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.
While Hegel has long been acknowledged as an important influence upon several figures within the phenomenological tradition, the relation of his system to the movement’s founder, Husserl, has been largely overlooked. Husserl’s few, and – for the most part – unenthusiastic references to Hegel, together with the anti-Hegelian attitudes of his teacher, Brentano, have seemed, for most, to suggest that there is nothing to learn from comparing Husserl’s thought with Hegel’s, however much Hegelian and Husserlian themes are to be found combined in the works of subsequent phenomenologists. As such, the recent collection of essays, Hegel and Phenomenology, edited by Alfredo Ferrarin, Dermot Moran, Elisa Magrì and Danilo Manca, represents a most welcome contribution to current debates concerning Hegel’s legacy for Continental philosophy, and the affinities between Hegelian and Husserlian approaches. The collection leans very much towards Husserl, with eight of its eleven chapters centring upon Husserl’s relation to Hegel. Other members of the phenomenological tradition, customarily thought closer to Hegel, are less well-represented here, although there are very interesting chapters on Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and Ricœur, each of which makes an original contribution to phenomenology scholarship while offering a distinct perspective from which to assess Hegel’s twentieth century legacy.
Although several of the contributors note significant agreements between Husserl and Hegel in earlier works, it is no surprise that the Hegelian motifs in Husserl’s project are most apparent in the posthumous Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology. Whether or not Husserl himself became conscious of his affinities with Hegel, his successors in the phenomenological tradition were not slow to appreciate the Hegelian implications contained within a post-Kantian philosophy of subjectivity once it has become sensitive to the importance of intersubjective and inherited historical factors conditioning the subject’s understanding of its experience. The first three chapters of the collection are therefore specifically devoted to interpreting Husserl’s Crisis text in the light of such Hegelian motifs. Chapters four and five compare methodological approaches in Hegel’s phenomenology, whereas chapters six, seven and eight make subjectivity their central theme. The remaining three chapters examine Hegel and Husserl by way of Adorno, Ricœur and Sellars.
The first chapter of the collection, by Dermot Moran, delivers a fascinating account of Hegel’s passage from disrepute to prestige during the early history of the phenomenological movement. As Moran explains, Hegel’s reputation suffered enormously in Germany during the second half of the nineteenth century, when the call for a return to Kant left Hegelian speculative idealism discredited as an extravagantly metaphysical position vulnerable to epistemic critique. Brentano typifies the anti-Hegelian attitudes of this period in German philosophy, identifying Hegel as part of an irrationalist wave terminating a cycle of philosophical progress. The monumentally influential lectures of Koyré, Kojève and Hyppolite notwithstanding, however, Moran shows Heidegger’s rehabilitation of Hegel to pre-date these developments in France, so that it is in Germany that Hegel’s journey to phenomenological respectability originates. Moran stresses the importance of Heidegger’s Freiburg lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit in restoring Hegel’s esteem amongst a new generation of phenomenologists, and devotes particular attention to Finks’s Hegelian inheritance and its possible influence upon the ultimate shape of Husserl’s Crisis text.
Husserl’s early disregard for Hegel aside, Moran clearly identifies deep affinities between Hegel’s treatment of subjectivity in terms of historically developing intersubjective Spirit and the concerns of the Crisis, examining possible sources of conscious or unconscious Hegelian influences upon this work. Moran’s assessment of the Hegel-Husserl relationship is compelling, original and productive, opening a route to significant re-evaluation of a pairing frequently regarded as fundamentally incompatible. Moran arguably overstates Hegel’s proximity to Husserl, however, on the crucial and much-contested issue of transcendental philosophy – a matter of decisive importance in assessing Hegel’s place in the post-Kantian tradition. Whereas Husserl never abandons his commitment to transcendental methods following his 1907 Kantian epiphany, Hegel’s consciously anti-Kantian methodology greatly complicates efforts to classify him as a transcendental philosopher in any straightforward, unqualified sense.
The complex relationship between Hegel’s system and Husserl’s later work is further examined in the second chapter of the collection, by Tanja Staehler, which addresses their respective treatments of history and teleology. Whereas, according to Staehler, both thinkers identify a purposiveness in European history, and an orientation towards a telos, Hegel takes the goal of history to have been prescribed in advance by the logic of the Absolute Idea, while Husserl allows for changes in historical trajectory owing to the revisability of its telos. In spite of a common teleological approach to historical understanding, Husserl and Hegel differ very significantly, according to Staehler, in their treatments of the future. For Staehler, Hegel’s omnivorous system struggles to accommodate genuine spontaneity into its grand design, which entails that the horizons of historical possibility completely fixed by a process which achieved maturation in the early nineteenth century. Husserl, however, is better able to acknowledge contingencies of time and culture not anticipated in the historical experience of any given community. As such, the future never loses its potential for radical novelty on Husserl’s account, according to Staehler, who takes Husserl to deny the possibility of an ‘absolute’ perspective from which all historically-conditioned limits of understanding are overcome.
Those who are sympathetic to Hegel shall no doubt take issue with Staehler’s familiar objection that there is no contingency or spontaneity worthy of the title in Hegel’s treatment of history. All the same, Staehler identifies a crucial point of disagreement between Hegel and Husserl, insofar as Husserl treats the telos of European history as originating within a specific historical life-world, whereas, for Hegel, teleology involves the realisation in space and time of a conceptual order originating elsewhere. As such, Staehler is well-supported in maintaining that Husserl’s historical teleology is more modest in its claims than Hegel’s.
Danilo Manca’s chapter – the third of the collection – compares Hegel’s and Husserl’s respective treatments of the history of philosophy, with particular focus upon their differing relations to Kant’s approach to the same topic. Beginning with a discussion of Kant’s position, Manca outlines the notion of a ‘philosophizing history of philosophy’ which Kant introduces to distinguish a narrative of specifically philosophical significance within the events leading from Thales to the Enlightenment. Although the first Critique presents the history of philosophy as a cyclical process of metaphysical indulgence and sceptical renunciation, Manca notes evidence from Kant’s posthumous documents suggesting a more progressive interpretation of the same events, whereby reason’s own nature entails its elaboration over time. According to Manca, Hegel and Husserl are Kant’s successors in the project of a philosophizing history of philosophy, each seeking for an underlying rationale and a generally progressive direction to the same historical sequence of events.
