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
2021
Paperback $18.95
128

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
2021
Paperback $18.95
128

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.

Bibliography

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
Springer
2021
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
2020
Paperback $28.00
320

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

Introduction

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” (ref) 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” (ref). 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 himself derided psychoanalysis, 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 Forgivenes, 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.

Iso Kern: Phänomenologie der Intersubjektivität und metaphysische Monadologie, Schwabe Verlag, 2021

Phänomenologie der Intersubjektivität und metaphysische Monadologie: Zu einer Synthese von Husserl und Leibniz Book Cover Phänomenologie der Intersubjektivität und metaphysische Monadologie: Zu einer Synthese von Husserl und Leibniz
Iso Kern
Schwabe Verlag
2021
Paperback $29.95
240

Karel Novotný: Welt und Leib. Zu einigen Grundmotiven der Phänomenologie

Welt und Leib. Zu einigen Grundmotiven der Phänomenologie Book Cover Welt und Leib. Zu einigen Grundmotiven der Phänomenologie
Orbis Phaenomenologicus Studien, Vol. 50
Karel Novotný
Königshausen & Neumann
2021
Hardback 28.00 €
172

Reviewed by: Nikos Soueltzis (University of Crete)

World and the Lived-body: From the title of the book the author cares to prepare us for an encounter with two of phenomenology’s most prominent themes. Trivial as it may be this ascertainment is already an understatement of the complexities and shifts that have marked the history of their treatment within phenomenological tradition. Only the plural form in the subtitle (On Some Basic Motifs of Phenomenology) gives a hint of the challenges that await the reader. Thought-provoking and informative, Karel Novotný’s book discusses the work of philosophers who have voiced their objections against Husserl’s classic conception of the consciousness–world correlation.

It should be clarified from the start that Novotný’s book is not meant as an introduction to the phenomenological themes of the world and the lived-body. To appreciate the fineness of his analysis some degree of familiarity with the phenomenological tradition is clearly presupposed. Thus, the reader should be prepared for a close engagement with the text and indirectly with the broad corpus of texts Novotný discusses. We will briefly present the content of each chapter and then address a few points that caught our attention.

The book comprises three main parts each of which consisting of two chapters. In the first part, Novotný examines Eugen Fink’s and Renaud Barbaras’ attempts to initiate and carry out a cosmological turn from within phenomenology. In the second part, he discusses Jan Patočka’s and László Tengelyi’s transcendentally oriented phenomenological conceptions of the world. In the third part, the book focuses explicitly on what he calls the “margins” of the world/lived-body correlation. Patočka’s conceptions of movement and life, both in his late and early work, are given here special attention. Finally, after demarcating the “marginal” function of lived-corporeality in Husserl’s work, the book culminates in a concise exposition of Emmanuel Levinas’ and Hans Rainer Sepp’s original elaborations of it.

In the opening chapter of the book, Novotný introduces the problem of the world’s pregivenness by referring to some of Husserl’s classic texts and to the revisions it undergoes but also elicits in the hands of his major successors. For Husserl, the world is the open framework of all fields in which something that appears exerts an affection on the ego. The world’s transcendence is always given to a horizon-consciousness and phenomenologically explicating its constitution amounts to explicating the world’s horizon-structure. The Noesis-Noema correlation involves horizon-nexuses on both sides. But the world is not a horizon that correlates to a single act; it is the horizon of all horizons. Husserl’s description of the performance of epoché and phenomenological reduction in Ideas I reveals the fundamental function of the Generalthesis: the positing of the world as existing. The world is a sense-formation of a universally functioning subjectivity. Thus, subjectivity and world are tightly connected in this correlation that forms an absolute basis for Husserl’s phenomenology. But, according to Novotný, his theory of world-apperception carries with it a debatable implication much criticized by his successors. Namely, the tendency to understand world-apperception as prescribing that every real thing is determined in advance in its universal typicality. Met with suspicion, this implication led to two different currents of critisism. On the one hand, fearing that this typicality poses a threat to the openness of appearing, the line of Emmanuel Levinas, Michel Henry, Jean-Luc Marion, and Marc Richir, dismisses the view that the world is the origin of appearing or that this appearing is tied to a total apperception (21). On the other hand, before this turning-away from the world, cosmological attempts were made to recover the world in its primordial pregivenness and establish it as the framework that makes possible every phenomenal correlation. Novotný briefly discusses the second line of thought characterizing it as a “cosmological turn” and names Fink as its main proponent. The latter grasps human relating to the world not on the ground of an intentional consciousness and its horizons but within a framework that already embraces them both. To do so, he moves away from Husserl’s model of horizon-gradations by reversing the direction of its openness. Instead of beginning from a subjective bearer that stands outwards (Hinausstehen) toward the openness of the horizon, we now follow the opposite direction and focus on the world’s emerging within (Hereinstehen) the horizon-system (23). Fink’s contribution rests in pointing out the fleeting dimension of the world beyond the bipolar appearing/withdrawing characterizing the ontological difference—i.e., Being’s withdrawal for the beings to appear, while remaining inseparable from them.

In the second chapter, Novotný discusses extensively Renaud Barbaras’ work. In broad strokes, he summarizes the latter’s project as an attempt to radically de-subjectivize appearing as such by being led back to the world’s own process of becoming. He distinguishes between two modes of appearing: “primary” and “secondary.” Primary manifestation is the world’s anonymous process of becoming. Secondary appearing, on the other hand, is the appearing that involves a subjective pole. The world itself exhibits an essential distance within its movement of primary manifestation, a dynamic depth. Thanks to the latter, living beings are characterized by the movement of an insatiable desire: they reach out to the world, always moving within its depth and being that movement. For Barbaras, herein lies the deepest structure of correlation. Secondary appearing emerges through this movement of desire once a peculiar event of rupture occurs. In his earlier texts, this event transpires within the world but does not stem from the world’s movement. Having placed at the core of this movement the productive force of physis, he characterizes this event of rupture as metaphysical to denote what Husserl calls the primary fact of subjectivity (34f.). But the “transformation” effectuated through the event of rupture is a mere prolongation of the world-movement and not a radical change or any kind of discontinuity. The significance of this event as well as the difficulties that follow from it become apparent if one considers the spatial dimension of appearing and the accompanying individuation of the living subjects in it through their lived-bodies.[i] Given his cosmological perspective, it is no surprise that Barbaras speaks of a proto-spatialization. Beings are spatially individuated prior to their embeddedness into any framework of orientation.

As Novotný points out, it is imperative to explain what the role of the event of rupture is in this proto-spatialization. The prolongation of primary manifestation into secondary appearing implies the emergence of the lived-bodily centrality and this must be somehow related to the event of rupture. Trying to delve deeper into the cosmological realm, Barbaras recently revised his initial conception. Focusing on proto-spatialization, he describes the world’s movement through a threefold articulation: (a) as ground (Boden, le sol), (b) as site (Sitz, le site), and (c) as place (Ort, le lieu) (39). Novotný tries to explain the complex ways in which these modes of spacing relate to each other, finally making possible the openness of subjectivity. Barbaras employs this threefold distinction to show that subjectivity’s intentional tendency rests on a more primal movement. Far from being an autonomous self-movement, the movement of phenomenalization is the world’s ultimate force returning to itself. To further explain the emergence of subjectivity within the world’s movement he claims that the world already exhibits a subjectivity of its own, one that differs from the self-relation peculiar to the experiencing of appearing yet attested to by the latter. All beings exhibit subjectivity in different degrees. Human subjectivity is inscribed deeper within world’s subjectivity, while subjectivity of lifeless things is inscribed in it in the most fleeting and volatile manner. Acknowledging world’s own subjectivity implies that lived-bodily subjectivity occurs as a movement within world’s own movement. In the same movement that bodies become individuated, the human living being takes hold of the world in its phenomenalization (43).

It is in the third chapter that Novotný moves away from the previous cosmological attempts. He discusses the similarities and differences between Patočka’s and Fink’s understanding of the world. Like Fink, Patočka does not subscribe to a world-conception based on thing-apperception: the world is not a mere extension of the objectifying intentionality into surrounding zones. However, the peculiarity of his approach rests on acknowledging that there is a deeper horizonal structure involved in thing-apperception that is intimately connected to the world and co-shapes its pre-givenness in a primordial manner. Thus, Patočka’s phenomenology places emphasis on the mutuality between the pre-givenness of the whole and the fact of its limitation: both permeate and sustain each other. He admits that the world-totality does not need the various subject-centers of appearing, but he acknowledges their interrelation as a fact that cannot be ignored. Thus, instead of relinquishing phenomenology altogether towards a speculative cosmology, he insists on the possibility of a phenomenology of the world-totality. Such a phenomenology cannot perform the metaphysical leap to a “real world” behind appearances. Instead, it tries to make accessible those appearances on the ground of the world-totality that is present in them. Novotný characterizes Patočka’s perspective at that time as “static,” provisionally setting aside the “genetic” access to the world-totality, a task taken up in his theory of the “movements of existence.”

