Witnessing and Testimony in Hermeneutic Phenomenology

In: Research in Phenomenology
Gert-Jan van der Heiden Professor, Faculty of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies, Center for Contemporary European Philosophy, Radboud University Nijmegen Netherlands

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Departing from two diverging lines of inquiry of testimony that characterize philosophy today, this article aims to show what a hermeneutic phenomenology of witnessing and testimony is and how this approach to testimony offers a new framework to understand witnessing and testimony, which also repositions the present-day main lines of inquiry of testimony. The first section offers a critical assessment of the state of the art in the philosophy of testimony today and the second section reinterprets the two main diverging lines of inquiry as a conflict. The major part of this article is devoted to a hermeneutic-phenomenological account of witnessing and testimony. The third and fourth sections describe several relations between subject matter, witness, acts of bearing witness, and addressee, to develop this hermeneutic-phenomenological framework and in the process also shows which place is awarded to the two main lines of the present-day inquiry within this framework.

1 Testimony as Philosophical Theme1

In philosophy today, the phenomena of witnessing and testimony are usually addressed along two lines of thought, representing two different paradigms to conceptualize and comprehend the human practice of testimony.2

In the first line of inquiry, testimony is discussed as a topic in (analytic) social epistemology.3 Here, testimony is not approached in its regional or technical sense – for instance, as part of a legal or historical investigation – but rather as a general human epistemic practice, which reflects our basic dependence on the reports of others for our convictions and beliefs concerning many aspects of our world and our lives.4 This line of inquiry aims to develop a general science describing the rational grounds and reasons for accepting testimony and the beliefs conveyed therein. It deals with questions such as whether testimony counts as a basic source of knowledge or whether it can be reduced to the individual cognitive capacities of the subject, such as perception, memory, and reason. In the common-sense approach, going back to Reid, testimony is indeed argued to be a basic source and it is concluded that a subject-oriented epistemology has to be left behind in favor of a social epistemology.5 This double development, namely describing testimony as a general rather than as a merely regional or technical practice and replacing or supplementing a subject-oriented approach to human knowledge by a more social one, has certain similarities with much older insights from philosophical hermeneutics and phenomenology. At the same time, however, from the perspective of hermeneutic phenomenology, the specific focus on epistemological issues seems to limit this inquiry and render it incapable of capturing the full significance of the human practice of testimony.

The second line of inquiry gives us a good sense of what can be found beyond these limits. Beginning in the 1980s and 1990s with philosophical reflections on the testimonies of survivors of the Holocaust, the significance of testimony is discovered in victims bearing witness to the injustice, violence, or atrocities they suffered. Here, the notion of testimony is addressed within a framework of several urgent ethical, societal, and political concerns, of which the problem of testimonies of victims not being believed or not even being heard is often discussed.6 Moreover, this line of inquiry has given rise to many reflections on the problematic but indispensable relation between testimony and literature and the specific truth-claim at stake in testimonial literature.7 The impact of this turn to testimonial literature on our present-day culture and society as well as on our understanding of what a witness is, is not to be underestimated. In this context, Wieviorka speaks of “the era of the witness” and Hartog even of “the cult of the witness.”8 Emphasizing this impact, Wiesel suggests with respect to the very genre of testimonial literature: “If the Greeks invented tragedy, the Romans the epistle, and the Renaissance the sonnet, our generation has invented a new literary genre, that of testimony.”9

Reflecting on these two approaches to testimony, Krämer and Weigel point the fundamental divergence between the two, which they characterize as a difference between philosophical disciplines: epistemology versus ethics; and between subject matters: knowledge versus violence; but also between forms of truth of testimony: a discursive versus an existential or embodied truth; and between two types of witness: the testis, that is, the neutral third party present at a conflict or contract between two others versus the superstes, the survivor of a catastrophe; and finally between styles: the “prosaic epistemologicization” of the analytic approach to testimony versus the “dramatic aporeticization” of the continental approach to the testimonial literature.10

This characterization is helpful and important; and it is indeed surprising that these lines “hardly take notice of one another,” as Krämer and Weigel note. They even worry whether we are not dealing here with a mere homonymy of “testimony”: “Does language not set a trap for us by suggesting in the word ‘testimony’ the unity of an object that is not at all available in real life?”11 Yet, it remains to be seen whether their portrayal of the philosophy of testimony does not run the risk of a certain simplification. There are at least three closely related reasons why a more complex account is important for an approach that aims to do justice to the plurality of testimony as well as to the intrinsic relation between the aforementioned two approaches.

First, as I’ve argued elsewhere, the two diverging or unrelated lines of inquiry today do not cover the genuine plurality of practices and senses of testimony.12 Religious testimony is an important example that does not figure in the portrayal of Krämer and Weigel. This is not surprising given their specific approach: religious testimony is, after all, explicitly bracketed in Coady’s epistemological considerations and a religious testimony cannot be understood as a variation or subgenre of a victim’s testimony. Yet, from a historico-philosophical point of view, from Augustine via Hume up to Kierkegaard and beyond, this practice of testimony plays a fundamental role in our cultural conception of testimony and, remarkably enough, it has been revived with ancient philosophical means in the 1980s by Foucault in his reappreciation of the figure of “the witness to the truth” and in the more recent turn to the letters of Saint Paul in continental thought.13

Second, it remains to be seen whether looking for convergences between two diverging lines of inquiry is enough to address the genuine stakes of a philosophical confrontation with the plurality of testimony thus encountered. In line with Ricoeur’s suggestion at the Castelli-Colloquium on testimony in 1972, one could wonder whether these plural senses of testimony are connected or related by some sort of “family resemblance.” Ricoeur points out that such a resemblance might be found in the witness’s engagement: that witnesses are engaged in their testimony seems to be indispensable in all forms of testimony, even though this engagement comes in different degrees and variations.14 While it seems to me, as I argue below, that Ricoeur’s suggestion is not sufficient, his attempt to develop and articulate a more encompassing sense and conception of testimony beyond mere convergences offers a helpful orientation to a hermeneutic-phenomenological approach to testimony.

