Joeri Schrijvers and Martin Koci (Eds.): God and Phenomenology: Thinking with Jean-Yves Lacoste, Cascade Books, 2023

God and Phenomenology: Thinking with Jean-Yves Lacoste Book Cover God and Phenomenology: Thinking with Jean-Yves Lacoste
Joeri Schrijvers, Martin Koci (Eds.)
Cascade Books

Wolfgang Gleixner: endlich/philosophieren: Die anthropologisch-existentielle Wende der Phänomenologie, Karl Alber, 2022

endlich/philosophieren: Die anthropologisch-existentielle Wende der Phänomenologie Book Cover endlich/philosophieren: Die anthropologisch-existentielle Wende der Phänomenologie
Wolfgang Gleixner
Karl Alber

Sylvie Avakian: ‘Being Towards Death’: Heidegger and the Orthodox Theology of the East, De Gruyter, 2021

'Being Towards Death’: Heidegger and the Orthodox Theology of the East Book Cover 'Being Towards Death’: Heidegger and the Orthodox Theology of the East
Theologische Bibliothek Töpelmann, 191
Sylvie Avakian
De Gruyter
Hardback 89,95 €

James Richard Mensch: Decisions and Transformations: The Phenomenology of Embodiment, ibidem Press, 2020

Decisions and Transformations: The Phenomenology of Embodiment Book Cover Decisions and Transformations: The Phenomenology of Embodiment
Body and Consciousness
James Richard Mensch
ibidem Press
Paperback $45.00

Olga Louchakova-Schwartz (Ed.): The Problem of Religious Experience

The Problem of Religious Experience: Case Studies in Phenomenology, with Reflections and Commentaries Book Cover The Problem of Religious Experience: Case Studies in Phenomenology, with Reflections and Commentaries
Contributions To Phenomenology, Vol. 103
Olga Louchakova-Schwartz (Ed.)
Hardback 88,39 €
XXV, 339

Reviewed by: Jarrod Hyam (University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire)

The terms “mysticism” and “mystical experience” were commonly used in twentieth century scholarship, particularly in psychology of religion studies. These terms, highly loaded and ambiguous as they are, were gradually replaced by references to “religious experience” in English-language scholarship by the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. What is meant by “religious experience?” How is it distinguished from our other, everyday kinds of experiences – is it something that can be clearly separated from mundane experiences, and if so, how? Do such experiences vary cross-culturally, and are they conditioned by specific religious traditions? What of religious experiences that lie outside of institutional religious settings? These questions continue to cause controversy and lively debate from multidisciplinary perspectives. Applied phenomenology is particularly relevant for this ongoing mystery.

Related to these questions are the issues of context: what religious experience(s) are we referring to? How is this understood in theistic systems – and how might this appear in non-theistic traditions? is there such a thing as a universal human religious experience, or do these experiences differ cross-culturally and across world religious traditions?

The Problem of Religious Experience: Case Studies in Phenomenology, with Reflections and Commentaries, edited by Olga Louchakova-Schwartz, represents a massive, multivolume undertaking to address some of these contextual issues. An extensive study of the intersection of phenomenology and religious experience is much needed, and we are fortunate to be gifted such a voluminous work. The editor includes generous notes and reflections, including a detailed introduction, where she notes that this work stems from a collaborate research effort from the Society for the Phenomenology of Religious Experience. The editor is an extremely accomplished scholar who displays true expertise in the phenomenology of religious experience.  Professor Louchakova-Schwartz clearly states a foundational question regarding this research in the introduction: “a question of what exactly makes religious experience what it is – that is, gives it a specific quality distinguishing it, for its subject, from all other experiences – remained open” (3). Given over a century of robust phenomenological studies, the question of subjective experience generally and religious experience specifically continues to invoke confusion and mystery, and this ambitious work turns to various case studies and theorizing to respond to this confusion.

The introductory section effectively sets out a cohesive structure for this multivolume study. An initial confusion I encountered in the introduction is: what is the scope of the analysis here? The word “God” is referenced, and it is made clear that Abrahamic and South Asian religious studies are included, as well as both phenomenological theory and theologically-centered studies. However, what religions are specifically covered in the comparative analyses, and what, if any, constraints and issues were encountered when including cross-cultural studies?

Relatedly, having so much material in one book may prove to be daunting. This is split into two volumes with four parts: the first volume containing The Primeval Showing of Religious Experience while the second volume is explicitly theological, entitled Doxastic Perspectives in the Phenomenology of Religious Experience. I am concerned about such a broad spectrum of content lacking cohesion; fortunately, dividing the book into parts and respective case studies helped to preserve an overall cohesive structure. The notion of the concretum or concrete aspects of religious experience is invoked in the introduction. Yet quickly in the introductory sections, a nearly incomprehensible web of nested phenomenological jargon is spun – this is clearly a common feature of modern philosophical theory, also a feature in the many phenomenological subtraditions stemming from the master of incomprehensibly dense prose himself, Edmund Husserl. This caused another concern; after I turned to the first case study presented in Chapter Two, I wondered if non-specialists in this subject would be able to make sense of the material. As the subject of religious experience is multidisciplinary, this work may attract those who are not specialized in phenomenological technical terms, such as the various reductions. Nonetheless, Professor Louchakova-Schwartz is particularly clear in her writing and unpacks the incredible amount of debate and abstraction surrounding the phenomenology of religious experience with deftly precise prose. She includes helpful reflections at the conclusion of each Part, from Part I – IV.

