Michel Henry: Radicalizing Phenomenology?


I’ve been reading through Mullarkey’s Post-Continental Philosophy. While I’m not sure Mullarkey is being completely fair with his problematization of Deleuze in the first chapter– he accuses Deleuze of maintaining a “two-world ontology” that effectively undoes his commitment to immanence (my knee jerk reaction is that this seems to conflate/confuse possibility with virtuality, but I’d have to go back into Deleuze to be sure)–I’ve found the discussion on Michel Henry to be rather interesting. Not least is the continual rethinking and critique of phenomenology throughout, but I have some naive questions about all of this, especially since I know very little about Henry.

Generally, phenomenology was thought to have taken transcendental subjectivity as the condition for the possibility of manifestation and that this condition doesn’t manifest itself. If it did, we’d have the problem of the condition being conditioned. Levinas got around this in an interesting way vis a vis his rethinking of notions like affectivity, alterity, and passivity in Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being, Mullarkey pitches Henry’s criticism of “traditional” phenomenology as Levinasian affectivity meeting Bergsonian cosmology:

Phenomenology is oblivious to its own how by thinking of itself as an objective method transcending and observing its datum, and so failing to see itself as part of the phenomenon, the ‘method’ as immanent to its world. More radically still, the matter can be formulated as the question of whether phenomenology was ever possible at all–how can we acquire a pure view of the cogitatio when operating by necessity within the confines of the cogito? This question is not new: it was the motivation behind Heidegger’s ontologization of phenomenology as well as the constant criticism of structuralists and poststructuralists alike. But Henry’s answer to it is extreme in its novel simplicity. Phenomenology is only possible through a primitive, immanent reflexivity: it is living itself which carries within it a primitive knowledge of living–each property of the lived originally carries with it an “initial knowledge’ of that which it is–and it is this that phenomenology clarifies (emphasis mine-SO, 55).

What is this immanent reflexivity? Henry seems support the position that phenomenology is a science that studies “what allows a phenomenon to be a phenomenon,” and in turn, he generally focuses on “appearing” as the descriptor for phenomenality, e.g. how does phenomenality phenomenalize itself? Hence the focus on the “how” in phenomenology, Henry wants to materialize phenomenology such that there is an identity of “method” and “object.”

Yet, given these methodological considerations, what or how are we to talk about/think the subject/subjectivity then? Ok, given such methodological consideration we can see that for Henry object-manifestation presupposes self-manifestation. We are always already given to ourselves so we are able to be affected by the world. So, ok, the problem again with phenomenology? Well, it hasn’t given a radical enough characterization of self-manifestation because it favors separation as the very structure of the variant forms of manifestation which gives way to understanding self-manifestation as self-transcendence, or internal ruptures/splits/divisions, or an encounter with alterity. Henry favors immanence, e.g. subjectivity manifests itself without exteriority, it is self-relating. At least that’s what it seems like such a phenomenological method, what with this business of “immanent reflexivity” would insist upon.

Yet, I’m unsure how this notion of “life affecting itself” “saves” phenomenology from its “transcendent follies,” whether Husserl’s qualified Ego, Heidegger’s notion of Being and the ontological difference, or Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the Flesh (esp in the posthumous work, The Visible and Invisible). In fact, haven’t all of these thinkers dealt with immanence in some manner? Is Henry’s material phenomenology the next logical step of phenomenology, or is it not phenomenology at all? While I like this concept of “Affective Life” as a bodily, but non-conceptual relation to the world, I wonder because this affective life is not conceptual, not intentional, is it only related to itself? While in Levinas, there is an affectivity characterized as radical passivity in my encounter with the Other, I’m not sure immanent reflexivity gels with the notion of an self-sufficient, non-relational self-manifestation–to that end, I wonder (weirdly) if Henry conceives of self-manifestation/subjectivity and really, “phenomenology” far too abstractly. What of the inter-subjective, or in Levinasian parlance , the asymmetrical relation?

15 thoughts on “Michel Henry: Radicalizing Phenomenology?

  1. This is a fascinating post, and I wish my background was better.

    I realize this is a dumb question, but why does the book have the title it does? How is he defining “continental philosophy”? Clearly it includes the “French Philosophers of the 60s.” Is his claim that they and those who write about them are all implicated in some form of anti-immanentism? This seems right to me with Derrida (and I arguably, albeit less plausibly, Levinas), who can without too much violence be taught as pushing the transcendental idealist interpreation of early Heidegger (obviously while instantiating and extending the performative traits of late Heidegger and also (I think to his detriment) rejecting the early Heideggerian non-representationalist account of truth).

    Does the author look outside of France (critical theory? the eastern european metaphysics and logic tradition? etc.)? Does he look at more contemporary mainstream French popular and academic philosophy, i.e. the “new philosophers” of the 80’s or today’s kind of renewed historicism?

    I don’t have a quibble about how we define “continental philosophy” (though Sallis’ term “American continental philosophy” does grate). I’m interested in the scope of the author’s claims.

