David Zaretsky: The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas

The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas Book Cover The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas
Robert Zaretsky
University of Chicago Press
Cloth $20.00

Reviewed by: Simon van der Weele (The University of Humanistic Studies, Utrecht, The Netherlands)

Simone Weil once wrote about philosophy that it is “exclusively an affair of action and practice” (1970, 335). Weil, who was a Jewish intellectual, mystic, and political activist with Christian, Marxist and anarchist leanings, believed that philosophy could only be worth its while if it was willing to occupy itself with action and experience – with the reality of everyday concerns that give texture to everyday life. Her dedication to this idea is evident from Weil’s own life. Famously, she worked in factories, on fishing trawlers, and on farms; she also volunteered in the Spanish Civil War and (fruitlessly) attempted to advice De Gaulle on battlefield tactics during the Second World War. (Her suggestion, which was to parachute troops of nurses onto the battlefields of France, led De Gaulle to exclaim Weil was folle, a mad woman). All the while, these experiences became objects of Weil’s philosophical attention and were formative of the conceptual apparatus she eventually developed in her many essays, notebooks, and letters.

This, in a nutshell, is the central purpose driving David Zaretsky’s The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas: to examine Simone Weil’s thought through the prism of her life. In this lucid and knowledgeable book, which is both an introduction to Weil’s thought and a loose biography, Zaretsky starts from Weil’s insistence that “philosophy was neither theory nor discourse, but instead was practice” (10), and hence to be concerned with action and experience. The author, a historian who has previously written books on Albert Camus, James Boswell, and Denis Diderot, subsequently develops this idea by presenting the main philosophical concepts she developed in rich biographical detail to consider how she arrived at them and why they became important to her. In doing so, Zaretsky essentially argues that Weil’s philosophy is best read against the background of her biography, because her biography is inseparable from her philosophical ethos.

For Zaretsky, this ethos boils down to an unyielding attention for what he calls “the reality of life” (8) and her insistence that philosophy reckons with it. Citing Stanley Cavell, he writes that Weil was “exceptional in her refusal to be “deflected”; in her refusal to turn away from the reality of the other and the other’s suffering by way of philosophical skepticism. Cora Diamond (2003) has referred to this problem as “the difficulty of reality,” and she also mentions Weil as a “philosopher concerned with deflection” from it. To get a feel for how this ethos saturates Weil’s writing, it is worth reading a fragment from her essay Human Personality, also cited by Diamond (but not by Zaretsky).

Human thought is unable to acknowledge the reality of affliction. To acknowledge the reality of affliction means saying to oneself: “I may lose at any moment, through the play of circumstances over which I have no control, anything whatsoever that I possess, including those things which are so intimately mine that I consider them as being myself. There is nothing that I might not lose. It could happen at any moment that what I am might be abolished and replaced by anything whatsoever of the filthiest and most contemptible sort.” (2014, 81)

One way to read Weil’s oeuvre would then be as an attempt to acknowledge “the reality of affliction” and defuse the temptation of deflection. This also seems to be the reading of Weil proposed by Zaretsky in The Subversive Simone Weil.

It is a pity, then, that Zaretsky does not develop his allusion to Cavell in the introduction in the remainder of the book – at least not philosophically. In fact, although Zaretsky does compare Weil’s thought to the ideas of some other notable thinkers (George Orwell, Marcus Aurelius, and Hannah Arendt, to name a few), he rarely situates her in wider philosophical debates. He also does not provide fine-grained exegeses of her main philosophical works. But this does not seem to be the goal Zaretsky has set for himself in The Subversive Simone Weil. Indeed, this book should not so much be read as a philosophical interrogation of Weil’s thought than as an introduction to it, enriched by detailed biographical sketches that breathe life into her original ideas. Each of the book’s five chapters is devoted to a main concept of Weil’s vocabulary: affliction, attention, resistance, rootedness, and goodness. Zaretsky chooses these because he believes they “still resonate today. Or… should resonate” (11). Should resonate, because Zaretsky thinks that Weil’s concepts are not getting their proper due, and neither is Weil herself. He takes attention as an example: a popular topic amongst contemporary critics “in a world so deeply afflicted with attention deficit disorder” (12), but typically without any mention of Weil. One of Zaretsky’s aims here is to amend such oversights.

The five chapters that follow the introduction thus take as their subject a single concept of Weil’s – although, as Zaretsky professes in the introduction, “the terms often spill into one another” (12). The chapters are structured loosely, even impressionistically, their various sections separated not by subheadings but by asterisms. Each typically starts with a series of historical vignettes, setting the scene for how the concept in question began to matter to Weil. To elucidate the concepts he is investigating, Zaretsky cites liberally from Weil’s well-known books and essays, as well as from her notebooks and letters. He intersperses this exegetical work with brief forays into the work of like-minded thinkers, some of whom inspired Weil, some of whom were her contemporaries, and some of whom are inheritors of her ideas. Zaretsky’s writing throughout is outstanding: it is clear, to the point, and never needlessly complicated. It is also thoroughly absorbing. The way Zaretsky manages to weave together a coherent account of Weil’s thought from the different strands of her extensive oeuvre is nothing short of impressive.

The first chapter, “The Force of Affliction,” begins with Weil’s job interview at Alsthom, a factory manufacturing electronic equipment, when she was 25 years old. Weil had been working as a teacher in the south of France, where she had spent her evenings instructing French literature at a worker’s co-op. Seeking to strengthen her connections to the working class, Weil took a leave of absence from her teaching work and began her stint as a factory worker. It was in these “dim and deafening” (10) factories that Weil began contemplating the state of degradation and indignity she called le malheur, usually translated as “affliction”. Zaretsky cites Weil defining affliction as a condition that “deprives its victims of their personality and makes them into things” (19); it referred to a stripping away of one’s dignity and humanity that “rob[s] us of the power to say ‘I’” (quoted in Zaretsky, 20). For Weil, the factory was a principal site of affliction. The monotonous work, the vile managers, and the deafening clanging of machines turned workers into “slaves,” whose exhaustion gave way to the “strongest temptation that this life entails: that of not thinking anymore, which is the one and only way of not suffering from it” (quoted in Zaretsky, 14). Zaretsky embellishes his discussion of affliction with vivid accounts of the worker’s life taken from Weil’s notebooks.

Weil found the cause of affliction in what she called puissance, translated as “force” or “power”. Power, writes Zaretsky, was for Weil a “fundamental datum of human existence,” one as “omnipresent and overpowering as gravity” (14). Power, argued Weil, is not in anyone’s possession, and can never be secured for good. For this reason, it is constantly chased after by those seeking to possess it, to keep it from rivals, and to secure it from resistance of the powerless. It is this pursuit of power that Weil locates the cause of oppression – and finally, of affliction. Here, Zaretsky takes some time to discuss Weil’s essay on Homer’s Iliad, which for Weil was chiefly a poem about force: the true hero is not a warrior, but force itself, she wrote. The essay, Zaretsky notes, was written as Weil fled Paris for Nevers soon after France’s defeat to Germany in 1940. Weil saw mirrored in the destruction of Troy the suffering of her own and her fellow Parisians; this was the work of force.

Weil’s account of power calls to mind Nietzsche’s and also seems to presage Foucault’s, but Zaretsky leaves this resemblance unexplored. Instead, he turns to George Orwell, who like Weil had spent time in Paris in a working class job, as a plongeur washing dishes in the basement of the city’s restaurants. Orwell, too, discerned in the plight of the plongeur the markings of slavery and the gradual sapping away of one’s capacity to think. But unlike Weil, argues Zaretsky, he did not explore the spiritual meaning of their suffering; he focused on a critique of the worker’s material conditions. For Weil, on the other hand, affliction was an almost mystical experience, especially later in life, when she began edging closer to Christianity. After all, what sense was there to make of affliction in the face of God?

Soon after Weil left the factory, she joined her parents to a coastal town in Portugal. There, she overheard a group of fishermen’s wives perform a religious ritual. It proved to be a transformative experience for Weil, who saw as by revelation that “Christianity is pre-eminently the religion of slaves, that slaves cannot help belonging to it, and I among others” (19). In this connection to God, the state of affliction acquired a more ambivalent status for Weil. It was, as Zaretsky puts it, “ground zero of human misery” (19), but her attachment to affliction was unmistakable – it brought the slave closer to God. Citing Mary Dietz, Zaretsky admits that Weil risks “fetishizing” affliction in these writings. However, he also points out that affliction itself holds no value for Weil as such; its value lies in what we make of it. “Whether it can teach us anything as grand as wisdom depends on how we define wisdom. If virtues like comprehension and compassion, toleration and moderation are to constitute at least part of wisdom, we could do worse” (20).

