Hartmut Rosa: The Uncontrollability of the World

The Uncontrollability of the World Couverture du livre The Uncontrollability of the World
Hartmut Rosa. James Wagner (Translator)
Polity
2020
Paperback €18.10
140

Reviewed by: Andrei-Valentin Bacrău (former graduate researcher at the University of Zurich)

Rosa’s “Uncontrollability of the World” is an accessible read, regardless of philosophical background and training. The minimal use of jargon and social analysis remain engaging through the text, while providing a fresh outlook towards what it means to be an individual in the 21st century, surrounded by constant notions of “progress”, which we do not sufficiently examine towards our well-being. As consumers of goods, we often engage with financially unreliable planning and aspirations. Simultaneously, even the notion and strategy of being a good parent is undergoing significant transitions (64-65). The growing concern of parents has changed from trying to offer children what is best, to at least ensuring that they are not falling behind in terms of financial security and professional success.

The initial German for “uncotrollability” is translated from “unverfügbar”. Rosa clearly acknowledges the peculiarities and minimal use in the German language of such concept. He begins the book with a nomological investigation about “unverfügbar”. Although the translation of “unpredictability” has also been considered, Rosa eventually defers to “uncontrollability”, for thematic reasons:

This is exactly what this book is about: modernity’s incessant desire to make the world engineerable, predictable, available, accessible, disposable (i.e. verfügbar) in all its aspects (viii).

Additionally, Rosa is also examining the extent to which we enjoy unpredictability and uncontrollability as well. If we look at sports or board games, it seems that part of the reason why we continuously practice and engage in these activities, is because we do not know who the winner is eventually going to be (3). The randomness involved in all combinatorial possibilities, strategies and moves by a team or individuals within a game, are unpredictable: and that is what instigates our curiosity and desire for continuous re-construction of such playful events.

Although the book is strictly discussing our modern age, these notions of predictability, engineering and disposability have been within the minds of Western Europeans since the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, respectively. The constant desire to manipulate nature, events and our social ecosystem has resulted in a change of how our families, work space and countries interact. Rosa does not specifically address the aforementioned events and their relationship to modernity. However, he does mention that our resultant modern ecosystem has been emerging for the past three centuries, due to our human nature’s disposition to expand relentlessly (8). Rosa’s transition into his central arguments is the position of a realist in political science: regardless of boundaries, walls and other political aspirations, the international world remains anarchic, uncontrollable and unpredictable (20).

Prior to explaining the five main theses of the book, there is a secondary, auxillary concept evoked almost as often as uncontrollability itself. The notoin of resonance plays a significant role in showing the instrumental limits of control, as well as how we socially cope with the uncontrollable aspects of our experiences in the world. “Resonance” itself does uptake multiple meanings, and in some points it could be as easily substituted with the use of “uncontrollability”. However, it seems that the primary role of “resonance” is to evidentiate what makes our experiences “uncontrollable”, and which features of these can become, eventually, within our reach and hence “semi-controllable” (44). Resonance is not as elusive as uncontrollability (4), so it rather behaves as some sort of intersubjective dynamic that enhances our experience of the world.

Gradually, the concept of resonance also uptakes an existentialist baggage. By evoking Merleau-Ponty (31), we as subjects mainly respond and react to experiences, others and events. Rosa further extends this responsiveness as an outcome of resonance. Resonance is a necessary precondition of experience, for an individual to have the reactionary capacity Merleau-Ponty is describing. Consequently, Rosa frames the notion of resonance as a “mode of relation”, which displays the following four features (32-36):

  1. Being Affected: Primarily explained as some inward, aesthetic experience- a song can have such capacity.
  2. Self-Efficacy: An emotoinal and outward movement or reaction. The exchanges of gaze, or a warm dialogue would satisfy such denotation.
  3. Adaptive Transformation: There are numerous examples illustrated under this particular denotation. In summary, it can have something to do either with the gap between expectations and satisfying one’s desires, or the typical imprint we think of when we are changed or influenced by someone.
  4. Uncontrollability: Rosa uptakes the rather conventional use of uncontrollability in this case. It is the dynamic itself of experiencing a change from knowing someone or a particular event. The uncontrollable aspect of it is not only epistemic, in the sense of often not knowing what the experiential outcome is of the transition, but also the difficulties and novelties of adjusting to the particular change.

There are segments, as exemplified by the fourth denotation, where it can be unclear whether or not Rosa evokes uncontrollability as a denotation of resonance or not. It seems that in most uses, “uncontrollability” is unexplainable without some entailment relationship to “resonance”. Both of these concepts, however interchangeable they might be through Rosa’s book, definitely attempt to guide us through the same social phenomena. The more we try to engage in meaningful discussions about predictions, control and the satisfaction of our desires (however these dispositions themselves might in turn be controlled by the invisible hand of the market), our experiences as consumers and beings in the world are not fully satisfied- simply said, unhappy. To further elucidate the relationship between “uncontrollability”, “resonance” and our human experience, Rosa advances five primary arguments through the book:

§1 The inherent uncontrollability of resonance and the fundamental controllability of things do not constitute a contradiction per se (41).

In this passage we can notice additional clarification between the two main concepts of the book. We have a human disposition to react towards what we are affected by, a sensorial experience which is mediated by resonance. Rosa argues that both other subjects, as well as objects (in themselves) have such embedded property of “somehow” projecting “resonance” towards us. Although it is not quite clear how or why other features of the world beyond us have this “resonance” to them, the conclusive remarks of the unit is that there is some sort of relationship towards an “inherent uncontrollability” both in ourselves, as well as in the external world. This thesis becomes slightly difficult to really grasp, especially since the verbatim of the first assertion is that there is no contradiction between the uncontrollability of resonance and the controllability of things. We may uncontrollably become attracted to a wonderful piece of music, wich we eventually resonate to. Afterwards, we can play the song whenever we desire, which does seem to be in our control. Hopefully this elucidates what Rosa was trying to convey with the first thesis.

§2 Things we can completely control in all four dimensions lose their resonant quality. Resonance thus implies semicontrollability (44).

Once we obtain some sense of controllability over what we resonate with, it becomes “semicontrollable”. This is quite a fascinating approach for balancing between the things that are and are not within our control. Therefore, the external world with subjects, objects and events, do possess this feature of resonating with us. Once we correctly internalize this experience and resonate with it, both the external manifestations, as well as resonance itself, becomes semicontrollable. According to Rosa, there are conditions for response from our own subjective side via the sensorial mediation of resonance, and once we have gained some mastery over these phenomena, resonance transforms its features from uncontrollable to semicontrollable. This outcome would also suggest that there is some feature of the external world and others, which will remain uncontrollable, despite any potential conditions of transforming resonance into something semicontrollable.

§3 Resonance demands a form of uncontrollability that “speaks,” that is more than just contingency (48).

Now Rosa is guiding us through the aspects of resonance which remain uncontrollable, despite any transformative conditions. Rosa himself admits this is the most difficult one to demonstrate. He further elaborates on some feeling that we establish towards a song or natural sight (49). The terms chose to describe such relationship, however unexplainable, include “harmony and beauty”. By deferring to Erich Fromm, during the contact phase with natural beauty, for example, the modes of existence shift from “being” to “having” (51).

§4 An attitude aimed at taking hold of a segment of world, mastering it, and making it controllable is incompatible with an orientation toward resonance. Such an attitude destroys any experience of resonance by paralyzing its intrinsic dynamism (52).

Although §2 was emphasizing that eventually, we can obtain some mastery over resonance which leads to a semicontrollable relationship to the external world, §4 has a normative reading to it. Firstly, Rosa introduces a mechanism through which this intrinsic dynamism happens: subjective dimension, object dimension and process dimension (53). This was surely an interest addition to his work, and it would have been helpful to understand what he had in mind with the dynamics of resonance, controllability and uncontrollability via this particular explanation. Rosa does guide us through some fundamentals. The subject dimension is our willingness (and perhaps, openness) to be touched or changed in unpredictable ways. This argument could have been further explored to understand what Rosa thought about the limits of our self-control and autonomy, in relationship to the extent to which we ourselves can transform the external uncontrollable circumstances into semicontrollable ones. At the same time, §4 suggests that once we do obtain that state of semicontrollability, resonance changes its functional applications and interaction with us, thus overall, the entire dynamic of mind and world experiences something else.

Additionally, resonance here is argued as “vulnerability and a willingness to make ourselves vulnerable” (53). We must exercise our autonomy in such a way that we allow ourselves to be opened to vulnerabilities and unpredictable, uncontrollable changes from the external world. The object process seems quite difficult to understand, though hopefully the readers see it as an invitation to further explore Rosa’s work for themselves:

On the object side, uncontrollability means that what we encounter must resist us in at least one of the four dimensions of calculation and control. There must be at least one “obstinate remainder” that has something to say to us, that is meaningful to us in the sense of a strong evaluation (53).

