Of Life That Resists: On Michel Henry's Notion of Self-Affection

By Vassilicos, Basil | Philosophy Today, Spring 2015 | Go to article overview

Of Life That Resists: On Michel Henry's Notion of Self-Affection


Vassilicos, Basil, Philosophy Today


As a goal of phenomenological research, identifying the distinctive features of the experience of life rather seems to have fallen by the wayside. In certain respects, this is a surprising development; a properly elaborated notion of life would certainly have a significant bearing on a number of current topics in philosophy, among them ethical issues in the biomedical sciences and the notion of emergentism in consciousness studies. For all that, the study of life in and of itself, irrespective of any practical or interdisciplinary applications, seems to be of only minor importance when compared to topics like what it means to have free will, or a body, or an item of practical knowledge. It is as if only those latter sorts of problems, and not ones associated with the distinctive experiential qualities of life, allowed us to take stock of ourselves, which is to say, allowed us to come to terms with the burden, not just of having life, but of having to live.

One exception is Michel Henry's pursuit of a phenomenological conception of life. There, one cannot but be struck by the quite particular sense of life that is at stake in a phenomenology that only appears to make room for efficient causes. Synonymous neither with transcendence and factical life à la Heidegger nor with the unceasing engagement and intentionality of conscious life à la Sartre, what Henry calls 'Radical Life' breaks with the idea that life is what enables human beings, rather than stones or clouds, to be involved in situations or be-in-the-world, and thereby to be caught up in and preoccupied with the world around us. To the contrary, the significance of life lies for Henry in a different direction; it is that which cleaves subjectivity from the world, thereby exposing one to the world's irreality and the staleness of its appearances, as well as to a realm of truth little susceptible to any form of mediation.

However, if this experience of life is indeed so isolated and excluded from any appearing of the world, then how is it given at all? Henry was rarely able to improve upon the skill with which he addresses this problem, above all in The Genealogy of Psychoanalysis and the later work Incarnation, via the Cartesian notion of the "videre videor" ("I seem to see"). For Henry, the videor holds the key to the type of self-affection in which this life is experienced, and thus shown as both suffering and enjoyment, as both burden and empowerment.

As I show, it is above all in Henry's exemplification of the videor in affective experience (in undergoing a passion, feeling pain) that one is finally able to pin down his two principle arguments concerning the nature of this self-affection. The one, regarding the videor as a form of self-awareness, ultimately fails to convince, for in the last analysis Henry does not do enough to distinguish his version from similar such accounts offered by Sartre, Descartes, and even Heidegger. On the other hand, the same cannot be said for Henry's analyses of a type of affective experience whose primary characteristic is precisely a resistance internal to life itself. Not only does such an account of resistance allow a concrete understanding of what a self- or auto-affection could be about; it also opens up a perspective on why, for Henry, an original givenness of life cannot but be structured in this way.

By the end of this discussion, I hope to have shown how Henry's interpretation of the videor points the way toward what is ultimately a conception of life, as is especially, but not only, to be found in his late work, Incarnation, which ends up including (much to our surprise) a form of impotence and limitation, and thus finitude, as the very implication of its manifestation. Moreover, I aim to underline how Henry thereby opens up a profound perspective on what is so dissatisfying and frustrating about the experiences of limitation, namely their ambiguous and relative character.

An Epochê within the Crisis of Truth

Given our aim to discuss Henry's phenomenological interpretation of the Cartesian cogito as "videre videor," it is indispensable that it first be situated with respect to his understanding of metaphysical doubt. …

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