Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Upcoming Conference

I'll be giving a talk at the West Virginia Philosophical Society on October 8th.

I just wish it didn't have the words "West Virginia" in it, even though I get to go back home to Western Pennsylvania to do so.

"The Phenomenological Inadequacy of Ethical Naturalism"

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Interesting Thread

Over at Perverse Egalitarianism, there is some musings on the relationship between naturalism and phenomenology. I don't know how naturalism is used in this thread, but there is something like an anti-naturalism in phenomenology only insofar as the general positing character of the natural attitude becomes all-encompassing. This is what is really important when speaking about naturalism in Husserl. Husserl does not eschew the world. Moreover, it might be possible to have a naturalism that works in tandem with phenomenology. I'm aware that Shaun Gallagher thinks phenomenology puts us in contact with mental events in the right type of way and as such, argues for a neurophenomenology that is not simply a folk psychology.

For me, naturalism is the reduction of philosophical inquiry to what the natural sciences posit. In such a relationship, philosophy disappears as directed inquiry of a free subject. Philosophy becomes only reactionary to science in the most excessive form. This is not to say, however, that there cannot be a range of activity studied by the natural sciences. In so doing, those studying science must regard themselves as engaging in a life-praxis. It is only when the scientific character of the world is presupposed as the only legitimate standpoint we can ever take on issues that makes robust naturalism problematic.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Another Mildstone

So, the graduate director emailed me and told me that I had fulfilled my language requirement. That put me in a really good mood since things have kinda sucked recently.

So, at the end of this term:

I will have taken all coursework required for the PhD
I have my language down
I have my analytic course requirement (waived from the analytic MA)
I have a preliminary outline of a literature prospectus (a little ahead of the game)

Steps still to overcome:

I will take the prelims for my PhD next Fall.
I will need to complete a literature prospectus, form a committee and write something called a dissertation

For Fun:

I will continue to audit more German courses because German is fun.
I will start exploring Scheler's work on moral personhood in addition to Hart and Sokolowski on the person as well.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Phenomenological Account of Commitment

Commitment is what separates out successful relationships from bad ones. It is the word most associated with comedically about how a man will fail to live up to the virtues of monogamy. We have an entire cliche industry about this phenomenon. This is my first real attempt at a solo phenomenological description of commitment.

In the Same Sex Marriage Debate (SSM hereafter), someone may claim that commitment and the conventionality of marriage alone give us reason to allow for SSM. I reject straight out relativism about the conventionality of our moral practices, but think that in the SSM debate, there is something about commitment that features in our experience of love. This experience seems common enough to both hetero and homosexual couples that I posit its essential featuring.

In commitment, you take on and internalize living-for-another. You are not obligated to anyone other than someone you have sworn a vow of commitment towards. You are allowed to be partial in this experience. Let me elucidate the structure of this experience.

In living-for-another, the meaning of my actions are defined in relation towards the other. To lay claim to a practice as one's own is a reflection of the other's character. If I go out and steal TVs, I embarrass my wife since my actions reflect on her. The reflecting on her is the fact that my actions chosen in this way are oriented towards how I have chosen to relate to others through her. When I do something shameful, I have forgotten how I ought to live-for-her since living for another requires a moral orientation towards one's partner that makes one's life completely suffused with the my partner's presence. Living-for-another is, then, a normatively driven disposition to take on someone else as the condition for which you will always act.

Living-for-another is a surrendering over to the promise of the partner's transcendence. When I need something, I simply call out and my wife will be there-for-me. Regardless of what she is doing, she will come, even if begrudgingly, into the room to answer my question or get what I need. In this way, commitment requires a devotion to surrender, and it goes both ways. In traditions past, men had a more active role and women reacted to their wants and needs. However, this ethically unsustainable, and gives reason to reject any form of relationship in which both partners are not equally surrendered. It is the possibility of equal surrendering that separates out good relationships from bad relationships. Moreover, the surrendering over explains why it is that one's actions reflect on the other, as explained above. To be committed is to be promised and deliver over to another. It is through this mutual surrendering of wills that one finds their partner worthy for the respect of love.

