Helen Fielding, Dorothea Olkowski (Eds.): Feminist Phenomenology Futures

Feminist Phenomenology Futures Book Cover Feminist Phenomenology Futures
Helen Fielding, Dorothea Olkowski (Eds.)
Indiana University Press
Paperback $45.00

Reviewed byMaría Jimena Clavel Vázquez (St. Andrews/Stirling Philosophy Graduate Programme)

In Feminist Phenomenology Futures we find a multiplicity of approaches, experiences, and points of view of intellectuals working on feminist phenomenology. But, which is the guiding thread that unites them all? On the one hand, we may say that this is a book about current approaches to feminist phenomenology united solely by that, by providing accounts that fit into the framework of this discipline. And, although the multiplicity of points of view is central not only to this book but to this endeavour, we need to focus on something else. What matters is not only the currency of these approaches, but the future that is latent in them. This, of course, is made explicit in the title of the compilation. However, this might be difficult to grasp. So, I believe it is worth pausing here to clarify exactly what this means because this is not only the most relevant feature of this compilation, but its greater contribution.

As I said, this book is concerned with the future of feminist phenomenology. At this point we should note that we are not asking for the expected outcome of a research programme and the methodology that will lead us to it. It is neither a book that seeks to unify a discipline and mark the path for its future development. This book is, rather, traversed by a question regarding the destiny of feminist phenomenology. Or, in other words, feminist phenomenology considered as a project. The future, in this context, is not something that belongs to a chain of events, nor an “empty zone”, as Dorothea E. Olkowski and Helen A. Fielding state in the introduction. It is rather the future of experience. In her article “Open Future, Regaining Possibility”, to which I will later return, Fielding claims that our experience is characterised by simultaneity in that it is a “gathering of the past and future in the present experienced from a point of view by someone who perceives, feels, thinks, and acts” (94). The future is already sketched in us, embodied and situated beings. This allows us to comprehend the relevance of populating feminist phenomenology with multiple voices. As Fielding emphasizes at the beginning, in “A Feminist Phenomenology Manifesto”, the future in this context should not be understood as a unifying force, but as the opening of possibilities in our experiences and these, we must add, are never uniform but multiple. The future belongs to this discipline because it recognizes such multiplicity. In this manifesto, Fielding claims that at the core of feminist phenomenology is a “decentered subject” that is “multiple rather than singular” (viii). Feminist phenomenology becomes, thus, the methodology of the future because it emphasizes as its guiding task the opening of possibilities. In this line, Fielding claims that at the core of this understanding of feminist phenomenology lies “the recognition that there are multiple ways of approaching living experience” (vii). Furthermore, there lies a compromise of accounting for the experiences of embodied and situated agents and their worlds: “we need robust accounts of embodied subjects that are interrelated within the world or worlds they inhabit” (viii). This compromise is what turns feminist phenomenology into an emancipatory endeavour.

Part 1. The Future Is Now
As Olkowski and Fielding notice in the introduction (pxxiii – xxiv), the phrase “the future is now” is commonly used but hardly explained. So, how are they interpreting this phrase? The authors draw on Merleau-Ponty’s interpretation of Feuerbach. According to Merleau-Ponty, Feuerbach is claiming that being should not be taken to be an abstraction, but as something embodied, involved in the senses, attached to life. Philosophy thus becomes a new happiness, the joyful expectation of a project to come that involves us all, embracing the forces traversing our current experiences. The future in this sense is the future that is sketched in us. The papers in this section address this outline, that is, the future as it appears in us.

The paper that inaugurates this section is Dorothea E. Olkowski’s “Using Our Intuition: Creating the Future Phenomenological Plane of Thought”. Throughout this paper, she advances the thesis that intuition should be considered the structure for the methodology of feminist phenomenology. Olkowski starts from the situated woman, someone whose situation is identified with her body, and which is shaped by culture, history, and society. In that sense, her being is temporal. However, Olkowski sees a problem in the way her body has been considered because instead of being recognized as “her freedom, her transcendence”, she has been taken to be “embedded in her embodiment” (4). This is what Olkowski wishes to challenge: the idea that feminist phenomenology is particularly concerned with embodiment because the body represents the opposition to traditional notions of reason and knowledge. The problem, then, is that this notion became more relevant in the context of feminist phenomenology than in other areas of philosophy. In order to tackle this issue, Olkowski explores the plane of thought that underlies this phenomenon, that is, its “milieu of concepts and methods” (6).

Olkowski defends, drawing on Merleau-Ponty, de Beauvoir, and Bergson, that the plane of thought that is adequate to account for embodiment, without stripping it away from the freedom that constitutes it, is the vital form or the plane of the virtual which brings together the realm of language with that of nature (10). Between language and nature lies a structure of significance where the perceptible acquires meaning. Consciousness is not apart from the body, rather in the present, consciousness exists as the body where past and future meet (12). It is in the temporal structure of the embodiment that intuition can be considered once again as the structure that guarantees that action is creative instead of being just a repetition of previous patterns (13).

In “Just Throw Like a Bleeding Philosopher: Menstrual Pauses and Poses, Betwixt Hypatia and Bhubaneswari, Half Visible, Almost Illegible”, Kyoo Lee is concerned with the way feminist phenomenology can face the complexity of embodiment (25). In particular, she is interested in an analysis of menstruation. To do so, she focuses on the double structure that constitutes menstruation: “The menstruator enters and exits the cycle of life simultaneously while bleeding herself into a revolving door she herself becomes, beginning to exist and exit at once in syncopation that seems to have a will, a script, of its own” (30). On the one hand, it is an overcharged phenomenon that marks the entrance of women into existence; while, on the other, it is an overlooked phenomenon in that it hides women in plain sight.

