Post-Colonial Theory: Albert Memmi

POST-COLONIAL THEORY

PART ONE: HISTORICAL CONTEXT

Albert Memmi, The Colonized and the Colonized

Just as Race is essentially an American phenomenon, Post-Colonial Theory is essentially a European phenomenon. While it is necessary to make a distinction between the very different experiences of people of color under European and American rule, it is also possible to make a more general theoretical point. Colonialism and racism are both outcomes of the concept of “the Other.” The idea of the One and the Other stems from European philosophical thinking that both pre-dated the system of European model of imperialism, which included conquest, slavery, colonialism, and exploitation of non-Europeans, and justified a set of practices based on difference. For hundreds of years, colonialism, a manifestation of imperialism, was the means whereby Europeans controlled peoples of other continents, until two World Wars gradually eroded a rule that included over ninety percent of the globe. The “post” of Colonialism is both the after-time of a historical period and the critique of the episteme or mind set that led one small part of the world to dominate the Other.

Descartes posited a separation between mind and matter, Emmanuel Kant placed a gap between the subject and the object, Georg Hegel distinguished between the master and the slave. Saussure noted that language is structured in pairs of opposites. Jacques Derrida insisted that polarities are interdependent upon each other. Whether through language or philosophical models, the point is that the subject, the thinking human being, can understand what s/he is only in terms of what s/he is not. Human consciousness comes into being through this recognition of difference and, as Hegel demonstrated, the need to be acknowledged by the Other. The germ of the problem is clear in Hegel who understood that the difference between the One and the Other constitutes inequality. Rather than a neutral “difference” that merely designates or distinguishes, “difference” is loaded with judgments: the Master is superior to the Slave, and, although they recognizes themselves through each other, this recognition favors the Master and works to the detriment of the Slave. It does not matter that the Master cannot exist without the existence of the Slave, without the presence of a “master” the “slave” would be free.

Later philosophers point out that, while language might be structured out of opposites, socially and politically the One and the Other are not “natural” events but are constructed out of the need, not just to determine differences, but to dominate. The mode of constructing the Other is a form of representation or of the One re-presenting the Other in terms that craft domination. Taken to extremes Othering others moves very quickly to dehumanization. According to Theodor Adorno, the “Identity thinking” or the concept of universality, of the Enlightenment is based upon exclusion. If certain selected elements are included within an existing structure, then certain “other” elements have to be excluded to make the initial inclusion meaningful. Post-Colonial theory is about that exclusion. However, Post-Colonial theory is about existentialism or the conditions under which one comes into existence or consciousness through the deliberate extinction of the humanity of the Other.

Exclusion and dominance began long before the philosophy of post-coloniality. Just as colonialism antedated and generated racism, sexism antedates all prejudices and establishes the primary division or the primal Othering between the genders. In isolated communities, in small tribes, the people saw only themselves and there was no other. Long before there was a need for tribes to confront each other over control of territory, the Other had already been created and that Other was Woman. When he attempted to theorize the universal dominance of women by men, Friedrich Engels reasoned that the creation of the idea of “property” or “ownership” allowed men to reduce women and cattle and land to objects to be owned. However, even if Engels was right (and we have no way of knowing that he was), the idea of the One and the Other must have already existed if only because the concept of “equality” needs “inequality” to be meaningful.

In his linking of property and inequality, Engels, along with Karl Marx, would lay the groundwork for a theory of the economy in which capitalism determines society and human relations. Marxism, therefore, was the foundation or stepping stone for Post-Colonial theory, which began to emerge in the 1970s out of traditional Marxism. Post-Colonialism was the intellectual creation of post-war immigrants or the children of immigrants who had come to the Mother Country of England or France to be educated at elite institutions. Marxism’s critique of capitalism provided a useful frame through which the capitalist thrust of imperialism and the class relations of colonialism could be analyzed. In these early years, Post-Colonial theory showed up on the theory radar as “Subaltern Studies” at the University of Sussex with the colonial subjects, the subordinated and the marginalized as active speakers. However, the position of Post-Colonial theory within Marxism was an uneasy one and there is an earlier approach that provided yet another avenue for critique, Albert Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized published in 1957.

memmi_book(2)

Albert Memmi (1920-) is the ultimate Other, a Jew in a Muslim country, Tunisia, colonized by the French. Born in 1925 of a Berber mother and an Italian father, who passed on his Jewish identity, Memmi was able to observe the turbulent process of de-colonizaiton when Algeria and Tunisia became independence from the French in in 1956. Memmi’s contribution to the Post-Colonial conversation was that he lived within colonialism, unsure of his place: as a native of Tunisia he was colonized, as a Jew he identified with his fellow Europeans, the French. Although he certainly recognized the economic “fascism” of imperialism, Memmi placed colonialism in it more precise structure: racism. While it is correct that imperialism and colonialism were the result of the needs of capitalism to continually expand, the point is that only in territories of color did the Europeans take over and exploit (Asia and India) and exterminate the inhabitants (the Americas) and establish colonists to control their economic interests. In his remarkable book, Remarkable Possessions: The Wonder of the New World, Stephen Greenblat remarked upon the unprecedented nature of this post-Columbian imperialism.

As Memmi pointed out in the beginning of his book, the imperialist adventure was a layered one: on one hand it was a purely economic quest which was authorized as a good-hearted desire to “help” and “civilize” the poor unfortunate native through benevolent colonization. The argument for civilizing of the dark-skinned native is linked to just that—the dark skin, which is racism, which in turn is simple Othering another human being out of viable existence. Thus Post-Colonial theory became part of existentialism long before it was funneled through Marxism. It is no accident that it was Jean-Paul Sartre wrote the introduction when The Colonizer and the Colonized was published in 1957. In his opening sentence Sartre, whose companion Simone de Beauvoir was friends with American writer Richard Wright, links colonization to racism, the kind of racism flourishing in America.

Only the Southerner is competent to discuss slavery, because he alone knows the Negro; the puritanical and abstract Northerners know man only as an entity. This fine line of reasoning still has its uses: in Houston, in the newspapers of New Orleans, and in “French” Algeria—since we too are someone’s Northerners. The newspaper there tell us that the colonizer alone is qualified to speak of the colony. The rest of us, who live in the mother country do not have his experience, so we are to view the burning land of Africa through this eyes, which will just show us the smoke.

Memmi’s writing is a doubling: he is both the colonizer by dint of being a European and he is also the colonized by dint of being Tunisian. His approach is hybrid for he lives with a version of what W.E.B. Dubois called “double consciousness.” As a Jew and a Tunisian he suffered from a double anti-Semitism, both in in Tunisia and in France, where Jews had been deported to death camps. After being educated in post-war Paris, Memmi’s place in society that he has no place for he is part of the diaspora, pulled back and forth between Paris and Tunis, at home nowhere but finally settling in Paris. In 1982 he published Racism which begins with a sentence that could be written today: “There is a strange kind of tragic enigma associated with the problem of racism. No one, or almost no one, wishes to see themselves as racist; still racism persists, real and tenacious.” Memmi’s most recent book and sadly probably his last is the 2006 book, The Decolonization and the Decolonialized, which subverts the “civilizing” argument of the imperialists by asking why these former colonies have not flourished.

The answer can be found by returning to the groundbreaking The Colonizer and the Colonized where Memmi outlined the psychological effects of racism upon the One who is the colonizer and becomes morally corrupted and upon the Other who incorporated the role of the (non)Other as inferior and incapable and without consequence. The One systematically eradicated the native culture and the native language as the price for merely entering into the company of the Colonizer. The Colonized is forced to give up indigenous identification but in the process loses any meaningful identity. The process is one of psychological slavery that dehumanizes the Other and turns her into an object. The Other begins to identify with the (impossible) One but evolves into what Caribbean poet and politician, Aime Cesaire (1913-2008) called “thingification” in the 1955 book, Discours sur le colonialism. Memmi described the path of the Colonized into the exile of religion, the only remaining refuge and his discussion of the trajectory of the Colonized into religion and rebellion sheds light on the events unfolding today in the Middle East and North Africa.

Memmi’s seminal book outlined the social costs and the psychological damage a racist system of inequality does to the colonizer who enjoys unearned privilege. His portrait of the colonizer is scathing. The colonizer is pictured as a glamorous figure who is nevertheless an individual who is mediocre and who would have little future in the Mother Country. In the “colonies,” the colonizer can succeed but not in open and honest competition but at the expense of people who have been dis-empowered. Once the colonizer becomes aware of–becomes conscious of–the Other or the colonized, then the truth of the situation becomes clear. The colonizer is in charge and can write the rules and can make the laws, all of which benefit one element of the binary: the colonizer. The colonized are dehumanized, like a Slave, and exist to be exploited for the benefit of the Master. True, on the surface this exploitation is economic, the outcome of the punitive capitalistic practices of imperialism but at another level, suppressed by the colonizer, lies a narrative of oppression based solely on skin color. As Memmi wrote,

Colonialism denies human rights to human beings whom it has subdued by violence, and keeps them by force in a state of misery and ignorance that Marx would rightly call a subhuman condition. Racism is ingrained in actions, institutions, and in the nature of the colonialist methods of production and exchange. Political and social regulations reinforce one another.

The colonizer is doubly illegitimate: not only is he an interloper in a land that is not their but she is also taking away opportunities from the colonized. Making unjust laws that reinforce an unjust system only make the system doubly unjust. Both parties are entrapped in a society that harms them both but one party, the colonizer receives too many benefits to be willing to relinquish her unjust privileges and the colonized have no power to change his conditions. Aime Casaire presciently perceived that a price would have to be paid when he observed in 1955,

A civilization that proves incapable of solving the problems it creates is a decadent civilization.

A civilization that chooses to close its eyes to its most crucial problems is a stricken civilization.

A civilization that uses its principles for trickery and deceit is a dying civilization.

The fact is that the so-called European civilization – “Western” civilization – as it has been shaped by two centuries of bourgeois rule, is incapable of solving the two major problems to which its existence has given rise: the problem of the proletariat and the colonial problem; that Europe is unable to justify itself either before the bar of “reason” or before the bar of “conscience”; and that, increasingly, it takes refuge in a hypocrisy which is all the more odious because it is less and less likely to deceive.

Like Memmi, Cesaire laid out the charges against the colonial system during a time when the system was breaking down, bent and bowed under the weight of its own injustice. It is interesting to note that the years in which Memmi and Cesaire were writing, the mid to late fifties, were the same years that initiated the Civil Rights Movement in America. Like Memmi, Cesaire compared the rule of the French over their colonies to the rule of the Nazis over their conquered territories. In effect, in attempting to retain what is not legitimately theirs, the French have become their own worst nightmare. As he wrote,

..colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the word, to degrade him, to awaken him to buried instincts, to covetousness, violence, race hatred, and moral relativism..

Although the early critiques of colonialism predate all “posts,” Memmi and Cesaire clearly understood the interdependence of the two poles: the colonizer and the colonized, and this interdependence is the very agent that will deconstruct the binary. Memmi was aware that the colonized would demand self-determination and that war and rebellion would continue until the ties were severed.The ties between the colonizer and colonized are not just political they are psychological. The interiorization of inferiority on the part of the native would have grave consequences. Later post-colonial theorists, writing after the end of Empires would take a Post-Structuralist approach inherited from linguistic and literary theory and re-evaluate the dialectical dance between the colonizer and the colonized. Cesaire used his poetry as a political weapon, twisting Shakespeare’s Brave New World to reproach the usurper:

Prospero, you are the master of illusion.
Lying is your trademark.
And you have lied so much to me
(lied about the world, lied about me)
that you have ended by imposing on me
an image of myself.
underdeveloped, you brand me, inferior,
That is the way you have forced me to see myself
I detest that image! What’s more, it’s a lie!
But now I know you, you old cancer,
and I know myself as well.

Aime Cesaire’s version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1968)

Both authors lived long enough to engage in scholarly debates about colonialism and would see the end of the “civilizing” mission of European imperialism. Both would live in the Mother Country of France and speak and write in the mother tongue and both would live to see France changing as the colonized, the oppressed Muslim population, “come home.”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

 

Écriture Féminine: Luce Irigaray

ÉCRITURE FEMININE

PART THREE: THE TAIN OF THE MIRROR

LUCE IRIGARAY (1930 – )

Women are outside all systems; they are stranded in the “eternal,” the “natural,” or the “essential.” Outside of history and beyond the reach of progress, women exist as the contradiction to the Enlightenment, which, for half the world, has not lived up to its emancipatory promises. Or perhaps one could say more accurately, if women and people of color are Othered, then the Enlightenment does not consider them as worthy of consideration. The Enlightenment and all its philosophies is white and male and European. The emancipatory discourses of the modern are gendered male and modernism is the discourse of the male subject. One has only to leaf through the pages of an art history text or wander down the corridors of a museum of modern art in order to see the “natural” female, usually nude, displayed and framed into powerlessness by the modernist male artist. The inevitable conclusion is that bourgeois modern men manifest their social and cultural powers on the supine and helpless body of the objectified female to exhibit social prowess.

