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La phénoménologie

In 1960s France, phenomenology (and with it the primacy of the conscious subject) became the object of widespread and varied critique; the editors of the Cahiers pour l’Analyse embraced the implications of this critique as one of the enabling conditions of their project.

Elaborated primarily by Edmund Husserl and then transformed in far-reaching ways by Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Emmanuel Levinas and Paul Ricoeur, among others, phenomenology is a philosophical practice guided by the primacy of the conscious subject of lived experience. ‘Phenomenology is best understood’, explains Dermot Moran, ‘as a radical, anti-traditional style of philosophising, which describes the attempt to get to the truth of matters, to describe phenomena, in the broadest sense as whatever appears in the manner in which it appears, that is as it manifests itself to consciousness, to the experiencer.’1 Phenomenology involves: a re-orientation of philosophical reflection away from metaphysical speculation on the one hand or epistemological or psychological concerns on the other, and towards an effort to ‘capture life as it is lived’, to register reality as it is concretely experienced; an emphasis on the ‘intentional’ inflection of consciousness, the assumption that consciousness is always conscious of something, i.e. of an object; a ‘bracketing’ or ‘reduction’ of assumptions about the nature or existence of the world and objects in the world so as to clarify and illuminate the essential features of conscious experience per se.

Husserl defines ‘experience [as] the performance in which for me, the experiencer, experienced being “is there” in propria persona, in person, and is there as what it is, with the whole content and the mode of being that experience itself, by the performance going on in its intentionality, attributes to it.’2 Insistence on the primacy of experience underlies what Husserl affirms as his ‘principle of principles’: ‘everything originarily offered to us in intuition (so to speak, in its “personal actuality”) is to be accepted simply as what it is presented as being, but also only within the limits in which it is presented there.’3 These limits are those of the conscious subject itself, the cogito in its self-founding capacity. As Todd May explains, ‘phenomenology requires the subject to play a founding role. This is not just a matter of historical happenstance but instead one of philosophical necessity. Phenomenology rejects the explanatory reduction of human experience by seeking to understand that experience from within its parameters. If we are to avoid the trap of objectifying the subject into misleading or oppressive explanatory categories, we must do so [according to this logic] by taking the experience of the subject more seriously.’4

It should be stressed that the return to ‘experience in person’ proclaimed by phenomenology does not involve an affirmation of inwardness as such, or a retreat into the private domain of an ‘inner personality’. On the contrary, Husserl understood phenomenology as a ‘description of consciousness purified of personal ownership, “no one’s thought”.’5 As Paul Ricoeur points out, ‘it is in conquering oneself as man that the pure subject inaugurates phenomenology.’6 Sartre pushed this impersonal and ‘inhuman’ character of phenomenology even further than Husserl himself, when (in his 1936 Transcendence of the Ego) he rejected the notion of a transcendental subject of consciousness. According to Sartre, consciousness is and can only be rigorously impersonal. Consciousness has no ‘interiority’, it operates on the basis of absolutely non-coincidence with itself, as pure ‘irruption ex nihilo’, and the self or ego is not the author or subject of consciousness but only (like anything or anyone else) an object of consciousness.

If the Cahiers authors are sharply critical of phenomenology it is not on account of an apparent association with inwardness or ‘identity’, but because, by the early 1960s, phenomenology had come to be widely recognised as an obstacle to the renewal of epistemology and science. The previous generation had been strongly marked by the methodological priorities of phenomenology,7 but in the late 1950s and 60s these priorities came under attack on a number of fronts, in campaigns waged most notably by Canguilhem, Althusser, Foucault, and Derrida.

In his preface to Canguilhem’s The Normal and the Pathological, Foucault gives him much of the credit for the break with phenomenology and for clarifying the split ‘that separates a philosophy of experience, of meaning, of the subject, and a philosophy of knowledge, of rationality, and of the concept. On the one side, a filiation which is that of Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty; and then another, which is that of Jean Cavaillès, Gaston Bachelard, Alexandre Koyré, and Canguilhem.’8 Canguilhem drew attention to the ways in which scientific concepts are strictly independent of lived experience or consciousness, and (following Bachelard) drew attention to the discontinuous history of their development, a history that cannot be explained in phenomenological terms.

