What kind of a commons was phenomenology? As a methodological orientation in philosophy developing in Germany and France in the first half of the twentieth century, it brought together Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant thinkers, as well as atheists of all stripes, and had many interlocutors in Japan. Ed Baring’s marvelous study allows us to see how this secular discourse was fostered by networks of Catholic scholars seeking a new compact between theology and philosophy, interested in phenomenology’s methodological approach to the old problem of realism. This insight prompts me to consider broader questions: How might the methodological orientation of phenomenology be compared to formally focused movements in other modernist domains where relations between the methodological and spiritual are in question? Can the study of a surprising kinship between phenomenology and Catholic modernity prompt us to consider a kinship between phenomenological techniques of reduction and the abstract developments of modern art—for example, the so-called pioneers of abstraction such as Hilma af Klint and Wassily Kandinsky? This is a wide brief to set for myself here, and a rather wild proposition. In what follows, I attempt only to clear a bit of the ground, to prepare us to consider these questions a bit more clearly, with a greater sense of the problems, figures, and new possibilities it might bring together.
In the study of religion today, phenomenology tends to be an ecumenical term of method, characterizing studies that address religious phenomena from a first-personal perspective, which analyze religion as a matter of human experience, conscious and embodied. One of the earliest and most influential examples of what has been called the phenomenology of religion is Lutheran theologian, philosopher, and scholar Rudolf Otto. Otto’s 1917 Das Heilige (The Idea of the Holy) advanced a theory of religious experience developed in the crucible of twentieth-century phenomenology. It appeared two years after Otto left Göttingen, where Edmund Husserl, the father of that movement, had been teaching at the time. Otto’s work, along with the broader prospects of the so-called phenomenology of religion school, has long been criticized for its ideas about religious experience as sui generis. Less well known is that one of its first criticisms came from Husserl himself.
In 1919 Husserl wrote to Otto to recommend a student, Heinrich Ochsner, who was seeking employment as Otto’s assistant. At the end of the letter Husserl includes an interesting comment about Otto’s book: “Through Heidegger and Oxner […] I became aware last summer of your book Das Heilige, and it has had a strong effect on me as hardly no other book in years.” Husserl has positive things to say—particularly about the first part of Otto’s book, which he dubs “a first beginning for a phenomenology of religion” and deserving of an “abiding place” in the history of philosophy of religion. But he notes a tension within the work, between what he sees as the legitimate, phenomenological description of religious consciousness and the more questionable “metaphysical” or “theological” element of the work. “It seems to me,” Husserl continues, “that the metaphysician (theologian) in Herr Otto has carried away on his wings Otto the phenomenologist; and in that regard I think of the image of the angels who cover their eyes with their wings.”
To get a sense of what Husserl might have in mind, consider Otto’s central claim about the holy: “Any one who uses it to-day does undoubtedly always feel ‘the morally good’ to be implied in ‘holy’; and accordingly in our inquiry into that element which is separate and peculiar to the idea of the holy it will be useful […] to invent a special term to stand for ‘the holy’ minus its moral factor or ‘moment’ […].” Answering his own charge, Otto coins “the numinous” to describe the pre-moral, pre-rational element peculiar to holiness.
Methodologically speaking, this passage might be read in line with Husserl’s model of phenomenological “reduction” or “epoché,” a bracketing of judgments that, it is thought, obscure rather than reveal the essence of the phenomenon. For Otto, religious practices and institutions pick up where the enigmatic encounter with the numinous leaves off, gradually “shaping and filling” that mysterious feeling with ethical meaning. Having isolated the numinous experience in his own analysis of the holy, he proceeds to trace its many appearances and treatments through a vast but selective history of Judaic, Christian, and Indian religious materials, before wrapping up in an all-too familiar story in which the “Son” supersedes the “prophet” as the most complete embodiment of holiness. Otto had gone astray, by Husserl’s lights, in synthesizing the concepts resulting from his reduction before those concepts had been sufficiently worked out. What might have been different if the medium of reduction had not been linguistic, but visual?
I first came across Hilma af Klint’s paintings in 2018, at the Guggenheim show devoted to her work. The exhibit sparked fascination on many levels, and as I explored studies of her work, one recurring point of interest was that her reception mirrored a number of debates at the juncture of phenomenology and religion. We hear of critics and historians from the 1970s who had trouble seeing af Klint’s work alongside “pioneers of abstraction” such as Kandinsky or Kazimir Malevich, in that her paintings seem more like “colored diagrams,” or who questioned the artistic identity of paintings “made for a temple.” Her reception, public and critical, has warmed dramatically since such remarks, but the tension between abstract and diagrammatic remains in question, as does the comparison with Kandinsky.
Michel Henry argued for a phenomenological interpretation of Kandinsky’s work, finding there not only a model of pictorial abstraction but also a tacit, visual phenomenology aimed at the revelation and intensification of life itself. Unlike conceptual movements of twentieth-century European art that “relate to the visible as their sole object,” Henry writes that for Kandinsky,
‘abstract’ no longer refers to what is derived from the world at the end of a process of simplification or complication or at the end of the history of modern painting […]. It refers to the life that is embraced in the night of its radical subjectivity, where there is no light or world. […] Ever since a walk in the countryside around Munich where the violence of a colour perceived in the undergrowth gave rise to an intense emotion and he decided to paint what surrounded this colour […] he knew […] that he wanted to paint this emotion and this emotion was the only thing that he would paint thereafter. This was the content of all possible paintings: the profusion of life in himself, its intensification and exaltation.
