Phenomenology: A Response

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The Vortex—The Gracious Assassin

Thank you for your thoughts and your paper on Edith Stein.  As a committed psychologist and phenomenologist, thoughts are your obvious specialty and point of departure in the philosophical exercise.  One does not begin with reality but with one's experience of reality.  Consciousness and what can be derived from our description of it, including the necessity of an objectively real world as prerequisite and necessary assumption, is the working domain of phenomenology.

I find it interesting that you, and some others who have written to us on this subject, make no attempt to defend phenomenology as an acceptable starting point for doing philosophy except by way of appeal to the reputation and presumed authority of others thought to be not only good philosophers but good and holy men and women.  I'm surprised that you wouldn't find it equally compelling to say that phenomenology was part of the thinking of Edward Schillebeeckx and, therefore, a woefully deficient basis for doing the work of philosophy or theology.  If phenomenology is judged to be a worthy development in the history of philosophical inquiry, it should be defensible independent of who says so. 

It is not a worthy argument to say that phenomenology is a sound philosophy simply because Saint John Paul II, St. Edith Stein (and Dietrich Von Hildebrand) thought so.  That gifted and even charismatic individuals arrive at different philosophical conclusions about the nature of reality and how to engage in the work of philosophy means nothing more than that such differing conclusions are capable of being embraced by gifted and even charismatic individuals.  It says nothing about the truth content of the respective positions, only the quality of the persons who hold those positions.  Michael Voris did not "slam" phenomenology "unconditionally" but he would suggest that phenomenology has huge holes in what it defines as reality and, therefore, the philosophical exercise.

I, personally, judge phenomenology to be woefully deficient as a systematic philosophy that, to date, has contributed absolutely no new insights into reality and Truth beyond its own predefined boundaries.  In other words, phenomenology is, at root, a decision to engage reality and do philosophy from entirely arbitrary premises that make the philosophical exercise one that proceeds from within one's head to the outside world.  It's a deliberate choice to do philosophy in a manner that is incapable from the very beginning of arriving at an adequate accounting of reality, which should be the goal of any philosophical system. 

That phenomenologists are capable of saying truthful things is not a product of phenomenology but in spite of it.  It's as if one decided to do philosophy beginning with the premise that all we can know is what we see on television.  Philosophy can be done that way but, since the decision is made in advance that one is limited to what one can see on television, the results of such a philosophical exercise are not likely to be comprehensive and only accidentally related to reality.  Phenomenology is a philosophical exercise that is little more than a logical game: let's see what we can do with philosophy when we deliberately limit our perception of reality to make the exercise that much more interesting.  It's like saying let's do math and see what happens if we assign the value of 3 to the number 2.  Math can be done that way, I guess, and it may be a sign of particular genius to create an entire mathematical system where 2 = 3, but whatever value proceeds from such an exercise is accidental.  It's considerably more fruitful and productive to do math in a real world where 2 = 2, but then it wouldn't take a genius to produce something fruitful and productive in such a universe.

I know it isn't possible to define the fundamental intuition of phenomenology that leads to its massively complex and confusing world, but one could do worse that reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry for Phenomenology (  There we find, in the first paragraph, the following:

Phenomenology is the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view. The central structure of an experience is its intentionality, its being directed toward something, as it is an experience of or about some object. An experience is directed toward an object by virtue of its content or meaning (which represents the object) together with appropriate enabling conditions.

To quote another famous person in another context, "what further evidence do we need" that phenomenology begins with human consciousness and not with the real world?  Since human consciousness is something real within each individual subject who is conscious, it is a valid field of inquiry that other, less encumbered philosophical systems address within their philosophical "anthropology" and "psychology."  Phenomenology begins more with an epistemological statement than a response to reality itself.  Phenomenology is a systematic exercise in philosophical narcissism that, because it is a real human being engaged in a very real exercise of conscious thought, will produce an occasional truth but one which may or may not correspond to reality.  Philosophy is not about analyzing "structures of consciousness" but about reality, which means phenomenology is little more than a "what if" exercise in experimental thinking: "What if we pretend that our first and primary point of departure in our confrontation with reality is human consciousness?  What might we learn from ignoring major parts of reality in this way?"  It is navel gazing masquerading as poetry and mysticism articulated in language and concepts almost totally inaccessible to ordinary human beings.

Empathy is only a problem to be solved because the rules of phenomenology make it so.  In a philosophical system that begins with reality rather than the "structures of consciousness," empathy isn't hard either to define or understand.  The dictionary definition of empathy is "the feeling that you understand and share another person's experiences and emotions : the ability to share someone else's feelings."  This is only a "problem" in phenomenology because there's no defined way to know the experiences and emotions of another because one is limited to "the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view."  Since we can't know someone else from "the first-person point of view" (it is ruled out by definition in phenomenology), it takes a doctoral dissertation of considerable brilliance to "solve" the "problem" of empathy.  What Edith Stein achieved was remarkable, but not because the problem of empathy is a difficult "problem" in the real world.

