Tag Archives: phenomenology

The Need for Oratory Skills in the Digital Age. A Phenomenological Approach to Teaching Speech Today

In the midst of modern digital, social, and visual media communication it may seem out of place and out of date to look for guiding principles among ancient rhetoricians like Aristotle and Cicero: how could they possibly help today’s students cope with the challenges of modern communication? They do not seem to have written much about how to obtain “likes” or followers on social media. At least, not directly; however, they did write quite extensively about how to relate to an audience, how to adapt to a situation, how to appear trustworthy and convincing, how to make a point clear and memorable, and how to gain influence and defend oneself in the courtroom and in society. And they were quite aware that a good rhetorician had to keep an eye on changing conditions and contexts, and adapt to the situation. Perhaps some of their profound insights might even prove useful for coping with the political rhetoric on Twitter today. So, classical rhetoric may still be of some value to the modern student, not just providing critical and analytical academic tools for looking at the texts and performances of others in today’s media, but also inspiring active and personal skills in various upcoming genres of speech and oratory.

Speaking unmediated in front of a large audience at the town square—like Cicero at the Forum Romanum—now seems to be a very exceptional case. It is still possible to go to London, get up on a box and practice one’s rhetorical skills at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, and on Sundays there might even be a few sober passersby who will stop and listen for a while. I have myself, as part of my work at Roskilde University in Denmark, led a number of field trips to Speaker’s Corner and instructed many students about how to deal with this speaking challenge, and it has been quite a learning experience, but of course a little out of the ordinary (Juel, 2005; Carlsen & Juel, 2007, 2009) . However, more relevant for today’s students are be occasions like oral exams, paper presentations at a conference, defending a thesis, going to a job interview, presenting a project idea, chairing a meeting or a discussion within an organization, inspiring a cultural event, taking on ceremonial speeches within the family, pitching one’s own academic résumé in an elevator, or being interviewed as an expert on live TV about a subject within one’s own academic field. These are typical situations of today requiring rhetorical skills and competences in live speaking. But how, when, and where do the students of today learn about this? Writing essays and reports without ever practicing the use of voice and body, or how to pitch in live situations, is not the best way to prepare for this—nor the best way to turn students into active citizens in democratic societies. However, at most universities, guidelines on writing serve as the students’ main or only preparation for all genres of future rhetorical challenges.

In the following I shall argue for the relevance of teaching rhetorical actio (live performance) more directly and efficiently, and I want to encourage a phenomenological approach and point out the didactic benefits of a collaborative, corporeal, and visually oriented perspective on speech and oratory.

Orality makes a comeback

The development of modern media presents a potential overcoming of distances in time and space. We can now swiftly exchange messages and often even see and hear each other despite any physical distance. This actually means a sort of renaissance for live or almost-live face-to-face communication and orality. As early as 1982, Walter J. Ong remarked in his Orality and Literacy – The Technologizing of the Word that radio, television and telephone are technologies belonging to “the age of secondary orality” (Ong, 2002:167). Traditional norms and forms of writing culture are challenged: the short phrases of oral speech and everyday conversations leave their mark on digital messages such as political comments on Twitter; mimics and gestures pop up as icons, smileys and emoticons; the presence and dynamics of the personal meeting are mimicked by the camera movements and montage of filmic media (video and television, digital games and virtual reality).

Within the Western (if not global) educational and academic world, however, the norms of literacy are still very dominant. Many courses and guidelines are offered when it comes to writing papers and essays, and hardly any student emerges from the system without having received plenty of severe criticism and suggestions for better writing, including layout and punctuation. But, at the same time, most university students go through bachelor, master, and even Ph.D. programs without ever receiving the slightest advice about how to orally present themselves, their academic subject, or a case of public or scientific interest.

Students may have learned a lot about correct grammar and the proper use of commas, but they have never been taught or advised how to use their own voice or their own gestures, or how to stand or move in front of an audience, or where to look. In fact, many students—and quite a few of my senior university colleagues—admit that just imagining standing up alone on the floor in front of an attentive audience presents a very scary scenario. And even worse so, if they imagine having forgotten their manuscript, or being unable to read from a paper or find support in a PowerPoint screen.

In my rhetoric workshops at Roskilde University and elsewhere, students often tell me about how awkward they feel when they have to stand up and talk to an audience: they don’t know what to do with their hands, where to look, they become self-conscious in a self-destructive way, and they don’t know how to express themselves. However, if I ask the same students to interview each other in pairs for about 10 minutes, they soon engage in long and lively conversations and narratives using both gestures, mimics, dynamic voices, and they are attentive and interact with their one listener. So, to put it roughly: the problem is not that students are incapable of communicating orally, but that they are not used to and afraid of doing it in more formal and demanding situations where they have to speak to a larger audience and not just a few friends.

Reading from a manuscript might be all right in a university’s lecture hall—especially if the lecturer knows the art of staying in touch with the audience while speaking in a lively and varied manner—almost as if there were no manuscript on the lectern. But reading from a manuscript does not work well in many of the aforementioned modern rhetorical situations, like a job interview or a family gathering. Here we value something different, namely, the personal presence, the eye contact, the freshness of formulations, the intonations and responses adapted to the situation, the audience and the actual unfolding of events. We do not want to know or read the manuscript from last year, we want to experience—here and now—the visions, ideas and stories owned and presented by an actual person.

Challenging the preconceptions of writing culture

What I dare to call the preconceptions and even the heavy burdens of writing culture become evident when I ask students in a class on rhetoric to prepare a small speech on a given topic (e.g. “your favorite hobby,” or “a travel experience”) for the next day. Although I say that I do not want to see anyone read a text from a paper (or from a phone or a laptop), and that I want a genuine oral performance, most participants nevertheless want to prepare by writing a word-by-word manuscript first, and then learn it by heart. It seems natural to the students (and I have classes both with Danish students and classes with a wide range of international exchange students) that preparing a speech is best done by writing, usually alone and in silence. Perhaps it is not just students, but most people in Western societies, academic or not, who find it natural to prepare a speech by writing. But that is a preconception I want to challenge.

What often happens, when it comes to the actual delivery of such a written and seemingly well-prepared speech, is that the written manuscript appears as though still present—not in the hands of the speaker but in the back of the speaker’s head, as it were. Often enough the script becomes a disturbing rather than a supporting factor. The audience will easily detect certain modes of speaking that resemble that of reading aloud, the rhythm and breathing become different, perhaps more monotone. Listeners feel the difficulty and hesitation of the speaker trying to recall the formulations and the order of things in the manuscript, the speaker looks “inside” herself or up at the ceiling or out the window in trying to see the words as they were written on the paper or the screen.

Even though it may be difficult to gage precisely what is going on, it is nevertheless quite obvious as a phenomenological observation that a speaker who is relying heavily on a written manuscript, whether actually on the podium, left at home, or virtually present on a cell phone in their pocket, is quite likely to become a little distant, unfocused, and out of touch with the actual audience and situation. It is in the gaze, in the breathing, in the tone of voice, in the phrasing and modulation, and the speaker feels it too, perhaps, and then becomes even more awkward and nervously self-conscious. The articulation, the flow, the mimics, gestures, posture and even basic movements like walking seem to deteriorate. So strong is the dominance of the writing culture that making a “mistake” or missing something in relation to the written script seems so terrible that the speaker evidently forgets to focus here and now on actually communicating to the audience.

Of course, writing drafts, an outline, or even a fully spelled out manuscript can be a good way of preparing a speech—especially if one is constantly considering not just the topic, but also the specific audience, the specific circumstances (such as the actual place and situation), and one’s own specific appearance (including clothing and physical moves). As Cicero said, a speech must be adjusted according to such parameters in order to become fitting or apt (aptum) (Cicero, III,210). Indeed, Cicero encourages us to always look at the actual and specific circumstances. In modern terms, one might say that speaking live is always contextual, in a different and much more poignant sense than writing something that is then to be read at a different time and place.

So, Cicero’s presumably well-known dictum that “the pen is the best and most eminent author and teacher of eloquence” (Stilus optimus et praestantissimus dicendi effector ac magister, Cicero, XXXIII,150) should not be taken to rank writing over oratory, but as a way to stress the importance of gaining experience and understanding of the shifting situations: there is no one golden rule or absolute, invariable correct way of speaking, it is an art in the making. Eloquence, he writes, is not born from (following preexisting) rules, but rules are born from (having experienced) eloquence (sic esse non eloquentiam ex artificio, sed artificium ex eloquentia natum (Cicero, XXXII,146).

Preparing a speech can be done in many ways, and I want to challenge the preconceptions deeply rooted in academic culture that writing is the best way, or even the only one. Why should sitting down all alone in a small room and staring at a blank sheet of paper or a blank screen and then starting to write words be the best way to prepare a great oral performance? After all, what you are preparing for is a highly social event where you will probably be standing up or even moving about in a large room and using your voice and whole appearance to communicate with real people—and that is not just a matter of words or a writing issue.

The whole idea and common practice of preparing for live speaking by writing down words reminds me of a swimming course I had to attend when I was a very small boy. The first two hours we sat on the floor of a gym and were instructed in doing strange movements with legs and arms while the instructor was giving orders and counting. This might have worked well for some of the other kids, but I did not myself feel well prepared to go swimming in the sea the next week. It so happens that it was a very cold and windy day in spring. This was in Denmark well before any great change of climate, and due to the wind and waves rolling over my head it was quite difficult to hear the instructor counting. Swimming in the sea was rather different from doing exercises on dry land and indoors, and perhaps it would have been better to start out with some more playful exercises in shallow water on a sunny day.

And even when it comes to the didactics and process of writing, it is not necessarily the case that all the best ideas about a certain topic will pop up by themselves immediately when you sit down ready to write, and then you just have to structure them, and finally find good formulations of the various points. Sometimes it is not until we hit upon the striking formulation, and try to say out loud some brilliant words, a thick description, or a lyrical expression, that we actually realize what it is we really mean and want to say, and from there we can see how best to structure it and it becomes easier to recall. In this way actio, elocutio, and memoria direct us back and redefine inventio and dispositio—quite the opposite order of how this is traditionally taught. In academic and educational practice today, we still see a rather rigorous interpretation of these so-called five canons or five work phases of classical rhetoric (inventio, dispositio, elocutio, memoria, actio). Students are instructed to first find their ideas, theme or problem, then structure their report in main sections, then write it out in nice words, and finally print it or upload it (today’s version of memoria and actio, one might say). But perhaps it is nevertheless a common counter-experience that finding the right, striking words even late in the process of producing a report or a thesis might take us back to see what should really have been our main point and focus.

The speaking body

Overcoming awkwardness and nervousness when standing up as a speaker in front of an audience is not an easy task, and it is not just a matter of writing many good manuscripts, nor is it just a matter of reading a lot of good advice about how to think and behave and breathe and where to direct our gaze. Being nervous seems to be a very common reaction, and even though one could argue that it is not a very rational one, it is certainly no help to try to “rationalize” it away by telling yourself “don’t be stupid”, or “pull yourself together and stop being nervous”. It is in your body, and you need to work on it and work it out—or perhaps play it out, in order to become more confident, relaxed but in control at the same time. It takes a good deal of training, of direct live speaking—actio, that is—to overcome the various forms of instinctive and/or norm-based nervousness, and in my experience as rhetoric instructor the best and most direct way is to actually try out speaking with your own body and voice in a realistic but safe setting—just like learning to swim takes more than just theoretical explanations on dry land about buoyancy and propelling in liquids. One could start in the water straight away, but preferably in water that is not too cold or deep or stormy on the first day.

So, in terms of the pedagogy of teaching speech, I want to move away from the traditional focus on paper and words to a new phenomenological focus on body and voice and the experience of interaction with the audience. Being able, as a speaker, to control the performance and become confident and convincing in different challenging speaking situations is very much about a physical, corporeal experience and competence. The skills and virtues of rhetoric need to be incarnated, so to speak—they must be played or drilled into the habits, the stances, the movements, the memory and nature of your body. And the way to practice that is exactly by trying, playing, toying, experimenting: a lot of exercises involving body and voice immediately.

The crucial theoretical and methodological difference and advantage of this phenomenological approach to teaching speech is that body and voice are not seen as some secondary attributes that are to be added later after having written a manuscript. Instead, they are to be understood as the original agents that actually carry the communication. Body and voice are the conditio sine qua non of oral rhetoric, and that is where the training should start, rather than with a detour into written words.

It may seem provocative or unacademic to university students not to be allowed to write anything for a speech class. Sometimes I even boldly forbid the students to take notes in class, just to be clear about the focus I want: I urge the students to pay full attention to what is going on in the room, to how they feel themselves while speaking or listening, and to observe what they can actually see and hear when their classmates are speaking. And I urge them to focus at first on how things are being said instead of on what is being said. Focus is on the forms that deliver content. One of the first exercises, therefore, could be something like standing up one by one and saying just a few simple phrases that I have written in advance on the blackboard/screen, like “Hello everyone, my name is …, I come from …, and I am so happy to be in this class!” But this small presentation has a twist to it: it needs to be done badly, it needs to be said in a way that does not communicate well. And the students just have to find their own unsuccessful way of doing it.

This could be by speaking too fast, mumbling without articulation, grinning stupidly, fiddling distractingly with clothes or a pen, looking out the window as if bored, and so on. The more variations the better, but it has to be done using the exact same words and phrases. This goes to illustrate that important differences lie not just in the semantic or grammatical constructions, but in the actual realization that the various participants perform with their own voice and body. It can be a rather amusing exercise; we seem to get a glimpse of many a strange personality, and after that it seems like much of the nervousness disappears from the room. Students are usually afraid of not performing well enough, but this challenge of performing badly puts things into a new and much more productive perspective.

The importance of body language—or to phrase it perhaps more correctly, the importance of the integrated and communicative corporal aspects of an oral presentation—can also be illustrated by different ways of walking and standing, e.g. just getting up from a chair and walking to a podium. It does not have to be great acting; the students can quickly detect and label what sort of person or mood I seem to embody, as I get up from my chair and look at the class with an angry, a tired, a happy, a humble, or an anxious attitude. And I can give students notes in their hands with different, specific moods or personalities they have to enact without words (just getting up and walking a few feet); the other students can easily see if you are supposed to be old or young, sad or happy, etc. Again, this is not a communication by means of words, but it is an integral part of what an audience perceives every time a speaker walks to the podium.

It is quite evident from exercises of this sort how quickly we sense and recognize the sentiments and perhaps also the personality of a speaker even before a single word has been said. This is a basic human capacity and does not happen through any use of verbal language or through an analysis of signs or signals, it is not through an act of calculation or translation, nor is it through any kind of reading or decoding or help from a popular or scientific book about “body language”. It is due to our fundamental body-phenomenological understanding of others and our surroundings. This capacity for seeing and understanding other persons is a basic human condition, according to Martin Heidegger in Sein und Zeit (first published 1927). We exist in this world as in a with-being with others, or as he puts it: “Das In-Sein ist Mitsein mit Anderen” (Heidegger, 1927:118). The others are phenomenologically speaking given for us, this is evident (from the outset, Heidegger transcends the problem of whether there are other minds or subjects in the world, a problem that seems to have traumatized western philosophy since Descartes established his abstract “I” through an empty cogito).

In traditional academic contexts it might be rather unusual to include observations and thoughts about your own individual body, movements, and appearance, but for many students today it connects well with a more popular and even trendy preoccupation with body-culture, sports, fitness, performance, yoga, singing—even breathing exercises might not seem too silly to them, and this can be very useful as a way into practicing speech. Participants in a speech class often have various resources stemming from non-academic areas that can prove to be of use, and they can inspire each other to think more positively about working and communicating with their bodies. The initial exercises should point to the importance of being in every sense present and aware of the kairos, the here and now of oral communication.

The voice and the mood

A poem can be understood as a condensed expression. In German the etymological relationship between dicten, to make a poem, and the verb for condensing or making tight, is easily seen. The English words poem and poetic stem from the ancient Greek word poesis which has to do with being crafted, created or manufactured. So, I tell my class of students that a good poem deserves to be recited in a slow and well-articulated fashion, so that we, the listeners, can better appreciate and enjoy how well it has been crafted in every sense and detail. It is often one of the first days in a workshop that I ask the students to memorize a short poem of their own choosing and prepare to recite it in class, loud and clear. It soon becomes obvious that a monotone reading-like performance does not do justice to the poems, but that a well-performed recitation of just a few carefully crafted expressions can have a powerful impact on an audience—even though that particular audience might not normally be the greatest fans of poems or lyrical performances.

One practical trick to heighten the understanding of what the right voice and words can do is to ask the performing student to speak behind a screen or even behind a half-closed door—and perhaps even with their back towards the listeners. Then, of course, one has to speak in a loud and well-articulated manner in order to be heard and understood, but the mere awkwardness or silliness of this set-up may also serve to free some students of habitual restraints and allow them to experiment more freely with their voices. After some trials of this, the speaker takes up a more normal position and recites the poem standing in front of the rest of the class. It is not at all easy for everyone; many become too self-conscious of the way they appear or talk, and now sometimes the otherwise well-memorized poem seems to disappear from memory or lose any magic it might have had.

One way, then, of shifting the focus back to where it should be—namely, to experiencing the content of the poem—is to ask the student to teach the poem to the rest of us in the class, i.e. to say it nice and clear one line at a time, and wait for us to repeat each line in chorus. If the audience cannot repeat the line, then clearly it was not well communicated. Most often the reciting student becomes so eager to have the lines correctly repeated by the class that it immediately improves not only volume and pronunciation, but also eye contact and accompanying gestures (that were perhaps absent before or rather rudimentary or distracting). It is a simple point, but worth pointing out in class in connection with these poem exercises, that we really should be speaking in order to communicate some content to our audience, and that we therefore really should be paying attention to whether the audience can actually hear and understand us—and that is every time we speak.

