On Logical Phenomenology - An Interview with Daniel-Pascal Zorn

Thomas Arnold

8th March 2018

In this guest-contribution, Dr. Thomas Arnold, currently Visiting Researcher at the Center for Subjectivity Research (Copenhagen), interviews Dr. Daniel-Pascal Zorn, lecturer at the Bergische Universität Wuppertal and author at Klett-Cotta, on what Zorn calls "logical phenomenology".

Daniel-Pascal Zorn is a German philosopher with a rather universalistic perspective on philosophy. His speciality is the analysis of theoretical systems and architectures as well as everyday discursive practice. Zorn studied philosophy, history, and comparative literature at Ruhr-University in Bochum and wrote his dissertation at the Catholic University Eichstätt-Ingolstadt (now published as Vom Gebäude zum Gerüst [From the Building to the Blueprint], Vol. I & II, Logos, Berlin 2016). After his doctorate, he engaged in applications of what he calls (with Jean-Pierre Schobinger) “operative attentiveness” (operationale Aufmerksamkeit) on everyday discoursive practices. This engagement resulted in a widely recognized column about argumentative logic (“Na logisch!”, Hohe Luft Magazin) as well as two books about discourse culture, Logic for Democrats (Logik für Demokraten) and Talking to Right-wingers (mit Rechten reden, with historian Per Leo and legal expert Maximilian Steinbeis). Currently, he is lecturer at the University of Wuppertal, where he is working on his habilitation about a Phenomenology of Liberalism.

In his analysis of philosophical positions, Zorn problematizes how silent presuppositions unwittingly determine the way we read and understand: We see only that which our presuppositions allow us to see. Daniel-Pascal Zorn meets this challenge head on. Doing away with contexts external to the text itself, he develops a radically immanent method of comparative reading. At the heart of his work is a concept that surfaces in figures of philosophical reasoning, principles, and problems as much as the (philosophical) texts themselves: reflexivity. Engaging such eminent thinkers as Plato and Plotinus, Hölderlin and Fichte, Kant and Spinoza, and over thirty other philosophers, Zorn builds a bridge spanning over 2500 years in the history of philosophy. He describes this method of comparative reading in his dissertation From the Building to the Blueprint. A Comparative Approach Concerning Reflexive Figurations in Philosophy. However, the logic of reflexivity Zorn develops is useful for many contexts other than analyzing philosophy, since its very core lies in a logical phenomenology, a phenomenology of logical relations made possible not only by texts but any other cultural form of positing or setting and relating.

Thomas: In the introduction we used the term “setting” to describe something that gives rise to logical relations alongside “positing” and “relating”, which might be more familiar philosophical terms than “setting”, so maybe you can start us off by elaborating on your use of that term?

Daniel: I like to use “setting” because it resembles the German “setzen” and in English, a “setting” is something put up in a special or distinct way, like on a film set or in a theater play. I like to think concepts as being staged, like actors in certain roles – which doesn’t mean that they cannot play other roles, roles they are not, from the beginning, determined to play. Also, “setting” might include the extras or background actors and frameworks which aren’t mentioned in the conceptual dramatis personae but which nonetheless make the play possible. A setting is made or set up by a position – a jump to the right, a stomp with the foot, a dance move, a rhythm, a melody – but also a word, a concept, a complete textual or imaginary framework.

Thomas: You describe your own philosophical practice as “dialectic” or – equivalently? – “logical phenomenology”. To begin with I am interested in the connection between your work and what we might call “classical phenomenology”, i.e. that generally connected to Husserl, Heidegger and Fink. All of them have highlighted different aspects of “logos”, yet all have considered “logos” to denote structures of essential interest to (their) phenomenology – and all of them feature (to different degrees) in your work. So maybe you could tell me – roughly – how you conceive of the relation between their work and yours?

Daniel: My work, much like the work of many other philosophers, builds upon the work of earlier, greater thinkers. However, in my case these are largely unknown philosophers from a very small school – or better: a group of philosophers which came together at the end of the 1980s and most of the 1990s around the Swiss philosopher Jean-Pierre Schobinger in Zurich. Schobinger was a classic academic philosopher, teaching in his seminars and lectures rather than in books or articles. In fact, there are only three or four longer texts of his available, one of them an article about his unique perspective on philosophy – the only written text in which he tried to pin down what he was actually doing in his teachings. But if you look into the dissertations of his students, you’ll find one original perspective after another. One of these students, Urs Schällibaum, developed Schobinger’s perspective on philosophy into an analysis of reflexivity. I then further developed this analysis into the logical phenomenology you see in From the Building to the Blueprint.

