Christopher Erhard and Tobias Keiling (Eds): The Routledge Handbook of Phenomenology of Agency

The Routledge Handbook of Phenomenology of Agency Book Cover The Routledge Handbook of Phenomenology of Agency
Routledge Handbooks in Philosophy
Edited By Christopher Erhard, Tobias Keiling
Hardback £133.00 eBook £27.99

Reviewed by: Florian Markus Bednarski (PhD researcher at Leipzig University and The Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences)

The topic of this new Routledge Handbook is Phenomenology of agency. It is a very well selected topic and a nicely edited volume. The aim of a handbook should be to provide the reader with a selection of essays that cover the most important aspects of a given research focus. The editors must choose contributions carefully to achieve this goal. Before describing the structure and content of this volume in greater detail, some words about the subject of the book will be helpful to better understand the editors’ aim.

Very briefly, Phenomenology of agency is any kind of theorizing about and reflecting on agents’ experiences while performing actions. This theorizing and reflecting, or more generally philosophizing, can be either an attempt at achieving a better understanding of what actions are, or one might be interested in how it feels to act. Contemplating phenomenology of agency can thus lead to manifold findings for the interested reader. Further, the topic of this handbook has several anchor points in different areas of philosophy, among which philosophy of mind and philosophy of action feature most prominently, as well as being of interest for other research fields such as psychology, sociology, political science, cognitive and neuroscience.

Two aims of the handbook are specified by the editors (2). The first is to highlight writings of phenomenologists such as Edith Stein, Hans Reiner and Alexander Pfänder. All belong to a first generation of Husserl followers and worked mainly before 1940. Contributions presenting their work are to highlight the continuity of the phenomenological tradition after Husserl.  The second aim is to increase awareness of how significant phenomenology of agency is for any philosophical account of action. Several contributions discuss phenomenological influences on debates about intentionality, freedom, rationality and morality.

In the introduction, Christopher Erhard and Tobias Keiling not only provide an overview of the book but they also explicate some considerations behind the selection of the contributions. They describe three notions of the term phenomenology. First, the historical tradition founded by Edmund Husserl, second the philosophical method to prefer the “first-person-perspective” in the analysis of philosophical problems, and third the “what-it-is-like” notion of phenomenology. The editors admit that those differentiations might not be accepted without restrictions by every philosopher; however, the selected contributions are to include any of the three notions of the term phenomenology (2). And so, the reader will find chapters describing the work of Husserl and his companions, for example by Karl Mertens, who provides a good overview of Husserl and Pfänder’s writing on action theory (15-28). Besides the historic route, readers can explore methodological points of view on agency in several chapters, for example by Tobias Keiling on László Tengelyi’s discussions of first-person experience of action (235-259). A few chapters further widen the scope of this handbook to the experiential “what-it-is-like” notion of phenomenology, for example Shaun Gallagher’s contribution on phenomenological perspectives in cognitive science (336-350). Although the better part of contributions is concerned with historical or methodological rather than experiential notions of phenomenology, which is most widely spread in interdisciplinary research areas, the handbook does integrate all three perspectives.

Hence, in 27 Chapters and over more than 400 pages this handbook provides an overview of important figures, systematic disputes, and further aspects of the phenomenology of agency. The editors, Christopher Erhard and Tobias Keiling, both mainly interested in the philosophical tradition of phenomenology founded by Edmund Husserl, attempted to select authors and topics from a wide range of relevant areas in philosophy. The handbook is divided into two parts. Part I (5-259) introduces important figures and follows a mainly historical route through the landscape beginning with Franz Brentano. Part II is itself divided into two sections. The first (264-350) dealing with more general systematic questions and the second (352-413) highlighting further aspects such as freedom, morality, and rational action. The handbook also includes an index (415-424) of used terminology, which will be much appreciated by experienced users searching for specific references.

In the following, some chapters of each part will be reviewed to give the reader an impression of what to expect from this volume, beginning with the first chapter “Franz Brentano’s critique of free will” by Denis Seron (7-14). Franz Brentano never provided a full account of action, nor did he discuss the phenomenology of agency in greater detail. Phenomenology of agency is only mentioned in reference to how Brentano grounds his determinism in his radical empiricism. This is so because radical empiricism does not accept an ability to perceive possibilities. According to radical empiricism we can only perceive what is actual and not what is possible. This premise renders indeterminism necessarily false because indeterminism is based on the principle of alternative possibilities, which states that we can at least want to act otherwise. If the reader is interested in how this argument unfolds, chapter one of this volume is a well-crafted starting point.

Denis Seron contributed a short but concise chapter on Brentano’s critique of free will. For the reader it might be of great interest to learn more about Brentano’s radical empiricism. In particular, how he understands immediate consciousness and why he thinks that empirical arguments can only be given based on experience. Brentano’s assumption that one cannot perceive oneself doing otherwise opens up many questions about phenomenology of agency. How can humans be curious and creative in performing bodily movements (e.g. in dancing) if one is only able to perceive oneself doing what one is determined to do?

In a short and fast flowing chapter, Michael L. Morgan describes Levinas’ perspective on agency and ethics (147-157). Morgan’s central aim is to try and explain to the reader what Levinas meant when he wrote “to be a ‘self’ is to be responsible before having done anything” (as cited in Morgan, 2021, 148). In the course of the text, Morgan cleverly uses descriptive stories, such as the one of a judge in court, to clarify how Levinas understands freedom as given to the subject. Especially the notions of responsibility-for-the-other and radical disinterestedness are important to understand Levinas’ profoundly ordinary story about freedom of agency.

Michael L. Morgan delivers a precise text full of intuitively accessible argument. This chapter is especially interesting for readers interested in a perspective on phenomenology of agency that is not inherently fused with a subjective self. Levinas’ writing about agency is interested in the role of interpersonal responsibility and a societal dimension as opposed to viewing agency from a capacities and abilities of agents’ point of view. This chapter adds a further dimension to the topic of phenomenology of agency, highlighting once more the diversity of approaches to the debate.

In chapter fourteen, Thomas Baldwin provides a well-structured overview of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s writings about agency (175-188). The significance of phenomenology of agency for any account of action in general becomes stringently clear in this chapter. Baldwin first summarizes Merleau-Ponty’s critique of traditional dualism, the body viewed as an independent physical entity which is moved by a will, which surmounts to a differentiation between an objective body and a phenomenal body. In what follows, Baldwin describes how this ambiguous view of the body helps Merleau-Ponty give an embodied account of agency: “Hence we should replace the conception of agency as the control of a physical body by an abstract mind, and view it instead as the interplay between the pre-personal being in the world of our organism and a personal self which uses this being in the world to understand and change it.” (181)

The next two paragraphs on agency and the will are intended to connect this embodied account to further issues, for example intentionality and rationality. In this context, it is useful that Baldwin directs us to further literature related to these questions, such as Davidson, O’Shaughnessy and McDowell.

In general, this chapter fits well into the context of this volume, and Merleau-Ponty is an important Philosopher whose work bridges some wider gaps between philosophical traditions. His thinking certainly originates in Husserl’s idea of phenomenology but never became a one-sided affair. His writing contains many references to empirical science and Philosophers from the analytic tradition. Finally, it is beneficial for the reader to gain insights not only into Merleau-Pontys main work ‘Phenomenolgy of Perception’ but also some rather unknown texts such as ‘The Structure of Behavior’.

This written dialogue between Martine Nida-Rümelin and Terry Horgan is a well-structured text in which two philosophers discover the precise details about their disagreement on satisfaction conditions of agentive phenomenology (264-299). The central debate between both concerns whether satisfaction conditions of agentive phenomenology can be formulated in alignment with a materialist metaphysics of mind. However, a rather intriguing aspect of this chapter is Nida-Rümelin and Horgans’ discussion about the precise understanding of each other’s view. It is a delight to read an argument in which participants consistently reflect on their opponent’s point-of-view and attempt to represent this viewpoint as accurately as possible before formulating any critique.

Henceforth, it is not surprising that Nida-Rümelin and Horgan discover that their main disagreement covers conflicting background assumptions. This chapter thus provides the reader with two learning possibilities. First, a densely packed debate about two opposing accounts of phenomenology of agency. Second, an expert lesson in how to take part in a philosophical debate.

Chapter twenty-one discusses how the will, the body and action are connected (314-335). Robert Hanna guides the reader through his own work while highlighting influential work by O’Shaughnessy, Frankfurt and Kant. Brian O’Shaughnessy explicated one of the most detailed embodied theories of the will and Robert Hanna is one of only a few philosophers’ who have extended their views on this foundation. He starts by introducing trying theories of action and shows how those theories can establish free agency as a natural fact of life. After having considered other options for theories of agency, for example causal theories, Hanna moves on to introduce his own account of the veridical phenomenology of essentially embodied free agency. One aspect of this account is that it entails that “we must not only have veridical psychological freedom, but also be at least fully disposed to believe, or actually believe, ourselves to have an unfettered, non-epiphenomenal, real causally spontaneous will.” (329) In fact, a central aspect of Robert Hanna’s theory about free agency is that phenomenology of agency is essentially an experience of free agency. The remainder of the chapter is committed to debunking strategies from defenders of hard determinism by showing that they themselves will not experience their actions as not-free, because if they did it would most likely cause them to lose their mind.

Hanna tells one of the most interesting stories of the whole volume. For beginners, it might be hard to follow parts of the argument because Hanna presupposes some basic philosophical knowledge. Nevertheless, this chapter is a well-chosen addition to the mostly Husserl influenced texts of the first part of this handbook.

The underlying structure of mechanisms and functions involved in bringing about the sense of agency has been the topic of cognitive science. Shaun Gallagher has greatly influenced this research in recent years. In chapter twenty-two of this volume, he takes stock of what has been achieved and where the research needs refinement and a new direction (336-350).

Three main areas of theoretical debate can be identified. First, defining phenomenology of agency in terms suitable for empirical investigation. Distinguishing between a sense of agency, the feeling of doing something and a sense of ownership, the feeling of owning a body has turned out to be useful but not uncontested. Second, identifying cognitive mechanisms responsible for the sense of agency and ownership. Empirical investigations have since provided extensive grounds for the assumption that some form of comparator mechanism gives rise to both senses. Third, the role of intentions for agency and the relation of both. This turns out to be the most slippery debate as several researchers still contest different notions of intention as well as agency.

Gallagher has an in-depth knowledge of the field and draws a well-structured picture of the status quo. Readers will find a surprisingly inspiring perspective in the last paragraph of the chapter. Here Gallagher points out some of the main challenges of empirical research on the phenomenology of agency. WEIRED (White, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) samples and few interdisciplinary exchanges have led to a one-sided picture painted by cognitive sciences so far. This might seem like a straightforward critique of the field, but Gallagher rather wants to point to a new direction for the years to come.

This chapter is a delight for the interdisciplinary motivated reader and one of the few outlining future directions for researchers to explore.

Galen Strawson explains in a dense and fast flowing chapter how the experience of freedom relates to the experience of responsibility (352-361). The reader might be surprised to see an author who himself defends a strict determinism point of view about agency write about the experience of the exact opposite. As it turns out, Galen Strawson believes that everything we do is determined and nevertheless we feel as if we are free to act otherwise.

The chapter follows a clear structure. First Strawson discusses whether experience of freedom involves only sense-feeling phenomenology or if it goes further and involves cognitive phenomenology as well. In the next part, he introduces his own notions of radical freedom and ultimate responsibility and shows how those terms help to clarify relations between experience of freedom and questions for responsibility. Finally, Strawson outlines how experience of freedom is included in compatibilist and incompatibilist positions. Most refreshingly, this chapter analyses one of the oldest philosophical questions in relation to illustrative content. Strawson adequately uses thought experiments, pathological case studies and empirical experiments to strengthen the expressiveness of his text.

Constructing large handbooks is a generally challenging undertaking. In the present case, Christopher Erhard and Tobias Keiling committed to an especially complex project, editing a handbook about a yet to be clearly defined research topic. Phenomenology of agency turns out to be a topic of great variety and yet the editors of this volume managed to select interesting contributions. The first part of the volume provides the reader with an overview of influential writers from the past, beginning with Franz Brentano. In the second part of the volume, the reader will find informative links between phenomenology of agency and action theory in general.

Overall, readers will discover well written essays from experts on specific topics related to a common theme. Given that the target group for handbooks is mostly students of philosophy and related fields, some critical aspects need to be mentioned.

Although all contributions included in these twenty-seven chapters have some connection to the topic ‘Phenomenology of Agency’, the novice reader might be surprised by the variety of perspectives represented here. Erhard and Keiling describe three notions of the term phenomenology in their introduction to this handbook. Both conclude that concerning this terminological query they “expect this volume to stir rather than settle a discussion of that question.” (2) Some contributors included a paragraph about their own position on the dispute in the beginning of their essays. This manifold of opinions about the topic ‘Phenomenology of Agency’ of this handbook makes it hard to find a larger common ground between the individual texts. For the reader it will be helpful to have a specific question or viewpoint of interest in mind when using this handbook. Thus, rather than introducing a research topic, the volume is a reference book for either historically interested readers or students with already formulated research questions.

