Book Plug: Situating Existentialism. Key Texts in Context

Situating ExistentialismSituating Existentialism. Key Texts in Context, edited by Jonathan Judaken and Robert Bernasconi, is an excellent addition to the current literature on existentialism. The book not only situates existentialism historically and culturally, but it also takes a multidisciplinary approach, engaging philosophical, religious, and literary expressions of existentialism in its various Russian, Latin American, African, and European instantiations. The book is divided into three parts: (trans)national contexts, existentialism and religion, and migrations. The essays in part one focus on the various national contexts where existentialism appeared as a site of cultural exchange. It includes chapters on Russian existentialism by Val Vinokur, German existentialism by Peter Gordon, French existentialism by Jonathan Judaken, and Hispanic and Latin American existentialisms by Eduardo Mendieta. The essays in part two are devoted to existentialism and religion and include chapters on Kierkegaard and Christian existentialism by George Pattison, Jewish existentialism by Paul Mendes-Flohr, and Camus and unbelieving existentialism by Ronald Aronson. The essays in part three analyze the “national and religious borderlines that were crossed as existentialism was consolidated and canonized” (15). Here we have several noteworthy chapters such as Charles Bambach’s, “Rethinking the ‘Existential’ Nietzsche in Germany: Lowith, Jaspers, Heidegger,” Robert Bernasconi’s, “Situating Franz Fanon’s Account of Black Experience,” and Debra Bergoffen’s, “Simone de Beauvoir in Her Times and Ours: The Second Sex and Its Legacy in French Feminist Thought” to name a few.

As Judaken emphasizes in his helpful introduction to the volume, although the book is a genealogy of “the process of systematizing and canonizing existentialism as a movement of thought,” the establishment of existentialism as a distinctive mode of interrogating the human condition was assembled “only in hindsight” (2). In other words, existentialism by nature is not an –ism, not a system of thought like Hegel’s philosophy; yet retrospectively, we can recognize shared questions and concerns among its leading figures. Part of existentialism’s resistance to systemization and categorization results from the diverse and even conflicting views of its advocates. In other words, while its forerunners and major proponents share a common set of questions and concerns regarding political, religious, and ethical life, they disagree profoundly in their answers. Camus, for example, held that whether or not God exists was irrelevant to the persistent matters of our human condition. In stark contrast, Kierkegaard held that God’s existence and our relation to him was paramount to a proper understanding of ourselves, the world, and others. On the topic of politics, Kierkegaard was highly critical of “collective movements, insisting that where the crowd goes, untruth reigns” (3). Such a position is seemingly incompatible with Sartre’s stress on the necessity of political action and his call for a revolutionary politics. In the area of ethics, we have similar conflicting views. On the one hand, Sartre views human relations as fundamentally antagonistic. On the other hand, Marcel, Jaspers, and Buber hold a more positive view of relationships. For these thinkers, relationships are essential for one’s true ethical development, as they provide concrete occasions for the possibility of transforming our human tendency to reduce others to mere objects (3).

Whether one reads Simone de Beauvoir’s interrogations of gender norms, Fanon’s critique of the oppressive white gaze, Kierkegaard’s struggles with faith, or Heidegger’s description of anxiety, one encounters thinkers wrestling with fundamental questions and concerns of the human condition in its various historical and cultural inflections. As Judaken observes, “existentialists addressed the most fundamental concerns of human existence: suffering, loneliness, dread, guilt, conflict, spiritual emptiness, the absence of absolute values or universals, the fallibility of human reason, and the tragic impasses of the human condition” (6). Such common questions and shared themes—even though addressed and answered in incompatible ways—morphed into a powerful critique of modern life and thought. That is, existentialist philosophers were concerned about the rapid modernization of life fueled by its technological drives and ever-expanding bureaucratization of daily life. Along with other thinkers, artists, and activists unable to remain silent about colonization, technology and warfare, and the oppression of women, existentialists joined the chorus of critical voices revealing the violence and vacuity of modernity’s “progress” narratives. As Judaken puts it, “[e]xistentialism thus limned modernity and exposed its hollowness, revealing that it rested on a void. In reflecting this nothingness, existentialists pulled up the anchors that ostensibly undergirded the European culture of high modernity” (11).

Situating Existentialism provides not only an excellent historical introduction to existentialism, but it also shows how the deeply human cries of existentialist philosophers continue to resonate with 21st century concerns.

Book Plug: Gadamer’s Ethics of Play. Hermeneutics and the Other by Monica Vilhauer

Gadamer's Ethics of PlayGiven my own research interests in the work of Hans-George Gadamer, it has been a pleasure to read Monica Vilhauer’s recent book, Gadamer’s Ethics of Play. Hermeneutics and the Other. The book is divided into four parts: (1) Gadamer’s Hermeneutic Problem, (2) Gadamer’s Concept of Play: Re-Conceiving the Process of Understanding, (3) The Ethical Dimensions of Play, and (4) When Ethical Conditions are Lacking.

