Radical Phenomenology, Ontology, and International Political Theory

Article excerpt

This article is a contribution to the investigation of the possible methodologies available to the study of global politics. Conceived as a rejoinder to those who demand not merely positivist but rigorous research, it is motivated by the belief that "reflection" can be true to itself only when made concrete by acute attention to the specificity of worldly phenomena. To this end, I outline what might be broadly referred to as a "phenomenological method."

Phenomenology's demand that one attend to "the things themselves" offers, I suggest, an opportunity critically to examine the commitment to theoretical constructs that remain wedded to ontological perspectives that resist the ever-changing "facticity" of social interaction. (1) In particular, I examine the strand of phenomenology pioneered by Martin Heidegger, who, in the 1920s, rearticulated it as a method for ontological examination.

Following the philosophical exposition of Heidegger's reformulation of phenomenology, the article subsequently juxtaposes Thomas Hobbes's account of subjectivity as self-interested and concerned with its own survival with the account of selfhood offered by Heidegger's phenomenological investigations into the "facticity" of human existence. The attunement to facticity witnessed in Heidegger's radical deconstruction (Abbau) of modern subjectivity, I argue, has profound ramifications for theorizing social relations in that it contests the very possibility of an international social and political theory based on a self-interested, autonomous subject, examples of which still have continued salience in IR. (2) Indeed, this article takes as its point of departure the conviction that the understanding of ourselves under the sign of modern subjectivity produces a set of assumptions about us and others based on "a mindset of valuation, disposal, management, and objectification in our care for our lives--a mindset whose overpowering force hems us in throughout our everyday world, confuses freedom with the condition of possibility for certain types of subjectivity, and gives priority to correctness and measurement in matters of truth." (3)

The article suggests, instead, the need to develop, through the consideration of the contributions of radical phenomenology, a theoretical sensibility that is attuned to the existence of a self constituted by otherness, a self that is explicitly aware of its heteronomous constitution so as to promote an international political theory that has at its center, not the modern subject, but rather an understanding of coexistence as the proximal fact of human life.

Thinking About Phenomenology

A number of twentieth-century thinkers began their philosophical journeys in the general parameters of phenomenology as first articulated in the beginning of the century by Edmund Husserl. It has formed a point of departure for many subsequent thinkers such as Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer; Alfred Schutz, Maurice Merleu-Ponty, Paul Ricoeur, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Werner Marx. However, it would be quite misleading to suggest that a general definition of phenomenology can be easily provided, since most of the aforementioned thinkers who worked within phenomenology have reconfigured its assumptions to fit their specific concerns and subject matter. (4)

Nevertheless, even in such a diverse field of enquiry, certain things are accepted as the means and tasks of inquiry. According to John Sallis, for example, phenomenology "is, in the first instance, the methodological demand, that one attend constantly and faithfully to the things themselves. It is the demand that philosophical thought proceed by attending to things as they themselves show themselves rather than in terms of presupposed opinions, theories, or concepts." (5)

As a philosophical approach or, more narrowly, a method, "phenomenology is thus an appeal to the things themselves. …