Often the participants in the middle of such an exercise involving reciting a poem have trouble remembering the text; all of a sudden, they forget the next line or mix it up, even though they have practiced well at home and selected a fairly short text. This is where they would like to take a look at their notes, their phone or laptop, and read the text once again or several times quickly before continuing. This is where I show them an alternative way of remembering the text, namely, by looking for the elements in the poem that can be illustrated by means of gestures, changes in posture, direction of their gaze, and by different intonations, volumes, pitch, etc. And even if there is little to find in the poem that can be easily illustrated or supported in this physical way, there is still another way to support the memory: namely, by rehearsing on the floor and, so to speak, “lay out the flow of the poem on the floor”. One says the first and perhaps second line standing in the middle (normal speaking position), then moves a few steps to the left to say the next lines, then a few steps to the right to continue, and then back to the middle where the last lines are said. This very simple choreography does not make it harder to remember the text, though it seems like an additional element; it actually makes it easier. The floor becomes a helper—and this goes for long and more freely formulated speeches too—and the floor of the room is not a dangerous open and empty space, but a guide to structure and to obtaining a calm pace and flow, avoiding all sorts of ideas and words becoming mixed up in a bundle.

To further encourage experiments with their individual vocal capacities, I might ask students to imagine they are speaking to children, to a very noisy crowd, to an audience of old people with hearing problems, or a group of tourists with a limited understanding of English, or maybe to whisper the poem as if it were a secret. The different versions of the same poem may seem silly, awkward and far from any serious public speaking, but all too often the students need to become aware of the immense potential of their own individual voices and the many rhetorical tools they actually have to hand but rarely have considered implementing in a skilled or strategic way: volume, pitch, phrasing, tempo, pauses, and even breathing.

Although some of the exercises and different versions of a poem may seem silly, it also happens quite often that a student performance makes a poem come across in a strong, deep, and moving way. I encourage the students to enjoy that, of course, but also to reflect on and try to put into words what it was in that individual performance that had this effect. Something about the voice, or was it the words, or something unique and personal in that moment, in that situation? It can be hard to describe these qualities or phenomena of a successful recitation, but it is quite clearly felt by everyone who is paying attention when it all “comes together” and “rings true”.

It is also a curious fact, and easily recognized by the students, that the sound of a familiar voice immediately activates a stock of sentiments and expectations. And even a complete stranger on the phone does not have to express many syllables before the specific qualities of that voice affect us and put us in a particular mood. We receive an impression of much more than just the age or gender of the other person. Most often it is hard to specify the experience of the quality or “tone” of the voice as anything measurable or easily categorized, but nevertheless it is clearly felt. In phenomenological terms, it is evident that the sound qualities of a voice can put us in a certain mood, or affect the mood we are in. And according to Heidegger we are always in the midst of some sort of “mood” or “attunement”. The German words (“Befindlichkeit”, “Stimmung”) that Heidegger introduced in Sein und Zeit (Heidegger, 1927) in order to describe how humans fundamentally find themselves in the world, or how they “exist”, are notoriously difficult to translate into English (in Danish it is a lot easier: “Befindtlighed”, “Stemning”).Terms like “mood” and “attunement” may seem fairly close, but lack the clear etymological connection to “voice”, so easily recognizable in the German “Stimmung”, as the German word for a voice is “Stimme”.

Heidegger is trying to overcome the long-standing problem in Western philosophy since Descartes of a subject-object dichotomy, and he does not accept the point of view common in the widespread variations of positivist theory of knowledge that we first and foremost are (or should be) “neutral” or “objective” minds registering impressions from things around us. We are always in a certain mood or attunement, this is a fundamental condition of our awareness, of our “being-in-the-world”, and therefore it makes good sense in terms of teaching speech to focus on what the qualities of a voice can make an audience sense and experience, and in a wider sense to focus on how the overall performance and presence of a speaker in oral communication can appeal to, change, and create the mood and attunement of the listeners. This “mood aspect” of communication is not to be understood as something that is just added later as a sort of adornment to the “original” or “denotative” written content. The Danish rhetoric professor Jørgen Fafner in his book Retoric (Faffner, 2005:140) argues strongly against any such simplistic ornatus theory that assumes that qualities and style are just a sort of “dressing up” of the original point or argument. That would be to misunderstand the intricate relation of content and form.


The phenomenology of taking the floor

Many of the initial exercises in my speech workshops are thus oriented towards the phenomenon of taking the floor; I want the participants to practice, experience, and reflect on what it is that typically happens with our attention (both speaker and listeners) when someone starts speaking. I want everyone to focus on what is happening, rather than on what words are actually being said. Everybody knows that the introduction of a speech (exordium) is important, but what is rarely in the speaker’s notes is that the communication between the speaker and the listeners begins before the first word is uttered. And when the words begin to be uttered, it is typically something specifically oral that counts at first, such as voice quality, gaze, and mimics—and not something that belongs to writing or a dictionary. Here it is all about understanding what it is that is going on in the room and in the situation, in the exchange between orator and audience.

In the following, with my own short description of the phenomenology of taking the floor, I want to point out three phases of attention in the first part of a typical instance of oral communication. It must be underlined that these proposed three phases are not sharply distinct but usually blend and replace each other unnoticeably. But for a trained speaker this also comes naturally, just like the classical division of a standard speech (dispositio) might be well drilled in, and likewise it is possible to allow for variations and even to radically shift the order of things and still succeed.

1) At first the attention is naturally on the speaker as a person. The speaker is getting up and walks onto the floor or up to the podium and looks out over the audience without yet having said anything. At least, this is the recommended way to start; nervous speakers are usually eager to commence speaking and tend to start talking too early, and this is not good, neither for their ethos, nor for the reception of their first words. I advise starting generally with a fairly long silent moment after having taken the floor and put oneself into a strong and grounded position. The speaker should breathe well and deep, look confident and friendly (as a general rule, not without situational exceptions) and wait for the gaze and attention of the majority of the audience to focus on the speaker. This is advisable because at the beginning of a new performance the audience’s attention is quite naturally directed towards sensing, estimating, and perhaps re-evaluating what sort of person and personality is going to speak to them. In this phase, the audience is trying to fine-tune what has been called the initial ethos (McCroskey, 1978:71) of the speaker, and they do so by considering the way the person looks, dresses, walks and moves, takes a position, displays gestures, facial expressions, and so on. All of this is non-verbal communication, and even if a speaker on the way to the podium utters a few words like “OK” or “Thank you”, this is received not so much as meaningful words, but more as signs of a certain mood and personality. They belong, in a way, in the same category as other non-verbal sounds, e.g. the footsteps or noise from clothes and jewelry.

As the speaker, one has to endure (or even better, to enjoy) that right now, everybody is looking at me and more or less trying to figure out what sort of person I am, how my speech will be, how trustworthy I am, etc. I am being evaluated right from the (non-verbal) start, and lots of different categorizations might be at play, even bias and prejudice, cultural norms and individual preferences. It is not necessarily problematic, but usually we are (mostly without any deliberate conscious reflection) categorizing as male/female, young/old, fat/skinny, but perhaps also in more situational categories like entertaining/boring, positive/negative (to the listener’s own view of the issue debated), modest/bragging, nervous/self-confident. The speaker is well advised to be informed about the audience’s attitudes and preferences (and possible prejudices), and to try to accommodate and control the impressions given in those first moments. This includes choice of clothes, the nature of a smile or a nod, and the waving of a hand. Today, in video clips of American politicians entering the stage to give a speech, or an actor coming on stage for a talk show, it is quite common to see the entering character point to someone in the back of the room and wave eagerly. One might suspect that there is not always someone they recognize as a favorable supporter back there—but it seems to be part of a timely visual rhetoric.

Through the attitude and very first non-verbal communication of the speaker, it is also shown in what way the speaker recognizes the presence of an audience and wishes to relate and share. What Aristotle calls eunoia—the display of good will towards the audience—is at work before the first word is uttered. In Roman Jakobson’s terms, one could say that, in this first phase of taking the floor, it is both the emotive and the phatic functions that are predominant at the same time (Juel, 2013).

2) In the second phase of opening a speech, the attention is on the common presence in time and space. As the first words are being uttered, the main attention is probably still on the speaker’s voice, person and ethos, but soon the clever speaker will typically try to move the attention away from just “me”, and on to an “us”: “We are here together today”, “So happy to see you all”, “Glad you made it this early despite the bad weather”, “Such a nice room we are in, I hope you are all comfortably seated”. One way of trying to establish a “we” and a favorable common ground is to start with flattering the audience, in classical rhetorical terms with a captatio benevolentiae: “How nice to see so many bright and intelligent students this morning!” In all of this it is the phatic function or the social aspect of the communication that is now predominant. The speaker strives to establish common ground and presence with the audience.

There is much good advice to be found in classical texts as well as in modern handbooks about how best to begin a speech. Some suggest starting with a quotation, a joke, or an anecdote (Gabrielsen & Christiansen, 2010). Cicero would advise the speaker to adapt to the audience, the situation, the topic, and find what would be becoming, also to yourself as the specific person you are. What is interesting in all of this, however, from a phenomenological point of view, is what happens with the attention (of both audience and speaker) during these initial remarks: it shifts away from being focused on the “I” of the speaker to now being focused more on the social aspect or the “we” in the room, here and now.

3) In the third phase of the opening of the speech event, the attention is directed towards the topic, the case, or question that is to be dealt with. In classical terms this could be achieved by an overview of what is to come in the speech (partitio) or by an account or narrative (narratio) concerning the situation and topic. It is of course also possible to start a speech by stating the issue straight away (in media res), but even so a good deal of the attention will usually and nevertheless be on the speaker at first, and only gradually shift to a focus on the subject, the arguments, the consequences and perhaps decisions to be made. As a speaker you run the risk that no one listens to what you actually want to say if you do not at first spend some time and energy on showing who you are and on establishing a presence and contact as the basis for subject-specific and persuasive communication. In this, the third phase, it is, to use Roman Jakobson’s terms, the referential and conative functions that begin to prevail.

To sum up, one can say that this phenomenological observation of a common shift of attention at the beginning of a speech identifies a move from “me” (or “him/her”) to “us”, and then to “that”. First, we see the speaker, then we see we are together in this room and situation, and then we can start looking at the issue and maybe see what the speaker is really trying to show to us, that is, the pistis or point of the speech. Indeed, to explain this phenomenon I sometimes refer to an analogy of film-making: first the camera is focused on the speaker walking up to the podium and taking a stand, then it is on the speaker and audience together in the same room, and after that the film editor (the competent speaker) shifts the scene and starts showing the issue or problem or story that usually takes place somewhere else. The speaker directs the attention of the audience, but initially a lot of attention is usually on the speaker and on the social event of being together as speaker and audience.


Individual and yet social skills and competences

Understanding the basic phenomenology of “taking the floor” is one of the key reflections developed during the intensive rhetoric workshops I have practiced over a number of years (Juel, 2010, 2014, 2015, 2016). Participants have been university students at all levels, Danish and international, as well as academic colleagues and other citizens. The workshops are based on practical and collaborative on-the-floor exercises, followed by discussions and reflections, and also supported by theory, concepts and principles from modern and classical rhetoric. Aristotle, Cicero and others still have a lot to say, but in my experience, it is hard for students today to read and “listen” to the old masters, unless linked to their own personal and sometimes very new experience and feelings connected to various challenges of oral communication. Reading textbooks and writing manuscripts cannot stand alone, and it is hardly ever the best road towards personally achieving fundamental skills and competences, and it is not even the best way for an individual to develop a specific speech for a specific occasion.

It should be evident that speaking and communicating well is highly dependent on the personal use of voice and body, or perhaps it would be better to say that communicating by speech is highly dependent on an individual vocal and physical activity. It is also fair to say that we have different voices and bodies, a lot of individualization and identity is connected to how we sound and appear, and we have different talents, skills, inhibitions, experiences, competences, possibilities. But at the same time, speaking in order to communicate is also in essence a very social activity; there can be many different types of situations, audiences, contexts, constraints, supports, and interactions as well as socially generated norms, standards, and expectations. In terms of the pedagogy or didactics of rhetoric, the beautiful paradox is that speaking is a very individual skill, but it is at the same time best learned when tried and developed in a collaborative and socially safe zone. Testing and developing speech elements directly by live interaction with an audience consisting of friendly fellow students is, in my experience—and perhaps not surprisingly—a lot more productive than sitting down writing and reflecting in isolation.


Speech-line – collaboration on actio

One way of teaching the highly individual skills and competences of speaking well to a large group of participants in a short time in an effective—and usually very entertaining—manner is to practice the speech-line method (Juel, 2015). This can be done booth indoors and outdoors. All you need is some free space, like an open floor, or even a corridor. The participants form two rows, facing each other, two or three meters apart. Each one in row A then has a temporary partner in row B, and vice versa, and the two have to be very focused on communicating together, taking turns as speakers and listeners, and giving feedback, following some simple instructions given to all. Then, after one round of speeches and feedback, row B or A moves along one position, so that everybody gets a new partner.

Everybody in row A will start talking at the same time for around a minute or so about their individual subject—an early draft version, perhaps just sketching the idea for a speech in a straightforward manner. Because of the noise from all of the other people talking, it will automatically become necessary to articulate really well, to support with gestures, to maintain eye contact, and so on. If the listener in row B cannot hear or follow what is being said by their partner in the opposite row, the listener must ask the speaker to speak up, repeat, or clarify the points made. But otherwise the listener should be very supportive and affirmative, nod and smile and follow closely what is being said. In earlier exercises we have already established that being a positive and supportive audience quite clearly helps the speaker to find the words, the energy, a likeable ethos and to generally perform better.

In the first round, the speaker from row A does not receive any feedback until the partner in row B has spoken. Then, usually to the surprise of the participants, I ask row B to re-tell to their partner in row A what they have heard, what they recall from that first presentation. And they can also add whether there is something they would like to have better explained or to hear more about. This is quite an effective way to show the speakers what they essentially communicated—and what was more or less lost, perhaps because it was unclear, redundant, meta-communicative or otherwise off the point. I stress that this is not so much about testing how well the listeners remember, as it is about how much the speakers succeeded in relating to their partner.

If the instruction for the first round was to speak for about a minute about, for example, a favorite hobby, then the instruction for the next round (after having switched partner) could be to talk again for a minute or a little longer about that hobby, but this time to include a very specific example, some detail that the listener can easily visualize or even smell or taste what you are doing or enjoying when engaged in your hobby. This time the speaker in row A receives feedback straight away about what was good, vivid, interesting, and questions and suggestions for further elaboration of the short speech about the hobby. Then row B speaks and receives feedback.

Having moved again to a new partner, the instruction could be to keep the example/detailed description, but this time also to stress why this hobby or activity is something good, or how it is joyful to the speaker. And this could also be where a second point or value is introduced, like why this hobby would be good for everyone, not just for the body but also for the soul and spirit, or something like that. So, the little speech, now around one and a half minutes long, should explain what the hobby is about, why it is a good hobby in at least two ways (e.g. for the speaker and for everyone, or for the body and for the soul). The order of the different parts is up to the speaker, but during feedback the listener can advise them to change it or to develop the speech in different directions.

Once more, partners are switched and speaking time raised to around two minutes. When the two minutes are about to be up, I usually clap my hands or ring a small bell to indicate that now it is time not to stop, but to elegantly round up the speech. In this version the speakers need to include a “rebuttal”, the refutatio in classical terms, which means to account for some sort of objection to the hobby, e.g. that some might say it is too expensive, or time consuming, or bad for the climate, and then counter this imagined objection with a positive point or argument. And also include, perhaps, other persuasive rhetorical features like a “rhetorical question” (“Have you ever tried riding a horse at night on a beach in moonlight?”) or a direct, flattering appeal (“You should try mountain-biking too, you are so young and sporty with a great body for that”), or perhaps a three step alliteration (“It is fun, it is free, you can do it with your friends”).

One very effective rhetorical feature is a sound-bite, i.e. a short, catchy phrase indicating the essential point of the speech. It can also be described as a sort of slogan or motto, something that is easy to say and easy to remember, perhaps because it has lyrical or acoustic qualities like alliteration. In order to develop/choose a good sound-bite, the speaker usually has to ask the listener for ideas and advice, and also to practice repeating it a couple of times in various ways. A sound-bite needs to be “drilled in”, it must be repeated many times with variations in order to be properly “owned” by the speaker:  only then can the speaker say it with sufficient conviction and emphasis during a speech, e.g. at the beginning, middle and end. A good sound-bite may often look strange and redundant if written out in a manuscript, but well-crafted and rehearsed it can significantly enhance a speech. A sound-bite is a truly oral attribute and it needs to be incorporated not just in the text but literally in the speaker’s mouth and performance.

With speech-line exercises like these it is possible to develop all participants’ individual speeches and have the various ideas and versions tested immediately. This includes receiving feedback on the use of the voice, gestures, posture, the level of energy and enthusiasm too. The speaker can freely decide what good advice to follow and can try different versions, thus it is still a very personally owned and generated performance, despite the different contributions from the trial listeners and the general advice from the instructor. Within just one hour, a class of students can—without preparations or writing anything—develop fairly good speeches using this direct actio speech-line method. It can be done with more than 100 students at the same time out on the campus grass, it just takes a bit of discipline (at least at my university), and it can be done in different languages and even with professors in rhetoric—you just have to get the participants to play along and enjoy it.

The speech-line method can be used not only for building up a speech by gradually adding elements and testing the formulations and the body-voice performance, but also for reducing the length and complexity of an issue and clarifying the essence or point that the speaker wants to make. In workshops with Ph.D. students or other advanced academics and professionals the problem is often not to find material or points to present, but to boil it down to something essential that is easily communicated but still leaves the audience with a vivid and fair insight into the perhaps very specialized and complex subject matter. In this variation of the speech-line method one might begin by asking participants to speak freely and for fairly long about the subject matter (e.g. their own Ph.D. project) to their listener, who then in the feedback gives a short version of what was heard and understood, and then asks for more explanations, examples, etc.

