Interview with Leemon McHenry about his forthcoming book The Event Universe

TheEventUniverseRecently I interviewed Leemon McHenry about his book The Event Universe: The Revisionary Metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead (UK) (US), the newest addition to the Crosscurrents series. The book is available for pre-order and scheduled for publication in July. Leemon’s other books can be found here.


Chris Watkin: You write in the preface that The Event Universe has been a long time in the making, and indeed it is clear that the book is the fruit of sustained and persistent reflection dating back to the mid 1990s. What set you on the journey to writing The Event Universe, and is it the same book you had in mind from the beginning?

Leemon McHenry: The Event Universe is pretty much what I had in mind from the time I began to think about what problems I wanted to tackle. I didn’t think I’d ever get around to writing this book, but here it is finally in 2015. Actually it was the late 1980s when I began to think about a book on an event ontology. One of Whitehead’s students, Victor Lowe at Johns Hopkins University, was writing the second volume of Whitehead’s intellectual biography and he figured that he wouldn’t be able to finish it in his lifetime. He asked me to write two chapters of the biography on the Whitehead’s philosophy of physics and it was this project that mainly motivated my interest in the theory of events as a unifying concept for physics.  As I explored this theory over the years, I found that Whitehead’s contemporaries at Cambridge, Bertrand Russell and C. D. Broad, followed Whitehead’s lead and proposed their own version of an event ontology. They were all in agreement about the ontological impact of Einstein’s Special and General Theories of Relativity and thought that the Aristotelian view of substance could no longer serve as a foundation of physics.

In the 1990s, I began to correspond with W. V. Quine about his ontology of events. Quine wrote his PhD thesis with Whitehead at Harvard in the 1930s. While he was mainly focused on the logic of Whitehead and Russell’s Principia Mathematica, when he later formulated his metaphysics he advanced an event ontology as well.   About the same time I met the physicist, Henry Stapp, who was working out the details of Whitehead’s event theory for quantum mechanics and its unification with relativity theory. Stapp’s work figures prominently in one of my later chapters where I attempt to update Whitehead’s theory in light of contemporary physics.


Could you briefly summarise into what contemporary debates The Event Universe intervenes, and how it moves those debates on.

Whiteheadians tend to be highly specialized and only talk with one another. One of my aims has been to open a wider dialogue such that Whitehead’s ideas might enter the mainstream of analytic philosophy. To this end, I have compared his theories with those of Russell and Quine and contrasted his ideas with Strawson and Davidson.   In fact, Strawson’s distinction between descriptive and revisionary metaphysics is the focus point for the main debates in my book.

First, there is the ontological status of events in the substance vs. event debate. I am challenging the long-standing Aristotelian tradition in which events are dependent on substances and instead arguing that events are basic.

Second, and closely related to this debate, is the question of whether ordinary language or advancing science is the most satisfactory basis for establishing an ontology. I defend what Strawson called “revisionary metaphysics” as opposed to the approach he preferred, “descriptive metaphysics.”

So, the battle lines are drawn between the revisionary and the descriptive metaphysicians: it is Whitehead, Russell and Quine vs. Aristotle, Strawson and Davidson.

Third, if it is science that provides the ontological foundation, as Whitehead, Russell and Quine argue, then the next question is what ontology would provide the most fruitful approach to what I call “The Big Problem,” namely, the unification of modern physics. Whitehead’s event ontology was originally proposed as a unifying concept for physics and several of his followers have seen this as a plausible solution to what is the most pressing problem of theoretical physics, namely, the unification of Einstein’s theory of relativity with quantum mechanics. Here I examine Whitehead’s theory in the context of the contemporary search for Grand Unified Theories and a Theory of Everything, beginning with Einstein’s Unified Field Theory and ending with Stapp’s modification of Whitehead, Einstein and Heisenberg.

Fourth, as I explore the unification of relativity theory and quantum mechanics, I focus attention on the problem of how to conceive of the nature of time. Since relativity theory and quantum mechanics present two incompatible views about the nature of time, both theories must be modified. I examine three major theories in the philosophy of time – eternalism, presentism and the growing block universe – and argue that the growing block view is the most plausible solution. The growing block universe also turns out to be the most plausible interpretation of Whitehead’s attempt to defend the asymmetry of time against the eternalistic conceptions of Einstein’s theory of relativity.

So, in the end, I am arguing for an ontology of events as a unifying concept for modern physics following Whitehead, Russell and Quine, but I am also updating this theory in light of recent developments in physics and cosmology.


WhiteheadThe physics you engage in the book dates from the latter decades of the 20th century up to the present day (string theory and branes), but your main philosophical reference is Alfred North Whitehead, whose Process and Reality was published in 1929, from the Gifford Lectures given in 1927-8. Can Whitehead’s thought still hold its own in a dialogue with 21st-century physics?

If one accepts the idea that process is a fundamental metaphysical principle of modern physics, then “yes” Whitehead can hold his own, but as I put it in my book, this is a broad metaphysical framework, of which physics fills in the details. There is no question about the fact that Whitehead’s understanding of the physics was limited to what was known in 1928, but what is extraordinary about Whitehead was his ability to generalize from the advances of modern physics in formulating a theory that unifies the fragmentary ideas into one comprehensive system. It is that general metaphysics that still speaks to 21st century physics.


In the conclusion you say that “aside from the philosophically-minded physicists influenced by Whitehead, his unified theory has not had much impact on the course of theorizing in twentieth and twenty-first century physics and cosmology”. Why do you think that is?

Physicists do not usually think in the categories that philosophers invent for them. Very few physicists will have read much philosophy in any detail and even fewer will have read Whitehead. Moreover, Whitehead did not help his case by formulating a language to express the dynamics of reality in terms of “actual occasions,” “eternal objects,” “prehensions,” “concrescence,” and the like. In other words, the sheer difficulty in reading Whitehead has contributed to his lack of influence. I hope that I have made Whitehead more accessible in my book by examining his ideas in the context of Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory, Einstein’s theory of relativity and the search for a quantum ontology.


On a naïve or common-sense reading, many might agree with Peter Strawson’s position in Individuals, which you sketch in Chapter 2: substances are more fundamental than events because substances can exist without events (the mug on my desk is just sitting there doing nothing), whereas events cannot exist without substances (there must be a mug for the mug to break or fall to the floor). In the book you pick apart this view very carefully and systematically. Could you briefly sketch in what main ways you think this common-sense position is misleading?

I trace this position to Aristotle who held the view that grammar is the guide to ontology. Aristotle’s methodology treats substances as paradigm subjects; events and properties function secondarily as verbs, adverbs and adjectives. Whitehead, however, thought that the primacy of substance in the Western tradition was due to the historical accident of the subject-predicate structure of Greek and the dominance of Aristotelian logic that encouraged a conception of substance as basic. Quine followed with his own powerful criticism of this position. In other words, there is nothing special about conceptual scheme enshrined in ordinary language. It has strong pragmatic justification, but as a metaphysical foundation for modern science, it fails to do justice to the empirical evidence.

Your example of the mug is typical of how an Aristotelian would view the relation between substances and events and indeed this is consistent with our common sense notions. But the kinds of events that Whitehead, Russell and Quine have in mind are those that would serve as a foundation for modern physics. Here the concept of energy in particle physics or the point-events that serve as the building blocks for the four-dimensional theory of relativity are basic.


In chapter 1 you suggest that “since physics is the most basic and comprehensive of all the physical sciences, enquiry into the nature of reality should begin here and not with pure armchair speculation or linguistic analysis.” Can the decision to privilege basicality and comprehensiveness itself be anything other than either an armchair decision or a question-begging self-justification of physics?

Well, you have to start somewhere in building foundational principles unless you are theoretically opposed to the project of fundamental ontology or metaphysics more generally (as I believe is the case with the post-modern relativists or the deconstructionists). This is perhaps a debate for another book since I don’t really take up these views. In proposing a “naturalized metaphysics” in the fashion of Whitehead, Russell and Quine, my adversaries are those philosophers who think that metaphysics gets at the nature of reality independently of science. In my view, these philosophers are guilty of treating ignorance of science as a virtue.


In chapter 5 you enter into a discussion of multiverse theories. Could you explain why an event ontology takes you down that path.

