As is well known, the history of the French receptions of phenomenology begins in the winter of 1929, when Husserl delivers his famous four Päriser Vorträge, translated into French by Emmanuel Levinas two years after with the title Méditations cartésiennes. From that moment onwards, phenomenology increasingly penetrated in France, giving rise to a manifold of theoretical models in which Husserl’s philosophy is reinterpreted in the light of (or in line with) other traditions and perspectives already existing in France, such as spiritualism, cartesianism, the Hegel-renaissance, etc. This complex process is doubtlessly fostered by the fact that Husserl’s Nachlass starts to be published only in 1950, when many other phenomenologists already composed their main works: for instance, that is the case for Heidegger, Levinas, Merleau-Ponty, and others. As a result, many French phenomenological approaches of the first generation tend to focus themselves on particular issues of Husserl’s phenomenology – intersubjectivity, givenness, time-consciousness, constitution, idealism/realism, etc. – rather than taking into account his thought as a whole.
It is precisely within this philosophical framework that Steven DeLay’s book, Phenomenology in France: A Philosophical and Theological Introduction, just published with Routledge, insightfully scrutinizes the relation between phenomenology and theology in a series of important French phenomenologists, such as Emmanuel Levinas, Michel Henry, Jean-Luc Marion, Jean-Yves Lacoste, Jean-Louis Chrétien, Claude Romano, and Emmanuel Falque. DeLay’s choice for these authors reassesses anew a debate that took place in the Nineties after the well-known pamphlet Le tournant théologique de la phénoménologie française, by D. Janicaud. In his text, DeLay develops a massive criticism of a certain tendency of French phenomenologists, in his view rooted in Heidegger’s “phenomenology of the inapparent,” to treat being, life, and generally the invisible as something that phenomenology could bring into view. In other words, Janicaud denounces an improper use of the phenomenological method, quite common among some philosophers – like Levinas, Henry, and Marion – who, in his eyes, apply it in absence of any kind of intuitive content. Thus, from Janicaud’s standpoint, French phenomenologists betrayed the very essence of Husserl’s project by considering the inapparent, that is something that does not come to manifestation for an intentional consciousness, as an object of phenomenological inquiry. This entails that, from this perspective, there would be no room in the phenomenological domain for Levinas’ meditation on the other’s face, Henry’s concept of life, Marion’s account of the saturated phenomenon, Lacoste’s discourse on the absolute, Chrétien’s phenomenology of the call, Romano’s notion of the event, and Falque reflection on human finitude.
Such a criticism has been reprised in more recent times by J. Benoist, who recalled Janicaud’s argument by arguing that a phenomenology of the inapparent is surreptitiously based upon theism. In other words, where there is nothing to see, there can be no phenomenology. In response, as DeLay emphasizes in the Introduction, Marion replies that, if claiming to see is not sufficient to prove that one saw, then the pretense of not seeing does not prove that there is nothing to see. As a result, “in arguing that faith lacks any genuine independent phenomenological basis, the atheistic objection betrays itself. If right, then it, too, on closer scrutiny, proves to be a matter of interpretation based on predilection” (3). From this perspective, this book aims at providing new arguments in favor of a serious confrontation between phenomenology and theology as a strictly philosophical issue. Of course, rather than a demonstration of God’s existence, what is at stake for a phenomenological approach to faith is an in-depth description of the relevance of faith in our everyday experience and in our own subjectivity’s constitution. In other words, a phenomenological inquiry that would not take into account faith and its particular modes of manifestation, would fall into a naturalistic vision of the world experience and would therefore suffer from a serious inconsistency with the basic principles of phenomenological method. This view, strongly defended by DeLay, is also testified by the fact that Husserl himself does not elude the problem of our experience of God within the general framework of his phenomenology. This does not mean that Husserl’s treatment of the idea of God is free from any difficulty or ambiguity, to the extent that there remains a certain tension between God as the infinite telos of humanity and the traditional God of faith. Nevertheless, what is remarkable is Husserl’s strong commitment to the clarification of religious experience for transcendental life and, hence, the relation between phenomenology and theology.