So how does phenomenology fit in here? One of the most formative authors for Schobinger – as he was for many of the so-called ‚postmodern philosophers‘ from France, although this is rarely acknowledged today – was Eugen Fink. An assistant to Edmund Husserl in his later years, Fink himself offers a highly original account of philosophy and was not only influenced by Husserl but also by Heidegger. After Husserl’s death in 1938, Fink criticized his former mentor by applying phenomenology to Husserl’s own thought, thereby developing a phenomenology of phenomenology. (Sebastian Luft did an impressive job analyzing Fink’s critique of Husserl in his book with the same title – Phenomenology of Phenomenology.) Yet for Schobinger (and, for example, Derrida), a talk Fink gave in 1957 in Paris was more important: “Operative Concepts in Husserl’s Phenomenology”. Here, Fink uses the difference of “contentual” and “operative” concepts to make a crucial distinction between concepts philosophers thematize and concepts philosophers utilize. The latter often pose more of a problem, indeed, they may even manifest the central thought-problem of the respective philosopher. And from this phenomenological perspective on the logos of philosophy, Schobinger worked out his way of reading, calling it “Operative Attentiveness in Text-immanent Reading.” There you have one of the key-concepts of phenomenology: attentiveness, or better, the reflection on attentiveness concerning objects of thought. And in this case, the object of thought wasn’t an empirically describable thing but a text, not as a piece of paper with ink on it, but as a structured system of given settings and relations, constituting other relations between them – and the operative dimensions of the text – possible. So, this would be the relation to classical phenomenology. One could take it as a distant relative or maybe a cousin to Derrida’s deconstruction, who also developed his readings through a very slender or precise and well-read critique of Husserl’s texts. But where Derrida is more interested in the critical aspect – de-construction –, Schobinger, Schällibaum, and I are more interested in a genuine phenomenological aspect: “re-construction”, that is: re-construction of the virtual logical ‘space’ or ‘magnetic field’ which certain texts give rise to when read strictly text-immanently.

Thomas: So could we say your notion of “phenomenology” is strictly methodological in that you see it as a praxis of reflexive attention and its explication rather than, say, the study of the field of pure consciousness (Husserl) or being qua being (Heidegger)? Your “logical phenomenology” would then be reflexive attention to all logical structures rather than, for example, an intentional or constitutive analysis and critique of logic in the traditional, narrow sense as Husserl envisioned it e.g. in Formal and Transcendental Logic, wouldn’t it?

Daniel: Actually, reflexive logic is looking at its objects as logos, of which pure consciousness (Husserl) or the Geist (Hegel) would be possible explications. So, it doesn’t seem right to say that I see it as a praxis of reflexive attention rather than the study of the field of pure consciousness. In fact, in the sense of a phenomenology of phenomenology, any such study has to presuppose a system of settings and relations which, then, are explicated as a field of pure consciousness that can be studied. Even Heidegger’s study of being qua being, as I showed in the second volume of From the Building to the Blueprint, would simply be another possible explication of the logos it situates itself as than such a study of being qua being. What I want so say is that reflexive logic is not simply a possible philosophical position among these other positions – it is, when you take it as a possible perspective for you. But Husserl’s study of pure consciousness or Heidegger’s study of being qua being are precisely the objects of interest of the logical phenomenology I developed. Additionally, the term “methodology” may be misleading, since explicating what is already there or possible is not “a method” but a turn of attention. You can learn to be attentive, you can practice the analysis I propose – but then, you don’t learn a “method”. Rather, you learn how “method” – “met-hodos” – can be understood as a way of self-explication of our activity, of what we’re doing when we, for example, are doing philosophy.

In the same way I can answer your second question: well, yes, it is logical-phenomenological attention – but at the same time, an intentional or constitutive analysis and critique of logic would be the very object or matter of my analysis. That’s the problem with reflexivity: you cannot put it into an ‚either/or‘ model because it always involves content and operation. So, that’s the reason why I always have to say: on the one hand “yes”, on the other hand “no”. You can take my position as you can take any position. However, you don’t ‘buy’ perspectivity in the sense that, for example (as Husserl and Heidegger state it),“only my perspective can reach the origin or the foundation.” If you deal with reflexivity, dogmatic presuppositions are problematic. And so, logical-phenomenological analysis is restricted to a radically particular perspective. I do not contend on the Kampfplatz der Metaphysik, on the “battlefield of metaphysics” – I simply describe what’s given in the logos of a text.

Thomas: The description of what’s given in the logos of a text might initially sound like a very narrow (“logo-centric” enterprise compared to other phenomenologies, as others have not ‘restricted’ themselves either to logos or the text – but such an assessment would in turn rest on a specific conception of “logos” as well as “text”. So maybe you could (briefly) elaborate on both your notion of “text” as well as “logos”?

