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Coordinating Editors: Suzi Adams (Flinders Ted Toadvine (University of Oregon, USA);
University, Australia); Jeremy Smith (Fed- Lubica Ucnik (Murdoch University, Aus-
eration University Australia, Australia). tralia).Erin Carlisle, Flinders University, AU;
George Sarantoulias, Flinders University, AU.
Editorial Collective: Suzi Adams (Flinders
University, Australia); Paul Blokker ( Charles Social Imaginaries is a peer reviewed bi-
University in Prague, Czech Republic); Nat- annual journal that publishes original articles
alie Doyle (Monash University, Australia); from diverse disciplinary constellations. Social
John Krummel (Hobart and William Smith Imaginaries interrogates the presuppositions of
Colleges, USA); Jeremy Smith (Federation cultural ontologies and instituted configurations
University Australia, Australia). of power. It presupposes an understanding of
society as a political institution, which is formed
Editorial Assistants: Erin Carlisle (Flinders — and forms itself — in historical constellations,
University, Australia); George Sarantoulias on the one hand, and through encounters with
(Flinders University, Australia). other cultures and civilizational worlds, on the
other. The journal aims to pursue intersecting
Editors-at-Large: Johann P. Arnason (La Trobe
debates on forms of meaning, knowledge and
University, Australia/ Charles University,
truth as they have been historically instituted
Czech Republic); Craig Calhoun (LSE, UK);
and reconfigured, both within disciplinary
Fred Dallmayr (Notre Dame University,
confines and beyond. It reflects on the human
USA); Vincent Descombes (EHESS, France/
condition in modernity, which, amongst other
University of Chicago, USA); Charles Taylor
things, ought to be centrally concerned with
(McGill University); George Taylor (Uni-
theoretical elaborations of and responses to
versity of Pittsburgh, USA); Peter Wagner
the ecological devastation of the natural world.
(University of Barcelona, Spain); Bernhard
Social Imaginaries pursues intersecting debates
Waldenfels (Bochum University, Germany).
on (inter)cultural and historical varieties of
Editorial Advisory Board:  Chiara Bottici (New meaning, power and socially instituted worlds,
School for Social Research, USA); Craig and is situated within the ongoing, albeit
Browne (University of Sydney, Australia); incomplete, hermeneutical turn in the human
Ivan Chvatik (Centre for Theoretical Studies/ sciences.
Patočka Archives, Czech Republic); Marcel
Gauchet (École des Hautes Études en Sci- Social Imaginaries invites contributions from
ences Sociales, France); Stathis Gourgouris social theory, historical sociology, political
(Columbia University, USA); Dick Howard philosophy, political theory, phenomenology,
(Stony Brook University, USA); Wolfgang hermeneutics, and, more broadly, cultural
Knöbl (Göttingen University); Kwok Ying studies, anthropology, geography that criti­
Lau (Chinese University of Hong Kong, cally advance our understanding of the
China); Karel Novotny (Charles University, human condition in modernity. The journal
Czech Republic); Mats Rosengren (Uppsala is published in May and November each year
University, Sweden); Hans Rainer Sepp (Fink by Zeta Books (Bucharest, RO).
Archives, Freiburg University, Germany); Submit an article:
Kate Soper (London Metropolitan Univer-
sity, UK); Ingerid Straume (Oslo University);
Vol. 1 / Issue 2
Zeta Books, Bucharest

© 2015 Zeta Books for the present edition.

© 2015 The copyrights to the essays in this volume belong to the authors.
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ISSN: 2457-2926 (electronic)
ISBN: 978-606-697-008-2 (paperback)
ISBN: 978-606-697-009-9 (eBook)

Social Imaginaries – Volume 1, Issue 2


Introduction, by Suzi Adams and John W. M. Krummel . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7

 e Phenomenological Contributions of Ricoeur’s Philosophy

of Imagination, by George H. Taylor . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13

 etween Receptivity and Productivity:

Paul Ricoeur on Cultural Imagination, by Timo Helenius . . . . . . . . . . . 32

Embodiment and Umwelt: A Phenomenological Approach,

by Adam Konopka . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The Problem of Morality in a Mathematised Universe: Time

and Eternity in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov
and the Concept of ‘Love’ in Patočka’s Last Essay, by Ľubica Učník . . . . . 72

The Equating of the Unequal, by Bernhard Waldenfels . . . . . . . . . . . . . 92

War, Peace and Love: The Logic of Lévinas, by Kwok-ying Lau . . . . . . . . . . . 103

‘Man Against the State’: Community and Dissent, by Fred Dallmayr . . . 127

Elias and Eisenstadt: The Multiple Meanings of Civilisation,

by Johann P. Arnason . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 146
Social Imaginaries 1.2 (2015) 7-12

Suzi Adams and John W. M. Krummel

This issue of Social Imaginaries continues to delineate key thinkers and de-
bates in the social imaginaries field proper, whilst opening onto problematics
that configure the terrain more broadly. Contemporary approaches to social
imaginaries—as a paradigm-in-the-making—have emerged from a number of
intersecting currents of thought, including Durkheimian understandings of col-
lective representations, Marxian debates on ideology, structuralist debates on
the symbolic and the imaginary, and phenomenological and hermeneutical re-
assessments of the creativity of the imagination and its relation to—or institu-
tion of—the ‘real’. More broadly, the various interpretive frameworks that un-
dergird the social imaginaries field also draw from debates amongst third gen-
eration phenomenologists—such as Merleau-Ponty, Patočka, Levinas, and
Ricoeur—that seek to critique Husserl’s philosophy of consciousness through
reactivating specific aspects of Husserl’s phenomenological approach, in con-
junction with a critical encounter with Heidegger, from which new articula-
tions of selfhood, the social, and transcendence appear.
More generally, reflections on social imaginary constellations (and their
varied sources) invite engagement with—and interrogation of—the concrete-
ness of our social worlds within-the-world. Socio-cultural contexts of world-
hood, imagination, reason, art, and civilizational forms, as conceived here,
reference the human condition in modernity, in political, cultural and social
aspects. Modernity is not autonomous but relational, that is, it grounds—and
founds—itself in relation to a variety of ‘others’, including classical antiquity,
inter-cultural and inter-civilizational others, and, finally, intra-cultural con-
stellations. These inter- and intra-cultural elements call for interrogation of
our understandings of ‘the strange’, ‘the extra-ordinary’, and ‘varieties of oth-
erness’ at all levels of socio-political life, be that at the macro level of civiliza-
tions or the inter-subjective level of social selves in action. Such frameworks
must also be capable of interrogating the final frontier of otherness—the dif-
ferent regions of nature—where the formalization of mathematical reason and
the limits of the cultural-political project of rational mastery grow weary, and
thoughtful political ecologies and nuanced environmental phenomenologies
8 Introduction

arise in their place. From this, in line with the ancient Greeks, the world—and
the human condition in-the-world—is to be understood as a ‘unity in plural-
ity’, which emphasizes the importance of articulating both the commonality
and the diversity of the human condition. Indeed, the human condition in-
the-world can only be known in its concrete historical articulations, and thus
needs both comparative research and robust theoretical frameworks to address
these issues, be that in social theory, political philosophy, critical theory, his-
torical sociology or comparative history.

We open this issue with two essays on Paul Ricoeur’s thought. Along with
Cornelius Castoriadis and Charles Taylor, Ricoeur’s distinctive elucidation of
the social imaginary has been pivotal for the emergence of the social imaginar-
ies field. Indeed, interpreters of Ricoeur increasingly highlight the centrality
of the imagination for his overall philosophical trajectory. The question of the
imagination was an enduring concern for Ricoeur, but it gained momentum
in his thought in the 1970s. The early- mid-1970s were particularly impor-
tant in the present context, as this period saw his developing engagement with
the problematic of the imagination gain traction and momentum. The year
of 1975 was especially propitious. During the course of that year, Ricoeur
presented two series of seminars on the imagination—the first on ideology
and utopia as the two poles of the cultural imagination that together comprise
the social imaginary, the second on the philosophy of the imagination—and
published The Rule of Metaphor: The Creation of Meaning in Language, in
which the role of the imagination, especially the productive imagination, was
underscored. These highly original works prepared the way for Ricoeur’s fur-
ther reflections on the productive-receptive imagination as ‘narrative’ in Time
and Narrative (3 volumes) in the early 1980s.
George H. Taylor’s contribution to this volume, ‘The Phenomenological
Contributions of Ricoeur’s Philosophy of Imagination’ focuses on Ricoeur’s
articulation of the productive imagination as it emerges from both the Lec-
tures on Ideology and Utopia, and the Lectures on Imagination. Taylor primar-
ily focuses on the productive imagination as fiction as it emerges from
Ricoeur’s Lectures on Imagination. While it is generally thought that Ricoeur’s
move to hermeneutics incorporated a simultaneous shift away from phenom-
enology, Taylor offers an alternative view, and reconstructs Ricoeur’s approach
to the imagination through a phenomenological lens. Ricoeur’s philosophy is
best understood as the interplay of phenomenology and hermeneutics, and
thus it is no surprise that Taylor reconnects Ricoeur’s phenomenology of the
imagination as fiction to hermeneutical themes, especially through the central
interconnection of vision and language—of seeing and saying. Of particular
interest is Ricoeur’s articulation of the productive imagination as iconic
Introduction 9

augmentation (a theme that has also been recently taken up under the aus-
pices of a ‘strong program of cultural sociology’, and for which Ricoeur’s dis-
tinctive take will prove of interest), his reworking of Husserl’s notion of inten-
tionality as the ‘consciousness of ’ the ‘absolutely nowhere’, and ‘imaginative
variation’ as ‘as if ’ and as the capacity to ‘shatter reality’.
In his essay ‘Between Receptivity and Productivity: Paul Ricoeur on Cul-
tural Imagination’, Timo Helenius also pursues the theme of the imagination
in Ricoeur’s thought. Helenius accepts Ricoeur’s critique of the possibility of
‘creation ex nihilo’ and instead draws attention to the ways in which the cul-
tural imagination operates in a dialectic of innovation and sedimentation as
part of an overall ‘disjointed continuity’ with the civilizational traditions that
inform western currents of history. Helenius argues that the cultural imagina-
tion forms the basis of a poetics of human action, and, in so doing, offers a
corrective to those approaches which stress the centrality of Ricoeur’s articula-
tion of the imagination as the basis of possibility of a human subject. Instead,
Helenius argues that the mediated or situated subject emerges from a cultural
basis—from the cultural imagination—that resides in the nexus of receptivity
and productivity.
One important component of a discussion of the social imaginary is how we
understand the world. Adam Konopka’s article, ‘Embodiment and Umwelt: A
Phenomenological Approach’ discusses the notion of the world and its “consti-
tution,” and especially in its relationship to the natural environment, in Hus-
serl’s phenomenological theory in regard to the intentionality of embodied ex-
perience vis-à-vis the pre-given Umwelt. The issue is necessarily complex as
Husserl’s understanding underwent several revisions and reformulations through
his career until culminating in his notion of the “life-world.” Konopka exam-
ines this development of Husserl’s theory of world constitution and his account
of environed embodied experience, especially as a phenomenological response
to the 19th century debate concerning the methodology of Naturwissenschaften
and Geisteswissenschaften, involving Wilhelm Dithey and the Neo-Kantians of
the Baden School. Konopka argues that Husserl develops his response in the
context of ‘unbuilding’ the Natur-Geist distinction in his identification of the
pre-given world as embodied and lived. He argues that for Husserl, environed
embodiment—pre-reflective bodily self-awareness in correlation with its Um-
welt as horizon—grounds both Natur (spatio-temporal materiality) and Geist
(human culture and history) and hence their dichotomy.
Ľubica Učnik’s essay takes up the question of the life-world, human re-
sponsibility and debates on scientific reason in engagement with Jan Patočka,
who, like Ricoeur, was a third generation phenomenologist whose reworking
of Husserl and Heidegger offers rich resources for the social imaginaries field.
Her essay, ‘The Problem of Morality in a Mathematised Universe: Time and
Eternity in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and the Concept of ‘Love’ in
Patočka’s Last Essay’, takes up some remarks made by Jan Patočka in his last
10 Introduction

written essay ‘Notes on Masaryk’s Theological Philosophy’ as a heuristic tool

to reflect on Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov. The overall question
animating her essay can be framed as: How can we understand human respon-
sibility, without God, in a world that is ineluctably defined by modern sci-
ence? Following Patočka’s cue, Učnik considers Dostoevsky’s novel as a re-
sponse to Kant’s approach to practical reason, on the one hand, but also his
reformulation of theodicy, on the other as part of an overall critique of modern
subjectivism. The underlying context of the essay concerns the question of the
place of the human condition in modernity in its grappling with (scientific)
rationality and divinity, especially as it pertains to practical reason, themes that
play out in Dostoevsky’s works. But Učnik questions the binary at play in Dos-
toevsky’s and Kant’s responses, and looks to Patočka for options not limited to
the physical world of science and God as sources of human morality. Patočka is
concerned to reformulate individual social responsibility that eschews a religious
framework—from another perspective, this can be understood as an attempt to
reflect on the problematics of time and eternity ‘in a world bereft of God’ that
takes account of the human situatedness in, and responsibility for, an historical
world. This is encapsulated in Patočka’s formulation of the ‘third movement of
existence’ as ‘the movement of breakthrough’.
If the human condition of being in-the-world is to be understood as a
“unity in plurality,” in its involvement with both commonality and diversity,
the issue of equality and inequality cannot be ignored. Bernhard Waldenfels
in his contribution to our volume, ‘The Equating of the Unequal’, focuses on
this relationship between equality and inequality and the need for a respon-
sible form of equalization that avoids on the one hand normalism whose fixa-
tion on mere order degenerates to levelling and leads to indifference, and on
the other anomalism (from “anomaly”) that dreams of nothing but the extra­
ordinary and the eventful. He refers to the philosophies of Marx in his analy-
sis of money, Nietzsche in his concept of order, and Levinas in his ethics of the
other, all of whom give expression to the paradox of that which inevitably es-
capes our attempts to equate or reduce to sameness, an excess that falls beyond
the bounds of any equation. Any order of normality is susceptible to the
unexpected and the extraordinary from outside of its bounds, but it is also
threatened from within by its erosion through levelling into indifference. Us-
ing the fiction of Dostoevsky and Musil, Waldenfels asks how something un-
expected coming from out of the bounds of the ordinary may rouse us from
such entropy of indifference, illumining the ordinary and the indifferent in
harsher light. In this way non-indifference serves to limit mere levelling. The
process of equalization must thus be navigated in a responsible manner that
avoids the extremes of the merely ordinary, hence indifferent, and the merely
extraordinary, hence meaningless.
Waldenfels’s essay touched upon the dangers of an over-emphasis upon the
same in its tendency towards levelling. The imaginary construction of the
Introduction 11

world is inevitably forced to confront the other and deal with this issue of pos-
sible violence that stamps the voice of the other under a levelling sameness. A
noted critic of the violence of totalizing sameness is Emmanuel Levinas, the
subject of Kwok-ying Lau’s expository article, ‘War, Peace and Love: The Logic
of Lévinas’. Lau looks into this issue by examining the internal “logic” underly-
ing Lévinas’ provocative stigmatization of the realm of being as a state of war—
in its process of totalization that attempts to universalize, and in which Western
philosophy has played an active role since its inception in Greece. Levinas’ cri-
tique of Hegel and Heidegger’s phenomenological ontologies are examined as
recent examples of that western canon, both opting for the sameness of being.
The critique also extends to dialogue regulated under a unitary reason. Levi-
nas’ response, according to Lau, is a pathétique cry for love and peace. Implied
is an ethical relation, such as through love but also fecundity, that escapes the
realm of absolute immanence by opening the door to alterity. In this way Lau
presents the logic in Levinas’ reading of western ontology on the one hand as
a logic of negation of the rationalization of war and violence and on the other
hand as a logic of affirmation of alterity and plurality through love and justice.
The suggestion is that Levinas’ logic points to the possibility of an ethical
politics of non-violence that aims to restore justice in face of the other as non-
indifference to the other’s suffering and death.
If Lau argues for an ethical politics of non-violence, Fred Dallmayr’s con-
tribution, ‘“Man Against the State”: Community and Dissent’, focuses on the
relationship between freedom and community in the search for an ethically
responsible mode of dissent against the totalizing state. Taking as its starting
point the contrast between the “state” as castigated by Nietzsche and the “po-
lis,” Dallmayr’s essay examines the two contrasting forms which critical resis-
tance in pursuit of freedom can take: the libertarian social-Darwinian kind of
resistance in pursuit of self-centered interests and the ethically motivated con-
scientious kind that aims at the “common good.” In the first self-interest
comes to overrule any form of social solidarity, and in the second freedom and
dissent are in the service of justice and a more ethical mode of solidarity. Dall-
mayr begins the essay by examining Herbert Spencer’s formula of “man against
the state” and its dichotomizing tendency that separates individual interest
from public and social interest, and which eventuated a kind of laissez-faire
liberalism or libertarianism. To this he contrasts and affirms the more ethi-
cally responsible conception of liberty that he finds articulated in the thoughts
and actions of Thoreau, Gandhi, and Camus. Additional examples are found
in Socrates’s conduct in his confrontation with the Athenian public, and the
anti-Nazi German resistance movement, including people like Bonhoeffer. In
the face of the steady growth of the modern state realizing its totalizing ten-
dencies with ever more efficient technological means, Dallmayr’s essay pro-
vokes us into thinking and rethinking how our imaginaries shape our world
12 Editorial

and institutions and the possibility of acting in ways that can move towards
the realization of new imaginaries, worlds, that are ethically sound and just.
The place of the state, institutions, and social imaginary worlds can also be
analysed within broader civilizational frameworks. In his contribution to this
issue of Social Imaginaries, entitled ‘Elias and Eisenstadt: The Multiple Mean-
ings of Civilisation’, Johann P. Arnason constructs an encounter between two
very different approaches to civilizational analysis: those of Norbert Elias and
Shmuel N. Eisenstadt. At first glance, the dissonances between their respective
investigations into civilisations stand out: Elias emphasized the long-term
processes of psychogenetic transformations of the subject and sociogenetic
developments of state formation in Western Europe—the civilising process.
Eisenstadt, however, articulated a distinctive understanding of the civiliza-
tional dimension of society—the interrelations between cultural visions of the
world and institutional arrangements—that lead to a focus on the plurality of
civilizational forms that emerged historically. The Eisenstadtian perspective
leads to comparative approaches to the longue durée of civilizations. In addi-
tion, Elias focussed on power, whereas Eisenstadt’s turn to culture is well
known. Noting their common East Central European origins and life-world,
Arnason contextualizes Elias and Eisenstadt’s respective projects within an
overarching Durkheimian–Maussian (rather than Weberian) civilisational
framework, in the first instance. (This increasing emphasis on the Durkheim-
ian approach to civilisational analysis is in line with Arnason’s own growing
engagement with anthropological debates on stateless societies and civilisa-
tions.) In order to integrate some of their respective insights further, Arna-
son’s strategy is to demonstrate that each raises implicit questions that cen-
trally connect up with primary themes of the other. He seeks to show the la-
tent (inter)civilizational contexts of Elias’s articulation of state formation, and,
conversely the opening onto processual frameworks in Eisenstadt’s work on
the axial patterns of civilisations to more fully understand the historicizing
trends of the Axial Age. Despite the points of contact that Arnason establishes
between Elias and Eisenstadt, he does not seek to homogenize their approach-
es and remains attuned to civilizational dissonance.

The Social Imaginaries Editorial Collective would again like to acknowl-
edge the financial support provided generously for the journal by the Faculty
of Education and Arts at Federation University Australia, and Hobart and
William Smith Colleges of Geneva, New York, USA to cover production/
publication costs. We are grateful for their kind support.
Social Imaginaries 1.2 (2015) 13-31

The Phenomenological Contributions

of Ricoeur’s Philosophy of Imagination
George H. Taylor

Abstract: In his work on productive imagination, Paul Ricoeur reori-

ents the imagination away from its reproductive side – as copy of an
image, a copy of an existing reality – to its productive potential that
can break through not only the prison house of language but the prison
house of existing social and political structures. Using the lens of phe-
nomenology, this article analyses the two deepest insights of Ricoeur’s
theory of productive imagination. First, Ricoeur elevates application
of the phenomenological theory of intentionality to decipher how it
may create a space for productive imagination. The theory of inten-
tionality requires consideration of consciousness as the consciousness of
something where the ‘something’ is no longer real but the ‘absolutely
nowhere.’ Ricoeur undertakes consideration of what this consciousness
of may entail in his theory of fiction. He poses whether a theory of fic-
tion can connect the unreal with the real by reshaping it intentionally.
When the image has no original referent, then fictions may provide an
original of their own. Second, Ricoeur shows us through his theory of
iconic augmentation how the fiction can accomplish this remaking of
our world. Here Ricoeur shows how phenomenology can engage in
analysis of language as a form of productive imagination. The verbal
icon as a productive image is the creation of a language that displays
and so presents both a visual and a linguistic role. The icon augments
in the sense that it is creative and increases reality. Fictions – including
social-political utopias – may produce and display their own world,
which may in turn enlarge our world.

Key Words: Paul Ricoeur — phenomenology — productive imagination —

intentionality — iconic augmentation

One source of the social and political imaginary lies in the productive imag-
ination, that is, the human ability to move beyond and not be captured by cur-
rent norms, structures, and institutions. The work of Paul Ricoeur offers a vital
14 George H. Taylor

resource for uncovering the availability and capacity of the productive imagi-
nation, in particular in two sets of lectures on this topic that he delivered dur-
ing the 1970’s. The first, which I edited for publication, is his Lectures on
Ideology and Utopia (Ricoeur 1986), and the second, which I am currently
co-editing for publication, is his Lectures on Imagination (Ricoeur 2016*).
Ricoeur delivered the two sets of lectures during the same academic term, and
his goal was to develop a theory of productive imagination that encompassed
the social and cultural imagination (the Lectures on Ideology and Utopia) and
the epistemological and poetic aspects of imagination (the Lectures on Imagi-
nation). In this essay, I seek to disclose the significance of Ricoeur’s theory of
productive imagination through a particular vantage point, appreciating his
thesis through a lens into the lectures’ phenomenological contributions.
For many readers of Ricoeur, his work in the 1960s and 1970s reflects a
‘linguistic turn’ (Ricoeur 1995, p. 305), a turn toward hermeneutics and away
from phenomenology. In the last chapter of The Symbolism of Evil (1967) and
in Freud and Philosophy (1970), Ricoeur needed to introduce hermeneutics to
address symbolic language, and in The Conflicts of Interpretation (1974) and
subsequent essays on hermeneutics (Ricoeur 1991a) he moved to the ‘more
general problem of written language and texts’ (Ricoeur 1977a, p. 317). As his
readers know, Ricoeur extended his analysis of textuality beyond words to ac-
tion (Ricoeur 1991e). While Ricoeur typed his approach during this period as
one of ‘hermeneutic phenomenology’ (1991f, p. 38) and phenomenology re-
mained a subordinate topic at many points, hermeneutics seemed the focal
point and the value for Ricoeur of phenomenology itself seemed to be in de-
cline. Although, he said, ‘phenomenology remains the unsurpassable presup-
position of hermeneutics’, it was also the case that ‘phenomenology cannot
carry out its program of constitution without constituting itself in the interpre-
tation [the hermeneutics] of the experience of the ego’ (Ricoeur 1991f, p. 38).
In the middle of this period, in 1975, the same year that The Rule of Meta-
phor (1977b) was published in its original French version, Ricoeur delivered
during the fall two sets of course lectures at the University of Chicago: one the
Lectures on Ideology and Utopia, the second the Lectures on Imagination. The
two sets of lectures were conceived together and comprise Ricoeur’s principal
reflections on a philosophy of imagination. It is notable and, I hope, worthy
of pursuit that during years when Ricoeur otherwise seemed to have moved
away from phenomenology methodologically, these two sets of lectures are
explicitly phenomenological in orientation. Even more importantly, viewing
the lectures through their phenomenological contributions offers us some dis-
tinct insights into these lectures’ continuing value. I shall make limited refer-
ence to the Lectures on Ideology and Utopia and give more attention to the
Lectures on Imagination. I shall also incorporate some of Ricoeur’s other essays
on imagination during this period. Substantively, I largely concentrate on the
two main contributions of Ricoeur’s phenomenological analysis: on
The Phenomenological Contributions of Ricoeur’s Philosophy 15

phenomenological intentionality and on the phenomenology of iconic aug-

Before turning to the details of my argument, I need to take two addi-
tional steps to help situate the argument’s context. First, I more generally re-
strict myself to Ricoeur’s theory of productive imagination in these works. In
the imagination lectures Ricoeur spends about two-thirds of the lectures ana-
lysing and criticising the classic and modern periods of philosophy for grant-
ing almost exclusive weight to the reproductive imagination, while in the last
several lectures he advances his theory of productive imagination as fiction.
The Western model of reproductive imagination that he criticises is based on
the image.1 Philosophers noted the distinction between an original—reali-
ty—and a copy—the image or the imagination, and image as the copy was
determined to be both reproductive of and always less than reality as the orig-
inal (Ricoeur 2016*, p. 17.8).2 At its best the image was derivative from orig-
inal reality; at its worst, as a deviation from reality, the image or imagination
was marginal, an escape or flight from reality, something that produced noth-
ingness (Ricoeur 2016*, p. 16.1). By contrast, Ricoeur wants to develop a
theory of productive imagination and probes whether we can conceive of a
place that, unlike the image, is not determined by an original reference. As we
shall discern, Ricoeur argues that the ‘nowhere’ not bound by an original can
be found in fiction (Ricoeur 2016*, p. 14.19).
For my final introductory remark, let me anticipate the importance to
Ricoeur’s philosophy of productive imagination of an interconnection be-
tween vision and language or textuality. I will argue that this interconnection
offers some remarkable insights more broadly into the relationship between
phenomenology and hermeneutics and, more specifically, into Ricoeur’s the-
ory of iconic augmentation that lies at the heart of his thesis on the productive
imagination. At the present stage, I just want to illustrate the broad frame of
Ricoeur’s thinking here. It is apparent that the image stereotypically is a prod-
uct of vision. The lineage of Western thought on imagination as a reproduc-
tive facility assumed that there was a direct relation between an object viewed
in the world and our physiological impression of that object in the eye and
brain. Yet we have learned, says Ricoeur, from both the psychology of percep-
tion and ordinary language philosophy that there is no such thing as a brute
impression, an impression that is direct and unadorned by human structuring
(Ricoeur 2016*, p. 2.6). Instead, perception is always structured by physio-
logical and imaginative processes. Citing Kant, Ricoeur contends that the
‘imagination is not at all an alternative to perception [as it is in Hume] but [is]
an ingredient of perception. It’s encapsulated within the framework of percep-
tion’ (Ricoeur 2016*, p. 5.10). Elsewhere in the imagination lectures, Ricoeur
argues that ‘[w]e can no longer oppose...imagining to seeing, if seeing is itself
a way of imagining, interpreting, or thinking’ (2016*, p. 9.1). Ricoeur’s larger
point here is that imagination is not marginal but rather intrinsic to human
16 George H. Taylor

thought, a point deserving its own attention. I, though, want to emphasise a

corollary matter, and that is that perception is inherently related to interpreta-
tion and this interpretive attribute of perception is linked to its qualities of tex-
tuality. ‘[A]ll experience,’ Ricoeur writes, ‘has a ‘lingual dimension’’ (1991f, p.
41). Ricoeur wants to establish how ‘a phenomenology is implied in linguistic
analysis and how linguistic structures are always implied in experience’ (2016*,
p. 7.9). In the lectures it is essential to recognise that vision is imbued with
interpretation—with language and textuality—and the converse is also true:
language and textuality are imbued with vision. Later we shall need to deci-
pher Ricoeur’s rather cryptic and counter-intuitive comment that ‘perhaps
imagination belongs more to language than to perception’ (2016*, p. 2.11).
This interrelation between vision and language or textuality has important
consequences for phenomenology. In 1971, in an essay reflecting on his work
over the prior decade, Ricoeur notes the possibility of the ‘grafting of linguis-
tic analysis to phenomenology,’ by which ‘the latter may be cured of its illness
and find its second wind’ (1977a, p. 322). Ricoeur’s work on imagination is
one effort to undertake that task. We understand that phenomenology can
seek to describe all kinds of phenomena. Yet as Ricoeur mentions, phenome-
nology’s default orientation has been visual (perception) (1991f, p. 27). The
challenge for phenomenology is then twofold. How can phenomenology at-
tempt to create a space for productive imagination that is not bound by the
model of the visual image, the image as copy of something real? Second, how
can phenomenology engage in analysis of language as a form of productive
imagination? As I will delineate, Ricoeur’s model of phenomenological inten-
tionality as the consciousness of ‘the nowhere’ will respond to the first ques-
tion. His theory of iconic augmentation—where the ‘icon’ presents both a
visual and a linguistic role—responds to the second. As both pictorial and
linguistic, iconic augmentation may offer a way to conjoin phenomenology
and hermeneutics and to do so in the context of productive imagination.
With these introductory comments as framework, I turn to more specific
analysis of the phenomenological contributions of Ricoeur’s philosophy of
imagination. In the Lectures on Ideology and Utopia, Ricoeur’s approach takes
the form of a genetic phenomenology. Although this approach pervades the
book, he mentions the term only once, in the book’s final pages. He types a
genetic phenomenology a ‘regressive analysis of meaning’ in the sense of a
method that ‘attempts to dig under the surface of the apparent meaning to the
more fundamental meanings’ (1986, p. 311). This method has great utility in
the book, as it allows Ricoeur to uncover the layers of ideology as legitimation
and identification below the layer of ideology as distortion, which is elabo-
rated by Marx. This approach is particularly significant, because it raises the
possibility of a positive account of ideology as providing social integration.
Ricoeur also raises here the key point that there could not be distortion unless
society is constituted by an ineluctable symbolic structure. We cannot remove
The Phenomenological Contributions of Ricoeur’s Philosophy 17

ourselves from the social and cultural imaginary. A genetic phenomenology is

useful for conceptualising utopia as well. Underneath the layer of utopia as
escapism, the utopia also offers a layer that acts as an alternative to or alterna-
tive form of power (the counterpart to ideology as legitimation) and yet an-
other layer that offers a counter to and shattering of existing reality. Again this
last layer deserves particular mention, because the utopia offers the shaping of
a new reality from the vantage point of the ‘nowhere’—the literal meaning of
utopia (Ricoeur 1986, p. 16)—which is a fictional location that can shatter
existing reality by breaking through the ‘thickness’ of reality (1986, p. 309).
The utopia that shatters reality is a form of productive imagination. With
Ricoeur’s focus in both sets of lectures on the productive imagination as the
fiction of the ‘nowhere,’ it is critical to appreciate the continuity of his the-
matic here across the social and cultural, epistemological, and poetic forms of
If in the Lectures on Ideology and Utopia Ricoeur’s employment of phenom-
enology is pervasive but little mentioned, in the Lectures on Imagination
Ricoeur’s attention to phenomenology as a subject matter is in many lectures
quite direct, even if his own methodological use again remains infrequently
articulated. The imagination lectures are notable for spending some five lec-
tures out of a total of nineteen discussing the phenomenology of Husserl (two
lectures) and Sartre (three). As he anticipated in his 1971 essay, in this part of
his lectures Ricoeur interrelates phenomenology with linguistic analysis (Ryle,
H. H. Price, Wittgenstein). While in broad strokes linguistic analysis obvi-
ously focuses on language and phenomenology attends lived experience,
Ricoeur emphasises that phenomenology too attends the meaning of experi-
ence, so interpretation and language are integral to that school (2016*, p. 10.4-
5).3 These lectures are filled with the vocabulary of phenomenology, and it is
fascinating to witness Ricoeur developing and presenting his own views on
the insights of such phenomenological concepts as intentionality, noninten-
tionality, noema and noesis, epochē, the positional act, nonthetic conscious-
ness, and the eidetic reduction.4 I largely restrict myself here to Ricoeur’s
elaboration of intentionality.
The phenomenological concept of intentionality is well known and in the
Lectures provides Ricoeur a significant insight into imagination. In particular,
the concept of intentionality helps address a continuing problem in the West-
ern approach to imagination: the image seems to be an image in the mind,
analogous to physiological impressions and similarly reproductive (Ricoeur
2016*, p. 2.20). Given the significance to his argument, Ricoeur’s elaboration
of intentionality is worth quoting at some length:

First, in general terms, the concept of intentionality has a kind of triviality,

since it means that all consciousness is consciousness of something. It is always
possible to describe any experience as a correlation between the what and the
how of experience. The what is called the object. Yet importantly, we shall see
18 George H. Taylor

that an image is an object, even if it is a nonexistent object . . . . Secondly, we

may speak of an act . . . as a movement toward. The correlation between an
aiming at [the how] and the appearance of something [the what] constitutes
the fundamental correlation of intentionality. The claim of phenomenology
is that we may apply this correlation between aiming at and the appearance
of, this act/object correlation, in all dimensions of experience (Ricoeur 2016*,
p. 10.5-6).5

Ricoeur goes on to describe how the intentional correlation is manifest in a

relationship between verbs—the how, the act, the aiming at—and substan-
tives—the what, the object. We have the conjunction, for instance, between
perceiving and the perceived, between remembering and the remembered, between
forgetting and the forgotten, and so on (Ricoeur 2016*, p. 10.6-7). Importantly
for our purposes is the correlation between imagining and the imagined: ‘we say
we imagine something to be something’ (Ricoeur 2016*, p. 2.11).
For his own project, Ricoeur builds on and extends Sartre’s development
of the intentional correlation between imagining and the imagined. The
imagined is what is aimed at by imagining. The intentional object is given en
image—in image (Ricoeur 2016*, p. 12.3). Sartre’s constant example is the
imagining of an absent friend Peter, who is now in Berlin. ‘We are drawn,’
Ricoeur says, ‘by the force of [Sartre’s] example outside of the mind in order to
make the image not something that would be in our minds as a kind of small
miniature of the thing but as a relation to, as this intentional element’ (Ricoeur
2016*, p. 12.2). The difference between perception and imagination depends
on the ‘mode of the givenness of existence,’ whether in flesh and blood or in
image (2016*, p. 12.2-3). The image of Peter is not an object in the mind,
since the object Peter exists elsewhere (Ricoeur 2016*, p. 12.10-11).
For Ricoeur, then, the intentional correlation between act and object in
imagination involves the following. ‘[T]he as if of the act is also the as if of
the object, and we cannot have one without the other’ (2016*, p. 8.14). At
the same time we must acknowledge that the image is an object – something
appears – and it is difficult to know what an ‘as if ’ object means.6 Here phe-
nomenology’s epochē comes into play, because the epochē allows for a suspen-
sion or bracketing of existence. This applies to the appearance of the imag-
ined object. ‘[I]f we have a correlation between act and object in an intention-
ality, then if in imagination there is bracketing of the act, there must be some
bracketing somewhere of the object’ (Ricoeur 2016*, p. 7.15). With the con-
cept of intentionality, we have the availability of an act of imagination—that
is ‘as if,’ not real—and its object is also an ‘as if,’ something not real. We have
an intentional act ‘with nothing in front of it, but this nothing is a part of
what appears’ (Ricoeur 2016*, p. 8.6). Phenomenology allows for the idea of
‘objective inexistence’ (Ricoeur 2016*, p. 7.15), of an ‘intentional object
without existence’ (Ricoeur 2016*, p. 7.13). The image is not a thing; it is ‘no
thing’ (Ricoeur 2016*, p. 12.13, 14.9).
The Phenomenological Contributions of Ricoeur’s Philosophy 19

It is plain that in the development of his theory of intentionality, Ricoeur

is attentive to and builds upon the phenomenological tradition. His attention
to intentionality itself draws upon Husserl’s pioneering work on the topic
(Husserl 1962, § 84), and Ricoeur’s reference to the phenomenological epochē
clearly also refers back to the works of Husserl (Husserl 1962, § 46). Further,
as already noted, Ricoeur explicitly draws upon Sartre’s explication of the in-
tentional correlation. Knowledgeable readers will also be aware that Ricoeur’s
reference to ‘objective inexistence’ draws upon the work of Brentano (1995),7
a predecessor of phenomenology whose work was foundational for Husserl
(Føllesdal 1982). To comprehend the distinctiveness of Ricoeur’s own contri-
bution to the theory of intentionality, we must appreciate the distinctiveness
of his theory of the ‘nowhere’ that is the intentional object. In the Lectures
Ricoeur is critical of Sartre and Husserl, because their theories remain caught
within the reproductive imagination. As I shall note, a similar criticism would
apply to Brentano, whom Ricoeur does not address.
The limitation of Sartre’s theory rests on the model of the continued refer-
ence to the absent Peter. Ricoeur raises two basic points at this stage. First,
Sartre’s approach is a matter of reproductive rather than productive imagina-
tion because the imaginative referent derives from an existing original. The
image here is not creative but a copy (Ricoeur 2016*, p. 14.14). Second, while
the image of the absent Peter is a form of ‘nothingness,’ absence is a limited
form of that category. More broadly the category of nothingness includes the
unreal—the fictional—which as we shall see is the source for Ricoeur of the
productive imagination. As he tells us: ‘The absent is a case of reality, whereas
the fiction is not only absent but does not belong to the real’ (Ricoeur 2016*,
p. 13.14). The analogue for the absent Peter is the real Peter; there is no such
analogue for the fiction (Ricoeur 2016*, p. 13.13).
Similarly, Ricoeur spends two lectures on Husserl to develop the contrast
to his own approach to productive imagination. Husserl’s theory of the epochē
remains significant. It allows us to suspend judgment about the givenness of
the reality that surrounds us. We consider it from a distance (Ricoeur 2016*,
p. 10.3). As Ricoeur remarks in the Lectures on Ideology and Utopia, this is
similar to the utopia’s shattering of the obvious (1986, p. 300). We cannot
take current reality for granted. This ability to suspend judgment offers us the
distance and space that allows imaginative variation to occur. Yet imaginative
variation in Husserl also partakes of an eidetic reduction: the effort to create a
typology of experience, a sense of experience’s essences (Ricoeur 2016*, 11.2).
Through the imagination we hypothesise variations to an essence to test its
range and boundaries. But as the term ‘essence’ anticipates, for Husserl imag-
inative variation is a matter of reproductive imagination, not productive
imagination. Imaginative variation tests the limits of an existing essence, not
something that imagination could transform. As Ricoeur states in the imagi-
nation lectures:
20 George H. Taylor

For Husserl the imaginative variation was a procedure to test the sameness; it
gives support to the given in a kind of Platonic world. As soon as we presume
this kind of sameness, this fixity of the identity of concepts, then we don’t re-
ally get out from the narrow framework of instantiation (2016*, p. 15.11-12).

Ricoeur goes on to talk about Husserl’s ‘incapacity to grasp productive imagi-

nation’ (2016*, 15.12). Even when Husserl turns to fiction, Ricoeur notes
that he employs it for eidetic purposes, as a way to deepen insight into given
essences (Ricoeur 2016*, p. 11.3, quoting Husserl 1962, § 70). Fiction too
for Husserl remains a matter of reproductive, not productive, imagination.8 A
similar critique could be levied against Brentano, whose examples are forms of
reproductive imagination as well.9
By contrast, Ricoeur strikingly elevates the application of phenomenologi-
cal intentionality to imagination by requiring consideration of consciousness
as the consciousness of something where the ‘something’ is no longer real, not
even the absent that is elsewhere, but the ‘absolutely nowhere’ (Ricoeur 2016*,
p. 14.15). Ricoeur requires us to think through what it means to have con-
sciousness of the ‘absolutely nowhere.’ This to me is a remarkable contribution
to the theory of intentionality. Consideration of what this consciousness of may
entail is the task of a theory of productive imagination and one that Ricoeur
undertakes in his theory of fiction. Here his lectures on imagination rejoin
with his lectures on ideology and utopia, because, we recall, the utopia is also
the ‘nowhere.’ Ricoeur poses whether a theory of fiction can connect the
unreal with the real by reshaping it intentionally (2016*, p. 14.13). When the
image has no original referent, then fictions may provide an original of their
own (Ricoeur 2016*, 14.17). Fictions may produce their own world, which
may in turn enlarge our world (2016*, p. 14.14). If Ricoeur’s own approach
interconnects a theory of fiction with the utopia as a social and political phe-
nomenon, it remains a separate task to interrelate his theory of fiction and the
productive imagination to other contemporary work on the social and politi-
cal imaginary, as in Castoriadis (1987), Nancy Fraser (2009), Laclau and
Mouffe (1985), and Charles Taylor (2004, 2007).10
As I pursue at greater length elsewhere (Taylor 2011), Ricoeur sometimes
obscures the significance of his thesis advancing the fictional ‘nowhere’ that is
the object of the intentional correlation. While Ricoeur appropriates Husserl’s
notion of imaginative variation to take it in a more productive direction, he
also does not rigorously distinguish between two aspects internal to his char-
acterisation of imaginative variation. On the one hand, as already mentioned,
imaginative variation opens new possibilities as challenges to the status quo,
but imaginative variation in this sense remains hypothetical, merely possible.
Imaginative variation here operates in the mode of ‘as if.’ Yet Ricoeur also
advances a second side to imaginative variation. The fiction in this context
reshapes reality. ‘Because fictions don’t reproduce a previous reality, they may
produce a new reality. They are not bound by an original that precedes them’
The Phenomenological Contributions of Ricoeur’s Philosophy 21

(Ricoeur 2016*, p. 14.16). The fiction has the capacity to shatter reality, ‘to
break through the thickness of reality,’ to ‘shape a new reality’ (Ricoeur 1986,
p. 309). Ricoeur is explicit that the fictions that remake reality include the
‘practical fictions’ that are utopias (1991b, p. 117).11 Because fiction has bro-
ken from a reference to present, existing reality, it can then provide ‘a new
dimension to reality. The paradox is that a theory of imagination has to be
connected with an ontology’ (Ricoeur 2016*, p. 19.13). In this function of
fiction, we no longer see as if, we see as. We see reality in a new way; reality
manifests itself to us differently (Ricoeur 2016*, p. 19.13). The fictional ‘no-
where’ that is the object of intentionality has ontological import. Although I
do not develop the point, the language of ontology and manifestation and the
movement beyond the ‘as if ” also seem to mark a horizon that moves beyond
the boundaries of phenomenology. Ricoeur’s conception of intentionality to
encompass the ‘absolutely nowhere’ is a signal achievement.12
Recognition of the consciousness of nothingness, of the ‘absolutely nowhere,’
is a preliminary stage, ‘the negative condition for remaking reality’ (Ricoeur
2016*, p. 14.13). Ricoeur still must show us how the fiction can accomplish
the remaking of our world, and that turns us to his theory of iconic augmenta-
tion, the second of the two major phenomenological themes in his work on
imagination that I want to develop.
Ricoeur’s philosophy of fiction—his philosophy of productive imagina-
tion—comprises the third and final part of the Lectures on Imagination and
takes up some five lectures. The theory of iconic augmentation lies at the
heart of Ricoeur’s approach. Let me offer two preliminary remarks here. First,
while in his discussion of Husserl and Sartre Ricoeur is clearly engaged in
phenomenological analysis, he does not frame these final lectures as phenom-
enological. Nevertheless, there are several references to the inquiry as a phe-
nomenological one. In these pages he refers variously to a ‘phenomenology of
fiction’ (Ricoeur 2016*, p. 14.3; cf 1991b, p. 120), a ‘phenomenology of the
work in fiction’ (Ricoeur 2016*, p. 15.8), a ‘phenomenology of discovery’
(Ricoeur 2016*, p. 15.10), a ‘phenomenology of creative imagination’
(Ricoeur 2016*, p. 17.8, 17.9), and a ‘phenomenology of iconic augmenta-
tion’ (Ricoeur 2016*, p. 17.10). Second, it is a specific innovation of these
lectures that they develop a theory of iconic augmentation as productive
To delineate the meaning of iconic augmentation I examine first the mean-
ing of the ‘iconic’ and then turn to the meaning of ‘augmentation.’ The
iconic addresses the productivity of imagination at the level of language—at
the level of the text’s sense—while iconic augmentation will opens imagination
productivity at the level of reference, of reality (Ricoeur 2016*, p. 16.4).
Ricoeur’s exposition of the iconic will return us to the theme of the interrela-
tion between the visual and the linguistic. In the Lectures’ discussion of the
iconic, Ricoeur returns to his development of the topic in The Rule of Metaphor,
22 George H. Taylor

a text originally published in French in 1975, and I shall briefly incorporate

that development here as well. In that book, Ricoeur’s consideration of the
icon is focused largely within a few pages (1977b, pp. 188-91, 207-15). There
he builds on prior work on the iconic nature of metaphor by W. K. Wimsatt
(1954), Paul Henle (1958), and Marcus Hester (1967). The subject of iconic
augmentation is not addressed in that volume.
Readers of Ricoeur are familiar with his differentiation between the world
lying behind the text—the intentions of the author—and the world in front
of the text—the proposed world the text presents (Ricoeur 1991a, p. 86). In
a similar fashion, we can distinguish between the image as reproductive—ly-
ing behind the text—and productive, a creation of the text. The icon helps to
exemplify the productivity of metaphoric text, as one element logically dis-
tinct from the other at the same time signifies this other (Ricoeur 1977b, p.
189). As in the familiar example of onomatopoeic words, the linguistic signi-
fier is not transparent to the conceptual signified; the words present a thick-
ness that signify (Henle 1958, p. 177; Hester 1967, p. 79). Similarly, in
metaphor, terms are not transparent to one another but productively create
meaning in the newly found resemblance between them (Ricoeur 1977b, p.
196). Ricoeur’s larger thesis emphasises the continuing tension between iden-
tity and difference that is located in metaphor, but for our purposes the focus
is somewhat different. Drawing on Henle, Ricoeur specifies that metaphor
acts as does a verbal icon: by depiction (1977b, p. 189). In the verbal icon as
in the iconic element of metaphor, both operate by language, not by physical
presentation. The icon is semantic, an element of linguistic predication, not a
reproductive image of external reality. The iconic character of metaphor de-
picts the image that is the creation of language. In the Lectures Ricoeur explic-
itly brings in his work on metaphor and the act of predication. Productive
images are themselves predications, displacements, creations in the work
(Ricoeur 2016*, p. 15.12). Productive images are iconic:

[T]he iconic element of the metaphor . . . is not at all a mental picture of

something but the display of the meaning by way of a depiction. . . . The dif-
ference between the icon and the picture of an absent thing is that the icon
presents similarities that are as yet unsaid and unheard. . . Each time the new
connection at which we are aiming our thought grasps what the icon describes
or depicts. . . We iconize, if we may say, the new relations between things that
we are discovering (Ricoeur 2016*, p. 16.14-15).

We shall return to the creative aspect of the icon. Note at present what the
character of the icon adds to our understanding of the creative image. We
have relocated the creative image from the framework of perception to that of
language (Ricoeur 1991b, p. 134). The icon is the product of language, and
the work of language becomes pictorial (Ricoeur 2016*, p. 16.4). In the writ-
ten, creative work, the icon displays. It was a critical task of The Rule of Metaphor
The Phenomenological Contributions of Ricoeur’s Philosophy 23

to establish that we do not have to choose between a linguistic, predicative

theory and an iconic theory (Ricoeur 1977b, p. 190). The image as a replica
or copy of some perception could not solve the conundrum of productive
imagination. That enigma is resolved once we comprehend that the iconic
image is created through language (Ricoeur 1979, p. 148).
Ricoeur here relates the iconic operation to the functioning of the Kantian
schema. The schema is a procedure for providing the concept an image, a link
between logical and sensible components. ‘Icon is to language what schema is
to concept’ (Ricoeur 1991b, p. 126). Just as the schema forms the matrix of
the category, so the icon is the matrix of a new semantic pertinence through
the image it depicts (Ricoeur 1977b, p. 199; Ricoeur 1991b, p. 127). The
icon is ‘the schematisation of metaphoric attribution’ (Ricoeur 1991b, p.
126). In my view, it is one of the prominent subtexts of the argument in The
Rule of Metaphor and in the Lectures on Imagination—which devotes two
chapters to Kant—that Ricoeur deepens and enriches in these works the op-
eration of the Kantian schema.
If the first point about the icon is that it establishes the image as a creative
product of language, Ricoeur’s second point is that we must appreciate that
the icon in fact depicts—presents—and so adds a visual character (Ricoeur
1977b, p. 200; 1979, p. 148). We must recognise both the verbal and the vi-
sual sides of the icon. While Ricoeur discards for productive imagination the
role of the image as reproductive, he rejoins the image to his semantic devel-
opment of metaphor and imagination as the sense-filled aspect of the icon.
The image becomes ‘the final moment of a semantic theory that objected to it
as a starting point’ (Ricoeur 1977b, p. 207). Here Ricoeur builds on the work
of Marcus Hester, who extends Wittgenstein’s notion of seeing as to poetic
language. (In the Lectures, Ricoeur himself spends one lecture examining
Wittgenstein’s discussion of seeing as.13) We see something because the icon is
not a sign that is transparent and read through to reach a concept. Instead, the
icon has a thickness that presents meaning; we look at the icon, not through
it (Ricoeur 1977b, p. 209, 225 referencing Wimsatt 1958). By means of the
icon we see not directly but instead see as. As Wittgenstein emphasises, seeing
as is half thought and half visual experience (Ricoeur 2016*, 9.17 referring to
Wittgenstein 1958, p. 197), and it is this mixture that iconicity presents
(Ricoeur 1977b, p. 212). In the icon—a matter of language—we see as. And
in turn the way we see as—something visual—informs the way we think as—
something interpretive (Ricoeur 2016*, p. 16.15-16). Seeing as holds the
sense and the image together (Ricoeur 1977b, p. 213). Ricoeur returns to the
vocabulary of the Kantian schematism and finds that seeing as ‘quite precisely
plays the role of the schema that unites the empty concept and the blind im-
pression; thanks to its character as half thought and half experience, it joins
the light of sense with the fullness of the image’ (Ricoeur 1977b, p. 213). The
icon illuminates productive imagination because it functions, then, not as a
24 George H. Taylor

mental picture—a reproductive image—but by displaying relations in ‘a de-

picting mode’ (Ricoeur 1979, p. 148).14
The link between the verbal and the visual presents ‘the great difficulty’ for
a theory of productive imagination. This relationship had no solution as long
as the image was considered a mental picture, the replica of something absent
(Ricoeur 2016*, p. 16.13-14). It is a relationship resolved by the icon and its
function in metaphor and in productive imagination.
In Ricoeur’s discussion of the interrelation between the verbal and visual in
The Rule of Metaphor, he concludes that the visual element of the icon remains
a product of language: the imagery is ‘involved in language itself ’ (Ricoeur
1977b, p. 211). The icon remains a semantic moment, a moment of sense in-
ternal to language that does not transcend to more ontological reference. In the
metaphor book, Ricoeur concludes his chapter on the work of resemblance
internal to language with his reflections on the seeing as of the icon. He sets
aside the icon in his succeeding chapter, on metaphor and reference. It is one
of the distinctive contributions of the Lectures on Imagination that Ricoeur
resurrects there attention to the icon, this time at the level of reference, in his
discussion of ‘iconic augmentation.’
Ricoeur borrows and builds on the term ‘iconic augmentation’ from its
development in François Dagognet’s Écriture et iconographie (Dagognet
1973). To my knowledge, the Lectures offer Ricoeur’s first recourse to Dagog-
net.15 Dagognet is not mentioned in The Rule of Metaphor, which as I have
noted was originally published in French in 1975, the same year as the Lec-
tures on Imagination. Indeed, internal to the Lectures themselves it appears
that Ricoeur comes across Dagognet while the lectures are unfolding. As late
as Lecture 10, Ricoeur indicates that he will be referencing Merleau-Ponty’s
essays on painting to relate painting to productive imagination—the role ul-
timately played by Dagognet—and it is only in Lecture 14 that Ricoeur first
mentions Dagognet. Aside from incidental references to Merleau-Ponty in
the last several lectures, he is not discussed in those pages. We may regret the
loss of Ricoeur’s engagement with Merleau-Ponty—an argument whose pos-
sible directions would be a good topic for potential secondary scholarship—
but we benefit from the enriching of Ricoeur’s argument that Dagognet’s
work affords.16
The icon augments in the sense that it is creative and increases reality
(Ricoeur 2016*, p. 17.8). Ricoeur argues that iconic augmentation presents
three elements. First, creativity is externalised in a material medium. This
itself is an alternative to the mental image (2016*, p. 17.8). Creativity be-
comes a fictional, productive work (2016*, 17.9-10). Second, the increase in
reality is linked to an artistic alphabet—whatever the medium—that abbrevi-
ates and condenses traits of reality. This process of abbreviation creates the
condition for increasing generative power (2016*, 17.10-11). Ricoeur cites
Dagognet’s example of Dutch painting in the fifteenth century, where the
The Phenomenological Contributions of Ricoeur’s Philosophy 25

invention of oil painting allowed for raising reality to a new visibility (Ricoeur
2016*, p. 17.12-13). Against the entropic trend that leads to an annihilation
of differences, iconic augmentation is a form of ‘negative entropy’ that fights
against the elimination of differentiations and tensions in perception (Ricoeur
2016*, p. 17.8). Third, the more iconic augmentation deviates from ordinary
vision and ordinary language, ‘the closer it comes to the core of reality that is
no longer the world of manipulable objects’ and the more we experience the
relation to reality before its objectification (Ricoeur 2016*, p. 17.14-15;
1991d, p. 175-76; 1991b, p. 122, 129).
For Ricoeur the work of productive imagination through iconic augmen-
tation returns us to this work’s ontological consequence, which is again a phe-
nomenology of the creative imagination’s horizon. Through this analysis of
the strategies of language that display images, we open new ways of looking at
reality (Ricoeur 2016*, p. 16.4). ‘[I]f we start with an image without an orig-
inal, then we may discover a kind of second ontology that is not the ontology
of the original but the ontology displayed by the image itself, because it has no
original’ (Ricoeur 2016*, p. 16.1). Because the fiction has freed itself from the
governance of the original, it is open to depicting a new reality. Because the
object of fiction is inexistent, the fiction provides its own referent rather than
one borrowed from the world of experience (Ricoeur 2016*, p. 18.1). Ricoeur
acknowledges in the Lectures and elsewhere that of course Gadamer too is well
known for a theory of the image (Bild) where the image presents, in Gadam-
er’s words, ‘an increase in being’ (Gadamer 1989, p. 140, cited in Ricoeur
2016*, p. 14.14-15; Ricoeur 1984, p. 81).17 Although I cannot argue the
point here, Ricoeur’s notion of the increase in being seems much more a mat-
ter of productive imagination than Gadamer’s. As I have discussed, it is also
the case that Ricoeur demonstrates with much greater precision and detail
than Gadamer how the increase in being actually occurs.
To conclude, I hope to have shown the significance of viewing Ricoeur’s
contributions in his philosophy of imagination through the lens of phenom-
enology. Ricoeur’s development of the concept of intentionality as the ‘con-
sciousness of ’ the absolutely nowhere is a striking advance as is his analysis of
productive imagination as iconic augmentation. Throughout I have tried to
stress the inextricable interrelation in Ricoeur between seeing and saying, be-
tween vision and language. Substantively, this interrelation helps us reorient
the imagination away from its reproductive side—as copy of an image, a copy
of an existing reality—to its productive potential that can break through not
only the prison house of language (Jameson 1972) but the prison house of
existing social and political structures. Just as Ricoeur’s work on the text has
been extended to the text of action (Ricoeur 1991e; Michel 2006, p. 232-45),
it may be that his work on iconic augmentation may join and extend recent
work in the social sciences, most prominently thus far in sociology, giving new
attention to the iconic (eg Alexander, Barmański, and Giesen (eds.) 2012).
26 George H. Taylor

Methodologically, as I have also argued, the interrelation between vision and

language has important implications for phenomenology as well as for our
understanding of the interrelation between phenomenology and hermeneu-
tics. Let me raise one last point about this interrelation. If it is true that
phenomenology helps us analyse the operation of iconic augmentation, that
operation is essential to hermeneutics as well. In Memory, History, Forgetting,
Ricoeur remarks, ‘[t]he whole of textual hermeneutics is . . . placed under the
theme of the increase in being applied to the work of art’ (2004, p. 566).
Although it is unclear why Ricoeur did not himself publish his philosophy
of imagination in the kind of comprehensive fashion that his lectures under-
take, it is very apparent that his thinking on productive imagination laid the
ground for his next published work, the three volumes of Time and Narrative
(Ricoeur 1984, 1985, 1988). I close with three brief points about the connec-
tions between these two bodies of work.18 First, Ricoeur is explicit that his
theory of narrative is built on the notion of iconic augmentation. ‘[L]iterary
works depict reality by augmenting it with meanings that themselves depend
upon the virtues of abbreviation, saturation, and culmination, so strikingly
illustrated by emplotment’ (Ricoeur 1984, p. 80). Second, Time and Narra-
tive too is predicated upon a connection between language and experience
that goes all the way down. ‘The iconic augmentation in question here de-
pends upon the prior augmentation of readability that action owes to the in-
terpretants already at work there. Human action can be oversignified, because
it is already presignified by all the modes of its symbolic articulation (Ricoeur
1984, p. 81). Third, it seems no mistake that in the volumes of Time and Nar-
rative the signification of human action is expressed as a matter of ‘figura-
tion’—prefiguration, configuration, refiguration (Ricoeur 1984, p. 54-87)—
as figuration speaks both to seeing and saying, to depicting and interpreting.
To my knowledge, the implications of Ricoeur’s employment of ‘figuration’ in
Time and Narrative have been little discussed. It is a great merit of Richard
Kearney’s Poétique du Possible: Phénoménologie Herméneutique de la Figuration
(Kearney 1984, p. 47-48),19 which was published independently of Time and
Narrative around the same time as the first volume, that it provides us sub-
stantial insight into the polyvalent meaning and significance of figuration.

