Michel Henry was born in Haiphong, French Indochina (now Vietnam), and lived in French Indochina until he was seven years old. Following the death of his father, who was an officer in the French Navy, his mother and he settled in metropolitan France. While studying in Paris, he discovered a true passion for philosophy which led to a desire to make it his profession. From June 1943 onwards, he was committed to the French Resistance where he joined the maquis of the Haut Jura under the code name of Kant. He often had to come down from the mountains in order to accomplish missions in Nazi-occupied Lyon, an experience of clandestineness which deeply marked his philosophy.
Following the war, he passed the final part of the philosophy examination, and then has devoted his time to the preparation of a thesis under the direction of Jean Hyppolite, Jean Wahl, Paul Ricoeur, Ferdinand Alquié and Henri Gouhier. His first book, which was on the philosophy and phenomenology of the body, was completed in 1950. His first significant published work was about the essence of manifestation, and to which he consecrated long years of necessary research in order to surmount the main deficiency of all intellectualist philosophy - which is to say an ignorance of life as everyone experiences it.
Michel Henry was, from 1960, a professor of philosophy at the University of Montpellier where he patiently perfected his work, keeping himself away from philosophical fashions and far from dominant ideologies. He died in Albi, France, at the age of eighty.
The only subject of his philosophy is the living subjectivity, which is to say the real life of living individuals. This subject crosses all his work and ensures its deep unity in spite of the diversity of tackled themes. It has been suggested that he proposed the deepest theory of subjectivity in the twentieth century.
The work of Michel Henry is based on phenomenology, which is the science of the phenomenon. The English/German/Latinate word "phenomenon" comes from the Greek "Phainomenon" which means "that which shows itself by coming into the light". The everyday understanding of phenomenon as appearance is only possible as a negative derivation of this authentic sense of Greek self-showing. The object of phenomenology is not however what appears, such a particular thing or phenomena, but the act of appearing itself. Henry's thought led him to a reversal of Husserl's phenomenology, which acknowledges as phenomenon only the appearance of the world, or the exteriority. Henry opposed to this conception of phenomenality a radical phenomenology of life.
Henry defines life from a phenomenological point of view as what possesses "the faculty and the power to feel and to experience oneself in every point of its being". For Henry, life is essentially force and affect, it is invisible by essence, it exists within a pure experience of itself which oscillates permanently between suffering and joy, it is an always begun again passage from suffering to joy. Thought is for him only a mode of the life, because it is not thought which gives access to the life, but it is life that allows thought to reach itself.
According to Henry, life can never be seen from the exterior, as it never appears in the exteriority of the world. Life feels itself and experiences itself in its invisible interiority and in its radical immanence. In the world we never see life itself, but only living beings or living organisms, we cannot see life in them. It is as well impossible to see the soul of others with our eyes or to perceive it at the end of a scalpel.
Henry's philosophy goes on to aver that we undergo life in a radical passivity, we are reduced to bear it permanently as what we have not wanted, and that this radical passivity of life is the foundation and the cause of suffering. None has ever given himself life. At the same time, the simple fact of living, of being alive and of feeling oneself instead of being nothing and of not existing is already the highest joy and the greatest of the happiness. Suffering and joy belong to the essence of life, they are the two fundamental affective tonalities of its manifestation and of its "pathetic" self-revelation (from the French word pathétique which means capable of feeling something like suffering or joy).
For Henry, life is not a universal, blind, impersonal and abstract substance, it is necessarily the personal and concrete life of a living individual, it carries in it a consubstantial Ipseity which refers to the fact of being itself, to the fact of being a Self. That this life is the personal and finite life of men, or the personal and infinite life of God.
Two modes of manifestation of phenomena exist which are two ways of appearing: exteriority which is the mode of manifestation of the visible world, and phenomenological interiority which is the mode of manifestation of the invisible life. Our bodies, for example, are given to us from the inner in the life, which allows us, for example, to move our hand, and it appears also from the exterior as any other object that we can see in the world.
The invisible which we speak of does not correspond to that which is too small to be seen with the naked eye nor does it correspond to radiation, but rather to life, which is forever invisible because it is radically immanent and never appears in the world's exteriority. For example, no one has ever seen a force, a thought or a feeling of their inner reality appear in the world; no one has ever found them by digging into the ground.
