The publication of Phenomenology in Italy: Authors, Schools, and Traditions is, to say the least, a breath of fresh air for the anglophone, especially American, philosophical community. This book is nothing less than the introduction of an entirely new phenomenological tradition into the international phenomenological conversation. For, though Italy has a long and rich phenomenological tradition that lacks nothing when compared to, for example, the French reception of Husserl and Heidegger, it has remained mostly unknown to English-speaking scholars and especially to those working in the United States. This collection features essays by Italian scholars on the most important figures of the Italian phenomenological tradition, from Antonio Banfi to Paolo Parrini, spanning three academic generations. Each essay tackles a different author and the order is, as much as possible, chronological. The result is a volume that should spark a curiosity analogous to that of the discovery of a new continent, for the Italian phenomenological tradition has taken phenomenology in directions that, outside of Italy, will result entirely novel. From aesthetics to political philosophy to philosophy of science and even mathematics, the contributions of Italian phenomenologists are sure to breathe new life into the discipline. To this end, I would like to point to the SUNY Press series in Contemporary Italian Philosophy, which features translations of important contemporary Italian philosophers, including some of those featured in this book.
Before giving a summary of the contents, there is an important critique that should be made to this book, namely, that of a certain one-sidedness in the philosophers who were chosen to be showcased. Certainly, the Italian phenomenological tradition is far too vast to be covered in a single volume, but here phenomenology is entirely synonymous with Husserl. There is in fact a conspicuous absence of Heidegger and his reception which was certainly, if not as widespread, then as influential as the Husserlian. In fact, this collection centers mainly on the Milan School of Phenomenology, which has prospered in the State University of Milan since the 1920’s. Yet one wonders why there are no chapter devoted to what we might call the “Turin School,” which would include at the very least Luigi Pareyson, who was among the first to introduce Heidegger to Italy, and his student Gianni Vattimo, already known in anglophone circles for his hermeneutics and political thought. And perhaps the most glaring absence in the book is that of Aldo Masullo, the recently deceased philosopher from Naples who wrote extensively not only on Husserl, but also on Heidegger, Fink, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty, and who influenced the direction of research in Naples in a way that we still observe today (consider, for example, the work of his student Eugenio Mazzarella).
I will discuss each essay in turn, lingering over what I take to be the most original and important contributions.
Federica Buongiorno, one of the editors of this volume, opens the book with a fascinating essay of the reception of Husserl in Italy through the phases of the translations of his works. This is a philological analysis of the decisions made by Husserl’s various translators, which, Buongiorno sees, are indicative of how Husserlian phenomenology was received in Italy. This essay investigates mainly the so-called “second phase” of Husserlian reception, focusing on Enzo Paci and his interpretation of Husserl. The first phase would be in the time of Antonio Banfi, who was Paci’s teacher and belonged to the earlier generation, and the third would be the current proliferation of phenomenological philosophy at the hands of Paci’s students and their contemporaries. Enzo Paci is here cast as the protagonist of Husserlian studies in Italy, and his interpretation is considered one of the most influential, if not the most influential. Paci’s interpretation takes Husserl’s Crisis as his most important and primary work, thus giving his understanding of Husserl an existential, practical, and historical thinker. In this light, Husserl’s “early” preoccupations with logic and transcendental foundations would be a preparatory step toward the discovery of the pre-categorial and the Lebenswelt as the grounds of such theoretical activity. In this regard, Buongiorno points us to her own contribution to the translation of Husserl’s works. She translated HUA/XXIV, which contains the important 1906/1907 lectures Introduction to Logic and Theory of Knowledge. Buongiorno helpfully points out that the very title of this work, along with several decisions which had to be made with regard to terms such as “Kunstlehre” and “Formenlehre,” confirm Paci’s reading of Husserl’s works as unified in their subject matter and purpose.
Buongiorno proceeds to identify two differing tendencies or, less radically, two emphases in the reception of Husserlian phenomenology, and sees them as the result of how and when translations of Husserl appeared in Italy. One places emphasis on the question of logic, and the other on the theme of history. Once again, this is the identification of an “early” and a “late” Husserl, and we have seen how Paci sees a continuity between these two poles. Two translators of the Cartesian Meditations, first Filippo Costa in 1960 and then Renato Cristin in 1989, both agree with Paci’s reading and interpret the Meditations accordingly. In sum, Buongiorno’s essay is informative and creative in the way that it explains the Italian reception of Husserl. It prepares readers well for the interpretation of Husserl they should expect in the following chapters, but one also wonders why Buongiorno does not include the reception of Ideas I and II, especially since she informs the reader in a footnote that they were the first works to be translated (1950) and that she sees the “second phase” of the Husserlian reception as starting precisely in the early 1950’s.
The second essay, authored by Luca Maria Scarantino, gives an account of how Husserl was first received in Italy by Antonio Banfi in 1923. Scarantino sees this as nothing less than a new era, a “transcendental turn” in Italian philosophy. Against the dominating neo-idealism of the early 20th century, Banfi proposed a “transcendental rationalism” that grafted onto a pre-existing neo-Kantian framework. This made subject and objects poles of a cognitive relation and left behind the need for any ontological realism. In this way, Husserl helps Banfi justify a “law of pure consciousness.” Banfi’s main work, Principi di una Teoria della Ragione [Principles for a Theory of Reason] extols Husserl’s transcendental method as liberating the “rational system” from the need for an absolute (metaphysical) ground. In this work, pragmatism and phenomenology converge in a “transcendental functionalism” which doesn’t take itself to establish a metaphysical ground for the experience of consciousness, but rather a suitable intersubjectivity based on the eidetic variation that the phenomenological method offers. We are left with an intersubjectively valid, correlational/synthetic form of rational consciousness. Furthermore, that intuition carries within itself the condition of its own understandability is for Banfi the establishment of a pragmatic a-priori.
In Banfi’s critique of Husserl we see, according to Scarantino, the limitation of his philosophy. This critique is directed at the concept of intuition, which he thinks does not do enough to distinguish between the material and the rational contents. For Banfi, this ultimately brings us to mix individual experience and the rational universal. At this point Scarantino skips forward to one of Banfi’s disciples, Giulio Preti, whom he reads as correcting and ultimately completing Banfi’s quest for a transcendental rationalism free of metaphysical grounds. Preti’s philosophy will be discussed below as part of the summary of the essay dedicated to him, but here the important thing to highlight is the extent to which Banfi’s work on Husserl was influential in Italian philosophy. Later scholars have retroactively identified Banfi as the “father” of the Milan school of phenomenology because of the influence his philosophy had on his students, many of whom are also discussed in the book. It seems that Banfi should be seen just as much one of the originators of phenomenological studies in Italy as a philosopher in his own right, though in practice the two cannot and should not remain separate.
The third essay in the book is authored by Angela Ales Bello, whose own work on Husserl is known beyond the Italian scene. She writes about Sofia Vanni Rovighi, who taught the history of philosophy at the Catholic University of Milan and encountered Husserl’s works in the late 1930’s after extensive work in medieval and specifically Thomist philosophy. Rovighi’s main contribution to phenomenology in Italy, according to Bello, was the discovery of the medieval root of intentionality. Like many who engage Husserl, Rovighi finds it difficult to settle on a definitive understanding of Husserlian intentionality. She reaches back to Aristotle and medieval philosophy, especially the Franciscan thinker Petrus Aureolus, to show that the concept of intentionality originates in these historical sources. Intentionality for her means that consciousness is always consciousness of an ideal entity (“the ideal objectivity of the meaning obtained…through the eidetic reduction”) which has its foundation in a real, existing entity. Ultimately, she takes Husserl to be placing consciousness above being in a metaphysical sense (in se) and proceeds to reject this position, claiming instead that being precedes consciousness of it. At this point, Bello interjects that, in her own view, the Husserlian primacy of consciousness should be understood as quoad nos and not in se.
Because of this idealist interpretation, Rovighi can only be critical of Husserl. If consciousness is the absolute principle and precedes being, then God himself can only be encountered as immanent in consciousness, as thus as dependent on it. Ultimately, Rovighi levels against Husserl’s phenomenology the same criticism that she has for Plato: phenomenology cannot help us to escape the cave, because doing so requires taking on a superhuman point of view that is simply not available to phenomenologists. Now, despite her misinterpretation of Husserl, Rovighi’s work is significant in that it was the first to open a dialogue between phenomenology and medieval philosophy. To this end, Rovighi not only carried out her own work, but also brought Edith Stein’s phenomenology to Italy to aid in this project. If Rovighi’s idealist interpretation of Husserl is corrected, then it becomes clear just how similar he and Thomas Aquinas are on many fronts. Ultimately, Bello’s appreciation of Vanni Rovighi comes just as much from her historical importance in the context of the phenomenological reception in Italy, as from her admiration for Rovighi’s intellectual honesty, which, she states, is a rare quality to find in a scholar.
The fourth essay, by Roberto Gronda, introduces us to the works of Giulio Preti, the student of Banfi who was already mentioned briefly in the second chapter. Preti taught and worked in Florence beginning in the mid 1930’s, and he is credited with bringing to completion Banfi’s transcendental rationalism. Husserl was a constant interlocutor during Preti’s career, up to the very last chapters of his important work Retorica e Logica [Rhetoric and Logic]. It seems that Preti was mostly influenced by Husserl’s work on logic, in particular the first Logical Investigation and Formal and Transcendental Logic, with particular interest in the idea of a pure logic, the notion of fulfillment, and the distinction between meaning and expression.
Preti’s philosophy begins with what he calls the “principle of immanence,” a principle drawn from Husserl which states that the object’s transcendence means that it is never fully given in a single experience and therefore always indicates the possibility of further completion. In this way, the object’s transcendence is another form of immanence in the sense that its objectivity is constituted in experience. This principle affects Preti’s understanding of experience as always implying a horizon, such that no experience is fully intuitive and always carries absences within it. This notion of an excess of experience leads Preti to claim that idealism and positivism are two sides of a single philosophical reality, which he calls “integral realism.” Husserlian phenomenology itself is cast as a positivism that spills over into an idealism, in particular its notion of “form” not as what is opposed to content, but as what represents, i.e., as symbol. This notion of symbol as what pre-ordains the law of the object is essential to a rationalism that wants to give the empirical its full value. To this end, Preti rejects Husserl’s hypostasis of “immediate sense data” and criticizes Husserl’s strong conception of intuition. Later, Preti writes of categories not as structures that are gleaned from experience, as Husserl would have it, but as man-made postulates that at once play a transcendental role in experience and are historically effected. Preti’s last works heavily criticize Husserl’s Crisis, rejecting his diagnosis of a crisis of the sciences and his solution in the form of transcendental phenomenology. These are “philosophers’ follies,” Preti states, deriving from an inversion of the relation between philosophy and life. Preti thus had his share of criticisms for Husserl, but nevertheless the German philosopher exercised an enduring influence on him.
With the fifth essay, authored by Amedeo Vigorelli, we come to Enzo Paci, the Milanese philosopher who is in many ways at the center of this volume. Paci was active beginning in the 1950’s after some time spent in the Italian army before and during the Second World War. He met Paul Ricoeur as a prisoner of war in Wietzendorf and read Husserl’s Ideas with him. As a professor at the State University of Milan, Paci brought about a veritable phenomenological renaissance in a time when Husserl was not widely read and neo-Enlightenment was the dominant philosophy. He travels to Leuven to converse with van Breda and Boehm, reads Husserl’s unpublished works, and corresponds with Sartre, Patocka, and Ricoeur.