While the contributions present a wide range of views on agency, one aspect that is essentially neglected throughout the volume is the close connection of agency and development. This aspect is probably one of the most overlooked perspectives in Philosophy and it has been missed by the editors of this volume as well. Developmental aspects of psychological phenomena are rarely given much attention in philosophical projects. This is the case for the 27 chapters of this handbook. Furthermore, the development of phenomenology of agency in infancy is neither mentioned nor discussed in any detail. Despite recent debates in developmental psychology and cognitive sciences (Jacquey et al., 2020; Sen & Gredebäck, 2021), developmental aspects are rarely recognized in philosophical debates today. Philosophers tend to disregard how fascinating questions about phenomenology of agency are inherently linked to early cognitive development. Including a chapter about the current states of these discussions would have increased the value of this book for students and experienced readers alike.

While reviewing this volume, a further aspect of the editing process became obvious: The selection of contributors for the individual chapters. The handbook has 27 chapters, of which twenty-two were written by male contributors and four by women. Chapter nineteen is a collaboration between Martine Nida-Rümelin and Terry Horgan. Further, the better part of contributors work in the Western Scientific Hemisphere. Only Genki Uemure from Okayama University in Japan stands out. This leads to a biased representation of views on the topic of this volume. Perspectives from researchers from South America, Africa and Asia would have been a valuable and unique addition to this book. The reader might be interested in learning about views of Buddhist Philosophers on the relation between agency, phenomenology, and non-self. Selecting contributors and topics with a more diverse background would display the debate taking place on a global stage.

The editors stated that Terry Horgan, John Tienson and George Grahams’ assessment of the neglect of phenomenology of agency in philosophy of mind (2003) encouraged them to take on the project of producing this handbook (1). The result of their efforts is a textbook that will encourage many discussions about a fascinating topic.



I thank Elizabeth Kelly for her careful comments and suggestions about the manuscript.


Horgan, T., Tienson, J. and Graham, G. 2003. “The Phenomenology of First-Person Agency.” In S. Walter and H.-D. Heckmann (eds.), Physicalism and Mental Causation: The Metaphysics of Mind and Action. Exeter: Imprint Academic, 323–340.

Jacquey, L., Fagard, J., O’Regan, K., & Esseily, R. 2020. “Development of body know-how during the infant’s first year of life.” Enfance (2): 175-192.

Sen, U., & Gredebäck, G. 2021. “Making the World Behave: A New Embodied Account on Mobile Paradigm.” Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience, Mar 1, 15:643526. doi: 10.3389/fnsys.2021.643526.

Daniel Johnston: Phenomenology for Actors, Intellect Ltd, 2021

Phenomenology for Actors: Theatre-Making and the Question of Being Book Cover Phenomenology for Actors: Theatre-Making and the Question of Being
Daniel Johnston
Intellect Ltd
Cloth $100.00

Martin Heidegger and Karl Löwith: Correspondence: 1919–1973, Rowman & Littlefield, 2021

Correspondence: 1919–1973 Book Cover Correspondence: 1919–1973
New Heidegger Research
Martin Heidegger and Karl Löwith. Translated by J. Goesser Assaiante, S. Montgomery Ewegen
Rowman & Littlefield
Hardback $125.00

Mauro Antonelli, Federico Boccaccini: Franz Brentano: Mente, coscienza, realtà, Carocci, 2021

Franz Brentano: Mente, coscienza, realtà Book Cover Franz Brentano: Mente, coscienza, realtà
Mauro Antonelli, Federico Boccaccini
Paperback 21,85 €

Michel Foucault: Phénoménologie et Psychologie, Seuil, 2021

Phénoménologie et Psychologie Book Cover Phénoménologie et Psychologie
Hautes Etudes
Michel Foucault
Paperback 26.00 €

Jean Cavaillès: On the Logic and Theory of Science

On the Logic and Theory of Science Book Cover On the Logic and Theory of Science
Jean Cavaillès. Introductory notice by Georges Canguilhem and Charles Ehresmann. Introduction by Knox Peden. Translated by Translated by Knox Peden and Robin Mackay
Urbanomic/Sequence Press
Paperback $18.95

Reviewed by: Ties van Gemert (Tilburg University)

Why read Jean Cavaillès’ work today? This is the foremost question that we need to address. The history of philosophy pullulates with untimely ideas, obscured innovators, and forgotten precursors: the fact that Cavaillès anticipated decisive developments within French philosophy cannot suffice to revisit his short but dense treatise. Historiographical significance may direct historians to his work, but we need positive, philosophical reasons to convince phenomenologists, philosophers of science, and epistemologists to work their way through a book of which each page demands to be read closely, carefully, and rigorously. To be able to demonstrate the value of Cavaillès’ philosophical pathway, one needs to show how our time calls again for his imagination.

If there ever has been a moment for this untimely treatise. Written while incarcerated by the German authorities in Montpellier and Limoges, Cavaillès did not live to experience its publication, he was executed for his leading role in the French resistance in early April 1944 – just shortly after completing the manuscript. When his friends Georges Canguilhem and Charles Ehresmann published Sur la logique et la théorie de la science in 1947, the moment when one could presuppose acquaintance with Neo-Kantian philosophy, Carnap’s logical syntax, Husserl’s phenomenology, and the debates concerning the foundations of mathematics, had already passed.

The intellectual situation in which the book was conceived had also disintegrated: Cavaillès’ doctoral advisor, the rationalist philosopher Léon Brunschvicg, had died in exile in Southern France; his friend, the philosopher of mathematics Albert Lautman, had been killed for his resistance work; the historian of science Hélène Metzger had become a victim of the Shoah; and the philosopher Gaston Bachelard by then was moving away from philosophy of science to aesthetics. The philosophical positions to which Cavaillès was indebted and the technical debates to which he was responding were reforming: the French epistemology of the 1920’s and 1930’s had lost its compelling force, the fierce disputes regarding the sovereignty of intuitionism, logicism, and formalism in mathematics were tempered, and Kantian, rationalist philosophy had become the target of powerful critiques.

In the 1950’s, the French intellectual scenery underwent profound changes: existentialism came to be fashionable, Marxism became the dominant political ideology, and phenomenology emerged as the dominant philosophical method for studying everything from nausea to wonder. Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger were the names on the lips and the books of the desks of the agrégés.

Notwithstanding the rather unfortunate circumstances of the book’s publication, Cavaillès’ work still exercised a decisive but ephemeral influence on the young Derrida, the early work of Foucault, and the philosophy of science of Louis Althusser. More lasting was his sway over the work of Suzanne Bachelard, Gilles-Gaston Granger, and Jules Vuillemin, but these philosophers, whose labor was decisive in introducing analytic philosophy in France, never had the same impact on the intellectual scenery as the generation of May ‘68. At the time, there was a particular bias amongst French intellectuals concerning analytic philosophy that leaned too much towards logical positivism: the works associated with the Vienna Circle were considered one-dimensional, politically suspect, and to be lacking in terms of style. In the eyes of philosophers such as Althusser, Cavaillès had adequately portrayed the defects of logical positivism with his critique of Carnap. Consequently, the convergences between the works of the Vienna Circle and that of Cavaillès were overlooked in a climate hostile to scientific philosophy.

Under these conditions, the treatise has come to take up an uncanny place within the history of philosophy. Although Cavaillès’ work is canonized in the French epistemological tradition and now recognized as a critical influence upon the (post-)structuralist generation, the fact that he was ‘thoroughly immersed in the new logical culture’ is often deemphasized or simply ignored (27). The affiliations, conjunctions, and divergences between his work and that of Frege, Hilbert, Brouwer, Carnap, and Reichenbach remain underdeveloped and sometimes even unexplored. While it would be philosophically, but also historically, naive to plead for a restorative rereading of Cavaillès’ work within its autochthonic context, the relevancy of On the Logic and the Theory of Science for this other tradition of doing philosophy certainly deserves further scrutiny.

Indeed, it is precisely the uneasy position of Cavaillès’ work in the history of philosophy that makes rereading the treatise so compelling today. His critique of logical positivism, his elaboration of intuitionism, his conceptualization of Neo-Kantianism, and his divergent reflections on epistemological questions enclose a rich reserve for developing alternatives genealogies of twentieth-century philosophy. At a moment when French philosophers are finally beginning to reconsider Carnap’s contributions to philosophy, analytic epistemologists are exploring the resources of French philosophy for interventions in present-day discussions, and a new generation of French philosophers is reinstalling the fundamental relation between philosophy and mathematics: maybe, the time is finally there to begin to read Cavaillès as a contemporary. Now, more than ever, is his anomalous philosophical trajectory able to generate a conceptual space to assemble estranged thinkers and construct new philosophical itineraries.

To demonstrate this, let us discuss three examples that disclose how Cavaillès’ philosophical imagination may illuminate our current discourse. Together these examples show how his work can, once again, be utilized by philosophers, how his concepts can be put to work, once more, and why we should begin to reconsider and rethink the significance of On Logic and the Theory of Science. In other words, we will use these three examples to re-assess the purport of the treatise.

The first example relates to the role Cavaillès could play in the reconsiderations of Carnap’s work in French philosophy. In his book Carnap et la question transcendentale (2021), Jean-Baptiste Fournier engages extensively with a problem central to French philosophy: the status of the transcendental. Throughout the book, he attempts to reread Carnap’s early work as an exercise in transcendental philosophy – focusing mainly on Der Raum (1922) and Der Logische Aufbau der Welt (1928). In doing so, Fournier not only broadens the breadth of the discussion of Carnap’s relation to Husserl’s phenomenology, Helmholtz’ epistemology, and Neo-Kantianism, but also – implicitly – integrates Carnap’s philosophy in contemporary discussions of the transcendental in French philosophy.

According to Fournier, the early Carnap was fundamentally concerned with the question of ‘how logic could play a transcendental role’ within philosophy (18). He argues that in Carnap’s work the question of the possibility of objective knowledge is transcendental to the extent that it puts at stake the very conceptualization of the world. In what Fournier designates as Carnap’s transcendental analyses, the world has a double meaning: it is both ‘the horizon and correlate of consciousness’ (298). The world ‘thus functions as a Kantian transcendental object’ (298). The crucial difference with Kant’s conceptualization of the transcendental, however, is that in the work of the German philosopher, there is still the possibility of a complete transcendental deduction. In Carnap’s philosophy, the transcendental question ‘does not arise once and for all but must always be revived for each concept and each science’ (301).

Upon a first reading, it might appear that there is no room for reading such a concept of the transcendental in Cavaillès’ philosophy. His remarks on the transcendental are often dismissive (22-24, 120). Kant’s transcendental philosophy is said to obscure any attempt to account for the normativity of logic since it is ‘fundamentally dependent upon the notions of actions and faculty, which are meaningful only in reference to a concrete consciousness’ (20). In a similar vein, Cavaillès’ ambition to found an absolute logic of science leads him to reject the transcendental logic of Husserl. In his view, Husserl’s elaboration of phenomenology is parasitic upon the acts of consciousness and, therefore, lacks the autonomy needed for logic to ground itself.

While Cavaillès critiques the role given to transcendental subjectivity in Kant and Husserl’s philosophy, he does leave open the possibility of a transcendental analysis without a constitutive role of the subject. Sometimes, it seems that this is precisely what Cavaillès is concerned with: ‘[h]ere lies the role of transcendental analysis: to recognise authentic diversities and to establish the relations between them’ (49). Just like Carnap’s transcendental analyses, the analyses that Cavaillès conducts concern the structure of scientific theories and their conditions. But even though Cavaillès commences with a reflection on scientific theories, in his analyses, there is never any given that is presupposed or left unexamined. Each level of analysis is incorporated and related to a subsequent or antecedent one: in this way, his vision resembles that of Carnap’s Aufbau.

The question Cavaillès continually asks himself is also similar to that of Fournier’s Carnap: what are the conditions under which objective or scientific knowledge is possible? For Cavaillès, this question cannot be answered at one moment in time, it must continually be asked in relation to specific scientific discoveries, and it must always be compared with and integrated in previous analyses or theories. Within his philosophy, the transcendental, therefore, undergoes constant transformation: it is no longer possible to deduce all the conditions and ramifications of a single concept in one place and time. If there is a concept of the transcendental in Cavaillès’ philosophy, it is thus thoroughly dynamic – maybe even plastic.

The second example concerns Cavaillès’ anomalous position within the history of French philosophy and how it may be of use in connecting the work of antagonized thinkers. Catarina Dutilh Novaes, in a recent paper titled “Carnap Meets Foucault: conceptual engineering and genealogical investigations” (2020), discloses the similarities between Carnap and Foucault and argues for a reengagement with their work in current discussions on conceptual engineering. Although she tries to reconstruct the historical relations between these two thinkers, she does not discuss or even mention Cavaillès, when in fact, the philosopher is one of the missing links: Foucault probably first encountered Carnap’s work in On Logic and the Theory of Science. More importantly, his philosophy could have brought the concerns and considerations of these two philosophers together – since Cavaillès’ philosophy harbors a plane common to both: a more extensive conceptual space, where the dialectics of history and the complexities of (formal) epistemology come together, a central place to revisit the ramifications of what it means to tinker and ameliorate concepts.

In Cavaillès’ work, there are extensive genealogical analyses of concepts and a methodology of explication. Concepts are contemplated regarding their history and are clarified by rendering explicit the inferences that they imply. Furthermore, the French philosopher does not shy away from ameliorating concepts in order to enlarge their function. Yet throughout these efforts, there is never any reference to an essential constituent of a concept. As in Dutilh Novaes’ account of marriage as well the political aspects of Carnap’s concept of explication, pragmatics plays a crucial role, the function of a concept co-determines its value. At the same time, Cavaillès would never go so far to argue that the value of a concept lies in its use – a danger that seems apparent in Dutilh Novaes’ alliance of Foucault and Carnap. In his philosophy, truth remains the last measure when determining the function of a concept.