Henry championed Kandinsky’s originality. Kandinsky offered a modern entry to the art of the invisible, but nearly everything Henry said about him could also be said of af Klint. Af Klint, too, understood her work as targeting not the physical object itself but what she described as the spiritual, invisible element of reality. While she did not publish treatises elaborating the methodological and metaphysical aspects of her work, her estate contains thousands of pages of writing and over 100 notebooks, which do address these questions and are only now beginning to be studied and edited by scholars. “Thought defines the universe in geometrical figures,” she wrote in one notebook, explaining the repetition of cubes, helices, triangles in her work not as idealized abstractions from the world but as sites of interaction, co-imbrication. What’s more, the diagrammatic elements of her paintings, which for some seemed to be in tension with their artistic identity, might be more fruitfully engaged as an original way in which she brought together the pictorial and theoretical dimensions of her work. (This method might be compared to the mechanomorphic works of later avant-garde artists such as Francis Picabia).
Like Kandinsky, af Klint was deeply engaged with spiritualist movements such as theosophy and anthroposophy. From at least 1896, af Klint held weekly séances in Stockholm with a group of four other women, calling themselves The Five. They meditated, prayed together, communicated with spirits, and experimented collectively with automatic writing and drawing. Communicated to them, above all, seems to have been a complex sort of agency. Af Klint’s first abstract works were the fruit of a commission, put forward by a spirit The Five knew as High Master Amaliel, to create a series of paintings that would adorn a temple yet to be built. Af Klint set to work immediately on the monumental series of paintings that would take her nearly a decade to complete and would form the core of her oeuvre. In a well-cited passage from her journals, she described the process as a kind of channeling: “The pictures were painted directly through me, without any preliminary drawings and with great force. I had no idea what the paintings were supposed to depict; nevertheless, I worked swiftly and surely, without changing a single brushstroke.”
Though they shared an engagement with spiritualism, Kandinsky does not seem to have explored it quite as far as af Klint, unsettling ideas of individual agency and authorship central to artistic production in the European context. A missing account of this difference may be connected to the fact that historians and curators continue to stumble over the role of spirit in her work, more so than with Kandinsky or Malevich. Despite a keener consciousness of how af Klint’s work has been disserved by conventional narratives about modern art, the conceptual resources to appraise her work differently, on its own discipline-twisting terms, do not seem obvious or abundant to many in the art world. Did af Klint really believe in her powers as a medium? What might it mean to take her mediumship seriously while still appreciating her as an artist? Shall we historicize nineteenth-century spiritualism? Historicize our own estrangement from it? Is what we think of as abstraction in af Klint’s work actually more like a mimesis or figuration of the unseen?
As scholars of spiritualist movements have shown, these questions of genealogy do not only apply retrospectively. Ann Braude’s study of spiritualism and women’s rights in nineteenth-century America highlight the affiliative stakes of mediumship as a social practice in contexts where sources of public authority for women were scarce to nonexistent. “With spirit guidance, women spoke in public, wrote books, and went on tours. […] Mediumship circumvented the structural barriers that excluded women from religious leadership. By communicating directly with spirits, mediums bypassed the need for education, ordination, or organizational recognition, which secured the monopoly of male religious leaders. […] Spirit communication carried its own authority.” The effects of something like this may have contributed to the confusion around her work’s first important exhibitions, beginning in the late 1980s. Here was an abstract painter, earlier than Kandinsky, but whose work had nothing to do with cubism, impressionism, the grid, did not seem connected to any of the main currents of modern art. One way forward, challenging enough, might be to have her replace Kandinsky in standard historical accounts of the emergence of abstraction, as an early, unrecognized pioneer. Another option would be to consider that she was doing something else entirely.
In closing I want to suggest, proleptically of course, that we consider the relation between what af Klint was doing and what phenomenology was doing: What connections and comparisons might we establish between the abstraction of an artist concerned with unseen spiritual reality, and the “reduction” of Husserlian phenomenology, which involves intuition as its primary act, “looking at the essence” Wesensschau? How might the automatic exercise—writing, drawing—function like an epoché, a disinterring of habituated representational modes? After all, what is naturalism—the critical target of all phenomenology—if not an atmosphere in which representative problems are marginalized to the greatest possible extent? The phenomenological epoché, in asking us to give up on the “natural attitude,” is not asking us to ignore whether or not the world we are analyzing is real, but to consider, as we nonetheless analyze it, that things may not be what they seem.
Such comparisons with af Klint may also allow for a new approach to phenomenological work, as a technique grappling with comparable problems of genealogy, authority, and affiliation. What if we thought about the epoché or reduction—all of these seemingly formal operations of refocusing and throwing into question—not only in terms of theiranalytic effects but also in terms of the relationships and attachments they make, unsettle, and remake? We might consider that the performances of doubt, so pivotal to the of work modern philosophy, have their origins not far from where Braude situated mediumship, in search of speech that “carried its own authority.”
We do not have Otto’s answer to Husserl, but perhaps he and af Klint would have agreed: If one wants not only to see but to learn to see differently, it is sometimes better to begin by covering one’s eyes.