This volume arguably represents the most ambitious and complete attempt until today to collect in a uniform form a series of highly qualified contributions on the entire spectrum of phenomenological philosophy. Given the peculiar character of each entry of this Handbook, it will be no surprise if the text will be taken as a useful guide by students entering for the first time in the difficult terrain of phenomenology as well as by experienced scholars. On the one hand, the book is, in fact, certainly meant as an introduction, as a “conceptual cartography” that alludes to the answers and to the immense potentialities that this philosophical practice has expressed in its history. This is done by means of the precise but not esoteric description of its language and conceptuality. On the other hand, with diverse gradations, the entries are also original contributions that certainly make significant progresses in phenomenological research.
The text is divided into five main parts. The first one is devoted to history, conceived in two senses. The first essay of this section, written by Pierre-Jean Renaudie, gives an excellent and concise overview of the history of the phenomenological movement itself. The others concern instead the conceptual heritage of phenomenology and the original transformation of traditional doctrines and methods coming from the history of philosophy that it brought about. The style of the contributions varies a lot. This is certainly a virtue for the expert, but it can easily become a limit for the beginner. To make a comparative example, Burt Hopkins’ “Phenomenology and Greek Philosophy” provides an analysis of one of the classical themes of phenomenology, namely its relationship with ancient metaphysics. This is realized in three steps. Since the terms of the discussion have been laid out by Heidegger in the 1920s, Hopkins takes into critical account at first his interpretation of Husserl’s method through the lens of Plato’s and Aristotle’s philosophies. It is argued that both Heidegger’s identifications (of the doctrine of categorial ideation with Aristotle’s doctrine of the apprehension of eide, and of the theory of intentionality with Plato’s statement that speech is about something) are totally unwarranted. This technical assessment of Heidegger’s miscomprehension of Husserl’s main tenets leads Hopkins afterwards to the related conclusion that the entire Heideggerian conception of Greek philosophy has to be recognized as the “myth not only of Plato’s philosophy being limited by a prior understanding of the meaning of Being as presence, but also of it being a fundamentally driven by an ontology”. After a brief intermezzo devoted to a not very well-known Husserlian discussion over the origins of philosophical thought and the role played in it by the sceptics and Socrates, Hopkins presents Jacob Klein’s account of Plato’s doctrine of the eide. Besides its intrinsic interest, this last part helps clarifying Hopkins’ critical account of Heidegger. It has moreover the merit of assigning to Klein’s analyses of Greek philosophy the deserved position next to the other classical phenomenological interpretations. The presentation of the subtlety of his arguments as well as the skilful use that Hopkins makes of them to confute and correct Heidegger’s shortcomings is certainly proof of the richness Jacob Klein’s thought. To come back to our concern, it is clear that this text has strong theoretical claims, whose authentic appreciation could require the reference to the other texts of the author and, especially for the beginner, to the other entries of the Handbook (including the one dedicated to Klein himself).
Francesco Valerio Tommasi’s “Phenomenology and Medieval Philosophy” has instead a less demanding theoretical commitment, as it displays an historical outline of the different approaches to Medieval philosophy (and religion and theology in general) that characterizes phenomenology (Tommasi focuses on Brentano, Scheler, Stein, Heidegger and Marion). The reconstruction is driven from the outset by a clear interpretative idea, namely, as Tommasi puts it: “The history of the relationship between phenomenology and medieval philosophy is, for the most part, the history of the relationship between phenomenology and Neo-Scholasticism”. The paper has then a twofold utility: by studying the reciprocal influences of two of the greatest philosophical tendencies of the XXth century, it shows indirectly, so to speak, the noteworthy role that Medieval thought played in phenomenology itself. Regarding the conceptual viewpoint, the key-concept that allows Tommasi to give uniformity to his reconstruction is arguably that of analogia entis. This “fragile architrave” of Scholastic thought gathers together the initial emergence of a phenomenological conceptuality in Brentano (for whom, as it is well known, the encounter with Aristotle’s doctrine of category and Being was decisive) and some of its most radical outcomes, including Heidegger’s philosophy. On this view, significant differences among the phenomenologists can be detected through the analysis of their appropriation of this pivotal notion. This undoubtedly sheds new light on phenomenology overall and on its conflicting relationship with Neo-Scholasticism. Without this common ground, in fact, even the “very heavy blow to the Neo-Thomist model” provoked by Heidegger’s critique of “ontotheology” would remain inexplicable.