Althusser’s affirmation of science in general and Marxist science in particular, in the early 1960s, was framed in terms of a battle with humanism, spiritualism and phenomenology (for Althusser, phenomenology is mainly an extension of spiritualism). ‘Existentialist-phenomenological subjectivism’ is simply the ‘spiritual complement’ of bourgeois ‘neo-positivism,’9 and for Althusser’s Marx it is a ‘fundamental principle’ that ‘it is impossible for any form of ideological consciousness to contain in itself, through its own internal dialectic, an escape from itself, that, strictly speaking, there is no dialectic of consciousness: no dialectic of consciousness which could reach reality itself by virtue of its own contradictions; in short, there can be no “phenomenology” in the Hegelian sense: for consciousness does not accede to the real through its own internal development, but by the radical discovery of what is other than itself.’10

In a lecture at the Ecole Normale given a few months after the launch of the Cahiers pour l’Analyse (in 1966), Althusser provided an overview of the state of philosophy in France. French philosophy in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Althusser argues, had been predominantly spiritualist and ‘profoundly reactionary’. ‘From Maine de Biran to Bergson, we can compile, to our dismay, a long list of names. Victor Cousin, Ravaisson, Boutroux, Lachelier, and all their epigones. This tradition is defined by its virulent, vicious theoretical crusade against all forms of rationalism, idealist or materialist.’ But from the 1930s, Althusser notes, ‘the balance of power has begun, hesitantly, to swing the other way’, primarily to the advantage of a ‘critical, rationalist idealism’ (including ‘a few great names: Cavaillès, Bachelard, Koyré, Canguilhem’). If the phenomenology defended by Ricoeur and Merleau-Ponty remains eminently ‘spiritualist’, Althusser admits that Sartre’s later work leans more towards the critical rationalist camp – but it still ‘does not teach us anything about anything […]. Sartre does not have any posterity whatsoever: he is already philosophically dead, although he may suddenly be born again, as we hope he will. The truly vital work that is now being done is being done elsewhere – around Marx, Freud, and also Nietzsche; around Russell, Frege and Heidegger; around linguistics, epistemology and the history of the sciences.’11

Foucault is perhaps the most forceful critic of phenomenology in 1960s France (no doubt partly as a result of the fact that his own early work in existential psychology, published in the 1950s, adopted broadly phenomenological priorities12). From the time he wrote Madness and Civilisation (1961) to his final interviews of 1983-84, Foucault rejects what ‘might be called, broadly speaking, the phenomenological approach, which gives absolute priority to the observing subject, which attributes a constituent role to an act which places its own point of view at the origin of all historicity – which, in short, leads to a transcendental consciousness. It seems to me that the historical analysis of scientific discourse should, in the last resort, be subject, not to a theory of the knowing subject, but rather to a theory of discursive practice.’13 Foucault’s ‘archaeological’ excavations of the history of such practice (in his books on madness and the medical gaze) proceed on the assumption that the subject is not the speaking author of discourses so much as spoken by them.14 Phenomenology constitutes a major ‘epistemological obstacle’ to the development of such discourse analysis: ‘one has to dispense with the constituent subject, to get rid of the subject itself, that’s to say, to arrive at an analysis which can account for the constitution of the subject within a historical framework.’15

Derrida’s deconstructive approach owes a great deal to Husserl and Heidegger, and accordingly adopts a more complex, more conflicted relation to phenomenology. The crux of Derrida’s critique is his aversion to Husserl’s insistence on the immediacy or ‘presence’ of experience, e.g. in the self-presence of speech, or the temporal presence of the ‘now’.16 In the lengthy introduction to Husserl’s Origin of Geometry that he published in 1962, Derrida demonstrates the incoherence of Husserl’s effort to provide a transcendental reconstruction of the genesis of geometry in terms that downplay the significance of historical contingency, misunderstanding, and reliance on mathematical symbols and writing. For Husserl, what matters (the apparently world- and reality-independent truths of geometry) is essentially what takes place in consciousness, to the exclusion of any essential reliance on objects, technologies or developments that are not reducible to consciousness. Writing, for instance, should serve only as a sort of mental crutch, a ‘mnemotechnical aid to a truth whose own being-sense would dispense with all writing-down.’ But as Derrida points out, Husserl himself is obliged to describe linguistic or graphic inscription as a sort of ‘incarnation’, such that ‘the possibility or necessity of being incarnated in a graphic sign is no longer simply extrinsic and factual in comparison with ideal Objectivity: it is the sine qua non condition of Objectivity’s internal completion. As long as ideal Objectivity is not, or rather, cannot be engraved in the world […] then ideal Objectivity is not fully constituted. Therefore, the act of writing is the highest possibility of all “constitution”, a fact against which the transcendental depth of ideal Objectivity’s historicity is measured.’17 Husserl here seems to be obliged both to rely on such writing, and to dismiss it as secondary. Derrida shows, in his La Voix et le phénomène (1967; translated as Speech and Phenomena), that a similar ambivalence undercuts Husserl’s attempt, in his account of signification, to privilege speech over writing, on the assumption that speech is more adequate to consciousness that can ‘experience’ itself in the pure immediacy of self-presence, in the absence of representation.18