Lee puts forward two cases where this phenomenon is brought into view. Firstly, the case of Hypatia: when a student declared his love to her, she threw her menstrual handkerchief to his face, to show that she who was the object of his Platonic love was also this embodied being. This way, she was not only affirming herself as female, but also bringing to light this double structure. Lee claims that she is throwing it “back at the smug face of philosophy that says one thing and does another or the other” (p. 34). Lee also goes through the case of Bhubaneswari Bahduri, a young woman from North Calcutta sixteen or seventeen years old, who committed suicide specifically on the time of her menstruation. Bhubaneswari had joined a terrorist group but then escaped the entrusted task of assassinating a political figure through her suicide (p. 37). Her action challenges the “patriarchal violence, the class system, and the colonial rule” (p. 38) precisely because every single one of her actions was a liberating act. Both Hypatia and Bhubaneswari throw back the situation to which they are thrown to, opening in this way alternative futures for women.

The third paper in this section is “Transformative Lines of Flight: From Deleuze to Masoch” by Lyat Friedman. Drawing on a text by Deleuze and Guattari called Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, Friedman seeks to disentangle the opposition men-women by providing a “line of flight” or a way out. For her, this method offers alternative interpretations that do not contest an opposition, rather they complicate it (49). Friedman starts by providing an account of the opposition men-women. Following de Beauvoir, she argues that this opposition does not resemble that of two opposing poles. While women are the negative, the Other, men are not only the positive but the neutral as well.

Friedman draws on Deleuze’s interpretation of Sade and Masoch, and the women from their texts. As de Beauvoir notes, one of the features of these texts is that they present the male perspective of different types of women (56). Sade depicts his male protagonists as figures of power whose opposite is a victim or prey. Masoch, on the other hand, offers a male protagonist who thrives on humiliation. His opposite is a woman who “refuses to act from her position of power” (56). As Friedman notes, these structures are incompatible. The author finally returns to de Beauvoir’s position as it appears in an article called “Must We Burn Sade?” There de Beauvoir intends to provide a charitable understanding of Sade’s expression of hatred towards women, offering thus an interpretation of his texts that breaks with binary oppositions. She claims that: “We must learn to avoid reiterating oppositions even as we disagree with them. We must find lines of flight, identify intersections, and leave given paths, if only to produce alternative futures for women and men” (62).

The last paper of this section, “Crafting Contingency” by Rachel McCann, offers an exploration into the creation of alternative social paths. For McCann, architectural design provides, firstly, a field for understanding the complex interactions between a system and its environment, the organisation of a system that reiterates a pattern, and the way this pattern transforms and transmits information. For her, patterns are reiterative, complex, and, at times, flexible structures. The exploration of these concepts allows her to posit a model for effecting social change. Drawing on bell hooks, McCann claims that “in order to effect social change we must position ourselves at once on society’s margins and at its center” (73). Social change will come from creatively reconfiguring the boundaries that cannot be crossed. Effecting change in these structures will lead to an eventual restructuring of the world (81).

Part 2. Negotiating Futures
A different notion of future is at play in the second section. In the introduction (xxv-xxvi), Olkowski and Fielding note that the opening of emancipatory possibilities requires the commitment of bringing about these projects. Ultimately, it requires erasing the boundaries between reason and passion: these emancipatory possibilities are not only sketched in us, but they are also something that is affirmed through passionate action. Bringing about these possibilities involves audacity in that there is always a risk of failure. Now, this notion of project has a retrospective character because the future is not something that breaks with the past, that is, built from scratch. As Olkowski and Fielding note, when others look back into these projects the future appears not as a possibility but as something that was inevitable, something that was bound to happen (xxvi).

The first paper in this section, “Open Future, Regaining Possibility” by Helen A. Fielding explores situations where personal time, that is, time as it appears in our experience, breaks down. To do so, she draws on Merleau-Ponty’s distinction between impersonal time, personal time, and objective time. Fielding describes personal time in terms of simultaneity. As mentioned earlier, she considers this to be a gathering of present, past, and future (94). Fielding describes temporal break down as the closure of possibilities, as the loss of “the phenomenal experience whereby each moment is full of the living possibilities with which we ‘reckon,’ possibilities that are actualized as possibilities…” (95). She explores this phenomenon in light of a couple of cases in which online bullying resulted in the suicide of its victims. In these cases, Fielding argues, these teenagers suffered from a depression that involved the break down of personal time. An important factor in these cases is the temporality that is involved online: “on the internet temporality is collapsed into space” (96).

In the second paper of this section, “Of Women and Slaves”, Debra Bergoffen discusses de Beauvoir’s notion of an original Mitsein. Bergoffen starts from the idea that de Beauvoir’s position allows a movement from women considered as an oppressed Other to the “dignity of difference” (110). De Beauvoir is troubled by the fact that, despite being oppressed, women do not rebel. Bergoffen explains that for the French philosopher this is rooted in an original bond between men and women: an original Mitsein. Rebellion makes sense when the other is not absolute but relative, but this is not the case of women for de Beauvoir. For this reason, Bergoffen develops an exploration into de Beauvoir’s original Mitsein. For her, this concept “identifies the couple as the site where… desire is fulfilled” (115). Unlike slavery, oppression in the case of women does not aim towards destruction but domestication. The author explores this notion in connection with de Beauvoir’s claim that women are slaves to their husbands. Furthermore, she offers an analysis that takes into account the intersectionality of subjects, the crossroads between race and gender, and the vulnerability of women who are not privileged.

