Consciousness, Self and World: Husserl and the Phenomenological Turn in Philosophy

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Consciousness in the World: Husserlian Phenomenology and Externalism1

Peter Poellner, Department of Philosophy,

University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 AL, UK.
Forthcoming in B. Leiter and M. Rosen (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Continental Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007). This draft: 1st October 2006.
1. Introduction

During the last two decades, talk about ‘phenomenology’ has proliferated in some quarters of analytic philosophy. Often the expression has been used as a portemanteau term for the conscious ‘what-it-is-likeness’ of experience (or its phenomenal contents), without much attention to, or interest in, the structural articulations of this what-it-is-likeness. But it is precisely the analysis of these structures which has been the central concern of phenomenology, understood as the distinctive philosophical tradition that was inaugurated by Edmund Husserl, and subsequently continued and modified by philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and the early (pre-1930) Martin Heidegger, to name but the most eminent figures. Phenomenology in this second, technical, sense has also received increasing attention in analytic circles in recent years, largely for two reasons. First, the work of the later, ‘existential’ phenomenologists has been found helpful in elucidating the fundamental constitutive role played in conscious intentionality by embodied practical comportment, in particular by skilled bodily action.2 Secondly, Husserl’s classical phenomenology has been recognized as anticipating the thought, influentially articulated in Gareth Evans’s The Varieties of Reference, that the contents of personal-level intentionality are not exhaustively analysable by way of the analysis of their linguistic expression; and in particular, that the contents of perception play a foundational role, although they do not have the structure of fully linguistically articulable propositions.3

Yet, while Heidegger’s (and Merleau-Ponty’s) versions of phenomenology may be suggestive, their work is often also seen, not entirely without reason, as not very hospitable to many of the fine-grained distinctions relevant to a philosophical analysis of intentional content. Husserl, by contrast, certainly does offer an extremely nuanced conceptual arsenal in this respect, but his approach is often thought to be irremediably compromised by two problematic, and related, methodological commitments: (1) a form of ‘Cartesian’ content internalism, according to which a subject can have thoughts about itself and the world without having any warranted beliefs about a world of real external (spatial) objects; (2) the idea that conscious thought about the world is at the basic level epistemically indirect, involving mediating entities of some kind, such as Fregean senses.4

I shall offer an alternative interpretation of Husserl which rejects both of these exegetical claims. This will require some detailed attention to a central, much-debated, indeed notorious, methodological technique of his: the so-called phenomenological (or transcendental) reduction. My argument will be that, properly understood, it entails neither (1) nor (2). According to the interpretation offered here, Husserl’s classical phenomenology is an externalist philosophy of conscious intentionality, according to which the logically basic level of world-representation

is to be found in direct perception, the contents of which are, in principle, not fully linguistically encodable. Moreover, Husserl holds that the perceptual representation of a world is only possible for an embodied subject that is capable of self-movement and bodily action. Husserl’s account of intentionality thus anticipates, and in some respects provides a more fundamental analysis of, the idea of extra-linguistic ground-level components of conscious intentional content that we find in contemporary philosophy of thought. On the other hand, it is also much closer to the later, ‘existential’ accounts of embodied intentionality than is often recognized, especially in the anglophone reception of his work. Indeed it could be argued to capture most (although not all) of what is right in the early Heidegger’s emphasis on practical comportment, while avoiding some of its errors.

The argument of this paper is primarily philosophical, with current debates in view, rather than interpretive or exegetical. While the basis of the interpretation offered is in Husserl’s own texts, where I have had to choose between either pursuing exegetical disputes or the philosophical development or discussion of a position found or suggested in the texts, I have opted for the latter. The structure of the paper is as follows. Section 2 briefly introduces the mature Husserl’s philosophical project – the putatively foundational, ‘transcendental’ explication of the constitutive conditions of a subject’s being able to represent a world at all – and Husserl’s fundamental methodological principle – the idea that the claims of phenomenology are to be based on what is ‘self-given’ in experience. The central Sections 3 and 4 of the paper will address and defend what are probably the most controversial, and most often misinterpreted, aspects of Husserl’s phenomenological approach: the suspension of (certain types of) ‘theory’, and what he sometimes refers to as the ‘bracketing’ of beliefs about the real world. In the concluding Section 5, I shall offer some brief reflections on how Husserl’s phenomenological (in a quasi-Kantian sense, ‘empirical’) externalist realism relates to stronger, metaphysical claims. This will also indicate the shape of an answer to the question of why, for Husserl and the philosophical tradition inaugurated by him, phenomenology, rather than metaphysics or the epistemology of the actual world, is ‘first philosophy’.