Daniel: Well yes, it might sound logo-centric. But then, one can use the attention to logos in order to question this first impression: What’s the presupposition for logo-centrism? It is the reduction of something to logos. But as I said before: logical phenomenology is a radically and reflected particular perspective, it doesn’t take itself to be the best, the highest, the most fundamental, the original etc. perspective. It’s one amongst others. So you can’t find any reduction here, but an interest for logical structures. The restriction to logos when describing logical structures has, then, an analogue function to the Husserlian epoché, which also isn’t a reductionist’s perspective but a ‘bracketing’ (not ‘bracketing out’ or excluding) of certain presuppositions or better: their validity a priori.

To understand how the notion of “logos” is used here, one has to understand how I understand“text”. Deriving from the Greek periploké, the Latin loan word translation textura, and thus “text”, for me, is a given interweaving or system of settings and relations. A setting would be that this very sentence begins with “A setting…”, and not with “An elephant”. So, setting means that you say or write something distinct which is not something else. And to understand the previous sentence one has to relate to this sentence and has to relate “A Setting…” (in question-marks) to the beginning of the sentence. That would be a very first – and also very simple – account of how setting and relation are used here. Simple – because until now, we only looked at the possible relations of certain settings in a linear way. In literary theory, such references are called anaphoric and kataphoric, depending on which direction the relation takes, back or forth.

Now, things get more complex when you do not only take a text as a linear string of words, of one coming after another, but also as a system of contentual and operative concepts, and not only concepts but any way in which a text can be, its how (Wie) and its through (Wodurch), its by (Womit), that is: by which means or operations, and all the other implicit regards very seldomly thematized. Take a performative contradiction, for example: “This sentence doesn’t exist.” To see the reflexive relation, one has to relate the content to the operation by looking at how the sentence is. The operation is implicit, folded in the way the content refers to the sentence, concerning its very own cast, and so gives the possibility of laying it out according to that content.

Such relations made possible by a text I call logos. Their mode of possibility is not simply possibility – any text makes possible infinite ways of explicating it if any presupposition is allowed, e.g. any association a reader has. But if you restrict yourself – not dogmatically, but methodologically – to a text-immanent form of analysis, the possibilities of relating a text to itself are finite. The possibility-space is virtual, it’s made possible by a text which is given in a certain way. And not all possible relations make sense – or at least not in the same way. For example, from a logical-phenomenological perspective, it’s quite important that in a dialogue of Plato more than one question is posed. Let’s take the Laches: Who should teach virtue? What is virtue? What is the virtue bravery? How can one teach virtue? These questions open up a complex possibility-space in which it is perfectly possible that, on the level of plain content, the question what the virtue bravery is, stays unanswered. On the operative level of the text however, i.e. if we look at what Socrates actually does, he not only shows us how virtue is being taught but he teaches us, the readers, also the criterion of virtue (self-consistency), presents a case in which it is not being met (by Laches and Nikias), and shows who should teach virtue (one who does as Socrates does). As soon as you look at the text with Fink’s distinction between content and operation, a Platonic dialogue opens up quite a complex logos in which one can relate the outcome on one level of the logos to the outcome of another level. The logos of the text of the dialogue is possible because the dialogue is the way it is – and at the same time, it is a logos of limited possibilities which can be described. That’s an example – again a very simple one – for what logical phenomenology does.

Of course, the bar to using this perspective is set quite high. But it isn’t set by what you do not know, it is set by what you already know and, therefore, take for granted. When you already have a concept of text (from linguistics or a theory of text) or a concept of logos, when you proceed from presuppositions of validity (which are not only a form of understanding, that is: reflected and corrigible) concerning you as the reader or the author of the text or anything else, these presuppositions are, of course, already in the game. And if they are already valid for you, they will distort your view one way or another. It was Fink’s critique of Husserl which problematized silent presuppositions on the operative level of his texts. So if you hail from a school of phenomenology as well as any other school of philosophy, to do logical phenomenology will soon lead to aporetic results. This is because any analysis is laid down as text, has its own logos, its own operative concepts. That’s why logical phenomenology is dialectical from scratch – its attention is not only directed at the text you’re reading but also towards your own explication.

However, if we move the focus from texts to other systems or interweavings of settings and relations, even to non-verbal, non-linguistic ones, we can call “logos” the structures we can describe by comparison – repetitions, variations, caesuras, differences, oppositions etc. And then, one can expand the logical-phenomenological perspective to systems and theories of economy or society, to rhythm, music, dance, to poetry, fiction, theatre, to rites and myths and cultural forms of praxis or self-explication or organization etc. In other words: if you don’t want to analyse texts, you can use logical phenomenology for cultural studies in the broadest sense. Actually, this is already being done – most cultural studies rely on structural analysis and description in a more or less informed way. But the difference to my perspective lies in the acceptance of theories explaining these structural features and descriptions as scientific theories tend to do. What I propose is no such theory. Logical Phenomenology doesn’t describe structures as foundations of anything else. It doesn’t reduce contexts to what can be described in/at/with them, be it a sound or an unsound argument, an infinite regress, a structural contradiction, a pattern of repetition and/or sedimentation. It describes them. And relates them with/to other descriptions in other contexts. This might sound quite general. But if you look at what I did in From the Building to the Blueprint, you can see how concrete and informative such an analysis can be. And since its claim is strictly and deliberately particular, it doesn’t claim to replace but offers to supplement already existing perspectives.

