R. Winkler, Philosophy of finitude Bosseau Denis C; Archiving of XML in sdvig press database Open Commons October 24, 2019, 10:02 pm
1With the publication of the Philosophy of Finitude: Heidegger, Levinas and Nietzsche, Rafael Winkler embarks on a much needed contemporary re-evaluation of the human cogito beyond a traditional Cartesian and Kantian framework of analysis in which what is own-most to human experience, its uniqueness, must be understood beyond the limits of the ‘I think’ of the first person as the necessary condition and foundation of possible experience. On a walk of thought that is, at least for this reviewer, echoing a problem poetically explored by Paul Celan’s Gespräch im Gebirg1, the present book is concerned with the existential movement from one’s being to one’s self; a passage seemingly accomplished on the horizon of a fundamental absence. This absence is that of the unified self and the sense of ownership one may often take for granted regarding one’s uniqueness as conveyed by the human cogito, the cardinal ‘I’ of the first person which is commonly thought to accompany all possible human experience.
2Here, we could say that ‘thought’ is directed upon the ‘one’ that does not accompany our ‘self’ in its life experiences;2 this part of what we are which is absent from the conscious mind of everyday deliberative thinking. Winkler’s analysis asks us about what happens when the seeming certainty of the Cartesian ‘I think’, as the ground of human existence, dissolves and one’s experience can no longer be thought of, or expressed as ‘mine’, my own, as if emerging from an unrecognisable other. Most importantly, one may ask how this phenomenon itself emerges. What may such an experience, if at all possible, tell us about what we are?
3As the reader discovers early on in the pages of the first chapter, Winkler invites us to consider the figure of the schizophrenic as an example to shed light on this existential problem in concrete terms. By turning one’s attention to the issue of dissociation or dislocation of the self, what is posed as a problem here is not the discovery of the unique as a singular entity or what is own-most to Man as an essence or a ‘what’ which would lie behind the I of the unified self rather, the problem posed is that of the whole horizon of being as a passage which itself discloses the plenitude of what we are as human beings. It is not question of uncovering that secret chamber of the mind in which may lie the true nature of human uniqueness, who we truly are. The book generously approaches the ground of uniqueness as a passage and movement through which the anonymous language of the ‘other’ of Man, of this absolute stranger, gradually trans-forms into the language of the subject who identifies himself as an individual, a recognisable self. As such, what is at stake is then not only to see whether such an experience of the dissolution of the self is even possible, but how to talk about it. Winkler presents a philosophical attempt to bring intelligibility to the ambiguous and anonymous language of absolute difference and by this process, he also provides the reader with a highly interesting contribution to contemporary phenomenological thinking.
4Exploring the legacies of Heidegger, Levinas and Nietzsche, Winkler invites us to confront the possibility that the genuine uniqueness of human experience is prior to its formalisation under the expression of the ‘I’, which at first glance, always seem to accompany conscious thought. The bold nature of this claim is best expressed when Winkler tells us that ‘the unique is not the individual’3 but a ‘formal feature of existence’; one that is experienced as an original absence in the world and makes the emergence of the first person possible. And it is as such that a thinking of uniqueness may be approached as a thinking of absolute difference which, as he argues, calls for a thinking of finitude. But as the author carefully reminds us, the language of finitude must extend beyond the consideration of Man’s ultimate finiteness, the inescapable advent of its death. A thinking of finitude must press us to the very limits of thought, of the thinkable, as it is perhaps only when the unity of the self is dissolved and our habitual reliance on the concept, language and experience of identity is overcome, that we can really start to embrace the thought of uniqueness. Maybe it is here that lies the most enduring relevance and actuality of phenomenology; when it reminds us of the un-thought of thought as the inescapable and unremovable ‘other’ of Man where the unique really emerges. Here, it is with particular attention to the works of authors such as Derrida, Levinas, Ricœur and especially Heidegger that Winkler invites his readership to consider the unique in terms of ‘the uniqueness of being, of the self, of the other human being, of death, and of the responsibility for the other’.4
