Toward Metaphysics

New Tendencies in French Philosophy in the Middle of the Twentieth Century

by Jacek Migasinski (Author)
©2015 Monographs 282 Pages
Series: Modernity in Question, Volume 5


This book presents and analyzes specific metaphysical tendencies that were revived within particular branches of French philosophy from the 1930s to the 1960s. Using the examples of the five philosophers active in this period (Louis Lavelle, Ferdinand Alquié, Jean Wahl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Emmanuel Lévinas), who did not belong to or did not form any school of thought, the author attempts to show that the specificity of this non-classical metaphysics could be located in its anti-naturalist, non-substantial, non-objectival, dialectic, critical, non-systematic and pluralist character. The analysis is preceded by a comprehensive introduction in which both theoretical and historical inspirations for the ideas presented in the book are explained. The summary provides possible influences that the described ideas could exercise over more recent currents in French philosophy.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Abbreviations
  • Foreword
  • Introduction
  • French Traditions
  • Reception of Phenomenology at the Turn of the Thirties
  • Note on Metaphysics
  • Chapter 1. The Metaphysics of Perpetual Presence: Louis Lavelle
  • Chapter 2. Negative Metaphysics: Ferdinand Alquié
  • Chapter 3. Ineffable Metaphysics: Jean Wahl
  • Chapter 4. Metaphysics of Inter-corporality: Maurice Merleau-Ponty
  • Chapter 5. Metaphysics Beyond Ontology: Emmanuel Lévinas
  • Conclusions, Continuations…
  • Biographies
  • Bibliography
  • Principle Sources
  • Louis Lavelle
  • Ferdinand Alquié
  • Jean Wahl
  • Maurice Merleau-Ponty
  • Emmanuel Lévinas
  • Additional Sources
  • Index


A – Louis Lavelle, De l’Acte, Paris: Aubier, 1946.

AD – Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Les Aventures de la dialectique, Paris: Gallimard, 1955. English edition: Adventures of the Dialectic, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973.

AH – Louis Lavelle, De l’âme humaine, Paris: Aubier, 1951.

CA – Ferdinand Alquié, La Conscience affective, Paris: Libraire Philosophique J. VRIN, 1979.

DE – Ferdinand Alquié, Le Désir d’éternité, Paris: Presses Universitaries de France, 1963.

DHH – Emmanuel Lévinas, En découvrant l’existence avec Husserl et Heidegger, suivi d’essais nouveaux, Paris: Librairie philosophique J. Vrin, 1974. English edition: Discovering Existence with Husserl, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1998.

E – Louis Lavelle, De l’Etre, 2nd ed. 2, Paris: Aubier-Montaigne, 1947.

EE – Emmanuel Lévinas, De l’existence à l’existant, Paris: Librairie philosophique J. Vrin, 1986. English edition: Existence and Existents, Dordrecht/Boston/London: Kulwer Academic Publishers, 1988.

EH – Jean Wahl, Existence humaine et transcendance, Neuchâtel: Cahier de Philosophie, 1944.

EM – Jean Wahl, L’Expérience métaphysique, Paris: Nouvelle Bibliothèque Scientifique Dirigée par Fernand Braudel, 1964.

EP – Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Eloge de la philosophie et autres essais, Paris: Gallimard, 1960.

EV – Emmanuel Lévinas, “De l’évasion,” Recherches Philosophiques 1935–1936, Vol. 5. English edition: On Escape, Stanford University Press, 2003.

IO – Louis Lavelle, Introduction à l’ontologie, Paris: Presses Universitaries de France, 1951.

IS – Louis Lavelle, De l’intimité spirituelle, Paris: Aubier-Montaigne, 1955.

K – Ferdinand Alquié, Kartezjusz, translated by S. Cichowicz, Warszawa: PAX, 1989. Originally published as Descartes, Paris: Hatier, 1963.

NE – Ferdinand Alquié, La Nostalqie de l’être, Paris: Presses Universitaries de France, 1950.

