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Discussing Edmund Husserl's Cartesian Meditations (1931).
How can we analyze our experience? Husserl thinks that Descartes was right about the need to ground science from the standpoint of our own experience, but wrong about everything else. Husserl recommends we "bracket" the question of whether the external world exists and just focus on the contents of our consciousness (the "cogito"). He thinks that with good, theory-free observations (meaning very difficult, unnatural language), we can give an account of the essential structures of experience, which will include truth, certainty, and objectivity (intersubjective verifiability): all that science needs. We'll find that we don't need to ground the existence of objects in space and other minds, because our entire experience presupposes them; they're already indubitable.
Plus "Personal Philosophies" for Seth and Wes!
End song: "Sleep," from the Mark Linsenmayer album Spanish Armada, Songs of Love and Related Neuroses (1993).
Daniel Horne says
OK, this was a challenging episode, but I appreciated that you guys took the time to work through it. I think the hard work needs to be done to break down Husserl before reviewing what others (e.g., Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty) did after him. That said, there’s no way I’m going to spend my precious free time slogging through Cartesian Meditations, so thanks! The episode paid for itself right there. In fact, I’ve been freeloading too long, and will submit my Paypal donation today.
I don’t think you guys are spending too much time on continental philosophy. There’s no reason to privilege one school over the other, and I think one can’t really assess the analytic tradition without understanding its alternatives. (And to the extent that much analytic philosophy descends into pure logic – it doesn’t much lend itself to podcasting anyway.) The obscure style of continental philosophers makes them difficult, yes; but that also means they most readily benefit from explication by smartypants such as yourselves.
In short, I think we listeners get the most value from you guys sweeping away the jargon and obscurantism of continental philosophers, and clarifying the concepts themselves. Your death marching is not in vain!
Oh God. I need some Quine to recover from this.
Keep up the good work, gentlemen!
I think you did a great job. Just how Pirsig-like Seth’s description of the ‘I intending something’ around 47 minutes struck me deeply. Pirsig says Quality creates the subject and the object in the Quality Event where subject becomes aware of (cares about) an thing.
It is quite Buddist, as well – ‘tat twam assi’ .
FWIW, James and Husserl were preeminent influences on Whitehead’s process metaphysics.
I just listened to this episode for the second time. It was a dense episode.
The part that made me sit up, point an index finger skyward and say “exactly!” was when Mark (at least I thing that it was Mark) said something to the effect of needing to see more examples of phenomenology being done. Husserl needs to give some examples.
I’ve tried Ricoeur, Ingarden and others in an attempt to get a better feel of the practice of phenomenology but I’ve just not yet seen anything that gives me that “Aha!” moment.
And what makes that even worse is that ever since I was first introduced to Husserl and his phenomenology I’ve had this gut feeling that he is onto something important.
Probably the best secondary source that I’ve read is Erazim Kohak’s “Idea & Experience: Edmund Husserl’s Project of Phenomenology in Ideas I”. It is the book that was used as a text when I was first introduced to Husserl as an undergrad (I never made it to grad school) and I still go back to it from time to time.
Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that even though it was a rather grueling episode, I did enjoy it and eagerly await further delvings into continental philosophy.
Ahmad AbuNa'meh says
Yea I remember having that feeling too. The closest thing to Husserl’s own phenomenology in action one can find is rather in his less known works e.g. the appendices to his Analyses Concerning Passive and Active Synthesis. The problem with later phenomenological work, like Sartre’s, is the convoluted style that is perhaps inspired by taking further the notion of eidetic reduction.
Ahmad AbuNa'meh says
Not that later phenomenologists widely accepted the eidetic reduction Husserl talked about; I just meant it may have inspired the style. Actually one can be justified in believing Husserlian phenomenology (proper) can be found only in Husserl’s work.
Daniel Horne says
Re: examples of phenomenological practice – perhaps Sartre’s novel “Nausea”? Sample below:
Gary Chapin says
That was a hard one … like soldiers slogging through a jungle war (“We lost Seth!”) I think, in the social sciences, at least, phenomenology is invoked rather loosely as a research methodology, and I was hoping that this episode might help me figure out how to tighten that up. Like Joe, I have this strong feeling that Husserl is on to a big idea, but I can’t quite get at it. The idea of jettisoning metaphysics and examining the phenomenon in itself is very appealing to me. Where I’m conflicted with Husserl is in the idea that by carrying out this project will get to the “essence” of the phenomenon … this, to me, is simply coming at metaphysics from behind. How can you have an “essence” that is somehow separate from the specific phenomena? To say you’re getting at the “essence” of a thing seems more like a religious assertion than a valid conclusion drawn from research. But am I over reading this? In a research/experimental setting, is Husserl’s “essence” simply another way of getting to generalizability, or transferability, or central tendency? Is this a difference that makes a difference?