Some of his assertions seem paradoxical and difficult to understand at first glance, not only because they are extracted from their context, but above all because of our thinking habits which lead us to reduce everything to its visible appearance in the world instead of reaching its invisible reality in the life. It is this separation between the visible appearance and the invisible reality which allows the dissimulation of our real feelings and which founds the possibility of sham and hypocrisy which are forms of lies.
Michel Henry explains in his book I am the Truth. Toward a philosophy of Christianity what Christianity considers as being the Truth and which he calls the Truth of Life. He shows that this Christian conception of Truth opposes to what men usually consider as the truth, which comes from the Greek thought and which he calls the truth of the world. But what is truth ? Truth is what shows itself and proves in this way its reality by its effective manifestation in us or in the world.
The truth of the world refers to an external and objective truth, a truth in which everything appears as an object visible in front of our sight and at distance of us, that’s to say in a representation form which is distinct from what it shows : when we’re looking at an apple, that’s not the apple in itself that we see but a simple image of the apple which appears is our sensibility and which changes according to the light and our view angle. Similarly, when we’re looking at the face of a person, that’s not this person in herself that we perceive, but a simple image of her face, its visible appearance in the world. According to this conception of truth, life is only an ensemble of objective properties, characterized for example by the need of eating or by the aptitude to reproduce itself.
In Christianity, Life is brought back to its inner reality which is absolutely subjective and radically immanent. Life considered in its phenomenological reality, that’s simply the faculty and the subjective power to feel sensations, small pleasures and big sorrows, to feel desires or feelings, to move our body from the inside exerting a subjective effort, or even to think. All those faculties possess the fundamental characteristic of appearing and of showing themselves in themselves, without gap nor distance, we never perceive them in the outside of our being or in front of our sight, but only in us : we coincide with every one of these powers. Life is in itself a power of manifestation and of revelation, and what it manifests that’s itself, in its pathetic self-revelation. A revelation power which is at work in us permanently and which we always forget.
The Truth of Life is absolutely subjective, that’s to say that it is independent from our subjective beliefs and tastes : the perception of a colored sensation or of a pain for example is not a matter of personal preference, that’s a fact and an incontestable inner experience which is the concern of the absolute subjectivity of Life. The Truth of Life doesn’t differ from what it makes true, it is not distinct from what manifests in it. This Truth is the manifestation itself in its pure inner revelation : that’s this Life that Christianity calls God.
The Truth of Life is not a relative truth variable from one individual to another, but the absolute Truth which founds from the inside every one of our faculties and every one of our powers, and which enlightens the lesser of our impressions. This Truth of Life is not an abstract and indifferent truth, it is on the opposite for man what is the most essential, because it alone can lead him to salvation by identifying inwardly with it and by becoming Son of God, instead of losing himself in the world.
Western philosophy as a whole since its Greek origins recognizes only the visible world and exteriority as the single mode of manifestation, it is trapped into what Michel Henry calls in The Essence of Manifestation the "ontological monism", it ignores completely the invisible interiority of life, its radical immanence and its original revelation mode which is irreducible to any form of transcendence and to any exteriority. When it is question of subjectivity or of life, they are never grasped in their purity, they are always reduced to biological life, to their external link to the world, or as in Husserl to an intentionality, that’s to say an orientation of consciousness to an external object.
Michel Henry rejects materialism, which admits only matter as reality, because the manifestation of matter itself into the transcendence of the world presupposes constantly the revelation of life itself, in order to access to it, to be able to see it or to touch it. He rejects as well idealism, which reduces being to thought and is incapable by principle to grasp the reality of being which it reduces to an unreal image, to a simple representation. For Michel Henry, the revelation of the absolute resides into affectivity and is constituted by it.
The deep originality of Michel Henry thought and its radical novelty in relation to all anterior philosophy explains its quite limited reception, a philosophy nevertheless admirable by its rigor and by its depth. But it is a thought both difficult and demanding, even if the central and unique theme of phenomenological life which experience it tries to communicate is what is the most simple and immediate. An immediacy and an absolute transparency of life which explains the difficulty to grasp it by means of thought : it is much easier to speak of what we see than of this invisible life which escapes by principle to any external look.
