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Phenomenological life (French: vie phénoménologique) is life considered from a philosophical and rigorously phenomenological point of view.[1] The relevant philosophical project is called "radical phenomenology of life" (phénoménologie radicale de la vie) or "material phenomenology of life" (phénoménologie matérielle de la vie). This part of phenomenology has been developed by the French philosopher Michel Henry, since his fundamental book on The Essence of Manifestation[2] ; it studies the subjective life of individuals in its pathetic and affective reality as pure impression.[3]

Definition


The philosopher Michel Henry defines life from a phenomenological point of view as that which possesses the faculty and the power "of feeling and experiencing oneself in each point of its being".[4]

For Michel Henry, life is essentially subjective force and affectivity [5] — it consists of a pure subjective experience of oneself which perpetually oscillates between suffering and joy.[6] [7] A "subjective force" is not an impersonal, blind and insensitive force like the objective forces we meet in nature, but a living and sensible force experienced from within and resulting from an inner desire and a subjective effort of the will to satisfy it.[8] [9] Starting from this phenomenological approach to life, in Incarnation, une philosophie de la chair (Incarnation, a Philosophy of the Flesh)[10] Michel Henry establishes a radical opposition between the living flesh endowed with sensibility and the material body, which is in principle insensible.

The word "phenomenological" refers to phenomenology, which is the study of phenomena and a philosophical method which fundamentally concerns the study of phenomena as they appear.[11] What Henry calls "absolute phenomenological life" is the subjective life of individuals reduced to its pure inner manifestation, as we perpetually live it and feel it.[12] [13] It is life as it reveals itself and appears inwardly, its self-revelation: life is both what reveals and what is revealed.[14]

Properties


Life is by nature invisible because it never appears in the exteriority of a look; it reveals itself in itself without gap or distance.[15] The fact of seeing does in effect presuppose the existence of a distance and of a separation between what is seen and the one who sees, between the object that is perceived and the subject who perceives it.[16] A feeling, for example, can never be seen from the exterior, it never appears in the "horizon of visibility" of the world; it feels itself and experiences itself from within in the radical immanence of life.[17] Love cannot see itself, any more than hatred; feelings are felt in the secrecy of our hearts, where no look can penetrate.[18]

Life is constituted of sensitivity and affectivity — it is the unity of their manifestation, affectivity being however the essence of sensibility (as Henry shows in The Essence of Manifestation) which means that every sensation is affective by nature.[19] Phenomenological life is the foundation of all our subjective experiences (like the subjective experience of a sorrow, of seeing a color or the pleasure of drinking fresh water in summer) and of each of our subjective powers (the subjective power of moving the hand or the eyes, for example).[20]

In Incarnation, a philosophy of the flesh, Henry establishes a radical opposition between the living flesh endowed with sensibility and the material body which is as a matter of principle insensitive.

Phenomenological vs. biological


This phenomenological definition of life is founded, then, in the concrete subjective experience we have of life in our own existence. It thus corresponds to human life.[21] In I am the Truth. Toward a Philosophy of Christianity, Michel Henry writes about the other forms of life studied by biology and from which Heidegger derives his own philosophical conception of life:[22] "Is it not paradoxical for anyone who wants to know what life is to go and ask protozoa or, in the best case, honeybees? As if our only relation with life was a wholly external and fragile relation with beings about whom we know nothing – or so very little! As if we ourselves were not living beings!"[23]

This definition, however, fails to include living organisms that cannot experience themselves, such as plant life — unless one can find evidence of the existence of a certain kind of sensibility in them, as Professor A. Tronchet appears to suggest in his book La sensibilité des plantes (Plant Sensibility): "The protoplasm of plant cells, like that of animal cells, is endowed with irritability, i.e. a particular form of sensibility, thanks to which it is capable of being affected by excitations originating externally or internally".[24]

The Truth of Life


Michel Henry explains in C’est Moi la Vérité. Pour une philosophie du christianisme (I am the Truth. Towards a Philosophy of Christianity) what Christianity considers to be the Truth and which he calls "the Truth of Life".[25] He shows that the Christian concept of Truth is opposed to what men habitually consider to be the truth, which originates in Greek thought and which he calls "the truth of the world".[26] But what is truth? Truth is what shows itself and thus demonstrates its reality in its effective manifestation in us or in the world.[27] [28]

The truth of the world designates an external and objective truth, a truth in which everything appears to our gaze in the form of a visible object at a distance from us, i.e. in the form of a representation which is distinct from what it shows:[29] when we look at an apple, it is not the apple in itself that we see but a mere image of the apple that appears in our sensibility and which changes depending on the lighting or the angle from which we view it. In the same way, when we look at a person's face, it is not the person in herself that we see, but only an image of her face, her visible appearance in the world.[30] According to this way of conceiving truth, life is nothing more than a set of objective properties characterised (for example) by the need to feed oneself or one's aptitude for reproduction.[31]

Christian thought


In Christianity, Life is reduced to its internal reality, which is absolutely subjective and radically immanent.[32] Considered in its phenomenological reality, Life is quite simply the faculty and the subjective ability to feel sensations, small pleasures or great hurts, to experience desires and feelings, to move our bodies from within by exerting subjective effort, or even to think.[33][34] All such faculties possess the fundamental characteristic of appearing and manifesting themselves in themselves, with no gap or distance; we do not perceive them from outside our being or as present to our gaze, but only in us: we coincide with each of these abilities.[35] Life is in itself the power of manifestation and revelation, and what it manifests is itself, in its feeling self-revelation[36] — it is a power of revelation which is perpetually at work within us and which we continually forget.[37] [38]

The Truth of Life is absolutely subjective — that is, it is independent of our subjective beliefs and tastes. The perception of a coloured sensation or a pain, for example, is not a matter of personal preference but a fact and an incontestable inner experience which pertains to the absolute subjectivity of Life.[39] The Truth of Life does not therefore differ in any way from that which it makes true, it is not distinct from that which manifests itself in it.[40] Truth is manifestation itself in its pure inner revelation, and Life is what Christianity calls God.[41] [42]

The Truth of Life is not a relative truth which varies from one individual to another, but absolute Truth which is the inner foundation of each of our faculties and abilities, and which illuminates the least of our impressions.[43] The Truth of Life is not an abstract and indifferent truth; on the contrary, it is that which is most essential for man, as it is this alone that can lead him to salvation in his inner identification with it and in becoming the Son of God, rather than losing himself in the world.[44] [45] [46]

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