Is Phenomenology Philosophically Unproductive?


Recently, AskPhilosophers received the following question:

Why is so little phenomenology taught and researched in North American philosophy departments? Because it studies the essence of consciousness is it too continental for your analytic minds? Why must philosophy be categorized so strictly?

Jonathan Westphal (Hampshire College) responded:

I think the answer may be that phenomenology has produced so disappointingly little. In a non-philosophical sense phenomenology is defined as the preliminary classification of phenomena in an enquiry. So one might for example regard it as a piece of phenomenology in this non-philosophical sense to say that a white surface seen through a light blue filter looks stone-cold white, and not blue at all, as per the philosophical folklore. The question the analytic philosophers ask themselves, I suspect, or at least this one does, is whether there is something as solid and productive that can be gleaned from phenomenology in the philosophical sense, in addition to its methodological meanderings.

My sense is that phenomenology is enjoying a bit of a resurgence as the professional significance of the Analytic-Continental distinction  continues to erode. I also wonder what “productiveness” is supposed to mean in this context (such that the explanation couldn’t be run in reverse). But I would be glad to hear from others more knowledgeable than I am on these matters.

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Greg Littmann
Greg Littmann
6 years ago

I think that the biggest barrier to the study of phenomenology is that phenomenologists usually use a different jargon to that of most professional philosophers. Regardless of whether they are right to use this jargon or whether analytic philosophers should try harder to understand, this stands in the way of analytic philosophers understanding, and so being interested in, what phenomenologists are saying. I would urge philosophers of both the analytic and continental traditions to produce more work written in (as far as is feasible) ordinary English, in order to aid communication. This is not a call to abandon work written in jargon, which may have legitimate uses.Report

Jonathan Westphal
Reply to  Greg Littmann
26 days ago

Exactly right, Greg! Thank you. That is the answer.Report

Felonius Screwtape
Felonius Screwtape
6 years ago

if someone thinks phenomenology has been “unproductive,” they have a poor grasp of the history of the movement. Phenomenology is by no means limited to or defined by the work of Husserl, or to looking at white surfaces under blue light (a ridiculous example). Several participants in the movement have taken it up and inflected what Husserl laid down each in his or her own way. Without phenomenology, there’s no Heidegger, Sartre, Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, Butler … the list goes on, and it’s a list that analytic devotees will probably not particularly like (even trendy shit like speculative realism owes a huge debt to phenomenology). Phenomenology has given us not only the conceptual vocabulary to talk about consciousness and its intentional acts, which is indeed enjoying a resurgence of interest among those interested in cognitive science or pursuing investigations of the “problem” or “mystery” of consciousness (Chalmers should be paying attention), but has also provided ways to think through the *embodiment* of consciousness, what it means to *be* (not *have*) a body, how bodies are marked by and subjected to any number of invisible vectors (sex, gender, race, class, etc), as well as the role of others (and the Other) in the constitution of subjectivity–and all of these contributions have been immensely important to work done in the last 30 years or so in feminism, queer theory, multiculturalism, critical race theory, etc. On a larger scale, it has generated productive analyses of political oppression, institutions of historical forms of knowledge, formation of idealities without recourse to metaphysical notions, the role of other institutions in shaping the historical present, and new ways of thinking about the ontology and ethics of human being. Moreover, phenomenologically-inspired analyses long ago thought through philosophical problems that have recently been trendy in analytical philosophy (for example, not long ago everyone was abuzz about “supervenience,” a problem Merleau-Ponty addressed in the late 1930s). So, overall, the history of the movement of phenomenology has been, over the last 115 years, immensely productive. To characterize its output as “disappointing” (and to resort to cheap mischaracterizations as examples) is an expression of one’s ignorance of the field.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

Both posts are very bewildering. The question “Because it studies the essence of consciousness is it too continental for your analytic minds?” has the bizarre implication that a defining feature of continental philosophy is either the study of consciousness or the study of essences? And the question fails to notice that many continental philosophers aren’t particularly interested in phenomenology, for example, those interested in German idealism, pre-phenomenological existentialism, Marxism, the Frankfurt School, psychoanalytic theory, many thinkers in the post-structuralist tradition, and so on.

Even many philosophers in the phenomenological tradition are more interesting for aspects of their work that aren’t primarily about “phenomenology”–such as Sartre, Beauvoir, Levinas, and Heidegger. As a continental philosopher, my answer is: I don’t teach or study phenomenology very often because, frankly, I find it pretty boring. There are just so many other topics in continental philosophy that are more exciting and relevant.

When the second post asks “whether there is something *as solid and productive* [emphasis mine] that can be gleaned from phenomenology in the philosophical sense,” it implies that the example of a white surface seen through a blue filter is a paradigmatic example of the “solid and productive” qualities phenomenology lacks. That’s a bizarre implication. On this view, all the recent nattering about a blue and black dress is surely an historical pinnacle of solid and productive thinking.

It doesn’t help, of course, that the post makes a contrast without any attempted description of the key relatum. What is the philosophical sense of phenomenology? How is it different from the non-philosophical one?Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

“Without phenomenology, there’s no Heidegger, Sartre, Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, Butler”

True, all of these thinkers are more interesting for how they reject or depart from the phenomenological tradition than for their continuity. I think part of the decline of phenomenology as a specialized subject is due precisely to the high interest in precisely these figures. (You might as well say: without rationalism, idealism, or empiricisim, there’d be no [anyone later]… Therefore, ‘rationalism’ should be a major research area in philosophy. It’s becoming pure history of philosophy now.)

“… the list goes on, and it’s a list that analytic devotees will probably not particularly like (even trendy shit like speculative realism owes a huge debt to phenomenology).”

