Presentation of the philosopher Michel Henry
(C) 2002-2010 Philippe Audinos

Michel Henry

The Life and the Work of Michel Henry


Michel Henry was a French philosopher and novelist who was born 10 January at Haiphong (Vietnam) and who died 3 July 2002 at Albi (France).

Michel Henry has lived until 7 years old in Vietnam where he has lost his father very early, who was an officer in the French Navy. He has then settled in France with his mother and has studied in Paris. He has discovered a real passion for the philosophy that has led him to the desire to do it his profession. From June 1943, he committed into the Resistance where he has joined the maquis of the Haut Jura under the code name of Kant, and he had to go down again from the mountain to accomplish his missions in Lyon occupied by the Germans and covered by the Nazis, an experience of clandestineness that has deeply marked his philosophy.

At the end of the War, he has passed the agrégation of philosophy examination, and then devoted his time to the preparation of a thesis under the direction of J. Hyppolite, J. Wahl, P. Ricoeur, F. Alquié and H. Gouhier. He has first written his book on the "philosophy and phenomenology of the body" ended in 1950, and then his first published large book about "the essence of the manifestation" and to which he as consecrated long years of research necessary to surmount the main deficiency of all intellectualist philosophy which is the ignorance of the life as every one experience it.

Michel Henry has been from 1960 professor of philosophy at the University of Montpellier where he has patiently edified his work keeping himself away from the philosophical fashions and far from the dominant ideologies. The only subject of his philosophy, that's the living subjectivity, that's to say the real life of the living individuals, this life who crosses all his work and ensures its deep unity despite of the diversity of the tackled themes. [He has proposed the deepest theory of the subjectivity of the twentieth century.]

A Phenomenology of Life

The work of Michel Henry is based on phenomenology, which is the science of the phenomenon. The English word "phenomenon" comes from the Greek word "phainomenon" which means "that which shows itself by coming into the light". The object of phenomenology is not however what appears, such a particular thing or phenomena, but the act of appearing itself. His thought leads him to the reversal of the Husserl phenomenology, which knows as phenomenon only the appear of the world, that's to say the exteriority. Michel Henry opposes to this conception of the phenomenality a radical phenomenology of life.

Michel Henry defines life in 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 Michel Henry, life is essentially force and affect, it is invisible by essence, it consists in 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 just for him a mode of life, because this is not thought that gives access to life, but this is life that allows thought to reach itself.

Life can never be seen from the exterior, it never appears in the exteriority of the world. Life feels itself and experience 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 our scalpel.

Our life is not its own foundation, we don't have brought ourselves and by our own means in the condition of living, life is given to us permanently and we are for nothing in this fact. None has ever given himself life. We undergo life in a radical passivity, we are reduced to bear it permanently as what we have not wanted, that's this radical passivity of life which is the foundation and the cause of suffering. 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 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 Michel Henry, life is not an 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

According to Michel Henry, two modes of manifestation of the phenomena exist that are two ways of appearing : the exteriority which is the mode of manifestation of the visible world, and the phenomenological interiority which is the mode of manifestation of the invisible life. Our body for example is given to us from the inner in the life which allows us for example to move our hand or to feel it, and it appears also from the exterior as any other object that we can see in the world.

This invisible we speak about doesn't correspond to what is too small to be seen with the naked eyes or to radiation to which our eye is not sensible, but to this life forever invisible because it is radically immanent and it never appears in the exteriority of the world : nobody has ever seen a force, a thought or a feeling in their inner reality appearing in the world, nobody has ever found them digging into the clay layers of the ground.

Some of his assertions seem paradoxical and difficult to understand at first sight, 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. That's 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.

The Originality of his Thought

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's 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.

The Reception of his Philosophy

His thesis on The essence of manifestation has been welcome warmly by the members of the jury who have recognized the intellectual value and the serious of its author, nevertheless this thesis doesn't had any influence on their later works. His prophetic book on Marx has been rejected by Marxists who where 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 they considered as "dogmatic errors". His phenomenology of Life has been the object of a pamphlet in The theological turn of the French phenomenology (Le tournant théologique de la phénoménologie fran§aise) 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 K hn 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, in Deutsche, in Spanish, in Italian, in Portuguese and in Japanese. An important number of books have been consecrated to his thought, mainly in French, but also in Deutsche, in Spanish and in 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.