The informal speech-line way of talking at greater length to one attentive listener while standing up resembles the walk-and-talk exercises often used in other workshops and at meetings, where the object is to become clear about something by interviewing each other in pairs (or greater numbers) while walking along. It is generally well known and accepted that physical movement—taking a walk and talking to a colleague—can help clear the mind and/or bring about new ideas and formulations. A speech-line can be used to assemble or build up a speech from scratch, and it can be used to condense or boil down a lengthy and complex matter. The physical or bodily involvement as well as the collaborative interaction play an important part in both of these rhetorical work processes, and it would not be fruitful to regard it as design decisions created by isolated individual brains.

Collaborative work on developing a particular speech can be done in many other ways than with a speech-line or walk-and-talk exercise. A generation of ideas can be done by means of a common brainstorm where a group contributes with whatever ideas pop up—but this may of course be more structured and organized around different questions or templates. One variation could be creating a mind-map (which is also a well-known tool) without writing words but using different drawings and symbols instead.

As mentioned in connection with the exercise involving reciting a poem, various forms of visualizing and making drawings are powerful tools for memorizing (Fernandes & Wammes & Meade, 2018). Curiously, perhaps, it seems easier to recall an image and a phrase together than just a phrase on its own. But it is not only the memoria part of the process that can benefit from visual input; the inventio part, the generation and clarification of ideas, can also be helped along by drawing, alone or together in a group. Drawing is essentially something you do in order to present something, and it can be a way to see things in a new light. Most adults, however, are rather reluctant to go back to this form of expression that they last used when they were children, and to share it with others today, but once the awkwardness has been overcome it can become a very productive, amusing, and inspiring tool in a speech workshop.

Speech, thought, writing – phenomenology and hermeneutics

Mastering a speech situation demands paying attention to the actual audience, and similarly to write in a catchy and relevant way demands also a certain degree of attention being paid to the readers one wishes to reach, perhaps even a visualization of the readers’ reactions, objections and comments. But in the oral situation this respect for the audience, the entire feedback aspect, is much more vivid and direct. Indeed, writing well for a specific audience—and this includes writing a speech manuscript, if one wishes to do so—demands some experience and knowledge of the oral interaction with an audience: writing skills presuppose speaking skills, not (just) vice versa, one could say.

Walter J. Ong is quick to point out the principal aspect of the common, everyday experience that we often try to say the words tacitly, inside ourselves when trying to write: “To formulate anything I must have another person or other persons already ‘in mind’. This is the paradox of human communication. Communication is intersubjective” (Ong, 2002:172). J. Faffner even goes as far as saying in his Rhetoric: “…writing is only a copy of speech—and an incomplete one, at that. The speech has priority in regard to the writing” (Faffner, 2005:67, translation: HJ).

Hans-Georg Gadamer, too, highlights orality in his Wahrheit und Methode. His hermeneutical approach can be seen as a frame for interpreting all kinds of texts, but also as a general theory for the humanities and for humanity, in which the principle of seeking mutual understanding and insight through a conversation (as opposed to an instrumental power and control relation) becomes the guide for all sorts of understanding and communication, including written communication. It is thus not just an accidental metaphorical remark when Gadamer summarizes the ideal of sharing “horizons” as that of making a text speak: “Through the interpretation the text must come to speak […] There is no speaking that does not unite the speaker with the one spoken to” (Gadamer, 1975:375, translation: HJ).

One of Walter J. Ong’s rather polemical formulations reads: “By contrast with natural, oral speech, writing is completely artificial. There is no way to write ‘naturally’” (Ong, 2002:81). In his view, writing is a derived but also very useful technologizing of the word, as also indicated by the subtitle of his book Orality and Literacy – The Technologizing of the Word (1982). Naturally, writing should be appreciated as a culturally developed and smart technique to store and to broaden in time and space the reach of the spoken word. But then again, spoken words can be seen already in themselves as a technical refinement, an articulation of the otherwise rather hidden things you have in your heart. Even gestures, signaling and visualizing, can be considered, I would suggest, as an evolved capacity for expressing at a larger distance an even more basic close-up corporeal form of communication (caressing, slapping, carrying).

However, my point is not to try to search for some basic “original” or authentic communication (a notion sharply criticized by Adorno in his Jargon der Eigentlichkeit – Zur deutschen Ideologie (Adorno 1964)) before literacy or even before digital media, but to question philosophically the rather common assumption made in many a handbook about rhetoric and speech that first we have to think about what to say, then we have to write down these thoughts, and then we can go and deliver our thoughts by means of the words we say to the audience. This seems so natural and basic, but it is worth considering whether this is not essentially a misleading heritage from the era of writing and literacy, an era of writing being in higher esteem (especially academically) than speech—a preconception that is now challenged by the development of digital and audiovisual media. What becomes questionable, or at least somewhat blurred now, is whether we actually need this “detour of writing” in order to get from thought to speech. And is it not questionable that we should actually be “thinking” in such a way to begin with, juggling with something like “thought” elements before they are turned into words? Would such “thoughts” be part of a sign “system” to which one can find a “translation key” turning them into verbal language that can be pronounced and be heard by the listener, who then in turn “translates” the words back into “thoughts” (being now in the listener’s mind)?

This is where Martin Heidegger suggests another perspective in Sein und Zeit, as he sees a close connection between our always already-attuned and interpretative understanding of the world, the articulation in language, and our immediate communicative “being-together” (Mit-Sein) with other humans. We are always, by means of our corporeal, attuned and “moody” being, already “there” and “present”; and we are projecting actions in a participatory and interpretative way, ready to articulate and share with others in and through language. Language, understanding, and experience of the world are closely connected, but the mood or attunement is already an opening onto the world and onto ourselves.

Heidegger is not to be understood from a standpoint of dualism between subject and object, or between soul and body, or on the basis of a truth concept based on a correspondence between a proposition and reality. On the contrary, that is the metaphysics he is trying to deconstruct. And it is remarkable how he foreshadows the grandiose existential-ontology of his Sein und Zeit in 1927 through a close and peculiar reading of Aristotle’s Rhetoric in the 1924 lectures at Marburg (first published 2002). Heidegger is not trying to read Aristotle’s Rhetoric as a handbook in strategic communication, but as a philosophical definition of the human as a speaking and listening being, and not least, as a pathos-being. The interpretation of pathos is a controversial subject (e.g. Oele, 2012), but Heidegger underlines pathos as that phenomenon of being moved or transported (Mitgenommenwerden) as a human. And it is not just “the soul” that is being moved; Heidegger explicitly talks about the corporeal (leiblichen) aspect, even in a section heading: “Das pathos als Mitgenommensein des Menschlichen Daseins in seinem vollen leiblichen In-der-Welt-sein” (Heidegger, 2002:117). This heading is difficult to express in English but one attempt could be: “Pathos as human awareness being moved in its entire corporeal being-in-the-world” (translation: HJ).

It is true that Heidegger, in his Sein und Zeit, seems to avoid using a word equivalent to “body” (das Leib is after all mentioned, e.g.:117). However, the suggestion of a phenomenology of the body, or a corporeal phenomenology, later to be explicitly developed by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, can be seen throughout Sein und Zeit in the unfolding of human existence or way of being-in-the-world as being attuned, being in a mood, being “thrown” into the world, and in many references to crafts and farming as well as the major division of Zuhandenheit/Vorhandenheit, which is Heidegger’s attempt to avoid or dig beneath the traditional metaphysics and theory of knowledge of “things”. We are not blank, immaterial subjects neutrally observing objects around us, some of which are giving off sounds that can be processed and translated into words, but we are typically attuned and engaged in projects involving immediate use of tools and materials, and immediate recognition and understanding of other beings present in a similar way.

Merleau-Ponty is perhaps more direct in linking thinking and verbalizing and body into one and the same process: “To the one who is speaking, the words are not a translation of a thought already made, but the accomplishment of the thought” (Merleau-Ponty, 1945:217). This could be seen, I hope, as contributing to a philosophical and didactic justification of the impromptu actio exercises that I advocate as part of a fair road towards rhetorical competences, a road that often proves more direct than the detour of writing manuscripts. Merleau-Ponty states: “The orator does not think before speaking, nor while he is speaking; what he is saying is his thoughts” (Merleau-Ponty, 1945:219). Consequently Merleau-Ponty also talks about how gestures and actually the whole body become the very thought or intention, that it is showing us—it is the body that is showing, the body that speaks (Merleau-Ponty, 1945:239).

Gestures and mimics, as well as tropes and voice qualities, should therefore not be considered as something extra added to the speech at the end of a development process, nor are they merely ornamentation of an argument (though the classical Roman concept of ornatus seem to suggest that). The good speaker is not one who is also speaking with the body, but one who is the speaking body. Once again: it is a matter of really being there, not hiding behind a manuscript paper, but daring to be present as a speaker, and to reach out to the audience in order to move them, and make them see what you present to them and want them to see—and “from your point of view”.

It is worth remembering that even Plato, who was rather skeptical of the professional sophists and rhetoricians of his time, nevertheless saw some dangers involved in the media of writing; namely, that the lively presence of the speaker could be somewhat lost, the message could be fixed and distanced from its personal creator (in Phaedrus, Plato, 1961). Paul Ricœur also points to this difference between speech and writing in his Interpretation Theory:

“But in spoken discourse this ability of discourse to refer back to the speaking subject presents a character of immediacy because the speaker belongs to the situation of interlocution. He is there, in the genuine sense of being-there, of Da-sein […] With written discourse, however, the author’s intention and the meaning of the text cease to coincide.” (Ricœur, 1976)

Rhetoric, philosophy and the need for oratory skills today

When I am teaching skills in oratory to today’s students, the many actio exercises go hand in hand with also reviving the classical teachings of how to structure a speech, how to make it appealing (using logos, ethos, and pathos), how to distinguish the main genres and styles, and how to employ tropes and figures of speech. But the classical concepts are not taught as theoretical instructions on dry land before swimming, that is, not as paper wisdom before going on the floor. Workshop participants try out for themselves in small, safe live situations, they experiment and play, receive feedback from their peers on what works and what does not, and they soon develop a sense of their own special skills and competences as well as a sense for general rhetorical tools and insights. Rhetorical performance is, to a large extent, an art and a craftsmanship that needs to be guided, developed, and rehearsed, adapting to the individual’s different potentials and in cooperation with peers. This is the didactic opening, which at the same time opens up an understanding and revitalization of classical concepts.

At first some are not aware of the long tradition of rhetoric (after a speech-line exercise one student once told me that he found it a great idea to include a “rebuttal” in his speech, and he congratulated me for coming up with this new and fresh idea!). But having been on the floor and having discovered the almost unlimited toolbox at their disposal, the students usually find classical rhetoric much more interesting. And as I encourage them to also observe and describe what they experience and feel both when speaking and when listening, and to note how different postures and styles of gestures and movements can help them to achieve, they also begin to appreciate the phenomenological and philosophical apparatus I sometimes dare to sketch—and to develop further collaboratively in the classroom.

My own professional ambition is not only to prepare the students and workshop participants for future exams, job interviews, ceremonial speeches, NGO rallies, or political talk shows, but also to understand better, through all of the actio experiments and reflections in class, how oral communication really works. And it is very rewarding to experience what happens when people actually succeed in saying what they mean, and mean what they are saying. It has a remarkable effect on both the speaker and the audience: we see the issue discussed in clearer light, and perhaps that may still contribute positively to an active, democratic citizenship. Rhetoric is about live interaction, resolving an issue and moving and improving, not just the audience, but also yourself—and perhaps the planet.


Adorno, Theodor W. (1964). Jargon der Eigentlichkeit – Zur deutschen Ideologie, edition suhrkamp.

Carlsen, Sine & Juel, Henrik (2007): Speaking at Speaker’s Corner – the rhetorical challenge and didactic considerations, http://www.henrikjuel.dk/Essays/SpeakingSpeaker’sCorner.pdf

Carlsen, Sine & Juel, Henrik (2009). Mundtlighedens Magi – retorikkens didaktik, filosofi og læringskultur. Handelshøjskolens Forlag.

Cicero, Marcus Tullius (1967). De Oratore, The Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press. http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/cicero/oratore3.shtml#1

Fafner, Jørgen (2005). Retorik. Klassisk og moderne, Akademisk Forlag.

Fernandes, Myra A. & Wammes, Jeffrey D. & Meade, Melissa E. (2018). The Surprisingly Powerful Influence of Drawing on Memory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2018, Vol. 27(5) 302–308.

Gabrielsen, Jonas & Christiansen, Tanja Juul (2010). The Power of Speech, Hans Reitzels Forlag.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg (1975). Wahrheit und Methode [1960], 4te Auflage. Tübingen.

Heidegger, Martin (1927). Sein und Zeit. Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1967.

Heidegger, Martin (1924). Grundbegriffe der Aristotelischen Philosophie, Gesamtaus- gabe, Band 18. Vittorio Klostermann, 2002.

Juel, Henrik (2005): Communication at Speaker’s Corner (Movie,10:36), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qhXyT9VPLlE

Juel, Henrik (2010). ”The Individual Art of Speaking Well – teaching it by means of group and project work” Dansk Universitetspædagogisk Tidsskrift, nr. 8. http://www.henrikjuel.dk/Essays/TheIndividualArtofSpeakingWell.pdf

Juel, Henrik (2013). Communicative Functions. Essay, pdf, www.henrikjuel.dk/Essays/CommunicativeFunctions.pdf

Juel, Henrik (2014). ”The persuasive powers of text, voice, and film – a lecture hall experi- ment with a famous speech”, Conference Proceedings, Amsterdam, 2014, ISSA – Inter- national Society for the Study of Argumentation.

Juel, Henrik (2015): “Speech-line – a method for teaching oral presentation”


Juel, Henrik (2016): Please don’t write your Speech! (Movie, 1:07) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9PWZ-sy7sF8

McCroskey, James C. (1978). An Introduction to Rhetorical Communication. Englewood Cliffs.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1945). Phénoménologie de la Perception, Gallimard.

Oele, Marjolein (2012). Heidegger ’s Reading of Aristotle’s Concept of Pathos, University of San Francisco Scholarship Repository: http://repository.usfca.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1018&context=phil

Ong, Walter J. (2002). Orality and Literacy – The Technologizing of the Word (1982), Routledge.

Plato (1961). The Collected Dialogues, Princeton University Press.

Ricœur, Paul (1976). Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning. Texas Christian University Press (full text available in Danish, translated by Henrik Juel: Fortolkningsteori. Vinten, 1979).

Following in the Footsteps of Nature: an Introduction

By Neli Dobreva, École des Arts de la Sorbonne, University Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne

This special issue of Nordicum-Mediterraneum contains select papers from the research seminar Environmental Aesthetics and Citizenship (https://estenci.wordpress.com/), coordinated by Neli Dobreva, Oleg Bresky, Mogens Chrom Jacobsen and Oliver Kauffmann at the École des Arts de la Sorbonne, University Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne, in partnership with the research circles Patterns of Dysfunction in Contemporary Democracies. Impact on Human Rights and Governance, coordinated by Mogens Chrom Jacobsen, and Appearances of the Political, coordinated by Carsten Friberg–all of them within the Nordic Summer University (NSU). This project was supported by the Nordic Council of Ministers of the Nordic Countries in cooperation with Foreningerne Nordens Forbund (FNF), the University of Aarhus (Department for Philosophy of Education and General Education) and the European Humanities University / The J. Althusius Institute.

The Seminar Environmental Aesthetics and Citizenship took place in Paris, France, at the École des Arts de la Sorbonne, University Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne, during two semesters of the academic year 2018-2019. The guest editor Neli Dobreva would like to express her gratitude to the Dean of the École des Arts de la Sorbonne, Marie-Noëlle Semet-Haviaras, for her support and willingness, which allowed the Project to succeed.

The debate started at the NSU Summer Session in 2018 at Faro Island in Sweden, when all the NSU circles first got in contact with each other and began working together. One of the first considerations was how to collaborate between circles, exploring the ways in which human-rights militancy and, more generally, the protection of human rights are affected by the international human rights system and the way this regime enters State relations and, on the other side, the ways in which we could connect the sensory or sensitive (le sensible) experience, such as the aesthetic one, through the ongoing global debates about: the environment, ecology, humanity and non-humanity, post-humanity and trans-humanity, citizenship and environmental migration through the lens of representations, Anthropocene-centered discourses on degrowth, the ethics of de-extinction, the education on citizenship and urban participative democracy, the politics of care and common good, etc. Of course, all these questions were so inspiring and the debates so rich, that we opted for an interdisciplinary experimental seminar: Environmental Aesthetics and Citizenship.

Three main authors, one artist, and their recent works inspired us to start the discussion and to launch the Seminar. Fortunately for us, they did us the honor of participating and giving a talk, and thus brought their own contribution to the Project. Here, I would like to express all my gratitude to Nathalie Blanc, who is the French pioneer in eco-criticism, an artist, researcher and geographer, specialized in the realm of Urban Nature, environmental aesthetics, and environmental mobilization and activism. As a founding member of the French internet portal of the Environmental Humanities, she was also the French delegate (2011-2015) of the European Research Network COST “Investigating cultural sustainability”[i] as well as a privileged researcher of the European program “How Matter Matters” (2016-2019). Her book with Barbara Benish, (2016) Form, Art, and Environment: Engaging in sustainability (London, Routledge), was naturally the inspiration for the title of the Seminar as well as the direction that we decided to follow, questioning the place of art in the discourse of political ecology and the politics of care through the ecological vulnerability in the context of the everyday needs of urban “survival”, including the politics of sustainable food, urban farms and urban soils within the Project “SOLS FICTIONS”, dedicated to the urban soils of the Anthropocene.