But this is falling into the trap the original question set: demanding that our view of phenomenology force us to take sides in the tired analytic vs. continental dispute. And that overlooks an important fact about *continental* philosophy: phenomenology just isn’t a hot topic anymore *there*. So no point in complaining to the analytic philosophers; their position hasn’t changed. It’s continental philosophy that’s changed.Report

nona
nona
6 years ago

Is philosophy philosophically unproductive?Report

Felonius Screwtape
Felonius Screwtape
6 years ago

(1) Your response to this : “Without phenomenology, there’s no Heidegger, Sartre, Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, Butler”

was this: “True, all of these thinkers are more interesting for how they reject or depart from the phenomenological tradition than for their continuity”.

that statement is demonstrably false, certainly for Heidegger, Sartre, Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, and Derrida, which is more than half the list; the others owe a massive debt to phenomenology, and both Foucault and Deleuze acknowledge this, though you have to search for it.

(2) your second claim is misdirected. I merely stated that most analytic devotees probably don’t care much for the names on the list. you will have noted in your careful reading of my post that i have implicitly suggested that phenomenology bridges–or is capable of bridging–the divide in a productive way–or at least there is a lot within phenomenology as a whole that should be of interest to analytic philosophers. Your notion that “continental philosophy has changed” is not incorrect, but it seems predicated on a narrow and rather “hard-core” notion of phenomenology (i.e. Husserl’s descriptive and difficult (sometimes tedious) analyses).Report

anon female grad student
anon female grad student
6 years ago

The main reason here is something like the institutional inertia of analytic philosophy. It’s not a part of that tradition, because it’s not a part of that tradition, and therefore it’s not taught (except in certain departments). We don’t know whether it could be fruitfully engaged with until someone tries it. But such forays are usually not well-rewarded, and difficult because they involves “translating” from one philosophical framework into another.

Butler is someone who bridges the divide, to a degree. Other philosophers might follow her example. It is, as others have indicated above, a rich and fruitful way of thinking.Report

Noelle McAfee
Noelle McAfee
6 years ago

I’m not terribly into phenomenology, but I have to say that one of the most productive philosophy books I’ve read this past year is Lisa Guenther’s book on solitary confinement. She uses phenomenology to show how utterly devastating solitary confinement is to one’s sanity and sense of self. It makes the best case I’ver read to date on why solitary confinement should be banned. http://www.amazon.com/Solitary-Confinement-Social-Death-Afterlives/dp/0816679592 Show me another philosophy book that comes close to being this productive….Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

I agree that the figures on your list are indebted to phenomenology, sometimes owing a massive debt, as you say. However, they are major figures precisely because they went beyond that debt. And precisely to the degree that they went beyond that debt, our increasing interest in them produces a decreasing interest in their forbears.

I agree that phenomenology has been “productive”, but like many philosophical movements, in being productive it has also produced its own successors, which consigns it more and more to historical interest. But the original question as posed was about current research: its historical productivity and importance doesn’t tell us about its present and future importance.

It’s true that I’m thinking of phenomenology in a narrow sense, but that’s because it seems to fit the originally posted question. If we define phenomenology broadly, it’s patently false that “little phenomenology [is] taught and researched in North American philosophy departments.”

For example, from your list, Heidegger, Sartre, Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, are taught and researched in many departments. Foucault and Deleuze are increasingly common. There’s still a strong stigma against Derrida and Butler, but that’s the exception, not the increasing rule.

I’m less optimistic about the bridging potential of phenomenology. In my experience, phenomenology has been the area of continental philosophy that’s most wagon-circling, most resistant to trying to speak across the divide–particularly in its attachment to its jargon, and its unwillingness to talk about its topics except in its style and language. And it’s not obvious to me that its historical insights–and I do think it has important insights–are directly relevant to contemporary questions and analytic questions about consciousness.

For example, what specifically can David Chalmers or similar philosophers learn from philosophers interested in, say, Husserl or Heidegger? I doubt it would be a productive confrontation: it would probably involve phenomenologists lecturing them about how they ignore the embodiment of consciousness, then high-fiving each other and dismissing their philosophical problems of interest rather than helping them better formulate or answer themReport

charlie lassiter
charlie lassiter
6 years ago

I’m not a phenomenologist by any stretch, but it’s also worth noting that it’s been productive in psychology. Shaun Gallagher and Jonathan Cole come to mind as a pair who frontload phenomenological concepts into experimental design. Hell, there’s a whole journal devoted to the interface between phenomenology and cognitive science.Report

Chris
Chris
6 years ago

This is the issue. Phenomenology has its own technical vocabulary and that vocabulary that makes it a challenge to understand without some guidance. Also, much of phenomenology was written in German and French, and those philosophical traditions have certain habits of writing that may frustrate Anglophone philosophers, e.g., word-play, rhetorical flourish, and a deeply ingrained Hegelian essay style (French high schools students are instructed not to write the classic five-paragraph essay but rather the Hegelian trio of thèse-antithèse-synthèse).Report

Felonius Screwtape
Felonius Screwtape
6 years ago

Well, “Anon on Mar 21, 2015 at 12:30 pm,” i would agree that phenomenologists subsequent to Husserl do indeed go beyond Husserl, but if one concludes, as you seem to do (perhaps not for-yourself, but as a symptom of the situation in philosophy today), that subsequent developments obviate and lead one to forget origins and forebears and consign them to mere historical interest, then not only is this a fateful error in understanding (“those who forget history are doomed [not only] to repeat it”) but also it also constitutes the object of an important phenomenological analysis conducted by the later Husserl in texts comprising the “Crisis” (and particularly “The Origin of Geometry”). One simply cannot have a fecund and profound grasp of Derrida et al without phenomenology, and relegating phenomenology to the forgetfulness of the archive is purchased at a great price for any futural philosophy. And it is to performatively repeat a problem that is central to phenomenology as a whole.

