The Ernst Cassirer renaissance is in full order. Since Massimo Ferrari’s anticipation and prediction that the German philosopher would be lifted from the realms of semi-forgottenness in 1994 different lines of reception have swept through the German-, Italian- and English-speaking world. (cf. Ferrari, 1994) It was only a matter of time until this resurgence would carry over to Anglo-American departments, where, along with a renewed interest in Neo-Kantianism, more and more research on Cassirer is being conducted. The newly translated and edited edition of his three volume magnus opum The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms by Routledge is a case in point here. Accordingly, the present work by Samantha Matherne, assistant professor of philosophy at Harvard University, is perhaps only the logical conclusion to a new wave of Cassirer reception in the English-speaking world, appearing in the renowned The Routledge Philosophers series edited by Brian Leitner. Primarily aimed at undergraduate students, the book will surely complement many syllabi on the German philosopher in the English-speaking academy for years to come, especially as the hitherto existing English introduction to Cassirer, John Michael Krois’ Symbolic Forms and History, is by now 34 years old.
In the contemporary reception Cassirer’s philosophy is explicitly advertised as being able to bridge “gaps not only between the so-called ‘analytic-continental divide’ in philosophy, but also between philosophy and other disciplines in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences” (p.2) Indeed, apart from purely historical considerations the primary aim of contemporary research on Cassirer seems to be the development of a transcendental philosophy of culture as the investigation of the conditions of possibility that enable cultural artifacts and their world by means of an analysis of the different modalities of symbolization. (cf. Endres et al., 12f.; Luft 2021, 215) Following the influential studies of Peter Gordon (Gordon, 2010) and Michael Friedmann (Friedmann, 2000) the peculiar position of Cassirer in 20th century (German) philosophy is recognized and contextualized and with it a philosophy that seemingly does not outright reject modernity’s proliferation of cultural and life-forms in either a rural conservative individual flight to authenticity (Heidegger) or a detached logic-semantical analysis of scientific propositions (Carnap). Hans Sluga, a reviewer of Gordon’s book, however, expressed his doubts about deriving a reconciliation of culture via Cassirer:
Cassirer was no doubt an accomplished philosopher, an influential teacher, and above all a thoroughly decent and admirable human being, but he does not get close in stature to the much more problematic Heidegger, and he certainly also lacks the philosophical radicalism of a Wittgenstein, Foucault, or Derrida and the incisive scientific acumen of a Russell, Quine, or Rawls. Attempts to revive his fortunes are, I am afraid, doomed to failure. (Sluga, 2011)
However, the contemporary reception of Cassirer wagers that the German philosopher has still a lot to offer for present-day problematics. (cf. Gordon 2021, xiv; cf. Luft/ Ferrari 2021, passim)
How the background of this reception and its repercussions along with the different ‘geophilosophical’ context vis-à-vis existing German introductions (Sandkühler/ Pätzold, 2003; Graeser, 1994; Recki, 2004, 2013; Paetzold, 2014) have shaped the task of presenting a summary and overview of Cassirer’s philosophy will form the frame of this review. The author’s aim to “offer an overview of Cassirer’s philosophical system as a whole that can help the reader navigate his corpus” will determine its immanent threshold of success. (p.2) I will provide a summary of its contents before engaging in a more critical reading.
After setting out from a brief biography of Cassirer, the book unfolds via a historical contextualization of Cassirer within the broader movement of Marburg Neo-Kantianism as the general frame of reference and conceptualization Cassirer worked and philosophized within. “For all the shifts and developments in Cassirer’s body of work, his philosophical system remains, throughout, that of a Neo-Kantian.” (p.18) It is transcendental spontaneity that for Matherne is the central motif of Cassirer’s effort for a philosophy of culture and in connection with the methodological impetus of accounting for the conditions of possibilities of cultural facts the decisive trait of his intellectual lineage. Hence this, after setting the general picture of Marburg Neo-Kantianism as being primarily scientifically oriented right, amounts to a transcendental investigation of the conditions of possibility of meaning-creating/ – making in a shared world. In this sense, (Marburg) Neo-Kantianism tout court had always already been on the way to a philosophy of culture, though it is Cassirer’s merit to conduct this investigation in a way that would do justice to the concept of culture. (cf. p. 31f.)
In practice, this configures the subject’s capability to confer meaning- and form – making processes freely and spontaneously upon the world. Matherne decisively accounts for this by contextualizing Cassirer’s indebtedness to Cohen’s and Natorp’s intellectualist interpretation of Kant’s theory of cognition – the actual conceptuality of what had been forms of intuition, space and time, in Kant. (cf. p. 39ff.) In other words, all forms of cognition and perception remain relative to the transcendental subject’s employment of a range of categories. On this view, Cassirer’s central philosophical innovation consists in invoking the ‘softer’ notions of form and symbol/ function against ‘law’ – the former two permitting a greater range of phenomena attributable to the ‘world of meaning’. (cf. p. 37.)
Accounting for this in more detail, Matherne sets out to retrace the younger Cassirer’s work on epistemology and a theory of concept-formation, largely neglecting the first published monograph Leibniz’ System in its Scientific Foundations and the first volume of Das Erkenntnisproblem in der Philosophie und Wissenschaft der neueren Zeit. Rather, Cassirer’s first central philosophical innovation is said to have first and foremost occurred within the theory of concepts and the adjacent philosophy of mathematics to form conceptual and scientific basic distinctions, which, insisting on the continuity of Cassirer’s thought, remain invariant up to The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms and beyond. In this way, Cassirer’s elaboration of the distinction between substance-concept and function-concept in the eponymous book are employed to account for the respective processes of objectification (Ver-gegenständlichung) yielding the symbolic forms and their ranges of perception and cognition. This amounts essentially to the primacy of the category of relation over substance from Kant’s transcendental logic to prevent a notion of concepts as being mere copies of pre-existing objects attained by way of abstraction. (cf. Truwant 2015, 291) A spontaneously conceived function – later to be extended as symbolic form – posits a law of succession and orders a series of representations according to it. (cf. 53ff.)
The remaining chapter presents Cassirer’s consequent views in the philosophy of arithmetic and geometry. Matherne summarizes the attained position under the heading of ‘logical structuralism’, “according to which mathematics has its basis in functions of relations that belong to logic and mathematical objects are ideal structures generated on the basis of those functions or relations.” (p. 75) Although introducing Cassirer’s first philosophical innovation in this way diminishes the methodological role of the Neo-Kantian’s historiography of philosophy as a history of problems (Problemgeschichte) in relation to the historization of the a priori and its relevance for the establishment of the function-concept, the presented difference between the two respective views is presented clearly and convincingly.
The historical character of functions comes back in Cassirer’s ‘philosophy of natural science’, which is the topic of the ensuing chapter. In dialogue with the natural scientist, it is the transcendental philosopher’s task to account for the conditions of possibility of the facts of science by means of a reconstruction of the corresponding transcendental functions, which remain relative to the overall scientific context of experience (cf. p. 81 In the context of natural science this task amounts to the elaboration of the fundamental concepts employed by the natural scientist and the positions the yielded concepts occupy within their empirical theories. Hence the elaboration of a taxonomy of the scientific statements of measurement, laws and principles as instantiations of a different order of generality. In turn, the philosopher should, according to Cassirer, make out the invariant relations on a purely conceptual level. (cf. p. 98.) In the last instance, these figure as the transcendental categories, that is, the functions continuously employed in all scientific endeavors such as time, space, or number. Although these may be configured differently over history they serve as the functional a priori building blocks of any scientific theory.
Subsequently, the discussion moves on to the philosophy of symbolic forms proper, that is, not just the elaboration of the eponymous trilogy, but also the dispersed articles and texts written between 1920 and 1945. Matherne chooses to frame the philosophy of symbolic form as a philosophy of culture throughout, and, although not outright neglecting its later transformation into a philosophical anthropology, takes her “cue from his early formulations of it in The Philosophy Symbolic Forms and other texts from the 1920s”. (p. 116) While it is conceded that Cassirer’s thought evolved in newer directions at a later stage of his career, the conception of a ‘philosophy of culture’ is by definition a narrower one than that of a philosophical anthropology. And although the reason for this concession is provided for in the continuity of the central status of symbolization as seen in the dictum of the human as animal symbolicum, questions why this should not compel one to conceive of his philosophy of culture as a philosophical anthropology are unanswered. (cf. 116f.) It is perhaps by way of the general relevance of Cassirer for a contemporary philosophy of culture that this conception is motivated. Rather than going the whole way of conceiving of the philosophy of symbolic forms as a philosophical anthropology the more modest task of investigating meaning-making processes fairs equally well with the ascribed position of the German philosopher with regard to the analytic-continental split. Thus, the task of the philosophy of symbolic forms “is ultimately organized around an effort to elucidate the conditions of culture.” (p. 119)
Matherne follows the common distinction between the different forms of culture along the subjective and objective lines. The former is comprised of the different modalities of representation as the triad of expressive, presentative and significative functions, the latter as the continuous progression of objective spirit, that is, culture’s overall context of signification as an “a priori intersubjectively shared structure and activity, which unites human beings […] together.” (p. 120) The different symbolic forms encompass respective “perceptive, intuitive and cognitive” structures and in this way the philosophy of symbolic forms aims to tie an analysis of the transcendental functions of the subject with its objective cultural expressions together (p.125) In contrast to the discussion of the cognitions of mathematics and natural science, the investigation shifts to the broader notion of the various kinds of ‘understanding’ in the human cultural sciences. (p.121) Cassirer posits their specific modality of concept-formation as being aligned with the general model detected in the natural sciences, foreclosing an anticipated discussion of their status as form- or style-concepts. (Form- oder Stilbegriffe)
Matherne then goes on to discuss the methodological requirements to conduct an analysis of the conditions of possibility of culture. The transcendental method is once again evoked, this time in Natorp’s “bi-directional conception”. (p. 124) The correlation of objective and subjective spirit is bifurcated along a reconstructive axis for the subjective side of the equation and constructive axis for its objective side. The latter posits a specific analysis of culture (‘constructive’) and the former accounts for the conditions of possibility of it by reconstructing a corresponding synthesis of transcendental subjectivity. (cf. Freyberg/ Niklas 2019, passim) It would perhaps have been worthwhile to extend and contrast the presented account with the manuscript for a Metaphysics of Symbolic Forms and its thoughts on ‘Basis Phenomena’ for a more rounded account. Matherne’s presentation gives the impression that Cassirer’s seems to privilege the reconstructive side over their correlativity or ‘work-relatedness’ (Werkbezogenheit), though the account remains thus firmly faithful to her overall interpretation of Cassirer. Subsequently the details of symbolization by means of categorial function-concepts, such as cause, time, thing or property, to yield the respective symbolic forms are discussed. (cf. p. 129) These figure as “the concepts that remain constant across all our spiritual activities because they are the a priori conditions that make all spiritual ‘forming’ possible in the first place.” ( p. 129) Matherne takes up Cassirer’s distinction between a category’s quality – its basic logical impetus of ordering series – and its modality, the particular ‘content’ “indexed to ‘regions of culture’ a[s] context” that orders representations. (p.130) With regard to spirit, Cassirer draws attention to ongoing discussions concerning the autonomy of the respective symbolic forms vis-à-vis the others (‘irreducibility thesis’) and whether their consecutiveness is to be conceived of teleologically as progress (‘teleology thesis’), although the latter question is answered affirmatively.
