Life Under Siege

Michel Henry: Suffering and the Genesis of Transcendental Egoism

"On n'interroge plus la vie aujourd'hui dans les laboratoires." - François Jacob, La Logique du Vivant

The tradition of phenomenology is known for its many critiques of scientific thought. So much so that this critique seems to be an essential component of phenomenology itself. Tied to it, not as something it can choose to engage in, but as pertaining to its essence. The phenomenologist who perhaps is most violent and uncompromising in his critique against science is Michel Henry. Throughout his oeuvre, Henry proclaims that the over-development of the sciences and their overshadowing of other ways of knowing (philosophy, art, etc) has led to a veritable destruction of culture, and even a destruction of life. Henry thus goes much further than Husserl's diagnosis of a crisis of culture.[1] For Husserl, the ideology of science merely reduces all phenomena to objective facts, thus enacting a forgetting of the primordial life-world that necessarily precedes all scientific knowledge and acts both as its ground and goal. For Henry, there is not just a reduction of the life-world, but a destruction of life.

In line with the Husserlian diagnosis of a crisis, Henry states that knowledge must always serve the real needs of living human beings, and strengthen the lives of these human beings. All valuable knowledge is thus practical knowledge, practical in that it enhances life. This does not mean that all knowledge must be applicable for every day problem-solving, even the most abstract mathematics can be life-enhancing in that it expresses the human capacity for thought and imagination, and that it strengthens these capacities. For Henry, this practical science is, just like painting, music, or philosophy, a part of culture. The concept of culture, in Henry's vocabulary, designates the auto-revelation of life itself, its growth. And thus, all activities that are caused by the drive of life to auto-reveal itself, and that lead to a growth of this capacity of life, are expressions of culture. The problem with modern science, or rather how it is conceived of, is that for the first time in the history of humanity, a separation happens between (scientific) knowledge and culture. As clearly seen in the categories of higher education: "you either study culture or science." Knowledge, which in our current times is conceived of as a property that only the sciences give access to, is conceived as opposed to culture. Scientific knowledge separates itself from culture, and eventually opposes itself to it, leading to the destruction of life. This destruction is what Henry calls barbarism: the destruction of life by life itself. By life itself, because all acts of destruction are necessarily enacted by a life. A scientist who reduces life to dead matter can only do so because the life that he himself is offers him this possibility.

I. Culture, expression, knowledge

For Henry every culture is a culture wherein life is both the subject and object of this culture. Subjectivity or life is what creates culture, but the object of this culture is also this same life. Culture is thus nothing else than the auto-expression of life itself. Subjectivity expressing subjectivity through subjectivity. When scientific knowledge is seen as a part of culture, scientific knowledge shares in this process of self-expression. In modern science, the beginning of which Henry places with Galileo, something changes. Enchanted by the enormous advancements of the mathematical and natural sciences, advancements that seem to take place at a much faster pace than those of other activities, man loses his belief in all other forms of knowledge. Man loses his belief and admiration for forms of knowledge that don't offer the same type of objectivity. In a next step, only science is seen as pertaining to knowledge. For Galileo, and modern man in his wake, only science leads to knowledge. The success of science leads to the devaluing of other forms of knowledge because what makes science so successful, its objectivity, is premised on the reduction of all subjective layers that cloud mathematically exact knowledge of the world. For the Galilean spirit, these subjective layers are like appearances that cloud the true nature of things. And this spirit is right, for from the scientific point of view, these subjective layers do effectively harm the perception of objective and mathematical knowledge. Life, in its subjectivity, turns into an illusion, and is eventually seen as nothing else than an epiphenomenon of the laws perceived through its reduction. In scientism, the merely methodological reduction transforms into a reduction of value. Disconcerting in the history of science that Henry traces, is the conscious character of it. It is not the case, that by contingent historical factors the priority of the subjective life-world has been forgotten about. No, certain people (Galileo and the like) consciously decided that subjectivity is an illusion that gets in the way of progress. For the scientific ideology, all knowledge is knowledge of the objective, and the subjective is precisely the designation for all that which gets in the way of knowledge.

