The theme of this second symposium of the Boston Phenomenology Circle is Varieties of Phenomenology. What is phenomenology? Already in the wake of Husserl and Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty famously observed that this question is far from being resolved. It remains so today. But now even more so, there is no one thing that is phenomenology. Much like analytic philosophy, it begins as a reaction, but abides as a series of variations–of innovations, leaps, syntheses, divisions, and returns–carrying into the present day. Our aim is to present and put into conversation work embodying some of these variations, with the hope of mutual clarification, insight, and appreciation as to what phenomenology may be.
The format is a two-day workshop taking place at Boston University (Friday, March 24) and Boston College (Saturday, March 25). Speakers will present for forty minutes, followed by forty minutes of discussion. Papers will be distributed in advance, and we encourage participants to have read them prior to the workshop. All are welcome, especially from the Boston area. Interested participants can find the papers below.
March 24-25 Boston University, School of Theology Building (745 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA 02215) Room 325 Boston College, McGuinn Hall (140 Beacon St, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467) Room 521
friday, march 24
1:30-1:40 opening remarks
1:40-3:00 Tim Mooney (University College Dublin), “Getting to intelligible space with Kant and Husserl”
3:10-4:30 David Cerbone (West Virginia University), “Background and rough ground”
4:40-6:00 Hanne Jacobs (Loyola Chicago), “Attention and the activity of reason”
saturday, march 25
9:30-10:50 Sean Kelly (Harvard), “Heidegger, Kant, and conceptualism”
11:00-12:20 Walter Hopp (Boston University), “Some phenomenological considerations against idealism”
2:30-3:50 Richard Kearney (Boston College), “Phenomenologies of touch: Aristotle and Merleau-Ponty”
4:00-5:20 David Carr (New School/Emory), “Intersubjective embodiment”
Tim Mooney (University College Dublin)
“Getting to intelligible space with Kant and Husserl”
For Kant, space as the a priori form of empirical perception is presupposed in representing objects as outside ourselves and each other, and so too is the pure intuition of this form. Husserl agrees that space cannot be derived from bare outer experience, but not that it is the mere form of appearances. Spatiality is intrinsic to the things themselves, and the movements of the subject are conditions of possibility of it having the sense that it does. I argue that the value of Husserl’s account of kinaesthetic-visual constitution lies in its explication of those ways of moving that needed to reach an articulated and intelligible space of fully bounded figures near and far. By the same token the Kantian schema of extension and figure must be founded on the generic kind of moving body that we possess.
David Cerbone (West Virginia University)
“Background and rough ground”
I consider in this paper various ways of spelling out the idea that there is a background dimension, component, or feature of experience, as well as the significance of that idea for making sense of experience in general. I survey a number of examples, both from within phenomenology (Husserl, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty) and without (primarily Wittgenstein), in order to illustrate both the importance of, and the challenges inherent in, adequately articulating the idea of a background without falsification (roughly, making the background accessible or available as background). A more difficult example is Dreyfus’s Heidegger-inspired notion of a background understanding (of being), which functions, according to Dreyfus, so as to be largely inaccessible to any kind of reflective comprehension or description. Dreyfus’s emphasis on the inaccessibility of the background raises serious questions about the viability of phenomenology on this front, as well as the more general possibility of reflectively criticizing one’s (basic) ways of making sense of things.
Hanne Jacobs (Loyola Chicago)
“Attention and the activity of reason”
There is a growing literature concerned with the question of whether it is meaningful to speak of epistemic agency. Most generally, the debate centers around whether belief can be called active in some sense. It is usually agreed that even if we think of belief as active or entailing an activity, it is different in important respects from other activities. So, for example, it is noted that in order to speak of epistemic agency, one need not commit to an epistemic voluntarism according to which I can believe what I want in the way I can, to a certain extent, do what I want. Relatedly, it is generally acknowledged that practical reasons for believing something (e.g., because I would somehow benefit from believing something) will not make me believe something—only epistemic reasons will. Nor does the idea of epistemic agency need to entail that I control my beliefs in the way that I control my actions and objects. To speak of epistemic agency is hence compatible with the observation that we are in a certain sense passive with regard to our beliefs and can in a certain sense not believe otherwise than we do.