Thomas: Your explication leads me to my last question. You have drawn on the Laches to give us an example of a reading from the perspective of logical phenomenology and you have called this way of reading “dialectical”, due to its dual directedness at what is given (the text) and our own performance (the explication/reading) or perspective/position. And since Plato was a master of dialectical writing, a dialectical reading can reveal the dazzling complexity and wit of the reflexive structuring of his texts – and in From the Building to the Blueprint you show that many other authors can be (dialectically) read as dialectically attentive writers. So, from Plato onwards, do you think enough attention has been paid to such dialectical set-ups within the texts of the “classics”? Are our readings still too focused on “content”?

Daniel: No, I don’t think we pay enough attention to dialectical set-ups within texts, not only in Plato but in the whole philosophical tradition. Actually, readings focusing exclusively on content are so dominant that they govern and control most of the historiography of philosophy and doxography, as well as vast parts of philosophical research … as if someone had given out the secret and yet mandatory order to reduce philosophical texts to a very simple model of speech: in a text an author speaks about how he sees the world. Period. This hermeneutical bias – or as our colleague Florian Arnold calls it, this Inhaltismus, “contentism” – seems to have many advantages: it makes philosophical positions comparable and makes it very easy to measure them with one’s own mindset. There is a whole scientific industry working out philosophical positions as world-views or paradigms for the same set of objects of thought. It relies on an unreflected ontology as well as on some average run-of-the-mill psychologism when things get a bit more complex than a comparison of theories from philosophers about object x.

It’s easy to see that such a reductionist perspective makes things much easier and philosophy much more understandable to more people. Especially in universities that are bound to an economical understanding of producing graduates like an industry produces articles and commodities, this understanding of philosophy is sometimes the last resort before the final call of irrelevance and the liquidation of faculties.

But if you look at this from the perspective of what is possible, 300 or so years of professional philosophical research and despite of ongoing commentary of the philosophical tradition notwithstanding, the impression you get is very sobering. There are strong tendencies to rely more on a hermeneutical authority than to rely on the texts read. We find whole philosophical schools that take everything before Russell or Frege or so as being mere literature, as belles lettres, or of historical interest at best. Plato’s philosophy, for example, lies buried under the weight of research repeating the same ‘flat’, i.e. contentualist readings all over again. Many common judgments on philosophers are determined by doxographical artifacts like the “theory of forms” in Plato, or the “theology” of Aristotle in Metaphysics IIX, or the“emanation” in Plotinus’ philosophy, or the determinist Spinoza, or the skepticist Kant, or the holist Hegel, or the irrationalist Nietzsche. These are possible readings of those philosophers; however, they are poor judgments when it comes to the complexity a philosophical text actually offers and makes possible for to the reader.

Philosophy is not about – and never was about – passing sentences about philosophers on account of a beautiful metaphor used in one work, or by an example one philosopher uses to show us something different, or a strong beginning which appears later as the proverbial ladder you throw away after you’ve climbed it. Philosophers do use much more of their literary and poetical knowledge and skills in doing their philosophy, not because it’s such a beautiful form for serious thoughts, but because this way of presentation has a philosophical function in itself.

So, in my opinion, major parts, aspects, dimensions of our philosophical tradition have yet to be discovered. Of course, there already is brilliant research available on all of the aspects I have talked about. Nothing of it is new or innovative. But as long as we do not take immanent readings seriously as the first step you make, before reading texts in the light of whatever theory you want to go out from, this research will be leveled and marginalized by the big hermeneutical players. The tragicomical side of all of this is: it’s all out there. Everyone can read it. You do not need any permission to read Plato or Kant or Hegel or Spinoza by yourself. Sometimes you might need some commentary, sometimes you might need others reading with you, sometimes you might need to read another philosophical text first. But to constrain yourself from the very beginning to the perspective of a flat reading or a theoretical reading rich with presuppositions one does not fully see through is the best way to obliviate what philosophy could be – not only for yourself but also for others who read your texts about it. To understand that, we do not need a secret origin or foundation or some secret lore of some philosopher who got it right. We only need some courage to confront ourselves with something we do not yet understand. And this may be the best way to come to a much fuller and richer understanding of philosophy on the very basis of its texts than most traditions of research offer us.