“It is,” writes Steven DeLay, “a serious responsibility to be human” (125). Whatever else one thinks philosophy is, one of its tasks is undoubtedly to figure out what our human responsibility is. And that responsibility must be connected in intelligible ways to the reality of what we are, the nature of the world at large, and what, given our powers, we are supposed to achieve. If goods and evils do exist, and if it lies within our powers to introduce or eliminate them, philosophy should have something to say about what those goods and evils are, and how to do that. As Augustine puts it, “to obtain the supreme good and avoid the supreme evil–such has been the aim and effort of all who have professed a zeal for wisdom in this world of shadows” (Augustine 1958, XIX.1, 428).
DeLay certainly has a “zeal for wisdom,” and his book is, ultimately, about how to identify and obtain the “supreme good.” The short answer lies in the title: we should live our lives “before God.” The long answer can only be acquired by reading the book. For what DeLay offers is a series of powerfully written and insightful reflections on what a life lived before God looks like for the one who lives it. It is an “exercise in subjectivity,” not in the Cartesian sense, but in the phenomenological sense—an exercise in how human life and its responsibilities manifest themselves for one who lives in the confidence of the immense value of the human person and in God’s redemptive plan for us. It is phenomenological in a further sense, insofar as it spells out intelligible and in many cases essential connections among the beliefs, attitudes, and actions of one who lives their life before God. DeLay’s analyses draw heavily on the phenomenological and existential traditions, and his insights into some of the classics of those traditions are genuinely eye-opening. Many of DeLay’s insights are novel, especially those he applies to contemporary life. And many are knowingly part of a long spiritual and philosophical tradition, whose central point can be expressed by saying that to live before God is to repudiate the values and the invidious distinctions lying at the basis of nearly all worldly life and its political, social, and institutional expressions and manifestations. It is to take up a radically different form of life, one in which selfless love extends beyond one’s family and friends to one’s neighbors and even one’s enemies. At the same time, it is to look to God, and not to power, pleasure, prestige, or group membership for redemption. It is to “grow in doing good,” which is “to want what is good for others” (62), even those who do us wrong. It is to regard God as “the living One to whom we owe all” (3).
At the heart of DeLay’s exercises lies a contrast that hearkens back to Kierkegaard’s contrast between being a self and being part of a crowd, Augustine’s contrast between the City of God and the City of Man, and, of course, Paul’s contrast between a life of the spirit and a life of the flesh. “We are most defined,” DeLay writes, “by our capacity to decide whether we will an existence of being-in-the-world, or one instead of being-before-God” (124). The choice of being-in-the-world has a familiar outline, and DeLay allows the existentialists to describe much of it. It is, as Heidegger says, in large measure the customary, conformist, inauthentic way of doing what “one” does, thinking what “one” thinks, and feeling what “one” feels. On this point Kierkegaard agrees. This world is, moreover, widely agreed to be a place of immense pain and disappointment and despair, most of it caused by humans themselves. Here too Kierkegaard agrees.
But against Kierkegaard, and DeLay, the atheist existentialists more or less agree that the natural and human world is all there is and, most critically, that whatever redemption we can fashion must come from willing or resolving upon a certain order of values for and by ourselves. Our lives are essentially bound up with those of others and their self-centered projects, and our relations with them are for the most part instrumental or adversarial. From the point of view of being-before-God, others are made in God’s image, and we are required to treat them as such (see 76). From the point of view of being-in-the-world, as Sartre famously characterizes the matter, other people are hell with the magical power of defining, in their total freedom, who and what we are, and the best we can hope for is to stop serving them and to fashion and define ourselves. The task for the atheist existentialists remains what it was for Kierkegaard: to become a self rather than a crowd. But whereas Kierkegaard says in a thousand different ways that one can only be a self in relation to God, the atheist existentialists hand what they can of God’s powers over to us. At its height (or depth, as the case may be) this involves becoming creators of value or, perhaps even more absurdly, of our own essence or nature. Failing that, it is to at least live “authentically.” In any event, there is little recognition that anything we have, including life itself but also our powers of mind and body, is a gift, or any acknowledgment that these gifts are to be received in gratitude, held with humility, and employed in a life of service and love.
Does this mode of thinking and living exemplify a “zeal for wisdom”? If DeLay is right, it is the opposite, a view that “leads whomever follows it badly astray” (6). All of its proponents declare God to be dead far too hastily and, in many cases, too eagerly. For Heidegger, with whom DeLay engages most closely on this point, the reason is putatively methodological: the philosopher must practice “methodological atheism.” DeLay has a great deal to say about the questionableness of that methodological choice. But, more importantly, as DeLay notes, it is obviously quite more than a methodological choice. Heidegger’s analysis of Dasein as being-in-the-world is not supposed to be an account of what we would be if there were no God, but what we are. As DeLay puts it, Heidegger’s decision to characterize Dasein as “anxious fundamentally” is “not at all to bracket the question of God, but to reject directly the idea that we are made in the image of God” (6).
For DeLay, this is both catastrophic and philosophically irresponsible. Indeed, in the very first page DeLay rejects the traditional distinction between philosophy and theology. “Are philosophy and theology really so distinct” (1)? To affirm that they are, for DeLay, is to carve up disciplinary boundaries that do not correspond with the things themselves or the structure of our concern about them. “If it is impossible for any individual life to evade the question of God entirely forever …, how could a philosophy that aims to understand human existence do so itself” (3)? Well, quite simply, it can’t. One must, in one fashion or another, come to terms with the question of God. If philosophy is to speak to our condition, to aid us in identifying and seeking the highest good, it cannot simply bracket God as beyond or beneath its concern.
That philosophy cannot responsibly evade the question of God through mere methodological means seems rather clear. So what are the alternatives? DeLay writes: “where Heidegger recommended methodological atheism as philosophically crucial to transcendental phenomenology, why cannot we claim the opposite and insist on a methodological theism” (27)? Well, I think there may be an answer to that, and one that rules out both methodological atheism and theism. In transcendental phenomenology, we are concerned with essential relations among acts, their objects, and their contents. “To elucidate [the] connections between veritable being and knowing and so in general to investigate the correlations between act, meaning, object is the task of transcendental phenomenology” (Husserl 2008, 434). We bracket the factual existence of the world, for instance, not in order to doubt it, but just to prevent irrelevant premises from being imported into an eidetic investigation. It’s really no different from bracketing propositions about empirically real shapes when doing geometry, a procedure compatible with the absolute certainty that such shapes exist. Comparing the two disciplines, Husserl writes: “Geometry and phenomenology as sciences of pure essence make note of no determinations about real existence” (Husserl 2014, 147).
Now it would be objectionable to bracket God if that meant that in phenomenology we can say nothing about God or the consciousness of God. If phenomenology deals with what we are conscious of and the nature of our consciousness of it, then “by what authority can God’s phenomenality be discarded as illegitimate, as unimportant to phenomenological philosophy’s concern” (27)? That’s a great question, whose answer is, I think, just what DeLay thinks it is: by no authority whatsoever. This does not, however, amount to methodological theism. Nor is it methodological agnosticism. It is, well, bracketing—simply not considering the matter within the context of phenomenology, in the same way that a geometer brackets the color of shapes without thereby confirming, denying, or even remaining neutral on the question of whether shapes have colors. Bracketing the existence of God is compatible with phenomenological inquiries into the nature of the consciousness of God and the form of a life lived before God. We can talk about God and a conscious life lived before God all we want in phenomenology, as DeLay insists. And—here I think I may disagree with him—we can do so without violating any of Husserl’s strictures regarding the phenomenological method. The reason is that provided there is a consciousness of something, the nature of that consciousness is fair game for phenomenology. And you cannot discuss the nature of the consciousness of something without saying quite a bit about the nature of that very something: “the description of the essence of consciousness leads back to what, in consciousness, one is conscious of” (Husserl 2014, 254). (And I hasten to add that “what … one is conscious of” when one is conscious of God is God, and not, say, a God-noema.) Since people, including methodological atheists, are obviously conscious of God, that consciousness is a suitable topic for phenomenology, in all of its various forms of love, hate, and indifference. In the same way, phenomenology can talk about the nature of perceiving a physical thing, even without positing the actual existence of a single physical thing. The reason to bracket God—or trees, tables, or anything else—isn’t because their existence is dubitable. It’s because phenomenology is an eidetic discipline that posits the existence of no actualities at all.
From the beginning, as at all later stages, its scientific statements involve not the slightest reference to real existence: no metaphysical, scientific, and, above all, no psychological assertions can therefore occur among its premises (Husserl 1970, 265).
This—and the whole process of bracketing—has exactly nothing to do with epistemic caution. It has to do with the fact that phenomenology does not posit the existence of a single real thing. Indeed, among the things we don’t posit in phenomenology are individual acts of consciousness themselves (see Husserl 2014, 102). This partly explains why believers and unbelievers alike can learn a great deal from works like DeLay’s. Even without positing God, one can grasp, in some fashion, the nature of a subjective life lived in the consciousness of being before God.
Clearly, however, DeLay is right that philosophy as a whole cannot simply proceed on the assumption that God does not exist, or go on bracketing God’s existence indefinitely. Not, at least, if its task is to provide a metaphysics, an ethics, a proper ontology of the human person, and, finally, a path toward a good life. Now I don’t think this quite means that philosophy and theology are not distinct or even that they overlap—though, of course, they might. But in any case, I think this division is not what’s really at stake in DeLay’s view. For there are reasons to think that, at least on one conception of what those disciplines are about and what they require in terms of our wills, and despite the fact that both disciplines must address the question of God and the nature of a life lived before God, they cannot lead us all the way to God anyway. The reason is that knowing God is not principally a matter of how smart one is. As Delay puts it, “if God will be known, he must be loved” (18). Since a love of God is necessary for a knowledge of God, but is not necessary for doing philosophy or even theology, doing philosophy and theology cannot be sufficient for knowing God.
Before moving on, I should point out at once that DeLay addresses the worry that this is circular. His response is that the kind of knowledge at stake is knowledge by acquaintance rather than a deductive proof (18-19). A life lived before God is not the same thing as a life lived with a convincing argument for God. I think the point could be summed up by saying that surely one must have some conception of God in order to love and desire to encounter God, but that this conception and love does not presuppose the knowledge of God that it itself makes possible. Simply put, we all have some conception of God as an all-powerful and morally perfect spiritual being, one who meets human wrongdoing with mercy. Some of us love and desire to know God, and hope that this world could somehow be redeemed by him. Some of us, by contrast, would be quite relieved if God did not exist, since his ways and our ways do not agree. In fact DeLay very artfully turns the tables on those who charge the believer with “wish-fulfillment.” As he puts it, “the denial of God’s existence might equivalently be interpreted as someone’s not wanting to love what is there” (19). The prelude to acquaintance is loving, or at least not resenting and hating, the object of this conception. The principal problem for the atheist, on DeLay’s view, is that “he persists looking in a way that guarantees he will come up empty-handed inevitably, so long as he wants to” (19).
But why should a love of God be required to know God? Might we at least secure an argument for his existence if an encounter is out of the question? Part of DeLay’s answer seems to be that this is just a special case of a more general principle. It is, as DeLay points out, a familiar fact that while ordinary physical objects show up to anyone with properly functioning senses, many things do not. A hardened heart will not detect kindness or love when others exhibit them, or the beauty that lies in a piece of art or music (17). Nor is our will inoperative when we grasp arguments outside the “terrain of certainty” (19). “Knowing is entwined with what we want to know, or want to be. In a very subtle yet relevant way, just affirming an argument’s conclusion takes an exercise of love” (19).
I am not confident that this last claim is quite right. Many scientific theories, for instance, are uncertain, but we affirm them without any detectable exercises of love. But even if it is right, there may be a different reason why God, in particular, will only show up for those willing to encounter him. It is that God “does not impose an encounter with himself, because to do so would be incompatible with the love defining him” (18). And here, I think, DeLay’s work can be profitably supplemented with insights from, among others, Max Scheler and Paul Moser. God is a person, and as Scheler points out, persons, and only persons, can be silent (Scheler 1960, 335). Now Scheler is quick to add that it would be incompatible with the goodness of God to remain silent for all people and forever. But he may well decide to be silent for some people some of the time. And as Moser points out, his reasons for doing so would be motivated by and intelligible in the light of his perfect moral goodness. As he puts it, “God typically would hide God’s existence from people ill disposed toward it, in order not to antagonize these people in a way that diminishes their ultimate receptivity toward God’s character and purposes” (Moser 2013, 200). That is, the issue isn’t that certain spectacles will only appear to those favorably inclined. Rather, it is that God isn’t available via “spectator evidence” at all. Because he is a person, and a person primarily concerned with our moral characters rather than our beliefs, “God would not use spectator evidence for self-authentication” (Moser 2013, 105).
All of that seems perfectly in line with DeLay’s own claims about the conditions for encountering God. Like appreciating a work of art or recognizing nobility and excellence in another, it requires a certain loving attitude on our part. But unlike those cases, it also requires that God voluntarily reveal himself in ways suitable for our moral development. If we persist in the “wisdom” that characterizes being-in-the-world, we can expect God, out of love for us, to remain out of reach, just as DeLay says (19). But it does put pressure on DeLay’s framing of the relation of philosophy to theology. Much of the content of those disciplines is available to “spectator evidence.” They call upon powers primarily of intellect rather than of character. But the encounter with God does not. He will hide from the wise and manifest himself to children (Matthew 11:25). And given God’s personal prerogative to remain silent, and his reasons, grounded in love, for doing so, establishing the reality of God is quite possibly where both philosophy and theology stop short. I think that almost certainly follows from Moser’s position, and I suspect that it follows from DeLay’s as well. The alternative is that philosophy and theology do require a love of God to be done properly—a position that, I think, DeLay might endorse when he favorably characterizes the “ancient schools” of philosophical thinking for regarding philosophy as a partially “therapeutic” activity designed to “elevate those who pursued it above the quotidian life,” and which “requires more than conceptual clarity” (33). In either case, the important point of DeLay’s work stands: not just anybody is going to encounter God, and there are powerful reasons lying in both the subject and the object why that is so.
Whether that is so, a further and related point is amply substantiated by DeLay’s book, and that is that philosophy conducted “before God” can arrive at insights that would escape a philosophy of being-in-the-world. Or, more precisely, actions and attitudes that might look absurd from the perspective of being-in-the-world take on a whole new character of obviousness when viewed from the perspective of being before God. “A faithful life, led by its distinctive form of evidence, involves a comprehensively new way of seeing things in their totality, one with wide-reaching implications for how we grasp everything…” (28). So, for instance, Nietzsche accuses Christians of denying life, and bills his own philosophy of will to power as an affirmation of life. But what is being affirmed here is not life per se, nor a good life on any defensible understanding of it, but being-in-the-world with all of its brutality, arrogance, egoism, exploitation, and needless suffering. From the perspective of being-before-God, hatred of “the world,” so construed, is the very opposite of a hatred of life. “To the contrary, hatred of the world affirms life” (159). DeLay’s book is full of such insights.
Here is another example that, I think, goes straight to the heart of contemporary life. Being-in-the-world is marked by conflict at every level of human interaction, from the personal on up. That conflict often erupts into violence. And it always involves an enemy. One’s attitude toward an enemy might involve “rancor, resentment, hatred or even wrath” (103). But that, typically, is not how enemies are made. Enmity is normally, rather, the “bad fruit of egoism” (103). My enemy is my enemy because, originally, “he simply stood in the way of my desires” (103). Once this opposition is established, the “bad fruit” of enmity begins to grow. Far too often, the result is violence, followed by more violence, in a brutal cycle of retaliation and revenge. Hence the religious prohibitions on lust (103), which, judging by the widespread efforts to provoke it, much of the contemporary world seems to find arbitrary. Political solutions to these problems often simply substitute personal violence with institutional violence which, again, is typically born of people trying to get what they want, and coming to hate and oppress those who stand in their way. “Violence, when it concerns the lack of peace with others, originates in the strife produced by the desire to get what we want, sometimes at any cost, even should the cost mean the horrific suffering of others” (109). Following Dostoevski, DeLay insists that political solutions to violence do not get to the root of the problem: “true change would require everyone first beginning by revolutionizing themselves” (112).
For DeLay, this personal revolution means living before God. When I regard others as made in God’s image, I will never consent to harm someone for the gratification of my desires, or especially for vengeance. And, given the normal way in which enmity arises, this means that I simply won’t have enemies. As DeLay puts it, “There can be no peace until we learn to live without enemies” (110). Now of course DeLay knows and insists that enmity is not always reciprocal (102). We cannot control whether others regard us as their enemies. And, of course, we might all have unwilled enemies, otherwise the commandment to love one’s enemies would make no sense. But we can control whether we regard others as enemies, whether we are the ones who will the harm or destruction of another. When we love others, we would never want that. Alice von Hildebrand writes:
A fundamental characteristic of love is that all the good qualities of the beloved are considered to be a valid expression of his true self; whereas his faults are interpreted as an unfaithfulness towards his true self (Hildebrand 1965, 57).
And that is exactly the vision that DeLay shares. From the point of view of living before God, not only will we not regard others as enemies, but it will be obvious that we cannot so regard them. Defense of self and others might be called for in certain dire circumstances. But mowing down others or destroying what in their lives is precious in the pursuit of pleasure, power, or revenge for past harms would be out of the question. What is natural and obvious from the point of view of being-in-the-world, namely the genesis of violence in uncontrolled desire and its perpetuation through hatred and retaliation, is nearly unimaginable from the point of view of being before God.
It is in this light, I suggest, that we read one of the more puzzling features of DeLay’s view. In his discussion of lying, DeLay claims that there is no explanation for why people lie (129). And that is because, like Kierkegaard and Henry, DeLay thinks that this is true of all sin and evil (129). Now I admit that lying often involves a kind of bad faith, that “To lie is to trust that I, and not it, am in control. But I am not, and so to breathe it into being is to make myself its dupe” (131). But it is rather implausible, for instance, that there is no explanation for why a criminal on the stand would lie. He doesn’t want to suffer. Lying to avoid great suffering or death is about as intelligible as things come in the sphere of human motivations. Maybe such a liar wrongly thinks that he is in control of the consequences of his lie. But more likely, the explanation is more mundane: telling the truth means certain suffering, and lying means, well, maybe not.
More worrying, though, is that the claim that sin and evil are without explanation entails that the repeated and depressingly similar patterns of wrongdoing that we find in the world have no explanation, that it is a gigantically improbable and horrendous miracle. But DeLay’s own book succeeds in showing, again and again, that being-in-the-world has an inner logic of its own that makes wrongdoing almost inescapable. Equip some very finite but rather clever beings with pride and lust and the will to power, give them contingently limited physical resources and essentially limited funds of prestige and social status, and one might hazard a guess at how things will unfold. And so they do unfold, much as DeLay describes and explains in each chapter of his book, and as other insightful people (Plato, Paul, Hobbes, Nietzsche, Veblen, Murdoch, to name just a few) have described in theirs.
How are we to reconcile DeLay’s position that evil does not make sense with the fact that it does make sense, and that he himself makes sense of it? The answer, I think, refers us again to the contrast between being-in-the-world and being before God. Evil might make sense from the perspective of abandonment, despair, and self-sufficiency that characterizes being-in-the-world. In fact, it makes enough sense that with minimal premises we could deduce it a priori. But from DeLay’s own perspective, that of being before God, doing the right thing is not only possible, but natural and obvious—so much so that evil must, from this outlook, genuinely be unintelligible.
But DeLay makes, and repeatedly illustrates, a further point about evil. Not only is it profoundly irrational from the point of view of living before God, but is so even from the perspective of being-in-the-world. The reason lies in its typically self-undermining character. To return to the lie, the lie has, as part of its own nature, something paradoxical about it. “A lie,” DeLay writes, “is something one assumes will not be identified for what it is … yet what makes it what it is (a lie!) is precisely that it deceives, first and above all else, the one that it has assured it cannot (or probably will not) be discovered” (130). This is the “existential” paradox characteristic of the act of lying. A lie has logical and practical consequences that exceed our intentions, our grasp, and our control. To utter one is to lose control in an attempt to exercise control.
We find the same internal tension in other cases too. Evil, as DeLay points out, is often silent, both in point of fact and more broadly by way of a life shrouded in “a fog of evasions and obscurities” (118). The absentee father, to give one of examples, becomes increasingly silent in this way as his failure at parenting becomes increasingly conspicuous. “Phone calls are left unmade, birthday cards unsent” (118). But the silence intended to cover over this failure makes it all the more evident. “As with the adulterer, the conman, or the spy, the silence required to conceal the double life eventually becomes bizarre; in turn, it only arouses the suspicion of guile it was meant to dispel” (119). Or again: “Undermining itself, the silence not only has failed to hide what it hoped it would. It has disclosed that it has something to hide” (121).
Another, but by no means the final, example is violence itself. Its goal, ultimately, is to put an end to conflict. But it almost never manages to do this. Not only does retaliation typically provoke further acts of retaliation, but the act of violence nearly always leaves the perpetrator of it damaged—especially, we might add, when retaliation amounts to annihilation. Even in those cases which seem most obviously justifiable—the United States’ role in World War II, for example—violence harms everyone, including the victors. This isn’t just because, say, it led to the horrors of Nagasaki or Dresden, in which “to do violence to others is also to have done harm to ourselves” (104). It’s also because the many consequences, both seen and unforeseen, of that conflict. Now DeLay does say that “A purely philosophical justification for unconditional pacificism is admittedly elusive” (106). At the same time, his chapter on “Making Peace” reminds us of the horrific consequences of violence, quite contrary to whatever legitimacy might appear to characterize violence in the first place. Furthermore, according to DeLay, violence is exacerbated by the very worldly attitude of regarding the individual as unimportant and viewing political entities as the really important agents of power and change in the world. This perspective is itself self-undermining because “It worsens the violence it hopes to ameliorate by ignoring the depths of the problem’s source” (109). It is a recurring feature of DeLay’s book how often self-defeating the world’s solutions to its own problems are.
This brings me to an important point about DeLay’s method of philosophizing. In the examples above, DeLay provides empirical evidence for his assertions. But he does not characterize his claims to be empirical only. Regarding the consequences of war, for example, he writes that “empirical reality concerning historic facts confirms the original claim of phenomenological essence” (106). And so it is with each of his analyses. I can imagine some readers being suspicious of these claims of “phenomenological essence.” DeLay does not employ the familiar strategy in philosophy of wandering to the remotest of all allegedly “possible worlds” to see if his claims don’t hold up in some of them. Might there not be some possible world where violence succeeds in putting everything right, where the proud and the self-centered never become enemies, where the power of the State puts an end to all conflict while leaving our inner lives untouched, and where the lie and its offspring have all been tamed by the liar? Well, maybe such worlds are “conceivable,” at least in some empty or inauthentic way. So construed, maybe these aren’t claims of “essence.” But between what is true in every far-fetched possible (or, more often, inauthentically conceivable) world and mere contingency there is intelligibility. The connections among evil and its consequences, and between living before God and its consequences, are not brutely empirical. They make sense, including phenomenological, motivational sense. And DeLay’s method is to make sense of them, within the constraints that reasonable people will probably recognize as framing human life. I imagine that some readers will find this realism to be a refreshing aspect of DeLay’s work. I know I did.
This leads to one final point, however, one where my own doubts run deepest. A strong interpretation of DeLay’s position is that living a life before God is both sufficient and necessary for genuine moral goodness, the kind of robust moral goodness needed to transform human life in the ways so desperately needed. I will leave to the side the question of whether it is sufficient, in part because I think DeLay makes a very strong case that it is—though, and as I suspect DeLay would agree, learning to live before God might be a long road that cannot be travelled by a mere change in belief. But is it necessary? There are, after all, more sober conceptions of a godless and finite life than the being-in-the-world of the existentialists, and it would have been helpful to see DeLay exercise his considerable philosophical skills against some more credible opponents. Iris Murdoch’s philosophy, for example, presents a diagnosis of human wrongdoing very much in line with that of the Christian tradition, and recommends a partially similar and non-legalistic cure of selfless love, “attention” to the real, and humility (see Murdoch 1970). And even when the similarities don’t run as deep, there is a considerable overlap between many secular and religious conceptions of the good person and right action. Seeing the other as treasured by God, for instance, is certainly helpful to seeing the other as a bearer of dignity and rights. But it does not seem to be essential to doing so. Furthermore, as flawed as we and our world may be, normal human life contains goodness too. Love, care, mercy, honesty, courage, self-sacrifice, and mutual respect are familiar aspects of human life which, again, might be strengthened by faith in God, but do not seem to require it. Is there an alternative, then, on which people could be genuinely and profoundly good without faith in God?
DeLay addresses this issue directly, but rather briefly:
…if living a maximally upright life without faith is possible, if caring for the well-being of others is one’s real priority, and if one hates suffering and evil, how does one exist in a world so broken and not die of grief? If anyone can live a comfortable life, relatively apathetic in the face of the supposed knowledge that this is the only world there will be, that there will be no judgment in which good is rewarded and evil punished: can we take this attitude’s declarations of sensitivity and clean-heartedness seriously (144)?
Well, maybe we couldn’t take such claims seriously from the comfortable and the apathetic. But between them and those who die of grief, there remains room for those who do hurt, who do care, but who find that there’s enough goodness in the world—including the intrinsic goodness of doing good—to get by. Perhaps such people would not allow themselves to die of grief, because that would constitute an additional triumph of evil. They might, additionally, recognize in humility that their own powers of healing the world are profoundly restricted, and that they are—like, I suspect, all of us—simply psychologically limited in how widely they can distribute their heartfelt care. I just don’t think anyone has the psychological or spiritual resources to shed a tear for every act of injustice on their block, let alone in the world, no matter how much each one of them warrants it. Extending effective love and care to our “neighbor”—who may also be our enemy—is as much as we can normally do, whether or not we have faith. In any case, I not only think that deeply moral agnostics or atheists are possible, but I am rather confident (one can never know for sure) that I know such people. Many of them are sincere, and their unbelief is founded in genuine difficulties, especially the problem of evil. I don’t pretend to know what resources they draw upon to sustain themselves—perhaps it is God and they don’t even know it—but virtue and unbelief do not seem incompatible. As Dallas Willard puts it, God’s kingdom is wherever his will is done, “the domain where what he prefers is actually what happens” (Willard 1998, 259). And I am confident that there are many more participants in this kingdom than the faithful alone.
