In Heidegger on Truth Graeme Nicholson, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto, provides a close reading of the Heidegger’s works published under the title “On the Essence of Truth” (Vom Wesen der Wahrheit: WW). Heidegger delivered lectures under this title on four occasions in 1930 and the work was published in written form first in 1943 and then in a second edition in 1949 (another version dating from 1940 also exists but is virtually identical to the 1943 version, Nicholson tells us (8)). Nicholson provides a developmental account of Heidegger’s thought on truth by identifying the differences between the 1930 lecture versions of WW and the later published essays. Accordingly, the book is divided into two major parts.
Part I of Nicholson’s book is dedicated to the 1930 lectures and provides a very good detailed analysis of some of the key innovations in Heidegger’s view of truth developed in them. Nicholson explains the fundamental phenomenological strategy that Heidegger uses to account for truth writing, “A phenomenological account will treat experiences as the wellspring of statements and by the same token the birth place of truth” (31). In this context Nicholson explains how in accordance with notions developed in Section 33 of Being and Time (Sein und Zeit) Heidegger points to “conduct” (Verhalten) as the point at which openness to a thing occurs. Conduct has a “revelatory power,” Nicholson points out (35). And he rightly identifies a Kantian moment in Heidegger’s claim that “the essence of truth is freedom” (indeed, Heidegger also lectured on Kant’s notion of freedom in 1930). Graeme explains, “Our conduct can only adjust itself, accommodating the standard set by the thing, if it is free or open, ready to receive orientation” (39). This amounts to “letting-be” (Seinlassen). And it is at this juncture that Heidegger moves from a relatively ahistorical phenomenological approach to truth to an analysis conditioned by historical considerations. Heidegger writes,
It is in the letting-be of beings as such that such a thing as a being ever becomes unconcealed, that is, de-concealed. The unconcealed was known to Western philosophy in its decisive beginning with Heraclitus as ta alêtheia (47).
Nicholson defends Heidegger’s reading of alêtheia as unconcealedness and proceeds to show how this notion accords with Heidegger’s understanding of Dasein.
Nicholson addresses the difficult problem of the relationship between truth and non-truth in Heidegger (expressed as the “Non-essence” (Unwesen) of truth, and as “error” (Irre)). Nicholson is at his best when interpreting texts such as the following where Heidegger writes,
Then, if the essence is to realize its full scope and authority over us, would it not have to retrieve this Non-essence, i.e. untruth, and admit it explicitly into the essence of truth? Certainly! (57)
Nicholson shows how Heidegger’s way of dealing with truth is grounded in a contextualism that takes account of a totality and can be better understood when seen against the background of the treatment of attunement (Gestimmtheit) from Section 29 of Being and Time. Nicholson remarks that attunement in WW is, in contrast to the account in Being and Time, “not phenomenally evident to Da-sein” (63). This leads to the discovery that, as Nicholson puts it, “erring and the mystery are contained within that essence [i.e. of truth]” (73). And it is philosophy that is equipped to deal with this mystery according to Heidegger in 1930. Yet, as Nicholson points out in his conclusion to Part I of his book, “Here and elsewhere through the 1930’s Heidegger tended to speak of philosophy as a body of ontological knowledge rather than the experience of questioning or the encounter with mystery” (87). This foundationalism in understanding truth is, Nicholoson suggests, related to Heidegger’s understanding of philosophy’s leading role in relation to the other disciplines. Nicholson essentially suggests that Heidegger had not yet fully developed the implications of his own thought which consequently contains certain inconsistency.
Before proceeding to Part II, Nicholson inserts a section entitled “Intermission: Political Storms” (83-94). It is however, much more than an intermission, because it is a key in understanding the developmental account that is at the heart of the Nicholson’s reading of Heidegger. In this section Nicholson puts Heidegger’s work on truth in the context of his Rectorship of the Freiburg University 1933-34 and his relationship with the Nazi party. Nicholson comments on the lectures Heidegger gave during this period, on the Black Notebooks as well as other documents. In general, we might say that without releasing Heidegger of responsibilty, Nicholson argues that Heidegger’s thought is not compromised by the “Political Storms” of the period of the rectorship. Nicholson writes,
But the “Heidegger Case” is not one of simple opposition between pro- and anti-phenomenology, or pro- and anti-Nazism, or even pro- and anti-Heidegger. I would suggest instead that Heidegger’s life and work exhibited a cleft or bifurcation that many of this readers, especially his critics, have not noticed, have not understood, and consequently have misunderstood grievously. (93)
This position serves Nicholson as a hermeneutic principle. Accordingly, Part II of his book is entitled “Later Work: the Pathway Rectified.”
Nicholson writes “After 1930, or rather 1934, Heidegger moved to correct the overconfident doctrine of this earlier period that an a priori Seinsverstgeriod that an a prioir 4, Heidegger moved to correct the overconfident doctrine of thi searlier s, have not noticed, have not uändtnis (“understanding of being”) gave guidance to the sciences but can be traced in every human encounter with the world.” Nicholson’s treatment of truth in the later Heidegger follows a historical structure from the Plato lectures (of 1931-32) which begin to expose Plato’s role in distorting the original Greek experience of truth (Part II, A) a section dealing with Medieval thought (Part II, B) and a section dealing with the present-age (Part II, C).
In Part II, A Nicholson shows how Heidegger understands Plato to have compromised truth as alêtheia by mixing with it the idea of truth as correctness (Richtigkeit, orthotês), a problem which subsequently became embedded in Western thought (105). Nicholson argues that Heidegger revises his understandings of freedom, unconcealedness and Dasein. Here Dasein functions differently than in Being and Time, Nicholson tells us, insofar as it the “hidden essential grounding of the human being” (129). Heidegger writes, “In Da-sein, the essential ground, long ungrounded, on the basis of which human beings are able to ek-sist, is preserved for them” (125). The notion of the “clearing” (Lichtung) which does not appear in WW but elsewhere in later Heidegger serves for Nicholson to better understand the idea of openness expressed in the Da- of Dasein. As Nicholson puts it, “Da-sein brings us, through ek-sistence, to belong to the Da-, or the open region” (131).
In Part II, B Nicholson deals with the notion of truth as adequatio rei ad intellectum and various permutations of this formula. Nicholson says that the idea of truth as adequatio persists in Western thought even when detached from notions of creation and God. In this section Nicholson deals briefly with truth as certainty in Descartes, grounding in Leibniz and with Hegel on certainty.
Nicholson opens Part II, C with consideration of the following undated marginal note which Heidegger had written in the 1943 edition: “Between 5 and 6 the leap into the turning (Kehre) (whose essence unfolds in the event of appropriation (im Ereignis wesende)” (142). The numerals refer to chapters of Heidegger’s text. Readers familiar with Heidegger’s Contributions to Philosophy will recognize the terminology of the marginalium, and it is precisely to this work that Nicholson turns to explain the way in which Heidegger deals with truth in the context of his later thought. Nicholson explains why Heidegger begins to spell being (Sein) with a “y” beyng (Seyn), namely “because he which to speak not of an object of thought, noumenon, but of what might prompt thought and give rise to it after the concealment of all the beings” (146). That is, being is thought as en-owning (Ereignis) (146).
Overall, Nicholson provides an insightful and very useful reading of WW. This reader found Part I of Nicholson’s book to be more successful than Part II. No doubt, this is largely a matter of the difficulty of later Heidegger. (Trying to explain WW by referring to Contributions could be considered an attempt to explain obscurum per obscurius!) But the brevity of some explanations towards the end of Part II seem to me unjustified (for example, the one sentence paragraph labeled “On Psychology” on page 164). A remark on the book sleeve suggests that this might be a good pedagogical tool. I am not so sure about this. On the one hand, there are very lucid discussions of key notions in Heidegger. On the other hand, certain aspects of the text assume a lot on the part of readers: knowledge of the certain debates in the secondary literature and knowledge of key Heideggerian works. I do think that the work would certainly be of interest to graduate students and scholars. When the book does deal with secondary literature it tends to be recent secondary literature in English. One might have hoped for somewhat more attention to scholarship in other languages. Nicholson suggests at the beginning of the book (5) that he will apply contemporary issues and the Conclusion is entitled “Against Self-Expression.” However, the conclusion is very brief. One gets the sense that either the author might either have simply left out reference to contemporary issues or developed this section more. In sum, Heidegger on Truth: Its Essence and Is Fate is a very welcome addition to Heidegger studies.
