Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Phenomenology Revisited?

Last week Leiter linked favorably to a review essay on D.W. Smith’s Husserl by Sean Kelly. Kelly portrays Smith’s new book as further evidence that phenomenology is gaining credibility among main-stream analytic thinkers. Kelly himself of course has not been incidental to this development.

I’m all for the tone of this pep rally, but I might register some reservations about the message. Kelly suggests that the new (or renewed) interest in phenomenology among anglophone philosophers should thank in large part the pluralization of analytic philosophy itself. It’s as if analytic philosophy were sagging under its own weight, to the point where finally it’s either necessary or safe for anglophone thinkers to search out non-orthodox and non-canoncial sources in order to avoid theoretical suffocation. (For my part, I hope this isn’t just the result of a cohort of publishers all competing for some weird reason to get the ‘standard’ Husserl book out there.)

I’m not sure if that is right, but it sounds plausible (not that analytic philosophy has collapsed, but that the traditiontional project of analysis has—long ago—and that more recently it’s increasingly safe for ordinary philosophers to peruse a volume or two of Husserl, or even Heidegger).

But this version of things almost makes the return of phenomenology seem accidental, as if analytic philosophers simply grabbed for the nearest thing. At the very least, it neglects the fact that there were islands of phenomenology that survived the Great Deluge of post-structuralism and post-existentialism, populated with thinkers like Roderick Chisholm, Dagfinn Follesdal, Jaako Hintikka, Hubert Dreyfus and D. Smith himself. By the 1980’s, there was a dedicated group of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty scholars who were cris-crossing both fields and had the language and concepts ready for when interest finally did turn their way. (Lots of other thinkers I’m forgetting, but this is just a quick post—I’ll maybe update later).

In any case, instead of historiography, I’d like to focus on two issues raised by Kelly in the review, one positive, and one negative, both complementary. First, the negative. Kelly is among those who are impressed that analytic philosophers have finally discovered that we humans are minded, and not just linguistic, creatures. This is where the turn to phenomenology seems fortuitous. Anglophone philosophy has realized that subjective, first-person experience is an actual problem and issue, and then lo, here is a tradition nearly a century old with literally thousands and thousands of pages on the subject. A match is made.

But, if the renewed interest in phenomenology just comes down the fact that Husserl had gotten things like stereoscopic vision correct many decades before mainstream analytic philosophy, this is going to be a brief affair. To be sure, anyone would benefit from a good reading of Husserl’s analyses of internal time consciousness, but there are other reasons why phenomenology is interesting besides it’s field analyses. So, I’m taking issue with Kelly’s claim that

“the real contribution of Husserl's work is not systematic (though Husserl himself certainly had systematic ambitions); it lies rather in the careful and detailed analyses he provides of an enormous range of philosophical domains.”

If this is so, then I’m afraid that there is no real turn to phenomenology (or Husserl) in the first place. I mean, to discover something independently (say, that vision is stereoscopic, or that perception is inter-modal, or that subjective time is not in any easily determinate way a mere representation of objective time), to then discover that Husserl had some said something similar much earlier, and then to pat Husserl on the back for his prescience, is, while at least giving credit where credit is due, hardly a return to Husserl or phenomenology in general. (This is typically how these things have gone). At best, what this should suggest is that, if Husserl had gotten that right, then maybe he had other things right, and should be given a closer, second (or third, or nth) look. But I don’t see as much evidence of that happening. So, my negative point to make about Kelly’s review is his idea that phenomenology has much to contribute to contemporary philosophy of mind just because phenomenology was interested in first-person experience. This is unlikely. The danger here is that phenomenology simply becomes mis-identified as any careful scrutiny of experience from a first-person point of view, when, number one, it is not that, and number two, even if it were that is hardly its main point of interest. (And by the way, while this may be true to some extent for Husserl, how could Heidegger be read this way, as focused on first-person, subjective experience—isn’t Heidegger’s whole point to get away from this way of thinking about human being as mindedness as representations as subjective perception?)

Finally, Kelly is I’m afraid punching a bit of a straw man when it comes to analytic philosophy. As he would have it, analytic philosophy is simply the idea that all problems of philosophy are problems of langauge. But it is a bit unfair to put the idea that baldly; there was a keen insight there, which is that much of the time we simply are not clear on what exactly it is that we are asking, and by focusing on the way that we express our problems we can better focus of what is really at issue. Just as (among the giants at least) continental philosophy is rarely as disappointing as its caricature, the same is true of analytic philosophy.

But now to the positive point: Kelly does, in my estimation, correctly emphasize the unique role of description in the phenomeonlogical project, especially its uniquenes as method of inquiry to be distinguished from transcendental argumentation, deduction, empirical generalization, and so on. He does not emphasize this, but I want to. For instance, Kelly mentions that Husserl had, years before Searle, emphasized that even our run-of-the-mill perceptions of run-of-the-mill objects rely upon a ‘horizon’ or ‘background,’ a certain context. What are we to make of this horizon? Russell, as Kelly notes, had tried to make sense of it in terms of beliefs, but that is not adequate. I can see the barn façade as pointing to a backside even if I do not believe that there is a backside (Kelly’s example). Can it be explained in terms of ‘information,’ as defined by information theory? Or a set of background, pragmatic practices? Not sure, but in any case, what phenomenology at its best tries to uncover is the ‘true’ nature of experience prior to all theorizing or modelling. This may be a hopeless task, but it is the task on which phenomenology rests. It is the premise behind the descriptive method.

Finally, I would say that there is still something else important about phenomenology that Kelly does not get to. I would call the sort of ‘phenomenology’ that interests Kelly ‘phenomenology in the natural attitude.’ That is to say, he and others like him are doing phenomenology in the sense that they are striving for concepts and methods that will let us really and genuinely get at what it is like to have normal, quotidian experience. (As opposed to, say, sense-data theories that badly distort what everyday experience is like). This is a laudable and, I might venture, achievable goal. It is shared by thinkers like Alva Noë, Andy Clark and Shaun Gallagher. These thinkers are not interested per se in the epistemological projects that motivated, say, Husserl. But I think that this attitude can lend to a distortion of Husserl’s project as well. For instance, although he doesn’t put it in just this way, Kelly almost makes it seem as if Husserl’s method of reduction is intended to get at the precisely the field of experience that interests him, Kelly. But that is hardly correct. The reductions, obviously enough, have the express intention of getting the phenomenologist out of the natural attitude. And why? Because of the epistemological work Husserl hopes that opening up the phenomenological field will get right. That is to say, Husserl is not interested in just accurately describing everyday quotidian experience. He wants to understand how our knowledge about, say, arithmetic, arises out of this sort of experience. And this, for example, should be of interest to empiricists. If, for instance, what was really wrong with the early project of logical empiricism was not its logical or epistemological apparatus, but the combination and foundation of that apparatus upon a faulty and ‘phenomenologically’ inept concept of experience, perhaps a better, more sophisticated concept would save the intitial project. I think that John McDowell, for example, is doing something like this, and it just takes a brief moment of comparison to see how similar McDowell and Husserl are despite the fact that McDowell shows almost no interest in phenomenology per se (compare for example McDowell’s notion of propositionally contentful experience with Husserl’s categorial intuition.)

Alright, I’ve gone on enough, and I’m not sure that this is all coherent, but it’s my first impression on Kelly’s piece. Despite my criticisms, I really hope that Kelly’s optimism is warranted. We will find out I suspect sooner rather than later.

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