Still, and this is one of the reasons why some find it promising to inquire into what it means to speak of epistemic agency, like in the case of action, when I believe something I am expected to be able to answer the “why” question and expect others to be able to do the same. That is, it is argued, just as we act for reasons, we also believe for reasons, and our doing so puts us in a position to declare those reasons to others when they ask why we believe something.
Critics of the idea of epistemic agency have generally agreed that while it makes sense to speak of activity in a number of ways in relation to belief (like when we perform certain activities to ensure an optimal epistemic situation or when we perform activities to maintain beliefs), this in itself does not warrant talk of agency, because belief, unlike acting, is a state that cannot be meaningfully called active. Kieran Setiya, insisting on this point and critically scrutinizing a number of available accounts of epistemic agency, has argued that if one can talk about activity in the case of belief, it seems just to refer to the fact that one can have reasons for one’s belief. So, talk of the activity of belief should be understood in deflationary terms. As Setiya concludes: “There is no basis here for a substantive notion of epistemic agency, or a conception of active belief that goes beyond the obvious fact that we believe things for reasons” (194). And Setiya adds a challenge to this conclusion: “a challenge to advocates of epistemic agency: to accept a deflationary reading, to defend one of the options I criticize, or to describe a possibility I do not discuss”(179).
In this talk my aim is to begin to describe a possibility that Setiya does not discuss that is inspired by Husserl’s phenomenology. In doing so, I also aim to show how speaking of the activity of belief in the deflationary sense according to which the activity of belief amounts to having reasons for belief is only meaningful when the one holding a belief can in principle be active with respect to the held belief in another, non-deflationary sense.
I will begin by proposing that the kind of activity that matters from an epistemic point of view is what Husserl calls positing (setzen) or stance taking (Stellung nehmen) and that to actually posit something requires attention in the specific sense that attention, rather than just being some mental event among others, is the actualization of this positing. Then, I will develop how attention, in virtue of actualizing the positing characteristic of belief, also actualizes our awareness of the reasons for that belief. That is, it is only when actually positing something or attentive to something as something that I can become aware of what speaks for or against my taking something in a certain way. Next, I will suggest that it is only meaningful to speak of a standing belief or belief as a state if the one holding the belief can, in principle, actualize that belief by attending to the intentional correlate of that belief and in doing so become aware of the reasons for believing that way—even though they are not at present aware of the reasons for many of their held beliefs and might find out that they have no such reasons. If this is so, I would like to suggest, an account of how we can become aware of reasons for belief should be part of even a deflationary proposal of activity in the sense of believing for reasons. Having suggested that the activity characteristic of this awareness is attentive positing, I develop in concluding in what sense paying attention is something we do.
Sean Kelly (Harvard)
“Heidegger, Kant, and conceptualism”
In a 1955 review of the second edition of Martin Heidegger’s book Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics, Dieter Henrich situates Heidegger’s Kant in the history of German philosophy. “Heidegger’s … Kant-interpretation …,” Henrich writes,
though explicitly a reading of Kant, will also show itself secretly to be a counterproposal to Hegel’s Kant-interpretation and to that of speculative Idealism in general.
In contemporary systematic philosophy, the Kantian impulse finds one of its most powerful manifestations in John McDowell’s defense of conceptualism regarding the content of perceptual experience. But especially in light of recent essays on Kant and Hegel collected in his 2009 volume Having the World in View, it has become increasingly clear that the Kant who is most influential for McDowell’s claims about perception is one who is aiming at a Hegelian completion of his task. If Henrich is right that Heidegger’s Kant stands as an explicit counterproposal to Hegel’s, then perhaps it has McDowell’s conceptualism in its sights as well. The goal of this essay, therefore, is to approach the debate between conceptualists and non-conceptualists regarding the content of perception, through the debate between a Hegelian and a Heideggerean appropriation of Kant. A crucial danger of this approach, of course, is that it risks elucidating the obscure in terms of the dark and mysterious. But I hope this danger is counterbalanced by the possibility that, through situating our contemporary debate in a sufficiently rich historical context, it might also uncover a way of understanding the contours of the debate that has been lost in its contemporary incarnation.
 Henrich (1994), p. 18.
