Phenomenology

Having read Robert Sokolowski’s Introduction to Phenomenology up through chapter 10, I must say, I’m rather disappointed in phenomenology as a practical or viable theory. What short readings on phenomenology I have read up to this point from the original philosophers themselves, gave me an overall positive view of its usefulness in applying it in support of indigenous knowledge and perspectives, especially with its emphasis on relationship and intersubjectivity (in the shaping of our minds, etc). Whether due to Sokolowski’s lowsy, long-winded writing; a weak philosophical foundation; a lack of accurate understanding of the arguments on my part; or a mixture of three, I was sorely disappointed to find very little he has said to be particularly useful.

Positive notes:

1. “Since we live in the paradoxical condition of both having the world and yet being part of it, we know that when we die the world will still go on, since we are only a part of the world, but in another sense the world that is there for me, behind all the things I know, will be extinguished when I am no longer part of it. Such an extinction is part of the loss we suffer when a close friend dies; it is not just that he is no longer there, but the way the world was for him has also been lost for us. The world has lost a way of being given, one that has built up over time [my emphasis]”.

The same can be said in describing the tragedy that has been the extermination of native peoples around the world throughout history, the loss of bodies of knowledge, and the deaths of the last elders who carry the old languages and stories. The world will never be the same, their ways of being with the world will be lost, and so the land those people live with will never be the same either. The cultural prisms, the practices, of those people will no longer reflect and transform the light that was given them by their lands.

2. I was pleased that he acknowledges that truth had already been achieved before philosophy came to be, that phenomenology “validates the truth of prephilosophical life, experience, and thinking”, and that “if the achievement were not there, there would be nothing for philosophy to think about” (63). Again, affirmation of the truth of indigenous knowledge.

3. LOL moment: “[A]rguing with someone who speaks vaguely is like trying to use hand grenades to disperse a fog” (105-6).

4. “It would be more appropriate to say that my self is the identity constituted between myself now remember and myself then remembered. My self, the self, is established precisely in the interplay that occurs between perception and memory….I am not confined to the here and now; I can not only refer to the past (and to the future, as we shall see), but I can also live in it through memory [my emphasis]” (70).

I think this idea can be expanded to an understanding of past lives, continual and transferring energies, one’s ancestors, and one’s kuleana. If my self at the present is defined as a relationship between my current knowledge of myself, and my knowledge and remembrance of myself in the past, this emphasis on memory must also include collective memory. If I am not confined only to the here and now, I am connected to the past and to what will come after – and the past and what will come are collective and cyclical in nature. My ancestors’ memories and biology are present within me, as are the energies of the earth – cycling, originating from time immemorial – that have been ingested and transformed by the body. When I act, I act with the knowledge of this historical, necessary connection between what has been passed down to me as responsibility and identity from the bodies and energies that have intersected before (ancestors, communities, land, water, animals), and what I will continue to pass on when my body returns to the earth to become part of what grows after.

There were several points I took issue with, but I’ll simply discuss the more significant ones here:

Sokolowsky describes phenomenology as an aid in reclaiming the public, socially constructed nature of reason and perception, which in turn “helps us reassume our human condition as agents of truth.” (12) But in reading, I got a rather different impression — that he was claiming phenomenology does this when it, in fact, ignores or undermines important aspects of our humanity and human experience.

In a number of instances throughout the book, he makes reference to reason as a defining characteristic of being human. For example:

“Our power of disclosure, our being the dative of manifestation for things that appear, introduces us unto the life of reason and the human way of being” (112);

“We exercise out humanity most fully, we act as rational animals most intensely, when we use words, and our achievement of truth and thinking is implicated in our use of language” (89);

“We are rational beings who belong to what Kant called the ‘kingdom of ends’. [When we recognize ourselves as such] we treat ourselves as transcendental egos….Since our rationality is what makes us human, phenomenology is the exploration of ourselves in our humanity” (117).

This is all based on the notion of a disembodied mind and disembodied reason, an assumed split between the mind and the world, along the same philosophical lines as Descartes and others whom Sokolowski purports to overturn. The reality is that there is no universal reason (which is assumed in Kantian philosophy) that is independent of individual human brains/minds; truth and knowledge depend on reason that is shaped by largely unconscious, embodied (i.e. sensorimotor inference), often mutually inconsistent metaphorical conceptual systems. All of this has been studied at great length by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their book Philosophy in the Flesh. Things do not “appear as they are” and “are as they appear”; things are as we are. One my be able to identify object and draw conclusions about them that are relevant to experience, but it is still not the same thing as being able to ascertain a supposed essential identity in and of itself. Things appear to us in a particular way because of how our brains and bodies have evolved to perceive the world in a way that’s useful and meaningful to our lives. Truth does not only arise through rationality; there are other possible truths that may occur outside of the human realm. Human beings are but one solution in billions to the problem of survival on this planet, and while all may share particular truths, every various kind of truth that holds meaning and purpose for humans may not be the same for the turtle or the plankton or the tree.

Still, Sokolowski insists, “When we get into the activity of judging, verifying, and reasoning, we formulate meanings and achieve presentations that can be distinguished from our biological and psychological way of being. The can be communicated to others,…recorded, they can be used as premises in arguments…They have a kind of substance….Meanings and judgments belong to what can be called the “space” of reasons, and we enter into that space when we carry out categorical activities. Thus besides being biological, psychological, and subjective beings, we also enter as agents into the space of reasons, we enter into the domain of the rational, and when we do so we “go beyond”, we transcend our subjectivity; we act as transcendental egos” (116).

