Sunday, August 31, 2008

Consequence Argument Redux

Sorry about the blogging hiatus. Hopefully it will soon end. Meanwhile, I was thrilled to discover that the super-cool Manuel Vargas over at the Garden of Forking Paths has put up an answer to my puzzlement (expressed here, as well as in the personal e-mail Vargas quotes) about why van Inwagen's Consequence Argument was (is?) such a big deal. A great discussion follows, surprisingly heading toward some sort of consensus that it is the core idea of the argument, itself quite ancient, rather than PvI's formulations of it, that is the big deal.

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

War (Cont'd)

When does a state of war exist among states? Earlier I started posting on this topic, but then got side-tracked by my own lack of focus. I began that post by noting that, while there is a easy answer to this question—two states are at war whenever the relevant sovereign powers have officially declared war to exist—but being so easy, it is also uninteresting.

I am interested in a plausible definition of war, and this requires some theory about what war is. This is complicated by the fact—I think—that two (or more) states can be at war without acutal, on the ground (or in the air) hostilities having actually broken out. England and France were at war with Germany starting in 1939, but there was no actual fighting for seven months. In fact, until the era of rapid mobilization, this state of war without occurrent hostitilies was quite common. Alternatively, hostilities may obtain between countries even while they are not at war (U.S.-Iranian relations in the 1980’s and 1990’s as a possible example).

My first idea was to borrow some concepts from Habermas, and to model states of war and peace off of his concepts of communicative and strategic discourse. To be at war is for only strategic relations to obtain among states, regardless of whether or not actual hostilities are present. One is at war, that is to say, when one has recognized the other state as an enemy—an enemy being a foe towards whom all attempts at mutual understanding and cooperation have been renounced, and only strategic interaction acknowledged. This theory relies upon the appropriateness of the analogy between communicative discourse aimed at understanding and diplomacy, on the one hand, and strategic discourse aimed at manipulation and war on the other. I think that there is something to this. Diplomacy, at its best, does seek to establish a common set of principles both (or more) countries accept as normatively binding. But the problem with this is probably obvious: much if not most diplomacy is not oriented towards achieving understanding, but instead operates according to precisely the sort of manipulation Habermas cites as characteristic of strategic discourse. Strategic discourse is manipulative, it should be noted, but it need not be deceptive. Strategic discourse distinguishes itself from communicative discourse in that it does not rely upon the mutual acceptance of norms. The gun-to-the-head scenario is a classic example: with a gun to your head, I can get you to admit that you love Bono, but not because you find the Bono-loving norm rationally binding. It’s just that you would prefer to make that foolish declaration over being shot. Strategic dicourse is governed by a utility calculus, and typically, even if it is deceptive, this is only because in general most strategic interaction involve situations of imperfect information (both as to facts and to intentions) with both sides trying to game the other.

This coda, however, is not fatal to the analogy. We could define war as that situation existing among states where all intention towards communicative understanding has been forsworn, and only strategic calculations figure. But again, there is a problem. For one thing, it is the fundamental thesis of Realpolitik that this is precisely the situation obtaining among states at all times, both in peace and in war. Realpolitik could even be defined as the theory that only stragetic relations obtain among states. Therefore, Realpolitik and this theory of war are inconsistent with one another, and one or the other would have to abandoned. There’s nothing absurdly wrong with this, but I’d prefer a definition of war that is neutral among competing foreign policy frameworks.

So let’s add this addendum: two states are at war when all communicative understanding has been forsworn, only strategic calculations figure, and physical hostilties are either threatened or actual. According to this definition, the Vietnam War was, in fact, a war, but so was the Phoney War (because hostilities, while not actual, were threatened). Anyway, I'm not completely satisfied with this definition, but it's good enough for now.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Is Zizek Really a Communist?

Zizek—I think—claims to be a communist. Not a party communist, of course, nor even a political communist, but a revolutionary communist. He would like us to place communism within the enlightenment tradition—not the namby-pamby enlightenment tradition of Mandeville, Mill or Rorty, but the bare-knuckled, paroxysmal enlightenment of the French Revolution. Enlightenment as revoution, sure, but revolution in the name of Objective Reason.

Zizek has made a highly entertaining career ridiculing lefty wimps, which could be defined as those who refuse—or better, verdrängen—the violent Kern constitutive both of human society writ large and the human psyche writ small.

