Part I: A Brief Introduction to Jean-Luc Marion’s Sur la théologie blanche de Descartes
The following is a three-part series on Jean-Luc Marion based on a recent lecture presented at the University of Dallas by Derek Morrow. Though I have been at UD for two years, this was my first semester to met Derek, and it has been my great pleasure to get to know him and become friends. Derek is currently a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of Dallas and expects to receive his PhD in May, 2007. He recently contributed a chapter to a volume on Marion’s work in phenomenology (Givenness and God: Questions of Jean-Luc Marion, Fordham University Press, 2005). He has also published a number of peer reviewed articles in the Heythrop Journal and the International Philosophical Quarterly.
Jean-Luc Marion is arguably one of the most important figures in continental philosophy and theology today. In the world of contemporary academic research and publication, it is rare indeed that a scholar should manage to establish himself as a leading authority in his field; only a select few ever manage to do so, and then only after a lifetime of careful research. Amazingly, Marion has done so not only once, but twice, and in two separate areas of philosophy, first in Descartes studies and then subsequently in phenomenology. In France, where he is professor of philosophy at the University of Paris, Sorbonne (Paris, IV), Marion is best known for his magisterial trilogy on Cartesian metaphysics, Sur l’ontologie grise de Descartes (1975), Sur la théologie blanche de Descartes (1981), and Sur le prisme métaphysique de Descartes (1986; Eng. trans.: On Descartes’ Metaphysical Prism, 1999). In addition to this trilogy he has also published two volumes of collected essays on Descartes, Questions cartésiennes: méthode et métaphysique (1991; Eng. trans.: Cartesian Questions: Method and Metaphysics, 1999) and Questions cartésiennes II: Sur l’ego et sur Dieu (1996). For this extraordinary contribution to Descartes studies he received the prestigious Grand Prix de Philosophie de l’Académie Française in 1992. Such an impressive body of work would already have been achievement enough, but Marion has gone on to publish a second trilogy of studies, this time in the field of phenomenology, Réduction et donation (1989; Eng. trans.: Reduction and Givenness, 1998), Étant donné (1997; Eng. trans.: Being Given, 2002), and De surcroît (2001; Eng. trans.: In Excess, 2002). His most recent book, Le phénomène érotique: Six méditations (2003), examines the phenomenology of love. This more recent research comprising his numerous groundbreaking studies in phenomenology is that for which he is most well known in the United States, where he holds a second academic appointment as the John Nuveen Professor of the Philosophy of Religion and Theology in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago, teaching there as well in the Committee on Social Thought and the Department of Philosophy. Several international conferences in the past few years have been organized and dedicated exclusively to an examination of Marion’s work in phenomenology and its relation to theology. The first of these took place in Dublin, Ireland, in January 2003; a second conference entitled “Jean-Luc Marion and the Horizon of Modern Theology” was held at the University of Notre Dame in May 2004. Finally, beyond his extensive writings in Descartes and in phenomenology, Marion has also published a number of influential studies in theology. The most notable of these is Dieu sans l’être (1982; Eng. trans.: God Without Being,, 1991), which created an uproar among Thomists and Heideggerians alike for its commendation of Christian love (agape, or charity) as the preeminent phenomenological category, superior at once to the being of traditional scholastic metaphysics and to its supposed overcoming in Heidegger’s phenomenology of Being. Marion has not shied away from controversy, for he understands himself as a Christian philosopher who does not hesitate to appropriate the insights of postmodern thought whenever he finds it useful or necessary to do so. Most recently, he has expressed a desire to resume his work in theology, but whether in doing so he will continue to use the conceptual tools he has developed in phenomenology remains to be seen.
In this three part series of posts I will offer a brief introduction to the argument of Marion’s second book on Descartes, Sur la théologie blanche de Descartes (On the “Blank/White” Theology of Descartes). First, a word of explanation about the title: Why write a book on the “white” theology of Descartes? Marion is very fond of puns and wordplay (a fondness that reveals, at least on the level of style, some of his debt to postmodern modes of discourse), often incorporating them into the titles of his books. The present instance is no exception to this general rule. In French, “blanche” literally means “white,” but it also bears the idiomatic sense of “blank,” meaning unwritten or without content, as in the expression, “I gave him a blank check.” In the book’s title, Marion is using blanche in that idiomatic sense because he wants to stress that Cartesian metaphysics operates against the background of a blank theology, a theology without content. In addition, however, Marion also wants us to hear resonances of the more literal rendering, “white theology,” simply because the argument of Théologie blanche, his second book on Descartes, complements that of the first book on Descartes, which examines Cartesian “gray” ontology. Marion’s third book in the series, On Descartes’ Metaphysical Prism, “refracts” the colors of the gray ontology and the white theology through its “metaphysical prism,” and so completes the argument as well as the metaphor elaborated by the first two books.