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Rethinking Minds: the Wittgenstein, Levinas, Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty Gang

Interview by Richard Marshall.

 

Image result for Søren Overgaard

What I think is interesting about Wittgenstein and Levinas is that they try to make sense of both the Cartesian’s and the behaviourist’s share of the truth in one go, as it were. (Although I doubt they would think of themselves as addressing the philosophical problem of other minds – Levinas certainly wouldn’t. But let me set that point aside.) Their idea, I think, is that there is something about the very way in which other minds are given to us – even when they are perfectly transparent – that explains the fragility of our grasp of them.

The mindreading literature concerns the question of how we go about identifying other people’s mental states. Enactivists emphasizing the role of interaction in social cognition have tended to be critical of the mindreading literature. But it is not always clear on what grounds.

‘For both Husserl and Heidegger, the philosopher’s task is to inquire into something that, in everyday life, we consider obvious and take for granted. For both of them, generally speaking, that something has to do with how the world comes to show up for us as meaningful in the way it does. To properly address such an issue, they believe, one has to depart to some extent from what Husserl calls the natural attitude (Heidegger speaks of ‘everydayness’).

‘Whatever it is that Strawson and the phenomenologists have in common, Strawson implies that it is something you don’t find in Quine. This illustrates the important point that it would be naïve to imagine that we could get all continental philosophers and all analytic philosophers to speak to each other. Searle and Derrida, for example, didn’t seem to hit it off. But I think it is obvious that we can have genuine constructive communication at least between phenomenologists and some analytic philosophers.

I would not dream of denying the reality of some sort of split between ‘continental’ and ‘analytic’ philosophy. If you look at citation patterns, hiring policies, and which journals, book series, and conferences people think are important, and so on, you’ll see a real divide. What I deny is that there is any interesting philosophical basis for dividing twentieth-century (and twenty-first-century) philosophy up in this way.

Søren Overgaard’s research interests range from the history of twentieth century philosophy (especially phenomenology, Wittgenstein, and ordinary language philosophy) through metaphilosophy to the philosophy of mind. Currently, his main interests are perceptual experience and mindreading (in particular perceptual aprroaches to mindreading). Here he discusses other minds and Wittgenstein and Levinas,  the notion of an embodied mind in Wittgenstein, three kinds of other minds problem, phenomenologist solutions, enactivism, Merleau-Ponty, Husserl, Heidegger, epoché, Stanley Cavell and Stanley Rosen, Husserl’s question of constitution, Heidegger’s question of ‘transcendence’ and  his question of being, whether Husserl’s transcendental subjectivity is ‘worldless’, whether there are links between Husserl’s notion of a ‘world horizon’ and Heidegger’s ‘referential web’, whether Heideggerian phenomenology, and his notion of Dasein,  is a type of anthropology, and on the split between continental and analytic philosophy.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Søren Overgaard: In high school, one of my major subjects was political science. What interested me the most was political ideologies – socialism, liberalism, and so on – and at some point I realized that if I wanted to pursue those interests, studying philosophy was a better option than studying political science (which I had originally planned to do). So I enrolled in philosophy at the University of Aarhus, basically without knowing anything about the subject or its history. It was only after I started studying at university that I discovered theoretical philosophy – along with a host of names I had never before come across: Hume, Kant, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, etc. My interest in political thought almost immediately gave way to a preoccupation with more theoretical issues – the problem of other minds, our perception of the world – which I still work on today.

Wittgenstein and Other Minds

3:AM: One issue in the philosophy of mind that you address is the problem of other minds, of how we mind read, the idea that we don’t seem to have access to other minds in the direct way we seem to have with our own. A Cartesian dualism seems to inform the problem: if minds are not bodies then looking at bodies and their behaviours won’t help at all. But this seems wrong: we do look at bodies and behaviours to understand what another person is thinking. And Peter Carruthers argues that we actually do the same with ourselves. But a wholescale behaviourism also seems wrong. Something about other minds does seem hidden from us. How do Wittgenstein and Levinas on expression help us in this area?

SO: An idea I think one can find in the later Wittgenstein – especially in his writings on the philosophy of psychology – is the following: it is true that other people’s minds may be ‘hidden’, as perhaps a Cartesian picture would suggest, and equally true that the minds of others may be revealed to us in perception, as a behaviourist picture would suggest. So each of these pictures has a share in the truth. I think this is perfectly correct as far as it goes. I also think that any account of other minds that would entail that it is always transparent to us what another person is thinking or feeling – or that such things are never perfectly obvious – would be a non-starter.