That being said, I do think that DeLay’s account of a life lived before God succeeds in its task of shedding light on the world from the perspective of faith. This is in part because while the existence of God might not be a matter to be settled by description or argument, DeLay does provide a rich phenomenological characterization of what living with a secure faith and trust in God involves. It is a work of immense wisdom, compelling arguments, and rich phenomenological descriptions. It is, finally, a refreshing reminder of what draws most of us to philosophy in the first place: to grapple with ultimate questions of human existence, with clarity of thought and expression, and without methodological evasions.
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Scheler, Max. 1960. On the Eternal in Man. Translated by Bernard Noble. London: SCM Press Ltd.
Willard, Dallas. 1998. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.
In the opening lines of the excellently compiled essay collection by Luís Aguiar de Sousa and Ana Falcato titled Phenomenological Approaches to Intersubjectivity and the Values (originally published August 2019), it becomes clear that the innovative aspect of this work is not the tried and true cognitive discussion of the role the complex phenomenon of intersubjectivity plays in our lives, although most of section I is dedicated to this “classical” discussion. It is rather the volume’s focus on the axiological parts of our existence that is of particular interest. In this review, I will present a short summary of the articles and essays presented in the volume, as well as offer commentary and critique of their central themes. I have selected only a few due to length constraints. I also present some further discussions in order to contextualize for the wider debates in phenomenology.
We can begin with the introduction, for there it is stated that the approach the collection intends to take, is axiological. According to the editors, it is the case that “what makes this volume special and distinct from other collective works on the phenomenology of intersubjectivity is its insistence on the axiological—that is, the ethical and existential—dimension of phenomenology’s account of intersubjectivity.” (2) However, further explication or discussion dedicated to accounting for what exactly the field of “axiology” denotes is not pursued.
“Within continental philosophy, phenomenology is more widely understood and engaged with than axiology. As such, it would have been prudent to dedicate more time to accounting for what exactly axiology is. Especially since “there has been a renewed interest in phenomenology in recent Anglo-American philosophy” (1).
This seems to imply the equal familiarity between the two on behalf of the readers though; phenomenology on the one hand, and axiology on the other, where it can be claimed that between the two, phenomenology is arguably the more known. This is not necessarily the case, however. That said, it is indeed true, as the editors also claim, that the essays in the collection quickly move from the more classical debates about how to account for the presence of the other, (the realm that is often most interested in the cognition-focused Anglo-American philosophy) and into the realm of ethics and even theology. This fact, is most welcome. This is especially the case given the explicitness with which this fact is confirmed. It is the case, for instance, that the ethical dimension of the phenomenological quest of investigating our social natures as intersubjectively constituted creatures, often looms in the background of the contemporary phenomenological writing, and this is the case for almost all the writing on intersubjectivity both classic and more recent. Yet surprisingly, this very fact does not seem to be explicitly focused on, as the ethical dimension of the phenomenological project, often approached at the end of a given text, trails off or is relegated to “another occasion”. This is where “values” comes in, and as such, this collection can be seen as a form of bridge between the two now less estranged banks of intersubjectivity and the values, crossing the river of phenomenology that gives rise to both.
The book is divided into three parts, each with their own focus. The essays in part I. are dedicated to “The Cognitive and Epistemological Dimension of the Problem of the Other” consisting of 5 essays. Although thorough, this section is perhaps the least original, as it is dedicated to the classical discussion from within the writings of some major phenomenologists, such as Merleau-Ponty and Husserl. Yet, the interesting thing is how the essays in the section, despite what can be claimed is the generally unoriginal approach of their points of departure—exegesis of the classical texts (which Zahavi, in several places, claims is the tendentious trap of much contemporary phenomenology)—all have original streaks in several of their main points. For instance, the text by Jorge Goncalves on Intersubjectivity in Psychiatry brings phenomenology to bear on some background assumptions in psychiatry concerning the status of the self. He shows how longstanding debates in phenomenology can greatly help the psychiatrist get a grip on his or her patient, and the latter’s fundamental needs. He concludes that although some of the prevailing theories in psychology concerning our access to the other’s mind, namely Theory-Theory and Simulation Theory, can provide relevant and helpful explanations for psychiatry, the fundamental problem remains the same: how to truly open oneself up to the other person, when the other person resides on the outside of “normality”. The conclusion is that phenomenology, with its traditional methodological operation manifested in the attempt to “suspend judgment and perceive things themselves as they are” (109) may prove to be more successful in this perennial and forever pertinent endeavor. Goncalves fails however, to note that a recent formulation of this “phenomenological approach” is termed “interaction theory” by Gallagher, as the latter opposes them explicitly to Theory-Theory and Simulation Theory as on equal footing.
A more classical exegetical discussion is found in another paper, the paper presented as chapter 1 by Paul F. Zipfel which is a thoroughgoing and careful analysis of Husserl’s notion of inaccessibility.
From the get-go, it becomes clear that, although well written, the essay is best read by someone already initiated into the core ideas of Husserl’s phenomenology. Introductory remarks are not made, and we jump right into the middle of the action, which is subtended by the paradoxical question of how the other appears to the subject, because of, not in spite of, his or her inaccessibility. The main thesis defended by Zipfel is that inaccessibility is a “function of the originality of the conscious act” and as such, is quite a fundamental part of our encounters with the other. A preparatory section is dedicated to the important, if somewhat exasperated discussion of direct versus indirect experience, before Zipfel moves into “the originality of experience” as he accounts for how that which is most original in the other subject’s experience, is not directly given to the experiencer of the other, but rather in the form of a “consciousness of a consciousness that is not my own.” This is quite subtle, and Zipfel presents some good examples in order to clarify this complex point. He draws on several contemporary commentators, as well as meticulous readings of Husserl’s own reflections as recounted on Cartesian Meditations and Husserliana in order to develop his discussion. The main conclusion in the essay is that the other is accessible exactly in his/her inaccessibility. The other person’s mind is in many ways directly perceived, but not fully or completely. There is always some mystery that eludes us, always something left to explore, yet this is what opens the door to ethics, and what we might call “the mystery of the other.”
The perhaps most original essay in part 1 is chapter 4, by Roberta Guccinelli, in which she discusses the notion of “the ecological self”. Interesting though it is, the author can be said to perhaps assume too much, as she jumps straight into it with the question of whether an “ecological self really exists” which is presumptuous due to its assumption that the reader has dedicated some time pondering this question, and it also perhaps assumes an already parallel standpoint taken on the very notion of the self, on the readers’ part. That said, Guccinelli’s approach to Scheler, attempting to use his phenomenology to (re)construct a self that is not just intersubjectively constituted, but ecologically constituted (what we might call “eco-subjective”) is most welcome. Although there has been literature that have drawn the background conceptual links between phenomenology and ecology out into the explicitly ethical open (like David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous), Guccinelli’s focus on the Self, along with Guccinelli’s usage of Scheler’s phenomenology in that regard, is highly interesting and original.
I stand by the contemporary Husserl scholar Dan Zahavi’s general comment mentioned in the bracket above, that there is a widespread tendency among current phenomenologists to dabble in egregious over-exegesis of the original source material. This is done with the best educational intentions, but it often only serves, ironically, to render it tiresome to the pragmatically oriented reader, who in many cases simply wants to see its immediate relevance to the discipline (nursing-studies, psychiatry, biology etc.) i.e. their own field. I have to present a lengthy quote which can help to moderate this view a little, which with its helpful and thorough discussion of the difference between (and similarities of) Husserl and Merleau-Ponty’s views on intersubjectivity, makes us see how the underlying and “classical” discussion is as alive and relevant as ever. Here are the concluding sentences from the final part of chapter 3, by one of the editors, de Sousa himself, as he compares Merleau-Ponty and Husserl.
Merleau-Ponty’s view has the great merit of making a very strong connection between subjectivity and intersubjectivity—of showing, in other words, that it is only possible for us to form the idea of other subjects because our self is radically different from the Cartesian self, and vice versa. As a result, Merleau-Ponty manages to turn Husserl’s account of intersubjectivity on its head, undermining the foundations of Husserlian phenomenology (even if this remains polemical from a Husserlian point of view). (79)
Now, it might be argued that there is an overabundance in the literature when it comes to the exegetical accounts of what the phenomenological forefathers actually meant to say, and that there should be a stricter separation between “scholarly work” and “contemporary application” in the literature than what is currently fashionable, but that belies the way phenomenology is actually working. The early founding phenomenologists themselves, as de Sousa more than hints at above, argued intensely amongst themselves, and any usage of phenomenology today will have to take a stand on the premises in the debate in order to present their positive views on the applicability of the discipline to other fields. Especially when phenomenology meets contemporary empirical research. And these roots go way back to Husserl’s concern with The Crises of the European Sciences. More immediately engaged was Merleau-Ponty for instance, who was very much up to date with the empirical sciences of his day. Indeed, he was informed by the empirical sciences to such a degree that the neurological and psychological case studies buttressed central aspects of his phenomenology. Those studies are indispensable to his magnum opus, Phenomenology of Perception, and the approach developed therein. When the psychologist J.J. Gibson read Merleau-Ponty, he was directly inspired by the philosopher’s concept of motor-intentionality to develop his interactionist view of perception as directly action-guiding in The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception.
Today, links are drawn between Heidegger’s Being and Time and recent developments in the cognitive sciences. These links were first drawn by Hubert Dreyfus in his (in)famous reading of Heidegger’s existential analytic and phenomenology and used as a direct attack on the program of early research into artificial intelligence in the early 70s. From the get-go, the writings of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre (as well as Gabriel Marcel, as we see below) were greatly influencing literature and literary criticism in a sensitive and highly creative time in French writing. This could not have been done without the direct and indirect influence of Husserl, and his early investigations (that Raymond Aron, Sartre and de Beauvoir were exposed to and inspired by) of intentionality. In other words, exegetical or not, phenomenological and existentialist ideas have always, in one way or another, been in mutual engagement with the broader cultural streams, and in turn been affected and changed by them. As such, it can be claimed that “the problem of exegesis” is not a problem at all, but part and parcel of what good phenomenology is all about. So much for part I. of the collection.
In part II. “The Ethical and Existential Approach to the Problem of the Other” the essays become more general, as the consequences of the phenomenological analyses discussed are pursued with a more general look at their ethical and theological import. Part II consists, then, of five essays, ranging from Scheler’s phenomenology of otherness, through discussions on Being-With and Being-Alone in the young Heidegger, Sartre and intersubjectivity, Gabriel Marcel’s thesis of availability on the importance of solicitude for our understanding of fundamental philosophical enquiry.
The perhaps most interesting and informative essay in part II is written by Elodie Malbois, and sets out to account for Gabriel Marcel’s oft neglected contribution to the phenomenological literature. Malbois’ twenty-six page essay can in many ways be described as an homage to Marcel’s thinking, as well as an analysis of his central focus on the notion of “Availability”, which he considered as not just an essential part of how we relate to others, but as an indispensable mode of authentically connecting with them. It actually turns out that for Marcel, intersubjectivity as a phenomenon can only strictly speaking be said to occur when you are available to the other person. Physical proximity, embodied encounters and basic perceptual openness to other people are perhaps necessary preconditions, yet they are hardly sufficient for genuine familiarity with the otherness of the other. The otherness of the other can only appear in the intersubjective mode once the fundamental phenomenon of availability is in play; indeed, intersubjectivity proper for Marcel is not fully understood without reference to availability. But in what, then, does availability consist?
As most phenomena that are closest to us, it is hard to describe. A central role is ascribed to attention; for the available person is according to Marcel hetero-centered, that is, focused on the other. A problem that can arise even within this positive account of the necessity of attention for understanding the phenomenon in question, is that one often runs the risk of simply paying attention to oneself through the other. Malbois uses a Marcelian example of a young man who goes to a party and finding himself quite unable to feel that the others are looking at him, judging him with their gazes. Now, the point here is that while the other man is indeed directed at the other minds, and take their otherness in many ways, seriously, this is not to get to know them better, but rather, involves a return to the self, as he only cares about their minds insofar as they care about him. He is encombré soi, “cluttered up in himself” (187). So being truly available is not just about having your mind directed at another’s mind, and the other person’s object of attention (for that object might just be you) but actively engaging in the other person’s perspective, the other person’s position. This is where Marcel, according to Malbois, allows himself concepts such as agape to slip in, while, according to the latter, arguing further about the necessity of using them (ibid.) But the important roots with Christian theology and mysticism are evident, as being concerned with the otherness of the other for his/her own sake finds its parallel in the language of the believer. Love and charity are central concepts, and they of course imply this fundamental mode of (basic) self-sacrifice through a forgetting of the self for the sake of the other. This is where the original analysis of intersubjectivity turns axiological. Other aspects endemic to classical existential and phenomenological problematics come up, such as authenticity, which for Marcel is tied to availability, a concept that itself turns increasingly complex as Malbois exposition strides forth. Malbois is throughout careful in her discussion, as she never presumes the question of exactly how best to define “availability” to be a settled one. The essay is a well written and critical homage in its entirety, and ends on the thoroughly axiological account of availability as a reciprocal act happening between minds.