There are two reasons for this. First, some physicists and cosmologists have proposed multiverse theories as a path to unification. In other words, the Theory of Everything is sought in the broadest possible theorizing about the Superspace in which our universe was born and will possibly die in the distant future. While Whitehead is seldom acknowledged as a very early proponent of multiverse theory, his theory of cosmic epochs is remarkably close to some of the theories proposed today. Second, these “cosmic epochs,” as he calls the separate universes within the multiverse, are explained in his mereological theory. The succession of big bangs and big crunches in the oscillation model of modern cosmology would be explained in Whitehead’s metaphysics as epochs or extremely large space-time units that are, after all, extremely large events.  So, if the event ontology is offered as a unifying concept for theoretical physics, at the very smallest, microscopic level, quantum events make up the first level of physical reality and at the very largest, macroscopic level, cosmic epochs appear to be the largest events, each with its own big bang and big crunch.


What’s so dangerous about the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory?

The Copenhagen interpretation has been enormously successful as a theory of quantum mechanics. I don’t think I would characterize the Copenhagen interpretation as “dangerous,” but in so far as our goal is a comprehensive, unified theory in physics, the Copenhagen interpretation has been the main obstacle in our attempt to achieve this goal. The basic problem, as I argue in The Event Universe, is that its instrumentalism is incompatible with the realism of relativity theory.


In the final chapter you spell out the importance of an event ontology for rethinking the mind-body problem, perception and causation, free will, personal identity and moral agency. You also claim that “as with all revisionary metaphysics, everything changes and nothing changes”. How radical do you deem the move to an event ontology to be in terms of its implications beyond theoretical physics or theoretical metaphysics?

Since most philosophers assume a substance-property metaphysics as basic to making sense of the world, the suggestion that events are basic and substance can be eliminated is radical. Everything changes from a theoretical point of view, but nothing changes with respect to our ordinary, everyday thinking about the world. This is perhaps a bit of an overstatement. As I explore the philosophical implications of an event ontology in my last chapter, there are significant differences for conceiving solutions to the mind-body problem, perception and personal identity. When I said “nothing changes,” I had in mind Berkeley’s statement that he was not denying that ordinary things like ships, shoes and sealing wax really exist. What he was challenging was what he said the philosophers call “corporeal substance.”


In the conclusion you make the prospect of a unified theory contingent on the caveat “if we can make the very plausible assumption that nature itself is unified”. Can that ever be more than a plausible assumption?

I have not given this much thought in my book, but now that you mention it, I think it is more than a very plausible assumption that nature is unified. The history of physics has demonstrated repeatedly success in unified theories, for example, Newton’s unification of celestial and terrestrial motions or Maxwell’s unification of electricity and magnetism. That would suggest some sort of correspondence between the nature of reality and our theoretical pursuits. The unification of nature is corroborated by observation and experiment, but not confirmed.  This is an inductive argument that the most successful and long lasting theories in physics have been unified theories and on that basis we have good reason to believe that future successful theories will be unified.

I thank you for the opportunity to address these challenging questions.

Nicholas Davey, Unfinished Worlds: Hermeneutics, Aesthetics and Gadamer – Introduction PDF

Unfinished WorldsLater this year Crosscurrents will be publishing Nicholas Davey’s important new book Unfinished Worlds: Hermeneutics, Aesthetics and Gadamer

In addition to the blurb below, I am thrilled that Nicholas has kindly agreed for me to post here the complete introductory chapter, which is also available as a PDF.


GadamerHans-Georg Gadamer’s poetics completely overturns the European aesthetic tradition. By concentrating on the experience of meaning, Unfinished Worlds shows how Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics transforms aesthetics into a mode of attentive practice. Gadamer’s poetics has deep implications for all of the humanities, and how we can understand the meaning of poetry, art, literature, history and theology. His emphasis on participation promises an approach that will revolutionise aesthetic and hermeneutic practice, and gives us new ways to think about the cultural productivity and social legitimacy of the humanities.



Images of  Movement


If art moves, understanding moves. Schleiermacher and Dilthey showed how within hermeneutics, understanding upholds itself by a constant, irresolvable and inconclusive movement between part and whole. The philosophy of Hans-Georg Gadamer uniquely transfers insights relating to the movement of understanding to the question of aesthetic attentiveness. In his thought, aesthetic contemplation no longer attends to changeless forms but participates in the movement of a work’s constitutive elements. Aesthetic contemplation is no longer passive but an active participant (theoros) in the bringing forth what a work can disclose. Where Dilthey laments the inconclusiveness of understanding, Gadamer celebrates it. The ceaseless movement between  part and whole which for Dilthey  renders understanding incomplete, perpetuates for Gadamer the play of a work’s disclosive elements insuring endless new reconfigurations of a work’s meaning. Such movement is made possible by key communicative elements within a work acting as placeholders in the interplay between the interests of hermeneutic transmission and those of hermeneutic reception. Aesthetic understanding is paradigmatic of this hermeneutic interplay. However, for aesthetic attentiveness to be grasped as a mode of understanding’s movement demands a major shift in how the relations between aesthetics and hermeneutics are conceived. This study reflects on how Gadamer’s thinking achieves such a transposition and explores its theoretical and practical consequences.


This study is the first full length monograph in English to offer a sustained philosophical reflection on Gadamer’s significant conjunction of hermeneutics and aesthetics which has considerable consequences for both disciplines. Tradition has it that hermeneutics is concerned with the apprehension of meaning whilst aesthetics handles the particularities of sensuous experience. Gadamer, we argue, reverses the equation: aesthetics comes to dwell on  the visual apprehension of meaning whilst  hermeneutics starts to reflect on the singularities of experience. Our concern is not just with charting this reversal but also with exploring its consequences. These include an anti-essentialist account of the relational nature of an artwork’s constitution, a thorough-going  revaluation of the theory-practice relationship within art and the humanities, the development of a  remarkable hermeneutics of transformative experience and a major philosophical re-working of the nature of aesthetic attentiveness. Mapping these consequences is of wider philosophical interest. It  suggests how the problem of “excess” meaning which so exercises Derrida and Žižek can expand rather than constrain understanding of the aesthetic.[1] To demonstrate these points demands that we go beyond Gadamer’s own formulations in constructive, probing and critical ways. This, we claim, offers an appropriate practical compliment to his hermeneutical modus operandi. Understanding what is entailed in a philosophy is not a matter of reconstructing or re-experiencing its claims: rather, it is learning how to “think with” a way of reasoning by applying it in new and unanticipated ways. Our concern will be to think through the problems of art and aesthetics in a Gadamerian manner rather than to offer an account of Gadamer’s study of art. His arguments are complex and extended. To do justice to them, we shall concentrate on them alone and leave the matter of comparison with other contemporary aestheticians to another volume.  However, let us lay out the primary presuppositions of positions of this study.

This essay explores in depth Gadamer’s assertion that artworks address us. This entails the supposition that artworks have a cognitive content and that this content is meaningful. Philosophical hermeneutics contends that meaning is relational. The experience of art addressing us involves a transformative experience which entails the cognitive relations within a spectator’s outlook being transformed by those which constitute the work. This is made possible because of the surplus of meaning attached to visual signs and symbols as well as the images of literature and poetry. Symbols and poetic ideas can serve as placeholders in a variety of discourses such that the meaning of a central term in one’s own framework of understanding can be transformed when that term is met in different deployment within in a foreign horizon. In a transformative encounter the spectator’s horizon is not displaced but achieves a new and significant permutation of its form as a result of its engagement with a different framework of meaning. The transactional capacity of symbols, poetic ideas and what Gadamer terms subject-matters (Sachen) to act as placeholder terms across and between contrasting frameworks of meaning offers not just an insight into how transformative experiences of art are structured but also an understanding of how the transformative capacity of inter-disciplinary study depends precisely upon the movement of shared placeholder terms between different practices. Philosophical hermeneutics suggests an account of aesthetic attentiveness as a practice, a practice not concerned with the passive appreciation of art and its aesthetic qualities in any standard sense but with actively facilitating movement between significant semantic placeholders in the horizons of both the art work and spectator so as to promote the possibility of transformative experience.


