Testing the Limit: Derrida, Henry, Levinas, and the Phenomenological Tradition

Testing the Limit: Derrida, Henry, Levinas, and the Phenomenological Tradition


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In exploring the nature of excess relative to a phenomenology of the limit, Testing the Limit claims that phenomenology itself is an exploration of excess. What does it mean that "the self" is "given"? Should we see it as originary; or rather, in what way is the self engendered from textual practices that transgress—or hover around and therefore within—the threshold of phenomenologial discourse? This is the first book to include Michel Henry in a triangulation with Derrida and Levinas and the first to critique Levinas on the basis of his interpolation of philosophy and religion. Sebbah claims that the textual origins of phenomenology determine, in their temporal rhythms, the nature of the subjectivation on which they focus. He situates these considerations within the broader picture of the state of contemporary French phenomenology (chiefly the legacy of Merleau-Ponty), in order to show that these three thinkers share a certain "family resemblance," the identification of which reveals something about the traces of other phenomenological families. It is by testing the limit within the context of traditional phenomenological concerns about the appearance of subjectivity and ipseity that Derrida, Henry, and Levinas radically reconsider phenomenology and that French phenomenology assumes its present form.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804772754
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 05/09/2012
Series: Cultural Memory in the Present
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

François-David Sebbah is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Compiègne in France and was Program Director at the International College of Philosophy in Paris. He is the author of Levinas: Ambiguïtés de l'altérité (2000).

Read an Excerpt


Derrida, Henry, Levinas, and the Phenomenological Tradition
By François-David Sebbah


Copyright © 2001 Presses Universitaires de France
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-7275-4

Chapter One


The field and focus of research

Husserlian phenomenological methodology has many descendants. And the current phenomenological landscape is not merely diverse but at the very least full of tensions. It is astonishing to see, for example, the many different—if not contradictory—claims, such as those of Hubert L. Dreyfus, who claims Husserl—though unrecognizable in his immediate offspring—as a father figure for classical cognitivism, and that of Levinas, who claims to radicalize Husserl's insistence on originarity by designating Alterity as the unconstitutable underlying all appearance, all appealing to the same ancestor, by the same name, in the same space. Looking closer, we are encouraged to see that each of these descendants appears to be an absolutely legitimate—and an absolutely monstrous—heir, following the adopted perspective—and is that not the law of all filiation? The legitimate Levinas refuses all naturalization of thought and of consciousness in general, continuing work begun by Husserl and Heidegger but separating himself from all models of an ontic understanding of being. Highly suspect in the eyes of "phenomenology as a rigorous science," he meditates on a transcendence exceeding all thought, sometimes manifested in a style that could be called poetic or even "laudatory." Dreyfus's reading of Husserl is also, doubtless, "legitimate," relying on the Husserlian description of the noeme as a hierarchized group of formal rules, which thus perpetuates the rigorous necessity for a mathesis of lived experience. This is no less "monstrous," in that it naturalizes consciousness and perhaps thus confuses rigor and exactitude.

As exemplars of the current state of phenomenology, these progeny seem to have no possibility of communication between them: their fundamental differences result from a chiasmic connection to their common source.

It seems hardly necessary to ask here who respects and who betrays phenomenology: this would imply asking oneself to be the executor of what phenomenology actually is; one would then necessarily have to ask if such a position could in any simple way be philosophical. Fairly prejudicially, it would be a matter of asking if this formative power over phenomenology is a sign of its vigor and fecundity or contrarily a sign of its weakness, a weakness that would render it colonizable and manipulable by other, radically diverse, projects: "theological spiritualism" or "formalist naturalism"—the name "phenomenology" could only be shared in and as an empty set.

If it is striking from a viewpoint one might call diachronic, this diversity is also marked out from a synchronic viewpoint: one can only marvel at the extraordinary capacity of phenomenology, as first and foremost a method, to invest in different fields. Ethics, aesthetics, politics, sociology, ethnology, psychiatry, psychology: all these fields find a way of approaching phenomenology, but in none of them—and this can fairly be stated from a strictly factual point of view—does phenomenology impose itself as a dominant methodology. From this viewpoint, too, the question arises of knowing whether such diversity is a sign of fecundity or of weakness. Having this question regarding the fruitfulness of the phenomenological method in mind at and as the very heart of phenomenological diversity, we are inducted into a family.

Thanks to geographical and chronological criteria, this family can be characterized: we concern ourselves here with the most contemporary French phenomenology, after Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, which is still in the making. The principal works we have in view are those of Emmanuel Levinas, Michel Henry, and Jacques Derrida, but in our attempt to lay out a "family resemblance," we will also be led to consider other works, such as those of Henri Maldiney, Jacques Garelli, and Marc Richir, who, so to speak, "swim in the same water," Merleau-Pontian "water"—or rather, that of Jean-Toussaint Desanti, Gérard Granel, and (seen from a different perspective) Jean-Luc Marion, as one who should be seen as in close proximity to the "family" being studied. This project will be a matter of marking out contrasts; these contrasts are sometimes explicit, even mandatory; sometimes, however, they must be shown to have, at their very core, what amounts to a strong resemblance.