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

Jacques-Alain Miller’s ‘Action de la structure’ (CpA 9.6:93-105) serves as a sort of manifesto for the Cahiers as a whole and insists on the primacy of structure over subject, such that the only subject as issue here is one ‘inserted’ into structure. ‘It is essential to preserve the order here, which goes from structure to subject’ (CpA 9.6:97), and not the reverse. It is not possible to set out from reflection on lived experience or the primordial datum of consciousness. The second section of Miller’s article accordingly identifies the critique of phenomenology as the first ‘task of a theory of the subject.’ Such a theory

must first of all refute the phenomenological attempt to rediscover the naïve or primitive [sauvage] state of the world by means of an archaeological investigation of perception. For phenomenology hopes that by reducing the visible to the visible, it can secure the donation of a secret unchanging and ahistorical foundation for knowledge and history; anything invisible that it encountered was only the underside of an ultimately miraculous visibility. But if, on the contrary, the invisible accommodates a structure that systematises the visible that hides it, if it is the invisible that varies and transforms the visible – this is the basis for a truly radical archaeology of perceptions that are historical through and through, that are absolutely specified, that are structured like a discourse, an archaeology that returns seeing and saying to their essential identity. The work of Michel Foucault today gives us the first example of such an archaeology (CpA 9.6:98).

In a footnote, Miller adds (with reference to Foucault’s The Birth of the Clinic) that the goal is less ‘to discredit phenomenological discourse (for instance that of Maurice Merleau-Ponty in particular), which remains positivistic insofar as it blinds itself to all mutation of invisible structures’, than ‘to take it up again to give it a new foundation: as rigorous discourse, in the imaginary, of the imaginary’ (CpA 9.6:n.2). The subject at issue in scientific discourse will have none of the characteristics, then, of the phenomenological or psychological subject (CpA 9.6:99).

Miller’s ‘Suture’ (CpA 1.3) blocks recourse to phenomenology for similar reasons. What is at stake in analysis of the ‘logic of the signifier’ includes analysis of the ‘emergence’ of ordinary scientific logic (‘logician’s logic’): it aims to serve ‘as the logic of the origin of logic – which is to say, that it does not follow its laws, but that, prescribing their jurisdiction, itself falls outside that jurisdiction.’ Such a logic has an ‘archaeological’ status in relation to the discourses that are established on its foundation, and ‘this dimension of the archaeological can be grasped most succinctly through a movement back from the field of logic itself, where its miscognition, at its most radical because closest to its recognition, is effected. That this step repeats something of that which Derrida has shown to be exemplary to phenomenology will conceal to none but the most hasty this crucial difference, that here miscognition finds its point of departure in the production of meaning. We can say that it is constituted not as a forgetting, but as a repression’ (CpA 1.3:39; trans. 25).

Thomas Herbert’s ‘Réflexions sur la situation théorique des sciences sociales’ (CpA 2.6) affirms comparable methodological assumptions. ‘The methodology that has presided over the elaboration of the present essay presumes an essential reversal, which has already been accomplished in other investigations, which can serve here as guides: it is no longer a matter of judging the sciences in the Kantian style, or of repressing them in the manner of phenomenology.’ The latter ‘always boils down, in the end, to an exhibition of the perversions of scientific subjectivity’, and thus to a tactic for ‘launching on the market a new philosophical ideology, a new misunderstanding of science’ (CpA 2.6:141).

