Wednesday, July 27, 2011


Phenomenological accounts of pain invariably regard pain as abnormal and aberrant. Perhaps my own life experience, of nearly constant physical pain, makes me a bad phenomenologist of pain, but I find the move to “abnormalize” pain is made just a bit too quickly. Ultimately, I agree that an appropriate way to interpret the experience of physical pain phenomenologically would draw from the analysis of normal and abnormal perception, but I think this has to be very carefully brought into discussion.

Drew Leder discusses pain in The Absent Body, a book whose basic point of view I have some trouble with already. His analysis of pain focuses on (1) the abnormality of pain; (2) the felt alienness of the body in pain; (3) the disruption of ongoing embodied projects by pain; and (4) the search initiated by pain for restored meaning, restored projects.

As I was reading, I was brought into acute awareness of several pains happening at once. This morning I had blood drawn, and I can feel a slight irritation at the point of the needle prick. My arms are sore from a little over-straining in the pool yesterday. The tip of my tongue is sore from being burnt by hot coffee we bought after the blood test (it was a fasting test).

First, as to normality and abnormality. Because I am in almost constant pain, and almost constantly aware, at least in some marginal way, of pain, the normal feeling of my body involves pain — normal here meaning, accustomed, ordinary, but also normal in the phenomenological sense: normal as concordant with an ongoing act, of perceiving, or of moving in some goal-directed way. The pain that Leder discusses seems always to intervene and disrupt such an ongoing act, rather than being a concordant moment of it. That’s simply not my experience of such ordinary activities as walking. That said, I am susceptible to abnormal pain, in both the disruptive and non-concordant senses. In the former, more mundane sense, I am able ordinarily to distinguish the pain in my feet from walking and from not walking, from having cramped recently and from being about to cramp, etc. I have a sort of mental catalog of foot pain and register the changes in feeling by its general categories. All of these pains are “normal” in the sense of being concordant, as well. What’s abnormal in the mundane sense is the disruption caused when a cramp pain intervenes in a walking pain, for example – then my project of walking is interrupted, canceled out, etc. But an abnormal pain in the phenomenological sense would have to be one that is non-concordant, a pain that does not fit any longer as a moment in the ongoing synthesis of an act — unexpected and disruptive, yes, but also unaccountable, unassimilable.

There are pains that are abnormal in that phenomenological sense, but Leder’s analysis seems to me to conflate mundane and phenomenological description. That he does indeed conflate the two becomes clearer when we turn to the notion of pain as a felt alienness of the body. Elaine Scarry suggests this as well, and Leder cites her. As an ordinary experience, if a part of my body that does not ordinarily experience pain suddenly does present pain, then, yes, I might feel that part as alien, as we express when we say “my arm is hurting me,” e.g. But the phenomenological sense of alien means something more like “outside the sphere of what I can relate to my ‘I can’ and its normal range of activity, meaning, etc.” The alien presents itself to me as having come from a region of meaning that I cannot find meaning in. Again, no doubt, some pain may present itself this way, but very much of my daily pain does not. I am at home in my painful feet, I am accustomed to them, and they are as familiar to me, as painful, as any other part of me. Not so the burnt tongue, I’m finding. This is alien in the phenomenological sense, because it disrupts the ongoing meaning-synthesis of my oral/tasting life. It is alien, furthermore, in that it issues a sort of demand to re-orient my oral/tasting life. Ice cream would really hurt right now, for instance, so if my oral/tasting life were to propose ice-cream-eating activity, the I can taking up this project would endure a very difficult experience to orient around a normal, or the oral/tasting values it holds so dear.

If I want to undertake a clarification of pain, I think I’d want to distinguish normal from abnormal pain, “home” pain from alien pain, and finally, the pain that accompanies projects from the pain that disrupts them.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

how about a periphenomenology of perception?