What I think is interesting about Wittgenstein and Levinas is that they try to make sense of both the Cartesian’s and the behaviourist’s share of the truth in one go, as it were. (Although I doubt they would think of themselves as addressing the philosophical problem of other minds – Levinas certainly wouldn’t. But let me set that point aside.) Their idea, I think, is that there is something about the very way in which other minds are given to us – even when they are perfectly transparent – that explains the fragility of our grasp of them. Wittgenstein articulates the relevant idea in terms of the other person’s face showing itself ‘not in reflected light’, but in its own light (Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology, vol. II, sect. 170). Levinas speaks of the face as breaking through all the categories that we might impose on it. The point, I take it, is this: When a person expresses his or her mental state, meaning is created then and there, in the person’s gestures, facial expression, tone of voice, etc. And even when the expression leaves no doubt as to that meaning – as to what the other person is feeling, say – we are still aware of the other person as the source of this meaning, and we are aware that at every moment the other may create new meaning that cancels what we thought we knew and understood. Now, all this is rather vague, and would need more careful unpacking and developing than I am able to provide here. (In fact, to be honest, I don’t think I managed to develop these ideas sufficiently in my book on Wittgenstein and Levinas.)

Another interesting thing about Wittgenstein’s and Levinas’ perspectives here is that, as I read them, they deny that other people’s expressions are exclusively or even primarily sources of our knowledge about their mental states and episodes. Rather, they are equally, or perhaps even more fundamentally, sources of something like a moral demand. Levinas is very explicit about this; in Wittgenstein it is much less pronounced. But for both of them, recognizing someone as another ‘mind’ – or at least another human being – is inseparable from the implicit recognition that I owe them something, that I cannot treat them with the same indifference I may treat a lamppost. And this recognition is one they first and foremost associate with the experience of the expressive (human) face.

3:AM: You argue that Wittgenstein is not worried about the traditional epistemic problem of other minds: you say his is a more phenomenologist approach. First, can you sketch for us what this distinction is before saying what you take Wittgenstein’s arguments to be about? Why is the notion of an embodied mind so important for intersubjectivity for Wittgenstein in resisting behaviourist and dualist positions, and denying that subjectivity is an object or thing?

SO: As I read him, Wittgenstein certainly isn’t interested in solving the sceptical problem of other minds. That is, he has no interest in proving, to a sceptic’s satisfaction, that we may know what other people are thinking and feeling, or that they feel and think in the first place. So if the traditional epistemological problem is a sceptical one, Wittgenstein just wants to shrug it off (I think John McDowell puts it like that somewhere). Here, Wittgenstein is perfectly in line with phenomenologists such as Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty. So you might say this is the first respect in which his perspective is like that of the phenomenologists. Moreover, like the phenomenologists, I think he is trying to shed light on our ways of relating to other people (and their minds), in such a way as to make us see that there is no compelling reason to bother with those sceptical problems in the first place. Here, too, he is in line with the phenomenologists.

Finally, the way Wittgenstein tries to accomplish this is in part by providing phenomenological descriptions. By ‘phenomenological descriptions’ I mean descriptions of our experiences – or of the world as it shows up in our experiences. In the manuscripts on the philosophy of psychology, Wittgenstein is doing phenomenology in this (admittedly broad) sense, though I am of course not claiming that is all he is doing. Still, again and again he tries to call attention to how other people show up in our experience, for example when we are face to face with them. When our attention is directed to such everyday encounters with other people, we can see that the idea that the ‘outer’ body is just a mere material thing like any other, which is an idea apparently shared by certain sorts of behaviourism and dualism, has to go. The human face is not experienced by us as a lump of flesh, behind which there may (or may not) be a mind. When you look into another person’s eyes, you may sometimes immediately see their joy or sadness. The joy or sadness is there, in the expressive face, not somehow hidden behind it. Although he doesn’t put it like that, I think Wittgenstein is here articulating the same idea that phenomenologists sometimes put in terms of the mind being embodied.

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[Merleau-Ponty]

3:AM: You actually identify three kinds of other minds problem – conceptual, epistemological and empirical. Can you sketch what these are and then explain why you agree with Merleau-Ponty that embodiment might be helpful to the first two but is of no use to the third?

SO: Philosophers commonly distinguish between the conceptual and the epistemological problem. I have not worked much on the conceptual problem, and I must confess I find it somewhat elusive. But I think it goes something like this: how can the very same mental concepts have first-person and third-person applications? How can ‘pain’, say, mean the same thing when I apply it to that awful thing I am feeling, and when I apply it to goings-on in another person, in which case I am aware of no such feeling? Merleau-Ponty seems in places to be concerned with a problem of this sort (as does Wittgenstein), for instance when he asks how ‘consciousness’ could be applied to a plurality of subjects. He suggests that any difficulty I might feel there is here evaporates once I realize that my own consciousness is embodied, that it has an exterior. For if the concept of ‘consciousness’ in my own case refers to something that has a visible exterior, then there is no mystery about how it can be the same concept that I apply in the third-person case, given my perceptual access to the relevant exterior. I find this point intuitively plausible, but again, I have not devoted much attention to this problem.