After the determination of the general functional context, Cassirer moves on towards the elaboration of the individual symbolic forms. The triad of expressive, presentative and significative symbolization as different functional modalities of representation provide the guidelines for this elaboration, relating the individual to respective realizations of her own freedom as spontaneity. Accordingly, religion and myth are relegated toward the expressive, language, history, and technology toward the presentative and mathematics, the natural sciences, morality and right toward the significative function of consciousness. (cf. p. 152) Philosophy entertains neither a position of a totalized god-like view of their overall cohesion nor does it count as one symbolic form among the others but figures as a toll to reflect on the symbolic forms. The specific functions and ‘worldviews’ of both myth and religion are presented in clear and minute detail before going over to art as the ‘objective’ demonstration of ‘subjective’ presentation – thereby “revealing to us that we are not passive with respect to our affects and emotions.” (p. 166) Objectification is reflected from the objective side of the dichotomy by the symbolic form of language, which, while still remaining bound to intuition and a substance-based view of categories, fosters the recognition of self-consciousness by the liberated understanding of reality it enables. It is interesting that Matherne specifically mentions that language and technology foster both practical and theoretical recognition of freedom and one wonders to what extent that can be said of the other symbolic forms. While this realization would be imaginable for myth, religion and the latter distinction between specific recognitions of this contention in morality and natural science, respectively, is left unaccounted for.
Both history and technology remain tied to the presentative functions of consciousness and spirit, the former by revealing reality’s distinctively human texture by means of the objective presentation of the past, the latter as the realization of the will’s striving for power toward the free configuration of the world. (cf. p.175f; p.178f.) Lastly, it is, on the side of theoretical reason, mathematics and natural science, that exemplify the significative functions of spirit. Following Cassirer’s views on the philosophy of mathematics, it is the fact that these symbolic forms are devoid of any relation to intuition or perception as to the yielded concepts and ‘things’ that elevates them towards the highest ranks of culture as most grasped realizations of transcendental freedom. It is precisely because these forms remain purely self-referential as expressions of freedom that “spirit truly discovers itself”. (Cassirer in Matherne, p. 184.)
The elaboration of the theoretical accomplishments of subjectivity is followed by their practical counterpart and the question over their position within the overall cohesion of the philosophy of symbolic forms. Recounting Cassirer’s refutation of emotive cognitivism in Axel Högerstrom Matherne insists on the employment of the transcendental method in the realms of morality and right. “ Cassirer endorses a critical approach [to practical philosophy] in which he analyzes morality and right in terms of ‘functions’ that serve as conditions of the possibility of the ‘facts’ of the ‘world of willing and action’. (p. 193, my amendments, N.S.) This deployment of the transcendental method is thereby connected to the demand of a regulative principle, the categorical imperative its claim to a universal, objectifiable moral principle. “Thus, a universal principle is one that enables us to most closely approximate the idea of ‘unity of willing’” thereby conferring objectivity on the ethical progress of consciousness via Sittlichkeit.(p. 194) Right, on the other hand, functions as a symbolic form in the overall context of Cassirer’s philosophy as self-binding to juridical lawfulness. Cassirer’s ‘philosophy of right’ posits a version of natural right that fosters the practical recognition of freedom by means of the postulation of and adherence to collective autonomy via laws. (cf. p. 214) Lastly, the teleological underpinnings of Cassirer’s progressivist understanding of theoretical and practical consciousness are posited as contingent. This is demonstrated in Cassirer’s analysis of National-Socialism in his The Myth of the State. Fascism re-introduced myth in modern consciousness via the symbolic form of technology and the ideas of hero worship, race and the dominance of the state. It is these late analyses that prompted Cassirer to also revise his conception of philosophy late in his career. Against the merely scholastic concept of philosophy, he brought forward its ‘cosmopolitan’ counterpart. Culture’s contingent accomplishments are not to be taken for granted but are to be achieved and upheld by means of struggle. To assign the task of this struggle had been the last innovation of Cassirerean philosophy.
The last chapter aims to reconstruct Cassirer’s influence on the development of not only philosophy but also (art) history, social science, ethnology, and Critical Theory. The presentation is focused on direct engagements with and influences of Cassirer on figures and movements. Accordingly, one learns about, for instance, the German philosopher’s influence on such diverse figures as Langer, Goodmann, Merleau-Ponty, Panofsky, Blumenberg, Habermas et.al. Cassirer’s possible inspiration to contemporary positions in the philosophy of science, such as logical structuralism and ontic scientific realism are addressed. (cf. p. 249f.)
It is puzzling, though, that, given the general narrative of Cassirer, an explicit contextualization of Cassirer within and relation to ‘philosophy of culture’ and its major movements and figures is lacking. This is even more relevant as, despite presenting the philosophy of symbolic forms as a philosophy of culture, Cassirer’s specific concept of culture remains unaccounted for. It appears that, following his Neo-Kantian heritage, the latter can only ever be the constructed empirical totality of culture at a given moment in history. Accordingly, one wonders whether the philosophy of symbolic forms is not prone to becoming ‘sociologized’: an investigation of the constituents and subsequent diversity of culture that would, by means of the quid iuris, be retied to an investigation of the correlative conception of subjective spirit. In the German context, this could be understood along the lines of Luhmann’s project of a ‘system theoretical’ approach to culture and society and its ‘autopoietic’, subjective sources.
Whether one concurs with Matherne’s way of framing Cassirer and his philosophy as being ‘organically’ culturally oriented or not, it is unquestionable that she is an informed and avid reader of the German philosopher. Via the transcendental method, Matherne is able to provide a coherent narrative of Cassirer’s philosophy. The book neatly ties the multi-faceted aspects of the oeuvre together in a rigorous and convincing manner and presents them in a remarkably cohesive way. Indeed, another title for it could have been: Cassirer: A Study on the Unity of his System. It is beyond doubt that the new reception of Cassirer has found a corresponding introduction to its subject.
Endres, Tobias/ Favuzzi, Pellegrino/ Klattenhoff, Timo. 2016. “Cassirer, globalized.” In Philosophie der Kultur- und Wissensformen. Ernst Cassirer neu lesen, edited by Endres, Tobias/ Favuzzi, Pellegrino/ Klattenhoff, Timo, Philosophie im Kontext von Gesellschaft und Wissenschaften, vol. 78, Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang Edition, 9 – 22.
Ferrari, Massimo. 1994. “La ≫Cassirer-Renaissance≪ in Europa“, Studi Kantiani 7: 111–139.
Friedmann, Michael. 2000. A Parting of the Ways. Carnap, Cassirer, and Heidegger. Chicago/ La Salle, IL: Open Court.
Freyberg, Sascha, Niklas, Stefan. 2019. “Rekonstruktive Synthesis. Zur Methodik der Kulturphilosophie bei Ernst Cassirer und John Dewey.” In Ernst Cassirer in seinen systematischen Beziehungen. Zur kritisch-kommunikativen Bedeutung seiner Kulturphilosophie. Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie Sonderbände Vol. 40, edited by Breyer, Thiemo and Niklas, Stefan, 47-68, Berlin/ Boston: De Gruyter.
Graser, Andreas. 1994. Ernst Cassirer. München: Beck.
Gordon, Peter. 2010. Continental Divide. Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos. Cambridge, MA/ London: Harvard University Press.
Gordon, Peter. 2021. “Foreword.” In Cassirer, Ernst. The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Volume 3: Phenomenology of Cognition. Trans. by Steve G. Lofts. viii-xv. Oxon/ New York: Routledge.
Luft, Sebastian. 2021. “Cassirer’s Place in Today’s Philosophical Landscape. ‘Synthetic Philosophy,’ Transcendental Idealism, Cultural Pluralism.” In Interpreting Cassirer. Critical Essays, edited by Simon Truwant. Cambridge/ New York: Cambridge University Press, 214-236.
Luft, Sebastian/ Ferrari Massimo. 2021. “Cassirer’s Children”, Special Topics Issue, Journal of Transcendental Philosophy 2(1):1-5.
Paetzold, Heinz. 2002. Ernst Cassirer zur Einführung. Hamburg: Junius.
Recki, Birgit. 2004. Kultur als Praxis: eine Einführung in Ernst Cassirer’s Philosophie der symbolischen Formen. Berlin: Akademie Verlag.
Recki, Birgit. 2013. Cassirer. Stuttgart: Reclam.
Sandkühler, Hans Jörg and Detlev Pätzold (Ed.). 2003. Kultur und Symbol. Ein Handbuch zur Philosophie Ernst Cassirer. Stuttgart/ Weimar: Verlag J.B. Metzler.
Schwemmer, Oswald. 1997. Ernst Cassirer. Ein Philosoph der europäischen Moderne. Berlin: Akademie Verlag.
Sluga, Hans. 2011. “Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos.” Review of Continental Divide, by Peter Gordon. Accessed November 1, 2021. https://ndpr.nd.edu/reviews/continental-divide-heidegger-cassirer-davos/.
Truwant, Simon. 2015. “The Concept of ‘Function’ in Cassirer’s Historical, Systematic, and Ethical Writings.“ In The Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer: A Novel Assessment, edited by Friedman, J. Tyler and Luft, Sebastian, 289-312, Berlin: De Gruyter.
 See cf. Endres et al, “Cassirer, globalized”, in: Philosophie der Kultur – und Wissensformen. Ernst Cassirer neu lesen. Endres/ Favuzzi/ Klattenhoff (Eds.), pp. 9 -22. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang Edition, 2016, for an overview of recent research conducted on Cassirer.
