what use is phenomenology?

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.


About plasticbodies

Contemporary philosopher.
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4 Responses to what use is phenomenology?

  1. DylanTrigg says:

    Thanks for this. I saw your name on the schedule and was sorry you weren’t there, as I remember enjoying a paper you did on Lingis a while ago.

    I have kept this post somewhat allusive on purpose, as what was actually “inflammatory” about the paper is a separate issue concerning feminism and sexuality.

    I think it’s a good approach to rephrase the question in terms of “use.” However, I would disagree that phenomenology is most useful for bridging to other modes, and that phenomenology alone is not philosophy. Perhaps I am too optimistic in my outlook, but I see phenomenology’s distinct philosophical contribution in terms of its transformative powers. The movement from what is taken-for-granted to what is thematized as being no-longer-taken-for-granted seems an incredibly powerful gesture, the use of which is experiential rather than conceptual. This is why the experience and analytic of strangeness for me is not something aesthetic preference, but a mark of phenomenology’s proximity to things themselves.

    I would also contest your emphasis on phenomenology as a humanism, though I very much share your concern regarding humanist attachments. Certainly, the point of departure is lived experience. But I don’t think this is a problem, but in fact an advantage, as it establishes a unified space – human experience – which is then subject to an inhuman presence. If a philosophy sought to begin from a non-human perspective, then we would lack the affective sense of how to register that perspective as being non-human. So, one can think of phenomenon such as the Levinasian “il y a,” which pushes at the threshold of appearances. The dynamic here is an insertion of an anonymous force that is experienced indirectly in the human body – and the fact that human body has the potential to become a site of estrangement from the subject hints at the non-humanity central to phenomenology.

    Yes, you phrase my concern about a pre-emptive ethics well. As much as I enjoyed the MPC event, I found the collective “ethos” problematic.

    The question about phenomenology’s limits is perhaps a matter of how we read it. Dorothea Olkowski is convinced that Lawrence Hass’ new book on phenomenology is the only way to read him (she stated sales figures as indication of its merits…). Personally, I think Gary Brent Madison is the better commentator, and he does place foreground the anonymity of the human body.
    Finally, I am prepared to say that the prepersonal world is far from off limits to phenomenology, so long as we are prepared to conceive of it being given to experience indirectly, symptomatically. I realise this sounds vague, and a large part of what I’m up to focuses on the “crack” between the personal and prepersonal self. But it seems to me that we can still make sense of doing phenomenology of the “shadow” of the prepersonal world within the horizon of the personal world.

    And there is a passage in the Phenomenology where I think a lot of this comes together. If you don’t mind me quoting:

    “…our perception, in the context of everyday of our everyday concerns, alights on things sufficiently attentively to discover in them their familiar presence, but no sufficiently so to disclose the non-human element which lies hidden in them. But the thing holds itself aloof from us and remains self-sufficient. This will become clear if we suspend our ordinary preoccupations and pay a metaphysical and disinterested attention to it. It is then hostile and alien, no longer an interlocutor, but a resolutely silent Other (pp. 375–376).”

    Thanks very much for the engagement,


  2. Pingback: Phenomenology at its Limits « of the event

  3. plasticbodies says:

    Dylan: I certainly took your allusiveness as a precautionary measure, rather than a deliberate attempt to obscure the issue at hand. I think you are right to point out that phenomenology is particularly adept at bringing to light the taken-for-granted aspects of experience, but I also think all philosophy does this, to the extent that we could even define philosophy as the the discipline whose primary objective is to thematize the taken-for-granted. After all, is this not what linguistic analysis concerns itself with? This is just to say that the specific difference of phenomenology cannot be that it alerts us to the presuppositions of thinking, although I think you are spot on to highlight its experiential, rather than conceptual, focus.

    As to the limits of phenomenology and its relation to the prepersonal, I have to agree with Of the Event when he says that the prepersonal and anonymous must be thought outside of relationality. The Levinasian il y a is a good example. It is true that Levinas says that we get at it indirectly through insomnia, but it is also telling that he asks us to imagine the total disappearance of everything in order to think the il y a. I’m skeptical about the possibility of carrying out this thought experiment, which echoes Husserl (in Ideas I, I believe) who asks us to imagine the total destruction of the world so as to show that all consciousness is intentional. Part of the point here is that Levinas is not entitled, qua phenomenologist, to adduce the il y a through a thought experiment like the one he provides.

