Friday, May 16, 2014

Phenomenology in French Philosophy: Early Encounters

There is a new NDPR covering Dupont’s recent Phenomenology in French Philosophy: Early Encounters.  The review explains the major themes of Dupont's book which covers the French reception of German phenomenology.  Specifically, we are told how Dupont explores the impact and influence that Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and to a lesser extent Max Scheler all had in France.  It is also interesting to see that Dupont explores the dynamics of this reception and then discusses how it actually lasted well into the late twentieth century, creating streams of influence that one finds even today.

The book is largely a survey work that traces the origins of French phenomenological thought back to a complex moment.  A number of important thinkers in the phenomenological tradition are covered, as are some less well known figures.  As a survey work in its detail we are told that Dupont’s erudition commands respect because it is often the case that such a complex moment has been overlooked.  Not only does Dupont uncover the moment when French phenomenology began, he does so without missing any of the details.

The thesis of the work (it is based upon Dupont’s 1997 dissertation) is that the reception of French phenomenology lead to a great divide in French thought from that point forward.  On the one hand the French reception of Husserl, Heidegger, and Scheler lead to  “French philosophy,” and on the other hand, so states Dupont, it lead to “French religious thought.”  Thus “Husserl was cleaved in two.”

Dupont argues that these two trajectories were “distinct,” and that they proceeded independently from each other.  Dupont characterizes the divide as follows:
In the case of French philosophers, their interest in phenomenology was encouraged by the interpretation of phenomenology as a continuation of the Cartesian tradition, that is, as an attempt to secure the foundations of science and logic through reflection upon consciousness. The interest of French religious thinkers, on the other hand, was incited largely by the desire to break from the strict rationalism that Cartesianism represented among French academic philosophers.
Dupont claims that “French philosophy” owes its trajectory to the pretentions of Descartes and the sciences, and to the goal of providing a descriptive inventory of consciousness.  Husserl’s approach to mathematics, to intuition, and to transcendental method all are discussed at this point in the book.

“French religious thought” on the other hand stems back to Bergsonian themes prominent in French theological circles.  A more primitive form of intuition and “method of immanence” that “reaches beyond the constructions of science” so as to get at “original intuitive sources of knowledge” is stressed.  The connection between French religious thought and the Catholic tradition is also cited, where Dupont discussess Bergson’s connection to Augustine and Aquinas in that they pointed toward intuition’s role in serving knowledge.  Bergson grappled with how intuition and religious insight “provided a model of thinking through the ways in which phenomenology could be applied to religious questions.”

The reviewer closes by questioning whether Dupont is right to suggest that there is such a sharp division between religious and secular thought in the French phenomenological tradition, or at least as sharp as Dupont claims it is.  Can one easily label, say, Merleau-Ponty a “French philosopher” or a “French religious thinker?”  In some cases (say, Jean Paul Sartre) it may be easier.  In other cases it may be more complex (Jacques Maritain is equally philosophically rigorous as he is theological).  What is certain is that the reception of Husserl, Heidegger, and Scheler was a complex moment in the French reception of phenomenology and that that moment perhaps should be revisited more often in hopes of better understanding the meaning of and possibilities for French phenomenology today.

See the review upon which this commentary is based HERE.