Interview with James Faulconer

Scott Sprenger
Department of French and Italian, Brigham Young University
Provo, UT 84602

James Faulconer, Professor of Philosophy and former Dean of General Education and Honors at Brigham Young University, has written numerous articles and books on modern European philosophy, including his recent volume (with Mark Wrathall) Appropriating Heidegger (Cambridge University Press, 2000). Professor Faulconer has taught philosophy at the University of Louvain in Belgium and has recently spent a year-long sabbatical in Paris. The purpose of this interview was to elicit Professor Faulconer’s observations on what he considers to be the main currents of French philosophy.

S.S.: Your area of expertise is contemporary continental philosophy and you have recently returned from a year of study in Paris. How would you characterize recent philosophical trends in France? What are the main issues?

J.F.: Of course, French philosophy is not homogenous, with everyone working on the same or even related problems. But I think it fair to say that a large part of the discussion in France today is dominated by people who are interested in what is called “the problem of transcendence,” or “the problem of otherness,” another way of saying the same thing. Most of the issues that one could mention cluster around that problem. There are several ways one could put the problem, but perhaps the simplest is to ask, “How can I speak of that which is genuinely other than myself?” At one level, this is the problem of signs, and this is the way that Jacques Derrida first deals with it: If the things to which our signs point always transcend the words by which we point to them (and, clearly they do), how do we have access to those things?

In this connection, notice that though many in the U.S. have read Derrida’s discussion of signs as a kind of skepticism about the world, he is in fact not arguing that we do not have access to it beyond language. He is trying to help us wonder at the fact that we have that access, and he accomplishes that wonder by pointing to the problem of signs.

But the problem of signs is not the only way to talk about the question. The questions about the relation between ethics and philosophy that Emmanuel Lévinas raised are questions about transcendence or otherness, as are some of the most recent discussions of perceptual objects and whether we can encounter the “thing in itself.”

S.S.: After observing the French scene first hand, how much of what is currently being debated there is filtering into American academic circles? What are American philosophers picking up on? What are they missing or ignoring?

J.F: My general impression is that the generation of American philosophers and critics who cut their teeth on structuralism and poststructuralism, say, those who are now in their 40’s to 60’s, tend to continue to work on the figures associated with those movements, such as Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Kristeva, Deleuze, etc. In North America it isn’t unusual for those who think themselves on the cutting edge of theoretical matters to actually be discussing works that are now thirty to forty or more years old. Foucault’s, Derrida’s and Deleuze’s most-cited works, for example, were published in 1960’s and early 70’s. Although these thinkers continue to be important and well worth reading, one could reasonably argue that a number of thinkers from the 40s and 50s have been neglected and should be reconsidered. The work of de Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty are cases in point. I should say that there has been a recent renewal of interest in the work of Henri Bergson from the early twentieth century.

Nevertheless, the philosophers and texts that captivated so many during the 90s and remain at the center of a considerable amount of North American discussion did not begin the conversation of which they are a part and they certainly were not its end. To read Foucault or Derrida or Lyotard or any of the other French philosophers who are often taken up in North American without paying attention to their origins or to the contemporary conversations on transcendence to which they led is to misread them–not only to misread them in the sense in which we always misread a text, but to misread them as one does when one does a profound injustice to a text.

Though something of the contemporary discussion is getting across the Atlantic Ocean, such as Lévinas’s and Derrida’s interest in justice, I think we usually miss the context that gives that discussion meaning. And we know little of the directions that discussion has recently taken. For example, we are only just now beginning to hear about the “theological turn” in French philosophy, though Lévinas started it in the 60s and Dominique Janicaud criticized it in 1991, and little is known of the re-evaluation of Husserl that has been going on since at least the 80s. (Rudolf Bernet is especially important to this re-evaluation.)