OE – Maurice Merleau-Ponty, L’Oeil et l’Esprit, Paris: Folio, 1985.

PM – Maurice Merleau-Ponty, La Prose du monde (texte établi et présenté par. C. Lefort), Paris: Gallimard, 1969. English edition: The Prose of the World, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973.

PP – Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phénoménologie de la perception, Paris: Gallimard, 1976. English edition: Phenomenology of Perception, Routledge, 2002.

PT – Louis Lavelle, La Présence totale, Paris: Aubier, 1962.

RC – Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Résumes des cours, Collège de France 1952–1960, Paris: Gallimard, 1968.

RM – Ferdinand Alquié, “Un renouvellement de la métaphysique est-il possible?” Les cours de Sorbonne, Centre de Documentation Universitaire, undated

S – Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Signes, Paris: Librarie Gallimard, 1960. English edition: Signs, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964. ← 7 | 8 →

SC – Maurice Merleau-Ponty, La Structure du comportement, Paris: Bibliothèque de Philosophie Contemporaine, 1969.

SNS – Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Sens et non-sens, Paris: Nagel, 1961. English edition: Sense and Non-sense, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964.

SR – Ferdinand Alquié, Solitude de la raison, Paris: Le Terrain Vague, 1966.

TA – Emmanuel Lévinas, Le Temps et l’autre, Paris: Puf, 1991. English edition: Time and the Other, Duquesne University Press, 1987.

TE – Louis Lavelle, Du temps et d’éternité, Paris: Aubier,1945.

TI – Emmanuel Lévinas, Totalité et Infinini. Essai sur l’extériorité, The Hague: Martinus Nihof Publishers, 1961. English edition: Totality and Infinity, Dodrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1991.

TM – Ferdinand Alquié, Traité de métaphysique, Paris: Flammarion, 1965. ← 8 | 9 →


A historian who attempts at educing, analyzing, describing and, finally, naming contemporary intellectual currents faces a challenge that is self-contradictory. He or she is about to classify, enclose in a scheme, so, in other words, kill something that is still alive and expanding, growing out of every mold to which it is confined, or at least, has an influence, often unpredictable, on newly emergent ideas. What is more, this historian is supposed to perform all of the above with the use of tools that he or she has constructed himself or ones that have been adjusted to the study of the particular “subject” at hand.

Especially with research that is concerned with the new creations of human thought, the very “subject” often demands a new kind of approach each time, and new tools for the analysis. But this is a long-known and at this point slightly banal hermeneutical thesis. What results from this state of affairs is a danger, more imminent than in other instances, of subjectivism, arbitrariness or siding with one of the parties under analysis. After all, the analyzed matter has not yet “matured,” and the researcher is inevitably on a particular side in the conflict (assuming, that thinking itself is always a kind of “conflict”) on which he is about to rule. The assumed perspective, mode of his analysis, conclusions, etc. have not been confirmed yet through common use in analytic practice. That is the source of the dangers mentioned above, and the reason why, sometimes, one must retract conclusions that have been drawn too fast.

And yet, such bold undertakings continue to take place, and surely will, as it is impossible for them to stop. The very act of thinking possesses a feature (dictated, perhaps, by the very structure of the language in which we think), which demands that in order to construct even the simplest and most imprecise conclusion, it has to be done through a certain order; an order created according to different means and within the material currently at hand. Otherwise, man would get lost in the surrounding world (in this particular case, the world of ideas), which even for purely organic reasons would be unbearable. And this is exactly the role of “analytic-ordering” investigation that the “historian of modernity” must attempt. The internal paradox of his task has been pointed out on numerous occasions and achieved an almost cliché status. We will not, however, go into the details concerning the methodology of such a historian. However, being aware of the ← 9 | 10 → dangers posed, we should explain, with particular zeal, the criteria for the selection of our material, its scope, goals and the very title of this undertaking.

