«Husserlian Meditations and Anthropological Reﬂections: Toward a Cultural Neurophenomenology of Experience and Reality c h a r l e s d. l a u g h l ...»
Husserlian Meditations and
Toward a Cultural
Experience and Reality
c h a r l e s d. l a u g h l i n, p h. d.1
c. jason throop, ph.d.2
Department of Anthropology, University of
California at Los Angeles (UCLA) California
Los Angeles, USA
Most of us would agree that the world of our experience is different than the extramental reality of which we are a part. Indeed, the evidence pertaining to cultural cosmologies around the globe suggests that virtually all peoples recognize this distinctionFhence the focus upon the ‘‘hidden’’ forces behind everyday events. That said, the struggle to comprehend the relationship between our consciousness and reality, even the reality of ourselves, has led to controversy and debate for centuries in Western philosophy. In this article, we address this problem from an anthropological perspective and argue that the generative route to a solution of the experience–reality ‘‘gap’’ is by way of an anthropologically informed cultural neurophenomenology. By this we mean a perspective and methodology that applies a phenomenology that controls for cultural variation in perception and interpretation, coupled with the latest information from the neurosciences about how the organ of experienceFthe brainFis structured.
Anthropology of Consciousness, Vol. 20, Issue 2, pp. 130–170, ISSN 1053-4202, & 2009 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved.
DOI: 10.1111/j.1556-3537.2009.01015.x husserlian meditations and anthropological reﬂections 131 k e y w o r d s : cultural neurophenomenology, Husserl, consciousness and reality, intersubjectivity, extramental reality The naivete of speaking about ‘‘objectivity’’ without ever considering subjectivity as experiencing, knowing, and actually concretely accomplishing, the naivete of the scientist of nature or of the world in general, who is blind to the fact that all the truths he attains as objective truths and the objective world itself as the substratum of his formulae (the everyday world of experience as well as the higher–level conceptual world of knowledge) are his own life-construct developed within himselfFthis naivete is naturally no longer possible as soon as life becomes the point of focus...
For the transcendental philosopher, however, the totality of real objectivityFnot only the scientiﬁc objectivity of all actual and possible sciences but also the prescientiﬁc objectivity of the life-world, with its ‘‘situational truths’’ and the relativity of its existing objectsFhasbecome a problem, the enigma of all enigmas. The enigma is precisely the taken-for-grantedeness in virtue of which the ‘‘world’’ constantly and prescientiﬁcally exists for us...
Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology & introduction Most of us would agree that the world we experience is different in certain ways from the real world of which we are so much a part. We recognize that our senses provide only partial information about objects and events in our environment, and our understanding of our universe is limited by the structures of our nervous systems. We breathe air that we cannot see and take on faith that there is an invisible force we call ‘‘electricity’’ that fuels our lights and cooks our food. And we are not alone in this understanding. Indeed, the evidence pertaining to cultural cosmologies3 around the globe suggests that virtually all peoples recognize this distinctionFhence the virtually universal focus upon the invisible forces that animate everyday events. That said, the effort to comprehend the relationship between our consciousness and extramental reality (i.e., the way the world is apart from our knowing about it), including the reality of ourselves, has led to controversy and debate in Western philosophy for centuries.
& the perspective In this article, we argue that a generative route to solving such debates lies in turning to a cultural neurophenomenological perspective. By this we mean an 132 anthropology of consciousness 20.2 application of a trained phenomenology that controls for cultural variation in perception and interpretation, coupled with the latest information from the neurosciences about how the organ of experienceFthe brainFis structured and operates.4 Our application of a cultural neurophenomenology is intended as a corrective to at least three roadblocks to developing an accurate under¨ standing of the experience–reality relationship; those being (1) naıve, untrained phenomenology; (2) metaphysical assumptions based on mind–body dualism;
and (3) ethnocentrism. These three hindrances are entangled. For instance, cultural conditioning may produce an individual worldview that is permeated with mind–body dualism and a thorough distrust and ignorance of introspection. Our own perspective is intended as a corrective to these hindrances in the same total sense. It is a perspective that realizes that skill is required to make introspection useful to science, it lodges the structures of experience in the body and its interaction with reality (thus taking full advantage where possible of neurobiology), and it is informed by the vast literature from generations of ethnographers. Our contention is that any account of the relationship between consciousness and extramental reality that is not informed from trained phenomenology, ethnology and neuroscience is going to provide only a partial account of this relationship. What is needed then is an approach that is equally capable of rigorously examining the basic existential structures mediating the complexity of human consciousness and sociality as it is of exploring the variegated and dynamic ways that such complexity is organized in everyday life.
