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Nature's Dark Domain: an Argument for a Naturalised Phenomenology

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 April 2013

David Roden*


Phenomenology is based on a doctrine of evidence that accords a crucial role to the human capacity to conceptualise or ‘intuit’ features of their experience. However, there are grounds for holding that some experiential entities to which phenomenologists are committed must be intuition-transcendent or ‘dark’. Examples of dark phenomenology include the very fine-grained perceptual discriminations which Thomas Metzinger calls ‘Raffman Qualia’ and, crucially, the structure of temporal awareness. It can be argued, on this basis, that phenomenology is in much the same epistemological relationship to its own subject matter as descriptive (i.e. ‘phenomenological’) physics or biology are to physical and biological reality: phenomenology cannot tell us what phenomenology is really ‘about’. This does not mean we should abjure phenomenology. It implies, rather, that the domain of phenomenology is not the province of a self-standing, autonomous discipline but must be investigated with any empirically fruitful techniques that are open to us (e.g. computational neuroscience, artificial intelligence, etc.). Finally, it entails that while a naturalized phenomenology should be retained as a descriptive, empirical method, it should not be accorded transcendental authority.

Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy and the contributors 2013

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1 For some heterodox expressions of methodological naturalist positions see Quine, W.V.O, Two Dogmas of Empiricism', in From a Logical Point of View (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1953), 2046Google Scholar; Epistemology Naturalized’, in Ontological Relativity ad other Essays (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1969, 6990)Google Scholar; Laudan, Larry, ‘Normative Naturalism’, Philosophy of Science 57 (1990), 4459Google Scholar; Churchland, Patricia Smith and Sejnowski, Terrence J., ‘Neural Representation and Neural Computation’ in Lycan, William (ed.) Mind and Cognition (Oxford: Blackwell 1999), 134Google Scholar.

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3 Papineau, David, ‘Naturalism’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2009 Edition), Zalta, Edward N. (ed.)Google Scholar, URL = <>. Accessed 23 August 2012.

4 See, for example, Nagel, Thomas, ‘What is it like to be a bat?’, Philosophical Review 83 (1974), 435–50Google Scholar; Ratcliffe, Matthew, ‘Husserl and Nagel on Subjectivity and the Limits of Physical Objectivity’, Continental Philosophy Review 35 (2002), 353377Google Scholar; Levine, Joseph, ‘Materialism and Qualia: The Explanatory Gap’, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 64 (1983), 354–61Google Scholar.

5 Husserl, E., Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, trans. Carr, D. (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1970), 51, 111Google Scholar. See also Ratcliffe, ‘Husserl and Nagel on Physical Objectivity’.

6 Quine, Willard V., ‘Ontological Relativity’, Journal of Philosophy 65 (1968), 185212Google Scholar; Davidson, Donald. ‘The Inscrutability of Reference’, in Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1984), 234–5Google Scholar.

7 This insight or hope seemed to animate the main practitioners of phenomenology as a method of philosophical explication. Husserl's interest in the ‘origin of geometry’ was motivated by the realization that a purely formalist account of geometric theories could not satisfactorily explain the meaning of geometrical claims or account for the ontological status of its posits. Husserl, Crisis of European Sciences, 44–45, 366–367. See also Tieszen, Richard, ‘Gödel and the Intuition of Concepts’, Synthese 133 (2002), 363391CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 See, for example, Section VI of ‘Two Dogmas’; Sellars, Wilfred, ‘Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind’, in Feigl, H. & Scriven, M. (eds.), Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science, vol. I, (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1956), 253329Google Scholar; Davidson, Donald, ‘What is present to the mind?’, Philosophical Issues 1 (1991), 197213Google Scholar; Derrida, Jacques, Speech and Phenomena, trans. Allison, D. (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1973)Google Scholar.

9 See Mohanty, J.N., Transcendental Phenomenology: an Analytic Account (Oxford and Cambridge: Blackwell, 1989)Google Scholar. This raises the spectre of a local phenomenological coherentism. Naturally, this would not require phenomenological appeals to intuition to be immune from error.

10 See, for example, Tieszen, ‘Gödel and the Intuition of Concepts’, 371–5.

11 Note that disjointness is rejected by any strong phenomenological realism. The ontology of conjoint phenomenology is not a correlate of our means of accessing it.

12 Griffiths, Paul E. and Stotz, Karola, ‘Genes in the Postgenomic Era’, Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics 27 (2006), 499521CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

13 Kitcher, Philip, ‘1953 and All That. A Tale of Two Sciences’, Philosophical Review 93 (1984), 335373CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

14 Raffman, Diane, ‘On the Persistence of Phenomenology’, in Metzinger, T. (ed.), Conscious Experience (Thorverton: Imprint Academic, 1995), 293308Google Scholar.

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16 The presence of a just noticed difference can be established by asking a subject to adjust a stimulus until she judges its level to be the same as that of a reference stimulus. Siegel, J.A. and Siegel, W., ‘Absolute Identification of Notes and Intervals by Musicians’, Perception and Psychophysics 21 (1977), 143–52CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

17 Mandik, Peter, ‘Colour Consciousness Conceptualism’, Consciousness and Cognition 21 (2011), 617631CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

18 Raffman, ‘On the Persistence of Phenomenology’, 293.

19 Ibid., 297–300.

20 See Loar, Brian, ‘Phenomenal StatesPhilosophical Perspectives 4 (1990), 81108Google Scholar; Tye, M., Consciousness, Color, And Content (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 2729Google Scholar.

