Friday, April 20, 2007

Is Phenomenology Moribund? (Part I)

I think not. Here’s why.

I’ll start with a bold claim: there are only three defensible approaches to the philosophy of mind on the market today: physicalism, computational functionalism, and phenomenology. All three get something quite important right, while none of the three get it all right. You probably have no problem allowing for physicalism and functionalism. You might have a problem with phenomenology. Let me make a case.

First off, I grant that phenomenology is weakest in the area where both functionalism and physicalism are strongest: method. For obvious reasons, physicalism has the benefit of a method as strong as any in the natural sciences. Computational functionalism, for the same reason, has a method as strong as any devised in computer science and proof-logic. These are more or less standardized, more or less exact. One can tell, at least in a general way, when the method has been properly, and when improperly, applied. Phenomenology, alas, has nothing of the sort. Admittedly this is to the great frustration of phenomenologists and nonphenomenologists alike. We know that the phenomenological method involves operations like bracketing, describing, reflecting, reductions, and so on, but these concepts remain vague and just how they go together is, at this point, anyone’s guess. As a friend of mine once nicely put it, the danger with phenomenology is that there doesn’t yet seem to be any recognized criteria by which to police competing descriptions. I think that this is, unfortunately, basically right, and it is something to which serious phenomenologists need to be devoting more of their time.

To say that phenomenology, as yet, enjoys no defined method is only the most drastic way of putting things. Mitigating remarks should be added. More attention needs to be paid to the fact that phenomenology, while new as a specific science, is not a new sort of science. Phenomenology was supposed to be, at least initially, like mathematics. In my opinion, this is one of Husserl’s truly original contributions to philosophy in general and philosophy of mind in particular. So far as I can tell, while a few philosophers seemed to model their philosophy of mind on mathematics (Plato, Descartes, Leibniz), Husserl was probably first to make the modeling explicit. I think when put this way Husserl looks a little less fruity, and a little less wrong. Husserl’s proposal is that we study the contents of the mind similar to how we study numbers, fields, domains, topologies, etc.

Why is this proposal--that we approach the philosophy of mind like we approach mathematics--attractive? This proposal amounts to the claim that we can study the contents of the mind like we study numbers, planes, infinities, sets, and so on. Mathematicians study numbers, topologies, functions, sets, without any clear understanding or broad agreement as to what these things, really, are, or indeed, whether they are. And yet mathematics proceeds more or less on time and in fine fashion while remaining neutral about the ontological status of the objects it studies. In other words, what’s important in mathematics is that our knowledge of these objects is exact, clear and precise, not whether, how or where they are. If Husserl’s right, then we can treat the contents of the mind--Concept and Object, Truth and Proposition, Fact and Law, etc.--in like manner.

Of course, it may be the case that the ontological status of these objects does in fact turn out to influence the integrity of our knowledge about them, but again, this is just as much, and just as little, a problem for phenomenology as it is for mathematics. And no one accuses mathematics of being ‘moribund’ just because there is as yet no general and accepted agreement as to what that status might be. Phenomenology therefore is just as weak, and just as strong, as the science it is modeling itself after, and the same could be said respectively about physicalism and computational functionalism.

In the following post, I'll argue that in fact things stand even better for phenomenology than this. For only a science like mathematics--this will be the argument--could be adequate to the sorts of things mental contents are. Thus, while physicalism and computational functionalism may have more firmly established methods, unfortunately they are of the kind which are intrinsically inadequate to the sorts of objects they purport to study, viz., mental (or 'ideal') contents. And while phenomenology, I grant, as yet does not enjoy broad agreement or acceptance about just what its method ought to be, we do know enough to say that it is the sort of method which, if developed, at least would have a chance of working.


  1. This is a very interesting post, thank you, and thank you both for the blog itself! I had some worries that I am sure are naive and will be accommodated in your sequel. Here they are in any case:
    1) Mathematics, on some views, rests on clearly defined axiomatic structures (even as those premises are always subject to suspicion), but would not phenomenology self-describe as avoiding such axiomatic constructions?
    2) Is the phenomenological proposal that "we study the contents of the mind like we study numbers" or that "we study the contents of the mind as it engages, inter alia, idealities such as numbers"?
    3) The question of "method" and particularly of asking after and emulating the method of mathematics is an early-modern phenomenon. Is the Husserlian "modeling" a continuation or rather a critique thereof? There are several distinct historical approaches to this inquiry into mathematical method stretching from Aristotle to Russell. Which one of those does phenomenology radicalize or make explicit, as you maintain? Or is it quite irrelevant to phenomenology that the self-understanding of philosophical method has been historically generated through such-and-such philosophical problematizations of mathematical method?

  2. This comment raises a thought relating to a philosopher Michael did not mention: Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes was explicit in modeling his philosophy on mathematics precisely in the sense that he wanted to start out with strict definitions and build on them. The idea was not that definitions require a strong ontological grounding, but that if we clearly define all the terms, then proper application of inferential rules will lead to certain conclusions. The question, then, is whether you can have a mathematically modeled philosophy without strict definitions. Or is your claim that Husserl actually attempted to provide strict definitions for mental contents? (This is, of course, different from providing strict rules of interaction between various mental contents.)

  3. Thanks for pressing on these issues! Ok, I think my second post will go some way at elaborating on these issues, but since social obligations are keeping me away from my computer this weekend, let me provide some quick, right of the shelf responses if I can:
    1) Phenomenology need not (and does not!--check out the work of Barry Smith on Formal Ontology [Link below])resist formalization or axiomatization. But it also insists that formalization is not proof. Formal structures need to be grounded. In this, Husserl is closer to the Intuitionists or Constructivists in the philosophy of mathematics than he is to Hilbertians. For more on this issue, I would check out anything by Richard Tiezen or Dallas Willard.
    2) The suggestion is that all mental contents, including numbers, are idealities, and should be studied accordingly. The danger with the latter formulation is that it hints at the reification of these contents, which Husserl at least wanted above all to avoid.
    3) If Husserl is carrying on any tradition, it would be classical rationalism. But he would consider these projects incomplete. It was something of a revelation for him, I think, that the issues he was working on early, early on in number theory and arithmetic in fact could be and needed to be extended to all mental content whatsoever. This, I would argue, was his breakthrough, rather than Frege's review. So in this case, there was no conscious carrying on of a tradition.