Kristian Larsen, Pål Rykkja Gilbert (Eds.): Phenomenological Interpretations of Ancient Philosophy
2022 04 19
Phenomenological Interpretations of Ancient Philosophy
Studies in Contemporary Phenomenology, Volume 20
Kristian Larsen, Pål Rykkja Gilbert (Eds.)
Hardback €123.00 $148.00
Reviewed by: Tóth Réka (SZTE-BTK/PhD, Hungary, Szeged)
Phenomenological Interpretations of Ancient Philosophy is a collection of thirteen essays. At first glance, the title of this book may strike us as somewhat surprising. One may be forgiven for thinking that phenomenology cannot be paralleled with ancient Greek philosophy in a meaningful manner. But, after reading the studies, the reader will undoubtedly come to the conviction that these two types of philosophy have something to do with each other after all. Some phenomenologists tend to view ancient Greek philosophy as if it were the beginning of Western thought, a philosophy that can be seen as a kind of starting point that defines every new thought. According to them, exploring the thoughts of Greek philosophers—or rather just approaching them—can help us understand what the meaning of philosophy is. But it can also help us gain a better understanding of how modern philosophical systems operate — for example, what the ancient foundations of political philosophy, social philosophy, philosophy of science, or even metaphysical research are and how the former impact the latter. On the other hand, many phenomenologists merely undertook to make the ancient Greek texts understandable to the laity, so they try to give a clear description of them. Each of the phenomenological research methods mentioned above appears in the book.
It may seem quite disproportionate that the first five chapters of the book are more about Husserl and Heidegger, specifically an overview of interpretations of ancient philosophers given by these two philosophers. Other chapters contain the approaches of lesser-known or more modern philosophers — the overarching aim of the editors seems to have been to provide an overview of the phenomenological approaches of antiquity. It is important to have insight into this subject, and so far we have not read many books that have dealt with how phenomenology in general could relate to Greek philosophy.
Husserl’s main questions—namely, how to understand the connection between our experience and the world itself, and how to treat science and naturalism—have also raised new questions for later phenomenologists. At the same time, these thinkers were also greatly influenced by Heidegger, especially the way he approached ancient Greek philosophy. Therefore, the work of Arendt, Gadamer, Derrida or other modern philosophers cannot really be interpreted without Heidegger and Husserl.
The first chapter deals with Husserl’s relationship to the Stoics. Within this, Husserl’s interpretation of the term „lecton” is explored by the authors who later turn to Heidegger’s interpretation. In addition to Heidegger’s relationship with Aristotle and Presocratics, they are also talking about the German philosopher’s relationship with the Nazi regime, as this seems inevitable in the present case.
Husserl argued that although the foundations of Western philosophy come from the views of the Greeks, modern philosophers often do not represent the original Greek views, but these ideas are reshaped, rethought or embedded in social philosophy, ethics or other subject areas of philosophy. According to the authors of this book, Husserl believes that Greek philosophy – of course only in its original form – could help diagnose the so-called diseases of contemporary philosophy (3): it is true that it speaks of diseases that often seem to stem from the problems articulated by Greek philosophers themselves. Husserl has a different attitude towards the Greeks than Heidegger — he is generally considered as an ahistorical thinker, but of course this is only partly true. For some reason, however, his opinion of the Greeks have not proven to be nearly as influential as Heidegger’s interpretations. Nevertheless, the editors of the book thought it worthwhile to review Husserl’s ancient philosophical reflections, so we also make a few comments about these ideas based on the book’s introductory explanations.
According to Husserl, not only Plato and Socrates are pioneers of Western philosophy, but Descartes can also be considered a forerunner of modern philosophical methods. So there are actually three pioneers in philosophy and science. Husserl thinks that Descartes can be considered the second forerunner because his response to skepticism is so relevant that it cannot be ignored (6). According to Husserl, despite Plato’s rigor, he failed to overcome skepticism. But Descartes had the same goal as Plato: to deny radical skepticism. According to Husserl, however, Descartes differed from his predecessors in that he tried to explore subjectivity in a scientific way.
Embarking on this path, Descartes wanted to develop an apodictic theory that could not be overturned by any skepticism — thus reaching an ego that, in spite of all other doubts, could not doubt itself. In doing so, he proved an unwitting pioneer of phenomenology, in that he initiates a transcendental turn in philosophy. This is why the authors may think that it is essential to talk about Descartes in a volume that explores the relationship between phenomenology and the Greeks (8). We could also say that Descartes reinterpreted the Greeks and that is why Husserl thinks that modern philosophy begins with the former. According to Descartes, the soul is the first axiom to be considered certain, and from which our knowledge of the world can be derived. However, Husserl thinks Descartes did not take into account the fact that subjectivity also limits the notion of truth.