In its arguably most interesting form, the epistemological problem is not the sceptical problem of whether or not we can have knowledge about other minds in the first place – which Merleau-Ponty has no interest in addressing. Rather, accepting that we have such knowledge, the epistemological issue is whether all of that knowledge is inferential, or whether some of it may be non-inferential, perceptual knowledge. Like his fellow phenomenologist Max Scheler, Merleau-Ponty is emphatic that we can have non-inferential, perceptual knowledge of at least some mental states of other people (emotions being the paradigmatic example). He also seems to suggest that the notion of emotions as ‘embodied’ – literally extending all the way to include the expressive behaviour – is crucial to making this case. From the little that Merleau-Ponty says, I cannot confidently say why he believes the case for non-inferential knowledge about other minds depends on embodiment. But perhaps we can reconstruct his reasoning with the help of an idea from McDowell. If another’s facial expression is literally a part or component of her emotion, then the fact that she has that emotion can be perceptually given to us. Since the emotion is there in the visible facial expressions, our perceptual experience need not ‘fall short’ of the fact that she has it – the way it presumably would, say, if the emotion was wholly inner. Much more obviously needs to be said here, and elsewhere I have tried to elaborate these ideas based on Dretske’s work on epistemic seeing. At any rate, it seems to me that a plausible story can be told along some such lines.

Finally, the ‘empirical’ problem is what the mindreading literature is concerned with. Here the question is not how we may know – or be justified in believing – that others are happy or sad, but how we actually go about forming such beliefs in everyday life, whether justifiably or not. That clearly is an empirical question, not to be settled from the philosophical armchair. In recent years, almost all my work on ‘other minds’ has been about the empirical problem. My interest in the problem again goes back to the phenomenologists (and Wittgenstein). They – including Merleau-Ponty – believe not only that our beliefs about other people’s emotions can be rationally justified by reference to a perceptual access we can have to facts involving those emotions. They also believe that a lot of the time, we actually find out about others’ emotions by purely perceptual means. That is, often we simply see that another is angry – we don’t see that her face is contorted in this or that way and on that basis infer that she is angry.

Now, one might naturally think that if it were true that emotions are embodied, then that would provide important support for the view that we sometimes find out about other people’s emotions through purely perceptual means. I used to think so myself. But then there was this passage in Merleau-Ponty that kept bothering me. In it, he goes straight from a clear affirmation of embodiment – ‘The gesture … is the anger itself’ (Phenomenology of Perception, trans. D. Landes, Routledge 2012, p. 190) – to the observation that the sense of an angry gesture is not seen the way colours are seen. The sense, he says, is not ‘given’ but rather ‘understood’. And he goes on to admit that it is difficult not to conceive of the relevant understanding as involving an inference.  To be clear, he does not think our understanding of others’ emotions always does proceed by way of inferences. His point is that we still need to make the case that it does not – even though we have already affirmed that emotions are embodied.

It was only after I had read Dretske’s Seeing and Knowing that I saw clearly what Merleau-Ponty was trying to say in that passage. I now think his point is this: Even if the other person’s gesture is her anger itself (or a component or part of the anger), it is still an open question how we reach the conclusion that she is angry. To be an octagon is to have a certain visible shape. But I suspect that, for most of us, the recognition that some geometrical figure is an octagon is not a purely perceptual achievement. The case might be similar here: although that gesture is anger, I might need to employ inferences to recognize or categorize it as such. The fact that some thing or feature can be straightforwardly seen – ‘nonepistemically’, as Dretske says – does not yet tell us how thing or feature is recognized as the thing or feature it is. In particular, it does not tell us that such recognition is a purely perceptual achievement.

3:AM: A phenomenologist solution to the epistemological problem of other minds requires that there be no inferences. Why would an inferential solution to the problem not be phenomenology, and how does drawing on central ideas from Merleau-Ponty enable you to develop a perceptual solution that is non inferential?

SO: I don’t think any of the phenomenologists would deny that we often have inferential knowledge about other people’s mental states and episodes. But all the major phenomenologists insist that our knowledge is sometimes non-inferential. And I think they hold that view, at least in part because they think we need to say this to stay faithful to our experience; and being faithful to experience is what phenomenology is all about. Yes, it seems to us that we sometimes need elaborate inferences to work out what another might be thinking or feeling. But at other times that is just as plain as day: no inferences are executed, and none are needed to justify our beliefs about what others are feeling. All the evidence we need is given to us in perception. Merleau-Ponty’s ideas concerning embodiment, as I suggested before, can help us to make sense of how this might be so: if an angry gesture just is a person’s anger made manifest, then it seems our perception of those gestures does not, or need not, ‘stop short’ of the fact of her being angry. Again, this is obviously sketchy and would need to be worked out in detail.

3:AM: Why don’t you think that taking embodied interaction for social cognition presents a fundamental challenge for mainstream mindreading approaches, and in fact should inform rather than conflict with mindreading approaches? Does this issue link with your general criticisms of what you call ‘the interactive turn’ and interactionists that seek to challenge the mindreading paradigm?