Blanc’s shared experience within her participation in the European research program How Matter Matters (2016-2019) and her political ecology discourse led us to another eminent author who is pursuing a twenty-year polemical work strongly engaged within the philosophical ontology and axiology related to the philosophy of technology and the production of sense in a time of crisis. We mean the philosopher, researcher, Professor in Epistemology and Gilbert Simondon specialist, Jean-Hugues Barthélémy, who had just published his new work (2018) La Société de l’invention. Pour une architectonique philosophique de l’âge écologique (Paris, Éditions Matériologiques). Revisiting the idea of the “crisis of sense” within a very particular philosophical language, dismissed by some of his critics as too fractious, he proceeds to connect it to the “ecological crisis”, thus establishing the bases of a future system that should be radically anti-dogmatic for the individuation of the ultimate sense. For him, in this system, Simondon’s ontological genetics, or genesis “génésique”, is finally re-founded. That becomes possible by including and redesigning Simondon’s “philosophy of ontological information”, linking it to the “philosophy of economic production” and the “philosophy of axiological education”, each of which precedes their reconfiguration outside ethics and, especially, the “ethics of low” in its totality. Introducing an idea of a philosophy of the paradox, Jean-Hugues Barthélémy opened for us the question of how one should connect these three principles (“philosophy of ontological information”, “philosophy of economic production”, “philosophy of axiological education”) to the ongoing debate of the ontological link between human and non-human in terms of sensory experience, i.e. the aesthetic one, and how we could revisit the individuation of sense overwhelming the modern paradigm of the separation between nature and culture by introducing the question of “axiological education”.

Rethinking Toward the Materiality of Aesthetic Experience (Peter De Bolla, 2002), we discovered Jean-Michel Durafour’s book (2018) Cinéma et cristaux. Traité d’éconologie (Paris, Éditions Mimésis). A philosopher and Professor of Aesthetics and Films Studies, Jean-Michel Durafour’s work opened up our discussion to the consideration of living beings and non-organic forms of life. His innovative ontological conception of iconology, as thinking of images as material beings, includes a comprehensive aesthetic theory of images as artworks, popular culture, scientific imageries and ethnology. Thus we could revisit the “artist’s gesture” explored by Jean-Marie Shaeffer (Adieu à l’esthétique, 2016), and the materiality of the aesthetic experience as a ‘one-dimensional’ iconology inducing a ‘one-dimensional’ ontology. Durafour is thus exhuming Aby Warburg’s idea about images as “expressions of equal dignity” and subjects of a ‘flat’ iconology as well as a ‘flat’ ontology going back to Duns Scotus’ idea of “being as unequivocal”. What is particular here is the empirical use of the field of cinema as primary material exploring the hypothesis that through material experiences (e.g., the context of viewing experience, the framework, the digital apparatus, the experimental and animated film), we could go beyond the mere cinematographic domination of images. This hypothesis should be probably confirmed by a clause on “general iconology”. And that is the point that provokes the central interest of Durafour’s work, already developing since his previous writings: the “general iconology” is distinct from any allusion to Alain Roger’s Court traité du paysage (1997) and is within the linguistic (nominal) intersection of iconology and ecology, hence diverging from the growing (nominal) use of ‘ecology’ and ‘economy’. Furthermore, that ‘clause’ becomes the main pivot in relation to Barthélémy’s “eco-logical age” and Blanc’s pragmatic approach to the aesthetic (environmental) objects. Consistently, Durafour claims a “christalographic Aesthetics of film”. Nevertheless, Le traité d’éconologie includes the relationship to biological theories, as well as ecology, ontology and anthropology lingering within the images. Questioning images takes place at the very particular intersection between art and science (i.e. physics, natural history, genetics) in relation to film. Thus, his ‘iconology’ reposes on metaphysical, ontological and biological principles as a specific discourse about images.

Durafour’s suggestion of new anthropological, ontological and ecological practices applied to images disrupts and involves the possibility of an ‘alter-iconology”. Consequently, the ‘econology’ is an ‘iconology’, which reposes on a relationniste type of ontology: the world is not composed by inert or living entities, but these entities are the product of their relationships with each other. The chief example is “loneliness” as a modality of being-in-relation with: without the experience of the other, one should not be able to understand that he or she is alone. It is in that tradition of ‘relationnisme’ that Durafour rethinks here the ‘econology’ based on the history of the philosophy and contemporary ecology. From there comes his redefinition of the iconology as a specific idea of the image, which is the relational composition of the image itself and its iconographic environment (milieu): artistic images, scientific theories or imageries, philosophical doctrines, literary works, cultural products, etc. We are interested in images, says Durafour, and that is because they are “beings-in-between” (inter-esse). From the idea of relationisme, follows that the concept of perception should be enlarged to the existing whole. He is using the precept from N.A.Whitehead of the “perception without cognition”: thus Durafour includes non-organic forms of life in the understanding of a singular ‘prehension’. We could recall here Jacques Lacan’s “sardine can” (Les quatre concepts fondamentaux de la psychanalyse, 1973) that is gazing at us, while the Real is challenged by its entirety. Accordingly, images could exist without being perceived by the particularity of conscious human cognition. The question that then appears concerns the production of the images themselves (en soi) and without the correlation image-observer. Thus, we should think that the relationships that images are entertaining within their iconic environment should not be reduced to the relation between them and the humans, nor to other relationships familiar to humans. Hence Durafour, inspired by E. Kohn (How Forests Think: Towards an Anthropology Beyond the Human, 2013), suggests rethinking an iconology beyond the human perspective of it. This point also maintains and encourages us to think about the object without the limitations of mere human access, as opposed to the dominant post-Kantian tendency. Furthermore, Durafour continues his reflection by discussing the relationship between relationnisme, correlationnisme and anticorrelationnisme, following his thesis on ‘econology’. In that we gleaned three main theses about it as a science about the living relationship between images. Including that: a) images in general are non-organic forms of life; b) images maintain between each other and within their iconic environment mutual and co-evolutional relationships such as “expressions-in-between” (entr’expression) and material ones such as “perception-in-between” (d’entre-perception); c) iconology is a science about these relationships.

Following this inspiring scholarship, our attention was attracted to Pauline Julier’s recent artistic presentation. In her work Naturalis Historia (2017) (https://ccsparis.com/event/pauline-julier), a movie and a moving-images art dispositive (apparatus), the artist Pauline Julier is asking: what is “real Nature”? Inspired by the works of Professor Wang and his team on a coalmine in China, where an unexpected tropical forest appeared under the geological strata engulfed by a volcano, Julier is realizing a very personal artistic but also documentary work that is underlining multiple challenges for the environmental humanities. Recalling the eminent work of Pliny the Elder and his Naturalis Historia, Julier invites us to make an inventory of the World, as he did, combining art and science, archeology and ecology. The discovery of that forest—the oldest one before human and even animal life emerged—is also a clarion call for witnesses to archive and document a piece of Naturalis Historia, which is expected to mobilize our contemporary imaginaries. Thus analyzing Julier’s work, we could see that it includes the main problematic approached by Nathalie Blanc, Jean-Hugue Barthélémy and Jean-Michel Durafour. Expressing a special form of art and science work, in the context of the everyday–the care of the everyday, life forms and life styles— Julier is developing something original that we could call an environmental aesthetics. With this in mind, we considered her artistic practices as proposing aesthetic and ethical-moral objects acting as ways of seeing new-old life forms.

Keeping in mind the above-mentioned arguments, the contributions from this special edition of Nordicum-Mediterraneum emerging directly from our Seminar revolve around the issues of environmental challenges, educational campaigns, political and environmental sustainability, non-political, apolitical and supra-political aspects of human life, human rights, democracy (including citizenship), transhumanism, post-humanism, political eco-logy, gender studies, atmosphere, identity, atmosphere, pathic aesthetics, ecology, environment [Umwelt], environmentalism and ecological aesthetics.

Expanding Democratic Citizenship: Education Through Bildung. Klafki Confronting the 21st Century

Our first contribution, by Asger Sørensen, explores the issues related to including in the contemporary democratic education template a theory of Bildung inspired by Wolfgan Klafki (Studien zur Bildungstheorie und Didaktik, 1963): the cultural Bildung as problem-solving in addition to political democracy for educational outreach. It is important to stress that the work of Klafki did not have an influence beyond the borders of the German-speaking world, with the exception of Denmark, where his work received an enthusiastic reception. Sørensen shows us how important it is to maintain an axiology for citizens’ education, at all social and political levels. Participative and direct democracies are highlighted in a way to show how a collective aesthetic experience could contribute to the common good. The Bildung theory appears to be very appealing for the contemporary world, especially when thinking about climate migration and the ethical debate about de-extinction. It also seems to be a useful template for questions of gender and religious discrimination including the problematic of human rights through citizen education and Bildung. Moving beyond Rawls, Durkheim, Habermas et alia, Sørensen ultimately claims that only by emphasizing the metaphysical value of every individual human being can democracy, Bildung and citizenship education hope to cross cultural boundaries and divides, so as to establish an attractive and legitimate background culture of mutual trust.

Remarks on Science, Epistemology and Education in Bruno Latour’s Down to Earth

Olivier Kaufman is interrogating issues of “soil” and citizenship in Bruno Latour’s recent works, namely:  From which epistemic stance can “soil” be seen, and how, precisely, is the ensuing description carried out? Criticizing Latour’s scientific-epistemological stances of ‘Galileism’, Kaufman suggests that there are other models that we could follow, especially in order to look more closely at the differences between the thesis of Latour on a ‘view from nowhere’, which is “misguided and wrong in the details” for Kaufman, and the alternative stance toward the ‘Terrestrial’ that Latour is arguing for. The ability to form conceptions towards a view from nowhere is constitutive for being able to think. Kaufman recalls Thomas Nagel’s book The View from Nowhere (1986), where Nagel has argued in detail for this epistemological ‘fate’ of human beings – a kind of ‘double vision’, since we can transcend our subjective selves – although not fully so. For Kaufman that is an essential part of our pursuits of truth – that we are able to attempt putting ourselves to the side, including being able to acknowledge another subject’s point of view. At the same time, Kaufman considers a missing element in Latour’s attitude towards education, encouraging us to revisit the discarded ‘old forms of subjectivities’, i.e. attitudes, myths and rituals, as we develop new templates offering a survival perspective for our human future.

Ecology of Sense(-making), Political Eco-logy and Non-ethical Refounding of Law

In his contribution, Jean-Hugues Barthélémy shows his concern about “health of both nature and culture” and thus the necessity for the deconstruction of the duality of nature/culture. In that sense he gives an example concerning “Transhumanism and many other new ways of thought” that “are still – implicitly but undoubtedly – under the paradigm of the duality nature/culture, since their position needs in the last instance a discontinuity between nature and culture”. Barthélémy underlines a paradox between the evolutionary theory of transhumanism (as its goal is to build an immortal post-human) and the naturalist claim about language and consciousness: “The only way to keep an evolutionary framework while considering human self-construction is to admit the finitude of human being as historicity or self-construction which prolongs evolution and reveals the fact that biological life itself has no essence […], the very strange fact is that naturalists do not even consider the non-human animal when they assert that ‘consciousness’ is reducible to its physico-chemical substratum : in their minds, the ‘problem of consciousness’ is a problem which concerns human beings only.” For Barthélémy, the transhumanist position is ideological, taking advantage of speculative techno-capitalism so as to dream of a post-human era instead of worrying about the future of the planet. On the contrary, Barthélémy defends the so-called current geological age ‘Anthropocene’, which at least, through its ultimate and dramatic consequences, reveals the indirect index of the crisis of sense(-making), which results from the misunderstanding of human finitude – that is to say: human non-originarity (or being-derived) and therefore human mortality. Inspired by Husserl and Heidegger, but moving beyond their thought, and debating implicitly as always with Simondon and Bachelard, Barthélémy is developing his own theory on sense(-making) as noematic, three-dimensional and over-representational of the ob-jects of thought. Accordingly, “such an archi-reflexive semantics, which provides an unprecedented modality of the self-‘knowledge’ that philosophy must be, can be considered as a fundamental ecology of sense(-making) – and of its crisis -, because sense(-making) is the “milieu of all milieux” which make sense within it”, Barthélémy says.

From that modality follows the articulation of multidimensional sense(-making), engendering a philosophy of ontological information, a philosophy of economic production and a philosophy of axiological education. Claiming that the “Law is not the system of compatibility between the ‘free-wills’ of ‘moral persons’, but the system of compatibility between the needs of all the human and non-human subjects that might suffer from not satisfying their needs”, Barthélémy introduces the idea that “the political eco-logy which should permit us to go beyond the debate between the post-Rousseau ‘political philosophies’ of the ‘social contract’ and the post-Marxist ‘political economies’ of ‘suspicion’. In this new theoretical context, freedom and justice are needs because needs are what ensures health – against suffering – and not just survival”. Claiming that axiological problems are educational problems and denouncing how Western thought confuses health and happiness, Barthélémy moves to the question of ‘re-founding’ the Law: “further thinking about a new and non-ethical notion of responsibility is now possible: my being-in-debt towards the universal ecosystem means that my semantic non-originarity translates itself into a responsibility within the political-economic problematic – exactly as it translated itself into a non-substantiality of beings within the epistemological-ontological problematic, and into a contingency of our being and values within the pedagogical-axiological problematic”. Thus, if the Law re-founded in a non-ethical way is not breaking the relationship to Nature where that clause does not exists, but “the entirely refunded Law has for vocation to become what will allow the planetary ecosystem’s balance to be maintained beyond the anthropocenic ruin of the forces which have founded it so far as equilibrium”, Barthélémy argues. In that way, the duality human/ non-human would be deconstructed and thus we could recover an equilibrium within the sense(-making) and the environmental, so as to finish with the eco-political crisis of sense(-making).

The Human Rights of Privileged Victims. A Marxist Satire on Shouting Matches

The thought-provoking discussion of Barthélémy’s proposition about the “Law re-founded in a non-ethical way” continues within the contribution of Giorgio Baruchello. Stressing the fixed social inequalities – in terms of gender, religion, social status and the imposed status quo – and seeing human rights overwhelmed by the over-privileged 1%, Baruchello adopts a very pragmatic approach, one could say almost an anthropological one, replacing the old semantics of the “classe bourgeoise” with current terms such as “the corporate elite”, “the job creators”, or just “the rich”. Highlighting the old principle of divide et impera, Baruchello shows how this old-as-the-World principle is still in operation, especially in times of crisis, observing: “When religion cannot do a good enough a job, viable alternatives exist: race, nationality; region-, party- or even football-based affiliation can be often as effective”. In these terms he faces the great ongoing debate on disparities between men and women. The gender discourse is an example of how popular attention is diverted from far more important questions and what is pointed out is that such a debate is subverting the middle class as well as the academic environment. The question should be: is that a false direction to take in hand the problematic proposed within the refunding of the Law in a non-ethical way that “has for vocation to become what will allow the planetary ecosystem’s balance to be maintained beyond the anthropocenic ruin of the forces which have founded it so far as equilibrium”, as Barthélémy claims? According to Baruchello: “Men and women spend endless time and effort squabbling about the so-called ‘male privilege’ and an alleged set of attendant disparities, rather than combining their efforts in order to pursue better wages, better working conditions, sensible monetary and fiscal policies by State authorities, true economic security and autonomy, a life-saving stop to the all-embracing profit-motive that is destroying the planet, as well as emancipatory self-ownership and democratic self-stewardship”. It seems that the same considerations concern the economic apparatus (dispositif in terms of Foucault), the decision-making societies from all levels up to the European commission’s technocrats. In comparison, the female representatives are more and more duped into participating in commonly understood patriarchal structures, and even though some of them enjoy careers and prestige, they are still subverted by the same regime of domination. The working place is also an environment, an urban one, and also the one that has to be the habitus and the habiter in everyday life.

However, gender roles could also have some positive aspects in the contemporary debate, especially when it concerns Western women who are winners in that case. But socially, this debate replaces the problematic of the ‘working class’ and especially what has been going on in Europe for decades: for Baruchello, “Europe’s working class has emigrated to China under the banner of ‘globalization’”. As a result, the egalitarian principle could not satisfy centuries-old traditions of non-emancipation. And that is a concern for both men and women, according to Baruchello. The question of human rights is completely displaced and still very alien from the one concerning the duality human/non-human through the refunded Law and its vocation to allow the planetary ecosystem’s balance to be maintained beyond the anthropocenic ruin of the forces which have founded it so far as equilibrium, in terms of Barthélémy’s claim. Yet, one could think about some possible issues as a contrapuntal presence within that very pessimist landscape of the contemporary Western world. Supposing, for example, that the Law is not refunded according to a non-ethical template, so that human rights could still be evolved as a counter-power against the 1%. That would be the point that is underlined in the contribution of Carsten Friberg.

Identity and Aesthetics. Atmosphere as an approach to the appearance of the concrete person

Carsten Friberg approaches the question of human rights by conceptualizing ‘sensitivity aesthetics’. For him, sensitivity (le sensible) relates to the forming of both identity and perception. (Here we could recall Durafour’s position on ‘perception’ that we already discussed.) Friberg illustrates his assumption following the Baroque writer Baltasar Gracián’s reflections in Oráculo manual y arte de prudencia (1647). The appearance and the perception of what we call identity are very often displaced from the very idea of it. Therefore aesthetics could be approached as a matter of sensorial perception that supplements the reduction of complexity in a conceptual identification. Assuming that the human being evolved in relation to its environment – cultural, social and natural – Friberg claims that: “We embody social relations as well as perception and sensorial relations to ourselves and the environment the way we have learned to”. To enforce his assertion, he introduces the concepts of ‘atmosphere’ having in mind the works of Gernot Böhme and the ‘pathic aesthetics’ of Tonino Griffero. But the way he emphasizes the sensitive (sensible) dimension of identity leads us to pay attention to “how the consequences of strong ideas of identity prove not only to be insensitive and prejudiced but can result in the neglect and dehumanization of individuals”. Here is the question of citizenship as related to identity: What makes me human, individual, having rights and belonging to this or that identity? Who am I? And what makes me an individual having rights, i.e. defending my rights of being, having a legal protection issued from belonging to a national, juridical community? Is that a passport, a ‘soil’, a community, etc., that makes me capable of affirming my identity? In that sense we are still far from establishing the pretended sensitivity (le sensible) as criterion of identity. Nevertheless, we should assume that there is that emotional, sensitive side of the question of identity that is subversive, on the one hand, of my environmental life-long education and belonging to a milieu, and, on the other hand, of my own subjective experience, which could be also a choice of who I am and who I want to be. That could be an allusion to Pierre Bourdieu’s thesis on class reproduction and of the initial ignorance of the milieu to which “I” belong. As Friberg says, it is about how environment matters, because we are guided and influenced by cultural artifacts, specifically aesthetic artifacts, judgment of taste, education and absorption of sensitivity as such.