I'm back to Shaun Gallagher's book How the Body Shapes the Mind. He seems to be doing what Michel Henry forbids, namely, taking clues from natural science in order to understand human embodiment and perception. Strangely, there's some similarities regarding their conclusions about perception, even if the language is totally different. I think Gallagher is easier to understand and has his head screwed on right, whereas I'm increasingly of the opinion that Henry was a kook. Some samples of Gallagher, on proprioception and perspectival perception:

More specifically, proprioceptive awareness is not itself a perception of the body as an object; for if it were, it would require an ordering system, a spatial frame of reference, that was independent of the body. Generally speaking, the proprioceptive spatiality of the body is not framed by anything other than the body itself. In other words, proprioception is a non-perspectival awareness of the body. (137f)

Proprioceptive awareness does not organize the differential spatial order of the body around an origin… Proprioception operates within a non-relative, non-perspectival, intra-corporeal spatial framework that is different from both egocentric and allocentric frameworks. Neither proprioception nor kineasthesia offers a perceptual perspective on my body. If they did, they would require a second body, or perhaps a homunculus that would act as an index. Our pre-reflective, kinaesthetic-proprioceptive experience thus plays a role in the organization of perception, but in a way that does not require the body itself to be a perceptual object. (138)

If the body itself is doing the perceiving, then such prenoetic operations provide specific conditions that shape perceptual consciousness. The body and its natural environment work together to deliver an already formed meaning to consciousness. (139)

Both Henry and Gallagher claim that proprioception is not perception and that the body as perceiver is not an object. But where Henry argues for a dualistic ontology where the subject as absolute life is always separate from the entire realm of the world and objects, Gallagher's understanding doesn't require taking any stance at all on that kind of metaphysical issue. Instead, as implied by his taking clues from neuroscience, he's more or less just describing and interpreting what we could call facts.

Both positions seek to reduce, or explain, what Merleau-Ponty left ambiguous, in particular given that, in Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty continued to use the language of Cartesian dualism - the whole business of the body being subject and object, e.g. There's a lot to be said for being more clear about this, but there's still ambiguity in experience.

So, proprioceptive awareness isn't perspectival, but it is through proprioceptive awareness that our perspectives become intelligible as perspectives. I don't see myself seeing (as Henry says), yet when I see, the point from which I see is tacitly present. Or, to use Merleau-Ponty's famous/notorious example of the hand-touching/hand-touched, I don't feel my touching, but when I touch something, the posture of my touching, since it makes all the difference in the experience of touch, comes into awareness. Gallagher's argument regarding the non-perspectival character of proprioception is airtight (and "non-relative" hints of what Henry called the "absolute" knowledge the body has of itself), and it leaves us with the implication that, ultimately, neither neuroscience nor phenomenology can tell us why we have experience and not just sense data. Again, Gallagher's attitude toward this seems to be that meaningful experience is just how it is for human beings.

A bit further on the ambiguity of perception and proprioception: if the body's proprioception is its way of structuring pre-given meaningful perception, then, I would argue, we may not be able to take a perspective on perspective-taking, but we can get a feel for it, sort of peripherally.

Monday, July 18, 2011

notes toward a do-it-yourself transcendental phenomenology of embodiment

I finished reading Michel Henry's Philosophy and Phenomenology of the Body. The conclusion very unhelpfully develops a theological position on the finitude of the body and the infinity of the transcendental life (i.e., the body that I am as a transcendental subject) in relation to the Christian concept of sin. Henry seemed particularly miffed about sexuality being taken as a naturally occurring need that, as subjects, we can't determine actively.

What I am able to take away from reading this thing is his challenge to the more received view of embodiment in phenomenological philosophy circles. I have come to agree with Henry that the typical view is fairly confused. For instance, taking Husserl's position to be transcendental idealism, very like Kant's - which it is, in the first book of Ideas - the body appears to be an object of experience. This makes it very difficult to (1) resolve Cartesian dualism, which seems to be an important goal, and (2) understand why my body is experienced differently than anything else.

The typical reading of the phenomenological tradition leaves Husserl right there, staring at his Albrecht Dürer woodcut in confusion, and turns to Merleau-Ponty as the so-called "philosopher of the body." Merleau-Ponty very cleverly kept reading Husserl, and even more cleverly re-wrote much of the second book of Ideas and some of the passive synthesis lectures, under the new title Phenomenology of Perception. There, Merleau-Ponty interprets subjectivity as always embodied, as the very famous "body-subject" that is ambiguously subject and object, both for myself and for others. For instance, when, while slicing a peach for arugula-white peach-pignola-chevre-white pepper salad, I cut into my finger, I have an ambiguous experience of my finger as profoundly me (cuz the pain is mine ineluctably), and as a weird sort of object, obtrusively getting in the way of the perfectly fine plan I had all worked out, and bleeding on my peach like the stupid fleshy blood-filled sack of stupid bloody flesh my stupid finger is.