This study primarily concerns the relationship between philosophical hermeneutics and visual art: it is not an examination of Gadamer’s analysis of the “poetic word” which has been ably treated by other scholars.[2]  What is attempted here is a Gadamerian “poetics” of the visual, an exploration of the antecedent cultural and historical conditions which allow an image to communicate effectively. Whilst this poetics must uncover analytically the elements at play with a work, it must also consider how they combine to render the work an effective communication. The notable value of  this hermeneutical poetics lies in the answer it offers to a question raised in Heidegger’s essay “On the Origin of the Art Work”; how do art works “work” and how is this “working” to be understood?[3] The answer proposes a response to the riddle at the heart of Gadamer’s aesthetics; how do silent images speak? If the response succeeds, the claim at the heart of his magnum opus can be vindicated; art does indeed have a demonstrable cognitive content. Two motifs guide our reflections: what does it mean to be addressed by a speechless image and what are the formal conditions of receiving that address?


In a post-modern climate, Gadamer’s hermeneutical aesthetics is instructive. Aesthetic experience confronts the spectator with something ineffable. Such experience challenges philosophy’s general ambition of bringing clarity to the objects of its reflection. The complexity of intense experience quickly compromises the adequacy of words. Yet, Gadamer’s position refuses despair: profound experience may elude linguistic capture but instead of insisting on silence before what transcends speech, it demands the seeking out of new words that better approximate and do justice to the complexities of experience. This places Gadamer’s hermeneutical approach to aesthetics at the interstices of experience, language and reflection. Practitioner and theoretician need no longer confront each other as opponents but  as dialogical partners able to draw out, exchange, and mutually realise different aspects of their experience of a work. Because an aesthetic object will formally exceed all interpretation, neither practitioner nor theoretician can monopolise its understanding. Taken together, both approaches enable a greater understanding. As well as offering a make-weight to post-modern scepticism, Gadamer’s hermeneutical aesthetics suggests a dialogic rapprochement between theoretician and practitioner the implications of which have been inexplicably overlooked in contemporary aesthetic education. This study will address this oversight.


In any consideration of aesthetics, confronting the question of subjectivity is unavoidable. Its methodological challenges have shaped the development of modern hermeneutics from Schleiermacher to Ricouer who famously analysed Heidegger’s response to the problem in his ontological turn.[4] Gadamer’s hermeneutical aesthetics relies on the specific tension between his defence of the subjective immediacy of our experience of art and his demand that the cognitive claims such experience be rendered legitimate. Though Gadamer’s thought about aesthetics bravely starts with the reality of subjective experience, he is more concerned with the substantialities that underwrite it. As a mode of consciousness, aesthetic awareness is unknowingly shaped by the objective horizons of language and tradition. The latter form subjectivity’s cognitive content and shape art’s claim to truth. Evidential experience provides the gateway to a phenomenological reflection on the objectivities that sustain it. Though a plausible ploy to rid aesthetics of  “the scandal of subjectivity”, it poses too crude a reversal: overtly emphasising the “objectivities” of transmission underestimates the hermeneutic processes of reception. Michael Kelly implies that in his rush to proclaim the objective element of aesthetic experience, Gadamer’s aversion to aestheticism leads him to underestimate the role of subjectivity in the formation of aesthetically communicated meaning.[5]


This essay explores how subjectivity plays a constructive role in Gadamer’s account of aesthetic experience and the relationality that informs it[6]. Six points are salient. (1) Transformative experience is dependent upon shifts in the objective horizon of a tradition which have no significance in themselves other than in relation to the subjectivities that embrace it. (2) Though Gadamer dismisses Kant’s notion of aesthetic disinterestedness, he has to re-invent it in a phenomenological framework in order to defend the constructive role of subjectivity within aesthetic experience. (3) The role of subjectivity within Gadamer’s aesthetics is pertinent to current debates about art’s alleged displacement of established religion. Aesthetic experience emerges as a way of negotiating what is entailed in being-in-the-world. (4) We shall argue that the spiritual dimension of Gadamer’s position involves an intensity of experience occasioned by an artwork intervening in, changing and thereby inducing a sense expansive movement in understanding. (5) Aesthetic subjectivity is of enormous importance for what it reveals of its objective ground. The ontological pre-conditions of aesthetic experience concern Gadamer the most: what must be assumed as being already in place for an experience of art to be possible?; what are the pre-conditions of art’s effectiveness? and what comes to being within in a work and what does it reveal of Being itself?

The principal value of a hermeneutical aesthetics lies in its participatory account of an experience of art. Gadamer’s dialogism is acknowledged but its consequences for a relational aesthetics are not understood. Focussing on the cognitive content of an artwork, dialogism deprives the theoretician and practitioner of any privileged interpretative power. This is not just because Gadamer’s ontological orientation transfers effective agency from subjective consciousness (the part) to its ground in language and tradition (the whole). Emergence, transformation and transmission demand participation. Aesthetic subjectivity is not dissolved but serves as a catalyst for the reception, mutation and development of the cultural subject-matters that both inform and transcend it. This suggests that intense aesthetic insight does not transcend its informing language but must be interpreted as a transformative variant. Dialogism implies that the content of such insight is expressible in public terms.


Dialogism implies conversation and conversation points to a “mode of living”, “a form of acquaintance or being familiar with” as  in being “conversant with”. A convert assumes that mode of familiarity. Conversation is, in effect, already under way. Its start presupposes a tacit acquaintance with a set of cultural norms and expectancies. Thus conversations have a dual character, assertive and expressive. They involve assertions about their central subject-matters and give indirect expression to aspects of the cultural horizon which ground them. Conversational utterances prompt other insights revealing tacit aspects of the hermeneutical horizons of the interlocutors. The vital point is that without participation in the conversational exchange of assertions or view points, the cognitively expressive aspects of a subject-matter – what Gadamer refers to as its speculative dimension – would not emerge. Participation in cognitive exchange (whether in a conversation or dialogical reflection) focussed upon the content of an artwork is a condition of the spontaneous emergence of what is implicitly or tacitly understood about it. The ‘said’ occasions the emergence of the ‘unsaid’; the ‘seen’ brings forth the ‘unseen’. Gadamer’s dialogism is shaped by a speculative aesthetic the central intuition of which is that words, symbols, and images all point beyond themselves. All mean more than any initial acquaintance suggest. Its hermeneutical logic is easily summarised: in hermeneutics, x = x+. This explains why Gadamer’s aesthetic is dominated by figures of movement especially the passage from first understanding a topic to understanding it better or more. This also reveals why Gadamer’s aesthetics places such emphasis on dwelling with an image, that is, taking the time to allow it to unfold its complexities of  meaning.


Dialogism clearly governs the productive aspect of  Gadamer’s hermeneutic operation: within conversation there is no telling when and where one thought will summons another. Gadamer’s procedure is, in effect, to set our understanding at play, to insert words and images into on-going cultural conversations to induce further reflections to come to the fore. Gadamer’s work should not be judged on its formal argumentation but on what it brings about and its effectiveness in altering our understanding of a subject-matter. This work is not the work of a detached analyst. It demands participation in the conversations between horizons so that further insights can be induced. For Gadamer, remaining in “the outer courtyard of aesthetic neutrality” achieves nothing: what is key is participation, participating in the movement of experience and reflection, for only through such participation can we become reflectively aware of what is performatively at play within our experience of art. Concerning the experience of art, the task Gadamer suggests is to “Begreifen, was uns ergreift”, to grasp what has taken hold of us.[7] This study will debate what is entailed in this claim and consider whether its linguistic analogies are appropriate to the task of understanding the “speechless image”.

The vitality of a tradition can be judged by the degree to which its “continuities of conflict” assert themselves. [8] Aesthetics is certainly “quick”, riven by arguments between those who like Ernst Gombrich regard its alleged subjectivity as a continuing methodological scandal and those who, like Terry Eagleton, value its subjectivity and expressive spontaneity as an important moderation of reason’s singular claim for a universality of method.[9]  The analogical value of aesthetics for hermeneutical reflection immediately asserts itself: twentieth century hermeneutics is almost defined by its epistemological struggle with method. Gadamer’s contribution to this debate within aesthetics and hermeneutics has been considerably underestimated. He is universally recognised as a severe critic of methodological reductivism but by no means is he an iconoclast of anti-method. His thinking offers to both contemporary aesthetic and hermeneutic debate a singular capacity to bring the argument for method and the case for spontaneity into mutual dialectical reflection. On the one hand, Gadamer’s commitment to a speculative theory of meaning undermines the universal claim of method to capture all aspects of an image’s meaning. The majority of commentators on Gadamer fail to note that how this does not undermine the limited use of the methodical within interpretation. To the contrary, recognising the speculative excess of meaning suggests that the knowing deployment of methodical devices can be deliberately employed to probe undisclosed aspects of experienced meaning. Method is not the anti-thesis of aesthetic spontaneity but a potentially disruptive device for prompting established meanings to disclose more of what they contain. This study will accordingly challenge the view that Gadamer’s hermeneutical approach to art is a conservative apologetics for received meaning. On the other hand, his rejection of method does not justify a laissez faire approach to aesthetic interpretation. Whilst rejecting universal method he nevertheless insists on the validity of art’s truth claim. What makes Gadamer’s writing on art compelling for hermeneuticians and aestheticians alike is that it offers a post-modern case study of how art’s cognitive claims might be made on a non-foundational basis. Without this demonstration, the anti-thesis of his challenge to the universality of method amounts to a vapid subjectivism.