Novotný then examines Patočka’s project of asubjective phenomenology. His discussion is initially limited to Patočka’s relevant published texts. He provides us with a brief presentation of his critical reconsiderations of Husserl’s phenomenology, based on the need to preserve the world’s irreducibility to the constituting life of consciousness. But the risk of ending up with a metaphysical enclosure of a cosmos that affords its own hypostatized mode of appearing is too high. He chooses to “focus on the openness of appearing itself, for which the world serves only as a respectively a priori form but not as a ground in the sense of source” (63). The world is an a priori form. But where is this a priori hinged on and how can we trace it? Patočka’s reply is that phenomenology’s proper theme of inquiry is the autonomous “field of appearance,” i.e., the sphere of the different modes of appearing that is independent both from the appearing objects as well as from the spontaneity of the acts of consciousness. Thus, it should not be subjectivized and reduced to the noetic-noematic distinction. The allegedly immanent components of appearing (e.g., sensation and apprehension) are in fact modes of appearance pertaining to the object (65). But how does this field appear and how does it relate to the appearing of the beings that appear in it? Patočka follows a specific methodological path that allows him to free the phenomenal sphere from all possible constraints and misinterpretations. While he employs Husserl’s phenomenological epoché, he dismisses the complementary move toward the immanence of consciousness, i.e., his phenomenological reduction. He characterizes this break as a radicalized epoché (66). In Patočka’s Nachlass Novotný traces significant contributions to an understanding of this asubjective world-a priori. He distinguishes its three structural moments: (a) the totality of “what” appears, (b) the “who” to which it appears, and (c) the “how” of the appearing (72). All these moments are themselves given within appearing as such. Even though Novotný leaves out of consideration Patočka’s relation to Heidegger, he adds that in his project of asubjective phenomenology Patočka is clearly inspired by the motif of the ontological difference (74). In any case, Patočka’s insistence on the primacy of the problem of appearing attests to a certain distancing from Heidegger’s path, albeit on occasions in an ambivalent manner.

Chapter four discusses the issue of world’s pregivenness in Tengelyi’s project of phenomenological metaphysics from his last book Welt und Unendlichkeit. The guiding theme is his investigation on the kind of “necessity” implied in the commonly held view of the world’s non-modalizability. Tengelyi grasps this necessity not as a priori but as a factical one (78). He draws attention to what he considers to be “primal facts” that can be phenomenally shown but are irreducible or non-inferable. In the three sections of this chapter Novotný focuses on three points from Tengelyi’s phenomenological metaphysics of the world: (a) the conception of world’s openness as its essence, (b) the world’s openness in relation to the event of appearing, and (c) the reality of the world. To address the theme of the world, Tengelyi employs what he calls the “diacritic” method and gradually differentiates between world-totality and infinity (83). Both poles are treated in their contrast but as necessarily belonging together (Tengelyi 2014, 301). His aim is to revise our familiar phenomenological conception of the total world-horizon as a mere correlate of consciousness. The world’s existence in experience presupposes an inner concordance that is not a priori guaranteed but only factually shown (cf. Tengelyi 2014, 323). Thus, our world-cognition entails a certain contingence. Starting from this, Novotný broaches the issue of the relation between the world’s openness and the appearing as event. This contingence of my world-cognition attests to an alterity that leaves its traces in the infinite system of possible experiences, it always threatens to disrupt it (85). To denote that, Tengelyi refers to the possibility of “unavailable” experiences, to wit, experiences that do not accord with the smooth sense-giving intentional streaming of consciousness. Appearing announces itself in experience as an event bearing the character of contingent facticity, namely, an event that can never be reduced to sense-giving. This alterity with its potentially disruptive effects is tightly connected to world’s reality. The latter exhibits an openness that is announced in our experience of the world through the potentially disruptive contingence. The fact that this contingence is experienced entails that the openness of the world can be phenomenologically exhibited (88). But Tengelyi also tries to phenomenologically clarify the belief in the existence of the world based on the primal fact of lived-bodiliness. The fact of the sensory appearing of the world that nurtures our world-belief, as Novotný very vividly says, points to the fact of our embodiment. Even though the latter is never implicated in the event of appearing, it shows itself as its factical condition (90).

In chapter five, Novotný examines the basic motif announced in the title: Of the world’s being anchored to a relation to lived-corporeality (Leib-Körper). The experience of the world is always centered around a lived-bodily zero-point of orientation and always bears the polarity “home-alien.” But the lived-body borders on what is alien to it in another peculiar manner. It is the corporeal aspect that attests to this bordering and inscribes certain gaps to the continuous pregivenness. Novotný discusses Patočka’s relevant positions beginning from his dismissal of the primal correlation as one between an objectifying experience and its object. Instead, he privileges the correlation between life and the pregiven world that confronts it with its alienness. To situate this correlation, Patočka will appeal to a third concept of lifeworld mediating between the world as universe of beings and the world in its ontological function. It is the world that correlates to the fundamental movements of human life and not to a traditionally conceived subject. But, as Novotný points out, substituting life-movements for the subject does not amount to an overall dissipation of subjectivity: it is neither a way of naturalizing consciousness nor a cosmological reduction. The movements of existence are forms of expression of a living inwardness. Focusing on the dimension of movement introduces us to a dynamic-genetic perspective that encompasses the static-phenomenological one. Novotný highlights the role of lived-corporeal life for Patočka’s phenomenology by discussing his broader theory of movement and zeroing in on what he defines as the first movement of existence, i.e., the movement of “anchoring.” This movement originally opens the world in a purely instinctive manner; it is the sensuous life that is externally stimulated to movement (105f.). But for Patočka lived-corporeality points to a plurality of life-centers that form the world as the medium of expression starting from their respective internality and in mutual contact. The first world-relating movement is individuated through an intersubjective connection between living interiorities. Thus, the movement of “anchoring” involves more than our organic world-embeddedness. It is also articulated by our being accepted in a community. This acceptance or non-acceptance colors the world respectively either with a welcoming warmth or with the threatening coldness of its vastness.

Novotný turns further to Patočka’s unpublished manuscripts to defend him against any allegations of a cosmological turn. The most challenging part is the one dedicated to Patočka’s early project of life-phenomenology. Novotný guides us through the bulk of untranslated texts from the 1940’s introducing the reader to its main elements (122ff.). From life’s “inwardness” to the appearing as expression of this “inwardness” and his peculiar account of aesthesis based on a polarity of indifferences, Patočka’s early project involves many radical revisions of familiar aspects of phenomenology. As an example, Novotný refers to Husserl’s “hyletic sphere” and how Patočka integrates it to his project. The hyletic sphere is a first externality but not a lifeless one. It must already contain that which enables the intention to turn the hyletic stratum into a bearer of expression (127). Thus, it is not only to the other person or living animal being that an “inwardness” is ascribed but to other beings in general. Hyle is already an externalization that expresses an “inner” life. Lived-corporeality plays here an essential role as the particular expression of human life that offers us the key to understand expression as a phenomenon of life in general (129).

In the last chapter, Novotný focuses explicitly on lived-corporeality and its phenomenological examination. His guiding assumption is that the lived-body (Leib) can only be the core of the self inseparably from corporeality (Körper) while the latter is experienced at the same time as a limit of subjectivity. What we are looking for is a primal lived-corporeal experiencing in which the inner and the outer are intimately connected. His itinerary starts with Husserl and his conception of the lived-body. The aim is to point out the ineradicable significance of the corporeal aspect (Körper) and the impossibility of a total abstraction from it. He does that by critically showing that in Husserl’s (especially later) work the lived-body is absorbed in the immanence of living-experiencing leaving no room for a differentiating singularization. It cannot account for the singularity of the self, i.e., for the singularity of the perceiving subjectivity in its factual distinction from any other. Thus, we should entertain the hypothesis that this is carried out by the twofold character of lived-corporeality. As Novotný says, living-experiencing is each time mine thanks to the “psycho-physical” lived-corporeality (136). Living-experiencing and the lived-body, according to him, are anonymous in their immanence and thus unable to singularize the self. This singularization is only possible through the anchoring of lived-corporeality (140). It is at this point that he will interpose Levinas’ theory about the position (or positing) of the body as corporeality (Körper) from his early text Existence and Existents.

According to Levinas, egoic living-experiencing cannot posit corporeality on its own, so it is posited through an event that escapes the custody of the subject. Levinas refers to a materiality that lies hidden within the objects of the surrounding world as an alterity. It is neither perceived nor thought of as it cannot be fixated within a system of sense-relations, but it is affectively given. This materiality attests to the fact of the anonymous existence, the there is that is revealed in the experience of horror with its depersonalizing effect (142). The emergence of consciousness is made possible by a positing that depends on corporeality and not on a pure ego or the flesh of the lived-body. It is a corporeality that does not point back to a constituting immanence. It is no object but the event of the positing of “here” and a precondition for any immanence. Translating it in the terms of his own model, Novotný claims that the position (or positing) of corporeality lies in the margins of the universal correlation.