Henry, by asserting that the transcendental phenomenological ego (the "one who experiences" that is at the origin of everything that a consciousness undergoes) is not a ghost in a machine, but is instead living flesh itself, takes up Merleau-Ponty's later re-conception of the ambiguous body-subject, and pushes it, in a way, an ontological step backward. Now this "life," or "absolute life" is the living body itself. Henry has thus resolved the ambiguity of the body-subject being a subject and an object by denying the objectivity of the (transcendental) body.

This is a great move, because it forces us to reconsider the starting point of phenomenological philosophy, consciousness, as living instead of thinking, as affectivity instead of cognition, and so corrects the idealist tendency of Husserl's earlier work. Henry makes this move at great theological expense that I am unwilling to pay, however, and he makes dogmatic and altogether unhelpful stipulations about the ontology of this transcendental body. What I've decided is necessary is to begin phenomenology all over again (and damn, does it creep me out how Husserlian that is), and just start with a phenomenological reduction to embodied consciousness.

Here's what you'll need for this project:

* a body (that is, a living body, yours, currently occupied by you, and I assume preferably only by you)
* consciousness


Wait, something's missing here. Henry has us re-open phenomenology on the basis of the ontological origin of experience in the transcendental life of this embodied consciousness. But for this kind of life to experience, to have meaning, it can't be alone, can it? The fundamental thing about embodiment is just that: it's never alone. The transcendental body is just as much an idealism as the allegedly disembodied transcendental ego, unless that body is not only always already an embodied consciousness, but also always already a body in the world. And that's where Henry seems obviously to go wrong: his "life" exists ab aeterno and sui generis, and it is very hard to imagine how that body could find itself unless already in a world - otherwise, nothing would ever happen to it.

So I think we need:

* a world
* others

And now we have Merleau-Ponty's set-up from the Phenomenology. Or, you could just say, we need to understand life as flesh that is of the flesh of the world itself, as in The Visible and the Invisible.

All that is to say, Merleau-Ponty had something essentially right with ambiguity.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

the ambiguity of embodiment and the paradox of the transcendental subject

I've been poring over Philosophy and Phenomenology of the Body, Michel Henry's weird, insinuating, slantways critique of the phenomenological philosophy of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. These are rambling notes, but I wanted to post them anyway because it's been driving me crazy today.

Henry seems to interpret “classical” phenomenology as making the body an instrument of the ego’s act of perception, as though (I think) the ego reflects upon the body’s sensuous engagements with the world and thus comes to perceive. The ego that would “constitute” the body, he suggests, would be disengaged from the world by that constitution, and the body would be disconnected from the ego, and a mere thing among things. His solution is to assert that the transcendental ego is already a transcendental body: the body is immanent to the transcendental ego and vice-versa, in the form of transcendental life. “Absolute subjectivity” must be already a body and life, rather than to “have” a body as a mere mass, or else, he says, it’s impossible to understand how a subject could move a body. This of course is the problem Descartes’ dualism leaves behind. But I think that, as a critique of Husserlian phenomenology, this attacks a straw man. Furthermore, in Philosophy and Phenomenology of the Body, Henry doesn’t provide a very clear argument, and rarely provides a concrete enough phenomenological description, to make his case very compelling. Instead, he takes up ambiguities in certain phenomenological accounts of embodiment (implicitly, Merleau-Ponty’s as well as Husserl’s), and pushes them to become paradoxes — that is, he imposes an interpretation on the ambiguities that insinuates their authors asserted the two sides of the ambiguity as each an ultimate and exclusive truth. Further, he takes up the paradoxes in their thought and pushes them to become outright absurdities — that is, he takes what they express with profound perplexity as paradoxes their thinking has led them to, and insinuates that they merely contradict themselves.

