Wednesday 31 May 2006

For the love of God (7): Why I love Jean-Luc Marion

A guest-post by Cynthia Nielsen

Jean-Luc Marion is one of the major voices in philosophy these days. He is both prolific and well-received by philosophers and theologians. Marion knows the philosophical tradition well. For example, he began his career as an expert of Descartes and has written extensively on Descartes. Although he is a Christian thinker, Marion’s excellent scholarship has won wide acceptance in secular circles.

In addition to his theological contributions, Marion is a major player in the field of phenomenology. Husserl’s motto (with Kant in mind) was: “to the things themselves.” However, Husserl did not overcome the problems of Kantianism. As Kant himself points out, God sees the world in a way entirely different from the way in which we see it—God sees it all at once (uno intuitu), not discursively as we do. If you accept that, then you must ask whether the world is really the way God sees it or the way we see it.

Husserl addresses this problem, and though he is unable to solve it, he introduces the concept of the “givenness” of phenomena. Marion takes this Husserlian insight and tries to show how “givenness” allows us to escape from the Kantian problem. Marion is thus able to utilize insights from Heidegger and Husserl in order to work toward a solution to the problems raised by Kant.

In addition to his excellent scholarship and intimate familiarity with the tradition, Marion pushes us forward with his distinctively postmodern insights. Inviting us to see things from new and unexpected angles, he often engages in a deconstructing or subverting project. Personally, I find Marion’s desire to introduce a “new subject” among the most intriguing aspects of his project. Instead of the modern, all-controlling and even idolatrous subject, Marion pursues a subject who subjects himself and is thus constituted by the situation.

Nonetheless, Marion, does not want to do away with all modernist assumptions, nor does he desire to return to a pre-critical realism. In Marion, we encounter both an embracing of and a moving beyond modernist assumptions. Combining pre-modern, postmodern and a selective sprinkling of modernist insights, Marion releases the closed-in Kantian subject and gives us a new subject who can be overcome or “bedazzled” and re-constituted as a witness to the Other whom we know as love.


tchittom said...

Excellently written, Cynthia! I really enjoyed reading it--though I'm surprised to hear you say that Husserl did not solve the Kant's dualism. I'm no expert, certainly, but secondary Husserl sources I've run across claim that he did. Anyway, thanks for writing such an excellent post.

Anonymous said...

Formidable, Cynthia. Rendering Marion's project intelligible in a few hundred words makes Ben's single-sentence summaries of each volume of Barth's Dogmatics a piece of gateau by comparison!

Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, Levinas, Derrida - each has a go with his own philosophical key at unlocking the problem of metaphysics/onto-theology (which, of course, goes back to Aristotle via Hegel, Kant, Descartes and Aquinas). Each claims that their mentors/colleagues have failed. Enter Marion and God without Being. Does he succeed?

What do you think of this as an answer: Only when he operates in theological rather than philosophical mode and thinks not only post-structurally, privileging alterity, but also soteriologically, privileging the self-revelation of the Wholly Other? In other words, only when he pays more attention to Pascal than to Descartes, and to von Balthasar rather than to Heidegger?

Mind, I have only read gobbets from Marion's opus - and phenomenology always brings on migraine!

Cynthia R. Nielsen said...

Thanks to both Thom and Kim for your kind words.


Regarding your question:

"What do you think of this as an answer: Only when he operates in theological rather than philosophical mode and thinks not only post-structurally, privileging alterity, but also soteriologically, privileging the self-revelation of the Wholly Other? In other words, only when he pays more attention to Pascal than to Descartes, and to von Balthasar rather than to Heidegger?"

I would agree and find myself in harmony with the spirit of your suggestion, but perhaps add a little Augustinian nuance, viz., his pillaging of the Egyptian "gold" so to speak of Heidegger and Descartes, placing their insights back into the Christian metanarrative, is just as important to the success of his “project” as his turning to von Balthasar and Pascal whose insights clearly flow out of a Christian metanarrative.


byron smith said...

Thanks once more to Ben and his growing team of enamoured exegetes for pointing out significant houses on the via theologia.* Once more, my ignorant question is to be shown the front door (or an easy back door): where do I start? Otherwise than Being?

* Having done no formal Latin, except trying to read street signs on the via theologia, if theologia should be in another case, please correct me.

Drew said...

Hi Cynthia,

He certainly is inspiring in the way he has approached phenomenology...

What is the best place to read on the 'new subject'?

And also, what about the suggestion that Marion falls back into an onto-theology when speaking about the Roman Catholic eucharist, due to it's aristotelian roots?

Arvid said...

This whole "guest-post" thing is really a very good initiative. And, as I am presently into radical orthodoxy, this post was a great read...

Cynthia R. Nielsen said...

Hi Drew,

God without Being, is a great book to start with if you haven't already read it.

As to the question regarding the Eucharist, let's just say that the jury is presently out (at least for me) on that one.


joel hunter said...

A most curious criticism of Husserl here, Cynthia! It seems to me that certainly towards the end of his life (if not earlier), especially in the Crisis texts, he was in the process of developing the formulae that would renovate the concept of transcendental subjectivity from its Cartesian and Kantian molds. So we have his pupils, especially Fink, continuing Husserl's focus on lived experience and the structure of phenomenalization that refuses to disregard the constitutive obscurity of the world, its absence brought about by temporality (to me, one of the most plausible theses of phenomenology is its demand that genuine reflection rediscover the active coming-before (prévenir) of the world and the "unreflected life" of the subject). Merleau-Ponty's ontology and conception of nature follows a similar trajectory. And it is here that I think some very fruitful congruencies can be found with Marion.

On "givenness": the material realm of the given is the fundamental making of sense of that which imposes its being on our senses even as our senses “search” for the consolidation that generates the givenness of the thing in its phenomenality, in its manifest self-presentation. This is Husserl! (and Fink, MMP, etc.)--although latent and not explicit in his thought. "Givenness"--in its very materiality--is where we find a conception of "spirit" (life, history, etc.) that overcomes the self-enclosedness of its meaning in rationalism. So, you and I as "subjects" are fundamentally body-subjects (MMP's term), incarnated in a localized space and time.

Sorry for the excursus. Now to Marion: his formulae of "the given," event, gift, flesh, icon, etc., coalesce in a eucharistic philosophy/theology. One of the ways in which Marion is so helpful for contemporary theology, I think, is his notion that hermeneutics must culminate in the Eucharist. For we embodied subjects to recognize the Word, He must meet with us in order for us to understand Him in a full, saving sense. Further, the Word must do more than merely explain the meaning of sayings or texts. Remember the road to Emmaus? Christ opened up all the Scriptures to them (Lk 24:7), but it wasn't until he broke bread with the disciples and prayed that their eyes were opened. We cannot understand the Bible, insofar as it is revelatory, as an object. We have to dwell in it to understand it (and it must dwell in us). We moderns are accustomed to the idea of an absolute hermeneutic and the consequent entanglement in the knotty problems of consciousness, language, etc. But for Marion, hermeneutics is accomplished materially, not by Descartes' "reasonable spirits," but by a community of incarnated spirits that retain their singularity, their spatio-temporal roots, their embodiment, in true intersubjectivity. (An aspect of) the Gift is that Christ participates in this exteriority of meaning and hermeneutics is accomplished, finally, in the Eucharist. He intervenes in person, redoubling his incarnation, for the sake of overcoming the gap between the Christic event and the traces it left in the text (which do not coincide with the event). What is exciting to me, as a philosopher of science, is the total makeover of the concept of materiality and nature that comprises the "ground floor" of Marion's (and his predecessors'!) phenomenology. There is great promise to break the Procrustean grip of the classic antinomies: nature/grace, matter/spirit, etc. New possibilities for natural theology are opened, not to mention new avenues of intercourse between theology, science and philosophy.

I agree with your recommendation to Drew about God Without Being. Chap 5 contains much of what I've described above, if any remain curious in spite of my clumsily condensed synopsis. Right now, I'm drinking deeply from In Excess: Studies in Saturated Phenomena. Another fave is Prologomena to Charity: difficult, but very rewarding. Also, The Crossing of the Visible carries on many of the same investigations in art, especially painting, that formed such an important part of Merleau-Ponty's philosophy. Thanks, Cynthia, for bringing Marion into Ben's hall of fame!

joel hunter said...

Oh, apologies for the inevitable headache, Kim.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Joel! After your lucid exposition, no headache, and, I trust, no indigestion either, as reading through it was rather like eating spaghetti: I had to twirl what you say round and round to get it all on the fork, it constantly threatened to slide off, but when I finally got it to my gob it tasted delicious. You even provided some bread and wine to go with it!

Cynthia R. Nielsen said...

Hi Joel,

The comments on Husserl are Marion's conclusions taken from his book, Being Given: A Phenomenology of Givenness. If you want a more detailed exegesis of his reading of Husserl, see my review of the book at the following link:

A not so detailed response to your query is that according to Marion's deconstructive read, he claims that neither Heidegger nor Husserl allowed givenness its full realization. For Husserl, the breakthrough of givenness is frozen due to an "unquestioned paradigm of objectness" (BG, p. 32). Consequently, by restricting givenness to the object, Husserl does not advance his initial findings.