SO: The mindreading literature concerns the question of how we go about identifying other people’s mental states. Enactivists emphasizing the role of interaction in social cognition have tended to be critical of the mindreading literature. But it is not always clear on what grounds. Either the enactivists’ criticisms target the very question that the mindreading literature seeks to answer, or the target is the answers that have been offered in the literature. The former seems to me to be a dead end: mindreading is certainly a legitimate and important topic, although it obviously isn’t the only aspect of our social lives worth investigating, nor is there any compelling reason to think it the single most important one. I think enactivists have thrown interesting and important light on aspects of social interaction that have not been given sufficient attention in the mindreading literature. But we can acknowledge that without accepting the wholesale rejection of the very topic of mindreading that enactivist writings sometimes (not always) seem to imply.

Sometimes the target of enactivist criticisms seems to be the accounts of mindreading mostly offered in the literature. The suggestion has at times been that all of the main accounts are committed to a ‘spectatorial’ picture of social cognition, according to which mindreaders are mostly just passive observers of others. (Occasionally this criticism has also been directed at the perceptual accounts of mindreading that may derived from the phenomenologists.) But this strikes me as false. It seems to me that none of the main theories of mindreading is committed to such a bizarre idea. In fact, so-called theory-theorists have often maintained that social interaction is a crucial factor in the development of mindreading skills. What is true, though, is that early studies of mindreading tended to use experimental designs in which subjects (e.g. children) were passive observers. Again, this is a shortcoming that one can acknowledge and redress without accusing theory-theorists and others of adopting a ‘spectatorial’ theory of our relations with others.

Husserl and Heidegger on Being in the World

3:AM: We’ve mentioned Merleau-Ponty, and also suggested that Wittgenstein might also be taken as a kind of pheomenologist, but the two looming figures in the literature are Husserl, the founding father, and Heidegger, his student. Can you say something about how they saw philosophical problems arising out of the ‘everyday Dasein’, the ordinary attitude, and why you disagree with Husserl that there can’t be a theoretical motivation to give up this attitude?

SO: For both Husserl and Heidegger, the philosopher’s task is to inquire into something that, in everyday life, we consider obvious and take for granted. For both of them, generally speaking, that something has to do with how the world comes to show up for us as meaningful in the way it does. To properly address such an issue, they believe, one has to depart to some extent from what Husserl calls the natural attitude (Heidegger speaks of ‘everydayness’). Roughly, the natural attitude is the attitude that governs most or all of our lives. It is one in which we are pre-occupied with worldly things and events, and in which we do not consider, or do not consider in the right way, the question of how the world comes to be given or manifested – or as Husserls says, ‘constituted’ – to or for subjectivity in the first place. We take world-manifestation for granted. Psychologists who study human perception or cognition also take ‘world-manifestation’ for granted in the relevant sense, Husserl would say. They study human beings, or their brains, that is, items in the world that is manifested to the psychologists.

I think it is hard to see what sorts of theoretical issues might rationally motivate someone to depart from the natural attitude. From within that attitude it might look as if Husserl’s question concerning world ‘constitution’ is precisely one the cognitive sciences are already in the process of answering. Of course, one might reasonably feel that if, say, some neuroscientist would identify love with a certain pattern of neural activation, they would be leaving something important out. But here it is crucial to note that while the natural attitude includes the sort of naturalistic attitude such a neuroscientist would evince, the natural attitude is not exhausted by the naturalistic attitude. In fact, the natural attitude also encompasses what Husserl terms the ‘personalistic attitude’, which he thinks is in fact the attitude we ordinarily adopt. It is from within the personalistic attitude that the world shows us to us as practically, affectively, and morally significant. From within a personalistic perspective, it seems we can capture whatever it is that a hardnosed naturalistic account leaves out.

3:AM: Perhaps it is helpful in trying to grasp Husserl’s notion of epoché and ordinary experience to contrast it with Stanley Cavell’s and Stanley Rosen’s approach to the ordinary which they contrast with Husserl’s  and Heidegger’s account. Can you sketch their account and say where they go wrong?

SO: As I read them, Cavell and Rosen suggest that Husserl’s so-called ‘epoché’ either distorts or leads us away from ordinary or everyday experience. They are far from alone in thinking this. The point of the epoché is to ‘bracket’, that is, abstain from relying upon, all the things we know or believe about the world and our place in it, when we are doing phenomenology. It has often been claimed that such abstaining somehow distorts the experience. For example, doesn’t the world present itself to us in our experiences as real, as actually existing? But then surely if we ‘bracket’ our belief in the existence of the world, we end up falsifying our experiences? Obviously, if this were true, it would make the epoché a most unsuitable tool for phenomenologists, who (as I’ve already remarked) precisely aim to faithfully describe our experiences. But in fact, the whole thing is based on a misunderstanding. Phenomenological description involves reflection on experiences one has or has had, in order faithfully to describe them. This means that when I do phenomenology, I am wearing two hats, as it were. I am both a subject straightforwardly experiencing something or other, and a philosopher aiming to capture the core features of that experience. It is only in the latter capacity that I ‘bracket’ anything. And I do precisely so that my knowledge and my beliefs won’t influence what I say about the experience. Insofar as the experience itself is one in which something is judged or believed to exist, say, then that feature of the experience obviously has to be captured in the description as well. Failing to do so would mean leaving out a key feature of the experience.

