Phenomenology in France: A Reply to Claudio Tarditi

Phenomenology in France: A Philosophical and Theological Introduction Couverture du livre Phenomenology in France: A Philosophical and Theological Introduction
Steven DeLay
Routledge
2019
Paperback £19.99
254

Author: Steven DeLay (Old Member, Christ Church, University of Oxford)

I have no real objections to Claudio Tarditi’s very thorough and judicious review of Phenomenology in France: A Philosophical and Theological Introduction (hereafter “PF”). I offer the ensuing remarks I do, then, in the same sympathetic spirit in which he has offered his, not so much with the intention to initiate a debate, but instead simply to reflect upon and thereby explore some of what his review gives to think. Rather than pursuing minutia over which we might disagree, the goal, thus, as I see it, is to try to break some new ground by thinking together. I hope that in aiming to adopt this approach, he and other readers will find the following reply constructive rather than tedious.

At the beginning of his review, Tarditi explains that PF “scrutinizes the relation between phenomenology and theology in a series of important French phenomenologists,” a task, he notes, which in directing its attention to the set of texts and figures it does will for Anglophone readers conjure the terminology of a “theological turn”; that phrase, as Tarditi reminds us, has become a catch-all description for what with Dominique Janicaud in the 1990s originated as a pejorative label to “denounce an improper use of the phenomenological method” in thinkers as Emmanuel Levinas, Jean-Luc Marion, Michel Henry, Paul Ricœur, and Jean-Louis Chrétien. As Tarditi says, when the work is placed in that familiar hermeneutic perspective, PF can thus be seen as contributing to that ongoing debate, “[aiming] at providing new arguments in favor of a serious confrontation between phenomenology and theology as a strictly philosophical issue.” Without doubt this is true. One of the text’s main goals in introducing these French thinkers to an audience for whom they may still be unknown is to underscore the important role that the question concerning the relationship between philosophy and theology occupies in their thought. After all, each of the main thinkers addressed (Claude Romano excepted) sees the relationship between philosophy and theology as a matter of basic concern. There are two important observations worth emphasizing, however.

First, it would be an oversimplification to reduce these figures and their texts to an exclusively theological frame of reference. For, as Tarditi himself notes correctly, the exegetical work in PF is “an effort to do justice to the high complexity of a theoretical movement that we are used to calling ‘French phenomenology’ although it includes a number of different approaches to phenomenology, often in open opposition to Husserl’s one.” It is misguided, then, to see French phenomenology as just an apologetics. That impression, however prevalent it may be, is nevertheless ungrounded, and the sooner we leave it behind the better. At the same time, that is not to deny these texts open a philosophical terrain that can be used as a basecamp for apologetical aims—they certainly do, which in my view is something to be counted to their credit. In any case, as Tarditi says, the French texts at issue form a very complex and rich tapestry, meaning it would be a mistake to think they can be understood fully on theological terms alone. To see that complexity means abandoning the myth that the so-called nouvelle phénoménologie can be understood through a strictly theological lens.

This first point leads to a second, itself an observation of caution. It is worth underscoring that the very term “French” can potentially be a misleading adjective here. While the tradition in question is French insofar as it comprises thinkers living and working in France, its problems are not peculiar only to that context. As Tarditi notes at the outset of his essay insightfully, phenomenology was incorporated into a French philosophical scene that in the early twentieth-century was already infused with many varying and rich philosophical currents—following Husserl’s 1929 Paris lectures, “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.” As for today, it continues to take up matters inherited from Husserl and Heidegger in Germany, and, before that, other philosophical movements including German Idealism, Neo-Kantianism, and hermeneutics. Hence, the work of these French figures lies squarely within the philosophical mainstream. There is nothing provincial about it.

This is further evident should one consider its standing with regard to analytic philosophy. Here, too, the work being done in France offers much from which those in the philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, philosophy of art, ethics, and metaphysics may learn. To cite just one example of obvious but unexpected overlap, take Kit Fine’s and Timothy Williamson’s work in modal logic and metaphysics. Fine and Williamson are known for articulating a very robust role for philosophical inquiry. Against the linguistic turn and other deflationary currents in philosophy, they contend there are truths that are not only a matter of language or empirical science. Therefore, philosophy in some sense investigates things, not words; it investigates how things are, not just how we speak about them, and, in conducting its investigations, it accordingly does what other inquiries do not. As for the present French phenomenological context, someone as Claude Romano’s own criticism of linguistic idealism springs immediately to mind as saying essentially the same. And it’s not at all surprising that Romano has developed insights regarding the relationship among mind, language, and world that are beginning to circulate in the analytic tradition. Romano’s own view has a venerable history behind it in phenomenology, since phenomenology is a tradition that has since its beginning occupied itself with ideality, objectivity, logic, semantics, and truth as such. As is well known, Husserl himself was a mathematician who knew Frege and Cantor. Thus, in a way, the issues Romano is exploring (and others as Jean-Yves Lacoste in Thèses sur le vrai) on language, perception, and ideality trace to matters that had united Husserl himself with early analytic philosophers as Bertrand Russell. To expand on the point some, one might further characterize phenomenology’s meta-philosophical innovation by highlighting how, in questioning deflationary visions of philosophy’s role, it extends the domain of necessity and truth beyond the formal, conceptual, or linguistic and into the experiential—the synthetic a priori is more robust than we had thought, it says. All this is philosophical material with which those working in the analytic tradition can immediately recognize, and something many of them may even find congenial. And even more still, in the case of the French figures who have said the most about theological matters (Marion, Henry, Chrétien, Lacoste, and Falque), they too have contributed extensively to similar fundamental matters of philosophical import: art, language, embodiment, perception, intersubjectivity included. In fact, the work in French phenomenology is not only addressing matters that are now associated with twentieth-century analytic philosophy, it is conscientious of the entire history of philosophy, as evidenced in its sophisticated and creative readings of Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Freud, and others.

Contemporary French phenomenology, hence, is of general philosophical interest. It is so, however, not due just to its dealing with mainstream problems, as well as philosophy’s canonical texts and major traditions. It is philosophical precisely to the extent that it takes up the problem of reason—or so at least I shall suggest. In what follows, I should like to locate the philosophical dimension of this work being done in light of the problem of reason. Doing so, we might begin with a question hanging over the Husserl and Heidegger feud. What is phenomenology to be? Why has there always been disagreement over what phenomenology is? Now part of that dispute, it seems to me, turns on one over the status of reason. What are reason’s authority and limits? What may we hope from it? What is it able to achieve? What is its role in human life? Some, as Husserl, took a very exalted view of it, holding that individual consciousness (and humanity) is teleologically oriented to transhistorical truth; others have taken a more postmodern approach, viewing this sort of robust rationalism as itself cause for incredulity. If one of philosophy’s aims is to make rational sense of the human condition, then after the World Wars many in Europe were convinced that life is absurd. Why then, so some thought, bother with philosophy which is running a fool’s errand, looking for sense where no sense is to be made? It is within this bleak context—immediately before the Second War—that one finds Husserl in the Crisis struggling to convey his vision of a philosophy capable of responding to what he himself characterizes as a crisis of reason, or meaning. Heidegger later does something similar when criticizing the pernicious aspects of modern technology’s Gestell. And Michel Henry (as Tarditi observes later in his review) follows suit when his “phenomenology of life” objects to what Henry terms the nihilism of contemporary mass society. It is from within this shared phenomenological perspective that even the theological concerns of some of those working in today’s French context make eminent philosophical sense. Such work is the continuation of the earliest of phenomenological attempts by Husserl and Heidegger to address perennial questions of concern: Who am I? Is humanity rational? What is the meaning of life? Does history have a purpose?