The other essays concern the relationships with the Cartesian tradition, British empiricism, German idealism and Austrian philosophy.
The second section is the real core of the text. It presents a list of concepts and issues that form, so to speak, the basic ingredients of phenomenology. The entries are either fundamental concepts that often immediately refer to a specific author, for example “Dasein” and “Life-World”, or general topics, like “Ethics”, “Time”, “Mathematics” and so forth. The order is alphabetic, so that any hierarchical connotation and immanent principle of organization is excluded. The complex technicality of phenomenological vocabulary is here analysed thanks to a useful kaleidoscopic operation. Since many terms have already taken upon various meanings, one the strategy followed in the texts of this section is to refract the successive sedimentations of meanings showing the hidden reasons and the misunderstandings responsible for their complex conceptual history. Paradigmatic of this choice is the crucial entry “Phenomenon”, written by Aurélien Djian and Claudio Majolino, in which the connotations of this fundamental concept are unfolded throughout the history of phenomenology. Among the important shifts that characterized this history, two of them appear probably as the most significant ones: Husserl’s departure from Brentano’s notion of phenomena, and Heidegger’s departure from Husserl’s. Thus, in the first case, while for Brentano a phenomenon is “what appears as it truly is, something whose existence is tantamount to its appearance”, for Husserl is rather “what appears beyond existence and non-existence, something whose existence is indifferent with respect to its appearance”. This change clearly determined the “eidetic” character of Husserlian phenomenology as a “purely descriptive” science in the Logical Investigations. This feature will be constant in Husserl’s further reflections, despite the increasing sophistication of his method and the corresponding substantial modifications of the concept of phenomenon itself (modifications that are recognized in three further steps and painstakingly described in the paper). Heidegger’s case involves something else. Thanks to a precise clarification of the famous §7 of Being and Time, the authors explain how Heidegger considered phenomenology as a method that has to deal with the “how” things show themselves, and not with a certain “what”, namely phenomena themselves. Moreover, he distinguished between the “vulgar concept of phenomenon”, something that “initially and for the most part” shows-itself in the world, namely entities, and something that, by showing itself, is essentially concealed, namely Being, the “proper phenomenological concept of phenomenon”. A different phenomenological method corresponds to each pole of this ontological difference: the one of positive sciences and the one of hermeneutical ontology, i.e., “a method to wrestle from its concealment what essentially does not show itself (Being) and yet is fundamental with respect to the immediate and unproblematic self-showing of worldly entities”. This new peculiar scientific attempt is then irreducible to Husserl’s original one, as it focuses not on “phenomena” simpliciter, but exclusively on “the most exceptional phenomenon of all”. The final part of the essay reconstructs the more recent developments of phenomenology by showing the “Heideggerian logic” they embody. Be it Levnias’ phenomenon of the Other, Henry’s Life or Marion’s Givenness, in all these cases it is reiterated that the idea of an authentic phenomenological thought has to face the most exceptional phenomenon of all. The differences lie rather in determining which is the most fundamental one. This paper, therefore, alongside with many others, not only elucidates a central theme in conceptual and historical terms, but it also offers indirectly an interpretation of the sense of several, apparently contradictory, phenomenological trajectories.
The third part is composed of a list of major phenomenologists. For each of them is given an overview of their work. It is noteworthy that this section dedicates deserved space to authors that are still little known (the list includes, for example, Aron Gurwitsch, Jacob Klein, Enzo Paci). Here, the ideas analytically set forth in the previous section form specific constellations of meanings within the unitary production of each philosopher.
The fourth part, —“Intersections”—concerns the significant influence of phenomenology on other philosophical traditions and the positive sciences. This section not only stresses once again the peculiarities and the theoretical richness of phenomenology, but also its fundamentally relational nature. In “Phenomenology and Analytic Philosophy”, for instance, Guillaume Fréchette takes into account the vexata quaestio of the alleged fracture between “continental” and “analytic philosophy” that occurred during the XXth century. The author recollects the most significant episodes of dialogue (and reciprocal incomprehension) of the last decades and gives an overview of the philosophers that, explicitly or not, tried to “bridge the gap”. However, Fréchette underlines the fact that this divide is exclusively determined by contextual and institutional factors, and not by fundamental theoretical principles, as it has been usually the case for conflicting schools of thought in the history of philosophy. In the last part of the essay he conceptually formulates both traditions by invoking the realist/anti-realist distinction. On the one hand, this analysis proves the previous thesis, since it is shown that these opposing tendencies are equally present in both traditions. On the other, by an overarching reflection concerning the so-called “philosophy of mind”, it sheds light on the (often undervalued) similarities and influences that, besides any actual recognition, inform the course of recent philosophical research. Other papers are instead devoted to the relationships with psychoanalysis, medicine, deconstruction, cognitive sciences.
The fifth and final part of the text connects phenomenology, historically grounded in the Western world, to other areas and thus to conceptualities apparently distant from the philosophical tradition. As Bado Ndoye notes in the first essay of the section dedicated to “Africa”, this operation can even appear odd, if not paradoxical, if we think that when Husserl mentioned “African or non-Western people in general, it was always in order to make a contrast with what he used to call the ‘Idea of Europe’, as if the very essence of the latter could not be cleared if not opposed to a radical exteriority”. Husserl’s “eurocentrism”, however, is of a peculiar kind since it privileges the role of European humanity as that which factually revealed the authentic idea of reason and science. The content and especially the telos of this idea are not of course limited to one culture, but rather represent the common horizon that has to define humanity as such. Given this premise, the wide interest that phenomenology received all over the world cannot be a surprise and does not imply eo ipso an endorsement of relativism. Ndoye shows precisely this by analysing the work of Paulin J. Hountondji and his critique of the philosophical Western prejudices over Africa from the exact standpoint of Husserl’s universal idea of science. This happens in Hountondji’s account of Tempels’ Bantu Philosophy (1947), which is charged with confusing philosophy and ethnology, and in this way creating “philosophemes” attributed to a “fantasized vision of African societies”. This attitude does not rule out the importance of empirical research but is useful, on the contrary, to appreciate its authentic role and meaning. Ndoye suggests that in this sense Hountondji’s trajectory repeats Husserl’s, inasmuch as the latter finally encounters the question of the life-world as the unavoidable dimension that precedes every objective science. Despite the plurality of its manifestations, the correct interpretation of this original dimension helps “to pass through the element of the particular, in this instance the local cultures, as a gateway to the universal”.
Two things have to be certainly recognized in the editorial composition of this Handbook. The first is to have successfully produced and assembled a useful and insightful instrument for further phenomenological studies. The second is the courage behind the realization of such a project. The unity of this book, in fact, surpasses the collection of excellent contributions that it contains. Through its pages, phenomenology is not presented in the rigor mortis of definitions and historical analyses dictated by an eccentric scholarly curiosity. It is instead fierily depicted as a “living movement” whose role within and outside the philosophical sphere is not exhausted. In other words, this book does not impose the seal of the past to phenomenology, but rather it vividly presents it in its actual force, as a cultural project that is still in becoming in such a way that it can still meaningfully respond to our present needs.
Now, if this is what motivated, at least partially, this enterprise, then a very basic assumption is here presupposed. Namely, the fact that phenomenology, whatever it really is, exists. Given a superficial knowledge of the history of philosophy after Husserl up to the present, a sceptic could simply deny this alleged fact: the contrasts among philosophers at first recognizing themselves as belonging to the same scientific community inspired by Husserl’s works are so fundamental and the paths taken from them so diverse that any possible feature giving an acceptable unity and coherence seems to vanish. The sceptic could find in the constant appeal to metaphors describing the course of phenomenology further evidence for his thesis. For instance, in Renaudie’s already mentioned historical essay, it is said that phenomenology cannot be characterized as a systematic doctrine, having fixed and clear fundamental principles and a cumulative-like progress. On the contrary, what is common to its different manifestations is only a “philosophical style”. As a consequence, Renaudie himself describes the history of phenomenology through a series of “conceptual shifts” (“transcendental”, “existential” and so forth) and he finally compares this flourishing of expressions to a plant, “the wilting of which does not necessarily prevent its growing back under a new and rejuvenated shape”. On this view, the many unorthodox interpretations stemming from Husserl’s texts would not destroy the sense of the entire project but, on the very contrary, would be essential to foster its development. Surely fascinating, but again, the sceptic would reply: is it really so? Is it not just a verbal escamotage to cover the historical failure of phenomenological thinking, whatever it tried to be at the end? Is not this narrative even more doubtful in contrast to Husserl’s own words, where in the Crisis the existence of almost as many philosophies as philosophers is presented as an urgent contemporary problem?
