From Husserl to James as Phenomenological Exemplar

wizard 9When I first started to read William James phenomenologically, I had felt as if I had discovered a strategy to reconcile the many deep tensions in James’s thought and this reading of James explains my departure from Husserl. I had come to Southern Illinois University to study Husserl with Anthony Steinbock, and in Steinbock’s phenomenology, I found also a set of concerns I had long attended to in my own private philosophizing the desire for transcendence in understanding God and values. As I attended his phenomenological research groups at his new center, seminars, and invited lectures, I discovered what Steinbock had already known. In Scheler’s phenomenology, both these concerns became one, and around this time Steinbock authored Phenomenology and Mysticism: The Verticality of Religious Experience.

I have never liked this book. First, it seems as if Steinbock ignores the very ontology of objects of religious phenomenology for the want of pure description. For that reason, he’s open to nominalistic objections as to what he is doing. Second, his caricature of ethics in that book regards ethical reflection as domain-specific, more applied than theoretical, and third, his descriptions of religious feeling were always too quick. He dances around St. Teresa of Avila and her work to even give her a fair reading—let alone the other mystics. He does that because his point is to drive home how mysticism is all rooted in a type of intentionality much different than horizontal intentionality. He uncritically seemed to adopt Scheler’s framework without again asking the question about the metaphysical status of concepts in that framework—which was the subject of my continuing reflections on the metaphysics of value. God and value were just given in ways that other phenomena are not, which sneaks in the supernaturalism of value into a spatial metaphor and then closes off the need to engage in any need for more proof for those concepts and their existence—let alone the biases of seeing the Divine only as the Abrahamic religions report. In effect, Steinbock tried to do too much with too little.

Regardless of the defects of Steinbock’s analysis, I found Scheler because of that work, and how the absolute givenness of the Holy was the absolute dignity of persons. Religion became a cultural mode of possibility for understanding how values were experienced, but it remains largely unaddressed in Scheler’s work (and what I found in Steinbock at the time in 2009) It set up more questions than answers and isolated some more tensions in my thought. Steinbock also once again uncritically adopted a Schelerian framework in his Moral Emotions: Reclaiming Evidence of the Heart (2014) as it adopted Scheler’s affective intentionality and value-rankings without explicit attention to the ontological indeterminacy of values nor a decent ontology of persona and agency. Again, the tension surfaced again between uncritically assuming the existence of what Steinbock described versus the need to explore and further refine the ontology of moral experience from what we wished it included. This is the tension between the everyday and unconcealed, the banal natural attitude and the givenness turned supernatural. In effect, Steinbock is religious with phenomenology, and this corrupted how I was both first taught phenomenology and to which I would then find solace in James’s thought. For James, however, this tension is out in the open in the very promise of his thought.

To this day, the largest tension in me is the religious and the natural, the mystical and the scientific and how these distinctions entwine with value within experience. For James, all of these possibilities can be given in experience (an unnerving point to the more familiar analytic work on James in people like Richard Gale), yet unlike Steinbock,, James is honest about the limits of experience. If something is given-as-Holy, then that’s reason to regard it as given-as-Holy. However, one does not uncritically assume that is evidence enough. Steinbock takes intuitive givenness as the need not to go further in ontological exploration. For this reason alone, we should see James a correction to phenomenology and to Husserlian and Steinbockian phenomenology in particular. The natural and the scientific are possibilities we can choose to relate and even experiment to see if the choice of a given possibility, a possible belief to navigate the world as a future rule or habit will be useful and facilitate our interactions with the world and others. In this reconciliation, I posit that the person is a set of dynamic intentional relations and to explore how the possible objects of intentionality will facilitate experience in the various intersubjective ways we relate to the world: socially, politically, morally, mystically, and scientifically.

Jamesian thought (and in this case radical empiricism) put the relationally concrete back into the transcendental subject I had adopted for the longest time. However, this move also opened up doors to how much of phenomenology do I give up when I open the pragmatic shutters. Is the transcendental subject now a methodologically sound posit? What elements of a person are rightly in flux, and what parts are not in that much flux and relatively-stable over time? Are there are any features of James’s theory of self that are assumed to be a transcendental precondition of pragmatic processing of experience?

For the most part, I see both Jamesian pragmatism and Schelerian rooted phenomenology as mutually reinforcing. Both possess a vocabulary of habits or functionalizing essences that activate in experiencing x, and it’s this process of experiencing various essences where one can make a fruitful synthesis between the two. Let me explain (or at least attempt to explain…blog posts are ways to explore thoughts).

Pragmatic phenomenology pays attention to how an object is given within the socio-political and socio-historical circumstance of praxis such givenness will illuminate. In this first move, what’s given is not a static phenomenon, but more like an event. In other words, pragmatism restores a bit of activity to the inertia of phenomenology. Since phenomenology is pure description of the act-object intentional relationship of consciousness, once description is over, the aim of phenomenology is over. On these grounds, then, pragmatism returns the inertia of description to matters of praxis and confirms in a cheeky-way why Peirce may have been more right about phenomenology-as-firstness. The phenomenon is not just given to us as passive intentional subjects (which I think is my problem with phenomenology on a general level) but an event in which the whole field of a person is given in terms of the possibilities realized through action. Concepts arise from this action (or interaction), and phenomenological description is attending to how the subject comes aware of how the concepts become constituted in praxis, not how they are solely given.

