Being after Rousseau: Philosophy and Culture in Question (review)

Journal of the History of Philosophy 42 (3):345-346 (2004)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:Reviewed by:Being after Rousseau: Philosophy and Culture in QuestionG. Felicitas MunzelRichard L. Velkley. Being after Rousseau: Philosophy and Culture in Question. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. Pp. x + 192. Cloth, $40.00. Paper, $18.00.In this collection of essays Velkley realizes a dual achievement: a penetrating scholarly analysis of a familiar topic, modern philosophy's on-going criticism of rational Enlightenment as a "project aiming at progressive rational mastery of nature and the human situation" (60, 3), and an exemplary presentation of philosophizing as a self-reflexive activity in which the "know thyself" is posed to philosophy itself. The focus is on the German Idealist tradition, taking its origins from Rousseau and Kant to "reform, not simply to reject," but still to "overcome earlier modern accounts of scientific reason as abstract, mechanistic, and narrow, and as failing to do justice to the concrete wholeness or richness of nature and human experience, thus impoverishing our conceptions of morality, political life, and human aspirations toward the noble, the sacred, and the beautiful" (93). Velkley's scholarly interpretation identifies Rousseau as the pivotal figure who is the source both of the modern philosophical effort to achieve "human wholeness" by recovering an "original prediscursive or prerational unity" (an account that is the further source of the distinction between culture and civilization [12]) and of the "bifurcation in the ways to reach such wholeness," the ways of "citizenship" and "natural freedom" (13-14). The essays argue for an "important connection between Rousseau and Heidegger, through Kant and Schelling" (6). [End Page 345]While other thinkers are treated (for example, Pufendorf and Nietzsche), the essays primarily examine the writings of these four thinkers to elucidate "the persistence of a set of problems and a way of questioning" particular to modern philosophy (8).Velkley points out that Rousseau's critique of modern rationality is far more subtle than it is usually read. Granted, "through its introduction of self-reflectiveness into the previously 'innocent' and prereflective human situation," reason is perceived as the "true origin" and not the means for overcoming human ills (53). However, the "prereflective origin is nowhere to be found," it is an "imaginative construction," and it is a "mistake to take at face value any apparent assertion that natural man was merely an animal with only instinct and sensation" (37, 41). Because of his distinctively human awareness of time, natural man, "far from being mere animal," is "the only being whose openness to being exposes him to the nonbeing of death" (48). In short, "some 'bondage' to reason" is inescapable and "Rousseau's various plans for the reform of politics, education, the family, and the philosophical life" should be read as "ways of making the most of that bondage" (33).In the case of Kant, Velkley's emphasis is on the critical effort to resolve the dialectic, to correct the rational self-ignorance "so that the striving of reason for totality will not turn into a nihilistic rejection of reason" (112); or put another way, Rousseau inspires Kant's quid juris question, the issue of the "justification of reason as a whole," specifically the legitimacy of the categories (50-61, 101). Schelling, together with Kant's other Idealist successors, seeks a "greater unity, integration, wholeness, and concreteness than Kant provides" (113). The two main aspects of Schelling's project that Velkley discusses are (1) the discovery of the true human self in nature, the "hidden infinite unconscious self beneath the apparent finite conscious self," a "self whose objectification by the finite categories of discursive reason is quite impossible" and which thus discloses an "infinite contradiction" (115); and (2) the affirmation of the error of earlier philosophizing as belonging "essentially to philosophical inquiry" and being the very "precondition for finding truth" (125). From the philosophical attempt to correct reason's fundamental error, to its reading of "being in error" as an ineliminable step in the historical progress of reason and philosophy, Velkley turns to Heidegger's effort to step behind traditional metaphysics altogether and to move "forward into a new thinking beyond metaphysics" (142), from speech about Being to language as a power of disclosure of Being that overpowers the...

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