2. Husserl’s Aims: Explicating the Conditions of Representation and Subjectivity

For Husserl, the fundamental issue of philosophy, as he comes to conceive of it with increasing clarity in his middle period and later writings from 1907 onwards, is a transcendental enquiry into the question of how it is possible that a world should be representable by a subject:

Elucidating in their entirety the interwoven [Ineinander] achievements of consciousness which lead to the constitution of a possible world – a possible world: this means that what is at issue is the essential form of world in general and not just our factual, actual world – this is the comprehensive task of constitutive phenomenology. (EJ § 11, p. 50/50) 5

‘Constitution’, here as elsewhere in Husserl, must of course not be understood as ‘creation’ but as ‘constitution-for-experience’, that is, as roughly synonymous with ‘manifestation to consciousness’.6 His question thus is about what is constitutively required for a world to be experiencable by someone at all, and about the necessary structures of this ‘constitution’. Husserl never argues in detail for the claim that the representation of objects necessarily requires consciousness, but from the outset seems to regard it as self-evident that the relation of representation, in any sense that might be relevant to a transcendental investigation into the conditions of the possibility of there being a world for a subject, is essentially a matter of intentional experiences (‘acts’) in which objects ‘appear’ to a consciousness (see e.g. LI 5, § 8, II/1 p. 362/ II p. 93). And by ‘consciousness’ he means what is sometimes referred to as ‘phenomenal consciousness’, involving various phenomenal, experienced properties, a certain ‘what-it-is-likeness’. The task of phenomenology consists in an explication of the actual complexity of this what-it-is-likeness.7

Many contemporary philosophers of mind would argue that the conditions minimally required for an information-processing system to count as representational do not involve phenomenal consciousness.8 But it is doubtful whether Husserl would want to contest, and he certainly does not need to deny, that functional analogues of conscious representation can be defined over sets of sub-personal states. His question is not whether something sharing some or many of the features of our everyday concept of representation is usefully applicable to certain sorts of non-conscious information processing. His central point should rather be taken to be that whether this is so or not, without evidences presenting themselves phenomenally to our consciousness, ‘there would be for us […] no real and no ideal world. Both of these exist for us thanks to evidence or the presumption of being able to make evident and to repeat acquired evidence’ (CM, § 27, p. 96/60).9 ‘Objects exist for us and are for us what they are only as objects of actual or possible consciousness’ (CM, § 30, p. 99/65, all emphases mine). His thought here is that there could be no personal-level representations, no world for a subject, without this world manifesting itself in or to phenomenal consciousness. Whether this thesis can be vindicated depends in part on what is implied by the phrase ‘for a subject’. One reasonably uncontroversial interpretation of this would be to say that the content of an informational state is available for the subject being in that state just in case the subject is in fact able to use this content in rationalizing his or her actions and judgements. This condition on personal-level representational content comes fairly close to what Ned Block calls a representational content’s being access-conscious.10 Yet, according to Block, it is conceptually possible that a content should be access-conscious, being poised for use as a premise in reasoning and for the rational control of actions, without being phenomenally conscious. It is precisely this conceptual possibility which Husserl denies. Block illustrates his anti-phenomenological point by the following thought experiment (p. 233). Imagine a subject that is like what a blindsight subject claims to be, having no phenomenal consciousness at all of parts of his visual field. Yet, unlike a real blindsighter, he can not only make correct guesses, when prompted, about what is in the occluded part of his visual field, when given the choice among a limited number of relatively simple alternatives. Rather, this ‘superblindsighter’ can prompt himself at will to make correct ‘guesses’ about what is in his blind field about a wide range of objects. ‘Visual information from his blind field simply pops into his thoughts’ (ibid.). According to Block, this would be a case of access-consciousness without phenomenal consciousness. However, the crucial question to ask here is whether the superblindsighter could come to regard his (de facto correct) guesses as reasons for belief or action. It seems that, while he would have a method of acquiring information that was in fact reliable, he would have no grounds recognizable by him to regard it as such. But information that is not recognizable by me as a reason can not be a reason for me. As far as the superblindsighter is concerned, the correctness of his guesses is no different from a bizarre fluke.11 But even to say this is to help oneself to the idea that he has a way of finding out that his guesses have been correct. But how should he establish this without some further information that is not phenomenally unconscious to him? Only if at least some of his representations are phenomenally conscious can he recognize the correctness of his guesses and, as a consequence, inferentially come to regard them as reasons for belief. Thus, access consciousness cannot generally be independent of phenomenal consciousness, if we want to hold on to the idea that, for something to qualify as a subject’s reason for judgements and other actions, it has to be in principle available to, and therefore recognizable by, the subject. Without phenomenal consciousness, nothing can constitute a reason for a subject. And this is precisely one part of Husserl’s point in the following passage:
Direct ‘seeing’, not only sensory seeing of spatio-temporal particulars, but seeing quite generally understood as consciousness that presents something originarily [i.e. directly] in whatever way, is the ultimate source of justification for all rational assertions. […] It would be incoherent, when answering the question “why?”, to give no weight to the response “I am seeing it”. (Id 1, § 19, pp. 36/ 36-7)
This passage also alludes to a related methodological commitment of Husserl’s, which he sometimes calls his ‘principle of principles’: the phenomenological investigation of a subject matter requires that the latter be made directly (‘originarily’) present in experience (e.g. LI, Introduction, § 2; Id 1, § 24). The aspiration expressed in his slogan ‘back to the things themselves’ is that the philosopher-qua-phenomenologist should confine herself to descriptively explicating what has thus been perceived or otherwise directly given to the investigator in its phenomenal character. Husserl’s thought here is that anything that is constitutive for world-manifestation would have to be thus accessible in direct experience.

