Thursday, January 12, 2012

Phenomenological Intentionality: Realist, Processive, Pragmatic

I would like to reintroduce my realist and pragmatic theory of phenomenological intentionality based on the processive emergent naturalism of John Dewey.  This should serve as an introduction to those unfamiliar with the classical and neoclassical pragmatist tradition, and I invite questions, clarifications, and criticisms (always).

John Dewey holds an unconventional model of thought clearly articulated in his How We Think.  It is called the “problematic situation” model that has three steps.  1.  Something arrests our ongoing activity and forces us to resolve a “problem.”  Our autonomous bodily and unreflective activity is insufficient to re-establish its prior dynamic equilibrium.  2.  A “problem” summons reflective thought (cognition), and the contours of the “felt difficulty” guide thought about the “problem” so that it may be identified.  At the outset, we experience only a peculiar quality of resistance to whatever we were doing.  3.  The “problem” is resolved when we examine our experiences and ideas about what is going on and conduct an inquiry into the matter.

This model has many consequences that are not immediately obvious.  One is that reflection and conscious intentionality, i.e., experiencing or thinking about something, is not a singular activity or agency of the subject.  Rather, the thing itself provokes consciousness of it.  By “thing itself,” I mean neither phenomenon nor noumenon, but simply an existential encounter with something in nature.  The encounter summons attention and reflection, and as the encounter unfolds it guides the interaction.  See Heidegger’s Being and Time and compare the ready-at-hand to present-to-hand discussion as a later analogue.

Experience, by definition, is an “interaction” or “transaction” of things in nature.  Experience is not a “mirror” of nature, and the imagistic metaphor inaugurated with Descartes and continued throughout Modern Empiricism should be set aside if one would understand Dewey.  Experience is foremost an activity of nature, a transaction, an encounter.  From the encounter emerge new qualities not found in either actor as such, just as “redness” emerges from the encounter with a (red) rose, and it not a determinate potentiality of the rose itself.  

“Problems,” or reflective thought, arise when our everyday encounters surge over habitual channels due to some novelty in the situation.  Since a problem manifests from an encounter, a transaction, a twoness of act and resistance, we call the situation a “problematic situation.”  There is not initially the problem, but a problematic situation.  The goal of reflective thought is to identify the problem, which is concurrent with identifying the solution.  Dewey explains that we do not understand a problem fully without comprehending its solution, as a key fits a lock.  However, as experience is no mirror of nature, the problem and solution are not singular but multiple.  Whatever returns us to regular activity is a solution, and the multiplicity of resolutions implies that ethics (valuing, choice, and responsibility) is implicated at a level prior to reflective thought.  Morality is an aesthetic, but in the Kantian and not Humean sense of aesthetic that places Dewey closer to Scheler, as I have discussed in another post.

My Deweyan and process theory of realist phenomenological intentionality builds upon the model and his theory of experience.  It’s quite simple at first.  Intentionality emanates from the encounter.  The felt quality of the resistance in the ongoing transaction, beginning as a bodily intentionality, becomes a conscious intentionality.  The problematic encounter does not arrest and end activity; it transforms it and raises it to a “higher” dynamic.  Reflection, as the “highest” level of organic function  is the last phase of a natural process trying to regain homeostatic equilibrium.  Reflective experience attempts to symbolically represent the encounter as something meaningful and thereby expand the possibilities of interaction beyond rote habit.

My prior and forthcoming published work focuses on explicating this synoptic reading of Dewey, especially the processive and temporal elements.  While the explanation of intentionality seems a little quick and easy, relatively speaking, by that degree the exposition of temporality and meaning becomes vastly more complicated.  E.g., what happens when the temporality of a natural, non-human process becomes temporalized as human conscious experience?  I insist that temporality and phenomenological temporality are continuous, wherein the key to the shift is imagination.


  1. Why is it that you are going to How We Think and not the 38 Logic? It seems to me that the Logic fills out the problematic situation a bit more than How We Think.

  2. I am not going just to that text. I just chose to cite that articulation because it is straight-forward, an early text where the thought develops, and I've been reading it again. I already have an article under consideration that uses the '38 Logic. The model there is *vastly* more complex if one gets into the details. A reference to one text does not exclude the others.


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