Proceeding the critiques of Cartesian mind-body dualism and subsequent focus on embodiment found in the works of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and modern thinkers such as Natalie Depraz and Thomas Csordas, the notion of embodiment and embodied religious experience is germane to this research. It is encouraging to see this topic approached multiple times, including in Chapter II of Volume I, “Reconnecting the Self to the Divine: The Role of the Lived Body in Spontaneous Religious Experiences” by Shogo Tanaka. This first volume, The Primeval Showing of Religious Experience, sets out what is to be “presuppositionless” accounts of religious experience, contrasted with theological or “doxastic” approaches found in volume II – hence the “showing” of experiences mentioned in the title.

Tanaka presents the oft-neglected domain of “spontaneous” religious experiences – those experiences falling outside the purview of institutionally-structured traditions. Inspired by William James’ famous analysis of mysticism in The Varieties of Religious Experience, Tanaka focuses on the notion of mystical “passivity” and how this may lead to shifts in one’s sense of embodied experience, also referred to phenomenologically as “the lived body.”

Beginning primarily with Plato and Parmenides among ancient Greek thinkers, thriving throughout medieval European Scholasticism and culminating with Rene Descartes’ philosophy, the history of Western philosophy is that of dualistic tension: tension between the status of mind and matter, spirit and corporeality. Descartes’ famous formulation of res cogitans and res extensa formalized the ontological separation of spirit or mind from “mindless” matter. The directly visceral experience of living itself is consistently denied in the Western philosophical tradition, brushed aside as irrelevant compared to the power of reasoning. A critique of this dualistic orientation is found initially in Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological work, continued in the religious analyses of the “lived body” in Tanaka’s chapter. The role of embodiment is a crucial aspect within religious experience accounts that will hopefully continue to inspire future phenomenological religious studies.

Tanaka concludes his chapter with a critique of body-mind dualism and apt observations regarding a false dichotomy often posited in religious experience studies between “ordinary” and “nonordinary” states of consciousness: “. . . the distinction itself seems to reflect a tacit, dichotomous understanding of the sacred and the secular, the supernatural and the natural, the other world and this world, and the religious and the nonreligious. This dichotomy may foster the view that religious experiences are essentially different from ordinary experiences” (35). This essentializing of different modes of experience contrasts with Tanaka’s emphasis on spontaneous religious experiences, which may occur in perfectly mundane situations and contexts, outside any specifically institutional religious setting. One is reminded of the quotidian, simple imagery often employed in Zen Buddhist poetry and parables to refer to ultimate awakening – which is not fundamentally distinct from everyday experience.

One insightful aspect of this book is the clarification of phenomenological methods and key terms, including the often-invoked method of “reduction.” Espen Dahl defines and clarifies a few of these reductions in Chapter 4, “Preserving Wonder Through the Reduction: Husserl, Marion, and Merleau-Ponty.” These include Husserl’s Cartesian-influenced reduction, Marion’s reduction, and Merleau-Ponty’s method of reduction. Husserl’s notion of epoché, the “bracketing” of our presuppositions about what constitutes our universe, is described by Dahl as “the way inward” (60). This is certainly a fitting way to describe the process of bracketing, and it is a key feature that marks the unique orientation of Husserl’s innovative philosophy. Such an inward turning also parallels aspects of stilling the mind during certain meditation exercises, which is addressed in Chapter 5, written by Olga Louchakova-Schwartz. Louchakova-Schwartz focuses on the transmutation of emotion in numerous Buddhist meditation practices, what she refers to as “neo-Buddhist” practices. Processes underlying the emotional transformation in these practices are compared to numerous phenomenological methods, including the reductions and epoché. The array of comparative phenomenological studies is a particularly impressive feature of this anthology, and there is still much insightful cross-cultural analysis to be gained by applying the phenomenological methodologies to varied cultural religious practices.

Volume I continues with other nondoxastic approaches, focusing on themes of Lebenswelt or the “lifeworld,” intersubjectivity and transcendence. As previously stated, Volume II shifts the focus by including doxastic, explicitly theological frameworks. These by and large draw influence from Christian theistic perspectives and philosophers such as Kierkegaard, in addition to an intriguing analysis of Raimon Panikkar’s intercultural, pluralistic philosophies in Leonardo Marcato’s “Mystical Experience as Existential Knowledge in Raimon Pannikar’s Navasūtrāni.” The anthology is two hundred pages in by Volume II, and this book culminates with over three hundred pages. Despite this substantial amount of material and plethora of topics, the cohesively structured flow of thought is even more apparent by the end of Volume II. This is a particularly ambitious project to complete and subdividing the content into two main volumes helped to break the material into manageable sections, with clear demarcations in analytical foci.

I am quite impressed by the plurality of themes and lucid unpacking of densely abstruse phenomenological topics found within The Problem of Religious Experience: Case Studies in Phenomenology, with Reflections and Commentaries. Dr. Olga Louchakova-Schwartz’s commentary and original contributions greatly assist in making sense of this complex territory.  There is an impressive array of cross-cultural religious analyses explored. Again, this ambitious work may overwhelm readers who are not previously familiar with the many developments of phenomenology within the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Nonetheless, the various methods, reductions, and “bracketing” are clearly explicated in relation to the ongoing mysteries of religious experience. This anthology leaves us with further reflections on wonder, mystery, transcendence – even with silence, outside the conceptually symbolic constraints of language itself. At the crossroads of these conceptual fringes, the explanatory methods of phenomenology can effectively shed light on the enigmatic nature of cross-cultural descriptions of religious experience.