The last example bears on the philosophical project of two thinkers: Alain Badiou and Quentin Meillassoux. Both reclaim a Platonic theory of truth, bring renewed attention to the discourse of science in French philosophy, and place mathematics, once more, at the heart of philosophy. Taken together, their work reinvigorates a hybrid of rationalism and materialism in French philosophy. To further delineate and deepen their itinerary, one needs conceptual spaces to perceive the limits of and think through the problems particular to their philosophical project. For this, encounters with precursors such as Cavaillès, who have dealt extensively with questions concerning the nature of mathematics and the dialectics of history, are indispensable.

First, something about Badiou. Even though in his book Figures of Post-War French Philosophy (2009), Badiou discusses the relation between Cavaillès’ philosophy and his life as a resistance fighter, he has never engaged extensively with On the Logic and the Theory of Science. In the third chapter of the book, “Georges Canguilhem (1904—1995) Jean Cavaillès (1903-1944)”, Badiou gives us only a brief summary of Cavaillès’ position, which regardless of its fragmentary nature still reveals a concurrence between their projects: ‘the philosophy of mathematics must rid itself of all reference to a constituent mathematical subject, and should examine the internal necessity of mathematical notions’ (10). The absence of engagement with Cavaillès’ philosophy in Badiou’s work is rather surprising, given the importance that both ascribe to set-theory, their collective embracement of ruptures, and their communal passion for a revised Platonic concept of mathematics.

Needless to say, there are also critical differences between their conceptualization of these three points. While it is only in a complicated encounter between their thought that one could be able to explicate the ramifications of this divergence, a brief and somewhat cursory sketch may already reveal the contours of the paths taken and the advancements that can be obtained from such an analysis.

In their work, Badiou and Cavaillès utilize Cantor’s set-theoretical discoveries to conceptualize an ontology that is open, an ontology that resists totality. For them, set theory represents a break within thought, an event that ruptures the intelligible. Yet whereas both affirm the irreducibility of time within the generative movement of thought, Cavaillès is the only one who has thoroughly studied the fundamental historicity of the scientific event: this constituent of Cantor’s discovery is left entirely unexplored by Badiou. This singular difference characterizes their divergent notion of events: while Badiou’s concept of events leaves little room for describing the origination and construction of a scientific theory, Cavaillès aims to rationally reconstruct the very movement of science. As he puts it in the second part of On Logic and the Theory of Science: ‘by defining a structure of science that is nothing but science manifesting to itself what it is, we specify and justify the preceding characteristics’ (30).

In Badiou’s philosophy, there is no such rational reconstruction of scientific discoveries, there is no effort to define the determinate conditions of scientific progress, as there is no account of the labor involved in the progress in mathematics or science in general. His perspective on the history of science is shaped by the great moments of science, he views science through the eyes and work of aristocratic revolutionaries – not the communal work involved in thinking through theorems, experiments, and demonstrations. For Badiou, it seems that events take place within a vacuum; they are indeterminate, contingent, and original. In this regard, Badiou aligns himself with a century old tradition of French philosophy: the importance he attaches to contingency has been present in French thought ever since Émile Boutroux’s De la Contingence des Lois de la Nature (1874).

Cavaillès, with his commitment to studying the history of science and grounding the necessity of scientific progress, takes a radically different route. From the very beginning of his career, he is concerned with mapping the developments that lead to Cantor’s discoveries and examining the role of other scientists, who assisted in clarifying the ramifications of Cantor’s work. In this way, the event is contextualized, its constituents explained, and its conditions determined. For Cavaillès, this labor is critical. In his view, demonstration is at the heart of science, his aim is always to explicate the progress of science, to apprehend the event: ‘in its generative movement … to recover this structure not via description but apodictically as it unfolds and demonstrates itself’ (31). Ultimately, Cavaillès wants to incorporate the event within science, he aims to ground the development of science within science: ‘a science of science, and hence a part of itself’ (30).

By contrast, Badiou has not shown the least interest in science as a communal enterprise, as a self-illuminating development, or as an ‘Riemannian volume, closed and yet without any exterior’, his view of science is restricted to mysterious breaks within the movement of science that simply shock thought (30). This becomes poignantly clear when he speaks about the difference between truth and knowledge or when he reveals his disdain for normal science. In general, he attaches no importance to the observation, experimentation, and theorizing of scientists working in a settled paradigm. The realm of truth in Badiou’s work is thus restricted to ineffable instants in science, politics, aesthetics, and love. Although these events must be incorporated and related to a world, this work remains one of fidelity to the event – not one of a continuous critical examination of the consequences and limits of a theorem, conviction, style, or commitment.

Crudely put, for Badiou, when the event comes to you, you are immediately enlightened about its significance. For Cavaillès, truths are irreducibly genetic, they inherently involve the labor of explicating its inferences. This labor is, at least, twofold: there is paradigmization, where the demonstration is ‘longitudinal, coextensive with the demonstrative sequence’ and there is thematization, where one inaugurates ‘a new system of interconnection on the basis of the old one, understood no longer as a particular phase within a larger movement, but as an object of reflection in its current configuration’ (71). In Badiou’s philosophy, there is no such distinction, he does not seem to recognize the constructive, laborious activities of scientific communities – only the grandiose seems to deserve being subsumed under the idea. Yet with this gesture, Badiou risks splitting science into the profane and the profound, instead of safeguarding the significance of incorporating events within more expansive webs of knowledge.

Now, something about Meillassoux. In his book After Finitude (2006), Meillassoux aims to reconstruct philosophy through a philosopheme called correlationism: ‘the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other’ (5). For Meillassoux, the modern line of thought that dissolved Locke’s distinction between primary and secondary qualities has obscured the possibility of thinking the thing-in-itself. His aim is to reactivate this distinction by arguing that ‘all those aspects of the object that can be formulated in mathematical terms can be meaningfully conceived as properties of the object in itself’ (3).

In On Logic and the Theory of Science, Cavaillès takes on a similar task: from the very beginning of his book, he is concerned with critiquing the philosophy of consciousness, his worry being that philosophers, such as Kant and Husserl, make science and mathematics dependent upon the acts of consciousness. In his view, science progresses, not consciousness, it might drag consciousness along or happen within consciousness, but certainly does not depend upon it for progress. By distinguishing radically between subject and object, he wants to reinstate mathematics’ autonomy and necessity. As Hourya Benis Sinaceur remarks in her paper “From Kant to Hilbert: French philosophy of concepts in the beginning of the XXth century” (2006): by ‘determining the objective structures of objectivity’, Cavaillès brings about ‘[a] truly Ptolemaic revolution’ (330). It is no longer a question of explicating the constitutive role of transcendental subjectivity, but of explicating the role of conceptual development within the objectivity of mathematics.

For Meillassoux, mathematics plays an equally important role in regaining access to the absolute, but this absolute is one of this world, it is attained through a reflection on the time before or after the existence of human beings. It is at this point that Meillassoux and Cavaillès part ways: Meillassoux wants to make use of the rigorousness of mathematics to say something about the world independent of the correlation between thinking and being and, consequently, about the thing-in-itself, while Cavaillès wants to dissociate subjectivity and objectivity, right now, by founding an absolute logic and science of science, he is determined to never subordinate the autonomy and necessity of mathematics to the ways of the world. For Cavaillès, ‘[t]o know the world, to understand the world – this is a programme that already represents the abandonment of complete creative autonomy, the renunciation of a necessity beholden to nothing other than itself’ (28).

According to Cavaillès, mathematics is never a mere tool for measuring or a medium that helps us access the worldly thing-in-itself, it cannot be subordinated to physics. Although the relation between physics and mathematics remains underdeveloped in Cavaillès’ work, he makes a few profound remarks on the problem of the relation between mathematics and physics. In his view, ‘the concatenation of physics has no absolute beginning, any more than that of mathematics does … experience itself as a system of acts is internally organised in such a way that it is impossible to interrupt its continual unfolding’ (88). It is at the singular intersection of the two sequences that theoretical physics is born. Yet this intersection itself can never be formalized, the correspondence can never be presupposed, and the one can never be incorporated in or reduced to the other. Mathematical physics is hence the name of a problem – not a state of science that we can simply presuppose.

Even if both thinkers endorse a particularly strong concept of logic and mathematics, Cavaillès is the only one who tries to account for this. Throughout Meillassoux’ undertaking, much is put up for grasp: the necessity of the laws of nature, the primacy of consciousness, and the very idea of the transcendental. Nevertheless, the validity of the logic that he uses to construct his philosophy is never questioned, conceptualized, or grounded. Like Badiou, Meillassoux rarely reflects upon the role of logic in his undertaking; he never seems to wonder whether other conceptualizations of logic or the relation between mathematics and the world are possible. Consequently, Meillassoux’ account of the relation of the a priori of logic and the a posteriori of the empirical within science remains somewhat obscure. Crucially, there seems to be no possibility that an event might change the logic he uses to construct his philosophy and thus transform his own conclusive propositions. In other words, Meillassoux’ logic is thoroughly static – whereas Cavaillès’ rendering is thoroughly dynamic.

This difference is also inherent to the conception of their own philosophical projects. In Meillassoux’ work, there is no account of the movement of thought itself. This feature is clearly visible in his philosophical style, which distances itself in the writing from the writing, it considers arguments without considering the dialectics of deliberation. Cavaillès’, on the other hand, never distances himself from the theories or concepts that he is discussing, he constantly closes the gap between his own thought and the thought of the philosopher, logician, or scientist that is discussing. There is a decisive need within his philosophy to give an account of the movement of thought itself. Naturally, this raises the question whether his philosophical project does not end in an infinite regression. His critique of Husserl’s logic using Gödel’s incompleteness theorems as well as his reflections on Spinoza’s idea of the idea suggest that Cavaillès was aware of this problem within his philosophy. Still, the question remains unresolved. A biographical fact may illuminate the two possible pathways that Cavaillès envisioned. In his final days, Cavaillès asked a priest for two books: a copy of the New Testament and a copy of Hegel’s Science of Logic.

Let us end with a few remarks on the new translation. Robin MacKay has, once more, proved to be a great translator. His exceptional ability to render unusually difficult and heterogenous French philosophical texts into stylistically gratifying and elegant English prose has been a more than welcome gift to those unable to read the original texts. His translations of the philosophy and literature of Gilles Châtelet, François J. Bonnet, and Gabriel Catren, not to mention a few short texts by Cavaillès, all have an unprecedented quality. The publishing house, Urbanomic, which MacKay founded in 2006, has been an invaluable source for those trying to renegotiate the limits of philosophical creativity. The series of books published together with Sequence Press is the perfect place for Cavaillès’ treatise to re-appear, his work resonates in a strange but enrapturing harmony with that of Land, Laruelle and Zalameo.

The other translator, Knox Peden, has done much to make Cavaillès’ known in the Anglo-Saxon world. His work Spinoza Contra Phenomenology: French Rationalism from Cavaillès to Deleuze (2014) is an excellent introduction not only to Cavaillès’ work, but also to the French rationalist tradition of which Cavaillès is part. He convincingly argues how we should not only read figures, such as Jean-Toussiant Desanti and Althusser, for historiographical reasons, but for philosophical reasons as well: their philosophical attitude – regardless of its conspicuous shortcomings – remains persuasive. Peden’s introduction adequately narrates Cavaillès’ biography while demonstrating the importance of the concept of necessity in Cavaillès’ work and elaborating upon his position vis-à-vis phenomenology.

Naturally, this is not a perfect translation, and there are choices made by the two translators that are questionable. For example, Peden and MacKay have chosen concatenation as a translation of enchaînement. They choose this word to stress the conceptual continuity between Cavaillès’ philosophy and that of Spinoza and Descartes, but Cavaillès probably picked up this word from Brouwer’s work on the concept of rijen, which is usually translated into English by the word sequences. Footnotes clarifying the obscure references would also have been helpful – especially given the exceptional difficulty and sometimes even obscurity of Cavaillès’ thought.

Still, this new translation is a great opportunity to re-engage with Cavaillès’ treatise. It opens up the possibility of creating a moment that adheres to his vision. A philosopher, whose work breathed cosmopolitanism, and who already at the age of 26 argued in a review of The Second Davos University Conference (2021) that ‘any limitation involves a privation: like those fulgurations with which Leibniz’s God engendered the monads, it is the same spiritual universe that is expressed by French rationalist reflection and German phenomenology’ is one that deserves to be read outside of a small circle of specialists in French epistemology (10). Cavaillès always thought that ‘rapprochement’ between particularisms within philosophy is part of the road to progress (9). For him, it was ‘obvious that they will benefit from coming out of their splendid isolation (like two inland seas), to open up between them channels of communication that will procure for both of them greater movement and fecundity’ (10).

Jean Cavaillès: On the Logic and Theory of Science

On Logic and the Theory of Science Book Cover On Logic and the Theory of Science
Jean Cavaillès. Introductory notice by Georges Canguilhem and Charles Ehresmann. Introduction by Knox Peden. Translated by Translated by Knox Peden and Robin Mackay
Urbanomic/Sequence Press
Paperback $18.95

Reviewed by: Massimiliano Simons (Ghent University)

Why read an obscure, enigmatic and technical treatise on philosophy of science by a half-forgotten philosopher of mathematics, let alone translate it? It seems that there are plenty of reasons to do so. The work of Jean Cavaillès (1930-1944), and especially his final work Sur la logique et la théorie de la science, is typically seen as the starting point of a ‘philosophy of the concept’. Together with Gaston Bachelard, Georges Canguilhem and Michel Foucault, Cavaillès is labeled as one of the main representatives of the French tradition of historical epistemology.