 Where in text citations refer to page numbers only the addressed book is Matherne, Cassirer. Routledge, 2021.
 For cf. Schwemmer 1997, it is precisely the case that Cassirer’s philosophy of culture is always already a philosophical anthropology – “because that which defines the human being – spirit – consists in the configuration and usage of cultural symbolisms. (Ibid., p. 3145, my translation, N.S.)
Inner Religion in Jewish Sources: A Phenomenology of Inner Religious Life and Its Manifestation from the Bible to Hasidic Texts, trans. Eduard Levin, Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2021 (shortened as Inner Religion hereafter), presented before us by Professor Ron Margolin, is an informative handbook with abounding materials. The thesis Margolin offers to defend is a simple one, and he defends it through this hefty book of 600 pages. The thesis is, despite criticisms issued from other religious or secular groups, Judaism is a tradition that holds a high regard for the interior, intrinsic, or immanent features of religious consciousness. Put in other words, the Jewish people’s observing of the commandments or of maintaining the love for God, is not triggered by fear, nor motivated by outer purposes (physical, social, political, etc.). Their piety results from inner experiences and aspires after inner goals, e.g., the cultivation of their own souls.
To defend this religious thesis, however, Margolin treads the detour of phenomenology. On the one hand, it is a natural choice, since this philosophical tradition lays its emphasis on reduction, givenness, consciousness, and so on, prioritizing subjective experiences to objective validities. On the other hand, nonetheless, Margolin disagrees with the majority of the phenomenologists of religion and theology: van der Leeuw, Levinas, Chrétien, among others. This independent spirit, which, by the way, surpasses the scope of phenomenology and also applies itself to the domain of the research of Jewish mysticism (whose forerunners, above all Gershom Scholem and Idel Moshe, become the targets of sober criticism in many places of Inner Religion), is one of the features that render this book a good read. There are deficiencies, indeed, as will be addressed at the end of the review, but they will by no means prevent readers from appreciating the meticulous interpretative efforts Margolin dedicates to the defending of whatever he tries to defend.
In this article, I will first go over the key concepts (inner, interiority, interiorization) and, second, three of the instantiations (ritual, conceptual, and experiential interiorization) of inner religion. The length of my review will prevent me from reproducing the material abundance waiting for readers in Margolin’s work, but this needs not to be done, due to the nature of the monograph (a handbook, as mentioned in the beginning): instead of arguments piling up on one another, the book, an anthology, rather, consists of a singular overarching principle applied to a variety of literatures. Thirdly, I will comment on the methodology adopted in this book in general (phenomenology and others). At last, as predicted, I will raise a critical remark that concerns in particular the problem of history, which, I believe, is not treated as a problem per se, despite the historical appearance of the work (it is, after all, a commentary on materials from the Bible to Hasidic texts).
Before we start the thematic discussions, however, I should notify the readers of one underlying attitude of this review article. Given the nature of the journal, I will focus primarily on the phenomenological part of Inner Religion, although it occupies a somewhat marginal place in the book. One should not fail to notice that this monograph pertains, to a larger extent, to the studies of Jewish religion and theology. Its central mission, as just mentioned, consists in the apologetics for the Judaic religion, instead of working out an elaborate systematics of phenomenology. It goes without saying that the abundance of sources from the Jewish background does not at all obstruct the phenomenological potentials of the study, but, on the contrary, opens up a new perspective for philosophy. However, this pre-emptive reminder is still needed for the purpose of helping the readers establish a fitting attitude toward Inner Religion: To be found within is, I repeat, not architectonics composed of Husserlian or Heideggerian jargons, but an applied phenomenology that mobilizes the fundamental methods or conceptual framework in the field of religion.
Ambiguity of the term inner
The most crucial term of Inner Religion, is, naturally, “inner”. The Hebrew language has several terms that connotes what Margolin means by it. A metaphorical and hence the most straightforward one is the word lev [heart] (35), but the same idea can be expressed by more theoretical or epistemological jargons, whose exemplar specimen is the word Kavanah [intent] (36-37). This concept connotes proactive planning (87) or attentiveness (89).
A spacial metaphor itself, the equivocal notion “inner” harbors a leeway of interpretation. There are several options that appear thematically or unthematically throughout Inner Religion. First, inner as mental or psychological, as opposed to somatic or physical; one practices belief for the good of her soul, not to strengthen her body. Second, inner as subjective or self, as opposed to objective or others. Third, inner as private, as opposed to public; faith is best tested when one is isolated from the crowd. Fourth, inner as inherent, as opposed to instrumental; religion should be intrinsically good, not a tool to seek respect or other social benefits. Fifth, inner as immanent, as opposed to transcendent; God is dwelling in men’s souls, so there is no need to search for Him outside of oneself, a credo reminiscent of St. Augustine’s teaching. Granted, these understandings of the term “inner” partially overlap with one another. For example, mental, subjective/self, and private are used quite interchangeably by the author in the introductory chapter. But they have different connotations with regard to their oppositions.
Margolin does not intent to categorically distinguish these multiple significations, but he knows how to discern the inner he wants in numerous religious phenomena: “most importantly, this book will focus on practices that the religious individual perceives as means to stand before, or to make contact with, the divine” (13). Where certain events or testimonies attest to one’s—immanent—direct union with the divine, there is inner religion. Two remarks to be made here. First, the innerness Margolin has in mind presents itself, paradoxically, in transcendent or ecstatic experiences. Second, this transcendence is nevertheless not referring to anything really exterior, outside of one’s soul or consciousness, but precisely manifested within interiority. In other words, special attention will be given to the experience of union with divinity, but it is a transcending union as perceived by the mind of an individual: a transcendence from the point of view of immanence.
Margolin, however, does not let this overtly reductive approach develop into a full-blown annulment of the demarcation between the inner and outer. Indeed, the insistence on the distinction between, i.e., the claim that all interiority does not correspond with an outer expression, is what distinguishes Margolin from other phenomenologists. This gives rise to a difficulty, namely whether there is an enclosed domain of interiority, a private spiritual sphere absolutely insulated from outer influences, forming an empire within an empire.
The tendency to espouse this substantial reading, proposing a static, fixed, or idealistic conception of men’s interiority, is an attitude not unlike that of the phenomenological eidetic method in early Husserl. Nevertheless, Margolin does point out yet another way to talk about the inner, which assists to avert the criticism. Instead of substantiating an interiority, he mentions the term “interiorization”, referring to “the process of change that occurs within a given religious culture, when the center of attention is shifted from the ‘objective world’ of nature or myth to the ‘subjective world’ of the individual’s psyche” (15). The wording “center of attention” here echoes on another plane the author’s phenomenological method: inner religion proposes a change in attitude, not an ontological claim about some self-sufficient inner space. The outer perception is not simply cancelled out in favor of the inner, but rather regarded as an achievement, a constitution of it. To be more precise, the religious texts that pertain to outer qualities can be (re-)interpreted as metaphorical language that, at the end of the day, alludes back to the inner ones. As Margolin notes down: “The term ‘interiorization’ presumes a transition from outer to inner perception, but the assumed existence of a developmental transition does not necessarily mean the prevalence of inner perception. Often, both perceptions continue to coexist.” (15)
Three kinds of interiorization
The body of Inner Religion is carried out in three parts, each explicating on one or several possible forms of interiorization: ritual, experiential, and conceptual, existential, and epistemological interiorization. Since the space here is limited, I will focus on the first three of these possibilities: ritual interiorization, conceptual interiorization, and experiential interiorization.
First, in line with the author, I start with the rituals, and I believe there is a reason for doing so. The author can best demonstrate his claim if even in rituals, often believed to be social and public events, there can be found elements of inner religion. Second, I single out what is called “conceptual interiorization” because Margolin considers this idea as one of his contributions to the discussion of inner religion. Third, I reverse the order of experiential and conceptual interiorization, because it is in the former that Margolin’s polemical tone reaches a high point, which allows us to more easily situate the author in the traditions both of phenomenology and of the studies of Jewish mysticism.
The technical term “interiorization” mentioned above first manifests itself in the phenomena of ritual and customs. Due to their public features, the practices of rituals and customs permit at the outset no enclosed domain of interiority, but an interplay between the outer and the inner. Or to be more precise: public and exterior in the first place, religious rituals have nevertheless the potential to let their participants focus back on themselves, on the well-being of their souls, instead of that of the bodies that are actually carrying rituals out.
In the beginning of the chapter in question, “Ritual Interiorization and Intent for Commandments”, Margolin invokes an understanding of rituals opposite to his own. In this view, ritual is defined as “a category of standardized behavior (custom) in which the relationship between the means and the end is not ‘intrinsic’, i.e. is either irrational or non-rational” (proposed by Jack Goody, quoted in Inner Religion, 61; emphasis mine) This definition hinges on a merely extrinsic relation “between the means and the end”. We now will see how Margolin argues for the contrary with the aid of Jewish sources. There are several steps in ritual interiorization, as can be seen in the formalization of rites, a process that dates back to the Scripture, and through the prophets and rabbis, reaches its pinnacle in the mystics and Hasidim.
The first step is the replacement of rituals that are more demanding or cruel with ones less so. The Torah already initiates a nascent form of ritual interiorization, which is especially patent in the story of the Binding of Isaac. It is a well-known tale: God demands Abraham to sacrifice Issac, but in the last moment, when Abraham was raising his knife and ready to kill his only son, God sends him a ram, instructing him to perform an animal sacrifice instead. The sanguinary rite is preserved, but, at least from an anthropocentric point of view, it becomes more humane. In line with Martin Buber, Margolin interprets this episode as a demonstration that “God wants the intent and not the actual act” (82) The actual, material, actions being carried out or not, it is men’s sincerity and good faith that count.
The history has seen the intensification of the figure of Abraham, who gradually becomes a figure that not only embodies a sincere intent, but, through his love alone, had fulfilled the entire Torah even before God gave it to human beings. This can be read in, for example, in R. Menahem Mendel, a grand-disciple of Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism: “with a single attribute, namely, love, he fulfilled the entire Torah” (quoted in Inner Religion, 151). The Hasidim “attack the rabbinic formalistic conceptions, which assume that the commandments do not require intent, by imparting inner content to the halakhah” (156), manage to fulfill the incipient tendency of interiorization in the Bible. Hasidism, with its disobedient attitude, exploits ritual interiorization to an unprecedented degree. Here, rituals become a method to intensify the experiential dimension, without eliminating the social, public, objective elements of religion, only aiming to refer therefrom back to its men’s soul: “The method of ritual interiorization adopted by the early Hasidic masters maintained the external religious ritual while infusing the fulfillment of the commandments with inner meaning.” (156) The consequence of this method is twofold: the outer forms are retained, but transformed, e.g., from the original human sacrifices to prayers in the end, and it is now permeated with subjective significance, with intent.
