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Heidegger’s Concept of “Sense” in Being and Time

Published onJan 23, 2020
Heidegger’s Concept of “Sense” in Being and Time

Crossing: The INPR Journal

Vol. 1 (2020): 41-53

DOI: 10.21428/8766eb43.4edfe5aa

Heidegger’s Concept of “Sense” in Being and Time

Tarek R. Dika

The University of Notre Dame

[email protected]


The Concept of “Sense” in the Seinsfrage

The novelty of Heidegger’s formulation of the Seinsfrage in Being and Time consists, not in its orientation towards the sense of being in general, but rather in the way in which he understands the Seinsfrage and the path he lays out in order to answer it. Heidegger’s principal thesis in Being and Time is that time constitutes the horizon for “any understanding whatsoever of being” (GA 2: 1, BT: 19) and, therefore, that time effectively constitutes the sense of being in general (Sinn von Sein überhaupt).1 This means that time organizes the manifold senses of being (in both its categorial and existential determinations) by referring them back to a “general” or “focal” sense. Before one examines Heidegger’s thesis that time constitutes the sense of being, however, it is important to underline the following point: it does not go without saying that the question of being should be framed in terms of the concept of “sense.” Even after Heidegger defines the concept of “sense” as an existential in Being and Time §33, the decision to formulate the Seinsfrage in terms of the concept of sense conceals a number of suppositions, the most important being the supposition that the manifold senses of being can be organized around or referred back to a focal sense. This supposition does not depend on the thesis that the sense of being turns out to be constituted by time. The entire problem of the sense of being, and the possibility of a science devoted to this problem, arises from the elementary fact that the sense of being is manifold; being has many different senses. It is not initially clear whether these senses can be organized around a focal sense. In nearly all of his courses both before and immediately after Being and Time, Heidegger continually reminds his readers and students that being is a pollachôs legomenon (πολλαχῶς λεγόμενον). He introduces the Seinsfrage by referring to the universally recognized, even pre-philosophically available fact that being has many senses, i.e., that the understanding of being, which constitutes Dasein in its being, is as diverse and differentiated as the kinds of being that there are.2 Furthermore, he consistently restricts the multiplicity of the senses of being to the level of beings alone. It is beings in their diversity that differentiate the sense of being and distribute it over the whole territory of beings. Nevertheless, for Heidegger, the diversity of the senses of being is never so radical as to affect the sense of being in general. The sense of being, once determined, can account for the many senses of being, for however different these senses may be both from one another and from being itself, the focal sense of being does not evaporate in mere equivocation. Being is not equivocal, and only insofar as it is not equivocal can the question regarding its sense first arise. And yet being is not univocal either. It does not always and everywhere have the same sense. Hence the problem: if being is neither equivocal nor univocal in its sense, but rather has an Aristotelian “unity of analogy,” as Heidegger put it in Being and Time §1,3 what does being mean, and how can the sense of being organize its manifold senses?

The manner in which Heidegger formulates the Seinsfrage as a question about the relation between the focal sense of being and the many senses of being in no way depends on any substantive phenomenological thesis. It is entirely Aristotelian, and can be formulated without reference to the phenomenological method or phenomenological concepts. Indeed, Heidegger sets out to demonstrate why ontology is only possible as phenomenology in Being and Time. He sets out to demonstrate why the Seinsfrage can only be raised and answered by means of phenomenology. The manner in which Heidegger formulates the Seinsfrage also does not depend on any theses about the correlation between being and time. That time constitutes the horizon for any understanding of being whatever is Heidegger’s answer to the Seinsfrage, and forms no part of the formulation of the Seinsfrage,4 which can and has throughout the history of metaphysics been raised without any explicit reference whatever to the correlation between being and time. The correlation between being and time, as the explicit and privileged object of ontological inquiry, is peculiar to Heidegger’s own project in Being and Time. Thus, I will postpone discussing the correlation between being and time until §3, in order to focus first on how the concept of sense operates in Heidegger’s formulation of the Seinsfrage in Being and Time. My hypothesis in §3 will be that Heidegger’s interpretation of time, or the way in which he understands the relation between being and time, is deeply determined by the concept of sense he employs in his formulation of the Seinsfrage. In §2, I will argue that Heidegger’s strategy for motivating the Seinsfrage consistently failed to establish the thesis that being has a focal sense that can be the object of ontological inquiry. In §4, I will conclude by suggesting (but only suggesting) that Heidegger’s thesis that time constitutes the sense of being is philosophically problematic and historically questionable. The Greeks (Aristotle) did not (not even unthematically) understand being in terms of time in the way that Heidegger suggests. Rather, I will argue, they understood time in terms of motion, and motion in terms of power (dunamis-energeia, δύναμις-ενέργεια), a fact Heidegger knew very well, and which he analyzed in many contexts, but which he consistently interpreted in ways that favor the priority of time (constant presence) over every other “horizon” of the understanding of being.5


Is the Sense of Being Given in the Understanding of Being?

Heidegger’s principal strategy for motivating the Seinsfrage – and motivating the Seinsfrage has become absolutely necessary in light of its forgottenness and obscurity (GA 2: §1, 2–4, BT: 21–24) – is to point to the fact that we already live in and therefore have an understanding of being (Seinsverständnis, GA 2: §1, 4, BT: 23). In Being and Time §1, Heidegger addresses the objection that there is no need to raise the Seinsfrage, since being “is of all concepts the one that is self-evident,” for “[whenever] one cognizes anything or makes an assertion, whenever one comports oneself towards entities, even towards oneself, some use is made of ‘being’ […]. [In] any way of comporting oneself to entities as entities – even in any being towards entities as entities – there lies a priori an enigma. The very fact that we already live in an understanding of being [Daß wir je schon in einem Seinsversändnis leben] and that the sense of being is still veiled in darkness proves that it is necessary in principle to raise this question again” (GA 2: §1, 4, BT: 23). From the fact that we live in or have an understanding of being (and, therefore, of beings in their totality), Heidegger infers that there must be a sense whose sovereignty over the many senses of being can be demonstrated. This sense remains “veiled in darkness.” The thesis that the sense of being is veiled in darkness depends on the thesis (1) that there is such a sense, and (2) that the many senses of being somehow veil its focal sense. But has Heidegger actually demonstrated that the understanding of being depends on the prior givenness of the sense of being? Not at all. From the fact that Dasein lives in the understanding of being, it only follows that Dasein understands the many senses of being, not that these senses are organized around or refer back to a focal sense, which each of the many senses differentiates in its own way.

In Being and Time §2, Heidegger once more insists on the fact that Dasein’s understanding of being indicates that the sense of being has already been disclosed to it, if only in a vague, average (durchschnittliche, vage, GA 2: §2, 5, BT: 25) manner. He first insists that “we always conduct our activities in an understanding of being. Out of this understanding arise both the explicit question of the sense of being and the tendency that leads us towards its conception. We do not know what ‘being’ means. But even if we ask, ‘What is ‘Being’? we keep within an understanding of the ‘is,’ though we are unable to fix conceptually what that ‘is’ signifies. We do not even know the horizon in terms of which that meaning is to be grasped and fixed. But this vague average understanding of Being is still a Fact” (GA 2: §2, 5, BT: 25; first emphasis mine). Here, Heidegger claims that the question of the sense of being merely renders explicit the understanding of being itself. The Seinsfrage is simply what the understanding of being becomes when the latter turns towards itself and raises questions about its content and possibility in order to discover the sense of being that underlies and determines it. The sense of being – i.e., the Erfragte, the third and most important part of the formal structure of the question of being (GA 2: §2, 6, BT: 26) – unassumingly “falls out” of the understanding of being when the latter adopts the comportment (Verhalten) of ontological inquiry.

