The Normal and the Phenomenological

Image: Two Figures, Francis Bacon (1953)

by Nikolaas Cassidy-Deketelaere (Paris, France)

In his introduction to Georges Canguilhem’s The Normal and the Pathological, Michel Foucault makes an observation that we nowadays seem increasingly at risk of forgetting: far from being irreconcilably opposed to one another, the two main theoretical styles of continental philosophy—i.e., phenomenology and critical theory—are both rooted in Edmund Husserl’s attempt at establishing philosophy as a rigorous science. In other words, both the “philosophy of experience, of sense and of subject,” like that of Jean-Paul Sartre or Maurice Merleau-Ponty, as well as the “philosophy of knowledge, of rationality and of concept,” such as found in Jean Cavaillès or Gaston Bachelard, are ultimately phenomenological in aspiration, namely as “two modalities according to which phenomenology was taken up in France.”1 This ought not to be surprising, as Husserlian phenomenology (reacting to psychologism) and critical theory (reacting to early sociology and aided by Karl Marx) are both fundamentally antipositivist projects: the experience in which science takes nature to be given as simply there is inherently naïve; instead, experience gains its meaning and validity only in logical connection. The failure to secure these logical structures is what produced the notorious ‘crisis’ of the European sciences.

Yet, at least at Anglo-American universities, we nowadays observe a cleavage between these two styles: whereas Husserl may still be studied alongside Gottlob Frege and Rudolf Carnap in faculties of philosophy, the authors associated with what is commonly referred to (always in English) as ‘French theory’ have largely been banished to other departments in the humanities and social sciences. Foucault gives an indication as to why this might be the case: “Phenomenology asked of ‘actual experience’ the original meaning of every act of knowledge. But can we not, or must we not look for it in the living being himself?”2 Specifically, from the perspective of critical theory, phenomenology is found to be insufficiently critical or rigorous insofar as it takes the presence of consciousness to itself as a given: though “phenomenology could indeed introduce the body, sexuality, death, the perceived world into the field of analysis,” Foucault writes, “the Cogito remained central; neither the rationality of science nor the specificity of the life sciences could compromise its founding role.” Counting him amongst the critical theorists, Foucault therefore concludes that the value of Canguilhem’s contribution lies in the alternative it provides to phenomenology: “It is to this philosophy of meaning, of subject and the experienced thing that Canguilhem has opposed a philosophy of error, concept and the living being.”3 Yet, in its scientific ambition, Canguilhem’s critical theory equally remains of value to phenomenology itself.


Foucault wrote his introduction during the 1960s, but Canguilhem’s critical alternative deserves to be read with renewed interest. It is relevant today, not simply as phenomenology, but also to phenomenology: specifically, as a corrective to a misguided trend amongst contemporary phenomenologists, namely their remarkable heteronormative and patriarchal attitude. Emmanuel Levinas’ account of love is notorious in this regard, since it defines “the Other” as inherently feminine: “the contrariety that permits its terms to remain absolutely other,” he writes, “is the feminine.”4 We need hardly be reminded of Simone de Beauvoir’s stinging comment on this sentence at the start of The Second Sex:

I suppose that Levinas does not forget that woman, too, is aware of her own consciousness, or ego. But it is striking that he deliberately takes a man’s point of view, disregarding the reciprocity of subject and object. When he writes that woman is mystery, he implies that she is mystery for man. Thus, his description, which is intended to be objective, is in fact an assertion of masculine privilege.5

Luce Irigaray produces the same critique of Levinas, though from a different perspective, by asking him why he refuses to understand woman as the subject of love and sexual pleasure rather than merely the object of man’s desire. “The feminine in existence,” Levinas writes, “is a flight before light. Hiding is the way of existing of the feminine, and this fact of hiding is precisely modesty.”6 However, Irigaray objects that, on this account, “the feminine appears as the underside or reverse side of man’s aspiration toward the light, as its negative. The feminine is apprehended not in relation to itself, but from the point of view of man,” a perspective “dictated by masculine pleasure (jouissance).”7 Thus, “the phenomenology of the caress in Levinas falls back within the boundaries staked out by the philosophical constitution of the masculine subject,” Irigaray concludes: “Levinas clings on once more to this rock of patriarchy in the very place of carnal love.”8 Specifically, she blames this limitation on Levinas’ desire “to assimilate philosophy and theology”:

This description of pleasure given by Levinas is unacceptable to the extent that it presents man as the sole subject exercising his desire and his appetite upon the woman who is deprived of subjectivity except to seduce him. So the woman’s pleasure is alienated to that of the man, according to the most traditional scenarios of temptation and fall.9