Additionally, the claim that the epistemological and ethical account, as described by Krämer and Weigel, are divergent or unrelated is not as neutral or descriptive as it may seem. In fact, it does not take into account the possibility that rather than diverging, these approaches are – at the very least in specific respects – conflicting. Against the background of the present-day interest in testimony, Ricoeur’s emphasis on engagement captures a pertinent sense of testimony from which it follows that testimony cannot be reduced to a report or to a transmission of factual information or specific beliefs. There is a tendency in the epistemology of testimony to account for testimony in terms of such reports, while the reflections on testimonial literature are fundamentally at odds with this tendency. Thus, the divergence observed between the two lines of inquiry might rather be the symptom of a fundamental discord between two conflicting interpretations of what testimony is. Below I argue why this may indeed be the case.

Third, it seems to me that the aforementioned characterizations of the diverging or conflicting present-day lines of inquiry are missing one crucial element. The epistemology of testimony suspends the question of witnessing, whereas in the case of testimonial literature the position of a victim witnessing and experiencing injustice is of central concern. This asymmetry might actually offer us a way to relate these two conflicting approaches. In fact, in a hermeneutic-phenomenological approach, experience and articulation, witnessing and testimony belong together and can only be understood in relation to each other.

In what follows, I first want to show briefly why there is indeed a conflict between the two present-day lines of inquiry of testimony. This demonstration is already moving towards a hermeneutic-phenomenological account of testimony, which I will then go on to develop. For the hermeneutic-phenomenological account of witnessing and testimony, I take the fourfold of testimony I’ve introduced elsewhere as my guideline.15 Testimony always includes a witness and an addressee, as well as an act of testifying and a subject matter that is borne witness to in testimony. The phenomenological and hermeneutical account of how this fourfold of subject matter, witness, act of testifying, and addressee is gathered allows us to describe the significance of witnessing and testimony as a human practice and a human mode of being, and, as a corollary, allows us to reposition the two main present-day lines of inquiry of testimony.

2 The Conflict between Epistemological and Literary Approaches to Testimony

Departing from Daub and Felman’s Testimony, which is a standard reference for any theory of testimonial literature today, we can easily stage a conflict between the two present-day lines of inquiry of testimony. Reflecting on a variety of literary testimonies to different crises, Felman characterizes the testimony at stake in them in the following terms:

Testimony is indeed pervasive, […] it is implicated – sometimes unexpectedly in almost every kind of writing […] testimony cannot be subsumed by its familiar notion […] texts that testify do not simply report facts but, in different ways, encounter – and make us encounter – strangeness; […] the concept of the testimony speaking from the stance of superimposition of literature, psychoanalysis and history, is in fact quite unfamiliar and estranging, […] the more we look closely at texts, the more they show us that, unwittingly, we do not even know what testimony is and that, in any case, it is not simply what we thought we knew it was.16

This quotation brings into play several important elements at once. Felman recognizes a tension between the “familiar notion” of testimony, which involves reporting facts and thus belongs to the field of epistemology – Coady’s “natural testimony” – and the form of bearing witness at stake in the literature she studies and teaches. Remarkably, even though the latter form is described as “pervasive” and is “implicated […] in almost every kind of [literary] writing,” it apparently has not been able to determine our common understanding of testimony.

The staged tension between the familiar and the estranging approach to testimony concerns the subject matter of testimony – that is, what the testimony is about – as well as the discursive genre of testifying. In the epistemological case, the subject matter of a testimony is a fact or a belief communicated by testimony; its discursive type is the report in which propositions about this subject matter are disclosed to addressees and which these addressees can, subsequently, interrogate or investigate critically. The literary approach, however, shows testimony to be “estranging.” Felman uses this predicate in the first place as an attribute of the genre. Confronted with these literary testimonies, we discover that “we do not even know what testimony is.” In this way, testimonial literature offers a genuine philosophical experience of testimony: the familiar notion of testimony crumbles down and becomes a question for us; the determination of both the subject matter and the discursive type of testimony are no longer self-evident. Yet, this estrangement is not simply a negative result. It is grounded in another experience and understanding of both the subject matter and the discursive type of testimony. To describe the latter, Felman uses the term “encounter,” and to describe the former, “strangeness.” Thus, the tension between the two approaches of testimony concerns the very question of what testimony is. Is it reporting facts or beliefs – not only in a technical, legal setting, but also in a common, everyday sense – or is it encountering strangeness?

What does “encountering strangeness” exactly mean? The events and experiences to which testimonial literature bears witness concern, as Felman notes, a variety of crises, traumas, and catastrophes. The etymology of “crisis” and “catastrophe” shows that the subject matters of these particular testimonies overthrow or breakdown that which counts as normal or common in the world and in human experience. Κρίνω from which crisis is derived suggests that witnesses staged in testimonial literature encounter something that separates the experiences and senses of the world they were accustomed to, from the new face and features of reality they are now witnessing. Καταστροφή speaks of a similar overturning of the world and, hence, of the end of the world as we know it. Note, moreover, that the encounter testimonial literature may offer somehow originates in and is a mimetic presentation of the preceding encounter of the witness with a particular subject matter. Consequently, the estrangement is not a literary effect of a particular genre alone, but is rather grounded in the fundamental strangeness of the subject matter the witnesses encountered and of which they testify.

