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).

Givenness, Book I, sections 1-3.

In the section entitled, “Preliminary Answers,” Marion makes explicit the dominant theme of his book, “what shows itself first gives itself” (5). Beginning with this theme and developing creative variations, Marion culminates the work with the “saturated phenomenon,” which becomes the paradigm for givenness.

In book I, sections 1-3, Marion enters into dialogue with Husserl and Heidegger. As he engages and deconstructs various past formulations, Marion wants to leave open the possibility of a phenomenon, which is not confined within intuition alone. Before diving in to Marion’s critique, we should say a bit about the difference between phenomenology and science. Phenomenology doesn’t want to be a science so it is not metaphysics, as metaphysics proceeds according to the methodology of science. Phenomenology instead serves as a counter-method. Phenomenology abstracts from, brackets, and focuses on givenness, i.e., the given prior to any theories we might add. In science, the method is to define the parameters from the beginning—before the scientist begins. Thus, the method of science defines rigid horizons. However, phenomenology does not proceed this way. Marion wants to get rid of the rigid horizon and the modern “I”, the modern “ego.” The modern subject is the idolatrous subject that constantly “images” itself, and consequently engages in idolatry (theologically speaking). Marion instead wants us to think of a different subject—the sub-ject, not the subject of modernity. That, is the postmodern sub-ject is one who subjects himself/herself and is constituted by the situation, rather than being the creator and sole constitutor of reality. In other words, we want to find a way to get the modern subject to become a sub-ject, and so we seek a counter-method that undoes the science method. Husserl and Heidegger have already done this to a certain extent in what they call “reduction.” Reduction is a kind of method that does not constitute but allows the things themselves to appear. Heidegger’s candidate for a counter-method is “so much appearing, so much being.” That is, we let things appear and to that extent they are. Then Marion explores other possibilities from Husserl, who said that philosophy should be about the “things themselves.” In his discussion of Husserl’s “principle of principles” (12-14), Marion finds the principle insufficient. According to Husserl, intuition is a process whereby there is still an expectation on the part of the one who has it as to what can be an experience that can measure up to an expectation. In other words, there is still a framework. Marion would say that every intuition, though immanent, transcends its object. That is, “transcends” in the sense that phenomenality is not exhausted by the intuition of an intentional object. For example, a book is intuited as a book, not as a mass of pages. Intentionality is the aspect in which consciousness contributes to the object (in this case seeing it as a book). Likewise, my consciousness intends something distinct from itself. That is, I intuit the book as not being me—thus, “in immanence, transcendence is given.” There is a transcendence in the book that is intuited, because the book is not me. So Marion here speaks of “transcendence” in the sense of going beyond consciousness—i.e., the book is not me. Thus, we have the givenness of transcendence in immanence.

In his critique Marion goes on to ask, “Does fulfilling intuition applied to an objective intentionality define in general all phenomenality or merely a restricted mode of phenomenality? […] In short, does the constitution of an intentional object by an intuition fulfilling ecstasy exhaust every form of appearing? And even more, we must ask if intuition should be restricted to the limits of intentionality and the object’s transcendence, or if it can be understood within the immense possibilities of what shows itself” (13). Here we begin to see “why” Marion criticizes the principle of principles, viz., because he believes that the possibilities of phenomenality exceed intuition. There is a horizon of expectation and there is interplay between intuition and intentionality, but to define phenomenality through intuition means to say that something that gives itself beyond the boundaries of intuition cannot be thought. In other words, Marion wants to make it possible to think about givenness in all of its rich possibilities, and he wants to loosen up the way in which the subject understands himself/herself as constituting experience—viz., the subject himself/herself can be constituted as well. Hence, what we have is a challenging of the absoluteness or rigidness of the a priori horizons, yet Marion does not want to do away with all modern “findings.” For example, Marion does not reject in toto the constitution of the object by the subject, but he does ask why the object is given to the subject. Ultimately, Marion wants to explore whether there are instances in which the object “breaks in” and (re)constitutes the subject.

Summing up Marion’s lengthy discussions of both Heidegger and Husserl, we might say that he concludes that neither allowed givenness its full realization. For Husserl, the full breakthrough of givenness is halted due to an “unquestioned paradigm of objectness” (32). Consequently, by restricting givenness to the object, Husserl does not advance his initial findings. Regarding Heidegger, Marion claims that givenness is abandoned “by assigning beingness to the Ereignis” (38). For Husserl givenness is objectivity and for Heidegger it is reduced to the event, both of which are too narrow for Marion. Though it is legitimate to understand objectness and beingness as limited horizons against the background of givenness, Marion, from this point on, wants to define “givenness in itself and on its own terms” (39).

Phenomenology of Givenness: Part I

Because I am doing some work on Kant, I wanted to go through some of my old reading and lecture notes from a course that I took at UD last year (“Christianity and Postmodernism” taught by Dr. Philipp W. Rosemann) and focus on some of the highlights from Jean-Luc Marion’s Being Given. I should emphasize that I am deeply indebted to Dr. Philipp W. Rosemann of the University of Dallas for his lectures and explication of Jean-Luc Marion’s work. My notes are by and large summaries of his lectures on the subject.

This was the first book of Marion’s that I have ever read in toto, so I’m certainly no expert on Marion–consider the parts that seem “right” attributable to Rosemann’s analysis and the parts questionable to my attempts. I do, however, find his writings fascinating and would love to interact with those who are more knowledgeable of his works than I.


Being Given (BG) is devoted to a phenomenology of givenness. Marion is well-versed in both modern and postmodern thought and attempts to harmonize the best of both worlds. The fundamental assumption of modern thought comes from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. In modern thought we can no longer think the thing-in-itself but only the objects of possible experience—that which is given and which is made by the human mind into that which we experience. In other words, we can no longer step beyond the sphere of the subject. For Kant experience requires both “raw material” and an a priori provided by the mind (i.e., the forms of sensibility and the categories of understanding). These two elements must work together, and the result is that one can no longer get outside of the realm of the subject, the “I”. Consequently, for Kant to talk about the thing-in-itself is out of the question. So what does the phenomenological reduction attempt to do? The reductions try to arrive at a point where givenness is ultimate. That is, Marion wants to get to the ultimate presupposition of human experience (phenomenologically speaking)—in other words, something must be given. This is what the phenomenology of givenness is about—it is an attempt to think about the presuppositions of modern thought. Marion asks, what does it mean when something is given?

Backtracking a bit, we should mention that in Marion’s book, God Without Being (GWB), his theological views come to the fore. The question that Marion asks in GWB is how is it possible to think God in a way that is not idolatrous. Here idolatry means that we want to avoid reducing God to human conceptuality. So we have to ask, “How is it possible to have access to any kind of reality that is not permeated by human realities?” The answer—givenness. In GWB, Marion gives a overt theological answer and says that the Eucharist makes certain a connection between human beings and God. Thus, the guarantee of the presence of the Word is through the Eucharist. This was Marion’s strictly “theological” answer, whereas in BG he attempts to do something very much in harmony with his views in GWB, while staying in more strict phenomenological bounds so to speak.