speaks of the elementality of flesh, he does not develop or concretize his understanding of elementality beyond pointing to the ancient (Presocratic) provenance of that notion,” whereas “Smith’s art allows the elements to come to presence … in their everyday and easily overlooked modalities of presencing” (41). This is the kind of point that I would like to see explored and developed further, and even given a central place in the discussion, since it points to the kind of dialogue that was promised.

Chapter 3 considers the work of Cy Twombly, focusing especially on those of his paintings that incorporate writing to explore both the visual qualities and the historical resonances of particular words, sentences, and fragments of text, which allows Fóti to bring Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of language to bear on the discussion. Fortunately, the convergences or points of connection between Twombly’s work and Merleau-Ponty’s thought are less tenuous—or at least are better explained—than those claimed in the previous two chapters. Here Fóti links the relation between image and text to the relation of materiality to ideality or meaning in order to analyze Twombly’s use of writing (and ‘quasi-writing’) in his visual art through a Merleau-Pontian lens in a way that does more than just note how something Twombly does resembles or is an example of one of the philosopher’s ideas. This gives us a way of attending to, understanding, and appreciating the art that goes beyond what is available from looking at it without this lens. Moreover, it involves Fóti making points that Merleau-Ponty did not already make himself about a different artist, as is the case with the points about Morandi in the first chapter and Merleau-Ponty’s remarks on Cézanne.

Of particular interest here is what is said concerning the ways in which the incorporation of writing in Twombly’s work exemplifies, or rather, enacts, Merleau-Ponty’s questioning in works such as “Eye and Mind” (1960) of any ontological separation between visual and verbal artforms. By bringing the visual form of written language to our attention, whether this is in the form of actual letters and words, or in the looping lines in Twombly’s ‘blackboard’ paintings that show up for us as writing-like—while remaining illegible since they are not actual writing but what Fóti calls ‘quasi-writing’—, Twombly defamiliarizes writing and introduces a multidimensional or ‘diacritical’ field of meanings and associations that go beyond mere semantic or literal meaning. This treats words and letters as figures rather than as signs, which highlights both the gestures involved in writing certain letters or words and the materiality of the sign itself, which illustrates the embodied grounds of language and expression. Additionally, Twombly’s attention to the trace left by the act of writing and his erasures, effacements, and concealments of words in his paintings, along with the deferral of meaning this produces, are informed by reading this practice in the light of Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the “invisible of the visible” (48).

Unlike the other chapters, here Fóti does explain how considering Twombly’s work in relation to Merleau-Ponty’s ideas can complicate and inform the latter’s philosophy. For example, Twombly’s questioning of the separation between the visual and the verbal lends weight to Merleau-Ponty’s suspicion of this dualism in “Eye and Mind” over his apparent endorsement of this separation, viz., his distinction between painting as (or as allowing) ‘timeless meditation’ vs. literature as tied to its historical situation in “Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence” (1952). As well, Fóti considers whether Twombly’s practices of drawing in the dark and with his non-dominant hand in order to disrupt the habitual connections between hand and eye, and between painting and vision, might pose a challenge for Merleau-Ponty’s thought. She concludes that they do not, arguing that dissociating hand, eye, and mind only introduces a problem for what Merleau-Ponty calls ‘profane’ vision; however, it is not clear why drawing ‘blind’ would lead to a more genuine or ‘primordial’ kind of vision, although it does plausibly allow for an element of embodied expression, which always underlies the act of drawing or painting, to be foregrounded. While these points about the relation of Twombly’s work and Merleau-Ponty’s thought are in keeping with what was promised in the introduction, the rest of this chapter—e.g., the descriptions of Twombly’s series of paintings about the Trojan war—is far less clear as to the connections being made or their importance.

Chapters 4 and 5 consider the art of Joan Mitchell and Ellsworth Kelley, respectively. The chapter on Mitchell consists mostly of descriptions of her paintings and practices, her thoughts on her work, and biographical details. These descriptions are well-wrought and thoughtful and the details are interesting; together they work to give us a good sense of her art. Fóti explores the ways her non-figurative expressionist paintings combine disintegration and turbulence with order and balance, how her paintings explore ambiguities between figure and ground, and the tension in her practice between spontaneity and deliberation. However, not much of a link is drawn between her work and Merleau-Ponty’s ideas: Mitchell’s interest in how colours combine and interact is mentioned alongside Merleau-Ponty’s remarks in “Eye and Mind” about colour as giving us visual textures and as supporting identities and differences, but these two concerns about colour are not obviously the same and their relation is not made clear. Fóti does note that Mitchell’s relationship to colour can be compared to what Merleau-Ponty says about Cézanne’s use of colour, but just how they compare or why this is a substantial convergence between her art and his thought is again not made clear. Similarly, Fóti discusses how Mitchell seeks to capture the felt ‘essences’ of experience in abstract forms and through colour, and notes that Merleau-Ponty is critical of the traditional quest for essences in philosophy but makes room in his thought for ‘carnal’ rather than ‘pure’ essences. However, it is not clear that Mitchell and Merleau-Ponty mean the same thing by ‘essence’ here; if they do not, there is no conflict, so it is again unclear just what relation between the artworks and philosophy is being drawn.

The chapter on Kelly focuses on his plant drawings and their relation to his better-known colour field paintings, where Fóti suggests they were a step on the way from figuration to abstraction in his work. The chapter also looks at Kelly’s artistic practice in terms of the interrelation of hand, eye, and mind and the involvement of memory in perception, and discusses Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of nature and biology, although Kelly’s work ends up mainly illustrating rather than informing Merleau-Ponty’s ideas. The discussion of the plant drawings is similar to the points made about Morandi’s work, with the claim here being that these drawings disclose a ‘primordial’ vision by abstracting from the familiar appearances of ‘profane’ vision. As in the discussion of Mitchell, the notion of art’s ability to disclose the essences of things is prominent here: by concentrating on lines that capture the shapes and visual rhythms of plant life and eschewing three-dimensional representation, colour, etc., Fóti claims that Kelly’s work is able to present “the very essence of the plant” or its “genuine essentiality” (75-76). Despite the decisiveness of these claims, it is unclear why we should take Kelly’s drawings to do this rather than to foreground an aspect of the plants he draws; this seems to involve what we might call a ‘reductionist bias’, i.e., presupposing that the ‘essence’ of a phenomenon will be a pared down or simplified version of it rather than thinking that essences could be as rich—as complex, messy, and muddled—as phenomena themselves. Not only is it unclear in what sense stripping away three-dimensionality and colour, and abstracting a linear form from its background or context, presents us with “what the eye sees” (77), but this seems to be in tension with the importance Merleau-Ponty places on colour, background, and, especially, depth.

The sixth and final chapter on beauty is identified as a version of a lecture given at the 2019 meeting of the International Merleau-Ponty Circle, which makes sense of its disconnect from the first five chapters, i.e., the lack of any substantial relation to the artists discussed therein, except for a brief discussion of Kelly and passing mentions of Morandi, Smith, and Mitchell. Here Fóti’s aim is to offer a theory of beauty that rescues it from “[t]he critique and eclipse of beauty as an artistic aim and ideal” in much 20th century art and art theory (93), and she does this largely by elaborating on a remark made in one of Merleau-Ponty’s lecture courses (see Merleau-Ponty 1996), viz.: “By the disintegration of the figurative, one finds a Beauty which is sought by painting’s internal exigency, and which no longer hides pain and death, being the profound sensitivity thereto” (quoted by Fóti, 61). Her suggestion is that ‘strong beauty’ avoids the worries behind the 20th century discrediting of beauty—especially post-WWII concerns about beauty’s potential complicity with evil—because totalitarian projects are based on worldviews where everything is taken to be fully present to view and completely determinable, and because strong beauty necessarily involves acknowledging the invisible in its interrelation with the visible. In other words, the idea is that works with strong beauty cannot be (mis-)used for ideological aims because they cannot be totalized or objectified but are opaque and enigmatic, whereas an ideological appropriation and use of art cannot tolerate ambiguity.