What makes resonance dynamic, is that we cannot control it either with our beliefs or desires. Wanting to be happy on Christmas, or excited for a first date, are not attitudes within our reach or control (56). Now we turn to the fifth thesis:

§5 Resonance requires a world that can be reached, not one that can be limitlessly controlled. The confusion between reachability and controllability lies at the root of the muting of the world in modernity (58).

For the rest of the book, this fifth thesis becomes the most significant one. Rosa argues that Hermann Dueser initially coined the term “Unverfügbarkeit(uncontrollability), by looking at Kierkegaard’s existential philosophy, while attempting to show an opposition to humanity’s complete technological takeover (58). The book continues to be filled with numerous sociological examples about the implications for resonance theory in our daily activities, work, family lives, and religion. The readers should also be wary that in the religious context, Rosa uses “uncontrollability” and “inaccessibility” interchangeably. Whereas inaccessibility can denote the same kind of “unreachability” or “unavailability” that “uncontrollability” does, “unreachability” could also denote that it is not resonant at all, since it is completly beyond our reach or comprehension. Two other significant examples are about modern medical and political practices. Our methodology to any disease is to control it, subdue it and overcome it as quickly as possible (76). In the political ecosystem, however, voters become quite surprised when policies do not go their way. We expect our institutions to control and correctly predict the outcome of political events, in such a way that there are not any unwanted surprises and everyone achieves their respective agenda (91).

The rest of the book is filled with daily, relatable examples of how these dynamics of resonance and uncontrollability affect aspects of our lives. I would highly suggest this book to anyone that wants to further understand some difficult predicaments about modernity, whether at the individual or collective level. The smoothness and approachable language of the text is quite clear and engaging.

Hartmut Rosa: The Uncontrollability of the World

The Uncontrollability of the World Couverture du livre The Uncontrollability of the World
Hartmut Rosa. James Wagner (Translator)
Polity
2020
Paperback €18.10
140

Reviewed by: Rein Raud

This slim volume provides the Anglophone reader with a perfect introduction to Hartmut Rosa’s thought. Written in a lucid and engaging style, it summarizes much of what Rosa has been arguing at more length in his previous work, notably Social Acceleration (2013) and Resonance (2019), but also for those already familiar with it, he also adds a few new nuances.

Rosa’s point of departure is a precise and merciless diagnosis of the current state of affairs, or late modernity, which, according to him, compounds four strivings or attitudes (15-17): first, to make everything knowable and to map it, second, to make it reachable or accessible, third, to make it manageable, and finally, to put it to good use. These four strivings correspond to science, technology, economy and politics respectively: science provides the knowledge, technology the access, economy tackles the causal handles of the process and politics subjugates the entire domain to administrative procedures that are supposed to ensure that all that happens serves some articulated goals. This, Rosa says, has defined our relationship with the world as an ongoing mutual aggression, with all our daily actions atomized into goal-oriented miniprojects oriented towards certain goals and reduced to checkboxes on an ever-growing to-do list (6-7). Importantly, the endpoint of such activities is not a definable state of satisfaction, but merely “dynamic stability” (9), in which constant growth, acceleration and innovation are needed merely to maintain the status quo, and “what generates this will to escalation is not the promise of improvement in our quality of life, but the unbridled threat that we will lose what we have already attained” (ibid.). As a result, we perceive ourselves as embedded in a hostile reality, a world that threatens us and needs to be contained, countered, subdued, controlled, or else it will do this to us. But we will not prevail. In chapter 3 of the book, Rosa traces a common thread through the works of Marx, Weber, Simmel and Durkheim and onwards to Arendt, Camus and Beckett, deploring the effects of the loss of a meaningful relation with the world on the mind and a person as a whole. (One could easily add more names, beginning with Heidegger, on this list.)

One of the main contributions of Rosa’s work to contemporary debate is an original elaboration of how such a meaningful relation to the world could be described — his theory of “resonance”. “The basic mode of vibrant human existence consists not in exerting control over things but in resonating with them, making them respond to us—thus experiencing self-efficacy—and responding to them in turn,” he says (31, italics in the original). Resonance, as he defines it, has four basic characteristics (32-38): it results from something described as a “call” or “appeal”, a feeling of being affected by a thing or an aspect of the world; this needs to be followed by a response, a movement within us; we need to feel transformed by the encounter, this movement; we need to accept that this resonance is not something we can control, plan, or produce, or even predict what kind of transformation it will bring about in us. Therefore, for example, planning a “perfect evening” or 100% quality time will not necessarily result in the desired outcome, combined, as it often is, with stress about whether everything is going according to the plan — and even if nothing unpredictable has intervened, there is much less joy in the flawless execution of a plan than there might be in the jazz of circumstances and unexpected, yet pleasurable turns and twists along the way.

Next, Rosa proceeds to investigate the balance between our striving to control and our ability to resonate with the world, because, as he admits, “we are able to resonate with other people or things only when they are in a way “semicontrollable,” when they move between complete controllability and total uncontrollability” (40) — in other words, what is deplored is not any need to feel confident about things, but an excessive desire to control things in which things themselves are forgotten, their meaningfulness erased. What is therefore needed is a balance between control and uncontrollability. He presents five theses on the topic (41-59), evoking “a relation of dynamic openness” (52) as the precondition of “semicontrollability”, or reaching out to things without trying to subjugate them or incorporate them completely in one’s own schemes: the basic mistake of modernity, he says, is the confusion of reachability and controllability resulting in an effort to always convert the former into the latter (57).

The next two chapters test the theory by mapping it onto practical realities: chapter 6 is dedicated to what Rosa calls the six stages of life (birth, education, career-planning,  adulthood, aging and death), chapter 7 to institutional realities such as the optimization drive, bureaucracy, quantified accountability, legalistic procedures and so on, showing in all cases how the striving for excessive control may result in overregulation and the complete opposite of the goals initially proclaimed by the ideologues of control (common happiness, justice, responsibility and so on). The last two chapters are essays on the topics of how resonance relates to desire and on how excessive control produces more, not less uncontrollability into the lifeworlds of people in the late modern world.

All in all, this compact book provides a sound, insightful and sharp socio-philosophical theory that connects very well with the daily experience of the prospective readers of the book, and provides a succinct introduction to Rosa’s theory of resonance for those intimidated by the 576 pages of his principal book on the subject. It can therefore be wholeheartedly recommended for any reader interested in phenomenological social theory.

There are nonetheless a few questions that can be asked of Rosa’s theory. First, what is the actual target of Rosa’s critique? In the book he has used the words “modernity” and “capitalism” almost as if they were synonymous. Rosa makes the equation explicitly on page 10 and repeats it throughout the book, in particular, through highlighting the strategy of commodity capitalism to translate the thirst for resonance into the desire for the acquisition of objects (38, 78, 107). But such usage limits the range of validity for his observations quite remarkably (as well as unnecessarily), making it a bit of a first-world problem. Nonetheless, history also knows other forms of modernity than that of the liberal capitalist West. For example, the Bolshevik project in Russia and the Maoist project in China both manifest clear characteristics of the accelerationist time regime that Rosa has outlined in Social Acceleration: the cult of over-completing “the plan” in Soviet Russia on the one hand and Mao’s Great Leap Forward on the other are both efforts at imposing a voluntaristically constructed time regime on the fabric of society, and the tendency of both these regimes to control the minds of its subjectively atomized citizens and to outroot all kind of resonance with their inherited past have been, if anything, much more vicious and damaging to these societies than the anonymizing effects of commercializiation and the replacement of organically grown personal identities with factory-made lifestyles that capitalist market economy has been so successful at. It would thus help to clarify the issue by specifying which, if any, of the alienating processes are specifically caused by capitalism, which have possibly only been enhanced by it and which are generally characteristic of the modern time-regime and its intrinsic drive for acceleration.

Another question that remained with me throughout this book is that of the status of “resonance” — is this a characteristic of the way in which I would be experiencing my life-world if there would be nothing interfering with my relation with it, or is it a quality that my relation with it acquires in special cases, depending on both my own state of mind and the nature of the things I am interacting with? Is it something learned or something lost in life? There are passages in the book that suggest both. On page 31, he writes that the capacity for resonance is “in a way, the “essence” not only of human existence, but of all possible manners of relating to the world; it is the necessary precondition of our ability to place the world at a distance and bring it under our control”, which seems to indicate that resonating with the world is the primary core of any experience, and later in the book Rosa talks about losing capability for resonance as a pathological condition; on the other hand, he also talks about the axes of resonance (44ff.) implying that certain things, but not others, are able to evoke resonance in a particular person, and that certain circumstances may be necessary for resonance to occur (53). This may empirically be so (a heartless administrator may occasionally have a meaningful relationship with, and only with, their cactus), but, taken more generally, intoduces a (to my mind unnecessary) bifurcation into the theory, dividing the things of the world into the potentially resonant and the rest. Arguably the theory would gain in explanatory power, were it to credit the entire world with the potentiality to resonate ceaselessly, for example, in the mind of a child, and to look at how this capacity is diminished and potentially lost as a result of certain misconceived socio-cultural practices of modernity.