The dialectical dexterity of Gadamer’s philosophy is indicated by the fact that method and spontaneity are not treated as opposites but as reflections of each other. His hermeneutical thought is characteristically speculative. Thesis and anti-thesis are not regarded as formal opposites but as speculative modes of one another. Hermeneutical engagement allows each position to re-describe itself in the language of its other. The being of a subject is moderated when another reveals how it can effectively reflect on its own being by using the language of the other. This is not a case of a subject assimilating its other but of a subject becoming-other-to-itself as a consequence of learning how, in Peter Duerr’s terms, to walk on the wild-side, to think of itself in the other’s terms.[10] We shall argue that Gadamer’s speculative thinking outlines a distinctive doubled hermeneutic for aestheticians, art theoreticians and  practitioners alike in which the self-understanding of each party is moderated by a subtle ex-change: the process of becoming different to oneself by learning to think of oneself in the language of one’s other.[11] Transformation, not translation, is the issue.[12] The aesthetician or art theorist is not rendered a practitioner but brought to understand that theory can be as spontaneous and playful in its interventions as art practice. Gadamer’s doubled hermeneutic suggest that theory’s credibility relies upon what is, in a certain sense, its opposite; the ability to disclose itself in practical instances.   Nor is the practitioner translated into the theoretician. Practice is not theory’s opposite but displays a reasonableness of its own. Elements in Gadamer’s hermeneutics suggest how this reasonableness might be articulated. This asserts the value of Gadamer’s hermeneutics for aesthetic education: it demonstrates the in-forming and guiding of practice by the theoretical components of its environment. The operational force of this doubled hermeneutic shapes the character of his Gadamer’s quest: to determine art’s cognitive claims on a non-foundational basis.


Wolfgang Iser eloquently describes hermeneutic doubling as a function of recursive looping within hermeneutical reasoning.[13] He emphasises that it is not the multiplication of opposite positions per se that is hermeneutically effective but the cognitive and experiential movement of doubling-back between them. Active doubling-back is a figure of thought in Schleiermacher’s and Dilthey’s hermeneutics, activated to achieve a movement of understanding within classic part-whole relationships. For Schleiermacher, to understand a particular linguistic expression requires a broader understanding of the linguistic forms within which the expression is made. Similarly, access to linguistic forms is only possible through particular expressions.[14] For Dilthey, the particularities of experience presuppose the generalities of understanding whilst understanding presupposes experience. For both thinkers it is the movement between part and whole that is crucial. This announces a leading theme of our study: the way aesthetics, in particular, exhibits understanding and its movement.         Gadamer’s predecessors bring attention to a related recursive figure in his own thought which we will  identify as a doubled hermeneutic in an additional sense: to understand what a work is saying is also to understand how it is able to say what it says.


What a work says and how it is able to say what it does are not opposing concerns reflecting a sterile opposition between fine art practice and art criticism. Gadamer’s doubled hermeneutic claims that to understand the truth claim of a work is also to understand how the enabling conditions of a work are manifest in its claim. This offers a significant ontological re-working of the part-whole relationship within hermeneutics. Whilst Gadamer offers sensitive “readings” of the paintings of  Paul Klee and the writings of  Paul Celan, his thought also offers a “poetics” of aesthetic communication.[15] This entails the claim that to understand what a work is saying is also to understand how it works as a work of art. Indeed, Gadamer’s discussion of the hermeneutical context of art tables a significant response to an issue raised by Heidegger in his essay ”On the Origin of the Artwork”: what work does an artwork do?


The doubling effect within Gadamer’s hermeneutics involves the continuous interplay between two levels of hermeneutical operation, grasping what a work asserts or claims and understanding what the assertion indicates or signifies. This is a distinction between what a work expresses (or states) and what comes to expression in it (what it discloses). Grasping the first requires a hermeneutical analytics whilst the second demands participation in a speculative hermeneutics. (1) Understanding what a work asserts demands an analytical or grammatical approach: demonstrating how the meaning of a literary or visual statement arises from the interplay of the components within a constituent discourse. An analytics of artistic assertion endeavours to demonstrate how what a work is “saying” is configured by different part-whole relationships within a given expressive language whether verbal or visual. (2) A speculative hermeneutic approach to the same declarative meaning is also required because despite their singular force, literary or painterly statements lack autonomy: they arise in broader hermeneutical fields upon which their significance depends. The latter operate as the enabling conditions of aesthetic statements, transcending the utterances they enable and  enabling them to communicate more than they state. The symbol exemplifies this exchange between the analytic and speculative dimensions of meaning. Though a functioning symbol may be attributed a determinate meaning within a work, its broad meaning remains indeterminate. Nuance, allusion and profundity depend on this excess. It permits artists to subvert or undermine a particular meaning by invoking its other determinations. The double-entendre, intended or not, exemplifies what is within philosophical hermeneutics a crucial interplay between analytic and speculative aspects of meaning.


Though an artist may mean something specific by a word or image, it can  by virtue of belonging to spoken or visual language, come to mean something more. Gadamer’s deployment of the speculative depends upon a part-whole structure but not in any fixed sense. As any word or image arises ontologically speaking from language as a whole, each reflects differently the (changing) totality of meaning it is inflected with. This gives a word or image its centrifugal force: pushing us towards wider semantic frameworks. Images and words function as place-holders for such pluralities of meanings setting into play more meanings than an artist might intend. The place-holder function of words and images also has a centripetal capacity which allows pluralities of meaning beyond what an artist intends to flow back into a work deconstructing its initially intended meaning. A practised artist will know how to deploy the speculative charge or “excess” of a given image allowing it to bring forth nuances of meaning which transcend those initially articulated. Such a work can hold various meanings in creative tension and interplay. A less accomplished practitioner who cannot control the hermeneutic interplay which placeholder images allow, will suffer their communicative intentions becoming overwhelmed by the force of contrary meanings. The consequence is a work that will appear incoherent, confused or inconsistent. In conclusion, what comes to expression in  a work are those speculatively revealed dimensions of historical and cultural meaning which transcend (yet enable) any individual artistic statement.


This study argues that the key contribution philosophical hermeneutics makes to understanding “how an artwork works” concerns its articulation of the interplay between the analytic and the speculative dimensions of meaning. Exposing the elements of that interplay offers an intelligible account of what a work expresses and how it does so. The interplay offers a two-fold revelation: how an art work communicates effectively beyond what a writer or visual artist intends and how dimensions of historical cultural meaning which transcend any individual artistic statement nevertheless come to expression with it.


A “poetics” of how artworks effectively work may properly identify the analytic and speculative components of an artistic discourse but these should not be considered as opposing but rather as different reflections of the doubled nature of all meaning. The analytic dimension of assertions cannot, as Pannenberg has effectively shown, be understood other than in relation to the wider unstated dimensions of linguistic practice that inform them.[16] His argument reflects a maxim of classical hermeneutics: it is not possible to understand the part (the particular expression or idiom) apart from the whole field of expression of which it is a part. Mutandis mutandis, though that whole (what Gadamer calls a totality of meaning) cannot be brought to statement without contradiction, its existence is made discernible in the particular statements it informs. The argument pre-supposes a major ontological assumption the consequences of which will dominate this study: the existence of the whole is not independent from the totality of its parts. Understanding involves thinking of the enabled part and the enabling whole as the reversed doubles of each other. Were this all to Gadamer’s position, it would amount to be little more than a reworking of the analogical hermeneutics of William Blake and Johann Goethe: to discern the universal in each particular; and to see in each particular the universal particularised. By contrast, it is the continual doubling back and forth between the analytic and the speculative that is crucial to Gadamer’s account of the meaningful within the experience of art. Such experiences subject us to the further effects of such interplay.


