Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Counter-Experiences: Reading Jean-Luc Marion
edited by Kevin Hart
University of Notre Dame Press, 496 pages, $40

René Descartes is considered by many the founder of modern philosophy, but among the French he is considered even more the founder of French philosophy, the medium through which every aspiring French philosopher must pass. So perhaps it is not surprising that the acclaimed French philosopher Jean-Luc Marion began his career with seminal books on Descartes, altering the conversation by mixing superb scholarship, careful reading, and an attention to continuing philosophical ­significance.

What is surprising is that Marion, on his way to becoming the most influential living French philosopher, should lead a revival of thought about religion among European philosophers. No contemporary thinker so effectively combines innovation with a commitment to a retrieval of the philosophical and ­theological tradition.

So, for instance, Marion brings to bear on a host of contemporary problems the thought of Pascal, Aquinas, and Dionysius the Areopagite. The theological turn in ­Marion is thus anchored in a specific tradition, a tradition that has at its heart an iconic, rather than an idolatrous, encounter with a hidden God in the Eucharist—and an argument for the Church, when, as Marion puts it in his widely read God Without Being, theology needs to be done in the practice of bishops.

But the best way to grasp the ­significance of Marion’s thought is neither through Descartes nor through theology. In twentieth-­century continental philosophy, the engagement of modern thought must pass through Germany, through the voluminous and forbiddingly dense writings of Husserl and Heidegger. Readers should, accordingly, be grateful to Kevin Hart for his ­marvelous introduction to Counter-Experiences, a collection of essays about Marion, which situates Marion in relation to the German ­philosophers.

One way of understanding the movement from Husserl through Heidegger to Marion is as a series of responses to Descartes’ founding of modern philosophy in the isolated cogito, and the attendant retreat from the external world into the immediate certitude of interiority. Cut off from the external world, the mind loses its purchase on the real. The task the Germans set for themselves is the recovery of the world—the reinsertion of the mind into the real. Hart expresses this in terms of three ­reductions. The first, accomplished by Husserl, involves a reduction that leads back from immediate self-­consciousness to phenomena as objects; the second, by Heidegger, involves the reduction from beings to Being; and the third, in Marion, involves the reduction to an original receptivity, in the self-givenness of phenomena, that exceeds and overwhelms any human ­intentionality.

However much a carefully ob­served attunement to human intentionality might restore the ­natural orientation of the intellect—beyond itself, to objects—intentionality still sets parameters for its fulfillment. In dialogue with Husserl’s account of intentionality, Marion proposes a “counter-intentionality,” the shock of exteriority, grounded in the experience of the saturated phenomena and of the call, the experience of being drawn into what our intentionality does not anticipate and cannot comprehend.

Concerned to overcome any hint of conceptual idolatry, Marion stresses the overwhelming and destabilizing experience of the bedazzled phenomena. An important question here is whether the accent on the “bedazzlement” of the saturated phenomena does not entirely undermine intelligibility. Thomas Carlson states the question this way: How are we to distinguish between the blindness of intuitive excess and that of intuitive lack?

Put slightly differently, we might ask: What basis is there for prudential distinctions between divine and demonic revelations? A possible response can be had in Marion’s recent attempt to restore the primacy of love among the virtues. In so doing, Marion wants to avoid the nihilism lurking in the autonomy of the ethical and an allied reduction of ethics to abstract universality.

Yet, as much as he may strive to overcome modern dichotomies, one wonders whether, as Emmanuel Falque puts it, Marion has not constructed a “reversal of the Kantian model without any real exit from it.” In Kant, respect for the moral law is grounded in universality; instead of treating the other as an end, the Kantian framework ends up “using the other as a means to accomplish the universal.”

Levinas’ corrective was to focus on the face of the other and thus to trace the injunction to the concrete singularity of the other. But, as Marion notes, Levinasian singularity allows substitutability: “Any face can compel my responsibility.” The anonymity of the other erases his or her individuating features. Marion’s response: “It remains no less a necessity, even and especially in ethics, . . . to particularize the face, to individuate it.”