S.S.: Vincent Descombes argues in his well-known book, Le même et l’autre, that contemporary French philosophy (by which he means Sartre through the poststructuralists) has been influenced primarily by German philosophers—what he refers to as the three H’s: Husserl, Heidegger and Hegel, although Nietzsche also figures in the mix. Do you subscribe to this view? If so, how does this French-as-German model explain the recent “theological turn” you just mentioned? Descombes’s book was published in 1979, just before this “turn” began in full force, so it does not at all figure in his scenario.

J.F: I agree in large measure with Descombes. From 1933 through 1939, Alexandre Kojève, a Russian émigré, taught a seminar on Hegel at L’École Pratique des Hautes Études that made him one of the most important influences of twentieth-century French intellectual life. Among its attendees were André Breton, Georges Bataille, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Pierre Klossowski, Raymond Aron, Jacques Lacan, Raymond Queneau, and (I think) Jean-Paul Sartre. (Oddly, though most of these thinkers are, at least from an American perspective, to the left politically, it is the American political right that has been influenced by Kojève through Leo Strauss and his student Alan Bloom, as well as through Francis Fukayama.) Kojève’s seminars, especially his reading of the master-slave dialectic in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, raised questions that became the center of a great deal of discussion and thinking.

Edmund Husserl and his student, Martin Heidegger, were also very important to French thinking in the 40s and afterward. Though no one event or person brought Husserl to the attention of French thinkers, it makes sense to say that the then relatively unknown Lévinas’s publication of his dissertation, Théorie de l’intuition dans la phénoménologie de Husserl (1930), made an important contribution to French interest in Husserl. Husserl was very important to thinkers like Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, among others. Especially in the beginning, French thinkers tended to read Husserl through Heidegger’s eyes because Lévinas’s dissertation is written from a clearly Heideggerian perspective.

Heidegger’s influence is obvious in Sartre. L’être et le néant (1943) owes its title to Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927), though Sartre’s book is as much influenced by Husserl and by Kojève’s Hegel as by Heidegger. Heidegger’s work was also influential on a great many other French thinkers, especially beginning in the 50s. Jean Beaufret was perhaps most responsible for bringing Heidegger’s work into the French intellectual scene, which in turn occasioned at least one of Heidegger’s most important works.“Letter on Humanism”(1947) was written in reply to questions from Beaufret as a response to Sartre’s L’existentialisme et un humanisme (1946).

Though none of these three figures was what one might call a “religious thinker,” each was concerned with the problem of transcendence, and the turn to religion quite clearly grew out of the interest in that problem.

S.S.: To follow up, who would you add to Descombes’s model to round out the picture of signficant influcences on current French philosophical thought?

J.F.: There can be no doubt that the two most important influences on French philosophy from the 40s on were Husserl and Heidegger, or we might even say “Husserl through Heidegger.” They remain influential today. But perhaps the other important influence on French philosophy during the last twenty or thirty years has been Emmanuel Lévinas. A student of Heidegger who was repelled by Heidegger’s activities during World War II and also a student of Franz Rosenzweig and the Talmud, Lévinas initiated a new discussion in French philosophy, that of “the other,” and introduced the question of the relation between l’autre and l’autrui. Of course, as Vincent Descombes showed some time ago (Le Même et le autre, 1979), in an important way this interest in otherness does not begin with Lévinas. There is a strong sense in which that theme has been an important to French philosophy since at least Kojève. (It is certainly an important part of his reading of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic.) Nevertheless, there is a clear shift in direction with Lévinas’s work, Totalité et infini: essai sur l’exteriorité (1961), a shift sufficient to call it a new development: the other as transcendent, as interruptive of being; ethics (which means “relation to others,” not “rules for acting well”) as foundational to ontology.

Not every contemporary French philosopher is a Lévinasian. Far from it. But except for those doing philosophy comparable to Anglo-American philosophy (such as Jacques Bouvaresse), no one seems to have been able to escape dealing with the question that Lévinas raised—how am I related to that which transcends my world, the other? Lévinas is an often unnamed influence, but he is nonetheless there in the work of thinkers like Derrida (who explicitly refers to Lévinas’s influence in his 1967 works), Jean-Luc Marion, Jean Greisch, Didier Franck, Jean-Louis Chrétien, Francois Courtine, and Michel Henry. Paul Ricoeur, perhaps the most important living French philosopher, has responded to Lévinas in his last two major works, in Soi-même comme un autre (1990) and, to a lesser degree, inLa mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli (2000).