Paci’s reading of Husserl is greatly influenced by, and conducted in conversation with, the neo-idealism of Giovanni Gentile. Although Paci criticizes Gentile’s idealism as a naturalism (Gentile’s consciousness posits nothing more than the world as it is in the natural attitude and does not gain access to its own constituting activity), he still wants to understand the main structures of Husserl’s phenomenology (world, constitution, reduction) as a dialectical triad. Paci is most influenced, according to the author, by the fifth Cartesian Meditation, taking the “intermonadic relationship” to be even more fundamental than the process of self-identification itself, and constitutive of it. His reflections on the constitutive function of intersubjectivity bring him, on one hand, to a phenomenology of need and eros, and, on the other, to materialist and economic integrations. The main interlocutors here are Freud and Marx, each of whom witness to the essentiality of intersubjectivity and to the needs of the ego. A particularly original contribution here is Paci’s phenomenological account of sex: the sexual act here acquires a generative meaning not only in a procreative sense, but in a constitutive one, making up a sui generis temporal ekstasis and opening the ego teleologically to a relationship with humanity as a whole—birth and rebirth.
Paci’s return to Marx and Freud within phenomenology also serves to break the false dichotomy of natural science and philosophy of culture within which both Marxism and psychoanalysis found themselves at this time. He reads the transference in the psychoanalytic relation as a privileged place where the intersubjective “Paarung” takes place. Furthermore, “even the Marxist concept of economic structure, in its dialectical interrelations with the superstructures, requires subjective constitution” (69), Paci states. An intentionality of needs must found Marx’s account of economic and material relations between people and classes. This amounts to nothing less than a rethinking and even a rewriting of Marx’s capital by underpinning the material and dialectical relations it described with phenomenologically purified notions of need, desire, and praxis.
The sixth essay in the volume, by Elio Franzini, takes up the phenomenological aesthetics of Dino Formaggio. Also active beginning in the early 1950’s, Formaggio was another student of Antonio Banfi, a colleague of Enzo paci, and another personality of the Milan School. Though he inherited from Banfi a critical view of Italian neo-idealism and its Hegelian roots, Formaggio nevertheless sought to bring together the two meanings of “phenomenology” (the Husserlian and the Hegelian) rather than rejecting the latter in favor of the former. Formaggio’s departure from his teacher is also observed in his definition of art as a “field” that is not superimposed on objects, but rather derives from them and is therefore constantly expanded and constructed through the exercise of art itself. Such a definition of art seems to come from the derivation of the definition of aesthetics from the original Greek meaning of aisthesis as sensory knowledge or perception. Aesthetics is thus a general theory of sense-perception and the artistic object is a peculiar object in the field of aisthesis. It is this Greek understanding of aesthetics that brings Formaggio to the claim that phenomenology, as the philosophy of experience, is the method most proper to it. Phenomenology is the method for “bringing out the meaning of things” encountered in aisthesis, especially artistic objects. And, because it applies to the whole field of sense perception, it is capable of cutting across different artistic movements and periods, grasping the universal structures that define the artistic as such.
The general definition of aesthetics is therefore what is at stake throughout Formaggio’s oeuvre. In his view, aesthetics must be sharply distinguished from both poetics and criticism, each of which have their objects and aims. Aesthetics, unlike these other disciplines, must be a general method of formalization that is capable of theoretical rigor and philosophical awareness, and not the analysis of concrete instances, no matter how sublime. Ultimately, art is understood aesthetically as the shared project of depicting our existence in the life-world. This is precisely the kind of universal definition that unifies art as a field, and the analysis of art, starting from this definition, must look at the artwork as the product of a body-at-work, of the transcendental praxis of the ego.
In a marked excursus, Franzini also states that the desire to identify the “Truth,” though understandable, is driven by either teleological assumptions or psychological (empirical) convictions. Hence, it can be ignored at the level of method. This, according to Franzini, is one of the traits that unifies the Milan School. And it sounds important, but unfortunately Franzini does not explain further what this means. What is “Truth”? In what way can a descriptive, phenomenological method ignore this “Truth”? Such an important point should have been made more clearly so as to show the values held in common by the Milan School, which is at the center of this volume.
The seventh figure discussed in the volume is Giuseppe Semerari. The essay, written by Ferruccio De Natale, highlights Semerari’s friendship with Paci, his interest in the historiography of philosophy, his materialist interpretation of phenomenology, and the convergence in his thought of phenomenology and Marxism. A contemporary of Paci, Semerari had a relationship of reciprocal influence with the Milanese philosopher even as he spent his life teaching and researching in the south of Italy at the University of Bari. The kinship between the two can be observed in their mutual interest in Marx and in their shared belief that any account of knowledge must see knowing as first and foremost a praxis enmeshed in the life-world.
Semerari’s interest in phenomenology seems to arise from his dissatisfaction with the dominant ways of understanding history. On one hand, Semerari studied and contributed to the history of philosophy for many years—in fact, he is one of the most important scholar of Schelling and Spinoza in Italy to this day. However, the philosophical relationship with the thought of the past can never be exhausted by the historiographical exercise. On the other hand, Semerari rejected both the neo-idealist and the historicist accounts of history. The question of history led Semerari to Husserl’s late thought, which allows him to formulate an understanding of history as based on human temporality. Semerari thus begins to conceive of the human being as a privileged center of relations, especially temporal ones. In this way, Semerari’s philosophy is a humanist “Relationism.” Husserl’s phenomenology is taken up within the context of this relationism in order to stress its humanist implications. For Semerari, phenomenology shows that the subject has not only a role in, but a responsibility for, the constitution of objects in their sense. Phenomenology is thus absorbed into Semerari’s humanistic project as a way to critique the naturalism that divests the subject of its responsibility and alienates it from the world. The use of the term “alienation” is not accidental here, as it emphasizes Semerari’s debt to Marx. The result is an exciting mingling of phenomenology, humanism, and Marxism, one that is able to put the human being and its historical relations at the center of philosophical discourse without losing itself in a structuralism that leaves the individual behind.
The next essay, penned by Stefano Besoli, concerns the phenomenological thought of Enzo Melandri. Beginning his career in the early 1960’s, Melandri’s philosophy tackles a staggering diversity of topics, from Aristotle to Husserl, from formal logic to literature, from empiricism to analogy. Although he is not well-known outside of Italy, I find it worthy of mention that Giorgio Agamben named Melandri’s La Linea e il Circolo [The Line and the Circle] as the most important philosophical work of the twentieth century along with Being and Time.
Melandri recognizes in Husserl’s phenomenology a return to two Aristotelian maxims: first, that the object determines the method of research according to its essence; second, that the meaning of being is not univocal. From the first he draws the more radical conclusion that logic and mathematics, as formal-eidetic sciences, cannot claim a methodological or essential primacy over a material-eidetic science like phenomenology. In other words, phenomenology must found both logic and mathematics. Phenomenology is thus the prote philosophia that weds the formal and the experiential, the material and the ideal. The outcome of such an understanding of phenomenology would be nothing less than a definitive clarification of the “sense of the relationship between the formal and the transcendental” (100). Drawing a comparison with Kant, Melandri identifies the phenomenological a-priori as a material one, so that “the logic of thought cannot renounce its inherentness to the world and therefore can only be founded in the logic of experience, grasping the essential structuring of the experience itself, which does not stand on principles projected from above as heteronomous conditions of its mere thinkability” (104). One should keep in mind that Melandri discovers this at the beginning of his career, before the publication of the Analyses on Passive Synthesis). The result of this juxtaposition of Kant and Husserl leads Melandri to identify the thematic continuity in the Husserlian oeuvre as that of finding an intermediate stage between the particular and the universal. This mediating moment can be found as early as the Philosophy of Arithmetic in the construction of the concept of cardinal number, and as late as Experience and Judgment in the concept of Typus. For Melandri, this Husserlian discovery amounts to a redefinition of the Kantian concept of “schema” through the doctrine of eidetic intuition.
As to the maxim on the non-univocity of being, Melandri sees in husserl the support for this position because in phenomenology, being does not have a single mode of givenness. Even the categorial, that is, in being of an ideal nature, can be legitimately given in a way that is ontically different from that of real being. Inasmuch as being is relative to its mode of givenness, it is always spoken of in many ways with reference to subjectivity, on account of which in the transcendental reflection of phenomenology there is no naturalistic limit, and intentionality is designated as the “universal principle of the analogy of being” (112). Melandri brings together these two Aristotelian-Husserlian insights in his work on the concept of analogy. Analogy is for him what allows philosophy to navigate between the complete equivocity and the complete univocity of being, by virtue of a reflection on language as what brings together the a-priori and the a-posteriori, consciousness and world, thought and being. We see how Melandri is once again reworking of Kantian schematism, allowing language to occupy the mediating position that accomplishes a truly analogical position not only with regard to the question of the relationship between thought and being, but also with regard to the question of the plurivocity of being itself.
The ninth essay in the book, by Roberta Lanfredini, concerns the experimental phenomenology of Paolo Bozzi. A psychologist, Bozzi was one of the foremost scholars of Gestaltpsychologie in Italy and a proponent of phenomenology as a methodology for the sciences that would rival what the author calls the “psychophysical” one. He was also influenced by pragmatism and the Berlin School. Bozzi’s reflections begin with the “non-privative” definition of the phenomenon: to say that something is a phenomenon is not to say that it is an appearance as opposed to a reality, but rather to say that it is an object for our experience. Perception, our capacity to be in contact with what appears, has its own structure and dignity which should not be assumed to distort its object. In this, Bozzi takes over, but also critiques, Ernst Mach’s views on perception. He also inherits from Mach the conviction that it is possible to create a “naïve” or “phenomenological” physics that would begin from perception rather than try to remove its effects. In this paradigm, experience is the adaptation of ideas to sensations.
In establishing an alternate method for the natural sciences, Bozzi also critiques the concept of “datum,” which he understands not as a pure fact or sensation, but as an already eidetically reduced phenomenon. As such, a datum is a field of possible essential variation whose boundaries can be clearly fixed in reflection (for Husserl) or in experimentation (for Bozzi). What Husserl calls the “eidetic boundary” of the phenomenon Bozzi calls its “determination” (126). Bozzi’s take on Husserl’s eidetic variation is in this way the conjunction of two principles, namely, that of stability and that of sufficient differentiation: if a perception is sufficiently stable and pinned down through a sufficient differentiation of its components, then its identity and homogeneity are guaranteed and certain. Correspondingly, Husserl’s regional ontology is adapted to represent the “absolute threshold” beyond which a phenomenon simply does not appear.
