Hanneke Grootenboer: The Pensive Image: Art as a Form of Thinking

The Pensive Image: Art as a Form of Thinking Book Cover The Pensive Image: Art as a Form of Thinking
Hanneke Grootenboer
The University of Chicago Press
Cloth $35.00

Reviewed by: Kayla Dold (Master’s of Arts student in the Department of Political Science, Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario)

Why is there being instead of nothing? Hanneke Grootenboer’s The Pensive Image: Art as a Form of Thinking takes this Heideggerian question as it’s starting point. Like Martin Heidegger, Grootenboer’s task is to reflect on what constitutes philosophical thinking about being. In a discipline like philosophy, with its wide array of methodological approaches, traditions, and applications, it is easy to lose sight of simple yet profound questions like Heidegger’s. In this sea of approaches, Grootenboer’s book provides an accessible, clear, and innovating means of thinking about being by revealing a new philosophical subject: artworks.

In a succinct five chapters, Grootenboer describes a means of doing philosophy with pensive images. This is an ambitious task; however, for all its brevity (its body is approximately 170 pages), The Pensive Image remains philosophically vigorous and firmly rooted in the philosophical traditions that precede it, including German idealism, romanticism, phenomenology, post-structuralism, and of course, modern and contemporary art history. It is a blend of modern Western philosophy and art history; while Grootenboer discusses some contemporary artworks (like Richard Estes’ photorealism in chapter five), their focus is on seventeenth century Dutch artworks and modern continental philosophy. Its blend of continental philosophy and modern art produces a hybrid means of philosophizing and expands our conception of what is philosophically relevant to include modern artworks.

Despite their blend of philosophy and art, Grootenboer’s attention to detail and clear prose is consistent throughout, making The Pensive Image a valuable resource for art historians, philosophers, students, and the general public. Its clarity and wide range of commentary makes The Pensive Image interesting and accessible for a general audience, while its theoretical contributions to philosophical methods makes it valuable to the undergraduate and highly trained researcher alike.

Grootenboer’s The Pensive Image describes a novel philosophical subject—the pensive image—and prepare it for application in art history (15). Grootenboer justifies this task by arguing that philosophy (insofar as it is interested in reflection, being, essence, and thinking) needs artworks to articulate complex and layered clusters of concepts that are difficult, or impossible, to articulate with words (5). Visual arguments articulate clusters of concepts that are related yet cannot be systematically explained using cause and effect, logic puzzles, or thought experiments. Therefore, visual arguments add invaluable tools to our philosophical tool belts; however, this methodological implication is not the book’s sole source of value.

The Pensive Image does not only describe a new philosophical subject and means of thinking about being. Grootenboer’s meticulous invocation of the Western philosophical tradition, ranging from Descartes to Deleuze, offers us clear and descriptive secondary literature on great philosophical minds. The Pensive Image provides excellent commentary on those whom Grootenboer builds their theory (including Descartes, Diderot, Kant, Locke, Hegel, Herder, Goethe, Heidegger, Barthes, Lessing, Rancière, and Deleuze, amongst others). For example, the description of Heidegger’s conception of uncanniness [unheimlich] from Being and Time in chapter three is as clear and succinct as the description of dewdrops on flower petals in chapter four. Its balance between commentary and description makes The Pensive Image an indispensable handbook to anyone interested in the history of the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of art, and their intersection in the Western continental tradition.

While The Pensive Image provides clear and detailed commentary on other thinkers, it is primarily methodological. Despite its engagement with artwork, it is not hermeneutical. Instead, it follows Edmund Husserl’s original phenomenological directive: to pay close attention to things themselves. Grootenboer’s approach depends on describing artworks as autonomous philosophical subjects. Through a careful consideration of images and their effects on their viewers, Grootenboer describes a relationship between artwork and viewer that does not depend on interpretation, cracking a code, or deciphering a message. Instead, Grootenboer pays close attention to the visuals presented—a open door, a vast black background, the translucent shine of dew on a flower petal—and how these direct our thoughts. Throughout The Pensive Image, Grootenboer acknowledges that these effects may or may not have been the intension of the artist (5, 59, 60, 97, 99, 122, 146). Either way, intentionality (or lack thereof) does not change the artwork’s effect, its capacity to mediate our process of reflection, or to direct our thoughts (10-11). Whether or not Grootenboer’s description and conclusions are possible without an interpretive element is the topic for another book; regardless, Grootenboer describes interactions with artworks readers have likely experienced themselves. It is their description of our shared experience of artworks that makes Grootenboer’s conception of the pensive image and its application so compelling.

What exactly is a pensive image, and what are its effects? Grootenboer’s first section, “Defining the Pensive Image,” describes this philosophical subject and justifies its relevance to modern continental philosophy and art history. Grootenboer sets up their description with an account of the relationship between philosophical thinking and artworks over time. They situate the pensive image in two related traditions: the phenomenology and the relationship between modern artworks and contemplation. Thus, Grootenboer does more than simply revive Heidegger’s question of why there is being. They also situate the pensive image in a tradition of phenomenological approaches to art taken by Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1-5).

Grootenboer then surveys the historical relationship between modern artworks and philosophy. Grootenboer describes their thesis as a secular extension of the medieval tradition of contemplation, which uses images as mnemonic devices to transcend the secular domain (3). Grootenboer also notes how many modern philosophical ideas were explained using visual representation, though the intimate relation between art and philosophy generally declines after the seventeenth century (4). Thus, Grootenboer’s thesis revives and expands upon a previous philosophical tradition and is legitimized by its relation to phenomenological approaches to artworks.

The Pensive Image argues for the relevance of artworks to philosophy on multiple levels. Broadly speaking, it argues that artworks are a form of thinking. Artworks offer viewers entrance into a mode of thinking we would not enter on our own (1). This does not mean the artwork offers a particular narrative or meaning but that it inspires a new train of thought (22). Grootenboer writes that pensive images are “those that confront us in such a way that our wondering about the work of art—its subject of meaning—is transformed into our thinking according to it” (6). Rather than offering a narrative, a pensive image offers us the opportunity to think by guiding our thoughts in ways we might not have gone without its inspiration. This presupposes artworks can be effective: they do something to us. Therefore, pensive images are not meant to be interpreted but experienced.

Specifically, The Pensive Image argues that modern Dutch painting includes pensive images that guide our thoughts and reflections on being. (Though its focus is modern Dutch art, the book includes commentary on film and photography that helps us understand how different forms of art are concerned with different questions.) The first chapter, “Theorizing Stillness,” is devoted to describing the particulars of the pensive image as it applies to Dutch painting. The pensive image has two chief characteristics: firstly, while its meaning is indeterminant, a pensive image redirects our thoughts to contemplate being in new ways. It initiates a line of thinking we can follow indefinitely (9). It is not there to draw conclusions but to serve as an opening that allows a multiplicity of ideas to exist at the same time. Secondly, a pensive image visualizes a snapshot in time. This frozen moment, the anticipation of something more that is not visually articulated, is what directs our thoughts (24). A pensive image is therefore characterized by a movement paradox. Its stillness arrests us and from this arrest comes a flow of thought; pensive images generate “a passive, uneasy, and indeterminant state of openness that allows for the unthought to surface” (26).  A pensive image is open, tense, and suggests the possibility of movement (37). It stops our thoughts to redirect them in a new direction undetermined by specific signs or signifiers, meanings or narratives.

If the pensive image does not signify meaning nor tell stories, what does it contain, or, in other words, what is its essence? Chapter two, “Tracing the Denkbild,” answers this question. Instead of a specific signification, the pensive image is the embodiment of thought. This chapter describes different means of understanding an image as embodied thought over time. Through an analysis of stillness, it argues that the pensiveness of a pensive image can be understood as a moment of anticipation (47). Here, stillness is characterized by the theoretical potential for movement, rather than a lack of movement. Thus, tension, anticipation, and potential define a pensive image; it is open, uneasy, and ambiguous. Its openness and ambiguity make the pensive image a valuable philosophical subject worthy of our engagement.

While the idea that painting can be more than images on a canvas is not new, Grootenboer invites us to see painting as a partner in philosophizing that guides us where ‘it’ wants us to go (11). This metaphor of movement, guidance, and journey is central to Grootenboer’s pensive image and recurs through the book. For example, landscape paintings are “maps” that help viewers shape their interior selves, “entrances” into the pictorial realm (2, 1). They invite us to “dwell” within them, they reach out and touch us, set things in motion, and vibrate with potential (5, 26, 43). We are invited to get lost in the image, to rest in it, or to bord it like a vehicle (77, 78). Like Lucy, Edmond, and Eustice in C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, who are literally pulled into a painting of an ocean, allowing the pensive image to direct our thoughts is like being carried away by a wave (58). The tension between stillness and motion, journey and rest are fundamental to the pensive image.

Chapter three expands upon these relationships to think through what Grootenboer pithily calls philosophy’s housing problem. In this chapter, Grootenboer’s philosophical subjects include paintings of bourgeois Dutch homes and a dollhouse. These artworks provide a place for our thoughts to dwell, or, in Grootenboer’s words, “a home for the philosophical self,” by offering the opportunity to reflect on the permeable membranes between publicity and retreat, inside and outside (79). This chapter describes how artworks serve as metaphorical spaces where we can house our thoughts and subjectivities, thereby solving philosophy’s housing problem.

Drawing theoretical support from René Descartes’ construction metaphor and Heidegger’s conception of dwelling, Grootenboer demonstrates how Emanuel De Witte’s Interior with Woman at a Virginal (c. 1660–1667) and Petronella Oortman’s dollhouse (1686– 1710) host our thoughts. Descartes compares self-reflection to construction: in order to achieve self-understanding, we must clear away old foundations and build anew (81). Descartes himself formulated this approach while traveling. In his home-away-from-home, Descartes constructs himself a metaphorical home to house his thoughts and reflections (82). To philosophize is therefore conceived of as being on a mental journey while physically at rest. This implies that the philosopher’s home is not an actual resting place but their journey: the act of philosophizing itself.

Grootenboer builds on this tension between journey and rest by invoking Heidegger’s conception of dwelling. Heidegger argues that constructing something implies we already dwell there (85-86). To dwell implies a movement towards materiality. For Heidegger, dwelling is not a static condition but a constant movement towards something that cannot be achieved (to achieve it would no longer be to dwell). It is to be drawn towards something without ever arriving, a constant becoming (87). De Witte’s interior painting, as a pensive image, helps us understand this situation. It allows our thought to dwell within it. Our eyes and subsequent thoughts are drawn through doorways to the vanishing point beyond, a point we will never actually behold.

While we cannot inhabit De Witte’s painting, Oortman’s dollhouse appears inhabitable. Yet, because the dollhouse replicates Oortman’s home on a miniature scale, it is ultimately uninhabitable, what Grootenboer calls “a borrowed home” (105). That being so, the dollhouse contains elements, like a collection of seashells, that provide an opportunity to think through the dialectics of inside and outside and journey and rest. For example, what was once the travelling home of a sea creature is now an empty shell. The dollhouse allows us the opportunity to think through the uncanny nature of uninhabitable spaces that appear inhabitable. What these artworks offer us is not the ability to determine what is inside and outside, on journey or at rest, but to recognize that as philosophical subjects, we are wanderers (109). It is the pensive image, which offers a temporary place to dwell, that saves us from getting lost.

In chapter four, “The Profundity of Still Life,” Grootenboer analyzes pensive images that guide us through the relationship between finitude and infinity. For example, Adriaene Coorte’s Three Medlars and a Butterfly (1696-1705) mediates our understanding of the relationship between the infinitively large and the finitely small by visualizing a small butterfly approaching three fruits against a black background (119). The painting serves as a plot point between two extremes: the expansive background and the small butterfly. We can use this point as a reference when thinking through the implications of each extreme. This pensive image provides perspective; the butterfly and fruit in the foreground impose a sense of proportion, direction, and space onto a painting that would otherwise stretch into infinity. Grootenboer’s analysis suggests that as situated subjects, we are unable to think through the implications of limitlessness or infinity without a mental anchor or reference point. We can only understand infinity through its comparison with the finite, which Three Medlars and a Butterfly provides. By describing Three Medlars and a Butterfly in detail, Grootenboer demonstrates its philosophical relevance. By mediating our conceptualization of infinity, it embodies a form of thinking and self-reflection (133).

Grootenboer moves past self-reflection in the final chapter, “Painting as Space for Thought,” to invoke G. W. F. Hegel’s conception of self-consciousness. Hegel writes that painting’s function is not to reflect the world, but to provide some permanence for contemplation (135). For Grootenboer and Hegel, what inspires contemplation is shine. Painting is unique amongst artistic mediums in its capacity to represent light and to, therefore, shine (136-138). In this chapter, Grootenboer contrasts Hegel’s conception of self-consciousness with self-reflection, arguing that photorealism is a self-conscious genre whose self-consciousness helps us better understand Hegel’s concept. Grootenboer argues this point via an analysis of shine in Richard Estes’s photorealism.

Where does a reflection lie? In the object that reflects, or the subject that is reflected? Richard Estes’s Central Savings (1975) mimics a photograph of a storefront, in which the objects on the street are reflected and layered on top of each other so that we are unsure what is inside or outside the store. Estes’s painting serves as a means to reflect on reflection, visualizing both the reflected subjects and objects in which they are reflected. The painting is therefore both itself and its negation or mirror image, providing us an opportunity to think through the dialectic of self and other. The painting, whose self-consciousness comes from its ability to facilitate a synthesis of reflected and reflection, helps us think past this dialectic and synthesize the two (142-143).

Estes’ painting does not separate inside from outside nor opacity from transparency. Instead, it allows us to see how what is reflected always meets itself in its reflection, preventing an endless cycle of reflection in a synthesis of reflection and reflected (156). Central Savings, like Hegel’s conception of self-consciousness, is bold enough to think through and overcome oppositions (159). Grootenboer’s analysis of Central Savings reveals that the philosophical tradition of reflecting on reflection is not exclusive to written philosophy. It is enacted by pensive images as well.

Grootenboer concludes The Pensive Image with commentary on the relationship between philosophy and wonder. Grootenboer reminds us that according to Plato, Socrates believed wonder was the beginning of philosophy (167). Do artworks offer a similar starting point? For Heidegger, wonder is a basic element of ordinary life (168). According to Grootenboer, the association between wonder, philosophy, and ordinary life is what makes seventeenth century Dutch artworks such fruitful contributors to philosophical investigations of being. Their focus on the ordinary and their reward of slow looking leads us to new discoveries. Ultimately, the pensive image is a valuable philosophical subject because it provides the opportunity to philosophize from, and about, ordinary experience. They stop us in our tracks and suggest a new courses for our philosophical journeys. In contrast to trompe l’oeil, panorama, of other kinds of illusionism that overwhelm us by enchantment and delight to lift us out of our ordinary experience, pensive images slowly overtake us. They do not to lift from the ordinary but to push us deeper into it, guiding us home (169). The Pensive Image thus concludes with all the optimism a new philosophical approach deserves, the hope for new discoveries that bring us home to ourselves.

The Pensive Image has the potential for broad application. Its description of the pensive image, its commentary on painting, film, and material culture, and its overlapping imagery with literary analysis implies the possibility of using the pensive image to understand the philosophical importance of other cultural products. The pensive image, applied metaphorically to literary imagery, might reveal an intimate relationship between image, text, and mind, in which the text’s imagery compels us to follow its logic. This, combined with its phenomenological approach, provides a framework we can apply to the existential literature of Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and others. For example, Beauvoir’s imagery of barren wastelands in her 1946 novel All Men Are Mortal guides us through a similar meditation on finitude and infinity as Grootenboer describes in chapter four, implying an opportunity for comparison and new perspectives. Grootenboer’s The Pensive Image describes an approach potentially more far reaching than its introduction’s humble proposal, which could potentially be applied to imagery in literature, film, performance art, and even music.

While it is sometimes difficult to discern whether Grootenboer argues in favour of artworks as aids to understanding philosophical ideas articulated elsewhere (as is the case for Heidegger’s dwelling or Hegel’s self-consciousness) or as containing autonomous philosophical arguments themselves (as is the case for Three Medlars and a Butterfly), their oscillation between the two demonstrates that for artworks to be taken seriously as philosophical subjects, we do not have to decide between one and the other. As a philosophical subject, a pensive image can clarify an idea articulated elsewhere without depending on others’ ideas to articulate its own arguments. Its status as independent philosophical subject does not preclude its ability to aid our understanding of others.

Some aesthetic purists might balk at the idea of using artworks this way. They could argue that art is meant to be enjoyed, valued for its own sake, rather than used for philosophical ends. Grootenboer successfully counters such arguments by describing how the pensive images’ effects are part of its being. We do not use a pensive image for our own purposes. Instead, we let it guide our thoughts according to its own logic. Grootenboer thus avoids accusations of the ‘use and abuse’ of artworks for philosophical ends by focusing on the artworks themselves, their effects, and their autonomous properties. Rather than using a pensive image to achieve our own goals, we enter into a relationship with it. We following it where it needs to go without the added baggage of hypotheses, interpretive frameworks, or ulterior motives. Engagement with pensive images allows us to engage in a philosophy of free play, curiously, and wonder, rather than one of hermeneutic or analytical investigation. It is an appreciation of the things themselves without contorting them by imposing artificial frameworks and hypothesis.

In addition to its methodological implications, The Pensive Image challenges the artificial distinctions between art and philosophy, perceiving and thinking, reason and emotion. It models how to challenge disciplinary boundaries, which can get in the way of innovative thinking. Grootenboer conceptualizes the pensive image as a “predisciplinary blueprint” because it directs the thinker on a journey that knows no disciplinary bounds, be they philosophical, historical, literary, or artistic (71). Its most valuable contribution to philosophy is its emphasis on philosophy as a conscious reflection unbound by discipline, subject, or object.

In chapter three, Grootenboer writes that their main concern is not what thought is but how artworks help house it. The Pensive Image might not focus on defining thought but implies a simple yet profound definition of philosophy: a free flow of reflection, contemplation, and investigation mediated by permeable boundaries, boundaries that allow for movement so that dwelling and journeying merge. The Pensive Image provides us with a vision of philosophy and art in a mutually constituting relationship, a roadmap to theoretical places yet unexplored, and thereby a philosophical home.

Andrew Oberg: Blurred: Selves Made and Selves Making, Brill | Rodopi, 2020

Blurred: Selves Made and Selves Making Book Cover Blurred: Selves Made and Selves Making
Andrew Oberg
Brill | Rodopi
Hardback €129.00 $155.00
viii, 260

Denis Seron: Apparaître: Essai de philosophie phénoménologique

Apparaître: Essai de philosophie phénoménologique Book Cover Apparaître: Essai de philosophie phénoménologique
Studies in Contemporary Phenomenology, 16
Denis Seron
Hardcover €204,00
xii, 213

Reviewed by: Charles-André Mangeney (Archives Husserl de Paris, rattachées à l'ENS d'Ulm. Paris, France)

Des géants ou des moulins ? A propos de l’ambiguïté de l’intentionnalité en phénoménologie.

Une manière d’entrer dans le nouveau livre de Denis Seron est  d’emprunter le chemin d’un  des problèmes centraux et classiques en  philosophie de l’esprit et du langage, problème qui sert de pivot au déploiement de son argumentation : le problème  de représentations sans objets, connu en philosophie du langage sous la forme russellienne du problème des énoncés singuliers existentiels négatifs. Intuitivement, le problème se formule ainsi [i] : lorsque je dis, par exemple, « Le Père Noël n’existe pas », je profère bien un énoncé doté de signification, mon énoncé et la représentation qui le sous-tend se rapportent à quelque chose, et tout le monde me comprendra s’il m’arrive de dire  une telle chose, bien que  mon énoncé soit sans référence. On me comprend, et pourtant, je ne parle de rien. Tout se passe comme si je parlais bien de quelque chose, puisque ce que je dis a un sens, alors que  je ne parle pas de quelque chose qui se trouve dans le monde (il n’y a pas hors de moi un référent « Père Noël » dont cela a  du sens de parler). Or, notre conception naïve du langage, reprise par les empiristes de Hobbes à Stuart-Mill, indexe le sens d’une proposition sur sa référence : dire quelque chose qui a du sens, c’est faire en sorte qu’à notre discours corresponde un état de chose auquel il est adéquat. Or, avec l’exemple du Père Noël, ce n’est pas le cas. Comment est-il donc possible qu’un énoncé sans référence soit doté de sens et de quoi cet énoncé, puisqu’il est pourvu de sens, peut-il bien parler ? On dit bien, en présence d’un énoncé dépourvu de signification, que l’on ne voit pas de quoi il parle, et donc que son objet, sa référence, n’est pas clairement défini. Ce problème se retrouve dans toutes les attitudes propositionnelles qui peuvent impliquer un irréel : lorsque je dis que « je m’imagine le Père Noël », ou alors même dans les illusions ou les comportements hallucinatoires (« j’ai cru un instant voir un spectre  » etc.). Ici aussi, nous comprenons ces propositions, et pourtant elles font référence à une certaine forme de non-être.

La stratégie de  Denis Seron consiste  à réinvestir  une des solutions données à ce problème  impliquant  le recours à l’intentionnalité et à tenter en retour une clarification des concepts qui appartiennent à la panoplie intentionnaliste, afin d’en retirer  une conceptualité phénoménologique claire et une définition plus précise de la phénoménologie (il faudrait dire que l’allure logique de l’argumentation ici mise en œuvre est du type : « si l’intentionnalité doit vraiment permettre de répondre au problème des représentations sans objets, alors il faut qu’elle comporte telle ou telle détermination »).

On peut apporter deux types de solutions à ce problème : d’abord, la solution que l’on peut qualifier de sémantique, d’inspiration frégéenne ou russellienne, et qui consiste à soutenir que le langage peut parfois être trompeur, puisqu’en réalité, derrière les formulations paradoxales du type « X n’existe pas », nous trouvons une structure logique saine et non aporétique. Russell montrera , par exemple, qu’il est d’abord nécessaire de distinguer être et existence , que quelque chose peut être sans nécessairement exister (un concept est quelque chose mais n’a pas  d’existence dans le temps et  l’espace), puis que  les énoncés sans objets peuvent tous se traduire sous la forme de concepts sans subsomption ou extension, d’un concept vide d’instanciation : dire « Pégase n’existe pas », cela revient en fait simplement à affirmer que sous le concept de Pégase ne tombe aucun objet, présupposant par là  la distinction entre sens et référence que l’on doit à Frege[ii]. Ainsi, affirmer que Pégase n’existe pas, revient bien à parler de quelque chose : nous parlons du concept « Pégase » et nous affirmons qu’il n’existe pas d’individus y correspondant.

Denis Seron critique explicitement cette conception sémantique ou conceptualiste, et l’objection est de taille, puisque  ces conceptions ne parviennent pas à rendre compte des hallucinations ou même d’attitudes propositionnelles comme l’imagination (il est peu probable que lorsque nous  imaginions Pégase, nous ne faisions qu’en convoquer le concept). Denis Seron se revendique au contraire d’une approche héritée de Brentano et Husserl, d’une approche intentionnaliste, qui se réfère à une compréhension bien précise de ce que l’on nomme les contenus intentionnels. En  un sens, celle-ci pourrait d’abord se formuler comme suit , en revenant à Husserl : «Si […] l’on demande comment il faut entendre que le non-existant ou le transcendant puisse avoir valeur d’objet intentionnel […] il n’y a à cela pas d’autre réponse que […] : l’objet est un objet intentionnel, cela signifie qu’il y a un acte avec une intention de caractère déterminé qui […] constitue précisément ce que nous appelons l’intention dirigée vers l’objet»[iii]. C’est donc sur la voie d’un retour à Husserl et  Brentano qu’il nous faut suivre notre auteur pour en apprécier la richesse et l’originalité.

  • Le problème de l’intentionnalité : le contenu intentionnel n’est pas l’objet extramental

Denis Seron rappelle d’abord l’origine et les présupposés fondamentaux de toute théorie intentionnaliste de l’esprit[iv]. Le terme d’intentionnalité  est originellement un terme de  scolastique médiévale, repris par Brentano dans un but précis : lutter contre  la conception empiriste et dite « atomiste » de l’esprit. Si nous partons du principe que  l’esprit est constitué de  contenus mentaux que l’on nommera des représentations, les représentations que nous vivons effectivement sont des contenus complexes que nous appelons des contenus propositionnels,[v] et qui se caractérisent par le fait d’être toujours en lien avec le monde, au sujet de ce qui s’y passe. Ainsi , comme le rappelle Denis Seron, désirer, croire, penser, ce n’est pas simplement avoir conscience de désirer, de croire ou de penser, mais c’est bien plutôt désirer que quelque chose se réalise dans le monde, croire que quelque chose a lieu, penser à quelqu’un ou quelque chose. Autrement dit, si nos représentations sont intentionnelles, cela signifie qu’elles sont toujours représentations de quelque chose. L’auteur rappelle très clairement la ligne de fracture entre la conception intentionnelle et la conception atomiste de l’esprit. Pour des empiristes comme Hume, Hobbes ou Stuart Mill, le caractère intentionnel des représentations est accidentel et dérivé  : pour eux , les représentations qui peuvent être intentionnelles sont des complexes formés d’éléments simples non-intentionnels, les sensations, qui sont le fruit d’un rapport causal, et donc non sémantiquement motivé, avec le monde. Il n’y aura donc que certaines représentations qui pourront prétendre à mordre sur le monde, mais  originellement le flux mental est fermé sur lui-même, composé d’éléments simples sans rapport avec les choses. Pour Brentano, au contraire, tout contenu mental est un « acte intentionnel »[vi], c’est-à-dire qu’il est intrinsèquement au sujet, à propos de quelque chose d’autre que lui-même.

Après ces éclaircissements, si nous en revenons au problème des représentations ou énoncés sans objets, il nous semble d’abord qu’une telle théorie non seulement ne peut pas nous aider à résoudre ce problème, mais bien d’avantage, qu’elle nous plonge dans une perplexité plus grande encore. En effet, si nous reprenons la question de  Denis Seron lui-même au début du second chapitre :  comment des représentations sans objets (fiction, hallucination, illusion) sont-elles possibles, si toute représentation doit être intentionnelle, c’est-à-dire si toute représentation se définit intrinsèquement par la propriété d’être au sujet de quelque chose d’autre qu’elle ?  nous conduirait à affirmer que celui  qui voit un spectre ne voit rien (le spectre n’est pas présent en chair et en os devant lui) mais qu’ il doit bien voir quelque chose, puisque sa perception doit être intentionnelle. Tout le travail de Denis Seron , grâce aux avancées conceptuelles de Brentano et  Husserl, montre non seulement que l’intentionnalité permet de répondre à cette question, mais qu’en retour cette question elle-même nous permet de mieux déterminer ce qu’est l’intentionnalité.

 Reprenons l’exemple de l’hallucination, et soyons attentifs à sa grammaire. Soit l’exemple, repris ici, de Don Quichotte[vii] qui, sur la route de Puerto Làpice, voit des géants alors qu’il s’agit en réalité de moulins. En  un sens, Sancho Panza a raison de rétorquer à Don Quichotte qu’il ne s’agit pas de géant mais bien de moulins, mais en  un autre sens, Don Quichotte à raison de répondre à son tour qu’il voit bien des géants, et qu’il ne voit pas autre  chose. Toute la force  de la conception intentionnelle de Brentano, reprise par Denis Seron, est de  nous permettre de maintenir ensemble  les deux alternatives de ce dilemme et d’y séjourner assez longtemps pour le résoudre. Il va s’agir  en réalité de faire apparaître l’ambiguïté de la grammaire de l’intentionnalité. En effet, l’argument clé est qu’il faut distinguer le fait qu’une représentation soit au sujet de ou à propos de, et le fait qu’elle soit en relation à ce à propos de quoi elle est. Autrement dit, l’internalisme de Brentano nous permet de distinguer le contenu intentionnel de la représentation et son objet. Une représentation peut être au sujet de X (avoir X comme contenu intentionnel) sans être en relation effective avec un X extra-mental (avoir X pour objet). La distinction entre le contenu intentionnel et l’objet est la pierre de touche de l’exposé de Denis Seron, il faut donc bien la comprendre : si le contenu intentionnel est une propriété de l’état mental intentionnel, il n’est pas une entité intermédiaire par laquelle serait médiatisé notre rapport au monde, il est lui aussi intrinsèquement mental et de la même étoffe que notre esprit, mais il oriente notre esprit vers quelque chose du monde sans être lui-même cette chose. On parlera alors d’une théorie de l’inclusion intentionnelle, et il faudra la comprendre en termes d’apparence. Lorsque je dis par exemple que « la tache sur ma chemise m’apparaît comme bleue »[viii], je dis bien d’une part que ma représentation est au sujet de ma chemise et de la tache qui s’y trouve, je parle donc de  quelque chose qui se trouve dans le monde, mais du fait de l’utilisation d’une grammaire de l’apparence,  j’indique également que ma représentation n’a pas encore trouvé le chemin de sa référence, c’est-à-dire, précisément son objet. En disant qu’il me semble que la tache est bleue, je peux encore me tromper. Il est donc possible que ma représentation ait une direction, qu’elle concerne intentionnellement quelque chose, sans qu’elle soit en référence à un objet : elle peut avoir un contenu intentionnel sans pour autant être en relation à un objet existant en dehors d’elle-même (il faut noter que Denis Seron prends ici explicitement position pour une conception brentanienne, c’est-à-dire, intra-psychique de l’intentionnalité, à rebours de toute conception métaphysique de l’intentionnalité[ix], comme par exemple la conception heideggerienne qui établira que l’intentionnalité est transcendance, c’est-à-dire, relation au monde[x]).