Walter Hopp (Boston University)
“Some phenomenological considerations against idealism”
There are considerable reasons to think that Husserl’s brand of transcendental idealism is incompatible with metaphysical realism about the natural world. One major difficulty with this interpretation, however, is that metaphysical anti-realism stands in tension with two other claims that enjoy significantly stronger phenomenological support. The first is that the natural world presents itself to us, in both thought and perception, as metaphysically real and largely independent, in both its existence and its nature, of our consciousness of it (see D.W. Smith 1982, Gorner 1991, Willard 2002). Second, in accordance with Husserl’s own “principle of all principles” (Ideas I, §24), that the world appears to be metaphysically real provides us with excellent and perhaps conclusive reasons to take it to be metaphysically real. To solve this tension, I will tentatively suggest an interpretation of Husserl’s transcendental idealism, one that draws from several existing realist interpretations, that is consistent with metaphysical realism.
Richard Kearney (Boston College)
“Phenomenologies of touch: Aristotle and Merleau-Ponty”
This paper analyses the enigmatic question of ‘touch’ in Aristotle’s De Anima – the notion that touch is the most philosophical of the senses and that ‘flesh’ (sarx) is not an organ but a medium (metaxu). It then relates this to Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological revisiting of touch as ‘double sensation’ and ‘diacritical perception’ in his later writings and College de France Lectures (in particular Le monde sensible in the early 1950s).
David Carr (New School/Emory)
The phenomenological approach to intersubjectivity has always been closely entwined with its account of embodiment. From Husserl’s first reflections on Einfühlung through the work of Scheler, Stein, Merleau-Ponty, and Schutz, up to the more recent works of Zahavi and others, the assumption has been that our access to other subjects is mediated by the body; and the task of phenomenology is to describe and understand how this works.
By taking up this task of description phenomenology turns its back on the standard approach of modern philosophy. Often called the “problem of solipsism” or the “problem of other minds,” this is a metaphysical and epistemological puzzle. We all believe that other people exist, just as we all believe that the “external world” exists, but since Descartes, philosophers have raised skeptical doubts about these beliefs and then taken upon themselves the task of defeating skepticism and reinforcing or confirming these beliefs. Hume thought it couldn’t be done, and Kant thought it a scandal that it hadn’t been done, but they agreed no progress had been made.The “problem of other minds” fits into this puzzle as a sort of sub-problem. Even if we could be sure that the “external world” really exists as it appears in our perception, how can we know that those bodies we see around us announce the presence of other minds? Here enters the much-maligned “argument by analogy,” descended from Locke and Berkeley, according to which we infer, on the basis of an analogy between the other body and my own, that another mind lurks behind, or within, that other body. It is unclear whether this argument is attributed to each of us, each time we are confronted with a body, or whether it is only a philosopher’s tool for addressing the metaphysical and epistemological problem.
The “problem of other minds” fits into this puzzle as a sort of sub-problem. Even if we could be sure that the “external world” really exists as it appears in our perception, how can we know that those bodies we see around us announce the presence of other minds? Here enters the much-maligned “argument by analogy,” descended from Locke and Berkeley, according to which we infer, on the basis of an analogy between the other body and my own, that another mind lurks behind, or within, that other body. It is unclear whether this argument is attributed to each of us, each time we are confronted with a body, or whether it is only a philosopher’s tool for addressing the metaphysical and epistemological problem. What is clear is that in either case this “problem” has nothing to do with our actual experience, and in fact distorts it. Phenomenology tries to return to this actual experience and describe it as fully and accurately as possible. I hope to contribute to this task in the following paper. Throughout, I shall be drawing heavily on Husserl’s treatment of this subject, but I will expand on Husserl by drawing on examples from other writings and from common experience.
What is clear is that in either case this “problem” has nothing to do with our actual experience, and in fact distorts it. Phenomenology tries to return to this actual experience and describe it as fully and accurately as possible. I hope to contribute to this task in the following paper. Throughout, I shall be drawing heavily on Husserl’s treatment of this subject, but I will expand on Husserl by drawing on examples from other writings and from common experience.I will begin with the so-called
I will begin with the so-called face-to face encounter, often considered the paradigm case of intersubjectivity, and examine the role of embodiment in this form of intersubjectivity. In the second section, I will suggest that this form of intersubjectivity, while important, is not the only form, and that we-intentionality, or plural subjectivity, presents us with a different, and perhaps equally important form of intersubjective relation. After discussing this phenomenon in a general way I will then return to the topic of embodiment and ask how it might figure in an account of we-intentionality.