Phenomenological Interpretations of Ancient Philosophy is a collection of thirteen essays. At first glance, the title of this book may strike us as somewhat surprising. One may be forgiven for thinking that phenomenology cannot be paralleled with ancient Greek philosophy in a meaningful manner. But, after reading the studies, the reader will undoubtedly come to the conviction that these two types of philosophy have something to do with each other after all. Some phenomenologists tend to view ancient Greek philosophy as if it were the beginning of Western thought, a philosophy that can be seen as a kind of starting point that defines every new thought. According to them, exploring the thoughts of Greek philosophers—or rather just approaching them—can help us understand what the meaning of philosophy is. But it can also help us gain a better understanding of how modern philosophical systems operate — for example, what the ancient foundations of political philosophy, social philosophy, philosophy of science, or even metaphysical research are and how the former impact the latter. On the other hand, many phenomenologists merely undertook to make the ancient Greek texts understandable to the laity, so they try to give a clear description of them. Each of the phenomenological research methods mentioned above appears in the book.
It may seem quite disproportionate that the first five chapters of the book are more about Husserl and Heidegger, specifically an overview of interpretations of ancient philosophers given by these two philosophers. Other chapters contain the approaches of lesser-known or more modern philosophers — the overarching aim of the editors seems to have been to provide an overview of the phenomenological approaches of antiquity. It is important to have insight into this subject, and so far we have not read many books that have dealt with how phenomenology in general could relate to Greek philosophy.
Husserl’s main questions—namely, how to understand the connection between our experience and the world itself, and how to treat science and naturalism—have also raised new questions for later phenomenologists. At the same time, these thinkers were also greatly influenced by Heidegger, especially the way he approached ancient Greek philosophy. Therefore, the work of Arendt, Gadamer, Derrida or other modern philosophers cannot really be interpreted without Heidegger and Husserl.
The first chapter deals with Husserl’s relationship to the Stoics. Within this, Husserl’s interpretation of the term „lecton” is explored by the authors who later turn to Heidegger’s interpretation. In addition to Heidegger’s relationship with Aristotle and Presocratics, they are also talking about the German philosopher’s relationship with the Nazi regime, as this seems inevitable in the present case.
Husserl argued that although the foundations of Western philosophy come from the views of the Greeks, modern philosophers often do not represent the original Greek views, but these ideas are reshaped, rethought or embedded in social philosophy, ethics or other subject areas of philosophy. According to the authors of this book, Husserl believes that Greek philosophy – of course only in its original form – could help diagnose the so-called diseases of contemporary philosophy (3): it is true that it speaks of diseases that often seem to stem from the problems articulated by Greek philosophers themselves. Husserl has a different attitude towards the Greeks than Heidegger — he is generally considered as an ahistorical thinker, but of course this is only partly true. For some reason, however, his opinion of the Greeks have not proven to be nearly as influential as Heidegger’s interpretations. Nevertheless, the editors of the book thought it worthwhile to review Husserl’s ancient philosophical reflections, so we also make a few comments about these ideas based on the book’s introductory explanations.
According to Husserl, not only Plato and Socrates are pioneers of Western philosophy, but Descartes can also be considered a forerunner of modern philosophical methods. So there are actually three pioneers in philosophy and science. Husserl thinks that Descartes can be considered the second forerunner because his response to skepticism is so relevant that it cannot be ignored (6). According to Husserl, despite Plato’s rigor, he failed to overcome skepticism. But Descartes had the same goal as Plato: to deny radical skepticism. According to Husserl, however, Descartes differed from his predecessors in that he tried to explore subjectivity in a scientific way.
Embarking on this path, Descartes wanted to develop an apodictic theory that could not be overturned by any skepticism — thus reaching an ego that, in spite of all other doubts, could not doubt itself. In doing so, he proved an unwitting pioneer of phenomenology, in that he initiates a transcendental turn in philosophy. This is why the authors may think that it is essential to talk about Descartes in a volume that explores the relationship between phenomenology and the Greeks (8). We could also say that Descartes reinterpreted the Greeks and that is why Husserl thinks that modern philosophy begins with the former. According to Descartes, the soul is the first axiom to be considered certain, and from which our knowledge of the world can be derived. However, Husserl thinks Descartes did not take into account the fact that subjectivity also limits the notion of truth.
The authors of the book hold that Husserl—just like Heidegger—deserved more chapters in the volume because, in addition to Heidegger, he was the one who saw this kind of fundamental crisis and this kind of motif in modern philosophy — in his last, unfinished work: Die Krisis der europäischen Wissenschaften und die transzendentale Phänomenologie (1936).
Heidegger, in his early twenties, devoted much work to the study of both Descartes and Aristotle. Together with Husserl, they had a tremendous influence on philosophers such as Arendt, Strauss, Klein, Fink, and Marcuse, to name but a few. The authors mentioned above are also included in the book, but the main focus is nonetheless on Husserl and Heidegger, so we also place more emphasis on the presentation of these two philosophers. It is also true that Heidegger himself based his late philosophy (reflections on the history of existence) on these initial researches.
In the following, I would also like to provide a closer look at each chapter. In the first five chapters we read about Husserl and Heidegger, specifically how they approach and deal with Greek traditions.