So, I want to get back to a basic level, and back to the things themselves. What about the embodiment of subjectivity/consciousness presents problems for phenomenological philosophy? One is, the constitution of objects, on the basis of what must be, for embodied consciousness, a series of passively traced adumbrations. A familiar problem. One that I think is more à propos to Henry’s work, is the relationship between consciousness and sense perception. The reason sense perception is so difficult (especially if you either impose the metaphysics Henry claims Husserl presupposes, or else presuppose the metaphysics Henry does), is that sense perception appears in our ordinary mundane experiences to be both under the command of consciousness itself, and also subject to “external” forces. (The overwhelming use of vision as a metonym for sense perception obscures this — another story for another day.) In my daily life, my sense of hearing is both under the command of my consciousness in my attending to particular sounds, i.e., “listening,” and subject to the “external” forces of noise. I can’t have one without the other: unless I am subject to noise, I can’t listen. (Here belongs all kinds of stuff about affect, desire, and so forth, that I’ll skip over for now.)

I interpret this, as a starting point, from Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the ambiguity of embodiment. As embodied, my consciousness/ego is subject and object, an active perceiver and a passive receiver. This obviously doesn’t go far enough, because it doesn’t say how this is possible. Merleau-Ponty later went back to Husserl’s later work, and found there, I believe, the clue to working this out more fully: passive synthesis. Husserl seems to have regarded the passive synthesis as an underlying, pre-conscious or unconscious, affectivity whereby consciousness has something to perceive. To get back to my example: I can’t listen unless there’s a field of sound for me to listen into for that which, already as I begin listening, is attracting my attention. That ongoing passive unity of the field of sound is what I have been calling my subjection — affectively, it subjects me both to desire and to “revulsion,” to what I would constitute as melodious, euphonious, and to what I would constitute as noise. But here’s the paradox: those unities within the field of sound draw my attention as sounds already anticipated “to-be-melodious,” and those others strike me as already anticipated “to-be-dysphonious.”

I can’t see any way for Henry’s account of the absolute subject as transcendental life to adequately address this twofold relation that hearing establishes, let alone the subjection to the passively synthesized field of sound already having an affective dimension. The subjection I’ve described would, I think, have to fall to Henry’s category of the merely objective body — I would be subjected to noise insofar as my body is an object among objects, and my capacity for listening would have to be more properly “mine.” Or else, in his other mood, he would have to say that such an account asserts as equally absolute a subject whose body is itself and who listens, and a subject whose body is, absurdly, an object, and thus declare the whole account absurd.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

intentionality and receptivity
Michel Henry is in my pants!

Regular readers of this feature, and some people who just know me, and a few people whom I've grabbed at random and told about it, know that for several years I've been trying to work out a phenomenology of subjection. What I mean by subjection are all the ways that the conscious active subject or ego is susceptible to suffering and affectivity of all kinds. In relation to the phenomenology of consciousness or intentionality, what I've been poking around with is what Husserl called the "givenness" of sensation, or, elsewhere, passivity, and even, most weirdly, "pregivenness."

A standard, unhelpful, criticism of Husserl is that his idealist resolution of epistemology means that his phenomenology cannot account for the materiality of givenness. That the senses are materially conditioned by biological bodies seems to disappear from his explanation of consciousness. This is part of Michel Henry's criticism, and the impetus for Henry's ontological inquiry. I say this is wrong because Husserl speaks directly to givenness of sensory "hyle" in both Ideas II and in the analyses of passive synthesis (presented as lecture courses in the 1920s - and the spot where he coins the bizarre term "pregivenness"). Henry ignores this outright. However, part of Henry's and others' criticism of Husserl still seems right to me, in that Husserl's concern in the passive synthesis lectures is not to account for passive synthesis in any extensive or thorough way, but to use it to show how consciousness can have intentional objects and proceed to make judgments and to know them. In other words, Husserl's analysis is directed always toward the teleological endpoint of knowing, presuming, as he does throughout his work, that consciousness is a little knowing-machine.

That seems obviously false to me, or else trivially true. Either Husserl means that knowing in a serious, scientific way (and that seems to be the case), and he's wrong that consciousness primarily aims at knowing; or else Husserl means knowing in a very thin way, as in, e.g., judging merely that the keyboard is there, and judging merely that the letters I'm typing are showing up on my screen (and he doesn't seem to mean this), and then indeed every act of consciousness aims at a kind of knowing, but it's a trivial sort of knowing. In my view, consciousness does all sorts of things that aren't knowing, and even most often engages in non-knowing acts. Most of my wakeful consciousness is spent thinking about food, sex, and music (in approximately that order), not in a judicative way, but more in a state of generalized lust.