Instead of Levinas’ “autistic, egological, solitary love,” Irigaray insists that “the woman can be a subject in love and is not reducible to a more or less immediate object of desire. Man and woman, woman and man can love each other in reciprocity as subjects, and not only in that transitive fashion whereby the man loves the woman, one accomplishing the act of love to which the other submits, already in the past tense, in the passive.”10

Despite these feminist critiques of Levinas being much-discussed elsewhere, in France they have had relatively little impact (it is perhaps telling that Beauvoir only made it onto the curriculum for the aggrégation in 2019, and even then, only in literature rather than philosophy!). Phenomenology in France remains today what Irigaray in her day already referred to as “the culture of men-amongst-themselves,”11 particularly heterosexual and cisgendered men. Consider the following description of fatherhood by arguably the most famous living phenomenologist:

The father is missing because he procreates in only a moment and, having become useless, withdraws immediately […], since he can remain united with the child only by taking leave—precisely so as to then pass on his help: as extroverted provider, hunter, warrior, traveller; in short, as one who constantly returns, coming back to the hearth from which he must distance himself if he wants to maintain it.12

This is an extraordinarily patriarchal description of fatherhood from a contemporary author. Here, phenomenological rhetoric is misleadingly employed to present a very particular understanding of fatherhood as the essence of fatherhood, unjustifiably raising gender roles that are crumbling under the weight of contemporary everyday experience to the level of eidetic structures.

Irigaray was right to point the finger at theology, for that supposedly phenomenological description of fatherhood is provided by Jean-Luc Marion, the main protagonist in the so-called “theological turn” of recent French phenomenology. The ultimately theological nature of Marion’s framework is perhaps clearest in The Erotic Phenomenon, which sets out what purports to be a phenomenological understanding of love, yet ends up producing an account that is suspiciously close to how the Catechism of the Catholic Church understands marriage (which, in the end, has very little to do with love): love is understood as an “escheat,” for it is a sexual relationship involving “eternal fidelity,” established by an “oath,” in the presence of a “third party,” and only truly realised as transcendence in the production of “children.” Of course, Marion never uses the word “marriage,” but what else could this definition of love amount to? (In fact, the only difference between Marion’s definition of love and the Catechism’s definition of marriage is that the latter specifies it as“ by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses,” which is not something Marion appears to be concerned about.) Moreover, Marion’s book forcefully insists on the univocity of love: anyone who claims to have encountered an experience of love that does not fit within Marion’s framework is in fact not talking about love at all, but instead engaging in a “prostitution” of the very word ‘love.’13

Consider, then, the many deeply meaningful human experiences that are generally called ‘love,’ but do not fit into Marion’s logic and should therefore be considered “prostitutions” of the word: friendship, parenthood, secret love, childless or infertile love, love that employs contraception, sexless love, love that does not last for eternity, love that has known a moment of infidelity, polyamory, gay love, etc. This shows a truly extraordinary amount of disrespect for how other people might choose to live their lives and experience them as meaningful.

In a chapter on the “perversion” of love, Marion defines it as the occasion when “I push bodies, and thus their naturalness to their limits, or even beyond these limits,” when I “play the nature of bodies against nature, without scruple or restraint,” and gives the following oblique examples: “Thus I will transgress the borderline of excitations, passing from pain to pleasure; I will transgress the borderline between the sexes; I could almost end up—why not?—transgressing the borderline between species.”14 Marion apparently lacks the courage to launch a direct attack on homosexuality, but let there be no mistake about what he is saying here by way of association and implication: he is presenting the three “perversions” of sadomasochism, homosexuality, and bestiality as directly connected. Emmanuel Falque’s phenomenological account of love, unlike that of his doctoral supervisor, contains no homophobia whatsoever; yet it remains equally limited by the fact that it is—explicitly, and therefore more honestly—based on a theology of creation: love, for Falque, is the organic unification of bodies along the lines of sexual difference understood as the difference between the sexes. As he puts it: “Adam and Eve are one flesh but do not give up being two bodies, remaining so all the more in the common discovery of a masculinity and femininity that eros teaches them both to fulfil and to put into action.”15