The other essays in part II. share the trend of arriving at what we might call “the deeper level” of intersubjective analysis, as the thorough analysis of the phenomenon is pulled in the direction of viewing it as constitutive of our very being-in-the-world, and the fundamental and indispensable parts of this structure. Such as Scheler’s notion of love (chapter 6), which turns theological, or Heidegger’s differentiation between Being-With and Being-Alone (chapter 7) and Sartre’s ambivalent account of intersubjectivity, the chapter (chapter 8) in which André Barata brings in the outspoken atheist Sartre’s more theological reflections on Nothingness, God and, (the classical) question of what love is.
Then, finally, there is part III in which we move into the more esoteric parts of the phenomenological problematics concerning intersubjectivity. Chapter 11 is dedicated to a discussion on the development and connection between Merleau-Ponty’s thinking and Foucault’s by Gianfranco Ferraro, and in it he draws the lines towards what he dubs “a contemporary ontology of immanence” (241). The essay is a difficult read, not just due to the inherently difficult source material discussed, but also due to the lines drawn. Although the original quest set out on from part 1 of the essay, namely that of accounting for the “possible influences and relations between the two authors” and their varied import for the new ontology of the subject emerging after World War 2, I fear that too much is already at stake from the get-go, and that Ferraro fails to bring everything together in a fruitful way. There simply seems to be too many thinkers involved, as Levinas, Heidegger and then Deleuze are brought to bear on the debate. One not well versed in the continental development over the last 100-50 years will have a great difficulty following the many stranded argumentations. That said, for the initiated, the lines drawn are interesting (though at times confused) and merit further investigation.
A refreshing essay is presented by Grace Whistler, constituting chapter 13 in which she discusses the interesting links between form and content in Albert Camus’ L’Etranger. She argues that Camus indeed intended to communicate his very philosophy in the simple style of L’Etranger, which best comes out in the French wordings, which she does her best to convey in an English manner. The essay is nothing short of an analysis of what Whistler takes to be the essential relation between literary style and the content of the philosophy in question. She claims that Camus can be said to attempt a direct showing (show don’t tell) of Merseault’s world through his prose, allowing us to experience it directly as intersubjective. The essay is well written and highly original.
Chapter 14 with its essay entitled “The Poetry and the Pity” is easiest the odd one out in the collection. This is something the editors themselves note in the introduction It is a poetic post-ludium depicting the echoes of the voices crying out from our not-so-distant past; the voices of pain from World War 1. The essay highlights in an effective yet indirect way the running theme throughout the collection; namely the ethical consequences of phenomenology. It is poetically fitting that an essay that does not explicitly engage with phenomenology and intersubjectivity, all the same points us towards the redeeming powers of narrative, which we, now more than ever, are in dire need of.
With the publication of the Philosophy of Finitude: Heidegger, Levinas and Nietzsche, Rafael Winkler embarks on a much needed contemporary re-evaluation of the human cogito beyond a traditional Cartesian and Kantian framework of analysis in which what is own-most to human experience, its uniqueness, must be understood beyond the limits of the ‘I think’ of the first person as the necessary condition and foundation of possible experience. On a walk of thought that is, at least for this reviewer, echoing a problem poetically explored by Paul Celan’s Gespräch im Gebirg, the present book is concerned with the existential movement from one’s being to one’s self; a passage seemingly accomplished on the horizon of a fundamental absence. This absence is that of the unified self and the sense of ownership one may often take for granted regarding one’s uniqueness as conveyed by the human cogito, the cardinal ‘I’ of the first person which is commonly thought to accompany all possible human experience.
Here, we could say that ‘thought’ is directed upon the ‘one’ that does not accompany our ‘self’ in its life experiences; this part of what we are which is absent from the conscious mind of everyday deliberative thinking. Winkler’s analysis asks us about what happens when the seeming certainty of the Cartesian ‘I think’, as the ground of human existence, dissolves and one’s experience can no longer be thought of, or expressed as ‘mine’, my own, as if emerging from an unrecognisable other. Most importantly, one may ask how this phenomenon itself emerges. What may such an experience, if at all possible, tell us about what we are?
As the reader discovers early on in the pages of the first chapter, Winkler invites us to consider the figure of the schizophrenic as an example to shed light on this existential problem in concrete terms. By turning one’s attention to the issue of dissociation or dislocation of the self, what is posed as a problem here is not the discovery of the unique as a singular entity or what is own-most to Man as an essence or a ‘what’ which would lie behind the I of the unified self rather, the problem posed is that of the whole horizon of being as a passage which itself discloses the plenitude of what we are as human beings. It is not question of uncovering that secret chamber of the mind in which may lie the true nature of human uniqueness, who we truly are. The book generously approaches the ground of uniqueness as a passage and movement through which the anonymous language of the ‘other’ of Man, of this absolute stranger, gradually trans-forms into the language of the subject who identifies himself as an individual, a recognisable self. As such, what is at stake is then not only to see whether such an experience of the dissolution of the self is even possible, but how to talk about it. Winkler presents a philosophical attempt to bring intelligibility to the ambiguous and anonymous language of absolute difference and by this process, he also provides the reader with a highly interesting contribution to contemporary phenomenological thinking.
Exploring the legacies of Heidegger, Levinas and Nietzsche, Winkler invites us to confront the possibility that the genuine uniqueness of human experience is prior to its formalisation under the expression of the ‘I’, which at first glance, always seem to accompany conscious thought. The bold nature of this claim is best expressed when Winkler tells us that ‘the unique is not the individual’ but a ‘formal feature of existence’; one that is experienced as an original absence in the world and makes the emergence of the first person possible. And it is as such that a thinking of uniqueness may be approached as a thinking of absolute difference which, as he argues, calls for a thinking of finitude. But as the author carefully reminds us, the language of finitude must extend beyond the consideration of Man’s ultimate finiteness, the inescapable advent of its death. A thinking of finitude must press us to the very limits of thought, of the thinkable, as it is perhaps only when the unity of the self is dissolved and our habitual reliance on the concept, language and experience of identity is overcome, that we can really start to embrace the thought of uniqueness. Maybe it is here that lies the most enduring relevance and actuality of phenomenology; when it reminds us of the un-thought of thought as the inescapable and unremovable ‘other’ of Man where the unique really emerges. Here, it is with particular attention to the works of authors such as Derrida, Levinas, Ricœur and especially Heidegger that Winkler invites his readership to consider the unique in terms of ‘the uniqueness of being, of the self, of the other human being, of death, and of the responsibility for the other’.
If the general theme of the book allows for a wide variety of philosophical approaches, its overall tone and character would be best described as scholarly and aimed at a specialised audience interested in Heidegger studies more specifically. The methodology sustained in this volume is exegetical and the specialism of its author is made particularly evident by an ubiquitous focus on Heidegger’s works of the 1930s and 1940s, which at times appear to overshadow other philosophical discussions regarding the two other thinkers announced in the title of the book, namely Levinas and Nietzsche. Although the chapters are often dominated by a sustained exercise in textual interpretation of this interesting period of Heidegger’s work, it cannot be said that it diminishes the impact and relevance of the general thesis presented in the volume. In fact, Winkler’s clear interpretative competence and lucidity regarding the author of Being and Time adds a certain degree of depth to a contemporary re-thinking of finitude. However, it must be said that the title of the book may appear somehow confusing to some readers expecting more of an interpretative balance between the three major figures which the title announces. One is at times surprised to read more about Derrida and Ricœur than about Levinas and Nietzsche, more particularly as the latter’s published works are unfortunately only mentioned and discussed with greater depth in section 7 of the 5th chapter of the book. Elsewhere in the same chapter, the reader will find out more about Winkler’s interpretation of Heidegger’s Nietzsche than about Nietzsche’s own significance and original contribution to a thinking of finitude. It is perhaps only when one comes to read the introduction to the volume that one may realise that an exegetical exercise focused on Heidegger’s literature of the 1930s and 1940s is the connecting rod which holds the book together. Taking this issue into consideration, this most interesting project may be better characterised as a significant contribution to Heidegger Studies. The symptoms of this analytical posture are visible in each chapter of the book through the unmissable reliance on a Heideggerian vocabulary which non-specialists may at times struggle with in the case of a first encounter.
The opening chapter of the book concentrates on the idea of the uniqueness of existence where the author argues that what we may call ‘existence’ in ontological terms does not emerge from the unity of the first person but from immanence of death or the responsibility for the other. From the onset, the Heideggerian focus sets the tone. This may give a hint to the reader that the use of the word ‘existence’ will from now on have to be understood in Heideggerian terms, in a way closer to the Latin ‘Ex –sistere’ denoting the idea of that which stands out of itself or of that which is ‘made to stand out and beyond’. Only with this prior understanding in mind will the reader feel comfortable with the term’s relation to the other notion of Dasein (being there), which is here recurrently used to explore the theme of uniqueness. Indeed, as Heidegger suggests in Being and Time, one would have to see the uniqueness of Dasein in its existence  and thus the study of fundamental ontology will have to be found in ‘the existential analytic of Dasein’.
As previously mentioned in this review, future readers for whom Heidegger’s philosophy remains an unfamiliar terrain may find it difficult to get to grips with this meticulous and rich vocabulary which is not often problematized or re-evaluated in this book. That said, Winkler’s scholarly analysis does carry the message across with its clarity of phrasing and with a carefully executed argumentative development which is always impeccably introduced in all chapters; an aspect which most readers will greatly appreciate. This indeed may help the reader overcome the complexity of the Heideggerian terminology and the first chapter does succeed in bringing an interesting discussion of the dynamism or mouvance implied in the notion of ‘the uniqueness of existence’, which, as Winkler reminds us, is not to be misunderstood as implying an essence or fixed entity.
To explore the notion of the uniqueness of existence in this important first chapter, the author argues that Heidegger and Derrida’s reflections on death may call for a radical rethinking of the sense of consciousness or experience one may usually find in previous contributions to the history of transcendental phenomenology. That is, both thinkers may be read as presenting the human relation to death as dissolving the unity of the self, and moreover, as making the argument that the relation to death and this phenomenon of estrangement is indeed a possible experience or encounter. This brings Winkler to boldly ask the reader: ‘Is Dying Possible?’ Or in other words, can one encounter one’s own death, this ultimate finitude, this absolute absence of presence where one is no longer ‘able to be able’? A possible answer, according to Winkler, may lie in Heidegger’s analysis of the phenomenon of being-towards-death. Through a close reading of the latter, it is suggested that finitude should not be reduced to the thought of a morbid passivity of the human animal (das Man) destined to die but should rather be thought through as the very activity which in itself calls for emergence of one’s receptivity regarding what is. The idea seems to be that, in order for something (e.g. death, finitude) to possibly be encountered, the horizon of its appearing (i.e. the phenomena) must have already been deployed. Perhaps, one could then say that the relation of the human being towards death and dying, rather than being a relation of passivity and mere resignation to fate, is a relation that is itself constitutive of Man’s own being. Hence, our relation to death, this active mode of being-towards-death can be understood as a formal or constitutive feature of existence. As such, this uniquely Human mode of being towards death is here given sense to as prior to, and constitutive of, the emergence of the first person of the ‘I think’ which will subsequently accompanies conscious experiences.
As Winkler interestingly points out across sections 3 and 4 of this first chapter, this particular instance of a Heideggerian ‘thinking of finitude’ would suggest that Man, in its unique existence, already has a relation or encounter with death prior to being able to consciously called it ‘his’ as one would talk of ‘my death’, ‘her death’, ‘theirs’ etc. as if it were possible to be in possession of it and individually declare ownership over it. As Winkler remarks concerning Heidegger’s confrontation of the idea of one’s sense of ownership over one’s own death: ‘death is in every case mine’ but only ‘in so far as it “is” at all’. With diligence and clarity, Winkler at this stage understands that the discussion of this possible experience with uniqueness, in terms of the Human being’s relation to death, must be extended to the possibility of expressing this experience; of making it intelligible by giving it a voice. In that regard, he succeeds brilliantly by introducing the reader to Heidegger’s treatment of ‘anxiety’ as a mood (stimmung) which discloses this unique mode of being towards death. The uniqueness of this experience, if it indeed comes prior to the emergence of the first person, could hardly be thought as expressible conceptually through the habitual language of identity. As Winkler puts it:
‘The unique is, strictly speaking, the unclassifiable, the unidentifiable.(…) That is why an experience of it leaves us speechless, is traumatic, is, like an event that cannot be anticipated in advance, an absolute surprise, a shock.’