The project of a philosophy of the concept mainly gained fame due to Foucault, who popularized it in his foreword to the English translation of Canguilhem’s The Normal and The Pathological in 1978. Here he claims that to understand Canguilhem, one needs to fall back on the work of Cavaillès. Taking Husserl’s Paris 1929 lecture series as their starting point, phenomenology was developed in France in two radically different ways. On the one hand there is the well-known existential phenomenology, starting with Sartre’s ‘Transcendence de l’Ego’ (1935). But on the other hand there was Cavaillès, who put Husserl’s philosophy of science and mathematics at the center. According to Foucault, these two opposing phenomenological projects shaped 20th-century French philosophy:

It is the line that separates a philosophy of experience, of sense and of subject and a philosophy of knowledge, of rationality and of concept. On the one hand, one network is that of Sartre and Merleau-Ponty; and then another is that of Cavaillès, Bachelard and Canguilhem. In other words, we are dealing with two modalities according to which phenomenology was taken up in France, when quite late – around 1930 – it finally began to be, if not known, at least recognized. Contemporary philosophy in France began in those years. (Foucault 1978, 8)

The source of this ‘philosophy of the concept’ lies in the last few, rather enigmatic pages of Cavaillès ultimate work, here delivered in a new translation by Robin Mackay and Knox Peden for Urbanomic Press. The notion itself is in fact only introduced in the penultimate line of the book: “It is not a philosophy of consciousness but a philosophy of the concept that can yield a doctrine of science. The generative necessity is not that of an activity, but of a dialectic.” (p. 136) The book itself, which is both dense and short, is mainly a critique of the existing philosophies of science in early 20th-century philosophy with a focus on Kant, Carnap and Husserl. Only in the final pages Cavaillès makes some suggestions on what his alternative would be. For sure, Cavaillès intended to develop this alternative elsewhere, perhaps in the intended introduction he wanted to write. These plans did not materialize due to his early death.

Nevertheless, his promise of an alternative to the ‘philosophy of consciousness’ was taken up in French philosophy, in the form of a mythology around the figure of Cavaillès. When I say ‘myth’ I do not so much mean ‘wrong’ or ‘false’, but first of all that it functions as a myth. This means that the truth value of the myth is secondary to its effects – which have been plenty in the self-understanding of a number of French philosophers. The myth consists of three parts: (1) Cavaillès’ essay contains a set of devastating arguments against Husserlian phenomenology, making any phenomenological philosophy untenable; (2) Cavaillès replaced phenomenology with his own alternative, a philosophy of the concept; and (3) this alternative boils down to a form of Spinozism. Let us have a closer look at these three components of this mythology.

The first part is that Cavaillès’ work contains a number of knock-out arguments against Husserlian phenomenology. The final part of the book indeed deals with Husserl’s philosophy of science, as developed by the latter in Formale und transzendentale Logik (1929). Though Cavaillès formulates numerous criticisms, two main objections stand out: the issue of incompleteness and the dilemma of Cavaillès.

The incompleteness issue concerns Husserl believe that it is both possible and desirable to develop a fully-formalized mathematics in the line of David Hilbert’s formalism. That entails that it is capable to articulate and prove its own completeness: any true statement that can be articulated within the formal axiomatic system concerning its object of research can also be proven within that system. And though a common belief when Husserl’s book was published, a few years later it was radically shattered when in 1931 Kurt Gödel published his incompleteness theorems, showing that Hilbert’s program was impossible. Cavaillès was one of the first who saw the consequences of Gödel’s theorems for the Husserlian project, since it too relied on Hilbert’s program, endorsing its ideal of completeness as a central aspect of the phenomenological logic:

For we are familiar with Gödel’s result: any theory containing the arithmetic of whole numbers – which is to say basically any mathematical theory – is necessarily non-saturated. […] For the Husserlian conception of logic and mathematics this affair is particularly serious. In the first place, the very notion of a theory that can be fully dominated and isolated can no longer be maintained. (pp. 128-129)

A second issue consists in a fundamental dilemma that Cavaillès presents to Husserl. The latter aims not only for mathematical completeness, but also for a foundation of science that is both transcendental and absolute. Husserl had the ambition to ground all logical norms in the transcendental subject and its subjective acts. But simultaneously, Husserl hoped for an absoluteness of these norms: they cannot be questioned or relativized in any way. For Cavaillès the trouble arises if one combines both claims: if logical norms are constituted through subjective acts, these acts themselves call for a set of norms to ground them. But these underlying norms would in turn demand a foundation in subjective acts. To avoid an infinite regress, Husserl has to choose between the transcendental and the absolute character of his project. Hence the dilemma of Cavaillès: “If transcendental logic truly grounds logic then there is no absolute logic (i.e., a logic governing absolute subjective activity). If there is an absolute logic it can draw its authority only from itself; it is not transcendental.” (p. 120)

Similar to Husserl and Hilbert, and many other early 20th-century philosophers and scientists, Cavaillès was concerned with the new scientific developments, provoking a foundational crisis of mathematics: if radical historical transformations of mathematics were possible, what then was the foundation of rationality, mathematics, science? In a typical French manner, Cavaillès searched for the answer not in the atemporal, but in the historical: mathematics was rational not despite, but because of its history. The normative force, required to elevate mathematics above contingency, was to be found in its historical developments, where each new result bolstered the past results, but also provoked the next steps. In his primary thesis Méthode axiomatique et formalisme, Cavaillès would define understanding in a similarly dynamic way: “to understand is to capture the gesture, and to be able to continue it” (Cavaillès 1994, 186). Mathematics, and science in general, is understood, not so much as a set of thoughts, but rather in terms of gestures, which Cavaillès often referred to, somewhat misleadingly, under the banner of ‘experience’ (see Cortois 1996).

While terms such as gesture and experience suggests a philosophy of consciousness, this is countered through the third part of the mythology: Spinozism. Cavaillès was the face of a revival of interest in Spinozism, again seen as the alternative to phenomenology. In the words of Gilles-Gaston Granger, another proponent of this myth, it came down to “Jean Cavaillès or the climb to Spinoza” (Granger 1947). Cavaillès, sive Spinoza. The Spinozist reading it provided must have indeed sounded as music in the ears of the anti-humanist turn in the 1960s. Cavaillès, according to this reading, “set out to develop a philosophy without a subject” (Canguilhem 1994, 686).

We thus have a philosophy of science seen from the perspective of gestures. But these gestures are not grounded in a transcendental subject, but, following Spinoza, in the effective development of the successive theoretical concepts. The legitimacy of the concepts is found in these concepts themselves, in the normative force by which they call forth, by a form of necessity, one another. It is in this sense that another famous passage of the book is typically read:

Yet one of the essential problems for the doctrine of science is precisely that progress cannot be a mere increase in volume by juxtaposition, the prior subsisting with the new, but must be a perpetual revision of contents by way of deepening and erasure [rature]. What is after is more than what was before, not because it contains it or even because it extends it, but because it exists from it necessarily and bears within its content the singular mark, each time, of its superiority. There is more consciousness in it – and not the same consciousness as before. (pp. 135-136)

As a result, and especially from the 1960s onwards, Cavaillès’ work was used in French philosophy as an argument for the obsolescence of phenomenology. For instance, when Sartre attacked Foucault’s Les mots et les choses as a reactionary work, Canguilhem responded by invoking the authority of Cavaillès:

Cavaillès assigned the phenomenological enterprise its limits even before that enterprise had exhibited its unlimited ambitions – even in France itself, which is to say, with a certain lag – and he assigned, twenty years in advance, the task that philosophy is in the process of accepting today – the task of substituting for the primacy of experienced or reflexive consciousness the primacy of concepts, systems, or structures. (Canguilhem 1994, 92)

This mythological authority similarly found its way in to the work of many prominent French scholars, ranging from Jean-Toussaint Desanti, Gilles-Gaston Granger, Étienne Balibar to Alain Badiou. Despite the lack of any substantial elaboration by Cavaillès’ of what this philosophy of the concept entailed, his work was nevertheless used as a shovel to bury the philosophies of the past, most notably phenomenology and existentialism. Cavaillès’ alternative was indeed often quite easily equated with the structuralism and anti-humanism of the 1960s. These ideas not only inspired Canguilhem or Foucault, but were central to the Marxism of Louis Althusser as well, who mobilized Spinoza to purge Marxism from any form of Humanism. When Althusser, in his later self-criticisms, turned his gaze to his previous work, he could proudly proclaim that he was no structuralist: “We were guilty of an equally powerful and compromising passion: we were Spinozists.” (Althusser 1976, 132)

But Cavaillès’ biography gave this Spinozism an additional, political dimension. Similar to his friend Albert Lautman and Canguilhem, Cavaillès joined the resistance. While Canguilhem survived, both Cavaillès and Lautman tragically died. In the case of Cavaillès, he was first arrested in Narbonne in 1942, by the French police and ended up in a prison camp in Montpellier. It was during this imprisonment that he wrote this book, which partly explains the dense character of the text and the often liberal quotations, since Cavaillès was restricted in time and resources (though Lautman brought him several books). But with the manuscript in hand, he soon escaped from the prison camp though, due to betrayal, he was arrested again in August 1943 and eventually shot. The book On Logic and the Theory of Science was thus only published posthumously in 1947, by Georges Canguilhem and the mathematician Charles Ehresmann, who also picked the generic title for the book. In a letter of 1941 to Brunschvicg, Cavaillès announced that he was writing a work called L’expérience mathématique, while to Canguilhem and Ehresmann he spoke of a Traité de la logique. The truth seemed to be somewhere in between.

This political dimension of Cavaillès’ biography has been mobilized extensively in this mythology. Raymond Aron, who was a good friend of Cavaillès, later reported how Cavaillès entrusted to him in 1943 that “I am a Spinozist. I believe that we are seizing the necessary everywhere. The necessary in the sequences of mathematics, the necessary even in the stages of mathematical science, the necessary also in this struggle that we lead.” (quoted in Canguilhem 1976, 31) Or, in a variation that Aron cites in his own preface to Cavaillès’ Philosophie mathématique: “I am a Spinozist, we must resist, fight, face death. This is what truth and reason demand.” (Aron 1962, 14) Philosophers such as Canguilhem or Foucault did not hesitate to use this political activism against their opponents. In the same reply of Canguilhem to Sartre, he immediately added:

Shot by the Nazis for his Resistance activity, Cavaillès, who called himself a Spinozist and did not believe in history in the existential sense, refuted in advance – by the action he felt himself impelled to undertake, by his participation in the history that he lived out tragically until his death – the argument of those who seek to discredit what they call structuralism by condemning it to generate, among other misdeeds, passivity in the face of reality. (Canguilhem 1994, 92)

Foucault, in a similar vein, invokes this image in an interview in the 1980s, when he was focusing on Greek philosophy and techniques of the self:

The key to the personal poetic attitude of a philosopher is not to be sought in his ideas, as if it could be deduced from them, but rather in his philosophy-as-life, in his philosophical, life, his ethos. Among the French philosophers who participated in the Resistance during the war, one was Cavaillès, a historian of mathematics who was interested in the development of its internal structures. None of the philosophers of engagement – Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty – none of them did a thing. (Foucault 1984, 374)

It is thus this triple mythology – Cavaillès burying phenomenology, replacing it with a philosophy of the concept, inspired by Spinoza – that still motivates many philosophers to take up this otherwise challenging and technical treatise on the philosophy of science. The fact that this book is now translated in English (again) testifies to a similar growing interest in the Anglo-American world. There has indeed been a booming cottage industry of Anglophone papers dealing with Cavaillès’ philosophy of the concept, and its criticisms of Husserlian phenomenology (e.g. Hyder 2003; Thompson 2008; Peña-Guzmán 2020). Most of this literature tends to take over this mythology, though often stressing more continuity with phenomenology – an element already found in Foucault. The most exemplary case, perhaps, is an earlier book by Knox Peden, who helped realize this novel translation of Cavaillès and provided it with a helpful introduction. In his Spinoza Contra Phenomenology (2014) Peden repeated this mythology of how Cavaillès is the source of an anti-phenomenological tendency in France, continued by Bachelard, Desanti, Althusser and Gilles Deleuze.

Ironically, while this productive mythology is spreading in the Anglophone world, it is more and more problematized in France. The last decades of scholarship on Cavaillès have further substantiated a number of doubts concerning this triple narrative. First of all, the central role of Spinoza have been questioned, or at least completed with an acknowledgment that Cavaillès’ philosophy of the concept was inspired by other authors as well, such as Hegel (e.g. Sinaceur 2013).

The second main question is whether Cavaillès’ criticisms of Husserl are indeed as devastating as often portrayed. For instance, the young Jacques Derrida already tried to defend Husserl’s project against Cavaillès’ use of Gödel. In his master thesis on Le problème de la genèse dans la philosophie de Husserl (only published in 1990), he suggested that completeness is merely a kind of regulative ideal for Husserl, one that does not need to be realizable. Another option is offered by the daughter of Gaston, Suzanne Bachelard (1957) who suggests that there are multiple notions of completeness at work in Husserl’s philosophy, and that only some of them were refuted by Gödel. Hence, Husserl’s project can remain meaningful, even if one acknowledges the incompleteness theorems.

