Scott Smith's Reviews > Literature Considered as Philosophy: The French Example

Literature Considered as Philosophy by Everett W. Knight
Rate this book
Clear rating

Thus emerges the difference of principle—nothing could be more important —in modes of existence, the difference between consciousness and reality."48 The second obstacle to the understanding of intentionality is the reduction of our means of communication with the world to five senses, and of the five the three most important, sight, hearing and smell operate at a distance,48 This mysterious ability of the senses to do without direct contact is perhaps not without importance in our representation of the mind as something "above" matter, and the complementary notion that the place of the intellectual is properly one "above" the strife of his time. There appears to be in man a strong reluctance to consider himself organically and inseparably joined to mere matter. This constant aspiration to ethereality has, at one of its extremes, mysticism, at the other, the immemorial stigma attached to all forms of manual labour. The senses, as ordinarily thought of, serve as much to keep matter at a distance as to unite us to it; not only for the reasons suggested but also because the function of mind is to "pierce through appearances," and this can only be done from a vantage point, just as we seek high ground from which to view a landscape. To these ancient and anthropomorphic habits of thought, phenomenology (and that of Merleau-Ponty in particular) opposes a conception of man "immersed" in the world about him as a body is immersed in a liquid. It is not only by the five senses that we are alive to our environment, the entire body participates in giving a meaning to the universe. However, we must guard here against supposing that phenomenology simply extends the functions of the sense organs to the rest of the body; the term "sense organ" means for most of us an instrument serving as intermediary between the mind and the outer world, but no intermediary is necessary because there is no separation.

So [we read in La Phenomenologie de la Perception], ... we do not reduce the meaning of the perceived to a total of "corporeal sensations." We say that the body, in virtue of having "behaviour," is that queer object that uses its own parts as a general symbolism for the world and by whose aid we are in consequence able to "frequent" the said world, to "understand" it and to find a meaning for it.50

The third of the entrenched ideas with which intentionality must contend is that of a mind existing in a closed chamber, half independent of the exterior world which it uses as raw material for the creation of worlds of its own. The name of Proust immediately occurs in this connection as the most distinguished example of the literary utilization of a psychology whose genesis in Renaissance philosophy we have briefly traced. The form in which Sartre most frequently expresses intentionality is: "All consciousness is consciousness of something,"51 by which means he emphasizes the fact that consciousness is always consciousness of something that is not itself. When we hate we hate something, when we love we love something. The love of Swann for Odette, and of Marcel for Albertine have not for their object, as Proust would have us believe, the subjectively created figures of the two women, but certain qualities which they really possessed and to which Swann and Marcel responded with their love. For the issue of the Nouvelle Revue Frangaise, which appeared on the first of January 1939, Sartre wrote a very short article on intentionality, valuable perhaps less for the light it throws upon the subject than for the curiously unacademic elan which animates it. For example: "And now, quite suddenly, these celebrated 'subjective' reactions—hate, love, fear, sympathy —which were wallowing in the stinking brine of the spirit, wrench themselves free. They are no more than ways of discovering the world." One easily imagines many of Sartre's colleagues deploring the lack of "objectivity" of such language. There is in this article a cheerful enthusiasm that we never associate with existentialism. Between 1939 and its post-war vogue there had occurred events which gave to most existentialist thinking the sombre colours since arbitrarily extended to the entire philosophy. There remains in existentialism, if not the cheerfulness, at least the revolutionary enthusiasm of the pre-war years; the hope of constructing a philosophy at last that, instead of leading a parasite's existence in the shadow of science, will be a new way of life. Ethics play a conspicuously subordinate role in modern philosophy; it would hardly be an exaggeration to say that in existentialism everything is subordinated to ethics. But to return to more immediate concerns, Saxtre, in the article under discussion, presents intentionality as being above all a liberation from subjectivity, from the "stinking brine" which has in the past involved so much futile soul-searching and perhaps, especially, so much flight from the undistinguished and unaesthetic realities of social responsibility. The mind can no longer serve as a refuge; for, and we are still quoting from Sartre's article, it is:

clean as a great wind, it [consciousness] consists of nothing but a movement of self-escape, a slipping out of itself. If, per impossibile, you were to penetrate "within" a consciousness, you would be picked up by a whirlwind and ejected, to be deposited in the dust at the foot of the tree. You see, consciousness has no "within."