Alexander, J, Barmański, D and Giesen, B (eds) 2012, Iconic Power: Materiality and
Meaning in Social Life, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, NY.
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McAlister L (eds) Rancurello A, Terrell D and McAlister L (trans), Routledge,
New York.
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tion, Beauchesne, Paris.
Klein, T 1976, ‘Preface,’ in Ricoeur P Interpretation Theory, Texas Christian Univer-
sity Press, Fort Worth, TX.
Laclau, E and Mouffe, C 2001, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, 2nd edn, Verso, New
York, NY.
Michel, J 2006, Paul Ricoeur: Une Philosophie de l’Agir Humain, Cerf, Paris.
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Boston, MA.
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sity of Toronto Press.
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in On Metaphor, Sacks S (ed), University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.
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(trans), University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.
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28 George H. Taylor

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(trans), University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.
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national Ricoeur conference, ‘New Perspectives on Hermeneutics in the Social
Sciences and Practical Philosophy,’ held at the Higher School of Economics, Na-
tional Research University, Moscow, September 16, 2011.
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millan, New York.

Author Biography
George Taylor is a professor of law in the United States at the University of Pitts-
burgh. He specialises in legal hermeneutics and hermeneutics more generally. He
studied as a graduate student under Paul Ricoeur, and he is the editor of Ricoeur’s
Lectures on Ideology and Utopia and co-editor of Ricoeur’s Lectures on Imagination
(2016*). He has written on Ricoeur extensively. He was the founding President of
The Phenomenological Contributions of Ricoeur’s Philosophy 29
the Society for Ricoeur Studies and a co-founder of the online, bilingual journal,
Études Ricoeuriennes/Ricoeur Studies.
Address: University of Pittsburgh School of Law, 3900 Forbes Avenue Pittsburgh,
PA, 15260 USA. Email:

1 Richard Kearney (1984, p. 48) has noted the priority that the Western philo-
sophical tradition has granted vision in relation to the other senses.
2 Ricoeur 2016* is cited by lecture number and then manuscript page within the
lecture. Editor’s note: The asterisk in this reference indicates that this publication
is forthcoming.
3 The conditions of lived experience, says Ricoeur (2016, p. 10.1-2), ‘have, by ne-
cessity, linguistic implications and presuppositions that are akin to those of lin-
guistic analysis.’
4 As I shall pursue in the text, intentionality is a basic phenomenological concept
that consciousness is always consciousness of something (Ricoeur 2016, p. 10.5-6).
The nonintentional element of perception stems from our impression of, say, red
in a red object. This impression is passive, simply undergone. For Husserl it is not
an object (the intention of our consciousness) but something through which we
perceive perceive and so nonintentional. Ricoeur expresses some lack of ease with
this concept (11:9-10). Noema and noesis relate to the concept of intentionality;
they convey the ‘correlation between intentions and their objects’ (10.7-8). They
denote, respectively, the object as seen, as meaningful, and the seeing of the object
(7.8-9). The epochē is the famous phenomenological reduction or suspension of
judgment about the veracity of objects; it is ‘directed against the pseudo-evidence
of the given’ (10.3). The positional act involves the ‘way in which we posit the
thing,’ the object; by our belief, for instance, we may posit the object as existing
(12.17). By contrast, ‘we posit the image as nonexisting. . . we believe in the im-
age as nonexisting’ (13.2). The nonthetic consciousness is ‘an aspect of conscious-
ness that does not posit anything but which is consciousness of another aspect of
consciousness positing something.’ It’s not a consciousness of something, which
would be an intentional act, but ‘a consciousness that I am now having an image’
(13.2). In the eidetic reduction, we try to grasp the essential meaning of an experi-
ence—its types—rather than stay at the level of experience itself (11.2).
5 While Ricoeur here describes the intentional object as ‘nonexistent,’ elsewhere he
describes it more precisely as ‘inexistent’ (Ricoeur 2016, p. 7.13). The ‘inexistent’
suspends the question of existence, a point consistent with phenomenology’s
bracketing of the question of existence to focus on appearance.
6 While Sartre emphasises the relational quality of imagination in intention,
Ricoeur (2016, p. 12.13) notes that Sartre does not deny that the imagined also
7 Brentano (1995, p. 88) writes:
Every mental phenomenon is characterised by what the Scholastics of the Middle Ages
called the intentional (or mental) inexistence of an object, and what we might call, though
30 George H. Taylor

not wholly unambiguously, reference to a content, direction toward an object (which is not
to be understood here as meaning a thing), or immanent objectivity. Every mental phe-
nomenon includes something as object within itself, although they do not all do so in the
same way. In presentation something is presented, in judgement something is affirmed or
denied, in love loved, in hate hated, in desire desired and so on. (emphasis added)
8 Arguing similarly is Saraiva (1970). She maintains that Husserl poorly elaborates
the case of fictions, of the properly creative imagination. He treats imagination
finally as a passive synthesis (Saraiva 1970, p. 165).
9 In an appendix section ‘On Genuine Fictitious Objects,’ Brentano (1995, p. 292)
offers as an example the centaur, which is a figure of reproductive imagination that
combines the characteristics of two existing figures, the human and the horse.
10 Taylor (2007) incorporates much of Taylor (2004).
11 Ricoeur (1986, p. 289) explicitly challenges Marx on this point: ‘The utopia’s
intention is surely to change things, and therefore we cannot say with Marx’s elev-
enth thesis on Feuerbach that it is a way only of interpreting the world and not
changing it. On the contrary, the thrust of utopia is to change reality.’
12 As we turn from the theory of intentionality, it is appropriate to recognise that
Ricoeur does not uniformly endorse Husserl’s conception of the topic. Husserl
presents intentionality as the product of a subject-object relation that searches for
something that unifies them, and this leads to an originating subjectivity and
Husserlian idealism. Hermeneutics objects to this form of phenomenology, be-
cause hermeneutics claims that an underlying relation of belonging encompasses
both the subject and the object (Ricoeur 1991f, p. 29-30).
13 Ricoeur (2016, p. 16.16) holds that Wittgenstein remains at the level of reproduc-
tive imagination. In Wittgenstein’s examples such as the duck/rabbit, ‘there is
nothing productive.’
14 See also Ricoeur (2016, p. 16.13): ‘an element of depiction is implied in predica-
tive assimilation’; Ricoeur (1991b, at 127): ‘[T]o form an image is not to have an
image, in the sense of having a mental representation; instead, it is to read, through
the icon of a relation, the relation itself. Image is... evoked and displayed by the
15 In his published work, Ricoeur refers to Dagognet and iconic augmentation in the
following, with original years of publication in brackets: Ricoeur (1976, p. 40-
43); Ricoeur (1991b [1979], p. 129-33); Ricoeur (1991h [1977], p. 334-36;
Ricoeur (1991d [1980], p. 150; Ricoeur, 1984 [1983], p. 80-82).
As I go on to mention in the text, Ricoeur does not discuss Dagognet in The Rule
of Metaphor (1977b), which was originally published in French in 1975. The
absence of discussion of Dagognet there leads me to suspect that although
Ricoeur’s book, Interpretation Theory (1976), began as a set of lectures originally
delivered in 1973, the few pages there on Dagognet and iconic augmentation were
added later upon the expansion of the text for publication in 1976. See Klein
(1976, p. vii), commenting on the 1973 original date of delivery and on the “ex-
panded text” for publication. Reference in the Paris Fonds Ricoeur to any avail-
able manuscript of the original 1973 lectures would help resolve this small biblio-
graphic issue.
The Phenomenological Contributions of Ricoeur’s Philosophy 31
The article on “Writing as a Problem” (Ricoeur 1991h [1977]) basically duplicates
chapter two in Interpretation Theory, where Ricoeur mentions Dagognet. That
article too began as a lecture, of an unknown year.
16 The journal, Chiasmi International: Trilingual Studies Concerning the Thought of
Merleau-Ponty will publish a special issue on Ricoeur and Merleau-Ponty in the
near future (Volume 17).
17 In the cited paragraph in the Lectures on Imagination (Ricoeur 2016, p. 14.14-15)
where Ricoeur mentions Gadamer, he also refers to Dagognet. The paragraph is
of additional interest as it provides a glimpse into what Ricoeur’s argument might
have been had he developed, as originally contemplated, an analysis of Merleau-
Ponty’s theory of painting instead of Dagognet’s. In anticipation of what he later
planned with Merleau-Ponty, Ricoeur mentions Merleau-Ponty’s response to the
paintings of Cezanne. In the present paragraph Ricoeur observes: “When I have
seen, for example, a painting by Cezanne, I’m related to reality as a landscape.
Now, for the first time, I see the country. There is a reconstitution of aspects of
reality that are overshadowed by ordinary dealing with manipulable objects.”
18 Elsewhere (Taylor 2011) I respond to Ricoeur’s change in vocabulary in Time and
Narrative, where he comes to reject the terminology of a productive “reference.” I
argue that Ricoeur’s stance is diminished by this change.
19 Kearney (1984, p. 47-48): ‘[L]e sens de faire ou de former, contenu dans le terme
figurer, nous permet de dépasser le privilège accordé au sens visual par le terme
imagination/phantasia . . . afin de reconnaître que tous les sens se déploient en tant
que modalities intentionnelles-créatrices-extatiques.’
Social Imaginaries 1.2 (2015) 32-52

Between Receptivity and Productivity:

Paul Ricoeur on Cultural Imagination
Timo Helenius

Abstract: This essay analyses Ricoeur’s notion of human being that is

facilitated by cultural imagination (l’imagination culturelle). Follow-
ing Ricoeur’s insight in his 1976 essay Ideology and Utopia as Cultural
Imagination, this paper proposes that his more extensively examined
notion of the mytho-poetic imagination, that extends to the social and
practical imagination, is necessarily concretised as culture, or as hu-
man action that both receives and produces the cultural reality that
is the context of a subject’s action, in order to gain ‘a hermeneutics
of the being-able-to-be (pouvoir-être)’. I maintain that Ricoeur’s phe-
nomenological hermeneutics of ‘being able’ is ultimately based on the
cultural imagination initiating tradition-conscious change in the social
reality that then facilitates the post-critical appropriation of one’s self
as capable. In short, I claim that l’imagination culturelle is the basis for
a sociocultural poetics of human action and, therefore, a condition for
the birth of a situated subject in the positive fullness of belonging.

Key Words: Ricoeur — productive imagination — cultural imagination —

ideology — utopia — humanity

Ricoeur as a Philosopher of Imagination

The condition of traditionality Ricoeur discusses in Time and Narrative 3

points out the dialectics of reception and invention, tradition and freedom,
and that of cultural situation and productive imagination (Ricoeur 1985, pp.
318-332 [219-229])1. As Ricoeur already explains in his essay Ethics and Cul-
ture: Habermas and Gadamer in Dialogue, ‘none of us finds himself placed in
the radical position of creating the ethical world ex nihilo’ (1973, p. 164). One
Between Receptivity and Productivity 33

aspect of our human condition is that ‘we are born into a world already qual-
ified in an ethical manner by the decisions of our predecessors, by the living
culture which Hegel called the [objectifiable] ethical life (Sittlichkeit), and by
the reflection of the wise and the experienced’ (Ricoeur 1973, p. 164).
The other side of the story, however, is equally true: ‘we never receive val-
ues as we find things or as we find ourselves existing in a world of phenomena’
(Ricoeur 1973, p. 165). A matrix of traditions is an unavoidable context in
which a person lives—hence the condition of traditionality—but he or she
has to reaffirm these traditions with his or her own choices and acts in order
for them to remain alive. Put differently, Ricoeur states that creativity is only
possible by the dialectic of affirmation and contestation that pertains to the
living and yet received tradition in which the ‘I’ lives (Ricoeur 1973, p. 165).
The human subject, he maintains, dwells between cultural receptivity and
My thesis in this essay is that the cultural imagination (l’imagination cul-
turelle) is the basis for such poetics of human action and, therefore, a condi-
tion for the birth of a situated subject in the fullness of ‘Da’ or hereness. Fol-
lowing Ricoeur’s insight in his 1976 essay Ideology and Utopia as Cultural
Imagination, I argue that Ricoeur’s phenomenological hermeneutics ‘of being
able’ is ultimately based on the cultural imagination initiating tradition-con-
scious change in the social reality that then facilitates the post-critical appro-
priation of one’s self as capable (of being ethico-political that we, according to
Ricoeur, must be) (Ricoeur 1976a, pp. 17, 24-25; 1986a, p. 369 [300]).
The thesis that I pursue is not a novelty. It is instead a rather modest cor-
rective to a number of scholarly analyses and interpretations which all main-
tain that the theme of imaginary and the imagination has a central role in Paul
Ricoeur’s thought. Even though I personally portray Ricoeur’s work as a phil-
osophical anthropology that stresses the necessity of a cultural hermeneutic,
many scholars—such as Richard Kearney, Jean-Luc Amalric, Johann Michel,
and George H. Taylor—place their emphasis respectively on the side of po-
etical, poetico-practical, social, and political imagination as the ground for the
possibility of a human subject. I am by no means contesting the value of these
interpretations or denying that the question of the imagination, in various
forms, continued to intrigue Ricoeur throughout his long career. For me,
however, the question of the imagination in the context of Ricoeur’s work ties
in directly with his philosophy of a mediated subject that is explained in the
field of his cultural hermeneutics.
To introduce the theme further, and to gain a sense of the scholarly
landscape that my proposal re-evaluates, I will start this essay by outlining
some key interpretations of Ricoeur’s philosophy of the imagination. All these
accounts reveal how integral and richly developed the notion of imagination
is in Ricoeur’s work. Even though in reality Ricoeur’s handling of each theme
that he sought to explore is much more complex and variegated than can be
34 Timo Helenius

summed up in one sentence, the following will—roughly so—follow the

general attunement of his works by first discussing the symbolic-linguistic or
poetical dimension of imagination, and then moving on to the poetico-
practical, social, and political ones. To repeat my basic thesis before opening
this introductory exploration, I maintain that all these aspects of Ricoeur’s
philosophy of the imagination call for yet another level of analysis under the
scope of cultural imagination.

The Symbolic-Linguistic Imagination

Richard Kearney, Ricoeur’s friend and his former doctoral student (Tre-
anor 2006, pp. 222-5), was among the first to pay extensive attention to the
theme of imagination in Ricoeur. Kearney, starting with his 1984 work Poé-
tique du Possible, has explored the poetical dimension of the imagination in
particular. Formulating his thesis in the intersection of the phenomenology
and the hermeneutics of figuration, Kearney maintains that a human being,
both as a creative agent (‘figurant’) and as a receptive creature (‘figurée’), par-
ticipates in a symbolic play of the possible that also reveals our being-in-the-
world through this process of figuration or poiêsis (Kearney 1984, pp. 38-9,
46-50, 260-2, 266-7). It is from this angle that he later in the Poetics of Imag-
ining (1998) analyses Ricoeur’s ‘hermeneutic imagination’ through the phases
of symbolic, oneiric, and poetical imagination that all stress ‘semantic innova-
tion (Kearney 1998, pp. 142, 150-165).
Instead of understanding the imagination as ‘a modified way of seeing the
world’, Kearney argues that Ricoeur emphasises the symbolic-linguistic and
hermeneutic approach to it—thereby reorienting the discussion of the imagi-
nation—as ‘an indispensable agent in the creation of meaning’ in general (Ke-
arney 1998, pp. 142-3). In other words, Ricoeur defines the imagination as a
linguistic or semantic rather than as a purely visual device. According to Ke-
arney, Ricoeur’s hermeneutic account casts light on a dimension that had re-
mained in the shadows by acknowledging the poetical aspect or ‘the symbol-
izing power of imagination’, through which novel ways—and the hermeneu-
tic way—of being in the world are disclosed for a human subject (Kearney
1998, pp. 147-9). Following Kearney’s summary, the poetical is for this reason
‘the epitome of the symbolic imagination’ as it discloses ‘the symbolic func-
tion of the image per se’ (Kearney 1998, p. 152). The poetical imagination is
always at play in human expressivity; the imagination creates and recreates
meaning through linguistic mechanisms at the semiotic, semantic, and at the
narrative level (Kearney 1998, pp.160-5).
Ricoeur’s symbolic-linguistic account of imagination may initially seem a
purely intellectual pursuit. Kearney points out, however, that the opposition
between the theoretical and the practical is dissolved, or rendered not
meaningful, when Ricoeur’s approach is followed to its proper end, that is, to
Between Receptivity and Productivity 35

its application. The hermeneutic subject is an active subject whose actions

vary—under the creativity of imagination—from intelligent to practical ones
that all are signs of his or her capabilities (Kearney 1998, p. 149). In turn, the
aspect of practical action ties Ricoeur’s account of imagination in with the
social world that is the platform for that action. In the end, Kearney concludes,
the notion of social and practical imagination takes over and capitalises on the
poetical one that nevertheless remains at the core of our reconfigurative
processes by facilitating them (Kearney 1998, pp. 150, 165-9). This expansion
to the practical field of action leads us to consider Ricoeur’s philosophy of
poetico-practical imagination.

The Poetico-Practical Imagination

Whereas Richard Kearney’s analysis concludes with the role of practical
imagination while still retaining its emphasis on the poetical one, Jean-Luc
Amalric (2011, pp. 18-20, 27-8) stresses the presence of the practical in his
discussions of the Ricoeurian ‘poetico-pragmatic constitution of the self ’.
Amalric maintains, in accordance with Kearney, it to be evident that Ricoeur’s
philosophy of the imagination is at the epicentre of his work (2012, p. 110).
According to Amalric, however, the role of imagination must be viewed in the
context of mediation that most notably covers the realm of practical action.
He argues that Ricoeur’s theory of the ‘poetico-practical function of imagina-
tion’ includes the practical dimension of human experience and, thereby, im-
plies a certain externally manifested process of ‘fragile mediation’ or of concre-
tisation through human action (Amalric 2013, pp. 13-8, 43-50).
Amalric’s main work on the imagination, Paul Ricoeur, l’imagination vive
(2013), focuses on Ricoeur’s uncompleted Philosophy of the Will that is com-
prised of his early works (The Voluntary and the Involuntary, Fallible Man, and
The Symbolism of Evil). In this chronologically ordered analysis, Amalric ex-
plores the notion of mediation—in connection with the ‘living’ or ‘active
imagination’—particularly through Fallible Man in an extended chapter that
runs almost a full hundred pages (2013, pp. 127-224). In spite of Amalric’s
insightful and extremely careful examination of the theme in this massive
work, I will open up his approach to Ricoeur’s thought by using two of Amal-
ric’s earlier essays that comment on Ricoeur’s work as a whole rather than re-
stricting themselves to the beginning of Ricoeur’s career.
Amalric presents an overview of the development of Ricoeur’s philosophical
anthropology in his Affirmation originaire, attestation, reconnaissance: le
cheminement de l’anthropologie philosophique ricoeurienne. First of all, Amalric
argues that Ricoeur understands human being as a ‘desire to be’ (désir d’être)
that results in a fragile mediation between the finitude of bios and infinitude
of logos, and also implies a dialectic and yet complementary tension between
being and doing (2011, p. 16). Second, this unceasing mediation rests on the
36 Timo Helenius

imaginative activity. The imagination produces and dynamises the processes

of poetico-practical mediation through which a subject becomes a concrete,
albeit also an uncompleted, person to him or herself (Amalric 2011, p. 16).
Third, the synthetic productivity of imagination manifests both human
capability and fallibility; it is possible to achieve a notion of the self, but there
always remains an ‘original discord’ that reveals how fundamental the human
condition of ‘shattered cogito’ (cogito brisé) ultimately is. The fragile unity of
the self is never immediate. Instead, the self is always mediated through its
acts of both a poetic and practical kind (Amalric 2011, pp. 16-7).
Amalric’s 2012 essay L’imagination poético-pratique dans l’identité narrative
then further clarifies how a subject’s notion of his or her self—a subject’s
narrative identity—is constituted by the internally tensional poetico-practical
imagination. According to Amalric, Ricoeur’s philosophy of the imagination
leads us to conclude that ‘the narrative identity [of a human subject] should
be characterised as a poetico-practical mixture that mediates and [at the same
time] dialectically opposes (dialectise) the two distinct functions of the
imagination [with each other]’ (2012, p. 110). On one hand, there is the
poetical function of imagination—‘that is, fundamentally, a function of
representation supported by the interpretation and the discourse’ (Amalric
2012, p. 110)—and, on the other hand, the practical function of imagination
that is ‘a projective function of imagination that is, all at once, capable of
illuminating, orientating, and dynamizing our action’ (Amalric 2012, p. 111).
Even though both of these functions are needed, Amalric maintains that it is
the second one in particular that renders a concrete human subject possible by
placing importance on the practical actions of this living subject. In sum,
Amalric’s position is that Ricoeur’s analysis on the practical imagination is
correct in the sense that this imagination makes us alive as active and embodied
human beings.

The Social Imagination

In spite of approaching the question of imagination most notably from the
side of the human subject, it would be an iniquitous omission to leave out the
fact that when stressing the practical aspect in the duality of poetico-practical
imagination, Jean-Luc Amalric also acknowledges the importance of the social
plane of imagination (2012, pp. 113-5). Of the younger generation of Ricoeur
scholars, however, it has been Johann Michel in particular who has empha-
sised the ‘social lens’ or the social aspect of imagination in the context of
Ricoeur’s work (Michel 2006, 2012).2 The recent translation of Michel’s
2013 book Ricoeur et ses contemporains (published in English as Ricoeur and
the Post-Structuralists) makes his well-received analyses, which expand the role
of imagination into the direction of the social sciences, available for English-
speaking audiences.
Between Receptivity and Productivity 37

Placing Ricoeur’s work in dialogue with that of Cornelius Castoriadis—

whom Ricoeur, however, mentions in his texts only in passing (Ricoeur and
Kemp 1981, pp. 163-4; Ricoeur 1990, p. 295 [253])—Michel aims to bring
forth the aspect of Ricoeur’s thought that the social imaginary, or ‘the neces-
sity for any group to give itself an image of itself ’ (Ricoeur 1986a, p. 230
[182]), is an irrefutable part of the human reality. In brief, Michel argues that
‘Ricoeur’s most valuable contribution consists of transferring the role of the
imaginative variations from a phenomenology of perception to a philosophy
of social and political action’ (2015, p. 125). This move—which Michel rath-
er boldly terms ‘the rehabilitation of imagination’, (2015, p. 125) and which,
according to Michel, in some senses unites the respective philosophical proj-
ects of Ricoeur and Castoriadis—grows out from the conviction that the
imagination is constitutive of the human social reality and life instead of de-
forming the real or detaching the human from it.
Michel’s comparison between Ricoeur and Castoriadis will have to be tak-
en with a grain of salt, however. He admits himself that, first, Castoriadis is
‘practically never mentioned’ in Ricoeur’s work, and that, second, in spite of
having gained expertise in terms of Ricoeur’s texts, he ‘cannot claim to have
the same expertise’ when it comes to some ‘other major figures of contempo-
rary French philosophy’ such as Castoriadis (Michel 2015, pp. xxiv-xxv). Mi-
chel’s analysis on the social imaginary significations, social-historical creation,
and heteronomy—or ‘the interconnection between the historical, the imagi-
nary, and the political (2015, p. 124) — is, nevertheless, illuminating in its
approach to Ricoeur’s thought from a refreshingly new angle.
To balance Michel’s depiction of Castoriadis’s overt ‘optimism’ on the pos-
sibility of eradicating heteronomy at the level of social-historical creation (Mi-
chel 2015, pp.131-4), the recent work on Castoriadis’s rather enigmatic key
concepts can help clarify the complexity of the instituting ‘creation ex nihilo’
and the ‘magmatic’ social-historical (Arnason 2014a, 2014b, 2014c; Mouza-
tikis 2014a, 2014b). The ‘radical imagination’, or the ‘socially instituting
imaginary’ in the ‘a-causal’ sense Castoriadis uses the term, may be primary or
radically foundational, and yet it opens up ‘the socio-historical field’ in gen-
eral that is ‘[not] unconditioned or absolute, ab-solutus, separated, detached,
without relations’ (Castoriadis 1994, pp. 138-9). As Castoriadis puts it, the
social imaginary significations are ‘creations under constraints’ with which he
means the physical, biological, psychological, and even historical as well as the
‘intrinsic’ societal conditions of human life (1994, pp. 149-152). The radical-
ity of this imagination that brings about ‘social imaginary significations’ is in
its instituting power to transform the ‘organizable’ givenness—or the ‘ulti-
mately indescribable X “out there”’ that is still not ‘absolutely indeterminate’—
into an onto-existential otherness that is the collectively ‘organised’ social hu-
man world in general that is ‘embodied’ in institutions such as language and
values (Castoriadis 1994, pp. 143, 145, 148-9).
38 Timo Helenius

In spite of such reservations, the overall point Michel makes about the
social imagination is not without merit. Already in his early work Ricoeur
holds that a subject is not posited by him or herself but by his necessary social
situation. The most fundamental sign of it is that a person is born from an-
other human being. ‘I do not posit myself ’, Ricoeur summarises it in The
Voluntary and the Involuntary, ‘I have been posited by others’ (1949, p. 407
[433]).3 Furthermore, Ricoeur’s work in the 1980s and 90s—From Text to Ac-
tion (1986), and Oneself as Another (1990) to name only two—are evidence of
his explicit interest in the social dimension of human being. These works ex-
amine the social aspect of Ricoeur’s anthropology that remains secondary in
some scholarly analyses of it.
Michel’s summary that borrows from Castoriadis’s terminology, is a wel­
comed clarification in terms of Ricoeur’s philosophy of the imagination: ‘the
integrative function of social imaginary expressions means that everyone is
recognised as a ‘member’, even beyond the idiosyncrasies of the individual
members of a society’, (2015, pp. 127-8). Michel’s reference to recognition ‘as
a “member”’, however, implies yet another dimension of Ricoeur’s thought
that reveals the necessity of social institution. This additional manner of
viewing Ricoeur’s philosophy is highlighted in the unadvertised shift that
Michel’s analysis makes from the social to the political (Michel 2015, pp. 125-
8, 132-3, 135-142). Those familiar with Johann Michel’s earlier work—and
also that of Ricoeur or of Castoriadis—are perhaps not at all surprised,
however, about the thematic change that ties in the social with the political.
Michel’s earlier discussion of Ricoeur’s understanding of tensive ethico-
political practices focuses on the moral dilemmas, the political paradoxes, the
conflicts of justice, and the ambivalences of law. Michel calls these, and
Ricoeur’s exploration of such themes, the ‘normative philosophy of Paul
Ricoeur’, and maintains that this philosophy mediates between Ricoeur’s
philosophical anthropology and his hermeneutic of social sciences (Michel
2006, pp. 289-467). The social imagination, it can be summarised, is never
only social but contributes to a ‘political’ dialectic that is an equal part of the
foundation for the concrete human being.

The Political Imagination

Johann Michel’s emphasis on the social imagination provides a more com-
prehensive understanding of the nuances of Ricoeur’s philosophy of the imag-
ination, but the observation that for Ricoeur the social is always discussed in
relation with the act of institution will lead us to consider this remaining po-
litical viewpoint before providing a complementary reading that unites all
these analyses under the umbrella of cultural imagination. This ‘political’
scholarly viewpoint that stresses the interconnectedness of imagination and
institution relies on an early analysis by Ricoeur’s former student George H.
Between Receptivity and Productivity 39

Taylor. Taylor’s analysis is credited, for example by Richard Kearney, as ‘an

unprecedented summary of the role of imagination in Ricoeur’s work’ (1998,
p. 175). As will become evident, my reading of Ricoeur’s philosophy of the
imagination is inspired by Taylor’s observations concerning Ricoeur’s texts.
Taylor’s 1986 analysis on Ricoeur is as concise as it is instructive (1986, pp.
xxvii-xxxv). It ties in with the previous accounts in that it starts off with the
symbolic, the practical, and the social imagination (Taylor 1986, pp. xxvii-
xxviii). Taylor’s unique point, however, concerns the imagination as produc-
tive constituting, or as the creative ‘utopian’ act—a radical rethinking of the
‘given’ or of the presented reality—that is the source of institution that is, in
turn, needed for a shared social life and action. Since ‘no unmediated reality
exists to which we can appeal’, this contestation of the given is the critical
device which provides the possibility of a constructive distanciation from the
adopted ‘ideologies’ that render stagnant instead of enhance the process of
social formation (Taylor 1986, pp. xxix-xxx). In brief, ‘the utopian quality of
the imagination moves us from the instituted to the instituting’ (Taylor 1986,
p. xxx). The imagination is productive in that it institutes the concrete sym-
bolical processes of human life.
Here, Taylor suggests, Ricoeur’s philosophy of the imagination closes the
circle back in with the poetical in the sense of a foundational poiêsis, or of a
constant critical and apt-to-change (re)making of the social world through its
symbolically mediated political institution (1986, p. xxx-xxxii). The ‘political’
examined by George H. Taylor, therefore, will have to be understood very
broadly (1986, pp. ix, xi). Figuratively speaking it concerns all politikoi, or all
human beings sharing the same polis or the broad human community, in their
need of social creativity by mutually instituting the human reality in the sym-
bolically mediated transfiguration of the given. A related distinction, also
stressed in Taylor’s later texts, that further clarifies the duality of this poetico-
political ‘making’—between such objectification and reification (or alienation
in the sense of ‘losing’ one’s self in the processes of mediation)—is particu-
larly illuminating for us in its implied reference to the cultural imagination
(Taylor 1986, p. xxvii; 2006, pp. 97-8, 100; 2014, pp. 572-9).
Taylor, following Ricoeur, resists characterising institution ‘as purely
formal and procedural with an internal logic only’ (Taylor 2014, pp. 577-9,
582-3). Institution itself is a creative act enabled by productive imagination,
even though the various institutions then assume a quasi-material ‘objectivity’
in the cultural reality within which they are reappropriated through a critical
distance (Darstellung or positing rather than Vorstellung or representation). As
Taylor puts it, ‘interpretation and practice cannot be divorced’ in this
multifarious process of instituting (1986, pp. xxxv, xxvii). The imagination
governs the realm of practical action in an equal measure as it governs the
realm of intellectual activity. This does not have to mean that these two are
precisely the same, however. More broadly explained, the tension between the
40 Timo Helenius

given, its re-making, and the new given—or between ideology and utopia, or
concrete prefiguration and concrete transfiguration—remains dynamic and
unceasing, as explained by Ricoeur’s various analyses on the poetic (Taylor
1986, pp. xxxii-xxxv).

An Opening Toward the Cultural Imagination

Up to this point I have reviewed some key interpretations of Ricoeur’s
philosophy of the imagination, in order to point out that while all these inter-
pretations share deep scholarly insight, they also lack a thorough explication
of an implied dimension, that is, of culture. Even though this statement may
be true in the big picture of Ricoeur scholarship, the importance of Taylor’s
work in particular cannot be overstated, however. It is thanks to him that
there is a growing published record of Ricoeur’s handling of the question of
the imagination, including the cultural imagination. Still, in spite of multiple
notions and remarks that stand in tangent to the issue of cultural imagination,
it remains largely unthematised even in Taylor’s essays.
In the context of Lectures on Ideology and Utopia, edited by Taylor, this
means that the difficulties ‘met in the field of a philosophy of the imagination’
were examined through the notions of ideology and utopia, because Ricoeur
maintains that their dialectic ‘may shed some light on the unsolved general
question of imagination as a philosophical problem. (Ricoeur 1986b, pp. 1-3,
323). Even though this one of Ricoeur’s two lecture series in the fall of 1975
thereby focused on both ideology and utopia, the analysis made in the whole
length of these lectures, however, is based on Ricoeur’s explicit hypothesis that
‘the very conjunction of these two opposite sides or complementary functions
typifies what could be called social and cultural imagination’ (1986b, p. 1).
This stance, which leads us to anticipate the inherent role of the cultural imag-
ination, is confirmed by Taylor’s observation that ‘Ricoeur both begins and
ends the lectures by maintaining that the correlation of ideology and utopia
typifies what he calls the social and cultural imagination’ (1986, p. xxviii).
Moreover, Taylor’s 2006 essay comments on Ricoeur’s separate lecture series
on the imagination—also held in the fall of 1975 at the University of Chica-
go—and exposes Ricoeur’s thought that the ‘social and cultural imagination’
is, among the epistemological, poetic, and mythic-symbolic ones, a key ‘do-
main of productive imagination’ (Taylor 2006, pp. 94, 97).4 This rhetoric
suggests that the cultural imagination is an important rather than a derivative
question for Ricoeur.
More importantly, however, Taylor’s work is inspiring because of his con-
sistent stance that for Ricoeur the ‘power of distantiation’ or the creative or the
productive (viz. utopia) and the ‘experience of belonging’ or the reproductive
(viz. ideology) aspects of this cultural imagination are dialectically at work at
Between Receptivity and Productivity 41

the same time; Taylor argues that ‘we begin with an experience of belonging
or participation in the culture, class, time, and so on that give us birth, but we
are not completely bound by these factors’ (1986, pp. xxv, xxviii). The duality
of receptivity and productivity lies, therefore, in the core of the issue as it also
explains Ricoeur’s anthropological thesis—most recently analysed by Jean-
Luc Amalric (2011)—of the subject’s fragility. ‘Because we can never entirely
escape our cultural and other conditioning’, Taylor summarises this anthropo-
logical attunement, ‘our knowledge is necessarily partial and fragmentary’
(1986, p. xxvi; 2006, p. 98). Human being, it can be stated, situates itself
between receptivity and productivity which both rely on the culturally un-
folding imagination.
The cultural imagination, which is also always social, operates thereby ‘in
both constructive and destructive ways, as both confirmation and contestation
of the present situation’ that a subject faces in his or her sociocultural context
(Ricoeur 1986b, pp. 3, 323). This dialectic dynamism, or the dual activity of
the imagination, is well explained by Taylor in his 2006 essay:

To be effective, the productive imagination must transform existing categories;

it cannot exist totally outside and separate from them. This suggests that any
transformative fiction—any utopia, any scientific model, any poem—must
have elements of reproductive imagination, must draw from existing reality
sufficiently so that its productive distance is not too great (2006, 97-98, 100).

In sum, cultural imagination places human being between receptivity and

productivity. Culture as a whole, in other words, is a symbol of both human
creativity and conditioned human being.
These remarks lead me to reaffirm my thesis that when it comes to examining
the enigma of the imagination, it is the question concerning this cultural
imagination in particular that is in Ricoeur’s interests; such imagination is
‘constitutive of the social reality’ (Ricoeur 1986b, p. 3) that we human beings
cannot be without. In close parallel with Ernst Cassirer’s cultural philosophy—
according to which human beings have found their irreversible ‘way to
civilisation’ by not living ‘in a merely physical universe’ but in an inescapable
‘symbolic universe’, and should therefore be defined as ‘animal symbolicum’
(Cassirer 1974, pp. 24-6)—Ricoeur’s Lectures on Ideology and Utopia leads us
to think that culture is not only symbolic in the sense that it uses and plays
with many particular symbols, but that it necessarily structures all human life
through ‘cultural patterns’ (that Cassirer on his own behalf calls symbolic

Because we have no genetic system of information for human behavior, we

need a cultural system. No culture exists without such a system. The hypoth-
esis, therefore, is that where human beings exist, a nonsymbolic mode of ex-
istence, and even less, a nonsymbolic kind of action, can no longer obtain.
42 Timo Helenius

Action is immediately ruled by cultural patterns which provide templates or

blueprints for the organization of social and psychological processes (Ricoeur
1986b, p. 12).

According to Ricoeur, human being relies on cultural structures or pat-

terns that enable and facilitate human experience and action. The important
presupposition that Ricoeur holds in this regard is ‘precisely’ that these pat-
terns are also human creations, facilitated by the cultural imagination (1986b,
pp. 3, 323).

Synthesis on the Cultural Object: the ‘True’ Human Objects

Let me at this point deepen the promised scholarly corrective by opening
a more detailed and technical analysis. I will start off this exploration with
Ricoeur’s hermeneutics of reconfiguration as presented in Time and Narrative 1.
As is well known, Ricoeur locates configuration, or mimesis2, between prefigura-
tion and refiguration—or, in Ricoeur’s terms, between ‘pre-understanding’ and
‘post-understanding’ (1983, p. 102 [65]). Briefly put, the configurating opera-
tion is nothing but the act of ‘grasping together’ (Ricoeur 1983, pp. 101-3 [64-
6]). For Ricoeur, this means emplotment (mythos) in an Aristotelian manner.
Ultimately, however, configuration has a Kantian meaning as a ‘function of
unity among our representations’, that is, judging (Kant 1999, III.A69/B94).
According to Ricoeur, the kinship between the configurational act—that of or-
ganising an intelligible whole as ‘concordant discordance’—and the operation
of judging as described by Kant cannot be overemphasised. Ricoeur argues that
this is most apparent in the case of reflective judgments that are distinguishable
from the determinate ones (1983, pp. 103-4 [66]).5
Ricoeur, however, seems to be of two minds when defining configuration in
Kantian terms. Instead of following Kant’s third Critique and the notion of re-
flective judgments, Ricoeur requires that the configurational act should be com-
pared to the work of the productive imagination in a sense familiar to the first
Critique. When elaborating his understanding of configuration Ricoeur refers to
the schematising power and the synthesising function of the productive imagi-
nation. ‘We may speak of a schematism of the narrative function’, says Ricoeur
(1983, p. 106 [68]). But what distinguishes Ricoeur from Kant is his claim that
the schematism he discusses be culturally bound, it ‘is constituted within a his-
tory that has all the characteristics of a tradition’ (Ricoeur 1983, p. 106 [68]).
Besides weaving between Kant’s first and the third Critique, Ricoeur seems to
think in a post-Hegelian manner (Ricoeur 1985, p. 312 [215]).6
Instead of discussing Ricoeur’s apparent Hegelianism in this context (since
I have done that elsewhere), let me use Ricoeur’s earlier texts to clarify his no-
tion of cultural objects that manifest humanity as ‘the signs of human being’
(Ricoeur 1960, p. 85 [67-68]; 1965, pp. 8, 54 [xii, 46-47]). To continue
Between Receptivity and Productivity 43

tracing Ricoeur’s Kantianism from this amended angle, Ricoeur expresses in

Fallible Man (1960) his support for the idea that the third term between finite
appearances (empirical intuition) and the infinite discourse (concepts of un-
derstanding) is pure productive imagination in the manner that Kant defined it
in The Critique of Pure Reason — ‘[t]he principle of the necessary unity of the
pure (productive) synthesis of the imagination prior to apperception is the
ground of the possibility of all cognition, especially that of experience’ (Kant
1999, III.A118; B151-152). Based on this revolutionary conception of the
productive a priori synthesis of the imagination, Ricoeur admits that ‘it is not
by chance that our anthropology of the finite and the infinite encounters Kant
at this stage of its development’ (1960, p. 58 [40-41]). In short, Ricoeur ar-
gues that Kant overcame the seemingly insurmountable duality of empirical
finitude and rational-idealistic infinitude with the transcendental function of
imagination (1960, p. 58 [40-41]).7
Ricoeur, in his definition of cultural objects, applies rather than directly
reaffirms this Kantian philosophy. As a result of Kant’s assertion that the third
or mediating term is a schematic application of the categories to appearances,
Ricoeur argues that the paradox of finitude-infinitude—also examined in The
Voluntary and the Involuntary (1949)—has only been ‘sharpened by a more
subtle approximation’, since the synthesis that is brought about by the pure
imagination is still constituted only in the objectivity of the object (Ricoeur
1960, pp. 60, 63 [43, 45]).8 Consequently, I must return to an interlude in
Fallible Man that precedes Ricoeur’s analysis of pure imagination, a text that
highlights the necessity of objects in their objectivity. ‘Objectivity is nothing
other than the indivisible unity of an appearance and expressibility; the thing
shows itself and can be expressed’, Ricoeur maintains, but notices, however,
that ‘the thing (la chose) points to man as point of view and as speech’ (1960,
pp. 55-56 [37-38]). Even though an appearance is determined in the synthesis
of ‘meaning and presence’, that which appears becomes legible as a deter-
mined object.
In order not to forget the distinction between positive objectification and
alienating reification, let me explain this rather technical point a step further.
Ricoeur strongly insists that ‘the objectivity of the object is by no means “in”
consciousness; it stands over against it as that to which it relates’ (Ricoeur
1960, p. 56 [38]). Ricoeur, in other words, stresses the synthesis of the mani-
fold of intuition, or the thing’s becoming an object for consciousness, rather
than the transcendental apperception, or the a priori synthetic unity of con-
sciousness, in the manner Kant does. As a result, Ricoeur argues that ‘the ob-
jectivity of the object is constituted on the object itself ’ (Ricoeur 1960, p. 56
[38]). For Ricoeur, the synthesis concerns that which appears, and to which a
meaning is given, that is, an object in its objectivity, as opposed to Kant who
emphasises the formal condition of the one and self-same consciousness (Kant
1999, III.B132-135).
44 Timo Helenius

The connection to the question of culture, that this modified Kantian

angle has, becomes strikingly evident as soon as we read the following lines of
Ricoeur’s Fallible Man:

‘Works’ of art and literature, and, in general, works of the mind (l’esprit), in-
sofar as they not merely mirror an environment and an epoch but search out
man’s possibilities, are the true ‘objects’ (les véritables ‘objets’) that manifest the
abstract universality of the idea of humanity through their concrete universal-
ity (1960, p. 139 [123]).

Ricoeur, in other words, argues that the notion of ‘humanity’—a subject’s

being-an-end-in-him or herself—is manifested in those ‘highly expressive’
(1960, pp. 76-7 [59-60]) and yet objectifiable works that pertain to a human
being’s fundamental quest of expressing him or herself most accurately and
most authentically.
This kind of objectification, ultimately, is the the positive cultural institu­
tion which Ricoeur is interested in as it grounds the possibility of an account
of human being—or an anthropology. History and Truth (in its 1964 and
1967 editions), for example, goes as far as stating that even though

it is not very common to speak of ‘institutions’ in respect to culture, such as

with regard to political, social, or economic life, yet the profound meaning of
the institution appears only when it is extended to the images of human being
(les images de l’homme) in culture, literature, and the arts (Ricoeur 1967, p.
129 [126]).

These ‘works’ that institute the idea of humanity are concrete and yet
universal because as works of imagination they always remain in the mode of
the possible—they explore human possibilities as art and literature demonstrate
in the most exemplary manner (Ricoeur 1960, pp. 160-1 [144]; 1956, pp.
88-9 [1974, pp. 78-80])

Cultural Objectivity and Cultural Imagination

The unity of the self is maintained in reflection facilitated by cultural ob-

jects, or ‘the signs of human being’ (les signes de l’homme), which mediate the
idea of self in their concreteness (Ricoeur 1960, p. 85 [67-68]; 1965, pp. 8,
54 [xii, 46-47]). The notion of the self is, in other words, a task for interpreta-
tion instructed by the cultural. Put differently, the (quasi-)material objectivity
of genuinely ‘true’ human works that reveal an acting subject to him or her-
self, and mediate the idea of humanity to others, is our cultural reality that
stands for both receptivity and productivity.
Between Receptivity and Productivity 45

As Ricoeur put it later in an interview, ‘it is from the depth of a certain

culture that I approach a new object of the culture’ (Ricoeur & Nakjavani
1991, p. 446). In brief, the ‘material objectivity’, or the concrete human
habitat for (creative) action, is culture, as also History and Truth argues:

The struggle for recognition is pursued by means of cultural realities. (…) This
quest for mutual esteem (d’estime mutuelle) is pursued through images of hu-
man being (images de l’homme); and these images [that are embodied in cultural
works] constitute the reality that is culture (Ricoeur 1967, p. 121 [118-119]).

What the idea of objectification as reification dismisses is that the formal

objectivity of a subject’s being-an-end-in-him or herself is concretised in cul-
tural works which, in turn, bear witness to my being-an-end-in-myself, and
by which I can be recognised, although indirectly, in others’ opinions concern-
ing them. Instead of mere alienation, this cultural mediation that rests on
productive imagination is the positive and creative finding of the self in the
mutuality of a cultured humanity.
To further clarify Ricoeur’s notion of the ‘images’ or the ‘signs of human
being’ that facilitate the process of becoming human, I will refer to an essay
that for some reason has largely been left to the sidelines in terms of Ricoeur
scholarship. Ricoeur insists in an early text, ‘Place de l’oeuvre d’art dans notre
culture’, that in art ‘it is only and always the human that is the question’
(1957, p. 8). Referring to the theatrical forms of art that represent the human
itself in an artistic way, Ricoeur maintains that

each work of art outlines and proposes a possible world, and as every possible
world is a possible environment for a possible human being, in each time it is
human being, the virtual centre of this world, that is in question (1957, p. 8).

The ‘proper’ cultural works both stand for and mediate the idea of the hu-
man quality; this cultural objectivity is ‘a vast imaginary experimentation of
the most impossible possibilities of being human’ (Ricoeur 1957, p. 8).9 Only
a few years later Fallible Man then stressed that such cultural objectivity fa-
cilitates becoming a human being:

Cultural objectivity (l’objectivité culturelle) is the very relation of human to

human represented in the idea of humanity (l’idée d’humanité); only cultural
testimonies endow it with the density of things, in the form of monuments
existing in the world: but these things are ‘works’. (…) These monuments
and institutions [, including the educational, political, and economic ones,]
extend the synthesis of the thing. The thing was understood in the unity of Say-
ing and Seeing; the work is made in the unity of Sense and Matter, of Worth
and Work. A human being, artisan, artist, legislator, educator, is for himself
incarnated because the Idea is in itself materialised (Ricoeur 1960, pp. 140,
157 [123-124, 141]; 1957, pp. 5-7).
46 Timo Helenius

In sum, only cultural expressions as conceivable manifestations of human

possibilities in all forms, ranging from artistic to political and ethical ones,
furnish the abstract idea of humanity—a subject’s being-an-end-in-himself
generally—and bring it to life.
The task of clarifying Ricoeur’s notion of cultural imagination cannot,
therefore, be postponed anymore. Only this pinpointed analysis will clarify
how ‘the grace of imagination’ (Ricoeur 1965, p. 529 [551]) as an advance-
ment of meaning is at the same time a culturally grounded mytho-poetic ex-
ploration of our relationship to beings and to being—put differently, how the
surplus of meaning is the surplus of being human. As Ricoeur also states in his
essay Imagination in Discourse and in Action, an understanding of the ‘ana-
logical tie that makes every human being like myself is only enabled by the
critical detour of certain ‘imaginative practices’ such as ideology and utopia
that propose two different views to cultural productivity that I have just dis-
cussed (Ricoeur 1986a, pp. 228-9 [181]). The social imaginary is part of the
function of productive imagination, but recognising its ‘pairing function’ with
regard to human beings, or ‘the very relation of human to human represented
in the idea of humanity’, requires critical evaluation that is possible only in
form of ideology critique (very broadly understood; cf. Ricoeur 1986b, pp.
3-8). Ricoeur means by this an interpretation that admits of cultural and his-
torical situatedness in the re-interpretation of one’s cultural heritage—which,
once more, plays out the condition of both receptivity and productivity—rep-
resented in the dialectics of ideologies and utopias (cf. Ricoeur 1986a, 306
[248]; Ricoeur 1960, 139 [123]; Amalric 2013, pp. 368-9).
This sociocultural transfiguration in the dialectic of adopted ideology and pro-
posed utopia (Ricoeur 1986a, pp. 233-6 [185-7]), or the dialectic of ‘is’ and ‘is
not’, I maintain, restates the tensional poétique de l’être et de la volonté dans l’être
(Ricoeur 1949, p. 443 [471]; c.f. Taylor 1986, pp. xxxi-xxxii) at the level of socio-
cultural practices that also facilitate a more ‘pure’ poetic expressivity, thus also re-
formulating the idea of ‘tensional’ poetics examined in Ricoeur’s works from The
Voluntary and the Involuntary up to The Living Metaphor (1975).10 This sociocul-
tural poetics reiterates the tensions between the lived life and critical thought, but
one of its major results is, again, to open up the notion of belonging.
The sense of belonging is achievable only through the critical detour in
which a utopia points out the condition of being situated in a history, a
tradition, an ideology, or, in a word, in culture. This knowledge of belonging,
that cannot be totally reflected—it is not completely comprehensible even at
the level of description—remains utterly mute and silent unless an opening to
the other is first made under the critical notion of having recognised the
‘other’. Following Ricoeur’s essay Science and Ideology, I thereby argue that the
ultimate function of sociocultural poetics, which includes the moments of
contestation and redescription, is to positively reveal this condition of
belonging in distanciation:
Between Receptivity and Productivity 47
All objectifying knowledge about our position is society, in a social class, in a
cultural tradition, and in history is preceded by a relation of belonging upon
which we can never entirely reflect. Before any critical distance, we belong to
a history, to a class, to a nation, to a culture, to one or several traditions. In
accepting this belonging that precedes and supports us, we accept the very first
role of ideology, that which we have described as the mediating function of the
image, the self-representation (Ricoeur 1986a, p. 328 [267]).

