What’s So “New” About New Phenomenology?
In this short post, I aim to explain some of the basic ideas and arguments in the new book that I co-authored with Bruce Ellis Benson:
The New Phenomenology: A Philosophical Introduction
Despite having been a descriptor used by Hermann Schmitz to describe a distinct approach to phenomenology (see Gesellschaft für Neue Phänomenologie), by “new phenomenology” we mean specifically the work of five French philosophers: Emmanuel Levinas, Michel Henry, Jacques Derrida, Jean-Luc Marion, and Jean-Louis Chrétien. Although much has been written on some of these thinkers, very little has been written on why their philosophy ought to be considered collectively as offering a coherent trajectory. That this is the case is certainly understandable when one considers the important differences among the complicated texts of these thinkers. Indeed, just to name some of the issues figuring centrally in their thought: Henry talks about phenomenological methodology, Marxism, and social critique; Levinas attempts to think through ethical subjectivity, transcendence, and testimony; Derrida addresses philosophy of language, democratic theory, and embodiment; Marion wrestles with the conditions of givenness, models of God, and the importance of charity; and Chrétien is concerned with listening, speaking, and limitation. Why, then, would we choose to consider them as a coherent group? Our suggestion is that by doing so we overcome one of the more problematic tendencies in contemporary continental philosophy: focusing more on individual thinkers than on philosophical problems.
By considering new phenomenology as a philosophical trajectory with shared basic theses offered for consideration, new phenomenology can become a more successful interlocutor with debates in mainstream philosophy of religion, political philosophy, aesthetics, and so on. Although individual new phenomenologists might be more relevant to this or that debate, it is helpful to be able to consider what this approach in general might make possible. Ultimately, then, we believe that new phenomenology is of more than merely historical interest, but stands as a live option well worth taking seriously today.
So, what, then, is so “new” and important about new phenomenology? We suggest that there are a few basic ideas definitive of new phenomenology:
- A concern for phenomenality (or the conditions under which phenomena are possible).
- An appreciation that description is never detached from normativity.
- A sensitivity to interrogating philosophical limits, which leads to a focus on excess, transcendence, otherness, etc.
- A willingness to engage in discourse that comes quite close to theology.
- An affirmation of the primacy of relationship (to the Other/God/Event, etc.) rather than self-sufficiency.
In light of these basic ideas, what might new phenomenology offer to the contemporary debates? Well, in the first place, given that new phenomenology has been chided for failing to be phenomenology at all (as Dominique Janicaud suggests, it might just be revealed theology), considering it as a coherent trajectory allows us to wrestle with the scope and limits of phenomenology itself. Our suggestion is that new phenomenology illustrates that “classical” phenomenology (that characterized primarily by Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger) has always been defined by a commitment to openness and, as such, never introduced such hard limits as has sometimes been assumed. Indeed, one of the main concerns of all phenomenologists is to outline what “phenomenology” itself would entail. As such, phenomenology is a contested idea from the outset and such contestation and openness yield a robust philosophical methodology that invites innovation in valuable ways.
Second, given that the specific charge is that new phenomenology is really just theology, attending carefully to new phenomenology can open important new spaces for thinking about the old question of the relationship between philosophy and theology. Our suggestion is that the key difference between these two domains, for the new phenomenologists, amounts to the type of evidence that is recognized by each. Whereas theology allows for sacred texts, ecclesial proclamations, and religious experience to count as authoritative, phenomenology, as phenomenology, does not. Importantly, this overcomes the idea that philosophy is somehow objective and neutral as compared theology’s subjective bias and partiality. This allows us to argue that new phenomenology is rightly considered not only philosophy, but phenomenology. But, it is phenomenology that engages philosophy of religion and philosophical theology in productive ways. As such, new phenomenology helps to demonstrate that all discourse and all inquiry reflects the normative commitments and the historical decisions of those operating internal to the community in which the discourse and inquiry occurs.
Finally, the way in which new phenomenology complicates the relation between description and normativity is helpful for making sense of the task of ethical theory and social practice. For example, new phenomenology offers good reasons to defend democracy, at least as an idea, insofar as it understands social life in ways that resonate with the essential contestation and openness characteristic of phenomenology itself.
Ultimately, rather than giving in to the temptation to consider these French philosophers as “continental” as opposed to “analytic,” say, our hope is that by seeing them as new phenomenologists, we will better be able to draw on whatever resources might be available for dealing with the questions at hand. New phenomenology expands conversations in philosophy of religion, political philosophy, ethics, aesthetics, etc., only if we see it as already engaged in the conversations that are presently occurring. By considering it as a coherent philosophical trajectory, rather than a loose collection of disparate thinkers, we aim to make the case for such engagement.