Essence and Existence
Two weeks ago I posted about MP’s view of the relationship between Husserl and Heidegger. (See post here.) The issue there was in what context to read MP’s claim that “all of Sein und Zeit springs from an indication in Husserl.” I claimed that what he really meant was that Heidegger’s methodology, though not necessarily his philosophical views, spring from Husserl. And I also claimed that “spring from” (est sorti de) really means “develops out of.” At least that’s what I intended to be saying there. The idea was that MP is not claiming, as some people propose, that Husserl already thought of everything Heidegger said. He’s claiming, instead, that if you give a “strong” reading of Husserl, then you can see that his late works ought to push him in the direction of the hermeneutic methodology that Heidegger employs in Being and Time; and they ought to do this whether Husserl understood it or not. This way of understanding MP’s view of the relation between Husserl and Heidegger sits well, I believe, with the interpretive principles he lays down in his essay on Husserl, “The Philosopher and his Shadow” (published in Signs.) In this post and the next I would like to discuss two more reasons for thinking this is the right way to understand what MP is up to in the Preface.
The first issue has to do with MP’s reading of Husserl’s notion of essence (Wesen). All the way back in the first paragraph of the Preface, MP writes, Mais la phénoménologie, c’est aussi une philosophie qui replace les essences dans l’existence et ne pense pas qu’on puisse comprendre l’homme et le monde autrement qu’Ã partir de leur “facticité.” Smith translates the first part of this as follows: “But phenomenology is also a philosophy which puts essences back into existence…” In my notes to this passage in my translation I wonder whether replace could mean “substitute” instead of “put back into,” since it’s not obvious what tradition phenomenology would be recovering if it “put essences back into existence.” (Bert suggests the Aristotelian tradition. Possible.) In any case, an astute reader notices that if MP meant “substitute” he’d have said remplacer instead of replacer. It’s possible that the very earliest printings took away the “m”, and that this was a mistake propagated in all the later editions. But I doubt it. I’ve got access to a printing from 1949 and it clearly says replacer. So I’m left wondering what the point of this sentence is.
Then it occurred to me. The principle meaning of replacer is to put back into, as in remettre; but a strong secondary, and figurative, reading assimilates it to ranger, to arrange or put into context. So, for instance, Robert suggests Replacer une chose dans son contexte. Replacer une histoire dans son cadre, dans son époque. On this reading we should render the phrase as follows: “But phenomenology is also a philosphy that puts essences into the context of existence.” That’s the way I propose to translate it.
Why does this make a difference? I think it completely turns around the interpretation of the sentence. On Smith’s translation we have a set of independent, self-standing essences, those items that Husserl discovered by turning towards the self in the phenomenological reduction, and phenomenology somehow puts those items back into existence. In effect, phenomenology essentializes existence. On the new reading, however, it’s just the opposite. Instead of putting essences into existence, we understand essence in the context of existence. In effect, we existentialize essences instead of essentializing existence. That means that essences are no longer independent, self-standing items that are discovered by a radical turn to the self of the sort proposed in the traditional version of the phenomenological reduction. Rather, they are already imbued with existence, with facticity, from the very start. This coheres with other things that MP says about the reduction (“the most important lesson of the reduction is that it can never be completed,” for example), and even makes better sense of the reference to facticity at the end of the sentence we’re translating. So it seems to me that this makes a crucial difference, and that Smith has got the translation exactly backwards.
Now, the question remains to what extent MP thought this account of essences, and of the reduction more generally, was one to which Husserl himself would assent. I believe he thinks that Husserl would reject this interpretation explicitly, and that he leaves us a very subtle clue that he thinks this in one of the footnotes to the Preface. I’ll discuss this issue in my next post.