Manca’s contribution is the first of the collection to discuss in detail the shared Kantian inheritance to the Hegelian and phenomenological movements, and his comparison of Hegel’s and Husserl’s respective accounts of the history of philosophy neatly illustrates their points of departure from a common ancestor. Manca notes that, for Hegel, contingencies in the historically-situated articulations of the Absolute Idea are the result of the spatiotemporal medium in which reason strains to express itself, whereas Husserl understands the same contingency to originate in more mundane cultural differences. Ultimately, Manca concludes, Husserl remains closest to Kant, insofar as he interprets the history of philosophy as orbiting around a set of problems, rather than as the unidirectional process by which reason realises itself over an organic series of stages. Whereas, for Hegel, history articulates a conceptual structure outlined in the Science of Logic, Husserl recognises no such extra-historical standard informing history’s development.
Hegel’s critique of immediacy and its implications for Husserl’s foundationalist project provides the theme for Chapter Four, by Chong-Fuk Lau, in which it is argued that Husserl came ultimately to concede the impossibility of the very presuppositionless standpoint to which his epoché had been intended to facilitate access. As Lau notes, Hegel and Husserl are similarly committed to the possibility of a rigorously scientific and presuppositionless philosophy, differing principally over whether presuppositionlessness is the feature of a starting-point or a system taken as a whole. Lau is sympathetic to Hegel’s anti-foundationalism, which he takes to fatally undermine the pursuit of ultimate beginnings to which Husserl is committed in his transcendental phenomenology. According to Lau, whereas Hegel had shown that there is nothing altogether free of mediation, Husserl’s performance of the epoché is intended to facilitate a radical beginning from which all mediation has been expelled. For Lau, there is simply no room for compromise between Husserl and Hegel over this Cartesian methodological issue, and Husserl’s appearance of having moved closer to Hegel by the time of the Crisis is the result of his having abandoned his earlier foundationalist ideals.
Lau’s expert discussion of Hegel compellingly makes the case for a fundamental incompatibility between Hegel’s method and that of the Husserlian transcendental phenomenologist. Whereas, however, he is on secure ground in maintaining that Heidegger or Gadamer represent greater prospects for a phenomenological appropriation of Hegelian insights than is afforded by Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology, his claim that the Crisis involves a complete reversal of earlier foundationalist aspirations is more questionable. The ideal of “European science” to which Husserl re-affirms his commitment in the Crisis does not significantly differ from that which he presents in the Cartesian Meditations, and Husserl does not suppose his greater attention to the life-world to undermine earlier aspirations.
Chapter Five, the first of the collection specifically to compare Hegel and Heidegger, is by Antoine Cantin-Brault and examines Hegel’s and Heidegger’s respective understandings of the Heraclitean logos. In its profounder sense, as the principle (arche) of nature (phusis), logos may, according to Cantin-Brault be understood either as (i) the dialectical and determinate truth of being, or as (ii) the unveiling of that which is concealed. Although Heraclitus does not, Cantin-Brault maintains, explicitly make any such distinction, Hegel interprets Heraclitean logos from the first perspective, whereas Heidegger’s interpretation emphasises the second. For Cantin-Brault, Heidegger’s approach to Heraclitus is mediated by a Hegelian interpretation which he tries, and ultimately fails, to overcome. As such, Cantin-Brault argues, Heidegger is unsuccessful in his attempt to understand Heraclitean logos apart from Hegelian dialectic. Hence, for Cantin-Brault, as for Hegel, Heraclitus is a dialectical thinker, in whose work a process of rational self-articulation is driven by the dynamic relation between certain fundamental concepts. Indeed, Cantin-Brault maintains, it was Heraclitus that first instituted a logos which provides Hegel’s philosophy with its central governing principle.
Heidegger’s changing approach to Heraclitean logos, and his disagreements with Hegel on this matter, are, according to Cantin-Brault, illustrative of differing understandings of the nature of ontology, and Heidegger engages differently with Heraclitus before and after his famous Kehre. Cantin-Brault’s chapter strikingly highlights the very different issues relevant to comparing Hegel with either Heidegger or Husserl, and marks quite a thematic departure from the previous, more Husserl-focussed contributions. This is apparent not only in the respectively epistemic and ontological priorities which distinguish Husserl and Heidegger, but also in their divergent attitudes towards the pre-Socratics. Although Plato marks a watershed for both Husserl and Heidegger, he is, for Husserl, the first true philosopher, and for Heidegger, the initial step to modernity’s ontological forgetfulness.
In Chapter Six, Andrea Altobrando compellingly makes the case that, from the time of his transcendental turn, Husserl came to share with Hegel a commitment to the pure ego as a necessary abstraction from the concrete self. After the initial Humean-Brentanian scepticism towards the unified self which he displays in the Logical Investigations, Husserl moves, according to Altobrando, in the contrary direction, acknowledging the pure ego as a necessary condition of any possible experience. Like Hegel, however, in the Phenomenology of Spirit and Philosophy of Mind, Husserl is not, Altobrando shows, committed to Cartesian substance dualism, but recognises the pure ego as an abstraction from a more concrete self, upon which it is therefore ontologically dependent. Both Hegel and Husserl, Altobrando maintains, recognise a demand to develop a more concrete understanding of one’s ontological identity which is not, therefore, merely abstract. For Hegel as well as Husserl, the pure ego, according to Altobrando, is entirely barren of content, simple, indeterminate and negative, without being unreal. Such an abstract pure ego is, Altobrando maintains, necessary for both Hegel and Husserl in order to accommodate the possibility of free agency and the intentionality of consciousness.
With this discussion of the pure ego, Altobrando highlights a feature of Husserl’s philosophy which might – in view of his well-known Cartesian inheritance – initially be thought to disqualify any prospect of overlap with Hegel, and shows that such impressions are unfounded. What is more, as Altobrando explicitly remarks, the comparison of Hegel’s and Husserl’s respective views concerning the pure ego represents a large and difficult project with very significant potential for re-assessing the prospects for dialogue between Husserlian and Hegelian traditions. As such, Altobrando’s contribution indicates the beginning of an exciting and promising larger project concerning the place of the pure ego in Husserl’s thought and Hegel’s.
Chapter Seven, by Alfredo Ferrarin, examines the much-neglected topic of Hegel’s and Husserl’s respective views concerning the imagination and, in so doing, identifies fascinating and unexpected points of agreement between the two thinkers, along with more predictable disagreements. According to Ferrarin, Hegel and Husserl share, first, a common Humean target, and, second, an understanding of the mind as stratified into layers of capacity which support and build upon one another. Unlike Hume, who recognises only a difference in degree of liveliness and vivacity between the ideas and impressions which furnish the contents of the mind, Hegel and Husserl recognise logically irreducible functional differences between the imagination and other subjective capacities. Such capacities are vertically ordered, for Hegel and Husserl, each of whom maintains that the capacity for sensible perception is conditional and grounded upon that of imagination.