The second chapter, “Paying Attention,” is devoted to what is perhaps Weil’s most famous notion: the work of attention. The chapter begins with an interesting reading of Weil’s ‘Essai sur la sur la notion de la lecture’, in which she argued that our “readings” of the world – our perceptions and observations – are inevitably inflected by our moral orientation. Or, as Zaretsky puts it, “the way in which we read the world turns on our particular location—moral, social, political, and economic—within the world” (21-22). In effect, Weil is essentially proclaiming the inseparability of fact and value, which, as Zaretsky points out, brought her in disagreement with most prevailing epistemologies of the time. Weil’s position seems a clear precursor of those taken by analytic moral philosophers such as Philippa Foot, Iris Murdoch, and Bernard Williams, but Zaretsky does not dwell on these parallels. Rather, he ponders another question of Weil’s: if our readings of the world are situated readings, is there “a single and right way to read”? (22). For Weil, a fervent Platonist, the answer would have had to be “yes”. And she looked for answers in her concept of attention.

To explain Weil’s concept of attention, Zaretsky takes his readers to her high school lessons, in which she instructed her students not to find answers to geometrical problems, but rather to contemplate the problems themselves. This principle, for Zaretsky, contains the essence of Weil’s conception of attention. For her, attention is not a “muscular effort” of concentration, but rather a “negative effort,” “one that requires that we stand still rather than lean in” (22). Attention requires the suspension of thought, so that one’s consciousness is cleared of self-concern and, as Weil put it, left “detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object” (quoted in Zaretsky, 23). Attention becomes a work of patient waiting, in which we diligently work at letting go of ourselves so as to make space for true understanding of fellow human beings. “In order for the reality of the other’s self to fully invest us,” writes Zaretsky, “we must first divest ourselves of our own selves” (23). It is in this way that attention becomes a method for discerning and responding to affliction. Attention is the moral work we must do to see what is “sacred” in the other.

Having defined the work of attention, Zaretsky makes brief excursions to Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations – comparing them to Weil’s notebooks – and to Kant’s discussion of reverence, which he likens to attention in Weil’s sense. Citing Murdoch again, he suggests that both concepts are concerned with “the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real” (1959, 51). The chapter then ends on a surprisingly personal note. Zaretsky ponders his own moral ineptitude as he faces a panhandler at an intersection as he is driving his car to work. (The scene, set in Houston, Texas, was not quite relatable for this European city-dweller who goes without a driving license.) Zaretsky berates his reluctance to witness the panhandler’s affliction with attention. “Let’s face it: she wants to be seen. Will I, though, allow myself to see her? Or will I allow the inevitable bottleneck of questions and rationalizations to come in between us?” (26). Zaretsky senses he is not up to the strict moral standard posed by Weil. But as he opens his car window to hand the panhandler some change, his children in the backseat, he hopes they will perhaps one day do so as well – and that even if they do not ask the panhandler, as Weil implores us to do, “What are you going through?”, then at least know that the question is important (quoted in Zaretsky, 27).

In the third chapter, “The Varieties of Resistance,” Zaretsky introduces the notion of resistance, which, he admits, is not strictly speaking a concept of Weil’s, but nonetheless a “a value that girds a great deal of her thought and merits a chapter of its own” (12). Zaretsky approaches resistance first of all as a common thread in Weil’s life. He narrates, for instance, her involvement in the Spanish Civil War and in the French resistance, both in the south of France and in London. He also chronicles how Weil rebelled against her own middle-class upbringing, by requesting to work on a fishing trawler (during a summer vacation), in a mine (whilst teaching in Le Puy), and on a farm – frequently egging on bemused workers to join her in protest. Zaretsky peppers these stories with great anecdotal details. For instance, he humorously describes how the family that let her work on the farm took offense in Weil’s insistence that their lives were wretched, poor, and altogether unhappy. “When their guest told them that she wanted to “live the life of the poor, share their burdens, and know their troubles,” the couple felt that Weil not only failed to recognize who they were, but also patronized them,” he writes (33). Such anecdotes paint Weil into a tragicomic figure: she was clumsy (her stint in Spain ended after she injured her foot stepping in boiling oil); she was inept (she fought in Spain with no idea of how to hold a gun); she made appalling mistakes (she dropped a suitcase full of secret Resistance pamphlets out in the streets). In many ways, Weil was unfit for the reality she was so eager to face – but which she nonetheless stubbornly kept close.

Throughout these experiences, argues Zaretsky, resistance also became an object of contemplation for Weil, even if not explicitly. He dives into Weil’s suspicion of the “collectivity,” which Zaretsky defines as “the convergence of the political, social, cultural, and economic forces that dictate our lives” (32). Collectivity, Weil believed, inhibits thought, and clear thinking is paramount to resisting the oppression caused by the vicissitudes of force. (Unsurprisingly, Weil was also suspicious of political parties.) This idea underlines once more Weil’s belief that the importance of thought lies in its connection to action. Zaretsky also discusses Weil’s complex form of pacifism, about which she changed her mind over time: having embraced pacifism for much of young adulthood, by 1939 she wrote in her diary that that “non-violence is good only if it’s effective” (quoted in Zaretsky, 35); a conviction she had already acted on several years earlier, when she joined the Spanish Resistance. As Zaretsky notes, Weil frequently “went to war on behalf of peace” (35); for her, in her own words, “[t]he struggle of those who obey against those command, when the mode of commanding entails destroying the human dignity of those underneath, is the most legitimate, most motivated, most genuine action that exists” (quoted in Zaretsky, 35). But if Weil valued resistance, she was not a dogged revolutionary: she was skeptical of the impulse to dehumanize and mistreat the oppressor one seeks to rise up against. Zaretsky closes this chapter with a reflection on the affinities between Weil and Camus (who was a great admirer of Weil’s), discerning traces of Weil’s “ethic of resistance” in Camus’ novels The Plague and The Rebel.

The fourth chapter, “Finding Roots,” starts with a discussion of Weil’s love for English pub culture, which she professed in her notebooks while living in London in the 1940s. What brought her to love the pub, argues Zaretsky, is their rootedness in the customs and traditions of what he calls an “English way of life” – which Weil discerned in the jolly atmosphere of the pub as much as in a performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. This notion of rootedness is also the thematic of Weil’s The Need for Roots, the last of her major works before her early death in 1943. In this book, Weil diagnoses the ills of modernity in terms of what she called déracinement or “uprootedness”: “the fact and feeling of homelessness” (41). For Weil, uprootedness conveys a sense of alienation from both place and tradition. Foreign invasion is one source of uprootedness, but Weil saw the condition epitomized in the factory, which uproots its workers both physically (by bringing them from the countryside into the city) and psychologically (through the rationalization of labour). Weil’s antidote to uprootedness is a “new patriotism” (50), which Zaretsky points out is to be nourished not by pride in one’s nation, but by compassion for others and an appreciation for the vulnerability of one’s nation. Zaretsky is careful to distinguish Weil’s conservatism from that of her right-wing contemporaries: he observes in her plea for a compassionate patriotism a more pacifying aspiration, as it “tightens the bonds of fraternity both between peoples and within a single people” (46). Her form of patriotism also causes Weil to denounce France’s colonial project. However, Zaretsky is critical of Weil’s reluctance to grand former colonies full independence, instead opting for a form of “protection” that would still tie them to “certain organized states”: “Weil,” he observes, “seemed either unwilling or unable to acknowledge that a growing number of the very people on whose behalf she spoke were no longer interested in such ties” (45).

The nation, then, emerges as a source of obligations to others. The content of these obligations is captured in Weil’s list of fourteen “needs for the soul,” which opens The Need for Roots. Zaretsky briefly discusses Weil’s famous critique of rights-based conceptions of justice in an essay called ‘Human Personality’: Weil was sceptical of the discourse of rights, which to her had a transactional undertone that she found painfully non-committal. To move away from the conditionality of rights, Weil proposed a discourse of obligation and duty based on the reality of human needs. Zaretsky then provides an insightful discussion of Weil’s similitude to Aristotle, in spite of her self-proclaimed love for Plato. He also does a good job linking Weil’s political thought to a variety of more contemporary thinkers. He likens her needs-based moral theory to Martha Nussbaum’s capability theory and compares her patriotic leftism to the communitarian impulse in writers such as Michael Sandel, Charles Taylor, and Amitai Etzioni. Disappointingly, Zaretsky fails to mention care ethicists like Joan Tronto (1993), who have built on Weil’s critique of rights in the well-known “care vs. justice” debate that was foundational for the formulation of care ethics in the 1980s and 90s. By skipping care ethics, he misses a notable body of work in which Weil’s thought does still, in Zaretsky’s words, resonate (Bourgault 2014).

Finally, in the fifth chapter, “The Good, the Bad, and the Godly,” Zaretsky offers a more prolonged examination of Weil’s engagement with Christianity and mysticism. Weil’s relationship to Christianity, as Zaretsky notes, was fraught with tension, as she was split between “the desire to surrender herself wholly to the church and her indignation at so much of its history and dogma that prevented her from doing so” (52). Weil’s dialogue with Christianity materialized in her conversations with two interlocutors: the Dominican priest Jean-Marie Perrin and “aspiring Catholic theologian” Gustave Thibon (52). After her death, she left both men with unpublished work, which they subsequently went on to publish, the former in Waiting for God and the latter in Gravity and Grace. Zaretsky mostly approaches Weil’s mysticism in terms of her idea of décreation, which loosely refers to the unmaking or undoing of the self in the face of God. This idea hinges on Weil’s image of God, who “shows his love to his creation by withdrawing from it” (54). God, in Weil’s understanding, cannot coexist in a cosmos with the non-divine, and for this reason, has no choice but to withdraw and hide. To love God is to join him in hiding: “Our being is nothing other than the will that we should consent not to be. He is forever begging from us the being which he gives. And he gives it so as to beg it from us” (quoted in Zaretsky, 54). Zaretsky is understandingly baffled by Weil’s descriptions of décreation. He deems her God “at best neurotic, at worst sociopathic,” and refers to our relationship to him as a “bizarre family dynamic” (54). To make more sense of Weil’s mysticism, he turns to one of her most famous readers: the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch. Murdoch, as Zaretsky puts it, adds another “o” to Weil’s “God,” and her notion of goodness turns décreation into a process of the gradual peeling away of the selfish ego, so as to open oneself to perceive and act on goodness. (Weil’s notion of attention, which became so important for Murdoch, is this idea’s backbone.)

This final chapter is briefer than the other four, and also a little less focused. Zaretsky oddly selects this chapter to expound on Weil’s distaste for political parties, where chapter three and four would probably have been more sensible choices. It is also surprising that Zaretsky has little to say here about the importance of Weil’s religious beliefs for her social and political thought. Especially towards the end of her life, these became increasingly indistinguishable. When, for instance, Weil writes that “the capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer… is almost a miracle” (quoted in Zaretsky, 23), this miracle is of God’s making; the miracle of goodness is also the miracle of God’s love. This is a thought Zaretsky hints at (especially in the first chapter), but he regrettably does not fully develop its ramifications here.

Zaretsky closes the final chapter with the observation that Weil’s thought is often impractical, even if it is important. Indeed, Weil’s “attraction to absolutes” (45) and the rigidity of her thought can encumber attempts to draw practical wisdom from her social and political philosophy. Or, as Raimond Gaita (2014, xxi) puts it, “[i]t is hard to be open to Weil’s political thought in a way that is consistent with both sobriety and idealism.” This is perhaps one reason why her thought does not resonate as strongly in contemporary thought as Zaretsky would like; but to Zaretsky, Weil’s severity is precisely her strength. Approvingly, he quotes Iris Murdoch, who once quipped that reading Weil is “to be reminded of a standard” (quoted in Zaretsky, 12). Indeed, Zaretsky sees in Weil an exemplary figure. Throughout The Subversive Simone Weil, his tone is reverential; and aside from some brief critical reflections (for instance, on her reading of the Iliad and on her position on colonialism), he refrains from scrutinizing her thought in much detail. Zaretsky frequently finds himself humbled by the unsparing nature of her thinking and of her personality, as well as of her insistence to engage with the world head-first. In the book’s epilogue, he refers to Weil’s friend and biographer Simone Pétrement, who poignantly observed: “Who would not be ashamed of oneself in Simone’s [Weil’s] presence, seeing the life she led?” (Quoted in Zaretsky, 60.)

In many ways, Weil embodies a picture of the intellectual that is much in vogue today: critical, uncompromising, and leaning towards activism. She is at least in this sense a timely figure. Nonetheless, Zaretsky does not fully make good on his promise in the introduction, which was to show how Weil’s core notions may resonate today. Sure enough, Zaretsky occasionally alludes to the relevance of Weil’s thought in our daily life (as in his encounters with panhandlers) or the present political moment (references to Trump’s administration abound). But the devil is in the details, and what sometimes misses from his discussions is a more sustained analysis of how Weil’s impractical stances may be rendered practical – or indeed, whether her rigidity and severity are not also in some ways flaws. If Weil really is so impractical, did she in fact succeed at avoiding “deflection” and face “the difficulty of reality”? By eschewing this question, or at most briefly hinting at answers (as he does in the epilogue), Zaretsky does not quite convince about the urgency of Simone Weil’s oeuvre for today.

But perhaps this is beside the point, as the accomplishments of The Subversive Simone Weil lie elsewhere. To be sure, Zaretsky is hardly the first to discuss Weil’s life in conjunction with her thought. Indeed, Weil’s biographical details punctuate many philosophical discussions on Weil. (Her martyrlike death of starvation, in part a consequence of her refusal to eat more than her fellow citizens in Occupied France, has become near-legendary.) But if these references can sometimes appear gratuitous, more concerned with myth-making than with sense-making, Zaretsky’s achievement here is to render Weil’s biography a rich resource for understanding her main philosophical ideas – and, in doing so, to provide a vivid, compelling, and stimulating introduction to the ideas of this singular philosopher. Newcomers to Weil’s oeuvre will be amazed (if not humbled), no doubt; but Zaretsky’s impressive scholarship should ensure that even those familiar with her life and work will find plenty to discover in this rewarding book.


Bourgault, Sophie. 2014. “Beyond the Saint and the Red Virgin: Simone Weil as Feminist Theorist of Care.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 35 (2): 1. https://doi.org/10.5250/fronjwomestud.35.2.0001.

Diamond, Cora. 2003. “The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy.” Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas 1 (2): 1–26. https://doi.org/10.1353/pan.0.0090.

Gaita, Raimond. 2014. “Foreword.” In Letter to a Priest, by Simone Weil, xiii–xxiv. London and New York: Routledge.

Murdoch, Iris. 1959. “The Sublime and the Good.” Chicago Review 13 (3): 42. https://doi.org/10.2307/25293537.

Tronto, Joan. 1993. Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care. New York: Routledge.

Weil, Simone. 1970. First and Last Notebooks. Translated by Richard Rees. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

———. 2014. “Human Personality.” In Letter to a Priest, 57–90. London and New York: Routledge.

Paul Giladi (Ed.): Hegel and the Frankfurt School, Routledge, 2020

Hegel and the Frankfurt School Book Cover Hegel and the Frankfurt School
Routledge Studies in Nineteenth-Century Philosophy
Paul Giladi (Ed.)
Hardback $119.99

Christian Krijnen (Ed.): Concepts of Normativity: Kant or Hegel? Brill, 2019

Concepts of Normativity: Kant or Hegel? Book Cover Concepts of Normativity: Kant or Hegel?
Critical Studies in German Idealism, Volume 24
Christian Krijnen (Ed.)
Hardback €143.00 $172.00
x, 260

Reviewed by: Andrew James Komasinski (Hokkaido University of Education)


Despite facing almost immediate criticism from Hegel, Kant’s view of normativity has greatly influenced contemporary value theory. This volume is the fruit of a 2017 conference at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam by the same name that sought to bring the two conflicting accounts into dialogue (1). There are three general points worth making before addressing the articles themselves.

First, the articles in this volume use diverse sigla. Some articles, such as Christian Hoffman’s, refer to the Elements of the Philosophy of Right as PR and other articles, such as Jiří Chotaš’s, refer to it as RpH (9, 164). The Phenomenology of Spirit similarly receives the sigla PhG from Arthur Kok, Christian Schmidt, and Alberto L. Siani whereas Martin Bunte and Tereza Matějčková inter alia use PS (47, 147, 244, 62, 199). Similar article by article variation occurs with Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason with Martin Bunte using CPR but Paul Cobben using KdrV (66, 27). While each article is internally consistent, this and rehearsal of the same parts of Hegel make the book feels more like a collection than a whole. For consistency’s sake, I will use PR, PhG, CPR, along with EPS for Encyclopedia of the Philosophical System and Religion for Kant’s Religion within the Bounds of Reason Alone consistently in this review.

Second, different authors took different approaches to the use of German. Some authors use the German directly for the major parts of PR: Abstrakt Recht, Moralität, and Sittlichkeit; others translate them as Abstract Right, Morality, and, Ethical Life (Battistoni at 121, 124; Chotaš at 164). I will consistently use the English throughout. For terms such as Bildung where the translation choices are substantive, this is more understandable. Hoffman glosses it as “education” and then uses “education” after that (4,12). Krijnen supplies the possible translation “education of the understanding and applicable skills” but generally sticks to Bildung (115-117). Siani does the same (250). Chotaš and Zabel call it development (171, 181). These differences between articles will not impede specialists but make it challenging to read the work as a united whole.

Third, the title of the volume suggests proponents of both Kant and Hegel, but true to its origin at a conference from a network called “Hegel’s Relevance,” most authors are more sympathetic to Hegel than to Kant (1). Some contributions write as if Hegel’s critiques of Kant were definitive and Hegel’s positions decisive. Having more full-throated defenses of Kantian’s normativity and more engagement between the two as competing contemporary interpretations would have strengthened the volume. Nevertheless, the volume contributes importantly to our understanding of ethics and social philosophy in Hegel and German Idealism.


