From August to October 2018, I had an enjoyable and productive stay at the Center for Subjectivity Research at the University of Copenhagen, supported by a Research and Creative Activity Appointment from Kent State University. The Center provided an excellent environment to develop new projects, receive insightful and constructive feedback, and initiate interdisciplinary collaborations.
During my stay, I worked on a book project called Contingency and Existence: Foundations of Applied Phenomenology. The project is motivated by the challenges of applying classical phenomenology to the study of particular or contingent features of human life, such racial identity, gender difference, child development, somatic illness, disability, and psychopathology. Despite phenomenology’s original concern with experience as such, or the structures of any possible experience, today, phenomenologists are increasingly concerned with aspects of human experience that are particular to specific groups or populations. Phenomenology’s original concern with the universal has shifted—at least in part—toward a concern with particularity, difference, and contingency.
Many welcome this shift because it demonstrates the continued value of phenomenology to our understanding of human experience and existence. Despite its over 100-year history, phenomenological research continues to produce new insights and illuminate aspects of human existence that phenomenologists—and, perhaps, philosophers in general—have historically neglected. However, the diversity of phenomenological interests comes with a host of new challenges. For example, each major topic of applied phenomenology—race, gender, illness, and so on—generates not only new phenomenological literature, but also new subcommunities of researchers with distinct terminologies, methods, and metaphysical presuppositions.
Such modifications are, of course, necessary for the successful application of phenomenology to new domains; phenomenologists must be sensitive and responsive to the phenomena they investigate. But, as a side-effect of this hyper-specialization of phenomenological research, the fields of contemporary applied phenomenology have fractured into a number of self-insulating subfields. If each subfield genuinely had nothing to say to the others, then this wouldn’t be a concern—but this is hardly the case.
The phenomenology of race has, for instance, produced illuminating and insightful accounts of embodiment, accounts that we do not find ready-made in the work of figures such as Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, or Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The work of Frantz Fanon, for example, motivates us to rethink the relationship between the body schema and body image, and examines the ways in which cultural attitudes and prejudices sediment into and inhere in the lived body, thereby modifying bodily experience. But phenomenological studies of gender, somatic illness, and disability have also produced their own insights into the nature of lived embodiment. It therefore seems obvious that the now-disparate fields of contemporary applied phenomenology would benefit immensely from critical and complementary dialogue. But how can we initiate and facilitate such dialogue? This problem won’t be resolved by simply putting phenomenologists from different subfields in a room together. The distinctive and peculiar features of each subfield make dialogue difficult; critical engagement first requires a kind of translation. The terminology, concepts, and presuppositions that grow out of each subfield end up producing barriers to constructive dialogue—not only with those working outside phenomenology, but even with phenomenologists working in other subfields.
In light of this state of affairs, the aim of my book is to facilitate more effective and fruitful engagements by bringing the many fields of applied phenomenology closer together. To do this, I am developing an account of the subject matter of phenomenological research that can be applied across a broad range of phenomenological subfields, providing a schematic that can be used to frame phenomenological studies and report the results and conclusions of these studies. This framework will, I hope, overcome barriers to constructive and fruitful dialogue, and contribute toward a more unified phenomenological research program.
The Center for Subjectivity Research, with its broad interdisciplinary outlook, provided an excellent venue for discussing and developing these ideas. Thanks to the research seminars and lunchtime discussions, I’ve been able to take my project in productive new directions.