To ‘accept’ the cultural condition means that the muteness of ideological

pre-understanding can be surpassed in the critical distance of utopia. Ricoeur
maintains that the very condition of cultural belonging is what is revealed by
this distance created by ‘acceptance’—Ricoeur’s understanding of our cultural
belonging is thereby not the same as Gadamer’s that, according to Ricoeur,
stresses belonging at the expense of critical distanciation.
Hans-Georg Gadamer nevertheless argues for a hermeneutical model that
in some sense resembles that of Ricoeur. He maintains in Truth and Method
that ‘the essence of Bildung is clearly not alienation as such, but the return to
oneself—which presupposes alienation, to be sure’ (Gadamer 2004, p. 13).
This ‘return’ to the ontological condition of one’s self, or to one’s belonging-
ness in the ontological event of Bild, however, lays out 1) one’s situatedness in
(linguistic) tradition that is the ‘ground’ of validity constantly affirmed, em-
braced, and evolved, thus describing an ‘element of the ontological structure
of understanding; 2) one’s radical finitude, whose counterpart is the ‘fore-
grounding’ (abhebend) hermeneutical ‘horizon’ in which we move; 3) the un-
derstanding as both ‘participating in an event of tradition’, and thus also as the
‘fusion of present and historical horizons (Horizontverschmelzung)’; and also
4) the consequent ‘legitimate ambiguity’ of wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewußtsein
or the consciousness of being affected by history that is ‘primarily conscious-
ness of the hermeneutical situation’ (Gadamer 2004, pp. 291-304).
In spite of sharing with Gadamer the arc of distanciation and return,
Ricoeur remained critical of Gadamer’s concept of tradition (Überlegung).
Time and Narrative 3 stresses, in the wake of Horkheimer and Adorno, the
necessary critical assessment of one’s traditionality, only through which an
understanding of this condition is possible (Ricoeur 1985, pp. 318-332 [219-
227]). Put differently, in contrast to Gadamer’s more Heideggerian emphasis
on ontological understanding and belongingness (Zugehörigkeit), Ricoeur’s
critical hermeneutics emphasises the critical, or objective, moment in spite of
seeking the always retreating horizon of ontological belonging (Taylor 2011,
pp. 105-111; Ritivoi 2011, pp. 69-82). In fact, Ricoeur speaks of the opening
up of a cultural world of belonging as the ‘correct usage’ of the critique of
ideology; it is as necessary as it is an unceasing task, a process that will always
have to begin anew from the midst of the given (Ricoeur 1986a, pp. 330-1
[269]). To rephrase, Ricoeur holds that the socio-cultural imaginary itself is
mediated, but recognising its pertinence requires another, critical mediation.
48 Timo Helenius

Before providing any further clarification of the critical aspect of mediation,

however, however, some word on the equally necessary un-critical mediation
to emphasise the need of receptivity and belongingness. As is the case with any
human self, Ricoeur maintains in Imagination in Discourse and in Action that
also any social group forms itself or gathers itself around an ideological image
that it has given of itself as a constantly repeatable and thus self-maintaining

The emerging pathology of the phenomenon of ideology comes from its very
function of reinforcing and repeating the social tie in situations that are after-
the-fact. Simplification, schematisation, stereotyping, and ritualisation arise
out of a distance that never ceases to grow between real practice and the in-
terpretations through which the group becomes conscious of its existence and
its practice. A certain lack of transparence of our cultural codes indeed seems
to be the condition for the production of social messages (Ricoeur 1986a, pp.
230, 309 [182, 251]).

In other words, Ricoeur argues that in spite of the stagnating ideology of a

social group as its lived identity it is still constantly formed in the ‘reading’ of
it in social practices in such a manner that enforces this adopted social coher-
ence ‘in which human beings live and think’ (1986a, 308-9 [251]). Culture,
yet another mediation in itself, is the contextual platform of these practices
that are then uncritically re-enacted from an ideological point of view.
As is well known, Ricoeur complexifies this analysis of the culturally
situated social bond by contrasting ideology with utopia, or with introducing
the sociocultural possible. Utopia, as ‘the imaginary project of another society,
of another reality’ (Ricoeur 1986a, p. 231 [183]), has the function of
contesting the experienced and lived sociocultural reality, that is, of introducing
possibility into the cultural imaginary. It is in contrast with ideology, or
integration—that ‘operates behind our backs, rather than appearing as a
theme before our eyes’ (Ricoeur 1986a, p. 309 [251])—that utopia, or
otherness, unveils the sociocultural condition from the point of view of ‘a
hermeneutics of the being-able-to-be (pouvoir-être)’ (Ricoeur 1986a, p. 369
[300]). For this reason Ricoeur places, in another essay published in 1976, the
whole dialectics of ideology and utopia, which stand for the dialectics of
receptivity and productivity, in the realm of cultural imagination:

I would like to place this dialectic [of ideology and utopia] within a single
conceptual framework that I will designate as the theory of cultural imagina-
tion, whose task would be to clarify both the polarity between utopia and ide-
ology and the ambiguities belonging to each of these terms respectively. The
paradox of the problem is, nevertheless, that each term deploys a multitude of
functions and roles, extending from a constitutive one to a quasi pathological
one. It is the task of a hermeneutics of imagination to arrange in these cultural
Between Receptivity and Productivity 49
expressions the traits that relate the constitutive expressions and the destruc-
tive expressions (les expressions déformantes) of the one with the constructive
and destructive forms of another. This labyrinth of relations is cultural imagi-
nation (Ricoeur 1976b, 51).

Put differently, Ricoeur argues that the cultural imagination facilitates the
task of sociocultural formation at all levels and in all its forms. ‘The interpreta-
tions through which the group [or the human self ] becomes conscious of its
existence and its practice’ (Ricoeur 1986a, p. 230 [182]) may be bound by the
condition of receptivity, but the unceasing act of ‘reading’ or interpreting the
given also results in a notion of being bound that opens up the critically
achievable realm of the possible. In short, the foundational human poiêsis is of
a cultural kind; human being resides between cultural receptivity and produc-
tivity—which are both theoretical and practical tasks. This dynamic polarity
of foundational receptivity and productivity, Ricoeur argues, can only be un-
derstood ‘within a single conceptual framework’ that constitutes a ‘theory of
cultural imagination’ (Ricoeur 1976b, p. 51; c.f. Ricoeur 1986a, pp. 379-380

Final Remarks
Let me close off this essay with brief concluding remarks on the notion of
configuration with which I also opened the corrective analysis. One of the
many occasions in Time and Narrative 1 when the notion of culture appears,
is in relation to traditionality that, according to Ricoeur, is the second feature
of configurational action (1983, p. 116 [76]). Taken from the point of view of
traditionality, the so-called Western narrative paradigm, for example, is based
on the genre of Greek tragedy but also ‘several narrative traditions: Hebrew
and Christian, but also Celtic, Germanic, Icelandic, and Slavic (Ricoeur 1983,
p. 107 [69]). The Western cultural paradigm is heir (l’héritière) to all of these,
‘issuing from’ previous traditions, but still not uniform with any one of them.
This disjointed continuity points to a dialectic between innovation and
sedimentation, or productivity and receptivity, by which new types of works
and productions come about—Ricoeur uses the term ‘rule-governed defor­
mation’, when he explains how the changes of paradigm take place (Ricoeur
1983, p. 109 [70]). ‘It is the variety of applications’, he writes, ‘that confers a
history on the productive imagination and that, in counterpoint to sedimen­
tation, makes a narrative tradition possible’ (Ricoeur 1983, p. 109 [70]). In
sum, then, the lived experience finds itself as articulated in cultural products—
such as particular cultures—that capture the essence of the configurational
operation in its concretisation. This leads me to conclude that the productive
imagination that Ricoeur places in the very core of all this human action of
‘grasping together’ is nothing else but l’imagination culturelle that, in spite of
50 Timo Helenius

its force of contestation and creativity, still always operates under the condition
of affirmation that pertains to the living tradition in which the ‘I’ dwells as a
living, acting, and also suffering human being.


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Author Biographies

Timo Helenius (Ph.D., Boston College) currently works at Boston College as an

Alfred Kordelin Postdoctoral Research Fellow. His philosophical work has focused
on cultural hermeneutics and the philosophy of religion. After having received his
doctorate in philosophy in 2013, Helenius has taught at Boston College and at
Mount Ida College. Helenius also holds a graduate degree in theology (University
of Helsinki, Finland), and he also has a number of publications in systematic
theology and ecotheology.
Address: Boston College Philosophy Department, Stokes Hall North, Chestnut
Hill MA 02467, USA. Email:
52 Timo Helenius

1 Numbers in square brackets refer to the respective pages in the English translation.
2 It is fair to point out that Johann Michel is far from having been the first to rec-
ognise the social dimension of Ricoeur’s philosophy of the imagination. See Taylor
1986, pp. ix, xi; Kearney 1998, pp. 165-169.
3 Of Johann Michel’s discussion on the social and political positing, see Michel
2015, pp. 131-142.
4 As also mentioned in his essay in the present publication, Taylor is currently edit-
ing these lectures whose projected publication is in 2016. Furthermore, Taylor’s
2006 essay discloses that Ricoeur’s discussion on Dagognet, Gombrich, and
Goodman in the still unpublished lecture 17 in particular explores the cultural
imagination from the productive point of view by focusing in on pictorial art. See
Taylor 2006, pp. 93, 101.
5 Kant distinguishes determinate and reflective judgments with regard to the
universal rule: ‘Judgement in general is the ability to think the particular as
contained under the universal. If the universal (the rule, principle, law) is given,
then judgment, which subsumes the particular under it, is determinative (even
though as a transcendental judgment it states a priori the conditions that must be
met for subsumption under that universal to be possible). But if only the particular
is given and judgment has to find the universal for it, then this power is merely
reflective’. See Kant 1999, V.179-180.
6 Ricoeur, in fact, described his own philosophical attunement as ‘post-Hegelian
Kantianism’. Ricoeur acknowledges that the expression is borrowed from Eric
Weil. See Ricoeur 1969, pp. 402-405 [412-414]; 1986a, p. 251 [200].
7 Cf. Kant 1999, III.Bxvi-xvii; A118-125; B151-152.
8 Cf. Kant 1999, III.A145-146/B185-186.
9 Amalric expresses in passing a similar kind of idea when mentioning that ‘les
objectivités proprement humaines se sont progressivement constituées dans l’histoire
et dans la culture’. Cf. Amalric 2013, p. 455.
10 Ricoeur’s analysis of the birth of equivocal meaning in The Living Metaphor
addresses the unresolved issue of his earlier works. Rather than being a ‘linguistic
turn’ the work clarifies the question of symbolisation Ricoeur introduced already
in The Voluntary and the Involuntary. Cf. Ricoeur 1949, pp. 449-450 [478].
Social Imaginaries 1.2 (2015) 53-72

Embodiment and Umwelt:

A Phenomenological Approach
Adam Konopka

Abstract: This article reconstructs several aspects from Husserl’s phenom-

enology regarding the intentionality involved in embodied experience of
a pre-given Umwelt. I argue that Husserl’s account of environed embodi-
ment underlies and conditions his clarification of Natur (spatio-temporal
materiality) and Geist (human cultural and historical achievements). This
argument is situated in Husserl’s engagement of the 19th century debate
between Wilhelm Dilthey and the Neo-Kantian Baden School concern-
ing the methodological relationship between the natural sciences (Natur-
wissenschaften) and human sciences (Geisteswissenschaften). Husserl radi-
calized the debate between Dilthey and the Baden School by pluralizing
Heinrich Rickert’s attitudinal characterization of concept formation and
clarifying and developing Dilthey’s notion of a life-nexus. Husserl’s ap-
proach allows for an identification of the belief modalities of the natural
attitude that are operative in feeling sensations oriented toward embod-
ied resolutions involved in bodily regulation. The pre-reflective bodily
self-awareness involved in feeling sensations correlated with an Umwelt
as a horizon of relevancy and familiarity is the constitutive ground of
both Natur (spatio-temporal materiality) and Geist (human cultural and
historical achievements) investigated in the respective domains of mod-
ern scientific rationality. This reconstruction of Husserl’s approach shows
that, despite criticisms to the contrary, Husserl overcame a dichotomy
between Natur and Geist through an identification of their common
ground in environed embodiment.

Key Words: Husserl — phenomenology — Umwelt — embodiment


Edmund Husserl’s conception of world has proven to be one of his richest

and subtle phenomenological discoveries, one that still has contemporary
54 Adam Konopka

philosophical implications. Husserl’s theory of world constitution, however, is

complex and his clarification of the meaning of the term world underwent
several revisions and clarifications over the course of his career. During the
1910s and 1920s, the difference between a surrounding or environing world
(Umwelt) and world (Welt) gradually became a technical distinction for Hus-
serl, one that remained as an important trace in his later work, e.g., in his
distinction in the Crisis works between the pre-given lived-environing-world
(Lebensumwelt) and life-world (Lebenswelt) that is inclusive of cultural achieve-
ments and historical self-understandings. Husserl’s theory of world constitu-
tion culminated in his later articulation of the life-world.
The development of Husserl’s theory of world constitution occurred
throughout his career and played a central role in Husserl’s engagement in a
19th century debate concerning the methodological relationship between the
natural sciences (Naturwissenschaften) and human sciences (Geisteswissen-
schaften).1 The questions concerning the scientific relationship between Natur
(nature understood as spatio-temporal materiality) and Geist (human world
comprised of various cultural and historical achievements) led Husserl to
identify and clarify what he called the ‘forgotten meaning fundament’ that
underlies both Natur and Geist (Husserl 1970b, p. 295). In order for the rela-
tionship (similarities and differences) between Natur and Geist to be properly
clarified, it was necessary to demonstrate how they respectively arise from the
pre-theoretical experience of a pre-given Umwelt. While Husserl’s later articu-
lation of the life-world was inclusive of the scientific accomplishments that
flow in (einströmen) everyday life, these enriched and higher order features of
world constitution nevertheless presuppose and form a unity with the disclo-
sure of a world in its pre-givenness as an Umwelt.
Husserl’s attempt to clarify the Natur/Geist distinction has been criticized
by subsequent phenomenologists such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty (2003) and
Barry Smith (2001). In Merleau-Ponty’s lecture course on nature, for exam-
ple, he claims ‘Husserl did not manage to overcome this duality [between
Natur/Geist]’ (Merleau-Ponty 2003, p. 72). This appraisal can also be illus-
trated by Barry Smith’s claim that Husserl remained confined to a Natur/Geist
dichotomy in a way that resulted in a conception of the ‘subject of mental
experience in isolation from any surrounding physic-biological environment’
(Smith 2001, p. 15).2 These criticisms largely take their point of departure
from Husserl’s treatment of the Natur/Geist distinction in the Ideas II, a text
that does not provide a sustained account of the pre-theoretical pre-givenness
of an Umwelt. In subsequently published lecture courses and research manu-
scripts, however, it is evident that Husserl investigated the intentional corre-
late between a lived body and Umwelt more thoroughly.
This article reconstructs several aspects from Husserl’s phenomenology re-
garding the intentionality involved in embodied experience of a pre-given
Umwelt. I argue that Husserl’s account of environed embodiment underlies
Embodiment and Umwelt: A Phenomenological Approach 55

and conditions his clarification of Natur (spatio-temporal materiality) and

Geist (human cultural and historical achievements). This argument is situated
in Husserl’s engagement of the 19th century debate between Wilhelm Dilthey
and the Neo-Kantian Baden School concerning the methodological relation-
ship between the natural sciences (Naturwissenschaften) and human sciences
(Geisteswissenschaften). Husserl radicalized the debate between Dilthey and
the Baden School by pluralizing Heinrich Rickert’s attitudinal characteriza-
tion of concept formation and clarifying and developing Dilthey’s notion of a
life-nexus. Husserl’s approach allows for an identification of the belief mo-
dalities of the natural attitude that are operative in feeling sensations oriented
toward embodied resolutions involved in bodily regulation. The pre-reflective
bodily self-awareness involved in feeling sensations correlated with an Umwelt
as a horizon of relevancy and familiarity is the constitutive ground of both
Natur (spatio-temporal materiality) and Geist (human cultural and historical
achievements) investigated in the respective domains of modern scientific ra-
tionality. This reconstruction of Husserl’s approach shows that, despite criti-
cisms to the contrary, Husserl overcame a dichotomy between Natur and Geist
through an identification of their common ground in environed embodiment.

Husserlian Phenomenology and the Natur/Geist Distinction

The 19th century debate between Dilthey and the Neo-Kantians from the
Baden or Southwest school (especially Wilhelm Windelband and Heinrich
Rickert) concerned the methodological differences between the natural and
human sciences. The distinction between the Naturwissenschaften and
Geisteswissenschaften (Dilthey) or Kulturwissenschaften (Rickert) became an is-
sue of debate in light of the general success of methodological naturalism in
the natural sciences which, in turn, raised questions regarding whether and
how this naturalism could legitimately be appropriated in disciplines such as
psychology, anthropology, and sociology. The Neo-Kantians and Dilthey
agreed that the human sciences have methodological autonomy in relation to
their naturalistic counterpart and their common aim was to legitimate a tax-
onomy of scientific disciplines wherein this autonomy could be exercised.3
Dilthey and the Baden School sharply disagreed, however, about the crite-
rion through which the human sciences are legitimately demarcated from the
natural sciences. For example, they disagreed about whether psychological
methodology could be fundamentally naturalistic. Influenced by the then
prevalent naturalistic psychology originating in the research of Wilhelm Wun-
dt, Windelband and Rickert maintained that the discipline of psychology is a
naturalistic endeavor that investigates the causal relationships involved in
psycho-physical processes. They thus classified psychology as a naturalistic sci-
ence and in his Kulturwissenschaften und Naturwissenschaften, Rickert (1899)
replaced ‘Geist’ with ‘Kultur’ to reflect the domain of non-naturalistic
56 Adam Konopka

methodology that was reflective of this classification of psychology. On the

other hand, Dilthey maintained that a non-naturalistic psychology was the
foundational discipline of the human sciences and could be properly descrip-
tive and analytic, rather than explanatory and experimental.4 In Dilthey’s
view, a naturalistic psychology that is governed by continuums of causal hy-
potheses represents an atomistic approach to intuitive lived experience (Erleb-
nis) in a psychic nexus (seelischer Zuzammenhang) that does not adequately
account for various kinds of unity evident in a first person perspective.
While Husserl recognized that it is possible to employ both causal and
descriptive methodologies in the psychological disciplines, he agreed with
Dilthey that psychology could be legitimately non-naturalistic and thus prop-
erly classified as a human science. Husserl provided many arguments through-
out his career to support this position, including his critique of psychologism
in the Prolegomena to Pure Logic (Husserl 1900). Generally speaking, the psy-
chologism of Husserl’s day attempted to reduce the cognition involved in
mathematical and logical reasoning to the explanatory laws that govern psy-
cho-physical processes. This logical psychologism thereby ignored a category
distinction between the act of knowing and the apodicticity (indubitable cer-
tainty) and a prioricity (non-empirical validity) that characterize laws of logic.
Husserl’s general critique of psychologism attempted to justify the claims that
logical laws are exact and a priori, and do not imply predications concerning
psychological matters of fact. Consider, for example, the difference between
the psychological act of knowing, on the one hand, and the known ideal ob-
jects pertaining to mathematics and logic, on the other. The difference can be
identified through a thought experiment in which the repetition of the same
logical meaning in numerically different acts does not render a different mean-
ing that is reducible to the iteration of each psychological act. The logical
meaning, rather, has an identity that is not reducible to the manifold of psy-
chological performances. With arguments such as this, Husserl thus defended
a non-naturalistic approach in psychology and sided with Dilthey against the
Baden School concerning the classification of psychology as a human science.
The debate between Dilthey and the Baden School also included an epis-
temological disagreement regarding the intelligibility of the real. For the
Baden School, empirical reality is a contingent and anomic infinite manifold
that becomes intelligible through concept formation. For both the (non)natu-
ralistic sciences, the stream of unconceptualized sense experience of an infinite
reality is utterly chaotic in comparison to the articulated structures of predica-
tion. The experience of an infinite manifold of single events and processes that
has no temporal and spatial limits becomes intelligible by taking recourse to
the process of concept formation of the knower. As Rickert (1986, p. 217)

If we assume that empirical reality is the only material of science, and if em-
pirical reality forms an infinite manifold whose purely factual rendition can
Embodiment and Umwelt: A Phenomenological Approach 57
never be provided by science, it is self-evident that science is possible only by
means of the reshaping undertaken by the subject.

The ‘reshaping’ involved in the knower is different in the (non)naturalistic

sciences and Rickert attempted to account for this formal difference through
an attitudinal distinction involved in the judgments concerning Natur and
Kultur. The nomological attitude (Einstellung) that animates the interests of a
natural scientist is governed by an evaluative priority of general laws that per-
tain to associated objects and states of affairs. The idiographic attitude that
animates the interest of the cultural scientist, on the other hand, is governed
by an evaluative priority of discreet features of individual events and states of
affairs involved in judgments, for example, concerning cultural history. Rick-
ert’s critique of naïve epistemological realism, in short, plays an important role
in the methodological differences between the natural and cultural sciences, a
difference that he formulated in terms of the attitudinal interests of theoretical
Not only did Dilthey maintain that this attitudinal differentiation of the
natural sciences from their non-naturalistic counterpart was too formal, but
he also rejected the strong dichotomy between concepts and intuition in-
volved in the Baden School’s critique of naïve epistemological realism. As Dil-
they (1977, p. 32) states,

The classification theory of the faculties during the time of Kant resulted in
the drastic separations, the divisive compartmentalization of his critique of
reason. This can be seen clearly as regards to the separation between intuition
and logical thought, as well as between the matter and form of knowledge.
Both distinctions, as sharp and they are with Kant, destroy the coherence of
a living nexus...

The intuitive experience of empirical reality, according to Dilthey, is not of

an infinite manifold of chaotic sense data that lacks an inherent intelligibility,
but rather an intelligible structure pre-given in a life-nexus (Lebenszusammen-
hang). The fundamental data of the intelligibility of the empirical does not
originally operate with a dichotomy between the concepts of thought and the
intuitions of the empirical. Rather, this dichotomy presupposes a more funda-
mental unity of a lived experience in a life-nexus with pre-given horizons of
meaning that are historically produced and accumulated. This life-nexus is the
proper object of the non-naturalistic sciences and remains presupposed in any
theoretical investigation,

…the theoretician of knowledge is in possession of this nexus in his own liv-

ing consciousness, from which he transports it into his theory. He presupposes
it [the life-nexus]. He makes use of it, but he is not in control of it. (Dilthey,
1977, p. 32).
58 Adam Konopka

In short, Dilthey charged the Baden school’s attitudinal distinction with

formalism in contrast to an original datum of lived experience with a pre-
given intelligibility.
Husserl’s engagement with this debate not only creatively appropriated
terminology from both sides, but radicalized the philosophical issues involved
through phenomenological methodology. More specifically, Husserl appro-
priates the Baden School’s development of attitudinal distinctions and plural-
izes an account of attitudes that not only apply to alternate forms of scientific
inquiry, but forms of pre-theoretical and phenomenological inquiry as well.
Husserl also creatively appropriated Dilthey’s correlate of lived experience and
life-nexus to develop an account of a pre-given Umwelt that was the pre-theo-
retical ground of both naturalistic and humanistic scientific inquiry.
The Natur/Geist distinction was problematic for Husserl and he spent sig-
nificant effort in the 1910s and 1920s attempting to situate phenomenology
in relation to Dilthey and the Baden School. While texts like Ideas II attempt
to address the problematic in terms that arise merely within the distinction, in
more recently published lecture courses and research manuscripts it is appar-
ent that Husserl attempted to unbuild (Abbau) the Natur/Geist distinction
through the intentional structures involved in the pre-theoretical lived experi-
ence of a pre-given Umwelt.5 This attempt culminated in Husserl’s later articu-
lation of the life-world in the Crisis writings of the 1930s. It is the pre-theoret-
ical experience of a Lebensumwelt that is presupposed by and forms a unity
with the theoretical interests of both the natural and human sciences. In de-
veloping this account, however, Husserl is in a difficult position in that he
must penetrate through the Natur/Geist distinction in an attempt to unbuild
the dichotomy, while preserving the methodological autonomy of the non-
naturalistic sciences. In order to build up a legitimate formation (Aufbau) of a
Natur/Geist distinction, it was first necessary to unbuild (Abbau) the distinc-
tion and identify and clarify the conditions of its possibility.

Lived Belief in the Natural Attitude

One of the ways in which Husserl radicalized the debate between Dilthey
and the Baden School was by appropriating Rickert’s attitudinal characteriza-
tion of the cognitive mode of concept formation in the clarification of Dil-
they’s life-nexus. While Rickert only employed attitudes to account for theo-
retical investigations, Husserl radicalized this attitudinal characterization
when he thematized pre-theoretical experience as a natural attitude. Husserl
occasionally referred to the natural attitude as a ‘life attitude’ because the nat-
ural attitude is the habitual stance we assume in everyday life (Husserl 1970,
p. 270). The natural attitude is intentionally correlated with the experience of
the world as an Umwelt and ‘life’ was the term Husserl eventually used to de-
scribe the involvement in this nexus of significance.
Embodiment and Umwelt: A Phenomenological Approach 59

Husserl formulated in the distinction between a theoretical and pre-theo-

retical experience of an Umwelt in the opening sections of each of the Ideas
triptych, but it is in the lecture courses and research manuscripts that he elab-
orates the significance for the methodological differentiation of the natural
and human sciences (and ultimately the justification for the autonomy of the
human sciences). The opening sections of Ideas II, for example, deal with the
theoretical modifications of lived experience, but it does not provide a sus-
tained analysis of the pre-theoretical (Husserl 1952, p. 11).6 How does an
analysis of the pre-theoretical experience of an Umwelt clarify the relationship
between the theoretical interests involved in the naturalistic and personalistic
attitudes? What are the methodological implications to the way Natur and
Geist can be compared and contrasted?
An attitude for Husserl is a habitual posture or stance whose intentions
shape the interests through which the sense of objects and states of affairs are
given in experience (Husserl, 1977, p. 51; 1970b, p. 280). The attitude in pre-
theoretical experience is a natural attitude in that it is properly characterized
in terms of habitual normalcy and thetic naïveté. First, the natural attitude of
ordinary everyday experience has habituated interests that are reinforced and
sedimented in routine situations. In both straightforward (pre-reflective) par-
ticipation in practical life and deliberative (practical) reflection, the natural
attitude is governed by systems of habituated interests that reinforce each
other and produce normal patterns of stylized (associative) relations in a given
situation. Second, the natural attitude can be properly characterized in terms
of its naïveté in that it implicitly posits a belief in the actual existence of ob-
jects and states of affairs in the world. Indeed, the natural attitude does not
operate with awareness that it is an attitude at all in that the intentions that
animate interests are absorbed in the overall perceptual style of habituated
situations that are presented in simple certainty. This implicit positing of the
actuality of perceptual and practical objects and states of affairs is accompa-
nied by an implicit positing of the world as an encompassing totality and the
horizon within which objects and states of affairs are disclosed. The basic and
overall belief of the natural attitude is real actuality.
The very thematization of the natural attitude implies a suspension of par-
ticipation in it. While beliefs concerning objects and states of affairs can un-
dergo modification in, for example, doubt and negation, the emergence of a
phenomenological or philosophical attitude arises in the suspension of the
participation in basic and overall belief in the world as an encompassing total-
ity. The phenomenological reduction thus involves an attitude shift that neu-
tralizes the thetic characteristics involved in how objects and states of affairs
are disclosed for and by an experiencing agent. This ‘leading back’ to an expe-
riencing agent involved in the reduction allows for experience to be consid-
ered through the intentional correlates of the experience of an object and the
object of an experience to be taken as internally unified, not externally related.
60 Adam Konopka

The structures of intentionality involved in a lived experience can be clari-

fied through a description of their cognitive, practical (volitional), and evalu-
ative attributes. First, objects and states of affairs are given in ordinary experi-
ence with cognitive contents that contribute to the justification of judgments
about those experienced objects and states of affairs. Second, pre-theoretical
interests are characterized by an instrumental or categorical structure wherein
objects and states of affairs are practically apprehended as an ‘in-order-to’
(Um-zu). Third, these practical as-structures are motivated by an evaluative
sphere of experience wherein the evaluative sense of objects and states of af-
fairs are given as likeable/unlikeable, attractive/unattractive, etc. in various
wide and varied continuums.
While Husserl’s published works largely dealt with the cognitive attributes
involved in intentionality, his lectures and research manuscripts develop more
probing and sophisticated descriptions of the embodied and evaluative attri-
butes involved in pre-theoretical life. For example, he developed accounts of
how embodied forms of valuing are evident in instinctual intentions that are
fulfilled through satisfactions that regulate the bodily equilibrium involved in
pre-reflective self-awareness. Husserl’s rather extensive analyses of the inten-
tionality of instinctual experience illustrate the sense in which the belief mo-
dalities of experience, e.g., the basic and overall doxic modality of the percep-
tual objects as really existing, are lived. Let’s briefly consider Husserl’s account
in more detail.
Generally speaking, Husserl conceived of drive intentions as embodied
impulses or strivings of practical material performances that proceed more or
less automatically toward the evaluative resolution of a tension that is instru-
mental for the preservation and welfare that is achieved in and through em-
bodied equilibrium (Husserl 2014, p. 82; 2008, pp. 316, 510; 1973a, p. 661;
Nam-In Lee 1993; Melle 1997; Mensch 1997). Consider a simple perfor-
mance of quenching thirst. Thirst can be described as an instinctual experi-
ence wherein bodily intentions are fulfilled through a resolution of a tension
manifested in feeling sensations such as a dry throat and bodily warmth. The
bodily intention animates these feeling sensations with an orientation toward
their resolution, which is to say, the sensations are negatively valued and can
even become uncomfortable. The bodily tension arises through a conflict be-
tween the feeling sensation and its negative evaluation that arises in and
through an equilibrium achieved in pre-reflective bodily self-regulation. The
tension manifested in the feeling sensations of thirst is resolved through the
temperature and taste of the water through which the feeling sensations, e.g.,
dry throat and bodily fatigue, are relieved and the horizons of interoceptive
sensation in pre-reflective bodily self-awareness are resolved.
Instinctual experience operates with doxic modalities that are related to
the positing of the real actuality of perceptual objects and states of affairs.
Parallel to the process from an empty to fulfilled perceptual intention,
Embodiment and Umwelt: A Phenomenological Approach 61

instinctually embodied intentions operate with unthematic beliefs in the 1)

possibility and 2) positive evaluation of the resolution. These belief character-
istics can be indicated through an analogy between a voluntary wish and hope.
If quenching one’s thirst operated with a positive evaluation of the perfor-
mance but not its possibility, the voluntary action would be properly charac-
terized as a wish. While the temporal structure of a wish restricts the unbelief
in the possibility of the evaluative resolution to the present, the wish can be-
come a hope through an association with a belief in the possibility of the
evaluative fulfillment in the future. While a voluntary wish does not assent to
or agree with a present possibility, a hope assents to or agrees with the possibil-
ity in the future. This distinction between a voluntary wish and hope is analo-
gous (similar and different) to the doxic modalities in instinctual experience.7
One of the initial differences between the two is the degree to which they are
thematic. Voluntary intentions are higher order volitional acts that include an
explicit ‘living through’ of focal attention whereas drive intentions are lower
order volitional acts that can have pre-egoic intentional origins in the bodily
regulation involved in pre-reflective self-awareness. For example, the feeling
sensations involved in thirst operate with unthematic positings of the 1) pos-
sibility and 2) positive evaluation of their resolution. These feeling sensations
operate with gradated saliences that range from basic allures and repulsions
analogous to psychological valences and emotional episodes and are oriented
by the overall fulfillment of bodily regulation. In short, these doxic modalities
proper to the feeling sensations of instinctual embodiment are determinative
of the senses in which objects and states of affairs are significant.
Husserl’s investigations of feeling sensations involved in the embodied
resolutions of instinctual experience illustrate how he radicalized Dilthey’s ac-
count of a life-nexus. While Husserl’s published work focused on the cogni-
tive attributes of experience, his lecture courses and research manuscripts pro-
vide more extensive analyses of practical and evaluative attributes. These more
extensive analyses, e.g., feeling sensations involved bodily regulation, radical-
ized Dilthey’s account of a life-nexus through a phenomenological account of
the intentional structures of a lived body. As we will see further below, Husserl
also radicalized the concept of life-nexus by clarifying the associative features
involved in the nexus and developed a phenomenological concept of world to
describe the overall associative horizon of the life-nexus.

Theoretical Modifications of the Natural Attitude

The distinction between the natural and phenomenological attitude is the
fundamental attitudinal distinction in phenomenological methodology and it
allows for the identification and clarification of various scientific attitudes
(Husserl 1952, p. 11). When we take up scientific interests we enact implicit
modifications of the natural attitude. The most basic modification that is
62 Adam Konopka

common to all scientific interests is brought about through assuming a theo-

retical concern that can be characterized through an interest in non-instru-
mentality, universality, and explanation. In the course of one’s personal life,
experience is dominated by an instrumental or ‘means-end’ interest in the
accomplishment of practical activities. These goal-oriented activities do not
operate with a first person interest in the theoretical dimensions available for
reflection. For example, as we drive our automobiles or build our homes our
lived experiences are instrumental for reaching a destination and completing
a shelter and so on. These goal oriented activities do not operate with a first
person interest in the theoretical dimensions available for reflection, e.g., the
principles of physics relevant to internal combustion engines and the chemical
properties of building materials. When we turn our attention from our practi-
cal concerns to consider objects and states of affair as non-instrumental or
ends in themselves, we become theoretically interested in them, which is to
say, their immediate instrumental value is suspended in favor of an epistemic
valuation. These objects and states of affairs become significant to us not
merely through their practical purpose but with a manner of givenness shaped
by a curiosity to know them. When this theoretical interest becomes habitu-
ated to the point where it forms certain normative styles of attention, we have
assumed a scientific attitude.
A scientific or theoretical attitude thus shifts the ordinary or everyday
characteristics of the natural attitude with an extra-ordinary curiosity for
knowing objects and states of affairs. As Husserl put it, the turn to theoria is a
‘voluntary epoché of all natural praxis (Husserl 1970b, p. 283). Even though
there is a shift in this exchange between the dogmatism of our everyday opin-
ions with an implicit critique of this dogmatism through theoretical interest,
the scientific attitudes still maintain the basic doxic and being modality of the
natural attitude – the belief in the existence of the world. In the theoretical
inspection of the internal combustion engine or the building materials for a
house, the belief in the existence of the engine or materials is not called into
question or suspended. In shifting our practical interests from whether or not
the engine or materials continue to function in their handiness to a theoretical
interest in how they function as such, we do not suspend participation in the
belief that they function in a variety of different ways. Given that the belief in
the existence of objects and states of affairs in the world is ‘the general thesis
of the natural attitude,’ the scientific attitudes still remain natural attitudes in
that they operate with an ontological naïveté (Husserl 1977, p. 52).
Husserl thus draws a distinction between the natural attitude of life and
the theoretically modified natural attitudes of the scientist. The scientific at-
titudes could thus be considered theoretical species of the natural attitude.
While there are, in principle, scientific attitudes specific to each scientific dis-
cipline, e.g., biology, chemistry, and physics, Husserl in Ideas II and accompa-
nying Natur/Geist lecture courses pioneers two basic attitudes corresponding
Embodiment and Umwelt: A Phenomenological Approach 63

to the broad domain of the natural and human sciences. The attitude of the
natural scientist is the naturalistic attitude wherein the researcher confines her
theoretical interest to the physical or material features of the objects of experi-
ence. This isolation of the spatio-temporal materiality of objects is accom-
plished through the neutralization of subjective accomplishments in experi-
ence, e.g., the meaning predicates that indicate and express non-epistemic
value and so on, which allows the natural scientist to secure a stratum of ap-
pearances that are, in principle, reducible to res extensa (Husserl 1952, p. 33).
If a chemist, for example, were to investigate a painting in New York’s Metro-
politan Museum of Art in the naturalistic attitude, she would merely be con-
cerned and interested in the various chemical properties of the physical fea-
tures of the paint (Husserl 1952, p. 8). Her attention toward the author of the
work, the composition of the painting, and its historical significance would be
put out of play in the naturalistic attitude. The isolation of the physical fea-
tures of phenomenon results in a neutralization of a variety of cognitive, prac-
tical, and evaluative attributes involved in a full range of aesthetic experience.
The naturalistic attitude is thus a limiting attitude in that its theoretical inter-
est is confined to merely physical characteristics of experience and this restric-
tion of attention is a modification of the broader scope of meaning predicates
in the pre-theoretical natural attitude.
The personalistic attitude of the human scientist is also a modification of
the pre-theoretical natural attitude, but the scope of available possibilities for
theoretical interest remains much broader than its naturalistic counterpart. In
the personalistic attitude, our interest is not only directed toward the physical
features of objects and states of affairs, but other forms of givenness such as we
find in legal codes, intersubjective communities, and historical events. The
non-physical properties of objects and states of affairs, e.g., the motivational
features of a person in social interactions, do not present themselves apart
from their physical properties but neither is a full account of them reducible
to their material features. While the forms of givenness in the personalistic
attitude are not separate from or juxtaposed to their physicality, these phe-
nomena have an ‘excess’ or ‘surplus’ beyond their merely physical givenness
(Husserl 1952, p. 176). While personalistic interests cover a broad range of
phenomena, the particular human sciences confine theoretical attention to
specific types of phenomena – the historian relegates her interest to historical
events, the sociologist to social phenomena, and the psychologist to psycho-
physical properties of the person. These are all interests that, in principle, are
also available to the pre-theoretical natural attitude, but when we assume the
personalistic attitude, we theoretically modify these interests by neutralizing
their practical significances. The personalistic attitude is also thus a modifica-
tion of the personal concerns and interests of the natural attitude of life.
While Rickert confined his formulation of attitudes to the theoretical in-
quiry involved in scientific methodology, Husserl radicalized Rickert’s
64 Adam Konopka

formulation through a pluralized account of attitudes. The plurality of various

attitudes can be distinguished according to the doxic modalities and being
characteristics that condition interests in objects and states of affairs. Husserl’s
attitudinal characterization of the lived experience involved in pre-theoretical
natural attitude provided the methodological resources for a phenomenologi-
cal clarification of Dilthey’s life-nexus. As we have seen, Husserl radicalized
Dilthey’s conception of life, e.g., through investigations of the embodied reso-
lutions of the lived body involved in instinctual experience. Husserl also in-
vestigated the correlative features involved in the nexus of significance of lived
experience. As we will see below, his clarification of the organization involved
in the objective correlates of lived experience employed a theory of association
that identified the systemic patterns of pre-given unity.

General Introduction of Lebensumwelt: The Pre-Given Lebenswelt

The theoretical modification of natural attitude of life in the two broad
scientific attitudes that correlate with (non)naturalistic theoretical inquiry are
correlated with a certain horizon of objects and states of affairs that are unified
in overall harmonious associations. The concerns and interests of each of the
above attitudes are shaped by the associative styles of the pre-given world with
which they are correlated. In the natural, naturalistic, and personalistic atti-
tudes, the world is the sum totality of all objects. In a phenomenological at-
titude, the term ‘world’ is the intentional correlate of consciousness that pro-
vides the overall context in and through which objects and states of affairs
have sense.
Husserl’s discovery of the phenomenological concept of world occurred in
the context of unbuilding the Natur/Geist distinction. In attempting to gener-
ally clarify Natur as the overall correlate of the naturalistic attitude of the
natural sciences and Geist as the overall correlate of the personalistic attitude
of the human sciences, Husserl’s investigations led him to consider the clarifi-
cation of the world as the overall correlate of the pre-theoretical natural atti-
tude of life. As highlighted above, this primordial attitude operates with doxic
modalities and thetic characteristics that are proper to the feeling sensations of
the lived body’s orientation toward regulative equilibrium in and through a
sense making process. Even the modalities of feeling sensations of a lived body
are characteristic of a sense making process operate with horizons of possibil-
ity with an unthematic overall associative unity. The disclosure of a world is
not merely a high order cognitive achievement, but implicitly and unthe-
matically operates in a sense making process proper to feeling sensations and
embodied resolutions (Husserl 1966, p. 298; 1952, p. 158).
Husserl’s identification of the pre-given world as an embodied and lived
world radicalized Dilthey’s notion of a life-nexus and was also influenced by
Richard Avenarius’ notion of the ‘natural concept of world.’ Like Dilthey,
Embodiment and Umwelt: A Phenomenological Approach 65

Avenarius was critical of the naturalistic psychology of his day that uncriti-
cally accepted first person experience and he attempted to develop a synthetic
and analytic account of the mental contents of ‘pure experience’ that he un-
derstood to be analogous to physiological processes in the brain. Avenarius’
attempt to bring the psychic and physical into a close parallel operated with a
minimal commitment to presuppositions concerning a living thing. A living
thing, according to Avenarius, required the nourishment and exercise involved
in the striving to maintain a ‘vital maximum’ through the maintenance of
bodily equilibrium in response to a changing environment (Umgebung) (Av-
enarius 1888, pp. 64-72). He categorizes this orientation toward the stability
of bodily equilibrium in response to environmental changes as ‘System C’ and
describes the motivational attributes of this orientation, for example, in pe-
riphery perception in terms of relevancy and familiarity. Husserl’s account of
the feeling sensations proper to a lived body condition a process of world
disclosure engages this account of periphery perception. Let’s briefly consider
Husserl’s engagement of Avenarius in more detail.
Husserl’s approach to the formation of the concept of world can be intro-
duced through his account of ‘habitualities’ (Husserl 1970a, pp. 66-67; 1959,
p. 75). He employed this account of the habitual features of experience to
describe a wide range of higher order cognitive, practical, and evaluative phe-
nomena. He also characterized lower order perceptual and embodied habitu-
alities that contribute to a process of association involved in horizontal antici-
pation of novel objects and states of affairs. Husserl’s basic claim was that each
perception of an object with a new sense, especially when that experience is
evidential through a process of intentional fulfillment, produces an abiding
conviction for the perceiver. Consider again the example of quenching thirst.
The perception of the temperature and wetness of the water is accompanied
by resolved feeling sensations of increased bodily temperature and fatigue. As
these perceptions and feeling sensations retentionally recede into the past, the
perceptual fulfillments and resolved bodily sensations likewise recede into the
past but can also inform subsequent experiences in the future. While this
process of habitual association is not necessarily propositional, it can be re-
flected in judgments like ‘Cool water quenches thirst’ and the practical prop-
erty of ‘thirst quenching’ can accompany the anticipation of future experi-
ences of drinking water. The retentional phase of quenched thirst and the ac-
companying resolutions of feeling sensations thereby contribute to an abiding
conviction in the embodied perceiver regarding drinking water’s embodied
significance for quenching thirst. The accumulation of sedimented convic-
tions produces in the embodied perceiver an overall ‘empirical style.8 In the
course of accumulated confirmations of resolved feeling sensations, the per-
ception of anticipated objects and states of affairs become associated with af-
fordances for further bodily regulation.
66 Adam Konopka

Husserl’s claim that habitualities make an essential contribution to percep-

tion can be further clarified through an analogy between kinaesthetic and
feeling sensations involved in pre-reflective bodily self-awareness. Kinaesthet-
ic sensations are sensations through which a subject is aware of movements of
sense organs and the lived body (Husserl 1973b, pp. 161, 136; 1966, p. 299).
These sensations of bodily movement are an inherent moment in the percep-
tion of objects, which is to say, the flow of kinaesthetic sensations are corre-
lated with the flow of presenting contents. In ambulatory movement, for ex-
ample, I not only perceive the walking path, but the correlative bodily sensa-
tions involved in my leg and arm movements. While the process of learning
how to walk may involve concerted attention to the correlation between kin-
aesthetic sensations and ambulatory movement, these correlations become
unthematic in pre-reflective bodily self-awareness through a process of sedi-
mented habitualities. In this process, this sensation of individual bodily move-
ments – leg, arm, neck, and eye movements – become passively synthesized in
a kinaesthetic horizon correlated with the perceptual horizons of objects and
states of affairs (Husserl 1971, p. 118; 1952, p. 155). This horizonal correla-
tion between the pre-reflective bodily self-awareness in kinaesthetic sensations
and the horizons of perceptual sense is an example of an overall habitual style
of experiencing a world.
The habitualities involved in feeling sensations oriented toward embodied
resolutions are analogous (similar and different) to kinaesthetic sensations
(Husserl, 1984, pp. 109-112). First, feeling sensations such as a dry throat or
an empty stomach are given as unresolved tensions that are affectively orient-
ed toward resolution through felt discomfort. The saliences of embodied reso-
lutions in this regard are analogous to higher order psychological valences.
Kinaesthetic sensations are not given with the same motivational structure.
Second, like kinaesthetic sensations, however, feeling sensations oriented to-
ward resolution are correlative to the perceptual sense of objects and states of
affairs. As I increasingly become thirsty during a long walk on a summer day,
for example, the salience of the discomfort of a dry throat and bodily fatigue
can motivate explicit thematic attention, but these feeling sensations below
certain salience thresholds can also remain implicit in pre-reflective bodily
self-awareness. Thus, feeling sensations oriented toward resolution are affec-
tively charged with salience in a way that kinaesthetic sensations are not.
Third, the particular feeling sensations involved in bodily fatigue and tem-
perature, for example, become passively synthesized in an affective horizon of
the lived body that is correlated with kinaesthetic horizons involved in percep-
tual senses of objects and states of affairs. While the kinaesthetic horizon in-
volved in pre-reflective bodily self-awareness is an integrated manifold of sen-
sory contents that is indicated by the bodily gestalt, if you like, involved in
proprioception, the embodied horizon of feeling sensations oriented toward
resolution is not integrated in the same way. That is, these feeling sensations
Embodiment and Umwelt: A Phenomenological Approach 67

remain localized to particular bodily organs or parts, e.g., throat, stomach,

etc., rather than becoming unified in a way that is proper to the sensory inte-
gration involved in movement. Fourth, feeling sensations involved in embod-
ied resolutions are largely subject to supervening voluntary intentions whereas
kinaesthetic sensations are not. I can freely volitionally intend an endorse-
ment or resistance to orientation toward bodily resolutions, e.g., choose to
satisfy or refrain from satisfying thirst or hunger. It does not seem possible,
however, to voluntarily supervene on the pre-reflective bodily self-awareness
involved in walking. Despite these important similarities and differences be-
tween kinaesthetic and feeling sensations, both sets of sensation operate with
habitualities that become sedimented with belief modalities and being charac-
teristics. In sum, like the habitualities involved in kinaesthetic sensations,
then, feeling sensations oriented toward bodily regulation also condition the
overall habitual style of experiencing a world (Husserl 1959, p. 169).
Husserl characterized the associative process involved in the pre-reflective
bodily self-awareness correlated with the overall empirical style of the percep-
tual horizons through what he called ‘tendencies.’ Tendencies generally refer
to the affective and motivational attributes involved in passive synthesis.

By affective force I mean a tendency directed toward the ego, a tendency

whose reaction is a responsivity on the part of the ego. That is, in yielding
to the affection – in other words, by being “motivated” – the ego takes up an
endorsing position; it decides actively for what is enticing, and it does so in the
mode of subjective certainty (Husserl, 1966, p. 50; 1959, p. 196).