The third notion, τραῦμα, adds an important ingredient to our understanding of this estranging encounter of testimony. Trauma names the physical and mental impact of the subject matter on the witness: the encounter wounds and damages the witness. The implications of this for our questioning are not to be underestimated. If the ideal witness in the epistemological case is the one who records exactly what has happened – the ideal eyewitness, for example, should be as trustworthy as a camera – the notion of trauma pulverizes this ideal.17 If the encounter with the subject matter has the character of a trauma, its impact should be compared to the crushing of the camera, possibly up to the point that it can no longer record at all. Hence, while the notions of crisis and catastrophe still allow one to maintain that only the content of experience changes, the notion of trauma implies that the act of experience and the experiencing “agent” change themselves. The intentional schema as a whole, noetically and noematically, is transformed and affected. It is for this reason that witnessing and testimony are not experienced in line with, but rather as an interruption of the epistemological ideal of testimony. Witnesses are not unchanging observers, but rather are themselves at stake and formed in the encounter with something that is at odds with their normal, everyday experience and understanding of the world. Because they are co-shaped by this encounter as witnesses, they are also the material, living trace of such an encounter and not merely the external vehicle transporting information such as a camera and its tape or digital memory. Moreover, the witnessed subject matter is not an independent object, fact, or event; rather, because the impact of the encounter on the witness concerns the very being of the witness, the subject matter is a “matter of concern” rather than a “matter of fact,” to borrow Latour’s distinction.18

3 The Sache of Testimony

The staging of the conflict between the two present-day lines of inquiry of testimony, has already engaged us in a hermeneutic-phenomenological explication of the encounter of witness and subject matter that constitutes witnessing. Let us continue to pursue this path.

(1) First, to describe witnessing as an encounter means that it has the characteristics of a genuine experience in Gadamer’s sense of the word, that is, of an experience of the world or of something in the world that negates our understanding of it and confronts us with a new significance in and of this world.19 For instance, that a world in which someone feels at home and secure, allows a catastrophe to happen, interrupts this sense of a familiar, secure, and safe world and discloses instead an unfamiliar, uncanny, and uninhabitable world.

In psychoanalysis, the notion of the real is introduced to capture the type of encounter referred to as trauma. Hermeneutic phenomenology may take recourse to a different notion that maintains the sense of reality that resounds in “the real,” but also has a wider range of application than trauma has in its psychoanalytic sense. The notion I’d like to propose has already been used, namely “subject matter.” This term translates the German notion of Sache and has a specific effective history in the field of hermeneutic philosophy. In fact, in the German, it translates causa as well as res. The legal provenance of causa, as both Heidegger and Gadamer suggest, allows us to emphasize that in the encounter with the Sache or subject matter of testimony, something is truly at stake for the contestants.20 This semantic dimension of Sache indicates that the subject matter of testimony is at issue for both the witness and the addressee and is possibly the cause for a struggle or conflict because of their particular interests. Thus, the subject matter has both individual and social significance: it impacts the witness individually by the encounter, but the sense and significance of this impact cannot be understood without taking into account what is socially at issue, for both witness and addressee, in this subject matter.

This particular individual and social interest, however, should not hide the fact that the notion of Sache brings into play a particular realism, a genuine encounter with (something in) the world. If one wants to speak of realism or the real in this context, one may do so in reference to the Latin notion of res. Here I want to recall Heidegger’s important comments on this notion in his essay “Das Ding.” Res originally conveys the sense of das Angehende and of Angang, as Heidegger suggests.21 According to him, the philosophical usage of res as a Latin translation of the Greek on has covered over this particular sense.22 The meaning of res that determines our philosophical sense of the real or of reality has thus become that of an entity existing independent of us in its sheer being-present – or in Latour’s somewhat simplifying vocabulary: of “a matter of fact,” an objective truth. To gain a different and more appropriate sense of reality, however, it is crucial to bring into play again the original sense of das Angehende and der Angang, which for Heidegger is the very sense of the real and of reality at stake in the Roman res. These German nouns are derived from the verb angehen, which is used to express that something matters to us or concerns us. (Hence, indeed, Latour’s “matter of concern” is directly derived from Heidegger’s account of res.) Moreover, there is another meaning of Angang that makes it particularly appropriate in the context of witnessing in which I want to use it here. In folklore, Angang is also used to express the contingent encounter with someone or something that plays a decisive role in one’s future. This role might be traumatic in the psychoanalytic sense of the term, but need not be; it might also be decisive in another way. In this sense, the notion of Sache as the subject matter of testimony and due to its relation to causa and res, as well as to Angang in its double sense, makes it well-equipped to be used in a hermeneutic-phenomenological account of testimony. The encounter is thus the disclosure of something as subject matter, that is, as a concern for the witness and that means the disclosure of something as real and in its reality.

In such an account, the witness is the place of this encounter with the real and the witness is the material remainder of this encounter; that is, the witness is the place where something appears as Sache and where it has its lasting effects because the witness is now the living trace of this encounter. The disclosure – or truth of witnessing – at stake here is threefold: (a) the Sache is discovered in its reality and significance; (b) the encounter itself is discovered in its reality and significance; and (c) because of it, the witnesses discover themselves as witness, that is, as a being who can encounter reality in this way.

(2) Second, as was already noted above, Ricoeur suggests that the different practices and senses of testimony are characterized by a specific relation between the witness and their testimony, namely that of engagement. Obviously, this engagement may take on different forms: the martyr’s willingness to die for their beliefs is different from the witness who is engaged to tell the truth before a court of law. Nevertheless, in each case, testimony is testimony because of the witness’s engagement. As I noted, Ricoeur’s suggestion is helpful and may orient our approach. However, it seems to me that the notion of engagement as such does not yet reach into the most basic level that we need here. The example of testimonial literature can help to explicate why this is the case.

It remains to be seen whether the relation of a victim to their testimony attesting to the atrocities, injustice, or violence to which they were exposed can be properly and in all instances be described in terms of engagement. In fact, if we understand engagement as an active and willful promising or pledging to devote one’s life to a good cause or one’s testimony to establishing the truth, the answer should probably be “no.”23 Primo Levi’s testimonies are exemplary in this respect. They attest to a burden and to a demand to speak for those who can no longer speak. Levi experiences a definite imperative, but this imperative is not so much willfully assumed, as it is imposed as his fate – it rather belongs to the sphere of Angang before it can be – if it ever becomes – a willful assumption.