Whereas, for Ferrarin, Hegel stresses the continuities between imagination and perception, Hegel emphasises their discontinuities, but both acknowledge a mutual dependence between the possible representation of the real and that of the unreal. In accordance with their contrasting methodological approaches, however, Hegel and Husserl differ very significantly, according to Ferrarin, in their assessments of the philosophical role of the imagination. Husserl’s eidetic discoveries are presented as the products of phantasy or imaginative variation, whereas Hegel understands the imagination as an intermediate stage on subjectivity’s self-propelling journey towards the pure Idea, wherein the sensible content of one’s representations is abstracted and their logical form laid bare to the contemplation of speculative intelligence. Since for Hegel it is the business of philosophy to transform representations into thoughts, the products of imagination are, in spite of their necessary contribution in facilitating the possibility of sensible knowledge and experience, part of what needs to be overcome in effecting the self-mediated transition from ordinary consciousness to philosophical science.
In her chapter – the eighth of the collection – Elisa Magrì argues that Hegel and Merleau-Ponty confront a similar paradox concerning expression, and pursue a common strategy in response. According to Magrì, the concept of expression occupies a central role in Hegel’s thought and Merleau-Ponty’s, but is in neither case to be understood in terms of the manifestation of a pre-existing logos. Beginning with Kant’s account of genius in the third Critique, Magrì shows that, for Kant, expression involves the spontaneous production of a representation which is communicable to others without having been generated according to a fixed procedure or rule. Expression takes on a broader systematic role for Hegel and Merleau-Ponty, Magrì maintains, both of whom employ genetic description to make sense of its pervasive significance in every aspect of thought and subjective experience. Magrì examines Hegel’s discussions of the concepts of expression and manifestation in the Science of Logic and identifies how their respective shortcomings contribute to the emergence of the self-conditioning concept which is the articulation of its own significance. Hegel’s account of expression in the Philosophy of Subjective Spirit is then explored in depth and its systematic connections with the argument of the Logic brought into view.
Merleau-Ponty is seen to agree with Hegel in treating expression properly understood as the origination of meaning, rather than the making publicly available of a privately originating significance. According to Magrì, expression depends, for Hegel and Merleau-Ponty, upon a complex dialectical interplay of activity and passivity, the importance of which for their respective post-Kantian approaches is difficult to overstate. Such a dialectic is particularly well-illustrated, Magrì suggests, in Hegel’s and Merleau-Ponty’s respective accounts of the processes by which the body becomes habituated to the expression of meaning – a series of developments involving moments of subjectivity and objectivity, interiority and exteriority.
Chapter Nine, by Giovanni Zanotti, represents something of a change in direction for the collection, with Hegel taking a step into the background and his place being filled by one of his most important twentieth century enthusiasts – Theodor Adorno. Zanotti examines Adorno’s Hegelian critique of Husserl’s commitment to a presuppositionless first philosophy grounded in the immediate deliverances of intuition. According to Zanotti, Adorno shows Husserl’s ambitious foundationalist project to fall victim to Hegel’s critique of pure immediacy, insofar as Husserl falsely assumes the possibility of an immediate foundation to knowledge which is yet able to mediate the transfer of epistemic support to propositions to which it must therefore stand in relations of mediation. Zanotti explicitly maintains that Adorno’s critique is effective specifically against such earlier Husserlian works as the Logical Investigations, leaving open the possibility that Husserl may be less vulnerable to such criticisms in the Crisis and related works of that period.
What is especially interesting about Zanotti’s admirably lucid and finely-crafted chapter is the way it explains Adorno’s discovery of an unintended dialectical tendency in Husserl’s work. According to Zanotti, Adorno shows that Husserl is led, in spite of himself but nonetheless through a kind of logic immanent within his position, to qualify the earlier Platonic realism of the Logical Investigations in recognition of a necessary subjective ground for the logical concepts he intends to elucidate without, however, sliding into the naïve psychologism which, Adorno maintains, Husserl was right to reject. As such, Zanotti’s chapter amplifies a theme recurrent throughout the collection – that in spite of his ignorance of and early antipathy to Hegel’s thought, the trajectory of Husserl’s philosophical development is towards increasingly greater proximity to Hegel. This is not to deny, however – as Adorno well-recognises – that the one-sidedness of Husserl’s earlier works indicates a genuine insight.
The penultimate chapter of the collection, by Gilles Marmasse, explores Ricœur’s ambivalent assessment of Hegel’s system and its legacy. According to Marmasse, Ricœur understands Hegel’s absolutist ambitions as a temptation which must be resisted, but the renunciation of which cannot be experienced without a sense of profound loss. For Ricœur, the events of the twentieth century have made it impossible to subscribe any longer to the self-grounding and totalising conception of philosophy which Hegel offers in reply to the finitude of the Kantian system, without having eliminated the appeal of such an ideal. The contemporary predicament is well-illustrated by the remarkable fascination which Hegel’s system retains, according to Ricœur, notwithstanding that it is no longer possible seriously to regard philosophy as party to anything else than a partial interpretation of the multifaceted cultural environment to which it belongs and by which it is conditioned.
Ricœur exaggerates Hegel’s dogmatic proclivities, according to Marmasse, who confronts Ricœur’s familiarly speculative interpretation of Hegel with a more deflationary approach which emphasises the Hegelian ambition to accommodate contingency and particularity within the system without annihilating their status as irreducible moments of a greater whole. Contrary to Ricœur’s inflationary reading, Hegel’s notion of Spirit does not, Marmasse maintains, commit him to any disembodied extra-human agency. All the same, according to Marmasse, Ricœur’s criticisms of Hegel retain, in spite of their shortcomings, a contemporary value and interest, especially in respect of their highlighting of authoritarian implications in Hegel’s theory of the state. Marmasse’s chapter is especially interesting in the way it exemplifies a phenomenon frequently remarked upon in the history of Hegel’s reception – namely, the peculiar allure of his system even for those seeking to identify its failings, and the apparent impossibility of ‘getting beyond’ Hegel – with whom it therefore seems necessary to remain in continued dialogue.