It should be noted that, by trying to answer questions as these, the question of God inevitably arises. Thus, when I ask rhetorically in PF whether future work in phenomenology can hope to shed light on the questions of meaning and reason by proceeding independently from faith, the question was deliberately provocative, but not without its reasons. In broaching the question of meaning in response to postmodernity’s crisis of reason, we are led to consider the matter of faith: in what may we have faith, in what may we hope and trust? To the extent that the question of phenomenology’s method and matter is entwined with the role of reason, it cannot escape the question of faith. The problem of reason is entwined with meaning, which itself is entwined with basic questions as man’s ultimate destiny and his relation (or not) to God. Consequently, while it is understandable that many have seen the dispute between Janicaud and his French colleagues as primarily revolving around the methodological issue of phenomenology vis-à-vis theology, that is not the entire story. A closer look suggests perhaps another aspect to the familiar dispute, one centering on the horizons of intentionality and thus in turn the very possibility of meaning (Sinn) and the scope and nature of reason.

It is this focus on intentionality that seems to me to also guide Tarditi’s review, as he situates his discussion of each thinker in terms of their own respective relation to the problem. I think that is a productive and promising unifying approach to take. The debate over the “theological turn,” in fact, one might observe, is itself an exemplary case of this more general debate concerning the origins and conditions of meaning—what makes intentionality possible, and what, if anything, can be given beyond what intentionality itself gives?

To provide a bit of historical context to the current French debate, it is worth noting that there is, for example, an intriguing way of interpreting Husserl and the early Heidegger as both being engaged in a quasi-Kantian project of what one might call a transcendental critique of meaning. On this way of viewing the matter, Husserl and Heidegger are wary of traditional metaphysical attempts to totalize reality into some system—think of Leibniz’s monadology, for instance—because the sorts of philosophical claims that such metaphysical systems make must be assessed in terms of first-person evidence, but their claims are not amendable to intuitive evidence. This emphasis on first-person justification is recognizably cartesian—things must be given clearly and distinctly, or else they lack any legitimate basis to be treated as claims to philosophical truth. But there is a kind of radical empiricist strand to this phenomenology, since this cartesian proviso for evidence is interpreted in terms of a confirmation that is to be intuitive, not merely speculative or formal. Turning to the French context, we may observe that, for his own part, Janicaud took things even a step further, settling on a view that seems to contend for what is in some ways a deeply positivistic view of phenomenological method; for him, a phenomenological statement has genuine sense only to the extent that its conditions of verification can be given in what he takes to be intuitive insight. Thus, for him, the domain best exhibiting the kind of phenomenological essence he prizes is restricted to sensory perception and categorial intuition. Janicaud sees the visible, and he is dubious of anything else.

Tarditi brings this out excellently when analyzing the controversy surrounding Levinas’s response to Husserl and Heidegger. As he notes, a rejection of the invisible is why Janicaud is so critical of Levinas. The phenomenon of the invisible can be juxtaposed with intentionality. In Totality and Infinity, Levinas argues that the bounds of meaning—what can be experienced both first-personally and intelligibly—are not determined by the horizons of intentionality as understood by Husserl. Perhaps the key takeaway about “the face” is that it institutes a “counter-intentionality.” Levinas in effect argues that what makes a meaningful encounter with entities as entities possible is not due to the capacities of the subject qua transcendental ego; rather, it is the I that finds itself constituted in the encounter with the other. Levinas has reversed things, locating the origin of meaning as lying outside the subject, and thus beyond the horizons of intentionality. For Janicaud, however, the very notion of a “counter-intentionality” is tantamount to a nonsense. In reputing to discover a domain of meaning lying beyond what is intentionally constituted, Levinas has signaled a nonsense, says Janicaud, for, in violating what is said to lie within the limits of intentionality and the norm of intuitive evidence, the face thereby violates the very terms of what makes sense meaningful. Intentionality for Janicaud is the bedrock explaining how we experience entities, and it cannot be violated without whatever is said to be given deteriorating into speculative (and hence unconfirmable) nonsense. His is thus a very Kantian position, one that insists on the claim that certain conditions determine what can be encountered. Anything said to violate such conditions will not appear.

It is this Kantian commitment to intentionality that Marion challenges by widening the scope of Levinas’s original contention about the face. According to Marion, transcendental phenomenology only is able to reveal a partial area of the phenomenal field. What it identifies as the field of meaningful entities opened in the horizons of intentionality does not delimit the borders of what can be given. Rather, it only accentuates one specific domain of the given—what Marion in Reduction and Givenness calls the object (l’objet) or the entity (l’étant). As for the phenomena that do appear despite having violated the conditions of ordinary intentionality, Marion terms them “saturated phenomena”: the event, the icon, the idol, and the flesh. His phenomenological texts as Reduction and Givenness and Being Given are thus to be understood within the philosophical context of the question of appearing—they are attempts at explicating the limits of intentionality, and what appears beyond them. As Tarditi rightly emphasizes, Marion aims to show how the given exceeds what can be constituted by a transcendental ego (Husserl) or disclosed by Dasein (Heidegger). Accordingly, Tarditi again rightly stresses how, in reply to Janicaud, Marion would contend that Janicaud has not defended the philosophical integrity of phenomenology by confining phenomenality to the limits of meaning coextensive with intentionality; rather, such an approach neglects phenomena that are so meaningful they remain unaccounted for from within a transcendental framework that arbitrarily limits everything to the intentional object. Here, it is worth adding a related comment on how Michel Henry’s so-called “inversion of phenomenology” reworks the traditional Husserlian problem of intentionality. As it happens, Henry maybe is the one most directly at odds with Janicaud. For Henry, there are two modes of phenomenality, what he calls the “truth of the world”—exteriority, transcendence, visibility, and intentionality. This is the way entities are manifest—at a distance as objects of intentional consciousness. What, though, are we to say about this consciousness itself of such entities? How does it appear? Henry’s innovation is to show that such self-consciousness exhibits an entirely different kind of phenomenality. Consciousness—Henry calls it “life”— manifests itself differently than that which is given to intentionality. Life, as he says, is a primal auto-affection, a transcendental pathos: “The affect is, first of all, not a specific affect; instead, it is life itself in its phenomenological substance, which is irreducible to the world. It is the auto-affection, the self-impression, the primordial suffering of life driven back to itself, crushed up against itself, and overwhelmed by its own weight. Life does not affect itself in the way that the world affects it. It is not an affection at a distance, isolated, and separate, something one can escape, for example, by moving away or by turning the regard away. The affect is life affecting itself by this endogenous, internal, and constant affection, which one cannot escape in any way.”[1] It is this mode of immanence that Marion for his own part will identify, following Henry, as the flesh. And according to Henry, the closest that the phenomenological tradition came to uncovering the true form of self-manifestation—the flesh—was in Husserl’s analyses of inner-time consciousness. But even here, Henry claims in works such as Incarnation or Material Phenomenology that the manifestation in question was characterized in terms of intentional transcendence. Hence, Husserl’s account of retention and protention fails to account for how the “living present” is even conscious in the first place. As Henry says, “The givenness of the impression, whose essence is the pure fact of being impressed as such, is stripped of its role in givenness in favor of an originary consciousness of the now. That is to say, in favor of what gives the now itself, which is perception in the Husserlian sense of what is given in its own being and ‘in flesh and bone.’ Thereafter, the essence of the impression is cast outside of being and into an irreality in which what gives it reality and an ontological weight has faded.”[2]