Against the physicalist prejudices of “brain states” and “stimuli” as causes of experience, Bozzi counters with Wittgenstein that “nothing in the visual field permits us to conclude that it is seen by an eye,” or, in the case of the brain, “nothing in the experiential field permits us to conclude that it is caused or experience by the brain.” The stimulus and the brain state do not exist for us, and so they should not exist for the natural sciences if they are to be faithful to the phenomenon. To this end, Bozzi seeks to reinsert the qualitative aspects of the phenomenon into the scientific method, so that the true scientific step is not the projection of the quantitative into the qualitative, but vice versa a projection of the qualitative into the quantitative. Furthermore, Bozzi strengthens the scientific palatability of perception by postulating its non-ineffable, public, and independent character against the fear of so-called “private perceptions.” This lands him in a position of empirical realism, where “the object must be viewed as it is and as it seems. In phenomenological observation there is a perfect coincidence between ‘esse’ and ‘percipi’” (132). We end up with a conception of the scientific phenomenon as “pure phenomenon” in the sense of something original and independent of conceptualization and judgment, the perceived as a result of unification and synthesis of appearances, “invariance in the variations” (134). All this contributes to a theory of scientific method that will be of interest to philosophers and scientists alike.
The tenth essay, authored by Federico Leoni, introduces to the philosophy of Carlo Sini, one of the most important philosophers in Milan still active today. A student of Enzo Paci, Sini brought phenomenology, neo-idealism, and pragmatism together in his remarkable philosophy. Though his study of neo-idealism came first, Paci’s first major works from 1965, Introduzione alla Fenomenologia come Scienza [Introduction to Phenomenology as a Science] and Whitehead e la Funzione della Filosofia [Whitehead and the Function of Philosophy], already reveal deep influences from Husserl and Anglo-American pragmatism.
The work on phenomenology introduces the reader to what will be one of Sini’s philosophical preoccupations for the rest of his career, namely, the problem of how to begin a rigorous philosophical investigation. “One begins…precisely with the realization that one has already begun” (139), which is to say that the only point of beginning for a rigorous methodology is in media res. The starting point is a bundle of ongoing activities and practicing phenomenology means illuminating what is normally confined to the darkness of what remains unthought. Thus, to begin means going back to describing all the operations belonging to the domain of perception, memory, imagination, but also expressiveness, motility, bodily gestures, and the whole set of practices that a body constantly performs in order to inhabit a world. However, Sini comes to radical conclusions about the boundaries of the body, which for him turn out to be blurred. The body extends itself into many other bodies and things, so that the beginning of philosophy lies in the fact that the body is lived by and in infinite other bodies, and that each operation shapes its circumstances and produces its objectifications while configured and objectified by and in infinite other operations. This indicates that the Husserlian attempt to begin by isolating the transcendental plane already implies an infinite task destined to remain incomplete.
At the same time, Sini’s subjectivist interpretation of Husserl, perhaps gained through his reading of Heidegger, lead him beyond transcendental phenomenology. It is in Heidegger and Peirce that he seeks a philosophy that can lead him to the world of things and practices, and he finds it in Being and Time, which he reads in conjunction with Peirce’s semiotic pragmatism. Being-in-the-world means being enmeshed in a set of material practices and references, which is why no presence is ever a mere presence, but always the sign of another presence. Heidegger’s mistake, according to Sini, is to collapse common and semiotic signs, thereby emptying the semiotic structure of its philosophical import. Sini then imports this existential semiotic into Husserl, reinterpreting phenomenological kinesthesis and praxis as the acts of drawing signs and creating distances between phenomena. This is an engagement of the question of the genesis or event of the sign—not merely what a signitive relation is, but how it is generated: “What we want is to witness the tracing of the trace,” he states (144). In this way, Sini reinscribes the question of beginning into his semiotic phenomenology: how do we begin, how is the sign created? And just as with phenomenology, Sini finds that the sign has no beginning, but is always already a matter of having been interpreted. Peirce’s “interpretant,” the one who establishes the semiotic relationship, thus cannot be a subject: “to interpret is to have already interpreted, and the interpretant is nothing else than this having already interpreted…. each present interpretation occurs on the basis of infinite past interpretations which exert their pressure on it” (142). In the end, the whole universe is the interpretant and the thing interpreted, offering itself as its own source and its own destination. In this sense, semiosis is not a capacity or activity of the subject, but an anonymous source, a cosmological event. If all praxis is semiotic praxis, if life is drawing and interpreting signs and creating distances between the sides of the semiotic relation, then the “subject” as the creator of signs, and “Being” as the sender of beings, are fetishes of the sign (or, more precisely, of the event of the sign). Sini’s later work pursues the further conclusions of this realization, developing on one hand a phenomenology of gestures, and on the other a philosophy of rhythm. Both seek to describe the performance of the already-established semiotic relation.
The eleventh essay, by Roberto Miraglia, describes the phenomenology of Giovanni Piana, another of Paci’s students and a colleague and interlocutor of Sini. Piana, recently deceased, developed a “phenomenological structuralism” that interprets phenomenology as a non-ontological, comparative description of experiential structures. He de-ontologizes phenomenology by replacing the term “essence” with that of “structure,” and the concept of evidence with that of “exhibition.” In so doing, Piana rids phenomenology of any Platonic interpretations and makes it possible to describe and compare structures without having to locate them within the ontological dichotomy of consciousness and world. What results is the laying bare of a field of experience that is neither ontological nor psychological.
Phenomenology thus becomes the clarification of how concepts are used in our daily life and how they relate to the world. The point of the reduction is nothing more than simply circumscribing the field of genetic-descriptive analysis. Likewise, it makes no sense to think that phenomenology can resolve the crisis pointed out by Husserl. All phenomenology can do is present, in general, a variety of constitutive tasks. Of the two strains that he identifies in Husserl’s philosophy, the theoretical and the ethical, Piana thinks that only the theoretical accurately represents and carries out the tasks of phenomenology. The ethical, by contrast, is ideological insofar as it confuses phenomenology for some kind of philosophy of renewal, whose task it would be not only to answer ethical questions, but to make humanity more responsible. Piana then brings this non-foundationalist phenomenology back to its empirical roots as a philosophy that derives ideas from impressions.
Miraglia tells the reader that Piana’s greatest accomplishments were more applied than theoretical. In particular, Piana is famous for his work on imaginative-expressive phenomena, especially music. Imagination is seen as a sui generis structure of experience, but one that affects all others. It not only places us in front of imaginary objects, but also enhances experience of perceived objects, making creative syntheses possible and ultimately art itself: “The pseudo-predicative synthesis of imagination steps into the associative connection: the sun is the eye of the sky. Being transforms into Value. This transformation consists of a real intermingling among objects: the result of the synthesis is an entirely new kind of object, an iridescent object which is not what it really is because it is what it is. Neither sun nor eye—but sun and eye together, the one through the other” (155). This understanding of imaginative constitution is then applies to the phenomenon of music, resulting in groundbreaking analyses that have left their mark not only in philosophy, but in Italian culture more broadly.
Finally, the twelfth essay, by Andrea Pace Giannotta, discusses the philosophy of Paolo Parrini, who teaches theoretical philosophy at the University of Florence still today. Parrini is a student of Giulio Preti, who is also introduced in this volume, and has worked on contemporary analytic philosophy, the philosophies of Husserl and Kant, and the history of epistemology and science in the 19th and 20th centuries. Gianotta argues that Parrini’s reading of phenomenology leads to a phenomenological form of empirical realism.
Parrini calls his own philosophy “positive philosophy,” which stands as an alternative to both radical relativism and metaphysical realism. The former is, for Parrini, the result of those views that carry to the extreme the “theory-ladenness of observation” (162). Metaphysical realism, on the other hand, comes from the attempt to overcome the critique of metaphysics on the part of Kant and the logical empiricists. These attempts result, for Parrini, in a reprisal of metaphysics that seeks to give a foundationalist account of knowledge as adaequatio intellectus ad rem. In the realm of scientific knowledge, positive philosophy translates into a moderate epistemic realism that affirms as its basis the empirical underdetermination of scientific theories as well as the theoretical overdetermination of experience. This means not only that it is always possible for a theory to be disproved by new experiential/experimental evidence, but also that, in principle, the same experiential evidence can translate into more than one theoretical framework. Positive philosophy is completed by what Parrini calls empirical realism, which differs from the metaphysical version according to the classical Kantian distinction.
These epistemological positions are affirmed on the basis of the possibility to test hypotheses empirically. It is in relation to this need for empirical verification that Husserlian phenomenology makes an appearance in Parrini’s epistemological thought. According to Parrini, Husserl finds a “fourth way” to the tree epistemological options presented by Friedman, namely, Neokantianism, logical empiricism, and Heideggerian hermeneutics. The “phenomenological way” makes possible an analysis of the empirical basis for knowledge that is cashed out in terms of a structural continuity between Kant and Husserl. In the first place, both philosophers highlight the irreducible contribution that each side of the form/matter distinction plays in cognition, where instead the neo-Kantians and the logical empiricists tend to downplay the role of matter. At the same time, Husserl is interpreted as seeking a way to ratify a kind of knowledge completely devoid of formal components. As a consequence of this interpretation, Husserl is castigated in favor of Kant, who famously foreclosed the possibility of any “judgments of perception.” This interpretation of Husserl carries on for the rest of the essay, where the possibility of Husserl’s material a-priori, here understood as “a priori knowledge (i.e. universal and necessary knowledge) of the content or matter of knowing, which would be expressed through apodictic judgements” (172), is considered and then rejected. This rejection is due to the claim that this material a-priori can only provide us with psychological-subjective validity, not transcendental validity. At the end of the essay, an appeal is made to the “genetic turn” in Husserl’s phenomenology so as to claim that Husserl himself dealt with the static conception of a material a-priori in the same way as Parrini. Lastly, Giannotta compares Parrini’s positive philosophy to the “network model” and to “neutral monism.”
In conclusion, Phenomenology in Italy is a substantial collection of essays and witnesses to the rich phenomenological tradition that Italy has to offer to the rest of the world. Although there are some conspicuous absences in the choice of authors to showcase, I hope that this collection will herald the beginning of the dissemination of Italian thought in the international philosophical community, and that it will inspire more efforts in the translation of Italy’s philosophical treasures.
Is Catholicism a Religion?
Over the last decades, scholars have increasingly called into question the universal validity of the category “religion” as referring to a supposed ahistorical constant domain of all human mind and civilization, the domain of faith. The claim has characteristically been that, even though nowadays we often speak and think of religion this way, both in everyday life and in scholarship, in fact our notion of religion is a historical construct. This conceptual construct, so the claim, is fashioned after a specific cultural tradition, the Christian West, which, as part of obtaining or preserving its global epistemic hegemony, has asserted its own culture – Christianity – as a universal and superior feature of human nature as such: religion. Consequently, all cultures would have their religions: the Jewish, the Greek, the Chinese, the Indian, the Aztec, which could therefore be compared and evaluated in view of the underlying paradigm – and ultimate paragon – of religion, Christianity.
This sort of critique of religion is commonly deployed in postcolonial-like discourses, which confront the Christian West with its non-Christian others. Could the same critique apply within Christianity itself (West vs. East) or even within the Western? Wouldn’t the construct “religion” arise not only from a geo-political bias, i.e. the West, but also from a chrono-political bias, i.e. Modernity? And if so, wouldn’t it give effect and perpetuate a bias within the Christian West, namely in favor of modern Christianity, marked by Protestantism and Secularism, so as to undermine premodern, Catholic forms of Christian civilization? Is Catholicism a religion?
