Françoise Dastur, Questions of Phenomenology: Language, Alterity, Temporality, Finitude. Robert Vallier tr. New York: Fordham University Press, 2017; 249 pages. ISBN: 978-0823233748.

Reviewed by Alexandra Morrison, Michigan Technological University.

Françoise Dastur, a philosopher and professor emeritus at the University of Nice, is a scholar steeped in the phenomenological tradition, who also frequently introduces timely philosophical issues to a wider public audience. Questions of Phenomenology: Language, Alterity, Temporality, Finitude is a collection of sixteen essays, first published in French in 2004. The essays, written between the late 1980s to 2000, provide a glimpse into Dastur’s philosophical preoccupations while simultaneously sketching an introduction to the significant and central themes of the phenomenological movement. The thematic sections correspond to four major areas of phenomenological inquiry, beginning with language and logic and ranging through self and other, temporality and history, and finally, finitude and mortality.

While Dastur does not confine herself to a single thinker in any of these essays, the first three draw mainly on Edmund Husserl’s work. While this section demonstrates Dastur’s considerable erudition, it gives the reader less a sense of her unique voice than do the other three sections. The first essay traces R. H. Lotze’s formative influence on the development of Husserlian phenomenology; the next addresses Husserl’s account of the a priori foundations of language, briefly addressing Heidegger’s movement away from Aristotelian syllogistic logic toward an apophantic logic; while the third deals with the pre-predicative and passive foundations of logic. Dastur then explores the practice of phenomenological seeing, addressing Heidegger’s and Merleau-Ponty’s move away from Husserl’s “philosophy of the pure gaze” while still marking the ways in which Husserl’s contributions helped to steer philosophy away from the intellectualist tradition by wedding the subject to the sensuous world. (51)

In the second section, Dastur’s focus is alterity. “Time and the Other: Husserl, Heidegger, Levinas,” owes its title to Levinas’s well known 1948 collection of lectures dealing with our relation to the other in terms of time. Dastur argues for the general claim that, “Pluralism requires mortality—that is, the finitude of time—and this is why the question of time is revealed as decisive for the question of the other.” (70) Dastur draws on the early works of both Husserl and Heidegger, showing how both clearly understand that thinking the alterity of the other demands that we think the alterity of time itself. For instance, Husserl’s description of the experience of the foreign (die Fremderfahrung) demonstrates that the experience of a mortal other cannot be some sort of fusion or synchrony. (70) Dastur also carefully defends Husserl from Heidegger’s ungenerous interpretation in Being and Time, laying out how the pure ego in Ideas I cannot be thought of as something substantial nor psychical, but is rather the flow of lived-experience “constituted only in time and as time.” (71)

Dastur’s argument highlights the Husserlian transcendental ego precisely as “ekstatic and as advent” and consequently brings it very close to Heideggerian Dasein. (71) Dastur also narrows in on Heidegger’s thinking of the distributive and temporal structure of Jemeinigkeit (or “mineness,” although Dastur is helpful in pointing out the superiority of the French translation “être-à-chaque-fois-à-moi” or “being-each-time-my-own”) and reveals how it implies the plurality of Dasein, thus contesting the tired trend of interpreting “mineness” as voluntaristic and egoistic. Rather, Dastur emphasizes that “being-in-the-world and being-with are cooriginal existentials” making “mineness” inextricable from being-with-others. (77) This strongly suggests, contra Levinas, that the death analysis in Being and Time is not solipsistic, but rather is the ontological basis for equality and justice. As Dastur emphasizes: “It is therefore not at all a paradox to claim that in Being and Time, the question of the other is posed everywhere.” (77) While Dastur begins this chapter drawing out the similarities between Husserl and Heidegger’s thought, in the final analysis she stresses the particular importance of Heidegger’s approach, arguing that Levinas and Husserl still “seek victory over death” while Heidegger’s thinking of death-toward-death genuinely grapples with our relation to the essential finitude of time and being. (81)

In another particularly engaging essay, Dastur recalls the eminent Swiss psychiatrist Ludwig Binswanger’s interest in working the existentials of Being and Time into psychiatric practice. Despite his engagement with fundamental ontology, Binswanger nevertheless accused Heidegger of falling prey to solipsism and gloominess. In response, Dastur draws on Heidegger’s Zollikon Seminars as well as Swiss psychoanalytic psychiatrist Medard Boss’s 1971 Grundriss der Medizin und der Psychologie in order to make her own case for the merging of phenomenological philosophy and therapy. It was at Boss’s home, with a group of medical students and young psychiatrists, that the annual seminars were held for a decade up to the year preceding Heidegger’s death. With these seminars, Dastur argues for the practical and transformative possibilities of Heidegger’s thought, by making connections between the notion of therapy generated there alongside the idea of “true pedagogy” in Heidegger’s What is Called Thinking? (1952). She maintains also that the pedagogical relation and the therapeutic relation are the same in kind. What this means for the practice of therapy and teaching, then, is that the psychiatrist or the teacher needs to engage with the patient (or student) in such a manner that the doctor resists thinking of herself as the efficient cause of the cure, but rather as simply the occasion for it. The teacher, for instance, then becomes the motive for student transformation by focusing on letting herself learn how to let her students learn. It is in this way, according to Dastur, that the pedagogical or psychiatric transformation requires a “conversion” of the doctor that involves learning to treat the patient as Dasein rather than as a collection of biological or psychological processes.