It’s for this reason many phenomenologists can become enamored only with how a phenomena is intended in consciousness, but never extricate philosophical wonder to see that as just one overall sliver of experience. For me, James’s repudiation of rationalism comes very close to reasons we shouldn’t be Husserlian phenomenologists (and also marks the reasons why we can only be mystics, but never adopting of one creed over another), though honestly that’s only in spirit but not a fair reading of his varying degrees of static and genetic phenomenology (a point I owe to Tony’s scholarship). Moreover, is this not the Heideggerian/Merleau-Pontyian correction to Husserlian transcendental phenomenology? Shouldn’t we get outside consciousness to embody and enjoin the concrete modalities of action to givenness itself? Phenomenology in an attempt not to isolate itself from concreteness sometimes removes us farther away from that concreteness than the straightforward honesty of Jamesian radical empiricism.


A Possible Defense of Neutral Monism?

downloadNeutral monism is a philosophical position that William James came to defend after he adopted skepticism concerning any rationalistic metaphysics and the ability to engage in metaphysics. Neutral monism contends that reality is constituted by one type of primal stuff, but that we cannot draw ontological distinctions about what this stuff is—whether it is material or immaterial. The thought-object we have in our minds is experientially the same as the physical object, and because we cannot tell otherwise, because we don’t have access to the true way things are, all we have are our experience of particulars.

In this way, neutral monism is a position that only surfaces when we exhaust other options through Jamesian pragmatism’s critique of metaphysics. Thus, there are two parts:

(1) The Inaccessibility Thesis: S has no privileged access to the way reality ultimately is, but can only know the particulars x, y, and z in experience.

(2) Pragmatic Treatment of Metaphysical Ideas: S can only treat metaphysical ideas as rules of action about x, y, and z.

I think James held (1) and (2) together, and for him they are mutually supporting. I won’t defend that thesis here about James.

In my interpretation, however, (2) is a consequence of (1). Since reason and/or intuition cannot access the way reality ultimately is, reason and/or intuition is only a construction of the way ultimately reality is. S is left operating in limits and must then settle for testing metaphysical ideas pragmatically. S can have knowledge of God, but only because of the consequence those ideas allow for (this is how one should make sense of James’s Will-to-Believe Argument). It then makes sense to adopt a less dogmatic approach and consider the openness of experience to parallel that of a growing, organic and becoming cosmos. The coextensiveness of experience and the cosmos is how each other becomes in light of the other. At its heart, this is the same as neutral monism. Both a metaphysics of thought generates idealism, which may have some benefit to it however much James was suspicious of what we could call absolute idealism James criticized in A Pluralistic Universe. However, there’s no knockdown argument for why someone might be idealist as much as one might be a materialist; these are two forms of monism.

A metaphysics of objects will convince us that all things should be measured by the physical; it will eventually be reductive and explain x, y, or z in virtue of some aspect of the physical sciences. According to James, we can’t tease the physical and the thought-content apart, so why try! We cannot know what is, but we can employ our ideas to interpret the contents of experience. Moreover, this also means that we don’t give up on trying to make sense of reality and its dynamism. Our inability to tease the sciences and thought apart pragmatically means that science can be reconciled to our subjective experience of the same phenomenon. Thought-objects and objective characteristics can be of the same thing. Neutral monism, then, promotes a unity of the sciences. This unity also gives us a possible speculative solution to the alleged separation between mind and world, which we can accept on pragmatic grounds. 

The moral imperative is, thus, that our beliefs being rules of action can adopt pragmatic positions because of (1) leading to (2). Belief in God or the Tao are equally up for grabs because of the conceivable effects these ideas generate, but not because there’s some type of principled evidence that can achieve universal consensus between others about which we ought to prefer. The belief in the Divine—no matter its object and conceivable effect—is a genuine option on the table for all of us. This also makes metaphysical ideas rooted in the habits they generate for our practical differences. If one constructs a philosophical system of concepts to account for the metaphysical reality of values, then the only rule of such a construction is what it does for experience. The habits it generates. A solid metaphysical basis for values inculcates the habit that there are moral principles that if they were to be adopted, then it would benefit everybody. Hence, metaphysics of our most basic concepts are adopted because of their pragmatic benefit—this and nothing more.

All in all, there’s no knockdown argument to defend neutral monism, which is the very part of departure that inaugurates this idea. I cannot experience anything other than particulars, and because I have no privileged access to reality, I am forced to pragmatically adopt the inability to draw distinctions that would refute materialistic monism or idealistic monism. My inability to draw distinctions decisively, then, means that we can have interpretations instead of decisively-proven metaphysical systems. To say that one does not have privileged access is not the same as saying I don’t have access to the way these ideas will manifest in experience. There are threads and connections I can make between the discrete particulars of experience. Let’s take a case in point of how one might tie several discrete particulars of experience. I may have a religious experience, and feel the existential compulsion of higher ordered values in my own affectivity. I may interpret these values as either Buddhist, Taoist, or Christian. I may think of religious experience and the call of the hour to honor the Holy in any number of ways (even if it means being inter-religious), but I cannot decide between them apart from their conceivable effect these particulars generate in my experience and in that of others. What I can say is that persons often experience the Holy as the highest feeling that highlights what is highly valued. In this way, James came to the conclusion of radical empiricism only through the limits of what supported neutral monism in (1) and (2).

Upholding Creative Standards!

4x5 originalAt first, what appears below was a humorous response to Liam Kofi Bright’s post over at Sooty Empiric, which received some helpful and sympathetic hints from Eric Schliesser. Then, the post got away from me in the very same way that philosophy is therapy for my soul, but maybe not yours.

Here is a possibility I recommend for consideration: we ought to hold ourselves to stricter creative standards than we often do, in our philosophical research manuscripts or public forum presentations. They should be more literary, more creative, more artistic perhaps, and vastly more engaged with culturally relevant themes (what I would call pragmatic and existential concerns). Before getting into what I mean by this, why I think it, and why I am saying it, now, it is worth saying a couple things immediately. First, I haven’t always followed this ideal, but indeed for the purpose of this post, I am trying to capture what I take to be the best creative practices that can generate good and decent philosophy.