In the final article of this section, “Unhappy Speech and Hearing Well. Contributions of Feminist Speech Act Theory to Feminist Phenomenology”, Beata Stawarska addresses the phenomenon of speaking as a woman. Drawing on Austin’s theory on language performativity, she proposes to think of the failure of woman being heard as a failure in the illocutionary force of the speech. According to Stawarska, when a speech is performed by a socially dominant speaker, it enjoys a force that gets lost when it is spoken by a non-dominant speaker. For her, this failure is one that is socially modulated. To address this phenomenon, she complements Austin’s theory with a phenomenological perspective. The gender-power imbalance results in an infelicitous enactment of a speech act. Stawarska shows that the success or failure of a speech act depends not only on the speaker, but on the listener as well: “The hearer’s uptake is both the effect of what is being said and the condition of the saying acquiring the force of a speech act” (132). Addressing the silencing of women requires, then, to cultivate not only the speakers but, importantly, the listeners: it is essential to cultivate an attentive listener.

Part 3. The Ontological Future
In the third section of this compilation, the authors offer an ontological perspective on the future as it appears in experience. Olkowski and Fielding draw on Husserl’s notion of internal temporality (xxvii). For him, what appears to consciousness does so in continuing phases and enjoys a unity that is synthetic: this flowing away belongs to the way objects appear to consciousness. In other words, the objects of consciousness get their unity and identity from this “flowing subjective process” (xxvii). Taking this into account is essential for the task of feminist phenomenology as an ontological endeavour. The authors complement Husserl’s take on internal time with Henri Bergson’s ontological memory: “even our most minute sensations form an ontological memory, images created by the imperceptible influences of states in the world on our sensibility” (xxvii). In this sense, in experience our present coexists and interacts with the past: new experiences alter the past and create new possibilities. For the authors, this is essential to understand that we are projected beings.

The first paper in this section, “Adventures in the Hyperdialectic” by Eva-Maria Simms, develops Merleau-Ponty’s method of the hyperdialectic. To do so, Simms starts by exploring Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the gestalt principle. For Merleau-Ponty, a gestalt is a consideration of a new dimension of order. This refers to “a system that is more than the sum of its parts” (144) and that stands as the transcendental field of the objects that appear to consciousness. According to Simms, the hyperdialectic is a method that allows the formulation of a set of principles that accounts for being understood not as an absolute, but as a gestalt. In this sense, Merleau-Ponty’s hyperdialectic opposes the dialectic method that loses touch with the concrete (143). Simms is interested in providing an account of gender through the method of the hyperdialectic. At the end of this paper, she provides a short outline of this account.

In “The Murmuration of Birds. An Anishinaabe Ontology of Mnidoo-Worlding” by Dolleen Tisawii’ashii Manning, the author advances an outline of the ontology of the Algonquian language family from North America. She is particularly interested in the notion of mnidoo, a concept that among other things, means spirit, substance, nature, essence, mystery, potential. Manning is interested in showing that mnidoo-worlding, that is, mnidoo dwelling in the world is an unconscious “conceding” that is “embedded over generations” (156). To explore this ontology, the author draws on the phenomenology of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, particularly on the latter’s notion of chiasm. Manning advances a notion of consciousness that surpasses animal or human sentience and locates in the world (p.162). This opens a dimension or center that connects and goes through the bodies (animate and inanimate) that constitute this center. This entails that, in mnidoo-worlding, these bodies fuse to become an indistinguishable whole. The relation between the bodies that constitute the whole is, for her, “an ownmost immediate knowing”, a familiarity that exceeds the subjective: “Nii kina ganaa – All my relations/All my relatives/My all/My everything” (165).

Christine Daigle’s “Trans-Subjectivity/Trans-Objectivity” is situated within the framework of the ethics of flourishing. Discussing with (and drawing on) several philosophers, such as Nietzsche, Deleuze, Heidegger, and Foucault, she wishes to provide an account of the human being as trans-subjective and trans-objective. Hers is a weak ontology in that it provides a deep reconsideration of the relation between human beings and their worlds. Daigle begins with the idea that our body is the anchor to the world. However, the boundaries of the body are not fixated, rather they are on the making. Not only that, for her, human beings are transformed in their engagements not only with others but with the world as well. These transformations have an ontological dimension: they transform our being. Daigle uses the trans((subj)(obj))ective structure to account for trauma and its everlasting effects. She claims that: “What a trans((subj)(obj))ective being does to another is not circumscribed in time and space, but it is an everlasting deed. It is constitutive of one’s being as both trans-subjective and trans-objective…” (195).

Part 4. Our Future Body Images
As mentioned earlier, the future is already sketched in us and part of that outline is our body image. As Olkowski and Fielding state in the introduction: “The body image is a vital prereflective sketch of the body’s practical possibilities for engagement with the world” (xxix). This turns out to be essential to the understanding of an agent. The authors draw on Gail Weiss’ notion of the body image, which claims that this is “an active agency that has its own memory, habits, and horizons of significance” (Weiss, Body Images, p. 3, as it appears in p. xxix). The texts in this section reflect precisely on the idea that the body image is our embodied experience in the world, an image that makes sense in the intertwining of our interactions with the world and with other agents, and that emerges from these interactions. The body image in that sense is both individual and social. It is individual in that it tracks my specific engagements and point of view. However, it also tracks the norms and the structures of our interactions with others, our social practices. Paying attention to our image is essential to the project of feminist phenomenology and its emancipatory character. As Olkowski and Fielding claim: “Since corporeal schemas reflect the ways we take up the world, shifting these practical possibilities or embodied norms is pivotal to shifting practical possibilities, and, similarly, bringing concrete change to our world can also shift the ways we move and hence our bodily schemas” (xxix).

Gail Weiss, in the paper “The ‘Normal Abnormalities’ of Disability and Aging. Merleau-Ponty and Beauvoir”, addresses the ambivalent attitudes towards people who do not conform to the normative standards of beauty in a society. Weiss follows Julia Kristeva in claiming that human beings avoid confronting their vulnerabilities by projecting onto others “the status of abject other” (204). The author claims that avoiding someone with what she calls a non-normative body is a strategy to avoid thinking about our own possibilities. Weiss emphasizes the paradox of the abnormalcy of age. Although it is considered non-normative, or an abnormal body, the thing is that we will all age. In consequence, Weiss argues, it is impossible to distance ourselves fully from this image.The author explores de Beauvoir’s perspective on this phenomenon. Weiss argues that ageing involves an alienating experience. The problem is that vilifying ageing “is clearly against the self-interest of each of us to the extent that we aspire to live a long life” (209). To explore the phenomenon of disability, Weiss draws on Merleau-Ponty. Merleau-Ponty argues that this phenomenon allows us to understand better our perceptual engagements. Weiss takes Merleau-Ponty’s discussion about the Alzheimer patient who, despite her cognitive impairments, inhabits her world meaningfully. For Weiss, it is Merleau-Ponty’s position that allows the normalisation of the abnormal (212) and, in consequence, it allows us to challenge the oppressive considerations of the non-normal body.

The next paper, “The Transhuman Paradigm and the Meaning of Life” by Christina Schües addresses the way biotechnology impacts our experiences and, in consequence, the meaning of life. Bio-phenomenology is able to provide an account of the way meaning is transformed through the introduction of new technologies and its intertwining in our biographies. She claims that: “Bio-phenomenology provides an appropriate approach to investigating the underlying dimensions of meaning and the structures of experiences, which concern the biotechnological, medical, and reprogenetic practices in the transhuman paradigm” (225).

In “The Second-Person Perspective in Narrative Phenomenology” Aneemie Halsema and Jenny Slatman offer a phenomenological consideration of the second-person perspective and its relevance in sense-making. They focus specifically in research interviewing in cases of breast cancer diagnosis. The authors explore the role of the interviewer in the way the respondent articulates her experience. For them: “Sense-making is not the work of an individual, but takes place in joint narrative work” (243). They show that language co-creates experiences drawing on the work of Paul Ricoeur.

In the final paper of this section, “Hannah Arendt and Pregnancy in the Public Sphere”, Katy Fulfer challenges Arendt’s idea that pregnancy cannot be considered a public activity. Interestingly, she does so from Arendt’s own distinction between the private, the social, and the public. Fulfer is specifically concerned with issues regarding reproductive justice in cases of contract pregnancy. Fulfer argues that Arendt’s notion of the social allows her to show that pregnancy surpasses the private realm. The social realm is defined as that in which the necessities of life take the place of the public or the political. This is the case of contract pregnancy when considered as a biopolitical phenomenon. Fulfer defines the biopolitics as that which “offers governing bodies the ability to control bodies and populations under the guise of promoting the health of individuals” (260). Given that gestational workers are controlled and disciplined through contracts and political rhetoric, Fulfer claims that they are no longer considered as political agents but as workers whose job is to preserve a life, entering thus the social realm. The author argues as well that there is also an aspect in which gestational workers enter the public realm through political discourse, a discourse that takes place when they discuss their own situation, and that in some case impacts their contracts.

Part 5. Present and Future Selves
In the final section of this compilation, we find papers that address the world as it has been configured by the actions and speeches of “our past selves”, as Olkowski and Fielding advance in the introduction (xxxi). These papers scrutinize and evaluate the possibilities that were configurated before us. This is the retrospective character of the future that was mentioned in part 2.

The first paper of this section, “Is Direct Perception Arrogant Perception? Toward a Critical, Playful Intercorporeity” by April N. Flakne argues against analogical theories of the perception of others. For her, these theories eliminate difference, something that is essential in our considerations of the other, by modelling the other “on oneself” (278). To make her case, Flakne joins the defenders of direct perception, a theory according to which our perception of others is not mediated by either a theory of the mind of others or by a re-enactment of others’ mental states (i.e. the simulation theory). The idea behind direct perception is that we encounter others “because they comport themselves toward the world” (281).

Flakne argues that in order to avoid arguments that model the other after oneself, it is necessary to focus on the spaces where the other demands a response or an interaction: “an occasion for uptake and response that we cannot present ourselves” (289). The author draws on Maria Lugones who claims that individuals are not discrete, rather they are constructed by a world that is shared. She takes Lugones’ notion of world-travelling according to which we approach the other by being affected by other worlds. Our identity is, for Flakne, constituted by the playful corporeal interaction with others. Through the notion of this playful interaction, Flakne wishes to give new directions to direct perception.

“Leadership in the World Through an Arendtian Lens” by Rita A. Gardiner challenges contemporary accounts of authentic leadership, an enquiry that began as an ethical evaluation of leadership positions and practices, and that evolved into a prescriptive discipline that accounts for the features a leader should have. The problem of these accounts is that, from a phenomenological perspective they fail to account for lived experience. Furthermore, they equate authentic leadership with moral goodness (302). Drawing on Arendt, Gardiner wishes to advance a notion of leadership that emphasizes collaboration as an essential element of leadership. She claims that “freedom and power are impossible without the ability to act in concert with others” (304).

