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La Vie et les vivants

Grégori Jean
Jean Leclercq
Nicolas Monseu

Deuxième section. Michel Henry dans l'histoire de la phénoménologie

Eugen Fink and Michel Henry. Meontic and Material Phenomenology

Ben Schewel

Texte intégral

1The purpose of this paper is to present Michel Henry’s material phenomenology as continuous with phenomenology’s originating impulse as it takes shape in Husserl and Heidegger. I will do so by examining Eugen Fink’s meontic phenomenology both in its historical genesis and in its deep conceptual relation to Michel Henry, a relation that Michel Henry himself affirms :

  • 1 I, p. 121.

C’est dans sa Sixième Méditation, consacrée à une théorie transcendantale de la méthode phénoménologique et que Fink crut bon d’ajuter aux cinq Méditations cartésiennes de Husserl, que l’aporie éclate au grand jour. Le but de la méthode, c’est bien de donner à voir la vie transcendantale, et cette vision s’accomplit dans la mise hors de soi de cette vie, dans sa division d’avec soi, dans son clivage. C’est en effet dans cette venue hors de soi et dans cette division d’avec soi que la vie se donne à voir à un spectateur possible, en l’occurrence le phénoménologue lui-même… C’est donc en prêtant à la vie un mode d’apparaître incompatible avec son essence que la phénoménologie prétend fonder l’advenir à soi-même de cette vie, cet accès à soi-même qui en constitue précisément l’essence1.

2Michel Henry holds Fink to be the first to realize that phenomenology is made possible by subjectivity’s self-separation, insofar as such internal cleavage provides subjectivity with the perspective by which it can regard itself as such. Yet, in doing so subjectivity does not actually look at itself, as subjectivity is an immanent affective drive, unable to step outside itself for the sake of philosophical reflection. The self-alienating movement by which phenomenology emerges must then be a movement within subjectivity’s immanence, whereby subjectivity generates an objective correlate for itself in which to contemplate itself. What then is phenomenology’s truth-value, if it is ultimately the description of subjectivity’s objective correlate ? While I hope to answer this question in this paper, it is important to note that it is precisely here that phenomenology acquires its meontic or material quality, as both Fink and Michel Henry realize.

  • 2 Dominique Janicaud, Le tournant théologique de la phénoménologie française, Paris, Éditions de l’É (...)
  • 3 Ibid.
  • 4 Ibid.

3Even more interesting is the fact that one of Michel Henry’s most distinguished critics, Dominique Janicaud, challenges the validity of material phenomenology for precisely its meontic quality, to use Fink’s term. Janicaud accuses Michel Henry of pursuing, in departure from phenomenology’s motivating spirit as it takes shape in Husserl and Heidegger, phenomenological radicalism to the point where phenomenology becomes trapped within a seemingly inescapable methodological paradox2. « Ce n’est pas l’intention que nous mettons en cause — qu’elle soit théologique ou purement poétique », Janicaud explains, « c’est la postulation péremptoire de la rigueur, lors même que s’en trouve congédiée sa condition essentielle, la correspondance entre la méthode et l’objet de la phénoménologie »3. Phenomenology, he continues, owes its interest not only to « l’audace de ses percées », but also to its respect « de ses propres règles »4. « Sur quoi porte donc, en définitive, notre contestation ? ». Janicaud asks :

  • 5 Ibid.

Précisément sur l’utilisation du pavillon et du manteau de la méthode phénoménologique pour en inverser ou en compromettre les acquis effectifs, transformer des procédures précises, limitées, éclairantes, en préludes incantatoires à l’autoréférence absolue de la vie et à sa sacralité pathétique5.

  • 6 Ronald Bruzina, Edmund Husserl and Eugen Fink : beginnings and ends in phenomenology, 1928-1938, N (...)

4If we are to accept the near equivalence of Michel Henry and Fink’s ultimate methodological insights, as Michel Henry himself suggests, then Janicaud’s critique boils down to the suggestion that meontic phenomenology turns from phenomenology’s guiding rules and founding insights. Yet, as Ronald Bruzina demonstrates exhaustively in his study, Edmund Husserl and Eugen Fink : Beginnings and Ends in Phenomenology6 Fink’s project arises in continuity with Husserl and Heidegger’s, which thus implies that Michel Henry’s does too. Accordingly, Janicaud’s critique will be shown to appeal more to a conservative sense of « normal phenomenology » than to phenomenology’s ultimate motivations as they take shape in its founders. This study is thus an attempt both to defend and deepen understanding of Michel Henry’s methodology.

I. Fink’s Continuity with Husserl and Heidegger

  • 7 Ibid., p. 159.
  • 8 Ronald Bruzina, Edmund Husserl, op. cit., p. 166.
  • 9 Ibid., p. 166.

5Though Eugen Fink served as Husserl’s assistant, dedicating the ripest period of his academic career to the furtherance of Husserlian phenomenology, Fink was deeply attracted to the speculative dimension of Heidegger’s thought. « What Fink did receive from Heidegger », Bruzina explains, « was the need to loosen the constraints on Husserl’s incredible dedication to the descriptive analysis of “die Sachen selbst” in near neglect of the second dimension of… phenomenological systematics »7 pursued by Heidegger. For, as Fink realizes, the ultimate depths of phenomenological life, the « all-embracing comprehensive structure to which Heidegger adapted and applied “projection-construction” »8 is given as not-given, as ungiveable, as structuring the given in an originative manner. Because the ontological frame in which intentional existence finds its meaning cannot be given evidentially to intentionality, phenomenology must then proceed through « interpretive construction », a construction that « is rooted in, but not slavishly enclosed within, intuitional demonstrative giving »9.

  • 10 Ibid., p. 139.
  • 11 Ibid., p. 139.

6For all his appreciation of Heidegger though, Fink never accepts fully Heidegger’s critique of Husserl. In fact, Fink believes Heidegger not to have realized the profundity of Husserl’s reduction, confusing « the opening-level character of Husserl’s phenomenology » with « its proper and final character »10. Yes, Fink acknowledges, Husserl privileges inordinately the « schema of subject-objet epistemological intentionality »11, but such does not for Husserl constitute transcendental subjectivity’s fundamental relationship to the world. In fact, Husserl’s reduction moves ultimately beyond even Heidegger’s being-in-the-world towards this structure’s very constitutive origin, an endeavor Fink finds Heidegger never to have pursued. Though Husserl comes to speak of the origin as « transcendental being » or « absolute being », Fink titles it the meontic, non-being, as it is that which is not in any way within being : it is being’s origin. The meontic is the radical conclusion of Husserl’s reduction, though for Fink Husserl never fully opens to his phenomenology’s meontic telos. Fink finds Heidegger’s speculative construction to be the methodological advance necessary to pursue rigorously meontic phenomenology, thereby extending Husserl’s project in complete harmony with its guiding impulse.

  • 12 Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of European sciences and transcendental phenomenology : an introduction (...)

7Fink’s meontic phenomenology takes more determinate shape as he assists Husserl with the Crisis-project12. Though in agreement as to Husserl’s new focus on life as phenomenology’s ultimate horizon of inquiry, Fink still finds Husserl to miss the ultimate question of life’s meontic origin. As Bruzina explains Fink’s reasoning,

  • 13 Ronald Bruzina, Edmund Husserl, op. cit., p. 332.

One cannot take the phenomenon of life as it appears within the world as the authentic manifestation of ultimately originative life itself. To be able to approach life in this sense as the unqualified power of origin itself one must set out of play and go beyond the framework that holds for all activity within the world, including the activity of thought and reflection13.

  • 14 Ronald Bruzina, Edmund Husserl, op. cit., p. 345.
  • 15 Ibid., p. 343.

8Fink thus takes upon himself the task of examining life’s meontic origin, believing this work to provide conclusion to Husserl’s Crisis-project. And, perhaps surprisingly to readers of Husserl, it is in the philosophy of Nietzsche that Fink finds the perspective necessary for his endeavor. As Bruzina states, after reading Nietzsche in light of Husserl’s Crisis-project, Fink realizes that « the originative core movement of life is a pathic power out of which the various modalities of existence in the world — the human feelings, the human will, the human reason — all spring in continuity with it »14. Thus it is in Nietzsche’s approach to life as « a kind of drive, a kind of carrying forward »15 that Fink comes to his insight concerning the meontic. Bruzina describes some of the methodological consequences of Fink’s realization of meontic life’s affective nature. The resonance between Fink and Michel Henry is here remarkable :

  • 16 Ibid., p. 346.

Thus, in order to explore the kind of noncognitive awareness there might be in the very life of consciousness about the uttermost basic dimensions of its own being, and how this might be indicative of the nature of that life as life in the most radical sense, Fink has to orient his analysis differently from Husserl’s ; he has to explore it precisely as pathic, on all levels of consciousness, including that of rational reflection’s own movement. It is the pathic, i. e., feeling as a general, fundamental experiential dimension active in all orders of consciousness, that characterizes life, or, more exactly, that characterizes the way in which actually living process… is ipso facto aware… of itself16.

9Meontic life is aware of itself through its own self-affection, and it is through this self-affection that meontic phenomenology finds its paradoxical possibility. Life feels itself within each of its subjective powers and this self-affection makes all such powers potentially transformable into themes for reflection. Even more, self-affective life can ultimately turn towards itself as a theme for reflection, recognizing itself as the originary affective drive. To claim content for the meontic is a bit deceptive though, as meontic phenomenology is inescapably bound to the inevitable falsehood accompanying all its reflections. The meontic is precisely that which cannot appear within the intentionally evidential structures of consciousness, and thus can at best grasp correctly absolute life’s self-representation. Whence meontic phenomenology’s motivation and power, then ? As Bruzina notes, the

  • 17 Ibid., p. 388.

Embeddedness of living reflection in the dynamic of living temporality has to be considered as itself a kind of ‘awareness’ that is not itself thematically intentional reflection. It is a “pathic” awareness that… is successful less by the efficacy of conceptual explicitness working in direct intuitional evidencing than in its function as ‘an expressive mode’ of the pathically self-aware living that is both what carries it along and what it attempts to thematize and characterize17.