This book consists of two lectures given by Foucault in the last years of his life. The first, a recently discovered recording of a talk on Parrēsia at the University of Grenoble in 1982. A transcript of this lecture was originally published in 2012 in the journal Anabases. It was preceded by a study of the text by Henri-Paul Fruchaud et Jean-François Bert, not included in this volume. The second consists of transcripts of a seminar given in English by Foucault at Berkeley in 1983. These lectures have been published earlier, with the title Fearless Speech (2001). This volume is based on a new and more accurate transcription of the original audio recordings. According to the ‘Preface,’ Foucault’s preparatory French notes, today deposited in the BNF, have been consulted and were relevant, printed as notes (xii).
The original impulse for this publication was to make the Berkeley seminar available to the French public. The English version follows the text established for the 2016’s French translation. This book is part of a sustained effort to create an authoritative Foucauldian text, one that is as close as possible to the original voice and to delegitimize and marginalize the independent publications made over the years following his death.
We will later deal with some of the differences between this new edition and the precedent one. Still, we can point out to the quantity and quality of the Editor’s notes, which not only refer the reader to parallel sections in the lectures in the Collège de France but also to Foucault’s sources.
The book is introduced by Frédéric Gros, who also edited many of Foucault’s Collège de France’s lectures. Gros retraces the history of Foucault’s interest in the concept of parrēsia, first developed in the three last lecture series in the College de France. Parrēsia (in previous publications, the term was transliterated ‚parrhesia’ and in French parrhêsia) is a Greek term that means to ’say everything,‘ in an unfiltered and uncensored way. Parrēsia can also be translated, according to Gros, as ‚frank speech,‘ ‚courage of speech‘ or ‚freedom of speech.‘ Foucault pays a lot of attention to the transformations of this concept from its Greek origins, through the Hellenistic and Roman periods, and finally early Christian forms. Foucault claims that earlier references can be found in Euripides’ tragedy Ion, where parrēsia refers to the prerogative of a citizen to speak his mind publicly. Later, in Plato, the concept indicates the freedom that a wise king grants its counselors to express themselves. Finally, in philosophical circles in the Hellenistic and Roman period, parrēsia becomes a quality or virtue of a person that assumes the role of a ’spiritual director.‘ Gros shows that Foucault explores the concept of parrēsia in two directions: a re-evaluation of wisdom in antiquity and a redefinition of philosophy in the sense of critique. Gros claims that ‚for Foucault, from the clarity of the Greeks to the “Enlightenment” of the moderns, philosophy finds something like a metahistorical resolve through its critical function, one that refuses to dissociate questions of the government of self, the government of others, and speaking-truly…’ (xix).
As Gross points out, Foucault’s understanding of parrēsia evolved in this period. In Grenoble’s lecture, Foucault rejects the idea of a Cynic or Socratic parrēsia. Still, in Berkeley, he discusses for the first time Plato’s Laches and shows interest for the Cynics. Furthermore, in Berkeley, he adds an analysis of Euripides’s Orestes. Foucault will develop these ideas further in the 1983-1984’s lectures in the Collège de France.
Parrēsia (Grenoble conference)
According to Fruchard and Bert, Foucault was invited to lecture in Grenoble in May 1982, shortly after the last session of the Hermeneutique du Sujet lectures. His host was Henry Joly, a Greek philosophy specialist also interested in the study of language. Joly and Foucault knew each other from their previous postings at the University of Clermont Ferrand in the early 1960s. Joly was curious about Foucault’s ‚Greek turn,‘ and Foucault was interested in Joly’s feedback.
Foucault asked not to publicize the venue to allow a more intimate gathering and discussion, but more than one hundred people attended. However, as Foucault needed to return the same night to Paris, no real discussion ensued except for some general exchanges between Foucault and Joly (Fruchard and Bert, 2012).
Foucault starts the Grenoble lecture with a programmatic statement connecting his current interests and his previous work. He formulates his project as an inquiry into the question, central in our occidental culture, of the ‚obligation to tell the truth,‘ obligation to tell the truth about oneself. This probe into the forms of truth-telling about ourselves, Foucault explains, is what he researched in the domain of 19th century psychiatry, in the modern judicial and penal institutions, and finally in Christianity and the problem of the flesh (2). It is by looking at the history of the forms of telling the truth about ourselves in Christianity that Foucault discovers the existence, before the institutionalization of the sacrament of confession in the 12th century, of two different forms of truth-telling in Christianity. One, the obligation to manifest the truth about ourselves, which originated in the sacrament of penance (exomologesis). Penance consists of dramatic representation of oneself as a sinner. Penance, it was not primarily verbal but rather dramatized in external symbols, such as torn clothes, fast, and corporal expression. Foucault explored this practice in his 1981 lectures at the University of Louvain, now collected in Mal faire, dire vrai (2012). The other form of telling the truth about ourselves originates in the monastic practices (exagoreusis). It consists of the novice’s obligation to disclose to his spiritual advisor every thought, desire, and agitations of his mind. This ‘obligation to tell everything’ retains Foucault’s attention and will serve as a unifying thread for his research in pursuit of the roots of this extraordinary demand and its aftermath in the development of the Western concept of subjectivity. For Foucault, the origins of this confessional practice are correlated with changes in the function of parrēsia, and with the shift on the responsibility to tell the truth from the master to the pupil.
In the Grenoble conference, Foucault proposes to limit himself to the two first centuries of the Roman empire. However, before the Roman, he introduces the early Greek forms of parrēsia. Foucault mentions Polybius, Euripides, and Plato. In Euripides, parrēsia refers mostly to a political right of the citizen, whereas in Plato’s Gorgias seems to refer to a test and touchstone for the soul. In the Roman empire, ‘franc speech’ operates primarily in the context of the techniques of spiritual direction. Even in the political context, advice given to the sovereign does not apply to the conduct of the affairs of the State, but to the prince’s soul. Parrēsia is here restricted to a context of spiritual direction. Foucault explains that his approach would be that of a ‚pragmatics of discourse,‘ but he does not elaborate on the meaning of this expression (15). The same claim appears in more detail in the Hermeneutics of the Subject and the Berkeley seminar, but also in those occurrences, Foucault prefers not to develop his position. Regarding the Roman period, Foucault refers to texts from Epictetus’ disciple Arrian, and Galen. Arrian’s problem is the effect of the words of Epictetus on his students and how to communicate them in writing in a non-rhetorical way. In Galen, the problem is how to identify a person who can help us in our self-examination. Instead of a list of technical capabilities, Galen suggests that a proper choice is a person who is capable of speaking the truth, who is not a flatterer, etc.
Summing up, Foucault emphasizes three features of parrēsia: (1) is the opposite of flattery, in a context of self-knowledge; (2) is a discourse attuned not to the rules of rhetoric but of Kairos (the right timing); (3) is a technique used in an asymmetrical interpersonal relation intended to foster the self-knowledge of the student. (20-21). The lecture concludes with a brief exchange with Joly and others regarding the exact meaning of parrēsia in Plato and Aristotle. Foucault and Joly also disagree whether the ‘obligation to tell it all’ has its roots in the judicial sphere.
Foucault’s reply to Joly incidentally reveals how this ancient notion comes to have such an essential place in his late thought:
Notwithstanding the etymology of parrēsia, telling all does not seem to me, really or fundamentally, entailed in the notion of parrēsia…I think it is a political notion that was transposed, if you like, from the government of others to the government of oneself, that it was never a judicial notion where the obligation to say exactly the truth is a technical problem, concerning confession, torture, and so on. But the word parrēsia and, I think, the conceptual field associated with it, has a moral profile (37; my emphasis).
The Berkeley Seminar:
Foucault taught this seminar at Berkeley during October and November of 1983. The ‘Note’ to the English edition explains some of the editorial considerations and also refers to the previous edition of these texts. The editors state the criteria used to select English translations of the classical texts quoted by Foucault. This is important because Foucault used some translations, which in the meantime, have been superseded by new ones. We are told that the criteria finally employed were to retain the translations chosen by Foucault whenever those have been identified, and otherwise to use the ones selected for the English translation of the Lectures in the Collège de France. There is also a discussion of how the Editor decided to render Foucault’s English.