In “Identity-in-Difference to Avoid Indifference”, Emily S. Lee proposes to recognize the relevance of identity or commonality in the philosophy of race. She does so by proposing a phenomenological analysis of the notion of identity-in-difference. Lee starts from the process of ontologizing of racial differences,the process in which social differences that are marked racially are no longer recognized as social constructs, they are rather naturalized. Lewis Gordon claims that “naturalizing what is socially constructed makes an ontological difference” (314). This emphasis on difference within philosophy of race, Lee holds, can also be seen in Gareth Williams. For him, colonized subjects have difficulties finding a history that does not narrate the lives of those who benefitted from development. Lee’s concern is that these positions might threaten the “possibility of racially distinct subjects sharing a social horizon” (315). This follows from the idea that, according to work in phenomenology and cognitive science, “embodiment influences our cognitive development” (315). The influence of embodiment in our cognitive development might lead to the sedimentation of difference. Lee wishes to show that differences are not relevant enough to disconnect us from one another. To do so, she defends Merleau-Ponty’s notion of identity-in-difference.

The paper that closes this compilation is “What is Feminist Phenomenology? Looking Backward and into the Future” by Silvia Stoller. In this paper, Stoller goes through the history of feminist phenomenology to offer, as well, an account of its future horizons. She begins with an account of the two phases that constituted feminist phenomenology. The publication of de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex in 1949 was followed by the post-structuralist phase of feminism in the 1980’s. In the 1990’s a phase of institutionalisation followed this first stage. Stoller recognizes Edith Stein, Gerda Walther, and Hannah Arendt as early feminist phenomenologists. For her, historical research into these figures is an important part of feminist phenomenology, however, it does not exhaust the framework. Feminist phenomenology is, in addition, interested in an understanding of experience that recognizes its situated, embodied, historical character. In other words, an understanding of experience as multiple. Feminist phenomenology also involves the dialogue with other important figures within phenomenology such as Merleau-Ponty, Lévinas, Husserl, and Heidegger. Finally, this discipline also called for the dialogue with post-structuralism and its criticisms of phenomenology. Nowadays, Stoller claims, these two approaches do not seem to oppose each other. Rather, the two can complement each other in a meaningful way (336). The author takes this to be an open movement. She claims that: “the future of feminist phenomenology can be sustained only by continuing to preserve its heterogeneity and cultivating its diverse orientations. It was never – as is the case with phenomenology itself – a fully developed theory” (343).

Concluding Remarks
The constant turning back to the past from the authors of this compilation, and the way they build from this reflection new possibilities confirms the methodology of feminist phenomenology that is advanced in this volume. This discipline involves the recognition of new alternatives in our current situation, alternatives that stem from past reflections, commitments, and actions. In the way the editors knit the guiding thread of this volume, as well as in the introductory chapters, they advance an extremely interesting reflection on the methodology of feminist phenomenology and its future path, exemplified and enriched in each of the papers. The authors of this compilation offer a phenomenological analysis that engages not only with previous works on feminist phenomenology, but also with works that have been challenged before by the feminist tradition, and with works that belong to other frameworks and disciplines. Anyone working on feminist theory, in general, will be greatly benefitted by exploring these works, and discussing their contributions. Furthermore, they offer important contributions to discussions within philosophy of mind, philosophy of race, linguistics, leadership research, bioethics, anthropology, narrative medicine, among others, thus showing the reach of the project of feminist phenomenology.

Chad Engelland: Ostension: Word Learning and the Embodied Mind

Ostension: Word Learning and the Embodied Mind Book Cover Ostension: Word Learning and the Embodied Mind
Chad Engelland
MIT Press
Hardcover $42.00

Reviewed by: María Jimena Clavel Vázquez (St. Andrews/Stirling Philosophy Graduate Programme)

How do children come to learn their first words? One key term in answering this question is ostension: lacking linguistic resources, language speakers recur to ostensive acts or movements –such as gestures and pointing– to teach someone the name of an object. This is the phenomenon that concerns Chad Engelland in his book Ostension: Word Learning and the Embodied Mind. For Engelland, the question regarding first-word acquisition involves several other matters: how are the intentions of the language speaker available for the infant? (i.e. the phenomenological problem); if intentions are available through animate movement, what is the concept of the mind that allows such availability? (i.e. the intersubjective problem); how can infants understand an ambiguous movement such as an ostensive act? (i.e. the epistemological problem); and, finally, what is the place of animate movement in nature and its relationship with language? (i.e. the metaphysical problem).

Engelland focuses on the phenomenological question, a matter he takes to be prior to other issues. For him, phenomenology is necessary to make sense of ostension because it is a matter of availability. He claims that the question of ostension “asks how the intentionality of the other is intersubjectively available in a prelinguistic way (…) ostension concerns how specific items in the public world can be mutually manifest as the target of joint attention” (xxvii). Only when we have an adequate grasp of the phenomenon we can answer the epistemological question and advance into the metaphysical problems of the nature of the mind, and language. According to Engelland, phenomenology is an adequate method to tackle the problem of first-word acquisition because it is concerned with making explicit the way something is manifested in our everyday experience. Phenomenology grasps the interplay between presence and absence, manifestation and hiddenness, an interplay that lies at the heart of Engelland’s account of ostension. Ostension is, for him, the prelinguistic means by which infants enter the public game of language, a character that necessitates a phenomenological account.

This understanding of phenomenology allows Engelland to engage with philosophers within the phenomenological tradition such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Hans Georg Gadamer, and Robert Sokolowski, but it also allows him to read Wittgenstein, Aristotle and Augustine on this basis. Besides recurring to historical figures, he engages with contemporary thinkers, within both philosophy and psychology, such as W.V.O. Quine, Donald Davidson, Paul Bloom, and Michael Tomasello. The dialogue with philosophers that belong to different traditions and times is part of Engelland’s strategy. Philosophy is, for him, a conversation that inevitably ends up facing questions regarding human nature. In that respect, he claims that: “The restlessness of conversation, its incessant movement back and forth, is rooted in the natural aims of human like. To reflect on language in terms of conversation is to reflect on those who desire to converse with one another, with those who wish to share a life with one another. The turn to conversation necessarily involves the question concerning human nature” (216).