Novotný’s last stop is Hans Rainer Sepp’s concept of the border-Leib (Grenzleib) drawn from his project of phenomenological ecology. Along with direction-Leib (Richtungsleib) and sense-Leib (Sinnleib), they form the three fundamental dimensions of lived-body.[ii] Border-Leib refers to the limit-experience of our lived-body in which the nakedness of the real is experienced prior to its articulation in a sense; direction-Leib refers to the movement of an embodied experiencing that is a reaching out to an exteriority by desiring it; the sense-Leib refers to a fixed framework of sense that structures a new lived-bodily dimension. Sepp starts with the acceptance that human subjectivity is an embodied subjectivity. Thus, we must understand how its relation to its environment and to itself is bodily formed in such a way that human beings participate to place-relations determined by their lived-body. To that extent, Sepp speaks of a primordial place as a limit or a border that delineates the singularity of life. It is a factical limitation in an absolute “here.” For Sepp this limit or border is a “living being-inside” (146). With respect to the subjective pole of the correlation, Novotný sees in Sepp’s idea of border-Leib an affinity with Levinas’ positing (or position) of corporeality. But he finds Sepp’s conception of the “real” as more fitting to describe the primal situation with respect to the non-subjective pole. He integrates Sepp’s as well as Levinas’ positions to his own model of the margins of the universal correlation. The former’s “real” and the latter’s anonymous “there is” lurk in the margins deprived of any sense-articulation.

As already mentioned at the beginning, Novotný’s book is a demanding read not due to its writing style but because it engages in a discussion of a wide range of authors and texts. To that extent, the reader’s effort is dictated by the material itself. That being said, the only traceable drawback is that at times Novotný inserts his own remarks and reconstructions without having previously provided a sufficient context. Unfortunately, sometimes this interrupts the reading flow and thus raising the suspicion that particular  sentences are packed with dense implications which are not properly fit in the context. To be fair, this is a recurring pattern only in the chapter on Barbaras’ cosmology.

A striking example can be found on page 34 where he refers to “appearing as such” as the core of his reconstruction without a clear indication as to its differentiation from “primary” and “secondary appearing.”[iii] Things would probably be much easier if a chapter on Patočka already preceded his discussion of Barbaras’ work. However, in the given occasion the lack of an explicit distinction incites confusion especially when Novotný transposes the “event” of rupture into the context of “appearing as such”: it is the latter that exhibits an essentially evental character. Trying to follow this transposition, one can ask: if the distinction between primary and secondary manifestation is something derivative from the point of view of “appearing as such,” why should there be any essential connection between its evental character and the event of rupture? It could even be misleading to employ it as a leading clue. The world’s obtaining its specific mode of appearing (its “how”) does not signify anything like a radical rupture since it is already a moment of the a priori of appearance. In fact, one could contend that there is no dimension of “appearing as such” that could accommodate the speculative demands of “primary manifestation.”

But let us make a more general interpretive suggestion based solely on Novotný’s analysis. Can we claim that in the present context switching from a cosmological to a phenomenological perspective and vice versa is a matter of subordinating interchangeably to each other two significant aspects of the event—its dynamic and its facticity? Can it be the case that Barbaras privileges spatialization by adopting the spatial-modal tripartition of the primary event (le sol, le site, le lieu) to compensate for tacitly ascribing a secondary function to the event’s facticity as opposed to its dynamic? To be sure, Barbaras’ turn to a metaphysical cosmology is not a matter of carefully blurring the limits of phenomenology. However, a close investigation of how he moves away from the latter is surely a productive endeavor. Novotný’s model of the “margins” of correlation admittedly provides us with a solid basis to carry it out.

From a broad perspective, the model of the “margins of correlation” that Novotný promotes in his book allows us to pinpoint and thematize an area of investigation that is quite elusive. He employs it with caution and with a specific aim. To that extent it is a rather useful instrument of analysis. Nevertheless, there is a risk of stretching the model considerably by trying to fit in everything that speculative thought defines as escaping phenomenology’s reach. Some precaution is perhaps necessary to avoid measuring up those margins against the criticized instances of arbitrary hypostatization and to maintain their reference to the correlation itself. This is already what Novotný has in mind when he describes them based on the “escaping appearing/conditioning appearing” dipole and this is probably why confronting Barbaras’ peculiar cosmology is so important for his project.

Apart from this general remark, many interesting points of discussion are raised from Novotný’s analysis. Indicatively, we will mention only two. Because of the varied contexts of the chapters, we will address them in the specific frameworks in which they emerge. The first is drawn from his reference to what Patocka calls the “first movement of existence.” Towards the end of section 5.1 he distinguishes two of its components: (a) our primary acceptance by the others and (b) the affective readiness of life (113). We believe that this is a very interesting issue that should draw our attention to the complex interrelations between these two components, i.e., how the one affects the other. But a more pressing question comes to mind: how does Patočka gain access to the phenomenality of their connection within the anchoring-movement? How is their structural balance on such a dynamic ground procured at a phenomenological level? Is it a matter of their intertwinement in a past that is irretrievable in its own terms or is the first movement of existence as such characterized by an ultimate actuality that sets the limits of any inquiry into the origins of its components? If the latter is the case, should we not acknowledge this actuality first as the phenomenological edge of human life in its polyphonous movement before we proceed to its characterization (as event, proto-facticity, etc.)?

The second remark refers to Sepp’s notion of border-Leib discussed in section 6.3. We mentioned earlier that Sepp considers the limit that delineates life’s singularity as a “living being-inside.” But Novotny traces a certain tension at this point: this absolute “here” where life is factically singularized is not a place where this life is opened up for itself in its singularity. How can Sepp claim that they coincide as a “living being-inside”? To accommodate both claims, Novotny suggests viewing them through the perspective of lived-corporeality. As corporeal, this singularity is posited as absolute “here” in a proto-factical manner. As lived-body, this factical limitation is identified with an “absolute being-inside.” The problem is how to understand the transition or contact between the two. According to Novotný, Sepp settles it by resorting to the perspective of the direction-Leib. It seems that it was probably Sepp’s reference to an “absolute ‘here’” that led Novotny to such a claim (146). Yet, Sepp elsewhere refers to the dimension of “Ausleben” to connect the two poles (cf. Sepp 2010, p. 134). Roughly translated, it is the living-out of the lived-body (here: at an organic level). Orientation and directedness are built on this tendency of “Ausleben” when this tendency itself encounters its limit as an obstacle. In short, the “Da” to which Sepp refers is meant to circumscribe the primary resistance of the naked real against the organic tendency of lived-bodily “Ausleben.” Novotný probably wants to connect this primal contact between lived-body and corporeality with an experiential dimension that does not run the risk of lapsing into a cosmological or naturalistic interpretation. It seems that appealing to direction-Leib as the broader perspective in which the two poles of border-Leib come in contact is what enables him to claim that border-Leib is a component of the margins of correlation.

Overall, Novotný’s book is an invaluable addition to the arsenal of phenomenological scholarship. Insightful and rigorous, Welt und Leib meets all the requirements: rich in content, organized, detailed, historically and systematically informing, and conversing with major contemporary phenomenological theories. In short, the reader can only benefit from it in so many ways.[iv]

References

Sepp, Hans Rainer. 2010. „Gabe und Gewalt. Gedanken zum Entwurf einer leibtheoretisch verankerten Anthropologie.“ Cornelius Zehetner, Hermann Rauchenschwandtner u. Birgit Zehetmayer (Hg.): Transformationen der kritischen Anthropologie. Für Michael Benedikt zum 80. Geburtstag. Wien: Löcker: 133-146.

Tengelyi, László. 2014. Welt und Unendlichkeit. Zum Problem phänomenologischer Metaphysik. Freiburg: Karl Alber.


[i] Novotný refers on purpose to the Leib-Körper compound and not just to Leib. He does so throughout the book, and it is important for his theory regarding the body’s primary role in the correlation to the world and its way of being situated in the “margins” of the correlation. Below, we will translate it as “lived-corporeality” to preserve a reference to both components.

[ii] Sepp develops this threefold distinction in Sepp (2010).

[iii] Another example is his abrupt reference to the “Earth” as the ground of all corporeality on page 47, while we first learn more about its role in Patočka’s philosophy on page 109.

[iv] This research is co-financed by Greece and the European Union (European Social Fund-ESF) through the Operational Programme “Human Resources Development, Education and Lifelong Learning” in the context of the project “Reinforcement of Postdoctoral Researchers – 2nd Cycle” (MIS-5033021), implemented by the State Scholarships Foundation (ΙΚΥ).

