James G. Hart, Hedwig Conrad-Martius’ Ontological Phenomenology. Rodney K.B. Parker ed. Dordrecht: Springer, 2020; 272 + xii pages. ISBN 978-3030448417.

Reviewed by Antonio Calcagno, King’s University College at Western.

James G. Hart’s monumental studies of Edmund Husserl, Michel Henry, and Hedwig Conrad-Martius are well-known to scholars of phenomenology and the philosophy of religion. Hedwig Conrad-Martius’ Ontological Phenomenology, written by Hart and edited by Rodney K.B. Parker, is at once both old and new. The source of this monograph is Hart’s unpublished doctoral dissertation written in 1972 while at the University of Chicago, which was not only substantial in length but also served as a long-standing guide for scholars and philosophers seeking to understand Hedwig Conrad-Martius’ (1888–1966) realist view of phenomenology and her idea of Realontologie or realontology. It was Parker’s idea to publish the work as part of the recently launched Springer series, Women in the History of Philosophy and the Sciences. It is the fifth volume in the series. Parker edited the text, updated the notes, and invited Hart to write a preface to the work, chronicling the evolution of the text from its initial development to today. Though the content of the new monograph remains faithful to the original work of the dissertation, it also includes a revised critical translation by Hart and Parker of Conrad-Martius’ Metaphysics of the Earthly, based on a 1963 reworking of her text by Hart and Conrad-Martius’ devoted assistant, Professor Eberhard Avé-Lallement. The original text was written and amplified by Conrad-Martius’ between 1939 and 1941. The new monograph provides one of the first substantive studies of the realontology of Hedwig Conrad-Martius, one of the founding figures of the early phenomenological movement. It also provides readers access to an important but unfinished text of Conrad-Martius, which is significant because it gives readers a deep sense of her later ontological thought. This excellent monograph will have a wide impact and will allow scholars from around the world to access an important critical study and original work of both early phenomenology and Conrad-Martius’ complex phenomenology.

The book opens with a discussion of Conrad-Martius’ place in the phenomenological movement. Hart not only highlights the important position she occupied in the Göttingen Circle but also her deep ties to Munich phenomenology and the varying influences of Moritz Geiger, Max Scheler, and Alexander Pfänder. (2) Hart also situates Conrad-Martius in relation to other foundational figures of German philosophy in general, for example, Jakob Böhme, Franz von Badder, and Friedrich W.J. Schelling. (4) He also highlights the importance of the psychology of important figures like Theodor Lipps. The second part of Chapter One also gives readers Hart’s own interpretative framework, namely, Conrad-Martius’s desire to reconcile phenomenology, metaphysics, and science with her own Christian faith: “Ultimately, only an examination of the actual content of her philosophical arguments can decide whether this Christian cosmology is only crypto-theology, i.e., in fact, bad philosophy and bad theology. We do not believe such a judgment is warranted. But that can only be evident in the light of Conrad-Martius’ own work.” (6)

The second chapter provides an explanation of Conrad-Martius’ real-ontological methodology, which is distinguished from Husserl’s, initially outlined in his Logical Investigations. Though both authors maintain that the mind is capable of grasping the real sense of what appears in consciousness, Conrad-Martius believes Husserl, especially in his later works, never provided a fundamental account of reality itself, the reality of essence that is part of the kosmos noétos:

We come now to the key issue which differentiates Conrad-Martius’ ontological phenomenology from Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology. Conrad-Martius holds that the withheld judgment or thesis, which is the transcendental reduction, is directed at not just any “meant” (noema, Seinsvermeintheit), but only insofar as what is “meant” is a real being. The transcendental reduction holds in abeyance the judgment whether a real reality corresponds to an intentional object. In the pre-reduced attitude, what is intended is intended as real. The real reality is the consciousness-transcending reality of the noematic reality moment. This cannot belong in itself to the noematic-phenomenal dimension of the world. It cannot be as a noema, as an intended object of consciousness. The really real [wirkliche Wirklichkeit] must be grounded in itself, standing in itself. Herein lies the real reality of the world—whether it factually exists or not. It was always a wonder to Conrad-Martius that Husserl never considered this phenomenological structure of reality. Husserl himself felt that everything was changed and nothing was lost in the transcendental reduction. He felt that there was no hindrance to the description of the appearing “reality.” But for Conrad-Martius there was, in fact, something very important which was lost in the transcendental reduction, namely, the possibility of grasping the fundamental structures of the really real as such. (42)

