Adam Y. Wells, The Manifest and the Revealed: A Phenomenology of Kenōsis. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2018; 190 pages. ISBN: 978-1438472164.

Reviewed by Tyler Tritten, Gonzaga University.

This book is audacious. It does not simply deign to apply phenomenology to Scripture, subjecting Scripture to phenomenologically imposed criteria, but it is audacious because it places phenomenology under the scrutiny of Scripture. Wells’s question is not how Scripture can be enriched when read phenomenologically, but how the borders of phenomenology can be expanded by Scripture.

The particular passage of Scripture that Wells utilizes is Philippians 2:5-11, which reads as follows:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, To the glory of God the Father. (NRSV, Phil. 2:5-11)

The phenomenologists Wells brings to bear in this creative confrontation between phenomenology and Scripture are Edmund Husserl and Eugen Fink (with the aid of Anthony Steinbock). Wells is mostly critical of Husserl while employing Fink constructively. This book, then, is a Finkian phenomenology of kenosis, rather than a Husserlian phenomenology of epoché.

Wells’s book, preceded by a succinct foreword by Kevin Hart, is divided into two parts. Part I includes three chapters, and its aim is to show how, through an analysis that leads from Husserl’s static phenomenology through his later genetic approach to Fink’s radicalization of the epoché (that also sets the “humanness” of the constituting subject into suspension), phenomenology can lead to absolute science (which is not equivalent to a universal science). Wells views Part I as phenomenology ex vivo that, in order to be phenomenology at all, requires in vivo incorporation. In other words, phenomenology is not a free-standing method simply awaiting application to a potential object of study, but phenomenology only exists in the act of phenomenologizing. One might say that it is not just the constituting act of consciousness that phenomenology uncovers as intentional, but phenomenology itself is intentional; apart from its actual practice, it remains ephemeral.

Part II consists of four chapters and offers historical and exegetical context for Philippians 2:5-11 (Chapter 4), an analogy between Pauline kenōsis and Fink’s phenomenological reduction of the constituting ego to the phenomenologizing ego (Chapter 5), an Auseinandersetzung of kenotic or eschatological time from Husserl’s mundane time-consciousness (Chapter 6), and an original account of what a phenomenologically reduced eschatological time entails (Chapter 7). Part II is less convincing than Part I, although this arguably speaks more to the originality and audacity of the latter half of the book than to any philosophical shortcomings. Part II will also be a non-starter for those for whom Scripture is simply fantasy and thus bereft of normative authority. A virtue of Wells’s book, however, is that it is properly phenomenological, refusing to stumble on the question about what is or is not normative, instead permitting any object or text to speak for itself, unless or until it has somehow been legitimately stripped of this authority. In other words, no phenomena are axiomatically to be dismissed out of hand.

Wells’s book ends with a conclusion, in which he offers some meta-reflections on the nature of phenomenology as absolute science and biblical criticism (which is not scientific enough—not phenomenological enough—because it still labors under the natural attitude), and absolute science and Christianity, ultimately contending that Christianity can exert a normative influence without being able to claim universality, much like phenomenology itself. The real audacity of the book, however, i.e., the most interesting conclusions, were already drawn in Part II. The most significant of these conclusions (the reasons why one should read this book) are twofold: (1) there is an analogy (if not homology) between the bracketing of the world-constituting subject in Fink’s phenomenology and the emptying of self and worldly authority (kenōsis) in Philippians 2:5-11; and (2) if phenomenology is only absolute if and when it brackets the world-constituting subject in order to reveal the phenomenologizing I, then intra-worldly temporality must also be reduced, which unveils an eschatological past and future. This past is past to retention (and memory) and this future is future to protention (and anticipation), because the eschatological past and future are not immanent to time-consciousness itself. Eschatological past and future are, rather, the transcendental conditions of the possibility of time as inner-worldly flow in the first place.

In what remains of this review, I will offer a succinct reconstruction of Chapter 3, as this pertains to the first conclusion enumerated above. I will then offer extremely sparse comments about how this leads to the second enumerated conclusion, which Wells explicitly draws in Chapter 7. Chapter 3 details Fink’s radicalization of Husserlian bracketing and reduction, exposing its potential homology with Pauline kenōsis, and Chapter 7 treats eschatological time as the transcendental condition of possibility for horizonal mundane time, which is only revealed through a reduction of mundane time, i.e., of inner time-consciousness.