To be sure, Henry is not anti-science. He is merely very concerned about the dominance of the ideology of scientism, for which all value is to be placed in the objective, and the living subjectivity that makes possible the knowledge of the objective is discarded as an illusion. This ideology leads to the strange situation of modern man when faced with the question "what is life?" We think we are answering this question when we point to the objective facts of biology, forgetting that all these facts could only be possible because there already was a subjectivity to carry out the gathering of facts. A transcendental subject that is characterized by the capacity to feel and think and serves as the precondition for all modalities of feeling and thinking, including the scientific way of knowing. This situation leads François Jacob to proclaim that these days, we no longer study life in biology. We study living things, but never life. Life, that is, the transcendental subjectivity that precedes and makes possible any and all knowledge of things. But then what is life, and how do we know it?

II. Ontological monism, knowledge of life

For Henry, the knowledge of life is occluded from the modern mind because of the proliferation of what he calls ontological monism. For ontological monism, there is only one possible way of appearing. That is, the appearing of things in front of us which we see by way of a distance between the object seen and the subject doing the seeing. For this monism, knowing is knowing what is in front of us, it is knowing the object located in front of the subject. Knowledge is thus knowledge of some-thing. The essence of ontological monism is grasped by Husserl in the thesis that subjectivity is intentional, that all consciousness is characterized by intentionality. Consciousness is necessarily consciousness of  some-thing. This type of knowing, intentionality, is however incapable of knowing life, because the knowledge of life has nothing to do with intentionality. The knowledge that we have of life, that we have of our own subjectivity, is characterized by such a nearness, such an absence of distance, that what is doing the knowing and what is known collide. In life, subject and object are one and the same thing, so much so, that speaking of any distance between the two is nonsensical. It is thus impossible to know life in intentionality, as a thing in front of us that we grasp or see by way of consciousness. Intentionality affords subjective life the possibility to know things outside of itself, but it doesn't afford it the possibility to know itself.

Then how do we know life for Henry? This is by way of affectivity, in affectivity there is a way of knowing that precedes the intentional grasping, a way of knowing in which there is no distance between feeling and what is felt. Affectivity affords a knowledge that in essence is a feeling of oneself feeling, an immediate and immanent consciousness of the transcendental capacity for feeling that one is. But for ontological monism, such an immanent way of knowing is impossible, for ontological monism defines knowledges as knowing what is in front, as knowing what is separate from what is doing the knowing. This ontological monism, which is present throughout the history of western thought, is at the basis of the scientific barbarism of today. If we adopt ontological monism, how then can we know life? For Henry, we can't. For ontological monism, subjectivity is nothing else than the pre-condition for seeing objectivity that can itself never be known or seen. If all knowledge is knowledge of what is there in front, subjectivity serves merely as the abstract operations of transcendental subjectivity that make possible this way of knowing. The problem is that this transcendental subjectivity itself can never be known in the same objective way that we know objects, because it can never be placed in front. Barbarism arises out of this way of knowing subjectivity characteristic of ontological monism. If subjectivity cannot be known, for it cannot be placed in front of us like an object, then it must be irreal. And it is designated as irreal because ontological monism does not know of any way of knowing other than its own. It does not know of the immediate affective awareness of life in which seeing and what is seen, feeling and what is felt, coincide.

III. Auto-affection

What is this knowledge of life, and how does affectivity afford it? Henry's knowledge of life is characterized as a type of knowing that "excludes the ek-stasis of objectivity," that is the "immanent subjectivity of its pure experience of itself and the pathos of this experience."[2] For the intentional knowing of ontological monism, knowledge is knowledge of what is visible in front of us. A seeing that is possible because of the existence of a pure milieu of visibility that makes possible the difference between noesis and noema. Because of this, ontological monism can never know subjectivity as Henry wants us to, as the quality of feeling oneself feeling. This feeling oneself feeling, auto-affection, can never be a visible phenomenon, for this would require a distance between what sees and what is seen, a distance that further presupposes a milieu that offers the room for this distance to exist. Because there is no such distance in auto-affection, it affords an immediate and entirely immanent knowledge that is invisible in nature. Invisible, because there is no milieu of visibility, no "light" that makes possible any seeing, and no object seen that is any different from the seeing.