The authors of the book hold that Husserl—just like Heidegger—deserved more chapters in the volume because, in addition to Heidegger, he was the one who saw this kind of fundamental crisis and this kind of motif in modern philosophy — in his last, unfinished work: Die Krisis der europäischen Wissenschaften und die transzendentale Phänomenologie (1936).
Heidegger, in his early twenties, devoted much work to the study of both Descartes and Aristotle. Together with Husserl, they had a tremendous influence on philosophers such as Arendt, Strauss, Klein, Fink, and Marcuse, to name but a few. The authors mentioned above are also included in the book, but the main focus is nonetheless on Husserl and Heidegger, so we also place more emphasis on the presentation of these two philosophers. It is also true that Heidegger himself based his late philosophy (reflections on the history of existence) on these initial researches.
In the following, I would also like to provide a closer look at each chapter. In the first five chapters we read about Husserl and Heidegger, specifically how they approach and deal with Greek traditions.
In the first chapter, we may read Claudio Majolino’s analysis of Husserl (Back to the Meanings Themselves: Husserl, Phenomenology, and the Stoic Doctrine of the Lekton), in which he raises questions as to why Husserl, unlike other phenomenologists, praises the Stoics for their insight. Majolino also attempts to find an answer to the question how Sartre and Deleuze might have thought that Husserl’s interpretation of „noēma” could be paralleled with the „lecton” (meaning of a proposition) of the Stoics. According to the author, none of Husserl’s writings explicitly mentions that the two concepts can be set in parallel. It is simply believed that Husserl combines the two concepts because of structural similarities. Sartre, according to Majolino, draws quite provocative conclusions: the former claims that in his statement about „noēma”, Husserl betrayed his most basic phenomenological claim or discovery: the intentionality of consciousness. This is how Sartre’s judgment sounds:
Husserl defines consciousness precisely as transcendence. This is his essential discovery. But from the moment he makes the noēma unreal, and the noesis correlation correlate of the noēsis, he is totally unfaithful to his principle. (Sartre 1943, 61).
The author then decides to analyze in detail Sartre’s and Deleuze’s thoughts on the concept of lecton. He then notes the distinction between them: Deleuze does not interpret it as a strange physical or spiritual entity like Sartre (33). Majolino performs a fairly precise analysis. We can then learn that although Deleuze refers to some passages from Husserl’s text, it is interesting that in these Husserl himself does not mention the lecton anywhere the noēma appears. So Majolino does not draw a parallel between the two either.
Sartre and Deleuze sought to reconcile Stoic philosophy with phenomenology—especially Husserl’s phenomenology. In retrospect, this seems like a rather difficult undertaking, and the complexity of this task is presented to us by Majolino in convincing detail. He shows that Sartre neglected the propositional nature of „lekta” and confused „noēma” with „ennoēma” (36)—while Deleuze confused the two interpretations of the senses, using them once in a semantic sense and another in a transcendental sense. One of the main questions of the author is then, why does Husserl mention the term lecton so many times and why does he hold the stoic concept to be of such significance? In this study, we see an analysis that is often neglected by philosophers when researching the connections between phenomenology and ancient philosophy. In addition, Majolino helps clarify some unclear concepts about Husserl’s philosophy. The author discusses in detail what the actual significance of the lecton is for Husserl, and also what kind of correlation can be observed between the lecton, the Husserlian conception and formal ontology. After these analyzes, he also discusses how we can derive phenomenology from the Stoics.
The second chapter is composed of Thomas Schwarz Wentzer’s study of Aristotle’s anthropological-political interpretations (Speaking Being: Heidegger’s Aristotle and the Problem of Anthropology). The main purpose of this study is to answer certain philosophical-anthropological questions. In this chapter, the author discusses the question of why Heidegger was so committed to Aristotle and how Greek philosophy in general oriented Heidegger’s way of thinking. This chapter is about how, according to the author, Heidegger related to his predecessor, who takes the same hermeneutical approach to the human question as he does — in particular in De Anima, the Nicomachean Ethics, the Rhetoric, and the Politics. According to Max Scheler, man is characterized by indeterminacy. However, Heidegger finds his way with the help of Aristotle to build his phenomenological anthropology.
