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In the chapter entitled “The Critique of the Subject” in the volume Who Comes After the Subject (edited by Cadava, Connor, and Nancy), Michel Henry embarks on a critical history of the philosophy of the subject. While he claims that the history of the critique of the subject has “numerous convergent formulations” from which a detailed tome could be assembled, for the sake of space he limits his chapter to brief analyses of Descartes, Kant, Heidegger, and Freud. Acknowledging the diversity of these thinkers, he nevertheless draws on a convergent point in the four; namely, what they have in common is the “critique of man conceived as a specific and autonomous reality” (157).

It is this specificity and autonomy that Henry claims must be understood. Accordingly, in the philosophy of the subject, man is identified as the subject “granted an exorbitant privilege in that there is in the end no Being nor being except in relation to him, for him and through him, and this insofar as he constitutes the a priori condition of possibility for all experience and thus for all that is and can be, at least for us” (157). Henry refers to this subject as a “super being,” one who has all beings at his disposal – as they are subjugated to him. As he goes on to remark, “These descriptions are those of our world – of the ravaging of Earth by Technology [… which] consists in the unconditional subjugation of the Whole of being, which becomes the Ob-ject, to man, who becomes the Subject” (158). Henry is not here concerned with how such a view of subjective-subjugation of the world can have power, although he does imply that this view of mastery over the world based on subjectivity is an illusion that needs to be addressed. Rather, his immediate concern lies elsewhere; namely that the philosophy of subjectivity does not know anything about the being of this subject. He poses two questions to begin his essay:

  1. What is the Being of this subject that has to be eliminated, “evacuated,” from the problematic?
  2. Who, contesting at once the right and the existence of such a subject – the right of man to identify with it – goes about its elimination?

At this point he deems it necessary to focus on the philosophies of the two greatest philosophers of the subject: Descartes and Kant – although he chooses to address them historically backward. His attentions swings first to Kant because Henry wishes to show how the Kantian paradigm is the pre-eminent philosophy of the groundless subject. In other words, the moment philosophy “sees itself clearly as a philosophy of the subject… the foundation on which it explicitly and thematically bases itself… escapes it and, slipping from its grasp, tips over into the void of inanity” (158). “Inane” because essentially what occurs is that the Being of the subject becomes understood as representation. Thus, “I think” is equal to “I represent to myself that I think.” As Henry elaborates,

“[This] means that the Being of the subject is classed as the object of a representation, an object that, on the one hand, presupposes this subject and, on the other, never contains by itself, insofar as it is represented any reality – just as to represent to oneself a thaler does not imply that one has one in one’s pocket. Thus the foundation of any conceivable Being is stricken with a profound ontological indigence that prevents us from attributing to Being itself and kind of Being. Like it or not, it is the philosophy of the subject itself that has raised the most serious objection to the subject, to the point of rendering its very existence problematic” (159).

Returning to the two questions above, Henry then asks, “which subject finds itself thrown out of existence, and by whom?” His answer is the subject of representation, and by itself. This is so because the subject-as-representation draws its essence, its Being, from representation, which thus prevents Being from being conferred upon it. According to Kant, because the structure of representation is intuition and concept – and because we have no intuition or concept of the “I think” – we cannot know anything about it. Thus, the subject-as-representation is not a phenomenon for us, nor can it be. In other words, the essence of Being itself cannot consist in representation because representation does not rest upon itself and cannot ground itself in itself – as it is always referential. Thus, “to be” does not mean “to be represented” (160).

For Descartes, the problematic takes a different form. Henry notes that in the Meditations two decisive traits emerge: (1) The Being of the subject is contested, unsettled and denied. The Being of the subject and hence Being itself is the issue; and (2) The foundation of the Being of the subject presupposes that representation be ruled out – this means all that is or can be represented and the very structure of representation itself. By doubting all things – all representations and the structure of representation – Descartes’ remaining inquiry was regarding what might “sub-sist, that is to say, what can still be when representation in its entirety has been blocked”? What can still be when being is not through representation? Descartes’ answer is the “anti-essence of representation” as being “precisely the essence of the ‘subject’” (161).

Henry then briefly describes Descartes’ epoche as found in the Passions of the Soul. In this text, Descartes imagines himself dreaming. As such, all that is represented to himself in his dream is understood as illusory – is not. However, if the dreamer happens to experience emotions of sadness or grief or the like, even though still in a dream, even thought the representation(s) are false, the feelings themselves are absolute. Thus, he concludes: this feeling does not occur through representation but independent of it. How does it then occur? Henry notes, “In and through its affectivity” (161, emphasis his). Accordingly, this affectivity of the subject, this “auto-affectivity”, is the self’s immediate and undistanced experience of itself. And as such, it is to be understood as the essence of the subject and of all possible Being. As Henry thus remarks at the conclusion of his brief discussion of Descartes: “It is only when, as happens at one moment in Descartes, the philosophy of the subject returns to this original essence of subjectivity and Being that the ‘subject’ can become the theme of a philosophical discussion” (162).

