About Phenomenology

Total Posts:  1
Joined  15-05-2020
02 June 2020 11:32

Hello, all,
I’ve been a user of the Waking Up app for a couple of months now and I very much approve and appreciate Sam’s recognition of the importance of the first-person perspective.
I’ve also started reading Waking Up, the book, for further spiritual guide (‘spiritual’ in the broad sense Sam aims at, without any metaphysical pretensions). It has been a source of both knowledge and wisdom, even if disagreeing occasionally with Sam’s philosophical discourse.

Now, what I want to point out and start in this thread, is that I find somewhat puzzling that in all of Sam’s reference to studies of consciousness, and specially with his background as philosopher, I haven’t found a single reference to phenomenology in the sense of the philosophical tradition inaugurated by Edmund Husserl. I find it striking when he says in an interview “There are glimmers of this insight in the Western philosophical tradition, as you point out. But the West has never had a truly rigorous approach to introspection.” (https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/09/07/sam-harriss-vanishing-self) when there has been, since Husserl’s 1900-1901 Logical Investigations, more than a century of critical and rigorous philosophical inquiry into consciousness from the first-person point of view (note that the phenomenological tradition is in fact very critical of introspectionist approaches to the mind, typical of psychologisms, where only mental states are contemplated, adopting instead a fundamental correlation and inseparability between mind and world, or what they call the method of ‘reflection’).
I don’t want to think that Sam is victim of the prejudices that have plagued the relation between analytic and continental philosophy, nor that he freely dismisses phenomenology only because their writers tend to be difficult (or worse, that he claims that they utter pure non-sense). There is today an ongoing effort from contemporary analitically-minded phenomenologists that have established fruitful communication with (analytic) philosophy of mind and with cognitive science in general (Dan Zahavi, Steven Crowell, DW Smith, Evan Thompson, Hubert Dreyfus, Robert Brandom, Francisco Varela, just to name a few). There are whole paradigms of cognition based on the framework of the human subject developed in Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger, etc, in works such a The Phenomenological Mind (Gallagher and Zahavi), Reconstructing the Cognitive World (Wheeler). There is so-called “4e (embeded, embodied, enactive, extended) cognition”, where work done in the phenomenological tradition is systematically integrated into the very framework of a science of cognition. There are also now well-established journals dedicated to the interface between phenomenology and cognitive science (https://www.springer.com/journal/11097), an in general an immense legacy of what phenomenology has contributed to the understanding of the human condition.

So I want to know: how do things stand between Sam and phenomenology? he undoubtedly could profit enormously from the profound thinkers of the phenomenological tradition, and from contemporary works in the intersection of phenomenology, philosophy of mind and the cognitive sciences.

Total Posts:  3465
Joined  26-01-2010
02 June 2020 21:30

Sam would have to possess expert knowledge of these schools of thought, and be able to articulate them in a way that Americans, and specifically his audience, found both interesting and acceptable, in order to explicitly refer to them. If we grant that Sam possesses the expertise, then his restraint probably reflects wise marketing. American philosophy is currently dominated by the analytical tradition, and Sam’s audience in particular is dominated by the physicalist and skeptical aspects of that tradition. Failing to keep within the philosophical assumptions of his audience would diminish his ablity to make a living from his words and discussions. At least that’s the way I see it.

Another way of looking at it is that each of us suffers from confirmation bias, even Sam’s fans and supporters. The assumptions of phenomenology run contrary to the physicalism that forms the confirmation bias of most American intellectuals, so would likely meet with disagreement and subsequent disconnection from those who follow Sam’s podcasts and buy his books.

Whatever explanation you prefer, Sam’s entry into the subject matter via Hindu and Buddhist traditions employs a subject matter that is also acceptable and fascinating to American intellectuals, especially atheists who do not hold Eastern spirituality in the same contempt as they do Western spirituality.