Tendencies operate with various thresholds of affective allure or repulsion

wherein a sense making process passively elicits the attention of the perceiver.
This passivity is not pure, however, but accompanied by a horizon of unthe-
matic feeling sensations that are inclined toward bodily regulation. The pas-
sive association involved in the anticipation of new objects in a perceptual
horizon does not merely administer allure/repulsion on thematic attention in
higher order performances, but is inclusive of allures/repulsions correlated
with unthematic feeling sensations (Husserl 2014, p. 132 ff.). When a percep-
tual object comes to prominence, it is disclosed with a style that is condi-
tioned by these habituated feeling sensations involved in bodily regulation.
Husserl more generally characterized the allure and repulsion involved in
tendentious associations as horizons of familiarity and relevancy. Tendentious
associations do not merely arise in the prominence of individual objects, but
the associations among various objects and states of affairs. When an indi-
vidual object comes to prominence with an affecting salience, its appearance
retains an association with habitual style of feeling sensations. These associa-
tions point to other associations through outer horizons and comprise systems
of referential indication in an overall horizon of familiarity. This overall hori-
zon of familiarity through which objects are disclosed with specific senses is
68 Adam Konopka

also pre-given as a horizon of relevancy for feeling sensations involved in

bodily regulation (Husserl 2008, pp. 311, 510; Merleau-Ponty 1967, p. 151).
This is the process in which pre-reflective self-awareness of feeling sensations
becomes correlated with an Umwelt.
The associative attributes involved in the overall horizons of familiarity
and relevancy have an overall unthematic unity through the disclosure of a
world. Husserl’s phenomenological clarification of Dilthey’s conception of a
life-nexus as a Lebensumwelt thus emphasized a particular kind of overall uni-
ty that is not descriptively captured by the term ‘nexus’ (Zuzammenhang). The
sedimented empirical style proper to the totality of possible perceptual experi-
ence is pre-given with a unity of similarity (harmony) through which indi-
vidual objects and states of affairs are disclosed with sense. This ‘harmonious
style’ is not reducible to subjective accomplishments nor does it become fully
determinate. Rather, it is accomplished by the enworlding (Verweltlichung) or
worldhood of an Umwelt.9

Husserl’s lecture courses and research manuscripts on the Natur/Geist dis-
tinction develop a sense of ‘life-in-the-world’ that correlates an embodied ho-
rizon of feeling sensations with the habituated sensuous style of objects and
states of affairs in an Umwelt. The general sketch above is perhaps sufficient to
respond to Merleau-Ponty’s criticism that Husserl was not able to overcome
the duality between Natur and Geist or Barry Smith’s criticism that Husserl
conceived of mental experience in isolation from a ‘surrounding physico-bio-
logical environment.’ As we have seen, a lived body’s correlate with an Umwelt
is pregnant with sense associations that are prior to the theoretical modifica-
tions involved in the formation of the Natur as the correlate of the naturalistic
attitude and Geist as the correlate of the personalistic attitude.
The belief modalities and thetic characteristics involved in the natural at-
titude are inclusive of the goal orientation involved in the feeling sensations
involved in bodily regulation. As we have seen, the lived belief in the evalua-
tive possibility of embodied resolutions in pre-reflective bodily self-awareness
contributes to a sense making process in an Umwelt as a horizon of relevancy
and familiarity through a process of sedimented habitualities. This ‘overall
empirical style’ is inclusive of a sensuous style proper to associations among
objects and states of affairs in horizons of tendencies that condition and are
conditioned by the feeling sensations involved in bodily regulation.
Embodiment and Umwelt: A Phenomenological Approach 69


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Fink, E 1976, Nähe und Distanz. Phänomenologische Vorträge und Aufsätze, Franz-
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(trans), Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague.
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Carr D (trans), Northwestern University Press, Evanston.
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anuskripten 1918-1926, Fleischer M (ed) Husserliana XI, Martinus Nijhoff, The
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gischen Reduktion, Boehm R (ed) Husserliana VIII, Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague.
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losophie, Zweites Buch: Phänomenologische Untersuchungen zur Konstitution, ed.
Marly Biemel M (ed) Husserliana IV, Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague.
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Max Niemeyer, Halle.
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School of Neo-Kantianism. Journal of the History of Philosophy, vol. 26, no. 2, pp.
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velde P and Luft S (eds) Phenomenology, Archaeology, Ethics: Current Investigations
of Husserl’s Corpus, Continuum, New York, pp. 120-131.
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Geist Distinction, Human Studies, vol. 32, pp. 313-333.
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lishers, Dordrecht.
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phy, vol. 7, no.4, pp. 423-440.
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Phenomenology of Values and Valuing, Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht,
Mensch, JR 1997, Instincts: A Husserlian Account, Husserl Studies, vol. 14, no. 3, pp.
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(trans), Northwestern University Press, Evanston.
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Mill, JS 1974, A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive: Being a Connected
View of the Principles of Evidence, and Methods of Scientific Investigation, In
Robson JM (ed) Collected Works VIII, University of Toronto Press, Toronto.
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Journal of Consciousness Studies, vol. 11, no. 1 ,pp. 3-28.
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nal of Consciousness Studies, vol. 11, no.1, pp. 87–98.
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Author Biographies

Adam Konopka currently serves as the Besl Family Chair at Xavier University. He earned
his Ph.D. in Philosophy from Fordham University, where he was twice awarded the
Teaching Fellow of the Year (2006-2007, 2007-2008). His research is broadly in-
formed by 20th century European philosophy and is focused on a phenomenological
development of environmental philosophy and public policy. He received the Early
Career Scholar Award from the Association of Practical and Professional Ethics (2013)
and the Emerging Scholar Award from the College of Mount St. Joseph (2013).
Address: Xavier University, Department of Philosophy, Ethics/Religion and Society, 3800
Victory Parkway, Cincinnati, OH 45207-3491, USA. Email:

1 Husserl gave lectures courses on the Natur/Geist distinction in 1912, 1919, and
1927. He also substantively engages the distinction in the seminars Phenomenol-
ogy and Psychology (1917) and Phenomenological Psychology (1925).
2 Smith thus finds it necessary to supplement a Husserlian account of environed
embodiment with the ecological psychology of J. J. Gibson in order to gain a ‘new
realist interpretation’ of environing phenomenon. See also Smith 1999.
3 The Natur/Geist distinction can be historically traced back to John Stuart Mill’s
distinction. See Mill 1974. On early uses of the scientific use of the term “Geist,”
see Rothacker 1948; Makkreel 1969; Plantinga 1980.
4 Dilthey’s position develops and culminates in his Der Aufbau der geschichtlichen
Welt in den Geisteswissenschaften (1910). For an account of this development, see
Jalbert 1988; Owensby 1994.
5 This unbuilding is developed further in Konopka, 2009.
6 Eugen Fink (1976, p. 190) argues that pre-theoretical natural attitude remained
an ‘operative concept’ in Ideas II, Luft, 1998.
7 This analogical methodology is developed in Walton, 2010; Melle, 1997.
8 Husserl’s account bears similarities with Alva Noë and Evan Thompson’s sensory
motor knowledge. See Noë and Thompson, 2004a and 2004b, Herbert and Pol-
latos, 2012; Craig, 2002.
9 Husserl (2002, p. 228) characterizes Umwelt as the constitutive ground of the con-
cept of world, ‘That which has already resulted for us in this regard is the fundamen-
tal basis of the original source of the determination of the concept ‘world,’ namely,
the necessary form of the correlation “I and my Umwelt,” and the correlation “I and
my pre-theoretical Umwelt”’ (Konopka 2010; Gurwitsch 1964, pp. 11).
Social Imaginaries 1.2 (2015) 72-91

The Problem of Morality

in a Mathematised Universe:
Time and Eternity in Dostoevsky’s
The Brothers Karamazov and the
Concept of ‘Love’ in Patočka’s Last Essay
Ľubica Učník

Abstract: In this paper, I will use Jan Patočka’s last written essay, ‘Notes
on Masaryk’s Theological Philosophy’, to reflect on Dostoevsky’s novel,
The Brothers Karamazov. According to Patočka, in this novel, Dosto-
evsky offers an answer to Kant and his notion of immortality as a fea-
ture of practical reason only. Kant’s intervention in modern philosophy
is well known. It is much less discussed that his influence was to refor-
mulate not only metaphysics, but also theology. Dostoevsky takes up
the challenge of the Kantian solution and plays it out in his novels. His
critique of science and utilitarian morality and his treatment of chil-
dren, immortality and love will be the focus of this paper. I will suggest
that the problem of a duality between rationality and divinity limits
Dostoevsky’s critique of Kant.

Key Words: Patočka — Kant — Dostoevsky — Masaryk — immortality of

the soul — moral God — utilitarian Ethics

In this paper, I will build on a few remarks that Jan Patočka makes in his
last written essay, ‘Notes on Masaryk’s Theological Philosophy’. The issues he
covers include, but are not limited to, the new scientific reconfiguration of
nature, the problem of subjectivity and objectivity, the Kantian theodicy
which changed the landscape of philosophy, and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s retort
to this new theodicy. Patočka also notes the problem of the Kantian endeavour
to explain the finite moral conduct of humans if ‘evil’ is allowed to become a
part of the finite world. The question Kant grapples with regarding the
problems that arise with the new scientific re-configuration of nature has
The Problem of Morality in a Mathematised Universe 73

become obscured for us. We accept without question the scientific description
of nature and a morality without God. As Patočka suggests, Dostoevsky’s novels
deal with this changing world and his writing can give us a glimpse of those
changes that earlier thinkers considered. Dostoevsky was a genuine seismographer
of a changing society. His vision gave us not only ‘the laws of this disintegration
and this new formation’; he also provided a reflection concerning the ‘old and
past’ that had ceased to be (Dostoevsky 1994d, pp. 847–848).
Patočka (1907–1977) was a Czech phenomenologist—the last student of
Edmund Husserl, a student of Heidegger, a student and later friend of Eugen
Fink, and a friend of Ludwig Landgrebe, Jacob Klein, Alexander Koyré, Walter
Biemel and many other phenomenologists. Except for two brief periods (after
1945 and 1968), he was not allowed to teach. Instead, he worked in the archives
of Tomáš Guarrigue Masaryk, a philosopher, sociologist and the first president
of Czechoslovakia; and when this archive was closed in socialist Czechoslovakia,
he worked in the archive of Jan Amos Komenský (Comenius). After his forced
retirement from the university, he held private seminars from the early 1970s
until his early death. At the end of his life, he became a signatory of and
spokesperson for the civic movement, Charta 77, which contributed to his
death, precipitated by a long interrogation by the secret police.
It is Patočka’s repeated return to Masaryk’s writing that I want to examine
in this paper. Patočka’s critique of Masaryk changes over time (Chvatík 2012),
but the motif that runs through his engagement with Masaryk is constant. It is
to question Masaryk’s critique of modernity, which Masaryk attributes to
modern subjectivism, which he sees as egotism, leading to an age where moral
Christian values are dead. In his few returns to Masaryk’s diagnosis,1 Patočka
struggles to formulate his answers. In his last written essay, Patocka again returns
to Masaryk and Dostoevsky, and their struggle with modern subjectivism.
According to Ivan Chvatík, in this last essay, Patočka finally formulates his
answer in non-theological terms (2012).
In this paper, I will expand on a few short, sometimes cryptic remarks by
Patočka, by going back to their sources, which Patočka only references, and
will try to map the trajectory of his final critique of Dostoevsky; which has
become, for Patočka, representative of the nineteenth-century Russian struggle
with modernity’s arrival in Russia.
Dostoevsky’s critique of scientific reasoning was firmly grounded in the
sphere of human affairs. His novel, The Brothers Karamazov,2 tackles utilitarian
morality, leading to his reflection on the immortality of the soul and the role
of love to offer a possible way to reconsider the role of divinity in the world of
our living; as opposed to the utilitarian moral auditing that eliminates human
responsibility in favour of environmental causes that (supposedly) inescapably
shape human conduct. Dostoevsky attempts to show how the consequences
of utilitarian moral accounting might lead to a disintegration of the fabric of
society itself. Patočka takes up Dostoevsky’s critique by attempting to rethink
74 Ľubica Učník

the character Zosima’s idea of love, which, for Patočka, need not be tied to
divinity. Patočka’s effort is to reconfigure the way we might think about our
individual social responsibility outside of a religious framework. In short, he
attempts to rethink the problem of time and eternity in a world bereft of God.
One of the first to realise the incompatibility of the modern scientific
understanding of nature with human meaning, leading to a problematic
‘place’ of morality, was Kant.

Kant on Theodicy

The tree, good in predisposition, is not yet good in deed; for, if it were so, it
surely could not bring forth bad fruit. Only when a human being has incor-
porated into his maxim the incentive implanted in him for the moral law, is
he called a good human being (the tree, a good tree absolutely) (Kant 1996
[1793], p. 6:45 [90], note*).

Although Kant’s influence on the ‘restructure’ of metaphysics is broadly

acknowledged, much less discussed is his contribution to theology. Although
John R. Silber asserts that Kant’s religion ‘is essentially a religion of ethics’
(1960: lxxx), Patočka notes that, in fact, Kant’s discussion redefines the
problem of theology for future thinkers by dismantling the notion of an
absolute onto-theology and redefining theology in moral terms related only to
human life. According to Patočka, ‘a new doctrine of God is conceived in
terms of the meaning of human life within the overall meaning of the universe’
(1991 [1976], p. 53).
Patočka suggests that in his first Critique, Kant ‘destroys’ not only
speculative metaphysics but also rational religion. Kant’s achievement is to
rethink the role of God and the place of humans in this modern, mathematised
universe; which ceases to have meaning in itself, turning into a mechanically
self-driven machine, oblivious to human ends and hopes, and devoid of any
moral precepts. In this scientific universe, as Kant warns, ‘our use of the
concept of cause and effect cannot be extended beyond nature’ (1996 [1793],
p. 6:53 [96]); hence, the ideas of human freedom and the final Good that
God guarantees cannot be explained by modern knowledge. The final Good
with its divine guarantor is simply unknowable. In other words, our human
knowledge is limited by experience. God is beyond human experience,
residing in the supersensible domain that onto-theology accounted for until
the advent of modern knowledge. The logic of scientific knowledge eventually
undermines the divine ground, which was not an issue at its inception. If
nature is mathematical, as science conceives of it, then humans can devise
ways to know it. God is superfluous in the scientific edifice. Only ‘dogmatic
faith’ can maintain that we can know God, that we can provide ‘knowledge’ of
The Problem of Morality in a Mathematised Universe 75

His existence (6:52 [96]: italics in original). In short, Kant realises that ‘our
reason is absolutely incapable of insight into the relationship in which any
world as we may ever become acquainted with through experience stands with
respect to the highest wisdom’ (8:263 [30], italics in original). We can never
have knowledge of God – knowledge is a prerogative of scientific reasoning
about the physical world – and, yet, as persons, we must think of God as the
ground of the highest Good, which we ought to strive for if we want to live in
a world that is a decent place.
In his essay, ‘On the Miscarriage of all Philosophical Trials in Theodicy’,
published in 1791 (Kant, 1996 [1791]),3 Kant suggests that the only concept
of God that we can think of – without knowing God – is ‘a concept of [H]im
as a moral being’ (8:256, note * [25]). As he elaborates, the attempt to ‘prove’
the divine existence using the notion of Necessary or Supreme Being by a
‘would-be advocate of God’ is futile (8:255 [24]). According to Kant, ‘there is
one thing…namely a proof of God’s wisdom’ that no human reasoning can
supply, ‘since omniscience would be required to recognize in a given world…
that perfection of which we could say with certainty that absolutely none
other is possible in creation and its government’ (8:256 [25]). We are not
omniscient, we cannot provide ‘a proof of God’s wisdom’, we cannot provide
any proof for our belief. We cannot know, but we can believe by thinking of
God and his wisdom.
The Kantian project aims to show that if reason is not anchored by human
experience, it transgresses its boundaries to make groundless claims for which
humans cannot provide any evidence, leading to the famous Kantian antinomies.
It is not possible to provide evidence for the existence or non-existence of God:
it is outside human experience. According to Kant, if we recognise natural laws
only – that is, the laws of nature that science reveals – morality is meaningless.
To think of moral laws, we must acknowledge, even if only as a stipulative idea,
of God’s wisdom. Or to put it differently, Kant accepts the scientific conception
of nature, which leads him to rethink theodicy.
For us, living in the twenty-first century, this is a simple fact. Science tells
us what the world is like and God is simply an empty idea, which some cannot
yet accept as empty – though this conclusion is inevitable. There is no God;
we are already schooled in this way of thinking. Kant is one of the first to
realise the implication for moral and existential human meaning in a world
left to itself and conceived as a mechanism that is only accessible through
scientific reasoning. Scientific reasoning is the only reasoning that can give us
knowledge of nature. Yet, how can metaphysics and theology explain God or
the purpose of the world that he has created if no knowledge of him or his
‘deeds’ is possible? This problem can be explained by looking at the shift in the
domain of knowledge.
76 Ľubica Učník

The Ground of Knowledge

For science is not merely an accumulation of facts but a whole new way of
looking at the world. Scientific ideas and methods spread into areas of thought
where they had hitherto been absent… With the rise of science…science and
truth came to be synonymous, and religion was relegated to the sphere of
myth and superstition (Thompson 2002, p. 192).

The ground of medieval knowledge is the omniscient God. As St Thomas

Aquinas writes, ‘the divine intellect is the measure of things, since everything
has as much truth as it is modelled on the divine intellect’ (2002, p. 31). For
Aquinas, human reason is a part of the divine, immutable reason, whereby an
omniscient God secures mutable human meaning. Human meaning is always
relative to our place in the world; God’s wisdom grounds it by its eternal,
immutable security. We can always err, our reason can fly unchecked, we can
lack the total meaning of the world, but God’s wisdom secures our human
knowledge. ‘Human law has the nature of law insofar as it is in accord with
right reason, and that is evidently derived from eternal law’ (2002, p. 34).4
Relativism and scepticism are kept at bay by divine truth, since ‘everything
belonging to created things, whether contingent or necessary, belongs to the
eternal law’ (2002, p. 35).
This divine ground is destroyed by modern science, whereby ‘science and truth
came to be synonymous’, while ‘religion was relegated to the sphere of myth and
superstition’ (Thompson, 2002, p. 192). Nature is not divinely created, it simply
is mathematical. We can access it’s ‘secrets’ – now reconfigured as ‘functioning’ –
with our finite human reasoning. We need only to understand nature’s mathe­
matical structure. Human knowledge is not dependent on anything else. God
becomes superfluous in this edifice (Sullivan 1933, p. 139).
Yet, this removal of a divine transcendent ground brings about the
realisation that a mechanistically conceived nature is oblivious to human lives.
Humans have lost not only the divine guarantee to keep secure their relative
mortal meaning; they have also lost their central place within a divinely
ordered nature. Once nature, with its purposes and telos, is transformed into
the geometrical manifold of modern science – into a self-running mechanism
– divine reason, now superfluous, is replaced by a new type of reasoning,
which Dostoevsky calls Euclidian (2004, pp. 234–236). The new scientific
reasoning, with its formal structure, is the highest achievement of reason; yet,
it is relative to the scientific progression of knowledge. The moral certainty
assured by a future harmony in the afterlife, based on a belief in the immortality
of the soul and the highest moral Good provided by God, is incomprehensible
in this new world. Nikolai Stavrogin’s ‘confession’ from Dostoevsky’s Notebooks
– relating to crimes committed in Stavrogin’s youth and recounted by
Dostoevsky in Demons (1995) – makes this point clear. If there is no God with
The Problem of Morality in a Mathematised Universe 77

his guarantee, human will is all that is left to us. As Stavrogin admits, referring
to those crimes, ‘the chief factor was my own wicked will’. Most do not realise
this groundlessness of moral precepts. They rely on their will only, performing
immoral deeds without realising that if there is no divine ground, their will is
without anchor. As Nikolai sums up, people are ‘uprooted from the ground’
and they ‘do not even notice their nasty acts and think themselves honest’.5
Ivan Karamazov expresses it thus: ‘Conscience! What is conscience? I make it
up myself. Why do I suffer then? Out of habit. Out of universal human habit
over seven thousand years. So let us get out of the habit, and we shall be gods!’
(2004, p. 653).

Moral Maxim
The question of human conscience is posed not by Ivan but by an inner
voice that he struggles with, represented by Dostoevsky as the voice of devil.
This voice presents to Ivan his own Euclidian reasoning; Ivan is not so sure
that it is good. One may suggest that the reasoning urging Ivan to will himself
to become a god is an extension of one of the two components of the Kantian
moral maxim: subjective human willing. The Kantian moral maxim is a
combination of divine law and human Willkür: in other words, Kant
acknowledges and affirms human subjectivity – active willing. Acting,
according to Kant, cannot be evil; only willing leading to a deed can, because
willing is based on freedom of our will (1996 [1793], p. 6:35 [81]). The moral
maxim is constituted by ‘two determining grounds’: one constituted by ‘a will
unconditionally obedient to the law’ and the other aiming at one’s own
empirical ‘natural perfection’ (6:4 [57], note*). For Kant, most humans,
sometimes even without realising it, pervert the moral maxim, placing it in
the service of self-love; in effect replacing unconditional moral law with
empirical ends that can only be ‘conditionally good’ (6:4 [57], note*). Hence,
subjectivity, relying on empirical ends, outbalances the immutable divine law,
corrupting the moral maxim. This is the egotism that Masaryk conflates with
subjectivism, as I noted above. In Kant’s ‘Religion Within the Boundaries of
Mere Reason’, ‘the human being is by nature evil’ (6:32 [79]).
This is the quandary brought about by a reconfiguration of nature that is
conceived as running independently of God and humans. Once we realise
that the final cause and purpose of the universe are eliminated in favour of its
mechanism, how can we account for human meaning and the purpose of
human life? Is God, as a stipulative idea, enough to stave off the victorious
march of utilitarianism, which explains everything in terms of the ideal
mathematised concept of causality and reconfigures it in reference to our
finite lives? This is the meaning of Kant’s heroic effort. He attempts to recover
the purpose and telos of the universe, which are not reducible to ideal causality.
The purpose and telos of the universe are unknowable in terms of modern
78 Ľubica Učník

knowledge, yet humans can think of them as ideas. Hence, humans can
understand the world’s meaning and their place in it, which science has
stripped away. Dostoevsky takes on this new problematic by imagining its
consequences in his novels. According to Patočka, in BK, Dostoevsky provides
a different approach to Kant’s solution by rethinking the notion of immortality
of the soul that had previously given support to human, finite morality.
In his novels, Dostoevsky problematises moral law as unconditional if it is
not guaranteed by belief in the immortality of the soul – in other words, by
God. Contrary to Kant, this moral law is a rational idea that can guide humans
in the world of contingency; through the actions of his characters Dostoevsky
suggests that moral law can only be binding if people believe in God and his
goodness. Otherwise, moral law as an idea is not unconditional, as Kant has
it, but is good only ‘on condition’ (6:4 [57], note*) that humans accept its
codification. Rationally, without God and his guarantee of eternity, the
present is relative to our human ends; no ground can be built anew for
universal moral law. Once utilitarians refuse the power of divine law, there is
nothing left to guide us in the maze of human affairs. Utilitarian reasoning is
rational, but this rationality is based on an impersonal natural reasoning that
has no regard for human action. Humans are already reduced to impersonal
mechanical processes. Morality cannot be taken into account in this rationally
reconfigured human mechanistic society. Thus, Dostoevsky, challenging the
Kantian solution, paints the outcome of the acceptance of the scientific
explanation of human affairs reduced to empeiria as the reductio ad absurdum
of utilitarian reasoning.
For Dostoevsky, ethics cannot become ‘a sort of science’, although in BK
he lets Mikhail Rakitin explain it in this way to Mitya Karamazov, accused of
patricide. To discuss morality as a possible object of scientific knowledge
derived from human experience is to turn morality into the logic of exchange:
quid pro quo. The new scientific ethics can explain Mitya’s presumed crime by
taking Mitya’s responsibility out of the equation: ‘[i]t was impossible for him
not to kill, he was a victim of his environment’ (2004, p. 588). Here one
exchanges responsibility for the environmental causality. All is well. Following
the laws of nature, nobody can change the effect of human acting proceeding
inevitably from a cause, be it a childhood or the environment conceived more
broadly. Humans could not do otherwise. God is no more and Mitya’s murder
of his father happened because of ‘nerves in the brain’ and their ‘little tails, and
not at all because I have a soul or am some sort of image and likeness’ of God
(2004, p. 589). Mechanical processes supposedly replace the human soul.
Once a mechanism replaces the domain of the human soul, it is possible to
account for deeds in terms of exchange. ‘Nerves in the brain’ cause Mitya to
become a murderer. Dostoevsky challenges this moral, mechanical accounting
of Mitya as not being a murderer.
The Problem of Morality in a Mathematised Universe 79

According to Patočka, despite Kant’s intentions, Kant’s proposed moral

theology might be interpreted as conceiving of God and his dispensation of
rewards and punishments in some future day of ‘last judgement’ as a
‘transcendent accounting’. In the moral sphere of human finite acting, the
transcendental ground, reduced to rationality, can be read as ‘the sphere of ‘do
ut des’’: an economic exchange of good deeds for the promise of an entry into
the eternal (1991 [1976], p. 66).
Yet, Kant is aware of this problem, since he stresses that Christian reward
cannot be understood ‘as if it were an offer, through which the human being
would be hired, as it were, to a good course of life; for then Christianity
would…not be in itself worthy of love’ (1996 [1794], p. 8:339 [231], italics
in original). For Kant, love cannot be directed toward a person or ‘the good
received by the needy person’, but, rather, ‘merely to the benefactor’s generosity
of will’ derived from ‘what is universally best for the world state’ (8:339 [231]).
For Kant, in this sense, to love is to love the moral law which is universally
best because it is universally valid and which should guide our actions.
Yet, how can we ‘determine’ what is ‘universally best for the world state’ if
God is no more and our acting is relative to our finite, human aims, conceived
as a means towards the particular end and not the end in itself as being the
good that the moral law decrees? In other words, humans already conceive of
their acting on the model of utility. This is the problem that Kant also envisages
by warning that ‘[i]f Christianity should ever come to the point where it
ceased to be worthy of love’, then morality would become ‘a coalition between
opposed principles’, leading to its disintegration. If love ceases to be a love of
God or the moral law by being transplanted into the sphere of human affairs,
for Kant, it will amount to the rejection of God. Finite human affairs ‘would
become the ruling mode of thought among people’. In this state of affairs, ‘the
(perverted) end of all things, in a moral respect, would arrive’ (8:339 [231],
italics in original), – or, as Kant would have it, the world would be taken over
by Spinozists, supposedly moral people with no grounding for their moral
actions, as Dostoevsky gets Nikolai to announce, when he explains ‘own
wicked will’.
This is our world. God has ceased to be the ground of knowledge and
nature is simply defined in terms of ‘time, space, mass, energy’, without any
inherent purpose or telos (Burtt 1925, p. 5).

Harmony, Teleology and the Immortality of the Soul

Every Spinozist is an egoist. It is a question whether every egoist is necessarily
Spinozist (Kant 2005, p. 17: 297 [87]).

Yet, in our everyday living, we simply take for granted that there is a
purpose in things and in the world. Things are here, they have their ends, they
80 Ľubica Učník

come into being and then they vanish from the face of the earth; seasons
change, days follow nights and rain will nourish the dry land to enable plants
to grow. In a certain way, we assume the ‘concept of final causes’ without
realising it, although we know that, according to modern science, nature
exhibits nothing more than ‘the mechanical causes (the motive forces)’ (Kant
1987 [1790], pp. II, §72, 389–390 [270]). Nature is simply ‘a huge, mindless,
purposeless, mathematical machine’ (Sullivan 1933, p. 139).
So, the question is, as Kant asks: is there ‘also another kind of causality’, the
causality ‘of final causes’? (II, §72, 389–390 [270]) To assume this type of
causality, we would have to leave behind the physical world of causes and effects
and venture into the speculative, supersensible domain. This was the medieval
reasoning, in which all things were defined by their purposes, aiming to fulfil
the final telos that each strived for; God was the guarantor of this type of causality.
Kant observes also that there is a further problem if we accept the physical
causality of nature as the only causality. On the model of physical causality we
can explain nature as a mechanism, yet, it is not possible to account for the
regularity of its processes. We cannot give reasons why causes and effects
proceed in this regular manner. There are two types of explanations, physicalist
or idealist. Or we can follow Spinoza, who, according to Kant, reduces ‘our
concepts of purposive [things] in nature to the consciousness’ (II, §73, 393–
394 [274–275], square brackets in translation); in other words, positing a
supreme subject – presumably a God – where all inheres. Yet, if this Supreme
Being is simply defined by physical, mechanical causality, the same problem
ensues: we can use the hypothesis of physical causality, but we cannot explain
it. As Kant says, we cannot explain ‘how even a mere blade of grass is produced’
(§76, 400 [282–283]). In all cases, as Kant maintains, we surreptitiously
‘subordinate the mechanism of nature to the architectonic of an intelligent
author of the world’ (II, §85, 438 [325]). To reframe this Kantian remark, in
order to affirm mechanical causality, we either presuppose the creator who is
the author of this regularity, or forget our own participation in formulating
this idea. We simply forget that ‘purposes in nature are not given to us by the
object,’ since we cannot ‘observe purposes in nature as intentional ones’. It is
we who ‘add’ the concept of purposefulness to nature in ‘our thought’ alone
(§76, 399 [282], italics in Pluhar’s translation).
Despite either Kant’s suggestion or our reformulation of the problematic,
this is a pseudo-problem for modern science. Science does not need the
concept of the purposiveness of nature. It simply aims to explain why natural
processes are regular; it enables us to gloss over its processes with the
hypothetical law of causality that we have postulated. Science is interested
only in how these natural processes work, thereby giving us power over nature
that we can use for our human ends.
However, this pseudo-problem plays out differently in the sphere of human
affairs. The elimination of final causality in favour of efficient causality from
The Problem of Morality in a Mathematised Universe 81

the world of our living has implications for our moral conduct. Is there or is
there not a ‘unity of purpose’ that will provide guidance with respect to our
moral conduct? (II, §84, 434 [322]) If we accept that nature is nothing but a
mechanism, then questions such as ‘what are things in the world there for?’ or
‘how should we act?’ are impossible to answer. This type of question is
incomprehensible in the physicalist explanation of nature. Science provides a
description of natural processes in terms of their regularity; it does not aspire
to explain ‘why there is something rather than nothing’, as Leibniz asks, or to
give moral suggestions to us. Hence, as Kant realises, the problem is more
acute in the sphere of morality. If there is no God, no future life and no
immortality of the soul, why should people behave morally? For him, but not
for us, if a person is moral but does not believe in God and an after-life, the
only end to such people is a reduction to their mortal physical bodies. No
matter how ‘righteous’ people are, nature without purpose or telos ‘will still
subject them’ to the same meaningless demise (II, § 87, 452 [341]). Humans
will die and there is nothing more to it. No purpose, no end, no immortality
of the soul, no meaningful human life. In such a case, as Kant puts it, humans
will be subject to ‘all the evils of deprivation, disease, and untimely death, just
like all other animals on the earth…until one last tomb engulfs them…and
hurls them…back into the abyss of the purposeless chaos of matter from
which they were taken’ (II, §87, 453 [341]). Nature as a purposeless machine
is all that is left to humans and it swallows them up as it does all other creatures
and things. Oblivious to moral ends, humans are stripped of all meaning. As
Patočka notes, showing a difference between our present understanding and
the Kantian horror,

[In Kant’s time], this drama [of the mortality of human life without the prom-
ise of eternity] could be obvious only to individuals who have penetrated…
the problematic of reason and skepticism… Not much time passed, and the
mathematical projection of nature, deprived of transcendent support [by di-
vine reason] and made meaningful only by its relationship to relative human
purposes, i.e., technologically, became widely obvious to the masses, which
could not be kept calm by their [previous] confidence in the good intellectual
conscience of its upper classes (i.e., educated) (Patočka 1991 [1976], p. 59).

The Kantian puzzle, ‘why should people behave morally?’, is expressed in

BK by Ivan, who has already accepted ‘the problematic of reason and
skepticism’: ‘There is no virtue if there is no immortality’ (70). There is nothing
to give us hope to attain future bliss, harmony and rewards for our acts in this
short, finite, mortal life, if there is no divine guarantee of immortality. We
simply die and that is the end of it. The Kantian horror is stripped of its
dreadful implications and becomes an accepted fact. In BK, the Kantian
position is reduced to its limit by Ivan, when he rejects the supersensible idea
of future harmony and affirms this world only. The Kantian Spinozist, who
82 Ľubica Učník

has not realised the implications of his position, is exemplified by Ivan. God
is dead and utilitarian logic follows: ‘for every…person, like ourselves…who
believes neither in God nor in his own immortality, the moral law of nature
ought to change immediately into…egoism, even to the point of evildoing’.
Everything ‘should not only be permitted to man but should be acknowledged
as the necessary, the most reasonable’. Put simply, this is the only possible
outcome for man in a world bereft of God; it is ‘the noblest result of his
situation’ (69).
Dostoevsky’s question, of course, remains: if there are only the mechanical
laws of nature, where does ‘the moral law of nature’ come from?
We simply assume that the world’s mechanics do not need a God for their
creation or running, and that there is no life after this one. Moreover, people
now – for the most part – treat the soul as an out-dated concept. We ‘know’
that human beings are at the end of the evolutionary process and that we
evolved from apes. Moreover, in turn – like everything else – humans evolved
from molecules of carbon (the infamous ‘primordial soup’). We know that we
are no more than animals, however ‘sophisticated’ we are. We know that we
will die, and thus that we share the same fate as any other animal. Our
understanding of ourselves is no longer burdened with the Christian concepts
of future harmony or the immortality of the soul. Most of us know that there
is no God, but this is not a scary realisation, as it was for Kant (1987 [1790],
pp. II, §87, 451–452 [341]). Due to our schooling, we no longer experience
the Kantian horror in the face of these ‘facts’.
Yet, we might suggest that some of the problems Kant struggles with are
not resolved, only obscured in our times. And Kant’s horror has adapted into
an attitude toward the world that comes with its own set of problems. Perhaps
if we are willing to concede that some of the things that concerned Kant are
still relevant to us, however these issues have ‘mutated’, then it might be worth
following Patočka and revisiting Dostoevsky and his preoccupation with
eternity and future harmony in the world beyond.

Children are a strange lot: I dream of them and see them in my fancies (Dos-
toevsky 1994c, p. 309).

Rimvydas Silbajoris, in his article, ‘The Children in The Brothers Kara­

mazov’, argues that ‘the theme of children is at the core of the central religious-
philosophical issue in the novel: the existence of evil and the acceptance of
God’s world’ (1963 p. 26). Perhaps, this is right. Yet, there is more at stake. It
is future harmony and belief in the eternity of the soul that provide the
framework for Ivan’s argument that moral God cannot exist. In two sections
of the BK – ‘Rebellion’ (236–246) and ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ (246–264) –
the suffering of children is the starting point for Ivan’s critique of future
The Problem of Morality in a Mathematised Universe 83

harmony and his renouncement of eternity in favour of the present. Ivan’s

conclusion is simply that a moral God cannot exist. His earthly Euclidian
logic does not allow him to make judgment about God’s existence or His
‘creation’. Nonetheless, Ivan clearly sees that God has ceased to provide
security to moral human conduct. Hence Ivan’s decision is to reject the moral
God. His wish is to ‘return the ticket to God’. As he advises Alyosha, in the
fully Kantian vein:

I advise you never to think about it…and most especially about whether God
exists or not. All such questions are completely unsuitable to a mind created
with a concept of only three dimensions. And so, I accept God, not only
willingly, but moreover I also accept his wisdom and his purpose, which are
completely unknown to us; I believe in order, in the meaning of life, I believe
in eternal harmony, in which we are all supposed to merge, I believe in the
Word for whom the universe is yearning, and who himself was ‘with God,’
who himself is God, and so on, and so on and so forth, to infinity…It’s not
God that I do not accept…it is this world of God’s, created by God, that I do
not accept and cannot agree to accept (235).

So, Ivan does not believe any more in a moral God. He might believe in
God but he cannot believe in the Kantian moral God (see Golosovker 1963),
a God who created the present world with all its evil suffering. His rejection
of God’s moral world is based on many examples from the newspapers, of
cases of tortured children. How can there be a future harmony, if innocent
children are murdered without any retribution for their murder in the present?
Yet, in a strange way, Ivan’s enumeration is impersonal. It is a case of Euclidean
mind, defined by an understanding of only three dimensions. In other words,
he accepts the scientific picture of the world. Informed by this scientific
attitude, he presents case studies, from which he draws his conclusion. His
question to Alyosha is in the same manner. The only possibility of an answer
is already framed by those examples:

Tell me straight out, I call on you – answer me: imagine that you yourself are
building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy
in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevi-
tably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, that same child who was
beating her chest with her little fist, and raise your edifice on the foundation of
her unrequited tears – would you agree to be the architect on such conditions?
Tell me the truth (245).

The answer is already implicit in the question, in the form of an excluded

middle: either yes or no. No other option is available. The possibility of
reframing this question and offering a different way to look at misery in the
world is provided by Father Zosima in Book VI of BK, ‘The Russian Monk’
84 Ľubica Učník

(283–324). His dying brother Markel is offered as an example of a personal

encounter with suffering; as is, also, the example of a stranger who confesses
to a murder. Love ceases to be a Kantian love of God or love of a moral
principle and is reconfigured as a personal understanding of suffering, the love
of a real suffering person and their struggles.
The novel is, indeed, framed by children – it starts with the childhood of the
three brothers and ends with children gathered around the rock to say goodbye to
their deceased friend Ilyushechka and acknowledge their love for him. Dostoevsky
uses this framework to answer both Ivan’s accusation and his background struggle
between a belief in God and his professed Euclidean mind, which impels him to
affirm this world only. For him, faith in Jesus and his suffering leads to love of
particular others. It is no accident that Ivan’s utilitarian thinking is thrown back at
him by his inner voice, presented by Dostoevsky as a devil.
There are many children in BK. Dostoevsky starts by recounting the
childhood of the three brothers, who ‘were totally forgotten and forsaken by
their father and wound up in the same cottage with the same servant, Grigory’
(14), before being rescued by relatives of their respective mothers. The fourth,
illegitimate child, Smerdyakov, grows up with Grigory and his wife. Only
later does Fyodor Pavlovich, the father Karamazov, take interest in him,
sending him to Moscow to train as a cook. ‘As a child [Smerdyakov] was fond
of hanging cats and then burying them with ceremony. He would put on a
sheet, which served him as a vestment, chant, and swing something over the
dead cat as if it were a censer. It was all done on the sly, in great secrecy’ (124).
For Smerdyakov, there is no God. There is only Euclidean, utilitarian, logic,
evident in his self-consciously clandestine ritual. Likewise, Father Zosima’s
brother, Markel – while going to school – embraces Euclidean logic; but when
he becomes sick as a young boy and before he dies, he changes. He leaves a
legacy to Father Zosima, explaining to him and their mother, ‘you must know
that verily each of us is guilty before everyone, for everyone and everything…
how could we have lived before, getting angry, and not knowing anything?’
Now, Markel rejoices at life and at ‘God’s glory…birds, trees, meadows, sky’,
realising that ‘he alone dishonoured everything’, not noticing ‘the beauty and
glory of it all’. His recognition of all living and non-living things around him
leads him to the statement that he wants ‘to be guilty before them…for [he
does] not even know how to love them’ (289). Love is again a love for concrete
people and things, for the world created by God.
The extension and mirroring of Markel, so to speak, are the characters of
Kolya, who becomes Euclidean under the influence of Rakitin; Ilyushechka,
who listens to Smerdyakov and feeds a stray dog with broken glass, only to
realise that he might have killed a dog; and Lisa, still a child, who is torn
between Euclidian logic and the teaching of Father Zosima and Alyosha. The
situation of the two boys is different. Alyosha with his understanding, love
and forgiveness, changes their lives.
The Problem of Morality in a Mathematised Universe 85

Most importantly, Alyosha, the perpetual child of all and for all,
wholeheartedly believes in Jesus, God’s love, future life, and love for others. As
Ivan says to him, ‘I’m exactly the same little boy as you are, except that I’m not
a novice’ (234). Ivan is ‘infected’ with Euclidean logic. He wants to believe,
but Euclidean logic holds him back. He sees the problem with this earthly
logic, but does not know how to overcome it, how to love. His confession to
Alyosha is reminiscent of Markel, Zosima’s brother, when he says,

I want to live, and I do live, even if it be against logic. Though I do not believe
in the order of things, still the sticky little leaves that come out in the spring
are dear to me, the blue sky is dear to me, some people are dear to me, whom
one loves sometimes, would you believe it, without even knowing why; some
human deeds are dear to me, which one has perhaps long ceased believing in,
but still honors with one’s heart, out of old habit (230).

But to see through the problems of his Euclidean mind, as Dostoevsky

presents it, Ivan would have to let go and realise that there is more to life than
nature’s mechanism; that there is the order of things that God guarantees. He
would have to realise ‘that each of us is undoubtedly guilty on behalf of all and
for all on earth, not only because of the common guilt of the world, but
personally, each one of us, for all people and for each person on this earth’
(164). As Alyosha reminds him, you ‘should love life before everything else in
the world’; you should ‘love it before logic’. Only then will you understand it
and love others too (231).
Running through BK are many themes through which Dostoevsky critiques
what he perceives as destroying society by utilitarian logic, galvanising around
two: guilt for everything and everyone; and love for others, which is tied to the
problem of eternity and the present. Eternity is the answer to the world of
suffering. Our belief in the immortality of the soul and in future harmony can
give us strength to live here, in this world, where we must love others, not in an
abstract, detached manner, but concretely. Thus we can love and forgive, as
Father Zosima teaches when he recounts the visit of the stranger, or of the
woman to the monastery. Both of them confess to murder, but their suffering is
palpable. They are not presented as a general type, which can incorporate our
experience of all murderers, past, present or not yet living. They are living
people, who suffer; and Father Zosima can only respond with love.
Dostoevsky challenges Kant’s moral law, and his notions of human nature
as evil and of ‘love of principle’ as the source of moral spirit. For Kant, human
nature is evil because it always privileges self-love instead of unconditional
moral law. Furthermore, for Kant, it is not sufficient simply to follow moral
principles to the letter: only the love of principles makes a person moral in spirit.
Others do not enter into the relationship between a judging person and the
ultimate moral law. In other words, moral judgment, according to unconditional
moral law, must be made irrespective of concrete human conduct in the world.
86 Ľubica Učník

By contrast, for Dostoevsky, it is the love of a concrete (i.e., embodied, real)

person that enables us to judge that person’s conduct. Ivan’s examples of
‘collected horror stories’ bypass personal relationships; hence he cannot
imagine that he would be able to love ‘the sinner’ or sufferer and forgive them.
And since God is not in the world to forgive, he must be rejected, since his
only ‘promise’ is the future harmony that cannot be known by us. Zosima,
however (with Dostoevsky), sees through this problem by ‘personalising’ his
encounters with the concrete, living people that he talks to. They are here in
flesh and he can see that they suffer for their past deeds. It is these concrete
relationships that might enable us to forgive and to love, and help others to do
the same.
If, for Kant (1996 [1791], p. 8:256 [25], note*), ‘a will’s property of being
in agreement with the highest good as the final end of all things’ is simply an
idea we are able to think but not know, if to think about God could only be a
stipulative idea, where can humans search for guidance in their moral conduct?
Our present world is defined by scientific knowledge, which does not require
that the world or things in it have a purpose; and has no need for a final telos.
In this new understanding, we cannot know God. The only ‘demonstration of
the [God’s] wisdom must be carried out totally a priori’ and ‘the proof of the
existence of such a being can be none other than a moral proof ’ (1996 [1791],
p. 8:256 [25], note*). But if there is no God, where does the moral proof
come from? How and why should we act morally, if those precepts are
guaranteed only by the stipulative idea of God, whom we cannot know, while
evil is embedded in our subjective willing here and now? What is there to keep
us moral? This is the struggle of Ivan with his inner voice: if all morality is
simply ‘human habit over seven thousand years’, why should we accept it? We
will simply follow the natural law – which science uses in its explanation of
nature – to reform society and ‘we shall be gods!’ (653).
Perhaps this whole problematic is configured wrongly. Why should we
follow Kant and Dostoevsky and assume that there are only two options: the
physical world of science, and God?

Patočka’s Approach
The human being must make or have made himself into whatever he is or
should become in a moral sense, good or evil. These two [characters] must be
an effect of his free power of choice, for otherwise they could not be imputed
to him and, consequently, he could be neither morally good nor evil (Kant,
1996 [1793], p. 6:44 [89], italics and square brackets in translation).

This is Patočka’s approach. How can we think Kant’s claim that it is up to

human beings, up to us, to be good or bad, but not accept Kant’s reliance on
the moral God? How to think Dostoevsky’s concern with a disintegration of
The Problem of Morality in a Mathematised Universe 87

society under the influence of modern science, turned into utilitarian moral
accounting – elevating human egoism to the highest rank – without reducing
all reasoning to Euclidean logic? In short, how can we think human
responsibility, without God, in a world that is ineluctably defined by modern
Patočka’s answer is a return to Socrates: to his knowing that we can never
know all, but that we must strive to be true to ourselves. We must take care of
our soul. In other words, we must take responsibility for our actions, realising
that we live in a world that is always in decline but can rise above it and
assume responsibility not only for ourselves, our acts, but also for the world as
we have inherited it. As he says, this is the meaning of the strange injunction
of Father Zosima: that we are guilty for all and everything. We act in the world
and can never predict the consequences of our actions. Consequentialism and
utilitarianism are wrong. Our actions create ripples that are beyond our
control. We must be aware of those potentially devastating consequences and
take responsibility for them. We can cause suffering where none was intended.
We are guilty in the sense that we must be responsible.
For Patočka, we live in the world, which was here before we were born and
will be here when we die. The world is a horizon that gives meaning to our lives
here and now. It is historical. It is not a machine that runs outside of us; it is an
abode in which we live. The world of science is not the world of our living but
proceeds from it. It is only one aspect of our understanding of the world.
Formalised, scientific nature is not the world of our living, although it proceeds
from an abstraction of the life-world, where the course of our lives runs.
We are not thrown into the world, as Heidegger has it (1996 [1927]). We
are born into a family. Others take care of our needs and teach us how to be a
person in the world. They care for us, love us and provide nourishment.
Patočka calls this the first movement of existence: ‘the movement of anchoring’.
The second movement of existence – ‘the movement of self-extension’
(unpublished, p. 176) – is when we grow up and become a part of society. We
become ruled by the public anonym, or, as Heidegger calls it, Das Man,
everybody and nobody. We use things and other people for our ends. In
Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, the underground man is one such
example, although, as Patočka remarks, the underground man is already aware
of the rule of the public anonym and wants to reject it, but does not know
how. He is unable to step outside of the prescribed rules. He sees the problem
when he says that ‘[f ]or man’s everyday use, ordinary human consciousness
would be more than enough’: but for him, this is not the case. He is aware of
problems around him, which cause him ‘to be overly conscious’. He knows
that ‘too much consciousness’, or even ‘any consciousness at all is a sickness’
(Dostoevsky 1993, p. 8). It is easier to function according to the rules of
everybody and nobody, according to the rules of the public anonym. He is
aware of his ‘amour propre’ (10), the self-love that is ruling his life and which,
88 Ľubica Učník

for Kant, is the subjective side of our moral willing; which corrupts the ground
of all moral maxims, although it cannot corrupt the unconditional moral law
– ‘the morally legislative reason’ (1996 [1793], p. 6:35 [82]). But if there is no
God, there can be no moral law – or moral law is valid only under the
condition of its acceptance, as Patočka suggests. The underground man
accepts this condition. He is aware that he is ‘the scoundrel himself ’
(Dostoevsky 1993, p. 10). But he cannot imagine that he can change. As he
says, ‘there is no way…to change yourself into something different…because
in fact there is perhaps nothing to change into’ (9). One is powerless against
the ‘laws of nature’ (10). They represent a stone wall that the underground
man hits every time he tries to do something different. The stone wall is a
conceded ‘impossibility’ in terms of doing otherwise than what the laws of
nature decree. ‘[T]he laws of nature’ are nothing but ‘the conclusions of
natural science, mathematics. Once it’s proved to you, for example, that you
descended from an ape, there’s no use making a wry face, just take it for what
it is’ (13). Likewise, in the space of moral law, ‘[o]nce it’s proved to you that…
one little drop of your own fat should be dearer to you than a hundred
thousand of your fellow men, and that in this result all so-called virtues and
obligations and other ravings and prejudices will finally be resolved, go ahead
and accept it, there’s nothing to be done, because two times two is –
mathematics’ (13–14).
It is this awareness that sets him apart from others and keeps him
underground. Yet, his rejection is sterile, he simply does not care, because his
understanding is simply framed by Dostoevsky in terms of the binary: either
God or the laws of nature. In fact, his dilemma between not liking ‘the laws of
nature and arithmetic’ and rejecting ‘two times two is four’ is presented as the
only option, which leads him to accept others shouting at him: ‘you can’t
rebel: it’s two times two is four! Nature doesn’t ask your permission; it doesn’t
care about your wishes, or whether you like its laws or not. You’re obliged to
accept it as it is, and consequently all its results as well. And so a wall is indeed
a wall’ (14). In short, this dilemma leads to the victory of the public anonym,
with its scientific, mechanical understanding of the world and society, because
the underground man does not know how to challenge this inherited
knowledge. Hence, no love of others nor care for them is possible. He does
not know how to care or how to love.
According to Patočka, a tentative answer to this problem is sketched by
Dostoevsky in his story, ‘The Dream of a Ridiculous Man’ (1994a). The story
starts with another example of one who knows he is ridiculous and who
accepts the rule of the public anonym, deciding to end it all by suicide. But
the little girl he meets on his way home changes his whole life. He comes back
home and falls asleep, having a dream of his own demise; only to be brought
back and to a land of strange people who do not know science as we have it,
who love without needing to know why. And so, he begins to understand that
The Problem of Morality in a Mathematised Universe 89

science cannot explain everything. The story ends with the realisation that he
is back, but he realises that the ‘main thing is that you must love others as you
love yourself ’ and to fight against the scientific reduction of life and love to
the formula that ‘[c]onsciousness of life is higher than life, knowledge of the
laws of happiness is higher than happiness’ (960–961). As Patočka remarks,
this realisation is worth fighting for.
For Patočka, this is the third movement of existence – ‘the movement of
breakthrough’ (unpublished, p. 185). It is a movement beyond the rule of
everybody and nobody. It is the acceptance of all; of responsibility, which
flows from our awareness that we are guilty for all and sundry. We have
inherited this world. It is not of our doing, but we are responsible for it. We
were born into the world but our life is not our creation. Nevertheless, we are
responsible for it. Others took care of us, now it is our turn. Others are not
‘means’, for us to use. We suddenly see and recognise and love them in their
own being. This is not a simple task and not all of us will reach this stage in
our lives. Yet, it is something we all can achieve. It is the task that we must
strive for all our life. Not because of God, but because we know that we will
never know all, and that despite this not-knowing, we are responsible for all.
Above all, we are responsible for our acts. But this realisation of our
responsibility is the work of a lifetime. As Patočka says, ‘human life in all its
forms is a life of truth, admittedly finite’, but always responsible (unpublished:
201). The real test of a man is not how well he plays the role he has invented
for himself, but how well he plays the role that is assigned to him by his
human lot in life (Patočka 2004 [1969], pp. 430–432).
We must carry this struggle for our true being in the present; we are finite
human beings. Neither eternity nor God, who has fled the world, can help us.

Where no published translation was available for works cited, the English translation
is by the present author.

Aquinas, T 2002, On Law, Morality and Politics, Hackett Publishing Co, Cambridge,
Burrt, EA 1925, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science: A Historical
and Critical Essay, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co [Bibliolife], London.
Chvatík, I 2012, Patočkovy studie o Masarykovi, Draft.
Dostoevsky, F 1993, Notes from Underground, Alfred A. Knopf, London.
Dostoevsky, F 1994a, ‘The Dream of a Ridiculous Man: A Fantastic Story’, in A
Writer’s Diary: 1877–1881, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, IL.
Dostoevsky, F 1994c, A Writer’s Diary: 1873–1876, Northwestern University Press,
Evanston, IL.
90 Ľubica Učník

Dostoevsky, F 1994d, A Writer’s Diary: 1877–1881, Northwestern University Press,

Evanston, IL.
Dostoevsky, F 1995, Demons: A Novel in Three Parts, Vintage Books, New York, NY.
Dostoevsky, F 2004, The Brothers Karamazov: A Novel in Four Parts with Epilogue,
Vintage Books, London.
Fricher, V 1922,’ Stavrogin’s Meeting with Tikhon: From Dostoevsky’s Note-Book’,
in Stavrogin’s Confession and the Plan of the Life of a Great Sinner, Leonard and
Virginia Woolf at The Hogarth Press, Richmond.
Golosovker, Y 1963, Dostoevsky i Kant, Izdatelstvo Akademii Nauk CCCR, Moskva.
Heidegger, M 1996 [1927], Being and Time, State University of New York Press,
Albany, NY.
Kant, I 1791, ‘Über das Mißlingen aller philosophischen Versuche in der Theodicee’,
Berlinische Monatsschrift, pp. 194–225.
Kant, I 1987 [1790], Critique of Judgment, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis,
Kant, I 1996 [1791], ‘On the Miscarriage of all Philosophical Trials in Theodicy’, in
AW Wood and GD Giovanni (eds.), Religion and Rational Theology, Cambridge
University Press, Cambridge, UK.
Kant, I 1996 [1793], ‘Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason’, in AW
Wood and GD Giovanni (eds.), Religion and Rational Theology, Cambridge
University Press, Cambridge, UK, pp. 39-215.
Kant, I 1996 [1794], ‘The End of All Things’, in AW Wood and GD Giovanni (eds.),
Religion and Rational Theology, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, pp.
Kant, I 2005, Notes and Fragments: Logic, Metaphysics, Moral Philosophy, Aesthetics,
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
Patočka, J 1989 [1936], ‘Masaryk’s and Husserl’s Conception of the Spiritual Crisis of
European Humanity’, in E Kohák (ed.) Jan Patočka. Philosophy and Selected
Writings, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.
Patočka, J 1991a [1936], ‘Masarykovo a Husserlovo pojetí duševní krize evropského
lidstva’, in Tři studie o Masarykovi, Mladá Fronta, Prague.
Patočka, J 1991b [1976], ‘Kolem Masarykovy filosofie náboženství’, in Tři studie o
Masarykovi. Mladá Fronta, Prague.
Patočka J 2004 [1969], ‘Zpěv Výsostnosti’, in D Wojtěch and I Chvatík (eds.), Umění
a Čas: Soubor Statí, Přednášek a Poznámek k Problému Umění. Publikované Studie,
Oikoymenh, Prague.
Patočka, J 2006 [1936], ‘Masarykovo a Husserlovo Pojetí Duševní Krise Evropského
Lidstva’, in K Palek and I Chvatík (eds.), Češi I: Soubor Textů k Českému Myšlení a
Českým Dějinám, Oikoymenh, Edice Oikúmené, Prague.
Patočka, J unpublished, The Natural World as a Philosophical Problem, Manuscript
Submitted for Publication.
Silbajoris, R 1963, ‘The Children in ‘The Brothers Karamazov’, The Slavic and East
European Journal, vol. 7, pp. 26–38.
Silber, JR 1960, ‘The Ethical Significance of Kant’s Religion’, Religion Within the
Limits of Reason Alone, Harper and Row Publishers, New York, NY.
The Problem of Morality in a Mathematised Universe 91
Sullivan, JWN 1933, The Limitations of Science, A Mentor Book, New York, NY.
Thompson, DO 2002, ‘Dostoevskii and Science’, in WJ Leatherbarrow (ed.), The
Cambridge Companion to Dostoevskii, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge,

Author Biography

Ľubica Učník is Academic Chair in Philosophy at Murdoch University, Perth,

Australia. Her publications include articles on Husserl’s mathematisation of the
Lebenswelt and Patočka’s thinking on modern civilisation and Post-Europe. In
2014 she completed the book, The Life-World and the Crisis of Meaning: Husserl,
Heidegger, Arendt and Patočka. She is co-editor (with Ivan Chvatík and Anita
Williams) of Asubjective Phenomenology: Jan Patočka’s Project in the Broader Context
of his Work (Traugott Bautz, 2015) and The Phenomenological Critique of
Mathematisation and the Question of Responsibility: Formalisation and the Life-
World (Springer, 2015).
Address: Academic Chair, Philosophy, School of Arts, Murdoch University, Western
Australia 6150. Email.

1 See Patočka 1991a [1936], 1991b [1976], 2006 [1936]. In English translation, see
Patočka 1989 [1936].
2 From now on abbreviated to BK.
3 (Kant 1791).
4 Similar ground is provided by Platonic Ideas.
5 ‘And I did all this as an aristocrat, an idler, a man uprooted from the ground. I
admit, though, that the chief factor was my own wicked will, and had nothing to
do with my environment; of course nobody commits such crimes. But all, who are
uprooted from the ground, do the same kind of things, although more feeble and
watery. Many people do not even notice their nasty acts and think themselves
honest’ (Dostoevsky cited in Fricher, 1922 pp. 118–119).
Social Imaginaries 1.2 (2015) 92-102

The Equating of the Unequal

Bernhard Waldenfels
Translated by John W.M. Krummel1

Abstract: Equality and inequality are basic elements of law, justice and
politics. Equality integrates each of us into a common sphere by dis-
tributing rights, duties and chances among us. Equality turns into mere
indifference as far as we get over­integrated into social orders. When
differences are fading away experience loses its relief and individuals
lose their face. Our critical reflections start from the inevitable para-
dox of making equal what is not equal. In various ways they refer to
Nietzsche’s concept of order, to Marx’s analysis of money, to Lévinas’s
ethics of the Other, and to novelists like Dostoevsky and Musil. Our
critique turns against two extremes, on the one hand against any sort
of normalism fixed on functioning orders, on the other hand against
any sort of anomalism dreaming of mere events and permanent rup-
tures. Responsive phenomenology shows how we are confronted with
extraordinary events. Those deviate from the ordinary and transgress
its borders, without leaving the normality of our everyday world be-
hind. The process of equalizing moves between the ordinary and the
extraordinary. What makes the difference and resists mere indifference
are creative responses which are to be invented again and again.

Key Words: equality — indifference — normality — ordinary/extraor-

dinary — response

It is easy to play off equality against inequality, inequality against equality.

The association of equality with leveling, the loss of distinctions, or indifference,
or of inequality with injustices and privileges, is enough to drive one’s
respective adversary into the corner. Tried and tested fronts develop when one
transfers laudable inequalities into a past to be preserved, or (transfers)
laudable equalities into a future to be created. Yet as it is well known these
cultural and social-political animosities in the meantime have become so
brittle, to the extent that one leaves the option for one side or the other up to
mere chance or the like. The colors of political parties in some cases approach,
The Equating of the Unequal 93

in a questionable manner, the colors of ties. Jean Baudrillard already predicted

some time ago the invention of a ‘duopoly’, which allows—as opposed to a
monopoly—minimal differences, for otherwise there would be no more
choice and abstention in elections would become the norm (Baudrillard 1976,
p. 107ff/1993, p. 68ff).2 Of course one can always deal with conflicts such as
rebellion in the Arab world or with catastrophes like those of Tschernobyl or
Fukushima, which awaken us just in time from the slumber of normality and
prevent a socially cloned ‘normal human being,’ or a correspondingly ‘normal
God,’ from receiving—as Nietzsche had already feared—the scepter (Nietzsche
1980, pp. 3, 490, §143/2006, p. 97). Indeed this would be a frail consolation
and a dubious way out. In any case some reflection would not be harmful.3 The
strict opposition of equality and inequality stems from a considerable
simplification. Conversely if a large coalition attempted to unite into itself all
the political, or even philosophical, forces of equality and inequality, it would
never be large enough to integrate them within its borders without violence. By
way of contrast I would like to summon three voices in which a paradoxical
intertwining of equality and inequality is announced without bringing them
into synthesis. All three are symptomatic of a certain questioning of the modern.
In the Grundrisse of 1857/58, in one section that deals with the relationship
of the individual person and social conditions, Karl Marx characterizes the
function of money in reference to Shakespeare as an ‘equation of the
incompatible,’ and in Capital he refers to an example from Aristotle: ‘five beds
= one house,’ or to be precise, ‘five beds = so much money’ (Marx 1953, p.
80/1973, p. 163; Marx 1970, pp. 70-74/1967, pp. 61-66).4 The conversion of
the use value into an exchange value, which represents a historical product,
disappears from view, when the economic code regulating profit and loss in
payments has free rein without restriction. Of course, Marx does not intend to
return to a state of provincial ‘blood relations,’ in which nature and lordship/
servitude set their tone. But then the question arises: how would a generalized
economy appear that does not reduce all differences into one financial lump?
The second author is Friedrich Nietzsche. He goes further by literally
touching on the foundations of our European world order and way of life. In his
work On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense of 1873, addressing the
formation of concepts, he chooses words very similar to those of Marx, speaking
of an ‘equating of the unequal’ (Nietzsche 1980, p. 880; 1954, p. 46).5 He
explains this with the following: although each leaf on a tree is equal to the
other, nevertheless not one is completely equal to the other. When individual
distinctions become ‘overlooked’ and ‘forgotten,’ the impression arises that
there is in nature a primal form of the leaf, ‘the leaf,’ that duplicates itself
through imperfect copies. Nietzsche as well, indeed, does not strive to return
to the state of non-linguistic and non-conceptual innocence. However, his
critique of equality is also not free of the ambiguities of a Platonist-tinged
aristocratism when in his Twilight of the Idols (Nietzsche 1980, p. 150; 1968,
94 Bernhard Waldenfels

p. 113),6 he proclaims in a vehement attack against Rousseau’s doctrine of

equality ‘progress in his sense’: ‘Equality for equals, inequality for unequals’—
that would be the true voice of justice: and, what follows from it, ‘Never make
equal what is unequal’. Instead the question is posed to us: How can one
conceptually and practically equate something without eliminating peculia­
rities and singular claims?
And finally as a third author there remains Emmanuel Lévinas, who, com-
ing from Lithuania and living in France, developed Jewish-inspired ethics,
which knows that it is responsible for the Other. In his work Autrement qu’être
ou au-delà de l’essence from 1974, he combines the demands of justice, which
goes beyond common legal claims, with a ‘comparison of the incomparable.’
‘The neighbor that obsesses me is already a face, both comparable and incom-
parable, a unique face and in relationship with faces, which are visible in the
concern for justice’ (Lévinas 1992, p. 344f/1998, p. 158). The perspective of
a third means a ‘betrayal’ of the singularity of the Other, which requires a
singular answer; but it is a betrayal, which like the proverbial traduttore tradi-
tore is unavoidable. Without the figure of the third there would be no justice;
there would be only fulgurations of the moment, quanta of power or a many
that would be indistinguishable from the one.
The three authors mentioned, in spite of their different types of back-
ground convictions, have something decisive in common with one another.
None of them flatly rejects the act of equation for otherwise there would be
only a chaotic manifold and no exchange economy, no language, no law, in
short, no culture. But all three also insist that the equated withdraws from the
equation in its course of equating, that what is equated is not equal. Conse-
quently there is an excess, which can be determined as an-economic, anarchic,
alogical or a-legal. Orders that do not fully support and ground themselves
release forces of the extra-ordinary.7

The equating of the unequal resembles a swinging mobile that never comes
to rest. One can dull this unrest by unilaterally fighting on the side of the
equal or on that of the unequal. This leads to alternating tendencies and coun-
ter-tendencies, where the ‘sense of actuality’ and the ‘sense of possibility’ can-
cel each other of their positions. The first tendency results in equating the
different as far as it is possible, leveling opposites down, and reducing, repress-
ing, or even eradicating everything that is not in line with the general policy.
The normality of a functioning order, which could indeed be otherwise but is
taken as it is, forms the starting point. This includes harmless standards such
as paper formats and temperature scales, less harmless things such as health
standards, codes of conduct, guidelines for research, study modules, listener
quotas, visitation ratio, distribution of votes, age curves, stock quotations and
The Equating of the Unequal 95

even the ‘statistical demystification’ of one’s own person, which Ulrich, the
man without qualities, gets to feel first-hand during a police interrogation
(Musil 1978, p. 159/1995, p. 169). Such forms of normality are relatively
neutral since there is no absolute optimum or pessimum. Normalities, how-
ever, fall upon the tracks of a normalism when normality causes its own origin
and limits to be forgotten.8 Thus, the difference between functional and dys-
functional becomes the guiding difference and generates a pressure for equal-
ity, which we characterize as leveling. Anomalies appear as deficits, disturbing,
offensive, or superfluous. If something goes wrong, it is attributed to the ex-
penses or to collateral damage, which one accepts, passes-on to others, and
secures oneself as best as one can against their risks. The small happiness of the
‘last man’ remains: ‘A fool, whoever still stumbles over stones or human be-
ings! […] One is clever and knows everything that has ever happened: so
there is no end of derision. One still quarrels, but one is soon reconciled—else
it might spoil the digestion’ (Nietzsche 1980, p. 20; 1954, pp. 129-130). The
weakness of an uninhibited normalization is manifest here in that orders in
the end revolve only around themselves and legitimate themselves through
their mere existence. Thus one really has nothing to counter the Mephistoph-
elian motto, ‘for all that comes to be/ Deserves to perish wretchedly.’
The tranquility of a normal order is disturbed not only by unfavorable
external events. It sees itself threatened by internal erosion, and it is more dif-
ficult to find a remedy for that. If something here is of particular significance,
it is equality’s fatal relationship to indifference. Indifference lies as a shadow
upon everything which treasures its equality. If there is an equivalent for any
and all and if everything has its price—even truth and also love—the indi-
vidual loses its meaning (Hénaff 2009/2010). There still are differences but it
makes no difference whether one or the other comes into play. Even if every-
thing is all right, it is only all right. The whole is without brilliance. It threat-
ens with an entropy of meaning, an exhaustion of sense or an ‘increase of
meaninglessness,’ which Cornelius Castoriadis connects with the atrophy of
the social imaginary (Castoriadis 1996/2010). Thus the hero in Sartre’s novel
Nausea visits the library and orients his reading according to the order of the
alphabet. It comes to the absurdity of a knowledge that reaches from A to F
and is far more random than any superficial knowledge. The growing infor-
mation overload has similar consequences. There is not too little but rather
too much sense as suggested by the slogan ‘Stop making sense!’
The threatening indifference however is not restricted to the endless play
with one’s own possibilities, which Kierkegaard accuses the esthete for. This is
evident in Dostoevsky’s story of ‘The Dream of a Ridiculous Man,’ which can
be read as the story of an initial ‘indifferentiation’ and subsequent ‘dis-indif-
ferentiation’ (Dostoyevsky 1957/1971). The first person narrator lives with
the conviction ‘that everything in the world is indifferent,’ even his own life
and even a shot from the revolver that would end his life. And so he waits for
96 Bernhard Waldenfels

the moment, when it would ‘not be so very indifferent’ for him, what becomes
of him. The moment comes but not as expected. On a dreary evening as he is
hurrying through ‘a rain of blatant misanthropy,’ he comes across a girl crying
desperately for help. A quite ordinary scene of a big city, you might say. Some
sociologists thus evaluate the in-difference of the everyday not even as apathy
but as normality in the sense of the self-evident acceptance of differences with
the same validity. In the end it does not matter whether one speaks of a ‘world
without strangeness’ or of a ‘world of strangers’; if in the end all people are
strange, no one is strange.9 This may be so, but can this mean in its entirety
anything more than a sophism? Dostoevsky’s narrator, who has ventured
through the icy waters of social apathy, undergoes a different experience. Once
he returned to his room and to his revolver, he feels in retrospect as if struck
by an ethical trauma that ‘everything is not indifferent’ to him and that he
feels sorry for the girl. The dating of this change of mind on the third of No-
vember underscores the singularity of this apparently plain event, which flows
into a visionary dream and ends with an invitation to help himself: ‘I will go
there! Will go there!’
But it does not always go the way it did with this ridiculous man, who is
awakened from the slumber of indifference through the reverberation of an
external appeal. What opposes the paralyzing tendency towards uniformity is
often a reversal of things, which instead of the equal, inscribes the unequal,
the different, the heterogeneous, upon its banner. To a special degree this en-
tails the glorification of the new as new, driving back everything old as old. I
call this an anomalism. Deviation must be, no matter how. In the most ex-
treme cases, it leads to the declaration of a permanent state of emergency,
which—to paraphrase Carl Schmitt—decides between friend and foe.
This means in political and even cultural-political terms that moments like
transgression, breaks, violence, or decision, explosively emerge with an up-
roar, putting everything in a harsh light. The revolutionary, which is lacking
in social distress, tends to bask in its own glory. The ‘strong and slow drilling
of hard boards’ does not seem spectacular enough. In the German-speaking
regions, this once ran under the slogan of a ‘Conservative Revolution,’ where-
by one stressed the conservative or the revolutionary as needed. Among intel-
lectuals, there were too few who, like for instance Alexander Döblin or Kurt
Tucholsky, campaigned for the imperfect experiment of the Weimar Republic.
Movements of every kind appeared as self-perpetuating, often stimulated by
vitalistic or historicist ideas. When Brecht wrote in his poem The Buddha’s
Parable of the Burning House, ‘Indeed friends, if the soil underneath your feet
does not feel so hot that you would prefer to change places with anyone else
instead of staying, then I have nothing to tell you,’ he conjures an emergency
situation that cannot be turned into a permanent crisis without abandoning
the ground of the political. If we take a look at our Western neighbor, we are
confronted with intellectual spokespersons, sometimes with a disdain for the
The Equating of the Unequal 97

everyday, the normal, the ordinary, although this constitutes not only as ev-
eryday language but also as everyday morality, the humus of a culture. The
contingency that consists in the fact that things can also be different, all too
easily approaches the wholly Different, surrounded by a quasi-religious aura.
We find traces of such extremism, for example, in Sartre’s commitment à tout
prix [at all costs], in Bataille’s celebrations of cruelty, in the public conversions
of ex-Maoists, or in some abrupt change of sides, which almost becomes a
caricature in the series of conversions of Roger Garaudy. The ‘political’ as an
event runs the risk of losing the ground of ‘politics’ from under its feet (Bedorf
2007). This includes a new Pauline enthusiasm, which retains from Paul only
the event of conversion and of the law only its positing, reduced by the voice
of the law, which can still be heard clearly in Kant. As pure events, revolutions
become interchangeable (Finkelde 2006).
In the art scene, anomalism takes the form of an avant-gardism, which, as
Valéry already criticizes, devotes itself to an ‘automatic boldness’ (Valéry 1960,
p. 1321). For a philosopher of art and connoisseur of art like Arthur Danto,
we live in a period after the end of art. This means: ‘Anything ever done could
be done today and be an example of post-historical art’ (Danto 2000, p.
34/1997, p. 12). ‘There is no a priori constraint on how works of art must
look—they can look like anything at all’ (Danto 2000, p. 38/1997, p. 16).
The history of art henceforth ‘…can be anything artists and patrons want it to
be’ (Danto 2000, p. 63/1997, p. 36). ). I doubt whether this applies so gener-
ally to our situation, and I wonder if behind the ‘end of art’ proclaimed with
Hegelian tones there is not actually a certain philosophy of art history that has
overdrawn its account of meaning. But apart from the validity of this diagno-
sis counter-forces to solidified normality cannot be acquired by a mere rever-
sal. The merely new is tomorrow’s old. Moreover the agencies of normality are
now crafty enough to lubricate or season their equipment with ingredients of
the anomalous and the extra-ordinary. And why should one not also convert
the exuberance of joy into profitable entertainment? This sounds as follows:
‘Joy is infinitely beautiful. Joy is young. Joy is and. Not or. Joy wants it all, and
indeed always and everywhere. Joy is BMW.’ This sounds certainly more el-
egant than the slogan ‘Strength through Joy,’ which followed on the heels of
‘the wheels must roll for victory,’ but does it sound so different? The content
of empty formulas is interchangeable.
My reflections should not end with a jeremiad, which for the most part
mourns the wretchedness of the Others. Once again I take up the core for-
mula of the ‘equating of the unequal.’ In it there lies a resistance of its own
kind, if one lifts the veil of the forgotten and the repressed. The discourse of
the unequal achieves a negative tone only when one already assumes the level-
ing effect of an order. On the other hand if one assumes a possible change of
order that may happen at any time, one comes across invasions, challenges,
ideas and claims, that is, extraordinary events that occur by deviating from the
98 Bernhard Waldenfels

familiar and go beyond the expected. These are not mere symbolic or material
resources, which one uses as necessary, but forces of surplus, which manifest in
affects such as surprise or fright or even in ‘thoughts which come on doves’ feet.’
Singular events that fall outside of the framework of the familiar and the
tried and tested are found everywhere. The simple leaf, of which Nietzsche
speaks, is always already more than a mere rose or oak leaf and it is only thus
that it unfolds metaphorical and symbolic forces. When Victor Kaplan was
inspired by the mill wheels of the Murg Valley to invent a water turbine with
altered blades, this shows how even complicated discoveries emerge from in-
conspicuous impulses, which only reveal their significance after the fact. But
violent events can also be singular, which, just as the attack on September 11
activated new defenses, leads, however, to a chain of counter-violence as well.
The [phrase] nil novi sub sole [‘nothing new under the sun’] is speculative,
defensive, or blasé, but it is not true and it is at best a cliché. In the end, de-
viations and surpluses, in which the novel is heralded as significant and the
significant as novel, are nothing frivolous. They assume skills and traditions,
which like abutments in the technology of constructing churches or bridges
produce a stabilizing counter pressure. To be astonished or frightened in a
productive way, one must already know and be capable of something. One
must be composed in order to lose composure, one must be capable of speech
in order to become speechless. An equalizing that takes off from unexpected
events does not signify a leveling nor the elimination of differences but on the
contrary the formation of sensual and affective reliefs, contours, and contexts,
which enables us to transform that which affects us into something that can
be said, done and made. To this belongs the repetition of the unrepeatable,
expressed in rhythms of movements like in dance. What returns, returns al-
tered. Creations, which absorb and process what affects, stimulates, irritates
us, draw their weight from the fact that they act as creative responses, namely
not only in the form of solitary exploits but also as co-creations that go back
to co-affections as for instance in the case of an outbreak of war or a natural
catastrophe (Waldenfels 2007).10
We ultimately raise here a specific kind of ‘difference as non-indifference,’
which Emmanuel Lévinas considers as a colophon of the ethical. But it is a
feature of all the experiences that change us (Lévinas 1992, p. 187/1998, p.
83; Waldenfels 2006, p. 45-49). We are exposed to alien claims that put us in
a situation of inevitability, wherein we cannot not respond. Even the judge,
who from ancient times has been ascribed the task of equalizing (Gr. Isaze-
in),11 as a third party deals with the Other by speaking the law at the same
time about someone and to someone, including the victim whose personal
injury always means more than a case of an infringement of law. Normalism
that does not end with the law begins where the process of law-enforcement is
conceived only from the final verdict. Although justice would indeed be noth-
ing without the law, it is nonetheless more than a formal law resting on
The Equating of the Unequal 99

equality before the law (Waldenfels 2006, p. ch.5; 2005, ch.12). A similar
statement can be made for health care. Mechanized medicine that equates the
suffering of the patient with a general case of illness without considering the
singularity of the sufferer, inevitably gets on the tracks of a medicalization of
life. In order to resist an expertocracy and technocracy impending everywhere,
it is not enough to adduce, case by case, an additional ethics or to appoint
ethics committees. Instead it requires an inconspicuous kind of occupational
ethics, which is proven in the normality of the everyday work life, in the un-
remitting resistance to a normalization that threatens to reduce jurisdiction,
healing, and teaching, to the procedures of law, healing, and instruction. Dis-
tance belongs here as well as opposed to an ubiquitous competence that re-
duces life in all its facets, in its highs and lows, to a learnable skill in order to
distribute ‘life notes’ in the end (Gelhard 2001, p. 97). The critique Marx
exerts on the hypostatization of the homo oeconomicus retains something ex-
emplary even if the ‘total man’ has long since been proven to be a dangerous
illusion. The everyday as an unspecified life background is ultimately affected,
which—as Max Weber correctly remarks—flattens when it is robbed of the
surplus of the extraordinary. Yet surpluses can wear themselves out. On the
other hand if one follows Ulrich’s suggestion and limits the ‘moral expendi-
ture’ to the minimum, then it may be that ‘from every ton of morality a mil-
ligram of an essence would be left over, a millionth part of which is enough to
yield an enchanting joy’ (Musil 1978, p. 246/1995, p. 265; Waldenfels
2010/2014, pp. 181-198).
The non-indifference, which imposes limits on any leveling, in the end can
also be found in art, as when the writer Bergotte in Proust’s Search, confronted
with the ‘little patch of yellow wall’ in Vermeer’s View of Delft, which he gets
to see once more shortly before his death, says to himself, ‘That’s how I ought
to have written’; or when even the hardly noticeable unevenness of two uneven
paving-stones or base plates sufficed for the narrator to rekindle the past, and
he considers it his duty to ‘translate’ the ‘inner book’ of experience (Proust
[French] 1987-1989, vol.3, p. 692; 1987-1989, vol.4, pp. 445ff, 469; Proust
[German] 1994-2002, vol.5, p. 265; 1994-2002, vol.7, pp. 258-260, 294;
Proust [English] 2000, vol.5, p. 170; 2000, vol. 6, pp. 443f, 469). But who
still has the ‘all the same’ on the tip of the tongue, may watch the film In
Search of Memory, in which the famous neurologist Eric Kandel follows both
the memory functions of the brain and traces of his Jewish origin, both his
expulsion from Vienna and his settling in the New World. In an unexpected
way he discovers that ‘not everything is equal’ even for the brain. That the
ancestors of this great Viennese researcher, as in many similar cases, came
from eastern Galicia, may count as a ruse of geographical rationality that en-
sures that trees in metropolises do not grow toward the sky and that one does
not confuse metropolises with monopolies.
100 Bernhard Waldenfels

Baudrillard, J 1976, Der symbolische Tausch und der Tod, Matthes and Seitz, Munich.
Baudrillard, J 1993, Symbolic Exchange and Death, Sage, London.
Bedorf, T 2007, ‘Bodenlos. Der Kampf um das Politische’, Deutsche Zeitschrift für
Philosophie, vol. 55, no. 5, pp. 689-715.
Castoriadis, C 1996, La montée de l’insignifiance, Éditions du Seuil, Paris.
Castoriadis, C 2010, Das imaginäre Element und die menschliche Schöpfung, M Half-
brodt and H Wolf (eds.), Edition AV, Lich.
Danto, A 1997, After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History, Princ-
eton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
Danto, A 2000, Das Fortleben der Kunst, trans. C Spelsberg, Fink, Munich.
Dostoevsky, F 1957, Russische Erzähler, trans. OF Taube trans., Rowohlt, Hamburg.
Dostoevsky, F 1971, Fyodor Dostoyevsky: Stories, trans. O Shartse, Raduga Publishing,
Finkelde, D 2006, ‘Streit um Paulus. Annäherungen an die Lektüren von Alain Ba-
diou, Giorgio Agamben und Slavoj Žižek’, Philosophische Rundschau, vol. 53, pp.
Gelhard, A 2011, Kritik der Kompetenz, Diaphanes, Zürich.
Hénaff, M 2009, Der Preis der Wahrheit. Gabe, Geld und Philosophie, trans. E Mold-
enhauer, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt.
Hénaff, M 2010, The Price of Truth: Gift, Money, and Philosophy, trans. JL Morhange,
Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.
Lévinas, E 1992, Jenseits des Seins oder anders als Sein geschieht, trans. TH Wiemer,
Alber, Freiburg and Munich.
Lévinas, E 1998, Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence, trans. A Lingis, Duquesne
University Press, Pittsburgh, PA.
Marx, K 1953, Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Ökonomie, Diez Verlag, Berlin.
Marx, K 1967, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. I: The Process of Capitalist
Production, trans. S Moore and E Aveling, International Publishing, New York, NY.
Marx, K 1970, Das Kapital, Band. I, MEW 23, Diez Verlag, Berlin.
Marx, K 1973, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, trans. M
Nicolaus, Penguin, London.
Musil, R 1978, Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, Rowohlt, Reinbek.
Musil, R 1995, The Man Without Qualities, trans. S Wilkins, A.A. Knopf, New York,
Nietzsche, F 1954, The Portable Nietzsche, trans. W Kaufmann (ed.), Penguin, New
York, NY.
Nietzsche, F 1968, Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ, trans. RJ Hollingdale,
Penguin, New York, NY.
Nietzsche, F 1980, Fröhliche Wissenschaft, Kritische Studienausgabe, G Colli and M
Montinari (eds.), Walter de Gruyter, Berlin.
Nietzsche, F 2006, The Gay Science, trans. T Common, Dover, Mineola, NY.
Proust, M 1987-1989, À la Recherche du temps perdu, Volumes 1-4, Tadié JY (ed).
Gallimard, Paris.
The Equating of the Unequal 101
Proust, M 1994-2002, Auf der Suche nach der verlorenen Zeit, Volumes 1-7, trans. E
Rechel-Mertens, Keller (revised), Suhrkamp, Frankfurt.
Proust, M 2000, In Search of Lost Time, Folio Society, London.
Valéry, P 1960, Œuvres, Gallimard, Paris.
Waldenfels, B 1987, Ordnung im Zwielicht, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt.
Waldenfels, B 1995, Deutsch-Französische Gedankengänge, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt.
Waldenfels, B 1996, Order in the Twilight, Ohio University Press, Columbus, OH.
Waldenfels, B 1998, Grenzen der Normalisierung, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt.
Waldenfels, B 1999, Vielstimmigkeit der Rede, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt.
Waldenfels, B 2005, Idiome des Denkens, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt.
Waldenfels, B 2006, Schattenrisse der Moral, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt.
Waldenfels, B 2007 [1994], Antwortregister, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt.
Waldenfels, B 2008, Grenzen der Normalisierung, expanded edn., Suhrkamp, Frankfurt.
Waldenfels, B 2010, ‘Alltagsmoral. Fragen mit und an Alfred Schütz’, M Staudigl
(ed.), Alfred Schütz und die Hermeneutik, UvK, Konstanz.
Waldenfels, B 2014, ‘Everyday Morality. Questions with and for Alfred Schütz’, M
Staudigl and G Berguno (eds.), Schutzian Phenomenology and Hermeneutic Tradi-
tions, Springer, Dordrecht, pp. 181-198.

Author Biography

Bernhard Waldenfels received his Ph.D. from Munich. He is Emeritus Professor of

Philosophy at the Ruhr University Bochum. He has been teaching as Visiting
Professor in Costa Rica, Hong Kong, Louvain-la-Neuve, New York, Prague,
Rome, and Vienna. His main fields of research are Phenomenology and contem-
porary French Philosophy. Recent publications: Grundmotive einer Phänomenolo-
gie des Fremden (2006), Phenomenology of the Alien: Basic Concepts (2011); The
Question of the Other (2007); Ortsverschiebungen, Zeitverschiebungen (2009); Sinne
und Künste im Wechselspiel (2010); Hyperphänomene (2012); Ordnung im Zwieli-
cht (2013), Engl: Order in the Twilight (1996); and, Alterität und Sozialität
(2015). Address: Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Institut für für Philosophie, 44780
Bochum, Germany. Email.


1 Translator’s note: This translation would not have been possible without the edit-
ing and suggestions made by translation specialist Julia Klug for the work as a
whole as well as by Ralf Müller for a particular passage. The translator thanks both
Ms. Klug and Prof. Müller for their help.
2 Editor’s note: For all in-text references, where necessary, the first date reference is
to the German or French original text, and the secondary date reference refers to
the English language publication of the work.
102 Bernhard Waldenfels

3 An initial version of this text appeared in the program of the steirischer herbst [Eng-
lish: Styrian Autumn] of 2008 under the title, ‘The Process of Indifferentiation’.
4 Marx refers, half approvingly and half critically, to the analysis of exchange and of
money in the Nicomachean Ethics, where it states: ‘Money serves as a measure,
which makes things commensurate and thus equal (isazei)’ (V, 4, 1133b16-17),
but where money functions as ‘a representative of demand’ (1133a29) and thus
contradicts the reduction of the means of exchange to a principle of exchange. On
the transformation from ancient to modern forms of society and economy, see
Marcel Hénaff, Der Preis der Wahrheit. Gabe, Geld und Philosophie (Hénaff 2009,
pp. 482-505 [English: The Price of Truth: Gift, Money, and Philosophy (Hénaff
2010, pp. 315-331].
5 [English: The Portable Nietzsche (Nietzsche 1954, p. 46)].
6 [English: Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ (Nietzsche 1968, p. 113)].
7 On this concept of order, which at the same time contains the seeds of a radical
strangeness, see Bernhard Waldenfels, Ordnung im Zwielicht (Waldenfels 1987)
[English: Order in the Twilight (Waldenfels 1996)].
8 For details on this see the author’s Grenzen der Normalisierung (Waldenfels 1998
(expanded edition 2008)). The remarks in this volume, which deal with scientific-
technical, practical, therapeutic, social and political normalization processes, refer to
authors such as Husserl, Schütz, Goldstein, Goffman, Canguilhem, and Foucault.
9 In regard to the functional generalization of the stranger and the normalization of
indifference, I refer to my critical reflections on cultural and social foreignness in
Vielstimmigkeit der Rede (Waldenfels 1999, pp. 98-103).
10 On this see the author’s Antwortregister (Waldenfels 2007). The answer constitutes
the core idea of responsive phenomenology, which takes as its starting point a
radical experience of the foreign.
11 See Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics V, 4, 1132a7.
Social Imaginaries 1.2 (2015) 103-126

War, Peace and Love:

The Logic of Lévinas
Kwok-ying Lau

Abstract: In this article, I will show that behind Lévinas’s provocative

interpretation of the whole history of Western ontology, as a state of
war and its denunciation pronounced at the very beginning of Totality
and Infinity, there is an internal logic. It is first of all a logic of negation:
negation of the rationalization of war and violence committed in the
name of the highest truth. It is also a logic of affirmation: affirmation,
through love and justice, of plurality and infinity incarnated by the face
of all figures of alterity. It is an affirmation of a utopia too: the utopia
of an ethical politics aiming at restoration of justice by taking up the
absolute responsibility towards the other as non-indifference to the suf-
fering and the death of the Other. This utopia also aims at repairing the
wound inflicted to the world by all forms of violence. So, Lévinas’ logic
is a logic of politics of non-violence, accompanied by a continuous
pathétique cry for love and peace.1

Key Words: Lévinas — Totality and Infinity — tyranny of ontology —

alterity — phenomenology of war — eros and fecundity — ethical

1. Being as War: What is Lévinas’ Logic?

No serious reader can be spared by the shock generated by the provocative

declaration of Lévinas at the very beginning of his book Totalité et Infini, in
which he stigmatizes the realm of being as a state of war as it is shown through
the history of Western philosophy:

We do not need obscure fragments of Heraclitus to prove that being reveals

itself as war to philosophical thought … Harsh reality … war is produced
as the pure experience of pure being. The ontological event that takes form
104 Kwok-ying Lau

in this black light is a casting into movement of beings hitherto anchored in

their identity, a mobilization of absolutes, by an objective order from which
there is no escape… It establishes an order from which no one can keep his
distance; nothing henceforth is exterior. War does not manifest exteriority and
the other as other; it destroys the identity of the same. The visage of being that
shows itself in war is fixed in the concept of totality, which dominates Western
philosophy (Lévinas 1961, pp. IX-X/1969, p. 21).2

Not only is the realm of being, as realm of reality, a state of war; it is a state
of total war, a totality in which no one can be spared and from which no one
can escape. Worse, philosophy, at least as it is practiced in the West since the
Greeks, has played an active role in this universal and totalizing warfare by
providing it with the very basic conceptual determination: the very concept of
totality is the key to the intelligibility of being—being understood as an all-
embracing totality which excludes exteriority and otherness as such. On
reading the above passage, a student of philosophy, who understands her
mission as transmitting the baton of rational thinking from generation to
generation, will either have the feeling of being ‘profoundly trembled by the
thought of Emmanuel Lévinas’, as Jacques Derrida (1967, p. 122/1978, p.
82) has once admitted,3 for she will realize that what is at stake in Lévinas’
diagnosis of the history of Western philosophy as accomplice of universal
warfare is ‘philosophy’s life and death’ (Derrida 1967, p. 119/1978, p. 80), or
she will doubt whether this book is not just the aftermath of an existentialist
fever (Totality and Infinity was first published in 1961) in which its author
blackmails the whole history of Western philosophy with the habitual
irresponsibility of irrational nihilism. Even if she is of the latter case, she will
still have to argue, by providing evidence, that Lévinas’ reading of the history
of Western philosophy is wrong, that reality is never as black as depicted by
him. In doing so, she will have to first of all dismantle Lévinas’ reasoning, i.e.,
to show the inaccuracy of his ‘logic’. But then she will be admitting,
nonetheless, that Lévinas has a logic of some sort.
The present paper has no other ambition than to try to understand ‘the logic
of Lévinas’.4 It will attempt to show that Lévinas’ provocative denunciation of
the state of war is always accompanied by a sustained pathetic cry for peace. Yet,
in contrast to traditional Western humanism or rationalism, peace cannot be
obtained by means of the intellectual authority of the noble but frigid height of
a sovereign and unitary Reason. Instead, peace is possible only by attending to
our proximal relationship with the stranger and the Other as our fellow
human being and neighbor (le prochain): love without concupiscence. Thus,
instead of pursuing the traditional ontological task of searching for the
sovereign and self-sufficient Truth, Lévinas urges us to cultivate our
metaphysical desire for alterity, a desire towards infinity which can never be
satisfied. If the philosophical gesture inaugurated by Plato is the abandonment
of the multiple opinions (doxa) for the benefit of the Idea (Eidos) as the highest
War, Peace and Love: The Logic of Lévinas 105

good—a reversal of the common attitude of the mortals—Lévinas opts for a

reversal of the reversal: a rehabilitation of the multiple through love of the
Other as our fellow human. Hence Lévinas’ logic is first of all a logic of
negation: negation of the rationalization of war and violence committed in
the name of the highest truth. It is also a logic of affirmation: affirmation,
through love and justice, of plurality and infinity incarnated by the face of all
figures of alterity. And, it is an affirmation of a utopia too. In trying to
demonstrate such a logic, the present author is ready to accept the challenge
of committing a performative contradiction. For he tries to provide a logic for
Lévinas’ non-identical mode of thinking which is apparently irrational (or we
should rather say ‘a-rational’: exterior to a unitary Reason), i.e., illogical. Such
an endeavor is itself paradoxical. This kind of paradoxical endeavor has a
common name: deconstruction. Thus the present essay can be taken as an
exercise of deconstruction. This expression, however, is not pejorative for the
present author. On the contrary, it entails utopic affirmations.

2. War and Philosophies of Totalization: Lévinas’ Revolt against the

Western Ontological Tradition
a. Philosophy of Totalization as Totalitarian Philosophy

It will not be too much of an exaggeration to say that the history of hu-
manity coincides with the history of wars: tribal wars, ethnic wars, wars be-
tween city-states, wars between feudal lords, religious wars, wars of indepen-
dence, wars of unification, civil wars, wars of colonization, wars between em-
pires, world wars … When, in 1795, at the high time of European Enlighten-
ment, Kant launched the ‘Philosophical Project towards Perpetual Peace’, a
project preceded by endeavours of the same sort in the century, he was simply
scandalized by the state of incessant warfare in which human civilization was
still engaging herself at a stage when she ought to have reached self-conscious
maturity enlightened by centuries of continuous advancement of knowledge.
Kant hoped to bring about peace by calling upon the power of a Universal
Reason, Reason with cosmopolitan intent equipped by a sufficient self-under-
standing of the limits of human knowledge and her possibilities of action, to
limit her own will to power in order to lay down the rules of pacific co-exis-
tence of different peoples in a new world order. Needless to say, the subse-
quent development of human history shows amply that Kant’s project of eter-
nal peace remains a pious hope. Lévinas, who himself has witnessed both
world wars of the 20th Century and was a prisoner of war in a German con-
centration camp during five long years in the Second World War, certainly has
the right to express his disappointment and also the authority to cast doubt on
the feasibility of a project of peace based on enlightenment by the mere means
106 Kwok-ying Lau

of knowledge. To Lévinas, hoping to build peace on the basis of some univer-

sal self-knowledge of humankind will simply be mocked by the reality of his-
tory itself:

That history of a peace, a freedom and well-being promised on the basis of a

light that a universal knowledge projected on the world and human society …
that history is not recognizable in its millennia of fratricidal struggles, political
or bloody, of imperialism, scorn and exploitation of the human being, down
to our century of world wars, the genocides of the Holocaust and terrorism;
unemployment and continual desperate poverty of the Third World; ruthless
doctrines and cruelty of fascism and national socialism, right down to the
supreme paradox of the defense of man and his rights being perverted into
Stalinism (Lévinas 1984, p. 340/1999a, p. 132).

The reader of this passage will not be surprised that Lévinas is considered
as a postmodernist by some cultural theorists. Here Lévinas shares the critique
of the Enlightenment and of the instrumentalization of reason initiated by
Adorno and Horkheimer and continued by Foucault and Lyotard.
Yet Lévinas argues not only as a cultural critic, but primarily as a philoso-
pher, in particular as a phenomenological philosopher. He denounces the West-
ern philosophical tradition which, by declaring her intellectual neutrality, has
acted as the provider of the concept of totality that has served as an alibi to in-
stitute a state of permanent warfare throughout the entire realm of being.

Western philosophy has most often been an ontology: a reduction of the other
to the same by interposition of a middle and neutral term that ensures the
comprehension of being… To know ontologically is to surprise in an existent
confronted that by which it is not this existent, this very stranger, but that by
which it is somehow betrayed, surrenders, is given in the horizon in which it
loses itself and appears, lays itself open to grasp, becomes a concept (Lévinas
1961, pp. 13-14/1969, pp. 43-44).5

By means of the concept, philosophy jealously guards her freedom to

search for truth. Guarding her freedom means maintaining her own identity,
in spite of the impenetrable strangers which bar her road to sovereign Truth.
‘Perceived in this way, philosophy would be engaged in reducing to the same
all that is opposed to it as other. It would be moving toward auto-nomy, a stage
in which nothing irreducible would limit thought any longer, in which, con-
sequently, thought, not-limited, would be free. Philosophy would thus be
tantamount to the conquest of being by man over the course of history’ (Lévi-
nas 1974, p. 166/1987, p. 48). Thus for Lévinas, Western philosophy, in most
cases, is a thinking of totalisation (c.f. Lévinas 1995/1999b):6 it has the char-
acteristics of absorbing all elements of alterity in the immanence of the same;
it continues to exercise violence upon all Others as Other in the conquest of
War, Peace and Love: The Logic of Lévinas 107

Being. When the Other can only be grasped as an object of knowledge, she is
merely a generic existence, she loses forever her unicity and irreducible alteri-
ty. She is always the same, she can never be the different Other. This philoso-
phy of totalization is totalitarian philosophy.

b. Totalitarianism and Violence of the Hegelian System

In his denunciation of the totalitarian character of totalizing thought,

Lévinas is particularly attentive to the two versions of phenomenological
ontology represented by Hegel and Heidegger. To Lévinas, both Hegelian and
Heideggerian ontologies are philosophies of totalization.7 Lévinas summarizes
the dark heritage of Hegelian ontology in the following terms:

Since Hegel, we are accustomed to thinking that philosophy exceeds the

framework of anthropology. The ontological event accomplished by philoso-
phy consists in suppressing or transmuting the alterity of all that is Other,
in universalizing the immanence of the Same (le Même) or of Freedom, in
effacing the boundaries, and in expelling the violence of Being (Être) (Lévinas
1994, p. 61/1996, p. 11).

Reducing the Other to the Same, suppressing all boundaries within the
realm of being to create a vast space of homogeneity: the final form of Hegelian
ontology as System of Science and Absolute knowledge is the justification of
generalized violence by the elegant costume of speculative dialectics. Lévinas
admits that the suppressive nature of Hegel’s philosophy of totality was first
revealed to him by the German Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig’s
criticism in his book Der Stern der Erlösung (1988) (The Star of Redemption,
1971) first published in 1921, i.e. in the years immediately after the First
World War.8 It is with irony that Lévinas protests against the totalizing system
of the official philosopher of Prussia and his celebration of ‘Reason in History’:

The Hegelian system represents the fulfillment of the West’s thought and his-
tory, understood as the turning back of a destiny into freedom, Reason pen-
etrating all reality or appearing in it… Universal thought must no longer be
separated, in the heads of some intellectuals, from the individual whom it ren-
ders intelligible… according to the famous formulae, identity of identity and of
non-identity or concrete universal or Spirit. This sort of terminology, of course,
frightens the honest man! But it announces a form of knowledge that does not
get bogged down in specialization, an Idea that does not remain an abstrac-
tion, which animates in its form—in its entelechy—Reality itself… The history
of humanity, throughout religions, civilizations, states, wars and revolutions,
is nothing but this penetration, or this revelation, of reason within Being, long
before the philosopher’s thought has become aware of it in formulating the
System (Lévinas 1976, pp. 328-329/1990a, p. 235).
108 Kwok-ying Lau

In the all-embracing Hegelian system, every single event loses its uniqueness
and every human individual is alienated from the singularity of its fate. They
receive their place only in the total system of rational knowledge which is the
sole key capable of penetrating Reality—social, historical and political. This
latter is the totality of Being interconnected by the speculative movement of
dialectics. Thus, under the slogan ‘the real is the rational’, violence and war, as
part of historical reality, serve too as essential elements for the accomplishment
of the Spirit’s spiral ascension to Freedom as totalizing speculative knowledge.
The totalitarian character of the Absolute Spirit can best be shown in the
following passage of the Phenomenology of Spirit:

The Spirit of universal assembly and association is the simple and negative
essence of those systems which tend to isolate themselves. In order not to let
them become rooted and set in this isolation, thereby breaking up the whole
and letting the [communal] spirit evaporate, government has from time to
time to shake them to their core by war. By this means the government up-
sets their established order, and violates their right to independence, while
the individuals who, absorbed in their own way of life, break loose from the
whole and strive after the inviolable independence and security of the person,
are made to feel in the task laid on them their lord and master, death. Spirit,
by thus throwing into the melting-pot the stable existence of these systems,
checks their tendency to fall away from the ethical order, and to be submerged
in a [merely] natural existence; and it preserves and raises conscious life into
freedom and its own power (Hegel 1977, pp. 272-273, emphasis added).

In order to ensure that individuals will not be attracted to, and remain
isolated in, the comfort and pleasure of independence, war and the threat of
death is a necessary means of government. In the Philosophy of Right, Hegel
even confers a certain ethical essence to war, as he conceives war and the
sacrifice of the individual’s life as the necessary means to maintain or realize
the ethical substance of the State: ‘It is the substantial duty of individuals to
preserve … the independence and sovereignty of the state, even if their own
life and property … are endangered or sacrificed’ (Hegel 1991, §324, p. 360).
In its function to realize the Freedom and autonomy of the Spirit, the State is
a greater individuality than the single person. Thus for the sake of the State,
the life and property of individual persons should be sacrificed, and war is a
necessary means to this end.

c. The Tyranny of Heideggerian Ontology

How then is the situation with respect to Heideggerian ontology? Lévinas

does not have more tender words towards the ontological philosophy expressed
in Sein und Zeit, which he qualifies as ‘philosophy of power’ and ‘philosophy
of injustice’ (Lévinas 1961, pp. 16-17/1969, pp. 46-47). If it is true that
War, Peace and Love: The Logic of Lévinas 109

Lévinas has in various occasions recognized the importance of Sein und Zeit,
that it remains one of the greatest work in the history of Western philosophy,
the author of Totalité et Infini nevertheless thinks that when Heideggerian
ontology subordinates all relation with beings (Seiendes as individuals) under
the relation with Being (Sein), ‘it affirms the primacy of freedom over ethics’
(Lévinas 1961, p. 16/1969, p. 45). Thus the apparent ethical neutrality of Sein
und Zeit is misleading. It is in fact ‘a tyranny’ (c.f: Lévinas 1961, p. 17/1969, p.
47), as much as the system in Hegelian ontology. Let us explain this in detail.
First of all, for Heideggerian ontology, all possibility of understanding
with regard to beings must refer to Being (the famous Seinsverständnis). The
relation to Being constitutes the ultimate source of meaning; it is the supreme
light of intelligence. Hence the phenomenological reduction practiced in Sein
und Zeit, the conversion of the gaze from beings (the ontical order) to the
Being of beings (the ontological order), is a reduction of the Other to the
Same. The phenomenological reduction neutralizes beings in order to
comprehend it, i.e. to grasp it with superior, because transcendental,
intelligence. Just as the Hegelian Spirit enjoys freedom over the individual
moments of the dialectical movement, Being in Sein und Zeit enjoys freedom
over beings: it maintains itself ‘against the other, despite every relation with
the other to ensure the autarchy of an I’ (Lévinas 1961, p. 16/1969, p. 16).
Thus freedom is not that of the individual; on the contrary, freedom emerges
only as the result of obedience to Being. Thus the ontological thematization
and conceptualization in Sein und Zeit is ‘not peace with the other but
suppression or possession of the other’ (Lévinas 1961, p. 16/1969, p. 16).
Secondly, let us consider from the side of Dasein. Even though Heidegger
emphasizes that Dasein is neither soul nor consciousness, neither the
anthropological subject nor the psychological self, for Lévinas Dasein
conserves the structure of the Self-Same (Lévinas 1974, p. 169/1987, p. 51).
Dasein is always first of all a ‘mineness’ (Jemeinigkeit) (Heidegger 1979, pp.
42-43/1962, pp. 67-68). Dasein always relates to the other as shown in its
structure of ‘being-with’ (Mitsein). But this is true only in the everyday
inauthentic state. Authentic Dasein cares for its properness or ownness
(Eigentlichkeit). The ownness of Dasein is shown through its potentiality of
being as total being. But the way Dasein can conceive of itself (we hesitate to
use ‘herself ’ as for Heidegger Dasein is sexually neutral) as a total being is to
conceive of itself as a being-towards-death (Sein zum Tode) (Heidegger 1979,
§§46-53, pp. 235-267/1962, pp. 279-311). Yet in such a consideration,
authentic Dasein can only consider its own death. In the contemplation of its
own death, Dasein can have no solicitude for any Other. The situation of
authentic Dasein is solitude. In Dasein’s totalizing potentiality of being, the
Other disappears; it is no more in the situation, as it is no more related to any
Other. Whatever authentic Dasein can relate to is nothing other than its
ownness. It is not only that authentic Dasein cannot consider the death of
110 Kwok-ying Lau

other Dasein. For Heidegger it simply makes no sense to talk about the death
of other Dasein: ‘Even the Dasein of Others, when it has reached its wholeness
in death, is no-longer-Dasein, in the sense of Being-no-longer-in-the-world
… , in the sense of the Being-just-present-at-hand-and-no-more of a corporeal
Thing which we encounter’ (Heidegger 1979, p. 238/1962, p. 281). At its
death, the other Dasein is just a corporeal thing, like a stone that we happen
to step on in our daily walk! A terrible conclusion of the author of Sein und
Zeit! It is no wonder that he could publicly utter such terrifying words after
the revelation of the Holocaust: ‘Agriculture is now a motorized food industry:
in its essence it is the same thing as the manufacture of corpses in gas chambers’
(Harries 1990, pp. xxx, 263 n.70).9 To Heidegger, all those who died in gas
chambers as victims of racial extermination are just samples of ‘being-just-
present-at-hand-and-no-more of a corporeal Thing’!
Now it becomes clear what ontological neutrality means for Heidegger: at
its death, the Other Dasein is just a corporeal thing which concerns me no
more than as something to be disposed. Thus underneath this apparent
ontological neutrality is in fact indifference—indifference towards the death
of the Other. Thus Lévinas cannot stop himself from challenging Heidegger’s
apparent ontological neutrality of covering what is in fact an axiological

Has not the firmness of this primordial ontology already gone through the
axiological alternatives and chosen between values and respected the authentic
and disdained the everyday? … [which is] the alternative between on the one
hand, the identical in its authenticity, in its own right or its unalterable mine
of the human, in its Eigentlichkeit, independence and freedom, and on the
other hand being as human devotion to the other, in a responsibility which is
also an election, a principle of identification and an appeal to an I, the non-
interchangeable, the unique (Lévinas 1991b, p. 208/1998c, p. 211).

It is clear that in the eyes of Lévinas Heidegger opts for the former—the
Same which is always his own authenticity—and declines in advance, like a
disclaimer, any responsibility towards the Other. Thus Heideggerian ontology
ends up ‘affirming a tradition in which the same dominates the other, in which
freedom … precedes justice’ (Lévinas 1974, p. 171/1987, p. 53). Worse, ‘it
thus continues to exalt the will to power, whose legitimacy the other alone can
unsettle, troubling good conscience’ (Lévinas 1974, p. 170/1987, p. 52).
Lévinas’ verdict on Heidegger is severe, but motivated, because what he opts
for is diametrically opposite to the former Rector of University of Freiburg
who was an enthusiastic supporter of Hitler’s Nazi regime. To Lévinas, peace
and non-indifference towards the death of the Other is absolutely prior to
ontology, be it fundamental.
War, Peace and Love: The Logic of Lévinas 111

3. A New Understanding of Peace and the Old Concept of Dialogue:

The Tyranny of the Unitary Reason of Communication
Humanity needs and merits peace! Such is Lévinas’ pathétique cry. How is
peace possible? Exit from totality, transcendence towards the Other! Lévinas’
answer is without ambiguity. But how to rejoin the Other after two thousand
years of domination of philosophies of identity? Lévinas urges us to inverse
the tendency: listen to the call of peace prior to the call of truth. In the practice
of philosophy, that means wisdom at the service of love instead of love at the
service of wisdom (Lévinas 1984, p. 342/1999a, p. 136-137). This amounts
to calling for a new understanding of peace.

But peace in this case will no longer be reducible to a simple confirmation

of human identity in its substantiality, anchored in itself, in its identity of I.
It will no longer be a question of the bourgeois peace of the man who is at
home behind closed doors, rejecting that which, being exterior, negates them.
It will no longer be peace in conformity with the ideal of the unity of the One
that all alterity disturbs. In a sensibility in which the scandal of murder is not
suppressed even when the violence is rationally necessary, peace cannot mean
the serene tranquility of the identical, nor can alterity be justified solely as the
logical distinction of parts belonging to a fractured whole, united into a whole
by rigorously reciprocal relations (Lévinas 1984, p. 342/1999a, p. 136).

If peace cannot be achieved by the bourgeois style of peacefulness in the

form of everyone-caring-about-her-own-business (‘le chacun chez soi’), which
is in fact indifference, is peace possible through dialogue? Can peace be
obtained by arriving at consensus among rivals through discussions under the
governance of a unifying and sovereign Communicative Reason—the famous
ethics of discussion advocated with so much fanfare by Habermas and his
followers? To Lévinas, it all depends on how we understand dialogue and
discussion. Without naming it, Lévinas gives an admirably penetrating
analysis of the ‘logic of identity’ functioning under the unitary communicative
Reason to which the ethics of discussion appeals.
To Lévinas those who postulate a sovereign and unifying Communicative
Reason always hold a cognitivist conception of language, i.e. language is
comprehended in its subordination to knowing. For each of the interlocutors
engaging in dialogue, the language they use serves to enter into the thought of
the other, with the aim of coinciding with one another under a unitary Reason
which settles the differences between them. Thus, in opposition to a restless
emotional life stirred up by passions and subjective opinions, the life of Reason
achieved through this type of dialogue is a peaceful inner life. However,
Lévinas does not hesitate to point out that within this inner life of Reason,
since Reason is one and unitary, ‘[i]t has no one left with whom to
communicate; nothing is outside of it. And consequently, Reason is like the
112 Kwok-ying Lau

silence of inner discourse’ (Lévinas 1982, p. 216/1998d, p. 140). The result

is that the exchange of ideas which begins between two or more interlocutors
ends up within a single soul and takes place merely in a single consciousness.
Lévinas ironizes that ‘one can call this conversation dialogue, wherein the
interlocutors enter, the ones into the thought of the others; wherein the
dialogue brings someone to reason’, yet this is a dialogue ‘in which the
reciprocal alterity of the multiple consciousness is suppressed’ (Lévinas 1982,
p. 217/1998d, p. 141).
In other words, the passions and disputes caused by difference of opinions
are pacified by the dialogue regulated under a unitary Reason. But this has to
pay a high price: the suppression of reciprocal alterity among individual
consciousnesses and the domination over the Other as a mere thing-like object
by this powerful unifying Reason:

This is the famous dialogue that is called to stop violence by bringing the inter-
locutors to reason, establishing peace in unanimity, and suppressing proximity
in coincidence. The path of predilection of Western humanism. A nobility of
idealist renunciation! ... An effacement before truth, but also a power of domi-
nation and a possibility of cunning: a knowledge of the other as of an object
prior to any social existence with that other. Yet consequently also a power ac-
quired over him as a thing and, through language, a power that ought to lead
to the unique reason all the temptations of a deceitful rhetoric of publicity and
of propaganda (Lévinas 1982, pp. 216-217/1998d, pp. 140-141).