Leaving behind Descartes and Kant, Henry turns his attention to his favorite philosophical punching bag. As he states, “The most striking misunderstanding is Heidegger’s, who explicitly and repeatedly identifies the ‘I think’ as an ‘I represent myself to myself’” (162). This non-ground of subjectivity is the resultant model of most critiques of the subject post-Heidegger. With this being the case, as far as Henry is concerned, the Being of the subject has “lost… all possible philosophical meaning” (162). Although Heidegger’s critique of the essence of Being was assumed to be something different, according to Henry, all that really occurred in Heidegger’s problematic was a new schematic of representation-as-essence.

The one bright spot that Henry notes in the history of the critique of the subject is located in the thought of Freud. Although not completely endorsed, Henry claims that the Freudian subject is “capable of opening up new paths” in the history of the critique. Freud’s critique was aimed directly at the subject of representation, which he identified as “consciousness.” As Henry mentions, Freud was not concerned with redefining consciousness, but rather took the stock meaning as employed by common philosophical jargon: “Let us call ‘conscious’ the representation which is present to our consciousness and of which we are aware, and let this be the only meaning of the term ‘conscious.’”

As noted above, for Freud, consciousness was equal to representation. It is this level – the level of consciousness – that would become the ground of his study of the unconscious; for there are memories that we “possess” which are not immediately accessible in the consciousness, as representation. Therefore, the subject cannot be understood in terms of “I represent myself to myself” because the unconscious, which is unrepresented, is integral in the constitution of the subject. However, whatever is not conscious is capable of becoming conscious. This is the task of the psychoanalytic therapist: to bring to the “actuality of representation something nonconscious that is secretly homogeneous with representation and that can, for this reason, change into it – an unconscious constituted by ‘unconscious representations.’ i.e., those that are not yet represented and that, ontologically if not existentially, are only asking to be” (164). Thus,  according to Henry, “Classical thought calls out for the coming of psychoanalysis” (164).

It is therefore “anther subject that comes to light with the idea that the unrepresented is also representable, that the original Being of this subject is no longer represented but its anti-essence” (164). Henry continues:

“Freud in his turn runs up against such a subject, half perceived by Descartes, when he finds himself in the presence of an unconscious that is no longer provisional, no longer one phase in the history of representation, capable of completing itself in itself, in the actualization of it full essence. The history of our representations refers back to a force that allows them precisely to actualize themselves or that forbids them to do so. It is only this force itself that is irreducible to any representation. This force collapses in on itself in an immediation that is so radical, and in this immediation is submerged into itself in such a way that there is no room in it for any Difference, no distantiation thanks to which it would be possible for it to perceive itself, to represent itself – to be conscious in the mode of representation” (164-65, emphasis his).

However, all is not well in Henry’s eyes. At this point, right when Freud is divulging the most original dimension of Being – the unrepresented and unrepresentable force that directs all representations – that Freud “succumbs” to the presuppositions of this metaphysics and that force and affect fall back to the unconscious. Thus, the subject is led to its true Being, only to find itself removed from such Being.

In the final lines of the chapter, Henry focuses once again on Descartes and asks whether Descartes had perceived (or half-perceived) the Being of the subject as an anti-essence of representation, and that if such is the case why did consequent critiques of the subject so badly misunderstand the cogito in terms of representation? Well, Descartes is partly to blame for this. In the Meditations, Descartes does not completely disavow the subject as representation. In fact, it could be concluded that even after bracketing off all representations, the cogito that remains does so only as a representation to itself. Thus, the cogito is the “first truth and at the same time the prototype for all truth” (165). In this case, the cogito has nothing to do with the actual process of thought or with thought itself. Rather, the cogito is the subjective condition (understood as affectivity, as noted above), without which no appearing of the world would appear.

With that said, it is hence claimed that Descartes draws back at precisely this moment and states that affectivity, as the original essence of subjectivity, is a “disturbance brought into subjectivity by some foreign agent. Why? Because thought is light, the light of representation, the light of the world, the light in which things and their geometric shapes shine – Greek light” (166). It is here, according to Henry, where the problem of the philosophy of the subject lies: “absolute objectivism, whether it be the naive objectivism of the sciences, notably the human sciences, or the ek stasis of Being that, unbeknownst to them, serves as their foundation” (166).

While not setting out to resolve the problematic of the history of the critique of the subject in this chapter, Henry concludes the article by remarking that there is no past in the critique, there is no model that ought to be resurrected or restored. Rather, there is only the possibility of a “first coming”…