In order to demonstrate its present importance, not only would i echo Noelle McAfee’s suggestion of Guenther’s work on the phenomenology of solitary confinement (which will prove to have concrete policy implications in the future), but also add the just-published book on phenomenology and depression (which is not only philosophically interesting but also quite accessible to the non-specialist), as well as Gayle Salamon’s work on transgender bodies and the vast recent literature on the phenomenology of race / racial embodiment / racial identity. These and other recent studies do not simply rehearse the theses of phenomenology in a banal explicative mode; they deploy the phenomenological method and the rich resources generated by the phenomenological movement to investigate contemporary “real-life” problems, and have concrete “actionable” implications. And they are able to do so because the central problems of phenomenology remain *vital* problems, not dusty, moldy museum pieces.

the bridging potential of phenomenology has been there from the beginning. You’ll forgive me for painting with broad strokes here, but Husserl himself developed what we identify as phenomenology from out of a debate with Frege and Marty, and some perceptive people on the analytic side (here i think of Jaako Hintikka as an example) have found that bridge to be a point of productive and generative dialogue (more recently, in France, Jocelyn Benoist has also done so, more from the phenomenological, Husserlian side of things); Ricoeur, French translator of Husserl, spent decades working between phenomenological and analytic approaches to language and meaning. the bridging potential And anecdotally, AJ Ayer once said that Merleau-Ponty was the only contemporary French philosopher with whom he could have a meaningful philosophical conversation. The bridging potential has always been there, and is still there, for example, between phenomenology and cognitive science in work by philosophers like Shaun Gallagher and Dan Zahavi–and that already in my mind is sufficient reason why Chalmers should give it serious consideration. in any case we already know that consciousness does not exist in a vat; it *is* embodied, and that matters. Chalmers knows this, I think, and he’s an open-minded guy, so there’s reason to be optimistic.

It’s unfortunately true that some “tribes” of phenomenologists (notably the orthodox heideggerians, and not merely because of recent “revelations”) often do circle-the-wagons, and that’s quite unfortunate, just as unfortunate as when certain “tribes” of academic philosophers dismiss phenomenology and continental philosophy out of hand, or otherwise poison the atmosphere in public fora. But there are plenty of people on both sides who are open to the other, and phenomenology remains a very good line of communication for them / us.

I must disagree with the last point–your attempt at humor. Phenomenologists are not “cool”; we do not “high-five.”Report

Felonius Screwtape
Felonius Screwtape
6 years ago

Yes, Chris, learning another language — be it French, German, Phenomenologese, or HTML — is difficult and challenging and frustrating and full of technicalities. But why should that be “the issue”? When one becomes a philosopher of any sort, one has to learn that particular language, and i’m sure that “phenomenology” as a language is just as alien to someone as “normative meta-ethics” is to me. I always tell my students that they should want to do something because it is difficult, not because it is easy (with a nod to JFK). So either one learns the other language and tolerates its peculiarities–and it *is* difficult–or one doesn’t. And if one choose, for whatever reason, not to learn that other language, then that’s okay–but it is nowise constitutes a justification to dismiss the other tradition as “incomprehensible” or whatever.Report

Avi
Avi
6 years ago

The original question and answer, together with some of the comments, seem ill-informed. Phenomenology is just one AOS within continental philosophy. Besides historical figures such as Husserl, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty there are contemporary phenomenologists doing important and productive work in what analytic philosophers might call philosophy of mind or cognitive science. Among many current phenomenologists, one might mention Evan Thompson, Dan Zahavi, Shaun Gallagher, Natalie Depraz, and the late Francisco Varela. There is a journal published by Springer called “Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences.”Report

kt
kt
6 years ago

Charles Taylor illuminates the importance of phenomenology usefully, as an attempt to overcome the over-emphasis on epistemology in Western philosophy that goes beyond mere anti-foundationalism: https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/us/taylor.htm

Phenomenology will only appear unproductive to someone who remains firmly within the epistemological tradition.Report

Analytic Grad Student
Analytic Grad Student
6 years ago

Uhhh… so it is not just a random coincidence that phenomenology is not popular in analytic philosophy. Remember that the positivists were really into phenomenology for a while. Or rather, they were into interpreting scientific theories in terms of sense data, etc. That was part of their empiricism. Then Carnap, Sellars, Quine and others in the analytic tradition argued that there was no real benefit to describing the world in phenomenological rather than physical terms. On the contrary, it many costs. Obviously the second factor was the physicalism of the early analytics. Since phenomenology wasn’t a useful way to describe the world, they weren’t interested in it because they had no interest in conscious experience. So it isn’t just some random unquestioned dogma of analytic philosophers. (Well… it might be for many young analytic philosophers who are unaware of the history of analytic philosophy.)

That being said, I think analytics need to reconsider phenomenology … narrowly construed as a methodology of studying mental states based upon introspection. There are two reasons for this. First, it has a direct bearing upon issues in psychology and the philosophy of mind. It is utterly bizarre that philosophers of mind would refuse to use introspection as a method when investigating the nature of mental states. I could understand why eliminative materialists would refuse to do this, but eliminative materialists comprise a very small proportion of philosophers of mind.

The second reason is that phenomenology is going to be relevant to conceptual analysis. Note that some inchoate appeal to semantic externalism is no help here. It may be that the meanings of our terms are fixed collectively by how society uses them. But this is a bit of a non sequitur. Phenomenology can reveal the way we make judgments (assuming the phenomenologist is not psychologically constituted in very different way from everyone else). If the meaning of a term is fixed by the totality of judgments made by people who use the term then understanding what drives these judgments will be directly relevant to ascertaining the meaning of the term in question.

Since the 1970s, analytics have become more and more reliant upon a methodology in which some weird notion of intuition as a sort of all-encompassing mental faculty is used as evidence. [I am ignoring Cappelen, as his argument assumes a sort of strange absolutist notion of evidence where the only two options are (1) philosopher’s arguments rely only on intuitions and nothing else or (2) they do not rely on intuitions at all.] I think it is pretty clear from introspection that the judgments in various cases (e.g., Gettier cases vs. statue-lump cases) have radically different phenomenal characters and that it is unlikely that there is anything close to some unified psychological faculty of intuition. I also think it is clear that we have been driven to posit such a notion of because we are unwilling to analyze our different judgments about various cases phenomenologically. And THIS refusal is due to ideological inertia.

The early analytics’ critiques of phenomenology were apt given their specific interests. But since we no longer share those interests it is simply an act of unreflective dogmatism to vaguely say that “so-and-so showed that phenomenology is useless” without even knowing what the specific argument of so-and-so was. Alas, this seems to be a go-to maneuver in analytic philosophy. E.g. metaphysican who vaguely appeals to Quine’s criticisms of analyticity in order to defend the substantivity of her account of propositions, not realizing that those same arguments directly imply skepticism about meaning and thereby undercut the entire motivation for her theory.Report

Thomas
Thomas
6 years ago

As many comments already pointed out, there is plenty of work going on in the intersection of empirically informed Phil. of Psychology/Mind and Phenomenology. One might also add Social Ontology/Collective Intentionality as a topic where an exchange between Analytic Philosophy and Phenomenology takes place. Generally speaking, I think that with the decline of “lingualist” theories in Philosophy of Mind and the emergence of extended/embodied theories of cognition the once clear cut boundaries between the Analytic and the Phenomenological tradition tends to blur. One might also add that many of the younger Phenomenologists also have a good grasp about the current debates in Analytic Philosophy and their style of writing has also adapted a bit to the current demands.
Still, this new style of Phenomenology seems to be somewhat restricted to a few universities in Europe. Especially the UK Oxbridge powerhoues and the “Leiterific” departments in the US have very little people working in those areas. Maybe the Continental/Analytic divide is still stronger than many people claim it to be.Report

Christopher Brock
6 years ago

I was fortunate enough to study phenomenology while I attended SUNY Stony Brook. Having professor’s like Donn Welton, Don Ihde, and Purushottma Bilimoria at Stony Brook, I can honestly say that Stony Brook has a strong phenomenology program in comparison to most schools in North America. From what I can tell, American universities failed to translate German, French and Austrian works from WW1-WW2 up through about 1980. Kant’s legacy made it to the USA, as did Nietzsche and Freud but Husserl, Brentano, Stein, Ponty, Sartre, Levinas, Derrida, etc did not get translated until much later and with the academic rigor needed for discourse. Heidegger seems to get much of the attention but is impenetrable without Husserl ‘s phenomenological foundations and can not be detached from his Nazi association, which is also problematic to universities. To the question, is it unproductive? Not only would I say it is a nonsensical question, phenomenology may well out perform traditional analytic philosophy in the near future. Just take for example the impact of Karol Wojtyla (Saint Pope JPII)’s work for Catholic Theology. Another successful use case that I benefit from personally, is the role that the phenomenological method offers to digital marketers and tech evangelists like myself that have built careers applying phenomenological processes to understand people and how to profit in the Intentional economy.Report

Rebecca Harrison
Rebecca Harrison
6 years ago

“Felonious Screwtape” seems to have most of what I would say covered, but I would like to add: “phenomenology has produced so disappointingly little” is the sort of claim that is not only factually wrong (as far as I can tell, unless you’re doing some kind of weird gerrymandering with the definition of “produced” here), but it’s also the sort of claim that one stares at in wide-eyed disbelief if you have actually been paying much attention to “phenomenology.”

As a historical movement, it has obviously been hugely influential on all sorts of later thinkers, including other “productive” philosophers *and* lots of non-philosophers (scholars from other disciplines, as well as writers, artists, etc). You can even think that that is an utterly disastrous thing and still have to agree that phenomenology as a movement has certainly been *productive.* And even if you think it IS a movement that has already been relegated to the archives of intellectual history (I don’t), this is not enough to explain a lack of attention to it in philosophy departments. What makes phenomenology different from, say, early modern rationalism or empiricism, which (despite being largely wrong about things, and solidly tucked away in an entirely different historical era from the one we are now in) still enjoy a considerable amount of scholarly attention?

In its contemporary form, phenomenology has *already* had a lot of interaction with “analytic” philosophy, especially (but not only) analytic philosophy of mind, in ways that have been hugely productive and, frankly, just plain interesting. People here are discussing the issue as if that has yet to happen — it is happening now, and anyone who now bemoans the alleged unwillingness of phenomenologists to engage in discussion with “analytic” philosophy either hasn’t been paying attention or has had the misfortune of talking to a very narrow and unrepresentative sample of phenomenologists. If nothing else, Dreyfus’s “What Computers Can’t Do” is over 40 years old! And, as others have mentioned, there has been a strong upsurge in activity surrounding the interface between phenomenology and philosophy of mind over the last 20 years or so. “The Embodied Mind” (Varela, Thompson, & Rosch) was published in 1991. Even Alva Noë’s book “Action in Perception” is already over 10 years old, includes thanks to many apparent “analytic” philosophers in the acknowledgements (e.g. Searle), and opens with an epigraph from Merleau-Ponty (“The theory of the body is already a theory of perception”).

Even if the aforementioned stuff is Not Your Bag, I find it hard to imagine a defensible definition of “productive” that would make “Phenomenology has produced so disappointingly little” true.Report

Chris
Chris
6 years ago

I don’t disagree with you Felonius. People only have so much intellectual energy, and access to guides on phenomenology are limited among Anglophone philosophers. I think that that helps explain why philosophers in North America are less likely to pursue it (per the original question). I am not suggesting anyone dismiss phenomenology.Report

Colin
Colin
6 years ago

Part of the problem with the question (as posed by the questioner) and Jonathan Westphal’s response is that they are using the term phenomenology differently. I can think of three different uses of the word phenomenology. Westphal discusses a non-philosophical use of the term phenomenology as the “preliminary classification of phenomena in an enquiry.” Wesphal’s use seems in line with discussions in physics in which data is consistent with a theory but not derived from it. A second use use of the term phenomenology is in philosophy of mind. For example, in debates over qualia, you hear David Chalmers say things like “when I consult my phenomenology,” by which he means the purely subjective “what it’s like” to experience something.

