Tag Archives: Phenomenology

Merleau-Ponty – tear down the Cartesian wall…

Merleau-Ponty, my newest adventure, is about to resolve my thirteen year dilemma of trying to justify objective truth through subjective experience. Not he alone, of course. It required a culmination of experiences. They all had to be in order for the whole thing to make sense. Stein to Hussserl to Heidegger to Merleau-Ponty. Had the order been reversed I think I would have ricocheted off the atmosphere. But what Merleau-Ponty is about to tell me as we walk together along the river bank is that there is no dilemma in the first place. I’ve spent thirteen years fighting a non-existent opponent.

The world has never escaped Descartes’ dualism of perception, he will say. This Cartesian mess goes as follows. The world is full of objects (objective). We cannot trust what we see (Methodical Doubt); therefore, what I perceive is only “an idea” in my mind. It references the object but is not the object. What I perceive is only “in my own head” (I think therefore I am). Therefore we have a split in perceptual understanding – an objective reality that I only can understand subjectively, as an idea in my own mind. As my subjective understanding merely is “an idea in my own mind,” I cannot possibly say that my perception is true, or reality.

That almost perfectly describes the world today. It is the source of our bitter contestations of ideologies. Merleau-Ponty says balderdash to Descartes. Such a split between an objective world and a subjective world of ideas does not exist. It’s a terrible model that is crippling humanity. I sort of know where he’s going based on the other phenomenologists (Stein, Husserl, Heidegger). What he, and the rest of them, are saying to us is, you are starting off badly. Let’s go back, as Husserl says, “to the things themselves.”

This is the refreshing thing about the phenoms. People *too often* see them as “subjective.” They think it is about “perception” and not objective reality. Not at all. It is the opposite. The phenoms are trying to say that it is through subjective experience that we understand objective truths. Through experiential intuition, we know reality, the world as it is, “the things themselves.” Descartes built a wall between the two, between the world and the mind. What Merleau-Ponty is about to tell me as I walk along the river bank with him is (imagine Pink Floyd playing in the background) “tear down the wall!”

Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of ‘singing the world’

I’m already learning a couple of things from my newest adventure into the mind of Merleau-Ponty. One is a relief, expressing the success of my model; the other is a conviction, revealing the failure of my project. Had I read MP eight years ago, I likely would not have felt a need to go on, but then again, eight years ago, I would not have known how to receive MP. The biggest learning lesson early on is the understanding of where I’m failing. That’s what I need to know.”

Philosophy, re-conceived by Merleau-Ponty as expressing the world, as ‘singing the world;’ chanter le monde (PP 187, PP-F 218), is an endless task, but not a futile one. It is the ongoing work of renewing our connections to the world, of embracing our very being as flesh and nature, of remaining alive to our being with each other. At the same time, it is also about celebrating the creative, transformative powers of thought, language, and philosophy itself.” ~ Lawrence Hass. Merleau-Ponty’s Philosophy (Studies in Continental Thought) (Kindle Locations 184-186). Kindle Edition.

The Philosophy of Merleau-Ponty

Phenomenology of Perception does not seem to be available in Kindle at the moment. But this book is highly recommended by reviewers and looks like a good investment. I have to get my arms around these phenoms.

I’m thinking Merleau-Ponty might be a key to my next phase which is to understand how we can have such empathy with almost anyone at the level of perception and intuition but dissipate so widely in the vulgarity of socio-politics.

Merleau-Ponty left the Church for socialism. I left everything for the Church. Why can I (it seems with only my toe in the water) related to his thoughts so well?

Walking along a river bank with Merleau-Ponty

“What then have we learned from our examination of the world of perception? We have discovered that it is impossible, in this world, to separate things from their way of appearing.” ~ Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The World of Perception (p. 70). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

I am reading a short book of Merleau-Ponty’s lectures he read over French radio around 1948. I am likely going to need to break down and get his opus Phenomenology of Perception. These lectures are fascinating. The French style is very different than the German. The French talk about what they’re thinking, while the Germans tell you what they’re thinking, and in precise order.

I imagine walking along a river bank with Merleau-Ponty. I would be fascinated with his lecturing but would not know quite what to say. Have you ever been around someone fascinating who turns to you for a reaction, and you’re not quite sure what to say because you’re not entirely sure what they said. But you liked it, so you just sort of deflect with a “yeah, cool!” kind of remark.

How is it that one can identify with another at the level of perception but then disagree so vehemently at the vulgar level of politics? That’s what has me thinking. I can read Merleau-Ponty or Sartre with delight. But how do we end up so differently in the practical world?

Merleau-Ponty hints at the answer himself. We never escape the influence of those with whom we choose to agree. He left the Church for socialism. I left everything for the Church. But walking side-by-side on that river bank, I find him delightful.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty and meaning before technocracy

I finished the book on Husserl and decided to make one more stretch into Maurice Merleau-Ponty, yet another phenomenologist, an associate of Sartre and Camus, and greatly influenced by Husserl and Heidegger.