Commitment cannot simply be about attracted love. It is a deeper type of love than simply liking another person. Many people substitute the concept of attracted love for something deeper than what it is not. Attraction can lead to sexual possession of the other. However, purely physical and attraction are not substitutes for mutual surrendering. The confusion lies in that surrendering the body over to the other in the sexual act is not surrendering it in a sexual act in the sense of living-for-another. The sexual act in living-for-another is carnally about possessing the other's flesh, but it is an enactment of surrendering to the point for that mutual surrendering. Mere possession of the flesh can lead to transcendence of the other in mutual surrendering only if that possession is directed towards that mutual surrendering. This is best captured by the vernacular phrase "making love." If it isn't, it is something else, superficial, hedonistic or otherwise.

The mutual surrendering of the other's transcendence creates partnerships. Yet, in living-for-another a partnership cannot be a sustained relation only between two parties once consummated in a ceremony. Instead, it is like faith in that it requires renewal. Mutual surrendering will be renewed in the act of each surrendering to the other. The submission required for living-for-another enacts a promise a new to sustain what has been, or to correctly re-establish where the couple ought to proceed. The renewal enables us to see that we are once again anew, the newness of re-invoking the vows of commitment. They must be taken on again every so often in order that we may sustain the awareness that living-for-another requires.

Living-for-another can be suffocating and you will see many couples assert a separation from living-for-anotherness. The man may do something like carve out a space in the garage to work on his life-projects or establish a man-cave. He will go out with single friends and act as if he were not living-for-another. If this breaks down too much, then the living-for-another will become threatened, and hence will not be renewed as it requires. Infidelity is one example of the ultimate break in which commitment breaks down the possibility for renewal since so much of the renewal of living-for-another takes place in the transcendence of the sexual act. For living-for-another, the sexual act takes on the mutual surrendering required at all times in life, but within this act, sexuality is a surrender of the body to symbolize more than the bodily possession of the other. It is an opening of promising where the other's pleasure becomes your own, and the union of flesh (no matter heterosexual or homosexual) becomes shared between two. To break that bond and transgress against the possibility of renewal is what is so devastating about cheating on one's partner. It disrupts the security and sanctity of the renewal commitment necessitates in its own structure.

Given that I have described commitment as a living-for-another. It follows that part of this experience allows me to see what types of relationships do not have commitment in them. They are, as it were, substituting the concept for the experience, superficial pleasure for commitment itself. In this way, all relationships can be judged accordingly to how committed the partners are within that relationship. We have a way to view in some sense how it is that living-for-another takes shape in the concrete experience of our lives and know how silly counterfactual reasoning is when they assert wrongly that sincerely committed relationships are not enough for marriage. Rather, it is commitment that makes possible our ability to share in a commitment with a loving partner.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Something Weird

This happened twenty minutes ago and as a phenomenologist, I wanted to capture this narrative. A woman had been visiting her daughter. The daughter dropped of her baby at daycare. Then, the daughter got into an accident. Relieved to hear that the baby was not in the accident, I uttered, "God bless." At the utterance at that phrase, a strange feeling external to myself came over me. I felt reassured that Ashley (my wife) would also be Okay. She is currently in the hospital for an unknown severe infection and complications of possibly a virus or severe allergic reaction to an antibiotic.

A strange and ultimately weird experience ensued. I felt whole, or at the very least connected to the sun on my back. I quickly entered my car and burst out in tears thanking Jesus. I knelt over the steering column excited and shaking. My tears were not that of mourning, or that something bad was coming. I was rejoicing. I felt like Ashley's health would be delivered to me. Deliverance.