The problem with these accounts is not so much their limited understanding of the experience of love, but rather that this limitation is theological in nature and therefore compromises the phenomenological character and rigour of the analysis. The recourse Marion takes to “nature” when defining love univocally against most of the experiences we would ordinarily understand as love (but he dismisses as prostitutions of the very concept) is telling, for nature is a theological rather than phenomenological category: it is a moral argument that dismisses certain experiences of love because they do not accord with the “natural” order as created by God. Phenomenology, meanwhile, operates precisely by way of the “reduction” or “bracketing” of what Husserl calls “the natural attitude,” namely: the everyday appearance of the world as existing independently of me. This natural appearance is value-laden: in everyday experience, I assume that how things appear to be corresponds to how they necessarily ought to be. The phenomenological attitude is achieved by the “reduction” that puts these judgements out of action, since they are inherently naïve insofar as they are empirical judgements unsecured by transcendental structures of consciousness.16 Eugen Fink, Husserl’s assistant, perhaps summarises it best: “in the natural attitude, in which for ourselves and for others we are called and are humans, to everything worldly there belongs the being-acceptedness,” which understands everything “existent in the world, in the world that is always existent beforehand as a constant acceptedness of a basis. […] In phenomenology this being-beforehand is itself a problem.”17

The normativity of contemporary phenomenology, according to which love is always understood beforehand not just as entirely sexual (“erotic”) but heterosexual (“marriage”), is thus a remaining prejudice belonging to the natural attitude that has no place in phenomenological analysis, that remains intrinsically naïve and therefore in need of reduction. Heteronormativity is not, it strikes me, something that can be straightforwardly accepted as a fact of experience: no experience is foreign to phenomenological analysis in virtue of the very fact that it is experience, which forms the only criterion for that analysis. In short, there is something distinctly antiphenomenological about contemporary phenomenology, namely its normativity. No surprise, then, that these accounts also come by way of a new positivism: Marion’s so-called “phenomenology of givenness” concerns itself not with the logical structures that make experience meaningful, but with the brute empirical fact of its givenness which is itself elevated to the level of transcendental or universal (i.e., “natural”).


To remedy this positivism and this naivety—which run contrary to the phenomenological ambition—we may then turn to critical theory and Canguilhem in particular. Writing as a physician, Canguilhem considers, not the natural, but its secular counterpart: the normal. On his account, the two are nevertheless structurally identical insofar as they are both normative concepts that pretend to be descriptive ones: “normal is that which is such that it ought to be,” which renders the term “ambiguous” because “it designates at once a fact and ‘a value attributed to this fact by the person speaking.’” Moreover, “this ambiguity is deepened by the realist philosophical tradition,” to which phenomenology belongs, “which holds that, as every generality is the sign of an essence, and every perfection the realization of the essence, a generality observable in fact takes the value of realized perfection, and a common characteristic, the value of an ideal type.”18 On the basis of this ambiguity, phenomenology makes empirically observed generality into a transcendental logical necessity, which allows it to dismiss subsequent experiences that deviate from the established norm as somehow not worth considering precisely because they cannot be considered experiences of the ideality at issue.

Canguilhem’s account should then be of interest to the contemporary phenomenologist because it demonstrates that normality does not equal logical necessity: it is not an inherent structure of transcendental consciousness, but rather a constructed fiction that serves a polemical purpose and therefore requires reduction. As Canguilhem puts it:

To set a norm (normer), to normalize, is to impose a requirement on an existence, a given whose variety, disparity, with regard to the requirement, present themselves as a hostile, even more than an unknown, indeterminant. It is, in effect, a polemical concept which negatively qualifies the sector of the given which does not enter into its extension while it depends on its comprehension. The concept of right […] qualifies what offers resistance to its application of twisted, crooked or awkward.19

In other words, the normal is an arbitrary limitation of the phenomenal field, of what is recognised to begiving itself to consciousness as the phenomenon that it is, in terms of what is considered to have the right of being recognised as such. Far from being the product of phenomenological reduction, the normal is instead precisely what requires reduction. It is therefore ironic, Canguilhem observes, that this restriction is not a priori in nature, but precisely a reaction to the diversity of actual experience:

The abnormal, as ab-normal, comes after the definition of the normal, it is its logical negation. However, it is the historical anteriority of the future abnormal which gives rise to a normative intention. The normal is the effect obtained by the execution of the normative project, it is the norm exhibited in the fact. In the relationship of the fact there is then a relationship of exclusion between the normal and the abnormal. But this negation is subordinated to the operation of negation, to the correction summoned up by the abnormality. Consequently, it is not paradoxical to say that the abnormal, while logically second, is existentially first.20

Especially “in anthropological experience,” like love, Canguilhem therefore concludes, “a norm cannot be original. Rule begins to be rule only in making rules and this function of correction arises from infraction itself.”21

