Why is there being instead of nothing? Hanneke Grootenboer’s The Pensive Image: Art as a Form of Thinking takes this Heideggerian question as it’s starting point. Like Martin Heidegger, Grootenboer’s task is to reflect on what constitutes philosophical thinking about being. In a discipline like philosophy, with its wide array of methodological approaches, traditions, and applications, it is easy to lose sight of simple yet profound questions like Heidegger’s. In this sea of approaches, Grootenboer’s book provides an accessible, clear, and innovating means of thinking about being by revealing a new philosophical subject: artworks.
In a succinct five chapters, Grootenboer describes a means of doing philosophy with pensive images. This is an ambitious task; however, for all its brevity (its body is approximately 170 pages), The Pensive Image remains philosophically vigorous and firmly rooted in the philosophical traditions that precede it, including German idealism, romanticism, phenomenology, post-structuralism, and of course, modern and contemporary art history. It is a blend of modern Western philosophy and art history; while Grootenboer discusses some contemporary artworks (like Richard Estes’ photorealism in chapter five), their focus is on seventeenth century Dutch artworks and modern continental philosophy. Its blend of continental philosophy and modern art produces a hybrid means of philosophizing and expands our conception of what is philosophically relevant to include modern artworks.
Despite their blend of philosophy and art, Grootenboer’s attention to detail and clear prose is consistent throughout, making The Pensive Image a valuable resource for art historians, philosophers, students, and the general public. Its clarity and wide range of commentary makes The Pensive Image interesting and accessible for a general audience, while its theoretical contributions to philosophical methods makes it valuable to the undergraduate and highly trained researcher alike.
Grootenboer’s The Pensive Image describes a novel philosophical subject—the pensive image—and prepare it for application in art history (15). Grootenboer justifies this task by arguing that philosophy (insofar as it is interested in reflection, being, essence, and thinking) needs artworks to articulate complex and layered clusters of concepts that are difficult, or impossible, to articulate with words (5). Visual arguments articulate clusters of concepts that are related yet cannot be systematically explained using cause and effect, logic puzzles, or thought experiments. Therefore, visual arguments add invaluable tools to our philosophical tool belts; however, this methodological implication is not the book’s sole source of value.
The Pensive Image does not only describe a new philosophical subject and means of thinking about being. Grootenboer’s meticulous invocation of the Western philosophical tradition, ranging from Descartes to Deleuze, offers us clear and descriptive secondary literature on great philosophical minds. The Pensive Image provides excellent commentary on those whom Grootenboer builds their theory (including Descartes, Diderot, Kant, Locke, Hegel, Herder, Goethe, Heidegger, Barthes, Lessing, Rancière, and Deleuze, amongst others). For example, the description of Heidegger’s conception of uncanniness [unheimlich] from Being and Time in chapter three is as clear and succinct as the description of dewdrops on flower petals in chapter four. Its balance between commentary and description makes The Pensive Image an indispensable handbook to anyone interested in the history of the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of art, and their intersection in the Western continental tradition.
While The Pensive Image provides clear and detailed commentary on other thinkers, it is primarily methodological. Despite its engagement with artwork, it is not hermeneutical. Instead, it follows Edmund Husserl’s original phenomenological directive: to pay close attention to things themselves. Grootenboer’s approach depends on describing artworks as autonomous philosophical subjects. Through a careful consideration of images and their effects on their viewers, Grootenboer describes a relationship between artwork and viewer that does not depend on interpretation, cracking a code, or deciphering a message. Instead, Grootenboer pays close attention to the visuals presented—a open door, a vast black background, the translucent shine of dew on a flower petal—and how these direct our thoughts. Throughout The Pensive Image, Grootenboer acknowledges that these effects may or may not have been the intension of the artist (5, 59, 60, 97, 99, 122, 146). Either way, intentionality (or lack thereof) does not change the artwork’s effect, its capacity to mediate our process of reflection, or to direct our thoughts (10-11). Whether or not Grootenboer’s description and conclusions are possible without an interpretive element is the topic for another book; regardless, Grootenboer describes interactions with artworks readers have likely experienced themselves. It is their description of our shared experience of artworks that makes Grootenboer’s conception of the pensive image and its application so compelling.
What exactly is a pensive image, and what are its effects? Grootenboer’s first section, “Defining the Pensive Image,” describes this philosophical subject and justifies its relevance to modern continental philosophy and art history. Grootenboer sets up their description with an account of the relationship between philosophical thinking and artworks over time. They situate the pensive image in two related traditions: the phenomenology and the relationship between modern artworks and contemplation. Thus, Grootenboer does more than simply revive Heidegger’s question of why there is being. They also situate the pensive image in a tradition of phenomenological approaches to art taken by Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1-5).
Grootenboer then surveys the historical relationship between modern artworks and philosophy. Grootenboer describes their thesis as a secular extension of the medieval tradition of contemplation, which uses images as mnemonic devices to transcend the secular domain (3). Grootenboer also notes how many modern philosophical ideas were explained using visual representation, though the intimate relation between art and philosophy generally declines after the seventeenth century (4). Thus, Grootenboer’s thesis revives and expands upon a previous philosophical tradition and is legitimized by its relation to phenomenological approaches to artworks.
The Pensive Image argues for the relevance of artworks to philosophy on multiple levels. Broadly speaking, it argues that artworks are a form of thinking. Artworks offer viewers entrance into a mode of thinking we would not enter on our own (1). This does not mean the artwork offers a particular narrative or meaning but that it inspires a new train of thought (22). Grootenboer writes that pensive images are “those that confront us in such a way that our wondering about the work of art—its subject of meaning—is transformed into our thinking according to it” (6). Rather than offering a narrative, a pensive image offers us the opportunity to think by guiding our thoughts in ways we might not have gone without its inspiration. This presupposes artworks can be effective: they do something to us. Therefore, pensive images are not meant to be interpreted but experienced.
Specifically, The Pensive Image argues that modern Dutch painting includes pensive images that guide our thoughts and reflections on being. (Though its focus is modern Dutch art, the book includes commentary on film and photography that helps us understand how different forms of art are concerned with different questions.) The first chapter, “Theorizing Stillness,” is devoted to describing the particulars of the pensive image as it applies to Dutch painting. The pensive image has two chief characteristics: firstly, while its meaning is indeterminant, a pensive image redirects our thoughts to contemplate being in new ways. It initiates a line of thinking we can follow indefinitely (9). It is not there to draw conclusions but to serve as an opening that allows a multiplicity of ideas to exist at the same time. Secondly, a pensive image visualizes a snapshot in time. This frozen moment, the anticipation of something more that is not visually articulated, is what directs our thoughts (24). A pensive image is therefore characterized by a movement paradox. Its stillness arrests us and from this arrest comes a flow of thought; pensive images generate “a passive, uneasy, and indeterminant state of openness that allows for the unthought to surface” (26). A pensive image is open, tense, and suggests the possibility of movement (37). It stops our thoughts to redirect them in a new direction undetermined by specific signs or signifiers, meanings or narratives.
If the pensive image does not signify meaning nor tell stories, what does it contain, or, in other words, what is its essence? Chapter two, “Tracing the Denkbild,” answers this question. Instead of a specific signification, the pensive image is the embodiment of thought. This chapter describes different means of understanding an image as embodied thought over time. Through an analysis of stillness, it argues that the pensiveness of a pensive image can be understood as a moment of anticipation (47). Here, stillness is characterized by the theoretical potential for movement, rather than a lack of movement. Thus, tension, anticipation, and potential define a pensive image; it is open, uneasy, and ambiguous. Its openness and ambiguity make the pensive image a valuable philosophical subject worthy of our engagement.
While the idea that painting can be more than images on a canvas is not new, Grootenboer invites us to see painting as a partner in philosophizing that guides us where ‘it’ wants us to go (11). This metaphor of movement, guidance, and journey is central to Grootenboer’s pensive image and recurs through the book. For example, landscape paintings are “maps” that help viewers shape their interior selves, “entrances” into the pictorial realm (2, 1). They invite us to “dwell” within them, they reach out and touch us, set things in motion, and vibrate with potential (5, 26, 43). We are invited to get lost in the image, to rest in it, or to bord it like a vehicle (77, 78). Like Lucy, Edmond, and Eustice in C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, who are literally pulled into a painting of an ocean, allowing the pensive image to direct our thoughts is like being carried away by a wave (58). The tension between stillness and motion, journey and rest are fundamental to the pensive image.
Chapter three expands upon these relationships to think through what Grootenboer pithily calls philosophy’s housing problem. In this chapter, Grootenboer’s philosophical subjects include paintings of bourgeois Dutch homes and a dollhouse. These artworks provide a place for our thoughts to dwell, or, in Grootenboer’s words, “a home for the philosophical self,” by offering the opportunity to reflect on the permeable membranes between publicity and retreat, inside and outside (79). This chapter describes how artworks serve as metaphorical spaces where we can house our thoughts and subjectivities, thereby solving philosophy’s housing problem.
Drawing theoretical support from René Descartes’ construction metaphor and Heidegger’s conception of dwelling, Grootenboer demonstrates how Emanuel De Witte’s Interior with Woman at a Virginal (c. 1660–1667) and Petronella Oortman’s dollhouse (1686– 1710) host our thoughts. Descartes compares self-reflection to construction: in order to achieve self-understanding, we must clear away old foundations and build anew (81). Descartes himself formulated this approach while traveling. In his home-away-from-home, Descartes constructs himself a metaphorical home to house his thoughts and reflections (82). To philosophize is therefore conceived of as being on a mental journey while physically at rest. This implies that the philosopher’s home is not an actual resting place but their journey: the act of philosophizing itself.
Grootenboer builds on this tension between journey and rest by invoking Heidegger’s conception of dwelling. Heidegger argues that constructing something implies we already dwell there (85-86). To dwell implies a movement towards materiality. For Heidegger, dwelling is not a static condition but a constant movement towards something that cannot be achieved (to achieve it would no longer be to dwell). It is to be drawn towards something without ever arriving, a constant becoming (87). De Witte’s interior painting, as a pensive image, helps us understand this situation. It allows our thought to dwell within it. Our eyes and subsequent thoughts are drawn through doorways to the vanishing point beyond, a point we will never actually behold.
While we cannot inhabit De Witte’s painting, Oortman’s dollhouse appears inhabitable. Yet, because the dollhouse replicates Oortman’s home on a miniature scale, it is ultimately uninhabitable, what Grootenboer calls “a borrowed home” (105). That being so, the dollhouse contains elements, like a collection of seashells, that provide an opportunity to think through the dialectics of inside and outside and journey and rest. For example, what was once the travelling home of a sea creature is now an empty shell. The dollhouse allows us the opportunity to think through the uncanny nature of uninhabitable spaces that appear inhabitable. What these artworks offer us is not the ability to determine what is inside and outside, on journey or at rest, but to recognize that as philosophical subjects, we are wanderers (109). It is the pensive image, which offers a temporary place to dwell, that saves us from getting lost.
In chapter four, “The Profundity of Still Life,” Grootenboer analyzes pensive images that guide us through the relationship between finitude and infinity. For example, Adriaene Coorte’s Three Medlars and a Butterfly (1696-1705) mediates our understanding of the relationship between the infinitively large and the finitely small by visualizing a small butterfly approaching three fruits against a black background (119). The painting serves as a plot point between two extremes: the expansive background and the small butterfly. We can use this point as a reference when thinking through the implications of each extreme. This pensive image provides perspective; the butterfly and fruit in the foreground impose a sense of proportion, direction, and space onto a painting that would otherwise stretch into infinity. Grootenboer’s analysis suggests that as situated subjects, we are unable to think through the implications of limitlessness or infinity without a mental anchor or reference point. We can only understand infinity through its comparison with the finite, which Three Medlars and a Butterfly provides. By describing Three Medlars and a Butterfly in detail, Grootenboer demonstrates its philosophical relevance. By mediating our conceptualization of infinity, it embodies a form of thinking and self-reflection (133).
Grootenboer moves past self-reflection in the final chapter, “Painting as Space for Thought,” to invoke G. W. F. Hegel’s conception of self-consciousness. Hegel writes that painting’s function is not to reflect the world, but to provide some permanence for contemplation (135). For Grootenboer and Hegel, what inspires contemplation is shine. Painting is unique amongst artistic mediums in its capacity to represent light and to, therefore, shine (136-138). In this chapter, Grootenboer contrasts Hegel’s conception of self-consciousness with self-reflection, arguing that photorealism is a self-conscious genre whose self-consciousness helps us better understand Hegel’s concept. Grootenboer argues this point via an analysis of shine in Richard Estes’s photorealism.
Where does a reflection lie? In the object that reflects, or the subject that is reflected? Richard Estes’s Central Savings (1975) mimics a photograph of a storefront, in which the objects on the street are reflected and layered on top of each other so that we are unsure what is inside or outside the store. Estes’s painting serves as a means to reflect on reflection, visualizing both the reflected subjects and objects in which they are reflected. The painting is therefore both itself and its negation or mirror image, providing us an opportunity to think through the dialectic of self and other. The painting, whose self-consciousness comes from its ability to facilitate a synthesis of reflected and reflection, helps us think past this dialectic and synthesize the two (142-143).
Estes’ painting does not separate inside from outside nor opacity from transparency. Instead, it allows us to see how what is reflected always meets itself in its reflection, preventing an endless cycle of reflection in a synthesis of reflection and reflected (156). Central Savings, like Hegel’s conception of self-consciousness, is bold enough to think through and overcome oppositions (159). Grootenboer’s analysis of Central Savings reveals that the philosophical tradition of reflecting on reflection is not exclusive to written philosophy. It is enacted by pensive images as well.
Grootenboer concludes The Pensive Image with commentary on the relationship between philosophy and wonder. Grootenboer reminds us that according to Plato, Socrates believed wonder was the beginning of philosophy (167). Do artworks offer a similar starting point? For Heidegger, wonder is a basic element of ordinary life (168). According to Grootenboer, the association between wonder, philosophy, and ordinary life is what makes seventeenth century Dutch artworks such fruitful contributors to philosophical investigations of being. Their focus on the ordinary and their reward of slow looking leads us to new discoveries. Ultimately, the pensive image is a valuable philosophical subject because it provides the opportunity to philosophize from, and about, ordinary experience. They stop us in our tracks and suggest a new courses for our philosophical journeys. In contrast to trompe l’oeil, panorama, of other kinds of illusionism that overwhelm us by enchantment and delight to lift us out of our ordinary experience, pensive images slowly overtake us. They do not to lift from the ordinary but to push us deeper into it, guiding us home (169). The Pensive Image thus concludes with all the optimism a new philosophical approach deserves, the hope for new discoveries that bring us home to ourselves.