Both uses of the term phenomenology are different from the use of the term by Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, Beauvoir, etc. So really Westphal’s response is a non-sequitur. I think it would be disengenuous for me to say what phenomenology is in this last sense because it refers to a tradition much like analysis refers to a tradition. But I also think it pretty irresponsible of Westphal to dismiss a tradition without having done the scholarly work of seeing if the use of the term phenomenology in that tradition is the same as the use he is familiar with.Report

Felonius Screwtape
Felonius Screwtape
6 years ago

yes sorry, Chris, i wasn’t accusing you of holding the position you describe. but i do frequently hear this kind of argument (and i exaggerate only modestly) that “continental philosopher x is incomprehensible because of his language and unclear expression, therefore he is wrong, and his thought and everything associated with it should be rejected.” more succinctly, it reads “i don’t understand, and it’s the philosopher’s fault.” i’m not sure what kind of logical fallacy it is when one projects one’s own inadequacies onto the object and gives it agency, but that’s what it is. we seem close to agreement on that.Report

Jonathan Westphal
6 years ago

Perhaps what I wrote on the post on askphilosophers.org was too brief. To clarify, and answer part of what Colin wrote above, I meant that there are two senses of “phenomenology”. (No doubt there are more than two, of course, though I am not sure about Chalmers’ use as described by Colin.) I meant the example of the white surface seen through a blue filter to be a piece of phenomenology in the non-philosophical OED sense of “preliminary classification of phenomena”. In this sense David Katz was a phenomenologist. The observation about the way white surfaces look is a record and preliminary classification of a phenomenon. It was phenomenology in the other and larger philosophical sense that I meant had disappointing results, and I did not at all mean to suggest that phenomenology in the sense in which Husserl is a phenomenologist is phenomenology in the non-philosophical OED sense. I meant to distinguish the two senses. A.J. Ayer had written, as part of an argument for sense-data, that white things seen through blue spectacles look blue. I told him that this is false, mentioning adaptation as the explanation. His response was interesting. ‘Oh’, he said, ‘One takes these things on trust.’Report

Colin
Colin
6 years ago

Hi Jonathan, thanks for you clarification. I appreciate your disambiguation. When you say that (what you are calling) the philosophical)l use of phenomenology is broader than the philosophical use, do you mean that the philosophical use is somehow incorporated within the non-philosophical use?
If so, I would resist that characterization. I see very little overlap between these two uses of phenomenology.Report

Colin Cmiel
Colin Cmiel
6 years ago

I think that only giving a negative use of phenomenology is probably not fair, so I’m going to give a brief, broad (so broad as to be tendentious) description of phenomenology (as I think of it). I see phenomenology as done by Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty etc. as engaged in questions like: how is it that anything can show up at all in perception, how is it that our concepts can be evaluated for their truth or falsity, how is it that our movements can be actions. All of these questions have a distinctly Kantian/post-Kantian flavor. They can be thought of as arising out of (what James Conant calls) Kantian skepticism. In Kantian skepticism, one is not skeptical about the truth of one’s beliefs or the veridicality of one’s perceptions (as in Cartesian skepticism); rather, one is skeptical about the possibility of our beliefs being candidates for truth and falsity (what Kant calls objective validity), or in the possibility that anything can show up to us at all in experience, whether dreaming or not.

Taking the Kantian lineage seriously, the ‘phenomena’ in phenomenology does not refer to appearances, in the sense of how things merely seem to us; rather, it refers to reality (including the merely apparent), i.e., anything we can perceive, meaningfully talk about etc. Consequently, phenomenology is in the same sort of post-Kantian tradition as John McDowell or even (in some interpretations) Wittgenstein.Report

Jonathan Westphal
6 years ago

No, I agree with you Colin. I think that there is considerably more to the wider philosophical use than to the cut-and-dried non-philosophical one, with rather little overlap. As I read it, phenomenology in the philosophical sense owes a lot to Hegel and is pretty metaphysical in orientation. I suppose I was thinking (though I didn’t say it) that perhaps philosophical phenomenology could benefit from a dose of non-philosophical phenomenology. I can imagine a good philosopher doing phenomenology in this way and actually making it work, say in the phenomenology of time or color.Report

anon
anon
6 years ago

As an empirically oriented analytic philosopher who has tried very hard to engage with contemporary phenomenologists, I want to speak to the notion that analytical philosophers and cognitive scientists must do a better job understanding phenomenology to engage with it.

While there is something to this, it cuts both ways. But phenomenologists are in generally very bad at articulating their views in a manner that appreciates the developments in analytical philosophy and cognitive science. Indeed – leading phenomenologists regularly exhibit the entire array of presentational flaws that we try to beat out of our students.

Analytic philosophers and cognitive scientists should do what they can to engage, of course. But they should not have to abandon clarity of argument and rigor. Likewise, they should not have to leave behind the same critical stance that they usually deploy.

If phenomenologists want to make the case that the movement remains relevant, they must as a minimum explicate their views in a manner that it is open to criticism. But contemporary phenomenologists do not do a good job in meeting this minimal requirement. This, I think, is the is the main reason for the fact that the movement is so widely regarded as suspect or outmoded by analytical philosophers or cognitive scientists.Report

