This essay was translated from the original French by Mérédith Laferté-Coutu.

In the 1990s, Dominique Janicaud denounced authors such as Emmanuel Levinas and Jean-Luc Marion for engineering a “theological turn” in phenomenology. They had, he thought, caused phenomenology to veer off course. They moved phenomenology away from a rigorous descriptive science toward uncontrolled metaphysical constructions, which might not presuppose faith, but at least required the subordination to positive dogmas. But in what way could phenomenology be rendered “theological”? And what did this imply about its embedding in preexisting doctrinal traditions? Janicaud might have received some guidance if he had examined a debate between Marion and Jean-François Lyotard that occurred a few years before, in 1986, at the Centre Sèvres. Marion and Lyotard clashed over whether and in what way Levinas’s phenomenology could be understood as “Christian.”

Ethics for Levinas is not a set of standards, but an experience or even a test—a questioning of my selfish effort to persevere in my being. The test arises with the appearance of the face of the Other, from which, even before articulate language, issues the commandment: “you shall not kill.” Thus Levinas presented ethics as “first philosophy” to insist on the following point: it is not in the posing of the question of being (ontology and metaphysics in the classical sense of the term) nor in the question of knowledge (of what is) that the horizon of meaning first opens up, but in this test.

At the 1986 conference, Marion credited Levinas with having exceeded the alliance of the ontological and the gnoseological in an arguably new way.1 For Marion, Levinas’s account of the Other showed the “face” to be what Marion called a “saturated phenomenon,” a phenomenon that cannot be categorized and given a fixed meaning. In other words, the Other is a phenomenon that exceeds our capacity to apprehend. Nevertheless, in many ways, according to Marion, everything happens as if Levinas had stopped on his way to this point: the hyperbolic excess of the Levinasian gesture seems like a half-measure. It demands to be transgressed. It forgets love. Consequently, Marion urged the Franco-Lithuanian philosopher to take the final step. From now on, Marion argued, Levinas should “let ethics take the back seat and substitute it with the term ‘love.’”

Both Marion and Levinas break through beyond being. However, this break, according to Levinas, is the undergoing of a nothing that has efficacy, the undergoing [épreuve] ofthe trace of what has never been present—present as a being in the world. For Levinas, reaching beyond being means precisely standing on the verge of being (which coincides for Levinas with phenomenality). It consists in undergoing what troubles, without letting itself be captured by that which gives itself as a phenomenon, and thus without letting itself fully appear as such. For this reason, we could say Levinas stands on the verge of phenomenality and thus on the verge of phenomenology.2

For Marion, in contrast, breaking through beyond being means establishing oneself in a more originary phenomenality, beyond what was traditionally understood by that term (what Marion calls the phenomenality of “common law”). Marion introduces love as this originary phenomenality, which is invisible to the light of being (id est of the object, of seeing, of substance and even, beyond differences, of being in the Heideggerian sense). Love is pure givenness beyond this light, as a wholly other light than that of being, a blinding light, and yet it alone makes the more intense phenomenon veritably seen and truly individuates. In short, for Marion, definitively departing from the order of being, from the light of the world and from the primacy of “seeing the object,” gives access to love as pure givenness.

Marion’s philosophy is not “Christian” in the sense that it is subordinate to a dogma and a body of revealed truths. But if “Christianity” is the mundane name of the scenario par excellence that asserts the primacy of love as the most radical individuation and (invisible) light, then Jean-Luc Marion’s phenomenology is Christian. It tries to display philosophically what can also be experienced in faith and, foremostly, as a sense or a “direction” in existence. If these two points are granted, we then understand that Marion’s phenomenology, as a phenomenology of love, is experienced as an accomplished phenomenology more powerful than all previous versions. According to the Marionian logic, the more one is “Christian” (in the sense that “Christianity,” in an exemplary manner, claims to name and emphasize the “reduction” accomplished in and by love), the more one is a phenomenologist.

During the meeting at the Centre Sèvres, another protagonist was in play, who challenged Marion’s reading: Jean-François Lyotard. According to Lyotard, in Levinas’s philosophy “the other presents himself as a face that will be missing, that will always call (…) and in relation to which dissymmetry is and will be absolute. I would also add: in relation to which love is not sufficient, not enough.” Lyotard demands that Levinas not cede or concede anything to Marion. Particularly, he urges him not to concede to Marion that love must surpass and accomplish the commandment. He urges Levinas to remain a “Jewish thinker.”

Levinas resisted Lyotard’s injunction; he was always careful to distinguish his “philosophical” from his “confessional” works. But Lyotard’s demand should be understood at another level, correlated with another question Lyotard addressed to Levinas: “Is this text able to not be phenomenological?” [“Ce texte peut-il ne pas être phénoménologique?”]3 In other words, the same reason leads Lyotard to urge Levinas to stay a Jewish thinker, to avoid substituting love for the commandment, and to deplore that he remains a phenomenologist. According to Lyotard, Levinas is the author that was able to give the most radical description of the “hostage,” a subjectivity that is always already constituted from the inside, as an interiority that is however always already exposed. It is constituted as such by the Other as a hyperbolic commandment, an unconditioned imperative without reason. (It is, according to the Talmudic word, about “doing before hearing.”)

