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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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I like it when new and unread books are standing on my desk, waiting for me to read them. In my student days in the eighties of the last century, when course programs where published in a booklet in the summer, I used to get the new prescribed half meter of books as soon as possible and put them there in front of me – creating the excitement of anticipation for the next year of study. Nowadays my years of teaching have no end, they are like a circle that begins again when it reaches its fulfillment. Studying has become an even greater joy as it is my reward when course administration, grading, actual standing for the classroom leaves any spare time. Among those new books have been, for some time, the titles by two Eduardo’s: Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s Cannibal Metaphysics, and Eduardo Kohn’s How Forest’s think. Preparing my next conference paper, the time to read them has come (and I have to make haste to get my presentation ready in time!) Although very different in style and argumentation, both books show in unison that much creative philosophy is done outside philosophy departments. Here we have anthropologists who delve into the works of philosophers to question the ontological presuppositions that stand in the way when they try to understand how their research subjects, ‘non-Western’ peoples, understand the world and interact with it.

While still reading the introduction of Kohn’s book I got a pleasant surprise – that it will be the old pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) who will provide for Kohn the groundwork for understanding how forests, and animals, all living creatures for that matter, think. Kohn announces that he will draw on ‘the “weird” Peirce [that is on] those aspects of Peirce’s writing that we anthropologists find hard to digest – those parts that reach beyond the human to situate representation in the workings and logics of a broader nonhuman universe out of which we humans come.’ This made me happy as it again brought me back to an important period in my years of study: following the courses of one of our most excellent teachers – Gabriel Nuchelmans (1922-1996), who taught philosophy of language and analytic philosophy. All very broadly understood. Nuchelmans wrote sturdy and thorough books on philosophical problems, and specialized articles that were just as thorough, all of which will only be familiar still to those who specialize in the history and philosophy of logic. As a teacher he just passed on some of his wide readings in whatever interested him. One year he passed on his knowledge of pragmatism – and although at first I did not know how to fit this in with my mostly ‘continental’ interests, over the years my notes of this course would be the only ones that I always kept – which in retrospect can be seen as a predicting sign of my later return to the material.

For years it was mostly William James that interested me, first his Varieties of Religious Experience, and later his Pluralistic Universe. Works that I still consider to challenge standing frameworks of thought and to be indispensable if one tries to begin to build a critical ontology of the spiritual. In the article by Eugene Taylor which serves as an introduction to the centenarian edition of the Varieties, I read about the influence of Swedenborgian thought on James, but also on Peirce, as both longtime friends participated in the circle of James’s father, and in experiments that aimed at understanding spiritual communication. I only knew Peirce as having contributed to logic and philosophy of science/epistemology, so this came a bit as a surprise to me. But now I find that Peirce’s ability to think beyond philosophical modernism, seeing relation and signification  as the basis of thought rather than immediate intuition and mental clarity (which one can call the unfounded dogma’s of modernist thought) – forms the inspiration for those that are creatively moving beyond modernism by different paths, as Kohn does while trying to understand the world as understood by the peoples of the Amazon.

When I will be reading along, I will not only follow Kohn’s path of a semiotics of the forest, but I will also remember the mysterious smile of professor Nuchelmans when he spoke about Peirce’s weird categories of ‘firstness, secondness and thirdness’. And also how this old-fashioned professor lifted his hat for female students, calling them ‘mevrouw’ (mrs) – and then again how he left his comfort zone of the history of logic when he felt the need to criticize Heideggerianism. Then his face gained more color, and his voice betrayed suppressed excitement – and one felt the echoes of the struggle against the irrationalities that had swept over Europe only fourty years ago. Nowadays Nuchelmans’ suspicions of Heidegger have been vindicated by the publication of Heidegger’s explicitly racist notebooks. But that is perhaps not the most important thing in which Nuchelmans’ teaching put up signposts. More important was how his own work showed that digging into abstract stuff like logic, grammar, and structures of thought did not have to lead away from real world issues. As goes for the work of the ‘weird’ Peirce – which invites us to think the human in relation to the non-human in a thorough philosophical manner – work that is very relevant in these days, when it becomes more and more visible that the human, all too human issues that have led modern civilization, are destroying the possibilities to lead enjoyable lives for so many. Let’s try to read the signs of other ‘living ones’, and forests are not the least among them.

‘Why did we never hear from this in all those years that we studied philosophy?’ That was the comment of some Master students in philosophy after I suggested A Pluralistic Universe by William James for their reading assignment. Indeed this late work of James is seldomly studied, or even discussed, in philosophy departments. It came to my attention through the biography of the pragmatist philosopher by Robert Richardson. Like James’ well-known work Varieties of Religious Experience, it is the result of a series of lectures, given first for an enthousiastic public in the U.K., and later repeated in the U.S. His academic colleagues rejected it almost unanimously, being without doubt the origin of its later absence in philosophy curricula.

And of course the book might be easily criticized, since it does not rest on a strong argumentative structure, but rather is an attempt to draw together insights from such widely divergent thinkers as the physicist-turned-psychologist Fechner (1801-1887) and the vitalist philosopher Bergson (1859-1941), in support of what is only the outline of a new ontology. An ontology which aims to surpass the boundaries of objectivism: expecting the Cartesian idea that a self-supporting thinking ego might describe the world as it is (as its object) to be false. One should acknowledge that ‘the Philosopher himself [is] taken up into the universe which he is accounting for.’ This makes any ontology provisional, makes us having to accept pluralism (giving up the effort to surmount conflicting ontologies into a definitive one), and potentially leads to a conception of consciousness as potentially continuous with a wider consciousness. Wider than the individual, or than reason, or than humanity.

In this work, published only a year before James’ death from heart disease, the philosopher tries to interconnect the ideas and passions which interested him all his adult life – radical empiricism, religion, psi research, and of course pragmatist epistemology. What I like so much in his attempt is that he (almost) succeeded in rendering human attempts to interact with the world (through theory, through practice, psychically and religiously) into a coherent view – a view that does not slide into an easy holistic or cosmological theory (which would have been another objectivist fallacy), but that accounts systematically for the inescapable limitedness of any ontology.

The consequence of all this is captured in one of those apt expressions the artist with words added to philosophical language: that the ‘universe’ (which presents itself as a ‘multiverse’) might not consist of entities springing all from a single source, but that its consistency might be described aptly enough as ‘strung along’. We experience continuity, coherence, concatenation without borders, without a definite whole supporting it. This should not lead us into relativistic or nihilistic desperation – it is, says James, the normal condition of human life. We do not need ‘logical considerations that hold good in all conceivable worlds’. ‘the philosophy of the future’ must take ‘the actual peculiarities of the world […] more and more elaborately into account.’ Not only those experiences filtered out by a positivistic censor, but also dreams, intuitions, apparitions – all those ‘wild beasts of the philosophic desert’ who present themselves in actual human lives.

William James lived from 1842-1910

Citations are from his A Pluralistic Universe. Hibbert Lectures at Manchester College on the Present Situation in Philosophy, University of Nebraska Press 1996 [originally published in 1909]

Recommended reading on James is a.o.:

Robert D. Richardson William James in the Maelstrom of American Modernism, Houghton Mifflin Company 2006

Deborah Blum Ghost Hunters. William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life after Death, Penguin Books 2006