Confronting a written or visual statement initiates such interplay but is not its beginning. The formal grounds of an experience of art’s effects lies in the condition of existential throwness which casts each and every individual adrift on already formed currents of meaning. These pre-reflective historical and cultural horizons form an individual’s expectancies influencing what might and might not be perceived as an artwork. Such pre-reflective horizons are far from static. They are acquired and adapted through processes of acculturation providing individuals with the hodological maps to navigate their experienced environment. The extent of this pre-reflective stock outstrips what we are conscious of. Its signs and symbols whose significances we are vulnerable to have a content greater than any moment of reflection can capture. Such “excess” of meaning establishes the effective ontological base for an experience of art’s address. The task of Gadamer’s doubled hermeneutics is to reveal how the enabling speculative horizon becomes effective within the customary analytic of everyday meanings.


In the pursuit everyday tasks, the operation of signs and symbols is constrained to render the communication of instructions and guidance as uncomplicated as possible. The most important thing, as Wittgenstein would say, is knowing how to go on.[17] Though the execution of ordinary tasks demands that the language of a given practice be highly circumscribed, their constituent signs and symbols do not lose their intrinsic hermeneutical excess. The meaning of an instruction depends upon a prior understanding of the figure-ground relationship for key terms in any given practice. Acquaintance with the contextual frame of that practice, grounds the appropriate foreground determinations of a word’s or image’s meaning. The risk of any slippage of meaning or contamination from hermeneutic excess is marginalised. A practice’s conventions establish an analytics of control over its key signs and symbols. The experience of art, however, occasions a return to the foreground of awareness, the speculative dimensions of meaning.


Gadamer’s interest in visual art neither lies in the formalities of aesthetic object nor with analysing how an artist manipulates a figure-ground relationship in order to bring an image or symbol to the centre of a visual field. He emphasises above all the experience of art. The experience of art is when an art work “speaks to us” and this, he insists, is the event of art, the occasion when it makes a claim upon us irrespective of our willing and doing. This is effected when an established analytic of meaning is disrupted by its speculative entailments.


The importance of Gadamer’s hermeneutical aesthetics lies in the suggestion that the power of an artwork resides not in-itself as an autonomous aesthetic object but in its dialogical capacity to “effect” change in a spectator’s field of understanding. We might appreciate a work for its painterly confidence and compositional strength but, Gadamer claims, we value it not for its aesthetic effects but for what it has to “say” to us. A novel configuration of hidden or overlooked elements in a symbol’s horizon of  speculative meaning can impose an unaccustomed penumbra of significance, forcing us to re-think and re-value its customary expressive deployment. Art shocks and illuminates because it draws from a word’s or an image’s speculative excess, provocative re-alignments of meaning which disrupt the conventional status of a sign or symbol. Gadamer’s aesthetics establishes that his doubled hermeneutics is not a logic of assertion and counter-assertion. The power of art does not reside in its ability to displace one field of meaning with another but in its capacity to effect a transformative engagement, that is, enabling us to grasp a familiar field of meaning in unfamiliar ways. This is not to be grasped as an artwork translating commonplace fields of meaning into its terms but rather as its language transfiguring the ordinary so that we see it as extraordinary. Gadamer’s aesthetics provides a hermeneutical economy whereby the effective relations that achieve what Danto calls the transfiguration of the commonplace can be understood.[18]


Gadamer’s doubled hermeneutics indicates that the key to the effective relationality that constitutes the “event” of an art work speaking to us, lies in the placeholder status accorded to words and symbols by virtue of their operating in several speculative horizons. This means that the field of meaning in which a placeholder term appears, can effect other fields of meaning in which it operates. Clever associations of meaning, amusing juxtaposition of terms, visual puns, literary double-entendres or surreal alignments of images require that an artwork make a spectator conscious of being positioned between different fields (horizons) of meaning in such a way as to facilitate the doubled reading of one framework in the language of its other. The emergence of such a doubled reading within experience indicates, as we have argued, the return of the speculative dimensions of meaning to the foreground of a spectator’s awareness. How is the hermeneutical exchange which drives such doubling to be articulated?


This exchange is not a matter of replacing one’s customary way of seeing with another. Such abandonment jettisons the initial motivation, as Nietzsche once put it, to see around one’s own corner.[19] Nor does it involve the ubiquity of “cultural exchanges” which claim to show how other art traditions render common subject-matters in their distinct ways. Seeing the English Lake District depicted by a Chinese watercolourist presents a curio to the European eye and as such it is hermeneutically speaking, ineffective. Hermeneutic doubling is not a logic of substitution. To the contrary, in the experience of art  the mode of relations that constitute an alien artwork come to permeate those that form a customary way of seeing in such a way as not to displace it but rather to achieve a new and significant permutation of it, permanently altering its initial configuration.[20] This exchange or doubling should be understood as the deep inflection of one framework with the terms of another. This study suggests that hermeneutic doubling is a productive engagement the success of which is marked by the generation of  the permutation as a third element. This entails an obversion of form in which because of its engagement with a set of foreign relations, the home framework effectively becomes a qualitively different world. The emergence of this third term reveals itself as the transfiguration of what the exchange has left behind (the original framework). Hermeneutic doubling opens a space between “the once understood” and “the now understood”. The difference is articulated by what the emergence itself achieves; a distinction between the transformed framework and the prior untransformed framework of which the transformed framework emerges as a permutation. The emergence of a traversable, conceptually differentiated space between a transfigured and an untransfigured framework of meaning provides the spectator with a means to gage the extent of a change in understanding.


Gadamer’s aesthetics are, indeed speculative. The discussion of art and aesthetics in Part One of Truth and Method points to so much more than is initially stated. Aesthetic experience is presented as a counter-foil to the cognitive claims of scientific and, yet, though Gadamer carefully identifies in tradition the formal pre-conditions of aesthetic experience, he does little to articulate how the spectator’s horizon is permeated transformatively by the artwork. Thinking with Gadamer rather than against him, this study develops what his hermeneutical aesthetics suggests but does not state. The justification for this lies in the application of his own claim that to understand a thinker or artist is to think with him or her even when entering unknown territory. [21]


Gadamer’s approach to art is known primarily for its rehabilitation of tradition but it merits philosophical attention for so much more. His aesthetics reveals that philosophical hermeneutics offers not only a study of the philosophical pre-conditions of aesthetic experience but also an acute insight into the educative processes operating within hermeneutic transmission and reception. The transformative nature of these processes relies on what we have described as Gadamer’s doubled hermeneutic which merits serious attention by all in the theory communities of aesthetics, art and hermeneutics. This doubled hermeneutic expands into an account of the following.


(1)   It suggests that the cognitive value of art depends upon a conception of a work as a body of significant relations which interact-with and affect other sets of significant relations in its cultural environment.

(2)   The role of words and images as placeholders within such frameworks promises a “poetics” able to address how art works “work”.

(3)   Such a “poetics” suggests a non-metaphorical account of Gadamer’s key claim that art “speaks” and an explanation of what the “effectiveness” of art’s historical reception resides in. We shall argue that the address of art is its “effect”: it is the experience of one framework being transformatively inflected by another.

(4)   The deployment of hermeneutical excess within speculative reasoning establishes a principle of incommensurability which explains why the movement of understanding is both never-ending and self-perpetuating. Within the constraints of appropriacy, any work or interpretation can legitimately deploy a symbol but neither may claim to exhaust its meaning. There is always an incommensurability between what a symbol says and what it is capable of saying (its excess). This differential offers a two-fold procedural guarantee of both creative optimism (no matter the power of a given meaning deployment, there is always more to be said) and interpretive  modesty (whatever the confidence placed in an interpretation, it is formally subject to being adjusted by alternative readings deriving from the hermeneutical excess of its subject-matter). Either way, the principle of hermeneutic incommensurability upholds the movement of understanding. The more an interpretation seeks to diminish the differential between an image and its speculative horizon, the more it drives other possibilities for understanding into the open.