In the third chapter, Pål Rykkja Gilbert talks about Heidegger’s interpretation of Aristotle, specifically those dedicated to the latter’s ethics (Virtue and Authenticity: Heidegger’s Interpretation of Aristotle’s Ethical Concepts). It is well known that Heidegger devoted much time to understanding Aristotle in his first works. It is generally accepted that phronesis is one of the most important concepts in Being and Time. In this chapter, the author first examines some of Heidegger’s passages, those that relate primarily to Aristotle’s ethics, especially the concepts of „phronesis” and „prohairesis”. The author firstly tries to lay out the background of how Heidegger approaches these works and concepts of Aristotle. Secondly, he attempts to compare Heidegger’s interpretation with other, more conventional Aristotelian analyses. Thirdly, he also strives to answer the question of whether Heidegger “ontologizes” Aristotle’s ethical project. To this he replies that it is incorrect to say that the Aristotelian concepts were transformed into Heidegger’s „Ontological” concepts. The author approaches the problem mainly on the basis of parts of the Nicomachean Etics and De Anima, displaying excellent knowledge of these Aristotelian works. Gilbert identifies one thing as the main concept of Aristotle: the concept of prohairesis. According to him, an understanding of prohairesis is an essential part of understanding the Aristotelian phronesis and, in general, what he claimed about virtues.
We can read Charlotta Weigelt’s study of Heidegger’s thoughts relating to the Platonic concept of truth in the fourth chapter (An “Obscure” Phenomenology? Heidegger, Plato, and the Philosopher’s Struggle for the Truth of Appearance). The author bases her analysis on the 1930s lecture text: On the Essence of Truth: Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and “Theaetetus” from 1931/2 (GA 34). According to Weigelt, Heidegger completely rethought the cave analogy and at the same time had a great influence on transcendental phenomenological research. Weigelt, following Heidegger, analyzes the cave analogy in four parts (139). According to the author, Heidegger treats the concepts of truth and appearance here as phenomenological concepts. It would also be important to discuss these issues because, in general, Heidegger’s reading of Plato is divisive among historians of philosophy. The author argues that Heidegger saw Plato (as most philosophers) through the lens of Aristotle and that is why he does not pay much attention to Plato’s dramatic contexts and Socrates, but merely analyzes Platonic works literally. But of course sometimes we have to ignore these while reading Heidegger, because in the meantime he says important things about the Platonic concept of ideas. The author bases her findings mainly on Metaphysics, Physics and The Sophist.
In the fifth chapter, Hans Rubin explains Heidegger’s notion of „moira” among others (A Strange Fate: Heidegger and the Greek Inheritance). The author conducts his analysis based on what was said during the Parmenides courses. He admits that this series of lectures adds a much to Heidegger’s notions of „destiny”, „fate”, and „the destinal”, and he thinks it can answer us a lot about why Heidegger drew so much from Greek philosophy (163). These two concepts, namely „fate” and „destiny”, are strongly interlinked, according to the author, to Heidegger’s political philosophy, and more specifically to his nationalist sympathies. But how can all this be connected with the thinking of Parmenides? In the fifth chapter, we get interesting answers to this question and, among other things, how the concepts of „fate” and „destiny” („moira” and „meiromai”) can be related to our modern globalized world today. The author conducts a very thorough examination, uses certain parts of Homer’s Iliad, Plato’s notion of moira, and is very critical of Heidegger’s late works.
We again read a study related to Plato in the sixth chapter (Dialectic as a Way of Life: Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Interpretation of Plato). In this section, Morten S. Thaning conducts research on Gadamer’s analysis of Plato. He wants to find out how Gadamer approached the Platonic dialectic. According to Thaning, Gadamer’s aim in analyzing Plato’s dialectics is, on the one hand, to shed light on significant elements of Aristotle’s critique of Plato. On the other hand, the author not only researches Gadamer in this respect, but also asks on what Heidegger might have based the idea that Plato was a forerunner of the Western metaphysical tradition. It also turns out that Gadamer was passionate about the Platonic method, and that he thought Plato should be interpreted as a practice of philosophy in the Socratic sense (182). In addition, the chapter also discusses how Gadamer’s theory of dialectics can be described. Moreover, we can see an interesting subchapter in which the author seeks to figure out how Socrates’s self-confessed ignorance (Nichtwissen) reshapes the Platonic concept of knowledge and the relationship between dialectics and knowledge (179). But the main question is what is the essence of philosophy in the Socratic sense and how is the dialectic of Socrates is related to the hermeneutical experience in the Gadamerian sense? According to the author, Gadamer has an excellent grasp of the language of Plato’s dialogues, and for this reason he thinks we should examine the concept of Platonic knowledge together with the dialectical language itself and understand one through the other.