6If the general theme of the book allows for a wide variety of philosophical approaches, its overall tone and character would be best described as scholarly and aimed at a specialised audience interested in Heidegger studies more specifically. The methodology sustained in this volume is exegetical and the specialism of its author is made particularly evident by an ubiquitous focus on Heidegger’s works of the 1930s and 1940s, which at times appear to overshadow other philosophical discussions regarding the two other thinkers announced in the title of the book, namely Levinas and Nietzsche. Although the chapters are often dominated by a sustained exercise in textual interpretation of this interesting period of Heidegger’s work, it cannot be said that it diminishes the impact and relevance of the general thesis presented in the volume. In fact, Winkler’s clear interpretative competence and lucidity regarding the author of Being and Time adds a certain degree of depth to a contemporary re-thinking of finitude. However, it must be said that the title of the book may appear somehow confusing to some readers expecting more of an interpretative balance between the three major figures which the title announces. One is at times surprised to read more about Derrida and Ricœur than about Levinas and Nietzsche, more particularly as the latter’s published works are unfortunately only mentioned and discussed with greater depth in section 7 of the 5th chapter of the book. Elsewhere in the same chapter, the reader will find out more about Winkler’s interpretation of Heidegger’s Nietzsche than about Nietzsche’s own significance and original contribution to a thinking of finitude. It is perhaps only when one comes to read the introduction to the volume that one may realise that an exegetical exercise focused on Heidegger’s literature of the 1930s and 1940s is the connecting rod which holds the book together. Taking this issue into consideration, this most interesting project may be better characterised as a significant contribution to Heidegger Studies. The symptoms of this analytical posture are visible in each chapter of the book through the unmissable reliance on a Heideggerian vocabulary which non-specialists may at times struggle with in the case of a first encounter.
7The opening chapter of the book concentrates on the idea of the uniqueness of existence where the author argues that what we may call ‘existence’ in ontological terms does not emerge from the unity of the first person but from immanence of death or the responsibility for the other. From the onset, the Heideggerian focus sets the tone. This may give a hint to the reader that the use of the word ‘existence’ will from now on have to be understood in Heideggerian terms, in a way closer to the Latin ‘Ex –sistere’ denoting the idea of that which stands out of itself or of that which is ‘made to stand out and beyond’.5 Only with this prior understanding in mind will the reader feel comfortable with the term’s relation to the other notion of Dasein (being there), which is here recurrently used to explore the theme of uniqueness. Indeed, as Heidegger suggests in Being and Time, one would have to see the uniqueness of Dasein in its existence6 and thus the study of fundamental ontology will have to be found in ‘the existential analytic of Dasein’.7
8As previously mentioned in this review, future readers for whom Heidegger’s philosophy remains an unfamiliar terrain may find it difficult to get to grips with this meticulous and rich vocabulary which is not often problematized or re-evaluated in this book. That said, Winkler’s scholarly analysis does carry the message across with its clarity of phrasing and with a carefully executed argumentative development which is always impeccably introduced in all chapters; an aspect which most readers will greatly appreciate. This indeed may help the reader overcome the complexity of the Heideggerian terminology and the first chapter does succeed in bringing an interesting discussion of the dynamism or mouvance implied in the notion of ‘the uniqueness of existence’, which, as Winkler reminds us, is not to be misunderstood as implying an essence or fixed entity.
9To explore the notion of the uniqueness of existence in this important first chapter, the author argues that Heidegger and Derrida’s reflections on death may call for a radical rethinking of the sense of consciousness or experience one may usually find in previous contributions to the history of transcendental phenomenology. That is, both thinkers may be read as presenting the human relation to death as dissolving the unity of the self, and moreover, as making the argument that the relation to death and this phenomenon of estrangement is indeed a possible experience or encounter. This brings Winkler to boldly ask the reader: ‘Is Dying Possible?’8 Or in other words, can one encounter one’s own death, this ultimate finitude, this absolute absence of presence where one is no longer ‘able to be able’9? A possible answer, according to Winkler, may lie in Heidegger’s analysis of the phenomenon of being-towards-death. Through a close reading of the latter, it is suggested that finitude should not be reduced to the thought of a morbid passivity of the human animal (das Man) destined to die but should rather be thought through as the very activity which in itself calls for emergence of one’s receptivity regarding what is. The idea seems to be that, in order for something (e.g. death, finitude) to possibly be encountered, the horizon of its appearing (i.e. the phenomena) must have already been deployed. Perhaps, one could then say that the relation of the human being towards death and dying, rather than being a relation of passivity and mere resignation to fate, is a relation that is itself constitutive of Man’s own being. Hence, our relation to death, this active mode of being-towards-death can be understood as a formal or constitutive feature of existence. As such, this uniquely Human mode of being towards death is here given sense to as prior to, and constitutive of, the emergence of the first person of the ‘I think’ which will subsequently accompanies conscious experiences.
