Augustine On Interpreting Scripture: Always a "Plus" of Meaning

As Michael Hanby notes, in the Confessions, Augustine teaches that there is a “plenitude of true meanings for a single text” […] The ontological warrant that underlies this insistence throughout the Augustinian corpus derives, in part, from the very nature of truth’s oneness, which defies its circumscription or possession” (Augustine and Modernity, p. 34). For example, in Confessions XII, Augustine writes:

“Having listened to all these divergent opinions and weighed them, I do not wish to bandy words, for that serves no purpose except to ruin those who listen. The law is an excellent thing for building us up provided we use it lawfully, because its object is to promote the charity which springs from a pure heart, a good conscience and unfeigned faith, and I know what were the twin precepts on which our Master made the whole law and prophets depend. If I confess this with burning love, O my God, O secret light of my eyes, what does it matter to me that various interpretations of those words are proffered, as long as they are true? I repeat, what does it matter to me if what I think the author thought is different from what someone else thinks he thought? All of us, his readers, are doing our utmost to search out and understand the writer’s intention, and since we believe him to be truthful, we do not presume to interpret him as making any statement that we either know or suppose to be false. Provided, therefore, that each person tries to ascertain in the holy scriptures the meaning the author intended, what harm is there if a reader holds an opinion which you, the light of all truthful minds, show to be true, even though it is not what was intended by the author, who himself meant something true, but not exactly that?” (Augustine’s Confess. XII.27, pp. 327-328, M. Boulding translation).

Maria Boulding (the translator) adds the following note in regard to the passage above, “Augustine’s recognition that meanings other than those intended by the writer can legitimately be discovered in the sacred text is grounded in his conviction that the God of truth who inspired the writer and guarantees the text abides in the minds of believing readers, and that though God makes use of human words, they are never adequate to fully express his mystery; there is always a ‘plus’ of meaning” (p. 323, note 71).

We definitely have something more than gramatico-historical hermeneutics in place here. (Anachronistically speaking, our apologies to Spinoza and company).

Being Given, Book V: Beyond the Modern Subject

This is my last post on the BG series. It has been great to interact with new theophenomenology friends. Going back through these notes makes me want to read the book again and to continue further study of Marion.


Marion begins book V with a critique of the shortcomings of the modern view of the subject. First, Marion says that Kant’s “I think” fails to accomplish individuation. Kant’s famous distinction is of course between the phenomenal and the noumenal. The “things-in-themselves” are the “source” of the phenomenal realm, but cannot themselves become objects of experience. Consequently, the “I think” is not an object of experience, but in a sense makes itself as an object of experience possible. In other words, I have no knowledge of myself except that I appear to myself as an object. Kant says that there is an “I think” that constitutes the unity of our experience (the “transcendental apperception of the ego”). So the “I think” is something that precedes things like quantity, quality etc. Here the critique is that Kant allows for no individuation as the “I think” is too abstract. [N.b., see Dr. Philipp W. Rosemann’s article in the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly in which he argues that Kant is an Averroist, i.e., there is one agent intellect for all of humankind; hence, no individuation].
Next we have Marion’s second critique, viz., that all representation in Kant is in the end self-representation—otherwise, it is not an object of my experience. So there is an “I think” that makes everything that I experience have a certain unity. Here we encounter a circularity problem, which in the worse case scenario moves into solipsism. Marion’s third critique (as Rosemann points out) relates to Foucault’s critique of modernity. That is, Kant dichotomizes the subject into a transcendental subject and an empirical subject. On the one hand, “I” am the function that constitutes the unity of my thought (i.e., a transcendental subject), but on the other hand, “I” am an empirical subject. Because the “I think” is outside of experience, we have an essentially divided subject. An additional problem emerges in that we can appear to ourselves only as another object of experience. So subjectivity is reduced to a special kind of thing (an object). Heidegger as we recall speaks of a human being as Dasein—emphasizing that a human being is not an object. Here, Marion seems to suggest that even Heidegger’s critique doesn’t overcome modern problems because he fails to emphasize two crucial themes: personal relationships and love. In passing over personal relationships and love, Heidegger fails to recognize that love is the acknowledgment of one’s need for the Other.

