Monday, July 14, 2008

thinking out loud

I'm working on a project on silence, for a paper for the Society for Phenomenology and Human Sciences. I've finished working through a book by Bernard Dauenhauer called Silence, which was helpful. I have some fundamental differences of opinion with Dauenhauer about the meaning of silence. But I'm also noticing, reading along, a more fundamental difference, that is very hard to come to terms with.

Phenomenology is a philosophical approach that attempts to describe and analyze lived experience and its meaning, tracing from that up towards the constitution of objectivity, reality, theory, and even truth. I like to think of phenomenology as the attempt to account for how it is that there is meaning, a world, others, objects, reality, theory, or truth for us. It avoids the positivist presumption that there just is reality out there, and all we try to do is match our concepts to it - naive realism.

But phenomenology, no less than any other philosophical approach, is deeply, tacitly, committed to a philosophical notion of rationality and experience. It's a slippery problem, but I don't think it's impossible to do something about it, even though it seems endemic to the "discipline" of philosophy.

The problem is what I am tempted to call the philosopher's fallacy, namely, the assumption that experience at all levels is fundamentally about, fundamentally for, and fundamentally directed toward the cognitive, theoretical achievement of rational sense of the world. One reason I think this is a fallacy is that philosophical writing from Plato onward has always made a point of distinguishing the philosopher's pursuit of truth from the ordinary person's vague, derivative, or distorted picture of reality. (In many cases, this is expressed frankly in terms of the philosopher's superiority to ordinary people.) Only rarely does a philosopher mention that the ordinary person's picture of reality suffices for the ordinary person. Alfred Schutz notes that, especially in the modern world, the ordinary person's picture of reality contains completely unreflected contradictions, and that these contradictions themselves aren't a problem.

So, going back to phenomenology, it shouldn't be taken for granted that experience really does have this cognitive trajectory. Plus, if philosophers would spend some time being honest about their daily lives, they might notice how little of their own time is spent in pursuit of truth, and how much of it is spent undergoing summer heat or immersed in CRT radiation. I might even argue that most of what we experience isn't about or for anything remotely cognitive in that rationalistic sense. I eat potato chips because they're salty, crunchy, oily, and go well with peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches, not for the sake of the truth.

Another way to look at this that I've been thinking about is that the philosopher's fallacy reduces our being to our cognitive being, and takes us out of the animal world we also live in. Now, perhaps we can't directly enough communicate with the non-human world to be able to philosophize with bats, cats, or even dolphins and chimpanzees (some of us would prefer bonobos, but they're probably not into philosophy). But does that give good reason to conclude that non-humans don't experience the world as meaningful, too? Or that our experience and its meaningfulness is so very different from theirs, that we we need concepts like reality and truth to describe it?

This last point has come to mind because Dauenhauer analyzes silence from a totally anthropocentric stance. Silence is, he says, an "active human performance." That puts the entire description and analysis under the categories of the signifying, the symbolic, the human-cognitive, the meaning-as-truth-pursuing. If pressed, I suppose I'd grant that Alexander and Arthur (5 month old kittens) don't have conversations, and so don't enact silence as anticipatory of someone else's utterance. I might even grant that kittens don't utter. But can they, do they, enact silence as anticipatory and (as Dauenhauer later calls it, in reference to Merleau-Ponty) interrogatory ways, standing silent before the world? Perhaps they don't then speak of the world, at least, not in ways that correspond to human speaking. But can they, do they act meaningfully in the world?

More to the point, for what I'm trying to write: Can human silence not be less than cognitively directed toward that sense-making, rational thinking? Even if it can't be outside of the realm of the meaningful, and can't be entirely disconnected from utterance (as Dauenhauer's account has it, and I think he's right, at least about human silence), must it be interrogative in its end?

Or, to quote Satchel Paige (apparently): Sometimes I sits and thinks, and other times I just sits.

1 comment:

Robert Kirkman said...

I think you're right on the money. I've been thinking about a poem called "The Silence" by Wendell Berry, for nefarious phenomenological purposes of my own.

This is from his Collected Poems 1957-1982; it's also online at

Though the air is full of singing
my head is loud
with the labor of words.

Though the season is rich
with fruit, my tongue
hungers for the sweet of speech.

Though the beech is golden
I cannot stand beside it
mute, but must say

"It is golden," while the leaves
stir and fall with a sound
that is not a name.

It is in the silence
that my hope is, and my aim.
A song whose lines

I cannot make or sing
sounds men's silence
like a root. Let me say

and not mourn: the world
lives in the death of speech
and sings there