Jacques Lacan’s ‘Réponses à des étudiants en philosophie sur l’objet de la psychanalyse’ (CpA 3.1) opens with a critique of phenomenological accounts of consciousness. Lacan admits that there is indeed a ‘Cartesian’ moment in which ‘consciousness and subject coincide.’ The error (characteristic of phenomenology) is to assume that this ‘privileged moment’ exhausts all that there is to be said of the subject. Psychoanalysis, by contrast, makes of this ‘moment of coincidence, insofar as it is grasped by reflection’, its point of departure for the analysis of the subject as the ‘being of a fall [chute]’. ‘I am that which thinks: “therefore I am” – as I have explained elsewhere, this “therefore”, trait of the cause, divides in an inaugural way the “I am” of existence from the “I am” of meaning [sens]. Psychoanalysis provides us with an experience of precisely this splitting [refente], on a daily basis. I am anguished by castration at the same time that I hold it to be impossible – this is the crude example that Freud uses to illustrate this splitting, which is reproduced at all levels of subjective structure. I think that we need to affirm this splitting as a matter of elementary principle, and as the first source of originary repression.’ Phenomenological accounts of consciousness, including Sartre’s, ‘have no other function than to suture this gap of the subject; the psychoanalyst recognises that what is at stake is the effort to block access to the truth’ (CpA 3.1:6).

Most of the other articles in the Cahiers which address the relation between subject and science effectively take this preliminary critique of phenomenology for granted.

Select bibliography

  • Althusser, Louis. For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster. London: New Left Books, 1969.
  • ----. The Humanist Controversy and Other Writings, trans. G.M. Goshgarian. London: Verso, 2003.
  • Derrida, Jacques. ‘Introduction’, in Edmund Husserl, L’Origine de la géométrie, trans. Jacques Derrida. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1962. Edmund Husserl’s Origin of Geometry: An Introduction, trans. John P. Leavey, Jr. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.
  • ----. La Voix et la phénomène. Paris: PUF, 1967. Speech and Phenomena, trans. David B. Allison. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973.
  • Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things [1966]. London: Routledge Classics, 2002.
  • Husserl, Edmund. Ideas pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, First Book [1913], trans. Fred Kersten. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1983.
  • ----. Formal and Transcendental Logic [1929], trans. Dorion Cairns. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1969.
  • May, Todd. ‘Foucault’s Relation to Phenomenology’. The Cambridge Companion to Foucault, second edition, ed. Gary Gutting. Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  • Moran, Dermot. Introduction to Phenomenology. London: Routledge, 2000.
  • Norris, Christopher. Deconstruction: Theory and Practice (third edition). London: Routledge, 2002.
  • Ricoeur, Paul. Husserl: An Analysis of His Phenomenology, trans. Edward G. Ballard and Lester E. Embree. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1967.
  • Sartre, Jean-Paul. La Transcendance de l’ego: Esquisse d’une description phénoménologique. Paris: Vrin, 1937. Transcendence of the Ego: An Existentialist Theory of Consciousness, trans. Forrest Williams and Robert Kirkpatrick. New York: Noonday Press, 1957.
  • ----. L’Etre et le néant: Essai d’ontologie phénoménologique. Paris: Gallimard, 1943. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, trans. Hazel E. Barnes [1957]. London: Routledge Classics, 2003.


1. Dermot Moran, Introduction to Phenomenology, 4.

2. Edmund Husserl, Formal and Transcendental Logic, §94.

3. Husserl, Ideas I, §24.

4. Todd May, ‘Foucault’s Relation to Phenomenology’, 302.

5. Moran, Introduction to Phenomenology, 170.

6. Paul Ricoeur, Husserl, 26.

7. From 1945 to 1955, as Michel Foucault recalled in 1983, ‘the entire French university – the young French university, as opposed to what had been the traditional university – was very much preoccupied with the task of building something which was not Freudian-Marxist but Husserlian-Marxist: the phenomenology-Marxism relation. That is what was at stake in the debates and efforts of a whole series of people,’ most notably Merleau-Ponty and Sartre (Michel Foucault, ‘Critical Theory/Intellectual History’, Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings, 1977–1984 [New York: Routledge, 1988], 21).

8. Foucault, ‘Life: Experience and Science’, Essential Works of Foucault 1954–1984, Volume 2: Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology, ed. James D. Faubion (New York: Free Press, 2000), 466.

9. Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy, trans. Ben Brewster (New York: Monthly Review 2002), 17; cf. 202n.2.