In the first chapter, we may read Claudio Majolino’s analysis of Husserl (Back to the Meanings Themselves: Husserl, Phenomenology, and the Stoic Doctrine of the Lekton), in which he raises questions as to why Husserl, unlike other phenomenologists, praises the Stoics for their insight. Majolino also attempts to find an answer to the question how Sartre and Deleuze might have thought that Husserl’s interpretation of „noēma” could be paralleled with the „lecton” (meaning of a proposition) of the Stoics. According to the author, none of Husserl’s writings explicitly mentions that the two concepts can be set in parallel. It is simply believed that Husserl combines the two concepts because of structural similarities. Sartre, according to Majolino, draws quite provocative conclusions: the former claims that in his statement about „noēma”, Husserl betrayed his most basic phenomenological claim or discovery: the intentionality of consciousness. This is how Sartre’s judgment sounds:
Husserl defines consciousness precisely as transcendence. This is his essential discovery. But from the moment he makes the noēma unreal, and the noesis correlation correlate of the noēsis, he is totally unfaithful to his principle. (Sartre 1943, 61).
The author then decides to analyze in detail Sartre’s and Deleuze’s thoughts on the concept of lecton. He then notes the distinction between them: Deleuze does not interpret it as a strange physical or spiritual entity like Sartre (33). Majolino performs a fairly precise analysis. We can then learn that although Deleuze refers to some passages from Husserl’s text, it is interesting that in these Husserl himself does not mention the lecton anywhere the noēma appears. So Majolino does not draw a parallel between the two either.
Sartre and Deleuze sought to reconcile Stoic philosophy with phenomenology—especially Husserl’s phenomenology. In retrospect, this seems like a rather difficult undertaking, and the complexity of this task is presented to us by Majolino in convincing detail. He shows that Sartre neglected the propositional nature of „lekta” and confused „noēma” with „ennoēma” (36)—while Deleuze confused the two interpretations of the senses, using them once in a semantic sense and another in a transcendental sense. One of the main questions of the author is then, why does Husserl mention the term lecton so many times and why does he hold the stoic concept to be of such significance? In this study, we see an analysis that is often neglected by philosophers when researching the connections between phenomenology and ancient philosophy. In addition, Majolino helps clarify some unclear concepts about Husserl’s philosophy. The author discusses in detail what the actual significance of the lecton is for Husserl, and also what kind of correlation can be observed between the lecton, the Husserlian conception and formal ontology. After these analyzes, he also discusses how we can derive phenomenology from the Stoics.
The second chapter is composed of Thomas Schwarz Wentzer’s study of Aristotle’s anthropological-political interpretations (Speaking Being: Heidegger’s Aristotle and the Problem of Anthropology). The main purpose of this study is to answer certain philosophical-anthropological questions. In this chapter, the author discusses the question of why Heidegger was so committed to Aristotle and how Greek philosophy in general oriented Heidegger’s way of thinking. This chapter is about how, according to the author, Heidegger related to his predecessor, who takes the same hermeneutical approach to the human question as he does — in particular in De Anima, the Nicomachean Ethics, the Rhetoric, and the Politics. According to Max Scheler, man is characterized by indeterminacy. However, Heidegger finds his way with the help of Aristotle to build his phenomenological anthropology.
In the third chapter, Pål Rykkja Gilbert talks about Heidegger’s interpretation of Aristotle, specifically those dedicated to the latter’s ethics (Virtue and Authenticity: Heidegger’s Interpretation of Aristotle’s Ethical Concepts). It is well known that Heidegger devoted much time to understanding Aristotle in his first works. It is generally accepted that phronesis is one of the most important concepts in Being and Time. In this chapter, the author first examines some of Heidegger’s passages, those that relate primarily to Aristotle’s ethics, especially the concepts of „phronesis” and „prohairesis”. The author firstly tries to lay out the background of how Heidegger approaches these works and concepts of Aristotle. Secondly, he attempts to compare Heidegger’s interpretation with other, more conventional Aristotelian analyses. Thirdly, he also strives to answer the question of whether Heidegger “ontologizes” Aristotle’s ethical project. To this he replies that it is incorrect to say that the Aristotelian concepts were transformed into Heidegger’s „Ontological” concepts. The author approaches the problem mainly on the basis of parts of the Nicomachean Etics and De Anima, displaying excellent knowledge of these Aristotelian works. Gilbert identifies one thing as the main concept of Aristotle: the concept of prohairesis. According to him, an understanding of prohairesis is an essential part of understanding the Aristotelian phronesis and, in general, what he claimed about virtues.
We can read Charlotta Weigelt’s study of Heidegger’s thoughts relating to the Platonic concept of truth in the fourth chapter (An “Obscure” Phenomenology? Heidegger, Plato, and the Philosopher’s Struggle for the Truth of Appearance). The author bases her analysis on the 1930s lecture text: On the Essence of Truth: Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and “Theaetetus” from 1931/2 (GA 34). According to Weigelt, Heidegger completely rethought the cave analogy and at the same time had a great influence on transcendental phenomenological research. Weigelt, following Heidegger, analyzes the cave analogy in four parts (139). According to the author, Heidegger treats the concepts of truth and appearance here as phenomenological concepts. It would also be important to discuss these issues because, in general, Heidegger’s reading of Plato is divisive among historians of philosophy. The author argues that Heidegger saw Plato (as most philosophers) through the lens of Aristotle and that is why he does not pay much attention to Plato’s dramatic contexts and Socrates, but merely analyzes Platonic works literally. But of course sometimes we have to ignore these while reading Heidegger, because in the meantime he says important things about the Platonic concept of ideas. The author bases her findings mainly on Metaphysics, Physics and The Sophist.