Outside being is, in Lyotard’s words, outside seeing: “the eye shuts, the ear opens.” This means that for Lyotard, being worthy of the commandment excludes all seeing and all appearing. In a certain sense, it excludes phenomenology: the testimony of the hostage for the commandment must have nothing in common with the phenomenological description of what appears. Importantly, this does not amount to discovering a more originary phenomenality, to discovering an appearing correlated with a “blinded” “seeing,” which is nonetheless, and more than ever, a seeing (as Marion would have it). For Lyotard, Levinas responds to the exigency to leave the realm of appearance—and the realm of experience—for a wholly other realm, that of a commandment outside appearing and outside experience, thus outside phenomenology.

Ultimately, for Lyotard as much as for Marion, Levinas’s philosophy is unfinished. He paves the way but hesitates at the verge of what he promises. However, Lyotard and Marion read Levinas as delivering divergent promises. Lyotard hears in Levinas the promise of commandment (and certainly not of love). Marion hears in Levinas the promise of love beyond ethics and beyond commandment (he sees it surface in various inchoate ways throughout the later texts of the 80s). This means that Lyotard hears in Levinas the exigency of a particular philosophical writing, understood as a hostage’s “confidence,” as a testimony, he writes. Lyotard hears in Levinas the going beyond being, beyond all appearing, beyond all disciplined description of experience, beyond all phenomenology. Lyotard regrets that Levinas risks capitulating to the alarms of Christianity and their experience of love, and this is the same as regretting that Levinas remains a phenomenologist.

Marion, in contrast, hears the Levinasian break beyond being as a break beyond ontotheology, but he distinguishes the regime of appearance from the regime of ontotheology. As such, he is not, so to speak, condemned to keep watch over the trace of what has not been present, but on the contrary promotes what is invisible tothe regime of ontotheology as a more radical, blinding appearing (that of love). Amidst this more radical, blinding appearance, an extraordinary experience where my uniqueness and the uniqueness of the other play out, in excess of the realm of being and appearing of ontotheology. It is a fuller experience, a regime of appearing beyond ontotheology: an over-phenomenology, perhaps.

The two “Levinases,” in perfect opposition or contrariness, however, confirm each other. Here, being “Jewish” or “Christian” will not mean the possible subordination of a philosophy to a revelation or a particular dogma. “Jewish” or “Christian” denotes the mobilization in philosophy of a style of experience that demands, in a regulated manner, a certain relation to phenomenology. The “Jewish” philosopher of Lyotard rises to the level, in his philosophical writing, of an understanding [entente] outside seeing, outside being, and outside all appearing, beyond all phenomenology in the cancelled experience of the hostage to the commandment. The “Christian” philosopher of Marion at last accesses the most radical phenomenology, without intentionality, beyond the being of ontotheology, but in order to uncover a pure experience: the experience and phenomenology of love, where the “of” is said in the objective genitive as much as in the subjective genitive.

Each “Levinas” appears to the other as having followed the “wrong slope” or as having taken a wrong turn, amidst the ambiguous tensions of the texts by “Levinas.” Each Levinas appears to the other as a falling back from its breakthrough. For Lyotard, love, as experience par excellence, experience that individuates, has fallen back into the spells of the immanence of interiority in the world (loss of the undergoing of the commandment outside being, outside the world). For Marion, not exceeding the commandment by love entails not breaking through all the way to the individuating experience par excellence. Love plays out outside being and outside the world, but not outside all appearing and outside experience. It presents itself, on the contrary, as the only radical regime of authentic experience.

What do these wrong turns have to do with that other wrong turn diagnosed by Janicaud? At first glance, Levinas, Marion, and Lyotard seem ripe targets for his criticism. Didn’t they presuppose an access to a reality given elsewhere (in faith in a revelation and/or a set of dogmas)? Nevertheless, the debate at the Centre Sèvres show the relations between phenomenology, on the one hand, and Christianity and Judaism, on the other hand, to be subtler and more fruitful than Janicaud allows. “Judaism” and “Christianity” can name two orientations in existence, which beyond any set doctrine, command a precise relationship to phenomenology, whether Lyotard’s “beyond phenomenology,” a philosophy of the law or commandment, or Marion’s “super phenomenology” of love. “Levinas” names the point of tension and bifurcation between the two.

  1. Autrement que savoir: Emmanuel Levinas (Osiris: Paris, 1988).

  2. Phenomenology is the method of rigorously describing what appears as it appears, or the “how” of the appearing of what appears. “Phenomenality” is precisely the event of what appears as such. The “phenomenological reduction” is the operation that makes it possible to neutralize the existence of what appears in order to stick to the event of its appearance, to stick to the phenomenality (or the phenomenon) as such.

  3. Lyotard, Le Différend (1983). p. 167. Lyotard means by this that, from his point of view, Levinas, in order to be faithful to what he demands, should cease to be a phenomenologist, but that, in spite of everything, 1) he is not aware of it, and 2) he thus remains attached to phenomenology (as if he did not manage to be a phenomenologist any longer).