10Grasped in its impossibility from the perspective of intentional consciousness, meontic phenomenology must be seen as a means for life’s transformation, as a creative act of speculative expression through which life’s affective dynamism is raised to a higher pitch.

II. Material Phenomenology as Meontic

11As any reader of Michel Henry knows, his concern is with absolute auto-affective life, the essence and origin of all manifestation, to which the phenomenological reduction must necessarily lead. Just as Fink did before him, Michel Henry too realizes the inevitable paradox brought on by this discovery :

  • 18 PM, p. 122-123.

Si […] la vie, soit l’apparaître original en l’immédiation pathétique de son auto-apparaître qui fonde tout apparaître possible et ainsi tout phénomène, échappe par principe au domaine du visible et si, en tant que l’apparaître original, cette vie transcendantale définit en effet l’objet de la phénoménologie, alors l’identité de celui-ci et de la méthode se rompt brusquement, cédant la place à un hétérogénéité si radicale qu’elle se présente d’abord à la pensée comme un Abîme […] Inutile quant le logos qui l’habite emprunte sa lumière à celle du phénomène qu’il s’agit de dire, la méthode qui fait voir lorsqu’elle doit faire voir l’invisible se heurte à l’aporie. Comment une philosophie de l’affectivité est-elle possible ?18.

12Life’s manifestation erupts within immanence, and thus could never truly step outside itself and acquire a phenomenological God’s-eye view of itself. « Bien au contraire », Michel Henry remarks,

  • 19 Ibid., p. 123.

L’objet de la phénoménologie et sa méthode s’opposent maintenant phénoménologiquement comme deux essences irréconciliables — comme la révélation inextatique et pathétique de la vie d’un côté, le faire-voir intérieur au logos et présupposé par lui de l’autre19.

  • 20 PM, p. 131.

13Michel Henry’s solution to phenomenology’s methodological paradox is nearly identical to Fink’s : insofar as life feels itself at every point of its being, life’s reflective capacity must then be able to generate an objective correlate, an eidetic essence, for all of its subjective powers, and through such a power an objective correlate for its very invisible and immanent affective essence. The effects of these objective correlates are best understood in terms of aesthetic expression, a musical note for example, insofar as phenomenology’s external expressions are linked to the affective tones constituting life’s internality. Phenomenology’s words, then, are for Michel Henry words of life, as « Le Langage est la langage de la vie réelle »20, proceeding according to the tonal connection between generated eidetic essences and the immanent movement of affective life.

14Phenomenology though, constitutes only one among many such modes by which life generates objective correlates to enable the further progress of its immanent life. As Michel Henry says,

  • 21 Ibid., p. 134-135.

La réalité du monde où nous vivons, n’est ainsi que l’ensemble des équivalents objectifs, idéaux et irréels, que les hommes ont depuis toujours substitués à leur vie pour autant qu’ils doivent être capable de l’évaluer, d’en tenir une compatibilité21.

15Phenomenology does not give us correct representational knowledge of life as it is in-itself, but rather it constitutes the self-expression of life through the self-construction of its own eidetic essence. Yet, this essence expresses the fundamental paradox of its own creation insofar as it knows itself as falsifying the object of its inquiry, the invisible origin of absolute auto-affective life. Life pursues such a material phenomenology for the sake of its own inner transformation, the growth of its own profusion, and for none other. As the above analyses show, material phenomenology mirrors the major movements of meontic phenomenology, and thus can itself be said to emerge within the meontic problematic. This is not to say that Fink and Michel Henry’s phenomenological projects are identical, which they are clearly not. My purpose rather is to suggest the near equivalence of both Fink and Michel Henry’s methodological insight concerning reflection upon the essence of manifestation or the meontic, as well as to demonstrate this insight to emerge in continuity with phenomenology’s guiding thrust as it takes shape in Husserl and Heidegger. If I have achieved my aim, then Janicaud’s critique of Michel Henry must be rejected.


1 I, p. 121.

2 Dominique Janicaud, Le tournant théologique de la phénoménologie française, Paris, Éditions de l’Éclat (coll. « tiré à part »), 2001. p. 70.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Ronald Bruzina, Edmund Husserl and Eugen Fink : beginnings and ends in phenomenology, 1928-1938, New Haven, Yale University Press (coll. « Studies in Hermeneutics »), 2004.

7 Ibid., p. 159.

8 Ronald Bruzina, Edmund Husserl, op. cit., p. 166.

9 Ibid., p. 166.

10 Ibid., p. 139.

11 Ibid., p. 139.

12 Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of European sciences and transcendental phenomenology : an introduction to phenomenological philosophy, trad. par David Carr, Evanston, Northwestern University Press (coll. « Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy »), [1954] 2000.

13 Ronald Bruzina, Edmund Husserl, op. cit., p. 332.

14 Ronald Bruzina, Edmund Husserl, op. cit., p. 345.

15 Ibid., p. 343.

16 Ibid., p. 346.

17 Ibid., p. 388.

18 PM, p. 122-123.

19 Ibid., p. 123.

20 PM, p. 131.

21 Ibid., p. 134-135.


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