Claude Romano, At the Heart of Reason. Trans. Michael Smith and Claude Romano. New York: Northwestern University Press, 2015; 635 pages. ISBN: 978-0810131378.

Reviewed by Maxwell Kennel, McMaster University.

Claude Romano’s book At the Heart of Reason is an impressive contribution to phenomenology. Differing from the broader project of his earlier diptych, Event and World and Event and Time, as well as his more recent work in There Is: The Event and the Finitude of Appearing, At the Heart of Reason focuses on addressing the problems and potentials of phenomenology in particular, seeking to renew the phenomenological tradition by opening up the concept of reason itself. The breadth of its insights prevents comprehensive summary in the form of a review, and so below I will first sketch the contours of the volume and then focus on what I believe to be one of its key concerns: the relationship between phenomenology and hermeneutics.

The book is divided into two main sections—“Confrontations” and “Transformations”—and contains twenty three chapters in total. The preface begins by describing the methodological disposition of the book, establishing Romano as both a subtle and bold voice in the long debate on the significance of phenomenological thinking. Drawing from both the classic Continental sources of phenomenology and the works of Anglo-American Analytic philosophers, Romano makes explicit that his book is as much about its object of study as it is about its method. (xiv) Setting out to break the silence in French phenomenology on the question of method, Romano addresses the justification of phenomenological description—or more pointedly, the reasons that phenomenological description gives for what it advances. (xiii–xiv) Concerned with method and justification, and their interrelation in phenomenological inquiry, Romano inaugurates a transformation of phenomenology by opening it up to schools of thought that it has insulated itself against for the most part: analytic philosophy and hermeneutics. His methodological sensibilities reflect this opening. For example, he writes that “Argumentation is the life of all thought aspiring to some rigor. Contrary to a widespread misconception, phenomenology is no exception to this rule, even if certain of its main arguments are sometimes elliptic, implicit, or just barely sketched out.” (xv) The approach of At the Heart of Reason is argumentative in a generous but direct sense. On one hand, Romano values reasoning and formal rigor. On the other hand, he writes that “the most important philosophers are not always those who are ‘technically’ the most irreproachable: we may find contradictions and questionable conclusions among the greatest of them. It is the radicalness of his or her [sic] questions that distinguishes the true philosopher, and not mere questions of coherence.” (xv–xvi)

In the course of its twenty three chapters, At the Heart of Reason aims first, to reformulate the phenomenological problem of the immanent structure of experience, second, to defend the “autonomy of the prelinguistic order,” and, third, to critique the concept of experience in light of the debate between Kantianism and empiricism. (xi–xii) Romano is most interested in defending the phenomenological vision of a logic of the world that is pre-linguistic, but he approaches this task with a deliberate fairness that (throughout the course of the ensuing 500 pages) will see him engage with a wide variety of sources and with a greater ability to sympathise with divergent perspectives than many philosophers on either side of the tiresome Continental-Analytic divide could muster.

In the Introduction, Romano establishes description as the problem of phenomenology, rejects the Continental/Analytic distinction, and describes the volume as an “inquiry into reasons.” (5–12) On one hand the confrontations of the first half of the book take place between the phenomenological tradition and its critics from Tugendhat through to McDowell. On the other hand, the second part of the book moves away from the argumentative method of the first part toward a more strictly phenomenological approach. Chapter 1 addresses the central phenomenological tenet, that “the structures of experience are not conferred on it by the language through which it is described.” (13) Returning again to the question of the things themselves, Romano describes phenomenology as concerning itself with these “prepredicative” and “prelinguistic” experiences, but not in a chronological sense that would suggest “a return to a mysterious origin, free from language.” (14) Instead, phenomenology posits another source of the structure and meaning of experience than that of language. (15) In Chapter 2, Romano examines intentionality, suggesting that the intentionality of consciousness is an opening of interiority unto exteriority, and orientation “toward things and the world.” (31) Engaging with Brentano’s concept of intentionale Inexistenz, Meinong’s Gegenstandtheorie (35), and Twardowski’s “representations without object” (36), Romano examines the precursor concepts and critiques of Husserl’s intentionality.