In section 26, Marion discusses his new subject. “My task therefore is only to describe this scene, where what comes after the ‘subject’ is in the end born —that is to say, finally admits its inability, or especially its unobligedness, to constitute itself by the cogitatio sui or causa sui, but receives itself from the given phenomenon and from it alone” (262). That is, the receiver is no longer simply the subject that constitutes the world. Rather, in light of the fact that something is given to me, I emerge as a receiver. No longer is the subject that which presides over the world and filters and orders the flux of sense. The new subject is now constituted by something that is given to it. Here Marion is not doing away with Kantian notions in toto. In other words, Marion does not deny the insight of modernity of the constitutive subject. As Marion explains, “The receiver does not precede what it forms by means of its prism—it results from it” (p. 265). So the receiver is still formative, however, a new metaphor, that of the prism [he also speaks of a “filter”], is introduced. Marion continues, “The filter is deployed first as a screen. Before the not yet phenomenalized given gives itself, no filter awaits it. Only the impact of what gives itself brings about the arising, with one and the same shock, of the flash with which its first visibility bursts and the new screen on which it crashes. Though arises from the pre-phenomenal indistinctness, like a transparent screen is colored by the impact of a ray of light heretofore uncolored in the translucent ether that suddenly explodes on it.” (p. 265). With the prism/filter metaphors, Marion is replacing the Aristotelian conception of human mind understood as a wax tablet on which something is impressed. The new subject is now best described as a screen, filter, or prism. Rosemann points out that a word that Marion uses but is not here employed is “co-constitutionality.” Here we have the gifted on the one hand and the given on the other, and they enter into manifestation. There would be no gifted without a given—i.e. the subject exists only because there is something given to it. On the other hand, the given requires the gifted, which requires a kind of screen allowing the given to appear, to become manifest. The point being that there is still a good deal of Kantianism is in place here. E.g., the Given is a thing-in-itself, the screen is the a priori. Yet, in this construal, neither subject nor object is prior, rather, they are co-constitutionary.

Another “subverting” passage of significance (and of course more than just subverting) is Marion’s discussion of the “summons.” Though lengthy, the passage is well-worth contemplating. First, Marion describes the overwhelming power of a call that compels the subject to surrender to it—“in the double sense of the French s’y render; being displaced and submitting to it. […] The pure and simply shock (Anstoss) of the summons identifies the I only by transforming it without delay into a me ‘to whom.’ The passage from the nominative to the objective cases (accusative, dative) thus inverts the hierarchy of the metaphysical categories. Individualized essence (ousia prōtē) no longer precedes relation (pros ti) and no longer excludes it from its ontic perfection. In contrast, relation here precedes individuality. And again: individuality loses its autarchic essence on account of a relation that is not only more originary than it, but above all half unknown, seeing as it can fix one of the two poles—me —without at first and most of the time delivering the other, the origin of the call (for the call can be exercised without coming into evidence). Individual essence thus undergoes a two-fold relativization: resulting from a relation and from a relation of unknown origin. Whence a primordial paradox: in and through the summons, the gifted is identified, but this identification escapes him straightaway since he receives it without necessarily knowing it. He therefore receives himself from what he thinks neither clearly nor distinctly; he is, despite the failure in him of the ‘I think (myself).’ Subjectivity or subjectness is submitted to an originally altered, called identity” (p. 268). This is an incredibly dense passage—not only do we have a subverting of Aristotelian metaphysics—i.e., a rejection of the primacy of substance over relation, but also a criticism directed at Descartes “clear” and “distinct” ideas. Regarding the idea of relation having priority over substance, if we turn to pre-modern thought—viz., Trinitarian theology—we have the Trinity as a relation of Persons; hence, both postmodern and pre-modern thought have room for the de-throning of substance and giving primacy to relation. In terms of the present work, Marion seems to be saying that we should not think of the gifted as a substance, but instead should think of the relationship between the gifted and the manifestation as coming first.

