Joseph Rivera: The Contemplative Self After Michel Henry: A Phenomenological Theology

Christopher DUPEE

The Contemplative Self After Michel Henry: A Phenomenological Theology Book Cover The Contemplative Self After Michel Henry: A Phenomenological Theology
Thresholds in Philosophy and Theology
Joseph Rivera
The University of Notre Dame Press
Paperback $48.00

Reviewed by: Christopher DuPee (University College Dublin)

Rivera situates his account within the well-established drama of the 20th century onset of nihilism as the consequence of the autonomous, Cartesian ego. One particular interpretation of the history of the phenomenological movement- one which Rivera takes pains to defend- is the examination and explication of an ego freed from this inheritance; as such this particular version of the phenomenological movement, which includes not only Henry but also the work of Marion, Lacoste, and to a certain extent Levinas, thematise the subject after a fashion of emphasizing its heteronomous source. The “theological” thematization of phenomenology’s investigation therefore sets up the inheritance of religious tradition, in the case of both Michel Henry and Rivera himself the Christian tradition, as a corrective to the implicit Cartesian foundations of Husserlian and Heideggerian phenomenology.

The need for such a theological corrective, on Henry’s estimation, arises from the “classical” pair’s complicity in the nihilistic “systematic reduction of the self to the finitude, utter exteriority, and ephemeral flow of the world.” (69) This ecstatic formulation of the ego, rather than explicating its essence, does disservice to, and distorts, the truth of the ego. According to Henry, in short, the continuous thematization of the self according to its ek-static activities continues to reduce the ego’s manifestation of itself to pure representation, and thus, continuous alienation. He terms this a form of ontological monism. This exteriorized thematization of the ego is in fact the true error, the true forgetfulness, of Western metaphysics, and thus the operative source of the onset of nihilism. It is from this starting point, the induction into the utter interiority of the self, and the truth of the self found there, that Rivera sets out to explore Henry’s work.
Against this monism Henry posits the “duplicity of display”. Radicalizing the Husserlian split of Lieb and Körper, Henry expounds the interiority of life and the living generative movement as over and against the visible display of affairs of the exterior world which has so occupied phenomenological analysis. This inner subjective source abounds and is the wellspring of the spiritual energy of “generation” of subjectivity. “The world does exist but it does not add to, or consist of, what is living and real about the ego itself, about the subjective world in which each of us dwells as who we really are.”(90) This account takes on its theological aspect insofar as, in a quite a novel way, Henry entirely reframes the notion of God as the ground or guarantor of being. “Rather, God hands himself over to me and is bound at once to himself and me, and there, while continually experiencing himself, he is nothing but that living self-experience I also have of myself I am what God is.” (115-6) To adapt Cardinal Newman’s phrase, to believe in God is simply to believe in one’s self, in its full depth. It is on the basis of these two very bold theses on Henry’s part that Rivera will generate his critique.

To start, Rivera interrogates the progress of Henry’s occultation of the corporeal, visible body. However much Henry insists upon the effective reality of the exterior world, and of its ontological import, every trace of life and reality is progressively relegated to the side of the interior. The exigencies of planetary life, thusly, take up in proportion their own illusory, distracting, unreality. Rivera charges Henry, then, with incoherence. By what device does Henry escape from theorizing the bare obverse of the ontological monism he critiqued in Husserl and Heidegger? In Henry’s apparent inability to defend against this charge, Rivera sees an opening for a further thinking over the relation of interior/exterior.

Rivera takes up Henry’s insistence that an understanding of the self’s interiority is the only way to avoid and correct the perpetual self-alienation of ontological monism; but on the other hand resolutely does not follow Henry into the self-present depths of an interior world set against the exterior temporalized world. Rivera accepts the same broad outlines of the thinking of temporality, finitude, and the elision of self-presence manifested in contemporary phenomenology. What Rivera’s contemplative self is able to do is, rather than escape this temporality into pure interiority, instead contemplate in a non-representative fashion the source of the self, which is God. Finding the source of life in God and God’s eternity destabilizes the persistent self-alienation by expanding, rather than avoiding, the temporal horizon.

The contemplative mode manages to find its way from exteriority and worldliness, which the self is, into a form of interiority given as the verbum intimum, the interior formal capacity of this contemplation which is a gracious provision, a gift from beyond the subject. Thus the self becomes “porous”, able to approach in memoria the source of the self and to hope eschatologically in epektasis for the alteration and restoration of the structure of the world wherein the self is thrown. Rivera therein spells out a restructured phenomenology of temporality and intersubjectivity along the lines of this contemplative possibility.
We find with Rivera’s construction after Henry a powerful opening onto further ways of considering interiority alongside of exteriority, a lacuna immediately noticeable across the span of contemporary phenomenology. But the difficulty, as is ever the case with theoretical constructs of any kind (but especially of philosophical import) which take their cue from faith traditions, is the ever problematic interplay between particular starting points and transcendental claims. One puzzles over the ability to offer reasons for finding the God of Christianity either in (as for Henry) or through (with Augustine and Rivera) the depths of the phenomenological subject, however constructed. One sees an opening, of course, from Rivera’s situating the discussion within the progress of nihilism heralded by Nietzsche which, contrary to quasi-Habermasian claims, demonstrably hasn’t stemmed in its flow. But the phenomenological picture is not, and certainly not that of the theological “turn”, the only game in town concerning a narrative of the amartiological pre-understanding of our epoch. Whilst not an inherent weakness of Rivera’s own investigations, the depth and power of his theorizing beg application and conversation across the broader range of contemporary thought. For the power of understanding humanity through the lens of the contemplative self, in its full transcendental claim, begs the platform of being able first of all to say “Here, this and these, they sum up the facts of our contemporary pathology. And here, this, the contemplative self, opens a way to investigating the truest therapy.” Such is the nascent possibility.

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