Maria Agustina Sforza: Sein und Leben: Zur Andersheit des Tieres bei Heidegger, Klostermann, 2021

Sein und Leben: Zur Andersheit des Tieres bei Heidegger Book Cover Sein und Leben: Zur Andersheit des Tieres bei Heidegger
Heidegger Forum 18
Maria Agustina Sforza
Klostermann
2021
Hardback 49,00 €
302

Eric S. Nelson: Levinas, Adorno, and the Ethics of the Material Other

Levinas, Adorno, and the Ethics of the Material Other Book Cover Levinas, Adorno, and the Ethics of the Material Other
SUNY series in Contemporary French Thought
Eric S. Nelson
SUNY Press
2020
Paperback $34.95
480

Reviewed by: Kristóf Oltvai (The University of Chicago)

In Levinas, Adorno, and the Ethics of the Material Other, Eric S. Nelson advances, via these two key interlocutors, a “materialist ethics of nonidentity” (14) that would critique nothing less than “contemporary capitalist societies in their complexly interconnected cosmopolitan neoliberal and neomercantile nativist and nationalistic ideological variations” (260). Such great expectations, and mouthfuls, populate the whole continent of this nigh-five-hundred-page tome, which, alongside its protagonists, surveys, enlists, or corrects thinkers as diverse and challenging as Enrique Dussel, Friedrich Nietzsche, Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Marx, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Ernst Bloch, Jürgen Habermas, Axel Honneth, Jacques Derrida, and Iris Murdoch. While such breadth – to say nothing of Nelson’s frequent and fascinating asides to Asian philosophies – reveals a deep erudition, the study’s verbosity often belies its chief argument: that Emmanuel Levinas’s phenomenological defense of ethics as ‘first philosophy,’ if informed by and reinterpreted through Theodor Adorno’s concept of negative dialectics, offers up a useful framework for rethinking our ethical obligations to dehumanized human and nonhuman Others in the Anthropocene. Admittedly, Nelson tips his hand quite late when he writes that “[t]he alternative interpretative strategies outlined throughout this work…point,” not to some reconstitution of “a republic of rational spirits or community of communicative and dialogical agents” à la Habermas and Honneth (Nelson’s whipping boys), but to an “an-archic and unrestrained solidarity…between material existents” (332). His concerns seem, in the final analysis, ecological, while his conclusions share a family resemblance with object-oriented ontology.

The text’s primary theoretical contribution is its concept of “asymmetry”: if ethics is founded on ontological equality, then one’s moral obligations to certain humans, and even more so to nonhuman or flat-out nonliving beings, is impossible. We must thus develop, Nelson claims, ways to think moral obligation in ontologically asymmetrical conditions. Even putting stylistic issues aside, the argument is vexed by a central difficulty, namely, an inability to articulate what sets its solutions apart from the behemoth it means to criticize. While he does offer some recommendations, Nelson frequently jumps from first-person phenomenological description to third-person, extremely concrete public policy positions, or puts forward an idea that “the ‘saintliness,’ ‘genuine humanity,’ and ‘greatest perfection’ that transpires in the insufficiency and incompletion of everyday life in ordinary acts in which one places the other before oneself” (337). The former confuses distinct levels of philosophical analysis, while – to echo Slavoj Žižek’s criticism of Levinas, one that Nelson himself considers (299) – the latter risks a sentimentalism unable to deconstruct global capitalism. Both fangs of this problem arise from Nelson’s underdeveloped account of the precise epistemological connection between phenomenology and critical theory, as well as from a conflation of liberalism and capitalism his own sources reject. The Ethics of the Material Other thus ultimately finds itself unable to decide whether liberalism’s wholesale rejection, or just its reformulation, is in order.

After an introduction meant mainly to acknowledge Adorno’s and Levinas’s diverging philosophical idioms, Nelson divides his study into three parts: “After Nature,” “Unsettling Religion,” and “Demanding Justice.” In “After Nature,” Nelson turns to Marx’s and Adorno’s idea that ‘nature,’ as an ideological category, is dialectically-materially constructed, first using this idea to critique Habermas and Honneth, and then suggesting it helps us get around Levinas’s anthropocentrism. The basic point here is easy to grasp. ‘Nature’ and ‘culture’ are not static ontological spheres; rather, ‘nature’ is itself historically conditioned, and, in late capitalism, serves as both “the environment,” a mere “background for human activity” (38), and as a fetishized reservoir for consumers’ ‘sublime’ experiences. The “natural and human worlds” should thus be rethought, Nelson argues, “as historically intertwined and mutually co-constituting” (46), with ‘nature’ now defined, with Adorno, as the material τόδε τι that confronts and resists reason’s dialectic. In contrast to Habermas and Honneth, then, for whom the Marxian “expression ‘domination of nature’…is [only] a metaphor extended to nature from the domination between humans in misshapen relations” (44), Nelson recovers Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s sense that, in fact, the real exploitation of nature grounds, and is interwoven with, specific forms of dehumanization. In other words,

[i]nsofar as humans are worldly bodily beings, with practical material lives, it is debatable whether the nondisposability of humans can be preserved in a world where everything else is disposable… In not listening and responding to animals, environments, and the materiality of the world… numerous human forms of life and suffering are silenced (48).

The extent to which Nelson himself actually embraces the “nonreductive, aporetic, and ethical praxis-oriented…materialism” (49) he finds in the older Frankfurt School is another question, as his examples of ‘natural’ phenomena still seem oriented by romanticism; we hear of “melting glacier[s]” and “polluted wetlands” (128), for example, but few of the more discomfiting candidates from radical ecology. Nelson wonders, for example, if “[i]t might be the case that there can be an ethics that is responsive to and responsible for animals, ecosystems, and environments without presupposing or requiring any concept or experience of nature” (114), without interrogating what concept of ‘nature’ underlies the three ethical subjects with which he begins that very sentence. The extent to which “bodily suffering” (81) motivates Nelson’s ethics – and restricts them – is likewise open to debate, and downplays, in his account, the extent to which ‘nature’ remains, for Adorno as it was for Hegel, an epistemological category. Nonetheless, Nelson’s use of Adorno to overcome Levinas’s alleged “antinaturalistic and antibiological” (91) is convincing. Levinas’s critique of ‘naturalism’ is indeed oriented by his desire to steer clear of anti-humanist romanticism, especially in its reactionary modes; if we jettison a romantic construction of ‘nature,’ then, granting an “alterity and transcendence to life and living beings insofar as they are ethically rather than biologically understood” (116) does become possible. This reinterpretation also dovetails with the one advanced by Megan Craig and others, namely, that Levinas’s descriptions of the ethical encounter are just extended epistemological metaphors, meant to ground a radical empiricism. This would fit nicely with Adorno’s own defense of empiricism, in his Metaphysics lectures and elsewhere, against idealism’s alleged hatred of the empirical.

In his study’s second part, “Unsettling Religion,” Nelson focuses on the notion of ‘prophecy,’ primarily in Levinas’s philosophical interpretation of Judaism. Before jumping into this, though, he begins by overviewing Ricœur’s three ‘masters of suspicion’ – Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud – and their critiques of religion. In what amounts to a methodological exercise, Nelson admits that while “[r]eligions operate as ideological disguises and hegemonic regimes of this-worldly power that demand ascetic and sacrificial practices and exact heavy costs in lives and suffering,” they are simultaneously “expressive of prophetically inspired hope for forgiveness, happiness, and justice” (150). He expends particular energy evaluating Nietzsche’s views on religion in On the Genealogy of Morality, affirming the Genealogy’s ‘prophetic’ elements while rejecting its crypto-virtue ethics and justification of suffering through amor fati. Nelson then turns to the meat of the argument in this part, which is Levinas’s confrontation with Kierkegaard over the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. For Nelson, this contrast illustrates two fundamental ‘religious’ modes: Kierkegaard’s, that of fundamentalism and theocratic tyranny, of “the religious constituting the suspension of the ethical,” as against Levinas’s ‘prophetic’ “interruption of [God’s] command by the ethical demand not to kill” (181). For Levinas, Kierkegaard’s positive valuation of Abraham’s decision in Genesis – to carry out God’s command to sacrifice Isaac despite its patent immorality and absurdity – shows that Christianity is “an egotistical and self-interested search for consolation, redemption, and salvation.” Judaism, on the other hand – which Levinas identifies with the angel intervening to stay Abraham’s hand – is “not even primarily about God” (184), but about “the humanism of the other.” This is “the ethical truth of monotheism,” which Levinas actually finds in the later Kierkegaard, in Works of Love, not “faith and its subjectivity” (183). Through this analysis, Nelson provides evidence for the theory that – as Samuel Moyn has argued – Levinas’s concept of ethics norms his construction of ‘Judaism,’ not vice versa. This is why, for example, he can praise “atheism” in one moment “as the break with mythic absorption and monistic participation” while lambasting it as “the denial and absence of the transcendent” (213) in the next.

