Side Effects has a post up which raises questions about the values and ideology lurking within the phenomenological movement. The post comes on the heels of the recent meeting of the Merleau-Ponty Circle, which I was supposed to present at but in the end had to miss. The post is too allusive to really decipher, but it brings up a couple of points which should be weighed.
First, what is phenomenology? I think this question can at this time be reformulated to ask, What use is phenomenology? It is obviously useful for staving off reductionism, but if it cannot deliver essences to us, then what is its real promise? It seems most useful as a tool or a bridge to some other mode or method philosophy, but it cannot be philosophy itself because it remains now and forever about human experience. The discipline of philosophy is about so much more than human experience that phenomenology can be, at best, one sliver of the discipline. It gets us provisional results, kind of like clues toward actual answers to philosophical problems.
So, what if it is admitted that phenomenology is a method or a ‘style’ (Merleau-Ponty) of doing philosophy? This is not much better because, in so far as method determines subject matter, the phenomenological method begins its endeavor by restricting the given to what is given to us qua human. This is all I’ll say on this front because it is clear that my objection to phenomenology is its humanist attachments. Its commitments have ethical and political implications; more broadly, it strangles the potential of ontology/metaphysics.
If I am understanding him correctly, Side Effects is relating the disturbing fact that some phenomenological circles encourage their attendants to appreciate the matter at hand in the same way and with homogeneous enthusiasm. He writes:
‘…it never occurred to me to modify the findings in order to fulfil a pregiven mission of what phenomenology ought to conclude. This kind of thought of sculpting a conclusion in order to contribute to a generalised ethos is totally foreign to me, and it is also foreign to my sense of doing phenomenology. What I discern in a particular reading or experience as disagreeable to my “self” as a human person in the world, is neither here nor there. Honesty must underscore phenomenological work, and personal psychology must be put to one side. In short, pleasure and pain ought to be totally indifferent to the work of phenomenology, with only the experience of strangeness as a guarantor of the fruits of inquiry’.
There’s no reason why phenomenology cannot pursue ethical conclusions. But to begin by presupposing or enforcing a certain ethos, this is problematic. To reiterate, however, if the ethical potential of phenomenology–that is, what it can say about human beings and their myriad relations with other beings–is in some sense predetermined by the human-centered method of phenomenology, then we should hold our applause.
Second, I’m wondering if the revolutionary force of phenomenology has not turned sour to the extent that its limitations forbid us from speaking of realities beyond the human scope. Of course, yes. Phenomenology’s French critics have been showing this for decades. And yet the anonymous body and ‘inhuman nature’ invoked by Merleau-Ponty (and cited by Side Effects) still remains undertheorized. It is as if Merleau-Ponty didn’t really mean anything when he employed these terms. What is he doing speaking about such things, as a phenomenologist, anyway?
Third, Side Effects concludes this:
‘After all, there is a world prior to ethics, prior to politics, and above all, prior to gender, in which, if phenomenology is to have an ethical duty, then it ought to be toward uncovering that prepersonal world.’
The premise of this statement is strictly off limits to a phenomenologist because the prepersonal world is never given, never appears. It can only be inferred from experience; it cannot be intuited. This is just as true for Kant as it is for Husserl. I like the idea that phenomenology’s ethical concerns should be toward guiding us toward the prepersonal world. Two things arise in this notion, however. On the one hand, were phenomenology to say something about the prepersonal world, it would thereby cease being phenomenology. It would be speaking of a world which is nonphenomenal. On the other hand, phenomenology’s ethical duty can only be directed at the world which it knows, which is to say the world as it appears to human consciousness. This is a personal world, which means that its ethical duties can only be exclusively oriented toward the personal. It can aim to achieve an intuition of our common humanity, and thereby extend its sympathy beyond the immediately personal. But it will still remain bound the world of the person. That is, the human and its relations. This is okay if we are willing to concede that human relations constitute the totality of worldly relations.
In short, I think we need to interrogate phenomenology to see precisely if, and in what sense, it can make ontological statements that really say something about the things which it purports to speak about–the things themselves.