On this – I believe correct – picture of Husserl’s epoché, it is quite indispensable for the phenomenologist. And I think Heidegger accepts the epoché, thus understood. One upshot of this way of looking at the epoché, by the way, is that the latter may not be as philosophically interesting as it has seemed to some to be. In fact, ‘bracketing’ is little more than a bit of common sense.

3:AM: What is Husserl’s question of constitution: is it another version of scepticism about the external world, or is it about being? And if it is about being then why don’t you think that conflicts with the approach to being via his method of epoché  – doing things with brackets -which seems to want us to ignore the being of things?

SO: Husserl thinks scepticism about the external world is ridiculous. (Indeed, as already remarked in the context of other minds, the phenomenologists generally have little patience for sceptical worries.) For Husserl, it is obvious that the world exists, and that we have experiential contact with the world. What is not obvious is how the world – including all it contains – can be given or presented to us in our experiences. Husserl’s question concerning constitution is precisely the question concerning how a meaningful world can show up in our experiences. Now, does that question then concern ‘being’ (whatever exactly that means)? Husserl seems to say so in places. And in my first book, I argued that he was right to say so, contrary to what Steven Crowell has argued, namely that Husserlian (and Heideggerian) phenomenology is all about meaning or sense (in German: Sinn) rather than being. I now think Crowell is right: the best way to understand Husserl’s question of constitution is in terms of sense. It is basically the question of how the world comes to be given to us with the sense or meaning it has. To insist that constitutive phenomenology informs us about the ‘being’ of the world is unhelpful and may lead to misunderstandings – for example, the recurring misunderstanding that ‘constitution’ means creation.

As already mentioned, I don’t think the epoché takes away anything from our experiences as we undergo them or ‘live’ them. None of the meaning that the world has for us gets lost when we ‘bracket’.

The Cambridge Companion to Philosophical Methodology

3:AM: You argue that Heidegger raises two questions: one is a question of ‘transcendence’ and the other is a ‘question of being’. Can you tell us about this distinction and the two questions Heidegger raises? What’s the relationship as you see it between Husserl’s question of constitution and Heidegger’s question of transcendence?

SO: Heidegger’s question of being, as I understand it, is the question of what it means for something to be (or exist – although Heidegger reserves the term ‘existence’ for the human way of existing). It might seem as if there is no question hereabouts, or at least not an interesting one. To be is just to be – end of story. So it might seem, but Heidegger thinks an important question is concealed here. Different entities, or beings, have different manners or modes of being. A hammer, for example, essentially is something-with-which-to do something – for example, drive nails into things. A human being exists in an entirely different way. Numbers have yet another manner of being. The question of being concerns what these various manners of being are, and what the underlying ‘meaning of being’ that unites them all might be. (Heidegger seems to assume there must be some underlying unity that justifies speaking of ‘the meaning of being’.)

Now, Heidegger believes that to be a human being (or ‘Dasein’) is, among other things, to have an understanding of the various manners of being of entities. Indeed, it is only because we have such an understanding that we can relate to the various entities in the right sort of way. We understand, for instance, that unlike hammers, numbers aren’t the sort of thing you may pick up and hold in your hand. Here Heidegger believes he has uncovered something that lies beneath Husserl’s analyses of how entities of various sorts are ‘constituted’ for us, and which isn’t brought to light in those analyses. For Heidegger, an entity such as a hammer can only be constituted – or be given to us as the meaningful entity it is – if we already understand its peculiar manner of being. In other words, when Husserl inquires into the constitution of spatiotemporal objects such as hammers, Heidegger thinks there’s an important part of the story that Husserl overlooks: the pre-philosophical understanding of being without which we couldn’t relate to such objects in appropriate ways in the first place. Finally, then, Heidegger’s question of transcendence is the question concerning the conditions which make possible our pre-philosophical understanding of (manners of) being. Heidegger applies the term ‘transcendence’ to this issue, because being ‘transcends’ the realm of entities. Being is not itself an entity of any kind – not even a supreme kind.

If this reading of Heidegger is correct, one may view his question of transcendence as something that supplements Husserl’s question concerning constitution. It supplies what in Husserl’s analyses (as Heidegger sees them) remains a missing link. Heidegger’s question of being, by contrast, seems to concern a somewhat different problematic that isn’t explicitly broached in Husserl’s phenomenology.

I should perhaps add that, whereas I still think the interpretation I have sketched here offers a plausible reconstruction of some of Heidegger’s main concerns in the period leading up to and including Being and Time, I no longer find I can share those concerns. Heidegger’s most valuable contributions, it now seems to me, are to be found in some of the concrete analyses he offers – for instance, his analysis of breakdowns in our normal, unreflective use of things – rather than in the larger, systematic ambitions he has.