In the analysis of experience, then, the normal or the natural is derivative of the actual experience at issue, which is diverse rather than uniform. Any observed uniformity, not to mention univocity, must then necessarily be established by the logical connection of the diversity of experience: “the actual notion of the normal depends on the possibility of violating the norm.”22 We can therefore now recognise how Canguilhem’s project is perfectly in keeping with the phenomenological ambition (and has a better understanding of it than self-proclaimed contemporary phenomenologists), which Aron Gurwitsch rightly summarises as follows: “The identity of the object in the face of multiple experiences referring to the former is the fundamental problem of constitutive phenomenology whose aim is to account for the object or existent in terms of the pertinent experiences.”23

Speaking the language of the medical sciences, Canguilhem expresses much the same idea for biological normality: “Disease reveals normal functions to us at the precise moment when it deprives us of their exercise.”24 The norm for the human body, the health that goes unnoticed when it is actually present, is thus only experienced when my body deviates from it: only once a cold blocks my nose do I truly appreciate what normal respiratory function feels like. Canguilhem therefore draws a most insightful conclusion: “strictly speaking, there is no science of health. Health is organic innocence. It must be lost, like all innocence, so that knowledge may be possible.”25

The same is true for phenomenology, which cannot maintain the innocence of transcendental ideation, but must start with the chaos, anarchy, or pluriformity of empirical intuition: the thing is known, not in its nature, but precisely only in instances of denaturation which form the basis for the production and construction—i.e., the constitution—of its ‘nature’ as ideal logical type that itself lacks experience. Phenomenology is thus the inherently paradoxical enterprise of establishing experience in its transcendental ideality on the basis of its actually experienced pluriformity: the science that has as its norm, as determinant of its rigour, its very deviation from the norm.Such is the tension, elaborately described by Jacques Derrida, that characterises phenomenology as such, which Husserl occasionally refers to but never resolves—including in the famous essay stating his ambition for phenomenology to be a rigorous science: “The same realities (things, procedures, etc.) are present to the eyes of all and can be determined by all of us according to their ‘nature.’ Their ‘nature,’ however, denotes: presenting themselves in experience according to diversely varying ‘subjective appearances.’”26

1. Michel Foucault, “Introduction,” in Georges Canguilhem, The Normal and the Pathological, translated by Carolyn R. Fawcett, New York: Zone Books, 1991, 8.
2. Foucault, “Introduction,” 20.
3. Foucault, “Introduction,” 23-24.
4. Emmanuel Levinas, Time and the Other, translated by Richard A. Cohen, Duquesne: Duquesne University Press, 1987, 85.
5. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, translated by H.M. Parshley, London: Jonathan Cape, 1953, 16 n1.
6. Levinas, Time and the Other, 87, italics added.
7. Luce Irigaray, “Questions to Emmanuel Levinas: On the Divinity of Love,” in Robert Bernasconi and Simon Critchley, eds., Re-Reading Levinas, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991, 109.
8. Irigaray, “Questions to Emmanuel Levinas,” 113.
9. Irigaray, “Questions to Emmanuel Levinas,” 114-115.
10. Irigaray, “Questions to Emmanuel Levinas,” 111, 115.
11. Irigaray, “Questions to Emmanuel Levinas,” 109.
12. Jean-Luc Marion, The Reason of the Gift, translated by Stephen E. Lewis, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011, 119.
13. Jean-Luc Marion, The Erotic Phenomenon, translated by Stephen E. Lewis, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006, 3.
14. Marion, The Erotic Phenomenon, 165.
15. Emmanuel Falque, The Wedding Feast of the Lamb, translated by George Hughes, New York: Fordham University Press, 2016, 153-154.
16. Edmund Husserl, Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy—First Book: General Introduction to a Pure Phenomenology, translated by F. Kersten, The Hauge: Martinus Nijhoff, 1983, §§27-32.
17. Eugen Fink, Sixth Cartesian Meditation: The Idea of a Trascendental Theory of Method, translated by Ronald Bruzina, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988, 166.
18. Georges Canguilhem, The Normal and the Pathological, translated by Carolyn R. Fawcett, New York: Zone Books, 1991, 125.
19. Canguilhem, The Normal and the Pathological, 239.
20. Canguilhem, The Normal and the Pathological, 243.
21. Canguilhem, The Normal and the Pathological, 241.
22. Canguilhem, The Normal and the Pathological, 91.
23. Aron Gurwitsch, Studies in Phenomenology and Psychology, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1966, 145-146.
24. Canguilhem, The Normal and the Pathological, 101.
25. Canguilhem, The Normal and the Pathological, 101.
26. Edmund Husserl, “Philosophy as Rigorous Science,” in Phenomenology and the Crisis of Philosophy, New York: Harper & Row, 1965, 104.