In “Conscience the Most Intimate Alterity,” Dastur challenges both Levinas’ and Ricoeur’s suggestions that ontology and ethics are incompatible or, to borrow Ricoeur’s language, that Heidegger’s philosophy is an “elision of ethics.” (97) Dastur argues, on the contrary, that if ethics concerns our dwelling, then ethics is at the heart of Heidegger’s concerns. And, if fundamental ontology demands that we think of the human being as the being for whom being is a matter of concern, then ontology is always intrinsically ethical, perhaps even “practical.” Dastur spends much of the remainder of the essay demonstrating how, on the matter of ethicality, Ricoeur, Heidegger and Kant share a vision of moral conscience as a kind of alterity, a passivity or a “being affected” that is experienced as a asymmetry in our experience of self. This asymmetry is often described as a silent and disorienting “call” that strangely comes from myself and yet nevertheless calls me to myself, urging me to respond. The argument on this point is a little unsatisfying, because while Dastur notes that the alterity of conscience is not precisely the same as the alterity of the Other, she does not take the time to flesh out the character and importance of this distinction.

In the first essay in the temporality and history section, Dastur argues that Merleau-Ponty’s approach to temporality has him merging the different phenomenological styles of Husserl and Heidegger in such a way that he is able to accomplish the “dialectical sublation [la rélève] of the positive content of realism and idealism.” (107) Dastur sets herself the task of drawing out the mediating position of Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception with regard to temporality, showing how this work is both the accomplishment of Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology and the “new beginning for thought” that Heidegger’s philosophy championed. Dastur demonstrates how Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of temporality transforms the realist position that locates the subject in time, and the idealist one that positions the subject outside of time into a coherent phenomenological description of the lived present, that is, of the subject as time. (107)

In “Phenomenology of the Event,” Dastur argues that the task for a “true philosophy” is to account for the discontinuous structure of time that makes events possible for us. Dastur refers to this structure, thematized by phenomenology, as time’s “eventuality”, a structure that reveals itself as a temporal interruption, or caesura, that alone is able to account for the contingency and chance-like character of our lived experience. For Dastur, this structure of time entails that, strictly speaking, events cannot be said to be produced in the world, but rather should be more accurately described as the experience of the noncoincidence of time with itself, an experience that essentially opens a world for us. Interestingly, this suggests a conversation with Derrida’s work of the same period, in particular his reference, in Specters of Marx, to Hamlet’s famous line that “time is out of joint” to open his reflection on the asynchrony of time. (Specters, 27) Dastur here draws on Husserl’s early discussion of the temporality of advent (avènement) and Heidegger’s description of time’s dehiscence or ekstasis and argues that it is the work of these two philosophers, and their thematization of the future’s indeterminacy, that has made something like a phenomenology of the event possible.

The last two brief papers make simple arguments, but give a good introduction to the phenomenological sense of history and the relation between narrative and history. In the first paper, Dastur argues that while Dilthey and Husserl’s philosophies make room for finitude, that it wasn’t until Heidegger that finitude and historicity were thought of as intrinsically linked. In the second paper, which focuses on Ricoeur, she picks up a thread from a lecture given by David Carr in the eighties, where he argued that it is not possible to separate life from the activity of narrating it. Dastur follows this thread, demonstrating that since human existence is such that we must become ourselves over time, taking up our inheritance, the very structure of being is historical.

In the background of the previous three sections, the finitude of existence has loomed large, and so it gives the book a sense of unity to have a concluding section devoted to this critical phenomenological topic. It is certainly a very familiar theme for Dastur. One might well think of these essays as the theoretical background for her more recent and less scholarly monograph, “How Are We to Confront Death? An Introduction to Philosophy” (2012). Near the end of that book, for instance, Dastur argues, “For it is this relation with its own always imminent death that makes the human being something other than a mere living being, that is, a mere particularization of universal life. This relation to death grants it a history and makes of its existence something other than the predictable unfolding of a program, and it is this singular history that finds its ‘end’ in death.” (Death, 45) This sentence nicely sums up the crux of the content of the final section, but Dastur lays out the argument in two of the essays through an engagement with the work of Eugen Fink and Jan Patočka, philosophers who are perhaps lesser known in the English-speaking world. In particular, the essay “Phenomenology and Finitude” is a short but wonderful introduction to the work of Czech philosopher and founding member and architect of the pre-Velvet Revolution resistance movement Charta 77, Jan Patočka. In this essay, we encounter a philosopher who is, like Dastur herself, profoundly influenced by Heidegger. However, Dastur deftly reveals Patočka not as a mere acolyte, but as a thinker whose interpretations of “the master” are transposed into novel formulations that awaken us to the brilliance of the original, again, much like Dastur herself. For example, Patočka’s own thought of the finitude of existence is transformed into the ontological sense of a “call to sacrifice” through which we are led to rethink Heidegger’s controversial notion of “authenticity.” Sacrifice is thought as a mode of giving oneself up to the alterity of time in a way that resists, as Dastur argues, “the integral calculability reigning today and thus brings the limits of technology to light.” (165)

A main argument that the book makes implicitly is that the themes it treats—language and logic, self and other, temporality and history, finitude and mortality—need to be grasped as a nexus; each is the key to the other. This collection gives us a reprise of Dastur’s treatment of these themes as they have developed over the course of a long and distinguished career, shedding light on the integrity of her philosophical project.

Additional Works Cited

Françoise Dastur (2012), How Are We to Confront Death? An Introduction to Philosophy, Robert Vallier tr. (New York: Fordham University Press).

Jacques Derrida (1994), Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning & the New International, Peggy Kamuf tr. (New York: Routledge).