A couple of nights ago, I prayed. I confessed to a philosophical friend of mine in my department, and called my more Conservative friend. I had prayed ask-fors, the type of prayers that are insincere. The type of prayers where a man covers his bases "just in case." Cephalus in the opening of the Republic in Book 1 leaves to do this very thing before the arguments get under way.

It should be known that I have defended materialist ontologies in philosophy of mind. I have ridiculed those that go to excess in faith, and still mock the impiety of the Inspiration channel. I love to read even Sartre and his existentialist positions concerning how man makes himself, and I think that evolution is right about how material processes unfold naturally. I have never considered myself a theist. At the age of 17, I scolded a Christian apologeticist for misconstruing the complexities of Carbon dating at a youth group. I told him he didn't understand what he was talking about and decisively left, putting Northminster Presbyterian behind me. In high school, I told off a strange kid that God will not strike me down for saying God did not exist. In college, I found Descartes for two weeks and soon found that mind-body dualistic interactionism had to many problems to be true, and found a materialist ontology quite satisfying to explain consciousness as just a neural network.

In that experience, I also recalled my Kant, and the antinomies of pure reason. Speculative reason cannot confirm or dis-confirm the existence of God. Reason should always remain agnostic to problems it can never solve. To live life philosophically is not simply to adopt the epistemic orientation to world and see in every moment whether one has justified beliefs about what is before them. Faith is an operative concept, more akin to the habituation of virtues in Aristotle. It is a way of seeing, an opening to the possibility of something greater, a connection that lives through and constitutes -- no better put "permeates" the field of my subjective horizon. It is that maintaining the openness in a world of constant doubt and idiotic literalism where religion goes wrong. It is the insight of religion so often missed, and I do not know how to register this experience.

I am going over in my head. Did I create or foster this in myself by constantly asking the divine to aid in the health of my wife? Could my stress have altered my brain to foster conditions to calm my stress down? Was this an experience grounded in some materialist ontology of my situation? What about the prior asking, the pseudo-prayers. I know these were insincere. These were the "what-if" prayers of an undecided Kantian (on matters of metaphysics only). These were not the prayers of a man devout, but a habituated naturalist. Did I presuppose the existence of God by being open? I don't think so. If I presupposed God, then the content of the experience wouldn't be that overwhelming. It'd be like when you know your little brother will come back for your hidden stash of cookies. It wouldn't be overwhelming, nor would it be a break in the normal flow of expectations of your experience.

These very expectations of my experience are that easy and tidy scientific categories organize the world, and that these categories are responsibly posited by systematically agreed upon criteria of practicing scientists. I accept these explanations as easily as I toss a coin. These categories explain reliably the concordance of how to expect the world. Things will fall because of gravity, animals will mutate randomly. Surface tension of water will cause the water to drop. It is not like I asked for Jesus, or to have a complete urge of certainty overtake my body, causing me to shudder over a steering column. It does not fit the concordance of the natural attitude presupposed normally. It breaks that mold, and forces me to put my cat on the chair by the draped window. I kissed her, and said "Let's look at sunlight together." She meowed in agreement.

I must go and return my wife to good health.I may never be a whole-hearted Christian, but I will express my faith in the tenants of my culture. I will ask for Christ's guidance every now and again. I pray for the safe return of my wife.

Same Sex Marriage Again

I'm over at at this thread urging several points about the SSM debate.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Ideas 1 Part 2

In this post, I will offer an interpretation about section 49 in Ideas 1. This section does not establish a form of idealism in Ideas 1.  This came about from a recent confusion I've had about sections 49, and why Husserl thought that if the physical world were annihilated, then phenomenology as a research project could continue unhindered. At worst, it is an attempt as one friend put it "to out Descartes Descartes." By this account, Husserl extends the Cartesian moment not simply to negate individual beings so that certainty can be gleaned by the cogito's reflexivity, but to doubt further to the point that phenomenology can be valid even if our substantively the world is idealistic.