In the fifth chapter, Hans Rubin explains Heidegger’s notion of „moira” among others (A Strange Fate: Heidegger and the Greek Inheritance). The author conducts his analysis based on what was said during the Parmenides courses. He admits that this series of lectures adds a much to Heidegger’s notions of „destiny”, „fate”, and „the destinal”, and he thinks it can answer us a lot about why Heidegger drew so much from Greek philosophy (163). These two concepts, namely „fate” and „destiny”, are strongly interlinked, according to the author, to Heidegger’s political philosophy, and more specifically to his nationalist sympathies. But how can all this be connected with the thinking of Parmenides? In the fifth chapter, we get interesting answers to this question and, among other things, how the concepts of „fate” and „destiny” („moira” and „meiromai”) can be related to our modern globalized world today. The author conducts a very thorough examination, uses certain parts of Homer’s Iliad, Plato’s notion of moira, and is very critical of Heidegger’s late works.
We again read a study related to Plato in the sixth chapter (Dialectic as a Way of Life: Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Interpretation of Plato). In this section, Morten S. Thaning conducts research on Gadamer’s analysis of Plato. He wants to find out how Gadamer approached the Platonic dialectic. According to Thaning, Gadamer’s aim in analyzing Plato’s dialectics is, on the one hand, to shed light on significant elements of Aristotle’s critique of Plato. On the other hand, the author not only researches Gadamer in this respect, but also asks on what Heidegger might have based the idea that Plato was a forerunner of the Western metaphysical tradition. It also turns out that Gadamer was passionate about the Platonic method, and that he thought Plato should be interpreted as a practice of philosophy in the Socratic sense (182). In addition, the chapter also discusses how Gadamer’s theory of dialectics can be described. Moreover, we can see an interesting subchapter in which the author seeks to figure out how Socrates’s self-confessed ignorance (Nichtwissen) reshapes the Platonic concept of knowledge and the relationship between dialectics and knowledge (179). But the main question is what is the essence of philosophy in the Socratic sense and how is the dialectic of Socrates is related to the hermeneutical experience in the Gadamerian sense? According to the author, Gadamer has an excellent grasp of the language of Plato’s dialogues, and for this reason he thinks we should examine the concept of Platonic knowledge together with the dialectical language itself and understand one through the other.
An interpretation of Plato follows in the seventh chapter (Counting (on) Being: On Jacob Klein’s Return to Platonic Dialectic). In this section, the author, Kristian Larsen delves again into the topic of dialectics. He tries to summarize and rather rethink Jakob Klein’s interpretation, which deals with Platonic dialectics as a method. According to Jens, modernity, as a kind of second Platonic cave, alienates us from ourselves and the world (203). Larsen finds a good basis for this idea in Jakob Klein’s thoughts on the distinction between ancient and modern science and philosophy. The main purpose of this study is to show and thoroughly delineate these differences. In addition to this, he also discusses in this study how Klein’s distinctions (ancient and modern science) resemble or differ from the views held by Heidegger and Leo Strauss. Comparing these three thinkers, the author concludes that Klein is essentially in agreement with Heidegger and Husserl, for all three hold, because of the anxiety and alienation in modernity, that it is the duty of Western philosophy to return to the Greeks. A significant part of the terms used by the Greeks have been radically reinterpreted (and misunderstood) in the modern age. The author links his research to this position. He argues that Klein and Strauss have many points in common about the relationship between modernity and Greek philosophy and also shows these common points in his study. We have to think here about modern (especially late-modern) philosophy. The practical usefulness of the study may also be to try to answer questions such as: how can we deal with our prejudices against capitalist societies and transform our overarching sense of alienation from modern society?
In the eighth chapter, Husserl’s analysis takes center stage once more (Phenomenology and Ancient Greek Philosophy: Methodological Protocols and One Specimen of Interpretation). Burt Hopkins analyzes Husserl’s concept of intentionality through the research of Jakob Klein. Hopkins examines Klein’s analyzes in which he discusses the differences between the Greek ontology and the Cartesian sciences. The author pays special attention to Greek works in this study, but primarily analyzes one of Klein’s 1936 studies entitled “Die griechische Logistik und die Entstehung der Algebra” (Klein 1934, 18−105). In addition to examining Klein’s interpretations (including the study of the concept of „arithmos”), the author also provides an in-depth analysis of Husserl’s concept of intentionality. In addition, we can see a detailed textual analysis of that section of Plato’s The Sophist, aporia of „Being” („einai”), and parts of Theaetetus, and, as a matter of fact, he also looks critically at the studies published on these works. Hopkins’s study primarily requires a detailed examination of the concepts of „Whole” („holon”), „All”(„pan”), and „All of something” („panta”).
