On Philosophy

October 4, 2008

Reinterpreting Phenomenology

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 12:41 am

It is natural to assume that continental methods are radically different analytic methods, and thus that criticism leveled at philosophical methods would have to treat each separately. But I’m not sure that is really the case. A cursory glance at the phenomenological method, characteristic of a great deal of continental philosophy, reveals that it is described as a study of essences of consciousness, which are revealed through eidetic intuitions and eidetic variation (as are all essences). This is analogous to the analytic method, which is often described as a study of concepts that are revealed through specific intuitions and thought experiments / intuition pumps. At least from a distance it appears that these methods are essentially the same, that the differences are purely terminological, and thus that any criticism leveled at one will apply to the other.

Of course we should not allow ourselves to be misled by superficial similarities either. There do appear to be differences between the phenomenological method and analytic method when we get into the details. But can these differences shield the phenomenological method from criticisms leveled at the analytic method? Let’s find out by first taking a look at how the phenomenological method works, exactly.

Fundamentally the phenomenological method is grounded in ontology. At the highest level things are divided into three broad categories: facts, essences, and meanings (sense). We will set aside meaning here and consider only facts and essences. Under the category of facts fall particular objects, such as a tree or a table. Under the category of essences fall ideal objects, which are not in space and time, properly speaking, but which are classifications that divide things according to what they are. Essences themselves are further divided into two subgroups: material essences and formal essences. The material essences are ways of dividing the world of objects, and the most general divisions possible of this sort are called regions. Husserl names three regions: Nature (things in space-time), Pure Consciousness (that which is experienced), and Culture (that which we jointly constitute). For reasons of simplicity we can gloss these three categories as: objective, subjective, and intersubjective, respectively. (Husserl might not have described them in this way, but his own method implies that these are valid ways of describing the region, since objectivity, for example, is more general than appealing to falling in space and time, given that it also includes the fabric of space-time itself). And under each region are sub-essences, such as being a particular kind of tree, which are less general. The formal essences, in contrast, are those that are so general that they apply to everything: essences such as number, property and object, necessity and possibility, and so on.

Now before we go any further we must describe two ways something can fall under an essence. I will describe these two ways of falling under as formally falling under and materially falling under. For something to materially fall under an essence that means that it is an object and that the essence applies to it. A particular lamp post, for example, materially falls under the region of Nature because it exists objectively. For something to formally fall under and essence means that it is itself an essence that is a sub-type or sub-category of the larger essence. The essence of lamp posts, for example, formally falls under the region of Nature.

With this ontology set up we can now get to the payoff. First Husserl asserts that there is a unique way to study the objects that materially fall under each region. And the best way to study objects that materially fall under Nature is through the scientific method. Already this has some interesting consequences. The first is that natural laws, which are objective, and thus fall under Nature are best studied through the scientific method (as I assume is obvious). But since they aren’t properly studied by the phenomenological method, which looks at essences, this in turn means that natural laws are not essences (see Ideas 1:15). And, logically, the same could be said about natural kinds, if they exist. Natural kinds are therefore not essences, and if we were thinking about examples such as “a kind of tree” or a “lamp posts in general” in terms of natural kinds or as referring to a natural kind we would be misinterpreting them: natural kinds are to be studied by the scientific method, not the phenomenological method. A second consequence is that essences can be studied in their own distinct way as well: through eidetic intuition and variation. Eidetic intuition discloses essences to us from the intuition of particular objects; eidetic variation is “free phantasy” where we entertain different cases in order to prompt eidetic intuitions.

So far so good. But now questions arise regarding the details of the method. Since essences have a way of being studied it would seem that they must be specific kinds of objects that themselves materially fall under some region (Husserl explicitly says they are a kind of object, see Ideas 1:9), in addition to formally falling under other essences. Which region do they materially fall under? The official answer is that they materially fall under the formal category (even though they formally fall under more general essences; this is why I made that distinction previously). But does the official answer make sense? Husserl seems to indicate in places that essences are objective. But if they were objective then they must fall under Nature. And if that were the case the right way to study them would be through the scientific method, not eidetic intuition and variation. Clearly this contradicts what Husserl claims about them. And it would also amount to naturalizing philosophy, which he is an opponent of.

