Friday, May 20, 2011

Birmingham, Peg. Review of James Dodd, VIOLENCE AND PHENOMENOLOGY. NDPR (May 2011).

Dodd, James.  Violence and PhenomenologyLondon: Routledge, 2009.

James Dodd's Violence and Phenomenology begins by considering whether we have become the "dupes of violence." The danger of being duped by violence, he argues, is particularly grave in the violence of war because in the form of war especially we expect both too much and too little. We expect too much when violence is used to shore up state authority or to spread spheres of power, and we expect too little when we think that violence will eventually "whither away due either to the weight of our moral vigilance or the effectiveness of the political, legal, social, or ethical instruments that we employ in the hope of avoiding the destruction of war" (1). Dodd suggests that becoming the dupes of violence, by either expecting too much or too little from it, is rooted in an unacknowledged tension or opposition between a purely instrumental conception of violence and a conception of violence as uniquely constitutive of its own meaning or sense. In other words, we are easily duped by violence because we do not grasp that violence is always more than simply instrumental, used as a means to accomplish some end; it is at the same time constitutive of the meaning or sense of human existence which, he argues, makes violence a philosophical problem of the first order.

Violence is also a philosophical problem because from its beginnings philosophy has been bound up with the question of war. By this Dodd does not simply mean that Plato's philosophy arises out of the catastrophe of the Peloponnesian Wars or that Hobbes's thought is born of the English Civil Wars (6). Eather, he claims that philosophy's central concerns with freedom and the nature of the self emerge from a reflection on how we fight: "There is something fundamental about free being that finds its way into expression through the peculiar intensification of the experience of war" (9). Both war and philosophy for him are extreme circumstances that reveal the self:
For if both of these experiences -- the assumption of risk, of standing together in danger that is basic to the combat experience, and the struggle with the question of the self, in dialogue standing together to face the risk of an uncertain result -- manifestly define in basic ways the primordial experience of freedom, then is there not the possibility that, on some fundamental level, philosophy and war are the same event? (10)
The risks and uncertainty of waging war and the risks and uncertainty of rational free argument are for Dodd one and the same, thereby putting philosophy and war on the same footing. Thus, the philosophical examination of violence is at the same time self-examination.

Dodd turns to phenomenology to navigate the tension between understanding violence as either instrumental or constitutive of sense because of phenomenology's "conviction that all genuine philosophical problems are problems of sense and meaning" (15). His turn to phenomenology, however, is more than simply the use of a method. With chapters on Clausewitz and Schmitt, Arendt and Sartre, Jünger and Heidegger, and, finally, Patočka, Dodd does not limit himself to a phenomenology of violence. Instead, he shows how phenomenology itself emerges out of the violence of the twentieth century, a century that Patočka calls "the century of war." In other words, while it is true that for Dodd phenomenology is the philosophical method best suited for grappling with the sense of violence, nevertheless, the importance of his analysis lies in its examination of how various phenomenological understandings of the self, freedom, possibility, history, and responsibility emerge from out of the violence of war. . . .


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