This subtle difference might give us cause to look for an alternative. Let me employ a playful etymology that may orient us in this quest for an alternative. In German – as in Dutch between getuigen and trekken – there is an etymological relation between zeugen and ziehen, to testify and to draw or to pull.24 Apparently, the witness was in the first place the one who is drawn before a court of law. This relation discloses something important about testimony, it seems to me. In a court of law, a witness pledges to speak the truth. This promise exemplifies and seals the engagement of witnesses in their testimony. Without such a pledge, the witness’s testimony will not be allowed by the court. However, even though this means that in the technical setting, a testimony only legally counts as testimony in and by this pledge (in turn exposing the witness to the legal risk of perjury), the human being becomes – in a non-legal sense – a witness as soon as they are drawn before the court, that is to say, as soon as they are involved in it, without their willful consent and before their promise. Let me take this example one step further. If, for instance, a witness is called by the court as an eyewitness of a criminal offense, they have not become a witness through an act of their will. The eyewitness is not voluntarily witnessing. Rather, due to the contingent circumstances in which they find themselves, they are all of a sudden involved in something as witness. Hence, it is the contingent – fateful? – encounter with a subject matter that, in turn, draws and involves someone as a witness and that turns the human into a place or locus where something is disclosed as subject matter. Hence, Angang and encounter precede engagement and are necessary conditions of possibility of it: someone is drawn into a subject matter by the encounter and this determines this person’s future as witness.

(3) Third, by shifting our focus from engagement, which is an act of the witness, to that of a more involuntary and contingent being drawn or pulled near to or into something, we are also in a position to rethink in different and more general terms the role played by the psychoanalytic – and pervasive – terminology of trauma in the present-day discussion of testimony.25 As noted above, the Greek τραῦμα concerns the wounding or the physical impact of one body on another. If one wants to capture the sense offered by the notion of a wounding impact, use it beyond that of victimhood alone, and integrate it in a theory of testimony which deals in a broader sense with encounters with the real, the senses of Zug and ziehen offer us an additional orientation.

There is no drawing or pulling with a particular force without the possibility of tearing: a relatively fragile tissue that is being pulled, might tear. It is in this sense that our use of the verb ziehen to articulate the nature of the encounter with the subject matter implies that this encounter includes also the particular risk of a tear, a rip, or a crack in either body or mind.26 The sense of trauma can thus be understood as a particular risk of the way in which a subject matter in a more general sense draws a witness near to or into itself.

Zug is an even richer term. It does not only evoke the possibility of tearing, but also that of the feature, lines, or traits that are drawn. Facial features or traits, for instance, drawn by biological characteristics as well as by social encounters individuate a face, granting it its singular features. It is often mentioned in the literature on testimony that witnesses are singular and cannot be substituted.27 When we understand the encounter with the subject matter in terms of ziehen, that is, as an encounter in which the witness also receives individuating traits and features, it becomes clear that the singularity of the witness is not simply due to an – externally – being at a particular place at a particular time, but rather concerns the very nature of the encounter and, hence, the very being of the witness: witnesses are indeed a living trace, carrying the features and traits of the encounter by which they were drawn to a subject matter. This confirms once more that witnessing is not a form of neutral observation, objective registration, or mechanical recording; rather, the encounter affects the mode of being of the human who becomes a witness, which Derrida aptly describes as sur-vivance.28

The encounter is thus ambiguous and ambivalent: it is the chance of the unique testimony of a witness individuated and singularized by the encounter with a subject matter, but this chance cannot be separated from the risk of being drawn into this encounter to such an extent that the witness cannot withdraw from it and is instead compelled to repeat and return to it endlessly, as in trauma.

4 The Act of Testifying

Although the term “passivity” does not really capture the complex interplay of passivity and activity between witness and subject matter in their encounter, we may perhaps use this term in a relative sense when compared to the “activity” – which in turn is not a pure activity – that mark witnesses who adopt a public, social role and engage in bearing witness. The act of testifying manifests that the witness is not fully or completely drawn into the encounter with the subject matter, but can, to a certain extent, withdrawentziehen – from it so that a displacement is made possible, a relocation of the encounter in a linguistic form that can draw the attention of others to the subject matter: the act of testifying mimetically presents the original encounter at another place, in another form, and to an audience that was not originally present.29

The scene of trauma, marked by the endless repetition of the encounter itself, proves that such a withdrawal is not always possible and that the passage from witnessing to testimony can sometimes prove to be an aporia.30 The figure of the victim is often associated with trauma since they were exposed to a physical and mental impact that left its traces. However, when the victim is capable of bearing witness, the passivity of undergoing or being exposed to violence or injustice, is turned into an activity, in an active potential or capacity to testify. In a reflection on theatre, Brecht’s philosopher, one of the interlocutors in Der Messingkauf, offers a striking comment that, mutatis mutandis, describes this transformation and passage:

But lamenting, already when by sounds, but better still when it occurs by words, is a vast liberation because the sufferer is beginning to produce something. He is already mixing the pain with a recounting of the strokes; he’s already making something out of the utterly shattered. Contemplation has set in.31

The potentiality to bear witness realizes itself in a contemplative moment, which is one of withdrawal, as well as a productive moment, which is made possible by displacement. In what follows, I want to unpack these elements and discuss how they affect the act of testifying.

(1) Witness as Guarantee. First, the witness’s act of testifying is complicated by this moment of withdrawal; it can neither be reduced to a propositional statement nor to a narrative about the subject matter. In this sense, the contemplative moment in testimony cannot be understood as a reification or objectification of the subject matter. To understand this better, we first need to be aware that the act of testifying includes elements that pertain to the witnesses themselves. The withdrawal from and the displacement of what is encountered or suffered enable the act of testimony. Yet, at the same time, it is the original encounter with the subject matter that grants someone the authority in the social sphere to be a witness. This authority is not a natural given and is not simply evident to addressees. This brings into play a dimension of the act of testifying that aims to establish the witness as a witness. (a) In the first place, the witness needs to assume their authority by means of a (self-)authentication. For instance, by declaring “I was there,” an eyewitness assumes this authority, and by declaring “I suffered this,” a victim assumes this authority.32 Yet, also other elements are included: (b) the witness implicitly or explicitly promises and vows the addressee to tell the truth about their encounter with the subject matter; and (c) witnesses make an appeal to addressees to believe their testimony because they are engaged in telling the truth about the subject matter. Derrida gathers these three elements in one grand call of the witness on the addressee:

I affirm (rightly or wrongly, but in all good faith, sincerely) that that was or is present to me, in space and time (thus, sense-perceptible), and although you do not have access to it, not the same access, you, my addressees, you have to believe me, because I engage myself to tell you the truth, I am already engaged in it, I tell you that I am telling you the truth. Believe me. You have to believe me.33

In each of these three elements – authentication, promise, and appeal – witnesses offer themselves as a guarantee of the truth of what they say.