Mark Linsenmayer says
I don’t feel like I really yet know what to think of the “eidetic” aspect of Husserl’s phenomenology. Yes, I do think that if ontology is legitimate at all, it has to come out of phenomenology, so we could talk about what the basic kinds of entities in the world are with respect to our experience. But if I push my sentiments on that, I really don’t think any kind of ontology is justified.
If phenomenology is scientific (in the sense at getting at repeatable and hence objective findings) like Husserl thinks, then, yes, it can not only ground science, but can serve as part of the scientific method. Somewhere I have a book called “Experimental Phenomenology” by Don Ihde that approaches things this way, inviting us to do gestalt-psychology type experiments using our own first-person reports to, e.g. tell us things about the visual system. This is, again, something that Dennett likes to do too, in that he spends a lot of time discussing optical illusions and things. One of the Nelson Goodman Ways of Worldmaking articles was likewise all about the phenomenon of apparent motion, referring to the psychological literature re. our experience of, e.g. how a circle morphs into a square or a red dot becomes a blue dot when these two things are rapidly switched before our eyes.
If on the other hand phenomenology is fundamentally interpretive, like if I’m characterizing “ethical facts” as they occur to me in particular experiences, then it seems more like something a really good novelist does (like in “Nausea”). This means that the phenomenologist can give us some insights into human nature and experience, but there’s always room for a later, more penetrating interpretation that puts the latter into perspective. Woody Allen complained (I believe in Annie Hall) that existentialists basically take their own neuroses and recast them as metaphysical states, and I see that all over Heidegger for instance (e.g. he characterizes anxiety as an encounter with “nothingness itself,” by which we thereby have a specific though implicit experience by contrast of Being in general, which is the whole target of phenomenology for him). If phenomenology loses its rigor, then it loses what Husserl thought made it really distinct from other kinds of philosophy. Like I said, Solomon’s analysis of the Passions doesn’t rely on Husserl’s phenomenological reduction and really could have been accomplished in its general features if not its details during just about any period in philosophical history. So I guess for me, phenomenology is a selective attempt to shake off philosophical history and get a fresh perspective on many and various issues that have become seemingly intractable problems over the years. If, again, Descartes’s account of the mind-body problem is just based on faulty analyses of experience that can be corrected with better phenomenology, that certainly helps us make philosophical progress. (…Though I don’t claim that Descartes’s problem has in fact been wholly exorcised in this way.)
Andrew in Oz says
I really enjoyed this discussion. Having not read much Husserl myself, and being reluctant to do so for similar reasons to you, the lazy man in me me appreciated you guys doing the legwork.
The most interesting part of this was the discussion in the last five minutes.
Wes wonders about how a ‘mind independent reality’ works for those who deny the thing-in-itself in any sort of complete philosophy. It seems to me you can make it work by a adopting two philsophical positions:
Firstly, you argue that, ultimately, there is no seperation between mind and matter. No soul, no free will etc – the world is just Reality viewing itself, so to speak.. This is not a particularly radical position in my opinion. Afterall it is the philophical position of most of the nondualist influenced philosophies such as Buddhism, Advaiata vendanta, Sufism, Gnosticism and perhaps even Pantheism itself.These traditions often talk about a ‘universal mind’or something similar’when asked to explain the metaphysics. Much of the recent work in philsophy of mind points to real problems for anyone taking a materialist/physicalist/ scientific realist positon – for example, Jackson’s ‘Mary’s room’is a persuasive argument, in my view.
Secondly, people seem to forget that there aren’t merely two possible monisms one can adopt – Idealism and Materialism – but also a third option, ‘neutral monism’. To me this is a viable alternative and could manifest as something like say ‘data’ or ‘ínformation’. It seems to me the positiing theoretical physicists of a world made of vibrating ‘strings” is not so far away from a neutral monism.I note you didn’t mention Neutral monism during the James podcaste but he indeed subscribed to that monism. Furthermore, my favourite current philosopher and someone I hope to study under in future, Australia’s very own David Chalmers, is another who countenance the idea.
Apreciate all thoughts.
Keep up the good work, I’ll continue to work my way through your podcastes.
I’m new to this podcast. Really great show. I must admit I found Husserl’s synthesis of the different manifolds of something -> object…. as being very similar to Kant… doing a similar thing with categories and forms of sensibility…. for example we have these different phenomenal experiences of a table (from different angles say)… and the mind structures them as a 3-dimensional object because of the form of sensibility of space…
Mark, you need to speak more slowly, man. You’re saying too much to be absorbed that quickly unless you are totally hooked into this stuff.