  1. Being at Home with Oneself in the Whole—Hegel’s Philosophy of Freedom as Actuality, Christian Hoffman

Christian Hoffman’s article provides an excellent introduction to the relation between Bildung and holism in Hegel and how this differentiates him from Kant. Hoffman traces Hegel’s attempt to accomplish monistically and holistically what Kant tried to achieve dualistically for reason and freedom. (9-10, 13). Hoffman identifies Bildung “education” in PhG, as both breaking the natural harmony and building “a new and more differentiated form of the whole” (12). Hoffman also highlights the senses in which Hegel’s unity is active rather than a static thing (14).

Turning to the system in the EPS and the PR, Hoffman first emphasizes how this holistic process is not just knowing but self-knowing (14-17). Hoffman joins to this sense in which Hegel’s holistic account refers to a common realm of shared freedom (19-22). Finally, Hoffman notes the relation between the Hegelian holism and its Aristotelian ancestry (inter alia 22-23). Hoffman addresses Kant’s idea of normativity as a dualistic account Hegel incorporates insights from but then supersedes.

  1. Hegel’s Radicalization of Kant’s Copernican Turn: the Internal Unity of the Natural and the Moral Law, Paul Cobben

Paul Cobben’s article progresses from problematic Humean impressions to dualistic Kantian intuitions to Hegel’s monistic resolution. First, Cobben develops how Kant’s intuitions solve the Humean predicament where impressions are both external and mind. Kant solves this problem in his apparatus of manifolds, imagination, and categories, which makes impressions mental and things-in-themselves external (27). Through this, Kant equates propositional and material truth when material truth is mediated by the Kantian apparatus (27-31). Cobben, following Gadamer, reads PhG’s first chapter as tracing out the Kantian account but rejecting its account of material truth (31-33). Cobben remarks that Hegel has demonstrated “The apperception of the Perception cannot justify how the manifold of intuitions can be connected into an objective material truth” (34). Unfortunately, the arguments substantiating this claim and the claims about Hegel’s “first truth of the understanding” and “second truth of the understanding” were truncated and hard to follow (34-35).

Cobben believes that understanding requires attending to the subject as conscious (36). Cobben sees PhG’s account of desire’s inability to achieve unity with its object, because it continues to want precisely what it is not as culminating in the realization that the perceived world that individual consciousness finds itself in is not merely its own but rather a shared world (38-39). Cobben joins to this an interpretation of the lord/bondsman dialectic which understands it as involving the death of individual consciousness and its sublimation into institutional consciousness (40-42). Cobben’s final claim is that Kant’s solution fails and that Hegel develops an account that culminates in the resolution of the lord/bondsman dialectic (43). Most of the second half seemed like it would benefit from more engagement with contemporary defenses of understanding along Kantian lines and other interpretations of the lord/bondsman dialectics.

  1. The Religion of the God-Man: Hegel’s Account of Revealed Religion in the Phenomenology of Spirit, Arthur Kok

Arthur Kok’s article is a welcome addition to the discussion of Hegel’s concept of God and its relation to Kant’s religion. Kok’s article also looks at Kant’s dualism and Hegel’s attempt to overcome it in PhG, insofar as Kant’s moral philosophy required a religion with a God as the projected lawgiver of reason to realize the good (46-47). Kok identifies this argument in PhG both specifically and within Spirit’s dialectical search for an adequate relation between freedom and moral duty (47-48). This activity culminates in the realization that the source of moral value in religion is Spirit moving in the community (49). Here, more interaction with Kant’s Religion could have explained why Kok believes Kant’s account of the rational community as the arbiter of moral value is inadequate.

Kok also locates a similar dynamic in Hegel’s account of revealed religion, i.e. Christianity, situating it as the dialectical outcome of an unhappy consciousness where freedom sees the inadequacy of an external law (50-53). This leads to the incarnation as the simultaneous “activity of the Self that results in the appearance of the Self without the Self becoming something other than itself” and thus resolves this tension in religion by (1) being “both distinct and non-distinct from those who identify him as the God-man,” (2) representing “the self-realization of spirit,” and (3) establishing “the presence of the divine in this world” to overcome suffering (55). Kok then articulates this as Hegel’s answer to the problem of evil where human activity can free itself from evil (56). Joined to the resurrection (and ascension), Hegel makes community that remembers the God-man the true reconciliation of spirit in ethics (57).

  1. The Reality of Value as a Problem of Kantian Ethics, Martin Bunte

Martin Bunte’s article looks at Hegel’s formalism objection against Kant’s ethics from PhG 257 (A.V. Miller pagination) and the problem of testing but not giving laws (62). Bunte believes Kant’s ethics suffers from a tautology because the a priori nature of Kant’s ethics interacts with the autonomy of the will to produce moral laws that are “conceivable only under the reservation of the heteronomy of what is willed” (63). Bunte explains his version of the objection in a single sentence: “If freedom as spontaneity or autonomy is to be the essential reason for the determination of will, then it must be able to refer to rules or laws from the position of legislator” (64).

Bunte argues that a successful Kantian defense against this objection must also achieve a unity for practical reason like the one for theoretical reason (65). Since the two domains are both domains of reason, Bunte notes that they must both find their origins in the spontaneity of the will as the “unconditioned condition” (65). Bunte illustrates this with the categories of the understanding in the realm of theoretical reason (66). Bunte analogizes that Kantian practical reason must be premised on the idea that the moral self gives itself its rules (66). Bunte here distinguishes the analogical cases by arguing that reason’s theoretical use refers to the laws of nature but that its practical use must refer to laws of freedom, which means laws that it must give itself (67). While Bunte largely thinks that Hegel’s critique rings true, he believes Kant succeeds in answering one part of Hegel’s objection: the moral imperative is something the self commands to itself as a demand of reason and that he develops such an account in Religion (70).

Bunte believes both that the formalism objection applies to Kant and succeeds convinced the formalism objection succeeds. There is a large amount of literature on this that finds things murkier: there is disagreement as to both what the objection is, to whether it misses the mark, and to whether Kantians have resources to resist or overcome it (See for instance Hoy 1989, Freyenhagen 2012, and Stern 2012).

  1. Foundations of Normativity, Max Gottschlich

Unlike many articles in this volume, Max Gottschlich’s article focused on identifying which logic is best for normativity: “formal logic” which he identifies with pre-Kantian order of being thinking (74-75), “transcendental logic” which he identifies with Kant (75-81), or “dialectical logic” which he identifies with Hegel (81-86). Gottschlich dismisses formal logic as often used but not useful for considering normativity, because it cannot capture the paradox of determiner and determined.

Transcendental logic, in contrast, focuses on the paradox of determiner and determined and identifies the limits of what can be said and is naturally reflexive (76). In Kant, this accomplishes “self-fulfilling self-relation” (77, emphasis in original). Through this, Gottschlich states that transcendental logic identifies the role of values and norms in “settings” (77). Gottschlich mentions in passing that he thinks the formalism objection is wrong (in opposition to several articles in this volume), that Kant and Hegel agree that value must begin in reason, and that Hegel’s true objection is to the absolute form, rather than developmental growth, that births duties (80).

Gottschlich sees dialectical logic’s acceptance of contradiction as its genius (82). In a clearer formulation, the point is that “the self only maintains itself by losing itself” – in other words when it recognizes its mediation as dynamic act rather than absolute (84). Gottschlich then turns to how norms are produced in the Hegelian account (86). While Kant and Hegel both make goal-setting a sign of rationality, Gottschlich sees Hegel’s version as more advanced because it abstracts from the abstracting in the execution of a “concrete universal” (86-87). Gottschlich next looks at poiesis (production) where Kant’s form is too abstract to derive anything but an abstract universal (90). Only in Hegel, he maintains, can we find subjectivity (a subjectivity beyond the self) as the goal (91). At many points, Hegel’s critiques seemed to be accepted uncritically and would have benefited from more interaction with defenses of the Kantian approaches.

  1. Hegel über die logischen Grundlagen der Sittlichkeit, Klaus Vieweg

Klaus Vieweg’s article was the singular contribution in German to this volume. Vieweg highlights the important role of civil society in PR often overlooked since it is only one step before right’s ultimate form in the state. After rehearsing PR’s Morality as a critique of Kant and a demonstration of its self-inadequacy (95-96), Vieweg focuses on Ethical Life as “eines logisch fundierten Systems der allgemeinen Willensbestimmungen konzipiert, als das Objektive der Freiheit” (97). In this domain, it is not the objective that dominates like a yoke but reason as a cozier hearth that determines things based on both objective and subjective will (97-98).

