Wednesday, February 15, 2006

On the Way to Emendation

Following up on "existence precedes essence" and such, some gobbledygook by Kyle reminds me of several things I need to set straight. To begin with, I need to actually sit down and read Totality and Infinity cover to cover. At the moment it still seems to me rather like a labyrinth of aphoristic insights. I'd thought I had a handle on the project of the book as presented in the Introduction, which may be no easy reading, but the first chapter has been jarring. And as Levinas' is wont to redefine basic terms left and right, it's like you have to hold the whole world in suspension. Curiously, I've found that I can't do sudoku and read Levinas in the same mental space. If sudoku usually prepare me for thinking, what is Levinas preparing me for?

It was of course naive of me to present "existence precedes essence" as the defining feature of existentialism. It's perhaps not completely wrong, but it's wrong enough to rethink, clarify, and imagine letting go of. Fundamentally, I don't know how I feel about the notion of philosophies as axiomatic systems. How is it that Levinas' challenge to Husserlian intentionality appears to be done from within a phenomenology while another thinker's challenge, Deleuze's for example, appears as outside? To say "existence precedes essence" is something existentialists think about is accurate but vague, and to say "existence precedes essence" is a fundamental axiom of existential ontology is too narrow. And I don't want to say it only applies to Sartre, or that it means exactly what Sartre says it means, because I feel that it was formulated in response to a direction in European philosophy that was being pursued by a wide range of thinkers, and it resonates still far beyond the confines of a Sartrean atheistic existential ontology.

Professor Bob Zunjic of the University of Rhode Island has put together a two part (1, 2) outline exploring the arguments in Sartre's "Existentialism is a Humanism." I thought it was pretty useful for clarifying the arguments, and covering the more commmon criticisms, e.g. "When existentialists say that man is 'existence' do they pose existence as a new essence of man?"

I found Zunjic's pages by googling for Jean Wahl (chasing a footnote in Totality and Infinity), a googling which also turned up this interview with Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, in which she distinguishes her phenomonology of life from a religious philosophy.

Rainova: Here a very interesting question presents itself. You say each discipline creates a different language for itself and yet speak of an interdisciplinary approach. Is your thought, the phenomenology of life, a philosophy for establishing a new religious philosophy using the phenomenological approach?

Tymieniecka: Well, I have to say categorically, no. Because the way in which I understand philosophy tells me that philosophy has to know its own limits. Philosophy, as we know, especially with Husserl, has to be self-legitimizing, that is, its procedure has to be legitimized by the standards of thought itself. Religion, religious life, religious experience, religious phenomenon do not belong to the same rational framework to which philosophy belongs. Philosophy can legitimize itself only within a certain rational framework, which is the rational framework of life. Actually, the phenomenology of life that I have developed is at the same time a critique of reason, a critique of reason in the sense that I am radically counteracting the current and always represented idea that there is one reason, the reason of the human mind. The reason of the human mind is held up as the measure of whatever happens in nature. I say to the contrary that the human mind is only one among an infinite number of rationalities. The whole realm of life through its phases beginning with pre-life, then with organic life, then the zooidal realm ­ each phase and each moment of life advances through rational articulations that belong to the nature of life itself. Life is projecting an enormous network of rational articulations, some limited to events, or to functions, others being processes. These projected rationalities we can liken to the thread spun by a spider along which the spider can then walk. Just so, these rationalities carry life. All of these rationalities of life together with the rationalities fulgurating out of the human mind, which also proceed from life, form a rational field. But the whole point of a religious creed is that it transcends this framework. The question of the divine transgresses the limits of life, it launches beyond, to the radically Other, the radically different. Consequently, if phenomenology, as I envision it, is supposed to encompass the whole field of rationalities relative to life, then religion is beyond it: could not be grasped by philosophy in a way proper to philosophy. However, as I pointed out, philosophy cannot ignore religious experience, just as it cannot ignore any other experience. It is capable of articulating religion's development and illuminating its significance up to a certain point. Beyond that point, where it is a question of transcendence, that is the limit.

Why is it I always get sidetracked on the way to emendation? Hmmph.

Update: Also ungoogled: Ecstacy of Reason, Crisis of Reason: Schelling and Absolute Difference (pdf) by Christopher Groves. Published in pli

posted by Fido the Yak at 6:00 AM.


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