In the ninth chapter, we can read Jussi Backman’s study of Hannah Arendt (The (Meta)politics of Thinking: On Arendt and the Greeks). The philosopher examines Arendt in terms of how she approached ancient Greek philosophy. According to Arendt, the roots of twentieth-century totalitarian regimes go back to ancient Greek philosophical theories, so perhaps we can get obtain a solution to these social problems through the Greeks as well. Arendt’s attitude towards the Greeks can be seen primarily through one of her main works, The Human Condition (1958). In this text, she writes, among others, that Plato’s political philosophy has been transformed. Arendt was discovered in Plato’s mind the phenomena that make philosophy „disgusting” and thus left a mark on the whole tradition of politics. That was „the political turn” according to her, the philosopher returned to the cave and brought rules alien to the laws of human cohabitation for the inhabitants of the cave. It seems that nowadays we interpret the thoughts of the founder of Western philosophy as if it were some kind of tool that would enable us to achieve a higher goal. The author also mentions Arendt’s Life of the Mind (1977−8), in which the philosopher explains how harmless Greek terms (such as the term “fear”) were born thousands of years later than other terms such as “judgment.” The author believes that Arendt explored very precisely the connection between the “thinking” and the “action” of the study of antiquities. He also draws attention to the gap between the two (Arendt uses the terms „vita contemplativa” for the former and „vita activa” for the latter.) The author considers Arendt’s work to be hermeneutics on the one hand (265), because he thinks she tries to interpret our contemporary modes of thinking. On the other hand, it is also very phenomenological, in the sense that it seeks to trace the Greek tradition back to the initial (Greek) experiences from which they emerged.
Vigdis Songe-Møller presents Eugen Fink’s study of Heraclitus and Heidegger in the tenth chapter (Heraclitus’ Cosmology: Eugen Fink’s Interpretation in Dialogue with Martin Heidegger). The chapter revolves around a question that intrigued both Heidegger and Fink: what is the relation between „hen”, „One”, and „ta panta”, „All things”, in Heraclitus’ thinking? According to Fink, this question and the relationship between the two can be explored by examining the cosmology of Heraclitus. The author notes the great similarity between the cosmology of Fink and the Greek philosopher, and explores this similarity in her study, mainly in confrontation with Husserl and Heidegger. Of course, Fink essentially follows Heidegger in his approach to the Greeks and uses his tools in many ways, but he shows uniqueness in his analysis of Heraclitus. The main difference is that „Fink is able to confirm an interpretation of the relation between hen and panta that Heidegger from the very beginning had been critical of.” (300) In order to show the differences, the author presents Fink’s cosmological ideas in detail.
In the subsequent study, Filip Karfik analyzes Jan Patočka’s interpretation of Plato on the soul (Jan Patočka on Plato’s Conception of the Soul as Self-Motion). Patočka argues that the idea of being as „self-moving” can help to understand the whole Platonic philosophy, of which the soul is central. Karfik discovers an interesting paradox by Patočka in his research on the philosophy of the soul. Patočka, according to Karfik, summarizes the whole spirit of Platonic philosophy and provides us with convincing arguments. The author also investigates the phenomenological background of Patočka’s own philosophy and he also attempts to uncover the question of what self-movement has to do with self-determination, based on a reading of Patočka philosophy.
The last two chapters show us how the Presocratic philosophers and Plato influenced the philosophies of Lévinas and Derrida. In the twelfth chapter (Elemental Embodiment: From the Presocratics to Levinas via Plato), the relationship between Plato and Lévinas is examined from a phenomenological perspective by the authors, Tanja Staehler and Alexander Kozin. They investigating this topic because they suggest that the value of Plato’s contribution can best be best uncovered by applying a phenomenological perspective. In general, the authors tend to discuss the differences between Plato and Lévinas, such as how their views on “love” differ. This was investigated by Sarah Allen whose research is thoroughly analyzed by the authors of the study. But the differences were also examined, for example, by Wendy Hamblet, who saw the difference between the two in his conception of the concept of truth. In the present case, however, Staehler and Kozin prefer to emphasize commonalities by focusing on the complex phenomena under discussion. The study is based on an analysis of two key concepts: “eros” and “zōion“.
And last but not least, in the thirteenth study, Derrida’s complex reading of Plato’s Phaedrus is analyzed in detail by Arnaud Macé (Outside the Walls with Phaedrus: Derrida and the Art of Reading Plato). Derrida considers one of his most important own thoughts to be, following Plato’s lead, the view that philosophy cannot be practiced through writing alone (348). According to Macé, Derrida engages in a special reading of Plato, which is called “harmonic,” a term often used by the phenomenologically-influenced postmodern philosopher. According to Macé, the Platonic dialogues are far different from other philosophical writings because of their hidden structural elements, and Derrida collects these elements precisely. Derrida sees the connection between these elements in the term „pharmakon”, a concept with a rich polysemy — „Remedy”, „Poison”, „Drug”, to name a few of its principal meanings. By reading Derrida, we can learn about the non-philosophical elements of Plato that he places in a philosophical context for his own deconstructivist reasons.
In this book we read about the confrontation of many notable authors with Greeks. In addition, it should be mentioned that these authors all seem to have singled out terms from an ancient Greek philosopher that can, arguably, describe the entire oeuvre of a given philosopher. Such was the case with Husserl and Heidegger, among others, who are absolute pioneers in the subject, which is why they were understandably given a bigger role in this book. It is interesting to mention that, although Heidegger’s hermeneutical phenomenology is fundamentally different from Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology, we can still discover some similarities between them. One such similarity can be seen, for example, between Husserl’s reflection on traditions and the crisis of European philosophy of science and Heidegger’s notion of „nihilism” and „oblivion”. At the same time, it seems that Heidegger’s interest in antiquity and Husserl’s philosophy also had a great influence on Arendt, Gadamer, Derrida, Lévinas, Fink, and so on. None of the latter can be interpreted effectively without the philosophy of the former two. Every study composing this book is situated in the context of modern problems, which can go a long way toward clarifying our current situation, deepening our understanding of the contemporary problems we face.