Christian Coseru
6 years ago

As Rebecca Harrison and “Felonious Screwtape” have already noted, questions about the relevance and productivity of phenomenologically-informed philosophical work are either preposterous (okay, vestiges of an increasingly blurry analytic-continental divide, to be a bit more charitable) or bespeak ignorance of the contemporary literature on the topic. If anything, the phenomenological literature is burgeoning. Oxford put out three years ago a handsome _Handbook of Contemporary Phenomenology (edited by Dan Zahavi), that brings together the current state of the art on the topic. It’s been ten years now since David Woodruff Smith and Amie L. Thomasson edited their collection _Phenomenology and Philosophy of Mind_ (also with OUP). Talk about productivity: how about the new interesting work on “cognitive phenomenology” (see the edited volume by Tim Bayne and Michelle Montague, OUP 2011) exploring the phenomenology of thought in ways that complements analytic work on things like phenomenal and propositional content (a fine collection on conceptual and empirical approaches in phenomenology and philosophy of mind exploring a similar range of topics is coming out from Routledge later this year). And what about the whole literature on embodied and enactive cognition from Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, Shaun Gallagher and Alva Noë, to name but a few? Or the growing literature on intentionality, perception, self-awareness and phenomenal consciousness (think, again, of work by Taylor Carman, Natalie Depraz, John Drummond, Uriah Kriegel, Elizabeth Pacherie, Charles Siewert, Woodruff Smith, and Dan Zahavi)? Or the recent work on temporality, subjectivity, empathy, selfhood, gender, and on the whole issues of phenomenology and the project of naturalization? Lastly, in recent years there have been interesting cross-cultural work that brings Indian and Buddhist philosophy in conversation with debates in phenomenology and analytic philosophy of mind (see the _Self No-Self: Perspectives from Analytic, Phenomenological and Indian Traditions_ edited by Siderits, Thompson, and Zahavi, OUP 2011). I actually ran (with Jay Garfield and Evan Thompson) and NEH Summer Institute on this very topic three years ago (http://coseruc.people.cofc.edu/investigatingconsciousness/).

True, there isn’t much phenomenology taught in top ranked heavily analytic departments, but that’s just a statement about the sociology of our profession, not about the productivity of a particular research program.Report

Rebecca Harrison
Rebecca Harrison
6 years ago

Anon 7PM — I would be interested to see examples of the sort of “presentational flaws” &c. that you have in mind, if that’s possible to do without being impolite. It’s not at all that I don’t believe you — I just genuinely don’t see it, or don’t see it often enough to discourage me about “phenomenology” in general, and would like to know what exactly people are talking about when they (fairly often) make claims like this. (I’m totally willing to believe that I don’t see it because my reading and interactions are limited, by myself or by various circumstantial factors, to “the good ones” or some such — and even if that’s not the case, it would be informative to see what in particular gives “empirically oriented analytic philosophers” who are trying to engage in good faith with phenomenology a hard time).Report

Filippo Contesi
Filippo Contesi
6 years ago

The argument that phenomenology has proven less productive than analytic philosophy is an old one and was also made by Dummett (I seem to recall it was in _Origins of analytical philosophy_ though I may be wrong).Report

Colin Cmiel
Colin Cmiel
6 years ago

Jonathan, I’m glad we agree! Your comment about David Katz is interesting and got me thinking. I think that Merleau-Ponty correctly thought of Kurt Koffka as engaging in a similar type of project. This comes out clearest in The Principles of Gestalt Psychology when Koffka raises his famous question: why do things look the way they do. He differentiates two ways of answering the question. First, what is required for anything to show up at all; second, what is required for things to show up veridically. The first question of response resembles a response to what I called Kantian skepticism, and the second question resembles a response to Cartesian skepticism. Koffka goes on to describe a series of experiments in which he tries to find the minimal perceptual experience, and then more complicated perceptual experiences, etc. Koffka’s experiments seem to me to be at least proto-phenomenological in both senses of the term (with the caveat that Koffka is ultimately some kind of physicalist, and so not really a phenomenologist).Report

J. Edward Hackett
J. Edward Hackett
6 years ago

While I won’t dive knee deep into this thread nor reveal anything too substantive about what follows, I will say that the book I will be co-editing with J. Aaron Simmons entitled “Phenomenology for the 21st Century” is an active update to this old debate. Our book will appear probably sometime in 2015 if all goes according to plan. We have many talented scholars signed onto this project and also some analytic people that interact with phenomenology, and it will be an assessment to the future possibilities of phenomenology.

With that said, I will say that I find this debate in need of clarification. The naysayers and the pro-phenomenologists are weighing into a debate without really first outlining the contours of disagreement. The naysayers of phenomenology are not spelling out their metaphilosophical beliefs about what philosophy can do, and those committed to rehabilitating phenomenology for some purpose are not really spelling out their metaphilosophical beliefs about philosophy can do. There is a “sense” here that what is organizing the intellectual labor of philosophy reflects these metaphilosophical beliefs in some way parallels the Analytic/Continental Divide or the Natural/Phenomenological Attitude divide (though that would be too simplistic, I think, personally). Some, here, might think that philosophy must assist science, be parallel with the natural world, and be science’s handmaiden. While I realize that claim is ambiguous (as it is meant to be for the purpose of a blog thread), it does enough to start really asking how much of phenomenology can be rehabilitated within an atmosphere of near-scientism.

Phenomenology, on the other hand, invites us to reflect upon the givenness of experience and develops its unique jargon to describe the qualitative richness of experience. To see phenomenology as making headway on that effort one must already be open to the merits of describing the phenomena we experience. Because, as an earlier poster already noted, there are many ways to define “phenomenology”, a charitable presentation of phenomenology (not included in Westphal’s comments above) would define it appropriately through intentional experience and not the Nagelian sense of what-it’s-likeness. Experience is thematized and cuts all the way down for the phenomenologist. Without the metaphilosophical belief that describing experience is worthy of philosophical attention, one can help themselves to the belief that its not worthy of philosophy overall very easily.Report

Jonathan Westphal
6 years ago

Very interesting Colin. I want to think about this. By the way, I included the little tale about Ayer because it seemed to me he could have used a little phenomenology in both of our senses at that point.Report

Victor
Victor
6 years ago

La respuestas que otorga la fenomenología no están muy comprometidas con la realidad, no se diferencian mucho de las opiniones y la literatura.Mientras sigan por este camino, los fenomenólogos seguirán siendo citados por disciplinas artísticas y por pre-ciencias como el psicoanálisis.Report