Second, this post does not pretend to be metaphilosophically neutral. Indeed, I am after what I take to be the best practices in conventional-Continental-philosophy and am not impartial. I judge it to be superior to analytic philosophy because of its power to illuminate the contours of lived-experience. I advocate that we that we all in our own work implement these changes, and aid others in doing so. Let me be explicit: what I think is we should strive for voluntary self-change in this. I do not believe in using gatekeeping mechanisms to enforce the following. Sincere adoption and internalization of the norms that govern philosophy can only be effectively brought about if it is unforced, and rekindle the intellectual imagination in which art and philosophy swim. I’ll give you two examples of what I have in mind.

First, there are a great many places where it seems to me that people ought weaken their dedication to logocentric presentation of philosophy, and not abstract from lived-experience as much as they do. This focus on argument and the intellectual abstraction created and fostered by dominant philosophical forces oftentimes substitute an abstraction for how we truly experience the world. Dewey called this the philosophic fallacy, and while I have no particular tradition in mind (as this flaw is a cross-traditions fallacy), it abounds anytime an –ism becomes more important than paying attention to where that –ism applies concretely. Put more succinctly, many philosophers in the tradition of Western thought have identified relatively stable structures of experience and given them pride of place over those that are more concrete and dynamic. What seems to be the case is that there are plenty of philosophers obsessed with truncated arguments and debates inside analytic philosophy that regard the conceptual landscape of their own debates as what philosophy should be doing rather than articulating the pragmatic concrete effect of what it is they are truly doing (or not doing as it may have no concrete effect on our collective experience of the world—the navel gazing and armchair irrelevancy of philosophers overall). In these efforts, there’s something like what Dewey described about previous metaphysicians who reified concepts from experience in his Experience and Nature (1925) and privileged those beyond all others to the point that we still read philosophy in the shadow of these concepts.

This touches upon a second point: I think much could be achieved by adhering to standards of writing philosophers commonly dismiss, but in my opinion, we should actually be creative when we present our ideas. Take for instance the nuanced focus on what I take to be a family resemblance property of analytic philosophical writing: the tracing out of a thesis in various arguments, moves, and counter-moves. Some are so convinced that this is the only way philosophy can be done that the very young graduate students are often met at the nearby Starbucks outside the APA denouncing Continental without having read any of it.

In Continental philosophy, the story seems to be trying to focus on the interpretive milieu and how an idea arises and can impact the current cultural lifeworld (if it is entirely relevant to lived-experience). When we acknowledge the historicity of an idea, we can often gain a sense into the underpinning philosophical narratives of how these ideas emerge in time, and we can glean if our contribution to understanding has come before us rather than boldly claiming its originality. The limits of language and history become relevant to what we can say. When the ideas illuminate our practices, however, we find that stories are possible. Ideas illuminate aspects of our experience. Sartre wrote Nausea as a way to articulate the depths of our existential anguish, and perhaps, when we read this novel, we find another (and arguably better) way of attempting to bring philosophy to the level of people most concerned with the ideas we are in the business of addressing, solving, speculating about, and proposing.

However, I am not beyond thinking that philosophy shouldn’t be in other creative works. Philosophical ideas emerge in lived-experience, and photography, the image, and especially videos and plays are the embodiment of ideas and lived-experience. Sartre wrote many reviews as he was simultaneously a philosopher and a critic, engaged with theatre and visual arts. For him, art was a way of coping with existential reality of imprisonment. I, too, find writing creative works ways to experiment and have received some advice about how I shouldn’t publish a novella. What’s more science fiction is a fantastic example of speculating what the concrete effect and consequence an idea would have if we were habituated to that practice. In this way science fiction can embody the pragmatic spirit all philosophy should have!

Needless to say, the profession would have a hard time if a philosopher wrote research articles, books, and then in addition submitted a creative works portfolio of exhibitions, aesthetic critiques in the popular press, and an artistic installation. Most promotional reviews of a colleague abide by fairly convention standards (oftentimes privileging epistemology and metaphysics over other forms of philosophical inquiry), but as we are seeing many departments are under pressure to close. Philosophers write to only other philosophers, and we keep digging deeper into obscurity (who reads dissertations or research articles on metaethics, Wittgenstein, or Kripke for fun and the same holds for those concerned with redeeming Heidegger from himself after publishing the Black Notebooks or Badiou’s latest writing). Adding some creative energy to our writing would certainly help possibly arresting ourselves and maybe even legitimize the type of public engagement philosophy was meant to have—that is if we recall Epictetus’ words that philosophy is therapy for the soul.

Unfortunately, I do not see that the therapeutic function of philosophy something many in the analytic world think philosophy should have (applied ethicists, I think, are the rare exception to this rule). Maybe some allowance for this idea holds in people’s teaching, but not in the concerns they think and are taught worthy to research. The problem is that once a way of doing things has been around a while that way of doing things becomes habit. Like William James, I hold we can overcome these habits and ways of doing things if we have good reason to change them (yet again philosophy must be concerned with the existential and pragmatic matters of life to accept that conception of philosophy itself). For a long time, many in the analytic world have become so enamored with identifying philosophizing and its expression in writing with some reification they think underlies scientific writing. We write short journal articles.* We publish them, and only read what’s very recent.**

Needless to say, I think our writing should still focus on arguments, but I am committed to the fact that we need not just focus solely on arguments. If there’s an insight to be gleaned, philosophy should see itself not as a continuation and extension of the sciences—philosophy as handmaiden to the queen of science herself in Kant’s language. Instead, we should think boldly about the power to write. Being artistic is one way we can do that just as much as the norms of solid argumentation. I’d like to end on two points of ten made in a list of writing recommendations Nietzsche sent to Lou Andreas-Salome in August 1882 about writing:

  1. Style ought to prove that one believes an idea; not only that one thinks it but also feels it.
  2. The more abstract a truth which one wishes to teach, the more one must first entice the senses.