In the end, Zizek’s standing as a revolutionary communist rests upon what is perhaps the one commitment that he is clear and consistent about: that history is driven by class struggle, and that class struggle is the only true opposition that is not a displacement or symptom of something else. He embraces the Althusserian paradox: everything is symbolic, but in the end, economics in terms of the class struggle is everything.

I could find many more passages like the following to support this claim:

“Class antagonism, unlike racial difference and conflict, is absolutely inherent to and constitutive of the social field; Fascism displaces this essential antagonism.”(full article here)

Zizek’s communism therefore ultimately rests upon his conviction that class struggle is the only ‘essential antagonism.’ But class struggle figures in Zizek’s thought like trauma in Freud, and the ‘real’ in Lacan.

In keeping with this, his only really clear and consistent commitment, Zizek’s one constant and never-ironic target of attack is the myth and concept of organicism: the idea that somewhere, somehow, at some time and in some way, human individuals and human socieities can be whole. This is, in the langauge of psychoanalysis, the fundamental fantasy, the myth of egoic wholeness as opposed to subjective fracture—and at base, the source of human aggression (hence the struggle). Zizek’s Ideologiekritik could be interpreted, finally, as the attempt to work the acceptance of castration into the political domain, for however disparate and scatter-shot his many polemics seem to be, they all aim to undermine any stable ideological position through sarcastic and irreverent dialectics of parody, mockery and satire.

Perhaps, in my opinion, Zizek’s most interesting thesis—never really stated in any systematic manner, but iterated often throughout his works—is that what binds people together into communities, and equally what binds together an individual person's (fantasy of) identity, is enjoyment. People and peoples differ from one another, form cliques, likes and dislikes, committ violence and atrocity, not from any shared beliefs, or shared values, or shared culture/ethnicity/background—peoples are formed according to what they enjoy. Beliefs and values are in the end--if they are anything relevant to social grouping--just symbols of personal and social economies of enjoyment. You are different than me—why? Not because you believe that The Mummy was an entertaining film, but because you actually enjoyed it. I am not one of you—why? Not because you value suburbia over city, but because you actually enjoy your large house and your long drive-way and your Wendy’s. I'm not a republican--why? Not because of any particular beliefs I have about health-care policy or geo-political strategy, but because I can't begin to imagine what it would feel like to take sincere pleasure in patriotism and a large, waving flag. Jouissance as the ultimate social concept, the primitive that makes sense of all the rest. I am not being insincere when I say that this is possibly be a real scientific insight for the social sciences—even though it needs to be theoretically systematized in a way Zizek has never even begun to try.

But if Zizek’s hails the class struggle, it is within the Lacanian framework of castration and the real. And if he promotes himself as a Marxist, it is against the one notion that animates Marx from his early humanism to the days of Das Kapital: that the class struggle, and therefore social struggle, can be overcome. Nonsense, according to Zizek. The closure, the suture, can never be accomplished, the fantasy must be destroyed, alienation and violence are the consitutive core of human kind, the letter has killed the body—the cause is lost, essentially. And yet, says Zizek, we must fight, struggle, resist, pursue this desire tenaciously to the death—what does this make of Zizek? Obviously—he is no communist, he’s an anarchist.

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Monday, August 25, 2008

The Real Hard Problem (Cont'd)

In my last post I argued that Chalmers' distinction between the psychological and the phenomenal concepts of mind misses what is in fact the most peculiar feature about human mindedness, namely, that our psychology is manifest through our phenomenology. Chalmers focuses upon what are in fact aberrant cases of human wakeful consciousness (sensations like pain, or the fact that minor chords are often associated with a dour feeling, or a struck funny bone ) in order to bring out a supposedly general concept, viz., the phenomenal. The phenomenal concept of mind designates that feature of consciousness that, like pain, supervenes upon otherwise psychologically specifiable states. The hard problem in philosophy of mind is too account for this queer property.

Chalmers' phenomenalism is of course very unlike the phenomenalisms characteristic of the early twentieth century. Traditional phenomenalisms focused upon phenomena as the objects or contents of conscious states (usually confusing or conflating the distinction). Chalmers’ notion of the phenomenal is closer to Brentano’s concept of inner consciousness than it is to these theories. Brentano characterized inner consciousness as a sort of second-order awareness that accompanies all conscious acts. Brentano’s inner consciousness—like, presumably, Chalmers phenomenal awareness—is necessarily second order in that is must always accompany an object-directed act (the act’s ‘primary content’). Presumably Chalmers (like Husserl) would disagree that all mental states are intentional, for not all mental states are object-directed or object-consciousness. But this should not affect the secondary status of phenomenal consciousness, so long as we admit that there is no such as ‘pure consciousness’ (mystics to the contrary). Chalmers, Brentano and Husserl would all agree—I think—that in order for phenomenal consciousness to arise, something else must be going on as well, whether that something else is object-directed or not. 

