Martin Koci: Thinking Faith after Christianity: A Theological Reading of Jan Patočka’s Phenomenological Philosophy

Thinking Faith after Christianity: A Theological Reading of Jan Patočka's Phenomenological Philosophy Couverture du livre Thinking Faith after Christianity: A Theological Reading of Jan Patočka's Phenomenological Philosophy
SUNY series in Theology and Continental Thought
Martin Koci
SUNY Press
2020
Paperback $32.95
301

Reviewed by: Erin Plunkett (University of Hertfordshire)

Jan Patočka is not an obvious place to go looking for Christian theology. While his writings have a clear emphasis on Europe and its Greek-Christian heritage, his explicit remarks on Christianity appear most often as a matter of intellectual history, part of the attempt to understand the intellectual and spiritual framework of modernity. The philosopher is of course best known for inspiring a generation of Czech intellectuals and dissidents in his role as spokesperson for the human rights appeal Charter 77, a role which ultimately cost him his life. Drawn to this dissident legacy and to Patočka’s vision of a post-European Europe, there has been a renewed interest in Patočka among contemporary political philosophers.[i] His work as a scholar of Husserl continues to be read and appreciated in Husserlian circles. But there have been few attempts to read him as a religious or Christian thinker.

One might expect otherwise, given Patočka’s closeness to Heidegger on a number of issues, and given Heidegger’s importance to the so-called ‘theological turn’ in phenomenology in the latter part of the twentieth century. Judith Wolfe, author of Heidegger and Theology characterises this turn as ‘an attempt to responding to the call of the divine without turning God into an idol by metaphysical speculations’ (Wolfe 2014, 193-194). Beyond what Patočka has to say about Christianity explicitly, many themes in his work—sacrifice, conversion, the nothing, care for the soul—are ripe for a theological reading in the above sense. Jean-Luc Marion and Jacques Derrida’s efforts in this direction are perhaps the best known and most thought-provoking; both read Patočka’s conception of sacrifice in a religious light, as a phenomenology of the gift. Yet a religious approach to Patočka’s work has yet to be taken up in any sustained way in contemporary scholarship.

In English-language scholarship, the special issue of The New Yearbook for  Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy 14 (2015), on ‘Religion, War, and the Crisis of Modernity’ in Patočka’s work, edited by Ludger Hagedorn and James Dodd, is the most substantial offering on Patočka’s religious  import and his thinking about Christianity. Hagedorn, Martin Ritter, Eddo Evink, Nicolas De Warren, and  Riccardo Paparusso have given important readings in this vein though none in a book-length study. Martin Koci’s book is therefore a welcome and important contribution to an underdeveloped field. It reflects an extensive knowledge of continental theology and offers an admirably clear view of the terrain at the present moment, as well as suggesting how Patočka may help  to shape this terrain.

Patočka as Post-Christian Christian Thinker

Koci sees Patočka as anticipating the theological turn in phenomenology that began with Marion’s Dieu sans l’etre (1982). Although, in Koci’s view, Patočka’s social and political environment did not permit him to fully explore the religious resonances in his own thought, he can credibly be read as a post-secular thinker avant la lettre. Koci’s aim to establish Patočka as a serious thinker of Christianity contrasts with the standard line taken by Czech scholarship that Patočka is ‘a pure-blooded phenomenologist with no interest in theology’ (216). Those who are sceptical of a theological approach have plenty of support from Patočka’s texts, where he insists on a definite boundary between philosophical activity and religion. However, this need not prevent a reading of Patočka as a phenomenological thinker of theological import. Furthermore, there are reasons to think such an approach is not against the grain of Patočka’s own thinking. Patočka was raised by a Catholic mother and was a believer as a young man, though he grew dissatisfied with a religious framework as he began to study philosophy. He engaged seriously with numerous theological thinkers, in particular his fellow Bohemian John Amos Comenius (1592-1670), and he maintained a long friendship with the (Barthian) Protestant theologian Josef Bohumil Souček, with whom he discussed matters of faith and the meaning of Christianity. In his later years, Patočka gave lectures on theological topics to his students. Patočka’s engagement with Christianity increases in his writings from the prolific period of the 1960s and 70s, which present his mature thought.

Following Ludger Hagedorn, Koci’s study is an exercise in what he calls ‘after’ thinking, in this case, as the title suggests, thinking what Christianity might continue to mean after the death of God, and in the face of the various (related) crises of modernity. Yet, he explains, the project is not to develop a Christianity that ‘works’ in a postmodern context. It is rather to develop a Christian theology that challenges and questions the status quo and offers the possibility for transformation. ‘Christianity after Christianity does not therefore refer to the current state of religion in a post-Christian age. The “after” is not a relation to the past but an opening to the future’ (171-172). Christianity, as Koci understands it, always involves this dimension of ‘after’, since it a way of thinking that is oriented toward the not yet, harbouring the seeds of its own undoing and remaking. Within this framework, it becomes clearer how Patočka can be of value. Patočka’s own conception of history or historical life (a life in truth) involves an awareness of ‘problematicity’, a radical openness to possibility that calls for a repeated dismantling of what one takes to be solid truths.

A single sentence from Patočka’s late work Heretical Essays provides the refrain throughout Koci’s study:

By virtue of this foundation in the abysmal deepening of the soul, Christianity remains thus far the greatest, unsurpassed but also un-thought-through human outreach (vzmach, upsurge, élan) that enabled humans to struggle against decadence. (Patočka 1999, 108).

Koci attempts to make sense of this suggestive and somewhat obscure remark by exploring a number of interrelated issues in Patočka’s thought: from the crisis of modernity, issuing in nihilism or ‘decadence’ (Ch 2) to his critique of metaphysics (Ch 3), to ‘negative Platonism’ (Ch 4), to the three movements of existence (Ch 5) to ‘care for the soul’ and sacrifice (Ch 6-7). The emphasis of Koci’s analysis of the above remark falls heavily on the notion of the ‘unthought’ dimension of Christianity to which Patočka alludes, and he interprets this along the lines that Hagedorn develops in his article ‘“Christianity Unthought”—A Reconsideration of Myth, Faith, and Historicity’ (2015). Quoting Hagedorn,

Christianity unthought would then indicate the maintenance of some core of Christianity even after its suspension, and through its suspension […] in the sense of metaphorically reclaiming some resurrection after the Cross. […] It is the signal for an investigation into what is left of the Christian spirit without being confessional or credulous (Hagedorn 2015, 43).

The Anselmian understanding of theology of fides quaerens intellectum—faith seeking understanding—in Koci’s hands becomes both 1) an affirmation that faith is ‘a way of thinking’ and 2) an explanation for why Christian theology must involve the continual questioning of itself, must relate to its own unthought. Christianity is, in this sense, a thinking of the unthought. Yet this could easily be misconstrued. Thinking the unthought does not mean ‘neutralizing’ (59) the unthought by bringing it in into the totalising framework of closed reason (the framework of modernity). Put in Heideggerian terms, the unthought signifies an openness and responsiveness to being, beyond the metaphysics of beings. Koci reads Patočka’s account of Christianity in the context of his account of the crisis of modernity and modern rationality, which has become closed in on itself (Patočka contrasts the ‘closed’ and the ‘open’ soul). In Koci’s words, ‘religion breaks with the modern enclosure precisely because it allows the others, the otherwise, and, last but not least, the Other to enter the discussion’ (60).

Regarding Christianity’s ‘abysmal deepening of the soul’ Patočka places special emphasis on the soul’s ‘incommensurability with all eternal being’ (Patočka 1999, 108) because of the soul’s placement in history and its call to responsibility by virtue of being in the world (See the fifth heretical essay for this discussion). Quoting Koci, the soul becomes:

the locus of our engagement with problematicity; it is where we experience the upheaval of being-in-the-world. The soul is the organ of reflection upon the concrete historical situation into which we are thrown; it is the flexibility to think, to question, to challenge given meaning in order to search for a deeper meaning, time and again. The soul is what leads us into thinking (194).