In one of his concluding remarks to the last session of the Berkeley seminar, Foucault explains that:
The point of departure: my intention was not to deal with the problem of truth, but with the problem of the truth-teller or of truth-telling, or of the activity of truth-telling. I mean that it was not for me a question of analyzing the criteria, the internal or external criteria through which anyone, or through which the Greeks and the Romans, could recognize if a statement was true or not. It was a question for me of considering truth-telling as a specific activity, it was a question of considering truth-telling as a role. But even in the framework of this general question, there were several ways to consider the role of the truth-teller in a society. For instance, I could have compared truth-telling, the role and the status of truth-tellers in Greek society and in other Christian or non-Christian societies— for instance, the role of the prophet as a truth-teller, the role of the oracle as a truth-teller, or the role of the poet, of the expert, of the preacher, and so on. But in fact my intention was not a sociological description of those different roles for the truth-teller in different societies. What I wanted to analyze and to show you is how this truth-telling activity, how this truth-teller role has been problematized in the Greek philosophy (222-223).
Elsewhere in the text, Foucault describes his project as the study of the history of the obligation of telling-all, and its roots in Greco-Roman philosophy and the in the theoretical practices and techniques related to the ‚care of the self.‘
Foucault opens the first seminar declaring that the subject of the seminar is parrēsia and proceeding to describe the meaning and grammatical forms of the word. Only after, he proposes some English translations. This initial examination leads to a preliminary finding: parrēsia does not refer to the content of what is said, but to the personal relationship between the speaker and his speech. For the Greeks, according to Foucault, such a personal relationship guarantees the truth of the content. Parrēsia also involves an element of danger. There is danger in exercising parrēsia. Parrēsia is the courage of speaking the truth when facing risk from the potential reaction of the interlocutor.
As in Grenoble’s conference, Foucault sets up to study the first two centuries of the Roman empire, and as in Grenoble, he provides some additional background, referring to Euripides, Plato, and Polybius. As in the conference, Euripides’ references to parrēsia are mostly framed as the problem of citizenship. Who is a citizen, why it is vital to be one, what is the relationship between citizenship and being able to speak one’s mind? But Euripides also knows the meaning of parrēsia in the context of unequal relationships between a servant and his master. Foucault summarizes his views: parrēsia is a verbal activity in which the speaker has a particular relationship to truth, to danger, to law, and to other people in the form of critique. This can take the form of self-criticism or of criticism of other persons. We see here how Foucault connects the dots between all the seemingly diverse areas he is exploring at that time: ‘criticism’ as in his reading of Kant, ‘care of the self’ and its eventual metamorphoses in Roman, Christian, Modernity and as forms of resistance. The evolution of parrēsia from its early Greek forms to the Christian form follows three main stages: a) parrēsia as opposed to rhetoric; b) parrēsia in relation to the political field; c) parrēsia as part of the art of life or ‚care of the self‘. For Foucault, parrēsia is not the only form of truth-telling. Foucault refers to different roles of truth-tellers, such as prophetic, wise man, teacher, etc. These forms of truth-telling, which in some cases overlap, are also present in our societies. A section of Foucault’s manuscript, placed as a note by the editors, explains that the role of the parrhesiast (here the transliteration adopted for this form is different of the one chosen for the noun) shows in specifics figures like the moralists, or social and political critics (69). The rest of the seminar studies parrēsia in the relationship between man and the Gods.
The main difference with previous analyses are the repeated references to Sophocles‘ Oedipus. Foucault evoked in several Collège lectures the figure of Oedipus. Foucault sees in Oedipus the emergence of a new paradigm of truth, as opposed to the old model of the seer. Comparing Euripides’s Ion with Sophocles’ Oedipus, Foucault claims that in Ion, the gods are silent, they cheat, etc. It is not the divine but the emotional reaction of the human characters that opens up the path to truth. However, truth itself requires inquiry, because the inquiry is the specific human way to get to the truth. Foucault sees in Euripides tragedy examples of two different forms of parrēsia: a discourse of blame, which is addressed against somebody that has much more power, and the second in which somebody tells the truth about himself. It is the combination of these two discourses that make possible the disclosure of the total truth at the end of the play (98).
The next session of the seminar refers again to Euripides, but now the context is political. Foucault introduces the term Athurostōmia, as the form of speech that is the opposite of parrēsia. Athurostōmia is to speak in an uncontrolled way. According to the editors, this opposition is idiosyncratic of Foucault and not shared by other scholars. He uses the opposition to illustrate the criticism of democracy, and the emergence of a different relationship to truth, one that is not solely based in courage and frankness, but in attributes that require a process of personal development (114). This section also contains an interesting discussion of the difference between Foucault’s approach –which he calls in this text ‚history of thought‘ and ‚history of problematizations’– and the ‘history of ideas’ (115-116; cf. also 224-226).
Foucault turns then to Plato’s criticism of parrēsia. Foucault is trying to illustrate the turn from a relatively unrestricted right to free speech to a situation were ‚franc speech‘ is more dependent on the personal qualities of both speaker and receiver. In Laches, Plato introduces a different form of the parrhesiastic game. In this form, bios (life) appear as the main element, besides the traditional elements of logos, truth, and courage (146). The second novelty that Foucault detects in this platonic account is the dyadic element, two individuals, only two, that confront each other. There is a harmony between logos and bios, which serves as ground, as the visible criterion of the parrhesiastic function, and as the goal of the parrhesiastic activity (147).
The following two sessions of the seminar look into the development of this new form of parrēsia, and with the relations individuals can have with themselves. Foucault claims that our moral subjectivity is rooted, at least partially in this relations. To that effect, Foucault looks into the forms of parrēsia that developed in the different philosophical schools of late Greek and Roman society. He differentiates between: a) community relationships in the framework of small groups, characteristic of the Epicureans; b) parrēsia as an activity or attitude in the context of community life, which is typical of the cynics; c) finally, parrēsia in the personal relationships between individuals, like in the stoa.
The first part of the November 21 session explores the first two. Foucault refers to the discussion of the Epicureans using Philodemus’ book in an account similar to that of the Grenoble conference. Foucault dedicates a large section of the November 21 session to a discussion of the cynic practice of parrēsia. Then, finally, on November 30 and the last session, Foucault addresses the interpersonal dimension of franc speech.
Foucault ends his presentation with remarks about the shift between a paradigm were franc speech meant to be able to say the truth to other people, to a different practice, which consists of telling the truth about oneself. This new model appears as askēsis or practical training. Foucault explains that asceticism came to mean a practice of renunciation of the self, and explains the difference between the Greek and the Christian take on this notion.
‘Discourse and Truth’ versus ‘Fearless Speech’:
The Berkeley conferences were published in 2001, and this version was used for a number of translations. As this new edition seems to relegate the former one to oblivion, it is worthwhile to look at some of the main differences between these two editions.
First of all, both editions are based on the same audio recordings (deposited in Berkeley and the IMEC, and also available on the Internet. The new edition benefited from the recent opening of Foucault’s archives, and of a better understanding of the preparatory work, bibliography and alternatives weighted by Foucault.
Beyond those differences, the main difference is that Fearless Speech has the aspect and organization of a summary rather than of transcription of Foucault’s lectures. Particularly in the first lecture, but also to some extent on the next ones, Foucault’s dialogue with the public is wholly elided in Fearless Speech. We miss not only the livelihood of the event but also the background to Foucault’s comments that are made in answer to questions and not part of a prepared text. Therefore, Fearless Speech appears as a more compact text, whereas Discourse on Truth is more rumbling and dialectic.
Engel, Pascal. Michel Foucault. 2011. „Verité, connaissance et éthique.“ In: Artières, Phillipe, Jean François Bert, Frédéric Gros, Judith Revel (Eds.), Cahiers de l’Herne: Foucault, Paris, 318-325.
Foucault, Michael. 2012. Mal faire, dire vrai: function de l’aveau en justice, edition etablié par Fabianne Brion et Bernard E. Harcourt. University of Chicago Press and Presses Universitaires de Louvain.