    The thing that I’m really interested in, however, is the anonymous in Merleau-Ponty. Both Of the Event and Side Effects note with approval the attraction of this anomaly. It is certainly the locus of disruption and diachrony in the phenomenology of perception generally. For my part, I feel that it is sensation which effects this disruption contra perception, its temporality and structure. Alia Al-Saji’s recent paper in Research in Phenomenology (vol. 38, no. 1, 2008) on the prepersonal in M-P is quite good on this score.

    I fear that phenomenology will only be able to deal with what Side Effects calls the symptoms of the prepersonal as they relate to normal human experience. The causes of these symptoms, however, remain off the phenomenological radar. Perhaps it was Sartre who was most loyal to phenomenology when he was having hyper-allergic responses to psychoanalysis and its postulate of the unconscious, but this refusal is at once also a betrayal of the limits of phenomenological method.

    A suggestion to close: perhaps the real meat of our common interest in M-P lies in the relation between the objective and lived bodies. There are many ways in which the objective elements of the body, its reflexes and instincts, for instance, interrupt the smooth operations of the lived body and its grasp on the world. How to think the difference of these bodies, so as to do justice to the materiality of the objective body as well as the perceptual life of the lived body? I’m thinking something like this: a desirous impulse wells up in the body at the physiological level and manifests itself at the phenomenological level as a lived desire. The phenomenologist describes the experience of this desire, but he cannot commit to a causal explanation of where this desire comes from. But a causal explanation exists. Can these two modes of dealing with the body’s experiences be bridged with a single methodology, or are phenomenological description and scientific explanation mutually exclusive discourses whose statements are ultimately incompatible at the ontological level? Can we be satisfied with a thick description of experience which includes phenomenological, empirical, and other accounts, all of which maintain competing ontological commitments?

    Much of this is undeveloped, and I’m not laying any traps here. This is something I really need to think through in dialogue. Thanks, Pat and Dylan.

  4. DylanTrigg says:

    Thanks, interesting stuff. I’m not totally sure that the transformative power of phenomenology and linguistic analysis is the same. After all, the idea of phenomenology is that we would experience the world in a different way, a relationship involving the totality of our senses rather than just language. We don’t even need to go alongside Husserl in thinking of phenomenology as a “religious conversion” to see this. Personally, linguistic analysis feels to me an impoverished way to think of transformation.

    Thanks for the reference to Al-Saji’s work, which looks interesting. There is a big question here regarding – to put this in a language I strongly dislike – the “legitimacy of one’s symptoms.” Is an experience deficient simply because the cause of a symptom is undiscovered or beyond reach? If we take these liminal experiences such as insomnia, trauma, anxiety – all metaphysically elevated states in one way or another – then they seem to have a unity of their own, irrespective of what lurks “beneath” the surface.

    This is complicated, however, because it looks as though the prepersonal world is being spoken of in Platonic terms. Whereas I would be quite content to have the Levinasian il y a as the thing which is given form precisely through experience.

    The unconscious is also important, agreed. Let me ask a question to both of you: do you think of Merleau-Ponty’s non-cognitive idea of the “intentional arc” as being unconscious? After all, this is a thing which influences and affects one’s experience of things, yet remains for the most part dormant in the body. How can we do a phenomenology of the intentional arc? I think Eugen Fink is probably right, when he attempts to thematize the unconscious as containing “an implicit theory about consciousness” in the appendix to Husserl’s Crisis. In other words, unconsciousness is already consciousness.

    Patrick’s remark about thinking about things without the human involved in that relationships looks as though it’s a gesture toward “object orientated philosophy.” I have some doubts about the scope of that project, even though I basically like the sensibility, but the omission of Merleau-Ponty in much of that thought is odd. Especially the latter Merleau-Ponty, where the centrality of experience as being human orientated is subject to refutation. For instance, one of the things I’m working on right now is one line from Merleau-Ponty’s late thought: “I feel myself looked at by things.” Seems to me that right in this sentence are the seeds for an incipient non-relational phenomenology, despite the inclusion of “I feel.”

    And yes, too: the lived and objective body carries a weight here. Your final idea about desire is very rich and I’m going to come back to it when I have more time, as I need to walk the dogs now.

    Cheers, Dylan

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