Margolin offers a special treatment to the phenomenon of “conceptual interiorization”, regarding it as an independent category that, in his opinion, shares the same right with “epistemological interiorizations, existential challenges of religious life, inward focusings” (276).
The particularity about conceptual interiorization is that it establishes an inner religion not through religious or in particular mystic experiences, but via the mediation of the interpretation of statements or concepts in religious texts. (In fact, I would go one step forward and describe this practice as “interiorization through interpretations”, not just through conceptualization). By this conceptual labor, it transforms “sanctified myths, laws, and narratives in the conceptual formulations that mainly emphasize the inner meanings relevant to every person” (276).
Margolin begins to elaborate conceptual interiorization by quoting Nachmanides’s commentary on one passage in Book of Deuteronomy, which is translated in English as: “Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord, that it may go well with you…” (Deut. 6:18; Inner Religion, 277) Nachmanides’s exegesis goes like this: “Also when He did not command you, think to do what is good and right in His sight, for He loves what is good and right.” (Inner Religion, 277) In Margolin’s reading, this interpretation expends the original semantics of the biblical statement in a way that favors inner faithfulness to merely exterior or instrumental observations of the commandments. The hinge of Nachmanides’s explanation lies in the phrase “do what is right and good”. Similar wordings can be found, e.g., in Psalms, “Do good, O Lord, to the good, to the upright in heart” (Ps. 125:4; Inner Religion, 277; emphasis mine). In Rabbinic teachings, “‘Do what is right and good’—this refers to a compromise, acting beyond the strict demands of the law”1. We should then be able to notice that, by drawing associations between the biblical passages and rabbis’ teachings, Nachmanides harvests an inner reading of the Law, a reading that instructs people to act well even in the absence of laws and commandments (“Also when He did not command you…”).
However, although Margolin esteems the conceptual approach to interiorization as an independent form of inner religion, he does not fail to point out that there is an antagonistic, i.e., non-conceptual method, which is as legitimate as those immanent interpretations. In fact, the chapters about the non-conceptual or non-verbal interiorization, that is, about “paranormal experiences” and “introspective contemplation and inward focusing” (chapter 2 and 3), antecede the one that evolves around the conceptual counterpart (chapter 4). I invert the sequence in the review article on purpose to, I hope, show that Margolin’s own emphasis lies on the former. If language, concepts, and interpretations should indeed have their fair share in the Jewish inner religion, they can nonetheless never eclipse the pre-linguistic or pre-predicative religious experience.
The discussion of experiential interiorization, instantiate by contemplation and inward focusing, appears in the middle of a scholarly debate as to how to interpret the ecstatic experience documented in the Heikhalot literature (233-234). Pioneers in this field of research, above all Gershom Scholem and Idel Moshe, have set the keynote: this experience reflects a “mystic ascent” (233) that leads one away from oneself. Margolin, however, chooses to side with the opposite interpretation, as proposed by Rabbi Hai Gaon, which tones down the exterior or self-alienating dimension of ecstatic experience but emphasizes its immanent character: those who experience ecstasy do not depart from the body, but have visions precisely “in the chambers of their hearts”. (235) As Margolin puts it: “‘Ascent to Heaven’ is therefore an expression of an inner experience of the consciousness of a fierce inner sensation of ascent and detachment from the body; but we need not assign it a meaning of changed outer, spatial location.” (237)
That being said, it is worth noticing that the pre-linguistic and inner faithfulness is, once again, registered in a linguistic or ritual practice: the reciting of the prayers. Therefore, this particular religious practice brings the three kinds of interiorization together. Prayer is a ritual; it is linguistic (and therefore open to interpretation); and it, as just said, elicits experience. The discussion of prayer is scattered over multiple chapters and sections in the book. It appears first when the author is handling the issue of intent and rituals (chapter 1), returns when he talks about inward focusing (chapter 2), and emerges again in the end where he critically situates himself within the tradition of phenomenology (Afterword). Moreover, prayers should be distinguished in different kinds. Scholars have proposed diverse distinctions (for example, see the discussion on p.91-95), but Margolin chooses to draw it by—like everywhere else in the book—the scale of interiority: There are outer prayers, and there are inner prayers. This particular dichotomy incarnates his problems within the phenomenological tradition.
Apparently, Margolin regards this distinction as significant, since he, after all the discussions of the body, comes back to it in the afterword. The discussion of prayers, the distinction between inner and outer prayer, also allows Margolin to situate himself, albeit in a critical manner, within the phenomenological tradition. He contrasts his own idea with that of a French phenomenologist of religion, Jean-Louis Chrétien, whom the author of Inner Religion accuses of “not distinguish[ing] between different types of prayer, focusing rather on what he sees as the fundamental element common to all prayers: standing before the transcendental Thou.” (519) The same fault is registered in an earlier phenomenologist, Emmanuel Levinas, who is, according to Margolin, still too obsessed with the transcendent Otherness likewise. (518)
Immediately after the polemic, Margolin reasserts the existence of two, not merely one, kinds of prayers. He defines them as such: Outer prayer is that which is “directed to the transcendent Thou who stands opposite him, for the fulfilling of his [the reciter of the prayer] desires”, while inner prayer is represented in “an act of self-negation or negation of the consciousness” (519). There is nothing surprising anymore about this central claim of Margolin’s; the prominence of the interiority of religious experience has been established by the abundant materials Margolin offers so far. However, there is still one consequence to be addressed, a consequence that surpasses the mere intellectual debate regarding which is the preferable, the inner or the outer dimension, but that bears an existential significance. We should not fail to recognize between the lines in this afterword that the term “outer”, and mutandis mutatis, “inner”, adopt a very specific meaning. Not that bodies or rituals or commandments or social recognition are outer, but God Himself, the transcendent divinity, is the ultimately outer element. Combined with the appeal for the coming back to “inner religion”, this equation of outer with transcendent has a theo- and anthropological importance. To put it in more phenomenological (and less controversial) terms, inner religion brackets the validity of the transcendent in its reductive regression to men’s religious experiences. This humanistic undertone makes itself tangible in many places of the book, for instance, in his discussions of the Zoharic doctrine “the awakening below results in the awakening above” (314-318) as well as his retelling of Etty Hillesum’s diary: “I shall try to help You, God, to stop my strength ebbing away […] You cannot help us, that we must help You to help ourselves.” (537)
Margolin’s debate about prayers with other phenomenologists, moreover, allows us to draw a clearer association between his own project and the phenomenological tradition. This, however, is a problematic relationship. Indeed, as said above, the phenomenological method is apt for the subject matter of this book: inner religion. The emphasis on intentional consciousness and subjective experience enables the author, first, to revitalize the debate about the distinction of pure interiority and pure exteriority (5), and second, to bracket “everything except the reality of the self” (21): while the first reflects the gist of the concept of intentionality, the second, that of reduction. Nevertheless, although he evidently follows the method of reduction, Margolin harbors a quite special idea when it comes to the inner-outer problem. For one, he persists in the distinction between the inner and the outer, although it has been put in doubt by van der Leeuw (“here can be no inner without the outer”, 2). For another, as said just now, he stringently restricts himself within the domain of interiority, keeping the transcendent out of discussion, in contrast to Levinas and Chrétien’s approach. These polemics distinctly locate Margolin’s phenomenology in the historical map of the phenomenology of religion.
Notably, however, the strictly descriptive, eidetic, science of consciousness that Husserl establishes in his earlier career is not the exclusive approach the author adopts. Strictly speaking, the author of Inner Religion uses three methods instead of one, the other two being comparative study of religion and hermeneutics. I do not want to go into details regarding the other strategies but am satisfied with pointing out their most fundamental traits: by comparative study of religion, I mean the method used to demonstrate a fact in a particular religion by gathering data from other religious traditions; by hermeneutics, the (re-)interpretation of a passage such that the original text proves whatever the author tries to show. That said, let me tarry a little longer with the first of these two methods, because it reveals one of Margolin’s underlying principles.
That comparative religion is contestable (48), does not prevent Margolin from carrying on with this method. He starts each chapter in this book with an overview of world religions, and believes himself justified in doing so because “[similar] religious phenomena occur in distant parts of the globe and in different historical periods” (48-49), and the term religion indubitably “[denotes] a universal phenomenon” (49). There is undoubtedly a universalistic undertone in the application of the comparative method in Margolin, who explicitly claims that his aim is “to highlight the common denominators of religious phenomena throughout the world” (49). Particularly, as pertains to the scope of this book, the author finds out that there exists in world religions a highly similar tendency to approve of the inner dimension of religious consciousness: “the types of rites in Hinduism and Judaism, for example, they both demonstrate interiorization: the attention of people performing Hindu and Jewish rites shifts from the (‘objective’) world to the (‘subjective’) mind and soul.” (49) Margolin is convinced that the subject matter of his study, men’s interiority, grants him permission to treat different religions in different peoples, at least in this respect, alike. A book centered on the “Jewish sources”, Margolin’s research is however not confined in Judaism alone. The result is transferable to all human beings:
Comparisons of Western interiorization processes with those typical of the Eastern religions, most evident in the Chinese Tao and in Buddhism, also strengthen our understanding that interiorization processes are not dependent on any specific religious worldview. (Margolin, 2021, 522)
A history of the a-historical?
However, we might wonder whether the universalistic understanding of interiority will cause a substantial problem that can undermine the genre of historical research in general, of which Margolin’s study seems a part. Since this book ranges over a span from Bible to Hasidism, readers might expect that it must take into consideration the temporal elements within the development of Judaism, that the author must encounter the diachronic aspect of what he calls “inner religion”. The opposite, however, seems to be the case. The inner, due to the very fact that it is inner and not outer, has in the first place been insulated from the plurality and mutability of empirical ethnicities and religious traditions. For that which has no history but universality, there is only compilation and no historical research.