Fruchaud, Henri-Paul et Jean-François Bert. 2012. Un inédit de Michel Foucault: ‘La Parrêsia’. Note de présentation, Anabases, 16: 149-156; (http://journals.openedition.org/anabases/3956; DOI: 10.4000/anabases.3956;
Consulted on September 11, 2019. Their account follows the statement of Patrick Engel, who was at that time teaching in Grenoble. Cf. Pascal Engel (2011), p. 324 note 6.
Hermeneutics Between History and Philosophy: The Selected Writings of Hans-Georg Gadamer, Volume 1, edited and translated by Pol Vandevelde and Arun Iyer, collects eighteen essays by Gadamer on the topic of the philosophy of history. Of these sixteen essays, two have previously appeared in English (“Subjectivity and Intersubjectivity, Subject and Person,” Gadamer 2000; “Hermeneutics on the Trail,” Gadamer 2007). This volume on the philosophy of history is the first of a projected three of Gadamer’s selected works, and will be followed by volumes on ethics and aesthetics. By providing these materials in English translation, the editors aim to contribute to our understanding of Gadamer’s philosophy and its evolution, as well as provide new context through which to understand his views:
„When it comes to a major philosopher like Gadamer a strong case can be made that scholars need to have all available essays in order to assess the different components of the philosopher’s theses, to measure the evolution of his thought through time, and to grasp all the intricacies of his views in the different contexts of their application. This is the aim of this edition.” (viii)
Note that this project is not meant to collect Gadamer’s most significant works on the philosophy of history. Rather, it supplements what is currently available in other locations in English. It also excludes short speeches and book reviews, as well as essays the editors deem not to add anything of philosophical significance to what is already available. This project is commendable, and although Gadamer develops many of the themes of this volume in books and essays already available in English, it constitutes an important contribution to our understanding of Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics, and more broadly, the overall nature, context, and development of German philosophy in the twentieth-century. This volume should therefore be of interest to readers of Gadamer, continental philosophy more generally, and indeed anyone concerned with the relation between philosophy and its history.
Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics, which involves a vision of human life as continuously interpreting the world, attempts to show that thought and language bear an essential relation to the past. For Gadamer, what we are able to think and the questions that we are able to ask in the present emerge on the basis of historical tradition. Famously, in his magnum opus Truth and Method [Wahrheit und Methode], first published in 1960, Gadamer sought to rehabilitate the notion of “prejudice” [Vorurteil] that he thought had been unfairly maligned as a result of the Enlightenment rejection of external authority (Gadamer 2004, 268-83). Although Gadamer does not think that we should uncritically accept the judgments and ideas that have been handed down to us by tradition, he maintains that the judgments that we find pre-given as part of our cultural heritage and experience provide the positive basis for our intellectual horizons in the present. On this view, philosophy unfolds as a dialogue with the past, where we both uncover and interpret what is implicit in how we already think about the world, and in which we take up and renew what still speaks to us from across temporal distance.
From the standpoint of the historiography of philosophy, Gadamer’s position thus carves a path between approaches to philosophical history that see themselves as working to understand the past on its own terms without reference to present day philosophical concerns, and those approaches that mine the history of philosophy for arguments and solutions that can provide insight into contemporary problems without taking into account the historical genesis of these philosophical problems themselves. From a Gadamerian perspective, both of these types of approach sever the living connection between the philosophical past and the present at the heart of any genuine philosophical project. For Gadamer, the history of philosophy should not only be the province of self-described historians of philosophy; rather, every working philosopher is responding to philosophical tradition, whether they realize it or not.
The essays collected in this volume span the years of 1964-94, the period after the 1960 publication of Truth and Method, and thus represent a period in he was recognized as a major philosophical voice both in Germany and internationally. Many of the essays develop and explicate themes from Truth and Method, as well as provide Gadamer space to reflect upon his own philosophical development. Most prominently in this latter regard, ample space is given to the respective roles of Wilhelm Dilthey and Martin Heidegger (Gadamer’s teacher in the 1920s, and whose reputation Gadamer helped restore in the post-World War II period) in the development of Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics. Whereas Dilthey’s historicism, philosophy of life, and hermeneutics played a major role in shaping the “hermeneutical situation” of Gadamer’s youth, Heidegger’s influence lent shape to Gadamer’s views of language, scientific objectivity and the role that the history of philosophy plays in determining our philosophical horizons.
The editors divide the volume into four parts. Part one includes six essays covering the general topic of history, and develop Gadamer’s distinctive notion of human life as “historically affected.” Part two features three essays on Dilthey’s historicist philosophy of life, and how Gadamer viewed it as an impetus for his own philosophical hermeneutics. The third part collects five essays on the works of European philosophers and intellectuals including Edmund Husserl, Jean-Paul Sartre, Pierre Bourdieu, Jürgen Habermas, and Jacques Derrida. The material on Bourdieu, Habermas, and Derrida is particularly illuminating as it presents Gadamer’s responses to contemporaries, each of whom, in their own way, represent direct challenges to Gadamer’s phenomenological, linguistic, and hermeneutical positions. Part Four includes four essays on Heidegger from the mid-1980s, consisting of reminiscences of Gadamer’s experiences as a student of Heidegger, Gadamer’s interpretation of Heidegger’s so-called Kehre as a “return” [“Ruck-kehre”], and his account of Heidegger’s interpretations of ancient Greek philosophy. In light of the recent revival of controversy over Heidegger’s involvement with National Socialism, spurred by the publication of the Black Notebooks (Heidegger 2014/2016), it may be of note that these essays give little insight into Gadamer’s knowledge of, or perspective on, Heidegger’s political engagements (Gadamer himself worked to maintain distance and intellectual independence from the National Socialist regime. See Grondin 2003, 150-230). Perhaps an editors’ note with clarification, or that points the reader to independent discussion of these issues would have been of use.
In addition to translating Gadamer’s essays, the editors contribute a preface and introduction, as well as notes and glossaries of German, Latin, and Greek expressions used by Gadamer. The preface introduces the contents of the volume and characterizes Gadamer’s philosophical and rhetorical style. The introduction provides a general introduction to Gadamer’s philosophical project, focusing on the role of history within it. In addition to treating Gadamerian themes including interpretation, dialogue, the speaking voice, and philosophical praxis, the introduction examines Gadamer’s philosophical influences and interlocutors such as Plato, Aristotle, Dilthey, Husserl, Heidegger, and Derrida. This reader found especially helpful the editors’ account of how Gadamer’s philosophy of history relates to his philosophy of language.
In approaching this volume, I have adopted the perspective of a historian of philosophy concerned with the methodological question of how to understand the relation between the philosophical past and present. For this reason, as well as in the interest of space, the review will focus more on Gadamer’s philosophy of history, and less on the details of Gadamer’s interpretations of other philosophers that are found in this volume. This philosophy of history is directly developed in the first part of the volume. These essays include reflections on themes including historical causality, the relation between historicity and truth, the relation between human history and the natural history of the universe, what it would mean to try to separate oneself from all history, the meaning of the terms “old” and “new”, and death. Together, they provide an overarching account of Gadamer’s understanding of human life as embedded within history.
In the first essay, “Is there a Causality in History?” (1964), Gadamer argues that history is a network of events that determines our lives and that can never be reduced to a “causal analysis.” Neither naturalistic explanation in the form of efficient causality, nor a Kantian analysis of historical causality as the realm of human freedom, can capture the way that history determines human life and possibilities:
“Investigating the deeper reasons for the historical course of things is absolutely not an attempt at a ‘causal’ explanation, which would only ask for the causa efficiens. When we discern historical connections, we have not discovered a web of causal factors – of nature and freedom – whose threads we isolate only to be able to get our hands on them for the future – history never repeats itself. It is precisely in this that the reality of history consists: to be and to determine us, without ever being able to be mastered through a causal analysis.” (12)
We are embedded within history, and can never extricate ourselves from it such that we can provide an exhaustive causal account of the past and future. For Gadamer, the hermeneutic task becomes understanding that the past constrains our possibilities for action while remaining open to the contingencies of the future.
The second essay, “Historicity and Truth”, from 1991, concerns itself with the question of historical relativism. Against the view that the truth-claims found in history are relative to their times and places, Gadamer argues that this belief assumes a notion of objective knowledge as that which aims to control and master. Under this regime, we would reduce truth-claims to their specific position within history, thereby eliminating their capacity to attain a form of truth that transcends mere circumstance. If we resist this assumption, not only can we treat past philosophers as potential interlocutors, but we can understand how their ideas are capable of attaining universal application with respect to the understanding of human life and its possibilities:
“Objectivity means objectification. It signifies a constricting prejudice everywhere in that realm where breaking resistance and achieving control are not actually paramount, but rather being together and participating in the hermeneutic universe in which we live with one another. In this regard, I could show how Platonism, in addition to Aristotelianism, makes itself repeatedly relevant for the exegesis of Christian mystery and, altogether, how in the time of the enlightenment the pronouncements of art reach deep into the life of individuals and peoples, beyond all historical distances and differences as well as beyond practical and political decisions.” (23)
For Gadamer, the relevance of history and historical knowledge lies in the way that ideas may continue to speak to us across time. In taking up old ideas, we may of course translate them in applying them to our own contexts. However, this mode of application is not a distortion of the original idea; rather, it reveals what was true and therefore universal within it.
In the third essay, “The History of the Universe and the History of Things,” written in 1998, Gadamer argues that human history represents a sphere distinct from the progression of natural events or facts. Gadamer distinguishes between what he calls the “history of the universe” and “the history of the world”:
„Obviously, there also belongs to the history of the universe the question as to when humanity first appeared on this planet, which we call the Earth, and how the human species evolved – and perhaps also whether and when to expect the extinction of this species. Human beings would then be recorded like key fossils in a chapter of the history of the universe. Yet, this historical past, which we awaken through what monuments and tradition give us as hints, means something else. ‘World history’ is not a phase in the history of the universe, but is a whole in its own right. It is not primarily through the so-called ‘facts’, which can be established in objective research with the methods of the natural sciences, that we have a knowledge of this history that we call world history.” (30)
Although the history of the human world unfolds within the temporal arc of natural history of the universe, and its components can be analyzed as facts from the perspective of universal history, qua features of the history of the human world, they are not reducible to natural facts. Unlike the fossilized remains of natural history, that which belongs to the history of the human world is, for Gadamer, what is retained in living memory in the form of monuments and traditions. This history is that which provides significance for our lives, as well as what gives us an inkling of our specifically human possibilities in the future.
Whereas the “history of the universe” is the object of the natural sciences [Naturwissenschaften], the “history of the world” is the domain of the human sciences. Gadamer argues that we do not know the truths pertaining to the human sciences with certitude or in an objective manner. Rather, the human sciences such as philosophy, anthropology, or art history, participate in the very cultural practices that they study, helping to open up new human possibilities through their modes of reflection:
“Human sciences rather belong to orders that constantly configure and reconfigure themselves through our own concrete participation in them and thereby contribute to our knowledge about the human possibilities and normative commonalities that affect us […] There are no certainties here like the guarantees of the theoretical and ‘scientific’ kind and here we always need to consider the other side – not only what we have in mind, but also what others think.” (41)
One upshot of all of this, for Gadamer, is that the human sciences have an important role to play in moving our multicultural, global world into the future. Not only do the human sciences have the potential to create dialogue between disparate groups around the world, but Gadamer maintains that they have a further potential to help resist the global domination of technology insofar as they eschew objectifying forms of knowledge:
“In our pluralistic world, the other also includes foreign cultures and distant inhabitants of this earth. We will have to learn all this more and more in the future. Our human goal cannot be to use a technological civilization in order to stifle everything that has been handed out to us or to others and has shaped us all in the forms our life has taken. Only when we put the capacities of understanding and mutual acceptance to use in the new tasks that bring and hold the world in equilibrium, will we be able to create new forms of organization. Of all the sciences, it is especially the so-called human sciences that contribute the most to the nurturing of these capacities. They force us to confront constantly in all its richness the entire scale of what is human and all too human.” (41)
The fourth essay, a lecture given in 1969 entitled “A World without History?”, defends the importance of the art of reading and specifically historical knowledge against what Gadamer characterizes as “the omnipresence of a constant flood of information” (48) in the modern world. Together with the view that all knowledge should be modeled on the knowledge proper to the natural sciences, Gadamer suggests that this flow of information from the media threatens to produce thoughtless conformity and manufactured opinion. Within this situation, Gadamer advocates for a recognition of the importance of playful reading and historical knowledge. Here, Gadamer is less concerned with history in the sense of the objective facts of what took place at what time, and more with what is handed down in the living memory of the past:
“Without knowledge and without reflecting on our own proper possibilities, there is for us no future. However, this means, not without history. History does not mean an evasion into the past, but is a memoria vitae, a memory of life, as Cicero calls historiography. History, the world of history, is not a second world of the past alongside the natural world that surrounds us. History is a completely inexhaustible system of all the worlds that are out there, which are closer to us than the nearby satellite orbiting our earth. For, history is the world of human beings. To study history is to keep open the entire range of what it means to be human. Thanks to history we are not confined to what we know or think by ourselves. History describes all our possibilities. As for what kind of future we will have, it will depend on how broadly we preserve and increase the heritage of the historical tradition from which we all originate and which unifies us all more and more.” (49)
Within the context of the social criticism of this essay, we recognize the larger significance, for Gadamer, of history for human life. Beings historically affected means that there is no gap between the historical world of the past and our world in the present. Nevertheless, the ubiquity of information threatens to cut us off from this living history, trapping us in the present and constraining our ability to genuinely think. Thus, Gadamer fears that a “world without history” is a world in which human beings are servile and manipulable.
The fifth essay, “The Old and the New” (1981), presents a phenomenological analysis of the categories of the “old” and the “new.” Here Gadamer argues that, in a strict sense, the “old” is that which appears as so familiar as to be irrelevant. We may indeed become interested in things that are “old” in the sense of being from the past, but insofar as we do, we have discovered new possibilities for their application, thereby making them “new” again.
“‘Always after the new.’ The expression betrays us: it is not the old and the new that are up for choice, but this or that, what promises something and because it promises something. It can also be something old. It is in fact never the choice between the old and the new. The old is never up for choice as something old. To the extent that it is old, it has reached the obviousness of what is familiar. Only in light of new possibilities can it be put up for choice at all as a counterpossibility and elicit our attention.” (54)
Gadamer then takes occasion to reflect upon our phenomenological experience of time, which is split between the dimensions of the past, present, and future. What is truly past or old, is what is no longer possible. The future, by contrast, Gadamer conceives of as that which stands before us, and in this sense may include “past” possibilities that have been made new:
“This is precisely the experience that time is for us: its two dimensions, future and past, are never the present. However, this means that they do not stand in front of us like two equal possibilities. One is the possible, the past is well and truly gone. Even a god cannot make unhappen what has happened. What stands before us [was vor uns steht] is what may await us [was uns bevorstehen mag]. Even when it is something well-known that awaits us, it is no longer what is usual and known, but appears in a new light.” (54)
For Gadamer, the category of the “new” — as that which awaits for us in the future — will always include elements of the [temporal] past for which we have found new applications and possibilities.
The final essay of the first part, a philosophical reflection upon death from 1975 entitled “Death as a Question”, presents a formulation of the philosophical activity that connects it to tradition. For Gadamer, the universality of hermeneutics means that we are always interpreting ourselves and our world. In this sense, philosophy becomes a knowledge of the already known, which Gadamer associates with the Platonic theory of recollection or anamnēsis:
„These are questions to which philosophy must devote itself in its own way because the task of philosophy is to want to know what we know without knowing that we know it. This is a precise definition of what philosophy is and an  apt description of what Plato first recognized: the knowledge with which we are dealing here, anamnēsis, is a bringing out of the interior and a raising to consciousness. Let us, thus, ask what one knows without knowing it when one knows about death. What does the philosophical tradition we inhabit have to say about it? Should we also ask about these attempts at thinking whether they are attempts to know or whether they are yet again ways of not wanting to know what we know?” (62)
Insofar as human life and philosophizing is embedded within history, Gadamer argues that philosophical reflection is one of recollection. Specifically, we are attempting to make present to ourselves that which, by virtue of the traditions in which we stand, we have always already known.