* In the Continental world, we write exegetical papers that probably are better transformed into monograph chapters.

** It’s in these circles that we find some analytic historians of philosophy complaining to their own about the dearth of historical work in analytic departments.

Dearth/Death of Philosophy Blogging

Sometimes I feel like nobody is out there. Blogging is a shot in the dark, an empty vessel adrift a sea of many people who could come to the shore. These people could offer ropes to pull the boat in. They could explore it and take a look around. The fact that people don’t is striking to me (because, like any academic, it’s impossible for me to imagine that you couldn’t find philosophy fascinating). The internet has become an echo chamber for one’s thoughts, including my own.

Perhaps, blogging was only fun when it concerned one’s dissertation, or possible speculations grad students make into the night. There was a time when Heidegger, Scheler, and Husserl were new to me. I had to tell the world about why I thought Heidegger’s avoidance of values in a fundamental ontology was a mistake and defend the prospect of a moral phenomenology against Walter Sinnot Armstrong. . I still remember reading an essay by Daniel Dahlstrom on Heidegger and Scheler and feeling stunned that someone could read both philosophers so closely.  At that point I was envious of the knowledge it took to write that essay.

Not many people read the philosophers I’ve devoted so much time to. My interests in philosophy are not that well represented from process-thinkers (admittedly even Scheler and James are and not just thinkers like Whitehead) to pragmatism, Boston personalism, and back to phenomenology. I even wrote a chapter employing Scheler to correct Ross’s intuitionism, which I think is the most impressive thing I have ever written as it concerns a way that phenomenology and metaethics intersect. Nobody hardly notices this piece, yet it stands as the one piece I am most proud of since it reflected the choice to get an analytic MA and a Continental Ph.D.

This is not to say that I’m way off the deep end and have no mainline interests. I’ve been attracted to debates in applied ethics about drones in war, health care policy, and genetic enhancement not to mention more applied issues about gender, sexuality, and race that pervade what we might call social and political philosophy.

I am, as it were, at a loss as to find conversational partners. Conferences seem like the best way to exercise one’s energy nowadays. At least there, everyone has gone with the explicit purpose of trying to make one’s paper better and perhaps help you with yours. Again, however, this is a hit or miss. I have bad experiences at the APA, but wonderful experiences from groups like the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy. Working papers conferences have been a blessing; the Pittsburgh Area Philosophy Conference Continental group has been a place to share my thoughts and revise for publication. Also, I have published papers that came out of Midsouth Philosophy Conference held in Memphis.

As I grow older and have four sections with 124 students, I now know what others were talking about. During my Ph.D., a professor remarked, “Ed you’ve never worked this hard.” It’s true. It’s hard to be productive at a teaching intensive position, and blogs were a way to share our creativity with the world. I’m wondering if I should continue with this one.

My favorite blog for years was New APPS, but sadly that blog has fallen away like a shell discarded for a creature to big to fit inside. Nobody but Gordon Hull contributes. Philpercs became that way too after Jon Cogburn left. Now, there are two or three who post at moderate intervals. Leiter’s blog is more a professional gossip blog, and it’s clear that even Justin is monetizing Daily Nous. These are not good blogs to share one’s ideas concerning developing a conception of pragmatic phenomenology, or why Dewey is not wrong about democracy against so many Continental-leaning leftists who rob the pragmatic center of its starting power before it begins.

My students do not blog anymore either. If they write at all, they are creative works or only write as much as they need in order to survive the classroom. There is little exception, but this reflects a growing trend in the university where the liberal arts feel like they are continually dying and being reborn as career training. That’s the subject of another post, or should I even write it?

The Rules and Norms of Public Philosophy

download-2The challenges of public philosophy are many:

1) It might not be viewed as serious philosophy to the point that one wastes energy on what will not reward the tenure-track bound or review of one’s research for promotion in any sense;

2) The chance for public ridicule increases with the increased attention to one’s writings and if you are employed in a place that doesn’t necessarily value the type of negative attention (nor the academic freedom for public philosophy), then one might not as well do it;

3) Public philosophy does seem rather one-sided (more liberal and left-leaning in keeping with the tilt of the academy), and could easily be reduced to the more destructive forces of the larger culture war where people on the internet are not interested in rational argumentation, but bent on destroying one another. Instead, it’s rather easy to remain innocuous and write on some problem in metaethics or engage in debates about the accuracy of William James’s writings. I easily recognize that some of my most passionate questions are at bottom pedantic (though I feel that they have pragmatic value in the end).

With these challenges, I would like to talk about the last one, the third challenge. Public philosophy will be taken up in the larger culture war, absorbed by its forces largely because all parties are interested in finding agreement with intellectual authority for their views. Catholic moralists and cultural Marxists can find any number of sympathizers and PhDs ready to rally to their respective causes, but when we play by the games of the internet, participants in those discourses are more interested in destroying people that disagree with them. Think on any number of recent disinvites from Conservative authors and media pundits brought to campuses to give a speech or a lecture. Our academic culture and more popular culture cannot bear to disagree. We are living in time where intellectual tribalism matters more than the substance of the ideas offered by those tribes. The art of both argument and disagreement are lost on us, and those of us who regularly teach critical thinking often think that the rules of good arguments should carry the day more than tribalism.

