Center For Inquiry Talk on James and Phenomenology

Today, I taught a seminar on William James and phenomenology at the Center For Inquiry up here in Buffalo, NY. The talk will be online after some editing, and therefore, I will share it soon. I was invited to give a talk on the relationship between phenomenology and pragmatism as forms of humanism.

In my talk, humanism does not here mean secular humanism, though the participants in my seminar were very influenced by this trajectory of the term. For James, humanism means radical empiricism, the very fact that “experience…leans on nothing.” Experience is all there is. As in the case of rationalism, there is no need to posit categories or concepts beyond experience if they are not directly experienced. Moreover, the empiricist tends to downplay connections of experience to sense datum. James paves a middle way between them allowing for the positing of connections between the conjunctive relations we posit to make sense of the connecting intermediary elements we impose upon experience. Insofar as our experience is made better by the interpretation of how the parts fit together, the interpretation works. What’s more, no interpretation of how these parts fit together can explain the whole exhaustively, and so we must be humble in our “hermeneutic efforts.”

In phenomenology, while many I know account for God through phenomenology (Marion, Scheler, Stein just to name a few), the humanism is a commitment to the irreducibility of experience, but the commitment to irreducibility is all there can be. Phenomenological description is an attempt to lay bare the relation between the act and object co-relational structure and to sustain a view of experience qua that co-relational structure. James’s description of consciousness in Essays in Radical Empiricism is identical to intentionality. Therefore, one could easily arrive at a similar place in both James and Husserl (the very two thinkers that inspired the name for this blog). Both generate forms of humanism, though Husserl may be more of a quasi-humanism than James. Let me explain.

I will be pushing Husserl in this direction, but in my lecture, I also made a second point. I discovered this point in writing out the lecture. Husserl’s transcendental idealism (if you buy that interpretation of Ideas 1) would be as erroneous as rationalism for James. Elevating acts over objects and introducing a unifying structure of a transcendental subject, would be an imposition from without onto the structure of thought and thing known, the co-relational structure of act and object. In this way, James would be suspicious of Husserl, and maybe rightly so since James also thinks that since experience is all there is, then there is no fixed point outside of experience to make sense of experience. All understanding is historicized in very much the same way both Heidegger and Gadamer claimed.

So, maybe in the next few weeks, I will write out some of my thoughts here. Needless to say, I will be revising the lecture since we will be putting together an edition on Continental Humanism, and offering more in depth analysis of James’s pragmatism qua humanism especially how it relates to both James’s meliorism and pluralism in the upcoming year. 



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