As part of the secondary literature has noticed, Cavaillès is at many points not that far off from phenomenology itself. It could thus be read, not so much as the destruction, but as a transformation of phenomenology. This is also announced in the lines immediately following Cavaillès’ dilemma: “Perhaps subsequent phenomenological investigations will allow us at least to contest such a brutally posited dilemma.” (p. 120) And to his credit, Peden seems to follow this suggestion in his introduction, playing down his earlier claims in Spinoza contra Phenomenology, and acknowledges that “it is both anachronistic and an overstatement to suggest that there was anything anti-phenomenological about Cavaillès’s work in its original conception. Moreover, criticizing Husserl for his errant steps is par for the course in the phenomenological tradition and Cavaillès is no exception to this tendency.” (p. 11)

And indeed the work of Cavaillès is a reminder of an alternative way phenomenology could have been developed in France, one not focused so much on anthropology and daily experience, but one that continued the Husserlian ambition to explore science in a phenomenological manner. In fact, this tradition exist, but not so much associated with a philosophy of the concept, but rather with authors such as Suzanne Bachelard, Trần Đức Thảo and Jean-Toussaint Desanti. Each in their own way attempted to use phenomenological methods to analyze the methods and products of science.

But even such a reappraisal of Cavaillès as a phenomenologist still risk to fall for another form of anachronism, as if phenomenology was the dominant and only philosophy around in France in the 1930s. This is indirectly suggested by Peden’s introduction (as well as most other Anglophone literature), ignoring Cavaillès’ interactions with other forms of philosophy of science. In the secondary literature, the motivation to focus on phenomenology seems to be one of relevance: given that Cavaillès is nowadays anachronistically classified as continental philosophy, the audience expects a focus on Husserl, not David Hilbert or Rudolf Carnap. This is somewhat surprising, since most of Cavaillès’ essay is focused on other theories, ranging from Kantianism to Logical Positivism. What is therefore perhaps missing in the introduction of Peden, is a sketch of these debates as well.

Moreover, in its current form, the book risks to fall prey not only to a form of anachronism, but also to a typical Anglophone tendency to canonize. The danger is not only to forget minor philosophers (a fate that Cavaillès shared for a long time), but also to immediately canonize newly discovered philosophers in an abstract, contextless hall of fame. This leads to abstract discussions where Cavaillès is compared to Spinoza, Kant, Husserl and Heidegger in a ahistorical fashion, as if they were all part of an eternal and continuous philosophical debate. This tends to forget that the history of philosophy is often more fragmentary.

First of all, it is necessary to ask how the work of the ‘great’ philosophers reached Cavaillès: who introduced him to Spinoza or Kant? The main interpreter of Kant and Spinoza in the early 20th-century was Léon Brunschvicg (1869-1944), supervisor of, among others, (Gaston) Bachelard, Cavaillès, Lautman and Aron. Brunschvicg was the most influential French philosopher at that time, with the possible exception of Henri Bergson (see Terzi 2022). But both Brunschvicg and Bergson were two very divergent products of the French tradition of spiritualism, the specific way how Kant was taken up in France, with a stress on the faculty of judgment and the notion of reflexivity. Though originally opposed to scientific philosophy, it transformed itself at the end of the 19th century, under the name of reflexive analysis (analyse réflexive), represented by authors such as Jules Lagneau and Jules Lachelier, in a Kantian philosophy that developed an interest in science as well, exemplified by the work of Émile Boutroux and Brunschvicg. It was this French Kantianism that fundamentally shaped the thought of Bachelard, Cavaillès and Canguilhem.

Being a clear form of subject-centered philosophy, it is most likely that Cavaillès’ attacks on a ‘philosophy of consciousness’ are not merely aimed at the new, and at that time in France still mostly ignored movement of phenomenology, but at French spiritualism as well. From this angle, the fact that he starts his book with Kantianism appears in a new light, and Cavaillès does extensively engage with the work of his supervisor, Brunschvicg (59-61). Therefore the claim that the philosophy of the concept came into being through a confrontation with phenomenology might be misleading. Quite telling, when Foucault later published a French version of his introduction, he left phenomenology out of the picture and broadened his claims: “Without doubt, this cleavage comes from a long way and we could trace it back through the 19th century: Bergson and Poincaré, Lachelier and Couturat, Maine de Biran and Comte.” (Foucault 1985, 4)

Such a broader history of the philosophy of the concept raises a number of additional questions, well-articulated by Cassou-Noguès and Pascale Gillot (2009): is the philosophy of concept a normative project, to be realized in a future philosophy, or a descriptive claim, referring to an eternal and recurrent constant in the history of philosophy? And against what is a philosophy of the concept precisely opposed? Too often terms such as consciousness, subjectivity, experience and meaning are simply used interchangeably in these often rash oppositions. It becomes especially difficult once one acknowledges that several of the early protagonists of the philosophy of the concept, such as Gaston Bachelard, Alexandre Koyré or the early Canguilhem, defended philosophies that had a clear place for the subject, exemplified perhaps best by Bachelard’s ‘new scientific spirit’ (Bachelard 1934). Only after the Second World War did the anti-humanism and anti-psychologism, that are typically associated with the philosophy of the concept, become dominant.

The originality of Cavaillès resides in the fact that his philosophy was indeed one of the first French philosophies who did – but never as radical as later generations would have it – take a distance from a philosophy of science centered around the subject. Cavaillès’s motivations to do so most likely were linked to the fact that he was one of the first in France to really engage with the new German developments in logic and philosophy of science. But again, it would be misleading to simply assume that this was bound to happen and that France was simply one of the last resisting strongholds doomed to fall for the new logic. The real history of philosophy of science is more contingent. That these developments would become so central for philosophy of science’s self-identity was never a necessity. Cavaillès’ fate could equally have been one of complete oblivion.

This leads us to our second correction of the mythology: there was also an atmosphere of complete ignorance and even dismissal of what was going on in philosophy outside of France. Though it was Brunschvicg who co-invited Husserl to Paris in 1929, he was not that interested. He did not even attend his lectures, but only met Husserl a few days later, when the latter went to the doctoral defense of Alexandre Koyré (who had studied with Husserl). Gaston Bachelard was similarly absent. It highlights how far apart philosophical worlds at that time were.

Cavaillès’ interest in and familiarity with German philosophy was rather exceptional at that time. In 1930-1931 he would stay in Germany on a Rockefeller scholarship to study German Protestantism, during which he met Husserl. He also attended the infamous Davos debate between Cassirer and Heidegger (see Cavaillès 1929) and the Wiener Kreis Vorkonferenz in Prague in 1934, where the Vienna Circle presented itself to the international philosophical scene for the first time (see Cavaillès 1935). Though Brunschvicg and Bachelard were invited, they declined. This highlights another perhaps underappreciated dimension of Cavaillès book, namely that the main perceived threat for Cavaillès was perhaps not so much phenomenology or French spiritualism, but the new movement of logical positivism. More than phenomenology, logical positivism challenged French philosophy, even at home. In 1935, logical positivism held its first international conference in Paris. And despite attempts by French representatives of logical positivism, such as Louis Rougier, to invite Brunschvicg, Bachelard and Cavaillès, most French philosophers responded with indifference and hostility (see Dewulf and Simons 2021). French philosophers of science, exemplified by Brunschvicg, had a distaste for logic, rejecting the idea that science and mathematics could be reduced to them.

Again Cavaillès was the exception in taking this movement seriously. But again this engagement should not be simply understood as the moment when the great lessons of German and British philosophy – Cavaillès discusses Russell and Wittgenstein as well – finally seeped into French philosophy. Cavaillès absorptions of these developments was one that immediately also digested them in order to produce something new. Cavaillès was not the only to do so. In fact, in 1938 Rougier reported to Hans Reichenbach how, in response to the 1935 conference, French philosophers were closing ranks and aimed for a counteroffensive. One first step towards this project was a gathering in September 1938 at Amersfoort in the Netherlands. Ferdinand Gonseth, the central organizer, would write about this conference: “We were quite a large group, from which I still recall Bachelard and his daughter Suzanne, Barzin, Bayer, Dupréel, Destouches, Paulette Février, Ebbinghaus, Tarski, Tatarkiewicz, and especially Jean Cavaillès.” (quoted in Emery 2000, 177-178)

Whether and in what form such a French counter-alliance would have taken shape could never be tested, since it was interrupted, literally during the conference, by incoming news: the first mobilization. Germany and France were at the brink of war. Cavaillès and some others, such Bachelard, decided to leave the conference and return to France. Bachelard returned to Paris and mainly start writing on poetics and imagination; Gonseth went back to Switzerland; both Cavaillès and Lautman joined the war effort and tragically died. No genuine French counter-alliance was formed, but for both Cavaillès and Lautman it was clear that the Vienna Circle was the adversary, and hence the reason why it plays a prominent part in the second part of this book. Especially Carnap was the opponent. While in captivity, Cavaillès would write to Lautman about Carnaps as “their old enemy of the Logische Syntax der Sprache” (quoted in Ferrières, 1950: 164).

Cavaillès’ On Logic and the Theory of Science is thus misleadingly technical in its content, as if what is at stake is nothing but highly specialized arguments in philosophy of science and mathematics. In truth, the stakes were higher and the book is a witness to a genuine struggle for identity: what is the task of philosophy of science? What is the correct way to approach scientific practices and their history? This little book is the battleground of all the major candidates at the beginning of the 20th century: spiritualism, logicism, phenomenology, logical positivism, intuitionism, formalism, and so on. Cavaillès did not pick sides, but attempted to develop his own alternative. In that sense, he practiced what he preached: to understand is to capture the gesture, and to be able to continue it. It is this aborted continuation that, though often shed of its contextual skin, has been the fertilizer for the philosophy of the concept in France and historical epistemology in general.


Althusser, L. 1976. Essays in Self-Criticism. New York: Schocken Books.

Aron, R. 1962. “Préface.” In: Cavaillès, J. Philosophie mathématique, 11-16. Paris: Hermann.

Bachelard, G. 1934. Le nouvel esprit scientifique. Paris: Alcan.

Bachelard, S. 1957. La logique de Husserl: étude sur logique formelle et logique transcendantale. Paris: PUF.

Canguilhem, G.  1976. Vie et mort de Jean Cavaillès. Les Carnets de Baudasser: Villefranche d’Albigeois.

Canguilhem, G. 1994. “The Death of Man, or Exhaustion of the Cogito?” In: Gutting, G. (Ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Michel Foucault, 74-94. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cassou-Noguès, P., and Gillot, P. 2009. Le concept, le sujet et la science: Cavaillès, Canguilhem, Foucault. Paris: Vrin.

Cavaillès, J. 1929. “Les deuxièmes Cours Universitaire de Davos.”  In: Die II. Davoser Hochshulkurser. Les IImes Cours Universitaires de Davos du 17 mars au 6 avril 1929, 65-81. Davos: Kommissionsverlag, Heintz, Neu, & Zahn.

Cavaillès, J. 1935. “L’école de Vienne au Congrès de Prague.” Revue de métaphysique et de morale, 42(1), 137-149.

Cavaillès, J. 1994. Œuvres complètes de Philosophie des sciences. Paris: Hermann.

Cortois, P. 1996. The Structure of Mathematical Experience According to Jean Cavaillès. Philosophia Mathematica, 4(1), 18-41.

Derrida, J. 1990. Le problème de la genèse dans la philosophie de Husserl. PUF: Paris.

Dewulf, F., and Simons, M. 2021. “Positivism in Action: The Case of Louis Rougier.” HOPOS: The Journal of the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science, 11(2).

Emery, E. 2000. “La notion de temps chez Bachelard et Gonseth.” In: Gayon, J. and Wunenburger, J. Bachelard dans le monde, 177-186. Paris: PUF.

Ferrières, G. 1950. Jean Cavaillès, un philosophe dans la guerre 1903-1944. Paris: PUF.

Foucault, M. 1978. “Introduction.” In: Canguilhem, G. On the Normal and the Pathological, xi-xx. Dordrecht: Reidel.

Foucault, M. 1984. The Foucault Reader. New York (N.Y.): Pantheon Books.

Foucault, M. 1985. “La vie : L’expérience et la science.” Revue de métaphysique et de morale, 90(1), 3-14.

Granger, G. 1947. “Jean Cavaillès ou la montée vers Spinoza.” Les études Philosophiques, 2(3/4), 271-279.

Hyder, D. 2003. “Foucault, Cavaillès, and Husserl on the Historical Epistemology of the Sciences.” Perspectives on Science, 11(1), 107-129.

Peden, K. 2014. Spinoza contra phenomenology: French rationalism from Cavaillès to Deleuze. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Peña-Guzmán, D. 2020. “Not Phenomenology’s ‘Other’: Historical Epistemology’s Critique and Expansion of Phenomenology.” In: Apostolescu, I. (Ed.). The Subject of Phenomenology. Rereading Husserl, 355-380. Cham: Springer.

Sinaceur, H. 2013. Cavaillès. Paris: Belles Lettres.

Terzi, P. 2022. Rediscovering Léon Brunschvicg’s Critical Idealism. Philosophy, History and Science in the Third Republic. London: Bloomsbury.