Nelson then turns to Bloch, for whom the “the radical potential of prophecy in Judaism and Christianity, the prophetic denunciation of exploiters, despots, and masters… prepared the way for the communist communities of love from which” – on Bloch’s reading, at least – “primordial Christianity emerged” (230). Finally, “Unsettling Religion” concludes, in a somewhat disjointed way, with a chapter on Murdoch and the Danish Lutheran thinker Knud Ejler Løgstrup. Apart from Løgstrup’s apparently “underappreciated” (243) status in contemporary philosophy and his use of Kierkegaard, I found this excursus confusing, especially given that Nelson would have had to unpack Murdoch’s metaphysical commitments in a more sustained way to make the comparison of her and Levinas other than external. Also meriting scrutiny is the “category of the religious” Nelson claims his analysis has uncovered – namely, one that, “through its prophetic and redemptive moments and in its dreams, hopes, and visions formed and expressed in abject, damaged, and wounded life… heighten[s] the radical republican and social democratic alignment in the direction of equality (fairness), liberty (autonomy), and solidarity (love)” (259). After all, his frequent gestures to Asian religious and philosophical concepts notwithstanding, Nelson’s proponents of ‘prophecy’ here all work within one textual reception history – that of the Hebrew Bible. Can we cleave this ethically- and politically-oriented prophetism from its scriptural origins, ethos, and legitimation? If not, we may need to resist identifying it with ‘religion’ sans phrase; “messianism” (232), per Nelson’s own suggestion, may be more accurate.

“Demanding Justice,” the study’s final part, attempts to think through how a Levinasian ethics, having passed through the clarificatory crucible of the first two parts, might reorient contemporary political theory. I stress ‘Levinasian’ because, at this juncture, Nelson’s use of Adorno recedes into the background, even as earlier adversaries like Habermas and Honneth return as the “high priests” (to repeat Žižek’s quip) of global capital. Nelson’s guiding question here is whether “there [is] in the Levinasian motif of the ‘language of the other’…the possibility of an alternative to both the false universality of liberal and neoliberal cosmopolitanism and the false concreteness of communitarianism and racialized particularism” (320). These two frameworks are, for Nelson, secretly complementary: neoliberalism preaches universal equality and ‘human rights’ while materially erasing those distinct ways of life – human and nonhuman – unable to be integrated into the free market’s logic, and finds itself quite comfortable with new forms of nationalism and chauvinism that stratify intrasocietal wealth as long as global capital flows remain unimpeded. He takes especial issue with the classical Enlightenment concept of freedom, which he sees as having been perverted into an ideology whereby “appeals to one’s own freedom function to justify power over others and deny the freedom of others to live without coercion and violence” (285). Where this disfiguration is not carried out by the state, it is done so by the ‘culture industry’ and other homogenizing social and economic mechanisms, as diagnosed by Adorno, Horkheimer, and Alexis de Tocqueville. This ideology finds its quintessential expression in the fact that the modern subject is told her freedom is absolute while she finds the most primal experience of freedom – the freedom for meaningful political action – denied her. “Freedom from society robs the individual of the strength for freedom. Asocial freedom limited to an absolutized private self, and divorced from the sociality of the other, is…a denial of the freedom that participates in and helps shape society” (303).

Now, Nelson is aware that Levinasian ethics does not have an obvious answer to this problem; he repeatedly cites, for instance, Žižek’s objection that Levinas, by hyperbolically exaggerating the self’s infinite responsibility for the Other in the ethical encounter, just shifts the burden of society’s sins onto the atomized subject. Nelson claims in response that Levinasian ethics serves as a corrective to existing egalitarianisms rather than a full-blown political counterprogram. Because “Levinas’s political thinking is in multiple ways…an ethically informed and other-oriented transformation of French republican thought” (321), it aims at “disrupting and potentially reorienting self and society, immanently within and yet aporetically irreducible to being, its unity or multiplicity, or other ontological determinations” (332). “Instead of offering an ethical program of cultivating virtues or duties, or setting up procedural normative guidelines,” then, “Levinas speaks of the other as a who. This ‘who’ cannot be defined by ethics in the sense of a normative theory or moral code” (324). Nelson, however, and in a way that I will momentarily question, then turns to define and elucidate precisely such a theory: a “cosmopolitanism of the other,” one “not only concerned with universal and abstract justice” but with “the singularity and particularity of those forgotten and suppressed by the universal as incarnated in the current social-political order” (340). This new cosmopolitanism would “require…a radically an-archic res publica, a republicanism of unrestricted civic associations, public spheres, and solidarities that contests the overreaching powers of the state, the market, and manufactured public opinion” (338). Moreover, it would extend from the human into the nonhuman world, “[n]ourishing and cultivating the life of material others…in fairer forms of exchange and distribution of goods and of intersubjective and interthingly recognition” (332). Ethics of the Material Other closes by suggesting that, although it has successfully gestured toward the ethical and theoretical foundations of this ‘cosmopolitanism of the other,’ only a “political economy oriented toward alterity and nonidentity” would complete its task. Such a political economy would “address” itself to the same themes – “the modern domination of nature that has resulted in disappearing species, deteriorating ecosystems, and the wounds of damaged life” (356) – with which Nelson framed the first part, underscoring the text’s ecological orientation.

Nelson’s fundamental contribution here is his use of Adorno to refine Levinas’s concept of alterity and thereby extend the latter’s phenomenology of the ethical encounter to explicitly include nonhuman Others. This detour through Adorno is not, strictly speaking, necessary. Otherwise than Being can, in particular, be read as an empiricist epistemological treatise, in which Levinas uses a prolonged interhuman metaphor to express the radical exteriority, objectivity, and claim on the conscience, not just of the human Other, but of the truth as such. Nelson’s decision to implicate Adorno is nonetheless insightful insofar as the latter’s later work not only concerns itself with the fact that the history of “metaphysical” (Levinas would write “ontological”) thought identifies the particular as negative and meaningless, but with the particular’s epistemological function, as the concretum of experience, without which reason loses contact with reality. The connection between human materiality and particularity on the one hand, and the functional meaning of these two terms on the other, is thus clearer in Adorno’s oeuvre than in Levinas’s, where Otherwise than Being has to flesh out the genetic phenomenology of reason that remains underdeveloped in Totality and Infinity. Nelson’s ‘asymmetry’ productively borrows this ontological-into-epistemological fluidity from Adorno. Asymmetry characterizes my relationship to the culturally, biologically, and, ultimately, even the epistemically Other, such that I might have, for example, an asymmetrical responsibility to a work of art, to my cultural traditions (‘the past’), or to coming generations or states of being (‘the future’). Access to the Other’s internal states or experiences, nay, even to their external characteristics, need not be a prerequisite for ethical relationship. That Nelson himself seems to sometimes ground these relationships in some shared quality – “sentience,” for example, as in “Buddhist ethics,” “or the equal consideration of interests in Peter Singer’s utilitarian animal ethics” (74) – suggests that certain political aims, such as environmentalism, motivate his project, but it does not obviate the fact that his conclusions align with some of our most important moral intuitions: the care for landscapes, landmarks, sacred sites or objects, and institutions. Whether or how these intuitions can be translated into political aims, however, is a more difficult question.

It is here that Nelson’s argument runs into its central difficulty, namely, in its attempt to map what is, for Levinas, a first-personal phenomenological description of the ethical encounter onto a third-personal normative prescription for political action. Otherwise than Being provides Levinas’s own account of how this transition takes place: although my obligation to the other is experienced as infinite, as soon as another other, “the third,” also places its unlimited demand on me, there takes place an ethical compromise whereby these two others’ needs are compared before I act upon them. This tragic but necessary choice, whereby I must not respond to the other’s infinitude for the sake of a ‘third’ just as transcendent, is the abiogenesis, not just of ethical speech, but of reason and language as such. It is in this paradoxical “comparison of the incomparable [that] there would be the latent birth of representation, logos, consciousness, work, the neutral notion being.”[1] For Levinas, then, what marks any given politics’ ethicality is not whether it does in fact respond to each and every claim of alterity – an impossible task – but the degree to which it allows itself to be challenged by such claims at all. “It is then not without importance to know if the egalitarian and just State in which man is fulfilled…proceeds from a war of all against all or of the irreducible responsibility of the one for all… It is also not without importance to know, as far as philosophy is concerned, if the rational necessity that coherent discourse transforms into sciences, and whose principle philosophy wishes to grasp, has thus the status of an origin…or if this necessity presupposes a hither side…borne witness to, enigmatically, to be sure, in responsibility for the others.”[2] What Levinas offers us in Otherwise than Being is a genetic phenomenology of human politics, linked to one of rationality. These are accounts of how all such discursive and social formations have in fact come about, as is evident from how Levinas explicitly juxtaposes them against two other universal accounts, namely, Hobbes’s theory of the state of nature and Hegel’s master-slave dialectic. Levinas is not prescribing, then, a certain form of government, let alone specific policy recommendations – although, if his account is true, and rationality is born of the ethical encounter, then a politics that flouts its hetero-foundation may risk unreason and collapse, as natural law theory believes tyrannies do.

Nelson acknowledges this several times (277, 281, 282) only to then jump to specific cases; “the denial of healthcare” (296) and “the use of capital punishment” (323), for example, are said to be incompatible with Levinasian commitments, as is liberal capitalism. “[E]quality cannot be limited to symmetrical rational agents exchanging reasons or rights. Such an abstract ideal misses the reality of exchange as structured by desires and interests, relations of power, status, and wealth, and the social-economic reproduction of society” (283). This diagnosis of liberalism – shot through with unseen power dynamics and guided by bellicose competition – sits uneasily with Levinas’s genetic account for both structural and epistemological reasons. The structural reason is that Nelson’s argument effectively, in an odd Hobbesianism, hypostasizes the State; it places the State in what is, for Levinas, the subject’s phenomenological position, expecting the State to experience and respond to alterity in the way the subject does. The epistemological reason is that Levinas’s phenomenology, like phenomenology in general, assumes a transparency incompatible with a transcendental hermeneutic of suspicion applied to the same object of analysis. If we accept Levinas’s account of political formation, in other words, we cannot accept a (broadly) Marxian one at the same level.