In Ideas 1, Husserl says this of Descartes, "his attempt to doubt universally is properly an attempt to negate universally" (p. 59) Within that project, Descartes only carries out the moment of doubt to the point he reaches reflexivity. He does not bracket enough the world to see what is given. In Husserlian terms, Descartes only negates the existence of the world, but does discover that the world, or perhaps nature "is possible only as an intentional unity motivated in transcendentally pure consciousness by immanental connections" (p. 115) . Employing the phenomenological reduction requires the connection of the world in the same fashion "in which colors are inconceivable without extension" (p. 115). There is an "involvement with Nature" to such an extent that phenomenology is inconceivable without thinking that mental processes have as their directedness the world at large. Elsewhere, Husserl suggests a connection with the world in perception:

The physical thing is also essentially capable of being perceived, and it is seized upon in perception as a physical thing belonging to my surrounding world (p. 99)

My reading is that perception puts us into contact with a world. This world has no other status for concrete living subjects than having meaning primarily disclosed to us from the first-personal standpoint, the phenomenological attitude. Strictly speaking, however, this description of a physical thing linked with our capacities describable in the first-person does not suggest a type of idealism. In fact, I would not think an idealist would say anything of this kind at all.

Instead, I interpret section 49 as offering a conceivability point in relation to the status of the world found within phenomenology. Husserl identifies through phenomenological description the limit of what we can know through experiential life of being conscious. Through phenomenological description we are not entitled to think away consciousness but must insist upon its own self-contained reality. I find this point similar to Hume showing what is really involved with causal judgments as being simply associative  conjunctions of customary experience. Hume exposes the naive assumption that there are necessary connexions between cause and affect. By analogy, Husserl exposes the naivety of the world. The sense our world has for Husserl beyond its appearance is always shaky in regards to its certainty. This is a product of phenomenology paying attention to structures of experience as they appear to us in our experiential life. Once we bracket our presuppositions about the world, we find that the natural world could simply be pure appearances. In this way, I interpret the annihilation of the world as a point of conceivability, that is, it is conceivable that if there were only appearances, phenomenology is still a conceivable research program. In this way, section 49 is not a tantamount proposal for some form of idealism.

However, even though the world is connected in our involvement through intentionality, the point of raising the conceivability point is that self-consciousness is a valid standpoint from which to glean structures of our experience with its own standards of evidential validity apart from the natural attitude supplied by the "involvement of Nature". In order for consciousness to be a source of legitimate knowledge, that is, eidetic cognition, consciousness requires that it exist as a "strictly self-contained domain" (p. 116).

Now, if what I have said is true, then my interpretation would not follow the same previous citation where Husserl also says,

In its [consciousness's] essence, it is independent of all worldly, all natural being, nor does it need any worldly being for its existence. The existence of nature cannot be the condition for the existence of consciousness, since Nature itself turns out to be a correlate of consciousness: Nature is only as a being constituted in regular concatenations of consciousness. (p. 116)  

Some will further object that "independent of all worldly, all natural being" above supports reading Husserl as offering a transcendental idealism in which the correlate of consciousness is constituted to such a degree, that the world is fundamentally mental, a mere accomplishment of a fundamentally mental world. Under this interpretation, consciousness makes possible our knowing the sense of the world, and the world is ontologically equivalent with what brings it into being to have meaning. Such a reading, as I understand it, of thinking that Husserl is offering a version of idealism relies on the a metaphysical reading of intentionality while losing sight of the world Husserl links with it. In an idealistic interpretation, the constitution of intentionality is not an operative concept, but one that only engenders our knowing the fundamentally mental world; the whole enterprise of phenomenology would then reify the objects under phenomenological investigation.

