Tuesday, June 19, 2012

bunnies (and phenomenological ontology)

 Lauren knit this object. What is this object? Why and how does it appear as this object? Phenomenologically, two things are going on here. First of all, my perceptual experience intends this object: it is the focus and the correlate of my conscious activity of perceiving. Secondly, my perceptual experience means this object: it is a specific, typical thing of a particular sort.

(1) As intended, this object is the synthetic unity of series of adumbrations, whose unity is achieved, mainly passively, by the contiguity, concatenation, internal referentiality (self-sameness) of the presentation of these adumbrations. It can appear as the one, single, object of several acts of conscious perception through its constitution as that same thing, through the harmonious, unbroken interconnection of perspectives.

(2) As meant, this object is far more complex. It is not merely a synthetic unity of perspectival perceptions, but also a specific thing — in this case, a thing called Walter Bernhard Bunny. That is to say, I do not perceive this thing as “plushy white soft fibrous blob” but as a stuffed knit representation of a bunny. (Possibly more remarkably, given the stylistic representation here, is that I can also recognize this as “Walter Bernhard Bunny.”)

The problem of normal and abnormal is raised significantly here. For, it is normal that I or anyone would (1) intend a selfsame thing through the harmonious unity of ongoing perception. It would be abnormal to fail to experience this synthetic unity; that failure would suggest that my consciousness or my senses are inhibited by something. But then, the big question in phenomenological ontology is, how much does (2) the meant object foretell that perceptual unity? That is, does to what extent does the unity of the intended object, as the correlate of a harmonious, ongoing series of perceptions, depend upon the meant object, as the typical thing recognized as something-or-other?

Imagine someone who has not seen a stuffed, knitted representation of a bunny. Even better, imagine someone who has not seen a bunny, either. What does this object appear to be, to that person? Clearly, not “a stuffed bunny,” and decidedly not “Walter Bernhard Bunny.” But is that somehow necessary for this object to appear as anything at all?

In my opinion, the phenomenology of constitution lets us down at this point. That kind of analysis is concerned with how meaning and objectivity are built up from subjective, indeterminate, individual percepts. It helps us account for how this bunch of stuff can come to mean “Walter Bernhard Bunny.” But it doesn’t let us know how much of the unity of the stuff depends on the meaning, and how much of it depends on the synthetic, passive synthesis of perception. That’s why Husserl said we needed genetic/generative phenomenology. Agreed. But that only tells me there’s another level of analysis to go: it does not tell me that the passive synthesis accounts for the appearance of “something” without there already being “Walter Bernhard Bunny,” or at least “stuffed, knitted bunny” to hold the object’s unity together.

This was Hume’s problem, wasn’t it? He asked his readers to suppose someone had seen every shade of blue but one. That one missing shade of blue could be analytically and imaginatively filled out, but the authentic and vivid idea of that shade could only come from experience. My question is whether, for this object to appear as a unity, I don’t need the experience (the cultural experience) of some things being stuffed knitted representations of bunnies.

If you think all that’s complicated, imagine what it would be like to try to unpack the cultural concept of “cute”!

No comments: