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Some Observations Regarding the Writing of Philosophy

One of the more annoying things about academic philosophy is how much a paper must breakthrough to what others deem worthy. In this way, slow methodical reflection and journeying with an author are not usually recognized as a legitimate way to encounter a text, let alone write about it. Unless one is Heidegger, the allowance to use, interpret, and get right a thinker are not seen as legitimately worthy of time. Too often journal reviewers want to know why it is that someone is journeying with a thinker rather than appropriating that use for some other end outside the text one has dubbed worthy of attention. Understanding an author is not an intrinsic reason to write journal articles.

I love slowly crafted and detailed interpretations of books I have been reading all my scholarly life. Alas, I think the analytics won the metaphilosophical and professional game that hermeneutics done well is not real philosophy. Even though for me it is philosophy done well, plenty of trained Continentals have been conditioned to write mostly in English and write in such a way that other readers are not invited to read with you. Hell, even so called “Continental philosophers” in Europe host their conferences in English. Instead, analytic philosophers want the logic of a thinker spilt out on the table. Philosophical texts become like entrails spilt onto the augur’s table. There is no more building up of phenomenological descriptions, no more flirtatious waltzes with Sartre, and no more Roequentin observing the inauthenticity of people on benches. Instead, philosophical writing is putting forward one narrow thesis and carefully articulated arguments about that thesis such that an entire piece cannot seek to understand a possible unifying ground to so many disparate ideas in one thinker. One is left reconstructing James because of how unsystematic he was. The system is there; the same is true of Emerson. You have to reconstruct it slowly. But that’s not doing philosophy.

Contrast that with Charles Taylor’s engagement with James. See how he inhabits James’s Varieties in his Varieties of Religions Today (2002). See how he builds and waits for others, and how a lecture builds up until the crescendo that James was a way into understanding secularism since James echoed the individualism of contemporary religious experience. I or you cannot do this because we are not Charles Taylor. Part of my problem is I am still worried about getting James right. I am not interested in being Taylor or Heidegger. I’ve accepted that this is, of course, me doing the history of philosophy to others, but for me, reading James animates so much more of my spirit that I cannot inhabit other intellectual spaces very easily.

I seek to understand religions plural. I do not inhabit any particular one, and of the one I did inhabit for so long turned out to conceal injustice that I cannot in good conscience participate in it. With that said, I am also very metaphysically different than even when I wrote my dissertation. During my dissertation, there were phenomenological essences. Now, the world is growing, in process. The only way to understand Being is in our transactions and relations with it in time. The same is true of religion. I come to James because of these metaphilosophical assumptions about what it is that I am doing in philosophy. Given that there is a whole world that accepts different assumptions of what philosophy is, I often wonder if I should study religious literature instead. Maybe I would be more happy engaging in literary criticism of a philosophical text or jump ship to religious studies or something like that.

In many respects, professional philosophy has become…boring. It is a place where an analytic philosopher of religion can balk at my criticism that they didn’t get Rorty right. In getting Rorty right, however, his embrace of naturalism and skepticism of religion is so basic that to get that wrong should be embarrassing. Other analytics, then, say to me: What should I have done right? Either A. they want their hermeneutics done for them (outsourced hermeneutics), or B. such an analytic author can simply dismiss such hermeneutically-centered criticism and say…yeah but my argument (much like the playful naivete behind “Yeah but her emails.”). Of course, this is only one example. Both A and B presuppose that hermeneutics only matters to philosophers so as to A get their arguments about other matters right in which the appearance of competency matters to the one appropriating themes from some author or B. hermeneutics never mattered at all. Only the arguments matter.

So what to do with this short blog rant? I guess I will only say that maybe writing books is the answer. Not individual articles. Maybe books that can take their time and develop an idea are the last vestige in which someone may meticulously develop an interpretation and ideas.

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A Phenomenological Description of Enduring Hurricane Ida

Hurricane Ida makes landfall as an extremely dangerous Category 4

Here is the phenomenology of enduring a hurricane. I wanted to write this for posterity since I may never get another chance like this again.

To be systematic, I will investigate the following modes of givenness in this experience: temporality, affectivity, embodiment, self-to-other relationship, the givenness of the environment’s wildness, and the human world’s loss of normalcy.

1. The temporal mode of givenness of enduring a hurricane and the day building up to the hurricane’s arrival

In the temporal mode of givenness, I endured time in episodic and weirdly disjointed spurts oriented around the completion of tasks. The build-up and sense of time of the hurricane was a ton of shopping for supplies and water preparation. Putting freshly filtered tap water into jars. Throwing out food from our fridge. Attempting to preserve my wife’s irreplaceable medication in coolers, we needed ice for the cooler at any cost. Attempting to get gas involved a type of sociality that one might simply call Hobbesian in which once someone found gas in their truck, they would pull out these huge containers to fill for their own domestic generators. The build-up and sense of time lasted forever because of my attention’s focus on nearly every single moment of enduring an unwanted experience. When I would look at my cell phone, the time moved incrementally slow.