How to summarize? The debate over the horizons of intentionality overlaps with the debate over phenomenology’s handling of the relationship between theology and philosophy. From a Levinasian perspective, Janicaud’s view of intuitive givenness presupposes a commitment to intentionality failing to accommodate that which appears in a “counter-intentionality.” Tarditi summarizes the Levinasian position as so: “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.’” “It is,” as he continues, “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.” According to Marion, who in this respect radicalizes Levinas, Janicaud thereby fails to free the phenomena so that everything that appears is taken as it appears—what cannot appear within the horizons of intentionality is prematurely discarded as inapparent. Thus, as Tarditi highlights, for Marion the task is to come to see that “objects do not complete the whole horizon of givenness, rather, they represent a little part of all the phenomena one may experience.” There is, says Tarditi, “a wide range of phenomena whose main trait is to manifest themselves as totally unpredictable events.” Artificially confining all appearing to what Marion terms “common” or “poor” phenomena, Janicaud’s positivism therefore neglects the phenomenality of the saturated phenomena. Thus, although Levinas’s face, Marion’s saturated phenomenon, and Henry’s life all have theological implications, they arise in the first place as philosophical responses to the longstanding phenomenological problem of intentionality.

It is important to appreciate how the problem of intentionality provides the backdrop against which the dispute over the theological turn unfolds. For it leads to a reassessment of the original dispute between Husserl and Heidegger. Henceforth, we can see that dichotomy in a new light precisely insofar as we now see that it amounts to a false dichotomy. As Tarditi notes early on in his review, trying to make sense of the debate between Husserl and Heidegger means that “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 interpretation of Dasein in view of an interpretation of Being huberhaupt?” However, by taking stock of Levinas, Henry, and Marion, it is possible to see the dispute between Husserl and Heidegger as one wholly internal to transcendental phenomenology—the disagreement between the two takes place within a shared commitment that sees intentionality as the ultimate horizon for meaning. Thus, I would suggest that approaches to phenomenology highlighting only Husserl and Heidegger have a tendency to be misleading simply to the extent that they omit the important contributions of Levinas, Marion, Henry, and others, who have already gone on to question transcendental phenomenology’s restriction of meaning to what lies within the horizons of intentionality. The story of Husserl to Heidegger, while important and interesting, is incomplete.

However, this is not to say that none of the developments after classical phenomenology are above criticism. While Janicaud may have been wrong to criticize Levinas on the specific grounds that he did (“counter-intentionality” is not the oxymoron Janicaud thought it was), there remains something to the idea that Levinas’s position is somehow unstable. I would not be the first to observe that there is an ambiguity—or maybe even ambivalence—in Levinas’s thought regarding the theological. Merold Westphal and Jeffrey Bloechl, among others, have noted so too. Once again, it seems to me that the phenomenon of intentionality provides the lens through which we can see the problem clearly. How is the face to be understood? Sometimes Levinas will speak of it as though it is an actual empirical face—a concrete other present experientially before us in the flesh. At other times, however, he will say otherwise, emphasizing instead that it is more akin to a transcendental enabling condition not at all to be confused with an empirical other. I would note that, however one chooses to negotiate this tension, there can be no mistaking that he saw his work as a radicalization, but not for that a total disavowal, of Husserl’s and Heidegger’s thought. Here again, the issue seems to return to intentionality and the status of meaning. Levinas can be seen as continuing a line of thought he inherits from them—how is experience of entities as entities possible? At the same time, he broaches that question while challenging the idea that meaning originates in intentionality. For Levinas, it is a “counter-intentionality” ultimately responsible for making meaning possible. It is only insofar as I have experienced myself as addressed in the second-person, as a “you” for the other, that the transition from an environment (Umwelt) to a world (Welt) occurs. Thus, “ethics is first philosophy” because ethics so understood—as an experience of oneself as addressee in the second-person mode of encounter with the other—determines the context in which an intentional relation with entities becomes possible. What Levinas is attempting to describe, in short, is what explains the difference between the experience of a small child, the mentally-handicapped, or the senile, all on the one hand, and a competent rational human being suitably attuned to his surroundings as a normatively-governed space of meaning and reasons. This is one way of interpreting the “face of the other” as continuous with Husserl’s and Heidegger’s own interest in meaning.

What, however, about the “trace of God”? It will be noted that many have claimed Levinas himself was an atheist. As to the question of theology’s role in his thought and that thought’s theological implications, there can be no doubting that very likely his use of theologically-laden terminology is only a heuristic. Or better, he sometimes uses such terminology in a way that evacuates it of its ordinary content in the hopes of explicating what he takes to be some more fundamental structure of experience. This is a strategy that Heidegger also frequently deploys throughout the 1920s when appropriating notions such as finitude, fallenness, death, guilt, conscience, and authenticity for the existential analytic. For Levinas (unlike someone like Kierkegaard), God in no way appears in or through the human other. The face is not a theophany. Nor for that matter does Levinas see a need to “triangulate” human intersubjectivity: whereas for Kierkegaard one’s relation to the other must always be seen as mediated by one’s relation to God, for Levinas our being-with-others is humanistic. Thus, when I state at the end of the Levinas chapter that in the face of the other the eyes of faith see the face of Christ, I don’t mean to be taken as attributing such a view to Levinas himself. That is not what he believed! But Levinas could be wrong, and to note that he could be wrong is simply to observe that, having taken his analysis of intersubjectivity to the extremes he did, it makes sense that someone like Marion would come along later and see an opportunity to take that account of the face in a direction Levinas himself never took it.

This discussion of Levinas returns us to Janicaud’s original objection: is not to broach the phenomenon of God to transgress the bounds of acceptable phenomenological method? We may now say far from it! We have seen that this objection appeared plausible only to the extent one adopts the perspective of transcendental phenomenology. However, there is reason to question that framework insofar as it reduces appearing to the conditions determined by ordinary intentionality. Hence, in identifying the limits to the horizon of intentionality, we surpass the transcendental approach, undercutting in turn its presupposition that phenomenological method blocks God’s entering into the phenomenal field. There is justification for a rejection of the transcendental approach in the phenomena as we encounter them. I think, for instance, there is something very perceptive in Marion’s response to Jocelyn Benoist regarding the issue of givenness. Marion in effect notes that while one’s saying that one has seen is not sufficient to prove one has seen, neither is one’s saying not to see sufficient proof that there is nothing given to be seen.

