Neutralization and reduction
It is important to distinguish in a fine-grained manner how the term epoché is used by Patočka. This is best accomplished with the help of two related terms in Husserlian phenomenology: neutralization and reduction. According to Husserl, a neutrality modification is a suspension of the “general thesis” of the natural attitude which bestows natural-empirical validity (realness) upon the world and objects of perception (Husserl 1983, pp. 257–259; on this topic, see also Fink 1966, 68–72; De Warren 2015, pp. 248–251). In other words, it is a suspension of the implicit or tacit belief in the empirical realness of the world that accompanies sense-perception and judgment. Husserl is careful to emphasize the radicality of this modification by insisting that it is not to be understood in the sense of making the object dubitable or merely hypothesized (Husserl 1983, p. 258). It does not bring the tacit judgement of “realness” into doubt, but suspends it. The neutrality modification “completely annuls, completely renders powerless every doxic modality to which it is related” (p. 257—our emphasis). It “annuls” any motivational force stemming from the thesis/judgement of “realness.” Hence, one would be ill-advised, for example, to enact such a modification on the world while facing oncoming traffic. From Patočka’s standpoint (though he does not discuss the neutrality modification by name), such a rendering powerless allows for a shift in the character of attention directed toward the object. Rather than seeing it in terms of what it is and does, an object of experience can now be studied in terms of how it appears and does what it does (phenomenologically). Rather than being motivated to move out of the way of oncoming traffic, we can examine how it is that the traffic appears in such a manner that would indeed motivate such movement. If we think of the object as a stable sense-structure, what it does is to structure the horizon in which it sits by delineating itself against other object sense-structures, including subjects and the general horizon of the world. This delineating against, and in so doing having an impact upon the constitution of other objects and the field of appearance as a whole, is its power. In “Lectures on Corporeality” (1968–1969), Patočka writes: “Each thing acquires its figure—delimits itself—becoming, in relation to others. This becoming traces the frontiers of other things, it is a process of definition, of putting into form. This definition is made vis-à-vis all the other things, every thing is co-defined” (Patočka 1995, p. 114). It is this process which is revealed in Patočka’s understanding of the epoché; how appearing objects co-define one another, and in so doing institute a world as a unified field of appearance. But in enacting this shift of attitude or stance toward the object and its constituent features “the posited characteristics become powerless” (Husserl 1983, p. 258). The epoché can be understood first as a neutrality modification with a universal scope: the relevant modification is carried out to the whole of the world and its objects. Consequently, the epoché makes the entirety of the experiential field available for phenomenological analysis.
The epoché is traditionally understood (Husserl 1967, p. 21; 1983, p. 60) as a moment within the phenomenological reduction insofar as it opens the possibility for the world and its objects to be studied in terms of their invariant or essential features qua experiences by overcoming the “naive” natural attitude (Husserl 1970, pp. 143–151). Under the reduction, as a further phenomenological “step,” the world and its objects are examined as correlates to the constituting acts of consciousness. Patočka rejects this understanding of the residuum of the epoché and seeks to restore to the idea of the phenomenological epoché its methodological dignity as a universal neutrality modification apart from its being a moment of the reduction. In his essay “Epoché and Reduction” (2015a), Patočka is clear that the epoché is not a moment on a path leading to a sphere of “being or pre-being, whether it is worldly or non-worldly”—transcendental subjectivity in its constituting power—but rather reveals the world horizon as the a priori of appearance, and subsequently a condition for the appearance of the subject itself as a worldly object among and conditioned by others. It is, he says, “access to appearing as such, instead of to what appears. Instead of attending to what is manifest, we suspend it in the epochē, in order to bring into view for the first time what makes manifest” (Patočka 2015a, p. 48–49).Footnote 5 Further direct and indirect references to the theme of the phenomenological epoché qua neutrality modification can be traced in Patočka’s works—from “Negative Platonism” (1950s) where he analyzes the Platonic concept of “chorismos,” which indicates the peculiar way in which ideas are separated from real objects (Patočka 1989, p. 180; see on this Tava 2015, pp. 5–6), to “What is Phenomenology” (1976–1977), where he claims that the epoché “more radically conceived, opens the way to the being of beings of every mode of being” (Patočka 2019, p. 96). In what follows we will clarify the impact of this conception on Patočka’s approach to political institutions.