Later in §2, Heidegger once more insists on the givenness of the sense of being in the understanding of being: “Everything we talk about, everything we have in view, everything towards which we comport ourselves in any way, is being; what we are is being, and so is how we are. being lies in the fact that something is, and in its being as it is; in Reality; in presence-at-hand; in subsistence; in validity; in Dasein; in the ‘es gibt” (GA 2: §2, 6–7, BT: 26). In this passage, Heidegger has effectively enumerated many of the senses of being he hopes to ground in the focal sense: being as reality (presence-at-hand), as existence (in the traditional sense, existentia); essence (also in the traditional sense, esssentia); Dasein (Existenz); truth. There is no contesting the fact that Dasein understands all of these senses of being. Nevertheless, once more, Heidegger has inferred from the fact that Dasein has an understanding of all of these senses of being that there is a focal sense each of these senses only declines or differentiates. All of his descriptions of Dasein’s understanding of being presuppose that this understanding would not be possible without the prior givenness of the (conceptually obscure, but nevertheless effective) focal sense of being, which binds these senses to one another and so exercises ontological priority over them all.

From these considerations, I draw a preliminary conclusion: the introduction to Being and Time does not conclusively demonstrate that the Seinsfrage can only be formulated as a Frage nach dem Sinn von Sein, because the only possible basis for such a thesis is not itself demonstrated: viz., that the sense of being is given in, and so informs the understanding of being, such that the latter would not be possible without the former. The dependence of the understanding of being on the sense of being is presupposed, but not demonstrated. Heidegger’s descriptions of the understanding of being phenomenologically yield only that Dasein understands the many senses of being, not that this understanding depends on the prior givenness of the focal sense of being. The only remaining way for Heidegger to demonstrate the thesis that the sense of being achieves givenness in, and so informs the understanding of being is to demonstrate it, not independently of the thesis that the sense of being is constituted by time (as it should have been demonstrated), but rather precisely by reference to this thesis alone, which is not demonstrated by the end of this unfinished treatise, not even by Heidegger’s own admission (I will return to this in §3). Henceforth, in order to show that being has a focal sense that determines its manifold senses, Heidegger must show that the focal sense is time, and he must show how time organizes and distributes the many senses of being. Heidegger must demonstrate in the conclusion what he could only presuppose in the introduction. This is not a circularity charge, which Heidegger adroitly disposes of early on in the introduction by oblique reference to Plato’s Meno and Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics (see GA 2: §2). Clearly, in a very general sense, in every inquiry, the object of inquiry must in some way already be given. I am not criticizing Heidegger for claiming both that we already know what being means and claiming that we have yet to discover what being means. I am claiming that Heidegger does not demonstrate the prior givenness of the sense of being in the understanding of being. In other words, Heidegger does not satisfy the phenomenological criterion of evidence. On the contrary, he infers the prior givenness of the sense of being from what is truly and alone given: the many senses of being, of which Dasein does indeed have an understanding. This understanding is given, very clearly. Heidegger’s thesis that the understanding of being depends on the prior givenness of the sense of being stems from traditional (Aristotelian) ontology, not phenomenology.6 That Heidegger must demonstrate, and cannot simply assume, that the Seinsfrage can only be posed by distinguishing between the focal sense of being and the many senses of beings is clear: his entire aim in the introduction to Being and Time is to pose the Seinsfrage and to remind his readers of what the question means, to reawaken the Seinsfrage in his readers precisely as a question of sense.


Sense, Horizon, and Time

In §§1–2, I claimed that Heidegger does not successfully (i.e., phenomenologically) demonstrate that the Seinsfrage must be formulated in terms of the focal sense of being, as contrasted with the many senses of being. There is, however, a further supposition Heidegger makes in his formulation of the Seinsfrage that cannot be passed over here: viz., that the sense of being, whatever it might be, can only be determined by reference to the “horizon” in terms of which beings are understood. The concept of the “horizon” is transcendental, and denotes an a priori condition of possibility (not in the Kantian, formal sense, but rather in the phenomenological, concrete sense of a condition that can itself be exhibited in phenomenological intuition and, therefore, evidence). An horizon gives light to whatever appears within its limits (peras), and here, what appears within its limits are beings. The thesis that the sense of being can only be determined by reference to an horizon is logically independent of the thesis that the horizon is time, however closely related these two theses are to one another in the conceptual economy of Being and Time (so closely related that we hardly ever distinguish between them). That the sense of being must be determined in terms of a horizon only means that, whatever the sense of being might be, it can only appear in the light cast by a transcendental condition. To assert that time is the horizon in which any understanding of being moves is to assert that it occupies the office of such a condition, and as such enjoys priority over being as the foundation of its sense (and, therefore, as what enables us to fix its sense). Thus, before Heidegger has even attempted to offer an interpretation of time, he has already assigned it a definite place in ontological inquiry: viz., that of a condition. Furthermore, because of the equivalence between (1) time as the horizon of the sense of being and (2) time as the horizon of Dasein’s understanding of being, the next steps of the inquiry have been clearly delineated: it must be shown that time conditions Dasein’s understanding of being. An existential analytic therefore becomes necessary. The concept of horizon interposes time between being and beings, such that beings understandingly appear to Dasein only insofar as they are temporally projected by Dasein via what Heidegger terms its “potentiality-for-being” (Seinkönnen; pouvoir-être). If (1) the Seinsfrage is formulated in terms of the focal, unified sense of being, which commands the totality of its many senses, and if, moreover, (2) this sense of being can only be disclosed, not via a definition of any sort, but rather as an horizon, and if, finally, (3) the horizon is itself defined as time, then it is only by way of Dasein’s deployment of temporality in thrown projection that the sense of being can be disclosed. In this way of posing the Seinsfrage, time enjoys transcendental priority over being, so much so that fundamental ontology becomes reducible to “temporal science,”7 where time is interpreted in an explicitly transcendental manner, due to the form of the Seinsfrage and, more specifically, the dependence of the sense of being on its horizon.

