Michael Barber: Religion and Humor as Emancipating Provinces of Meaning

Religion and Humor as Emancipating Provinces of Meaning Book Cover Religion and Humor as Emancipating Provinces of Meaning
Contributions to Phenomenology, 91
Michael Barber
Hardcover 96,29 €
XV, 231

Reviewed by: Adrian Razvan Sandru (Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen)

Michael Barber investigates Alfred Schutz’s psychological phenomenology (6) aiming at describing the possibility of emancipation from the stress of everyday life through non-pragmatic regions of meaning. Barber believes that Schutzian phenomenology has the potential of emancipation even though Schutz was weary of committing society to normative determinations and he considered reason to be merely an explanatory instrument in determining the relation between means and ends. Barber grounds the possibility of emancipation in Schutz as follows: 1) the «world of working» – the everyday life of an agent oriented toward pragmatic goals – consists of morally neutral pragmatic situations. At the center of these stands the ego agens as 0-point of all its projects and plans which it needs to master and accomplish. 2) The pragmatical relevances – i.e. the hierarchical ordering of one’s plans and projects – of the ego agens are often confronted with obstacles which may or may not be overcome. 3) The confrontation with higher-level obstacle – such as death, natural phenomena or societal restraints – leads to the ago agens developing pragmatic meta-levels of coping with obstacles and uncertainties such as «the medical industry, massive security measures, or the societal suppression of uncomfortable questions and the development of central myths» (24). Barber argues that such meta-level strategies – meant to defend lower-level pragmatic interests – may lead to pathological needs of mastering the world and exerting one’s control and manifest themselves as «domination of others» or «psychological neuroses». 4) Relief from such pathologies can be provided by non-pragmatic regions of meaning such as literature, phantasy, dreaming, or theoretical endeavors. 5) These can however also be endangered by the pragmatic anxieties of not reaching one’s goals and thus require grounding in something more. 6) This something more would be, according to Barber, «someone else», i.e the other embodied in the religious and humorous non-pragmatic provinces of meaning. Drawing and building on Schutz’s «On multiple realities»[1] Barber speaks of religion and humor not just as opposing the world of working but also as provinces of meaning standing in a dialectical relation to everyday life: they can free us from pragmatic anxieties, shed new light on the possibilities of everyday life, and incorporate pragmatic bodily functions essential for communication. Thus, the pragmatic and non-pragmatic are also inter-dependent. Non-pragmatic provinces resist the pragmatic in not being accomplishment-oriented but rely on the latter to manifest themselves in communicative acts.

Barber’s book aims thus not only at reconstructing Schutz’s phenomenology but also at extending it to address the possibility of emancipation. In doing so he hopes to develop an account of non-pragmatic regions of meaning which can communicate and reflect on the pragmatic but also and more importantly address current social, racial, cultural, and psychological issues. In this vein he describes religion and humor as intersubjective experiences which can bridge the conflictual differences afflicting our current society. Barber’s undertaking is remarkable in several aspects: he describes in a Schutzian manner the constitution of the natural attitude; he accepts and further develops Schutz’s extension of this natural attitude through several regions of meaning; building on this he addresses the problem of intersubjectivity in phenomenology and tries to offer several solutions to current societal issues based on it; he addresses the relevancy of religion in a secular world and gives an exhaustive account of humor and its inner workings. Given that Barber relies on Schutz to achieve this I shall first give an account of his reconstruction of the Schutzian philosophy. From this I shall move to discussing in detail the above mentioned aspects of Barber’s book. Even though I appreciate Barber’s attempt I do believe that he runs into some issues discussing the character of religion and of humor as emancipating regions of meaning. This is why I shall also give a short account of the concerns I had reading the book presented here. This shall be followed by a conclusion in which I weigh in once again on the positives and negatives of Barber’s work.

Alfred Schutz and the World of Working

As Barber explains, Schutz – being influenced by Max Weber, Henri Bergson and Edmund Husserl – grounds his description of everyday life on a stream of consciousness in which present experiences are lived, future ones are anticipated and past ones are mediated by memory. He sees the formation of meaning of this stream of consciousness in a twofold fashion: first, experiences receive meaning via intentionality, i.e. by singling out experiences and reflecting on them; second, by planning in future past tense we can imagine a project, which as a goal provides meaning to any action we undertake. An important step in describing the world of working is the standardization of these meanings through culture. The standardization occurs as both general typification – concepts such as cats, dogs, trees, house etc. – and as personal typification – the ordering of our interests in hierarchical relevances (e.g. I study in order to receive a well payed job). Even though these typifications occur in culture and are thus intrinsically intersubjective – as language typification shows – they also pertain to subjective meanings as they are formed in the personal temporal unfolding of consciousness of each subject. Despite this they present a common pragmatic ground which makes communication possible. Communication and relating to others in general are also determined by our temporal and spatial state. When space and time are shared with another, subjects take part in the unfolding of each other’s stream of consciousness and influence each other’s typifications.[2] When only time is a shared determination the other is only known as a Contemporary based on typifying inferences leading to an ideal-type. Other ideal-types would be Successors and Predecessors. This kind of pre-reflective typisations constitute our social world, which Schutz holds to be dominated by pragmatic relevances, though he does not accept pragmatism as a viable description of everyday world. Instead, he relies on phenomenology and its methods: aiming objects as form of interacting; eidetic variations as determining essences; the epoché as explaining transitions from one finite region of meaning to another. The latter are not to be understood as ontological structures but as coherent domains of experience which we determine as real by inhabiting them. These regions of meaning are spelled out by a shared «cognitive style» determined by six features: 1) a tension of consciousness which is described in a Bergsonian manner as the attention to life needed at accomplishing projects; 2) the epoché as accessing a certain region of meaning; 3) a form of spontaneity which in the world of working describes the pragmatic involvement of the ego agens, i.e. the pragmatic agent engaged in its projects, in the world through bodily actions; 4) «a specific form of experiencing oneself» ( 5) which in the world of working would consist in an undivided and non-reflective subject living in the present of its projects; 5) «a specific form of sociality (as it is experienced in common sense communication)» (5); 6) and lastly temporality. Given that Barber describes the religious and humorous region of meaning by means of these attributes of the cognitive style I shall present his account of religion and humor in the same manner.