Since strong beauty is characterized in terms of enigma and opacity is it perhaps not surprising that Fóti never quite tells us exactly what it is. We are told that strong beauty: is not merely external attractiveness but is intrinsic to a work’s meaning; is not related to pleasure but rather to feelings of intensity, is not opposed to ugliness or abjection; is a character not of objects but of events, and so is not a representation but a revelation; involves being open to the universe rather than wanting to impose one’s own vision onto it; must have an “uncompromising ethicality” (Ibid.); must refuse ‘absolutization’ by remaining enigmatic and unforeseeable, always “exceeding one’s spectrum of preformed possibilities” (99). This is all rather vague, and we might expect that examples of particular artworks that manifest strong beauty would make this clear, especially given Fóti’s concern throughout the book to illustrate her more abstract points by way of presenting detailed and concrete descriptions of works. Unfortunately, the works of art that are mentioned as examples of strong beauty—such as Chinese and Japanese calligraphy, and some of the works of Kiki Smith, Lucian Freud, Narvar Bhavsar, and Agnes Martin—are merely asserted to have this character without explaining what it is in virtue of which they have it.

There is a worry here that what Smith is describing departs from what is customarily or traditionally called ‘beauty’ to the point where by changing the definition she in effect changes the topic while continuing to use the same label. There is also a worry that building a moral component into the idea of strong beauty by requiring its ethicality is only done to make it immune from the worries about beauty’s compatibility with evil by merely asserting their incompatibility. Nevertheless, despite these worries and the vagueness of Fóti’s explication, her comments on strong beauty and the experience of our encounters with it, as well as the implications of these comments for the relation between art, morality, and politics, are worth further exploration.

Concluding Assessment

This book offers a fairly enjoyable and interesting read, but one that will be of limited use to those who are already familiar with Merleau-Ponty’s aesthetic thought and late ontology other than as a resource of examples that illustrate his ideas. Readers looking for this, however, will find the book valuable: Fóti’s close descriptions of particular artworks are eloquent and informative, and the details she provides about the lives and practices of the artists whose work she considers are intriguing and show a deep familiarity with the art-historical and critical literature. Although Fóti successfully explicates many ideas that are of central importance for Merleau-Ponty’s thought post-Phenomenology of Perception, this will mainly serve as summary for readers with their own background knowledge of Merleau-Ponty rather than adding anything new to what readers can gain by reading works such as “Eye and Mind”. (For readers seeking this, Fóti’s 2013 Tracing Expression in Merleau-Ponty is recommended.) Moreover, these ideas are explained in a way that likely will be too advanced for readers who do not already have a background in Merleau-Ponty’s thought, or in phenomenology and 20th century continental philosophy more generally, and readers who come to the book from a background in art history or art theory will need to supplement their reading in order to grasp the ideas of Merleau-Ponty’s that are presented here. Ultimately, while Fóti’s knowledge of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy and of art history are enviable, this book does not obviously make a significantly new contribution to either Merleau-Ponty scholarship or to the art-historical literature on the artists discussed, except for the first half of Chapter 3, where she analyzes Twombly’s combinations of image and writing, and Chapter 6 with its suggestions for a theory of beauty that hopefully will be clarified and developed further in future work.

References

Crippen, M. 2014. “Body Phenomenology, Somaesethetics and Nietzschean Themes in Medieval Art.” Pragmatism Today, vol. 5, no. 2, pp. 45-50.

Dufrenne, M. 1973. The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience. Translation by E. S. Casey. Northwestern University Press.

Fóti, V. M. 1992. Heidegger and the Poets: Poiesis, Sophia, Techne. Humanities Press.

Fóti, V. M. 1996. Merleau-Ponty: Difference, Materiality, Painting. Humanities Press.

Fóti, V. M. 2013. Tracing Expression in Merleau-Ponty: Aesthetics, Philosophy of Biology, and Ontology. Northwestern University Press.

Hacklin, S. 2012. Divergencies of Perception: The Possibilities of Merleau-Pontian Phenomenology in Analyses of Contemporary Art. PhD thesis. University of Helsinki. Retrieved from https://helda/helsinki.fi/bitstream/handle/10138/29433/divergen.pdf.

Mallin, S. B. 1996. Art Line Thought. Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Merleau-Ponty, M. 1952. “Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence.” Revised translation by B. Smith. In The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader, G. A. Johnson (ed.), pp. 76-120. Northwestern University Press.

Merleau-Ponty, M. 1960. “Eye and Mind.” Revised translation by M. B. Smith. In The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader, G. A. Johnson (ed.), pp. 121-149. Northwestern University Press.

Merleau-Ponty, M. 1996. Notes de cours, 1959–1961. Edited by Stéphanie Ménasé. Gallimard.

Harald A. Wiltsche, Philipp Berghofer (Eds.): Phenomenological Approaches to Physics

Phenomenological Approaches to Physics Book Cover Phenomenological Approaches to Physics
Synthese Library, Vol. 429
Harald A. Wiltsche, Philipp Berghofer (Eds.)
Springer
2020
Hardback 103,99 €
VI, 263

Reviewed by: Mahmoud Jalloh (University of Southern California)

Phenomenological Approaches to Physics is a welcome attempt to bridge the gap between two areas of philosophy not often mentioned in the same career, let alone the same breath. The collection provides fertile ground for further work on phenomenological approaches to physics—and science more generally—however, as much as the collection is promising, it is also disappointing in the preparatory nature of much of the material. While this is a general vice of the phenomenological tradition—consider how many of Husserl’s published works are introductions to phenomenologyin order to appeal to one of the primary audiences of the collection, phenomenology-curious philosophers of physics, further developments with clear consequences are needed. Many of the papers stop just as they’ve really started. This collection is of value for many purposes: as a general introduction to phenomenology, as a guide to the consequences of phenomenology for science and physics, as a pointer to areas of application for the budding phenomenologist, but it also provides some indications of particular lines of further development.

The editor’s introduction is relatively long, but deservedly so, as it does a lot, providing expositions of ten themes from Husserl’s oeuvre: anti-psychologism, intentionality, descriptions and eidetics, the epistemic significance of experience, phenomenology as first philosophy, anti-naturalism, the life-world, historicity and genetic phenomenology, embodiment and intersubjectivity, the epochē, transcendental reduction, and transcendental idealism. The sketch of Husserl produced is that of an epistemological internalist who develops a theory of the objective from fundamental subjectivity, who denies empiricism about logic and mathematics, and who holds that phenomenology is a first philosophy which comprises analyses of the essential structures of subjectivity, the ground of all knowledge, therefore legitimizing all other forms of knowledge, sciences. Any reader interested in a first pass at the role of these themes in Husserl’s work could probably do so no more efficiently than looking through the first half of this introduction. A highlight of the introduction is a sketch of the relevance of other phenomenologists, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, to the philosophy of physics. The themes brought up in the introduction and elsewhere are suggestive: Heidegger’s pluralism regarding scientific standards and the difference in the concepts of time in physics and history; his preemption of the theory-ladenness of observation; his praise of Weyl; his primacy of practical understanding over theoretical knowledge; Merleau-Ponty’s participatory realism; his analysis of measurement and rejection of instrumentalism, realism, and idealism, in favor of structuralism.

