Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Naturalizing Phenomenology

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Naturalizing Phenomenology

Article excerpt

For all of our late twentieth-century optimism about overcoming, or at least leaving behind, those old philosophical hobby horses like solipsism and mind-body dualism, and for all ofour confidence in believing ourselves finally freed from, for having become conscious of, our debt to Cartesian rationalism, a sober look at our philosophical landscape shows such problems have merely gone underground, like the seventeen-year locusts, storing up the energy for a new plague that is eminently upon us. This is certainly the case if we survey the landscape of environmental thought on the brink of the new millennium. Here, the dialectical revolutions of realism and idealism continue their age-old cycling, as predictable as the movements of the heavenly spheres. While grassroots activist Dave Foreman pronounces that "wilderness is the real world" and expresses his suspicions of those whose book learning has stripped their sensitivity toward the call of the wild,1 others catalogue the legion meanings of the terms "wild" and "natural," suggesting that any argument making such ref erences foundational is at best a castle of sand, potentially even a political danger.2 Most of us would like to find a secure home somewhere between uncritical nostalgia for the pristine wilderness that never was and those strands of social constructionism that deny the plausibility of any reference to reality apart from human interpretation. And we are at least vaguely suspicious that, once the dilemma settles into these terms, something has already been decided for us, something with which we are not comfortable. Part of our discomfort might arise from these very notions of realism and idealism. Why do we find ourselves in these same well-worn ruts when phenomenology was to have laid their tired dialectic to rest?

Although in the days of Husserl and Scheler phenomenology was seen as the antidote to the idealism-realism debate, classical phenomenology finds itself on the defensive in its encounter with environmental thought and for good reason. The starting point of transcendental phenomenology was its insistence on the difference between two senses of "self": the transcendental ego, subject of the world, and the mundane ego, embodied soul within the world.3 This difference is emphasized in Husserl's famous thought experiment about the annihilation of the world (parallel, of course, to the Cartesian doubt): if I imagine the world destroyed, who must still be around doing the imagining? Not I the embodied subject, who has merged with oblivion, but I the transcendental ego, subject for all experience qua meaning.4 From the contemporary perspective, this distinction-absolutely crucial for classical phenomenology-appears to be the very height of anthropocentrism, as it makes the autonomous transcendental ego, source of all meaning, essential while the natural world, lacking any transcendent sense, is entirely contingent. If all meaning implies subjectivity, is not the very possibility of an intrinsic meaning or value for nature excluded? Does not transcendental consciousness merely perpetuate the legacy of Plato's somatophobia, bringing to fruition his dream of a pure non-corporeal self that definitively transcends the inherently derivative and transient natural world?

Such objections are far from conclusive, of course, and they have not stopped phenomenologists from entering into the burgeoning dialogue of environmental philosophy. In fact, a handful of recent monographs by phenomenologists of all stripes have argued that drawing the far-reaching ontological and epistemological consequences of ecological thinking requires the methods peculiar to phenomenologists.5 I intend to take this argument a step further and suggest not only that environmental thinking needs phenomenology, but also that phenomenology needs environmental thinking, that it requires the insights inspired by our current ecological consciousness to revise its own methodological procedures. …

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