The intervention of the so-called new technologies does not simplify the problem: should “I”, or my identity, correspond to a ‘fingerprint’? Does identification of a body, even though it is ‘mine’, express a state of mind, character, or sensitivity? Accordingly, for Friberg: “The relationship between aesthetics and identity should be apparent when recognizing the relationship to the forming of senses, feelings, and body”. From this stems the axiological role of aesthetics, as related to the values of a community, its appearances and shared experiences such as social roles, nationalities, gender choices and storytelling within it. So the “I” as a free subject is surrounded by all these spheres, milieus and environments in his everyday being. Carsten Friberg relates his problematic to Böhme’s understanding of “atmosphere as a fundamental concept of aesthetics”. Within that concept, perception, experience, the body, individuals, objects and the environment are merged inside the affective and sensitive (le sensible) experience of the environment. The concept of atmosphere, in this sense, means that perception is a kind of diplopia experience that should not determine the phenomenology of seeing, perceiving and feeling: it is the extension of the aura of all these elements as “atmosphere of a place” or “perceiving atmospherically”. However, it is important to underline, and Friberg stresses it, that this specific experience which Böhme reveals, of ecology as an organic environment, is not merely including nature into the aesthetic experience, as a bodily or corporeal one, hence alluding slightly to A.G. Baumgarten’s conception of aesthetics, but to this “organic environment” [Umwelt] extending to the non-organic forms of life. Thus, the concept of atmosphere reveals an aesthetic experience without necessarily including nature, but rather its very Kantian sense of disinterestedness. In spite of this, it is somehow anthropocentric and caring for the human sensitivity to aesthetic judgments integrating “the human being as a sensorial and bodily being affected by its surroundings”. And this is the pivotal point of Friberg’s presentation that changes our fundamental relationship to the world: aesthetics without nature and recovering identity through environmental aesthetic experience perceived atmospherically.

Environmentalism Without Nature ? Steven Vogel’s post-natural environmental philosophy

Adopting an opposing position in his contribution, Sune Frølund analyses the thesis of Steven Vogel’s “postnatural” environmental philosophy as expressed in Against Nature. The Concept of Nature in Critical Theory (1996). Although criticizing it and pointing out its ambiguities, Sune Frølund argues for an overwhelming ambivalent attitude to nature that prevails in his writings, influenced by the Critical Theory tradition and integrated by Vogel’s pragmatic constructivist epistemology. This novel approach grapples with Böhme’s analysis, which we just saw in the contribution of Carsten Friberg, where the question of ‘pathic experience’ was underlined.  What Frølund is exploring here is the way in which we could succeed in bypassing the specific attitude to nature coming from philosophers such as Lukács, Adorno, Horkheimer, Habermas, and Marcuse. However, the idea of post-natural environmental philosophy is also much closer to Bruno Latour and Jacques Derrida, concerning the former’s separation between nature and culture qua ideological and political construction and the latter’s postmodern theory in general. Frølund exposes Vogel’s arguments against the misleading place given to nature by Lukács, who claims, “Nature is a social category” and, at the same time, rejects Engel’s “dialectics of nature”. The question that follows, and Frølund is stressing it, is “how is it possible to think of an ‘environment without nature”? Contesting the philosophers from the school of Critical Theory, but also using their arguments, Frølund insists that what Vogel claims, “helps us see that the overcoming of this alienation consists in realizing that nothing in the material reality, not even nature, exists un-mediated by human construction and labor”, which includes the position of Lukács (“Reality is not, it becomes”) and the Marxist concept of “alienation”.

Hence another question appears, following Bill McKibben: “What if we drop the very idea of Nature?” And that question is the very recognition of the way humans succeeded in leaving their mark everywhere within Nature as a trace of their activities. From this recognition results, as Frølund underlines, Vogel’s concept of ‘environmentalism’, which should replace the separation between nature and culture and allow the organization of human existence around its own actions in everyday life: “The world is not something we find ourselves in; it is something we have helped to make. But at the same time it is something that helps to make us: we are who we are because of the environment that we inhabit. The environment is socially constructed; society is environmentally constructed”. Recalling the importance of the concept of “labor” through Kant, Hegel and the Marxist use of it, Frølund underlines Vogel’s attempt to represent a new type of materialism in which the idea of practice is taken seriously as physical labor or as material practice. Accordingly, we should accept that everywhere within our “sub-lunar terrestrial world” there are residues from an “anthropogenic impact”. Vogel’s’ argument for that is: “if cognition is a practice there is no cognition of anything beyond practice, i.e. no cognition of anything unaffected, unconstructed or unbuilt like nature is assumed to be” – and that is his incontestable pragmatic constructivist epistemology. However, it is evident that, as humans, we need to have a coherent environmental theory and for that we need to reconsider the concept of “nature”. For that we need, in turn, to denote a former existence of a pre-anthropogenic, unconstructed world. And furthermore, we need to show that nature was before and will be after the human action on it.  Frølund stresses that point, too: “only if environmentalism were able to acknowledge that there is nature before and after anthropogenic impacts, it is possible to determine which of our actions has or will change nature to a degree that threatens our survival”.  To save his “materialism”, Vogel affirms that even an artifact has a ‘nature of its own’ and may “exceed [its] relation to human construction”. At the same time, Frølund assures us that nature only “plays a kind of cautionary role” or “nominal” role in his theory, and that he only sanctions the word because it reminds “us of the limits of our abilities and the need to be careful and modest about our attempts to transform the world”. With that we could recognize the contradiction of a theory that maintains human cognition as material experience capable of overwhelming nature within its practice, but at the same time recognizing the need for a coherent acceptance of it. As a result, Frølund articulates the problem arising within this new type of materialism defended by Vogel: “What is Nature at all?”. Is it a question of constructivist cognition or the continuation of a fight between environmentalists about the idea of nature, as Latour (2017) suggests it as “le Terrestre” that more or less plays the role of the old concept?

The Nature-culture Continuum through Moving Images: From Vegetable Pompeii (Pauline Julier) to NATURALIS HISTORIÆ (Pliny the Elder) 

Continuing the debate, and especially, restating the question “What is Nature?”, my contribution to the present collective work is a type of ‘field  work’ (an art project of Pauline Julier), using images as “primary materials”, asking questions such as “what if before humans there was, and after there would be, Nature?”. The question that I am asking is: “is it possible to make an inventory of the World before humans disappear?” And if we should follow a new materialist practice still dreading the duality nature/ human society, how should we defend the complexity of the “anthropogenic impact”? Combining art and science, archeology and ecology, Pauline Julier invites us to rethink the discovery of a forest, maybe the oldest one ever, before human and even animal life emerged, as a witness, archive and document, in order to mobilize our contemporary imaginaries and eventually to act. I am arguing that this project, put in the context of the everyday, provokes our cognitive capacities for care, life forms and life-styles in respect to environmental aesthetics. With this in mind, I am considering her artistic practices as a materiality of the aesthetic experience dealing with ethical-moral objects in terms of Saito (2007). By considering the artist’s responsibility in the process of producing, I am exploring her artwork as a gesture, and the artistic action as a projection of society’s “forms of life” (Wittgenstein; Braidotti). Seen this way, the artist is an author-producer (Benjamin) of a “form of life”. That understanding of the artist is indebted to Dewey’s notion of “the experience of experience”, which recognizes that the aesthetic experience is not separate from the life experience. That should be considered as the will of the artist to repair the ethical connection to the environment, which is by itself the sharing of ethic and aesthetic experience (Nathalie Blanc; Jacques Rancière). In that sense the sharing of the sensitivity is repaired. This, in turn, opens the way towards an environmental aesthetics. Accordingly, Julier shows us that it is not scientific inventions that discovered Nature but, on the contrary, that is the Nature, as a subject of our human devastating actions on it, which is contributing to our scientific research and understanding of it. And the way in which we dispose of objects brings us to some sacred significance: Nature existed before us humans, and will exist after our own self-provoked extinction. Another point we address is how the attempt to escape from that, as the transhuman and the posthuman conditions are trying to do, would be to approach images that Julier is showing through the scholarship of Jean-Michel Durafour and his concept of “econology”:  images as “beings-in-between” creating a link between human and non-human nature. I demonstrate next how we, from our human position, should face and reconnect the inhuman part of images, i.e. Nature.

I am infinitely thankful to Giorgio Baruchello for inviting me as a guest editor for this special issue of Nordicum-Mediterraneum. I would also like to express my gratitude toward my colleague Mogens Chrom Jacobsen, who made the success of our Project possible, and Kelly Cogswell, who helped with the text.

[i] I am using double quotation marks when it is a straight citation of a word or expression and single quotation marks to stress the importance of the concept.

The Nature-culture continuum through moving images: from Pauline Julier’s Vegetable Pompeii to Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historiae

In her work (œuvre) Naturalis Historia (2017), a movie and moving images art dispositive, the artist Pauline Julier is asking: what is the “real Nature”? Enthused by the works of Professor Wang and his team on a coalmine in China, where an uncanny tropical forest appeared under the stratums engulfed by a volcano, Julier is realizing a very personal but also documentary work that is underlining multiple challenges for the environmental humanities.

Inspired by the eminent work of Pliny the Elder and his Naturalis Historiae, Julier invites us to make an inventory of the World, as he did, compelling art and science, archeology and ecology. The discovery of that forest–the oldest one before human and even animal–is also a call-up of witness, as archive and document, to mobilize our contemporary imaginaries and eventually to act.

Thus analyzing Julier’s work and through her witness, I would argue that her form of art, in the context of the everyday — that is the care of the everyday, life forms and life styles –, is developing something we could call an environmental aesthetics. With this in mind I will consider her artistic practices as proposing aesthetic and ethical-moral objects (Saito, 2007).

In considering the artist’s responsibility in the process of producing, I will explore the artwork as a gesture, and the artistic act as a projection of society’s “forms of life” (Wittgenstein, 1953; Braidotti, 2013). Seen this way the artist is an author-producer (Benjamin, 1936) of a “form of life”. That understanding of the artist is indebted to Dewey’s notion of “the experience of experience” which recognizes that aesthetic experience is not separate from the life experience (Dewey, 1934). That should be considered as the will of the artist to repair the ethical connection to the environment, which is by itself the sharing of ethic and aesthetic experience: the sharing of the sensitive is repaired. This, in turn, opens the way towards an environmental aesthetics.

Accordingly Julier shows us that it is not the scientific inventions that discovered the Nature, but on the contrary that is the change of the Nature who is contributing to the scientific research. And this is the way in which we are disposing of objects bringing us to some sacred significance. Another point that will take us to analyze the posthuman condition, as research methodology, would be to approach images that Julier is showing through the recent scholarship of Durafour and his idea of “econology”: images as “beings-in-between” making the link between human and non-human nature. I hope to demonstrate next how we, from our human position, should face and reconnect the inhuman part of images.

(The proof-read full article is not available yet.)

On a Conversation between Socrates and Meno in the Dialogue “Meno”

Meno is divided into 3 parts:

Part I 70 a – 81c is a conversation between Meno and Socrates as to whether or not virtue can be taught which cannot be done unless it is known what virtue is.

Part II 81c – 86c Socrates tries to convince Meno that Meno’s servant can recollect – i.e. bring to mind something that he already knows – the relation between a given square and one twice its area.

Part III 86c – 100c  (where the discussion concludes) where Socrates claims that “the truth about reality is always in our soul”

What follows discusses only Part II in which Socrates asks the boy to construct a square twice the area of a given square. Socrates presupposes that the boy already knows what a square looks like (“what it is” in everyday language), knows (accepts) that the four sides of the square are equal and that two are parallel to the base, two to the vertical.

The boy is presumed to “see” (“accept”) that within the original square there are four equal squares. When asked to describe a square twice the area of the given square he suggests that the solution would be to double the length of the sides of the given square. Socrates brings him to discover that, were that done, the resultant square would be four times the area of the given square rather than twice its area. He eventually gets the boy to discover that that diagonal of the given square is the length of the sides of the square twice the area of the given square.

Socrates knows the answer to the question; the boy does not. Socrates brings him to discover the answer by asking questions which the boy is able to answer. Evidently the questions to be of any value in this context must lead to answers that will bring the questioner to the solution. Socrates asks the questions but it is worth remarking that the questions become questions for the boy only when he takes them to be questions that he considers worth asking and is willing to try to answer .

There remains an unnoticed feature of the discussion between the boy and Socrates. The boy is led to discover how to construct a square twice the area of the given square. Obviously it is possible to construct a square twice the area of the constructed square and another twice its area and so ad infinitum. Evidently, there are squares squares three times the area, half the area, a fifth the area of the original and so on …

There is an infinity of squares. What makes each one a square is its form. Its matter the possibility of being one of infinitely many.

The boy saw what Socrates had drawn in the sand and took it to be – understood it to be;  – a square. He already knew “what a square was” in that he knew that it was a four sided figure with equal and parallel sides – two horizontal and two vertical. He also took implicitly for granted  that there were infinitely many squares equal to the given square and also infinitely many squares twice the area of the original. What remained unique is the form which can be understood but cannot be seen.

Young children can easily see that one square is bigger than another and  may be told that the bigger  of the two is described as being twice the size of the first and so has a rough idea of “twice the size” –    something like “quite a lot bigger” – and as we grow up our everyday understanding of “twice the size” (or, “twice as big”) becomes more delicate and more exact when we learn measurement but  we continue to use “about twice as big”or “ about twice the size” in everyday conversation as we should not see – or claim – that something was “seventeen times the size”.

The boy in Meno learns that the diagonal of a square is the length of  the  sides of a square twice the area of the original square. He does not, and cannot, literally “see” that it is. In Meno Plato does not say the discovery is the discovery of a feature in the form or nature of the square; nor does he  advert to the fact that the new square is half the size of a square based on its own diagonal. He does not say that the boy has discovered a feature or element in form of the square, nor that there is an infinite number of squares each one based on the diagonal of the preceding square.

However, this much is clear. The boy sees a shape in the sand; he “sees it as” (Wittgenstein) a square; as what is called “a square”. In the dialogue, he is said to know the basic features of a square. He does not know how to discover  or construct a square double the area of this square. But he accepts that there is such a square. Implicitly he accepts – as, crucially, does the reader – that there is no largest square.

It is a fundamental and inescapable feature of a square that there is a larger square; in the dialogue the question is how to discover a square twice the area of the given square but it is also true that there is a square three, four, five …..&c. times its area. Thus, the question of the size of the largest square does not properly arise because there is no largest square. Equally, there is no smallest square.

The nature of a square can be known but cannot be seen.

Similarly, the shapes 1,2,3 can be seen. Children who have been taught that they represent numbers and have learnt how to deal with numbers see that sequence of shapes as the second, third and fourth number in the infinite sequence 0,1,2,3,…&c. (Children often mistakenly take the sequence to represent the first,second and third number.) There is a property of the sequence 1,2,3 that is shared by no other sequence of three consecutive numbers in the infinitely many sets of three consecutive numbers -.e.g. 2,3,4; 3,4,5; 4,5,6…1001,1002,1003; 1001,1002,1003  ….. Why that assertion is true cannot be seen but can be understood.

1,2,3 is unique because all three numbers in that sequence are prime including 2 which is the only even prime number. The sequence 11, 12, 13 contains two prime numbers (11, 13) but, as is true of every sequence,  contains at least one even number, and no even number other than 2 is prime because every even number is divisible by 2.

Someone who can see a square, sees a diagram that represents a square, and is told the opposite sides of the drawn square are to be taken to be parallel and equal –  it is worth remarking here that that diagrams in Euclid represent lines, squares, rectangles, ….but that a Euclidean point or line (and other figures) as defined cannot be seen. In Book I, 1. A point is that which has no parts, or which has no magnitude. 2. A line is length without breadth.

In Meno the boy sees a figure that he has learnt is called “a square”. When a “diagonal” is added he sees it. When he is told that the diagonal is the length of the lines in a square twice the area he may believe that to be the case but he does not yet know. When he discovers that to be so he sees no more than before;  but understands and knows.  What he understands is the form of a square. His movement from seeing to questioning, to  understanding and knowing is, perhaps, not unlike that of those in the cave in the Republic.

Inner Speech and Prejudice in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu

The term « prejudice » has two meanings in English: 1) a bias (a partiality) in the judgement, a prejudgement, 2) the harm that someone can do to someone else. One can, perhaps, feel that somewhere and somehow the two meanings are connected. When, to take only one example, Yanko Tsvetkov proposes an Atlas of Prejudice, a book in which he presents an analysis of what people in Europe generally think about other people living in other places of Europe — aka stereotypes —, he uses the term « prejudices » in both senses: i. e. the harm that people do to other people by the bias of some of their judgements [12]. However, the connection remains obscure and while it could be suspected to be only located in the structure of language, it could also have its roots in the experience itself. Where and how are these senses connected? Is it a purely grammatical connection? Or is this connection more profound located in the core of lived experience itself? These are the questions I would like to address in this paper by looking at the work of Marcel Proust in search of some interesting insight that would be dispersed here.


