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Jean-Luc Marion, Givenness & Hermeneutics. Trans. Jean-Pierre Lafouge. Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Marquette University Press, 2013; 80 pages. ISBN: 978-0-87462-598-1.

Review by Maxwell Kennel, Conrad Grebel University College

Presented and published as the 2013 Père Marquette Lecture in Theology, the short book Givenness & Hermeneutics is one of several recent English translations of Jean-Luc Marion’s work, including The Reason of the Gift, Negative Certitudes, In the Self’s Place, and Descartes’ Grey Ontology. Better known for works such as God without Being and his trilogy on phenomenology (Being Given, Reduction and Givenness, and In Excess), Marion has also published two new books in French in 2012, Figures de phénoménologie (Vrin), and Sur la pensée passive de Descartes (PUF). Laid out in a facing-page bilingual edition, Givenness & Hermeneutics is divided into six brief sections: “How to Start?”; “Not Intuition, But Givenness”; “Givenness Never Gives Things”; “The Given Never Gives Itself Immediately”; “Interpretation”; and “Four Hermeneutic Moments in Givenness.”

Marion begins the first section by addressing the phenomenological reduction and the question of “whether we can and if we must admit an irreducible, whatever it is.” (9) In response to this query, he questions the necessity of the reduction for phenomenology insofar as that reduction is without exception, or without the admission of an irreducible. For Marion, the irreducible is indeed the rich concept of givenness, and this givenness is the central motif of his work within and beyond phenomenology. Suggesting that we must decide between the absolute necessity of reduction for phenomenology and the presence of an irreducible exception within phenomenology, he decisively argues for the latter. Assumed in this decision is the transcendental and metaphysical status of the reduction, which itself is essential for phenomenology. For Marion, the intuition of bare essences is possible only through the reduction, and yet the givenness of these essences is itself irreducible. George Nakhnikian notes in his introduction to Husserl’s The Idea of Phenomenology that more primary than the simple inside/outside understanding of immanence and transcendence, is the understanding of “intentionally inexistent essences,” which are immanent to pure intuition via their “self-givenness” or Selbstgegebenheit. (Edmund Husserl, The Idea of Phenomenology, Nijhoff, 1964, xvi) Marion identifies the irreducible as givenness backed by a close reading of the concept of intuition in the first volume of Husserl’s Logical Investigations in his own work Reduction & Givenness. For Husserl, the only limitation entailed by the reduction is the limitation to self-givenness. Stated more directly, “Absolute givenness is an ultimate” (Husserl, The Idea of Phenomenology, 48–49; also cited by Marion in Reduction and Givenness, Northwestern University Press, 1998, 33).

After setting the stage, Marion begins to respond to the debate regarding the relationship between phenomenology and hermeneutics, a debate with which the remainder of the text is concerned. In the second section, “Not Intuition, But Givenness,” he points out that the givenness of the Heideggerian “it gives” (es gibt), over against the “it is,” occurs without “context, without pre-text, and without hermeneutics.” (19) Furthermore, givenness becomes more primary than hermeneutics “because the word alone gives and givenness is fulfilled in words” [la donation s’accomplit en parole]. (19) Marion then concludes the section with the statement that “givenness seems to contradict and to prohibit any mediation, any hermeneutics,” with the operative word being seems, as the reader will discover later in the text. (19)

The third section, “Givenness Never Gives Things,” then names Jean Grondin, Jean Greisch, and Katherine Tanner as those who have levelled the hermeneutic critique against the supposed fetishism of givenness. This list should also include Richard Kearney, who is named as a hermeneutic critic of Marion by Shane Mackinlay in the second chapter of his book on Marion, Interpreting Excess: Jean-Luc Marion, Saturated Phenomena and Hermeneutics (Fordham University Press, 2010). The hermeneutic critique of Marion’s attribution of purity to givenness is not clearly presented in Givenness & Hermeneutics, at least not in a way that is readily accessible for readers entering the discussion anew. Instead, Marion gestures towards his critics, and quickly clarifies that givenness in no way prohibits hermeneutics, while pointing out that givenness cannot be reduced to production or efficient causality. Citing Heidegger, Marion states that his critics assume “the incompatibility of the phenomenality core [sic] with the differentiated enunciation of its figures of meaning.” (21) For Marion, to say that givenness gives an object with a univocal meaning is to play into the hands of the previous assumption, and also to fall into the trap of thinking that givenness occurs in a productive and efficient way.

At this juncture Mackinlay is helpful, especially where the history of the debate between phenomenological givenness and hermeneutics is concerned. The critics of Marion’s givenness, mentioned above, are troubled by the description of givenness in terms of purity. Marion’s general response to the hermeneutic critique is to say that givenness requires hermeneutics rather than prohibits it, and even contributes to a sort of “endless hermeneutics” or “infinite hermeneutics.” (59; references can also be found in In Excess) This response, however, is not satisfying to the hermeneutic critic because according to Mackinlay endless hermeneutics “refers to epistemic acts that interpret the meaning of a phenomenon after it has already appeared: The actual appearing of the phenomenon is fully accomplished independent of any such interpretations of its meaning.” (Mackinlay, Interpreting Excess, 35) Mackinlay then points out Heidegger’s distinction between hermeneutics as an epistemic activity, and the more originary sense of hermeneutics as being expressed in fundamental ontology, as an existential “structural dimension” of Dasein (Mackinlay, Interpreting Excess, 36).

Within the debate, if givenness is pure and un-interpreted, or univocal in an a priori sense, then hermeneutics is prohibited because true hermeneutics does not merely champion the importance of epistemic interpretation, but rather sees interpretation as being ontologically essential, and perhaps even ontologically given. The criticism, then, is that Marion’s work too cleanly places the pure and unconditioned givenness of phenomena before the givenness of phenomena that are always already interpreted and interpretable. In a way, even this presentation of the debate still allows givenness to remain primary, while stripping it of its purity.