Though there is significantly more to say concerning book V, I will close with a statement by Marion reminiscent of GWB, viz., the Other is reached in his “unsubstitutable particularity, where he shows himself like no other Other can. This individuation has a name: love” (324).

Personally, I find Marion’s desire to introduce a “new subject” among the most intriguing aspects of his project. Instead of the modern, even idolatrous and all-controlling subject, Marion pursues a sub-ject, i.e., a subject who subjects himself and is thus constituted by the situation. Nonetheless, Marion, as we have seen, does not want to do away with all modern assumptions, nor does he desire to return to a pre-critical realism. However, as with others of the postmodern tradition, he does find modernity lacking in significant ways. Thus, we encounter in Marion both an embracing of and a moving beyond modern assumptions; however, one wonders whether this harmonization can be successfully sustained—perhaps it can in the same way that Augustine suggests—by “plundering the riches of the Egyptians” and leaving behind the dross? Such questions notwithstanding, Marion has undoubtedly given us something beyond a strictly Kantian notion of subjectivity, which in and of itself is quite an accomplishment.

Being Given, Book IV: Down with Impoverished Phenomena and Toward the Saturated Phenomenon

In book IV, Marion continues his deconstruction but now focuses on the “privilege of certainty” that metaphysics has given to what he calls “poor phenomena,” i.e., phenomena poor in intuition and which “claim only a formal intuition in mathematics or a categorical intuition in logic” (222). This abstract epistemological certainty is for Marion a radical phenomenological deficit. Instead of privileging such poor phenomena, Marion introduces his “saturated phenomena” and accords it paradigmatic status. “What metaphysics rules out as an exception (the saturated phenomenon), phenomenology here takes for its norm” (227).

So having challenged the traditional concepts of the paradigmatic yet impoverished phenomena, Marion presents the saturated phenomenon—that which fills the expectation and goes beyond it. Marion builds this concept in contradistinction to Kant and analyzes the saturated phenomenon in terms of four categories (quantity, quality, modality, relation), purposing to show that the saturated phenomenon explodes each of these categories. In terms of quantity, the saturated phenomenon is unforeseeable because it cannot be understood as being constituted by means of previous experience. As to quality, the saturated phenomenon is unbearable, i.e., it simply has a super-abundance of quality. Thirdly, in terms of relation the saturated phenomenon is absolute, i.e., it is given as something that does not stand in relation to other phenomena but rather stands on its own. Lastly, with regard to modality, Marion wants to express the idea of the movement from the “I” that constitutes the experience to the “witness.” This leads to the reduction of the subject—i.e., the subject takes on a receptive position in which he/she becomes the screen on which the saturated phenomenon appears.

Next, Marion proceeds to discuss the four types of saturated phenomena: the event, the idol, the flesh and the icon. First, the saturated phenomenon as event or historical phenomenon saturates the category of quantity. Secondly, the saturated phenomenon as idol is manifest in its bedazzlement, thus saturating the Kantian category of quality. As Marion explains, the idol bedazzles the subject to such an extent that she must come back to it again and again. In other words, the idol offers a kind of visibility that overflows the capacity of the subject to take it in. Thirdly, the flesh negates the Kantian category of relation. Here Marion speaks of the immediacy of the flesh in terms of auto-affection. So whether in agony and suffering or love and desire, the flesh always auto-affects itself first in and by itself—”all arise from the flesh and its own immanence” (231). Fourthly, the saturated phenomenon as icon explodes the category of modality as it is irregardable and irreducible. Interestingly, Marion says that the icon gathers together certain characteristics of the previous three types of saturated phenomena in that “it demands a summation of horizons and narrations,” “it opens a teleology,” “it begs to be seen and reseen,” “it exercises an individuation over the gaze that confronts it,” and lastly “it accomplishes this individuation by affecting the I so originally that it loses its function as a transcendental pole,” thus bringing it close to auto-affection (233).