Thompson, K. 2008. “Historicity and Transcendentality: Foucault, Cavaillès, and the Phenomenology of the Concept.” History and Theory, 47(1), 1-18.

Philip Flock: Das Phänomenologische und das Symbolische: Marc Richirs Phänomenologie der Sinnbildung, Springer, 2021

Das Phänomenologische und das Symbolische: Marc Richirs Phänomenologie der Sinnbildung Book Cover Das Phänomenologische und das Symbolische: Marc Richirs Phänomenologie der Sinnbildung
Phaenomenologica, Vol. 234
Philip Bastian Flock
Hardback 77,75 €
X, 338

Nicolas de Warren: Original Forgiveness

Original Forgiveness Book Cover Original Forgiveness
Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy
Nicolas de Warren
Northwestern University Press
Paperback $28.00

Reviewed by: Fiona Utley (University of New England, Australia)


As Nicolas de Warren’s title—Original Forgiveness—indicates, this text, working across philosophy and literature, maps out a depth of forgiveness understood through its relation to trust as a fundamental condition for human existence. The terrain explored, in what is a rich and complex book, aims to “motivate” and “explore” a way of thinking about forgiveness that goes beyond forgiveness as encounter and its basis in our sense of singular being and the freedom, autonomy, and personal interests that such framing evokes.

“We begin and end in trust” is a foundational theme throughout a meditation that ultimately finds its way to Levinas’s provocative ethics and its displacement of an ‘original freedom’ by an ‘original responsibility’ for the Other. De Warren argues that:

In this original binding of responsibility, trust is not given to the Other from my freedom, nor do I receive trust from the Other in my freedom, but rather am already entrusted with a responsibility for the Other and thus am already bound to be oneself available for the Other… (202)

The precise nature of this “original binding of responsibility” and the significance of Levinas’s ethics for thinking about forgiveness is the focus of de Warren’s final two chapters, and thus the fullness of de Warren’s argument for an original forgiveness is grounded in the context of what is often seen as a puzzling and challenging philosophy.

Recognising the challenge of the Levinasian argument, de Warren’s text begins with a focus on how we understand our experience of trust, trust’s failures, and the question of forgiveness, developing this over the first six chapters to reveal how our understandings presume an experience of binding through an originary entrustment. We are not born as individual subjects, rather, it is through our being entrusted to the care of others that we become the subjectivity that we are. The Other is, de Warren argues, a lining of our self, as we are the lining of others.

Here, we find that trust as foundational is to be understood through our being entrusted “with a responsibility for the Other” that we did not choose; rather, we find ourselves responsible. Moreover, it is through such binding that we come to be who we are as, in Levinasian terms, creaturely beings rather than the being of ontology. The issue of forgiveness is therefore unable to be conceived outside of this originary opening on to the world.

I have already committed myself down the path of forgiveness. Even if we never arrive (and we never fully arrive or arrive fully) at forgiveness, I am always walking along this path with you. In belonging to the Other in trust, we are from the beginning already, and, in this sense, ‘originally’, on the path toward—available for—forgiveness. (179)

Availability towards forgiveness is thus a structural feature of a foundational trust as entrustment. In the understanding that de Warren is building, such availability is the necessary precondition for our encounters with forgiveness. Importantly, whilst being a precondition for encounters of forgiveness, de Warren is not suggesting that our original availability forgives ‘in advance’. Rather, and in accordance with the trust that is its ground, availability “resurrects the unforgiveable one, raising them, as it were, to the standing of a person who could be forgiven or not forgiven, allowing them, as well as myself, to enter into the encounter of forgiveness” (179, my italics).

Yet, in understanding our availability to Others, we have still not arrived at the full significance of original forgiveness that de Warren is working towards. De Warren is not mounting an argument for a concept of original forgiveness that could be claimed as a “’new’ principle of forgiveness … (as duty, demand, imperative, charity, etc.)”, nor is original forgiveness “inscribable within any dialectic or dialogue of question and answer” (214). Through Levinas’s philosophy of original responsibility, de Warren is unfolding its significance as:

a forgiveness that I am, as marking the stigmata of here I am, without which, pursuant of Levinas’s thinking the significance of what it is to be a creature, beholden to an original responsibility for the Other, could not be thought to its necessary extreme: the transcendence of the Good. (214)

Our individual need to be redeemed and restored to the “ethical standing of the person” through availability to forgiveness is, thus, de Warren argues, to be returned “home to the life-world” (79). Our journey through de Warren’s discussion brings to clarity how it is an understanding of a self who is displaced “from its own self-conceited and self-regarding freedom” (204) that can make this so. Significantly, through de Warren’s exploration of Jean Amery’s account of his “catastrophic loss of trust in the world” through an “existential abandonment” (209)—the betrayal of an original entrustment as the responsibility of others—de Warren demonstrates that even in this binding of trust desecration can occur.

Thus, the understanding of original forgiveness generated here is significant for the socio-political realm, and for the question of the nature of “evil” more generally. The fundamental question of our being together in a mutual vulnerability and availability to forgiveness does not, and must not indulge others in their trespasses, but can, however, allow both individual life and human society to continue anew; an essential aspect of politics if we are to respect each other’s freedom. De Warren identifies how the trustworthiness of the world, emerging through our early infant experience, and giving our skin as border and containment a special significance (referring here to the work of Didier Anzieu), must be generated, maintained, and regenerated anew through the development of multi-perspectival narratives of the truth of our experience (referring here to Arendt).

Drawing on an impressive range of resources, de Warren’s work is a significant contribution to philosophical reflection on the nature and experience of trust and forgiveness, and an insightful and welcome reading of Levinas’s radical ethic, teasing out the implications of original responsibility through its inevitable failures and the unavoidable question of forgiveness. The overall arc of de Warren’s thought is structured to facilitate an ever-deepening reflection on what I read as its dual aims. Firstly, this is to develop an account of original forgiveness that exceeds and is the condition of possibility for forgiveness as encounter, and, secondly, in this undertaking, to take up some of the unfinished suggestive aspects of Levinas’s radical ethic, specifically his claim that “to be myself is not to be definitive being, but being myself is to be pardoned” (245).

Our investments in thinking forgiveness as anchored in a specific encounter are strong, reflecting, and supported by, conceptions of the self as a singular, self-made individual, who has autonomy and rights. In many ways this is rightly so—understanding the significance of trust relations and the trustworthiness of others is crucial to adult life and a fundamental lesson that we teach our children, in order, not only that they may go safely into the world, but also to open them to the possibilities from having rich trusting relationships in life.  Our bonds of trust that begin in primordial existence sink to phenomenological invisibility and are not only forgotten, but difficult to bring into view, working as they do to constitute our sense of being in the world. Thus, the confrontational mode of Levinas’s ethic—the essential de-centering of the self—if we are to glimpse our original responsibility for the Other.

De Warren has developed a structure that is pertinent to the difficulty of thinking about trust and its primordial operation as an original binding through which subjectivity emerges, aiming to motivate the reader towards interrupting and disrupting our egoistic subjectivity, such that we can explore a deeper dimension of human relationality that he identifies as foundational, and thus the condition of possibility for forgiveness as encounter. While de Warren’s conception of original forgiveness is ultimately grounded in Levinas’s thinking, rather than positing the challenging idea of an original binding of responsibility, and going on to demonstrate how this opens us to insights around an original forgiveness, at the outset, the organisation of de Warren’s meditations, across eight chapters and an afterword, begin with reflections on the nature of trusting experience, individually, socially and politically.

Referring to Levinas’s own cautionary reflection, de Warren is clear about the difficulty of taking our thoughts into Levinas’s radical ethic: “[such] ethical thinking runs against the grain of commonplace intuitions and entrenched concepts” (210). Here he admits that our current conceptual frames around the singular individual, the will, individual agency and accountability, make an argument for an original responsibility (and thus for an original forgiveness) “less intuitive,” “less ‘natural’” (202), and that the significance of a responsibility that precedes one’s own standing in the world, is “not easily fathomed” (202).

Thus, the intended effect of de Warren’s chapter structure is for the text to build on itself, with each discussion and close reading of a range of resources opening reflection on what is implied, assumed or simply overlooked. We are directed to look at the more liminal aspects of experience, aspects that we are perhaps not immediately aware of if we rush to identify forgiveness as an encounter, warranted or not, in response to wrongdoing.

Interestingly, along with directly addressing the challenge of Levinas’s thinking, De Warren also identifies how the work of Hannah Arendt and Gabriel Marcel, philosophers whose work is central to the development of his reflections, utilised exploratory structures in order to open thinking to hitherto unthought aspects of moral and ethical existence. Arendt, for example, in “The Human Condition, does not provide a ‘theory’ of forgiveness but sketches instead ‘trains of thought’ from which a more elaborated account might find inspiration and orientation” (47-48), and Marcel identifies that his reflections on availability (disponibilité) have “’circuitous and perhaps perplexing’ character, styled as a défrichage, “meaning both ‘clearing’, as in clearing the ground in agriculture, and ‘groundwork’, as in laying the groundwork for construction” (146).[1]

In de Warren’s text we are skilfully guided through an extensive and multi-layered study of both philosophy and literature. De Warren shadows in the first pages of the text that we, as readers, are, in general, tacitly asked to trust the journey as we are taken on by an author. De Warren’s meditations, traversing a broad range of philosophical thinking and literary texts, all powerful in themselves, and here part of a larger philosophical terrain, require a profound attention from the reader, with the final two chapters stretching this thinking beyond what might feel ‘natural’ (202) or comfortable. De Warren re-visits familiar and classic philosophical texts dealing, in some way, with issues of trust and forgiveness. Through close and exacting readings of Annette Baier, Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Jean Améry, Mikhail Bahktin, Gabriel Marcel, and Emmanuel Levinas, de Warren gradually teases out, in sensitive and complex investigations that interpolate with literary readings, the more primordial aspects of trust and forgiveness—it is the depth of experience that he seeks to address. The richness and density of insight that develops through de Warren’s discussion is achieved through this dual textual examination. De Warren’s investigations of literary texts portraying the paradoxes and complexities of human justice, hospitality, and forgiveness, cover William Shakespeare, Heinrich von Kleist, Herman Melville, Simon Wiesenthal, Maurice Sendak, and, of particular note, in his presentation of a close reading of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, his bringing to our attention Levinas’s own debt to literature.

Alongside, and in response to the text, the reader is nudged and provoked to examine their own experiences of betrayal and availability for forgiveness and to go beyond the concerns and interests of themselves as ‘sovereign subject.’ The motivation de Warren aims for is, and must be, powerful, if we are to open ourselves to the full sense of what is meant by our original relationship of responsibility for others. As exemplified by Dostoyevsky’s character, Ivan, too often we find the

transformation of forgiveness into a transactional power of sovereignty that obscures and perverts the humility and majesty of an original availability to forgiveness, not as the waiting for forgiveness in the aftermath of injury but of that waiting before any encounter with the possibility or impossibility of forgiveness. (193)

It is the intensity of our investment in forgiveness as encounter that makes de Warren’s pathway necessary if we are to come close to understanding the depth and emotional complexity of being situated in an original forgiveness. Through de Warren’s philosophical and literary explorations, we are, rather, “led into the intricate weave” of thinking about trust and forgiveness (an approach that echoes Levinas’s own style), working between different but resonating registers of discourse that lead our thinking to a “different scene” (186).

Reading the chapters in order rewards the reader; the explorations build and bend, each “taking the time to find its own course” (7), all the while inducing us to look, again and again, at the manifold experiences of trust, betrayal and forgiveness, what links these, and, in doing so, gradually shifting our attention from a more well-known understanding of forgiveness to one that asks perhaps more of us than we at first might want to concede.

Thinking trust and forgiveness as originary: the first six chapters

Tracing the trajectory of de Warren’s reflections on trust, its undoings, and forgiveness, we find that de Warren is not focused on developing a comprehensive coverage of the philosophical work on trust, nor on distinguishing distinctive categories of understanding, such as separating trust from dependence, or trust from faith. Rather, drawing on the insights of Husserl, Heidegger, Baier, Løgstrup and Bakhtin, the overview of trust presented aims to draw out the ways that trust is a primordial, foundational binding, functioning as a condition of possibility for self and life-world. Trust is presented as an “elemental form of participation or involvement”, leading to de Warren concluding that “we do not simply live with others: we live with others in us much as we live in others” (30) such that we experience “trusting [as] an assured capacity of coupling”, through which we “[apprehend] the Other as known to me, as known in me, within the arc of my own self-knowledge (34). It is precisely because the other exists as a sort of edging or lining of myself, and that relations of trust require our nurturing that trusting involves me in a responsibility to this relationship and to the Other that is a responsibility of some intimacy, to self and other.

The existence and function of trust as constitutive ground, however, disappears from view. Our bonds of care and responsibilities are submerged, and we retreat into a sense of ourselves as sovereign agents. Insights familiar to scholars of trust are presented here: for example, trust as intimately intertwined with our sense of self-assuredness, with betrayals of trust leading to a feeling of not knowing who we were to have trusted, nor who it was whom I once trusted. Such betrayals not only remind us of the constitutional significance of trust, but this nature of trust as foundational necessarily has us open to ruptures and failures of trust.

It is particularly pleasing to see de Warren develop a view of trust that brings together and substantially explores the relations between trust in the world, trust in others, and self-trust. The examination of these three existential forms of trust throughout the text is a significant contribution of de Warren’s work. De Warren uses this structuring to develop our thinking about the ways that these domains of trust participate in each other, thus reminding us that while separated out for exploration, they always operate as differing registers of our constitutive experience.