(5)   The presence of a speculative totality of meaning attached to a word or image is invoked through the particular expression or utterance. This places artistic and hermeneutic practice at the interstices between what is in play in a speculative horizon and what that horizon facilitates in the way of particular readings or expressions. The originality of Gadamer’s position lies in the suggestion that the creation of new art works is not an end-in-itself but a means of soliciting from the unspoken horizons that enable and inform them, other as yet unrealised possibilities for meaning. Artistic practice becomes a means of keeping the transformative movement between horizons of meaning in play.


The significant merit of Gadamer’s doubled hermeneutics for philosopher and practitioner alike is that by placing the subjective experience of art within the objective horizons and mechanisms of dialogical exchange, it promises an objective ontologically based account of what takes place within subjectivity i.e. the transmission, reception and transformation of aesthetic meaning. If  the vitality of a tradition can be judged by the degree to which its “continuities of conflict” assert themselves, Gadamer’s principles of hermeneutical excess and incommensurability offer a perceptive account of how such continuities of conflict maintain themselves and productively so. It is these principles that justify what this study offers; a rethinking of aesthetic experience in hermeneutic terms.


Much has been made of the enigmatic quality of art, that an artwork always seems to promise more than it discloses. Gadamer, following Heidegger, is acutely aware of what a work “withholds” from a spectator and how it makes the presence of that absence felt. This gives to a work in the words of Joanna McGregor, a “quality of mystery and melancholy, of shadows pauses and memory”.[22] In formal terms, her statement re-iterates the axiom of hermeneutic incommensurability; x = x+  i.e. that how a work is interpreted or self-interprets itself can never be rendered commensurate with what the work might yet mean (the withheld). The statement presages an important ontological claim. On the assumption that the artwork has no pre-defined essence or meaning but is a specific set of part-whole relationships, what that work can be understood as yet meaning depends upon the spectator achieving or witnessing new a significant movement in the relations that embody the work. We argue that it is the principle of incommensurability that draws a spectator further into a work and its “yet-to-be-disclosed” elements and that it is this which sets in motion, once again, the part-whole relations upon which the possibility of transformed understanding rests. Developing such reasoning requires thinking well beyond Gadamer’s arguments but to them go the credit for opening the way to a hermeneutical aesthetics capable of altering our understanding of the workings not just of art but of the humanities generally. This essay seeks to extend the conversation about art that Gadamer started.


Chapter One considers the intellectual context informing Gadamer’s hermeneneutical reformation of aesthetics. It introduces the concepts appearance, presentation, and language. We claim that rather than avoiding aesthetic subjectivism, Gadamer needs a reconstructed account of subjectivity as an inter-active agency in the event of aesthetic experience in order to secure the effectiveness of his doubled hermeneutic.


Chapter Two examines Gadamer’s broad reflections on the nature of the experience of art and explores the speculative dimension of his thinking in particular. The broad debate of these early chapters sets the context for what follows; a detailed examination of the philosophical specifics of Gadamer’s stated and implied arguments with regard to the experience of art.


Chapter Three addresses the defining paradox of Gadamer’s aesthetics; how to reconcile the alleged distinterestedness of aesthetics with the cognitive interests of a phenomenological analysis of experience. We shall argue that Gadamer’s implied approach to aesthetic attentiveness offers a persuasive reconciliation of the interested and the disinterested. The reconciliation is one of Gadamer’s greatest unremarked contributions to contemporary aesthetics. Aesthetics attentiveness is no unthinking receptiveness but a complex reflective practice capable of transforming understanding.


Chapter Four concerns itself with the notions of  theoros, aesthetic spectatorship and participation. Gadamer’s reconstruction of aesthetic experience as a participatory act adds a new valence to the part-whole relationship within hermeneutics. Hermeneutical part-whole structures cannot be understood from the “outside”, as it were, but only by being participated in. This implies that an understanding of a given element within an artwork requires a sense of its whole. A grasp of the latter is conditional upon where in a field of relationships an observing  subject stands. To understand more of both part and whole requires a shift of spectorial position within its nexus. This insight contributes to one of the greatest achievements of philosophical hermeneutics within aesthetic education; the deconstruction of the theory/practice divide the consequences of which we shall discuss in detail. Once again, the argument depends upon abandoning the notion of a detached aesthetic observer. To understand the dynamics of aesthetic experience, phenomenalist indifference must be replaced with phenomenological involvement.


Chapter Five develops the consequences of Gadamer’s critique of aesthetic subjectivity. If, phenomenologically speaking, an involvement with art’s subject-matters demonstrates that the experience of meaning has primacy over the experience of aesthetic properties, the communication of meaning emanates from the conveyance of significance within bodies of semantic relations: meaning’s mode of being whether visual or literary is presentational. With characteristic restraint, this simple move in Gadamer’s aesthetics prompts a major ontological shift in thinking about the ancient but none the less contentious question of art’s relation to reality. Establishing “appearance” as the ontological mode of a subject-matter grounds Gadamer’s argument that temporal appearances add to rather than detract from the reality of their subject concerns. This argument prompts a revaluation of the ontological status of both “likeness” and image as potentially transforming the part-whole relationships from which they spring. Likenesses become visualisations of future possibilities held within a part-whole relationship whilst images in art assume a cognitive significance by allowing their objects “to become more what they are” (Werden zum Sein). Such arguments  re-work the classical distinctions between mimesis and imitation.. They culminate in a novel re-appraisal of the part-whole relationship in hermeneutics which suggests that what art discloses is not the actual per se but analogous patterns of reasoning which intimate different readings of how the actual might be understood.     


Chapter Six attends to the signature claim of Gadamer’s aesthetics: art addresses us. What does Gadamer mean by this argument? An answer requires expanding the conventional meaning of language as tied to just the spoken and written. Gadamer’s conception of linguisticality extends provocatively the notion of language so as to include any set of communicative relations whether visual or musical. Our argument develops a hermeneutic conception of the artwork as a body or “measure” of relations. This broader conception of linguisticality allows art to be considered as language: like all sets of  the communicative relations, those that constitute art have a speculative capacity to refer beyond themselves. This capacity is central to what Gadamer means by “art addressing us”. The speculative dimensions central to the experience of art’s address clarify how the “truth” of art’s cognitive content can be grasped. The relationship between art and language allows Gadamer’s aesthetics to revitalise a hermeneutical conception of truth based upon plausibility rather than formal demonstration.


Chapter Seven offers a summary of the principal arguments of this study. It suggests that Gadamer’s deconstruction of traditional aesthetics culminates in a threefold redemptive revaluation of the discipline. First, the endeavour to redeem aesthetics by absorbing it within hermeneutics depends upon prioritising the question of meaning within the experience of art. This shifts aesthetic experience into a participatory mode and in consequence re-vitalises the importance of the part-whole relationship in aesthetic reasoning. Second, aesthetic attentiveness returns us not to an original way of seeing but to way of seeing which facilitates origination within and amongst the aesthetic ideas and subject-matters which shape any experience of art. Third, we suggest that the aesthetic image has a two fold redemptive function in relation to the complexities of human experience. Like the doubled hermeneutic operating within Gadamer’s thinking, the image has both summative and projective aspects. The poignant image brings to summative resolution strands of meaning already at play within our environment and suggests, controversially, how our unfinished and incomplete understanding of actuality might be transformed by projective visions of the impossible i.e. meaning made whole. The fiction of completed meaning in art is redeemed not by its vision of a different actuality but because it offers a different way of envisioning this actuality.  The principal claim of a hermeneutically orientated aesthetics is that we are vulnerable to art’s address precisely because our experience of both of ourselves and our world is unfinished.

[1]  See Colin Davis, Critical Excess, Overreading in Derrida, Deleuze, Levinas etc, Stanford University Press, 2011, and my review in  Screen, DOI  10.1093/HJSO15

[2]  See in particular John Arthos, The Inner Word in Gadamer’s Hermeneutics. Notre Dame, University of Indiana Press, 2009, p.1 -30, 335-362.

[3] Martin Heidegger, “On the Origin of the Art Work “, in Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. A. Hofstadter, New York, Harper, 1975, p. 39.

[4] See Paul Ricouer, Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences,London, CambridgeUniversity Press, 1981, p. 54-59.

[5] Michael Kelly, “A Critique of Gadamer’s Aesthetics,” in Bruce Krajewski, Gadamer’s Repercussions, University of California Press, 2005, p. 103.

[6] This theme is discussed at length in the Chapter 6.