Klein, J. 1934. Die griechische Logistik und die Entstehung der Algebra. Berlin: Verlagsbuchhandlung Julius Springer.
Sartre, J.−P. 1943. Being and Nothingness. An Essay in Phenomenological Ontology. Oxfordshire: Routledge.
At first glance, a monograph simultaneously dedicated to the philosophies of Henri Bergson, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Gilles Deleuze might seem an obscure, even capricious proposition. Why, after all, bring these particular thinkers into dialogue? Why instigate this particular “three body problem” (1)? The answer to this question is complex, but lies in part in the immense structural influence they succeeded one another in exerting over French philosophy. Throughout a period of over one hundred years, French thought was fundamentally coloured first by Bergsonian “vitalism,” then by existentialist phenomenology, and finally by a “post-structuralism” of which Deleuze is considered a primary, if sometimes unwilling figurehead. To trace the shifting conceptual lineages marbled throughout their work is therefore to map the very movement of 20th century French thought, such as has colonised a stubborn corner of the globe’s intellectual life. But there is more than just this profound institutional influence linking together these disparate philosophical projects. As Dorothea Olkowski argues, throughout her accomplished and intriguing study, Deleuze, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty: The logic and pragmatics of creation, these thinkers also share a common set of problems and an overlapping conceptual vocabulary, the complexities of which she draws out across six brief, rich, yet challenging essays.
Perhaps the foremost of these problems is a familiar dualism haunting philosophy, which here emerges in several guises. Thought and extension, reality and signs, the empirical and the transcendental, formalism and its “outside”- Olkowski returns frequently to this nebulous dialectic, and makes a compelling case for its centrality in the work of each of her subjects. As she writes, evoking the terms of Deleuze’s study of Bergson in Cinema I: The Movement-Image, and establishing one of the central argumentative lines of her own book:
…each of the three is engaged in the undoing of dualism -understood as the relation between thought and movements- by slightly different means […] providing an explanation of the relation between empiricist and formalist approaches to reality (18).
This latter schism is key, emerging as it does with the existential challenge posed to modern philosophy by the immense descriptive powers of post-Enlightenment science. For Olkowski, a strict division between empiricist and formalist approaches is intimately linked to this confluence, in particular to “the view that emerged, starting in approximately the sixteenth century, that science is autonomous, that it generates its own elements, that it stands outside time and outside the lived experience of a subject” (2) -in an epistemological splitting which establishes observer and observed as radically distinct. Against this view -which is far from synonymous with the self-problematising realities of scientific practice- Olkowski excavates a threefold project to reinject questions of genesis, vitality, subjectivity and temporality into a scientistic episteme which has perhaps tended to obscure them.
Indeed in her first chapter, which recapitulates themes from 2012’s Postmodern Philosophy and the Scientific Turn, she introduces this epistemological backdrop, and the bifurcation by which we inherit “two” contemporary philosophies- an analytic approach grounded in formal logic, and a Continental tradition oriented by phenomenology and metaphysics. The former, of which a thinker like Frege is paradigmatic, seeks to “ground” the empirical findings of science through a purely formal analysis of logical relations. This approach turns to signs -to their relations and modes of reference- eschewing all discussion of ontology or the empirical, given that such discussion “violates the principles of formalist systems,” producing unfounded and speculative “nonsense” (26). And while Frege -like Russell, the logical positivists and Wittgenstein- thus seek to banish metaphysics from the philosophical enterprise, what unites Olkowski’s subjects is their determination to develop a metaphysics adequate to contemporary science, simultaneously drawing out the contingency of logic- an approach she will introduce via the French philosopher of mathematics Jean Cavaillès.
For Cavaillès, Olkowski notes, an important contemporary of her three primary subjects, “the logic of a formal system requires an ontology to complete it; in addition to the formal system, it requires reference to an exteriority, to objects, and not just to other signs in the system” (16). And this determination to think the compossibility of the empirical and its symbolisation beats at the heart of Olkowski’s text. Signs and their systems, are not, after all, “immaculate.” An ontology is implicit, indeed required, in order for us to ask questions about their affects, milieux and genesis. And one of the book’s central propositions is that these thinkers help us to understand the genesis of formal systems in and from an empirical and pre-signifying world which can only be sensed. This approach leads to a threefold philosophy of perception, and to the complex ways in which manifold sense-data becomes sensible, taking form under the aegis of a “sign,” “Idea” or “Gestalt” in an operation which is simultaneously pragmatic and creative.
Olkowski’s second chapter develops these themes via Deleuze and Guattari’s critique of logic, primarily as it appears in What is Philosophy? We’ve already spoken of Frege’s ambition to develop a philosophy homogenous with scientific description, moving it away from metaphysical “speculation” in favour of a systematic “science of logic” (30). At the heart of this endeavour is an idiosyncratic concept of the “concept,” inherited in part from Kant, which sees the concept become a logical function- a component of propositions which maps arguments to one of two truth vales (true or false). Thus, to use a well-known example, “is a man,” is a concept/function we can complete (or “saturate,” to use Frege’s intriguing term) by inserting the object “Socrates,” in a move which points us to the proposition’s ultimate referent- the truth-value “true.” But Deleuze and Guattari will claim that this approach, by virtue of its determination to avoid all empirical content, alongside its obliteration of particularity in positing only two possible referents for propositional sentences, gives us an empty formalism, applicable only to the most trivial and pre-determined propositions (32). What Frege gains in “perspicuity,” this argument suggests, he loses in consequence, and the possibility of meaningful philosophical engagement with the real.