Throughout the following chapters that make up the first section of the book Romano engages with several modern critics of the phenomenological project. Romano addresses Tugendhat’s critique of the prelinguistic nature of phenomenology (60-61), the works of Kripke and Schlick, and the potential resourcing of Wittgenstein for his revision of phenomenology. Ranging from the phenomenology of color in Chapter 8 and the debate between realism and nominalism in Chapter 9, Romano defends the idea that  “there is nothing absurd or incoherent about the idea of a priori structures that phenomenology endeavors to describe” (175). The later chapters of the first section build upon this defense, exploring the idea of an “essentialism without essences” (200), and summarizing the work so far as a defense of making “judgments and descriptions of essence without subscribing to the Platonism of phenomenology’s founder.” (230)

The second half of the book refocuses the reader’s attention on the subject matter (Sache) of phenomenology: experience (255), described in Chapter 13 as “the very way in which we are conscious of things, events, processes, and so on, that, correlatively, appear to us ‘in’ and ‘through’ this experience.” (262) In his attempt to breathe life into phenomenology Romano painstakingly revisits the transcendental status of phenomenology, the intentionality of phenomena, and the holism of experience – all while engaging with Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and the entirety of Husserl’s corpus. In Chapter 19 Romano initiates the most exceptional aspect of his work.  Moving through the works of Rorty, Hacking, McDowell, and Sellars, Romano engages with the ‘myth of the given’ from the standpoint of the phenomenological developments made in the previous pages. He writes of phenomenology’s “daring” approach in that “Without ever equating intuition and thought, it reconsiders their relationships, retaining the autonomy not only of sensibility, but also of a pretheoretic openness to the world that must be described per se, and to which we must restore its full rights.” (405) It is this pretheoretical, prelinguistic, prepredicative arena—recalling of course that this ‘pre’ is not temporal—that is the contested site of Romano’s revision of phenomenology, and it is what turns out to be the sticking point in the debate between the phenomenological and hermeneutic positions that are addressed in the final chapters of At the Heart of Reason.

Where other reviewers have focused on the significant dialogue with Analytic philosophy that Romano engages in (particularly in Chapter 19), I will focus on another dialogue that occurs in the final chapters of At the Heart of Reason. Chapters 20 and 21 prepare the ground for the masterful synthetic work Romano undertakes in Chapter 22, “Phenomenology as Hermeneutics.” In Chapter 22, Romano begins with the obvious statement: “Phenomenology and Hermeneutics have often been set in opposition.” (485) Where phenomenology seeks foundational knowledge without presuppositions, hermeneutics suggests there is no knowledge without prejudgment. Where phenomenology seeks out beginnings, hermeneutics always finds itself in the midst of things. Romano begins with these characterizations, and then shows them to be caricatures, claiming that “genuine hermeneutics is phenomenology and phenomenology is only achieved as hermeneutics.” (485) Although the engagement with Analytic philosophy in the book is substantial and worthy of comment, the suggestion that phenomenology and hermeneutics are reconcilable is at least as striking.