From a review of the philosophy of history sketched in Part 1, we learn that, for Gadamer, human life is embedded within history, which provides the horizon of our future possibilities. Not only is our human history distinct from the natural history of the universe, but we cannot avoid the way that it determines and constrains what is possible for us. The hermeneutical task becomes one of surveying the past, [re]-discovering that which continues to speak to us across time, and making it new again in applying it to the present.
If this is Gadamer’s general view of the place and role of history in human life, in the remainder of this review, I wish to apply this philosophy of history to the particular view of the history of philosophy that Gadamer presents in this volume. In so doing, I aim to test the limits of Gadamer’s account in order to pose the question of whether or not present-day readers should take up Gadamer’s hermeneutics as part of the “philosophical new,” or if they ought to, rather, consign it to a place in the history of philosophy with the “philosophical old.”
As is clear in this volume, and especially in the essays on Heidegger in part four, Gadamer himself understood his own philosophy as part of a larger Western/European tradition stretching back to Greek antiquity. For Gadamer, this Greek beginning of philosophy, and its subsequent effects, enable us to form a principled distinction between philosophy as it has been practiced in Europe and the Western world more broadly, and what we might think of, for instance, under the rubric of “Eastern philosophy.” As Gadamer describes the Heideggerian theme of the “end of philosophy” in the lecture “On the Beginning of Thought” in 1986:
“When Heidegger speaks of the end of philosophy, we immediately understand that we can only talk like this from the Western perspective. Elsewhere, there was no philosophy that set itself apart so much from poetry or religion or science, neither in East Asia nor in India nor in the unknown parts of the earth. ‘Philosophy’ is an expression of the trajectory of Western destiny. To speak with Heidegger: it is a destiny of being that has in fact become our destiny. The civilization of today, as it appears, finds its fulfilment in this destiny.” (229-30)
Following the “history of being” traced by Heidegger, the Greek beginning of philosophy is decisive insofar as its echoes shape the subsequent development of Western thinking. In Gadamer’s view, philosophical thinking as it descends from Greece self-consciously differentiates itself from religion. Further, philosophy aims for theoretical knowledge of nature, and as becomes evident in the Modern period and its separation of philosophy from the natural sciences, it attempts to produce methodological justification for the epistemic activity carried out in the natural sciences. These features of Greek-inspired Western philosophy may be found in such historical instances as the codification of Greek metaphysics in the Latin tradition, the emergence of Cartesian subjectivity and method in the seventeenth-century, the Kantian critique of metaphysics, the great philosophical systems of German idealism, and the ongoing technological domination of the natural world. Thus, Gadamer does seem to affirm a distinction between philosophy as a specifically “Western” intellectual tradition and forms of intellectual activity carried out in other coordinates in the human world:
„When we hear about the end of philosophy, we understand it from such a situation. We realize that the separation between religion, art, and philosophy, and perhaps even the separation between science and philosophy, are not originally common to all cultures, but precisely shaped the particular history of the Western world. One can ask oneself what kind of destiny this is. Where does it come from? How is it that technology could develop into such an autonomous force of necessity that it has become the hallmark of human culture nowadays? When we question in this manner, Heidegger’s surprising and apparently paradoxical thesis suddenly appears to be disturbingly plausible: it is Greek science and metaphysics, whose effects in today’s global civilization dominate our present.” (230)
On the basis of this account of the history of philosophy, it becomes natural to identify the philosophical task as one of interpreting and making explicit one’s own philosophical heritage. Indeed, we have seen that this task corresponds to Gadamer’s own philosophy of history as outlined in Part 1 of this volume: only by these means can one understand the linguistic and conceptual influences that shape one’s philosophical horizons, and indeed thereby have any hope of breaking free or of thinking something genuinely new.
However, what if one does not identify with this particular tradition of philosophy? Or, for that matter, what if one rejects the particular Gadamerian narrative of the history of philosophy? On this score, readers may be skeptical, for instance, of the distinction that Gadamer, following Heidegger, draws between “philosophy” [i.e. “Western philosophy”] and the rich traditions of metaphysical, ethical, and social-political thinking found in other parts of the human world. Though this distinction is drawn on the basis of a substantive claim regarding the existence of a distinct tradition of philosophical thinking originating in Classical Greek antiquity, one may contest the historical, linguistic, or theoretical continuity and integrity of such a tradition as set apart from the rest of global intellectual history. Further, if we assume its existence, we may worry that reserving the name “philosophy” for it alone might permit philosophers to disregard the contributions of thinkers from other parts of the world, insofar as those not in dialogue with the Western tradition were, by definition, not engaging in “philosophy.”
For readers skeptical on these grounds, the measure of Gadamer’s continuing philosophical relevance or “newness” may well be the degree to which one is willing to separate Gadamer’s broader philosophy of history from the history of philosophy as he himself conceived of it. Indeed, in Gadamer’s defense, one could imagine him replying that all genuine human questioning unfolds upon the backdrop of some tradition, and that it would therefore be a mistake to reject this insight and its consequences as a result of a disagreement over the facts of philosophical history. In any case, he would very likely agree that the task of delineating the true scope, meaning, nature of philosophy is one that must be continuously renewed, not least in the course of interacting with those from outside of the particular traditions one may call home.
As this volume of essays on Gadamer’s philosophy of history makes clear, the significance of Gadamer’s hermeneutics for us today is dependent upon our willingness and ability to apply it within our own philosophical situation and questions. In this regard, I could not escape the impression that the editors could have done more to provide guidance regarding how Gadamer’s hermeneutics could productively contribute to ongoing philosophical projects. Though they indicate, for instance, Gadamer’s critical relationship with Derridean deconstruction (xviii-xix), or that the philosopher John McDowell has acknowledged a Gadamerian inspiration present in his 1994 book Mind and World (xiii), are there more recent, active philosophical projects that are being carried out in what we might think of as a Gadamerian spirit? Does Gadamer’s critique of the objectivizing methodology of the natural sciences hit its mark, or may he find sympathetic ears in contemporary post-positivist practitioners of the philosophy of science? In this reviewer’s view, areas in which Gadamer’s philosophy of history may prove relevant and fruitful include methodological discussions in philosophical historiography (e.g. Catana 2008, 299-304), and comparative philosophy aiming for cross-cultural dialogue (Berger et al. 2017). In light of Gadamer’s insistence that philosophical truth emerges in the application of ideas from the history of philosophy to the present, the editors may have missed an opportunity to test Gadamer’s applicability today and lend further support to the continuing relevance of his philosophical hermeneutics.
Berger, Douglas L., Hans-Georg Moeller, A. Raghuramaraju, and Paul A. Roth. 2017. “Symposium: Does Cross-Cultural Philosophy Stand in Need of a Hermeneutic Expansion?” Journal of World Philosophies 2: 121–43.
Catana, Leo. 2008. The Historiographical Concept “System of Philosophy”: Its Origin, Nature, Influence and Legitimacy. Leiden: Brill.
Gadamer, Hans-Georg. 2000. “Subjectivity and Intersubjectivity, Subject and Person.” Translated by Peter Adamson and David Vessey. Continental Philosophy Review 33: 275–87.
———. 2004. Truth and Method. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall. 2nd, Revised Edition ed. London; New York: Continuum.
———. 2007. “Hermeneutics Tracking the Trace [On Derrida].” In The Gadamer Reader: A Bouquet of Later Writings, edited by Richard E. Palmer, 372–406. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press.
Grondin, Jean. 2003. Hans-Georg Gadamer: A Biography. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer. New Haven; London: Yale University Press.
Heidegger, Martin. 2014. Uberlegungen II-VI (Schwarze Hefte 1931-1938). Edited by Peter Trawny. Martin Heidegger Gesamtausgabe 94. Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann.
———. 2016. Ponderings II-VI: Black Notebooks 1931-1938. Translated by Richard Rojcewicz. Bloomington; Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
To consider the phenomenology of scripture is a challenging task, not only because it wades into religion, a subject area preloaded with emotions and identities, but because it wades into the tension between theological readings and scientific/historical readings of scriptural texts. The essays in Phenomenologies of Scripture, edited by Adam Y. Wells, seek to apply the unofficial model of phenomenology, “back to the things themselves,” to the study of scripture. Specifically, the application of phenomenology in this collection of essays aims “to shift the center of biblical studies from science to scripture itself.” (1) Wells states that “the phenomenology of scripture must begin with a radical openness to scripture, rigorously avoiding the temptation to declare at the outset what scripture can or must mean.” (7)
At first appearance, this sounds simple enough. Rather than prejudge what a scriptural passage means, we are open to the passage showing its meaning to us. However, a phenomenological openness to scripture is complicated—particularly the question of what we are bracketing off in our epoché. There are two challenges facing the authors in Phenomenologies of Scripture. One, how can any text, especially religious scripture, be understood apart from its social-historical context. Two, how can scripture be read without preconceptions about the truth of the religion itself? On the first challenge, to consider the text itself outside of its social context is artificial and perhaps prejudicial. There is a temptation within religion to consider scripture as having arrived inspired, if not dictated, by a divine source rather than from a social-historical context. It would be hypocritical to bracket off the social-historical context without also bracketing off the assumption that the text is the “Word of God” and thus outside of any worldly context. Scripture, even if divinely inspired, is a set of particular words in particular languages written down at particular times and places. To make sense of the gospel and epistles requires that we not bracket off consideration of ancient Greek language and Hellenistic cultural understandings if we are to make sense of the frequent allegories and word usages.
On the second, more profound challenge, a phenomenology of scripture must be open to the text itself without preconceived notions about the truth claims of the religion to which it belongs. Phenomenology does mean going back to the text itself, but one’s worldview cannot help but inform interpretation of the text’s meaning. There is frequently a prejudgment either for or against religion in the reading of any scriptural passage. The authors in Phenomenologies of Scripture are justifiably cautious about a scientific/historical approach to scripture because that methodology has at times been accompanied by prejudgments that religious beliefs are false. Unfortunately, several of these authors fail to apply the epoché equally, and accompanying their approach to scripture is a prejudgment that religious belief is true. Whether one has the belief that a religion is true or the belief that it is false, either belief will restrict one’s interpretation of what a scriptural passage can mean. A phenomenology of scripture must first and foremost cast off any prejudgments in favor of or against religion. A good phenomenologist considering a religious text would read a passage without requisitioning it to serve a premeditated agenda. He or she would openly consider both the text of the passage and the religious claims that inform the passage and the religious claims that are informed by the passage. Plus, the phenomenologist would offer insights to the text that are not restricted to those who already believe or already disbelieve. It is self-evident that hostility toward religion prejudices one’s reading of scripture, but it seems at cross-purposes with a phenomenology of scripture to declare at the outset that the bible fits within the doctrine of the church. Despite this, several authors in this book do just that.
Several of the authors in Phenomenologies of Scripture interpret the book’s task differently than how I have and are carving out a distinctly Christian phenomenology. Several of them make a solid case for such a methodology. Robyn Horner says, “A phenomenological reading is an attempt to bring to light; it should only bring a light to bear on a text in order to show what is given there.” (115) What is given in scripture is a message to the Christian community, so she also says, “I read here, as one who listens to the text in the context of the Christian community.” (115) Whether or not one agrees with that combination, Horner is phenomenologically consistent within her prejudgment of Christian truth by bracketing off prejudgments about the text’s meaning after accepting its Christian context. In her analysis of the gospel story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery, Horner talks about the experience of Jesus within herself during reading the passage. There is a connection between reading of scripture and religious experience, and Horner is correct that religious phenomena are not to be a priori excluded as a possibility. (119) Her position is that religious phenomena described in scripture ultimately are to be explained theologically but that this still requires discrimination and discernment. (119-120)
Horner’s essay raises the question of whether, if we are to get the meaning out of the text, the reading of scripture is necessarily a religious or devotional act. It is legitimate to ask whether a purely neutral and objective reading of a scriptural text possible or even desirable. Jean-Louis Chrétien thinks not. (140-141) He argues that we are touched by certain passages in a characteristic way when they are powerful enough to speak to us, explaining that “The failures of a weak man before miniscule difficulties of everyday life do not move me in the same way as the shipwrecks of a strong man in great trials.” (128) Chrétien likens Paul’s Epistle to the Romans as a drama of “the manifestation and the revelation of evil as evil by means of the interdict pronounced by the law.” (131) The law in question is the Jewish Torah, and its role in the emerging Christian faith is a thorny theological issue for Paul. Any reading of Paul’s words in Romans must acknowledge that Paul’s words are an expression of one side within a theological dispute. The drama of the dispute can touch us either as neutral onlookers or as people invested in the outcome of the dispute, but these are decidedly different dramas. Chrétien states that the passage he analyzes in Romans is heavy with stakes of great consequence for the comprehension of Christian existence and that this is why he believes a purely neutral and objective approach is insufficient. This is true if we are invested in the dispute, not simply as Christians, but as Christians who believe that Paul’s position on the issue of Jewish law is relevant to our Christian existence. This certainly describes Chrétien’s position, and it informs his reading of Paul.
Horner and Chrétien apply phenomenology within the sphere of Christian hermeneutics with the aim of deepening the understanding of the meaning of Christianity. There is nothing wrong with such legitimate applications of the phenomenological method as long as the parameters are made clear. Phenomenologies of Scripture could be clearer on this point—that the essays are Christian phenomenology of Christian scripture. No viewpoints of phenomenologies of, for example, Buddhist or Islamic scriptures are offered, and Jewish scriptures are discussed only in terms of their inclusion in and relevance to the Christian faith. Also, what the book and its essays do not adequately address is the difference between a phenomenology of text and a phenomenology of God. This problem is seen clearly in Emmanuel Housset’s essay on Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians (159-178) in which he focuses on the religious experience of God, and his phenomenological openness to the text is in service of that aim. He is completely honest about that, opening his essay with the following: “As a matter of methodological principle, an authentic phenomenology of religious experience should not place conditions on the manifestation of God, but should understand him only from his Word.” (159) One could take umbrage at these assumptions of God and scripture as violating phenomenology, but Housset correctly discerns that the common ground between phenomenology and scriptural study is humility: “phenomenology requires humble submission to the phenomena as they give themselves, endeavoring with the most possible rigor to avoid all theoretical or speculative bias.” (160) Like Chrétien, Housset stresses the importance of letting a passage affect you. For Housset, this affect is achieved through confrontation; but for Housset, the confrontation of one’s will is less with the text than it is with God. Housset’s position makes sense in that knowing someone, god or human, requires a confrontation that cannot be achieved through a detached viewpoint. This leads to the question of whether, in approaching any text, our confrontation is with the text or with its author. If one prejudges Christian scripture as being delivered by God, then it is easy to understand that ultimately the confrontation is with God and the aim is to be transfigured by the encounter. (161) Outside of this assumption and aim, it is less clear, and it remains an important question for the phenomenology of any text. Housset’s interesting mention of Heidegger’s idea of attunement to a text deserved a wider discussion.