Vieweg focuses on the role of civil society and how it helps us understand modern society. Viewing identifies civil society as setting living a good life as the goal in a domain where consciousness has been brought under the concept (98-99). This is true freedom insofar as thinking has itself as its end. While Vieweg notes the work of Dieter Henrich on Hegel’s Lecture on the State as Three Ends, he argues that civil society’s importance has not been sufficiently mined in PR (99). Vieweg sees reflection and necessity as the distinctive marks of civil society that separate it from the family’s role as the natural end of humanity and the state’s self-substantial unity (100). Vieweg argues that this logic occurs in triadic form throughout these three forms of Ethical Life but in different sequences (101).

For Vieweg, what unifies all of the forms Ethical Life is that they all will the concept not only subjectively but in recognition of its objectivity (103; PR §142A). In this way, they are self-developing ends. They advance over the freedom of persons in abstract right, the freedom of moral subjects in Morality, and become the freedom of ethical subjects (103). Through this, they find themselves unified in a moral community (103).

  1. How is Practical Philosophy Speculatively Possible?, Christian Krijnen

Christian Krijnen’s article identifies both Kant and Hegel as contributors to a complete account of normativity. Krijnen argues that post-Kantian attempts in German Idealism to better ground the unity of practical and theoretical reason all lead to the centrality of freedom and the construction of value-laden reality (106-107). Krijnen believes the Kantian approach succumbs to a formalism objection that Hegel avoids this by understanding “self-formation as self-knowledge in the fashion of a self-realization of the concept” (107). At the same time, Krijnen argues that Hegel’s solution eviscerates practical philosophy by thematizing it as the “speculative doctrine of the idea” rather than engage it practically (108). Thus, Krijnen holds that Hegel does achieve a unity in the form of free Spirit but that this unity sublates practical philosophy and demeans it as an inadequate form of knowledge (109).

Returning to Kant’s architectonic, Hegel is not describing what “ought to be” in practical philosophy (110). In Kant’s picture, the free will needs to realize the rational object of its freedom, which it experiences as an ought (111). In contrast, Hegel’s Ethical Life focuses on the actuality of freedom rather than an ought: “The point for Hegel here is that we only have concrete, not mere abstract duties only in the realm of Sittlichkeit” (112).

Krijnen’s positive task is to establish a speculative practical philosophy despite Hegel’s failure to provide one (112). He begins by noting that Kant makes moral agents the originators of their actions (through the bifurcation of the world into the deterministic theoretical realm and the free practical realm), and this for Hegel is only true in the realm of subjective Spirit – not objective Spirit (112-113). Krijnen notes that abstract oughts operate as givens for Hegel and thus remain inadequate, which makes them inadequate for the living good that Hegel demands of the sphere of action (113-114).

Krijnen thinks an answer can be found in Bildung in the family and civil society (114-115). Krijnen then differentiates his view from those of Vieweg and Cobben. Krijnen thinks that Vieweg is wrong to think Hegel does not need a “canon of duties,” because Hegel does not abandon Morality’s truth but brings into Ethical Life (116). For Cobben, Krijnen notes the degree to which both treat Bildung but argues that the solutions Cobben notes are problems of integrating practical philosophy into Hegel rather than irremediable deficits in Hegel’s philosophy (117).

  1. The Normative Function of the Right of Objectivity in Hegel’s Theory of Imputation, Giulia Battistoni

Giulia Battistoni presents a deeply technical argument about imputation in the Morality section of PR. Battistoni first maintains that Hegel’s critique of Kant identified with PR §135 shows Kant unable to “derive particular and concrete duties from the determination of duty as formal correspondence with itself” and requires evaluating both the “consequences of actions” and “the social context” (121). While Ethical Life merges objective and subjective concerns of right, Battistoni sees Morality as the locus where imputation attributes subjective right to a moral subject (121-122). In Morality, the moral subject experiences the good as an ought, which interestingly creates the problem of making this “both the true good and a mere opinion” where actions are good if they are born of good intention (123).

To understand imputation in this context, Battistoni draws a parallel with Hegel’s two notions of nature (128). First nature is externality which can take the form of a natural world which stands in opposition to the subject as a determination separate from will (124). Second nature is the habituation and internalization of the social order of right (127). Battistoni locates the lower sense in Abstract Right and the higher sense in Morality, especially PR §119A’s claim that external deeds are categorized as we impute motives to the moral subjects involved (132).

  1. Freedom from Kant to Hegel, Christian Schmidt

Christian Schmidt’s article differs from many of the other critiques in defending Hegel against a contemporary critique. Schmidt tests whether Louis Althusser’s critique of German Idealism applies to Hegel and through this differentiates Kant and Hegel on freedom. Schmidt looks at why Althusser calls Hegel an empiricist by highlighting how Hegel mines the real by dividing the empirical and the essence of things to get to their essences (142). As Schmidt points out, this largely echoes Hegel’s critique of Kant where the empirical becomes merely material fodder for the categories to peel off (142). In contrast, Hegel sees understanding as a synthesis of sensuous manifold and mental activity (143). While knowing this, Althusser still things Hegel is guilty of the same bifurcation.

Schmidt spends the rest of the article looking specifically at freedom in Kant and Hegel as “a property of rational beings and moral (or political, or social) agents that is not detachable” and the critique of this analysis in Foucault and Althusser (144-145). Schmidt first explains how reason and understanding are the self-activity of subjects that separate them from animals (145). Despite the receptive components of understanding, Kant believes moral agents are free (146). Schmidt characterizes Kant’s account as “highly abstract … purified from all social and political meaning” (146). On this basis, Schmidt believes Althusser stands justified in his critique of Kant (147).

Hegel’s subject, like Kant’s, is a break in the causal chain (147-148). At the same time, Hegelian freedom is the restriction of “dull-witted emotions and raw impulses” (LPWH 103-104) that only finds itself in the state (148). In Hegel, freedom is a byproduct of people pursuing desire since this constructs and restructures the rules of society (148-149). This merges with spontaneity insofar as individuals collide with the established order (151). Thus, Hegel presents a unified idea of freedom where freedom is “the concretization of spontaneity” (152). For this reason, Schmidt rejects Althusser’s critique of Hegel.

  1. Justification of the State: Kant and Hegel, Jiří Chotaš

Jiří Chotaš contrasts Kant and Hegel’s justifications of the state. Chotaš reads Kant as like Hobbes building the state from a state of nature where people “are at each other’s mercy” who produce by nature a civil union with a “general united will” that expresses itself in the ruler, the judge, and most importantly the legislator which cooperate for the benefit of the citizens (158-161).

While Hegel shared Kant’s idea that “freedom creates human substance,” Hegel also examined how it was realized, Hegel believed Kant erred by basing this union on “an arbitrary will of individuals” who sought to establish it for property and contracts (164). In contrast, Hegel believed the State was the natural home of people and argued for this in PR, his “scientific proof of the concept of the state” (164).

Chotaš summarizes the stages of Ethical Life. First, Chotaš looks at family, focusing on how marriage links non-related people around love and common interest rather than as Kant supposed contract (166). Second, civil society arises through the division of labor (167). To this, Hegel joins the Polizei who secure “external order” in matters as diverse as public health and bridge-building (168). Chotaš identifies these attributes as giving civil society the status of being “‘an external state’ as well as ‘a state of necessity’ (PR §183)” (168). Here, corporations protect their members like an extended family and provide “the second ethical root of the state” (169). Third and finally, the state itself functions as the culmination of the ethical ideal actualizing itself in customs (169) and replicating the family as “a human community with its own spirit and will” but through “political virtue” rather than feeling (169-170). The state also takes on attributes of civil society, by transforming people’s ends and unifying them as a whole (170).

Chotaš then distinguishes Hegel’s state from Kant’s. He begins by noting that for Hegel, peoples and their constitutions are mirrors (171). He notes that both believe constitutional change should happen through constitutional procedures (171). He notes that Hegel also has three powers but they differ: “the legislative power, the executive power, and the princely power or monarchy” (171). For Hegel, the most important of these is the sovereign (PR §273, 279R) but remains under the constitution (171-172). Chotaš also describes the Hegelian legislature: upper house of landed gentry by birth and lower house by election (172). Chotaš’s article could have demonstrated further differences by addressing Kant’s Religion and contemporary defenses of Kant’s state.

  1. Hegel’s Republican Penal Philosophy: an Attempt at a Contemporary Reconstruction, Benno Zabel

Benno Zabel focuses on the republican nature of Hegel’s penal philosophy, situating it in an account of PR (182-183). Zabel identifies crime in Hegel as “(performative) self-contradiction” (184). Zabel explains using PR §95 that in crime, a criminal violates freedom (184-185). This must be met with cancellation (185). As Zabel points out, Hegel believes crime only applies to actions (185). Zabel identifies three practical functions in Hegel’s conception of punishment: “the dimension of the (formal) recognition of status, the dimension of the institutionalized procedure and the dimension of social communication” (186). Recognition of status begins with the “effective power of sanctions” (186). This also brings to the fore the standing of the victim as a member of a moral community (186). Crime, for Hegel, is resistance to “the common normative basis” and must be met so that crime does not appear as valid (187).

