Thursday, April 06, 2006

Paul Ricoeur and the Phenomenological Stance.



I am experiencing great difficulties with my computer today, so I may not be able to post my writings for some time. Hackers may alter the texts or formatting of the blog. For example, if my profile does not appear on the right hand side of the page, as it should, then it may be at the bottom of the page. Paragraph spacing may be affected. I ask for your indulgence and please read "Who do you know?" and "Is New Jersey Chief Justice Deborah T. Poritz unethical or only incompetent?"

James Collins, The Existentialists (Chicago: Gateway, 1952).
John Russon, Human Experience: Philosophy, Neurosis, and the Elements of Everyday Life (Buffalo: State University of New York Press, 2003).
Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil (Boston: Beacon, 1967).
Video, Jonathan Ree, "Interview With Paul Ricoeur," London, Channel 4 Television/Praxis Films (1992), discussed in:
Karl Simms, Paul Ricoeur (New York & London: Routledge, 2003).
Peter Dews, Logics of Disintegration: Post-Structuralist Thought and the Claims of Critical Theory (London & New York: Verso, 1987).


Phenomenology literally means: "the study of appearances to consciousness." It is the name of a particular method of doing philosophy and of a contemporary school or group of philosophers that includes Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Jean Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Paul Ricoeur. A phenomenologist begins by thinking about anything from a particular point of view, that is, from the point of view of the experiencing subject, by means of ...

"... a scrupulous examination of [the contents] of one's own consciousness, and particularly of one's [own] intellectual processes. In this inspection all assumptions and the wider ... external causes and consequences of these internal processes have to be excluded ('bracketed')."

In a famous conversation with Jean Paul Sartre, Raymond Aron explained that phenomenology allowed one to describe the "experience" of anything, including the "coffee cup on the table between us," and call it philosophy. Notice that to ask: What is my experience of this cup that I hold in my hand? is not the same as asking: What is the cup that I hold in my hand? The first question is epistemological; the second is ontological; the first is philosophical and (at least empirically) the second is scientific.

According to Husserl, consciousness is characterized by the quality of "intentionality." Consciousness is always consciousness "of" something. Sartre accepts this and says:

"By intentionality, consciousness transcends itself ... The object is transcendent to the consciousness which grasps it, and it is in the object that the unity of consciousness is found."

Consciousness is like a transparent web. When we try to isolate it apart from its contents, we fall through to those contents. If we try to single out the consciousness that is conscious of, say, a cup of coffee -- without thinking of the cup itself -- we fail.

"Phenomenology starts from the position that whatever I perceive, I perceive through the senses [as filtered through mental faculties]. Husserl suspends his judgment as to whether what his senses tell him is true: the phenomenologist is engaged in a mental exercise, or thought experiment, whereby judgments about the world around him are 'bracketed off.' This allows him or her to engage in phenomenological or eidetic (eidos is Greek for "form"), analysis, which reveals things as they appear[,] as phenomena, this allegedly being more essential than as they 'really' are, how things 'really' are being a matter of mere speculation." (Karl Simms)

Notice the Kantian premise that we can never know the "noumenal" because we are "phenomenal" creatures. Since we can never experience anything except as it appears to us in consciousness, it follows that we begin with a prior examination of the objective structures of consciousness itself and only then look at its contents.

The influence of Kant is felt, again, in this initial move towards the a priori. But we then discover that consciousness is social from the outset because it cannot be separated from the things which make it possible -- like language, culture, history. In other words, we immediately have to contend with the problem of the "Other" and of the emotions. This is the Hegelian component or source of the stance. Notice this coming together of perceptive or cognitive capacity with purpose in seeing the Other and "all that is" through the prism of our daily interpretations or story-making faculty:

"The mind intends its object, and ... phenomenology ... brings this objective intention to fulfillment. When the object itself is exhibited in perceptual intuition, the search for evidence and truth is fulfilled. Yet intuition is not contrasted with reasoning and reflective analysis. It is not facile insight or esoteric revelation but a hard won seeing of the phenomenon as it is in itself and for our view. Only when the mind's intention is satisfied by the self-presentation of the object, is indubitable, necessary truth acquired. Philosophical certainty is of this type. ... Systematic acquisitions of a necessary sort give content to phenomenology in matters concerning the foundation of all science and method." (James B. Collins)

When Collins speaks of "seeing" the object of study "as it is in itself and for our view," it is essential not to separate the words in this statement. The key issue is "seeing": 1) an object as it is in itself, meaning in terms of its self-presentation for the observer; and 2) for our view, meaning how this self-presentation affects or is altered by the perceiving subject. These considerations are especially crucial in encounters between persons. A person presents himself as X. I see that he or she is "presenting as X," then I am aware of my judgments (though not necessarily all of them!), in evaluating or asessing what is an assessment to begin with, i.e., a self-presentation.

