Tag Archives: phenomenology
A Few Simple Questions for Phenomenologists, Husserlians, and Heideggarians or those Who Otherwise Claim to Be “In the know” Regarding their Views:
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?
What is the role of the critic? How should criticism interact with an art form? These are questions that have been asked and answered in various ways before. In what follows, I would like to draw from my own personal experience as someone who has been writing on jazz for a little over a year. I do not wish to claim absolute originality for any of my thoughts, but only the originality of them as my own personal observations, based upon the particular context of my experiences. I invite comments and criticism from readers that may further the discussion. In the course of these thoughts about the role of the critic I have also been led to say a few things about the relationship between art and philosophy, and moreover, about the relationship between science and philosophy. My belief about the relationship between the artist and the critic is that when they work together best, the one acts to push forward the thought of the other. The particular way in which that positive interaction comes about will be the subject of what follows.
In the case of non-linguistic arts (such as music or painting) when the critic puts into words a description of a non-linguistic art form, the result is a kind of translation that involves a jump from something communicated at a sensual level to one that engages the understanding in a rational reconstruction of the “sense” of that sensuality. Embedded in this description is a more general assumption about what critics ought to be doing. It may be spelled out clearly as the assumption that critics ought, at some point, to make an effort to interpret art, and not merely evaluate it in terms of whether it is agreeable to their personal tastes. From a long-term perspective, tastes may vary, and while it may be interesting to read about the tastes of different critics, or of different critics over time, the more enduring and more valuable critical work is the work that shows us how a way of seeing or feeling can perhaps be linked to a way of thinking or understanding. Critical work that takes on that kind of task is critical work that engages in the project of interpretation. An interpretation, despite the seemingly arbitrary nature of art, can be refined over time to the point where a world view begins to be articulated through reflection upon art. It may also be the work of multiple hands.
This point seems to call for an explication of the role of the artist in relation to the critic. The view I would like to propose is that the artist presents in art a way of seeing that can introduce listeners or viewers to new ways of seeing. New ways of seeing, in turn, push interpreters toward ever new ways of thinking and understanding. Thus, art can be seen as an embryonic stage in the march toward the development of systematic philosophies. All art seems to have a way of seeing embedded in its creation. That way of seeing is typically not rigorously drawn out in terms of a systematically ordered set of concepts. That wouldn’t be “art”, but something else, like a mature form of criticism or a philosophy perhaps.
But to anticipate a possible objection, does philosophy always begin with art? In one sense the answer will be “No”, but with a way of seeing, and with the project of articulating that way of seeing. This, it seems to me, is the point at which philosophy divides itself from science (to the extent that a division based upon modern practices in the universities must be rationalized): whereas science takes the elements of the empirical world as its starting point, philosophy takes a way of seeing involving an act of interpretation as its starting point. But there was also a “yes” answer. What, then, is the way in which philosophy always begins with art?
The “yes” answer to this question involves embracing the thesis that what makes art “art” is simply the intentional act of seeing it as art. For example, I am sitting in a café at this moment and there is a coffee cup on the table. I may decided to look upon it as a scientific object, in which case I will be interested in its empirical properties with a mind toward some sort of classification or seeking answers to questions like “Why does it appear white?” or “What might be the best material for a coffee cup?”. But, if my interest is an artistic one, I will look upon it in a different way, with a different set of intentions. I might decide that it is a beautiful object, or I might decide that a different sort of lighting could help its appearance.
The point is that any object can be considered as art inasmuch as any object can be looked upon from an artistic point of view or with the intention of evaluating it from an artistic perspective. Seeing an object as art, furthermore involves the possibility of seeing it as representing a way of seeing. To return to the coffee cup, it might seem far fetched that a coffee cup could represent a way of seeing; but if one considers centuries of work that has been done on ancient artifacts, whether Greek, Etruscan, or Egyptian, one cannot help but admit the possibility of seeing a worldview in such creations. That critics would like to articulate the sense of that worldview might be considered the starting point toward a philosophical viewpoint. Here, it may be realized, the progression does not go from one medium or subject matter to another. The progression is rather from the presentation of a viewpoint toward a systematic articulation of that viewpoint.
Finally, I would like to introduce the thought that the relationship between the artist and critic is a macrocosm of what occurs in each one of us when we attempt to understand the world on the basis of the information that the senses deliver to our intelligence. We work toward an understanding of the world, and of ourselves in relation to the world, seemingly as an extension of our innate drive toward survival. Those poles seem to interact as follows: we begin with a sensuous kind of understanding that later reaches a fuller articulation once it has been subject to the task of adhering to logical consistency. Once the latter is achieved, a kind of philosophy may be said to have come into bloom.