The diagnostic of Lévinas in the above analysis of the so-called dialogue is

clear. The concept of dialogue in question is an old one, one based on the
Enlightenment model of unitary Reason. It is a predominantly cognitivist or
intellectualist model of sovereign Reason. It ignores the fact that each subject
entering into dialogue is an absolutely unfathomable subjectivity. It is ignorant
of what Husserl has shown in the 5th Cartesian Meditation: that we can never
have intuitive presentation of the psychic life of the Other, because the latter
is always at the exterior of our own sphere of immanence. We can only imagine
our entering into the soul of the Other by appresentation, which is presentation
in an analogical sense. Thus imagining the dialogue between two souls with
reciprocity amounts to telling the story of the encounter between two
phantoms from the view point of a carnal human being. We never know how
two phantoms embrace each other when they greet one another, whereas as
carnal beings we embrace by the cheek, by the lips or by the whole body. But
we are never sure whether we can touch the heart of the person we hug or kiss,
if this very act of hugging or kissing is just a convention of reciprocal politeness.
The ethics of discussion tries to obtain peace among interlocutors by
suppressing the difference and the alterity of the speaking subjects. Consensus
is obtained by virtue of the unification of the voices of the multiple. But it is
done by discarding whatever Reason, one and sovereign, finds alien and
War, Peace and Love: The Logic of Lévinas 113

strange, while conserving the identical and the same. Thus communication
means the monologue of unitary Reason with her inner self. It will be successful
only at the expense of ascertaining the tyranny of the unitary Reason of
communication. Thus a successful philosophy of dialogue must extend her hold
over every domain of human activity such that nothing is out of her command:
there is no more exteriority. It is then nothing other than an old version of
philosophy of totalization covered by a new but already worn out dress.
In fact, communicative rationalism, cognitivism or intellectualism—or
whatever name we call it—are all philosophies of reflection. As such they are
always preceded by the pre-reflective life of incarnated subjects in their
everyday life-world. To phenomenological philosophers, this state of affairs is
already well known from the rich descriptions and analyses of the later Husserl
and Merleau-Ponty. In the Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental
Phenomenology, Husserl succeeded in rediscovering the pre-reflective life of
the meditating subject and her rootedness in the everyday life-world by
enacting a backward questioning (Zurückfragen). Under this light, we further
understand the motivation behind the questions raised by Lévinas after his
deconstruction of the cognitivist mode of true-false-dialogue (in French: le

Yet we must above all wonder whether the elevation of this peace by the Rea-
son relished by noble souls owes nothing to the prior non-indifference to the
other man; whether it owes nothing to the social life with him which would
be a relation to the neighbor, a relation other than the representation of his
existence, his nature and his spirituality. We must ask ourselves whether the
dynamism and exaltation of peace by truth derives uniquely from the suppres-
sion of alterity and not just as much from the very possibility of the Encounter
with the other as other …, for which a common truth is the pretext (Lévinas
1982, p. 217/1998d, pp.141-142).

When Lévinas asks the above questions concerning the possibility of peace
out of a certain primordial sociality, is he not suggesting to enact a kind of
backward questioning similar to that practiced by Husserl in the Crisis of
European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology? That is to say: to go back
to the field where war actually takes place, and observe how hostility is brought
to an end. Only through this specific backward questioning is it possible to
understand how peace is possible. This in turn means: suspension of the idle
talk on peace and undertaking a phenomenology of warfare violence.

4. The Possibility of Peace: The Phenomenology of Warfare Violence

But why is a phenomenology of warfare violence essential to the understanding
of the possibility of peace? Because by observing how hostility is brought to an
end in war, we can understand how ethical relationship of the first order can be
114 Kwok-ying Lau

established out of the state of war. In Lévinas’ terms, this is the question of
how the domain of totality can be broken such that human beings no longer
exist simply as generic being but also as individuals with flesh and bone, and
thus can relate to the Other as Other.
First of all, Lévinas points out that ‘war like peace presupposes beings
structured otherwise than as parts of a totality’ (Lévinas 1961, p. 197/1969,
p. 222). If in a war, a human being is just like a pure object under mechanical
control, we cannot see how it is possible to create a crack within this domain
of totality. What is paradoxical about warfare is that in actual fact, war is far
from simply an immanent domain of totality, precisely because the individuals
who take part in the war refuse to be simply an object of mathematical
calculation or mechanical manipulation. This is because it is a question of life
and death. On the battlefield, no one is sure that he will be on the side of
victory. In order to save their own life, soldiers in an army facing defeat will
choose to surrender or even to defect. In this case, they refuse to be part of the
original community. In choosing defection, they even transgress the law. By
these acts, they exit from the totality. This is the first possibility of transcendence.
All this is described by Lévinas in very succinct terms:

War therefore is to be distinguished from the logical opposition of the one and
the other by which both are defined within a totality open to a panoramic view,
to which they would owe their very opposition. In war beings refuse to belong
to a totality, refuse community, refuse law; no frontier stops one being by
another, nor defines them. They affirm themselves as transcending the total-
ity, each identifying itself not by its place in the whole, but by its self (Lévinas
1961, pp. 197-198/1969, p. 222).

Since in war no one is sure of victory in advance, tactics and strategies are
important. The belligerent camps try to use ruse to foil the plan of the enemy
prepared in advance. On the battlefield, attack by surprise is one of the keys
to victory. But as both sides prepare attack by surprise, counter attack by
surprise has to be taken into account too. Thus there is planning and
calculation, but also surprise and risk. Nothing is absolutely decided in
advance. Thus war is never a pure being of totality. There is fissure inherent in
it, from where rupture and exit is possible. That is why transcendence is
possible. Again because the actors involved are human beings of blood and
flesh. By means of their antagonism with respect to one another, a space of
exteriority is opened up. Lévinas’ descriptions are without detour:

War presupposes the transcendence of the antagonists: it is waged against

man… The possibility, retained by the adversary, of thwarting the best laid
calculations expresses the separation, the breach of totality, across which the
adversaries approach one another. The warrior runs a risk; no logistics guar-
antee victory. The calculations that make possible the determination of the
War, Peace and Love: The Logic of Lévinas 115
outcome of a play of forces within a totality do not decide war. It lies at the
limit of a supreme confidence in oneself and a supreme risk. It is a relation
between beings exterior to totality (Lévinas 1961, p. 198/1969, pp. 222-223).

Up to here, Lévinas’ descriptions serve to show that war is not a realm of

absolute immanence; exteriority is possible because soldiers as humans can act
as individuals exterior to this totality. Yet a question immediately follows: how
then can the individuals exterior to each other relate to each other? ‘In war the
adversaries seek out one another’ (Lévinas 1961, p. 198/1969, p. 223). As a
soldier during the Second World War, Lévinas knows what he is talking about.
But this is only a temporary answer which remains purely formal. From
the point of view of content, a further issue arises: What kind of relation do
two antagonistic soldiers entertain with one another? They are two individuals
seeking out one another in order to kill each other. They are engaged in a
relation of mortal confrontation. So it is their very mortality which relates
them together. As a soldier, my mortality is related to the Other. This is the
first point of difference of Lévinas’s understanding of death in contrast to
Heidegger: in Sein und Zeit, my death has nothing to do with any other
Dasein, and the death of other Dasein does not concern me.
The soldier is animated by the will to kill. But at the same time he risks
being killed. If he succeeds in killing the first enemy he sees, he is not sure
whether he will not be killed in subsequent confrontations. Thus when a
soldier is still alive, his being alive is simply a postponement of his death. So
the being of a soldier is ‘a being postponing his death’ (Lévinas 1961, p.
200/1969, p. 225). This is the second point of difference with Heidegger:
whereas in Sein und Zeit, Dasein anticipates its death, in Totalité et Infini, the
soldier postpones his/her death. But this phenomenon deserves further
analysis with respect to temporality, freedom, transcendence and otherness.
From the point of view of temporality, a being postponing his death is in
the temporal mode of ‘not yet’. He is thus not a being towards death, but a
being which is going against death and trying to retreat from death even if
death is inexorably imminent (a third point of difference from Heidegger)
(Lévinas 1961, p. 199/1969, p. 224).
But this also brings forth a fourth and basic difference between the
Lévinasian and Heideggerian approaches to death. Whereas Heidegger’s
discourse on death in Being and Time is a purely ontological discourse (Dasein
as being-towards-death is ‘the possibility of its absolute impossibility’), Lévinas’
phenomenological descriptions of death are focused on the physical and actual
death of the individual of flesh and blood.
As a soldier, to the extent that I am still alive and able to kill, I enjoy
freedom. But I am still alive only because I am postponing my death. It is the
Other who sustains my freedom by granting me the reprieve of not yet being
killed, and so my freedom depends on the Other. What the phenomenon of
warfare violence shows here is the paradoxical concept of freedom: my freedom
116 Kwok-ying Lau

depends on the Other. There is neither absolute nor unilateral freedom;

freedom and dependence are like the two sides of the same coin. In granting
me freedom, the Other also grants me the possibility of transcendence. But it
is first of all the transcendence of this Other which grants me freedom. The
phenomenology of warfare violence reverses the relation between freedom
and transcendence traditionally understood:

It is therefore not freedom that accounts for the transcendence of the Other,
but the transcendence of the Other that accounts for freedom—a transcen-
dence of the Other with regard to me which, being infinite, does not have the
same signification as my transcendence with regard to him. The risk that war
involves measures the distance that separates bodies within their hand-to-hand
struggle (les corps dans leur corps-à-corps). The Other, in the hands of forces
that weaken him, exposed to powers, remains unforeseeable, that is, transcen-
dent (Lévinas 1961, p. 201/1969, p. 225).10

The phenomenon of warfare violence shows that my mortality, my freedom

and my transcendence, which enable me to exit totality, all depend on the
Other. This relation to the Other is a relation of the first order in the battlefield
even before I physically see the Other who is the enemy. That is why I owe my
temporary survival to my enemy. This is the debt I owe him. My responsibility
then consists in repaying this debt. That is why this relation of the first order
is an ethical relation: because I owe to the Other my possibility of freedom
and transcendence, my relation with him is asymmetrical (Lévinas 1961, p.
201/1969, p. 225).
Freedom and transcendence break totality; they open up the space of
peace. But these are concepts. How is peace brought about concretely on the
battlefield? As a soldier, Lévinas had a fundamental experience which he
summarizes in the following manner: ‘he was fearful for his death, but
anguished at possibly having to kill (Lévinas 1984, p. 341/1999a, p. 135). My
anguish comes from seeing the face of the Other. Since the Other as trans­
cendence is at the origin of my freedom and transcendence, and since my
relation to the Other is a relation of debt, on seeing the vulnerability of the
face of the Other, I have to respond to my debt I owe him. I cannot help from
saying to myself: ‘Thou shalt not kill!’ Thus the face of the Other resists the
will to kill; he/she has a moral force stronger than the power of a gun. That is
why for Lévinas, on the battlefield the transcendence of the Other is not
something simply negative, ‘but is manifested positively in the moral resistance
of the face to the violence of murder. The force of the Other is already and
henceforth moral’ (Lévinas 1961, p. 201/1969, p. 225). The interruption of
the violence of murder is the first step to peace. It is an exit ‘‘outside totality’
opened by the transcendence of the face [of the Other]’ (Lévinas, 1961, p.
201/1969, p. 225).11
War, Peace and Love: The Logic of Lévinas 117

The face of the Other, by virtue of its moral epiphany, solicits a response
from my part. I have to pay the debt I owe him. Thus the asymmetrical
relation between the Other and I can generate a more symmetrical relation,
that of paying back my debt. In doing so, I tie a reciprocal relation with the
Other in addition to the first one, which remains asymmetrical. The reciprocal
relation takes the form of exchange (Lévinas 1961, p. 201/1969, pp. 225-
226). On the modern battlefield, it often begins by the exchange of cigarettes
or food between soldiers originally hostile to one another. It can eventually
develop into the exchange of captured and wounded soldiers between the
belligerent camps, or further, the exchange of prisoners of war between
belligerent countries.
The phenomenon of warfare violence sketched above is quite different
when compared to Hegel’s metaphysical determination of war. In Hegel the
totality is absolute, exit is impossible; only the Spirit enjoys freedom, not the
individuals in the ultimate sense. This is a game of all or nothing: the Spirit is
the winner who gains all, while the individual is the loser who has to sacrifice
even his own life and property. In Lévinas’ phenomenology of warfare violence,
there is the possibility of exteriority and transcendence; individuals can enjoy
freedom, even if this freedom is never total. Yet it is a game of fifty-fifty which
no one is sure of winning in advance. Precisely because war is a form of
undecided violence that renders possible freedom, transcendence and relations
between individuals. It is even a relation of the first order, because it is a
question of life and death between human individuals.

5. Love as the Movement of Transcendence: Phenomenology of Eros and

The above sketch remains incomplete in terms of the search for peace. For
the end of hostility between belligerent parties does not signify total peace,
not to say perpetual peace. What the phenomenon of warfare violence
succeeds in showing is: the transcendence of the Other is the key to peace.
This has to be completed by a phenomenology of love, for love is the movement
of transcendence towards the Other as Other. Love is simply the desire of the
Other. In Totalité et Infini, the phenomenology of war is continued by the
phenomenology of Eros and fecundity. To summarize the very rich and poetic
descriptions of the phenomenon of Eros and fecundity in Totalité et Infini is
not only impossible, but simply coarse. Yet the scope of the present paper does
not allow us to undertake a detailed analysis of Lévinas’ marvelous descriptions.
In the following, we limit ourselves to a sketch of the main points of this
phenomenology of Eros.
118 Kwok-ying Lau

a. Phenomenology of Eros

First of all, love is not the addition of knowledge by some affective ele-
ments. Love is blind, for there is no concept. It does not involve the fixed
structure of subject and object. In a love affair, the lovers are engaged in a
game which advances towards infinity. Let us listen to Lévinas:

Love is not reducible to a knowledge mixed with affective elements which

would open to it an unforeseen plane of being. It grasps nothing, issues in no
concept, does not issue, has neither the subject-object structure nor the I-thou
structure. Eros is not accomplished as a subject that fixes an object, nor as a
pro-jection, toward a possible. Its movement consists in going beyond the pos-
sible (Lévinas 1961, p.238/1969, p. 261).

Love as Eros is rather the affair between two persons, which is extremely
complex and paradoxical. Lévinas gives patient and detailed descriptions of
the phenomenon of erotic nudity which involves the moments of modesty
(pudeur), profanation, caress and voluptuous pleasure or voluptuosity (vo-
lupté). In the case of voluptuosity, it is a game of hidden desire, of vertigo or
dizziness, of going beyond the personal while the personal never completely
submerges. It is an experience of quasi-death (the French used to say ‘la petite
morte’—the little death). Erotic love brings the two sides into a situation of
instability. As a being in love, I cannot maintain a stable equilibrium with
myself, nor with the one I love. I am overcome and taken away by a non-I
towards a direction and a future over which I have no control. Again Lévinas
has vivid descriptions of the metaphysical character of erotic love:

It disrupts the relation of the I with itself and with the non-I. An amorphous
non-I sweeps away the I into an absolute future where it escapes itself and loses
its position as a subject. Its ‘intention’ no longer goes forth unto the light, unto
the meaningful. Wholly passion, it is compassion for the passivity, the suffer-
ing, the evanescence of the tender. It dies with this death and suffers with this
suffering (Lévinas 1961, p. 237/1969, p. 259).12

In short, a subject in love loses her sovereignty as a subject. She loses her
freedom and becomes passive. She is literally thrown into the breast of an
intimate Other.
The descriptions of erotic love show that love is neither friendship, as it is
not something among several persons or within a community, but rather an
affair of extreme intimacy between two persons. Nor is love the possession of
the soul of the Other, because the two consciousnesses are not united to form
a single consciousness. Since the union passes by voluptuous pleasure, so love
is not an intellectual and reflective relation but something immediate and
War, Peace and Love: The Logic of Lévinas 119
Voluptuosity is not a sentiment to the second degree like a reflection, but
direct like a spontaneous consciousness. It is inward and yet intersubjectively
constructed, not simplifying itself into consciousness that is one. In volup-
tuosity the other is me and separated from me. The separation of the Other in
the midst of this community of feeling constitutes the acuity of voluptuosity.
The voluptuous in voluptuosity is not the freedom of the other tamed, ob-
jectified, reified, but his freedom untamed, which I nowise desire objectified.
But it is freedom desired and voluptuous not in the clarity of this face, but in
the obscurity and as though in the vice of the clandestine (Lévinas 1961, p.
243/1969, p. 265).13

In a love affair, I expect the one I love to love me, so this is a reciprocal rela-
tion. But the loving relation is not merely reciprocal, because I am moving to-
wards an Other, to the profound depth of alterity. In short, love is a movement
of transcendence, a relation with the Other who is entirely an exteriority:

Love does not transcend unequivocably—it is complacent, it is pleasure and

egoism between the two [égoïsme à deux]. But in this complacence it equally
moves away from itself; it abides in a vertigo above a depth of alterity that no
signification clarifies any longer (Lévinas 1961, p. 244/1969, p. 266).14

b. Phenomenology of Fecundity

Yet as a movement of transcendence, love is not satisfied with the present,

it projects towards the future. This is shown by the phenomenon of fecundity:
giving birth to a new generation. Giving birth to a child brings about a new
relation with the Other, a relation of the absolute future, of infinite time.
First of all, the giving birth to a child can be accomplished only through
voluptuous love. This requires the encounter between myself (for example, a
man) and another as a woman in order that ‘the future of the child come to
pass [advenir] from beyond the possible, beyond projects’ (Lévinas, 1961:
245/1969: 267). This future is future in a very new sense. ‘This future is
neither the Aristotelian germ (less than being, a lesser being) nor the
Heideggerian possibility which constitutes being itself, but transforms the
relation with the future into a power of the subject’ (Lévinas 1961, p.
244/1969, p. 267). It is because a child—my child—is at the same time ‘my
own and not-mine, a possibility of myself but also a possibility of the other, of
the Beloved—my future does not enter into the logical essence of the possible’
(Lévinas 1961, p. 244/1969, p. 267).
What is specific to the future brought about by a child consists precisely in
the fact that it brings about a new hope and not the repetition of the habitual
which generates boredom. The new generation rendered possible by fecundity
is the incarnation of the inexhaustible youth of the child: ‘In fecundity the
120 Kwok-ying Lau

tedium of this repetition ceases; the I is other and young, yet the ipseity that
ascribed to it its meaning and its orientation in being is not lost in this
renouncement of self ’ (Lévinas 1961, p. 246/1969, p. 268).
As parents, we get older, but we do not need to abandon ourselves. On the
contrary, with the new generation, fecundity is the continuation of history. As
continuation, it is neither a beginning from zero nor an aging without end.
With the coming of a child, I am able to transcend the world by renewing my
substance with someone who is at the same time the Same and the Other. I
realize a trans-substantiation. It is transcendence towards the Other, exit of
the being of Parmenides. Whereas in Parmenidean being it is the Same which
reigns, fecundity brings about a new species of being which is ‘infinite being,
that is, ever recommencing being—which could not bypass subjectivity, for it
could not recommence without it’ (Lévinas 1961, p. 246/1969, p. 268). We
are able to leave the philosophy of Parmenidean being by this very movement
of transcendence towards the Other brought about by fecundity. If exit of the
Parmenidean being means exit of the state of war, peace is possible.
As such fecundity brings about a kind of peace that the heroes of the
battlefield are incapable of realizing. The latter are just postponing their death,
while fecundity, by giving birth to new generations, is the realization of
plurality. This is the possibility of peace among a maximum number of
individuals. Lévinas summarizes his conception of peace in the following

Peace therefore cannot be identified with the end of combats that cease for
want of combatants, by the defeat of some and the victory of the others, that
is, with cemeteries of future universal empires. Peace must be my peace, in a
relation that starts from an I and goes to the other, in desire and goodness,
where the I both maintains itself and exists without egoism. It is conceived
starting from an I assured of the convergence of morality and reality, that
is, of an infinite time which through fecundity is its time (Lévinas 1961, p.
283/1969, p. 306).

In short, through love, Eros and fecundity, the movement of transcendence

towards alterity projects onto an infinite time upon which peace is possible.

6. From Love to Justice: Lévinas’ Utopia

But Lévinas is not satisfied with love as Eros, he wants to extend love to the
stranger, to the Other as neighbor and fellow human beings, which is love
without concupiscence. For the child is still a being of the Same and the
Other, while love of the neighbor and fellow human is to accept the absolute
alterity of the Other. Every Other is an unfathomable subjectivity which
represents infinity. Ultimately peace is possible only if we can love the stranger
War, Peace and Love: The Logic of Lévinas 121

as neighbor and fellow human. We have to give hospitality to the stranger, let
them enjoy the rights we enjoy. We have to establish institutions to guarantee
justice. For this purpose, we have to employ our knowledge and wisdom. But
knowledge and wisdom are employed at the service of love and not vice versa,
as for Lévinas love is always prior to knowledge and wisdom.15
To many commentators of Lévinas, the author of Totality and Infinity is not
merely preaching a certain kind of moralism without political implications.16
While some readers emphasize the utopic character of Lévinas’ ethics of
asymmetric responsibility towards the Other (Abensour 2006, 2012), others see
in it germs of an ethical politics which argues for another practice of politics and
justice (Drabinski 2004; Perpich 2004; Tahmasebi-Birgani 2014).
In fact since his youth Lévinas has always been aware of the dangers of
both bourgeois liberalism and totalitarianism, as seen in his early essay
‘Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism’ (Lévinas 2006/1990b). The
mature Lévinas was critical of both Western Liberalism and Marxist Socialism.
The basic concern of Western Liberalism is the preservation and protection of
freedom. But this unilateral emphasis on formal freedom often degenerates
into indifference towards the Other. The result is the prevalence of social and
economic violence in the form of unforeseen social inequality in Western
liberal societies. At the diametrically opposite pole of Western Liberalism,
Marxist Socialism strives to guarantee social equality through economic
justice. But the means it employs is the state as a totalizing machine which
extends her control over every individual both in the public and the private
domains. The exercise of political violence without control is unforeseen and
incommensurate with the social rights such a regime claims to protect.
Lévinas’ ethical politics injects the ethical imperative into political life with
the following double requirements. First of all, non-indifference towards the
third: as the third is the other of my other, the ethical command from the
face-to-face with the third holds for me too, namely ‘thou-shall-not-kill’. This
is the basic principle of the politics of non-indifference, non-violence and
struggle against all forms of oppression of the Other in the ethical politics
inspired by Lévinas. This is a politics which is sensible to the sufferings of the
others which goes beyond merely formal political freedom. This ethical politics
also goes against Marxist Socialism which, in the name of giving priority to
the exploited social class (the proletariat), in fact deprives all individuals of
their basic human rights and political freedom. The Marxist Socialist state
legitimizes the exercise of political violence over not only non-proletarian
social classes, but in fact on the entire civil society, thus on all individuals. The
ethical politics inspired by Lévinas aims to restore justice to individual human
beings both in its socio-economic aspect as well as its political aspect. It aims
at introducing another practice of justice beyond merely formal procedural
justice. It includes the following two interrelated aspects:
122 Kwok-ying Lau

1. Justice as the irreducible responsibility for the Other, namely as non-indif-

ference to the suffering and the death of the Other.
2. Justice aiming at repairing the wound of the world caused by the infliction
of all forms of violence to human beings.

The two directives combine to form a political practice that aims at ‘a non-
violent rebellion against injustice committed against the Other’ (Tahmasebi-
Birgani 2014, p. 32).
Of course questions concerning the concrete operation of this political
practice arise. For example, how should I proceed to understand the other’s
call for assistance? How can I be sure of my knowledge of the demand of the
other? How can I be sure that on hearing the voice of the other and in
responding to her voice by my own voice, I would not have substituted her
voice with my own voice? Lévinas’ apparent depreciation of knowing activities
in contrast to the absolute ethical responsibility towards the other will render
these questions difficult to answer. A convincing theory of ethical politics of
Lévinasian inspiration must consider this most seriously. Yet the two basic
guiding principles of a Lévinasian ethical politics are still rich elements for
imaginaries towards a new practice of social justice.

In the above pages, I have shown that behind Lévinas’s provocative inter-
pretation of the whole history of Western ontology as a state of war and its
denunciation pronounced at the very beginning of Totality and Infinity, there
operates an internal logic. It is first of all a logic of negation: negation of the
rationalization of war and violence committed in the name of the highest
truth. It is also a logic of affirmation: affirmation, through love and justice, of
plurality and infinity incarnated by the face of all figures of alterity. It is an
affirmation of a utopia too: the utopia of an ethical politics aiming at the res-
toration of justice by taking up the absolute responsibility towards the other
as non-indifference to the suffering and the death of the Other. This utopia
also aims at repairing the wound inflicted to the world by all forms of vio-
lence. Lévinas’ logic is thus a logic of a politics of non-violence, accompanied
by a continuous pathétique cry for love and peace.


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Éditions de l’Herne, Paris, pp. 477-495.
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politique. Entretiens avec Danielle Cohen-Lévinas, Hermann Éditeur, Paris.
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Burggrave, R 2007, The Wisdom of Love in the Service of Love. Emmanuel Levinas on
Justice, Peace and Human Rights, trans. J Bloechl, Marquette University Press,
Milwaukee, WI.
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Lévinas’, Writing and Difference, trans. A Bass, University of Chicago Press,
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IV, Routledge, Abingdon, Oxon and New York, pp. 188-212.
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September, pp. 51-56.
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Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, PA.
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Husserl et Heidegger, 3rd Editiion, J Vrin, Paris.
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Éditions Albin Michel, Paris.
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qui vient à l’idée, J Vrin, Paris.
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Verdier, Paris.
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Philosophical Papers, Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht.
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Judaism, The Athlone Press, London.
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Inquiry, Autumn, 17, pp. 62-71.
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l’autre, Éditions Grasset and Fasquelle, Paris.
124 Kwok-ying Lau

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Grasset and Fasquelle, Paris.
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Bernasconi (eds.), Basic Philosophical Writings, Indiana University Press,
Bloomington, IN.
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MB Smith, Discovering Existence with Husserl, Northwestern University Press,
Evanston, IL, pp. 130-134.
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Nous: On thinking-of-the-Other, The Athlone Press, London.
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thinking-of-the-Other, The Athlone Press, London.
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God Who Comes to Mind, trans. B Bergo, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.
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Columbia University Press, New York, NY.
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Transcendence, Columbia University Press, New York, NY, pp. 31-59.
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Cahiers de l’Herne, Éditions de l’Herne, Paris, pp. 155-160.
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Lévinas, Éditions Jean-Michel Place, Paris, pp. 127-150.
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Assessments of Leading Philosophers, Vol. 1, Routledge, New York, NY, pp. 278-333.
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Seuil, Paris.
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in CE Katz (ed.) Emmanuel Levinas. Critical Assessments of Leading Philosophers,
Vol. IV, Routledge, Abingdon, Oxon and New York, pp. 325-342.
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Rosenzweig, F 1988 [1921], Der Stern der Erlösung, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt.
Tahmasebi-Birgani, V 2014, Emmanuel Levinas and the Politics of Non-Violence,
University of Toronto Press, Toronto.
Taminaux, J 1998, ‘Lévinas et l’histoire de la philosophie’, in N Frogneux and E Mies
(eds.) Emmanuel Lévinas et l’histoire, Les Éditions du Cerf and Presses universitaires
de Namur, Paris-Namur, pp. 49-76.
War, Peace and Love: The Logic of Lévinas 125

Author Biography

Born and educated in Hong Kong of parents from China, Kwok-ying Lau received
his PhD in Philosophy at the University of Paris I in 1993 with a dissertation on
Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology. He is currently Professor and Director of MA in
Philosophy Program at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is founding
editor-in-chief since 2004 of the ‘Journal of Phenomenology and the Human
Sciences’ (in Chinese), published by the Edwin Cheng Foundation Asian Centre
for Phenomenology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is the author of
Towards a New Cultural Flesh: Phenomenology and Intercultural Understanding
(Springer: forthcoming, Spring 2016) and Traces of French Phenomenology: From
Sartre to Derrida (in Chinese, Taipei, forthcoming, Spring 2016), and the editor
or co-editor of twenty volumes of works of philosophy in English and Chinese.
Address: Room 427, Fung King Hey Building, Department of Philosophy, The
Chinese University of Hong Kong. Shatin, N.T. Hong Kong.

1 The term ‘pathétique’ used in this paper should not be understood in the usual
adverse or negative sense it bears in English (as ‘pathetic’), but rather as the con-
notation of the French term ‘pathétique’ with its Greek origin ‘pathetikos’, which
means emotional with a strong power of affectivity.
2 Editor’s note: For all in-text references, where necessary, the first date reference is
to the French original text (or in one case, the German original), and the second-
ary date reference refers to the English language publication of the work.
3 The translation of the French has been slightly modified by the author.
4 This expression is inspired by the title of Jean-François Lyotard’s famous article
devoted to Lévinas, ‘Logique de Lévinas’, or, ‘Lévinas’ Logic’ (Lyotard 1980, pp.
127-150/2005, pp. 278-333). While Lyotard undertakes an analysis of Lévinas’
works from the perspective of pragmatics of language, our approach is more phe-
nomenological. In particular I will reconstruct Levinas’ logic from his phenome-
nology of warfare violence as possibility of peace and phenomenology of Eros and
fecundity as elements of phenomenology of love.
5 The translation of the French has been slightly modified by the author.
6 Lévinas’ article ‘Totalité et totalisation’ was originally a contribution to the Ency-
clopaedia Universalis in 1968, and can be found in Lévinas 1995 or in English in
Lévinas 1999b.
7 Lévinas’ relation to Husserl is much more complicated than can be treated here.
Yet, in the Preface to Totalité et Infini, Lévinas claims that ‘Husserlian phenome-
nology has made possible this passage from ethics to metaphysical exteriority’
(1961, p. XVII/1969, p. 29). Lévinas has even expressed very laudatory words
concerning the founder of contemporary phenomenology with regard to the re-
covery of the human dimension in a dehumanized modern world: ‘No one
126 Kwok-ying Lau

combatted the dehumanization of the Real better than Husserl, the dehumaniza-
tion which is produced when one extends the categories proper to mathematized
matter to the totality of our experience, when one elevates scientism to absolute
knowledge... Husserl’s phenomenology has furnished the principal intellectual
means for substituting a human world for the world as physicomathematical sci-
ence represents it... [Husserl’s p]henomenology has not only permitted the ‘de-
thingifying’, the ‘de-reifying’ of the human being, but also the humanizing of
things’ (Lévinas 1960, pp. 51-56/1998a, pp. 131-132). For a very clarifying dis-
cussion, see the excellent article by Jacques Taminiaux (1998).
8 Lévinas refers to Rosenzweig’s Stern der Erlösung in the Preface to Totalité et Infini
(1961, p. XVI/1969, p. 28) and other interviews (Lévinas 1991a, p. 128/1998b,
p. 118). Lévinas has contributed a philosophical essay to Rosenzweig in the ‘Pref-
ace’ (pp. 7-16) to a study written in French by Stéphane Mosès (1982), who has
also published a small volume on Lévinas (2004), from which the present author
has benefited.
9 Heidegger is reported to have said these words in the second of the Bremen lec-
tures in 1953, cited by Wolfgang Schirmacher from a typescript, but these words
were later deleted from the published version. Cf. Harries (1990, pp. xxx, 263 n.
10 This English translation has been slightly modified by the present author. Lévinas’
propos can be best illustrated by the recent American war film Fury (2014), di-
rected by David Ayer. There is only one soldier who remains alive at the end of the
fighting in the crew of a platoon of four American tanks, the young Norman. His
life is saved thanks to a young German soldier who discovers Norman hiding be-
neath the destroyed tank but does not report him. Norman is able to continue to
hide himself after the surviving German soldiers move on until he is discovered by
U.S. Army troops. While Norman is hailed as a hero by these American troops
who discover him, he reacts to this by a facial expression of incredulity.
11 This English translation has been slightly modified by the present author.
12 This English translation has been slightly modified by the present author.
13 This English translation has been slightly modified by the present author.
14 This English translation has been slightly modified by the present author.
15 This point is well expressed by the title of Roger Burggraeve’s book The Wisdom of
Love in the Service of Love: Emmanuel Levinas on Justice, Peace and Human Rights
16 Please consult the rich collection of articles in Emmanuel Lévinas: Critical Assess-
ments of Leading Philosophers, Vol. IV, Beyond Lévinas (Katz 2005).
Social Imaginaries 1.2 (2015) 127-145

‘Man against the State’:

Community and Dissent
Fred Dallmayr

Abstract: The relation between individual freedom and social commu-

nity or solidarity is always tenuous and fraught with many possible
conflicts or derailments. The essay examines two main forms of such
conflicts: the first where individual pursuit of private self-interest com-
pletely overrules social solidarity; the second where individual freedom
and even radical dissent serve to promote justice and a more ethical
mode of solidarity. The formula ‘Man against the State’ goes back to
Herbert Spencer and his advocacy of a radical laissez-faire liberalism.
Relying on Hobbes and Locke, Spencer argued that in the ‘state of
nature’ individuals are endowed with complete liberty, especially the
freedom to acquire property - whose protection is the sole objective
of government. In some formulations this argument gave rise to the
doctrine of ‘social Darwinism’ and the motto of the ‘survival of the fit-
test’. In opposition to this ‘possessive’ or egocentric form of liberty the
essay turns to more ethically grounded conceptions of individual free-
dom, civil disobedience and dissent, conceptions articulated especially
by Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi and Albert Camus, and also evident in
the conduct of Socrates and some members of the German resistance
movement. Here the conflict between individual freedom and solidar-
ity serves as the lever to raise community to a higher level of ethical life.

Key Words: liberalism — Herbert Spencer — social Darwinism — sur-

vival of the fittest — civil disobedience — radical dissent — social justice

‘Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine.’

Henry David Thoreau

The opening part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra contains these stark lines:
‘State is the name of the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly it tells lies too;
and this lie crawls out of its mouth: I, the state, am the people’. These lines
128 Fred Dallmayr

resonate strongly with contemporary ears, not only in totalitarian autocracies,

but in (so-called) democracies as well. Everywhere people are confronted with
mammoth corruption and vile deceptions perpetrated by ‘states’. Nietzsche
calls the state the coldest monster because it is devoid of human sensibility
and, in fact, has turned into a huge technical artifact or machine. In Western
thought, Thomas Hobbes was the first to call the state an ‘artificial body’; but
at his time, this artifact was still embodied in a human sovereign. In the
meantime, the sovereign has been replaced or supplemented by an immense
bureaucratic apparatus, an apparatus inhabited by ‘specialists without spirit’
and wedded solely to digital calculation and electronic surveillance. More
importantly, under the aegis of this apparatus, life and death are increasingly
mechanized, with military valor being replaced by automated killing machines.
‘Indeed,’ Zarathustra exclaims, ‘a hellish artifice was invented here, a horse of
death, clattering in the finery of divine honors.’ If these developments
continue, the prospects for human life and freedom are dismal: ‘Verily, this
sign [of the state] signifies the will to death. It beckons to the preachers of
death’ (Nietzsche 1968, pp. 160-163).1
The state castigated in Nietzsche’s text is far removed from the older
conception of a political community or ‘polis,’ a term designating a shared
public life sustained by ethical bonds and by (what Aristotle called) a ‘watery
kind of friendship.’ Nietzsche is not dismissive of this older notion. In fact, he
puts into Zarathustra’s mouth these memorable lines: ‘It was creators who
created peoples and hung a faith and a love over them: thus they served life.’
And with creative life comes freedom: ‘A free life is still free for great souls . .
. Only where the ‘state’ ends, there begins the human being who is not
superfluous.’ As one should note here, a ‘free life’ is not intrinsically opposed
to a freely shared solidarity, that is, to a life shared with friends in whom (as
Nietzsche says) ‘the world stands completed, a bowl of goodness’ (Nietzsche
1986, pp. 160, 162, 174). The aim of the present essay is to show the
compatibility between a properly conceived freedom and a properly conceived
solidarity, more precisely between an unselfish or self-transcending freedom
and an uncoercive, future-oriented public community. It must be recognized,
however, that this relationship is always tensional and fraught with profound
hazards—hazards which can arise from either side or from both, leading to a
rupture of the ethical social bond. Despotism and totalizing autocracy provoke
a rupture ‘from above,’ while radical individualism and violent rebellion tear
the social fabric ‘from below.’
In modern Western thought, the antithetical formula of ‘man versus the
state’ is associated chiefly with a certain type of liberalism or ‘libertarianism’
promoted by Herbert Spencer and his followers. In the following, I discuss in
a first step this formula, sometimes called ‘social Darwinism,’ which has
exerted great influence in the West in recent times. In a second step, I turn to
more nuanced and ethically sensitive formulations of the ‘freedom-solidarity’
‘Man against the State’: Community and Dissent 129

conundrum advanced by Thoreau, Gandhi, and Albert Camus. By way of

conclusion I offer some additional examples of the freedom-solidarity nexus
by turning to the trial of Socrates and the ethically inspired resistance
movement against the Nazi regime in Germany.

Herbert Spencer and Social Darwinism

Tensions and internal conflicts are endemic to most societies and political
regimes. As history teaches, societies East and West have always been
periodically in the throes of domestic upheavals and rebellions. However, in
the past such rebellions have typically originated in perceived social and
political ills and motivated by the goal of establishing a more just or acceptable
regime (from the angle of the insurgents). One of the strikingly novel features
in Western modernity is that domestic challenges are sometimes directed
against regimes as such, that is, against the very notion of a shared public
order. In large measure, this feature is associated with modern liberalism
(sometimes shading over into anarchism), a doctrine anchored in the primacy
of individual self-interest. Still, even in the context of modern liberalism, a
radical anti-social or ‘anti-state’ animus developed only slowly. Thus, although
assuming a radically individualistic and a-social ‘state of nature,’ Hobbes
maintained firmly that reason and internalized moral codes would eventually
lead people to construct a stable regime. Likewise, while departing from a
similar (though mere peaceful) state of nature, John Locke’s liberal public
order inserted individual rights squarely into the framework of an established
social community (whose unraveling was treated as a rare exception). It was
only in the nineteenth century, under the impact of positivism and
evolutionism, that the liberal creed became virulent, in the sense of normalizing
the Hobbesian state of nature.
Basically, the nineteenth century witnessed a confluence of intellectual
tendencies, many of which conspired to drive the notion of a shared normative
order underground. One was the emergence of the discipline of ‘sociology,’
inaugurated by Auguste Comte, with its focus on empirical description in
opposition to the ‘metaphysical’ assumptions of the earlier age of
Enlightenment. Another feature, located in the ethical domain, was the rise to
prominence of ‘utilitarianism,’ a quasi-psychological doctrine initiated by
Jeremy Bentham which located normative standards not in abstract ‘laws of
nature,’ but in the empirical calculus of pleasure and pain. A third trend
gathering momentum throughout the century was biological evolutionism
which reached its most mature expression in the work of Charles Darwin. In
an instructive and exemplary fashion, the three cited trends converged and
reached an (unstable) synthesis in the writings of Herbert Spencer (1820-
1903), a prominent sociologist and social philosopher deeply influenced by
Comtean positivism, utilitarian teachings, and later in life by Darwin’s The
130 Fred Dallmayr

Origin of the Species (first published in 1859). Because of this intellectual

indebtedness, Spencer is sometimes regarded as a purely derivative thinker—
which is not entirely fair. One of his aims was clearly to ‘synthesize’ teachings
(and even to produce a ‘synthetic philosophy’); but this aim still left room for
intellectual independence and sometimes for formulations more sensible or
balanced than those of his mentors. Thus, while honoring Comte, he did not
embrace his historical ‘stage theory,’ favoring a more flexible evolutionism.
With regard to utilitarianism, he sought to improve the dominant rigid
empiricism by preferring a more ‘rational’ or enlightened version (which even
made room for ‘natural rights’ dismissed by Bentham). His relation to Darwin
was complex and by no means reducible to a simple transfer of ideas from
biology to sociology.2
During his lifetime, Spencer’s writings were received widely and mostly
favorably; however, none of his other texts could match the impact, both then
and later, achieved by his book published in 1884 under the title Man Versus
the State. The book is a collection of essays dealing with a variety of topics;
however, the central thrust of the text is a virulent polemical attack on what
Spencer called the ‘new Toryism’—a code word for the shift of British
liberalism in the direction of an interventionist and paternalistic ‘statism’
(typical of old-style Tory conservatism). In eloquent and stirring language, the
book pits against each other a military and ‘militant’ regime associated with
Toryism/conservatism and a commercial or ‘industrial’ social order promoted
by genuine liberalism; while, in the former, social bonds are hierarchical and
compulsory, in the second case they are voluntary and minimal (in accordance
with laissez-faire principles of individual freedom and private property).
Contemporary readers of the text, confronted with the ‘monstrosity’ of state
bureaucracies, are likely to appreciate Spencer’s polemic—especially when the
latter is extended to a scathing critique of state-sponsored colonial or imperial
expansions across the globe. As it happens, however, this appreciation is
bound to diminish or be muted by Spencer’s political naiveté, his inability or
unwillingness to ponder the effects of the ongoing replacement of ‘industrialism’
by new capitalist hierarchies whose leaders were eager to step into the vacated
place of public institutions. The disaffection is deepened by Spencer’s relentless
attacks on public education, unionism, and social welfare legislation seeking
to provide a buffer against the new forms of economic domination.
In many ways, Man Versus the State follows the lead of earlier liberal
thinkers—but with a significant twist. Together with Hobbes and Locke, the
text starts from the assumption of individual liberty in a pristine ‘natural’
condition, stating: ‘There are no phenomena which a society presents but
what have their origins in the phenomena of individual life, which again have
their roots in vital phenomena at large.’ By contrast to the opinion of his
predecessors, however, Spencer does not find original social life beset with
sufficient inconveniences so as to prompt members to leave that condition in
‘Man against the State’: Community and Dissent 131

favor of a mutual engagement leading to the formation of a public regime. As

if guided by natural instinct, participants in society—on Spencer’s account—
pursue their individual self-interest while respecting definite limits and, as
good merchants or businessmen, abide by commercial contracts negotiated
for their mutual benefit. In his words: ‘Though mere love of companionship
prompts primitive men to live in groups, yet the chief prompter is experience
of the advantages to be derived from cooperation.’ On what condition, he
asks, can such cooperation arise? ‘Evidently only on condition that those who
join their efforts severally gain by doing so.’ If this expectation is frustrated or
if mutuality is disrupted, there will be ‘a reversion to that rudest condition in
which each man makes everything for himself. Hence, the possibility of
cooperation depends on the fulfillment of [commercial] contract, tacit or
overt.’ Drawing the conclusion from these comments, the text insists that
only industry and, in fact, a ‘vast elaborate industrial organization’ can insure
social progress: ‘For in proportion as contracts are unhindered and the
performance of them certain, the growth is great and the social life active’
(Spencer 1969b, pp. 148, 174-175).
As one should note, the maintenance of commercial engagements is
entrusted here entirely to the ‘natural’ disposition of individuals, quite outside
the functioning of public institutions and also outside any civic education
(nurturing moral and civic habits among individuals and groups). It is in this
sense that ‘man’ (in ‘man versus the state’) is originally in possession of ‘natural
rights,’ including the right of individual liberty and the secure enjoyment of
private property. If they had taken this stark opposition more seriously, Spencer
argues, Bentham’s disciples might have been led ‘to treat less cavalierly the
doctrine of natural rights.’ Far from having anything to do with public
institutions or rules, rights for Spencer originate simply in the spontaneous
‘mutual limitation of activities’ among people, as demonstrated by ‘the few
peaceful tribes which have either nominal governments or none at all.’ Having
been established ‘more or less clearly before government arises,’ rights ‘become
obscured as government develops.’ Spencer, to be sure, is not unaware that
commercial agreements are vulnerable to breach and need to be somehow
maintained or guaranteed. Hence, the central maxim of his text is ‘that contracts
shall be free and fulfillment of them enforced.’ However, enforcement takes the
form chiefly of spontaneous self-limitation (reducing the role of government to
that of a ‘night watchman’ of property). ‘There must be, in the first place,’ he
writes, ‘few restrictions on man’s liberties to make agreements with one another,
and there must be, in the second place, an enforcement of the agreements which
they do make.’ But, preferably, these checks are ‘those only which result from
mutual limitation,’ and consequently ‘there can be no resulting check to the
contracts they voluntarily make’ (Spencer 1969b, pp. 164, 173, 176-177).
In addition to Cometean and utilitarian leanings, Spencer (as stated before)
was also greatly attracted to Darwin’s work and to biological evolutionism
132 Fred Dallmayr

more generally. This attraction has prompted many critics to present him as a
proponent of ‘social Darwinism’ (a label meaning the transfer of the principle
of natural-biological selection to social relations) (c.f. Hofstadter 1955;
Williams 2000). Used as a summary verdict, the portrayal seems exaggerated,
given Spencer’s preference for ‘synthesizing’ many views (including the
utilitarian maxim of ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’). Still it is hard
to deny certain ‘social Darwinist’ features in his work. Thus, after having read
Darwin’s The Origin of the Species, he is reported to have coined the phrase
‘survival of the fittest,’ an expression which soon became a catch-phrase in
discussions of both biological and social evolution. That Spencer himself was
ready to transfer aspects of the ‘survival’ motto to the social and political
domain is evident from his Man Versus the State. As we read there, the ‘vital
principle’ of individual and social life, and indeed the vital principle of ‘social
progress,’ is maintained if each individual is ‘left secure in person and
possessions to satisfy his wants with its proceeds.’ Despite its broad generality,
the concrete application of this principle quickly reveals stark social differences,
deriving from the diversity of individual aptitudes and energies. The principle,
Spencer adds, is a guarantee of progress ‘inasmuch as, under given conditions,
the individuals of most worth will prosper and multiply more than those of
less worth.’ Seen in this light, the idea of ‘utility,’ properly understood, enjoins
‘the maintenance of individual rights’ despite different outcomes. Any attempt
to interfere with this principle—especially by ‘meddling legislation’—is ‘a
proposal to improve life by breaking down the fundamental conditions to life’
(Spencer 1969b, p. 181).
Whatever Spencer’s own leanings may have been, reception of his work
soon inspired (rightly or wrongly) a broad movement of ‘social Darwinism’
throughout the world. In America, the undisputed leader of the movement
was William Graham Sumner (1840-1910), a sociologist and social theorist
who combined Spencer’s teachings with neo-classical ideas of free enterprise,
a combination made plausible by the rapid rise of unfettered capitalism in
America at that time. In a highly influential pamphlet published in 1883
under the title ‘What Social Classes Owe to Each Other,’ Sumner insisted that
social classes owe each other precisely nothing, relying for this conclusion on
a version of the ‘survival of the fittest’ motto. In a stark swipe at any form of
socialism, Sumner excoriated all attempts to alleviate or uplift the lot of
disadvantaged people or classes as an assault on social progress and
advancement; given their essential role as social pioneers, business people and
economic enterprises were to be left as free as possible from taxes and public
regulations. From England and America, Spencerian and social Darwinist
ideas migrated to many other places, often greatly revising or modifying their
initial emphases (sometimes becoming fused with doctrines of racial eugenics)
(Sumner 1883).3 The strongest and most lasting impact of Man Versus the
State, however, was exerted on the field of neo-classical economics, and
‘Man against the State’: Community and Dissent 133

especially on the so-called ‘Austrian School’ of economics, wedded to the

celebration of the untrammeled pursuit of private and corporate profit. As
formulated by one of the leaders of the School, the basic principle of capitalism
is public non-intervention in the market (laissez-faire), especially non-
interference in status differences: ‘The inequality of incomes and wealth is an
inherent characteristic of the market economy. Its elimination would totally
destroy the [capitalist] market economy’ (von Mises 1949, p. 840).4

