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.


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