Against this model, Olkowski sketches the Deleuzo-Guattarian “concept”- a concept which “belong(s) to a subject and not to a set,” constituting “a function of the lived” (33) as opposed to a purely formal abstraction. At the same time, they are eager to avoid the pitfalls of the “phenomenological concept,” which they see as rooted in the experience of a transcendental subject, and as such incompatible with a philosophy of immanence. One of Olkowski’s richest contributions, indeed, is a thorough mapping of this persistent Deleuzian critique of phenomenology- the charge that it establishes subjective, “natural” perception as a transcendent norm, elevating a particular and contingent relation to the status of a philosophical first principle. In so doing, claims Deleuze, it betrays philosophy’s task of breaking with doxa or opinion, establishing natural perception as Urdoxa, or original opinion, in a moment which is both conservative and anthropocentric. And while Olkowski is generally conciliatory, suggesting several times that Deleuze exaggerates the space between his and Merleau-Ponty’s thought, her identification of the numerous points at which their approaches diverge is a sophisticated complement to extant work by Wambacq (2018) or Reynolds and Roffe (2006).
Opposing themselves to both the Fregean (analytic) and phenomenological (transcendental-subjective) concept, Deleuze and Guattari sketch their own, intensional concepts, which Olkowski convincingly links to another key thinker threaded throughout her exegesis- the pragmatist philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce. For Deleuze and Guattari, concepts are “intensional” inasmuch as they constitute multiplicities whose unity is effected by their components’ internal (differential) relations. In this sense, Olkowski argues, they bear a striking resemble to Peircean “consistency” or “Thirdness” -habits, laws or generalities “to which future events have a tendency to conform” (42)- and which likewise produce continuity as the effect of multiple singular elements or events. Leaving aside the intricacies of Olkowski’s exegesis, it suffices to say that she does convincing and useful work here, tracing Peirce’s influence right across Deleuze’s oeuvre, particularly as it pertains to his recurrent conception of multiplicity as simultaneously “continuous” yet composed through differential relations.
Chapter three turns to Bergson, and an explication of his thought in the form of a rebuttal of the famous criticisms made by Bertrand Russell. Russell claims that Bergson’s thought reduces both distinction and abstraction to spatial phenomena, thereby demoting logic to a lesser branch of geometry (59). Graver than this, however, is Bergson’s apparent rejection of the mathematical model according to which change is apprehended as a series of discreet states. The indivisible continuity of Bergson’s “duration,” Russell argues, eschews the rigour of mathematics and science, opening the door to an irrational and irresponsible Cartesianism- a world in which things are never in any “state” at all, and the distinctions made by the intellect hover over of an indissoluble ontological mush. Olkowski links these criticisms to those made in the fallout of Bergson’s ill-fated encounter with Albert Einstein. While the latter is dedicated, by virtue of his theories of relativity, to a space-time continuum which is arguably “timeless” -with “any temporal event […] merely a geometric point in spacetime” (60), Bergson is interested in the qualitatively evolving and radically undetermined temporality of process, an approach which causes him to hesitate before the singular and unitary time of the physicist. In both cases, as Olkowski rightly notes, critics have sought to oppose the rigour of science and mathematics to Bergson’s “fuzzy” and “irrational” vitalism, effecting a discredit so fundamental as to cause even continental thinkers to “step[…] lightly around” (58) his thought.
Significant exceptions, of course, are Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty, and Olkowski devotes the rest of the chapter to their spirited defence of his concepts in the face of these attacks. For Merleau-Ponty, Bergson’s is a radical philosophy, one which breaks with Cartesianism by “present[ing] a being that is duration in place of an ‘I think’” (64). Further, Merleau-Ponty will argue that it is Bergson, rather than Einstein, who offers a temporality adequate to quantum physics, and a universe of indeterminacy and discontinuity ushered in by wave-particle duality (65). For Deleuze meanwhile, Bergson’s thought possesses an implicit mathematical rigour which renders it far closer to Russell than the latter himself supposes. In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze will refer to Russell’s distinction between lengths and distances, the latter of which cannot be divided into homogenous and interchangeable series but rather constitute “irreducible” series “derived in some way from perception” (69). As Olkowski notes, “Bergson too defines duration as a multiplicity or divisibility that does not divide without changing its nature, and so duration begins to sound like Russell’s concept of distance” (69). Deleuze will take up this hybrid Russellian-Bergsonian multiplicity in Difference and Repetition, using it as an image of ontogenesis- a mapping of the way in which intensive differences are explicated (differenciated) as “extensity” (or distance) in the context of individuation conceived as actualisation of the virtual. Olkowski’s work here is detailed and meticulous, illuminating the often-overlooked connections between Bergson, Deleuze and Russell.
