The Basic Conflict Between Phenomenology and Empiricism and Why it Matters

Photo by the author, Gem Lapin Beaucoup
Perhaps someone can explain exactly how phenomenology is actually different from phenomenalism when it comes to the question of objectivity. I think that the only difference might be Huserl’s idea about intersubjectivity-but that is consistent with phenomenalism. At the core of each is the idea that perception is the only foundation for objectivity. The move that empiricists would want to make is to say that there must be some grounding for our subjectivity that must ground our perception of the world whether we perceive it or not.
The existence of things in the world, in other words, can’t just depend on our perception of them. Is this a trap that phenomenalism and phenomenology fall into? It does seem that intersubjectivity involves the presumption that someone must perceive an object in order for it to be considered a reality. I don’t think it manages to avoid Hume’s more objectionable skepticism about unperceived objects, in other words.
Intersubjectivity seems about as good as it gets if you want to take phenomena as the basis for reality, however, since it is basically consistent with science. And yet it does seem to fall into the trap of Cartesian skepticism that perception makes the world rather than the other way around, or that it is our perception that validates the existence of things rather than that it is the existence of things that validates our perception. The trap being simply that no actual world apart from my perception needs to exist at all for the phenomenological viewpoint to follow. In other words my reality is consistent with a dream if the phenomenologist is right.

Some Thoughts on the Postmodern Critique of Enlightenment

Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightnment is a now classic source for the critique of the modern-era enlightenment ideal.

In the second half of the twentieth century there was either pessimism about or else just outright rejection of the ideal of “enlightenment,” a concept which could be characterized as the foundation for all discussion of politics in the modern era. “Enlightenment” as a Western European political concept, is essentially the idea that reason and rationality can show us the way toward social progress. That progress would be the result of ongoing dialogue. Democracy and other forms of government that allow for reasoned discussion and disagreement, which put the fewest impediments in the way of liberty and freedom of expression, are best according to that ideal, since they allow for the best chance of that development which depends upon free discussion.

Nevertheless, we can see actual and potential problems with liberty (gun control legislation or even the growth of fascism) and with freedom of speech (which seems to be subject to the influence of the media, or muted by political partisanship) present in our society and in modern history. The conclusion of some critics is that liberty is something too dangerous to be handed to the masses. There is too much potential for liberty to be manipulated in ways that lead the masses astray, sometimes with horrific results (e.g. the holocaust).

All this could very well make one think that the enlightenment project was misguided. I think a mistake was made in overestimating the extent to which we have actually developed. There is a distinction that must be made between knowing what is right and building that knowledge into a cultural norm that can be called true progress. In other words, the step from rational discussion to actual cultural changes, rooted in changes in actual human behavior, is much, much longer than the enlightenment philosophers expected.

The twentieth century bears witness to this: while to many people living at the start of the twentieth century authoritarianism, totalitarianism and fascist ideologies might have seemed obviously wrong, there were equally obviously the seeds for such developments in human nature which were allowed to grow and were exploited by open societies that permitted such growth. If true enlightenment was attained at the end of the twentieth century, it would be in the form of the establishment of new cultural norms that reject such ideals and have the effect of guiding everyday people away from such behavior in their private lives. It would amount to a shift in consciousness and behavior on a social level.

This seems like a nice attainment, but certainly runs very much counter to the optimism of the 17th and 18th centuries. It seems that we must wait to learn things culturally, adopt ideals as cultural norms, even if just about everyone agrees upon them. Despite the extent to which the 20th century has disappointed our sense of our own progress, in a sense, putting such things as unjust authoritarian behavior behind us though a revaluation of values would be a major accomplishment. Arguably, such things as the growth of truer forms of equality in the latter part of the 20th century and early 21st may have received some impetus by the growth of such consciousness; and again, what some perceive as fascist tendencies in Trump would not be so ruthlessly criticized were it not for the growth of such awareness.

A Few Simple Questions for Phenomenologists, Husserlians, and Heideggarians or those Who Otherwise Claim to Be “In the know” Regarding their Views:

Kutal-giving-away-the-metaphor Giving away the metaphor by Firuz Kutal
“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?