Hence, the language of the experience of the unique can only be grasped as the anonymous language of the absolute ‘other’ of Man. The conscious I of the Cartesian cogito is here absent in such an experience. The experience is one that is felt or thought in the sense of the activity of the un-thought of thought. As Winkler suggests, it is in such terms that we could better understand what Rimbaud meant when he expressed in a poetic letter to an old mentor that in the process of one’s poetic encounter with oneself, ‘I is another’ (Je est un autre). It is through this subtle approach to the problem of the possibility of one’s experience of the unique that Winkler, is at the end of the chapter, able to meet previous scepticism, as that expressed by Derrida in that regard, by arguing that the unique relation to death is possibly one that could only be encountered as an anxious anticipation and ‘a mode of being beyond mere presence’.
In chapter 2 titled ‘Self and Other’, Winkler brings the discussion of the uniqueness of human experience, of this ‘other’ of Man (i.e. absolute difference) deeper by arguing that the experience of uniqueness does not grant access to the uniqueness of some other human being. Here the author refers to this problem as the ‘principle of singularisation’ which finds its expression in Heidegger through the notion of the ‘immanence of death’ and as the ‘responsibility for the other’ in Ricœur and Levinas. In Winkler’s own words, the core of the argument in this part of the book is that the fundamental alterity that is interior to oneself, the unique, is ‘neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition to access the alterity of the other human being, that is, his or her uniqueness’. Here the author chooses to approach this problem by focusing on comparative accounts of Heidegger’s position in the period of the 1930s and 1940s with selected elements Levinas’ thesis in Time and the Other and Totality and Infinity. The chapter thus attempts to offer a new reading of Heidegger’s position which would effectively undermine the Levinassian stance which proposes that the irreducibility of the ‘alterity of the other human being’ to ‘the alterity that inhabits the self’ is ‘a necessary and sufficient condition of ethics, and by extension, of sociality’. With added support extracted from the more recent works of Ricœur (i.e. Oneself as Another), as well as Heideggerian scholars such as Françoise Dastur (The Call of Conscience: The Most Intimate Alterity) and François Raffoul (The Origins of Responsibility), the main concern of the author is to show that the Heideggerian perspective would bring a serious challenge to the idea that one’s uniqueness of being allows for the experience of another’s, thus destabilising all possibility of founding an ethics on such a basis.
Although the introduction to the chapter suggests an in depth analysis and discussion of Levinas’ legacy as a thinker of finitude, one gradually realises that Levinas’ corpus will not be the subject of the same depth of engagement that is reserved for Heidegger as the cement which connects each chapters of this book. In fact, rigorous discussion of Levinas’ material is mostly limited to the first three sections before a return, for the three remaining sections of the chapter, to the more familiar domain of Heideggerian scholarship. Perhaps, we could say that the genuine originality and strength of this chapter lies less in its analysis of Levinas’ work and more in hermeneutical efforts to dissect Heidegger’s perspective from Being and Time up to the finer tuning of his positions in the 1940s. In this chapter, the reader will find the themes of ‘alterity’, ‘the call’, ‘guilt’ and ‘responsibility’ as the points of articulation of Winkler’s exegetical work. Therein, most of the other sources called upon to approach the theme of ‘self and other’ seem to serve as a fulcrum enabling the author to test the ‘workability’ of the Heideggerian system, which will ultimately be presented as getting us ‘closer to the truth’ of the matter while Levinas’ perspective is presented as doomed to fail as a phenomenological argument. What remains undeniable is that the originality of the argument in this chapter lies in the competency of the exegetical exercise prompted by each of the chapter’s subsections; and it may be best not to spoil the reader’s pleasure by pre-emptively dissecting each part of the chapter. That said, it would not be doing justice to the rigour and assertiveness of the voice of this book’s author if we were to abstain from providing an example of clarity with which the core of the argument is expressed in the concluding section of this chapter. There, after careful considerations of Ricœur’s thesis in Oneself as Another, Winkler asserts that:
‘There is no phenomenological or hermeneutic justification for transposing the vertical relation that structures the interiority of the self onto the social relation between the self and the other (something that Ricœur apparently thinks we can do with good reason). In the final analysis, I know who the source of the injunction is. It is my conscience that enjoins me in the second person that I am indebted to the other. I assign myself that responsibility towards the other in the hetero- affective experience of conscience. Since it is authored and conditioned by nothing other than myself, it issues from an act of freedom.’
Having shown us how one’s relation to death (chapter 1) and sociality (chapter 2) can, in different ways, only be accomplished as a relation with a future that is discontinuous with the present; chapters 3 and 4 attempt to bring intelligibility to the phenomenon of being as a passage, a movement towards. To do so, the third chapter considers the idea that ‘being’ is perhaps unthinkable otherwise than as a ‘figuration of someone or something’, an image formed around a potentiality or possibilities rather than an actual entity which can be truthfully seized and represented. This figurative atmosphere with which the philosopher wraps the phenomenon of the uniqueness of being could indeed be argued to be more real, that is, closer to the phenomena than the mundane representation one could formulate through the language of identity.
In this chapter, Winkler attempts to make the phenomenon of being intelligible in these terms through two different figures of ‘hospitality’: the ‘feminine’ in Levinas and the ‘Absolute Arrivant’ in Derrida. Here once again, Heidegger comes into the picture as a key reference point to evaluate the fruitfulness of these two figurations of being proposed by Levinas and Derrida. These figures of the ‘feminine’ and the ‘absolute arrivant’ are discussed against the background of Heidegger’s notion of ‘dwelling’ which Winkler presents as inextricably linked to the notion of hospitality; especially in the latter’s literature of the 1940s. This argumentative strategy on the author’s part will then prepare the reader for a deeper consideration of the theme of dwelling in Heidegger in chapter 4 which explores the possibility of ‘being at home in the world’ without relying on the traditional metaphysical assumption of being as presence and the language of identity. Here, Winkler considers some of the said ‘figurations of being’ that appear in Heidegger’s reading of Hölderlin, with a particular accent on the 1934-5 lecture on Germania and the 1942 lecture on Der Ister. In these complementary chapters, Winkler sails to and fro between a variety of images of thought present in Levinas, Heidegger and Derrida in order to highlight the necessarily protean quality of the language of being. The language of figuration is an original and pertinent addition to Winkler’s analysis and one which convincingly shows that the phenomenon of being can only be rendered intelligible if it actively resists the ossification that the language of identity would bring. It is precisely because the phenomenon of ‘being’ existentially precedes the advent of the conscious ‘I’ that we cannot reduce it to a stable language, a singular point of reference, word, concept or even image. As Winkler seems to suggest in these two chapters, the uniqueness of being and its experience could best be expressed through a multiplicity of figures of passage and transition. Echoing the insights of the first chapter which posed the problem of the nature of the unique and the possibility of experiencing the uniqueness of being and absolute difference, it is here question of the possibility of talking about the experience of uniqueness and therefore the limits of its expressibility. Thus, what the philosophers of finitude tell us is that expressing the ground of the uniqueness of being might require us to think and talk about it in terms of a passage or movement between Man and its other. Never one with ourselves, it would seem that what we are, the uniqueness of our being, lies in the multiplicity of facets by which it emerges in time as an ever unique event that is always in the process of being determined.
With the fifth chapter of this volume, Winkler announces an analysis of Nietzsche’s contribution to the philosophy of finitude which he titles ‘Beyond Truth’. At first glance, one may justifiably think that the problem of truth, which hasn’t been discussed in the book so far, presents an awkward shift from the previous discussions about the possibilities of thinking and talking about the uniqueness of being as the ‘really real’. In fact, the introduction to the volume only mentions Nietzsche in one brief sentence, thus leaving the reader somehow in the dark as to the possible importance of the author in Winkler’s project. From the onset, Winkler’s concern seem to lie more with how the author of Also Sprach Zarathustra has been painted in 20th century philosophy than with the latter’s enduring relevance in contemporary thought as a thinker of finitude. The aim of the chapter is thus announced: to offer ‘an alternative reading of Nietzsche to the one Heidegger and Derrida respectively provide and consider the non- metaphysical sense of being as light that is operative in Nietzsche’s text’. These two authoritative readings of Nietzsche Winkler seeks to overcome are described as such: ‘Nietzsche, the metaphysician of the will to power and the eternal return’ whose main proponent is Heidegger, and ‘Nietzsche, the sceptic, the iconoclast and the destroyer of metaphysical systems and ideas’ which Winkler perceives in Derrida’s treatment. These two categorisations are, to say the least, rather broad and do little to tell the reader how they may come to be antithetical in the first place. However, as the chapter develops, one is able to see the main trajectory of the author unfold with greater clarity: to dress a portrait of Nietzsche and Heidegger as thinkers of the ‘limit’ of Metaphysics. What this ‘limit’ – in the singular – is, however, remains unclear and underdeveloped within the chapter as the analysis therein privileges a textual interpretation of Heidegger’s 1930s and 1940s reading of Nietzsche’s late notebooks and posthumously crafted Will to Power. That said, the chapter offers its strongest arguments in the last three sections where Winkler’s own reading of Nietzsche emerges and where selected parts of the latter’s late published works are analysed. Here, the strength of the chapter lies less in the analysis of Heidegger’s Nietzsche and the critique of the ‘will to truth’, than in Winkler’s exploration of the physiological dimension of Nietzsche’s thought of finitude through a discussion of the latter’s attempt at a philosophy of self-overcoming which would assert as its condition of possibility, the ‘forgottenness of being’. This is perhaps the more pertinent element of the analysis in relation to the book as a comprehensive whole as it links Nietzsche’s late work to previous discussions of European thought’s attempt to overcome traditional metaphysics’ reliance on the language of identity and being as presence which had been dominant since Plato.
Finally, in its sixth and final chapter, the book offers what may be its most original contribution with an interesting philological approach to the language of substance and the peculiarity of its philosophical uses in Roman literature (1st Century BC – 4th Century AD) – with a particular focus on Cicero and Seneca. This tactful exploration of the language of substance allows Winkler to bring back the discussion to the problem of the uniqueness of being as substantia without its traditional metaphysical amalgamation with the language of determinable identity and entity. This is a brilliant move on Winkler’s part and an original way to close the volume. Indeed, this brings to the author the possibility to present a strong argument regarding the need for philosophy to adopt a plastic, supple attitude towards the language of being via metaphorical language or what Nietzsche would call the importance of learning to ‘think in images’. The chapter thus comes to strengthen what was previously argued in Chapter 3 wherein ‘being’ is presented as ‘unthinkable except as a figuration of something or someone, that is, as a figure in which the force of the distinction between the who and the what is suspended’. In the pages of this chapter, the reader is invited to re-think the relevance of previously discussed authors such as Derrida and Levinas whose figures of the ‘absolute Arrivant’ and the ‘Feminine’ could now be read anew as examples among a multitude of possible simulacra for the experience of the ‘really real’ or the uniqueness of being which Winkler has attempted to make intelligible in this interesting project. With this return to the problem of possible figurations of being, the reader is now better equipped to consider the unique as the differential element grounding all discursive representations in Human experience and to ponder upon the significance of such claims. The last chapter of the book ultimately reminds us of the enduring relevance of phenomenological inquiry for contemporary philosophy. However, it is perhaps because of the highly relevant nature of the topic explored here that a more fastidious reader may wonder what could have been or could be if the author wondered away from Heidegger’s gravitational pull and turned his attention to more secondary, yet key, philosophical sources such as Deleuze’s influential analysis of ‘Différence’ as found in Différence et Répétition or indeed Michel Guerin’s ‘Figurologie’ as it appears in La Terreur et La Pitié, among others.
Overall, with the publication of Philosophy of Finitude, Rafael Winkler offers a highly relevant and insightful analysis of key figures who have effectively shaped the way contemporary philosophy explores the problem of the unique and the ‘other’ of Man. However, the very manner in which the philosophical investigation is here conducted could have benefited from a greater degree of reflexive engagement. One could here think that the predominantly exegetical nature of the exercise, if left unquestioned by the inquirer, could mask a non-negligible issue which today often seems to mark philosophical practice. Indeed, each time that we meticulously dig within the depth of such authors’ corpus and translate their work into our professional philosophical agenda, we do what is required, but as Ansell-Pearson and Hatab have pointed out, in doing so we perhaps also ‘bring to ruin something special and vital. … It seems we must “murder to dissect”’. But what does it mean? And what is the nature of the risk? This problem extends far beyond the present book and is not specifically directed at it but to all of us who engage in philosophical research today.