Part I. Contemporary Resources

Engelland begins this philosophical dialogue conversing with contemporary thinkers and scientists. In the first chapter, he starts by looking into the theory of language acquisition of Quine and Davidson. Quine gave a central role to behaviour in his explanation of language learning. He takes behaviour to be intrinsically ambiguous, an ambiguity that can only be (partially) remedied through repetition. However, Engelland considers that Quine’s external account of behaviour results in an artificial reconstruction of ostension and fails to see that, in an ostensive act, an item of the world is jointly disclosed but from different embodied perspectives: “[o]stension makes something jointly present to each, and presence involves people for whom it is present, people who together experience the world but from different points of view. In this way, there is an ineluctably ‘inward’ dimension to ostension, and there is more to behaviour than the behaviorist can see” (5).

Donald Davidson follows Quine in his account of ostension, but he emphasizes an important relational feature of the phenomenon. Language learning is the result of triangulation, that is, of the interaction between two agents, and other items in the world. The language learner associates the intention underlying the behaviour of the other agent with changes occurring in their surroundings.

Quine and Davidson are clear in that ostension is the prelinguistic means that allows first word acquisition. But, as mentioned earlier, for Engelland, ostension can only be properly unpacked phenomenologically. Phenomenology can answer “how the intentions of others are on display” in our actions (11). The movement Engelland is concerned with is not mere behavior, rather he is interested in intentional actions, actions in which one’s affective engagement is advertised. Even perception is among this kind of actions: it is not a passive process. He follows Ava Noë and Kevin O’Regan in their enactive account of perception, according to which perception is an embodied activity. Perception advertises intentionality and affectivity just like any other action; and just like any other action, perception takes place in the world and not just in our heads. Engelland also draws on the enactivist movement to account for the intersubjectivity that is constitutive of experience. Finally, Engelland draws on Gadamer’s concept of “play”, a concept that bring action and manifestation together. Play involves turn-taking and mirrored actions; players are interacting between each other, they are presenting their actions to themselves, to other players, and to spectators; it displays actions that are directed to the world and which are structured with a distinction between means and ends. This will turn out to be important features of ostensive actions.

In the second chapter, Engelland turns to scientific accounts of first-word acquisition, a matter he qualifies to be “a burning issue” in contemporary psychology. He draws mainly, on the one hand, on the work of Paul Bloom, who recovers an Augustinian proposal of language learning; and on the other, on the work of Michael Tomasello, who offers, in turn, a Wittgensteinian account. The psychological studies recovered by Engelland show that infants do not learn new words unless both the language speaker and the named item are present. For language learning, presence and intersubjective interaction is crucial. Ostension presupposes what Colwyn Trevarten identifies as the first and second stages of intersubjective development: (1) first, an understanding of others as “fellow animate beings” to whom a newborn child pays attention and with whom she interacts by imitating and by taking turns in their interactions; (2) second, an understanding of others as “intentional agents” with whom an infant engages in joint situations. It is not only that the infant can understand gestures and follow gazes, she recognizes “that these actions have reciprocal possibilities” (28). To explain the phenomenon of mirroring, Engelland recurs to the mechanism of mirror neurons, which fire when seeing the actions of another agent.

At the end of this chapter, Engelland reaches the following definition of ostension: it is “[a]n unintentionally communicative bodily movement, arising from a pattern of meaningful human action, that makes an item in the world jointly present and affords the opportunity for an eavesdropper to identify a certain kind of item in the world and/or to learn the articulate sound used to present the identified item” (36). It differs from ostensive definition in that (a) it does not necessarily have communicative intentions; and (b) it arises from a meaningful pattern of action.

Part II. Historical Resources

The historical conversation held throughout the second part of this book sets the stage for the final philosophical discussion. Although Engelland chooses four thinkers that come from different backgrounds and contexts, the way he guides the discussion enables a productive intertwining that enlightens the problem of ostension. While Augustine, Wittgenstein, and Merleau-Ponty explicitly deal with the problem of language acquisition, Aristotle does not. This is one of the virtues of the text. Engelland shows that Aristotle has the conceptual resources to deal with the issue of world learning; furthermore, Aristotelian philosophy allows the clarification of problems that arise within the other views, such as the nature of movement, and of animal life.

In the third chapter, Engelland starts this historical journey analysing Wittgenstein’s position which he reads in a phenomenological manner: the task of philosophy is not to raise scepticism, but to clarify the phenomena that appear in our everyday experience. Wittgenstein develops his account in opposition to Augustine’s. Firstly, he regards Augustine’s theory to apply only to naming; secondly, he takes it not to involve ostension, but ostensive definition which supposes the infant to have some kind of mental language; finally, he emphasizes the ambiguity of ostension as a central aspect of ostension, one that Wittgenstein considers to be missing in Augustine’s account.