Jonathan Westphal
6 years ago

I wrote in the original post on askphilosophers.org that the fact that a white surface seen in a blue light looks white is an example of phenomenology in the non-philosophical sense (“a preliminary classification of the phenomena”), not that it is an example of phenomenology in a second and philosophical sense, the sense in which Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, among others, are said to be phenomenologists. It seems to me that my example is a good example of phenomenology in the _first_ sense, and that when Felonius Screwtape writes that it is “a ridiculous example”, the reading may perhaps be that I meant “phenomenology” in the second sense. If so, Screwtape’s reading is a mistaken one, and the example really isn’t “a cheap mischaracterization”, since it is not a characterization of phenomenology in the second sense at all. Besides, interesting observations of this sort were exactly the kind given by phenomenological vision scientists such as David Katz, for example his claim that there is a phenomenon such as “volume color”, in which colours manifest themselves with a kind of depth, so that one can look _into_ the color. So I am not persuaded that the two senses have nothing to do with one another.Report

Felonius Screwtape
Felonius Screwtape
6 years ago

That’s fine Jonathan Westphal, you’ve disambiguated that in your other comments above, though it’s unreasonable to take me to task for a “mistaken” reading given the way your claims were initially stated in an admittedly ambiguous and unclear manner. i don’t have much interest in this “non-philosophical sense” of phenomenology, which makes no sense to me, and i’m unclear why it merits so much attention. It seems like a red herring.

But, as far i can tell, what you have yet to disambiguate — or better, retract — is the claim that phenomenology has produced “so disappointingly little,” which remains a ridiculous claim based on ignorance of the tradition. If by it you mean this “non-philosophical sense of phenomenology,” then it’s an empty claim as well, since such a sense is precisely non-philosophical and ipso facto non-phenomenological, in either a narrow or broad sense. So, do you really want to maintain that claim?Report

tonyv
tonyv
6 years ago

This entire debate seems to be narrowly focused on what is going on strictly within Philosophy departments and cognition curricula at a few “major” campuses around the world and thus is entirely ignoring the way philosophical thought is diffused throughout the full range of the human educational experience. In order to truly judge the effectiveness, productiveness, or influence of any particular philosophical school, -ism, or -ology at any given time requires a much wider examination of modern social connectivity and communication. I think that when you broaden the spectrum of research a bit, you will find that the phenomenologists are currently quoted, cited, and referenced in bibliography and other media accreditations just as often, if not more often, than any other “-ism”. Phenomenology is still alive and well in a wider context – as are all the rest of the major methodologies. Philosophy needs to be evaluated from the broadest and most universal perspective possible – after all, the ‘Ph.D.” is not just limited to the Philosophy department.Report

Joe
Joe
6 years ago

Hey, why don’t we just cycle through each sub-field and have someone write a post denying that field X has made any progress, whereupon there can be an oh-so-provocative Daily Nous thread called “Has X been Philosophically Unproductive?” That seems like more fun than marking papers.Report

David Macauley
David Macauley
Reply to  Joe
25 days ago

Yes, this thread is more fundamentally about the anxiety of (overly) professional indoor philosophers who quietly worry about the fact that their work is not read, discussed, or relevant to a very broad audience. It seems at least as much of a problem with the analytic crowd as with phenomenologists and Continental thinkers. Oh, the fear of being consigned to oblivion … despite the immense lifelong effort to avoid that fate. Practically no one can write themselves into eternity, despite the ongoing illusion that it is possible. Hey, how about a phenomenology of impermanence (anicca; अनिच्चा)?Report

Colin Cmiel
Colin Cmiel
6 years ago

Jonathan, thanks for clarifying your remark about Ayer too. I agree that Ayer could have used more phenomenology (but I bet that had he taken phenomenology seriously, he may have found defending sense data much harder).

I completely agree with your point about Katz. Two points about Katz: first, his distinction between volume colors, surface colors, and the third kind which escapes me at the moment is discussed in Phenomenology of Perception and is used as a reason to reject a dualism of sensation and interpretation (i.e., the constancy hypothesis); second, the debate between Katz and Adhemar Gelb presents another less obvious overlap of the two phenomenologies: Katz (originally) endorsed sensation and interpretation, with the interpretation “transforming” the sensation in non-normal illumination so that constancy is maintained. Gelb demonstrated (using Katz’s own methods!) that constancy is no less of a problem in normal illumination than in non-normal illumination. The second point, suggests that Katz could also have used more phenomenology.

These points suggest at least that some phenomenologists (in the philosophical sense) are interested in phenomenology (in the scientific sense). And, I think that there have been some scientists (at least Kurt Koffka) who have been interested in phenomenology in the philosophical sense while engaging in phenomenology in the scientific sense.Report

Jonathan Westphal
6 years ago

And that’s a good thing.Report

Jonathan Westphal
6 years ago

Surface, film and volume “modes of vision”. The third mode of colour vision gives the “film” (or “aperture”) colour, which have a “frontal” character that surface colors don’t, necessarily. The color of a clear blue sky is a film colour, though for me it can merge into a volume color at the zenith.Report

Felonius Screwtape
Felonius Screwtape
6 years ago

right … so apparently jonathan westphal refuses to retract his claim that phenomenology has produced “so disappointingly little” even as he continues to discuss his non-philosophical and ipso facto non-phenomenological example of phenomenology, and despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. disappointingly little, indeed.Report

Jonathan Westphal
6 years ago

Felonius Screwtape, in post #36, has me admitting that my original claims in the askphilosophers.net post were stated “ambiguous and unclear manner”. What I actually wrote in post #23 was that ‘Perhaps what I wrote on the post on askphilosophers.net was too brief. To clarify, and answer part of what Colin wrote above, I meant that there are two senses of “phenomenology”. (No doubt there are more than two, of course . . .)’ I wrote this “perhaps” and “to clarify” out of sheer politeness to Screwtape, to soften the blow, and to save him embarrassment, because he was muddled (in post #2), about what was going on with the two senses of “phenomenology”. He had written in post #2 that ‘if someone thinks phenomenology has been “unproductive,” they have a poor grasp of the history of the movement. Phenomenology is by no means limited to or defined by the work of Husserl, or to looking at white surfaces under blue light (a ridiculous example). Several participants in the movement have taken it up and inflected what Husserl laid down each in his or her own way.’ He is claiming that phenomenology in the philosophical sense, the philosophical movement, is not limited to Husserl’s work, which is true, and that looking at white surfaces under blue light is “a ridiculous example” of phenomenology in the philosophical sense. He had not read my original post properly. I wrote, ‘So one might for example regard it as a piece of phenomenology in this non-philosophical sense [emphasis added] to say that a white surface seen . . .’
Here is one of the examples I had in mind of the way in which phenomenology is disappointing to me (from Husserl, Phenomenology of Internal Time-Consciousness).