(If you think that's too much information, then you clearly have not been reading this blog, or don't know me, or aren't one of the random passersby I've grabbed and talked phenomenology at.)

Henry's answer to this problem is provocative, but ultimately can't be cashed out phenomenologically. He says the basic foundation of consciousness, that would explain what Husserl leaves unexplained about "pregivenness," and would counter Husserl's teleology, is Life. Life is characterized by its pathos (a notion I have deep affinity for): to be a living conscious subject is fundamentally to be a living subject, which is a hungering, suffering, loving, etc., subject, rather than a judging, knowing one.

Yet there's all kinds of problems with Henry's critique, and he smuggles in a whole lot of metaphysical baggage. Plus, I don't think the foundationalist move Henry makes is either necessary or a good solution to the gaps Husserl leaves. Henry is too eager to fill those gaps, and Husserl is too eager to leave them behind. I want to explore them, and the dilemma I have at the moment is a startling one: I don't know whether what I'm doing fits into phenomenology (Husserlian or otherwise), but I don't know what method other than phenomenology would provide any kind of rigor for exploring subjection. I do not want to be caught up in ontological speculation, and wouldn't be caught dead adopting a theological explanation (like Henry does). I'm not sure where that leaves me. It's unsettling.

Monday, July 11, 2011

album of the day: Dire Straits

Dire Straits were, of course, a seminal post-punk, roots-revival band, at least in the first phase of their history. Their first album was released in 1978, when the top-selling album in the US was the soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever. That is to say, Dire Straits came on the scene at the height of, and at the beginning of the end of, disco. Good timing, boys!

It's hard to imagine an album more diametrically opposed to everything disco. Apart from a couple of double-dubbed guitars, every cut on the album is just four instrument tracks and vocals, the basic kit of rock. And unlike punk, Dire Straits obviously featured Mark Knopfler's virtuoso guitar work and odd impressionistic snapshot lyrics.

I didn't know any of that when I bought my first Dire Straits album (in fact, the less well-regarded second album, Communiqué), or even when I went back and bought this one. All I knew was Douglas Adams had recommended them in the only sex scene in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series. That's a weird connection, because although the music is gorgeous on this record, it's not what I would call sexy, since a lot of Knopfler's stuff is kinda morose. That probably says more about Douglas Adams than about me.

As for me, I took instant liking to Dire Straits, because I was developing my taste for mopey music back then.

And with the exception of "Southbound Again" and "Setting Me Up" - neither of which is really joyful - this is a pretty damn mopey record. Not everything is a gem, of course. "In the Gallery" is a somewhat heavy-handed criticism of trendy arty types and a lament for the artists and art they ruin. I also have the nerve to think the giant hit "Sultans of Swing" is a tad overwrought - but I read it as moping over how unrewarding and uninspired the pub rock scene can be, especially for true artists yearning to breathe free.

My favorites are, as I've tipped my hand already, the contemplative portrait pieces: "Lions," "Wild West End" and "Down to the Waterline" (despite being uptempo), and, when I can get past the artistic-struggle vibe, "Sultans of Swing." Here's a representative stanza from "Lions":

Church bell clinging on just trying
To get a crowd for Evensong
Nobody cares to depend upon the chime it plays
They're all in the station praying for trains
the Congregation late again
It's getting darker all the time these flagpole days
Drunk old soldier he gave her a fright
He's a crazy lion howling for a fight

(Line breaks, and indeed lyrics, are approximate, as Knopfler was at the time a strict adherent to the mumble-something-approximating-what-you-wrote school of folk-rock singing.) While the song pretty clearly tracks a working woman through her commute home, we get a picture of her somewhat vulnerable, and certainly lonesome, state of mind, by way of atmospheric details - as though the city was the outward expression of her emotional state. And that's just cool.

Something else that really strikes me about this album is Knopfler's range as a musician. I mean, duh, right? He's easily one of the 10 best guitarists in rock music of the era - and for pure musicianship, just out-and-out being able to make his guitar do anything, I'm not sure anyone's better. On Dire Straits he's all over the place - tight grooves, anthemic melody lines, lilting, definitely some weepies - and it's absolutely perfect, not a note out of place, not a note too many or too few.

the disappearing body

As I've been thinking about how big my body is, and especially about the phenomenon of feeling myself to be taller than normal, I've hit on two fundamental difficulties of phenomenological description of embodiment. One is the huge issue of accounting for a norm in experience. I'm working out something on that. The other is the ambiguity of embodiment.