Such exclusionary practices which keep the woman outside of culture extend across the entire social spectrum, which has been carefully policed and constantly patrolled by the ever-vigilant male. Ruled by their wombs, women are unreasoning beings. Reason is exclusively male. As a result, the culture of the west is monosexual, therefore, the only reasonable way to resist sexual difference is for women to assert sexual difference. The task of écriture féminine, like that of Marxism, is to demonstrate that there is nothing natural or universal. If it can be convincingly demonstrated, using the methods of logic, that the presence of women has not been acknowledged, then insisting on including women in the discourse causes a crisis in knowledge and a problem of the legitimization of the entire discursive system. If male philosophers are the only speaking subjects and if the subject of philosophy is the male, and if women are silenced, then how can philosophy be universal or transcendent if half the human race has been left out and rendered mute? The only way male philosophy can claim universality or transcendence is to write out women, but once women insert (note how phallic the language is) themselves and insist upon making themselves known as human beings, the whole system is in crisis, because, according to this system and its rules, the Feminine is a sign of unrepresentability.

As Dani Caravallaro pointed out in her excellent 2003 book French Feminist Theory: An Introduction, French feminism, like feminism in America was divided into different camps or opinions as to how to solve the problem of male dominance and to re-place women into Western philosophy. As Cavallaro wrote in her “Introduction,” “materialist feminism” critiqued the “fashioning” of gender and sexuality by the patriarchy, “linguistic feminism” examined the psychological impact of symbolic representations of the “fashioning” upon the psyche. These twin impulses are but the sides of the same coin and both of these two movements in French feminism are dedicated to exposing the cultural construction of the “natural” which renders the body as a text, written by the patriarchy. The French feminist writer and psychologist Lucy Irigaray practices “linguistic” feminism and her playful and subversive language must be read as a mode of expression of the female body which re-writes male texts.

Male discourse, in suppressing the feminine, is an inherently political institution and its acts of attempting to silence women are acts of political suppression. In America, the watchword was “the personal is political,” meaning that the private lives of women, long announced to be outside of the realms of serious speech acts, had to be understood as part of a strategy of oppression. In fact, the life of Luce Irigaray underscores the fate of women who dare to speak out. Note that the American and British feminists either selected their points of assault on male edifices carefully or approached the power source of male institutions more obliquely than the French feminists. But Irigaray directly challenged the heart of male oppression, the very site of silencing women: Enlightenment philosophy. Even more confrontationally, she posed a theoretical challenge to both Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan on the topic of women. Although she had been a student of Lacan and was a practicing psychoanalyst, when Speculum of the Other Woman was published in 1964, she lost her teaching position at Vincennes and was expelled from Lacan’s Ecole freudienne de Paris. Her opposition to the Enlightenment “Othering” of women and her exposure of the male bias in her field revealed that psychoanalysis is historically determined and impacts upon the social attitude towards women.

The theory and the practice of psychoanalysis is phallocentrically biased with the symbolic male organ being elevated (more phallic language) to the universal order. But in order to elevate the male, the female must be extinguished. The psychoanalytic social order rests on the unacknowledged and unincorporated body of the mother. Irigaray, like Mulvey, used male theories against men. If the “feminine” is a sign of unrepresentability, then the “imaginary body” must be male. The female body is not symbolic for reasons articulated by Lacan who stated that the “masculine” is a structure of specularization. The eradication of the female renders her invisible, and the visualization of the male is based on a buried act or matricide, the death of the Mother. After this ritual murder, the “woman” is the victim who haunts this Phallic structure. The male projects his ego onto the world but this narcissistic act is, as Laura Mulvey noted, only a mirror of his own reflection. According to Irigaray, since men possess the reflective side of the mirror, then women are the repressed tain of the mirror. They are the the lack of reflection, the inability to reflect; they are the back of the reflection, the dark coating that allows the transparent glass to become a mirror.

Freud’s “fort-da” game, for example, portrays the absent mother as an object (the child’s toy). Even worse, the object of this game is to substitute a toy for the real mother, teaching the masculine subject that women and objects are equivalent and that women are, therefore, unnecessary. It is Irigaray’s hope to uncover the buried mother. Within the masculine system, woman is natural, outside of history, indeed, outside of life. She is nothing but a Hole without symbolism; she is homeless, unrecognizable residue. Women need a “house of language” where she can live and speak. To parler-femme is to speak (as) woman, to bring her body into language and to refuse the mastery of the patriarchy. Irigaray proposes a feminist strategy of “rétour et retouche,” which is a healing metaphor. In this poetics of the female body, the two lips indicate auto-affection: women loving themselves and refusing the male by replacing the male monological speech with a plurality of voices.Women need to rethink the cultural imaginary and to create a female imaginary which is fluid and mobile and indifferent to logic. The female auto-affection is a counterpart to the oppressive man-to-man as the universal “I” and means to love oneself.

I am completely ready to abandon this word, (feminism) namely because it is formed on the same model as the other great words of the culture that oppresses us.

Luce Irigaray wanted to reclaim feminism and to redefine it as the struggle of women and their “plural and polymorphous character…” She does not tell us what a woman is for this is something women have to create and invent. “Woman” as a concept is already implicated in the male/female opposition of patriarchal metaphysics, because “woman” is automatically not a man. The danger lies in attempting to undermine the concept of “woman,” because by merely entering into the terrain of male discourse, if only to combat it, one risks becoming complicit with that which one is trying to subvert.

Speaking (as) woman is not speaking of women. It is not a matter of producing a discourse of which women would be the object or the subject.

According to Irigaray, representation is both masculine and self-reflexive and specular. Anticipating the publication of Irigaray’s first book by two years, Ways of Seeing by English author John Berger called attention to the way in which women are watched by males and how they then internalize the watching and watch themselves. Thinking of Lacan and of the constant social surveillance over women, Irigaray also noted that women are looked at by men but do not look back at men. Men possess the “gaze,” the power to look, which personifies male power over women. By this non-exchange of the “gaze,” women are rendered “different” from men in terms of negation—what they are not relative to men. Women are the negative; men are the positive. Women are defined in terms of what they cannot do: they cannot look; what they cannot have: the Phallus. They have no positive place in society. The “difference” between men and women that elevates the male and devours the female has been structured into the unconscious of the social, political, and cultural hierarchy.

irigaray-by-cathy-bernheim

Luce Irigaray (1930-)

One of the most valuable contributions of feminism, both in America and France is the revelation that “femininity” is a male construction, a role and an image, a value imposed upon women by the narcissistic and misogynistic logic of masculine systems. How is the “feminine” determined–meaning fixed and rendered unmoving–by male discourse? The Marxist concept of social determination transforms into anatomical destiny when the feminine is “determined” as Lack or Error or as an Inverted reproduction of the masculine subject, solely on the basis of the absence of a specific form of genitalia. Without a Phallus, the female Lacks symbolism, and because, the male exists as the lone signifier solely because of a primal matricide, repression is the only place of the feminine. The woman has been repressed, squeezed out of culture and society and confined to a speechless and inert body.

How can a woman enter into a discourse that is hostile to her presence? Women have access to language only through systems of representation that are masculine. The binary oppositions that support language work against women who have been historically assigned a negative role, a “not.” Therefore, women must mimic the “feminine.” Within the text—and there is no outside the text—women can only act out their roles. Irigaray defines écriture féminine as the writing style of women that emphasizes the tactile, the simultaneous, and the fluid, the kind of writing, capable of, as she explained in 1975, “.. jamming the theoretical machinery itself, of suspending its pretension to the production of a truth and of a meaning that are excessively univocal. Which presupposes that women do not aspire simply to be men’s equals in knowledge.” That being said, the concept of a writing “style” for women is unimaginable within the existing male order, the inherited “grids” of masculinity. Writing within and outside of the masculine style of linear logic, the female writing signifies excess or deranging power–the disrupting otherness of women.

Irigaray was concerned that women would fall back into a language of the male social organization that exiles and excludes women, and she wished to promote and encourage the development of a social form specific to women. Paralleling similar movements in America in the seventies, Irigaray proposed that separation of women from men is an effective short-term strategy. Women need to learn to love each other and themselves, a revelation that is an indispensable step towards autonomy. Without the preliminary step of reclaiming the woman and her body, the females cannot become full and complete human beings. The real danger is accepting the terms of a system that forces women to become men. The real challenge is to confront the foundation of the social and cultural order for equality but such a challenge should not mean becoming “men” or man-like. Difference has always been used against women, and if women are assimilated to the world of men, they will have nothing to contribute as women. One must fight for human rights rather than for women’s rights and to intervene into an unjust system as a woman.

In This Sex Which is not One of 1977, Irigaray refused to consider power as anything but a male obsession, something women are against.Women should resist hierarchy and orthodoxy and recognize a multiplicity of strategies. The female strategy par excellence is to appropriate the role given to her by the male and to make the role her own. This appropriation is what she meant by mimicry. To mimic as a writer is to mimic the male fears of the uncontrollable fluidity that is the female. Irigaray attempted to theorize female specificity as a radical difference, which could be a serious threat to the hegemony male sex. The protective masquerade proposed by Joan Rivière in 1929 could be transformed into rebellious mimicry or an exaggeration of “womanliness” and a new appreciation of the feminine.

One must assume the feminine role deliberately to invert a form of subordination into an affirmation, and thus begin to toward it. To play with mimesis is thus, for a woman, to try to recover the place of her exploitation by discourse.

The old mimesis was the masquerade, which is only parroting the master’s discourse, in order to protect oneself, as Riviérè pointed out. Within French Feminism, female mimicry becomes a parodic mode of feminine discourse to deconstruct the discourse of masculinity. As American theorist, Mary Ann Doane, stated the goal is, “..to enact a defamiliarized version of femininity…” In other words to reassert the woman by making the feminine seem strange again. Mimesis is a “canny”–strange–mimicry, projecting difference as a positive. Embracing female difference, Irigaray associated women’s writing and speech with female fluidity rather than with male rigidity. Women have a special relationship with fluids–breast milk, menstrual blood, afterbirth–and historically, because of its relationship with women, fluid has been abandoned to the feminine.

In embracing the fluid and the plural, Irigaray abandons the binaries of Structuralism by deconstructing the paired opposites to demonstrate that within the polar system, women are always disadvantaged. The male side of the contrast is valorized at the expense of women and herein lies the act of deconstruction: if men need the negated women to carry the burden of his power, then without the woman to signify powerlessness, the male can have no independent status. The dualism must be interdependent, men and women are entangled together and it is the task of the feminist to untie the knot. Irigaray wrote,

…to play with mimesis is thus, for a woman, to try to recover the place of her exploitation by discourse, without allowing herself to be simply reduced to it. It means to resubmit herself–inasmuch as she is on the side of the “perceptible,” of “matter”–to “ideas,” In particular to ideas about herself, that are elaborated in/by masculine logic, but so as to make “visible,” by and effect of playful repetition, what was supposed to remain invisible: the cover-up of a possible operation of the feminine in language. It also means “to unveil” the fact that, if women are such good mimics, it is because they are no simply resorbed in this function. They must remain elsewhere: another case of the persistence of “matter,” but also of “sexual pleasure.”

 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

 

Écriture Féminine: Historical Context

ÉCRITURE FÉMININE

PART ONE: AMERICA AND FRANCE

…It still remains politically essential for feminists to defend women as women in order to contrast the patriarchal oppression that precisely defines women as women…Toril Moi, 1995

One is not born a woman, one becomes one…Simone de Beauvoir, 1954

These two opening quotes expose a rift within post-war French feminism. One one said is Simone de Beauvoir, who was historically caught in the uncomfortable position of being a pioneer. It is possible to image Beauvoir, surrounded by men talking about their works and the works by other men, in a chic café in Montparnasse. Buffeted by the male ego, she began to rewrite history and retold the received wisdom of the Western world through the experiences of women. The Second Sex, published in 1949, is both a statement that women exist and signals a possible closure to a patriarchal system that is oppressing half the sky. But beginnings are just that beginnings and the magnitude of Beauvoir’s achievement loomed over the next generation of feminists, especially in France who felt that they had to wrestle with her as a precursor. It is rare that woman have to challenge a predecessor, but as Toril Moi stated in 1986, speaking for many French feminists, “Now that Beauvoir is dead, feminism is finally free to move into the twenty-first century.”

Feminist theory, or a critique of society from the standpoint of gender, borrowed from the only possible preexisting model: Marxism. Although Marxist theory was concerned only with class differences, its theoretical position of a critique of a (capitalist) society through a particular lens, such as class, did lend itself to a concentration on the issue of gender. Feminism altered the Marxist position that the economy or the economic system is the engine of society. True, the economic system produced a class division, but women were folded into those classes. Whether upper, middle or lower, the Marxist take on the classes rendered the female a mere counterpart of the male and did not allow gender to be considered as a reason for social ordering. For the feminists of the Second Wave, a Marxist critique of society was very appealing as was the message of social reform and revolution, but, for them, Marxism, a theory that critiqued dominance, hid from itself a dominance–the assumption that females were (should be) dominated by the males.