Daniele De Santis concludes the collection with a chapter defending Husserl against charges of the kind raised by Sellars’s monumentally influential critique of the myth of the Given. As De Santis remarks, Sellars’s Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind is often taken as the original source of a Hegel renaissance within analytic philosophy by which Cartesian approaches of the kind which Husserl advocates have been largely discredited. De Santis identifies three aspects of Sellars’s Hegelianism; (i) a ‘three-fold critique’ of givenness, comprising epistemological, metaphysical and genetic elements, (ii) a historical counter-account to a received view of Hegel’s relation to Cartesian philosophy, and (iii) a conceptual holism subsequently embraced by Brandom and McDowell. According to De Santis, Sellars intends for his initial attack against sense-datum theories to open a route towards the rejection of a general picture of givenness of which no philosopher has been altogether innocent. Sellars’s self-described Méditations Hégéliennes are intended to recall Husserl’s Méditations Cartésiennes, De Santis maintains, and therefore to implicate Husserl as complicit in the myth which Sellars means to unveil and dispel.
Identifying a problematic conception of evidence as the core of Sellars’s three-fold critique of givenness, De Santis proceeds to argue that performance of the transcendental-phenomenological reduction, or epoché, leads Husserl to reconceive of the intentional object as the product of acts of transcendental synthesis. Appearances are not mere isolated ‘givens’ according to Husserl, but originate within a normative network of combination-guiding principles which has more in common with Sellars’s conceptual holism than analytic Hegelians have yet to recognise. De Santis’s contribution carries the welcome implication that the so-called ‘Hegelian turn’ in recent analytic philosophy need not preclude productive engagement with phenomenology, any more than phenomenologists have been prevented from making significant contributions to Hegel scholarship or to contemporary understandings of Hegel’s current relevance.
The omission of chapters devoted specifically to Sartre, de Beauvoir and Gadamer and their respective responses to Hegel is perhaps surprising, although a volume addressing each of the major figures of the phenomenological movement would have significantly increased the length of the collection and shifted its focus away from the movement’s founder. Certainly other phenomenologists are more explicitly indebted to Hegel, and Husserl is one of the least obviously ‘Hegelian’ figures of the tradition, but the collection’s unusual attention to Husserl’s widely unacknowledged affinities with Hegel’s thought is, for this very reason, amongst its many virtues. Few other collections offer such thorough studies of the congruences and points of departure between Hegel’s ambitious project and the tradition of philosophical research originating with Husserl, without failing to respect the complex unity of the phenomenological movement as a venture of Husserlian origin. The essays in the present volume – the result of a conference on “Hegel and the Phenomenological Movement” held in Pisa in 2014 – collectively and compellingly make the case for a fresh approach to the relation between Hegelianism and phenomenology, which does not assume Husserl’s basic philosophical orientation to be antithetical to Hegel’s but sees both traditions as responses to a common Kantian heritage and capable of productive cross-fertilisation in the development of anti-naturalist strategies centring upon the meaning-constitutive priority of historical subjectivity. Such a re-evaluation – it might reasonably be hoped – shall be met with enthusiasm by an audience which has become impatient with dismissive treatments of Husserl as a naïve Cartesian, radical only in his uncompromising foundationalism and unmoved by the era-defining concerns which have, since the mid-twentieth century, made Hegel increasingly difficult to ignore for analytic as well as Continental philosophers. While the history of the phenomenological movement has typically been seen as one of successive heretical departures from an original Husserlian ideal of ‘philosophy as rigorous science’ and the greater acceptance of a hermeneutic and historicist approach antithetical to Husserl’s, the present collection invites readers to question such received wisdom by considering the Hegelian potential implicit in Husserl and re-examining his legacy from a perspective informed by Hegel.
“It is,” writes Steven DeLay, “a serious responsibility to be human” (125). Whatever else one thinks philosophy is, one of its tasks is undoubtedly to figure out what our human responsibility is. And that responsibility must be connected in intelligible ways to the reality of what we are, the nature of the world at large, and what, given our powers, we are supposed to achieve. If goods and evils do exist, and if it lies within our powers to introduce or eliminate them, philosophy should have something to say about what those goods and evils are, and how to do that. As Augustine puts it, “to obtain the supreme good and avoid the supreme evil—such has been the aim and effort of all who have professed a zeal for wisdom in this world of shadows” (Augustine 1958, XIX.1, 428).
DeLay certainly has a “zeal for wisdom,” and his book is, ultimately, about how to identify and obtain the “supreme good.” The short answer lies in the title: we should live our lives “before God.” The long answer can only be acquired by reading the book. For what DeLay offers is a series of powerfully written and insightful reflections on what a life lived before God looks like for the one who lives it. It is an “exercise in subjectivity,” not in the Cartesian sense, but in the phenomenological sense—an exercise in how human life and its responsibilities manifest themselves for one who lives in the confidence of the immense value of the human person and in God’s redemptive plan for us. It is phenomenological in a further sense, insofar as it spells out intelligible and in many cases essential connections among the beliefs, attitudes, and actions of one who lives their life before God. DeLay’s analyses draw heavily on the phenomenological and existential traditions, and his insights into some of the classics of those traditions are genuinely eye-opening. Many of DeLay’s insights are novel, especially those he applies to contemporary life. And many are knowingly part of a long spiritual and philosophical tradition, whose central point can be expressed by saying that to live before God is to repudiate the values and the invidious distinctions lying at the basis of nearly all worldly life and its political, social, and institutional expressions and manifestations. It is to take up a radically different form of life, one in which selfless love extends beyond one’s family and friends to one’s neighbors and even one’s enemies. At the same time, it is to look to God, and not to power, pleasure, prestige, or group membership for redemption. It is to “grow in doing good,” which is “to want what is good for others” (62), even those who do us wrong. It is to regard God as “the living One to whom we owe all” (3).
At the heart of DeLay’s exercises lies a contrast that hearkens back to Kierkegaard’s contrast between being a self and being part of a crowd, Augustine’s contrast between the City of God and the City of Man, and, of course, Paul’s contrast between a life of the spirit and a life of the flesh. “We are most defined,” DeLay writes, “by our capacity to decide whether we will an existence of being-in-the-world, or one instead of being-before-God” (124). The choice of being-in-the-world has a familiar outline, and DeLay allows the existentialists to describe much of it. It is, as Heidegger says, in large measure the customary, conformist, inauthentic way of doing what “one” does, thinking what “one” thinks, and feeling what “one” feels. On this point Kierkegaard agrees. This world is, moreover, widely agreed to be a place of immense pain and disappointment and despair, most of it caused by humans themselves. Here too Kierkegaard agrees.
But against Kierkegaard, and DeLay, the atheist existentialists more or less agree that the natural and human world is all there is and, most critically, that whatever redemption we can fashion must come from willing or resolving upon a certain order of values for and by ourselves. Our lives are essentially bound up with those of others and their self-centered projects, and our relations with them are for the most part instrumental or adversarial. From the point of view of being-before-God, others are made in God’s image, and we are required to treat them as such (see 76). From the point of view of being-in-the-world, as Sartre famously characterizes the matter, other people are hell with the magical power of defining, in their total freedom, who and what we are, and the best we can hope for is to stop serving them and to fashion and define ourselves. The task for the atheist existentialists remains what it was for Kierkegaard: to become a self rather than a crowd. But whereas Kierkegaard says in a thousand different ways that one can only be a self in relation to God, the atheist existentialists hand what they can of God’s powers over to us. At its height (or depth, as the case may be) this involves becoming creators of value or, perhaps even more absurdly, of our own essence or nature. Failing that, it is to at least live “authentically.” In any event, there is little recognition that anything we have, including life itself but also our powers of mind and body, is a gift, or any acknowledgment that these gifts are to be received in gratitude, held with humility, and employed in a life of service and love.
Does this mode of thinking and living exemplify a “zeal for wisdom”? If DeLay is right, it is the opposite, a view that “leads whomever follows it badly astray” (6). All of its proponents declare God to be dead far too hastily and, in many cases, too eagerly. For Heidegger, with whom DeLay engages most closely on this point, the reason is putatively methodological: the philosopher must practice “methodological atheism.” DeLay has a great deal to say about the questionableness of that methodological choice. But, more importantly, as DeLay notes, it is obviously quite more than a methodological choice. Heidegger’s analysis of Dasein as being-in-the-world is not supposed to be an account of what we would be if there were no God, but what we are. As DeLay puts it, Heidegger’s decision to characterize Dasein as “anxious fundamentally” is “not at all to bracket the question of God, but to reject directly the idea that we are made in the image of God” (6).
For DeLay, this is both catastrophic and philosophically irresponsible. Indeed, in the very first page DeLay rejects the traditional distinction between philosophy and theology. “Are philosophy and theology really so distinct” (1)? To affirm that they are, for DeLay, is to carve up disciplinary boundaries that do not correspond with the things themselves or the structure of our concern about them. “If it is impossible for any individual life to evade the question of God entirely forever …, how could a philosophy that aims to understand human existence do so itself” (3)? Well, quite simply, it can’t. One must, in one fashion or another, come to terms with the question of God. If philosophy is to speak to our condition, to aid us in identifying and seeking the highest good, it cannot simply bracket God as beyond or beneath its concern.
That philosophy cannot responsibly evade the question of God through mere methodological means seems rather clear. So what are the alternatives? DeLay writes: “where Heidegger recommended methodological atheism as philosophically crucial to transcendental phenomenology, why cannot we claim the opposite and insist on a methodological theism” (27)? Well, I think there may be an answer to that, and one that rules out both methodological atheism and theism. In transcendental phenomenology, we are concerned with essential relations among acts, their objects, and their contents. “To elucidate [the] connections between veritable being and knowing and so in general to investigate the correlations between act, meaning, object is the task of transcendental phenomenology” (Husserl 2008, 434). We bracket the factual existence of the world, for instance, not in order to doubt it, but just to prevent irrelevant premises from being imported into an eidetic investigation. It’s really no different from bracketing propositions about empirically real shapes when doing geometry, a procedure compatible with the absolute certainty that such shapes exist. Comparing the two disciplines, Husserl writes: “Geometry and phenomenology as sciences of pure essence make note of no determinations about real existence” (Husserl 2014, 147).
Now it would be objectionable to bracket God if that meant that in phenomenology we can say nothing about God or the consciousness of God. If phenomenology deals with what we are conscious of and the nature of our consciousness of it, then “by what authority can God’s phenomenality be discarded as illegitimate, as unimportant to phenomenological philosophy’s concern” (27)? That’s a great question, whose answer is, I think, just what DeLay thinks it is: by no authority whatsoever. This does not, however, amount to methodological theism. Nor is it methodological agnosticism. It is, well, bracketing—simply not considering the matter within the context of phenomenology, in the same way that a geometer brackets the color of shapes without thereby confirming, denying, or even remaining neutral on the question of whether shapes have colors. Bracketing the existence of God is compatible with phenomenological inquiries into the nature of the consciousness of God and the form of a life lived before God. We can talk about God and a conscious life lived before God all we want in phenomenology, as DeLay insists. And—here I think I may disagree with him—we can do so without violating any of Husserl’s strictures regarding the phenomenological method. The reason is that provided there is a consciousness of something, the nature of that consciousness is fair game for phenomenology. And you cannot discuss the nature of the consciousness of something without saying quite a bit about the nature of that very something: “the description of the essence of consciousness leads back to what, in consciousness, one is conscious of” (Husserl 2014, 254). (And I hasten to add that “what … one is conscious of” when one is conscious of God is God, and not, say, a God-noema.) Since people, including methodological atheists, are obviously conscious of God, that consciousness is a suitable topic for phenomenology, in all of its various forms of love, hate, and indifference. In the same way, phenomenology can talk about the nature of perceiving a physical thing, even without positing the actual existence of a single physical thing. The reason to bracket God—or trees, tables, or anything else—isn’t because their existence is dubitable. It’s because phenomenology is an eidetic discipline that posits the existence of no actualities at all.
From the beginning, as at all later stages, its scientific statements involve not the slightest reference to real existence: no metaphysical, scientific, and, above all, no psychological assertions can therefore occur among its premises (Husserl 1970, 265).
This—and the whole process of bracketing—has exactly nothing to do with epistemic caution. It has to do with the fact that phenomenology does not posit the existence of a single real thing. Indeed, among the things we don’t posit in phenomenology are individual acts of consciousness themselves (see Husserl 2014, 102). This partly explains why believers and unbelievers alike can learn a great deal from works like DeLay’s. Even without positing God, one can grasp, in some fashion, the nature of a subjective life lived in the consciousness of being before God.
Clearly, however, DeLay is right that philosophy as a whole cannot simply proceed on the assumption that God does not exist, or go on bracketing God’s existence indefinitely. Not, at least, if its task is to provide a metaphysics, an ethics, a proper ontology of the human person, and, finally, a path toward a good life. Now I don’t think this quite means that philosophy and theology are not distinct or even that they overlap—though, of course, they might. But in any case, I think this division is not what’s really at stake in DeLay’s view. For there are reasons to think that, at least on one conception of what those disciplines are about and what they require in terms of our wills, and despite the fact that both disciplines must address the question of God and the nature of a life lived before God, they cannot lead us all the way to God anyway. The reason is that knowing God is not principally a matter of how smart one is. As Delay puts it, “if God will be known, he must be loved” (18). Since a love of God is necessary for a knowledge of God, but is not necessary for doing philosophy or even theology, doing philosophy and theology cannot be sufficient for knowing God.
Before moving on, I should point out at once that DeLay addresses the worry that this is circular. His response is that the kind of knowledge at stake is knowledge by acquaintance rather than a deductive proof (18-19). A life lived before God is not the same thing as a life lived with a convincing argument for God. I think the point could be summed up by saying that surely one must have some conception of God in order to love and desire to encounter God, but that this conception and love does not presuppose the knowledge of God that it itself makes possible. Simply put, we all have some conception of God as an all-powerful and morally perfect spiritual being, one who meets human wrongdoing with mercy. Some of us love and desire to know God, and hope that this world could somehow be redeemed by him. Some of us, by contrast, would be quite relieved if God did not exist, since his ways and our ways do not agree. In fact DeLay very artfully turns the tables on those who charge the believer with “wish-fulfillment.” As he puts it, “the denial of God’s existence might equivalently be interpreted as someone’s not wanting to love what is there” (19). The prelude to acquaintance is loving, or at least not resenting and hating, the object of this conception. The principal problem for the atheist, on DeLay’s view, is that “he persists looking in a way that guarantees he will come up empty-handed inevitably, so long as he wants to” (19).
But why should a love of God be required to know God? Might we at least secure an argument for his existence if an encounter is out of the question? Part of DeLay’s answer seems to be that this is just a special case of a more general principle. It is, as DeLay points out, a familiar fact that while ordinary physical objects show up to anyone with properly functioning senses, many things do not. A hardened heart will not detect kindness or love when others exhibit them, or the beauty that lies in a piece of art or music (17). Nor is our will inoperative when we grasp arguments outside the “terrain of certainty” (19). “Knowing is entwined with what we want to know, or want to be. In a very subtle yet relevant way, just affirming an argument’s conclusion takes an exercise of love” (19).
I am not confident that this last claim is quite right. Many scientific theories, for instance, are uncertain, but we affirm them without any detectable exercises of love. But even if it is right, there may be a different reason why God, in particular, will only show up for those willing to encounter him. It is that God “does not impose an encounter with himself, because to do so would be incompatible with the love defining him” (18). And here, I think, DeLay’s work can be profitably supplemented with insights from, among others, Max Scheler and Paul Moser. God is a person, and as Scheler points out, persons, and only persons, can be silent (Scheler 1960, 335). Now Scheler is quick to add that it would be incompatible with the goodness of God to remain silent for all people and forever. But he may well decide to be silent for some people some of the time. And as Moser points out, his reasons for doing so would be motivated by and intelligible in the light of his perfect moral goodness. As he puts it, “God typically would hide God’s existence from people ill disposed toward it, in order not to antagonize these people in a way that diminishes their ultimate receptivity toward God’s character and purposes” (Moser 2013, 200). That is, the issue isn’t that certain spectacles will only appear to those favorably inclined. Rather, it is that God isn’t available via “spectator evidence” at all. Because he is a person, and a person primarily concerned with our moral characters rather than our beliefs, “God would not use spectator evidence for self-authentication” (Moser 2013, 105).
All of that seems perfectly in line with DeLay’s own claims about the conditions for encountering God. Like appreciating a work of art or recognizing nobility and excellence in another, it requires a certain loving attitude on our part. But unlike those cases, it also requires that God voluntarily reveal himself in ways suitable for our moral development. If we persist in the “wisdom” that characterizes being-in-the-world, we can expect God, out of love for us, to remain out of reach, just as DeLay says (19). But it does put pressure on DeLay’s framing of the relation of philosophy to theology. Much of the content of those disciplines is available to “spectator evidence.” They call upon powers primarily of intellect rather than of character. But the encounter with God does not. He will hide from the wise and manifest himself to children (Matthew 11:25). And given God’s personal prerogative to remain silent, and his reasons, grounded in love, for doing so, establishing the reality of God is quite possibly where both philosophy and theology stop short. I think that almost certainly follows from Moser’s position, and I suspect that it follows from DeLay’s as well. The alternative is that philosophy and theology do require a love of God to be done properly—a position that, I think, DeLay might endorse when he favorably characterizes the “ancient schools” of philosophical thinking for regarding philosophy as a partially “therapeutic” activity designed to “elevate those who pursued it above the quotidian life,” and which “requires more than conceptual clarity” (33). In either case, the important point of DeLay’s work stands: not just anybody is going to encounter God, and there are powerful reasons lying in both the subject and the object why that is so.
Whether that is so, a further and related point is amply substantiated by DeLay’s book, and that is that philosophy conducted “before God” can arrive at insights that would escape a philosophy of being-in-the-world. Or, more precisely, actions and attitudes that might look absurd from the perspective of being-in-the-world take on a whole new character of obviousness when viewed from the perspective of being before God. “A faithful life, led by its distinctive form of evidence, involves a comprehensively new way of seeing things in their totality, one with wide-reaching implications for how we grasp everything…” (28). So, for instance, Nietzsche accuses Christians of denying life, and bills his own philosophy of will to power as an affirmation of life. But what is being affirmed here is not life per se, nor a good life on any defensible understanding of it, but being-in-the-world with all of its brutality, arrogance, egoism, exploitation, and needless suffering. From the perspective of being-before-God, hatred of “the world,” so construed, is the very opposite of a hatred of life. “To the contrary, hatred of the world affirms life” (159). DeLay’s book is full of such insights.
