Tuesday, September 27, 2011


Back to the things themselves. Edmund Husserl
"To philosophize is not to examine the things of which one is conscious, but rather to examine the very consciousness one has of things---the mode of being which things have when we are conscious of them. Thus, to say that philosophy must examine the consciousness of things is but another way of saying that it should examine the appearance of things, i.e., the being they have when they appear." Quentin Lauer, Phenomenology: Its Genesis and Prospect.

E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "In the interview included in THE BOOK THAT CHANGED MY LIFE (edited by Diane Osen) you use the term creative philosophy. Could you define this?"

 The first person I heard describe philosophy as "creative" was Professor Garth Gillan, the advisor for my master's thesis in philosophy in 1973. He was referring to the many independent conference papers on Critical Theory that I wrote for him during the 1971-72 academic year. Later in life, my understanding of what he meant by philosophy being creative would deepen. It's important to understand that professional philosophers---those who teach in the field---are, like everyone else in this world, people who range from being geniuses to dull. Some are brilliant and deep, others mediocre and shallow. Some are best at teaching and don't publish (or at least not much). Some are good at explaining the ideas of other thinkers, but have few original ideas of their own. Some are elegant, entertaining prose stylists like Arthur Schopenhauer, and others are simply dreadful writers like Hegel.  (If you want to have some fun, read Brand Blanchard's discussion of Hegel's writing flaws in Blanchard's 1953 lecture On Philosophical Style.) And, as Gillan pointed out to me, there are some who are not creative, and some who are, using the discipline of philosophy---its history and methodologies---to explore hitherto uncharted contemporary phenomenon.

 If one's background is in phenomenology, one understands that philosophy is not something you just talk about and teach. It is something you do. In a blog/post it won't be possible for me to adequately explain, theoretically and historically, the entire Phenomenological Movement in its German, French, and American traditions (to say nothing of this approach being prefigured in Descartes, Kant and Hegel), especially if someone has no background in philosophy. But I can attempt here the hastiest of broad stroke sketches, one that I hope will lead readers to explore this subject in greater depth. (Just for the record, it took me five years to study all the important German, French, and American works in the canon of phenomenology and become skillful enough with the method to use it; one usually learns the method more quickly---a year in my case after a superb seminar with Dr. Don Ihde. Karl Jaspers once told Husserl that he was managing the method better than the theory, and Husserl said that this was as it should be and that in time the theoretical apparatus would become clear.)

 Phenomenology was conceived, first and foremost, as a method for investigating experience or phenomenon. It does not necessarily seek new knowledge, as Dietrich von Hildebrand pointed out, but instead a new and more profound realization of the knowledge that one already has. Thus, it is not system-building, but a "radical empiricism" more akin to deconstruction (to which it may be said to have given birth). One's investigation begins with the epoché or "bracketing" of the thesis of the "Natural Attitude" (Einstellung), which is the everyday, unreflective attitude of naive belief in the existence of the world. (Put another way, we take no position on the existence of the phenomenon.) This initial move is important because it "clears the field" of perception of judgments and presuppositions. This field is infinite. In principle, it contains the entire world.  Husserl's analysis proceeds to other levels of reduction (including a psychological reduction, eidetic reduction, and phenomenological reduction), but we shall limit ourselves in this post to the epoché, which functions as a demythologizing device that prepares for an intuitional demonstration of the object being studied and is implied in the work of most phenomenologists such as Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger. 

 Once the field of perceptual experience is cleared, a phenomenologist then endeavors to describe what appears in that field and without, of course, recourse to deductive and/or explanatory models, or received meanings. (Sometimes the use of neologism is necessary when attempting to describe a new meaning or what Merleau-Ponty in his posthumously published work The Visible and the Invisible called "wild Being.") Always we are only concerned with what is given during the perceptual event. Every analysis begins with first-person immediacy, a first-person intuition (the experience of that which the mind signifies in thought) by a historically situated subject (noesis) of an object (noema), which may be things or thoughts; persons or events; categories or states of affairs; numbers or geometrical figures; or works of literature. And the way one intuits something (the way it appears) is an index to a man or woman's being-in-the-world. (Dasein) The link between subject and object or noesis and noema is intentionality, for every experience implies an object and every object something that experiences. We are indebted to Franz Brenano for this fundamental insight regarding intentionality. (Consciousness is always consciousness of something; or as we read in Herbert Spiegelberg's The Phenomenological Movement in his section on Brentano, "No hearing without something heard, no believing without something believed, no hoping without something hoped, no striving without something striven for, no joy without something we feel joyous about, etc.") 

