From the time I learned the title of Etienne Souriau's book Les Differents Modes d'Existence, I have wanted to read it. I am often impressed by modality as an opening upon metaphysical problems. I consider Michael Oakeshott's Experience and its Modes one of the great (and under-appreciated) works of 20th-century philosophy. Paul Weiss' Modes of Being is one of the books that first drew me into metaphysics; I still remember reading it in the city library (I think I was one of the only people to check it out). And although Santayana's Realms of Being (a classic which still awaits its renaissance) does not expressly invoke the terminology of modality, I think of it as in the same camp. All these works have in common a willingness to have done with a single ontological category, and my impression is that they share at least this much with Souriau. I am gratified to find this borne out by Latour's rich essay in The Speculative Turn.
Three books with which I am familiar have excurses, of varying length, on Souriau. They are the very different from each other. The first is Mikel Dufrenne's Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience. As his title implies, Dufrenne draws upon Souriau's work for the ample resources it offers aesthetics, but his work is one of general phenomonology. In particular, Dufrenne draws out ramifications of a distinction between an aesthetic object and a work of art which, he acknowledges, owes much to Souriau's differentiation between the phenomenal and physical existence, though Dufrenne notes that Souriau does not stop at these two modes. Dufrenne also reproduces a table from L'Avenir de l'esthetique in which Souriau delineates twenty-four aesthetic values on a sort of compass rose the twenty-four values are arranged in a circle (as it were on the hour and half-hour marks). These terms, starting at 12 o'clock and moving clockwise, are:
Now this enumeration may bring to mind Polonius' description of the Players' proficiency:
The best actors in the world, either for tragedy,But Souriau is not just delivering a litany, he is arranging a scale or a spectrum, which is why his values turn back around, so that different values are at 180° to each other (for instance, Beautiful/Grotesque, Pathetic/Fantastic), or at other significant "angles," which nuances our usual conceptions of aesthetic opposites; thus, e.g., Tragic and Comic are at four and eight o'clock, respectively.
comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical,
historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-
comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or
poem unlimited: Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor
Plautus too light.
However, this is a fragment of Souriau's work, out of context in Dufrenne, who, while he claims a great deal of influence from Souriau and expressly traces some of his own terms and applications back to him, is not engaged in exegesis, and does not present Souriau's thought in any systematic way.
Robert Scholes' Structuralism in Literature refers primarily to Souriau's narratological work, especially Les Deux Cent Milles Situations Dramatiques. Scholes does give a lengthy exposition of this work, with its curious combinatorics, its idiosyncratic astrological notation system, and its somewhat tongue-in-cheek structuralism. This ought to give fair warning that the chart I refer to above, for instance, is intended as a prop and not a skeleton key. (The Deux Cent Milles Situations in the title is a gentle chiding of the notion that one could reduce dramatic narratives to some small compass of "basic plots.") Additionally, Scholes has some material on Souriau's influence on Greimas, which Latour also mentions.
One other place I (unexpectedly, I admit) encountered Souriau, was Henry Corbin's book Alone With the Alone: creative imagination in the Sufism of Ibn 'Arabi. In a four-page-long footnote (pp290-293), Corbin draws heavily on three of Souriau's books, including Les Differents Modes d'Existence, comparing Qur'anic ta'wil (esoteric interpretation) to Souriau's account of transition from virtual existence to supraexistence, and waxing enthusiastic over Souriau's reinterpretation of angelology, especially in L'Ombre de Dieu (also referenced by Latour). This angelology (like Michel Serres') has some direct echoes, I suspect, in Latour's recent work on iconology and sociology of religion (e.g. here and here). Whether one gets a very clear idea of Souriau's own thought from the parallels Corbin draws between it and his own exegesis of Islamic mysticism, it is worth pointing to this long appreciative notice for the sake of a different frame for reading Souriau, lest Latour's welcome presentation become the default setting.