- pg 45 - 47

One point remains to be dealt with. How and why did phenomenology, which Husserl intended to be a method for the discovery of the principles or "essences" upon which human knowledge is based, evolve so quickly into the philosophies of existence?

We have already remarked that Husserl's approach to the problem of synthetic a priori knowledge was just the reverse of that of Kant, that the mysterious interaction between subjectivity and the exterior world was not to be explained according to Husserl by the suppression of matter but rather by the objective existence of essences. Essences that are not, however, those of any previous essen-tialist philosophy, for phenomenology is a return to things in themselves, and essences as formerly understood were general ideas upon which our knowledge of individual things is based; for example, we know what an individual horse is because the "essence" horse exists containing in itself all individual variations. This practice of sacrificing the particular to the general, of seeing in the particular a mutilated copy of a perfect original has been of incalculable importance in Western thought since the earliest times. Here, perhaps, is one of the sources of man's seemingly incurable habit of "alienating" himself, of placing the responsibility for the conditions under which he lives in the hands of a caste, priests or intellectuals, especially trained to seek out the truth, always imagined as hidden and inaccessible to the uninitiated. The common man too often considers it natural that he be left to pit himself against the particular, that is against existence, against Evil, alone and unaided. The first concern of both religion and philosophy has usually been not to attack evil but either to explain it away, or to encourage us to turn our backs upon it. Etienne Gilson has been able to write: "From Plato's day to our own, you would think, from the way things went, that the fear of existence was the beginning of wisdom."57 Existence might almost be defined as intercourse with the particular. We live in a particular house and wear particular clothes; but particular things are precisely what philosophy will have nothing to do with, because they are inexplicable. It might be possible to say why trees exist, impossible to say why this particular one exists. Individual things cannot be forced into the categories that reason prepares for them, just as the individual molecule seems to defy determinism, while aggregates of them remain obedient to natural law. And yet it is of particular things that existence is made up. One is a man, not mankind; what is said about life and death, cannot be applicable to my life or to my death.

It is thanks to Husserl that the particular has at last become an object of philosophical speculation. An individual object is knowable not because we are able to refer it to the appropriate essence but because it is its own essence. "The essence of the object ... is its necessary structure—that which makes it what it is, that which, preceding any empirical characteristic of the object, renders such a characteristic possible and comprehensible: in short, its principle."58 The philosophical prestige once enjoyed by abstracts has been given to the concrete. No quality (as has been already remarked) can be removed from its object, since every quality is the object. Consequently the abstract "redness," for example, instead of being a general idea from which all particular shades of red are derived is an inferior entity which we form by comparing a number of red objects. Thus the classical conception is reversed. No individual is subordinated to an abstract; on the contrary, abstracts are dependent upon concrete objects.59

Having reached this point, the next step is to decide what means will enable us to discover these essences.