Part 1: On the Origins and Systematic Value of Phenomenological Approaches to Physics

Robert Crease’s “Explaining Phenomenology to Physicists” is a response to philosophy-phobic physicists, like Hawking, and aims to show how the projects of phenomenological philosophy and physics differ. This amounts to a sort of introduction to the Husserlian distinction between the natural, or naturalistic, attitude of the physicist in her workshop and the more skeptical attitude of the epochē adopted by the phenomenologist. Note that Crease makes the same point that Maudlin and other metaphysically oriented philosophers of physics often emphasize, that mathematical formulae do not comprise a theory but require an interpretation, an ontology (57). How this interpretation is established and justified is the common project of the phenomenologist and the analytic metaphysician. But herein lies a problem with the Crease essay, which is that it while it distinguishes analytic (narrowly focused on the logical analysts of science of the early 20th century), pragmatic, and phenomenological approaches to the sciences, Crease does not say enough to distinguish a defense of phenomenological approaches to physics from a defense of a philosophical approach to physics whatsoever. Now Crease may make the point that phenomenology preempted concerns with the metaphysics of physics or concerns regarding the applicability of mathematical idealization to nature that have more recently become central to the philosophy of physics. Further, it is not clear that this is a fair reading of the aims of the logical empiricists. What is the logical empiricist project of establishing how scientific, “theoretical” terms get their meaning if not a concern with the “framing” of scientific theories and “the reciprocal impact of that frame and what appears in it on their way of being” (55)? This is not to say there is no distinction to be drawn, but the discussion here is not fully convincing as an argument for the value of phenomenology in studies of physics in particular.

Mirja Hartimo’s contribution, “Husserl’s Phenomenology of Scientific Practice,” fills out Crease’s sketch of the phenomenological approach and specifies how Husserl preempts the naturalistic, practice-oriented turn in contemporary philosophy of science. This “naturalism” is to be opposed with ontological or methodological naturalism, both of which Husserl rejected. Hartimo recapitulates the difference between the natural and phenomenological attitudes and its production by the epochē, in which existence is “bracketed.” The case is made that the phenomenological attitude is not inconsistent with the natural attitude (indeed Husserl had, for the most part, the same natural understanding of the sciences as did his contemporaries in Göttingen). The Göttingen view comprises a pre-established harmony between mathematics and physics, “the axiomatic ideal of mathematics served for Husserl, as well as for his colleagues, as an ideal of scientific rationality, as a device that was taken to guide empirical physical investigations ‘regulatively’.” (67) This influences the focus on Galileo in Crisis: physics is fundamentally mathematical in nature (68). Harmony amounts to an isomorphism of the axioms and the laws, with the axioms of physics being a formal ontology, a formal definite manifold (69). Husserl’s two differences with the Göttingen consensus are: (1) scientists should also develop material ontologies, which provide specific normative ideals for the mathematization of nature and its connection to intuition; (2) the normativity of the exact sciences does not extend to all scientific domains, a normative pluralism. (2) is particularly important because phenomenology itself falls short of the axiomatic ideal, due to the inexactness of the relevant essences.

Pablo Palmieri’s contribution, “Physics as a Form of Life,” is an odd fish. It presents itself not as a presentation of Husserl’s account of the lifeworld and its relevance to physics but rather as focusing on a foundational question raised by Husserl: “why is it that the axioms of mathematical physics are not self-evident despite the evidence and clarity that is gained through the deductive processes that flow from them?” (80) To answer this question Palmieri embarks on an analysis of physics as a form of “Life” in the sense of some historical development. The three epochs of physics which characterize its form of life are (1) the youth of Galileo’s axiomatic physics, (2) the senescence of Helmholtz’s work on the anharmonic oscillator and the combination of tones, and (3) the “posthumous maturity” of physics following quantum physics. These historical studies are interesting and valuable in themselves, especially the Galileo study, particularly regarding the influence of Galileo’s aesthethics on his mathematization of nature (84). Unfortunately, how these studies relate to the overall aim of the essay is unclear and is shrouded by the sort of allegorical and flowery prose that turns away many from “continental” approaches more generally. Palmieri’s description of the third stage of physics’ life as “posthumous maturity” describes a “disarticulation” in physics that comes to a head for Palmieri in Heisenberg’s use of (an)harmonic oscillator framework for quantum mechanics. The result of such a “translation” is not a direct analog to the classical treatment of spectra, due to the lack of rules for “composition of the multiplicity into the unity of an individual, by the interpretation of which we might generate the individual utterance that once performed will elicit in our consciousness a corresponding perception in any of the sensory modalities whatever” (100). The obscurity of such bridge principles to observation is, again, exactly the crisis of which Husserl was concerned. The upshot seems not to be, as it was for Husserl, a call to action for phenomenological analysis, but rather the essential mystery of nature as “[i]t is nature herself that precludes herself from knowing reflexively her own totality of laws” (83). While this is supposed to have the status of an explanation it is only buttressed with metaphor:

This being hidden of nature as a totality, or her desire or necessity to hide herself from further scrutiny, which I would be tempted to qualify as nature’s vow of virginity, explains why the axioms of mathematical physics must appear to our intuitions as obscure (84).

This pessimistic conclusion conflicts with phenomenology’s self-conception as a progressive research programme, leaving Palmieri’s own position mysterious, and one suspects that is how he wants it.

Norman Sieroka’s “Unities of Knowledge and Being—Weyl’s Late ’Existentialism’ and Heideggerian Phenomenology” is a fascinating exposition of Weyl’s latter existentialist turn and his engagement with Heidegger’s work. Weyl claims that physics is dominated by “symbolic construction”, of which axiomatic mathematics stands as paradigm, which are empirically evaluated holistically. Weyl’s account of symbolic construction is dependent on the understanding that these symbolic systems are constructed out of particular concrete tokens. Similarly it is essential to the symbolic construction that it is intersubjective and the practitioners of a symbolic system are peers embedded in a wider public. The core of mathematics and the sciences is not logic, but rule-bound “practical management” of symbols (109). This practical level must be fundamental or else we fall into a circle of physical reduction and symbolic representation.

Weyl’s 1949 paper “Science as Symbolic Construction of Man,” explicitly invokes Heidegger’s concept of the existential basicness of being-in-the-world as a point of agreement. Weyl does not, however, accept Heidegger’s anti-scientific attitude that concludes from this, that science is “inauthentic”. Weyl held that scientific practice and philosophical reflection were mutually enriching — particularly moral reflection in the shadow of the bomb. Heidegger’s rejection of science is due to symbols being merely present-at-hand, as they do not figure in the “care-taking encounter of daily life” (114). The weight of evidence and experience clearly sides with Weyl here. Sieroka raises examples of bridge-building and experimental physics. More simply, even the manipulation of symbols in themselves is care-taking in that they are to be interpreted and not only by oneself, in a dubious “private language”, but by some community. Here is a missed opportunity to engage with Heidegger’s later work, though it cannot be said to have influenced Weyl. Something like “The Question Concerning Technology” shows that Heidegger did not think that modern science and technology were independent of daily life, but rather have a radical and destabilizing effect that inhibits Dasein from encountering its own essence. Though, it is not clear how much this is a rejection of the verdicts of Being and Time, or should correct Sieroka and Weyl’s intepretations. The extension of the critique by way of Fritz Medicus, Weyl’s colleague, to a critique of “thrownness” and the general receptivity or passivity of Dasein to Being seems beside the point and reliant on a misunderstanding of Heidegger. Medicus’ “piglets” complaint about the thrownness of Dasein can only rest on a misunderstanding of the role of historicity in Dasein’s being (see Division 2, Chapter 5). Intersubjectivity is fundamental to Dasein. Being-with is “equiprimordial” with Dasein’s Being-in-the-World and is an existential characteristic of Dasein, even when it is alone (149-169).  Being-with defines Dasein’s inherent historicity. Dasein is thrown into a culture, into a way of life.

Sieroka’s comparison of Weyl and Cassirer, that Cassirer’s theory of symbolic forms provides a unity of knowledge, while Weyl’s provides a unity of being, owing to his existentialist inflection, is interesting but perfunctory. It makes one wonder what such a distinction could tell us about the difference of method between phenomenology and neo-Kantianism, how this might relate to the interpretational dispute at the center of the Davos debate, and how Weyl’s conception of physics and mathematics could have played a role in such rifts.