Turning to institutionalized procedure, Zabel contends that Hegel sees punishment as part and parcel of a legal procedure (187). Thus, it simultaneously refers to the separation of powers (187). In other words, the counter-coercion of punishment must occur on “a universally recognized basis” in accepted criminal law (188). As Zabel notes, for Hegel, contra Foucault, these procedures are precisely the prevention of despotism (188). Textually, Zabel supports this from the “administration of justice” (189).

Finally, Zabel points out how punishment communicates for Hegel (191). Zabel explains that “punishment can be considered only as retaliation (Wiedervergeltung), that is, as (symbolic) restoration of the order of freedom” (191). Zabel notes that Hegel is not limited to mere retribution, however, and can help in “the general prevention of crime and betterment of the individual” as punishment becomes “a visible part of society” (191). In this way, punishment communicates. Zabel disagrees with Cooper’s Abstract Right only reading (1971) and other interpretations that isolate punishment from the larger context of Hegel’s PR. Zabel thus argues for a punishment plus account of Hegel’s penal philosophy in line with Brooks (2012) and Komasinski (2018) and others.

  1. History as the Progress in the (Un)Consciousness of Freedom?, Tereza Matějčková

Matějčková’s article contrasts the destructive Enlightenment that felled governments and challenged religions with a Hegelian concept of freedom where freedom invigorates institutions (196-197). Kant occupies a middle where the limits of knowledge lead to “respect and toleration of others” (198). Hegel extends this by making actions reflexive and incorporating a social reality in the “I that is We and We that is I” (199 quoting PhG 110). On this reading, normativity becomes an internal feature of freedom such that Absolute Spirit’s achievement is to recognize that “that its own thinking has been conditioned by a plurality of other spirits or subjects” (200). This particular characterization of absolute Spirit could have been expanded and defended textually.

Matějčková uses PhG’s lengthy phrenology critique to highlight how this involves a re-appropriation of the physical contra dualistic approaches that deny the skull-bone any part in Spirit. For Hegel, in contrast, it is a part but just one part and highlights the Hegelian idea that the inner is the outer and the outer the inner (203-205).

For Hegel, all of the upheavals of history are part of “the progress of the consciousness of freedom” (206). In the realm of history, this amounts to a recognition that nature by itself has no history, because nature is not for itself (207). Only by the addition of human freedom and spontaneity can something new arise (207). In Hegel’s history, world-historical people function precisely by using freedom to overturn existing structure (208). In the process, they appeal to the people (209). Joined to its dynamism is the terminus of history (210). This end is one where freedom is being achieved through equal checks and balances in the institutions (210). Matějčková maintains that contra Popper, Hegel’s philosophical system develops institutions that enable people to have personal freedoms (211). This article covers a lot of ground and makes interesting arguments that would be clearer if they were set in contrast to others writing on similar topics in Hegel such as Adrian Peperzak’s Modern Freedom (2001).

  1. Is There Any Philosophy of History?, Jean-François Kervégan

Kervégan contrasts philosophy of history in Kant and Hegel against the backdrop of the arguments between enlightenment and anti-enlightenment thought (219-220). Kervégan first notes Voltaire’s coining of the term in 1765 and its audacity for mixing two heretofore distinct areas of knowledge as a history of human spirit (217-218).

Kervégan believes Kant lacks a proper philosophy of history, because the Kant texts generally categorized do not deal with a “system of rational knowledge via concepts” (220). Kervégan suggests that Kant’s historical works even when they present a “history of freedom” are still just histories rather than a proper philosophy of history, because philosophy proper is metaphysics in nature and freedom and “historical considerations do not belong to it” (226).

Conversely, Kervégan identifies the history of philosophy as central to Hegel’s philosophy (226). Given Hegel’s dialectical philosophy, Spirit is always working towards an adequate understanding of itself including its history (227). Philosophy thinks in the present and thinks the rational as actual and the actual as rational (228). This has the consequence of making history present to itself. In other words, the object of Hegel’s philosophy of Spirit is history, and Spirit is also the one doing the study (229).

  1. “Freedom in the European Sense”: Hegel on Action, Heroes, and Europe’s Philosophical Groundwork, Alberto L. Siani

Siani argues that Hegel and Europe are intertwined terms with Hegel’s insight being that institutions should mirror the freedom of people (235-236). Siani quotes Hegel’s linkage of Europe and freedom: “It is especially this subjective or moral freedom that is called freedom in the European sense” in the Morality section of the encyclopedia (EPS, §503R, 224) (236).

Siani explicates this through PR’s Morality section emphasizing Hegel’s critique which Siani articulate as follows: “morality has to state the difference between subject and object in order to affirm the freedom of the former, but if this difference is absolutized, subjective freedom can never bridge the gap to objectivity, and hence becomes utterly ineffective and empty” (241). This is, of course, overcome for Hegel in Ethical Life in which subjective freedom bridges the gap. Classically, the individual is free qua an identity rather than an abstraction (243). Modern freedom requires that tragedy intervene and make this freedom open (243). Siani then provides an extended consideration of Antigone and the role of heroes in the transformation of freedom (243-248).

As this is the third chapter in this volume to articulate a version of Hegel’s critique of Morality, it would help to understand how the different interpretations contrast with each other and differentiate themselves from common interpretations and defenses against the objection from Kantian scholars.

External References

Brooks, Thom. 2012. “Hegel and the Unified Theory of Punishment.” In Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, edited by Thom Brooks, 103–23. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Cooper, David E. 1971. “Hegel’s Theory of Punishment.” In Hegel’s Political Philosophy: Problems and Perspectives, edited by Z.A. Pelczynski, 151–67. London: Cambridge University Press.

Freyenhagen, Fabian. 2012. “The Empty Formalism Objection Revisited: §135R and Recent Kantian Responses.” In Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, by Thom Brooks, 43–72. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Hoy, David Couzens. 1989. “Hegel’s Critique of Kantian Morality.” History of Philosophy Quarterly 6 (2): 207–32.

Komasinski, Andrew. 2018. “Hegel’s Complete Views on Crime and Punishment.” Journal of the American Philosophical Association 4 (4): 525–44. https://doi.org/10.1017/apa.2018.35.

Peperzak, Adriaan Theodoor. 2001. Modern Freedom: Hegel’s Legal, Moral, and Political Philosophy. Studies in German Idealism, v. 1. Dordrecht ; Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Stern, Robert. 2012. “On Hegel’s Critique of Kant’s Ethics: Beyond the Empty Formalism Objection.” In Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, edited by Thom Brooks, 73–99. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Thomas Fuchs, Lukas Iwer & Stefano Micali: Das überforderte Subjekt – Zeitdiagnosen einer beschleunigten Gesellschaft

Das überforderte Subjekt - Zeitdiagnosen einer beschleunigten Gesellschaft Book Cover Das überforderte Subjekt - Zeitdiagnosen einer beschleunigten Gesellschaft
Thomas Fuchs, Lukas Iwer, Stefano Micali
Suhrkamp Verlag
Paperback 22,00 €

Reviewed by: Jaakko Vuori (University of Jyväskylä, Jyväskylä, Finland)

Byung-Chul Han claims in his philosophical bestseller Müdigkeitsgesellschaft (2010) [“The Burnout Society”] that the psychopathological landscape in the beginning of the 21st century has shifted in contrast to the 20th. It is dominated by what he calls “neuronal” illnesses and ailments: depression, burnout syndrome and attention-deficit disorder (Han 2010, 7). Han’s diagnosis is confirmed by the fact that such conditions are increasingly on the focus of public interest. “A 26 year old university graduate developed a burnout syndrome and the stress did not ease even on sick-leave – Researcher: ‘I am worried of the work ethos of our generation’,” “Half of the working age population today cannot relax properly after work – Employees perform more than required and are burdened by exceeding demands,” and “The whole Finnish society is in slumber, says [the psychologist] Tommy Hellsten, who has recovered from burnout”. These are merely a few randomly selected titles from major media outlets from the author’s native context[1]. They all point to a growing public concern on illnesses and pathologies related to exhaustion.

It is such psychopathological and social landscape that the book Das Überforderte Subjekt: Zeitdiagnosen einer beschleunigten Gesellschaft edited by Thomas Fuchs, Lukas Iwer, and Stefano Micali seeks to tackle, in the words of the editors, by providing “a diagnosis of the times” of “an accelerated society”. The editors inform the reader that the aim of the book is to provide “a psychogram of contemporary society” and for this purpose, “a phenomenology of experiences in mental and physiological overload (Überforderung)” is needed (14). Even though they do not define the concept of a psychogram, I take it that in the context of the book it refers to a presentation of the distinct aspects and intertwined elements of a complex whole, in this case the modern or late-modern subject in her social and experiential organization.

