Testing the Limit: Derrida, Henry, Levinas, and Phenomenology

Testing the Limit: Derrida, Henry, Levinas, and Phenomenology

Testing the Limit: Derrida, Henry, Levinas, and Phenomenology

Testing the Limit: Derrida, Henry, Levinas, and Phenomenology


In exploring the nature of excess relative to a phenomenology of the limit, Testing the Limit claims that phenomenology itself is an exploration of excess. What does it mean that "the self" is "given"? Should we see it as originary; or rather, in what way is the self engendered from textual practices that transgress- or hover around and therefore within- the threshold of phenomenologial discourse? This is the first book to include Michel Henry in a triangulation with Derrida and Levinas and the first to critique Levinas on the basis of his interpolation of philosophy and religion. Sebbah claims that the textual origins of phenomenology determine, in their temporal rhythms, the nature of the subjectivation on which they focus. He situates these considerations within the broader picture of the state of contemporary French phenomenology (chiefly the legacy of Merleau-Ponty), in order to show that these three thinkers share a certain "family resemblance," the identification of which reveals something about the traces of other phenomenological families. It is by testing the limit within the context of traditional phenomenological concerns about the appearance of subjectivity and ipseity that Derrida, Henry, and Levinas radically reconsider phenomenology and that French phenomenology assumes its present form.


This work originated, or at least received its impetus, in my encounter with certain texts of Emmanuel Levinas, Michel Henry, and Jacques Derrida.

The encounter was traumatic, so my pleasure in reading philosophy is now never free of a certain imposed discomfort. I had numerous startling surprises. First, it seemed that these texts were, at least in significant part, literary texts—which certainly does not mean that this accounts for their “essence” or that they should therefore be denied the status of philosophical texts—or, on the other hand, that we should argue in favor of a confusion between the philosophic and the literary. It simply means, in the first place, that the philosophical necessity for the unveiling of what is, as it is, is not in these texts separable from the work of language—language considered as something that must be “worked”—or from any specific style.

Additionally (and this is an indication of their traumatic power), one of the significant stylistic traits shared by these texts is violence, a violence done to the logos itself in its apophantic exigency as manifested, for example, in its persistent practice of paradox, metaphor, oxymoron, and parataxis. And the reader is the first to be exposed to this violence, if reading a text entails re-creating for oneself the acts of thought it suggests.

These works clearly produce meaning, but do they not also dangerously deviate from the standards of evidence and the transparency of language characterizing the Husserlian idea of phenomenology as, precisely, a . . .

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