On the news, the hurricane made landfall sometime around 11 AM local time. Hurricane Ida hit the mouth of the Mississippi River and outlying Louisiana islands first. Hurricane Ida would not be around us until 10:30 PM that night. We live in Baton Rouge and if memory serves, though still a category 4 hurricane, Ida was moving between 8-10 miles per hour. We knew this throughout the last day of electric power, and again time moved incrementally slow as if every moment seeped with an unwanted inevitability. I could also locate this unwanted inevitability in an overall tenseness throughout my body.

When a hurricane hits, you first experience the outer bands. The sense of time is rushed internally from the subjective want of these outerbands to be all there ever was of this experience because you seem to be experiencing simply a bad thunderstorm or tropical storm at that point. Cognitively, you know the experience of a hurricane is just starting, but no matter how much you would want to rush this experience over, the impending sense of time lurked on. It was not helped that every model of prediction had the hurricane paths crisscrossing Baton Rouge. Knowledge of those prediction models steered in my head and popped up in my awareness during the time passing between chores and tasks. Time loomed in this experience all day, and I cannot tell the difference between the memory of this stress and the sense of time recalled. Time certainly did not flow as one might experience typically, nor was it normally disjointed like enduring an academic meeting that could have been handled through email. Burdensome time that lasts forever is not the same as a hurricane. Instead, the disjointed and episodic temporality is given with constant attention and stress of an impending threat.

When a hurricane really hits is distinguished from the outer bands. At that point, you cover your bedroom window with a mattress. You bring in as many creature comforts you can and think you might need. These creature comforts are not comforts at all. They are emergency supplies. You bring in your cats and your wife, and you wonder if you will have to retreat to an inner wall. You do not dare look outside. The window is a thin sharp membrane between you and the outside. Being a Midwestern American, you know that while a Hurricane Ida is a category 2 or category 1 as predicted, it’s still similar to an F1 or F2 tornado. You hunker down and do not dare approach the window.

During a hurricane, temporality bleeds into other forms of givenness. You hear the creaking of wood holding your apartment complex together. You hear gusts and howls of air brush up and against the structure. You imagine the worst in those moments. Images of the roof being torn off enter your mind. The structure sways. Then, the gusts go away. They come again. They go away. Each time is an unwanted inevitability. This goes on for hours. When you look at your phone, only twelve minutes has passed. The flow of time is perpetually broken and episodic with what might be an impending consequence with each jolting howl of wind, creak of wood, and swaying of your building. This episodic sense of time doesn’t go away until it cascades in exhaustion of stress and anxiety.

Since Hurricane Ida moved about 8-10 mph, it took hours in objective clock time to move while you are caught in episodic disjointed ruptures of time.


2. The affective mode of givenness of enduring a hurricane

The affective dimensions of an impending threat are many. The first major insight is that with some threats, a person attempts to gain control of their environment in some way. In some threats, you can exert some influence or control. You can rush the man with a gun. You can dash away before an attacker grabs you. In and during a hurricane, agential control is shattered. There is only the reckoning of the choices you’ve made to endure something that’s power outstrips you completely. Did you make the right choice and stay? Did you prepare enough?

Once inside the experience of the hurricane, the physical structure’s possibility you inhabit becomes as felt as your own body. Each burst of wind, swaying, and creaking is felt as moments of unwanted possibility that return again as another moment of a loss of control. In this way, the hurricane is given in the outer bands as impending threat and then looming anxiousness once it is overhead. At that point, the howling wind could be heard over those you care about next to you.

The looming anxiousness swirls above almost as if I had projected upon the hurricane the motion of my feelings. Every wish that this was not happening returned again that it was. Anxiousness, then, pervaded the space of my apartment and filtered all perceptions of my wife and cats. This is a looming anxiousness unlike anything I had ever felt. I’ve lost jobs due to low enrollment and this experience is not like whether or not I will work in philosophy again. Instead, this looming anxiousness is mortally jarring in a way that pangs of humanly induced anxiety are not the same.

Somehow, fear is also part of anxiety and also not. Fear disrupts the pervasive sense of anxiety, At the time you did have agential control, you fear whether or not you did right by staying here in terms of your own sense of self and those you care about who are enduring this with you.

3. The embodied mode of givenness of enduring a hurricane

The looming anxiousness correlates to modes of givenness in the body. In between the gusting and howling winds, one could feel the stress in between the diaphragm, the sternum, and the lungs. As the structure endures the howling winds, you hold your breath in between. The stress between breaths is embodied affective awareness and time coalescing together. The muscle tenseness does not go away for hours on end. It’s there in your chest. You carry it with you throughout the entire night. You exhale only after that perceived gust or sway, but those episodic exhales are never relaxing. You lose focus on your present field of consciousness and the looming anxiousness, tenseness of breathing, stress in the chest, and episodic disjointness of time all come together in an experience you never want to undergo again.

Eventually, there is a collapse. The entire stress and anxiety of the day come over you inside your body. There was a time that I left the safety of those inner walls and fell asleep on the couch. I resigned myself to the gusts of wind outside. I knew cognitively that Hurricane Ida had bent northeasternly in its path towards Hammond, Louisiana. I knew that we would not get the likely formation of tornados radiating outward from being on the Eastern-side of Ida’s eye. I took those facts with me to bed. Somehow, I fell asleep as a hurricane gusted outside. Ashley could not sleep until several hours later.

4. The Self-to-other mode of givenness of enduring a hurricane with my Ashley and our cats: Olive and Lulu

The self-to-other mode of givenness is characterized first and foremost by the fact that other persons transcend your possibility in unpredictable ways. For the purposes of this short essay, neither I nor Ashley make a distinction between persons and cats. Cats are persons just as much as Ashley is to me and I to her. Regardless, there is a special awareness of your spouse’s otherness. When it is your wife of fifteen years, there are serious attachments and habituated patterns of care and love that fuel your productivity throughout the day and inside the storm. You carry on these burdens because eventually the threat is no longer impending. This is probably the hardest mode of givenness to capture in language. Let me explain.

The other’s transcendence is not only given in the face-to-face relation as Levinas warns. More than that, the spousal person is given as a locus of care and attention and that locus of care and attention is reciprocated. That reciprocation is the givenness during a hurricane, but it manifests as fear that the loss of that reciprocation may be threatened physically by the looming anxiousness of the hurricane. The hurricane threatens your soulmate and you get angry at an externalization of the hurricane. You get mad at the hurricane for putting your loved ones in danger, and if you’re religious, then you may get mad at God. This externalization doubles and intensifies that the others for whom you care are put in harm’s way because it was you, Ed, that decided to place Ashley, Lulu, and Olive in harm’s way. They followed your lead.

What’s more, you may not notice the habits of care that structure the day. I do the dishes. Ashley does meal prep. Even during the several days lead up to the storm, it’s not just these patterns are steady and reliable. Without this steadfastness and reliability of a partner, even our shared mortality comes up in the sudden jolts of the impending threat of the storm and the loss of the most important and valuable persons to you. You imagine your life without the persons you care about because you blame yourself that this looming anxiousness swirls above you and them.

5. The givenness of a wild environment and the loss of normalcy after enduring a hurricane

The correlate to my personal act sphere is a world of possibility beyond which I have no agential control. Certainly, a person may exert some influence upon the world. Following Dewey, I consider technology an augmentation of the body’s capacities. In this way, any valued technology that underlies our habitual being in the world may be viewed as an extension of the person. The person is an onto-relational being for many reasons, and this is just one of those relations.

Earlier I said that the physical structure that houses you and others may feel like an extension of your own body. There is more to this peculiar mode of givenness. Where you make a home in the world is the place where you naturally feel most at home in the world. You can be as you are inside the sanctum of your own home and being at home in your very being in a world without any unease generates a sense of normalcy. The humming of refrigerator, the activation of the air conditioning, the white noise of a television, and the habits of home particular to you and your lifestyle—all of these things occur here. There is what we might call a certain lifestyle that these habits at home and your being constitute the physical space of that structure. These habits underly the range of expected possibility.

The looming anxiousness of a hurricane intrudes upon the sanctum of habits. It completely ruptures both you and the extension of yourself. All habits of home and safety become immediately threatened. Each creak, sway, and jostling of the home is given as the thin membrane between you and nature as pure wildness. Wildness is the givenness of nature beyond that which cannot be controlled. Wildness overcomes all boundaries of technology. Wildness of nature disrupts the human artificial boundary between you and the forces of nature that outstrip your agency. Wildness in the face of your mortality revives your awareness of a primal relation human beings have long forgotten. As we move into cities and practice agriculture, we have created a world of control around a few possibilities. The assumption is that whatever may threaten this human world, we can put it back together. In that moment facing Hurricane Ida, this assumption was and is ripped asunder. In a flash, in all actuality, the wildness of nature can threaten and undermine the human world. As we remake the planet in the age of anthropocene, the wildness of nature may continue to constitute a threat to the delusion of safety that inhabiting the human world almost always seems to generate.