Here, of course, one of the most pressing questions of givenness regards the potential givenness of God. That Benoist’s atheism is in many contexts taken as the norm has much to do with the fact that many working today take it for granted that methodological atheism has already prevailed a long time ago—due mainly to arguments we owe to Sartre or Heidegger. Those arguments, however, it seems to me fail. I mention just two for now, both of which are thought to originate in Husserl actually. Take the first argument one might try extracting from Husserl’s early period, the locus classicus of which is probably §58 of Ideas I. Admittedly, Husserl says there that the transcendence of God should be bracketed. What does the term transcendence mean here, though? It is premature to assume that by saying so he is endorsing a methodological atheism, as if the epoché and reduction mean transcendental phenomenology henceforth must have nothing to do with God. When his work is appreciated as a whole, we know as a matter of fact that this could not be what he meant: in his manuscripts he develops a very sophisticated and extensive account of the relation of God to transcendental phenomenology. Nevertheless, one might try reformulating the original argument. Can the contention that Ideas I endorses a methodological atheism perhaps be rehabilitated by invoking the text’s distinction between the natural and phenomenological attitudes? Whereas in the natural attitude one posits a thing’s existence, in the phenomenological attitude one brackets any such commitment to existence—hence, so the argument concludes, the existence of God must be neutralized along with other entities.

The distinction between the natural and phenomenological attitudes is not as fixed as Husserl himself makes it out to be. And for two reasons. On the one hand, some things in quotidian experience show up in a way that involves no commitment to their existence—even while still in the natural attitude, well before the epoché or reduction, the thing’s existence is irrelevant to the experience. As an example, consider certain kinds of aesthetic experience. The painting or the symphony are the examples Lacoste analyzes in The Appearing of God. When listening to Bach, as he notes, I am not concerned with the fact that I am listening to Bach, but simply with what I hear. Listening to Bach in ordinary experience seems, then, to be more akin to what Husserl would classify as the phenomenological attitude than the natural one—I am entirely immersed in the essence of what appears, and not the fact of its appearing, much less that it exists. In short, in such cases an incipient reduction is already at work in everyday perceiving. On the other hand, it also is not so obvious that everything without exception can be bracketed without thereby distorting its appearance. The other person comes to mind, says Lacoste: if I suspend the natural commitment to the other’s very existence and try to describe his mode of appearing, have I not distorted precisely what I am trying to describe? Reducing the phenomenon destroys it. And, second, one might observe the same of God: bracketing God’s existence while trying to describe whatever remains after such a reduction does not give access to what appears (or its mode of phenomenality), but obscures it. Accordingly, there are what Lacoste calls “irreducible phenomena.” An appreciation of them provides another reason for concluding that separating the natural and phenomenological attitudes is not so easy—as he says, such a distinction probably is untenable. Hence, what is needed is a “demythologization of the reduction,” a phenomenology that no longer sees (as Eugene Fink) a radical rupture between the everyday and phenomenological attitudes. If so, then there’s no solid Husserlian basis for bracketing God.

Phenomenology, I have suggested, concerns itself with meaning and with reason. To do so, it responds to the problem of intentionality. We have seen that by radicalizing the problem of intentionality to incorporate “counter-intentionality” (Levinas), “saturated intentionality” (Marion), or even “non-intentionality” (Henry), phenomenology subverts facile divisions between theology and philosophy. But it does more than that. Such an approach broadens the given, draws attention to phenomena we would have either overlooked or distorted, and, in doing so, sheds light on aspects of the historical postmodern moment of crisis that would otherwise have remained undetected. It is with aims as these in mind that Henry develops his phenomenology of life, which always stressed that the nihilism of our present age is to be explained by the negation of subjectivity. In short, classical or transcendental phenomenology’s preoccupation with intentionality is itself the manifestation of an underlying malaise in thought—and in turn life. Summarizing Henry’s position, Tarditi says, “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 undoubtedly develops his account of the interaction between phenomenology and theology.” Any philosophy (or culture) that forgets the fact that life gives everything will end in death, in a felt lack of meaning. Hence, says Tarditi, “the motives of [our culture’s] 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.” I should like to note that while Tarditi is correct that this is Henry’s own position, one might question Henry himself. Is it really so that the negation of subjectivity Henry identifies is to be taken as a historical process? Did it originate with the emergence of the modern natural sciences as represented by Galileo? To the contrary, one might think that modern Technopoly’s scientism has certainly exacerbated or accelerated the negation of life, but it seems more plausible that this is an ontological slippage, something occurring at all times and places, simply insofar as it is a potentiality rooted in individuals strictly in virtue of their being alive. In other words, it could be argued that Henry’s metanarrative of a crisis of meaning (which in many ways follows Husserl’s own Crisis) gets in the way of the experiential facts themselves. There are places in Henry’s own work, such as Barbarism, where he seems to recognize it, noting as he does that the choice to flee life into an illusion is itself an impulse within life itself. This isn’t the place to attempt to reconcile this apparent tension in Henry’s thought; we merely note it. Or more exactly, the relevant point is to note, as Tarditi himself does, that what Henry does for phenomenology is related directly to what Levinas and Marion did too: “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.”

The reader will have noticed that we have said only a very little of Lacoste, and nothing yet of either Emmanuel Falque or Chrétien. That is partly because it is more difficult to locate their contributions to phenomenology in terms of the problem of intentionality. To be sure, Chrétien’s thought, which dwells on the relation between the call and response, ultimately prioritizes the excess of things, a fact which places his position in proximity to Marion’s notion of the saturated phenomenon. But unlike Marion who tries to reach whatever theological territory he does by painstakingly thinking through the nature of intentionality, Chrétien’s works often begin without any such methodological fastidiousness. If, as Tarditi says, the goal for Chrétien is to provide “An original description of the relation between man and God,” Chrétien never sees it necessary to work through the extensive methodological warm-ups Marion does. It could be simply because Chrétien sees the human condition as always already exposed to the claim of God, whether it be through the beauty of creation that points to God as Creator or to the beauty and power of speech (parole) which itself points to its origin in the Word. Following Fénelon, Chrétien in The Ark of Speech says characteristically, “It is only because God has encountered us, has come to meet us, that we can turn away from him, or try to turn away from him, and forget him.”[3] God has always already spoken. Here, it would be a mistake to underestimate the economy of desire. For Chrétien, desire is infinite in that it desires to desire, which is to say, it desires God. God, who is love, has made us so that we desire him. Our passage through time is an odyssey, an attempt to find a future in eternity that will satisfy the very immemorial desire responsible for having launched it. And as Tarditi says, it is something like this immemorial, inexhaustible desire that also guides the thinking of Lacoste. Lacoste’s image of kenotic existence—of “liturgical man”—is an account that places the desire for God at the center of things. Here again, the experience of desire and time are unthinkable apart from God and eternity. “It is precisely in this desire for something beyond the limits of time, and thus of death,” says Tarditi, “that man experiences the presence of God […] Accordingly, entering such a space, we discover ourselves as pilgrims directed to an eschaton beyond the time of the world.” If Chrétien and Lacoste aim to account for our experience of being-in-the-world insofar as it propelled on by the desire for God, it is impossible to avoid the language of a transformation or change in the fundamental tenor of that experience. That brings us to Falque, who probably more than anyone has attempted to account for that metamorphosis. How does the experience of finitude—suffering, anxiety, and death—change through the event of Jesus Christ? How does it transform time, transfigure our suffering, assuage our anxiety, and allow us to see the time of the world as no longer blocked by death absolutely? These are Falque’s questions. Attempting to answer them is to grapple with la question du sujet (in Ricœur’s sense). As such, it demands in turn a thinking that is at once theological and philosophical.

