An excerpt from “50 Concepts for a Critical Phenomenology”

The passage below is the introduction to 50 Concepts for a Critical Phenomenology edited by Gail Weiss, Ann V. Murphy, and Gayle Salamon, available now from Northwestern University Press. The book will be featured at the press’s exhibit at the upcoming meeting of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. 

50Concepts3DIntroduction: Transformative Descriptions

“How could an anthology possibly have a central perspective?” —Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Signs

Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception begins with a question: “What is phenomenology?” Nearly three-quarters of a century later, this question remains unanswered. Our volume does not propose to answer it but rather to honor its generative insight, an insight that Merleau-Ponty inherits from Edmund Husserl’s Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, namely that the philosopher is a “perpetual beginner.” As a philosophical tradition, phenomenology has privileged wonder, ambiguity, and curiosity over the Cartesian drive toward certainty, determinacy, and indubitability. One of phenomenology’s most axiomatic methodological commitments is the refusal to accept the taken-for-grantedness of experience. This commitment entails the perpetual interrogation of the most familiar features of our everyday experiences, not to deny them but in order to know them better. Like literature, history, and anthropology, phenomenology has yielded rich descriptions of lived experience. Phenomenology is marked by a faith that such descriptions can disclose the most basic structures of human existence, including temporality, perception, language, and intersubjectivity. As these structures are brought into relief, our understanding of our own experiences is transformed, and our deepest assumptions about our very being in the world may be challenged.

The fifty concepts that appear in this volume exemplify the continuing fecundity of attunement to lived experience and its structuring conditions that have been a hallmark of the phenomenological method. Together they also expand our understanding of phenomenology’s potential far beyond its classical horizons. Our intellectual landscape has now been significantly shaped by disciplines that did not exist when phenomenology’s foundational texts were being written. It is our conviction as phenomenologists that the diverse disciplinary perspectives offered by feminist theorists, critical race theorists, queer theorists, decolonial and indigenous scholars, disability studies scholars, and others are crucial for phenomenology’s future. They are also producing exciting readings of the phenomenological canon from marginalized perspectives that breathe new life into its foundational texts. By illuminating constitutive aspects of human existence that challenge the universalizing tendencies of philosophy, they bring new accountability and new promise to the practice of phenomenology.

A central Husserlian tenet is that an experience can never be understood or described in isolation. This means not only that our experiences are interconnected but also that xiv Acknowledgments they are always generated from particular places, times, and cultural milieus. More specifically, Husserl claims that there is a dynamic and reversible figure/ground structure to all experience whereby in focusing on an individual phenomenon, all else necessarily recedes into a more or less indeterminate background. This holds true not only for perceiving and conceiving but also for imagining, judging, willing, valuing, and feeling, that is, for the many different ways we are intentionally oriented toward the world around us. The figure/ground structure, he asserts, is itself situated within multiple horizons of significance, including temporal, spatial, social, historical, cultural, political, and institutional horizons. These horizons actively inform our experience and for the most part do so prereflectively, without our explicit awareness. Nonetheless, they exert substantial influence in determining what becomes the figure and what remains the ground. Merleau-Ponty, focusing on the primacy of perception, describes the ways in which perceptual patterns become sedimented over time as embodied habits. Habits can render the world comfortable, familiar, and predictable even though, as several entries in this volume remind us, they necessarily limit our horizons, foreclosing some perspectives and possibilities by privileging others.

Contemporary phenomenologists increasingly recognize that these foreclosures are a function of structural, political, and institutional inequities that are internalized as personal biases and habits. This insight has inspired a critical phenomenology, one that mobilizes phenomenological description in the service of a reflexive inquiry into how power relations structure experience as well as our ability to analyze that experience. Critique is not critical if it refuses to situate itself, to recognize the limitations and liabilities of its own perspective. A critical phenomenology draws attention to the multiple ways in which power moves through our bodies and our lives. It is also an ameliorative phenomenology that seeks not only to describe but also to repair the world, encouraging generosity, respect, and compassion for the diversity of our lived experiences. Such a project can never be an individual endeavor, moreover, but requires coalitional labor and solidarity across difference.

The authors collected in this volume range from distinguished scholars revisiting some of the terms they have coined or made famous to newer voices who are actively working to expand the boundaries of what counts as philosophical inquiry. These thinkers bear varying degrees of fidelity to phenomenology as a method and a tradition; however, as their entries reveal, each offers rich phenomenological insights that open up new horizons for critical phenomenology. This volume is intended as a resource and also as an invitation to you, our readers, to join us in the interrogation of both the familiar and the unfamiliar, whether in experience, thought, or perception. In so doing, we make the familiar newly strange and bring the unfamiliar in closer, even while preserving its alterity. Such a critical phenomenology—whatever it may become—disrupts sedimented patterns of thinking and perceiving, creating the conditions of possibility for new and unpredictable futures.

Gail Weiss, Ann V. Murphy, and Gayle Salamon Santa Fe, New Mexico, November 2017, and North Pomfret, Vermont, March 2018

50 Concepts for a Critical Phenomenology is available now on our website and in person at the annual meeting of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy in Pittsburgh, PA from October 31–November 2.




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