Now, the human world is subjected to that wildness. Baton Rouge is largely out of gas; supplies are far and few between. New Orleans will have no power for weeks. Entire institutions have been destroyed. Tulane University shipped its students to Houston and is flying them home. They will go online. Face to face instruction is over. Complete loss of homes and normalcy has occurred for people in Laplace, Louisiana as their town is no more. The entire town is swept away in that wildness of flood and wind.

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A Few Observations Regarding Netflix’s The Chair

'The Chair' Is Netflix’s Best Drama in Years

A few themes I noticed in The Chair (Spoilers below):

1. The normative constraints of neoliberal university management consume any enlightened intention a person of color or minority person put into the position of Chair at a PWI such that those normative constraints work as de facto whiteness. This renders Sandra Oh’s academic appointment as a type of proxy for the white privilege and power that protected her even when she is well-intentioned and feels she is working against the status quo.

2. While Sandra Oh’s character Ji-Yoon Kim rubs up against the way in which the study of literature and the presence of canon privileges certain themes that seem irrelevant to the older white faculty, as soon as Sandra Oh is perceived to be an agent of ageism and the demands/normative constraints of neoliberal university management manifest, the alliances that protected her are torn apart. In this way, neoliberal university management desires the conflict amongst the faculty such that no progress or unified front are possible. The administration clearly knows what it is doing, and in doing so, this is the most believable part of the show.

3. The optics of naive undergraduates who think they are making the world better by protesting the sarcasm of Professor Dobson and how Professor Dobson fails to understand the context of how his sarcasm is understood through identity politics are two sides of the same coin. I find this a regrettable reality of being a professor in an age where everything you say and do could be taken out of context with disastrous results. More than that, however, neither Professor Dobson nor the undergraduates actually talk to each other. They both misunderstand each other with no nuance whatsoever to the point that nothing is resolved and that lack of resolution allows for the same optics to repeat again and again. This part is quite believable since we can expect another incident like Dobson to occur again.

4. What I do find unbelievable is the disconnect between academic prestige in the minds of people who write these types of shows that imagine professors in dark-stained wooden offices. In my experience, faculty offices and student dorms still are stacked with cinder block. Old dorms are turned into faculty offices. Buildings at public universities are often in disrepair. Tiles are missing from the ceiling. Faculty are not dressed to impress. What most of us know is that there are two tiers in American higher education. There are the universities for the privileged and some near-ivy small liberal arts colleges (SLACs) like to think of themselves as a continuation of that world. The rest of us teach at the public universities where the humanities are almost all but dead. So the show is at least prima facie right to depict an English department teetering at the edge of oblivion all the while the same professors insist on doing things as they have always done them to the point that they may be made obsolete by their unwillingness to change. What’s unrealistic is that this would happen to an English Department currently. The only way English Departments have preserved themselves is the teaching of freshman composition that places a huge burden on them. If it were any other department other than an English Department, the trials and tribulations of the show would be more believable.

This disconnect is probably a product of the co-developer, Anna Julia Wyman who replicates the near-ivy and ivy prestige bias in the show’s writing. This replication assumes many things about how universities work that contrasts against all of us who were not produced by that world nor work in that world. She has degrees in literature from Stanford and Harvard. She also teaches exclusively in that world, so unless Dobson is forced to teach at an area community college (I am only on the fourth episode), I do not trust the show to get these challenges depicted accurately.

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The Problems with Phenomenology of Religion

So, I am reading Jason Blum’s “William James and How to Study Experience: Integrating Phenomenology of Religion and Radical Empiricism” in Methods and Theory in the Study of Religion vol. 27, no. 4 (2015). So far, I feel like this article could have been written somewhere in the late 80s and early 90s. It’s kinda surreal, but also fun. There’s nothing really here that I haven’t thought of or not read elsewhere, but there’s this eery reminder about how much I dislike Marion. Let me describe why.

Before we got started on why I hate Marion, let’s consider Blum. “[S]ome phenomenologists of religion have been accused of covertly importing theological commitments to their work” and he continues, “this charge is more difficult to level at James.” Now, there’s no mention of Marion, but that’s basically what Marion does. He sees an opportunity to invent what he calls the Third Reduction and it just happens to function exactly like biblical revelation, so phenomenology is coopted for Christian revelation. Nishitani also reads into the structure of the existential subject co-dependent origination/non-dualism. This is why I find much of the work in phenomenology of religion suspect, and even find fault with Scheler, too. By contrast, consider Blum continuing on about James, “James’s struggles to come to grips with his own beliefs [about a transcendental reality] suggest that, rather than given assumptions that could slip into his thought through the backdoor [as I fault Marion], his opinions on the existence of a transcendental reality were instead subject to constant doubt and reflection” (429). In a way, James’s methodological agnosticism while doing his phenomenology of religion in The Varieties is what prevents this ontological slippage of taking one’s phenomenological descriptions as self-evident reports of one’s own presuppositions. In this way, phenomenology of religion is almost always corrupted by the very faith it seeks to describe. This also means that the phenomenology of religion largely lacks phenomenological rigor.

What Blum is missing, of course, is James’s conception of God is finite, a cosmic experiencer, who is posited and framed in terms of what science is reporting about reality. A corollary insight of James would be that our concept of the Divine can only be found adequate if that concept meshes with what our science says about reality. In other words, the Abrahamic conception is found as wanting as I find both Marion and Nishitani. The danger is taking phenomenological research as elucidating what it already wants ontologically to be there. The fact that James is constantly struggling with the want for some empirical proof of the Divine is a far better mechanism to prevent ontological slippage, the practice of using phenomenological description to reify some aspect of the description and to privilege it ontologically. I can see several possibilities open for phenomenology of religion.

First, phenomenology of religion can simply just claim to situate itself as if it is bound within a tradition. One might be tempted to say that phenomenology is never pure ontological neutrality, but instead embedded in hermeneutic context. On this reading, one could give Marion a pass because he never claimed to be working out a conception of experience that was not saturated in Abrahamic religion.

Second, one can simply regard phenomenology of religion and embrace ontological slippage. They might cite Heidegger as indicating that it is entirely appropriate to use phenomenology for producing fundamental ontology. On this reading, Marion is just doing what he thinks phenomenology can do for him and Nishitani is simply doing what existential phenomenology gets him for Zen Buddhism.

However, in both accounts, there is the real danger of uncritical phenomenology. You can pass off your reports of first-person experience as if some aspect of them is self-evident when it’s clearly not the case. We forget that doing good phenomenology is putting those descriptions out there for others to evaluate and test. But this will bring me to my second point. Rigorous phenomenological description must come from the same methodological agnosticism and nonreductive processive naturalism about how various states of consciousness are but ongoing relations and transactions in the environment and context we find ourselves navigating. When someone starts with James’s radical empiricism, one then starts with the de facto pluralism that comes out of its bedrock assumptions–one of which is that we do not have privileged access to reality to decide ultimately on the truest form of experience, so we must be pluralists for that reason alone. In this way, all phenomenology of religion should be looked at through James’s radical empiricism and tested with his pragmatism. In so doing, we can at least prevent uncritical phenomenology and the possible ontological slippage it causes. Only this way can phenomenology of religion be better secured against propagating poorly performed descriptions and become more rigorous.

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A Sarcastic Dialogue with Philosophers of Religion

Others: See all this a priori reasoning about God and dogma that seeks to legitimate this one religion over here despite scientific findings about reality. See all the philosophy of religion I’ve done (almost always a white dude at an Oxbridge school)

Me: Um guys, there’s more than one religion in the world.

Others: If people of other religions want to do philosophy of religion, then they can engage our work in these journals that only concerns “all this a priori reasoning about God and dogma that seeks to legitimate this one religion over here” and to which me and all our friends are on the editorial board of.

Me: Um guys, there’s more than one philosophical tradition that does philosophy of religion.

Others: If other philosophical traditions want to do philosophy of religion, then they can engage our work in these journals that only concerns “all this a priori reasoning about God and dogma that seeks to legitimate this one religion over here” and to which me and all our friends are on the editorial board of.

Me: Um guys, women also write philosophy of religion.

Others: If women want to do philosophy of religion, then they can engage our work in these journals that only concerns “all this a priori reasoning about God and dogma that seeks to legitimate this one religion over here” and to which me and all our friends are on the editorial board of.

Me: Um guys, there’s tons of work to be done looking at African American philosophy and theology inside our American traditions.

Others: If scholars looking at African American philosophy and theology inside our American traditions want to do philosophy of religion, then scholars of African American philosophy and theology inside our American traditions can engage our work in these journals that only concerns “all this a priori reasoning about God and dogma that seeks to legitimate this one religion over here” and to which me and all our friends are on the editorial board of.

Me: Philosophy of religion is very insular…

Others: How dare you characterize us as insular, we’re a very open community of scholars. (Points to the one person of color who does exactly what they do but was hired at fancy pants ivy school with a Christian seminary) It’s characterizing analytic philosophy of religion like that that makes us not want to engage in other aspects of history, tradition, or other religions.

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Thoughts Sparked by July 4th

My wife and I visited a park alongside many other Americans. A local volunteer big band played uncopyrighted music from the 19th century. I could smell food trucks and portable grills burning hot dogs and hamburgers. It had a small town feel much. Save for the heat, it had the trappings of Western Pennsylvania to it. Beyond that, the park felt unreal, even nostalgic in two ways. First, to be around other people was a privilege and a discomfort. To be around others affirmed humanity, our humanity. It affirmed our common American want for a return to normalcy. Second, to be around others affirmed my reflective mistrust as everyone around me focused on the jubilation of the first part.

You see. Americans do not want to return to normalcy to which they contribute something of themselves, but just the opposite. The return to normalcy is plagued by half of us that see sacrificing anything of one’s own as a non-starter. While the vaccinated half will listen to science, we will pay with our bodies what we know to serve the public good. The unvaccinated half just desires a return to normalcy, but they are unwilling to sacrifice their own individual interest to help others attain it. The cultural impasse is American individualism–pure and simple. The unvaccinated half simply want a return to normalcy, and they listen to the propagandist bombastic Fox News spew conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory that stalls any effort at mobilization whereas by contrast Americans regarding vaccines should be like the Americans during World War 2 recycling our use of metal cans for the war effort.

On top of that, you have a mixture of factors of anti-intellectualism at work in unvaccinated Americans. You have perhaps a commitment to belief from authority like fundamentalist Christianity, a resurgence of Christian nationalism, failing notions of scientific understanding, and the assistance of Fox News. You have a hostile group of Americans who romanticize an image of Americana that never existed, or worse that such a conception of white nostalgia uncritically recalls times that harmed and exploited others without attention to such harms and exploitation. The origin of colorblind racial policies is rooted in the uncritical memorialization of a 1950s unplagued by racial terror.

So I sat pensively in my chair. I looked at everyone around me. The worship of veterans, the militancy and uncritical worship of American warriors with whom 25% compose American homelessness. No Southern states have direct policies to talk about homelessness. The cost of such geopolitics is paid by the working poor and underserved who in their desperation join the US military to better their own life and get free higher education. We won’t talk about those contradictions that lurk under the surface of our shared jubilation. We won’t talk about how peer-reviewed medical science and the worship of economic interests became politicized by the Right to urge sacrificing American lives for the prosperity of the elite and the rich. How did public health experts become demonized but rich capitalists somehow the heroes in all of this? How we esteemed the grocery clerk as essential but balk at any mention of increasing the minimum wage to a living wage for those same grocery clerks? How did Democrats favor lockdowns and listen to science when the other party simply chose to ignore the same science with President Trump spewing nonsense regarding hydroxychloroquine and bleach? Lockdowns became vilified as threats to the economic wellbeing of the rich rather than a price to pay so that we may be all better.

Am I being too harsh? Should I have just enjoyed the night? I don’t know. I see so many working contradictions within American culture and life that I wish I could have sat there blindly for just a second. If I sat in this park blindly, I could have heard the promise of returning to normal without paying any sacrifice for the fulfillment of that want. Philosophically, I know that is impossible, but dreaming the impossible and the false has an allure to it even if but a moment. It creates a world where one can blame others and absolve oneself of helping completely. Imagine living in a world where you are never to blame for the reality around you and the lack of your desire is caused by the actions of others.

My hope for America has been stunted. My vision blurred. I am too cynical to fix America. Maybe others can reach where clearly my words have failed.

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Towards A Pragmatic Phenomenology: Synthesizing American and Continental

In what follows, I wrote this in 2017 on Facebook, a time in which I was still open to the possibility of a real synthesis. I do not know where I stand with these words. However, like anyone who mines their own thought process, the only thing to say now is, of course, the tensions are alive in me as I am finishing my monograph on James.

One might ask exactly wherein did James enter the picture if this work germinated in an encounter with Scheler’s writings? One pragmatic impetus is clear from the start. Like William James, a metaphysics only makes insofar as it helps me engage with the world—that it can explain the aesthetic, moral, and spiritual interests of persons. That whatever these interests they foster a reconstructive moment to meditate on the demands those interests highlight. In addition, William James’s thinking is employed as a corrective measure to Scheler.

With these facts in mind, how James enters into my engagement with Scheler is a complicated story, and so for the remainder of this introduction, I will confess why I chose the label pragmatic phenomenology. Through this story, one will find that a pragmatic phenomenology emerges. This pragmatic phenomenology is still in its infancy in my thought, and undoubtedly there will be creative tensions and differences emerge here. While I haven’t fully articulated it, I can at least say a few provisional remarks before the survey of chapters about pragmatic phenomenology.