Titles can speak volumes to readers, but they may just as often stay silent. Toward Metaphysics means that we want to show certain trends (tendencies) in philosophy aimed at making metaphysics play a more basic and central role, which attempted to establish metaphysics as the core issue within the realm of philosophy. Or rather, restore it in that role. But, toward what metaphysics are we supposed to move? The title mentions “new tendencies,” and within this phrase, buried, lies the answer. We wish to show that the philosophical ideas which we will analyze are not traditionally metaphysical simply in style, and they are not based solely on a substantialist perspective, but are concerned and interested in the effects of an enduring philosophical critique. These are the ideas and suggestion which, after having digested the outcomes of generations worth of philosophical work, operate according to the standards of modernity. It is our desire to present a new intellectual system, formulated in a certain period of time. Or perhaps, if “system” is too strong a word, we can agree to call it “a general tendency” that has shaped today’s philosophy.

A question that remains is why we have adopted the formulation of “in the direction of” metaphysics, and not simply named a metaphysics of this or another denomination. Hopefully, the answers will be delivered along with further analysis; analysis proving that we are not dealing with a single, coherent theory, a constructed system or closed doctrine, but rather with attempts of creating and pronouncing a new philosophy, already at the outset being “non-object oriented,” “negative,” and finally, breaking with the eternal “subject-object” order of philosophizing – all of which will become evident to a different extent and with different consequences in the ideas analyzed in this work. It should also become evident that there is a direct connection between the aforementioned phenomena, and the open structure of metaphysics in question. In this sense, the reason for adopting “in the direction of” becomes clear – the discussed metaphysics will never fully be completed or ultimately “finished.”

The choice of France, as an area particularly prone to the rise of such tendencies, may be considered arbitrary. It has to do with years of continued interests and inclinations of the author of this work. It seems, however, that in French philosophy, the described phenomena surface visibly enough. If the state of affairs is different, or if somebody observes similar tendencies somewhere else – let this undertaking be the cornerstone of research much more extensive and panoramic in scope. Why, however, are we concerned with only the middle of the century? To be precise: we will be looking at time span ranging from the 30s to the 60s of the 20th century. We will try to prove that it was a period of (yet another) breakthrough in the history of French philosophy, resulting in a substantial shift ← 10 | 11 → in perspective, and from that point on constituting a separate whole, which, for natural, chronological reasons, has become the native foundation for intellectual formations which followed. One of the characteristics of the period in question turned out to be this metaphysical tendency that we are discussing in these pages. Let us be clear: it is not this work’s ambition to be a monograph of French philosophy in the middle of the 20th century. Its ambition is much more modest. The idea is to point out and group certain, quite common, and yet not universal or exclusive, tendencies in French philosophy for the creation of a new metaphysics, which, as we will try to show, will have an impact on the most contemporary ideas within French thought.

But what exactly is the common denominator that connects all the names of philosophers we intend to analyze? Is it only the period in which they all happened to work, publish and teach? After all, there are a whole variety of important names in the field, from that particular time in the history of thought. So, is the choice random? Being completely honest, the names in question are of different academic stature as well – philosophers both widely known and recognized, as well as less unique figures. What is the connection, then? What allows us to choose them and not others?

Before answering, we must state a reservation: it is not, by any means, a full list, since the tendency we are discussing has been represented by other philosophers as well, whom one would need to include in order to exhaust the issue (the reason why we do not think that everyone who displayed a “metaphysical tendency” should be included here will become clear later). The work you are looking at is not a monograph of a certain intellectual current either. Also, it could not be a monograph of that type because of the fact that we cannot speak of one, distinguishable philosophical movement, representatives of which would claim to share views and opinions. The feature that binds together the thinkers whose ideas we analyze here is not the identical content of their metaphysics, or even its general shape, but rather its function in relation to other fields in philosophy – to the classical assortment of philosophical tools (categories). Finally, the tendency in question is of a “negative,” unnamable and open character. The philosophers come from different philosophical schools, have been practicing different philosophies, and consequently, propose different metaphysics. Nonetheless, it was metaphysics that they all proposed in the end, and still, there was a common element that they shared. The element in question was a critical edge, turned against the “philosophy of awareness,” the philosophy of subject (traditionally strong in France). However, their proposed metaphysics were not naturalistic – these were not proposals of any new cosmology. That is why in our “database of issues” we do not include Sartre or Marcel’s philosophy, as they did not banish the perspective of subjective philosophy, even though they clearly are headed in the ← 11 | 12 → direction of some metaphysics (we will discuss it closer a little later). We could, however, include other philosophical ideas, the lack of which we recognize as a fault and set aside for a separate case study.