There is much in Baring’s intriguing new book to suggest that Catholicism is in fact not primarily a religion, but a philosophy, or even – philosophy. The main theme of the book is continental philosophy, whose center according to Baring is phenomenology. Its explicit concern is intellectual and institutional genealogy, “the Making of Continental Philosophy”, namely how a specific direction in 20th century philosophy, phenomenology, has been able to transform “from a provincial philosophy in southwest Germany into a movement that spanned Europe” (2), and so to become “continental”. Here and elsewhere in the book, Baring highlights the political significance of epistemic constellations, underlying the transnational, pan-European character of phenomenology as “continental” philosophy. His own historiography performatively turns away from national narratives (phenomenology in France, Husserl in Spain, Heidegger in Italy etc.) in search of a more transnational, universal ground. The movement that spread Husserl’s word among the nations (“the single most important explanation for the international success of phenomenology in the twentieth century”, 5), Baring suggests, is the one that goes under the name of the universal itself, the catholicos, Catholicism. Catholicism is the principal agent in this continental, transnational, catholic historiography of philosophy.
It is somewhat paradoxical that Baring’s professed transnational perspective nonetheless preliminary features phenomenology as belonging to “southwest Germany”, namely as originally particular, which accordingly begs the question of its continental success. According to this logic, this transnational success can only be accounted for by something beyond phenomenology itself, something more European, more universal, which would be Catholicism. However, in what sense would phenomenological philosophy itself not be sufficiently universal to account for its own universal spread? In what sense is Catholicism more obviously universal, and what explains its own international success, beyond the province of Rome?
Be that as it may, the notion of success, namely the ability of philosophy or thought, the ability of ideas, to obtain and expand their hold on the world, on reality, is central to Baring’s project. The primary transnational feature of Catholicism that the book foregrounds is its global institutional presence. Next to the transnational and universal, “catholic” historiographic perspective, Baring’s study accommodates Catholicism also in focusing on the worldly reality of the Church. The Catholicism that, as the book suggests, carried phenomenology across the continent is first and foremost a “network of philosophers and theologians that stretched across Europe” (7); “we can speak of ‘continental philosophy’ because phenomenology could tap into the networks of a Church that already operated on a continental scale” (11).
The story of “making” continental philosophy, as told in the book, is indeed concerned less with conceptual genealogy of ideas and more with how they spread. It’s a story of thought as an inter-personal, inter-institutional happening, where events of thinking take place between works, between thinkers. The great individual names of phenomenology – Husserl, Heidegger, Scheler, the “phenomenological trinity” Baring calls them (6) – are there, but they function as basic coordinates for describing the real plot, which is scholarship. Primary and secondary literatures switch here places. The main protagonists of this book are neither the great names nor the great book, but their less known scholarly recipients, the clerics, who read, translate, introduce, interpret, discuss and institutionalize ideas, convene conferences and found archives, journals and schools. Most importantly, and this is one of the great achievements of this book, the history of thought is told through formative debates, such that polemics – and with it politics – is posited at the heart of epistemology, a real at the heart of the ideal. Could polemics too – next to transnationalism and institutionalism – count as Catholic heritage?
At any event, Baring tells continental philosophy’s church history, and according to him the early church of phenomenology was Catholic. To quote some impressive facts:
“self-professed Catholic philosophers produced more than 40 percent of all books and articles on Husserl, Heidegger, and Scheler written in French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch in the period before World War II, making Catholic phenomenology by far the largest constituent part of the early European reception” (8-9);
“Within Europe, phenomenology has been most successful in Catholic countries, while tending to skip, at least at first, the Protestant strongholds of Scandinavia and the United Kingdom. Across the Atlantic, it has flourished in Latin America and at Catholic universities in the United States, such as Notre Dame, Boston College, DePaul, and Duquesne. The geography of phenomenology is best described, not by the contours of mainland Europe, but by the reach of the ‘universal Church’.” (11).
What is certain, in Baring’s account Catholicism does not just function as a contingent carrier of phenomenological philosophy, a vessel which would remain external to the content that it spreads. The Church is not simply a vehicle for Husserl’s word. The network of catholic intellectuals and institutions does not feature in this book as a mere logistical structure, but as the institutional embodiment of its intellectual content, of thought. Is Catholicism a religion? In this book, the Catholic emerges primarily as a philosophy. Insofar as Catholicism accounts for making phenomenology the philosophy of the European continent, Baring argues, it is because “before existentialism and before phenomenology, the first continental philosophy of the twentieth century was Catholic.” (19)
What is Catholic philosophy? This question is not really developed in the book, which has a very clear answer: medieval scholastic philosophy as it has been oriented by the works of Thomas Aquinas, namely Thomism. In the relevant period for the book, the first decades of the 20th century, Catholic philosophy consisted in the attempt to renew Thomism, namely in neo-Thomism or neo-scholasticism, which according to Baring was in these decades “the largest and most influential philosophical movement in the world” (8). Neo-Thomism was global philosophy, which makes one wonder about the reason it was only able to turn phenomenology “continental”, but no more than that. Neo-Thomism, as Baring portrays it, had set to itself a daring task. It translated medieval philosophy into modern terms not in order to modernize this philosophy, but, on the contrary, in order to effect “a philosophical conversion of modernity, a movement from modern to medieval metaphysics” (14). Neo-Thomism was the Catholic mission to the Moderns, aiming to reconvert modernity “back to Catholicism” (ibid.).
“Conversion” is a key word in Baring’s book. It is the basic description of the intellectual event that it portrays, and the plot is articulated by the personal conversions – official or not – of the protagonists. What was the nature of the conversion “back to Catholicism”, which neo-Thomists were trying to generate? The answer to this question lies at the heart of Baring’s historiographic thesis: it designates the ultimate purpose of Catholic, neo-Thomist philosophy, explains why phenomenology was deemed useful for Catholic intellectuals to pursue this purpose and so would account for why Catholicism helped phenomenology to its continental and international success.
Were neo-Thomists interested in converting modernity, modern thought and philosophy, from secularism or atheism back to religion? Obviously, as already indicated, neo-scholasticism was not looking to promote “religion” in its modern, paradigmatically Protestant or secular sense. But furthermore, Baring most often does not describe Catholic thought in terms of religion or what is commonly – in modern discourse – associated with religion as a special domain, of faith, transcendent God, holiness, spirituality etc., in short, as a different domain than secular, atheological or even atheistic philosophy.
On the contrary: neo-Thomism was looking to renew Thomism, for which, as described by Baring, theology implied worldly thought. Catholic thinkers “were convinced that the world incarnated a divine order, and that the institution of the Catholic Church was the worldly locus of redemption” (14); God is present in “His effects in the world” (30), such that faith is deemed “the perfection of natural knowledge” (29). The goal of Neo-Thomists was accordingly, among others, to connect Catholicism to science, natural science: by going back to Aquinas they were trying to reconnect with Aristotle. In other words, whether or not Catholicism was interested, in the first decades of the 20th century, in renewing something like religion, in Baring’s book Catholic philosophy emerges as a powerful agent for the renewal of Aristotelian philosophy, which historically speaking is perhaps nothing but Western philosophy, or philosophy tout court. Just as philosophy’s first and ultimate concern is with Being, Baring’s Catholicism is concerned with “the Real”.
“The Real” is the central concept of Baring’s narrative, which thus connects the contemporary discourse on philosophy and religion with the contemporary philosophical conversation on realism. Explicating this connection may have been a useful way for Baring to provide a more precise explanation of what he understands by “the Real”. Considering the pivotal centrality of this concept for the book’s argument, it remains rather vague and sometimes ambivalent. In fact, its basic significance in this book seems to be above all polemic, in that it designates what neo-scholasticism, seeking to renew medieval, premodern philosophy, was asserting against modern thought. Indeed, throughout the book, Catholic positions are characterized in various ways as opposing the negation of realism by modern philosophy, namely as opposition to the idealism, relativism and subjectivism that would characterize modern thought.
That non-realism (a negation of or distance from the Real) is constitutive to modern philosophy, is a decisive presupposition of Baring’s project. The exact significance of this presupposed non-realism or idealism remains as much an open question as the exact meaning of “the Real”. If the supposed non-realism of modern philosophy means detachment from the worldly and natural order, in favor of some dimension of transcendence, of some supernatural or transcendental subjectivity, will or spirit, this would mean that modern thought, far from being secular and “worldly”, has rather become closer to religion, as a relation to the unworldly. This kind of analysis no doubt sits well with accounts of modernity, such as Hans Jonas’, as arising from man’s liberation from and subsequent domination of nature (NB: not against but precisely through modern, technological science), which would resemble or even be the avatar of ancient Gnosticism, religion of the Alien God. Neo-Thomism, working to effect on modernity a – as the title of Baring’s book reads – “Conversion to the Real”, which is actually a re-conversion, a movement back to the world, would accordingly be the modern permutation of the same anti-heresiological movement that for someone like Hans Blumenberg, for instance, accounted for the emergence of Christian doctrine. This movement may be described less as a conversion from philosophy to religion than as a conversion from religion back to philosophy, from faith back to reason.
Converting modern philosophy to the Real was in any case, so Baring, the missionary goal of neo-scholasticism in the first decades of the 20th century. It is for this mission that Catholic networks identified phenomenology as suitable and for this purpose they “made” it continental. The reason that phenomenology was found by neo-Thomist to be such a suitable discourse for deploying the conversion of non-realist modern philosophy to realism, Baring argues, is that phenomenological thought, to begin with Husserl’s notion of intentionality (consciousness is always of an object), was identified as an anti-idealist movement back to the Real within modern philosophy itself, so to speak a spontaneous movement of self-conversion: “phenomenological intentionality seemed to bypass the distortions of idealism and provide access to the mind-independent real. For neo-scholastics, phenomenology could help secular thinkers recognize God’s order in the world.” (14) How exactly neo-scholastic thinkers and institutions tried to achieve this goal, their more or less successful negotiations – and debates – among themselves, with phenomenology, as well as vis-à-vis other Catholic, Protestant and non-religious intellectual currents, and how all this contributed to the making of continental philosophy – this is the story told by Baring’s rich book.
One basic and far-reaching insight of Baring concerns the ambivalent nature of conversion: the shift from one conception to another at the same time connects both conceptions and thus opens the way to a counter-conversion, from the second conception to the first. Conversions work “in both directions” (16). This insight may be deemed as a structural principle that regulates – and complicates – basic dynamics in the history of thought, something like the Third Law of Intellectual Motion. It seems to be particularly significant in conversions that are not just spontaneous, but induced, namely in conversion projects, in missionary movements.With respect to the neo-Thomist mission to convert modern philosophy “back to Catholicism”, in order to do so it established “the Real” as a connection between modern phenomenology and medieval scholasticism, which would serve as a passage from the former to the latter. As Baring shows, however, this passage also facilitated the inverse movement, to the effect that the bridge built between Thomism and phenomenology also served Catholic thinkers to cross to the other side and to “break with Roman Catholicism” (15). The paradigmatic example discussed by Baring is Heidegger.
What is however the meaning of this counter-conversion, away from Catholicism, which according to Baring has become so prevalent in post-WWII phenomenology so as to completely obliterate its early Catholic years? Would it be that phenomenology, and continental philosophy, was moving away from religion, towards secular and atheistic thought? Is Catholicism religion? The question of religion, as already noted, interestingly does not explicitly frame the narrative of the book, which foregrounds instead the debate of realism vs. idealism. Catholicism is realism, but is it therefore more or less a religion?
