Friday, June 20, 2008

Problems in Defining Phenomenology

I am going through John Davenport's massive Will as Commitment and Resolve. It’s a pretty crazy book, in an exciting but also intimidating way. Davenport’s express purpose is to update Existentialism as a viable competitor in today’s philosophical marketplace by bringing it to bear critically on contemporary ethics, action theory, and philosophy of mind, among other things. That’s the exciting part. Here’s the intimidating and slightly monstrous part: the book is 550 pages or so, plus another 100 pages of notes, of very small print, and covers theories of motivation from Plato to Frankfurt and beyond. Additionally, Davenport goes out of his way to stress that this gigantic tome is merely a preface to much grander things: accounts of normativity, liberal political theory, mind, and theology, to name just a few. I’m sure I’ll be commenting on it more in the near future. For now, I just want to take up a brief note from the preface.

Davenport points out that, while much of what he writes will be in a style familiar to Anglophone philosophers, his method will be “broadly speaking phenomenological.” Here's his explanation:

In general, by a phenomenological approach I mean one that distinguishes between the primary phenomena to be explained in some area of philosophy and the rival theoretical explanations that construe these phenomena in different ways. The phenomenological approach presumes that we usually can discern, however imperfectly, some important phenomena that serve as paradigm cases or fixed points of reference for analyzing a particular problem or concept. This evidence or experience functions as an initial clue or proleptic outline of the concept at issue. The task of theoretical explanation is then to provide as convincing an account of these phenomena and their grounds of possibility as can be given, where what counts as “convincing” is itself guided by the shape of the phenomena that present themselves more or less clearly in common human experience. Thus the first aim of theoretical explanation is to follow where the phenomena lead rather than to make them fit the mold of a metaphysics to which one is antecedently committed. This principle, which corresponds both to Husserlian eidetic science and to the Habermasian communicative ideal of reaching conclusions based solely on the force of the better argument alone, is important in my case for deciphering how we can even begin to analyze concepts such as the will, volitional identification, and freedom. (xxii)

Aside from a very quick defense of this approach against three typical criticisms, this is pretty much the whole explanation of what the phenomenological method comes to. My initial reaction to it, I confess, was one of mild disappointment. Given that Davenport’s express purpose is to provide a theory that can enter into dialogue with Anglo-American philosophy, one might hope for an explanation of the method that would make sense to practitioners of that philosophy. And by make sense, I mean not just that readers from outside phenomenology would be able to understand the words in that particular order, but that they would see this method as, well, a distinct method. I am not sure that this description does that. The crucial notion that phenomena are normative guides for theory is there, of course, but whatever is unique about the phenomenological attempt to satisfy this normative constraint seems to get lost. Here are two initial concerns.

(1) Try the following exercise: read that paragraph again, substituting “intuitions” for every occurrence of “phenomena.” If you do so, it seems to me, what you have is a fairly reasonable—though somewhat unfamiliar—account of how Anglo-American philosophy is largely practiced; it sounds much like what the x-phi people have been arguing against, in fact. Thought experiments, after all, are generally aimed at using intuitions as evidence for a particular theory. A common concern about thought experiments—one that I share—is that they are raised from within specific theoretical commitments and are often designed not so much to get at our intuitions, as to distort those intuitions; they seem to guide us into accepting a theory instead of guiding us into coming to a theory by first correctly and painstakingly assessing our intuitions. And in this sense, of course, the thought-experiment-dropping brand of philosophy is quite different from phenomenology as described here. So Davenport’s description does correctly distinguish the phenomenological use of evidence from this use of it, one that takes our intuitions as evidence for a theory rather than as a starting point for theorizing.

But what about more honest thought experiments, the sort that try to bring out our intuitions in order to explain them rather than manipulating them? Certainly there is quite a bit of that going around as well. Is that approach phenomenological? What are phenomena in the first place? Are they different from intuitions? Are intuitions just the ways in which phenomena “pre-theoretically” manifest themselves? (In a note on p. 547, Davenport, without mentioning intuitions, suggests that folk-psychology serves to demarcate the phenomena that need explaining.) Without an explanation of what phenomena are and how they relate to intuitions, there is not much more of a distinction to be made, though the point about uses of evidence is an important one.

(2) Perhaps because I've never been supremely confident, especially with my Gadamerian bent, about what the phenomena/theory distinction is really supposed to establish, this account seems too vague to distinguish phenomenology from much of philosophy; indeed, from norm-governed human thought as such. After all, doesn't pretty much every decent philosopher claim to be trying to develop theoretical approaches that are true to the phenomena rather than the reverse? Not in that language, to be sure, and maybe there are different conceptions of what this means, but certainly most philosophers are more likely to describe their task as “developing a theory that is close to the phenomena” than as “interpreting phenomena in such a way as to fit pre-existing theoretical commitments” (the concordance between Husserl and Habermas on this point seems to reinforce the impression that the account is overly general). Consider: gathering evidence in order to support a theory, a theory not itself grounded in evidence, is the sort of thing that gets defendants off in murder trials. The need to fit theory to evidence before searching for new evidence to support the theory seems to me to be a constitutive requirement of human rationality. No doubt one can fail to meet these norms, but someone who entirely disregards them (as, for example, when ID proponents display material “evidence” that humans and dinosaurs co-existed) is in the business of con-artistry rather than theoretical thought. But phenomenology, one might think, is not methodologically identical to correct thinking.