Preliminarily, it is important to acknowledge that any such "family resemblance" is not self-generated: on the contrary, it would be entirely possible to spotlight, within this field of linked affinities, differences and even hostilities that separate and reconfigure them, according to one's angle of approach. Yet I still maintain that the "divisions" put forward here do not rest on some arbitrary chronology. Were it possible to speak validly here of a "generation," in one sense it would simply not be factual; to be even more lapidary and allusive, however, my hypothesis is that all of these thinkers/writers could validly lay claim to Jacques Derrida's assertion with regard to phenomenology: "I still see it today, in different ways, as a discipline of incomparable rigor. Not, certainly not in the Sartrean or Merleau-Pontian version that was then dominant [during the 1950s], but rather contrary to it or without it." The texts on which we will focus will have in common at the very least this wholly negative factor: they all attempt to initiate a phenomenology that is neither Sartrean nor Merleau-Pontian.

This criterion for grouping them together seems pertinent if we remember not their attitude of rejection, but rather—beyond any thematic affinities—that they mark a rupture in phenomenological practice and methodology.

In fact, phenomenology must be a method from the outset, before being a "theorizing" of that method (as "the idea of phenomenology") and a constituted, embodied doctrine. Heidegger, fully agreeing with Husserl, writes that "phenomenology, if it is understood correctly, is a concept of method. Immediately excluded is thus that it could assert theses, or a determined continuity, regarding a being, or that it could defend a self-declared 'point of view.'" This method is clearly to be determined in contrast to that of the positive sciences: far from being supported by a positive given, through an exigent radicality absent of all presupposition, it is essentially enacted through an operation consisting of attaching itself to a "natural" position (one engendered through the positive sciences). This operation neutralizes all belief and all theses of existence (to neutralize is not to repudiate).

We must recall this canonical definition of the phenomenological reduction without misunderstanding its simply indicative nature: entirely a posture, the phenomenological reduction, as the conversion of the Platonic gaze, can only truly be produced in being implemented, even if, through various philosophical temperaments, one vacillates between two modes of association with it: one must opt either for the certitude of the reduction's completion or for the disquiet of its intrinsic incompletion. These two options define the intrinsically obscure nature, unmasterable through any theoretical protocol, of the point of passage from the natural to the phenomenological posture. And phenomenological texts, not being able directly and fully to accord with phenomena, in some sense arise protreptically, from incitement, to engage in an operation existing nowhere other than in its implementation in the first person, through an effort and a risk that must be tested out individually and that cannot be preserved in the reported "results" arrived at by others. It is for this reason that the phenomenological method is not a technique, if we understand by that a set of rules governing a procedure that could be mechanically applied. This is all the less possible since, as Heidegger notes, "the phenomenological method, like all scientific methods, is developed and transformed as a function of the progress it allows to be accomplished regarding access to things. The scientific method is never a simple technique. As soon as it becomes such, it is deprived of its proper essence" (BPP, 39). This should in turn remind us of what Descartes taught us: method is "an art of inventing"; that is, it does not preexist as knowledge of itself, with the singularity of the path it traces when confronted with the specifics of its objective; it is always at risk.

Yet when we look at the French phenomenologists' investment in the phenomenological method, we can see that

• if Sartre operates within Husserlian phenomenology while pretending to massively radicalize it, it is in the sense in which he "completes" it as a philosophy of consciousness—of the absolute originarity of consciousness as self-presence that produces all appearance.

• Merleau-Ponty, closer to contemporary French phenomenologists and more widely read by them, pays meticulous attention to the world's exceeding of consciousness, and to the ambiguity of this interlacing that is hardly recognizable in the instability of its endless reversibility, in the work. In this sense, Merleau-Ponty locates himself at the limit of the powers of elucidation of the phenomenological method (he marks, for example, the obscurity of its "open sesame," reduction, by insisting on its unachievable nature). As a thinker of the limit, however, Merleau-Ponty is not a thinker of rupture but, on the contrary, of encroachment.

• the figures in whom we are interested here—such is at least our working hypothesis—are characterized (1) by practicing phenomenology at the limit; (2) by a practice of the limit that engenders more of the violence of excessive movement than of the nuance required to describe ambiguity. That is, they attempt to radicalize the fundamental concepts, and thus the proper constraints, of the phenomenological method, to the extent that it becomes legitimate to ask whether, paradoxically, that radicality does not turn into an excess that, far from sharpening the method's edge, would in fact explode it. This question, then, is what leads to the perhaps astonishing relationship between these phenomenologists, beyond the simple, empirical generational effect: they seem to adhere to the focal point of the phenomenological movement, the point of its highest intensity, and/or beyond it, to have exploded it.

