Recent discussions around limit-problems, namely the questions concerning what can appear in phenomenological reflection, as well as what phenomenology as philosophical reflection can handle, call for a concerted treatment of the problem of limit-phenomena. In this important new book, Anthony J. Steinbock, a leading voice in contemporary phenomenology, explores that question in the context of an interrelated series of problems in Husserl's phenomenology. Representing a continued struggle with these insights and problems, the first section sketches out the problem of limit-phenomena, and addresses generally that rich estuary of liminal experience that commanded Husserl's attention in his research manuscripts. The book goes on to offer a correlative reflection on the issue of method and finally explores a specific set of what have been called recently "limit-problems" within phenomenology, relating to the problem of individuation and on a more personal level, vocation. This rich and timely volume offers an excellent demonstration of phenomenology in practice.
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About the Author
Anthony J. Steinbock is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Phenomenology Research Center at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. His many publications include Moral Emotions (2014), Phenomenology and Mysticism (2007), Home and Beyond: Generative Phenomenology After Husserl (1995) and the English translation of Husserl's Analyses Concerning Passive and Active Synthesis (2001).
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Limit-Phenomena and the Liminality of Experience
In this chapter, I discuss the phenomenological status of limit-phenomena. This discussion can be framed by the following questions. Are limit-phenomena necessary to the practice of phenomenology? Can phenomenology do without limit-phenomena, that is, are they incidental to the practice of phenomenology? Responding to these questions requires that we answer another set of questions: Must all limit-phenomena, once constituted as such, retain their status as limit-phenomena? Are there some phenomena that are essentially limit-phenomena? Or are limit-phenomena arbitrary determinations, and if not arbitrary, at least relative?
When responding to these questions it is important to remember that one cannot ask what limit-phenomena are, or even which phenomena are limit-phenomena without asking how they are given to those experiencing and reflecting on that experience. For this reason I would like to make something explicit that is perhaps obvious to most, but is nonetheless so basic to phenomenology that it often goes unsaid, even in discussions of limit-phenomena: There is a fundamental correlation between phenomenological methods and matters disclosed or revealed in those methods, matters that in their own right demand a certain method. For the very ways in which the phenomena give themselves are solicited by our paths to them, and our dispositions toward them — dispositions that get articulated in the guise of methods — are evoked by the very givenness of the things themselves, giving specific contours to our ability to approach them.
Having said this it is also important to note that it is not possible to speak of the relation between limit-phenomena and phenomenology as if phenomenology could be taken in an entirely general or amorphous manner. This is especially important where limit-phenomena are concerned. Limit-phenomena are constituted in experience and are given as such in and through the way in which we summon that experience to reflection. Of course, phenomenology does have some very basic features, for example, experience as its touchstone, the description of manners of givenness, the discernment of eidetic structures of existence. But for all that, it is not a philosophical style that has a single methodological procedure. The fact that one can dispose oneself to the things themselves through static, genetic, and generative methodologies, which themselves yield quite different results, is testimony to this. Setting aside the questions concerning the extent to which these three approaches are compatible or incompatible with a Cartesian progressive style of the reduction or a critical regressive one, whether something is or can be constituted as a limit-phenomenon will also depend upon its articulation in presentational, or epiphanic, revelatory, or other modes of vertical givenness.
Having suggested a basic framework for a discussion of limit-phenomena, let me advance some preliminary responses to the questions posed earlier regarding limit-phenomena:
1. Limit-phenomena are not arbitrary, which is to say, not just anything can become a limit-phenomenon. The designation of limit-phenomena becomes arbitrary only if we would stop short of generativity.
2. While limit-phenomena are not arbitrary, they are nevertheless relative determinations, relative to a particular methodological approach. Thus, there will be methodological reasons and justifications for certain phenomena becoming limit-phenomena, and others not being able to have this status at all.
3. Limit-phenomena (in general) are not incidental to the enterprise of phenomenology, but are necessary. This is most clear when we begin, methodologically, from a static or even genetic perspective. But even if we were to begin the practice of phenomenology from generative phenomenology, limit-phenomena would still have a relative necessity.
4. Even if limit-phenomena in general are necessary to phenomenology, it remains another question whether all specific limit-phenomena that are constituted as such must remain limit-phenomena. To this I respond in the negative: Limit-phenomena must not remain limit-phenomena. In some cases, phenomena will become limit-phenomena, and in other cases their status as limit-phenomena will have to be abandoned.
5. Finally, even if not all limit-phenomena must remain limit-phenomena, the question arises whether or not some of them are essentially limit-phenomena. Here I contend that there can be essential liminalities to experience, and one of them concerns the structure home/alien. Let me qualify this. If presentation is our model of givenness, then there are limit-phenomena that remain essentially on the limit of givenness. But if phenomenology is open to vertical modes of givenness such as inter-Personal epiphanic givenness or interpersonal revelatory givenness, which in principle it has to be, then the status of some liminalities are called into question. In this case the very tenor of phenomenology shifts, and its epistemological dimension of experience is modified through, for example, religious and moral dimensions of experience. As I point out later in this work, de-limitation is another kind of liminality that is characteristic of vertical modes of givenness.
In order to justify these assertions about limit-phenomena, I give some examples of phenomena that are constituted as limit-phenomena, and discuss the shift of limits that take place in moving to a generative phenomenology, and within the later, in moving from presentational to vertical givenness. The "phenomena" I treat here are (1) birth and death, (2) animality, and (3) the structure homeworld/alienworld through which generativity is articulated. In a final section, I introduce the notion of verticality into the question of limit-phenomena.
SECTION 1. THE CONSTITUTION OF LIMIT-PHENOMENA
Limit-phenomena pose challenges to phenomenology and to phenomenologists for the following reasons: If the things that we normally take for granted in our everyday lives are only given at the limits of our experience, it is not at all clear how they could be given and described phenomenologically rather than asserted metaphysically or argued for analytically. Reflecting on limit-phenomena requires that we describe the particular modes of givenness of the phenomena along with the phenomenological methods in which those phenomena become an issue.
Birth and Death
Let me take as a first example the matters of birth and death. I treat this in more detail in chapter 2 with respect to the possibility of a phenomenological immortality in a genetic method, and the prospect of phenomenological emphasis on natality from a generative perspective. But here, this discussion will suffice to help outline the issue of limit-phenomena.
To be sure, birth and death are everyday occurrences. We see them in hospitals, in homes, on the streets, read of them in the papers, see them on the news, watch them either from a distance or empathically in movies. More intimately, perhaps, we experience joy at the birth of a child, celebrate another's or even our own birthday; we are grieved over the death of a loved one or a friend, and we come together for memorial services. Birth and death are even encountered from a remote objective stance: Hospital staff record the time of birth, and physicians document the time of death; in some circumstances interns "assist" at a birth, a doctor performs a Cesarean; in other cases emergency medical personal attempt to resuscitate a person who has just "died."
But if these everyday encounters with birth and death are to be anything more than occurrences we take for granted in either natural or naturalistic attitudes, or again, simply celebrated or mourned, and are instead to be clarified in terms of their very meaning that they have for us in that celebrating or that mourning, they have to be elucidated according to the way in which they are given to us. It is here that phenomenology becomes significant precisely because it is a style of openness to these experiences that is concerned with the modes of givenness of what we take for granted in our lives.
How are we to approach phenomena like birth and death phenomenologically? One could try to approach birth and death from a static phenomenological perspective. A static phenomenology will look at how sense is constituted within a cross section of experience. It will be concerned with modes of intention, modes of fulfillment, or modalizations like disappointment or doubt, and so on, as they are given to me with immediate and direct accessibility. Static phenomenology can describe the givenness of sensations, of pleasure and pain, the peculiar sensatings of the lived-body, and so forth. Overall, these would be constitutive issues since they involve the manners in which sense or meaning is given. In addition to this constitutive dimension, static phenomenology has an ontological dimension: It will describe essential or eidetic structures of those experiences and meanings that are given in fact. In this regard, we can pursue classificatory disciplines, or what Husserl would call ontological sciences like biology, anthropology, psychology, because we are "only" describing the being of beings that are taken for granted in the first place.
Where birth and death are concerned, however, it is not even possible to broach these issues from a static phenomenological perspective because it does not and cannot take any account of temporal genesis. Birth and death remain here literally "sub-liminal." Static phenomenology (and I think, quite deliberately) can only take as its theme something like the modalities of "present" of consciousness. In this case, what comes into focus is the impressional present, constituted liminally by the past and future, where the past and future are constituted as limit-phenomena. In a static phenomenology, past and future are on the limits of givenness, given as not being able to be given, and as such co-constituting the present as being able to be given, accessible. Certainly, one can speak of retention and protention within a static phenomenology, but their givenness already presupposes a genetic insight into the genesis of the living present, though without the living present as such becoming an explicit theme.
While it is no coincidence that in his early static phenomenology expressed in Ideas I, Husserl identified "the being of consciousness" as the absolute (see H 3: §§ 54, 76), and matters change significantly when phenomenology engages a genetic perspective. Genetic phenomenology will examine not consciousness, but the process of becoming as it concerns monadic self-temporalization, the continual process of becoming in time, a "unity of life" that has a habitual, or again, the sedimented heritage of the past and projection into the future. From this perspective, consciousness or the phases of consciousness are identified by Husserl now as "abstract" such that not consciousness, but instead monadic facticity becomes the true absolute (H 3: § 81).
It is precisely at this juncture, within a genetic phenomenology, that birth and death become issues for phenomenology, precisely as "limit-phenomena." These limit-phenomena are not arbitrary in the sense that they could arise just anywhere in phenomenology (e.g., they could not become issues for a static phenomenology of consciousness). Rather, they are relative to a genetic phenomenology, and are necessarily called forth by this particular methodology. The parameters of genetic phenomenology, be they concerned with passive or active genesis, are the individual life. This is the scope of "first genesis," of which Husserl speaks in a later manuscript (H 15: 619): Everything prior to human childhood (and up to the point of death) remains unquestioned. And it must necessarily remain a kind of presupposition for phenomenology, on the limits of phenomenology. Why?
According to Husserl's work on a transcendental aesthetic as the preparation for a transcendental logic, monadic facticity is described as constitutive of space and time. As self-temporalizing, the individual cannot be exhaustively present "in time" at its own birth or present at its own death. (Again, I treat this in more detail in chapter 2, later.) While it constitutes a past and a future and lives through them with an abiding density, transcendental subjectivity — the human being clarified according to its sense and meaning constitutive possibilities (and the limits to those possibilities) — cannot constitute its own birth and death. For this reason, Husserl suggests in a provocative note to his lectures concerning passive synthesis that transcendental life cannot die and cannot be born. But again, this can be asserted only from a phenomenological or constitutive perspective that is concerned with genesis. The individual being is constituted as a genetically dense life, and whose birth and death are only able to be constituted at the limits of that life, given as not being able to be given to that very constituting subject.
Certainly, this is not to say that one could not find, phenomenologically, constitutive dimensions of birth and death within that life that share the same sense: beginning and ending a project, conversions and rebirths, renewal, being "born again," "dying to the old self," and so on. But although they would have transcendental sense, they would not have the strict sense of birth and death of the individual given to the phenomenologist as a transcendental event. For this to occur, birth and death could not remain on the limits of phenomenal givenness, but would themselves have to become phenomenal without taking birth and death as mere starting points or end points, and without taking their meanings as exhausted by the historian or the journalist.
The transcendental event of birth and death is precisely what appears within a generative phenomenology. Generative phenomenology is concerned with the geo-historical, social, normatively significant becoming or generation of meaning. When Husserl turns to generative themes, and to generativity itself, he no longer speaks of static phenomena being the independent basis for "higher level" analyses or even of self-temporalization as being the foundation for historicity. These designations of lower and higher are actually pedagogical statements suggesting a procedure of analysis. Instead, once generativity is "reached" explicitly, Husserl modifies his vocabulary and regards the former steps not as independent or founding, but now as abstractions from what is most concrete. Now with generativity being the most concrete experiential dimension, genesis is viewed as an abstraction from generativity, and stasis is interpreted as a further abstraction from self-temporalization. This movement is important for interpreting how limit-phenomena can be constituted in one respect as such, but in another as merely relative, as necessarily relative, but still as abstract and thus not essentially as limit-phenomena. Let me offer some concrete examples.
One of the principal generative themes of a generative phenomenology is the relation of homeworld(s) to alienworld(s). While I will take up the relation between home and alien later, it is important to note here that generative phenomenology takes as its ontological leading clue, not simply psychology, but also anthropology, and constitutively or phenomenologically examines not only sense-givenness in relation to the lived-body or even the concrete monad, but the generation of sense primarily through the constitutive modes of appropriation and disappropriation.
It is within this generative dimension that Husserl reexamines the transcendental features of birth and death for phenomenology. The birth and death of an individual (or even of a culture or a community!) do not have to remain presupposed occurrences in the natural attitude or punctuations in objective time. Rather birth and death can be grasped as transcendental (and not merely mundane) events that are involved in the constitution of sense when that sense is constituted as stemming from an intergenerational homeworld or alienworld (and not from an individual consciousness or self-temporalizing subjectivity, merely). Now Husserl can write, as he does in a manuscript from 1930, that birth and death are essential occurrences for the constitution of the world.
If phenomenological givenness is restricted to the confines of my self-temporalization, the process of being born into a homeworld is admittedly beyond my immediate experience, since in this case my birth and death would be constitutively at the limits of that individual experience. But at least my own birth can be experienced by me another way, generatively, through what Husserl calls my "homecompanions" or "homecomrades" (Heimgenossen), for example, my mother, father, guardian, siblings, neighbors. Moreover, since the "home" is really what is at issue here as a socio-historical constellation, generatively speaking, one's own death can be experienced generatively, and become a transcendental feature, because it is integrated into the very generation of meaning of our world. From a generative phenomenological perspective, it no longer "makes sense" to restrict the responsibility of sense-constitution merely to the individual (actively or passively). For example, when I have a child, "I" or even "We" do not merely constitute this child as son or daughter; this child generatively constitutes me as "father" — a dimension of constitution to which a genetic phenomenology is essentially blind. The latter cannot account for phenomenological ancestors or successors.
Excerpted from "Limit-Phenomena and Phenomenology in Husserl"
Copyright © 2017 Anthony J. Steinbock.
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Table of Contents
Preface / Part 1. Limit-Phenomena / 1. Limit-Phenomena and the Liminality of Experience / 2. From Immortality to Natality in Phenomenology: The Liminal Character of Birth and Death / Part II Generative Method / 3. Generative Problems as Problems of the Crisis / 4. Spirit and Generativity: Phenomenology and the Phenomenologist in Hegel and Husserl / Part III. Individuation and Vocation / 5. Individuation and the Possibility of Decisive Limits to Experience / 6. Vocational Experience and the Modality of the Absolute Ought / Postface / Notes and References / Bibliography