Human Existence and Transcendence

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Jean Wahl
William C. Hackett
William C. Hackett
Thresholds in Philosophy and Theology
  • Notre Dame, IN: 
    University of Notre Dame Press
    , December
     212 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Few theologians or philosophers today will recognize the name of Jean Wahl unless they are specialists in 20th-century French thought. But most will recognize the name of Immanuel Levinas, and Wahl is the thinker to whom Levinas’s first major work, Totality and Infinity (1961), is dedicated. That alone should be enough to catch our attention. 

The most obvious connection between the two is that Totality and Infinity is conceptually dependent on Wahl’s notion of the otherness of the other person, and his understanding of transcendence in terms of disruption rather than unity. As William Hackett notes (xix), from within this almost unknown book, Levinas makes explicit reference to the second chapter, “On the Idea of Transcendence,” saying: “We have drawn much inspiration from the themes evoked in that study.” Anyone interested in the development of Levinas’s thought in Paris during and immediately after World War II will find Whal’s book valuable because it contains not only what Levinas called “Whal’s famous lecture” and other of Wahl’s essays, but also transcriptions of responses to the lecture by Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, Levinas, Gabriel Marcel, Karl Löwith, Nikolas Berdyaev, Rachel Bespaloff, and others. There is much here that gives context to the questions and directions of Totality and Infinity

But Human Existence and Transcendence is interesting not only for how it helps us understand Levinas. It is also interesting for how it sheds light on French philosophy in the first half of the 20th century—and it is interesting in its own right. Wahl represents one of the two main strands of Kierkegaard interpretation in France during the 30s, Lev Shestov representing the other. Shestov wants to use Kierkegaard’s thought to insist on a radical difference between philosophy and theology. In contrast, Wahl wants to treat Kierkegaard as a philosopher as well as (and at the same time as) a theologian. For both thinkers, therefore, the question of the relation between theology and philosophy is constantly at least on the edge of their thinking, if not at its center. (Some of the sharpest exchanges in the book are between Marcel and Wahl on whether transcendence can be thought of in a nontheological way.) Wahl, however, wants to insist that the distinction between the religious and the secular has its beginning in an alterity that is never overcome, so much so that, as Hackett points out (xxxix), one is tempted to say that Wahl anticipates the theological turn of French phenomenology in the last half of the 20th century. (However, unlike Marion and, perhaps, Levinas, Wahl understands that insurmountable alterity as having two modes, not only transascendence, but also transdescendence.) 

For Wahl, the theological is at least potentially present in philosophy in the feltalterity that manifests itself in poetry and myth as much as in philosophy. In fact, he ends his preface with the question, “Can we preserve in myth that which thought destroys, that is, its essence, which gives it value?” (18). In that regard, Wahl’s acquaintance with both French and Anglophone thinkers and poets is impressive. He refers intelligently to more than a few Anglophonic philosophers: Bradley, Royce, Strong, Santayan, Whitehead, Perry, Sellars, James, Alexander, Holt, Montague, Moore, Russell, Hume, Bosanquet, and Berkeley. (One could only hope for as much transatlantic familiarity among contemporary philosophers on both sides of the chasm.) Perhaps more important for his claim about philosophy and theology, Wahl also refers not only to a range of French poets, but also to those such as Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Whitman, and Spencer, and to the novelist Lawrence. For Wahl, this feeling for the alterity in human existence that we find in poetry and myth is not just the source for philosophy, “but a source that seems to be at least as great as philosophy” (107), though “poets arrive at their conclusions by a completely different way than the philosopher” (71). 

William Hackett’s long introductory essay (46 pages) is an important contribution to the publication of Wahl’s book in English, both because it situates the book in its historical context and because it gives an overall vision of Wahl’s thought. Levinas quite accurately described Wahl as a “pointillist” thinker, one who rejects the “exclusive system” (Hors Sujet 17-18). Those who read the essays of this book without reading Hackett’s introduction are likely to find its unsystematic character at least difficult, if not off-putting. Hackett’s essay gives Wahl’s readers an excellent guide to understanding what is at stake in philosophy and theology for Wahl, and it puts Wahl’s thinking into conversation with late 20th-century and contemporary thinkers like Jean-Luc Nancy, Jean-Luc Marion, and Emmanuel Falque.

About the Reviewer(s): 

James E. Faulconer is Reserach Senior Research Fellow at the Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University.

Date of Review: 
January 7, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jean Wahl (1888-1974) was a leading figure in mid-century French intellectual life.

William C. Hackett is research fellow and lecturer in philosophy at Australian Catholic University, Melbourne.


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