Under these premises, DeLay’s book firstly reconstructs the well-known quarrel between Husserl and Heidegger about the core mission of phenomenology: is it to be focused on consciousness’ intentionality or clarify the sense of Being in general? Whereas, on the one hand, Heidegger blames Husserl for being somehow hostage to the traditional problem of modern philosophy, on the other hand, Husserl totally disagrees with Heidegger’s account of phenomenology as the method of ontology. Accordingly, a dilemma seems to arise regarding the very nature of phenomenology: is it about a description of intentional acts of a transcendental subject, or an ontological comprehension of Dasein in view of an interpretation of Being hüberhaupt? As argued by DeLay, this dilemma radically influenced the development of phenomenology in France, as if it were the only issue truly at stake. In a certain sense, it is as if doing phenomenology today would entail a fundamental choice between Husserl’s and Heidegger’s perspectives, or at least seeking for a compromise between them. According to DeLay, however diffused this attitude may be, it reveals a strong incompleteness in the consideration of the phenomenological scene as a whole. Indeed, the French phenomenological debate after the Second World War is much more complex: for instance, Levinas’ thought challenges the option between phenomenology and ontology and confers the role of first philosophy to ethics. For the sake of completeness, it must be taken into account that, whereas a first generation of phenomenologists (Henry and Marion) is primarily influenced by Husserl and a second generation (Chrétien and Lacoste) is clearly inspired by Heidegger, there is also a third generation (Romano and Falque) strictly indebted to Merleau-Ponty. Furthermore, it would be very interesting to clarify the historical and theoretical reasons why Sartre played so little influence in France, albeit in the Anglophone world is considered as a leading figure of post-Husserlian phenomenology.
In this respect, this book may be read as an effort to do justice to the high complexity of a theoretical movement that we are used to call “French phenomenology” although it includes a number of different approaches to phenomenology, often in open opposition to Husserl’s one. For instance, this is the case for Levinas’ thought discussed in the first chapter. As is well known, if on the one hand Levinas directly contributed to the diffusion of Husserl’s thought in France (with his translation of the Päriser Vorträge), on the other hand he developed an original perspective that deeply challenged the Husserlian project. Indeed, for Levinas the question of subjectivity is inextricably intertwined with ethics, namely the domain of our encounter with the “face of the Other” and the “trace of God.” It is precisely for this reason that Levinas refuses both Husserl’s and Heidegger’s account of phenomenology: what is really at stake for phenomenology is not intentionality or Being, but our ethical responsibility to others. Through his core thesis on “ethics as first philosophy,” Levinas set the stage for a great part of the subsequent reflections upon phenomenology in France. Of course, one may doubtlessly disagree with this thesis; nevertheless, after Levinas the notion of “the face of the Other” becomes an unavoidable one, insofar as it marks the uniqueness of the human being. Rather than being merely based on intentionality, human subjectivity is constituted by the invisible appeal of the other that, appearing from beyond consciousness, commands us “thou shall not commit murder.” Accordingly, the other puts my freedom into question, interrupts what Levinas calls the “enjoyment of the same,” namely my egoistic enjoyment of myself, in order to call me to my fundamental responsibility to others and, thus, to the possibility of justice.