10As Winkler interestingly points out across sections 3 and 4 of this first chapter, this particular instance of a Heideggerian ‘thinking of finitude’ would suggest that Man, in its unique existence, already has a relation or encounter with death prior to being able to consciously called it ‘his’ as one would talk of ‘my death’, ‘her death’, ‘theirs’ etc. as if it were possible to be in possession of it and individually declare ownership over it. As Winkler remarks concerning Heidegger’s confrontation of the idea of one’s sense of ownership over one’s own death: ‘death is in every case mine’ but only ‘in so far as it “is” at all’.10 With diligence and clarity, Winkler at this stage understands that the discussion of this possible experience with uniqueness, in terms of the Human being’s relation to death, must be extended to the possibility of expressing this experience; of making it intelligible by giving it a voice. In that regard, he succeeds brilliantly by introducing the reader to Heidegger’s treatment of ‘anxiety’ as a mood (stimmung) which discloses this unique mode of being towards death. The uniqueness of this experience, if it indeed comes prior to the emergence of the first person, could hardly be thought as expressible conceptually through the habitual language of identity. As Winkler puts it:The unique is, strictly speaking, the unclassifiable, the unidentifiable.(…) That is why an experience of it leaves us speechless, is traumatic, is, like an event that cannot be anticipated in advance, an absolute surprise, a shock.11
11Hence, the language of the experience of the unique can only be grasped as the anonymous language of the absolute ‘other’ of Man. The conscious I of the Cartesian cogito is here absent in such an experience. The experience is one that is felt or thought in the sense of the activity of the un-thought of thought. As Winkler suggests, it is in such terms that we could better understand what Rimbaud meant when he expressed in a poetic letter to an old mentor that in the process of one’s poetic encounter with oneself, ‘I is another’ (Je est un autre). It is through this subtle approach to the problem of the possibility of one’s experience of the unique that Winkler, is at the end of the chapter, able to meet previous scepticism, as that expressed by Derrida in that regard, by arguing that the unique relation to death is possibly one that could only be encountered as an anxious anticipation and ‘a mode of being beyond mere presence’.12
12In chapter 2 titled ‘Self and Other’, Winkler brings the discussion of the uniqueness of human experience, of this ‘other’ of Man (i.e. absolute difference) deeper by arguing that the experience of uniqueness does not grant access to the uniqueness of some other human being. Here the author refers to this problem as the ‘principle of singularisation’ which finds its expression in Heidegger through the notion of the ‘immanence of death’ and as the ‘responsibility for the other’ in Ricœur and Levinas. In Winkler’s own words, the core of the argument in this part of the book is that the fundamental alterity that is interior to oneself, the unique, is ‘neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition to access the alterity of the other human being, that is, his or her uniqueness’.13 Here the author chooses to approach this problem by focusing on comparative accounts of Heidegger’s position in the period of the 1930s and 1940s with selected elements Levinas’ thesis in Time and the Other and Totality and Infinity. The chapter thus attempts to offer a new reading of Heidegger’s position which would effectively undermine the Levinassian stance which proposes that the irreducibility of the ‘alterity of the other human being’ to ‘the alterity that inhabits the self’ is ‘a necessary and sufficient condition of ethics, and by extension, of sociality’.14 With added support extracted from the more recent works of Ricœur (i.e. Oneself as Another), as well as Heideggerian scholars such as Françoise Dastur (The Call of Conscience: The Most Intimate Alterity) and François Raffoul (The Origins of Responsibility), the main concern of the author is to show that the Heideggerian perspective would bring a serious challenge to the idea that one’s uniqueness of being allows for the experience of another’s, thus destabilising all possibility of founding an ethics on such a basis.