The final word of this exposition is key. Christianity is the ‘greatest, unsurpassed’ struggle against decadence, against any account that would seek to settle things once and for all and close off further thinking. This is important for the overall project here, which is, in part, to use the un-thought of Christianity to challenge both philosophical and theological thinking. The proposal is that we take Christianity seriously as a way of thinking and continual questioning that can help to awaken us from our dogmatic slumber, whether the content of this dogmatism is instrumental rationality, nihilism, secularism, or traditional metaphysics.

It might be wise to pause and return again to Patočka’s claim that Christianity is the ‘greatest, unsurpassed’ movement in the fight for meaning. At first glance, this remark looks like an example of what Koci calls ‘Christian triumphalism’, proclaiming the supremacy of Christianity. Indeed, Christianity does occupy a privileged philosophical position in Patočka’s thought, for reasons that have been explained in part above. But I agree with Koci’s assessment that reading Patočka as a Christian triumphalist, as John D. Caputo does in The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida (1997), mistakes his aim altogether; he is not calling for the triumphal return of Christendom as a political power (Koci surmises that the only way Caputo could make such an error is by not having read any Patočka). On the other hand, Koci’s insistence that ‘for Patočka, Christianity is not “better” than other religions’ (193) is less convincing. He claims that:

Patočka does not understand Christianity in Hegelian terms and is far from situating Christianity on top of the religious tree. Neither does Patočka understand Christianity in Kantian terms as the highest moral call […] I see the “unsurpassed” nature of Christianity [in Patočka’s remark quoted above] as referring to a recontextualization of the soul advanced by Christianity.’ (194).

It is true that Patočka does not understand Christianity in either a Hegelian or a Kantian light; these would be grave misreadings (Caputo appears to be the main target here, since he is guilty of mistaking Patočka for a Hegelian). But it is nevertheless apparent across Patočka’s texts that Christianity is the only religion Patočka takes seriously as properly historical-philosophical; others are relegated to mythical thinking. So by Patočka’s own philosophical standards Christianity is ‘better’ than other religions, better not by virtue of its confessional content but by its contribution to being in the world. In Christianity, the soul is understood in all its problematicity and openness. This is a controversial claim, to be sure, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Patočka does in fact situate Christianity ‘on top’.

Koci argues that there are three features of Christianity that Patočka allows us to see which have serious bearing on contemporary philosophical and theological thinking. First, Patočka:

reintroduces the centrality of Christianity as a new “religiosity” of thinking. In thinking, Christianity overcomes both mythos [a mythical thinking is characterised by the maintenance of life and by adherence to the past] and logos [closed rationality]. (172)

This religiosity of thinking goes in the opposite direction of a demythologization of Christianity. In Patočka’s picture, the world is reenchanted, in contrast to the disenchantment of the scientific-rationalist picture. We open ourselves to the world anew. Koci reads this shift as proposing ‘more Christianity rather than less of it […] Of course, this is not a return to anything from the past. Nonetheless, something is coming, and this something is related to Christianity’ (172).

Second, Christianity ‘becomes an existential category whose basic expression is faith as openness to the future’, ‘faith that is a radicalized, philosophical notion—the care for the soul’ (172). This rather dramatically removes the specific confessional content of Christianity, a move to which I will return below. Third, Christianity is an ‘existential thinking’ that realises itself in ‘acting and living’, living as a person who cares for the soul (173). The authenticity of such an attitude is found in the willingness to take responsibility for life through self-surrender or sacrifice, ‘in the name of a truth beyond positive contents’ (173). Patočka’s emphasis on the ‘experience’ [or activity] of sacrifice, in Koci’s reading, contrasts with the language of ‘participation’ in the absolute gift in both Derrida and Marion, which he reads as more of a conceptual schema than an existential one (see Ch 6 and 7 for an extended discussion).

Does Koci make a convincing case for the value of reading Patočka theologically? I had not been inclined to interpret Patočka along these lines prior to reading Koci’s book, but I see enormous value for Patočka scholarship in opening up this line of thought. Koci’s reading of Patočka as a post-Christian Christian thinker is creative and thought-provoking for those familiar with Patočka and for anyone interested in how to think about faith meaningfully in a contemporary postmodern context.

I have two criticisms, centred around the style of exposition in the book and the unresolved tension between the philosophical and the specifically Christian.

One feels that there is a good deal of stage setting in this work: offering context for Patočka’s thought by way of an exploration of the death of God, the crises of modernity, twentieth-century phenomenological thought, and contemporary continental theology. This is all relevant and helpful to the project of thinking about what Patočka has to offer, but the sustained engagement in the details of Patočka’s own account, especially sustained reflection on the writings that are meant to be of theological interest, is less developed. Koci is well-versed in both continental philosophy-theology (see his recent edited volume on the French philosopher Emmanuel Falque) and in Patočka’s writings, yet the former threatens to swallow up the latter in this book; it is only toward the end of Chapter 5 that Koci asks the question: ‘what is Patočka’s Christianity?’ (p 165), and only in Chapters 6 and 7, in comparisons with Derrida and Marion, that one sees a sustained attention to the details of this Christianity. What I miss in the breadth of the author’s treatment is the depth that comes from close textual analysis, especially when dealing with texts as condensed as Patočka’s.

There are perhaps unavoidable reasons for the thinness of detail in the present account of Patočka’s post-Christian Christianity. It may be the result of Patočka’s own writing, which does not lend itself well to systematic treatment, especially in the case of his writings that might be deemed of theological value, which are naturally scattered across various works. Furthermore, Patočka’s writings often have a provisional quality, not lacking in depth but with a tendency toward ellipses, presenting many rich ideas but often leaving the reader wanting further explication. Whether the root of this elliptical quality is to be found in Patočka’s philosophical commitments, in his own idiosyncrasies as a writer, or in the extremely straitened historical circumstances in which he was forced to work is a question with no definitive answer. However, this quality of Patočka’s writing is especially pronounced when he speaks about quasi-Christian themes such as sacrifice and mystery (see 233-234 for an example). Koci intelligently reads these silences—pace Kierkegaard and Derrida—as pregnant with significance. One of Koci’s examples of this is Patočka’s failure to explicitly name Christ in his writings, though he makes significant allusions to him, as in the discussion of sacrifice in the end of the 1973 Varna lecture and the reference to the Passion narrative in the ‘Four Lectures on Europe’. Koci also speculates that Patočka might well have developed his post-Christian ideas more explicitly given a different intellectual and political climate. Both assessments seem plausible to me.

That said, other than the excellent description of kenotic sacrifice in Chapter 7, the present book is rather thin on the details of what Patočka’s Christianity might look like. One example is the very truncated discussion of Christian community that ends the book. These considerations were, to me, very ripe for development, and I would have liked to hear more of Koci’s own vision of what forms a Patočkian Christian community could take, what forms of worship, what shared rituals. Koci is inspired by Patočka’s key idea of the ‘solidarity of the shaken’ from the Heretical Essays, and other scholars could certainly build on Koci’s groundwork. Naturally questions of post-Christian ritual and worship go beyond the scope of Patočka’s own writings, but Koci’s reading of Patočka raises these questions and invites imaginative responses. Such exercises in filling out Patočka’s own account may risk heresy to the master, yet without them, one is left with a portrait of Christianity that does not differ very much from a purely philosophical account: each person strives to ‘care for the soul’, living in a full awareness of the problematicity of finitude, dedicating themselves to a truth that is not embodied in anything present or actual.