The Pensive Image has the potential for broad application. Its description of the pensive image, its commentary on painting, film, and material culture, and its overlapping imagery with literary analysis implies the possibility of using the pensive image to understand the philosophical importance of other cultural products. The pensive image, applied metaphorically to literary imagery, might reveal an intimate relationship between image, text, and mind, in which the text’s imagery compels us to follow its logic. This, combined with its phenomenological approach, provides a framework we can apply to the existential literature of Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and others. For example, Beauvoir’s imagery of barren wastelands in her 1946 novel All Men Are Mortal guides us through a similar meditation on finitude and infinity as Grootenboer describes in chapter four, implying an opportunity for comparison and new perspectives. Grootenboer’s The Pensive Image describes an approach potentially more far reaching than its introduction’s humble proposal, which could potentially be applied to imagery in literature, film, performance art, and even music.
While it is sometimes difficult to discern whether Grootenboer argues in favour of artworks as aids to understanding philosophical ideas articulated elsewhere (as is the case for Heidegger’s dwelling or Hegel’s self-consciousness) or as containing autonomous philosophical arguments themselves (as is the case for Three Medlars and a Butterfly), their oscillation between the two demonstrates that for artworks to be taken seriously as philosophical subjects, we do not have to decide between one and the other. As a philosophical subject, a pensive image can clarify an idea articulated elsewhere without depending on others’ ideas to articulate its own arguments. Its status as independent philosophical subject does not preclude its ability to aid our understanding of others.
Some aesthetic purists might balk at the idea of using artworks this way. They could argue that art is meant to be enjoyed, valued for its own sake, rather than used for philosophical ends. Grootenboer successfully counters such arguments by describing how the pensive images’ effects are part of its being. We do not use a pensive image for our own purposes. Instead, we let it guide our thoughts according to its own logic. Grootenboer thus avoids accusations of the ‘use and abuse’ of artworks for philosophical ends by focusing on the artworks themselves, their effects, and their autonomous properties. Rather than using a pensive image to achieve our own goals, we enter into a relationship with it. We following it where it needs to go without the added baggage of hypotheses, interpretive frameworks, or ulterior motives. Engagement with pensive images allows us to engage in a philosophy of free play, curiously, and wonder, rather than one of hermeneutic or analytical investigation. It is an appreciation of the things themselves without contorting them by imposing artificial frameworks and hypothesis.
In addition to its methodological implications, The Pensive Image challenges the artificial distinctions between art and philosophy, perceiving and thinking, reason and emotion. It models how to challenge disciplinary boundaries, which can get in the way of innovative thinking. Grootenboer conceptualizes the pensive image as a “predisciplinary blueprint” because it directs the thinker on a journey that knows no disciplinary bounds, be they philosophical, historical, literary, or artistic (71). Its most valuable contribution to philosophy is its emphasis on philosophy as a conscious reflection unbound by discipline, subject, or object.
In chapter three, Grootenboer writes that their main concern is not what thought is but how artworks help house it. The Pensive Image might not focus on defining thought but implies a simple yet profound definition of philosophy: a free flow of reflection, contemplation, and investigation mediated by permeable boundaries, boundaries that allow for movement so that dwelling and journeying merge. The Pensive Image provides us with a vision of philosophy and art in a mutually constituting relationship, a roadmap to theoretical places yet unexplored, and thereby a philosophical home.
Adorno’s Critique of Aesthetic Intentionalism & its Limits
A prominent yet understudied feature that permeates Adorno’s aesthetics is a critique of intentionalism. In this review essay, I will look at this critique and one manifestation of it, as it appears in his Notes to Literature.
Previously published in two volumes, Columbia University Press have for the first time combined Adorno’s Notes to Literature in a single work, translated into English. The scope of topics Adorno treats is broad, and reading is often difficult but frequently rewarding. Topics span from epic poetry, to Dickens, the free use of punctuation and its ramifications, reviews of individual texts, to more general methodologically loaded tracts on the status of art or particular aesthetic traditions. This is not exhaustive by any measure. As such, a sufficient characterization of this wealth of topics treated by Adorno in the short space available to review would be exceedingly challenging, likely impossible. Instead, I will restrict the focus of this review to a common feature across many of Adorno’s treatments of these topics: his rejection of intentionalism in aesthetics, in this instance, authorial intentionalism in literary works. This rejection appears to some degree in many if not all of the essays within the two volumes. It also looms large in Adorno’s aesthetic theory more broadly. However, it is usefully illustrated by means of a particular formally derived critique Adorno offers, about subject-driven exposition of narrative as an authentic and autonomous force in literary works. I will also argue that Notes to Literature aides in demonstrating an internal limit to Adorno’s anti-intentionalism, as it appears in such works. This internal limit offers a qualified role for the creator of autonomous works, and some insight into the machinations of this role – these will be discussed below.
Intentionalism is the presupposition many would-be aestheticians bring to artworks. The presupposition is that the pure intention of the creator (the composer, artist, or author) is what bestows aesthetic value to such works. Notes to Literature features many instances of a prominent critique of this position, as applied to literary works. Adorno views subject-derived expositions of narratives, particularly streams of consciousness as a narrative device, as one example of formal expressions of authorial intentionalism in literature. Its widespread employment demonstrates the primacy of this intentionalism. Viewing it as an authentically expository force involves a kind of presupposition to aesthetic methodology, and to any discernment of the value to be gleaned from works. This presupposition, Adorno claims, places the individual author in a position of epistemic priority. This position is an erroneous one, as it encourages the proffering and evaluating of works without exploring the social totalities which constitute the conditions for any such individual’s presentation of aesthetic knowledge. The role of the creator for Adorno is inherently mediated within the context of such totalities. Intentionalism and its formal manifestation in subjective narrative shirks this exploration, to the detriment of the autonomous potential that literary works might possess.
One particular target of Adorno’s is a manifestation of intentionalism in a particular conception of the genius. This conception gained predominance as a particular oppositional reaction to Kantian aesthetics. Kant describes the genius as “nature giving the rule to art”, contrasting it with the notion of the single creator doing so, from some epistemically authoritative vantage point. The conception that opposes Kant broadly states that as the wellspring from which aesthetic value flows, the intention of the genius offers a model of salvation, relayed through their work. The figure of the genius, so it broadly goes, is the one who oversees the total expression of their authorial or creative intention in the work, and this successful expression of that intention is the vehicle of aesthetic value for works of art, music and literature equally. On this model, appreciation of works then occurs with reference to this value. Adorno rails against this model. While Adorno ultimately agrees with Valéry’s claim that great art “demands the employment of all of a man’s faculties” (‘The Artist as Deputy’, 115), this is not the claim that this employment manifests the expression of the conscious intentions of the creator of that art.
Underpinning this presupposition is the wrong-headedness as Adorno sees it of aesthetic intention operating as if immediate value of a work can be transmitted, its message there to be received by an audience who can grasp it if they accept it. Here Adorno opposes an assumption shared by both Kant and those reacting to him, since they converge on the notion that this transmission can take place between agents – in Kant’s case certainly, rational ones. But operating with this kind of presupposition, Adorno thinks, is to be oblivious to the inherent alienation as “a fact that irrevocably governs an exchange society”. To illustrate this, in an approach characteristic of Adorno, he employs Hegelian motifs as a means of undermining of Hegelianism itself – Adorno targets ‘objective Spirit’ as represented in art. For Hegel, the truths purveyed through art (as well as religion and most importantly philosophy) claim to offer representational knowledge into the development of Geist, eventually culminating in the ironing out of all contradictions of reality. Built into this understanding, Adorno claims, of the Hegelian motive for art is that it “wants […] to speak to human beings directly, as though the immediate could be realized in a world of universal mediation” (‘The Artist as Deputy’, 116). But this claim in itself about the representational power of art, says Adorno, is a kind of utilitarian degradation of the aesthetic. In literature specifically, this degradation makes ‘word and form’ into a “mere means” – a manner of utilizing the formal presentation of the work for expressing what the creator takes to be a truth or value relayed through art.
