The Voice of Misery

A Continental Philosophy of Testimony

By Gert-Jan van der Heiden

Subjects: Continental Philosophy, Phenomenology, Comparative Literature, Critical Theory
Series: SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
Hardcover : 9781438477619, 350 pages, January 2020
Paperback : 9781438477602, 350 pages, January 2021

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Table of contents


Part I. To Give a Voice: Six Literary Experiments

1. Letters for the Soul

2. Experiment I. Socrates, the Interpreter

3. Experiment II. Alice, the Secretarious

4. Experiment III. Helena, the Poetess

5. Experiment IV. Johannes, the Poet

6. Experiment V. Bartleby, the Scrivener

7. Experiment VI. Er, the Messenger

Part II. A Distinctive Sense of Testimony

8. Elements of Testimony

9. An Exceptional Attestation

10. A Typology of the Witness

Part III. On the Threshold of Being and Language

11. An Ontology of Testimony

12. The Truth and Untruth of Testimony

13. Subject and Commitment

14. In Lieu of a Conclusion: Celan’s Poetics of Testimony

Works Cited

A systematic study of testimony rooted in contemporary continental philosophy and drawing on literary case studies.


From analytic epistemology to gender theory, testimony is a major topic in philosophy today. Yet, one distinctive approach to testimony has not been fully appreciated: the recent history of contemporary continental philosophy offers a rich source for another approach to testimony. In this book, Gert-Jan van der Heiden argues that a continental philosophy of testimony can be developed that is guided by those forms of bearing witness that attest to limit experiences of human existence, in which the human is rendered mute, speechless, or robbed of a common understanding. In the first part, Van der Heiden explores this sense of testimony in a reading of several literary texts, ranging from Plato's literary inventions to those of Kierkegaard, Melville, Soucy, and Mortier. In the second part, based on the orientation offered by the literary experiments, Van der Heiden offers a more systematic account of testimony in which he distinguishes and analyzes four basic elements of testimony. In the third part, he shows what this analysis implies for the question of the truth and the truthfulness of testimony. In his discussion with philosophers such as Heidegger, Derrida, Lyotard, Agamben, Foucault, Ricoeur, and Badiou, Van der Heiden also provides an overview of how the problem of testimony emerges in a number of thinkers pivotal to twentieth- and twenty-first-century thought.

Gert-Jan van der Heiden is Full Professor of Metaphysics at Radboud University in the Netherlands. His books include Ontology after Ontotheology: Plurality, Event, and Contingency in Contemporary Philosophy and The Truth (and Untruth) of Language: Heidegger, Ricoeur, and Derrida on Disclosure and Displacement.


"Van der Heiden's Voice of Misery is an important contribution to philosophy. It is also a fitting companion for our historical moment. The events of our times bring into focus the demand that we bear witness to human beings' vulnerability to what van der Heiden aptly terms the misery of bare existence. His book is itself a testament to this demand, as well as to the vigilance we need for the profound challenges we face today as we attempt to give voice to one another." — Research in Phenomenology

"…this work moves the concept [of testimony] forward in important and significant ways." — CHOICE

"The Voice of Misery is a special book. Van der Heiden has presented an argument that is poised to challenge discourse in analytic philosophy, reshape approaches in continental philosophy, and give new orientation to interdisciplinary research in continental philosophy and literary theory. The book will find a large readership across the discipline of philosophy and in several areas of the humanities." — Theodore George, author of Tragedies of Spirit: Tracing Finitude in Hegel's Phenomenology