In line with Idel Moshe, Margolin clearly regards himself as a contestant of Gershom Scholem, the founder of historical science of Jewish mysticism, and sides with Martin Buber in the Buber-Scholem polemics. Margolin’s criticism is centered on how to interpret Hasidism. He criticizes Scholem of going too far in his rebuke of Buber, of negating the whole existential dimension in Hasidism (102, footnote 174; see also 430 and 445), although from time to time, he tries to reconcile his approach with Scholem’s (see, e.g., 27, where Margolin comments in a favorable tone: “To a large degree, Scholem’s work was based on his desire to uncover the experiential inner dimensions of the Jewish religion.”). However, his difference with Scholem has yet another fundamental dimension, which pertains not to the problem of existentialism, but to history. The author of Inner Religion does not explicitly point it out in this book, but already addressed it in an earlier paper (Margolin 2007) — not sufficiently, however, as will be discussed in what follows.
As Margolin also sees it, tradition and history, that is, the diachronical dimension, of the Jewish religion plays a crucial part in Scholem’s reading of mystic experiences. For example, in the opening chapter of his masterpiece, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, “There is no mysticism as such, there is only the mysticism of a particular religious system[.]”(Scholem 1971, 6) Indeed, despite this contextualistic attitude, Scholem acknowledges the universal experiences that are able to unify all mystics regardless of the different traditions, but he also warns his readers not to exaggerate it, a danger in which the modern age is too willing to indulge in. (ibid.) A danger, indeed, to which Margolin may be already exposed.
In both the earlier essay and the recent monograph, Margolin holds a simplistic reading of history that goes hand in hand with his minimalist adaptation of phenomenology. Just as he limits his phenomenology in the study of the static human psyche, history as he conceives it is but a compilation of empirical and exterior facts. His phenomenological analyses, correspondingly, consist in the elaboration of men’s (first-)personal feelings as such and all the other psychological complex happening directly within subjectivity, while the historical ones are conceived as non-phenomenological enterprises that assign those experiences to objective elements: environment, society, historical events, etc., which, at best, harbor an indirect relation with individuals. History in this sense, as an instance of inauthenticity, becomes an easy target, for it surpasses the domain of the intrapersonal consciousness. But a later Husserl would argue that history, in fact, adds an interpersonal or intersubjective dimension to phenomenology, an equally or even more constitutive component without which nothing individual, personal, or “inner”, can emerge.
Therefore, Scholem’s historical attitude, although it is not really new and criticized by Margolin, keeps reminding us of a fundamental problem: to which extent is Margolin’s universalistic and, indeed, ahistorical, treatment of inner religion justified? If we come back to the distinction between interiority and interiorization, men’s soul or spirit — this ideal interior space — might have no history, but the painstaking process of excavating it or coming back to it has one: Just like dots, lines, planes and all other eidetic mathematical objects do not permit developments, but mathematics as a discipline in history are perpetually subject to the governance of mutations. In fact, despite all the universalistic attitude, the author still makes a, however minimal, historical claim that borders on teleology. From Bible to Hasidim, there is after all a history of ascent: first hidden between the lines in the Bible, the interiority of religion was gradually excavated by prophets and rabbis, and this movement of turning inside finally reached its pinnacle in Kabbalah and especially Hasidism in the 18th century. Inner religion is a phenomenon whose embryo already appears in the earliest religious scriptures, but its growth requires a whole complex system of irrigation that entails ritual, conceptual, experiential, existential, epistemological operations. However, without any comparison with other eras, we could not understand what Hasidim really contributes to Judaism and to religions in general. The a-historical attitude which suggests that they are fulfilling a universal mission, a platonic idea of inner religion, does not really explain to us the particular reason why human beings should choose this moment, and not in others, not earlier in the Bible itself, to push the process of interiority to its extreme. To look for insights in this, we still have to turn to Scholem, and not Inner Religion. What this book offers us is a comprehensive reader, a neat elaboration of all the human psyches, as well as human endeavors to search for connections with God. The author lays out before us a vast map of religious consciousness but hides from us its depth.
To be clear, this judgement is not at all a criticism of Margolin’s contribution to our understanding of Judaism as an inner religion. It is a matter of choice, or a matter of perspective. Margolin chooses to write the book in a horizontal and static way, not vertical or genetic. But this choice is made from a phenomenological point of view, and it bears consequence to our understanding of phenomenology, so I choose to split hairs with Margolin’s phenomenology. Hairs are to split because, although the debate about Hasidism in particular and the Jewish religion in general might sound peripheral for many phenomenologists, yet the problem of history carries weight with phenomenological researches: how do we do phenomenology after Husserl, how do we do it when even he himself realizes the problem behind his static and eidetic method?
Margolin, Ron. 2007. ‘Moshe Idel’s Phenomenology and Its Sources’. Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies 6 (18): 41–51.
———. 2021. Inner Religion in Jewish Sources: A Phenomenology of Inner Religious Life and Its Manifestation from the Bible to Hasidic Texts. Translated by Edward Levin. Boston: Academic Studies Press.
Scholem, Gershom. 1971. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. New York: Schocken Books.
1 BT Bava Metzia, 108a10; translation Levin. In fact, the anomic tone becomes more patent in translation of Koran Noé Talmud: “One should not perform an action that is not right and good, even if he is legally entitled to do so.” (Quotation taken from: https://www.sefaria.org/Bava_Metzia.108a.10?lang=bi&with=Translations&lang2=en, accessed November 2021).
On Unbearable Reality and Beautiful Appearances
Ferdinand Hodler’s painting ‘Die Wahrheit’ features a naked woman dispelling six cloaked male figures as if they were dark thoughts. She finds herself standing on an isle of grass while the men – lies? – turn from her and look for shelter in barren lands. In Jean-Léon Gérôme’s depiction of the truth, titled ‘The Truth Coming from the Well with Her Whip to Chastise Mankind’, one sees exactly what the title promises. At least, presuming the beholder knows that truth always comes as a naked, angry woman ready to hysterically chase you down. I would hardly be surprised if the painter kept the words “How could you!” in mind, or, more accurately, “Comment peux-tu!”, when drawing the contours of her screaming mouth. Perhaps he even pictured the face of his wife at the moment he told her the truth about his many models and the adulterous state of affairs.
In other paintings, by Merson, for example, or Lefebvre or Baudry, lady truth brandishes a mirror instead of a whip. In the version of Édouard Debat-Ponsan, two men, one of whom is blindfolded, try to restrain her and her charged mirror, to no avail. Her clothes tear from the male grip while her flaming red hair blows bravely and unhinderedly, her gaze aimed at some point outside the frame: her holy mission? Ultimate victory in the Age of Reason?
Venus, Eve, Leda, the Sirens, Diana, Phryne, nymphs: figurative painting has always gratefully seized upon the offer to depict naked women. Nonetheless, it is not self-evident that Hodler’s ‘The Truth’ belongs to this list of subjects. Why is truth female? Why can she only show herself unveiled? Why is she angry? Why is she victorious? Why is she armed? Why is she white? And why does she have no pubic hair?
At least some of these questions spurred Blumenberg’s collection of small excerpts exploring the metaphor of ‘the naked truth’ in Western thought, now published from his archives as Die Nackte Wahrheit by Rüdiger Zill. This book makes quite clear that the depiction of truth as naked is more than a mere representation. There is a longstanding tradition in which truth is deeply intertwined with a pure female nature understood as clarity, innocence, attraction and unapproachability. Such equation of truth with female nudity creates a variety of unuttered associations. Truth, for example, is accessible only to few – something that will play into the democratizing project of Enlightenment. It installs a connection between eros and the pursuit of truth, a desire, a libido sciendi. Prohibition is involved and it gives rise to the problem of whether truth is still truth when she presents herself dressed up. Truth becomes contaminated by male deception. The quest for truth becomes “an expedition to some exotic place”, as Kołakowski terms it in his text on nakedness and truth (Kołakowski 2004, 235). Truth becomes a capture, an ambiguous purpose of curiosity, an ideal of knowledge which is godlike, forever beyond reach yet nonetheless worth chasing, “a passion deserving of death” as Blumenberg calls it (NW 105). Just like in the story of Artemis and Actaeon (NW 104-6), the male gaze automatically becomes indiscrete and inappropriate, and curiosity becomes a kind of unacceptable voyeurism. Just like Actaeon, anyone who looks at the divine must die, an implication of a lethal danger of pursuing truth. It is worth considering that such a passion is rewritten in the expression “vedi Napoli e poi muori”, especially when bearing in mind how often a beautiful city – the word city, like truth, has a female genus in most European languages – is considered in similar female terms: the Jewel of Europe, La sposa del mare, the Pearl of the Orient, la Superba or Elbflorenz. In the case of Paris, it is expressed in terms of this other metaphor for truth: la ville lumière.
That in the European languages “truth appears on the stage as a female act”, Blumenberg writes, gives “truth an erotic-aesthetic trait […] which is not taken for granted by the misogynist” (NW 126). Whether this implies that skeptics must also be misogynists remains unclear. And whether this applies to the skeptic Blumenberg himself is a question that perhaps only a modern Diogenes might dare to ask Blumenberg’s daughter, Bettina.
Be that as it may, in view of the topic it is rather striking that this book devotes only a single page to a female writer, Madame du Châtelet. This one page, however, does not discuss her writing or thought; instead, it addresses an anecdote that tells how Mme du Châtelet shamelessly undressed in front of her servant Longchamp. Blumenberg links this behavior to the project of Enlightenment itself, in which “truth shows herself unembarrassedly in front of those who ought to serve her” (NW 103). In short, rather than her writings and ideas, it is only Madame du Châtelet’s indifference to her own nakedness that becomes a significant expression of the “new methodological ideal of objectivity” (NW 103).
Although Blumenberg does not render it explicitly, the short chapter on Actaeon following this page suggests that the divine nakedness of truth becomes human in the nakedness of Émilie du Châtelet. The hunter Actaeon, servant of the goddess Artemis, watches his mistress undress and consequently he must be punished for seeing her in her nudity. Someone who looks at Medusa, however, instantly dies. In other words, Acteon already signals an alteration in the mythic gaze upon a deity, which in Artemis’ bathing scene changes from tremendum into fascinosum. He doesn’t die immediately, he is punished for his violation. In the anecdote of Madame du Châtelet, then, a succeeding shift occurs. In contrast to Actaeon, the servant Longchamp is not punished, he is not even noticed. Longchamp becomes a subject “of conscious exposure” and is regarded as not being there: “in the witness of nudity an awareness is raised […] of remaining unnoticed in his presence” (NW 103).