Beyond Patočka’s writing style, there may be another reason for the sense of thinness I noted earlier, and this is one that Koci addresses directly, namely that Patočka’s understanding of Christianity is not a positive theology. There is no content, per se, no dogma in Patočka’s understanding of the divine or in the way of relating to the world that is taken up in an attitude of faith. While this kind of theological approach has an impressive pedigree, reading Patočka in this tradition raises the question anew of how and to what extent Patočka’s Christianity differs from a wholly philosophical account. Christianity in Patočka can easily be seen as having philosophical value, value for the question of how to orient oneself in the world, but I remain unconvinced that the lessons that Patočka draws from it are fundamentally different from the lessons he draws from Socrates. A distance from true being and a recognition of the limits of knowledge are, to Patočka’s mind, the distinctly Christian intellectual contributions. This is distinct from Platonism, to be sure, but Hannah Arendt, for one, draws the same lessons from Socrates.

Koci to his credit directly tackles the question of whether the features that he identifies as Christian in Patočka’s work may just as well be called Socratic. Patočka’s ‘care for the soul’ and ‘sacrifice’ can—and have—been read either way. On the topic of sacrifice, Koci offers a comparison of the deaths of Socrates and Christ to see which best accords with Patočka’s understanding of a sacrifice for nothing, elaborated in his 1973 lecture ‘The Dangers of Technicization in the Sciences According to E. Husserl and the Essence of Technology as Danger in M. Heidegger’ and in the Heretical Essays. In Patočka, sacrifice for nothing, as opposed to a transactional sacrifice for some specific end, is a central concept; sacrifice in the radical, non-transactional sense discloses the ontological difference, elaborated by Heidegger, between specific beings or things—taken individually or as a set—and being proper, which is no-thing and is not of the order of beings (see the postscript of Heidegger’s ‘What is Metaphysics?’ for the origin of this discussion). In an act of sacrifice, an individual brings this ontological difference, otherwise hidden and supressed, into view. A new understanding of truth is thus affirmed.

Construed in this way, Socrates and Christ both seem equally apt examples of a sacrifice for nothing—both die for a truth that is not obvious or present (and certainly not recognised by those around them) but which they nonetheless affirm by being willing to give their lives. Neither of these deaths could be thought of as transactional. Koci’s reading of these deaths focusses on a different feature, however. Socrates is serene, even happy in the face of death, requesting that his friends remember to sacrifice a cock to Asclepius—for ridding him of the malady of life. Koci points to this attitude and to passages in the Phaedo as evidence that Socrates thought of death as a welcome release from life, that his serenity came from the certainty that he would finally be in direct contact with higher being and would be able to know what he only glimpsed in part. Christ, by contrast, utters the anguished cry ‘eli eli lama sabachthani’. While Christ accepts that he must sacrifice himself, he does not understand it. Rather than embracing death in the certain knowledge that immortality was preferable, he holds onto finitude and it remains problematic for him. Patočka quotes Christ’s final words in his ‘Four Seminars on Europe’ (Patočka, ‘Čtyři semináře k problému Evropy’, 403–404 and 412–413), suggesting his attention to this aspect of the passion narrative. Christ’s kenosis or self-emptying is, for Koci:

a scandalous provocation to shift from a simple life and its preservation to thinking about human being. It seems that herein lies the motivation behind Patočka’s plea for fighting for the Christian legacy, albeit in a deconstructed and demythologized manner, for the post-Christian world (215).

Ultimately Koci admits that one cannot decide on a purely Greek or Christian reading of sacrifice since Patočka himself tends to read Socrates through the lens of Christ and Christ through the lens of Socrates. For Koci, this ambiguity reflects a deeper one in Patočka’s work: Christian theology is a response to (Greek) philosophy, but philosophy must learn lessons from Christianity if it to break free from its own dogma. It is only in the relationship between the two that an authentic orientation to the world emerges.

I am sympathetic to the project of this book, and I am greatly attracted to ‘Patočka’s Christianity’, as Koci presents it. However, I remain unsure of the legitimacy and value of putting this account under the heading of ‘Christianity’, or even ‘post-Christian Christianity’, I freely admit that this may have more to do with my own understanding of Christianity, and it is certainly rooted in my understanding of philosophy. Koci writes in Ch 4, ‘I am convinced that Patočka invites us to think about a certain vision of philosophical faith (147).’ I agree much more readily with this formulation. I am convinced that the texts themselves authorise a ‘post-secular’ reading; it seems to me the natural result of good philosophical thinking, that, like Patočka’s, it remain open to transcendence.

 

References:

Hagedorn, Ludger and Dodd, James, eds. 2015. The New Yearbook for Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy XIV. Religion, War and the Crisis of Modernity: A Special Issue Dedicated to the Philosophy of Jan Patočka. London: Routledge.

Hagedorn, Ludger. 2015. ‘“Christianity Unthought”—A Reconsideration of Myth, Faith, and Historicity’. The New Yearbook for Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy 14: 31–46.

Patočka, Jan. 1999. Heretical Essays in the Philosophy of History. Translated by Erazim Kohák and edited by James Dodd. Chicago: Open Court.

Patočka, Jan. 2002. In Sebranné spisy Jana Patočky, vol. 3. Péče o duši, III: Kacířské eseje o filosofii dějin; Varianty a přípravné práce z let 1973–1977; Dodatky k Péči o duši I a II. Edited by Ivan Chvatík and Pavel Kouba. Prague: Oikoymenh.

Wolfe, Judith. 2014. Heidegger and Theology. London: Bloomsbury.


[i] See e.g. Meacham, Darian and Tava, Francesco, eds. 2016. Thinking after Europe: Jan Patočka and Politics. London: Rowman and Littlefield.

*For those interested in reading more of Patočka, the forthcoming Care for the Soul: Jan Patočka Selected Writings (Bloomsbury, 2022) will offer a number of his texts available in English for the first time.

Rodolphe Gasché: Locating Europe: A Figure, a Concept, an Idea?

Locating Europe: A Figure, a Concept, an Idea? Couverture du livre Locating Europe: A Figure, a Concept, an Idea?
Rodolphe Gasché
Indiana University Press
2021
Paperback $30.00
256

Reviewed by: Jacob Saliba (Boston College)

Rodolphe Gasché’s latest book Locating Europe: A Figure, a Concept, an Idea? is a collection of interrelated philosophical essays which employ the phenomenological and post-phenomenological traditions in order to answer the question of what it means to live in Europe or, to put it more precisely, what Europe means in itself.  The fundamental premise of the text is that many today have taken for granted the ongoing layering process of meaning within Europe since Greek antiquity. Europe, as Gasché sees it, requires an intellectual recalibration in which it can come to terms with its prior heritage, overcome its past mistakes, and enable its hopes for the future. In today’s climate that is keen on pursuing either reparations for past mistakes or protections for previous agendas, it is altogether fitting to approach these judgments on theoretical grounds thus laying bare the inner motivations for guilt or defensiveness. In so far as Locating Europe: A Figure, a Concept, an Idea? answers the question in its own title it also helps us better understand political and cultural turmoil today. Importantly, what makes this text unique is that it is sophisticated enough to confront present problems in a manner that avoids hyperbole and remains rooted in philosophical insights. In other words, Locating Europe is a much-needed investigation of Europe’s role in not only strengthening appeals for progress and reform but also emboldening calls for self-criticism and reevaluation.

The book’s elevens chapters challenge older attempts at a phenomenology of Europe and reposition more recent ones. Indeed, as the title suggests, there are three basic sections to the text: Europe as a figurative meaning, Europe as a conceptual meaning, and Europe as an idea. Gasché constructs each sphere (i.e., figure, concept, or idea) and shows their implications in relationship to the past, present, and future. The overall argument is that Europe is more than a political or economic entity; it is a highly dynamic expanse in which all forms of life are embraced in thought and deed. According to Gasché, Europe is a mode of living and thinking which opens itself up to new beginnings and harnesses the discoverability of new paths despite threats of decay or degeneration. In the twenty-first century, some critics assert that Europe no longer has a legitimate place in the world due to its imperial projects since the onset of Western colonialism. Others, paradoxically, argue that Europe’s trajectory as a political project is too self-consumed in utopian ideals such as the European Union.  Gasché rejects the false choice between dismissal and idealization by teasing out deep continuities in European culture that have remained since ancient Greece: “rationality, self-accounting, self-criticism, responsibility toward the other, freedom, equality (including for the different sexes), justice, human rights, democracy, and the list goes on” (ix). To question these values would be to question Europe itself.