If the formal and universal intelligibility of the Kantian project invites abstract vacancy, Marion’s recourse to incommunicable individuality would seem to court nihilism in an opposite direction. Once again, discernment on the basis of analogous reasoning or prudential negotiation between universal and singular seems doomed.

But perhaps not. Marion helps us to see clearly the problem of universals and particulars in twentieth-­century continental thought. Dilemmas surrounding abstraction and concretion, universal and individual, run through Marion’s corpus. He helps us to articulate key questions—how to understand the relationship between general and particular while avoiding the extremes of empty ­universality and bare particularity, and whether ethical discourse can provide a non-rule-governed account of the good and its application here and now. That would, I think, involve greater attention to the ancient understanding of phronesis, the prudential discernment and articulation of concrete circumstances in light of an account of the good. (Of course, ­Heidegger’s famous lectures on ­Aristotle’s Ethics and on phronesis were ­crucial for the development of twentieth-century phenomenology, but the problems raised in Marion’s recent thought on ethics need less to retrace the path of Heidegger than to recover an authentically premodern understanding of phronesis, an ­under­standing untainted by Kantian dichotomies.)

And Marion has a knack for demonstrating in utterly unanticipated ways the resources of the ­tradition for advancing current discussions. As Gerald McKenny suggests, Marion is at his best when he “gestures beyond the modern fractures between ontology and ethics and between love and justice, fractures that have had such a debilitating effect on modern theology and philosophy alike.”

One important “gesture beyond modern fractures” has to do with the deconstructive project of overcoming metaphysics and the status of Thomas Aquinas in relation to this project. In God Without Being, ­Marion took aim not only at modern thinkers but also at St. Thomas for his identification of God with Being. Originally published in French in 1982, Marion’s book caused quite a stir and received much critical ­commentary.

In an event that has become all too rare for philosophers of Marion’s stature, he issued a sort of retraction of his criticisms of Thomas in a famous article published in the Revue Thomiste in 1995. In a context where accusations of onto-theology and metaphysics of presence are hurled at quite different thinkers with vengeful insouciance, Marion takes the time to specify criteria of onto-theology and then to demonstrate convincingly that Thomas Aquinas is not vulnerable to the attack. This is one way in which, as McKenny intimates, Marion overcomes contemporary fractures and dead-ends in contemporary philosophy of religion by appeals to an influential premodern author.

Many of the best essays in Counter-Experiences address questions of Marion’s philosophy of ­religion. Indeed, one question concerns whether he has a philosophy of religion or a religious philosophy. If phenomenology overcomes metaphysics, if the saturated phenomenon overcomes phenomenology, and if saturation is described as a revelation, then Marion’s own work raises questions about the relationship between philosophy and theology. As David Tracy succinctly puts it, the worries are two: Marion is guilty either of inserting a covert theology into what is purportedly a philosophical ac­count, or of controlling theology by the canons of philosophy. Similarly, Kathryn Tanner worries that Marion treats irreducible historical events, such as the Incarnation and Resurrection, in terms of the categories of a new phenomenological reduction.

Sometimes the problems here are lack of clarity on Marion’s part, but most often the difficulty is that he comes at intellectual questions in each book in fresh ways. He works in ways alien to contemporary philosophy, at the intersection of otherwise disparate conversations—between the premodern and the modern, the theological and the philosophical, and art and metaphysics. For this reason, Marion points his readers in directions he himself has not yet traveled.

Counter-Experiences is useful precisely because it gives the reader not only a sense of the paths Marion has thus far traveled but also some sense of the most fruitful lines of inquiry his thought opens up. It also dramatically illustrates that moving contemporary debates forward is sometimes possible only by returning to old ­theses and neglected texts.

Thomas S. Hibbs is Distinguished Professor of Ethics and dean of the honors college at Baylor University. His books include Virtue’s Splendor and Arts of Darkness: American Noir and the Quest for Redemption.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift