Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Intersection of Phenomenology and Scholastic Realism

The summer writing season begins today.  At the moment I am inspired to write a conference paper and eventual article meant for a general audience.  I am inspired by Victor Kestenbaum's point in the introduction of The Phenomenological Sense of John Dewey wherein he notes that a "habit" functions as a "transcendental" for Dewey.  He means this in the vaguely Kantian-phenomenological sense.  

What does it mean for a habit to be a transcendental?  My short response is that we must have the requisite  (cognitive) habit to experience something as meaningful.  Without the habit, we might transact with the thing, but not experience it as meaningful.

Given my past posts about scholastic realism, let me explain how that conversation connects with the phenomenology here.  Redness is a universal, and upholding scholastic realism, I claim that "redness" may be universally predicated of things (or not), which is to say that every time I encounter a "red" thing, there is some characteristic that they share in common.  "Red" is also a phenomenal quality, a universal event that conscious beings may bring to manifest.  What is this characteristic?

A pattern of transaction.  "Redness" is what occurs when certain existential conditions are present, i.e., universal pattern of transaction may be realized.  That is, whenever sighted humans encounter red roses, certain existential conditions have been realized such that "redness" may emerge.  Redness as a quality does not exist until some being capable of experiencing redness enters the locale and creates a situation capable of producing the quality.  I went into the rose garden.  Redness as a potentiality, however, was there as long as the roses are in bloom.  Redness is not "hiding out" waiting to be discovered.  Rather, it emerges out of a transaction between the environment and a being capable of experiencing redness.

What point is being made?  If one embraces nominalism, one argues that only particulars are real, and not universal descriptive categories such as redness.  Each encountering of the red rose is unique and singular.  But if that is the case, then redness is a convention, i.e., it is name for a similarity of particulars.  Yet if the nominalist grants even that much, then I ask how these two things can appear similar if only singular particulars exist.  In response, the common answer is to invoke implicitly or explicitly; human physiology makes certain external stimuli appear uniform.  Universals are then psychologized and become an accident of human biology.  I insist that this is not an adequate response, because while it explains the uniformity of experience, it does not explain the continuity of the natural world with human nature.  It sacrifices one explanation for another rather than tries to preserve both.  Kant fell to the specter of Cartesian dualism, and many have fallen since, as they anthropomorphize nature.    

How does all this connect to habit?  Habit is memory.  We learn to associate a given quality with a name, and thus learn to associate the phenomenal quality of redness with the name "redness."  "Habit" works on many levels.  I have described a cognitive habit, i.e., a memory-association of a phenomenal quality and a recognized designation.  Habits are also physiological.  Bodily habits associate the given visual field or external stimuli with an apprehended field of vision.  For instance, the human infant is born neither with appreciable sight nor the ability perceive in three dimensions.  We sense our worlds in two dimensions, and our neurology presents it as a three-dimension perception with coordinate colors ... unless we have the condition known as synthesia, in which case we might taste our colors as well.  There has been some preliminary evidence that infants are born with a variant of this condition.  We must learn, or build up the habits through exploration and biological development.  It is also through these and socio-cultural means that the world becomes meaningful to us.  We learn to associate certain qualia with meaning, i.e., anticipated consequences of interacting with qualia in particular ways....

This is just the beginning of what it means for habits to be transcendental......


  1. Enjoyed this greatly, well done.

  2. This is what I actually do for scholarship, as opposed to the countless conversations and comments.

    If people go the Kantian road, which in our times is often just to accept realism without saying much more, then they run into the problems that I mention. They tend to embrace epistemic nominalism, which is an opposing but not strictly contrary view of scholastic realism as applied here. But then, do they not anthropomorphize nature? So any position that claims not to do so ... is going to have a hard time if it accepts nominalism. It's not insurmountable, I believe, but a stumbling block.