Following Maria Zambrano’s line of thought, Locating Europe begins by showing that Europe’s origins come from the periphery, namely, Classical Greece and ancient North Africa. This preliminary point is integral. If it is true to say that Europe’s way of thinking and living is conducive to the ‘new’ or the ‘different’, then one must be able to locate these standards within the structures and narratives of Western thought. The point is to say neither that Europe is privileged in nature nor that it is monolithic in scope (xi). Rather, what is imperative is showing that the plane on which this issue is discussed and debated is itself a demonstration of what Europe’s inherent purpose is all about. In other words, the make-up of Europe as debatable, as contestable, as a forum of reflection serves as the self-evidence for its redemptive qualities for the purpose of “constant renewal” (xi). It is, thus, the perennial goal of Europe to maintain an unrelenting reflection of itself without which it could not achieve a conscious understanding of its traditional inspirations, creative aspirations, and lived ambitions.

So, what does it mean for Europe to be a figure, a concept, or an idea? Which rubric offers the best representational status?  Gasché asserts that a figurative Europe revolves around notions of intuited spaces or interactive intelligible schemas such as “the archipelago, the horizon, or indistinguishable from light” (xiv). Or, perhaps Europe is more aptly understood as a concept linked to language development, idiomatic gestation, or universal communicative capacities. Lastly, Europe as an idea—which Gasché primarily focuses on as most feasible—manifests the highest form of representation in the sense that it provides a regulative function for understanding which “does not exhaust itself” and perpetually leaves open opportunity as a metaphysical possibility. As Gasché puts it: “It is, in particular, this identification of Europe as an idea that undergirds all the distinct essays collected in this volume, which also feature studies such as the intrinsic interweaving of the notion of Europe with the question of responsibility to the other, primarily Europe’s responsibility toward its twofold (and aporetic) heritage of Greek and Christian and Judaic thought” (xiv). In effect, by lending legitimacy to this last approach of Europe as an idea, Gasché allows for conceiving Europe in a more dynamic cognizable space.

Europe as a Figure

The first major section of the text involves three chapters: “Archipelago,” “Without a Horizon,” and “In Light of Light.”  Though distinct in their own rights, each chapter coheres with the first proposition of Europe as a figure.  “Archipelago” centers on the notion of plurality and diversity of figures as intrinsic to Europe’s trajectory and growth through history since its inception in the ancient Mediterranean world. For instance, drawing from the philosophy of Massimo Cacciari, the Archipelago stands as the perennial figure by which the dialogue of home and abroad, far and near, different and same all synchronize with one another to formulate an origin story of variance and similarity that can still account for progress. In other words, the ancient traditions which speak of an archipelago of nations, ports, and tribes co-existing with one another despite their differences and distances seems to suggest that it may very well still be possible today, especially in view of the fact that Us versus Them mentalities remain. The essential issue at hand is how Europe can account for basic individuality while at the same time foster interconnectivity. Can the figurative meaning of the Archipelago still be operative to answer urgent cultural questions of divisiveness today? Or, to put it in metaphysical terms: how can the part cohere with the whole, how can the One bond with the Many?  For Gasché this possibility is rooted in a conversion, a movement to self-transcendence (6). Although this movement may come with the dangers of loss of identity, of conquest of the Other, or even inter-subjective friction, the very acceptance of this kind of fractious reality may be the key to unlocking a bright future. By accepting difference as fundamental to the origin of Europe—as seen in the Archipelago—then perhaps the notion of self-transcendence will appear all the more intelligible as a purposive task rather than an accidental fate.

“Without a Horizon” further expands the notion of spatial perception as it relates to Europe’s figurative meaning. Here, Gasché employs the philosophy of Jean-Luc Nancy to explain the components and impediments latent in a ‘universal vision’ (15). If the gaze of the twenty-first century European is cast forward as a conscious aim, then it is also possible to redirect it as a lived reappropriation. ‘The look’ as construed by Nancy is that which can go beyond as well as move within. In short, the look has the deepest proximity with itself. “It is a seeing that before having the power of sight, ‘sees’ seeing nothing. It is seeing affected by itself in advance of all ‘itself’, and, hence, before all seeing that sees something particular” (16). Accordingly, the goal of self-identity is made further dynamic once realized as a perceptive consciousness endowed with the capacity to both look from itself as well as look at itself.  In this way, the viewer can touch the vision and maintain intimacy with the act (17-18). More than this, the viewer stretches the outer limits of the horizon, thus, going beyond what was previously held to be a self-contained universal scope. In this way, the infinite becomes intelligible and the beyond appears possible.  “At the extreme border of the horizon, the world appears in its horizonless infinity, a finite world, and hence an infinite one” (24). If there is a blind spot of the European gaze, then Europe need only to recast its look beyond the status quo horizon into darker untested spaces.

“In Light of Light” marks the final portion of the book’s first section. Though it moves in the direction of Europe as a concept, it nonetheless maintains the character of Europe a figure. Gasché starts by framing the chapter in terms of Husserl’s work “The Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology.” If Husserl is correct to assert that Europe is the idea of progress par excellence he inherently upgrades Europe to a conceptual level in which case the entity (i.e., Europe) represents the task of knowledge acquisition itself (i.e., philosophy or science properly construed). On the flip-side, however, perhaps Europe as an idea is nothing more than a spiritual figure with a mythical pregnancy and legendary birth. This philosophical dilemma, according to Gasché, is an intrinsic tension to Europe as figure, concept, and idea. Either Europe is a conceptual standard on universal grounds, or it is particular only to itself and its own figurative germinations. Gasché, therefore, employs Jan Patočka’s seminal work Plato and Europe in order to reorient Husserl’s conception of Europe from theoretical grounds toward more pragmatic attitudes. Patočka marks a departure from Husserl’s ‘things in themselves’ to a form of how things ‘present themselves’, most especially the human being (35). What was previously held to be non-real or non-phenomenological in the Husserlian sense now functions in a deeply human way that, as Patočka suggests, centers on the Greek conception of the soul. “The soul is what properly distinguishes the human being; that precise instance in us to which the totality of being shows itself, hence becoming phenomenon” (36). In so far as the soul is the ‘becoming’ of the human it is also that which summons a response and realization from the non-real to the real. In other words, the importance of the Greek conception of the soul was not so much its theoretical insights but rather the intimacy and transparency by which the human being manifests itself in the world through actualization. Furthermore, this manifestation process is the guiding light that the Greeks sparked first and through which hidden appearances become truly tangible. Just as the care of the soul persists, so, too, does the light continue to beam forth.

Europe as a Concept

The second set of texts deals with Europe as a concept. In “The Form of the Concept,” Gasché employs Hans-Georg Gadamer’s philosophy as a way to frame a conceptually robust representation of Europe by utilizing the phenomenon of ‘world-shaping’. For Gadamer, Europe’s role as an arbiter on the world-stage is more than simply a political or economic intervention; it is one that holds together the fabric of higher questions in which disagreement, synthesis, and transformative change can cohere with one another in a dynamic unity.  Understood conceptually, Europe is the “differentiation that calls for science” as well as the “unifying power of science that allows differentiation to take place from within” (51). In short, a conceptual Europe is one that can account for the Other in a way that also enables a revivifying encounter with Oneself. Additionally, European philosophy and science have allowed for such progression since the birth of Greek theoria so that ‘higher questions’ maintain within themselves an inertia of enlightening proportions. Moreover, Indo-Germanic languages have facilitated a form of knowledge-seeking that relies fundamentally on the Western grammatical form. To the extent that meaning is extracted from its deep, hidden deposits by virtue of transmittable grammar, it also allows for its recognition as a continuous human affair.  Literature, religion, and history testify to this reality in the sense that they all rely on a communicability which allows for the unfolding of the meaning in an intelligible manner—whether it be in the mold of storytelling, theological mystery, or accounts of human events.  Europe as a civilization would not be what it is if it could not muster a unity between the diversity of disciplines. The form of Western disciplines is the center of gravity—the glue of togetherness—by which Europe can determine itself conceptually. “The discovery of the form of the concept is Europe’s most distinguishing trait” (57).