Civil Disobedience and Dissent

Strictly construed, Spencer’s formula of ‘man versus the state’ erects a gulf
between individuals and governments; in a slight modification, social
Darwinism places the gulf between individual advancement and social or
public arrangements hampering the pursuit of self-interest. In each case, the
guiding assumption is that of a ‘zero sum’ game, that is, of a radical antithesis
of interests where neither side owes anything to the other. What is (at least
tendentially) expunged in this game is the notion of shared social bonds, of a
civic community circumscribing naked self-interest. To be sure, bonds of this
kind do not by themselves eliminate the possibility of profound tensions and
even conflicts in society. The cause of such conflicts is typically the failure of
some agents to live up to the ethical obligations implicit in social life. On the
part of individuals (or groups of individuals), remonstrations or uprisings
typically take the character of ‘civil disobedience’ or conscientious ‘resistance’
to perceived public corruption or repression. What is important to note here
is the stark difference between social Darwinism and the latter kind of
disobedience: whereas in the former case anti-public conduct is rooted in the
pursuit of private self-interest, in the case of disobedience or conscientious
resistance the motive is to enhance or restore public well-being and justice in
society. A particularly inspiring text along these lines was penned by the New
England writer Henry David Thoreau in his essay ‘Resistance to Civil
Government’, later renamed ‘Essay on Civil Disobedience’ (1975 [1849]).
The opening lines of the essay seem to place Thoreau squarely on the side
of Spencer and other laissez-faire liberals of the time. ‘I heartily accept the
motto,’ he states, ‘that ‘government is best which governs least’; and I should
like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically.’ Government, he
adds, is ‘best but an expedient, but most governments are usually, and all
governments are sometimes, inexpedient.’ Even in democracies, where people
presumably choose their leaders, government is ‘equally liable to be abused
and perverted before the people can act through it.’ Take the example of the
American government, an institution with a venerable tradition but which
‘each instant is losing some of its integrity.’ Although formally democratic, it
has turned into a vast bureaucracy, a ‘complicated machinery’ imposing itself
on the people; it is ‘a sort of wooden gun to the people themselves.’ Echoing
134 Fred Dallmayr

some of Spencer’s more captivating lines, Thoreau exclaims: ‘This government

never of itself furthered any enterprise. . . . It does not keep the country free. It
does not settle the West. It does not educate. The character inherent in the
American people has done all that has been accomplished.’ The upshot of these
comments is that government is more a burden than a benefactor of the people
or an engine of progress: ‘Government is an expedient by which men would fain
succeed in letting one another alone; and … when it is most expedient, the
governed are most let alone by it’ (Thoreau 1975, pp. 109-110).
While seemingly toeing a radical libertarian line, Thoreau’s essay at this
point adds a twist which points in a completely different direction. ‘But to
speak practically and as a citizen,’ he states, ‘unlike those who call themselves
no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better
government. Let every man make known what kind of government would
command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.’ With
these words, Thoreau introduces an ethical standard which Spencer and
radical liberals sidestep: the standard of social justice discerned by human
conscience. ‘Can there not be a government,’ he asks, ‘in which majorities do
not virtually decide right and wrong [relying on their power alone] but
conscience?’ A government where majorities decide or determine ‘only those
questions to which the rule of expediency [not rightness] is applicable?’ This
question leads to the role of citizens in a public regime. Should citizens simply
‘resign their conscience’ to the government? But then, ‘why has every man a
conscience?’ ‘I think,’ Thoreau insists, ‘that we should be men [human beings]
first, and subjects afterwards.’ This principle also applies to business enterprises.
For, ‘it is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a
corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience.’ In every
instance, the guiding yardstick must be that ‘it is not desirable to cultivate a
respect of the [positive] law so much as for the right’ or just law. When this rule
is reversed, human beings become lackeys of government and possibly ‘agents of
injustice.’ In that case, Thoreau adds with some sarcasm, ‘you may see a file of
soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys and all,
marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills,
ay, against their common sense and consciences’ (Thoreau 1975, p. 111).
In eloquent language, Thoreau’s essay anticipates and condemns the steady
transformation of governments into soulless machines, into grotesque
bureaucratic apparatuses of control. People who follow such governments in
blind obedience, he asks, ‘what are they?’ Are they ‘men at all, or rather small
movable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in
power?’ Unfortunately, even in democracies, such blind submission is
widespread: ‘The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as
machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia,
jailers, constables, posse comitatus.’ In such circumstances, there is in most
cases ‘no free exercise whatever of judgment or of the moral sense,’ since ‘they
‘Man against the State’: Community and Dissent 135

put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones—and perhaps
wooden men [or else automata] can be manufactured that will serve the
purpose as well.’ According to Thoreau, even people who are ‘commonly
esteemed good citizens’ often prefer to act in conformity with mechanical
rules rather than raise their voice in alarm or opposition. In most societies,
exceptions to this conduct are rare—and they are usually made to pay for their
non-conformism. In Thoreau’s words: ‘A very few—as heroes, patriots,
martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men—serve the state with their
consciences also, and so resist it for the most part.’ But he adds (in a warning
to all conscientious objectors, civil resisters, and whistleblowers): ‘And they
are commonly treated as enemies by it’ (Thoreau 1975, pp. 112-113).
Thoreau did not only write about the consequences of resistance; he took
some upon himself. For some six years he refused to pay a poll-tax and he was
put into prison for a while. But he did not seek to evade the penalty. As he
states in his essay: ‘Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the
true place for a just man is also a prison.’ His refusal to pay taxes was meant as
a protest against slavery and against the Mexican-American war, both of which
he considered profoundly unjust. (One can safely guess what he would have
done at the time of the Vietnam and Iraq wars.) The important point to
consider is that his act of resistance was prompted not by any desire for
personal gain, profit or influence, but for ethical reasons which sometimes
require suffering or sacrifice. If an injustice is of such a nature, he writes, ‘that
it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law.
Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine.’ His sentiments toward
his own government prior to the abolition of slavery were radical—and still
upset some American readers. ‘How does it become a man to behave toward
this American government today?’ he asks, ‘I answer, that he cannot without
disgrace be associated with it. I cannot for an instant recognize that political
organization as my government which is the slave’s government also’ (or which
enslaves other people). As he adds, again somewhat provocatively: ‘Action
from principle, the perception and performance of right, changes things and
relations; it is essentially revolutionary and does not consist wholly with
anything which was.’ What remains crucial here is that change is not pursued
for its own sake, but for the sake of social and public improvement: ‘I please
myself with imagining a state at last which can afford to be just to all men, and
to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor’ (Thoreau 1975, pp. 113,
119-120, 122, 136).
Thoreau’s text was favorably received by many audiences, both in the West
and in non-Western countries. The most important non-Western reader was
Mohandas Gandhi who considered the text as a welcome supportive
inspiration for his own endeavors. To be sure, although a life-long admirer of
Thoreau (as well as John Ruskin and Tolstoy), Gandhi modified the former’s
approach in many ways, mainly by shifting the accent from individual or
136 Fred Dallmayr

solitary initiatives to the collective concerns of broader social movements

(without neglecting, of course, the role of individual conscience). As is well
known, the idea of civil and social resistance first preoccupied Gandhi during
his struggle against apartheid in South Africa, a struggle which later morphed
into the movement for national independence from British rule in India.
Despite the vastly changed location of resistance—from Walden Pond ultimately
to India—the spirit or guiding animus of the struggle remained largely the
same: the pursuit of justice and social-political improvement. At no time in his
life, Gandhi was motivated by the desire for wealth, influence, or public power;
even at the time when independence was within reach, he refused to seek a
governmental position. When initiating the resistance in South Africa, Gandhi
tellingly gave to his movement the name ‘satyagraha,’ a term which literally
means ‘truth doing,’ that is, active pursuit of truth and justice. It has also been
translated as ‘truth-force,’ ‘soul-force’ or ‘love-force.’ As Erik Erikson has pointed
out, in his famous study Gandhi’s Truth, it was precisely the ethical and spiritual
motivation which gave to Gandhi’s independence struggle its special quality,
distinguishing it from purely political rebellions. If the stress is placed only on
struggle for power, he said, one misses ‘the spiritual origin of nonviolent courage
in Gandhi’s truth’ (Erikson 1993, p. 397).5
Erikson’s comment points to an important aspect of Gandhian truth-
performance or justice-seeking: its reliance on non-violence. There can be
little doubt that, for Gandhi, the guiding principle of social struggle and
resistance was nonviolent action (ahimsa) and that, in his view, satyagraha and
ahimsa were intimately linked. As he stated in one of his writings on the topic:
‘In the application of satyagraha, I discovered in the earliest stages that pursuit
of truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one’s opponent, but that
he must be weaned from error by patience and sympathy’ (Gandhi, 1958, p.
6).6 The main point here is that for Gandhi—as for Socrates and Jesus before
him—it is better to suffer injustice than to impose injustice on others. In
Erikson’s interpretation, Gandhian truth performance was governed by ‘the
readiness to get hurt and yet not to hurt’; if there was a guiding ‘dogma’ in this
approach it was the maxim that ‘the only test of truth or justice is action based
on the refusal to do harm.’ This maxim—importantly—was not only a
cognitive or theoretical formula but achieved its cogency only by being ‘put to
work’ in concrete circumstances. Gandhi’s enactment of the maxim was
evident throughout his life, in his willingness to accept suffering in the form
of fasting, imprisonment, abuse, and ultimately death—a willingness guided
by the desire to appeal to the conscience and better ethical qualities of
opponents. Here is another quotation from Gandhi’s work: ‘Suffering is the
law of human beings, war is the law of the jungle. But suffering is infinitely
more powerful than the law of the jungle for converting the opponent and
opening his ears, which are otherwise shut to the voice of reason’ (Gandhi
1932, p. 369; c.f. Pantham 1986).
‘Man against the State’: Community and Dissent 137

Despite these and similar forthright statements, some interpreters have

raised questions about the role of ahimsa—questions which (mistakenly) seem
to place on an equal footing violence and nonviolence, justice and injustice.
Admittedly, Gandhi was not an ‘absolutist’ in this field and made room for
some departures from ahimsa. However, as in the case of the ‘law of peoples,’
the departures were narrowly circumscribed and basically limited to acts of
self-defense against an imminent violent attack, acts performed as a last resort
and with due regard for proportionality. Performed outside these limits, acts
of violence for Gandhi are illegitimate because they negate the very spirit and
goal of satyagraha. As Gandhi persistently insisted, the means of struggle have
to accord with the goal of struggle, that is, their relation is not purely
instrumental but ethical. This is the gist of his well-known statement (not far
from biblical teachings): ‘The means may be likened to a seed, the end to a
tree; and there is just the same inviolable connection between the means and
the end as there is between the seed and the tree … We reap exactly as we sow.’
Commenting on this passage, Gandhian scholar Anthony Parel finds that,
reflecting both biblical and Hindu spiritual teachings, the passage is ‘based in
the supposition that there is an inviolable connection between ends (sadhya)
and means (sadhan)’ (c.f. Gandhi 1997, p. 81).
In recent times, this connection, highlighted by Gandhi, has come to be
widely sidelined or entirely thrown to the winds—with predictable results.
Totally neglecting both Thoreau’s and Gandhi’s teachings, some recent so-
called ‘rebellions’ have preferred to indulge in orgies of violence and
unspeakable acts of barbarism, always eagerly employing mayhem not as a last
but as the first resort. But the consequences cannot be in doubt. For how can
a rebellion pursued with brutal and destructive means lead to anything other
than a brutal and destructive regime? How can a movement willing to repress
and slaughter all opponents lead to anything other than a regressive machine
slaughtering dissenters? Against the engines of violence spiraling out of
control, it is important and timely to invoke the teachings not only of Thoreau
and Gandhi but also of the French writer Albert Camus whose famous book
The Rebel: An Essay of Man in Revolt (1956 [1951]) is a celebration of life and
an antidote to the cult of death and destruction.
Camus’s book takes its point of departure from the late-modern condition
of ‘nihilism,’ the progressive retreat and ultimate self-devaluation of traditional
values. In the face of this situation, that is, the perceived lack of a pre-ordained
meaning of things, the nihilist concludes that everything is permitted,
including killing and murder. The Rebel is in the first instance a rebellion
against this conclusion. As Camus shows, the encounter of the nihilist and the
perceived meaninglessness of the world—what he calls the ‘absurdist’
encounter—is based on an act of judgment, an act which presupposes the self-
affirmation of the judging agent and hence an affirmation of life. ‘It is obvious,’
he argues, ‘that absurdism [the absurdist encounter] hereby admits that human
138 Fred Dallmayr

life is the only necessary good since it is precisely life that makes this encounter
possible. . . . To say [as the nihilist does] that life is absurd, the conscience
must be alive.’ However, the affirmation of life cannot stop at the banishing of
suicide or self-annihilation, but carries a broader significance. ‘From the
moment,’ the text continues, ‘that life is recognized as good, it becomes good
for all men. Murder cannot be made coherent when suicide is not considered
coherent.’ For Camus, proceeding on the premise of nihilism, there can be no
half-measures: ‘Absurdist reasoning cannot defend the continued existence of
the spokesman and, simultaneously, accept the sacrifice of others’ lives. The
moment we recognize the impossibility of absolute negation—and merely to
be alive is to recognize this—the very first thing that cannot be denied is the
right of others to live’ (Camus 1956, pp. 6-8).7
As can be seen, rebellion in Camus’s treatment is not a purely individualistic
or self-centered venture but has broader social implications: the freedom of
the rebel relies on a solidarity with other human beings and, in fact, with
humanity. In his words: ‘Rebellion, contrary to current opinion, questions the
very idea of the [isolated] individual. If the individual, in fact, accepts death
and happens to die as a consequence of his act of rebellion, he demonstrates
by doing so that he is willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of a common
good which he considers more important than his own destiny.’ In going
beyond his own self-interest or selfish desires, the rebel affirms and upholds an
ethical order of rightness and justice which reveals a deeper human bond. In
resisting an unjust order, he signals that the order ‘has infringed on something
in him which does not belong to him alone, but which is common ground
where all men—even the one who insults or represses him—have a ‘natural’
community.’ Thus, in contrast to Spencerian libertarians, rebellion for Camus
is not ‘an egoistic act,’ but a conduct gaining its sense or significance from its
insertion into a social community. Basically, even in challenging existing rules,
the rebel does so in order to improve them, bending them in the direction of
social justice. As Camus adds, in a stark modification of the traditional
Cartesian formula: ‘In our daily trials, rebellion plays the same role as does the
‘cogito’ in the realm of thought: it is the first piece of evidence. But this
evidence lures the individual from his solitude. It founds its first value on the
whole human race: I rebel—therefore we are’ (Camus 1956, pp. 15-17, 22).
Long before the terms became common currency, Camus’s book speaks of
violent ‘state terrorism’ and the equally violent counter-terror—either
irrational or ideologically sophisticated—unleashed by insurgents. For him,
the two sides of terror feed and have always fed on each other. ‘All modern
[violent] revolutions,’ The Rebel states, ‘have ended in a reinforcement of the
power of the state’—from Napoleon to Stalin and Hitler. In Nietzschean
language, the text speaks of ‘the growing omnipotence of the state’ and of ‘the
strange and terrifying growth of the modern state’ seeking to impose total
domination on populations. In the case of German fascism, the book
‘Man against the State’: Community and Dissent 139

denounces the striving for ‘a technological world empire,’ for a ‘religion of anti-
Christian technology’—a striving which has not come to an end in 1945.8
However, violent revolutionaries—today called ‘terrorists’—only replicate the
striving for total control and the elimination of dissent. Camus carefully
distinguishes genuine rebellion from violent revolution. ‘The revolutionary,’ he
writes, ‘is simultaneously a rebel or he is not a [genuine] revolutionary but a
policeman and a bureaucrat who turns against rebellion. But if he is a rebel, he
ends by taking sides against revolution’ (operating as terrorism). A genuine rebel
refuses to be treated as an ‘object,’ as a cog in a totalizing machine, or be reduced
to part of an engine of history. An act of rebellion, for Camus, introduces a
breach in the totalizing apparatus of power; it testifies to the unique dignity of
human beings and also to something ‘common to all men which eludes the
world of power.’ Ultimately, rebellion involves both a rejection or negation and
an affirmation: it rejects the dominant nihilism and all forms of complicity in
violent destruction and mayhem; at the same time, it upholds and cherishes life,
fully aware of human limits: ‘The affirmation of a limit, a dignity, and a beauty
common to all men entails the necessity of extending this value to embrace
everything and everyone’ (Camus 1956, pp. 175, 180, 249-251).
These comments lead Camus to the most inspiring part of his book: his
‘Thought at the Meridian.’ As he observes, rebellion assigns a limit to oppres-
sion and totalizing power; in doing so, it acknowledges the dignity common
to all human beings. It places in the center of its frame of reference ‘an obvious
complicity among men, a common texture, the solidarity of chains, a com-
munication between human being and human being which makes men simi-
lar and united’ (in their differences). By contrast, murder or mayhem ‘cuts the
world in two’; it sacrifices commonality by ‘consecrating difference in blood.’
What motivates the rebel is an ethical impulse, a desire for concrete inter-
human justice. ‘If injustice is bad for the rebel,’ we read, ‘it is not because it
contradicts an eternal idea of justice, but because it perpetuates the silent
hostility that separates the oppressor from the oppressed. It kills the small part
of existence that can be realized on this earth through the mutual understand-
ing of men.’ Murder and mayhem are not only acts of physical violence, but
destroyers of shared meanings. All totalitarian regimes and all totalizing forms
of terrorism proceed by way of monologue ‘preached from the top of lonely
mountains’; but ‘on the stage as in reality, monologue precedes death.’ In re-
bellion, thus, freedom and solidarity necessarily cohere. To be sure, extreme or
limitless freedom—the freedom to kill others—is not compatible with rebel-
lion. But, on the other hand, the rebel requires the freedom to act against in-
justice—which excludes ‘the right to destroy the existence and freedom of
others.’ Camus sums up his argument in these lines: ‘It is then possible to say
that rebellion, when it develops into destruction, is illogical. Claiming the
unity of the human condition, it is a force of life, not of death. Its most pro-
found logic is . . . the logic of creation’ (Camus 1956, pp. 281, 283-285).9
140 Fred Dallmayr

Dissent in Community

The preceding discussion has sought to highlight the difference between

two main forms of dissent or critical resistance: on the one hand, libertarian
social Darwinism, and on the other, ethically motivated conscientious
resistance. In the former case, resistance aims to further the pursuit of
particular, more or less self-centered interests; in the latter case, it serves to
advance in some fashion the public interest or the ‘common good.’ The first
type is enacted for the sake of a particular private benefit; the second involves
an appeal from a corrupted or oppressive public life to a reformed and more
legitimate public regime. Differently phrased: resistance is directed in one
instance against community as such, while in the other instance it involves
dissent within (or in the bounds of ) community. As I should add, what
matters here is not whether resistance is the work of a solitary individual or a
group of like-minded individuals. The issue concerns the purpose of action,
not the number of agents.
My presentation, I trust, leaves no doubt about my own preferences in this
matter: while I find social Darwinism and selfish libertarianism deeply flawed,
my sympathy is with public-spirited resistance—as the latter is exemplified in
the life-work of Thoreau and Gandhi and in Camus’s The Rebel. To lend added
support to this preference I want to mention—by way of conclusion—two
other examples: one taken from the dawn of Western civilization and the
other from its dusk (or the time of its derailment). The first example involves
Socrates and his conflict with the collective opinion of his city, Athens. As is
well known, Socrates was accused of impiety (of not honoring the gods of the
city) and of corrupting young people by disturbing reigning beliefs. The story
is reported both in The Apology and in Criton, and both texts reveal the central
issue: the clash between an upright critical mind and a lethargic or manipu-
lated public opinion. In The Apology, Socrates drives home this issue by asking
whether the multitude or public opinion are always right in questions of eth-
ics or justice, as his accusers claim. But how could this be, seeing that the
multitude never bothers to inquire into these questions—whereas he, Socrates,
has made such inquiry his all-consuming business? Regarding the issue of
impiety, he has always followed an inner spiritual guidance—as even his ac-
cusers acknowledge—and how could this practice entail a rejection of the di-
vine? In the end, Socrates reluctantly acknowledges a near-insoluble conflict
between the public and critical dissent. ‘The fact is that no man in the world
will come off safe who honestly opposes either you or any other multitude,
and tries to hinder the many unjust and illegal doings in a state’ (Plato 1956a,
p. 437 32A).10
Recounting the final hours before Socrates’s death, Criton is a paean to the
dignity of the human spirit in confrontation with collective prejudice and
meanness. As is clear from the preceding dialogue, the charges brought by his
‘Man against the State’: Community and Dissent 141

accusers against him were unjust, and so was the final verdict of death handed
down by the court. The basic issue here becomes the relation between the
city—or the opinion of the multitude in a city—and the rule of justice. Was
it the case that, due to the injustice inflicted on him, the rule of justice and the
bond linking Socrates and the city had been broken and he was now free to
escape the verdict by seeking refuge elsewhere—as his friend Criton suggests?
But, by seeking to escape the verdict, Socrates himself would commit an injustice
and thus descend to the level of the ignorant and vindictive multitude. This
Socrates refuses to do, arguing: ‘We must not do wrong in return, or do evil to
anyone in the world, however we may be treated by them.’ With this refusal,
Socrates seals his fate—but he also maintains the idea and the bond of justice
linking him to the city (which he had never left throughout his life). With his
final action, Socrates strongly affirms his freedom—a freedom from injustice
though not from the city and its ethical bond of solidarity. In dissenting from
the multitude, his aim was not to destroy the city but to lift it up to the rule of
justice without which a city cannot endure (Plato 1956b, p. 454 54E).11
The second example is taken from the time of modern civilization’s
derailment, when the modern state in Germany decayed into Nazi totalitarianism.
Although there were pockets of dissent acting sporadically since the beginning
of the regime, more organized forms of resistance surfaced before and during
the course of World War II, and mainly within the military establishment. Even
prior to the outbreak of the war, a group of officers sought to avert the looming
disaster through political means; but the fast pace of events nullified this effort.
Once the war was underway, there were repeated acts of resistance—in the
form of assassination plots or suicide bombing attempts—planned or carried
out by members of the higher officer corps; but unforeseen circumstances
always foiled these moves. In evaluating the attempts, one has to take into
account the extreme complexity of the situation: the fact that military officers
are bound by an oath of loyalty to their country—an oath weighing especially
heavily during wartime (and even more so when the war was turning against
Germany). One can be certain that many or most officers involved in the
resistance felt deeply this burden of loyalty, while also being profoundly
troubled by the growing barbarism and criminality of the country’s leaders.
Thus, like Antigone long ago, they were starkly conflicted between two
loyalties: one to their ‘city’ or political regime, and the other to the higher ‘rule
of justice’ and the ‘better angels’ of their country. This may account for some
of their prevarications and periods of indecision. The resistance movement
against Hitler came to a head in 1943 with Operation Valkyrie. One of the
members of the plot was a young staff officer, Graf von Stauffenberg (who in
addition to his scruples as an officer was also troubled by religious scruples).
The plot was enacted on July 20, but failed in its main goal; Stauffenberg and
most fellow-resisters were executed (c.f. Hoffmann 1988, 1994; Wunder
142 Fred Dallmayr

As one should add, anti-Nazi resistance was not exclusively in the hands of
military officers, but also had civilian support in some quarters. One instance
was the anti-war campaign ‘White Rose’ launched and carried forward by
some students and teachers at the University of Munich in early 1943 (a
campaign that was quickly crushed and its leaders executed). Another
important civilian figure in the resistance movement was Dietrich Bonhoeffer
(1906-1945), a Lutheran pastor, theologian, and life-long anti-fascist.
Bonhoeffer had studied theology in Berlin where he discovered the neo-
orthodox ‘dialectical theology’ of Karl Barth. Subsequently he spent a year at
Union Theological Seminary in New York under the guidance of Reinhold
Niebuhr. After returning to Germany, he immediately launched an attack
against Hitler, publicly calling the ‘Führer’ a ‘Verführer’ (seducer or pied-
piper). In early 1934, at a gathering of Lutheran clergy, he endorsed the so-
called ‘Barmen declaration’ (drafted by Barth) which insisted that Christ and
not a political despot was the head of the church. At the same time, he was
instrumental in founding the ‘Confessing Church,’ standing in opposition to
Protestant clergy coopted by the regime. The regime was quick to retaliate and
to harass Bonhoeffer in his clerical and academic activities. In 1936 a teaching
position in Berlin was revoked, forcing him into the role of an itinerant
clergyman. At the beginning of the war, he became acquainted with members
of a resistance movement located in the heart of German military intelligence
(so-called ‘Abwehr’), a linkage which made him familiar with assassination
plots. As in the case of Stauffenberg, Bonhoeffer’s scruples were deeply
nurtured by his faith and the divine commandment against killing. As he
wrote in his Ethics: ‘When a man takes guilt upon himself in responsibility, he
imputes his guilt to himself and no one else. . . . Before himself he is acquitted
by his conscience, but before God he hopes only for grace’ (Bonhoeffer, 2005,
p. 244).12 Arrested in April 1943, he spent a year and a half in military prison.
In February 1945 he was moved to Buchenwald where he was executed by
hanging on April 9 (just two weeks before the camp was liberated).
Many decades have passed since the Great War and in the meantime, one
says, totalitarianism has disappeared. But has it really? Or has it returned in dif-
ferent guises? Probably one should not underestimate the ingenuity and re-
sourcefulness of the modern state—of that ‘cold monster’ and ‘horse of death’
bemoaned by Nietzsche. Quite likely, the great Leviathan has not been caught
or tamed; even when outwardly assuming innocuous airs, it may still seethe in-
side with fires of destruction. Moreover, since the totalitarianism of the last
century, the Leviathan has acquired new and unheard-of methods: unprece-
dented technological powers of mayhem, unlimited capabilities of surveillance,
and uncanny forms of brain washing and ‘double-speak.’ Camus’s The Rebel
contains some dark lines which one needs to ponder: ‘The sources of life and
creation seem exhausted. Fear paralyzes a Europe peopled with phantoms and
machines’ (Camus, 1956, p. 279).13 What is the meaning of the politics of fear
‘Man against the State’: Community and Dissent 143

recently gripping the West? What should one make of the cult of violence and
death evident in movies, video games, and often in real life? What does the cult
presage? Here, by way of conclusion, a line from Nietzsche’s ‘The Wanderer and
His Shadow’: ‘Rather perish than hate and fear. And twice rather perish than
make oneself hated and feared—this must someday become the highest maxim
for every single commonwealth too’ (Nietzsche 1968, p. 72).


Bonhoeffer, D 2005, ‘Ethics’, in C Green (ed.) Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 6, trans.
R Krauss, DW Scott and CC West, Fortress Press, Minneapolis.
Bonhoeffer, D 2010, ‘Letters and Papers from Prison’, in JW de Grunchy (ed.),
Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 8, trans. I Best I, Fortress Press, Minneapolis.
Camus, A 1956 [1951], The Rebel: An Essay of Man in Revolt, trans. A Bower, Vintage
Books, New York, NY.
Dallmayr, F 1998, ‘Satyagraha: Gandhi’s Truth Revisited’, in F Dallmayr, Alternative
Visions: Paths in the Global Village, Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, MD, pp.
Erikson, EH 1993, Gandhi’s Truth: On the Origins of Militant Nonviolence, Norton
and Co, New York.
Gandhi, M 1932, India’s Case for Swaraj, Yeshanand, Ahmedabad.
Gandhi, M 1958, Satyagraha, Navajivan, Ahmedabad.
Gandhi, M 1997, Hind Swaraj and Other Writings, AJ Parel (ed.) Cambridge
University Press, Cambridge, UK.
Gheorghiu, V 1950, The Twenty-Fifth Hour, trans. R Elden, Knopf, New York.
Hoffmann, P 1988, German Resistance to Hitler, Harvard University Press, Cambridge,
Hoffmann, P 1994, The Second World War: German Society and Resistance to Hitler,
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
Hofstadter, R 1955, Social Darwinism in American Thought, Beacon Press, Boston,
Marcel, G 1962 [1952], Man Against Mass Society, trans. GS Fraser GS, Regnery,
Chicago, IL.
von Mises, L 1949, Human Action, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT.
Nietzsche, F 1968, The Portable Nietzsche, W Kaufmann (ed.), Viking Press, NY.
Orwell, G 1943, 1984: A Novel, New American Library, New York, NY.
Pantham, T 1986, ‘Beyond Liberal Democracy: Thinking with Mahatma Gandhi’, in
T Pantham and KL Deutsch (eds.), Political Thought in Modern India, Sage
Publications, New Delhi, pp. 325-346.
Persons, S 1969, (ed.) Social Darwinism: Selected Essays of William Graham Sumner,
Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.
Plato, 1956a, ‘The Apology’, in EH Warmington and PG Rouse (eds.), Great Dialogues
of Plato, trans. WHD Rouse, New American Library, New York, NY.
Plato, 1956b, ‘Criton’, in EH Warmington and PG Rouse (eds.), Great Dialogues of
Plato, trans. WHD Rouse, New American Library, New York, NY.
144 Fred Dallmayr

Rothermund, I 1986, ‘Gandhi’s Satyagraha and Hindu Thought’, in T Pantham and

KL Deutsch (eds.), Political Thought in Modern India, Sage Publications, New
Delhi, pp. 269-306.
Spencer, H 1901 [1868-1874], Essays: Moral, Political and Speculative, Three
volumes,Williams and Norgate, London.
Spencer, H 1903 [1876-1896], The Principles of Sociology, Three volumes, Appleton
and Co, New York, NY.
Spencer, H 1969a [1873], The Study of Sociology, University of Michigan Press, Ann
Arbor, MI.
Spencer, H 1969b, The Man Versus the State, D Macrae (ed.), Penguin Books,
Baltimore MD.
Spencer, H 1970 [1851], Social Statics, Schalkenbach Foundation, London.
Spencer, H 1978 [1879-1893], The Principles of Ethics, Two volumes, Liberty Classics,
Indianapolis, IN.
Sumner, WG 1883, What Social Classes Owe to Each Other, Harper and Row, New
York, NY.
Thoreau, HD 1975, [1849] ‘Essay on Civil Disobedience’, in C Bode (ed.), The
Portable Thoreau, Penguin Books, New York, NY.
Weber, M 1988, ‘Die Protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalimus’,
Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie, vol. 1, Mohr, Tübingen.
Williams, R 2000, ‘Social Darwinism’, in J Offer (ed.), Herbert Spencer: Critical
Assessments, Routledge, New York, NY, pp. 186-199.
Wunder, G 1972, Die Schenken von Stauffenberg, Müller and Graeff, Stuttgart.

Author Biography

Fred Dallmayr is Packey J. Dee Professor in the departments of philosophy and political
science at the University of Notre Dame. He has been a visiting professor at
Hamburg University in Germany and at the  New  School for Social Research in
New York, and a Fellow at Nuffield College in Oxford. Among his recent publications
are: The Promise of Democracy: Political Agency and Transformation (2010); Integral
Pluralism: Beyond Culture Wars (2010), Comparative Political Theory: An Introduction
(2010), Return to Nature? An Ecological Counter-History (2011); Contemporary
Chinese Political Thought (with Zhao Tingyang, 2012)  and  Being In the World:
Dialogue and Cosmopolis (2013). He is a past president of the Society for Asian and
Comparative Philosophy (SACP). He is currently the Executive Co-Chair of ‘World
Public Forum - Dialogue of Civilizations’ (Vienna) and a member of the Scientific
Committee of ‘RESET - Dialogue on Civilizations’ (Rome).
Address: Department of Political Science, University of Notre Dame, 539 Flanner
Hall, University of Notre Dame, IN 46556, USA. Email. Fred.r.dallmayr.1@
1 The phrase ‘specialists without spirit’ was used by Max Weber in Weber (1988, p.
204). Compare in the above context, George Orwell’s 1984: A Novel (1943) and
Virgil Gheorghiu’s The Twenty-Fifth Hour (1950).
‘Man against the State’: Community and Dissent 145
2 For some of Spencer’s major works, see: Spencer (1901 [1868-1874]; 1903 [1876-
1896]; 1969a [1873]; 1970 [1851]; 1978 [1879-1893]).
3 Compare also to Persons (1969). One of the prominent later heirs of Spencer and
Sumner is the Russian-American writer Ayn Rand whose writings have exerted a
major influence in recent times on American (‘Tea Party’) libertarians.
4 The Ludwig von Mises Institute established in 1982 in Auburn, Alabama, is
strongly under the influence of Spencer’s Man Versus the State.
5 For Erikson, the ethical-spiritual motif of satyagraha is missed in many transla-
tions: such as ‘passive resistance,’ ‘non-violent resistance,’ and ‘militant nonvio-
lence’ (Erikson 1993, p. 347).
6 Compare also to Rothermund (1986), and Dallmayr (1998).
7 As Camus adds in an existentialist vein (showing the influence of Heidegger, Jean-
Paul Sartre, and others): ‘Man is the only creature who refuses to be what he is.
The problem is to know whether this refusal can only lead to the destruction of
himself and of others, whether all rebellion must end in the justification of univer-
sal murder’ (1956, p. 11).
8 Recent disclosures of total global surveillance systems maintained by some coun-
tries clearly reveal a striving for ‘a technological world empire’ animated by a ‘reli-
gion of secular technology.’ The total collection and storage of all communications
in the world aims at the achievement of total knowledge as a corollary of total or
absolute power. In religious terms, the systems emulate God’s omniscience and om-
nipotence—while completely sidelining divine benevolence, grace, and charity.
9 Camus’s arguments proceed from a secular-humanist perspective; but many of his
views could also be stated in Christian religious terms, as was done by Gabriel
Marcel in his Man Against Mass Society (first published in 1952, one year after
Camus’s book). As Marcel states there: ‘It would be necessary to show that the idea
of being creative [or free] always implies the idea of being open toward others: that
openness I have called intersubjectivity. . . . The freedom which we have to defend
is not the freedom of Prometheus defying Jupiter; it is not the freedom of a being
who would exist or would claim to exist by himself. . . . Freedom is nothing unless,
in a spirit of complete humility, it recognizes that it has a vital connection with
grace’ (extended to all). See Marcel (1962, pp. 24, 247).
10 As he adds: ‘It is necessary that one who really and truly fights for the right, if he
is to survive even for a short time, shall act as a private man, not as a public man.’
Perhaps this comment can be read as counseling not a retreat into individual pri-
vacy but an engagement in ‘civil society’ (to use the modern term).
11 The dialogue puts these words into the mouth of the ‘Laws’: ‘As things are, if you
depart from this life, you will depart wronged not by us, the Laws [the idea of
justice], but by human beings only’ (Plato 1956b, p. 459, 54 E).
12 Compare also his ‘Letters and Papers from Prison,’ in Bonhoeffer (2010).
13 Camus adds, ‘Between two holocausts, scaffolds are installed in underground cav-
erns where executioners celebrate their new cult of silence. What cry would ever
trouble them?’
Social Imaginaries 1.2 (2015) 146-176

Elias and Eisenstadt: The Multiple

Meanings of Civilisation
Johann P. Arnason

Abstract: The works of Norbert Elias and Shmuel Eisenstadt represent differ-
ent versions of civilisational analysis. Elias focused on a long-term transforma-
tive process, more precisely on state formation and its ramifications in the
course of Western European history, and neither he nor his disciples showed
much interest in a broader comparative approach. Eisenstadt defined the ci-
vilisational dimension of human societies as a configuration of cultural and
institutional patterns; he emphasised the plurality of such formations, but had
little to say on the specific processual paths taken by each of them. So far, there
has been no significant discussion of ways to bring the two approaches into
closer contact. Such attempts can start with a brief examination of the com-
mon background in classical sociology: the notion of civilisation adumbrated
by Durkheim and Mauss anticipated both Eliasian and Eisenstadtian lines of
argument. Drawing on this source, it can then be shown that each of the two
authors implicitly poses problems related to key concerns of the other. Elias’s
account of the ‘long middle ages’ that gave rise to the early modern European
state presupposes the overall civilisational context of Western Christendom
as well as specific cultural-institutional shifts within it, especially those of the
high middle ages. Eisenstadt’s interpretation of the Axial Age calls for fur-
ther development through analyses of the historical processes unfolding in the
wake of the axial turns.

Key Words: Elias — Eisenstadt — civilisation — process — state forma-

tion — Europe — Axial Age

If we look for sociological classics after Durkheim, Simmel and Weber,

Norbert Elias and Shmuel Noah Eisenstadt are certainly among the most ob-
vious candidates. In fact, it does not seem far-fetched to suggest that together
with Talcott Parsons, they constitute a kind of second trinity of our discipline.
By contrast, it is too early for a balanced judgment on the major figures – To-
uraine, Giddens, Mann, Bourdieu – who entered the field during the 1970s
Elias and Eisenstadt: The Multiple Meanings of Civilisation 147

and 1980s. But it is worth noting that their seminal contributions coincided
with a belated but rapidly growing interest in Elias’s much older work, now
widely recognised as ahead of its time, and with Eisenstadt’s completion of a
trajectory – from unorthodox modernisation theory to comparative civilisa-
tional analysis – that can be traced back to the 1950s.
That said, a closer look at the relationship between Elias and Eisenstadt
raises several interesting questions. It is surely not irrelevant that they were
both of East Central European origin: Elias was born in Wroclaw (or Breslau
as it then was) in 1897, Eisenstadt in Warsaw in 1923. An awareness of this
background must have counted for something when it came to developing a
general approach to social and historical issues; as I have argued elsewhere
(Arnason 2010), East Central European experiences and legacies are condu-
cive to scepticism about mainstream assumptions grounded in or at least re-
lated to the idea of progress. But subsequent changes of environment, very
important in both cases, took different directions and resulted in different
intellectual biographies. Elias spent much of the Weimar period in Heidelberg
and Frankfurt, within the orbit of main currents in German sociology as well
as of the Marxian alternatives, and it seems clear that his pre-1933 outlook
and work reflected this background. A reconceptualisation of the classical so-
ciological legacy, clearly demarcated from other attempts in that vein, was in
the making. However, it was the following phase that proved decisive. After
emigrating in 1933, Elias found himself in institutional and intellectual isola-
tion, but this did not prevent him from producing a comprehensive and em-
pirically anchored formulation of his new sociological paradigm. The Civiliz-
ing Process, to be further discussed below, combines two of the interrelated
achievements for which the idea of a paradigm was initially coined: an articu-
lated conceptual framework and an exemplary case analysis. The third one, a
scientific community, was conspicuously absent. This was a one-man job, and
the history of the notably productive German emigration between 1933 and
1945 contains no comparable case of a single-handed breakthrough. For Elias,
this work became a guide to further research and reflection. Not that there are
no significant thematic or theoretical innovations in later writings (the socio-
logical analyses of time and knowledge break new ground), but none of them
came anywhere near a paradigm shift. The basic framework of The Civilizing
Process remained in place.
Eisenstadt’s biography took a very different road. After emigrating to Pal-
estine with his mother at an early age, he received the first and probably the
most important part of his university education in Jerusalem. There is no
reason to doubt his testimony about the eminent role of Martin Buber, from
whose example and teaching Eisenstadt drew a double lesson: philosophical
thought was still a source of insights adaptable to the purposes of sociological
analysis, and this interdisciplinary link is especially relevant to questions con-
cerned with the creativity of human societies, its preconditions and its
148 Johann P. Arnason

historical limits. As will be seen, the Buberian inspiration became a lasting

feature of Eisenstadt’s theorising, and it was a key factor in his final civilisa-
tional turn. But the ongoing historical experience of the region to which
Eisenstadt came from East Central Europe was also of major importance. The
Middle East in the 1930s and after World War II was an unsettled geopolitical
constellation, with uncertain prospects for modernising changes. Jewish mi-
gration to Palestine and the postwar building of a Jewish state were both direct
and indirect carriers of Westernising models, applied by the Jewish colonists
and selectively adapted in opposition to them by the Arab nationalist move-
ments emerging at the same time. For Eisenstadt, whose commitment to the
Israeli state was never in doubt (however critical he could be of specific poli-
cies and politicians), this context highlighted the merits as well as the limits of
modernisation theory, the most influential current of social scientific thought
during his early academic career. His work in the 1950s – and to some extent
later – can be described as an unorthodox version of modernisation theory:
largely aligned with the effort to define basic trends of social development,
and to grasp their role in the change from tradition to modernity, but more
sensitive to the diversity of situations, trajectories and outcomes. The unprec-
edented Israeli path to modernity, the broader regional configuration, and the
non-European world seen from this particularly revealing location all counted
for something in Eisenstadt’s turn to diversity, and this early move may be
seen as the beginning of a reconceptualising process that was to culminate in
the idea of multiple modernities (multiple not just in the sense of different
paths to the same destination, or adaptive twists to recurrent core structures,
but in the more radical way of durably different variations on some underly-
ing yet historically malleable themes). The interest in multiple constellations
within the modern world also foreshadowed the later focus on civilisations as
the most comprehensive patterns of cultural difference; but there was as yet no
shift in that direction. A very wide detour was needed to enable the civilisa-
tional turn.
In this regard, Eisenstadt’s comparative study of empires (Eisenstadt 1963)
is a crucially important work. A comparative analysis of imperial formations,
ranging from the ancient Near East to the colonial powers of modern Europe,
was certainly not in the spirit of mainstream modernisation theory. The proj-
ect is perhaps best described as an attempt to renew and surpass a classical
model. Empires as such were conspicuously neglected in Max Weber’s com-
parative studies of Eurasian civilisations; Eisenstadt’s inventory of empires in-
cludes the regions and traditions analysed by Weber, as well as a large number
of other cases. There is, to this day, no similarly ambitious work on empires in
a cross-cultural and macro-historical perspective. But the book did not pro-
voke debate on a corresponding scale. The most obvious reason is a strange
ambiguity of Eisenstadt’s approach: he proposed to deal with a vast range of
power structures, varying across space and time, but the conceptual framework
Elias and Eisenstadt: The Multiple Meanings of Civilisation 149

used to categorise and classify them is the Parsonian version of systems theory.
This enduring reliance on a levelling paradigm also weakened Eisenstadt’s case
against the conventional distinction of tradition and modernity. Imperial re-
gimes, with their heightened levels of diversity and dynamism, were – in prin-
ciple – a key example of historical formations going beyond the stereotype of
stagnant traditional societies. There is no doubt that this point was very cen-
tral to Eisenstadt’s reasons for embarking on his study; but by linking the
whole project to a theory that was still predicated on an evolution from simple
to complex societies, he imposed a priori limits on his rethinking. In the up-
shot, the category of ‘free resources’ became a kind of code-word for the dy-
namics of empires. It refers to a whole spectrum of human, natural and tech-
nical means, mobilised for the purposes of imperial projects, and therefore not
bound to the rules of specific subsystems (economic, social or religious). The
encompassing imperial order that sustains mobilisation is less clearly defined.
In short, the comparative study of empires did not lead to the civilisa-
tional turn that might have resulted from closer analysis of their cultural back-
grounds and implications. We can speculate about the road that civilisational
analysis would have taken if it had built directly on the imperial theme; one
likely result is a more systematic and balanced focus on the interrelations of
culture and power. Eisenstadt’s introduction to the 1992 edition of the book
outlines some aspects that he had now come to see as essential to the under-
standing of imperial formations: imperial visions, grounded in interpretations
of the world, and imperial elites with varying social and cultural profiles. But
his presentation of these points reflects a conceptual transformation that had
already occurred in another context. The breakthrough to a civilisational per-
spective was achieved on the basis of a reinterpreted theme from the philoso-
phy of history: the Axial Age, intermittently glimpsed in European visions of
history since the late eighteenth century but properly labelled and identified
for the first time by Karl Jaspers in the aftermath of World War II (Jaspers
1949). Eisenstadt’s chronological demarcation of this period was roughly the
same as Jaspers’s: a demi-millennium from the eighth to the third century BC.
For Jaspers, this was a time of fundamental spiritual transformations, unfold-
ing in separate but comparable cultural worlds from the East Mediterranean
to China, and resulting in the creation of philosophical and religious tradi-
tions that shaped later history. Eisenstadt replaced this highly speculative ac-
count with a new model of interrelations among cultural and social forces. As
he saw it, a restructured vision of the world, with unprecedented emphasis on
the difference between transcendental and mundane reality, opened up new
horizons for political culture. The innovations were double-edged: the refer-
ence to a higher reality could serve to legitimise rulers and power elites as well
as to justify protest and resistance. Different constellations of this kind char-
acterise the Eurasian traditions that go back to axial origins. It should be
noted that the axial connection is less direct in some cases than in others.
150 Johann P. Arnason

Greek and Judaic sources were transformed by Christian and Islamic cultures;
a higher level of continuity is evident in the Chinese case, although both do-
mestic and Western interpretations have tended to exaggerate that aspect; In-
dia, with its complex history of interaction as well as rivalry between Bud-
dhism and Hinduism and later between Hinduism and Islam, represents yet
another pattern.
The above examples are Eisenstadt’s primary references for civilisational
theorising. More generally speaking, his new understanding of the Axial Age
became decisive for the very definition of civilisations; as he put it in a late
formulation, the changes during this period made the civilisational dimension
of human societies – consisting in the intertwining of interpretive and institu-
tional patterns – explicit and reflexive for the first time (Eisenstadt 2003). We
shall later consider the theoretical implications of this starting-point. As for
the historical aspect of the problem, the question why the Axial Age rather
than some other landmark appears as a catalyst for conceptual change, there is
no detailed answer to be found in Eisenstadt’s writings. But it seems possible
to reconstruct the basic reasons. Eisenstadt’s unorthodox studies of moderni-
sation had more and more emphasised the formative input of traditions, and
that meant allowing for patterns and processes that unfolded over long peri-
ods of time. He also rejected the economic-reductionist bias apparent in the
works of many modernisation theorists, and was therefore willing to consider
cultural transformations that might have shaped the paths to modernity. The
particular concern with the Axial Age should, in addition to these general as-
sumptions, be set against the philosophical background mentioned above.
The readiness to translate philosophical interpretations into historical-socio-
logical language, first acquired through the contact with Buber, was obviously
reconfirmed when Eisenstadt encountered Jaspers’s philosophy of history.

The contested classical legacy

This brief sketch should help to situate our two authors and provide a
background to the following discussion of contrasts and affinities between
them. Within the limits of this paper, I cannot attempt an exhaustive com-
parison of the two intellectual trajectories. The focus will be on a specific and
in my opinion crucially important but strikingly neglected issue. Both Elias
and Eisenstadt developed their most distinctive approaches around the con-
cept of civilisation. In both cases, the civilisational turn was linked to a refor-
mulation of basic sociological concepts, a reassessment (not always explicit) of
the classical sociological legacy, and a sustained effort to combine sociological
and historical inquiry. Elias opted for civilisation in the singular and defined
it, more precisely, as a civilising process centred on the transformations of
power structures and their impact on patterns of human behaviour. His
marked disinterest in cultural frameworks – the configurations of meaning
Elias and Eisenstadt: The Multiple Meanings of Civilisation 151

that enter into the making of social structures – was often noted by his critics.
The dynamic of the civilising process was reconstructed through a study of
long-term transformation of Western European societies and mentalities.
While this certainly did not rule out comparative analyses, there is nothing to
show that Elias regarded such work as essential to his project. As we have seen,
Eisenstadt took a longer and more circuitous road to the civilisational turn.
When it finally found expression in theory and research, the emphasis was
throughout on civilisations in the plural, and comparative analysis appeared
as the most promising way to clarify their patterns of formation and develop-
ment. It seems clear that Eisenstadt was not a cultural determinist in the Par-
sonian style (although he sometimes used the concept of a cultural programme
in ways suggestive of that approach), but there is no denying the centrality of
culture in his conceptual scheme, especially with regard to interpretations of
the world, whose involvement in the constitution of societies is the main con-
cern of civilisational analysis. Power formations are certainly not neglected;
centres, elites, elite coalitions and protest movements figure prominently in
Eisenstadt’s discussions of the Axial Age and its consequences. But the general
question of power as a constitutive but variously defined and structured com-
ponent of civilisations is not raised in adequate terms.
The following discussion will explore basic divergences and possible con-
tacts between the two civilisational approaches. Three main aspects of this
problematic should be considered. A closer analysis of sources and presuppo-
sitions will show that the two central ideas, civilisation in the singular and
civilisations in the plural, go back to common classical beginnings; but this is
no easy way to bridge the distance that separates them. In addition to the dif-
ference between singular and plural, each of the alternative concepts turns out
to be internally contested. The classical background is, in other words, an
opening to controversy rather than a guide to convergence. The next step will
be a more detailed examination of conceptual contrasts and affinities between
the projects pursued by Elias and Eisenstadt, with particular emphasis on
Elias’s conception of large-scale processes and Eisenstadt’s model of large-scale
patterns. Suggestions on combining the two perspectives will then be backed
up by more specific arguments concerning Elias’s analyses of state formation
and ways of adapting them to Eisenstadt’s civilisational theory.
Let us start with the earlier of the two landmark developments in social
research, Elias’s work on the civilising process. Its core idea is the interconnec-
tion of sociogenetic and psychogenetic transformations. The former concept
refers to changing structures and dynamics of social life, the latter to changing
mentalities and particularly to levels and modes of self-control. Since this
twofold focus requires extensive conceptual innovation, it seems clear that
Elias aimed at the refoundation of two mutually supportive disciplines: his-
torical sociology and historical psychology. The latter part of his programme
is all the more remarkable because he reinterpreted psychoanalysis in more
152 Johann P. Arnason

consistently historical terms than any other reader of Freud at the time (the
various currents of Freudian Marxism were less thoroughgoing in that regard).
With the wisdom of almost eighty years’ hindsight, it is nevertheless obvious
that the psychogenetic branch of the project proved less viable than the socio-
genetic one. The idea of historical sociology may still be subject to some inter-
pretive conflicts, but it is very visibly present in the debates of the human
sciences, and it is hard to imagine a wholesale retreat. Elias is firmly estab-
lished as one of the pioneers in this field. Historical psychology is a different
matter. Although we should not underestimate occasional work done in its
name, there is neither a continuous tradition nor a unifying vision, and Elias
is certainly not a recognised founding figure.
Despite these uneven results, the two proposed lines of inquiry must be
seen as equal and integral parts of Elias’s original project, and his use of the
concept of civilisation should be considered in that context. Katie Liston and
Stephen Mennell (2009) raise doubts about this choice and refer to Elias’s
own second thoughts, to the effect that a less ideologically charged concept
might have been more helpful. Such ex post reservations may be understand-
able as reactions to the misreadings that were to some extent facilitated by
Elias’s particular twist to the concept of civilisation. In fact, and from the
outset, Elias had very good reasons for preferring ‘civilisation’ to any conceiv-
able alternative, and they were not only related to what Liston and Mennell
describe – rightly – as a transition from an ‘emic’ to an ‘etic’ concept. Elias did
indeed move from the notion of civilisation as part and parcel of the self-de-
scription of Western culture, and towards an analytical, explanatory and po-
tentially comparative concept. But this shift had already been prefigured in
classical sociology, and we can assume that the aim to improve on classical
conjectures was part of Elias’s agenda. Generally speaking, it seems clear that
his relationship to the classics – especially Marx, Durkheim and Weber – was
more important and his interest in them more active than explicit references
might suggest. In the present case, it is the connection between Elias and
Durkheim that calls for closer examination.
The Durkheimian background to The Civilizing Process is twofold. On one
level, Elias sets out to correct a misconception stated at the beginning of Dur-
kheim’s first major work. The Division of Social Labour begins with the rejec-
tion of the idea that civilisation – understood as the gradual refinement of
manners and customs – could be a key to the workings of human societies.
This approach would, as Durkheim argues, not lead to proper understanding
of the moral basis that sustains the social nexus, and opts for a different path.
Elias tries to show that precisely the transformation of manners opens up
perspectives that can throw light on the social nexus, now understood in terms
more related to power than to morality; and not the least achievement of his
work is to locate the division of labour, Durkheim’s chosen key to social life,
within this alternative framework. However, it is the other implicit reference
Elias and Eisenstadt: The Multiple Meanings of Civilisation 153

to Durkheim that most directly concerns us here. It has to do with Dur-

kheim’s late essay on the dualism of human nature (Durkheim 1960), which
Elias certainly knew. Here the starting-point is the observation that sociology
is not simply the science of human societies; it also needs to take the changing
conditions and constitutions of human individuals into account, and that
means relying on psychology. A synthesis of sociological and psychological
insights requires a historical frame of reference, and history properly under-
stood is the history of civilisation, the latter defined as the ongoing produc-
tion of man by society. On the basis of these reflections, Durkheim approv-
ingly quotes Comte’s description of sociology as the science of civilisation,
and leaves the matter there. But although the short text on the dualism of
human nature does not fully clarify the distinctively Durkheimian version of
this view, we can draw on The Elementary Forms of Religious Life to complete
the picture. Civilisation in the singular, presented as the object of sociological
inquiry, would seem synonymous with the progressive separation of institu-
tions, activities and capacities from an originally all-encompassing framework.
It is not being suggested that Elias took no direct notice of Comte. But the
emphasis on a historically contextualised union of sociological and psycho-
logical analysis implies a link to Durkheim. Not that the latter’s conception
was adopted by Elias without changes. He could not accept the idea of reli-
gion as a matrix of social and cultural development; his own account of the
civilising process emphasised the transformation of power structures in gen-
eral and state power in particular. Most importantly, the all-round social im-
pact of state-forming processes appears as the background to disciplining
trends on the psychogenetic level. Moreover, the historicisation of psycho-
analysis added an entire new layer of discourse to the model. On the other
hand, it can be argued that Elias’s focus on power reintroduced a dichotomy
that had, unbeknownst to him and others at the time, already emerged within
Durkheim’s work. In the course of his most extensive lectures on ethics and
politics (Durkheim 1992), which did not become available to a broader pub-
lic until 1950, Durkheim described the progressive emancipation of the indi-
vidual as the best-established law of social development and went on to under-
line the role of the state in this process; a discussion of political regimes then
concluded with the portrayal of democracy as society’s most adequate con-
sciousness of itself. This seems to indicate or foreshadow a situation where
politics replaces religion as the defining centre of social life; and if the shift is
seen in the context of Durkheim’s reflection on civilisation as a universal-his-
torical process, the questions thus raised about religion and politics highlight
a more general problematic of culture and power. The changing historical
configurations and relative weights of these two basic societal components
remained unexplored, and the Durkheimian school did not pursue the prob-
lem. With the limited knowledge of Durkheim’s work then available, Elias
opted for a radical shift of emphasis towards power.
154 Johann P. Arnason