At Cleveland State University, student A asked me what book they should read to get a sense of what intellectual conservatives desired. I recommended Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind to student A. I also lamented that not too many intellectual conservatives were left around. Student B, however, refused to even contemplate Conservative ideas and scolded me for normalizing conservatism by even offering a recommendation to A. For B, all conservatives were fascists, which is a problem in itself. For this student, conservatism was like the bogeyman, so terrorized by personal forces in his own life, this student could not tease apart the vulgar expressions of conservatism from its more elevated philosophical form.75812

Before public philosophy can be done, all participants need to agree to basic ground rules. I can think of none better than the rules of logic, the principle of charity, what I call the principle of hermeneutic charity. Since the rules of logic and the principle of charity are well known for argument reconstruction, I’d like to focus on the last one by contrasting it with the principle of charity.

The principle of charity holds that we should criticize the best version of an opponent’s stance and think of the reasons they offer for that position as rational. However, if this is all one did, then the argumentative reconstructions will lose out on the relevant facts of history. The principle of charity extends only to your opponent’s argument, and not the historicity of the argument itself. This is the common complaint that disconnects arguments from the applied contexts from which they emerge. By contrast, the principle of hermeneutic charity holds that we should criticize the best interpretation of an opponent’s stance and be aware of the historical factors surrounding the reasons they offer for the position. Accordingly, the principle of hermeneutic charity does not construe advocacy of a position as being determined solely by historical forces. What it does advocate is that all philosophical positions are offered within the horizon of history, and that is an inescapable element of dialogue itself. We should never pretend that an argument is an ahistoric piece of reasoning that stands the test of time since such absolutism runs the danger of feeding more intellectual tribalism.

In criticizing the best interpretation of an opponent’s stance involves several tasks. First, we must read our opponent to the point that we are not lost on the historical factors informing our reconstruction of her arguments. Second, in noting these historical factors, we come to learn both the argument’s reconstruction and the position of the arguer are unfolding in history. When we can be both modest about the contexts of these arguments and allow for a space to engage in rational exchange of these ideas, the hope is that we can fend off the more vulgar and base instincts of ourselves.

Given that we can adopt these norms and provide public space for dialogue between various public interests, our toleration for disagreement must increase and our democratic commitment to pluralism must simultaneously increase—that is a problem for public philosophy. And also for philosophy more generally…

I will note some caution and reluctance. When I was younger, I read about the history of the Dominicans and the Franciscans in the 13th century in Richard Rubenstein’s Aristotle’s Children. From this study, I have always been aware of the dangerous arena of ideas. Ideas are/can be dangerous. They are parts of experience that can rattle others, and without norms and rules for reasoning, we’re lost already. Moreover, the norms and rules of logic, good reasoning, and the avoidance of fallacies must be actively renewed and sustained. Without renewal to each generation, the easier tendency to suppress dialogue and the exchange of ideas is all too easy a path to choose. For this reason, philosophy must be valued and enacted correctly for the larger public as a model of elevated discourse. The life of the mind must be praised and valued intrinsically for these reasons alone.

Thinking through Themes in Zen and Pragmatic Phenomenology

Phenomenology is a philosophy of the subject experiencing. In this way, the subject is always in relation. The primary mode of relating and experiencing is because of intentional consciousness, and phenomenological description attempts descriptions of intentional consciousness. Functionally defined, consciousness is a consciousness-of.

With such a heavy tilt towards consciousness, Husserl overlooked the body, and it’s easy for phenomenologists often to forget the body. Merleau-Ponty picked up on the occlusion of the body and the favoring of consciousness. In his phenomenological descriptions, he discloses the relation of the body as its own form of embodied intentionality. Bodily intentionality expresses the pre-noetic features of the body that go unnoticed if we were to strictly limit phenomenology to consciousness.

With so much focus on consciousness and the body, the world is presencing itself. I say presencing since there’s no real adequate term in our current Anglophone philosophy to express the excessive relationality of all particular beings and thing-events. A thing-event includes all particular objects and manifest events in which particular beings are in relation to each other. A thing-event is understood by phenomenologists as particular objects of consciousness, one-side of the intentional relationship that’s never understood adequately. In phenomenology, these objects of consciousness only have meaning-for-us since they are understood and described in relation to intentional consciousness.

Apart from consciousness relating to objects, there’s no conception of particular objects relating to other particular objects or thing-events, yet what if it was characteristic of thing-events to present and give themselves in constant flux and relation to other particular objects and thing-events? In that totality of thing-events, the person is one such dynamic reality unfolding in relationship. Other particular beings, then, should also be understood as a loose coming together of many thing-events. While in constant flux, relatively-stable configurations of thing-events become persons for a short-lived time, and even in these relatively-stable configurations, the subject experiencing in phenomenology is but one snapshot of the overall dynamism echoed in the very presencing world.

Scheler in agreement with Plato regarded the striving and becoming of beings to reaching higher values. For Scheler, love is this very becoming, and persons are that which realize the divine in action. We participate, then, in the unfolding love of the universe. In acting upon love, persons emanate the divine, and this panentheism in which love and the divine’s goals can only be achieved by human persons. Persons are collaborators and co-creators alongside God in Scheler, and it’s at this point, however, I wonder if Scheler truly remained a Christian-based thinker. In opting for a panentheistic conception, the distinction between creator and created collapses, and what remains in Scheler’s thought is a process-based metaphysics in which Christianity is a metaphor for the loving-directed becoming of the cosmos. In other words, Scheler might claim that the presencing of the world is a type of love that cuts down all the way.