The significance of the witness for the addressee, however, cannot be reduced to being a reason or guarantee of the testimony. For the addressees, witness and testimony substitute the subject matter to which they have no immediate access themselves. In this sense, witness and testimony supplement the withdrawal of the subject matter. For the addressees, witness and testimony are what remains of the subject matter: witnesses are also for the addressee the living trace of (the encounter with) the subject matter. More precisely, witness and testimony are the representative of the subject matter for the addressee, in the double sense of Platzhalter and Fürsprecher: in a community of addressees who did not and cannot encounter the subject matter, witnesses represent the subject matter and by their testimony they allow the subject matter to appear in and to this community. In this sense, the witness is also the material and living guarantee for the appearance of the subject matter, so that it can receive a public and social significance.

These elements show that the contemplative dimension of testimony should not be mistaken for a reification or objectification of the subject matter. Even though one can abstract facts from a testimony, as the technical, legal usage of testimony for instance shows, these facts are derived, abstracted, or distilled from the full phenomenon of testimony. This means that if there is a contemplative dimension in testimony, it cannot be that of reification and objectification. Rather, before facts can be distilled from testimony – for instance, by a judge in a legal procedure – the subject matter must be of significance for witness and addressee. The contemplative moment of testimony concerns the disclosure of the particular concern of the subject matter for the witness; that is, it shows the subject matter in its discoveredness in this linguistic articulation; and it concerns its offering to the addressees to contemplate it – not as a matter of fact, but rather as a matter of concern for themselves as well. Consequently, the significance of the subject matter cannot be reduced to that which is recognized or articulated by the witness. Because the subject matter concerns the addressee as well, its significance is characterized by a particular Nachträglichkeit: the addressee’s concern for the subject matter co-constitutes its social significance even though the addressee knows of the subject matter only after – and in absence from – the witness’s encounter, and thanks to the displacement enabling testimony.

(2) Guarantee, Individuation, and Plurality. In the previous section, we discussed how the encounter with the subject matter individuates the witness. This process of individuation extends from the specific way in which the subject matter is encountered, subsequently interpreted and remembered, to how it is recalled and articulated in a spoken or written testimony at a later stage.34 Given the fact that the witness is both an epistemological and ontological guarantee of the subject matter, one might wonder whether this individuation does not imply that the way in which the witness presents the subject matter to addressees is “relative” or even “distorting.”

In the process of witnessing, the opposition of relative and absolute does not seem to be helpful because it presupposes an absolute witness for whom all the possible traits and features drawn by any possible encounter with a subject matter are clearly and distinctly present and against which any other human and finite witnessing might be measured as being relatively true or false. Philosophically, however, testimony becomes a genuine question and concern in the absence of such an absolute witness, as both Lyotard and Derrida argue.35 Without the presence of an absolute witness, the encounter with the subject matter is nothing less than an absolute relative: there is no other access to the subject matter than in and by the significance experienced in the finite encounter of witnesses and subject matter.

The reason to speak of “absolute relative” becomes clear once we take the position of the addressee into account. Consider a subject matter of which there is more than one witness; that is to say, consider the situation in which addressees are confronted with a plurality of – possibly (partially) conflicting – testimonies. Each testimony originates in and departs from the absolute relative way in which this witness is drawn to and by the encounter. Yet, the differences between testimonies testify to a plurality of ways in which one can be drawn. In particular, they show the new dimension brought into play by the position of the addressee. To the hearer or reader of many testimonies of the same event, it is shown which features and traits drawn out in one testimony, are withdrawn from other ones, and vice versa. That is to say, the way in which a subject matter is withdrawn from individual witnesses manifests itself only in the position of the addressee. (If witnesses themselves become hearers or readers of the testimony of others, they can experience that something might be withdrawn from their own encounter. To “experience” is not the same as to “accept”: witnesses can deny or reject what other witnesses say, and so on – and because of the possibility of false witnesses, there might be good reasons not to accept.) This is another indication of the Nachträglichkeit of the significance of a subject matter: when the addressees hear a plurality of testimonies, their significance alters. Once made public, the articulated encounter with the subject matter, receives a social significance and is drawn out from the individual context of the witness.

At this level and position of the addressee, we see how the need for a specific art of interpretation imposes itself. Confronted with a plurality of testimonies, the addressee will compare them, discover what is similar in them and what is idiosyncratic to some. These operations may lead to judgments, discarding or rejecting the (part of the) testimonies that are considered to be too idiosyncratic. Of course, these operations may also be used in an exercise that aims to extract, for instance, a probable course of events from these testimonies. Yet, prior to this reificatory, epistemological usage, these hermeneutic operations aim to clarify the particular significance of the subject matter for the addressees: the latter have to negotiate with a plurality of witnesses and testimonies as representatives of the subject matter.36 This negotiation is both a chance and a risk: it is the chance to, indeed, understand the significance of the subject matter as it is expressed by a plurality of witnesses and testimonies, but it is also the risk of effacing the idiosyncratic articulations of strangeness that nevertheless disclose a subject matter in its reality. This hermeneutic negotiation brings us even closer to epistemological concerns at stake in a philosophy of testimony, but in order to address them, we first need to unpack in some more detail the relation of interpretation to testimony.

(3) Interpretation, Production, and Critique. Testimony requires interpretation in a double sense, one belonging to the witness and one to the addressee. The witness articulates experiences in testimony and the addressee explicates this testimony. To show how these two forms of interpretation relate, let us return once more to Felman’s suggestion that testimonial literature “make[s] us encounter – strangeness.”