21 Raffman, ‘On the Persistence of Phenomenology’, 296.

22 Ibid., 299.

23 Ibid., 295–6.

24 Where working memory is the cognitive ability to retain contents of experience for wider cognitive tasks such as reflection, categorization, planning and the production of verbal reports.

25 Block, Ned, ‘Consciousness, accessibility, and the Mesh between Psychology and Neuroscience’, Behavioral and Brain Sciences 30 (2007), 481548CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

26 Ibid., 492.

27 Dennett, D., Consciousness Explained, (London: Penguin 1991), 132–33Google Scholar

28 Clark, Andy and Kiverstein, Julia, ‘Experience and Agency: Slipping the Mesh’, Behavioral and Brain Sciences 30 (2007), 502503CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

29 Van Gulick, Robert, ‘What if Phenomenal Consciousness Admits of Degrees?’, Behavioral and Brain Sciences 30 (2007), 528529CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

30 See Cohen, Michael A. and Dennett, Daniel, ‘Consciousness Cannot be Separated from Function’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15 (2011), 358364CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

31 An access relation is epistemically deficient if it is relatively uninformative about the nature of what it is accessed. It is informationally deficient if its content is indeterminate or coarse relative to the content of the state accessed.

32 This merits an epistemological aside: When considering phenomenology as a candidate for first philosophy, arguably, it is realism and not verificationism that is deflationary. First person verificationism assures intuitive closure since, then, there can be nothing given to the phenomenologist that is not conceptually accessible or describable in principle. Phenomenological realism – by contrast – implies that what the subject claims to experience should not be granted special epistemic authority since it is possible for us to have a very partial and incomplete grasp of its nature.

Real phenomenology – the states of mind and contents into which the discipline of phenomenology sinks its hooks – would then be as epistemically distant from us as any entity outside the head. This implies that post–Kantian attempts to parse reality as possible intersubjectivity or as the capacity of a thing to reveal different aspects in different experiences should be rejected. This model requires that there is a principled difference between an actual presentation of a thing and its possible presentation. The table is a real physical object insofar as no experience of it is exhaustive. It is always possible for the table to reveal further aspects in further experiences. Even though the table is never given completely, there is something about the table that is given in each case: namely the visible, audible or tactile aspect that it reveals to a subject.

However, phenomenological realism entails that the phenomenology of the visible table can be as epistemically removed from me as the deep structure of matter (and may be necessarily so, if, as I argue in Section 3, the phenomenology of subjective time is inherently dark). Thus I do not become apprised of the nature of its visible aspect of the table merely by seeing the table. The post–Kantian equation of reality with possible givenness is epistemically useless if all givenness is impossible.

33 Metzinger, T., Being No–One: The Self–Model Theory of Subjectivity (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004)Google Scholar.

34 Ibid., 82.

35 Ibid., 83.

36 Weisberg, Josh, ‘Being all that we can be: Review of Metzinger's Being No–One’. Journal of Consciousness Studies 10 (2003), 9096Google Scholar.

37 Noë, A., Action in Perception (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), 104Google Scholar.

38 Rowlands, Mark, ‘Enactivism and the Extended Mind’, Topoi 28 (2009), 5362CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

39 Noë, Action in Perception, 77.

40 Ibid., 135.

41 For example, the enactivist might save Hume from the consequences of the ‘missing shade of blue’ by arguing that the relationship between a perceptual profile of a blue colour continuum to each of its constituent shades is a form of conceptual reference.

42 Roden, David, ‘Sonic Art and the Nature of Sonic Events’, Review of Philosophy and Psychology 1 (2010), 141156CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

43 Thanks to Jon Appleby for the Ussachevsky reference.

44 Van Gelder, Tim, ‘Wooden Iron? Husserlian Phenomenology Meets Cognitive Science’, Electronic Journal of Analytic Philosophy, 4 (1996)Google Scholar.

45 Ibid.

46 That a perceptual content is not experienced as dynamic tells us nothing about the temporality of its vehicle (This is why enactivism is supposed to be such big news after all!). Neither, as Metzinger points out, is dynamism incompatible with stability: ‘Even if simple presentational content, for example, a current conscious experience of turquoise37, stays invariant during a certain period of time, this does not permit the introduction of phenomenal atoms or individuals. Rather, the challenge is to understand how a complex, dynamic process can have invariant features that will, by phenomenal necessity, appear as elementary, first–order properties of the world to the system undergoing this process’. Metzinger, Being No–one, 94.

47 Husserl, E., The Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, trans. Carr, David (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1970), 164Google Scholar

48 Zahavi, D., Husserl's Phenomenology. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), 80Google Scholar.

49 Fodor, J., A Theory of Content and Other Essays (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992)Google Scholar.

50 Block, Ned, ‘Advertisement for a semantics for psychology’, Midwest Studies in Philosophy 10 (1986), 615–78Google Scholar; Churchland, Paul, ‘Conceptual Similarity Across Sensory and Neural Diversity: The Fodor/LePore Challenge Answered’, Journal of Philosophy, 95 (1998), 532Google Scholar.

51 Husserl, E., Phenomenology of Internal Time Consciousness, trans. Churchill, J. (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1982), 50Google Scholar.

52 Ibid., 62.

53 Ibid., 62.

54 Wood, D., The Deconstruction of Time (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International, 1989), 78–9Google Scholar.

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