One way it is often put, that I don't find particularly helpful, is by distinguishing "having" a body from "being" one's body. In general, it is said, we go around "having" or "owning" a body: wakeful conscious life consists of just going out and doing stuff, and "the body" is an instrument of that conscious life. "I use my body" to take out the trash or to type a blog post about embodiment. "The body" is said to disappear for me in those circumstances, because the focus of my attention is on the action at hand. That is, I am not aware of or attentive to the movement of my hands and arms and torso and legs and feet as I bend over, grab the extended flappy things on the garbage bag that you tie at the top, and proceed to bind off the bag, etc., etc. I just go and do it, and my consciousness spends its time worrying about the bag's structural integrity.

On the other hand, when conscious attention is drawn to the body itself, this is most often in a situation of dysfunction, disease, or pain (or, drawing from an intriguing analysis I read yesterday, when traits of that body subject me to social stigmatization). If, as I'm pulling the bag out of the trash can to carry it out to the dumpster, the weight and the twist of the plastic top of the bag presses against the index finger of my left hand that I cut last night paring a peach, then I experience myself as "being my body." Its direct affect on me is, in a moment like that, obtrusively palpable, my embodiment reveals itself as inescapable, etc., etc.

Obviously, the body only nearly disappears from us, and can always come back into the forefront of awareness, mostly by the unbidden event of the passivity or suffering of the body. But the normal condition, according to this standard phenomenological analysis, is of the body's relative disappearance.

Two things about this bug me. First is that I can't ever quite understand what is meant by saying we "own" our bodies. This phrasing comes into phenomenological writing in English, I believe, by way of translating Merleau-Ponty's term "corps-propre" as "my own body" or even (as I've seen it) "the owned body." Maybe I'm just weird, but I can't think of my body as owned in any but a weakly analogical way to the way I own other things. My everyday experience of embodiment is more intimate than that. Even taking out the trash, I have a strong sense of my body's presence in the action.

Like I said, perhaps I'm just weird. There could be autobiographical or physiological reasons for my having more constant everyday awareness of my embodiment, which would line up well with the common phenomenological analysis I laid out above. Since early in elementary school I've had a kind of body dysmorphism, and for as long as I can remember I've had pain caused by the bony skis I have instead of feet. I'm pretty constantly aware of my posture and movement as a result.

In any case, I don't know how normal it is for our bodies to "disappear" into the background of our actions. But even to the extent they do, what's interesting about this is not the disappearing, but that even the disapparent body (my coinage, as far as I know; I suppose I could say disapparated?) is still co-present in those actions. Even if I don't consciously feel the weight of my arms in lifting the trash bag, I do feel the muscle contractions that are the bracing of the weight and force of my arms against the weight of the bag. To me, that co-presentation, always passively synthesized into the action, is the point of interest. That's the sense in which embodiment is ambiguous, and I object that the "having/being" dichotomy obscures that ambiguity by superimposing that hermeneutic binary on the phenomenon.

In other words, one reason I'm interested in the phenomenon of suddenly-feeling-taller is that it tells me something about the constant co-presentation of the background phenomenon of my height. I always have a height, even in the everyday when no one is specifically asking how tall I am or when I'm not specifically reaching for something up high, etc. It is constant in my perspective on everything.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

the ethics of teaching ethics

I had an interesting, brief conversation with one of the proprietors of the horse trail ride outfit we patronized in Sonoma County yesterday, about what I do for a living. He said he thought everyone should take a course in ethics, that people needed it, he said, in order to understand that what they do matters and that they should always be thoughtful about what they do. That sounds about right to me, I said. I mentioned my great experiences with nursing students in Professional Ethics and Bioethics, and he mentioned his own great experiences at UCSF hospital.

That got me thinking about the conclusion of The University in Ruins and my feeling that Bill Readings' postmodern excesses needed to be amended with something more substantive, more concrete, even - dare I say it - more practical. (Afflicted as he was with the 1990s pomo academic disease, he wasn't able to come out and say anything for fear of being accused of having said one thing to the exclusion of the other thing, or, still worse, of having pretended to have said everything! Lawd, help us! I digress.)