We are left with three possibilities. Either (a) Levinas’s account is accurate, and liberalism is simply a social formation that necessarily forgets its ethical genesis; (b) liberalism is compatible with societies’ ethical genesis, but has only contingently forgotten it; or (c) the Marxian account of liberalism is accurate, and Levinas’s is an ideological concoction. Because Nelson’s study does not develop a rigorous epistemological link between their phenomenological and critical-theoretical analytic registers (in the vein of, say, Maurice Merleau-Ponty), it cannot firmly decide between these three options. Instead, Nelson wavers between them. Many passages seem to opt for (a): because liberal capitalism has so deeply failed morally, its normative presuppositions are shams. “Abstract liberal arguments against oppression that leave capitalist forms of power essentially unquestioned are complicit with systems of subjugation that exploit, marginalize, and systematically reinforce powerlessness and vulnerability. They are compelled to sustain the machinery of global capitalism” (341). Or, again: “The liberal priority of justice over care, charity, and republican and communistic solidarity functions as a veil of indifference for excusing injustice, given the structures of domination imbedded in the institutions and practices of social-political life” (323). Nelson, rhetorically at least, seems to prefer (a); not unproblematically, however, his conclusion’s writ actually leans toward (b) or (c).

Nelson himself provides an important formulation of (c) in the form of Žižek’s and Stephen Bronner’s objections to Levinas (299, 305): does Levinas’s ethics, by placing a burden of infinite moral responsibility on the individual, not surreptitiously excuse the State or society of their structural injustices? Secondly, does this shift not privatize ethical discourse, obviating the need for social critique and collective action? Thirdly, does a phenomenology of infinite indebtedness to the Other not preclude moral criticism of that Other, “turn[ing]” society, in effect, “into a set of competing cultural ghettos” (314)? Nelson does not provide robust answers to these concerns. His alternative to particularistic communitarianism, the ‘cosmopolitanism of the other,’ remains underdeveloped, its only seeming quality a promise to avoid the mistakes of past cosmopolitanisms. Even more strikingly, there are moments where Nelson’s interpretation of Levinas as a theorist of ‘small acts of kindness’ meshes with Žižek’s view of him as a bourgeois sentimentalist. In his chapter on Levinas, Murdoch, and Løgstrup, for example, Nelson embraces their idea that “the good can occur through both uncultivated and cultivated human attitudes and practices of goodness, such as the small everyday acts that all three philosophers elucidate to different degrees” (249). We are told that Levinas is, in fact, “the opposite of the moralizing and ethically privileged perfectionist imagined by his detractors. Ethics does not consist in moralistic perfection, not even as a regulative ideal, but in the ‘saintliness,’ ‘genuine humanity,’ and the ‘greatest perfection’ that transpires in the insufficiency and incompletion of everyday life in ordinary acts in which one places the other before oneself” (337). Nelson’s emphasis on the quotidian may assuage Žižek’s worry that Levinas presses for a “hyperbolic yet ultimately empty responsibility” (272), but not its corollary, that “asymmetrical freedom is inherently conservative and elitist in negatively privileging myself over others, as if injustice were solely my responsibility” (299). Indeed, Nelson’s answer to this specific charge – that Levinas can be placed in the French republican tradition and was sympathetic to socialist causes, and hence would surely not endorse a “neoconservative” policy of American exceptionalism (319) – substitutes biography for philosophy. The question is not where Levinas’s personal political proclivities lay, but whether his ethics structurally endorses a quietism or separatism (as in Totality and Infinity’s phenomenology of family life) that frames individual political involvement as morally irrelevant or, at best, unfulfilling. Given especially Levinas’s known antipathy to Jean-Paul Sartre’s phenomenology of social life,[3] Nelson could have probed this angle further.

In yet other moments of his argument, however, Nelson seems to opt for (b). Levinas, he says, does not proposes any formation to replace liberal capitalism and its grounds in Enlightenment universalism, but rather offers up the encounter with the Other as its continual corrective. “[A]symmetrical ethics signifies a way of correcting,” rather than replacing, “standard liberal and socialist categorizations of social-political equality.” Again: it “indicates a noteworthy way of revising the contemporary discourses of ethical and critical social theory.” Or, yet again: “Levinas’s articulation…is not so much a rejection as it is a critical transformation of the categories of modern universalism” (281). While these sorts of statements get closest to Levinas’s actual position, they are not compatible with Nelson’s siding throughout his text with (a). We cannot claim that encountering the Other urges us to revise our political priorities within an existing liberal framework while also claiming that liberalism is fundamentally an ideological obfuscation. This contradiction stems, in Nelson’s account as in many others’ in contemporary continental thought (including, say, Agamben’s), from a conflation of liberalism with capitalism. Defining ‘liberalism’ as just free markets, and the unitary state power that enforces these (333), makes this conflation possible. Liberal theorists like Tocqueville and Hannah Arendt (to name two of Nelson’s own interlocutors) argue, however, that liberalism requires, above all, ‘civil society,’ the ‘thick,’ face-to-face communities that make deliberative rationality possible. Nelson’s most programmatic gesture, toward “a republicanism of unrestricted civil associations, public spheres, and solidarities that contests the overreaching powers of the state, the market, and manufactured public opinion” (338), fully fits into this richer concept of liberalism, his protests notwithstanding. Classing Levinas with Arendt among capitalism’s liberal critics should lead us, however, to a more nuanced parsing of the relationship between alterity and communality than what Nelson offers here. After all, the point Arendt makes about refugees and human rights in The Origins of Totalitarianism, which Nelson cites in this context, is not really one of “an inclusive republic that would welcome the stranger, the exile, and the stateless who have lost the very right to have rights” (321). (To be fair, Nelson’s misreading here is now so widespread in Arendt reception as to have become an interpolation.) Arendt certainly lauds such welcome, but her basic argument is Burkean. Universal human rights are an aspirational norm, but they are meaningless outside of a concrete political community; the nation-state’s particularism is thus the vehicle that realizes the universal. Arendt would agree with Levinas that “justice remains justice only, in a society where there is no distinction between those close and far off, but in which there also remains the impossibility of passing by the closest,”[4] but would stress that said ‘society’ must be bounded if we wish to retain a lived and practical meaning for ‘passing by’ the neighbor. Ultimately, then, Nelson’s embrace of “unrestricted solidarities” (2) may contradict some of his sources’ terms. I can have an unrestricted sense of responsibility for every possible Other, or a solidarity with the actual others I encounter in my embeddedness in my particular context, but unless ‘the face of the Other’ is but a cipher for a universal ontological determination (which Levinas would surely reject), I cannot have both. It is past due for the ‘negative political theologies’ inspired by Levinas, Adorno, Derrida, Hent de Vries, and others to acknowledge this fact and so to begin shifting their analyses from the insistence on ‘alterity’ to asking what political procedures and norms make – or could make – regular encounters with the Other a feature of public life.


[1] Emmanuel Levinas. 1998. Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence (1974).  Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne Univ. Press, p. 158.

[2] Id., p. 159.

[3] Dominique Janicaud. 2000. “The Theological Turn of French Phenomenology” (1991). Trans. Bernard Prusak. In Phenomenology and the “Theological Turn”: The French Debate. New York: Fordham Univ. Press, p. 44.

[4] Levinas, Otherwise than Being, p. 159.

Kimura Bin: L’Entre, Jérôme Millon, 2021

L'Entre. Une approche phénoménologique de la schizophrénie Book Cover L'Entre. Une approche phénoménologique de la schizophrénie
Krisis
Kimura Bin. Traduit du japonais par Claire Vincent
Jérôme Millon
2021
Paperback $28.00
160

Maurice Merleau-Ponty: The Sensible World and the World of Expression. Course Notes from the Collège de France, 1953

The Sensible World and the World of Expression: Course Notes from the Collège de France, 1953 Book Cover The Sensible World and the World of Expression: Course Notes from the Collège de France, 1953
Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy
Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Translated from the French with an introduction and notes by Bryan Smyth
Northwestern University Press
2020
Paperback $34.95
320

Reviewed by: Antonia Schirgi (University of Graz)

Background

Merleau-Ponty suddenly died in 1961, at the young age of 53, at a time when he was still in the process of developing his thoughts and was working on a major book in which he wanted to further his thoughts and present a new ontology beyond a strict distinction of subject and object. For many years thereafter, notes that Merleau-Ponty drew up in preparation of this book that were posthumously published under the title The Visible and the Invisible and his  second thesis (habilitation), the Phenomenology of Perception, were considered to be his most important works. Apart from some published articles and books, Merleau-Ponty left a number of unpublished manuscripts and working notes (more than 4000 pages). Some of these unfinished works and notes were published in the years after Merleau-Ponty’s death. In 1992 the majority of Merleau-Ponty’s notes were donated to the Bibliothèque nationale de France by his family and, since then, some previously unpublished materials have been published. These notes allow their readers to follow Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts from his early works to the later ones, to see continuities, moments of self-criticism as well as to understand his engagement with certain philosophical and other literature (cf. Saint Aubert 2011, 7).