(a) Interpretation of the Witness. As was argued, this strangeness originates in the estranging experience of the witness. Based on our previous considerations, we may now say that estrangement is the particular mode and attunement of the Angang of the subject matter. It refers to the particular shock and dismay experienced by a witness that accompanies the dislocating and disrupting effect of the encounter with the subject matter. The experience of trauma, at least if we use it in its more technical, psychoanalytic sense, shows that it is not obvious at all that this experience can be interpreted and staged linguistically by the witness. In fact, the task to articulate and testify that which was witnessed exemplifies the most arduous task at the heart of language.

To describe this task, we may perhaps borrow an expression Berman introduces to articulate a translator’s encounter with a foreign language: l’épreuve de l’étranger, the test, trial or ordeal of the foreign or strange.37 Interestingly, he introduces this expression as the translation of the first half of the following quotation by Heidegger: “die Erfahrung des Fremden und die Einübung des Eigenen,” that is, the experience of the foreign or the strange language and culture and the acquiring or learning of one’s own language.38 Mutatis mutandis, this expression also exemplifies the ordeal of the witness.

Witnessing as the (passive) encounter with and experience of that which is foreign or strange confronts the witness with the task and ordeal – l’épreuve – to (actively) articulate this experience in testimony so that it satisfies two conditions that may be at odds with each other. On the one hand, testimony should be able to “communicate” the strangeness, shock and dismay experienced by the witness and thus possess the capacity to have an estranging effect on the addressee. On the other hand, testimony should be able to reach the addressee and be understandable and interpretable for the addressee. The combination of these two conditions indeed concerns die Einübung des Eigenen in the context of testimony. On the one hand, testimony should articulate and express a subject matter that remains estranging in its linguistic expression. On the other hand, it should be understandable, that is, the expression should be part and parcel of what can be said in the language shared by witness and addressee. When these two conditions are met, the language is changed because now something is said and received in this language that has not been said or received before.

This particular dimension to which this Einübung orients us, is actually explicitly said in the German verb zeugen, which does not only mean to testify, but also to beget, to engender, or to produce. Recall what Brecht’s philosopher noted in the citation above: the sufferer begins to produce something as soon as they start to lament by means of words. Similarly, the witness produces a new relation to the subject matter when testifying and by this production, discloses the subject matter to those who did not encounter it.39 The task of testifying is thus to preserve the estrangement and the Angang of the subject matter in a testimony. Bearing witness is thus a form of protective care by which the witness and social community safeguards encounters with the subject matter in a linguistic form. The witness’s deposition, one might perhaps say, is a depository, a protective place preserving that which was encountered so that it remains available in mimetic, testimonial form, after the encounter and after the death of the witness. Using Heidegger’s suggestion to hear in the German wahren and bewahren another sense of Wahrheit or truth, we may suggest that the truth of testimony complements that of witnessing.40 If the truth of witnessing concerns the disclosure of something as subject matter, the truth of testimony concerns the preservation and safeguarding of this disclosure, granting it a social existence and significance, allowing the mediated witness’s experience to be included in a shared, social world.41

(b) Interpretation and Critique of the Addressee. To capture, in turn, the interpretive task of addressees, it is not enough to say that they are only in a secondhand, mimetic position. First, the addressee’s testimonial encounter can be a genuine one, that is, the testimony generates new possibilities of encountering and understanding the subject matter for the addressee, beyond whatever the addressees witnessed themselves of and in the world. Yet, such an encounter is not a given – that’s why I wrote “can be”: if indeed the subject matter is foreign to and unheard-of within the addressee’s horizon of understanding, it is not obvious that the addressee is capable of understanding. While testimonies can quicken our understanding and make us susceptible to the unheard-of experiences they articulate, the encounter mediated by testimony nevertheless does not have the same vivacity or inevitability of the witness’s encounter.

This asymmetry between witness and addressee, however, is not simply the mark of a lack on the addressee’s side. Rather, it implies that the position of the addressee is characterized by a double interpretive task, that is to say, the addressee’s task to explicate is twofold. This double task is an analogy of what Ricoeur called the hermeneutics of trust and the hermeneutics of suspicion in the context of the phenomenology of religion and its critiques. The attunements or dispositions of trust and suspicion are the addressee’s and they stem from the addressee’s relation to the witness as the guarantee of testimony.

On the one hand, the witness aims to produce a linguistic articulation of their encounter with the subject matter so that it reaches the addressee. The witness succeeds in this task when testimony indeed generates and discloses new possibilities of understanding the world for the addressee. In turn, the addressee’s appropriate response to this production is to develop a hermeneutics of trust, that is to say, to trust that the words of the witness, even if they may seem unbelievable or incomprehensible at first, actually have something important and crucial to convey about what the witness experienced so that the addressee may also discover the subject matter of which the witness speaks as a matter of concern. Testimony thus confronts the addressee with the task of a charitable interpretation, listening as carefully as possible to what the witness has to say.

On the other hand, however, from the position of the addressee, only the witness is offered as guarantee of testimony. Because of this, the addressee is exposed to the possibility of false testimony and the addressee needs to take this possibility into account as well. To this end, a hermeneutics of suspicion is called for, that is, a critical interrogation to find out whether or not the witness is trustworthy and the testimony is plausible.

The questions addressed in the epistemology of testimony belong to the realm of this hermeneutics bifurcated between interpretation and critique. The common-sense approach in the vein of Reid with its emphasis on the principles of veracity and credulity clearly favors a hermeneutics of trust as basic point of departure. More sceptic, Hume-like approaches, on the other hand, favor the hermeneutics of suspicion and assess, for instance, the plausibility of testimony in terms of the plausibility and interrogate the hidden or even unconscious motives witnesses may have to portray a subject matter in the way they do. The critical approach is often (considered to be) indispensable. For instance, when confronted with several, different testimonies of the same event, the addressee is forced to compare critically; and when testimonies contradict each other, the addressee is forced to criticize them and distinguish between witnesses – (why) are they truthful or not? – and between (parts of) testimonies – (why) are they reliable and plausible or not?