Readings says, as I mentioned before, that under the regime of "excellence," that is, in ruined universities, teachers have an ethical obligation to students, something related to justice, but which cannot be determined in advance. Removing the pomo posturing, what I think this boils down to is: college faculty, as teachers, have ethical obligations to our students. What exactly is the nature of these ethical obligations?

I think I know what it can't be.

(1) It can't be an obligation to prepare students for a career. Many folks in higher ed, especially in administration, and most folks who form public higher ed policy (most often, in blissful ignorance), would be absolutely scandalized by that remark. I remember well the radio program we heard once on a trip somewhere. A high-tech industry bigwig and a CSU exec were both on, talking about the way higher ed serves or fails to serve industry needs. The exec said that by the time skills and knowledge bases are taught at universities, they're outmoded, but that wasn't the problem. The company will train employees in the new stuff. But what they really need from the universities are to educate students in how to think for themselves, how to interact and communicate clearly with others, and in particular, how to communicate with non-experts. In turn, the CSU exec said he felt that industry needed the CSU to train future employees in the most up-to-date skills and knowledge bases, so they could jump right into the front lines.

The broader lesson, at least as far as I'm concerned, is that university education is not reducible to, and not even an appropriate place, for career training. Not even my PhD program trained me to be a faculty member. It credentialed me, but I learned how to be a faculty member on the job, the way everybody else learns to do a job, by doing it.

(2) It can't be an obligation to lead students to become specialized experts in a field of knowledge. Many students seem to expect this, and some (especially first and second year students) think they are wasting any minute of time outside of major courses. There's two reasons university education should not make people experts in a field of knowledge. First of all, any reasonably complex field of knowledge is too immense and evolving for four years (or so) to make anyone an expert. Second, I think it's naïve to the point of preposterousness to imagine that an expert should or can know only one narrow field - not out of some "well-rounded person" silliness, but because it's epistemologically naïve.

(3) It can't be an obligation to serve humankind.

(4) It can't be an obligation to serve the good of the nation.

(5) It can't be an obligation to serve Truth.

I won't comment further on these three. They're the subject of Lyotard's and of Readings' critiques.

(6) It can't be an obligation to liberate students. This would scandalize bell hooks and other Freireans, I suppose, and it hurts my soul a bit to say so, too, but I think it's the truth. First of all, as Readings actually pointed out nicely, taking this stance is just a leeeetle bit messianic, eh? Professor with a Christ-complex? I've slipped into this now and then, and it's embarrassing in retrospect. First of all, 99% of my students would have to be hit over the head with a club and dragged by their hair toward liberation. Secondly, the remaining 1% generally don't need my help to be liberated, and of the few who might be helped along in their own project of liberation by my teaching, I can't say I benefit any of them by giving them help.

(7) It can't be an obligation to model, and to provide opportunities, for virtue, or for citizenship. Who the hell am I to present myself as a paragon of anything - virtue or vice? Most of the time, I have to ask my students what day it is. (Okay, that's exaggerated for comic effect: 40% of the time, I have to ask my students what day it is.)

Okay, that's fairly complete. So, what's the content of the ethical obligation teachers have to students? The terms I want to use strike me as overly aesthetic, and I'm deeply suspicious of aestheticized politics, so with that caveat . . .

Meeting classes. The Cow State Santa Claus faculty handbook actually specifies that faculty have an obligation to meet classes. This is a policy initiated by a 1969 Chancellor's Office Executive Order (really! You can look it up!). But I'm taking it in an extended sense: we have an obligation to meet our students in the sense of acknowledging them, acknowledging their humanity, their difference from us, that they are not us, but them; we have an obligation to be present in a full sense in class, for reasons I may cash out in a later post; we have an obligation to be there.

Challenging students. By "challenge," I don't mean "make the class hard." I also don't mean "make the class intellectually demanding," at least, not to the exclusion of other challenges. We can, and should, challenge assumptions, challenge beliefs, and especially to challenge comforts - of all kinds. This is extremely difficult, in my opinion, for both students and faculty, and it can only happen if faculty abide by the obligation to . . .