But Dasein is an entity whose sense is itself dependent on the prior givenness of the sense of being. Claude Romano has compellingly demonstrated that Heidegger’s project in Being and Time and Basic Problems of Phenomenology fails because his analysis of Dasein’s temporality ultimately yields only three senses of being, none of which can be identified with the sense of being in general. These three senses are Zuhandenheit, Vorhandenheit, and Existenz. The first two depend on the ecstasis of the present and its modification in the now (Gegenwart, Jetzt), and the third depends on the ecstasis of the authentic future (Zukunft).8 The problem is that these three ecstases, together with their corresponding schemata, do not in any way seem to converge in or disclose a focal sense, but are rather irreducibly diverse, so much so that they render the sense of being equivocal. Heidegger’s interpretation of time does not establish the focal sense of being, but only mutually irreducible senses of being. To be sure, all of these senses refer to or are based on time, but they are mutually irreducible senses of different entities, and do not disclose a focal sense that encompasses them all. I agree with Romano’s interpretation, which further confirms not only that Heidegger does not demonstrate in the introduction to Being and Time that the sense of being is given in and determines the understanding of being (and so can become an object of ontological inquiry), but also that he has not demonstrated this by the end of Being and Time and Basic Problems of Phenomenology, which contains “a new elaboration of Division 3 of Part 1 of Being and Time,” where Heidegger intended to finally disclose the sense of being in light of the horizon of time.9 Heidegger’s recognition of this failure led him to realize that his formulation of the Seinsfrage stemmed, not from die Sache selbst, but rather from the one aspect of the history of ontology that survived the otherwise radical Destruktion he carries out in Being and Time: the formulation of the Seinsfrage as a question about the sense of being, to which all other senses can be referred and in which they find their unitary ground. In the 1930s, Heidegger will abandon the project of trying to account for the sense of being by way of time. He will abandon the concept of “sense” in his formulation of the Seinsfrage.10 In the Kehre, he will focus on the co-belonging of being and time in the Ereignis, without prioritizing one over the other, according to a decidedly post-transcendental Fragestellung hinting in the direction of a phenomenology of givenness.


Being, Time, and Power

Instead of following Heidegger down the path of the Ereignis, however, I would like to briefly pursue the suggestion I made in §1. I have already explained why Heidegger’s thesis in Being and Time that time constitutes the sense of being is philosophically problematic. I would now like to explain why it is also historically problematic. The Greeks (Aristotle), I suggested, did not (not even implicitly) understand being in terms of time in the way that Heidegger suggests. Rather, they understood time in terms of motion, and motion in terms of power (dunamis-energeia, δύναμις-ενέργεια), a fact Heidegger knew very well, and which he analyzed in many contexts, but which he consistently interpreted in ways that favor the priority of time (constant presence) over every other “horizon” of the understanding of being.11 Why did Heidegger insist on the primacy of time as the unthematized foundation of ontological reflection in the West since Aristotle, if not earlier? In Heidegger’s texts, it is clear that this historical thesis rests on his interpretation of the basic categories of Aristotelian ontology. The basic thesis running through all of Heidegger’s interpretations of Aristotle is that the fundamental concepts of Aristotelian ontology are only intelligible in light of time (and, more specifically, the privilege Aristotle gives to constant presence in his interpretation of being). He frequently contends that Aristotle, together with the subsequent history of ontology up to Hegel, failed, for essential reasons, to fully appreciate the dependence of being on time, and so could not pose the Seinsfrage in the way in which, he felt, it had to be posed: viz., in terms of the relation between being and time. Heidegger’s presentation of these theses is extremely abbreviated in Being and Time §5, but it can be found in a more elaborated form in texts written both before and after. One of the clearest formulations can be found in On the Essence of Human Freedom (1930), where Heidegger examines the concepts of ousia, parousia, eidos, energeia, and finally aletheia. He interprets all of these Aristotelian concepts in terms of time and, more importantly, in terms of constant presence, and he regards his temporal interpretation of Aristotelian concepts as evidence for his own thesis that being has always been understood in terms of time, even and perhaps especially when the relation between being and time is not explicitly stated as such or even remotely understood.

It is important to remember that Heidegger does not simply regard his interpretation of Aristotle as a merely “external” confirmation of an independently, phenomenologically verifiable thesis about the relation between being and time. On the contrary, as he himself explicitly asserts: “If this interpretation of being as constant presence [beständige Anwesenheit] is not correct, there can be no basis for unfolding a connection between being and time, as demanded by the fundamental question.”12 Nevertheless, things are not so clear. Heidegger wavers. Immediately after, he continues: “Yet although Greek metaphysics as such, together with the subsequent tradition of Western metaphysics, is of great significance for our problem, its implications do not extend this far. For even if for some reason or other our interpretation of Greek ontology could not be carried through, what we have asserted as the fundamental orientation of the understanding of being could be exhibited from our own immediate comportment towards beings […] as will be shown – we humans must understand being in terms of time.”13 Here, Heidegger insists on the fundamental exteriority of any historical investigation vis-à-vis the correlation between being and time, which can, he claims, always be demonstrated independently by reference to the understanding of being, and so remain secure from history, should any “anomaly” in the history of being creep in and destabilize the required correlation between being and time Heidegger demands. Clearly, Heidegger is worried about the possibility that his analysis might not yield the required conclusion: that the history of ontology, beginning with the Greeks, has always understood being in terms of time. But he is too subtle to simply reverse his earlier statement, for he adds yet another fold: “However, the history of metaphysics provides us with more than just examples. […] [History] offers us more than a picture of earlier and superseded stages of thought. […] If we try to grasp the Greek concept of being, this is not a matter of acquiring external historical knowledge,” for it helps us show that the Greek concept of being has determined the history of ontology up to Hegel in a non-arbitrary way.14

How should we interpret Heidegger’s hesitations? He is not seeking in history a series of “examples.” Indeed, Dasein’s understanding of being must always live itself out in terms of time, and the interpretation of historical texts must always confirm this. Any historical exception is no longer a mere exception, but rather constitutes an objection to the philosophical thesis that Dasein always understands being in terms of time. In other words, Dasein’s Seinsverständnis places constraints on the interpretations of being historical Dasein has produced from the Greeks to the present. Suppose, then, that Heidegger were to demonstrate what we now know he cannot: viz., that the focal sense of being is constituted in the horizon of time and that this sense organizes all other possible senses of being. What would happen if Heidegger’s interpretation of Aristotle were to turn out not to confirm the thesis that being is always interpreted in terms of time? Would we say that this is a mere anomaly? An exception that proves the rule? Not at all. We would say that such a “disconfirmation” should be a priori impossible, given the kind of being that Dasein is and the fact that the history of ontology is but the history of various attempts to articulate what its understanding of being consists in. The trace of time as the foundation of the sense of being must leave its mark in every understanding of being whatever, from the most ancient to the most contemporary, and from the most vulgar to the most elevated. This trace can never fully be erased, however buried it might be.