Rozemund Uljée: Thinking Difference with Heidegger and Levinas, SUNY Press, 2020

Thinking Difference with Heidegger and Levinas: Truth and Justice Book Cover Thinking Difference with Heidegger and Levinas: Truth and Justice
SUNY series in Contemporary French Thought
Rozemund Uljée
SUNY Press
Hardback $95.00

David P. Nichols (Ed.): Transcendence and Film: Cinematic Encounters with the Real

Transcendence and Film: Cinematic Encounters with the Real Book Cover Transcendence and Film: Cinematic Encounters with the Real
David P. Nichols (Ed.)
Lexington Books
Hardback $90.00

Reviewed by: Antony Fredriksson (Centre for Ethics as Study in Human Value, University of Pardubice)

One starting point for a new approach within philosophical film-studies during the past decades can be found in Stephen Mulhall’s book On Film (2002). In contrast to the traditional approach within aesthetics, Mulhall regards cinema as an art form that carries a philosophical task by itself. Films are, in this sense, not considered as examples or raw material for philosophical scrutiny, rather they are understood as works of philosophy in the medium of the moving image. The book provoked a long debate concerning this question (can films be considered as philosophy by themselves) that ran, among other forums, on the pages of the journal Film Philosophy during the year 2003.

David P. Nichols’ (ed.) anthology Transcendence and Film continues with this approach. It is a book that deals with philosophical issues through a discussion between philosophers and works within cinema. Dylan Trigg exemplifies this by describing his relation to David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001): “Lynch is not a director who makes films in lieu of a philosophical voice; rather, his philosophical voice is indistinguishable from that of his films, such that the task falls to philosophers to meet Lynch on his terms rather than vice versa” (16). This approach, in which a clear hierarchy between philosophers and theorists in relation to artists and their works of art is dissolved into a reciprocal dialogue, offers a vital perspective. At its best, Transcendence and Film brings out how pressing philosophical questions concerning subjectivity, the limits of experience, and the status of representation of reality in art can be dealt with in the audio-visual language of cinema.

The ten essays by John B. Brough, Allan Casebier, Herbert Golder, David P. Nichols, K. Malcolm Richards, Frédéric Seyler, Kevin L. Stoehr, Dylan Trigg, Joseph Westfall, and Jason M. Wirth, permit the films to do the philosophical work regarding some key-questions with phenomenology and aesthetics. Some of the key theoretical underpinnings for the book come from Karl Jaspers’ phenomenology of liminal experiences and questions concerning the role of transcendence. With cinema, transcendence can refer to several different phenomena. The strict emphasis of this book lies, however, in the way the aesthetics of film can allude to the ineffable, i.e., how a certain work can open up vistas that change our ways of relating to the everyday perceptual world; how film permits us to rediscover the world of perception which we are immersed in. The phenomenological approach stands out as a strength in the theoretical literature on film, since cinema is considered, at its best, to be a reflection of the dynamics of the structures of our consciousness. Then mentioned films are not required to provide rational philosophical arguments. Instead, the emphasis is on how this language that uses the building blocks of our perceptual world can reveal some ephemeral aspects of our cognitive and affective processes.

Regarding the ethos of “film as philosophy”, Dylan Trigg’s essay The Dream of Anxiety in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, stands out in this collection. Trigg shows how Mulholland Drive articulates sophisticated questions concerning the ontology of self. Lynch’s film portrays a particular borderline state between dreaming, sleeping and waking. The characters Diana and Camilla experience traumatic events that infiltrate their everyday waking life, blend into it and distort it. In this sense, their subjectivity becomes apparent as singularity. It is the projections of the own self that blend into perceived reality and thus, the nightmarish and unfamiliar experiences are also necessarily a part of the self (19). Trigg shows how the horror of Lynch’s film consists of the realization within the main character that “the very concept of personhood is itself a sad illusion” (18). Lynch’s film language reflects a philosophy of the dynamics of our consciousness that also stems from his own practice of transcendental meditation. The forte of film as a medium is that it is a visual language and is thus able to portray how dreams and memories break into and influence our direct perception. Trigg shows how Lynch is a master of this kind of portrayal of the dynamics of our psychology of perception. In the context of the essay, transcendence denotes a passageway between different levels of consciousness. Lynch investigates both in his meditational practice and in his films, these limits between dreaming and waking, bringing them into sight for the viewers and helping us to observe the processes that at times can entail both anxiety and bliss.

A completely different kind of aesthetics that, however, carry similar goals of disclosing a specific liminal territory within our perception is present in the cinema of Yasujirō Ozu. In his essay, Transcendence in Phenomenology and Film: Ozu’s Still Lives, Allan Casebier, who is considered by many as a predominant scholar for introducing the tradition of phenomenology to Anglo-American philosophy of film, scrutinizes the connection between the phenomenology of Karl Jaspers and the Zen Buddhist aesthetics of film director Yasujirō Ozu. According to Casebier, the cinema of Ozu strives to disclose the ineffable. Here we are already dealing with a particular philosophical tension, since; if something is ineffable, how can it then be expressed? The aesthetics of Ozu are designed to work around this tension by using the concept of shibui. Casebier writes: “Shibui’s ever hidden aspect creates a lingering attraction for more since the object is so fashioned that it reveals only enough of itself to impel one to seek additional qualities of what has been found pleasing but which are not readily perceivable” (93). In this way, transcendence in the films of Ozu is achieved through allusion and through the dialectics of the seen and the hidden. It is up to the viewer’s imagination to initiate the movement towards the transcendental. In contrast, Ozu’s role is merely to invite this imagination through his minimal and still language of film.

Casebier relates this ineffability to Jaspers’ concept of “cypher”, something that hints at a beyond without ever disclosing it. The transcendent cannot, in this sense, become an object for our knowledge. For Jaspers, it resides at the boarders of the knowable. The ineffable has an impact on our experience, but it can never be fully delineated. In this way, transcendent films guide us to the borders of our normal, habitual perception. It alludes to a beyond that is never fully grasped. Transcendental cinema is, in Paul Shrader’s words, like a catholic mass; a ritual that prepares us for experiences that are contradictory to the conventional (93).

