Gert-Jan van der Heiden (ed.), Phenomenological Perspectives on Plurality. Leiden: Brill, 2015; viii, 216 pp. ISBN: 978-9004281813.

Reviewed by Sarah Pawlett Jackson, The Open University.

This book is a collection of essays exploring the theme of plurality (broadly construed) from within the phenomenological tradition. With contributions by twelve authors, the collection has been curated into three parts: “Being and Appearing”, “Identity and Community”, and “Conceptualizing Plurality.” The text as a whole expresses the viewpoints of a plurality of phenomenologies, from a plurality of perspectives, and on the subject of a plurality of pluralities, evident both in the methodologies employed as well as the ideas discussed. As such, a collection of essays such as this prompts a meditation on the unity and plurality of the form of the text, as well as the way it discusses these concepts as its content. Certainly, a unifying feature of the text as a whole is the normative tone that each contribution takes towards plurality (in its many guises), namely, that plurality is to be embraced. This normativity is posed differently by each author, and the reasons for embracing plurality take into account epistemological, metaphysical, social and political concerns. Each author, nevertheless, in some way sets their exploration of plurality against a micro- or macro- philosophical backdrop, which over-emphasises “oneness”, and thus runs the risk of glossing over the variety or varieties of plurality in question–pluralities that serious phenomenological analysis will reveal, and pluralities which bring to light certain truths and meanings about the nature of reality, human and otherwise.

These essays are consciously written after Heidegger’s diagnosis of the “onto-theology” that characterises Western metaphysics and the worries of “totalising thought” brought by Levinas.  These positions highlight “bad” forms of unity: conceptions of the “One” which assimilate, reduce or repress “otherness” and thus, plurality. The correct rejection of these “bad” conceptions of unity accounts for the much-needed enthusiasm for plurality that infuses this collection. These papers don’t present reactive caricatures, however; rather, they take seriously the thought that the relationship between unity and plurality needs to be thought through in a post-onto-theological landscape, finding themselves “confronted with the ontological task of thinking the one as well as the many without the guiding reference to a unifying ground of being offered by the history of metaphysics.” (195)

In this vein, the collection starts and ends with a reflection on the traditional problem of the One and the Many in Plato, in essays by John Sallis and Gert-Jan van der Heiden, respectively. Both of these pieces explore how certain Platonic dialogues offer ways of negotiating unity and multiplicity (rather than straightforwardly prioritising the One, as we might expect). The entire collection can, I suggest, be read in the light of van der Heiden’s closing essay, which provides a possible unifying thread to the collection, but one congruent with the real multiplicity of the essays themselves. In this essay, van der Heiden suggests that a post-onto-theological philosophy may initially take there to be two possible options: (i) The prioritisation of the Many over the One, as a corrective to prioritisations of the One over the Many; or (ii) a position which “leaves the question in suspense”, such that we should suspend judgment about the metaphysical status, and particularly the question of metaphysical priority, of the One and the Many. It would remain a Platonic aporia, an ongoing epistemological state of scepticism about the nature of the relationship between the One and the Many. Having explored these two options, van der Heiden suggests that a third way presents itself, and he takes inspiration from Plato’s Parmenides as a means of articulating this. This third way is an ontological position which prioritises neither the One nor the Many, or, as he puts it: “the Parmenides affirms the One no more than the Many.” (205)  This is a euporia, rather than an aporia. We find something similar in Ben Vedder’s suggestion that inspiration can be found not only in Plato but in the trinitarian thought of Christianity, when freed from the onto-theology which treats God as “a separated principle that is mentioned randomly.” (34) A trinitarian posture also affirms “the One no more than the Many”, promoting a fundamental constitutive relationship between unity and plurality.

This, I would suggest, lies at the heart of all of the papers in this collection, at least by analogy. In some sense, all of these papers wrestle with the question of the One and the Many, and all make claims and suggestions which attempt to navigate the different pitfalls of totalisation, reduction and scepticism.