For Conrad-Martius, the excess of appearing not only manifests the sense or essence of what is real but also the nature of reality itself. The essential senses of things really exist, but essence itself also exists—a claim rooted in the doctrine of double essence developed and defended by Conrad-Martius’ fellow phenomenologist, Jean Héring. Hart explains the importance of essence and the phenomenological reduction for understanding the appearance of the real, but he shows how Conrad-Marius’ methodology pushes phenomenology to consider a deeper, underlying layer of reality that ontologically grounds all phenomenological investigation. Conrad-Martius devotes her life to uncovering the various constative aspects of this foundational ontology of reality. One of the more enlightening sections of this chapter is the discussion of language. Hart pays close attention to how language is conceived of and functions in Conrad-Martius’ analysis of meaning. (25, 27) He also explains the various challenges to her project stemming from later, more robust accounts of language that explain, for example, how linguistic meaning operates in natural and cultural worlds. Hart tries to show how some of these critiques may be addressed in Conrad Martius’ idea of the kosmos noétos, a world of real essences that deploys language in unique ways to allows its contents to appear, to have form.

Chapter Three discusses the foundational and structuring elements of Conrad-Martius’ real-ontology: real being, meaning, time, space, and substance (hyletic and pneumatic). Hart begins the chapter by noting:

The task of the early stages of the realontology is to show how that which presents itself as a meaning-object—it does not matter what kind—contains an immanent ontological moment. An important goal in this analysis is the placing of the being of the eidé. The general thesis is that the being of the meaning-cosmos illuminates the being which is real, and the being which is real illuminates the various kinds of being in the meaning-cosmos. (57)

Every object that appears, does so from its own self-rooted being and is constituted by substantial and essential moments:

Here already is the “fundamental movement” of the realontology: the founding of that which appears in-itself from out of itself according to various modalities of selfrootedness. We have, therefore: (1) a “substantial” moment (the bearer or object as bearer of predications), (2) an “essential” moment (the what or being-such), and (3) an “existential” moment (the presentation of the object as a union of the substantial and essential moments). These moments must be kept distinct. (60)

The idea that an object is rooted and emerges out of itself, is self-creating and inheres in itself, is a radical metaphysical claim, for it challenges other accounts; for example, field theory, in which individual objects are simply the intersection of either various forces in a field or a series of intersecting fields. In these accounts, an individual object may temporally appear as a discrete entity, but it is always en route to being something else; it is constantly moving and being transformed by various forces. In Conrad-Martius, you have a substantial object, similar in many ways to a monad, that has its own real being, which also belongs to a kosmos of real beings. For Conrad-Martius to maintain her view, she provides an account of punctuated time: being passes into non-being from moment to moment. Likewise, being comes into being in a moment and subsequently passes away. Reality is a series of moments of creation and passing away. That a real being has existed, does exist, and may exist again, from one discrete moment to the next, means that at a certain point, there is a real being that exists, whose essential sense can be grasped. If time is punctuating, then each substance that exists must have its own absolute space. The question arises: Can an object move through space, if it is seemingly rooted in its own self-subsisting space? Conrad-Martius replies:

It is thus impossible that material beings fill a metric space by reason of their proper eidos. The eidetic limitation establishes the limits and absolute place of each thing out of the synthesis of the peripheral and central dynamisms. But between the beings lies only the untraversable. What is it then to walk through my room? What does it mean to fly through the air? These appear to be genuine translatory movements. But “radically” they are only new actualizations and deactualizations. We have seen a reason for this claim in our discussion of the discontinuous succession of the ever new Now. But here the perspective is of a discontinuous space. There is no space of continuity which can simply be traversed even though we are accustomed to see then matter as if there were. (105–6)

Furthermore, following Schelling and other Romantic philosophers of nature, Conrad-Martius not only posits the importance of real negation but also the real possibilities of being and potentialities. In fact, nature is the unfolding of the life of various hyletic or material substances, which are embodied and alive. But substances, following Aristotle, need not be purely material: they can also be spiritual, for example, angels, God, minds, and intellects.

The achievement of Chapter Four consists in the delineation of a phenomenological account of nature—a nature that makes fundamentally possible consciousness, the human subject, and the very project of phenomenology itself. It should be remarked here that Conrad-Martius, along with her friend and fellow phenomenologist Edith Stein, saw Husserl’s project, especially as developed in the first version of Ideas I, as in need of having to account for larger physical structure that conditions and gives life to the human subject and consciousness. It would be impossible here to give a detailed analysis of Hart’s complex analysis of Conrad-Martius’ position, but the reader will surely note the forceful claim that the real, reality itself, is natural (as well as spiritual). Nature is presented as self-forming and marked by a trans-physicalism (as opposed to more traditional evolutionary views) grounded in a robust idea of potentiality. Hart writes:

Thus, behind the discussion of all the potencies stands the early discussions of the essence of essence and the essence of the real as physis. An essence is founded ultimately in an eidos. And an intelligible real actual nature must be rounded in eidé which are not merely meaning-beings but essence-entelechies. That is, a real actual nature cannot found itself in itself out of itself–which a phenomenal real being does in its itselfness, in its being—unless there pre-exists a real realm of possibility in which there are the founding entelechial powers. The Selbstaufbau thus returns to the Realontologie for its most fundamental justification. (170)