In the beginning of the third chapter, DeLay emphasizes how Henry’s phenomenological approach, in line with Levinas’ inspection of our common egoistic attitude toward life, leads to a radical criticism of contemporary culture as rooted in a cult of exteriority. In this perspective, it is worth reading Henry starting from one of his late (and miscomprehended) works, La barbarie (1987), whose core thesis is that Western civilization progressively forgot, and thus mystified, the radical experience of life, which manifests itself as an invisible subjective self-affection. Almost totally absorbed by technology and the entertainment machine, extreme instances of the realm of the visible, our culture suffers from a serious unawareness of its very essence. More closely, the motives of its malaise are to be found in the historical process – from the birth of modern science – when the description of subjectivity has been gradually reduced into a description of a world made of objects. Accordingly, the undiscussed primacy of the natural sciences, with their technological applications, completely covered the affective essence of life, unique condition of manifestation of the world’s exteriority. As DeLay puts into light, the distinction between the manifestation of life and the givenness of the world is the real leitmotif of Henry’s entire philosophical career since L’essence de la manifestation (1963) and constitutes his radical criticism of Husserl’s phenomenology as well. Indeed, in Henry’s eyes, Husserl’s phenomenology rests upon the unquestioned assumption of subjectivity as an intentional consciousness in correlation with a noematic content in its objectivity (Gegenständlichkeit). As a result, regardless of the mode through which this objectivity is given to consciousness (i.e. perception, memory, dream, expectation, etc.), intentionality always entails a structure of givenness in exteriority and, by contrast, does not take into account the immanent phenomenality of life. By recalling the French spiritualist tradition, as well as some aspects of Kierkegaard’s thought, Henry claims that phenomenology requires being upset in order to overcome its intentional framework and, doing so, grasp the very essence of subjectivity, intersubjectivity, and temporality. In a word, the invisible experience of self-affection, described in Incarnation as the phenomenon of the flesh. Without the pathos of life revealing itself in the flesh, nothing can be seen. It is precisely throughout this priority of pathos of life over intentionality that Henry develops his account of the interaction between phenomenology and theology. Indeed, undoubtedly inspired both by John’s Prologue and Paul’s Letters, Henry maintains that the flesh is precisely the locus of God’s self-revelation, namely where we experience ourselves as engendered by God. In this sense, the flesh is characterized as an “Arch-Revelation”, insofar as it constitutes the originary mode of self-revelation in which I experience God within a pure transcendental affectivity, before any historical emergence of meaning and practice.
In line with both Levinas’ description of the “face” and Henry’s meditation on life, Marion’s phenomenology of givenness accomplishes that inversion of phenomenology so wished by Henry (chapter four). From a phenomenological viewpoint, Marion poses the question whether Levinas’ account of the face could count for other phenomena as well, rising up into our experience without any possibility of prevision, control, and subjective constitution. Precisely as the Other’s face, which manifests itself in my experience before any intentional act, are there any particular phenomena, whose main feature is to constitute subjectivity, rather than being constituted by intentionality? In other words, could one conceive of a different mode of givenness from objectivity? In this case, which kind of manifestation would involve these “non-objects”? Marion’s entire theoretical path aims at responding to this fundamental question that, in his eyes, represents the unique question really at stake for phenomenology. Accordingly, the distinction between the idol and icon Marion develops in Dieu sans l’être and L’idole et la distance, rather than being uniquely a theological reflection about God after onto-theology, has a strictly phenomenological relevance, insofar as it sets the stage for what he calls, from Etant donné onwards, “saturated phenomena.” Indeed, if the inspection of the notion of God after nihilism leads Marion to overcome onto-theology by conceiving of God’s revelation in terms of gift, his deconstruction of both Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology and Heidegger’s ontology allows him for a radical reassessment of the phenomenological concept of gift and givenness. In brief, transcendental subjectivity is appropriate only for describing our experience of objects: they are under our power of constitution, control, prevision, etc. Nevertheless, objects do not complete the whole horizon of givenness; rather, they represent a little part of all phenomena one may experience. Indeed, there is a wide range of phenomena whose main trait is to manifest themselves as totally unpredictable events: for instance, the icon, the face, flesh, and revelation. Phenomenologically speaking, these phenomena entail a “counter-intentionality”: by this expression, Marion indicates that, by experiencing them, subjectivity reveals itself as constituted instead of constituting. As a result, Marion’s inversion of transcendental phenomenology leaves the room for revelation as a pure phenomenological excess, namely that inexhaustible event through which subjectivity founds itself and, at the same time, its relation with any other variety of manifestation. As DeLay insightfully concludes, “Marion’s phenomenology of saturated givenness reveals, in unmistakable fashion, an excess awaiting complete fulfilment in a world to come, one prepared for everyone who loves devotedly the truth in this one. Glory is a negative certainty” (95).