As was pointed out in earlier posts on the history of feminism, First and Second waves, one of the ironies of so-called reformist (abolitionist) or revolutionary (war protest) movements is the continuation of female subjugation into the proposed more just future. It is no accident that the Suffragettes emerged out of the anti-slavery movement and that the Women’s Movement followed the uprisings and Civil Rights protests of the 1960s—each historic event specifically left women out of the equation. The feminist position would be that Othering in terms of gender pre-dated class hierarchies and that gender was as much, if not more, a determining factor of one’s role in society, than class. In fact, one could make an argument that discrimination against women was the Primal Prejudice and that until sexism is eradicated, all other bigotries remain in place.

One of the most basic tenets of Marxism was that the lower classes must be re-educated to understand that they were being exploited by those who owned the means of production. Dependent and frightened for their livelihoods and grateful for any kind of job, the laborers were reluctant to rebel against their masters. The task of the revolutionaries was to remove the veil of false consciousness and allow the working class to see that what they considered “nature” was indeed “culture.” Nothing could be more entrapped in the idea of “nature” than women, who were held down by the socially imposed doxa that women were nature. Men, of course, believed that women were, by nature, naturally, inferior to the ale and many women, especially middle class women, benefited (or so they thought) from their subservience. As was pointed out earlier, the feminist movement was essentially middle class and priority was given to those well-positioned womne who could make a difference. Late 20th century feminists borrowed the Marxist technique of “consciousness raising” to illuminate the gendered bases of society and to reveal the ideological constructions of relations between men and women.

Throughout the centuries of the Enlightenment, the voices of women were virtually unheard and their existence hardly factored into male-made philosophy. To merely interject women into philosophy, into critical theory was to call into question the legitimacy of the entire enterprise of objectivity and scientific progress. All claims to universality ring hollow when philosophy is confronted with the actual lived reality of women and people of color and those who did not conform to the heterosexual “norm.” One of the more interesting aspect of feminism is that, unlike Marxist revolutionaries, the movement did not directly attack government but developed a theoretical interrogation of knowledge itself. The goal was to undermine, not the epistemology or philosophy, but the practical way in which knowledge was produced. If half the human race is systematically eradicated from history, eliminated from scientific discourse, denied access to the political system, and prevented from having equal access to social opportunity,then knowledge and the discourses it produced was suspect. The question was how and what to attack.

The America feminists of the late 20th century were university educated intellectuals, well positioned to question the methodologies of the male enterprises, from literature to philosophy to science to language itself. Over the course of forty years of continuing challenges to received wisdom, traditional male scholarship was shown to be sterile and narcissistic, women learned to be suspicious of monolithic systems, such as science and religion, that not only excluded them but also devalued women. There were several distinct modes of feminist critique, carried out in the arts and in the sciences and in the humanities. One could conduct a feminist reading of any kind of text, from a newspaper article to a scientific journal, in other words, to posit the feminist (not a woman who was not a feminist) as a reader/viewer of something that had been produced by a man for men. This type of reading would reveal how male authors have used women as a sign in their semiotic systems and how women have been led by male culture to imagine themselves in male terms.

In 1973 Robin Lackoff wrote “Language and Woman’s Place” which convincingly demonstrated that the very language we speak services the empowerment of men and works hard to keep women in a powerless position. Language has trapped women, which are represented only as objects, images, and stereotypes in a culture that is marked by omissions and misconceptions about women. As Lackoff concluded,

Linguistic imbalances are worthy of study because they bring into sharper focus real-worldimbalancesand inequities. They are clues that some external situation needs changing, rather than items that one should seek to change directly. A competent doctor tries to eliminate the germs that cause measles, rather than trying to bleach the red out with peroxide. I emphasizethis point because it seems to be currently fashionable to try, first, to attack the disease by attempting to obliterate the external symptoms; and, secondly, to attack every instance of linguistic sexual inequity, rather than selecting those that reflecta realdisparityin social treatment,not meregrammaticalnonparallelism; we should be attemptingto single out those linguistic uses that, by implication and innuendo, demean the members of one group or another, and should be seeking to make speakers of English aware of the psychological damage such forms do. The problem, of course, lies in deciding which forms are really damagingto the ego, and then in determiningwhat to put in their stead.

If naming is a man’s prerogative, given to Adam by God, then it is the task of the feminist to use critique as interpretation, insisting on the perspective of the female, leading to pluralism of reading and demanded interpretation or a counter-interpretation and hermeneutics as a critical stance. Another feminist position was to attack male critical theories, such as that of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, which was based entirely on male experience. These androcentric models needed to be de-coded and de-mystified, a task undertaken by many women over the course of decades. The feminists analysis of male discourses and male texts would reveal the connection between textuality and sexuality, art and gender, and psychosexual identity and power. But, as always, in examining the male-based knowledge and discourse, there was the problem of reinforcing its power by acknowledging its power.

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Sandra Gilbert (left) and Susan Gubar (right), 1980

At the peak of the Second Wave of feminism, the key question was whether or not to acknowledge the male or to ignore the male. Ignoring the male meant raising yet another question: what did art by women look like through the feminist eyes of women as viewers and as readers? One of the best-known books of this type was published in the year 1979 was The Madwoman in the Attic by the writing team, Susan Gilbert and Susan Gubar. The remarkable year also introduced a feminist critique of literature, termed “Gynocritics” by Elaine Showalter. Like other early feminist scholars, Showalter focused on the essential issue of difference and explained how “difference” between men and women was used by men to disadvantage women. Unlike Gilbert and Gubar who concentrated on literature by women writing in a repressive society, Showalter examined the female literature from the perspective of the female reader. Gilbert and Gubar accepted the essential psychoanalytic definition of women artists as displaced, disinherited, and excluded. Women as artists have a troubled and tormented relationship to female identity. For women, gender is a painful obstacle and a dehabilitating inadequacy, making the self-assertion that is writing an agony.

Showalter pointed out that embedded in the feminist critique of both the female and male writer was a concentration on the male–either as a writer a fictional protagonist or as an “authority” who authorized certain established interpretations—all of which served only to reinforce the power of the male. What feminism needed was to study the literature of women from the perspective of women in order to unearth the buried female culture. Another hope of these feminist theory was that the narrow male-oriented studies of the (male) arts would be expanded to include newly discovered and recovered artists and writers who were women and people of color and to read their images and texts, not from the male perspective as taught in the university, but from a feminist perspective. The results of the attempts to reform academia from the inside have been mixed. Certainly feminist theory became part of the very institution it attacked but, in many cases, was either marginalized as “women’s studies” or incorporated as a “token.”

Academic skirmishes over who and what should be studied were called the “canon” wars, a reference to a canon of “great” books or “major” monuments—all by men, put in place on by males and consecrated by males on the vague basis of “quality,” a concept that appeared (due to the lack of representation by women) to be gendered. The (white and male) opposition to the inclusion of women and people of color in courses of university studies was based upon the assumption of a finite number of “slots” available for membership in the canon. The male argument went: if Jane Austen was included then Charles Dickens would have to be excluded and what would “literature” be without Dickens? If one were to contrast American feminists to the French feminists it would be the difference of perspectives between the experience of women on the two continents. American women had been politically enfranchised and socially empowered for more and far earlier than the women in France, who were not able to obtain the right to vote until 1944.

In France, feminist criticism paralleled certain separatist activities among American feminists during the seventies, especially in the area of visual arts in Los Angeles, and, as such, tended to be more intellectually edgy and politically radical. Écriture féminine is, simply defined, writing the female body. As Antoinette Fouque stated, “…our enemy isn’t man but phallocentry; that is, the imperialism of the phallus.” As was established in earlier posts on Freud and Lacan, the foundation of male theory on the social order was based on the male body, with the phallus as the signifier of domination. Although both groups–those in Paris and those in Los Angeles–would be accused of “essentialism” by returning to the female body as a source of meaning, Écriture féminine was a literary movement. Whether or not these feminists ventured onto to dangerous ground by replicating the tactics of their male counterparts, the idea of “writing women” was advocating the possibility of examining the role of the female body and female difference in language and text. Utopian in nature, écriture féminine reasserted the value of the “feminine” as a struggle to rescue the feminine from stereotypical associations created by males with the supposed “inferiority” of the feminine to the masculine. Rather than intellectual critique or attempts at reform, écriture féminine at its most extreme was an organic or biological criticism, asserting, “anatomy is textuality” and attacking the status quo from the radical outside.

As always, the question is how literal to take these or any assumptions over “anatomy.” This position was or could be a return to the crude anatomical essentialism that had oppressed women in the past or the implications were both Promethean and metaphorical. Gilbert and Gubar, for example, considered the association of the text with masculinity, of writing as being a patriarchal aesthetic. The pen was considered an extension of the penis, while women’s writing/art making is marked by anxiety about their lack of phallus/predecessors. Annie Leclerc’s “parole de femme” is language that is not oppressive to women and that loosens the tongue, i.e., makes it easier for women to make art. As the expert on Surrealism and sexuality, Xavière Gauthier noted,

As long as women remain silent, they will be outside the historical process. But if they begin to speak and write as men do, they will enter history subdued and alienated; it is a history, that, logically speaking, their speech should disrupt.

Women’s art needs to work within male discourse, and work ceaselessly in order to disrupt it and to deconstruct it. Women must write what cannot be written, and to do this they must reinvent language. They must speak outside and against all phallocentric structures which are based on the specular, that is of men looking at and investigating women in order to disempower them.

While women must pay homage to both their mothers and their fathers, men are able to ignore their female predecessors. Male writers will acknowledge Mary Shelley and Emily Dickinson but they do not consider these women as “mothers” of literature, only as authors who are historical figures. Women artists are marked by feelings of loneliness and alienation. They need sisterly precursors and fear antagonism from male readers and suffer from anxiety over their own female intervention, uninvited, into a man’s or public world. Women have always been artists, but they have been willfully forgotten by men. The feminists in France and/or those associated with écriture féminine were very concerned with philosophy and philosophical systems that perpetuated male domination. The question was where to begin–with equality which might imply equality on male terms or with difference which might imply locating the distinctiveness of women first and pursuing parity on their own female terms.

L’écriture féminine is associated with the French group known as MLF, Mouvement de libération de femmes, and is led by four leading female writers, Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Hélène Cixous, and the recently deceased, Monique Wittig. They share a common opponent—masculinist thinking and believe that Western culture is fundamentally oppressive and phallocentric. The Symbolic Discourse of the West is dominated through verbal mastery–to write and speak from a particular position is to appropriate the world.Women must resist this will to master by asserting jouissance, a direct re-experience of physical pleasures of infancy which have been oppressed but not entirely obliterated by the Law of the Father. Women are prevented expression of their own sexuality and must speak of their sexuality in a new language that would establish their point of view–a site of difference from which the phallocentric controls can be taken apart in the exercise of the theory and practice of féminine/féminité. This new sight/site is focused on women, not on their divergence/difference from men or from men’s views of women, but upon what it would mean to re-think philosophy from the standpoint of the body of the female.

Another post of interest discusses the work of Luce Irigaray.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Jean-Paul Sartre and Existentialism

JEAN-PAUL SARTRE (1905-1980)

EXISTENTIALISM

“Nothingness lies coiled in the heart of being – like a worm.”

Existentialism set the tone for Postmodern thinking by being negative: it is defined in terms of what it is not and discards previous systems rooted in the 19th century. The ideal philosophy for a lost and troubled century, Existentialism is against scientific positivism (Auguste Comte), materialism (Karl Marx), and technological pragmatism (William James). Existentialism discredited philosophical idealism (Emmanuel Kant), Hegel’s transcendental pan-logism and all assumptions of the absolute primacy and supremacy of human reason and intellect. In rejecting the metaphysical, Existentialism was anti-intellectual and anti-rational, setting the reality of life as lived or “bios” against “logos” or abstract reason. Georg Hegel had identified human reason with concepts of Logos (coherent discourse), Absolute Reason, and the Absolute Idea or Spirit, and this philosophical concept can be summed up as immanence or the functioning of pure reason.

As Alexandre Kojève explained it, “Hegel insists at length on the passive, contemplative, and descriptive character of the “scientific” method. He underlines that there is a dialectic of “scientific” thought only because there is a dialectic of the Being which that thought reveals.” Opposed to the notion of abstracted “human reason,” existentialist thinkers, such as Henri Bergson, considered the human intellect as a practical tool, an instrument that was adaptable according to the need to create objects through the dynamic force of élan vital. In contrast to the philosophy of contemplation, the existentialist, from Friedrich Nietzsche to Jean-Paul Sartre to Albert Camus, was interested in the individual who is concrete, singular and unique, original, free and responsible–in other words a person of action. Previous philosophical traditions were centered upon a system of epistemology or the foundation of knowledge, which had to be reason. Reason could be justified only within as abstract structure which had to transcend the real, reality, in order to be universal. But existentialism shifted its focus to existence itself–what it means to live, to be alive, to the human experience–and, while accepting the irrational disorder of life, attempted to come to terms with the reality of being.

