The Ethics of Affectivity and the Problem of Personhood: An Overview

Frédéric Seyler


Michel Henry’s critique of barbarism,1 understood as a flight from life, almost
immediately raises the question of how life’s tendency to negate itself is then to be
overcome. Undoubtedly, such a question refers to ethics. Although Henry not only
provides an analysis of civilization and its malaise, but also targets the level of the
individual through the concept of despair inspired by Kierkegaard, there is no
systematic treatment of ethics to be found in his phenomenology of life.2,3 In light
of the diagnosis of barbarism, it is therefore necessary to investigate what ethics
would be contained in, or follow from, Henry’s phenomenology. And if the
essence of life is to be found in immanent affectivity, the questions thus become:
is there an “ethics of affectivity” and, if so, which are its main aspects? The purpose
of this article is to give an overview of ethics from the standpoint of Henry’s radical
phenomenology and to discuss some of the main problems it implies. The
opposition of barbarism and culture is essential in order to understand Henry’s
distinction between ethos (or “first ethics”) and normative ethics, but it is only
intelligible if one refers to immanent affectivity as the key-concept of his
phenomenology. As we will see, it is the lack of recognition of immanent life
as fundamental phenomenality that makes barbarism possible, a recognition that is
therefore central to phenomenology of life as ethics and to the concept of “second
birth.”  However, since phenomenology is, as theory, tied to intentionality, how can it become indicative of that which escapes intentionality, and how can it provide a truth-criterion for propositions that refer to affectivity as invisible? As the access to the transcendental becomes both an ethical and a theoretical problem, it is necessary to investigate how a radicalised reduction can be performed with regard to three interrelated aspects that are central to human life and therefore to ethics: community, personhood, and action. The analysis of action in particular shows Henry’s reductive move at work, while also facing the problem of articulating transcendence with immanence. His radicalised concept of personhood reveals the same features as those contained in his approach to action: they both combine affectivity and intentionality, but limit the reality of personhood and action to their affective core.

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