His thesis on The Essence of Manifestation has been welcomed warmly by the members of the jury who have recognized the intellectual value and the seriousness of its author, nevertheless this thesis did not have any influence on their later works. His prophetic book on Marx has been rejected by Marxists who were harshly criticized, as well as by those who refused to see in Marx a philosopher and who reduced him to an ideologue responsible from Marxism. His book on The barbarism has been considered by some people as a quite simplistic and too sharp anti-scientific discourse. Nevertheless technique continues its blind and without limit development too often in the contempt of life.
His books on Christianity seem to have quite disappointed some professional theologians and catholic exegetes who have only picked out and corrected what the considered as “dogmatic errors”. His book I am the Truth. Toward a philosophy of Christianity has been the object of a pamphlet in The theological turn of the French phenomenology (Le tournant théologique de la phénoménologie française) from Dominique Janicaud who sees in the immanence of life only the affirmation of a tautological interiority. Nevertheless Antoine Vidalin has just published a book in French entitled The word of Life (La parole de la Vie) where he shows that the phenomenology of Michel Henry allows a renewed approach of all the domains of theology.
As says Alain David in an article published in the French journal Revue philosophique de la France et de l’Etranger (number 3, July - September 2001), the thought of Michel Henry seems too radical, its changes too deeply our thinking habits, its reception is quite difficult, even if all his readers say themselves impressed by its "power", by the "staggering effect" of a thought which "brushes all on its passage", which "provokes admiration", but nevertheless "doesn’t really convinces". Because we don’t know if we are confronted to "the violence of a prophetic word or to pure madness". Rolf Kühn asserts also in this same philosophical journal, in order to explain the difficult reception of Michel Henry’s work, that "if we take sides with no power of this world, we inevitably submit oneself to the silence and to the critics of all possible power, because we recall to all institution that its visible or apparent power is, in fact only powerlessness, because nobody gives himself into the absolute phenomenological life."
His books have nevertheless been translated in many languages, notably in English, German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Japanese. An important number of books have been consecrated to his thought, mainly in French, but also in German, Spanish and Italian. Several seminars have also been consecrated to the thought of Michel Henry in Beirut, Cerisy, Namur, Prague and Paris. Michel Henry is considered by those who know his work and recognize its value as one of the major contemporaneous philosophers, and his phenomenology starts to "win a following". A Center of Michel Henry studies has even been created in the Saint-Joseph University of Beirut (Lebanon) under the direction of Professor Jad Hatem.
In his essay on The Barbarism, Michel Henry questions himself on science, which is founded on the idea of a universal and thus objective truth and which therefore leads to the elimination of sensible qualities of the world, to the elimination of sensibility and of life. The science is not bad by itself as long as it restricts to study nature, but it tends to exclude all others traditional cultures, namely art, ethic and religion. Science delivered to itself leads to the technique whose blind processes develop by themselves in a monstrous way without reference to life.
Science is a way of culture in which life denies itself and refuses itself any value, it is a practical negation of life, which goes on in a theoretical negation in the way of all the ideologies which bring back all possible knowledge to that of science, namely human sciences whose objectivity itself deprive them of their object : what is the value of statistics about suicide, what do they say about the despair it proceeds from ? These ideologies have invaded the university and throw it to its destruction by the elimination of life from its searches and from its teaching. Television is the truth of technique, it is the practice par excellence of the barbarism, it reduces all event to current events, to incoherent and insignificant facts.
This negation of life results according to Michel Henry from the "disease of life", from its secret dissatisfaction of oneself which leads it to deny itself, to run away from itself in order to escape its anguish and its own suffering. In the modern world, we are almost all condemned from our childhood to run away our anguish and our own life in the mediocrity of the media universe, an escape of oneself and a dissatisfaction which lead to violence, instead of resorting to the traditional and more elaborated forms of culture which allowed the surpassing of this suffering and its transformation into joy. Culture subsists only clandestinely and in a kind of incognito in our materialist society which is sinking into barbarism.