In chapter four, Olkowski turns to Deleuze’s two volumes dedicated to film, Cinema I: The Movement-Image and Cinema II: The Time-Image, which she reads in the context of her central theme- a philosophical project to overcome the dualisms of thought and extension, reality and signs. Essential here, to Olkowski as to Deleuze, is Bergson’s idiosyncratic use of the term “image” as a means of effecting a rapprochement between realist and idealist accounts of reality. Prior to adopting either one of these positions, Bergson writes, “I am in the presence of images, in the vaguest sense of the word, images perceived when my senses are opened to them, unperceived when they are closed” (2005: 17). And this first principle, far from strictly phenomenological, becomes the staging ground for an immanent metaphysics of “images,” given that, he continues, “to make of the brain the condition on which the whole image depends is, in truth, a contradiction in terms, since the brain is by hypothesis a part of this image” (2005: 19). In this way, the brain becomes one image among many, perceiving or receiving movements from the images which surround it. Its apparent singularity stems not from any unique metaphysical status, but from a capacity to create a “gap” or “interval” (écart) between these received movements and reaction. As Olkowski explains, according to this model, “the brain is neither the origin nor the centre of the universe of images; it is the centre of indetermination in the interval between reception and reaction” (87), a centre of non-action which enables the organism to draw on virtual forces and escape the determinism of pure motricity.
This approach, which serves to render thought immanent to the interacting planes of “movement-images” which compose it, is then linked to another Deleuzian adaptation of Peirce, and his claim that the cinema volumes constitute a “taxonomy” of signs in the Peircean sense. Importantly, and against a then-dominant model in continental film theory, the “signs” of cinema do not resemble a language. Rather, and in keeping with the ontology Deleuze inherits from Bergson, signs are also “images”- catalytic reflective centres, situated on the same luminous register as their affects. This section of the book, it should be said, comprises a clear and insightful explication of the key ideas animating Deleuze’s work on cinema, albeit one which doesn’t offer a great deal which can’t be found in other works.
From here Olkowski shifts into a discussion of what Deleuze will call the cinematic time-image– the source of “pure” sonic and visual signs which confound action, and as such our habitual, action-oriented modes of thought. Paradigmatic are the signs/images of Italian neorealism, which confront both character and spectator with situations which are “unthinkable” in their magnitude, horror or banality. These images see the subject stripped of its capacities for action, and as such confronted with “the pure power of time that overflows all possibility of reaction and defeats, immobilizes and petrifies figures […] condemning them to a horrendous fate…” (93). For Deleuze, in keeping with a generalised hostility to the subject conceived as an autonomous and self-identical interiority, these images are thus immensely valuable to philosophy, enacting a temporal-semiotic deterritorialization of the cogito as the source and site of agency.
Against this fundamentally inhuman temporality -a time which fractures and problematises the subject- Olkowski will then contrast the approach of Merleau-Ponty, for whom “time and the subject communicate […] in virtue of an inner, interior necessity” (97). For Merleau-Ponty, Olkowski explains, both subjectivity and perception are fundamentally temporal, the persistence of bodies in space is “an expression of the network of temporal relations of a subject…” (97), and the subject is itself a “temporal wave that moves, particle to particle, through the matter of the world” (96). This approach, in keeping with Merleau-Ponty’s existentialist leanings, establishes the centrality of choice and engaged action as constitutive of a subject’s world- a vocabulary which is thoughtfully juxtaposed against Deleuze’s fundamentally “inhuman” time-image.
The book’s two final chapters continue in this comparative mode, embarking on a protracted discussion of the concept of the “Event,” as it appears in both phenomenology and Deleuze and Guattari, and as it pertains to the notion of freedom. For Merleau-Ponty, as we’ve seen, subjectivity is fundamentally temporal, simultaneously linked to a subject’s capacity to perceive spatial relations through time and to the way in which it is able to “inhabit” these relations. In this context, freedom is also temporal, given that “the stimulations an organism receives are possible only because its preceding movements have culminated in exposing the organism to these external influences,” such that, “the organism chooses the stimuli in the physical world to which it will be sensitive” (114). And while this suggests a rather limited remit of free action in the case of non-human organisms, integral is Merleau-Ponty’s conviction that “we are not simply a material plenum” (115)- that subjectivity exists across the fields of physical, physiological and mental “forms,” and as such is irreducible to simple “causal events” on any particular register.
Olkowski then returns to Deleuze, and to his critique of phenomenology in Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. Here, Deleuze will suggest that while phenomenology remains wedded to the forms of a particular “lived body,” his own (or rather Artaud’s) concept of the “body without organs,” “arises at the very limit of the lived body” (118), as a process which renders life unliveable– impelling it towards traumatic processes of (re)formation. For Deleuze, as we have seen, phenomenology thus embraces the affective and perceptual clichés of a particular lived experience, reifying them as philosophy. The task of philosophy, however, is that of breaking with these clichés (doxa)- a task the “anexact” concept of the BwO is designed to help us realise.
This vocabulary of perceptual and affective clichés also implicates art, and the aleatory methods Deleuze’s Bacon deploys in his diagrammatic “battle” against painterly cliché. Indeed, in the context of their cleft approach to “natural perception,” both Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty turn to painting, in particular to Cézanne, such that Olkowski rightly notes that “it is secretly Cézanne’s paintings that are the battlefield upon which the contest between the philosophy of the Event and phenomenology takes place” (121). For Deleuze, Cézanne “renders visible” the vital power of the body without organs -the pure, formless chaos which arrives as the Event- that which overturns all previous organisation. For Merleau-Ponty meanwhile, Cézanne’s canvasses capture organisation itself, the hesitant process of “matter taking on form and manifesting the birth of order…” (121), in a model Olkowski thoughtfully contrasts with Deleuze’s.