Structurally, Adorno here shares with Hegel the basic claim that art can illustrate certain kinds of truths. But he diverts from Hegel in a qualified way, in how he sees the promise for the role of autonomous art. Hegel conceived of putting art to use in the task of Geist’s reconciliation by means of what the work represents. By contrast, Adorno conceived of autonomous art’s power to at best be able to illustrate the current impossibility of reconciliation, due to the inability of the work to coherently represent reality, in the manner Hegel claims it can. It should be noted that it appears Adorno sees it possible for certain kinds of non-representational knowledge to be gained from successful works of art. Autonomous art can bestow negative knowledge of reality (‘Extorted Reconciliation: On Georg Lukács’ Realism in our Time’, 223). This would initially seem to clash with the claim that this is itself a form of knowledge. But rather than this constituting representational knowledge, Adorno is in some way offering the potential for a kind of aesthetic exposure to an intuition that demonstrates the impossibility of representational knowledge. This is arguably one route to the ‚loss‘ that Adorno counts as the second-order objectivity facilitated by autonomous artworks. More on this below. But in the context of the Hegelian assumption, Adorno thinks that this has ramifications for critical engagement. The Hegelian optimism for the revolutionary potential of art in fact pulls the rug out from underneath the work, by undermining its formal and practical autonomy, and its applications.
In this vein, Adorno critiques subjective exposition of narrative, as a manifestation of the intentionalist’s presumption about aesthetic value. This critique tracks formal characteristics intrinsic to presentations of works themselves. It is a claim about the inherent formal critical power or lack thereof that motivates his critique of literary subject-centrism, and the idea of subjectivist narrative as having expository primacy in its formal mode of presentation. It is not just that this is open to criticism as a bourgeois mode of attempted presentation, of the kind indicated above about the power of the author’s intentions. Rather, this more formal critique is aimed at narrative of this kind also for its reduction of the reader or spectator to being merely receptive to such a subjective flow of consciousness. Adorno claims that the proponent of formal narrative subject-centrism identifies “nodal points of conditioned reflexes” of the would-be passive human being, qua “mere receptive apparatuses” (‘The Artist as Deputy’, 119). The work’s recipient responds to intake from their sensibility by the truth-bestowing flow of an intentional consciousness in the work. The presupposition here is that exposition is granted authentic force as a mode of formal description by the author. As such it is employed as a way of receiving and interpreting a work by an audience. This is problematized due to its assumption that the audience has been given the necessary sensibility for the narrative, on a kind of presuppositionless set menu of aesthetic evaluation. The presumption here is that the audience receives a formal presentation of the sensory scheme or stream of consciousness of the ‘genius at work’, to which they should passively engage. The audience is a conduit to be filled up with aesthetic truths.
But this presumption exposes another facet to Adorno’s critique, centered around the assumption that any subject creating aesthetic works can provide such a coherent formal exposition, by virtue of their professed narrative. The work of Proust, perhaps ironically, is valorized by Adorno for upsetting a presumption in the “prevailing consciousness” about the notion of the unity and pre-given wholeness of the person. This presumption is characterized as a false idol by Adorno (‘Short Commentaries on Proust’, 181), which Proust’s works act as an ‘antidote’ to. A philosophical presupposition of this view concerns the power of subjective narrative. The audience doesn’t receive this subject and its narrative in some necessary and uniform fashion. Nor is the self-representation of either one of the subjects involved, author or reader, of an immediate cognitively accessible character. Rather, Adorno claims that such narrative is the product and cause of further alienation. Only in genuinely autonomous works can there be an intimation of this alienation by a display of the “social relationships [that] reveal themselves to be a blind second nature” (‘Short Commentaries’, 183). Again utilizing while subverting a familiar Hegelian motif, this of second nature, social relationships limit the remit of pure thought, not in a manner that adapts pure thought to nature, but shows its perversion at the hands of the productive forces at work in it.
In this respect, something Adorno claims favorably about Paul Valéry is his capacity to buck the trend of centralizing “the triumph of subjective over objective reason” (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 161). Though Adorno takes this to be a product of the enlightenment, it is evident from his discussions of many post-enlightenment figures that he views them as capitulating to this trend, too. For example, Adorno writes that for Sartre, “the work of art becomes an appeal to the subject because the work is nothing but the subject’s decision or non-decision“ (‘Commitment’, 349). This centrality has ramifications both theoretical and practical. As a result of it, “Sartre’s approach prevents him from recognizing the hell he is rebelling against”, namely the objective self-alienation that latently motivates him to make the proclamation that hell is, in fact, other people (‘Commitment’, 353). Indeed, Adorno’s infamous statement about the barbarism of writing poetry after Auschwitz is reaffirmed, in the context of this continued primacy of the subjective. He claims it “expresses, negatively, the impulse that animates committed literature” (‘Commitment’, 358). This criticism applies also to Heidegger. A ‘decision’ is demanded by Hölderlin, for Heidegger, in Adorno’s devastating excursus of Heidegger (‘Parataxis: On Hölderlin’s Late Poetry’, 380). Claiming this, not only does Heidegger rob and ‘deaestheticize’ Hölderlin of his “poetic substance”, it also eliminates Hölderlin’s “genuine relationship to reality, critical and utopian” (‘Parataxis’, 381). This is done on the grounds of the notion of subjective decision being prioritized by Heidegger, erroneously recapitulating to “the idealism which is taboo for Heidegger [but] to which he secretly belongs” (‘Parataxis’, 385).
Motivating this critique in all of these forms is Adorno’s broader claim that “the social totality is objectively prior to the individual” (‘Extorted Reconciliation’, 224). The presupposition that successful, genuinely autonomous works still somehow belong to the author misses this point. Rather, a work’s success consists “in its becoming detached from [the author], in something objective being realized in and through him, in his disappearing into it”. (‘Toward a Portrait of Thomas Mann’, 295, my emphasis). Autonomy is not bestowed upon a work due to any relation with some condition of genius possessed by the author.
Yet in pursuit of this thought, Adorno makes an intimation about what positive role the artist qua producer of works of art can have, should a work be successful in the possession and conveyance of truth content. In an ironic twist, he inverts the idea that the work is the instrument of communication for the intentions of the creator. Instead, this possession and conveyance involves the artist becoming an instrument, through which aesthetic form assumes a life of its own. It is this mode of production which ensures the artist does not “succumb to the curse of anachronism in a reified world” (‘The Artist as Deputy’, 117). Adorno assumes his own idiosyncratic kind of interpretivist stance towards the possibility of aesthetic autonomy. Discussing the ways in which artistic creation is subject to reification, and on the point of to whom the truth-qualities of an art work ‘belongs’, Adorno endorses Valéry’s attack on “the widespread conception of the work of art that ascribes it, on the model of private property, to the one who produces it” (‘The Artist as Deputy’, 118).
