Wednesday, February 15, 2012

On Phenomenology: A Defense

As the correlation between perceived phenomena and the universal structures of meaning, phenomenology altogether rejects scientism, the undue privilege given the natural sciences in mediating and explaining our experience of the world. However, to claim that phenomenologists (Husserl, Heidegger, Lévinas, Merleau-Ponty, Derrida, et al.) are “abstract,” play “language games,” or do not take into account “the material” exhibits a deep ignorance of the phenomenological project.

Phenomenologists do not traffic in abstractions; that is the purview of science. Instead, we excavate the hidden structures of meaning, of perception. Language as the ligament joining the empirical to the rational, the “thing” to the idea of the “thing,” does come to the fore as an object of phenomenological research after Husserl’s recovery of the phenomenological methodology in 1900, but it is misguidedly deceitful to claim that nothing has any inherent meaning, that Continental philosophy is a hermeneutic free-for-all. Finally, to assert that an object of perception “has material” belies a basic fact of perception that Berkeley dealt with in A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710), where he demonstrates that existence is a state of perception by a perceiving mind. Matter, simply put, does not matter; it is undemonstrable and unprovable.

Husserl’s methodology is not so much a radicalization of this principle as a domestication: Husserl makes of perception the basis for transcendental, universal truths while rejecting the unnecessary and contingent “material” basis of reality. Such sloppy criticisms, then, are akin to blaming French for not being German: the two sides are not even speaking the same language.