13Although the introduction to the chapter suggests an in depth analysis and discussion of Levinas’ legacy as a thinker of finitude, one gradually realises that Levinas’ corpus will not be the subject of the same depth of engagement that is reserved for Heidegger as the cement which connects each chapters of this book. In fact, rigorous discussion of Levinas’ material is mostly limited to the first three sections before a return, for the three remaining sections of the chapter, to the more familiar domain of Heideggerian scholarship. Perhaps, we could say that the genuine originality and strength of this chapter lies less in its analysis of Levinas’ work and more in hermeneutical efforts to dissect Heidegger’s perspective from Being and Time up to the finer tuning of his positions in the 1940s. In this chapter, the reader will find the themes of ‘alterity’, ‘the call’, ‘guilt’ and ‘responsibility’ as the points of articulation of Winkler’s exegetical work. Therein, most of the other sources called upon to approach the theme of ‘self and other’ seem to serve as a fulcrum enabling the author to test the ‘workability’ of the Heideggerian system, which will ultimately be presented as getting us ‘closer to the truth’ of the matter15 while Levinas’ perspective is presented as doomed to fail as a phenomenological argument. What remains undeniable is that the originality of the argument in this chapter lies in the competency of the exegetical exercise prompted by each of the chapter’s subsections; and it may be best not to spoil the reader’s pleasure by pre-emptively dissecting each part of the chapter. That said, it would not be doing justice to the rigour and assertiveness of the voice of this book’s author if we were to abstain from providing an example of clarity with which the core of the argument is expressed in the concluding section of this chapter. There, after careful considerations of Ricœur’s thesis in Oneself as Another, Winkler asserts that:There is no phenomenological or hermeneutic justification for transposing the vertical relation that structures the interiority of the self onto the social relation between the self and the other (something that Ricœur apparently thinks we can do with good reason). In the final analysis, I know who the source of the injunction is. It is my conscience that enjoins me in the second person that I am indebted to the other. I assign myself that responsibility towards the other in the hetero- affective experience of conscience. Since it is authored and conditioned by nothing other than myself, it issues from an act of freedom.16
14Having shown us how one’s relation to death (chapter 1) and sociality (chapter 2) can, in different ways, only be accomplished as a relation with a future that is discontinuous with the present; chapters 3 and 4 attempt to bring intelligibility to the phenomenon of being as a passage, a movement towards. To do so, the third chapter considers the idea that ‘being’ is perhaps unthinkable otherwise than as a ‘figuration of someone or something’, an image formed around a potentiality or possibilities rather than an actual entity which can be truthfully seized and represented. This figurative atmosphere with which the philosopher wraps the phenomenon of the uniqueness of being could indeed be argued to be more real, that is, closer to the phenomena than the mundane representation one could formulate through the language of identity.
15In this chapter, Winkler attempts to make the phenomenon of being intelligible in these terms through two different figures of ‘hospitality’: the ‘feminine’ in Levinas and the ‘Absolute Arrivant’ in Derrida. Here once again, Heidegger comes into the picture as a key reference point to evaluate the fruitfulness of these two figurations of being proposed by Levinas and Derrida. These figures of the ‘feminine’ and the ‘absolute arrivant’ are discussed against the background of Heidegger’s notion of ‘dwelling’ which Winkler presents as inextricably linked to the notion of hospitality; especially in the latter’s literature of the 1940s.17 This argumentative strategy on the author’s part will then prepare the reader for a deeper consideration of the theme of dwelling in Heidegger in chapter 4 which explores the possibility of ‘being at home in the world’ without relying on the traditional metaphysical assumption of being as presence and the language of identity. Here, Winkler considers some of the said ‘figurations of being’ that appear in Heidegger’s reading of Hölderlin, with a particular accent on the 1934-5 lecture on Germania and the 1942 lecture on Der Ister. In these complementary chapters, Winkler sails to and fro between a variety of images of thought present in Levinas, Heidegger and Derrida in order to highlight the necessarily protean quality of the language of being. The language of figuration is an original and pertinent addition to Winkler’s analysis and one which convincingly shows that the phenomenon of being can only be rendered intelligible if it actively resists the ossification that the language of identity would bring. It is precisely because the phenomenon of ‘being’ existentially precedes the advent of the conscious ‘I’ that we cannot reduce it to a stable language, a singular point of reference, word, concept or even image. As Winkler seems to suggest in these two chapters, the uniqueness of being and its experience could best be expressed through a multiplicity of figures of passage and transition. Echoing the insights of the first chapter which posed the problem of the nature of the unique and the possibility of experiencing the uniqueness of being and absolute difference, it is here question of the possibility of talking about the experience of uniqueness and therefore the limits of its expressibility. Thus, what the philosophers of finitude tell us is that expressing the ground of the uniqueness of being might require us to think and talk about it in terms of a passage or movement between Man and its other. Never one with ourselves, it would seem that what we are, the uniqueness of our being, lies in the multiplicity of facets by which it emerges in time as an ever unique event that is always in the process of being determined.