    I hope that Emelianov et. al. post in response to your discussion. It’s really interesting.

  2. And your point about Deleuze really fits with the second hand Deleuze I get through John Protevi’s work.

    I keep meaning to read a couple of books that connect Deleuze’s philosophy with accounts of necessity in the analytic tradition. I think that Protevi told me that he really likes Delanda’s “Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy.” Protevi’s Deleuze notes are at http://www.protevi.com/john/DG/index.html .

  3. Thanks for the comments, Jon. Yeah, the title is a bit misleading, but your hunches are largely correct (and yes, Levinas as anti-immanentism is tricky to say the least).

    On the first page Mullarkey says something like the “Post” in Post-Continental is not descriptive but is a prescription of what might/could be an “intervention” into the reception of European thought, but really, the book sets its sites on 4 thinkers (Deleuze, Badiou, Henry, Laurelle) all of whom at once recast “Continental thought” by rejecting transcendence for immanence. Mullarkey then goes on to problematize the notion of Analytic and Continental as philosophically wrong or even non-existent, but meta-philosophically right. I’ll let Mullarkey speak for himself:

    I defend this title of “Post Continental philosophy”…as both an assessment of the current transitional state in which Continental thought finds itself with respect to its theorization of science in particular and immanence in general, as well as a caution against thinking that such an engagement could ever be a straightforward evolution (3).

    Mullarkey seems to be thinking through these “changes” as a type of renewal (his word at some point) of Continental philosophy, and argues quite strongly that his book is centered around an event that he calls “Paris 1988”–Deleuze published The Fold, Badiou’s Being and Event, Henry’s Voir l’invisible (of course, all of these thinkers have been writing since the 60s, for one, Henry’s systematic work The Essence of Manifestation was published in 1962, the same year as Levinas’ Totality and Infinity) and a discussion between Laurelle (a figure I know nothing about) and Derrida about the possibilities for a science of philosophy.

    I don’t know if Post-Continental is the best of terms. In fact, Mullarkey also says somewhere he could have called his book After Deleuze, but on the whole, he is suggesting that if we take all these thinkers together they represent a radical turn towards immanence, he then tries to correct the pitfalls of each (revealed in each chapter) by outlining a new way of thinking immanence philosophically (presumably through the notion of the “diagram”–but I’ve only skimmed that chapter).

    Thanks for the link to Protevi’s Delanda notes, it looks like an interesting book, actually, truth be told, the book is collecting dust on my bookshelf! Perhaps this will give me the impetus to move it onto my desk…

  4. Honestly, the title of the book is very annoying – I mean unless it’s a kind of Nietzschean sarcasm I think it is idiotic to use such terms even if “prescriptively” – I have no idea what a “post-continental” philosophy would be like because, I think, the very “problem” of the relationship between Analytic and Continental traditions is a false problem, or at the very least, it seems to occupy those who are more concerned with labels and “schools” and “-isms” – if there’s an academic equivalent of high school, then this type of talk certainly belongs there. Maybe this will come out as an outburst, but I have been irritated with this discussions of labels for some time now, and it’s probably not related to Shahar’s post at all. This whole discussion of who belongs to what tradition and who uses what method has as much to do with philosophy as the discussion of artistic techniques, colors, methods and skill has to do with genuine work of art – to mention of all people Heidegger one might say that it has nothing to do with thinking, with questioning, with philosophy – just some professional jargon that makes graduate students sound like teenagers arguing whether the cool new band is “post-metal” or “neo-hardcore” – who gives a shit?

    Take for example a discussion that was recently taking place about the nature of philosophy as commentary vs. “real” philosophy, i.e. who writes about philosophers and who writes philosophy as in dealing with concepts/issues/problems – I can’t quite tag specific posts but I think it’s a familiar topic especially in the discussion of the “divide” between Analytic and Continental traditions. I have recently started paying attention to this particular distinction and I have to say that even though most of myreadings are from so-called Continental tradition, never do I really encounter a pure “commentary” – it’s always about a concept/problem/issue and it’s referring both to other philosophers and specific conceptual formulations. I think the whole “Post-Continental Philosophy” title decision was pure marketing – you look at this book and you think “Wow, another manifesto for the future philosophy! Sex-ey! Must own a copy immediate!”

  5. From page 1:

    Whether any or all of this warrants the name of “Post-Continental” or some other title is irrelevant: the primary wager being made is that an event is unfolding in philosophical thought and that we are presently witnessing its formative outline.

    The obvious question, why use that term then? And on page 2:

    Consequently, Continental philosophy is taken in a new direction that engages with naturalism with a refreshingly critical and non reductive approach to the sciences of life, set theory, embodiment and knowledge. Taken together, these strategies amount to a rekindled faith in the possibility of philosophy as a worldly and materialist thinking.

    I mean, look, if it were a dissertation the title would be something like, “The Recent Turn to Immanence in French Thought: Henry, Deleuze, Badiou and Laurelle,” or how about “Diagrammatology: A correction to the turn to Immanence in Henry, Deleuze, Badiou, and Laurelle,” or something even more cumbersome that would perhaps even include the terms “naturalism” and/or “materialism.” So, yes Mikhail, you may be right, really, who wants to buy those titles?

  6. Consequently, Continental philosophy is taken in a new direction that engages with naturalism with a refreshingly critical and non reductive approach to the sciences of life, set theory, embodiment and knowledge.

    So I suppose this would be my problem then if I read such a sentence – and, of course, I agree with you on the titles – what is “Continental philosophy” I would ask? and how does this particular author know where it is or was going all this time for him to perceive that it is presently taking any new direction? This very conceptualization in terms of a school of philosophy is suspect. I know it’s an old debate and all, but in this particular case – why not just write a book about these perceived similarities between four thinkers and not try to identify any directional changes by privileging these changes over many over changes? I suspect part of the labeling business is a conspiracy of publishers and pretentious grad students…

    But by all means I’d like to hear more about this book’s overall argument – I’ve read some Henry and I might go back and take another look. Now the real question is do people out there know about Pierre Henry?

  7. why not just write a book about these perceived similarities between four thinkers and not try to identify any directional changes by privileging these changes over many over changes?

    Right, but Mullarkey tends to qualify (over and over) his claims of directional changes and shifts by suggesting its an outline, or that at best, this move towards immanence is just unfolding. He borrows Agamben’s diagram of the history of modern philosophy in the introduction and subsequently claims that he is going to both expand and contort/distort the diagram to view the diagram please click here

    Regardless, the book is rather well written and cogently argued thus far, I’m finding it to be interesting. I’ll try to battle my laziness and post some stuff about the book as I read through it, but truth be told I’m rather hung up on Michel Henry right now–I’m even considering launching a “Summer of Michel Henry!” Not Pierre Henry, what with all his electronica

  8. Well, I’m looking forward to more posts on the book – as for the summer of Michel Henry, why not combine it with the summer of Pierre Henry?

    Per the diagram, I like that Heidegger’s in the middle, but still I think it is a way of looking at the history of philosophy in terms of “transcendence/immanence” – I’m not per se against such projects as long as they are qualified by an annoying yet powerful Zizekian “what if…?” kind of questioning…

  9. Pingback: Michel Henry: Radicalizing Phemenology? More Considerations « Perverse Egalitarianism

  10. I would like to encourage you in continuing your “Summer of Michel Henry” without or without soundtrack. I have been reading and admiring Henry for several years now, and in fact have even taken the liberty of translating one of his essays (you can read it at http://pensum.ca/Texts/HenryLife.html). I was quite happy to just discover that a translation of Material Phenomenology is going to be published in September (in fact this is what led me to discover your blog), as i do believe it to be one of the clearest introductions to his thought. That said however, i highly recommend Genealogy of Psychoanalysis if you can find a copy as it is unfortunately out of print.

    I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts.

  11. Thanks, Michael. Look forward to having a look at your translation. I’m working my way through Philosophy and Phenomenology of the Body, perhaps I’ll see if I can get a hold of a copy of Genealogy of Psychoanalysis from the library when I’m done.

  12. As I understand him, Henry thinks Life will save phenomenology from ‘transcendent follies’ because Life is ‘not’ it ‘is’ Nothingness. We are Life but Life is an attribute we can touch although we do experience it. It thus saves phenomenology from claiming to much and ignoring the thing itself

  13. Thanks for the comment Michael (so many Michaels in these comments!), I do see that. My question with Henry revolves around his insistence of an completely (and absolutely) self-sufficient, but in no way a sort of ekstasis or hypostasis and non-relational “self-manifestation.” What I have been curious about/looking for/missing (or not getting) so far in my reading of Henry is an explanation of how precisely it is that such a subjectivity [described as a sort of extreme self “presence”] can at once have any sort of internal logic/regard of temporality and be directed towards something that well, isn’t itself. Is there any sort of schism that arises, perhaps what we’d loosely call, a reflection, or some other sort of dehiscence? Again, I’m still wondering if all of it is too abstract, even thought it deals directly with Life. I don’t know, perhaps I’m still too tied to the idea of self-transcendence instead of auto-affection…

    I have been trying to think through an answer to such questions vis a vis the work on Maine de Biran, especially with the discussion of the “categories” and such in the first chapter and the discussion/reworking of the cogito.

  14. One way of tackling the problem of Henry’s self-sufficient subject that is nevertheless towards the world is this: Henry is not denying the world, merely that our access to the world cannot be guaranteed by the same move that constitutes the subject. In sense he is merely bracketing the world and that far agrees with Husserl or Descartes (and part of Levinas, that do act towards the other in a certain way is do to a violence to the other. Henry’s solution is not to act towards the other at all but nonetheless not deny him/her.)

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