Scheler, however, is still trapped in phenomenology. There are real essences that are discerned by phenomenology, and it seems like his early thought is not as much in process as his later metaphysics. By contrast, a Zen-influenced process view might not see the universe in the very rigidly-hierarchical-yet-partly-dynamic way Scheler came to view the universe. Becoming does not take place in a hierarchy. The rigidity falls away. In Zen, there are no hierarchies.

Hierarchies are a product of discriminating judgment, ego, and a reifying of the abstraction from which the hierarchy will be formed (e.g., the Platonized God of Augustine). This is not to say that there are not middle truths that A) admit all existents are in flux and b) within that flux for a short while there are relatively stable but still dynamic entities (e.g., persons). If anything pragmatic phenomenology only has access to these middle truths that work both within the stream of consciousness and the stream of the universe and deal within the fact that our concepts reflect the causes and conditions of dynamism and/or are also revisionary. Because our concepts can always be revised depending on how they enliven our ability to be, the concepts can never be reified, and a trajectory of synthesis is possible both within Zen and pragmatic phenomenology.

Since I have only begun to provide the contours of pragmatic phenomenology in my work, I have little to say how this future synthesis will work. For now, the question to be asked is: Should the five skhandas also include (or do include) Scheler’s affective intentionality and are the subsequent value-rankings and the love movement in reaching higher feeling acts somehow expressed in a Zen view? There are many possibilities here. We’ll have to see.

Refuting Newt Gingrich’s Hysteria Claims about Southern Confederate Monuments

downloadIn his own words after Charlottesville, Newt Gingrich believes that leftwing actors and the elite media support “eliminating large parts of American history.” He continues, “If a person defends a historic monument or statue, the Left and the elite media immediately claim it is a sign of racism, anti-Semitism, and any other harsh emotional condemnation.”

Let’s clarify. It’s not just about defending “a historic monument or statue.” We’re talking about a particular species of Southern monuments erected in the Southern United States post Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and onward that glorify a past in which African-Americans were not considered moral persons. The critique of these statues is very specific to these statues based on actual ethical reasons, “not emotional condemnation.” The feelings of condemnation come from ethical principles of universal dignity, not the other way around. It’s for this reason I’ve decided to respond to you, Mr. Gingrich. You’ve inadvertently made several philosophical arguments. Bad ones, I admit, but you made arguments nonetheless.

John Locke, with whom Thomas Jefferson (and conservatives and indeed many libertarians love) was inspired by to write the Declaration of Independence, wrote A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689). In that piece, Locke argued for the conditions under which toleration should be enforced amongst Catholics and Protestants. The irony, of course, with respect to Locke (as much as Jefferson) is that John Locke wrote The Fundamental Constitution of the Carolinas in 1669 in which he advocated for slavery. One cannot deny that the seeds of white supremacy have been here from the beginning of the Republic—even in the very beginning of the philosophical idea of the United States. With that said, what relevance does Locke have for us today in his letter about toleration and what does that say about Southern Confederate monuments?

Toleration is morally valuable because it is enforced by agreed upon ethical principles. Toleration is itself morally valuable such that you must be intolerant of intolerance. It’s not revisionist history to try and be honest about the systematic oppression of various groups in the United States’ history (Native Americans, Catholics, women, and African-Americans and the LGBT community to name a few) and where this toleration has been lacking. This analysis is not hysteria, but philosophical and intellectual honesty about what we wish the United States means today for us and our children. I bring this up mainly because of the central problem in political philosophy. The central problem is trying to conceive how pluralistic democratic societies should be and what toleration conditions look like reflecting that very democratic pluralism.

When you equate the physical act of removing Southern monuments with eliminating history, it’s anything but that. In fact, that’s a typical strawman fallacy where you oversimplify and distort the actual point of your opponent such that you argue against your own oversimplification rather than be honest about what your opponent might be saying. What’s more, the fact that your opponents are all grouped into leftwing fanatics and elite media is even more suggestive that your argument is made with no nuance in mind. I would hope this engagement changes your mind.

In light of the strawman fallacy, you are guilty of ignoring some historical facts.

First, the majority of these Confederate monuments and statues were built post-Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) in Southern states. The bulk of them were not about mourning Southern sons, but are arriving on the scene 40, 50, or even 60 years after the ending of the Civil War and at the height of racial tensions. See the chart below from the SPLC:
Second, the timing of their construction endorses and memorializes a white supremacist future.

Third, when we talk about removing these statues, our civil society starts to reckon with its past. It’s a red herring to think simply statue removal amounts to “sanitizing your history to make you feel better.” It’s about encountering that very harsh and oppressive past for the hopes of making a better world for all of us. In other words, the claim of sanitation is a distraction rather than truly reckoning with that historical past.

Moreover, you have also engaged in a slippery slope argument. A slippery slope argument relies on projecting dangerous effects about accepting an idea rather than again being honest about what the idea is about. The idea is about removing Confederate monuments in Southern states, it’s never been about removing monuments to Jefferson or Washington. To push that agenda is to miss the point of the critique and in itself fosters the very hysteria you want to say the liberal media is causing when it’s really your inability to keep an honest focus about what some of us are saying about Confederate monument removal.

Next, I’ll just concede that you are accurately citing NPR, PBS, and the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion and that “62 percent of voters nationally think monuments of Confederate leaders should remain up as historical symbols, while only 28 percent” endorse their removal. An ad populum fallacy is when someone relies on the popular sentiment of a conclusion rather than offering supporting reasons of fact for why the conclusion is true. If all you have is how popular a conclusion is felt, then you have no premises to give us to make an actual argument for your case.

When you end on the fact that the Left is engaged in distractions, it is beside the point, which ironically is a distraction from the discourse about removing Southern Confederate monuments. You are trying to trivialize the very engagement with understanding history and the values of tolerance. Part of this is that by conserving many aspects of tradition, you become blind to how complicit conservatism often is with maintaining aspects of that past that contribute to white supremacy and racism.