So Adorno postulates a kind of aesthetic virtue gained by means of a degree of liberation from the folly of intentionalism, including its formal presuppositions about subjective exposition. This liberation, Adorno notes, is a kind of recognition, namely a recognition on the part of the artist, such as Valéry’s bourgeois art as bourgeois, and that this recognition precludes it from conscious or intentional escape from that framework. In this sense, Adorno sees in Valéry (and also, for example, Thomas Mann) a critical platform through formal literary presentation in this “self-consciousness of [its] own bourgeois nature”. The premium is placed on a certain kind of self-knowledge, attained by a capacity for critical distance. This self-consciousness doesn’t determine the truth content of an artwork itself. Rather it constitutes a recognition by the artist that self-consciousness precisely doesn’t determine such truth content. Indeed, in an example of Adorno’s often ironic and flirtatiously paradoxical prose, this self-consciousness comes by the aesthetic judgement
“tak[ing] itself seriously as the reality that it is not. The closed character of the work of art, the necessity of its giving itself its own stamp, is to heal it of the contingency which renders it unequal to the force and weight of what is real” (‘The Artist as Deputy’, 118).
With some nuance, Adorno criticizes the aims of recent art, at a “retreat of productive forces [as] a surrender to sensory receptivity” – in other words, it recapitulates to viewing subjective and specifically sensorially derived authorial creativity as the primary means of producing truth. This in fact diminishes the capacity for abstraction, or for the construction of artworks as possessing a genuinely autonomous character.
This makes Adorno’s claims about Valéry and Proust somewhat ironic, but arguably productively or virtuously so. Despite Valéry’s own processual and solipsistic mode of presentation, it is so by virtue of his “advocacy of the dialectic” qua the recognition that the only freedom possible is freedom in relation to the object (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 150). This in a roundabout fashion actually serves to undermine the idea that the subjective stream of consciousness is an authentic expository force for narrative truth.
Adorno writes that Valéry’s philosophical affinity to this advocacy “erodes from below […] the illusion of immediacy as an assured first principle” (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 150). Indeed, intentionalists presuppose some primary or immediate access to the author or creator’s epistemic faculties via the formal presentation of the subjective narrative. But attempts at cleanly cutting through the social conditions which engendered the work are inhibitions to aesthetic truth, for Adorno. There is a broadly ethical dimension to Adorno’s rejection of this presupposition, too: “[t]he objectification of works of art, as immanently structured monads, becomes possible only through subjectification” (‘Presuppositions: On the Occasion of a Reading by Hans G. Helms’, 368).
Adorno offers the potential for a positive way out. He describes an emancipation made possible through aesthetic endeavour, when works are forced to try and re-establish a kind of objectivity which is lost
“when it stops at a subjective reaction to something pregiven, whatever form it takes. The more the work of art divests itself critically of all the determinants not immanent in its own form, the more it approaches a second-order objectivity” (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 152, my italics).
Developing dialectically out of its own deficiencies, this particular route to disillusionment constitutes a second-order objectivity – a kind of knowledge of one’s disillusionment, through aesthetic form. This is an objectivity which, depending on how one interprets Adorno, facilitates the possibility for reconciliation, or at least the knowledge that reconciliation is presently beyond our ken or grasp (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 154). This has already been discussed by Adorno in the context of a certain kind of self-consciousness. But Adorno also discusses a kind of forbidden mode of consciousness, which, if we had access to it, would allow us access through art and literature to a genuinely different and non-reified mode of approaching our genuine needs (‘The Handle, the Pot, and Early Experience: Ui, haww’ ich gesacht’, 473). One might interpret this forbidden mode of consciousness as something necessarily inaccessible, like Kant’s intellectual intuition. Or one might interpret it as something contingently improbable, an obfuscated mode of consciousness which might come to be available to us under certain productive conditions. Regarding this difference of interpretation, I remain non-committal about, for the purposes here. But this second-order objectivity partly constitutes an acknowledgment of some kind, of this mode.
What might this second-order objectivity amount to, in the context of the work? Herein I argue lies an important internal limit to Adorno’s anti-intentionalism. The loss of the subject as an authentic expository force can lead to a realization that objectivity by this means constitutes a “loss”, Adorno claims (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 152). Adorno then claims that the subject’s pursuit of this “critical path is truly the only one open. It can hope for no other objectivity” (Ibid.). The ramifications for this in aesthetics is that the construction of works “no longer conceives itself as an achievement of spontaneous subjectivity, without which, of course, it would scarcely be conceivable, but rather wants to be derived from a material that is in every case already mediated by the subject” (‘Presuppositions’, 371). This is not mediation by the purely spontaneous, causa sui subject, a la the presupposition of the intentionalist. Rather, the creator of the genuinely autonomous and truth-contentful work of art must be in some respect a “representative of the total social subject” (‘The Artist as Deputy’, 120, my italics).
It is only by virtue of recognizing this representative nature of works as something interpreted by the social and cultural conditions it is subject to, that art can “fulfill [itself] in the true life of human beings” (Ibid.). Adorno’s conception of the artist involves acting as a “midwife” to the objectivity inherent in the autonomous artwork – which is delineated “in advance by the form of the problem and not by the author’s intention (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 168)”. Indeed, in line with Adorno’s authorial anti-intentionalism, the problem of delineating a work’s autonomous value is framed by its historical contingency, determined by the conditions of possibility that the forces of social production allow for the work to rupture through. It is autonomous works which can attain this expository status in relation to these forces. Put succinctly in his essay critical of Sartre and the idea of committed literature, “art, which is a moment in society even in opposing it, must close its eyes and ears to society”, while holding out the presence of “an ‘it shall be different’”, which Adorno claims “is hidden in even the most sublimated works of art” (‘Commitment’, 362).
Important to note here is that the success of the work in its autonomy is to some extent accidental, if viewed from a purely intentionalist perspective. Formal technique can only contribute to the intention of “what is presented”, as opposed to what the author purely intended. Its conditions of success are determined by the ability to recognize its autonomy within the context of objective social reality (‘Extorted Reconciliation’, 224). This includes a rupturous expression of what is concealed from reality by reifying processes, or as Adorno describes these processes, the purely “empirical form reality takes” (‘Extorted Reconciliation’, 225).
A paradox arises at the heart of Adorno’s position about this criterion for success. It is chance that “proclaims the impotence of a subject that has become too negligible to be authorized to speak directly about itself in a work of art” (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 156, my italics). Yet at the same time as this claim about the possibility created by chance, it is this subjectivity, as
“alienated from itself, against the ascendancy in the objective work of art, whose objectivity can never be an objectivity in itself but must be mediated through the subject despite the fact that it can no longer tolerate any immediate intervention by the subject”. (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 156)
This is a convoluted qualification by Adorno, merciless in its demands on the reader. In a reductive sense, the brute intentionalist model of subjective creativity is rejected. But the importance of the subject in some mediated sense remains of critical importance, for Adorno. Creators of autonomous works acknowledge “the paradoxical relationship of the autonomous work to its commodity character” (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 158).
Adorno makes the allowance that this mediation via the subject is not an enterprise which the subject remains wholly unaware of, within narrative structures. But at the same time, he frames this as an eventual culmination, in a particular mode of formal consciousness towards an “estrangement of meaning” (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 156). Adorno claims that its projection of this estrangement within an autonomous work “imitates the estrangement of the age”. Artists capable of producing autonomous works come to possess some conscious disposition towards an awareness of this imitation, by virtue of their being estranged. But how to understand this disposition toward an estrangement of meaning? Adorno thinks that it comes from a particular intuitive awareness of reification. Using Valéry as an exemplar, “[f]or Valéry’s aesthetic experience, the subject’s strength and spontaneity prove themselves not in the subject’s self-revelation, but, in Hegelian fashion, in its self-alienation. The more fundamentally the work detaches itself from the subject, the more the subject has accomplished in it” (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 167). What Valéry and Adorno see interrelatedly, quoting Valéry, is that “[a] work endures insofar as it is capable of looking quite different from the work the author thought he was bequething to the future” (Ibid.).