Therefore, Existentialism compares practical action to the contemplative intellect, which imposes logical forms that are arbitrary and abstract, the products of thinking (not acting). A (human) being is in a constant process of becoming and evolving. The knower is penetrated by the known. To express this always-becoming state of being, the existentialist writer must use literary tactics, such as metaphor, analogy, symbolic, and symbolic imagery. Intellectual knowledge is subjective or inward compared to “true reality” which is external and in a constant state of flux and change or caught up in a “creative evolution.” What gives Existentialism its unique position in 20th century philosophy is the time of its re-birth, the Second World War, and the place, Paris, a city under the occupation of a long-hated enemy, Germany. What did it mean to act or not act when one is under the all too watchful eyes of the Nazi panopticon? Now that the known world had come to an end and the age of reason had crumbled, it was necessary to re-write the terms of existence, without God,without Logos.

It is certainly correct to think of modern Existentialism as the product of World War II, but the specificity of its re-working should not be thought of as a limitation, any more than idealism should be thought of as being limited by the Enlightenment. The times forced the philosophy and this most terrible war waged against humanity demolished all the cherished assumptions of the Enlightenment and suggested a new role for philosophy. If God had gone into retreat during the Holocaust, then reason had also gone into hiding and philosophy had been rendered irrelevant. The task of building a philosophy for the end of the 20th century fell to a scholar, schoolteacher, intellect and writer, Jean-Paul Sartre, who was part of the literary-philosophical world of war time Paris.

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Jean-Paul Sartre about 1950

Sartre was hardly a man of action. His role, such as it was, as a warrior consisted mostly of being a prisoner of war, an unfortunate soldier caught up in the disaster of the French defeat. When he returned to Paris to be reunited with his on-again, off-again lover and companion, the independent minded Simone de Beauvoir (“Beaver”), Sartre had to consider the position of an intellectual who must retain honor, resist the occupiers, but also stay alive. Whether or not Sartre flew too close to the German wind in order to continue his work is a matter for others to decide (Sartre wrote for collaborationist or Occupied Zone publications), but he acted in such a way so as to get his work out in public and performed for audiences. There is no doubt that his experiences during the War, his brief tenure as prisoner of war, his devotion to the French Resistance, his determination to speak out against the Nazis, caused a creative explosion and an outpouring of his most important works: the 1943 production of The Flies, with its hidden protest against Vichy, the staging of No Exit, a contemplation of Hell (others) in 1944 just before the invasion, and, of course Being and Nothingness, the master statement of Existentialism.

There is no question that Sartre, before finding himself in the midst of a rather too cozy Occupation where the German army seemed less like active enemies and more like passive “furniture,” a typical insular intellectual, was naïve about world affairs. He had actually visited Germany in 1933 to meet with the philosopher, Martin Heidegger, but the letters of Sartre written during the 1930s indicate he had little awareness of the implications of Nazism which and already co-opted Heidegger. But Sartre changed. The Age of Reason written during the long war was a dialogue between Sartre and his leading character, Mathieu, both of whom were concerned with how to survive in wartime while retaining one’s own dignity. Over time, Sartre created a new character that essentially split the difference: the engaged intellectual who lived a life of political activism,but who managed to embed the politics in art.

Like most modern philosophers, Sartre was a “literary” figure, writing plays and novels, all of which were different expressions of the existential mood of the Second World War. Being and Nothingness, his major existential work, was written in 1943 and was translated into English and published in 1947. Heidegger was discredited due to his shameful treatment of his Jewish colleagues but was still producing a discourse on Being that was eloquent enough to be reckoned with, but Sartre emerged from the rubble of the war as the leading modern philosopher of existentialism. In a reply to his critics, in a 1944 article in Action, Sartre both brushed aside the charge that his work should be dismissed due to the association of existentialism with Heidegger and condemned the philosopher: “Heidegger has no character; there’s the truth of the matter…Don’t you know that some times the man does not come up to the level of his works?”

For decades French intellectual though had been impacted by Marxism, but Sartre was uneasy with economic determinism precisely because Marx proposed that society was determined, suggesting that humans were mere pawns of a dialectic. Although he would not discard Marxism, for Sartre, it was clear that human beings had to act alone. It was important for human beings to act out of choice. One’s existence is one’s character and that character depends upon the active choice of projects or what one choses to do or to act within. Writing just after the Occupation in “A More Precise Characterization of Existentialism,” Sartre remarked, “Since existentialism defines man by action, it is evident that this philosophy is not a quietism.” Although many misread Being and Nothingness as a monument to despair, a shout against God, Sartre insisted that “Existentialism is a Humanism.” As he wrote in 1946,

Atheistic existentialism, of which I am a representative, declares with greater consistency that if God does not exist there is at least one being whose existence comes before its essence, a being which exists before it can be defined by any conception of it. That being is man or, as Heidegger has it, the human reality. What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself. Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it. Man simply is. Not that he is simply what he conceives himself to be, but he is what he wills, and as he conceives himself after already existing – as he wills to be after that leap towards existence. Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism.

Existentialism is about life’s concrete existence and how the human being constantly comes into being through inter/acting with the changing environment. “Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness and dies by chance.” “Truth” is “my truth” and “Being” is “my being.” The human reality is “being-in-itself (en-soi)” and “being-for-itself (pour-soi),” a combination that produces an ambiguity at the heart of humanity. Sartre would later add a third term: “being-for-others (pour-autrui).” Being-in-itself is actually nothing constituting an absolute polarity to Being-for-itself, which is free and unbridled but nothing else until it encounters the Other. Note that this is not a Hegelian triad, in which one term is deduced logically from the other, but a doubled and split Being that can only “encounter” the other. Sartre asserted, “We are completely alone with no excuses behind us or justification before us.” What Sartre is asserting is that because we are not a self but a presence to self–we are the Other to ourselves–we are free.

As free human beings, we are responsible for our own actions and our own lives. We must live with authenticity. Presumably, a Nazi could live with authenticity in the full belief that his or her actions constituted an ethical life, but Sartre would argue that the Nazi was acting in “bad faith” and was refusing to take responsibility for his or her own life. In thrall to Hitler, a Nazi cannot be free. Sartre asserted that “man” makes “himself” through “his” own activity. Obstacles to our freedom are “our past, our place, our surroundings, our fellow-brethern, our death.” We have the choice to be free and to be free we must freely accept the present. Freedom is being in control of the present and only when one is in control is one free to change. In many ways, Existentialism is an extension of certain aspects of the Enlightenment: the subject or the Self stands alone, all else—the reason for living, the purpose of life—is stripped away.

Many observers considered Being and Nothingness to be bitter and hopeless in its refusal to provide a purpose for life outside of existence. But what has really occurred for Sartre is the century in which he lived. The War changed the rules of the game of life, so to speak, and the idealism of older philosophy must be dismissed–logic, logos, and reason–all discarded in order for the human being to be set free to act as an individual. The acting human being may have no rules and no guidance from “higher powers,” whether philosophers or God, and the person who accepts this (unguided and unfettered) freedom is also taking on a burden of total responsibility. The moral and ethical goal of the post-war human was to be authentic. The final acceptance of the death of God, proposed by Friedrich Nietzsche and proved by the Holocaust, would be the final assertion of individuality in philosophy and the final celebration of the free human being.

Sartre’s philosophy expressed an ontological fatalism: “Existence precedes essence”–we exist before we have any specific perfection or nature. But this essence, this being is all we are. In other words, breaking from Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, Sartre asserted that there is no unconscious mind lurking behind our actions and ultimately limiting our authenticity. The Ego is not in consciousness but can be described as a consciousness of oneself. We are conscious minds, and, if this is the case, we are thrust into being and we make ourselves through action. Our individual humanity is nothing but what we make through our individual actions. Every being is alone and every human activity is characterized by anguish. As Sartre wrote, “Anguish, abandonment, responsibility, whether muted or full strength, constitute the quality of our consciousness in so far as this is pure and simple freedom.” We must choose but nothing can assure us that we have made the right choice.

The true struggle is to make sure that we act with full understanding and cognizance of our own being and are acting in good faith. With the background of the Holocaust and the French participation in the extermination of the Jews, this refusal of moral absolutism takes on sinister tones and could slide dangerously into action justifying action for action’s sake. On the other hand, the Nazis were nothing if not morally absolute and exposed the dangers of existentialism (Heidegger) untethered to ethics. Existentialism was an angry and pained expression of the disarray of the European belief systems after the Second World War. It would take generations for a continent to restore its honor and to absorb the lessons of the post.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

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Ludwig Wittgenstein and Philosophy, Part Two

LUDWIG WITTGENSTEIN (1889-1951)

Part Two: The Late Work

Philosophers constantly see the method of science before their eyes, and are irresistibly tempted to ask and answer in the way science does. This tendency is the real source of metaphysics, and leads the philosopher into complete darkness. I want to say here that it can never be our job to reduce anything to anything, or to explain anything. Philosophy really is “purely descriptive.”

from The Blue Book

When he finished the Tractatus, Ludwig Wittgenstein assumed that he had finished with philosophy, gave away his wealth, and retreated into private life and followed various pursuits, from being a hermit in a hut in Norway, to being a school teacher, to being an architect, and a visitor to the Soviet Union. In 1929, Wittgenstein returned to England, became a citizen in 1938, and joined the faculty at Cambridge where he taught to a select group of students who wrote down everything he said. The Blue Book and The Brown Book (published in 1958) are a collection of his thoughts on the way to Philosophical Investigations. During the Second World War, he was an orderly in a London hospital, and, in 1947, he resigned from teaching, only to return in 1949 until his death from cancer in 1951.

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations is a very special book to read because it was, like all the books printed after his death, based on his lectures to his attentive students at Cambridge. Each page is a series of statements or paragraphs, and, as in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, each is carefully numbered. The blocks give the reader a glimpse into the organized and adventurous mind of of the philosopher. Early on, he discusses the problem of “naming,” a problem left over from his early work. In Philosophical Investigations,he traced the progress from a “primitive” language of one-word commands which designate or denote substantive meaning from the one who speaks and to the one who hears to more complex forms of communication. As for our mode of communication, naming a thing, noting a noun, Wittgenstein muses, “Naming appears as queer connexion of a word with an object.” Then he slips in a phrase, not even a real sentence, that has become one of his most famous sayings: “For philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday.” After which he discusses the slippage that occurs when a sword is named “Excalibur,” rendering any sentence with the name without meaning. His solution is that the name “Excalibur” must be eliminated and replaced by what Wittgenstein calls “simples.” <“It is reasonable to call these words the real names.”

Tractatus restricted philosophy to that which could reasonably be said, but language and the way people used it tended to “go on holiday,” calling to question the normal everyday language people, not philosophers, employ to communicate. If one spoke of pictures, using names, then how does the philosopher deal with the issue of understanding a language? This reconsideration of how language makes meaning resulted the lectures that were edited and printed in Philosophical Investigations (1953). Older and wiser, Wittgenstein was drawn back into the argument of meaning. A friend challenged him to explain what a “gesture” meant in term of picture theory: what did an abstract gesture “picture?” Or to put it another way how did an abstract gesture provide an image or a picture of a thought? He returned to philosophy and took a position closer to that of Friedrich Nietzsche who reduced language to metaphor. By admitting that the notion of an ideal language was an illusion, Wittgenstein moved closer to the idea of language as being more inventive or artistic than precise and analytic. If Nietzsche unraveled language to become a nihilist, Wittgenstein explored language to become a pessimist.

First, both twentieth century thinkers had given up on any pretense of finding “truth.” For Nietzsche, all that humans have is metaphor and there is no truth, universal or otherwise, only the trap of symbolic metaphorical thinking. More optimistically both Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and Wittgenstein look to language as being the only source of knowledge of the world. The world, to put it another way, is shaped and conditioned by language and language represents the world. Saussure was more ready than Wittgenstein to accept the arbitrary nature of the (non) link between the word and the thing. A few decades later, Wittgenstein was ready to give up on his picture theory of language in which words made a “picture” of the world. If there is no universal language that can be used with rigor, then philosophy must become a practical study of ordinary language that is understood through what Wittgenstein called “language games.” combining the similarities among words (games), which is he calls “family resemblances.” “And I shall say, ‘games’ form a family,” he declared.

Language, then, is nothing more than relationships. In contrast to the inherent complexity of relating words one to another, Wittgenstein had sought order through his “picture theory of language.” In the Tractatus, language was grounded in a world of accessible experience in which discrete facts are mirrored in the language. “A proposition is a picture of reality,” Wittgenstein wrote confidently, assuming the transparency of word to thing. If the Wittgensteinian rules are followed, meaning is univocal and knowledge is certain. Once this certainty is abandoned, as it had to be in the 1930s, Wittgenstein changed his philosophical investigations into a search for the basis of knowledge. Language for both Saussure and Wittgenstein is not a window on reality or a mirror but a network of established significations or family resemblances linked by Nietzsche’s metaphors.