As Tarditi highlights, Falque’s phenomenology emphasizes how Christian existence can be joyful despite its sorrow; confident despite its confusion; hopeful despite its afflictions. Death is unavoidable, but it is not absolute—only the love of God is. In a way reminiscent of Kierkegaard’s knight of faith who takes on existence lightly but earnestly, Falque has in view what he calls a mode of being of childhood. At the end of The Guide to Gethsemane, he with approval quotes Hans Urs von Balthasar who himself quotes the words of Novalis: “‘To be childlike: That is the best of all. Nothing is more difficult than bearing one’s own weakness. God helps with everything.”[4] What does this transformation—or rebirth—of our being-in-the-world mean for thinking? For philosophy? For theology? It means thinking beyond such divisions or thresholds and thus concerning itself with going wherever thinking is taken by what calls it. Truly liberating phenomenology for what calls for thinking, in short, means thinking what needs to be thought without feeling the least bit constrained by any artificial methodological provisos. Phenomenological method must be an anti-method, because only an anti-method ensures the last word is given to what itself appears, not the limits we would impose on that appearing. What matters is getting things right, by finding the words for what has encountered us. Its, then, is an aspiration born of the inherently philosophical impulse to understand. A desire, that is to say, to be true to reason, to experience the power of intelligibility, even if that means allowing reason to take us beyond what we had formerly thought to be its limits, to experience what, as Romano has called it, a “big-hearted reason.” As Tarditi himself notes, such an approach centers on the phenomenality of the event. “According to Romano,” he says, “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 [he] who receives the event, is confronted with a non-objective experience, approachable only through interpretation.” Even, then, if things are always a matter of interpretation because we must decide what we take to have encountered us, what better test of ourselves and of what is in our heart? This disclosure of the heart is the event of meaning, whose trial determines what things will mean, given what sort of individual we are and aspire to be. By being encountered by something, we ourselves are revealed through what we take to have encountered us. Hence, in coming to terms with both what it is to exist and what it takes to subject that existence to rational reflection successfully, philosophy comes into its own. Does such an approach recommend ignoring the invisible or bracketing faith? Nothing could be any less obvious. By appropriating the problem of meaning in the individual life of the one who faces it, existence itself takes on the meaning it will come to have: either one of despair or hope, unbelief or faith.

When a life ends, not only will it have been completed in the time that leads to death, it is now assessible—it has entered the ideal, eternal realm of the judgeable. Whether he likes it or not, each of us presses onward towards that judgment. This lends existence its weight and urgency. Were it not so, it would not matter to us as it does that existence leaves room for choosing between thinking and living, and how we should think and live. We feel that we must navigate between their two competing claims, so as to bring them into some kind of harmony. And so, when we spend the time we do thinking phenomenologically, with a freedom whose rigor accomplishes itself in the form of an anti-method, this thinking freely means finally coming into one’s own. An individual before God, one experiences the splendor of all that is around us.[5]

References:

Chrétien, Jean-Louis. The Ark of Speech. Translated by Andrew Brown. London and New York: Routledge, 2004.

Falque, Emmanuel. The Guide to Gethsemane: Anxiety, Suffering, Death. Translated by George Hughes. New York: Fordham University Press, 2018.

Henry, Michel. Material Phenomenology. Translated by Scott Davidson. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008.


[1] Michel Henry, Material Phenomenology, trans. Scott Davidson (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 130.

[2] Michel Henry, Material Phenomenology, 25.

[3] Jean-Louis Chrétien, The Ark of Speech, trans. Andrew Brown (London and New York: Routledge, 2004), 55.

[4] Emmanuel Falque, The Guide to Gethsemane: Anxiety, Suffering, Death, trans. George Hughes (New York: Fordham University Press, 2018), 106.

[5] Elements of this reply appeared in an online interview in 3:16: Richard Marshall’s Philosophy Interviews after 3:AM. Richard Marshall, “Is Phenomenology in France Theology of Philosophy?”.

Jason W. Alvis: The Inconspicuous God: Heidegger, French Phenomenology, and the Theological Turn

The Inconspicuous God: Heidegger, French Phenomenology, and the Theological Turn Couverture du livre The Inconspicuous God: Heidegger, French Phenomenology, and the Theological Turn
Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion
Jason W. Alvis
Indiana University Press
2018
Hardback $65.00
320

Reviewed by: Daniel Cox (Saint Louis University)

Jason W. Alvis’s new book, The Inconspicuous God: Heidegger, French Phenomenology, and the Theological Turn, takes insights from Heidegger’s notion of eine phänomenologie des Unscheinbaren and applies them to the phenomenological study of religion and religious experience. Synthesizing Heidegger’s work with French philosophers who have made influential contributions to the theological turn in phenomenology, Alvis successfully develops an inconspicuous phenomenology which challenges the privileged forms of presentation that hinder our phenomenological and theological thinking. In addition to offering a compelling chronology of the history of 20th century phenomenology and its various twists and turns, this book fruitfully teases out the paradoxical, subversive, and transformative nature of religious experience.

Is God a spectacle? Do the various themes and experiences belonging to religious life subvert or confirm a duplicitous metaphysics of absence and presence? If phenomenology is concerned with phenomena as they appear, while the object of theology is inherently unknowable, then is a “phenomenology of religion” a contradiction in terms? The Inconspicuous God tackles these questions and more, offering a tour de force on the development of phenomenology in Husserl’s writings, Heidegger’s monumental reshaping of phenomenology, and through to the French and theological turns in the later 20th century. Central to Alvis’s project is an attempt to recover, fortify, and ultimately defend Heidegger’s notion of unscheinbarkeit (inconspicuousness) as a way to both breathe life into a phenomenological explanation of religious experience, as well as to challenge critics of phenomenology’s mingling with theology.

Chapter one brings Heidegger’s phenomenology of the inconspicuous into conversation with Jean-Luc Marion’s writings on the paradoxical nature of revelation. Challenging phenomenology’s privileging of precision and clarity, Heidegger observes that what is hidden or covered up is paradoxically integrated into what it is for a phenomenon to appear as a phenomenon. For example, if I’m walking quickly through a crowd I mustn’t focus on what stands right in front of me, for otherwise I would be overwhelmed with information and would be unable to conceive of the pathway to my destination. Instead, I must look to where I’m headed while still being aware of my surroundings enough to not bump into people. The people in the crowd thus become inconspicuously integrated into my frame of vision, presenting useful information while not being fully present to thought. This is brought to a head in Heidegger’s writings on Being—which remains hidden while always closest at hand—eventually leading to his reformulation of phenomenology as no longer loyal to Husserl’s method of unveiling phenomena clearly and distinctly, but now as deformalizing the very distinction between the veiled and the unveiled. For Heidegger, the paradoxical nature of appearance is not something for philosophy to overcome, but is rather something to recognize as irreducibly endemic to the lebenswelt itself.