An interpretation of Plato follows in the seventh chapter (Counting (on) Being: On Jacob Klein’s Return to Platonic Dialectic). In this section, the author, Kristian Larsen delves again into the topic of dialectics. He tries to summarize and rather rethink Jakob Klein’s interpretation, which deals with Platonic dialectics as a method. According to Jens, modernity, as a kind of second Platonic cave, alienates us from ourselves and the world (203). Larsen finds a good basis for this idea in Jakob Klein’s thoughts on the distinction between ancient and modern science and philosophy. The main purpose of this study is to show and thoroughly delineate these differences. In addition to this, he also discusses in this study how Klein’s distinctions (ancient and modern science) resemble or differ from the views held by Heidegger and Leo Strauss. Comparing these three thinkers, the author concludes that Klein is essentially in agreement with Heidegger and Husserl, for all three hold, because of the anxiety and alienation in modernity, that it is the duty of Western philosophy to return to the Greeks. A significant part of the terms used by the Greeks have been radically reinterpreted (and misunderstood) in the modern age. The author links his research to this position. He argues that Klein and Strauss have many points in common about the relationship between modernity and Greek philosophy and also shows these common points in his study. We have to think here about modern (especially late-modern) philosophy. The practical usefulness of the study may also be to try to answer questions such as: how can we deal with our prejudices against capitalist societies and transform our overarching sense of alienation from modern society?
In the eighth chapter, Husserl’s analysis takes center stage once more (Phenomenology and Ancient Greek Philosophy: Methodological Protocols and One Specimen of Interpretation). Burt Hopkins analyzes Husserl’s concept of intentionality through the research of Jakob Klein. Hopkins examines Klein’s analyzes in which he discusses the differences between the Greek ontology and the Cartesian sciences. The author pays special attention to Greek works in this study, but primarily analyzes one of Klein’s 1936 studies entitled “Die griechische Logistik und die Entstehung der Algebra” (Klein 1934, 18−105). In addition to examining Klein’s interpretations (including the study of the concept of „arithmos”), the author also provides an in-depth analysis of Husserl’s concept of intentionality. In addition, we can see a detailed textual analysis of that section of Plato’s The Sophist, aporia of „Being” („einai”), and parts of Theaetetus, and, as a matter of fact, he also looks critically at the studies published on these works. Hopkins’s study primarily requires a detailed examination of the concepts of „Whole” („holon”), „All”(„pan”), and „All of something” („panta”).
In the ninth chapter, we can read Jussi Backman’s study of Hannah Arendt (The (Meta)politics of Thinking: On Arendt and the Greeks). The philosopher examines Arendt in terms of how she approached ancient Greek philosophy. According to Arendt, the roots of twentieth-century totalitarian regimes go back to ancient Greek philosophical theories, so perhaps we can get obtain a solution to these social problems through the Greeks as well. Arendt’s attitude towards the Greeks can be seen primarily through one of her main works, The Human Condition (1958). In this text, she writes, among others, that Plato’s political philosophy has been transformed. Arendt was discovered in Plato’s mind the phenomena that make philosophy „disgusting” and thus left a mark on the whole tradition of politics. That was „the political turn” according to her, the philosopher returned to the cave and brought rules alien to the laws of human cohabitation for the inhabitants of the cave. It seems that nowadays we interpret the thoughts of the founder of Western philosophy as if it were some kind of tool that would enable us to achieve a higher goal. The author also mentions Arendt’s Life of the Mind (1977−8), in which the philosopher explains how harmless Greek terms (such as the term “fear”) were born thousands of years later than other terms such as “judgment.” The author believes that Arendt explored very precisely the connection between the “thinking” and the “action” of the study of antiquities. He also draws attention to the gap between the two (Arendt uses the terms „vita contemplativa” for the former and „vita activa” for the latter.) The author considers Arendt’s work to be hermeneutics on the one hand (265), because he thinks she tries to interpret our contemporary modes of thinking. On the other hand, it is also very phenomenological, in the sense that it seeks to trace the Greek tradition back to the initial (Greek) experiences from which they emerged.