Part 2: Phenomenological Contributions to (Philosophy of) Physics

“A Revealing Parallel Between Husserl’s Philosophy of Science and Today’s Scientific Metaphysics” by Matthias Egg aims to show how the crises that Husserl saw as central to the contemporary sciences and his solution are echoed in the scientific metaphysics of Ladyman and Ross (2007). The crisis is rooted in the substitution of the lifeworld for mathematical idealities, which amounts to a forgetting of the “meaning-fundament” of the sciences, undermining their own epistemological standing. Egg frames his comparison of Husserl and the scientific metaphysicians with Habermas’ critique of Husserl’s project of making science presuppositionless, providing a basis for absolute practical responsibility. The supposed failure is that it is left unexplained how a more perfect theoretical knowledge is to have practical upshot. The lacuna is Platonic mimesis, wherein the philosopher “having grasped the cosmic order through theorizing, the philosopher brings himself into accord with it, whereby theory enters the conduct of life,” (129), which is in direct ontological opposition with Husserl’s transcendental idealism, as Habermas sees it. (Does Habermas commit the naturalistic fallacy?) Husserl’s model claims only that the procedure or methodology of theoretical knowledge provides normative force on our practical affairs, in Egg’s example, our doing of physics. Egg presents Ladyman and Ross as agreeing with Husserl’s science-cum-Enlightment project, particularly, that science must be central to our worldview as it allows for a unified, intersubjectively valid approach to world even beyond theoretical practice. This too, falls short of Habermas’ mimetic ideal —their project could only be preserved in the “ruins of ontology” (130). Ladyman and Ross share some skepticism about strong metaphysics but accept weak metaphysics. Unfortunately, Egg stops just before saying anything more substantive than an observation of convergent philosophical evolution. There is more to be said particularly regarding the link between this sort of communicative conception of the scientific project and structural realism which puts Ladyman and Ross and Husserl in the same camp. The metaphysical essays to follow cover some of what I would like to say, but let me gesture at a possible development. In Ideas II and the fifth Cartesian Meditation, Husserl develops an account of scientific objectivity such that it is constituted by intersubjective agreement via “appresentation.” What is intersubjectively available are the appearances of objects, but what is agreed upon are the invariant structures supposed to explain the experiences of the community. Heelan’s (1978) hermeneutic interpretation of Husserl provides a picture in which the infinite tasks of mathematization and measurement link together the lifeworld and the scientific image which is constituted by it. There is a structural realist position to be examined here which could provide a unified account of everyday and scientific perception.

Lee Hardy’s “Physical Things, Ideal Objects, and Theoretical Entities: The Prospects of a Husserlian Phenomenology of Physics” attempts to square Husserl’s phenomenology with scientific realism. Husserl’s seeming positivism is especially problematic given that Husserl argues “that the objective correlates of the mathematical laws of the physical sciences simply do not exist in the physical sense. They are ideal mathematical objects, not real physical things” (137). Hardy restricts Husserl’s instrumentalism to scientific laws rather than scientific theories tout court. Husserl’s view is that knowledge of physical objects is gained by mathematical approximation, leaving room open for the positing of actual physical entities. Hardy’s argument, a rational reconstruction of a path not (explicitly) taken by Husserl, depends on a distinction that seems both interesting and suspicious. Hardy wishes to distinguish instrumentalism about the laws from instrumentalism regarding theories, the difference between the two lies in the fact that laws specify functional interdependencies of physical quantities which state how empirical objects behave, but theories explain why physical quantities behave as they do. So then, the instrumentalist holds that the semantic value of theories is limited to that of the laws, which predict observable behavior. The realist holds that scientific theories have as semantic values the behavior of unobservables. Husserl’s radical empiricism is in apparent tension with the realist’s explanation, Hardy reconstructs the received view:

(1) A obtains if and only if p is true.

(2) p is true is and only if p is evident.

(3) p is true if and only if A is intuitively given in an act of consciousness.

Ergo, (4) A obtains if and only if A is intuitively given in an act of consciousness.

Theoretical entities cannot be so given, so statements about them can never be true, so we ought not be committed to them. This interpretation Hardy rejects in favor of one which changes the role of experience from semantic-metaphysical to epistemic:

S is justified in believing p if and only if the correlative states of affairs A is given to S in an intuitive act of consciousness (143).

Hardy specifies that the perceivability condition on existence was meant to be dependent on an ideal possibility, not an actual possibility (dependent on sensory apparatuses). This point goes some way towards specifying the meaning of transcendental idealism, though this seems to go astray in attempting to recover realism. Transcendental idealism requires that possible perception by a transcendental subjectivity constitutes (the preconditions for) existence. Hardy picks up the thread in the Crisis regarding the essential approximative nature of the sciences as their conclusions are mediated by ideal, mathematical constructions:

Exact, objective knowledge is possible only by way of a passage through the ideal; and for that very reason will never be more than approximative knowledge of the real (146).

In  Crisis, Hardy claims, Husserl distinguishes the ideal, physical object and the perceived object ontologically: the objects of ordinary life are not  “physical” objects.  It is these limit-idealized objects that Husserl is anti-realist with respect to. The trouble with Hardy’s distinction between theories and laws and between real objects and idealized objects is that the approximation relation is left unexplained. There remains an explanatory gap as to why physical objects should be subject to laws that properly only have idealities as their subjects.

Arezoo Islami and H. A. Wiltsche’s “A Match Made on Earth: On the Applicability of Mathematics in Physics” shows how phenomenology can provide a response to Wigner’s puzzle, “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics,” by moving on from why-questions to how-questions. The puzzle arises from a rejection of Pythagorean mathematical monism towards which the phenomenologist is officially neutral, due to the epochē, setting aside why-questions altogether. To answer the how-questions, the phenomenologist must also provide both synchronic and diachronic accounts of how we apply mathematics. The authors explicate constitution and replacement. They show what is meant by the horizon of experience, all the non-actual aspects of some experience which frame one’s interpretation of it, one’s anticipations. From this constitution is explicated:

It is this process of intending objects through specific noemata and then constantly projecting new sensory data against horizons of possible further experiences that phenomenologists call constitution. Of particular importance in this context are those aspects of experience that remain invariant… (169)

From these invariances of the noemata, lawlike relations are found and suitably objective properties can be described of the noema. This structure generalizes to scientific constitution from the example of perceptual constitution. Aiming to intend all of reality through mathematical noemata is Galileo’s great leap forward. Doing so is to replace the lifeworld with the scientific image. Nature is mathematical because we have made it so. While I am largely sympathetic with this approach, and hold that it contributes to a structuralist view that is worth developing, to satisfy mysterions like Wigner specific accounts of such constitution is needed.

Thomas Ryckman’s essay, “The Gauge Principle, Hermann Weyl, and Symbolic Constructions from the ‘Purely Infinitesimal’,” provides a mini-history of Weyl’s development of the gauge principle (a fuller history in Ryckman 2005), in which Weyl is motivated to investigate Lie groups and algebras by phenomenology on the one hand and Naturwirkungphysik on the other.  Naturwirkungphysik is a standard explanation, “that all finite changes are to be comprehended as arising through infinitesimal increments” (182). In practice this is to take locally defined tangent spaces to be explanatorily fundamental. For Weyl, this standard of locality is justified by appeal to not just phenomenological epistemology, that direct givenness to the ego is the ground of all essential insight into the structure of things, and this givenness is attenuated at spatial distance, but to full blown transcendental idealism:

insofar as symbolic construction of the “objective reality” of the purportedly mind-independent objects of physics is, per Husserl, a constitution of the sense of such objects as having “the sense of existing in themselves” (184-5).

Just as the previous essay establishes, the objects of mathematical physics are constructions which intend transcendent objects. However these objects are only fixed up to an isomorphism, any further “essence” is beyond cognitive grasp and therefore unreal (188). Ryckmann provides an able and clear derivation of the gauge principle in QED and a quick rundown of how this generalizes in the Standard Model. While this is a valuable contribution to the collection, those familiar with Ryckman’s past work will wish that the closing remarks regarding the standard model and the Weyl-Nozickean (2001) slogan, “objectivity is invariance,” were expanded upon. I look forward to further development of the alternative view implied by Ryckman’s interpretational challenge this slogan, which centers locality as the source of gauge transformations (199).

