Phenomenology and the philosophies
I have already argued that phenomenology is necessary because only by recourse to experience, to consciousness, is there any hope to discourse and reason about things in a founded way. But how does phenomenology teach us to think about the various philosophies which are on offer today and throughout history? I think that different tendencies in philosophy can be understood as arising out of varying emphases and preoccupations with aspects of our experience. I will try to motivate that thought in what follows.
The structure of experience
Phenomenological reflection reveals that the structure of conscious experience is something like this:
[(living ego) ← thought-life + lived body] + (external objects in the world)
The left-pointing arrow (←) should be interpreted as meaning “appears to.” In other words, the above “formula” is the phenomenological answer to the question: What appears? The idea, then, is that all the objects to the right of the arrow constitute what appears to the living ego. Importantly, all these things appear at the same time. They each contribute to experience in their own ways.
Every appearance is an appearance which takes place to someone or other. Note that the living ego is to the left of the arrow. Every appearance is an appearance to someone or other, and this means that the living ego is the “to whom” of conscious experience. There is a sense in which the living ego is aware of itself as the to whom of its own experiences, but this self-awareness is very obscure and invisible. Unlike everything else, the living ego never encounters itself as something in the “outside” of what appears. Everything other than the living ego appears as “outside” it and in some measure distinct from it.
The (living ego) and the (external objects) in the world are enclosed in parentheses to express the fact of their ontological distinction. At the same time, [(living ego), thought-life, and lived body] are enclosed within square brackets to symbolize the ontological unity which they show themselves to possess. The lived body and the thought-life which appear in conscious experience are the lived body and thought-life specifically of that living ego which is the “to whom” of the experience in question.
The items listed to the right of the left-pointing arrow (←) are arranged in ascending order according to the relative evidence of their contribution to the appearance of the whole. In other words, the contribution of thought-life is the least evident, whereas the contribution of external objects is the most evident. It will now be helpful to go over these factors of appearance in order.
That factor whose contribution to appearance is most evident is the world of external objects. In fact, if you ask the average person what appears to them, they might not even mention “the world of objects” so much as one particular object which stands out to them at that moment. In what phenomenologists call the “natural attitude,” human beings tend to be preoccupied with objects as particular things. But in fact, what appears to us is never a single object, but always a multiplicity of objects within a shared space. One never sees merely a television, but always a television together with a plurality of objects, viz. everything else in the same space. And these objects affect the way each appears. My television affects the appearance of the wall behind it by partially obscuring it, whereas the lightbulbs in the kitchen affect the appearance of my living room by causing things to cast shadows in certain directions, and so on. If these objects were arranged differently, or if some of them were to be changed out with other objects, then things could look quite differently to me.
The contribution that external objects in the world make to our experience is quite obvious. In the natural attitude, that is all we notice. We often talk as if what appears to us simply is the external object as a whole. But in fact, our bodies make a contribution to the appearance of things. For example, the objects at the opposite end of the room look blurry to me. That is not because they are themselves blurry objects, but simply a result of the fact that my eyesight is not great and I do not have my glasses on me. Something similar could be said about the perspective on things which is imposed by the position of my body, whether I am seated or standing or whatever. But the lived body also does a bit of “interpretive” work by experiencing certain things as pleasant (e.g., warmth, coolness) and therefore good, or painful (e.g., extreme heat, extreme cold) and therefore bad. The contribution of the body to appearances is thus very significant.
But there are contributions beyond those of the body and of the external objects in the world. There is also the contribution made by the thought-life of a person. Included in this “thought-life” are one’s personal habits of interpretation, one’s expectations and prior conceptions of what is possible, one’s received understanding of oneself and of the world as a whole, one’s desires, and so on. One and the same external object can be equally visible to two persons of comparable lived bodies and yet not experienced in the same way. My great-grandparents from pre-communist rural Romania would not experience my cell phone or my laptop in the same way I do, even though these items of modern technology would be equally visible qua external objects to all of us. Likewise, I do not experience my parents the way their friends or strangers on the street experience them. This is because my own thought-life is formed by my experiences with them, as well as the fact that they are my parents and I take them as such. The contribution of the thought-life of a person to experience is therefore extremely profound, even if it is the most subtle of all the contributing factors.