- pg 50 - 51

according to the theory of intentionality, there is no "distance" between mind and things, the problem is not to reveal what is hidden from us, but to "draw back" from matter sufficiently to be able to perceive what is so taken for granted as to pass unremarked. Such is the function of the "phenomenological reduction." It is by "reducing" the "flux of the lived," or, as it is most frequently expressed, "putting the world in parentheses," that we can throw into clearer relief the essences which make knowing possible. An engine about which we know nothing has to be stopped before we can find out what makes it run. In the same way, perception has to be "suspended" if we are to learn what makes it possible. But if consciousness is to be defined as intentionality, that is, if consciousness is always consciousness of something not itself, then our every feeling, our existence, in brief, is significant, meaningful; and therefore there can be no point to "suspending" it, since it reveals reality. Existentialism came into being when it was seen that Husserl had tried to retain a representative consciousness after intentionality had rendered it obsolete.60 It will be recalled that phenomenology introduced the notion that existence is not necessarily material existence; consciousness being the most important example of non-material existence. Phenomenology becomes existentialism when emphasis rather than being placed upon the material objects "intended" by consciousness is placed upon the existence of consciousness itself. Since consciousness is always consciousness of something, since consciousness cannot turn itself toward what does not exist, our every feeling signifies something, it reveals some part of truth.01 Understanding is no longer necessarily representation of an object; every "subjective" state is a means of understanding. The universality of the notion of meaning in the structure of the subject [writes Levinas], has both opened the way to existential philosophy and also caused it to diverge profoundly from the philosophy of Husserl. The multiplicity of structures that this meaning can present, and the impossibility of reducing it to the thought of the object, has enabled the philosophers of existence to find a meaning inherent in existence itself.62

Just as we should no longer consider truth as being "hidden" behind appearances, we should no longer think of existence as being something that underlies the feelings we experience, as a screen underlies the pictures projected upon it. Jealousy is not something that happens to us, we are jealousy, our existence is jealousy, and therefore there is a "meaning inherent in existence itself." There is no distance between consciousness and the table it perceives; in a sense, consciousness is the table; in the same way, consciousness is jealousy, and that sentiment exists on an equal footing with material objects. As always, the idea itself is quite simple, but the terminology we are obliged to make use of betrays us. We speak of consciousness and of jealousy and the reader supposes that two entities are involved; but there is only one—consciousness is jealousy.63 Many of our feelings correspond to material things—we hate somebody or something; but many of them do not, and the question arises, how are we to interpret the existence of, for example, the "anguish" of Heidegger, the "nausea" of Sartre, or the feeling of absurdity and of solitude in Malraux? Certain facets of what exists (and perhaps the most important) reveal themselves only to sentiment, just as vision is the appropriate means of distinguishing colour. "All comprehension takes place in a disposition that is affective."64 The only truth is a felt truth, not a demonstrated one.65 We are related to the objects around us chiefly by means of a greater or lesser aflectivity; many of them are, for example, utensils, and the only way to "understand" a utensil is to use it. "The purely contemplative gaze, however penetrating, could never, while directed at the outward appearance of this thing or that, discover in it a utensil."68

Husserl's thought is Janus-like, as is no doubt that of all great innovators. In his very concern for replacing old theories of knowledge by intentionality, he identifies himself with the main current of Western philosophy since the Renaissance. His attitude toward the world remains essentially a "contemplative" one: "Before we can behave towards things, we have to understand them."67 For the existentialists, however, our conduct in the world is our understanding of it; one is inseparable from the other. By preferring to remain a "method" for the identification of essences, phenomenology made the existentialist dissidence inevitable. Husserl's cure for epistemology may well have been so radical as to have killed the patient, but rather than the phenomenologists, the existentialists would appear to be the real inheritors. Seeing that they were no longer bound to answer the questions "what can we know," "how can we know," etc., they went on to ask: "What is the meaning of what we know"; their efforts are directed less toward explaining how appearance can be reality, than toward exploring the consequences of the fact.

Nietzsche described modern philosophy as one that: "... never gets beyond the threshold, and rigorously denies itself the right to enter—that is philosophy in its last throes, an end, an agony, something that awakens pity."08 The existentialists have crossed the threshold.
- pg 52-54
PG 98 - starting here - There is a discussion of how phenomenology and existentialism shows how because essences or properties of beings are not seperate from that being's existence -i.e. existence precedes essence - this makes each individual unique - which is the same discussion you were just reading about in the SCHOLASTICISM book... e-book from, pg ________

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read Literature Considered as Philosophy.
sign in »

Reading Progress

05/05/2012 page 60
show 4 hidden updates…

No comments have been added yet.