However, from the fact that phenomenally conscious states need not be object-directed (intentional), it does not follow that object-directed states need not be phenomenal. Chalmers makes this unwarranted inference—and is not aytpical in so doing. He does so because, given different definitions of objectivity, there are different ways of accounting for intentionality (computationally, truth-semantically, informatically, etc), but the point is that none of these get at the fact that there are objects--and therefore a world--for us only insofar as we are conscious. This important blindspot has unfortunately eclipsed for many thinkers any true interest in (Husserlian) phenomenology, for lack of understanding the conceptual terrain in which it works. (NB: because of the ambiguities associated with the term phenomenal, I prefer to use the term ‘personal’: what is characteristic about human intentionality, as opposed to say either computer or dog intentionality, is that it is personal). 

What is that terrain? Above I stated that in order for phenomenal consciousness to arise, something else must be going as well (although it need not be object-oriented, contrary to Brentano). Alternatively, as I just argued, in order for there to be object-oriented consciousness for persons, this consciousness must be phenomenal—or better, personal. Notice the modal terms: must be this, must be that. There is a necessity here. Contra Chalmers—as I noted in the last post—the co-occurrence of the phenomenal and psychological in the unity of personal consciousness is not a matter of mere empirical or contingent fact, but one of necessity. The question is, what sort? 

Brentano observed that mental phenomena are characterized by a certain unity unlike that exhibited by physical phenomena. Mental phenomena—all the various contents of any given moment of consciousness—are unified internally, rather than externally; unlike the co-occurrence of physical phenomena, mental phenomena do not just happen to be next to each other (successive in Hume’s sense). This unity is supplied by the fact that all mental contents of a momentary act of consciousness are unified in one consciousness. The various contents and objects of a momentary act of consciousness (the 'specious present') don't just happen to be in the same 'place' in the way that the books and bed and desk I own just happen to be in this room with me now. The unity that underlies the contents of consciousness is tighter and more rigorous than the merely spatial co-location of items in my room. (This is of course an old point, going back at least to Kant, even Leibniz). Hume’s mistake, according to Brentano, was to believe that since there was no simple, detectable entity underlying the various presentations, there was no self. Mental phenomena do not appear to (in the dative) a self; the self is the unity of mental phenomena in one consciousness. Hume’s mistake was to confuse unity with simplicity, and Kant’s mistake was to confuse the appearance of external, material objects to a self with the presentation of a self’s own mental acts to itself (in a secondary, rather than dative manner, as discussed above).

We therefore need a way to talk about the unity of consciousness and mental phenomena—the unity of the phenomenal and the psychological in the personal—in a way that does not presuppose that his unity is a contingent matter of fact. That is to say, the unity involved here is of a logical or conceptual, rather than factual, sort. Brentano began the application of mereological concepts to the philosophy of mind, Husserl then formalized and extended this notion, putting it at the heart of his systematic phenomenology. When I claim, as I often have before, that phenomenology is a sort of formal science, it is this that I have in mind. 

A final coda: What about the fact that many aspects and ‘contents’ of conscious life seem to go unnoticed, and in that sense, are impersonal? In other words, how do Brentano and Husserl avoid the imputation that their respective sciences are introspectionist (which, by the way, both deny)?  Many have taken the results of phenomena such as change-blindness, attentional-blindness, blindsight, etc., to argue for the presence of non-conscious but nonetheless intentional contents of consciousness as a decisive refutation of the phenomenological method. While I won't go into details here, this attack is levied against a straw-man: neither Brentano nor Husserl have argued that the contents of mental phenomena were simply there waiting to be observed. Again, the argument relies upon the mereological theory of mind. Take the experience of a chord. As tone-stupid as they come, I could not begin to pull out the separate notes of any given chord. Are those separate notes present in my consciousness? Dennett takes this as proof that there are no qualia, and therefore that only heterophenomenology will be able to describe the real contents of my consciousness. Brentano takes a different line: those notes are there, but as mereological parts of the whole chord as a phenomena of consciousness. They are there, because I hear the whole chord, but they are not explicit objects of my attentional consciousness. More importantly, the whole chord is there, not as a sum of those notes, but again, as the whole that is mereologically prior to those parts. Husserl’s own phenomenology departs precisely from here, and this notion of the whole that is prior to its part is precisely what Husserl means by ‘synthetic.’ 

