On Philosophy

October 21, 2006

Why Phenomenology Failed

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

A concise way of describing phenomenology is as a method in which the existence of the external world is “set aside” and experience is studied solely as experience. Since we are dealing with the way things seem in phenomenology, instead of the way things “really” are, the conclusions we draw about them cannot be doubted (they are apodictic). Phenomenology then, has the potential to tell us both how the mind works, by studying the way things seem to us, and to provide an indubitable basis for knowledge, since the foundation of phenomenology is that which is immune to error. If it had fulfilled either of these expectations phenomenology, and hence transcendental idealism, would still dominate philosophy today. So where did things go wrong?

The application of phenomenology to the philosophy of mind should seem obvious, after all phenomenology deals with how things appear to us, and what could be more central to the philosophy of mind than that? Instead of attempting to recover the subjective world of experience from objective facts about the world phenomenology defines the objective world in terms of subjective experience. This leads to some interesting conclusions about the interaction of the mind and the world. For example Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, and hence my focus here, claims that the mind doesn’t interact causally with the world, instead it “conditions the possibility of the world”*, which is a fancy way of saying that our only access to the world is through the mind. This is a good example of why phenomenology is not taken as the last word in the philosophy of mind, it simply doesn’t answer the interesting questions. Saying that the mind is responsible for our experience of the world doesn’t explain mind-world interactions. We experience having a body, and we experience it doing what we want it to do. Even if it is the case that our body is simply part of our experiences we can still ask why our experienced body does what we want when no other experienced object behaves in the same way. Similarly, phenomenology simply ignores one of the central questions in the philosophy of mind, which is “why are we conscious?”. All phenomenology can tell us is that we are conscious. Finally, even the information about the way things seem to us, which is revealed apodictically to us by phenomenology, is to some extent useless in understanding the mind. Philosophers who study the mind are interested in what is really going on in the mind, and it is well known that how the mind seems to us may not always reflect what is really going on in it. Knowing how conscious acts present themselves is only part of the story.

Insights into the philosophy of mind would only have been a byproduct of phenomenology anyways. The primary motivation for doing phenomenology is to provide foundation for knowledge that cannot be rationally doubted, or at least this is how Husserl is apt to portray it. And to some extent it does. Certainly when we examine how things appear to us, as appearances, there is no room for doubt. If all you wish to assert when you see as chair is that you are being presented with a seeming of a chair there is no way to go wrong. Obviously this isn’t very useful knowledge, and certainly not a basis for the majority of what we tend to call knowledge, and so from phenomenological principles we must uncover an objective world. Husserl does this by showing how we naturally posit other egos, which have a different subjective world than us, and how from this positing the notion of an objective world arises. This is fine as far as it goes, but in the process of positing other egos we have lost the absolute certainty that was part of the earlier claims. It is possible to doubt the existence of other egos (at least phenomenology doesn’t provide a reason why one couldn’t doubt them), and hence all of our conclusions about an objective external world can be doubted as well. Admittedly this doesn’t leave us worse off than we were before in regards to what knowledge we can be sure of, but it certainly doesn’t improve our situation, and thus phenomenology has failed to provide the foundation it claimed.

So was phenomenology a complete waste of time? No, it simply didn’t deliver all that its followers wanted it to. Some modern philosophers are still attempting to provide a foundation for knowledge based only on the kind of indubitable knowledge that phenomenology was based on, so in a way they might be seen as modern phenomenologists. In terms of the philosophy of mind, while the “results” of phenomenology didn’t stick, it did bring attention to the need to explain the way things appear to people, and not just the way people behave (one of two reason why behaviorism isn’t a viable theory about the mind). Additionally, the intentional structure (which, admittedly, had been studied by non-phenomenologists before Husserl) has also featured significantly in subsequent theorizing about the mind. Modern philosophers still ponder it, wondering if the intentionality that is presented to us is really how the mind is directed at the world, or if it is accomplished through unconscious channels. So in terms of its legacy phenomenology wasn’t a failure, but in terms of accomplishing what it set out to do it fell a bit short.

* I really wish I were making that choice of words up.


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