In fact, his ‘principle of principles’ is even more restrictive. The position he eventually adopts is that phenomenological claims are to be exclusively about what has been, and can again be, self-given with ‘apodictic’ evidence, i.e. effectively about what is presented as indubitable or certain, such that any subsequent falsification is inconceivable to the investigator, or to any subject having a type-identical presentation, at the time of having it (CM, §§ 6-7). It is clear that Husserl’s motivation for this exceedingly demanding conception of phenomenological investigation is the classical foundationalist aspiration to provide philosophy with a set of basic non-inferential propositions that are known with certainty to be true – this is at least part of the import of his claim that phenomenology is to provide an ‘absolute’ starting point for philosophical enquiry (Id 1, §§ 46, 50; CM, §§ 3-6).12

What sort of items can be apodictically self-given, according to Husserl? In his later work, he recognizes that no categorical predicative judgement about contingent matters (e.g. about some particular experience or object-appearance) can plausibly claim such apodicticity: ‘in unqualifiedly apodictic evidence, self-explication brings out only the universal structural forms’ (CM, § 46 p. 133/103). And it is only these ‘universal structural forms’ that phenomenology is ultimately concerned with; all its truths are to be necessary truths about ‘eidetic’ states of affairs, intuited ‘originarily’ on the basis of actual or possible particulars – self-given or imagined – serving as illustrations of them (cf. Crisis, §§ 50-51; on imaginative illustration, see Id 1, § 70).13

The problems with the exorbitant demand for absolute certainty are familiar and need not be rehearsed here. To mention but one obvious difficulty: how could I even have indubitable and persisting knowledge of the meanings of the words I have used to explicate the phenomena? Husserl himself in later writings comes close to recognizing the futility of the aspiration towards contentful (non-formal) apodictic truths. For he concedes that it is possible to be deceived in thinking that an evidence is genuinely apodictic (FTL, § 58), a concession which would seem to render the appeal to apodicticity otiose. Arguably, nothing of significance is lost to phenomenology if it contents itself with claiming, for most of its results, an epistemic distinction less ambitious than apodicticity. This does not imply that Husserl’s ‘principle of principles’ is nugatory, but that the philosophically fruitful thought behind it (or behind a modified version of it) may be different from his own explicit justification of it. As in other contexts also, his actual practice is often more persuasive than his second-order reflective characterization of it. I suggest that the only aspect of his fundamental principle that is essential to this practice is this: Phenomenological constitutive analysis should aim at a description of the essential intrinsic phenomenal features and structures of the conditions of world-manifestation on the basis of ‘intuitively fulfilled’ (re-) presentations of them.14 Such intuitive fulfilment, which should strive for as much relevant detail as possible, may involve perceptions or imaginative representations of exemplifications of these features, or, in the case of subjective experiential characters of conscious episodes (their ‘noetic’ features), ‘living through’ (erleben) or simulating them (see note 52 below). What justifies this modified Husserlian methodological requirement of ‘intuitive fulfilment’ is the compelling thought that no descriptive account of the essential phenomenal structures of the constitutive conditions of world-manifestation can be well-grounded unless it has a basis, ultimately, in such suitably direct experience.

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