But there is another side to Durkheim’s encounter with civilisational

themes. A ‘note on the notion of civilisation’, co-authored with Marcel Mauss
and first published in 1913 (Durkheim and Mauss 2006), confronts the issue
of civilisations in the plural. This very brief but exceptionally thought-provok-
ing discussion centres on the idea that a pluralistic concept of civilisation is
needed to complement the concept of society that had – in the Durkheimian
milieu – served to demarcate the object of sociology. To begin with, societies
are characterised as political units, and a list beginning with tribes and ending
with modern states shows that Durkheim and Mauss were referring to politi-
cal organisation in a very broad sense, presumably defined by the existence of
an authority capable of imposing some kind of social regulation within terri-
torial limits. The concept of civilisation is then introduced to cover formations
that ‘reach beyond political frontiers and have a spatial expansion that is more
difficult to determine’ (Durkheim and Mauss 2006, p. 36). Thus understood,
the concept is applicable to the whole range of human history and therefore
useful for anthropologists as well as sociologists. The argument developed on
this basis is complex but very condensed; here I will limit myself to noting two
points. The first is that Durkheim and Mauss take a more critical view of
Comte than Durkheim alone had done in the text quoted above. Comte’s
interest in civilisational phenomena is acknowledged, but then he is criticised
for having begun at the wrong end: with a general account of human progress,
rather than with the ‘great collective personalities which have been formed in
the course of history’ (Durkheim and Mauss 2006, p. 37). Civilisations obvi-
ously belong to this latter category. This objection implies, and Mauss argues
at greater length in a later paper, that a universal human civilisation can only
result from the interaction and convergence of civilisations in the plural. We
can, in light of other work, assume that Mauss was the main author of the
1913 text, or at least of its most emphatically pluralistic statements, but this
does not mean that the core idea was alien to Durkheim. In the last chapter of
The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, we find a statement to the effect that
every civilisation has its system of basic concepts (Durkheim 1995). This is
noted in the context of a vast research programme on the emergence of au-
tonomous cultural and institutional spheres from a pan-religious background.
On a less explicit level, Durkheim’s whole analysis of Australian religion sug-
gests that he saw the various tribes in question as societies belonging to a com-
mon civilisation, precisely in the sense of the 1913 text.
The second point is less obvious on first reading, but no less important for
our clarification of links between the Durkheimian tradition and later civili-
sational theory. It concerns a latent ambiguity in Durkheim and Mauss’s con-
ception of civilisations. On the one hand, they stress the interaction of societ-
ies and the diffusion of their traits, achievements and inventions within a ci-
vilisational area. Civilisational phenomena are, as they put it, capable of trav-
elling, and some more so than others: there is an ‘unequal coefficient of
Elias and Eisenstadt: The Multiple Meanings of Civilisation 155

expansion and internationalisation’ (Durkheim and Mauss 2006, p. 30) to be

explained. Civilisations would, on this view, first and foremost appear as spa-
tio-temporal frameworks of intensive interaction and mutual borrowing. On
the other hand, a civilisation is a ‘kind of moral milieu’ shared by multiple
societies, ‘of which each national culture is but a particular form’ (Durkheim
and Mauss 2006, p. 37). Here the term ‘moral’ is obviously used in the broad
cultural sense familiar from such traditional French expressions as ‘sciences
morales’, and once that point is accepted, the archetypal Durkheimian con-
cept of collective representations is not far away. If the shared cultural milieu
is a matter of collective representations, we must think of them not only as
results of interaction and borrowing, but also – and perhaps primarily – as
preconditions of such processes. There is no a priori reason to rule out parallel
developments, rather than transfers, as at least to some extent conducive to
shared collective representations. At the very least, it seems appropriate to
treat the relationship between civilisational presuppositions and interaction as
historically variable. To take only one example (not mentioned by Durkheim
and Mauss), there is a good case for treating East Asia since roughly the mid-
dle of the first millennium AD as one civilisational area; but although the
formation of shared collective representations was in the first instance due to
massive transfers of Chinese models, the level of interaction between societies
in the region varied greatly during successive historical periods.
In short, a closer reading of Durkheim and Mauss can still serve to iden-
tify themes and problems for further discussion. But here our main concern is
with traceable influence on effective work. As for Elias, it seems a safe guess
that he did not know the ‘note on the notion of civilisation.’ As Mauss’s 1929
discussion with a group of other scholars shows, there was still some interest
in the sociological approach to civilisations after World War I; but as the Dur-
kheimian school faded from the French intellectual scene in the 1930s, its
adumbrations of civilisational theory seem to have been more thoroughly for-
gotten than anything else; during the following decades, the notion of civilisa-
tion became a theme for historians who did not link up with the legacy of
classical sociology. And for Elias, this recent history of ideas was no longer
relevant. His analysis of the French concept of civilisation, contrasted to the
German concept of culture, did not go beyond the eighteenth century.
It was the 1971 English translation by Benjamin Nelson that brought the
1913 text on civilisations to broader attention. There is no doubt that Eisen-
stadt knew it, and since this republication coincided with his civilisational
turn, we should expect to find some echoes in his work. To the best of my
knowledge, there is no direct reference, but substantive affinities can be traced.
The notion of civilisations as ‘families of societies’, groupings of politically
organised social units, seems to have been tacitly integrated into Eisenstadt’s
analyses but left unmentioned when it came to an overall demarcation of the
field (as we have seen, it does not figure in the definition of the civilisational
156 Johann P. Arnason

dimension). The main direct and indirect heirs of the Axial Age – Chinese,
Indian, Islamic and European civilisations – fit this model. As for the interac-
tion of societies within a shared civilisation, this was clearly not one of Eisen-
stadt’s priority themes, but it can easily be envisaged as a further step of his
research programme. However, the most interesting connection has to do
with the question of the ‘moral milieu.’ As argued above, this term may be
read as an allusion to collective representations; Eisenstadt followed that line
and gave it a more specific twist with his emphasis on cultural visions of the
world. In this way, he also reopened the questions foreshadowed by Dur-
kheim’s reflections on the religious constitution of society and its world, as
well as by Weber’s analyses of cultural attitudes to the world. But there is an-
other side to the matter, most visible in light of comparison with Durkheim
and Mauss. In the jointly written text, they had already noted that civilisa-
tions take distinctive forms on the national level, and Mauss revisited this is-
sue in his later exposé on the concept of civilisation: ‘It is on the basis of ci-
vilisations that societies develop their distinctive features, their idiosyncrasies
and their individual characters’ (Mauss 2006, p. 62). He went on to observe
that nations sometimes imagine themselves as self-sufficient civilisations, and
to add: ‘Some nations have realised this ideal and others, such as the United
States of America, consciously pursue it’ (Mauss 2006, p. 62). This is a tanta-
lising statement, but Mauss leaves us with it. For those who want to continue
his efforts to understand civilisations, there is no way around the problems
thus signaled in very abbreviating terms. If the individualisation of societies
interacting within a civilisational context can lead to the emergence of a new
civilisation, what level of differentiation and which specific features should be
taken to mark this turn? Is this civilisation-forming process identical with a
nation-forming one or is the equation of a nation with a civilisation one his-
torical version among others? Neither Eisenstadt nor anybody else has tackled
these questions in a systematic way, but some themes in Eisenstadt’s work may
throw light on them. Two civilisations were of particular interest to him: Ja-
pan and Judaism. In both cases, the notion of a family of societies becomes
problematic, and the question of singularisation as a path to civilisational
identity must be considered. Eisenstadt’s book on Japan is his most detailed
case study of a civilisation, and this is at first sight a surprise. As noted above,
he formulated his project of civilisational analysis through a reinterpretation
of the Axial Age, but Japanese civilisation is described as a non-axial one. The
contrast is to some extent mitigated by the historical thrust of Eisenstadt’s
analysis: Japan is not simply a pre-axial survival, but a civilisation that main-
tained its pre-axial identity through a de-axialising appropriation of cultural
models from societies marked by axial transformations (first China, then the
West). In that sense, interaction with other societies would still be essential.
But on the level of fundamental cultural orientations and their institutional
expressions, differences are so marked that they overshadow the multi-societal
Elias and Eisenstadt: The Multiple Meanings of Civilisation 157

constellation. In Durkheim’s terms, Eisenstadt places the main emphasis on

collective representations rather than transnational integration. It is not diffi-
cult to imagine a counter-argument. If it can be shown that Japanese culture
developed through interaction and borrowing in the China-centred East
Asian region, and that indigenous inputs were transformed too early and thor-
oughly to be regarded as an intact civilisational pattern, we are back to the
model of a multi-societal civilisation, on a regional scale and with local varia-
tions, among which Japan seems most distinctive. I tried to argue this view in
a book written in dialogue with Eisenstadt (Arnason 1997), but the question
of Japan’s civilisational status should be seen as still open, and here I cannot
pursue the matter further.
As for Judaism, it is probably true to say that this case influenced Eisen-
stadt’s general interpretation of the Axial Age more directly than the others;
the idea of a transcendental centre defining ways of reforming the mundane
world seems particularly attuned to Jewish monotheism. On the other hand,
the Jewish axial transformation was unique in that it occurred within a small
community under adverse political circumstances. Recent historical scholar-
ship indicates that the changes often (but not unproblematically) described as
the invention of monotheism took place in three successive phases: during the
last phase of the doomed Judaic kingdom, in exile and after the restoration of
a semi-autonomous temple state in Jerusalem. There was nothing comparable
to the multi-societal developments in other axial regions, nor to the innova-
tive paths of state formation opened up in Greece, China and India. Should
we nevertheless regard the Jewish breakthrough as a civilisational one? It seems
clear that Eisenstadt did, and very likely that he saw the radical monotheist
turn as reason enough. We would, in other words, be dealing with a civilisa-
tion so clearly demarcated on the level of collective representations that the
criterion of societal pluralism becomes less relevant. But from a more flexible
perspective (not alien to the spirit of Eisenstadt’s work), the latter aspect can
be brought in on a world-historical scale. Ancient Judaism proved its civilisa-
tional potential by becoming a source of world religions with their own civili-
sational dynamics, but also by transforming itself into a diasporic civilisation
(the latter concept, referring to dispersal across civilisational boundaries and
to the absence of political centres, was introduced by Eisenstadt as an alterna-
tive to Weber’s portrayal of the Jews as a ‘pariah people’). But we can envisage
an even broader historical overview, not unlike the one suggested above for
East Asia. Ancient Israel was, to start with, a part of the civilisational complex
of Syrian city-states (the Phoenicians represent another offshoot of that back-
ground); its early religious history was clearly not unrelated to the Syrian con-
text, but at a certain juncture it took a singularising turn. However, this does
not mean that the new trend was self-contained. As extensive historical re-
search has shown, the specific thrust of Jewish monotheism can only be un-
derstood in relation to the main civilisational centres of the ancient Near East.
158 Johann P. Arnason

Multiple positive and negative references to Mesopotamian traditions have

been noted. For one thing, the anti-imperialism of Jewish prophecy is clearly
directed against Assyria; but at the same time, the notion of a covenant with
God appears to have drawn on Mesopotamian sources. A more polarised ref-
erence to Egypt opposes the sovereignty of a divine legislator to sacred kingship.
In the very long run, this self-redefinition through demarcation from a multi-
civilisational environment turned out to be a detour towards religious muta-
tions capable of imposing new civilisational frameworks on the region – first
and only in part through Christianity, later and with incomparably wider im-
pact through Islam. To sum up without further digressions, the general lesson to
be drawn from Eisenstadt’s comparative studies of civilisations seems to be that
the relationship between cultural-institutional core components and spatio-
temporal reach across boundaries should be treated as highly variable.

Patterns and processes, I: Elias in context

As we have seen, both Elias and Eisenstadt drew on Durkheimian sources,
but they related to different parts of them in different ways, and what they
inherited was a very inchoate problematic, rather than a fully-fledged argu-
ment. The questions emerging from their treatment of themes adumbrated by
Durkheim and Mauss are still subject to debate and must be considered from
other angles. I will now move closer to the distinctive contributions of our
two authors, with a focus on fundamental concepts, and argue that they are
more compatible, even complementary, than they have hitherto seemed to
most readers. With regard to Elias, there is no doubt or disagreement about
the conceptual core of his project. It is a theoretically rounded and histori-
cally applied model of long-term processes. The analysis of the civilising pro-
cess, its sociogenetic centres and its psychogenetic ramifications, presupposes
a more general category which Elias defines as development (Entwicklung); it
refers to processes with a direction. This in turn presupposes the basic concept
of figuration, which was to become an identifying label for Elias’s research
programme when it began to attract a following. A figuration is a changing
constellation of constitutively interrelated human actors. Developmental
changes are a recurrent but not universal pattern; Elias insists on their particu-
lar importance for sociology, and on the failure of twentieth-century sociolo-
gists to continue earlier work on this subject. At the same time, he took care
to distinguish his conception from traditional ideological constructs. He did
not conflate directional processes with historical necessity; he rejected any
idea of teleological explanation (civilisation, for example, could not be seen as
an immanent goal of history); and he avoided totalising visions of progress,
without ignoring the record of cumulative and ameliorating changes in spe-
cific contexts (the statement ‘es gibt Fortschritte, aber keinen Fortschritt’, of-
ten quoted but apparently never printed, is a concise summary of this view).
Elias and Eisenstadt: The Multiple Meanings of Civilisation 159

Elias was, in short, well aware of the need to specify his conception of
long-term processes. But despite his efforts, this key category of historical so-
ciology did not achieve the kind of comeback that he expected when he wrote
his introduction to the re-edition of The Civilizing Process. Its present status is
somewhat ambiguous: some version of it remains indispensable for sociolo-
gists in search of historical dimensions, but developments in sociological
thought have led to doubts about the coherence and the explanatory value of
processual models, especially the macro-processes invoked by various branch-
es of the sociological tradition (for recent comments on this issue, see Knöbl
2013). A systematic discussion would have to start with a comparison of dif-
ferent logics attributed to long-term processes, and of the explanatory claims
associated with them; it may, in due course, have to revive the question of
explanation and understanding, and consider the changing relationships be-
tween them that correspond to different interpretive models. Here I cannot
enter into that kind of debate. But before turning to Elias, it seems worth-
while to glance at contrasting examples of classical perspectives on long-term
processes, and to note their methodological implications. The growth of the
productive forces, invoked by classical Marxism as a universal historical dy-
namic, was defined in terms conducive to strong and simple causal explana-
tions: technical progress resulted from the interaction between human needs
and the natural environment, and adaptation to this primary process was the
underlying principle of social change. Max Weber’s notion of rationalisation
was a very different construct. Weber stressed the context-dependent meaning
of rationalisation, and that aspect of the processes in question is obvious to
every reader; it is much less clear what kind of overarching rationality we can
posit as a common denominator, and interpretations of Weber’s work still
diverge on this point. In any case, no definition flexible enough to cover the
whole spectrum of human activities would sustain strong causal claims.
We can approach the same problem from another angle by comparing two
well-known Weberian arguments. The analysis of bureaucratisation centres on
the unmistakably causal claim that modern bureaucracy is as superior to tra-
ditional modes of administration as is modern industry to traditional handi-
crafts; a complementary line of inquiry then deals with a wide range of causes
that help to set this factor in motion. The other relevant example is Weber’s
Protestant Ethic. I do not think that anybody would now defend Weber’s
claims to have revealed a direct and decisive causal link between Puritan theol-
ogy and capitalist development (the latter is, be it noted, seen as a long-term
process culminating in the all-encompassing ‘cosmos’ of modern industrial
capitalism). The alternative reading that has in the long run tended to prevail
presupposes a different vision of history. On that view, a new orientation of
religious life, eminently but not exclusively represented by radical currents of
the Reformation, changed the cultural horizons of European societies. To use
Weberian terms from other contexts, the new cultural framework lent
160 Johann P. Arnason

meaning, significance and legitimacy to transformative activities, and proba-

bly more so to political than to economic innovations. If we also take into
account Weber’s reference to ancient Jewish religious ethics and ancient Greek
scientific thought as sources of the disenchanting trend continuing into mod-
ern times, the picture becomes clearer. The changes first ascribed to an epoch-
making impact of the Protestant ethic are now linked to a whole complex of
long-term processes, including developments that have to do with cultural
presuppositions, rather than social actors or forces, and thus belong to the
domain of understanding rather than explanation. Moreover, this part of the
story involves changing relationships between very different cultural patterns:
in the beginning, there were – as Weber came to see it – separate breakthroughs
of religious and scientific thought, whereas the culminating phase is marked
by much closer interaction between religious reformation and scientific revo-
lution. The cultural hermeneutic needed to make sense of such constellations
goes far beyond the well-known account of understanding as a form of expla-
nation in the text on basic concepts of sociology (Weber 1962). Later inter-
pretations of Weber’s work have noted this discrepancy between understand-
ing applied in concrete contexts and understanding codified in methodologi-
cal terms, and none of them has closed the gap through a unified model of
explanation. As I will try to show, the inclusion of meaning and understand-
ing – however implicit – in the problematic of long-term processes has some
bearing on the questions pursued by Elias and Eisenstadt.
Elias insisted on distinguishing his approach from causal analysis. In later
reflections, he explicitly links causal correlations to low levels of complexity.
At the social level, the primacy of the structured field – the figuration, in
Elias’s terms – becomes particularly significant. Not that individual agency is
illusory or unimportant; but its scope, its pathways and its outcomes depend
on the encompassing figurations. Moreover, Elias’s specific conception of figu-
rations and their dynamics affects the explanatory ideal that guides his work.
Figurations in general, developmental changes in particular and civilising pro-
cesses par excellence are, first and foremost, constellations of power in motion.
Long before Foucault and Bourdieu, Elias emphasised the relational character
of power, and hence the impossibility of explaining its modes of operation or
its historical trajectories in terms of action theory. As he saw it, the concep-
tual focus on action was always (independently of preferences for strategic or
normative aspects) associated with the background image of homo clausus, the
individual in isolation from social relations and processes. On the other hand,
there is no denying that the pursuit of power by actors within figurations is an
obligatory theme for historical and sociological analysis, including Elias’s own
work. We can accept that power is inherent in relations, rather than possessed
or exercised by actors; but it is also true that perceptions and representations
of power as a given or possible object of possession are omnipresent in history
and open to cultural elaborations along varying lines. This is an elementary
Elias and Eisenstadt: The Multiple Meanings of Civilisation 161

example of the ‘cultural plasticity of power’ (Pye 1988), which will be the
subject of further discussion below. Here it should be noted that the role of
strategic action in structuring power formations invites two kinds of criticism
of Elias’s account. The proposed model of a long-term process can either be
revised with a stronger emphasis on the inputs and choices of actors or re-
jected in the name of autonomous human agency. Both responses have ap-
peared in the discussion of Elias’s work. What I would like to explore here is
the possibility of strengthening Elias’s case by extending the figurations re-
ferred to in The Civilizing Process beyond the power relationships that consti-
tute the main focus of analysis.
The main result of this will be to bring cultural constellations to the fore-
ground, thus adding another dimension to Elias’s relational image of society,
and thereby reinforcing his arguments against the individualist approach. But
by the same token, the relational aspect will gain weight against the proces-
sual one. More precisely, historical contexts – both successive and simultane-
ous – will be emphasised. The cultural factors and horizons are best appreci-
ated on that level, rather than through any general models of development. A
historicising turn is, moreover, in line with the view that seems to have
emerged as a common ground between informed critics and conditional de-
fenders of Elias’s work on state formation: the general formulation of the
question as a matter of long-term processes remains justified, and so does the
emphasis on interconnected means of violence and modes of extraction, but
the whole analysis must be contextualised in a way that will allow less room
for alternative paths, innovative projects and contingent outcomes. It is less
easy to define a shared frame for discussion of Elias’s psychogenetic themes.
He rejected criticisms to the effect that he had conflated the civilising process
with a unilinear strengthening of self-control; but as key formulations show,
he did find it difficult to avoid claims of that kind. When he refers to a ‘pro-
gressive tightening and differentiation of controls’ (Elias 2000: 450; the Ger-
man original refers to Selbstkontrollen, and the 1994 English version uses ‘pro-
gressive’ instead of ‘increased’), the notion of linear evolution is not far away.
That said, it still seems appropriate to keep the clarification of connections
between social and psychic transformations on the agenda of civilisational
analysis; but the first step must be to abstain from assumptions about direct
causal links or continuous developmental trends. The issues are, in any case,
too complex and the field too vast to be tackled here; the following argument
will only deal with the problematic of state formation and its settings.
If we propose to bring more history into the narrative of state formation,
and to foreground the cultural dimension, it is best to begin with Elias’s own
acknowledgements of historical landmarks and the ambiguities in his percep-
tions of them. I will limit the discussion to three constellations of this kind.
Elias’s starting-point, the fragmentation of social and political power in the
aftermath of Carolingian empire-building, is a first sight compatible with
162 Johann P. Arnason

widespread views of the Carolingian moment as a watershed in European his-

tory. But the emphasis is on what others might have called the ‘schismoge-
netic’ character of Charlemagne’s legacy, on the decomposing dynamic that
prevailed after his death, and on the preconditions for a new round of power
struggles. Against this negative perspective, it seems useful to cite the more
positive assessment that has been gaining the upper hand in recent scholarship
(positive only in the sense that it underlines the significant role of the Caro-
lingians in the making of Europe, notwithstanding their failure to create a
durable empire). This reappraisal has, among other things, changed percep-
tions of the ninth century: the division of the empire into successor kingdoms
now appears a redistribution of power within a Carolingian realm, rather than
a first phase of uncontrolled fragmentation (Costambeys et al. 2011). There is,
however, another side to that picture. A multi-central realm was also a modi-
fied version of the institutional synthesis first achieved by Charlemagne. The
three key components, kingdom, empire and Church, could not be contained
within the close union imposed by the imperial founder. A return to multiple
kingdoms set the scene for competitive state formation; at the same time, the
imperial claim – a symbolic entitlement to Roman ancestry and some kind of
parity with Byzantium – was disconnected from its previous geopolitical basis,
became transferable asset of rival centres and then underwent a virtual eclipse,
before it was revived in another setting and given a much longer lease of life
as the Holy Roman Empire. As for the Church, the main short-term effect of
the disuniting process was to create space for separate developments, includ-
ing – in due course – a reform movement that could then serve to establish an
unprecedentedly strong papacy.
In short, the Carolingian episode throws light on the changing interrela-
tions of kingdom, empire and Church, and the properly imperial phase left
cultural memories that affected the subsequent history of this configuration.
This tripartite constellation of centres, never thematised as such, is the tacit
background to Elias’s analysis of Western European state formation. Implicit
references are very unequally spread. Kingdoms are recognised as the most
decisive foci of state formation, but without any discussion of the particular
features and circumstances associated with the Western Christian institution
of monarchy; the role of the Church, crucially important in some phases of
the process, is left aside, and the Holy Roman Empire appears only as a draw-
back on state formation in Germany. This last viewpoint was not uncommon
at the time, but has been problematised by historians who stress the resilience
and the reformability of the empire. As for the overall framework, the tripar-
tite division is a key defining characteristic for those who regard Western
Christendom as a civilisation. All three core institutions were expressions of
the religio-political nexus (there was a sacral side to kingship, and a fortiori to
empire); the division and the institutional autonomy of each side implied
specific definitions and transfigurations of power; at the same time, the field
Elias and Eisenstadt: The Multiple Meanings of Civilisation 163

constituted by interrelations between the three centres was dynamic and flex-
ible enough to accommodate major historical shifts. It should be noted that
this civilisational pattern was in the making well before the rise of the Caro-
lingians (they were the most successful, but far from the first rulers who sought
to imitate the Roman empire). It resulted from the transformation of the Ro-
man world, and more precisely from the particular road taken in its Western
provinces, where the realm was divided between barbarian kingdoms and the
Christianisation of the empire had to be repeated in multiple versions with
local variations (Dumézil 2005). The Western pattern invites comparison
with other post-Roman configurations emerging at the same time. Here we
encounter another tripartite division: the formation of Western Christendom,
Byzantium and Islam as successors to Greco-Roman antiquity is in my opin-
ion one of the most promising historical themes for civilisational analysis.
And it is not only a matter of comparative study. Relations between the three
cultural worlds were an obvious case in point when the question of inter-civil-
isational encounters was first raised (Nelson 1981), and they involved con-
tacts of various kind, cultural or institutional borrowings and transmission of
classical sources (from both Byzantine and Islamic centres to the West), as well
as processes and strategies of mutual demarcation (such as the Western re-
sponse to eighth- and ninth-century Byzantine iconoclasm, seen as an attempt
to redefine the relationship between empire and Church at the expense of the
latter, or the thirteenth-century conversion of the crusades, the wars of the
papal monarchy against Islamic powers, into a destructive assault on the Byz-
antine empire).
To sum up, the implicit background to Elias’s account of state formation
is a civilisational and inter-civilisational context. And as the story unfolds,
another constellation of that kind comes to the fore. Elias certainly did not
underestimate the transformation of the High Middle Ages; his description of
that period is an exemplary survey of the multiple social processes connected
to state formation; but there is no attempt to develop an overall interpretation
of the cultural sea change often characterised as a ‘twelfth-century renais-
sance’. The decisive argument for considering it as a mutation within Western
Christendom, rather than a transition to a new civilisation, is that the above-
mentioned pattern of kingdom, empire and Church remained in place, and
was in various ways reinforced by new developments. For one thing, the ‘papal
monarchy’ (Morris 1991) was strictly speaking a high medieval phenomenon.
The same period also saw the most spectacular ups and downs of the relation-
ship between Church and empire, culminating in a short but anything but
insignificant episode of all-out conflict between a Church with imperial ambi-
tions and an empire disconnected from its original territorial basis (under
Emperor Frederick II in the second quarter of the thirteenth century). In the
longer run, it was the kingdom as an institution and a geopolitical formation
that profited most from the innovations. They included the rediscovery and
164 Johann P. Arnason

adaptation of Roman law, with consequences so far-reaching that they have

been convincingly described as a ‘legal revolution’ (Berman 1995); a revival of
political thought, supported by classical sources but also closely related to the
public sphere taking shape around the controversy between Church and em-
pire (Melve 2007); and the new institution of the university, essential to the
whole spectrum of intellectual development. All these aspects of the high me-
dieval transformation were linked to the flowering of city-states in the most
dynamic regions of Western Europe. Although this version of state formation
did not mature into a long-term alternative to the older and more entrenched
ones (the city-states were, in one way or another and in part through internal
monarchic turns, absorbed into the geopolitical order based on larger territo-
rial states), it became a cultural crucible where techniques and ideas important
for further progress of state formation were initiated. Seen as a whole, the
mutation involved new ways of envisioning, justifying and regulating power,
bound to affect the course of processes altering the structures of social power
or giving rise to new ones.
Finally, the early modern phase of Western European state formation was
Elias’s first point of entry into the sociology of civilisation. Court society, the
topic of his long-unpublished Habilitationsschrift (Elias 1985), exemplified
the general dynamic of figurations as well as the particular features of civilising
processes. Moreover, this very specific social formation is closely linked to the
political regime known as absolutism. For Elias, the question of absolutism
and its place in history seems to have been an early occasion to demarcate his
approach from Marxism while preserving the latter’s insights: he accepted that
the social basis of absolutist monarchy was a relative equilibrium of power
between nobility and bourgeoisie, but his emphasis on the mutual irreduc-
ibility of economic and political power gave this thesis a new meaning. Even
when benefiting from a changing class structure, the absolutist state was a
more autonomous force than the Marxists could ever admit. In light of fur-
ther research and broader debates, Elias’s analysis is nevertheless open to the
criticism that crucial aspects of the early modern transformation are neglect-
ed. That applies to the geopolitical connections later known under the label of
Atlantic history: the foundation of the first overseas empires in history set the
scene for a long record of interdependent state formation (including a revolu-
tionary episode) on the two sides of the ocean. At the same time, the irrevers-
ible split of Western Christendom, the wars of religion and the acceptance of
the principle cuius regio, eius religio led to a fundamental change in the rela-
tionship between religion and state power. This shift had a specific impact on
the trans-Atlantic arena. Following Eisenstadt’s suggestion, it can be argued
that the two reformations, Protestant and Catholic, gained more civilisational
scope in the colonised Americas than they could have in the Old World; but
the new autonomy of the political was also projected across the ocean, and the
result was a divergence of long-term trends in the relationship between
Elias and Eisenstadt: The Multiple Meanings of Civilisation 165

religion and politics. Finally, the intellectual innovations of the period, and
particularly the beginnings of the scientific revolution, led to the crystallisa-
tion of a new type of political thought, one-sidedly and controversially articu-
lated by Thomas Hobbes. Both theories and strategies contributed to the for-
mation of the raison d’État that became a hallmark of early modern political
culture. Taking all these things together, it seems justified to describe the early
modern turn as a civilisational transformation; it is then less important wheth-
er we interpret the outcome as a new version of European civilisation or as a
new type of civilisation, for which we can retain the originally less meaning-
laden term of modernity (Eisenstadt preferred the latter option, and so does
the present writer).

Patterns and processes, II: The Axial Age and its sequels
As I have tried to show, a closer reading of Elias’s most sustained effort to
combine theoretical and substantive analysis – The Civilizing Process – opens
up historical perspectives of the kind most congenial to Eisenstadt’s civilisa-
tional analysis. The analysis of long-term processes is, at critical junctures,
confronted with broader contexts decisively important for the developments
in question but not properly integrated into Elias’s frame of reference. Closer
examination would, in all three abovementioned cases, show that cultural ar-
ticulations of the world and their interrelations with the perceptions and for-
mations of social power enter into the picture: they do not exclude all conti-
nuity of directions across major historical thresholds and ruptures, but they
affect the course and shape the horizons of long-term processes. This line of
argument draws attention to configurations of the kind that Eisenstadt theo-
rised as civilisations in the plural. To round off our analysis, we should now
turn directly to Eisenstadt’s work and look for comparable openings to Elia-
sian ideas. It seems best to begin with the processual model that was, as argued
above, central to Elias’s sociology of civilisation.
No single work is as representative of Eisenstadt’s thought as The Civilizing
Process is for Elias. But we can identify a theme that proves more illuminating
than any other. The twin notions of the Axial Age and axial civilisations bring
a long-maturing field into focus and define the parameters of further inquiry.
Eisenstadt did not produce a systematic account of his new civilisational para-
digm, but the thrust of his general comments and case studies is clear enough
to allow some conclusions. In the first place, the very idea of the Axial Age as
a civilisational matrix implies a reference to long-term processes. As Wolfgang
Knöbl (2001) argues in his critical study of Eisenstadt, even the maintenance
of a civilisational pattern must be understood as an ongoing process, rather
than a given state of things. The processual aspect becomes more visible if we
take into account the combination of continuity and discontinuity that Eisen-
stadt outlines in various analyses. His comments on developments in the wake
166 Johann P. Arnason

of Axial Age breakthroughs and within the longue durée of axial civilisations
focus on different trends and transformations in different contexts. He em-
phasised the varying trajectories of orthodoxy and dissent in axial traditions;
he traced the ideological projects of modern revolutions back to axial sources,
and argued that revolutionary change was facilitated by traditions centred on
the political sphere (especially when they could absorb heterodox notions of
salvation); on a more general level, his conception of modernity as a new ci-
vilisation was sometimes linked to the idea of a second axial breakthrough. In
all these cases, he deals with processes combining pattern maintenance with
significant change.
Eisenstadt never tackled the problem of conceptualising historical pro-
cesses in ways that would fit his civilisational paradigm. We may try to address
this issue through critical reading of his work and in light of ongoing debates
on the Axial Age. To begin with, let us take another look at Knöbl’s criticism.
He interprets Eisenstadt’s axial genealogy of civilisations in general and mo-
dernity in particular as a variation on the theme of path dependency (Knöbl
2001, pp. 249-255). This notion has been associated with explanatory models
that stressed the long-term determination of historical trajectories by crucial
events, key factors or decisive constellations. Its origins seem to be in eco-
nomic history, and a generalised use in historical sociology is bound to raise
questions of adequacy and adaptability. The meaning, the importance and the
limits of path dependency will in turn depend on the underlying vision of
history. Parsonian-style cultural determinism is a straightforward case: cul-
tural programmes, emerging through evolutionary change, shape the further
course of evolution. As Knöbl notes (2001, p. 255), Eisenstadt’s genealogy is
more complex. Axial origins are not reducible to intellectual solutions of
problems resulting from a new vision of the world; the role and structure of
elites, geopolitical situations and the state of the social division of labour also
come into play. Here the type of path dependency has obviously more to do
with constellations than with any single key factor; in fact, it does not seem
far-fetched to suggest a parallel with Elias’s figurations.
It is tempting to take this point a little further; and to do so, I will draw on
discussions that have in some ways departed from Eisenstadt’s model (Arna-
son, Eisenstadt and Wittrock 2005; Bellah and Joas 2012). Three emerging
conclusions should be noted. In the first place, widespread agreement on the
exceptional importance of the Axial Age as a time of transformations does not
mean that a common denominator of changes in different cultural worlds is
easy to establish or generally accepted. Eisenstadt’s notion of a recurrent and
pre-eminently axial pattern, a culturally codified scission of reality into tran-
scendental and mundane spheres, has been questioned. Research on the four
main cases (ancient Greece, ancient Israel, India and China) is unequally de-
veloped, and strong claims about a common ground seem premature. The
present state of the debate suggests that models primarily derived from Greek
Elias and Eisenstadt: The Multiple Meanings of Civilisation 167

and Judaic resources (as is Eisenstadt’s ontological division) are less applicable
to Indian and Chinese thought. Moreover, the divergent currents within each
tradition do not easily lend themselves to mutual assimilation. The diversity
of Greek thought resists all unifying readings; there is no comparable level of
differentiation within ancient Judaism, but contrasts between priestly and
prophetic lines of religious development have been highlighted in recent
scholarship. Indian thought in the Axial Age, perhaps the least well under-
stood of the four traditions, was not only marked by the division between
Buddhist and proto-Hinduist trends; other aspects of a very complex picture
are still controversial among scholars. The internal conflicts of the Chinese
tradition (especially the tripartite division into Confucian, Daoist and Legal-
ist schools of thought) are well known, and a striking example of certain basic
categories shared across the field but put to very different uses; to the extent
that there is a common cosmo-anthropological background, it represents a
holistic world-view difficult to subsume under Eisenstadt’s dichotomy of tran-
scendental and mundane.
A second point to be added is the highly diverse dynamic of state forma-
tion during the Axial Age. The development of the polis in Greece, the emer-
gence of ‘warring states’ of a very different kind and size in China, and the less
known but obviously varied Indian polities in transition from tribal organisa-
tion to statehood are exemplary cases, but not yet given their due in compara-
tive studies of the period. Ancient Israel was of course a different matter;
however, the transfer of sovereignty to a divine legislator created an imaginary
space for new visions of kingship and statehood. Such possibilities were re-
alised in later civilisations affiliated to the monotheistic source. That brings us
to the third and final point. The concept of an axial civilisation and the con-
comitant list of such civilisations now look much more problematic than the
demarcation of the Axial Age. The contours and the complex history of the
latter have been clarified, whereas the idea of uniform civilisational continuity
after the axial breakthroughs proved much less sustainable. It now seems more
plausible to assume different pedigrees of successive – and sometimes coexist-
ing – civilisational formations for the various axial complexes.
With these developments in mind, it may be useful to revisit the question
of processual models and to link that issue to the notion of path dependency.
It should already be clear that the relationship between Axial Age transforma-
tions and subsequent historical trajectories calls for more differentiated read-
ings. Both the variety of intellectual currents and the enhanced political dy-
namics of the Axial Age were conducive to a change that might be described
as path diversification. It implies a larger scope for conflicts and a broader
spectrum of open historical situations with contingent outcomes. To put it
another way, the ruptures affecting patterns of culture and power resulted in a
new level of historicity. And there was another side to that transformation.
The interaction between new world-views, open to conflicting interpretations,
168 Johann P. Arnason

and changing forms of social power, influenced by strategic projects and pro-
test movements, enabled the cultures shaped by axial experiences to develop
an unprecedented capacity for path innovation. At its most momentous, that
upgrading led to the emergence of two new formations with historical hori-
zons and trajectories of their own: world empires and world religions. Here
the term path mutation seems appropriate. Empires existed before the Axial
Age, but more extensive reach and more emphatic claims to world domina-
tion set the imperial regimes of post-axial times apart from their predecessors.
The novelty was definitively evident in the roughly simultaneous Roman and
Chinese constructions of empire, but the most extreme example was the early
Islamic empire, which also represented the closest union with a world religion.
The emergence of world religions (Christianity, Islam and the transformation
of Buddhism that went hand in hand with its expansion into East Asia) can-
not be plausibly explained as a predetermined outcome of axial breakthroughs;
the less emphatic notion of ‘secondary breakthroughs’, briefly used by Eisen-
stadt and referring to reinterpretive combinations of axial themes, has been
abandoned. New religious and political ways of life orientation and world
articulation, not least those of late antiquity, are creative innovations and as
such irreducible to rearrangements within a given framework. Their genea-
logical links to axial origins are important, but precisely that part of the back-
ground becomes a basis for understanding beyond explanation. The axial turn
did not pre-program later transformations of a comparable kind, but it pro-
vides a focus for identifying similarities and differences, and thus helps to
make sense of phenomena that do not lend themselves to more than partial
and rival explanations.
I have not even begun to define the kind of processual models that could
serve to answer the questions left open by Eisenstadt. That would require a
much longer discussion. But the above reflections should highlight the need
for such models; clarify the context to which they would have to be adapted;
and show that a generalised idea of path dependency does not take us further.
The potential convergence of Elias and Eisenstadt has thus only been outlined
in the most general terms. To round off the argument, and to indicate at least
a way of establishing closer contact, I will conclude with another look at the
question of state formation, this time from the viewpoint of Eisenstadt’s ci-
vilisational analysis.
Extensive comments on the state and its transformation can be found in
Eisenstadt’s work, throughout its successive phases, but they are not integrat-
ed into a theory of state formation. The reasons why such a unifying frame-
work did not seem necessary have to do with the evolving relationship to
mainstream sociology. When Eisenstadt was closest to Parsonian theory, he
used the concept of the political system, rather than that of the state; conse-
quently, the abovementioned book on imperial formations dealt with political
systems of empires, not with imperial paths of state formation, which would
Elias and Eisenstadt: The Multiple Meanings of Civilisation 169

have been a significantly different thematic focus. When the civilisational turn
took Eisenstadt’s social theory definitively beyond Parsonian borders, the
strong concept of a system was abandoned, but a less clearly defined political
sphere, rather than the state, was still an essential part of the roadmap for
comparative analysis. Eisenstadt thus takes a line reminiscent of the authors
who have put the notion of ‘the political’, variously defined, ahead of the state,
with the difference that he places a much stronger emphasis on historical and
civilisational meanings of this category. But to distinguish and compare the
versions of the political, we need at least a provisional or approximate general
definition. Eisenstadt’s formulations suggest that the best starting-point is the
notion of a political arena. An arena is, to put it briefly, a space where multiple
actors enter into more or less conflictual relationships and develop more or
less explicit rules to manage them. As for the specifics of the political arena, no
definition can neglect the claim to impose regulating authority on other do-
mains of social life; but these domains, or arenas in Eisenstadt’s parlance, also
generate cross-border dynamics, and it remains to be clarified what sets the
political version of total social reach apart from others. At this point, let us
note some further aspects of Eisenstadt’s argument. He stresses the differences
between axial traditions: to mention only the four main sources, he contrasts
Greek and Chinese upgradings of the political sphere with Judaic and Indian
modes of devaluation. But then he signals a reaffirmation of axial unity by
subsuming the positive interpretations of the political under the general con-
cept of salvation, derived from Weber and adapted to the axial model in such
a way that it allows for this-worldly aspirations.
Eisenstadt’s reference to salvation is admittedly metaphorical, but even so,
it seems misleading. Greek and Chinese conceptions of the political did not
share substantive or normative goals. Neither of the two traditions was wholly
dominated by reflection on the political; to the extent that they did focus on
political themes, their respective visions were fundamentally different. Greek
political thought, up to and including the political philosophy inaugurated by
Plato and Aristotle, centred on the polis, its institutional problems and its
imagined versions; the main concern of Chinese thinkers were the art of ruler-
ship and the role that intellectual advisers could envisage in that context. In
both cases, the common ground allows interpretive conflicts with practical
consequences. As for axial downgradings or curtailments of the political, they
were also of diverse kinds. The Judaic transfer of sovereignty to a divine cre-
ator-legislator would, in strictly doctrinal terms, have entailed a theocratic
regime; but that could, in practice, only take the approximate form of priestly
rule, and such arrangements were limited to situations where state formation
could not go far (the temple state in Jerusalem survived in the shadow of im-
perial powers). In the long run, and under conditions more favourable to
political development, the monotheist innovation proved conducive to other
paths: re-elaborations of sacral rulership within a new framework. That form
170 Johann P. Arnason

of culturally transfigured power was too entrenched to be completely dis-

carded, but the implications of monotheism were too radical for traditional
models to be reproduced without a change. The idea of a unique and tran-
scendent god rules out the indeterminate overlap of divine and human status
that was common among rulers in archaic civilisations (though more pro-
nounced in some cases than others), but it was compatible with more medi-
ated forms of sacral rulership. In both Christian and Islamic history, the inter-
mittently successful attempts to combine religious and political authority
testify to this adaptability of an older legacy, and so does the long European
record of variations on the theme of ‘the king’s two bodies’ (Kantorowicz
1957). The early modern principle of cuius regio, eius religio may be seen as a
late offshoot of the same trend, leading to further metamorphoses of the reli-
gio-political nexus in the context of modern ideologies.
The Indian tradition took another distinctive turn. Eisenstadt seems – at
least in his first interpretation of the Axial Age – to have largely accepted
Louis Dumont’s view of the relationship between priests and kings in India:
kingship was partially secularised, but at the same time subordinated to a
double primacy of the religious elite. The Brahmins preserved an ideological
and regulative power that backed claims to precedence over kings; this status
was grounded in otherworldly cultural orientations, but the latter also lent a
particular authority to the ‘renouncer’, the consistent ascetic who translated
the religious rejection of the world into a mode of life. Historians and anthro-
pologists working on India have questioned this view and argued that it relies
too directly on Brahmin ideology. Their criticism (to some extent taken on
board by Eisenstadt in later discussions) seems valid in at least in the sense
that there was more scope for rivalry between kings and Brahmins than Du-
mont’s model suggests; efforts to upgrade kingship could involve stronger
claims to sacral status, and they repeatedly led to imperial ventures that failed
to achieve their goals. On the other hand, it remains true that no consistent
ideology or continuous tradition articulated the ambitions built into Indian
kingship on a level comparable to what the Brahmin version of the caste order
had done for the religious elites. And in the final instance, the imperial power
of Islamic conquerors blocked indigenous aspirations of that kind. But to
round off the picture, one more aspect of the Indian axial complex should be
mentioned. The political impact of Buddhism is a controversial issue. A mi-
nority view (Tambiah 1986) holds that the formation of early Buddhism was
linked to a new, more universal idea of kingship, whereas the mainstream of
scholarly opinion still stresses the radically apolitical character of early Bud-
dhist thought and conduct; but a Buddhist vision of the ruler as a guardian of
the Law did develop later, as part of a multi-faceted and very imperfectly
understood transformation, and was to play an important role in East and
Southeast Asian history (for example through the late sixth-century reunifica-
tion of the Chinese empire).
Elias and Eisenstadt: The Multiple Meanings of Civilisation 171

These differentiations do not relate directly to questions of state formation.

But they indicate ways of demarcating and understanding the political dimen-
sion of social life. We are, in other words, dealing with variations of the reli-
gio-political nexus (in the Greek case, polis religion is, as historians are now
stressing, an important part of the picture). Divergences on this level can be
expected to affect the course of events and the conduct of actors; in terms of
the Weberian distinction between ideas and interests, with particular refer-
ence to the interest in power and its organisation, the axial traditions can be
seen as frameworks for definitions of goals, strategies and long-term visions
brought into play by various elites, through rivalry as well as coalitions. To
draw this problematic closer to the issue of state formation, we may link up
with another theme in Eisenstadt’s comparative studies. The distinction be-
tween centre and periphery, obviously based on the work of Edward Shils, is
used to describe the varying patterns and dynamics of civilisations, but it can
hardly be said to be fully integrated with the more thoroughly theorised ac-
count of cultural and institutional aspects. Although Eisenstadt never formu-
lated his claim in precisely these terms, a centre is an institution, more or less
clearly located in a spatial context, that unites cultural (in the first instance
and for the most part religious) and political authority. To illustrate the range
of variation, the examples of the Chinese imperial institution, the papacy and
the Delphi oracle may be mentioned; in all cases there is some combination of
religious and political centrality, but in vastly different patterns and propor-
tions. A periphery or a peripheral domain of social life is in some way or de-
gree subordinate to the authority of a centre or of competing centres, but it is
also – that is an important part of Eisenstadt’s argument – in principle capable
of contesting central authority. Divergent and changing relationships between
centres and peripheries are among the key characteristics of civilisations. For
instance, Eisenstadt’s work on European civilisation notes the plurality of cen-
tres, the mutability of their interrelations and a record of inverting the hierar-
chy of centres and peripheries.
It seems to me that here we have a suitable conceptual basis for bringing
state formation back in and bridging the gap between Eisenstadt and Elias, at
least in this specific field. Whatever else it is, a state is a centre, and not just a
power centre; there is always a cultural dimension with some sacral connota-
tions. There are good reasons to regard sacral rulership as a primal form, and
to doubt that it has ever been transformed into a purely functional device or
instrument of domination. The central role of kingdoms in Elias’s account of
Western European state formation is a tacit acknowledgement of sacral and
symbolic dimensions that go beyond the mechanisms of monopolisation.
And as we have seen, the processes in question involved other resources be-
sides arms and taxes. Despite the dominant emphasis on monopolies of vio-
lence and taxation, Elias’s model can thus be used as a starting-point for a
more multi-dimensional analysis of state formation. From that angle, the
172 Johann P. Arnason

absolutist phase seems even more important than it was for Elias. Not that its
presence and effective power on the ground were ever commensurable with
official claims; but historians who insist on this discrepancy are missing the
main point. The novelty of absolutist monarchy, and the justification for this
label, are to be found on the level of ambitions and institutionalised visions.
The regimes in question aimed at more extensive control and more variegated
mobilisation of resources than their predecessors had achieved (in the most
important cases, this included overseas expansion). By combining the claim to
divine right with the authority to determine the religion of their subjects, rul-
ers strove for a major redefinition of the religio-political nexus; it is true that
this pattern was not uniformly applied in the early modern monarchies, but
we can nevertheless regard it as a distinctive trend of the times. All things
considered, Christian Meier’s observation that the early modern state aspired
to a monopoly of the political (Meier 1980) seems justified. This was a mo-
nopoly going well beyond Elias’s twin pillars of state power. But it was also the
prelude to a fundamental historical shift: through a complicated and discon-
tinuous process, the absolutist monarchy gave way to modern democracy.
Elias was, of course, not unaware of this transformation. His understanding of
it was summed up in the concept of ‘functional democratisation’, coined to
describe a process prefigured by the very successes of monarchic state-build-
ing. On this view, the growing interdependence of increasingly differentiated
social groups and domains led, in the long run, to an irreversible diffusion and
de-personalisation of power. For a historical-sociological approach along more
multi-dimensional lines, the main problem with this interpretation is that it
does not relate the question of modern democracy and its genesis to the cul-
tural and political background. On that level, the crucial aspect of the process
is the transfer of the notion of sovereignty, with all its accompaniments, from
the ruler to a political community that proved capable of progressive broaden-
ing based on the overlapping identities of people and nation. This political
mutation reflects a new mode of social life, grounded in a radical upgrading
of human autonomy. This problematic is explored in Marcel Gauchet’s work,
especially in his still incomplete tetralogy on the historical trajectory of mod-
ern democracy (Gauchet 2007-2010).
For Eisenstadt, the transfer of sovereignty from kings to people is a prime
case of peripheral empowerment. But we can now – and this will be the last
step of our discussion – bring the whole field of state formation and its set-
tings into closer contact with his civilisational framework. The concept of
centre formation, occasionally used but not systematically introduced by
Eisenstadt, can serve as a key to further clarification. State formation appears
as a particular type of centre formation, and it is sometimes accompanied by
emerging centres of other kinds. This may be a matter of religious elites con-
solidating their specific positions; that applies, in very different ways, to Brah-
mins in India and the Church in the formative phase of Western Christendom
Elias and Eisenstadt: The Multiple Meanings of Civilisation 173

(it was only at a later stage that the development of Church institutions acquired
some characteristics of state formation). But there are also cases best described
in terms of a plurality of political centres. A very peculiar constellation devel-
oped in ancient Greece. There is no doubt about the centrality of the polis, but
it appears in a twofold capacity. Its institutions and the social power embodied
in them represent a dynamic of state formation, albeit very different from the
later European one; but as a political community, the polis limited the scope for
a separate centre, and this helps to explain the recurrent view that ancient Greece
was a civilisation of stateless societies. The autonomy of the political commu-
nity could take various forms: a collective identity that subsumes the emerging
statehood without acknowledging any institutional distance (‘the Athenians’ as
a label for the Athenian polis), an ability to problematise existing orders and
envisage alternative ones, but also a destructive turn toward internal conflict and
breakdown of order. And even the briefest summary of the Greek experience
would be incomplete without a reference to the phenomenon of tyranny, at least
in some cases conducive to state-building policies.
From a comparative perspective, and with particular emphasis on develop-
ments in the wake of the Axial Age, these reflections suggest two complemen-
tary lines of analysis: there are divergent patterns shaping the relationship of
states to other centres, and divergent paths taken by state formation. Among the
civilisations building on axial legacies, China stands out as the most precocious
example of intensive state formation, reaching unequalled levels in the period of
the Warring States (from the early fifth to the late third century BCE) and then
taking a uniquely durable imperial turn. For a long time afterwards, the Chinese
form of statehood was ahead of European ones in crucial respects (Wong 1997).
The European path was a relatively late development that proved exceptionally
sustainable across crises and transitions. In more concrete terms, the specific
features of this trajectory – the process analysed by Elias – include a particular
focus on the mutual reinforcement of military and economic foundations, a
growing ability to broaden and diversify the mobilisation of resources, and a
sequence of markedly different institutional frameworks, from the early medi-
eval dynastic kingdom with strong sacral claims to the more or less democra-
tised nation-state with its transposed version of sacral meaning.
Some clarifying comments on the concept of the state will be needed to
put this field of comparative research into proper focus. It is, I think, gener-
ally accepted that Elias’s conception of state formation historicises Max We-
ber’s equation of the state with the possession of a monopoly on legitimate
violence within a given territory. For Elias, the monopoly must be understood
as a gradual result of long-drawn-out processes. But in addition to the his-
toricising turn, there is at least an incipient change to Weber’s model on an-
other level. Each of the components mentioned by Weber can be diversified,
and Elias took a major step in this direction when he insisted on the interde-
pendence of violence and taxation (later referred to as the coercion-extraction
174 Johann P. Arnason

cycle by Finer 1997). As for territory, it can be demarcated in varying ways

(borders and frontiers are drawn differently in different historical settings),
and the very meaning of the territorial basis varies too (it does not have the
same connotations in a dynastic empire as in a nation-state). Variations in the
exercise of territorial power should also be noted: the focus can be on close
involvement on local levels, control over selected strategic points, or on the
maintenance of overall borders. An example that comes to mind is the com-
plex combination through which the early modern Tokugawa regime in Japan
secured its unchallenged rule over the archipelago. The normative framework
of control is another source of variations. The state can assume the role of a
comprehensive legislator, but it can also rely on extra-legal conventions as well
as local traditions and authorities with autonomous jurisdiction; this is for
one thing, an important theme for the comparative study of empires. Finally,
the Weberian notion of legitimate domination raises problems that are per-
haps best explained in relation to the particular case of traditional legitimacy.
Whenever Weber proposes a general definition of this type, he tends to stress
the unreflected acceptance of customary authority as such. This approach ob-
scures a crucial point: different traditions define power in different ways and
develop correspondingly diverse modes of legitimation. In that regard, the
varying forms and levels of sacralisation are of key importance (for example,
the exceptional longevity of sacral rulership in China merits more attention in
comparative studies than it has hitherto received). This issue is unduly side-
lined in Weber’s work, and a closer analysis of its ramifications raises questions
about the very notion of legitimacy. There are significant contrasts between
situations where the power centre is an unquestionable part of a given order
(sacred kingship in ancient Egypt appears to have been of that kind), a theme
of discourses on its fit and proper conduct (as in the mainstream of the Chi-
nese tradition), or a force in need of justification against possible and to some
extent articulate doubts (that may be described as a distinctively modern con-
stellation). It is at least debatable whether the concept of legitimacy should be
used without regard to these differences.
All the above mentioned Weberian themes invite discussion, but here I
cannot take matters further. It remains to conclude with a summary of the
emerging agenda for comparative civilisational approaches to state formation.
The first step is to treat the relationship between the state and other centres as
a variable pattern, open to very different trends in specific civilisational set-
tings. The multiple aspects of the state, as outlined by Weber, suggest further
lines of differentiation, with at least a plausible connection to civilisational
frameworks. Starting-points as well as successive contexts of state formation
affect its long-term trajectories, and they also differ markedly from one civili-
sational domain to another; in that perspective, we can note the exceptionally
cumulative character of Western European state formation and acknowledge
the strengths of Elias’s approach, however partial it may seem in light of more
Elias and Eisenstadt: The Multiple Meanings of Civilisation 175

advanced historical knowledge. It is not being suggested that a broadened

comparative framework, drawing on Eisenstadt’s ideas while revising some of
his arguments, would eliminate the dissonances between our two authors; but
it should at least enable us to make progress with integrating their insights.


This paper grew out of a talk at the Willy-Brandt-Zentrum, University of Wroclaw,

within the framework of the Norbert Elias lectures initiated by my late friend Will-
fried Spohn. I wish to thank the Willy-Brandt-Zentrum for the invitation, and Ire-
neusz Pawel Karolewski for his reminders, which ensured that a written version would


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Author Bio:
Johann P. Arnason is emeritus professor of sociology at La Trobe University, Mel-
bourne, and professor at the Faculty of Human Studies, Charles University, Prague.
His research interests focus on historical sociology, with particular emphasis on the
comparative analysis of civilisations. Recent publications include Nordic Paths to
Modernity (co-edited with Björn Wittrock), Berghahn Books 2014, and Religion and
Politics: European and Global Perspectives (co-edited with Ireneusz Pawel Karolews-
ki), Edinburgh University Press 2014.
Institutional address: Fakulta humanitních studií, Univerzita Karlova v Praze, U
Kříže 8, 15800 Praha 5, Czech Republic. E-mail: