Matthew Burch, Jack Marsh, Irene McMullin (Eds.): Normativity, Meaning, and the Promise of Phenomenology

Normativity, Meaning, and the Promise of Phenomenology Book Cover Normativity, Meaning, and the Promise of Phenomenology
Routledge Research in Phenomenology
Matthew Burch, Jack Marsh, Irene McMullin (Eds.)
Routledge
2019
Hardback £120.00
358

Reviewed by: Steven DeLay (Old Member, Christ Church, University of Oxford)

On one common telling of the history, phenomenology originates as a philosophical movement incubated in professional jealousy, personal rivalry, and intrigue. If someone as Emmanuel Falque has called the recent work among phenomenologists in France a “loving struggle,” the same cannot be said for phenomenology’s earliest beginnings in Germany. Surrounded initially by a burgeoning cadre of students whom he hoped would be heirs to a research program united in its philosophical vision, Edmund Husserl, father of transcendental phenomenology, instead found his aspirations increasingly disappointed as the years passed. As he was to remark in a note towards the end of his career, the general sentiment of his time, one against which he never ceased to struggle, took a dismissively dim view of the systemiticity he so favored: “Philosophy as science, as serious, rigorous, indeed apodictically rigorous science—the dream is over” (Husserl 1970, 389). At the end of his life, he stood alone in his unflagging zeal for the cause of philosophy as science. One after another, Husserl’s former disciples with rare exception had deserted that vision of phenomenology and its future. Among the most notable of those to go their own way rather than following Husserl’s was Heidegger of course, who, beginning with 1927’s publication of Being and Time, broke publically with his mentor’s view of philosophy as a rigorous science, abandoning phenomenology as a science of trancendental consciousness for fundamental ontology’s Seinsfrage.

Expansive and sometimes rather convoluted, the details of this acriminous yet vibrant phenomenological milieu’s institutional reception (first across Europe then on to the Anglophone world and beyond) is far too complex to summarize here fully. Entire books have been written on such matters. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that there has for many decades existed a tendency on the part of commentators to reinforce the feud between Husserl and Heidegger. Rather than looking for any deep common ground between their philosophies, focus instead has been payed to highlighting the differences thought to separate them. This is particularly true in the North American context. For instance, when Hubert Dreyfus upon developing his criticisms of Artificial Intelligence at MIT brought Heidegger’s philosophy to students at Berkeley (William Blattner, Taylor Carman, John Haugeland, Sean Kelly, Iain Thomson, and Mark Wrathall among them), his presentation of phenomenology, which became a commonplace in many publishing circles, relegated Husserl to a piñata for Heidegger. From the 1970s on, Dreyfus’s reading dominated considerable portions of the Anglophone phenomenology world as orthodoxy. The picture it presented was tidy. Husserl was the antiquated cartesian who had underestimated the importance of matters like embodiment and intersubjectivity, while Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, representatives of a so-called “existential phenomenology,” were pioneers whose innovative emphasis on being-in-the-world freed phenomenology from the history of philosophy’s misleading assumptions. In the rush to accentuate what it believed makes Heidegger’s philosophy captivating, Husserl unfairly became something of a footnote to the story, a sort of hors d’oeuvre before the main philosophical dish.

A notable exception to this trend is Dan Zahavi, whose work has done bright things to vindicate the continued importance of Husserl’s legacy. But perhaps the one who above all is responsible for snatching Husserl from the jaws of misunderstanding is Steven G. Crowell, who, in books as Husserl, Heidegger, and the Space of Meaning: Paths towards Transcendental Phenomenology (Northwestern: 2001) and Normativity and Phenomenology in Husserl and Heidegger (Cambridge: 2013) as well as in numerous essays has developed an iconoclastic and sophisticated account of the relation between Husserl and Heidegger. Crowell’s position is one which maintains, against Dreyfus and much of the received wisdom in Anglophone Heidegger studies, that in fact Husserl and Heidegger are collaborators in the shared undertaking of what Crowell himself characterizes as transcendental phenomenology’s distinctive project: namely, its preoccupation with the normative structure of intentional meaning (Sinn). Thus, at stake in the collection of essays contained in Normativity, Meaning, and the Promise of Phenomenology is the very status of phenomenological philosophy as Crowell proposes it be understood, as a transcendental “clarification of meaning” (Crowell, 336). Naturally, continual reference throughout is made to the interface between Husserl and Heidegger, but not, note well, for the purposes of mere exegesis, but instead as a wellspring of inspiration for a philosophical legacy whose unique approach to phenomenology is animating the continued work of thinkers carrying on its tradition. Many of the essays are accordingly not the typical kind of banal laudatory pieces one is accustomed to finding in a Festschrift. For, in paying homage to Crowell’s vision of transcendental phenomenology, they aim to return to the “things themselves,” precisely as Crowell himself has for many years urged others to do. In short, this is an excellent volume whose aim is not so much to read Husserl and Heidegger, but to think with, and, where necessary, against them.

This transcendental approach—or, a “critique of meaning”—is exemplified in Crowell’s own contribution to the volume. In an “Afterword” that closes the discussion by answering the essays preceding it, Crowell begins his response by noting how the grand language Husserl himself frequently employed when trying to convey the discovery of transcendental phenomenology’s significance may lead to some puzzlement. As Crowell recognizes, Husserl’s personal enthusiasm at first could seem a touch overstated.

With his turn to transcendental phenomenology, Husserl increasingly spoke of his work in the most exalted terms. He was Moses taking the first tentative steps toward the “promised land” whose riches he would not exhaust had he the years allotted Methuselah (Husserl 1989, 429); he was the explorer of “the trackless wilderness of a new continent” (1989, 422) where “no meaningful question” is left “unanswered” (Husserl 1970a, 168); he was Saul on the way to Damascus, the discovery of phenomenology affecting him like a “religious conversion” (Husserl 1970a, 137); he was the redeemer of “the secret yearning of all modern philosophy” (Husserl 1983, 142). What could motivate such language? (Crowell, 329).

According to Crowell, Husserl’s exuberance becomes understandable when the latter’s fundamental philosophical insight is appreciated properly. Husserl’s phenomenological breakthrough, says Crowell, lies not so much in the thesis that “intentionality is the mark of the mental” (as Franz Brentano had noted already), but rather in its distinctive concern with (to borrow the Heideggerian phrase) a kind of “ontological difference”: philosophy is seen to thematize not entities, but meaning. Further, the focus is not just on meaning but specifically the fact that such meaning is normative: “Phenomenology’s promise land, meaning, has a normative structure” (Crowell, 330). Hence, for Crowell, modern philosophy’s transcendental turn (as represented by Husserlian phenomenology) is at once a “normative turn” (MacAvoy, 29). It is in this context that the phenomenological reduction should be understood.

“[T]his method,” says Crowell, “requires askesis, suspending worldly commitments. I ‘put out of action the general positing which belongs to the essence of the natural attitude’ and ‘make no use’ of any science that depends on it (Husserl 1983, 61) so as to thematize the inconspicuous phenomenon of meaning, where the world and everything in it is available to us as it in truth is. This askesis characterizes all phenomenological philosophy” (Crowell, 329).

With this “reduction” to meaning, a new field of inquiry opens, one Husserl in works like Cartesian Meditations characterizes as “an infinite realm of being of a new kind, as the sphere of a new kind of experience: transcendental experience” (Husserl 1973, 66). And as Crowell contends, it is this reduction to meaning that unifies those thinkers belonging to the tradition of transcendental phenomenology. Moreover, it is the normative approach’s distinctive clarification of meaning that holds out the promise for re-establishing today the kind of research program Husserl had sought for his own. An approach calling for collaborative effort, not only does it promote the open exchange of ideas through critical argument, it does so while always remaining oriented by a methodological commitment to phenomenological Evidenz, the distinctive warrant of what shows itself intuitively in first-person self-givenness.

Husserl insists that phenomenology is not a “system” deriving from the head of a single “genius” (Husserl 1965, 75), but a communal practice, a “research program” in the loose sense that analytic philosophy might be considered one. What unites this program—including Heidegger, Sartre, Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, and even Derrida—is a “reduction” from our ordinary concern with entities, beings, the “world,” to the meaning at issue in such concern. Of course, these and other practitioners interrogate both the reduction and the meaning it brings into view, and so we who take up the promise of phenomenology must assess, by our own lights, the legitimacy of such “heresies,” revisions, and revolutions. And while criticism of arguments is always in place, assessing the legitimacy of phenomenological claims finally requires Evidenz, what one can warrant for oneself in the intuitive self-givenness of the “things themselves.” As a kind of empiricism, phenomenology embraces the responsibility of first-person experience (Crowell, 330-31).

However, if transcendental phenomenology’s concern is meaning, and such meaning in turn concerns the normative, what is a norm? As Crowell recounts, a form of that question has long vexed philosophy’s effort to comprehend the realm of “ideality”: it led Plato to his theory of Forms, just as it later motivated nineteenth-century thinkers including Emil Lask and Hermann Lotze to their respective accounts of Geltung (validity), of a “third realm” where the “categories” in question do not exist, but rather “hold” or “obtain.” Accordingly, the basic question concering the ontological status of the ideal (or normative) serves as the volume’s point of departure with Sara Heinämaa’s essay, “Constitutive, Prescriptive, Technical or Ideal? On the Ambiguity of the Term ‘Norm.” In contemporary phenomenology, as Heinämaa says, “the terms ‘norm’ and ‘normative’ are used in several contexts. One dominant argument is that the structure of intentionality is teleological and as such normative” (Heinämaa, 9). Using the examples of being a teacher or a soldier, Heinämaa highlights a difference between two norms. Following a distinction originating in Max Scheler, she notes how there is Tunsollen (“normative ought”), which “implies the concept of rule-following” (Heinämaa, 20) exhibited in customs or social habits. On the other hand, there is Seinsollen (“ideal ought”), a kind of “ideal principle” supplying a constitutive norm involving a “striving for something” (Ibid.) Ideal principles, as Heinämaa observes, “have a constitutive and enabling character: they are not motivational causes for our actions but are conditions that define ways of being” (Ibid.). Crowell further underscores this distinction when, in his reply, he observes that the ideal principles Heinämaa mentions are equivalent to what he means by the term “practical identity” or what Heidegger called a “for-the-sake-of-which” or “ability-to-be” (Seinkönnen); the norm at issue involves a way of understanding oneself, a standard of success or failure exemplified in a felt sensitivity to what is best (or good) given what one is trying to be. Whether we consider being a teacher or a solider, the general point, says Crowell, is that “knowing is something we do in a way possible only for a being who can be guided by a Seinsollen or ideal norm, a ‘minded’ being” (Crowell, 334). Drawing a point that later will become important in the context of Crowell’s understanding of transcendental phenomenology’s relation to metaphysics, he states how, as our knowledge of such ideals is always existential, so it therefore is unsettled and fundamentally unspecifiable. That is just what it means for them to be at issue or at stake in Heidegger’s sense: “Because the ideal that guides what I am trying to be cannot be grounded in truth (fulfillment through Evidenz), it cannot be the topic of a purely theoretical discipline” (Crowell, 333). In doing whatever it is in terms of what one in turn is striving to be, the very ideal of the practical identity itself is at stake, insofar as one’s doing what one does is to work out its meaning, of what it means to live up to it (or not). This is what makes the ideal a measure, and, in the relevant sense, accordingly normative.

Leslie MacAvoy’s essay “The Space of Meaning, Phenomenology, and the Normative Turn,” further clarifies Crowell’s position regarding the normative before going on to criticize the claim that such normativity is imperative to the constitution of meaning. Explaining how the normative turn situates the topic of meaning and validity in relation to the practical norms “for what one ought to do or be” (MacAvoy, 29), she recounts how such an approach thereby characterizes the space of meaning’s purported normativity “in terms of the experience of obligation or binding force” (Ibid.). This normative claim said to underpin meaning, as Crowell has explained elsewhere, amounts to the existential or ontological commitment explaining intentionality and reason: in acting as I do, I always already am implicitly responsible for taking over those “factic grounds” as my reasons. According to MacAvoy, however, phenomenology’s concern with meaning does not entail that such normativity truly plays the role in the formation of meaning that Crowell has argued it does: “While there is a normativity to meaning, it does not consist in the understanding of normativity that has to do with a binding force or claim” (Ibid.). In effect, MacAvoy claims that the phenomenological thesis about the logical, categorial “space of meaning” does not extend to the domain of normativity, as Crowell understands that domain. The binding force of the “ought” does not “capture the normativity of meaning” (MacAvoy, 33). In summarizing the three aspects of Crowell’s characterization of the normative,[1] MacAvoy notes how, for the former, “the norms for whether something can be something are established relative to the norms for doing something” (MacAvoy, 35). By now this will sound familiar. For as Heinämaa had made clear earlier, the very skills and practices in terms of which a thing shows up as what it is are themselves grounded in a practical identity (an “ideal principle”) itself said to be assessible in terms of success or failure. Hence, as MacAvoy says, on the view Crowell defends and which Heinämaa summarizes, the space of meaning bottoms out “in a norm for being a certain type of agent” (Ibid.). This raises the question of the practical identity’s validity, of how such an ideal can be binding, that is to say, of how it can exert a “normative force.” Her main objection is that Crowell’s answer to that question reintroduces the specter of psychologism. Just as psychologism in logic distorts the validity of logic’s content, so interpreting the space of meaning as normative does too, she says. In summarizing MacAvoy’s objection to his position, Crowell writes, “If the normative turn means that phenomenology is a normative discipline, it cannot be fundamental since, on Husserl’s view, all normative disciplines presuppose a theoretical discipline that rationally grounds their prescriptions” (Crowell, 331). If transcendental phenomenology is to be a rigorous science as Husserl envisioned, this appears to entail that it cannot take the normative turn Crowell implies it should, since if it did, so the argument continues, to do so would be to undermine phenomenology’s very claim to theoretical fundamentality to which Husserl took it to be entitled. Before unpacking Crowell’s answer to this concern, it is necessary to further explicate the charge.

To do so, we turn to the question of logic. For if MacAvoy is skeptical as to whether meaning’s categorality is best understood in terms of the bindingness characterizing the existential commitment of practical identity, Walter Hopp’s later essay “Normativity and Knowledge” likewise questions whether the theoretic domain of ideal truth and its connection to knowledge can be understood normatively.[2] Husserl’s phenomenological approach certainly agrees with neo-Kantianism that logical laws cannot be understood empirically, as if they are mere descriptions of how our minds happen to think. The laws of logic are necessary, and hence they are irreducible to descriptive generalizations. And yet at the same time, as Hopp says, for Husserl the laws of logic are not primarily prescriptive judgments regarding how we ought to think, but instead objective in their ideal content and therefore theoretical. Owing to their objective validity, logical laws do have regulative implications for how we ought to think. But that is not their essence. Validity is not the same as normativity.

These disputes concerning the connection between normativity and meaning implicate a more general one that will recur throughout the volume: namely, concern over the relation between transcendental phenomenology and metaphysics. Taking up this metaphilosophical question in “Mind, Meaning, and Metaphysics: Another Look,” Dan Zahavi asks, “Did [Husserl’s] turn to transcendental philosophy, did his endorsement of transcendental idealism, entail some kind of metaphysical commitment, as was certainly believed by his realist adversaries, or did Husserl’s employment of the epoché and phenomenological reduction on the contrary entail a suspension of metaphysical commitments?” (Zahavi, 47).  In Zahavi’s estimation, Husserl’s transcendental turn does not entail the mode of metaphysical neutrality that Crowell contends. As Zahavi concedes, this admittedly is not the dominant view:

“Many interpreters have taken Husserl’s methodology, his employment of the epoché and the reduction, to involve an abstention of positings, a bracketing of questions related to existence and being, and have for that very reason also denied that phenomenology has metaphysical implications” (Zahavi, 51).

Call this widespread reading the “quietist” one. Popular though it is, Zahavi claims that it cannot be correct. Were it true, he suggests, we would be unable to explain why, for instance, Husserl rejected the Kantian Ding an sich and phenomenalism, and why he would obviously have rejected contemporary eliminativism about experience. Even more basically, Zahavi finds the quietist interpretation of Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology as “[running] counter to Husserl’s ambitions” (Zahavi, 50): transcendental phenomenology, says Husserl, as Zahavi notes, is such that there is “no conceivable problem of being at all, that could not be arrived at by transcendental phenomenology at some point along its way” (Ibid.). If transcendental phenomenology’s reduction to meaning involves the kind of radical askesis Crowell maintains, how could Husserl have seen it as being equal to the task of answering every philosophical question we might have? In support of his thesis, Zahavi produces a striking passage from the Cartesian Meditations: “Finally, lest any misunderstanding arise, I would point out that, as already stated, phenomenology indeed excludes every naïve metaphysics that operates with absurd things in themselves, but does not exclude metaphysics as such” (Ibid.) Now as Zahavi acknowledges, passages as these are decisive only to the extent that we clarify the term “metaphysics,” which notoriously is ambiguous. He proposes at least three senses it can mean in Husserl: first, a theoretical investigation of fundamental reality (Zahavi, 51); second, philosophical engagement with questions as “facticity, birth, death, fate, immortality, and the existence of God” (Zahavi, 52); third, reflection on the status of “being and reality” (Ibid.). But here, the crucial caveat Crowell rightly mentions in reply must be noted: although Husserl claims that so-called metaphysical questions retain their sense, that is so only “insofar as they have possible sense in the first place” (Zahavi, 51). Accordingly, then, the task becomes one of determining the limits of sense, of what is open to phenomenological Evidenz, and what is not.

If Crowell on one front must defend his conception of radical askesis from the charge that it neglects the metaphysical implications of phenomenology, he must also on the other face challenges from a series of articles by Mark Okrent, Glenda Satne and Bernado Ainbinder, and Joseph Rouse, which, taken together, aim to undermine the transcendental thesis that meaning and normativity are irreducible to nature. As for Okrent, he levels two objections, the first of which, amounting to a reformulated version of the infamous “decisionist objection” to Heidegger’s conception of Angst, Crowell dispatches quickly. As for the second, it contends that there is no way of truly understanding the human mode of being-oneself as a normative achievement whose form is different from “our animal cousins” (Okrent, 173). But as Crowell responds, even if one grants that animals do in some relevant sense act in accord with norms, they do not act in light of them—not only do they lack language so as to be answerable to others for their actions as we are for ours, they also are unable to measure themselves in a non-representational way that is responsive to an intelligible sense of what is best. Even in the simplest forms of perception, the domain of sens sauvage Charles Siewert calls “recognitional appearance,” there is an element of normativity at work marking the experience as distinctively human. In seeing as we do, experience as Siewert notes is “as much in the service of imagination as of judgment, and integral to the activity of looking, which is subject to norms of its own” (Siewert, 290). That this distinctively human richness to experience is lacking in other creatures is evident in that, just as they do not dwell in a “world” wherein things are inflected by the claim of a “good beyond being” (a claim concerning how things ought to be), so they only inhabit an “environment,” a surrounding in which beings are what they are, and nothing more. Satne’s and Ainbinder’s proposal—to “put agents back into nature”—which in turn aims to rehabilitate a “relaxed naturalism,” accordingly takes issue with this conclusion. Contrary to Crowell’s transcendental approach, the aim is to ground normativity in the contingent features of life “shared with other animals.” Joseph Rouse’s essay which contends for a “radical naturalism” joins the cause, seeking to explain our normative capacities in terms of our biology. In defending what he sees as a methodological gap between transcendental phenomenology and empirical science, Crowell reverts to a powerful strategy: according to him, these kinds of attempts to naturalize meaning and normativity require a construction—in this case, “life” —that “transcends the kind of Evidenz to which transcendental phenomenology is committed” (Crowell, 347). Further, because such accounts make use of empirical beings, they are “ontic” and therefore metaphysical in precisely the sense Crowell’s notion of reductive askesis forbids.

Presuming Crowell is correct that transcendental phenomenology establishes why nature cannot explain normativity and thereby fails to ground meaning, what then is the source of normativity? In reply, here one might to choose follow Husserl’s path as John Drummond does, maintaining that intentionality as such (and hence normativity along with it) is governed by a rational telos. As he says, “Husserl believed that in all three rational domains—the theoretical, the axiological, and the practical—the aim of experiential life is the same: to live a life of intuitive evidence, to live the life of a truthful, rational agent” (Drummond, 110). Just as intentionality is structured by the norm of intuitive fulfilment, so we are beings whose form of life involves a kind of rational self-responsibility that remains inexplicable on naturalistic terms. Drummond’s essay concludes by stressing what he takes to be a great merit of his account’s view of self-responsible convictions, namely its easy ability to also account for moral—or ethical—normativity. The issue of practical normativity with which Drummond’s contribution ends is taken up through the lens of Levinas’s relation to Kant in the volume’s next essay, Inga Römer’s “The Sources of Practical Normativity Reconsidered—With Kant and Levinas.” Contrary to what a reading limited only to Levinas’s early thinking may suggest, Levinas finds Kant’s philosophy of practical reason congenial to his own mission of exploring the ethical implications of a good beyond being. As Römer comments, Kant’s notion of disinclination can be seen as a relative to what Levinas himself characterizes as the an-archic and rational desire for the infinite. To see the two’s similarities, however, is not to deny their important differences. Römer lists three, the most significant perhaps of which is that, while it is not entirely misleading to name Levinas’s thinking “a philosophy of heteronomy,” there is a sense in which the self becomes truly autonomous due to “the signifying call of the Other” (Römer, 123). After further unpacking the Kantian position through an analysis of Christine Korsgaard’s notion of practical normativity, Römer then recounts Crowell’s Heideggerian criticism of it, finally to formulate an objection against Crowell’s view of reason-giving as constitutive of the second-personal ethical stance. The concern is that a trace of egoism still remains: “Even if I am required to give an account of my reasons to others, does such an account not tend toward a certain ethical self-conceit? If I am the ultimate source of measure, even if I need to defend this measure with respect to others in order to not contradict myself by taking my reasons to be private ones, does this view not place the self at the center of ethics?” (Römer, 131). Concern that the Heideggerian approach to practical normativity cannot eliminate all residue of self-conceit is well-founded. But while Römer takes Levinas’s own approach to avoid such a pitfall, one may wonder whether it does. When she remarks, for example, that in Levinas’s view there is “no God beyond ethical significance that would be the source of ethical normativity” (Römer, 126), does not the threat of self-conceit arise once again? Even if the asymmetry said to define one’s encounter with the other suffices to annihilate a kind of egoism, does it purge the least trace of it? For the total annihilation of self-love Levinas claims to be seeking, one might argue that only an encounter before God is truly sufficient.

Returning to the question of meaning’s source left hanging in the debate between Drummond and Crowell, Irene McMullin for her own part leans towards a view closer to the latter’s own, preferring a Heideggerian approach in which both meaning and the normative are said to be ungrounded—ultimately, says McMullin, there is no forthcoming answer as to how we find ourselves immersed in a meaningful world. We simply do, and that we find ourselves so situated is a reason for gratitude. Thus, as she says, although “resolute Dasein” experiences the “dizzying, disorienting sense of panicked terror” (McMullin, 149) accompanying the felt realization of meaning’s groundlessness, that realization is followed by another, the “incredible sense of relief and gratitude”(Ibid.) that there is any meaning at all, however ungrounded and contingent it is. This gratitude in turn resolves us to “love better, to strive more fully, to treat the goods in our lives more tenderly” (McMullin, 150). If McMullin’s analysis of the role of receptivity in resoluteness is a welcome corrective to the tendency to see authenticity in overly heroic or active terms, Joseph K. Schear’s essay, “Moods as Active,” does well to correct for an error arising from the opposing tendency of viewing moods as purely passive. Not only are moods an expression of agency, says Schear, they are structured normatively insofar as they are responsive to intelligible interrogation (by others and ourselves). As he notes, it is far from committing a category mistake for someone to ask of us why we are feeling as we are. Interrogating a mood is fair game. While we cannot choose our moods as we choose to make up our minds about what to believe, neither are moods always experiences in which we are just passive. Against a consensus that sees moods as “closer to sensations than judgments” (Schear, 220), he notes that moods do not arrive like “a hurricane, or the fog” (Ibid.). They are episodes in which we may intervene. A mood is an item we can manage, whether by trying to escape it through replacing it with another one, distracting ourselves from it, or by conspiring with it so as to feed and prolong it. However, ultimately the kind of agency interesting Schear is not the preceding kind of “agency over our moods” (Schear, 221), but the expression of agency in it. This second sense of agency is present in moods, he argues, precisely to the extent that we are able to answer intelligibly to the mood-question: “Why are you anxious?” or “Why are you joyful?” Such answerability, so he concludes, is due to being in a mood’s involving one’s living it out as a “responsive orientation to one’s situation.” In a contribution complementing Schear’s well, Matthew Burch in “Against our Better Judgment” explores the phenomenon of akrasia. There is much to be said for this very rich and thoughtful selection, but perhaps most noteworthy is its phenomenological clarification of the notion of “interest,” a middle category between brute desire and explicit judgment or commitment. Interests, hence, are meaningful affections, “things we care about” and things “in which we have a stake” (Burch, 233). Though Burch goes on to develop the notion of interest into a wider account of how a Heideggerian conception of authenticity answers to how norms bind us, with an eye toward concluding the review, here I should like to take Burch’s discussion in a slightly different direction: what is our interest in doing phenomenology? What exactly calls us to it, and what guides and sustains its commitment?

To answer these questions is to return to Crowell’s understanding of phenomenological philosophy’s role in the task of clarifying meaning—here, specifically the task becomes making sense of the very one who philosophizes in the way its normative turn proscribes. As has become clear in assessing Crowell’s response to his critics, the notion of askesis is the cornerstone to his approach. According to him, the reduction to meaning entails that transcendental phenomenology neither demands (Heidegger) nor entails (Husserl) a metaphysics to complete itself. Thus, his own position parts ways with both Husserl and Heidegger. As he observes in his concluding essay, as the question of transcendental phenomenology’s relation to metaphysics “constitutes the horizon of transcendental phenomenology, so I will conclude by considering it under three closely related headings: naturalism, metaphysics, and theology” (Crowell, 345).

Taking the measure of things (we ourselves above all not excepted) in its distinctive fashion, Crowell’s notion of transcendental phenomenology is a philosophy of enigma. What can be intuited in the light of Evidenz is clear and distinct, while anything beyond is consigned to antinomy. The situation accordingly comes to one of deciding how to understand where transcendental phenomenology draws the limits of intuitable meaning. Where precisely does the threshold lie? And what about the meaning, if any, lying beyond the threshold separating what is given in genuine first-person evidence from what is not? Is such meaning to be set to the side, or must not it somehow be integrated into the existence of the one who encounters it? If it must be integrated, how is that task of existential incorporation to be coordinated in terms of the norm of reductive askesis which, qua phenomenologist, entails bracketing such meaning? There looms, so it would seem, a fissure in the being of the one thinking phenomenologically. To begin with, as just noted, there is the difficulty of deciding what does (and thus does not) lie within the bounds of intelligibility. To decide with Crowell that we ought to refrain from taking a phenomenological stand on anything beyond the intuitable is a mark of intellecutal humility, to be sure. Nobody should deny that it is advisable to suspend judgment when things are sufficiently ambiguous. Yet such a suggestion remains formalistic; it cannot resolve how we are to apply it. How, then, are we to determine when not making a commitment in the face of the meaning at issue is truly the humble and rationally reponsible thing to do? To be confident in a given situation that we are doing what humility dictates implies that we are entitled in judging that what before us seems less than self-evident is in fact as obscure as it appears. How, however, are we to know that we are correct, that we are justified in that stance?

It is not an uncommon experience in life to come to learn that something we initially thought was unclear actually was not; the unclarity resided in our vision and not the thing. It is was not that the thing was veiled, just that we were failing to see. Hence, while it is good to be duly skeptical of claims that make genuiniely ungrounded claims of metaphysical speculative excess (“Everything is illusion, for we are in a quantum simulation!”), we should be mindful that determining when that is so can itself be fraught; something could in principle be grounded in evidence even if, or when, it does not yet seem so to us. Anyone who is honest will admit that there are reasons for thinking that the judgments we reach based on what we believe is humility can turn out instead to have been motivated by a subtle pride or stubborness. It is important to note, for instance, that this strand of epistemic humility is for all its virtues only partial; it essentially is an intellectual askesis. Or more exactly, insofar as it is it supposed to be an effort of epistemic self-discipline, it begins to undermine its own spirit of modesty the moment it slips into more than that by coming to resemble more so a general posture toward the whole of existence. When that happens, one important norm governing our trafficking in meaning is elevated to something instead approaching an absolute. And it is not difficult to see how, in doing so, it can propel the one who treats it in that way along his own path of error and blindness. This becomes more apparent when we consider another of humility’s aspects: namely, humility’s willingness to yield to things by accepting something for what it is, thereby submitting to the disclosed. Crowell’s reductive askesis, along with its norm of epistemic humility, arguably threatens to imperil an authentic encounter with meaning so interesting it if absolutized to trump all else. A commitment to the norm of truth-seeking, for example, may at times require passing beyond what presently appears to be grounded in evidence. Life presents us with these situations constantly. We resolve the indeterminateness by commiting to a course of judgment or action despite the ambiguity. Just as the meaning of some situations becomes clear only in retrospect years later or in an unanticipated flash of insight, so some truths become evident after a period in which they had not been. To refuse to commit to taking a stand on something that remains less than intuitively clear means what might have crystalized never will. If, then, humility is not synthesized with other considerations (including trust, hope, patience, wisdom, or courage), it threatens to constrict rather than expand meaning.

Insofar as the reductive askesis of Crowell’s position ends with enigma, it has been my suggestion that such enigma potentially implicates more than what that methodological stance admits. Meaning by its nature implicates our having to take a stand on what lies on the margins of intentionality, what at any moment makes itself felt as an unspecifiable more. To ignore this surplus of sense in the name of a humility that does not take a stand on what it sees as undecidable is to neglect precisely what puts our existence at stake and at risk in the first place. The respective imperatives of the transcendental (epistemic askesis) and the ontological (existential commitment) appear to be tugging in opposite directions. As a philosophy of meaning, transcendental philosophy can attempt to delimit the things whose meaning we are said to be justified in taking a stand on philosophically. In refusing to take a stand on what it considers the metaphysical, however, this gesture of refusal only implicates the omnipresence of that something more—that excess—with which we all must grapple existentially. Thus, while we may have reached the limits of what a certain mode of intuitive thought can decrypt, it does not follow that it has thereby established the bounds of the meaningful as such. Could not more remain to be given?

Here a detail concerning the earlier debate between Zahavi and Crowell over transcendental phenomenology’s relation to metaphysics will be recalled. Zahavi mentions that, taken in its second sense, metaphysics for Husserl deals with matters of birth, death, fate, immortality, and the existence of God. Do these metaphysical questions have a possible sense? What is their relation to transcendental phenomenology, as Crowell understands it? For his own part, Crowell states that while a “phenomenology of faith” is possible, it does not disrupt any of the essential metholodological commitments of transcendental phenomenology. For Crowell, that means rejecting a traditional commonplace according to which revelation is said to complete what reason cannot. Whatever room it leaves for faith, it must not interfere with the autonomy of a presuppositionless phenomenological reason.

This expulsion of faith from the project of transcendental phenomenology is, in a way, simply a specific application of the general reduction from entities to meaning. As Crowell says, “Transcendental phenomenology is not concerned with entities at all” (Crowell, 337). But if transcendental phenomenology is not concerned with entities, what about the entities that we ourselves are? How does the normative turn handle la question du sujet? Because such an approach seemingly comes up lacking, it calls for another inquiry to accomplish what it cannot. Transcendental phenomenology, after all, can trace the general contours of existence, telling us that we should live a self-responsible existence in light of the rational norm of evidence. It can clarify what it most generally means to be in the space of meaning. But it cannot decide where the limits between sense and nonsense lie in a given case, nor what precisely living up to the norm of evidence entails in any or every particular instance. We can reflect on the general normative structures of existence and how those structures make an encounter with entities possible, yet ultimately life still must be lived. For Crowell, perhaps much of what we take at a first-order level to be meaningful is not. Or at least the meaning in question falls short of Evidenz, in the transcendental sense. The things we take ourselves to know, on closer inspection, really are a matter of antinomy. This would be true for the theological, for in giving a name to what it takes to have addressed it, it does so without sufficient evidence. As Martin Kavka says in characterizing banal theologizing, “This argument entails the claim that the problem with any and all theologization of phenomenology is that theology determines” (Kavka, 92). Or as Crowell puts it, by trying to give a name to the anonymous claim that has addressed it, such a response crosses into antinomy.

Antinomy is also the figure which best describes the third horizon of transcendental phenomenology, the “theological turn,” in which phenomenology abandons reductive askesis to posit a prior condition of correlation, variously called “event,” Erscheinung als solches, “givenness,” “phenomenality,” or “revelation” (Crowell, 349).

Where, then, does this leave man’s search for meaning, and the question of his destiny? Concluding with a provocative but basic question does well to underscore the exigency of the methodological situation’s existential import. What, in short, are we to make phenomenologically of the claim that Jesus Christ is the Son of God? Does the claim fall within phenomenology’s remit? Outside it? Is it essential to phenomenology’s venerable aim of putting oneself in question, or orthogonal to that attempt? Is to affirm such a claim consistent (or not) with the promise of meaning, as Crowell understands that promise? One must make the decision to leap—or not. Either way, a decision is made. Seen strictly from the perspective of a transcendental critique of meaning, what faith claims to see—namely, that because Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, he is the absolute measure by which our own individual existences are to be measured—probably will be viewed as an affirmation having succumbed to “metaphysical” tempation. It views faith as epistemic folly. But assuming this is what a transcendental phenomenology’s critique of meaning entails, why not then see it as a reductio of that position?

To succeed in its aim of clarifying meaning, cannot it be suggested that transcendental phenomenology must be understood not as deeming what faith sees as inscrutable, but rather as itself calling for it?[3] To rest content with phenomenological askesis is to leave ourselves in a state of unnecessary indeterminateness. As it does not countenance the mysteries of God, so for it the enigmas of human existence find no solution.[4] It is thus left to face a potential incoherence of its own approach. The latent incoherence is manifest methodologically insofar as it fails to make intelligble what could be made so were it to complement its vision with what its own commitment to the imperative of self-givenness implicates. By not doing so, it ends in a failure of sense-making. For this reason, arguably it can be considered a failure relative to its own internal aim of trying to clarify meaning. The lack of success is most evident when seeing its inability to make adequate sense of ourselves.

We are finite creatures, and so meaning is finite. We can grasp the world as it is, though never as a whole; and if there is anything beyond that, it is a matter of faith, not philosophy. A phenomenology of faith is certainly possible, but transcendental phenomenology cannot be said to be exceeded by something that escapes it and yet grounds it, such that a “theological”—or “naturalistic” or “speculative” or “metaphysical”—turn is required. One who nevertheless wishes to make such a turn must show why it does not end in antinomy, the “euthanasia of pure reason” (Kant 1998, 460). Take your pick: deus sive natura; mereological universalism or nihilism; “neutral monism”; panpsychism; flesh, life, desire. In the face of antinomy, the askesis of transcendental phenomenology is not egoism but modesty, not a “theory of everything” but a clarification of what matters. Its claim on our “ultimate philosophical self-responsibility” (Husserl) is irrevocable if we are committed to having evidence for what we say. Just this defines the normative turn from entities to meaning, the promised land, “the secret yearning of all modern philosophy” (Crowell, 352).

By addressing the “question of the subject” in a way that entails no answer is ever forthcoming, reductive askesis renders the need for putting ourselves into question otiose, even futile. The misunderstanding at work in its approach to the entities that we ourselves are is seen precisely in its failing to live up to its own impulse to truly make sense of our existence. Here, in short, would be a philosophy concerned with explicating the meaning of things while simultaneously failing to ground its own existence in any firm meaning. If, in fact, there ultimately was no true meaning to existence because there were no answers to life’s ultimate questions, why then should a philosophy about meaning try to make sense of that meaning? To be sure, doing so could still serve as an idle pursuit perhaps, as a way for those so inclined to pass the time. But philosophy must be more than intellectual tiddlywinks. For were it not more than that, what reasons do others have for caring about what such a philosophy says? Philosophy would not just lose its exigency, but its universality too. In the last analysis, any philosophy of meaning stifling the yearning for the absolute does so on pain of compromising the coherence of its express aim. In restless pursuit of a meaning it cannot find, its is a critique of meaning that renders human existence as if it ultimately had none. Reaching only a mirage of the true promised land, as with Dathan it dies in the wilderness.

Bibliography

Husserl, Edmund. Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction to Phenomenology. Translated by Dorion Cairns. The Hague: Martin Nijhoff, 1973.

Husserl, Edmund. The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy. Translated and introduction by David Carr. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1970.


[1] With Crowell, MacAvoy notes, first, the distinction originating in Husserl’s Phenomenology as Rigorous Science between the empirical and transcendental (that is, between the natural and normative); transcendental consciousness, MacAvoy explains, is governed by a lawfulness other than the causality of the psychical and physical. Second, and relatedly, the intentional experience of an object involves a command over its “implications,” the inner and outer horizons of sense in terms of which the object itself can be taken as what it is, the paradigmatic example being the perceptual object, since, say, in perceiving a cube, I must “co-intend” its sides that are not directly seen but are nevertheless implicated. Perceptual intentionality accordingly has a “motivational” logic: If I were to move here, then the cube’s other sides should come into view.

[2] In this way, Hopp’s essay follows in the footsteps of his mentor, the late Dallas Willard, whose early works on Husserl’s view of logic, ideality, and the possibility of knowledge remain exemplary. See, for example, Logic and the Objectivity of Knowledge: A Study in Husserl’s Philosophy (Ohio University Press, 1984).

[3] For a comprehensive analysis of God’s role in Husserl’s transcendental philosophy, see Emmanuel Housset’s Husserl et l’idée de Dieu (Paris: Cerf, 2010). For a critical appraisal of Husserl’s attempt to incorporate God into his transcendental approach, see John Drummond’s draft paper, “Phenomenology, Ontology, Metaphysics,” The Boston Phenomenology Circle, Accessed September 18, 2019.

[4] If this language is recognizably Blondelian, it is because Maurice Blondel’s own thought systematically explored the reciprocal interface between reason and revelation, philosophy and faith. For an explanation of how philosophy’s concern over the enigma of existence implicates a fulfillment in the mysteries of God, see Jean Lacroix’s short study Maurice Blondel: An Introduction to His Philosophy, trans. John C. Guiness (Sheed and Ward: New York, 1968), 64-66.

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