Having discussed the various types of saturated phenomena, we arrive at the saturation of all saturations—the phenomenon of revelation. By concentrating the other four types of saturated phenomena in itself, the phenomenon of revelation takes saturation to its maximum. Here Marion is simply presenting the phenomenon of revelation as a “mere possibility” without presupposing its actuality (235). Though as Marion points out, “phenomenology cannot decide if a revelation can or should give itself,” yet in case it does, phenomenology (and it alone) can determine that “such a phenomenon of revelation should assume the figure of the paradox of paradoxes” (235). Here Marion is attempting to remain within the strict phenomenological bounds, as he describes the phenomenon of revelation in its pure possibility and in the reduced immanence of givenness. Moreover, he makes explicit that in the present work he does not have to “judge its actual manifestation or ontic status, which remain the business proper to revealed theology” (236). Of course, Marion does speak of Christ as the saturated phenomenon par excellence and goes on to speak about the various ways in which Christ explodes the Kantian categories. Though I will not discuss each of these “explosions” individually, I will mention Marion’s discussion of Christ in terms of modality. Here Christ appears as an irregardable and irreducible phenomenon because He transforms the “I” into his witness (240–241). With his concept of “witness”, Marion has moved beyond a strictly Kantian subject.

Book III: Deconstructing Traditional Metaphysical Tenets

In book III, Marion introduces the essential characteristics of the given phenomenon, each of which describes how the event becomes accessible: anamorphosis, unpredictable landing, incident, event and fait accompli. Here what is significant about these features of the given is that because they are neither metaphysical nor causal, the given is not determined by any transcendental conditions. Though each of these characteristics could be discussed in detail, I have decided on three, the “unpredictable landing,” the “incident,” and the “event,” because each provide examples of the ways in which Marion deconstructs foundational elements of the traditional metaphysical landscape.

With his discussion of the “unpredictable landing,” Marion deconstructs the traditional definition of contingency as the property of what is not necessary, and likewise suggests that metaphysical opposition between contingency and necessity becomes irrelevant in phenomenology. “In fact, it shows itself to be inadequate, indeed erroneous” (131). In this section, Marion interacts with a well-known passage from Aristotle in order to show that Aristotle has to admit that the necessity of event x occurring (or not) remains inscribed within the horizon of possibility. In addition to deconstructing necessity, he also questions whether potentiality must be thought in a lesser way than actuality. Instead Marion says that something arrives to me in a way that I am not determining it, i.e., it contingently imposes itself on me.

Turning to his discussion of the “incident,” Marion deconstructs the traditional understanding of substance and accident. In the tradition, substance has always been given primacy. Marion, however, wants us to think of the incident in terms of accident. According to Marion, even Thomas Aquinas was forced to recognize that substance is an accident of an accident. In other words, Marion is saying that from an historical perspective Aquinas got his idea of being (esse) from Avicenna who claimed that being is an accident of the substance. Thomas, of course, did not say this, but Marion’s point is to show that there is a continuum between Aquinas and Avicenna, and if the act of being is like an accident, then we have a primacy of accident over substance. (N.b., Avicenna claims that essence is sheer possibility. When essence is actualized in reality, then existence is added to it as an attribute/accident). So again we encounter a challenge to the Western tradition of metaphysics with its static presence over dynamism. Substance has been understood as something stable, yet its accidents can of course change. Marion, however, subverts this idea and says that substance “shows itself only as accident of the accident—as second-order incident” (158). This new privileging of accident over substance suits Marion’s project well as accident has the determinations of givenness much more than substance.

Marion’s discussion of the “event” likewise challenges the tradition of the primacy of cause over effect. Here Marion says that the traditional claim that the cause precedes the effect is mistaken; the effect should instead be given primacy. As Marion points out, even Aristotle would say that an effect is first for us, but in itself the cause is first. In our analysis of givenness we must accept that a phenomenon that gives itself gives itself as an effect that cannot be reduced to its causes—it contains more reality than its causes. To illustrate his point, Marion gives the example of World War I, viz., there have been numerous explanations offered concerning the cause of this event. So instead of reducing the effect to the cause, we should allow the effect to be taken seriously—allow the given, to be given. In other words, Marion’s emphasis is that the event is something that resists the reduction to its causes.

With the introduction and explication of these characteristics, we gain insight into Marion’s notion of givenness, yet we also see the ways in which he challenges traditional metaphysics as to their privileging certain primacies. Here one might ask whether Marion’s deconstruction of metaphysics is actually a destroying of metaphysics or whether his desire is more along the lines of subverting the primacy of traditional metaphysics because it prevents givenness from being seen. In other words, is Marion’s aim here more or less to bring to our attention that traditionally construed, metaphysics explains givenness away, or does he have more in mind?

Book II: The Gift

The second book of Being Given is devoted to question of the Gift. In light of the fact that Marion wants to avoid falling into metaphysics, the model will be centered on his idea of the gift and not on a metaphysical model. Here the question becomes, “Can we use existing categories in order to analyze givenness?” The first step in Marion’s analysis of the gift is to address the Derridian critique of the gift. According to Derrida, the gift is impossible because it is self-nullifying, i.e., it deconstructs itself. The reason for this self-deconstruction is that when a gift is given, a reciprocity is necessitated—the one receiving the gift feels indebted. In Derrida’s view, as soon as something is recognized as gift, it can no longer be a gift—it falls into the “economic trap.” In addressing this Derridian critique, Marion says that Derrida has not understood the gift deeply enough because there is a kind of gift (i.e., the reduced gift) that can escape Derrida’s analysis. In short, book II is devoted to a reduction of the gift—a triple bracketing of giver, givee, and gift.

As he interacts in book II with the metaphor of the “circle,” Marion observes that we have the gift and what is not suited to the gift is its circular returning—i.e., the gift is no longer a gift when it returns to the giver (p. 79). Consequently, Marion asks, “What would it look like to give a gift in a non-circular fashion, linear fashion?” The circle means that whatever appears in my field of existence is reduced to my horizon and limits me in that field of existence. I.e., instead of accepting the gift simply as a surprise or joy in itself, I absorb the gift into something that I can digest, that I am expecting. So the circle stands for the inability to allow a challenging. Marion wants move beyond this and to break through this supposedly impenetrable horizon constituted solely by the subject.

We recall that in God Without Being(GWB), Marion distinguishes between an approach to God which lets God be God and an idolatrous approach. The former he explains in terms of the icon and the latter the idol. An idol is a representation of the divine that tries to communicate something about God; however, the representation is idolatrous. With the idol, I do not allow God to challenge, re-construct or even destroy my representation, but instead, I circumscribe God in my own categories. Here we might say that the idol is more or less synonymous with the circle of the gift. In contrast, we have the icon, which is the idea of something coming forth on its own initiative. In other words, I allow myself to be seen by God in the light of God. In contemplating the icon, the subject is subjected to God’s gaze and the attempted circumspecting gaze of the subject is shattered. As we have noted in a previous post, Marion in Being Given (BG) wants to give an account in phenomenological, not theological terms. So in Book II of BG, Marion formulates a phenomenological equivalent to what he did in GWB. In regard to the triple bracketing of the gift, giver and givee, not only does the gift become thinkable, but when I reduce the giver or the givee (e.g. in anonymity), then will I understand properly what the gift is about. An example that Marion employs is giving to charity. In this case, we as givers can give in secret, and we don’t really know who the recipient is—this makes the gift more properly a gift. In giving to the charity, I give anonymously to an anonymous givee.

Summing up, in Marion’s formulation, we have the giver, the gift, the givee, and the initiative now comes from the gift. Likewise, the givability of the gift opens one up to the ability of giving. For example, a person’s vocation—a person’s gift in a sense flows freely and naturally into giving (as Marion says, it “decides” the giver to give it, p. 108). With this understanding, we move away from a modern to a more pre-modern understanding of subjectivity, yet without totally abandoning the modern subject. The gift properly understood is not something that I decide to accept; rather, it intrudes upon me. Thus, Marion has an answer to the Derridian critique. That is, the gift has broken free of the “economic circle” when understood in terms of giveability and acceptability—in terms of givenness.

