“Giving Away the Metaphor,” by Firuz Kutal
Phenomenology is often credited with broadening the range of discussion of what is involved in perception. But what philosophical issues does it really resolve? One major aim of the phenomenological movement is its attempt to resolve philosophical issues about subjectivity as a way to find a sure footing for knowledge. Husserl attempted to find a way to ground our experience in the surest possible way. The simple answer was to embrace our subjective experience as that ground and as the only possible ground for evaluating our experiences. But certainly not everyone has felt that subjetivity was sufficient : certainly Descartes, for example, wanted to get beyond subjectivity as the ground of experience. Later, Husserl discussed expanding the range of subjedtive experience into the realm of intersubjectivity. Are there any compelling reasons for discontent with subjectivity?
Descartes, again, provides a foil. Descartes famously attempted to find an objective basis for his subjective experiences in his faith in a benevolent God (one who would not decieve him). To many, such an approach might appear extravagant, but it should be remembered that a) Descartes most likely did believe in God and b)his whole project was about finding a once-and-for-all objective basis for knowledge. At worst, his appraoch makes objectivity possible for those who believe in God. But that doesn’t seem to satisfy philosophical minds who don’t buy his proofs for the existence of God. But why was objectivity important for Descartes in the first place?
What he was after was a special kind of knowledge-a knowledge the truth of which could not possibly be doubted. Such a knowledge would be based upon inbuditable first principles. Its value? We could KNOW things. But what on earth does such KNOWING amount to when it comes to our sensory experiences? Apparently, that when I see a tree, I not only know a) that I am seeing a tree (uncontroversial) and b) (more exciting) that THERE REALLY IS A TREE THERE. It seems odd to think that our subjective experiences couldn’t take us to that knowledge (can’t I just feel it, taste it, smell it, etc. to confirm its existence?). Answer: not if you are Renee Descartes, who has found ways to doubt the truth of such experiences. But if you are Descartes, presumably you can also reflect that God wouldn’t decieve you and that, therefore, there IS a tree there.
Is there anyone who does not find this silly? It is, nevertheless, a problem that those who followed Descartes had to deal with and is, arguably, the setting for the split between continental and analytic philosophers. Continental philosophers who follow Husserl bracket the question of the existence of their perceptions, putting it outside the parameters of what we can know. Analytic philosophers often assume (e.g. Russell) that everyday objects do generally exist unless everyday perception can falsify that fact. One can go further back: John Locke assumes that everyday objects must generally exist since something must have caused our perceptions. Russell agreed that the problem was insoluble. What, then does this dispute amount to?
Both sides agree that the problem of whether objects exist outside our perception is insoluble, but one side decides to assume that everyday objects exist whereas the other refuses to do so. The Husserlians might claim to be more firmly grounded since they do not make an unwarranted assumption, but do so at the cost of maintaining a worldview that doesn’t even embrace the real existence of the phenomena they find present in it.
Husserl attempted to bridge the gap between subjectivity and objectivity through the idea of intersubjective analogical experience, with special implications for the realm of aesthetics. A difficultly for this view is that it doesn’t take into account that there are certain things that we can never fully grasp even by analogy. Qualia are an example: no matter how empathetic one might feel, one may never really know what it is like to feel another person’s depression (or itch, or pain, etc.). There remain gaps in our experience that leave us bereft (if it does matter to us) of any possibility of knowing certain things as they are in themselves that limit the boundaries of intersubjectivity that only add to the question of existence that must, at the end of the day, also be bracketed. Many people who study Phenomenolgy, however, do seem to think that it has put the question to rest by focusing our attention on the phenomena as they exist (in the mode of their presentation to us as existing phenomena (as it were)). But Husserl explicitly brackets the question of existence and thus, in fairness to Husserl himself, it should be said that Phenomenology does not claim to solve the problem. A preliminary question then is, if Phenomenology does not claim to solve this problem, does it make any progress toward solving it by bracketing it? The answer should be straightforard. If it does not, and it merely takes objects “as if” they really exsited, is it not making the same assumption as analytic philosophers do? Analytic philosophers (Russell et al.) do not attempt to answer the question and thus bracket it in their own way. They assume that objects exist. Don’t their views on the problem of perception and existence really amount to the same thing in that case? Lastly, if that is so, what greater claim to knoweldge, based upon its method, can phenomenology claim to make, besides the many caveats it enters against “objectivity” on the side of our subjetive experience? While such caveats as the need for an awareness of the way that the past experience of an individual shapes his/her present experience are enlightening in some ways, do such caveats take us closer to the firmly grounded basis for knowledge that Phenomenolgy aspires to?