This leads us to the next question: Rosa seems to programmatically oppose anything synthetic and technological to the natural and organic aspects of our environment, so that seemingly only the latter are those we can successfully resonate with, while the former are the source of losing touch with the rhythms of reality and the resulting alienation. This is an important issue in need of more argument. For example, studies in social psychology have indeed indicated a correlation between too much screen time and mental and physical health problems, especially for younger people, but the question remains whether this is a unidirectional issue — it has also been suggested that only excessive screen time has negative effects, while a certain (controlled!) amount of it is actually beneficial, and that children are more likely to engage with gadgets are those already in risk groups according to other indicators. It is also often the case that bonding with others is technologically mediated, for example, in watching a film together.

Thus, though intuitively plausible and supported by the Heideggerian view of technology as the soulless enforcer of inauthentic relations with the environment, the opposition of the technological to the organic is not necessarily warranted and also not a cultural universal: for example, in Shintō, the Japanese traditional worldview, no such qualitative difference is made between natural and technological aspects of the environment and they can both be perceived as sacred. The problem lies with the perceiver: after all, it is quite possible to develop an alienated, utilitarian and profit-driven gaze of the organic environment as well. Therefore, the question that possibly needs to be asked is whether resonance is not, after all, a human capacity or talent that needs to be fostered and cherished, and while some clearly beautiful and awe-inspiring aspects of the world may have more potential for eliciting it from any given individual than others, we cannot generalize about these aspects and correlate them with the physical provenance of particular things — at least not without further argument.

All that said, “The Uncontrollability of the World” is a remarkable book, packing a lot of insightful theory as well as analyses of its practical validity into a slim volume that, I hope, will find its way to the reading lists of many courses on social philosophy as well as the tables of fellow academics throughout the world.

Yohanan Friedmann, Christoph Markschies (Eds.): Religious Responses to Modernity, De Gruyer, 2021

Religious Responses to Modernity Couverture du livre Religious Responses to Modernity
Yohanan Friedmann and Christoph Markschies (Eds.)
De Gruyter
2021
Hardback 77,95 €
141

Agata Bielik-Robson, Daniel Whistler (Eds.): Interrogating Modernity: Debates with Hans Blumenberg

Interrogating Modernity: Debates with Hans Blumenberg Couverture du livre Interrogating Modernity: Debates with Hans Blumenberg
Political Philosophy and Public Purpose
Agata Bielik-Robson, Daniel Whistler (Eds.)
Palgrave Macmillan
2020
Hardback 96,29 €
XXV, 277

Reviewed by: Bruce J. Krajewski (University of Texas at Arlington)

In a recent review, Kate Hayles praises Catherine Malabou for admitting in Morphing Intelligence that she was “dead wrong” about some scholarly matter. While not begrudging Malabou her applause, most academics would have to admit the low cost of such an admission for a full professor invited to speak across the globe, and treated as a “celebrity,” as Malabou is. More praiseworthy is for younger academics, and those with unsubsidized careers in higher education’s hierarchy, to write that some prominent author is wrong. Those assertions can mean banishment from conferences, withdrawal of speaking invitations, and the like, since professional societies devoted (in the questionable sense) to major authors are understandably controlled almost always by an author’s fans, disciples, and sometimes family members. Speaking truth to yourself (a confession) and speaking truth to power is a distance similar to being winged in a Twitterstorm for your views and being “canceled.” None of this should be compared to the kind of courage, say, Alexey Navalny exhibits. That’s a different realm, but needs to be part of the context, lest academics damaged by schoolhouse politics slip into masochism.

The contributors to Interrogating Modernity demonstrate an inspiring irreverence and willingness to declare that the volume’s star, Hans Blumenberg, has gotten things wrong. That virtue makes for an admirable collection worthy of its subtitle. At this early stage—Blumenberg’s ashes were scattered only a quarter century ago—the scholarly work on Blumenberg has been uncritical, making Interrogating Modernity a refreshing novelty on the Blumenbergiana shelf.

Blumenberg’s followers have fashioned a mythic Blumenberg, portraying him as a mysterious intellectual Colossus, adopting Blumenberg’s own tendency later in his life toward self-aggrandizement. Thus, we have the film The Invisible Philosopher, for example. The followers’ strategy has upped the stakes for anyone who might question or criticize the great philosopher.

Willing to be heretical, the contributors to this volume refuse to be intimidated by The Wizard of Oz scenario fabricated by Blumenberg’s fans to promote knee-bending as opposed to scholarly spinefulness. The volume’s editors charged the authors with “putting [Legitimacy of the Modern Age, the book that arguably launched Blumenberg’s international reputation] into dialogue with later versions of modernity” (vii). The editors insisted on rethinking issues Blumenberg raises in Legitimacy, and the contributors frequently exceed expectations in responding to the call for rethinking.

The first essay out the gate encapsulates all that is good about this book. It’s not a head-on meeting with Blumenberg’s Legitimacy. It’s creative. It takes risks. It could have failed. Here’s a taste of Bielik-Robson’s experimentation: “Although it does not mention Job explicitly, Hans Blumenberg’s reading of Descartes suggests this affinity very strongly” (4). Bielik-Robson resurrects an old-fashioned scholarly recipe: rub any two things together and see what sparks fly.

Bielik-Robson recognizes Job as a figure of “self-assertion,” a topos in Blumenberg. Unable to tie Blumenberg directly to Job, Bielik-Robson uses a side door. Blumenberg’s research counterpart in the Hermeneutik und Poetik group, Hans Robert Jauss, views “Job as the first hero of self-assertion” in his essay “Job’s Questions and Their Distant Reply” (6). This clever move allows Bielik-Robson the opportunity to demonstrate an incompleteness in Blumenberg’s attention to Descartes. In Legitimacy, Blumenberg acknowledges the importance of Descartes: “Descartes appear[s] not so much as the founding figure of the epoch as rather the thinker who clarified the medieval concept of reality all the way to its absurd consequences and thus made it ripe for destruction.” Blumenberg wants to downplay “the founding figure,” the singular Descartes,” in order to promote “the thinker,” synonymous with anyone who employs the method Descartes used to bring about the old reality’s destruction.

The new reality Descartes advocates post-destruction appeals to Blumenberg, because it involves principles of construction to philosophize. That is, Descartes emphasizes the form and conditions of thinking rather than the contingent content. Like Descartes, Blumenberg wants “reoocupation” to function as a transcendental model untainted by historical events, a point fleshed out in the last chapter by Whistler. Historical changes are to be explained by Blumenberg’s ahistorical model.

Descartes studies his “own self” in a room of his own, where it occurs to him “that frequently there is less perfection in a work produced by several persons than in one produced by a single hand.” The primacy of the individual thinker is Job redux. Bielik-Robson describes Job’s situation in memorable prose. Job’s story becomes important when “the anthropological minimum [Job] asserted itself for the first time against … the theological maximum [God]” (15). In a schoolbook, this might be described as individuality versus omnipotence.

Job becomes a synonym for “enough is enough!” (16). For Bielik-Robson, Job’s story is the journey of a patient moving toward health. “According to [Jonathan] Lear, the patient reaches the point of relative health when she is able to exclaim: ‘Oh, this is crap!’—which very nicely corresponds with Blumenberg’s take on Descartes, who may be said to have reacted in a similar way, by simply deciding to cut himself off emotionally from the theological morass and call deus fallax a ‘metaphysical fable’—basically, a very crappy story” (16). Unfortunately, Blumenberg’s focus on the meta-analysis instead of the patient means the trauma of being fed up is not given its due as a revolutionary catalyst (18).

Elad Lapidot’s “Legitimacy of Nihilism” juxtaposes Hans Jonas and Blumenberg. Lapidot argues that Blumenberg rejects Jonas’s critique of modernity as “the return of Gnosticism” (45). For Blumenberg’s taste, that would leave modernity without as radical a break as he wants. Blumenberg needs a way past the logic that “legitimacy enters the world through negation, through illegitimacy” (48). Modernity establishes its own legitimacy apart from the previous historical epoch. According to Lapidot, the New itself “is a category of entitlement and legitimation.”

Opposing not only Jonas but also Martin Heidegger, Blumenberg seeks to jettison a notion of continuity attached to a substance. Lapidot writes, “This original constant substance is the basic assumption of all critiques against any historical age” (45). Blumenberg is uninterested in substantialism. He is after something more radical. “The new has no other foundation but itself, and so its specific form of legitimacy is self-legitimization” (47). This antifoundationalism is partly what attracted Richard Rorty to Blumenberg (Rorty was an early Anglophone reviewer of Blumenberg’s Legitimacy book).

Lapidot’s essay pairs well with Daniel Whistler’s “Modernizing Blumenberg.” Whistler begins boldly: “[Blumenberg] gets modernity wrong” (257). According to Whistler, Blumenberg supplements modernist figures’ arguments for modernity’s legitimation, fashioning a case that the modernist figures themselves did not make.

