Monday, August 6, 2012

more on phenomenology: ontology and epistemology

Traditional realism typically holds that there is a division between the inner mental life of a subject and the reality outside of mental representation had by that subject.  Epistemologically there are concepts and then the objects which those concepts are about.  Inside and outside, subject and object, concept and object to which a concept refers.

Phenomenology effaces the division between inside and outside, internal and external, concept and object, by saying that objects and concepts are equally as real in any given conscious appearance, indeed in appearance objects are as they appear. Appearance is the "givenness" of phenomena external to the mind within human experience; that is, within human consciousness. Phenomenology focuses on describing how or in what way phenomena appear.  The division between inside and outside is collapsed, although collapsed "in" upon the side of the subject. That is, nature is how nature appears. The side of the subject is said to be *both* an experiential layer of human consciousness and simultaneously, at once, any and all appearing "external" objects of nature. And so "the real" is a fully experiential continuum of appearing conscious experience, a phenomenological "horizon" that is nature or Being itself.

The trouble seems to be that, ontologically, in order to be a thoroughgoing realist, one should say that these objects do not depend upon human experience or the "consciousness of" things in order to have the character that they do (and by this I mean "to have a character" means to be presented in some way. Thus a subject seems required to bring about the qualities that are described as they are described).  A realist would like to say that reality is quite independent of and autonomous of human experience and its manner of apprehension, as passive as that manner may be (and so the phenomenological realist would defer to the reality of how things appear having bracketed theoretical presuppositions about that appearance).  The trouble occurs in that phenomenology claims it is not a problem to state that things are simply as they are given to human consciousness as there is a certain trust in the manner of the appearance.

Husserlian phenomenology emphasizes the transcendental and "lived" qualitative immediacy of the appearance.  His transcendental version of phenomenology requires that these appearances be divested to a reflective consciousness always already within a "life-world." Thus there is always a certain "being conditioned-ness" that the human observer always brings to the table which challenges the overall "autonomy" of reality component present in the independence of its presentation.  In other words, the independence of what things are in their own autonomous nature appears to be challenged by the requirement of phenomenal presentation needed for phenomenology's "realist" descriptions.

Other phenomenologies do not emphasize these same Husserlian moments however, and so the same challenge to the autonomy of the real is not present. Instead, these phenomenologists shift attention to the becoming of the real itself - its activity rendered phenomenologically not strictly in qualitative terms presented to human consciousness, but in terms of categories or modes of Being or nature which establish the very basis of what experiential description can be in its own sensible appearance.

The key is that these categories or modes are not a priori merely of conscious experience in some idealistic Kantian manner, but rather are broad enough - i.e" universal" - so as to establish in their transcendental nature the very possibility of conscious experience as such in qualitative terms but also specific or individuated terms. Meaning, in terms of what appears, not just how that what itself appears.  So taken at once as categorial-modal Being, most broadly nature itself, here in a more Hegelian realist manner, sensible-articulation is categorically experience. The point is that experience, reality, nature, Being is originally independent of or articulating before any actualization "to" consciousness despite not being strictly external to it; that is, its appearing is concomitant to consciousness as much as it is its transcendental condition.  Therefore, sensibility-articulating-itself is the active categorial-modal transcendental condition of consciousness and is also, at once, nature.

This, in a nutshell, is a genetic-organic phenomenology - something that Husserl turned toward and dimly cast toward the end of his career, however never quite concretely outlined in his own genetic approach. Husserl was concerned with the "passive syntheses" of consciousness knit with genetic activity. But he never understood genetic activity, as much as it is concomitant with consciousness, as a transcendental categorial mode. Had Husserl fully explored this underside, what might it look like as a phenomenological approach? Here I would suggest several philosophers who had worked in this area of a genetic-organic phenomenological approach, including, Merleau-Ponty (whom I shall skip for now as that, too, was toward the end of his career and thus a complex case), the obscure American philosopher Justus Buchler, the great American metaphysician and logicist Charles Hartshorne, and finally, Alfred North Whitehead.

Beginning with the "ordinal" phenomenology of American philosopher Justus Buchler, Buchler states that reality is whatever is in whatever way it is (the ontological claim of phenomenology) yet it does not rely on privileging the mere appearance of whatever appears.  The natural complexity of reality is focus rather than that complexity's so-called conscious apprehension. Each complexity of nature is both a general and particular. What remains is a "jewel-like" ontology with an infinite pluralistic continuum of modes and orders. Charles Hartshorne's (and Whitehead's) process phenomenology emphasizes the powers of what phenomenology attempts to explicate, however not in terms of qualitative descriptive reportage but in terms of aesthetic feeling through "prehension," better rendered in art, literature, or poetry than in any "description of essences." Prehension, for Hartshorne, has a logical-mathematical mode as well that is transcendental in another aspect despite its qualitative appearance. This he took from the American philosopher C.S. Peirce, who saw phenomenology as a mathematical exercise.

Peirce's phenomenology seems to shift focus back to the categorical exhibitive display of the real, attending first and foremost not to a mere human description at all but to the a priori categorical and metaphysical disclosure of a pre-objective indivision, sensible-articulating nature as a "first nature" (erst Natur) which is essentially cosmological as much as it is phenomenological, for it is the "ground" of any conscious presentation whatsoever.  For Peirce, "Firstness" is "first Nature."  The un-prethinkable. Sensibility-articulating-itself therefore seems to be both thinkable (because in a dim way it appears to thought) yet also "not" or "un" thought (as it is "before" thought, birthing thought). Peirce especially had this in mind with his concept of "Firstness," Schelling - whom we haven't mentioned in this discussion had his in mind with his "first Nature," and Merleau-Ponty had this in mind with his pre-objective "indivision" of Nature.