After the completion of his second thesis, Merleau-Ponty was affiliated to the University of Lyon (1945-1949), later he held a professorship for child psychology at the Sorbonne (1949-1952). In 1952 he was elected to the Collège de France, he assumed his position there the same year, held his inaugural lecture on the 15th of January 1953 and began his regular teaching activities the following week (cf. xxxvii, endnote 1). The Sensible World and the World of Expression (Le monde sensible et le monde de l’expression) was the title of one of the two courses that Merleau-Ponty gave that year. The Collège de France is a unique institution; even if it is a public university, it does not offer regular introductory courses. The courses taught at the Collège are lectures and colloquia that permit the professors to present their ongoing thoughts and recent research to advanced students and/or the general interested public. Holding a chair in philosophy at this institution permitted Merleau-Ponty to further his philosophical thoughts, to return to some the phenomena that he treated in his first and second thesis as well as to some issues of his approach that he became aware of during the years after the completion of these books, and to present these thoughts to his audience. This return does, however, not present a break with his work and thoughts from the years at Sorbonne; rather, the insights that he gained during these years enriched his perspective on the phenomena (perception, the union of body and soul etc.) that he re-started to deal with.

In this review, I will discuss the translation of the posthumous edition of Merleau-Ponty’s notes on The Sensible World and the World of Expression. Furthermore, I want to give a brief overview of the course and of some of the key innovations that can be found in these notes. However, I will not discuss the content of the book in detail here.

The Manuscript

Detailed preparatory notes for the course on the sensible world as well as some further workings notes were part of the materials donated to the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF “don 92-21 de Suzanne Merleau-Ponty”, NAF 26993 X). Merleau-Ponty himself published a brief summary of this course (cf. Résumés de cours. Collège de France 1952-1960. Paris: Gallimard, 1968, 11-21), as he did of every course that he held at the Collège de France, but he did not publish any further materials. The preparatory and working notes were transcribed and published by Emmanuel de Saint Aubert and Stefan Kristensen in 2011 (MetisPresses).

Merleau-Ponty wrote up these notes in order to present the thoughts they contain to his audience; however, they are not immediately written for a public (like it would be the case with an article or a book). The manuscript contains some paragraphs that are written in full sentences. Nevertheless, large parts of the manuscript consist of incomplete sentences, bullet points, or listings of keywords. The editors of the French edition “strove to present Merleau-Ponty’s notes in a virtually verbatim form, and meticulous effort was made to keep the page layout as close as possible to that found in the actual notes themselves” (xliii). This effort of the editors is of high value for those working with Merleau-Ponty’s notes, as it permits readers to follow Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts in the way he developed them and not to be simply guided, and potentially misguided, by the interpretation of the editors. However, interpretations of a text like the present one, are challenging. As Merleau-Ponty’s notes are, to my knowledge, the only materials available (no student notes or similar document have been published or included in the collection at the Bibliothèque nationale de France), it remains unknown how Merleau-Ponty elaborated and discussed his thoughts during his lectures. Smyth argues for a limited interpretation of this manuscript. Even if these notes were of importance as they date back to a crucial moment in the development of Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts, the thoughts they contain were thoughts and work in progress. According to Smyth one should not over-hasty draw conclusions from these notes, from the perspective of a present-day reader who knows the further development of Merleau-Ponty’s work. Furthermore, the course notes should not be interpreted “in isolation from his other courses at the College de France” (xxxvi). Merleau-Ponty himself stated in his official course summary that it would still be necessary to further explore linguistic expression in order to define the philosophical meaning of the analyses perused during this course (cf. xxxvi; Merleau-Ponty 1968, 21). Therefore, Smyth argues that “we should be cautious about drawing any firm conclusions from them [these notes, A.S.] at all” (xxxvi). His call for a cautious interpretation of a manuscript like the present one seems adequate and valuable, but it might be a bit too far reaching. In this manuscript Merleau-Ponty discusses issues from a different angle than he did in other texts, and he elaborates thoughts more in details than he did in his published writings. Even if these notes were still work in progress, they can help readers to understand where Merleau-Ponty was coming from – which sources he considered important, in which direction his thoughts developed etc. To name an example, the importance of the writings of the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Paul Schilder for Merleau-Ponty’s development of the concept of the body schema can only be understood from the present manuscript, not from Merleau-Ponty’s earlier writings (in the Phenomenology of Perception Schilder is only mentioned once). His discussion of the body schema in the present preparatory notes does not only deepen the thoughts Merleau-Ponty already developed in the Phenomenology of Perception, but it also shows new directions that he has been about to take with regards to this concept. Smyth is right that these preparatory notes should not be interpreted in isolation from Merleau-Ponty’s notes for his other courses and other materials, but does this not hold true for all of Merleau-Ponty’s writings? Even if certain writings, like the Phenomenology of Perception, were published by Merleau-Ponty himself, now that we know from courses like the present one as well as from articles and manuscripts that Merleau-Ponty himself was critical of some of his early positions and descriptions, it seems wrong to interpret the position he presented there as the position of Merleau-Ponty. Besides that, the problematic status is not unique to the manuscript of the course on the sensible world. None of the posthumously published manuscripts was intended to be immediately published. Even if Merleau-Ponty’s most renowned mature work – The Visible and the Invisible – is the publication of a manuscript that Merleau-Ponty prepared for publication, the manuscript that Merleau-Ponty left when he died in 1961 seems to have been far from a final version. We can only speculate how he would have further developed this manuscript would he had been given the time to do so.

The Translation

Editing notes, like Merleau-Ponty’s notes on the sensible world, is not an easy task; the same holds true for their translation. The present edition is a translation of the French edition (not of the original notes) (cf. xliii). The peculiar style of the manuscript that is, as I already mentioned, excellently reflected in the French transcript, has largely been preserved in the English translation. This means, for example, that words that Merleau-Ponty underlined, are underlined in the book, words that he crossed out, are included in the text, but crossed out as they were in the manuscript and so on (cf. xliv). Nevertheless, a translation is not simply a reproduction of a text in a different language, but it is the outcome of a process of interpretation. Smyth makes very clear that he is aware of his own interference in the text, when he states: “It is not possible […] to translate the notes as they stand without engaging in some disabbreviation, for there are simply too many uncertainties and ambiguities at the level of the words themselves.” (xlv) Hence, while the French edition in general does not add any terms to the text itself, but sticks to the original manuscript and its abbreviated style, the English translations “adds a very large number of terms within the text itself” (xiv). Thereby Smyth wants to enhance the readability of the text, “to facilitate as clear and unambiguous a reading of Merleau-Ponty’s notes as possible” (xiv), and to outline the “intended meaning of the transcribed words” (xiv), or rather the transcribed words as they were read and interpreted by the translator. Further to the additions that Smyth made to the text itself, his translations “includes a new and expanded set of annotive notes” (xliii), that go beyond the notes included in the French edition. In addition, Smyth outlines his choices concerning the translation of some crucial terms that are not easily to translate – the “hard cases” as he would say (cf. xlvi-li).

The Structure of the Course and of the Book

In general, Merleau-Ponty held two courses per year, each one comprised fourteen to fifteen lectures (cf. xxxvii, endnote 1). Often the topics of the two courses corresponded – this was also the case in 1953, when Merleau-Ponty dealt with issues of language in his second course – and on two occasions the two weekly courses were merged in order to develop one single issue more in depth (1956-1957 and 1957-1958, when Merleau-Ponty gave two intense courses on nature).

The Sensible World and the World of Expression comprises fourteen lectures. The course can be divided into four parts: (1) the first three lectures serve as a general introduction and overview of the course, (2) in lessons four to ten Merleau-Ponty discusses space and movement from a phenomenological point of view (including depth perception, a phenomenon that has become highly important for Merleau-Ponty), (3) the lessens ten to thirteen are dedicated to the body schema and (4) the last lesson dealt with expression (primarily with non-linguistic expression, but Merleau-Ponty gave some indications concerning linguistic expression too). As Smyth points out, Merleau-Ponty did not intend to discuss linguistic expression in detail in this course; however, he did intend to discuss “the passage from expression at the level of the sensible to cultural expression that is not yet language” (xvii), as it is the case in visual art. Nevertheless, Merleau-Ponty took more time than planned to elaborate the basis of his thoughts and therefore he could only discuss this move in his last lesson. Hence, the four parts were not given equal attention in the course (cf. xvii).

The book (the French and the English edition) contains the notes preparing the course, as well as working notes that Merleau-Ponty developed while preparing the course. These notes were not dated or classified by Merleau-Ponty. The editors of the French book categorized them thematically for their edition (cf. 129; Saint Aubert 2011, 171).

