In 1990, at the behest of the International Institute of Philosophy, French philosopher Dominique Janicaud wrote an essay accusing the “second generation” of French phenomenologists of having moved the field in an explicitly theological direction. Janicaud claimed that Emmanuel Levinas, Jean-Luc Marion, Michel Henry, and Jean-Louis Chrétien had corrupted phenomenology by each introducing a transcendent dimension into phenomenological reflection and study—whether by explicating the absolute alterity of the Other (Levinas), developing a philosophy of donation (Marion), articulating a foundational autoaffectivity that undergirds consciousness (Henry), or seeming to mix explicitly theological reflections into otherwise rigorously phenomenological analyses (Chrétien).
Janicaud believed this cabal to have forsworn its proper analytical realm—that of immanence—for an otherworldly transcendence. He took their work to pose a heretical question: whether there is a “paradoxical revelation of Transcendence in a source at the heart of phenomenality.” The debate that opened in 1990 continues to work itself out today, a growing interdisciplinary literature in the murky space between phenomenology and theology notwithstanding.
What makes the field of phenomenology—and continental philosophy generally—uniquely susceptible, even vulnerable, to religious claims and concerns? Philosopher-theologians such as David Bentley Hart have remarked on its natural openness to theological styles of questioning and dialogue. According to a new book by Edward Baring, the purported “theological turn” in French phenomenology is hardly unprecedented, and may even activate currents that are endemic to the movement itself. That’s because, Baring argues, Catholicism is the reason for the movement’s spread and establishment as “continental philosophy” in the first place.
The central argument advanced in Converts to the Real is that phenomenology’s rise in the early twentieth century was dependent on the work of Catholic philosophers who engaged with it, wrote translations and introductions to bring it to new contexts, and developed arguments that would be picked up and used by later non-Catholic thinkers against different targets within the discipline. While a variety of nationally focused histories have brought local reasons for phenomenology’s adoption and success to the fore, Baring’s purports to be the first to argue for a transnational explanation—one that challenges the working assumptions of intellectual history as a discipline.
“The peculiar nature of conversion informs my methodological approach,” Baring writes. Rather than allow context to determine the meaning of the texts he examines, he makes the conscious beliefs of his subjects a point of thematic focus. Belief motivates the kinds of intellectual exchange that result in conversion, and the multidirectional conversions he takes up in Converts to the Real “mark the point where institutional or political explanations of conceptual change break down.”