It did not take long to feel the impact. Merleau-Ponty saw art, music, and phenomenological philosophy as the solution to our modern entrapment by scientism and technocracy. We have lost touch with the world around us. We are told to ignore meaning for the sake of technology. What is meaningful is not important. That’s just a subjective product of your own mind. Science, on the other hand, is real! MP says, no. Actually the world of perception and meaning is real. Science is merely a shadow of that reality. But the biggest light that turned on for me was this…

It is not so much what I developed in my phenomenological model I have worked on for over a decade. It’s that I did develop it! I stepped beyond the world of corporations, technocracy, and “the natural attitude.” In doing so I stepped into a world of perceptual meaning that transcends the technocratic order. That was Merleau-Ponty’s point.

And to prove this point, I am finding true commonality, true empathy (though not necessarily ideological agreement) with the likes of Leftist Marxists such as Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, and Camus, with national socialists such as Heidegger, and with Carmelite saints such as Edith Stein. There is a commonality of meaning that transcends the awful state in which we find ourselves, whereby I can reach the humanity of a wide array of fellow travelers, most with whom I disagree at the lower, more vulgar domain of politics.

*That* is why we need art, and music, and… phenomenology. Folks, we do not have much time. We need a new way of thinking, a new way of communicating, and pathway to transcendent empathy.

The phenomenological influence of Nolwenn Leroy

There are two epilogues to my model that I will address going forward. One is the influence of Martin Heidegger and the other is the odd and seemingly serendipitous inclusion of the music of Nolwenn Leroy. Nolwenn’s influence led me to the final component which was syntax. Syntax is my addition to the Husserlian and Steinian phenomenological model.

Heidegger I will cover in more depth later. One of his critiques of his master Edmund Husserl was that we do not live our lives constantly “eidetically reducing” everything we do to its core essence. We run around doing things without thinking much of everything we’re doing. So, he developed the concepts of “present-at-hand” (being aware) and “ready-at-hand.” Contemplating the meaning of the wine glass in your hand makes it “present-at-hand.” Just drinking your wine with little to no regard for the glass makes it “ready-at-hand.” More on that later. The second is his notion of “presence.” An object locked inches from me behind a door is less present to me than an object a block away that I can access. The latter is “closer” to me than the former. The third Heideggarian influence is the need for a hermeneutical process in the science of phenomenology.

Nolwenn’s influence begs more explanation, and I will focus on this in more depth later as well. It began when French social media introduced me to her version of Tri Martolod. I then downloaded her Histoire Naturelle live performance to an unmarked CD. For five or so years I listened to this performance on my commutes without remembering who she was. I would just play that “French singer” over and over.

Simultaneously I was writing and developing the model. More and more the flow of the Histoire Naturelle music, the syntax, became part of my “thematic field of noematic meaning.” Of itself, I would say this could easily be explained away through psychologism. But then I discovered that medical tests demonstrated that her music was more efficacious in some respects than even Mozart. And she is a pop singer. How can a French pop singer have an affect that matches or exceeds that of Mozart?

I began to look beyond psychology and toward phenomenology to answer the question. What I found was an “eidetic” principle of syntax. Her music was pointing to something more transcendent than the instantiation of the music itself. That principle was the capstone to my project. When I listen to Nolwenn, I hear more than marvelous music, I hear my project.

We can speak of what is true and not true – phenomenologically

We tend to think of values as being purely subjective, something that we cannot view as “true” for everyone. They are subjective and depend on the individual. We cannot rely on subjective “values.” Only on empirical science. The basis for discussion is only in “science” since it alone is objective and true. This, of course, means we only can be guided by “scientists” and other “specialists.” Your values are not real in the sense that science is real.

Except, maybe, that is not so obvious after all….

“That happiness is intrinsically better than misery, and that unprovoked injury must be rectified and compensated, hold universally and necessarily, and can be readily seen to do so, with genuine insight, in a way that it is not true of empirical truths, such as that water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit.” ~ Detmer, David. Phenomenology Explained (Ideas Explained) (p. 174). Open Court. Kindle Edition.

We need to get back to the basics – back to reality – if we are going to relate with each other and break out of this cycle of doom in which we are engulfed. We can speak of “true” and “not true” values at the most basic level. Let’s get back to the basics and start building our communications, our relationships, and our communities back on a foundation of what’s real.

Edith Stein’s empathy as sharing noematic perception

Imagine that you and I both are looking at a breathtaking panorama – the sun rising over majestic snow-capped mountains reflecting off pristine lakes below with flowered meadows and a rushing river in the foreground. For you the experience is powerfully spiritual; so many concepts and experiences from your life merge into a single vision of faith, hope, and love. It transforms you. You simply stand and stare in contemplation. I’m next to you looking at the same landscape. My reaction is, “Wow, that sure is beautiful! You don’t see that every day!” I take a picture with my Iphone, upload it to Facebook, and that’s about it for me.