Here is another example that, I think, goes straight to the heart of contemporary life. Being-in-the-world is marked by conflict at every level of human interaction, from the personal on up. That conflict often erupts into violence. And it always involves an enemy. One’s attitude toward an enemy might involve “rancor, resentment, hatred or even wrath” (103). But that, typically, is not how enemies are made. Enmity is normally, rather, the “bad fruit of egoism” (103). My enemy is my enemy because, originally, “he simply stood in the way of my desires” (103). Once this opposition is established, the “bad fruit” of enmity begins to grow. Far too often, the result is violence, followed by more violence, in a brutal cycle of retaliation and revenge. Hence the religious prohibitions on lust (103), which, judging by the widespread efforts to provoke it, much of the contemporary world seems to find arbitrary. Political solutions to these problems often simply substitute personal violence with institutional violence which, again, is typically born of people trying to get what they want, and coming to hate and oppress those who stand in their way. “Violence, when it concerns the lack of peace with others, originates in the strife produced by the desire to get what we want, sometimes at any cost, even should the cost mean the horrific suffering of others” (109). Following Dostoevski, DeLay insists that political solutions to violence do not get to the root of the problem: “true change would require everyone first beginning by revolutionizing themselves” (112).
For DeLay, this personal revolution means living before God. When I regard others as made in God’s image, I will never consent to harm someone for the gratification of my desires, or especially for vengeance. And, given the normal way in which enmity arises, this means that I simply won’t have enemies. As DeLay puts it, “There can be no peace until we learn to live without enemies” (110). Now of course DeLay knows and insists that enmity is not always reciprocal (102). We cannot control whether others regard us as their enemies. And, of course, we might all have unwilled enemies, otherwise the commandment to love one’s enemies would make no sense. But we can control whether we regard others as enemies, whether we are the ones who will the harm or destruction of another. When we love others, we would never want that. Alice von Hildebrand writes:
A fundamental characteristic of love is that all the good qualities of the beloved are considered to be a valid expression of his true self; whereas his faults are interpreted as an unfaithfulness towards his true self (Hildebrand 1965, 57).
And that is exactly the vision that DeLay shares. From the point of view of living before God, not only will we not regard others as enemies, but it will be obvious that we cannot so regard them. Defense of self and others might be called for in certain dire circumstances. But mowing down others or destroying what in their lives is precious in the pursuit of pleasure, power, or revenge for past harms would be out of the question. What is natural and obvious from the point of view of being-in-the-world, namely the genesis of violence in uncontrolled desire and its perpetuation through hatred and retaliation, is nearly unimaginable from the point of view of being before God.
It is in this light, I suggest, that we read one of the more puzzling features of DeLay’s view. In his discussion of lying, DeLay claims that there is no explanation for why people lie (129). And that is because, like Kierkegaard and Henry, DeLay thinks that this is true of all sin and evil (129). Now I admit that lying often involves a kind of bad faith, that “To lie is to trust that I, and not it, am in control. But I am not, and so to breathe it into being is to make myself its dupe” (131). But it is rather implausible, for instance, that there is no explanation for why a criminal on the stand would lie. He doesn’t want to suffer. Lying to avoid great suffering or death is about as intelligible as things come in the sphere of human motivations. Maybe such a liar wrongly thinks that he is in control of the consequences of his lie. But more likely, the explanation is more mundane: telling the truth means certain suffering, and lying means, well, maybe not.
More worrying, though, is that the claim that sin and evil are without explanation entails that the repeated and depressingly similar patterns of wrongdoing that we find in the world have no explanation, that it is a gigantically improbable and horrendous miracle. But DeLay’s own book succeeds in showing, again and again, that being-in-the-world has an inner logic of its own that makes wrongdoing almost inescapable. Equip some very finite but rather clever beings with pride and lust and the will to power, give them contingently limited physical resources and essentially limited funds of prestige and social status, and one might hazard a guess at how things will unfold. And so they do unfold, much as DeLay describes and explains in each chapter of his book, and as other insightful people (Plato, Paul, Hobbes, Nietzsche, Veblen, Murdoch, to name just a few) have described in theirs.
How are we to reconcile DeLay’s position that evil does not make sense with the fact that it does make sense, and that he himself makes sense of it? The answer, I think, refers us again to the contrast between being-in-the-world and being before God. Evil might make sense from the perspective of abandonment, despair, and self-sufficiency that characterizes being-in-the-world. In fact, it makes enough sense that with minimal premises we could deduce it a priori. But from DeLay’s own perspective, that of being before God, doing the right thing is not only possible, but natural and obvious—so much so that evil must, from this outlook, genuinely be unintelligible.
But DeLay makes, and repeatedly illustrates, a further point about evil. Not only is it profoundly irrational from the point of view of living before God, but is so even from the perspective of being-in-the-world. The reason lies in its typically self-undermining character. To return to the lie, the lie has, as part of its own nature, something paradoxical about it. “A lie,” DeLay writes, “is something one assumes will not be identified for what it is … yet what makes it what it is (a lie!) is precisely that it deceives, first and above all else, the one that it has assured it cannot (or probably will not) be discovered” (130). This is the “existential” paradox characteristic of the act of lying. A lie has logical and practical consequences that exceed our intentions, our grasp, and our control. To utter one is to lose control in an attempt to exercise control.
We find the same internal tension in other cases too. Evil, as DeLay points out, is often silent, both in point of fact and more broadly by way of a life shrouded in “a fog of evasions and obscurities” (118). The absentee father, to give one of examples, becomes increasingly silent in this way as his failure at parenting becomes increasingly conspicuous. “Phone calls are left unmade, birthday cards unsent” (118). But the silence intended to cover over this failure makes it all the more evident. “As with the adulterer, the conman, or the spy, the silence required to conceal the double life eventually becomes bizarre; in turn, it only arouses the suspicion of guile it was meant to dispel” (119). Or again: “Undermining itself, the silence not only has failed to hide what it hoped it would. It has disclosed that it has something to hide” (121).
Another, but by no means the final, example is violence itself. Its goal, ultimately, is to put an end to conflict. But it almost never manages to do this. Not only does retaliation typically provoke further acts of retaliation, but the act of violence nearly always leaves the perpetrator of it damaged—especially, we might add, when retaliation amounts to annihilation. Even in those cases which seem most obviously justifiable—the United States’ role in World War II, for example—violence harms everyone, including the victors. This isn’t just because, say, it led to the horrors of Nagasaki or Dresden, in which “to do violence to others is also to have done harm to ourselves” (104). It’s also because the many consequences, both seen and unforeseen, of that conflict. Now DeLay does say that “A purely philosophical justification for unconditional pacificism is admittedly elusive” (106). At the same time, his chapter on “Making Peace” reminds us of the horrific consequences of violence, quite contrary to whatever legitimacy might appear to characterize violence in the first place. Furthermore, according to DeLay, violence is exacerbated by the very worldly attitude of regarding the individual as unimportant and viewing political entities as the really important agents of power and change in the world. This perspective is itself self-undermining because “It worsens the violence it hopes to ameliorate by ignoring the depths of the problem’s source” (109). It is a recurring feature of DeLay’s book how often self-defeating the world’s solutions to its own problems are.