For Marion, the epitome of paradox is revelation, which he understands as “a phenomenon that phenomenalizes by countering its own modes of givenness.”[1] Similar to Heidegger’s insights into the paradoxical nature of appearing, Marion holds that revelation disrupts the very distinction between that which appears and that which is hidden. His work on saturated phenomena—revelation being the saturated phenomenon par excellence—is characterized by attempting to overcome the dialectic between the visible and the invisible, and as such shares Heidegger’s view that a reliance on this dialectic numbs thinking.

Alvis tries to take the work of these thinkers a step further by indicating two ways an inconspicuous revelation can avoid the dialectic between visibility and invisibility while also providing an opportunity for rich religious experience. First, revelation should be understood as intertwined within the banal fabric of everyday life, not as events that must shock and awe. “Revelation, if it truly is to be shocking, must take place in the most unexpected of places and ways: in the marginal, inconspicuous, and banal.”[2] Second, revelation not only challenges the privileging of visibility over invisibility in presentation, but deformalizes the framing of this distinction itself.

In chapter two, Alvis takes a closer look at what Heidegger might mean by eine phänomenologie des Unscheinbaren. Drawing from the Zähringen and Parmenides seminars, Alvis attempts to systematize Heidegger’s notion of the inconspicuous and contextualize it with respect to his larger project. As opposed to being a lens through which all phenomena can be viewed or being construed as only a step in the process of phenomenalization, Alvis ultimately finds that the most fecund interpretation of this elusive topic to be that Heidegger had in mind distinct phenomena as being inconspicuous or as appearing inconspicuously. These particular phenomena require a particular phenomenology in order to make them intelligible: a phenomenology of the inconspicuous. While all phenomena can perhaps take on the character of inconspicuousness—as a builder’s hammer becomes inconspicuous in his habitual use of it—certain phenomena are more likely to appear as inconspicuous than others. Alvis’s intended contribution is to show how experiences located in the religious life can represent these distinct phenomena that have a special ability to appear inconspicuously.

Chapter three takes Michel Henry’s writings on “life” in conjunction with Heidegger’s thoughts on “world” in order to challenge the view that the world is a neutral theatre for subjective consciousness. For Heidegger, the world is neither a sum total of neutral data nor something to be overcome, but rather is something intrinsically yet mysteriously tied to the “being open” of Dasein as it lives and endures. The objects I encounter in the world do not merely convey neutral meanings available to all rational agents, but instead tell me something about myself, what I care about, my mood-as-lived, and thus my overall affective involvement in the world at large. Inconspicuousness comes into play as the oscillation between taking-an-object-as-such and taking-an-object-as-indicative-of-involvement-in-the-world. We can learn something about the world not by philosophizing in armchairs but by being affectively involved—living and dwelling—in the inconspicuous clearing opened by Dasein.

Henry takes up this thread of affectivity in his description of “life.” To be living in the world, for Henry, is to be an affective being. We come into the world only after being affectively involved with life. The world is studied by paying attention to the affective interactions that buffer the in-between spaces separating ourselves and the world. Although there is a worry that Henry reinstates a dichotomy between inside and outside—which both Heidegger and Husserl attempted to dispel—Alvis finds that he indeed successfully domesticates life in the immanent.

Combining Heidegger’s “world” with Henry’s “life,” Alvis locates the possibility of experience of the inconspicuous God in the oscillating interval between them. Jesus himself was characterized by a mode of living that was not of this world, teaching his followers the ways in which the ordinary and banal can teach us something about God. Jesus’ prayer for his disciples—in which the paradoxical in-the world/not-of-this-world relation is exemplified—teaches that a dwelling in the world allows participation with the inconspicuous God, while cutting against the invisible-visible paradigm.

Chapter four develops an inconspicuous liturgy alongside Jean-Yves Lacoste’s development of the nonexperience and nonplace of the Absolute. Alvis seeks to correct some of Lacoste’s misconstruals of Heidegger’s project and arrive at an inconspicuous liturgical reduction. For Lacoste, a liturgical reduction entails bracketing away the ‘thesis of the world’ in order to allow the presentation of God to be free from the modes of presentation that characterize our world. This allows the phenomenological appearance of God to be located in the strangely irreducible exterior of consciousness. The world must be put in suspension in order to experience the ‘nonexperience’ of the Absolute. By bracketing a totalizing thesis of the world away from the question of the experience of God, Lacoste allows God to appear as total but not as totalizing.

Alvis finds a similar theme running through Heidegger’s writings on the disclosure of Being to Dasein. Contrary to the early Greek and Husserlian notion of Being as a stable presence that can be ascertained by consciousness, Heidegger’s Being is first disclosed when one finds oneself thrown out into the world, which is the fundamental experience of Dasein. This thrown-openness which characterizes Heideggerian Being exceeds—or, rather, precedes—conscious experience, and as such it entails a fundamental relationship with the nonconscious or the nonexperienceable.

Instead of bracketing the world away completely—which destroys the way Dasein dwells as a ‘worlded’ being—Alvis suggests thinking the world as inconspicuous. Instead of looking for the Absolute by escaping from the world, we should view the world as harboring the potential nonplace and nonexperience about which Lacoste speaks. This allows the inconspicuous God to manifest in the marginalized, dormant, and inconspicuous ‘here’ within our world. The clearing or opening onto the nonplace and nonexperience of the Absolute is found in the uncanny and banal places that, inconspicuously, are most near and familiar to us. An inconspicuous liturgical reduction, therefore, suspends not the world but the spectacles of the world in favor of the Absolute’s indwelling in the inconspicuous and immanent ‘here.’

In chapter five, Alvis follows Jean-Luc Nancy’s investigations on Christian adoration in order to develop a way by which the inconspicuous God can be adored. Adoration is a reflexive activity whereby one sets apart that which is deemed worthy of praise from that which is not. But this can all too easily turn into an idolization of spectacles. What is worthy of praise and adoration, Nancy argues, is not the spectacle which is differentiated from the ordinary, but instead differentiation itself, as the abyss or opening which both appears and withdraws when we set things apart.

However, Alvis argues that a grafting of pure differentiation onto divinity can easily become an idolatrous discourse in our spectacle-dominated world. Divine differentiation, to which an inconspicuous adoration is directed, must be seamlessly incorporated into the marginal and everyday in order to avoid the idol-multiplying simulacrum of divinity that an adoration of pure differentiation creates. An inconspicuous adoration allows for the familiar and immanent around us to be an occasion for glimpsing the Absolute. We can learn something about the inconspicuous God by adoring what is forgotten and rejected as commonplace. What do we adore when we adore the inconspicuous God? Not difference-as-content but instead the non-idolatrous differentiation that overcomes the spectacle/ordinary dichotomy altogether.

Chapter six takes stock of Dominique Janicaud’s critique of Heidegger in order to pin down some of the methodological implications for how evidence should be construed in the context of an inconspicuous phenomenology of religion. A staunch critic of Heidegger, Janicaud thought his notion of unscheinbarkeit was the root of the bad theological turn in phenomenology, which was responsible for unnecessarily complicating phenomenological thinking. Heidegger eschewed Husserl’s privileging of clarity over absence, turned away from his intentionality-rich method, and integrated absence and withdrawal into the substrate of phenomenological thinking, all things Janicaud thought were poisoning phenomenology. But this is due, Alvis argues, to his misunderstanding of Heidegger’s unscheinbarkeit, which Janicaud seems to think means “inapparent” or “invisible.” Unscheinbarkeit instead should be translated as “inconspicuous,” “lacking in evidence,” or “lacking the ability to be spectacular.” Contra Janicaud, then, “phenomenology of religion” is not an oxymoronic attempt to solder together clarity with absence, but is instead, following Heidegger, the attempt to deformalize the very distinction between clarity and absence in order to allow religious experiences to present themselves in ways which exceed our worldly compartmentalizations.

Alvis then synthesizes the work of William Alston, Merold Westphal, and Anthony Steinbock in order to arrive at an inconspicuous construal of religious evidence. Alvis wants a description of evidence that avoids being reduced to epistemology, that avoids ushering in ontotheology, and finally that avoids ascribing legitimacy to any and all phenomena without explanation or defense. For Alvis, if “religion” refers to the being-open-to an essential relationship between Dasein and a meaning-giving potentiality; and if “experience” describes the process of grasping the particularities in consciousness which become meaningful-for-me; then “religious experience” describes the momentary latching onto intelligible data which is constitutive of the being-openness of Dasein to the meaning-giving potentiality of the Absolute.

Alvis then offers three reasons why the theme of inconspicuousness is keen to describe evidence for religious experiences construed as such. First, the religious experience is inconspicuously integrated into the whole of experience, thus being unable to be extracted from the totality of presentation. Second, religious experience isn’t straightforwardly “provable” because this would assume the Absolute can be wholly conjured when its evidence is offered. Third, the absoluteness or omnipotence of God—to which religious experience points—resists being brought into full clarity, remaining inconspicuous in our attempts to do so.

Chapter seven investigates the merits of understanding faith through the lens of inconspicuousness. By considering the thought of both Heidegger and Jean-Louis Chrétien, Alvis develops three ways the theme of forgetting supports an inconspicuous faith. First, forgetting as denoticing, which includes a double movement in which one is open to the new while simultaneously recognizing the disclosure of the new in the old that endures. Second, forgetting as counternoticing reincorporates the remembered into a novel context, which allows for a new type of knowledge to manifest. Third, forgetting as covering-over, which includes laminating over that which is remembered, not as anti-remembrance but as counter-remembrance.

Alvis argues that an inconspicuous faith must recognize the importance of forgetting which resists a totalizing grasp onto the object of faith. Instead of a faith in, we should embrace a faith with, which recognizes the interpersonal aspect to religious experience and phenomenological thinking. The inconspicuous God is the most ‘unforgettable’ because it is paradoxically that which most uniquely resists being contained within memory’s grasp, always residing in the inconspicuous peripheries of thought.

In chapter eight, Alvis investigates the aboutness of the inconspicuous God, which includes bracketing away the metaphysical questions “is there a God?” and “what is God’s essential nature” while instead focusing on the phenomenological questions “how is God given?” and “to what forms of presentation does God relate?” Alvis finds Emmanuel Levinas to be an ally in describing how God can be described in a way that doesn’t idolize incomprehensibility while also avoiding the temptation to draw God out into the full clarity of daylight. Levinas negotiates these obstacles by locating God’s incarnate infinity in the multitudinous faces of the inconspicuous others that surround us. We share ethical and social relationships with the foreign faces around us without ever grasping them directly. God’s intelligibility is thus gestured toward through our immanent relationships with others which avoid a totalizing conceptualization.

Keeping in theme with the preceding chapters, Alvis argues that inconspicuousness offers a key to subverting the dichotomies which obfuscate a description of the givenness of God. The intelligibility of God comes about not through locating God in a single pole of light/dark, clear/obscure, presence/withdrawal, but instead by recognizing the unique way in which an experience of the Absolute subverts these categories altogether. Inconspicuous phenomena instead can be given through hiding, surrogating, screening, or being present-at-hand by proxy. To recognize God as inconspicuous entails paying closer attention to the common and marginal, as opportunities for a glimpse into the Absolute which incites wonder. To seek the inconspicuous God is not to search after a hidden essence, but is instead a call to action for paying closer attention to our immanent relationships with the ordinary and with others. A phenomenology of the inconspicuous, at the very least, obliges one to rethink the temptation to quarantine God into either incomprehensibility or a blinding clarity, and instead to become open to the potential for an experience that oscillates between them.

Now I’d like return to the questions that were posed at the beginning of this review in order to expound on how they can be illuminated following some of the insights gained from Alvis’s project. Is God a spectacle? The answer is a clear no for Alvis. God understood as a spectacle—as well as the inversion of this: God understood as pure incomprehensibility—relies upon the assumption that the phenomenality of God must operate according to a dazzling clarity. Associating divinity with spectacularity is to invoke the multiple duplicities—absence/presence, clarity/withdrawal, light/dark—that facilitate an idolatrous obsession with grasping the totality of the Absolute in its infinity.

A phenomenology of the spectacle—which operates according to a privileging of presence and a repression of absence—is problematic for a number of reasons. Spectacles have a shelf life, so a philosophy that idolizes spectacularity soon becomes a discourse of addiction which eventually colonizes all facets of life. By privileging clarity and a totalizing intelligibility, a phenomenology of the spectacle teaches that what is good is that which does not resist domination and what is bad is what avoids conceptualization. This betrays an epistemological pathology that seeks certainty and absolute precision as the ends of philosophical thinking, which thinkers ranging from Nietzsche to Derrida have thoroughly critiqued. Applied to theology, God becomes the greatest spectacle of all and by proxy that which is most able to be domesticated by thought. As all the great thinkers of classical theology knew to be true, a God that can be domesticated by thought is no God at all, but is only a “god”: a powerful yet finite being among beings.

Jesus himself was hardly spectacular in his life. He was a lowly Jewish preacher who disavowed the power of state and sword, lived in a shared community with his disciples, and taught pacifism and tolerance in the face of violence. Those whose faith relies primarily on the mythical spectacles associated with Jesus—miraculous healings and his resurrection—often miss the importance of his life and teachings, as Nietzsche knew to be true. To isolate the spectacle of miracles or resurrections as the core of Christian theology is to necessarily relegate Jesus’s social and political teachings to second-order phenomena, when in fact the reverse is an eminently more faithful portrayal of the Good News brought by Jesus Christ. The force of the New Testament relies not on cheap tricks but on a transformative vision about what humans can become and how they can live as oriented toward a primordial Goodness that shines forth in all things. As Nietzsche knew, an ascetic devotion to metaphysical platitudes—and we should include here the worshipping of divinity-as-spectacle—inevitably tends to turn our heads away from the banalities endemic to worldly being and toward a maddening denial of life.[3]

Instead, the God of a phenomenology of the inconspicuous avoids the totalizing gaze of clarity, while also resisting the void of pure incomprehensibility. God ought to be understood as harboring a potential to be disclosed in the ordinary and banal, among those disavowed and disenfranchised by society. We can glimpse something of the infinite in that which is paradoxically closest to us. An inconspicuous phenomenology thus tarries with the paradoxical nature by which phenomena are disclosed to us. There is always something hidden in a phenomenon’s being presented. Contrariwise, that which most resists conceptualization can be the nearest at hand. The inconspicuous nature of divine phenomenality allows for an experience of the Absolute which paradoxically is revealed through the ordinary and every day.

