Phenomenology sans Ontology?

“Genuine phenomenology always leads to ontology.”

-Alex Pruss

Having wrote an earlier piece on the problems associated with a phenomenological criterion of personal identity [1], I now want to assess a commonality I find in the way phenomenology is done. Now, while this piece might be controversial (and probably convoluted as well), I think my intuitions have suggested something important for any phenomenological analysis. Given that a phenomenological understanding of the world one cannot deduce much ontologically, that is, from one’s introspective life in conjunction with all relevant internal/external facts, it is not possible from that phenomenological experience to deduce what actually exists in total. It seems to me that this limitation is important for two reasons. First, a phenomenological experience muse be informed by ontological analyses. Secondly, phenomenology in the absence of ontology is without foundation.

To give a lightweight hypothetical situation, suppose that I observe my introspective life and conclude that

(1) I am many selves in one body.

This conclusion, borne out of an alleged phenomenological experience, can be re-phrased as

(2) It seems to me that I am many selves in one body.

There is an important distinction between (1) and (2). In (1), this is a metaphysical or ontological question. (1) is an existential statement stating that in addition to some body B, I am some range of finite selves S1…Sn. But, this statement itself is problematic, too, since the justification of the claim is phenomenological and therefore part in parcel of one’s privileged access [2]. So, in my view, without an ontological—not phenomenological analysis—it is difficult to put (1) through [3]. While one might be justified   Secondly, though, (2) is more apt to characterize the proper conclusion of a phenomenological analysis. (2) is merely stating that ‘it seems like x.’ While I do not deny the legitimacy of properly basic beliefs, I do think that in many cases—which, though, is the hard part—beliefs can be categorized into (i) ones which need evidence and (ii) ones which do not. In the case of (2), while it seems like a properly basic belief, it is in need of evidential support. Now, here is why: in (2) the claim is an ontological claim which, in the absence of some causal mechanism between the belief that (2) and the truth of (2), requires evidence. Thus, while (1) is problematic, so (2) enjoys the same status.

While I believe my analysis isn’t fully developed and problematic in that it leaves many unanswered questions, I suggest that phenomenology sans ontology is not a truth-conducive method of doing philosophy. This has many implications in ethical theory, I think, and so is worth developing further [4].

[1] Accessed June 17th, 2016.

[2] The notion of ‘privileged access’ is formulated by Richard Swinburne.

[3] Someone might want to object that if I accept my refutation of (1) via. lack of an ontological analysis, I must also accept theological rationalism since belief in God must require evidence. I do not see how that follows. For instance, the distinction between, say, (2) and belief in God (let’s say (3)), in the case of (3) there is a causal mechanism via. cognitive faculty (as Alvin Plantinga argues), or testimony (as William Lane Craig argues). So, the interior knowledge of (3) is possibly founded without ‘evidence’ in the sense of external and public evidence. In (2), however, this claim has no causal mechanism (as I explain in the essay)—whereas in (Christian) theism it does. Secondly, though, as Alvin Plantinga argues further, the proposition that God exists is one such that evidence just isn’t required (and this is at least logically possible given the division of beliefs (properly basic/non-properly basic) and a relevant Christian theistic model (Aquinas/Calvin in the case of Plantinga).

[4] This is a somewhat formal (but rushed) essay trying to capture my intuitions on this topic. Perhaps a longer, further defense of this is required for another essay.


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