In this way we see that, on the side of the addressee, the questions raised in the epistemology of testimony naturally arise: are there rules to follow and norms to assess the truthfulness of witnesses and the plausibility of their testimonies? Yet, it remains to be seen – and this is cause for further reflection – whether these rules truly amount to an epistemology or whether they rather offer an art, a τέχνη, such as hermeneutics classically has been understood, offering rules that are usually wise to follow to come to reliable interpretations or judgements, but which always also require a particular circumspect prudence or φρόνησις for the proper application of the art and its rules.42

Moreover, the assessment of the testimony of others is itself a matter of concern in light of the significance of the subject matter. Without this Angang, the epistemology of testimony remains a sterile exercise; moreover, each use of this art threatens to turn into abuse without a circumspect wisdom that keeps this significance in view. This is why an epistemology of testimony can never be a first philosophy of testimony: indispensable as it might be as a practical art to orient ourselves among the plurality of testimonies addressed to us, its sense and particular role can only be elucidated in a hermeneutic phenomenology of testimony. Moreover, the concern for the subject matter does not only precede any epistemological interest, it also succeeds it. The witness’s encounter and testimony are the sources that bring the subject matter and its significance into circulation. Yet, the addressees become part and parcel of this circulation and co-determine the concern for and significance of the subject matter, co-determine which voices are and which are not heard. In this sense, the rules used – or abused – in the hermeneutic art attuned by either trust or suspicion, have their impact and co-create the social significance of the subject matter and with that, the socio-cultural world we inhabit together.


This is a revised version of the André Schuwer Memorial Lecture presented at the 2021 meeting of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP). I’d like to thank the Simon Silverman Phenomenology Center at Duquesne University for this honor and for inviting me to present my thoughts on testimony.


See the introduction of Sybille Krämer, Sibylle Schmidt, and Johannes-Georg Schülein, eds., Philosophie der Zeugenschaft. Eine Anthologie (Münster: Mentis, 2017) and of Sybille Krämer and Sigrid Weigel, eds., Testimony/Bearing Witness: Epistemology, Ethics, History and Culture (London/New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017).


Usually, this line of inquiry is related back to the work of C. A. J. Coady, Testimony: A Philosophical Study (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), but its basic questions go back to early modern discussions between Hume and Reid.


Coady’s approach in Testimony, 25–53, is exemplary here, taking the limited legal sense of testimony – “formal testimony” – as point of departure for an extension that articulates a more general sense of testimony – “natural testimony.”


The non-reductive account of testimony as such seems to go back to Augustine, as is argued in Peter King and Nathan Ballantyne, “Augustine on Testimony,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 39, no. 2 (2009): 195–214.


This latter problem connects, e.g., Jean-François Lyotard, Le différend (Paris: Minuit, 1983) with the present-day debate on epistemic, testimonial, and hermeneutic injustice originating in Miranda Fricker, Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).


See, e.g., Jacques Derrida, Demeure: Maurice Blanchot (Paris: Galilée, 1998); Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History (New York/London: Routledge, 1992).


Annette Wieviorka, L’ère du témoin (Paris: Fayard, 2019); François Hartog, “The Presence of the Witness,” trans. John Raimo, in Testimony/Bearing Witness, 3–16; at 11–12.


Elie Wiesel, “The Holocaust as Literary Inspiration,” in Elie Wiesel, Lucy S. Dawidowitz, Dorothy Rabinowitz, and Robert McAfee Brown, Dimensions of the Holocaust (Evanston IL: Northwestern University Press, 1996), 3–23; at 9. See also Robert Eaglestone, The Holocaust and the Postmodern (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 38.


Krämer and Weigel, Testimony/Bearing Witness, ix–xli.


Ibid., xii.


Gert-Jan van der Heiden, “Testimony and Engagement: On the Four Elements of Witnessing,” Studia Phaenomenologica 21 (2021): 21–39; esp. 22–26. Consider, e.g., the aforementioned distinction between testis and superstes, which goes back to Émile Benveniste, Le vocabulaire des institutions indo-européenne, 2 vols (Paris: Minuit, 1969), 2.273–77, esp. 2.277, and plays an important role in the discussion on testimony in continental approaches, see, e.g., Jacques Derrida, Sovereignties in Question: The Poetics of Paul Celan, ed. Thomas Dutoit and Outi Pasanen (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005), 72–75, and Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (New York: Zone Books, 2002), 17, 32, 132, 148–50. A reading of these two references does not only show that this distinction cannot be used to separate the analytic from the continental approach, but also that more figures of the witness need to be taken into account, such as the Greek ἵστωρ and μάρτυς and the Latin auctor; see Gert-Jan van der Heiden, The Voice of Misery: A Continental Philosophy of Testimony (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2020), 190–200.


See Van der Heiden, The Voice of Misery, 143–50 (on Hume and the miracle) and 239–47 (on Foucault and the witness to the truth).


Paul Ricoeur, “The Hermeneutics of Testimony,” in Essays on Biblical Hermeneutics, ed. Lewis S. Mudge (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1980), 119–154; at 130.


See Van der Heiden, The Voice of Misery, 130–37; and “Testimony and Engagement.”


Shoshana Felman, “Education and Crisis,” in Felman and Laub, Testimony, 1–56; at 7.


Cf. Renaud Dulong, Le témoin oculaire: Les conditions sociales de l’attestation personnelle (Paris: Éditions de l’EHESS, 1998), 23–39.


Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Critical Inquiry 30 (2004): 225–48.


Hans-Georg Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1990), 352–68. My notion of encounter also refers to that of rencontre as developed by Gilles Deleuze, Différence et répétition (Paris: PUF, 1968).


Hans-Georg Gadamer, “Die Natur der Sache und die Sprache der Dinge,” in Hermeneutik II, GW 2 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1990), 66–76; at 67. Heidegger also refers in the context of the difference between causa and res to “das Ding,” see Martin Heidegger, “Das Ding,” in Vorträge und Aufsätze, GA 7 (Frankfurt a.M.: Vittoria Klostermann, 2000), 165–87; esp. 176–78.