Applications of his Philosophy

On the problems of society


Michel Henry has done an important work on Karl Marx, which he considers paradoxically as one of the first Christian thinkers and as one of the most important western philosophers, because of the importance he gives in his thought to the living work and to the living individual in which he sees the foundation of the economic reality. The fact that the real thought of Marx has been so badly understood and so badly interpreted is due to the complete ignorance of the fundamental philosophical writings of this author in the constitution of the official doctrine of the Marxism because of their very late publication, for example in 1932 only for The German Ideology. This work on Marx has been translated in English under the title Marx. A Philosophy of Human Being.

The Barbarism

In his essay on The Barbarism, Michel Henry questions himself on science, which is founded on the idea of an universal and thus objective truth and which therefore leads to the elimination of sensible qualities of the world, 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.

From Communism to Capitalism

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 Book of the Dead

The next book he intended to write must have been entitled The Book of the Dead and dealing with what he called the "clandestine subjectivity". A theme that evokes the condition of the life in the modern world et which is also probably an allusion to his commitment in the Resistance movement and his personal experience of clandestineness.

On art and painting

Michel Henry was a great admirer and connoisseur of the ancient painting, of the great classical painting that precedes the scientist derived figuration of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but also of the abstract creations that result from an authentic spiritual quest as those of the founder of the abstract art, the painter Wassily Kandinsky. Michel Henry has consecrated him a very fine book entitled Seeing the invisible where he describes his work in magnificent terms. He analyses in this book the theoretical writings of Kandinsky about the art and about the painting in their spiritual and cultural dimensions as a way of increasing of oneself and of refinement of our sensibility. He explores the means of the painting that are the forms and the colors, he studies their effects on the inner life of the one who looks at them filled with wonder, following the rigorous and nearly phenomenological analysis proposed by Kandinsky. He explains us that all form of painting able to rouse us is in reality abstract, that's to say it doesn't content with reproducing the world, but looks for expressing this invisible power and this invisible life that we are. He evokes also the great thought of Kandinsky, the synthesis of the arts, their unity in the monumental art as well as the cosmic dimension of the art.

On Christianity

I am the Truth

Life loves itself in an infinite love and never stops to generate itself, it never stops to generate each one of us as his beloved Son or Daughter in the eternal present of the life. The Life is nothing but this absolute of love that the religion calls God. That's why the Life is sacred and this is for this reason that nobody has the right to attack others or to hurt them. The problem of the evil is that of death, that's to say of the degeneration from this original condition of Son of God, when the life turns against itself in the hate and the resentment. Because as says John in his first epistle, anyone who does not love remains in death, whereas everyone who loves has been born of God. The commandment of love is not an ethical law, but the Life itself. Those themes are developed in his book I Am the Truth. Toward a Philosophy of Christianity.

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.

Words of the Christ

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.

On psychoanalysis

Michel Henry has done a study of the historical and philosophical genesis of the psychoanalysis in the light of the phenomenology of the life in his book Genealogy of the psychoanalysis, the lost beginning, in which he shows that the Freudian notion of unconscious results from the incapacity of Freud, its founder, to think the essence of the life in its purity. The repressed representation is not unconscious, it is only not formed : the unconscious is only an empty representation, it doesn't exists, or rather the real unconscious, that's the life itself in its pathetic reality. And that's not the repression that provokes the anguish, whose existence is only due to the fact to be able to act, but the unused psychic energy or libido. As for the notion of consciousness, it simply means the power of seeing, it is only a consciousness of object which leads to an empty subjectivity.

Some quotes from Michel Henry

On affectivity

On the Problems of Society

On art and painting

On Christianity

Description of selected titles

On the problems of society

On Art and Painting

On Christianity

Literary Works

Bibliography of Michel Henry

Philosophical works

Posthumous books

Literary works

Books on Michel Henry

Books in English

Monographies in French

Collective books in French

Books in other languages


External links

Encouraged reproduction

Original version of the article on Michel Henry written by Philippe Audinos and added to the free encyclopedia Wikipedia on the site The sentences or paragraphs under square brackets have been translated from French contributions of other Wikipedians. This text can be freely reproduced and diffused under the condition to keep the reference to Wikipedia.

Version 0.4 of the 12/22/2010
(C) 2002-2010 Philippe Audinos
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