The Rigor of Things

Conversations with Dan Arbib

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Jean-Luc Marion, Dan Arbib
Christina M. Gschwandtner
  • Bronx, NY: 
    Fordham University Press
    , August
     232 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Rigor of Things is a translation of La rigueur des choses: Entretiens avec Dan Arbib, (Paris: Flammarion, 2012). “Conversations with Jean-Luc Marion” would have been a better title, for Marion is the interviewee. That quibble aside, this volume is a wonderful supplement to Marion’s works. Scholars familiar with Marion will find no major new arguments, but they will better understand the contexts of Marion’s thought, as well as Marion’s own understanding of his development and of the relationships among his various works. Scholars unfamiliar with Marion will find these interviews a good introduction which will help them determine which of Marion’s diverse areas of research—Descartes? phenomenology? theology?—they want to explore further. Notably, Marion has produced considerable new work since 2012, so no sense of closure should accompany the reading of these interviews, and a new edition with an additional chapter covering recent developments would be welcome.

Arbib, a friend and former student of Marion, asks probing questions that lead Marion to speak broadly within each of six areas of inquiry. Arbib does not hesitate to raise friendly but incisive challenges at critical junctures. The translation by Christina Gschwandtner, an expert translator of several of Marion’s books, reads smoothly, and includes helpful notes explaining French phrases and cultural references likely unfamiliar to Anglophone audiences.

The biographical “My Path” firmly places Marion generationally in relation to the WWII generation of Heidegger, Ricoeur, and Levinas. It is not Marion (born 1946) but his father who resisted the Nazis and returned weighing seventy-five pounds and suffering permanent physical consequences. In May of 1968 Marion was not a professor but a student in buildings under siege, strategizing with fellow students. There is interesting backstory on the journals Concilium and Communio, and on major French thinkers (Marion was fortunate to study under Althusser, Daniélou, Deleuze, Derrida, Lacan, and de Lubac, among others). Marion also describes the dynamics of a “spiritual turning point” that resulted from following the discipline of the prayer of Eucharistic adoration at Montmartre: “labor or attention, of concentration, but one that is essentially desubjectivizing, where the I is erased before the one whom it observes speaking…. causing the words spoken to be really those said by Someone who is here now, before me, infinitely more than me” (27; see also 115).

As David Tracy notes in his foreword, Marion’s revolutionary interpretation of Descartes alone would have established him as a major scholar. While Marion is rigorous in reading Descartes in historical context (especially vis-à-vis Suarez and Aristotle), what facilitates the most creative element of his reading is a hermeneutic that dictates reading Descartes in light of Husserl and Heidegger (44-49, 140-46). In particular, in contrast to the metaphysical materialism predominant in Anglophone philosophy, this means reading in light of the realization that, “there is nothing in the understanding that has not first come in through the senses…but with one specific exception: the understanding itself” (92). Suffering from what Heidegger called forgetfulness of the being of beings that understand, much Anglophone philosophy has been reduced to a thin and narrow rationality of the object (96).

In the light of phenomenology’s reawakening to the being of beings that understand, Marion unfolds four types of “saturated phenomena”: the event (i.e., manifestation of the adonné [akin to Heidegger’s dasein]), idol, icon, and flesh (111). Flesh as saturated phenomena, for instance, is not understood forgetfully as a material object, but in ways which involve the event of understanding ab initio. For instance, flesh names the potential to understandingly touch and be touched; in this sense when I touch the chair the chair does not touch me (90). Obviously, reading in this vein steps beyond a standard, wooden interpretation/dismissal of Cartesian dualism.

With regard to revelation and theology/metaphysics, which flows in myriad forms (Hegelian, Feuerbachian, Kierkegaardian, Nietzschean) directly out of philosophical reflection (128), Marion focuses upon eros and explicitly rejects agape (117). For Marion, the inability to affirm any value not rooted in some human “I” lies at the heart of the nihilism of our age (164). However, his naming of “Does anyone love me?” as a first theological question (118), his exclusive affirmation of the category of eros, and his talk, even vis-à-vis the ethical, of deciding to be responsible for or to love the other (94, 119), appears to inscribe him within modernity’s nihilisit cul-de-sac. Levinas, by contrast, grounds his philosophy in the ethical event of having been taken hostage by the face of the other, wherein the “I,” originally passive but not enslaved, finds itself ensconced in a more ancient reality to which it can accede or harden its heart (pace Marion, 94).

I have always concluded that Levinas’s essentially agapic dynamic better escapes the modern, I-centered, nihilistic dynamics which Marion identifies. In the more autobiographical vein of these interviews, however, I remember that Levinas is unfolding the dynamics of the decisive spiritual turning point in his life: having been taken hostage by the faces of tortured, murdered others while in captivity in a Nazi labor camp—an experience of utter passivity and awakening to ethical/divine reality. Similarly, Marion is unfolding the dynamics of a very different but equally decisive spiritual turning point in his life: his rigorous observation of the prayer of Eucharistic adoration while haunted by the question, “does anyone love me?” (118)—an experience rooted in eros, specifically in his desire and decision to engage in a spiritual discipline, an intentional move that results in awakening to an ethical/divine reality, namely, Pascal’s order of charity (59, 105, 114), wherein, just as in Levinas, the “I” is displaced.

When Marion and Levinas’s philosophical theory is historically grounded like this in (auto)biographical context, rich new possibilities for understanding how Levinas’s or Marion’s thought may be more or less useful in various contexts (e.g., captive in the camps; privileged in 1960s Paris) opens up, as does the wisdom of a truly pluralistic affirmation of different yet partly commensurable philosophical paradigms (including those of numerous other thinkers in other contexts). Such concrete insight manifests the distinct potential of the more personal, autobiographical mode of philosophical reflection finely developed in The Rigor of Things

About the Reviewer(s): 

William Greenway is Professor of Philosophical Theology at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
January 29, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jean-Luc Marion is professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Paris–Sorbonne Paris IV, Dominique Dubarle Professor of Philosophy at the Institut catholique de Paris, Andrew T. Greely and Grace McNichols Greeley professor of Catholic studies at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and a member of the Academie française.

Dan Arbib teaches philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure.

Christina M. Gschwandtner is professor of philosophy at Fordham University.


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