This brings me to an important point about DeLay’s method of philosophizing. In the examples above, DeLay provides empirical evidence for his assertions. But he does not characterize his claims to be empirical only. Regarding the consequences of war, for example, he writes that “empirical reality concerning historic facts confirms the original claim of phenomenological essence” (106). And so it is with each of his analyses. I can imagine some readers being suspicious of these claims of “phenomenological essence.” DeLay does not employ the familiar strategy in philosophy of wandering to the remotest of all allegedly “possible worlds” to see if his claims don’t hold up in some of them. Might there not be some possible world where violence succeeds in putting everything right, where the proud and the self-centered never become enemies, where the power of the State puts an end to all conflict while leaving our inner lives untouched, and where the lie and its offspring have all been tamed by the liar? Well, maybe such worlds are “conceivable,” at least in some empty or inauthentic way. So construed, maybe these aren’t claims of “essence.” But between what is true in every far-fetched possible (or, more often, inauthentically conceivable) world and mere contingency there is intelligibility. The connections among evil and its consequences, and between living before God and its consequences, are not brutely empirical. They make sense, including phenomenological, motivational sense. And DeLay’s method is to make sense of them, within the constraints that reasonable people will probably recognize as framing human life. I imagine that some readers will find this realism to be a refreshing aspect of DeLay’s work. I know I did.
This leads to one final point, however, one where my own doubts run deepest. A strong interpretation of DeLay’s position is that living a life before God is both sufficient and necessary for genuine moral goodness, the kind of robust moral goodness needed to transform human life in the ways so desperately needed. I will leave to the side the question of whether it is sufficient, in part because I think DeLay makes a very strong case that it is—though, and as I suspect DeLay would agree, learning to live before God might be a long road that cannot be travelled by a mere change in belief. But is it necessary? There are, after all, more sober conceptions of a godless and finite life than the being-in-the-world of the existentialists, and it would have been helpful to see DeLay exercise his considerable philosophical skills against some more credible opponents. Iris Murdoch’s philosophy, for example, presents a diagnosis of human wrongdoing very much in line with that of the Christian tradition, and recommends a partially similar and non-legalistic cure of selfless love, “attention” to the real, and humility (see Murdoch 1970). And even when the similarities don’t run as deep, there is a considerable overlap between many secular and religious conceptions of the good person and right action. Seeing the other as treasured by God, for instance, is certainly helpful to seeing the other as a bearer of dignity and rights. But it does not seem to be essential to doing so. Furthermore, as flawed as we and our world may be, normal human life contains goodness too. Love, care, mercy, honesty, courage, self-sacrifice, and mutual respect are familiar aspects of human life which, again, might be strengthened by faith in God, but do not seem to require it. Is there an alternative, then, on which people could be genuinely and profoundly good without faith in God?
DeLay addresses this issue directly, but rather briefly:
…if living a maximally upright life without faith is possible, if caring for the well-being of others is one’s real priority, and if one hates suffering and evil, how does one exist in a world so broken and not die of grief? If anyone can live a comfortable life, relatively apathetic in the face of the supposed knowledge that this is the only world there will be, that there will be no judgment in which good is rewarded and evil punished: can we take this attitude’s declarations of sensitivity and clean-heartedness seriously (144)?
Well, maybe we couldn’t take such claims seriously from the comfortable and the apathetic. But between them and those who die of grief, there remains room for those who do hurt, who do care, but who find that there’s enough goodness in the world—including the intrinsic goodness of doing good—to get by. Perhaps such people would not allow themselves to die of grief, because that would constitute an additional triumph of evil. They might, additionally, recognize in humility that their own powers of healing the world are profoundly restricted, and that they are—like, I suspect, all of us—simply psychologically limited in how widely they can distribute their heartfelt care. I just don’t think anyone has the psychological or spiritual resources to shed a tear for every act of injustice on their block, let alone in the world, no matter how much each one of them warrants it. Extending effective love and care to our “neighbor”—who may also be our enemy—is as much as we can normally do, whether or not we have faith. In any case, I not only think that deeply moral agnostics or atheists are possible, but I am rather confident (one can never know for sure) that I know such people. Many of them are sincere, and their unbelief is founded in genuine difficulties, especially the problem of evil. I don’t pretend to know what resources they draw upon to sustain themselves—perhaps it is God and they don’t even know it—but virtue and unbelief do not seem incompatible. As Dallas Willard puts it, God’s kingdom is wherever his will is done, “the domain where what he prefers is actually what happens” (Willard 1998, 259). And I am confident that there are many more participants in this kingdom than the faithful alone.
That being said, I do think that DeLay’s account of a life lived before God succeeds in its task of shedding light on the world from the perspective of faith. This is in part because while the existence of God might not be a matter to be settled by description or argument, DeLay does provide a rich phenomenological characterization of what living with a secure faith and trust in God involves. It is a work of immense wisdom, compelling arguments, and rich phenomenological descriptions. It is, finally, a refreshing reminder of what draws most of us to philosophy in the first place: to grapple with ultimate questions of human existence, with clarity of thought and expression, and without methodological evasions.
Augustine. 1958. City of God. Translated by Gerald G. Walsh, Demetrius B. Zema, Grace Monahan, and Daniel J. Honan. New York: Image Books.
DeLay, Steven. 2020. Before God: Exercises in Subjectivity. New York: Rowman & Littlefield International.
Hildebrand, Alice. 2017. “Hope.” In Dietrich von Hildebrand with Alice von Hildebrand. The Art of Living, 61-77. Steubenville, OH: Hildebrand Press.
Husserl, Edmund. 1970. Logical Investigations. Two volumes. Translated by J.N. Findlay. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Husserl, Edmund. 2008. Introduction to Logic and Theory of Knowledge: Lectures 1906/07. Translated by Claire Ortiz Hill. Dordrecht: Springer.
Husserl, Edmund. 2014. Ideas I: Ideas for a Pure Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy. Translated by Daniel O. Dahlstrom. Indianapolis: Hackett.
Moser, Paul K. 2013. The Severity of God: Religion and Philosophy Reconceived. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Murdoch, Iris. 2001. The Sovereignty of Good. New York: Routledge.
Scheler, Max. 1960. On the Eternal in Man. Translated by Bernard Noble. London: SCM Press Ltd.
Willard, Dallas. 1998. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.