Mere intention isn’t what makes a work autonomous: a presupposition of its primacy amounts to a recapitulation to the alienating forces as Adorno seems them as regnant in society. Rather, the author or creator is instrumental – “with the first movement of conception, the author is bound to that conception and to his material. He becomes an organ for the accomplishment of the work’s desires” (Ibid.). The most plausible manner of making sense of the idea that a work itself possesses desires is within the context of the claim about the artist or author as a midwife. The work embodies the hidden intuitions of a collective, expressed without ascribing any one individual’s intentions to the production of a work. Difficult as this may seem, I take it that Adorno’s point here is that autonomous works implicitly channel the hidden but genuine desires of the collective of human individuals, within their socio-historical context. Rather than representing the individuated subject, it represents the reification of the “latent social subject, for whom the individual artist acts as an agent” (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 168). Once again, the representation of the social subject is of an instrumental rather than intentional kind through the aesthetic creator. Since Adorno thinks that all those under the same socio-historical conditions are bound to a mode of reification, there will be broad similarity underwriting the mode of self-alienation the representative artistic agent embodies and formally expresses, as themselves a conduit through which the work comes to be. The self-alienating autonomous work is described by Adorno as itself possessing ‘wants’, but intuitions of these are framed by the demands of the human condition to recognize the ill, perhaps impossible fit of the forces of social production upon that condition – the blind second nature which all are forced to adopt.
The use of the term ‘latent’ in this context is important, since Adorno frames the capacity of the contingency of the subject in psychoanalytic terminology. The ego has heretofore been assumed as the origin of pure aesthetic intentions and the harbinger of aesthetic truth, by means of its transparent route to creativity. Contrary to this assumption, Adorno claims that the ego “cannot be healed of its cardinal sin, the blind, self-devouring domination of nature that recapitulates the state of nature forever, by subjecting internal nature, the id, to itself as well” (‘Presuppositions’, 373). Rather, the ego can only be healed “by becoming reconciled with the unconscious, knowingly and freely following it where it leads” (‘Presuppositions’, 373–4). In some sense for Adorno, the regulating ego is to some extent aware of obedience or concession to the unconscious id in the creative process. The ego wants to find out what it wants, or at least wants to become aware of what it is about empirical reality that it doesn’t want.
Once this awareness takes place, the experience of autonomous artworks gives “the sense that their substance could not possibly not be true, that their success and their authenticity themselves point to the reality of what they vouch for” (‘Short Commentaries’, 187). Or, as Adorno puts it punchily elsewhere, autonomous art “represents negative knowledge of reality” (‘Extorted Reconciliation’, 222-3) – not positive representational knowledge in Hegel’s fashion, but the poverty of representational knowledge to track the real. Adorno offers an explanatory metaphor for this in a powerful discussion of Ernst Bloch’s musings on ‘An Old Pot’ at the beginning of Bloch’s Spirit of Utopia. Emulating the conscious disposition which can be intuited through autonomous works, Adorno self-referentially writes, “I am Bloch’s pot, literally and directly, a dull, inarticulate model of what I could be but am not permitted to be” (‘The Handle, The Pot, and Early Experience’, 472).
There might be no right living in a world gone wrong. But through autonomous works, formal glimmers exude, that give us intuitions of its wrongness. Whether these intuitions could develop more concretely, or be instantiated practically, is of course another story, one that cuts to the heart of Adorno’s immanent critique.
This second volume of Lawrence J. Hatab’s Dwelling in Speech demonstrates the power of phenomenology to challenge both mainstream philosophy and the cognitive sciences which emeploy its metaphysical assumptions. Considerable progress has been made in this regard by Dan Zahavi, who demonstrates the contemporary relevance of Husserl, and the enactivist literature which features scholars such as Shaun Gallagher and Evan Thompson. While the latter draws largely on Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, Hatab’s contribution lies in bringing Heideggerian insights to bear together with a focus on the question of language. Heidegger’s influence is just beginning to be felt in this literature, and Hatab makes significant progress as a well-known Heidegger scholar. The same goes for language, although in this case there is the distributed cognition literature (e.g., S. Cowley (ed), Distributed Language, Benjamins Current Topics, 2011; and S. Cowley and F. Vallée-Tourangeau (eds), Cognition Beyond the Brain: Computation, Interactivity, and Human Artifice, Springer-Verlag, 2013) which takes a related ecological approach. Hatab largely avoids Heideggerian terminology to make the work more accessible, developing his own lexicon which calls for some effort but rewards the reader with a wealth of insights into questions of philosophical and scientific import.
The book consists of six chapters, where Chapter 1 reviews the first volume (Proto-Phenomenology and the Nature of Language, 2017) on proto-phenomenology and the lived world, Chapters 2 and 3 apply it to child development, and the final three chapters focus on the distinction between orality and literacy. Hatab puts forward a proto-phenomenology that examines the “first,” or pre-reflective world of normal everyday existence. The focus is on immersed engagement in practical and social environments (in the Heideggerian spirit) rather than cognition and intentionality as in other versions of phenomenology. The title Dwelling in Speech thus points to the fact that we are meaningfully immersed in the myriad worlds that language discloses. For Hatab, language presents the world before it can be represented (36). In this regard he says that language should be understood as a constellation of engaged practices, not an idealism, which is part of an overall orientation to the concrete, factical world in which we dwell.
Much effort goes into focusing on experience as we live it holistically rather than reflection and analysis (or “exposition”) of articulated components. Of course, Hatab admits that as a philosopher he is himself engaged in the latter sort of analysis, and he navigates that tension over the course of the work, arguing that proto-phenomenology provides the resources to gain access to realms such as the child’s world and ancient worlds of orality without unduly importing reflective conceptual assumptions. The approach is ecological in nature, focusing on fields such as the personal-social-environmental world over which existence extends, rather than being ensconced in private realms. Hatab argues that dichotomies such as subject-object and mind-body are derivative of such ecologies.
At the heart of the approach lies the notion of world disclosure, which is the basis for originary presentation which enables any derivative representation. Disclosure has to do with the ways in which we engage and comprehend how the world manifests itself (73), and language is paramount in this regard. It is the “the opening up of the world and the precondition for thought,” the “window to the world” and its meaning (36). Thus rather than viewing language as referring to a world of nonlinguistic entities, Hatab argues that such a view is produced by way of exposition (which tends to reification) out of the speech worlds in which we dwell. Exposition arises in turn by way of disruptions (“contraventions”) in the course of immersed dwelling, along the lines of Being and Time’s relation between the ready-to-hand and the present-at-hand.
Hatab puts forward the related notion of indicative concepts which, rather than seeking abstract definitions, point to and gather an implicit sense of lived experience which is already present. That is, rather than assuming that experience is fundamentally inchoate, indicative concepts mean to gather senses of dwelling which are always underway (13). As already intelligible it has no need for explication; indicative concepts simply show what is already in play in the factical worlds in which we dwell, rather than disengaging reflectively and reifying abstractions that are so produced. In the terms of the later Heidegger (Hatab prefers the early Heidegger), they seek to “speak from” the phenomena by staying within the realms in which we dwell rather than speaking about them from a distance. With such concepts in hand, Hatab poses a significant challenge to representationalism and physicalism by delving into the philosophical and applied literatures in which they are operative.
