Saturday, June 6, 2009


How good is this book? Just follow this link over to and buy yourself a copy. Right now. It's that good. (Alternatively, go to your local library and politely request that they acquire a copy for their Philosophy section.)

If a great book is one that shows you something more and different every time you read it, that changes with every reading because every reading changes you, then Inwardness and Existence is a great book. It's also a good book, the best kind in fact, the kind you can periodically re-read for the rest of your life. What makes it so special, sets it above most other books written by American academics in the last 30 years? It's a philosophically rigorous and at times mind-bogglingly ambitious book about the structure and construction of the self. While most academic writing on this subject today begins and ends with Foucault or Lacan and their followers, Davis's book begins with Hegel and doesn't really end. The book is circular, like a philosophical Finnegans Wake. It would probably be greatly illuminating to read Inwardness and Existence straight through and then turn immediately back to the first page and begin again, with the foreknowledge constituted by the first reading still fresh in one's mind.

Davis's book is 20 years old this year, and it's time for it to become more widely known in America and the rest of the world. (It appears to be slightly better known in Britain, where it has influenced the thinking of Britain's leading theologian, Rowan Williams, the current Archbishop of Canterbury.) This book and Davis's work generally should be at least as well-known as the works of Derrida, a thinker Davis surpasses and contains. One of the many high points of I&E (for me, anyway) is the section in which Davis compellingly argues that Deconstruction is a prematurely arrested moment of a dialectical movement that issues in Hegelian unhappy (or tragic) consciousness. Furthermore, Davis presents this demonstration not with a view to defending the battered ruins of traditional humanism but with the intention of radically destabilizing both humanism and deconstruction by means of a vast and Romantically ambitious synthesis of central ideas from the works of the four thinkers listed in the subtitle. Even more impressively, Davis doesn't simply lift useful ideas from Hegel, Freud, Marx and Heidegger; he reads each of them against themselves (as traditionally interpreted) to offer interesting and exciting new understandings of Hegelian self-consciousness, Existentialist freedom, Marxist subjectivity and Freudian psychoanalysis. (I did call it mind-bogglingly ambitious, didn't I?) And Davis's extended examinations of these schools of thought are so rich in insight, so powerful and compelling in their discussions of lived experience and of the meanings we give to life, that the book might as well have been subtitled "Subjectivity in/and Consciousness, Death, Culture, and Sex." (The book would probably have sold more copies with this subtitle.)

Both nouns in the title are crucial to understanding this book and Davis's work as a whole, but I want to focus on the second and think about Inwardness and Existence as a major contribution to Existentialism, probably the most important contribution yet made by an American thinker. This book takes Existentialism beyond Sartre, as he is popularly understood, by arguing that Sartrean freedom is not an a priori but must be achieved by a rigorous and extremely difficult process of rooting out the enormous intrusions of the Other upon the Self, the networks of internalized conflicts and ideologies that constitute most of who and what we are. This process of rooting out--called anti-bildung here and elaborated upon in Davis's later works Deracination and Death's Dream Kingdom--is the necessary preliminary to any of the authentic acts by which the Sartrean subject constructs his self, and it is such difficult work that few human beings ever begin it.

I know what you're thinking: If this book is so great, why haven't I heard of it?
Easy answer: You have heard of it now.

1 comment:

sally said...

You are a reading machine! I want to know the secret behind the ability to read 20 books in 2 weeks, including Gravity's Rainbow, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, and Faust, parts 1 AND 2!!! I love the books you choose. Thanks for an excellent site, and incredible energy. Please check out my blog, where I manage about 2 or 3 book reviews a month ... ... would love to know what you think. Best wishes - and remember to eat! _ Sally