Sunday, March 18, 2007

A gross distortion of the phenomenological method instituted by Husserl

Kelamuni on Ken: Kela’s home page here Kela at Lightmind
Throughout his writings, and notably in “Integral Spirituality,” Ken speaks of “phenomenology” in terms of a “first person” account or description of the contents of consciousness. This usage is idiosyncratic and it reveals a rather skewed understanding of what phenomenology is concerned with and how it goes about dealing with its subject matter. Ken often associates phenomenology with a kind of “introspective” procedure. In this regard, he appears to be drawing upon what is sometimes called “phenomenlogical psychology,” an approach that is associated with a description based upon acts of introspection. To be fair, at one point in “Integral Spirituality,” Ken says that this is one sense of what we mean by “phenomenology.” But he also often speaks of phenomenology in general as that which is concerned with “first person” descriptions. And to generalize phenomenological psychology in this manner, to the point where it becomes identified with phenomenology in general, is, I suggest, a gross distortion of the phenomenological method instituted by Husserl.
Why is this imporant? It is important since much of Ken’s argument in “Integral Spirituality” hinges upon the shortcomings and inadequacies of phenomenology. At several points, Ken refers to –but never really elucidates — the structuralist critiques of phenomenology. And historically speaking, there is something to this. There were implied critiques of phenomenology to be found in the works of Levi Strauss, Barthes, etc., critiques that were later elucidated by Derrida and especially Foucault. Ken’s understading of such critiques appears to be based on the idea that structures do not present themselves, are not given, to consciousness. Besides Piaget and the rest, among the structualists” Ken refers to appears the name of Jean Gebser. But is Gebser really a “structuralist” in the same manner as Levi-Strauss? I would suggest that he is not. And indeed, the entire dicussion presented in “Integral Spirituality” concerning “phenomenology” and “structuralism,” is, I would suggest, highly misleading. In general, phenomenology is not primarily concerned with “first person” accounts, though this may be an accurate description of “phenomenological psychology.” Phenomenology attempts to mediate purely subjective accounts with those that claim to be “objective.” Its value in this regard is that it is, in ways, a more apt method where the social and cultural sciences are concerned, more apt than a purely empirical “third person” account.
Contrary to what Ken seems to suggest, phenomenology does not primarily aim to describe the contents of consciousness in terms a reference to my “inner experience.” It aims to describe what Husserl referred to as the “essence” or “eidos” of a phenomenon. This it attempts to do by “bracketing” the subjective and “judgmental” components that we add to the phenomenon being described. The important point here, however, is that phenomenology attempts to describe phenomena in terms of generalities, in terms of universals. This is really what we mean by the “essence” or eidos of a thing.
Phenomenology found a particularly useful and powerful application in the domain of religious studies (Religionswissenschaft). There, through a simultaneous application of the comparative method, various “universals” were described by several noted scholars of the field. Rudolph Otto (The Idea of the Holy) may be said to be the grandfather of this method, but it is first fully elucidated as a method by Joachim Wach. Perhaps the most prominent and well known of the phenomenologists of religion was M. Eliade. Now it is interesting to note that Eliade often spoke in terms of not essences, but “structures.” Gustav Mensching, another phenomenologist of religion, also spoke in terms of “structures.” It is within this camp, I would suggest, that Gebser should be associated and not that of Levi-Strauss.
Much of Wilber’s early work also belongs in this camp; and it is easy to see why. With its intimation that it describes the “timeless essences” of the world’s religions, the phenomenological method well serves the needs of the perennialist. We see the remnants of this method in Ken’s references to, and continued reliance upon, “Transformations of Consciousness,” in particular, Ken’s references to the work of Washburn, who compared the Yoga Sutra and its commentaries, with the Theravada manual on meditation, the Vissuddhimagga, and manuals on the practice of Mahamudra meditation. In “Integral Spirituality,” Ken refers to the idea that the “structure” of the meditative path is “essentially” the same for these three traditions (though it is not at all clear what the implication of this idea should be vis a vis the emerging “post-metaphysical spirituality” that Ken attempts to be heralding). While the actual structualist method offers an alternative, and in ways superior, accounting of the subject matter of the Geisteswissenschaft (I do not have the time nor the desire to delve into the actual relationship between the two), the more immediate problem with phenomenology, which Ken also touches upon in “Integral Spirituality” vis a vis his discussion of Habermas, is its utterly ahistorical manner, and its naivity where historicity is concerned — an inadequacy that is revealed by the critical theory of the Frankfurters and Foucault’s geneological approach, and for which Gadamer and Ricouer attempt to compensate by recourse to their respective versions of hermeneutics.
This naivity of the phenomenological method is caricatured by an example sometimes given in graduate methodology seminars, in which a phenomenologal anthropologist arrives at an island in the pacific, only to discover that the “structures” and patterns of belief on the island correspond almost in their entirety to European patterns, upon which he declares their “universality,” all the while completely ignorant of the fact that the Portugese had arrived on the island 200 years earlier, wiped out the indigenous system of belief there and replaced it with their own. While Washburn is not so naive as this, what his account, and accounts of that ilk, ignore is the historical and philological context in which the textual relations he describes obtain. In any case, in terms of the above, I see a continued reliance upon the phenomenological method in Ken’s most recent work, as well as an inaccurate presentation of the phenomenological method, a presentation that tends to mask this reliance. Posted in Integral Metatheory openintegral

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