How do you know when your foot is on fire? When you have the sort of knowledge acquired through, for example, the experience of having your foot catch fire, your perceptual apparatus yields fairly certain knowledge of an external fact about the world ("MY FOOT IS ON FIRE!"), which allows you to infer the likely knowledge to be acquired by others undergoing similar experiences.

There are moral and aesthetic equivalents of the experience of having one's foot on fire. Falling in love is one. Encountering evil is another. You know what it will be like for another person to have either of those experiences because you will have both during the course of your life.

One of the most interesting contemporary thinkers in this phenomenological tradition, I think, is Paul Ricoeur, who searches for the reflections of the self by way of a "truncated ontology," not "in" the mind (like Descartes), but "out" in the world of myth and symbols, in the metaphors of art and religion, that are always shared, allowing us to understand ourselves.

French philosophy in recent years has seen a "revival of phenomenological and hermeneutic themes; for example, a re-evaluation of Merleau-Ponty, and of thinkers such as Paul Ricoeur, whose work -- much of it produced during the 1960s and 1970s -- was formerly unjustly marginalized by the predominance of structuralism and post-structuralism." (Peter Dews, p. xiii.)

If you are searching for your philosophical portrait, try looking at a movie screen or listening to music, try seeing works of art in a place of worship as well as looking through a microscope at a cellular structure, or up at the heavens. Finally, you may wish to see what is reflected in the eyes of someone you love. In a recent book-length essay, I endeavored to set forth Ricoeur's view of freedom as both an interpretative process or "hermeneutic," and as the object of such an intrepretation, especially with regard to symbols. Take another look at my comment about the quote from Collins:

"A symbol may be defined, incidentally, as 'an inexhaustible font of meaning' even while it circumscribes a rather precise structure of relations. Thus, for Ricoeur, hermeneutics becomes a method for deciphering indirect meanings, a reflective practice of unmasking hidden meanings behind apparent ones." (Juan Galis-Menendez)

A useful comparison may be made between Ricoeur's method of "indirect interpretation" and Leo Strauss's controversial technique (which I do not accept) of reading philosophical texts for their "hidden" meanings. My concern is with the possible uses of these methods to discover the hidden meaning(s) of another person. (See "The 'Galatea Scenario' and the Mind/Body Problem.")

To be a phenomenologist is to have a kind of philosophical "pilot-light" on at all times. It means that you can be philosophical about anything. I ask myself: "What is it to love someone? What is a shoe? Who invented Peanut Butter and why?" (See the film, The Sure Thing.)

The "phenomenological attitude" makes you "open" to the experiential realities of others, to the world of social meanings that we create in order to interact and cooperate with others in large groups. The so-called "phenomenological stance" produces, at least in me, a curious mood of inner freedom. Everything is subject to questioning and interpretation.

Philosophy does not have to be dull or uninspiring. You can become a phenomenologist too, by the way, just by thinking about how it is that you are "experiencing" what I am saying here, right now. On the other hand, what works well when it comes to the interpetation of human social realities is less effective when we wish to understand the workings of what is laughingly called, "the real world" of empirical reality. Science and scientific method have worked pretty well as ways of understanding objective "physical" reality. Perhaps phenomenology may be equally effective in figuring out the equally objective (but in a different way) social realities and meanings created by persons, for example, ethical realities and meanings.

Both scientific and philosophical knowledge may be "true," though each kind of truth is "true" only in its own way, which is not -- not at all -- to enshrine the fact/value distinction in the heavens, but merely to suggest (as Richard Rorty does) that there are vocabularies of explanation and modes of discourse that seem to work better in some contexts than in others, without necessarily accepting (as Richard Rorty seems to) that this makes everything "subjective," so that there is no truth. After all, scientific explanations are also elaborate phenomenological "experiences" of a sort, requiring interpretations after they are communicated, sometimes very sophisticated and technical interpretations.

Maybe we can borrow from Richard Rorty -- as we do from Kant and Hegel, or from Plato and Spinoza -- those thoughts that seem to be clearer and more complete articulations of our own intuitions and ideas, then worry later about how our thoughts all "fit together," if they do. Along with phenomenology, I discover a streak of good old American pragmatism lurking just under the surface of my opinions. Maybe law school had some good effects. I like that.

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