Cognitive Style of Religion

The first attribute of the cognitive style addressed by Barber is the tension of consciousness. Barber associates religion with Bergon’s pure memory as release from the tension of everyday life (10; Bergson, 1950). The tension of consciousness is loosened in religion as believers turn over the control over their lives to a transcendent and establish the latter as the absolute value of their system of relevances. By doing this, a certain objective order is ascribed to the world, through which everything is part of a higher order plan.[3] This, the unconditioned objective order which does not blame failure, helps the ego agens cope with the possibility of not achieving its goals. This in turn helps the ego agens have a more relaxed attitude towards its plans and help it better achieve them, without being plagued by anxieties of failure. Thus, the leaping into a non-pragmatic region of meaning can shed new light on the pragmatic and improve one’s engagement in the world by providing relief from the anxieties of the world of working. The transition from one region of meaning to another is achieved via a certain form of epoché. This transition functions in a Husserlian way by opening up new regions of meaning. In religion this is achieved through sacred spaces, times, and rituals. These isolate the individual from everyday life and inscribe one in a religious appresentative state: «the religious epoché displaces one from straightforward engagement with the world, reorients one’s system of coordinates, and alters one’s relevance scheme» (p12). One can however further engage the world both in a pragmatic and in a religious way. Both manners of involvement require a certain spontaneity of the individual. The involvement in the world of working is thought as being purposive, namely determined by the possibility of achieving goals. The assessment of this possibility and the non-reflective involvement of the ego agens rely on the typisation of past actions. Through the passive representation of accomplished past actions the pragmatic subject determines a certain goal as possible. This possibility is embodied in the sentence «I can do that again». This determines the possibility of any goal starting from the ego agens as the 0-point of every action. In religion, the story differs. In this region of meaning, the transcendent is set as the ultimate goal, independent from us. This relativizes any other pragmatic goal and makes it lower-order. Such relativizing process may soothe personal anxieties regarding the possibility of pragmatic failure. Liberation however requires that we relate properly to the transcendent. The proper way proposed by Barber is absolute giving over to the transcendent which strips the ego agens of its characteristic as 0-point of all action. This stands in close relation to the fourth attribute of the cognitive style, namely the form of experiencing one’s self. In the world of working one understands oneself as the unity of his involvement in the world and as the «0-point of one’s spatiotemporal and social coordinates» (13). In religion one sees one’s entire history as the appresentation of the transcendent. As such one does not see oneself as the sole conductor of one’s life. As such, one’s involvement in the world is relieved from anxiety as one understands failures not as absolute but as inscribed in a certain purposiveness. This departure from an egocentrical world view reflects itself in the fifth attribute – sociability – too. Just as in phantasy one can enter religion alone or with others. Religious experience accentuates though sociability as the temporality of religion allows for the «socializing» with predecessors in a ritual time. The same ritual aspect of religion weakens the self-oriented typifications and strengthens other-oriented ones. As such «religion engenders social responsibility for the others» (14). As it was shown, the temporality of religion also differs from the one of the world of working. In religion time presents a non-linear character in which passed events or moments may be re-actualized as actually present and not just as memories. This allows for a multivectorial time which provides relief from the linear and future-oriented time of the world of working.

These six attributes show how each aspect of everyday life can be reinterpreted in religion in such a manner that the pragmatic is made relative. Paradoxically, exactly this relativizing of the pragmatic reinforces the pragmatic possibility of the ego agens: not afflicted by anxieties, one can better accomplish one’s projects. This overarching pragmatic view can however raise certain questions. These will be addressed in the section to follow.