Significantly, Heidegger’s hesitations about the importance of the history of ontology in confirming his thesis that being has always been interpreted in terms of time occur immediately after the section of the course devoted to the concept of energeia. Regarding the latter, he writes: “In summary, we can say that the Aristotelian concept for the actuality of the actual, i.e. the concept of energeia as well as the later concept of actualitas, determined by this, does not initially confirm our thesis of ‘constant presence’ as the fundamental meaning of Being in Greek philosophy.”15 Why? This is not immediately clear. On the contrary, everything in Heidegger’s text up to this point seems to suggest that his interpretation of energeia does confirm the thesis that constant presence is the fundamental meaning of being in Aristotle. After all, Aristotle himself, as Heidegger interprets him, correlates dunamis to apousia and energeia to parousia in the conceptual economy of metabolé, which is the essence of phusis, and which Heidegger’s regards as fundamental to Aristotle’s concept of ousia

metabolé (μεταβολή)

apousia (απουσία) parousia (παρουσία)

dunamis (δύναμις) energeia (ενέργεια)

Why, then, if energeia belongs to parousia, can there be any risk of a disconfirmation in Heidegger’s fundamental thesis that being has always been interpreted in terms of time? Here, I can only risk the following hypothesis: because the play of dunamis and energeia grounds the play of apousia and parousia (i.e., of ousia as defined by these two terms), rather than the other way around, because dunamis and energeia are more fundamental, since they ground time itself. Time is but the measure of change, and the play of dunamis and energeia are the source of all change in phusis. Time reveals itself as secondary, derivative, by comparison to dunamis and energeia, for these do not depend on time, rather time depends on them. The value of presence in Aristotle is but the value of fully manifested power in energeia. No manifest power, no presence. Energeia does not occur “in the present,” it is itself the source of any and all presencing. The word energeia denotes the manifestation of a dunamis, of an ability-to-be. In short, energeia is the manifestation of a Seinkönnen, which is also the origin of Dasein’s temporality.16 Dasein does not project into a future that is already there, but rather in projecting its own potentiality-for-being is the future. Even in Being and Time, power has priority over time, since time arises directly from Dasein’s ability-to-be. Heidegger’s reduction of energeia to parousia in On the Essence of Human Freedom is a strategic decision made in the interest of preserving the correlation between being and time, for in truth parousia is reducible to energeia. But if this is so, then we must raise questions about Heidegger’s temporal interpretation of the fundamental concepts of Aristotelian ontology, and perhaps invert the order of priority:

metabolé (μεταβολή)

dunamis (δύναμις) energeia (ενέργεια)

apousia (απουσία) parousia (παρουσία)

To conclude, I have defended two theses, one “historical,” and one “philosophical,” although the distinction between them cannot be rigorously maintained in this context. The “philosophical” thesis is twofold. First, Heidegger demonstrates neither that the sense of being is given in the understanding of being in the introduction to Being and Time nor that time constitutes the horizon of the sense of being by the end of Being and Time and Basic Problems of Phenomenology. Second, power determines Heidegger’s own interpretation of the understanding of being even in Being and Time itself: Dasein always understands itself in terms of its ownmost ability-to-be, and time is nothing over and above this ability-to-be, in all of the various ways (authentic and inauthentic) in which it can be modalized. The “historical” thesis is that Aristotle did not interpret being in terms of time. Ousia is reducible to energeia as the manifestation of dunamis, and time, despite its importance, is secondary. The concept of the phenomenon in Aristotle, and perhaps beyond, is essentially the concept of expressed power. These two theses reorient the concept of the phenomenon and the question of being in a different direction, towards the concept of power, and away from the concept of time.

Crossing: The INPR Journal

Vol. 1 (2020): 50-67


Is There a Body without Flesh?

Karl Hefty

In this paper I investigate the theme of sense and nonsense as it pertains to the phenomenological problem of “flesh.” My remarks here also respond to the two-fold, intellectual invitation Emmanuel Falque has extended to philosophy to embark into theological territory and to engage without polemic or fear in a combat amoureux over the things that matter—the things themselves. Struggle can be loving only if the work itself is motivated by a love, and a love of what we can still dare to call truth. It is in this same spirit, which I recognize and esteem in Falque, that I wish to address here the question of body and flesh that is central to his work, as it is for many others.

I will raise two main sets of questions that have been the subject of historical debate, and Falque knows them well, because they are also his questions: 1) How should we describe and understand the relationship of flesh [Leib] to body [Körper] and body to flesh? Can we give legitimate status to the materiality of the corporeal condition while maintaining the phenomenological privilege of flesh and life? Or, alternatively, should we deny the privilege of flesh in favor of a more moderate “balance” of flesh and body, and so rescue material embodiment from the oblivion to which a naive priority of flesh would consign it? 2) By extension, how should we describe and understand the relationship of flesh and body, in their phenomenality, to the theological reality of the Incarnation of the Word?17 How is the passage into theology effected in phenomenology when it is a question of body and flesh?

In a way that has not yet been acknowledged adequately, these questions bear on the relationship of phenomenology and the sciences, which also deal with “bodies,” perhaps exclusively and with greater rigor than phenomenology. What do we gain from recognizing this bearing? It is explicitly against what he perceives to be rampant Western materialism and its unilateral science that Michel Henry frames the phenomenology of life. It is also in the name of material, embodied reality that Falque objects to Henry’s approach. For reasons I will spell out in detail, and while I recognize his theological hesitations and share his theological commitments, I think Falque’s objections misconstrue Henry’s position. We have good reason to doubt that the phenomenality of incarnation, in either its philosophical or theological senses, can be adequately described by a phenomenology in which perception is ultimate.

§1. The Myth of Experience

Is there a body without flesh? The question seems as rhetorical as the inverse one Falque poses to Henry. We already know Henry’s answer: A body cannot appear, and thus be, unless it is first given to flesh. This rule applies whether I am dealing with a material body in the world or with the corps propre, my own body.18 In the one case as in the other, a body cannot appear unless it is first given to sensibility, and nothing is given to the senses I call mine unless it affects me. Apart from this affective instance, without a flesh that is impressional, I have no way of saying whether I am dealing with the front of a thing or its backside, its blue hue or hardness, girth or speed, or with its disappearance, because I know nothing about it. I can offer no description, phenomenological or otherwise. Of what would it be the description? I have no access to a thing unless it is given to me in experience, or in imagination, as composed of what is so given.19 Unless I can be affected, unless I am endowed with flesh, nothing like a body can appear and I am simply not entitled to speak of a body, not even as an idea.20

Why then ask whether there is a body without flesh if such a possibility for these decisive reasons is unintelligible? Can any further precision show the question to be worth the annoyance of posing and the labor of investigating? What is a body and what is flesh? According to the standard definition, a body in general is a material thing bearing sensible or intelligible properties—the categories of Aristotle (time, change, motion, quality, size, place, etc.), or the sensible qualities of Galileo or Descartes (extension, figure, etc.), the pure forms of intuition of Kant (space and time), or the properties of sub-atomic physics (spin, location, charge, mass, etc.). Even in the latter cases, where the properties of a body are not known through the senses, but through instruments of measurement that have been designed to detect and record what the senses cannot, senses nevertheless must intervene to “read” such instruments. The physicist that denies that our senses tell us the truth of the universe must consult the senses in some way in order to arrive at that conclusion.21

The question can nevertheless be answered affirmatively. Yes, there is a body without flesh. The universe is populated with bodies of this sort, which are what they are independently of any appeal to flesh for their appearance. First, for the strict reason that they do not appear to flesh and do not affect it directly. In itself, flesh knows nothing about them. Second, because they are what they are, and will be what they will be, whatever we may wish to assert about flesh, or even if we wish to ignore flesh, and what is given to it, altogether. It is not even obvious that someone must observe the Large Hadron Collider, since programs can be designed for that purpose, and register the events in question with more subtlety and precision than the “naked eye.” If we were smart enough, we would program those computers also to interpret the data better than we can, find errors in our assumptions, mistakes in our models, and so on. From this perspective, not only is there a body without flesh, perhaps an infinite number of them; in addition, if we are to arrive at the truth of the bodies that populate the universe, we must ignore flesh altogether.

Including our own? Nothing prohibits the positive sciences from applying the same methods to the human body they apply to the cosmos. Whether we are dealing with cell biology, genetics, neuroscience, or the other cognitive sciences, no reference to flesh is required, and it is not obvious how any discussion of flesh, in Henry’s sense, can be included in either the assumptions, methods, or results of these fields. It is true that some forms of cognitive research on so-called “live” subjects do involve prompting the subject of research to “think about” or “imagine” an object, and so forth. Through a process of trial and error, it is possible to correlate material events in the brain with reported experiences, so that eventually consciousness would be, as Daniel Dennett says, “explained.”22 What seems to be, and is called, an experience of something, is in fact, caused or occasioned by material episodes of which we are entirely unaware. Edit the episode (or what codes for it), edit the experience. Even if some are uncomfortable with the idea of dismissing human experience as entirely illusory, the scientific position is clear: the material, bodily event is phenomenal; the experience of sensing and of sensed, scientifically speaking at least, is epiphenomenal, or worse, illusory.

If such a conclusion seems difficult to accept, resolving it goes beyond the purview of science. Let politicians, therapists, pharmaceutical companies, social workers, school teachers, and prison guards deal with the consequences. Science must tell us only what is true. We must dare, precisely not to think anymore, but to experiment.23 It is no longer the philosopher who dethrones the gods of the mythmakers, but the scientist; and in the universe of science, only one god is worthy of the name. Evidence. But the etymology of the word is no longer its meaning. If e-videre means to come from seeing, here in question is not seeing, nor even what is seen, at least if that must involve and depend upon sensibility. Rather, a certain way of determining and “explaining” the material world, including what we do see, that is the arche and telos of science, the limits of its veritas and its realitas. Is the ambition of science anything but to establish once and for all a correct explanatory account of the universe in all its dimensions on the basis of an exact understanding of the causal relationships that govern its constituent parts?

In any case, we are up against a problem. We have in phenomenology a reference to flesh and to the sensing body as a necessary condition of experience and definition of reality, and the exclusion of any such reference in the natural sciences, as a condition of any experimentation and also as a definition of reality. How should one respond intellectually or practically to this apparently-unresolvable dilemma cutting the history of reason in two? On the one hand, the world of our experience, with all its sensible delight—our ambitions, aims, and hopes, fears and regrets, joys and sorrows, love and hate—this world of meaning, of sense, of value. On the other, the empirically-observable, material world of bodies visible to us, or detectable in dimensions far beyond what we can see—this material world, the better understanding of which continues to benefit humanity in myriad ways.

An objection arises: Where is the dilemma? If the visible universe is an element, and a marvelous element, of the world of experience, as of creation, then no rational person ought to resist the desire to understand the mechanisms by which it operates. Can one really suppose it to be a world of inert bodies in which no meaning, no sense, can be found? The apparent contradiction between sense and nonsense—here, the world of meaning and the world of senseless bodies— covers over another one that is more difficult. We are up against two incompatible definitions of the real. If so-called “first-person” experience cannot be reduced, and what is observed in the third-person can never be raised to the level of experiencing itself, for what kind of correlation can we hope?

§2. Embodied Mind: Thinking Matter

The opposition just posited—between the world of meaning, on the one hand, and the world of senseless, inert bodies, on the other—is it artificial or contrived? Far from being a contradiction needing resolution, are these worlds not already, originally and always, conjoined, as Merleau-Ponty has taught us? Flesh is a body that is part—a body-part—of this great body that is the universe (we leave aside the question of whether another, or an infinite number of others, is possible). Flesh, the living, sensing body, is a constituent part of the universe, even if it has raised itself—but why “raised”?—to the level of self-awareness. Admitting the worldly nature of flesh does not require us to nullify or diminish the realm of meaning, the so-called “space” of reasons. “Meaning is not a mysterious gift from outside nature,” John McDowell reminds us; to think so would commit us to a “rampant platonism.”24 Cognition, and the mind as such, is “embodied.” In its acts of knowing it need neither be absorbed by nor separated from what it knows, but is or at least can be “simply present and available.”25

In significant continuity with Merleau-Ponty’s work, a growing field of research now seeks to demonstrate the thesis that the fleshly body is a worldly body, and to do so while respecting the prerogatives of both phenomenology and science.26 To take one notable example, Evan Thompson in Mind in Life aims to integrate phenomenology and cognitive science in an “enactive” approach that promises to describe and explain at once: “Starting from a recognition of the transcendental and hence ineliminable status of experience, the aim would be to search for morphodynamical principles that can both integrate the orders of matter, life, and mind, and account for the originality of each order.”27 Once a dynamic morphology of sufficient complexity is recognized—made possible by new topologies, differential geometry, etc.—it is possible to “map,” and then to demonstrate, dynamic and isomorphic relations that arise between physiological systems and perceptual forms.

The effort to achieve such a demonstration, Thompson thinks, would have been embraced by Merleau-Ponty, had a morphology of sufficient richness and complexity been available to him. From this perspective, the remove at which classical phenomenology stands vis-à-vis science, emblematic of Husserl’s Krisis (to say nothing of Heidegger’s position), is not a matter of principle, but only a contingent, conceptual constraint, bounded as it was by the limits of the sciences then-available.28 In any case, if Husserl thinks it is the task of phenomenology to assign the sciences their ultimate meaning, it cannot accomplish this task unless a genuine connection arises between phenomenology and the sciences it purports to ground. Otherwise, phenomenology amounts to little more than a series of one-sided assertions and pronouncements about the world of experience, which the world of science can safely ignore. But if the results of the sciences can be altered by taking into account phenomenological insight, as advocates of this approach have shown, then the sciences cannot afford to ignore it.

How should we account for this development phenomenologically? How is it possible that a phenomenological analysis according to the strict phenomenological reduction of what is given in intuition, far from providing the antidote to materialism, naturalism, or reductionism, is now enriched by it, to the point of morphing into a “naturalized phenomenology”?29 We should not fail to notice that protagonists of the enactive approach refuse “objectivism” quite explicitly, and insist on the irreducible, transcendental character of “experience” as the condition for the possibility of the appearance of any object. In addition, and this point is perhaps more important, we are not dealing with a conflation of methods or perspectives, since the engagement with science goes hand in hand with and is predicated upon the insistence on the importance and irreducibility of the phenomenological perspective. One might reasonably consider such an approach to offer a kind of concrete synthesis of mind and world, rather than the a priori one Kant sought.

If the world of experience is irreducible to the world of science and yet integrated with it, is that not what we ought to expect and indicative of a certain correctness? Or, alternatively, in order to effect such an integration of phenomenology and science, has the concept of experience, necessarily, become a concept of scientific experience alone? Or, yet again, are we dealing with a Malebranchean parallelism that is simply harder to detect because the lines now overlap, or intertwine, to use Merleau-Ponty’s word? What is involved in the reduction of experience to scientific experience (that is, the experience of the scientist) and what are its consequences? I will offer three objections, which will lead us into a more refined and direct engagement with the question of flesh and its relation to the body before opening onto a theological question.

First, properly speaking, I do not and cannot have an experience of my neurons as objects. It is true that I can connect my own scull, let us call it le crâne propre, to a brain scanner, and vary my thinking as I watch correlating parts of my brain light up on a screen. On the basis of such correlations between my thought and my body, can I ever claim to have an (original) experience of my neurons as sensible or intellectual objects? It would be a reflective experience, and nothing would keep me from learning something perceptually about my body in this way. But what I observe on the screen is not my body and can never be, at least if by body we mean the original, subjective body in its original givenness to itself, its auto-affection, or pre-reflective awareness.

Second, if what I observe is not my body, but only a visual representation, can we say that the correlation has proved successful, that we have evidence for it? Even if one embraces the brilliant level of engagement of phenomenology with science, even if one were to achieve the perfect accord of carnal affectivity with the perception of the body, the problem of principle remains: these are two irreducible orders of givenness, of phenomenality. A fundamental practical problem also remains: Imagine a real-time projection of every dynamic alteration of the organic body flashed on a optic lens, available to the concrete perception of my eye—visible. Is it even possible to perceive, organically, the immense complex that is the organic body, all in one view?

A third and parallel objection can also be raised. The possibility of such a perception is highly-specific, and more often than not, prohibitively expensive. What is given in it goes well beyond what is given in the range of perceptual experience available to anyone. If the notion of what is phenomenal—and, even more, its phenomenality—however broadened and enriched, is available only to one who has already entered into the scientific perspective, and if such a perspective excludes in principle the subject that perceives, feels, or enjoys, then such an approach can indeed admit perception, feeling, or enjoyment, but only on the condition that they become what they are not, which is to say, reports of a perception, feeling, or enjoyment. The problem is not that such reports can be mistaken, which in any case might prove relevant for the experiment, but rather that, in the phenomenality of such a report, the original phenomenon is torn from its original givenness, apart from the world, in order to disclose it in a visibility that is foreign to it. Yes, the scientist engrossed practically in an experiment, or theoretically in the effort to design or modify a model for what is observed experimentally, also perceives—that is, sees through forms, however rarified they may be. But experience has here been reduced to scientific experience. It can be extended to the universal—taken as universal experience—only by a decision.

If many suspect the world of science and with it virtual reality, automation, and so-called artificial intelligence have encroached too far, it is because the lifeworld as living has been colonized by technology.30 That is why those who adopt it, who prefer to experience the world or themselves as mediated by technology, risk losing knowledge of the world or themselves apart from it. “The information age will be the age of idiots,” claims Henry in 1987.31 The orgasm-feigning robot that will cater to your every wish, or discipline you as programmed, perhaps when you least expect it—or can it learn that you expect that?—is indeed a body without flesh. “Life is but a motion of the limbs… why may we not say , that all Automata… have an artificiall life?”32

§3. Touching Flesh: Sensing Nonsense

In light of Michel Henry’s phenomenology of life and its critique of scientism, such a decision stands out in all clarity, but in order to admit it must we follow his characterization of flesh as originally auto-impressional? For Henry, the reality of flesh is invisible, irreducibly and in principle. In its original givenness, where it is given to itself as auto-impressional and the only place its givenness is original, it does not and cannot appear in the exteriority of world. Nor can flesh be extended to the world in the manner of Merleau-Ponty’s touching-touched, sensing-sensed, feeling-felt chiasm.33 Endowed with a power the world forever lacks, the hand that is touched, when it is a question of one’s own body, can become the hand that touches. That is correct. But the in-principle reversibility of touching and touched that characterizes the living body does not extend to the material world. No coffee cup “touches” the hand that holds it, nor has a stone ever picked up the hand that throws it.34 The ontological duplicity that distinguishes phenomenologically the body of flesh from the worldly body seems unassailable.

But have we lost the body in its worldly reality in the process? Emmanuel Falque thinks so.35 In his view, Henry’s thesis concerning auto-affection, and originary flesh as auto-impressionality, fails to account for anything like the body, or the embodied condition as we actually experience it, in “flesh and bone,” as he says: “[N]othing indicates, beyond his masterful descriptive analyses, that there is a genuine access to the body through the flesh. Put otherwise, everything happens as if the flesh, that is to say the experience of our own life, becomes so invasive here that we would come to forget that it is possessed and even experienced, at least materially and visibly, in and through a body.”36 For Falque, the flesh that is ours is not only seeing but also visible. It can indeed be seen and touched. This visibility is not simply one way of access to flesh, and to flesh that is ours, but the first way of access.37 We experience and possess flesh also through our body; and there is no flesh, for us, that we cannot also see or touch.

Falque and Henry thus offer two quite distinct conceptions of flesh that seem incompatible. For Falque, Henry’s flesh “disincorporates,” “absorbs,” and ultimately “destroys” the body, and with it all the “thickness” of what is felt.38 After all, “it is also necessary to recognize the weight of our own body (and its kilos, we dare to say!) without which this pain [of a steep climb, for example] would never be experienced” (157).39 What phenomenological reality would such a pain have, if not for the fact of the body’s quite material weight, which does not simply explain or measure the pain at a causal level, as the reference to kilos might suggest, but is also involved in the very fact and event of it? Falque certainly must have the phenomenality of weight in mind, precisely its heaviness, and not only the relative scientific measure of a primary quality.

On the other hand, there is no question that in Henry’s approach only an auto-impressional flesh can experience its own heaviness or lightness. I feel the weight of another not perceptually, by seeing it, but only and at most when the other (the other’s weight) is quite strictly bearing down upon me. But even in this case, I do not feel the weight of the other, properly speaking—that is, its heaviness for the other, which remains strictly invisible (an object not of sensibility, but impressionality). Its impressional status does not make it inhuman. Quite the contrary. For Henry, the heaviness or lightness of flesh can be felt only because it is capable of feeling itself, and a worldly body—the strict concept we all have in mind when we speak of a worldly body—is not so capable, even if it can be assigned a weight value. For Falque, heaviness or lightness can be felt only by a flesh that also weighs something, and thus also bears the properties of a worldly body. Otherwise, how can we say that is its own heaviness? I think such a question motivates Falque’s objections. The phenomenology of incorporation, and not only of incarnation, has its own legitimacy, but seems impossible if the phenomenological distinction of flesh is not first admitted. Of course, we can question whether kilos, to use one of Falque’s examples, is an essential characteristic of the body, or only of its relation to the earth. The physicist will speak of gravity, but not flesh, and nothing keeps gravity from serving as a total principle of explanation in a so-called “unified theory.”

In Henry’s perspective, I do not experience the “weight” of my body, which strictly speaking is an abstract measure. Rather, I experience, as a resisting continuum, the resistance of the body I am; and I experience fatigue in my effort to overcome it. A worldly body, from this angle, experiences no such resistance or fatigue, but friction and entropy. Moreover, the fatigue of my flesh is not fatigue at a distance, but my own proper exhaustion. If the weight of my flesh is felt, it is felt because my flesh feels it in itself, not because it senses it at a distance, as a sensed body. I can always form the intention of the object “weight,” assign it to my body, which I also see, and appeal to my perception of the weight and the body to gather these two distinct objects together in a unity. But no fatigue is felt in such a perception, since fatigue is affective. I feel the fatigue, before I have a perception of it, and whether or not the thought of it ever crosses my mind. That is why, for Henry, the flesh is auto-impressional, without any reference to the sensed body.

In my own view, though I do not pretend to have fully demonstrated it here, I think Henry’s position is necessary if Falque is to have what he wants, which is the body in its visible, material, incorporated reality—and to have this together with flesh—in a way that also supports a genuinely theological conception of incarnation and incorporation. Moreover, I think Falque gets a deeper version of what he wants if he embraces Henry’s perspective, for only what transpires in flesh can account phenomenologically for what we “observe” in the living body, not only the phenomena of birth and growth in the mundane sense, but also of distress, sorrow or joy, which do not register visibly in the body at random, but account phenomenologically for, indeed explain, what so registers (the lines of distress in a face, tears of joy upon seeing a loved one, etc.).

§4. Eyes of Faith: Flesh of the Theological

These questions as far as they go remain phenomenological and do not depend upon articles of faith. Nevertheless, Falque correctly detects in Henry’s Incarnation a liaison between Part II and Part III, between the phenomenology of flesh stricto sensu, and Incarnation in “the Christian sense.” Here, Falque advances a second principle objection and a positive claim: “[N]othing ensures, at least in reading Michel Henry’s work, that the divine incarnation in a flesh pure and simple [Inkarnation] also expresses the becoming human of God [Menschwerdung]… Only a theology of the body or of the purely organic, rather than a unilateral phenomenology of the flesh, will be able to produce the identification, frequently avoided by Michel Henry, between the carnal incarnation of God and his historical and corporeal humanization in the figure of the incarnate Word.”40

Falque seems to suspect that Henry subsumes “Incarnation in the Christian Sense” under a general and also inadequate phenomenology of incarnation.41 Far from providing an account of incarnation in the Christian sense, Henry’s phenomenology of life glosses over it and renders it equivalent to the fleshly condition of anyone. At best, Revelation becomes a mere moment of phenomenology, rather than the absolute Transcendent.42 What is worse, it can hardly be called “incarnate” or even “human,” since it is fundamentally dis-incorporated. Flesh without body, in this precise sense, is finally a gnostic flesh, as a-corporal as a-cosmic. It is neither Christian nor human. “A monadism and a modalism of the Henryan flesh would thus become all the more dis-incorporated as the body would be destroyed and absorbed into it.”43

In response to this precise objection, let us consider more closely a text that Falque cites in support of these claims and that seems to invite the charge of Spinozism. Henry describes the living person [vivant] as “no more than a mode of it [auto-impressionality]. In other words, it is something that has no consistency by itself, but only as a manifestation, modification, or peripeteia of a reality that is other than it.”44 Read one way (as Falque reads it), this passage seems to deny the integrity of creation, and to assert a strange, if not to say false, relation with an a-cosmic, unworldly, dis-incorporated reality. One cannot even say it is a relation of dependence, which would already imply a consistency of its own, but rather a relation that merely, as Spinoza might say, expresses the absolute. If Henry means what Falque thinks he means here, Falque would be right to reject it. But I think Henry is saying something else entirely, and a better understanding of it will also shed light on Falque’s other objections.

I read Henry’s phrase, “has no consistency by itself,” with Augustine rather than Spinoza in mind. If Henry means that apart from Life and, in a deeper sense, apart from God’s own life given in Christ, human living dis-integrates, and lacks unity or consistency, then Henry’s claim is impeccably phenomenologically and theologically precise. Neither here nor elsewhere does Henry turn finite flesh into a dis-incorporate epiphenomenon lacking all reality. Nor does he claim it is only a “mode” of absolute life in the manner of Spinoza. Henry is claiming, instead, at least three things: 1) Finite flesh is not autonomous absolutely. The pretense to be itself on its own, by its own power, is illusory.45 It cannot give itself its own law if it cannot give itself its own life. 2) Flesh can be a site in which life manifests itself, or alternatively can be a site where life is denatured. Whether one or the other eventuality ensues is, in part, a function of the kind of relation flesh maintains with the life that gives it to itself. 3) Infinite Life, strictly speaking—insofar as it brings itself about in itself [se porte soi-même en soi]—is, with respect to finite life, an alterity, “a reality that is other than it.”

Here we have a fundamental distinction between finite and infinite flesh, an alterity not reducible to the alterity of the finite other. It expresses in phenomenological terms what the creature-creator distinction expresses theologically. As fundamental as it is, however, that distinction does not destroy the fundamental relation that is creation. But Falque does not see this distinction in Henry, or does not find it strong enough: “There is a distance in the relation of the human to God… that is not identical to the distance of sin.”46 For Henry, once again, finite life cannot “bring itself about in itself.” The power to give life, even life to itself—a power at infinite remove from any human power—it forever lacks. I am not “my own” life and will never be. Is this not, in fact, the orthodox concept of creation? God is Life and the giver of life, and all the living bear a relation to God by virtue of their living condition.47

It is not simply creation that Falque finds missing, but also an orthodox concept of incarnation. Somewhat surprisingly, he suspects that Henry denies that the Son of God has taken on the human condition in every way but sin. Where Henry writes that the “one who took on flesh in Christ was not an ordinary man but the Word of God” (160 / 69, Falque’s emphasis, citing Incarnation, 231 / 331), Falque interprets Henry as denying that Jesus was born in human likeness, just like any of us, with a carnal body of visible matter. But here again nothing prohibits us from reading this differently. The one who has taken on human likeness in the man Jesus is not just anyone, is not you or me, but rather the One who is in himself the Word. Of course Jesus is a man like any other, but he is not only a man like any other, since he is in his person the very Word of God. Falque wants to compliment an emphasis on the “exemplary” with an emphasis on “the ordinary life and common fleshly humanity of the Son of God.”48

In addition to an adequate conception of the humanity of Jesus, it is also the uniqueness or singularity of the incarnation that Falque wishes to safeguard. Now citing “the philosopher” Merleau-Ponty: “the Incarnation changes everything.”49 And Falque is right. Incarnation in the Christian sense does change everything. But Falque thinks incarnation in Henry’s sense, like the astral flesh of Marcion, or the angelic flesh of Jakob Böhme, cannot “change” anything, strictly speaking. How could it if the auto-impressional flesh it involves is forever a-temporal, invisible, dis-incorporated, and thus entirely unlike the temporal, visible, bodily appearance of the Word made flesh, which in the words of John, “we have heard… we have seen with our eyes… we have looked at and touched with our hands”?50 If we are to affirm these words, as we do, must we not side with Falque against Henry on this point? The theology Falque wishes to preserve is not in question here, but only the phenomenology, and thus the conditions under which (the way) the revelation of God in Christ comes to manifestation.

How does the affirmation that the Word was made flesh in a flesh like ours go together phenomenologically with the theological singularity of the Word made flesh, indeed its primacy? For as we have seen, it is not just any incarnation in question, in your flesh or mine, but the incarnation of the One who is the Word. To be more precise, how must we describe, following Nicholas of Cusa but this time phenomenologically, the co-incidence of the following two apparently-irreconcilable opposites: The man Jesus is both seen and heard, and rejected as God by many?51 Can a phenomenology that starts with visible body tout court do it? We should avoid any hasty appeal to faith to explain the difference between acceptance and rejection. Falque’s intuitions are correct: it is not only the eyes of faith that see God in Jesus, but the sensible eyes of the body, and also the intellectual “eyes” of those who contemplate him.

But by insisting that the one who sees Jesus—i.e. sees him “bodily”—does indeed perceive God in the flesh, has Falque left any room for those who wish to deny it, as many did and still do? After all, they do not reject what they see, a man in space and time, visible like any other. Nor is it a different man, but the same one his followers also see. What they reject is that this appearing man is God. (In this precise respect Falque claims about the priority of the body are correct. In the order of historical time, they see Jesus first, before some come to believe he is the Christ.) But can the humanity of precisely the Word made flesh be recognized as such by appealing first or exclusively to the visibility of it, where the meaning of “flesh” is blended with, and finally phenomenal as, the visible body? How then could we come to terms with the invisibility of the Father? In the Johannine text, Jesus says: “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me… Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father.”52

By refusing the phenomenological privilege of invisible, auto-impressional flesh, not just the experience of flesh or life, but flesh as it undergoes experiencing itself—is Falque committed to an exclusivism of the sensed?53 Not necessarily. He does not refuse the fact of an invisible dimension of flesh, but refuses it priority, and refuses to sever its (visible) bond with the irreducibly visible, the “spread body.” He refuses the notion that flesh is invisible alone, sensing alone, touching alone, in favor of a view that it is also, and at the same time, visible, sensed, and touched—which is to say, is also body. Of course, at one level, Falque’s claims are entirely legitimate. This “thing” I call my flesh “is” also this “thing” I call my body. The distinctions Henry and others make between the subjective body, the living body, the organic body, the objective body, and so on, these are phenomenological declinations of the body as such. The body, as such, “is” their unity. But only in flesh and as flesh is that unity self-given. It is not given in its original phenomenality either in perception or in sensibility.

If we wish to follow Merleau-Ponty’s path, as Falque does, either we must remain in an ontic register that denies the fundamental, original, phenomenological irreducibility of visible and invisible, world and life, and finally flesh and Life, or we must enter into theological territory and with eyes of faith recognize these twos as ones. One can offer a kind of phenomenology from faith, as Emmanuel Falque does so well, but one can also wonder whether, because this is a phenomenology of faith and from the perspective of faith, it is theology more from “from above” than “from below,” despite everything. “Eyes of faith” here means, minimally, hearing the Words of Christ and believing, and maximally, participating fully in sacramental life. If we remain in the realm of sense perception and confine our understanding of these realities to the sheer ontic unities of flesh and body, body and world, flesh and world, we seem committed to a theologically- and phenomenologically-questionable materialism. If, instead, we understand seeing as seeing in the light of faith, we must admit that it is faith that gives the incarnate unity in question, Word and flesh, and Word made flesh. In the order of perception, it is faith and not sensibility, or better faith with sensibility, that gives the unity in question. The one who denies that Jesus is Lord also sees Jesus, or could do so. In seeing Jesus they also see the Lord, and deny him. But they do not deny what they see, Jesus.

Without the duplicity of appearing, one has either a kind of ontic phenomenality, so to speak, or faith. But then he phenomenality of faith, properly speaking, would seem to remain out of reach, since the sensible has already, of itself, been so fully loaded with faith. It is a way of thinking the unity of faith and phenomenological reason, but perhaps one that risks compromising something of both. The theologian must still bear the burden of describing phenomenologically what life means, and what it means for that Word to give its life for the world, for you and for me, what it means to live with it and in it and from it, to “participate” in precisely that Life and no other, and to be made able to do so. I am not confident all this can be done on the basis of the phenomenality of the world alone. Of course, I understand “world” here in Henry’s sense and not that of Merleau-Ponty, and an objection to the position I am sketching here might find in that fact a point of dispute.

The charges of Gnosticism and Spinozism, in any case, are misapplied and ultimately unhelpful, at least when it comes to what clearly becomes the trajectory of Henry’s final writings on Christianity. Like Kierkegaard says life must be lived, Henry’s writings on Christianity must be read forward, but can only be understood backward. Life does not save me from the world, nor do I need saving from it. It simply gives itself otherwise and differently than what the world gives and how the world gives. The givenness of the world (as much as of the body and its bones) is and remains a givenness, but never a self-givenness. This is a phenomenological claim, not a soteriological one. The two should not be confused. But the decision to limit one’s understanding or definition of reality to the unilateral exteriority of the world may indeed have soteriological implications. We may never come to terms with what faith means, what faith is about—to say nothing of creation, which is not a mere concept but also reality itself—if we remain so limited.

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A word remains to be said about the engagement of phenomenology with science and its place in these reflections. That area of study has its own merit, legitimacy, and interest. The protagonists of such research deserve enormous praise, with two small qualifications. First, the effort to correlate first- and third-person perspectives risks slipping to a kind of scientism if only those correlations ground the phenomenality and phenomenological legitimacy of experiencing undergoing itself in flesh. The phenomena arising in flesh are proper to flesh. The varying worldly vestiges of it, including its practical action, illuminate only what a world can be (including the world of science). They do not give or illuminate or justify what is given in flesh in itself, which has its own phenomenological integrity. Secondly, and for a related reason, science will never prove God (and here we mean “science” and not “reason”). Nor will it ever prove, for example, that Jesus is Lord. “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”54 None of this can count in any way as a failure of science, but only as a difference from phenomenology, and in another way, a difference from faith.

Falque’s phenomenology of flesh and bone is clearly distinct from Henry’s phenomenology of life, and the distinctions between them merit further investigation. I share the same theological commitments as Falque, and I hold in high regard the profound spirit of his theological vision. These objections are only about phenomenology, and in a secondary way about how phenomenology relates to Christian faith, tactically speaking. I suspect that ultimately Falque’s objections to Henry presuppose that one has already refused Henry’s basic theses concerning phenomenality and the duplicity of appearing. But new questions can also now be posed, this time to Falque: Does the phenomenological priority of the body to the flesh assume a theological acceptation of the body as sacramental, and thus as theologically meaningful, as significant? If so, should we not understand this to be a sacramental phenomenology? And if that is the case, does it presuppose and depend upon the eyes of faith, or even sacramental experience, for its phenomenality? In my view, the further development of the phenomenology of life may also go in a sacramental direction. Henry himself invites it, and it is not clear that a rapprochement between their positions could not be found there.55

In any case, one cannot avoid being struck by the subtle moments Falque expresses thanks for the reprieve that arrives when Henry admits a kind of “transcendent” life. But Falque does not put much stock in it. Why? Because admitting it, he thinks, would make of Henry’s work a total contradiction and destroy its most important theses. But I think Falque and with him almost all readers of Henry have missed something very important. The phenomenology of life Henry finds in Christianity is not reducible to his own. Henry discovers in Christianity a depth (of life) that offers more than his own phenomenology on its own can provide, a depth which later involves a reproach that overturns the entire affective economy and the world of ethics it presupposes. If we must turn to Words of Christ to see its contours and extent, nothing prohibits us from reading Henry’s final text, in part, as a response to Falque’s objections. If that is in any way the fruit of a combat amoureux, for this we can also thank Emmanuel Falque.

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