Furthermore, there is no possibility to turn away from this auto-affection that is life. In intentional knowledge, one can always turn one's gaze away from an object in order to gaze at some other object. One can shift from noema to noema in an endless seeking that offers the possibility to escape from what was previously seen. The auto-affection that is life does not offer this possibility, one cannot turn away from it. One necessarily feels oneself feeling, without any choice not to. This knowledge of life in auto-affection is the precondition of all intentional knowledge. It is only possible to know something on the basis of the primordial affectivity that one is. When Henry states that affectivity affords (or even is) the knowledge of life, affectivity should be distinguished from sensibility. The latter is the feeling of something by intermediary of a sense. I can see this tree with my eyes, touch this object with my hands, etc. Affectivity however, it the capacity of feeling itself that makes possible sensibility. Affectivity is the ground without which sensibility would not be possible. I can only feel the touch of this person with my hand because I am already in possession of the capacity to feel feeling. Affectivity is the auto-affection in which life knows itself. This affectivity cannot be controlled like we can control the utilization of our senses, we necessarily undergo this affectivity in a passivity that precedes all possibility of activity.

IV. Suffering and the paradox of barbarism

Because of the impossibility to turn away from it, Henry designates auto-affection as a Suffering. Suffering, not of some specific thing or state, but the suffering of life itself. The primordial and unescapable under-going of life. The fact that this life cannot be escaped also makes up the certainty which we have of it. For we cannot doubt affectivity. We can doubt certain affects which we feel, we can doubt whether we truly love someone, whether there truly corresponds an object to our hatred, etc. But we cannot doubt the pure fact that we feel, one cannot doubt that one feels oneself feeling. This primordial certainty of affectivity radically escapes every doubt concerning its reference to a cause or object. This affectivity "has neither doors nor windows, and no space outside it or within it that would allow it to escape."[3]

It is the forgetting of this knowledge of life that makes possible its violent reduction by the barbaric impulse of the scientific ideology. But in fact, it is this knowledge of life that necessarily leads to the emergence of barbarism. As we noted, barbarism is a paradoxical affair; the turning against life is only possible because of a life enacting this turning against. The reduction of subjectivity to dead particles is only possible because of a subjectivity, that of the scientist, enacting this reduction. The indubitable suffering in which one feels oneself feeling, in which one knows life, makes it so that this suffering is impossible to escape. One cannot not feel oneself feeling. One has to suffer life, whether one wants to or not. This suffering that is life is characterized by a movement through modalities of affectivity, ranging from the most intense and uplifting joys to the most excruciating pains. The latter type of affects are at the root of barbarism, in the intense suffering of the pain that life is at times, man wills himself out of it. He no longer wants to feel his life, and in him arises the desire to break the bonds with life. This is however only possible in suicide, an act which is unthinkable for most, and the desire to break with life takes the form of simply enlarging the distance. One desires to not feel as intensely, to not be as close, to separate oneself from the feeling that one is. One attempts to no longer focus on it, to no longer see it, and thus to no longer know it. The end result of this attempt at escape is the lack of consciousness of the affectivity that one is. One throws oneself into the light of the world and mesmerized by it, one forgets the Night of affectivity.