We speak here of “running-off phenomena” [Ablaufsphänomene], or better yet of “modes of temporal orientation”, and with reference to the immanent Objects themselves of their “running-off characters” (e.g. now, past). With regard to the running-off phenomenon, we know that it is a continuity of constant transformations which form an an inseparable unity, not severable into parts which could be by themselves nor divisible into phases, points of the continuity, which could be by themselves. The parts which by a process of abstraction we can throw into relief can be only in the entire running-off. This is also true of the phases and points of continuity of running-off. It is evident that we can also say of this continuity that in certain ways it is unalterable as to form. It is unthinkable that the continuity of phases would be such that it contained the same phase-mode twice or indeed contained it extended over an entire part interval. Just as every temporal point (and every temporal interval) is, so to speak, different from every other “individual” point and cannot occur twice, so also no mode of running-off can occur twice. However, we shall carry out our analysis still further here and hence must make our distinctions clear.
To begin with, we emphasize that modes of running-off of an immanent temporal Object have a beginning, that is to say, a source-point. This is the mode of running off with which the immanent Object begins to be. It is characterized as now. In the continuous line of advance, we find something remarkable, namely that every subsequent phase of running-off is itself a continuity, and one constantly expanding, a continuity of pasts. The continuity of modes of running-off of the duration of the Object we contrast to the continuity of the modes of running-off of each point of the duration which obviously is enclosed in the continuity of htose irst modes of running-off; therefore, the continuity of running-off of an enduring Object is a continuum whose phases are the continua of the modes of running-off of the different temporal points of the duration of the Object. If we go along the concrete continuity, we advance in continuous modifications, and in the process the mode of running off is constantly modified, i.e., along the continuity of running off of the temporal parts concerned. Since a new now is always presenting itself, each now is changed into a past, and thus the entire continuity of the running-off of the pasts of the preceding points moves uniformly “downward” into the depths of the past.

Husserl gives a diagram with a series of “now-points” (a line OE) moving along in a horizontal line, sinking down (a line OE’) Herabsinken) in a vertical direction, with a “now-point EE’”, a continuum of phases, a (“now-point with horizon of the past”), and a point E, which is a series of nows which possibly will be filled with other Objects. If it is a phase containing a series of immanent objects, they may have one noetic core through time.
Husserl suggests, perfectly reasonably though without argument, that getting more and more past consists of a continuity that is a unity; that such a time, for example a minute, cannot be divided in reality; that no two hours are the same hour; that no transformation of next Monday into next Tuesday can be repeated; that things sink deeper into the past as time goes on. And so Husserl goes on, and on. It is this sort of parade of inflated trivialities that I find so disappointing in phenomenology, because I believe that the phenomenology of time is interesting and perhaps even subtle, that there is much to say about it, and that the relation of such a phenomenology to science is an important one to get right. Disappointment presupposes and expectation. One has only to see Wittgenstein struggling with the phenomenology of colour, in _Remarks on Colour_, to see the tremendous excitement of the thing. To then read Husserl’s bland pomposities is to experience a definite bit of _herabsinken_. I make this last observation as a phenomenological one.Report

Felonius Screwtape
Felonius Screwtape
6 years ago

i’ll be brief since i’m jetlagged : it’s impossible to take seriously the claim that my reading was “muddled” when you confess that your statement of it was unclear and ambiguous and required disambiguation and clarification which was provided only long after my comment (#2). moreover, you remain exclusively with your own example–which you admit is either non-phenomenological or non-philosophical, i’ve lost track, and presumably because you have an axe to grind with the very narrow slice of Husserl’s work from which you draw your example—that phenomenology has produced relatively little. so not only do you not retract your statement, you actually double down on it, and insult me along the way. to which i would say : don’t blame me for your own failings and don’t patronize me for your own inadequacies.Report

Jonathan Westphal
6 years ago

Have a look at: http://philosophycommons.typepad.com/flickers_of_freedom/2015/03/phenomenology-of-free-agency.html , following a suggestion of Joe’s that the phenomenology of freewill is worth taking an interest in.Report

Jonathan Westphal
6 years ago

Just to make the point again, here is “the phenomenology of free agency” from the flickers of freedom post, above:

(1) The apparent transparency of consciousness—i.e., the feeling that we have immediate, direct, and infallible access to our own mental states and processes.
(2) The feeling that our intentional states arise spontaneously and are causally undetermined (or determined only by the agent)—in contrast to our sensory states, which are experienced as caused by states of the world.
(3) Our sense of a unified self as the author of behavior. [There are at least two distinct sub-features that should be identified here: (3a) a feeling of ownership, and (3b) a feeling of authorship. As I will discuss below, these features can come apart.]
(4) The feeling of conscious will—i.e., the feeling that we (sometimes) consciously cause or initiate behavior directly through our conscious intentions, decisions, and willings.

In the past (1)-(4) would have been regarded as difficult and even tricky but certainly controversial propositions for elucidation and analysis, and not either the basis or the result of a phenomenological method and subsequent methodologically based enquiry.Report

Hollycopter
Hollycopter
5 years ago

Why should anyone want to do something solely because it is difficult? you can waste an awful lot of lives that way, IMHO.Report