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Friday, August 22, 2008

'War,' What is it Good for?

Quick post: Are there any necessary and sufficient conditions that will allow a definitive answer to the questions, are such and such states at war?

Of course, there is a simple answer to the question, which recognizes that ‘war’ is a performative concept, like marriage, such that it is both a necessary and sufficient conditions for two states to be at war iff the relevant sovereign powers have declared war on the other state. But this is not very philosophically interesting, and not very useful. There are times when we would still like to pose meaningfully the question, even if these conditions are not met, and vice versa (see the Vietnam ‘Conflict,’ on the one hand, and the phoney ‘war,’ on the other).

This is not just an interesting matter in historiography, but has important moral implications. Many people argue that war is such a morally dangerous state for nations to enter that it requires its own moral status and theory (‘just war’ theory—books are written on this, unlike, say, ‘just trade theory’). Many of those who make these sorts of argument go on to say that it is worth suffering some severe economic, political, physical and moral hardship just for the sake of not entering that state. For instance, we might recognize that state X poses real dangers to state Y, that state X is dictatorial, oppressive, violent, that its citizens suffer extraordinary hardship under the current regime, and we might believe that a war would be effective at deposing this leader and relieving the suffering of these people—but because war is an extreme moral evil, it is not worth taking this moral risk.

Now, if you agree with Clausewitz that ‘war is just politics by other means,’ this sort of position will seem either silly or itself quite evil. Take a moral principle of Singer’s: if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral worth, then we ought, morally, to do it.” Following this principle, war might be the only morally correct response to situations such as posed above. Anti-war proponents of the sort mentioned would have to make an argument to the effect that war, is, in fact, a sacrifice of comparable (indeed, more so) moral worth, if war is to be avoided in the situtation described.

What is that argument? One might point to the fact that war is necessarily violent, but so is starvation and execution and ethnic cleansing. If it comes to comparing the plausible violent outcomes of the two courses of action, then we’ve already ceded our ground on war as having a particularly heinous moral property—violence is the morally heinous property, and whatever lessens that is the right course of action. Anyway, I actually starte this post with another thought in mind, but I’ll get to that in a later post, cuz I gotta run. It concerns whether there is in fact any useful definition of war besides the obvious performative.

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The Real Hard Problem

The hardest thing in philosophy is coming up with a genuinely hard problem. The most impressive thing for a philosopher to accomplish is to come up with a genuine hard problem and to articulate it in a very clear way. By these criteria, there is no doubt that Chalmers has accomplished something impressive through his notion of the ‘hard problem’ in philosophy of mind. With this sincere kudo out of the way, let me make forth with a reservation. I’m not completely sold on Chalmer’s distinction between the phenomenal and the psychological, and not being sold on this, I wonder if he really has picked out a genuine hard problem. No doubt the problem he has articulated is genuinely hard, I’m just not convinced that it’s a genuine problem.

Chalmers opens The Conscious Mind (all citations below are to this edition) by insisting that two concepts of mind exhaust all there is to say about mindedness: these are the phenomenal and the psychological. The psychological concept of mind encompasses a broad definition of the field of cognitive psychology, and as such, is primarily oriented toward explainnig the behavior of minded organisms in terms of inner processes or mechanisms—such mechanisms might be striclty neurological, computational, connectionist, informatic or even Freudian (and by the way, don’t worry about meaning of ‘inner.). The phenomenal concept of mind Chalmers approvingly defines through Nagel’s ‘something that it is like to be that [minded] organism,’ a unique property I like to call ‘what-it’s-like-ity.’ Chalmers points out that this sort of property will only allow ostensive definition, and typically can be pointed out only through its association with publicly recognized psychological states. Because of this, there is is always a danger to conflate the pychological and the phenomenal, and while this is fine for most everyday contexts, in science and philosophy especially we must always be mindful of the distinction.

“…for philosophical purposes and in particular for the purposes of explanation, to conflate the two properties is fatal.” (23)

Minding this conflation, Chalmers famously argues, gives rise to a division of labor among philosophers of mind, whereby the psychological matters, while extraordinarily complex, are in principle solvable. In Chalmers words, psychological issues pose immense technical difficulties, but no real metaphysical ones (this claim I suspect is too cavalier, but I’ll not make anything of that here). But because the phenomenal character of consciousness fails to fit into any acceptable current scientific or philosophical framework (since dualism is ruled out of court), it is this feature that poses the truly ‘hard problem’ in philosophy of mind.

