Beware of the vanity of (wo)mankind.

8/9/20235 min read

Objections to phenomenology

It would be understandable to associate the proposed enhancement of the senses and the extrapolation of knowledge gained by sensory learning with phenomenological thinking, yet phenomenology rests in part on a set of assumptions that are not in line with intensive thinking (and affect theory in general). I will dedicate some words to this philosophy because of its resonance, but its false premises preclude it from my further explorations.

It is generally thought that the realm of the actualised is governed by the phenomena it produces, which address us at the level of sensory perception and result in a consciousness of experience that we could call a phenomenological approach. The fundamental proposition that experience is, or leads to a conscious perception brings me into conflict with phenomenological ontology and epistemology. Phenomenology deals with the edifice of experience that not only includes the realms of individual perception and thoughts, recollection and imagination, emotions and desires, but also the domains of corporeal awareness, embodiment and social motion. One of the founding fathers of phenomenology, philosopher Edmund Husserl, used the term ‘intentionality’ to indicate that our experience is exclusively directed by specific notions, ideas, thoughts, images and so on. This representational or ‘intentional ’ relation with our surroundings through these modes of ‘legibility’ gives significance and content to our experience. These ‘intents’ are therefore different from the things they represent. There is a distinction made between the actualised, our somaesthetic perception of those elements, and our awareness of that perception itself. Intentionality connects the conscious with perception through a concept. According to Husserl, the appeal of phenomenological reasoning is obviously its return to the matter itself: ‘Zurück zu den Sachen selbst’, which steers away from the abstractions of science and the concept of impartial objectivity. Phenomenology allows for – is even based on – the concept of subjectivity, making ‘die Sache’ (the thing) and its unique exchanges with its place the germane focus (and not ‘die Sache’ itself). Unlike classical empiricism, which supposes that all knowledge comes from experience, phenomenology leaves room for a non-causal epistemology. Phenomenology is distinctly different from the Cartesian systems of analysis, in which the world is divided in objects, sets of objects and objects interacting with one another. The notion Dasein was central for Heidegger, and as such could be helpful in the context of my investigation. Philosophy scholar Woodruff Smith explains: ‘We must distinguish beings from their being, and we begin our investigation of the meaning of being in our own case, examining our own existence in the activity of ‘Dasein’ (that being whose being is in each case my own).’[i] Woodruff Smith reports that Heidegger saw phenomenology resolve into a ‘fundamental ontology’.[ii]

What makes it impossible for me to work from a phenomenological perspective is a threefold set of obstructions. First and foremost, there is the issue of consciousness as the unique mode of gaining awareness of experience, knowledge of experience and the epistemology of experience. I believe that experience is not of something, but rather it is something: there is no need or even reason to regard consciousness as the instrument for qualifying experience. The psychologist J.J. Gibson argues that perception is direct, unmediated by instruments of cognition or rational thought, and therefore the antagonistic mind/body dualism is rendered obsolete. Rather, he claims, it is the constantly situated immanence that provides a recursive continuum of interactions between the perceiver and the environment. The mind is not the sole instrument for registering and making sense of experiences; in fact, there is no such thing as a mind in isolation. Experience is a continual feedback loop system that learns, gains, grows and adds to the understanding of the experience, and to the understanding of itself and its environment. This means that the environment also ‘learns’ from that experience. This process can be regarded as an ecological system in which both the perceiver and the perceived supply this reciprocal ‘perceive-ability’. This ‘opportunity for action’ is also known as affordance. Central to this position is the fundamental shift from the anthropocentric supremacy of experience through some type of consciousness to a nonhuman, multi-channelled ‘non-understanding’ of experience. This shift counters the concept that sensory involvement is merely an instrument of information transferal and re-establishes somaesthetic experience as a self-standing and self-referential entity. A change of this kind from the ego-logic domain to an open ecological system is a movement that phenomenology does not provide – and hence my second reason for rejecting its logic.

My third and final argument for seeking models other than phenomenology is the latter’s reliance on the division between human (and other sentient creatures’) mental and physical properties. The Cartesian duality, wherein the separation between mind and matter is either fundamental (complete division) or derivative (permeable division) is inaccurate. Under the reign of affect theory, properties are secondary to capacities; therefore any division on the basis of properties is inadequate. Yet to adopt a monistic view would not serve either: I have already indicated that the central premise of my argument is that the realm of the virtual and the realm of the actual have the same origins. The mind is the invention of the body and vice versa. To underscore this, let me refer to a much-quoted paragraph from Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus:

We know nothing about a body until we know what it can do, in other words, what its affects are, how they can or cannot enter into composition with other affects, with the affects of another body, either to destroy that body or to be destroyed by it, either to exchange actions and passions with it or to join with it in composing a more powerful body.[iii]

Knowledge is based on relations: we simply cannot tell what something is until we know what it can do with something else, including ourselves. And this has nothing to do with the concept of consciousness, which is an essential criterion for the discipline of phenomenology. Philosopher Henri Bergson argues in his book Matter and Memory that the two major monistic schools, that of idealism and that of realism, overstate their propositions, and he shows that ‘realism and idealism both go too far, that it is a mistake to reduce matter to the perception which we have of it, a mistake also to make of it a thing able to produce in us perceptions, but in itself of another nature than they.’[iv] Matter, according to Bergson, is ‘an aggregate of “images”. And by “image” we mean a certain existence which is more than that which the idealist calls a representation, but less than that which the realist calls a thing – an existence placed halfway between the “thing” and the “representation’’.’[v]

Photo-credit: John Margolies, photographer, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. No known restrictions on publication.

Title: Clifton's Club Harlem, Kentucky Avenue, Atlantic City, New Jersey, USA, 1978.

[i] He continues: ‘For Heidegger, we and our activities are always “in the world”, our being is being-in-the-world, so we do not study our activities by bracketing the world, rather we interpret our activities and the meaning things have for us by looking to our contextual relations to things in the world.’ See David Woodruff Smith, ‘Phenomenology’, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta (Fall 2011 edition), [accessed 25 July 2016].

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 257.

[iv] Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., [1896] 2004), pp. vii-viii.

[v] Ibid., p. viii.