The proof text of Chapter 3 is Fink’s Sixth Cartesian Meditation, as Fink here enacts a further reduction upon Husserl’s already reduced transcendental subjectivity by distinguishing between “the transcendental theory of elements” and “the transcendental theory of method.” The latter exposes,

a second zone of subjectivity at play in the phenomenological reduction: the “phenomenologizing I” or “transcendental onlooker.” This zone of subjectivity does not participate in the activity of world-constitution, but observes and reflects upon that activity. (53)

How is this second zone of subjectivity revealed, and why is it only an “onlooker” but not constituting? How, in other words, can this relation with the world be set into relief (en rélève)?

One must first understand that the theory of method does not begin with what is given in order to regress from there to the condition of its possibility, but it begins by interrogating the meaning of givenness as such, in order to proceed toward the intentional world-constituting relation, as that relation is the condition of givenness. This means, Wells explains, that “for Fink, the ‘natural attitude,’ which is bracketed in epoché, refers not simply to a set of assumptions about objectivity but to the native situation of human being-in-the-world.” (55) Like Heidegger, Fink regards human reality as “being-in-the-world”, but how did the human and the world become so entangled? To take this question seriously requires more than a simple bracketing of worldly validities (the objects of phenomenology), but the constituting I must also “un-humanize [entmenscht] himself in performing the epoché.” (55) Fink, Wells notes, thus sees two aspects of transcendental subjectivity: the ego who is “enworlding” or in a world-constituting relation, and the ego who, by phenomenologizing, performs this reduction. The ego that performs the reduction to the world-constituting subject is different from the constituting ego itself. As a result, “both the world and mankind, as beings-in-the-world, are the results of constituting acts on the part of transcendental subjectivity.” (56, emphasis added) Not just objects, as intra-mundane, but also constituting subjects, as intra-mundane beings-in-the-world, must be suspended, which entails a reduction to an ego that is not itself intra-mundane but the onlooker upon “intra-mundanity,” “enworldedness” or “givenness” itself. This ego is not mundane or “worldly,” because “the act of phenomenologizing—i.e. the act of reflecting on the constituting work of subjectivity—does not itself constitute anything.” (57)

Fink, therefore, links phenomenology not to ontology but to me-ontology. As Wells explicates, “Mundane sciences are one and all sciences of that which is existent; phenomenological science refers to the constitutive becoming of the existent…phenomenology is concerned with how the given becomes given.” (60) Fink’s phenomenology is constructive (or progressive) rather than regressive, because it gets in front of being, so to speak, phenomenologizing not on givens but on the fact of givenness as such. Consequently, as Wells states, “The transcendental onlooker, the phenomenologizing I, is meontic–a transcendental subject (and thus a non-being) that exists enworlded, as a being-in-the-world.” (62) To paraphrase a passage of Scripture, one is in the world but not of the world, and on the basis of this Finkian radicalization of Husserl, Wells drafts a strong analogy (and I rather think it a homology) with Pauline kenōsis, which Wells understands as both a suspension of worldly norms and values and of the self’s subjection to the same. The self must be emptied of its worldliness.

As Chapter 7 elucidates, Husserl’s internal time-consciousness is a mundane structure that must be bracketed on Fink’s approach. This bracketing leads to what Wells terms a “kenotic reduction” from worldly-time to eschatological time, which has no worldly horizon. Wells reads this as a “de-presenced” horizon. Personally, I am not convinced of how this time could be horizonal at all, as eschatological past and future are not simply asymptotic, as are retention and memory as well as and protention and anticipation, but, as transcendental conditions of time as flow and horizon, must be off the grid, i.e., beyond the horizon or not even asymptotically present. They simply have no presence at all. This, however, is perhaps little more than a terminological bone to pick with an otherwise excellent book that will lead any serious reader seriously to rethink some of the most basic concepts of phenomenology.

Phenomenology can no longer remain a relative science of the manifest and must rather become an absolute science of revelation.