My approach will follow a three-step process. I will begin with 1) some preliminary considerations that will show the importance of looking at « inner speech » to understand prejudice. From there on, 2) I will look at what phenomenologists have said about inner speech. And from there, 3) I will turn to some pieces of literature, namely to the work of Marcel Proust, to explore the concrete meaning of what phenomenologists have shown and I myself will show the relevance of such a turn for the understanding of prejudice in its double aspect (bias and harm).

Inner speech and prejudice

What is « inner speech »? Broadly defined, inner speech covers all the things people say to themselves, the flow of their thought, as long as these thoughts are verbalised (expressed in some way) but not loudly pronounced (and thus inaudible). « Stream of consciousness » is an alternative term that is often used to describe that phenomenon, even though this term is generally connected to a sequence of authors in the history of literature who took interest precisely in that phenomenon (the term has been initially employed by William James in his Principles of Psychology, published in 1890,[6] but it characterizes a literary movement that, according to the novelist May Sinclair, appears with Proust: « Richardson comments that “Proust, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf… were all using ’the new method’, though very differently, simultaneously » [10]. Another term, also frequently used to designate inner speech, is « inner monologue » (it is the term used by Edouard Dujardin, for instance, when he tries to characterise the art of James Joyce, the narrative technique of which is inspired by his own Les lauriers sont coupés, initially published in 1876 [3]). All these denominations are pointing to roughly the same phenomenon, although they each have a particular accentuation. Inner speech can even possibly include forms of inner conversation (one can think here, for instance, at Dostoyevsky’s characters, speaking to themselves in a kind of fight against a part of themselves [2]).

Recently, this « theme » of inner speech (if on can speak about a « theme » assuming that it encompass a very large part of all human activity) seems to have regained an intense interest in the philosophical and psychological community. Indeed, in the year 2016 only, two books dealing with inner speech have been published. One is called The Voices Within: The history and science of how we talk to ourselves, by Charles Fernyough [4]. The book proposes a scientific and psychological approach. It is a broad review of works that have been published on the topic of inner speech. A second book, The Inner Speech and The Dialogical Self, published by Norbert Wiley, also in 2016, proposes a phenomenological approach to the phenomenon. Wiley has developed an investigation tool that allows him to access to some original data about inner speech [13].

I will follow this second kind of approach, i.e. a phenomenological approach, to first address the following question: Why is it important to look at inner speech to investigate prejudice? The answer is that comparing what people say overtly to what they say to themselves is like comparing leaves falling from a tree to the roots of the tree: for a single leave falling (let say, a single prejudice, or stereotyped thought actually expressed), one might have many a root embedded in the soil by which the prejudice has been nourished and reinforced. In other words, the prejudice takes its roots in inner speech. Inner speech is its first medium of expression, well before it goes out in overt expressions. A discrete bunch of sentences that might appear fortuitously in public speech could correspond to an abundant and robust formation in inner speech.

According to the definition we just gave, it is clear that people are experiencing inner speech almost all the time — in other terms, it is a very common experience. Noam Chomsky considered that the largest part of what we say — by far — is said to our self: « Now let us take language. What is its characteristic use? Well, probably 99.9 percent of its use is internal to the mind » [1]. If such an estimate is correct, a large part of the being-with-one-another (the occurrence that generally provoke speech acts) is going on through « inner » speech (being with one another is not restricted to the time we spend with the others in question, it extends to the time one speaks to them in inner speech; to say nothing about simple feelings). And this is where inner speech meets rhetoric.

Inner speech in the phenomenological tradition

When I talk to myself, I am — among other things — imagining the presence of others and thus imagining, for instance, what I would say or what I should have said or what I could say to some others. This is why it is not so simple to distinguish between speaking to oneself and speaking to others. Indeed, the others are constantly present in us, even though they are not physically with us.

There are two immediate and important consequences of these remarks. The first one is that, in one sense we are always speaking to others, even when we are speaking to ourselves. And the second one is that, in an other sense too, we are always speaking to ourselves, even when we are speaking to others (we are continuing a dialogue with ourselves).

This characteristic has been recognised since a long time in the phenomenological tradition. For instance, Heidegger writes in Being and Time, §29: « Rhetoric must be understood as an hermeneutic of being-with-others ». And he would add: « It is not a matter of chance that the first traditional and systematically developed interpretation of the affects is not treated in the scope of « psychology ». Aristotle investigated the « pathe » in the second book of his Rhetoric. Contrary to the traditional orientation of the concept of rhetoric according to which it is some kind of “discipline”, Aristotle’s Rhetoric must be understood as the first systematic hermeneutic of the everydayness of being-with-one-another » (En. tr. by Joan Stambaugh [5]).

Thus: when we speak — to oneself or to others, inwardly or outwardly — we are rhetorically convincing ourselves or others regarding the matter of the appropriate way to take things, to understand them, to interpret what happens. In that sense, inner speech constitutes a material that is as valuable as public speech to study the mechanic of prejudice. And it is perhaps even more valuable, since it is, so to say, the birthplace of prejudice.

The phenomenon is particularly intriguing and interesting since it is located at the very birth of each of our thoughts. And this particularity of inner speech has been recognised by Husserl, the master of Heidegger, very early. In his book Logische Untersuchungen (logical investigations), published in 1900, he would write: « one of course speaks, in a certain sense, even in soliloquy, and it is certainly possible to think of oneself as speaking, and even as speaking to oneself, as, e.g., when someone says to himself: ‘You have gone wrong, you can’t go on like that’ » (En. tr. by John N. Findlay: Logical Investigations, Investigation 1, Expression and meaning, Chapter 1, Essential distinctions, §8 Expressions in solitary life).

The piece of inner speech that is proposed by Husserl (‘You have gone wrong, you can’t go on like that.’) is quite limited for an analysis. Indeed, we have only a few words that are given as an example of what people are possibly saying to themselves and of the way they are doing it. As Husserl generally does, he is very short on the empirical examples he is giving.

The examples of inner speech that are given by Husserl are too minuscule to give rise to an analysis of its content. It is only pointing to the phenomenon but not entering into the detailed description of it. If we want to turn to a more general presentation of what is at stake in inner speech, we have to find an other way to enter into the phenomenon itself. Where could we find larger examples that could become the basis for a more thorough analysis? In other terms: the analysis we have presented gives us the methodological basis to address the question I was mentioning in the introduction (where and how the prejudice as bias becomes prejudice as harm). But we need more matter to enter into the question. Where shall we find this matter?

Proust and inner speech

I propose to enter into the problem of examples of inner speech through the work of a writer, Marcel Proust, 1871-1922. Not only because his book, A la recherche du temps perdu can been seen as a long inner speech, but also because it contains many insightful remarks about the way people are talking to themselves. There are two English translations of Marcel Proust’s novel: Remembrance of Things Past and In Search of Lost Time; the first one, by C. K. Scott Moncrieff later revised by T. Kilmartin has been initially published in 1922-1930; the second one has been published in 1992, translated by D. J. Enright. I will use the second translation [9].

The book deals, according to the author himself (as far as one considers, at least, that the narrator is not completely a stranger to the author; for a thorough distinction between the author and the narrator of In Search of Lost Time: [8]), with the general laws of human nature. In Time Regained, the last volume of the novel, Proust would write: « I was soon able to show an outline of my project. No one understood it. Even those who sympathised with my perception of the truth […] congratulated me on having discovered it with a microscope when, to the contrary, I had used a telescope to perceive things which were indeed very small because they were far away but every one of them a world. Where I was looking for universal laws I was accused of burrowing into the “infinitely insignificant”. »

Whether these sentences are those of Proust himself or of the character of the narrator, they indicates a kind of project in which the mechanism of the way a prejudice is built and maintained might receive some light. Moreover, Proust would publish the first volume of his novel before the first world war and will finish after the war. As a consequence, the book contains abundant remarks about the reasons that made the war happen. These reasons are to be found, as one will see, in prejudice itself (in the sense of partial bias) and they produce, of course, abundant prejudices (in the sense of harm).

This war, the first world war, and the one that will follow, constitute the main reason for the construction of « Europa » as a political project. Proust would not give any historical argument. What does interest him are what could be called the « phenomenological argument » about the roots of war which, according to him, are located in the prejudice that is at work.

From small facts to universal law

Proust would thus describe very subtle situations. But the goal, for him, is never to stay at the level of the quiet limited descriptions he first would give. It is always to formulate the general, and even the universal law that is revealed by subtle situations. And there, he would frequently meet the phenomenologists.

The analyses he would provide go, in one sense, further than those of phenomenologists when it turns to prejudice. The passage that I would like to comment to show this is located in The Fugitive. It consists in a long meditation on the suffering experienced by the narrator (and hero of the novel) intertwined with a meditation on art and politics.

The Fugitive is the second-from-last volume of In Search of Lost Time. It comes after the volume The Captive and before the volume Time Regained. The Captive and The Fugitive both deal with the character of Albertine, with whom the narrator is in love, which gives rise, as one can easily imagine, to an abundance of inner dialogue.

From these conversations with himself, the narrator would discover some general law of human nature. The passage on which I would like to focus deals with a minute error that Françoise, the housemaid of the hero, is making all the time. When she speaks about « Madame Sazerat » (a secondary character in the novel) she says « Madame Sazerin ». And she never corrects herself. Even after years of having heard « Sazerat », she continues to say « Sazerin ». Sazerat or Sazerin, that is the question. Here comes the passage:

« Everyone at Combray had spoken to Françoise for five-and-twenty years of Madame Sazerat and Françoise continued to say ‘Madame Sazerin’, not from that deliberate and proud perseverance in her mistakes which was habitual with her, was strengthened by our contradiction and was all that she had added of herself to the France of Saint-André-des-Champs (of the equalitarian principles of 1789 she claimed only one civic right, that of not pronouncing words as we did and of maintaining that ‘hôtel’, ‘été’ and ‘air’ were of the feminine gender), but because she really did continue to hear ‘Sazerin’.This perpetual error which is precisely ‘life’, does not bestow its thousand forms merely upon the visible and the audible universe but upon the social universe, the sentimental universe, the historical universe, and so forth. The Princesse de Luxembourg is no better than a prostitute in the eyes of the Chief Magistrate’s wife, which as it happens is of little importance ; what is slightly more important, Odette is a difficult woman to Swann, whereupon he builds up a whole romance which becomes all the more painful when he discovers his error ; what is more important still, the French are thinking only of revenge in the eyes of the Germans. We have of the universe only formless, fragmentary visions, which we complete by the association of arbitrary ideas, creative of dangerous suggestions. »


Proust if often interested, in La recherche, by the way people pronounce words and he often pays attention to the meaning of a certain kind of pronunciation that may appears somewhere in a conversation. However, most of the time, this interest is directed to a kind of demonstration which is at the opposite pole to the one we can see here in Françoise. Proust would show, for instance, that the way someone pronounces this or that word is influenced by the way someone else pronounces it. For instance, in In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, the narrator changes his way of pronouncing some expressions as a result of his fascination for the Swanns family: « ‘How d’e do?” (They both pronounced it in the same clipped way, which, you may well imagine, once I was back at home, I made an incessant and delightful practice of copying.) » Here, with Françoise, it is quite the opposite: nothing could make her change the way she pronounces ‘Sazerat’.

Analysis of the example

Let us examine the example given here by Proust which is nothing less than a proposition of explanation regarding the causes of the first word war based on the mistake that Françoise refuses to correct in her language.

The (apparently) tiny example The generalisation The general (universal) law
Everyone at Combray had spoken to Françoise for five-and-twenty years of Mme. Sazerat and Françoise continued to say ‘Mme. Sazerin,’ not from that deliberate and proud perseverance in her mistakes which was habitual with her, was strengthened by our contradiction and was all that she had added of herself to the France of Saint-André-des-Champs (of the equalitarian principles of 1789 she claimed only one civic right, that of not pronouncing words as we did and of maintaining that ‘hôtel,’ ‘été’ and ‘air’ were of the feminine gender), but because she really did continue to hear ‘Sazerin.’ This perpetual error which is precisely ‘life,’ does not bestow its thousand forms merely upon the visible and the audible universe but upon the social universe, the sentimental universe, the historical universe, and so forth. [1] The Princesse de Luxembourg is no better than a prostitute in the eyes of the Chief Magistrate’s wife, which as it happens is of little importance; [2] what is slightly more important, Odette is a difficult woman to Swann, whereupon he builds up a whole romance which becomes all the more painful when he discovers his error; [3] what is more important still, the French are thinking only of revenge in the eyes of the Germans. We have of the universe only formless, fragmentary visions, which we complete by the association of arbitrary ideas, creative of dangerous suggestions.

We find three lines of arguments clearly separated. The first one concerns the example itself. The second one is the generalisation of the example. And, finally, the third one, is the expression of the universal law formulated in a way that is not without evoking what one could find, for instance, in the Sentences and Moral Maxims by François de La Rochefoucauld (1665)[7]. Thus, we can decompose the passage as follows and find the movement of the rhetorical wave that goes from Sazerat to the war.

Three situations are grouped under the same general law. First: a social situation ([1] The Princesse de Luxembourg is no better than a prostitute in the eyes of the Chief Magistrate’s wife, which as it happens is of little importance). Second: a love affair ([2] what is slightly more important, Odette is a difficult woman to Swann, whereupon he builds up a whole romance which becomes all the more painful when he discovers his error). Third: a political situation ([3] what is more important still, the French are thinking only of revenge in the eyes of the Germans). And in this last case, it is the destiny of countries that is at stake. All prejudices are commanded by a single law, it is claimed, and this law can even be revealed to a good observer who is looking at the way Françoise is pronouncing the name of Madame Sazerat. Where does all this reasoning takes place? In the inner speech of the narrator which is rendered in the novel. More interestingly, this inner speech contains some kind of reasoning that would have gone unnoticed if we had remained at the examples given by Husserl. And the reasoning leads to a remark that has a general value.

Prejudice as bias and harm

This law of the bias of human judgement, it is suggested, is observable in all judgements. It produces minute errors as well as major errors such as those that constitute the prejudices of people when it comes to the judgement of someone else. We have of the universe only fragmentary visions. Because of this primitive and universal situation, we have to complete our vision by the association of « arbitrary ideas ». And this is creative of dangerous suggestions. The necessity of unifying what we receive as partial is thus the basis of our bias in judgement as well as the dangerous consequence it can have as far as we believe in the associations that we are forced to produce.

Thus, we must, if we follow this analysis, exclude two interpretations that could have been proposed for the link between the two senses — bias and harm — of the term « prejudice ». The first one would have been to consider that the link is only located in a convention of language that would have put together, for some arbitrary reason, the notion of bias and the notion of harm together. The link is located in something else than language itself, since it appears to be connected to perception itself.

The second interpretation that we can exclude is that the connection of the three situations that have been associated by Proust (and that we just detailed, namely  social, emotional and political) are only connected by means of metaphor. In his erudite work, Proust et le roman, Jean-Yves Tadié suggests that Proust incorporates the metaphor as a complete sort of thinking and that this is one of the particularities of the novel[11]. This may be true. But it does not mean that all the occurrences in which one goes from one situation to another are obtained by means of metaphors. In this particular case, it is likely that another process is at stake, since the processes analysed are not only given as similar but also described as based on the same kind of process. It is not a metaphor that ensure the passage from social to emotional and from emotional to political, but rather a community of mechanisms at stake in the description.

One could go even farther and, returning now to Husserl, showing that the bias in judgement is present in situations which are again simpler than the apparently simple example Proust is giving (the mistake that Françoise is still making after many years in pronouncing a name). Husserl might prefer to talk about the fragmentary visions of a table, he would conclude in the same way: « constantly seeing this table and meanwhile walking around it, changing my position in space in whatever way, I have continually the consciousness of this one identical table existing ‘in person’ and remaining quiet unchanged. The table-perception, however, is a continually changing one, it is a continuity of changing perceptions. » Even a simple table is the result of a construction we elaborate from fragmentary visions, from fragmentary pieces of perception, that we can have from it, Husserl is claiming. When one turns to a person or to a country, this can be only truer.

By the same token, this shows how we should proceed to go to from the general law to the analysis of examples. It is neither by the free process of metaphorical association nor by the not-so-free process of grammatical habituation that we go from bias to harm when one follows the meaning of the term « prejudice », but rather by a very general necessity completing our visions. It is the very same law of perception. But now, following Proust, we can understand the danger associated with the law, which is not the case when one follows Husserl. Not because the two descriptions would be inconsistent with each other (as we have seen, far to be inconsistent, they are complementary). But because the law of perception as it is described by Husserl is too abstract to go into such human details as the way people pronounce words (which are, nevertheless, highly significant for human life). Thus, the reading of Proust allows to complete what is perhaps missing in phenomenological analyses but, at the same time, shows also their great value.


The law that Proust (or its narrator) could claim to have identified, while it does not explain why prejudice itself appears, shows, at least, that no thought is free of prejudice and it also shows why a prejudice can stay the same over long periods of time. When one turns to inner speech and performs meticulous descriptions, one can see the way prejudice is maintained, allowing perhaps to see where it is possible to intervene in the process and where it is not. It also allows to exclude two interpretations that could have been proposed for the link of the two senses of the term « prejudice » in English. This analysis, based on a phenomenological approach, can thus well be completed by the art of the novel as far as it shows how the universal laws beneath the surface of words and actions can emerge.


[1]   Noam Chomsky. Language and Mind. Cambridge University Press, 2006, Cambridge ; New York, 1968.

[2]   Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky. Crime and Punishment. Simon and Brown, tr. en. C. Garnett, 1956, Hollywood, FL, 1866.

[3]   Edouard Dujardin. Les lauriers sont coupés. Flammarion, 2001, Paris, 1887.

[4]   Charles Fernyhough. The Voices Within: The History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves. Profile Books, London, 2017.

[5]   Martin Heidegger. Being and Time. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, tr. en. J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson, 2008, New York, 1927.

[6]   William James. The Principles of Psychology. Dover Publications, 1957, New York, 1890.

[7]   François La Rochefoucauld. Maxims. Penguin Classics, 1982, London New York, 1665.