There are certainly many cases where it might seem like philosophers disregard the evidence of phenomena for the sake of a theory: physicalists, for example, might seem to be disregarding the evidence of conscious phenomena; relativists might likewise seem to overlook deep underlying agreements. But I doubt these examples really suggest cases where phenomena are overlooked for the sake of a theory; rather, what seems to me to be central here is the issue of what phenomena one takes most seriously. The physicalist mindset arises out of certain phenomena, such as the longstanding history of success in predicting and manipulating the works of nature. The relativistic mindset, in turn, owes much to the phenomena involved in widespread cultural difference. Faced with seemingly conflicting phenomena, rational subjects might well build their theory on the phenomena that strike them as the most compelling, attempting to explain the less compelling phenomena away. Again, then, I worry that an overly broad account of phenomenology seems to extend its methodology to all, or almost all rational theoretical thought; only the outliers—ones that clearly violate or disregard the norms of thought—seem to be excluded.


  1. Rom,

    IMAO you get to the right question here:
    "Without an explanation of what phenomena are and how they relate to intuitions, there is not much more of a distinction to be made, though the point about uses of evidence is an important one."

    And it looks as if you're general point--that Davenport's theory of phenomenology is way too broad--is right on.

    But let me throw out an incautious claim: Husserl is the only phenomenologist who had a serious answer to this question. It is this: 'phenomena' are what remain after careful performance of the reduction. Thus, phenomena are the essences qua invariances that pertain to the structure and system of a manifold. The reduction is, I think, the only real attempt in philosophy to provide a rigorous system and method for 'thought-experiments.'

    Heidegger, after a bit of word-sleuthing, can manage only to say: 'to let what shows itself be seen from itself, just as it shows itself from itself.' This is not sufficient. This is hardly a definition in any but a lexical sense. I just skimmed through Phenomenology of Perception, and found no good definition there. Ditto with Sartre's Being and Nothingness (MP and Sartre actually just reiterate Heidegger's definition, and like him, leave it at that...).

  2. I think that the difference between phenomenology and theory is essentially the difference between poetry and science. One endeavor is done in order to figure out how the world works and the other is done for the sake of doing it i.e. it brings the philosopher pleasure to describe his existential way of being.

    This distinction between science and poetry is useful because it gives an existential justification for doing phenomenology at all. This justification isn't rooted in the desire to discover facts about the world or find truth with a capital T, but rather, it is rooted in the basic drive to philosophize for whatever purpose - either to bring oneself to happiness or solve an existential crisis.

    So, with this distinction the definition of phenomenology becomes that of using language to uncover what is pre-theoretical and basic to human experience, without any recourse to discovering the truth in the same way poetry isn't about discovering the truth, but rather, just an activity in which humans engage themselves. Phenomenology becomes an attempt to delimit what exists for the human experience, for the sake of providing other humans with an existential guide to living a more fulfilled life. It is about discovering what is necessary and sufficient for a flourishing, embedded life.

    This is a pretty broad conception of phenomenology which falls in line with other psychological endeavors such as psychoanalysis, but at the same time, is specific enough to make a distinction between it and empirical science.

    Phenomenology then becomes the attempt to use our linguistic faculties in order to develop constantly updated vocabularies for describing the existential experience of humanity. It is about finding better metaphors to discuss what is hard to discuss.

  3. Hi Gary,

    Sorry for the delay. I have to confess that I vehemently disagree with the likening of phenomenology to poetry in the way you suggest; but I think you also disagree, as your comments demonstrate.

    Philosophers may well do philosophy for the sake of doing philosophy, but I doubt there are many philosophers who would claim that the aim of what they are doing is simply to get pleasure from doing it. Philosophers, generally, have other goals in mind (though they may well get pleasure from the process of striving for those goals). Likewise phenomenologists. I am not aware of any phenomenologists who take phenomenology to be done simply "for the sake of doing it"; and remember that Husserl envisioned phenomenology as a science, though not an empirical science like physics. (That your description of phenomenology is incompatible with what virtually all major phenomenologists--including Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty--see themselves as doing is problematic.)

    Here's one problem: doing pretty much anything can be pleasant (for someone or other) for its own sake. In a perfect world, all human beings would enjoy doing their jobs for their own sakes. That would not mean that all jobs would be pointless, though of course some could be. So in the way you describe it, it is difficult to see what might differentiate phenomenology from, well, any enjoyable but pointless activity whatsoever. That is, phenomenology isn't "just an activity in which humans engage themselves." It is a specific activity with specific purposes and methods.