This reading might further press onward, citing that ultimately Husserl collapses the distinction between subject and object with the metaphysical reading of intentionality. However, the simple fact that consciousness has its own presence and this interpretation takes it to be fundamental does not suggest that consciousness alone should be given any more ontological weight than the world of physical things. It's just that physical things belong to the possible determinate order it could have for me, but to read possibility for me as a consciousness is only half the story. It is only because there is a world at all that a determinate order of possibilities that physical things can be perceived for Husserl (p. 91). It is the fact that Husserl is the first to connect up consciousness with the this-ness of a particular perceptual object in the world. As such, one must remember that those passages which talk of the world as a correlate of consciousness are not offering an idealistic reading, but explaining that consciousness is its own legitimate source of knowledge apart from the naturalistic interpretations found within the natural attitude that would reduce or eliminate subjectivity altogether. It is on evidential grounds that Husserl so often speaks of consciousness apart from the world, not on offering us a metaphysics.

Everything I have said here should not simply point to Husserl as the philosopher who defends a foundational account of subjectivity against the world. It should be no surprise that Husserl speaks of transcendence. There are structures of experience that are shared between I and We, e.g. as the founding of values shared by our continual renewal to abide by communal norms. . Husserl should generously be read as offering various descriptions of structures of experience such as the previous example. In order for phenomenological descriptions of structures of experience to be intersubjective, belonging to a sense of the first-person plural 'We' that involve also intersubjectivity and the transcendence, such structures of experience require a shared intentionality, a co-founding a simultaneous unfolding of various constituting intentional subjects to bestow-meaning on our conduct. In this way, Husserl offers us ways of speaking about transcendence about one particular example. His efforts are not simply concluding a foundationalism of the subject that grounds all experience. In fact, if anything Husserl's project is about subjectivity and the transcendence required to make sense of our lived-experiences in the world.

Participating in a conversation at Prosblogion

There is an insane amount of reaction to a philosophy of religion professor just throwing up his hands and calling it quits. They're having a decent discussion about the direction of philosophy over at Prosblogion on this very issue. They do favor more analytic approaches to philosophy of religion, and I'm wondering if my comment that I subsequently made will appear.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Politics and Art

Politics of Art is a pernicious phrase. It is not threatening to me, ultimately, but to what this phrase conjures in my mind. First, I am skeptical that politics should have any say over art. At first glance, keep them separate. It brings up images of book burning, censoring content or schools cutting the budget of young people learning the benefits of living creatively. Secondly, however, my defense of people to say and express themselves freely comes not from reversing the priority of the previous phrase for political reasons. I'm devoted to the idea that a range of creativity is sovereignly expressed by the person expressing and cannot be censored by the state. But is it right to think that politics enables art solely or is there a different relationship philosophically that art maintains in relation to politics?

Unknowingly to myself, the previous rugged defense of individualism purely expresses what some have come to see as the death of tradition, art or at worse, the death of Western civilization. My very reasons for defending pure expressibility is nothing more than having grown up in a time where culture has been uprooted for a mass culture seeking and wanting to express themselves freely only for entertainment purposes. What I am missing in my reflection is that a politics of art is only a phrase symptomatic of a different problem altogether. The want to be entertained has grown so large it attempts to appropriate culture for instrumental ends, steering us away from beholding the eternal wonder and value inherent in cultural works possess beyond the life of their inception. Cultural works have become instrumentalized. Hannah Arendt makes these points brilliantly in her essay, Crisis of Culture.

Culture relates to objects and is a phenomenon of the world' entertainment relates to people and is a phenomenon of life. An object is culture to the extent that it can endure; its durability is the very opposite of functionality, which is the quality which makes it disappear again from the phenomenal world by being used and used up. The great user and consumer of objects is life itself, the life of the individual and the life of society as a whole. Life is indifferent to the thingness of an object; it insists that everything must be functional, fulfill some needs. Culture is being threatened when all worldly objects and things produced by the present or the past are treated as though they are only to fulfill some needs...(208)

For Arendt, cultivating a sensibility to the beautiful, to those works of art and culture that "arrest our attention" preserve the conditions of society in order that intrinsic value may survive. However, we have entered a time period in which, as I have said, this intrinsic interest has paved way for a more instrumental mentality to the point that culture is all but dead. Yet, Hannah Arendt finds in this crisis an optimism, or what can be taken as the only possibility. In her words,

And the task of preserving the past without help of any tradition and often even against traditional standards and interpretations, is the same for the whole of Western civilization. Intellectually, though not socially America and Europe are in the same situation: the thread of tradition is broken and we must discover the past for ourselves--that is, read its authors as though nobody had ever read them before (204).