In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein had moved towards an analysis of how language works rather than a critique of what it does when it works. For Wittgenstein, language is part of a system, and the system of language is a game with rules or social conventions that are agreed upon by mutual consent among the players. For the Structuralists who came after Saussure, the “players” had to know how to play the game: the players had to be “competent” or have savoir faire. Players have to know how language functions within the network of games, and, as Wittgenstein was recorded as saying, “To understand a sentence means to understand a language. To understand a language means to be master of a technique.”

Just as Wittgenstein’s language games operate by rules which are subject to change, knowledge is structured by systems of metaphor or code, which is the classification, and organization of experience. Note that “code” or the signifier in the twentieth century replaces the transcendent and universal a priori of Kant. With Wittgenstein, language and orders of representation (language games and their rules) replaces the transcendental. Wittgenstein who once jettisoned “interpretation,” now acknowledged that interpretation is not a quest for the truth but a fundamental search for order and intelligibility. As Wittgenstein said, “Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundation either. It leaves everything as it is.”

Words have no fixed meaning and the meaning of any term is contextual,differential, and relative. The early Structuralists had no interest in the diachronic implications of language and Wittgenstein is interested in the diachronic only in terms of function, that is, he realized language arises in a particular social context and that the test of “meaningfulness” is the success of language in accomplishing what it sets out to accomplish. For the Structuralists, the synchronic aspects of language of of little interest; for Wittgenstein language was an ever-evolving part of a culture. His commonsense approach to “ordinary” language was revolutionary. Language games form a family, and the words in the family acquire meaning in everyday use. In contrast to the picture theory, which was a belief in universals, Philosophical Investigations contemplates the actual use of language and concludes that the meaning of a word is its use. In paragraph 43, Wittgenstein stated, “For a large class of cases—though not for all—in which we employ the word “meaning” it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.”

In arguing that “the meaning of a word is its use in the language”, Wittgenstein argued against the precision of concepts and acknowledged that new rules could be made up when needed, as long as the players were in collective agreement. Definitions and rules are nothing but signposts and can change location, so to speak, having an open character. In the second half of his life, Wittgenstein declared that the attempt to locate an unambiguous meaning in language was a form of illness and that the only purpose of logic was to understand how everyday language functions. For the philosopher, all seeing is “langufied” and is relative to “frames.” There is a paradox: we see the frame and realize we are looking only at the picture. Wittgenstein could not resolve this paradox. Nietzsche was ready to give up on truth but Wittgenstein was not. He saw language as a form of life that expressed the social group. We are trapped in language but we can free. In paragraph 309 of Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein asked himself, “What is your aim in philosophy?—To shew the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.”

Part One on Wittgenstein discusses his Early Work.

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Ludwig Wittgenstein and Philosophy, Part One

LUDWIG WITTGENSTEIN (1889 – 1951)

Part One: Early Work

During the War to End all Wars, it would be the self-appointed task of an obscure Austrian philosopher named Ludwig Wittgenstein but bring Kantian philosophy to its logical conclusion. As biographer Edward Kanterian noted in the 2007 book, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Wittgenstein began writing his seminal work two days after he volunteered to serve with the Austrian army. The son of a cultured and wealthy Viennese family, the young man began writing while the European continent was mired in trench warfare and ended his studies in an Italian prison camp. “My work has extended from the foundations of logic to the nature of the world,” he remarked in 1916. The result of Wittgenstein’s wartime work was a book that would change philosophy, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Wittgenstein was but one philosopher who was part of an Anglo-American shift to an analytic and pragmatic philosophy, the next stage after positivism and materialism. At the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, Analytic philosophy would be countered by existentialist movements, such as the “vitalism” of Henri Bergson, and the neo-Kantian or Kantian revivals in both Germany and France.

As Bertrand Russell explained in the Introduction to the Tractatus, Wittgenstein used the terms “symbol” and “language” interchangeably, meaning that language is a form of symbolism. The study of language, linguistics, as seen in the philosophy of Ferdinand de Saussure and Ludwig Wittgenstein was also an acceptance of the “Kantian paradigm,” without the transcendental aspects of Kant’s thinking. Yes, the mind structures reality which is expressed through the only available tool: language. Without getting into a debate about the a priori, analytic philosophy is based upon logic or analyzes that which can be deduced only from that which is observed. As Russell explained, Wittgenstein asserted that “Every philosophical proposition is bad grammar…A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations. The result of philosophy is not a number of ‘philosophical propositions,’ but to make propositions clear.” The result–a statement about reality can be expressed only in language–would be, for Wittgenstein—the end of philosophy itself. Or so he thought, until he changed his mind.

To say that there is only one way to explain the world and that way is language is put aside the question of whether or not we can ever truly experience “reality.” Once that question of “reality” is removed from the dialogue, another question surfaces: the obvious direction of philosophy becomes whether or not we can ever know the world. Given that all we have is words, the epistemological grounds are based upon how we use language: what is appropriate to say or not, what constitutes a meaningful statement and what statements are, according to Wittgenstein, mere metaphysics. For Wittgenstein, “Metaphysics” takes on another meaning. In contrast to Kant, for whom metaphysics had the taint of superstition and mysticism, and in contrast to the materialists, for whom metaphysics was the same as idealism or the transcendental a priori, for Wittgenstein, metaphysics was improperly concerned statements that could not be proved or was about subjects that were inaccessible. Yes, one can talk about magic, but why bother?

Wittgenstein announced that “It will therefore only be in language that the limit can be set, and what lies on the other side of the limit will simply be nonsense” in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1918 (published in German in 1921 and in English in 1922). His compilation of philosophical remarks was turned into a treatise and after the Great War, he returned to his mentor, Bertrand Russell at Trinity College and announced he had succeeded in solving all philosophical problems. Wittgenstein opened the Tractatus with Hemingway beautiful writing: “The world is everything that is the case. The world is the totality of the facts, not of things.The world is determined by the facts, and by these being all the facts.” Wittgenstein developed the notion of the proposition, that is, a statement about the world. A proposition can be complex but it can be meaningful only if it can be broken down into smaller components—simpler propositions—that in turn can be broken down into elements that are elementary: names.

The Austrian philosopher was interested in names and in the act of naming or pointing. Names are the terminus of analysis; they are the simple signs of simple objects. “Simple” means, in this context, that the element “named” cannot be defined or talked about and can only be shown (by pointing). These “primitive names” refer to a simple object that can be elucidated by primitive propositions and without these acts of pointing and naming. Without a point of reference, the sentence would be meaningless. “Meaningless” does not mean that the sentence cannot be understood. “Meaningless” means that a sentence without a reference is nonsense. The “mystical” is “thing that cannot be put into words”. Wittgenstein was inspired by reading of a trial in which the lawyers replayed an event using dolls and toys that served both as a point of reference and as a means of re-enactment. From this inspiration, he developed the “Picture Theory,” which Wittgenstein explained as, We picture facts to ourselves…The picture must have something in common with what it depicts. What it has in common is its pictorial form.”

A proposition, like a picture, must have a logical form, for without a logical form, it would be “nothing about the world”. For Wittgenstein, there are three types of expression: tautologies, contradiction, and propositions with sense. The first two say nothing useful or “nothing” while propositions show what they say. We can say nothing about the world as a whole. We can show that language has a relation to the world but we cannot say what the relation is. In the end we are constrained by this finitude: we are imprisoned in language and the world we live in is bounded by this language. Philosophy has been reduced to an activity of displaying the limits of what can be said. As Wittgenstein stated, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” and “What we cannot speak about we must consign to silence.” Thus ended the Tractatus.

There were years in which the philosopher “retired” from philosophy. The son of a wealthy family, he had given up his inherited wealth in 1913 and, after the War became a school teacher in rural Austria. Coming from a family in which three of the sons had committed suicide, Wittgenstein was ill-suited for such a job and was strict and difficult towards his students—allegedly beating some of the boys—and spent the later years of the twenties designing a severely restrained home, in the manner of Adolf Loos, in Vienna for his sister, Gretl. The house, Wittgenstein’s only architectural work, is an austere and stern masterpiece, one of the great works of modernist architecture.

However, Wittgenstein was disturbed by his own philosophical conclusions laid out so clearly and clearly in the Tractatus, because, however, impeccably logical the philosopher had been, under his analysis much of what people say was declared to be out of bounds of “philosophical investigation.” Fortunately for school children everywhere and unfortunately for architecture, Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge and mentored a generation of older (and more controllable) college students. It is only at this point, in 1929, did Wittgenstein submit the Tractatus as his dissertation and join the faculty. His biographer, Norman Malcolm, a former students wrote movingly three years after Wittgenstein’s death of his former mentor in Ludwig Wittgenstein. A Life. Malcolm explained that Wittgenstein never wrote down his lectures and spoke entirely extemporaneously as he labored intellectually to move away from his early work to his later thoughts. As Malcolm stated, “It has been said that Wittgenstein inspired two important schools of thought, both of which he repudiated.” For the rest of his life, Wittgenstein published nothing.

In his 1930s lectures to his students at Cambridge, later published as The Blue and the Brown Books, an older Wittgenstein rethought Tractatus. These “books” were these free form lectures written down by his worshiping students and are rare records of philosophical thinking, later formalized into what Malcolm called “the Oxford School” of linguistic philosophy. It was the Blue Book which introduced the new idea of meaning: meaning is in the use; and the Brown Book developed the concept of “language games,” in which words are used in particular ways and are connected through use and “family resemblances.” In other words, words have no fixed and final meaning; and, contrary to Tractatus, there is no link between language and reality. Named after the color of the papers that bound them, the “books,” published in 1958, are repudiations of Wittgenstein’s early work and lead to the publication of more posthumous works which continues his free form discussions of meaning, Philosophical Investigations (1958) and Philosophical Grammar (1969). The next post will discuss the late work of Ludwig Wittgenstein.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Erwin Panofsky and Iconography, Part Three

ERWIN PANOFSKY AND ICONOGRAPHY

Part Three: Icon, Iconography and Iconology

As has often been pointed out, the exodus of Jewish scholars from Germany was one of the greatest brain drains of talent of the 20th or any other century. “Hitler shakes the trees, and I pick up the apples.” This famous quote is attributed to Walter Cook who founded the Fine Arts Department of New York University ( now the Institute of Fine Arts, also known as “The Institute) and moved his scholars to a brownstone next to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. According to Harry Bober in “The Gothic Tower and the Stork Club,” Panofsky was “one of the more resplendent golden apples, joining the department in 1931. The ideas of Erwin Panofsky and how they were employed or not have depended upon trends in art history. When Panofsky became part of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University (called “The Institute” by those in the know) in 1933, his iconographical system found a permanent home . The discipline of art history in America was greatly enriched by his intellectual and philosophical approach and put what was still a relatively new field of study in his new country on a sounder footing.

Because many of its scholars were Jewish, art history was hunted from Europe by the Nazis. They fled to America, bringing with them concepts based upon European philosophy that were ill-understood by their new students. Traditionally, the American version of his signature idea: iconography, was greatly simplified into a clunky game of matching symbols (icon) to symbolism (iconography), while neglecting the cultural basis for the meanings (iconology). That said, when Panofsky arrived at Princeton with his Kantian-inspired system, he met with opposition from another branch of Kantian thought–formalist art history and yet another bastion of artistic thought, Marxism. For art historians, Marxist thought or the assertion of Karl Marx that the economy was the “secret engine” of society, was a fruitful way of examining a work of art, for a Marxist analysis would remove the “veil” of the “natural” and reveal the economic basis of the work itself. Formalist art historians, however, preferred to look directly at the work itself and not at the society that produced it. Rather than thinking of these two methods as complementing each other or as adding to a fuller picture of the art, the discipline tended to place Formalism and Marxism as polar (and political) opposites.

When Panofsky arrived in America, the formalism of Heinrich Wölfflin’s approach to “style” and the materialism of Marxism had become the leading modes of art historical and art critical thinking. The Marxist approach, exemplified by the writings of Meyer Schapiro (1914-1996), was on full view in Schapiro’s famous battle with Alfred Barr (1902-1981), the director of MoMA. Barr’s famous 1936 “Chart” of avant-garde movements in his catalogue Cubism and Abstract Art removed art from any historical or cultural context and presented the movements as independent of social forces. In comparison to Barr’s art-for-art’s sake approach, Schapiro was a life-long Marxist who had more in common with Walter Benjamin than with the more orthodox Marxist art historian, Arnold Hauser. Before and after the Second World War, Formalism and Marxism, softened semantically to the “social” approach to art history, were the dominant modes of art history methodology, but, due to its political connections, Marxism waned and Panofsky’s iconography moved to the fore. But when Marxism made a comeback during the sixties and seventies, the symbolic meaning of art receded until the late 1980s and early 1990s with the books of Michael Podro’s The Critical Historians of Art and his student, Michael Ann Holly’s Panofsky’ and the Foundations of Art History. Panofsky’s methods were seen as part of The New Art History or a more modern way of looking at art in historical context, one of Panofsky’s basic tenets.