Honesty. Here, I don't mean "telling the truth." In fact, you can be more honest while lying, sometimes. I mean honesty with regard to what we know and don't know, what we think and what we think no one should think, even if we don't have very good reasons for it. If you challenge students without honesty, you're bullshitting them, and yourself, and you're doing tremendous damage to everyone involved. I can't think of anything that shuts students down more than dishonesty.

Humility/Compassion/Not Being An Asshole. You'd think this would go without saying, unless you've been to college. The title of expert conveys a sense of self-importance that academia encourages academics to deploy in every arena as a weapon. A classroom is no place for a weapon. More than that, though, teaching, as I am trying to articulate it, can't happen in the context of the presumption that what the teacher is saying or doing is the most important thing in the room, let alone the world. What I do is far less important than what my students do, if what I want to do is teach. This is also hard, because ego defenses are just that. Between this obligation and honesty, I prescribe a lot of exposure to potentially painful experiences as the key to teaching and learning. (Oh, did I mention students have the same obligations? Cuz they do.)

Surprising. This might simply follow from challenging. Surprise here means saying or doing the instructively unexpected. You can't just spring out from behind a lectern yelling "Surprise!" - it has to offer something to think about. The surprise can't be dismissible as your insanity or quirkiness; it has to lead to wonder beyond that.


Is there some overall purpose to all this? It certainly makes life more interesting, which might mean it makes life more fulfilling. It might help people develop mental and emotional flexibility and strength. But I don't have a grand narrative to organize and give a foundation to this. I don't know where it leads, necessarily, since, for instance, surprise is essentially open-ended, and not being an asshole doesn't have a direct object. I'm also short on argument here. I just think I'm right.

Friday, July 01, 2011

logic and paradox

Husserl's lectures on passive synthesis (which is what everybody calls them) were actually entitled Lectures on Transcendental Logic. What he's trying to get at in them is the source of meaning and truth. Big time stuff.

What I was reading today included a remarkable section on the paradox Husserl saw at the heart of knowledge of all kinds, but especially scientific knowledge. He says that we accept, as the regulatory norm of knowledge, a logic of truth (I'll call it; I'm being freer with language rather than stick to technical terms). That is, we accept that something is known truly when we can provide evidence of its intuitive meaning and logically connect the evidence to the judgment we make. For instance, the knowledge judgment that "the pencil my sister made for me is sitting on my table" would be truly known iff I have evidence of its truth and can demonstrate the logical validity of the judgment I've made (that is, that the evidence is evidence of the truth of the judgment).

Our judgments, and the logic of truth implicit in those judgments, is never met with perfect evidence, in part because every act of perception aimed at some object is incomplete and incomplete specifically as presenting evidence. Whenever I look at the pencil, I do so from some angle, which is to say that I never see the whole pencil. Even a series of looks at the pencil exhaustive of all possible angles (which of course is not something I could actually achieve) is not exhaustive or final seeing of the pencil, because the series has to be held together for consciousness by way of retained experiences - that is, by merely figural intentions of the pencil that are not filled in with evidence. The glance I had from the front is not the perspective I have now, and all I have is the trace of that glance, not the full evidence of that perspective. Furthermore, the traces themselves are held together in that series of glances "passively," by perception itself, as it were, since we're just not capable of holding them all actively in consciousness at once.

In short, our judgments always exceed their warrant in perceptual evidence, and the logic of truth that binds them together itself lacks direct evidence, because of the passivity of the series of retained evidence. Husserl puts it in hyperbolic terms: there's nothing to say that the series of evidences couldn't just run right off the rails at any moment, and just utterly fail to continue to provide concordant ratifications of the series. After all, we sometimes make errors in our perceptual judgments, and we experience those errors just that way: the series stops continuing.

So when I make the judgment that "the pencil my sister made for me is sitting on my table," my consciousness writes a check my perceptions can't cash. This is essential to every external perception and every judgment about matters of fact in the external world. That could be a recap of Hume's skepticism, except for the turn Husserl makes, which is to say that, despite all that, we really do know. The question isn't whether or not we know, the question is, how is it that there came to be something to know, for a critter whose perceptions are always incompletely evidentiary, inchoate, dependent?

One of the pleasures of philosophy is to be able to sit down with a thought like that and let the weirdness of it wash over you. Husserl's not everybody's cup of joe, I realize, but for my money, he gives good weirdness.