Merleau-Ponty’s Thoughts on the Sensible World

In The Sensible World and the World of Expression Merleau-Ponty primarily deals with the relation between the bodily human being and the sensible world. As I already mentioned, the relation between the world of expression is briefly touched in this course, but dealt with more in detail in his courses and writings on language. So, how does Merleau-Ponty understand this sensible world and what did his course aim at?

Sensible world = things

World of expression = cultural things, ‘use objects,’ symbols. (I didn’t say: universe of language)

Double goal:      — deepen the analysis of the perceived world by showing that it already presupposes the expressive function.

                             — prepare the analysis of this [expressive] function through which the perceived world is sublimated, produce a concrete theory of mind. (9)

This brief definition and equally brief statement concerning the double goal of the course present the first lines of the preparatory course manuscript of Merleau-Ponty. Even if these first words seem to indicate a strong division of the sensible world and the world of expression, in what follows Merleau-Ponty makes clear that they are not separated, but “enveloped” (27) in each other. He is less interested in their analytic distinction, than in the dynamic passage from the one to the other in and through movement. As explained above, Merleau-Ponty did not follow his original plan for the course, in particular did he not manage to extensively discuss expression. Therefore, the course dealt more with the first part of his twofold goal than with the second part; indeed, after spending more time than expected on topics related to the first part of his general aim, only the last lesson remained for the second part (cf. xvii).

The main concepts that Merleau-Ponty deals with in this course are perception and expression (in its relation to the sensible world). Already on the first page of his manuscript Merleau-Ponty criticises his own approach towards perception, as he presented it in the Phenomenology of Perception and in a lecture that he gave at a meeting of the Société française de philosophie in late 1946 on the issue of the Primacy of Perception (lecture and discussion published with Northwestern University Press, 1964). He argues that his earlier works did not present strong and clear enough a break with classical positions, concepts and terms. With reference to the critique by Jean Hyppolite and Jean Beaufret, following his lecture in 1946, Merleau-Ponty acknowledges that readers and listeners could have gotten his thoughts wrong, as (1) one could have thought that the “primacy of perception” as he presented it was primacy in the classical sense, a “primacy of the sensory, of the natural given”, even if for him “perception was essentially a mode of access to being” (10); (2) one might have missed Merleau-Ponty’s ontological thoughts and taken his work as “only a phenomenology” (10); (3) therefore readers might have thought “that being was reduced to the ‘positivism’ of perception”, even if the perceived is “not possessed” by the philosopher, but “unquestionably before us” (10; underlining in the original). With reference to this discussion, Smyth argues that the main innovative aspect of this course “is that Merleau-Ponty is also revisiting the phenomenological analysis of the perceived world itself.” (xvi, emphasis in the original) However, Smyth presents an even stronger claim concerning the shift in Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts as he outlined them in the present course. According to him, Merleau-Ponty realized that his manner of presenting the problem of “how the sensible is taken up expressively […] made it unsolvable” (xvi). Perception was an “encounter with the sensible” and as such it was “already expressive” (xvi). Hence, Merleau-Ponty “came to realize […] that he didn’t get the phenomenology of phenomenology right, because he didn’t get the phenomenology itself right in the first place. So, he was still building his phenomenological method, not building on it” (xvi-xvii; emphasis in the original). Even if this reading indicates a strong shift in and important innovations of Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts on phenomenology and the phenomenological method, it does not negate the continuity of this development.

Besides perception, the other central concept that is discussed in this manuscript, is expression. Merleau-Ponty’s notion of expression is broad: Expression is “the property that a phenomenon has through its internal arrangement [son agencement interne] to disclose another [phenomenon] that is not or even never was given” (11; annotations and emphasis in the original). This definition already highlights the relational aspect of expression. Merleau-Ponty’s descriptions of perception and expression presuppose and involve a certain conception of the human being. As he already did in his early works, also in this course Merleau-Ponty opposes dualist conceptions. It is the body (in its entirety) that perceives and expresses. A body that is able to perceive and to express, is a body “as [a] given organization, [as] ‘sensory’ activity” and a “body that moves itself”, it is a body “[as a] response to ‘natural’ aspects of the world” and a body “[that] returns to the world in order to signify it [or] to designate it” (28; annotations in the original).

Particularly during the first two introductory lectures Merleau-Ponty discusses consciousness. In the second part of his course, he deals with space and movement, especially with depth perception and the perception of movement. The following lectures are dedicated to the body schema (a part that Merleau-Ponty seems to have added in the course of the semester) (xxii). The notes to this course are the first writings in which Merleau-Ponty aligned depth perception and (the perception of) movement with the body schema (cf. Saint Aubert 2011, 10-11).

Thereby Merleau-Ponty further elaborates concepts and thoughts that he already discussed in his earlier works and at the same time he introduces new concepts and thoughts and present some major shifts with regards to some concepts. Some of the core innovations that he outlines in these preparatory notes are:

  • Merleau-Ponty rejects classical conceptions of consciousness (particularly in the first and second lecture). In his course on the sensible world, Merleau-Ponty introduces for the first time the concept of “écart” (generally translated as “divergence”) (xix). Merleau-Ponty elaborates this, not only but particularly well, by referring to the example of the perception of a circle. When a circle is perceived it offers its sense as a tacit sense (as opposed to the classical position, according to which sense is essence and given). The sense of a circle is a “certain mode of curvature” (13), namely the “change of direction at each instant always with the same divergence” [même écart] (20) and therefor the circle itself is a “mode of divergence” [mode d’écart] (20; underlining in the original). Merleau-Ponty develops this notion further in his preparatory and working notes for this course (e.g. working note on the Diacritical Conception of the Perceptual Sign or working note on Diacritical Perception, included in the present edition on the pages 158 and 159).
  • When Merleau-Ponty discussed the concept of the body schema in the Phenomenology of Perception he presented it mainly as a sensory-motor unity. The Sensible World and the World of Expression is the first document in which the body schema is “understood in a much more active (or enactive) – because expressive – way” (xxii). At the same time, this is the first document in which Merleau-Ponty elaborates its relational dimension – the relation of the body schema and the (sensible) world (cf. 123) as well as the relation between different body schema (cf. Saint Aubert 2011, 13). The extension of the concept of the body schema has important implications for Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of movement and expression as well as their perception (movement is perceived by the entire body schema) and the relation to the world and others.
  • In the context of his discussion of the body schema, Merleau-Ponty introduces the notion of praxis, a notion that he prefers to the notion of action (cf. 100). “The unity of the body schema is that of a praxis so construed, and the body schema is the background implied in [this praxis].” (100; annotation in the original) The praxis builds on the body schema (that is formed by the praxis, but that is more than a memory of previous praxis and/or experience) and continuously forms and transforms the schema. The praxis is a form of interaction with the world – it is not an “adaptation” to the world, at the same time it is not a world-less action performed by an isolated individual, it is “not only functional, but projection of the whole man” (100).
  • Merleau-Ponty intensively discusses movement – what movement is, how movement can be perceived and how movement can be expressed in visual art (How can something that is stationary express movement? (cf. xxxv)). For Merleau-Ponty movement is not displacement, a variation of relations, and a place is not a “relation to other places” (33; underlining in the original), rather it is “first of all situation” (35; underlining in the original). Movement requires that the moving is in movement, that movement is something different to a series of different spatial positions, but rather something “absolute”, something that is “in the thing in motion and not elsewhere” (52). Movement entails an encroachment of here and there, before and after; something that is only possible if movement is neither only in the moving thing nor only in the perceiving or observing subject, but if it occurs “through a sort of mixing of me and the ‘things’” (52). The perception of movement is not simply an intellectual undertaking, rather it is the body schema in its entirety that perceives movement (cf. 64-65).

Consequently, in visual art movement is not something that is depicted by signs that indicate a change of place, but by the “envelopment of a becoming in a stance [attitude]” (124, annotation in the original). It is, for example, the body of a horse that is painted in a manner that shows its intentionality of movement. Movement is indirectly presented or a reference of something oblique. The language of “écart” plays into Merleau-Ponty’s description of the problem of movement in visual art. Movement is “[reference] of signifying to signified that is elsewhere and only appears through [the signifying], presentation through divergences with respect to a norm that is itself never given. Presentation of the world through variations in modulations of our being toward the world.” (125-126; annotation in the original)

Because of these and some further innovations the book is a valuable source for researchers working on and with the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty. Together with his published writings from the early 1950s and the manuscripts of his other courses it can help to better comprehend the development of his thoughts and to enrich one’s interpretations of his concepts.

Bibliography

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1968. Résumés de cours. Collège de France 1952-1960. Paris: Gallimard.

Saint Aubert, Emmanuel de. 2011. “Avant-propos.” In: Le monde sensible et le monde de l’expression. Cours au Collège de France. Notes, 1953, edited by Emmanuel de Saint Aubert and Stefan Kristensen, 7-38. Geneva: MetisPresses.