Engelland argues that these objections are due to a misconstruction of Augustine’s position which, without realizing, is a lot closer to Wittgenstein’s own account in the following aspects: (1) firstly, ostensive acts (i.e. gestures) enable infants “to follow intentional cues and, when coupled with training, find their way into a language game” (52); (2) secondly, there are some human voluntary movements that are universal and which reveal our intentions; (3) gestures reveal the consciousness of another, (4) facial expressions betray our attention, (5) and the tone of voice and its modulation reveal emotions; (6) finally, all of these reveal affections, they “serve to make manifest one’s affections in the pursuit or avoidance of things” (53). Given that our body manifests our intentions, one can perceive the other’s affective life. Per Wittgenstein, minds are not private, they rather seem hidden when we are facing an ambiguous behavior. Despite the similarities of Wittgenstein’s account with Augustine, there is one central difference. For the former, ostension is disambiguated thanks to training, because the infant cannot surpass ambiguity without the help of a teacher. Engelland rejects this picture of the passive child and instead takes Augustine’s perspective of a ripe infant who desires to participate in the language game.

In the next chapter, Engelland revisits Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s position regarding language learning. The phenomenological perspective of Merleau-Ponty allows Engelland to account for the intersubjective interplay that lies at the basis of ostension. For Merleau-Ponty it is not so much that the child acquires language, rather she gets habituated to the language game. In learning to speak, the infant is learning to play a role and, thus, is acquiring not language but a whole world of meaning. In that sense, Engelland claims with Merleau-Ponty that “the body gains a ‘figurative significance’” (71).

To understand the communicative powers of the body, Merleau-Ponty abandons the opposition between a material world governed by causal relations, and consciousness. The body “must become the intention” if it is to account for our communicative interplay. The reciprocity of communication is possible in virtue of a common world to which both the language speaker and the infant belong. Engelland follows Merleau-Ponty in claiming that intersubjectivity is constitutive of the body. The flesh, a term that the French philosopher coined to refer to the basis of this embodied intersubjectivity, brings together the activity of the lived body and the passivity of the perceived body. Engelland claims that “the twofold or chiasm of flesh places each of us in a world together, enabling gesturing and joint attention” (81). For Engelland, Merleau-Ponty captures in a brilliant way “how the body is the best picture of the mind” (82). However, he fails to account just how it is that the body is twofold, a task that can be accomplish by two classical programs.

In the fifth chapter, Engelland addresses the first of these programs: Augustine’s account of word learning. With Jean-Luc Marion, Engelland takes Augustine to be concerned with the phenomenological question regarding ostension. In De Doctrina Christiana, Augustine notices that there are signs that are instituted or conventional, and, therefore, are arbitrary. However, that poses a problem for word acquisition: if these signs are arbitrary, how can they be acquired? To explain this, it is necessary to account for the joint attention that precedes language learning. Augustine recalls the context in which he acquired language: “a context of interpersonal affection nourished by expressive bodily movements” (93). In that context, the infant fails to disclose her needs, affections, and desires, and “discovers the ability to do so by understanding the bodily movement of language speakers” (94). Unlike the passive infant in Wittgenstein’s account, Augustine’s infant wishes to participate in the language game. This infant learns in an important sense by eavesdropping the conversations that take place in daily routines. Context controls ambiguity in an important way.

But, what happens when the context is not enough to disambiguate? For Augustine, the infant possesses some kind of perception or receptivity that allows disambiguation. The child conjectures that “bodily movement signifies soul” (101). But this conjecture is not an inference, it is rather an awareness we share with other animals and that is rooted in our inner sense. The infant develops this awareness when developing motor control. Nonetheless, interanimal awareness is not enough to make sense of this phenomenon. The child requires understanding as well to grasp bodily movement as an intentional action. Engelland intends to show, contra Wittgenstein, that Augustine does consider ambiguity as a problem. Not only that, Augustine realizes that ambiguity is a central feature of language learning, and that it is an obstacle that is not easy to surpass.

The last stop in Engelland’s historical route is Aristotle. As mentioned earlier, Aristotle does not have an account of word acquisition, however, Engelland reconstructs what would be the Aristotelian account of language learning, an account that offers some important concepts that were lacking in Augustine’s view. Engelland begins his reconstruction with the argument against the denier of PNC (the Principle of Non-Contradiction). For Engelland, this refutation shows that the PNC accounts for the possibility of intelligibility. But, what accounts for the possibility of joint intelligibility?

For Aristotle, animals communicate on the basis of natural significations: they express pleasure and pain. Humans, on the other hand, transcend this and institute conventional terms to express something other. However, these conventional terms are problematic in that they must communicate the way the world appears individually to each of us. This inward dimension of affectivity does not represent a problem, because it can be shared through our bodily movement. Aristotle’s account of movement differs from that of modern physics. For him, natural movement reveals the power to move. Animate movement, which is common to all animals, has a discriminatory character because it “targets a good or avoids a bad” (116). What is specific of deliberate human gestures is that they invite the other to look beyond them and to rest their attention in something else. Human joint activity goes beyond coordination, and turns into political cooperation (i.e. into a “share[d] belief about what makes for a good life” (124)). According to Engelland, the reciprocity of understanding in Aristotle’s description of friendship, sheds light to the meaning of cooperation: in friendship, we understand ourselves by understanding others.

Part III. Philosophical Investigations

These two conversations –the one with contemporary thinkers and the historical one– allow Engelland to set the stage for his philosophical investigations. In chapter seven, he gives a phenomenological account of ostension, according to which the intention of ostensive bodily movements is manifested, and not inferred. Engelland draws on the theory of the perception of emotion developed by J. L. Austin for whom: “one’s body advertises the movement of emotions to all those who have eyes to see” (p. 134). For Engelland, the advertisement of our affections is not reduced to emotion, but extends to action and perception in general.

