Rodolphe Gasché’s masterful study of Europe as “infinite task” provides a challenging and carefully argued discussion of the philosophical—in particular, phenomenological and post-phenomenological—conceptualization of “Europe” through readings of four of its most distinguished modern commentators: Husserl, Heidegger, Patočka, and Derrida. The book could not come at a more timely—which is to say, more critical—moment, something of which the author is well aware. For despite the advancing institutionalization of the European Union, the estrangement of European populations from the institutional structures of this new political entity is probably greater today than at any time since its inception. As the last few referendums to the proposed new European constitution have demonstrated—most recently in Ireland, and previously in France, the Netherlands, and Denmark—when asked to vote on proposals for its future, Europeans are largely skeptical if not clearly negative, a sentiment that seems to be mounting as the economic effects of globalization become increasingly severe. There is a consensus, however, that such Euro-skepticism on the part of Europeans has more to do with the precise institutions of the European Union and their responsiveness, or lack of it, to popular opinion than with the idea of a united Europe as such.
These recent, complex, and ongoing developments provide a framework for Gasché’s study, which at the same time resolutely refuses to itself to be drawn into the ongoing political problems of European integration: “[These issues] will have to remain in the background here” (Gasché 2009, 6). This decision is no doubt necessary, given the complexity of the book’s project. Its task is to reconstitute and reevaluate the arguments that have sought to expound and explore the implications of the notion of “Europe” to determine just what that notion has signified and can come to signify. What seems implicit in this project is the hope that a rigorous philosophical analysis of the concept of “Europe” may contribute to a better understanding of the present crisis and thereby open up possibilities for overcoming it—or at least for dealing with it in a more productive manner than has hitherto been the case.
For what is at stake in this reconstructive reflection of the concept of “Europe” as articulated by the four thinkers mentioned is not merely “Europe” but also and simultaneously the role this notion has played in the development of philosophy itself. The questions of “universality, apodicticity, responsibility and world” (10), which Gasché mentions at the outset as constituting a major axis of his investigation, also bear on the very essence of what is called “philosophy,” so that a critical reflection on the tradition of Europe cannot but have consequences for the understanding of philosophy itself. The issue then is not only what a certain philosophical tradition has taught and can teach us about Europe, but also, and at once, what Europe has meant and can mean for philosophical investigation as such.
Early in the book, Gasché provides a brief but extremely suggestive discussion of the legend of Europa, daughter of the Phoenician King Agenor and his wife Telephassa, who is carried off to Crete by Zeus disguised as a white bull. In this mythical beginning, Gasché discerns what will turn out to be the distinguishing trait of Europe, at least in the four thinkers upon whom he focuses his attention: its originary heterogeneity. Gasché quotes first Herodotus’s comment that Europa “was Asian [who] never visited the country we now call Europe,” (2009, 13) before going on to note—building on a study by the French philosopher and dramaturg, Denis Guénoun—that the name refers initially not to a place, country, or continent, but rather to a “movement of tearing away and carrying off from the paternal lands, from Asia as land . . . to a strange site without a name” (13). “Europe,” Gasché elaborates, would thus from its legendary inception signify “a movement of separation and tearing [oneself] away in which everything proper has always already been left behind.” Europe would thus originate as an “exposure to the foreign, the strange, the indeterminate” (14).
It is this “movement of separation and tearing . . . away [from] everything proper” that emerges as a major motif...