“This book is not a translation of La vie la mort,” McCance states in the introduction of The Reproduction of Life Death—a study of Jacques Derrida’s series of lectures conducted at the ENS from 1975 to 1976— “Nor is the book an exegesis of the seminar” (McCance, The Reproduction of Life Death, 5). Without offering further clarification, the author seems to have posed a curious riddle for the reader: after all, this work appears to be a translation of sorts, given the multiple inserted and interlaced quotations from various seminal works of Derrida; and it appears to be an exegesis of Derrida’s consistently deconstructive effort within and beyond the seminar to problematize the oppositional logic that renders the form of reproduction as a repetition of the identical and that lends theoretical and scientific force to the eugenic movements, exemplified chiefly in the thoughts of Aristotle, Hegel and François Jacob, by tracing the lines of thought of Nietzsche and Freud that consider the relational difference between life and death as interdependent and mutually inclusive. Already there is a curious aporia between the author’s aim and the organization of the text, a struggle that perhaps reflects McCance’s careful effort to keep her study of La vie la mort from becoming an ironic proof of what Derrida attempts to refute in the seminar: a programmed form of inheritance that strictly follows a predetermined nonliving model and consequently subjects difference to identity. Hers is a dynamic double gesture of both reworking the Derridian positions on biology and pedagogy and breaking the spell of “technoscientific and philosophical ‘modernity,’” a time of experimental science in which “invention has become less a ‘discovery’ than a ‘production’” (9). Following the author’s winding attempt to decode a work of Derrida’s that defies simplistic explication, therefore, surpasses the intellectual pleasure of the source text, especially when Derrida’s principle task—to critique the mode of biological or educational reproduction as repetition of an identical model—seems to echo what Gilles Deleuze formulated in Difference and Repetition years before Derrida’s seminar. In that work, Deleuze strives to overturn the ruling primacy of identity in the history of philosophy and thereby restore the significant function of difference in weaving together an image of thought prior to any static formation of concepts and repetitions. In such a spirit Deleuze writes, for instance, “When we define repetition as difference without concept, we are drawn to conclude that only extrinsic difference is involved in repetition; we consider, therefore, that any internal ‘novelty’ is sufficient to remove us from repetition proper and can be reconciled only with an approximative repetition, so called by analogy” (Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 27). The invisible Deleuzian presence in La vie la mort thus weakens the joy of deconstruction one usually feels when reading a Derridian text, but at the same time, it separates McCance’s study from its source text and continues the inquiry into its nature and grounding, as the publication of this neither-translation-nor-exegesis precedes the real English translation of the seminar. McCance’s overall methodology of approaching Derrida’s seminar in a thematic rather than a linear way implies a relational inquiry, that is, instead of treating La vie la mort as a stand-alone text, McCance examines how Derrida’s central thesis fits into his oeuvre, and it is the rhizomic effort to trace the course of the envelopment of an idea that constitutes the primary significance of the book.
Before delving fully into the seminar, McCance begins the first chapter with a detour of Derrida’s suspicious attitude towards the telos of modern experimental science by revisiting his account of the change of meaning in the notion of invention in Psyche: Inventions of the Other. No longer is invention related to unearthing something new, rather, it has become a mode of production that follows a programmed and oppositional logic (9-10). McCance then helpfully underscores the key line of thought in Derridian philosophy, the concept of heritance, and then links it to a provocative work of biological science—La logique du vivant— by Nobel Laureate biologist François Jacob, provocative because of its declaration of “biology’s release from metaphysics and its coming of age as a science” (11). With McCance’s careful reminder of the unsatisfactory English title of the book, The Logic of Life, which obscures the departure of the study of life from its metaphysical tradition, we come to understand the inherent opposition in modern biology that aims to demystify living life via nonliving entities (that is, DNA), an effort that consequently establishes juxtapositions between life/living and death/nonliving. She captures what is at stake in Derrida’s account: the relation between life and death, be it connective or predicative. As already suggested in the title of the seminar La vie la mort, inserting an undecidable difference or “trait blanc” is thus necessary—Derrida speculates in the spirit of Freud and Nietzsche—for launching a qualitative transformation of the dynamism between life and death from oppositional or dialectical to supplementary. McCance writes “Derrida chooses the titles La vie la mort, he says, not in order to suggest either that life and death are not two, or that one is the other, but rather that the difference at stake between the two is not of a positional (dialectical or nondialectical) order” (11-12). Situating the book back in the mid-70s context where poststructuralist momentum was thriving in France, such an attempt to break with binary oppositions would not seem revolutionary or overly creative; rather, it reads more like an affirmation of philosophical trends of the era. But McCance extends our interest by drawing on the power of such oppositional logic in the process of auto-reproduction by associating La vie la mort with Derrida’s critique of the Hegelian family in Glas, where Hegel claims the privilege of the father-son lineage while crossing out the role of the female. It is precisely this coded mechanism in familial reproduction that finds its echo in the writing of François Jacob and Georges Canguilhem, where the meaning of heritage becomes understood as mere transmission of hierarchical information (26-27), with the result that eugenic measures would proceed to eliminate unwanted differences. The grounding of such a critique comes from Derrida’s explication of an analogy Jacob makes between DNA and text, a view that helps him initiate the accusation of phonologocentrism in Jacob, and McCance concurs: “Indeed, to refer to DNA as a ‘text’ is to borrow a metaphor, in Jacob’s case, an all but outdated metaphor of text drawn from structuralist semiotics, a metaphor through which he reduces ‘text’ to a phonologocentric communicative entity” (30). Hence Derrida’s understanding of DNA’s function: it is the difference along with sameness that get processed and extended through sexual reproduction (31).
Derrida’s critical objective in the seminar not only aims at cultivating an awareness of the problem of inheritance in biological science, but also—and perhaps more interestingly and convincingly—at highlighting the application of such an oppositional logic in biology in modern philosophical institutions, in particular the ENS, where Derrida—teaching then as an agrégé-répétituer—likens the way the philosophy program operates at the institution to the concept of genetic program Jacob proposes, a logos-like message that instructs and repeats generation after generation. Drawing on this theoretical resemblance, in the second chapter McCance then walks us through Derrida’s theory of pedagogy and reemphasizes the unavoidable power inherent in the process of teaching where structural signs are passed along. One problematic function of teaching, especially teaching philosophy, as Derrida diagnoses in his essay “What Is a Teaching Body,” is exactly the auto-productive program that transcribes the coded and repetitive information via the teaching body of the agrégé-répétituer. The act of teaching, therefore, must base its effectiveness on a kind of machinic institutional power “presented as a defense against mutant or contraband influences that threaten the death of the biological or institutional body” (47). By highlighting the mutually supportive roles of the two Derridian texts, McCance, instead of overly emphasizing the rather trite thesis of La vie la mort regarding the oppositional logic of the repetition of the same, directs our attention to the analogy that reveals the pervasiveness of such a biological model on which Jacob relies in educational institutions; we learn from her concluding statement that:
In his reading of Jacob’s program as an apt description of the aggregation program, Derrida demonstrates that both the biological and pedagogical institutions, attempting to ward off difference, constitute reproduction as repetition of the same, although as he remarks every reproduction involves selection and thus the failure of philosophical-biological-pedagogical metalanguage. (50).
Given Derrida’s predicament regarding the presence of ideological power in both academic and scientific institutions, McCance unpacks further the working mechanism of such effort to automate and rigidify the process of teaching and biological reproduction in the following chapter, by invoking Derrida’s curious rendering of Nietzsche’s name and philosophical legacy in The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation. This reading of Nietzsche’s autobiography Ecce Homo functions as an apology for Nietzsche’s posthumous negative influence by arguing that the dissemination of the autobiography depends not on the author’s own signature but the ear of the other who cosigns with differences in hearing or translating the original text. The riddle with which Derrida begins his text—the death of Nietzsche’s father and the life of his mother at the moment he is born—helps foster the sense of self in Nietzsche’s course of life, which, in turn, leads to Derrida’s association of Nietzsche’s description of his life with the process by which one obtains an identity and becomes oneself. Such a process is represented through the development of the name:
“There, this is who I am, a certain masculine and a certain feminine. Ich bin der und der, a phrase which means all these things. You will not be able to hear and understand my name unless you hear it with an ear attuned to the name of the dead man and the living feminine—the double and divided name of the father who is dead and the mother who is living on” (Derrida, The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation, 16).
But the continuation of the name after death—the living, namely—depends not on the bearer of the name but on the persons who listen to the name and revive it in the process of infinite eternal return; hence, according to Derrida, one cannot ascribe to Nietzsche the atrocities that the Nazi perpetrated: “One can imagine the following objection: Careful! Nietzsche’s utterances are not the same as those of the Nazi ideologues, and not only because the latter grossly caricaturize the former to the point of apishness” (30). To emphasize the fluidity of life death that refuses any form of consolidation of Nietzsche’s thought under the unity of his proper name, as Heidegger reads and interprets Nietzsche through the “Aristotelian-Hegelian tradition” (The Reproduction of Life Death, 57), McCance aptly connects the three seminal concepts Derrida exploits to contest the institutional or scientific subjectivity grounded by oppositional and hierarchical logic: autobiography, the ear, academic freedom (53), of which the ear is given special emphasis in the rest of the book. After a brief characterization of the Hegelian-Heideggerian line of thought that shares a synthetic tendency to fold and classify an identity within an unchanging personal proper name, McCance explains the Derridian alternative that sees heritance as a process, with the remark that
“The temporal deference upsets the linear notion of time, making the writing of autobiography an ongoing life death affair, an alliance between the living and the dead, a case of death in life […]” (61).
An intriguing idea that appears near the end of the third chapter and runs throughout the rest of the book—perhaps the most memorable elements of the text—is the (re)formulation of Derrida’s view that the study of the relation between life and death demands an interdisciplinary effort. Modern biologists’ efforts to decode the living by treating it as text, Derrida argues, by no means simply the methodology; quite the contrary. The texualization of life inserts a third term—the text—between life and death, and thus, “the referential subject/object paradigm no longer suffices, a changed situation for all disciplines—or at least, a change that would be required for revitalization of the academic institution” (69). An interdisciplinary transition of the academic institution—in the spirit of Nietzsche—is necessary for the future collaborative study of life, a key point McCance proposes here: “The radical ‘interdisciplinarity’ that, for want of a better term, I read La vie la mort to recommend is as much needed today as it was in the 1970s and as it was in the German university of Nietzsche’s day” (69). In such a spirit, Chapter 4 traces the transdisciplinary effort of an oppositional logic that may be found in Marxist political economy, the Jacobian biological theory of life, Alexander Graham Bell’s speech reproduction theory, and the eugenics movements in American history. Centering on the notion of production that entails man’s distinct cerebral ability to control products and eliminate the redundant and undesirable, Derrida surmises that interchanging usages of production and reproduction in Jacob’s work indicates his belief that “man distinguishes himself from animals by assuming control over the products of evolution” (77). In a similar fashion, McCance adds, phonetic speech is reproduced via Bell’s invention of the phonautograph, a speech producing apparatus preceding the appearance of the telephone that makes visible the phonetic signs by a “mechanical theory of hearing” (87). Bell’s essentialist momentum of reproducing the same speech by reducing its abnormal patterns finds its echo in the American eugenics movement, where inheritance is controlled in accordance with a mechanical model that helps produce offspring of desired types.
Chapter 5 develops in detail an essential line of thought Derrida addresses in La vie la mort, the dangerous power of scientific knowledge that is in part unavoidable. McCance finds inspiration in Derrida’s final seminar, “The Beast & the Sovereign,” where a consciousness of knowledge-as-sovereign is always present alongside the process of scientific inquiries, a demonstration of man’s hierarchical and theological power over the beast that lends force to a Catholic ethics, one that “reproduces a double body, an imperishable life worth more than natural or animal life, even as, paradoxically, the church reduces ethics to the automaticity, to the technics or technical reason, from which, at least since Vatican I (1869-1870), it has sought self-protection” (116). However, for Derrida, such a religious goal of self-protection or immunization—standing in line with the oppositional logic criticized in La vie la mort—causes an internal conflict: “religion’s efforts at immunization end up attacking, as an external contaminant, what is already internal to its own body, and indeed necessary for its survival” (116). This self-destructive tendency within religious bodies (similar to the concept of “the politics of politics” that Geoffrey Bennington has recently proposed) finds its secular recurrences in the contemporary “non-speciesism” ethical theories developed by Peter Singer and Tom Regan, two modes of thought that primarily concern the rights of the animal. Conjoining other works of Derrida, such as The Animal Therefore I Am, The Beast & the Sovereign, McCance returns to the principal theme in La vie la mort and contends that Derrida’s formulations provide “a critical resource for developing non-sovereign, non-prescriptive, non-oppositional and non-anthropocentric approaches to ethics in the age of the Anthropocene” (122).
By way of Freud’s implicit counter to the Hegelian and Jacobian oppositional logic of the living in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, McCance offers a holistic account of an earlier theme that the study of life requires an interdisciplinary and collaborative approach that is beyond the capacity of science or philosophy. Derrida was intrigued by the Freudian methodology of speculation, a view that tends to explicate the meaning of pleasure in terms of the variation of quantitative energy, an economic theory that concentrates on the relation between two quantities with unknown essences (130). Grounded by such a model, Derrida moves on to note that the Freudian theory of life death—or Eros Thanatos—defies the Hegelian-Jacobian program that reproduces only the same. On the contrary, Freud writes with a sense of confusion that also surprisingly breaks with the logocentric convention of the production of sameness: “[…] Derrida reads Freud’s account of reproduction in Beyond as offering an alternative ‘logic’ to Jacob’s, an alterity on the side of life and living on” (146). Life, therefore, is not opposed to death in the form of an either/or, but supplements and becomes interdependent with it, with a nexus of difference that always moves beyond disciplinary boundaries and binary judgements.
The Reproduction of Life Death is a strange book, precisely because McCance writes it in deconstruction but at the same time out of Derrida. We read an anxious awareness of the not-so-spectacular source text with a rather trite thesis along with a rhizomic effort of McCance’s to move beyond the scope of La vie la mort—just as Derrida tries to move beyond the limitations of the life/death opposition in the process of the continuation of heritance—to make the seminar itself an intertextual nexus in relation to Derrida’s oeuvre. McCance rigorously highlights the necessity of an interdisciplinary approach to the study of life and the living—a central theme of La vie la mort and, perhaps most importantly, reveals Derrida’s courage in the text to confront the dogmatism and sacredness of modern science, a spirit of the spur that is increasingly difficult to find in the weakening voice of the humanities.
McCance, Dawne. The Reproduction of Life Death: Derrida’s La vie la mort. New York: Fordham University Press, 2019.
Deleuze, Gilles. Difference and Repetition. Trans. Paul Patton. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.
Derrida, Jacques. The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation. Trans. Peggy Kamuf and Avital Ronell. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988.
“Who am I, Jacques Derrida?” In the attempt to address this apparently naïve question in the collection of essays entitled The Animal That Therefore I Am, Derrida sketches a suggestive “intellectual autobiography” (144). He tells us that he invented a series of figures―mark, grammē, trace, and différance―that allow for a differential account of all living beings, of all sorts of relationships between the living and the dead. It is to this story, Derrida goes on, that one should retrace his early project of grammatology―the project of replacing the notions of word (parole), sign, and signifier, with the aforementioned figures (see Of Grammatology, 1967). Since then, he had re-elaborated the oppositional account of life, based on the humanist conception of language, into the differential account made possible by the analogical code of grammē. For Derrida, the humanist and oppositional account of life hinges on an axiomatic demarcation. On the one hand, we have animal autorelation (the animal ability to move, feel and affect itself with traces of itself, which is traditionally opposed to inorganic inertia); on the other hand, we have human self-reference or autodeicticity (one’s power to refer to oneself in a deictic way, that is, by saying “this is me,” 131-2). The logical matrix of Derrida’s argument for a critical re-elaboration of the humanist account of life consists in calling into question this axiomatic demarcation of animal autoaffection and human self-reference. Building on his early work (above all, Voice and Phenomenon, 1967), Derrida rethinks autorelation as the minimal condition of life, including human life, and thus self-reference as an effect of autorelation, with all that this implies―to begin with, the departure from phenomenology as a thinking of the self-referent living present.
By subscribing to this autobiographical sketch, we welcome the publication of Derrida’s 1975-76 seminar La vie la mort (Life-death) as it unfolds another stage in Derrida’s development of his grammatological and differential account of life and adds another figure in the series, that of life-death. This seminar engages in a re-elaboration of the problematics of biologism, the biographical, and the relation between philosophy and the life sciences, by taking as its guiding thread Nietzsche’s thought of life-death. In their introductory note, the editors recall that Derrida taught this seminar at the École Normale Supérieure, between fall 1975 and spring 1976, as a preparation to the exams of agrégation, whose programme was “La vie et la mort.” As the editors remark, in §1 Derrida offers a long explanation of the modification that he made on the institutional title of the seminar (without the conjunction “et”). Furthermore, the editors point out that some parts of the seminars were revised later to be presented in conferences and/or published in books (§2, §§8 and part of 9 and §§11-14; 13-14). Strikingly, Derrida neither presented nor published the part of the seminar dedicated to the biology of his time, namely, genetics (§1 and §§4-6). On my reading, this circumstance remains unexplained and cannot be justified by the hypothesis that, in the seminar, Derrida subscribes to an untimely or anachronistic scientific position―whether compromised by genetics or prefiguring its epigenetic overcoming. Indeed, as I will suggest, he offers an informed account of contemporary biological debates. In §7, Derrida provides us with two indexes concerning how this seminar may be read. The first index is the theoretical presupposition of a historical unity from which he selected the texts examined in the seminar. Derrida identifies this unity as the field that extends from Nietzsche’s and Freud’s discourses to the biology of his time. Besides the scientific achievements that, since Nietzsche, have transformed the knowledge of life profoundly, Derrida argues, this field is informed by the account of life as a semiotic remark (183). The second index gives a clearer and more reassuring picture of the way the seminar develops from session to session. Derrida explains that it unfolds as a three-stage movement. Each stage describes a ring which would consist of a point of departure (and articulation, in the case of rings 2 and 3), corresponding to Nietzsche’s life-death, and a topic (modern biology, Heidegger’s Nietzsche, and Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle). In what follows, I put these instructions to the test through a selective reading of the analyses that Derrida develops in each session.
§1 plays an introductory and parergonal role with respect to the aforementioned three-ring movement. It justifies Derrida’s intervention on the title of the programme of agrégation (la vie et la mort) and discusses the concept of programme. Derrida begins by explaining that he substitutes the hyphen (or spacing) for the original conjunction in order to call into question the logic according to which the relationship between life and death had been thought. He traces this logic back to Hegelian dialectics, which he proposes reading as a powerful thinking of life and death. The conjunction between these two terms presupposes the concepts of position, double position and opposition, which constitute the motor schemes of Hegelian dialectics. To test his hypothesis, Derrida refers his students to the syllogism of life from the last section of The Science of Logic that he summarizes as the movement in which life reappropriates itself as the life of spirit through natural death. In his subsequent remarks, Derrida makes it explicit that, by intervening on the institutional title, he does not aim to counter the logic of position undergirding the conjunction of life and death with another logic, but he points to another “topics” in which the concepts of position and presence would be an “effect of life-death” (24-25). In his lexicon (see the elaboration of presence as an effect of différance in the essay “Differance,” 1968), here Derrida suggests rethinking what had been thought as life and death from within the system of life-death that he develops in the seminar. Ultimately, Derrida recalls that his discrete and yet violent intervention on the title of the programme of agrégation consists in a political gesture, that of rewriting an inherited programme. It is motivated by his uneasiness in following the programme and by the strategical decision of countering the institution of agrégation from within. Finally, through this rewriting, he reverts the subject of the programme into the object of his deconstructive re-elaboration.
From this point on, §1 engages in an exploration of the value of programme by analyzing how it is constructed by Nobel Prize molecular biologist Francois Jacob in his masterwork The Logic of Life (La logique du vivant, 1971). The session thus anticipates the topic of ring 1. Derrida points out that, in the introduction to the aforementioned book (entitled “The Programme”), Jacob describes biological heredity by means of a metaphorical code (information, message, and programme)―a “semiotic” and “grammatical” code (30)―which is shared by cultural and educational discourses and whose unity is secured by the concept of reproduction as a life condition for both living beings and institutions. In the subsequent analyses, Derrida demonstrates that Jacob fails to account for this code and metaphoricity, which he designates as more “fundamental” (30), and relapses into a concept of code and metaphoricity that is marked by a philosophy of life. In particular, Derrida draws attention to Jacob’s analogical account of the two turning points of evolution―the beginning of life and that of language―as the emergence of two mechanisms of memory, biological and cerebral memory. Jacob offers two different versions of this analogical account. In the first version, he distinguishes the two memories according to their degree of rigidity/plasticity, which explains the ability of cerebral memory to transmit acquired characteristics. In relation to this version, Derrida observes that this analogical account is made possible by the fact that, according to the biological discourse of his day, genetic memory operates like a language. In other words, the code of Jacob’s description of genetic programme is the same as the code employed by modern discourses (informed by psychoanalysis, linguistics and Marxism) to describe institutional and educational programmes. According to this metaphorical code, subjects are “effects” and not authors of programmes, which ultimately hinge on the relations among forces aiming to make their reproduction prevail (37). Derrida refers to Jacob’s description of reproduction not as a copy but as a variation within a strictly normed code, in order to highlight the metaphorical code of modern biological and cultural discourses. Finally, according to Derrida, the implications of this analogy are that: (a) Jacob describes the difference between the two memories as a quantitative difference rather than an opposition; (b) the removal of the biological/cultural (and thus animal/human) divide grounded on humanist ideologies liberates an analogical and differential account of life. In the second version of his history of evolution, Jacob distinguishes the two memories in the light of their relationship to the environment. According to Jacob, the genetic programme only admits contingent, that is, non-deliberate (or non-conscious, as Derrida puts it) changes. In this case, the opposition between genetic and cerebral-cultural programmes rests on the opposition between contingent and deliberate changes. However, by building on modern discourses once again, Derrida remarks that the causality of change in cerebral and institutional programmes has the same style as the one that Jacob wishes to restrict to genetic programmes. Derrida thus subscribes to the achievements of the structural sciences of his time (see, for instance, Jean Piaget’s Biology and Knowledge, 1967), which provide an analogical account of biological and cultural programmes as non-deliberate processes of general restructuration before a violent intrusion. Finally, Jacob’s conception of deliberate change in cultural programmes hinges on an ideological and metaphysical opposition grounded on the presuppositions of consciousness, freedom and meaning. For this reason, Derrida argues that Jacob neutralizes the stakes implicit in the grammatical code of modern biological discourse by drawing on a still humanist and logocentric conception of that code (“a philosophy of life,” 41).
Ring 1 begins with §2, which is devoted to life-death as it undergirds Nietzsche’s new treatment of signature. Derrida points out that, today―within the historical field under scrutiny―the problematics of the biographical have undergone a re-evaluation. Both immanent and empirico-genetic readings of philosophical discourse fail to account for the biographical as the dynamic border between work and life, system and subject. Take the extreme case of the living subject of bio-logical discourse, which is evidently engaged in its field, and thus of the ensemble of ideological, philosophical and political forces that are at stake in the signature of this subject and constitute “the inscription of the biographical in the biological” (50). According to Derrida, Nietzsche discloses this new historical field by treating philosophy and life, the life sciences and philosophy of life, with/in its name―that is, by putting his signature into play, or making his work into “an immense bio-graphical paraph” (50). Derrida thus proposes a reading of Nietzsche that does not fall back into an abstraction of the biographical. To this end, he turns to the self-presentation that Nietzsche performs in the preface to Ecce Homo. In particular, Derrida focuses on two statements from this preface: (a) I live on the credit that I give myself; (b) the fact that I live is perhaps a prejudgment. I shall try to summarize Derrida’s elaboration. The premise of (a) is life-death: the living name-bearer is dead as it signs (as it says “I live” or “this is me”). Therefore, what returns―the name, and not the living name-bearer―is always the name of the other. It follows that I sign (I say “I live”) under this contract that I engage with “myself,” which is made possible by the return of the name. Finally, (b) holds as this contract can be honored only because the living name-bearer is dead, and thus by living name-bearers to come. On my reading, here Derrida develops the kind of nonhumanist conception of self-reference evoked at the beginning of my review. He thinks self-reference as an effect of the minimal condition of life, namely, autoaffection (or autoregulation―as he seems to suggest in §1). Overall, Derrida argues that one can read the biographical inscription only from the contract mentioned by Nietzsche and thus only as “allo- or thanato-biographical” (61). At this point, Derrida puts his new reading protocol to the test by examining Nietzsche’s youthful work On the Future of Our Educational Institutions. He focuses on Nietzsche’s call in this text for a guide (Führer) that would rescue German spirit from its enemies. Derrida distances himself from naïve conclusions (“Nietzsche was Nazi” versus “Nietzsche did not mean that”) and, in a radical fashion, asks how Nietzsche’s message or programme could give place to the Nazi institution. Building on his new protocol of the biographical, he argues that a perverting simplification such as the Nazi reproduction of Nietzsche’s programme constitutes a possibility implicit in the structure of Nietzsche’s text, which keeps returning and offering itself to new readings and reproductions. Derrida thus demonstrates that readings―to begin with, his ongoing reproduction of the programme of agrégation―are never merely hermeneutical (as they grasp the meaning of a text): they are a “political intervention in the political rewriting of a text” (72).
In §3, Derrida makes a new transition to modern biological discourse. He takes as his point of departure the problematics of the cut/sharing (coupure/partage) between metaphor and concept. After developing a few remarks on Nietzsche, Derrida returns to Georges Canguilhem’s 1966 article “The Concept and Life,” which he had already mentioned in §1 as the example of a discourse unable to account for the analogical and semiotic code of modern biology. Derrida engages in a close reading of the theory of metaphor underpinning Canguilhem’s analyses of biologist Claude Bernard. In particular, he focuses on the dance figures that these analyses describe in the attempt to develop a relationship between the metaphor and the concept that would hold together teleological continuity and epistemological cut. Derrida ends his session by calling for a general re-interpretation of that relation. This re-interpretation would start by replacing the idea of a metaphor that anticipates a concept without anticipating it with that of an active interpretation at stake between different metaphorico-conceptual systems. In §4, Derrida reverts his focus on the text of modern biology, of which Jacob’s Logic of Life would be the representative or spokesman (111). Prior to starting another close reading of Jacob’s text, Derrida draws attention to the most evident trait of the modern biological text, the textualization of the biological referent. Modern biology writes a text on an object that has itself the structure of a text. For example, Jacob explains that the essential structure of life, reproduction, works as a text (the molecule of nucleic acid, or DNA, which he identifies as the latest great discovery in the history of the life sciences). Derrida identifies this mutation in the field of biology as the emergence of scientific modernity. The consequences of this mutation, discussed further in §6, would not be naïve as we do not speak about a science that relies on documents and archives (such as philosophy and so forth), but about the life sciences, whose object (namely, life) is presupposed by all the other sciences. Among these consequences, Derrida focuses on the fact that the model one is supposed to take from culture is already a product of life and thus that: (a) the text is the minimal structure of the living (as the object of biology) as well as of biology (as a product of life); (b) the sciences and logic of the living are no longer a regional discourse in the field of knowledge. These propositions seem to sketch a new conception of biologism that resonates with the nonhumanist and grammatological account of life evoked above. At this point, Derrida announces the task of revealing the machine that governs Jacob’s text secretly. He aims to draw out the implications of modern biology that a certain philosophy of life neutralizes. He thus traces two conceptual threads across Jacob’s text: the thread of reproduction (to which he dedicates the remaining part of §4 and §5) and that of the model (§6). Derrida begins by remarking that, starting from the title of his work (logic of the living and not of life), Jacob wants to distance himself from life as a metaphysical essence hidden behind biological phenomena and thus from vitalism. However, Derrida points out, Jacob keeps referring to the essence of the living, which he determines as the living’s capacity of self-reproduction (in line with the most metaphysical―that is, Hegelian―determination of the essence of life). Furthermore, Jacob identifies the accomplishment of this capacity as the project (the end or sense, as Derrida puts it) of genetic programme, thus subscribing to a perhaps nonhumanist and yet still teleological conception of the living.
In the remaining pages of §4 and in §5, Derrida analyses the logic of the supplement that intervenes in Jacob’s account of sexuality and death in relation to reproduction. Derrida sheds light on the law that regulates Jacob’s model of living self-reproduction, a law that the biologist does not take into consideration and yet that calls for a review of Jacob’s model. In §4, Derrida discusses the role that Jacob allows to sexuality in his model of bacterial self-reproduction. For Jacob, the sexualization of living reproduction consists in the recombination of different genetic programmes or materials. Therefore, bacterial reproduction is said to be asexual since it unfolds as the bacterium’s division into two. However, Jacob acknowledges that this process admits mutations―errors in the translation or transcription of programmes―as well as transfers of a supplement of genetic materials from the environment (for example, by means of a virus). Thus, Derrida wonders if one cannot interpret these possibilities of recombination as terms analogous to what Jacob designates as sexuality and, consequently, if the opposition between sexual and a-sexual reproduction undergirding Jacob’s model of bacterial reproduction is not called into question. Finally, Derrida demonstrates that, whereas Jacob conceives of sexuality as a supplement to the history of genetic programmes and thus to his essential determination of life as self-reproduction, the possibility of sexuality is inscribed in that history and determination. He thus argues for, at least, another model of living reproduction. In §5, Derrida reveals the logic of the supplement at work in Jacob’s treatment of death. He explains that, for Jacob, within the limits of asexual reproduction, bacteria do not die. They experience a contingent death insofar as they dissolve by dividing into two or by extinguishing their reproductive capacity. In this case, Jacob argues that their contingent death depends on the milieu, in which the bacteria would live eternally if it were possible to renew it regularly. Like sexuality, therefore, death plays as a supplement in the chain of asexual reproduction: it comes from outside, by accident, to inscribe itself as an internal law of living reproduction; it is an internal supplement. Through this logic, Derrida shows that the oppositions undergirding Jacob’s text (inside/outside, organism/milieu, life/death, and so forth) fail to account for reproduction as they give place to contradictory statements that make them tremble. Jacob’s philosophical effort to protect a purified model of reproduction as merely asexual self-reproduction (or “self-reproductive self-affection,” 129) is problematic. Therefore, Derrida concludes that, if there is a certain quantity of bacteria that reproduce themselves asexually, there are also mutations due to the milieu, as well as recombination of genetic materials, which intervene in reproduction and call for another model and another logic of life.
§6 is devoted to the problem of the relation between the text and the model. In the first part of this session, Derrida builds on two propositions from Jacob’s book, which he proposes to read together, to elaborate his conception of general textuality. The two propositions in question are: (a) “the genetic message can be translated only from the products of its own proper translation”; (b) “since Gödel, we know that a logical system is not sufficient for its own description” (155). Derrida suggests that these propositions share a paradoxical necessity, which, as I will show, consists in the structural law of a general semiotic system or code: a system that describes itself―that is described by one of its elements―can neither comprehend itself nor be comprehended. To develop his suggestion, Derrida engages in a vertiginous analysis of Francis Ponge’s line: Par le mot par commence donc ce texte. He explains that this text accounts for what can always happen when the first event―the event that is described, translated, or reproduced―is a text. Therefore, the two propositions describe the structure or syntax of a general semiotic system or code, which is governed by structural or syntactical articulations that do not aim at a referent external to the system but at elements of the system itself. For Derrida, here one understands why the concept of the text has imposed itself in the life sciences: as it accounts for the general or self-referential code described above. Ultimately, notions such as information, communication and message should be thought as intratextual to the extent that they work like a text: a message only generates a message. However, Derrida goes on, this generality or self-referentiality is, by definition, neither autistic nor tautological. If a text can be translated only by the product of its translation, it is general precisely as it cannot close upon itself (as “alterity is irreducible” 159). At this point, Derrida wonders if the situation described here is not also that of the text of modern biology (“bio-genetics,” 159), which writes on a text, the living, of which it is the product. Thus, in proposition (a), Jacob also writes about his own text, as he is one of the translators of the genetic message as well as a product of the message’s translation. Finally, the activity of the life sciences consists in the textual product of the text that it translates. Derrida observes that here one can find the very condition of scientificity: scientific understanding and deciphering are intratextual; they are inscribed within the aforementioned self-referential and general text. It follows that the text can no longer be considered a model to the extent that textuality is coextensive to the living. Rather, the recourse to the notion of text testifies to an underpinning transformation in the statute of knowledge: knowledge has become a text on a text, as its object is a text and no longer the “meta-textual real” (161). In the remaining part of §6, Derrida draws attention to the problem of the circulation of the model that takes place in Jacob’s text as he resorts to the intratextual notion of information as a model. He shows that the value of the informational or cybernetic model is called into question when each of the regions considered (organism, society and machine) plays in turn as the model of the others and thus as model of the model. Apropos of the cybernetic model, Derrida also highlights the surreptitious reduction that is at work in Jacob’s elaboration of this model. Jacob wishes to abstract the exchange of information from the exchange of matter/energy that is attached to it―which is called entropy and involves an activity of selection and a play of forces―and thus to dissociate the semiotic element from the energetic and agonistic element. Like at the end of §1, here Derrida argues for an energetic and agonistic conception of cybernetic and semiotic code. This conception provides a protocol for the critique of mechanicism that Derrida had developed throughout his work. See, for example, his early reading of Freud’s agonistic rewriting of the naturalist explanation of memory in Project for a Scientific Psychology (“Freud and the Scene of Writing,” 1966) and his late proposal of a cybernetic and semiotic re-elaboration of the Cartesian mechanicism that undergirds humanist narratives of life (The Animal That Therefore I Am).
§7 functions as the point of articulation between ring 1 and ring 2. Derrida suggests that the implications of ring 1 lead us back to Nietzsche’s life-death. For example, the statement that the values of truth, knowledge and objectivity are effects of life-death should be read as a Nietzschean-type statement. Derrida thus engages in the reading of Nietzsche’s treatment of the relationship between truth and life in his Philosophenbuch. This reading provides the point of departure for the subsequent analysis of Heidegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche’s supposed biologism (ring 2). The analysis begins in §8 with the exploration of Heidegger’s treatment of Nietzsche’s signature and biography, which, on Derrida’s hypothesis, undergirds Heidegger’s interpretation of the problematics of biologism. Derrida starts by wondering to what extent a certain decision made on the subject of Nietzsche’s signature and biography undergirds Heidegger’s reading of the unity and unicity of Nietzsche’s thought and, more generally, of metaphysics, at whose limits Heidegger places that thought. Derrida summarizes Heidegger’s argument as follows: Nietzsche’s thought is one and unique, and this neither hinges on Nietzsche’s proper name nor on his life but on the unity and unicity of metaphysics that finds there its limits. In the remainder of §8, this argument is put to the test through a selective reading of texts from Heidegger’s Nietzsche devoted to the problematic of the biographical. First, Derrida focuses on the opening line of Heidegger’s 1961 preface to his Nietzsche, which reads: “‘Nietzsche’ – der Name des Denkers steht als Titel für die Sache seines Denkens” (206). Also in the light of what follows in Heidegger’s preface, Derrida suggests that Heidegger unfolds a conventional conception of the philosopher’s proper name and biography by suggesting that the name put between quotation marks―the signature (the inscription of the biographical)―must be read from the thought and thus becomes inessential. Here Derrida sees the turning point between two diverging paths: the first path, which is explored in §2, would unfold a certain re-evaluation of the biographical; the second path, undertaken by Heidegger, would consist in the classical and metaphysical gesture of determining the essentiality of the name from thought. Derrida explores the effects of Heidegger’s decision on the biographical by taking into consideration the chapters “The Book, The Will to Power” (1.1) and “Nietzsche as the Thinker of the Consummation of Metaphysics” (3.1; hereafter I refer to David Farrell Krell’s English edition of Nietzsche). Through the examination of these chapters, Derrida highlights, on the one hand, the relevance of the fact that Heidegger questions himself concerning “Who is Nietzsche?” But, on the other hand, Derrida shows Heidegger’s ambivalent elaboration of this question. Heidegger would dissociate in a conventional way Nietzsche’s thought from a conventional conception of biography and, more specifically, from the psycho-biographism of his day (culminating in the edition in progress of Nietzsche’s complete works), with a view to securing the unity and unicity of this thought in relation to metaphysics. In the subsequent sessions, Derrida addresses Heidegger’s treatment of biologism.
In §9, Derrida focuses on the moment where Heidegger’s interpretation of the thought of the eternal return intersects with the problematics of life and biologism. He draws attention to chapters 2.11 and 2.12 in Heidegger’s Nietzsche (entitled “The Four Notes Dated August 1881” and “Summary Presentation of the Thought: Being as a Whole as Life and Force; the World as Chaos”). In 2.11, Heidegger examines Nietzsche’s 1881 notes on the doctrine of the eternal return. Derrida lingers on Heidegger’s remarks on Nietzsche’s first project in order to highlight the kind of suspension that would regulate Heidegger’s interpretative machine―a suspension between some statements that acknowledge the singularity of Nietzsche’s thought and others that interpret the latter as a metaphysical position with regards to being as a whole. In 2.12, Heidegger develops his synoptic reading of the eternal return into ten points. Prior to commenting on these points, Derrida focuses on the moment where Heidegger raises a question concerning Nietzsche’s recourse to scientific discourses. May this recourse serve as a standard of measure for interpreting “the thought of thoughts” (240) in Nietzsche’s philosophy, Heidegger wonders. Here Derrida finds the index that Heidegger’s subsequent interpretation hinges on his own interpretation of the relationship between science and philosophy. In the remainder of §9, Derrida paraphrases Heidegger’s synoptic examination up to points 8 and 9, devoted to Nietzsche’s remarks on time and chaos, where, he suggests, Heidegger’s interpretation becomes more active. Derrida’s close reading aims to highlight Heidegger’s operations that would fail to account for the force of Nietzsche’s text.