First, phenomenology is never pure as Husserl insisted—a fact Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger understood very well. Within phenomenology, one can listen to Husserlians spout off about the possibility of a transcendental phenomenology, but such an endeavor is never itself metaphysically neutral precisely because there will be a time in which a phenomenologist (no matter if they are an existential or transcendental phenomenologist) reifies one aspect of the intentional act-side or object-side of that relation. Second, once reification occurs, they start to speculate about the side in question. At this moment, the speculative aspect of their efforts assumes that the intentional relation is primitively-basic to all experiencers and they are now no longer neutral, but engaged in some type of fundamental ontology. Like every phenomenologist, Scheler is guilty of this, but like Heidegger’s awareness of this fact, we can now read Scheler ontologically with respect to the affective intentional relation that discloses the reality of values. However, with respect to all speculative efforts, we must keep it within the boundaries of experience. We must think of these speculative efforts as ways to enhance the very practical nature of human experience they seek to disclose—this is where Jamesian pragmatism enters my philosophical story.

Jamesian pragmatism is open to the reality of contents of experience, but those contents must provide a conceivable effect to my experience as well as yours. Put another way, if we were only phenomenologists, our efforts would merely be passive in describing phenomena and not seek to construct pathways forward. Phenomenology can only open up eidetic seeing if that eidetic seeing is connecting the prospects of concrete experience and that means eliciting the very effects such eidetic seeing has on practical action. When phenomenology is good, it serves as a pathway to speculation and construction of philosophical systems that enhance practical action. Eidetic seeing, then, can only make headway if the descriptions of experience facilitate reconstructive moments. For this reason, I now describe my efforts as working in pragmatic phenomenology.

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Nealing Down and Listening to a Good Friend

One of my dearest friends, and a Black philosopher, told me yesterday that he simply wished to be human. We acknowledged that this wish underlies my work at an HBCU and his personal life. I wish it for my students and him and he wishes it for his personal life, family and fellows. Needless to say, five centuries of the idea of race cannot be erased, but we can ask questions about how to generate a world of possibility where perhaps none have existed. Perhaps, this generation of possibility in contemplation is the reason why many are drawn to do philosophy. We are permitted to ask questions and transgress the concrete for the possible. The more interesting questions we both face either directly or indirectly is: Where in the history of European thought did philosophy become complicit in racism? Where did these philosophical ideas start? What interruptions in philosophy have their been to denounce this racist legacy to create new possibilities for philosophy that lurk under the surface of its racist history (especially for me: British Empiricism, Kant, Hegel, Arendt and Husserl)? What possibilities for philosophy can there be now? Only by doing philosophy are we intensely alive, more alive than people walking on the street who unreflectively echo the concrete rather than asking what is possible (Recall Cornel West saying this in the back of the cab in the film, The Examined Life).

Part of the problem of racism is that the habits that give rise to it are concrete and historical, and in seeking denialism of this very concrete and historical reality in the here-and-now, whites never bother to ask about what is possible to learn from our Black Brothers and Sisters–it is the possibility of being human. However, you can’t stop here and help yourself to the rhetoric of being-human or being-American as if we have reached some summit free of the concrete and historical habits of racism. Instead, philosophical thought must transgress the concrete and historical habits time and time again, producing reflections that steer and guide the possibility of philosophy itself to envision a world in which persons are onto-relational potentials. I am a philosopher and only can contribute its development. Artists and writers must do the same in their own traditions. Rethinking the past to alter the future–that’s our goal culturally and collectively. This is philosophy’s reconstructive moment alongside many other reconstructive moments of practices that need to transgress the concrete for what is possible.

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Totality and Generativity

Being is generativity.
It is the category of all extants, some type of totalizing category.
I experience It in particulars,
but can never get behind or above Being’s totality conceptually.
I imagine though that I can get above it, behind it, and look at it.
At least maybe catch glimpses of it?

I am told of a Dao I cannot name is not the real totality.
I am told of primordial God and consequent God in Whitehead
I am told of the widest possible, but still finite experiencer in James
I am told of raw striving multiplicity in Schelling’s nature.
I am told of Buddhist co-dependent origination
I am told of the mana of the Maori.
I am told of Wakan Tanka of the Lakota tribes.

What I am told cannot name the totality
And yet as a philosopher I still enter the many thought systems
Each system attempting to discern what escapes them
I enter those systems, reside in those words.
I dwell in another’s thought. But why?

Philosophy is the love and chase of a Totality
This Totality is forever in relation, becoming.
When one grasps a handful of sand, much escapes
And yet a few grains remain.

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Some Thoughts Regarding Kant and James

William James situates his critique of consciousness amidst standard historical binaries of thought and thing, spirit and matter, and soul and body. According to James, these binaries, which hail back as far as Plato, are equipollent substances. Moreover, these words all describe the same bipolar relation, albeit with different terms. The subjective-side associated with thought, spirit, and soul are equal in power and ability with the corresponding objective-side with thing, matter, and body. What remains unclear is the reasons James singles out Kant as undermining “the soul.” By introducing the transcendental ego, Kant has made this traditional bipolar relation “very much off its balance.”[i] In this way, we might infer that James thinks Kant is a historical marker where the soul is no longer equipollent with the body. Of course, this is an inference that is not supported by James’s text. I am still left asking: Why might James think Kant’s innovation of the transcendental ego introduces this off-balance view of a distinction that he will radically revise and reinterpret? In order to understand that, let’s review Kant’s notion of the transcendental ego.