16With the fifth chapter of this volume, Winkler announces an analysis of Nietzsche’s contribution to the philosophy of finitude which he titles ‘Beyond Truth’. At first glance, one may justifiably think that the problem of truth, which hasn’t been discussed in the book so far, presents an awkward shift from the previous discussions about the possibilities of thinking and talking about the uniqueness of being as the ‘really real’.18 In fact, the introduction to the volume only mentions Nietzsche in one brief sentence, thus leaving the reader somehow in the dark as to the possible importance of the author in Winkler’s project. From the onset, Winkler’s concern seem to lie more with how the author of Also Sprach Zarathustra has been painted in 20th century philosophy than with the latter’s enduring relevance in contemporary thought as a thinker of finitude. The aim of the chapter is thus announced: to offer ‘an alternative reading of Nietzsche to the one Heidegger and Derrida respectively provide and consider the non- metaphysical sense of being as light that is operative in Nietzsche’s text’.19 These two authoritative readings of Nietzsche Winkler seeks to overcome are described as such: ‘Nietzsche, the metaphysician of the will to power and the eternal return’ whose main proponent is Heidegger, and ‘Nietzsche, the sceptic, the iconoclast and the destroyer of metaphysical systems and ideas’ which Winkler perceives in Derrida’s treatment. These two categorisations are, to say the least, rather broad and do little to tell the reader how they may come to be antithetical in the first place. However, as the chapter develops, one is able to see the main trajectory of the author unfold with greater clarity: to dress a portrait of Nietzsche and Heidegger as thinkers of the ‘limit’ of Metaphysics. What this ‘limit’ – in the singular – is, however, remains unclear and underdeveloped within the chapter as the analysis therein privileges a textual interpretation of Heidegger’s 1930s and 1940s reading of Nietzsche’s late notebooks and posthumously crafted Will to Power. That said, the chapter offers its strongest arguments in the last three sections where Winkler’s own reading of Nietzsche emerges and where selected parts of the latter’s late published works are analysed. Here, the strength of the chapter lies less in the analysis of Heidegger’s Nietzsche and the critique of the ‘will to truth’, than in Winkler’s exploration of the physiological dimension of Nietzsche’s thought of finitude through a discussion of the latter’s attempt at a philosophy of self-overcoming which would assert as its condition of possibility, the ‘forgottenness of being’.20 This is perhaps the more pertinent element of the analysis in relation to the book as a comprehensive whole as it links Nietzsche’s late work to previous discussions of European thought’s attempt to overcome traditional metaphysics’ reliance on the language of identity and being as presence which had been dominant since Plato.