In §10, Derrida draws on Heidegger’s chapters dedicated to the thought of the will to power, in order to discuss the latter’s interpretation of this thought and of the accusation of biologism addressed to Nietzsche. Derrida begins by recalling that Heidegger introduces the thought of the will to power as Nietzsche’s only and unique thought (which includes the thought of the eternal return) and that, for Heidegger, only by referring to this thought one can develop an authentic interrogation of Nietzsche. The subsequent analyses aim to uncover the interpretative scheme that undergirds Heidegger’s criticism of Nietzsche’s supposed biologism. Derrida finds Heidegger’s first stage of this critique in Nietzsche 3.3 (“The Will to Power as a Principle of New Evaluation”). He summarizes Heidegger’s argument as follows. Nietzsche does not think of life (and being as a whole) through the discourses prevailing in the life sciences of his time (vitalism and Darwinism), but from the very condition of life, namely, the value, which allows for life-enhancement. It remains to explore what makes possible the essence of life as life-enhancement, its principle or ground. This principle is, for Heidegger, will to power: thus, for Heidegger, Nietzsche determines (the essence of) life as will to power. Through this determination, he name “Nietzsche” is detached from the living being and comes to name the fatality of Western metaphysics (of its consummation). As Derrida rephrases Heidegger’s thought, “thinking this pseudonymy is the only condition to hear [entrendre] Nietzsche’s proper name” (254). At this point, Derrida engages in an active interpretation of Nietzsche 3.5 and 3.6. (“The Essence of Truth (Correctness) as ‘Estimation of Value’” and “Nietzsche’s Alleged Biologism”), in order to catch the moment and place of Heidegger’s interpretative decision and the schema underpinning this decision. First, by drawing on 3.5, he emphasizes that, for Heidegger, Nietzsche’s reversal of truth consists in a secondary modification within a traditional, metaphysical determination of truth (as adequation), which Nietzsche does not interrogate. At the same time, Derrida expresses his perplexity before the rhetoric through which Heidegger wishes to draw together singularity and tradition in Nietzsche’s thought and thus to place it in relation to metaphysics (see the passage where Heidegger explains that Nietzsche is in harmony with tradition and only for this reason can he distinguish himself; 262). Secondly, Derrida traces in 3.6 Heidegger’s elaboration of the scheme underpinning his rebuttal of Nietzsche’s biologism. Prior to commenting on Heidegger’s text, Derrida offers a long formalization of this scheme, which he identifies as the metaphysical scheme par excellence, the presupposition of the regionality of sciences and thus of the fact that the essentiality of the determined types of being that sciences are dealing with is neither established nor grounded by them. Derrida explains that, according to this scheme, sciences, which are regional and thus apply to a determined region of being or object, do not have access to the meaning or essence of this region, or, in other words, they do not think of it. They presuppose that philosophy thinks of that meaning and essence (for example, the essence of life) and thus distributes and assigns them to regional sciences. Therefore, a scientist can interrogate the meaning of her specialized field only as a philosopher. Derrida counters this scheme as applicable to the reading of Nietzsche. On my view, this counterargument undergirds Derrida’s thought of life-death and, more precisely, his interpretation of “Nietzsche” as the name of a new historical determination of biologism and the biographical. Derrida argues that, when Nietzsche says that being is an effect of life and thus no longer being as a whole, nor the general form circulating through its multiple regions by distributing tasks and unifying knowledge, he calls into question that very scheme of the regionality of sciences and develops the thought of life-death and of life as a semiotic remark. Thus, interpreting what Nietzsche says either as biologism (thinking the whole being from a regional instance) or as a metaphysical determination of the essence of life (what Heidegger does in order to save Nietzsche from his supposed biologism) would mean in both cases subscribing to a deconstructed scheme. Within this framework, Derrida also remarks that the paradox and interest of Heidegger’s operation is that he deconstructs the metaphysics supporting the scheme of regionality at the same time as he submits Nietzsche to this scheme (for whose deconstruction he should be credited instead). In other words, Heidegger would save Nietzsche from biologism by bringing Nietzsche and himself back into the scheme that underpins the conception of that biologism. To test his hypothesis, Derrida recalls the paragraph from 3.6 ending as follows: “he grounds this apparently merely biological worldview metaphysically” (269). Heidegger would protest, Derrida observes, against a reading that interprets his text as affirming the regulation of the frontiers of sciences under the external jurisdiction of philosophy. And yet, Derrida goes on, the scheme at work in Heidegger’s interpretation of biologism is typically involved in the justification of the most violent hierarchies.
The last four sessions describe ring 3, devoted to the reading of Freud’s Beyond. As we know from §7, Derrida identifies Freud as one of the two representatives of the modern determination of biologism in which we find ourselves. On my reading, the interplay between this ring and the general framework of the seminar―Derrida’s project of life-death―is less explicit. Therefore, I suggest reading Derrida’s later development of these sessions into “Speculating – On ‘Freud’” (published in The Postcard, 1981) as a further elaboration of his interpretation of Freud’s Beyond. Derrida places the Nietzschean point of articulation between ring 3 and ring 2 in the reference to Nietzsche that Freud makes in Ma vie et la psychanalyse. There Freud explains that he had avoided Nietzsche as the latter’s insights surprisingly coincide with the outcomes that psychoanalysis had achieved so painfully. In the opening pages of §11, Derrida identifies the task of this ring as that of bringing to light the relation between the nonpositional structure of Freud’s text (its inability to arrest on a position or thesis) and the logic of life-death. In the subsequent close examination of Freud’s Beyond, Derrida focuses on a set of issues that are relevant to the thought of life-death. In §11, in which he comments on Beyond chapter 1, he highlights the differential and nonpositional logic at work in the relation between pleasure and reality principles. In §12, he lingers on the account of the child’s play that Freud offers in chapter 2. Here, Derrida elaborates a conception of the autobiographical for which, while describing the child’s play, Freud describes the very movement of writing his Beyond. In §§13-14, which explore the remaining chapters of Freud’s Beyond, Derrida sketches his interpretation of the Freudian lexicon of binden and of the drive to power.
Within the limits of this review, I have aimed to offer an overview of Derrida’s La vie la mort, which this edition has finally made accessible to everyone. I built on the structural and theoretical framework proposed by Derrida to develop my analysis of the readings offered in the seminar. I believe that this operation would help do some justice to these readings by tracing them back to the overall project of life-death as a modern interpretation of the biological and the biographical. To conclude, I would like to recall another place in Derrida’s work that would display a latest formulation of this project. We are in a critical moment of Derrida’s conversation with Elisabeth Roudinesco, published as For What Tomorrow… A Dialogue (2001) and devoted to the great questions that mark our age. Roudinesco invites Derrida to address the question of contemporary scientism, which she describes as “the ideology originating in scientific discourse, and linked to the real progress of the sciences, that attempts to reduce human behaviour to experimentally verifiable physiological processes” (47). Finally, she wonders if, “in order to combat the growing influence of this point of view,” one should not “restore the ideal of an almost Sartrean conception of freedom” (47). In his response, Derrida engages in a critical re-elaboration of scientism that resonates with his reading of the problematics of Nietzsche’s supposed biologism. He does not propose to counter scientism by resorting to the humanist and metaphysical conception of freedom, and thus, more generally, to oppositional accounts of life (nature/culture, animal-machine/man, and so forth), which would hinge on the same code that makes the determination of scientism possible. Rather, he unfolds an alternative, neither scientist nor humanist conception of the life sciences, which would account for the semiotic, namely, grammatological, element at work in the living and thus would liberate a differential and nonoppositional history of life.
Derrida, Jacques. 2008. The Animal That Therefore I Am (Follow). Translated by David Wills. Fordham University Press.
Derrida, Jacques, and Elisabeth Roudinesco. 2004. For What Tomorrow . . . A Dialogue. Translated by Jeff Fort. Stanford University Press.
Heidegger, Martin. 1979. Nietzsche: Volume I and II (The Will to Power as Art; The Eternal Recurrence of the Same). Edited by David Farrell Krell. San Francisco: Harper and Row.
Heidegger, Martin. 1987. Nietzsche: Volume III and IV (The Will to Power as Knowledge and as Metaphysics; Nihilism). Edited by David Farrell Krell. San Francisco: Harper and Row.
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.” 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.”
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.” 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.” 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.
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.
 Michel Henry, Material Phenomenology, trans. Scott Davidson (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 130.
 Michel Henry, Material Phenomenology, 25.
 Jean-Louis Chrétien, The Ark of Speech, trans. Andrew Brown (London and New York: Routledge, 2004), 55.
 Emmanuel Falque, The Guide to Gethsemane: Anxiety, Suffering, Death, trans. George Hughes (New York: Fordham University Press, 2018), 106.