Until Latour's essay, the longest treatment of Souriau's philosophy I have come across is this essay, by Luce de Vitry-Maubrey, called "Etienne Souriau's cosmic vision and the coming-into-its-own of the Platonic Other". (Open (Scribd) version here.) It was published in 1985 and has not been followed (in English) by anything else I know of. I am extremely pleased to have found this article available online (it initially cost me some legwork in a couple of academic libraries), and I urge anyone interested in Souriau, or in Latour's recent work, to read it and compare it with Latour's Speculative Turn essay. It gives the most extensive overview of Souriau, in English, of which I am aware. This is so even in comparison with Latour's (much longer) article, if only because Latour is presenting primarily a single book, whereas de Vitry-Maubrey is concerned with an entire philosophical oeuvre. There are some apparent tensions between the two presentations. Latour writes:
Souriau fully and truly undoes the Kantian amalgam. We no longer have a knowing mind on the one side and on the other side things-in-themselves., with a point of encounter in the middle where phenomena are generated.... We have phenomena...that finally circulate with their own 'patuity' without having to be accountable to a support behind them or an intentional subject in front of them.(The Speculative Turn, pp320-321)On the other hand, de Vitry-Maubrey writes that Souriau gives us not an undoing but a radicalization of "the Kantian reversal.":
Souriau accepts as irreversible the methodological progress brought about by the Critique: thought is a strictly earthly happening....But...according to Souriau, the full reversal Kant should have accomplished would consist in positing thought as a phenomenon sui generis (of which man is only the occasional cause) which draws both its form and its content from the existential complex from which it emanates.For de Vitry-Maubrey, Souriau's thinking is an accomplishment of both the Kantian and the Platonic projects (the title of her article suggests the Platonic dimension), but she quotes Souriau (in L'Avernir d'Esthetique): "Plato can only be listened to by way of Kant."
Of course, this is a difference in emphasis, not a complete divergence of orientation. The apparent anti-Kantian animus currently informing Speculative Realism is more rhetorical than substantive; it's a matter of which elements in Kant one wants to emphasize. I have myself pointed out (this is my story and I'm sticking to it) that Harman's ontology, for instance, is a universalizing of Kantianism--it distributes the phenomenon/noumenon split equally and democratically amongst all entities everywhere. This is not surprising when one reflects that Harman has internalized so much of Latour; his ontology radicalizes what Meillassoux calls "weak" correlationism, that correlationism which admits (in theory) an inaccessible in-itself. One might call it a "Kantianism without reserve."
And just as Kant intended, this move empowers thought rather than stymies it. Latour's apparently un-Kantian Souriau, and de Vitry-Maubrey's ultra-Kantian Souriau are unanimous in their arguing for a Thought that is on its own, its own "mode," which gives rise to the ego rather than vice-versa (this is Souriau's reversal of Descartes and radicalization of Husserl). Although for Souriau thought is an earthly thing, it is its own thing, not to be explained away by reference to firing neurons, Oedipal drives, or Boolean operators. It is--at least, it seems at second-hand--closer to Santayana's Realm of Spirit, than to Descartes's Res Cogitans.
Now there are still questions. No matter how strong the anti-monist spirit animating an enumeration of modes, one still wants to ask: "Modes of what?" Despite my sympathy with a pluralist slant (I am an American, after all), I still think philosophy aspires to a vision of the whole. A real engagement of this sort of inquiry vis-a-vis Souriau's project can't be undertaken on the basis of secondary texts. It is devoutly to be hoped that the work of translation is commencing somewhere. Or, I guess, I could brush up my French, but that's a very tall order.
For those interested in more on Souriau:
A few biographical details, and some account of Souriau's work on film, can be found here.
And there is an essay comparing aspects of Souriau's aesthetics to the 10th-c. Indian philosopher Abhinavagupta here.
If you have access to JSTOR, you can read three articles by Souriau himself:
Time in the Plastic Arts
A General Methodology...
The Cube and the Sphere