Jean-Luc Marion: Negative Certainties

Man-to Tang

Negative Certainties Book Cover Negative Certainties
Religion and Postmodernism
Jean-Luc Marion
The University of Chicago Press
Cloth $45.00

Reviewed by: Man-to Tang (Chinese University of Hong Kong)

Edmund Husserl, in Die Idee der Phänomenologie, points out that phenomenology has two designations. The first is a science, and the second is “the specifically philosophical attitude of thought” together with “the specifically philosophical method”. [I] Since Reduction and Givenness: Investigations of Husserl, Heidegger and Phenomenology, Jean-Luc Marion critically adopts the second designation. His reception is critical because he does not simply repeat Husserl’s transcendental reduction and Heidegger’s existential reduction, but further introduces the reduction of givenness and offers a new “principle of all principles”: as much reduction, as much givenness.[ii]

His book Negative Certainties aims to expand the limits of “classical” phenomenology founded by Kant and Husserl.[iii] His innovation of phenomenological method solves four unsolved puzzles in transcendental philosophy. Man, God, the gift and the event are the puzzles, as they are ideal entities which we can think, on the one hand, but not comprehensively conceptualize or objectify, on the other hand. What is the relationship between negative certainties and the four puzzles? We can think and even “know” them, but we cannot comprehensively conceptualize or objectify them. Marion argues that “such knowledge can indeed be described as noncertain, but should not considered as uncertain, because the indetermination here plays the role of a positive qualification of that which is to be known, and does not sink down into a disqualification of its mode of knowledge” (206). It means that the indeterminablility is not equivalent to undeterminability. The indeterminable knowledge is lack of complete or adequate certainty. The lack has a positive role in the meaning-constitution as a whole. So it is false to say that the indeterminable knowledge has no certainty at all. Indeterminable knowledge is another expression of negative certainties.

There are four questions to trace the train of thought in the book:

  1. Why can’t we comprehensively conceptualize or objectify the ideal entities?
  2. If we cannot comprehensively conceptualize or objectify them, then how can we think them?
  3. If the ideal entities can be thought of without conceptualization or objectification, then are these thoughts knowledge?
  4. More importantly, what is the condition of possibility for the non-conceptual or non-objectifying thinking and the conceptual or objectifying thinking?

In the first chapter Marion performs his radical reduction of Man. The first subtitle one is: “What Is Man?” The obvious answer is: “I am a man”. Through the reduction of the “I” he finds that, instead of solving the problem, the answer leads to further obstacles. Firstly, “I” am not simply a physical thing, so I cannot be seen as an object frontally “full of meaning” (10). In addition, the term “I” is a definite pronoun, but it operates as an index rather than as a definition. Consequently, the “I” cannot exhaust what man is. Secondly, in the expression, “I am a man”, man “escapes me to the extent that the very mode of his possible knowledge, which makes him a thought object, contradicts and hides his first characteristics that of a pure thinking thing, who thinks without becoming a thought thing”. (16) The second obstacle is fundamental because the “I” becomes a thought object, rather than a pure thinking thing. It is impossible to know the pure thinking thing by the name the “I”. The name is a representation of a pure thinking thing. The name as a representation is foreign to any pure thinking thing(s), and therefore there is “a first and chief impossibility in define the essence of man, an epistemic and directly metaphysical impossibility” (15). Through a further reduction of the impossibility in defining the essence of man, Marion points out that the impossibilities are “some characteristics of knowledge by concept, there follows as a consequence the impossibility for man to name – this is, to define – a man except by reducing him to the rank of simple concepts and thereby to know not a man but an object” (25).

Does this imply that “Man” cannot be thought or known? Marion’s response is no. There is “no contradiction between the knowledge of man as the object of anthropology and the impossibility of this knowledge within a reflexive self-consciousness; for knowing me, myself [le moi] as an object, constituted by the alienation common to all objects” (25). The lesson of this reduction teaches us is that “man is the insurmountable difference between the two sides of the cogitation: the ego and the object” (25). As a result, it is impossible to exhaust the essence of man, but it is possible to incomprehensibly know and understand what Man means. Man is originally indefinite. “The original indefinition of man does not remain undecided and anonymous, but instead is inscribed and developed within the horizon opened by its assignation and its reference to the image and likeness of the visible” (50).

In the second chapter, Marion performs the reduction of God. Atheists doubt the existence of God, and even conclude the death of God. The conclusion can be formulated into a subject-predicate judgment, God is death. Atheists do not hesitate to use the concept God. However, through the reduction, Marion finds that “in order to be able to deny having an idea of God, it is necessary to have one” (58). Atheists claim that it is impossible to experience God. Nonetheless, their attribution of God (the experiential impossibility of God) already offers a perfectly conceivable and thus acceptable meaning to God. It is paradoxical that we can disqualify the knowledge of God’s essence, existence and phenomenon, but we cannot eliminate the very question of God. “Consequently, not only our (metaphysical) impossibility of demonstrating the existence of God but especially our (nonmetaphysical) impossibility of defining by concept the least essence of God becomes ambivalent themselves, and therefore problematic” (52). Through a further reduction of the impossibility of defining by concept the least essence of God, Marion realizes that “what one uncovers with the help of the concept of God is an idol, which philosophically has only the signification of making us see what idea of summon ens and of Being is generally directive” (57). It is because the second impossibility refers to the impossible de-nominates or abolishes “the limits set by metaphysics to experiences” (the possible). “This (im)possible can only be understood by opposition to that which it surpasses – by opposition to what metaphysics understands in its way as the relation between the possible and the impossible” (71). Through further reduction of the (im)possible, Marion suggests that  the term “the impossible”, in fact”, can also mean unconceivable, unthinkable or unimaginable. “There is, then, no contradiction other than what is conceivable, and nothing is conceivable that is within a conception of ours, and therefore quoad nos, for us, for our finite mind” (72-3).  If something is unconceivable, unthinkable or unimaginable, then it could never be conceivable to us. God could be conceivable to us that God is attributed by some properties, e.g. not unconceivable, unthinkable and unimaginable to us. It follows that God is not completely unconceiavle, unthinkable or unimaginable. And God is somehow epistemological possible for us. It is a valid argument (denying the consequent). Marion adds that the degree of the knowledge of God is based upon the conceivability of man. He states that “the impossible for man [us] has the name God, but God as such – as the one who alone does what man cannot even contemplate” (82). God is a name or a limiting concept of what man cannot conceive, therefore it denotes what is impossible for man (us).

In the third and fourth chapter, Marion performs the reduction of the gift. The gift is an index denoting a pure gift (the givenness) in the reflective level. The distinction is significant because of two reasons. Firstly, the gift appears as ideal and unreal, whereas a pure gift is real and denoted by the gift. Secondly, the gift appears under the conditions of experience, whereas a pure gift is nonappearent, hence it is presupposed by the gift. The gift appears as its meaning under the condition of actual experience, but it is a term of exchange. The distinction leads to a paradox: “either the gift appears in actuality, but it disappears as gift; or, it remains a pure gift, but it becomes nonapparent, in actual, excluded from the process of things, a pure idea of reason, a mere noumenon, resistance to the conditions of actual experience” (86). As a result, “it is the characteristic of the gift given that it spontaneously conceals the givenness in it” (125). Through a further reduction, “the gift is reduced to givenness by being fully realized without any consciousness of giving-without the self-consciousness…The gift reduced to givenness has no consciousness of what it does” (97-8).

By the reduction of the gift, the two moments of givenness are revealed. “The gift shows itself on the basis of itself in a double capacity: first of all, because like every other phenomenon, it gives itself on the basis of itself; next, because, more radically than every other phenomenon, it gives its self on the basis of itself” (107). On the one hand, the gift that it gives or es gibt refutes Heidegger’s claim that “the giving gives only the given, it never gives itself” (124). On the other hand, unlike the tradition of transcendental philosophy since Kant, the givenness of the gift is self-giving without employing “anything from a possibility that comes from elsewhere, such as the parsimonious calculation of sufficient reason-in short, without any other possibility than its own” (111). However, this is also dissimilar to what speculative realism aims at.  A further reduction is performed towards the self-giving of a pure gift. Marion asks, “what, then makes the visibility of the gift possible, if the very process of givenness, whereby the giver turns the gift over as given, by handing it over in its autonomous visibility?” (125). This is the key for Marion, ie. to have both the commitment of phenomenology and its way beyond the “traditional” phenomenology. Marion’s commitment to phenomenology is his insistence on the reduction, and the insistence is also his pathway beyond the “traditional” phenomenology.  Through the reduction, “the gift given allows the return from which it proceeds to appear, and gives itself up for that reason” (126). A pure gift or the givenness cannot re-veal itself in a reflective or philosophical way. It can be re-cognized through the reduction or the phenomenological reflection of the gift. To perform the radical reduction of a pure gift or the givenness, Marion aims at bringing its nonappearance into appearance; turn the invisible into the visible. This reduction is a re-turn or making anew. Therefore, “it is not a question of suppressing the gift given, for the benefit of the giver, but of making this gift transparent anew in its process of givenness by letting its giver eventually appear there, and first and always, by allowing to appear the coming-over that delivers the gift into the visible” (126). It is the very meaning of his new principle of all principles: “as much reduction, as much givenness”. He reformulates this principle in this context: “the more the giver gives, the less he loses; the more he abandons, the more he affirms himself as a consciousness irreducible to its gifts” (134). It is his hermeneutical dialectic to reveal the play between the two moments or “the game of loss and gain” in Marion’s terminology.

In the fifth chapter, Marion performs the reduction of the event. There are two characteristics in satisfying the demands of a rigorous science through clear and distinct ideas. The first is to constitute an essence (a model, a definition, a “concept”), which is known in advance and foreseeable before the production of the object. The second is to allow for the object to be repeated and reproduced through the essence. “Consequently, the possibility of the object coincides with the conditions for experience-that is, it coincides with the very conditions of scientific knowledge by definition for a finitude understanding” (159). Scientific knowledge pays attention to cognizable objects only. It leads scientific knowledge to “monopolize presence” and expel “the non-objective phenomena from the space of manifestation” (162). The demand of clear and distinct ideas begins with Descartes. By means of universal doubt, Descartes performs the reduction of wax. “The wax, then, has been reduced to what the pure cogitatio (without the senses) can grasp of it, the wax ceases to appear as a thing that is complex, multiple, with undefined properties, ever changing, never stable, in short, a thing in and  of itself” (163). This performance of reduction ceases the wax as an unforeseeable thing, then the wax becomes a foreseeable object. The wax as an unforeseeable thing is what Kant calls an object = x. Nevertheless, Kant cancels the investigation of “an object = x” through his important distinction between phenomena and noumena. He argues that any metaphysical desire to know noumena with objective validity is a misuse of categories or a categorical mistake. Unlike Kant, Descartes explains what “an object = x” means through his implicit reduction. “Things become object through the elimination of those things, or more precisely, through the elimination of that in those things which does not allow itself to be abstracted according to order and measures” (165). It means that things become objects, if and only if the thingness of things are extracted and eliminated. The thing in-itself is concealed. What remains are the appearance or phenomenon of a thing, namely the thing of-itself. It is what Marion claims “the objective interpretation of the phenomenon masks and misses its eventness” (177). The events are indexes denoting any non-object phenomena or “saturated phenomena”, whereas the objects are indexes denoting any objective phenomena or “diminished phenomena” (181).

Marion does not stop here. He performs a further reduction, and uncovers the condition of possibility for the distinction between the events and the objects. Since the “as-structure” is inscribed within the rank of the existentialia of Dasein, “the distinction between the modes of phenomenality (for us, between object and event) can be joined to the hermeneutical variations that, as existentialialia of Dasein…the distinction of phenomena into objects and events thus finds a grounding in the variations of intuition” (199). Therefore, Marion re-emphasizes his principle in this context: “the more a phenomenon appears as an event (is eventualized), the more it proves itself to be saturated with intuition. The more it appears as an object (is objectivised), the more it proves itself to be poor in intuition” (199).

In the conclusion, Marion insightfully points out that “the paradox does not prohibit the knowledge of phenomena, but on the contrary defines the figure that phenomena must take in order to manifest themselves, when they contradict the conditions the finitude cannot not impose upon them” (207). Thus, the titles on the four ideal entities, e.g. man, God, the gift and the event, employ “or” to set up the paradoxes, which are the residuum of the reduction(s): the undefinable, or the face of man (chapter 1); the impossible, or what is proper to God (chapter 2); the unconditioned, or the strength of the gift (chapter 3); and the unforeseeable, or the event (chapter 5). Throughout the book, Marion uses the phenomenological reduction to demonstrate how the double interpretation is possible by means of the “as-structure”, which is inscribed within the existentialia of Dasein. More importantly, it is Marion’s phenomenological contribution to uncover that the “as-structure” is the condition of possibility for the double interpretation: “… or…”. The uncovering is done through the phenomenological method, namely the phenomenological reduction. Consequently, Marion does not repeat what Husserl and Heidegger did, but also broadens the horizon of the unexplored phenomenological field. He is a living successor of the phenomenological movement. His book is so fruitful and rich, a book review cannot exhaust its content. Apart from the already mentioned, his analyses of different saturated phenomena like birth, sacrifice and forgiving are of great value. To borrow Marion’s terminology: reading (his) book is a “saturated phenomenon”.

[i] Husserl, E. (1973). Die Idee der Phänomenologie. Fünf Vorlesungen. Hua. Bd. II, Hrsg. von W. Biemel. The Hague, Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 23.

[ii] Marion, J. L. (1998). Reduction and Givenness: Investigations of Husserl, Heidegger and Phenomenology, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 203.

[iii] It is debatable whether phenomenology can be  divided into new and old. Still the distinction between new and classical phenomenology can be found in Leonard Lawlor’s work. He traces the Derridean and Deleuzean criticism of Husserl’s phenomenology back to Eugen Fink. In his interpretation, Fink, under the great influence of Heidegger, argues that phenomenology consists of a “new idea of philosophy”. This new idea of philosophy leads to what Lawlor calls new phenomenology. See Lawlor, L. (2003). Thinking Through French Philosophy, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 147-150.

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