Chapter 22 incisively engages with the hermeneutics of Heidegger, Gadamer, and Ricoeur, seeking out a way in which the phenomenological and hermeneutic traditions can become compatible. Having established a groundwork in his earlier defense of the historicity of the essences with which phenomenology concerns itself (Chapter 12), and his connecting phenomenology with language and speech (Chapter 21), Romano acknowledges that phenomenology cannot free from the historicity of interpretation, stating that “No phenomenology can be a description of essence through and through.” (486-487) Rather, phenomenology must be concerned with its “sources and origin,” to initiate “a critical de-construction (Abbau) of that tradition” (487) For Romano, language is required for us to have most thoughts, but not all. Although language deeply affects experience, Romano maintains the reality and importance of a prelinguistic domain of experience. He asks: “Can we both defend the thesis of the constitutive nature of language for thought… and that of a prelinguistic meaning that would permeate our primordial experience of the world?” (487) Trying to avoid the risk of foreclosing prelinguistic thought by extending language too far as a condition of possibility for thought, and trying to give due weight to the linguistic and historical determination of thought, Romano treads a fine line between the ways in which both phenomenology and hermeneutics over-extend themselves (the former by trying to extricate itself from language and history, and the latter by trying to restrict experience to the determinations of language and history). Separating the experience of the world (which may be prelinguistic) from the interpretation of that world (which will always be linguistic), Romano suggests that the tension between the phenomenological return to things themselves and the hermeneutic expansion of linguistic determination occurs when one adheres to the claim that all experience must be interpretive or linguistic. (493) By rejecting the claim that all experience is linguistic, even while retaining that all experience is linguistically interpreted, Romano seeks to dissolve the aporia that has thus far prevented phenomenologists and hermeneuticians from seeing eye to eye. While situating the aforementioned claims in relation to Heidegger, Gadamer, and Ricoeur, Romano further develops his phenomenological concept of the prelinguistic, stating that phenomenology “must be anchored in truths that are not themselves entirely subordinated to the finite historical conditions of interpretation.” (501) Defending the concept of ‘essential structures’ of experience, Romano accordingly defends a concept of essence apart from the relativistic interpretations of essence, appealing to necessity (“Essence is what is necessary to a thing for it to be what it is.”) (501) For Romano, essence is more than the relativistic indeterminacies of hermeneutic understanding, but the prelinguistic essence that by necessity cannot be revised by understanding does not prohibit the all-encompassing nature of the hermeneutic project. It is this broadening of the debate between phenomenology and hermeneutics that sets Romano apart from other thinkers who address the “hermeneutic character of phenomenology.” (502)

The suggestion that phenomenology and hermeneutics have something in common is exceptional, but not unique to Romano’s book. Jean-Luc Marion, in his 2013 Marquette lectures Givenness and Hermeneutics suggests that his own revision of the phenomenological project does not exclude hermeneutics, but actually requires hermeneutics. However, whether he succeeds in his defense against the hermeneutic position is unclear, especially given that the suggestion comes at the end of his defense against hermeneutic criticism, appearing as a claim without significant backing. (See my review of Jean-Luc Marion, Givenness and Hermeneutics.) Readers will have to look for a more detailed response from Marion on the question of hermeneutics in his recent book of responses to criticisms of his phenomenology of givenness (Jean-Luc Marion, Reprise du donné, PUF, 2016). Despite the fact that Marion has also addressed the relationship between phenomenology (albeit his version) and hermeneutics, Romano only mentions Marion’s work once (237) in passing in At the Heart of Reason (which is unusual given Marion’s role as a reader of the original version of the book, Romano’s Habilitation thesis).The relationship between Marion’s phenomenology of givenness and the hermeneutic position is explored in much more detail by Shane Mackinlay in his book Interpreting Excess: Jean-Luc Marion, Saturated Phenomenon, and Hermeneutics (Fordham 2010) (in which Romano’s work on the event features as a key). In the book, Mackinlay takes issue with the passivity that Marion ascribes to subject who receives the givenness of phenomena (the adonné), and uses Romano’s work in Event and World to offer a more balanced view of the way in which the subject participates in the givenness of phenomena.

That Romano does not engage with Marion and Mackinlay is conspicuous but not surprising, given that Romano’s project is first and foremost concerned with philosophical phenomenology. The theological turn in French phenomenology does not appear to be in Romano’s purview, and his silence on the topic is one of the weaknesses of the book. If Romano’s engagement with Analytic philosophy is transgressive and exciting to the English reader, then theological engagement seems like it would be all the more interesting. In sum, Romano’s book is a sizable contribution to the discourse on phenomenology both because of its elucidation and revision of key concepts from within the phenomenological tradition and because of the way in which it critically situates and radicalizes phenomenology alongside both Anglo-American analytic philosophy and philosophical hermeneutics.