Archive for March 2008

Phenomenology and Philosophy of Mind: like chocolate and strawberries?

March 23, 2008

I personally like both analytic and Continental philosophy, and am quite reluctant to identify myself as one or the other. This is the case for several reasons.

1. I find much to admire in the work of the major twentieth century phenomenologists. In fact, at this stage in my career, I find it much easier to identify myself as a phenomenologist than either an analytic or Continental philosopher.

2. That said, much of what makes phenomenology so interesting is that it can (and should) interface directly with philosophy of mind. If philosophy of mind is overly committed to a pernicious metaphysical naturalism, then phenomenology might be overly agnostic w/r/t ontology. Much of philosophy of mind is at work (and has been at work) on ‘solving’ the mind-body ‘problem.’ This strikes me, at least in part, as a somewhat naïve approach to the problem of meaning and has lead to two problematic conceptions of the mental: the mental as biological (neurophilosophy) and the mental as computational (functionalism). Much of philosophy of mind done in these two areas involves this basic train of reasoning: here is a way we can conceptualize the mind, e.g. a computer system or a biological system, now let us account for various mental phenomena in terms of this conceptualization. Thus, much of Consciousness Explained and Neurophilosophy consist of demonstrating how the mind is constantly being fooled into thinking that it is right and the ways in which this is much like how a computer works or a biological system. This seems to me to be the basic goals of these two approaches in philosophy of mind. This becomes even more problematic when neither approach has a particularly strong understand of the nature of the phenomena. For example Pat Churchland’s account of (if I remember correctly, this was at a talk) intentions was quite logical, but had little to do with the way that intentions are actually constituted. Before intentions can be explained in terms of biological structures (if they ever can be) surely it must be necessary to understand how intentions are experienced and not just their logical structure. This is precisely the kind of data that phenomenology is best at providing, so the possibility for dialogue is quite obvious

Ok, this has gotten way too long and I haven’t even gotten into what I think philosophy of mind can offer phenomenology.

What the bleep do we know?

March 2, 2008

So, I’m in the midst of watching this movie and several things have occurred to me. Obviously it’s a silly movie, with silly, new age thinkers that really take advantage of quantum mechanics, but what surprised me the most was how trite and conservative most of their opinions were. For example, they keep talking about how consciousness creates reality and how there are all these unrealized possibilities that consciousness creates. For various values of ‘create’ and ‘reality’ this strikes me as being almost trivially true. When I choose to do anything I am actualizing a possibility (assuming I am not a determinist). If it weren’t possible for consciousness to influence reality, then how would the human race have gotten anywhere? Does consciousness create reality? Well, when I build a box, or hammer together a bookshelf I am putting a bookshelf into reality that could not have been there without my consciousness. Now they do mention that if I believe that I can walk on water, then I can walk on water. This is obviously ridiculous, and leads us into the movie’s second strange aspect.

I think what I found most surprising was the new age thinkers encouraging Cartesian dualism. According to many of these thinkers the world ‘out there’ is only real when it is in my mind. Thus when they say that consciousness can create reality that is not because consciousness relates to reality or structures reality, but rather that reality is in the mind. For most of these thinkers esse ist percipe: to be is to be perceived. I think that what I find most amusing about this is that they are positing Berkeley’s subjective idealism as a radical new hypothesis and that it is only because of quantum mechanics that this great insight could have been made.

Hopefully when I finish the movie I will have some better formed thoughts on the subject, but right now I can’t help thinking that what these people desperately need is a phenomenologist! Luckily there is one in the house and he is open for business.

What does it mean to ask the question of philosophy?

March 2, 2008

One evening, after my continental philosophy seminar, I went out to dinner with the professor. He knew that I had been feeling conflicted about the direction of my philosophical studies. He wasn’t worried that I was going to ditch my interest in music and aesthetics for logic, rather he was concerned that I wanted to do phenomenology without being a continental philosopher. I told him that this was definitely not true, it wasn’t that I wanted to do phenomenology without being a continental philosopher, rather I wanted to understand the implication of phenomenology on philosophy of mind (and philosophy of music). He said, that’s what I just said, you want to be a phenomenologist without being a continental philosopher. To this I replied, hunh, then maybe I don’t know what a continental philosopher is. He said, I think that you don’t, but (ever the pedagogue) why don’t you tell me what you think it is.

Ok, I said, I will.

Continental philosophy is that type of philosophy, traditionally originating with Husserl, that is studied by continental philosophers. It includes phenomenology, philosophical hermeneutics, certain (all?) types of critical theory, deconstruction, and postmodernism. Then, ever the wise ass, I said, what do you think it is?

I’m glad you asked, he said, because you have it all wrong. None of those philosophical movements that you have mentioned need to be continental philosophy. Continental philosophy is not a type of philosophy it is a style of doing philosophy that eschews argumentation for descriptions and readings. That is what continental philsophy is.

In other words, I said, as soon as I attempt to break down Derrida’s essays into arguments I have left the area of continental philosophy for analytic philosophy.

That is correct!

But, I said, I’m interested in bridge building. I want to put Merleau-Ponty in dialogue with Dennett, and Derrida in dialogue with Davidson.

Impossible because they are dead! And you cannot step out of the analytic-continental divide. Philosophers cannot be discussed outside of a tradition. This does not mean that that I cannot discuss Quine or Ryle or that Dennett can’t discuss Merleau-Ponty, rather that when I do (or he does) I do it as a continental philosopher. So you are more than welcome to relate Dennett to Merleau-Ponty, but will you be doing that as an analytic philosopher or as a continental philosher?!

I don’t know. I just want to be a philosopher, I said while somewhat whimpering.

You have to choose, he said, if you are going to be a philosopher you must be one or the other. It is impossible to leave the distinction behind.

Hunh, I said, I hadn’t realized that.

And that was the end. Actually there was a discussion about Rorty, and SPEP versus the ASA and exiting the binary distinction, but it got repetitive.