 Husserl's own approach is often called a descriptive-formal ontology because what he sought were invariant structures (eidos) in phenomenon. (In traditional metaphysics we have what is seen or appearances, and what is unseen or reality. Think of Plato's world of eternal, immutable forms and our world of appearances that "participate" in those forms. With phenomenology that distinction between phenomenon and noumenon is removed. There is only what appears for an embodied consciousness.) We come to see, as phenomenologists, that objects (noema) are always given to a subject (noesis) in a way that is perspectival, and in a series of temporally unfolding profiles. 

 If I hold up a cube before you, you will see its flat, front sides and its top. You do not doubt that it has a back side and bottom that are co-present, but at this moment the back side and bottom are perceptually absent. Merleau-Ponty calls this the "play of absence and presence." The back side and bottom of the cube (the profiles not given) are the empty intentions that constitutes the cube's horizon. I.e., what you will be able to see if you turn the cube over or around. But every phenomenon will exhibit something invariant (eidos) despite its many profiles, even if the phenomenon is a fantasy object (Imagine right now "Pegasus." You may change many details---color, background or foreground, etc., but for it to be Pegasus, the object you are imagining must be a horse with wings). What is crucial to understand is that the object before us will exhibit many profiles (appearances and meanings), some more adequate than others, and that this horizon is open-ended. It can never be brought into precise observation---it remains on the fringe of our perceptions. Furthermore, it is not possible in perception to have two profiles before us at the same time----for example, the cube seen from front and back, top and bottom simultaneously. (Some portraits by Picasso are a striking exception to this.) As one profile is called forth, the others recede from view. Thus, to reveal (a meaning) is also to conceal (other meanings). To describe an object (to say) is also to show. But that saying or showing renders other things unseen or "invisible."

Some phenomenal objects will offer our analysis tremendous resistance. They are difficult to examine because they so closely involve our being-in-the-world. In other words, our deepest and most unexamined forms of social conditioning. Our experience of race in the life-world (or Lebenswelt) is one such phenomenon, and is as close to us as our breathing, so familiar and heavily sedimented (with assumptions and presuppositions on our side, as subjects) that its unveiling may very well be experienced as threatening.

The way something appears is the beginning of our investigation. This first stage is eidetic (descriptive) science. But what we want to do is further explore the structural, invariant features of the phenomenon. Variation is one technique for this, and it can take many forms: (1) Imaginative variations performed on the object; (2) Perceptual variations; (3) And analytic variations (logical possibilities). (In art, think of the way the impressionists employed a basic phenomenological approach by concentrating on light, i.e., Claude Monet painted objects in light dissolving at different times during the day. Think also of figure/ground reversals. Juxtapositions of context. Isolation of dominant and recessive traits. And transforming perspectives.) We also have the possibility of hermeneutic variations, i.e., telling a story. Using narrative or intersubjective language to allow the object to appear in a different way. Apodicticity (or certainty) becomes weaker with the increase in variations, and adequacy increases as the object is noematically opened (or deconstructed).

 These phenomenological investigations---especially the imaginative variations---can be considered "creative" in the purest meaning of that word. Certainly we see that creative efflorescence in the work of Jean-Paul Sartre who was in addition to being one of the 20th century's major philosophers also a novelist (he turned down the Noble Prize for literature) and a playwright (to name just a few of the hats he wore). And in the 1950s, Continental phenomenology came fully into flower with the works of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Mikel Dufrenne's exhaustive The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience.

 Later in America in the 1970s, my dissertation advisor Don Ihde, one of our clearest, most precise teachers and practitioners of phenomenology, who popularized that tradition on these shores, enriched the interface of philosophy and the sciences with several works on embodiment relations and man/machine relations that build upon and extend the work of Paul Ricoeur and Martin Heidegger: Hermenutic Phenomenology: The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur (1971); Sense and Significance (1973); Listening and Voice: A Phenomenology of Sound (1976); Experimental Phenomenology: An Introduction (1979), which was a best-selling work; Existential Technics (1983); Technology and the Lifeworld (1990); Postphenomenology: Essays in the Postmodern Context (1993), and other works since these were published.

  And in this new century, right now, philosopher George Yancy is creatively using phenomenological methods to bring to his readers a fresh, deeper seeing into the experience of race, which is perhaps the one phenomenon in our lives that presents the greatest "coefficients of adversity," as Bachelard and Sartre would say. Among his many highly creative and ground-breaking books that use phenomenological principles and techniques to perform an archeology on race, Black Bodies, White Gazes: The Continuing Significance of Race (2008) and the forthcoming, Look! A White! Philosophical Essays on Whiteness are of particular importance.

 So this is why I say philosophy at its best is creative.

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