For Kant, the term transcendental refers to the possible conditions of possible experience. Kant’s concern is to provide an analysis of knowledge by tracing all knowledge to necessary pure truths of experience and thereby explicate the starting position of human knowledge. By doing so, Kant can show what rules that make experience possible and allow us to know objects of experience in the way we do. Unlike the rationalists, like Descartes alluded to in earlier chapters, Kant will not find certainty in metaphysical speculation. In fact, Kant’s critical turn is to halt metaphysical speculation altogether. For Kant, human experience receives the sensible forms of intuition as space and time and then imposes on the manifold of these appearances the meaningful content imposed by the categories of understanding. Kant, like James, thinks that our concepts produced by the understanding cannot access that which simply appears. In fact, Kant calls that which appears phenomena and the in-itself true nature of reality (what he calls noumena) is beyond our knowledge to access. In thinking that we can have knowledge of the noumena, one must introduce some faculty capable of accessing the in-itself reality that lies beyond appearance. Kant calls this intellectual intuition. Descartes called this simply reason. Accordingly, this intellectual intuition “forms no part whatsoever of our faculty of knowledge, it follows that the employment of the categories can never extend further than to the objects of experience.”[ii]

While a full rehearsal of Kant’s project is not our goal, we can talk further about what “off-balance” might mean for Kant’s introduction of the transcendental ego. Kant introduces the term transcendental ego at a point in his Critique of Pure Reason in the very beginning in §16 The Original Synthetic Unity of Apperception. In this section, Kant is accounting for why it is the case that with all the disparate elements of both sensible forms of intuition of space and time and the categories of the understanding that these elements are experienced in the unity of consciousness. In fact, this unity is necessary to account for why it is the case that I experience my representations within this unity of experience. For this reason, Kant opens this section with, “It must be possible for the ‘I think’ to accompany all my representations; for otherwise something would be represented in me which could not be thought at all, and that is equivalent to saying that representation would be impossible, or at least would be nothing to me.”[iii] In other words, the unity of my transcendental ego (or what he also calls self-consciousness) is the origin as to why it is that I can claim representations as consistently belonging to me.

Kant’s claim follows upon the heels of phrases like “belonging to me” and “my representations.” In this way, the representations of the world embody what James might call the not-me and yet there’s no clear boundary between the way in which both the not-me objective world and the originating act of synthesis in the consciousness creates the unity of experience. Even though experience in Kant never exceeds that which appears, the transcendental ego becomes, as it were, that which appears to me as the precondition for all experience. The many elements of knowledge can only be knowledge because “I can unite a manifold of given representations in one consciousness.”[iv] This original synthesis is continually ongoing, uniting the various elements of knowledge into one consciousness and this continual synthesis in consciousness provides law-like regularity to my experience. For this reason, the world of bodies and objective side of experience no longer matters or has any importance for experience.

According to James, consciousness as an overly-powerful concept takes center stage for Kantian and near-like Neo-Kantian thinking. The mistake is, I think, that this transcendental unity is an objective facet of all experience. Experience is taken away from all particulars and thematized in an impersonal schematism. As James describes Kantian thinking, “Consciousness as such is impersonal—‘self’ and its activities belong to content.”[v] This impersonalization of consciousness, then, turns consciousness into an “epistemological necessity” that we might even have to conclude even if we had no evidence of it being there.[vi] In other words, while we can accept the Kantian critique that experience should be solely within the confines of space and time, Kant is still operating with the sense of the consciousness as an entity, as something extricated from the world it happens to have representations of. There is a strict metaphysical line between mind and world that is not exactly obliterated despite experience being confined within space and time. Consciousness is an entity still in Kant and is essentially guilty of possessing a “dualistic inner constitution.” This picture of consciousness is false for reasons I have yet to explain, but this picture of Kant and other Neo-Kantians is the opening through which James will inaugurate his critique of consciousness as an entity and speculative metaphysics about relations more generally.


[i] William James, Essays in Radical Empiricism (Mineola, New York: Dover Publishing, 2003), p. 1. I will cite this as ERE hereafter.

[ii] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason trans. Norman Kemp Smith (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), p. 270.

[iii] Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, pp. 152-153.

[iv] Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, pp. 153.

[v] James, ERE, p. 3.

[vi] James, ERE, p. 4.