The Routledge Companion to Phenomenology

3:AM: Do you think that Husserl has no conception of the world beyond a totality of entities and that his transcendental subjectivity is ‘worldless’?

SO: I don’t think it makes much sense to accuse Husserl’s transcendental subjectivity of being ‘worldless’. Transcendental subjectivity, for Husserl, is nothing but the ‘dative’ of world-manifestation, as it has sometimes been put. That is, transcendental subjectivity is the subjectivity (or consciousness) to whom the world is manifested or given. If there is a question of ‘worldlessness’ here, it must concern whether or not transcendental subjectivity, as conceived by Husserl, can be thought of as immersed in the world. Heidegger’s ‘transcendental subject’ or Dasein is explicitly conceived as ‘being-in-the-world’. But it might seem that, precisely insofar as Husserl’s transcendental subjectivity is the world-experiencing subject, it must be placed somehow outside the experienced world. To make a long story short, I think any such claim is problematic, among other things because it seems contradicted by Husserl’s extensive work on the body. Husserl’s transcendental subjectivity is an embodied subjectivity. When we think through what this means we will see that it makes no sense to think of such a subjectivity as situated somehow outside the world. I think this is essentially clear already in Husserl himself, but at any rate becomes abundantly clear in Merleau-Ponty’s appropriation and development of Husserl’s analyses of embodiment.

Finally, is Husserl’s world a totality of entities? I don’t think so. For Husserl, the world is the ultimate ‘horizon’ implicated in all our experience. ‘Horizon’ is an important technical term in Husserl’s philosophy – perhaps the most important of all. The basic idea may be illustrated with an example. Whenever we perceive a physical thing, we perceive it as one that has ‘more’ to it than is currently given to us. Thus, in vision, for instance, an opaque physical thing looks to have a back side, an inner, and so on, that are not strictly seen. If it did not look to have these unseen aspects, it would not look like a physical thing. Moreover, a thing is seen against a background of other objects that are not currently attended to, and that we are perhaps only dimly aware of. Even the whole scene in front of our eyes is given to us as only a small segment of a reality that continues beyond the walls enclosing us in a partly determined (I know what the hallway outside my office is like) but mostly indeterminate way. ‘Horizon’ is basically Husserl’s term for all the unattended and un-perceived, but somehow anticipated or ‘co-intended’ aspects, against the backdrop of which what we do focus on and see stands out. This backdrop of ‘absence’ against which whatever is present to us is present, is ultimately without limit; it is that which, for Husserl, is the world. Understood as such, the world will of course ‘contain’ an indefinite number of things, but it itself is not to be identified with the totality of these. For it is a structure without which no single thing, and no collection of things, however large, could present itself as such in the first place.

3:AM: Do you see a link between Husserl’s notion of a ‘world horizon’ and Heidegger’s ‘referential web’?  What are these and why do you think that Husserl’s characterisation of the world is perhaps superior?

SO: I have just tried to indicate how Husserl thinks of the world. Heidegger, in Being and Time, thinks of the world in terms of a web of references, as you say. The idea is again best illustrated with an example. Heidegger thinks the things surrounding us in our everyday life are presented to us in terms of their usefulness. (James Gibson articulates what I think is essentially the same idea in terms of ‘affordances’.) A stone, for instance, is a potential projectile, or a paper weight, or whatever. In Heidegger’s terms, it is given to us as ‘something-with-which-to…’. As such, it refers to our possible activities involving it, and it also refers to other things: the prey (or enemy) to be struck down, the paper to be weighed down, and so on. The prey and the paper, in turn, are equally something-with-which-to…. The paper might be a manuscript, the publication of which I hope will further my career, the prey is food for my family, and so on. Ultimately, all these references are teleologically orientated toward something that is not itself useful. That something is our own existence. For Heidegger, this whole referential web (ultimately centred on our own being) is the world.

In my first book, I suggested that the Husserlian notion of ‘horizon’ had more descriptive potential than Heidegger’s ‘referential web’. My thought was essentially this. For Husserl, the ‘horizon’ is also a practical horizon. I am also aware of the world in terms of possible goal-directed actions. In this way, with his notion of horizon, it seems Husserl can capture the sort of referential structure Heidegger highlights. In fact, Husserl’s notion of horizon puts few or no restrictions on the sorts of things that may be anticipated in a ‘horizon’-like manner. This may give his account an advantage over Heidegger’s. For instance, it seems as though Heidegger’s analysis leaves limited room for nature to be part of the world.  It seems natural things and phenomena can only show up in terms of their usefulness, the potential threat to our activities that they may represent, or (at the limit) as simply useless. But one might wonder whether that tripartite analysis gives an exhaustive picture of nature as it may present itself to us.