Givenness: Book I, sections 4-6, "The Act of Coming Forward"

At the end of section 3 (book I), Marion has said that his task is to define givenness on its own terms. Before digging in to Marion’s analysis, it is helpful to review a bit of Heidegger. According to Heidegger, we only have access to Being (Sein) through beings (Seiendes). That is, we have to take a being as our starting point. What does it mean for a human to be, or an animal, or even God? Heidegger says that in the history of Western philosophy the Presocratics “got it right.” However, with Plato and especially Aristotle, philosophy took a wrong turn. E.g., in Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Zeta 1, we are told that our inquiry has no other object than being. According to Heidegger, Aristotle’s question, “What is being?” is the same question as, “What is a substance?” For Heidegger this is where we have gotten off track—this is the forgetfulness of being. When we speak of substance and accidents, we are no longer asking about being. In order to analyze Being, we have to go through beings; however, we should not forget about Being.

In the same way, we might ask, “What is givenness?” That is, when we look at something that is given, we must not forgot about the givenness. With this, Marion begins his analysis of givenness with his discussion of a painting. Marion appeals to art because art escapes the trappings of philosophy in terms of metaphysics. In order to properly understand the painting, we must see it as given—not as a being or an object. This is not to say that the painting is not a being, nor an object, nor ready-to-hand. So first we might ask, “Why is saying that the painting is an object not a sufficient analysis?” Marion answers that an object does not change simply by being placed by the artist and called art (e.g., a urinal is not art, just because the artist calls it a work of art). Second, “Is a painting something that is just a ready-to-hand?” (“Ready-to-hand” is Heidegger’s term and speaks of things that exist and are used in everyday life. E.g., desks in a classroom—they are absorbed in a network of useful things associated with the classroom (books, tables etc.), but when the desk is pointed out, it becomes an object, a ready-to-hand. Third, what are to make of Marion’s claim that the painting is not a being? This does not mean that a painting doesn’t have existence, but rather his point is that if you analyze it simply as a being, you still have not talked about it as a painting. In other words, it is not merely being. What Marion wants to get at is a characteristic that is more fundamental for understanding the painting. It is not just an object, nor merely a being, nor simply a ready-to-hand. So what is it? That is, “What then appears in the phenomenon of the painting if neither its subsistence nor its usefulness or its beingness reach the phenomenality proper to it?” (48)

As Marion explains, the painting has an “effect.” That is, “to different degrees but always, the painting (like every phenomenon) does not show any object nor is it presented as a being; rather, it accomplishes an act—it comes forward into visibility” (49). In other words, what I miss by saying that the painting is a mere being is the act, the coming forward, the dynamic aspect—being does not capture this. As Marion continues to explain the ways in which givenness is other than being, he is also presenting a critique of Western metaphysics, viz., the traditional philosophical “story” has frozen reality instead of understanding it as a dynamism. With Plato, we have “real” reality in the static forms. Likewise, with Aristotle we have forms which make things to be what they are. Thus, in his analysis of givenness, Marion is trying to re-capture the act of coming forward in visibility. Givenness is the effect. Givenness is not an agent who brings the painting forward.

In section 5, we enter into various objections raised against Marion. Here the question is asked as to whether nothing and death are given as well? Keeping with his theme, Marion answers that even death and nothingness are defined by givenness. Recalling Heidegger, Marion says, “nothing is given by means of the fundamental mood of anxiety” (54). Neither can death escape givenness because it gives itself on its own. Thus, “death does not steal from givenness that which (or he who) could receive it; it inscribes it (or him or her) forever within the horizon of givenness” (59). In Section 6, Marion again seeks to emphasize the dynamism in our experience that we tend to gloss over. Speaking of the “fold of givenness” as articulating a process with a given, nonetheless the given cannot give the given as it gives itself (68). In other words, the givenness is not available in person—it is the self-hiding process (recalling Heidegger and his understanding of aleithia or unconcealment) that makes the giving available. In sum, we might say that givenness is not something in addition to the given, nor is it the cause of the given, rather “givenness is […] discerned at the very heart of the given” (64).