William Wordsworth once tried to bring this issue to our attention in his beautiful poem the Tables Turned (1798) in which he suggested that all too often in our appreciation and at times scientific exploration of literature, ‘Our meddling intellect — Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things; – We murder to dissect’. And indeed, this warning was not left unheeding by two of the key figures considered in the present volume. Namely, Nietzsche and Heidegger for whom our search for knowledge should resist being turned into an autopsy by which the inquirer is compelled to cut and dig within the entrails of the author’s corpus in order to bring to the light of the microscope elements of clarity concerning the ‘workability’ and soundness of the thought presented therein. Yet again, it will be argued that it often must be done in order to encounter the author, to find him or her and ‘understand’ the material. But can this only be achieved by means of analytical vivisection, by having blood on our hands? A difficult question to answer, without a doubt; but one that should not escape the contemporary philosopher’s scrutiny. As Heidegger himself noted, being no stranger to the complexity of this issue which Nietzsche’s works would have brought to his mind: ‘(…) in order to encounter [the author’s] thought, one must first find it’. And as both he and Nietzsche remarked, the task of the philosopher as well as that of the respectful and agile reader is not to re-cognise signs, ideas and fragments within the corpus of the author, but rather to encounter the thought of the author; and from this vivid encounter, to find the other’s thought only in order to lose it. Thus, opening ourselves to the possibility of thinking differently, of creating new images of thought and thereby even bring new life to a contemporary thought of finitude. But losing the thought of the author that inspires us does not mean discarding or leaving it behind as one would dispose of an inanimate object of inquiry. Rather, it implies leaving the thought of the author alive, to rest in its own enigmatic place awaiting future encounters from which could spring new thought, new possibilities of life. Here, the tact and obvious respect Winkler demonstrates with regards to the authors analysed in this book only too clearly suggest that such a path of thought has a place within contemporary academic writing; but it may also show that it could be pursued with a greater degree of intensity if it is to become ever more fruitful in the future.
 Celan, P. Entretien dans la Montagne [Gespräch im Gebirg]. Verdier (bilingue), Der Doppelganger. Lagrasse. 2001.
 Cf. Blanchot, M. Celui Qui Ne m’Accompagnait Pas. L’Imaginaire, Editions Gallimard, Paris. 1953.
 Winkler, Rafael. Philosophy of Finitude: Heidegger, Levinas, Nietzsche. Bloomsbury Publishing, London. 2018, p. xiv.
 Ibid. p. xvii.
 Sheehan, T. Making Sense of Heidegger: A Paradigm Shift. New Heidegger Research Series. Rowman & Littlefield Int. London. 2015, p. xvi.
 Winkler, R. Philosophy of Finitude: Heidegger, Levinas and Nietzsche. Bloomsbury Press. London. 2018, pp. 1-2.
 Heidegger, M. Being and Time. Translated by J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1962 (first published in 1927), 3: 33–4.
 Winkler, 2018, pp. 6-9.
 Levinas mentioned in Winkler, 2018, p. 28.
 Heidegger cited in Winkler, 2018, p. 7.
 Winkler, 2018, p. xv. See also, pp. 15-19.
 Ibid. pp. 19-24.
 Ibid. p. 25.
 Ibid. pp. 25-26.
 Ibid. p. 46.
 Ibid. p. 45.
 Ibid. p. 55.
 Ibid. xii.
 Ibid. xvii.
 Ibid. p. 88-110.
 Ibid. p. 126.
 Keith Ansell-Pearson. Nietzsche’s Search for Philosophy – On the Middle Writings. Bloomsbury Publishing, London. 2018, p. 6.
 Martin Heidegger. Was heißt Denken? [Qu’appelle –t- on penser?], Trans. By Gerard Grand, 1959. PUF, Paris. , p. 50.
 Cf. Friedrich Nietzsche. UM, I, 6. pp. 36-7.
Memory and the Self (2017), authored by Mark Rowlands, is a fascinating book that has all the qualities of good philosophical writing. It deals with a topic, memory, that has not received too much attention in philosophy of mind. It inquires about specific issues of memory that have received no attention at all, and it makes use of ideas from different philosophical traditions. Additionally it appeals to a various range of arguments, including experimental and introspective evidence to justify his claims. What is more, this delicious “combo” for the mind comes in a lucid and elegant prose, extremely clear and fluid, even for non-professional philosophers—and also for non-native English speakers— which at times achieves a literary style characteristic of fiction authors; a style that nowadays has unfortunately become more and more rare in academic philosophical writing.
The main aim of Rowland’s book is to give a better account of the key role played by memories in the constitution of personal identity and the explanation of the unity of a person. Probably the reader is familiar with the psychological-continuity views of personal identity that privileges memory as the essential factor for personhood: as Locke (1690) explained, as long as an individual possesses memories, the one remembering and the one remembered are the same person. Nonetheless, this quite intuitive conceptualization of personal identity presents some problems widely known in philosophical literature, such as the problem of circularity: how can memory explain personal identity if it presupposes personal identity? Besides these more metaphysical questions that go beyond the scope of the book, there are other common sense considerations that cast doubt on the explanatory role of the memory criterion for accounting for personal identity. The anthropologist Jannelle Taylor, writing about his mother who developed dementia, considers that despite the massive loss of memories and “all the changes she has been through, my mother ‘still’ is in many ways the cheerful affectionate person I have always known her to be. Mom still enjoys gentle joking and teasing, as she always has. She still enjoys being around people, still beams radiantly at small children when she sees them, still enjoys the give and take of conversation.” (2008, p. 316). Rowlands is of the same opinion as Taylor: regardless of the Alzheimer of Patsy Hasset, his wife’s grandfather, he felt that Patsy was still there, not simply as a human being or a biological organism, but as a person, as a psychological entity with some defining personality traits. And in fact, this opinion seems to be shared by most of us: according to an empirical study done by Jesse Prinz and Shaun Nichols (2016), people in general consider that the loss of memories does not threaten the identity of a person, in comparison with a change of moral values that is considered to have a devastating impact on it.
So our ordinary understanding of the basis of the continuity and unity of our identity over time gives us two ideas that in principle are contradictory. On the one hand, we think that the loss of memories of past experiences does not undermine personal identity; but on the other hand, we also have the intuition that memories play a certain important role in making us who we are. In Memory and the Self, Rowlands provides a clever, original—and also poetic—response that makes these two ideas compatible: memory makes us who we are even if, like Patsy Hasset, we have lost our memories, because memories of past experiences can persist and continue to shape our personhood when these past experiences have been forgotten, that is, when the content of our memories has disappeared. Rowlands calls “Rilkean memories” these mutated memories that do not have content. The origin of the name is due to the inspiration drawn from a passage of the only novel written by Rainer Maria Rilke that makes reference to memories that have been forgotten and are thus “nameless” but return in a new form: “they have changed into our very blood into glance and gesture, and are nameless, no longer to be distinguished from ourselves” (Rowlands, 2017, p. 53). As we shall see later, Rilkean memories refer to behavioural and bodily dispositions, feelings, moods and sensations, which have arisen from episodic memories but which have lost their contents and have become pure mental acts.
The characterisation of Rilkean memories and the investigation of its role in the construction and continuity of personal identity over time led Rowlands to accomplish another important task: to reconfigure our understanding of the structure of memory. Whereas a traditional analytical philosopher understands a memory as a mental representation with a tripartite structure composed of an act, an object and a mode of presentation, Rowlands proposes a four-constituent model of memory, in which (a) the act of remembering is of fundamental importance to understand the structure of a memory experience; (b) the intentional object, that is, the episode remembered (that exists independently of the act of remembering), is different from the content of a memory; and (c) the act, the content and the mode of presentation are conceptually distinguishable but inseparable: the content of a memory exists when the act of remembering operates certain transformations on the episode remembered and presents it in a certain mode. The mineness is one essential mode in which the episode remembered is presented, and this is what explains the undeniable presence of the self in every memory of our past experiences.
Therefore, a novel explanation of the way that memories make us who we are as well as a novel explanation of the structure of memory are the two major accomplishments that Rowlands intends to achieve in Memory and the Self. It remains to be seen (and evaluated) how the author develops these explanations through his book and how both of them are linked together.
Phenomenology, and the autobiographical self
But first, a remark about Rowlands’ methodology. Rowlands’ writings have been widely influenced by the phenomenological tradition, and this book is not an exception.
On one hand, Rowlands remarks (chapter 1) that whereas analytical philosophy and cognitive science have always privileged the mental content over the mental act to account for cognitive states, the phenomenological tradition has done exactly the contrary: it has privileged the study of mental acts as acts without objectifying them, in order to understand the preconditions of our experiences. Mental content, appearences in phenomenological terms, are only studied to get to the act. And this phenomenological method is exactly what Rowlands adopts: he begins with general intuitive ideas of the type of “memories makes us who we are although their lost does not undermine personal identity”, and “there are some behaviours and moods that connect the person to his past and that are thus relevant to the continuity of identity through time”, ideas that could be understood as appearences, and then he works backwards from them in order to identify the features of the act of remembering in virtue of which memories, behaviours and moods, can appear this way. Rowlands considers essential the recovery and privileged role of the act of remembering in order to understand memory, develop a workable conception of memory content and make sense of the idea that memories make us who we are.
On the other hand, Rowlands makes another use of the phenomenological method to delineate his conceptualization of the notion of self. Whereas in philosophy most concerns about the self are part of a metaphysical project that tries to understand the nature of personhood, its essential properties, its persistence through time, etc., Rowlands proposes to bracket these metaphysical questions and examine the way the self presents itself to us. If someone asks us how we would define our own self, we would probably answer her by describing our beliefs about ourselves, our values, our attitudes, our desires, etc. This description would probably be different if we were asked the same question at a different time. The idea that there are multiple selves and that each of them refers to a particular configuration of our self-knowledge at a particular time is not new. In psychology, this is a common conception of a self. The psychologist Martin Conway, for example, considers that the self refers to conceptual self-structures that are not temporally specified, such as self-schemas, self-scripts, possible selves, self-images, self-with-other units, relational schemas, attitudes, values and other self-beliefs (2005, 2009). These configurations of abstract self-knowledge, that Conway calls “the conceptual self”, are formed and ultimately grounded in episodic memories of specific experiences, and can change through time. This conception of the self constitutes a good workable notion—and a good strategy—that allows any theorist to make use of a notion of self and at the same time to set aside all the metaphysical questions related to the self (that would require an entirely different kind of research). I used it myself for this purpose. I considered that the different selves (past selves, present self, future selves) are just many and different configurations of self-knowledge, different conceptual selves in Conway’s terminology, that constitute parts of the same human being who perdures through time (Trakas, 2014, pp. 131-132). Nonetheless, Rowlands goes beyond this idea and supposes that there is a self that transcends these empirical and multiple configurations of the self. He defines this self, called “autobiographical self”, as the principles of the network of these concrete episodes of self-understanding; their laws of appearance. I have trouble understanding how this notion of autobiographical self, which is in certain way a sort of Kantian self, and thus a transcendental self, can explain the unity of the self and its distinctness from other selves (Rowlands, 2017, p. 84) without being similar to the notion of metaphysical self. I think that the practical solution to avoid a metaphysical inquiry, would be to just state (as I did) that these episodes of self-understanding or configurations of self-knowledge constitute parts of the same human being, and that they are interconnected between them because the physical continuity of the human being assures some degree of psychological continuity. This strategy does not suggest, as Rowlands does, that the principle or structure from which all the different episodes of understanding emerge is itself a self. Rowlands should have said more about the autobiographical self to prevent their readers from thinking that he is actually engaged in a metaphysical explanation of the self (even if he explicitly denies it).
Maybe Rowlands introduced this unitary notion of self in order to account for the unfolding characteristic of memory between a self who remembers what a former self experienced. Rowlands mentions the two “selves” involved in memory while discussing the differences between the notions of autobiographical self and narrative self. According to Rowlands, the autobiographical self is not the same as the narrative self and entirely rescinds from the question of whether the self has a narrative structure (Rowlands, 2017, pp. 85-87). Nonetheless, the autobiographical self is compatible with narrative accounts of self-understanding that conceive that the self who remembers adopts the position of narrator with respect to the self that originally experienced. Rowlands calls them R-self and W-self respectively. Both of them are conceptually distinguishable but not ultimately separable, because both of them—the self that is written and the self who reads what is written—form the autobiographical self. But once again, we do not need to suppose a transcendental self to explain the essential unfolding of the self that characterizes memory. Neither do we need to understand this unfolding of the self in narrative terms. We can forget about narrative and about any transcendental conception of the self, and simply state that a present self, that is nothing more than a particular configuration of self-knowledge at a given time, can have access to previous selves and their experiences because they all belong to the same human being. The numerical continuity and the degree of psychological continuity implied in the fact of belonging to the same human being would guarantee the access (to some extent) to past configurations of self-knowledge and past experiences, and thus the unfolding of the self and the possibility of self-reflection through time that are characteristic of memory.
Rilkean memories (and episodic and autobiographical memories)
The disquisition about the nature of the self implied in the claim that “memories make us who we are” is not presented at the beginning of the book but in chapter 4. After a first chapter that constitutes a condensed summary of all the ideas developed in the book—which deserves a second reading after finishing the book, in order to get a better picture of the whole—, the next two chapters (2 and 3) are focused on the characterization of Rilkean memories.
Rowlands does not intend to directly prove the existence of Rilkean memories: “Rilkean memories are theoretical posits whose existential credentials will be established by the sort of explanatory work they do” (Rowlands, 2017, p. 55). But further on: “if they are to play an explanatory role of certain sort [explaining how memories make us who we are], they must have certain features”. In a certain way, Rowlands forces the readers to accept the existence of Rilkean memories: how will the explanatory work they do establish their existence if their characterization is conceived in a way that they could successfully accomplish this explanatory work? In any case, this tricky argument is not so relevant; readers avid of understanding embodied and affective phenomena neglected in cognitive science and philosophy of mind, will become immediately sympathetic to the idea of Rilkean memories.