At its base, my project here—which will not concern itself with the history of philosophy since that would require being installed within philosophies in the course of so doing, in the space where thinkable fields open out—refers to navigation: how is one to orient oneself within this "galaxy" that is contemporary French phenomenology? This question has particular importance if one forms the hypothesis that the phenomenological method is pushed here to its limit, to the very edge of its fruitfulness, but also to the point of its defeat or its disaster: being installed in this field, what can one expect today from the phenomenological method?

A guiding thread: The notion of intentionality

Although our research proposes to explore many diverse thematic bodies and fields of work, it should not focus its initial attention on the contents of thought lest it dissipate itself. Its primary interest, above all else, should be the different ways of being invested in the phenomenological method. That is, it should focus on postures and styles (see Introduction). To approach a posture is to approach that which, in a thought, precedes all thematization (and thus all thematization of itself) and determines it, by an originary determination in which the arbitrary inaugural and the necessity always imposed by the thing itself are not allowed to disentangle. This means being brought toward the astonishment in which even the traumatism that inaugurates all thought that could be called philosophical, which is not even what should be of a/the being (or not) but as phenomenology, reveals being to us, more precisely and more originarily than "that which is given" (or not). Every posture of thought is an attempt to control this event, the first gesture turned toward it: a posture of avoidance or of encounter.

For this reason the guiding thread of our research, the Ariadne's thread among many styles of thought and regions of objects, will from the outset be the notion of intentionality, which, as Husserl says, is the crowning theme of phenomenology. In fact, as we must remember, intentionality is the technical name that in Husserl conceals the mysterious aura in which the gift of all being as a sense of being is at play. Intentionality is the crowning theme of phenomenological discourse, that to which it is "reduced" (i.e., "brought back"), only because it is so more fundamentally, though in a manner initially not itself manifest (since it is operational and thus not thematized), as the medium of its practice. And if it is this, it is so because more fundamentally still, it is the constituting power of all sense of being. This is the manner in which it is presented by Husserl. And even if one does not immerse oneself from the start in the Husserlian confidence in intentionality, one will remark at the very least that in its link—whose resistance must be tested—to the (transcendental) deduction is the central operational concept of phenomenological practice.

After presenting our field of research and its various engagements, focusing on the "wide" picture, we will then concentrate our work on narrower questions: Why move toward limited practices of intentionality? And why choose those particular ones?

As precise as it may be in Husserl's work both generally and specifically, a philosophical work must be supported by one of these great questions—to which any definitive response is not possible. It is this fundamental questioning that I propose to engage in first of all, in order to demonstrate by so doing how it condenses and specifies the study of a course of contemporary French phenomenology and gives it its meaning.

Perhaps no one more than Husserl in The Crisis of European Sciences has taken the measure of the fragility of modern rationality; it is as if, fortifying itself as mathematical ratio, reason saw its field of inquiry reduced to a tattered remnant. The more precise it became, the more narrow, abandoning whole aspects of human experience and thus delivering them up to a functional irrationalism whose practical effects are all too well known. We are living in a period of thought in which a rationality such as that at work in the exact sciences is not precluded from sharing space with irrational conduct, since it draws its productiveness from being confined within the narrow field that it delimits.

Consequently, we are faced with the problem of the invention of a rationality that would itself be "wide" yet pervasively rigorous, less calculating than the producer of meaning.


Excerpted from TESTING THE LIMIT by François-David Sebbah Copyright © 2001 by Presses Universitaires de France . Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1 Research....................17
2 Intentionality and Non-Givenness....................34
3 The Question of the Limit....................58
PART II: THE FRONTIER OF TIME....................67
of the Consciousness of Internal Time....................75
2 Anticipating Phenomenology: Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Marion, the Impossible and Possibility....................88
1: The Time of Ordinary Phenomena and Phantoms (Jean-Toussaint Desanti; Jacques Derrida)....................88
2: The Impossibility of the Gift: Within the Extreme Possibility of Givenness (Jacques Derrida; Jean-Luc Marion)....................104
PART III: THE TEST OF SUBJECTIVITY....................123
1 Subjectivity in Contemporary French Phenomenology....................127
2 The Birth of Subjectivity in Levinas....................142
4 Spectral Subjectivity According to Jacques Derrida....................174
1 The Rhythm of Otherwise Than Being According to Levinas....................202
1: Reading Levinas and Thinking Entirely Otherwise....................202
2: Rhythm as the Question of Intentionality in Levinas....................212
2 The Rhythm of Life According to Michel Henry....................219

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