  • L’ambiguïté intrinsèque du langage intentionnel

Cette théorie de l’inclusion intentionnelle ne nous permet pas encore  de voir comment Denis Seron résout le problème de l’hallucination : nous devons mieux saisir ce qu’il nomme l’ambiguïté intrinsèque du langage intentionnel . Pour ce faire, il faut distinguer  l’intentionnalité à proprement parler et la conscience phénoménale. Cela revient à distinguer le contenu intentionnel visé par la conscience et  la conscience de la visée de ce contenu : lorsque nous disons que « nous voyons un vase devant nous », d’une part, nous avons une conscience perceptuelle de ce vase, c’est-à-dire que notre état mental se dirige vers un objet, et si nous voyons effectivement le vase, nous sommes absorbés par lui dans une expérience directe, mais d’autre part, nous avons aussi conscience de percevoir le vase, conscience de notre propre perception, et si quelqu’un nous demandait « que fais-tu ? », nous pourrions sans difficulté lui répondre : « je regarde ce vase ». Pour le dire en termes sartriens, toute conscience non-positionnelle de soi est accompagnée d’une conscience pré-réflexive de soi[xi]. Notons ici que Seron reprend le contenu minimal du dénominateur commun à Brentano et  Husserl[xii], à savoir, l’idée qu’il y va de l’essence même de la conscience que  de se connaître (une conscience inconsciente est un monstre logique, comme un cercle carré), même si elle se connaît sur un plan pré-objectif et non encore représentatif.

Dans le cadre de la théorie non relationnelle ou encore de la conception adverbiale l’intentionnalité défendue par Denis Seron à la suite de Brentano, cette distinction entre conscience phénoménale et représentation intentionnelle est décisive pour répondre au problème des représentations sans objets. Si l’on reprend l’exemple célèbre de Brentano : « Le centaure est une fiction des poètes », il est très clair que ce qui est en question ici, ce n’est pas l’objet extra-mental « Centaure » avec lequel les poètes seraient en relation par le truchement d’une représentation cherchant une référence dans le monde, mais c’est bien plutôt un état mental intrinsèquement « à-propos-de-Centaure », et dont la conscience phénoménale permet de rendre compte, puisque lorsque j’imagine des centaures, j’ai conscience de les imaginer. Si bien que l’énoncé « Le centaure est une fiction des poètes » qui était encore problématique  dans une conception métaphysique et relationnelle de l’intentionnalité (puisqu’il faudrait que le poète soit en relation avec le Centaure comme objet extra-mental), devient un simple énoncé concernant un état mental, dans lequel est inclus un contenu intentionnel, lui-même encore mental. L’objet auquel il est  fait explicitement référence, c’est la représentation elle-même et non pas son objet extra-mental. Denis Seron propose de paraphraser l’exemple brentanien comme suit : « Il existe un état mental tel que des poètes sont dans cet état et qu’il a pour contenu intentionnel le centaure »[xiii]. Ainsi, la référence touche l’état mental intentionnel des poètes, et non pas son objet, ce qui serait absurde.

Il y a cependant certains contextes dans lesquels il est difficile de savoir si c’est  l’état mental avec son contenu intentionnel qui est endossé[xiv], c’est-à-dire qui est tenu pour existant et prétend au rôle de référent, ou si c’est  l’objet extra-mental. Si je dis : « j’imagine le Père Noël », il n’est pas difficile de savoir que ce qui est endossé, ce n’est pas l’existence du Père Noël, mais l’existence de mon « imagination-à-propos-du-Père-Noël » en tant qu’état mental intrinsèquement intentionnel. Dans le cadre du vocabulaire de l’apparence ou de l’hallucination, les comptes-rendus de l’expérience intentionnelle deviennent précisément ambigus. Si je dis que « la tache m’apparaît bleue », il n’est pas évident de savoir si je me situe sur le simple plan de l’apparence phénoménologique qui ne me permet de n’endosser que l’existence du contenu intentionnel pour moi, c’est-à-dire au sein de mon état mental, et cela sans prétention à mordre sur l’être effectif de la tache, ou si au contraire je prétends faire référence à la tache elle-même, de manière extra-mentale.

  • In recto, in obliquo.

Nous voudrions attirer l’attention du lecteur sur une distinction très importante que l’on doit à Brentano, et qui, si  elle est souvent oubliée, est bien rappelée et restituée dans toute sa richesse par Denis Seron. Il s’agit de la distinction entre le modus rectus et le modus obliquus[xv]. Elle nous permet de mieux thématiser l’ambiguïté intrinsèque du vocabulaire intentionnel et de tenir ensemble sa double aspectualité (le contenu intentionnel mental et la référence extra-mentale) : si je perçois qu’il pleut dehors et que je suis sûr que  c’est bien le cas, alors on dira, d’après Brentano, qu’in recto je me réfère à la pluie comme objet avec lequel je suis en relation, et qu‘in obliquo je me réfère à l’état mental intentionnel qui vise la pluie, c’est-à-dire indirectement et non représentativement, mais par le biais de ma conscience phénoménale intra-mentale. Inversement, dans les cas où la référence est incertaine, comme par exemple si je crois simplement qu’il pleut , il faudra dire qu’in recto je me réfère d’abord à mon état mental, mais qu’in obliquo je vise, du fait de  mon contenu intentionnel inclus  dans mon état mental de croyance, quelque chose comme la pluie. Comme le dit Denis Seron : « La description phénoménologique in obliquo est ontologiquement réductible à la description psychologique in recto […] »[xvi], c’est-à-dire que lorsque l’on prétend référer dans le cadre d’un  référence incertaine ou qui échoue, la référence effective doit se retourner vers la tentative de référence elle-même, et donc, le vécu psychologique en personne (dire que « X m’apparaît », dans le cadre d’une description phénoménologique oblique, c’est dire  que j’ai effectivement un contenu mental visant intrinsèquement X).

Nous pouvons alors comprendre en quoi, dans l’exemple des géants pris pour des moulins, Sancho Panza et Don Quichotte ont raison. En effet, en  un premier sens, Sancho Panza a raison de dire qu’il n’y a pas de géants, car il n’y a pas d’objet extra-mental dénotable in recto sous la forme de géants. Mais Don Quichotte a raison, en  un autre sens, de dire que ce qu’il voit c’est bien des géants, au sens où il faut convertir sa description phénoménologique in obliquo en description psychologique in recto : il existe bien un état mental intentionnel au sujet ou concernant des géants et dont Don Quichotte est le porteur. Il est donc vrai qu’il n’y a pas de géants et que Don Quichotte ne voit rien sur le plan de l’objet, mais il est vrai qu’il y a bien des géants sur le plan du contenu intentionnel mental. Les géants n’existent qu’in obliquo, mais le contenu mental intentionnellement lié aux géants existe bien, lui, in recto.

  Cette manière élégante de régler le problème des représentations sans objets, a de lourdes conséquences en ce qui concerne sa compréhension implicite de ce qu’est l’intentionnalité. Cette conception très brentanienne suppose d’abord de définir  l’intentionnalité en termes d’apparence, c’est-à-dire  d’un donné non pas immédiatement en lien avec le monde, mais qui est d’abord présent pour moi et pour moi seulement. Il y a d’abord une conscience phénoménale pré-représentationnelle. Ce qui, nous rappelle Seron, implique non plus  de définir la conscience en termes d’intentionnalité (et ainsi, la conscience viserait donc quelque chose sous la forme d’une représentation qui prendrait position sur l’existence ou l’inexistence d’un état de choses), mais l’intentionnalité en termes de conscience (par là, un état mental intentionnel est d’abord le fait intrinsèque d’avoir conscience du fait qu’il est au sujet de X). Ce qui permet à l’intentionnalité de n’être plus la notion originaire, mais d’être une notion seconde, laissant  la préséance à  la distinction entre existence et apparence. Cela a l’avantage immense de montrer qu’une représentation intentionnelle peut réussir ou échouer[xvii], et c’est ce qui permet, dans les cas d’échec, de penser des  représentations sans objets. Denis Seron ajoute que cet internalisme n’est pas pour autant un phénoménisme stricte : certes nous commençons par avoir conscience de nos représentations, d’un point de vue privé, mais la visée in obliquo creuse une brèche dans le solipsisme et fait en sorte que l’état mental soit toujours et au moins à la recherche de quelque chose du monde, même s’il ne le trouve pas : même lorsque ce qui m’apparaît n’existe pas, il faut déjà que cet apparaître prétende à l’existence pour qu’il puisse être démenti.

Cette nouvelle définition de l’être même de l’intentionnalité permet, par ailleurs, à Denis Seron de critiquer, par l’intermédiaire de sa résolution du problème des représentations sans objets, certaines conceptions contemporaines de la perception et de l’intentionnalité. Il critique d’abord la théorie des sens-data, en démontrant que contrairement à sa théorie, qui conserve au moins un rapport oblique au monde, cette dernière sombre dans un internalisme radical qui vire à l’idéalisme, perdant toute possibilité d’une intentionnalité effective. Il s’attaque  ensuite à  la conception sémantique de l’intentionnalité, à travers un de ses représentants : Gilbert Ryle. Le point de discussion concerne la possibilité d’une intentionnalité qui ne soit pas conceptuelle. Seron défend alors l’idée qu’il y a des expériences immédiates, non médiatisées par du  conceptuel, qui nous mettent en présence des choses. C’est dans cette même optique qu’il va critiquer la thèse célèbre sur la perception de Charles Travis. La position de Travis consiste à dire que la perception est « une simple confrontation »[xviii] au  monde, qu’elle est en deçà de toute attitude propositionnelle, c’est-à-dire qu’il n’y a aucun sens à dire qu’elle pourrait échouer ou réussir. Par exemple, dans le cadre de l’illusion de Müller-Lyer, analysée par exemple par Jocelyn Benoist[xix], nous voyons d’abord perceptuellement la ligne avec les flèches tournées vers l’intérieur comme plus grande que celle avec les flèches tournées vers l’extérieur. Et cela  n’a pas de sens de dire que nous nous trompons, dans l’espace logique de la perception. Notre perception n’est alors illusoire qu’extrinsèquement, dans la position de Travis, à l’expérience perceptive. Le contre-argument de Seron, fort de tous les acquis précédents, se présente comme suit : si l’on veut préserver la différence entre l’être et l’apparaître, il faut en  un certain sens que la perception soit déjà représentationnelle, et qu’elle prenne position, même si c’est seulement de manière oblique, quant à l’existence ou à la non existence de son objet.

