What is Philosophy?

What is philosophy? There are so many definitions of philosophy. It is not altogether unlikely that the “What is…?” question is not the best way to approach a definition of philosophy. There are many other important questions for defining and describing philosophy. Who are philosophers? What do philosophers do? How does one become a philosopher? How, where, and when does philosophy happen? If you want to keep the question of being (ti esti, “What is”), maybe you could at least pluralize or verbalize philosophy, so that “What is philosophy?” becomes “What are philosophies?” or “What is philosophizing?” (“What are philosophizings?”). In any case, all of these questions hover around the same point. Whatever philosophy is/does, it seems particularly involved in defining itself, maintaining itself, like it has to keep turning on the engine in order to keep driving, continually initiating itself, bringing itself back to itself. In short, philosophizing maintains a constant connection to its own beginning. Philosophy is perpetually preparatory, programmatically provisional. Continue reading

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The Problem with Descartes: It’s Not Dualism

Some people, a lot of people, treat René Descartes as a sort of bogeyman of modern philosophy. Somehow, in the first half of the seventeenth century, Descartes sundered the seamless fabric of Being into two factions, mind and body, a thinking thing and an extended thing, res cogitans and res extensa. With that dualism set in place, soul was thereby evacuated from the universe…except for a tiny piece of property that soul could rent out in the human head, accessed through a steep driveway in the pineal gland. In a universe devoid of soul, humans lost any motivation or justification for caring about anything beyond the solipsistic ego. Thanks a lot, René! There’s no concern for other humans, for community, or for the natural world. Mechanistic thinking thus spurred the rapacious destruction of ecosocial integrity through the development of industrial technologies and market economies. Now, as humans are sawing off the environmental limb that we’re sitting on, it’s more urgent than ever to overcome Cartesian dualism and find a way back into the seamless interconnectivity of existence. No, not really. Something is very wrong with that story. “In order to seek truth,” as Descartes says in his Principles of Philosophy, “it is necessary once in the course of our life to doubt, as far as possible, of all things.” Well, one of the things of which I’m doubtful is the idea that dualism is what’s wrong with Descartes.

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What is Phenomenology?

The opening of Merleau-Ponty’s Phénoménologie de la perception (1945) still rings true today. “What is phenomenology? It may seem strange that this question has still to be asked half a century after the first works of Husserl. The fact remains that it has by no means been answered.” The only different today is the “half a century”; it has now been well over a century since the first works of Husserl and over seventy years since Merleau-Ponty wrote those words. The fact remains that the question has by no means been answered. Merleau-Ponty gave a response, but that response is not a final answer. It is itself open to interpretation, as indicated by the different ways in which Merleau-Ponty’s own thought changed over time and the different ways his thought has been received in contexts like neurophenomenology and ecophenomenology.

What is phenomenology? On one hand, it seems like everybody has their own idiosyncratic definition of phenomenology, which does whatever work you want it to do, like Humpty Dumpty saying that he pays words extra to do what he wants. In that sense, it means almost anything. On the other hand, insofar as there is agreement about what phenomenology is, it is subjected to a rather crude leveling that turns it into a synonym for “study of experience,” thus equivocating between a wide variety of theories and methods in empiricism, pragmatism, phenomenology, hermeneutics, and philosophy of mind. Between Humpty Dumpty phenomenology and crudely leveled phenomenology, the practice of phenomenology is exceptionally loose. Some looseness can be good, facilitating openness to the mystery of what shows itself. However, too much looseness and phenomenology loses its perspicacity. You could blame the excessive looseness on some of the popular (mis)interpreters of figures like Husserl and Merleau-Ponty (pace Evan Thompson and David Abram). The issue is deeper than that though. Part of the problem is that phenomenology has had conflicting meanings throughout its entire history. Because people do not know this history, they are doomed to repeatedly dilute phenomenology in a sea of equivocations. What, then, is phenomenology? Continue reading

20 Days on Mercury: A Ten Year Retrospective

One year on Earth (365 days) is four years on Mercury.  Mercury revolves around the sun relatively quickly: once every eighty-eight Earth days.  While the years are relatively short on Mercury, the days are long—twice as long.  One day on Mercury takes two years on Mercury, which is to say, it takes two solar revolutions of the planet for it to rotate fully on its axis (in Earth terms: imagine the sun rising in June, reaching its noontime zenith in January, approaching dusk the following summer, and approaching midnight the following January).  In the last ten years, twenty days have transpired on Mercury.

I found some old notes of mine (perhaps even “notes” is too emphatic a word), which were written in this month ten years ago.  They are clearly under the spell of Mercury, or in Greek terms, Hermes.  I was quite taken with hermeneutics, particularly through the inflection of a Heideggerian-Aristotelian poetic philosophy.  I was interested in a hermeneutic radicalization of hermetic philosophy (not unlike Jeff Kripal’s mystical hermeneutics or Jack Caputo’s devilish hermeneutics).  Along with hermeneutics, I was also exploring the Merleau-Ponty/Whitehead alliance, anticipating current trends in hybridizing phenomenological and process thought, such as the “Whiteheadian key” to Merleau-Ponty’s ontology that Hamrick and Van Der Veken articulate (see Nature and Logos).  I can also see the beginnings of my ongoing work with a philosophical concept of sense.  With no further introduction or commentary, no apologia or proslogion, here’s a sample of what I was writing twenty mercurial days ago.  Continue reading

A More Whiteheadian Merleau-Ponty

I’m in the process of reviewing an excellent book, Nature and Logos: A Whiteheadian Key to Merleau-Ponty’s Fundamental Thought, by William Hamrick and Jan van der Veken.  It’s so thorough in its research and references, you can get a lot out of the book even if you don’t pay attention to the overall argument that the authors are presenting.  If you do pay attention to that overall argument, you’ll find a clear and constructive articulation of Merleau-Ponty’s “fundamental thought,” that is, his “new ontology,” which he was developing in the years before his untimely death at the age of 53. 

A lot of books talk about Merleau-Ponty’s new ontology and speculate about what his unfinished ontology would look like if he would have had a chance to finish it.  What’s interesting about Nature and Logos is that it supplements that new ontology with a Whiteheadian key, building on Merleau-Ponty’s similarity to and explicit interest in Whitehead’s philosophy of Nature as process.  To support the connection between Merleau-Ponty and process philosophy, the book draws attention to the influence of the evolutionary philosophies of Schelling and Bergson for Merleau-Ponty’s concepts of Nature, time, space, consciousness, body, perception, humanity, etc.  There’s also a chapter on the Stoic logos endiathetos, which parallels Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of Nature as a sensible logos.

The only thing I’ve been disappointed in is the lack of Whitehead in the book.  There’s a good amount of Whitehead in there, good in quality and quantity, but the title made me think that there would be a lot more.  Two names in the title, Merleau-Ponty and Whitehead, yet the Whitehead references are far fewer than the Merleau-Ponty references.  Overall, it’s a book about Merleau-Ponty’s ontology of the flesh, and Whitehead along with Stoicism, Schelling, and Bergson are shown to be keys to that ontology.  Nature and Logos has prepared the ground for the development of an even more Whiteheadian Merleau-Ponty and, hopefully, a more phenomenological process philosophy.