Phenomenology and Naturalism


With regards to the business of naturalizing phenomenology, or more minimally, the relation between naturalism and phenomenology, I think the  stakes are highest when the status of the transcendental is broached.  That is to say, without the transcendental phenomenology becomes sort of like beer without alcohol.  I don’t have any answers to such questions, but for some reason I’ve been thinking (obsessing or maybe fretting) about such things all day.  Anyway, it’s well known that Husserl was somewhat hostile to naturalism.  Here’s a well known passage from Ideas I:

When it is actually natural science that speaks, we listen gladly and as disciples. But it is not always natural science that speaks when natural scientists are speaking; and it assuredly is not when they are talking about ‘philosophy of Nature’ and ‘epistemology as a natural science’ (39).

Merleau-Ponty is often seen as bridging (?) the empirical sciences and phenomenology somehow by maintaining that phenomenology itself can learn from, or rather open itself up to modification through its encounter with the empirical disciplines. Moreover, M-P held that phenomenology actually requires this encounter if it’s going to develop properly. Consider this passage from Nature: Course Notes

How thus not to be interested in science in order to know what Nature is ? If Nature is something all- encompassing, we cannot think it starting from concepts, let alone deductions, rather we must think it starting from experience, and in particular, experience in its most regulated form – that is, science (89).

Or this passage from Signs:

Now if the transcendental is intersubjectivity, how can the borders of the transcendental and the empirical help becoming indistinct? For along with the other person, all the other person sees of me – all my facticity – is reintegrated into subjectivity, or at least posited as an indispensable element of its definition. Thus the transcendental descends into history (107).

Naturalizing phenomenology, then, would have to rethink the transcendental (whatever that means–Husserl of Logical Investagations? Ideas? M-P?) as well as the very concept of nature (whatever that means).  That seems like a lot of work, I sometimes worry about these things, and I’m never sure if it’s worth the payoff, but it seems so reactionary to think this way. Besides Husser and M-P,  I’m going to have to go have another look at some of this stuff:  the edited volumes:Evolutionary Systems: Biological and Epistemological Perspectives on Selection and Self-Organization and Naturalizing Phenomenology: Issues in Contemporary Phenomenology and Cognitive Science. Finally, is Dupuy’sThe Mechanization of the Mind. Perhaps this will come to something someday….Oh, and there’s Thompson’s Mind in Life.

To repeat some of the things I was musing about this afternoon on Twitter, I have two main questions:

1. If one is to be naturalist one must, minimally, show some respect for the achievements of the natural sciences.What does that even mean?

2. I suppose at bottom my question would be something like this: Does naturalism put any constraints on an account of perception?

Somebody told me at work today I was on a crash course with John McDowell.  I’m not sure if that’s true, nor am I sure how it makes me feel, but I like the idea of being on a “crash course” in general.

3 thoughts on “Phenomenology and Naturalism

  1. Naturalizing phenomenology is is a combination of interesting anecdotes and a critique of cognitive science. The anecdotes are enterntaining and the methodological critique is compelling, but in the absence of a better alternative, the critique is a dead end. And as you point out, it’s also a metabasis eis allo genos, a contradictio in adjecto, a category error. But that’s intentional, I think. “Naturalizing phenomenology” is meant to be outrageous and insulting to the old-school phenomenologists. If phenomenology is Ellen Degeneres, naturalizing phenomenology is Coley Lafoon.

  2. I’m reading Thompson’s Mind in Life right now. I don’t think he has consciousness pinned down entirely, but I think his account of mental life and organic subjectivity in general is very top notch. The “phenomenological” position is set up very nicely against more orthodox approaches and Thompson knows the latest cog sci vocab and literature. Excellent stuff. And he is really inspired by Merleau-Ponty. And Husserl too. With maybe a dash of Heidegger.

    You should also check out Matthew Ratcliffe. He is one of the best contemporary phenomenologists around when it comes to naturalization. I like him because he is working with largely Heideggerian terminology rather than Husserlian ones.

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