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.

4 thoughts on “Being Given, Book V: Beyond the Modern Subject”

  1. Great post, and I’m definitely intrigued to investigate Marion now. However, I wonder if I might offer what I think is a small historical correction. You wrote:

    “As Rosemann points out, Being and Time is all about the self—about leaving inauthentic forms of existence behind and embracing our own existence.”

    I’m pretty sure this misses Heidegger’s aim in Being and Time. As far as I can tell, Heidegger takes up an analysis of Dasein in order to answer the question of the meaning of being. He gives reasons within B&T why answering the question of the meaning of being requires an existential analytic, but at no time is he ethically pedagogical (as far as I can tell).

    Additionally, his use of the terms translated into English as “authentic/inauthentic” aren’t meant as denigrations of ways of being. As he says in his lecture course “The Basic Problems of Phenomenology” (Hofstader’s English translation) on page 160:

    “Being lost [inauthentic], however, does not have a negative, depreciative significance … This inauthentic self-understanding of the Dasein’s by no means signifies an ungenuine self-understanding. On the contrary, this everyday having of self within our factical, existent, passionate merging into things can surely be genuine, whereas all extravagant grubbing about in one’s soul can be in the highest degree counterfeit or even pathologically eccentric.”

    Looking forward to more posts,


  2. Josh,

    Thanks for your comment. Here are my revised thoughts–because I have not read B&T in toto, perhaps there are others out there that might want to address this issue? I might have misheard Rosemann in his lecture, however, his knowledge of Heidegger is quite extensive (he has published several articles on Heidegger and being German, of course doesn’t have to go through a translation), so I am inclined to attribute, should what was said be incorrect, the “mistake” to my mishearing, rather than his misreading Heidegger.

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