Of course, as I said, Heidegger and Husserl continue to be important figures in French philosophy, both through Lévinas and others, and in their own right. Recently a number of philosophers, such as Françoise Dastur and Natalie Depraz have returned to Husserl taking him up as an important and independent thinker, rather than through Heidegger’s interpretation of him.

S.S.: What do you think it is about Lévinas’s thought that contemporary French philosophers find so useful?

J.F.: Lévinas makes explicit what had only implicitly been a theme since the 30s, namely otherness, and he does it in a way that brings philosophy itself into question. In essence, Lévinas asks, “If knowledge is ultimately a matter of relation to an other outside of me, that is transcendent of my experience, then isn’t the ultimate instance of knowledge the knowledge of another person. And if that is the case, doesn’t that mean that ethics—by which he means ‘relation to another’ rather than ‘rules for good behavior’—is more fundamental than any philosophizing, such as ontology (the account of being)?” Lévinas shows that a radical questioning of philosophy had been lurking in French philosophy since at least the 30s.

Lévinas also creates what Janicaud calls the theological turn by using a religious vocabulary to talk about transcendence. Like Ricoeur, Lévinas wants to avoid depending on religion to make philosophical arguments. Lévinas is adamant about that; he wants his work to stand on its own as philosophy—and Janicaud’s charge is that he does not succeed. Whatever the case with Janicaud’s criticism, Lévinas focused thinking on the question of transcendence as an ethical/political question at least as much as a metaphysical question, and he at least raised the question of whether religious language and ideas can be used as a philosophical resource for talking about the problem of transcendence.

S.S.: To come back for a moment to Derrida, why do you suppose most American intellectuals seem to be more interested in his linguistic questions than the religious ones, although he seems to claim that the two domains are intimately connected.

J.F.: That’s an excellent question, to which I don’t know the answer, though that won’t stop me from speculating. It may be because of the nervousness American intellectuals often feel about religion. Those who think themselves more scientifically-minded often begin with the assumption that religion is little more than superstition, perhaps nothing more. Beyond that, the Enlightenment’s prejudice against prejudice has had a powerful effect on American as well as European thought. Religion requires that we begin with some pre-judgments, that we recognize something as authoritative, and the Enlightenment taught that we should question all authority.

For me, the irony is that much late twentieth-century French philosophy gets read in North America as if it were merely one more version of the Enlightenment and its attack on authority and pre-judgment. Those who read Derrida as a nihilist attacking all meaning and authority, whether they read him that way and condemn him or adopt him as a philosophical avatar, make that mistake.

S.S.: Evidently several contemporary French philosophers such as Michel Henry and Jean-Luc Marion are “believers” in Catholicism. Do you agree with Dominique Janicaud’s position that it is contradictory for them to philosophize from a religious perspective? How do such philosophers justify the use of religionphilosophically?

J.F.: I’m not sure. That is a question that occupies a good deal of my reading and thinking right now. Of course, Janicaud has argued that they cannot justify their use of religious ideas and vocabulary in philosophy. (He makes the argument inLe tournant théologique de la phénomenologie française (1991) and more indirectly in La phénomenologie éclatée (1998)). Janicaud was one of my teachers and I have a great deal of respect for him, both as a person and as a philosopher, but I don’t know how much I agree with him. If, as he argues, thinkers like Lévinas and Marion are merely turning phenomenology into a theological enterprise, then I agree with his criticisms. The question is whether they are, and that question is an important part of current discussions in French philosophy.

Marion is explicit about his desire to show that religious revelation, specifically the revelation of Jesus Christ, is a phenomenological possibility. (See Étant donné, Essai d’une phénoménologie de la donation 326.) Of course, Marion goes further than only arguing that revelation is possible, though he does not argue for the actuality of divine revelation. He goes further by arguing that the possibility of revelation gives us a new understanding of phenomena in general. Thus, though he does not think that he makes theological assumptions, he does think that religious phenomena can show us a new way of understanding phenomena and, so, ought to inform phenomenology.

Similarly, Henry is explicit about looking to Christianity for a new understanding of what phenomenology is. The question is whether Marion and Henry can do that without beginning from theological concepts and methods. Janicaud argues that they cannot. In contrast, Marion and Henry argue that an analysis of religious phenomena show us things that we will not see otherwise and that have something to say to us about how to do phenomenology. And they argue that their analysis of religious phenomena stands on it own, without requiring that one be a believer.

Perhaps an analogy to science can help us understand this debate: Creationism claims to be able to give a scientific account of the origins of the physical world that is in harmony with the Genesis account. A creationist account can be accepted as science if—and only if—it can stand on its own as a scientific account. In other words, creationism is science if and only if it gives an account of the origins of the earth that doesn’t call on the authority of scripture or use religious beliefs as assumptions. That requirement is not a rejection of religion, it is true by definition: science gives explanations in mathematical and physical terms, without reference to religious ideas. That is its strength as well as its limitation. Science cannot deal with that which cannot be described adequately using only the assumptions and tools of science. Creationism has failed to give an account that confines itself to the methods, terms, and assumptions of science, so it must be rejected as science.

Similarly, philosophers like Marion and Henry can be said to be doing phenomenology if and only if their accounts do not require that we begin with religious assumptions. That requirement has come to be part of the definition of philosophy over its 2,500 year history. It remains to be seen whether Marion’s and Henry’s accounts avoid beginning with religious assumptions.

Some of Marion’s more recent work, such as “Le phénomène saturé” (1992) and “L’événement, le phénomène et le révélé” (1999) clearly attempt to make Marion’s argument for the possibility of religious revelation without taking recourse to religious assumptions. For Marion, the Christian discussion of icons and idols and their difference gives us a way of thinking about how it could be possible to claim to have had an experience of the thing-itself. Marion gives us an account of how it is possible for there to be phenomena that go beyond any accounting one can make of them using a Kantian framework. In other words, there are phenomena, called “saturated phenomena,” that can only be understood as the appearance of the thing in itself. Though the Christian’s experience of the divine in worship is the model that Marion uses, that model applies to art and aesthetic experience, as well as to ordinary events.

On the other hand, though Henry does not argue that one must be a believer to see the perspicacity of his analyses, he does refer—from the beginning and unapologetically—to Christian texts as sources for his ideas. In both C’est moi la vérité, Pour une philosophie du christianisme (1996) and Incarnation, Un philosophie de la chair (2000), he argues that the Christian understanding of the body contests the Greek understanding of it, but that the Greek understanding has given us the way we think about the body. Thus, only if we take recourse to Christian ideas can we have a different understanding of the body, and the different understanding that Christianity gives us opens a new way of understanding phenomenology and philosophy.

In contrast to Marion, Henry’s focus is not so much on Christian experience as it is on Christian doctrine. He argues that early Christianity was insistent on the importance of the incarnation of Christ to Christian belief. In fact, it was so insistent that both Greeks (which includes the Romans) and Jews found Christianity unthinkable, the Greeks because it was so absurd to believe that a god had been incarnate; the Jews because such a belief was not only absurd, but blasphemous. In Incarnation Henry argues that the point of the Council of Nicea was primarily to defend Christianity against the claims of the Gnostics, who, in a variety of ways, denied the incarnation of Christ. The doctrine of the Trinity was not developed in answer to a philosophical question about the unity of God, but in response to the problem of Gnosticism.