Like Lapidot, Whistler reports that the continuity between the middle ages and modernity Blumenberg emphasizes is functional, but not substantive. In a way, it’s the old form versus content argument. Rather than seeing the two as dependent on other, Blumenberg elevates form over content, since that’s the airplane ticket out of any historical ruptures at ground level. Forms fly above temporality’s constraints. From such a height, anyone might have anticipated Blumenberg to look down on things. Thus, Whistler writes, “[I]t is hard not to discern a slight tone of condescension in Blumenberg’s narrative of modernity” (259).

By siding with form and functionality, Blumenberg asserts that his account offers a novel stability. Whistler: “[W]henever the content of history changes, the forms stay the same. Forms may themselves be changing slowly, but their inertia is sufficient for them to remain a stable reference point by which to make sense of any novelty in history” (263). Blumenberg is not content with the messiness of mere history. “Like Kant, Blumenberg considers his transcendental apparatus to be immutable, to exist outside of the frame of historical change and epochal transformation” (264). Whistler concludes that this viewpoint makes Blumenberg a “right Aristotelian” (268). Given Blumenberg’s allegiances to far-right ideas linked to Latinate Catholicism, Whistler’s “right Aristotelian” designation rings true. Blumneberg is a “conservative” (267).

In the chapter contrasting Bruno Latour and Blumenberg, Willem Styfhals understands Blumenberg as an “apologist” (77) for the ecological mess we are in, and decides Latour offers better options for the predicted apocalypse. “The apocalypse is an unstable, unbearable position that might be conceptually appealing but not practically endurable. This is what Blumenberg made crystal clear in Lebenszeit und Weltzeit as well as in Legitimacy. The apocalypse is so attractive because it allows us to see the world in a radically different perspective, liberates us from the old world for a moment. But this moment does not give rise to a stable and durable position in the world” (77). Syfhals has missed Frederic Jameson’s insight, cited in Slavoj Žižek’s Living in the End Times, that calls for distinguishing among apocalypses: “[I]t is easier to imagine a total catastrophe which ends all life on earth than it is to imagine a real change to capitalist relations” (334).

Latour does not see capitalism as the problem; it’s religion: “If modernity were not so deeply religious, the call to adjust oneself to the Earth would be easily heard.” (71). Thus, Styfhals says, “[W]e should develop a political theology of the environmental apocalypse” (61).

While Blumenberg published at least one book specifically about technology, it’s difficult to categorize any other of his major writings as confronting environmental issues in the way Styfhals does with his focus on Latour and the Anthropocene. No one would think of Blumenberg as a stand-in for Rachel Carson.

The fourth chapter by Joseph Albernaz and Kirill Chepurin also addresses the theme of political theology. Styfhals’s use of apocalypse in the previous chapter has its place in the fourth chapter. For anyone acquainted with televangelism, the continual announcement of forthcoming apocalypses is a staple of populist Christianity. No matter that a specific date for the rapture is given and then passes. That failure is overlooked while a new date for the end is announced. The misreading of signs can be chalked up to human fallibility rather than an indication of a flaw in “God’s plan.” Albernaz and Chepurin recognize that what becomes important for Christianity is not that the world didn’t end as predicted, but that it continues: “But as Christianity found itself needing to explain the world’s continued existence, it was also establishing itself … as a [worldly] power. As a result, it needed to justify not the end of the world, but its prolongation” (86). The Christian Church sets itself up “as the institution of the not-yet that is the world – as the institution ‘stabilizing’ this not-yet” (86).

Within this context of an ever-delayed apocalypse, Christians fashioned a God with unlimited sovereignty and omnipotence. However, by the late medieval period God’s characteristics became incomprehensible, “alien to consciousness,” according to Albernaz and Chepurin (88). In response to this affront to consciousness, human beings develop their own rationality to give themselves security that is comprehensible (91-92).

The deleterious effects of Christianity’s global power as explored by Albernaz and Chepurin also concern Lissa McCullough. Her essay makes the case that if you thought Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt were harmful, then you need to take a second look at John Locke (124). “Locke founded a new religion focused around the sacrality of proprietas in The Second Treatise on Government, while retaining in The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695) as much as was reasonably salvageable of the trappings of Christian faith to give the new religion a respectable pedigree, hitching it to . . . the authority of an apparent continuity with Jewish-Christian tradition (122). If you wonder why some people feel it legitimate to kill others for stealing, you can thank Locke for valorizing property over human lives. McCullough writes that Locke and his advocates managed to persuade numerous capitalists that the individual’s only incentive to consent to “join” society is to protect the property he has” (122).

McCullough sifts through Blumenberg to demonstrate Blumenberg’s allegiance to Locke’s valorization of property, despite Blumenberg’s efforts to make Locke seem insignificant to the massive scholarly buttresses Blumenberg uses to build his cases. Vital matters pivot on a reference to Locke in a footnote, for example. “[A]n extended footnote in Paradigms for a Metaphorology (1960) … proves a vein of gold when mined for its immense implications. This footnote expands on the notion of truth as a product of labour. In it, Blumenberg remarks that this sort of produced [constructed?] truth is truth that is legitimately one’s own. The possession to be taken” (110). McCullough’s hermeneutical attention shows Blumenberg’s participation in Locke’s scheme. Blumenberg contributes to overturning the Horatian view that what is natural is not something one can own: “Nor he, nor I, nor any man, is made/by Nature private owner of the soil” (111).

In addition to articles that confront Blumenberg’s arguments and politics, the collection features authors who affirm Blumenberg’s positions. Zeynep Talay Turner’s “Political Legitimacy and Founding Myths” corroborates Blumenberg’s criticism of Hannah Arendt in Blumenberg’s “Moses the Egyptian,” written around 1978. Turner writes, “As Freud took Moses the man from his people [Blumenberg says Freud “damaged” his people’s “self-confidence”], so Hannah Arendt took Adolf Eichmann from the State of Israel.” Blumenberg does not hide his “indignation” towards this “stealing” (129).

Turner captures the salient features of “Moses the Egyptian” and presents an effective précis of Blumenberg’s use of the term “prefiguration.” Even though Turner seems ultimately to agree with Blumenberg about Eichmann in Jerusalem, Turner notes in his conclusion that Blumenberg may have been venturing outside his area of expertise in taking up the question of “what a Jewish state should do with someone who had sought to destroy the Jews” (146).

According to Turner and Blumenberg, Israel needed Eichmann to take on a mythic role at his trial in order to solidify Israeli nationhood. It’s not clear whether anyone ever laid that task at Arendt’s feet during the trial, since she was writing in the moment, as events unfolded. Unlike Blumenberg, Arendt did not have the luxury of hindsight, nor was she alive in 1978 to respond to such criticism. Furthermore, Turner and Blumenberg do not provide details of how Arendt’s book on Eichmann undermined Israel, then or since. Conceptual damage is of a different order from “stealing” a nation’s legitimacy.

In Chapter 7, Robert Buch concentrates on a “neglected” (153) part of Legitimacy of the Modern Age, the section about theoretical curiosity. Why has it been neglected? Buch: “The reasons for the relative neglect of the third part undoubtedly have to do with its length and more specifically its detail and apparent digressiveness, but above all its sheer material abundance.”

The editors sought to bring Blumenberg into conversation with other thinkers, and Buch chooses Husserl as Blumenberg’s conversation partner. Buch’s aim is “to juxtapose Blumenberg’s account of the genesis of early modern science with Husserl’s Crisis of the European Sciences” (153).

Perceptions of science’s legitimacy have relevance, Buch writes, given “the modern suspicion of science, aggravated dramatically in our times of climate crisis” (164). Husserl questioned the cause of a universal science, a science that adhered to rational structures and objectivity (166). Husserl reacted against the easy division between objectivity and subjectivity. Husserl posits that modern science fails to consider consciousness as a component of its investigations.

In Buch’s account, Blumenberg owes many debts to Husserl’s view of science and technology. The differences are fewer than the commonalities. One important difference appears in Blumenberg’s narrative about the electric doorbell in an essay Buch leans on heavily, “Phenomenological Aspects on Life-World and Technization,” now available in English in The Blumenberg Reader. Blumenberg says the electric doorbell, the workings of which are hidden in comparison to a mechanical doorbell, “is ‘packaged’ in a way that it conceals this history and deprives it from us in its abstract uniformity…. [I]t is legitimized by being … put into operation” (Blumenberg Reader, 386). The “artificial product,” the doorbell, is “shrouded” with “obviousness”; technization produces this unquestioned obviousness (Reader, 387), a point Blumenberg claims shows the limits of Husserl’s commentary on the connection between life-world and technization. Blumenberg aims to show that his account is “more complicated.” To appreciate Blumenberg’s point, think of the unknowability about the functioning of crosswalk buttons in urban centers, many of which remain deliberately unfixed. Even a non-working button gives the illusion of control.

Charles Turner’s chapter on “infinite progress” in science concludes with an exploration of time and the life of the politician (175). In the middle of the two topics is C. Turner’s choice for Blumenberg’s partner in dialogue, Max Weber. The question Weber poses that C. Turner investigates is: [W]hat are the chances that someone whose life is necessarily limited to one arena of activity can achieve something of lasting significance?” (181). Weber directs that question at scholars and politicians.

In making Weber’s question contemporary, C. Turner reminds readers about the fast pace of contemporary life coupled with an increase in life expectancy. In the infinity of time, how are finite individuals to gather meaning for their lives? For scholars, the fear is that one’s work becomes obsolete within the scholar’s lifetime. For the politician, long-lasting glory can come with great success, but few politicians are remembered beyond their lifetimes. As Weber puts it, the scholarly life is chained to progress (thus fear of obsolescence), while the political life is more like art in that multiple spectacular achievements by different artists are possible, though those achievements must be of a stature to escape temporal constraints (184).

Weber’s long view echoes Blumenberg’s considerations of Lebenszeit and Weltzeit, the tension between the individual’s tiny lifetime amidst the ocean of time that is world history. Blumenberg suggests we leave the tension in place, lest the world itself suffer as it did with Adolf Hitler. According to Blumenberg, Hitler’s sin was an effort at melding Lebenszeit and Weltzeit. The evidence lies in a quotation from Hitler: “I … stand under the command of fate to achieve everything within a short human life … That for which others have an eternity, I have merely a few meagre years” (191).

In Chapter 9, Oriane Petteni escorts her readers into the world of art history and optics. This gives Petteni reason to ponder Blumenberg’s preference not to be photographed (202), as if Blumenberg’s own study of optics caused his wish to avoid the medium. Petteni is well aware Blumenberg’s avoidance of selfies is something more than shyness. Petteni sees it as connected to much larger matters, like truth. The visible and the hidden link up with Western beliefs about truth. Petteni writes, “[I]n the modern age, truth no longer reveals itself; instead, it must be revealed by decisive action” (195). That is, we must work for our truth.

The comments on truth correspond to Blumenberg’s views about biology. Petteni sees that Blumenberg derives his anthropology from biology. Petteni turns to The Genesis of the Copenican World for evidence. “The Earth requires both exposure to the Sun for complex lifeforms to arise and protection from direct exposure to sun rays, which would otherwise threaten to consume every living thing. The exposure to light requires—for the Earth as well as for human beings—a kind of filter or screen” (203). Others back up Petteni’s sense that Blumenberg foregrounds the importance of indirection and camouflage, such as the recent biography by Uwe Wolff, who notes multiple times Blumenberg’s penchant for indirect communication.

Petteni finishes her reflections on Blumenberg via a journey through Franz Kafka’s Der Bau. The unfinished Kafka text parallels, for Petteni, Blumenberg’s open-endedness regarding the human impulse to fashion “endless significance” (211). The story about a burrow also fits in with a quotation Petteni cites by Heinz Wisman, “[Blumenberg’s] thought is strongly marked by the worry not to remain at the surface of things” (202).

Chapter 10 might serve readers best read in conjunction with the first and the last chapters where Descartes has a prominent role. One difference about Adi Efal-Lautenschläger’s chapter is the linkage between Descartes and Blumenberg’s book The Legibility of the World. Blumenberg himself points out the parallels between his theme in Legibility and Descartes’s Traité du monde et de la lumière. What does Blumenberg find in Descartes’ book? “The self is to be experienced according to the measure of the world, as compatible or not with its changing conditions” (Legibility, 92). This lesson runs counter to interpretations of Descartes that rely on the celebrated cogito ergo sum and tend to make Descartes a happy solipsist. The lesson also seems a challenge to Whistler’s essay in which Blumenberg leaves behind the messy world for timeless forms and models, though keep in mind that Whistler’s interpretation launches from a different Blumenberg work, Legitimacy rather than Legibility.

Efal-Lautenschläger contributes a useful dichotomy based on the arguments of Legibility: “Blumenberg chooses to put his concept of reality on the side of world-imaging, instead of world-modelling. [R]eality is understood as belonging to the arena of representations or of world-imaging. World imaging – and, with it, reality itself – has an interpretative orientation: the reality that results from the image of the world is designated as an act of reading” (224-25).

Credit the editors with choosing to follow Efal-Lautenschläger’s essay with one that expands Efal-Lautenschläger’s points. Returning to Blumenberg’s Legitimacy of the Modern Age, Sonja Feger dives into another pairing, “reoccupation” (Umbesetzung) and “reality-concepts” (Wirklichkeitsbegriffe). Feger tells readers that Blumenberg uses reoccupation “to explain how epochal change can be grasped. On the other hand, and in other texts, he provides a historical analysis of what he calls “reality-concepts.” “In this chapter, I attempt to bring these two concepts into line with each other” (237).

Reoccupation is up first. Feger: “It is important to note that “reoccupation”, that is, the English term Wallace uses to translate the German word Umbesetzung, does not allude to anything antagonistic; it is not about any kind of (intellectual) conquest or usurpation. Rather, the term brings into focus the process-character of epochal change” (244). Emphasizing the “process-character” of change points to Whistler again, because “reoccupation” is about a perennial question-and-answer model Blumenberg wants to say is at work. Not that a “firm canon” of “great questions” exists. Fegel warns readers not to become fixated on answers or questions in their concrete content. Relying on a quotation from Blumenberg’s essay on secularization, Fegel asks readers to remember that “the historical identity and methodical identifiability of supposedly secularized notions is an illusion created by the identity of the function that altogether heterogeneous contents can assume in certain positions within man’s system of understanding the world and himself” (245).

How do we find out about reality? In some places, like Blumenberg’s famous essay on the possibility of the novel, his response seems to be “sometimes we won’t.” Feger pinpoints his wording: “[I]t is quite natural that the most deeply hidden implication of an era – namely, its concept of reality – should become explicit only when the awareness of that reality has already been broken.” (246). It’s a version of not being able to see the forest for the trees. “The subject as historically situated can only account for earlier concepts of reality, not current ones” (246).

Exiting that reality dilemma depends on reality-concepts. “Making a reality-concept explicit draws on the distinction between an object (i.e. a certain behaviour towards reality) and reflection on that object” (247). While it looks as if Blumenberg’s position is that our reflecting on an object called reality is accurate only for earlier periods, Feger says our access to what’s real about the moment we are in depends on Husserlian transcendental phenomenology. “[T]ranscendental consciousness both carries out and simultaneously reflects upon the process of (reality-) constitution” (248). Problem solved (if Blumenberg is correct).

References

Bajohr, Hannes, Florian Fuchs, and Joe Paul Kroll (Eds.). 2020. History, Metaphor, Fables: A Hans Blumenberg Reader. Ithaca, NY. Cornell University Press.

Hayles, N. Katherine. 2019. “Review of Morphing Intelligence.” Posted May 17, 2019. Accessed November 1, 2020. https://criticalinquiry.uchicago.edu/n._katherine_hayles_reviews_morphing_intelligence.

Prisco, Jacopo. 2020. “Illusion of Control: Why the World is Full of Buttons that Don’t Work.” CNN.com. Accessed November 1, 2020. https://edition.cnn.com/style/article/placebo-buttons-design/index.html.

Wolff, Uwe. 2020. Der Schreibtisch des Philosophen: Erinnerungen an Hans Blumenberg. München: Claudius Verlag.

Žižek, Slavoj. 2011. Living in the End Times. London: Verso.

Martin Heidegger: Logik als die Frage nach dem Wesen der Sprache (Gesamtausgabe 38 A), Klostermann, 2020)

Logik als die Frage nach dem Wesen der Sprache (Freiburger Vorlesung Sommersemester 1934) Couverture du livre Logik als die Frage nach dem Wesen der Sprache (Freiburger Vorlesung Sommersemester 1934)
Martin Heidegger Gesamtausgabe 38 A
Martin Heidegger. Auf der Grundlage des Originalmanuskripts neu herausgegeben von Peter Trawny
Klostermann
2020
Hardback $102.60
X, 190

Agata Bielik-Robson, Daniel Whistler (Eds.): Interrogating Modernity: Debates with Hans Blumenberg, Palgrave Macmillan, 2020

Interrogating Modernity: Debates with Hans Blumenberg Couverture du livre Interrogating Modernity: Debates with Hans Blumenberg
Agata Bielik-Robson Daniel Whistler (Eds.)
Palgrave Macmillan
2020
Hardback 96,29 €
XXIV, 268

Rebecca Dew: Hannah Arendt: Between Ideologies, Palgrave Macmillan, 2020

Hannah Arendt: Between Ideologies Couverture du livre Hannah Arendt: Between Ideologies
International Political Theory
Rebecca Dew
Palgrave Macmillan
2020
Hardback 77,99 €
X, 258

Leo Strauss: On Hegel

On Hegel Couverture du livre On Hegel
The Leo Strauss Transcript Series
Leo Strauss. Edited by Paul Franco
University of Chicago Press
2019
Cloth $45.00
384

Reviewed by: Max Morris (KU Leuven)

One thing is clear regarding Leo Strauss’ interpretation of Hegel—he took him very seriously as a philosopher. We understand this not only from the fact that Hegel’s philosophy was the explicit theme of Strauss’ long-standing engagement with the Russian-French philosopher, Alexandre Kojève, but also from the fact that Strauss considered Hegel to be “the outstanding philosopher of the nineteenth century”[1] and an important contributor the development of historicism, which Strauss considered to be the primary antagonist to political philosophy in the 20th century.[2] The publication of Strauss’ 1965 lectures on Hegel’s Philosophy of History at the University of Chicago—currently under review—serves only to reinforce the view that Strauss considered Hegel to be a formidable figure in philosophy (163, 300). It is therefore surprising that Strauss never devoted any of his texts to an in-depth examination of Hegel’s philosophy. Even in his debate with Kojève, where Strauss apparently speaks of Hegel more than anywhere else in his work, he never takes issue with Kojève’s interpretation of Hegel. Throughout Strauss’ work, Hegel is considered either only in passing or as part of a genealogical sketch of modernity. Hence, the most obvious merit of On Hegel is that it grants us a more comprehensive insight into Strauss’ mature (he died in 1973) view of Hegel’s philosophy than we find elsewhere in his work.