There are, of course, interesting things that can be revealed by "what if" scenarios even when those scenarios are purely hypothetical.  It can be fascinating to ponder "What if Hitler had won the Second World War?" or "What if the South had won the American Civil War?" or, even ""What if the United States had been founded on Catholic principles rather than Enlightenment principles?"  Interesting, yes, but the most that these exercises can produce is new questions about our current reality, not new answers.  The same is true, then, when one begins to philosophize from a purely subjective perception of reality: possibly new questions and insights might emerge, but absolutely nothing that could be called objectively true.

Phenomenology may be "the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view," but that doesn't make it a comprehensive or even coherent philosophical system.  It allows all sorts of mischief to creep into philosophical and theological discourse because one's starting point ignores so much of reality.  Just look at the confusion inflicted on the Church and Her faithful by Blessed John Paul II and what has become known as Theology of the Body, all of which proceeds from insights gained via phenomenological analysis and its offspring called Personalism.  Marriage and sexuality are defined not in terms of reality but in terms of how people experience marriage and sexuality, which understanding may or may not correspond with reality.  In more realist philosophies, marriage and sexuality can be and are understood through their purpose independent of what human beings may experience within their "structures of consciousness."  The mischief and confusion which attends almost all discussions today of "conscience" can be laid at the feet of the subjectivist tendencies of modern philosophical thought, including phenomenology and personalism.

So when we say, as we did in our Vortex episode, that phenomenology is "the philosophical approach that what matters most is the phenomena, the appearance of things, not their actual reality, and from the appearances, what matters most importantly is the emotion they invoke in us," we are not grievously misrepresenting or misinterpreting something defined elsewhere as "the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view."   That is the starting point of phenomenology, a true descendant of the "philosophical idealism" that began with Descartes and evolved over time as subsequent interpreters addressed the fundamental flaws in this philosophical approach.  Each successive generation became more complex as it attempted to resolve issues that arose from a lack of contact with the real world. 

Phenomenology can't escape from its foundational subjective beginnings without going beyond its own principles.  The truth is that you can't adequately and satisfactorily account for all that confronts us in the real world by beginning with subjective experience.  That is the fundamental deficiency of phenomenology (and philosophical idealism in general).  It makes what should be a relatively easy philosophical exercise into something that only philosophical athletes and logicians can appreciate.  These contrived philosophical conclusions are then inflicted on a real world of real people more in touch with reality than these presumed mental gymnasts and giants.  Because of the stature and reputation of these gymnasts and giants their philosophical conclusions are taken almost on faith by ordinary people and then discussed in the real world as if they actually make sense.  Mischief follows.

The real world is knowable and understandable by itself.  That is the fundamental principle of philosophical realism.  We encounter and experience the real world not our experiences of the real world (much less our "structures of consciousness").  That Blessed John Paul II, and St. Edith Stein, and Dr. Dietrich Von Hildebrand managed to be and remain orthodox and faithful Catholics and, at the same time, embrace the methods of phenomenology says only that phenomenology does not lead inexorably to apostasy.  That Edward Schillebeeckx could become a virtual apostate from the Catholic Faith using the same philosophical methods means that phenomenology does not lead inexorably to Catholic orthodoxy (because it is not grounded in reality).  Thomism does not have the same track record of outcomes.  One must fight mightily against Thomism to resist its inexorable trajectory towards Catholic orthodoxy.  I believe one must fight mightily within phenomenology to maintain Catholic orthodoxy.  To be a phenomenologist and a faithful Catholic requires a certain degree of philosophical schizophrenia such that one does philosophy with one side of one's brain while remembering Catholic orthodoxy with the other.

The most that phenomenology can contribute to Catholic theology and philosophy is poetic and mystical theological and spiritual reflections which shouldn't be confused with real philosophical thought.  There is always some value, and certainly interest, in "what if" intellectual games.  But phenomenology is capable of producing an Edward Schillebeeckx as well as a St. Edith Stein, both of whom can be judged faithful to the principles of phenomenology.  That means, as I have said repeatedly here, that phenomenology is fundamentally inadequate before the demands of a comprehensive philosophy.  There are too many important areas where phenomenology has absolutely nothing to say.  Phenomenologists can say important things, of course, but if they limit themselves to their own rules of engagement with reality, there is reality that is invisible to them by predefinition and method.

I'm not saying, and our Vortex episode did not say, that phenomenology is only about the subjective.  It just starts there.  Because it starts there, it is capable of arriving at an amazing variety of intellectual destinations, not all of them good.