Part 3: Phenomenological Approaches to the Measurement Problem

Steven French’s “From a Lost History to a New Future: Is a Phenomenological Approach to Quantum Physics Viable?” does well to show that the phenomenological background of Fritz London was deeply influential on his approach to the measurement problem (with Bauer) and that this influence has been covered over by misinterpretation. The measurement problem is essentially the apparent inconsistency of deterministic dynamics of quantum mechanics and the collapse of the wave function. London and Bauer have been taken to merely restate von Neumann’s notorious solution, that the uniqueness of the interaction of the system with a conscious observer explains how and when the “collapse” occurs. French shows this picture presented by Wigner, which fell to the criticism of Shimony and Putnam, to be a straw man. French argues that London and Bauer’s phenomenological account of quantum measurement can stand up to such criticisms and for London.  Quantum mechanics presupposes a theory of knowledge, a relation between observer and object “quite different from that implicit in naive realism” (211). Measurement, considered subjectively, is distinguishable from the unitary evolution of the quantum state by introspection giving the observer the “right to create his own objectivity” (212). This is not some (pseudo-)causal mind-world interaction that creates a collapse but rather a precondition for the quantum system to be treated objectively and by a different mathematical function, the precondition being a reflective act of consciousness in which the ego-pole and object-pole of experience are distinguished, not a substantial dualism, “thereby cutting the ‘chain of statistical correlations’” (212-3). The discussion that follows, while suggestive, shows that it is not clear how this general phenomenological view about the nature of objectivity is supposed to remove the particular quantum measurement problem. Whether this is the fault of French or of London and Bauer is unclear; the most direct quotation from London and Bauer suggests that this distinction of the ego and the object somehow licenses the transition from representing the measurement situation by the wave function, ψ, to representing the system as in a particular eigenstate. This is much too oblique, given that the nature of such fundamental acts of consciousness is, even to the phenomenological initiate, obscure, and requires some substantive claims about the determinate nature of consciousness. French too must find the explanation as given by London and Bauer incomplete as he invokes decoherence, decision theory, and the “relational” interpretation as elements of a fuller story, presenting something, protestations aside, very close to Everettianism indeed. If such a distinctive and useful interpretation can be fleshed out on phenomenological grounds, it would be the most direct and substantive proof of the progressive nature of a phenomenological programme.

Michel Bitbol’s “A Phenomenological Ontology for Physics: Merleau-Ponty and QBism” is another breath of fresh air in the collection, exploring a phenomenological approach other than Husserl’s. Taking the primacy of lifeworld and Bohr’s challenge to traditional scientific epistemology as starting points, the essay sets up correspondence between Fuch’s participatory realism and Merleau-Ponty’s endo-ontology. More generally Bitbol takes recent developments in the philosophy of quantum mechanics, like Peres’ no-interpretation and Zeillinger’s information-theoretic approach, to “all seem to be pointing in the same direction,” in line with the phenomenological approach to the sciences as tools for navigation in the world. These are the pragmatists, as distinguished from the interpreters. Bitbol goes on to describe how the anti-interpretational approach is phenomenological by establishing an epochē for quantum physics. Rather than understand the states of quantum systems in a Hilbert space as properly predicative, we bracket any ontological posit and treat these states functionally as informational bridges between the preparation and outcome of experiments. Bitbol then considers a question a level up:

[W]hat should the world be like in order to display such resistance to being represented as an object of thought? Answering this question would be tantamount to formulating a new kind of ontology, a non-object-based ontology, an ontology of what cannot be represented as an object external to the representation itself (233).

For Merleau-Ponty (and Michel Henry), the non-objectual ontology is provided by the priority of the body and raw, original experience.

This is an ontology of radical situatedness: an ontology in which we are not onlookers of a nature given out there, but rather intimately intermingled with nature, somewhere in the midst of it… we cannot be construed as point-like spectators of what is manifest; instead, we are a field of experiences that merges with what appears in a certain region of it. This endo-ontology is therefore an ontology of the participant in Being, rather than an ontology of the observer of beings (236).

Here the central self-consciousness of transcendental idealism becomes self-perception of the body. In physics, this is translated into a participatory realism, wherein the observer is involved in the creation of Being.  Merleau-Ponty’s own statement of the relationship between his phenomenology of embodiment and physics starts from the observation that physics always attempts to take in the subjective as a part of or a special case of the objective. This is something of a category error, and in quantum mechanics it seems that there is a concrete proof of the impossibility of eliminating the subjective, or better yet shows that the objective-subjective distinction is not well formed. These are interesting points and one wishes that Bitbol (and Merleau-Ponty himself) would have spelled out this metaphysical picture in more detail. While the correspondence with QBism seems somewhat plausible, it is not shown that either view commits one to the other or that this endo-ontology provides an advance on the anti-metaphysical orientation of the QBist. The remarks regarding probability are paltry and given the significance of probabilities in quantum mechanics, a full account of it is necessary if there is to be much uptake—the primary limitation here seems to be that Merleau-Ponty did not get to consider this matter much prior to his death.

In contrast, “QBism from a Phenomenomenological Point of View: Husserl and QBism” by Laura de La Tremblaye is one of the fullest contributions in the collection. This essay serves as an able introduction to non-denomenational QBism, presented as a generalization of probability theory and cataloged as a participatory realist, -epistemic “interpretation” of quantum mechanics. QBism “stands out as an exception” (246) in this category because it focuses on belief, adding the Born Rule as an extra, normative rule in Bayesianism (the axiomatization is not explicitly shown). QBism removes the ontological significance of the collapse of the wave function, the state description and reality are decoupled, the collapse is a statement of some (ideal) agent’s belief state. Accordingly, “knowledge” yielded by measurements is redefined as information about the system that is accepted via measurement (250). While the probabilities assigned are subjective, the updating rules are objective.

It is no trivial task to draw a clear line between the subjective and the objective aspects of the Born rule… Fuchs and Schack invoke a completely new form of intersubjectivity. It is through the use of Bayesian probabilities that the multiplicity of subjectivities elaborates a reasoning that can be shared by everyone, and that, consequently, can be called “objective” in precisely this limited sense… this leads to the new conception of knowledge: knowledge is no longer understood in terms of an objectively true description of the intrinsic properties of the world; it is rather understood as the kind of knowledge that is needed to guide the future research of any agent, thus implying a weaker form of objectivity (251).

For Fuchs, the measuring device is analogous to a sensory organ, measurement  is an experience. This leads de La Tremblaye to consider two notions of experience, one from Husserl, the other from William James, who influenced Chris Fuchs. de La Tremblaye argues that it is Husserl’s model of experience as involving a normative, intentional horizonal structure, that better coheres with the Qbist view. This shows a positive contribution phenomenology may offer to QBism: an explanation of the source of the Born Rule’s normativity. Another would be an adequate explanation of how it is that the rules of Bayesian probability can be objective via the intersubjective constitution of objectivity essential to Husserl’s model of the sciences.

In sum: this collection is promising though deficient in some respects. It will provide a number of starting points for a further development of a phenomenology of physics and provides the curious or sympathetic philosopher of physics something to chew on, but it is not a full meal. Many of the contributions would do well as additions to a graduate seminar or undergraduate course on phenomenology or the philosophy of science, with the materials on quantum mechanics showing the most potential for further development.[1]

References

Heelan, P. A. 1987. “Husserl’s Later Philosophy of Natural Science.” Philosophy of Science 54 (3): 368-390.

Heidegger, Martin. 1977/1993. “The Question Concerning Technology.” In Basic Writings, David F. Krell (ed.). New York: HarperCollins.

———. 1962. Being and Time. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (trans.). New York: Harper and  Row.

Ladyman, J. & Ross, D. et al. 2007. Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nozick, R. 2001. Invariances: The Structure of the Objective World. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Ryckman, T. 2005. The Reign of Relativity: Philosophy in Physics 1915-1925. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


[1]    Thanks to Porter Williams for reading the collection with me and sharing his thoughts with me, which allowed me to sharpen my own.

