There are tensions in my thought, tensions because I inhabit more than one philosophical tradition at the same time, but also because I have never truly resolved them. I’ve left them alone willingly just like when you pull back on the classroom discussion to let students go, not knowing if it will be a productive digression or not. First, the fact that for phenomenology to work at all, some type of ontological givenness must be presumed… and the question then becomes just how much of reality-as-experienced is truly given? Second, the other tension is the more constructivist view of things that some find in pragmatism. How much of reality-as-experienced are we constructing from our percepts? If percepts are later reflected upon and conceptualized into philosophical problems, then all phenomenology might be is delimited to a narrow givenness in percepts. This strategy requires naturalizing the given as percepts.
James can resolve this tension if you unify his thought through the field of attention in PBC, selective interest, and then what’s given is what is attended to. One can then unify early James with the later James’s metaphysics (and is my current reading of James I endorse) You maintain a soft naturalism that allows for an ontology of felt relations such that anything experienced is considered genuinely real in an expansive sense. This claim is James’s “principle of principles.” In this expansive sense, many interpretations abound and result in an ontological pluralisms of seeing reality. Out of resolving one tension, many tensions foster and hoist up the world. Pragmatism, then, becomes a way of testing these later ontological pluralisms that constitute the world.
One might look for a solution that seemingly combined both pragmatism and phenomenology, and near as I can gather, Brightman is a synthesis of both traditions. Brightman holds that coherence is not a matter of intuitions, nor is intuition thick in a Husserlian and categorical sense. Instead, the fact that an intuition gives rise to a proposition must cohere with the bulk of other propositions in experience. Thus, experience and reflection upon those propositions is a higher test than intuitions cohering that one finds amongst Husserlians. Brightman thus adds a critical element of reason to the given content of reality. For him, the irreducible level of reality where values are experienced is the same place that logic is apprehended. For Brightman, reality is rational and intelligible all the way through thus also with reality-as-experienced. The intelligibility of reality is also grounded upon the fact that we are persons living in a personal mind of God, so the intelligibility of all experience and its coherence is a product of the harmony undergirding the world in his personalistic idealism. What’s clear is that human beings and God corroborate to create a better world.
Still, one can make moves that deny both Brightman and James. For instance, as a friend and expert in Wilfrid Sellars told me:
The key move that Sellars makes in his theory of perception is to deny what you think phenomenology must assume: that the givenness of perception is ontological. To perceive, Sellars thinks, involves a coordination of conceptual and non-conceptual representations, where non-conceptual representations are states of sensory consciousness. But that’s all that phenomenology can tell us (he thinks): we need to go beyond phenomenology and into cognitive neuroscience to understand what those states really are.
Phenomenology, at least the Husserlian variety, then is making a mistake about perception. Perception is not just one instance of all consciousness being intentional. Intentionality is wrongly described. For the Husserlian, all conscious and nonconscious states exhibit this constitutive relationship of the co-relation between noesis and noema. It’s not the case that perception is given, but rather that perception is a faculty that emerges out of the coordination of conceptual and nonconceptual representations. The conceptual and nonconceptual emerge out of somehow altering our normal sensory consciousness in much as the same perceptual constraint in James (and likewise holds our attention as our “selective interest”). All conceptualizations in James are the result of taking a piece of some percept and then abstracting that content away from its initial sensory delivery into some higher-ordered concept or idea that coordinates other aspects of experience. James’s conception of experience allows for the irreducible elements of the religious, the aesthetic, and the philosophical to commingle at a level that does not seek to reduce their complexity to something akin to cognitive neuroscience.
To be fair, neither my friend nor others that research cognitive neuroscience feel as if they are reducing complexity to cognitive neuroscience. They are simply interested in developing a scientific understanding of mental states necessary to talk about that which exhibits the complexity of experience. Personally, I always find the move that such talk invites reductive materialism as a red herring to what they are trying to do, even if they must assume some type of materialism true about the mind to investigate it. All scientists have to assume some type of methodological naturalism to engage in scientific inquiry. If James is right, then really the choices are either some form of idealism in which reality is fundamentally mental or some form of materialism in which reality is fundamentally physical. Not many people are sated with a neutral monism in which the question of the ontology of minds and the world is eternally suspended because of our own limits.
As a Jamesian, I often live in between the all-or-nothing-isms of philosophy. I live between these extremes because of James’s critique of metaphysics is skeptical we have access to reality to settle how it is ultimately. This limitation means you make friends with theists and atheists, yet you remind each that there’s really no final test for these ideas except whether or not practical consequences follow from adhering to them. Some metaphysical problems boil down to a Will to Believe (also privately a reason why people cannot understand James’s Will to Believe Argument without understanding pragmatism as a way to settle metaphysical disputes). If a friend embraces a metaphysical theory that offers no consequences to experience, then you must remind her that such a metaphysical theory can never answer what she thinks her answers can. Again, there’s no access to reality in the way that offers privileged access to settle some metaphysical problem. There are only the ways in which those ideas cohere and anticipate interaction with other ideas of experience and the ideas of others.
Following the Jamesian commitments, I should be able to resolve the tension of the givenness or non-givenness of reality-as-experienced along the same lines. However, the problem will still be with me for some time. I need to think more on it, so if you’ve read this expecting this post to go somewhere, then I’m sorry it only ends in aporia for me.