Contemporary Work in Phenomenology (2016)

The theme of this first symposium of the Boston Phenomenology Circle is Contemporary Work in Phenomenology. Our aim is to display new work on figures in the phenomenological movement, including systematic engagements from, e.g., philosophy of mind and language, metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics.

 1 April, 2016
 Boston University, School of Theology
 745 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA 02215
 Room 325

Avner Baz (Tufts)
George Heffernan (Merrimack College)


9:50-10   Welcome

10-10:45   Maria Brincker (UMass Boston), “Negotiating Merleau-Ponty, perceptible others & digital worlds”
Response: Fidele Ingiyimbere (BC)

11-12:30   Keynote: Avner Baz (Tufts), “Phenomenology, and the Limits of the Wittgensteinian Grammatical Investigation”
Response: Colin Cmiel (BU)

12:30-2   Lunch

2-2:45   Manon Garcia (Paris 1/Tufts), “Understanding consent to submission with Beauvoir’s phenomenology”
Response: Hannah Read (Tufts)

3-3:45   Tarjei Mandt Larsen (Stavanger/UC Berkeley), “On Husserl’s Argument from the Problem of Transcendence”
Response: James Kinkaid (BU)

4-5:30   Keynote: George Heffernan (Merrimack College), “The Question of a Meaningful Life as a Limit Problem of Phenomenology”
Response: Jacob Rump (BU)


Maria Brincker (UMass Boston), “Negotiating Merleau-Ponty, perceptible others & digital worlds”

Merleau-Ponty insists on the pivotal nature of the perceptible body both in perception in general and in our meetings with others. It is via the face-to-face and body-to-body perceptible behavior, that he typically describes how our worlds intertwine and our viewpoints become multiple perspectives on one shared world. However in today’s world such shared space encounters, are increasingly being replaced with various interactions through and with technology. In these mediated interactions we often hide or “retouch” and thus in various ways bring the presentation of the body under narrow volitional control. I propose that Merleau-Ponty and other phenomenologists can help us understand some core implications of both the revealing and the hiding of the lived peripheral body. Through an analysis of the perceptible encounter I also problematize Merleau-Ponty’s suggestion that we naturally perceive the other as “another myself” “with equal rights”, and propose a perhaps more radical primacy of the perceptible and negotiated interaction.

Avner Baz (Tufts), “Phenomenology, and the Limits of the Wittgensteinian Grammatical Investigation”

I begin with the striking affinity between Wittgenstein’s understanding of language and Merleau-Ponty’s. For both philosophers, while language naturally gives rise to certain types of philosophical difficulties by encouraging the idea of essences separable from our experiences and practices, it may also guide us in overcoming those difficulties by redirecting us to our existence in the world in which we first and foremost find ourselves and others, and in which meaning originally appears. There are also, however, important differences between these two philosophers; and those differences stem, I propose, from what they each take to be the basic form, so to speak, of philosophical difficulty. The difficulties to which Wittgenstein primarily responds arise when ‘language goes on holiday’ (PI, 38)—they arise when we take our words to have meanings separable from their uses, and rely on those meanings to ensure by themselves the sense of what we say by means of those words when we do philosophy. In the face of difficulties thus generated, the best response may well be therapy by way of the deliberate assembling of grammatical reminders that aim to reveal the difficulties as resting entirely on non-compulsory theoretical commitments that are not vindicated by the practice they are supposed to help us understand. For Merleau-Ponty, on the other hand, the fundamental difficulty is that of uncovering and elucidating our pre-reflective experience—that is, our experience before we reflect on it with the attempt to understand it theoretically, or explain it empirically—and the world as perceived prior to being thought, or thought (or talked!) about. And it’s precisely because that is the basic difficulty he confronts that a Wittgensteinian grammatical investigation would be of very limited value to him. In fact, when our aim is to uncover and elucidate our pre-reflective experience, Wittgensteinian grammar might actually lead us astray.