As is well known, the history of the French receptions of phenomenology begins in the winter of 1929, when Husserl delivers his famous four Päriser Vorträge, translated into French by Emmanuel Levinas two years after with the title Méditations cartésiennes. From that moment onwards, phenomenology increasingly penetrated in France, giving rise to a manifold of theoretical models in which Husserl’s philosophy is reinterpreted in the light of (or in line with) other traditions and perspectives already existing in France, such as spiritualism, cartesianism, the Hegel-renaissance, etc. This complex process is doubtlessly fostered by the fact that Husserl’s Nachlass starts to be published only in 1950, when many other phenomenologists already composed their main works: for instance, that is the case for Heidegger, Levinas, Merleau-Ponty, and others. As a result, many French phenomenological approaches of the first generation tend to focus themselves on particular issues of Husserl’s phenomenology – intersubjectivity, givenness, time-consciousness, constitution, idealism/realism, etc. – rather than taking into account his thought as a whole.
It is precisely within this philosophical framework that Steven DeLay’s book, Phenomenology in France: A Philosophical and Theological Introduction, just published with Routledge, insightfully scrutinizes the relation between phenomenology and theology in a series of important French phenomenologists, such as Emmanuel Levinas, Michel Henry, Jean-Luc Marion, Jean-Yves Lacoste, Jean-Louis Chrétien, Claude Romano, and Emmanuel Falque. DeLay’s choice for these authors reassesses anew a debate that took place in the Nineties after the well-known pamphlet Le tournant théologique de la phénoménologie française, by D. Janicaud. In his text, DeLay develops a massive criticism of a certain tendency of French phenomenologists, in his view rooted in Heidegger’s “phenomenology of the inapparent,” to treat being, life, and generally the invisible as something that phenomenology could bring into view. In other words, Janicaud denounces an improper use of the phenomenological method, quite common among some philosophers – like Levinas, Henry, and Marion – who, in his eyes, apply it in absence of any kind of intuitive content. Thus, from Janicaud’s standpoint, French phenomenologists betrayed the very essence of Husserl’s project by considering the inapparent, that is something that does not come to manifestation for an intentional consciousness, as an object of phenomenological inquiry. This entails that, from this perspective, there would be no room in the phenomenological domain for Levinas’ meditation on the other’s face, Henry’s concept of life, Marion’s account of the saturated phenomenon, Lacoste’s discourse on the absolute, Chrétien’s phenomenology of the call, Romano’s notion of the event, and Falque reflection on human finitude.
Such a criticism has been reprised in more recent times by J. Benoist, who recalled Janicaud’s argument by arguing that a phenomenology of the inapparent is surreptitiously based upon theism. In other words, where there is nothing to see, there can be no phenomenology. In response, as DeLay emphasizes in the Introduction, Marion replies that, if claiming to see is not sufficient to prove that one saw, then the pretense of not seeing does not prove that there is nothing to see. As a result, “in arguing that faith lacks any genuine independent phenomenological basis, the atheistic objection betrays itself. If right, then it, too, on closer scrutiny, proves to be a matter of interpretation based on predilection” (3). From this perspective, this book aims at providing new arguments in favor of a serious confrontation between phenomenology and theology as a strictly philosophical issue. Of course, rather than a demonstration of God’s existence, what is at stake for a phenomenological approach to faith is an in-depth description of the relevance of faith in our everyday experience and in our own subjectivity’s constitution. In other words, a phenomenological inquiry that would not take into account faith and its particular modes of manifestation, would fall into a naturalistic vision of the world experience and would therefore suffer from a serious inconsistency with the basic principles of phenomenological method. This view, strongly defended by DeLay, is also testified by the fact that Husserl himself does not elude the problem of our experience of God within the general framework of his phenomenology. This does not mean that Husserl’s treatment of the idea of God is free from any difficulty or ambiguity, to the extent that there remains a certain tension between God as the infinite telos of humanity and the traditional God of faith. Nevertheless, what is remarkable is Husserl’s strong commitment to the clarification of religious experience for transcendental life and, hence, the relation between phenomenology and theology.
Under these premises, DeLay’s book firstly reconstructs the well-known quarrel between Husserl and Heidegger about the core mission of phenomenology: is it to be focused on consciousness’ intentionality or clarify the sense of Being in general? Whereas, on the one hand, Heidegger blames Husserl for being somehow hostage to the traditional problem of modern philosophy, on the other hand, Husserl totally disagrees with Heidegger’s account of phenomenology as the method of ontology. Accordingly, a dilemma seems to arise regarding the very nature of phenomenology: is it about a description of intentional acts of a transcendental subject, or an ontological comprehension of Dasein in view of an interpretation of Being hüberhaupt? As argued by DeLay, this dilemma radically influenced the development of phenomenology in France, as if it were the only issue truly at stake. In a certain sense, it is as if doing phenomenology today would entail a fundamental choice between Husserl’s and Heidegger’s perspectives, or at least seeking for a compromise between them. According to DeLay, however diffused this attitude may be, it reveals a strong incompleteness in the consideration of the phenomenological scene as a whole. Indeed, the French phenomenological debate after the Second World War is much more complex: for instance, Levinas’ thought challenges the option between phenomenology and ontology and confers the role of first philosophy to ethics. For the sake of completeness, it must be taken into account that, whereas a first generation of phenomenologists (Henry and Marion) is primarily influenced by Husserl and a second generation (Chrétien and Lacoste) is clearly inspired by Heidegger, there is also a third generation (Romano and Falque) strictly indebted to Merleau-Ponty. Furthermore, it would be very interesting to clarify the historical and theoretical reasons why Sartre played so little influence in France, albeit in the Anglophone world is considered as a leading figure of post-Husserlian phenomenology.
In this respect, this book may be read as an effort to do justice to the high complexity of a theoretical movement that we are used to call “French phenomenology” although it includes a number of different approaches to phenomenology, often in open opposition to Husserl’s one. For instance, this is the case for Levinas’ thought discussed in the first chapter. As is well known, if on the one hand Levinas directly contributed to the diffusion of Husserl’s thought in France (with his translation of the Päriser Vorträge), on the other hand he developed an original perspective that deeply challenged the Husserlian project. Indeed, for Levinas the question of subjectivity is inextricably intertwined with ethics, namely the domain of our encounter with the “face of the Other” and the “trace of God.” It is precisely for this reason that Levinas refuses both Husserl’s and Heidegger’s account of phenomenology: what is really at stake for phenomenology is not intentionality or Being, but our ethical responsibility to others. Through his core thesis on “ethics as first philosophy,” Levinas set the stage for a great part of the subsequent reflections upon phenomenology in France. Of course, one may doubtlessly disagree with this thesis; nevertheless, after Levinas the notion of “the face of the Other” becomes an unavoidable one, insofar as it marks the uniqueness of the human being. Rather than being merely based on intentionality, human subjectivity is constituted by the invisible appeal of the other that, appearing from beyond consciousness, commands us “thou shall not commit murder.” Accordingly, the other puts my freedom into question, interrupts what Levinas calls the “enjoyment of the same,” namely my egoistic enjoyment of myself, in order to call me to my fundamental responsibility to others and, thus, to the possibility of justice.