An original description of the relation between man and God is provided by Lacoste and Chrétien (recently passed away), to whom DeLay dedicates the fifth and sixth chapters of his book. For Lacoste, deeply inspired by Marion’s and Henry’s projects of reversion of classical phenomenology, if intentionality is deeply rooted in what Heidegger calls “being-in-the-world,” a genuine understanding of this concept requires a precise inspection of what is to be intended by the notion of the “world.” With this aim, he locates the place of humanity beyond earth and the world. In order to grasp it, Lacoste suggests overcoming both Husserl’s and Heidegger’s perspectives through what he calls “liturgical reduction”, which, without denying our entrenchment in the world, fosters us to take distance from it. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that Lacoste does not merely refers to liturgy as a ritual of ecclesial worship. Rather, liturgy is the attitude by which we open ourselves to a horizon exceeding the world. It is precisely in this desire for something beyond the limits of time, and thus of death, that man experiences the presence of God. From Lacoste’s perspective, this phenomenological framework opened by liturgical reduction inaugurates a new place where the world is no longer interposed between man and God. Accordingly, entering such a space, we discover ourselves as pilgrims directed to an eschaton beyond the time of the world. A very similar direction is taken by Chrétien, whose core thesis is that our voice articulates itself only after an originary calling. In other words, the simple fact that we speak is possible only to the extent that we feel asked by someone or something to respond. This means that something has originary reached us, exposing us to the possibility to break the silence. As Chrétien puts into light, this situation characterizes the human condition as one of peril. Indeed, being called to speak entails that we are confronted with our radical responsibility. More precisely, being capable of speech means assuming the responsibility for what we have said or will say: in this sense, what makes our speech human is not its intelligibility, but our responsibility towards what is said through our voice. Thus, being human consists in being “individuated as the unique voice that we are” (120).
The process of hetero-constitution of subjectivity by the liturgical space (Lacoste) and the originary call (Chrétien) is developed as a phenomenological and hermeneutic description of the event by Romano (chapter 7). According to Romano, in order to grasp the phenomenological uniqueness of the event, one has to deal with a new paradigm of rationality based upon a non-objective experience in which we could be flooded by the event of an absolute manifestation (something recalling the Pauline figure of the parousia). As a consequence, the advenant, namely who receives the event, is confronted with a non-objective experience, approachable only through interpretation. This means that, in Romano’s perspective, a phenomenological description of the event is possible only as hermeneutics. Accordingly, hermeneutic phenomenology reveals its relevance in order to describe the human posture towards the event: phenomenology as hermeneutics and hermeneutics as phenomenology. Therefore, throughout the phenomenological description of event, what reveals itself as really at stake in Romano’s thought is a new conception of reason. Indeed, thinking the event is not merely the consideration of a particular but marginal phenomenon. Rather, it entails a reassessment of phenomenology in the history of Western thought: this is precisely the task of “evential hermeneutics”.
The last author discussed by DeLay is Falque (chapter 8). In direct confrontation with the major French phenomenologists, his reflection is dedicated to the issue whether finitude is the ultimate condition of man. If not, is a metamorphosis of finitude possible? With the aim of responding to these questions, Falque claims that “the more we theologize, the more we philosophize.” After the season of the debate about the “theological turn of French phenomenology,” according to Falque it is necessary to go further through the project of a conjoint practice of philosophy and theology. Unlike a diffused attitude toward existence, focused on its anguish, anxiety, and senseless affliction (i.e. Sartre, Heidegger, Camus, etc.), the Christian existence is one of joy. Once made the choice to believe, one lives differently than before: toil and trouble leave the room to freedom and light. Thus, a metamorphosis is possible as a new birth by which one can finally breathe. Furthermore, Falque describes metamorphosis’ status as an event: notably, the event of the Resurrection inaugurates time, rather than merely being in time. Doing so, Christ’s Resurrection breaks the immanence of finitude and changes the structure of the world. As a result, Falque develops a new phenomenological framework in which the faith in Christ radically upsets our experience of the world: Death is no longer the horizon of existence, insofar as finitude is completely overcome.
As a matter of fact, in DeLay’s book there is much more than what can be summarized in a review. This essay in not only an excellent introduction to some French philosophers more or less known; rather, it develops a fundamental argument about the fruitfulness of a radical reassessment of the relation between philosophy and theology for the phenomenological reflection that is still to come. For, as DeLay recalls at the end of the last chapter, «No horizon encompasses the hand of the most High—L’Esprit souffle où il veut.»