That we are dealing with a specifically Christian phenomenology can be seen in Kevin Hart’s close analysis of the text Luke 15:11-32, which is commonly known as the story of the prodigal son. Hart’s phenomenological analysis of the parable is extensive and detailed but is largely a legal analysis of inheritance relations between the father and his sons. Hart is aware that the parable in Luke is not intended to be history—it is a story intended to teach a moral lesson—and the analysis of the parable needs to reflect that. Along that line of inquiry, Hart makes the good point that the narratives for both sons are unfinished because the story is a “parable of decision, one that offers eidetic possibilities that, structured according to a narrative, indicate that we should be more like the father than like either son.” (99) Hart has an agenda in his analysis, because he believes the parable shows that it has an agenda, which is to get readers to move from a worldly way of thinking to a divine one. He is honest about that agenda, acknowledging that Luke 15:11-32 has no revelatory claim on the nonbeliever, but for the believer, the Holy Spirit speaks through the text. (102) In this distinction, Hart confirms the concern I expressed earlier that a phenomenology of scripture offer insights into the text that are not restricted to those who already believe. For Hart, that means that the parable can be read strictly as a historical text by the nonbeliever, but although believers can learn a great deal from what the historians say about the text, historical reason is not sufficient in telling them what the text means. Hart argues that phenomenology makes no judgment about the rights and wrongs of belief or nonbelief and is neutral with respect to an individual’s choice to pass from nonbelief to belief in reading a scriptural text. (102-103) This seems an appropriate stance for phenomenology in general. Hart’s next step is to delineate what a Christian phenomenology could look like, using Jesus as an example. Jesus performs a phenomenological reduction in his telling of parables, Hart says, bracketing off everyday life and its worldly logic in order to lead the listener to a deeper place of divine logic. This “parable as the reduction from ‘world’ to ‘kingdom,’” strips the listener of worldly humanness and by means of this reduction tells us something of God who is pure love outside of all categories and rules. (103-105) This formula may not convince the nonbeliever, but, as Hart points out, phenomenology is neutral to each individual’s decision. I take this to be the boundary between a general phenomenology and a Christian phenomenology—that the latter can carve out this interpretive space with an additional reduction that brackets off the scientific/historical stance toward scripture. As Hart observes: “Where the historical-critical method forbids any passage from scripture to creed, phenomenology allows us to recognize that one vital element of the creed, the incarnation of God, is transcendentally supposed by Jesus’s relating of a parable of the kingdom.” (108)
Jeffrey Bloechel makes a similar distinction between a general scientific/historical phenomenology and a Christian phenomenology. His approach is to respond to Giorgio Agamben and Alain Badiou’s analysis of Paul’s epistles. Bloechel argues that neither Agamben nor Badiou addresses Paul as a theologian but instead as a source for conceptions of human freedom from containment within the political order. (144) Agamben and Badiou take into account only the structure, not the content, which leaves them with a reading devoid of everything Paul the author cares about and wants to communicate. In particular, Agamben and Badiou ignore Paul’s desire for there to be a community of faith united in the life of the spirit. (148) Because Agamben and Badiou conscript passages of Paul’s epistles in service of their own hermeneutical agenda, they miss the author Paul’s clear purpose in writing what he did. Bloechel argues that Paul’s central interest in his writings can emerge when we avoid the temptation to think of them first of all as political texts and attend instead to the imagery he uses of the community as a body, imagery that calls us to a conversion of our basic attitudes about and orientation to the world. (151) As nonbelievers, Bloechel says, Agamben and Badiou reduce the Christian message of Jesus to “only a single, momentous event, and not necessarily a unique one.” (156) What this shows, I think, is that regardless of whether Christianity is true, the Christian believer desevers the event of Jesus from the historical background and gives it significance in history, morality, and personal eschatology. Therefore, the meaning of Christian scripture has to be understood from within that mood of belief. Otherwise, our analysis discounts both the authors and the audience of scripture, without whom the enterprise of writing and reading have no meaning.
Jean-Yves Lacoste’s analysis of Matthew 5:38-48, the Sermon on the Mount, is a theological exegesis. Lacoste seeks to understand what Jesus’s words in the sermon show us about Jesus’s place in Judaism given his claims about Jewish law. (66) Lacoste applies the phenomenological method by bracketing off the assumption of Jesus as Messiah in reading the pericope. It is naively tempting, Lacoste says, to assume Jesus’s authoritative teaching on the Jewish law in the sermon is an assertion of messianic fulfillment, but Jesus never refers to himself as Messiah. (68) With this epoché, we can try better to understand Jesus’s commands to love our enemies and to be perfect as God is perfect. Lacoste’s Christian phenomenology informs his analysis of the “difficult logic” of the sermon. (86) His analysis comes full circle in leading him back to the conclusion that “the horizon opened by the commandments of the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain are perceptible only by the one who sees those commandments fulfilled in the person of the man who comes from God— the Son— and probably in him.” (84)
The remaining two essays lacked critical force. Robert Sokolowski does not focus on a particular passage but on the general importance of words. Words spoken about something introduce the thing to us, he says; they bring it to mind. (22) Writing differs from speech in that the speaker can be absent. (24) But there is a tangible speaker of the scriptures, and that is the Church. The Church as the speaker of the scriptures means the scriptures are not detached and isolated but are epitomized in the Church. (26-27) This need to understand the Church’s place as speaker of scripture is why Sokolowski rejects purely historical approaches to scripture, which incline one “to think, first, that scripture trumps tradition and, second, that history trumps scripture.” (37) Sokolowski does not give us a phenomenology, even a Christian one, but a doctrinal lesson about the importance of scripture as God’s Word. The contribution by Jean-Luc Marion is a lecture that discusses the nature of the gift. This lecture is not as lucid and insightful as Marion’s other papers on the phenomenology of the gift and givenness, and I was disappointed given his other excellent work on this subject. His essay’s connection with the book’s theme is the discussion of the story of Abraham’s confirmation (Genesis 22). Marion’s interpretation of the story is strained in his attempt to fit it into his larger philosophical concerns and is not as compelling as Kierkegaard’s analysis of the story in Fear and Trembling.
Having discussed the essays in Phenomenologies of Scripture, I now turn to the two responses to those essays in the book. One is by Dale B. Martin, whose main issue with the essays is the authors’ lack of acknowledgment of interpretive agency. The reader is the interpreter of the text, and Martin takes Marion and Sokolowski to task for eclipsing the agency of the interpreter with their predetermined “this is the way things are” arguments. (191-192) I agree with Martin that most of the essays in this book hold that it is the words that do the work. This sounds good at first until you realize that it leaves out both the authors and the readers. It is a mistake if phenomenology assumes that “phenomena and words and texts simply have their meaning in themselves and just present that to us [and that] readers are passive receptors, not agents in meaning-making.” (192) Martin argues that just as objects are for us as they are interpreted by us and other human beings (emphasis his), texts cannot speak for themselves; they must be interpreted by us. Rather than putting the agency in scripture, Martin says, we need to put the agency where it belongs—with us human beings. (194) Martin praises Horner and Chrétien for giving appropriate attention to the agency of the reader as interpreter and maker of meaning and including in their phenomenology that the meaning of a text arrives only from the interpretive activities of the readers. (195-196) This is important, Martin says, because “we can have different meanings of the text, and many of them, all at the same time, interpreting differently for different ends and needs.” (196) Again, I heartily agree. If a text is designated as an object that tells us what it means, then it is not alive for readers and is more useful for the suppression of ideas than for generating and communicating them.
The other response is by Walter Brueggemann who proposes the approach to scripture of probing the thickness of the text to go beyond the obvious meaning. (180) In seeking to understand a text, he says, we are seeking to understand the culture that surrounded it and gave birth to it. To be open to this understanding, we must avoid what Brueggemann calls “totalism.” Brueggemann rebukes three types of totalism: church doctrine that occupied scripture to its own advantage and reduced biblical narrative to propositions that could become a test of membership; enlightenment rationality that has “largely explained away what is interesting, compelling, and embarrassing in the text”; and late capitalism’s reduction of narrative to medical prescriptions promising quick technical fixes to all human problems. (182) Brueggemann’s prescription to cure totalism is not to read scripture from the place of religious orthodoxy that resists any readings that conflict with the interests of ecclesiastical certitude or from the place of the modernist academy that resists any readings that conflict with the interests of reducing religion to a human sociopsychological projection. (186) When we move beyond the thinness of the conventional expectations of totalism, we dwell in thickness—the deeply coded cultural articulations and performances that are understood only by insiders. The reader must take up residence in the text and wait there, listening beyond what is given in the letter of the text. In thickness we can consider and accept interpretations of text that are clearly not acceptable in the surface observations of totalisms. For example, Brueggemann mentions the current interest, by both church and modern interpreters, to explain away the violence in the Bible, but the violence clearly belongs in the narrative because it is part of the cultural understanding of the culture from which the Bible emerged. We need to follow the story, not explain it away. Another example is being able to recognize messianic time in texts, meaning that the reading of the text is not settled in the present tense that is authorized by totalism but is instead always open to new possibilities. Being open to the possibilities in thickness are, Brueggemann says, a courageous response to today’s hurried productive society that does not want to dwell in any way that requires waiting because all meanings are known ahead of time. (181)
Maybe not all phenomenologies are courageous countercultural acts, as Brueggemann implies, but Phenomenologies of Scripture is going against the grain. The essays in the book are of more value to scholars of biblical interpretation than to those outside that discipline, but both biblical scholars and phenomenologists will find valuable approaches and ideas in these essays.
Wells, Adam Y., ed. 2017. Phenomenologies of Scripture. New York: Fordham University Press.