Communism and Capitalism are for Michel Henry the two faces of a same death, which consists in a same negation of the life. The Marxism eliminates the individual life to the benefit of universal abstractions like society, people, history or social classes. The Marxism is a way of fascism, that’s to say a doctrine which originates in the degradation of the individual whose elimination is considered as legitimate. While Capitalism substitutes economic entities such as money, profit or interest to the real needs of life. Capitalism recognizes however the life as source of value, the salary being the objective representation of the real subjective and living work. But Capitalism gives up progressively the place to the exclusion of the subjectivity by the modern technique, which replaces the living work by automated technical processes, eliminating at the same time the power of creating value and then the value itself : the possessions are produced in abundance, but the unemployment increases and money constantly lakes to buy them. These themes are developed in his book From Communism to Capitalism, Theory of a Catastrophe
The next book he began to write was entitled The Book of the Dead and was dealing with what he called the "clandestine subjectivity". A theme which evokes the condition of the life in the modern world and which is also probably an allusion to his commitment to the Resistance movement and personal experience of clandestineness.
This book proposes also a phenomenology of Christ, who is understood as the First Living. The living is just what reaches itself in this pure revelation of oneself or self-revelation that is Life. That’s in the form of an effective and singular Ipseity that Life never ceases to generate itself. It never ceases to occur in the form of a singular Self that embraces itself, experiences itself and enjoys itself, and that Michel Henry calls the First Living. Or also the Arch-Son, as he inhabits the Origin, the very Beginning, and as he is engendered in the very process whereby the Father engenders himself.
The coming of Christ into the world aims to make the true Father manifest to people, and thus to save them from the oblivion of Life where they stand. An oblivion which leads them to feel themselves falsely as being at the source of their own powers, of their own pleasures and of their own feelings, and to leave in the terrifying lack of what gives nevertheless each ego to himself. The plenitude of life and the feeling of satisfaction it brings, this must yield to the great Rift, to the Desire that no object can fulfill, to the Hunger that nothing can satisfy.
As he has said in his latest book Words of the Christ, that’s in the heart that the life speaks, in its immediate pathetic self-revelation, but this heart is blind to the Truth, it is deaf to the word of the Life, it is hard and selfish, and that’s from it that comes the evil. That’s in the violence of its silent and implacable self-revelation, who testifies against this degenerated life and against the evil that comes from it, that stands the Judgment which is identical to the coming of each Self in itself and to which nobody can escape.
In his book Incarnation, a philosophy of the flesh, Michel Henry starts with the opposition of the sensible and living flesh, as we experience it permanently from the inside, to our inert and material body, as we can see it from the outside, similar to the other objects we can find in the world. The flesh doesn’t fit at all in his terminology with the soft part of our material and objective body, by opposition to the bones for example, but to what he called in his previous books our subjective body. For Michel Henry, an object doesn’t possess interiority, it is not living, it doesn’t feel itself and doesn’t feel that it is touched, it doesn’t do the subjective experience of being touched.
After having placed the difficult problem of the incarnation in an historical perspective going back to the thought of the Fathers of the Church, he makes in this book a critical review of the phenomenological tradition that leads to the reversal of phenomenology. He then proposes to elaborate a phenomenology of the flesh which leads to the notion of a not constituted original flesh given in the "Arch-revelation" of Life, as well as a phenomenology of Incarnation.
Although the flesh is traditionally understood as the place of sin, it is also in Christianity the place of salvation, which consists in the deification of man, that’s to say in the fact of becoming Son of God, to come back to the eternal and absolute Life we had forgotten getting lost in the world, caring only about things and ourselves. In the fault, we make the tragic experience of our powerlessness to do the good we would like to do and of our inability to avoid the evil. In this way in front of the magic body of the other, that’s the anguished desire to meet the life in it that leads to the fault. In the night of the lovers, the sexual act couples two impulsive movements, but the erotic desire fails to reach the pleasure of the other where it is experienced, in a total loving fusion. The erotic relation is however doubled by a pure affective relation, foreign to the carnal coupling, a relation made of mutual gratitude or of love. That’s this affective dimension that is denied in this way of violence that is pornography, which extracts the erotic relation from the pathos of life to abandon it to the world, and which consists in a real profanation of life.