As Holly’s book outlines, Panofsky’s intellectual antecedents were complex. As an art historian, he felt that his primary task was to make sure that his studies of works of art rested on a firm foundation or to establish an epistemology of art history. In his opinion, the Formalist methodology of Heinrich Wölfflin was founded on a particular judgment or a personal interpretation of the stylistic elements of any given work of art, and that, therefore, the observations of Wölfflin or any other formalist art historian did not have the necessary epistemological depth. What Panosksy wanted to do was to provide art history with a Kantian a priori, to fix art historical methods in the realms of a universal or necessary judgment. It would take Panofsky two decades to work out his approach and he would deploy his intellectual heritage from pre-war Germany to do so.

For the early art historians, the most important fields of study, indeed the founding fields of the discipline, were the art of Antique, Medieval and Renaissance periods. It is this sweep of Western civilization, told as a series of recurrences of the classical culture and as the struggle to find and retain the powers of reason. Panofsky was the student of Aby Warburg who was fascinated with the recurrence of persistent motifs in art and literature, stretching from ancient times to the Renaissance. Panofsky’s early writings reflect Warburg’s interest in the motifs of Renaissance art, but, as Michael Podro pointed out, Warburg combined Georg Hegel’s dialectic of conflict: thesis and anti-thesis with Sigmund Freud’s belief that society was forced to repress primal instincts and desires of human beings in order to govern its members. Warburg noted the tensions (dialectic) in Renaissance art, the tensions of psychological repressions, and the struggle of the artists and writers to overcome the “superstitions” of the medieval Church.

Panofsky gently swerved away from his mentor’s Freudian or psychological method and turned to the more secure neo-Kantian approach of philosopher Ernst Cassirer and that of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. As Michael Podro pointed out,

What then could provide an absolute viewpoint form which we might elucidate a painting or a building? Panofsky takes as a model for the kind of interpretation he wants the Kantian conception of what makes a judgment scientific. What makes a judgment about the world a scientific judgment, as opposed to a merely personal report, is its causal character, and this causal character or structure is not, in Kant’s view, derived empirically but is injected into experience by the mind…What was important for Panofsky was that it was assumed to be a concept we did not derive from experience but one which we brought to experience in order to give it its intelligibility.

The central problem that faces any historian is that of anachronism—-of looking at history from the standpoint of the present and for Panofsky the way to solve this inherent difficulty was to remain firmly fixed in the culture of the work of art itself, not the culture of the present time. The problem of anachronism was also the problem of Formalism, i.e. that observation had to have a causal component beyond the thing observed and reported upon. It was not until 1939 that Panofsky published a series of articles/lectures that certainly stemmed from his work as a professor at the Institute, Studies in Iconology. To study “iconology” is to study the meaning of a work of art: the meaning that was embedded in the culture, the meaning that was in the mind of the artist, consciously or not as a kind of “collective unconscious.” In the introduction of this book, the art historian establishes his methodology: what he was opposed to and how he resolved the problems of meaning and interpretation of works of art. Panofsky began his Studies with this statement:

Iconography is that branch of the history of art which concerns itself with the subject matter or meaning of works of art, as opposed to their form. Let us, then, try to define the distinction between subject matter or meaning on the one hand and form on the other…The meaning thus discovered may be called intrinsic meaning or content; it is essential where the two other kinds of meaning, the primary or natural and the secondary or conventional, are phenomenal. It may defined as a unifying principle which underlies and explains both the visible event and its intelligible significance, and which determines even the form in which the visible event takes shape. This intrinsic meaning or content is, of course, as much above the sphere of conscious volitions as the expressional meaning is beneath this sphere.

Panofksy established a layered or step-by-step method that was slow and deliberate, requiring an extensive education on not just the work of art but also of its culture of origin. The tripartite iconographical method of layered meanings or strata, has its basis not just in the Warburgian notion of motif but also in the ideas of Saussure. If, for the linguist Saussure, words were signs that were signifiers for the thing signified, than for Panofsky, the work of art could be understood as a visual language in terms of the sign, signifier and the signified or icon, iconography, and iconology. Panofsky continued his opposition to formalism by stating that the “pre-iconographical description” was a “pseudo-formal analysis,” but that this first take was a “practical experience” that was “controlled” by the history of style. Moving up from the bottom to the next layer or level of meaning, Panofsky introduced the “secondary” or “iconographical analysis” that required “knowledge of literary sources that concerned historical themes or concepts.” It is with the last or highest level of interpretation that Panofsky acknowledged Ernst Cassirer: iconology is the “intrinsic meaning,” that is, the “iconological interpretation” is the history of “cultural symptoms” or the “essential tendencies of the human mind.”

Although subsequently in American art history, Panofsky’s Hegelian methods have often stalled at the iconographical level with few art historians being willing to look for the “symbolic forms” or “symptoms” in works of art. Part of the reason for the impoverished use of Panofsky is the inevitable loss of intellectual background when the art historian emigrated to America, and another reason for the loss of the philosophical background was the division of universities and colleges into distinct departments, dividing disciplines, like history, art history and philosophy, which were in actuality part of one another into artificially separated entities. As Holly pointed out,

Art historians not acquainted with the background of many of Panofsky’s ideas frequently see in his later work merely a practical program for the deciphering of specific and not-so-hidden symbols in visual images. Iconology, despite Panofsky’s emphasis on semantics, is still understood as only a slightly more refined and sophisticated version of iconography.

Just as the three layers of meaning combine Saussure and Cassirer, Panofsky’s famous concept of “disguised symbolism,” developed in his 1953 essay Early Netherlandish Painting, reveals his neo-Kantian insistence on finding the epistemology for a work of art and in establishing the epistemology for art history. Art is embedded in a épistémè that is clearly visible in Netherlandish painting of Jan van Eyck, but in Panofsky’s account of late Medieval art in Northern Europe, we find echoes of Warburg. Here is an artist, van Eyck, who is part of a “superstitious” spiritual culture but who is also living in a new world of reason and science. “A way had to be found to reconcile the new naturalism with a thousand years of Christian tradition,” Panofsky wrote and noted that “The more the painters rejoiced in the discovery and reproduction of the visible world, the more intensely did they feeel the need to saturate all its elements with meaning.” To miss this mind set, this struggle between faith and science is to miss, not just Panofsky’s epistemology of art history but also to miss the meaning of the work of art itself.

The first post in the series discussed Panofsky’s intellectual background with the second post explaining the idea of symbolic form.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Erwin Panofsky and Art History, Part Two

ERWIN PANOFSKY (1892-1968)

Part Two: The System of Meaning: Art History as Symbolic Form

Like the anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Erwin Panofsky considered social acts to be not natural but linguistic forms, which are cultural, and thus subject to human interpretation. As a social act, any work of art is a cultural artifact, and, as such, must function as a means of communication with its public and act as an object of visual language. This language speaks, as it were, through symbolic codes or a system of writing through pictures, called “iconography.” “Iconography,” Panofsky stated, “is that branch of the history of art which concerns itself with the subject matter or meaning of works of art, as opposed to their form.” But the road to iconography was a long one, a journey through turn of the century attempts to put philosophy on the same certain basis as science.

Panofsky, as a student of Aby Warburg, was also the heir to late nineteenth-early twentieth century thinking that attempted to combine idealism and scientific thinking into a new absolute philosophy. In fact, Ernst Cassirer, one of the mentors for Panofsky, had begun his career in the philosophy of science. The copious writings of Panofsky can be situated squarely in this philosophical tradition and his philosophical take on art history was part of his effort to make of art history a solid “humanistic discipline” that was grounded in a solid epistemology. The art historian, as noted in the first part of the posts on Panofsky, staked out territory that separated his approach to art history from that of Heinrich Wölfflin, who stressed period styles, and from what art historian Christopher S. Wood in his preface to Panofksy’s 1927 Perspective as Symbolic Form, called the “homemade concept” crafted by Alois Rigel: Kunstwollen, or artistic will or volition.

Indeed in his famous 1940 essay, “Art History as a Humanistic Discipline,” Panofsky began by comparing the humanist to the scientist, but the comparison was challenged when it had to be acknowledge that unlike the scientist who confronted a static mindless object, the art historian worked with a work of art, a product of Kunstwollen. As Panofsky asked, “How, then, is it possible to built up art history as a respectable scholarly discipline, if its very objects come into being by an irrational and subjective process?” According to Wood, Panofsky attempted to salvage Riegl and to re-locate artistic creativity in Ernst Cassirer’s neo-Kantian idea of “symbolic form.” As Panofsky stated in “On the Relationship of Art History and Art Theory: Towards the Possibility of a Fundamental System of Concepts for a Science of Art” (1925),

The ultimate task of a science of art, namely, the determination of Kunstwollen, can only be achieved in the interaction of the historical and theoretical modes of observation.

Previous art historians had followed either Kantian or Hegelian abstract structures and explained art in terms of formal categories. Alois Riegl, for example, worked in Hegelian dialectics by analyzing art within binary categories of internal-external, haptic-optic, and coordination-subordination, which he considered to be the deep structures of the work. Riegl considered the engine of this system to be Kunstwollen, which is a bracketing device that allows the study of art to be a study in form. Panofsky attempted to address the neglect of the meaning of art objects, by stating in his 1920 essay, “The Concept of Artistic Volition,” that, “Artistic products,” “are not statements by subjects, but formulations of material, not events, but results.”

To develop his concept of iconography, Panofsky drew together a number of philosophical ideas, replacing the notion of Kunstwollen with Cassirer’s philosophy of symbolic forms and used neo-Kantianism to analyze art through a priori categories. Ernst Cassirer’s symbolic forms are deeply spiritual, but their embedded meaning is attached to a concrete and material sign. Panofsky moved from the level of form to the level of structure by understanding that artistic perception was a special case of cognition. His most famous case study is his study of perception when he examined Renaissance perspective as symbolic form. Perspective as Symbolic Form, his most explicit revelation of the impact of Cassirer and neo-Kantian thought was a very impactful essay buttressed with extensive and erudite footnotes was a legend for those not fluent in high German until it was translated into English in 1991.

For Panofsky, perspective is an example of a “will to form” that was an unnatural invention of a particular period of time, the Renaissance. The symbolic form functioned at the structural level and the Renaissance version of perspective is comprehensible only for the modern sense of organized and structured space. Panofsky asserted that perspective is a form of thought and that thought is culturally bound to a place and time, a position of relativism that rested uncomfortably with the desired transcendence of symbolic form. The essay suggests that perspective is part of a change in world view, the shift in point of view from the infinity of religion where Earth is the center of the universe to a heliocentric world based on science. According to Panofsky, referring to perspective,

This formula also suggests that as soon as perspective ceased to be a technical and mathematical problem, it was bound to become al all that much more of an artistic problem. For perspective is by nature a two-edged sword: it creates room for bodies to expand plastically and move gesturally, and yet at the same time it enables light to spread out in space and in a painterly way to dissolve the bodies.

Experience or Welt is associated with Space as Experience and this experience is expressed in a linear fashion as a pictorial device in painting. For example, modern Western art based itself upon science, emulating the mindset of newly discovered humanistic values in the Fifteenth Century. Developed by architects to both measure and to map virtual space, “perspective” was an artistic language that was a sensuous and an intellectual (aesthetic) manifestation of a culture and its needs. Thus, following the thinking of his colleague, Ernst Cassirer who considered art to be a symbolic form, and perspective, for Panofsky, becomes symbolic form.

In 1951, Panofsky expanded upon this notion of symbolic form as a way of thinking that permeated an entire culture in Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, which precisely compared the way in which cathedrals were conceived and the way in which ecclesiastical literature was organized. Pierre Bourdieu, the French theorist, profoundly influenced by Panofsky’s idea of symbolic form, wrote in 1967 “Postface to Erwin Panofsky Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, of the Gothic imagination as a specific form of thought that produced buildings whose designs concretized and expressed the form of thought symbolically. Bourdieu used his own term, “habitus,” or an affinity among supposed different objects, to explain the existence of a mindset “..though which the creator partakes of his community and time, and that guides and directs, unbeknownst to him, his apparently most creative acts.”

As a form that symbolized a society’s desire to master territory and to understand space, perspective is a formal system that exhibits a system of relationships or formal principles that underlie the mental structures of the Renaissance. A Marxist, therefore, would have insisted that perspective reflected the new world of commerce that required mathematical measurement of all things. But there is another way of interpreting perspective as a symbolic manifestation of cultural cognitive structures. These structures produce a certain way of seeing the world that depends upon deeper formal codes of knowledge. Perspective painting originates in the human intellect as an artificial convention of seeing. This Renaissance way of seeing is a canon of representation that is also the history of how a culture thinks and sees. Panofsky takes up a task elided by Saussure, the problem of the diachronic aspect of language as a particular culture that expressed itself in a certain fashion through art forms at particular times.

Although perspective was uniquely a Renaissance invention of necessity, five hundred years later, we are still convinced that we “see” in perspective and we still draw “realistically” in perspective, still using the devices invented by Brunelleschi and Alberti. But Panofsky undermines the apparent “naturalness” of perspective. The Renaissance invented an equilibrium between the subject and the object and linear perspective is simply a necessary abstraction for practical empiricism and solves the problem of how to reproduce three dimensions on a two dimensional plane. The abstraction of the system is manifested through the artificial construction that keeps the object within certain spatial limits. The system depends upon a single, stable, and immobilized eye and does not recognize infinity. The space is mathematical and produces an adequate reproduction of an optical image. Representation takes place within a closed interior space or a hollow body or box that increased in its scope with the invention of the vanishing point that expresses infinite space (without depicting infinity). Perspective is the mathematical realization of an image of space.