In short, your arguments are guilty of ad populum, slippery slope, strawman, and red herring fallacies. In brief, your argument is very bad, intellectually dishonest and violates the standards of good reasoning.

Some Reflections on Sullivan on Dewey’s Solution to Racism


Shannon Sullivan is critical of Dewey’s solution to racism. She writes,

Dewey claims that antipathy toward the strange tends to fade away: “In the main this feeling left to itself tends to disappear under normal conditions. People get used to what what was strange and it is strange no longer.” According to Dewey, people become accustomed over to what they once found strange and cease to feel the anti-strange feeling without really trying to, as it were. Put in more technical terms, Dewey claims effectively is that after sedimented and change-fearing habits have been disrupted by something perceived as unusual, new patterns of impulses will come about that incorporate what was strange, eliminating its disturbing shock (Sullivan, Revealing Whiteness: The Unconscious Habits of White Privilege, 2003, p. 40-41).

For Sullivan, Dewey has a naive and simplistic view of how unconscious habits work. Unconscious habits are a complex network of possible impulses, imagined possibilities, and irrationality. Accordingly, Dewey neglects the “complex operation of racism and white privilege” (Ibid, p. 41). In fact, we might say that the concept of privilege — let alone racism — would ever occur to Dewey. People’s habits are already underscored by racism and white privilege.

The foreign becomes familiar. Dewey thinks a la Sullivan that as whites become more familiar with that which is, at first, strange and foreign, racial prejudice will diminish. First, the mechanisms of habit are left wanting. Sullivan is trying to compensate for Dewey’s lack of sophistication in this regard (especially in what we might call the social and political ontologies at play), and she should be lauded for her efforts.

To say that habits are unconscious and not mention how psychic drives relate to habits leaves much unsaid about the structure of persons through which the analysis of racism and white privilege is largely being explained. Her exploration seems (and I say “seems” to leave open the possibility of being wrong) to ignore how drives affect habits. Habits are structures of embodiment and psychic forces–some conscious and unconscious. To her credit, she uses both the Deweyan term “qualitative” and the term “impulse,” but she only really focuses on habits as unconscious, but leaves open how impulses relate to and emerge as a force of life.  In the same work, Revealing Whiteness, she will take up the relationship between Du Bois and Freud, but leaves aside questions of philosophical anthropology in which not only habits but also drives, affective intentionality and corresponding values form a central feature of the human person and intersubjective constitution of society in general.

Phenomenologically, we might say that moving the analysis of habits pushes the analysis only to what Scheler called the vital level of human existence. For Sullivan ontology is restricted to socio-historic, embodied, and linguistic world; “ontology is not composed of eternal and unchanging characteristics, nor is it reducible to conscious experience. Ontology is constituted by the historical, contextual, simultaneously malleable and stable, and only occasionally felt features of situated, located beings” (32). Therefore, the ethical is left unexamined just as with the more psychic and affective forces that compose the human person and along Schelerian lines, it’s these affective forces that give rise to the ethical. According to Sullivan, affective forces, the felt reality, only matter “occasionally.”

For Scheler, however, the affective structure of the person is the reason why we value our existence as historically embodied beings. To see this as only mattering occasionally is to miss a huge chunk of those elements that constitute the valuing delusion of racism and white supremacy. This is the second feature missed when we ignore the affectivity behind the value structures of human persons. We lose out on our ability to rightly correct value-delusions, what Scheler will call an ethos, that wrongly invert lower values for higher values. The value-delusions, I would argue, are the very mechanisms that fix habits both consciously and unconsciously.

This is not to say, then, that we should see Scheler as more responsive to the concepts of racism and white privilege. I want to be clear that’s not what I am claiming. Instead, there are elements of his conception of affectivity and drives in his later metaphysics that can help flesh out the picture and mutually reinforcing mechanisms of racism and white supremacy. I am sympathetic to Sullivan’s work. Sullivan is, indeed, onto something. White privilege and ignorance work in certain ways operating a tergo in very implicit and explicit ways to ensure the status quo of white domination, yet it’s not clear to me that there are not *higher* organizing structures in the lifeworld sedimenting habits. Getting clear on how to undermine racism and white supremacy, we must understand how habits function and work. On this, I have no doubt. Moreover, as she shows, both Dewey and James regard habits as providing a stable but somewhat malleable intelligibility for society. However, I think there are some phenomenological concepts that can help tease out the difficulties of simply pressing and relying on Dewey’s concept of habits.

Argument from Pragmatic Metaphysical Restriction

Consider what I call the Argument from Pragmatic Metaphysical Restriction:

(1) If both Kantian critique of metaphysics and James’s limitation of metaphysics are true, then metaphysics can offer no proof for God’s existence and no arguments for God’s existence are at all possible.

(2) If metaphysics can offer no proof for God’s existence and no arguments for God’s existence are at all possible, then James’s Will to Believe argument offers the only plausible reason to explain why religious beliefs are rational, but not conclusive.

(3) If both the Kantian critique of metaphysics and James’s limitation of metaphysics are true and no arguments for God’s existence are at all possible, then James’s Will to Believe argument offers the only plausible reason to explain why religious beliefs are rational, but not conclusive.

You could posit the consequent of (2) with other fideistic options, but in the end that’s the only real plausible argument to make about God’s existence since metaphysics is very limited–if possible at all. If we opt for Kant, then there is no speculative metaphysics. However, a Jamesian might defend further speculation about beliefs from the initial leap of faith into both aspects of nature and the divine. In this argument, faith is its own form of justification given that there are no other types of justification for metaphysical beliefs (apart from their conceivable effect on our experience). This also embraces the fact that scientific beliefs rest on pragmatic assumptions but that those assumptions can never be taken to be metaphysically conclusive.