  • Conclusion : qu’est-ce que la phénoménologie ?

Enfin,  cette définition internaliste de l’intentionnalité, la définissant comme un apparaître qui prétend obliquement à la référence sans nécessairement y avoir accès d’emblée, a une implication majeure : elle détermine une certaine compréhension de ce qu’est la phénoménologie et du contenu de son travail. Si l’intentionnalité est définie en terme  d’apparence, et si l’apparence, qui n’est certes pas une entité médiatrice entre le sujet et le réel, mais bien plutôt un moment de l’accès du sujet au réel, le rôle de la phénoménologie va être  « d’analyser les apparences »[xx] pour établir quelles sont  celles qui vont pouvoir légitimement prétendre à la référence, et  celles qui ne le pourront pas. Autrement dit, la phénoménologie doit être une théorie critique[xxi]. En d’autres termes, cela signifie que la phénoménologie n’est plus une discipline autonome, mais qu’elle devient un instrument nécessaire de toute théorie de la connaissance qui prétend décrire nos conditions d’accès au réel lui-même. La phénoménologie devient donc bien, comme le précise Denis Seron, une ressource pour la philosophie de l’esprit, et notamment pour répondre à un des questions principales qu’elle pose : qu’est-ce qu’une croyance vraie ? Nous en arrivons donc à une définition minimale de la phénoménologie, consciemment déflationniste[xxii], qu’avec Denis Seron nous pourrions formuler ainsi : il s’agit d’une théorie permettant de parvenir à une connaissance objective de l’expérience subjective. L’étude phénoménologique de l’apparaître se trouvera, dans cette perspective, toujours placée dans un contexte où l’apparaître est toujours déjà compris depuis une  différence effective en  l’apparence et la réalité : étudier l’apparence, ce n’est pas d’abord étudier comment le monde nous apparaît en original, mais déterminer à quelles conditions cet apparaître pourra toucher et rejoindre ce qui est véritablement.

La prise de position est ici, dans son ensemble, une prise de position empiriste, c’est-à-dire que la démarche fondamentale de ce travail consiste à  retracer la genèse subjective de l’objectivité, en partant de ce qui se donne à nous, de l’expérience, pour déterminer à quelles conditions cette expérience pour nous est aussi expérience de ce qui existe en dehors de nous. La démarche de Seron est explicitement anti-naturaliste, puisque le naturalisme refuse par principe que le subjectif soit premier, et  des relations naturelles (connexions neurales, efficiences de processus physiques etc.) le fondement de toute connaissance possible. La « réduction phénoménologique », véritable pierre de touche de la phénoménologie historique, acte fondateur du retour aux choses mêmes, se voit conférer , dans cette optique, un sens déterminé : il s’agit de ce que Seron nomme une « escalade phénoménologique »[xxiii], et qui consiste à réduire les représentations visant le monde in obliquo à des états mentaux psychologiques pris pour thème réflexivement in recto. Cette escalade nous permet de sortir de l’attitude naturelle dans laquelle nous endossons nos croyances en ce qui concerne le monde, pour revenir réflexivement aux états mentaux et à leurs contenus intentionnels intrinsèques, afin de déterminer si l’endossement qu’on leur prête, concernant le monde et non plus seulement leur existence psychologique, est justifié.

Cette manière d’intégrer la phénoménologie à la philosophie de l’esprit représente, comme le rappelle Denis Seron dans son avant-propos, une réelle possibilité de réconciliation de la philosophie continentale et de la philosophie analytique. Nous voudrions cependant nuancer une telle affirmation, car la définition de la phénoménologie qu’elle implique laisse pour compte  et exclut tout un versant  de la phénoménologie, lui aussi inspiré des  travaux de Husserl : il s’agit du versant  ontologique de la phénoménologie, qui prend sa naissance avec Heidegger et se poursuit jusqu’à aujourd’hui avec Renaud Barbaras ou Claude Romano. Cette acception de la phénoménologie se place en-deçà ou au-delà de la question de notre accession à la réalité, car cette question de théorie de la connaissance suppose quelque chose que cette tradition ontologique remet en question, à savoir qu’il y ait une distance originelle entre un sujet isolé et un monde existant sans lui, distance qu’il reviendrait à la connaissance objective de combler, moyennant une procédure définie et consistante. Cette ontologie phénoménologique ne vise donc pas à analyser les apparences pour savoir si elles peuvent prétendre au statut de connaissance, puisqu’elle refuse la différence entre l’apparaître et l’être, elle ne se donne pour objectif, au contraire, que d’explorer les différents modes d’être par lesquels les choses se donnent à nous, travail initié par la distinction husserlienne du mode  de donation de la région monde et de la région conscience. On donnera  pour preuve que la définition de la phénoménologie en termes d’analyse des apparences ne fait pas encore consensus, cette citation de Michel Henry : « La phénoménologie n’est pas une théorie des apparences, théorie qui laisserait derrière elle l’être réel des choses »[xxiv]. C’est là  la preuve que la phénoménologie n’a pas encore résorbé son éclatement[xxv] constitutif, éclatement qui est à la fois le garant insigne de son éclat et la ressource de sa vie même.


Benoist, Jocelyn, Elements de philosophie réaliste, Paris, Vrin, 2011.

Brentano, Franz, Psychologie du point de vue empirique, Paris, Vrin, 2008.

Frege, Gottlob, Ecrits logiques et philosophiques, Paris, Seuil, 1970.

Heidegger, Martin, Les problèmes fondamentaux de la phénoménologie, Paris, Gallimard, 2007.

Henry, Michel, Philosophie et phénoménologie du corps, Vendôme, PUF, 1965.

Husserl, Edmund, Recherches logiques,II, Paris, PUF.

Janicaud, Dominique, La phénoménologie éclatée, Paris, éditions de l’éclat, 1998.

Panaccio, Claude, Qu’est-ce qu’un concept ?, Paris, Vrin, 2011.

Russell, Bertrand, The principles of mathematics, Cambridge, At the university press, 1903.

Sartre, Jean-Paul, L’Être et le néant, Paris, Gallimard, 1943.

Scheler, Max, Le formalisme en éthique et l’éthique matériale des valeurs, Paris, Gallimard, 1955.

Sellars, Willfrid, « Empiricism and the philosophy of mind » in Science, Perception and Reality, Routledge & Kegan, 1963.

Travis, Charles, Le silence des sens, Paris, Les éditions du Cerf, 2014.

Wagner, Pierre, Logique et philosophie, Paris, Ellipses, 2014.

[i]   Nous reprenons l’exemple donné par Pierre Wagner dans son excellent ouvrage introductif : Wagner, Pierre, Logique et philosophie, Paris, Ellipses, 2014

[ii]      Voir à ce sujet Russell, Bertrand, The principles of mathematics, Cambridge, At the university press, 1903, § 47 et Frege, Gottlob, Ecrits logiques et philosophiques, Paris, Seuil, 1970.

[iii]  Husserl, Edmund, Recherches logique II, Paris, PUF, p. 218-219.

[iv]  Seron, Denis, Apparaître. Essai de philosophie phénoménologique, Leiden, Boston, Brill, 2017, p. 19.

[v]     Voir Panaccio, Claude, Qu’est-ce qu’un concept ?, Paris, Vrin, 2011.

[vi]    Brentano, Franz, Psychologie du point de vue empirique, Paris, Vrin, 2008.

[vii]   Cité par Denis Seron, Op. Cit. p. 140.

[viii]  Ibid. p. 31.

[ix]    Seron fait la distinction, Ibid. p. 33.

[x]   Heidegger, Martin, Les problèmes fondamentaux de la phénoménologie, Paris, Gallimard, 2007.

[xi]    Sartre, Jean-Paul, L’Être et le néant, Paris, Gallimard, 1943.

[xii]   Husserl propose pour sa part de distinguer « le contenu intentionnel » qui est ce que vise la représentation, et le « contenu réel » de la représentation, qui est le vécu lui-même de cette visée. Recherches logiques, II, Op. Cit. §16. Comme le disait Scheler à propos du mouvement, il faut distinguer « la conscience qui tend » et « la conscience de tendre ». Scheler, Max, Le formalisme en éthique et l’éthique matériale des valeurs, Paris, Gallimard, 1955.

[xiii]  Seron, Denis, Op. Cit. p. 108.

[xiv]  Sellars, Willfrid, « Empiricism and the philosophy of mind » in Science, Perception and Reality, Routledge & Kegan, 1963.

[xv]   Brentano, Franz, Op. Cit.

[xvi]  Seron, Denis, Op. Cit. p. 95.

[xvii] Seron, Denis, Op. Cit. p. 129.

[xviii] Travis, Charles, Le silence des sens, Paris, Les éditions du Cerf, 2014.

[xix]  Benoist, Jocelyn, Éléments de philosophie réaliste, Paris, Vrin, 2011.

[xx]   Seron, Denis, Op. Cit, chapitre III.

[xxi]  Le terme « critique » doit être compris ici au sens kantien, c’est-à-dire au sens d’un questionnement en retour sur la légitimité des prétentions que peut envelopper une faculté déterminée ou un usage donné de cette faculté. La critique n’a donc pas pour thème le monde en dehors de nous, mais les théories qui s’y rapportent, théories dont on évalue la capacité à s’élever à la dignité de connaissance.

[xxii]   Comme Denis Seron le dit lui-même : « le monde phénoménal est vaste et l’on doit voyager léger », p. 18.

[xxiii]   Seron, Denis, Op. Cit.

[xxiv]   Henry, Michel, Philosophie et phénoménologie du corps, Vendôme, PUF, 1965, p. 164.

[xxv]    Janicaud, Dominique, La phénoménologie éclatée, Paris, éditions de l’éclat, 1998.

