Saturday, March 26, 2011

On the Sense of the Thing?

1. The sense or meaning of a thing is lost when we don't pay attention to how consciousness ultimately relates to a phenomenon. 

This is the claim of Ideas 1 Husserl, and often my starting point for engaging with many of my colleagues. The above claim is based on transitioning from a critique of the natural attitude to something like the following:

2. The origin of the sense/meaning of a phenomenon has its origin in the constitutive function of consciousness itself. 

Therefore, the sense/meaning of a phenomenon gain ultimate priority in our philosophizing because it is through the bracketing of the world and an engagement with how the first-personal dimension of conscious experience allows the phenomenon to manifest itself. We only describe that self-showing. We presuppose nothing about the self-showing of the phenomenon. This is the point of phenomenology: to retrieve the implicit process of how consciousness in my experience really effects the formation of sense. In other words, we do not want to take for granted "the sense of the thing."

Now, perhaps I'm coming full circle. I wonder about accepting 1 and 2 as true any more. This is Husserl's story as to why there are things like ideal objectivities in logic and mathematics. Those ideal objectivities exist independently of what can be said about knowing these ideal objectivities within psychology. If you identified those ideal objectivities having their causal origin in our psychology, then the ideal objectivities would lose their independent normative force to guide proper inferences. We'd have no reason really to abide by the principle of non-contradiction since in doing so, we were only determined to do so. In principle, this has always made sense to me. Some features of our experience are irreducible (and perhaps normative?). Largely, this is just what the "sense of the thing" is. It is the irreducible parcel of human experience we live through that deserves its own autonomous science, phenomenology, apart from the naturalism in the world that would seek to explain away this irreducible feature of human experience. In other words, all other philosophies or science take for granted the sense of the thing and do not trace out 1 and 2.

Now, Husserl will not give any real argumentation for 1 and 2. I don't know if you can really. It would be like trying to give an argument for why it is that consciousness is consciousness of. In fact, that's just it. Husserl marks out the independent constituting feature of intentionality for all conscious acts and correlates of meaning attached to those acts as a legitimate domain of study over against those that would delimit recourse to subjectivity as ill-informed (for whatever reason: materialists about consciousness, eliminativists avoiding folk psychology etc). The purpose of phenomenological philosophy is to bring to light this legitimate domain of consciousness shared by all humans and bring into relief how it is that we live through these many irreducible structures of the act-correlate dynamic. These irreducible structures are revealed to us through the phenomenological description enacted after we've shifted into the phenomenological attitude, the reduction, to open up how it is that a phenomena appears to consciousness. We get at the heart of its structure, phenomenological "seeing" of the phenomenon's essence.

It might be offered that Husserl can offer an argument for 1 and 2, but those reasons cannot be from skepticism about either the whole natural attitude or some part of it. Take for instance someone taking for granted the sense of consciousness itself as materially-based. If we have sufficient reasons to be skeptical about forms of materialism in philosophy of mind take for granted "the sense of the thing", then we would be skeptical for reasons we'd already presuppose, and that wouldn't lend support to thinking 1 and 2 are plausible. Given this, the only plausible story might be a Kantian transcendental strategy in which we accept the existence of ideal objectivities like Husserl does in Logical Investigations, and then suggest the transcendental preconditions for ideal objectivities cannot be supplied by anything else other than 1 and 2. My gut reaction is to find that dubious.

Perhaps, I am going through a pragmatic update of my initial Husserlian inclinations. If ideal objectivities are socially constructed prior to my awareness of them (let's face it, I did have to learn about the principle of non-contradiction at some point by doing syllogisms), then for a pragmatist-in-general, those are the most "real" things we have in our experience. We have no reason to question their source and origin but only how it is that belief in those ideal objectivities affect my practical orientation in the world. Call the ideal objectivity of the principle of non-contradiction a habit of mine. This habit engenders a set of consequences that have practical benefit. I never maintain two things in my belief as true and false at the same time. I avoid that, and if it is revealed by someone that I've fallen into a contradiction, I quickly start to question myself. I shouldn't get bogged down in the metaphysics of intentionality, epoche and the reduction. In this way, pragmatists tend to avoid metaphysical discussions like tracing out 1 and 2 above. This isn't to say that pragmatists don't do metaphysics at all, but they seem wise to pick their battles. I might just be worrying over some dogmatism than thinking about what I ought to be thinking about. I'm unsure about 1 and 2 anymore.

Beyond pragmatism, we might have Heideggerian reasons to think that 1 and 2 need modified, not necessarily a whole rejection. For Heidegger, Dasein is the first-personal level of experience, and in some ways, Heidegger has a view of intentionality in Being and Time. I'll save that post for another time.

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