Turning to the discussion of the child’s world in Chapters 2 and 3, philosophers generally pay little attention to the question of human development, assuming that these early stages merely exhibit primitive versions of adult capacities. Hatab however provides a convincing argument that many features (which are accessible by way of proto-phenomenology) are still operative in the adult world and must be considered to provide a more robust vision of what it is to be human. He first notes the importance of imitation in infants, which he refers to as an example of original immersion where the self is constituted by way of external prompts, which supports the use of the field concepts that he puts forward (4). A focus on childhood learning provides support for the primacy of the lived world, and indicates the shortcomings of philosophical notions such as representational thinking, subject-object divisions, and the primacy of theoretical reason (56). In fact, we can see how the lived world is operative in adulthood given that it is the basis for the development of the factical bearings that enable rational knowledge (60). In particular, the role of the environment can be seen in providing scaffolding for the development of adult capacities (62), along with the senses of undivided co-being and we-feeling that remain in potentia as the basis for more robust bonds that may hold between us (66).
Hatab argues for the priority of immersion within childhood, and illustrates various features of the lived world that are made manifest there, such as the ecstatic (or extended) nature of existence in that ecology. He shows how childhood learning begins with an intrinsic interest in communicating and interacting with caregivers, which suggests that neonates are not tabula rasa as often assumed. For Hatab, children learn by way of mistakes (contraventions) made in the course of trial and error experiments in environments that are saturated with norms and values (81), thereby forming habits which become second nature (enabling further immersed activity). From this perspective he engages in a critique of theories of child-development which assume adult capacities, examining experimental procedures which mismeasure competence as a result (60) and calling instead for observation in natural settings. He critiques the notion that infants can be understood by way of the presumed operation of concepts and theories, and interrogates the mentalistic biases that proto-phenomenology can uncover (83).
Hatab discusses how the phenomenon of joint attention, where individuals focus on the same object and are aware that each is doing so, precedes the acquisition of language (as recognized in the large literature on the subject, e.g., A. Seemann (ed), Joint Attention: New Developments, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011). Infants have a natural capacity for joint attention, which he characterizes as one of the earliest stages of the personal-social-environing world because of the confluence of individual attention, social interaction, and a joint relation to the environment. Hatab refers to this as an “engaged co-disclosure,” which is more original than later developments of individual mentality, which puts a significant challenge to the predominant theory of mind approaches. Indeed, some joint attention theorists emphasize an immediacy and embeddedness in joint attention which also challenges representational approaches, for a focus on attention can unearth a more original “co-minded” dimension where we approach the world jointly in common endeavors.
We also see the connection between joint attention and indicative concepts, as Hatab notes that pointing to something for someone else’s attention makes communication possible (126). He goes on to critique theories which miss this background and rely on representational and referential notions, which conceal the fact that speech is a matter of shared attention, understood as such, and functioning by way of reciprocal effects (127). Moreover, Hatab says that the disclosive power of language is grounded in a shared impulse to communicate which shows itself in the joint attention that supports it (126). The intimate relation between joint attention and language that is indicated here would suggest that attention and language are equiprimordially disclosive, the import of which will be considered below.
Hatab argues that indicative concepts can provide new insight into how language emerges in a child’s world, and how the social environment of language speakers prepares that emergence long before words are first spoken by children (93). He demonstrates the power of phenomenology in this context, providing insight into the factical existence of children which continues to make itself manifest as we mature. For instance, children are exposed early on to the somatic, sonic, and affective forces of speech, which are still operative later in life (94). In this context speech shows itself as a world forming power (103), and dwelling manifests as a more original mode which is immersed in the world disclosive power of language. We see the primacy of language over thought, and as the basis for the meaningful shaping of experience as a whole (112).
Hatab argues against notions of cognitive nativism, individualism, autonomy, and self-sufficiency that are imputed to children (105), and delves into problems in the philosophy of language such as the notion that language is limited to expressing thought, arguing rather that thought is itself an internalization of speech. The world disclosive power of speech is made quite vivid with the example of Helen Keller’s opening to a new world by way of the sense of touch (118). He argues further that extant theories of concepts and mental states conceal the dwelling dimension that still has a hold on us (111).
The final three chapters argue for the primacy of speech over writing, in keeping with the emphasis on the role of the lived world. Writing for Hatab is not a natural phenomenon, but becomes second nature after the expository learning process. It provides a richer mode of disclosure but is susceptible to reification that ends up obscuring the ongoing functioning of the lived world. For instance, the ancient world had oral poetry as a source of its cultural bearings, and aurality of course remains important after the introduction of writing (162). Indeed, the face to face interaction that is so important in childhood and beyond provides the generative background for literacy itself (157). Orality is closer to the lived world in the sense of being subject only to the power of memory and thus associated with flux and becoming, whereas writing is static and permanent which enables abstractions and reification in the foundation of philosophical thought (165). We also see a process of disembodiment in writing (166) which leads to the emergence of inner mental domains that are cut off from the lived world, producing the disengaged reader who can focus on abstract linguistic forms and lend credence to the notion of truth as representation.
We now turn to a fascinating discussion of the emergence of philosophy and written literature in the Greek world. Oral poetry and its story worlds were a source of meaning that enabled a sense of collective identity for the ancients (189). With the introduction of literacy we have the potential conflict between critical thinking and the captivating language of poetry (197) as one aspect of the affective dimension that is so important in ancient (and contemporary) life. We see an excess of such captivation, for instance, in myths such as the Sirens who prevent the accomplishment of vital tasks (198), while on the other hand we see in Plato how myth and poetry and philosophy can complement one another (212). Plato puts forward ideals of autonomous selfhood which stand in contrast to the ecstatic immersion in forces and mimesis that occurs in oral myth and poetry, all of which must be harmonized in the actualized human being.
Hatab argues that although reading and writing skills become second nature, the oral as first nature still has priority (216), and we see this in the fact that philosophy cannot do without insights from speech in the lived world, which is its ground (225). He sees merit in some features of Derrida’s notion of arché writing, but his thought misses the importance of the lived world and orality (213). Hatab argues that the possibilities inherent in literacy lead to the suppression of factical experience by philosophical thought (192), with its decontextualized written systems, logical structures, and propositions (220). He is particularly critical of what he refers to as the predominant hyper-literacy which suppresses facticity (227).
The final chapter traces the development of literacy from Rome to the present day. Learned Latin as more technical results in an impoverishment relative to the wealth of meanings that are present in Greek thought (238). In this context Hatab continues the critique of features of contemporary thought such as the subject-object divide and representation as stemming from the development of literate technologies, such as the printing press and dictionaries (253). We see the development of thinking as representation, and writing as representations of a writer’s mind. The subject-object divide in particular serves to conceal the more primordial sense of extended selfhood that is associated with dwelling in the ecological personal-social-environing world, and Hatab launches into a critique of posited timeless philosophical concepts which rest on the bedrock of literate technologies (260).
A stimulating and wide-ranging work such as this will produce a variety of directions for further thought. Hatab’s focus is on applying insights from the early Heidegger to the question of language in the context of an extensive review of the empirical literature, and readers will undoubtedly have questions regarding the concept of proto-phenomenology, such as how one goes about it as a practical matter and where phenomenological reflection fits in. Moreover, he relies heavily on the immersion-contravention-exposition process that is put forward with considerable nuance, but some readers may believe that more support is required for such a setup.
