Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Sense and Icon: The Problem of Sinngebung in Levinas and Marion

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Sense and Icon: The Problem of Sinngebung in Levinas and Marion

Article excerpt

It is probably no overstatement to say that phenomenology, in the Husserlian tradition, is ultimately concerned with the constitution of sense. The problematic of the constitution of sense, to put it simply, interrogates the birth of sense and the conditions of that creative act.' In the Third Book of the Ideen, Husserl writes that phenomenology

is the science of `origins,' of the 'mothers' of all cognition; and it is the maternal ground of all philosophical method: to this ground and to the work in it, everything leads back.2

It is important to note that this conception of phenomenology widens the field of research. Contrary to popular images of the Husserlian project-viz., that it is consumed by the operative conception of a Cartesian notion of origin and ground-this passage describes the fundamental aim of phenomenology as the interrogation and articulation of that which gives birth to meaning.

The project is programmatically set up without prior juridical constraints. This is to say, Husserl evokes maternal imagery for the express purpose of orienting the phenomenologist toward that from which all sense arises. This orientation, it is important to add, is prior to Husserl's famous decision for a non-worldly, transcendental ego. For Husserl the philosopher (as opposed to Husserl the programmatic thinker) the final "mother" is the transcendental ego, and this conclusion has led many to see phenomenology as purely and simply an egological science. But what if sense were to be born otherwise than the ego? What if the ego, in the sense Husserl ascribes to it, were itself born, constituted? How could we describe and account for this other maternal ground? What phenomenological tools are necessary for such a paradoxical description-a description paradoxical precisely because the very subject who describes is always late to the conditions of its own birth? In the following reflections, we will investigate the resources in the work of Emmanuel Levinas and Jean-Luc Marion for describing this other ground of sense, this other site of birth. The importance of such resources comes from their ability to answer the question that lies at the very heart of the contemporary critique of phenomenology: what remains for phenomenology in the face of radical alterity?


In Levinas's work, we find a twofold sense of Sinngebung. It is unfortunate that this double concept of sense-bestowal has been overlooked by his commentators, for in it lie some of the most profoundly original contributions Levinas has made to the phenomenological tradition. By nuancing the phenomenological notion of Sinngebung, Levinas reminds us of both the reliance of Husserl's employment of sense-bestowal upon the free ego3 and the fecundity of the bestowal of sense when taken up in the context of the genesis of the responsible subject. Hence, we will find Levinas within the span of only three years-1959 to 1961-evoking the limits of a theory of sense, while at the same time identifying sense-genesis with ethics. This double concept of sense comes, of a certain phenomenological necessity, from Levinas's observation in "Reflexions sur la 'technique' phenomenologique" that "all givens (toute donnee) . . . are moments of the work of Sinngebung."4 In the context of that essay, Levinas is primarily concerned with how empirical givens are products of the work of sense-bestowing consciousness, but this claim extends further to the ethical problematic: how I am given to myself as for-the-other is a sense bestowed upon me from the other? This is at least one aspect of the other as teacher. The other teaches me the most profound of lessons: who I am and what it means to say "me" (moi). Who I am, what it means to be myself, is a sense that, in the ethical relation, is bestowed upon me from outside the egoic interiority of my self. The subtlety of Levinas's treatment of the problem of sense can be seen when we realize that this "experience"5 is both the limit of idealism (the disposition that first discovered sense-bestowing acts) and the marker of another direction in the constitution of sense. …

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