Some may reject this reading, claiming that some of the papers clearly advocate something more like van der Heiden’s position (i) – the prioritisation of multiplicity over unity, as Martijn Boven’s account seems quite clearly to argue. With Deleuze, Boven argues that “identity is produced by difference and not the other way round.” (175) Perhaps it is more appropriate to categorise Boven under (i), at least in some sense, yet I would suggest that even here, the arguments for immanent self-organizing principles are arguments for unifying principles of some kind. The real issue is not whether we have to navigate unity and multiplicity, but how. Some of the essays try to answer this question by advocating for “in-between” spaces. (Sanem Yazicioğlu and Holger Zabrowski both focus their arguments this way.) However, the majority of the essays focus more on various ways of distinguishing and navigating between problematic conceptions of unity and problematic conceptions of multiplicity, such that non-problematic versions of both can be brought into a realistic (and life-affirming) co-existence.

The collection finds its most systematic analysis of plurality in Günter Figal’s essay on “de-centred orders”. “De-centredness” is the term used for the kind of plurality I take to be loosely endorsed throughout the text: it is a plurality that emerges bottom-up rather than top-down, such that it is “never schematic, and therefore cannot be captured by definite description. It has not been established in advance as a rigid system so that it would force its potential elements under its conditions.” (44) Nevertheless, this plurality is to be distinguished from “sheer manifold.” (44) Figal summarises: “Plurality in the emphatic sense then is neither a whole that is organized by a leading principle, nor is it chaos.” (44) A healthy plurality is constituted by principles of organisation, and so of unity, but these are not imposed from without but instead emerge from within. Pluralities hence include irregularities that are yet not random. We might think most immediately of the emergent complexity now studied by the natural sciences, but Figal focuses on the decentred orders we also find in social, aesthetic, ethical and hermeneutical contexts.

We see this principle in Michael Naas’ meditation on Derrida’s wheel metaphor, where he notes that the revolution of a wheel differs from the conception of an entirely new point of departure: that plurality is to be contrasted with “mere multiplicity.” (74) Nicolas Davey highlights the problematic unity of politically oppressive monocultures (“epistemological citadels”) as well as the problematic “pluralism” of total relativism, arguing against both for a philosophical hermeneutics which “does not configure plurality in this way,” and advocating for cultures that are “not…closed structures, but fields of interaction.” (93-94) This interaction is made possible by what Davey identifies as Sache: “poetic universals which though by no means identical across all historical communities are sufficiently general to become the basis for comparison and consideration.” (95) That is to say, problematic conceptions of unity and plurality give way to alternative conceptions, both of which aim to do justice one to another. Theodore George similarly rejects a humanism grounded in the “bad” unity of “metaphysical essentialism.” He advocates the “extreme humanism” put forward by Gadamer, grounded in the human “aptitude to converse”–that is, a reconfigured unity which is constitutively open to plurality. (114) Alejandro. A. Vallega similarly contrasts “linear” with “cyclic” conceptions of temporality. Veronica Vasterling, drawing on the work of Arendt, argues that agreement should not be considered the final end or unifying principle of a discourse, but rather that understanding or intelligibility of the other should be endorsed as the measure of a successful dialogue. As such, she argues that a problematic variety of unity (namely, agreement) be replaced with a non-problematic variety of unity (intelligibility).

In all the above cases, the measure of “good” unity is based on whether the unifying principles in question do justice to the phenomenology of plurality – whether unity and plurality are set up to mutually co-exist, rather than as competing forces which both require compromise to appease the other.

The explorations attempted in this text are expressed in a plurality of ways, with a plurality of conclusions. However, all of them actively resist reductive accounts of the One and the Many. This is not to say that the conclusions of all the papers can ultimately be held together. The plurality of its conclusions lays the ground for further discussion about how the unities and pluralities are best conceived. As Davey puts it, “Hermeneutic practice…is driven by a restless normativity.” (99) For readers, this collection provides some content in service of this ongoing hermeneutic pursuit.