10. Althusser, For Marx, 143. For Althusser, publication of Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts was a crucial moment in the consolidation of a perverse phenomenological-humanist appropriation of Marxism. ‘First Social Democrats […], then spiritualist philosophers, existentialist philosophers, phenomenological philosophers, etc., ensured this great text’s success […]. The Economic-Philosophic manuscripts have nourished a whole ethical or (what amounts to the same thing) anthropological interpretation of Marx – making Capital, with its sense of perspective and apparent “objectivity”, merely the development of a youthful intuition which finds its major philosophical expression in this text and in its concepts: above all in the concepts of alienation, of humanism, of the social essence of man, etc.’ (Althusser, For Marx, 155).

11. Althusser, ‘The Philosophical Conjuncture and Marxist Theoretical Research’ (26 June 1966), The Humanist Controversy, 7-8.

12. As Todd May explains, Foucault’s emphatic and repeated rejection of phenomenology does not exclude a certain ‘continuity of spirit or motivation.’ For the early Foucault, as May summarises things, phenomenology offered an alternative to condescension and misrecognition. ‘If we are to avoid the trap of objectifying the subject into misleading or oppressive explanatory categories, we must do so by taking the experience of the subject more seriously. Do not explain: describe. But to describe is to give “supremacy” to the category of the subject, to place subjective experience at the centre of the analytic or reflective project. This is what Binswanger does, and Foucault as well in his early work. The experience of the mentally ill must be investigated on its own terms. It is not merely symptomatic of an illness to be explained but indicative of a way of constituting and living a world: the world’s space, its time, and the other subjects who inhabit it’ (May, ‘Foucault’s Relation to Phenomenology’, 306, 302).

13. Foucault, ‘Foreword to the English Edition’, The Order of Things, xv.

14. ‘Archaeology was an essential method for Foucault because it supported a historiography that did not rest on the primacy of the consciousness of individual subjects; it allowed the historian of thought to operate at an unconscious level that displaced the primacy of the subject found in both phenomenology and in traditional historiography’ (Gary Gutting, ‘Foucault’,

15. Foucault, ‘Truth and Power,’ in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, ed. Colin Gordon (New York: Pantheon, 1980), 117.

16. ‘It is the phenomenological attempt to ground knowledge in experience, evidence and self-presence, and its apparent failure, that leads [Derrida] to the conclusion that the attempt itself is fundamentally misconceived’ (Christina Howells, Derrida, 7).

17. Jacques Derrida, Introduction to Husserl’s Origin of Geometry, 89-90.

18. Derrida, La Voix et la phénomène, 64-65. Derrida’s critique of Husserl’s conception of temporal presence (primacy of the ‘now’) follows roughly the same sort of logic. As Christopher Norris summarises things,

[…] in his The Phenomenology of Internal Time-Consciousness (first published in 1929), Husserl set out to analyse the different relations and levels of intelligible order which ‘made sense’ of time for the experiencing mind. From the phenomenological standpoint, this involved showing how the ‘living present’ of awareness is the privileged point from which memories, both long- and short-term, are organized and accorded their due temporal significance. Among Husserl’s most important distinctions is that between retention and representation, the former having to do with immediate (sensory) traces, the latter with experiences recalled over a greater distance of time. It is here that Derrida inserts the deconstructive lever of difference. He points out that Husserl is constantly obliged, by the logic of his own argument, to treat the present as a moment compounded of manifold retentions and anticipations, never existing in the isolated instant of awareness. Time is an endless deferring of presence which drives yet another paradoxical wedge into the project of phenomenology.

This brings about the virtual collapse of all those distinctions Husserl set up in order to preserve the ‘living present’ in its privileged position. ‘Representation’ can no longer be distinguished from ‘retention’, since both are involved in the same ceaseless movement of temporal distancing. What separates them is not the ‘radical difference’ which Husserl wanted between ‘perception and non-perception’; it is, rather, ‘a difference between two modifications of non-perception’. In other words, there is no privileged locus of consciousness from which thought could ever organize or control the flux of temporal experience. Husserl’s main object was to separate perception from representation in such a way that the latter – the realm of ‘mediated’ signs and impressions – should not interfere with the primary self-evidence of knowledge. What his text in fact reveals, against its own intention, is the ‘movement of difference’ which always inhabits ‘the pure actuality of the now’. This movement undermines Husserl’s phenomenology in the same way that writing questions and subverts the privilege of speech. Perception is always already representation, just as speech presupposes (and wills itself to forget) the différance of writing

(Norris, Deconstruction, 46-47)