This reversal in the relation of nakedness, fascinosum, between mistress and servant, punisher and the one punished, is still far from Nietzsche’s later take, “to think of the naked truth as a frightening and unbearable dimension” (NW 126). Whether a comparison of Nietzsche’s views on the ugly truth and his lashing attitude towards women – note the double inversion of Gérôme’s depiction concerning the appearance of lady truth and the one who is cracking the whip – could add something to the debate about his possible misogyny is merely a suggestion discerned between the lines.
Like this example, and completely in line with his longstanding interest in the non-conceptual (Unbegrifflichkeit), i.e. metaphoric, narrative, anecdotal and mythic substratum of conceptual thought, Blumenberg delves into the layers of implicit imagery and associations so as to note significant changes in meaning over time. Moreover, he lays bare – an expression which is itself already part of the semantics of the naked truth – inconsistencies in the rational discourse that is built on this metaphoric level and shows how it can be deconstructed and eventually turned against itself. He does so by discussing writers and philosophers such as Adorno, Kafka, Pascal, Fontenelle, Rousseau, Vesalius, Fontane, Schopenhauer, Kant, Kierkegaard and Lichtenberg. The seemingly incoherent order of these names mirrors both Blumenberg’s own avoidance of chronology and his preference of association. Although he refuses an all too systematic approach of the issue, the intrinsic connection of the different chapters is always clear: “How does the metaphor portray the position of the thinker, in which he maneuvered himself because of more or less compelling reasons and under more or less unavoidable conditions” (NW 127)?
Applied to truth, this question brings him to many considerations about the implications of viewing truth as naked: “If truth only is right when naked, then every cover is a disguise and eo ipso wrong” (NW 71). However, when we embrace the conviction that truth is true only when it is naked, we can never undo the threat that “even its nakedness is still costume” (NW 92). Nakedness then turns into “the illusion […] which is created by the gesture of tearing down dresses”, which in turn evokes “the scheme of the onion skin” (NW 97). “When once opened, nothing ever is something final” (NW 102). And at the same time, there is the thought that “truth might be as unbearable to humans as nakedness” (Blumenberg 1960, 51). In this case, “the cover of truth seems to grant us our ability to live”, a thought which appears in “Rousseau’s pragmatic exploitation of the metaphor of truth in the water well […]: leave her there. The depth of the well protects us from the problem of its nakedness” (Blumenberg 1960, 57).
In this regard, it is remarkable how rarely Blumenberg refers to the Christian tradition. In “The Epistemology of Striptease”, Leszek Kołakowski, for example, traces “the entire foundations of the theory of nakedness which has been so important in our culture” back to the Judaeo-Christian tradition (Kołakowski 2004, 225). The Book of Genesis indeed tells of an intrinsic connection between the fruit of the tree of knowledge and the shame which immediately manifested itself when the fruit was eaten. A shame “not of their crime, but of their nakedness” (Ibid., 223). Thus, “a double relation has been established: between truth and nakedness on the one hand, and between truth and shame on the other” (Ibid., 225).
Another absence which resounds throughout the book is that of the name Heidegger, which appears not even once. Nonetheless, Die Nackte Wahrheit can be read as an implicit yet fundamental critique of Heidegger’s conception of truth as alètheia. By dissecting the metaphor of truth, Blumenberg’s text offers a perspective which shows that Heidegger still fits perfectly within the dominant Western tradition, a tradition Heidegger himself sought to destruct by thinking beyond the ontological difference and the forgetting of being. Blumenberg, however, implicitly shows that Heidegger and his conception of truth as disclosure or ‘unconcealedness’, still wades through the Western waters that Heidegger himself thought he had traced to their source.
Despite this absence of Christianity and Heidegger, Blumenberg convincingly illustrates how metaphor functions “as a more or less easily fixable crack in the consistency of thought, a stimulant, and as such it refreshes reason; it also is, however, a sedative in other cases, where it covers up the failure of the concept or remedies its lack by a merely different procedure” (NW 127).
At this point, Die Nackte Wahrheit surpasses being just a study of the naked truth and begins to concern the project of metaphorology itself. As Rüdiger Zill notes, “already since the late 1960s, Blumenberg had been thinking about a detailed revision of his metaphorology” (NW 186). Concerning his distanced relation to his initial approach, Blumenberg wrote to his English translator: “The text is not only outdated – after a quarter of a century! – it is also poor” (NW 189).
In Blumenberg’s project of ‘metaphorology’, metaphor is always more than a disguise of truth or a thought expressed in non-conceptual language. “It is essentially aesthetic”, which means “that it is not something like the mere cover of the naked thought, of which one had to constantly think as the true purpose of its interpretation and unlocking that has to be reached in the end. Who constantly thinks beyond its limits, loses what he has without receiving what he cannot possess” (NW 176). In other words, there is no naked truth to be found beyond the metaphor. And more specifically, the power of metaphor is precisely this lack of precision sought by advocates of a clear and distinct conceptual language. Thus, Blumenberg argues, in contrast to the views of many thinkers he discusses, that “history” is not the “course of the self-exposure of the concept” (NW 155). Blumenberg’s associative selection of authors and topics stresses that metaphor, with its ambiguity and openness to many interpretations, is always “far more intelligent than its composer” (NW 176).
The first fifty pages of Die Nackte Wahrheit concern Nietzsche and Freud. The only other pieces that come close to even ten pages are those on Pascal, Kant and the Enlightenment. Thus, of all the names figuring in Blumenberg’s posthumous book, Nietzsche and Freud can be called his main interlocutors.
Nietzsche immediately shows a fundamental reversal of truth as a beautiful naked creature. When he writes that “Truth is ugly. We have art so that we are not ruined by truth” (NW, 14), it is clear that something in the metaphor of truth changes. We are no longer in pursuit of the naked truth – she lies within reach in her unbearable ugliness – and so our interest shifts to the beautiful veils that are produced to conceal her.
“There would be no science, if science would only care about this one naked goddess and about nothing else” (NW, 20). With this thought, both Freud’s concept of sublimation and Blumenberg’s apotropaic function of myth are prefigured: art and culture function as a “human safety device” (NW 15), a protective shield which safeguards us from something insufferable. Or as Nietzsche formulates it: “Every type of culture starts with an amount of things that are veiled” (NW 15).
Blumenberg’s text from 1971 on the relevance of rhetoric and anthropology directly evidences the strong influence of this Nietzschean thought: “Ah, it is impossible to have an effect with the language of truth: rhetoric is required” (NW 31). Nietzsche defends rhetoric as a right to deceive vis-à-vis an unbearable truth. For the sceptic Blumenberg, however, truth cannot be unbearable, because the very possibility of truth itself is bracketed and remains an open question. In his writing on Hannah Arendt and Freud it is “the absolutism of truth” which becomes unbearable, this intimate European conviction “that the truth will triumph” (Blumenberg 2018, 57). Yet, as Blumenberg proclaims, “[n]othing is less certain than that the truth wishes to be loved, can be loved, should be loved” (Blumenberg 2018, 3).
This critique of Freud, already present in Rigorism of Truth, is continued in Die Nackte Wahrheit. The notion that psychoanalysis lives from the metaphor of revealing and concealing and connects the intellectual with the sexual can only barely be called a renewing insight. Blumenberg, however, uses this as a step to a subtler point. He reproves Freud’s rigorism because his therapy prioritizes the affirmation of his theory rather than the well-being of his patients. In other words, via Freud, Blumenberg criticizes the longstanding tradition “in which truth is justified at every cost” (NW 38), the same rigorous conviction that resonates in Thoreau’s famous phrase that “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.”
Read from within the metaphor of ‘the naked truth’, Freud’s quest for truth – a quest strongly intertwined with the centrality of sexuality and the prudery of the society in which he lived – shows that it is not at all clear when something is yet more ‘resistance’, a symptom, a still-clothed kind of nudity, and when exactly someone has encountered the bare piece of the reality they are searching for. “The general premise for resistance as a criterion might be (this): what people gladly accept cannot be the truth” (Blumenberg 2018, 59). In discussing this central concept of resistance as an element of Freud’s “para-theory” (loc. cit.) he comes rather close to Popper’s rejection of Freud’s methodology. In his archive there are two manuscripts with the respective abbreviation TRD and TRD II, in which Blumenberg shows how ‘resistance’ is a kind of parachute that recuperates elements falling from or even objecting to Freud’s main theory (Zill 2014, 141-43). This way, even the critics of his theory can still be fitted within it. Blumenberg points out how Freud’s quest for countering resistance and his rigorist search for truth, his urge to reveal secrecy after secrecy, eventually lead to a “hysteria of revelation for which history has an analogy in hysteria of confession” (NW 47).
Die nackte Wahrheit is certainly not Blumenberg’s first engagement with either Nietzsche or Freud. He had already dealt with both authors extensively and quite similarly in his earlier writings: reading them through the lens of their own imagery in order to criticize them from within the logic of these images and metaphors. In Arbeit am Mythos, for instance, both authors receive ample treatment on several occasions and are the focus of important passages. Freud and Thomas Mann, for example, are bound together in a trenchant and meaningful anecdote: Mann reading his lecture on Freud to Freud himself during his visit to Freud’s villa in Grinzing on Sunday, May 14, 1936. Blumenberg calls this a “great scene of the spirit of the age, which hardly had another scene comparable to it”, and notes that one of the “preconditions” of this “incomparable event” precisely “is the relationship to Nietzsche that both partners shared” (Blumenberg 1985, 516).
Other important passages include Blumenberg’s extensive discussion of Nietzsche’s approach of Prometheus against the light of his aesthetic conception of reality and of Nietzsche’s famous proclamation of the death of God. In the last section, ‘The Titan in His Century’, Blumenberg’s analysis of Freud’s use of Prometheus follows his assessment of Nietzsche’s use of Prometheus, such that Freud and Nietzsche, joined by Kafka, share the final page of Work on Myth. In Die nackte Wahrheit Kafka likewise follows upon Nietzsche and Freud, although it would surely be mere speculation to look for further significance here. Nonetheless, despite his longstanding and rather critical occupation with Nietzsche and Freud, Blumenberg clearly incorporated and continued many aspects of their thought.