& the program We will begin the discussion with a brief history of some of the issues that have peppered past debates, including arguments over the distinction between primary and secondary qualities, over Kant’s positing of the ‘‘thingin-itself,’’ and over solipsism and the problem of intersubjectivity. Then, applying an anthropologically reﬁned Husserlian ‘‘epoche,’’ we will isolate some of the basic properties of experience in the interaction between consciousness and extramental reality. We will then examine various cultural interpretations of ‘‘the gap’’ between experience and reality, and the probable neurophysiological structures mediating the variant and invariant properties of this relationship. We will focus upon a phenomenology of the body and will show that although there are indeed experiential roots to the notion of a phenomenological gap, the positing of an ontological gap makes little sense when we turn either to insights from phenomenology, to the ethnology of cultural cosmologies, few of whom admit to such a gap, or to neuroscience.6 husserlian meditations and anthropological reﬂections 133 & a brief history of ‘‘the gap’’ We are using ‘‘extramental reality,’’ as a technical term. By extramental reality we are referring to both those aspects of reality that effectively transcend our subjective experience and those aspects of reality that serve to limit the range of possible experiences had by consciousness. In terms of the former, or transcendental aspects, we are referring to all properties of reality, including the state of our own being, as they are, apart from our knowledge or perception of them.
This deﬁnition implies that there are properties and processes of reality that we as humans do not, and perhaps in principle cannot, know. To this end, extramental reality can be thought to consist of information that is either (1) ‘‘denied’’ us due to limitations inherent in the structure of our sense organs and nervous system, or due to limitations set by the state of our technologies and cultural standpoint, or (2) made available to us through our sensorium, which may or may not be augmented by cultural techniques or technologies.
With respect to the former, or limiting aspect, we are referring to those properties of reality that Edmund Husserl (1931) characterized as the ‘‘objective pole’’ of experience. According to Husserlian phenomenology, experience is structured between subjective and objective poles (see Ihde 1977; Berger 1999), where the ‘‘objective’’ varieties of experience are understood to correspond to those aspects of reality that can be grasped by any given experiencer regardless of cultural, historical, or social background. From this perspective, while there are certainly a number of differing ways that extramental realty can be grasped by any individual, the ‘‘objective’’ or ‘‘obdurate’’ quality of the extramentally given in experience serves to set a deﬁnite limit on the kinds of experiences that any individual can have. Of course it is also true that in the case of the perception of external objects, individuals can shift from perceptual to imaginary modalities and as such be relatively unencumbered by the impediment of the extramentally given.
It is important to emphasize that extramental reality is not limited to external objects, because processes of internal reality (i.e., the structure of the body and especially the functions of the nervous system) are also ‘‘extramental’’ in the sense used in this article. Indeed, when we speak of cognitive, affective, intuitive, or perceptual structures which place important constraints upon the organization of experience (see for instance Husserl’s 1960, 1964, discussion of the structure of internal time consciousness), we are referring directly to aspects of the extramental nature of internal, somatic realityFin this case, temporal processing within the nervous system.
‘‘The Gap’’ as a Trap That said, it is also important to emphasize that in introducing the concept of extramental reality we do not wish to fall into the perennial trap of postulating 134 anthropology of consciousness 20.2 an insurmountable schism between our conscious experience of the worldas-given and the extramental world-in-itself. Positing such a gap is both phenomenologically naive (see also Throop 2003a) and, perhaps more importantly for us as anthropologists, a notion that is very rare among many of the communities we work with and learn from in the ﬁeld. Yet such a gap indeed has been posited by some Western philosophers.
One famous case is to be found in the metaphysics of the 17th century phi´ losopher, Rene Descartes. Indeed, Descartes’ name is inextricably associated with an insurmountable schism between mind and matterFa view that often bears his name: ‘‘Cartesian dualism.’’ For Descartes, existence consists of two substances, mind and matter. The two substancesFthe nonextended substance of mind which is understood to comprise ideas, and the substance of matter consisting of extension and motionFare so different in their respective natures that neither one has very much access to the other (Weissman 1996:152). Yet minds and bodies do interact by way of certain neural structures (primarily the pineal gland, ibid:153; also by way of nerves, Descartes argued 1996:106–107).
According to Descartes’ reasoning, we know what is going on in our bodies by way of interoception, like the feeling of hunger or pain (Descartes 1996:98). But we know our bodies only because we think about our bodies and apply ideas to sensed motions within our bodies. Minds think, bodies (as with all matter) move. We only know that we exist because we thinkFthe famous cogito ergo sum, ‘‘I think therefore I am’’ dictum (‘‘thought’’ used in the broadest sense to include doubts, conceptions, understandings, intentions, afﬁrmations and denials, imaginations and feelings; Descartes 1996:66)Fnot because our bodies move. Thus mind (the realm of ideas) and extramental reality (the realm of extension and movement) exist independently of each other, and the relations between the two dominions are exceedingly difﬁcult to establish.
Moreover, in the Cartesian paradigm the way we come to know things about each realm differs (Massa 1996:290–291). We know our minds by the application of concentration and intuition. Knowledge of mind is derived by becoming clearly aware of mind as a system of a priori (innate) ideas. Ideas do not derive from extramental reality; rather, we are born with them. However, that said, one cannot trust our senses pertaining to the material world, for quite often we ﬁnd that we are wrong. We are easily deceived by our senses and thus must approach our knowledge of the material world with considerable doubt. The material world is really only knowable through experimentation designed to discover the underlying mathematical structures that mediate regularities of pattern. In fact, the relationship between mind and matter is so problematic for Descartes that his metaphysics requires the existence of a God who will never deceive us. Without that God, no certainly beyond ‘‘I think therefore I am’’ would be possible, and Descartes’ metaphysics would slide into an ineluctable solipsism.