Do the various themes and experiences belonging to religious life subvert or confirm a duplicitous metaphysics of absence and presence? In considering revelation, the religious lifeworld, liturgy, adoration, evidence, and faith, Alvis consistently finds that these theological themes are animated by a phenomenology that disavows the duplicitous metaphysical categorization by which one would separate phenomena into polarizing categories. The Absolute is paradoxically revealed through the ordinary. Recognizing the affective dwelling of Dasein in the lifeworld resists the polarizing oppositions of inside/outside. An inconspicuous liturgical reduction suspends the spectacles of the world in order to allow for the nonexperience of the infinite in the immanent. By lingering with the rejected and forgotten, we can cultivate an inconspicuous adoration that overcomes the clarity/withdrawal dichotomy. An inconspicuous evidence must recognize the impossibility of bringing divinity into full clarity, and instead must allow God to blend inconspicuously into the entire field of experience. Faith in the inconspicuous God is directed toward that which is unforgettable precisely because it paradoxically resists memory’s grasp. In each case, Alvis shows how invoking a polarizing metaphysics of presence and absence numbs theological thinking, and instead we should recognize the ways in which an experience of the Absolute deformalizes and thus subverts these sorts of distinctions.

Is “phenomenology of religion” an oxymoron? As already alluded to in the summary of chapter six, this phrase only becomes an oxymoron if one adopts a duplicitous metaphysical perspective whereby phenomenology is assumed to be a method of grasping objects with absolute clarity, while religion is assumed to be a discourse directed toward unknowable phenomena. Setting the stage as such certainly would cause problems for how God, as hidden or unknowable, could be brought into the light using a method that privileges clarity. However, following Heidegger, Alvis seeks to deformalize the distinction between clarity and absence that undergirds this problematic.

This confusion in terms also stems back to the misunderstanding of the meaning of Heidegger’s unscheinbarkeit. As Alvis repeatedly has shown in his book, this word does not mean “absent” or “invisible,” which Heidegger addressed early on in his career. It needs to be understood rather as that which slips conscious grasping while still presenting itself intelligibly. An inconspicuous phenomenology cuts against phenomenality itself and the conditions of experience we typically rely on, paying attention to the ways a phenomenon incorporates absence into its appearance while recognizing the way those phenomena that are ontologically furthest away are paradoxically nearest to us.

I’d like to now pivot into some more critical remarks that hopefully spark further dialogue and academic interest into this fascinating topic. One cannot help but to draw a comparison between a phenomenology of the inconspicuous and the analogia entis (analogy of being) as described in the classical Christian tradition. Both methods seek to accomplish similar goals. The phenomenology of the inconspicuous seeks to offer ways to describe religious experiences that privilege neither clarity nor absence, but instead subvert this distinction altogether. Similarly, the analogia entis seeks to offer ways to understand the relationship between God and creation, which is done by drawing an analogy between the two that eschews both equivocal and univocal predication. While phenomenologists would likely have problems with the analogia entis understood as a totalizing metaphysical system, this largely isn’t what Aquinas and others had in mind when writing about it. Instead, it was a method to temper our knowledge of God and God’s relationship to humanity and to usher in humility before that which escapes complete conceptualization yet is revealed through the immanent.

Similar to the phenomenology of the inconspicuous, the analogia entis seeks to navigate a path between a rationalist philosophy disconnected from history and tradition that seeks to bring everything out into the clarity of light and an individualistic voluntarism that can identify no rational norms nor universal intelligibilities, which ultimately culminates in a nihilistic historicism and relativism. Both also seek to show how something of the infinite Absolute can be gestured at by paying more attention to the immanent and ordinary. Erich Przywara’s celebrated book on the analogia entis endeavored to bring the ancient doctrine into conversation with 20th century phenomenology, especially Heidegger and Husserl.[4] More attention needs to brought to the contact point between this classical doctrine of Christian theology and modern attempts to rethink religious principles in ways like Alvis does in his book.

If nothing else, a phenomenology of the inconspicuous can utilize the scholarship surrounding the analogia entis for understanding how God became understood as a spectacle in the first place, since this was not always the case. As recent commenters like Gavin Hyman have argued, God becomes associated with spectacularity once a univocity of being is adopted in order to understand the relationship between God and man.[5] In order to counteract God or religious experience being understood as spectacles that must shock and awe us, we must learn how the move from analogy to univocity occurred in history and apply this to our current philosophies to safeguard them from hiding a repressed tendency toward idolatrous spectacularity.

In conclusion, Alvis’s book successfully accomplishes its stated goals and is a must read for those interested in both the phenomenological and theological traditions, as well as the ways in which these two traditions can benefit from dialoguing with each other. Alvis provides new avenues for thinking about God and religious precepts which pay homage to Heidegger’s innovations in phenomenology while being true to the salvific story of Jesus. Most of all, Alvis correctly identifies the problems associated with a phenomenology of religion that privileges clarity over other types of presentation. Perhaps Alvis’s greatest lesson is to teach humility before the mundane and ordinary, for the experience of God is revealed through a transformative potentiality present in those overlooked and ordinary phenomena that are closest at hand.

References

Alvis, Jason W. 2018. The Inconspicuous God: Heidegger, French Phenomenology, and the Theological Turn. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Hyman, Gavin. 2010. A Short History of Atheism. London: I. B. Tauris.

Przywara, Erich. 2014. Analogia Entis: Metaphysics: Original Structure and Universal Rhythm. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Company.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1967. On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo. Edited by Walter Kaufmann and RJ Hollingdale. New York, NY: Random House.


[1] Jason W. Alvis. 2018. The Inconspicuous God: Heidegger, French Phenomenology, and the Theological Turn. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 33.

[2] Alvis, The Inconspicuous God, 49.

[3] Friedrich Nietzsche. 1967. On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, ed. Walter Kaufmann and RJ Hollingdale. New York, NY: Random House, 108.

[4] Erich Przywara. 2014. Analogia Entis: Metaphysics: Original Structure and Universal Rhythm. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Company.

[5] Gavin Hyman. 2010. A Short History of Atheism. London: I. B. Tauris, 49.

Steven DeLay: Phenomenology in France

Phenomenology in France: A Philosophical and Theological Introduction Couverture du livre Phenomenology in France: A Philosophical and Theological Introduction
Steven DeLay
Routledge
2018
Paperback £19.99
254

Reviewed by: Claudio Tarditi (University of Turin)

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—LEsprit souffle où il veut

Scott Davidson, Frédéric Seyler (Eds.): The Michel Henry Reader, Northwestern University Press, 2019

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