Blumenberg’s aesthetic conception of reality, his attention for rhetoric, myth and metaphor and his truth-sceptic attitude can all be directly linked to Nietzsche. Just as rhetoric gains importance when the conviction of “the one clear and whole truth” (Blumenberg 2001b, 350) is given up, so too does myth return to view when this ideal of truth is abandoned. And here Blumenberg, already in his earlier work, shows himself to be an heir of Nietzsche. As Blumenberg writes in his first text on myth, “Nietzsche’s affinity to myth begins with the rule of truth becoming problematic to him. The poets lie – this saying comes back into favor” (Blumenberg 2001b, 352). Blumenberg’s name can be perfectly interchanged with Nietzsche’s here. The shift towards the aesthetic, and the revaluation of the ancient Platonic reproach of the poets implied in this reference, is a central concern underlying all of Blumenberg’s aesthetic texts from the 1960s, as assembled by Anselm Haverkamp in his Ästhetische und metaphorologische Schriften. Moreover, Blumenberg‘s two important texts on rhetoric and myth from 1971 both start from the truth-sceptic premise he shares with Nietzsche and which spans his work from the very beginning to this posthumous publication of Die Nackte Wahrheit. And this last publication is probably inconceivable without Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense”. Indeed, Blumenberg’s general endeavor is essentially summed up in one of Nietzsche’s most famous sentences: “Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions — they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins”.
Blumenberg’s approach of die vakante Stelle and his descriptions of Umbesetzung, elaborated in his Die Legitimität der Neuzeit, can be read as a direct translation of Nietzsche’s worn-out coins and his dictum of the “Death of God”. Herewith, Blumenberg translates Nietzsche’s nihilism into a general philosophical endeavor of Entselbstverständlichung, a process marking “the great epochal revolutions of historical life” (Blumenberg 2017, 54). This endeavor, according to Blumenberg, eventually is “the basic process of philosophical thinking: for how could the inherent task of philosophical work be characterized more fittingly than as the persistent opposition of matter-of-factness with which our daily life and thought is interspersed, yes, substantiated into their very cores – much more than we could ever suspect?” (Blumenberg 2017, 54).
Furthermore, Blumenberg’s later, more literary and anecdotal style evokes Nietzsche’s claim that it is possible to present the image of a person with only three anecdotes, just as it should be possible to reduce philosophical systems to three anecdotes. When, for example, it comes to Blumenberg’s highly ironical and critical pieces on Heidegger in Die Verführbarkeit des Philosophen, he not only takes up Nietzsche’s challenge but even seems to have added something to it: the challenge becomes not only to render an image of the person and a summary of his philosophical thought, but also to get even with him in the same move.
Rüdiger Zill has wittily but quite perceptively characterized the sort of relation Blumenberg has with Freud: “Just like family members you sometimes hate and sometimes love, who from time to time grate on your nerves but who also occasionally inspire, yet always, however, still belong in the family, authors as well can be ranked among the intellectual family formation” (Zill 2014, 148). Zill’s assessment on this matter is clear: Freud undoubtedly belongs to Blumenberg’s intellectual family. However, the more he reads Freud, the more critical Blumenberg becomes, without Freud ever losing his force of fascination (Zill 2014, 128). Ironically, when Blumenberg received the Sigmund Freud Prize for Academic Prose in 1980, he did not refer to Freud in his acceptance speech. He mentioned Socrates, Diogenes, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche as exemplar thinkers who should be admired because they did not allow their thinking to be hindered by any safeguarding method.
There is, however, quite some common ground between Freud and Blumenberg which might be easily overwritten by Blumenberg’s recent critical works on Freud from the archives. When Blumenberg ascribes rationality to aspects of thought, such as metaphor and rhetoric, that have been banished to irrationality by the tradition of philosophy there is a general similarity to Freud’s Traumdeutung and his overall endeavor of psychoanalysis. Indeed, there are at least two specific and critically important points of contact between them: Freud’s idea of sublimation and detours.
In his text on rhetoric, Blumenberg refers to Freud’s analysis of the funeral repast: “Freud saw in the commemorative funeral feast the sons’ agreement to put an end to the killing of the tribal father” (Blumenberg 1987a, 440). It is the Freudian principle of sublimation that is evoked here and Blumenberg is explicit about the importance of this matter: “If history teaches anything at all, it is this, that without this capacity to use substitutes for actions not much would be left of mankind” (loc. cit.). Herewith an important crux of Blumenberg’s thought is laid bare: “The human relation to reality is indirect, circumstantial, delayed, selective, and above all ‘metaphorical’” (Ibid., 439). This means that metaphor is not a deficit of rational thought, as it has been understood by Descartes or British empiricism (NW 110-1); nor is it even an aid of theory or merely a way of thinking in its own right; rather, it is a way of coping with reality. This “metaphoric detour by which we look away from the object in question, at another one” (Blumenberg 1987a, 439) immediately ties to the second important overlap between Freud’s and Blumenberg’s work: if Blumenberg acknowledges sublimation as the human capacity to have culture, and if sublimation – the possibility of taking a metaphoric detour – lies at the heart of this capacity, then Blumenberg’s concept of culture should be one of detours.
Blumenberg, in his 1971 text on myth, refers to Freud’s notion of Umwege. In his “Jenseits des Lustprinzips”, Freud classed the drives of self-preservation under the general concept of “detours to death”. As Freud states, “If we can accept it as an experience without exception, that all the living dies because of internal reasons, that it returns to the inorganic, then we can only say: the purpose of all life is death” (Freud 1940, 44). Everything working against this destruction and everything delaying “the achievement of the purpose of death” (Ibid., 45) becomes a “detour to death”. In this Freudian scheme, life itself is “a still more difficult and risky detour” (Blumenberg 1985, 90) and Blumenberg recognizes in these “detours to death”, this “final return home to the original state” (Ibid., 91), the same mythic circle underlying the Oedipus myth, the Odyssey and even Nietzsche’s thought of “the eternal return of the same” (loc. cit.). On the one hand, Blumenberg critically reveals the total myth (Totalmythos) of the circle underlying Freud’s thought; on the other hand, Blumenberg incorporates this notion of detour in his work as a life-spending mechanism opposing omnipotence. As he writes, for example, in his 1971 text on myth, “Essentially, omnipotence refuses somebody to tell a story about its bearer. Topographically represented, stories are always detours” (Blumenberg 2001b, 372).
Die Sorge geht über den Fluss, published in 1987, includes a short chapter titled Umwege, in which Blumenberg again stresses the importance of the possibility of taking detours: “It is only if we are able to take detours that we are able to exist. […I]t is the many detours that give culture its function of humanizing life. [… The] shortest route is barbarism” (Blumenberg 1987b, 137-8). In these descriptions of culture as Umwege, some of its psychoanalytical origin still sounds through: it is by means of culture, by the possibility of taking detours, that we can avoid our own self-destruction. As Blumenberg puts it, “Not to choose the shortest path is already the basic pattern of sublimation” (Blumenberg 1985, 93). Or as Freud states in the penultimate sentence of his letter to Einstein: “whatever makes for cultural development is working also against war” (Freud 1950, 27).
This is the very basis of Blumenberg’s thought. Whether it is his approach to rhetoric and its power of delay, whether it is the apotropaic function of myth and the dynamic of storytelling vis-à-vis the absolutism of reality – man’s metaphoric way of dealing with the world – whether it is Blumenberg’s own elaborate and meandering writing style or his anecdotal and narrative philosophy as an effort to ironically undermine the authority of certain thinkers, whether it is the construction of his archive and the delayed publication of his own works or this metaphoric study of the naked truth aimed against the “Absolutism of Truth” (Blumenberg 2001b, 350), all of it falls under this “basic pattern of sublimation”, this decision “not to choose the shortest path”. In this specific sense and despite his highly critical piece on Freud in Die nackte Wahrheit, Blumenberg’s thinking remains Freudian at its very core.
As Blumenberg had noted in his Paradigmen zu einer Metaphorologie, “The metaphor of ‘the naked truth’ belongs to the pride of enlightened reason and its claim to power” (Blumenberg 1960, 54). Hence, it is clear that Die Nackte Wahrheit should be understood as a critique of this enlightened self-consciousness. And yet Blumenberg did not abandon the project of rationality entirely, despite paying profound attention to non-standard philosophical topics such as metaphor and myth. “Myth itself is a piece of high-carat ‘work of logos’”, he points out in Work on Myth (Blumenberg 1985, 12) and Blumenberg himself employs this power of reason to trace the metaphor of the naked truth in thinkers such as Kant, Rousseau and Fontenelle. Herewith, a last characteristic of Blumenberg returns in Die Nackte Wahrheit: the correspondence of form and content. In Work on Myth, for example, Blumenberg offers a theory of how myth is a process of variation and, as he develops the theory, he himself engages in the same process of selection and rewriting. In his fragmentary book Die Verführbarkeit des Philosophen, in which Blumenberg exposes thinkers such as Heidegger, Freud and Wittgenstein and shows how they seduce their audience with rhetorical tools and attractive imagery; he himself tries to persuade his readers by rhetorically and wittingly affirming his own superiority of thought. The same applies for Die Nackte Wahrheit, where Blumenberg discusses the traces, consequences and changes of the metaphor of the naked truth, as he himself undresses other thinkers. As he emphasizes, the use of metaphor often indicates the “embarrassment of its theoretical situation” (NW 127). In other words, he seeks for the weak spots of thinkers such as Freud and Pascal in order to unmask them. If metaphor is indeed at work in the “front court of concept formation” (Blumenberg, 2001a), then Blumenberg clearly seeks to expose his interlocutors in their changing rooms. At the same time, he precisely questions these implications of thinking about truth in such terms of covering and uncovering. Certainly, Blumenberg does not claim that his disclosures touch upon “the naked truth” or a final word about these writers, yet nonetheless he somehow contributes to this enlightened topos of “tearing down the mask” (NW 134). He still partakes in what Kołakowski calls this “sadistic game” of “intellectual curiosity”, even as he precisely lays bare its rules and tools and does away with the purpose the game has pursued for ages. However, one asks after reading Blumenberg’s book, what use does this vocabulary preserve when the “reality” revealed under this mask is yet another mask, no more or no less reality than the one just dispelled. To make a final appeal to Kołakowski: Blumenberg involves us in a philosophical striptease, in which he exposes, “from a superior (clothed) position”, “another’s shame (nakedness)” (Kołakowski 2004, 235). Only it has become uncertain what happens with a philosophic tradition of revealing when the possibility of truth disappears, nakedness itself becomes yet more costume and the feeling of shame is revaluated. No purpose, no revelations, only detours and descriptions (Umschreibungen). Nonetheless, Blumenberg certainly exemplifies like no other that whenever philosophy thinks there will be a moment that Lady Truth will rise from her well and create clarity, philosophy, just like science, is once more deceived “by a pipe dream […] which its scholars pursue without ever achieving it” (NW 77).