The book is divided into three sections dealing with philosophical and historical perspectives of “Überforderung,”[2] epidemiological and sociological aspects, and clinical perspectives, respectively. Each of the sections is followed by a summarizing and critical review of the contributions included in that section. This is a welcomed introduction because it brings coherence to the book, which is not completely methodologically or stylistically consistent. In the first instance, it is somewhat surprising that while the concept “social acceleration” (Beschleunigung), made famous by Hartmut Rosa, features in the subtitle of the book, no single contribution is devoted to Rosa’s theorizations per se.

As Hartmut Böhme emphasizes in his essay, “the modern tiredness” is essentially a product of highly organized labor (31). Accordingly, many of the contributions of the book are focused on the concepts, discourses and phenomena surrounding changes in the organization of labor, working life and employment, as much as for example on “social acceleration”. “Gainful work” (Erwerbsarbeit) is explicitly the focus of one third of the contributions. On hindsight, however, this fact might not be that surprising after all, since many of the current political and social disputes in highly developed countries are centered on the changing practices and discourses related to the organization of labor due to globalization and digitalization. In this respect, it is perhaps precisely in working life and in its increasing pace and precarization that the pressures and demands created by social acceleration manifest themselves most emphatically.

In contemporary sociological and politological discourses such a shift in the understanding of work is thematized in many ways, of which the following by Rolf Haubl is one example. As he writes, “differently than in Fordism-Taylorism, [today] it is not the life after work that appears as the domain of freedom, but rather the life in work” (370). Correspondingly, based on the contributions collected in the book, it seems that it is a specific Gestalt borrowed from the discourses on working life and organization of labor that serves as the guiding ideal for late-modern processes of subjectivation as a whole. The ideal type is the self-responsible, self-optimizing, and ever innovative entrepreneur, who knows no distinction between labor and leisure, as becomes clear especially in the contributions by Stefano Micali, Cornelia Klinger, and Friederike Hardering and Greta Wagner. The last-mentioned demonstrate convincingly that also the increasingly popular techniques for stress-management, such as mindfulness, serve the purpose for self-optimization and maximal mobilization of resources of a person.

Since it would be impractical to provide an assessment of all the contributions and diverse approaches gathered in the book, in the remainder of this review I will proceed as follows: First, I will reconstruct “the psychogram of contemporary society” in its relevant aspects. Then I will move to offer a few critical remarks regarding some of the approaches and analyses from a methodological perspective.


Even though the editors emphasize the role of phenomenology, it is mainly the essays by Thomas Fuchs and Stefano Micali that provide phenomenological analyses in the strict sense. Both Fuchs and Micali build their essays on their previous work and on the tradition of phenomenological psychopathology. In the tradition of phenomenological psychopathology mental distress is characterized primarily as a “chronopathology” (15), that is it is analyzed and understood with regard to its temporal aspects. Hence, in analyzing pathologies of Überforderung in the context of acceleration societies, classical phenomenological psychopathology offers an important starting point.

Fuchs and Micali emphasize especially the importance of Hubertus Tellenbach’s analyses of melancholia and the conceptualization of an experience that Tellenbach deems “remanence”. Tellenbach introduced the concept already in the beginning of the 1960s to identify specific vulnerability factors and triggering situations of the subject for developing severe depression. Thus conceived, remanence refers to a “feeling of being left behind,” “guilt” (Schuld), and generally to an experience of “remaining short of something or other” (schuldig bleiben), for example of obligations and commitments regarding other persons and of experienced demands set on one’s performance by the social environment and interpersonal world (e.g. 67; 104). In specific situations, remanence can transform into depression or melancholia proper, into an experience of being “tied up to the past,” of being irredeemably guilty, and having no future.

Especially Fuchs seeks to further Tellenbach’s conceptualizations with regard to a general theory of “chronopathology”. According to Fuchs, experiences of remanence should be understood as distinct manners of “desynchronization”, literally as temporal manners of disconnection from the intersubjectively mediated and sustained reality (67; cf. 57–59). In his analysis, individual life consists in processes of synchronization, which aim to maintain a sense of resonance and contemporaneity between an individual and her environment. Already the interaction between an infant and the caregiver is characterized by patterns of mutual affective attunement or “rhythmic melodic interactions” (57). However, also the life of an adult is governed by a similar principle, for example in the case of performing major transitions and role-changes between different stages of life. From Fuchs’s perspective, these are not mere subjective experiences or projects, but in essence relational processes. The intersubjective and social world is structured according to temporal norms that regulate, for example when and how a person should leave her childhood world behind and enter adulthood along with its rights and responsibilities. When the basic sense of resonance is disturbed, or the performance of a life-stage transition left incomplete, a feeling of being left behind or remanence ensues. Following Tellenbach, Fuchs argues that the most extreme form of such an experience is depression or melancholia. In this way, “depression can be conceived as a general desynchronization between organism and environment” (71).

Whereas Fuchs grounds his analysis in a general anthropological and philosophical account of different forms of temporality, according to Micali the temporal norms in acceleration societies are themselves products of specific processes of socialization and subjectivation guided by the ideals of personal initiative, responsibility, and self-optimization (92–93). In other words, due to demands of dynamization of individual life, the subject is dominated by an ever-increasing degree of social demands such as “to catch up,” “to update one’s knowledge,” “to seize the moment until it is too late”. By analyzing the temporal aspects of a society that emphasizes personal initiative and psychic emancipation, Micali is able to give a phenomenological justification to Alain Ehrenberg’s (2010) classical analysis of the conceptual development of modern depression. Echoing Ehrenberg, Micali argues that contemporary depression appears as the mirror-image of a society where “the entrepreneur has become an anthropological paradigm” (92).

By following and reinterpreting Tellenbach’s analyses the largely complementary accounts by Fuchs and Micali are able to provide extremely fruitful analogies between Überforderung and depression in acceleration societies. Tellenbach’s analyses indeed seem fit in further clarifying the experiential and temporal aspect of social acceleration, which in Rosa’s description produces temporally indebted subjects: “subjects of guilt,” “who almost never succeed in working of their to-do lists” (Rosa 2018, 39). However, to speak of the entrepreneur as the anthropological paradigm or of an esthetic manner of subjectivation in late-modern societies, like Cornelia Klinger maintains in her essay (125), amounts to a highly abstract level of reflection. Moreover, as emphasized in the contribution by Vera King, Benigna Gerisch, Hartmut Rosa, Julia Schreiber, and Benedikt Salfeld, analyses that focus on exhaustion-related pathologies from a general philosophical and anthropological perspective at times give the impression that the societal demands in question were imposed on the subject merely “from the outside”. Thus, the focus on pathologies of Überforderung is in danger of giving an oversimplified picture of the complex mediation between “culture and psyche” (227).

To avoid such simplifications, King, Gerisch, Rosa, Schreiber, and Salfeld argue that the demands experienced by the subject are not merely imposed on her performance, but rather “translated” by the subject into her individual patterns of self-understanding and -formation (ibid.). In other words, practices that aim at self-optimization, self-improvement and personal innovativeness are products of complex social and individual processes of normalization. Hence, such social processes are also subjectively affirmed and perhaps even perceived as desirable for the person in question. On the one hand, then, the individual value and experience of self-worth depends on the person’s positioning on “different markets” (229). On the other, the distinct practices of self-optimization offer and are perceived by the individual as practices of self-realization and social participation (230).

In further clarifying such processes of normalization and their pathology inducing character, the more empirically oriented contributions included in the volume offer valuable insights. They also, even if mostly implicitly, open up possibilities for a critical social philosophical reflection on Überforderung that differ from the rather Foucauldian character of Micali’s analysis.

As already implicated, one of the key institutional structures of late-modern societies affected by processes of social acceleration is the organization of labor. In his essay, Johannes Siegrist refers to empirical studies in order to answer the question whether increasing demands in working life makes subjects fall ill. His aim is to identify stress-inducing factors in late-modern working life with the help of two theoretical models that seek to recognize such stressors and enable an empirical testing of their effect. Siegrist’s motivation is sociological. Changes brought about by globalization and digitalization of work become manifest in the growing global competition in costs of labor, which in turn forces companies and employers to intensify the pace of work, to initiate organizational restructuration and reduce personnel (213–214). Moreover, decrease in long-term full-time employment and in the corresponding increase in atypical forms of employment ensues from such changes (ibid.).

The theoretical models Siegrist employs stem from stress-theory. In stress-theory, “stressors” are understood as exceeding and pressing demands that the subject has to cope with and manage yet cannot avoid or elude (215). In this way, such stressors are accompanied by an awareness of a possibility of failure and thereby induce fears of loss of control.

