Joseph Rivera, The Contemplative Self after Michel Henry: A Phenomenological Theology. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2015; 408 pages. ISBN: 9780268040604.

Reviewed by Steven DeLay, University of Oxford

Michel Henry, who died in 2002, was a longstanding luminary in Parisian philosophical and literary circles. At the same time, he has remained relatively unknown to Anglophone scholars. In recent years, however, as his works have been translated into English, this situation is quickly being rectified. Joseph Rivera’s The Contemplative Self after Michel Henry is—to my knowledge, at least—the first sustained study in English dedicated to Henry’s phenomenology. Not only is Rivera’s study timely, it has all of the markings of a work that will become a standard point of reference in the field. Rivera examines Henry’s analysis of the question of self in four stages: first, he summarizes the way in which modernity understands the self (following Descartes) in terms of autonomy and how Henry’s competing conception of the self undermines the modern conception; next, he examines the way in which Henry’s view of the self critically appropriates the earlier phenomenological analyses of Husserl and Heidegger; in turn, Rivera explains how the resulting conception of selfhood is reminiscent of those held by philosophers and theologians such as Augustine and Irenaeus; finally, Rivera critically assesses this resulting conception of the self to formulate one of his own that resists the nascent Gnosticism he sees in Henry’s view. By the end of Rivera’s historically informed, yet novel, analysis of the self, the view that emerges is this: while subjectivity is not reducible to the world as it is for Husserl or Heidegger, we still await the final fulfillment of life in the eschaton within time, contrary to Henry’s view that the eschaton is already here. If there has been much debate in recent decades about the relationship between phenomenology and theology, Rivera’s study is an impressive exercise in showing that the two can be brought into a productive exchange, by using phenomenology to open afresh venerable theological horizons and questions.

The abiding conviction of Henry’s oeuvre (i.e., the conviction that guided his investigations into Descartes, Marx, Nietzsche, psychoanalysis, art, culture, phenomenology, and theology) is the idea that there are two modes of phenomenality. On the one hand, there is the mode of phenomenality in which entities appear within the horizon of exteriority; entities appear in the world, at a distance, and removed from the one who experiences the entity thus disclosed. Henry calls this mode of manifestation the “truth of the world.” On the other hand, there is another mode of phenomenality, which Henry calls “Life.” For Henry, whereas the world manifests itself in the distance of exteriority, our experience of ourselves is immediate. The self, for Henry, is therefore unworldly, because there is no difference between the affectivity through which the self is disclosed and the self who experiences itself in feeling itself. For Henry, it is only in bidding the exteriority of the world adieu that the self escapes alienation by returning to its forgotten condition in Life—the true reality in which God engenders us as singular individual selves. This manifestation of self in affectivity is key to Henry’s distinction between Life—interior, immediate, invisible—and the world—exterior, distanced, visible.

To experience ourselves is to undergo our own experience of ourselves as a trial. Rivera beautifully describes how we experience ourselves through Life’s perpetual oscillation between joy and suffering. As he explains in the opening chapter, this conception of selfhood stands opposed to the Cartesian view of self, according to which a self is an autonomous and self-grounding ego. He writes, “If post-Cartesian philosophy is a ‘philosophy of consciousness’, as Henry claims, it is because consciousness achieves itself on the strength of pure autonomy, determined by an appeal to representational metaphysics. Modernity understands the ego in monistic terms precisely because it reduces the ego to a single form of manifestation: representation.” (18) This mode of consciousness—the mode of intentional representation through which one stands open to the world—presupposes a mode of prior self-acquaintance. This acquaintance is accomplished through the transcendental pathos Henry calls “Life.” As Rivera explains, the modern conception of the subject as that which stands open to a world “inadvertently concealed or suppressed the power of the original form of subjectivity that is truly living—one not possessed by autonomy and determined in and through alienation and distance….That is, for Henry, modernity’s fate is sealed within the Cartesian legacy of subjectivity understood purely in terms of representation, from which arises an abstract and instrumental ego.” (19)