Thus, Henry argues that Christianity is deeply concerned to preserve the importance of the body to human experience—unlike Greek thought or Jewish thought, the two kinds of thinking against which Christianity defined itself. That emphasis on incarnation means that Christianity can offer us a way to think about human being that is radically different from the ways that the philosophical tradition (which is Greek) has thought about it. (See Incarnation 11-35 for one place where Henry makes this argument explicit.) Henry argues that thanks to the Christian tradition, we can rethink human being by not focusing on mind and will, but on pathos, on the fact that, as embodied beings, we are affected. Our ability to feel pain, sorrow, and joy, things that cannot be reduced to will but only to affection (in the strict sense of that term), are what define us as human beings, not our minds and wills.

Even non-religious thinkers like Derrida have recognized the importance of religion to their thinking. Derrida “does not pass as someone religious,” as he says, but he recognizes the similarity between some of his work and negative theology and he recognizes that the questions he is concerned with are parallel to, if not the same as, the questions that arise in religion.

Many of those dealing with the question don’t just talk about religion. As are Marion and Henry, many are themselves religious, for example, Ricoeur, Chrétien, Greisch, and Franck. A number of these religious thinkers ask, “Doesn’t Christianity have resources for thinking about transcendence that give us alternatives to the ways of doing so that we find in traditional philosophy?” Those who ask this question are not arguing that one must be a believing Christian in order to do philosophy. (Though Franck has said that, in the end, all philosophy is Christian philosophy, I don’t think he meant that only Christians can do philosophy. I assume that he meant, instead, that philosophy as we know it has been defined by, among other things, Christianity.) Instead, those who ask this question are arguing that, in dealing with its issues, Christianity—especially primitive Christianity, the Christianity of the New Testament—thought in ways that we can use as models for thinking about the problem of transcendence, whether of the referents of signs, of things in themselves, or of divine beings.

The question is whether they can use that resource without turning philosophy into theology. I have to say I don’t know the answer to that question. Some days I think it is possible; other days I think Janicaud is right.

S.S.: Throughout the modern period Kant has been very influential in French academic philosophy. What role does Kant play in the contemporary discussion of transcendence, religion, etc.?

J.F.: Kant has been important to French academic philosophy for a variety of reasons. For example, he is important to anyone interested in Hegel because Hegel was trying to overcome the gap between the world and ideas that Kant creates. You cannot understand Hegel’s “solution” if you don’t understand the “problem” that Kant created.
Kant is also important to someone like Jean-François Lyotard because Kant raised the question of what makes knowledge legitimate. If we can describe postmodern or poststructuralist thought as a critique of the Enlightenment, and I think we can, Kant is important as the culmination of the Enlightenment. Postmodern thought doesn’t try to go beyond the Enlightenment to some new form of thought, but to question it from within, as we see in Lyotard: if we our knowledge claims are confined to the phenomenological world, as Kant argues, and cannot refer to anything transcendent as justification, then what justifies them?

In both cases we can summarize the ways that Kant is important by saying that he creates the problem of transcendence as we know it. In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant responds to the radical skepticism of David Hume by arguing that we can have objective knowledge. We can know that we are experiencing phenomena and that those experiences will be regular in a variety of ways. Kant’s argument is that, because such things as multiplicity and cause-effect are necessary to experience—without them experience is not possible—we can know that there are such things. We can have objective knowledge because we can know those things that constitute the objects of experience, the phenomena. However, Kant argues, those things like multiplicity and causality are not necessarily part of the thing itself.

When I touch my chair and experience it in time, as a totality, and as being part of various chains of cause and effect, I am having an experience that I can verify through the experience of others. In other words, I can know about that experience, about that object, that phenomenon. However, according to Kant, though I assume (and cannot but assume) that the experiences I have are correlated with the things that give rise to those experiences (with the things themselves), I cannot get “behind” or “before” my experience to check out that correlation. Therefore, I cannot know that the thing itself gives rise to the experiences I have, though I assume that it does. My experience of the thing (the phenomenon) can be known objectively, but it doesn’t follow that the thing itself can be known objectively. Notice that when we talk this way the words object and thing do not mean the same. The object is that which we encounter in experience. It is that which appears as a phenomenon. The thing, the thing itself, is that which is behind the experience. Presumably, the thing is that which gives rise to the experiences we have, but though we can know those experiences, we cannot know what comes before experience.