As said before, the editors do not elude this question and, in the introduction, they give a few remarkable hints to clarify their position. Even more clearly, perhaps, the collection of essays itself indicates a possible reply to the sceptic. The way in which they are organized, as well as the very diversified contents and perspectives offered, reveal a tension towards two complementary directions. The first one has to do with the “origin” of phenomenology, and specifically with the inevitable theoretical heritage of Edmund Husserl’s epoch-making work. Without Husserl, that is, without his immense factual influence, phenomenology, and therefore any history of phenomenology, would have never been arisen. Having in mind Paul Ricouer’s notorious dictum, namely that phenomenology is the sum of Husserl’s works and the heresies that stemmed from them, the editors suggest that this history has to be primarily described as a “‘self-differentiating’ history, a series of more or less dramatic (theoretical or even spatial) departures from Husserl, or even as a sum total of all the one-way train and air tickets away from him”. This does not amount to saying that the inevitable coming back to Husserl has to be meant as a return to “the things themselves”, in the sense of an auroral locus in which phenomenology was authentically conceived and practiced, untouched by its successive distortions. This solution cannot work since the sceptical arguments could be in fact repeated on this level. After all, who really is Husserl? Given the profound changes that mark his philosophical career, not to mention the various interpretations and criticisms to which his work underwent, the sceptic would maybe paraphrase what Einstein once bitterly said of Kant, namely that every philosopher has his own Husserl. Be that as it may, the state of affairs that occasioned the “ongoing cluster of heresies of heresies”, is not in contradiction with its grounding in Husserl’s texts. The latter do not contain a fixed and coherent system of doctrines, but rather (despite the huge amounts of material) a “small beginning” that has to be still understood and, when necessary, criticized. The very content of Husserl’s ground-breaking philosophizing, in other words, has not finished to be unfolded with his death: new shades appear in a circular motion in which phenomenology tries to define itself in such a manner that “Husserl’s own doctrine assumes a constantly new aspect and shape as it is looked at from such and such an angle”. The ultimate reference point, therefore, is not a mythological Husserl, “the true one”, but the conceptual space that he opened and that still waits for its authentic discovery.
The other side of the reply to the sceptic involves a certain view of the future. The connection to an origin meant in this way cannot but find its verso in a unity that is still to come. Now, despite the appearances, it is undoubtful that phenomenological doctrines share a certain “family resemblance”, whose sense points beyond each of them. Just like “the many different adumbrations do not exclude the dynamic unity of what is experienced though them”, the multiple directions presented in this text are directed to a common ideal pole. In other terms, each of them cannot live without the others in a multiplicity of positions that, insofar as they are genuinely phenomenological, contribute to build the very same “Husserlian” theoretical space.
In conclusion, this book is a great guide for everybody who is looking for an orientation in a certain domain of phenomenology. But we could say, it is a phenomenological guide, a book of phenomenology, that gathers a (empirical but ideally infinitively extendable) community whose project is shared. The implicit tension that crosses the contributions hides thus a promise, the promise that many heard at first in Husserl’s own words and that this text has succeeded in making audible once again. The restoring of this philosophical ambition is what preserves the necessary looking back to the past into a nostalgic and antiquarian task and at once what projects the very same enquiry into the future.
 To my knowledge, the only comparable text in English is The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Phenomenology (2012) edited by D. Zahavi, published by Oxford University Press, which is limited to a smaller portion of this spectrum.