3:AM: Why do you think Husserl was wrong to characterise Heideggerian phenomenology, and his notion of Dasein,  as a type of anthropology – and how does Heidegger’s notion of Dasein allow him to discuss subjectivity without the entanglements of any kind of Cartesian dualism?

SO: With his notion of Dasein, I think Heidegger meant to single out precisely what Husserl referred to as ‘transcendental subjectivity’. Heidegger in fact tried to make this clear to Husserl in a letter dated 22 October 1927 (published in Husserl, Psychological and Transcendental Phenomenology and the Confrontation with Heidegger (1927-1931), eds. and trans. T. Sheehan & R. E. Palmer, Springer 1997). But Husserl thought Heidegger’s talk of Dasein as ‘being-in-the-world’ meant the latter was simply attempting to provide an account of human beings in the world from within the ‘natural attitude’. In this sense Husserl believed Heidegger was doing ‘anthropology’. This was a misunderstanding of what Heidegger was up to.

But why did Heidegger insist on speaking of Dasein, then, as opposed to (say) transcendental subjectivity or consciousness? Heidegger was determined to avoid not merely Cartesian dualistic reinterpretations of the human subject, but any account according to which human beings are composed of different parts or layers. For Heidegger, a human being is one entity with its proper manner of being. Heidegger chooses the term ‘Dasein’ in an attempt to facilitate such as unitary conception of ourselves. By contrast, talk of ‘consciousness’ (Heidegger thinks) seems to pick out some part of a human being, and so to get an entire human being in view, we must insert that consciousness into a body. (Heidegger thinks the same sort of problem arises when we speak of the body, by the way: if we start with the body, we need to add a mind or soul to get a ‘whole’ human being. That’s why Heidegger is largely silent on the body in Being and Time.)

Perhaps Heidegger does manage to facilitate a break with traditional dualisms. But I don’t think his battery of neologisms was necessary for him to do it. I think Heidegger worried too much about philosophical language. You can escape the traditional views Heidegger is keen to put behind him, while retaining such terms as ‘consciousness’, ‘subjectivity’ and ‘body’. Merleau-Ponty strikes me as someone who does just that.

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[Royaumont]

3:AM: Michael Dummett saw a split between analytic and continental philosophy taking place when Frege and Husserl diverged over psychologism in logic.  You disagree with this don’t you and look to a conference in  Royaumont in 1958 to suggest that there is no real basic divide, that actually many of the so-called analytics and so-called continentals were pretty close in their positions? However you’ve also pointed to examples of work by Jaakko Hintikka, Michael Tye and Alva Noe that shows some fundamental divergence from Husserlian and Heideggarian phenomenology. Can you say something about all this and tell us whether you think we can have Husserlian and Heideggarian phenomenologists and Fodor, Clark, Dennett and the Churchlands all speaking to rather than past each other? Or is there still fundamental misunderstandings that prevent this?

SO: I would not dream of denying the reality of some sort of split between ‘continental’ and ‘analytic’ philosophy. If you look at citation patterns, hiring policies, and which journals, book series, and conferences people think are important, and so on, you’ll see a real divide. What I deny is that there is any interesting philosophical basis for dividing twentieth-century (and twenty-first-century) philosophy up in this way. If we set aside the point that analytic and continental approaches surely do not exhaust recent and contemporary Western philosophy (just to mention one thing, American pragmatism does not fit neatly into either camp), the problem is essentially this: whether you attempt to delineate a methodological, doctrinal, or stylistic feature that sets continental philosophy apart from analytic, you’ll always end up either excluding someone who ought to be included, or include someone from the opposite camp, or (most likely) both. Suppose you define analytic philosophy by its clarity of style. That seems to exclude the later Wittgenstein – surely a key figure in analytic philosophy – and it includes a phenomenologist like Adolf Reinach. Or suppose it is suggested that continental philosophy is defined by its central concern with history. Well, you seem to include Sellars and exclude the early Husserl. And so on.

That does not mean there aren’t plenty of opportunities for talking past each other. And perhaps, since analytic philosophers tend to read other analytic philosophers, and continental philosophers read other continental philosophers, it is not always easy for them to communicate with each other. The 1958 Royaumont Colloquium is a case in point. Here some of the major figures of Oxford ordinary language philosophy (Austin, Ryle, Strawson, etc.) were speaking in front of phenomenologists like Merleau-Ponty. In my view, phenomenologists and ordinary language philosophers actually have a lot in common: both adopt descriptive approaches, and in both cases what is to be described is something ordinary. Yet at Royaumont there was no rapprochement between them, for reasons I have described at length in a paper. Still, they were up to importantly similar things, as P. F. Strawson seems to have realized many years later. In a text from 1990, he contrasts his own approach to philosophy with that of Quine, and suggests that the former is characterized by a concern with ‘what, in another tradition, has been called “expérience vécue”’ (Philosophical Writings, eds. G. Strawson & M. Montague, Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 177). Strawson is here referring to the phenomenological notion of ‘lived experience’, and while his remark testifies to a (somewhat belated) realization that his own approach had important affinities with that of the phenomenologists, the context illustrates an additional important point. For whatever it is that Strawson and the phenomenologists have in common, Strawson implies that it is something you don’t find in Quine. This illustrates the important point that it would be naïve to imagine that we could get all continental philosophers and all analytic philosophers to speak to each other. Searle and Derrida, for example, didn’t seem to hit it off. But I think it is obvious that we can have genuine constructive communication at least between phenomenologists and some analytic philosophers. If Searle had read Husserl’s Logical Investigations, for example, he might have found a lot that resonated with his own thoughts in Intentionality and elsewhere. In the philosophy of perception, which is what I mainly work on these days, such communication is in fact already a reality. It can be seen in the work of Sean Kelly, Charles Siewert, and the late A. D. Smith, to mention just a few names.