However, let’s think from the other side. This restriction would also hold in some interesting ways from the naturalistic side of things. A fideism about naturalism? I imagine that we might posit the regular likelihood of future congruent beliefs cohering about our interactions and beliefs we discover about the natural world. Let me explain since I think this holds for both sides of how religious and metaphysical beliefs might work given that neither religion nor metaphysics can be definitively proven.

Naturalism, like James’s WtB argument, makes it such that there are clear cases of belief (namely options and genuine options when put together) that do not map onto reality independently of how we experience it. One could call this the pragmatic restriction of belief formation since again, all beliefs are really dispositions to respond habitually because of how belief (B) coheres and facilitates the set of future experiences (F1- Fn). So there are two cases that cut along naturalism and religion:

1. Epistemic Agent E accepts naturalistic beliefs (B) such that habits form to anticipate and explain (F1-Fn)

In case of 1., E represents the world as if one can conceive of nature independently of one’s experience and that helps conceive of likely consequences of action. Moreover, these consequential benefits might not come back for some time because it might not be that clear how naturalistic beliefs foster future consequences to our practices. I would readily admit, however, that naturalistic beliefs probably return with greater occasion than speculation merely because scientific beliefs often engender technological innovation.

2. Epistemic Agent E accepts speculative metaphysics B such that habits form to anticipate and explain (F’ to F’n).

In the case of 2., E’s speculation may be either concrete or removed from afield than naturalistic beliefs though it’s very possible that the set of F’ to F’n and F1-Fn may concern the same objects of concrete experience. Speculation serves to connect disparate threads and gaps of our more mundane knowledge, and a great deal of speculation serves to connect various pieces of the natural world together with the unseen order. In the same way, someone might have faith in science, a type of scientism that combines naturalism and belief in science such that they act as if science is their religion.

Habits embody the practices of the relationality between beliefs and action. This is the heart of the proposal such that 2. means that we can accept arguments for God’s existence on pragmatic grounds, and what that might mean. However, these same arguments can only be regarded as 2, but never independent truths that map onto a world without practice.


Jamesian Pluralism and Some Good News

Pluralism lets things really exist in the each-form or distributively. Monism thinks that the all-form orcollective-unit form is the only form that is rational. The all-form allows of no taking up and dropping of connexions, for in the all the parts are essentially and eternally co-implicated. In the each-form, on the contrary, a thing may be connected by intermediary things, with a thing with which it has no immediate or essential connexion. It is thus at all times in many possible connexions which are not necessarily actualized at the moment. They depend on which actual path of intermediation it may functionally strike into: the word ‘or’ names a genuine reality. (A Pluralistic Universe, Lecture 1: Types of Philosophical Thinking)

William James uses the expression all-form. By this term, he describes those that believe they have access to the all-form, to an idea or series of ideas that can explain what is fundamentally real. Of course, James is skeptical. The universe is filled with many each-forms. The bits and pieces of experience do not always add up just as much as not every part can be made so simple into a unity with other things. Our experience is of snippets, pieces, and fragments that we are trying to assemble, and our efforts are revisable as we learn from time to time the parts and piece of the universe do not fit together so easily. Something is always missed as we incorporate new information, but make no mistake a great deal of our experience of ourselves in relation to the world is part construction of ourselves. In James’s words, experience is “additive” in this very way.

In addition, James is ontologically neutral about what the ontology of these various parts and contents of experience are. The room may be a perception of it as physical object, or the same room may manifest as thought-content. I believe it was Bertrand Russell that coined this as neutral monism. Either way, I have loved this term since I first heard it, but it also puts some ontological concerns out of play for the Jamesian. The materialist and the idealist are certainly not candidates for James in the strictest sense from my reading of A Pluralistic Universe. Instead, only a pluralism that combines the fact that experience consists of conjunctive and disjunctive relations can really do justice to James’s radical empiricism.

Beyond that, I have been thinking a long time that these theses of James’s radical empiricism and the general openness to what can be experienced embodies reasons for why persons should be tolerant of other people’s religious views. If this is how experience truly operates, then we have both a philosophical account for reasons why we should be tolerant of others.

Thinking this way has many consequences for other parts of life. Consider a narrative of a fictional Methodist minister driving around Cleveland. He walks down the street on Cleveland’s Eastside. He passes a woman who has just moved to the city. The anxious young woman is attending a sangha for the first time and her heart flutters at the anticipation of finding a group with similar if not identical synergy from her last sangha. She’s circling nervously outside the Zendo as he passes her. Later that day, the pastor passes a young man shopping with his mother who will have his barmitzvah in a week’s time. He’s excited at the prospect of being recognized before the Jewish community as a man while his mother talks to an African-American friend on the phone from work. The African-American woman on the phone runs a charity with her non-denominational church and wondered if the mother knew of similar charities her church could work with to donate school supplies to local elementary schools in Warrensville Heights. When the pastor gets into his car, he promised he’d run some flowers to an ex-parishioner who moved to the Westside of Cleveland, but to get there he must drive past the Mosque in Parma. As he’s driving, he stops to let several Muslims cross the street apparently late for some function. In one day in Cleveland, the Minister could come into contact with a variety of perspectives without ever really coming to know those parts that each try to decipher the all-form of reality, but to which are multiple expressions of it.

To this end, I am happy to announce that I will be blogging here more about my research for a monograph I am writing entitled, William James, Pluralism, and the Religious Multiverse. It’s due in December 2018. I will continue to put more of this together and in putting this together, some of the ideas and writing will appear here.