Engelland rejects the inferential position because it assumes the “Cartesian bifurcation of internal and external evidence” (136). This bifurcation implies that, in order to go from behavior to internal intentions, the infant would need to experience such an internal realm. Inference requires the experience of internal intentions as evidence. Without it, the child has no basis for inference. He claims that: “[The inferential view] assumes a flawed framework in which the terms inside and outside, private and public, self and other, are mutually exclusive. The chasm separating these two domains cannot be bridged by endowing the infant with mindboggling powers of inference; it can be bridged only by uncovering the perception of animate movement. On this view, the infant appears more naturally as an understanding animal, not an inferring scientist” (138).

Per Engelland, ostension is not the coordination of the inner lives of two agents through behavior, it is rather joint perception. Joint perception requires spatial and temporal presence not only of the agents, but of the perceived item as well. Our individual perspective of the perceived object does not cancel joint perception because we perceive the public appearance or look of the item. Things have a public dimension and it is this dimension that we perceive and intend. In ostension, my bodily movement manifests the intended object, thus, bringing it to presence or making it an object of joint attention to anyone who is attentive to my movements.

In the following chapter, Engelland tackles the problem of other minds. The inferential view of ostension claims that, in analogy to ourselves, we take the other to be an agent. Wittgenstein notes that underlying this view is the notion of the body as a machine inhabited by a consciousness. However, for Engelland, this is an odd view: it would seem more natural to “perceive fellow animate minds at work” (155). He follows several phenomenologists, such as Edith Stein, Hans Jonas, and Evan Thompson, in claiming that our body is not properly understood as a machine, it is rather a lived body. We live among animate bodies, and our own animate movements “puts us into spontaneous communion with one another” (p. 155). Engelland takes one step forward from these phenomenological considerations in that, for him, although it is the case that we take the others to be animate beings because we understand ourselves as such, it is also that we are aware of our own life because we perceive it in the others.

The notion of mind that is at play in Engelland’s view is one that recovers an Aristotelian hylomorphism according to which “[p]oints of view are essentially embodied” (p. 170). Engelland enriches this position with the phenomenological account, thus, resulting in a view that takes the mind to be animate: “The mind is not incidentally attached to a body; the mind is essentially embodied and on display in animate action” (170).

And how does this account of ostension and of the animate mind deal with ambiguity? The ninth chapter of the book deals with the epistemological challenge regarding ambiguity. Although ostension recurs to similar resources to those of ostensive definition to control ambiguity –for instance, movement and novelty–, it also has “unique disambiguating cues”: (a) natural wants and desires, (b) daily routines and games, and (c) repetition across contexts. However, Engelland, inspired by Aristotle’s and John McDowell’s reflections on human nature, also argues that we are naturally inclined to the development of specific habits. To explain what he means by natural inclinations, Engelland draws on the concept of life-form developed by Michael Thompson. Life-forms are judgments that we use to “make sense of each other” (181), in that they afford ways of “generalizing or profiling” (183). Human inclinations are natural because they belong to our common nature, one that is available in the intersubjective realm of our perception. When learning a language, infants risk acts of identification and profiling. Engelland claims that “[t]he ostensive act affords the interlocutor or eavesdropper the opportunity to achieve something like a nominal definition, that is, an understanding that allows him or her to identify the spoken item and distinguish it from other sorts of similar things” (188).

In the final chapter of the book, Engelland focuses on the metaphysical problems concerning ostension. For him, what makes ostension logically possible is the structure of our experience. Given that experience is dominated by rest and sameness, movement and change call our attention. The relevance of movement and difference make ostension possible.

In this chapter, Engelland also discusses the relationship between phenomenological movement of disclosure and manifestation, and physical motion. For him, physical happenings are necessary for phenomenological movement, nonetheless, the latter does not identify with mere physical happenings. He claims that “[p]henomenological movement needs all this physics to happen, but it is something other than the physical happening” (198). Furthermore, we can only make sense of physical motion if it is immersed in our phenomenological experience.

This distinction leads Engelland to discuss the relation between scientific explanation and phenomenology. Although Engelland does not explicitly refer to this debate, I believe he engages with the problem of naturalization of phenomenology when dealing with the question about the relation between these two kinds of explanations. Engelland adopts Sokolowski’s notion of lensing to account for the role the brain, the nervous system, and our senses have in our experience. These do not appear in our everyday experience since they are transparent. These physical structures enable experience and “[make] the world available” (201).

Given their transparency, Engelland considers that a phenomenological account of consciousness is irrelevant for biological explanations. For him, there is an uncontroversial division of labor between phenomenology and science: biology is equipped to understand life, while philosophy is equipped to understand the manifestation of life. Philosophy, then, cannot contribute to biology as such, but it can make a non-biological contribution. In that vein, Engelland shows that joint presence is a condition of possibility of scientific discourse. Philosophy contributes in our understanding of the world, a world to which science belongs. Engelland would seem to claim that phenomenology cannot be naturalized in the sense that: “philosophers have no reason to adopt the scientific image as their point of departure or their point of return” (214). If that is so, why engage with science at all? Engelland is right in distinguishing the tasks of philosophy and science, but such a distinction should not amount to the claim that philosophy does not depart nor return to science. Claiming the latter inevitably leads to philosophical solipsism, something that Engelland himself avoids throughout his book by taking philosophy as conversation.

Concluding Remarks

Ostension invites the reader into a dialogue that not only goes through different disciplines, but also through different philosophical traditions and problems. It offers a treatment of first-word acquisition that takes into account traditional and contemporary considerations, but goes beyond them by introducing a new perspective that is enriched by phenomenology and psychology. Its originality lies in the explicit formulation of the phenomenological question regarding first-word acquisition. This book will be valuable to anyone who is interested in theories of meaning, language acquisition, and the dialogue between phenomenology, analytic philosophy, and science.