Epoché of political institutions
We can now link this understanding of the epoché more clearly to the political, and more specifically to political institutions, broadly speaking, as a specific type of object. What Patočka refers to when he talks about the discovery of the political in its proper sense (Patočka 1996, p. 38–39) is the epoché of institutions—community, tradition, myth, to this we would add as paradigmatic examples of political institutions like nation-states, universities, parliaments, national health care systems, primary schools, and perhaps most fundamentally subjects themselves. Institutions are formal objects in the sense of cultural objects as Husserl describes them in the second book of the Ideas: the physical instantiation or iteration of the object is animated by the “spiritual sense” (Husserl 1989, p. 249), which is the result of ongoing processes of generative or historical constitution. The spiritual side of such objects is “fused” to their material appearance. Certain types of institutions can be understood as infrastructural in that they play a structuring role that underpins and mediates other processes of appearance. Nations, communities, and foundational myths are paradigmatic examples of what we call infrastructural institutions. It is in this sense that infrastructural institutions are constitutive of forms of collective or social historical life. The political epoché that we argue Patočka envisaged in his late works is a neutralization of these infrastructural institutions inasmuch as it reveals their “uprootedness” and “lack of foundation” (Patočka 1996, p. 39). The neutralization of the infrastructural institutions in the discovery (and perduring) of the political qua epoché destabilizes the sense of the lifeworld, which is structured in its value orientation by its infrastructural institutions. In this sense, the neutralization of the formal objects that are our infrastructural institutions is also subsequently the neutralization of the sense of corresponding cultural forms of life facilitated by these institutions. By opting for this peculiar form of political epoché, people suspend (at least temporarily) those forms of life that Patočka characterized in terms of mere acceptance and defence of their status quo—historical cultural meaning that is taken for granted—and that usually crystallize into traditional social and political institutions (parties, nations, etc.), and rather opt (however briefly) for a new form of life that is devoid of all these infrastructures, and therefore free and “reaching forth” (Patočka 1996, p. 38).
The residuum of the political epoché
The residuum of the political epoché is an embodied perspective upon a field of appearance that by dint of the possible movement of the perspective, in relation to pragmatic engagement, is also a field of possible manifestations. It is by moving, being oriented by practical and value-laden poles of engagement, that things qua meaning-structures come into the world. But the movement of the body, which is constitutive of appearance, is not a solitary activity. The possibilities of appearance opened up by our movement have, as condition of their possibility, another perspective—another body—that serves as a binary pole to stabilize phenomena and make them worldly, i.e. belonging to an objective field of appearance that appears to me as not contingent upon my own perspective. This stabilizing effect that the other body has also makes possible the appearance of my own body as an object within the field of appearance. For this reason, the appearance of the world and its stability or verification must pass through the other with whom I engage and interact. Consequently, the first meaning structure toward which the moving body is oriented is the other body. This process of bringing a world to appearance through movement is also defining of the embodied-subject itself, which like all other objects defines and delimits itself in relation to all other things in the world. The sense of the lived body is not a given but an individuation within the field of possibility. This contingency of the embodied subject is revealed in the epoché.
