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Book chapter

Koyré as a historian of religion and the new French phenomenology

The aim of this article is to explore the influence that Koyré’s early work on history of religion had on the development of French phenomenology, with focus on Emmanuel Levinas and Michel Henry. It is well known that Koyré played a prominent role in spreading Husserl’s phenomenology in France, for example, as the editor of the French translation of Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations and the managing editor of the revue Recherches philosophiques. Although Koyré’s affiliation to the phenomenological movement is debatable, his thought owes much to Husserl’s phenomenological method: what matters to him is not the problem of existence, whether in the intellect or outside of the intellect but the ways in which our consciousness deals with certain fundamental ideas and the ways in which such ideas affect consciousness. In his books on St Anselm and Descartes, Koyré focuses on the idea of God and the idea of the infinite. He praises Descartes for giving the infinite priority over the finite, thereby making the notion of the finite dependant on that of the infinite, much as in Cantor’s set theory. I trace the influence of Koyré’s analysis of the infinite in its relation to the finite on the development of the idea of the infinite in Levinas. I also show that Levinassian approach to the idea of God as “the idea of the Infinite in me” goes back to Koyré’s interpretation of the ontological proof of St Anselm. Next, I explore the influence of Koyré’s book on Böhme on the philosophy of Michel Henry. Koyré’s reading of Böhme makes Böhme essentially a precursor of German idealism describing the Absolute that wishes to manifest itself and distinguishing between the manifestation and what is made manifest in this manifestation. Henry applies this approach to phenomena in general, which leads him to a criticism of intentionality and the optical metaphor. In line with much of post-Heideggerian philosophy, both Levinas and Henry prioritise affectivity (be it by the Infinite, God, or the Self) over intentionality. I show that in doing so they lose a cosmological dimension: the concepts of truth as the truth of Being (Heidegger), the truthfulness of the word to the Other (Levinas) or the truth of Life (Henry) supplant the mere truth of knowledge, that is, the truth of the world. Following Koyré’s guiding principle of “the unity of human thought” I would like to argue in favour of a more balanced phenomenology that wants to be not only prescriptive but also descriptive, and sensitive to a certain scientific dimension.