Agnès Louis: Le corps politique: Introduction à la phénoménologie politique

Le corps politique: Introduction à la phénoménologie politique: Arendt, Lefort, Merleau-Ponty, Ricœur Book Cover Le corps politique: Introduction à la phénoménologie politique: Arendt, Lefort, Merleau-Ponty, Ricœur
Agnès Louis
Éditions OUSIA
2020
Paperback 18.00 €
322

Reviewed by: Hans Arentshorst (University of Jyväskylä)

The emergence of totalitarianism in the 20th century not only marked a destructive turning point in modern history, but it also led to a ‘political turn’ in the phenomenological movement. Philosophers with a phenomenological background, such as Hannah Arendt, Claude Lefort, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Paul Ricœur, started to apply phenomenological insights to the study of political life in order to understand the emergence of Nazism and communism. This resulted in original and nuanced accounts of both totalitarianism and democracy, which are still relevant today, especially in the face of the growing popularity of nationalist and populist movements.

When it comes to the reception of their work, it is interesting to note that one almost never reads discussions of ‘political phenomenology’ as a coherent movement with its own method and beliefs. Apparently, the work of these philosophers is considered to be too idiosyncratic and incommensurable to be discussed together as part of a single movement. It is here that the originality lies of Le corps politique by Agnès Louis: by analysing the work of Arendt, Lefort, Merleau-Ponty and Ricœur – mainly focusing on similarities and how they complement each other – she provides an account of ‘political phenomenology’ as a coherent movement.

The central concept with which Louis tries to tie together the work of these four philosophers is the body politic, which is somewhat surprising since this is at most a marginal concept in their work. In the introduction to the book, Louis gives a brief historical reconstruction of the use of the concept of ‘body politic’ in political philosophy, followed by an explanation why she thinks this concept is fruitful for framing the movement of political phenomenology.

When people today talk about the political community they live in, they usually refer to it as ‘nation’, ‘country’, or ‘society’, but – as Louis reminds us – it used to be common to speak of the ‘body politic’. By looking at three paradigmatic thinkers of the body politic—Aristotle, John of Salisbury and Thomas Hobbes—Louis shows how the notion of the body politic was accompanied by three central claims about political life. The first claim is that individuals can only truly realize themselves when they are part of a political community; by becoming political, human life takes on a superior form that it otherwise would not take. For example, in Aristotle’s picture ‘mere’ life (focused on reproduction) becomes the good life (focused on the actualization of moral and political capacities), and in Hobbes’s account a violent state of nature becomes a peaceful Leviathan. The notion of the body politic thus expresses the idea that liberation and belonging to a political community go hand in hand.

Secondly, the metaphor of the body politic entails that the form that human life takes in a political community is particular and that therefore there exists a plurality of political bodies. The possibility of a single political body that includes all of humanity is rejected, which we find clearly expressed in Hobbes, who famously rejected the possibility of a universal sovereign.

Thirdly, the notion of the body politic is informed by a certain conception of the body, which reinforces a certain conception of political life. For example, the conception of the body in Aristotle and Salisbury, in which the distinction between body and soul is central, leads to a different picture of political life than Hobbes’s mechanistic conception of the body. Despite these differences, they agree that there is an analogy between bodily life and political life.

Given these three claims, Louis says, it is not surprising that the notion of the body politic became problematic and disappeared in modern democratic societies. First of all, democratic societies give primacy to the individual, and individual freedom is now understood as having the possibility to escape any pregiven identity. The idea that individuals can only liberate and realize themselves by belonging to a political community therefore becomes suspect. Secondly, the understanding of humanity in modern democracies becomes broader and more abstract: humanity now consists of all individuals independent of their political and cultural attachments, which conflicts with the notion of humanity as being divided into a plurality of different body politics, each having their own form of life. As Louis says, the metaphor of the body politic thus seems to be too demanding for us when it comes to the individual, and too limited when it comes to our interpretation of humanity.

In modern political life there thus emerges a permanent tension between freedom and belonging, or freedom and embeddedness. And unfortunately, modern political history has showed a tendency to resolve this tension one-sidedly, either absolutizing the pole of individual freedom (i.e. imagining that the individual can liberate him or herself without belonging to any political community) or absolutizing the pole of communal embeddedness (i.e. the individual belongs to a community where political existence does not lead to any kind of liberation).

It is here, Louis thinks, that phenomenology can make a valuable contribution. In its analysis of embodied subjectivity and the life-world, the phenomenological movement has provided nuanced insights about the way in which freedom and embeddedness are always intertwined in human experience. What would happen if these phenomenological insights be applied to the analysis of political life? This brings us back to the concept of ‘body politic’ and to the third claim mentioned above: that the body politic is always informed by a certain conception of the body. What Louis aims to do in her book is to rehabilitate the notion of ‘body politic’ by connecting it to a phenomenological conception of the body. In this way she wants to explore how phenomenology can help us to better understand the tension in modern political life between freedom and embeddedness.

The book consists of three parts. In the first part Louis gives a general introduction to some basic aspects of the phenomenological tradition—most notably the phenomenological method and the phenomenological conception of the body—which are necessary for understanding the presentation of political phenomenology in the rest of the book. Louis says the phenomenological method consists of an analysis that is characterized by a respect for phenomena and a sensitivity to the way in which subjective existence is embedded in the world. And even though Husserl and Heidegger were never directly concerned with issues of political philosophy, Louis shows that the phenomenological method can be fruitfully applied to political life in order to do justice to political phenomena by avoiding various forms of reductionism, and to become aware of how subjective existence is embedded in the political world. And indeed, it has been the merit of political phenomenologists like Arendt and Lefort to have done justice to political phenomena in an intellectual climate dominated by Marxism and sociology, in which it was very common to reduce politics to a supposedly more fundamental reality, either economic or sociological. Furthermore, they have contributed to a better understanding of the experience of living in a totalitarian or democratic society, as opposed to positivist approaches that reduce political life to a collection of objective empirical data.

The second aspect of the phenomenological tradition that Louis discusses—its conception of the body—is especially crucial for the argument in the rest of the book. Since Louis wants to introduce a concept of the body politic that is informed by a phenomenological account of the body, she has to explain how to understand this and how it plays a role in the work of Arendt, Lefort, Merleau-Ponty and Ricœur. Louis is aware that this is not an easy task since the four philosophers use the concept of ‘body politic’ in different ways, if they use it at all. Merleau-Ponty and Lefort seem to prefer the notion of ‘flesh’ over the notion of ‘body’ when speaking of modern political life. And although there are passages in Arendt’s work where she uses the notion of body politic, this is not informed by a phenomenological conception of the body. Only Ricœur uses the notion of body politic to refer to modern democracies while at the same time drawing an analogy between political life and embodied subjectivity.

Still, despite this conceptual confusion, Louis thinks that a phenomenological conception of the body politic can function as a helpful focal point for discussing the similarities between Arendt, Lefort, Merleau-Ponty and Ricœur. Louis therefore presents a Husserlian account of the ‘flesh-body’ (corps de chair) in which there is an intertwinement of activity and passivity. On the one hand, the flesh-body plays an active role in human experience: for example, it is the place from which objects and the world can be experienced as a unity, and it plays an active role in the experiencing of others. At the same time, there is a passive side to the flesh-body: it is something given to us at birth and it remains something opaque and strange, something that we can never completely appropriate or control. The flesh-body is thus paradoxical in the sense that it is both active and passive, both personal and impersonal.

Louis sees a parallel between this paradoxical character of the Husserlian flesh-body and the way in which Arendt, Lefort, Merleau-Ponty and Ricœur describe political experience in a healthy political community as an intertwinement of freedom and embeddedness. In their different ways, they all show how freedom (or political action) is embedded in a social, institutional and historical situation that can never be completely known or controlled. So both in the Husserlian account of the flesh-body and in the account of political life by the four political phenomenologists freedom is never absolute, since it is always preceded by something—the flesh-body or social-historical reality—that can never be fully controlled or made fully transparent. Louis’ notion of a ‘phenomenological body politic’ thus refers, simply put, to a political community in which this interdependency between freedom and embeddedness, or activity and passivity, is acknowledged.

In the second part of the book Louis explores the way in which totalitarianism destroys the ‘phenomenological body politic’ by turning to the critical reflections on Nazism and communism by Arendt, Lefort, Merleau-Ponty and Ricœur. Louis starts by discussing Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism in which totalitarianism is described as a phenomena that manifests itself as a permanent movement, which aims to realize total domination with the help of terror and ideology. Two visible effects of this permanent movement are central in Arendt’s description: first of all, the atomization of society, whereby the totalitarian Party uses terror and ideology to destroy the common world, thereby isolating individuals and preventing them from forming a meaningful community in which political action is possible. Secondly, since total domination is only possible when it encompasses all humanity, totalitarianism cannot settle for a limited territory nor acknowledge the existence of a plurality of political bodies, but it has to remain a de-territorialized movement. Arendt’s analysis of totalitarianism thus shows how totalitarian power refuses to become embedded in any body politic whatsoever.

For Lefort, the main characteristic of totalitarian power is that—in its quest for  complete control and domination—it suppresses all internal division, such as the division between different spheres of human activity (economy, politics, religion, science, art, etc.), the divisions within society (no autonomous associations) and within politics (no diversity of opinion within the Party), the division between the political and the social (since totalitarian power denies any separation between itself and society), and finally the division between the real and the symbolic.

This striving for unity is accompanied by both an organic representation of society as a giant body or organism and a mechanistic conception of society as a machine. Together, they fuse into a conception of society as a mechanical body, which points to the ideal of a society that can be completely known and fabricated. As Louis says, this is the opposite of the flesh-body, which is always characterized by division: there is a part that is intimate and a part that is opaque and strange, and therefore our power to master experience is always limited. It is this limit to power that the totalitarian Party does not acknowledge; it wants to be autonomous without being embedded, thus destroying the phenomenological body politic.

Merleau-Ponty and Ricœur have not provided full-blown theories of totalitarianism, but their work contains interesting critiques of communism. For Merleau-Ponty the main problem of communism is its gradual disconnection – visible both in the Soviet Union and in Sartre’s ‘ultra-bolshevism’ – between the Party (the will) and the social-historical experience of the proletariat (the flesh). As soon as the Party stops understanding itself as being embedded in the proletarian experience, Merleau-Ponty argues, it becomes a will without flesh, thus destroying the emancipatory possibilities of communism.

Ricœur argues that communism is problematic because it is unable to clearly distinguish between social-economic and political reality and to acknowledge the relative autonomy of the latter. This is illustrated by the fact that communism cannot conceive of an evil that is properly political; it reduces all forms of evil to the social-economic evil that results from the inequality of the relations of production. Once a socialist regime is established, all evil should therefore be abolished. But by denying the possibility of political violence, it also becomes impossible to control or limit it; this explains, according to Ricœur, the unleashing of terror in communist states.

In sum, Louis shows in the second part of the book how the four philosophers criticize totalitarian power for running amuck and refusing to be embedded, thereby destroying the phenomenological body politic. Whereas the second part of the book thus provides a ‘negative’ picture of the destruction of the body politic, in the third part Louis tries to extract a ‘positive’, substantial picture of the phenomenological body politic from the work of Arendt, Lefort, Merleau-Ponty and Ricœur. She does this by focusing on three areas where the tension between freedom and embeddedness manifests itself: political action, history, and the symbolic unity of the social.

Louis explores the area of political action by looking at the work of Arendt and Ricœur. Similar to Aristotle, Arendt associates biological life with servitude and determinacy, and political life with freedom and action, that is, our capacity to create something new and to escape from the repetitive patterns of biological life. But, as Louis asks, if freedom is about starting something new and breaking with repetitive patterns, is there still a need for the agent to be embedded in a political community in order to realize freedom?

Arendt’s answer is affirmative: action needs to be embedded, first of all, in what she calls ‘plurality’. In order for action to become an objective reality, the presence of others is needed, which creates a space of visibility in which action can appear, a space of signification where action can become interpreted and meaningful, and it creates the possibility for an action to be fully accomplished, since this requires bringing others to act. Secondly, action needs to be embedded in the physical and juridical reality of the political community, which together create a common space between people where action has a chance to realize itself not just in exceptional circumstances but in a regular manner.

Arendt thus illustrates how in a free political community autonomy and embeddedness are intertwined and – despite her association of ‘the biological’ with servitude – she refers to such a community as a ‘body politic’. However, her concept of body politic remains vague and she does not draw an analogy between the body politic and embodied subjectivity. This is why Louis complements Arendt’s analysis with that of Ricœur, who largely agrees with Arendt but who explicitly draws an analogy between the duality of political action (starting something new and being dependent on others and institutions) and the duality of embodied subjectivity.

A second area where the tension between freedom and embeddedness manifests itself is history. Louis explores this tension by focusing on the work of Merleau-Ponty and Lefort, who both speak of the ‘flesh of history’ to refer to the complex interdependency of freedom and historical embeddedness. In the last chapter of the Phenomenology of Perception, where Merleau-Ponty gives his account of freedom, he argues that freedom is effective in human life only insofar as it is  not absolute: the subject is always already embedded in a specific personal history that provides certain options and motivations on which he or she can decide to act or not.  The same goes for collective history: every historical period offers certain options and roles to be taken up, between which individuals can choose and which they can play good or bad.  Merleau-Ponty’s account  of the relation between freedom and history thus rejects the two extremes of absolute freedom (which denies historical embeddedness) and historical necessity (which denies individual freedom).

In his later work, Merleau-Ponty further developed these reflections on historical embeddedness by introducing a specific understanding of the notion of institution. Against Durkheim, who understood institutions as social facts that restrict human behavior, Merleau-Ponty understands an institution as a symbolic matrix that opens up a field of possibilities for giving form and meaning to human co-existence.

Louis then shows how Lefort further developed Merleau-Ponty’s reflections by connecting this understanding of institution as a symbolic matrix to the question of the political. According to Lefort, every society is the result of a political institution of the social, that is, by a process in which form and meaning is given to human relations based on a common understanding of the nature of society. However, this political institution is executed in different ways, as Lefort illustrates by comparing different ‘forms of society’.

For example, in primitive societies, which Lefort also calls ‘societies without history’, the political institution of the social is understood as something that has been done by ancestors, gods or heroes in a distant past, and it is now beyond anybody’s power to change. The nature of society is thus fixed once and for all, and this explains, according to Lefort, why primitive societies suppress all conflict and why they resist all novelty and social transformation: only in this way can society’s identity remain stable and be preserved over time. Democratic societies, however, operate differently: they deny a transcendent foundation of the social and instead allow permanent conflict and debate over the nature of society. This explains the emergence of ideologies in modern democratic societies, such as liberalism, socialism or conservatism, each painting a different picture of the nature of society and each presenting a different program of the changes and transformations that are needed in order to realize such a society.

Unlike primitive societies, democratic societies thus embrace both conflict and transformation, and in this way, Lefort says, they become truly historical societies. In democratic societies we find ourselves embedded in a historical situation that presents several options for transforming society (liberal, socialist, progressive, conservative, etc.), and democratic politics consists in debating which option makes the most sense to pursue based on past experiences (failures, successes, unintended consequences, etc.). Lefort thus paints a similar picture to Merleau-Ponty of the connection between freedom and historical embeddedness – or of the ‘flesh of history’ – but he gives it a political twist by showing that it is only in democratic forms of society that a healthy balance can be realized between the two.

The third aspect of the phenomenological body politic that Louis discusses concerns the enigma that democratic societies can be both divided and united at the same time. Democratic societies are divided into relatively autonomous spheres of action, such as the economy, politics, religion, science, art, etc., each with their own norms. This raises the question why life in democratic societies can still be experienced as a unity, which Louis tries to answer by turning to the work of Merleau-Ponty, Lefort and Ricœur.