Sokolowsky explains the transcendental ego as being, not the empirical, bodily ego, but the self that can be “played off against the world” and is “the one responsible for judgments and verifications, the perceptual and cognitive ‘owner’ of the world” – an attribute one could not apply to a tree or a cat. (112) Animals, he continues, may approach something like language and truth, but they do not enter fully into the space of reasons….[Humans can enter into a kind of life that] a mere animal could not: someone responsible for the truth of what he said and did, someone who could love in return because he could appreciate another as worthy of being loved” (119-20). He uses the example that you wouldn’t come go to your dog a month after he peed on the carpet and refer to that past action or an “opinion” he voiced earlier. But this whole idea is an entirely silly misrepresentation. A dog may not have a conversation with you about when he peed on the carpet last month, but he most certainly remembers it. He can feel remorse if he pees again and is then punished, he can develop a close reciprocal relationship with another human or animal and understand the value of that love and care. We know that elephants too, for example, mourn their dead and revisit the places where they died. We know Koko the gorilla loved and mourned her kitten friend. Other animals fight for access to food, develop tools, etc. So, this idea that humans have a sense of self, reason, and possessiveness, that is so radically different is absurd to me. Evolutionarily, developmentally, it manifests itself in often more complex ways, but the root is the same as far as I understand it.

In another instance, Sokolowski claims that the fact that human beings can distinguish wholes from parts, essential and accidental characteristics, picture and perceive objects, that this means our brains require an explanation different from a strictly biological or psychologistical one, because regard must be paid to “the way things exist and present themselves” (114). Again, brains make these distinctions for practical, evolutionary reasons, but all is already whole and always changing. People have told their own stories, be they experiences from brain injury or psychoactive plants, when there is no perceived limit between self and surroundings. So, the drawing of perceptual boundaries is not necessarily a reflection of how things are in and of themselves, and thus one wouldn’t conclude that the humans’ particular modes of distinction transcend biology.

Lakoff and Johnson offer further critique of the very idea that a mind can be transcendent at all. “The capacity for imaginative projection is a vital cognitive faculty. Experientially, it is a form of ‘transcendence’. Through it, once can experience something akin to “getting out of our bodies” – yet this is very much a bodily capacity [my emphasis]” (565). Our visual systems can be active in our brains when we’re dreaming, for example, creating a “vividness,” or we may “empathetically imagine ourselves in the body of another” when in fact that “feeling” is the result of motor programs being activated in the brain with muscle input inhibited. The human experiences referred to by Sokolowski’s are simply not indications of a transcendental mind. One can be present and mindful of one’s experience of some thing or phenomenon — in its richness, complexity, profundity — but there is no transcending it. Sokolowski says we live in two “parallel tracks”, between the immediacy of our surroundings and the displaced self in the “remembered or imagined or anticipated world.” Here, I’m even inclined to reflect on what quantum mechanics reveals about the infinite number of possible worlds. The perceived suspension between two worlds could be just a reflection of this larger reality – but a reality that is entirely embodied. It seems that many become so fixated on this idea of transcendence simply because they fail to realize that meaning and depth are not found in transcending what you are too distracted to appreciate, but in connecting with the meaning and depth that is inherent in the experience of our embodied being.

At another point, Sokolowski writes of imagination, “All the things I imagine are pervaded with a sense of unreality; imagined events do not strap me with the true regret or terror that horrible events from my past can inflict on me” (72). This, to me, was another gross representation of the human experience, in this case the power and necessity of imagination. The imagined does not at all always lend itself to a sense of unreality and watered-down emotional connection. That’s why drama, storytelling, the dreaming, are such powerful tools – because the have the power to envelop a person and bring them to another realm of understanding and feeling. Sokolowsky continues, “To know that some experiences are truly past, to know that some are just fantasy, is not achieved by everyone. Many people think that dreams and daydreams are true perceptions of unusual kinds of things” (75). This was probably the most blatant instance of colonial attitude I’ve read so far — as if undermining the truth and value of dreams is some pinnacle of reason and human development that indigenous peoples and other mindful individuals just haven’t had the privilege of reaching.

Another major problem I see related to this colonial attitude was in the very presentation of phenomenology, its nuances, etc. Sokolowski describes the self as “the perceptual and cognitive ‘owner’ of the world….The ambiguity of the ego consists in the fact that something that is part of the world can stand over and against the world, and even ‘possess’ or be correlated with the world” (112-13). It is not acceptable to simply say we “have” the world or “posses” it and not sufficiently examine and explain that notion in a way that does not speak to domination or an arrogant, false sense of control and ownership. I did not see enough of that effort from Sokolowski. In all, to extrapolate from Homi Bhabha’s critique of Franz Fanon, I really doubt there can really be some ultimate “philosophical or representational unity” in the terms phenomenology speaks of. Bhabha wrote, “The ‘social’ is always an unresolved ensemble of antagonistic interlocutions between positions of power and poverty, knowledge and oppression, history and fantasy, surveillance and subversion” (forward to Black Skin, White Masks); phenomenology just doesn’t appear to me to uphold the sociality – and above all, the complexity — of knowledge and truth as it claims to do.

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