Hans Blumenberg, Die Nackte Wahrheit, Hrsg. von Rüdiger Zill (Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2019).
–, Rigorism of Truth. “Moses the Egyptian” and Other Writings on Freud and Arendt, ed. by Ahlrich Meyer and transl. by Joe Paul Kroll (New York: Cornell University Press, 2018).
–, Schriften zur Literatur: 1945-1958, Hrsg. von Alexander Schmitz und Bernd Stiegler (Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2017).
–, “Licht als Metapher der Wahrheit. Im Vorfeld der philosophischen Begriffsbildung” in Ästhetische und metaphorologische Schriften, Hrsg. von Anselm Haverkamp (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2001a), 139–171.
–, “Wirklichkeitsbegriff und Wirkungspotential des Mythos“ in Ästhetische und metaphorologische Schriften, Hrsg. von Anselm Haverkamp (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2001b), 327–405.
–, “An Anthropological Approach on the Contemporary Significance of Rhetoric”, in After Philosophy: End or Transformation?, ed. by Kenneth Baynes, James Bohman and Thomas McCarthy (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987a), 429–458.
–, Die Sorge geht über den Fluss (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1987b).
–, Work on Myth, transl. by Robert M. Wallace (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1985).
–, “Paradigmen zu einer Metaphorologie,” Archiv für Begriffsgeschichte 6 (1960): 7–142.
Sigmund Freud, “Warum Krieg?”, in: Sigmund Freud, Gesammelte Werke. Band XVI, Hrsg. von Anna Freud e.a. (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer Verlag, 1950), 11–27.
–, “Jenseits des Lustprinzips” in Gesammelte Werke. Band XIII, Hrsg. von Anna Freud e.a. (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer Verlag, 1940), 3–69.
Leszek Kołakowski, “The Epistemology of Striptease,” in The Two Eyes of Spinoza & Other Essays on Philosophers (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2004), 222–238.
Rüdiger Zill, “Zwischen Affinität und Kritik. Hans Blumenberg liest Sigmund Freud” in Blumenberg Beobachtet, Hrsg. von Cornelius Borck (München: Karl Alber Freiburg, 2014), 126-148.
While his work has been the subject of extensive research in Germany in recent years, Eugen Fink has only ever received sparing exposure in English-language scholarship. Certainly much of this is due to the lack of English translations of his writings. The publication of Play as Symbol of the World (Spiel als Weltsymbol), considered by many to be Fink’s most important book, will hopefully give his work a wider audience outside of Germany and encourage the publication of more translations of his work.
Fink was a student and collaborator of Husserl during the 1920’s and 30’s. He was also a working associate of Heidegger during the latter decades of Heidegger’s career. The stature of these two no doubt overshadows Fink’s contributions to phenomenology and twentieth-century German philosophy. Fink’s work is best-known to English-speaking audiences through his seminar on Heraclitus, co-authored with Heidegger (available in English under the title Heraclitus Seminar), and through his book on Husserl’s Sixth Cartesian Meditation. Fink also authored a highly original book on Nietzsche’s philosophy which appeared in English translation through Continuum Press in 2003. In the 2000’s, the German publisher Karl Alber began issuing a complete critical edition of Fink’s writings, of which Spiel als Weltsymbol is the seventh volume. This English edition from Indiana University Press, translated by Ian Alexander Moore and Christopher Turner, presents all of the contents of the seventh volume in the Karl Alber critical edition. In addition to the title essay are included several shorter pieces of Fink’s on the topics of play and cosmology that he wrote between 1957 and 1975, the year of his death. Bookending the writings by Fink are an extended translators’ foreword and an afterword by the editors of the German text, the latter of which presents an extensive overview of Fink’s philosophical program as it relates to Play as Symbol of the World. All in all, these various items make for a very fine, comprehensive edition of Fink’s text.
In this review, I will focus on just the main, title work of the volume, as this portion will be of principal interest for most readers. The title Fink gives to this work, Play as Symbol of the World, requires some unpacking. As the book’s German editors note, Fink proceeds by attempting to describe, without prior assumptions, what connections obtain between the title’s main keywords: play, symbol, and world (303). One guiding thought for Fink is the oft-cited Fragment 52 of Heraclitus, which suggests that the cosmic aion is akin to the play of a child; the life cycle of the universe is a child moving pieces on a game board (77). (This fragment figures strongly into Nietzsche’s reading of Heraclitus, with which Fink was surely familiar.) Fink’s approach throughout is dialectical, somewhat Aristotelian even, as he works through the historical and conceptual puzzles bound up with the title’s theme. Scholars of Heidegger will notice a lot of similarity as well. Fink demonstrates a flair for deconstructing historical philosophical prejudice and dissecting the original meanings of terms. Much of Fink’s aim in the text is to arrive at a satisfactory phenomenological description of the relationship of play and world such that the book’s title can demonstrate any meaningful expression. What does it mean to call play a “symbol” of the world? Wherein lay the metaphorical similarity between play and world? And how is the notion of “world” to be understood? Why would one make such a comparison?
In addition to the Heraclitean paradigm of cosmic play, other significant cues from ancient thought inspire Fink’s analysis. Fink frequently engages the Platonic conception of imitation and its underlying ontological commitments as a foil for developing a phenomenological view of play. Moreover, the entire third chapter of Fink’s book focuses on the development of cults and the manifestation of play in cultic ritual. In Fink’s account, the anthropology of primitive cultures indicates that play originated historically as a primal, cultic practice rather than as a vehicle for mere amusement or entertainment.
The first of the book’s four chapters analyzes the concept of play systematically. Fink understands the term “play” (Spiel) in multiple guises; these correspond well to the common use of the word “play” in English. In English vernacular we often use the word “play” to refer to what children do when they amuse themselves. We tend to think of play as essential to a child’s healthy development. But “play” is also often used to describe engaging in a game (e.g. “I play chess”); or, more remotely, it names what we watch at the theatre as well as the “play-acting” performed by actors. In older locution for instance, actors were referred to as “players.” This older meaning reminds one that acting and theatrical performance were originally conceived as mimesis, or imitation. And of course, this is the Platonic critique of the performative arts: what they depict is not real, but rather a watered-down copy of a more original reality. Fink’s conception of play encompasses all of these aspects. He understands play as an imaginary, “non-actual” state of existence enacted on the foundation of the actual, lived world. Play is a mimetic, yet also freely-chosen world-bestowal. In terms of its ontological status, Fink gives play the Husserlian label “irreal,” in order to indicate its phenomenological quality of fostering a non-actual disclosure of meaning (95-96).
One might get the drift from this book’s title that play is the main subject, that the book comprises a work on the philosophy of sport. The opening title pitches the idea that play stands to symbolize world, that there is some illustrative relationship between the former and the latter. But in the end, Play as Symbol of the World is a cosmology, an account of world. In Heideggerian fashion, Fink by and large ends up in a very different spot than where he began the text.
“World” for Fink is to be understood in Heideggerian terms. Fink even uses a good amount of space in Chapter One citing Heidegger’s conception of world from Being and Time as he formulates his own position (66ff). World in Fink’s reading comprises the underlying background within which all phenomena appear for the human agent; world both individualizes and contextualizes. Yet world is not a thing, not a substance to which one can assign a definite article. It is not to be understood metaphysically, as the receptacle housing all things of the universe, nor is world the sum total of all beings. World disappears when we try to circumscribe it with a definition. In and of itself, world is meaningless and groundless, and lacking end or purpose outside of its very manner of givenness. In other words, world’s underlying function is simply to foster the appearance of things in general. It is thus a crucial counterpart to human existence insofar as all human life is “worldly” or world-oriented.
Another thought to Heidegger is apposite here, though it is not a subject to which Fink dedicates explicit attention. Whereas Heidegger tends to characterize being as the fundamental philosophical category, Fink sees world as filling this role. Fink’s rationale appears to be that world is the more immediate, yet also more elusive phenomenological underpinning of human existence. World is the more visceral, tacit background that cradles human life. Some contrast with Husserl is likewise visible on this score. Fink justifies his conception of world with much less attention to the primacy of the transcendental ego, instead taking world and human existence to be co-constituted at rock-bottom. (For a comparison, see Husserl, Cartesian Meditations §1, Section 7.)
The central position of this book, which Fink articulates in the fourth and final chapter, is that play’s uniqueness lay in its capacity to reveal world (206ff). This is because play (broadly construed as theatrical play-acting, games, sport, or cultic ritual) fundamentally enacts the irreal, groundless purposelessness of world; these features are what play itself is. Play in turn reveals the world-open character of human existence. In other words, Fink suggests, we play because we are open to world and are existentially co-constituted along with world. The hypnotic character of play is universally attractive to all people precisely because play allows us to enact and own world through independent means. Play functions as a unique mode of human existence in which we are empowered to exercise our freedom and realize it reflexively.Yet, these achievements remain irreal; they comprise moments of human existence that are at once non-actual. In this way, play comes to mirror the ontological status of world itself.
In the end, Fink does not endorse describing play as a symbol of world, at least in the guise of a metaphor for world’s ontological makeup. More deeply, Fink holds that play manifests a primal connection with world, as expressed in the Greek etymology for “symbol.” The sym- root, in the Greek sum, conveys a togetherness or commonality; the keyword sumballein denotes two or more essentially connected “fragments of being.” Thus symbols do not comprise mere metaphorical comparisons or representations (127). In this case, while play enacts world in an irreal fashion, world cannot be understood as play. At the most, Fink argues, to propose that world is itself an instance of play comprises an antinomy, or at least a problematic that can only be solved outside of metaphysical thought (215). Not only is world incomprehensible as a conceptual whole; even to make this comparison overlooks that human beings are those who play. It would be a contradiction in terms to hold (as Heraclitus suggests) that world plays.
This is a complex and challenging text, perhaps an essential primary source in the history of phenomenology. It is certainly noteworthy for exemplifying a unique crossroads in the legacies of Husserl and Heidegger. Fink’s writing style is occasionally pedantic and shows some repetition as the chapters proceed, but these drawbacks do not detract too much from the book’s accomplishments.