Denis Seron: Apparaître: Essai de philosophie phénoménologique, Brill, 2017

Apparaître: Essai de philosophie phénoménologique Book Cover Apparaître: Essai de philosophie phénoménologique
Studies in Contemporary Phenomenology, 16
Denis Seron
Hardcover €204,00
xii, 213

J. Aaron Simmons, J. Edward Hackett (Eds.): Phenomenology in the 21st Century

Phenomenology for the Twenty-First Century Book Cover Phenomenology for the Twenty-First Century
J Aaron Simmons & J. Edward Hackett (Eds.)
Palgrave Macmillan
Hardcover, 99,99 €
XIX, 386

Reviewed byHeath Williams (The University of Western Australia)

When I set out to review this work I was concerned that the essence of phenomenology, and in particular the aspirations of Husserl, might be lost during this book’s attempts at cross-pollination, hybridization and interbreeding (if they have not already). My concerns were echoed in the introduction and preface where Gallagher asks how we can continue to recognise phenomenology as we push it into fresh areas. The introduction (essay #1, by one of the editors, J. A. Simmons) memorably asks “has phenomenology caught the sickness it is trying to cure?” (p. 2). I was concerned that, in its attempt to expand and chart new territory, phenomenology might contract incomprehensibility and irrationalism. We are assured early that this volume hopes phenomenology can “find a way to be a mile wide, as it were, without only being an inch deep” (pg. 2). It was, then, with keen sensibilities to the shallows that I set out.

Overall, I found the collection of 18 essays in this volume enlivening. The editors resisted giving the contributors lengthy word counts. As a result, the chapters in this volume are easily digestible, but also educational, because of their accessible style (bar essay #5 and #10). The variety of scholarship is remarkable. There is novel research, the utilisation of classical phenomenological themes, interspersed with original yet rigorous analysis and description. The exegesis of non-canonical figures and outsiders is a great way to approach the often well-worn phenomenological path. There was, also, generally a shared sensitivity in protecting the methods and contents of phenomenology from the aforementioned shallows. The division of this review will follow the six parts of the book, and reference essay numbers.

Part 1. Justice and Value.

The first essay of the first part by S. Minister (essay #2) shows how phenomenological themes can be relevant to global ethics. For example, Minister argues, there are advantages to taking on Levinas’s ethics of alterity and self-responsibility towards others as a summum bonum, because this overcomes the egocentric biases of utilitarian and deontological approaches, or those ethical theories based on either rationality or self-interest. Also, the intersubjective constitution of objectivity promotes an ethics based on mutual dialogue and interaction, and deconstructive phenomenology might help in breaking down pre-established categories—like ‘the poor’, and ‘developing countries’—which often don’t really carve concrete ethical reality at the joints. This essay is innovative and lofty, but, as would be expected, it’s a little short on detail, and thereby sometimes lacks epistemological weight.

D. M. Dalton’s essay (#3)—a highlight of this section—picks up on a theme from essay #2: the ‘problem of the other’ in Levinas’s philosophy. This essay gives an excellent genealogical trace of the ‘problem’, starting from Husserl and travelling via Heidegger to Levinas. The author argues that Levinas’s descriptive account should not be read as a solution to the problem (and that, in fact, to do so is to commit an ethical infraction). Instead, a Kierkegaardian leap of faith from phenomenology to Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, and the ‘ethics of resistance’, is made. The author states that the described transcendence, power, and even tyranny of the other can only be overcome by learning to ‘resist’ the other—to say ‘no’—without rejecting or succumbing to them. Scholars interested in the problem of the other will find this essay an invaluable exegesis, and an elegant proposed solution.

This final essay of part one (#4, by the other editor, J. E. Hackett) outlines the prima facia system of metaethical moral intuitionism advocated by W.D. Ross. Hackett discusses the problem that the moral principles Ross thinks should be considered in making context dependant ethical choices suffers from a lack of grounding which it can’t solve without resorting to the moral universalism it seeks to avoid. Hackett states that Scheler’s moral theory fills in some much needed concrete detail which grounds Ross’s list of moral principles. The third essay shifts up a gear in terms of technicity and density, particularly during the opening and closing sections.

Part 2. Meaning and Critique.

Essay #5 is N. DeRoo’s look at the Dutch transcendental philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd. It shows Dooyeweerd was concerned with a problem which Husserl, Heidegger and Derrida were very much interested in—the problem of genesis. This is the problem of the perpetual self-foundation/generation of meaning and being, ex nihilo. Reflection on this problem leads to a concentric play between transcendental consciousness and the meaning ground of the lifeworld. This concentric spiral bores down to the ‘religious root of creation’, which Dooyeweerd calls the ‘supra-temporal heart’. ‘Supra-temporality’ is a complicated concept, involving a relationship between religion, cosmic time, expression, and the heart. As would be expected of an essay concerning meaning, being and genesis, the first essay of part two is heavily technical. Dooyeweerd’s thought is packed with deeply transcendental religiosity, bordering on impenetrable mysticism, but DeRoo makes earnest attempts to explain this formidable thinker.

Essay #6, by E. J. Mohr, examines the possibility of mixing phenomenology with the seemingly opposed philosophical school of critical theory. Critical phenomenology is the attempt to investigate and express the lived experience of the inadequacy and non-identity of conceptions of justice to experience. Mohr argues that the two traditions of phenomenology and critical theory are already blended. The experience of the proletariat, person of race, gender, etc., has always formed the basis for critique, and attention to experience has the potential to cut through tired politicised language. Self-reflection and appraisal can change emotional attunement and pre-established ingrained systems of evaluative preferencing, and phenomenological practice can perform the immanent self-critique advocated by critical theory, thus creating ethical behaviour. This is an essay which emulates the hybridisation it espouses: it is dialectical and critical, yet relies on an array of many concrete experiential exemplars which demonstrate the content.

Essay #7 unearths the phenomenological aspect of Reinach’s theory of justice. K. Baltzer-Jaray shows that Reinach’s essay in the first Jarbuch of phenomenology responds to the jurisprudential underpinnings of the unifying codification of German law in the Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch of 1909. The jurisprudence of the Gesetzbuch sees the law as a codified set of constructs which served to solidify political power. The Büch thus represents the failure to prevent the notion of ‘Recht’ (justice) from collapsing into ‘Gesetzt’ (written law). Reinach’s response is that Recht is an a priori timeless and unchanging ideal, which is independent of manmade laws and our attempts to comprehend it. For Reinach justice is a material essence which can only be grasped in intuition, via ideation. The sciences which study justice must operate via rational activity which generates synthetic principles to apply to contextual circumstances. This is a timely discussion of a sometimes contemporarily neglected aspect of the phenomenological project: the idealism, a priori-ism, and rationalism of the early German school. This clarifies the crucially phenomenological aspect of the work of an important thinker.
While there is not a lot of overlap between the essays in this section, they are truly cross-traditional, interspersing diverse phenomenological themes with critical theory, theology, and theories of justice.

Part 3. Emotion and Revelation.

Both the eighth and ninth essays present original phenomenological descriptive analyses. The eighth essay by F. Bottenberg is an attempt to provide a theory of the role of emotional evaluation and motivation. It argues that the theory of simple emotional valence is not nuanced enough to account for the embodied, amorphous, and context dependent nature of emotions. The animationist position put forward argues that a dynamic interplay of the internality of the body with the externality of the world is mediated by emotions. There is a three way correlation between certain classes of emotions (i.e. aggressive vs defensive), certain profiles of motor tendencies, and the ‘soliciting feel’ of the world. Thus, emotional valuing is not valent but kineso-existential. This essay will appeal to those looking for phenomenological descriptions of 4E cognition (see especially the description of the emotional experience of fear on p. 149), and ties in nicely with themes in the essay by Colombetti in part 4. It backs up poetic flair with solid content and clear distinctions, mimics the fluidity it depicts, and is reminiscent of Merleau-Ponty.

The ninth essay addresses the phenomenology of envy. In the past, Anglophone philosophers, like Taylor and Hacker (for example), have seen envy as other-assessing, because the other is seen as the object of the emotion. Contemporary discussions of envy distinguish between a (benign) envy that focuses on the object of envy, and a (malicious) envy which focuses on the state of the other as possessing this object. M. R. Kelly argues that this schema is inadequate because envy is always a comparative intentionality, and it is always a vice. Without the notion of comparativeness, object centred envy collapses into covetousness. Kelly proposes a distinction between possessor envy and deficiency envy. With the former we believe that the other doesn’t deserve what they have, in the latter we reproach ourselves for not having it. The former is other-centred, and focuses on the undeservedness of the superiority of the other. The latter is self-centred, and we see our status as unjustly inferior. Both however are based on assessing the self in relation to the other. Finally, possessor envy manifests in resentment and hostility toward the envied, whilst deficiency empathy manifests in self-loathing. Non-other centred deficiency envy is therefore not benign, as it diminishes one’s moral character. Both envies are a form of vice. Analytic and Anglophone virtue philosophers will find familiar methodological and thematic tropes in this article, as will Husserlians.

The tenth essay is W. C. Hackett’s attempt to articulate a primer on the phenomenology of the philosophy of revelation, with reference to recent phenomenological figures including Lacoste and Marion. Unfortunately, this chapter is a low point in this edited volume, and I convey only what little of it I understood. On p.187, it is claimed that
1. Philosophy is the inquiry into the essence of humanity.
2. The revelation of God is a revelation into humanities most private mystery. Therefore,
3. A philosophy or revelation is fundamental to philosophy’s innate aim.
Furthermore, because of phenomenology’s capacity to express experience, a phenomenology of philosophical revelation holds special promise to fulfil this fundamental philosophical project. A phenomenology of religious revelation articulates the appearance of the impossible and, therefore, by definition, transcends its own limits and expands the limits of intelligibility. It is an irony that an essay on revelation conceals. It was full of unintelligible phrases, unexplained specialist terms, and Greek, French, German and Latin. Non-specialists will find it impenetrable and it is, therefore, of value only to a select few.

Part 4. Embodiment and Affectivity.

Part four is rooted in the hybrid space between empirical psychology and phenomenology. There are interlacing ‘4E cognition’ themes in this part. Both the first and third articles rely on the interpretation of first person psychiatric descriptions of disorder as a form of eidetic variation.
The first article of part four (essay #11), by M. Ratcliffe, examines what constitutes the sense that one is in an intentional state of a particular type (i.e. perception), as opposed to a different type (i.e. imagination). It has been suggested that sense of type is determined by experiencing correlative characteristic types of contents alone. Ratcliffe proposes that one can experience contents characteristic of intentional state type x, without having the sense of being in that state type, and thus content is not sufficient to dictate sense of type. Evidence is provided by certain anomalous experiences.