Vigdis Songe-Møller presents Eugen Fink’s study of Heraclitus and Heidegger in the tenth chapter (Heraclitus’ Cosmology: Eugen Fink’s Interpretation in Dialogue with Martin Heidegger). The chapter revolves around a question that intrigued both Heidegger and Fink: what is the relation between „hen”, „One”, and „ta panta”, „All things”, in Heraclitus’ thinking? According to Fink, this question and the relationship between the two can be explored by examining the cosmology of Heraclitus. The author notes the great similarity between the cosmology of Fink and the Greek philosopher, and explores this similarity in her study, mainly in confrontation with Husserl and Heidegger. Of course, Fink essentially follows Heidegger in his approach to the Greeks and uses his tools in many ways, but he shows uniqueness in his analysis of Heraclitus. The main difference is that „Fink is able to confirm an interpretation of the relation between hen and panta that Heidegger from the very beginning had been critical of.” (300) In order to show the differences, the author presents Fink’s cosmological ideas in detail.
In the subsequent study, Filip Karfik analyzes Jan Patočka’s interpretation of Plato on the soul (Jan Patočka on Plato’s Conception of the Soul as Self-Motion). Patočka argues that the idea of being as „self-moving” can help to understand the whole Platonic philosophy, of which the soul is central. Karfik discovers an interesting paradox by Patočka in his research on the philosophy of the soul. Patočka, according to Karfik, summarizes the whole spirit of Platonic philosophy and provides us with convincing arguments. The author also investigates the phenomenological background of Patočka’s own philosophy and he also attempts to uncover the question of what self-movement has to do with self-determination, based on a reading of Patočka philosophy.
The last two chapters show us how the Presocratic philosophers and Plato influenced the philosophies of Lévinas and Derrida. In the twelfth chapter (Elemental Embodiment: From the Presocratics to Levinas via Plato), the relationship between Plato and Lévinas is examined from a phenomenological perspective by the authors, Tanja Staehler and Alexander Kozin. They investigating this topic because they suggest that the value of Plato’s contribution can best be best uncovered by applying a phenomenological perspective. In general, the authors tend to discuss the differences between Plato and Lévinas, such as how their views on “love” differ. This was investigated by Sarah Allen whose research is thoroughly analyzed by the authors of the study. But the differences were also examined, for example, by Wendy Hamblet, who saw the difference between the two in his conception of the concept of truth. In the present case, however, Staehler and Kozin prefer to emphasize commonalities by focusing on the complex phenomena under discussion. The study is based on an analysis of two key concepts: “eros” and “zōion“.
And last but not least, in the thirteenth study, Derrida’s complex reading of Plato’s Phaedrus is analyzed in detail by Arnaud Macé (Outside the Walls with Phaedrus: Derrida and the Art of Reading Plato). Derrida considers one of his most important own thoughts to be, following Plato’s lead, the view that philosophy cannot be practiced through writing alone (348). According to Macé, Derrida engages in a special reading of Plato, which is called “harmonic,” a term often used by the phenomenologically-influenced postmodern philosopher. According to Macé, the Platonic dialogues are far different from other philosophical writings because of their hidden structural elements, and Derrida collects these elements precisely. Derrida sees the connection between these elements in the term „pharmakon”, a concept with a rich polysemy — „Remedy”, „Poison”, „Drug”, to name a few of its principal meanings. By reading Derrida, we can learn about the non-philosophical elements of Plato that he places in a philosophical context for his own deconstructivist reasons.
In this book we read about the confrontation of many notable authors with Greeks. In addition, it should be mentioned that these authors all seem to have singled out terms from an ancient Greek philosopher that can, arguably, describe the entire oeuvre of a given philosopher. Such was the case with Husserl and Heidegger, among others, who are absolute pioneers in the subject, which is why they were understandably given a bigger role in this book. It is interesting to mention that, although Heidegger’s hermeneutical phenomenology is fundamentally different from Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology, we can still discover some similarities between them. One such similarity can be seen, for example, between Husserl’s reflection on traditions and the crisis of European philosophy of science and Heidegger’s notion of „nihilism” and „oblivion”. At the same time, it seems that Heidegger’s interest in antiquity and Husserl’s philosophy also had a great influence on Arendt, Gadamer, Derrida, Lévinas, Fink, and so on. None of the latter can be interpreted effectively without the philosophy of the former two. Every study composing this book is situated in the context of modern problems, which can go a long way toward clarifying our current situation, deepening our understanding of the contemporary problems we face.
Klein, J. 1934. Die griechische Logistik und die Entstehung der Algebra. Berlin: Verlagsbuchhandlung Julius Springer.
Sartre, J.−P. 1943. Being and Nothingness. An Essay in Phenomenological Ontology. Oxfordshire: Routledge.
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