Kant’s discussion was revolutionary. It not only dissolved the problems of Humean skepticism, it provided a foundation for Romanticism, and much of contemporary French philosophy has interesting parallels to and roots in nineteenth-century German Romanticism. The question of how the thing in itself (including the ego itself, which, like other things, Kant argues we do not have direct access to) is related to the world and to the human subject is the question of transcendence. That question is at the heart of a good many discussions in contemporary French philosophy, from discussion of how the sign is related to the signified to how I am related to another person.

S.S.: Bernard-Henri Lévy recently published a several-hundred page study of Jean-Paul Sartre, The Century of Sartre, in which he argues that Sartre is without doubt the most influential French philosopher of the twentieth century. He also makes the case that many of the major philosophical positions adopted by late twentieth-century philosophers are already present in Sartre’s work—including a return to religion (and to Lévinasian philosophy) in the last few years of his life. How would you react to this claim? Did you notice any return to Sartre in France? Do you personally see anything salvageable in Sartre?

J.F: I’m embarrassed to confess to a gap in my education. I do not know Sartre’s work that well and, so, cannot respond to your question adequately. My impression is that Lévy’s book was well-received and much discussed and that there are, indeed, those who are taking another look at his work.

S.S.: To conclude, can you suggest a few titles of “must reads” for students interested in contemporary French philosophy? What are in your view the 5 or 6 most significant works published in the last ten years?

J.F: This is a difficult request, so let me make it a little simpler by merely suggesting some books that would help a student interested in a better of understanding what we’ve been discussing. Of course, that means I’m going to recommend more than only five or six books.

Colin Davis has written a good introduction to Lévinas’s work, Levinas: An Introduction (1996), and Simone Plourde’s Emmanuel Lévinas. Altérité et responsabilité (1996) is excellent. Of course, if you really want to know what Lévinas is doing, you must read his work, at least Totalité et infini (1961).

I’ve mentioned Janicaud’s work, Le tournant théologique de la phénomenologie française (1991) and La phénomenologie éclatée (1998). Both of these are important to understanding the argument over what phenomenology is and for thinking carefully about the questions raised by thinkers like Lévinas, Marion, and Henry. Jean-Francois Courtine edited a book of essays by Marion and others that serves as a kind of reply to Janicaud: Phénoménologie et Théologie (1992).

Someone interested in Marion might look at L’idol et la distance (1977), or Du sûrcroit (2001), but perhaps the most important book to read would be Étant donné, Essai d’une phénoménologie de la donation (1997). For shorter pieces, I especially think that the two essays I mentioned earlier are important, “Le phénomène saturé” (1992) and “L’événement, le phénomène et le révélé” (1999). In them Marion tries to make his case in what is clearly a straightforward philosophical way. For seeing what Henry is doing, beside Incarnation (2000), I recommend C’est moi, la vérité (1996) as good books for understanding what Henry is doing.

Ricoeur’s work isn’t part of the debate we’ve focused on, but it is very important. The series that begins with La métaphore vive (1975), moves to the three volumes of Temps et récit (1983. 1984. 1985), and ends with Soi-même comme un autre(1990) deserves considerably more attention than it gets in North America.

As for other important thinkers in contemporary French philosophy, not all of them involved in the discussions I’ve talked about, let me suggest names to watch for rather than particular books: I’ve already mentioned Rudolf Bernet, Françoise Dastur, and Natalie Depraz. To that short list, add Jean Greisch, François-David Sebbah, Béatrice Han-Pile, Jacob Rogozinski, Monique Schneider, Alain David, Rémi Brague, Eliane Escoubas, Michel Haar, Jean-François Courtine, and Guy Planty-Bonjour. I’m sure I’m leaving out any number of people whom I should mention, but that list will give students a good idea of the variety of philosophical thought in France today.

#2002#James Faulconer#Scott Sprenger#Vol. 1 Issue 1 Fall 2002