It is only in the Epilog that Baring directly addresses the question of religion. “Continental philosophy today is haunted by religion” (343): the famous return to religion, a contemporary conversion – or perhaps even a contemporary mission? By whom – to whom? Is Baring’s book a part of this project, namely facilitating the passage from contemporary continental philosophy to religion by recalling how it was Catholicism that originally “made” phenomenology into continental philosophy? The “religious specters” that “haunt” continental philosophy today, Baring argues, indeed arise from its “family history”, namely phenomenology’s transmission to the world as it was “passed down through Catholic scholars” (344), so to speak phenomenology’s Catholic womb. The current return to religion in continental philosophy is connected to its Catholic heritage.
However, according to Baring’s further insight into the Third Law of Intellectual Movement, just as conversion is not only unidirectional, inheritance too is not simply linear. He points out that intellectual inheritance may pass on not just positive, affirmative doctrines, but also negative positions, what he terms “negative inheritance” (347). According to Baring’s analysis, it is by way of “negative inheritance” that phenomenology’s Catholic past, namely neo-Thomism, continues to operate within continental philosophy’s return to religion. In other words, Catholicism, as portrayed in Baring’s book, is present in this contemporary return to religion not as the positive agent, not as the agent of religion, but on the contrary in the negative, anti-religious positions – more specifically in their realism.
He brings the example of Quentin Meillassoux, who “presents himself as a rationalist ally to the natural sciences, seeking to reinvigorate realism after a period of idealist hegemony. Meillassoux is aware of his proximity to Thomism, which he defines as ‘the progressive rationalization of Judeo-Christianity under the influence of Greek philosophy’”. (348) Baring’s conclusion: “The atheist scourge of much contemporary continental philosophy appears as the inverted image of those Catholic thinkers who helped make philosophy continental in the first place.” (ibid.) It is not in the return to religion but rather in the resistance to this return that current continental philosophy would be inspired by Catholicism, which consequently operates, at least in this context, not as a religion, but as anti-religion.
Synopsis of the Book:
Baring’s story is told in three chronological parts, which concern three different periods in the early history of phenomenology in its reception by Catholic scholars: 1900-1930, 1930-1940 and 1940-1950. The narrative is organized by another triad, three main figures of early German phenomenology, the “phenomenological trinity”: Husserl, Heidegger and Scheler, and the debates around them.
Part I, “Neo-Scholastic Conversion. 1900-1930” deals with the immediate Catholic reception of German phenomenology. Baring traces back the initial reception to a specific current within neo-Thomism, “progressive Thomism”, promoted by the Louvain School of Léon Noël, head of the Institut supérieur de Philosophie. Progressive Thomism was oriented by the work of Cardinal Désiré Mercier (Critériologie), who translated Thomist realism into the discourse of epistemology. This anti-Kantian epistemology was the site of early Catholic reception of Husserl, as told in Chapters 1 and 2. The first reception referred to The Logical Investigations of 1900-1901 and was enthusiastic, as Husserl’s anti-psychological notions, such as intentionality (which goes back through Brentano to scholasticism) and categorical intuition, appeared to secure epistemic access to “the objective order of the world” (40). “For Catholics around Europe, reading Husserl’s Logical Investigations was a revelation”, Baring writes (48). Modern philosophy’s “conversion to the Real” was celebrated by scholars such as Jospeh Geyser, Erich Przywara and the Milan School’s Agostino Gemelli, and even existentially performed through a personal conversion, such as by Edith Stein, to whom phenomenology has showen “the way into ‘the majestic temple of scholastic thought’” (75). All the more disappointing was Husserl’s return to the transcendental consciousness in his Ideen of 1913. The second reception identified in Husserl a second, reversed conversion, from realism back to idealism, which “was experienced by neo-scholastics as a betrayal— both of Husserl’s earlier work and, by implication, of their own project” (61).
Chapter 3 follows the intellectual development of early Heidegger, a phenomenological convert away from Catholicism. Influenced by Joseph Geyser, young Heidegger, “a progressive scholastic” (88), in his 1913 dissertation embraced Husserl’s anti-Psychologism, and in his 1916 Habilitaiton on Dun Scotus, the “pinnacle of Heidegger’s neo-scholastic period” (97), formulated a meaning-based realism. The disengagement is signaled in 1917, as Heidegger stated that Catholicism “forgot religion for theology and dogma” and looked for religious experience in Christian mysticism, Augustine and Protestants from Luther, Otto, Overbeck, Kierkegaard, Dilthey and Schleiermacher. Being and Time of 1927, so Baring’s perceptive analysis, features a curious atheism based on “two confessional strands” (113): Catholic ontology, but no longer perennis, and Protestant Dasein-analysis, but indifferent to faith.
Chapter 4 traces a similar dynamic with respect to Max Scheler, extending the plot from theory to ethics and politics. Scheler’s 1913 Formalism in Ethics provided a phenomenological access (Wert-nehmen, axiological intuition) to an “objective order of value” (140) and his personalism, the notion of Gesamtperson, gave this ethics a socio-political embodiment. Both combined offered practical philosophy to Catholic social revival and anti-liberal, anti-bourgeois, anti-capitalist corporatism. Carl Muth’s influential Catholic magazine Hochland celebrated Scheler as “Black Nietzsche” (124) and intellectuals followed him in his early WWI patriotism, growing distance from nationalism and anti-republicanism in Weimar, such as Paul-Ludwig Landsberg’s “conservative revolution” (137). Disenchantment manifested itself, on the Catholic side, in doubts raised by neo-scholastics, such as Przywara, as to Scheler’s too heavy reliance on human intuition and emotional intentionality, and on Scheler’s side, in the pantheistic turn of his late work (1928, The Human Place in the Cosmos).
Part II, “Existential Journeys 1930-1940”, describes how, beyond its initial reception by neo-scholasticism, phenomenology “became a privileged battlefield in intra-Christian debates” (152). The central intra-Christian tension in Baring’s narrative is between neo-scholastics and existentialists. Chapter 5 tells about the rise of “Christian Existentialism across Europe” by portraying the tension between two converts to Catholicism, Gabriel Marcel and Jacques Maritain. Marcel (Metaphysical Journal, 1927; Being and Having, 1935), influence and mentor to existentialists such as Nicolai Berdyaev, René Le Senne, Jean Wahl as well as Simone de Beauvoir, Emmanuel Levinas, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Paul Ricoeur and Jean-Paul Sartre, criticized neo-Thomist intellectualism as “hubris”, and insisted on the “unintelligibility of existence”, its embodiment and “mystery”. Maritain claimed “existential philosophy” describes rather Thomism itself, which deals with esse and acknowledges its mystery, deems it nevertheless “open to intellectual understanding” (163).
Chapter 6 goes back to the Catholic reception of Husserl and how during the 1930s it was shaped by a division within neo-scholasticism, between progressive and strict Thomists. Baring portrays this division through the “Critical Realism Debate”, concerning the attempt of the Louvain School’s progressives, such as Léon Noël and René Kremer, to base realism on epistemology, namely on critique of subjective knowledge (leading to post-WII “transcendental Thomism”). “Strict” Thomists such as Étienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain rejected the notion of “critical” – Cartesian or Kantian – realism as self-contradictory, insisting on the primacy of metaphysics over epistemology. Baring shows how this debate pressed progressive intellectuals, such as Kremer, Kurt Reinhart and Sofia Vanni Rovighi, who initially embraced Husserl’s phenomenology, to reject and rectify his perceived idealistic tendencies, especially as manifested in the Cartesian Meditations of 1931.
Chapter 7 presents the 1930s’ reception of Heidegger as the battleground for the inter-confessional debate between neo-Scholastics (such as Przywara, Alfred Delp and Hans Urs von Balthasar) and Protestants, in particular Karl Barth’s Kierkegaard-inspired Dialectical Theology. Baring describes this debate as arising from “two diametrically opposed, if symmetrical, accounts of Heidegger’s atheism: Thomists explained it by the restrictions placed upon Heidegger’s ontology by his (Protestant) prioritization of human subjectivity; Protestant theologians understood it through his attempt to ground the analysis of human finitude in an ontology, which arose from an excessive and Catholic faith in our rational capacities.” (213) In other words, both (dialectical theology’s) emphasis on the unintelligible and (neo-Thomist) emphasis on intelligibility could be construed, from the opposite perspective, as subjectivist and so proto-atheistic. This leads Baring to the brilliant observation whereby “religious notes” of atheistic conceptions (he speaks of existentialism) may arise not from “uncomplicated inheritance of a believing antecedent, but rather as the reflection of a more distant voice, directed toward and bouncing of a common religious foe” (240), i.e. “negative inheritance”.
Chapter 8 returns to the reception of Scheler, “The Black Nietzsche”, in Catholic political thought. Baring shows how the Schelerian notion of social corpora as embodying spiritual order of values could support to conflicting conceptions of Catholic anti-liberal politics. Luigi Stefanini drew on Scheler to affirm a “hierarchical order of values” enacted by an authoritarian and totalitarian state, which led him to collaborate with the Fascist regime and even acknowledge “racial defense” as “an act of the sovereignty and transcendence of the spirit” (259). In contrast, for Paul-Louis Landsberg, as Paul Ludwig Landsberg was known in his French exile and anti-Fascist resistance, “the divine order is always to come and can never be fully worked out. For that reason, authoritarianism runs the risk of shutting down the process by which the true order is revealed” (263), which led him to reject Nazism and Communism. Baring exemplifies the same ambivalence in Scheler in the development of Emmanuel Mounier’s Catholic-Nietzschean magazine Esprit, from support of Vichy to Resistance and post-WII negotiations of Thomism and Marxism.
Part III, “Catholic Legacies 1940-1950”, discusses how after “the Catholics who had helped promote phenomenological ideas around Europe withdrew from the stage”, “[t[he script that they had written […] persisted, to be picked up and adapted by new actors.” (276) Chapter 9 is dedicated to the story of the Husserl Archives, famously smuggled from Germany to Belgium by the young Franciscan Herman Leo Van Breda, to be institutionalized within Louvain’s Institut Supérieur de Philosophie. According to Baring, after WWII Van Breda, who was looking for means to secure the archives’ further existence (which he obtained at last from UNESCO), realized that “the archives would flourish only if they became independent of the Church” (297). Catholicism, which made phenomenology continental, was now required, in order to prefect its own making, to retreat. Like the truth of Heidegger’s Beyng, the appearance of neo-Thomism in phenomenology was completed by the concealment of neo-Thomism in phenomenology’s Veröffentlichung. It is thus that the first volume of the Husserliana was dedicated to the Cartesian Meditations, “the text where Husserl distinguished his work most clearly from scholasticism” (300).