[8]   Joshua Landy. Philosophy as Fiction: Self, Deception, and Knowledge in Proust. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004.

[9]   Marcel Proust. In Search Of Lost Time. Vintage Classics, tr. en. C. K. Scott Moncrieff, T. Kilmartin, D. J. Enright, 1981, London, 1913-1927.

[10]   Dorothy Richardson and Gloria G. Fromm. Windows on Modernism: Selected Letters of Dorothy Richardson. University of Georgia Press, Athens, GA, 1995.

[11]   Jean-Yves Tadié. Proust et le roman: Essai sur les formes et techniques du roman dans «Ã la recherche du temps perdu». Gallimard, Paris, 1986.

[12]   Yanko Tsvetkov. Atlas of Prejudice: Mapping Stereotypes. Create Space Publishing, Louisville, KY, 2013.

[13]   Norbert Wiley. Inner Speech and the Dialogical Self. Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 2016.

Site-specific Perception. Philosophical reflections on the impact of environment on perception

The question raised here is about the differences in perception between people due to different environmental backgrounds. The assumption is that we learn to perceive and that the environment is essential for this learning. This is discussed by taking a classical philosophical view on perception from Leibniz and Baumgarten’s aesthetics, recently revived in the concept of atmosphere, as proposed by Gernot Böhme. The conclusion points to questions of the consequences of the environment for our perception as well as to the importance of aesthetic education in training perception.

Continue reading Site-specific Perception. Philosophical reflections on the impact of environment on perception

Stephen Hastings-King, Looking for the Proletariat: Socialisme ou Barbarie and the Problem of Worker Writing (Leiden: Brill, 2014)



The book is about the history of the group from 1949 to 1967, and its aim is to present the movement “as something other than a merely sophisticated variant of revolutionary Marxism” (p. 3). Socialisme ou Barbarie is considered in its specific historical context, when communism is already declined in a political paradigm (Stalinism) and takes shape in bureaucratic structures and institutions. In the first two chapters of the book, the author shows how the Hegelian framework of Marxian writings and its abstract laws are called into question, together with their Stalinist and Trotskyist interpretations. In France, the former give birth to bureaucratization: there is a separation between dirigéants and exécutants, and hierarchies are built according to the role performed inside the PCF (the French Communist Party) or the CGT (the General Work Confederation, that is the communist trade union). The Trotskyists, on the other side, go against the Stalinist falsification of Marxian writings, but they are not revolutionary enough, since they have lost contact with their proletarian basis.

In the third chapter, Stephen Hastings-King points out how Socialisme ou Barbarie, through a historical and sociological interpretation of Marx, makes a phenomenological operation. It tries to assume the point of view of the worker and to analyse production, relations, and language from this perspective. According to what Lefort argues in ‘L’experience prolétarienne’ (1952), one can say that “only workers can know and write about their experience: revolutionary theory must be confined to analysing and interpreting what they write” (p. 108). Socialisme ou Barbarie is fundamentally an intellectual movement, which tries to redefine revolutionary theory through a new reading of Marx and his Leninist interpretation. However, every reflection will remain on an abstract and decontextualized level, if it does not refer to reality: in this case, the latter is represented by the productive life of the working class.

Giving his book the title Looking for the proletariat, Hastings-King wants to show that all the efforts of Socialisme ou Barbarie are aimed at understanding the workers, helping them to acquire class consciousness and to shape political actions. This is the reason why the movement gives prominence to worker writing. The fifth chapter of the book shows how the group, through the newspaper Tribune Ouvrière, tries to give a voice to the collective at the factory of Renault Billancourt, whose political context is clearly defined in the fourth chapter. Hastings-King points out similarities and differences with another worker newspaper, the Detroit-based Correspondence project. After that, the author writes about Tribune Ouvrière and the role that Socialisme ou Barbarie plays in the process of its production, printing, and distribution.

In the sixth chapter, the identity of Daniel Mothé is analysed. His true name is Jacques Gautrat and he works at Renault Billancourt. His experience as a métallo and his revolutionary ideas lead him to write several articles, all of them published in the Socialisme ou Barbarie review. His literary identity is very interesting from a phenomenological perspective, since each “version of Mothé is hyletic: a view from a particular position. Each position is shaped by a certain number of directional social relations. […] The most important of the predicates, the one on which the others rely, that organises and enables them to exist, is the narrative function” (p. 249). Mothé reflects on Gautrat’s experience through the lens of Marxism in its Socialisme ou Barbarie’s interpretation. Sometimes it is not clear if Mothé or Gautrat is speaking, but it does not matter: the idea of a “natural” or “ingenuous” way of writing, supported by the Correspondence group, is rejected by Socialisme ou Barbarie. Every text is a product of self-reflection and self-consciousness.

Mothe’s ‘Journal d’un ouvrier’ is very important to understand how Marxist ideas are experienced by the proletariat: it shows the impact of Fordism on the rhythm and condition of workers, the conflict between the latter and the trade union, which is manipulated by the Communist Party, the attempt to act through independent collectives. The language spoken by the Party has no meaning for the proletariat and sometimes it is used to justify anti-revolutionary actions. According to Mothé and Socialisme ou Barbarie, the only way to save Marxism is to take the point of view of the worker, to support direct-democratic collectives, and to help proletariat in organising its future political actions.

Stephen Hastings-Kings is very precise and punctual in describing the life of the movement, through continuous references to their historical, social, and political context, and an efficient use of their written sources. There are also a bibliography and a clear index, helping the reader to find his way through the book. This work is theoretically well supported by references to Marx and Marxism, and to pivotal authors in phenomenology, especially Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. One should also give credit to Hastings-King for the smoothness of his language.

Responsibility and Capitalism. A Phenomenological Way to Approach the Economic Crisis

1. Capitalism as the economic expression of onto-theology


It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages[2].


The words of Adam Smith, originally used to justify liberalist economy, presently sound like an act of accusation. Classic capitalism encourages pure egotism, relying on an ‘invisible hand’[3], which should promote the public interest together with the individual one. However, the hand of the market is not invisible, is pitiless. Capitalism in nothing but a pursuit of money, of more and more money. Then, as time goes by, wealth accrues in the hands of fewer and fewer people[4]. Marx already predicted the concentration of capital as a necessary consequence of free competition. However, he could not predict the birth of financial capitalism. Neo-liberalism spread over Western countries, leading to financialization, that is ‘the increasing role of financial motives, financial markets, financial actors and financial institutions in the operation of the domestic and international economies’[5].



While classic capitalism links money to production, financial capitalism is based on uncertainty[6]. Money increases or decreases according to the Stock Exchange prices. Since they are unpredictable, people could gain or lose fortunes in a day: a risky investment is nothing but gambling. In this way, the concentration of capital in a few hands comes faster. Those who are not successful go broke and damage other people: bankers and brokers lose the money of whole companies and families, shopkeepers and businessmen close their activities and dismiss people who work for them. There are not only employers and workers who pay the price, but also small capitalists. Unemployment increases and consumes decrease. In this way, even production decreases and the system itself collapses.


This is a devastating situation, depending not so much on the structure of the system, as on its moving principle. Capitalism, in its classic definition, should stimulate production and consuming, appealing to individual interest. But the course of egotism is one-way: it aims to individual affluence, regardless of its impact on the others.


Capitalist economic systems are characterized by the private ownership of property and the consensual exchange of goods and services in a free market.[7]


According to this recent definition, common both to classic and financial capitalism, egotism reveals to be their driving force. The expression ‘private ownership’ refers to individual possession and power, while ‘free market’ indicates liberty of action.


Philosophically speaking, capitalism is nothing but the economic expression of onto-theology. Exactly like the Ego of Western philosophy[8], it is regardless of the Other. The theoretical I subjects everything to its structures and the practical I cares only about its freedom. In the economic case, the Ego subdues the Other to the main category of capitalism, that is profit. The practical consequence of this philosophical statement is that an indiscriminate pursuit of money causes the exploitation of environment, animals and people. The Ego prevails on the Other, but would be powerless without Him. Profit has to be made at the expense of somebody, who cannot be too weak, otherwise he will die or become a slave. The free market disappears without a certain balance: money can circulate only among people who produce, work, and consume. This is why, if the Ego takes too much power, then will lose everything.


The current economic crisis could be seen as a critical moment when, philosophically speaking, the I is capable of annihilating the Other. The next step would be the following: a few people with a high concentration of money, laying down the law to the majority and spoiling the environment of its resources.


There are two solutions to avoid this disaster: the first is destroying capitalism and adopting another economic model, communism for instance; the second is putting limits to capitalism itself. The former corresponds, in philosophy, to the annihilation of both the I and the Other, and to the birth of an anonymous subject; the latter would be the introduction of a different relation between identity and alterity, that is responsibility. If neglecting ethics is destroying capitalism, adopting ethics will save it.



2. A general lack of ethics


The present economic crisis is the symptom of a disease. Capitalism could be seen as a living organism, whose childhood, adolescence and youth were quite healthy. Some temporary illnesses, as the crisis of 1929 and the post-war situation, did not destroy it. Capitalism is, at the moment, in its maturity. After a fast and flourishing growth, it took a definite shape: at the top there are the investors (individuals, private and public institutions), who finance with their money the whole system; they fund producers and providers of services, who distribute their products and services through mediators and sellers; in order to produce, sell and put in operation, a great amount of manpower (workers and employees) is necessary; at the end, there are the consumers, who buy products and services. Every element of capitalism has to work correctly, like the organs in a living system. If one of them has problems, it affects the other elements and the system collapses.


Capitalism is presently affected by a disease and is in great danger. The most acute stage passed away, but the organism is not regaining its health. First of all, it is necessary to identify the illness and the affected parts of the organism. Fortunately, the diagnosis is not difficult: the crisis started from financial institutions and companies (Lehman Brothers and Bernard Madoff Investment Securities, for instance). Their collapse created a sudden lack of money and damaged producers, providers and money savers in general. In this way, there were indirectly affected also mediators, sellers, workers and employees, who saw their revenues decreasing or vanishing. And, since every member of the system is a consumer, products and services were bought to a lesser extent. The crisis of consumption caused, on the other hand, a new crisis of production and service-providing[9]. It is a vicious circle generating a gap between the majority of people, who progressively lose their wealth, and a few people, who hold money and power. This gap already exists, but is becoming greater and greater.


The crisis is due, primarily, to the heads of financial capitalism, but it would be a mistake to blame only them. There are also other people who are responsible in a similar way, people who hold a great amount of money and power: executives and owners of national and multinational companies, big traders and mediators. In Italy it happened, for instance, that Calisto Tanzi, President of the food company Parmalat, was guilty of bankruptcy fraud and criminal association. His immoral policy, nourished by the connivance of some politicians and bankers, led to the ruin of a great number of investors. The bankruptcy happened in 2003, four years before the collapse of the subprime mortgage market in the United States. Then the current crisis came, as a product of a diffused malpractice. When powerful people do not behave in a responsible way, they create a great damage to society. The crisis is not the disease of capitalism, but a serious symptom of it: the disease is what produced the crisis itself, that is a general lack of ethics.


Before giving a definition of what ‘lack of ethics’ means, it is necessary to define ethics itself. Capitalism is seen, in this paper, as the economic expression of the Ego of onto-theology. According to Levinas, the guiding principles of the Western I are intentionality and freedom: the former is a grasp of what is external to the subject; the latter is the ability to act through free will. Levinas takes position against Husserl, the father of phenomenology and of conscience as intentionality[10]. Even if his criticism could be considered exaggerated (Husserl had no intention to theorize a ‘tyrannical subject’[11]), the author of ‘Totality and Infinity’ is extraordinary in delineating ethics.


Morality is not added to the preoccupations of the I, so as to order them or to have them judged; it calls in question, and puts at a distance from itself, the I itself […]. The “vision” of the face as face is a certain mode of sojourning in a home, or […] a certain form of economic life. No human or interhuman relationship can be enacted outside of economy; no face can be approached with empty hands and closed home. Recollection in a home open to the Other –hospitality – is the concrete and initial fact of human recollection and separation[12].


Levinas points out the ‘separation’ between the Ego and the Other: the latter is not an alter-ego, another subject, but someone radically different. The other person is irreducible to the Ego. Notwithstanding this separation, there is an original relation between them: the subject approaches the other person in a particular ‘economic’ way. Since ‘economy’ means ‘management of a household’ (from the Greek words oikos, ‘house’, and nomos, ‘law’ or ‘rule’), every relation with something or somebody has to do with interiority. While the objects are included in the domestic dimension of the subject (as nourishment, tools or furniture), the other person cannot be grasped. The interhuman relationship is hospitality, is opening one own’s doors to the other.


According to Levinas, ethics is not only reception, but also responsibility. The identity of the subject is orientated to the alterity of the other, ‘without a prior commitment’[13]. Responsibility precedes freedom, it is independent from every choice. One is responsible of the other ‘despite oneself’[14], thus nobody can avoid responsibility.


From the economic point of view, it is a very important principle: it is not based on what one ‘chooses’ to do, but on what one ‘is’. Applying Levinas’ statements to capitalism, one could say the following: if one ‘is’ richer and more powerful, then one ‘will be’ more responsible, despite one’s choices. It does not mean that freedom is not important, but that responsibility founds freedom. Responsibility is the moving principle of ethics, while freedom is what makes it concrete. Behaviour depends on free will, which acts ‘according to’ or ‘against’ responsibility. This is the reason why a single action or a whole behaviour is responsible or irresponsible. Shortly, if ethics is based on responsibility, then moral activity will be responsible and immoral activity irresponsible.


Adapting Levinas’ phenomenology to economic analysis, one could state the following: intentionality and freedom exactly correspond to the ‘private ownership’ and ‘free market’ of capitalism. They are based on egotism and on an instrumental relation to the other. If egotism coincides, in capitalism, with obtaining profit, the other will be seen as a mean to make money. This relation to the other is absolutely unethical. Ethics, instead, is moved by responsibility and sees the other as the main addressee of action.


However, Levinas’ thought is too radical to be concretely applied: according to him, the subject should give itself unconditionally, because it is guilty from time immemorial[15]. Levinas’ ethics is oriented to non-reciprocity and, economically speaking, it is inapplicable. In order to move the market, a balance between one’s needs and the others’ needs is necessary. It would be better, in this case, to follow Ricoeur’s reciprocal ethics: one should see ‘oneself as another’, that is an intimate implication of otherness in identity[16]. Ethics requires both an original relation to the other (Levinas) and a practical bi-directional attitude (Ricoeur).  


The Golden Rule and the imperative of the respect owed to persons do not simply have the same field of exercise, they also have the same aim: to establish reciprocity wherever there is a lack of reciprocity[17].


The keyword is ‘respect’: respect of every person as the aim of morality, respect of oneself and the other in the same amount (it recalls the Christian principle ‘love your neighbour as yourself’[18]). ‘Reciprocal’ does not mean ‘claiming something in exchange’, since the logic of ‘exchange’ is based on egotism. Reciprocity is seen as a bi-directional respect, towards oneself and towards the other.


At this point, if ethical behaviour is respectful, unethical behaviour will be disrespectful. Unethical behaviour could be defined as a certain number of actions, fulfilling one’s aims and directly damaging (or putting in danger) the other. ‘Directly’ means that there could also be indirect consequences of one’s own action, not imputable to the agent. Unethical behaviour means betraying one’s responsibility towards the other. Phenomenology usually considers the other as ‘the other person’, but human actions do not effect only people. The other could be a human being, as well as an animal or the environment. They cannot do anything ‘in exchange’, but it does not matter, since reciprocity, in this case, does not involve exchange.


A concrete example of what unethical behaviour means is given by various bankers in the United States and United Kingdom. During the economic crisis, they violated ethics in this way: through ‘deception’ and ‘half truths given to authorities’ (lying), ‘violation of securities legislation’ and ‘allegations of fraud’, ‘misleading balance sheets’, promoting an ‘excessive bonus culture’, ‘ignoring internal corporate risk controls’, ‘conflict of interest’, ‘undue short-terminism’, ‘excessive risk-taking’, ‘callousness towards impoverished home owners’, ‘over-concentration of economic power by large banks’[19].


These actions are directly imputable to bankers, who violated both ethics and law. In this way, they caused a great damage to society, especially when financial institutions collapsed. Having an over-concentration of economic power gave an enormous amount of responsibility to the bankers, who used it, paradoxically, to escape responsibility itself.


Marx thought that the crisis of capitalism depended on over-production and concentration of money in a few hands[20]. The evolution of capitalism through financialization, together with globalization, changed the economic situation. The current crisis is not due to over-production, but to an indiscriminate pursuit of money. Capitalism is in danger not for its dialectical movement, but for a lack of ethics. The moving principle of ethics is responsibility, so ‘lack of ethics’ means ‘violation of responsibility’. Moreover, everyone is responsible of oneself and other people, and more power means more responsibility. For this reason, a lack of ethics is worst in powerful people than in common ones, because the consequences are more serious. An ethical revolution is then necessary and has to involve, primarily, the higher levels of the economic system.



3. A Phenomenological perspective on ethical revolution


An ethical revolution could be considered from several points of view. In this paper, a phenomenological perspective is adopted. ‘Phenomenology’ is here considered as an equivalent of ‘egology’: everything is considered, perceived, and felt ‘in first person’, from the point of view of the subject. On the ethical side, it has some interesting consequences. First of all, phenomenology claims an original responsibility towards the other.


The knot tied in subjectivity, which when subjectivity becomes a consciousness of being is still attested to in questioning, signifies an allegiance of the same to the other, imposed before any exhibition of the other, preliminary to all consciousness […]. This allegiance will be described as responsibility of the same for the other, as a response to his proximity before any question[21].