Although Casebier is able to point out a philosophically interesting aspect in the aesthetics of Ozu, the essay still feels like it falls short. Casebier writes in quite general terms, without referring to specific films of the director. For me, it is evident that there is a more mundane explanation for the minimalism and emptiness in Ozu’s images. The subject matter that was central to Ozu is a certain alienation. The challenging predicament of modern life, in which social relations become problematic due to the fast pace of urbanization and the breaking up of traditional social structures is often portrayed as tensions and challenging encounters between generations. The emptiness in his films is not purely aesthetic, but also descriptive of the loss of connection between generations and within family life. In this sense, the emptiness is a reflection of the loss of the social connectedness of the characters. Ozu’s minimalism caters to an existential undertone that alludes to, not only aesthetics of shibui, but furthermore to moral shortcomings and the challenges of alienation between the characters in his films. Perhaps this moral theme would have required a separate essay on the cinema of Ozu. To simply make his empty and minimal images into an aesthetical matter is somewhat a limited interpretation of these devices.

One constant shortcoming in philosophical texts on film is that philosophers tend to fail at describing storylines, narratives and the aesthetics of a specific film in a manner that helps the reader grasp the viewing experience. David P. Nichols is one exception. In his rendition of Martin Scorsese´s Silence (2016) Nichols’ beautiful portrayal is engaging and perceptive in its analysis. Nichols reads Scorsese´s aesthetics through the lens of Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the silence that enables us to grasp the flesh of the world. This is a continuation of the theme of the ineffable in the book. According to Nichols film is not a mirror that shows us how we appear to be, instead it is “like a mirror that reverses our ordinary sensibilities about who we are and what surrounds us” (134). When film succeeds in transcendence, it is able to point beyond “our ordinary linguistic abilities” (121). Like Trigg, Nichols points at the sedimentation in human perception, silence is something that is hard to grasp in linguistics, but at the same time, it is a prerequisite for language. Silence provides our language with rhythm. This is immensely important for the language of film. Through editing, sound and camera work film contains its temporality and rhythm. Through Scorsese´s mastery of pacing and rhythm, the film becomes a reality of its own that carries a certain mood (stimmung in Heideggerian terms) that alludes to monastic experience. Through rhythm, something invisible (mood, quality of experience) can be portrayed in a visual language.

Kevin L, Stoehr’s essay Ciphers of Transcendence in 2001: A Space Odyssey brings forth the question concerning post-humanism. Kubrick’s film starts with the event of the invention of primitive technology as the ape in the opening scene starts to use a bone as a tool. The quick jump to space technology and interstellar travel alludes to an immense transformation within a lifeform. The question then becomes what the next stage in this evolution might entail. Will humanity, in relation to technology, transcend some of the very fundaments of what we call being human? The aspects that we take for granted – like our corporeal embodied orientation in the world and our sense perception – will they always be essential facts of our lived life? Stoehr refers to Hubert Dreyfus’ concept of “disembodied presence” which describes a form of life spent mostly in cyber space in which the embodied sensory experience is tied to a technologically created interface, and thus the natural orientation of our body in a corporeal world is exchanged for a world of representations.

Kubrick’s film describes this kind of displacement. The main character Bowman is completely dependent on the spaceship and the computer HAL that controls Bowman’s living environment. This sense of disconnection and alienation enables the film to pose philosophical questions. The rational design of technology has transcended the belief in a universe with a natural order created by God. In addition, as human life becomes more immersed in the technological design, the coordinates given by our natural embodied lifeform possibly lose, or change, their significance. Stoehr writes: “But the director also summons us to consider the possibilities of an experience in which the natural body – as the active filter of one’s individualized experiences and as the fixed point of orientation for one’s material existence – is no longer primary. This is especially the case when our technology has increasingly gained the capacity of delivering a more indirect world, one in which our five senses play a minimized and mostly passive role” (157-158).

The reading of Kubrick’s 2001 as a meditation on transcendence in the history of the meaning of the concept of the human brings nicely together film and existential philosophy. Kubrick is portrayed as posing open-ended questions concerning the future of our lifeform. He does this by using aesthetics that deliberately dislocate the viewer’s sense of time and space. Bowman travels in our solar system but also goes beyond our understanding of space-time into other dimensions. He encounters forms of higher intelligence whose intentions are not decipherable for our understanding. Stoehr uses Jaspers’ concept of “cipher” (one of the key concepts of the whole book) that alludes to the ineffable, in order to describe Kubrick’s allegories of a future that is still indescribable.

Among the more traditional themes of film-theory represented in the book are Frédéric Seyler’s essay Pointing toward Transcendence: When Film Becomes Art and Joseph Westfalls’ ASA NISI MASA: Kierkegaardian Repetition in Fellini’s 8 ½. Both authors address what can be called the first questions of film-theory: Is film a proper art form, and does it add a unique form of expression in comparison with the other arts? That is, can cinema help us grow as subjects – do films challenge us to reflect upon our relationship with the world or are they simply objects for our consumption that caters to our escapism? Leaning on Jaspers, Bergson, and the radical phenomenology of Michel Henry, Seyler pushes the point that certain films, like, for example, Louis Malle’s  My Dinner with André (1981), can break free from the predominant mode of escapism of television and film. Film as art can help us grasp that which “escapes our ordinary attention” (83) and thus help us reach beyond our prejudices and even our desire for escapism.