Furthermore, there are examples of Rilkean memories in literature and poetry, and it is also easy to think of everyday cases. Embodied Rilkean memories refer to patterns of behavioural as well as bodily dispositions inscribed in the body that originated in the past: a curvature of the spine and a consequent back pain that originated in successive episodes of bad posture while writing as a child, a tendency to talk in a very loud voice during a normal conversation originated in successive episodes of conversation with parents who speak too loudly, are (personal) examples of embodied Rilkean memories. Affective Rilkean memories make reference to sensations, feelings and moods strongly environmentally embedded, which have a very low probability of occurring without the requisite environment. The famous episode of la madeleine de Proust, the nostalgia that arises when walking around our hometown left a long time ago, are cases of Rilkean affective memories. These behaviours, bodily dispositions, moods, feelings and sensations can appear when the initial episodic memories have vanished, can coexist with them, or can exist shortly before the onset of them (like Proust’s madeleine).
Rilkean memories can exclusively arise from memories that are person specific in order to play a role in the constitution of the person and, as Rowlands argues, only episodic memories are sufficiently specific to their subject. The same procedural memories, semantic memories, even semantic autobiographical memories, could be in principle possessed by two different people. So Rilkean memories, Rowlands concludes, can only arise from episodic memories.
While reflecting on the characterization of Rilkean memories, Rowlands introduces a new and original conceptualization of episodic memory. Episodic memories are neither memories of episodes—this will render them indistinguishable from some semantic memories that are also memories of episodes—nor memories of experiences—this will entail the falseness of most of our memories due to the fact that memory’s visual, emotional and evaluative perspectives can and often change over time. Episodic memories cannot either be understood as an adverbial modification of the act of remembering: relocating the experiential qualities of episodic memory to the act of remembering threatens the distinction between episodic memory and semantic memory (I can remember a fact angrily) and cannot explain the contradictory experiential qualities that may exist between the act of remembering and what is remembered (I can remember with joy a sad episode). According to Rowlands, episodic memories are best defined as memories of an episode that is subsumed under a specific mode of presentation: beside the rich experiential-emotional complexes that are characteristic of episodic memories, what is essential to the mode of presentation of episodic memories is that the episode remembered is remembered as one that has formerly witnessed, orchestrated or otherwise encountered by the rememberer, and that this “as” is built into the content of the memory (and not on the act of remembering).
I am quite sympathetic to both ideas: that Rilkean memories arise from episodic memories and that the self-involvement or the presence of the self in the content of memories is what makes memories episodic. Nonetheless, I have some doubts about the effectiveness of Rowlands’ arguments. First of all, he dismisses semantic autobiographical memories as a starting point of Rilkean memories because even if unlikely, it is perfectly conceivable that two different people could possess the same semantic autobiographical memories and have forgotten the other ones that would distinguish one person from the other. So because this situation is possible, semantic autobiographical memories are not considered to be sufficiently specific to the subject. The problem with the use of this kind of hypothetical scenario is that we could easily conceive of a similar scenario about episodic memories and thus come to the conclusion that episodic memories are not sufficiently specific. We could think about identical twins—who in general have a significant amount of experiences in common—who exclusively remember the episodes experienced together. In this hypothetical case, episodic memories would not be sufficiently specific to distinguish the two identical twins. This scenario is as unlikely but as possible as the scenario concerning semantic autobiographical memories, especially when we take into consideration that a lot of semantic autobiographical memories are the result of a process of semantization of episodic memories over time (Piolino, & al., 2009). In the hypothetical episodic memory scenario, what would be sufficiently person specific and would allow us to distinguish the identical twins is not the fact that these episodes are remembered as formerly witnessed, orchestrated or encountered by the rememberer, but the fact that they are remembered as episodes that formerly affected the rememberer in terms of harms, benefits, morality or self-image, and that this affection of the event—which is person specific—is part of the content of the memory (see Trakas, 2014). There is less unlikely that identical twins could only remember the events that both have witnessed, orchestrated and encountered, than they could remember these same events under the same affective tone. And this remark leads me to the second point I wanted to make concerning Rowlands’ conceptualization of episodic memory. Episodic memory is a controversial notion, very much used in psychological research, but not very well defined. Endel Tulving, the “father” of the distinction between episodic and semantic memory systems, has defined episodic memory first in terms of its content, then in terms of its phenomenology (which arise out of its mode; see for example McCormack, 2001), but in certain way the debate has just started, with the growing interest that this notion has aroused in the philosophical community in recent years. The point that Rowlands makes about the specificity of episodic memory indubitably marks a novel way of thinking about the nature of episodic memory that is very promising. But it needs further development. Semantic autobiographical memories that are originated from a process of semantization of episodic memories (very characteristic of older adults), differ from episodic memories at least in the neural substrates and mechanisms and in their phenomenology, but they are also remembered as episodes formerly witnessed, orchestrated or encountered by the rememberer. I previously suggested that in an episodic memory we remember episodes (or people, or places, etc.) as episodes that affected me in a specific way (or that stills affect me), and it is through this affection that the self is present in the content of memory. This affection can explicitly be attended to as the intentional object of my memory, or we can be aware of it in a pre-attentive or pre-reflective way; it can take the form of interoceptive bodily sensations, action tendencies or language, and it can refer to a past affection or to a present and occurrent one. According to my view, it is this affection that makes of memories episodic memories—and that is at the origin of the metacognitive phenomenology that is characteristic of episodic memory—and it is this affection that makes of my episodic memories uniquely mine. More should be explored in this line, because it clearly seems that the presence of the self is an excellent alternative to the current views to characterize the specificity of episodic memory.
In chapter 8, Rowlands argues that the presence of the self is a necessary and sufficient condition for a memory to count as an episodic. I have tried to explain before, through the example of semantic autobiographical memories that are the product of a process of semantization of episodic memories, why the presence of the self characterized as a mode of presentation where the episode is remembered as one that the rememberer has formerly witnessed, orchestrated or otherwise encountered, does not seem sufficient for a memory to qualify as episodic. Nonetheless, the arguments that Rowlands presents to defend the necessity of the presence of the self in an episodic memory are very convincing. First, we could think that the presence of the self is not necessary because non-human animals have episodic memories but neither engage in self-reflective thought nor have a self-concept. Rowlands argues that none of them is necessary for the self to be present in a memory, and that a feeling of familiarity could perfectly account for it. In fact, the thesis that non-human animals have episodic memories is quite controversial, and Rowlands should have mentioned it to reinforce his point. It could have also been argued that the semantic / episodic distinction is also present in non-humans animals, but that its characterization is slightly different from one proper to human animals (and this makes sense considering the importance of the influence of human language in the phylogenetic development of our cognitive capabilities). Second, the case of a patient named RB (mentioned by Klein & Nichols, 2012), who seems to have episodic memories that do not present a sense of ownership, could also be used as a counterexample of the necessity of the presence of the self in episodic memories. But it is not the case: or this is an example of attenuation and not of loss of the sense of ownership, argues Rowlands, or else these memories are not episodic. As he correctly points out, in the absence of the presence of the self in episodic memory, there is nothing to distinguish episodic memories from semantic memories. Therefore, Rowlands gives compelling arguments to assert the necessity of the presence of the self in episodic memories, whereas his arguments for its sufficiency in a certain way fail, because his interpretation of the meaning of the presence of the self in episodic memories is not sufficient to distinguish them from semantic (autobiographical) memories.
Before coming back to the characterization of Rilkean memories, I would like to mention an interesting distinction that Rowlands draws concerning autobiographical memory, which should be considered while theorizing about this notion. Autobiographical memory is another notion very much used in psychological research, but again not very well defined. Broadly understood, it refers to a subsystem that includes some episodic memories and different facts about the self (including semantic memories). Rowlands proposes to distinguish three types of autobiographical memories according to their intentional objects: (a) strongly autobiographical memories: the memory contains the rememberer as the intentional object of the memory, and is thus about something that happened to the rememberer (I remember I travelled to Greece or I remember I was born the 15th February 1983), (b) weakly autobiographical memories: the rememberer is not the intentional object, but is implicated in the mode of presentation of the intentional object of the memory, and is thus about something that she witnessed or encountered (I remember the flight to Greece took off 5 hours later than scheduled); (c) minimally autobiographical memories: these memories, which have no intentional object, are autobiographical because they are the descendant of a memory that is at least weakly autobiographical. While episodic and semantic memories can be strongly autobiographical, only episodic memories can be weakly autobiographical—only episodic memories can include the self in their mode of presentation—and only Rilkean memories can be minimally autobiographical. The common characteristic between all these subtypes of autobiographical memory is that all of them ultimately refer to the rememberer, and it is in this sense that all of them receive the epithet “autobiographical”.
This distinction allows Rowlands to give a minimal definition of embodied and affective Rilkean memories: Rilkean memories are involuntary memories that have no intentional content and are minimally autobiographical because they derive from episodic memories, when their content has been forgotten and only the act of remembering persists. This definition is given in chapter 3, after a series of arguments that (convincingly) show why Rilkean memories cannot be conceived as Freudian memories, nor procedural memories, nor declarative memories, nor semantic memories, nor episodic memories, nor explicit memories, nor implicit memories.
More about episodic memories: their structure
In the next section, I will come back to Rilkean memories, and to their importance for the unity and identity of the self. In this section, I will focus on the characterisation of the structure of episodic memory developed by Rowlands in chapters 8 and 9.
In the introduction, I already anticipated that Rowlands reconfigures the traditional understanding of the structure of memory by proposing a four-constituent model of episodic memory: intentional object, content, mode of presentation and act. In his model, the intentional object is different from the content, and the mode of presentation and act of remembering are conceptually distinguishable but inseparable. These two ideas are the key theses defended by Rowlands in order to change the traditional conceptualization of episodic memory that is characterized by the standard tripartite model of intentionality and the two-model of meaning.
The two-model of meaning (which, according to Rowlands, would be at the origin of Wittgenstein’s rule-following paradox) supposes that items are intrinsically semantically inert and only get meaning and reference by an act of interpretation. This model is useful to account for the semantics of photographs, and because we tend to consider episodic memories as “pictures” of past episodes, we think mistakenly that this model is also useful to understand the structure of episodic memories, when really it is not. Although I have some doubts about the intrinsically semantical inertia of photographs (a specific photograph is ambiguous but cannot “be about anything”), Rowlands makes a good point: photographs exist independently of any act of interpretation whereas episodic memories do not; and photographs need an act of interpretation at least to remove their intrinsic semantic ambiguity, whereas episodic memories do not. The list of differences could be developed (episodic memories can essentially change over time whereas photographs do not, etc.), and this would be an interesting project to finally abandon the photographic model of memories, but this is not Rowlands’ purpose in this book: he only wants to state that, unlike photographs, the contents of our episodic memories are never pure objects, unadulterated by the interpretative activities implicated in my awareness of them. The content of our episodic memories is always presented to us as something, under a mode of presentation, and this mode of presentation is not externally attached to the content, but is essentially built into it. When I remember the face of my father, I remember this face as the face of my father, and not as a visual image of a face whose appearance needs a subsequent act of interpretation to determine that it is a memory and that it is the face of my father. It may be the case that I cannot remember whose face it is, but if I have a memory experience I remember the face at least as a face that belongs to someone I previously saw. For Rowlands, in an episodic memory, meaning and reference are thus not added in a subsequent phase to the presentation of the content to the mind, but are an intrinsic part of it, entangled with it. The meaning and reference includes not only the meaning and reference that is specific to a particular memory content, but also the meaning and reference that is given in every episodic memory: the pastness and the presence of the self who remembers. The meaning and reference is given to the episode remembered, which is not inherently interpreted, when the act of remembering performs on it certain operations of transformation that present the episode remembered under different modes of presentation. These modes of presentation (which are characterized by Rowlands as complex combinations of perception, cognition, emotion and sensation) not only individuate the memory and, more importantly, render the presence of the self a necessary feature of it, but also give rise to memory content. The content of an episodic memory is thus created by the act of remembering.
And this leads us to Rowlands’ four-constituent model of episodic memory and his revision of the standard tripartite model of intentionality. Whereas the standard model considers that the intentional object of an episodic memory is equal to its content, and that this object / content is an episode—defined as a state-of-affairs—that is independent of the act of remembering and propositional in form, Rowlands not only denies the necessarily propositional nature of episodes, but also the identification between the object and the content of a memory. Whereas the intentional object of memory, that is, the episode remembered, is a state-of-affairs independent of the act of remembering, which only plays a passive causal role in the origin of our memories, the memory content is what is available to our consciousness. It is what one can discern and have access to when one remembers, and it is the product of a constructive and active process of remembering.
