Friday, February 10, 2012

Phenomenology is Ontology: How Phenomenology Becomes Philosophical Anthropology (shortly stated))

There is a philosophical analogy I'd like to draw. Years ago, metaethicists insisted that their discourses were neutral with respect to normative theories. This entailed that the truth of whatever, say, the concept of good is did not impact whether or not utilitarianism was the best normative theory. The higher-ordered inquiry transcended normative theories and had no bearing on them. This has been argued as a boldfaced lie.

In phenomenology, we commonly tell ourselves that descriptions are neutral. We strip away all our presuppositions and biases about a phenomenon, let that phenomenon come to self-givenness, and describe it from the position of the transcendental viewpoint (a la Husserl). This whole process is in conceptual tension with the natural attitude, the perspective necessary to assume when we describe nature as a set of causal relationships. Such a perspective, it is argued, cannot get at the primordial intentionality as to how consciousness relates to phenomenon. The natural attitude is the third-personal viewpoint, the one we take to describe events as if we stand over and above them impersonally observing what happens to be the case. We forget that human beings fundamentally live out their lives in the first-personal viewpoint as intentional creatures and never fully achieve the reflective distance feigned in the third-personal viewpoint.

When a phenomenological thinker draws the distinction between the phenomenological and the natural attitude, the phenomenologist only lays claim to primordiality in opposition to the empirical standpoint. The descriptions are ontologically neutral since the whole phenomenological reduction pushes aside our biases in bracketing. I take issue with this. Like above, the phenomenological descriptions are said to be primordial, more privileged and yet somehow they still receive more priority than the natural attitude. The natural attitude receives the same treatment that normative theories receive. Normative theories and natural attitude models explain only by assuming much about concepts; they depend on a more primordial level of inquiry. Here's where the similarity ends.

Metaethicists don't lay claim to ontological neutrality like phenomenologists. The metaethicists are steeped in questions about the ontology of value. To given an account for why cognitivism is true about value is to offer an ontological account about value. Similarly, I argue that phenomenologists are steeped in questions about the status of essences, concepts and what it means for something to be "given" and an object's givenness. Many phenomenologists, Heidegger notwithstanding, rely on a thoroughly traditional metaphysical and theological language to describe phenomena. Somehow, I think Heidegger's inspiration from poetry does not succumb to this problem as much.

Heidegger appropriated phenomenology to originally approach the question and meaning of Being. For him, phenomenology is a way into doing fundamental ontology. This follows from the fact that phenomenological methods open up a way into ontology, specifically when we start to think about how the self is constituted by the lifeworld, and we start to uncover the implicit becoming and participation of the self as a socio-historic subjectivity immersed in the lifeworld. This is why I think that Scheler's work, which opens up to a yet-to-come-metaphysics becomes ontologically rich. The ontological richness and need to elucidate the relationship between man, the world and God is what Scheler calls philosophical anthropology.

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