Chapter 10, the last one, indicates traces of neo-scholasticism in “Postwar Phenomenology”, once again through an intellectual tension, this time between the secular Merleau-Ponty and the Protestant Paul Ricoeur. Both of “Marcelian bent”, affirming embodiment and existence versus idealism, their diverging interpretations of Marcel reproduced the debate between Thomism and Existentialism, inasmuch as Merleau-Ponty emphasized the intentional order of perception and Ricoeur the mystery and the “fault”. The disagreement on Marcel was intertwined with a disagreement on Husserl, which reproduced the debate between progressive and strict Thomism: whereas Merleau-Ponty, like the Louvain School, strove to protect Husserl’s realism from his transcendentalism, Ricoeur, like Maritain, read Husserl as an idealist. Commenting on the Protestant philosopher’s surprising affinity to strict Thomism, Baring provides a precious polemic triangulation, which is perhaps the real glory of scholastic sophistication: “Against the Thomists, Ricoeur denied that Christians could use philosophy to defend religious dogmas. Against the Barthians, Ricoeur did think philosophy retained an important role. It could challenge the pretension of science to have provided ‘a final solution.’ Christian philosophy would thus be a ‘science of limits, an essentially Socratic, ironic position [. . .] forbidding all thought to be totalitarian’.” (327)
Three Concluding Reflections:
- The key concept of the book’s argument is “the Real”. Catholicism promoted phenomenology for the sake of converting modern philosophy to the Real. As noted above, however, realism signifies in this book primarily polemically, in contrast to the alleged idealism of modern thought. However, as Baring insightfully shows with respect to “atheism”, polemic meanings are unstable and easily turned around. Just like criticism of “atheism” can be found in any religious position against any other religious position, isn’t criticism of “idealism” as detached from the real, i.e. as false, inherent to the disagreement of any philosophical position against all the others? Wasn’t metaphysical dogmatism for Kant too disconnected from reality, as the Ptolemaic system for Copernicus? For Hegel, an arche-idealist, the real was the reasonable. Baring shows how neo-Thomism too deemed the real intelligible, whereas existentialism and dialectical theology experienced reality in unintelligibility.
- It seems that ultimately “the Real” for Baring signifies the limit of human autonomy and power, where reason means intelligibility of – and subjection to – the given, eternal, cosmic order (Thomism), in contrast to modern “self-affirmation of reason” (Blumenberg). Conversion to the Real means something like undoing modern hubris, disempowering the human. Baring portrays at least two divergent ways of doing so in Catholic thought, rationalism and existentialism, both inspired by Husserl’s phenomenology. One may wonder, however, whether both modes of “the Real” are equally defining for continental philosophy. The very term “continental” philosophy, determines reason by existence, i.e. actual geography, politics, history, which arguably condition more continental than analytic thought. It is rather Anglo-American philosophy that may be said to represent anti-idealist, positive rationalism, where reason is limited qua “analytic”. Wouldn’t this modern philosophy – which is closer to natural sciences, and arises from phenomenology only within its alliance with logical positivism against psychologism – be a more suitable ally for neo-scholasticism?
- There seems to be a third way of limiting or determining reason, which is very present in Baring’s study, albeit unthematized as such. Next to rationalism (reason determined by given logical order) and existentialism (reason determined by given non-logical being), his narrative centrally features also the determination of reason through the inter-personal plurality of thought: thought as a school, the institution that gave scholasticism its name. As such, scholasticism determines reason neither by the given intelligible, nor by the unintelligible, but by the overintelligible, namely by the open excess of thought as polemics. By choosing the debate as a primary figure of thought, Baring’s book manifests perhaps scholarship itself, next to analytic and continental philosophies, as a third post-modern manifestation of scholastic realism, and perhaps of philosophy überhaupt.
One starting point for a new approach within philosophical film-studies during the past decades can be found in Stephen Mulhall’s book On Film (2002). In contrast to the traditional approach within aesthetics, Mulhall regards cinema as an art form that carries a philosophical task by itself. Films are, in this sense, not considered as examples or raw material for philosophical scrutiny, rather they are understood as works of philosophy in the medium of the moving image. The book provoked a long debate concerning this question (can films be considered as philosophy by themselves) that ran, among other forums, on the pages of the journal Film Philosophy during the year 2003.
David P. Nichols’ (ed.) anthology Transcendence and Film continues with this approach. It is a book that deals with philosophical issues through a discussion between philosophers and works within cinema. Dylan Trigg exemplifies this by describing his relation to David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001): “Lynch is not a director who makes films in lieu of a philosophical voice; rather, his philosophical voice is indistinguishable from that of his films, such that the task falls to philosophers to meet Lynch on his terms rather than vice versa” (16). This approach, in which a clear hierarchy between philosophers and theorists in relation to artists and their works of art is dissolved into a reciprocal dialogue, offers a vital perspective. At its best, Transcendence and Film brings out how pressing philosophical questions concerning subjectivity, the limits of experience, and the status of representation of reality in art can be dealt with in the audio-visual language of cinema.
The ten essays by John B. Brough, Allan Casebier, Herbert Golder, David P. Nichols, K. Malcolm Richards, Frédéric Seyler, Kevin L. Stoehr, Dylan Trigg, Joseph Westfall, and Jason M. Wirth, permit the films to do the philosophical work regarding some key-questions with phenomenology and aesthetics. Some of the key theoretical underpinnings for the book come from Karl Jaspers’ phenomenology of liminal experiences and questions concerning the role of transcendence. With cinema, transcendence can refer to several different phenomena. The strict emphasis of this book lies, however, in the way the aesthetics of film can allude to the ineffable, i.e., how a certain work can open up vistas that change our ways of relating to the everyday perceptual world; how film permits us to rediscover the world of perception which we are immersed in. The phenomenological approach stands out as a strength in the theoretical literature on film, since cinema is considered, at its best, to be a reflection of the dynamics of the structures of our consciousness. Then mentioned films are not required to provide rational philosophical arguments. Instead, the emphasis is on how this language that uses the building blocks of our perceptual world can reveal some ephemeral aspects of our cognitive and affective processes.
Regarding the ethos of “film as philosophy”, Dylan Trigg’s essay The Dream of Anxiety in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, stands out in this collection. Trigg shows how Mulholland Drive articulates sophisticated questions concerning the ontology of self. Lynch’s film portrays a particular borderline state between dreaming, sleeping and waking. The characters Diana and Camilla experience traumatic events that infiltrate their everyday waking life, blend into it and distort it. In this sense, their subjectivity becomes apparent as singularity. It is the projections of the own self that blend into perceived reality and thus, the nightmarish and unfamiliar experiences are also necessarily a part of the self (19). Trigg shows how the horror of Lynch’s film consists of the realization within the main character that “the very concept of personhood is itself a sad illusion” (18). Lynch’s film language reflects a philosophy of the dynamics of our consciousness that also stems from his own practice of transcendental meditation. The forte of film as a medium is that it is a visual language and is thus able to portray how dreams and memories break into and influence our direct perception. Trigg shows how Lynch is a master of this kind of portrayal of the dynamics of our psychology of perception. In the context of the essay, transcendence denotes a passageway between different levels of consciousness. Lynch investigates both in his meditational practice and in his films, these limits between dreaming and waking, bringing them into sight for the viewers and helping us to observe the processes that at times can entail both anxiety and bliss.
A completely different kind of aesthetics that, however, carry similar goals of disclosing a specific liminal territory within our perception is present in the cinema of Yasujirō Ozu. In his essay, Transcendence in Phenomenology and Film: Ozu’s Still Lives, Allan Casebier, who is considered by many as a predominant scholar for introducing the tradition of phenomenology to Anglo-American philosophy of film, scrutinizes the connection between the phenomenology of Karl Jaspers and the Zen Buddhist aesthetics of film director Yasujirō Ozu. According to Casebier, the cinema of Ozu strives to disclose the ineffable. Here we are already dealing with a particular philosophical tension, since; if something is ineffable, how can it then be expressed? The aesthetics of Ozu are designed to work around this tension by using the concept of shibui. Casebier writes: “Shibui’s ever hidden aspect creates a lingering attraction for more since the object is so fashioned that it reveals only enough of itself to impel one to seek additional qualities of what has been found pleasing but which are not readily perceivable” (93). In this way, transcendence in the films of Ozu is achieved through allusion and through the dialectics of the seen and the hidden. It is up to the viewer’s imagination to initiate the movement towards the transcendental. In contrast, Ozu’s role is merely to invite this imagination through his minimal and still language of film.
Casebier relates this ineffability to Jaspers’ concept of “cypher”, something that hints at a beyond without ever disclosing it. The transcendent cannot, in this sense, become an object for our knowledge. For Jaspers, it resides at the boarders of the knowable. The ineffable has an impact on our experience, but it can never be fully delineated. In this way, transcendent films guide us to the borders of our normal, habitual perception. It alludes to a beyond that is never fully grasped. Transcendental cinema is, in Paul Shrader’s words, like a catholic mass; a ritual that prepares us for experiences that are contradictory to the conventional (93).
Although Casebier is able to point out a philosophically interesting aspect in the aesthetics of Ozu, the essay still feels like it falls short. Casebier writes in quite general terms, without referring to specific films of the director. For me, it is evident that there is a more mundane explanation for the minimalism and emptiness in Ozu’s images. The subject matter that was central to Ozu is a certain alienation. The challenging predicament of modern life, in which social relations become problematic due to the fast pace of urbanization and the breaking up of traditional social structures is often portrayed as tensions and challenging encounters between generations. The emptiness in his films is not purely aesthetic, but also descriptive of the loss of connection between generations and within family life. In this sense, the emptiness is a reflection of the loss of the social connectedness of the characters. Ozu’s minimalism caters to an existential undertone that alludes to, not only aesthetics of shibui, but furthermore to moral shortcomings and the challenges of alienation between the characters in his films. Perhaps this moral theme would have required a separate essay on the cinema of Ozu. To simply make his empty and minimal images into an aesthetical matter is somewhat a limited interpretation of these devices.
One constant shortcoming in philosophical texts on film is that philosophers tend to fail at describing storylines, narratives and the aesthetics of a specific film in a manner that helps the reader grasp the viewing experience. David P. Nichols is one exception. In his rendition of Martin Scorsese´s Silence (2016) Nichols’ beautiful portrayal is engaging and perceptive in its analysis. Nichols reads Scorsese´s aesthetics through the lens of Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the silence that enables us to grasp the flesh of the world. This is a continuation of the theme of the ineffable in the book. According to Nichols film is not a mirror that shows us how we appear to be, instead it is “like a mirror that reverses our ordinary sensibilities about who we are and what surrounds us” (134). When film succeeds in transcendence, it is able to point beyond “our ordinary linguistic abilities” (121). Like Trigg, Nichols points at the sedimentation in human perception, silence is something that is hard to grasp in linguistics, but at the same time, it is a prerequisite for language. Silence provides our language with rhythm. This is immensely important for the language of film. Through editing, sound and camera work film contains its temporality and rhythm. Through Scorsese´s mastery of pacing and rhythm, the film becomes a reality of its own that carries a certain mood (stimmung in Heideggerian terms) that alludes to monastic experience. Through rhythm, something invisible (mood, quality of experience) can be portrayed in a visual language.
Kevin L, Stoehr’s essay Ciphers of Transcendence in 2001: A Space Odyssey brings forth the question concerning post-humanism. Kubrick’s film starts with the event of the invention of primitive technology as the ape in the opening scene starts to use a bone as a tool. The quick jump to space technology and interstellar travel alludes to an immense transformation within a lifeform. The question then becomes what the next stage in this evolution might entail. Will humanity, in relation to technology, transcend some of the very fundaments of what we call being human? The aspects that we take for granted – like our corporeal embodied orientation in the world and our sense perception – will they always be essential facts of our lived life? Stoehr refers to Hubert Dreyfus’ concept of “disembodied presence” which describes a form of life spent mostly in cyber space in which the embodied sensory experience is tied to a technologically created interface, and thus the natural orientation of our body in a corporeal world is exchanged for a world of representations.