In this shaking or epoché of sense-structures, Patočka claims that a more profound meaningfulness is discovered at the core of the epoché. The relation between movement and appearance amounts to the discovery of both freedom and responsibility over the manifestation of the world. Freedom does not reside in the projection of possibilities, but in the assumption of responsibility for the movement that creates the sense of the world (Patočka 1995, p. 117). Freedom is in this way both made possible and constrained by embodied movement and the others in relation to whom a body moves and comports itself. The freedom that lies at the residuum of the epoché and hence at the heart of the political is also the possibility to (re)infuse a lifeworld with value orientation, i.e. with a certain conception of the good that is fused with the infrastructural institutions of a particular cultural lifeworld. What Patočka emphasizes repeatedly, and what he sees as his own criticism of Husserl’s concept of the lifeworld is that the field of appearances is from the start value-laden, it is always a world that is “for the sake of…”—a world of good and evil (Patočka 1989, p. 235). The idea of the good should be understood here in terms of human flourishing. To say that a lifeworld is oriented, via its infrastructural institutions, toward a conception of the good is to say that it is oriented, however indeterminately, toward a specific conception of the good life and of human flourishing.
The responsibility that Patočka refers to here is not solely for one’s own actions, pragmatic engagement, and valuations, but for the character of the overall value-orientation of the field of appearance and its infrastructural institutions. The “for the sake of” in this sense is both vague and indeterminate, but also entirely concrete, sensible, and institutional. The sensible materiality of the lifeworld is imbued or fused with the sense of the good proper to a particular lifeworld. To use a term borrowed from Merleau-Ponty, the orientation toward the good that marks a particular lifeworld appears “in filigree” (Merleau-Ponty 1968, p. 215) like a watermark on the institutions that structure the appearance of a lifeworld by mediating the possibilities of appearance qua movement within the field of appearance or world. What the political epoché accomplishes in its neutralization of a lifeworld’s infrastructural institutions is not only to open to investigation the constitutive processes by which these institutions are both constituted and constituting in relation to the field of appearance, but also reveal the conception of the good which traverses these institutions in filigree as contingent upon these processes, opening its sense to phenomenological investigation.
The concrete paradox of Patočka’s political phenomenology is that he seems to want to provide the ground for ungrounding, i.e., construct the polis where Socrates will not be killed, but do so by radically ungrounding the sense of all the institutions of the polis. What is left, concretely speaking, is a new community bound by their shared interrogation of the manifestation of the infrastructural institutions of the concrete polis. In the Heretical Essays Patočka uses the expression “solidarity of the shaken” to describe this new community. The difficulty is that there he explicitly says it is not a community that proposes “positive programmes,” despite its discovery of the positive freedom and responsibility of the epoché. We will discuss this below in Sect. 2.
Care for the Soul as the Political Epoché
The above highlighted the main characteristics of Patočka’s understanding of the phenomenological epoché and pointed out its potential political usage. In what follows we argue that the political epoché as described above is the best way to understand the rather opaque but politically significant idea of “care for the soul” (Patočka 2002a, p. 15) which permeates Patočka’s later writing. The relation between the epoché and care for the soul can be put in the following way. Patočka’s concept of soul must be understood phenomenologically as the field of movement and appearance. Or, put otherwise, as the world. Patočka legitimizes this interpretation in Plato and Europe when he writes that the soul “stands at the boundary of the visible and the invisible” […] “[n]aturally, the soul under consideration is not the soul of the individual, but rather the soul of the world” (Patočka 2002a, p. 187). In the Heretical Essays he continues this line of thought: “The care for the soul is the practical form of the discovery of the Whole […]” (Patočka 1996, p. 82). There are two senses of the world that are important here. First, the world as the a priori horizon of all appearance; and second, the world as the mundane field of appearance and practical engagement. The soul as the boundary between the visible and the invisible concerns the relations between these two senses, and specifically Patočka’s understanding of Being as the movement of appearance between the poles of retreat and non-retreat against the a priori horizon of appearance (Patočka 2002a, p. 187). Being is the movement by which individual existents come to appear against the a priori horizon of the world-structure. And it is the movement of the motile body in its practical engagement with its surroundings that mediates Being as manifesting and retreating. So, care for the soul involves two intertwined movements, that of the body and of appearance. This emphasis on bodily movement as the authentic dimension of Being is a recurrent topic in Patočka’s phenomenological works, and characterises the complex relationship between the existential motion of the individual and appearing as such qua fundamental backdrop against which such motion is staged. In a lecture that he gave in Freiburg in 1968, Patočka made it clear that in his understanding existential movement eschews any traditional definition of subjectivity and objectivity. By moving into the world, by experiencing it and modifying it, by making their dwelling in it, humans constantly overcome their status of subjects and develop a horizon of possibilities that they might decide to engender: “the act does not stay in subjectivity, but has its own plan, its own consequence and residue in the exterior world” (Patočka 1980, p. 13; see on this Tava 2015, pp. 81–87). For Patočka, the dimension of this movement is also the dimension of human freedom. In this sense, caring for the soul means taking care of this freedom, i.e., of the human ability to freely establish itself within this ever-changing field of appearance.