So, we are to rediscover the tradition without any mediation, but encounter it for ourselves. And this is the point of crisis, we can either return to the historic authors of art and philosophy, or we can go on pretending we can do without them for mere entertainment. I am left to wonder if this can be done at all given entertainment's "gargantuan appetites", and more to the point about art itself. For I started wondering about a politics of art, and my want to preserve the individualism of the artist as a right. I invoked political language and the metaphor that an artist is sovereign, autonomous and downright in tension with the very society that would seek to censor expression.

A report by the National Endowment for the Arts came to some odd conclusion about how much time Americans are reading. The following synopsis comes from a CBS article here.

Among the findings:

  •  On average, Americans ages 15 to 24 spend almost two hours a day watching TV, and only seven minutes of their daily leisure time on reading.

  •  Reading scores for American adults of almost all education levels have deteriorated, notably among the best-educated groups. From 1992 to 2003, the percentage of adults with graduate school experience who were rated proficient in prose reading dropped by 10 points, a 20 percent rate of decline.

  •  In 2002, only 52 percent of Americans ages 18 to 24, the college years, read a book voluntarily, down from 59 percent in 1992.

  •  American 15-year-olds ranked fifteenth in average reading scores for 31 industrialized nations, behind Poland, Korea, France, and Canada, among others.

  •  Money spent on books, adjusted for inflation, dropped 14 percent from 1985 to 2005 and has fallen dramatically since the mid-1990s.

  •  The number of adults with bachelor's degrees and "proficient in reading prose" dropped from 40 percent in 1992 to 31 percent in 2003

  • The situation looks bad when so much of our current attempts to engage with culture are strictly entertainment. On top of that, anecdotal evidence from numerous college professors who I admire and respect corroborate the growing trend of incoming Freshman can't read basic Plato. This is my experience as well. Something like the Apology is difficult to teach. I struggled to teach the Euthyphro last year in my Intro class. How is it that Arendt can suggest an encounter with the sources of tradition where at the same time the death of that tradition has died? For a moment, I am granting that she is right about the state of affairs. Yet, I just don't see how it is that we can go on pretending there is no mediation given the death of tradition. It is like her optimism may have only applied to her from her New York City window. On the streets, things look a whole lot different, and this difference is a constant source of agitation for those of us teaching at public universities.

    What to do as an educator, let alone a philosopher? I resist any attempts to turn my classes into a degree mill by administrators wanting clear-cut assessment. Such attempts at conformity in a curriculum do not challenge students to think, let alone think though the cultural works of Western civilization. However, as I look around, I encounter very smart people in other disciplines that do not share this sense of resistance. I feel like any resistance is again a political move. I come back to the very beginning that inaugurated this blog post, a politics of art.

    Politically, I resist conformity and the gargantuan appetite of entertainment not for the artist to challenge orthodoxy (that's only a very small part of it), but that the transformative experience for students to encounter the greatest thinkers and artists of Western philosophy is also a renewal of culture. This is what Arendt misses. She misses that culture is renewed through every encounter, and the resistance it takes to entertainment is the very site of my classroom. This is what it essentially means to teach philosophy and allow the humanities to exist unhindered. It is not the goal of the university to breed consumers, but actively intelligent citizens that can engage with the world in an enriched understanding of its many dimensions: philosophical, political, sociological, poetic and aesthetic layers.