17Finally, in its sixth and final chapter, the book offers what may be its most original contribution with an interesting philological approach to the language of substance and the peculiarity of its philosophical uses in Roman literature (1st Century BC – 4th Century AD) – with a particular focus on Cicero and Seneca. This tactful exploration of the language of substance allows Winkler to bring back the discussion to the problem of the uniqueness of being as substantia without its traditional metaphysical amalgamation with the language of determinable identity and entity. This is a brilliant move on Winkler’s part and an original way to close the volume. Indeed, this brings to the author the possibility to present a strong argument regarding the need for philosophy to adopt a plastic, supple attitude towards the language of being via metaphorical language or what Nietzsche would call the importance of learning to ‘think in images’. The chapter thus comes to strengthen what was previously argued in Chapter 3 wherein ‘being’ is presented as ‘unthinkable except as a figuration of something or someone, that is, as a figure in which the force of the distinction between the who and the what is suspended’.21 In the pages of this chapter, the reader is invited to re-think the relevance of previously discussed authors such as Derrida and Levinas whose figures of the ‘absolute Arrivant’ and the ‘Feminine’ could now be read anew as examples among a multitude of possible simulacra for the experience of the ‘really real’ or the uniqueness of being which Winkler has attempted to make intelligible in this interesting project. With this return to the problem of possible figurations of being, the reader is now better equipped to consider the unique as the differential element grounding all discursive representations in Human experience and to ponder upon the significance of such claims. The last chapter of the book ultimately reminds us of the enduring relevance of phenomenological inquiry for contemporary philosophy. However, it is perhaps because of the highly relevant nature of the topic explored here that a more fastidious reader may wonder what could have been or could be if the author wondered away from Heidegger’s gravitational pull and turned his attention to more secondary, yet key, philosophical sources such as Deleuze’s influential analysis of ‘Différence’ as found in Différence et Répétition or indeed Michel Guerin’s ‘Figurologie’ as it appears in La Terreur et La Pitié, among others.
19Overall, with the publication of Philosophy of Finitude, Rafael Winkler offers a highly relevant and insightful analysis of key figures who have effectively shaped the way contemporary philosophy explores the problem of the unique and the ‘other’ of Man. However, the very manner in which the philosophical investigation is here conducted could have benefited from a greater degree of reflexive engagement. One could here think that the predominantly exegetical nature of the exercise, if left unquestioned by the inquirer, could mask a non-negligible issue which today often seems to mark philosophical practice. Indeed, each time that we meticulously dig within the depth of such authors’ corpus and translate their work into our professional philosophical agenda, we do what is required, but as Ansell-Pearson and Hatab have pointed out, in doing so we perhaps also ‘bring to ruin something special and vital. … It seems we must “murder to dissect”’.22 But what does it mean? And what is the nature of the risk? This problem extends far beyond the present book and is not specifically directed at it but to all of us who engage in philosophical research today.
20William Wordsworth once tried to bring this issue to our attention in his beautiful poem the Tables Turned (1798) in which he suggested that all too often in our appreciation and at times scientific exploration of literature, ‘Our meddling intellect --- Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things; – We murder to dissect’. And indeed, this warning was not left unheeding by two of the key figures considered in the present volume. Namely, Nietzsche and Heidegger for whom our search for knowledge should resist being turned into an autopsy by which the inquirer is compelled to cut and dig within the entrails of the author’s corpus in order to bring to the light of the microscope elements of clarity concerning the ‘workability’ and soundness of the thought presented therein. Yet again, it will be argued that it often must be done in order to encounter the author, to find him or her and ‘understand’ the material. But can this only be achieved by means of analytical vivisection, by having blood on our hands? A difficult question to answer, without a doubt; but one that should not escape the contemporary philosopher’s scrutiny. As Heidegger himself noted, being no stranger to the complexity of this issue which Nietzsche’s works would have brought to his mind: ‘(…) in order to encounter [the author’s] thought, one must first find it’.23 And as both he and Nietzsche remarked,24 the task of the philosopher as well as that of the respectful and agile reader is not to re-cognise signs, ideas and fragments within the corpus of the author, but rather to encounter the thought of the author; and from this vivid encounter, to find the other’s thought only in order to lose it. Thus, opening ourselves to the possibility of thinking differently, of creating new images of thought and thereby even bring new life to a contemporary thought of finitude. But losing the thought of the author that inspires us does not mean discarding or leaving it behind as one would dispose of an inanimate object of inquiry. Rather, it implies leaving the thought of the author alive, to rest in its own enigmatic place awaiting future encounters from which could spring new thought, new possibilities of life. Here, the tact and obvious respect Winkler demonstrates with regards to the authors analysed in this book only too clearly suggest that such a path of thought has a place within contemporary academic writing; but it may also show that it could be pursued with a greater degree of intensity if it is to become ever more fruitful in the future.