In the present mini-review, I focus on Vilhauer’s claims in Chapter 5, “The Ethical Conditions of Dialogic Play: Between I and Thou.” Having convincingly argued that Gadamer’s notion of play is central not only to his reflections on art’s dynamic ontology, but also is central to his understanding of philosophical hermeneutics, Vilhauer then highlights the dialogical and ethical dimension of Gadamer’s concept of play. As Vilhauer explains, the “play-process of understanding”—whether understanding artworks, texts or other people—shows itself “to be a process of communication that occurs between I and Thou” in what one might call “dialogic play” (75). In other words, with the recognition that the play movement of understanding is dialogical—not monological—an ethical dimension of play emerges. “It now becomes apparent that the dynamic event of play in which understanding occurs relies on a particular kind of relation between I and Thou. Hermeneutic experience is not the experience of some object, but of the articulation of some other human being” (75). Of course for Gadamer, a text and a work of art takes on a life of its own and functions as a dialogue partner or “other.” Thus, whether or not the author or artist is living, the text or work still “speaks.” Given the dialogical character of hermeneutical experience, Vilhauer analyses what kind of relationship between an I and Thou is required for a shared understanding about some subject matter to occur. She begins by sketching Gadamer’s three types of I/Thou relationships, viz., (1) a scientific, (2) a psychological, and (3) an “open” approach to the other. The first two ways of engaging the other do not result in a genuine dialogue; the third way, however, makes possible a true engagement with the other wherein shared understanding becomes possible. In addition, in an “open” approach to the other, various ethical conditions are present such as mutual respect, a shared commitment to seek understanding (if possible), and a willingness to learn from (and be challenged by) one another for the purpose of individual and communal growth. Below I highlight some of the salient points in Vilhauer’s description of each type of I/Thou relationship.

In the scientific approach to the other, the Thou is treated as an object or “thing,” whose characteristics are “objectively” analyzed and categorized and its future behavior made more “predictable.” In short, the I’s relational stance toward Thou-as-object is one of distance and mastery; the Thou is neither respected nor listened to as a genuine dialogue partner with something valuable to contribute to the conversation. Vilhauer gives the example of a doctor/patient relationship where the doctor qua expert treats the patient more as an object of study upon which various tests must be performed than a human being with cares, concerns, and experiences that ought to be consulted in the process of reaching a mutual diagnosis and treatment plan. Here the other is disrespected and his or her dignity devalued. Gadamer himself draws upon the Kantian moral tradition and highlights how treating the other as an object instrumentalizes the other. “From the moral point of view this orientation toward the Thou is purely self-regarding and contradicts the moral definition of man. As we know, in interpreting the categorical imperative Kant said, inter alia, that the other should never be used as a means but always as an end in himself” (TM, 358).

In the psychological approach to the other, the other becomes a “psychological thing.” That is, the other is acknowledged as one who makes meaningful statements; however, the other merely expresses his or her particular subjective experience, attitude, or personal point of view. The relationship between “I” and “Thou” is again one of mastery and control, as the “I” is the superior who claims to have a special expertise enabling him/her to properly understand the Thou. Here the other is allowed to speak, but the way in which the “I” listens to the “Thou” is highly problematic. As Vilhauer explains, [t]he ‘I’ in this scenario does not listen to what the other has to say as a ‘claim to truth,’ but as a reflection of the other’s ‘self.’ The ‘I’ does not recognize the ‘Thou’ as a being that has something meaningful to say about the way the world is, about the truth of things, but only as a being that is capable of expressing the way he ‘feels,’ or the way he sees things as a result of his personal life history” (79). Gadamer describes this mode of “knowing” the other in advance as both a denial of the validity of the other’s claims and as a way “to keep the other person’s claim at a distance” (TM, 360). In other words, the “I” allows the other to present his or her perspective but really has no interest in what the other has to say. Before the conversation is even underway, the “I” sees his view as superior, as he is convinced that he possesses some special insight or knowledge allowing him to grasp the other more clearly than the other understands himself. Once the “Thou” is placed in the “I’s” category, stereotype, or other “box,” there is no escaping.

