KARL JASPERS FORUM
TA 107 (Rosen)
Response 4 (to C4, Müller)
( SUBJECT-INCLUSIVE EPISTEMOLOGY )
by Steven M Rosen
8 June 2008, posted 14 June 2008
I appreciate Herbert Muller’s thoughtful comments on my target article. And I emphatically agree with him about the need to go beyond mind-independent objectivism so as to include the subject. The question I want to address is how we can most effectively do this. What I suggest is that this will be possible not by embracing a subjectivism (pragmatic or not) cast in simple opposition to the objectivist standpoint, but by questioning the division of subject and object evidenced in the philosophical tradition from Plato to Kant, and in Husserl, Sartre, and “post-phenomenology.” (To assert that the subject-object split is a construct of the subject (as in TA78, ) constitutes a subjectivist reduction that begs the question, I believe, and actually perpetuates the split; see below.)
As an example of how a one-sidedly subjectivist (or constructivist) approach may tend toward oversimplification, consider the typical subjectivist reaction to the work of Heidegger. From this standpoint, it will likely appear that Heidegger favors an “absolute objective reality,” that he is espousing a purely passive philosophy that aims to “find” (<10>) or “discover” the objective Being that is “out there” — a philosophy incapable of appreciating constructive activity. But Heidegger’s thinking — in its questioning of the subject-object, active-passive division — is actually more subtle than that. Let me illustrate with a passage from my earlier writing on what Heidegger says about history:
“History is neither simply the object of written chronicle nor simply the fulfillment of human activity,” but rather, “a sending,” a “starting upon a way,” a “destining” (Heidegger 1977, p. 24). If history were “simply the fulfillment of human activity,” it would lie at the arbitrary discretion of human design, be freely constructible under the command of the Cartesian ego, to be done or undone as suits the will. Such a history…would be subject to wholesale revision, be utterly reversible. For Heidegger however, history has a weight, an indelibility beyond the caprice of human design, and therefore, it cannot merely be undone. And yet, in the first part of his comment, Heidegger states that history is not “the object of written chronicle” either, that is, not an objectively fixed truth received by us passively like the tablets handed down on Sinai, arriving ready-made from a determining source that lies outside us. History, as a “destining that starts us upon a way,” is “never a fate that compels,” says Heidegger (1977, p.25). There is a freedom in this destining, not one of “unfettered arbitrariness,” but one that goes beyond “the constraint of mere laws” (p. 25). (Rosen 1994, p. 118)
Whereas exclusively subjectivist (or objectivist) approaches miss the (non-Hegelian) dialectical subtlety of Heidegger’s analysis, from a standpoint that is neither solely subjectivist nor objectivist — one that challenges the very division between subject and object — we can better appreciate what Heidegger was really saying about the active-passive dimension. So I submit that a one-sided embrace of (pragmatic) subjectivism has the tendency of setting up oversimplified “straw men” and, in so doing, fails to do justice to the subtlety of approaches that in fact do not neatly fall under the rubric of “objectivism.”
Another example of this is the subjectivist (or constructivist) treatment of Merleau-Ponty. Because he “referred to a ‘transcendent world,’” it is difficult for subjectivism to see how he could also be “non-objectivist” <4>. If he is not solely a subjectivist, he must be an outright objectivist, it would seem. But — as I demonstrated in my target article and other writings, the main thrust of Merleau-Ponty’s late efforts was to free himself from the constraints of such either/or thinking: either transcendent or immanent, subject or object, active or passive. Therefore, while Merleau-Ponty was no constructivist, the primacy of human activity is clearly evident in his writings, albeit in such a way that the split between the actor and the acted upon is called into question (see, for example, Merleau-Ponty 1964). I would go so far as to say that whether one maintains the subject-object division in a simply Cartesian fashion, or by one-sidedly espousing the primacy of one term in opposition to the other (a mirror game in which the term denied in the content of our assertions haunts us at the subtler level of syntax, being predicated in negation), there is always an objectification of the subject. That is because a subject split off from what is object cannot encompass (cf. Jaspers) lived (i.e., non-objectified) subjectivity. I’ve unpacked this argument elsewhere in relation to Husserl (Rosen 2004), and to “post-phenomenologists” like Derrida (Rosen 2004) and Lacan (Rosen 2006). (Of course, questioning the subject-object split is something that is much needed in contemporary physics as well, as brought out in my target article.)
I don’t see how anyone reading the late works of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty can come to the conclusion that they were treating the “contents of experience as ready-made units” <8>, since there seems little that is “ready-made” in their deeply processual, paradoxical explorations. Yes, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty adopted an ontological approach, but their ontologies stand in sharp contrast to the ontological approaches that preceded them. Classical and modernist ontology alike tended, in one way or another (explicitly or implicitly) to divide subject and object. In rendering being or Being solely a subject, solely an object, or some linear combination of these, lived subjectivity — or let us say sub-objectivity (that paradoxically encompassing “horizon” that will not permit itself to be constrained by peremptory ontological categories) — drops out. But what of “post-phenomenology”? Does this not bring us beyond Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty in a helpful fashion ? By and large, I do not think so. Whereas Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty took us to the paradoxical edge of Western metaphysics, writers like Derrida, Lacan, and Deleuze essentially appear to retreat from that edge into a mere negation of objectivism that in fact perpetuates it by continuing the age-old mirror game of subject and object.
Let me end by proposing that, ultimately, if we want to include subjectivity in a concretely meaningful way rather than as a mere abstraction that in fact preserves objectivism, we who engage in philosophical discourse must put our own subjectivity into play. I have experimented with this in some of my writing (see especially Rosen 2006, chapter 8). To bring it in here, I might simply begin by explicitly acknowledging a few of my underlying motives for writing this response to Herbert Muller: to “defend my position” against perceived challenge, to impress my readers with my “incisiveness,” to further acquaint them with my work, etc. To be sure, explicitly introducing my personal agenda and subtext is completely irrelevant to an abstract discussion of subjectivity, where the subject remains detached and anonymous (though formally named). But I suggest that, if we’re interested in actually incorporating lived subjectivity rather than continuing to merely talk and write about it, we will need to lift our cloaks of anonymity and show up for dialogue in a more embodied way. Though I myself find this exceedingly difficult to do, I am convinced that a subject-inclusive philosophy in the end must explicitly include this subject, the flesh-and-blood being who is writing these words (and those on the other end, who are reading them).
Heidegger, Martin. 1977. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt. New York: Harper & Row.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1964. “Eye and Mind.” In The Primacy of Perception, ed. James M. Edie. Evanston, IL: Northwestern U. Press, pp. 159–190.
Rosen, Steven M. 1994. Science, Paradox, and the Moebius Principle. Albany: SUNY Press.
———. 2004. Dimensions of Apeiron. Amsterdam/New York: Editions Rodopi.
———. 2006. Topologies of the Flesh. Athens, OH: Ohio U. Press.
e-mail <StevenRosen (at) shaw.ca>