“Axial Time” relies on Karl Jaspers interpretation of the Axial Period, an era or event that goes to the historical root of itself. “The Axial Period is an empirically evident formation of meaning that can be intuited by everyone and can be understood as a measure against which to judge history” (67). Its purpose, or, rather its parameters, involves that of renewal or the process by which renewal can be an empirically possible reality. For Jaspers, the Axial Period is a Greek phenomenon in which for the first time Western man reached beyond itself into the realm of Being and participated in issues larger than natural life; moreover, it was mirrored by break-through ideas in the Middle East and Asia. It is “the emergence of the individual person in the shape of the philosopher, the traveling thinker, the prophet, and so forth” (69). However, Jaspers laments that twentieth century humankind has lost touch with this prior Axial Period. According to Gasché, this has occurred because modern man has forgotten that the conceptual project of Europe is as much tied to others (e.g., the East) in as much as it is linked to Europe (e.g., the West).  What was so incredible about the Greek breakthrough is that it was carried forth and intimated in ways that resembled the Middle East and Asia. In so far as the Greeks vied to go beyond practical and mythical attitudes, so, too, did the great minds of the Eastern world. Though two distinct worlds, each sphere constitutes each other on a more profound level in which cohesions succeeds not because of isolation but by an appreciation of uniqueness.  “In fact, it is a difference that is constitutive of Europe and implies the recognition that every spiritual phenomenon is divided, and comes to life only when the spiritual heeds the difference that divides it from within, thus establishing it in relation to another recognized as capable of truth” (83). The question is to what extent Europe can live up to its end of the bargain.

“Eastward Trajectories” encompasses nicely what the previous two chapters laid forth. In short, Gasché traces how major thinkers in the twentieth century shifted their philosophical lens to the East in order to improve what was most prized in the West.  The principal example is Karl Löwith’s travels to Japan during Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s and 1940s.  Fundamentally, Löwith asserts that to grasp Europe conceptually in the modern moment requires that it be approached from the outside looking in. What is perhaps most surprising about his account is that the more he explored Japan the more that he realized the similarities between it and Europe. The spiritual affinities at the level of the natural world, the preoccupation with the cosmos, and mythical attitudes toward the divine each resembled structures which he found to be true also in Greek antiquity. Moreover, Löwith blames the ‘new Europe’ of the contemporary situation for forgetting these essential qualities of Europe’s origin story. In so far as hyper-nationalism parallels the grave travesties of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, so, too, does a naïve self-love incur loss of identity on a metaphysical level. Simply put, what Europe lacks is an awareness of being wrong—of being conceptually mistaken. In dialectical terms, Europe is impoverished by its inability to accept that which is other and outside of itself—another consciousness without which its own consciousness could not realize itself (102). A renewed philosophical attitude “is predicated on a critical self-distancing of the human being that allows for a contemplation of this order in all its otherness, as other than the passing concerns of humans within the historical world, but that also makes it possible for human beings to be, as Hegel put it, with themselves precisely in being-other” (106).

Europe as an Idea

The third and final section of Locating Europe is that of Europe as an idea; it is the largest and most intellectually striking part of the book. Each chapter is preoccupied with the challenge of Europe as an idea which, for Gasché, is either a doubtful illusion or an empowering authenticity.

In “Feeling Anew for the Idea of Europe,” Gasché sets the stage for what an idea of Europe might possibly look like and if it can hold as the identity of Europe. Following Jacques Derrida’s deconstructive focus on difference, Gasché asserts that Europe as ‘a heading’ (i.e., trajectory) cannot ignore the possibility of there being another ‘heading’ that proliferates all around us in everyday terms (114). If the goal is to achieve an idea of Europe that can account for all modes of living and thinking, then perhaps it is worthwhile to destabilize the previous concept of Europe and bring about new ideas of it. In so far as Europe differs from its own Europe-ness as well as from Eastern cultures, it discovers what kind of identity it could be tomorrow rather than remain with its conceptual stagnation of yesterday. As Gasché writes: “It is about the always possible change of that identity” (116). In short, feeling for a new Europe amounts to what it is as much as what it is not. “Differently put, this feeling that registers an essential debt to the other heading, and the other of the heading, a debt so essential that the possibility of change is intrinsically tied into the positivity of identity, hence, that an element of unpredictability is inevitably part of identity, is the ‘new’ felt identity of what it means to be European” (117). Although Europeans may feel their identity, they feel it in differences and not in sameness. Alas, they have lost sight of what is unique about all perspectives available in the landscape of the everyday.

Gasché also permits the reader to consider Kant’s definition of the idea or, as the title of the next chapter suggests, ““An Idea in the Kantian Sense?.” The premise is that if Europe is a task to be fulfilled, then it follows that one must have ‘an idea’ of what needs to be done. In this way, Kant’s notion of the idea as regulative might shed some light; the idea is not self-contained slice of information but rather the ground for further reflection. Or, as Gasché defines it: “an idea in the Kantian sense is not only a representation to which no congruent sensory or empirical object corresponds but which, nonetheless, is necessary to the function of reason” (135). Kantian ideas supposedly maximize psychological space and push the boundaries by which reason can operate, irrespective of empirical reality.  However, Gasché argues that to accept an idea of Europe in the Kantian sense presupposes that all regulation of reason succeeds in its aims towards systematic unity. In other words, Kant misunderstands that purposive unity cannot account for all thoughts and deeds; what it forgets is the everyday. And, to Derrida’s point, it is the everyday that Europe has forgotten.

“Responsibility, a Strange Concept” appears to be Gasché’s own way of answering the call to the everyday, suggested in the previous chapter. In short, this chapter demonstrates the inner complexity of an appeal to responsibility—meant absolutely as well as inter-personally. In this way, Europe might be better positioned to balance its heritage of moral philosophy, on the one hand, and current demands for decentering arcane laws of morality, on the other. The modern subject is indebted to previous notions, but it does not de facto obey them. “Our relationship to heritage is a critical relationship” (153). To render an ethics proper to the contemporary situation requires that it be put in doubt, that is, experimented and tested for its cultural endurance. If Europe is to have a future, it must be responsible. At the same, however, responsibility is not synonymous with obedience. Rather, it is more germane to the notion of response. By stepping outside of rules and duties and into the domain of intuitive contact, one opens up what a response could and ought to be. The goal is to meet the Other as the Other rather than to create or define them. Therein, lies the truth of responsibility.

Importantly, if the previous conception of responsibility is compelling, then it follows that Derrida’s phenomenological approach deserves more investigating. Or, to put it differently, what actually remains of Derrida’s deconstruction of Europe? Such is the subject-matter of “An Immemorial Remainder: The Legacy of Europe.” According to Gasché, there is something that remains with us from Derrida: “It is a legacy that concerns the formal possibility of legacy itself, or, more precisely, since without such remaining no such thing as a heritage would exist, it concerns the very (‘performative’) imparting of legacy itself” (169). What is crucial to the legacy of Derrida is the way in which he pushes abstraction into contestation with itself in order to render lived experience more conducive to the inter-subjective world. His goal is to open up a khora (i.e., a place of middle-ground) so indefinable yet indispensable that it resists appropriation and therefore remains a place of sacredness. Indeed, this place’s unconditional purpose is that of tolerance which respects singularity and allows for distance.  Moreover, it is: “a place where each discrete singularity would be able to have a place, or rather, to take place” (188). For Gasché, the khora allows for the idea.