Importantly, also, we are introduced to the point that when we trust we are entering a commitment and responsibility where we do not know what this will entail. Thus, he says, “trusting gains its meaning from this responsibility for our trusts without yet understanding the rules, meanings, and expectations of our trust” (7). This point—that we trust because we do not know, and we do not know at multiple levels—is often overlooked in accounts that consider warranted trust or the obligations of trust. De Warren unfolds the significance of our openness to a future that remains unknown, and how our availability for the Other is an availability through a self that will be demanded without rehearsal; that is, we do not yet know who or what we might need to be in order to remain in such availability to the Other.

The development of thinking about trust, its undoings, and hence the question of forgiveness, is presented as intertwined. An examination of Hannah Arendt’s “exemplary account” of forgiveness as encounter, which de Warren endorses (presented in Chapter 2), draws out how this tacitly presupposes an abiding availability to forgiveness. Interrogated through the lens of the redemptive significance of a dialogical approach to forgiveness as narrative, and its requirement for social renewal, de Warren identifies an assumption of availability to forgiveness in order to keep our responsibility towards nurturing trust relations—in the world, self and others—as grounding our sociality.

The way forward for de Warren is to scrutinise the pivotal aspects of Arendt’s account that signify a redemptive significance of forgiveness, and we see that our responsibility towards nurturing and nourishing trusting relations includes availability as a listening in openness to the perspective of the other, understanding that forgiveness is not to erase the event of betrayal, but to allow both parties to move on, to not be tied to this one event as representative of future trustworthiness: “Forgiveness recovers—and, in this sense, redeems—who the person can (still) become from (just) being what the person has done (64).

De Warren’s expanding and deepening examination of literary narratives throughout the text works at multiple levels, including here, as an amplification of one of Arendt’s central arguments. Arendt’s work argues for the being-at-home with oneself as thinking that welcomes alterity “within oneself” (59). This welcoming of alterity in our thinking reflects our ‘perceptual faith’ or certainty that our perceptions have a basis in ‘reality’, that is, others see what we see, with this seeing acknowledged and shared (see fn 32, cited at p.57).

The weight of our actions is by way of their having ‘narrative incarnation’, that is, through the multi-perspectival rendering of human action, its meaning, consequence and significance is articulated, contested and thus shaped as action meaningful in a public human sphere. As de Warren says, for Arendt, “[w]hat is profoundly human about the appearance of unpredictability and irreversibility in our world is that both predicaments incite us to speech and, more generally, storytelling” (60-61) and that “[a]cting finds fulfilment in narratives, not in the sense of finality but as openness to accountability, responsibility, and truthfulness” (60). While the events of the past are irreversible, forgiveness releases its hold on the present and the future. Both the betrayer and the betrayed are released, but this can only come about if there is “the joint authoring of a truthful narrative of what has been done, to whom, and by whom, which, as with any author function, essentially invokes the attestation of plurality” (65). It is in this way that “forgiveness lays the past (wrongdoing) to rest in giving it a proper, truthful place in narrative (and public) remembrance” with this being a “restoration of the world to truth” (65). Here, “the past is neither literally or figuratively erased; rather it is given place and meaning, laid to rest” (67).

Through de Warren’s close reading we begin to identify how such an account of forgiveness as encounter necessarily rests in a depth of originary experience, experience whereby we are already, and irredeemably connected with others. He emphasises how “this form of thinking about forgiveness tacitly presupposes an unbroken trust in the world, in others, and in oneself, and hence an abiding availability to forgiveness” (8).

We are now well on the way to having a clearer insight into how original forgiveness is in our availability towards the other in forgiveness and is an original forgiveness that is always already in place and being the place where the particularities of encounters of responsive forgiveness will come to reside. This meditation on Arendt is not however sufficient to ground the fullness of what such thinking of forgiveness entails. De Warren’s next steps in unfolding this meditation take us back to our fundamental embodiment, grounding us in our bodies through which we transform our world as a meaningful world, our openness onto loving relations that transform our sense of meaningfulness, and which remain our vulnerability to suffering.

It is in Chapter 3, “The unforgiveable and forgiving without forgiveness”, that de Warren outlines the significance of our being open to the encounter of forgiveness, doing so via the short account of “Simon Wiesenthal’s narrative of his encounter with the request for forgiveness from a dying SS soldier during WWII in The Sunflower” (76-92). In undertaking this request, the listening soldier models a not unforgiving availability to forgiveness, which he subsequently withholds. Significant here for the development of de Warren’s argument is the listening soldier’s availability for forgiveness—his listening—and what this means for the dying soldier/wrongdoer, who seeks to have themselves restored to the world of trust, that is, to know themselves as not in the final instance condemned and excluded for their ‘insufficiency’. Increasingly, De Warren’s text challenges us to think about our capacity to reflect without a condemnation which excludes the wrongdoer from human acceptance, and to re-examine what devastates and what is devastated by violence.

In sharp and painful contrast to this, is Jean Améry’s response to Wiesenthal. De Warren straight away challenges us with the possibility that, not only might forgiveness not be offered, but that there are circumstances where such availability cannot be offered. It is Amery’s response to Wiesenthal and his identification that the issue of forgiving or not forgiving has both psychological and political aspects: he dismisses the psychological aspect on the grounds of its non-relevance (he sees that here forgiveness is a matter of temperament and hence self-serving (85)), and his verbal rejection of the question of forgiveness—“Politically, I don’t want to hear anything of forgiveness” (85), “testifies … to an abjection of human condition, or better: an inhuman condition” (85-86).

Having presented the idea that there are experiences of catastrophic loss of trust in the world where the very question of forgiveness becomes “destitute” (86), and thus there is a boundary to the human capacity to be available to forgiveness, de Warren goes on to undertake a closer critical examination of Améry’s argument (Chapter 4).  Here we encounter torture as the manifestation of the unforgivable, where “the truth of torture becomes existentially inscribed within the being tortured of human abjection” (98).  Améry’s memoir on ressentiment and the position where availability for forgiveness is no longer meaningful after the experience of violence that devastates, shows us that what has been devastated is the world as trustworthy.

The significance of this account includes what de Warren here teases out as the suffering of the body and the violation of the skin “as the border that sets the world at a distance but also sets the terms for the encounter with the world” (10). De Warren, citing the work of psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu, says that “the formation of the ‘true self’ occurs … through the mother’s care (or parental care), which structures the child’s sense of identity as contained and bordered” (111). De Warren is building a thought-frame around the emergence of ourselves as available to the world as well as to myself (111) and the significant grounding that this has for our sense of self-trust: “I am available to the world as well as for myself, and available precisely in terms of self-trust, trust in others, and trust in the world” (111).

Understanding the significance of our fundamental embodiment to trust, betrayal and forgiveness means confronting those times when human cruelty destroys this trust in the world. Not only is this significant for individual accounts such as that of Jean Améry, but this individual case reflects a social breakdown such that, in, for example, state-sanctioned sadism, “inhuman sovereignty constitutes itself through absolute negation so as to realise the fiction of ‘god’” (119). This is in stark contrast to Arendt’s notion of the self-regenerating collective human narrative that can witness and encompass the full range of citizen perspectives, thus allowing the past to rest and a future of renewal to move forward. De Warren says,

In Arendtian terms, the necessity of this absolutization of violence becomes more pronounced and deemed more urgent the less any political system is based on trust, deliberation and consensus…. The event of torture is thus, not limited to an individual suffering body but implicates (as with Améry’s subtle shift to the inclusive pronoun man) the social body as such: das Man. (120-121)

Amery’s “ressentiment gives voice to the imperative of giving witness to the trust of evil—its corrupting presentness in the world—and absoluteness in the absence of any meaningful ethical response of forgiveness and restitution of trust in the world” (124). Importantly, de Warren is developing a meditation that includes how we think about forgiveness as reflecting on our relation to others understood in both their precariousness and insufficiency, and thus in terms of our responsibility towards them.

We go on to confront the issue of trust’s silent operation, as invisible, foundational, and generative, and the significance of trust as dialogical relationship. The nature of trust, for it to be trust, means our getting on with things, and in doing so, living this trust that is integral to our getting on with things. De Warren, in Chapter 5, rightly argues that to demand proof or explication of one’s trust itself breaches trust’s condition—it is an action of distrust, “[betraying] any sustaining trust in the other’s love” (134).

De Warren’s focus unfolds an understanding of the significance of the somewhat paradoxical thought that trust relationships must be both ‘taken for granted’ and nurtured and honored. This continues to develop his account of trust relationships as not simply constitutive of the self, but ontologically prior to any distinction between subject and object and the intentionality of such a distinction. Importantly for the developing argument, throughout this chapter, de Warren reflects on how this is a bond that we are entrusted with, and, in this, “the Other participates in my existence, much as I stand in, and so participate in, the life of the Other” (137).

Immersing the reader in Shakespeare’s King Lear, de Warren explores Cordelia’s silence in response to her father’s unforgivable demand of proof of trust, as faithful and truthful to her love, testament to how “the presentness of trust can sustain itself only when taken for granted and hence, in this regard, ‘understood’ as self-evident”, and that her silence explicitly expresses “that love is absolutely nothing other than itself” (134). Lear’s request for proof of trust, however, effectively reduces the “bottomless mystery” of love and trust to a banal story of pandering and selfishness. De Warren identifies Cordelia’s silence as preserving the binding of love, as she remains grounded in this place of ‘in-betweenness’, attesting to its “unknowingness/unknowness” silence— a bond that is “ontologically primitive, or ‘original’ in its dialogical and temporal disclosure of myself, others and the world” (140). These bonds are generative and constitutive, underlying our perception of the world, the real, and our potential within it.  These bonds are both expressive and creative.

Importantly for de Warren’s developing argument, this reading of King Lear introduces the insight that, as subjectivity emerging through the bond of trust, this entails that that “I am as much your keeper as we are together the guardians of our trust” (141), and that while each serves as the Other’s keeper, we must at the same time “[serve] as keepers of the our trusting relationship (143).” As much as trust relationships are to be understood as self-evident and the ground for an assuredness, they require nurturing that involves a self-valuing as well as valuing of the Other, and a monitoring of the relationship that honors “the future of our respective and reciprocal development in interdependent freedom” (144). Through Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of the dialogical relationship as triadic, de Warren explores how this structure honors not only the presence of “I” and “Thou”, but allows the “self-understanding of the relationship itself, its meaningfulness, between us” (144) to be present as an unclaimed and unoccupied position that is available as an autonomy of the relationship of trust.

This autonomy of the relation of trust does not imply that none of the entrusted persons cannot speak for and from the position of the third but that each speaks in turn on behalf of the third without claiming to speak exclusively for the third—that is, the self-understanding of our trust. (145)

Such a relationship is thus founded on a “creative self-prescribing element and initiative concerning its own meaningfulness and possibilization of itself” (144). The trust relationship which is not pre-ordained ahead of time, nor functions to set of prescribed rules, “empowers potentialities of our being” that “depend on sustaining an openness to who we are to become together in trust” (144).

Central to de Warren’s unfolding explorations on trust and its undoing “as unmaking of the world, the self, and relations to others” (146), is his presentation to us of our vulnerability to, and availability for the other as experienced together, inextricably intertwined. Through both King Lear and Gabriel Marcel’s notions of disposibilité and fidélité créatrice, in Chapter 6 de Warren takes up the philosophical challenge of exploring the question of how we participate in the lives of other people through trust, and the complexity of what participation and belonging in trust means.

To this point, de Warren has demonstrated how our experience and thinking about trust are structured by its primordial operation, with this entailing a form of commitment to interdependency and thus to a responsibility towards the Other, such that when trust turns against me, I am in the position of being betrayed through a relationship to which I have a responsibility; to its “continuous and sustaining dialogue about how we are to trust each other, measure and adjust and expand trust’s limits, and when betrayed, how to respond  in trust to its breakages, ruptures, and aftermaths” (144).

It is through the work of Gabriel Marcel that we are now propelled towards the final framing of original forgiveness. De Warren says that Marcel’s thinking around defrichage “can be harnessed to motivate and delineate more emphatically a distinction between ‘availability to forgiveness’ and encounter in forgiveness” and in this regard, consolidate a view of ‘original availability’ (159).

De Warren’s three forms of existential trust—trust in Others, self-trust, and trust in the world—are here “matched” with three forms of availability, as per Marcel and Buber, identifying that “what is entailed in trusting and being trusted is our availability for each other in the dialogue of trust” but perhaps more importantly, that “I must trust in myself to become—‘create’—the kind of person I need to be in order to do what would seem to be impossible beforehand: to remain available to forgiveness when the Other has committed the unforgivable in betraying my trust” (11).

It is through Marcel’s notion of disposibilité that de Warren is able to unpack how to belong to another in trust, attests to my being available to you, to stand by you, thus bringing to our attention the dimension of trust generally overlooked in understanding forgiveness as encounter: that of “giving myself to you in making myself available for you in the charge of my trust” (147).

There is a significant movement in thinking here: in giving you discretionary power and entrusting myself to you, I at the same time “become responsible for you in being available, if and when you turn away from me” (148). This is perhaps the most challenging turn of thought in these explorations. This is to say that, should you fail me, I am to turn to you and ask: ‘what has happened with you that you have failed our bond of trust? Tell me of yourself in these actions, that I might keep faith in our trust’. This reflects the mutual role of keepers of our trust, the role of nourishing and nurturing our trust that nurtures and nourishes our individual but intertwined lives—this mutual role does not stop because one person has momentarily failed.