Intrinsic and Imposed Relevances

As explained shortly above, everyday life is mainly constituted by the pragmatic engagement in the world. This engagement relies on typisations and passive synthesis which standardize behaviors and actions improving the efficacy of pragmatic agency. Based on such standardized action, the ego agens determines the possibility of a future action based on past successful ones and concludes «I can do it again». By inhabiting the world of working in this way it also posits itself as the 0-point of its actions. Starting from its spatio-temporal and societal coordinates the pragmatic self determines which plans and projects it can accomplish. The plans and projects are in their turn conditioned by one’s intrinsic relevance system: what one wishes to attain. However, the ego agens is also confronted with imposed relevances and obstacles. The confrontation between imposed and intrinsic relevances can give rise to the meta-strategies at mastering the world. These consist in converting the imposed relevances into intrinsic ones manifested as plans and projects which the ego agens carries out. The degree of imposed relevances can however bring about a conflict in the ego agens, which can lead, according to Barber and Schutz, to pathologies such as anxiety or depression: «it is this collision of intrinsic relevances and imposed relevances that prompts us to turn to non-pragmatic finite provinces of meaning like religion and humor» (47). It seems that non-pragmatic regions of meaning are responses to an increased level of anxiety determined by higher-order imposed relevances which cannot be overcome in a pragmatic way: non-pragmatic regions provide relief as the subject renounces control and ceases to act pragmatically. This may relativize the relevance of the pragmatic self and allow for a more relaxed repositioning of the subject in the world-of-working. This description however also presents some difficulties. The starting point in discussing religion and the transcendent is clearly the religious community regarded from a pragmatic standpoint. One gets the feeling, from the beginning of the book, that this entire involvement in religion only occurs because one is stressed and needs relief. The danger of this is to drag the non-pragmatic into the pragmatic as a kind of Feuerbachian response to finitude. Given that Barber states at times that the pragmatic subject re-identifies and sees itself as a new self from the point view of religion, I do not think that he thinks that religion is purely a non-pragmatic tool for the pragmatic. Nevertheless, one does get the feeling that this danger — which is announced in the beginning by Barber — is not dealt enough with and is also not overcome by the communicative dialectics, which Barber proposes as answer to the relation between the pragmatic and the non-pragmatic. The dialectic of communication states that religion not only opposes pragmatic provinces but also makes use of them as communicatory tools. This however does not answer my concern regarding the reduction of religion to pragmatics. A more plausible answer might be the fundamental aspect of the non-pragmatic region of religion explained by Barber as the absolute entrusting of oneself to the transcendent. This absolute entrusting would then eliminate the danger of reduction: even though one is lead to religion by pragmatically induced anxiety, the absolute entrusting ensures that one does not return to the region of pragmatics in the same manner and that therefore one’s relation to the transcendent is not pragmatically determined. Even though this makes clearer how religion interacts with the pragmatic region of meaning without being absorbed in it, it still doesn’t resolve all issues of the religious province of meaning. In the same context of mastering the world Barber says: «we address imposed relevances through all sorts of approaches, from ignoring them, suppressing them, or even developing central myths about the superiority of our own social group» (8.) Here, Barber explains how the pragmatic integrity of a pragmatic community can be defended by mastering strategies relying on a central myth, which can reinforce the mastering identity of said community. Barber does not explain in my opinion how religion avoids acting as a central myth and as such as acting as a hyper-mastering strategy, even when the subjects give themselves completely over to a transcendent. It seems that these issues need be addressed given that we are confronted time and time again with religious fanatism and discrimination. It seems all the more stranger that he does not discuss in detail such issues as he does address it in the case of humor. Barber acknowledges that religion may be seen in a negative way but chooses not to go into detail in this matter. Instead, he states that he deals with an ideal understanding of religion and does point to the necessity of religion being in contact to the theoretical region of meaning for constant revision. I believe that he does not address such issues in depth because he chooses to speak of religion in a universal manner, without differentiating too much between multiple forms of religion. Barber attempts to resolve the problematic of religious variety by ascribing a generic «transcendent» as religious object and appresentation as religious process. In addition to this, he provides several examples of rituals from different religions which match this description. I believe that this is not enough in order to resolve the above mentioned issue and moreover restrains Barber to a generic discourse, which cannot address very specific topics. Furthermore, this generic discourse also neglects the variety of «transcendences» present in different religions. This is for me the overarching problem with Barber’s analysis of religion. One gets the feeling that all forms of religion are constituted by a pragmatic response to an obstacle which relies on a ritualistic process in the name of an absolute power. As such, one could argue that non-pragmatic provinces are constituted by pragmatic ones and for the sake of pragmatic improvement: «Paradoxically, leaping into a province of meaning, in which pragmatic relevances no longer govern, may in some cases be the most pragmatic way of dealing with the difficult-to-control dangers jeopardizing lower-level projects and relevances» (25). This circularity might be problematic as the non-pragmatic provinces would be essentially pragmatically oriented and as such instrumentalized (the other included).

Cognitive Style of Humor

Barber relies on the incongruity theory to describe the intentionality of humor as a non-linear, disturbed one. He argues more precisely that intentionality does not attain its goal as the result of a certain comical event is unexpected: humor breaks away from the expectations of everyday life and does so with a flexibility which allows for laughter. This phenomenological description is, as Barber argues, universal for all humor related phenomena. He also states that the incongruity theory underlines the other two major humor description models: the superiority and the relief theory. In the first case it is argued that one finds something to be funny only as one adopts a superiority stance over that something. In the second description, humor is described as relief of built up tension. Barber argues that in both cases incongruity is first required. The definition of humor is completed later on (151) by two criteria: the first one is that the experience must be enjoyable and it leads to the second, namely that the person experiences the scenario as laughable. I do not know in what degree this really adds to the definition of humor. Incongruity is a powerful argument, but the laughability of humor somehow seems tautological. This concern is resolved later in the book (177) where Barber further explains what laughter and enjoyment actually stand for. Humor detaches itself from the world of working as it has no practical value, instead it only pertains to the enjoyment of incongruities without any other goal. Due to these characteristics it relaxes the restrictions of everyday life by showing that pragmatic relevances can be viewed from another, i.e. comical, perspective. Furthermore, it also has a cathartic function allowing for the venting of tensions in a — ideally — benign way. These last two aspects of humor pertain to the relaxation of the tension of consciousness. Furthermore, incongruities are not rationally interpreted in humor. Instead, they are processed in passive syntheses which surprise the subject with their speed of development. They pertain thus to a certain loosening of the control of the subject and therefore to a loosened tension of consciousness. The transition to these humorous region of meaning is again achieved through an epoché, in this case a comical one. The comical epoché makes apparent the intersubjective nature of humor «perhaps because the humorous province of meaning usually relies on companions, including comedians, who invite others to leap with them into the province» (182). I believe this is one of the most important distinctions to religion. While religion affords a solitary connection with the transcendent and a leap into its region of meaning, humor is conditioned by the immanent other, who has the role of inviting.[4] In short, the transition to the humorous region of meaning relies on the invitation – mediated by body or language cues or specially designated times and spaces such as comedy clubs – of another. The leap in humor often happens in hindsight, when laughter occurs and incongruity is processed in reflection. The enjoyment of this incongruity is the form of the third attribute of the cognitive style, namely the form of spontaneity. Thus, humor relaxes spontaneity as disinterested and purposeless enjoyment. When this enjoyment or when the joke is not fully dedicated to the incongruity and for its own sake then the humorous region of meaning is not achieved. When this is though achieved, one’s experience of oneself – the fourth attribute – changes. The humorous self is a split self as it leaves the pragmatic region in which it is an undivided self, focused on the task at hand and often resorting to formerly developed patterns of behavior. Splitting the self occurs as the comical reveals hidden unconscious actions (such as weird bodily movements) and reorganizes one’s relation to one’s self. This, is explained by Barber through Helmuth Plessner (1970) who calls humans eccentric: «rooted in a body and yet able to take a perspective from outside itself upon itself» (198). Thus, while the pragmatic self thrives in predictability, the humorous self is directed towards incongruity and interruption which diversifies perspective. All this equips humor with a certain flexibility which not only loosens the tension of consciousness and helps the ego agens but also allows for reflection and reassessment of societal conditions. This of course also shapes one’s sociability. The experience of sociability can range from intimacy to aggression. However, when one respects the structure of humor, as Barber argues, humor normally tends towards intimacy, in which a comical community is built and which allows for a flexible ascription of roles: each one of the members can be the joker or the listener. In this community, trust plays an interesting and important role, namely it both determines the possibility of humor — without trust one might be insulted — and is itself determined by humor — trust that is met with trust is also reinforced by humor. The last attribute of the humorous province of meaning is its temporality. Just like phantasy, dreaming, or religion, humor does not deal with objects fixed in time. Instead, it brings a sort of temporal flexibility: it can slow down time, it can rearrange the temporality of a situation by re-assessing it from the viewpoint of incongruity (after the punch-line one reassess a certain temporal process as leading toward the comical climax). However, unlike religion, humor cannot reverse time and it cannot make something past or future present.

Face-to-face Humor

Barber gives an exhaustive account of humor contrasting Schutz’s view with other concurrent theories. The remarkably interesting aspect of the analysis of this region of meaning is its interracial and intercultural potential, as Barber explains it. Intersubjectivity is closely related to the humorous epoché: the very accessing of humor is determined by cues given by another. After the epoché is reached one’s expectations are shattered by the passive synthesis of events developing at a surprising speed. This incongruity re-shapes perspectives bringing to light hidden aspects of experience. Furthermore, as explained above, the very humorous style of an individual is influenced by the passive absorption of different humorous styles from different individuals. This also involves an interracial sensibility to humor: through associative absorbing, a situation — which could otherwise present interracial tensions — can be understood in a more relaxed and comical way. Barber further develops this thought stating that humor can reveal hidden cultural determinations of our behavior, submitting them in a comical way to a reflective process, which could loosen sociocultural preconceptions. This aspect of Barber’s book is interesting insofar as it deals with sensitive social issues through the agency of a more relaxed environment prone to intersubjecivity. Here, however, the idealistic manner of treating different regions of meaning is also felt. Barber often speaks of his African-American friend who through humor makes Barber conscious of his cultural background. This in turn helps Barber better understand himself and relate to his friend. Intercultural or interracial jokes and humor can however also turn into clichés and/or discriminatory typifications, which mediated by humor may appear benign. In the case of humor, Barber does see the danger of racism and discrimination and addresses it in chapter 7.4. Based on Schutz he argues that humor is also the medium of discriminatory typifications of closed groups through which they denigrate the Stranger. As a solution he offers a face-to-face humor, namely a humor based on interpersonal relationships. Face to face, says Barber, the subjects are constantly confronted with each other. This regulates humor insofar as the face-to-face situation forces both teller as well as listener to measure each other’s responses and exchange perspectives. He develops on this with examples of his already mentioned African-American friend. He states that his jokes make Barber aware of cultural differences as well give him insight in the oppression experienced by the African-American community. This opens the way for interracial communication. This account is indeed an interesting alternative to intercultural and interracial approaches but it does have, in my opinion, a weak spot. It remains ideal as it speaks of already friendly relationships in which respect is presupposed. Furthermore, it offers as example the jokes of a person which is described by Barber as kind and always willing to breach racial barriers (166). Based on this, it seems to me that the kindness of the joke teller and his disposition and respect to the other build the basis for non-racist jokes and not the face-to-face situation. The same can be said about another requirement of intersubjective comical community, namely trust. If trust is part of humor from the outset,[5] then humor between parties in tension would not be possible. Furthermore, it strengthens the worry, that Barber bases his analyses of humor on examples of humor within an established relationship of friendship. This question would be answered, if one accepts a common, universal, and underlying trust between all people which can be reinforced by humor and thus improving interracial relations. There is however no argument for such a trust in Barber’s book and its mere presupposition would be problematic.


In conclusion I think that Barber’s handling of humor is more interesting and appealing than his expose on religion. I think the problem with his analysis of religion lies within the fact that he analyses religion as a unitary and uniform concept: he reduces a variety of religions to a system of relevances and a relationship to the transcendent which strips his analysis of specificity and in depth analysis of religious phenomena. On the other hand, humor is treated in its entirety as it is looked at on its own. A further advantage of humor in this book is that it is more universal than religion. Religions each have their own set of rituals and dogmas which I do not think can be reduced to some sort of universal set of relevances. On the other hand, humor is described as flexible and adaptable to each situation. Furthermore, each one of us can relate to a comical phenomenon and as such, humor is universal. I regret not being able to discuss other interesting themes of Barber’s book such as Schutz’s view on passive synthesis and the constitution of the natural attitude, the dialectical nature of the collective and the individual in religion, the relation between the reflexive and the pragmatic self in the world of working and its relation to death, etc. Unfortunately, due to lack of space I had to focus on the main goals of Barber’s book: explaining humor and religion as emancipating regions of meaning. As I have stated, I think the analysis of humor is more precise and clear. Nevertheless, both topics shed light on the possibilities of alternate solutions to intercultural, interracial and psychological issues. This makes Barber’s book worthy to read.


Schutz, Alfred. 1962. On multiple realities. In The problem of social reality, ed. M. Natanson, 207–259. Vol. 1 of Collected Papers. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

Plessner, Helmuth. 1970. Laughing and crying: A study of the limits of human behavior. Trans. J.S. Churchill and M. Grene. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Bergson, Henri. 1950. Matter and memory. Trans. N.M. Paul and W.S. Palmer. London/New York: George Allen and Unwin, Ltd./The Macmillan Company.

[1] Barber does not only discuss «On multiple realities». He provides a detailed historical development of Schutz’ thought. Unfortunately, I am not able to go into detail concerning this historical account due to space restrictions. This aspect of Barber’s book would be nevertheless of great interest for any Schutzian scholar.

[2] This is important in Barber’s account of face-to-face humor.

[3] Barber explains this relation to the transcendent in a Husserlian way, namely by means of appresentation: symbols function as appresentative loci for the divine.

[4] One can of course re-live a past comical event by oneself, but this would also be intersubjective in nature as humor is often associative and reflected in connection to the humorous style of another. Barber refers here to a «passive absorbtion» of other humorous styles which shape the humor region of meaning in an intersubjective manner.

[5] As shown above.

Jean-Luc Marion: Givenness and Revelation

Givenness and Revelation Book Cover Givenness and Revelation
Jean-Luc Marion
Oxford University Press
Hardcover $40.00

Reviewed by: Adrian Razvan Sandru (Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen)

Jean-Luc Marion’s new book Givenness and Revelation is a collection of the four Gifford Lectures Marion delivered in 2014. The book reiterates the concept of a saturated phenomenon as a pure given, which has been a recurrent theme of Marion’s works since God without Being.  In Givenness and Revelation, however, the saturated phenomenon is analysed in its tight connection to revelation thought as Trinity and thus provides us with a powerful insight into Marion’s religious thought.

Givenness and Revelation, translated by Stephen E. Lewis, is divided into four main parts, preceded by an Introduction, which describes the guiding thread of the four sections according to the following outline: 1) The Aporia of the Concept of Revelation, which looks into the pre-modern epistemological limitation of the concept of revelation; 2) An Attempt at a Phenomenal Re-Appropriation of Revelation, in which Marion continues the analysis of the epistemological limitations of revelation in its modern understanding and sets the stage for its reinterpretation; 3) Christ as Saturated Phenomenon: The Icon of the Invisible, a section that serves to uncover a new phenomenal logic inspired by the iconic figure of Christ and His Trinitarian manifestation; and 4) A Logic of Manifestation: The Trinity. This final section further develops the Trinitarian aspect of revelation by emphasizing the role of the Holy Spirit in the manifestation of God.

