An influential and polarizing thinker on the French and Anglo-American intellectual scene, Jean-Luc Marion has both his devotees and his critics. As a member of l’Académie française as well as a leading figure in the “new phenomenology”—designating a phenomenology associated with an openness to the theological—his thought has enlivened debates within, and also between, phenomenological and theological discourses.
His central concepts and phenomenological method offer an ambiguous resource for political theology: on the one hand, he articulates a rigorous method of doing phenomenology which is trained to remain open to phenomena historically ignored and marginalized, and on the other hand, his own conclusions can veer towards a Christian triumphalism which is in danger of betraying the primary aim of his philosophical project. In order to understand how these two sharply divergent ways in which Marion can be read and utilized politically, it is first necessary to get a basic grasp of his larger phenomenological method and aims.
Marion’s philosophical enterprise is directed by two primary motivations: first, the propulsion to show the possibility of all phenomena appearing as entities proper to philosophical inquiry and secondly, the desire to free phenomena from all idolatrous restraints. In order to bring the two concerns together, Marion must provide a means by which he can justify the entrance of all types of phenomena (including those deemed “excessive”) into philosophical discourse without subjecting those phenomena to a set of conditions for their appearance there.
Marion’s need to provide this justification is, in large part, a product of the historical and geographical context within which he was writing: the secular university in France (especially after the student revolts of 1968) which demanded an incredibly strict separation between the state and religion and which was explicitly hostile to anything theological within the academy. At the same time, he situates his thinking at the end of metaphysics and shares Heidegger’s critique of onto-theology.
He argues that a certain school of phenomenology, in refusing to admit the possibility of excessive phenomena, is “powerless to receive a number of phenomena for what they are—givens that show themselves… [further] it excludes from the field of manifestation not only many phenomena, but above all those most endowed with meaning and those that are most powerful” (Marion, Being Given, 4). Consequently, in order to risk the inclusion of more excessive phenomena, Marion must provide his philosophical undertaking with a methodology which can claim to be both universal and rigorous (certain, indubitable, unquestionable) qua method without importing any metaphysical implications inherent to the method.
Marion objects to the a priori, methodological decision to forbid the thinking of events, experiences, and visions which happen to us, specifically as phenomenal—“to forbid phenomenality to what claimed it” (Marion, Being Given, 5). His concern is that if we predetermine the limits of what can and cannot appear as a phenomenon, restricting the field of possible phenomena to those things that can be objectified or adequately conceptualized, then we exclude those phenomena whose very significant impact on our lives often exceeds that which we can conceptually control or manage. These excessive phenomena “saturate” or overwhelm our cognitive capacities such that we cannot properly understand or define the phenomena.
Marion’s second primary thrust is against idolatry, broadly construed. For Marion, despite the theological freight of the term, “idolatry” refers to the constraining of any phenomenon within limits alien to the way it gives itself, or shows itself. Most particularly, it is idolatrous to define the phenomenon according to one’s own subjective conceptual limitations.
This naturally raises the specter of the theological in Marion’s phenomenology: is the move to a methodological openness to all, even the transcendent, a way of smuggling God back into a discourse governed by laïcité?
The short answer is yes. However, Marion defends the appearance of the term “revelation” within his phenomenological writing by drawing a distinction between outlining a theoretical possibility for revelation (what he claims to do in this work) and making a claim as to its historical actuality or “truth”. Marion’s method neither inexorably leads to, nor forbids outright, the theoretical possibility of the appearance of “theological” or “transcendent” phenomena.
His entire corpus–the Cartesian studies, works on aesthetics, theological writings, as well as his “pure” phenomenological work—should be understood as an attempt to think outside of these idolatrous binds. Characterizing Marion’s thought as “apophatic” is a short-hand way of signifying his fundamentally critical stance towards the subjectivist hold on modern philosophy and his attempt to escape conceptual idolatries in both theology and phenomenology. Idolatry refuses to recognize excess or plenitude, but an appropriately apophatic stance begins in response to this excess.
So far, we have identified Marion’s philosophical motivation and aim. What, then, is his method and central concept?
Marion explicitly places himself within the Husserlian trajectory of phenomenology, though one radically opened beyond the limits Husserl himself articulated. There are two markers for phenomenology: first, it employs the methodology of the reduction and second, it returns to the “things themselves”. Husserl’s transcendental reduction indicates a “bracketing” (epoché) of all but that which is evident in consciousness; or better, a suspension or putting “out of play” of all but that which “gives-itself” there as a phenomenon of consciousness.