We are looking at the exact same thing. But you are experiencing a noema, a “meaning” through your experience. Sure, we have the same beautiful panorama before us; however, you see more. There is a “field” of related ideas, concepts, experiences, and beliefs that are the material making up that merging vision. The entirety of these not-immediately-apparent aspects is your “internal horizon” of perception. This totality of what you see, apparent (the vista) and not-apparent (the field of related ideas), is your perceptual “thematic field.” You see the panorama, but you see still more somewhere on the edges, behind, in front, and above. There are ideas and concepts all around it. I do not see the entirety of your thematic field. I see only the vista.

So, we see the same object. It is objectively real. However, we do not share the same “noematic perception” due to my “natural attitude” that is devoid of meaningful reflection and your thematic field. Another way to say it is that I do not empathize with you. To empathize is not simply to see the same thing as another or to share in their “feelings.” It is to share in the totality of their noematic thematic field of perception.

Edith Stein wrote her doctoral thesis on empathy. I have read the entire document. At the time she was a Jewish atheist. But it is clear to me how she gravitated toward Edmund Husserl and his development of modern-day phenomenology. As an atheist she was searching for truth and true experience. She began with empathy, and no doubt found the fulfillment of her thesis in Husserl’s work. Later, she read the autobiography of St. Teresa of Jesus, put it down and said, “This is truth.” Today, Edith Stein is one of six patron saints of Europe.

Husserl’s claim that intuition precedes empirical science as a foundation for knowledge

Husserl’s claim that intuition comes before scientific empiricism as our foundation of knowledge is making more sense to me. It confused me at first. We tend to think that intuition is a subjective, “gut-feel,” and only through observational, empirical science can we determine what is real. Husserl would respond to that with “balderdash.”

It is intuitively and universally recognized that giraffes are taller than poodles. Without any prior knowledge, without any need to study the situation scientifically, we know with certainty that one is taller than the other. Looking at the two, no one asks, “I wonder which is taller? Can we do an experiment to see which is taller?” Empirical, data-driven science measures a nine foot giraffe and a one foot poodle. The determination is that the giraffe is taller than the poodle. But what’s a “taller than”? From where did that come?

Now, strip away the contingent individual instance of a giraffe and a poodle. Is it not true that any nine foot animal is taller than a one foot animal? Go further. Is it not true that any nine foot thing (animal, building, vehicle…etc.) is taller than a one foot thing? This foundational truth, universally true across any instantiation is what he calls “eidetic.” That a nine foot thing is taller than a one foot thing is an intuitively “eidetic” principle. It is objectively true, universally. Science must first be founded on the objective notion of “taller than” before its empiricism can determine which animal is “taller than” the other. Everything, including science, must be founded on intuition of eidetic principles to even function. Thus, intuition is the foundation of knowledge, not empirical science.

Note also that eidetic intuition completely contradicts the relativism of psychologism. The idea that giraffes are taller than poodles simply because societal and cultural norms have dictated it, and that it could be different under a different set of norms, is that same balderdash.

Husserl’s Logical Investigations were initially an attack on the relativity of psychologism, that truth is whatever we make it to be. Only later, in Ideas, did he develop it into a philosophical methodology called phenomenology.

Edith Stein’s reconciliation of Husserl and Aquinas

I’m making what in my mind is astonishing progress. I’m reading ‘Phenomenology Explained – From Experience to Insight’ by David Detmer. It is a superb summary of Edmund Husserl’s work. I am in his discussion of Husserl’s “time-consciousness.” Thus far this is the most elegant and integrative of Husserl’s philosophy (which really is a methodology).

He starts by pointing out that whereas Martin Heidegger formally is credited with editing this piece of Husserl’s influential Logical Investigations, actually it was Edith Stein who did the heavy lifting. The concept is difficult to refute. Husserl’s insight is that perception is not bound by linear time; when we perceive we are synthesizing the past – retention – and the future – protention – into a whole. Retention is not memory, and protention is not imagination. They are different.

But to the progress I am making, I now the see the profound connection to Stein’s main accomplishment, that of reconciling the medieval scholasticism of Thomas Aquinas’ Aristotelianism and Husserl’s modern day Phenomenology. Stein takes Aristotle’s (and Aquinas’) potency and act and interprets it through the lens of Husserl’s time-consciousness. Does not “potency and act,” Aristotle’s big concept, have to do with time? Of course. Things move from potency to act only over time. But how does one understand the essence of coming from potency to act over time? Of what it really means? Of its objective truth? Of the point of it all?

Stein applies her insights stemming from editing Husserl’s works to the less elegant, somewhat clunky concept of Aristotle’s potency and act. Suddenly, potency and act becomes more elegant, more explainable, more intuitively real than Aristotle or Aquinas could ever accomplish. She loved Husserl’s work, and she loved Aquinas and his Aristotelianism. She married them.

I have noted this for some time. I never knew how to explain what she did until now. I think that if we would follow Stein’s insights, the world would be a much better place. This may all sound irrelevantly esoteric; however, through it we would better understand the world around us. And right now, it seems that few if any of us understand the world around us.