Westfall drives the same point in his reading of Fellini’s 8 ½. He emphasizes the temporality that is essential for the performing arts, film, and music. The viewing experience unfolds in the present, but film also enables a play with temporalities of a future and a past. Thus, the world in film is not like the temporality of our lived life experience, as it in Cavell’s terms, uses the past recording of a scene, as material for the present viewing situation (110). This play with the building blocks of our consciousness enables the art form to tap into our perception and cognition. According to Westfall, this deliberate reorganization of temporality enables cinema to go beyond mere escapism and guide us in the processes of our consciousness.

In the essays mentioned above, there is a common thread regarding transcendence and film. By establishing, not a mirror image, but a counter-world to our common perceptual experience, cinema can help us attend to subtleties that we easily look past due to our ingrained conventions of perception. Similar claims have been made before, for example, by Malcolm Turvey in his book Doubting Vision (2008) in which he re-interprets the classical tradition of film-theory and work by Jean Epstein, Dziga Vertov, Béla Balázs and Siegfried Kracauer. All these attempts aim at liberating film-theory from the realist-idealist dialectics in order to show that film can be an art form and that it is able to refrain from falling into escapism.

Although the volume has its highlights – at their best, the essays demonstrate the transformational power that film can have on the subject – there are some shortcomings. The book reads more like a conference catalogue than a thoroughly edited anthology with an overarching aim. Even the better pieces are quite short, and as they introduce important philosophical themes, they still, in many cases, leave too much unsaid. Some of the less thorough work in the volume falls short due to extensive descriptions. K. Malcolm Richards essay on Cronenberg’s eXisntenZ (1999) poses the same kinds of questions as Stoehr’s piece on Kubrick, but the text is, to a large extent, just a rendition of the narrative in the film. The current and pressing question concerning how immersive technologies change our quality of experience deserves a more thorough and definitive treatment, and Cronenberg’s film has more to offer in this discussion than Richards’s essay can disclose. John B. Brough’s essay on Karl Theodore Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928) and Jason M. Wirth’s piece on Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973) are weighed down by the same disproportion between extensive description of the film and brief analysis. Herbert Golder’s essay related to his collaborative work with Werner Herzog stands out for different reasons. It is in an anomaly in the collection since its focus is wide-ranging, stretching from classicist interpretation of Greek philosophy to biblical mythology to Karl Jaspers’ phenomenology. It is hard to find a focus in the text that would enable the reader to relate it to the general themes of the book.

These texts give further evidence to the interpretation that the book primarily is a collection of conference papers. Extensive editorial work and requirements of in-depth analysis would have made this book a more substantial companion to the discussion concerning the intrinsic philosophical qualities of cinema.


Mulhall, Stephen. 2002. On Film. London: Routledge.

Turvey, Malcolm. 2008. Doubting Vision – Film and the Revelationist Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jean-Yves Lacoste: The Appearing of God

The Appearing of God Book Cover The Appearing of God
Jean-Yves Lacoste. Translated by Oliver O'Donovan
Oxford University Press
Hardback £50.00

Reviewed by: Nikolaas Deketelaere (Balliol College, University of Oxford)

Kenosis and Transcendence

Below and Beyond the Appearing of God

Oliver O’Donovan deserves great credit for undertaking the painstaking work of translating Jean-Yves Lacoste’s La phénoménalité de Dieu: not only has relatively little of Lacoste’s work been translated into English compared to that of the other contemporary French authors working within the field of phenomenology of religion (e.g. Jean-Luc Marion, Michel Henry, even Jean-Louis Chrétien); it also appears that the French edition is currently out of print, making this translation the only way most of us can access Lacoste’s nine essays on the way in which God can be brought within the scope of phenomenology. The project Lacoste sets out in these pages can perhaps most easily be understood as an attempt at correlating (paradoxically) God’s divinity with his phenomenality, or indeed his mode of being with his mode of appearing, and is in turn executed by correlating four pairs of related notions: (1) philosophy and theology; (2) transcendence and reduction; (3) experience and eschatology; and, finally, (4) love and knowledge.

Starting with the issue of philosophy and theology. Much ink has been spilled over whether the developments within French phenomenology at the end of the last century constitute an unwarranted theologisation of phenomenology, or rather its careful execution; indeed, the polemic is well-known and still ongoing. In this regard, however, it is worth noting that we are dealing here with a somewhat sui generis figure: at the time of his initial diagnosis of French phenomenology as having taken a ‘theological turn’, Dominique Janicaud explicitly excluded Lacoste from the group of authors who allowed phenomenology to swerve off the road of philosophy until it ended up in the ditch of theology.[1] Nevertheless, Lacoste is not coy about the fact that his reflections do at least attempt “to surmount the division between philosophy and theology” (xi), or “to remove the boundary that has classically divided faith and reason, since its existence was always highly arbitrary” (82). Indeed, upon closer examination—one that is carried out in a sustained dialogue with Kierkegaard throughout the book—, that frontier appears to be missing altogether. As a result, Lacoste seeks to expose “the fluid character of philosophical work” (16), which it has in virtue of the fact that it can ask questions about anything, including divine realities. The point here is not, as Janicaud might put it, that philosophy is colonised or superseded by theology, for Lacoste too is weary of the ditch we risk ending up in if we leave behind philosophy altogether: “Disciplined conceptualization or description from which the philosophical element was eliminated would be bound to run aground” (16), he warns us. However, when a philosophical text, such as Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments, deals with divine realities, such as salvation and sin, “we are not,” or no longer at least, “dealing with a philosophy that is merely philosophy, but with a philosophy pushed to the limit of its range, making sense of an eclectic mix of descriptions, hypotheses, and games that make it impossible to say precisely what is going on” (17), whether it is philosophy or indeed theology. It is often in extreme situations, where we are pushed to our limits, that we gain an awareness of what exactly the limits are, and thus only as such do we fully come into our own. Such is equally the case for philosophy and theology, Lacoste suggests: “In the Fragments we find ourselves on the frontiers of philosophy, not only of theology. Precise labelling is simply not allowed at this point, and we had better make up our minds that it doesn’t matter very much. The fluidity of philosophy can be a theoretical advantage as well as a drawback. It is on the frontiers of philosophy, perhaps, that we can learn what is finally at issue in philosophy, and may we not say the same for the frontiers of theology, too?” (18).[2]

Despite Lacoste’s great emphasis on the question of the frontier demarcating philosophy from theology, he also declares that it ultimately does not matter. This is not as unintuitive as it may at first appear: precisely because the frontier is missing, the question of demarcation does not matter. We are simply free to proceed with thinking in all its fluidity, unencumbered by this methodological pseudo-question:

Here and there at the same time, or perhaps still here or already there, we can never be precise about our location. Dare we say that that is not a bad thing? (…) The present enquiries, pursued in ignorance of whether they are philosophical or theological, do not define themselves apart from the two methodological requirements of letting-appear and making-appear. (…) Whether philosophy or theology or both, our enquiry would not deserve the name of enquiry at all, if it did not make up its mind to ignore the frontiers and elicit appearances without prescribing them. To make frontiers is to break things up, and we do better not knowing where we are (x-xi).

This honesty is refreshing and certainly more dignified than, for example, Marion’s frantic but inevitably unsuccessful attempts at securing the exclusively philosophical status of his phenomenology. Essentially, the question of whether he is doing philosophy or theology is uninteresting to Lacoste; the point, rather, is that he is doing phenomenology: “From a phenomenological point of view there is no way of telling,” on what side of the frontier between philosophy and theology these studies fall, precisely because that frontier appears to be missing; yet, there is “probably no need to tell,” for, as phenomenologists, “all we want is a concept fit for the appearance” (ix). Whatever appears deserves to be described as such, without this being framed beforehand according to a frontier that itself does not. Hence, Lacoste concludes: “Phenomenology is frontier-free—it is one of its advantages” (xi).

So, the question for Lacoste then concerns the phenomenality of God, that is to say, the mode of his appearance. This brings us to our second pair of concepts in need of correlation: transcendence and reduction. Whenever one asks how God may be made the theme of phenomenology, someone is bound to pipe up and answer that he simply cannot be, precisely because the divine, as transcendent reality, falls under the reduction, and must thus be excluded from the phenomenologist’s field of view. The phenomenologist would be out of bounds, would have veered off the road and ended up in some kind of ditch, if he were to depend on anything that is not contained within the immanence of consciousness as delivered by phenomenological reduction. Lacoste tackles this challenge by starting from the observation that “a comprehensive experience of an object is possible only if an infinite experience is possible” (21), which of course means that a comprehensive experience is impossible since experience is precisely a function of finitude. It is the adumbrational character of sensory perception that Lacoste uses to argue that there is always already transcendence at the heart of every experience, namely the transcendence of what is not experienced in experience precisely in virtue of its character as experience: “Every perceptual experience,” he says, “invites us to recognize that it is fragmentary, and that what is presented here and now is transcended” (25). Indeed, this is not only true in exceptional cases, but forms a general “law of the logic of experience. Stated briefly, perceptual experience has to do with phenomena and non-phenomena at the same time. More economically still, perception has to do with the unperceived” (22-23). So, God’s transcendence need not, at least not a priori, exclude his phenomenality; for transcendence appears to be a characteristic of all appearing, which always transcends itself as appearance insofar as it appears. As such, “the appearing of God,” especially, “can only be understood in the light of his transcendence of appearing” (38). His mode of appearing involves a movement beyond appearing as such. As a result, Lacoste puts forward the concept of the irreducible, of which phenomenology “can offer no correct description (…) without recognizing its radical externality” (58), without knowing “that it cannot exclude the transcendent reality of what it describes” (60). In short, it forms “an experience that could not be described without acknowledging the irreducibility of everything to do with it: that is the sort of experience which the advent of God to consciousness would need to be” (63). God is such an experience, for he cannot be experienced without this experience being co-extensive with a belief in his existence, he cannot appear without this appearing being co-extensive with a love of God. As such, Lacoste tries to correlate divinity with phenomenality, God’s mode of being with his mode of appearing, and precisely this is a phenomenological question (indeed, strictly so). Hence, he concludes that “phenomenology cannot be faithful to its project without recognizing the irreducible” (58).

Precisely because a comprehensive experience is not possible in virtue of the fact that transcendence characterises all experience, because God transcends his appearing precisely insofar as he comes to appearance, because “experience is tied to inexperience” at all times (118); “we should be satisfied with a radically non-eschatological presence,” or, put differently, “presence is not parousia” (36).[3] This, Lacoste suggests, means we need to correlate experience to eschatology: for it implies, first of all, that the eschaton is not a question of experience, since experience cannot be completely realised by definition (“no experience is comprehensive, no presence can be taken for a parousia, enjoyment must not suppose itself in total possession” (131)); and, secondly, that phenomenology cannot be limited to the present now, for we do have meaningful experiences even if they are only partial (“experience may be wholly truthful without being whole and entire” (150)). The first is a crucial insight, according to Lacoste, for it leads us to “a conclusion of the greatest importance, implying an equally important imperative,” namely, that “God is never ‘given’” (150). It is hard not to read this as a profound critique of Marion’s “realized eschatology” (37) of intuitive givenness and it is worth quoting him at length on this: “But can the infinite be given? The suggestion seems preposterous,” for “‘seeing’ the infinite can only refer to vision of an inchoate character. No act of intuition could focus on infinity entire. Whatever we see, we know that our sight is at the same time and inescapably non-sight. Whatever is given us, we perceive only partially. But the interplay between sight and non-sight implies the promise of one day seeing differently and better. Perception may become richer, nearer to completion, but on no terms can a ‘vision’ of the infinite be thought of as actually complete. (…) Whatever the sense in which we ‘see’ the divine essence, it remains infinitely beyond sight” (148-149). Moreover, Lacoste continues, this thus means the following:

God cannot be given this side of death. If we are minded to stay with the language of vision, we can say that God ‘appears’ in the world without our intuition. There is nothing to be ‘seen.’ Giving makes its gift to faith, and faith cannot have the status of conclusive experience. Within the range of intuition visible things such as Christ’s historical body and his Eucharistic body are known as God’s self-giving only as we distinguish sensory intuition from the acquired intuition of faith. Sensory intuition on its own is misleading. Even when we have trained it to the evidences proper to objects of faith (which are not evidences of a theophany) the gift we perceive has the form of a promise, not to be taken as a last word. The appearance of the risen Christ to his disciples is a gift to sight, but not put at their disposal; it keeps its distance in conjunction with the promise of a definitive return. In the Eucharist Christ is seen through the medium of bread and wine, a medium that leaves us inevitably dissatisfied, desiring eschatological satisfaction which has no place in the world. (…) The infinite can be seen only in finite guise. But finite intuition of the infinite is no mere disappointment, and if we hold our experience of the gracious gift together with our experience of promise, we shall see why (149-150).[4]

This is not a disappointment for there is always the promise of fulfilment, and with promise comes anticipation. Moving on to the second point to be made in relation to eschatology and experience, Lacoste explains that anticipation does not give the eschaton, nor does it bring it to experience; rather, it “merely announces or adumbrates it, giving us no more than a predonation or pre-experience of it” (128). For, even though “experience of the end is ruled out,” since such an experience transcends itself; it is nevertheless as that transcending that “pre-experiences of the end are not. Everyone will agree that God cannot be known in history as he will be known finally, since the eschaton suspends the logic of sacramental presence. But eschatological desire and expectation may take on ‘pre-eschatological’ forms within the limits of the world, which is simply to say that they point us beyond the limits of being-in-the-world while making no pretence to be more than pre-eschatological. The sacrament does not bring the eschaton about; it does serve as a predonation of it” (132). In this context, “anticipation appears without the pretence of a fulfilment, and puts no end within our grasp. Yet it appears as anticipation, as experience uncompleted and promise that draws us on to further experience. So all talk of anticipation must have in view the horizon of an end. The end may be given, the event take place as we anticipated, or it may not; the eschaton is distant” (133). Since “we cannot attribute an eschatological character to any of our present experiences” (168), Lacoste uses his notion of anticipation to develop a reworked phenomenology of time-consciousness. This framework he subsequently applies, in an impressive dialogue with analytic philosophy, to the problem of personal identity, correctly removing it from the metaphysical questioning of substance and placing it firmly within the context of a phenomenological enquiry concerning time.

How must we then deal with this “eschatological reserve” (150), inhibiting us from having an actual and clear experience of God, leaving us with the pre-experience delivered by anticipation? Here, Lacoste suggests, faith comes in; or, for it is coextensive with it, this is where love plays its role. This brings us to our final pair of concepts in need of correlation: knowledge and love, which in this case refers to the knowledge and love of God. In particular, Lacoste wants to expose what he calls “the logic of love,” or its “paradoxical priority over knowledge” (37), when it comes to divine realities. Phenomenology, Lacoste suggests, has traditionally had a bias in favour for what we might call ‘objects of knowledge’, which he describes as “compelling phenomena” (78). These are phenomena that give themselves, and thus impose themselves intuitively: “the object of sight, the intelligible proposition, the reality that cannot be ignored.” However, God is not given, he does not appear as such, and therefore also does not impose himself. Thus, Lacoste suggests, “if there is one thing the object of belief and the object of love have in common, it is the power to go unnoticed” (78). When it comes to divine realities, which are “intelligible only as open to love,” their “appearance takes the form of solicitation or invitation, not coercion. (…) Love would contradict its essence or intention if it used constraint in making its appearance” (75). The phenomenality of love makes an appeal to our freedom: it does not dictate its meaning through the violent imposition of intuition, but instead demands to be loved, inviting us to take a position for or against. What is at stake is “a reality that offers itself without imposing itself, an experience formed in the element of non-self-evidence,” precisely because it requires “a decision to see it” in order to be perceived at all (79). Lacoste illustrates this elegantly as follows: “Nothing is more common than perceiving or understanding without making up our mind. I perceive the ashtray on my desk without making up my mind, I see the conclusion of a logical argument without making up my mind, except that the logic is valid. But when the absolute intervenes, we have to make up our minds,” precisely because its intervention is not of the order of an ordinary appearance, which it always transcends in intervening. Indeed, Lacoste continues, “God does not appear like the Alps, huge and undeniable. He does not appear as the conclusion of an argument we are compelled to admit (…). God appears in such a way that we can make up our mind about him, for or against” (87).

God, that is to say his divinity, does not appear except in love and indeed as love: “He does not appear to be described, since there is nothing to describe, only a man like other men. He does not appear to be thought about, since the aim of his appearance is simply and solely to win man’s love. To make an appearance in order to win love, and for no other reason, the god must be present kenotically. He wills to be loved, not to dazzle. There is appearance, for there is presence, but this is not presence for thought, or even belief” (72). The phenomenality of God is a kenotic phenomenality, one that empties itself out of appearing as appearing. God’s phenomenality is not a question of appearing, but of the decision that sits below (kenosis) and thus its movement beyond (transcendence) appearing. Precisely in this way does Lacoste correlate God’s mode of being (transcendence) with his mode of appearing (inexperience): “God appears in presenting himself to be loved; God appears among the phenomena not subject to Husserl’s ‘eidetic reduction’” (ix).