This later distinction is not new, but has a long tradition—recently recovered but neglected for many years— that goes back at least to the introduction of the notion of intentionality in contemporary philosophy made by Franz Brentano. The distinction between object and content was explicitly formulated by Kazimierz Twardowski (Brentano’s student) in his book On the Content and Object of Presentations (1894) and later endorsed and developed by Alexius Meinong (1899), another one of Brentano’s students. It was also more explicitly applied to the understanding of memory phenomena by Bertrand Russell (1921) and Charlie Broad (1925). All of them, in different ways and with different terminology, defended the existence of a difference between the object of a mental act and its content. I personally got back to this rich tradition and proposed a representationalist account of personal memories based on this distinction (Trakas 2014). I found it a bit disappointing that Rowlands did not mention the origin of this distinction in his book, although I understand that historical references sometimes may cut the argumentative fluidity. Nonetheless, a small footnote would not have done any harm, and it would have been a nice initiative to recognize the often forgotten rich ideas that precede us and still influence us in many ways.
Rowlands justifies the need of this distinction by means of three convincing arguments. If the memory content were identical with the episode remembered:
(a) the idea of mental content should be abandoned (there is nothing “mental” in a state-of-affairs; a state-of-affairs would be mental and non-mental at the same time), or the mentality should exclusively be placed on the act of remembering. The only way to assure the mentality of the content is to distinguish the state-of-affairs from the content and adopt the view that the content is brought into existence by a process of transformation operated by the mental act on the state-of-affairs;
(b) it would be impossible to explain why two states-of-affairs can be identical (such as Oedipus marring Jocasta and Oedipus marrying his mother) whereas the memories of them are not (Oedipus remembers marrying Jocasta but not his mother). States-of-affairs and memory content must be different because their standards of individuation are different: a mental act narrows the standard of individuation of mental content by subsuming one or more constituents of a state-of-affairs (object, property) under different modes of presentation;
(c) the presence of the self would not be essential to the memory, and thus the episode would not appear to the rememberer as one that she formerly experienced. The only way to render necessary the presence of the self and thus episodically remember an episode is to impose on that episode one or more modes of presentation. This process of transformation creates mental content, which is different from the episode.
I have also given some arguments in favour of the distinction between object and content (even if I used different terms), focused on the possible discrepancies between the content and the object of the same personal memory (Trakas, 2014, p. 32-35). The arguments that Rowlands gives are nonetheless persuasive and sufficient by themselves to convince the readers of the need for this conceptual distinction. What is more, his explanation along these two chapters shows the inseparability that is characteristic of the act of remembering, the memory content and the mode of presentation, as well as the key role played by the act of remembering in the construction of our episodic memories: it is finally the act of remembering which is responsible for the mentality, the individuation and the ownership of the remembered content.
Before coming back to Rilkean memories, I would like to make a comment about a remark made by Rowlands. According to our author, his conception of content must not be understood as something that stands between the subject and the episode, but simply as a way or mode of remembering an episode. Because the content is nothing more than the episode transformed in certain ways, Rowlands concludes that while remembering “content” we are in direct contact with the past. Like other authors, Rowlands couples a representationalist conceptualization of memory to a direct realism theory of memory. I profoundly believe not only in the incompatibility of these two conceptions of memory, but also in the impossibility of defending a direct realist view of memory. Direct realist accounts of memory cannot accommodate the existence of memory traces and fail to explain the fallibility and change that characterize our memory representations. They also fail to give a criterion to distinguish between immediate acquaintance in perception and immediate acquaintance in memory (Trakas, 2014, pp. 10-17). Memory researchers would do better to abandon the idea that memory allows us to be in direct and immediate contact with the past and to ask, instead, how a capacity that does not allow us to be in direct contact with the past can nevertheless produce reliable representations of the past.
Forgetting, endemic inaccuracy and a person’s unity and identity (for her and for the others)
In this last section I focus on chapters 5, 6, 7 and 10, chapters where Rowlands develops the role that Rilkean memories—these memories that have no content and are pure act—play in making us who we are.
As I already mentioned, episodic memories are in general considered to give an answer to the metaphysical problem of the self’s unity and identity through time (what makes a person at a time t2 a unified individual identical to a person at a time t1?). Nonetheless, the endemic inaccuracy and the forgetting of episodic memories compromise the identity of the person over time and thus threatens the role played by episodic memory in the explanation of the unity and identity of the metaphysical self. On the contrary, the endemic inaccuracy and the forgetting of memories is not a threat for the autobiographical self, neither from a first person point of view (that is, the self-experience of unity and identity) nor from a third person point of view (the recognition of the unity and identity of another self). Rowlands considers them as self-constructing opportunities that can play a positive role in the constitution of a person.
I will come back in a few lines to Rowlands’ idea of the positive role played by the inaccuracy and the forgetting of episodic memories in the constitution of the autobiographical self. I would now like to make a brief comment about Rowlands’ arguments to state the endemic unreliability of memory. Rowlands asserts the endemic unreliability of memory based on empirical studies on false memories (like studies on flashbulb memories) as well as on memory reconsolidation that, according to our author, would explain why most of our memories are unreliable: every time we access a memory trace, it returns to the unstable and labile state characteristic of short-term memory, and becomes thus sensitive to change. The idea that most of our memories are “false” is not new and has been advocated by psychologists like Elizabeth Loftus: “in essence, all memory is false to some degree” (Bernstein & Loftus, 2009, p. 373). Rowlands rightly recognizes that the notions of accuracy and inaccuracy (conceived as a spectrum) are better suited to characterize memories than the notion of truth and falsity, but he still holds that inaccuracy is endemic to memory. I believe first, that Rowlands misunderstands the notion of change during the process of reconsolidation: “change” does not necessarily mean “distortion” (a term that he explicitly uses), and several times, a change of a memory trace is necessary to render a memory more accurate (for example, when we acquire new information that allows us to better understand a past experience). Secondly, Rowlands—and Loftus—present radical and extremist conceptions of the notions of truth / falsity and accuracy / inaccuracy: all memory representations that are different (even slightly different) from a past representation would be false or inaccurate, and that is why inaccuracy (or falsity) is endemic to episodic memories. This is a surprising conceptualization for someone who proposed to conceive the epistemic values of memories in terms of a spectrum of accuracy versus inaccuracy. Third, I do believe that people who think that memory is endemically unreliable are wrong. Instead of looking at empirical studies on false memories, we would do better to look at our everyday functioning and the way it would be affected if a large number of our memories would be unreliable: not only could we not successfully navigate the physical and social world, but probably we could not even have evolved as we did. Most of our everyday actions are guided by semantic as well as episodic memories, and a human being with an unreliable memory system would be very different from what we are; maybe she will not even be human. Anthropological studies take time and are not often practiced to study psychological phenomena, but they would be of great help to provide empirical data on the reliability of the human memory system(s).
In any case, it remains to be seen how the endemic inaccuracy and the forgetting of memories can be self-constructive for the autobiographical self. Rowlands does not give an explanation of the positive role that endemic inaccuracy plays; he only states that “for an autobiographical project, false memories can be just as self-constructive as real memories” (Rowlands, 2017, p. 115). If confabulations can present some benefits for the confabulator (at least she has a story to tell to herself about who she is), it remains an open question as to whether confabulations are as self-constructive as real memories. The case of forgetting is analysed with more detail, in a specific and interesting chapter about this notion (chapter 5). Passive forgetting (memory decay over time) compromise the memory-based version of the metaphysical explanation of the self and also plays a negative role in the construction of the autobiographical self (by unbalancing the story of who we are, or making us repeat old mistakes). Nonetheless, active forgetting, that is, the conscious and unconscious engagement in a process of forgetting, plays a positive role in the construction of the autobiographical self: it allows us to forget the useless—in order to release cognitive resources—and to forget the pernicious. Furthermore, active projects of forgetting, which can include the explicit manipulation of the environment in order to facilitate or scaffold the process of forgetting (like destroying photographs), say a lot about the person you are. But there is a more pervasive and primitive process of forgetting than active forgetting, which does not require the existence of an autobiographical self who conducts the forgetting, but plays a significant role in the development and preservation of the autobiographical self. This primitive, passive but positive process of forgetting memory content refers to the process that originates in Rilkean memories. Rilkean memories play a positive role in holding the identity and the unity of the autobiographical self through time, in the face of the lost and inaccuracy of episodic memories, and more especially when the self is no longer capable of engaging in remembering (or forgetting), like the cases of Patsy Hasset or Taylor’s mother.
Rowlands compares Rilkean memories to literary style (to understand this analogy, it is worth mentioning that Rilkean memories are pure acts of remembering, without content). If we find a couple of disconnected pages of a book, the style of these pages combined with the remaining content can be sufficient to establish or at least suggest the identity of the author. The same applies to Rilkean memories. Embodied Rilkean memories, that is, the tendency to do things in certain ways in certain circumstances, and affective Rilkean memories, that is, the disposition to have certain moods and feelings in certain environmental circumstances, are part of a person’s existential style. Rilkean memories connect the person to her past and provides a form of continuity between the person who has the Rilkean memories and the person who had their episodic ancestor. Rilkean memories, as part of a person’s existential style, allow an outsider observer to distinguish and recognize individuals on their basis. That is why Rilkean memories play a key role in the recognition of the unity and identity of a person made by a third party. That is why Rowlands is still able to recognize his wife’s grandfather Patsy as the same person he used to be before developing Alzheimer’s disease and thus losing all his episodic memories. This is the right time to remember Taylor’s description of her mother quoted at the beginning of this review. For Taylor, her mother was the same person as before, because she could still recognize her existential style, that is, her particular way of being, acting and feeling: her mother was still a cheerful and affectionate person, who still enjoyed gentle joking and teasing, being around people and having a conversation, and who also still beamed radiantly at small children. Rilkean memories are finally what justify third person recognition judgements.
Rilkean memories solve then the puzzle of the unity and identity of a person from a third point of view, that is, the puzzle of the recognition of another person. But there is a still another puzzle: the problem of explaining the self-experience of unity and identity, that is, the way in which the present self (R-self) experiences a past self (W-self) as a unified individual, identical with herself. According to Rowlands, Rilkean memories are also the key to solve this puzzle, but they do not feature as what they are—Rilkean memories—but as what they were before becoming Rilkean memories: as episodic memories. The necessary presence of the self in episodic memories is the key to first-person recognition: “The person who remembers is, therefore, in her memories even when those memories are not about her. She is in her memories not simply because she has carved or shaped them from the block of the episode. Rather, it is because she had to do this in order to make them something that could be remembered. The content of memory is always infused with the person who remembered and where she is in her life. The content of memory is, in this sense, infused with style. It is infused with, and therefore shaped by, the act of remembering (…) Style and content may eventually go their separate ways—this is what happens when a Rilkean memory is formed. But before this happens, the two are entangled. The style of a person is always there, in the midst of content” (Rowlands, 2017, pp. 194-195). Therefore, because the autobiographical self is present in each and every one of the episodic memories that collectively form the record of her life, the self who remembers (R-self) experiences herself as a unified individual identical with any of her past selves (W-self). This means that Patsy and Taylor’s mother, as well as other people with dementia, could still experience their unity and identity through time if they have at least one episodic memory that remains accessible to their consciousness.
Memory and the Self is an excellent book on memory, with a highly sophisticated dose of philosophical content and literary style. However, I must admit that at the end of the book I was slightly disappointed. The main purpose of the book is to introduce the notion of Rilkean memories and explain the key role they play in maintaining the unity and identity of the (autobiographical) self. Nonetheless, from the first-person recognition perspective, Rilkean memories finally do not play any role; episodic memories do all the work. Saying, as Rowlands does, that Rilkean memories play such an important role because they were episodic memories before becoming Rilkean memories, does not help to assign a real role to Rilkean memories in the self-experience of identity and unity. Although one derives from the other, Rilkean memories and episodic memories are very different. Furthermore, episodic memories do not necessarily become Rilkean memories. The truth is that Rilkean memories do not play any explanatory role in first-person recognition, and that episodic memories are the key to understand how we experience our autobiographical selves as a unified individual, identical to itself through time, despite Rowlands denying this in chapter 6: “these two facts [inaccuracy and forgetting] present a problem for the idea that our episodic memories play a major role in the construction of the autobiographical self” (Rowlands, 2017, p. 122). Moreover, in this section I would have expected more discussion with Stan Klein’s view—an author who is known and mentioned by Rowlands in this book—for whom the unity that we attribute ourselves as persons can be interpreted as a pre-reflective feeling of personal continuity that would permeate all our experiences (for evidence of an amnesic patient who maintains a sense of personal identity despite being unable to retrieve episodic and semantic personal memories, see Klein, 2014).
Rilkean memories do play a key role from the third-person recognition perspective. However, when analysing these cases, we realize that what allows us to recognize someone as the same unified individual identical through time is nothing more than different kinds of habits and character traits. Rilkean memories are finally nothing more than environmental embedded habits and character traits. Rowlands is aware that Rilkean memories may not be a new, non-standard form of memory, but just the product of a process of transformation of episodic memories (Rowlands, 2017, p. 54). This is nonetheless unimportant to him, and maybe it should also be unimportant to the reader in order to get Rowlands’ message: the recognition of these habits and character traits as states that carry in them a trace of the personal past and that allow the personal past to live in the subject in a different way than memories (understood in a familiar sense).
In spite of this small disappointment that other readers may share with me, Memory and the Self is a very pleasant book to read that truly deserves to be read, reread, and discussed by those interested in philosophy of mind and in memory.
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