Symbolic forms may manifest themselves as the deep structure of works of art, as habits of cognition. Panofsky discussed perspective as “symbolic form” in that perspective is not natural but artificial and needs to be understood within a cultural system that is an expression of an era.The new symbolic form comes about as the result of a Hegelian agonistic resolution of conflicts. Historical change is a series of syntheses, but for Panofsky, art will move in a schema of advances and reversals, rather than thesis and antithesis. In other words, art will recoil and reverse direction and abandon previous achievements. Today, the work of Panofsky is still prevalent in art history but is usually employed clumsily and superficially, with most adherents to his methods limiting themselves to a simplistic reading of symbols without understanding the complex network of relations that allow the symbols to function and ignoring the cultural context that engendered these symbols. Nevertheless, art history can claim the distinction of being the first humanistic discipline that responded to the linguistic claims of structuralism.

Symbolic forms are the deep structures of thought, functioning as an épistémè. But works of art manifest aspects of for example how people in Medieval times, such as Panofsky’s 1934 essay on the Arnolofini Wedding as an example of “disguised symbolism,” and the art historian needed a method to interpret the (superficial) visual codes. Panofsky, impacted by the semiotic work of Charles Sanders Peirce, organized visual language into 1. The pre-iconographical analysis, or what he terms “practical experience,” which is the primary, natural or factual expression which, when seen, must be subjected to 2. An iconographical analysis, or “knowledge of literary sources,” which decodes the image into conventional meaning. But this conventional meaning is part of a vaster system, a world of symbolic values that must be investigated through 3. an iconological analysis, a “synthetic intuition,” which is a study of the culture that produced the initial sign. Unlike iconography, which requires the viewer to know literary sources, themes and concepts and the history of visual types, iconology requires to the spectator to be conversant with the history of cultural symptoms that are essential tendencies of the human mind–the prevailing Weltanschauung. As Panofsky stated,

…as our practical experience had to be controlled by an insight into the manner in which, under varying historical conditions, objects and events were expressed by forms (history of style); and as our knowledge of literary sources had to be controlled by an insight into the manner in which, under varying historical conditions, specific themes and concepts were expressed by objects and events (history of types); just so, or even more so, has our synthetic intuition to be controlled by an insight into the manner in which, under varying historical conditions, the general and essential tendencies of the human mind were expressed by specific themes and concepts. This means what may be called a history of cultural symptoms–or symbols in Ernst Cassirer’s sense…

Iconography is not merely a decoding of symbols, not only an identification of icons; iconography reveals the basic attitudes of a nation, of a period, of a class or of a religion. The icon developed by the society is qualified by the artist’s personality but the symbolic values expressed must ultimately be manifestations of an underlying principle or structure. Iconography as a method of interpretation is an act of synthesis, in the Kantian sense, a putting together of identification or analysis that leads to interpretation. The recognition of the icon presupposes familiarity with the themes and concepts of the culture and its historical conditions. This synthesis takes place at the iconological level or third level where the cultural symbols are also the intuitions of the human mind.

To state Panofsky’s approach to art in Kantian terms, he has put forward a new theoretical manifesto. There are a priori categories that are independent of experience and are purely intellectual and are transcendental. Time and Space are antithetical and must be balanced into a unity that is art. This unity (symbolic form) or sinn is the intrinsic meaning of the art of a period and this unity spans the usual distinction between form and content. Painting in perspective, in other words, is a desire to order the world in a certain way. Between form and content is a middle ground: symbolic form, a concept derived from Ernst Cassirer, which is the sole object of Panofsky’s study.

The first part of the series discusses European philosophical ideas while third and final post on Erwin Panofsky will describe his system of iconography.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Erwin Panofsky: Art History and Philosophy

ERWIN PANOFSKY (1892-1968)

Part One: The Antecedents of Iconography

To be an art historian in Germany or Austria, the sites where the study of the discipline was both founded and developed, was to be a member of an intellectual elite. The study of art in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century was based as much on private art collections, and the ability to gain access to these homes, as upon the study of art in museums. Born into the family of wealthy business people, Erwin Panofsky, who was taken to museums as a child, moved among these privileged intellectuals in those brilliant years of the Weimar Republic before its tragic end. Like many German intellectuals, Panofsky moved his career to America, taking with him the scholarly method of studying art in terms of meaning to Princeton University, where he spent the rest of his life. All too often the American understanding of this art historian is somewhat stripped down and remembered as a process of interpretation: icon, iconography and iconology, meaning that the icon or image was the symbol for a certain concept, such as the Cross was symbolic of the Crucifixion. All too often Americans tended to neglect the basis of Panofsky’s thought: iconology or the placement of art in culture. But for Panofsky, art history was an extension of the philosophical thought of Germany in the early twentieth century.

The nearly century long pride of place that Erwin Panofsky holds in art history is demonstrated by the recent excitement at the finding of his long lost Habilitation thesis that was found in June of 2012. The German publishing house De Gruyter will publish Die Gestaltungsprincipien Michelangelos, besonders in ihrem Verhältnis zu denen Raffaels in 2014. There is no doubt that his thesis will be marked by traces of the state of German philosophy of the early twentieth century. The best way, indeed, the only way, to discuss the art historical writings of Erwin Panofsky is to place the historian in the rich and complex intellectual context of his time. His art historical methodology was firmly grounded in German philosophy—specifically that of the philosopher, his colleague, Ernst Cassirer (1984-1945). Cassirer, a professor of philosophy at Hamburg, whose cousin Paul Cassirer was an art dealer, stated that, “Reason is a very inadequate term with which to comprehend the forms of man’s cultural life in all their richness and variety. But all these forms are symbolic forms. Hence, instead of defining man as an animal rationale, we should define him as an animal symbolicum.” A neo-Kantian from the Marburg school, Cassirer’s contention that people thought symbolically would profoundly shape Panofsky’s ideas on how people read or understood “icons” or images.

In his 2006 study of Cassirer, Edward Skidelsky introduces his book, Ernst Cassirer: The Last Philosopher of Culture, by making the point that, after the Fall of the Berlin Wall, Cassirer has been reconstructed by German historians as one of the few intellectuals who emerged post 1989 as something of a hero who famously debated (and probably lost the debate) the future Nazi, Martin Heidegger in 1929. In the “Debate on Kant,” Cassirer asserted that Kant must be understood, no metaphysically, but functionally in the various forms of neo-Kantianism which, “..enquire into the possibility of philosophy as a sciencewith the intention of formulating its conditions..” For Cassirer the form is the function of philosophy, and the path to the symbolic form is Kant’s concept of “schema”, defined in the abstract as “phenomenon,” but reinterpreted by Cassirer as “symbol.”

During his years as a philosopher of the Weimar Republic, Cassirer’s works were published by his cousin Bruno and one of his earlier works was on Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, published in 1921 and translated in English as early as 1923, signaling that Cassirer was first of all a philosopher of science. Indeed, Kant was understood in Marburg from the standpoint of science, but when Cassirer published The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms in three volumes between 1923 and 1929, he showed that he had moved into the arena of culture. As Donald Philips Verene points out in The Origins of the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms: Kant, Hegel, and Cassirer (2011), myth is not just the origin of culture but also of language itself: “Linguistic symbolism is representational symbolism. All natural languages are structures of representation…” Taking Kant as his starting point, Cassirer proposed a “critique of culture.”

The first Jew to serve as the rector of the new university at Hamburg, Cassirer was also among the first to leave Germany in 1933 and after nearly a decade of lecturing in England and Sweden, he ended his career at Yale and Columbia universities. As Sebastian Luft pointed out in Cassirer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms: Between Reason and Relativism; a Critical Appraisal, that Cassirer wrote his last two important works, The Myth of the State (1946) and An Essay on Man (1944), were written in English. The “functional concept” proposed by Cassirer ordered his symbolic forms according to a principle of “serial arrangement” in which certain elements obtain meaning only within that particular system. In other words, Cassirer was positing a universal model for language that could incorporate the particular under the functional concept. The combination of the particular that acquires meaning within a universal system is not dissimilar to the ideas of Ferdinand de Saussure and his networks which make meaning possible. For Cassirer symbolic forms—myth, religion, language, art history and science—were understood contextually as “inner forms” unique to each culture.

The three volumes have very specific subtitles which almost certainly can be explained by his association with Warburg: The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Volume One: Language (1923), The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Volume Two: Mythical Thought (1925), and The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Volume Three: The Phenomenology of Knowledge (1929). The fourth volume on the metaphysics of symbolic forms was in progress when the philosopher died suddenly of a heart attack the day after the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. During his years in Germany, Cassirer was in contact with the other seminal figure that helped Panofsky form his approach to art was one of the founders of the field, Aby Warburg (1866-1929), who was the eldest son of one of Germany’s premier banking families. Warburg gave up his position as heir to his younger brother Max who would helm the family business. An art historian, specializing in the Renaissance, Warburg asked in return only that his brother support his life long desire to amass a library on art and culture. It is this library and the mode of its arrangement that would prove to be the foundation not just for Panofsky’s methods of study but also for the contextual approach to the visual arts.

In counter distinction to the formalism of Heinrich Wölfflin, Warburg insisted that works of art were more than a mere collection of shapes and colors. While it should be noted that Wölfflin was somewhat in concert with Cassirer in that he thought that each era had a “period eye,” or a particular way of seeing or making forms, Warburg had “a downright disgust for aestheticzing art history.” In other words, he resisted the notion that a work of art was presented for pleasurable appreciation rather than for its deep psychological meaning across time. Warburg was fascinated with the Renaissance, not as a “rebirth,” but as rebirth redefined as “survival,” or the continuous reappearance of a motif or an idea that moved through time, leaving its traces on art and literature. And, also in contrast to received wisdom, Warburg did not regard the Renaissance as a return to classical reason but as the continuation of the struggle between the forces of rational thinking, as personified by the figure of Apollo, and the power of the irrational, as symbolized by the god Dionysus.

This human struggle between the rational and the irrational was part of a collective (un)consciousness that had as its origin in the body, manifested in art as an empathetic expressiveness. These primal experiences of suffering or traumas became for Warburg, “pathos formulae.” Warburg worked as an archaeologist of culture, excavating these ancient wounds which could be found, as antique echoes, in the works of the Renaissance, which contained the marks of the primitive nature of what the classical artists had grappled with—the dialectic between the animal in the human. These traces or tracks could be discerned in a variety of sources, not just visual but also textual, and Warburg assembled his books, building a cohort of sources or references around lingering ideas. These books would be grouped together in sections in what would become one of the most famous intellectual libraries of the twentieth century.

Mark A. Russell noted that the establishment of this collection followed Warburg’s move to Hamburg. According to Russell, in Between Tradition and Modernity: Aby Warburg and the Public Purposes of Art (2007), the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg or the Warburg Institute had acquired 15,000 volumes by 1911 and by 1926, when the library became a research institute with Fritz Saxl as Warburg’s assistant, there were 46,000 books. By this time, as Russell recounts, Warburg had suffered from his own mental illness and during his absence, the library had been moved from the private home and became a public library with the books, arranged by Saxl, placed on the shelves in accordance to scholarly expectations. Upon the fragile recovery of his mental health, Warburg continued his scholarship on memory and pictorial representation until his death in 1929. Saxl carried on his legacy but when Hitler came into power, it became clear that a library, founded by a Jewish family could not survive under the Nazis. Saxl and the Warburg family made arrangements to transfer the entire library, now some 66, 000 books, to London where it became the Warburg Institute in 1933. The library never returned to Germany.

Although Warburg actually visited America and made the acquaintance of the anthropologist Franz Boaz, his archaeological/psychological/anthropological focus remained on Florence during the Renaissance and he was fascinated with the lingering spell of pagan expressions on modern thought. But the scholar, who published his works almost entirely in articles, did not see history as evolving in a progressive form over temporal periods; instead,Warburg thought of history in terms of psychic time. When the Great War broke out, Warburg watched in horror as Europe descended into once again into savage barbarism. Although Warburg supported his nation, as any good patriot, he suffered great psychological anguish during this period and it can be argued that the balance of his mind never quite recovered from the darkness of the War. Warburg did not live to see the rise of Hitler, much less the destructive power of unleashed irrational primitive thinking by the Nazis, but he would have been transfixed to witness the return of a psychic trauma that would cause history to shudder with the new primal wound it would inflict.

