Friday, May 21, 2004

Phenomenology in the Philosophy of Nature

In a 1988 paper titled "Phenomenology and the Philosophy of Nature" (Man and World, 21: 65-89), the philosopher John Compton captured the novelty not merely of adding phenomenological enquiries to the philosophy of nature, but of having a philosophy of nature at all:

"I have become accustomed to introducing lectures or papers on
phenomenology and the natural sciences with some apologetic
acknowledgement to the effect that even putting the words
"phenomenology" and "natural science" together is likely to be
heard as a bad joke – a sort of cultural impropriety, not something
that is "done". This is because, as I usually go on to say, "we all
know" that the two could have no constructive and probably not
even an interesting connection with one another." (65)

Compton goes on to assert that "none of us – including phenomenological and existential philosophers – any longer knows what a "philosophy of nature" might mean, much less a phenomenological one. ... we do not understand by "philosophy of nature" any inclusive, continuing, or compelling philosophical agenda." (66) Yet, Compton continues,

"Natural science does not tell us all we know about the natural
world. We bring to scientific work a rich pre-scientific understanding
of nature which informs and conditions it. I want to suggest that
there is a task that we may properly call the philosophy of nature
which is to evoke this pre-scientific understanding of nature and, in
a continual dialectic with scientific developments, to interpret these
developments as natural knowledge, as knowledge of the very same
natural world in which we live and move and have our being
even before we have ever heard of science." (66-67)

To Compton, a philosophy of nature undertaken as a phenomenological project contributes to understandings that cannot be achieved through natural science (or even the philosophy of science) alone. A philosophy of nature requires a reversal of the conventional epistemological order in which facts determined by science precede reflections on their meaning and implications. A (phenomenological) philosophy of nature begins not with (derived) facts but with the encounter that precedes and engenders them. Accordingly to Compton, a phenomenological philosophy of nature acknowledges the pre-scientific encounter of self with world as

"a field extended in a horizon of space and time, revealing re-identifiable
events, relations of events, processes, and things, open to exploration and determination, but always transcending any of its presented aspects, and constituting the referent and inclusive situation of all our embodied,
intersubjective praxis." (74)

In doing so, a phenomenological philosophy of nature not only deepens our appreciation of nature; it simultaneously defines and enlarges the program of the natural sciences. Perhaps above all, it provides a paradigm in which scientific explanations may not only correspond to (in a referential sense) but cohere with (in an inferential -- or perhaps reverential -- sense) pre-scientific experiences of nature. As Compton points out (with reference to philosopher of science Dudley Shapere's list of existence claims in physics) , the criteria for existence in scientific and pre-scientific (or primordial) experience are remarkably similar:

"Now the criteria indicated here are strangely familiar. ... as we earlier
saw, one of the essential structures of the pre-scientifically experienced
world is precisely that it is peopled with entities and processes which
(i) act on us and on which we act, which (ii) constitute "inexhaustible"
sources of perspectives or properties that ever surprise us, and which
(iii) remain constant or have some unity through and transcending
different perspectives – that is, under different transformations. Reality,
as we experience it, is always this perspectival unity; that which is
more than we see, which has another side, an inside, and as yet
unexpressed capacities; that which relates to and interacts with
other things." (79)

To Compton it is not at all surprising that the ‘existence claims' of science and the pre-scientific experience of nature are similar: this is because the "operative criteria of existence in physical enquiry .... presuppose reference to the lived perceptual world." To the extent that scientific enquiry "misdescribes" or ignores the primordial encounter, as (according to Compton) classical empiricism and operationalism do, it remains partial and risks denying whole avenues of existence, experience, enquiry, and understanding. To Compton, a "continuing, critical, and constructive interplay between philosophical reflection, on the one hand, and concrete scientific theorizing on the other" will foster a "dialectic of interpretation" and enrich both scientific and philosophical enquiry. (79)

Although his interests in the philosophy of nature are oriented toward the natural sciences rather than exploring ecology or ecological thought per se, I find Compton compelling for (at least) two reasons. First, Compton's characterization of the gap between naturalistic and philosophical accounts of nature is particularly instructive because it probes directly into the methods and approaches of the natural sciences rather than focusing (only or primarily) on their effects on understandings, policies, and valuations of nature, as ecological philosophers tend to. By doing so, Compton challenges the gap itself, pointing out that scientific and phenomenological approaches to phenomena (such as existence claims in and about nature) are actually remarkably similar, despite how they are conventionally characterized. Secondly, Compton argues that phenomenological approaches function not only philosophically but scientifically as well:

"Taking pre-scientific experience seriously may suggest that
science must eventually modify certain of its explanatory
constructs which appear incompatible with that experience. On
the other hand, taking those constructs seriously may lead to
a revised and more adequate understanding of pre-scientific
experience itself. Usually, both things will happen." (80)

In short, while advancing a phenomenological philosophy of nature, Compton avoids two limitations evident in most efforts to justify ecological phenomenological perspectives; the first being their tendency to shout across the gap while decrying it as harmful (an approach which may simply entrench real and perceived divisions between scientific / quantitative / naturalistic inquiries and philosophical / phenomenological approaches to nature); and the second being the problem of value, a similar ‘two-solitudes' situation in which proponents of intrinsic or utilitarian valuations seem doomed to do battle, wielding their warring axiologies in infinite regress.


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