Ratcliffe’s example is thought insertion (TI). He argues that some features of the contents of TI are characteristic of perceptual content (i.e. seemingly extra-mental external origin), but mostly the features are characteristic of thought content. Yet, TI has the sense of being a perceptual type experience. Thus, types of experience aren’t determined by, nor wholly collapse into, types of contents. Ratcliffe argues that another factor explains our sense of type—the phenomenological (Husserlian) notion of horizonality.

An object’s horizon determines the possibilities we attribute to it, and these possibilities determine an anticipatory profile. The anticipatory profile of inserted thoughts is more consistent with perception. For example, one has a sense of lacking foreknowledge of the occurrence of inserted thoughts, and thereby one experiences an associated negative affect—anxiety over the unknown. These features belong to the anticipatory profile of external auditory experiences—a type of perception. It is thus the anticipatory profile which correlates more strongly with sense of type of experience, and explains it better than content.

Incorporation is the assimilation of either skills or objects, and it is typically a feature of embodied or perceptual capacities. In her contribution (essay #12), G. Colombetti contends that incorporation also operates in affective states like motivations, moods, and emotions. An example of affective skill incorporation would be how bodily expressive ‘styles’, such as patterns of hand gesture and body postures, become a spontaneous and prereflective form of expressing and experiencing affects.

There are, it seems, two essential parts to the claim that affective states incorporate objects. Firstly, objects become constitutive parts of affective states. For example, hiking boots might partly constitute an affective state of confidence. Secondly, these affective states then change the nature of the world we see ourselves in. For example, the state of confidence which is partly constituted by our hiking boots in turn enables a specific set of motoric affordances and colours our perception of the hiking trail.

In response to potential objections, Colombetti maintains that objects are not only incorporated into perceptual states, which in turn act as a (causal/functional) input into affective states, but objects are incorporated directly into affective states themselves. An unconsidered objection is that, seeing as it is already held that objects are incorporated perceptually, and we can concede that perception is in causal/functional interaction with affectivity, doesn’t it seems a little unparsimonious to claim that objects are incorporated into affective states as well? This will need further discussion in the near future.

Essay #13, by J. Kreuger and M. Gram Henriksen claims that, in Mobius Syndrome (MS) (lateral congenital paralysis of one side of the face), and schizophrenia, paradigmatic phenomenological senses of embodiment are highlighted because they are disrupted. MS sufferers report a sense of detachment and alienation from their body, and a feeling of being trapped in their head, like a Cartesian disembodied mind. The body loses its anonymity, performing gestures and expressions are wilful and considered. The body is experienced as a Körper but not a Leib. Schizophrenia is characterised by a diminished self-affection and hyper reflexivity, and phenomenological reports suggest it can involve a disturbance in embodied ipseity. Patients report feeling disjointed from and disown their own body. This essay is the most descriptive and least argumentative of this part of the volume.

Part 5. Pragmatism.

The fifth part is highly creative. M. Craig’s contribution (essay #14) seeks to combine phenomenology with James’s pragmatism and Bergson’s vitalism. For Bergson, the primary state of experience is temporal flux, which is anaemic to verbalisation or conceptualisation. James, of course, coined the archetypal characterisation of consciousness as a ‘flow’ or ‘stream’. Both are thus concerned with the intricacy of life beyond abstract conceptualisation, and used vivid description, depiction, and images in order to do philosophy. Further, both Bergson’s intuitionist vitalism, and James’s sovereignty of the empirical singularity and emergentist ethics, promises to reinvigorate philosophy in a way which phenomenologists could participate.

Essay #15 (by J. Bell) details the interaction between the seminal American pragmatists J. Royce and Husserl, by recounting the presidential address by Royce in 1902 to the American Psychological Association. Royce was globally one of the earliest thinkers to engage with Husserl. Royce was interested in investigating the morphology (or, adaptability) of concepts, particularly on the shared conceptual grounds between the increasingly hostile inter-disciplinary areas of psychology and philosophical logic. One area of frequent concept morphology is mathematics. For Royce, as for Husserl, this was precisely an area where empirical and a priori consciousnesses merged to create a factical world full of meanings and ideal objectivities. Of pressing importance is the function of the consciousness of affirmation and denial for system building, organisation, and categorisation. This section of essay #15 is reminiscent of Burt Hopkins historical-mathematical reconstructions.

The final section of part 5, discusses the importance of the consciousness of inhibitions and taboo for Royce. It connects this with Husserl’s core notions of activity and passivity, the ‘I can’ and the ‘I can’t’, and the actualisation of some possibilities to the expense of others. The taboo and the inhibition are found on the borders of the consciousness of the limiting cases of what can (and ought) to become actualised, and to grasp (phenomenologically) the entertaining and inhibiting of a multiplicity of possibilities is to understand intelligence, thought, and the locus of pragmatic philosophy.

Part 6. Calling Phenomenology into Question.

The final engrossing part of this book begins very much back where this review started: questioning the coherency and health of phenomenology.

Essay #16 by T. Sparrow surveys a series of introductions to phenomenology, and finds phenomenology defined as the study of consciousness (Detmer, Gallaher), a foundational science (Detmer), the science of appearances (Lewis and Staehler), and a Platonic searching for essential truths (Sokolowski). Sparrow judges the lack of a cohesive definition problematic. Faced with this diversity, Simmons and Benson resort to a defensive definition of phenomenology as a family resemblance term. However, at least some strains of phenomenology endorse the notion that there is an essence to phenomenology and, critically, theorists (some within this very volume) often suggest that phenomenology might be applied as a research method to new areas. So, it seems imperative to define what exactly phenomenology is. The basic point of this essay is convincingly made early on. For the ‘variety of definitions’ objection to be considered problematic, however, it would need to be shown that there is less coherence within phenomenology than with any other research paradigm, science, or philosophical school.

Essay #17 by P. Ennis claims that, despite Husserl’s admirable attempt to limit himself to and examine only epistemologically purified Cartesian forms of evidence, we have better forms of evidence available to us today. As Ennis notes, Husserlian foundational evidence is criticised by Sellars attack on the myth of the given. Furthermore, Ennis argues that Metzinger’s and Chruchland’s accounts of the self might not be totally incommensurate with Husserlian transcendental accounts of the self, but they are developed (not only phenomenological but also) neurobiologically, functionally, and in representational terms. They thus offer similar (but not identical) systems, but with better (empirical scientific) evidential backing. There is very little original criticism here: the value of empirical evidence over phenomenological evidence is a stalwart of contemporary cognitive science. However, it is an interesting tactic to draw parallels between Metzinger and Husserl in order to persuade the phenomenologists that they needn’t abandon their core claims if they traded a phenomenological perspective for a functional/neurobiological one.

The final article (#18) by B E. Benson is a response to the previous two. Regarding Sparrow, Benson simply denies the legitimacy of the requirement that phenomenology have any easily definable method or essence. Also, Benson claims that there is more coherency among key features (like object, experience, appearance, science) of the varied definitions that Sparrow discusses than he grants. Lastly, though there is variety, there is also much shared DNA within the phenomenological family. Benson also echoes my concerns when he argues that phenomenology is no more varied than other large philosophical traditions, nor less methodologically coherent than natural science was in its first few centuries. Like scientific method, no one phenomenologist has the authority to decide the meaning and method of phenomenology.

Finally, in response to Ennis, Benson argues that the fact that Metzinger and Husserl came to similar conclusions doesn’t really allow us to differentiate them, let alone give us good reason to favour one over the other. For Benson, Ennis nowhere entertains a pluralistic approach to explaining psychological phenomenon, wherein the strength of neuroscience needn’t imply the death of phenomenology. Lastly, Ennis only addresses Husserlian transcendental phenomenology and, even if Ennis were right, phenomenology has many other facets, as the preceding article, and this edited work more generally, shows.

Joel Smith: Experiencing Phenomenology: An Introduction

Experiencing Phenomenology: An Introduction Book Cover Experiencing Phenomenology: An Introduction
Joel Smith
Paperback £21.24

Reviewed by: Owen Earnshaw (Durham University)

As the Conclusion to Experiencing Phenomenology suggests, this book encourages us to dwell in Phenomenology[1] in order to judge its claims adequately and in doing so provides a much-needed bridge from contemporary philosophy to the world of Phenomenology. It starts out by providing a basic orientation to the problems of Phenomenology along with a brief history of the subject, but then dives straight into dealing with specific issues starting with an account of intentionality, objects, properties, events, possibilities, before then addressing the meaty subjects of self, embodiement, Others and emotions. Smith provides a good introductory overview of the main authors of the phenomenological tradition namely Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty and Stein and relates the theories from these authors to contemporary debates in a range of philosophical disciplines. In this review I will focus upon 4 lacunas in the text and explore whether they can justifiably be left out. In examining gaps in the text I do not wish to say that the text does not function extraordinarily well as an introductory text, but rather to analyse the authors attempt to relate Phenomenology to contemporary concerns and investigate whether such a ‘fusion of horizons’ (Gadamer: 2004) would require a more involved and careful handling of such a project than there is room for in an introductory text.

Competing Visions of Phenomenology

My first qualm about the text is the way a range of authors are presented in conjunction with each other in attempts to solve particular philosophical problems. The first problem Smith addresses is the phenomenological method itself and in doing this he pits Husserl ‘science of experience’ against Heidegger’s attempt to work out the ‘question of the meaning of Being’. The main problem here is that for a beginner this leaves out the central motivations for each thinker’s position. It would be uncontroversial to say that Heidegger and Husserl are up to very different things in their texts, and the same could be said for Sartre and Merleau-Ponty later on in the book. To present them as attempting to address certain specific problems in different ways would seem to stretch to the point of distortion their very particular approaches to the subject. The problems faced by each of the authors covered are bound up with their method, which is itself a question for them that they deal with as part of the outworking of their position. A concern with method is an aspect that is salient in much of ‘continental’ philosophy. Smith writes in the Preface, “[o]ne last thing: you won’t find the terms ‘analytic’ or ‘continental’ in the pages that follow. Good riddance” (Smith 2016: XV). Now the motivation for this statement is presumably that we have come to a point in the Anglophone philosophy where such terms are outdated and unnecessary. Smith maybe has other reasons for wishing to banish these terms from his book that he doesn’t mention, but a clarification of this statement would be good. However, it would seem that these terms can still usefully be applied if it is possible that there are different traditions behind the work done in mainly French and German Phenomenology and contemporary anglophone Philosophy of Mind or Metaphysics. And maybe the divide needs a more careful handling rather than just to ignore it. I will look at these questions in section 3. Suffice it to say that an introductory text might need to give a map of how Phenomenology is significantly different from other fields of the subject that is philosophy and at least nod towards the division that there has been in the past between at least two ways of doing that subject.