Ethics does not ‘proceed’ from consciousness, but ‘precedes’ it. The human subject has a moral character, so that he cannot avoid responsibility. The latter is part of his ontological (Levinas writes ‘pre-ontological’[22]) constitution. The subject is introduced, from its birth, in a relational world. When it lives distant from people, it is related with animals and nature. Loneliness is nothing but an abstraction. Using Sartre’s words, ‘the fact of the other is incontestable and touches me to the heart’[23]. Human beings are then relational (not only social) beings. The way in which they interact is based on responsibility. From the economic point of view, it is very important, because it implies the following: no one can avoid responsibility towards the other. An economic subject is responsible of the strategy chosen, of its application, and of its consequences. Violating responsibility implies paying for one’s own mistakes.


A second consequence of a phenomenological perspective is the singularity of both the ego and the other. Every subject has a common core[24], typical of human knowledge, perception, and feeling, but a concrete ego is absolutely unique. Moreover, it relates to an other who is absolutely unique as well.


Reason presupposes these singularities or particularities, not as individuals open to conceptualization, or divesting themselves of their particularity so as to find themselves to be identical, but precisely as interlocutors, irreplaceable beings, unique in their genus, faces[25].


Ethics refers to singular beings, either subjects and addressees. Every ego is different and relates to a different other. From the ethical point of view, no one can be replaced in assuming responsibility. Every person, here and now, is called to an original relation to the other. This relation does not consist in universal principles, belonging to universal subjects, and applied to universal addressees. Phenomenology does not theorize either norms, or rules. It does not matter ‘what’ the subject does (‘this act’, ‘that act’), but ‘how’ it does it (‘respecting’ or ‘not respecting’ the other). An ethical behaviour is that which follows one’s original responsibility towards one’s concrete neighbour.


In capitalism, it means that every single member of the system (executive, trader, worker, employee, customer) is not responsible for what the others do, but for what he or she does. The amount of responsibility is greater according to the amount of money and power one has. If, for instance, an employee behaves in a bad way towards a customer, he or she will have to pay for his or her single action. If an executive adopts an irresponsible strategy, he or she will have to pay not only for the action, but also for all that follows. In the case of people with great power, a single mistake has many consequences and involves many people.


Thirdly, phenomenology avoids two kinds of danger: anonymity and alienation. The uniqueness of both the ego and the other preserves them from the tyranny of universality. From the philosophical point of view, the singular avoids a subordination to the Same (or Being, or Spirit)[26]. In economy, it gets away from Hegel’s ethical State and Marx’s socialism. The difference between the former and the latter is that Idealism maintains private property, while communism abolishes it. In both cases, the ‘good’ of individuals is established by State institutions, which manipulate everything, from the economy to private life[27]. Equality is guaranteed, but at the price of making individuals anonymous beings.


Phenomenology also helps against alienation. In this case, it is better to adopt Ricoeur’s version: the thought of Husserl is inclined to alienate the other (‘all that which holds for myself holds, as I know, for all other human beings’[28]), while Levinas risks to alienate the subject (‘the-one-for-the-other goes to the extent of the-one-being-hostage-for-the-other[29]). According to Ricoeur, oneself is seen as another, implying respect on both sides.


This ethical principle is necessary to heal the plague of capitalism, that is the alienation of a part of the system. Marx thinks that there are only two classes, oppressors and oppressed. The former are capitalists, the latter proletarians. Workers are alienated by owners of companies, who make profit with the exploitation of proletarian labour[30]. However, financial capitalism is characterized by a more complex structure. Alienation usually concerns the parts of the system who own less money: workers, employees and small businessmen, for instance. Phenomenology leads, in its ethical and reciprocal form, to a balance between stronger and weaker members of the system.


Ethical capitalism, that is capitalism passing through ethical revolution, is a third way between communism and classic/financial capitalism. The former reduces all subjects to anonymity, the latter is a source of alienation. Phenomenology theorizes uniqueness (Levinas) and reciprocity (Ricoeur) between the ego and the other.


Fourthly, a phenomenological perspective warns against a pseudo-ethical behaviour. ‘Being ethical’ does not mean ‘having an ethical coat’. There are companies who put ‘something ethical’ in their product or in their policy, in order to attract investor, partners or customers. For example, an enterprise produces part of its eggs, breeding hens in open air. In this way, it attracts people who are sensitive to the living condition of animals. These customers will pay a higher price to buy this kind of eggs. However, there are also people who are content if hens are not in cages, even if they are bred indoor. And there are customers who do not care about animal conditions, but only about price. The latter will buy eggs produced by hens bred in batteries. This is exactly the case of the Italian company AIA:[31] its executives understood that better conditions for animals attract more customers. But the company is not moved by ethical reasons, otherwise it would limit the whole production to free-range eggs. Companies like AIA purely act for profit.


If the purpose of a behaviour is other than ethical, such a behaviour will be not really ethical. However, a moral appearance is useful to make money: being good pays. An ethical film enhances profit, even if the substance is unethical. First of all, not all the people are sensitive to moral behaviour, because most of them rather prefer to avoid an immoral behaviour. Secondly, they pay willingly an higher price up to a certain threshold (30%, 50% of sustainable production, for instance). This threshold is not clearly determinable and is different case by case.[32] This is why companies do something ethical, as much as it does not hinder profit.


Phenomenology rejects such a kind of behaviour. ‘Being ethical’ means ‘acting responsibly’. When a company follows a moral conduct, it does not limit itself to some good actions. Ethics is neither charitable, nor instrumental. An ethical producer of eggs, for instance, breeds chicken in open air, provides them with healthy food, leaves them space enough to live comfortably, heals them when they are sick, avoids to raise too many hens if good conditions cannot be guaranteed. This kind of behaviour is ethical because it respects both customers and animals: it provides buyers with eggs of the best quality and, at the same time, allows chicken to have a good life. This kind of behaviour is, philosophically speaking, oriented towards the other.


If moral behaviour is, on the contrary, money-oriented, it will not be moral at all. Since current capitalism aims to profit, it meets ethics only by accident. Ethics is usually a limitation to profit: the “obsessive materialism which capitalist economy promote is one of the weaknesses of capitalism when it is considered from an ethical point of view”[33]. An ethical behaviour is not necessarily ascetical and includes material goods and pleasures: in order to avoid alienation, the ego has to preserve itself. Capitalism does not purely promote self-preservation, but an indiscriminate pursuit of materialism. As the economic expression of onto-theology, capitalism is ruled by egotism.


Phenomenology goes beyond the tyranny of the Same, of the universal subject, of indiscriminate property and freedom. Stating the importance of ethics, of original responsibility, of uniqueness, phenomenology does not destroy the subject, but makes it ‘singular’. Definitely, it has to renounce to its tyrannical power, but not to itself. What is here suggested is not to alienate the ego in behalf of the other. Building one’s own identity is necessary to self-preservation and, moreover, to have ‘something to give’. If the subject is alienated, it cannot offer anything to the other. Ethics should not imply a fission of one’s identity[34], but an equilibrated inclination to giving.


The economic consequence of such a perspective is not the end of capitalism. If capitalism is based on egotism and egotism is ‘partially’ preserved by phenomenology, then capitalism will be ‘partially’ preserved by phenomenology. Phenomenology does not accept capitalism in its current form, because it is ‘wholly’ based on egotism, that is indiscriminate freedom and property. However, it accepts a different form of capitalism, which is only ‘partially’ ruled by egotism. This new kind of system is called ‘ethical capitalism’ and is based on respectful freedom and property.


Defining what is and what is not ‘respectful’ is the most difficult task to accomplish, due to the open character of phenomenology. Phenomenology is not a normative system, but a perspective. For this reason, it does not suggest a precise behaviour, but a different way to approach the world. Classic and financial capitalism are based on individual interest; ethical capitalism is based on responsibility. One’s freedom and property are not destroyed or ‘limited’ by the other’s freedom and property. One’s freedom and property is directed both to self-preservation and preservation of the other, that is the environment and its inhabitants. Ethical capitalism is not self-oriented, but other-oriented: it is directed both to the other and to the self as another. Responsibility is opposed to alienation, because it is bi-directional. This is why a responsible behaviour, on large scale, could save capitalism from its gaps and from its ruin.


[1] Cf. Hein, E., The Macroeconomics of Finance-dominated Capitalism and its Crisis, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2012, p. 1.

[2] Smith, A., The Glasgow edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith, vol. 2a, edited by R.H. Cambell and A.S. Skinner, Oxford: Claredon Press, 1976, pp. 26–7.

[3] Cf. ibid.,  p. 456.

[4] ‘It is concentration of capitals already formed, destruction of their individual independence, expropriation of capitalist by capitalist, transformation of many small into few large capitals’ (Marx, K., Capital [Cap.], Volume 1, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1954, p. 586).

[5] Epstein, G. A., ‘Introduction: Financialization and the World Economy’, in Epstein, G. A. (ed.), Financialization and the World Economy, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2005, p. 3.

[6] In 1938, George Edwards already individuated finance as an element of instability: the current form of capitalism converts real equity in financial one. Edwards was even afraid of a conspiracy by financial institutions. See Edwards, G. W., The Evolution of Finance Capitalism, London: Longmans Green, 1938.

[7] Bishop, J. D., ‘Ethics and Capitalism. A Guide to the Issues’, in Bishop, J. D. (ed.), Ethics and Capitalism, University of Toronto Press Incorporated: Toronto-Buffalo-London, 2000, p. 4.

[8] ‘Ontology as first philosophy is a philosophy of power’ (Levinas E., Totality and Infinity: an Essay on Exteriority [TI], Duquesne: Pittsburgh, 1969, p. 9).

[9] For a specific description of this mechanisms, see Hein 2012.

[10] Levinas criticizes the thought of Husserl in several writings. Cf., for example, TI, pp. 109-110, 121-126; Id., Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence [OB], Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1981, pp. 8, 33, 63-66; Id., Discovering Essence With Husserl, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1998, pp. 74-75, 124-126, 176-177.

[11] Husserl considers the Other as an Ego-subject, but neither identical, nor subject to the Ego. ‘Each has its place from which he sees the physical things present; and, accordingly, each has different physical-things appearances. Also, for each of the fields of actual perception, actual memory, etc., are different, leaving aside the fact that intersubjectively common objects of consciousness in those field are intended to as to having different modes, different manners of apprehension, different degrees of clarity, and so forth’ (Husserl, E., Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, First Book  [Ideas I], The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1982, pp. 55-56).

[12] TI, p. 172.

[13] OB, p. 153.

[14] Ibid., pp. 51, 54-56, 74.

[15] Ibid., pp. 26, 51, 87.

[16] Cf. Ricoeur, P., Oneself as Another, University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1992, p. 3.

[17] Ibid., p. 225.

[18] Matthew 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27.

[19] Thomas, R., ‘Ethics – or the Lack of Ethis – in the Global Financial Crisis 2007-2010’, in Rosamund M. Thomas (ed.), Business Ethics, Cambridge: Ethics International Press, 2011, p. 75.

[20] Cf. Cap., p. 587.

[21] OB, pp. 25-26.

[22] Ibid., pp. 43-44, 78.

[23] Sartre, J.-P-, Being and Nothingness. An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, New York: Philosophical Library, 1956, p. 367. Even if Sartre is better known as an existentialist, Being and Nothingness can be considered as a phenomenological masterwork. Anyway, the constitutive inter-subjectivity of human beings was first stated by Heidegger, according to which ‘being-in-the-world’ (in-der-Welt-sein) is also ‘being-with’ (Mit-sein). Cf. Heidegger, M., Being and Time, State University of New York Press: Albany, 1996, p. 112.

[24] The phenomenological epoché, theorized by Husserl, searches for a pure consciousness, abstracting from the concrete Ego-subjects. ‘It therefore remains as the “phenomenological residuum,” as a region of being which is of essential necessity quite unique and which can indeed become the field of a science of a novel kind: phenomenology’ (Ideas I, pp. 65-66).

[25] TI, p. 252.

[26] Cf. TI, pp. 46-47, 143, 269-271.

[27] Cf. Hegel, G. W. F., Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991, §§ 257-258; Marx, K.- Engels, F., The Communist Manifesto [Manifesto], New York: Russell and Russell, 1963, Chap. 2. According to Hegel, the State is the reality of reason and will, which coincides with individual freedom. According to Marx, communism implies centralization of credit, means of communication, production and education in the hands of the State. Both authors theorize, in order to guarantee equality, a strong Statism.

[28] Ideas I, p. 55.

[29] OB, p. 141.

[30] Cf. Manifesto, pp. 25-26; Marx, K., Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, New York: International Publishers, 1964, pp. 108-111.

[31] Products numbered B5110, for instance, come from hens farming to barn, while B5114 are free-range eggs. The other products come from hens bred in batteries. This is why, in 2001, AIA was condemned by the Italian Antitrust. The company showed on its egg-packages images of hens eating on lawns and the proposition ‘uova fresche allevate a terra’ (‘fresh eggs bred ashore’). It could led customers to think that they were free-range eggs, while hens were crowded into big barns (intensive livestock farming).

[32] Cf. Trudel, R.- Cotte, J., ‘Does It Pay To Be Good?’, MIT Sloan Management Review, vol. 50, 2, 2009, pp. 66-68.

[33] Groarke, L., ‘Can Capitalism Save Itself? Some Ruminations on the Fate of Capitalism’, in Bishop 2000, p. 204.

[34] Cf. OB, pp. 49, 104, 141, 180, 185. 


Sean Leneghan, The Varieties of Ecstasy Experience: An Exploration of Person, Mind and Body in Sydney’s Club Culture (Saarbrücken: Lambert Academic Publishing, 2011)

Lambert Academic Publishing (LAP) is a subsidiary of VDM Verlag, a German publisher with an opaque relation to Amazon.  I periodically look up my own dissertation topic on Google Books, and a few years ago one search in particular returned twice the number of titles than I had previously ever received.  I found that the new titles were Wikipedia articles “published” by an imprint of VDM; VDM will send you a copy of Wikipedia entries in print for a fee.  There is nothing illegal about this, but it is perplexing.  When doing literature reviews, naïve researchers will order from VDM to be thorough, not realizing that the “books” are available for free online and may be of negligible academic worth.  VDM specializes in cannibalizing the academic publishing process, and LAP is a manifestation of a strategy intended to exploit a weakness of this process.


LAP will send a recent B.A., M.A. or Ph.D. recipient an email saying that the company is interested in publishing his or her work, a dream come true for a novice academic.  The resulting “book” is published on-demand, meaning that a copy is created and shipped only on request.  LAP receives the publishing rights to the book without the upfront costs, and the aspiring academic, presumably on the job market or looking at graduate school, gets a precious book publication line on his or her C.V.  If someone orders the book—and the fact that the title gets an ISBN and will therefore appear in literature review searches ensures that there will be at least a few orders—LAP prints a copy and collects a fee, and the author gets a royalty cheque.  Everyone is happy.  The problem is that LAP neither reviews nor edits its titles, and publishes regardless of quality.  The result is that the assurances that once came with publication collapse, and the academic book market becomes flooded with all sorts of texts.  Apart from it being an integral part of an academic’s résumé, publishing could become meaningless.


LAP, VDM and publishers with similar business models defend themselves by saying that they provide a valuable archiving service.  Wikipedia articles are fluid things, which are thermometers of the contemporary understanding of a topic.  If a researcher wants to know what was thought about a topic, let’s say George W. Bush, at a particular time, let’s say between 911 and the invasion of Iraq, then VDM’s articles would be useful.  And with LAP, their titles have been approved by thesis advisory committees, which were ostensibly to have ensured that the work constituted a genuine contribution to an academic field and that the writing met high standards.  LAP saves these contributions from being lost forever.  If the thesis is not worth publishing, then why was it approved?     


While LAP offers a clever dare to academia (admit that you pass garbage, and we’ll admit that we publish it), and while what they do is legal, their business model is questionable.  At bottom they are vanity press looking to profit by taking advantage of the naïve and desperate. 


The reason I looked at LAP while preparing to review of The Varieties of Ecstasy Experience is that my initial reaction to the book was concern that it was able to earn its author a doctorate, let alone to be published by an “academic” press. 


The methodological claim of the author is that those who reduce ecstasy to a chemical and the effects it has on the brain miss an essential aspect of the drug, which is the experience of those who use it.  The experience is an intentional object constituted by a group, so only interviews with a variety of users could convey a sense of the drug’s meaning.  Unfortunately, this is where methodology ends. 


The interviews are almost exclusively conducted with the author’s fellow graduate students and friends, and rather than a rigorous account of the ecstasy experience, what is given is weekend partying stories loosely organized into a narrative running from entry to the rave scene to exit owing to boredom.  On the back sleeve, this is called a “processual morphology.”  The conclusion is that ecstasy use in Sydney, Australia is about “narcissistic hedonism” (215).  In other words, the author and his mates went to raves and got “fucked” (a definition of “fucked” is kindly provided in the book’s glossary) on ecstasy on weekends to get their rocks off.  Eventually they became bored with it and stopped.  Here’s an excerpt to give a sense of the typical interview:


 I know that when the feeling does come on, it is an instant reaction; like if anyone has ever spewed off pills, like you don’t go “Oh, I think I’m going to spewarrr…”-it just comes out. Pills are more like projectile vomit.  It’s like ARRRGRR.  A tiny little bit of spew as well, it’s frothy and disgusting.  Like I always plan for it and I never ever, spew on fucking anyone or, or I don’t spew in fucking sinks, or on the dance floor. (126) [I checked and   there are no glossary entries for “spewarrr” and “ARRRGRR”.]


It’s true that there is more to drug use than chemical effects on brains and that a serious phenomenological study of the ecstasy experience is needed, but I recommend sticking with physicalist accounts if you’re after an understanding of ecstasy use, rather than pay $112 for 200 pages of that.  Frankly, no amount of phenomenology jargon could make the six-degrees-of-separation association made by Leneghan with his work and Husserl’s (31) anything but delusional. 


The backdoor to a Ph.D. is wide-open somewhere in Sydney, which is an unfortunate situation that “innovative” publishing companies like LAP now exist to exploit.