As Louis says, an important concern in Merleau-Ponty’s body of work has been to show the unity that penetrates the variety of domains of experience. However, in doing so, he has always resisted reductionist solutions – either materialist, sociological or idealist – that reduce the social world to an economic principle, a social fact, or a determined idea. Such explanations of social life remain abstract and cannot do justice to the variety of experiences, nor to their internal coherence. Instead, Merleau-Ponty conceives of social life as a totality, which he sometimes calls ‘civilization’; even though society is divided into different social spheres, these spheres communicate and interact because they are all informed by a specific understanding of the human, that is, a background understanding that pervades social life in all its dimensions.

As Louis shows, it is again Lefort who gives a political twist to Merleau-Ponty’s reflections by arguing that the specific understanding of the human that penetrates a society is of a political nature, and that it is closely related to the way in which power is organized in a society. Louis illustrates this by comparing Lefort’s accounts of the Ancient Regime and of democratic societies. According to Lefort, the society of the Ancient Regime was pervaded by a corporatist and mystical understanding (i.e. individuals had their place in corporations and this organization of society had a religious foundation), which went hand in hand with a form of government where the King was both the highest corporation and his authority had a sacred quality. Democratic societies, on the other hand, are informed by an understanding of man as articulated in the Declaration of Human Rights – as both autonomous and indeterminate – and this is accompanied by a paradoxical organization of power, which appears to be both emerging from society (the people are sovereign, which secures autonomy) but at the same time as being external to society (nobody can legitimately appropriate and embody power, which secures indeterminacy). A democratic regime thus secures a specific understanding of the human as both autonomous and indeterminate, initiating a permanent process of attempting to give substance to the human. In this sense, a democratic society is divided and symbolically united.

Louis’ discussion of Ricœur revolves around his critical analysis of Michael Walzer’s Spheres of Justice. In this book, Walzer argues – pace John Rawls – that a theory of distributive justice should take into account the plurality of goods that have to be distributed. However, Ricœur thinks that Walzer, in discussing this plurality of goods, does not emphasize enough that citizenship and political power cannot be discussed as goods to distributed like other goods. Citizenship, according to Ricœur, is a general condition for having access to social goods, whereas political power (or the state) is the central instance of distribution. In other words, the division of society into different spheres of distributive justice is only conceivable within a political community, or body politic, in which citizenship and the state are already instituted. Ricoeur conceives the nation-state to be the concrete form of the body politic within which complex justice can be established. The nation-state can both guarantee the autonomy of the different spheres of justice, but it can also prevent their complete dissociation: it is because citizens in the end feel themselves members of a nation-state that their pursuit of a plurality of goods in different social spheres does not lead to a radical dissociation.

Despite their differences, Louis thinks that the accounts of Merleau-Ponty, Lefort and Ricœur can be understood as a plea for the securing of a phenomenological body politic in which a healthy balance can be realized between the autonomy of social spheres and their embeddedness in the symbolic unity of a political community. The phenomenological body politic thus serves as an antidote to both totalitarian unity (in which the diversity of social life is abolished by the reign of ideology) and radical dissociation (where a particular social sphere, such as the capitalist economy, emancipates itself completely from all political frameworks).

In sum, Louis uses the third part of the book to extract insights from the work of Arendt, Lefort, Merleau-Ponty and Ricœur about the intertwinement of freedom and embeddedness in different areas of political life, and she ties these insights together with the help of the metaphor of the phenomenological body politic. In this way, Louis gives a convincing presentation of ‘political phenomenology’ as a coherent movement that wants to do justice to political phenomena and defend democratic political life as the privileged place for establishing a healthy balance between freedom and embeddedness (or, put more abstractly, between indeterminacy and determinacy). This account of political phenomenology is similar to the one given by Robert Legros (1996, 548), whose work seems to have been an important influence on Louis’ thinking.

In the final pages of the book Louis tells us that political phenomenology does not tell us which political position we should adopt, but it can help us to avoid the two pathologies of ‘absolute freedom’ and ‘stagnant embeddedness’. Even if we avoid these pathologies, Louis says, there is still plenty of room for political maneuvering – from a flexible conservatism to a radical reformism – and, depending on our situation, we have to decide if we need to secure more freedom or more embeddedness.

I want to conclude with three critical remarks. The first remark concerns Louis’ silence about the differences between Arendt and Lefort. This silence is partly understandable since she wants to focus mainly on similarities so that she can present political phenomenology as a coherent movement, but I think the differences between Arendt and Lefort are of such a fundamental nature that they cannot be ignored. For example, whereas Arendt makes a rigid distinction between ‘the social’ (as a sphere of determinacy and the biological) and ‘the political’ (as a sphere of freedom), for Lefort the social and the political are closely intertwined: the political refers for him to the complex process in which the social gets symbolically instituted.

And indeed, as Wim Weymans (2012) has argued, Arendt’s lack of attention to the symbolic dimension of democratic life is at the heart of many differences between Arendt and Lefort. Whereas Arendt has a tendency to interpret political phenomena in a concrete-empirical way, Lefort interprets them in the light of their symbolic dimension, which explains for example their different evaluation of human rights. Lefort considers human rights as emancipating because of their symbolic dimension: the fact that they are indeterminate and can never be fully realized in social reality creates a permanent possibility for citizens to criticize the existing state of society. Arendt instead perceives human rights as problematic because, in concrete reality, they are not protected by a particular state. One could list more differences between Arendt and Lefort (for example concerning equality, representation, or ideology) but I think this suffices to show that these differences are not unimportant but touch on central aspects of a political phenomenology: how to understand ‘the political’ and how to perceive and interpret political phenomena.

The second remark is related to the phenomenological metaphor of the body politic. Although I think Louis shows convincingly that there is an analogy between political life and embodied subjectivity when it comes to the tension between freedom and embeddedness, in the end this is just one of the tensions in modern political life. As soon as one analyses modern democracies more closely and concretely – as it has been done for example by some of Lefort’s students, such as Pierre Rosanvallon – then there emerge many other structural tensions, such as the tension between liberalism and democracy, the individual and the citizen, reason and will, expertise and opinion, representation and participation, juridical generality and identity, self-responsibility and solidarity, etc. All these tensions structure our democratic experience but, one could argue, they are of a much more incommensurable or ‘tragic’ nature than the tension between freedom and embeddedness. It remains to be seen if the phenomenological metaphor of the body politic can also help to illuminate these ‘tragic’ tensions in our democratic experience or if we would need other metaphors and imaginaries for that.

Thirdly, although Louis’ book convincingly shows that political phenomenology deserves a place in the landscape of contemporary political philosophy, one would still like to hear more about how it relates to other approaches. For example, political phenomenologists are not the only ones who have studied the relation between freedom and embeddedness; there has been a long tradition of Hegelian scholars who have reflected on this problem by rethinking Hegel’s notion of Sittlichkeit (e.g. Honneth 2014). And although Louis justly characterizes Heidegger’s phenomenology as apolitical, there has been a growing interest lately in ‘political ontology’ (e.g. Marchart 2007), which takes its inspiration largely from Heidegger. By comparing political phenomenology to these closely related approaches, I think its specific contribution to contemporary political philosophy could become even more clear.

References

Honneth, Axel. 2014. Freedom’s Right. The Social Foundations of Democratic Life. New  York: Columbia University Press.

Legros, Robert. 1996. “Phénoménologie politique.” In Dictionnaire de philosophie politique, edited by Philippe Raynaud and Stéphane Rials, 544-551. Paris: PUF.

Marchart, Oliver. 2007. Post-Foundational Political Thought. Political Difference in Nancy,  Lefort, Badiou and Laclau. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Weymans, Wim. 2012. “Defending Democracy’s Symbolic Dimension: A Lefortian Critique of  Arendt’s Marxist Assumptions.” Constellations 19 (1): 63-80.