In conclusion, the philosophers analyzed in this particular work did not form any school of thought, any separate, ideological current, or any “movement.” But the role they all played in changing French philosophy in the middle of the last century was similar. Aside from that, there exists one more bond that connects all of them, and that binding element is the fact that Lavelle, Alquié, Wahl, Merleau-Ponty and Lévinas, all held, in their respective times, high positions in the hierarchy of French philosophy. They oversaw the most important philosophy departments, took seats in the most important and opinion-forming bodies, and finally, they had the possibility of creating the curricula for research programs, pushing them in the direction they have seen as right. Of course, we realize that it would be ridiculous to make this fact a fundamental criterion for the selection of our source materials. Our goal is not to write the history of French “institutional” or “official” philosophy. However, we do want to point to a certain important aspect of this “institutional” philosophy. It seems that it can tell us more than we are ready to assume at first. It tells us that, and it will be one of the theses in this work, at the time of late 1950s and early 1960s (which is exactly the time of philosophy being pushed aside by the social sciences, the reign of linguistics, psychoanalysis and structuralism), and the emergence of the postmodernism itself, these positions were engineered by this “official philosophy” (although, we cannot treat these as the single cause of these changes, by any means). All of this holding true, of course, we will need to establish the connections between this “official philosophy” and the metaphysics it proposes and searches for, and the style of exercising philosophy in France in the 1970s and 1980s. To formulate the conclusion in yet another way, we could argue that, if our thesis will be confirmed, it means that the way of treating philosophy, observed in the last twenty years, and displayed in the form of a certain type of embarrassment caused by the very act of philosophizing, or in an impersonal structure of discourse, or the nihilistic and aestheticizing approach, did not come from “outside” of the philosophy. It was not caused solely by the “true” scholars on the one side, and “literati” crowd on the other, but emerged from philosophy itself (and once again, philosophy being only one of many sources). And in this case, philosophy understood traditionally. The change is not an outcome of some surprising factors at work, but the result of internal processes taking place in philosophy’s own womb (aside from other processes that we will not be discussing here).

To be faithful to the facts, we have to add that the connection between the discussed philosophers is more than just external and institutional in character. It is – regardless of the metaphysical aspirations and pursuits involved – far more ← 12 | 13 → complex in character, and can be perceived from a different perspective. All of the philosophers in question managed to “notice” each other. Not only did they know the works of their fellow contemporaries, but they also engaged in disputes between each other, and found inspiration in each other’s works (This does not include L. Lavelle, since he was older than the rest, and managed to work out his philosophical stand, before the rest took any serious positions on any issues). They did not create any “school” of thought, but they were headed in a similar direction, possibly knowing about it all along.1 In further parts of this work, we will go back to this notion.

But let us ask yet another question, possibly the crucial one. Why should we talk about metaphysics today? Is it not an anachronism? Will not the attempt to bring out the common metaphysical tendency in contemporary philosophy lead us into a blind alley? After all, it is a rather popular assessment and, it seems, well-accounted for too, that “massive branches of contemporary European philosophy define themselves through the attempts of breaking free from metaphysics.”


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (December)
Metaphysik Ontologie Phänomenologie Denkschule
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 282 pp.

Biographical notes

Jacek Migasinski (Author)

Jacek Migasiński was a longtime head of the Division of the History of Modern Philosophy at the Department of Philosophy and Sociology of the University of Warsaw. He is the author of many books about philosophy, metaphysics and phenomenology.


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