Vilhauer also shows how this approach to the other can be traced to Schleiermacher’s hermeneutics. That is, this second I/Thou relation can be understood as an attempt to get inside the “head” of the other, that is, the other as author of a text. Here one only properly understands the text when one understands the author’s intentions and the particulars of his life. The author is different from me, yet as fellow humans we experience similar feelings; thus, by means of a “sympathetic feeling,” I can understand the author’s intentions and meanings—both known and unknown to him. As Vilhauer observes, “[i]n coming to know the author’s life and mind, in deciphering the inner meaning, root, and origin of his expressions of which he himself is unaware, and in exposing this meaning in a way that makes conscious what was to him unconscious, one comes to know the author better than he knows himself” (80­–1). According to Gadamer, Schleiermacher’s model involves a fundamental misunderstanding of language. That is, Schleiermacher views “language merely as an ‘expressive field’—expressive of the author’s personal life, experience, and perspective” (81). Gadamer, in contrast, understands language as a social reality that exceeds one’s subjective experience. Linguistic statements for Gadamer articulate various subject matters (Sache) and make claims to truth; thus, when we enter a genuine dialogue with the other, our goal is not to understand the other’s subjective, psychological perspective, but the “substantial content” or subject matter that he or she articulates (81).

It is only in the “open” approach to the other that one finds mutual recognition among the dialogue partners and thus the possibility of a genuine dialogue in which understanding might occur. When we comport ourselves to the other in a mode of openness, we are ready and expect to “hear something meaningful and something different from what we already think, know, or have heard others say” (83). In addition, we believe that the other has something to teach us—“something true—about our world and ourselves” that might challenge us to think differently and thus expand our horizons. In this third and highest I/Thou relation, we genuinely put our most cherished assumptions, “prejudices” (i.e. pre-judgments), and Weltanschauung at risk. In this mode of engagement, we treat the other as a human being worthy of dignity and respect—not as a thing we must master or control, nor as an inert object of study whose voice is muted from the start. Or to put it in Gadamer’s own words:

“In human relations the important thing is, as we have seen, to experience the Thou truly as a Thou—i.e., not to overlook his claim but to let him really say something to us. Here is where openness belongs. […] Without such openness to one another there is no genuine human bond” (TM, 361).

My mini-review provides only a glimpse into Vilhauer’s lucid study of the ethical dimensions of Gadamer’s notion of play and by extension his entire hermeneutical project. Those familiar with as well as those new to Gadamer’s work will not only enjoy this book, but will also greatly benefit from Vilhauer’s scholarly labors.

Book Plug: Hegel’s Introduction to the System. Encyclopædia Phenomenology and Psychology. (Introduction, Translation, and Commentary by Robert E. Wood).

Hegel's Introduction to the System_RWoodAnyone who has put in the time and effort to read Hegel knows how incredibly difficult and dense his texts are and thus what a welcome gift a lucid commentary would be. Dr. Robert E. Wood has provided such a gift in his newly published translation of and commentary on Hegel’s “Phenomenology” and “Psychology,” entitled, Hegel’s Introduction to the System. Not only does Wood’s translation offer new insights, but also his decision to insert his commentary after particularly difficult and noteworthy passages allows the reader to engage in an ongoing interplay—or as Gadamer would say—a “dialogue” with the text and with Wood, who has devoted a lifetime of scholarly energy and passion to the study of Hegel’s thought.

The book consists of four parts. In Part I, Wood begins with an introduction to Hegel’s life and thought. In Part II, he sketches a helpful overview of the Logic, Philosophy of Nature, and the Philosophy of Spirit. In Part III, the “heart” of the text, we have Wood’s translation and commentary on key sections of the “Philosophy of Spirit,” viz. the Anthropology, Phenomenology, and Psychology. Then in the concluding section, Part IV, Wood provides an overview of the final sections of the “Philosophy of Spirit,” viz. Objective and Absolute Spirit. Wood has also taken the time to compile a helpful selected bibliography consisting of (1) works that offer a basic orientation to Hegel or that focus on a particular part of his work, and (2) works that focus specifically on themes in Hegel’s Philosophy of Spirit.

On a final and more personal note, I had the great pleasure to study under Bob Wood at the University Dallas. One could not encounter a more generous scholar whose love for philosophy and an ongoing pursuit of truth is so manifest and contagious. Wood’s love for teaching comes through in his text as well, and I encourage those teaching the relevant courses on Hegel to assign this text, which will offer tremendous help to students as they wrestle with and come to understand, as Heidegger put it, Hegel’s “greatness.”

Book Plug: T. S. Eliot and the Fulfillment of Christian Poetics by G. Douglas Atkins

G. Douglas Atkins’s book, T. S. Eliot and the Fulfillment of Christian Poetics, is an engaging, close textual analysis, and extended meditation on Eliot’s poem, Four Quartets. Describing his approach to Eliot’s work, Atkins writes, “[m]y focus is how each poem of Four Quartets works, what it means, that and how it matters (so much), and how each of these parts supports the others ‘right’ in participating in the creation of a structure whose details we fully appreciate only at the end, the place from which we begin in order to appreciate fully those magnificent details. The issue is fulfillment—of purpose” (vi–vii). Rather than a “handbook,” which Atkins’s book certainly is not, the author has created a commentary qua “companion”—a “going-along-with” that includes a bringing together mirroring Eliot’s text.