Having considered Gasché’s three options of Europe as figure, concept, and idea, it is necessary to point out a significant tension within the text. This tension is not an adverse feature of Gasché’s phenomenology, rather its appearance serves more as a reminder of the deep complexity within his question. Gasché admits that he is partial to the notion of Europe as an idea (xiv). However, he also confesses that if Europe is taken as an idea in the Derridean sense and not in the Kantian sense, then the stance leaves itself vulnerable to vague representation or naïve abstraction, even if the idea of Europe is grounded in responsibility to the Other as Other.  “It reveals itself as incapable of sufficiently and adequately thematizing what responsibility is and must be,” he writes (165). In this case, the Derridean idea of Europe as responsible cannot provide logical cohesion for its future operations; it becomes mere accident. A proper idea of Europe would have to meet the richness of what Europe actually means. It would need to go beyond itself in this regard.

According to Gasché, it is precisely phenomenology itself that not only tolerates this dilemma but also is equipped to respond to it. In other words, to be able to identify the problem (e.g.., the idea of European decay) necessitates a discourse that can support this endeavor for all its intricacies, rather than subsuming the problem into traditional philosophical positions (e.g., Kant’s definition of the idea of reason). “This is the very reason why [phenomenology], more than any other one, has the necessary resources to think responsibility otherwise. Paradoxically, it is the motifs of giving and appearing that are so dominant in phenomenology that permit us to bring our attention to what it is in responsibility that necessarily escapes thematization and phenomenology itself” (166). Moreover, it is due to phenomenology that responsibility has attained such a championed status in the history of Western thought.  “Given all that we have seen, it now seems obvious that if responsibility has been able to become a thematic priority in phenomenological reflection, then it is because the character of its response to a prior demand—one that emanates from the other— corresponds to a structure of phenomenal being insofar as the latter offers itself to an intuitive look and issues the demand to understanding as such that which then manifests itself” (164). The issue is not that Europe is an idea, the issue is what we have turned the idea of Europe into (216). “The end of Europe and the beginning of a post-European world makes it incumbent on Europe, which has understood itself so far from the idea of reason and universality, to revisit the concept of the idea with which it represented itself” (217). This is fundamentally the essential character of phenomenology in the twentieth and twenty-first century—to open up the totality of lived experience and enter into the various essences that comprise it for the betterment of each.

Overall, Locating Europe: A Figure, a Concept, an Idea? is a superb addition to the European phenomenological tradition. The collected essays demonstrate the multiple attitudes one might take in responding to the European question as well as defend the privileged role of phenomenology in reflecting on that question. In so far as the reader encounters divergent positions, they also become familiar with major streams of Western thought in a new and improved lens. Gasché further emboldens continental philosophy to assert its ability to ask profoundly urgent questions in the hopes of arriving at sound conclusions. Indeed, this text is a testament to the effort necessary to unveil the inner brilliance of such an approach.

Kristian Larsen, Pål Rykkja Gilbert (Eds.): Phenomenological Interpretations of Ancient Philosophy, Brill, 2021

Phenomenological Interpretations of Ancient Philosophy Couverture du livre Phenomenological Interpretations of Ancient Philosophy
Studies in Contemporary Phenomenology, Volume 20
Kristian Larsen, Pål Rykkja Gilbert (Eds.)
Brill
2021
Hardback €123.00 $148.00
392

Karel Novotný & Cathrin Nielsen (Hrsg.): Die Welt und das Reale, Verlag Traugott Bautz, 2020

Die Welt und das Reale Couverture du livre Die Welt und das Reale
libri nigri, Band 78
Karel Novotný & Cathrin Nielsen (Hrsg.)
Verlag Traugott Bautz
2020
Paperback 35,00 €
327

Avishag Zafrani, Yves-Charles Zarka (Eds.): La phénoménologie de la vie, Éditions du Cerf, 2019

La phénoménologie de la vie Couverture du livre La phénoménologie de la vie
Avishag Zafrani, Yves-Charles Zarka (Eds.)
Éditions du Cerf
2019
Paperback 32,00 €
592

James Mensch: Selfhood and Appearing: The Intertwining

Selfhood and Appearing: The Intertwining Couverture du livre Selfhood and Appearing: The Intertwining
Studies in Contemporary Phenomenology, Volume: 17
James Mensch
Brill
2018
Hardback €157.00
X, 342

Reviewed by: Jakub Kowalewski

The scope of James Mensch’s new book is truly impressive. On the one hand, Selfhood and Appearing: The Intertwining does not shy away from the rather unfashionable task of proposing a systemic account of human existence. In a manner reminiscent of some of the most exciting works in the history of philosophy, Selfhood and Appearing intervenes in an array of philosophical, political, and religious debates, which, in turn, allow it to propose a unified model of human reality: from subjectivity, through science and politics, to the divine. On the other hand, Mensch’s engagement with wide-ranging and diverse sources relies on insights afforded by one tradition of philosophy in particular – phenomenology. It is on the basis of his close reading of various phenomenologists (perhaps most importantly, Patočka and Merleau-Ponty), that Mensch is able to develop an interpretative key capable of unlocking hidden possibilities of diverse theoretical debates. In other words, the ‘macroscopic’ account of human existence proposed in Selfhood and Appearing presupposes a ‘microscopic’ argument grounded in phenomenological literature.

One of the undeniable achievements of Mensch’s book, therefore, is that it clearly demonstrates the continuous importance of phenomenology, not only for questions which remain unsolved (or, at least, remain solved insufficiently) in other traditions and disciplines, but also for a more consistent understanding of our multifaceted existence – on Mensch’s reading, phenomenology is a force to be reckoned with.

In consequence, Selfhood and Appearing can be read in three ways (simultaneously): as a comprehensive analysis of the various levels of human reality; as an interpretative intervention in contemporary phenomenological studies; and, finally, as a love letter to phenomenology.

Selfhood and Appearing is divided into four parts: Part One examines the role of intertwining in subjective experiences; Part Two deals with intertwining and intersubjectivity; Part Three continues the analysis of the previous sections by exploring intertwining in the context of political violence; and Part Four focuses on intertwining and religion.

Since it is the notion of intertwining which allows Mensch to successfully navigate through diverse theoretical landscapes, in this review I will focus primarily on the role intertwining plays in the main argument of the book. As I hope to show, although extracted from the works of other philosophers, intertwining is a specifically ‘Menschean’ notion, which in Selfhood and Appearing is endowed with a double function: firstly, intertwining characterises human experience as a whole, and as such, it is the unifying thread which weaves together the various levels of human reality, which from a traditional perspective are in opposition to one another. Secondly, intertwining enables Mensch to re-interpret and bring together otherwise dispersed philosophical arguments, debates, and traditions; the concept of intertwining is formed on the basis of a phenomenological analysis, and because of that it can be found (for the most part implicitly) in any philosophy attentive to this fundamental structure of human experience.

I will conclude this review by alluding to a tension between two effects of intertwining. Throughout Selfhood and Appearing, intertwining reveals human existence to be chiefly harmonious: the traditionally opposing terms—for instance, self and other, self and the world, the world and divinity—are shown to be intertwined and thus essentially compatible with one another. Likewise, the history of philosophy appears to be interwoven and unified due to a shared attentiveness to the concept of intertwining. In short, the main effect of intertwining is a reconciliatory vision of existence and philosophy, in which antagonisms between divergent elements are dissolved in a more fundamental interlacing. However, occasionally, Mensch allows us to glimpse a different effect of his concept: some phenomena and philosophies are excluded from the reconciliatory work of intertwining. In such cases, a phenomenon or a philosophy is so radically antagonistic that it becomes separated from the otherwise all-encompassing intertwining. As a result, Selfhood and Appearing—in addition to demonstrating the possibility of a harmonious existence and theory—invites us to think the irreducibility of antagonisms in both experience and philosophy, and with it, to conceptualise notions like separation and exclusion opposed to, yet effected by Mensch’s intertwining.