V. Transcendental illusion and the genesis of barbarism

Henry attempts to offer a genesis of barbarism, the destruction of life made possible by the illusion one creates in fleeing from life that life does not exist, from within the dynamics of life itself. Life is characterized by a primal suffering, some modalities of which make men attempt to impose a distance between the life that he has to undergo and himself, and he eventually forgets about the life he necessarily has to undergo. We are here speaking about a distinction between man himself and the life that he has to suffer, but wasn't life the same as subjectivity? For Henry there is a distinction between the Self (moi) and the ego (ego), the latter is the empirical individual which acts in the world, and the Self is the transcendental subjectivity that makes up the possibility of the ego's emergence. It is this emergence of the ego from out of the Self that makes up the genesis of the forgetting of life, the forgetting of the Self.

In its essence, life in the sense of transcendental affectivity, is a passive affair. Before one actively lives, one undergoes life in a "submission stronger than any freedom."[4] But in doing so one is also, through the pre-intentional knowledge of life, immediately conscious of one's powers as if they were of one's own origin, and not the result of the undergoing of this suffering that is life. The closeness that ties us to transcendental life, thus also enacts the illusion that we do not suffer life, but that we ourselves as empirical individuals are at the origin of our own lives, and in full control of our own lives. Thus, the ego emerges, which is the I that takes itself as its own foundation, forgetting that life is only offered through the passivity of a primal suffering. Henry designates this as the emergence of a transcendental illusion, which should be taken in the Kantian sense as a necessary illusion that even when seen through still remains. We can realize, through thought or experience, that we are not an ego that is the foundation of itself, but this doesn't stop us from thinking and acting as an independent ego. This illusion is transcendental and necessary, because it is precisely the absence of any distance that constitutes our knowledge of life that makes possible the belief that our powers are of our own making. Eventually the ego loses consciousness of the Self in whose suffering the ego gets generated. If the ego is no longer conscious of life, of what is it then conscious? It is conscious of the world and its objects. In exercising its powers of feeling and thinking in diverse ways on the material of the world, and mesmerized by this exercising, the ego forgets about transcendental life and only knows the world through intentionality. "The more Life is hidden in the ego, the more open, the more available becomes the world."[5] Life, the primal suffering of which is the Self, through suffering itself, generates the ego. And the ego, through the exercise of its powers in the world to which it relates itself intentionally, generates a "transcendental egoism" that forgets about its pre-condition as a Self in Life.[6]

This transcendental illusion of the ego as separate from life, which is the pre-condition of the forgetting of life and thus of barbarism, is a transcendental illusion. It necessarily occurs within life. But just like in Kant, transcendental illusion must not mean transcendental error, one can realize the illusion and keep oneself from living it through to its full extent which leads to the forgetting of life. One can be an ego, and still know one's Self: life. One can reduce life as part of scientific method, without pushing life completely underground. The problem with transcendental egoism is that it takes the transcendental illusion of the ego for something that it is not, a reality separate from life, and this is the problem that leads to barbarism. The knowledge of life is constantly under siege by the transcendental illusion, but the battle is only lost when we fail to realize that the illusion is an illusion. When one fails to realize this, one takes what is mere method: the reduction of life in order to know the world and act in it, for reality.


Michel Henry, C'est Moi La Vérité. Paris: Éditions Du Seuil, 1996.

Michel Henry. The Essence of Manifestation. Translated by Girard Etzkorn. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1973.

Michel Henry. Barbarism. Translated by Scott Davidson. London: Continuum, 2012.

Michel Henry. Incarnation: A Philosophy of Flesh. Translated by Karl Hefty. Evanston: NU Press, 2015.

François Jacob. La logique du vivant: une histoire de l'hérédité. Paris: Gallimard, 1976.

Edmund Husserl. The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology. Translated by David Carr. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1970.

[1] Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology.

[2] Michel Henry, Barbarism, 12

[3] Michel Henry, Incarnation: A philosophy of Flesh, §9, 58.

[4] Michel Henry, The Essence of Manifestation, 471.

[5] Michel Henry, C'est Moi La Vérité, 179. "Plus cachée se tient la Vie dans l'ego, plus ouvert, plus disponible le monde." Own translation from the French.

[6] Henry, C'est Moi La Vérité, 180.