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.


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