Among the many topics and themes that Atkins addresses, I found particularly interesting his analyses of how Eliot’s Four Quartets dramatizes the “impossible union” of oppositions or alleged oppositions—time and eternity, human and divine, the way up and the way down (and other Heraclitian-inspired themes), the philosophical and the poetic, sameness and difference, life and death and so on.

Atkins likewise does a wonderful job of showing (via the unfolding drama of the poem) how the poet’s own voice struggles with his own pronouncements, i.e. with what he knows or perhaps better, believes, and how precisely “all manner of things is well” (including the good and the bad and many other oppositions, which constitute the “necessarye coniunction.”)

Just as the opening movement, “Burnt Norton,” began with reflections on time and being, as well as a scene resonant with but not identical to the Garden of Eden—reflections not necessarily representing Eliot’s own voice—in the last movement we return via echoes to a Garden. “And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time.” However, now the pattern of the “logic of concepts” (philosophy) and the “logic of the imagination” (poetry) has been reversed. Here we have children playing “in the apple tree” and the “voice of the hidden waterfall” where both movement (noise) and stillness are “heard, half-heard” (103). We return to the childlike, but a very high price has been paid for this “coniunction” uniting humans with the divine. The “how” of the “all is well” and the “all shall be well” come at the end in time—the already and the not yet: “When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one” (103–104).

Book Plug: A Philosophy of the Unsayable by William Franke

For those those interested, Syndicate will host several excellent book symposia in the near future. Of the many noteworthy books to be discussed, William Franke’s book, A Philosophy of the Unsayable, caught my attentionBelow is a brief description of the book taken from Syndicate’s website.Philosophy of the Unsayable


In A Philosophy of the Unsayable, William Franke argues that the encounter with what exceeds speech has become the crucial philosophical issue of our time. He proposes an original philosophy pivoting on analysis of the limits of language. The book also offers readings of literary texts as poetically performing the philosophical principles it expounds. Franke engages with philosophical theologies and philosophies of religion in the debate over negative theology and shows how apophaticism infiltrates the thinking even of those who attempt to deny or delimit it.

In six cohesive essays, Franke explores fundamental aspects of unsayability. In the first and third essays, his philosophical argument is carried through with acute attention to modes of unsayability that are revealed best by literary works, particularly by negativities of poetic language in the oeuvres of Paul Celan and Edmond Jabès. Franke engages in critical discussion of apophatic currents of philosophy both ancient and modern, focusing on Hegel and French post-Hegelianism in his second essay and on Neoplatonism in his fourth essay. He treats Neoplatonic apophatics especially as found in Damascius and as illuminated by postmodern thought, particularly Jean-Luc Nancy’s deconstruction of Christianity. In the last two essays, Franke treats the tension between two contemporary approaches to philosophy of religion—Radical Orthodoxy and radically secular or Death-of-God theologies. A Philosophy of the Unsayable will interest scholars and students of philosophy, literature, religion, and the humanities. This book develops Franke’s explicit theory of unsayability, which is informed by his long-standing engagement with major representatives of apophatic thought in the Western tradition.

About the Author

William Franke is professor of philosophy and religions at the University of Macao and professor of comparative literature and religious studies at Vanderbilt University.

Book Plug: Philosophy Imprisoned. The Love of Wisdom in the Age of Incarceration.

I am happy to announce that Philosophy Imprisoned. The Love of Wisdom in the Age of Mass Incarceration, edited by Sarah Tyson and Joshua M. Hall, is now available for preorder via Below is a brief description of the book taken from from Lexington’s website (an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield) and a list of contributors, including myself.Philosophy Imprisoned

Brief Description:

Western philosophy’s relationship with prisons stretches from Plato’s own incarceration to the modern era of mass incarceration. Philosophy Imprisoned: The Love of Wisdom in the Age of Mass Incarceration draws together a broad range of philosophical thinkers, from both inside and outside prison walls, in the United States and beyond, who draw on a variety of critical perspectives (including phenomenology, deconstruction, and feminist theory) and historical and contemporary figures in philosophy (including Kant, Hegel, Foucault, and Angela Davis) to think about prisons in this new historical era. All of these contributors have experiences within prison walls: some are or have been incarcerated, some have taught or are teaching in prisons, and all have been students of both philosophy and the carceral system. The powerful testimonials and theoretical arguments are appropriate reading not only for philosophers and prison theorists generally, but also for prison reformers and abolitionists.

List of Contributors:

Eric Anthamatten; Anders “Andy” Benander III; Natalie Cisneros; Michael DeWilde; Vincent Greco; Timothy Greenlee; Spoon Jackson; Arlando “Tray” Jones III; Drew Leder; Chris Lenn; John Douglas Macready; Lisa McLeod; William Muth; Cynthia Nielsen; Aislinn O’Donnell; Andre Pierce; Atif Rafay and Ginger Walker