An Introduction to Metaphilosophy

3:AM: And from this, what do you say philosophy is, and how would you defend it from those who say philosophy has had its time but now we can hand over to the scientists?

SO: If I know what philosophy is, I know it in much the same way Augustine knows what time is. I am familiar with philosophy, and I think I can recognize it when I encounter it. But when it comes to putting what I know into words, I struggle. I have published in the area of philosophy that addresses questions like ‘What is philosophy?’ – the area sometimes called ‘metaphilosophy’. But my main contribution has been to co-author an introduction – and one nice thing about writing an introduction is that one does not have to defend a view of one’s own! Anyway, I guess I would say that philosophy in the Western tradition is rational inquiry in areas where, for one or another reason, we do not (at least currently) have an established scientific way of addressing the relevant questions. Austin has this nice image of philosophy as a tumultuous sun that from time to time throws off a lump of matter that then cools and becomes an orderly science. There is something to that, as there is to the further observation that when a ‘piece’ of philosophy is torn off and becomes a science, this tends to spawn a branch of philosophy addressing philosophical issues in that science. When psychology became an independent scientific discipline in the 19th century, philosophy of psychology was born.

Following on from this, I think the suggestion that philosophy has now become obsolete is rather silly. For it seems either to amount to the suggestion that we now have established scientific ways of addressing all important questions, or to the suggestion that we simply shouldn’t rationally inquire into whatever questions are empirically intractable. The former seems simply false (do we, for instance, have established empirical ways of investigating the core questions within normative ethics?), and the latter seems to leave a potentially great number of vital issues entirely unconstrained by rationality.

Another question is whether academic philosophers have become obsolete. In other words, one might think that philosophical problems or questions are important enough, but that scientists now shed more light on those questions than academic philosophers do. (Perhaps this is Stephen Hawking’s view.) Without denying that non-philosophers can make important contributions to philosophy, I obviously do not agree that we philosophers have had our time. But perhaps we can become better at showing how what we do may be relevant and important outside the narrow confines of academic philosophy. Perhaps it wouldn’t be entirely unfair to say that there is a tendency for discussions in academic philosophy to develop into prolonged argumentative ping-pong games (I think Kevin Mulligan puts it like that somewhere) – games that are not only very hard for non-philosophers to follow, but that may in addition appear utterly pointless.

3:AM: And for the curious readers here at 3:AM, are there five books other than your own that you can recommend that will take us further into your philosophical world?

SO: I want to highlight five books by five philosophers whose names have come up in our conversation.

Thing and Space

First, I want to mention Edmund Husserl’s Thing and Space. This was the first book of Husserl’s that I studied intensively (for my MA thesis). Thing and Space is Husserl at his best, providing minute analysis of one of his (and my) favourite topics – perceptual experience.

Phenomenology of Perception

Continuing with the phenomenological classics, I also want to recommend Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception. I find it an extremely difficult book; but I’ve also found that whenever I have made the effort to really think through Merleau-Ponty’s convoluted treatment of some issue, I have learnt a lot.

Thirdly, Reinach’s Sämtliche Werke, volume one. This single volume contains the complete works of the early phenomenologist, Adolf Reinach. I have only very recently started to study Reinach’s work, most of which does not even address topics that I am myself working on. But the reason I mention his complete works here is that the impressive clarity and rigour characteristic of Reinach’s philosophical writings is something all phenomenologists – myself included – should strive to emulate.

Fourthly, I want to recommend Dretske’s Seeing and Knowing. This is another book I have learnt a lot from – and another philosopher whose writing is a model of clarity and rigour.

Finally, I want to recommend a book by A. D. Smith, who sadly passed away last year. Smith wrote an excellent introduction to Husserl, but the book I want to include here is his The Problem of Perception. The book is a tour de force, seamlessly weaving together ideas and insights from the phenomenological tradition with analytic discussions of the arguments from illusion and hallucination. Smith effortlessly achieves the sort of rapprochement between analytic and ‘continental’ approaches that some have deemed impossible.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his new book here or his first book here to keep him biding!

End Times Series: the first 302

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, June 27th, 2018.