Marion broadens the method so that the sole horizon is that of givenness. According to Marion, no transcendental consciousness intervenes with its constituting intentionality (Husserl), nor any Dasein with its existential particularities and embeddedness within a world (Heidegger). Instead, only the givenness of the “things themselves” as they appear, or more correctly, as they give themselves to appear, remains. All else is bracketed in a radical reduction to givenness.
Marion contrasts the criterion for grounding knowledge in science and metaphysics versus that in phenomenology. In the former it is a question of “proving” which “consists in grounding appearances in order to know with certainty”. On the other hand, with phenomenology it is no longer a question of “proving” but of “showing”. This implies “letting appearances appear in such a way that they accomplish their own apparition, so as to be received exactly as they give themselves” (Marion, Being Given, 7).
This leads inevitably to the central methodological tenet of Marion’s thought: one’s conceptual treatment (including judgment, analysis, description) of a phenomenon must not begin from our own preconceptions of it, but rather as the thing in question presents itself. There is an inversion of the usual starting place: rather than an act of intentionality which seeks the fulfilment of an intuition, phenomenology must start instead from the phenomena itself which is freed from the limits of all subjective conceptual framings and horizons.
By limiting the power and authority of the individual knower, Marion grants greater agency and sovereignty to the phenomena themselves, insofar as the give themselves to be seen.
Marion’s most well-known concept is the “saturated phenomenon” which he frames with a discussion of the constitutive elements of any phenomenon. He returns to the Kantian-Husserlian definition of the phenomenon as a matching or equating (adequatio) between that which appears and the appearance as such, between one’s “concept” and the fulfilling “intuition” of it (adequatio intellectus et res). However, with the former philosophers, the intuition of an object is matched almost always insufficiently to our concept or meaning of it. Marion challenges philosophy to consider another possibility: an inequality between the two resulting not from a lack of intuition in relation to the concept that organizes it, but rather resulting from an excess of intuition in relation to what our concept is able to contain.
The reception of such a saturating phenomenon, Marion is clear, is overwhelming. The one who receives, or is “gifted” (l’adonné) by, a saturated phenomenon is struck by the force of the phenomenon, is unequal to its force and, thus, unable to direct or manage its reception. Whether love or a historical event, whether the sublime or abysmal, or revelation, the saturated phenomenon is blinding, unbearable, and absolute.
Herein lies the central pivot point of Marion’s thought: One might interpret this correctly as an epistemic humility and attention to all that comes while leaving oneself out of the equation and liberating phenomena from the colonial structure of objectivity. (See Negative Certainties for examples of this language, especially, pp. 162-3, 166, 171.) Or one might be tempted, as Marion himself occasionally is, to see an opportunity here to proclaim the undeniability of Christian revelation when it arrives. (Marion makes this argument explicit in Givenness and Revelation. It is also the cumulative argument of a collection of essays written over the span of his career under the title: Believing in Order to See: On the Rationality of Revelation and the Irrationality of Some Believers).
Until recently, Marion has not explicitly worked in political theology, though he has at times waded into political commentary. Asked in Catholic journals—La Croix in France and America: The Jesuit Review in the US—to comment on the consequential elections of either country in 2016 and 2017, Marion explicitly stated that there was no “Catholic candidate” in either political campaign, by which he means no candidate that a Catholic could support wholeheartedly. However, he is also clear that it “is reasonable” to support Macron over Le Pen and the National Front as the latter associates France with the far right and its “dark past in France”. Furthermore, while critical of the “unrestrained globalization” of liberalism, which he associated with both Clinton and Macron, he is explicitly critical of French secularism (laïcité) as functioning as a barely veiled “shameful Islamophobia” (notre anti-islamisme honteux). At the same time, he advocates for an open France that, nonetheless, is not multicultural, but should be able to enforce a kind of assimilation—a statement obviously in tension with his critique of secularism.
Most recently, he made the argument in Brève apologie pour un moment catholique that, not only do Christians produce the best citizens for society as they are not interested in earthly power and are honest hard workers (it is unclear what evidence he is drawing on here!), but also that French culture is facing a crisis of decadence and nihilism which Christianity (i.e., Catholicism) alone can counter (see Brève apologie, 84, 46-7). Such explicit political commentary has been quite controversial, with some of Marion’s readers wishing he did not veer so far away from his phenomenological work.
However, Marion’s phenomenology—with its insistence on a return to the “things themselves” or to phenomena which gives themselves to appearance on their own terms—also has important, if similarly ambiguous, implications for any political theology. To give one example, we can consider Marion’s treatment of the human being in Negative Certainties. There, and elsewhere, he argues that the danger in providing an objective definition of the human is that, once defined, certain groups can be found wanting according to that definition, excluded, non-human or sub-human, and thus exterminable.
Defining man by a concept does not always or immediately lead to killing him, but it does fill the first condition required to have done with all that which… does not fit this definition.Marion, Negative Certainties, 27
To define the human (or “man” as Marion insists on using) is inherently dehumanizing in at least three ways: it turns the human into a medical object reduced to the quantifiable and measurable function of the body; it reduces the human into an economic agent whose primary purpose is to efficiently produce and insatiably consume; and finally, it reduces the human into a political object whose identity is determined and authorized by the state who issue a passport number, social security number, birth certificate, etc.
This discussion of the dangers of defining the human demonstrate the ambiguity of Marion’s thought succinctly. On the one hand, he is precisely correct in his worry that defining the human according to their “papers” enables a whole class of people who are undocumented (sans-papiers) to be treated not merely as second-class citizens, but as sub-human—locked up in cages and denied their basic rights. Increasingly, the status of the refugee as undocumented will be the human rights crisis of our time. Marion’s phenomenology helps us to see the precise danger of this.
On the other hand, not only do his comments about the reduction of the human to the medical object, carry a specifically conservative Catholic agenda about the events of birth and death, but one could also argue that there is a danger of insisting on the indéfinition of the human. By denying the definition of the human, one could also argue that Marion unintentionally promulgates the continued denial of the substantive identity of groups of humans that have been historically ignored and unseen. Likewise, his emphasis on the total passivity of the human in receiving the saturated phenomenon betrays incipient struggles for agency and voice in subjects historically unheard.
Nonetheless, regardless of his own political slant, Marion’s phenomenology provides a method for thinking of the things themselves that holds itself open to an inclusion of all phenomena; moreover, an inclusion of that which arrives on its own terms, starting from the phenomena themselves rather than limited to what the subjective knower can handle or wants to recognize. His phenomenology of givenness and saturation offers a model of intellectual discipline: a practice of epistemological humility tied to an attitude of open curiosity and attention to what(ever) comes to call our response.
Marion, Jean-Luc. God Without Being. Translated by Thomas A. Carlson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.
This early work of Marion’s introduced him to an Anglo-American audience. Starting with an acceptance of Nietzsche’s pronouncement of the “death of God” and Heidegger’s critique of onto-theology, Marion attempts to articulate a non-metaphysical view of God.
______. Being Given: Toward a Phenomenology of Givenness. Translated by Jeffrey L. Kosky Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002.
Marion’s clearest and most thorough articulation of his phenomenological project. Drawing on his reappraisals of Kant, Husserl, Heidegger, and Derrida, Marion develops the phenomenological method of a reduction to givenness wherein phenomena appear unconditionally and upon their own initiative rather than within the horizon of the knower.
______. Negative Certainties. Translated by Stephen E. Lewis. Religion and Postmodernism. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 2015.
At the heart of Marion’s critique in this book, is his concern about the cost of certainty: the reduction of entities to objects. Ultimately, for Marion, to be an object is to be an entity which is determined not by and from itself, but by and from the mind that knows it. Challenging our modern assumptions about knowledge as necessarily predicative and positive, Marion here develops an argument for our ability to know things with certainty, but only negatively and non-objectively.
______. Givenness and Revelation. Translated by Stephen E. Lewis. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2016.
A publication of Marion’s Gifford Lectures (2014). Here, Marion gives an account of Revelation according to his phenomenology of givenness. He also offers a sustained analysis of the “saturated phenomenon” as it relates to central theological concepts in Christianity: the Trinity and Incarnation.
______. Believing in Order to See: On the Rationality of Revelation and the Irrationality of Some Believers. Translated by Christina M. Gschwandtner. Perspectives in Continental Philosophy. New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2017.
A collection of essays spanning Marion’s career on the topic of the relationship between faith and reason.
______. Brève apologie pour un moment catholique. Paris: Bernard Grasset, 2017. Forthcoming in translation: A Brief Apology for a Catholic Moment. Translated by Stephen E. Lewis. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 2021.
A short and relatively accessible work presenting Marion’s views of what it means to be a Catholic in France, but also more broadly in relation to secular culture and politics.