These four parts structure the book in accordance with Marion’s usual method.  He begins with a critique, or better yet, a deconstruction of the historical understanding of the concept to be analysed, in this case revelation. Through this deconstruction, the line of thought against which Marion shall argue is identified. At the same time, the historical analysis will pinpoint the possibilities of going beyond metaphysics in order to pave the way for a re-interpretation of the said concept in terms of pure givenness. This propaedeutic part is then followed by a revision of said concept, which grounds itself in a counter-experience. This counter-experience overturns metaphysics in order to assert the priority of a counter-intentionality, i.e. an intentionality which originates in the given and suspends the constitutive power of the subject. In Givenness and Revelation this amounts to the following thesis: God reveals itself through the Son, who gives himself as an Icon. As an icon and through the agency of the Holy Spirit, he completely refers to the Father.  God reveals Godself in a Trinitarian way as Trinity.  Thus, that which gives itself (Trinity) completely accords with the way of its giving.

This review will adhere to this structure and will analyse first, Marion’s critique of philosophy, and second, his reinterpretation of revelation. Prior to this, however, we shall give an account of the phenomenological considerations that lead to the question concerning revelation.

Setting the Stage

The concept of a counter-experience already makes an appearance in the Introduction, where Marion distinguishes between revealed and natural theology. The former, in opposition to the latter, will accept the logos of the revelation from elsewhere, i.e. from God, and does not impose its own logic on the revelatory phenomenon. This view plays a major role in Givenness and Revelation.  In order to avoid an illusionary experience of revelations, Marion introduces the concept of conflict or resistance as a condition for the reception of revelation, albeit not a sufficient condition. Through this conflictual character of revelation, Marion bridges the link between the theological concept of revelation and the phenomenological one of givenness.

Givenness is received as a counter-experience, this being the thesis of both Being Given as well as Negative Certainties. In Givenness and Revelation, however, the very authenticity of revelation depends on a resistance from the one who witnesses it. If revelation turns out to be inauthentic, the resistance and the conflict are resolved within immanence; if, however, the revelation is authentic, resistance will increase to the point at which a resistance from elsewhere is recognized that cannot be subsumed under concepts. Through this resistance coming from elsewhere the counter-experience is received as authentic. This conflictual character is thus inherent to the witnessing of revelation.

This helps Marion to avoid both an idolatrous as well as a fanatical understanding of revelation.  Marion argues that revelation retains its revelatory character only as a paradox: “[it is] the visibility of the invisible as such, and which remains so in its very visibility” (5).  This highlights the two main lines of thought discussed in Givenness and Revelation: 1) as a paradox, revelation cannot be resolved by our logic and is thus not part of the wisdom of the world; 2) even though not resolved by our logic it still gives itself to reason as pure (non-objectifiable) givenness and imposes its own counter-logic, i.e. the wisdom of God.

Wisdom of the World

Marion begins by analysing the epistemological limitation of revelation through Thomas Aquinas’ understanding of theology. According to Marion, Thomas tries to ground theology as a science of God.  In doing so he distinguishes between two kinds of theologies: philosophical theology, which deals with divine things only inasmuch as it infers them as the principles of their mundane and immanent effects, and sacra doctrina, which has revelation or divinity as its immediate object. This would imply, according to Marion, an epistemological hierarchy, in which philosophical theology and sacra doctrina differentiate themselves based solely on the degree in which they know God. Consequently, the sacra doctrina is reduced to the principles of natural reason and loses its revelatory character.  Marion states that alternately, in Summa contra Gentiles Thomas introduces a new kind of knowledge to this hierarchy by subordinating sacra doctrina to “the science of the blessed,” i.e. an eschatological knowledge of God, which should provide the required principles to make the sacra doctrina a scientia dei. These principles, however, remain inaccessible due to the eschatological character of the blessed science. Thus the scientific character of sacra doctrina remains unfounded.

Marion draws from this consequence not that Thomas was wrong in his evaluation of revealed theology, but that he brings to light the aporia of theology understood as science. Philosophy has tried to resolve this aporia by emphasizing the epistemological understanding of revelation, while Vatican I and II provide an alternate interpretation of revelation based on biblical texts.  Through Suarez, revelation was reduced to a sufficiens propositio and thus Thomas’ hierarchy was inverted, the epistemological account gaining primacy.  This line of thought was to be continued and emphasized during the Enlightenment. According to Marion, the epistemological understanding subjects apokalypsis (revelation) to aletheia (truth), which is to be understood in its modern meaning as clear and distinct knowledge.  In order to bring revelation to presence as clear and distinct it must be subjected to the principles of contradiction and sufficient reason, which for Marion are the basic principles of metaphysics. This critique is present throughout Marion’s works, stating that through the principles of contradiction and sufficient reason philosophy becomes dependent on ipseity. The entirety of phenomenality is reduced to the constitutive power of the subject.