If Cassirer’s thinking sought to be transcendent, the method of Warburg was concrete, based on the image as metaphors which progress or transform over time. To this end, Warburg collected a disparate array of images which formed an Atlas of recurring symptoms of humanity’s ongoing trauma/s. The Mnemosyne collection, also known as “Mnemosyne, A Picture Series Examining the Function of Preconditioned Antiquity-Related Expressive Values for the Presentation of Eventful Life in the Art of the European Renaissance,” began in 1924 after Warburg had recovered from his mental collapse and could have been part of his attempt to understand the War and the world’s regression into a primitive state. The “Atlas” was never completed and remains frozen in time, surviving as old photographs of groupings of clippings, reproductions, photographs and other images arranged according to Warburg’s intuition.

This Atlas of Images or Bilderatlas consisted of over sixty or seventy screens (depending on which reference you read), or wooden frames covered with black fabric, where an array of images could be pinned and clustered as visual aids to Warburg’s thought processes. Warburg, who used these screens as illustrations to his lectures, took photographs of these screens, showing his collection of reproductions which traced motifs over time. These photos are all that is left of this vast memory project. It should be noted that Warburg did not differentiate between high or low art nor did he hesitate to cross disciplines. Not only did he pioneer in interdisciplinary research, he also established the mode of lecturing in art history—comparing and contrasting images. According to Sarah Blacker in “Institutional Purlieus and Archival Collapse: Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas”, the “Atlas” was disassembled and is thought to have not survived the move to London except as boxes of images. Warburg had intended for his homage to the goddess of Memory to become the basis for the organization of his library and its images, but art historian Rudolf Wittkower in London used iconography as the system for the Warburg Institute.

The other seminal influence on Panofsky’s thought was Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), a founder of modern linguistics. If Cassirer thought of humans as symbol-making beings, Saussure defined the human as a language-maker and elaborated upon a system of semiotics or semiology, a science of signs. The philosophical conclusions of these two thinkers were intertwined: both posited a system or a structure through which people communicate, either through symbols (which are a type of word) or words (which are a type of symbol). Both insisted that these symbols/words can be interpreted only within a cultural network that determines how language is understood and interpreted. Saussure’s Course on General Linguistics was not translated into English until 1959 and while a more definitive version came out in 1986, the original and complete text finally emerged in 2006.

Saussure distinguished between language (langue) and speech (parole): one is formal and is a system which is structured—language which is to be studied by the philosopher, unlike causal speech acts. Language is a system of rules which makes performing speech possible. Language is a system or network of relations among elements, none of which can be understood outside the system, which is synchronic or outside time. Language is a system of signs which operate within a structure that the user has incorporated unconsciously. It is that structure of set of rules that govern usage and allow the subject to communicate. To the extent that Saussure can be considered a Structuralist, the Swiss philosopher was also connected to the French anthropologist, also a Structuralist, Claude Lévi Strauss, who asserted that culture had a language that could be de-coded.

Saussure’s “sign, signifier, signified” would be re-interpreted by Panofsky as “icon, iconography, iconology” with a work of art (icon) as a work of culture or a cultural activity (iconography) that must be interpreted in a historical context (iconology). The sign is the icon which resembles the thing, just as a portrait resembles the person depicted. The index is another form of a sign is the “index,” in which smoke, for example is an index of “fire.” In Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature (1975), Jonathan Culler noted that indexes are problematic and uses the example of Lévi-Strauss who suggested that an ax could be used as an “index” of a certain level of culture. But most signs are arbitrary in their (dis)connection between the word (sign) and the thing. The arbitrary nature of the sign, or the fact that there is no “natural” connection between the object and the sign, is the seminal insight of Saussure. The sign has significance or meaning and is further elaborated by that which is signified or what the sign means within the culture and why it has acquired this meaning at this point in time. On one hand, the significance of the sign is always incomplete and always escapes total interpretation, but on the other hand, it is this signifé that creates the meaning, however unfinished, of the sign. For Panofsky, as shall be seen in Part Two, the iconology of the icon is embedded in the culture itself.

Part two of this series discusses the idea of symbolic form and three of this series will discuss Panofsky’s famous iconographical method.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Edmund Husserl and Philosophy

EDMUND HUSSERL (1859 – 1938)

It is the dead date of Edmund Husserl that is of great interest. The fact that the philosopher died in the year 1938 speaks volumes of, not just his fate, but the history of the reception of his work. Like the philosophers of the Frankfurt School, Husserl was a Jewish scholar in Hitler’s Germany and was all but doomed. Unlike the theoreticians at the Institute for Social Research, Husserl apparently made no attempt to leave his homeland. The fact that Husserl and his wife, the daughter of a renowned Jewish scholar, had converted to Christianity mattered little to the Nazis who were obsessed with “blood.” Exclusionary laws passed between 1933 and 1937 pushed Jews out of public life and Husserl was pushed out of his home university at Freiberg by the very man he had mentored, Martin Heidegger. Heidegger’s complicity with the Nazi regime was but part of a general eagerness on the part of German intellectuals to make a “Faustian bargain,” as it were with Der Führer. As Robert P. Ericksen wrote in Complicity in the Holocaust: Churches and Universities in Nazi Germany,

the Nazi regime actually found enthusiastic support in German universities during the transition of 1933, from students and faculty alike, and Nazis were effective in weeding out Jews and left-wing critics, thoroughly and without mercy. For the rest of the Nazi period, the atmosphere at German universities seems to have been one of enthusiastic support for the new regime and its politics, rather than resistance or criticism.

For what appear to be historical reasons—the interruption of the free flow of philosophical ideas and writing from Germany during the ten year period of the Third Reich—there was a delay in the reception of the philosophy of Husserl. But one must consider also the fact that the thought of Husserl evolved: from a focus on mathematics to logic to psychology, until after decades of deep and complex meditations on the ontology and then on the epistemology of things, he settled on phenomenology as a means to explicate the foundation of reality. Husserl considered his approach to phenomenon as being akin to the transcendentalism of Kant, with whom he found an affinity, and, in his desire to transcend to a universality for a firmly grounded philosophy, he was also akin to Georg Hegel in his absolutism. Husserl’s longing to construct a philosophy of universality began in earnest after the Great War, a war that killed one son and wounded another. He translated his sentiments into a scientific approach to the problem of who we encounter or perceive objects. By rejecting situational interpretations, Husserl attempted to eliminate relativity. The Nazis also despised relativity, but they interpreted the philosopher as being inclusive, which is somewhat different from universal. In the end it was an epistemological system of the universal that was facing a racist ideology of purity and superiority, and, given that his earlier work was tainted with anti-war sentiments, Husserl was simply could not win such a contest.

As Dermont Moran relates in Edmund Husserl: Founder of Phenomenology, although Husserl was forbidden to publish in Germany, the elderly scholar continued an active lecture schedule and he continued to write until he fell ill and died. His former colleagues at his university refrained from attending his funeral, but those who admired his work, such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, gathered together his unpublished manuscripts, which were salvaged for publication throughout the 1950s. Thus Husserl’s oeuvre gradually became available in English in time to filter into American universities so that by the 1960s, graduate students, even those in the arts, could be come conversant with that aspect of his very varied writings with which the philosopher became most identified: phenomenology. And, in turn, phenomenology provided the language for the artists and critics associated with the Minimalist art movement, who were seeking to provide a philosophical framework for reductive shapes which aspired for “objecthood.” Although there is much in Husserl’s thought that seems to relate to the New York art world, from the materialistic formalism of Clement Greenberg and his followers to the very antithesis of Greenbergian formalism, Minimal Art, it is well to remember that Husserl was not translated into English until the 1960s and 1970s and any art world knowledge of his work would have been second hand.

Husserl’s long search for an unshakable ground for philosophy came to fruition in 1907—the year of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Alfred Stieglitz’s The Steerage—when he gave a series of lectures which were developed later as The Idea of Phenomenology. True to his methodical nature, he was more of a note maker than a manuscript writer, Husserl’s follow up books, Ideen I and Ideen II, evolved slowly during and after the Great War. Although there were treasure troves of unpublished work, these are the seminal works for phenomenology. For Fernand de Saussure and for Ludwig Wittgenstein, the proper study of philosophy was language or Logos, which is fully expressed in speech. However, for Husserl the proper domain of philosophy was a special kind of seeing, called phenomenology or that which is based upon discernible phenomena. Given that this is a philosopher who was trained in mathematics and logic and who swerved towards a neo-Kantian perspective, it is clear that Husserl would examine the relationship between the human subject and the world of material culture or objects in the world.

Phenomenology begins of course, with the dialectical logic of Georg Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit and ends with Husserl who, many will argue, is the end point of Western philosophy. Given that Husserl regarded philosophy as a universal science and sought to uncover an absolute foundation of knowledge, phenomenology is the totality of human objectivity that creates a “transcendental subjectivity” or a universal ego. It is the human mind who not only recognizes the Other—objects, other people—but which also structures these experiences. This is where Husserl is in agreement with Kant but Husserl, the mathematician, the logician, must cordon off these experiences in such as a way to purify them so that these phenomena can truly be known.

A “phenomenon” is an entity as it appears to the unconscious. All being is being for consciousness. In other words, objects exist independently of consciousness. Kant insisted that, even if this were so, these objects were inaccessible except through mediation; but Husserl asserted that it was possible to recover lost origin by disclosing the (Kantian) constructive activity of consciousness. Although neither Friedrich Nietzsche nor Wittgenstein were interested in recovering lost origins, Husserl’s quest is for clarity and “complete clearness” in philosophy. He believed that phenomenology was a special kind of seeing that could be cultivated through an operation called “bracketing.” Bracketing in math is simply a way of setting off or aside a grouping of numbers with parentheses or square, curly or angled brackets. Bracketing is separating a set of numbers in order to act upon them in a certain manner. And thus is a phenomena can be set aside or apart or “bracketed” from its cultural surroundings, it can be “seen” in a more rigorous or universal or essential fashion. This “reduction” of surrounding noise is referred to by Husserl as an “eidetic” reduction that is capable of transcending the relativity of that which lies outside the brackets.

Possibly because of his disillusionment towards the War or more possibly due to his foundation in logic, Husserl was suspicious of early Twentieth Century pragmatism and its relativity. Worse than the turn towards relativity, Kantian “disinterest” had become fatally entangled with “naturalism” which extended knowledge of nature to the psychic processes as thought they, too, were natural objects. In other words, the natural attitude or reaction of humans was to impose their personal (relative) understandings or interpretations upon a circumstance or thing. These mis-directions that had been allowed in philosophy had caused a crisis that Husserl saw as solvable by a return to the ideal of rational certainty, pioneered by the Greeks. Like those philosophers of the nineteenth century, Husserl admired the Greeks and considered them the first Moderns because the Greeks, in contrast to the other cultures of their era, were able to disentangle themselves from the “mythico-religious” and to attend to the theoretical or philosophical aspects of life. To be sure that one would achieve clarity and rationality, one must take what Husserl called the Natural Standpoint or the phenomenological stance. What we experience from this stance is the “fact-world.” But we are then instructed to doubt this fact world, that is, we are asked to suspend “belief” and make more pure “judgments” about this world.

We bracket the object in this fact-world in that we take the object “out of action”, we “disconnect” ourselves from our “interest” in or knowledge of this object, and thus we detach ourselves from the object. From this attitude of Husserlian disinterestedness, we now possess a “unique form of consciousness.” We now see differently and what we see are the “essences” of things. Husserl calls the result of this “transcendentally reduced experience” to be the self-appearance, the self-exhibiting, the self-giveness of objects themselves. We are and have become directly aware of objects, not just their appearances but their thing-ness, their very existence. In other words, we have bracketed out that which is extrinsic to the object and become fully into its presence and reflect upon the way in which the object is present for the consciousness. Husserl was not so much concerned with the meaning of the objects as with their existence as evidence. Husserl considered himself as an “archaeologist” like Freud, but he did not excavate for meaning but for an origin–what the object is in existence: the being of the object. Rather than a unity, according to Husserl, consciousness then is a flow of realizations in experience of the object that allow the object to come into being for the subject.

Within this flow through a process of “unfolding” of layers or strata of consciousness, what is sought is the ‘foundedness” of the object . The result of the stance of phenomenology would be a “rigorous disengagement” and ”systemic neutrality” towards phenomenon. Ultimately, Husserl’s influence expanded and the method of bracketing would hopefully achieve the certainty and clarity in philosophy that he desired. The philosopher was part of a larger group of philosophers concerned with the mechanisms of consciousness—not psychology—from Bergson to Merleau-Ponty. Thanks to their continued interest in his work, Husserl’s Ideas: General Introduction in Pure Phenomenology was eventually published in English in 1931 but the only work he considered as complete at his death, Die Krisis der eruopäischen Wissenschaften und die transzendentale Phänomenoligie, delivered as lectures in 1935 and 1936, would not be published until 1954. Although, with hindsight, we can see Husserl as part of a larger phenomenon played out in the arts as the “new objectivity,” Husserl’s philosophy was, like the art of the Thirties, caught up in the rising tide of the next war. Like many creators of his generation, Husserl would have to wait for a new generation, emerging after the Second World War, to appreciate his ideas. Until then, the world would be propelled into catastrophe by belief systems and ideology that shaped a destructive force in Nazi Germany, which resulted in one of the greatest brain drains in modern times as scholars fled to America.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]