The definition of the concept of intertwining finds its first expression in the Introduction. In the section devoted to Merleau-Ponty, Mensch discusses our natural belief that my perception of external objects is an internal process which takes place “in me,” and that I also count myself as one of the external objects, out there in the world. Our natural belief, therefore, is that ‘I am in the world and the world is in me’ – the “natural” person:

‘lives in a paradox, undisturbed by it. He thinks both that he grasps external objects and their apprehension is within him. The basic tenet of such belief is that our relation to world is that of a double being-in. We are inside that which is in us.’[1]

The paradigmatic example of intertwining, therefore, is our double position as perceivers of objects and—by virtue of our embodiment—as objects to be perceived. These two perspectives, according to Mensch, reveal something ‘more than the fact that our embodiment places us in the world, which we internalize through perception. At issue here is the appearing of the world.’[2] In other words, the fact that my perception of objects is “in me,” while I am “out there” with the objects, is not an inconsequential paradox, which philosophers may try to resolve in their free time. On the contrary, the intertwining between the “inside” and the “outside” found in our embodied perception, is a condition of possibility for any manifestation: I reveal myself and the world which I inhabit thanks to the “double being-in” of the world in me and of me in the world as embodied. Intertwining, therefore, has a transcendental function of making possible the appearing of subjects and objects.

Mensch extends his definition of intertwining in the next section devoted to Patočka. Intertwining, and the manifestation it makes possible, should not be understood as an essentially subjectivity category; nor can it be reduced simply to an objective structure:

‘Appearing as such, however, can be derived neither from consciousness nor the realities that appear to it. Considered in itself, it is a “world-structure”… Prior to subjects and objects, it informs both.’[3]

Whereas Merleau-Ponty enables Mensch to posit intertwining as a transcendental condition of appearance, Patočka helps Mensch to argue that intertwining cannot be categorised as simply subjective or objective. Since intertwining makes possible disclosure as such, it is the structure which underlies the manifestation of both subjectivity and objectivity.

Importantly, Patočka contributes a further insight: intertwining is not a static function of appearance. Rather, ‘appearing… is to be understood in terms of motion.’

‘As Patočka expresses this, “movement… first makes this or that being apparent, causes it to manifest itself in its own original manner.” The moving entity does this through affecting what surrounds it… Without this ability through motion to affect what surrounds it, an entity cannot distinguish itself from its environment. But without this, it has no presence either to inanimate or anime beings. In living sentient creatures, this manifests itself as experience. It forms the subjective component of appearing. The objective component is simply the physical presence that the entity has through its action. It is, for example, the depression on the pillow left by an object pressing on it.’[4]

The engagement with Merleau-Ponty and Patočka in the Introduction provides the basic definition of intertwining: it is a transcendental condition of appearance, neither subjective nor objective, which enables manifestation through motion. In the remainder of the book, Mensch demonstrates the way in which intertwining is effective in various aspects of our existence. It is precisely here that the concept becomes ‘Menschean’: intertwining enables Mensch to offer a coherent re-interpretation of the writings of figures in the history of philosophy; these re-interpretations, in turn, allow him to propose a unified account of human existence in its various guises.

In the first part of the book, in addition to Merleau-Ponty, Patočka and other phenomenologists, Mensch engages at length with Aristotle, who helps him to conceptualise space and time in terms of intertwining. The discussion of Aristotle is exemplary since it illustrates well the trajectory of Mensch’s argument as a whole. Selfhood and Appearing takes up notions theorised by other thinkers and reframes them by demonstrating their reliance on intertwining. Aristotle offers resources which enable Mensch to identify the effects of intertwining on the appearance of subjects and objects in space and time.

According to Mensch, the notion of space described by Aristotle, is a space produced by the motion of entities. The particular movement of a subject, for instance, determines its “first unmoved boundary” and with it, the space it occupies and in which it moves. Furthermore, as Mensch points out, these Aristotelian conclusions can be applied beyond a simple physical presence – space can be constituted by a practical motion of a teacher who teaches, or a builder who builds. Importantly, on Mensch’s reading, space depends on embodied entities which produce it by their motion. [5] Furthermore, since motion is a structural feature of intertwining, it is, in fact, the latter which, indirectly, gives rise to space.

Likewise time can no longer be thought of as independent from the movements of embodied entities, and thus from intertwining. The constant presence of the body to itself (e.g. my continuous embodiment) constitutes the now: ‘This present “corresponds” to the body by virtue of being part of the body’s continuous self-manifestation.’ The flow of time, by contrast, ‘corresponds to the body’s movement insofar as it manifests the body’s shifting relation to its environment.’ [6] Time, therefore, depends on the permanent yet moving body, producing a temporality responsive to the entity’s motion: the flow of time is effected by the body’s movement, whereas the persistence of the present (the fact that I am always in the now) results from the uninterrupted presence of the body to itself.

Both space and time, therefore, are the effects of embodied entities and their motions; as such, space and time presuppose intertwining as the structure which makes possible the appearance of embodied entities in motion.

A similar argument can be found in Part Two of Selfhood and Appearing. In this section of the book, Mensch re-examines Hannah Arendt’s discussion of public space, which, he says, ‘should be understood in terms of our embodied motion in the world… To think public space in terms of this embodiment is to understand how the intertwining of self and world shapes the public space we share.’[7] Interestingly, in his engagement with Arendt, Mensch makes more explicit the distinction between intertwining as a fundamental structure of appearance, and intertwining as an interpretative key useful for the re-reading of other philosophers. When Mensch takes up Arendt’s categories of labour, work, and action, in order to demonstrate their intertwining, he uses the latter primarily as a concept enabling him to bring together the otherwise separate aspects of human activity theorised by Arendt. Here, intertwining designates a conceptual structure in which category A manifests within itself external categories B and C, while itself remaining one of the external categories. ‘To claim in this context that labor, work, and action are intertwined is to claim that they achieve their presence through embodying one another. Doing so, they serve as a place of disclosure for each other’.

Naturally, the demonstration of the intertwining of different aspects of human activity – that is to say, intertwining as a theoretical tool – presupposes the intertwining of embodied entities in motion (i.e., the intertwining as the transcendental structure of appearance). The intertwined manifestation of labour, work, and action, ‘occurs in conjunction with our disclosure of the world… The public space we share is, in fact, the result of both forms of disclosure.’[8]

Nevertheless, it is important to distinguish between intertwining as a conceptual tool and intertwining as the condition of experience – whereas the former is derived from the latter, the two notions are endowed with different functions. Intertwining as a transcendental structure allows for the manifestation of entities; intertwining as an interpretative key enables Mensch to re-read the writings of other philosophers.

This distinction between the two functions of intertwining was already operative in Mensch’s interpretation of Aristotle, however, it becomes more explicit when Mensch first presents Arendt’s categories as intertwined, and only then links them with intertwining as a transcendental condition of appearance. Of course, Mensch could not re-interpret Arendt without identifying intertwining as a fundamental structure of experience; however, the fact that he is then able to free intertwining from its original context in order to apply it to the discussion of other philosophers, makes intertwining an effective (and genuinely interesting) theoretical notion.

The efficacy of the concept of intertwining is explored further in Part Four of the book. There, intertwining is used to examine questions related to religious life, and, specifically, to unravel a paradox which, according to Mensch, lies at the heart of the Abrahamic religions:

‘Thus, on the one hand, we have the binding insistence on justice, on the punishment of the offender, on the payment of the transgressor’s debts to God and society. On the other hand, we have an equally insistent emphasis on the unbinding of mercy, on the forgiveness of all debts. How can these two perspectives be combined? How are we to grasp this binding that is also an unbinding?’[9]

The problem which motivates Part Four echoes the paradox of our natural belief in Part One (that the world is both “in us” and we are “out there in the world”) with which Mensch introduces intertwining as transcendental structure of appearance. However, the respective questions of Part One and Part Four remain distinct – what interests Mensch towards the end of this book is not, for the most part, the intertwining between embodied perceiver and the world; rather, his focus turns to a theoretical problem inherent in the biblical concept of religion, which can be solved by means of intertwining.