Warm regards,

Anonymous said...

Speaking of bread and wine, Marion's eucharistic theology is very suggestive, isn't it? I gather that he can be quite critical about Catholic eucharistic practices - he writes of the "pathetic 'canned' substitute" of the reserved sacrament, and the ostentatious display of processions when the host is "brandished like a banner". Yet he claims that the doctrine of transubstantiation has the virtue of maintaining the "distance" (a key concept for Marion) between the Wholly Other and the church; and while in danger of an idolatry of the object, it resists the Protestant tendency towards an idolatry of the subject, i.e. Christ present as/in human (self-)consciousness.

Still, it is not clear to me why an affirmation of the Real Presence of Christ requires a doctrine of transubstantiation - or any particular doctrine, for that matter - any more than an affirmation of salvation in Christ requires a particular theory of the atonement. And while unlike many of my fellow Reformed Christians I follow Calvin in believing that Sunday worship should always include both the preaching of the word and the celebration of the sacrament - never the one without the other - conversely I sometimes wonder in my more cynical moments if the current theological fashion for the visible word (marketing by Radical Orthodoxy) might reflect a kind of cultural captivity to image and materiality (not to mention the mystique of the Eastern Church), and threaten to reduce the heard word to a mere echo. Still, the image in Revelation where John is given a book to eat is striking, n'est pas?

joel hunter said...

Cynthia, I suppose I'm going to have to read the early volumes of that series for myself! In the meantime, since we're taking this blog on a philosophical safari, can we explore this concept of "givenness" further? I'm confused by the claim that Husserl restricted "givenness to the object," and not allowing "givenness its full realization." Is there a sense of "givenness" beyond phenomenality for Marion? To be sure, things are never given (nor had) in an all-at-once uptake. But precisely because we are intertwined with the world in our corporeality we can make sensible realities a task. The common temporal structure of humans and the world constitutes the tension we live in between (a) an archeology of "unreflected life" (conscious life that has not yet made consciousness thetic) in which the active coming-before (prévenir) has an impenetrable opacity and an obscurity that is to be overcome by (b) a teleology, which puts a stamp of the provisional on our errors and keeps them within a horizon of truth. This sheds light on the thesis of the constructive character of the sciences, and not least theology. So, against rationalism, and, I think, any sense of "givenness" of something fully, i.e., without remainder, we can't overlook archeology as if the "subject" or "object" were given ready-made absolutely, without condition. Do you and Marion agree with that? Of course it's easy to stress something in the desire to make a course correction, so I do want to affirm alongside the "given" as realized the necessity of making meaning and existence a task, something to be done, too. But there is no teleology without archeology. This is often forgotten and leads thought to obliterate the thinker's finitude.

Also, I'm not sure if your response was aimed specifically at this, but I want to mention that the exteriority of the world and of humans with regard to themselves and to one another is not conceived within an "unquestioned paradigm of objectness." This exteriority is rooted in that which is not reducible to objectivity, which is mysterious because it is inhabited by a wild Logos. The obscure and ungraspable nature of the “object” derives from the fact that the "outside" (spatio-temporal exteriority) is unable wholly to signify the "inside."

But you have raised an important consideration that I need to pursue further for my work, so...thanks! I hope Marion is short-changing my boyz or that I'm misunderstanding the critique.

Kim, oui.

it is not clear to me why an affirmation of the Real Presence of Christ requries a doctrine of transubstantiation--or any particular doctrine, for that matter (...)

I agree. We begin with trust (He said he would be there) and, where explicitly formulated doctrines are needed, we do so provisionally. There are good reasons, I should think, to make/keep notions of 'substance' provisional...

Drew said...

Thanks guys for the dizzying discussion!

Anonymous said...

Marion just gave a talk: "On the Foundation of the Distinction between Philosophy and Theology." To my mind, a tour de force of a lecture on the history of this relationship. He also argues that the conventional framing of this relationship has become obsolete; this is due first to the "end of metaphysics" which marks contemporary philosophy, and second to phenomenology and therefore givenness and the saturated phenomena (for the "end of metaphysics" does not spell the "end of philosophy" but its transformation). Theology, particularly the theology of Revelation, becomes the "guardian" of philosophy "in order that philosophy may remain at the peak of its destiny."

Post a Comment


Contact us

Although we're not always able to reply, please feel free to email the authors of this blog.

Faith and Theology © 2008. Template by Dicas Blogger.