Against this metaphysical view, Marion invokes Pascal in order to suggest that the will is not preceded by reason, as Descartes argues, but conditions knowing. This reversal of the relation between will and understanding concerns revelation when understood in connection to Augustine.  Augustine states that only charity, which has been poured into our souls by the Holy Spirit, can lead us to truth (De trinitate). This is the turning point in Marion’s re-interpreting of revelation, which relies on two main arguments. First, the will to be willing is conditioned and sparked by revelation as the attraction to see the Father in the Son. And second, the will to be willing consists in faith, which conditions and precedes seeing. Only by accepting Jesus as the Son of the Father can we see the Father in the Son. What is at stake here is the conversion of intentionality and knowing the Father starting from the Father, which is only possible if we will the Father by being attracted to the Father through the Son. This is consistent with what Marion calls the logic of love: the hermeneutics of love is received from love itself, thus from elsewhere, and consequently not subjected to a sufficiens proposition (Marion, 1991).

From these considerations Marion draws three conclusions: 1) we can only see revelation through faith, i.e. if we believe; 2) in order to believe we need to will it. The will, however, is “put in operation” by the fact of being drawn by God’s love. Therefore, 3) we can will something only inasmuch as we love said something. Here the will is equated with love, and revelation becomes possible only inasmuch as it is freed from the logic of natural reason and able to impose its own logic, which must start with the will and end up in love again. Marion thus uncovers a new kind of logic in theology, which is not subdued by the logic of natural reason. In order for philosophical logic to come to terms with the logic of love it must turn to phenomenology, as Marion argues. Through phenomenology, phenomena are perceived inasmuch as they give themselves (Marion, 2002). This would allow us to see them based on their own logic of manifestation. This way of giving itself is made apparent in saturated phenomena and all the more so in the figure of Christ, who gives himself in an exceptional way. Christ, as a saturated phenomenon, gives himself from himself and does not abide by the epistemological conditions of experience. He thus contradicts these conditions and is received or seen as non-objectifiable. He therefore gives himself as a paradox, a paradox that neither excludes logic nor is outside logic, but instead extends to the possibility of describing the impossible as a counter-experience.

Wisdom of God

This reversed hermeneutics of the counter-experience is further explained in the case of mysterion, which can be uncovered only by the Father through His giving of Jesus as Son. The reception of such a phenomenon cannot be known or seen directly. In order to see a mysterion the reversal of intentionality is necessary, which implies that the mysterion is seen through the gaze of the Father and not transcendentally constituted as an object. The reversal of intentionality, however, is possible only through the Holy Spirit, who accomplishes the anamorphosis, i.e. a phenomenon becomes visible once we accept its own perspective. Through this acceptance of the perspective from elsewhere the mysterion shall not be known or unveiled but rather will show itself from itself in its uncovering (apokalypsis).

In order to emphasize charity’s coming from elsewhere, Marion relies on a Paulinian description of the power of God as hyperbolic (Eph. 3:18-19).  Here the power of God is described as having four dimensions (height, depth, length, breadth), which for Marion signifies that charity cannot manifest itself within our space, as it exceeds it.  Instead, it constitutes a “milieu” where we are absorbed in order to be saturated by the power of God: “I must allow myself to be situated in the midst of it, to be encompassed by it to the point of losing myself in it” (71). This losing of myself indicates nothing else than the loss of ipseity or I-intentionality, because our gaze, which constitutes objects in a three-dimensional space, cannot conceive a four-dimensional phenomenon. Therefore, charity or revelation is to be seen through a gaze which is not finite. The only gaze that is not finite, but still part of the world, is that of Christ.  The mysterion uncovers itself in the gaze of Christ, who acts as the icon of the Father.  He exhausts the invisibility of the Father and brings it to light in the flesh.

This relation between Christ, apokalypsis, and mysterion announces a phenomenological principle — “so much mysterion, so much revelation” – which for Marion fulfils the goal of phenomenology, namely that something gives itself from itself as itself without a doubled representation. Reinterpreting Husserl’s principle of principles, Marion explains this relation as follows: “the phenomenon shows itself in itself and through himself only in as much as it gives itself in and through Himself” (76).  In short, the mode of appearance coincides with the mode of givenness.  The only phenomenon which lives up to this principle and actualizes it is Christ, as he shows himself absolutely. This, however, is also dependent on the subject becoming a witness, i.e. on accepting the infinite gaze of the Son, which in its turn relies on being drawn by revelation. This appears to be a hermeneutic circle, which Marion recognizes and embraces as it leads to a Trinitarian manifestation of God. This is the turning point for understanding the Trinitarian manifestation of God, which alone can account for the revelation of the Father in the Son, the latter of which acts as the absolute icon based on two hermeneutical steps. The Father is the ground and condition for the giving of Jesus as Christ, i.e. as the Son of the Father. And this implies that Jesus can be seen as the Son of the Father only from the perspective of the Father.