Importantly, intertwining as the solution to the paradox of religion is only analogous to the intertwining found at the bottom of appearance: ‘For Merleau-Ponty, the intertwining concerns our relation to the world… The religious analogue of this intertwining places God and the world inside each other.’[10] In other words, in part four intertwining becomes a device used to solve theoretical problems, with only an analogical relationship to the intertwining of experience of oneself in the world.

Of course, this is not say that the two notions of intertwining—as a theoretical tool and as a foundational experience—are separate. On the contrary, the latter continues to inform the former. However, the fact that, despite the change of conceptuality (from phenomenological terms to religious vocabulary), intertwining remains effective, attests to the theoretical efficacy of intertwining outside of a strictly phenomenological analysis of experience. This flexibility of the concept of intertwining enables Mensch to solve the “religious paradox” of part four in a manner reminiscent of the book’s previous arguments – that is to say, by arguing for the religious structure of intertwining: ‘…in the Mosaic tradition, religious selfhood is constituted through intertwining of binding and unbinding. This selfhood is such that the binding and unbinding provide for each other a place of disclosure.’[11]

I have attempted to decouple the two functions of intertwining (as a theoretical tool and as a fundamental structure of appearing) because it strikes me that they are able to generate distinct effects, which are in tension with one another.

This tension is most apparent in Part Three, where Mensch discusses the relationship between violence and politics. There, Mensch engages with the thoughts of Schmitt and Heidegger. Mensch does not attempt to hide his intentions – in contrast to Merleau-Ponty, Patočka, Aristotle, and even Arendt, all of whom contributed something positive to the argument of Selfhood and Appearing, the two Nazi-sympathisers are shown to be wrong, and only wrong (and rightly so, I should add).

From a perspective of the history of phenomenology, one of the ingenious aspects of Mensch’s reading of Heidegger is that he finds him “in” Schmitt. As a result he is able to disclose the Heideggerian basis of Schmitt’s theory of sovereignty, which invalidates Schmitt and Heidegger as appropriated by Schmitt. This way, Mensch is able to please both the anti-Heideggerian readers (who will be satisfied with the demonstration of the explicit relationship between Heidegger and Schmitt), and the pro-Heideggerian readers (who will point out that the relationship between Heidegger and Schmitt is possible on the basis of partial convergence of their respective thoughts). Take, for instance, these two passages, which follow one another in the text:

‘… we can say that Schmitt’s use of the “extreme situation” to define our collective identity is based on a specific notion of human existence, one that he shares with Heidegger… Given the essential lack of content of our existence, seriousness means taking responsibility or the decisions that shape it and, hence, affirming our identity through such responsibility. For Heidegger and Schmitt, what forces us to do this is the enemy that confronts us. For both, then seriousness involves a readiness for conflict, a need to seek out the enemy.’

‘Heidegger takes our confrontation with death as primarily individual. For Schmitt, by contrast, both death and the enemy that threatens it are thought in terms of the collective.[12]

Mensch then skillfully demonstrates how Schmitt’s understanding of the collective (that is to say, the point at which he differs from Heidegger) helps the jurist to elaborate his concept of sovereignty – thus creating a distance between Heideggerian ontology and Schmitt’s theory of the sovereign.

Almost immediately afterwards, Mensch returns to the similarities between Schmitt and Heidegger – the decision of Schmitt’s sovereign is ungrounded, and the ‘nothingness that is its source is, in fact, the political equivalent of the nothingness of death.’[13] Nevertheless, despite the equivalence of their concepts, the reader is reminded that is Schmitt who contributes the more explicitly problematic dimension to the discussion of decisionism.

The most interesting aspect of the discussion of Heidegger and Schmitt, in my opinion, is their uneasy position in relation to the concept of intertwining.

Schmitt’s (Heidegger-inspired) sovereign escapes the intertwining which constitutes legitimate politics, and in which the subject is free to act in the world while being limited by its norms and values. The sovereign does act in the world, however, he or she is not constrained by the world’s values.[14] The sovereign constitutes a “liminal” figure: ‘this liminality signifies that the sovereign has complete authority with regard to the legal system, being himself unconstrained by it.’[15]

Interestingly, the concept of liminality (embodied by the figure of the sovereign) is used by Mensch to identify phenomena which sit uncomfortably on the border of intertwining and its beyond. These phenomena are dangerous, because they act in the world from the position external to the world’s norms. This is why liminality should be eliminated by ‘the inclusion of the [liminal] agents into the world in which they act. It can only come through the reestablishment of the intertwining that joins the self and its Others in a world of shared senses.’[16]

Intertwining, therefore, functions as a way to reintegrate liminal figures – such as the sovereign – back into the shared world of values and norms, and thus to eliminate the threat of senseless violence which liminality makes possible.

However, despite the call for the inclusion of liminal figures, the works of Schmitt (and to a lesser extent, Heidegger) are excluded from Mensch’s theoretical enterprise. After finishing Part Three of Selfhood and Appearing, the reader has no doubt that there is no place for Schmitt (and Schmitt’s Heidegger) amongst the thinkers of intertwining. This is a result which speaks favourably about Mensch’s project as a whole – we can safely assume that Mensch does not want to have Nazi-sympathisers on his side. However, this exclusion of Schmitt seems to be at odds with the inclusive work of intertwining attested to by Mensch in his demand for the reintegration of liminal figures.

My hypothesis is that the tension between, on the one hand, the exclusion of Schmitt, and, on the other hand, the inclusion of liminal figures, can be explained by the distinction between the two types of intertwining identified above.

As a transcendental condition of manifestation, intertwining aims to reconcile oppositional terms (e.g. subjectivity and objectivity, or the world and divnity). As a theoretical tool, however, intertwining can be used to separate and exclude philosophies which are irreconcilable with the ultimately harmonising and inclusive project of Selfhood and Appearing.

This suggests, in turn, that at least on the theoretical level antagonism is irreducible: philosophy attentive to intertwining cannot be reconciled with philosophies which pay no attention to this fundamental structure.

It remains an open question, however, if a similar antagonism can be located on the level of experience: is there anything which intertwining as a transcendental condition of manifestation is incompatible with?

Mensch’s discussion of liminality hints on such a possibility. The liminal figure is both within the structure of intertwining, and external to it. Furthermore, as the possibility of sovereign violence demonstrates, this sphere external to intertwining is an effective and dangerous dimension, with real consequences for the intertwined existence. Thus, ultimately, we might find an irreducible antagonism also in experience – the external dimension attested to by liminal figures is fundamentally opposed to the harmonising structure of intertwining and the manifestation it produces.

If we were to continue our hypothetical musings, we can ask: how is this dangerous dimension external to intertwining constituted?

Perhaps it is produced by intertwining itself, which separates and excludes elements which cannot be integrated in its structure. Intertwining is defined as a transcendental condition of appearance, neither subjective nor objective, which enables manifestation through motion. Does this definition not imply the separation and exclusion of elements which are static, purely subjective or purely objective, and as such invisible from the perspective of intertwining? Would these non-integrated elements, in turn, constitute the hostile dimension external to intertwining, threatening the harmonising work of its “enemy”?

In addition to all its other achievements, the fact that Selfhood and Appearing invites us to pose such questions, and to consider the irreducible antagonism between intertwining and the dimension external to it, shows clearly that Mensch’s new book truly has an impressive scope.


[1] J. Mensch, Selfhood and Appearing: The Intertwining, Brill 2018, p. 16

[2] Ibid., p. 16

[3] Ibid., p.19

[4] Ibid., p. 20

[5] Ibid., pp. 87-88

[6] Ibid., p. 89

[7] Ibid., p. 168

[8] Ibid., p. 171

[9] Ibid., p, 283

[10] Ibid., p. 288

[11] Ibid., p. 288

[12] Ibid., p. 265

[13] Ibid., p. 268

[14] Ibid., p. 253

[15] Ibid., p. 250

[16] Ibid., p. 254

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