So, what then is this phenomenal property, exactly? Again, Chalmers doubts, at least within any existing conceptual repitoire, that anything other than an ostensive definition associated with recognized psychological states will be possible. He chooses pain as an exemplary case. A roughly acceptable definition of pain can be given in psychological (i.e. functional) terms, but this leaves out the phenomenal feature of pain that, in the end, makes pain matter so much to us. Pain is exemplaroy here in that this fact is common to all sorts of mental concepts, viz. a phenomenal property supervenes on a psychological one but does not seem to be essential to that psychological property qua psychological. One is tempted to say that this what-it’s-like-ity is a sort of sensation, except that it is that very feature whereby a sensation (like any other mental phenomena) becomes a sensation. At the very least, it seems to be a rather logically simple, discrete and ethereal property, one that is incidental to the psychological state underlying it (indeed, this is the whole rub).

Does intentionality fit into any of this? Chalmers is confident that intentionality (and therefore the theory of intentionality) belongs on the psychological side of the divide. Chalmers—typical of most of the anglophone literature on the matter—defines intentionality through the notion of a propositional attitude, and therefore accepts the semantic concept of intentionality. On this semantic conception, to be in an intentional state is to adopt a sort a sort of attitude towards a propositional-like structure (a belief, typically). And since it seems that a plausibly psychological notion of belief is available (something like: ‘a belief is a doxic attitude towards a state whereby one’s behavior would be appropriate in a situtation if that proposition were in fact true, and such that this state is normally brought about when that proposition is in fact true’), we can quibble about whether some phenomenal state is also essentially involved with intentional states, but it’s probably not worth the bother (see pp19-20).

This is where I would like to register my reservations. Chalmers wants to argue that the phenomenal and the psychological come together merely contingently, as a matter of empirical fact, but not essentially. This seems wrong to me. He can say things like this because he chooses phenomena like pain, or hearing middle-C, or the sensation of red, as his examples, but these sorts of ‘raw feel’ examples, and pain especially, are very untypical phenomenal states. For the most part, the world is revealed to us through our phenomenal states, and the separation between the phenomenal and the psychological that Chalmers insists upon is rather the exception than the rule. In other words, for humans at least, phenomenal states have the peculiarity of being intentional, ie., they reveal objects therefore are world-disclosing. Thus the phenomenal and the psychological come together, not as merely concurring phenomena, not as a mere matter of fact, but through some sort of necessity.

What is actually peculiar about the phenomenal feature of human consciousness is that it is intentional, which is to say, that it is by virtue of our phenomenal consciousness that we are aware of an objective world. Now, this introduces the heady problem of what to count as consciousness of an objective world, and therefore, of how to understand ‘objectivity,’, but this problem—I want to stress—is a formal or logical problem, and not primarily, maybe even not at all, a scientific one, and it is certainly not a problem that Chalmers has cared to recognize. Moreover, I believe that this is a legitimately hard problem, but unlike Chalmers own hard problem, we at least have some respectable ways to think through it.

I am arguing that, contra Chalmers, the psychological and the phenomenal are not together as a matter of mere empirical fact, but through a sort of logical necessity. When we speak about this essential unity of the psychological and the phenomenal, we are speaking about intentionality. In a follow-up post, I will say more about what this sort of logical necessity is (spoiler: it’s mereological), so I want to finish with just this observation. I do not doubt that as a matter of fact we will someday be able to construct complex systems that are genuinely psychological in the sense relevant to Chalmers. That is, we will construct systems that will, without speaking merely metaphorically, learn, memorize, process information, believe, perceive, and so on. And I also do not doubt that there are plenty such beings alive on earth already, viz., all the more complex mammals and fish and reptiles (I have my doubts about them amphibians). Nor do I doubt that animals have a phenomenal consciousness, again in Chalmers sense. But from the fact that we can both conceptually and in reality separate these two aspects does not in any way require that their concurrence in human consciousness is itself also merely factual or contingent. This would be like reasoning from the fact that, since some organic visual systems do not detect color, that color is merely incidental to normal human vision, a fact that merely supervenes upon visual psychology. But that’s not right. Normal human vision is intrinsically, not accidentally, colorful.

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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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