After appearing to hesitate for a moment between these two alternatives, or perhaps to think their compossibility, Olkowski’s final chapter renders her Deleuzo-Guattarian allegiances clear- particularly in its final pages, which see her embrace their ambiguous injunction that we need to open thought onto the deterritiorializing forces of the “Cosmos” (148). Whereas Merleau-Ponty, indeed, remains dedicated to a familiar concept of “freedom” as the remit of human subjectivity, Olkowski will follow Deleuze and Guattari in locating this problem in the “Cosmic” sphere, asking, and then answering: “Can the Earth become cosmic, and can the people of the Earth also become cosmic people? To the extent that this is possible, it is what takes the place of the old concept of freedom” (148).
Deleuze and Guattari take the concept of the Cosmos from Paul Klee, from whom they likewise borrow a model of art as that which does not “render the visible,” but rather “render[s] visible” (2003: 56). What it renders visible, Deleuze, Guattari and Olkowski claim, are the invisible forces of the Cosmos, the formless, imageless and non-thinkable “open” which is the condition likewise for science and philosophy. But how, exactly, does it do this? Here, Olkowski evokes the semiotic processes Deleuze and Guattari call “refrains” (ritournelles) -rhythmic, expressive repetitions which work to organise chaos as habitat. A little child sings in the dark to reassure herself; the colours of a bird’s plumage vibrate to communicate its territory:
In each case, milieus, blocks of space-time, are created by the rhythm, the vibration, the periodic repetition that holds back the intrusion of chaos, the milieu of all milieus. This means that the milieus are coded, and each serve as the basis for another coding and transcoding as one milieu passes continuously into another through the chaosmos, the rhythm-chaos (145).
Importantly, Olkowski draws out the fact that this process of rhythmic territorialization establishes not just a sheltering “inside,” but a simultaneous “outside” we might now venture out and begin to explore. This amounts to a semiotic transformation of the chaotic into the Cosmic, the “plane” upon which philosophy, art and science conduct their experiments. In this context, Olkowski explains, in a model of thought as free conceptual creation, “the philosopher […] makes thought into pragmatics, asking what a concept can do, enabling a force of the Cosmos that travels” (147).
The refrain, indeed, brings us back to the problem(s) with which the book began, that of the individuation of signs, ideas, or forms and of the ontogenetic conditions which enable it. Across the many models Olkowski treats, and of which I have selected only a handful, she creates a philosophical assemblage dedicated to logics of perception, affection and creativity which allow us to think across the apparently irrevocable empiricist/formalist division. This approach problematises traditional dualisms of observer and observed, signifier and signified, in an immanent pragmatics which reinstates the necessity of both semiotics and metaphysics.
In keeping with this approach, Olkowski is not content to lapse into an apparently “neutral” exposition, as though the reconstruction of these three projects might somehow avoid a similarly interested perception. Indeed, perhaps the richest aspect of the book is her attention to this often repressed “stylistic” dimension of exegesis, and the way in which explication is itself creation. Her numerous additions and digressions -through contemporary literature, science, and cinema- accentuate this fact, and renew her subjects’ thought as living bodies. At the same time, the author is herself implicated by this process -an “authority” which cannot but be problematic, as Olkowski herself acknowledges:
I have examined the relationship between the creation of ideas and their actualization in relation to semiology, logic, and the cosmos in the philosophies of Deleuze, Bergson, and Merleau-Ponty. It is not a linear path. It is more a question of periodic orbits following strange and unrepeated trajectories that have been generally unpredictable. In other words, in spite of what I think I know or understand, I have, at every instance, sought to remain attentive to alternatives to my former views in order to consider ideas, concepts, orientations, problems, and solutions that could unexpectedly erupt and so alter the orientation of my own thinking within the context of the problem I have set out (2).
And this brief precis proves instructive, given that the book is ultimately comprised less of clearly demarcated, linear arguments than a series of interwoven and recurrent conceptual refrains which, while generally compelling, can also feel occasionally disorienting.
Indeed readers looking for close, methodical explication and clearly identified lines of scholarly argumentation may want to look elsewhere, as Olkowski’s book constitutes more an image of thought-in-motion, which is occasionally unwieldy and often unpredictable. There are points at which her readings of each thinker are heterodox, and there is a tendency to overlook periodisation of their oeuvres in favour of a more thematic, and as such perhaps selective exegesis, which runs very different works together. I do not intend these remarks as “critical” in the non-philosophical sense. Olkowski herself gestures towards the ethic which I take to animate this approach in her final chapter, when she asks: “Can philosophers envisage a diagram for philosophy such that it is no longer philosophy as we now conceptualize or imagine it?” (149). Olkowski rightly notes that this is the challenge Deleuze and Guattari lay down with their own work. Deleuze, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty is a book which is both difficult and worthy because it takes this challenge seriously.
Bergson, Henri. 2005. Matter and Memory. Translated by Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer. New York: Zone Books.
Deleuze, Gilles. 2003. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. Translated by Daniel Smith. London: Continuum.
Reynolds, Jack & Roffe, Jon. 2006. “Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty: Immanence, Univocity and Phenomenology.” In Journal of the British Society of Phenomenology. Vol. 37, No.3. 229-225.
Wambacq, Judith. 2018. Thinking Between Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.