On Hegel constitutes the fourth of Strauss’ lecture series to be published (following An Introduction to Political Philosophy, On Plato’s Symposium, and On Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra). When the content of a publication has been transcribed, the editorial work can have an immense impact on the text and must therefore come under scrutiny. The first aspect of the editorial work that strikes the reader of these lectures is the chapter names, which, it would seem, have been given by Paul Franco, the editor, as opposed to Strauss himself. In this connection, it is worth noting that “The Germanic World”, constituting the fourth and final part of the English translation of Hegel’s Philosophy of History, has not been included in the names of any of the chapters. Secondly, the editor frequently indicates when the students and/or Strauss himself laugh during the lectures in square brackets ([laughter]), but he is not consistent in this practice. For instance, on p. 83, Strauss says “you have to use strictly superficial distinctions now, like preliterate and literate, not to say underdeveloped and developed. They have found a new one: emerging and nonemerging. It is very interesting to see how here the strictly scientific motivation, no value judgments, goes along with a democratic, i.e., value-inspired motivation not to hurt anybody’s feelings”. The paradox to which Strauss alludes in the last sentence is met with a significant amount of laughter, and yet the editor fails to indicate laughter in square brackets. Another associated problem—although this is obviously not due to an error on the part of the editor—is that Strauss’ intonation cannot be discerned in the publication, unlike in the recordings, and his voice has a distinct timbre when he is joking. One such case is where Strauss says “this concept of nation [the commonsensical definition] had infinite practical consequences, as you all know, for the self-determination of nations. And especially in the case of the underdeveloped, alias emergent, nations, where you don’t know who makes them nations” (343). All of this indicates only that the reader often lacks the privilege, afforded to Strauss’ students, of being able to easily detect the cynicism of the old German lecturer.

A third and not unimportant point is that the editor has been inconsistent in showing Strauss’ emphasis. For example, Strauss says that “the Negroes, the Chinese, and the Hindus say: ‘this is the good life’” (158). The editor fails to italicize “the”, and while this does not change the meaning dramatically, it serves to detract from the central point that Strauss is trying to make here: all of these groups are making a claim about the same thing, and they are therefore not merely in conflict, but they rather contradict one another. Relatedly, certain words have been wrongly transcribed, some of which are of little or no importance, such as “clarification”, which should be “qualification” on p. 77, whereas others change the meaning significantly. For an example of the latter, Strauss asks “is Hegel another Plato or Aristotle, as he in a way claimed to be, who arrives at the time when the West has arrived at its dusk?” (99). The editor writes “task”, instead of “dusk”, and “task” in fact conveys the opposite of the intended meaning. The intended meaning, as Franco himself explains in the introduction of On Hegel, is that “philosophic understanding appears on the scene only when a civilization is in decline” (14).

Lastly, certain omissions have been made, the most extensive of which is at the end of chapter eight, where about ten and a half minutes of the recording have not been transcribed. Franco lists the topics contained in the omitted passage in note 29 on p. 390, and he excuses such omissions by indicating that they are either “unproductive or largely inaudible exchanges with students” (16). The end of chapter eight is audible, so we must assume that Franco found it to be “unproductive”. It is worth mentioning this only for the sake of indicating to the reader that he/she is not being issued with a complete transcription of the text, including, for example, certain passages which the editor did not find to be “productive”. It is unclear whether or not the editor has always exercised good judgment when making such omissions, and the fact of this dependence on the judgment of the editor will in all likelihood strike the more devout of Strauss’ followers as a problem with this publication.[3]

One significant merit of the publication, which one should not fail to mention, is that Franco provides very interesting notes to the text, which frequently include relevant transcriptions of Strauss’ earlier 1958 course on Hegel’s Philosophy of History, where the 1965 lectures are lacking in one way or another. This allows the reader not only to gain further insight into Strauss’ interpretation of Hegel, but also to understand how Strauss’ view of Hegel or his expression of it developed over time. It is on the basis of both lecture series that Franco writes the introduction to On Hegel.

Franco’s introduction can be divided into three sections: first, he contextualizes Strauss’ lectures within Strauss’ published works; secondly, he presents Strauss’ defense of Hegel; and finally, he explains Strauss’ criticism of Hegel.[4] In the first section, Franco proposes that Strauss’ lectures should be situated within three aspects of his work: his early Hobbes studies, his engagement with Kojève, and his genealogy of modernity (1). Franco notes that, in his Hobbes studies, Strauss mentions the similarity between Hegel’s master–slave dialectic and Hobbes’ fear of violent death, in terms of the foundational role that these concepts play in the two thinkers’ political philosophies, and between Hegel’s and Hobbes’ use of history as a means to guarantee the actualization of the best regime (2). In his engagement with Kojève, Hegel appears to take centerstage for the first time. Kojève critiques Strauss’ study on Xenophon’s Hiero from a “Hegelian” perspective, and Strauss’ response to Kojève would therefore seem to be a critique of Hegel. But it is patently clear—and the lectures only serve to reinforce this view—that Strauss did not consider Kojève’s position to be properly speaking Hegelian. In On Hegel, Strauss goes so far as to say that Kojève’s Hegel “is clearly no longer Hegel himself” (274). To be sure, Franco indicates that Kojève has an “idiosyncratic version” of Hegel’s philosophy (2), but he considers what Strauss says in his exchange with Kojève to be relevant to Strauss’ interpretation of Hegel. If it is true that Strauss considered Kojève to be a completely different philosopher from Hegel, then what Strauss said about and to Kojève does not necessarily have anything to do with what he thought about Hegel. If one wanted to make such an association, one would have to show what Strauss took to be the distinction and common ground between Kojève and Hegel. But I think such an effort would mask one of the merits of On Hegel—we see, for the first time, Strauss discussing Hegel’s philosophy directly and extensively. If we had the benefit of Strauss discussing Heidegger’s philosophy directly and extensively, for example, it would be a gross injustice to simply conflate this with Strauss’ discussion of Heidegger in Natural Right and History and, for that matter, his response to Kojève.

The third context in which Franco situates Strauss’ 1965 lectures on Hegel is Strauss’ genealogy of modernity (4–5). Strauss considers Hegel as part of the second “wave” of modernity, in which the ideal or best regime is reconceived in such a way as to make it necessarily realizable in the here-and-now. Instead of judging actual political affairs in accordance with an external standard of the good, Hegel sought to show how the best regime “is necessarily actualized by the historical process without men’s intending it”.[5] Nothing external to the historical process was therefore considered necessary for bridging the gap between the ideal and the actual; the general will was considered a sufficient answer to the question of the good.[6]  For this reason, it is hard to understand why, later in the introduction, Franco explains that Strauss understood Hegel to be “a believer in natural right” (10). The only evidence that Franco adduces in support of this claim is Strauss’ insistence on Hegel being a proponent of “the rights of man” (10–11). However, Strauss is clear, even in On Hegel, that Greek natural right means “the common good”, and this is to be distinguished from “the right of subjectivity” (233). “The right of subjectivity” is distinguished from “the common good” in a number of important ways for Strauss. Perhaps most importantly, the common good implies “nature as a cosmos. And in Hegel there is no cosmos” (81–2, 296). Thus, although it would seem that Franco has simply misused the term “natural right”, it is imperative that these things be distinguished from one another.

Franco then proceeds to explain how Strauss defends Hegel against many of the charges that have been brought against him. Strauss disposes of Karl Popper’s claim that Hegel was a proponent of totalitarianism by showing that Hegel “rejects Plato’s political philosophy precisely because he considers it ‘totalitarian’” (5). He defends Hegel’s empirical procedure in his philosophy of history by showing that Hegel’s objectivity is not hindered by his importation of categories: Hegel wants to understand cultures as they understood themselves, and to achieve this, he looked at their religion, namely, what they took to be the highest or most sacred (6). Similarly, Strauss argues that the standards by which Hegel distinguished between what is important and unimportant in history “are not arbitrary standards” (7), and far from being racist (7),[7] he shows Hegel’s philosophy to be entirely congruent with liberalism, constitutionalism and the rights of man (10).