    But this isn't really your view, and this is why I don't think you really agree with your point: you see phenomenology as having an explanatory purpose ("describe an existential way of being," "solve an existential crisis," "discovering what is necessary and sufficient for a flourishing, embedded life," etc.). So phenomenology, even on your account, is not done simply for the pleasure of doing it, but in order to provide some explanations or solutions to problems.

    Now I don't think discovering what is necessary for a flourishing life is what phenomenology is all about. For one thing, there are lots of different ways to approach that problem; phenomenology is only one possible one. For another, phenomenology rather obviously couldn't perform this task alone--psychology, sociology, etc would need to be taken into account.

    Phenomenology does attempt to come up with descriptions adequate to our experience, but the point, usually, is to lay out the ways in which our experience has meaning.

  4. Hi All. Hi Roman. Its been a while. I have been engaged in a good bit of what Kierkegaard called dispersion in the multifarious. But I've finally got back to perusing yall's blog. And its got me thinking.

    I would like to respond also to your worry about "what phenomena are and how they relate to intuitions" and also to respond to Michael's response.

    First, I'd like to defend Heidegger's definition of 'phenomena' from Michael's dismissal of it. I don't know Husserl so well (only know him through Heidegger, which may be rather... ahem... distorting), and the following train of thought may well be close to what motivated Husserl to go 'reduction'.

    MH's remark that the task of phenomenology is 'to let what shows itself be seen from itself' is not as empty as it seems.

    Its a big mistake to conflate the analytic philosophical sense of 'phenomenology' the phenomenological one. Phenomenology for Heidegger is totally not about how things just 'seem to me' or about my intuitions about how things seem to me. To tons of philosophers for a long long time, it has seemed crystal clear to them that what they really are is an immanent sphere of monological consciousness (the catch-phrase comes from Charles Taylor) and/or creatures created by God in his image.

    So phenomenology it is directed toward getting behind the way things seem to me in an everyday way to give an interpretation of why they seem that way to me in the first place.

    For Heidegger, then, the task of being properly sensitive to what shows itself to us in an everyday way is pivotal precisely because our everyday sense for and intuitions of our experience are distorted. They are after all determined (not in a causal sense, but in a German *bestimmen* sense... attuned) by prejudgments and preunderstandings which form the background against which things show up for us as something or other for us, and which probably have been uncritically inherited from the tradition in which we find ourselves. In and of itself, that's no essential demerit to the prejudgments we inherit. That's just part of how undertanding works. But this imposes on us a critical task.

    This is why part of the project of Being and Time is a destruction of the history of philosophy. Our experience of the world and ourselves has been infiltrated and conquered by what Heidegger called ontotheology and the philosophy of consciousness. Also, not to mention whatever other prejudices are presently circulating in our culture-- and that explains why Heidegger both in the 1923 lecture course 'Ontology: The Hermeneutics of Facticity' and in the 1930 course, 'The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics', Heidegger devotes several pages of attention to Spangler's 'The Decline of the West', which was immensely popular at the time (though it is also pretty clear that Heidegger himself was taken by Spangler's ideas)

    I was reading Gadamer's introduction to the Library of Living Philosophers volume done in his honor. He writes:

    “Our terms are not like signs that point to something but rather themselves tell something of their own origin and from this they form a horizon of meaning which is supposed to lead speaking and thinking beyond themselves to the thing meant. Consequently Heidegger has designated the task of philosophy precisely as a Destruktion of terms, and in so doing he was heeding the fundamanteal phenomenological principle that one should avoid all theoretical constructions and get back ‘to the things themselves’ (p. 22).

    That's pretty much what I'm talkin about.

    Also, Part of Heidegger's point in focusing on giving a phenomenology of everydayness is that the structures and conditions of this nonreflective everyday absorption exactly have to cover themselves up when they function properly.

    Merleau-Ponty for his part talked about a 'crypto-mechanism'that operates in our engaged perception of the world.

    So in this sense the purpose of phenomenological description can be to come up descriptions which are, at least initially, INADEQUATE to our first-intuitions about our experience.

    Hence, that one convincing objection to the use of thought experiments: those that aim to draw upon our 'intuitions' may be both, on one hand, designed in the light of unquestioned and distorting prejudgments and, on a second hand, designed exactly to appeal to problematic intuitions supported by them (the distorting prejudgments).

    Well maybe the above forms a coherent contribution to the discussion. Some point soon I am going to do some more catch-up.

    Oh I've read some of Davenport's work too (and met him). I am convinced that he's a good ally, but damn he does write loooooong books.

    Hence phenomenology must proceed hermeneutically according to Heidegger. As Gadamer put it, part of the fundamental task of hermeneutics is to separate the productive prejudgments which enable understanding from
    those which distort it.