Manon Garcia (Paris 1/Tufts), “Understanding consent to submission with Beauvoir’s phenomenology”

The idea of consent to submission contains a paradox: on the one hand modern political philosophy argued there is no valid consent when one alienates his freedom; on the other hand, real life contracts and relationships seem to show existence of a submission based on consent. This philosophical problem can be fruitfully examined through the example of submission of women but both the liberal feminist and the radical feminist approaches seem to fail to account for its duration despite growing formal equality between men and women. This paper aims to show that Beauvoir’s philosophy can be used to solve the classic paradox and avoids the weaknesses of the other feminist accounts of female submission. Through a phenomenological-existential approach, she depicts what submission is, she explains how consent to submission can happen and she sketches an emancipatory path.

George Heffernan (Merrimack College), “The Question of a Meaningful Life as a Limit Problem of Phenomenology”

Focusing on “anxiety” (Heidegger) and other understandable human responses to “limit situations” (Jaspers), philosophy of existence (Existenzphilosophie) fascinated a Europe in crisis during the late 1920s and early 1930s. In the “Afterword” to Ideas for a Pure Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy (1930), however, Husserl defensively criticized Existenzphilosophien for suggesting that transcendental phenomenology had neglected existential problems (Husserliana V, 138–162). In The Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology (1936) he proceeded to argue that transcendental phenomenology does indeed provide answers to “the questions about meaning or meaninglessness of this entire human existence” (VI, 4; XXIX, 104). The acute controversy seemed, of course, to establish a fundamental opposition not only between transcendental phenomenology and the actual philosophy of existence but also between transcendental phenomenology and any possible existential phenomenology. Yet the latest Husserliana volume (XLII), Grenzprobleme der Phänomenologie (2014), presents manuscripts of Husserl from 1908 to 1937 in four areas: (1) unconsciousness and birth, sleep, and death, (2) instincts, (3) metaphysics, encompassing monadology, teleology, and philosophical theology, and (4) the Freiburg ethics (1916–1928). Although Husserl does not employ the expression “limit problems” (“Grenzprobleme”), its use is justified because these texts approach problems that lie beyond the rigorous bounds of the phenomenological reduction but that, according to Husserl, can only be treated scientifically (“wissenschaftlich”) if their solutions are grounded in phenomenological reflection (XXXIX, 875–876; XLII, xix). It is evident that all four sets of texts revolve around the question of the meaning of human existence, though this bond holds especially strongly for the texts in areas (3) and (4). In this paper, I explicate selected texts of Husserliana XLII in such a way as to suggest that Husserl develops a phenomenology of existence, granting the basic premises of Existenzphilosophie but drawing different conclusions (cf. XLII, 228–235, e.g.). For him, “questions about God, freedom, and immortality” are not only “metaphysical” but also axiological, existential, and religious (XLII, xxxi, xxxiii, lxxix, cix, 297–333). Thus he proposes that human beings resist “the dark horizon of meaninglessness” (XLII, 304–309), employ their freedom and reason to follow the teleology of the world, and realize their entelechy with the help of God (XLII, 137–263, 265–527). The point is that, the particularity, peculiarity, and even idiosyncrasy of his Weltanschauung notwithstanding, there is no fundamental opposition between Classical phenomenology and contemporary phenomenology on the issue of the importance of addressing existential questions, for, in working beyond transcendental phenomenology, Husserl already anticipated existential phenomenology.

Tarjei Mandt Larsen (Stavanger/UC Berkeley), “On Husserl’s Argument from the Problem of Transcendence”

The paper makes a contribution to the assessment of Husserlian epistemology. Husserl’s writings offer discussions of a wide range of substantive epistemological issues. But they also contain strong metaepistemological claims, according to which epistemological problems are solvable only by means of phenomenological cognition. Husserl argues that this is so because the nature of the central problem of epistemology, which he calls the problem of transcendence, or the problem of how transcendent cognition is possible, places certain methodological constraints on its solution, which phenomenological cognition alone can satisfy. And the supposedly most decisive of these is that the problem cannot be solved by means of transcendent cognition, since trying to do so would be viciously circular. In the paper I critically examine this circularity argument. I argue that there is strong reason to think that it fails, if due account is taken of the fact that Husserl’s problem of transcendence is not the problem of whether transcendent cognition is possible, but of how it is possible.

Zach Joachim (
Sean Driscoll (
Boston University, Department of Philosophy
Boston College, Department of Philosophy