Kubrick’s film describes this kind of displacement. The main character Bowman is completely dependent on the spaceship and the computer HAL that controls Bowman’s living environment. This sense of disconnection and alienation enables the film to pose philosophical questions. The rational design of technology has transcended the belief in a universe with a natural order created by God. In addition, as human life becomes more immersed in the technological design, the coordinates given by our natural embodied lifeform possibly lose, or change, their significance. Stoehr writes: “But the director also summons us to consider the possibilities of an experience in which the natural body – as the active filter of one’s individualized experiences and as the fixed point of orientation for one’s material existence – is no longer primary. This is especially the case when our technology has increasingly gained the capacity of delivering a more indirect world, one in which our five senses play a minimized and mostly passive role” (157-158).
The reading of Kubrick’s 2001 as a meditation on transcendence in the history of the meaning of the concept of the human brings nicely together film and existential philosophy. Kubrick is portrayed as posing open-ended questions concerning the future of our lifeform. He does this by using aesthetics that deliberately dislocate the viewer’s sense of time and space. Bowman travels in our solar system but also goes beyond our understanding of space-time into other dimensions. He encounters forms of higher intelligence whose intentions are not decipherable for our understanding. Stoehr uses Jaspers’ concept of “cipher” (one of the key concepts of the whole book) that alludes to the ineffable, in order to describe Kubrick’s allegories of a future that is still indescribable.
Among the more traditional themes of film-theory represented in the book are Frédéric Seyler’s essay Pointing toward Transcendence: When Film Becomes Art and Joseph Westfalls’ ASA NISI MASA: Kierkegaardian Repetition in Fellini’s 8 ½. Both authors address what can be called the first questions of film-theory: Is film a proper art form, and does it add a unique form of expression in comparison with the other arts? That is, can cinema help us grow as subjects – do films challenge us to reflect upon our relationship with the world or are they simply objects for our consumption that caters to our escapism? Leaning on Jaspers, Bergson, and the radical phenomenology of Michel Henry, Seyler pushes the point that certain films, like, for example, Louis Malle’s My Dinner with André (1981), can break free from the predominant mode of escapism of television and film. Film as art can help us grasp that which “escapes our ordinary attention” (83) and thus help us reach beyond our prejudices and even our desire for escapism.
Westfall drives the same point in his reading of Fellini’s 8 ½. He emphasizes the temporality that is essential for the performing arts, film, and music. The viewing experience unfolds in the present, but film also enables a play with temporalities of a future and a past. Thus, the world in film is not like the temporality of our lived life experience, as it in Cavell’s terms, uses the past recording of a scene, as material for the present viewing situation (110). This play with the building blocks of our consciousness enables the art form to tap into our perception and cognition. According to Westfall, this deliberate reorganization of temporality enables cinema to go beyond mere escapism and guide us in the processes of our consciousness.
In the essays mentioned above, there is a common thread regarding transcendence and film. By establishing, not a mirror image, but a counter-world to our common perceptual experience, cinema can help us attend to subtleties that we easily look past due to our ingrained conventions of perception. Similar claims have been made before, for example, by Malcolm Turvey in his book Doubting Vision (2008) in which he re-interprets the classical tradition of film-theory and work by Jean Epstein, Dziga Vertov, Béla Balázs and Siegfried Kracauer. All these attempts aim at liberating film-theory from the realist-idealist dialectics in order to show that film can be an art form and that it is able to refrain from falling into escapism.
Although the volume has its highlights – at their best, the essays demonstrate the transformational power that film can have on the subject – there are some shortcomings. The book reads more like a conference catalogue than a thoroughly edited anthology with an overarching aim. Even the better pieces are quite short, and as they introduce important philosophical themes, they still, in many cases, leave too much unsaid. Some of the less thorough work in the volume falls short due to extensive descriptions. K. Malcolm Richards essay on Cronenberg’s eXisntenZ (1999) poses the same kinds of questions as Stoehr’s piece on Kubrick, but the text is, to a large extent, just a rendition of the narrative in the film. The current and pressing question concerning how immersive technologies change our quality of experience deserves a more thorough and definitive treatment, and Cronenberg’s film has more to offer in this discussion than Richards’s essay can disclose. John B. Brough’s essay on Karl Theodore Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928) and Jason M. Wirth’s piece on Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973) are weighed down by the same disproportion between extensive description of the film and brief analysis. Herbert Golder’s essay related to his collaborative work with Werner Herzog stands out for different reasons. It is in an anomaly in the collection since its focus is wide-ranging, stretching from classicist interpretation of Greek philosophy to biblical mythology to Karl Jaspers’ phenomenology. It is hard to find a focus in the text that would enable the reader to relate it to the general themes of the book.
These texts give further evidence to the interpretation that the book primarily is a collection of conference papers. Extensive editorial work and requirements of in-depth analysis would have made this book a more substantial companion to the discussion concerning the intrinsic philosophical qualities of cinema.
Mulhall, Stephen. 2002. On Film. London: Routledge.
Turvey, Malcolm. 2008. Doubting Vision – Film and the Revelationist Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
The wealth of literature that has emerged (and continues to emerge) on Merleau-Ponty’s thought is striking considering that the span between the publication of the author’s first work, The Structure of Behavior (1942), and his last, posthumous work, The Visible and the Invisible (1965), was only a touch more than two decades of active, “serious” academic production. Reading through much of this commentary, one encounters a series of issues and motifs that seem to circulate through discussions of this philosophy: the living body, perceptual experience, motor intentionality, the flesh, the chiasm, reversibility, the place of painting and with respect to these, the author’s engagement and relationship with Husserl on matters autochthonous to phenomenology. This list, of course, goes on. As a reader of both Merleau-Ponty and literature on his thought, one wonders what, if anything, remains to be said.
Kaushik’s work, Merleau-Ponty between Philosophy and Symbolism, I think, clearly indicates that the answers to the above question—whether and what remains to be said—are yes, and much. It makes this indication, however, by rethinking what it means to read and write about the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty by showing that there is a thought and philosophy here that goes well beyond the well-trodden signs that have typically framed approaches and discussions of this author and his work. Kaushik shows us quite eloquently that readers of Merleau-Ponty’s work need no longer rehearse a series of questions that have already been well-documented (perhaps over-documented) and that there remains much to be thought and discussed. Rather than discourse about the lived body, perceptual experience, the flesh, and so forth, we are introduced to another set of signs that frame and render Merleau-Ponty’s thought and which re-constitute its legibility: the symbolic matrix, the elemental, the oneiric, and most importantly, the event.
In addition to opening the field of Merleau-Ponty studies to a series of questions and motifs that have for the most part been unconsidered, Kaushik’s book accomplishes a second task. To the extent to which Between Philosophy and Symbolism provides another set of signs for entering the domain of Merleau-Ponty’s thought, this work also repositions this thought with respect to the history of 20th Century continental philosophy. In a manner that is the analogue to way in which a set of signs gets recycled within the literature on this thinker, Merleau-Ponty is almost invariably attached to the 20th Century’s “phenomenological curve,” the upslope being the work of Husserl and his immediate constellation, the peak probably being Heidegger, the beginning of the downward slope including its rise in France and the immediate post-war period, ending, of course, with the rise of “post-phenomenology” in the figures of Foucault, Deleuze, and Derrida, who all in their own ways tried to ring its death knell. By recasting the signs by which we would enter Merleau-Ponty’s thought, Kaushik, I think, succeeds in dismantling this curve (which surely deserves no less and probably worse). Not only does Merleau-Ponty appear as belonging more to “post-phenomenology” than as a member of the movement but the very terms by which we would want to define “phenomenology” in contrast to “non-phenomenology” (including “post”-phenomenology) become (rightly) contested. By re-framing the approach to the work of Merleau-Ponty, Kaushik’s book re-frames the manner in which we can make sense of what means to belong (or not to belong) to the phenomenological movement and what “phenomenology” can signify in the first place. I want to take the opportunity to explore these transformations through a series of concepts that make up the infrastructure of Between Philosophy and Symbolism, the analysis of which will constitute this writing: the matrix, the symbolic, the element, and the event.
The subtitle of Kaushik’s book, The Matrixed Ontology, already indicates the central role that this concept will play in his reading. A matrix or “matrix event” is positioned against a theory of the transcendental field where the transcendental as such is identified with some form of ipseity: a self-identical, discrete consciousness that occupies the role of referent for the sense of a world it constitutes. Of course we find such a theory of the transcendental most clearly in Kant’s “I think that must accompany all my representations,” the transcendental unity of apperception; in Husserl through the various iterations of transcendental consciousness and egoicity; and of course in Sartre’s theory of consciousness as the active, centripetal constituting agency of the world’s meaning (“nothingness”). Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy is distinguished from these theories at the point where the transcendental field is now reconceived—not as the privilege of a constituting self—but as the interstice, fissure, or, as it were, silent lacuna, the écart (divergence) of difference within beings that allows them their phenomenality. In other words, Merleau-Ponty, on Kaushik’s reading, gives a theory of the transcendental that not only allows for but requires internal differentiation. This is a crucial claim because, as Kaushik indicates, it is this revised theory of transcendentality that immunizes Merleau-Ponty’s thought against the critique that phenomenology necessarily eliminates difference, and in so doing, occludes the possibility of thinking the event as such.
Thinking through the configurations and operations of matrices, as well as their corresponding eventualities, occupies much of the individual analyses of the text. We nonetheless encounter some indications in the Introduction, to which I will briefly turn. Kaushik states:
Matrix events do not emphasize self-consciousness at the cost of difference. They are, in fact, called matrices because they constellate difference as difference…. A matrix event may be equated with differentiation in several ways: in addition to difference between human and animal, it can refer to the exterior and interior, public and personal, language and speech. A matrix event runs a circuit through these differences. But the loop of matrix events is never closed, and neither are the terms that they snap up into them. This is crucial, for unless Merleau-Ponty thinks that, through the event, differences are reduced to an identity, he is not guilty of the typical criticism that befalls phenomenology—that it transforms nonsense into sense and makes what is incoherent coherent.
The typical criticism would be that, in its attempt to trace the lines of force that produce and shore up the everyday appearance of the world and the sense it has for us, phenomenology will discover an absolute origin that constitutes this sense. Such an origin, as the origin of all difference, would not itself be subject to difference. It would be a purely centripetal, outwardly oriented movement that thinks but is not an object thought, sees but is not seen, speaks but which cannot be heard, constitutes a time to which it would not be subjected, and constitutes a space in which it would not be found. As Kaushik indicates, such an origin could, by definition, not abide any exteriority, could have no relation to anything that would not in principle be subjected to its sense-making movement, and in this way could not stand in relation to anything radically other to it. A matrix event, by contrast, produces sense but in such a manner that it nonetheless still includes and even welcomes what is beyond its sense. Whereas the traditional, phenomenological view of the transcendental ends with a closure into sense and the elimination of non-sense, a matrix event remains constitutively open to non-sense and what is outside, and in this way is “adventurous:” the matrix event is never complete but remains on its way, unterwegs, as Heidegger might say, but “on its way” only to difference. Kaushik notes in this regard:
An event is not singular but plural. Its plurality, furthermore, prevents the event from being teleological. That there is a temporal character to the matrix event means neither that it is an origin from which other times succeed nor that it is a destination into which all times lead. The event is neither an origin nor a destination.”
