Andrew Benjamin, Towards a Relational Ontology: Philosophy’s Other Possibility (SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy) (Albany: State University of New York Press; Reprint edition, 2016), 233 Pps., $24.95.
Andrew Benjamin is Professor of Philosophy and Jewish Thought at Monash University, Australia and Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at Kingston University, London. He is the author of several books, including Working with Walter Benjamin: Recovering a Political Philosophy (Edinburgh University Press, 2013) and the coeditor (with Dimitris Vardoulakis) of Sparks Will Fly: Benjamin and Heidegger, also published by SUNY Press (2015). This quite an original account of relational ontology that draws on the work of Descartes, Kant, Fichte, Hegel, and Heidegger. Andrew Benjamin advocates for a novel understanding of relationality, one inaugurating a philosophical mode of thought that takes relations among people and events as primary, in a superlative position to conceptions of simple particularity or abstraction. Drawing on the work of Descartes, Kant, Fichte, Hegel, and Heidegger, he shows that a relational ontology has always been at work within the history of philosophy, even though philosophy has historically been reluctant to affirm it. Arguing for what he calls anoriginal relationality, he attempts to demonstrate that the present status of a relational ontology is philosophy’s other possibility. In what follows, I shall delineate the entailments of the text more precisely.
In chapter 1 – “Being-in-Relation” – Benjamin discusses what exactly constitutes a relation. The project of developing an understanding of being-in-relation begins with the supposition that the limit of the question – What is a relation? – is established by the inevitability of the question, What are the relations?, an inevitability to be encountered and then recovered. What the second question holds open is the possibility that the truth of relationality brings a form of plurality into play, and therefore what is true of relationality, correspondingly, could not be given by any one form of singularity in which that singularity would have been taken as primary. Benjamin here introduces the themes of the entire project, of which I will point out the following: that the truth of relationality inheres in what is always at work within relations, namely, the effective presence of a founding and irreducible plurality. The contention structuring this project is that relationality is always primary and that it continues to appear in this way. As such, relationality is not a nostalgic idea that is to be permanently lost. It can be recovered, according to Benjamin. Indeed, not only can relationality be recovered, but it also is philosophy’s other possibility.
Chapter 2, “Recovering Relationality: Contra Heidegger’s Descartes,” argues that relationality can be recovered from aspects of Descartes philosophical project. Heidegger’s interpretation of Descartes is important within this chapter, as Heidegger claims that with Descartes, there is a primacy of the subject, and thus, what Descartes is arguing is a position that transforms metaphysics. Additionally, Heidegger interprets Descartes’ distinction between the finite and the infinite as doing no more than advancing a simple reiteration of the presence of those positions. In chapter 3, “Relationality and the Affective Structure of Subjectivity,” Kant’s answer to the question, What is Enlightenment?, is explored. Benjamin covers some of Fichte’s lectures concerning the scholar’s vocation in chapter 4, “Democracy, Relationality, and the University.” Herein, Benjamin notes that relationality always has more than one determination and thus more than one pragmatic resolution. The fifth chapter covers justice, love, and relationality with regard to the figure of Niobe in Hegel’s Lectures on Fine Art. Chapter 6 explicates anonymity and fear: “The Refusal of Relationality in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.” Animal relations are delineated in chapter 7 with respect to modes of presence in Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason. Chapter 8 – “Obdurate Love: Intimate Relations: Toward a Metaphysics of Intimacy” – notes that to the extent that the intimate involves particulars in their particularity, there can be neither a politics of friendship nor one in which love could be a universal condition. All the intimate can do, he notes, is sustain itself – what matters is a politics that allows for love rather than a politics of love. The conclusion recapitulates the argument of the book: relationality, understood in terms of anoriginal relationality, has always been a possibility within the history of philosophy. It is, nonetheless, often excised to position modes of singularity s primary.
In sum, this book touches on a wide range of issues, of which community, human-animal relations, and intimacy are included. Benjamin’s summation of ancient, modern, and twentieth-century philosophical ideas make this book ideal for introductory philosophical courses in college as a supplementary text.
Bradford McCall, Holy Apostles College and Seminary