The same Cartesian self determines—unwittingly, of course—the phenomenology of Husserl and Heidegger. As Rivera observes, “For them, the ‘self’ is ineluctably tied to, and implied within the structural opening of the world.” (48) For Rivera, such a view of the self leads to a false dichotomy: “on the one hand, the self is to be disassociated from God and reduced to its appearing in the world (Descartes, Nietzsche, and Heidegger and his heirs such as Derrida), and, on the other, the self is to be dissociated from the world and situated within a site outside the world in communion with God (Henry, … Jean-Luc Marion and Jean-Yves Lacoste).” (66) Beyond these two alternatives, there is a third way, according to Rivera—one that acknowledges (as does Henry) that there is indeed a form of subjectivity irreducible to the exteriority of the world, but one that simultaneously acknowledges that we are nevertheless confined to time, insofar as we still await the eschaton. In effect, Rivera believes the self is best understood as a pilgrim: “Without claiming the right to presume a logic of presence, as if God were present to me however dramatic or interior that presence may appear to be, the contemplative self desires to open out onto living faith described as ‘pilgrimage in the world’, in which God is present to me only in the parousia.” (63)

Rivera follows Henry’s contention that the self is not reducible to being-in-the-world, since the power of transcendence responsible for opening the world of intentionality presupposes the immediate, non-intentional self-embrace of transcendental affectivity. Rivera writes, “visible display is inferior because it does not, and is incapable of, attending to the thing itself, that is, the invisible essence of the ego in its self-embrace, a homeland untouched by the alienating power of the world. For Henry, the world as a stage of manifestation never gives access to the ego’s living subjectivity in its purity.” (89) The point is not to deny or to negate the world, but simply to acknowledge the experiential fact that there is a mode of subjectivity that subtends the dimension of subjectivity responsible for opening the world. In characterizing this mode of subjectivity, Rivera parts ways with Henry. Rivera denies that the “living present,” unveiled in Henry’s analysis, exhausts the full story of the self. If Rivera agrees with Henry that there is a fundamental dimension of subjectivity that escapes our mode of being-in-the-world, he nevertheless denies that God is fully revealed in the mode of interiority. We are still waiting for God to be fully revealed. Therefore, according to Rivera, Henry’s phenomenological analysis of the self leads to an over-realized eschatology.

I would like to conclude with one critical remark. For Rivera, a phenomenological analysis of the self leads to the theological question of eschatology, and in this we agree. I disagree, however, with Rivera’s suggestion of how to tackle that question. And while I agree with Rivera that Henry’s account of auto-affection invites an over-realized eschatology, I would caution against accepting his conclusion that framing the question of eschatology in reference to the world is the antidote. From a theological standpoint (or perhaps, more strictly, a Biblical one), the world is far from the place of salvation. It is, as Henry himself says, and with which Rivera agrees, a place of alienation, sorrow, transience, and even illusion. The challenge, it seems to me, is how best to reconceive the metaphysical status of the world in light of two facts: 1) our fundamental mode of access to our own selves and God occurs within the interiority of transcendental affectivity; and 2) this mode of revelation does not unveil the eschaton completely and finally, because God has yet to be fully revealed.

In response to these two facts, Rivera argues that the issue of temporality arises, and hence philosophical and theological reflection is inevitably thrown back upon the world (albeit different from how it does in Heidegger). To reject this move, Rivera says, is to succumb to the impulse of Gnosticism, as Henry did:

Undoubtedly a Gnostic impulse comes expressly into view here as the principal miscalculation that will bedevil Henry’s work from beginning to end. That is to say, because it is freighted with a Gnostic impulse, Henry’s theological reduction retains within its logic a sharp refusal of the world, and conceived in this way, the steadfastness of the reduction necessarily intends to subdue the actual difference between life and the world. (136)

Toward the end of his study, Rivera writes: “the basic form of humanity is the imago Dei, that ineluctable and universal structure whereby I am able to contemplate eternity, precisely because I participate in and am porous to the eternal fullness of the Trinity, without ever apprehending or realizing the fullness of God’s eschatological presence.” (309) The question then becomes, is it perhaps nevertheless possible that the eschaton unfurls, not within the exteriority of the world, but instead within a horizon of hope that only Life itself sustains? In short, where does the journey of faith unfold, if we are not consigned to the alienation of the world? We are always unveiled to ourselves in the transcendental affectivity of interiority, but God is not fully revealed in this mode of interiority. Rivera’s solution seems to be that this journey must unfold within the world. I am not so sure. That question, along with many others, is the direct result of Rivera’s careful and original study. For those who are looking not only to familiarize themselves with Henry, but the perennial human question of what it means to be a self at all, The Contemplative Self after Michel Henry is a welcome and satisfying point of departure.