Chapter Five focuses on time and space. The central question taken up in this chapter by Hart is question of the becoming of the world: How does the ground of the world come to be? (179) Hart points out that Conrad-Martius has an aeonic conception of time: time (and space) do not come to be with the creation of the universe; rather, time is eternal. Potentialities are constantly actualising themselves through time, and the world in real-time consists of a series of actualizing potentialities that appear in an infinite series of punctuated moments. Hart rightly observes that Conrad-Martius has an absolute concept of time:

This model pictures the trans-temporal time as moving—a motion which founds the real-time motion of the empirical world. What kind of motion would this be? It must be one which continuously actualizes the world-potencies. It cannot be “in time” for the trans-temporal motion founds time. How could the actualizing sink into a “potentiality”? But it is pure potentiality out of which and by virtue of which the world is realized. The speculation, then, requires that we assume a continuous process in a dimension of potentiality. The motion of the actualizing world powers [Wirkmächte], because they admit of no sinking into pure potentiality and an occurring again out of the same—i.e., because they admit of no temporal temporality in which there is an “it was” or an “it will be” or a momentary “now”—leave no past behind themselves nor do they have a future. Wherever the world-potencies are going, there they already are. And wherever they come from, they are still there. They are totally present in the full extent of their being to themselves and to one another. (181)

In Chapters Six, Seven, and Eight, Hart develops and defends his own reading of Conrad-Martius as a Christian cosmologist. In a deep sense, he tries to show that Conrad-Martius’ project, though deeply informed by her own Christian faith, is simultaneously a valid scientific and philosophical work. He rejects the idea that Christian cosmology is purely mythical with no real deep insight into the physical structure of the universe. Hart underscores that recent serious scholarly work on the structure and work of religious mythology show that myth is not simply fantastic in scope; rather, it seeks to explain deep structures of reality through powerful images. Conrad-Martius’ engagement with theology, especially Romantic religious thought, is an attempt to qualify and refine what she knew from then-contemporary physics and evolutionary biology. Hart mines the concept of heaven, for example, to show how both theological and cosmological insights intersect in it. (217–20). Hart sums up Conrad-Martius’ phenomenological project in the following manner:

Furthermore, the considerations of contemporary physics and biology bring one to trans-physical dimensions which have a corresponding trans-temporal, trans-spatial character which provide conceptual possibilities for reinterpreting the cosmological categories of traditional Christianity. The realontology thus reinforces the traditional symbolism of the storied universe by affirming a holy physics in contemporary terms. It, like the contemporary sciences, is a criticism of the naive cosmologies implied in the various traditional understandings of the region of the heavenly. But it points to an analogous dimension in as much as the realontology reaffirms a real, physical cosmic “other worldly” dimension whose possibilities suggest “objective mythic spaces, times and personal powers. (240)

Hart’s book not only provides an important interpretation and critique of Hedwig Conrad-Martius’ real-ontology, but it also presents to readers a translation of an important unpublished philosophical work by Conrad-Martius, Metaphysics of the Earthly. The translators, Hart and Parker, present a nuanced and careful translation of the text, which was started by Conrad-Martius while under Nazi rule, and then edited by her assistant Avé-Lallement. Parker explains the origin of the text while providing a useful historical introduction to the work. In many ways, this work takes up themes already present in Conrad-Martius’ earlier writings, especially on the real and the kosmos, but readers will appreciate the important supplement of a focused treatment of the self and its unique place in nature and the cosmos. Here, one will also find an excursus on embodiment that considers the importance of the traditional phenomenological concept of subjective individuation in and through the body, but with an important twist: embodiment is understood as operating not only in humans but also in nature: it is a primary way that beings come to be and express themselves in the world: embodiment is a natural and evolutionary process that affects all forms of living matter. Conrad-Martius writes:

The cosmic reality, even the purely natural for-itself, is arranged together by different poles which present in various ways a unique manner of the creaturely self-power of being. Because of this, the ever new crisscrossings and coalescences of these basic formations are to be compared rather to a symphony or tapestry than a ladder to heaven. (260)

Hart and Parker’s work on the real-ontology of Hedwig Conrad-Martius is foundational for any future study and understanding of her phenomenology. She was an important thinker of the very aims and method of phenomenology itself; she represents an important line of phenomenological thought, which has now been made more accessible to scholars and philosophers unfamiliar with Conrad-Martius’ philosophical legacy. Hart’s and Parker’s work is marked by rigour and sophisticated analysis. For those of us who have often struggled with grasping the core of Hedwig Conrad-Martius’ project, this volume is invaluable. We owe a debt of gratitude to both Hart and Parker for bringing this work to a wider audience.