[7] Hans-Georg Gadamer, “Classical and Philosophical Hermeneutics”, The Gadamer Reader, ed. R. Palmer, Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 2007, pp. 61.

[8] Alisdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, London, Duckworth, 1993, p. 222

[9] Ernst Gombrich speaks of the subjectivity which vitiates to establish a plausible aesthetics, ( see The Sense of Order, Oxford, Phaidon, 1984, p. 117 and Terry Eagleton refers to the political importance of aesthetics in that “the work of art can gather the unruly materials of everyday life into a shapely whole without losing anything of their vitality. If it is a riposte to political absolutism, it is also an argument against anarchy,” (Holy Terror, London, Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 87.

[10] Peter Duerr, Dreamtime, Concerning the Boundary Between Wilderness and Civilisation,London, Blackwell, 1985, Chapt. 12.

[11] Anthony Giddens coined the phrase “double hermeneutic” referring to the process where categories which are part of a life-world are appealed to in a description of that life world: see his New Rules of Sociological Method, London, Hutchinson, 1987, p. 162. Gadamer’s position implies that a doubled hermeneutic has a speculative or mirroring element: a subject comes to think of its initial self-understanding differently when it meets it doubled in the language of an opposing party.

[12] Peter Duerr Dreamtime, Concerning the Boundary Between Wilderness and Civilisation,London, Blackwell, 1985, Chapt. 12. p.129

[13] Wolfgang Iser, The Range of Interpretation, New York, ColumbiaUniversity Press, 2000, Chapter 4.

[14] Friedrich  Schleiermacher argues, “The understanding of the whole is not only conditioned by that of the particular, but also, vice versa, that of the particular by the whole. Fir if the particular is to be understood as a member of the sequence, the exponent, the tendency, the manner of the whole must be known; and if {it is to be known as ] a product of language, then it must already be known what linguistic usage one is actually dealing with”: see Schleiermacher, Hermeneutics and Criticism and Other Writings, ed. A.Bowie, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998, p. 231-2. Dilthey contends that  “the whole must be understood in terms of its individual parts, individual parts in terms of the whole…So understanding of the whole and of the individual parts are interdependent.” Selected Writings, ed. P. Rickman, London, Cambridge, 1976, p.262.

[15] See Hans-Georg Gadamer, , Literature and Philosophy in Dialogue, Essays in German Literary Theory, Albany, StateUniversity of New York Press, 1994.


[16] See Wolfhart Pannenberg, Theology and The Philosophy of Science, London, Darton, Longman and Todd, 1976, p. 178-179.

[17] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, London, Blackwell, 1953,  sections  151,179.

[18] A.C.Danto, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, Cambridge, Massachusetts, HarvardUniversity Press, 1981.

[19] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science,New York, Vintage, 1974, sec.374.

[20] Any one who knows the British National Anthem will have their perception of it quite altered after listening to Charles Ives variations on the hymn tune “America”.

[21] This is not to be thought of as re-constructing an agent’s thoughts so as to understand the motivations of his or her actions pace Collingwood but of  following their thoughts and developing into forms that surpass the achievement of their original thinker. See R.J.Collingwood, The Idea of History, London, Oxford University Press, 1961, p.170-176.

[22] Joanna McGregor, “On the Pleasures of Harrison Birtwistle’s ‘difficult music’ ”, The Guardian, Manchester, May 22, 2009.

Interview with Mathew Abbott about his forthcoming book, The Figure of This World: Agamben and the Question of Political Ontology


In a few months Crosscurrents will be publishing Mathew Abbott’s The Figure of This World, an important new book on Agamben and political ontology. I took the opportunity to put some questions to Mathew about his intentions for the book and how it develops current debates.

CW: Let’s start with where this book sits in the landscape of critical work on Agamben. You write “My intention is not to produce a systematic overview or detached scholarly appraisal of Agamben’s thought; nor is it to give an exhaustive account of his influences […]. It is to provide a defence and development of his philosophy.” From whom or from what does his philosophy need defending, and in what way should it be developed?

MA: I think some serious misunderstandings have marked the reception of Agamben’s philosophy. This is partly due to the provocative nature of Homo Sacer, which is certainly his most influential book: its claims about the camp, the exception, bare life, and the paradoxes of sovereignty are so striking – and, it would appear, hyperbolic – that many scholars have failed to analyse them with the care they deserve. It is also due to the fact that, at least until recently, Agamben has been taciturn regarding his method. More recent scholarship on his philosophy has worked to rectify these problems by situating the Homo Sacer project in the wider trajectory of his thought, linking it to his earlier work on aesthetics, language, and potentiality. In this way, the claims of this project are grounded in a philosophical system. This has been very helpful, but fundamental questions remain about the precise status of those claims. Agamben is still regularly attacked for his extreme pessimism, and for paying insufficient attention to historical specificity. These are criticisms from which I work to defend him in my book.

That said, many pages do not mention Agamben. This is because I take defence and development to be coextensive: as I work to defend Agamben, I am of necessity also developing his thought. Departing from the letter of his texts is a way of staying true to them. This is in keeping with a point about philosophy that Agamben himself makes, which is that the genuinely philosophical element in any work is its capacity for being developed. Clarifying the philosophical element in Agamben means more than simply giving an account of what he has said in his books. It means taking this thinking further. That is the methodological commitment at work in The Figure of This World.

At the heart of your argument is the claim that we should understand Agamben as giving us not a political philosophy or political theology, but a political ontology. What is the difference, and why does it matter?

On the traditional account, the difference between political theology and political philosophy is the difference between reason and revelation, Athens and Jerusalem, atheism and faith. I take political ontology to upset the traditional account. This is not because political ontology is theistic; it sides with the political philosopher here. At the same time, however, it sides with the political theologian in committing to the claim that the political cannot be thought without a certain exigency. Yet this exigency consists not in divine revelation but rather in the fact that human beings are beings for which being is at issue.

Agamben’s thought is not a political theology; nor is it a critical theory; it does not work in a sociological register; it is not even a political philosophy in anything like the usual sense. If we understand Agamben as engaging in political ontology, on the other hand, we will be able to get a much clearer sense of what it is he is doing, and how.

Why are we mistaken in attributing political pessimism to Agamben?

Part of what makes Agamben’s work compelling to me is that it is geared from the outset toward thinking the possibility of transformation. Crucial to the way Agamben thinks is a sense of contingency: even (and perhaps especially) when the phenomena in question appear to be fated or destined, the necessary result of some overarching yet hidden logic, they are being invoked because of how they can help us think the potentials hidden within the darkness of the present. If understood ontically, his claim that, for instance, the camp is the nomos of the modern will appear to be indicative of a truly extreme political nihilism; if understood ontologically, however, it becomes much more interesting. It may seem paradoxical, but it is precisely the ontological nature of Agamben’s discourse that opens it to the possibility of radical change. Because it is not a critical theory, the primary value of this thinking does not lie in its capacity to help us understand and critique the present; Agamben’s archaeologies and genealogies of modernity are always first and foremost strategic engagements with – and challenges to – the present.

Badiou is of course critical of any position that identifies politics with ontology: with what is rather than with the possibility of radical change. By identifying the political so strongly with an ontology is there not a danger that the possibility for radical political change and invention is blunted, as Badiou fears?

I disagree with Badiou on this. Generally I dispute the idea that ontology is necessarily about grounding or justifying, or that thinking the political as an ontological problem means reifying the present state of things; as I have indicated already, political ontology as I want to define it departs from a claim about the radical contingency of ontic political structures. This project – as with Heidegger’s – is not about the nature of being as such but the question of it.

My disagreement with Badiou is also more specific, and relates to this attempt at introducing a fundamental distinction between ordinary existence in the state of the situation and the exceptional existence of a subject acting in fidelity to the event. In making this distinction, Badiou ends up an unwitting proponent of the sovereign logic Agamben has identified: his is an explicitly decisionistic ethic of the event that, as he states almost as explicitly, turns on a separation between the biological substrate of human life and the immortal existence of the subject. His haughty disregard for everyday existence and everyday experience – which can appear for him as nothing more than the sphere of base interest – is more than mere prejudice: it stems from a commitment that is constitutive of his philosophy. This makes it effectively impossible for Badiou to properly think what I believe is one of the key political problems of our time: how to respond politically to the banalisation of life, the expropriation of the common, and the destruction of experience characteristic of the society of the spectacle.