Matrix events are made legible over the course of the text through a second concept, the importance of which is already suggested by the title, symbolism. Kaushik, borrowing from Merleau-Ponty, will also speak of the “symbolic matrix,” and one also hears very clearly through the invocation of this concept the “symbolic form,” and both Ernst Cassirer and Erwin Panofsky are on the horizon here, filtered through Merleau-Ponty’s lectures on Institution in Personal and Public History and his last publication, “Eye and Mind.” I want to consider symbolic form and symbolic matrix under the general rubric of symbolism, which I believe should be understood verbally.
In the Institution lectures, Merleau-Ponty says:
The parallel [of painting] with philosophies is acceptable only if philosophies themselves are taken not as statements of ideas, but as inventions of symbolic forms. Shortcoming of Cassirer’s philosophy consists in thinking that criticism is the endpoint, that philosophical sense has a directing value even though this sense itself is taken up into sedimentation. Consider criticism itself as a symbolic form and not as a philosophy of symbolic forms.
The idea at play here, taken up again in the essay Eye and Mind, is that, as Merleau-Ponty famously says, “every theory of painting is a metaphysics.” That is to say, every theory painting—even one that attempts to ignore or deprecate it such as we find in Descartes or Kant—is a theory of expression, a theory about how the sense of what is comes into being, and every theory of expression is already metaphysics, since metaphysics has only ever been the attempt to think the becoming—the expression—of what is. The significant claim here is that we need to hear “metaphysics” not as the “statement of ideas”—metaphysics in a profound sense has nothing to do with the articulation of theses about being—but “as the invention of symbolic forms,” i.e., the invention of ways and means that allow for the expression of a certain point of view, a certain perspective, or way of seeing. Renaissance painting is of course just this: the presentation and making visible of a certain Weltanschauung, a certain frame—one might even say Ge-stell—for what it means to appear, what it means to be.
Kaushik makes the following commentary on the text from the Institution lectures:
His last sentence here, ‘consider criticism itself as a symbolic form and not a philosophy of symbolic forms,’ is sweeping and radical in its proposal to alter both the method and aim of philosophy. If philosophy criticism is itself a symbolic form, this would mean that the ground for every truth claim in fact enfolds a symbolic component. The height of philosophical criticism would then, counterintuitively, eventuate in the symbolic. If so, philosophical criticism becomes absorbed by something very much counter to its usual goals, a form only ever discovered in mutation and that is never itself.
If metaphysics is the invention of symbolic forms, then the tasks for philosophy as well as its very nature are reconfigured and rethought. It means that the symbolic is no longer a regional matter for a specified branch of philosophical discourse but that the symbolic—symbolism in the verbal sense—is at the very center of philosophical discourse. This means, according to Kaushik, that philosophy cannot hope to arrive at a final diapason of self-consciousness or absolute knowledge but that it encounters at best “a form only ever discovered in mutation and that is never itself.” In being oriented by and in terms of symbolic forms, philosophical inquiry is constitutively defined by a certain delay, an internal slippage as its symbols defer their sense. As a result (or even as a function) of this slippage, phenomenological method (now oriented in terms of symbolic forms) can no longer be understood as the disclosure of an absolute origin, but as indicated earlier, must be thought in terms of an ineliminable difference. Kaushik summarizes this as follows:
The symbolic does not, however, mediate or bring beings together with being but opens up and is the very difference between them. It is in other words, on an adventure and is not a destination end or even a proper origin. It takes or is always on an excursion—between consciousness and unconsciousness, body and world, oneself and another, and the things of the world—while also being no place otherwise.
The adventure of sense, its radical openness, and the necessity of the event for phenomenological method are, in a way, thus premised on the symbolic. This adventurousness, however, requires another concept. If the symbolic introduces a function of slippage and differentiation within the articulation of sense, the principle of this slippage must still be clarified. Kaushik accomplishes this by invoking another term: the element, to which I will now briefly turn.
“Element,” of course, immediately recalls the oldest metaphysics of the Western tradition, the φυσιολόγοι, as Aristotle said, those who discoursed on φύσις or “nature.” We should be careful, however, not confuse the use of element at stake in Between Philosophy and Symbolism with a theory of nature, however, nor should we assume that by invoking this pre-Socratic notion that Kaushik wishes to recover or return to some absolute ὑποκείμενον beneath the phenomena that would explain or even express them. As the third term in the triad matrix-symbol-element, the elemental here designates both the plane of excess of sense and the unexpressed (and inexpressible) silence necessary and intrinsic to any event of phenomenality. In other words, the element is the invisible, the absent and by definition indeterminable interstices or lacunae within the world that allow for the visible, which would precisely be their inverse. Kaushik says:
The elements are, to my mind … by no means determinate, by no means exterior to the explicit phenomenon, and do not oppose it. They are rather within the phenomenon and even if they are not themselves phenomenal. They therefore do not introduce a new reality. The only reason they cannot be located is because they are always differentiated and have no specific locale.
The element is, as it were, the unidentifiable, non-localizable and yet silent interior of things that gives but is not given, that makes possible while itself not being a possible object of identification. As such, the element provides the needed principle of slippage since it appears only in its absence, appears only as missing, known only indirectly through indication and never encountered as such. The element in this sense is elicited through analyses of Merleau-Ponty’s remarks on light in connection with Heraclitus’s use of ἁπτόμενον, “kindling.” As Kaushik says a propos of illumination in Merleau-Ponty:
In the logic of light, it is important to Merleau-Ponty that what issues illumination is also within the illuminated. This means that, for him, illumination contains no original source or point of view that can itself be illuminated. It means, in other words, that illumination is in effect also dark—that it is in fact darkness that makes illumination possible. There can therefore be no general ontology of light that does not have to do with its regional context and its inability to be seen…. [Light] penetrates everywhere, explores the phenomenal plane, and yet can never be a single source from which we know about visible things…. Rather than a source, light is an endless refraction and flash-like. This refraction never shows. Its primary character is diversion. Yet both phenomenon as well as its disclosure are because of the very texture of this always diverted light.
Light or the “kindling” Heraclitus speaks of, the spark-like flash in which things appear, is elemental precisely at the point where light itself shows the phenomena but in its function as showing, itself withdraws and is not seen. I see the visible surface illuminated by the light but do not and cannot see the light itself. There is, as it were, then, a darkness, a shadow within all light that makes it possible as light, but in virtue of this darkness light itself remains elusive: vision only operates in virtue of our constitutive belatedness with respect to light—we see only after the fact, after the light itself has vanished, leaving behind only a trace in the form of the visible thing we see. Understood through light and lighting, the elemental is thus not identifiable with any kind of substrate, atom, matter, or even with a “basic ingredient.” The element, or elements, or elemental must be understood verbally: elementality is what happens, indeed, the event, when the things of the world flash up before us, where that flashing, that “deflagration” of the world’s sense comes to pass through an inverse event of recession, darkening, and shadow—a partial disintegration of the world’s sense around the edges, where sense emerges thanks to non-sense and without eliminating it. Elementality is the event of this lighting-darkening, a penumbric passage from one to the other in which the element as such is encountered only through its inverse, through what it allows and not, as it were, “in the flesh.”
The conceptual triad, matrix-symbol-element, as they function across the specific analyses of Between Philosophy and Symbolism, re-orient Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy in such a way that we could no longer say with certainty that we are still in auspices of “phenomenology,” at least given the traditional sense of this as “transcendental science.” Indeed, through the mechanism of this conceptual triad, the very sense and meaning of “transcendental” becomes contested. Rather than a transcendental philosophy in the tradition of Kant and Husserl, through Kaushik’s reading, we must now situate Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy on the side of thinkers such as Deleuze and Derrida—thinkers of difference, slippage, and the event. I want to close this consideration of Between Philosophy and Symbolism by turning to the event in more detail.
Since the publication of Badiou’s Being and Event (1988), it has become fashionable for “philosophies of the event,” including Badiou but also figures such as Meillassoux and so-called “speculative realism,” to pose what is supposed to be a fatal critique of phenomenology. The critique, as Kaushik nicely phrases it, operates like this:
The assumption is that phenomenology reorients incoherency to coherency, inconsistency to consistency, nonsense to sense, and therefore also closes itself to the truly abnormal aspect of events… a philosophy of the event does not exclude the transcendental per se…. Only when it is conceived in terms of an intention, whether subjective or bodily, does the transcendental exclude the event…. An event would break from all forms of intentionality so radically that it cannot be an origin, destination, or even a preexisting referent, and its eventfulness would instead be utterly spontaneous.
The conceptual triad matrix-symbol-element undoes intentionality—it makes sense of the birth of sense without reducing this genesis to an intentional form that would erase its excess, other, and outside. In other words, what the reconfiguration of Merleau-Ponty’s thought at stake in Between Philosophy and Symbolism accomplishes is the articulation of a phenomenology that allows for incoherency, inconsistency and nonsense to dwell within the sense of the world and that the emergence of sense does not exclude these. Kaushik reiterates this in the conclusion of the text, where he says “The impossible is internal to all senses, configuring them from within. This matrix, between sense and the meaning that cannot possible make sense, implies that no sense ever exhausts its non-sense.” If the impossible is internal to all senses, if sense itself requires a non-sense internal to it, then it would seem that phenomenology—at least the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty—is already a philosophy of the event.
If Kaushik’s analyses are correct, and the close reading and analyses of the text indicate that they are, then the supposed fatal critique of phenomenology posed by philosophies of the event is not only not fatal, but premised on a misreading of phenomenology—or at least a misreading of the thought of Merleau-Ponty. Furthermore, by making Merleau-Ponty’s thought legible in terms of and through the matrix-symbolic-element, the traditional series of concepts that typically make up the currency of Merleau-Ponty studies—body, perception, flesh, etc.—are recast such that their internal relationship as well as Merelau-Ponty’s original contributions to philosophy (his engagement with Husserl, his conceptualization of phenomenology and its method, etc.) now come to fore clearly in a way hitherto undocumented. That being said, I will only add that Between Philosophy and Symbolism indicates that the more traditional interpretations of Merleau-Ponty’s thought (lived body, perception, flesh, etc.) are, in a sense, already in the past and that they most likely belong there, footnotes to a philosophy that itself continues to thrive and live. The readers of Merleau-Ponty’s work who are yet to come will leave these traditional readings there, in the past, and instead take Between Philosophy and Symbolism as their point of departure.
 Contrast Heidegger, who published Being and Time in 1927 and whose academic activity seems to have lasted at least until the late sixties, almost twice the output of Merleau-Ponty.
 Kaushik, Rajiv. Merleau-Ponty between Philosophy and Symbolism: The Matrixed Ontology. (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2019), xii.
 Ibid., xiii.
 Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Institution and Passivity. Trans. Leonard Lawlor and Heath Massey. (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2010), 44; Kaushik, Rajiv. Merleau-Ponty between Philosophy and Symbolism, xviii.
 Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. “Eye and Mind,” in The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader. Ed. Galen Johnson. (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1993), 132.
 Kaushik, Between Philosophy and Symbolism, xviii-xix.
 Ibid., xix.
 Ibid., xx.
 Ibid., xxii.
 Ibid., 64-65.
 Ibid., xi-xii.
 Ibid., 128.