The epoché is the methodological tool or process through which the soul qua world or field of appearance is discovered and interrogated in terms of its processes of manifestation. Understood phenomenologically, the question of care for the soul is a question of the relation between humans or humanity and manifesting as such (Patočka 2002a, p. 27). Why humans in the plural and why a world soul and not an individual soul? Simply put, for Patočka the phenomenologist, the world is an intersubjective accomplishment. The world coming to be what it is for our individual souls is a social activity. It is movement in relation to other motile bodies that phenomenologically individuates subjects; i.e. allows for the appearance of individual subjects. The manifesting of the world, the proper activity of the soul, is prior to and constitutive of individual subjectivities. This is what is referred to as the “a-subjective” dimension of Patočka’s phenomenology: inter-corporeal movement precedes subjectivity, which is only generated as a sense-structure (an institution) from movement (Patočka 2015b). The subject is then not only what cares for the soul, but also what is cared for. Care for the soul includes as a fundamental dimension attention to and interrogation of the processes of subjects coming into appearance. Moreover, care is characterized by an attitude of responsibility for and freedom over the movement that brings the world of things, motile subjects included, into being. This freedom has both a negative and a positive determination. It is negative insofar as the epoché implies a stepping back from the world as given; the subject is freed to examine the processes that bring it into existence. And it is a positive freedom insofar as the stepping back and examination of the "how" of processes of appearance alerts us to our power over these processes (Husserl 1970, p. 144), even insofar as the interrogation undermines the structural stability of the subject itself. We are not simply passive bystanders to the world's processes of appearance, but rather can play an active role through the movement of our bodies, which is expressive and delineating of sense-structures. Care for the soul is through and through a phenomenological notion in Patočka’s thought.
In Plato and Europe, care for the soul is linked explicitly to the proper activity of the polis (Patočka 2002a, b, p. 88). This adds a further degree of specificity: it is a particular attention to the processes of appearing within a particular historical concrete lifeworld (a world of human praxis) and moreover the assertion of responsibility over the appearing of those institutions which play what we’ve called an infrastructural role in the overall intersubjective accomplishment of the lifeworld. This politically phenomenological sense of care for the soul is again connected to the idea of the good or value-orientation that permeates a particular historical lifeworld and results from the constitutive power of its infrastructural institutions. Care for the soul thus acquires, politically and institutionally speaking, a positive and negative sense: it is the construction of a polis or set of infrastructural institutions that allows for a phenomenological interrogation of the sense of the good that permeates those same institutions. It is, as Patočka says, the construction of a polis where Socrates does not have to die. Positively, care for the soul then entails the formation of infrastructural institutions that have built into them the facilitation of the neutralizing of their own constitutive power, opening the possibility for the appearance of new or altered institutions, including the institution of the subject itself. Truth in politics becomes a question of “the manner in which things manifest themselves” (Patočka 2002a, b, p. 26), and the way into this question is the phenomenological epoché, now recast in Patočka’s thought, like in Husserl’s, as the contemporary iteration of the fundamental and normative “heritage of Europe”: care for the soul (Patočka 2002a, b, p. 14).