It is important to note the significance of de Warren’s meditative style here, where the commonplace analytical conventions of distinguishing between reliance, trust and faith are not in play. As is evident in Marcel’s thinking, de Warren points out, when we are called upon to remain available to the Other, this asks that the “sustainability and meaningfulness” of our trust be underwritten by a constitutive dimension of faith—an “empowering faith” in the Other, that

requires a nourishing draw of creativity regarding the ways in which I am able to remain available in times when the Other fails, betrays, or abandons me, when my faith in the Other—in their trustworthiness, in their judgement, and so forth—is put to the test. (148-149)

De Warren identifies that what is needed here is a ‘metatrust’ in the other’s trust and trustworthiness, and a faith in the “unimaginable otherness of the Other” (152) and the relationship of trust—the betweenness—that we have both nourished. We are asked, and are asking for, the trust relationship to prevail as a commitment, rather than be abandoned in seeking punishment for our betrayal, or simply reverting to tolerating the otherness of the Other.  It is our faith in the Other that allows us to be open to navigating and negotiating the futural complexity of the trust relationship: “I am open (embrace and invite) to the complexity of the Other and thus good-naturedly participate in her (entangled and invested) complexity, standing within its presence rather than outside or against it” (149-150, my italics). This shift in thinking about trust is pivotal to the whole thesis of original forgiveness.

Understandings of forgiveness as encounter often turn on our negotiating the potential for forgiveness from the position of being thrown outside the relationship of trust, that is, that the relationship of trust has at this point of betrayal broken down, no longer recognisable as the relationship we had, potentially already abandoned. The understanding that de Warren is building here, through his exploration of Marcel, is how a betrayal, while incurring pain and damage, is not yet a breaking of the trust relationship. The keeping of the trust relationship is still asked for at this point, with its dialogue continuing as an openness to the future, as now, perhaps more than ever, the reality of our trusted other being both friend and stranger—there being a gap in our knowledge of them and their unfolding lives—is apparent. What is required, is what Marcel refers to as “the ‘essentially mysterious act’ of keeping faith with the Other” (153). Such creative faithfulness, de Warren argues, is not a virtuous disposition, nor is it something that is prescribed by norms or duties (154) but requires a faith in myself to rise to what is required, even if I don’t know what this is, and I do this for your sake, for my sake, and for the sake of our trust relationship. This faith in myself, de Warren says, is “underwrites the modus vivendi of sustaining trust in the Other and retaining faith in myself” (155).

What is at stake in this demand of trust at this point, is that in withdrawing from the sustaining dialogue of trust, we refuse the strangeness, complexity and freedom of the other, reducing them to an object for me, tied to their actions in the past. Such withdrawal reflects both the gap in our knowledge of ourselves—that is, of what will be required of my “ethical openness” to the Other—and the need for self-trust. When the Other deceives, betrays, or abandons me, I cannot have ahead of time anticipated the “otherness of myself in having to become other than the person I thought or imagined I could ever be” (153).

The issue that de Warren must confront at this point in his reflections is how, for Marcel, such faith and availability is underwritten by God who remains available beyond all human reckoning. De Warren, while seeing that such availability “allows for a recasting of forgiveness beyond its established framing as encounter”, is wanting to go beyond a need to bring faith as faith in God into the very human picture of trust and betrayal.

Significantly, de Warren’s reading of King Lear reveals the play as offering something beyond a Christian reading; indeed, de Warren’s reading allows us to grasp the originality of Cordelia’s forgiveness (166). Shakespeare performs an inversion, de Warren argues, whereby Cordelia (daughter) forgives Lear (father) with there being no biblical basis for this directionality. De Warren says:

It is not the figure of Christ, who interrupts the mimetic rivalry of human beings, but Cordelia’s dechristening of forgiveness, as the daughter who forgives in her name, rather than the father-become-son who forgives in the name of the father to become the forgiveness of all sons…the daughter becomes herself a mother to the father who in turn has become a child … in this sense, if Cordelia’s forgiveness of Lear offers a striking example of natality, in another sense her forgiveness significantly restores Lear to the world while ambiguously reconciling the world with itself… (167)

Cordelia effectively demonstrates what de Warren identifies as the modus vivendi of faith in the Other: that is, as operating “through patience and postponement: patience with the Other’s mis-steps, miscues, and miscommunications within the dialogue of our trust along with the postponement of any final reckoning or accounting of my faith in the other” (157).

This necessarily raises many questions for a philosophy of trust, as it has historically been undertaken. The questions are pertinent, and de Warren’s work opens the field to a deeper examination about what unites trust, faith and reliance in human experience, rather than having the analysis of what are the distinctive characteristics of trust overtake what appears to be evident in human experience—that we move fluidly between these states, that we make errors of judgement and have faith when we need a more tempered trust, and that our reliance on others can inadvertently strip them of their subjectivity and otherness.

Original forgiveness as forgiving and beseeching forgiveness: the final two chapters

Original forgiveness is not an ‘action’ or ‘act’ of the subject but the subjectivity of the subject in its inspiration toward the Other—its openness—and investiture of the Good in the being in the world. (231)

It is in Chapters 7 and 8 that de Warren takes up Levinas’s “fleeting evocation” of forgiveness, that is, his broaching ‘pardon’ “as the most radical rupture of the categories of the I, for it is for me to be somewhere else than myself … it is to be pardoned, not to be definitive existence” (Levinas, cited at 245).

De Warren presents a reading of Levinas’s “radical rupturing” of the “I”, a rupturing such that “to be me” is understood as something other than my assumed definitive, and singular existence; rather, to be me is to be pardoned—forgiven. De Warren issues a tentative apology with regard to his reading and interpretation of Levinas, while also identifying the difficulty that might confront readers in the final two chapters. However, the reader is now, de Warren hopes, fully motivated to engage with clearly going beyond what is argued in the previous six chapters.

We are now asked to do much more than understand forgiveness as emerging through an availability that nourishes and allows the ‘in-between’ of trust, and those whose ‘in-between’ this is, to start anew. Rather, de Warren’s investigations, directly taking up a Levinasian context, now take us through how an original forgiveness is an infinite postponement of my rage against my responsibility for the Other, “in patience, and hence trust, for the Other in my entrusted responsibility for them” (245).

Through his reading of Levinas and his account of ethical substitution, de Warren develops an understanding whereby he argues that “It is through the condition of being hostage [i.e., expiation or original forgiveness] that there can be in the world pity, compassion, forgiveness [pardon] and proximity…” (234).

De Warren, over the course of the text, has teased out how the understanding that we are not self-created beings, but begin our subjectivity through pre-cognitive dimensions that are inherently intersubjectively conditioned, functions as underpinning the philosophical works that he has presented so far. Now he takes this thinking through Levinas’s direct engagement with describing the encounter of the Other at the primordial or pre-cognitive level—that is, in terms of the Other’s entrustment to me. Such entrustment is understood as proximity, whereby our embodied experience, prior to all reflexive and practical activity is fundamentally haunted by others—this is the lining of oneself by the Other, and myself forming a lining of the Other, that de Warren has shown to be assumed in intersubjective philosophy. In proximity, this entrustment that binds me to you and you to me, is a binding that is forgotten in the natural attitude. It is only through a powerful de-centring of the subject that this “creaturely” existence that I am, through which I am beholden to others in my responsibility for them, can be glimpsed.

This pre-intentional experience of spontaneous responsibility, not chosen by me but elicited by the approach of the Other, ‘agitates’, and produces ‘affective unease’, as we are provoked out of egoistic being into an awakening of oneself as for the Other (223). This awakening is resisted, understandably, as egoistic being struggles with being faced with guilt not for anything that I have done or not done, but for “that-I-am”.

Such an original entrustment of the Other, and thus that I am the Other’s keeper, is not given to me, and hence cannot be received, but forms a binding that, at the same time, unbinds me from being too tightly wrapped, or involved in myself, with my own being” (207). We are beholden to the disruptive realignment that comes with finding ourselves “begotten and begetting in an ethically primordial sense” (201).

In an existential awakening at the approach of the Other, my outrage, indignation and exasperation at being commanded to a responsibility that is impossible and unbearable, we are involved in what de Warren identifies as a “prophetic trust”—that is, neither trust in the Other or trust in the self. We must make room for the Other as existence outside, alongside and inside my own existence, and I must exert my freedom towards this impossible responsibility without knowing in advance what this will entail. My outrage and exasperation must be overcome, and the drama of my suffering in shame for “that I am” must be transformed into a welcoming of the Other. It is this transformation, or ‘transfer’ as Levinas says, that is “subjectivity itself”—this transfer accomplishes the “salient meaning” of substitution (230). In this subjectivity as substitution, we expiate for the Other’s persecution.  In what de Warren outlines as the “trial of subjectivity” we must, he argues, forgive the Other for their assignment of impossible responsibility: we must expiate or atone for the Other’s persecution. This is not something “I” “do”, rather, we are forgiving in substitution:

I am beseeching forgiveness for my accusation, my unjustified existence … in this breath of expiation I am atoning for the unforgiving and persecuting commandment to which I am subject, hostage. (231)

For Levinas then, de Warren argues, “original forgiveness for the Other, on the condition of which the Other’s persecution becomes welcomed and in this specific sense, ‘commanded’ in the form of hospitality” (231-232). Importantly, in this configuration of original forgiveness, the command of the Other is to relinquish sovereignty to an openness under the “aegis of Goodness and the height of the Other” (232). We are guided through understanding how for Levinas, in such hospitality, reciprocity and hierarchy become neutralized (232), there being in the command, “a command to be commanded in turn” (232).

Final remarks and reflections on the Afterword

De Warren closes the text with a close reading of what he understands to be an exemplary text of the existential situation of bearing responsibility for all others: Maurice Sendak’s Outside Over There. It is the story, he says, “of the passage of the subjectivity of the subject as substitution in outrage and expiation, or, in other words, original forgiveness” (247). The child in this story, Ida, in the absence of her parents, is “[e]lected and entrusted”, bearing sole responsibility for her sister. As the story unfolds, we find Ida undergoing resistance to her responsibility and rage at her entrustment, a rage that turns love to murderous hate. While Ida ultimately “expiates her shame for her rage against the entrustment of her sister to her responsibility” (250), I think it important to pause, longer than de Warren does, on the way that Ida’s rage is one at having this responsibility “in the absence of the father and mother” and that her transformation from rage to expiation is enabled through her hearing “her sailor Papa’s song” (249). The significance of our early life and the ‘teaching’ of our entrustments and our belonging to a life-world, that is our mutual availability to and responsibility for Others, from our parents or caregivers is significant.

All the while I have been reflecting on de Warren’s text, and in particular while reading this Afterword, I have thought of Lisa Guenther’s drawing attention to Levinas’s words that to be responsible as such, we must become like a maternal body, that is, to bear responsibility for another as if she were my child.[2] This is not a remark that de Warren takes up throughout his investigation, yet, given the reflections on our coming into the world as entrusted to the Other, the significance of the development of the skin-self, and the learning of trust and trustworthiness in childhood—that is, the significance of the parent/caregiver, whose presence comes in and out of focus in de Warren’s reflections—warrants more attention. Linked to such reflections on my part, is that De Warren includes footnote reference to a psychoanalytic take on our failures of responsibility, citing the work of Simone Drichel.[3] Drichel, identifying that while Levinas “was no friend of psychoanalysis”,[4] argues that his ‘ethic of ethics’ needs a psychology, outlined as it is without reference to the experiential life of the infant. Understandably, de Warren’s text is already rich and complex, and cannot, of course, pursue all that is relevant and interesting, however, the implications here need careful attention; for women in particular, given the ongoing inclination towards oppression and political control of women’s bodies, but also anyone in the role of carer, a role undervalued in our heavily transactional socio-political context.

[1] While not noted by de Warren, but a point that only adds weight to the acuity of de Warren’s approach, is that Annette Baier, who he presents as a significant philosophical voice on trust, also used an open exploratory structure—what she referred to as a “mosaic” method: one where a coherent account (for her, of trust) could be built through assembling a lot of small-scale reflections that together develop a resonance around what is central and compelling (see Annette Baier, 1985, “What Do Women Want in a Moral Theory?” Nous, 19:1, pp.54-55).

[2] Guenther, L., 2006. “Like a maternal body”: Emmanuel Levinas and the motherhood of Moses. Hypatia21(1), p.120.

[3] Drichel, S. 2018. “’A forgiveness that remakes the world’: Trauma, Vulnerability, and Forgiveness in the work of Emmanuel Levinas,” in Phenomenology and Forgiveness, ed. M. La Caze (London: Rowman and Littlefield), pp.43-63. See also, Drichel, S., 2019. “Emmanuel Levinas and the “specter of masochism”: A Cross-Disciplinary Confusion of Tongues.” Psychoanalysis, Self and Context14(1), pp.3-22; Drichel, S., 2019. Refusals of Responsibility: A Response to Donna Orange and Robert Bernasconi. Psychoanalysis, Self and Context14(1), pp.36-52.

[4] Drichel, S., 2019. Refusals of Responsibility: A Response to Donna Orange and Robert Bernasconi. Psychoanalysis, Self and Context, 14(1), p.37.