Brian Whitton says
Hi there. A very late response to your entertaining podcast on Husserl and Mark’s comment on Husserl’s apparent failure to work through his assumptions on inter-subjectivity. Its interesting to look at the work of Gottfried von Herder (another early continental philosopher) in this context and his understanding of the role of language as essential to the genesis and reproduction of structures of human inter-subjectivity (developed in part in reaction to Kant’s critical philosophy). Herder’s approach is interesting in trying to offer a genetic explanation of the sort that seems lacking in Husserl’s phenomenological emphasis on subjective experience.
BTW – re your concept of aspectualism, see Nietzsche’s use of the term perspectivalism as a notable attempt to address the same issue.
Douglass Pinkard says
All the caviling aside, I’ve become more and more convinced over the years that Husserl is the one who was really the real deal and not: Heidegger, (upon the passing of his Husserlian moment); Sartre; Ricoeur; Merleau-Ponty;–none of ’em! They all read pretty thin to me today (except the first half of Being and Time) when compared with the unfortunately, all-but-impenetrable Husserl, even if it is endless work trying to follow what in fuck he’s trying to get at most of the time. Read later Heidegger and you’re faced with a similar opacity, only it’s hard to feel either that he’d lost his fucking mind somewhere along the road (ditch-digging for Reich, perhaps) or could come up with nothing more than psycho-babble designed to afford the appearance of profundity without actual profundity itself. Give me Husserl.
Deidre Parry says
Having just submitted an excruciating essay on “how Husserl’s ego cogito cogitatum comes to grief on the question of our situatedness in the world”, I found your discussion fascinating, The best bit was the last 5 minutes. “Yes” to aspectualism! Thanks guys.
This comment is a bit late.
Great podcast on Husserl and good discussion.
From the limited amount of philosophers I have had the chance to read (so much to read, so little time… btw Mark I wish I had you speed man, from the books you say you go through it seems to me that you read like a mother^&*ker.)
Husserl is the one I that find diabolically difficult to grasp. Husserl is one of those you understand fleetingly whilst reading them, and then it is gone. But it is perhaps for that same reason that I find him one of the most interesting ones.
Years after I first learned about Husserl and his phenomenology, and after I forgot it and remembered it and forgot it again… I found Colin Wilson and through him I was able to clarify certain aspects of his project. He wrote a couple of articles (and perhaps a book but not sure ‘I will google that now!”)
The main difference in Wilson’s understanding vs Mark Linsenmayer’s take on it is that Wilson reckons phenomenology is not a static ‘armchair’ activity, he argues that in ‘Phenomenology as a Mystical Discipline’:
“Husserl’s phenomenology has been radically misunderstood by the majority of those who consider themselves his followers, particularly Sartre, and that the problem lies in their failure to grasp what Husserl meant by ‘intentionality’. Intentionality should not be seen as a synonym for ‘directionality’, an essentially static attribute, but as a dynamic description, involving consciousness and its freedom to act. It is better described by analogy with a baseball pitcher than with a signpost. Paul Ricoeur was the first to state this with clarity. I will suggest that Husserl saw intentionality as a creative act, capable of altering consciousness, and potentially as a kind of mystical discipline.”
And this next one is the best example by far!
“Perhaps an example might help. A normal young male feels spontaneous sexual excitement if he sees a girl taking off her clothes. He feels this is ‘natural’, like feeling hungry when you smell cooking. But supposing he is looking through an art book with reproductions of paintings, and he sees a picture of a model taking off her clothes. She is attractive, and he stares at the painting, and then – let us suppose – deliberately induces sexual excitement. How does he do this? In that question lies the essence of phenomenology. You could say that he looks at the picture, and deliberately puts himself in the state of mind of a man about to climb into bed with her. He ceases to see the picture from ‘the natural standpoint’ (‘this is just a picture’) and deliberately endows it with a dimension of reality. It can be seen that he is again ‘putting on his creative spectacles’. As Derrida has pointed out, the act of masturbation is a textbook illustration of intentionality in action.”
This post was just to include Colin Wilson into the discussion and my two cents worth that I think he is on to something.
Mark Linsenmayer says
I think Husserl is pretty unambiguous in his own texts, and I would be hard-pressed to find anything supporting this artsy interpretation there, but I do find these creative elaborations fascinating and probably deserving of an episode… e.g. On Derrida’s take on Husserl. I wasn’t aware of Ricoeur’s contribution here, or of Wilson, so thanks for that. Best, -Mark