To return to the central point, with Husserl’s phrase “back to the things themselves!” we encounter a subject that wants to found a new beginning for itself as Descartes did and is very aware of its relation to the history of philosophy. Arguably this tradition of philosophy is much more dependent on personalities shaping the discipline and the student must be made aware of this. Wanting to find what is common to all Phenomenology is understandably an important concern for an introduction to the subject, but to really dwell in the subject any text on Phenomenology needs to question its own methods in relation to the history of the subject. Questions such as “Is what I am doing here authentic?” arise in relation to any engagement with the work of Heidegger or Sartre. “Can my work in this field be seen as scientific?” is a question that comes out of looking at Phenomenology with Husserl and maybe this is the method that Smith finds works best for what he has in mind and there is evidence that he sees the subject as a collaborative enterprise, where solutions to problems are worked out through argumentation, from the conclusions that he gives to each chapter. And this indeed is an appropriate methodology for an introductory guide. However the fact that the question of method for the text is never itself given an airing means that students are left with a rather disjointed exposition of fragments of the authors’ works and some of the most exciting parts of Phenomenology are left untouched. The most glaring omission to my mind is the absence of Sartre in the chapter on Other Minds, instead including Stein on empathy. This felt very unsatisfactory considering the original phenomenological analysis of shame Sartre gives as the basis for our knowledge of Other Minds and the vignettes he uses to illustrate this. Now this could be because Stein is more incisive here (and also this choice can be seen to grow out of the preceding chapter on embodiement) but it might be instead that Smith chose this author as being more in line with ‘analytic’ concerns and so a phenomenological treasure is passed over.

The Importance of Psychopathology in the Phenomenological Tradition

It would seem very unfair to point out particular subjects that an author omitted in an introductory work where tough choices will have had to be made about what to include considering the accessible size of the volume. However, for reasons I will elaborate, psychopathology is central to an understanding of the subject of Phenomenology and at least deserves a mention on the basis of its contribution to methodology. Phenomenology aims at an accurate description of the structure of experience and in order to do this it needs examples. Smith goes back again and again to his contemplation of his place of work to illustrate phenomenological points. This could reasonably be thought of as normal experience. The critical thing about psychopathology (particularly of cases of delusions, hallucinations and unusual bodily and self experiences) is that it enables us to look at abnormal experience and see what the structure of experience must be in terms of extremes. It provides real cases for giving conclusions about the imaginative thought experiments found in the method of Husserl’s eidetic reduction. Jaspers (1997) is the main exemplar of the tradition of phenomenological psychopathology and his General Psychopathology from 1923 is still in circulation among psychiatrists to this day. Although Smith occasionally peppers some of his arguments with psychiatric cases, Jaspers is mentioned only once in passing and not in relation to psychopathology. There is a grand tradition of phenomenological psychopathology including the Zollikon Seminars by Heidegger (2001) and it is currently in ascendency among philosophically inclined mental health professionals and some mention of it would have helped show a wider view of the subject and its potential practical ramifications. The need to reflect on out of the everyday experiences should be highlighted to the student new to the subject in giving them tools to be able to dwell in the subject. The scope of the book is ample and many of the chapters would have been helped by examples from psychopathology including the ones on embodiement, self-awareness and Other minds. Hopefully if the book runs to further editions this may be remedied.

Mind the Gap: Acknowledging Differences in the Analytic and Continental Traditions

An exemplar of someone who draws on both the analytic and continental is Stanley Cavell (1979) for example in The Claim of Reason, but unlike Smith he acknowledges the split of mind between the two traditions and integrates the two styles of philosophizing into his own original voice. I would argue that trying to overcome the divide between the two traditions necessitates at least acknowledging that there is a divide that needs to be overcome rather than refusing to talk about it. This is especially important in an introductory text as students may not be aware of the history of the different practices in Anglophone and Continental institutions. How the divide came to be is not something I will go into here, but that there is a difference seems undeniable. The ability to relate the philosophers from the different traditions takes careful handling as the student introduced to a particular philosopher may read up on a reference and be left in perplexity as to how the writing of someone in the continental tradition relates to what they have done before in philosophy. Heidegger’s neologisms can be a large stumbling block to someone trying to read the primary text for the first time and may put the student off a seminal work in philosophy unless given guidance on what to expect. The frequent references to Derrida by Smith would lead the uninitiated to think that reading his texts is a straight forward matter as there is no acknowledgement that they can be quite difficult to enter into without some background contextualization. Although his exposition of various concepts in the work of the authors he focuses on are very clear, this aspect of Phenomenology needs addressing by Smith. Again to convict him of missing out something when the scope of the work seems constrained by the fact it is introductory would seem unfair. However, as Husserl and Heidegger are such important figures to understanding works by Derrida, Levinas and Ricoeur it would have made sense to outline their place in what has been known as the ‘Continental’ tradition as a guide for future reading and also to point out that a straightforward transposition to the concerns of contemporary anglophone philosophy can require a translation of concepts. To be fair to Smith he does a good job of combining the two perspectives but this is because he focuses on matters that are the concern of the two traditions such as intentionality rather than issues mainly from the continental tradition such as authenticity, or the Nothing that might well be of interest to more inquisitive students.

Is Phenomenology a Scientific Enterprise?

The question of method permeates Smith’s book in the way he presents the subject matter. He seems to come down on the side of Husserl that Phenomenology is a science of experiences and its methods are comparing phenomenological descriptions in a collaborative deductive exercise that will eventually lead to the truth of the structure of experience. In contrast to this he gives an airing to Heidegger’s ‘Hermeneutic Phenomenology’ but does not follow through on an analysis of this method of Phenomenology, one that requires a greater role for culture in elucidating the structures of experience. Heidegger’s method is a more historically and literary based questioning of experience.  Although it includes the critique of others in advancing the subject, the validity of its claims are based on the authenticity of the self-questioning involved. To put it another way, Husserl’s method relies on the paradigm of a scientific inquiry whereas Heidegger’s method points to the paradigm of a religious confession where the truth of the matter is based on the honesty and self-examination of the questioner. Heidegger’s method has been hugely influential in the continental tradition so this method should not be dismissed out of hand. Modern anglophone philosophy would seem to side on the whole with Husserl’s tendencies, but it should be noted that Wittgenstein’s (1963) Philosophical Investigations, an important work for inheritors of the analytic tradition, starts by quoting Augustine’s Confessions suggesting that Wittgenstein was not wholly adverse to Heidegger’s conception of method in philosophy. So to raise the question in earnest, which method would seem to have the most going for it? As this question goes beyond the scope of a book review, I will only make a few brief points that suggest that the question of method might be something Smith may need to go into in more detail in future editions. Phenomenology is based on articulating experience and so honesty with ones self about the character of experience would seem to be of upmost importance. This would involve trying to find the truth for yourself at a distance from the opinions inherited from others and your upbringing and this itself is perhaps the kernel of truth in Husserl’s phenomenological reduction. This is not to say that others should be ignored but rather that the role of the other is to help you to better scrutinize yourself, what Heidegger terms ‘being-ahead’ of the another person and trying to help someone attain transparency to themselves. The other person’s role is to articulate the internal voice of conscience. This suggests that virtue is indeed required to perform the aims of Phenomenology adequately and further hints that one should rely upon one’s own self-examination rather than looking for the results to be given through a collaborative, objective, science-like enterprise. Smith presents the results of the conclusions of his chapters in the style of the latter; hopefully I have raised sufficient doubt about the necessity of that method to make plausible the idea that an introductory text in Phenomenology, to be fair to the subject matter, requires more reflection on the method of its composition.


Experiencing Phenomenology is a bold attempt to provide access for beginners to the wealth of a tradition that holds out the hope of charting human subjectivity. In his book Smith accomplishes his aim with a deft handling. The critique of the text provided here is merely to point out some of the structural problems that could be addressed to further his aims in future editions. In ignoring the analytic-continental divide Smith seems to be writing from the perspective that questions of method and presentation have already been decided in favour of the paradigm of science and the doubts I have raised here should help the reader to keep this as an open question. Aside from this I would thoroughly recommend the text to undergraduate students and scholars keen to look at Phenomenology in dialogue with the analytic tradition while noting that there are important issues that explicitly need addressing in order to avoid confusion.



Cavell, S. 1979. The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality and Tragedy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gadamer, H. G. 2004. Truth and Method 2nd Revised Edition. trans. J. Weinsheimer and D. Marshall. London: Continuum.

Heidegger, M. 1962. Being and Time. trans. J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson.  Oxford: Blackwell.

Heidegger, M. 2001. Zollikon Seminars: Protocols-Conversations-Letters. trans. M. Franz and R. Askay. ed. M. Boss. Illinois: Northwestern University Press .

Jaspers, K. 1997. General Psychopathology. Volume 1. trans. J. Hoenig and M. Hamilton. London: The John Hopkins University Press.

Smith, J. 2016. Experiencing Phenomenology: An Introduction. Oxford: Routledge.

Wittgenstein, L. 1963. Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe.  Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

[1] I shall refer to ‘Phenomenology’ with a capital, for the reason that, as I argue in the text, I do not believe it is possible to separate the subject from an understanding of its tradition.

J. Aaron Simmons, J. Edward Hackett (Eds.): Phenomenology for the Twenty-First Century

Phenomenology for the Twenty-First Century Book Cover Phenomenology for the Twenty-First Century
J. Aaron Simmons, J. Edward Hackett (Eds.)
Palgrave Macmillan UK
Hardcover 99,99 €
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