Another interpretation that is closer to the text would be to take Husserl’s essences to have a Kantian favor: to take them as transcendentally structuring the possibilities for experience. This is implied by Ideas 1:18, for example, where Husserl remarks that the regional Eidios of Nature exhibits a necessary material form of all the objects in the region, and on the next page gives (Euclidean) geometry as an example of this, saying that it is the “ontological discipline relating to … spatial form”. There are obvious parallels with Kant here, and, as with Kant, if this claim is not to be trivially refuted by pointing at special relativity we must take it in the sense the Euclidean geometry structures spatial form as disclosed to us in experience. Thomasson (Conceptual Analysis in Phenomenology and Ordinary Language Philosophy) also seems to favor such an interpretation of Husserl. She describes Husserl’s essences as being analogous to concepts in analytic terms, and takes Husserl’s “free phantasy” to be a tool to explore what we can and can’t imagine or conceptualize. Again, this points to a reading of Husserl where the essences structure the possibilities for experience, or at least of conceptual experience.

But, however close this reading is to the words of the text, it seems to fly in the face of the spirit of the phenomenological project. The previous interpretation would seem to imply that essences fall under the subjective: they are products of our mind – structures of our experience (properly, structures of possible experiences). But Husserl is firm in claiming that essences are objective, or at least not subjective. Secondly, it would seem to lead to a kind of psychologism. If essences, which includes mathematical essences, are simply structures of what we can possibly experience, then some theoretical psychological study could uncover those same limits. This means that the rules of logic, for example, are products of our particular psychological construction and limitations. And Husserl is, again, firmly opposed to psychologism of any sort. Now at this point we could simply take these apparent inconsistencies to be real inconsistencies. Maybe Husserl didn’t realize that essences qua structures for possible experiences would lead them to materially fall under the subjective and to imply a kind of psychologism. But I would prefer to keep looking for a more charitable interpretation.

Any such interpretation must keep essences from materially falling under any of the regions (objective, subjective, or intersubjective), both because of the problems described above, and because each of those regions already has particular kinds of intuitions that disclose it, which are distinct from eidetic intuitions. But how would that be possible? Aren’t those three categories exclusive? Not necessarily. Let’s begin our search for a fourth possibility by considering non-standard logics, and mathematics in general (which Husserl does not substantially engage with). Given the existence of such things is the “objectivity” of classical logic thrown into doubt? It must be; no longer can we claim with a straight face that there is one universally necessary logic. We must instead accept that we have a choice between logics. But neither does this make a logic itself a subjective construct; a particular logical system is pinned down completely by its rules and axioms. To suppose a different rule or axiom is simply to talk about a different logical system – in that way they still have a kind of objectivity (i.e. the nature of a particular logical system does not vary from person to person or culture to culture, even possibly). A logical system is thus neither objective, nor subjective, nor intersubjective. We need a new term then. For the moment let’s use the clumsy “objective-subjective”. To be “objective-subjective” requires two things. First that we have a choice about whether to apply a particular system to a situation (i.e. we impose it, it is not found in the objects themselves) and secondly that what a particular system is has an answer that is completely fixed, such that any variation is to simply entertain a different system. Being “objective-subjective”, I maintain, characterizes formal essences. And eidetic intuition and eidetic variation are ways in which we invent or discover (pick your poison) particular formal systems. Of course this means that, in a way, philosophy qua phenomenology, as the study of essences, is a great deal like mathematics (specifically applied mathematics); a sister discipline if you will. The similarities between mathematics and phenomenology have also been noted by Haaparanta (The Method of Analysis and the Idea of Pure Philosophy in Husserl’s Transcendental Phenomenology).

That, in a broad sense, is how phenomenology works. There are, of course, some major details that are missing. I have described the sense in which phenomenology is a study of essences, but not the more specific way in which it is a study of the essences of consciousness. Why just consciousness? Well there are two reasons for Husserl to narrow his project in this way. First if he was just studying essences in general he would end up doing math or ontology in general, under this picture; which has adequate coverage already. And, more importantly, Husserl believes that the region of pure consciousness has never been properly studied before, as it is in itself, at least in part because the method for studying it as it is in itself (epoche) was previously undiscovered (although Husserl believes that Descartes just missed it). Thus Husserl sets off on the project of describing an eidetic science for this new region via the method he calls phenomenology. In a sense then this business about ontology and essences is a framework to fit the intuitions about pure consciousness and the theories they prompt, Husserl’s primary focus, into. However, here I am more focused on the framework because it is what is analogous to the methods of analytic philosophy (analogous to phenomenology would be the analytic study of experience & its structures, not analytic philosophy in general).

I’ll leave a discussion of how this framework differs from analytic philosophy and whether it manages to shield phenomenology from certain problems facing analytic philosophy (and whether it gives rise to a new batch of problems) for another day.

Note: Observe that the interpretation I put forward here also helps justify the ontological framework that motivates and justifies phenomenology itself: The ontological framework is simply a formal structure, it is not necessarily the only correct ontological framework, but it is a useful one we choose to project onto the world / our experiences of the world, in order to better work with it.

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