These two steps make way for a conclusion: if we know Jesus as the Son of the Father, we also know the Father, as only from His perspective can Jesus be seen as the Christ. Consequently, and holding true to his status as icon, Jesus never refers to himself but to an Other, which is also the ground for the revelation.  This is a first step in constituting a Trinitarian phenomenality. The second step connects tightly to the characteristic of the icon of letting the gaze of the other target the one who witnesses it. The fact that Jesus is given as the Son of the Father to mankind implies that mankind feels itself intended by the intentionality of the Father via the agency of the gift: “In this way the putting of Christ into an icon is accomplished, which properly defines the work of the Spirit” (86).  The Spirit is consequently part of the unity of God. According to Marion the very phenomenal function of the Spirit is the accomplishing of the anamorphosis. This is to say, the finite intentionality is replaced by an infinite intentionality, which can in its turn only occur through the grace of the Father. Thus understood, the Spirit is the very act of giving, of the putting into operation of revelation, staying invisible but within visibility.

Having established revelation as a saturated phenomenon which gives itself in a Trinitarian way, Marion can now tackle the problem of Trinity by resorting to phenomenology, in order to show how the inner logic of Trinity is the logic of its manifestation.

Marion seeks to distance himself from the traditional understanding of Trinity, where substance is of priority and relation is secondary, accepting instead the relational shift proposed by Karl Barth and Karl Rahner. Based on their considerations that Trinity and its revelation constitute the basis of the unity and essence of God, Marion seeks to show how the phenomenological manifestation of God, or revelation, entails the primacy of love and communion concerning the essence of God. The phenomenological description of revelation as a saturated phenomenon would support this shift, as it implies that God is to be seen only as He gives Himself.  Here, the thesis of the book is clearly formulated: “the Trinity offers not only the content of the uncovering, but also its mode of manifestation” (99). Because God gives Himself in a hyperbolic way, which saturates and surpasses our conceptual experience, and because such a given can only be seen through its own logic, God should be known only as He gives Himself. Considering that He gives Himself as a Trinity or communion, Trinity has primacy in the knowing of God.  This is further sustained by Marion’s argument that Trinity reveals itself through Christ as an icon, which means that Christ never refers to himself but to another, and completely to another.  This implies that the more he refers to another, i.e. to the Father, the more he appears as an icon and as the Son of God.  This further entails that the stronger the communion between Father and Son is, the stronger the unity of God is.

Concluding Remarks

Marion’s Givenness and Revelation provides a Trinitarian account of revelation, which, though based mainly on biblical texts, ends up both redefining theology as revealed theology and realizing the principles of his phenomenology of givenness. This account is consistent with Marion’s earlier description of Christ as the icon of the Father in which the logic of love is accomplished in a Trinitarian way (Marion, 1991: 139-56). Furthermore, the coherence of Givenness and Revelation is also sustained by Marion’s phenomenological developments of the figure Christ as the highest degree of givenness (Marion, 2002). This being said, we turn our attention to three possible inconsistencies of Givenness and Revelation.

Even though Marion’s critique of metaphysics retains the same aspects of going against egology, beingness, and objectivity (Gschwandtner, 2007: 194), one can notice several revisions made to his understanding of Husserl. Whereas in Being Given Husserl’s principle of principles is seen as the limitation of givenness, conditioning it based on a foreseeable indeterminacy, Givenness and Revelation describes revelation as the fulfilment of the same principle. It must then follow either that Marion’s understanding of said principle is inconsistent or that revelation itself is limited. Two additional points may be raised against Marion’s investigation of revelation. First, the question concerning the violation of Husserl’s principle of neutrality – already highlighted by Jones (Jones, 2011) – can also be posed here.  Against this, one can argue based on Marion (Marion, 2000) that theology acts purely as an inspiration for phenomenology in constructing a christological philosophy. Second, the reception of revelation and its imposed logic without requiring a hermeneutics coming from the subject may be questioned, as already observed by Shane Mackinlay (Mackinlay, 2010).  Against this point one can interpret the constitution of the subject as a witness together with Thomas Alferi (Alferi, 2007: 297), who states that this constitution is a pre-phenomenal one, the phenomenal subject being thus already inscribed within the Trinitarian hermeneutic circle. This latter description of the subject seems to be more consistent with Givenness and Revelation. Furthermore, Marion’s introduction of the concept of resistance in experiencing revelation might provide a further solution to the issue of the subject being too passive.


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Gschwandtner, C. M. (2007).  Reading Jean-Luc Marion: Exceeding Metaphysics.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Jones, T. (2011).  A Genealogy of Marion’s Philosophy of Religion: Apparent Darkness.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Mackinlay, S. (2010).  Interpreting Excess: Jean-Luc Marion, Saturated Phenomena, and Hermeneutics.  New York: Fordham University Press.

Marion, J. (1991).  God Without Being: Hors-texte.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Marion, J. (2000).  “Eine andere ‘Erste Philosophie’ und die Frage der Gegebenheit.”  In Ruf und Gabe: Zum Verhältnis von Phänomenologie und Theologie.  Her. J. Marion, J. Wohlmuth.  Bonn: Alfter: Borengässer.

Marion, J. (2002).  Being Given: Toward a Phenomenology of Givenness.  Stanford, Ca: Stanford University Press.

Marion, J. (2015).  Negative Certainties. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Marion, J. (2016).  Givenness and Revelation.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.