The first of the two models, the so-called “demand-control model,” characterizes and seeks to make empirically accessible the relationship between work-related demands and the range of control a person enjoys over her work environment (216). An imbalance between demands and control manifests, to use a term not employed by Siegrist, in the diminished experience of self-efficacy of the person and thereby induces feelings of anxiety and fear. Since it was developed in the beginning of the 1990s, the demand-control model concentrates on work environment and industrial labor. The second model, the so-called “effort-reward imbalance model” developed by Siegrist himself, seeks also to take into account more distant macro-economic labor market conditions. For this reason, it can be seen as more suitable in identifying stressors of the late-modern increasingly precarious working life. As Siegrist argues, since work is a form of exchange regulated by contract, the principle of equity or fairness is important (217). From this perspective, the focal point of his model is the balance or imbalance between spent effort at work and the received reward in the form of salary, esteem or appreciation, and career opportunities including security of job.

In addition to these factors, in the effort-reward imbalance model, conditions are identified where the expected reward frequently remains missing: such as when the person must defend her position amidst tough competition, or when no alternative possibilities exist for her in the labor market. Yet, regardless of the conditions, when an expected reward stays missing, this results not only in negative emotions such as anger and frustration, but also in psychophysical stress-reactions (ibid.).

As Siegrist demonstrates, extensive empirical research has been conducted based on both models and a heightened risk to fall prey to illnesses such as depression under stressful conditions has been established. In the present context more important is to emphasize that as the sense of security of job can be understood as a form of control, that is, a fear reducing factor, the two models can be combined. Hence, both a sense of self-efficacy and the feeling of self-esteem of the person are in the danger of being eroded under circumstances identified by Siegrist. Importantly, Rolf Haubl in his essay describes the experience of a person who attended Haubl’s coaching session in a way that confirms Siegrist’s analyses. “It became evident, that his limitless efforts at work … were the result of the panic and fear that he himself could be the next one to be dismissed. He constantly sought to convince himself that only tireless working would guarantee his further advances in life.” (379)

In this way, as the very phrasing of Haubl’s case study indicates, Siegrist’s analyses can be read in the overall context of Fuchs’s and Micali’s accounts. Hence, they do not merely characterize specific harmful practices in contemporary working life, but rather the societal situation of individuals in contemporary societies as a whole. The factors identified by Siegrist also remain closer to empirical reality than the rather far reaching analyses of Fuchs, Klinger, and Micali. Still, in Siegrists essay as well as in the contributions by King and others, it remains somewhat open why and how such clearly harmful conditions are normalized, and their effects downplayed or even trivialized. In this respect, it is important as Sabine Flick points out in her commentary that the crises of effort-reward imbalance that Siegrist identifies and King and others also seek to describe can be interpreted also as “crises of recognition” (Anerkennungskrisen) (282).

Freely following Flick’s suggestion, one promising manner of explicating how societal and systemic demands are translated into individual patterns of self-understanding would be to examine how recognition is granted in contemporary societies based on individual merit, innovativeness, and personal initiative. Understood in this way, the conditions described by Siegrist would not amount merely to a lack of recognition, but rather to a specific form of recognition, albeit perhaps itself a pathological one. In other words, conditions of late-modern working life described above could very well also be seen to motivate struggles for recognition in the form of reward or esteem regarding efforts spent at work. Correspondingly, it could be hypothesized that subjects who are constantly threatened by the fear of “being left behind” are produced through such processes of esteeming performance, innovativeness and self-optimization. Yet, the very same processes, by establishing esteem and appreciation based on performance, also fulfill the promise of self-realization and social participation. In this way, Überforderung would amount to a social pathology that could be analyzed and criticized not only by means of Foucauldian analyses but also with the help of critical social philosophy. Such a possibility is hinted at in some of the contributions, most notably in the essay by Martin Heinze and Samuel Thoma, yet not thoroughly cashed out.


Such is, given in broad outlines, the psychogram of contemporary society as it is provided in the volume. As mentioned, the general theme of the book and the focus of many individual contributions is on pathologies of Überforderung. Of these, especially depression acquires a prime importance, even though also burnout and even such conditions as Hikikomori and “Cocooning” are mentioned.

When it comes to depression Siegrist demonstrates convincingly that there exists an elevated risk for persons under high work-related stress to fall ill on depression. Yet, a major difference exists between a claim of an empirically established relation between depression and work-related stressors on the one hand, and an understanding of depression as a social pathology or a mirror-image of the neo-liberal subject on the other. Moreover, as Josua Handerer, Julia Thom, and Frank Jacobi argue, an increasing prevalence of cases of clinical depression has not been established through epidemiological studies (190). On the contrary, the contemporary prevalence of depression can be explained through the global increase in population and in life expectancy (187). Such is the case, for example, with the often-cited estimate of the WHO that major depression disorder would become the leading cause for the global burden of disease by the 2030s. Hence, claims that experiences of Überforderung would simply be the cause of an epidemiologically established increase in cases of clinical depression are not warranted.

In addition, also the corresponding theoretical claims put forward by Micali on the one hand and empirical scientists on the other are fundamentally different in nature. That neo-liberal governmentality or late capitalism amounts to a “cult of guilt” (vershuldender Kultus) (93) is a claim that obviously cannot be verified empirically. Micali himself takes into account such discrepancy between empirical and sociophilosophical analyses of Überforderung by distinguishing between the “social relevance” of a psychopathology and its epidemiological prevalence (86). However, in many other contributions of the volume such discreetness is not sufficiently practiced.

This fact is partly due to the rather general level of anthropological reflection employed in some of the contributions. Even though the socially and interpersonally oriented approach to psychotherapy advocated by Martin Heinze and Samuel Thoma is a welcomed suggestion, one asks how useful generalizations such as the following are in recognizing critically relevant social pathologies or empirically established factors for Überforderung in contemporary societies: “that the modern subject suffers under exceeding demands results also from the fact that she misunderstands her place in the world: by taking herself to be above nature, she fails to notice the fact that she can be free only by recognizing her naturalness and sociality” (356). To freely paraphrase the commentary by Matthias Flatscher, contrary to what Heinze and Thoma suggest, Überforderung is perhaps not a matter of a misguided self-understanding of the modern or late-modern subject, but rather a “calculated aspect of modern capitalism to make subjects under precarious conditions obedient and compliant and thereby further advance their exploitation” (154). For if a person is made to fight for her plain survival, then the danger of a genuine solidarity between groups of people and a struggle for a reform of the prevailing societal conditions can be avoided (ibid.).

In the case of Fuchs’s account, similar anthropological generalizations lead to downright problematic conclusions. In distinguishing between a cyclic form of temporality of pre-modern societies and the linear form of time in modernity and arguing for “an attitude of melancholy” as an antidote to “the frantically optimistic culture of universal communication and consumption” of today (75), Fuchs comes dangerously close to such conservative approaches to modernity as the cultural-pessimistic theories of Mircea Eliade or Karl Löwith.

Thus, such anthropological generalizations as are found in Heinze and Thoma’s and in Fuchs’s accounts at times undermine the emancipatory and social critical potential of an analysis of Überforderung. They also seem counter-productive for establishing empirical relations between depression or burnout and processes related to social acceleration in the domain of organization of labor. In this respect, the manner the diagnosis of the times is cashed out in some of the non-empirically oriented contributions seems at times problematic.

However, perhaps such shortcomings point only towards a more closely realized collaboration between phenomenologists, social philosophers, and most importantly, empirically oriented researchers in fields such as medical sociology. In opening up these horizons for discussion and demonstrating the social relevance of Überforderung as subjective suffering, the book serves its purpose more than well.


Ehrenberg, Alain. (2010). The Weariness of the Self: Diagnosing the History of Depression in the Contemporary Age. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Han, Byung-Chul. (2010). Müdigkeitsgesellschaft. Berlin: Matthes & Seitz.

Rosa, Hartmut. (2018). “Available, accessible, attainable: The mindset of growth and the resonance conception of the good life.” In Rosa, Hartmut & Henning, Christoph (2018) The Good Life Beyond Growth: New Perspectives. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 39–53.

[1] These titles stem from the newspaper “Helsingin Sanomat” and the news outlet of the Finnish public broadcasting company (YLE), respectively. All are published in the year 2018.

[2] As the possible English translations for Überforderung (“mental and physiological overload,” “exceeding demands” etc.) are somewhat clumsy, in the following I will employ the German concept for the sake of readability.

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

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

Reviewed byHeath Williams (The University of Western Australia)

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

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

Part 1. Justice and Value.

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

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

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

Part 2. Meaning and Critique.

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

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

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

Part 3. Emotion and Revelation.

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

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

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

Part 4. Embodiment and Affectivity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 5. Pragmatism.

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

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

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

Part 6. Calling Phenomenology into Question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phenomenology for the Twenty-First Century Book Cover Phenomenology for the Twenty-First Century
J. Aaron Simmons, J. Edward Hackett (Eds.)
Palgrave Macmillan UK
Hardcover 99,99 €
XVII, 378