For a Pragmatic Phenomenology

It was Stephan Strasser’s Phenomenology of Feeling that first introduced me, towards the end of the 1990s, to Max Scheler’s (1874-1928) work on values and feeling. Over the years I returned to Scheler’s ‘non-formal’ ethics of values now and then, but only read it in-depth when in 2015 I got the chance to teach a course on value ethics for second year bachelor students. Several of them were struck with the ‘freshness’ of Scheler’s approach, and continued reading him after the course was over. This freshness is, of course, the result of history: IMG_20180506_132109233his early death, his non-Husserlian take on phenomenology, and the effects of nazism on philosophy made his work largely forgotten for a long time. There has been no ongoing reception of Scheler as there is of Heidegger or Husserl. This leaves his work open for fresh interpretations, and this gives the reader the feeling of newness.

When in the early 70ties some of Scheler’s work (like Strasser’s) was translated and published in the U.S., the chances for its renewed reception had grown. What made the U.S. especially a good place for the reception of Scheler’s value ethics is the fact that it shows interesting overlappings (as well as some debate) with the thought of his older contemporary William James (1878-1910). Both philosophers have researched the human person in this world, as an active and thinking, valuing and feeling living being – instead of as primarily a doubting rational mind looking for epistemic certainty – as much of modern philosophy would have it. Also they both were interested in the entirety of human experience, without its non-empirical aspects filtered out. They both included the spiritual nature of the human being (next to his sensuous nature), and saw this human being as enmeshed in the world, instead of over against it. Because one thinker came to be labeled a phenomenologist, the other a pragmatist, and philosophy is often focused on schools more than questions, their connectedness was disregarded for a long time.

Now that is beginning to change. Edward Hackett has just published his book on persons and values, which combines thoughts of Scheler and James to produce an original view on the ontology of intuiting values. The book is not an introduction to either of these thinkers, but introduces those elements in their work that affect metaphysical issues in ethics – as its complete title indicates:  Persons and Values in Pragmatic Phenomenology. Explorations in Moral Metaphysics. Its idea to construct a pragmatic phenomenology is very natural to me, as my own work on both thinkers went in the same direction. James and Scheler complement each other, Hackett argues, and they do. His book is not a work in ‘history of philosophy’ however, but contains a constructive argument for a new approach in value philosophy that works with and builds from both thinkers. Hackett’s work is philosophy in action, and a well-argued variety of it. The new approach he introduces is participatory realism, which aims to show how “persons must participate within intentional feeling acts for values to acquire an ontological reality.” (Hackett 2018, xx)

Hackett not only introduces us to his new approach but also shows its effectiveness in tackling issues that have plagued moral metaphysics in the analytic tradition from G.E. Moore up to the present day. With determination he moves beyond the so-called analytic-continental divide, constructing a discourse which enables to translate concepts from phenomenology and analytic value theory in a common terminology. This is not an easy task, and I guess readers from both traditions will object to some of the wording still. Overcoming the divide is necessary however, if we want to get to the questions James and Scheler asked, as both wrote before this scholastic division had become the norm in philosophy. It is necessary to open up to analytical moral theory to get to the realism which was important to both thinkers – post-war continental philosophy having followed more or less post-realist, postmodern, hermeneutical and deconstructive roads. It is necessary to open up to continental philosophy as well, to overcome the dualistic understanding of humanity that often dominates analytical philosophy – and capture the fullness of lived experience, the living, feeling, acting human being – encompassing its hard to rationalize spiritual experiences too. For it is in these experiences that, according to James and Scheler, moral valuation happens.

Hackett explains in his preface what the combination of these approaches means to him philosophically:

“For me, realism is about the process to which subjects emotively intuit values and realize those values into action without dividing up the subject’s lived-experience from the very world in which values acquire their intersubjective reality.” (Hackett 2018, xxiii)

When I started reading Persons and Values in Pragmatic Phenomenology (being a European reader educated in continental philosophy from Nietzsche to Derrida), Hackett’s emphasis on realism was at first unexpected. I have been trained not to attach too much value (sic) to questions that amount to ‘what is its reality?’ Insofar as I call myself a pragmatist, I am one of the deconstructive kind, satisfied with concepts doing their work even when we can question their meaning and reference continuously – even when they deconstruct themselves all the time while doing their work. Even before reading Hackett’s book, however, Scheler made me question this approach. The pre-WW II philosopher speaks so convinced about the objective structure of value orderings, and about how values – even when they are ‘discovered’IMG_20180506_123414075 in a certain time and culture, have absolute validity, and he ties it all up with his theory of feeling strata, that one has to temporarily forget ones deconstructive impulses to follow him in his thoughts. He is, at least in his non-formal ethics of values, a ‘Catholic’ philosopher, who intuits an absolute and ‘objective’ substructure to all there is to be felt, thought and researched by human beings. The abberrant use of the idea of objectivity (over against modern thought) in Catholic thinking might be one of the reasons for Hackett to couple Scheler with James, next to his explicitated aim to ‘correct’ Scheler’s too spiritual, disembodied, and (in Hackett’s words) non-natural understanding of human feeling. It is at this point that I got the impulse to divert from the road taken by Hackett, and to continue to give Scheler the benefit of the doubt concerning his understanding of the human person.

It can be argued, namely, that the strata of value feeling in Scheler are not separate levels at all, but analytically distinguished moments, aspects, of undivided lived experience. That would mean that the spiritual is not separate from the vital or the sensible at all (as Hackett seems to take it (cf. Hackett 2018, 131), but that indicating it just means highlighting a different aspect of our valuing, experiencing encounter with the world. In such a reading spirituality is not to be understood as non-natural either (as Hackett does, cf. Hackett 2018, xxi). If we stick to the ancient distinction between the natural and the non-natural (or even the supernatural), it will be hard to give equal value to science and religion/spirituality, and to make them enter into a necessary dialogue. When we want to seriously understand reality in a manner that includes the spiritual, we should, to my view, understand us to live in what one could call ‘natural spirit’ or ‘spirited nature’. Participatory realism comes close to such a view, as I understand it. The road there is different, however, from my post-deconstructivist one. From different sides, however, Hackett and I agree that philosophy – in order to understand valuation adequately, should become pragmatically phenomenological – which means ontological. It should, to use Hackett’s words, understand the being-of-an-act of intentional feeling.

This post is my reading report of:

J. Edward Hackett, Persons and Values in Pragmatic Phenomenology. Explorations in Moral Metaphysics, 2018. Wilmington/Malaga: Vernon Press.

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