Against all of this, I am interested in those moments in which distinguishing the ordinary from the exceptional becomes difficult or even impossible. I want to think the ordinary as a potential political achievement. Agamben’s thought can help us here. In its positive moment, political ontology turns on the possibility of a revolution of everyday life.

We are familiar with Heidegger’s contention that metaphysics misses the fact of being and concerns itself only with beings, but you argue that politics, as well as metaphysics, commits this error. What does it mean for politics to forget being?

It means forgetting the common. More exactly, it forces us into an assumption about community – that it must be constituted on the basis of a certain shared condition or set of conditions of belonging – that makes it impossible for us to properly think being in common as such. Part of the task of political ontology is to work to make such thinking possible.  

In a chapter entitled ‘The myth of the earth’ you argue for the political importance, for Heidegger, of poetry and art. To some this might sound like a watering down of immediate political imperatives and, to speak in caricatures, might be taken as a typical Heideggerean or even “continental” move, dissolving crisp political imperatives in a solution of endless complexity, detour and obfuscation. How does the treatment of poetry and art in this chapter contribute to the book’s overall political concerns?

First of all, I do not think it is particularly controversial to assert that art has political importance. The question is what one makes of the political aspects of art, and how centrally to political problems one locates them. Now Heidegger situates art very closely to political problems. My argument with Heidegger in the book is not necessarily with the claim that art is essential for thinking the political, but with the particular, reactionary way in which he tried to politically mobilise poetic experience.

Specifically I reject Heidegger’s attempts at turning to poetry in order to find a means of grounding the destiny of a historical people. Instead, I am interested in how the poetic experience with language should force us to confront our living without destiny, the fact that there is nothing we must do or be. The only possible vocation for us now, as Agamben argues, is in the revocation of vocation; any idea of a national vocation has to be resolutely foreclosed. I turn to poetry for something else: for a sense of what a life lived in the zone of indistinction between the ordinary and the exceptional might be like. That is the link I want to make between art and politics.

Partly in dialogue with Walter Benjamin you identify and elaborate an ‘atheist redemption’ at work in political ontology, but you insist that it does not remain residually dependent on theism because it does not participate in the a/theism binary. Could you talk a little more about what redemption means in this context, and how it resists falling back into a structural a/theism. Redemption from what, and unto what?

I would prefer to say that it does not participate in the secular/religious binary. Above all, political ontology is concerned with the possibility of a proper owning up to the ungrounding force of the ontological question. I believe this makes it basically atheist (though of course there are certain concepts of the divine that could sit quite comfortably with that). At the same time, I certainly do want to refuse the idiotic Dawkins-esque atheism that sees religious belief as another, less rational version of scientific explanation. As I argue in the book, science is just as incapable of resolving the question of being: knowing exactly how the universe came to be does not mean knowing the reason for the fact that it did. I say political ontology is atheist because it turns on the possibility of properly acknowledging that there is no reason for being, that nothing could ever provide a satisfactory explanation for it.

The Benjaminian concept of redemption I use is related to this. It is a profane concept of redemption concerned with the possibility of collective happiness. This happiness is linked in an originary way with precisely this sense of contingency: with the fact that what occurs – what haps – does so for no reason. The redemption in question is redemption from what Benjamin calls mythical violence, but which we could also call destiny. It redeems us to ordinary existence itself: the world in its gratuity.  

In the same way that capitalism can be seen to play an ambiguous role in Marx’s thought, being a necessary staging post in his historical dialectic, capital emerges in the final chapter of your book as something of the hero of the piece, providing the possibility of resolving the problems in the picture-concept of the world critiqued in Heidegger’s ‘The Age of the World-Picture’. Could you sketch this positive contribution of capital?

I’m a bit uncomfortable with the word ‘hero’ here, but in a way you are right: my claim is that capital has created certain of the conditions for its own undoing, and a resolution of the aporias of representation that characterise modernity and the society of the spectacle. As you indicate, a properly ambivalent attitude toward capital is clear in Marx too – and the issues surrounding this arguably led to a number of grave misunderstandings in 20th Century orthodox Marxism. I think it’s a mistake to read Marx – or myself, for that matter – as ‘necessitarian’ regarding capital: I certainly don’t think there are necessary stages of human development, nor that we are destined to eventually replace capitalism with communism, or whatever. My claim – and, I believe, Marx’s claim – is rather that capitalism creates certain of the conditions for its own undoing. The difference between my argument and that of Marx, of course, is that I see the potential for undoing here as involving not only capital but western metaphysics too. In the book I try to remain agnostic about the precise differences between those two things, and whether they have different origins. There is much more to say about this, and more than I get around to saying in the book. It’s a question I will return to as part of a new project. 

As a means of clarifying this, however, I would turn to a point made by Badiou in his Manifesto for Philosophy, where he argues that the one virtue of capital is ontological: it dissolves our sense of an essential place for humanity in the universe, any concept of a natural order or hierarchy. We should acknowledge this with gritted teeth, of course, for this process of dissolution and destitution was (and is) extremely brutal. My argument, however, is that this process has created certain of the conditions needed for a new thought of the common, and a proper owning up to the question of being. Of course, my claim about contingency means there can be no guarantees here. I only said that capital has created certain of the conditions of its own undoing.

The first sentence of the introduction reads: “Things are. Philosophy is constitutively ill equipped to own up to this fact, which is both banal and singularly inexplicable.”   It sounds like an introduction to a book on Object Orientated Ontology. Later on you do deal at length with Heidegger’s understanding of the object and refer briefly to Graham Harman’s reading of Heidegger. How would you situate your own reading in relation to the OOO of Harman and others?

I agree with Harman that it is worth trying to extract a form of realism from Heidegger, and that realism in philosophy is a worthy goal more generally. Mine is not an object-oriented ontology in his sense of the term, however. This isn’t the place for me to list my problems with Harman’s project, but the most relevant one is his disconnection of ontology from politics and ethics. Instead, Harman aestheticises ontology. By its nature, this can be highly entertaining and even beautiful, but it lacks the kind of engagement with the good that I take to be a crucial part of any true philosophy. Of course, Harman has his reasons for doing this. They pertain to his apparent belief that we must abandon anthropocentrism at all costs. But I am not convinced by this response to the problem of humanism: as Heidegger once argued in relation to Sartre’s existentialism (incidentally in a debate on this very issue), the reversal of a metaphysical position remains a metaphysical position. There are better and more interesting ways of dealing with the problem than simply abandoning the human altogether. Indeed in trying this Harman ends up propounding a kind of empty exoticism; as a result OOO is not a true philosophy but a kind of philosophical tourism. So while I share certain positions with Harman, and while his reading of Heidegger has influenced my own, I end up in a very different place.  

We can see Jean-Luc Nancy’s imprint running through your argument, sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly. You say the fact that ‘things are’ makes a claim on us that ‘bears on our being in common, as we share exposure to it’. In the final chapter you insist on the importance of our common singularity in the face of the fact of the world, and you refer early on to Nancy as ‘the other major contemporary philosopher working in the political ontological field I am working to clarify’. Given the way that Nancy seems to return at key moments in the book’s argument, to what extent would you say you are offering a Nancean reading of Agamben?

That is a perceptive question. Jean-Luc Nancy has been an important influence on my thinking ever since I studied him as an undergraduate. It is also clear enough to me that he has been an important influence on Agamben, even if the Italian philosopher only acknowledges this on certain occasions. As I indicate in the book, much of what I say about political ontology could also apply to Nancy. As for whether my reading of Agamben is Nancean – I would say that it is, but only to the extent that Agamben himself is Nancean!

Of course, working out to what extent he is would require some serious work. I outline some of the similarities in the book. Here I will say that the differences between them seem to me to be ones of method, and also politics. On the one hand, I believe Agamben has a somewhat more polemical reading of Heidegger, which leads him to emphasise nihilism, negativity, and the violence of modernity more strongly than Nancy. On the other, there is the role of Benjamin in Agamben’s thinking, and his quasi-Marxist inheritance more generally – something that makes his philosophy more explicitly revolutionary. These two factors can explain why Agamben’s thinking possesses an urgency that Nancy’s sometimes appears to lack. But, I would add, this really is just an appearance: these are questions of emphasis. I think both philosophers should be crucial for anyone trying to think nihilism, community, and the relation between politics and ontology.