Postmodern Theology and Jean-Luc Marion: Being and Giveness

Postmodern Theology and Jean-Luc Marion: Being and Giveness June 12, 2009

(The assertions in this post are primarily based on Jean-Luc Marion’s lecture, “The History of Giveness,” that he gave at the 2008 Franciscan University of Steubenville Christian Philosophy Conference. Sadly, I do not think the talk was recorded and I was too dense to think of doing so myself. So, you’ll have to take my word for it. Sorry!)

As I noted in the comments of my previous post, ‘postmodern’ is a misnomer for the core of Marion’s thought—I would say that ‘postmodern’ more aptly describes the effect of his thought on theology, not his thought in advance.

When we look to the conceptual foundations of his thought, he is a phenomenologist through and through. This is hardly surprising since, after all, we would have no entry for the what most call ‘postmodern’ without phenomenology. It is here (in phenomenological discourse) where Marion offers an interesting and rather straightforward historical analysis of the phenomenological concept of giveness that takes us to that famous student of Brentano’s: Alexius Meinong.

Yes, I do mean Meinong, not Husserl.

Marion traces the concept of giveness to the time in history (around the turn of the 20th century) in which the very notion of being was put under the most intense scrutiny. This scrutiny came in many forms, yet its clearest elucidation, according to Marion, is to be found in Meinong’s “Theory of Objects.” In this theory, Meinong distinguishes between existence (e.g. mountains) and subsistence (e.g. 1+1=2) and the corresponding poles of non-existence (e.g. golden mountains) and non-subsistence (e.g. 1+1=5). While he distinguishes between those categories, he cannot say that any of the objects of the categories do not have being since they can be given.

What Marion didn’t mention, but I cannot resist to add, is that this is not just another obscure text used to make a point. Meinong’s “Theory of Objects” sparked over a decade of discourse over metaphysics that is as fundamental to analytic philosophy as Frege’s earlier breakthrough’s in logic. The paper trail on this is most widely available in the debates between Meinong and Bertrand Russell, and Russell and Russell (he chases his own tail part of the time). The most compelling and grand effect of this line of reasoning is the analytic proof that the principle of contradiction is a weak—if not altogether false—condition of being.

How does this amount to giveness and the erosion of being? Well, the reason that Meinong, Russell, and many philosophers to this very day, cannot seem to draw a serious line on what has no being is that insofar as a thing gives itself it must be an object: a source of meaning.

What this does to being is that it (being) becomes accountable to giveness. In other words, being only refers to the characteristic of being given. Marion provides this maxim as the standard of giveness: “Everything that shows itself must give itself.” (this and other quotes are taken from my notes)

Now Marion also says, “we cannot confuse ‘the beings’ with ‘being.'”

What he means here is that we need not laspe into a denial of “the beings”—the things that are given. But we must reject the notion that “being” is the horizon of ontology. Marion is very direct when he says, “Giveness is beyond the reach of being, it is beyond being.”

So, when we come to his book God without Being we can rest assured that Marion is not asserting the nonexistence of God. Existence is only descriptive of “the beings,” the things that are given. What he does challenge us to do is to abandon being as the ontological limit of God and consider the meaning of God in revelation. Because, once again, “Everything that shows itself must give itself.”

In my next post I plan to look at Marion’s critique of the ego cogito and advocacy to return to the ego amans.

Please let me know if that move seem too hasty or whatever you like.

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