In the beginning of the third chapter, DeLay emphasizes how Henry’s phenomenological approach, in line with Levinas’ inspection of our common egoistic attitude toward life, leads to a radical criticism of contemporary culture as rooted in a cult of exteriority. In this perspective, it is worth reading Henry starting from one of his late (and miscomprehended) works, La barbarie (1987), whose core thesis is that Western civilization progressively forgot, and thus mystified, the radical experience of life, which manifests itself as an invisible subjective self-affection. Almost totally absorbed by technology and the entertainment machine, extreme instances of the realm of the visible, our culture suffers from a serious unawareness of its very essence. More closely, the motives of its malaise are to be found in the historical process – from the birth of modern science – when the description of subjectivity has been gradually reduced into a description of a world made of objects. Accordingly, the undiscussed primacy of the natural sciences, with their technological applications, completely covered the affective essence of life, unique condition of manifestation of the world’s exteriority. As DeLay puts into light, the distinction between the manifestation of life and the givenness of the world is the real leitmotif of Henry’s entire philosophical career since L’essence de la manifestation (1963) and constitutes his radical criticism of Husserl’s phenomenology as well. Indeed, in Henry’s eyes, Husserl’s phenomenology rests upon the unquestioned assumption of subjectivity as an intentional consciousness in correlation with a noematic content in its objectivity (Gegenständlichkeit). As a result, regardless of the mode through which this objectivity is given to consciousness (i.e. perception, memory, dream, expectation, etc.), intentionality always entails a structure of givenness in exteriority and, by contrast, does not take into account the immanent phenomenality of life. By recalling the French spiritualist tradition, as well as some aspects of Kierkegaard’s thought, Henry claims that phenomenology requires being upset in order to overcome its intentional framework and, doing so, grasp the very essence of subjectivity, intersubjectivity, and temporality. In a word, the invisible experience of self-affection, described in Incarnation as the phenomenon of the flesh. Without the pathos of life revealing itself in the flesh, nothing can be seen. It is precisely throughout this priority of pathos of life over intentionality that Henry develops his account of the interaction between phenomenology and theology. Indeed, undoubtedly inspired both by John’s Prologue and Paul’s Letters, Henry maintains that the flesh is precisely the locus of God’s self-revelation, namely where we experience ourselves as engendered by God. In this sense, the flesh is characterized as an “Arch-Revelation”, insofar as it constitutes the originary mode of self-revelation in which I experience God within a pure transcendental affectivity, before any historical emergence of meaning and practice.
In line with both Levinas’ description of the “face” and Henry’s meditation on life, Marion’s phenomenology of givenness accomplishes that inversion of phenomenology so wished by Henry (chapter four). From a phenomenological viewpoint, Marion poses the question whether Levinas’ account of the face could count for other phenomena as well, rising up into our experience without any possibility of prevision, control, and subjective constitution. Precisely as the Other’s face, which manifests itself in my experience before any intentional act, are there any particular phenomena, whose main feature is to constitute subjectivity, rather than being constituted by intentionality? In other words, could one conceive of a different mode of givenness from objectivity? In this case, which kind of manifestation would involve these “non-objects”? Marion’s entire theoretical path aims at responding to this fundamental question that, in his eyes, represents the unique question really at stake for phenomenology. Accordingly, the distinction between the idol and icon Marion develops in Dieu sans l’être and L’idole et la distance, rather than being uniquely a theological reflection about God after onto-theology, has a strictly phenomenological relevance, insofar as it sets the stage for what he calls, from Etant donné onwards, “saturated phenomena.” Indeed, if the inspection of the notion of God after nihilism leads Marion to overcome onto-theology by conceiving of God’s revelation in terms of gift, his deconstruction of both Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology and Heidegger’s ontology allows him for a radical reassessment of the phenomenological concept of gift and givenness. In brief, transcendental subjectivity is appropriate only for describing our experience of objects: they are under our power of constitution, control, prevision, etc. Nevertheless, objects do not complete the whole horizon of givenness; rather, they represent a little part of all phenomena one may experience. Indeed, there is a wide range of phenomena whose main trait is to manifest themselves as totally unpredictable events: for instance, the icon, the face, flesh, and revelation. Phenomenologically speaking, these phenomena entail a “counter-intentionality”: by this expression, Marion indicates that, by experiencing them, subjectivity reveals itself as constituted instead of constituting. As a result, Marion’s inversion of transcendental phenomenology leaves the room for revelation as a pure phenomenological excess, namely that inexhaustible event through which subjectivity founds itself and, at the same time, its relation with any other variety of manifestation. As DeLay insightfully concludes, “Marion’s phenomenology of saturated givenness reveals, in unmistakable fashion, an excess awaiting complete fulfilment in a world to come, one prepared for everyone who loves devotedly the truth in this one. Glory is a negative certainty” (95).
An original description of the relation between man and God is provided by Lacoste and Chrétien (recently passed away), to whom DeLay dedicates the fifth and sixth chapters of his book. For Lacoste, deeply inspired by Marion’s and Henry’s projects of reversion of classical phenomenology, if intentionality is deeply rooted in what Heidegger calls “being-in-the-world,” a genuine understanding of this concept requires a precise inspection of what is to be intended by the notion of the “world.” With this aim, he locates the place of humanity beyond earth and the world. In order to grasp it, Lacoste suggests overcoming both Husserl’s and Heidegger’s perspectives through what he calls “liturgical reduction”, which, without denying our entrenchment in the world, fosters us to take distance from it. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that Lacoste does not merely refers to liturgy as a ritual of ecclesial worship. Rather, liturgy is the attitude by which we open ourselves to a horizon exceeding the world. It is precisely in this desire for something beyond the limits of time, and thus of death, that man experiences the presence of God. From Lacoste’s perspective, this phenomenological framework opened by liturgical reduction inaugurates a new place where the world is no longer interposed between man and God. Accordingly, entering such a space, we discover ourselves as pilgrims directed to an eschaton beyond the time of the world. A very similar direction is taken by Chrétien, whose core thesis is that our voice articulates itself only after an originary calling. In other words, the simple fact that we speak is possible only to the extent that we feel asked by someone or something to respond. This means that something has originary reached us, exposing us to the possibility to break the silence. As Chrétien puts into light, this situation characterizes the human condition as one of peril. Indeed, being called to speak entails that we are confronted with our radical responsibility. More precisely, being capable of speech means assuming the responsibility for what we have said or will say: in this sense, what makes our speech human is not its intelligibility, but our responsibility towards what is said through our voice. Thus, being human consists in being “individuated as the unique voice that we are” (120).
The process of hetero-constitution of subjectivity by the liturgical space (Lacoste) and the originary call (Chrétien) is developed as a phenomenological and hermeneutic description of the event by Romano (chapter 7). According to Romano, in order to grasp the phenomenological uniqueness of the event, one has to deal with a new paradigm of rationality based upon a non-objective experience in which we could be flooded by the event of an absolute manifestation (something recalling the Pauline figure of the parousia). As a consequence, the advenant, namely who receives the event, is confronted with a non-objective experience, approachable only through interpretation. This means that, in Romano’s perspective, a phenomenological description of the event is possible only as hermeneutics. Accordingly, hermeneutic phenomenology reveals its relevance in order to describe the human posture towards the event: phenomenology as hermeneutics and hermeneutics as phenomenology. Therefore, throughout the phenomenological description of event, what reveals itself as really at stake in Romano’s thought is a new conception of reason. Indeed, thinking the event is not merely the consideration of a particular but marginal phenomenon. Rather, it entails a reassessment of phenomenology in the history of Western thought: this is precisely the task of “evential hermeneutics”.
The last author discussed by DeLay is Falque (chapter 8). In direct confrontation with the major French phenomenologists, his reflection is dedicated to the issue whether finitude is the ultimate condition of man. If not, is a metamorphosis of finitude possible? With the aim of responding to these questions, Falque claims that “the more we theologize, the more we philosophize.” After the season of the debate about the “theological turn of French phenomenology,” according to Falque it is necessary to go further through the project of a conjoint practice of philosophy and theology. Unlike a diffused attitude toward existence, focused on its anguish, anxiety, and senseless affliction (i.e. Sartre, Heidegger, Camus, etc.), the Christian existence is one of joy. Once made the choice to believe, one lives differently than before: toil and trouble leave the room to freedom and light. Thus, a metamorphosis is possible as a new birth by which one can finally breathe. Furthermore, Falque describes metamorphosis’ status as an event: notably, the event of the Resurrection inaugurates time, rather than merely being in time. Doing so, Christ’s Resurrection breaks the immanence of finitude and changes the structure of the world. As a result, Falque develops a new phenomenological framework in which the faith in Christ radically upsets our experience of the world: Death is no longer the horizon of existence, insofar as finitude is completely overcome.
As a matter of fact, in DeLay’s book there is much more than what can be summarized in a review. This essay in not only an excellent introduction to some French philosophers more or less known; rather, it develops a fundamental argument about the fruitfulness of a radical reassessment of the relation between philosophy and theology for the phenomenological reflection that is still to come. For, as DeLay recalls at the end of the last chapter, «No horizon encompasses the hand of the most High—L’Esprit souffle où il veut.»