In the fourth section, “The Given Never Gives Itself Immediately,” Marion addresses the “non-mediated” nature of givenness, or givenness outside of the being of objects. (25, 29) For Marion, objecthood and givenness are fundamentally different: “The given can be thought only in its irreducibility to objecthood” (31). After making this distinction, Marion also distinguishes givenness from immediacy, with the given being an “unconditioned and inherent factum” and immediacy referring to sense data, and presumably its appearance to perception. (31) Accusing his critics of remaining too much in the realm of the immediate, Marion suggests that givenness is not primarily immediate, but rather “gives itself in perfect facticity.” (31) For Marion, the immediate givenness of an object involves meaning, but still not a hermeneutics until sense data is mediately recognized after the fact. (37) While addressing the criticism on the part of hermeneutics, he in some ways still relegates the interpretation of the meaning of given objects to being an a posteriori operation, rather than an inherent aspect of immediate ontology. In yet other ways Marion posits givenness as an “enigma” which is outside of immediacy and mediacy, sense data, and objecthood. (37) Responding to the discursive conditions of the debate, in a characteristically ontological way, he states that “It is not about choosing between words that are all inadequate, or even to find a middle way solution; it would be even better to know how to ‘fail’ in solving this ‘problem’ in the right way.” (37) If this response is an evasion, then it is a complex one, because Marion follows it by asserting that the enigmatic character of givenness (being neither mediate nor immediate) also applies to hermeneutics.

In the fifth section, “Interpretation,” Marion understands hermeneutics not as giving meaning to the given in a decisive way, but rather as a practice of revealing the meaning of hermeneutics itself in such a way that “shows that given as itself.” (41) His understanding of the hermeneutic subject is that of a “discoverer” and “servant” who participates in the meaning of the given, but does not determine the given. (43) This relationship is also reciprocal, meaning that the given also interprets the hermeneutic subject, which according to Marion is an example of Gadamer’s “fusion of horizons.” (43) While these definitive statements regarding the nature of hermeneutics should find favour with his critics, Marion’s next thesis may not. He states that,

hermeneutics must be understood according to the understanding of the given, through the call and answer figures. It is not that hermeneutics exceeds givenness or substitutes itself to it, but that it displays itself in it, almost as a special case of the original relationship between what gives itself and what shows itself. (47)

Here hermeneutics is a bearer of givenness, and on a less charitable reading hermeneutics becomes a mere example of the operation of givenness with no inherent value of its own. Hermeneutics, displaying itself in givenness, may indeed still be hermeneutics, but the question becomes whether it loses its status as a determining factor in fundamental ontology by allowing givenness to be accorded primacy. While Marion states that givenness requires hermeneutics—“givenness reveals phenomena as given only as far as there is in it a hermeneutics of the given” (55)—it remains to be seen whether hermeneutics is or should be truly essential for givenness, and whether givenness is truly the irreducible reference point to which hermeneutics must relate, rather than the reverse or some other locus. The codetermination of the hermeneutic subject by both the act of interpreting and being interpreted in return, is paralleled by Marion’s adonné  (defined as the subject given over to the gift, and also as the subject given identity via phenomenological givenness itself). (53) However, this connection alone is not enough to do away with the fundamental ontological differences between hermeneutics and givenness.

Nonetheless, in the final section on the “Four Hermeneutic Moments in Givenness,” Marion sets out four ways in which hermeneutics remains an aid to the work of givenness: in the call, in the saturated phenomenon, in the distinction between poor and saturated phenomena, and in the distinction between objects and events. He defines the call “by its sensible or semantic anonymity” that requires interpretation by those to whom the call is addressed (he calls them adonnés). (57) Here, the decision regarding to whom the call is addressed is a task for hermeneutics. Secondly, the gap between the saturation and poverty of meanings, although “never filled,” is “lived” hermeneutically. (59) Thirdly, Marion clarifies that “the passage from a poor or common law phenomenon to a saturated phenomenon remains a matter of hermeneutics.” (61) And lastly, a hermeneutics of the ordinary yet saturated phenomenon “transforms the object into event and return” in a distinctly Heideggerian way. (61) These moments remain instances of hermeneutics within the context of givenness, and if the final words of the book are any indication, givenness still remains the primary point against or toward which hermeneutics must position itself, even if that position is within givenness, as Marion claims it to be. In the closing paragraph, Marion writes of a phenomenology of givenness requiring a phenomenological hermeneutics for the process of “managing the gap between what gives itself and what shows itself.” (63)

If givenness is concerned with the given, phenomenology with appearing, and hermeneutics with meaning, then the hermeneutics of givenness reveals an “of” that is turned in two directions. If the debate between Marion’s givenness and the defenders of hermeneutics is any indication, then, on the one hand, there is the givenness of hermeneutics (hermeneutics as ontologically important and given fundamentally), and, on the other hand, there is the hermeneutics of givenness (the interpretation of the already given essence, so defined by givenness). This is to avoid saying that either givenness or hermeneutics has the last word, but rather to position the two in a chiasm, however undeveloped, that would allow the failure of the debate to be one of even proportions. However, it remains to be determined whether the book Givenness & Hermeneutics constitutes a positive failure to solve this problem or a negative one. While the debate between Marion and his critics is addressed in the book, the place of hermeneutics at the centre of ontology (rather than in epistemology) is not given its full weight. The fact of book itself does indicate, however, that there is hope for future debate and rapport between Marion’s central concept of givenness and hermeneutics as it has developed since Heidegger and Gadamer.