However, while in On Hegel, Strauss does not explicitly criticize Hegel for his methodology in Philosophy of History, he does not, as Franco seems to suggest, simply defend it. Strauss indeed proposes that Hegel sought to understand cultures as they understood themselves (89, 241, 331). But he also indicates that, for Hegel, the philosopher is “the son of his time” and hence the philosopher must understand himself historically in order to understand himself accurately (29–30). There is a contradiction here, which Strauss admittedly does not make explicit in On Hegel, but which is certainly implied. The contradiction is brought out in Strauss’ What is Political Philosophy. Hegel may have sought to understand each culture, including each philosopher, as it understood itself, but what of those cultures or philosophers of the past that did not understand themselves historically and instead “claimed to have found the truth”? Hegel must nonetheless understand them historically and thus in a different way from the way in which they understood themselves.[8] The fact that Strauss makes both points in On Hegel, i.e., that Hegel seeks to understand cultures as they understood themselves and that he considers all philosophy to be historical, indicates that Strauss does not merely defend Hegel’s methodology. However, perhaps his failure to make the abovementioned criticism explicit is one of the ways in which he defends Hegel against the skepticism of his students, and to this extent, we may agree with Franco (6, 32).

The most interesting point that Franco makes in relation to Strauss’ defense of Hegel is that Strauss defends the morality of Hegel’s world-historical individual. A world-historical individual is, for Hegel, one of those characters in history that usher in a new age, e.g., Julius Caesar.[9] More often than not, such a character acts in base ways and brings about a shift in world history without being conscious of the necessity of their actions for that shift.[10] Hegel defends these actions by showing their necessity for the progress of history, which culminates in the modern rational state.[11] But while this bears a great similarity to Machiavelli’s procedure, as Hegel himself admits,[12] Strauss claims that Hegel’s world-historical individual is “more moral” than that of Machiavelli (8, 57). This is indeed an interesting point and one whose explanation is not entirely forthcoming in the lectures. Franco makes mention of a related discussion in the 1958 course, in which Strauss proposes that Hegel would never have excused the actions of Stalin (9). But from the passage that Franco draws our attention to, it would seem that Strauss proposed that Hegel would have only taken issue with Stalin on political grounds. In any event, in the 1965 course—and here, the dates are not entirely irrelevant—Strauss says: “I don’t know whether Hegel would have gone so far as to defend the action of Stalin” (72). Furthermore, to explain his claim that Hegel was “more moral” than Machiavelli, Strauss says that Hegel “moralizes the [world-historical individual] and thus brings about the union between the universal and particular” (57–8). In another place, however, he says that Kierkegaard, “a moralist [of all things!] who does not expect as much from politics as Hegel does”, criticized Hegel on the grounds that in his “social-political solution… the concern for purity of the heart has lost its meaning almost completely” (304–5). Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegel, with which it appears Strauss agrees, clearly echoes Strauss’ claim that Machiavelli had “forgotten the soul”.[13] Thus, contrary to what Franco says, it is certainly not completely clear, from what Strauss says in On Hegel, why Strauss considers Hegel to be “more moral” than Machiavelli. To answer this question would require a comparison of Strauss’ Thoughts on Machiavelli with On Hegel, and this fact potentially indicates something of the great value of the latter.

Franco understands Strauss’ critique of Hegel as two-fold. First, there are two fundamental problems that remain unsolved in Hegel; and secondly, Hegel is ambiguous regarding whether the end of history is desirable. The first of the unsolved problems in Hegel that Strauss sees, and Franco comments on, is that Hegel was a liberal, in that he believed in the rights of man, yet he recognized that there was no solution ready to hand to the inevitable “agitation and unrest”, which would result from that (11). More importantly, however, Franco indicates that Strauss does not find an adequate solution to the “theologico-political problem” in Hegel (11). Religion is regarded as the necessary glue holding society together, yet the rational state supplants religion. “Christianity has become fully understood, i.e., religion has been transformed into philosophy taught by Hegel at the University of Berlin. The true theology is Hegel’s philosophy, i.e., it is no longer theology proper”. Thus, while it remains necessary for every citizen to be a member of some religion (252), “the modern state, the rational state, is indifferent to religion”. However, unlike religion, Hegel’s philosophy “has no comfort” for “the common people” (300). According to Franco, the problem is this: “the common people gradually lose their naïve faith, but they have nothing to replace it” (12). The glue holding society together is lost, which calls into question the rationality of the modern state.

The second part of Strauss’ critique of Hegel, according to Franco, is associated with Hegel’s notion of the end of history. Franco insists that Strauss was of the view that Hegel believed that history had reached its final stage in his time (13). According to Strauss, the primary evidence that Hegel did not believe that the end of history had come is the passage in which he claims that America is “the land of the future”.[14] “But”, Strauss rejoins, “the question is: was this of any importance to Hegel? I think one can definitely say no” (100). As Franco notes, history ends, according to Strauss’ interpretation of Hegel, when “all the fundamental problems have been solved” (14), and Hegel’s important passage on America does not “suggest that any ‘new principle of fundamental importance’ will emerge in America” (13). According to Franco, this notion of the end of history in Hegel is problematic for Strauss because Hegel is ambiguous as to whether or not it is desirable (14). The flourishing of society may be concomitant with the suppression of man’s “highest desire, the desire for knowledge” (55). As Strauss says in his “Restatement on Xenophon’s Hiero”, the end of history may be “the end of philosophy on earth”.[15] Yet, in On Hegel, Strauss says that, for Hegel, “religion is primary but religion is not the highest. The highest is philosophy” (78). Hence the “ambiguity” to which Franco refers (11).

Franco concludes his introduction in a somewhat problematic way. He claims that, according to Strauss, Hegel in fact recognized the primary problem concerning “the fundamental tension between knowledge and political life” (15)! As Strauss says in the 1958 lecture series, “Hegel accepted… [that] there is a fundamental disharmony between the peak of society and the peak of knowledge” (381n14). To Franco, this shows that Strauss had great “respect for Hegel as a thinker” (15). But does it not also show an important point regarding Strauss’ critique of Hegel? When we bring what Franco considers to be the two parts of Strauss’ critique of Hegel together, one notices another point of central importance, which Franco does not discuss: Hegel contradicts himself. Strauss shows that Hegel claims that history has ended, which requires that the fundamental problems have all been solved, but he also shows that Hegel accepted that there is at least one fundamental problem that remains unsolved. This contradiction explains why Strauss claims that Hegel thought that history had come to an end (100–101) and yet insists on this being “the crucial question” in Hegel (30–31). Is Strauss contradicting himself? Franco seems to take it for granted that Strauss was of the view that Hegel thought that history had come to an end, but on p. 100–101 and 122, to which Franco refers, Strauss only claims that it was Hegel’s view that “no new principle of fundamental importance will emerge” (101). This is not the same as the view that “the fundamental problems are solved” (59, 254). It is entirely possible that there will never be a “new principle” and yet a fundamental problem remains unsolved. Perhaps there are perennial problems that are unsolvable by a new principle. In other words, as Strauss says in the “Restatement”, perhaps “the human problem, and hence in particular the problem of the relation between philosophy and politics, is insoluble”.[16] Yet, society is capable of “tyranniz[ing] thought”, and “from the Universal Tyrant there is no escape”.[17] Thus, in Strauss’ mind, a perpetual, universal and totalitarian regime, which could preclude a new principle, is entirely possible, but its materialization would not necessarily coincide with wisdom, i.e., the solution to all fundamental problems. Fundamental problems may be “solved” on the political plane and yet remain unsolved in reality. “Fundamentally there can no longer be a revolution”, according to Strauss’ interpretation of Hegel, but “the trouble” with the idea that “all fundamental questions, theoretical and practical, are solved” is that “when you are at such a peak there is also at least the possibility of going down”, and “this is intimated by Hegel more than once” (58, 255, emphasis added). It is a question, albeit “an old question”, as Strauss notes in his 1960 lectures on Aristotle’s Politics, whether “the happiness of the individual is the same as that of the polis”.[18] But according to Strauss, this remains a question for Hegel (381n14).

We must therefore object to Franco’s insistence that Strauss was convinced that Hegel was of the view that the end of history had come. Both the impossibility of a new principle and the solution to all fundamental problems are inextricably linked with the notion of the end of history for Strauss (59, 100–101, 122, 254–5). While it is true that Strauss was convinced that Hegel thought there would never be a new principle of fundamental importance, he was far from convinced that Hegel considered all of the fundamental problems as solved. It seems that Strauss’ criticism of Hegel therefore goes further than Franco suggests. Strauss does not merely argue that Hegel is “ambiguous” about whether or not the end of history is desirable, but also that Hegel’s endorsement of the modern rational state, as the end point of history, removes the fundamental question regarding the relation between philosophy and politics from the purview of philosophy, without adequately answering it. In other words, in praising the end of history, Hegel assumes that philosophy and politics are not radically different things, but rather entirely compatible. Yet, Hegel believed the question of their relation to be exactly that—a question. What Franco does not recognize is Strauss’ emphasis on the relevance of Hegel’s political action, i.e., his writings and lectures, as compared with whatever may have been his private view. If Strauss is right that “religion has been transformed into philosophy taught by Hegel at the University of Berlin” (300), then this philosophy is not only theoretical, but also practical.

The most important practical implication of Hegel’s philosophy that Strauss points to in n Hegel is the destruction of the exoteric/esoteric distinction. The decisive passage reads: “Hegel and his contemporary Schleiermacher were more responsible than any other individuals for the fact that the distinction between esoteric and exoteric writing has ceased to be of any importance” (289).[19] It is hard to determine what is more remarkable—this passage or the fact that Franco fails to mention it! Strauss devoted much of his philosophical effort, throughout his life, to the revival of that very distinction, and now we know that his primary opponent in this effort was Hegel. How does Strauss think Hegel destroyed the exoteric/esoteric distinction? In Persecution and the Art of Writing, Strauss explains this distinction explicitly and extensively. Simply stated, the distinction pertains to the way in which philosophical texts are written. Philosophers who hold “heterodox views” have not always been able to express those views publicly for political reasons.[20] To avoid persecution or, conversely, to avoid exposing the uninitiated to “the terrible truth” of philosophy, the philosopher would write “with circumspection”, i.e., “between the lines”.[21] This meant that, in the same text, the philosopher would present the truth to the philosophers esoterically and only “an approximation of the truth” to the non-philosophers exoterically.[22] To achieve this, the philosopher would employ a number of devices, such as irony, deliberate self-contradiction, etc.[23] Of course, these devices would only successfully hide the heterodox views of the philosopher from the non-philosophers—and they would seemingly only have a purpose—if it is true that “thoughtless men are careless readers, and only thoughtful men are careful readers”.[24] In some places, this “axiom”, upon which the esoteric/exoteric distinction rests, is expressed in natural terms: such philosophers “believed that the gulf separating ‘the wise’ and ‘the vulgar’ was a basic fact of human nature which could not be influenced by any progress of popular education”.[25] This quote leaves us in a good position to understand how Hegel justified his abandonment of the esoteric/exoteric distinction for Strauss.

In On Hegel, Strauss shows that Hegel “presupposed” the Enlightenment view that “by the spread of knowledge the people become enlightened and opinion is changed” (298–299). In other words, there is no “basic fact of human nature” separating the rational from the irrational or nonrational; as Strauss says elsewhere, man is “a free agent… [with] almost unlimited perfectibility or malleability”.[26] If this—“the most relevant difference among human beings”—has therefore “practically disappeared”, there appears to be no need for exoteric writing.[27] Neither will the philosopher be persecuted for his/her heterodox views, nor will the expression of such views be detrimental for non-philosophers. On the contrary, Strauss claims that Hegel believed that through enlightenment, “the rational and the actual necessarily coincide”, a state of affairs that Strauss thinks both the ancients and moderns considered under the rubric of “the best regime” (299, 322).[28] According to Strauss’ interpretation of Hegel, “the human mind necessarily progresses, and its results necessarily spread” (298). There must therefore be a time—for Hegel, his time—when this process reaches a culminating point. Put differently, the problem of the relation between philosophy and politics is resolved in history.

Now, Strauss emphasizes the fact that Hegel contradicts himself regarding the status of religion in the modern state. The modern state supplants religion, but it is nonetheless necessary for everyone to be a member of one religion or the other (252, 300, 330). Why? Because, Strauss makes clear, Hegel has no answer to this “grave problem”: “how do these people that can partake of reason only via religion still partake of reason when religion is no longer there as the most socially potent force?” (394n10). In other words, Hegel is not convinced that there is no “basic fact of human nature” preventing the actualization of the rational state. Yet, his lecture theater takes the place of the church. We come then to a better understanding of Strauss’ claim that “Hegel has no comfort for us here” (300). Strauss does not simply mean, as Franco suggests, that Hegel has no comfort for “the common man”. This smacks of Marx’s opium of the people, and Strauss’ understanding of religion is far more profound than Marx’s. What Strauss is saying—and hopefully this is already clear—is that the problem with substituting philosophy for religion is that it destroys the conduit for the conversion of the non- or potential philosopher into a philosopher. As Strauss says in On Hegel, “isn’t this the status of religion, namely, that the philosophers transform the religious truths into philosophic truths?” (253). In other words, as he says elsewhere, “philosophy, in the full and original sense of the term… [is] the attempt to replace opinions about the whole by knowledge of the whole”.[29] Hegel transforms religious truths into philosophic truths (58), opinion into knowledge, but he issues his philosophic truths as transformed religious truths in his lectures and in his writings; his philosophic truths simply replace the religious truths. Those who are not already philosophers are therefore deprived of the very conduit through which Hegel became a philosopher himself.

One may object to this reading of On Hegel by stating that, for Strauss, Socrates actualized the philosophic potential of certain individuals by himself, i.e., without the help of religion. Since I cannot adequately respond to this objection here, suffice it to say that, for Strauss, Plato employed the art of poetry,[30] and Strauss makes clear that Hegel had no time for poetry (246, 300–301). But this is not the only unanswered question that remains after reading On Hegel. Why was Hegel not able to overcome the problems concerning the relation between philosophy and politics and between philosophy and religion, according to Strauss? How does religion serve as a conduit for the conversion of the philosopher and what would constitute a viable substitute? While On Hegel provides some further insights into how Strauss understood modern philosophy, it is not a bottomless pit, like Thoughts on Machiavelli. In a word, On Hegel serves to further illuminate Strauss’ understanding of the theologico-political problem and how Hegel, in his treatment of that problem, absolutized the tradition that Machiavelli merely put in motion: “Obfuscation”.[31]


[1] Leo Strauss, What Is Political Philosophy and Other Studies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 58.

[2] Ibid., 26.

[3] Arthur Melzer, Philosophy Between the Lines (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2014), 294–5. To be sure, Melzer could not be counted among the orthodox Straussians, although this passage shows a typically Straussian view regarding editorial work.

[4] It should be noted that the latter two sections are based on Strauss’ Hegel lectures.

[5] Leo Strauss, “The Three Waves of Modernity” in An Introduction to Political Philosophy, edited by Hilail Gildin (Wayne State University Press: Detroit, 1989), 91.

[6] Ibid., 91–2.

[7] Any modern reader who has read just the subsection of Hegel’s introduction to Philosophy of History, entitled “Geographical Basis of History”, is liable to make such an allegation. See: G. W. F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of History, translated by Ruben Alvarado (Wordbridge Publishing: Aalten, 2011), 73–94.

[8] Strauss, What is Political Philosophy?, 68.

[9] Hegel, Philosophy of History, 285.

[10] Ibid., 28–30.

[11] Ibid., 91, 285.

[12] Ibid., 365.

[13] Leo Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli (The Free Press: Glencoe, 1958), 294.

[14] Hegel, Philosophy of History, 80.

[15] Leo Strauss, “Restatement on Xenophon’s Hiero” in On Tyranny, edited by Victor Gourevitch and Michael S. Roth (The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2000), 211.

[16] Strauss, “Restatement”, 208.

[17] Leo Strauss, On Tyranny, edited by Victor Gourevitch and Michael S. Roth (The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2000), 27; Strauss, “Restatement”, 211.

[18] Leo Strauss, “Aristotle’s Politics: A course given in the Spring quarter, 1960 in the Department of Political Science, University of Chicago by Professor Leo Strauss”, edited by Joseph Cropsey (1962), 340. Available at: https://archive.org/stream/LeoStraussAristotlesPolitics1960/Leo%20Strauss%20-%20Aristotle%27s%20%27%27Politics%27%27%20%5B1960%5D_djvu.txt.

[19] It is hard to understand why Strauss includes Schleiermacher here. To be guilty of this charge, one would need to have an extraordinary impact on all subsequent philosophy. While Schleiermacher may have had a significant impact in certain circles, especially hermeneutics, Hegel was, according to Strauss, “the outstanding philosopher of the nineteenth century”. Strauss, What is Political Philosophy?, 58.

[20] Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1988), 24.

[21] Leo Strauss, Philosophy and Law (State University of New York Press: Albany, 1995), 37; Strauss, Persecution, 24.

[22] Strauss, Persecution, 19.

[23] An extensive list of such devices may be found in the first chapter of Strauss’ Thoughts on Machiavelli. See: Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli, 15–53.

[24] Strauss, Persecution, 25.

[25] Ibid., 25, 34.

[26] Strauss, “The Three Waves”, 279.

[27] Strauss, “Restatement”, 210.

[28] The distinction between them being only that, unlike the moderns, the ancients left the realization of the best regime to chance (299).

[29] Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1965), 30.

[30] Leo Strauss, The City and Man (The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1978), 136–7.

[31] Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli, 173.

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