One approach could focus on the role of attention, which is quite prominent in the text even though its thematization is well beyond the scope of the project. It appears early in the work when Hatab says that first-person attention to normal experience is the gateway to a proto-phenomenological account, as it enables an opening to (or disclosure of) the personal-social-environing world (2). It also plays a large role in the form of joint attention, which as discussed above is a key precondition for language acquisition. Thus, not only is attention essential for the practice of phenomenology, as also evident from Husserl’s treatment of the subject, but it is ontogenetically prior to language acquisition. This could argue for a sort of primacy relative to language, or at least an equiprimordiality with respect to disclosure. Indeed, I would argue that attention in its various forms must appear in first person accounts, and in fact it is often ubiquitous in such literature and taken for granted as such. For, as Hatab indicates, it is the gateway, the essence of the first person perspective, which has historically been of philosophical interest but has only become so recently in contemporary philosophy of mind. As he puts it, “The first-person standpoint in phenomenology cannot merely be a matter of introspective mental states, of intentional consciousness, of beliefs and desires related to actions in the world, but rather indicative attention to ecstatic immersion in fields of action” (15).
Attention appears many other ways in the text, which suggests a deep and intricate relation between attention and language. We have seen that indicative concepts function by pointing, or directing attention to features of the lived world, which Hatab refers to as indicative attention (15). One implication is that language directs attention, rather than being directed by, say, a Husserlian transcendental ego. Attention also appears in the form of expositional attention (e.g., 29, 49, 65) and reflective attention (e.g., 36, 103), and these concepts are all related in the helpful glossary definition of “indicative concepts and analysis”: “Reflective attention that simply points to immersed, factical experience on its own terms, without reducing it to expositional analysis or abstract categories” (283). Immersion is also defined in terms of “actual doing without reflective attention,” and is considered to be tacit or habitual. There is need, however, to consider the relation between attention and the tacit, for it is the essence of the explicit itself.
Hatab distinguishes between a variety of types of attention in particular circumstances, such as exposition as a more focused type of attention, which can range from ordinary attention to refined examination (29). He notes that objectification and reification take place by way of “a concentrated focus of demarcation” (236), considers patterns of infant attention (63), and talks about how learning to write involves “piecemeal attention” to the different words (202). Notions of focal concepts and meanings are also quite prevalent, such as the focal meanings of proto-concepts in which words make sense in usage rather than formal classification (112), and how children learn by way of focal indications that guide and shape ecstatic performance in meaningful circumstances. In distinguishing between speech and writing he notes how alphabetic script focuses attention on words as sonic units, which enables an expositional focus (164), and how vision enables sustained attention and a pinpoint focus, whereas sound is less focal when engaged (165), all of which has implications for the sort of worlds that emerge from such media. These deployments of attention suggest an essential role in engaging the factical worlds in which we dwell, and indeed it would appear to be intimately related to the notion of dwelling itself.
One way to conceive the general relation between attention and language would be in terms of the foreground-background distinction, where attention is how we are centered at the foreground of worldly engagement. Proto-phenomenology is conceived as attending to the factical background of reflective thinking (30), and such philosophical activity itself operates at the foreground in many forms, as has just been indicated. A broader phenomenological approach would therefore include the interaction between foreground and background, or between attention and the tacit/habitual. As noted above, Hatab recognizes that as a philosopher he is engaged in an expositive practice, and thinking in terms of the foreground-background distinction would be helpful in sorting out some of the dichotomies that are present in the text, such as immersion-exposition and habit-reflection, which are subject to the foreground-background distinction that operates in the lifeworld.
For instance, Hatab frequently points to the primacy of the lived world in terms of the habitual practices that always function in human engagement, but are often overlooked in philosophical analysis. He discusses background understanding (“intimation”) versus focused cognition (31), and says that immersion is non-reflexive performance without directed attention (17). He notes the dichotomy between reflective attention and skilled activity (16), and indeed when attention is diverted from its tasks performance will suffer, as in the case of Chuck Knoblauch’s famous throwing problems. Hatab also says that habits function without explicit attention (82), and that there is no reflective attention to components of speech when talking (36), but this does not mean that attention is inessential in the course of such engagement. For instance, chess players are often considered as examples of experts who rely on habitual skills in the course of activity, but a cursory look will show that they are extraordinarily attentive to patterns that appear on the board, and go through intensive thought processes in the course of their games. Speed chess is often cited as a case where there would appear to be little room for reflective engagement, but this ignores the powers of pattern recognition that apply under those conditions, which call for intensely focused attention.
Thinking of the movement of attention in terms of the foreground-background distinction enables dynamic shifts of context to come to the fore. Hatab provides an example in an extraordinary elaboration of the dimensions of factical existence that come into play in bringing about an orchestra performance, which includes a “mix of factical, practical, individual, social, environmental, temporal, historical, objective, factual, evaluative, and experiential elements” that proto-phenomenology incorporates in philosophical inquiry, and “hermeneutical shifts of perspective directly intimated by participants as contextually relevant in the foreground and background of a musical performance” (268). Hatab indicates elsewhere that disturbance turns attention (16), and that contravention draws attention to specific aspects of engaged activity that were in the background (37), both of which suggest that it was operative somewhere else. The implication is that attention is essential in the functioning of the lived world and must be recognized as such.
Thus we see that language plays a large role in the direction of attention and in the form that it takes in articulating the shape of engagement, but it must be recognized that it does not have to be passive in this regard. Indeed, Husserl notes the freedom of attention to move across intentional fields, which is essential for phenomenological exploration of the lived world. The joints of the world are not given in advance, but await upon the interplay of attention and language in order to make their appearance. Hatab notes a bidirectional relation between immersion and exposition in the course of establishing second nature capacities (37), but I would argue that the relation between attention and language is more general than this. For attention is the site of disclosure that comes about in conjunction with the action of language. Indeed, disclosure must be for someone, and attention is how the self is made manifest, or so I would argue (e.g., L. Berger, “Attention as the Way to Being,” Gatherings: The Heidegger Circle Annual (2020) 10:111-156). Instead of immersion-contravention-exposition we have the deliverances/disclosures of attention which disturb the prevailing understanding and its associated terms. These are revised accordingly and attention is redirected as a result. Attention and language are thus world disclosive in intricate relation to one another, which determines how disclosure occurs in general as well as exposition, reflection, and all other types engaged activity.
Hatab distinguishes between engaged immersion and disengaged exposition, but the question arises as to when reflection in general is disengaged. Indeed, Hatab discusses some forms of reflection which are not, such as the sort that can occur in writing. He also discusses the notion of “dwelling on,” which would suggest such a mode of reflection in volume I (107): “In the midst of human dwelling, philosophy can help us dwell on things more carefully, attentively, and perspicuously.” Dwelling on is thus a form of attentiveness, which can be characterized as phenomenological reflection without the assumption of transcendental structures. Thus attentiveness in the course of immersed activity can enable an immanent sort of reflexivity, the benefits of which are sidelined in the digital age (270). Disengagement will now be a matter of the lack of a certain kind of attentiveness, not simply exposition or reflection, for these can proceed with an accompanying cognizance of one’s embodied presence in the world. Instead, instances of thoughtless absorption and philosophical alienation (Vol I, 78) will be associated with disengagement from immersion in the lived world, in what is a more nuanced conception.
Any work that examines a vast empirical literature from a phenomenological and ecological point of view is bound to rely on notions of attention, which in the present case has unearthed a most intriguing relation between attention and language. This is just one direction that can be pursued out of such an important work. Thus in the two volumes of Dwelling in Speech, Lawrence Hatab has applied Heideggerian conceptions such as world disclosure and dwelling to a wide array of philosophical and empirical questions, thereby demonstrating the power of phenomenology to examine underlying metaphysical assumptions and recommend concrete research directions as a result. In particular, the notion of language as world disclosive is most powerful. We also see the richness of the lived world, which is what originally excited Heidegger about Husserl’s work. Hatab helps to bring that vision to fruition with this effort.