Before ending this review, a word needs to be said about O’Donovan’s English language rendering of Lacoste’s book, for some of the choices he has made in translating it seem at least worth questioning. I wonder, in particular, whether the phenomenological force of Lacoste’s argument is not somewhat blunted by this translation. To be fair to him, O’Donovan admits at the outset that “every translation must have its priorities, and I had better admit that tenderness towards the conventions of the phenomenological school has not been high among mine” (vii). As a result, he does not, for example, reprise the distinct adjectives which English translators of Heidegger have rendered as existential and existentiell, the French equivalents of which Lacoste uses, for he considers it “an inaudible distinction I take to be no more than a mark on paper, not language” (vii). As inelegant as these renderings may be, these concepts nevertheless circulate and are in use as such (as Jean-Luc Nancy might say, they make sense). O’Donovan’s refusal to stick to this convention for the sake of not letting phenomenological terminology get into the way of argumentative clarity then seems to fall over itself at times, for example in the following passage: “Since theology is an ontic science, the relation of man to God will be ontic/idiomorphic (existentiel), not ontological/existential” (98). Does the clarity of Lacoste’s summary of Heidegger’s position benefit from the choice for idiomorphic rather than the more commonplace existentiell? I highly doubt it. It could, perhaps, only do so to a reader who is entirely unfamiliar with Heidegger and thus with this conceptual (not merely semantic) distinction. However, that this book would have many such readers seems unlikely. Especially in this case, where the passage at issue comes from an essay on Heidegger, the Heideggerian terminology is not incidental to the argument, and thus abstracting from that terminology does not serve that argument. The same goes for the general phenomenological terminology found throughout the book: as I explained, Lacoste himself suggests that he is not concerned with classifying these essays as either philosophy or theology; the point, for him, is that they are works of phenomenology. As such, neither is the phenomenological vocabulary incidental to argument, for the argument is a distinctly and explicitly phenomenological one. O’Donovan’s choice not to prioritise this vocabulary in his translation therefore seems odd, not to say entirely unjustified. Perhaps the most significant example of what is lost when we pay insufficient attention to phenomenological terminology is the title: the phrase the appearing of God is by no means the most obvious translation of la phénoménalité de Dieu. The English language has a word for phénoménalité, it is phenomenality. This is, indeed, a piece of phenomenological jargon, but like all subject-specific terminology, it carries a very precise meaning: in this case, phenomenality denotes not so much appearing, but rather the mode of appearing; not the fact or the content, but the how of appearing. Or, as Lacoste puts it himself in the preliminary to the nine essays: “Our problem is simply to describe and distinguish their different ways of appearing” (ix, original emphasis). As such, the choice to present this book as a work on the appearing of God out of a noble desire to avoid overly technical language, does not allow the argument to shine with its true brilliance; rather, it obscures it.[5] In any case, this book is not so much about the appearing of God, for God cannot be said to appear but in a highly qualified sense; rather, it is about the way or the mode of his appearing, namely, kenotically, in and as love.

[1] Dominique Janicaud, ‘The Theological Turn in French Phenomenology’, trans. by B.G. Prusak in Phenomenology and the ‘Theological Turn’: The French Debate (New York: Fordham University Press, 2000), 1-103.

[2] The influence of Lacoste’s emphasis on the fluidity of thought when it comes to the missing frontier between philosophy and theology on Emmanuel Falque’s dictum that ‘the more we theologise, the better we philosophise’ seems unmistakable here. On this, see Falque’s Passer le Rubicon—Philosophie et théologie: Essai sur les frontiers (Bruxelles: Lessius, 2013); as well as his ‘Phénoménologie et théologie: Nouvelles frontières’ in Études, 404.2 (2006), 201-210.

[3] See also Jean-Yves Lacoste, Présence et parousie (Paris: Ad Solem, 2006).

[4] It is worth noting here that a similar critique of Marion is articulated by Falque and John Caputo. On this, see: Emmanuel Falque, ‘Phénoménologie de l’extraordinaire (J.-L. Marion)’ in Le Combat amoureux (Paris: Hermann, 2014), 137-193; John D. Caputo, ‘The Hyperbolization of Phenomenology: Two Possibilities for Religion in Recent Continental Philosophy’ in Counter-Experiences: Reading Jean-Luc Marion (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 67-93. For a commentary on these critiques, see my ‘Givenness and Existence: On the Possibility of a Phenomenological Philosophy of Religion’ in Palgrave Communications 4, Article number 127 (2018), 1-13.

[5] It is entirely possible, perhaps even likely, that the choice for appearing rather than phenomenality was motivated by concerns of the publisher, rather than the translator. One can indeed imagine that this version would sell better and be of interest to a wider audience (particularly in Britain, where phenomenology, insofar as it is practiced here at all today, bears little resemblance to contemporary styles, interests and debates in France). However, if this is indeed the case, one would expect the translator to make the reader aware of the crucial importance of this distinction in his foreword. However, O’Donovan does not do this and indeed seems to simply wash his hands of the entire issue by declaring phenomenological precision not to be a priority in this case.

Michael L. Morgan (Ed.): The Oxford Handbook of Levinas, Oxford University Press, 2019

The Oxford Handbook of Levinas Book Cover The Oxford Handbook of Levinas
Michael L. Morgan (Ed.)
Oxford University Press
Hardback £115.00

Jean-Yves Lacoste: The Appearing of God, Oxford University Press, 2018

The Appearing of God Book Cover The Appearing of God
Jean-Yves Lacoste. Translated by Oliver O'Donovan
Oxford University Press
Hardback £50.00