Phenomenology and the philosophies
Given the structure of intentional experience revealed by phenomenological reflection, what can we say about the different philosophies which have been offered throughout history? I tend to think that various philosophical positions can be understood by reference to the aspect of conscious experience which they emphasize the most.
A person who sees nothing but external objects in the world and tries to reduce everything to that eventually becomes a materialist. Such a person might tend to view everything else — the lived body, the thought-life, and the living ego—as either reducible to the external object or else as epiphenomena that are projected somehow as a result of the causal interaction of external objects. Importantly, naturalists also tend to emphasize the fundamentality of the external object in the world, but they also tend to interpret this external object in such a way as to reduce its being to what satisfies a certain description—say, according to the categories being used in contemporary well-established science.
The principle phenomenological objection to materialism and naturalism is that they seem to ignore or explain away the reality of the lived body, thought-life, and the living ego out of a preference for the external world-object, forgetting that the external world-object is not accessible without these. They can tend to reduce everything to the level of external object in the world, but they forget that there is no experience of the external object at all apart from the lived body and thought-life. Indeed, naturalism and materialism are certain forms of thought-life that erase thought-life, i.e. they are certain ways of interpreting the world which blind a person to the role which the interpretation of the world plays in the appearance of things in consciousness. Naturalism and materialism interpret everything as being external objects, an act which makes the naturalist and materialist lose sight of the fact that one’s interpretation of things limits what one experiences. But there is more in experience than just external world-objects. And because for phenomenology experience alone can serve as the proper foundation for discourse and reasoning, it follows that naturalism and materialism are myopic and ideological. They ignore the totality of what is given in experience out of a theoretical preference for the category of the external world-object.
If naturalism and materialism arise out of an obsession with the external objects in the world, then various forms of relativism arise out of an obsession with the thought-life. A person who reduces all of reality to thought-life ends up in relativism because there are a plurality of thought-lives. Not everyone thinks about the world in the same way, nor does everyone have the same experiences or personality. Rather than thinking of the thought-life as one contributor to appearance among others, the relativist tends to think that all appearance arises out of the thought-life of an individual. But this is in fact phenomenologically unfounded, because sometimes external objects appear which are not predicted by the thought-life of an individual. It is possible to be surprised by things. This suggests that there is more to the world than one’s own thought-life. Furthermore, a thought-life must be at least in part inherited from others, more specifically from those by whom one is raised, e.g. one’s parents and siblings and greater society. But the encounter with others takes place through the mediation of the lived body, as one hears what others say and sees what they do. This means that the lived body also plays a role in experience that is somewhat independent of thought-life.
Finally, various crude forms of idealism and empiricism arise out of a preoccupation with the role of the lived body in experience. In Hume, for example, a great deal of conscious life is reducible to sense impressions and the ideas of these which are retained after experience. Everything reduces to the lived body. But Hume famously ignored the reality of the living ego because he had no impression or idea of it. Hume believed in a lived body that belongs to no one. In response, we might say that of course the living ego does not appear to itself as things “outside” the ego appear. The ego is the to-whom of experience. And it has a vague sense of itself as being the to-whom of its own experiences, even though it never becomes an external world-object to itself. But the living ego is not just an ego, not just a “to whom”, but also alive. This means that its own phenomenological life is a content worth considering and reasoning about. Against Hume and his empiricism, Michel Henry is one phenomenologist who set up the living ego (le vivant, in his terms) as a proper object of study. And, incidentally, he argues that Christianity presents a vision of the living ego which is true to the phenomenological reality.
There are many more questions to raise about all this, but it will have to wait for another day.