“Das römische Wort res nennt das, was den Menschen in irgend einer Weise angeht. Das Angehende ist das Reale des res. Die realitas der res wird römisch erfahren als der Angang.” Heidegger, “Das Ding,” 177.


Ibid., 178.


This interpretation of engagement is not arbitrary: it goes back to its etymological root meaning “to pledge” or “to vow.”


I’ve mentioned this etymological relation before, see Van der Heiden, “Testimony and Engagement,” 26–28, but here I explain the difference between engagement and the involvement in a different way.


For the pervasive presence of the terminology of trauma in our culture today, see, e.g., Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman, The Empire of Trauma: An Inquiry into the Condition of Victimhood (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).


Note that in relation to Heidegger’s texts, this intrinsic relation between ziehen and reissen is carefully examined by Jacques Derrida, “Le retrait de la métaphore,” in Psyché: Inventions de l’autre (Paris: Galilée, 1998), 63–93; esp. 86–93. Derrida’s play with the word trait throughout this essay as what individuates and singularizes Heidegger’s account of metaphor is clearly a source of inspiration for what follows here.


It has already often been noted that a witness cannot be replaced or substituted, see, e.g., Jacques Derrida, Demeure: Maurice Blanchot (Paris: Galilée, 1998), 47–48.


Heidegger’s Angang and Derrida’s sur-vivance thus co-implicate or supplement each other in a hermeneutic-phenomenological theory of witnessing and the witness.


This aspect of testimony pertains to the philosophical question of μίμησις, see, e.g., Samuel IJsseling, Mimesis: On Being to Appearing, trans. Hester IJsseling and Jeffrey Bloechl (Kampen: Kok Pharos, 1997), 21.


For the sense of trauma and repetition in the case of testimonial literature, see, e.g., Dori Laub, “Bearing Witness or the Vicissitudes of Listening,” in Felman and Laub, Testimony, 57–74; esp. 67–71. In a different setting, Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling exemplifies the aporia between witnessing and testimony, which requires an additional witness, the narrator, to attest to this aporia, see Van der Heiden, The Voice of Misery, 69–85.


Bertold Brecht, Schriften zum Theater, vol. 5 (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1963), 106. Bertolt Brecht, The Messingkauf Dialogues, trans. John Willett (London: Methuen, 2002), 40; translation slightly changed. Terry Eagleton, Tragedy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020), 9 strangely misquotes when rendering “das Klagen” or “lamenting” as “language.”


More complicated forms of self-authentication also exist. According to John 20:8, for instance, seeing and hearing are not enough to be a reliable witness in the religious sphere; here, self-authentication includes a declaration of faith: “I was there and I believe.” Cf. Luke 1:1–2 where the eyewitness is also a servant; see also Hartog, “The Presence of the Witness,” 6.


Derrida, Sovereignties in Question, 76.


In psychological studies that determine the so-called unreliability of eyewitnesses, this tripartite structure of acquisition and incorporation in memory; retention; and retrieval and articulation is also discerned; see, e.g., Elisabeth F. Loftus, Eyewitness Testimony (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979), 21–22. However, the interpretation offered – “unreliability” – shows that these studies depart from a prejudice concerning the nature and goal of witnessing as disengaged observation, see also Van der Heiden, “Testimony and Engagement,” 28–29.


Lyotard, Le différend, 103 suggests that the idea of an absolute witness is inconsistent; Derrida, Sovereignties in Question, 74 discusses this. Derrida returns to this problematic of the witness in relation to the oath, see Jacques Derrida, Foi et savoir. Suivi de Le siècle et le pardon (Paris: Seuil, 2001), 44–47, where the oath generates God as absolute witness leading to a conception of God as a “present-absent witness of every oath,” as Michael Naas, Miracle and Machine: Jacques Derrida and the Two Sources of Religion, Science and the Media (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012)), 96 suggests; see also Van der Heiden, The Voice of Misery, 192–93.


This, one might say, is the equivalent problem of the one encountered by Deleuze in Plato’s theory of μίμησις, namely that the witnesses and testimonies are pretenders and rivals and the addressee’s task is to distinguish between their claims and rank the pretenders; see Gilles Deleuze, Logique du sens (Paris: Minuit, 1969), 292–95.


Antoine Berman, L’épreuve de l’étranger. Culture et traduction dans l’Allemagne romantique (Paris: Gallimard, 1984).


Heidegger, Erläuterungen zur Hölderlins Dichtung, GA 4 (Frankfurt a.M.: Vittorio Klostermann, 1981), 115. The sense of épreuve as erprüfen is explicitly mentioned in the preceding sentence.


See, esp., Martin Heidegger, Sein und Zeit, GA 2 (Frankfurt a.M.: Vittorio Klostermann, 1977) 291 [§ 44.b]. See also Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics,” in Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought (London: Penguin, 2006), 223–259; at 225: “No permanence, no perseverance in existence, can even be conceived of without men willing to testify to what is and appears to them because it is.”


See Martin Heidegger, Holzwege, GA 5 (Frankfurt a.M.: Vittorio Klostermann, 1977), 348; and Gert-Jan van der Heiden, “‘The One Who Must Bear Witness to What He Is’: Heidegger on Attestation and Testimony,” Tijdschrift voor Filosofie 82, no. 4 (2020): 675–98; esp. 692–93.


Arendt, “Truth and Politics,” 231–35.


In this respect, the epistemology of testimony developed in the wake of the turn to Reid is exemplary. Reid’s common-sense approach distinguishes principles – such as those of veracity and credulity – that we tend to follow unless there are good reasons not to. The notion of “defeater,” as the literature has termed such good reasons, names exactly the exception to the rule we tend to follow and which thus requires another understanding or reason than the one offered by the very principles of assessing testimony. Terminology can sometimes be confusing because the principle, which translates ἀρχή, is here in fact a mere rule, which allows for exceptions, and the epistemology, derived from ἐπιστήμη, thus arrived at does not offer a genuine science but rather a particular art or τέχνη that cannot operate well – and may in fact lead to abuse – without a prudence or φρόνησις guiding the art’s use.

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