Last autumn I did a predoctoral research stay at the Center for Subjectivity Research (University of Copenhagen). My main goal was to introduce myself to contemporary issues in the field of collective intentionality and social ontology, and especially in the philosophy of collective and group action. While unfolding this task, the almost daily discussions with Olle Blomberg ‒ who is a post-doctoral fellow working on intentional joint action at CFS ‒ were of decisive importance. Besides doing research with respect to collective agency, I had the opportunity to take part in the activities hosted by the CFS (seminars, lectures, conferences, etc.), the result being one of the most stimulating research experiences I have ever had.
My doctoral research examines the process by which a reflexive neonate develops into a reflective child. However, what does it really mean to “reflect” or to be “reflective”? Is reflection a kind of personality trait or disposition that can be trained? Is it an epistemic perspective that one brings to bear in certain contexts or situations? Or is it a cognitive process or mechanism that can drive other developmental changes such as symbolic competence?
“The world is there prior to every analysis I could give of it, and it would be artificial to derive it from a series of synthesis that would first link sensations and then perspectival appearances of the object together, whereas both of these are in fact products of the analysis and must not have existed prior to it. Reflective analysis believes it moves in the reverse direction along the path of a previous constitution and meets up with – in the “inner man,” as Saint Augustine says – a constituting power that it itself has always been. Thus, reflection carries itself along and places itself back within an invulnerable subjectivity, prior to being and time. Yet this is a naïveté, or, if one prefers, an incomplete reflection that loses an awareness of its own beginning.” (Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception)
100 years ago, Rudolf Otto’s influential study The idea of the holy was published. It may be worthwhile to revisit some of his ideas.
It is often said that the achievements of the phenomenologist Rudolf Otto prove more sustainable than those of the Kantian theologian that he also was. In this perspective, the most interesting part of The idea of the holy is probably constituted by Otto’s detailed descriptions of ‘the numinous’. By this he means the peculiar affective quality of religious life without which the various ‘rational’ meanings and doctrines related to it could not be properly understood.
Some three months have passed since I left beautiful Copenhagen and the lively research atmosphere at the Center for Subjectivity Research. In the meanwhile a couple of newsletters indirectly reminded me of my promise and my wish to write a short contribution for the blog. Today might finally be the right day, not only because I have some more time between one seminar and the next, but also because, after some reworking, I have finally labeled the paper I wrote during my stay at the Center as ‘final version’. While revising it, I became more and more aware of how much I profited from the discussions and exchanges I had with colleagues at the Center.
My main question in this paper (entitled Experiencing Reality and Fiction: Discontinuity and Permeability) concerns our participation in the experience of fiction. I understand ‘fiction’ here in a rather large sense, including playing a game of make-believe, being the spectator of a theatre pièce, reading a novel, etc. As I hope to make clear in the paper, what all these experiences have in common is that they are grounded in a specific kind of imaginative experience, which Husserl called ‘perceptual’ or ‘bound’ phantasy.
In his effort to keep a “Diary of a Body”, Daniel Pennac defined this peculiar description as «(…) not a treatise on physiology, but my secret garden, which is in many ways our most shared territory» (Pennac 2012, 13). A shared territory continuously exposed to the gaze of others, and at the same time a performative dimension that allows us to pay attention to the world, while becoming almost transparent in experience. How do I move in the environment without explicit attention to my movements? How do I get to catch the joy in your smile? And how is it possible for us even to interact prior to any linguistic communication? Thanks to a pre-reflective embodied dimension, our experience tells us that “mind-reading” is in most cases not needed. However, if our body is the very source of empathic grasping of basic emotions and intentions through expressions and movements, we need first of all to investigate the terms of embodiment. In order to ground my PhD thesis about empathy on a solid basis, I decided to focus on the phenomenological concept of Leib and on the debate concerning the body schema and body image. The Center for Subjectivity Research has been the perfect place to learn more about the topic and to discuss it in an international and open-minded environment.
It is a commonplace in the philosophical literature of the XX century to consider that the phenomenological method of reflection is a kind of internalism or introspection. This is so partially due to the fact that reflection is the process whereby consciousness directs its intentional aim at itself, thereby taking itself as its own object. In this regard, reflection appears to be a higher-order act that reifies a state into a sort of mental item. Or to phrase it differently: reflection — as King Midas’ golden touch — turns all that which it reflects upon into an object, and thus subjectivity into a form of self-objectification. As a consequence, reflection paradoxically leads to an infinite regress.
However things are not as simple as they seem at first glance: neither the phenomenological method of transcendental reflection is a sort of psychological introspection, nor the self-objectification is its major problem. What is really at stake here is the very possibility of phenomenology according to Husserl’s principle of principles. As is well known, this principle stated that phenomenology is supposed to base its considerations on that which is given intuitively in the phenomenological reflection. The crucial question is therefore whether intuition and reflection manage to apprehend the self-manifestation of subjectivity as such.
Not many people would deny that they experience a sense of selfhood: that they are who they are, that they are the thinker of their thoughts, the subject of their experiences, the agent of their actions. That they are the body that they move and that they are the one who is speaking the words that come out of their mouth.
Apart from this subjective sense of selfhood, we also have what we can call an objective sense of selfhood. This is how we describe ourselves when someone would ask us who we are. We say our name, where we are from and depending on the context others things about our lives. We ascribe qualities to ourselves as if it were an object. This apple is green, this person is born in The Netherlands. We view ourselves as if it were through the eyes of someone else, and how we describe ourselves in this objective way does not differ from how we would describe other people.
I do social sciences. By “social” we usually mean a kind of commonplace, something obvious, a premise to think about humans (who are always culturally and socially in-formed) and the (social and cultural) world. Consequently, the “Social” is taken for granted, considered as something very powerful that lays on somewhere in-between individual minds, or that is graspable through the observation of (inter)actions and discourses. Even within subfields that are based on the micro-description of experiences (for instance, according to the work of Goffman or that of Garfinkel), the aim is always already to hunt for some networks of relationships. Inspired by Laurence Kaufmann’s program and interested in the Nature of the We, I have decided to turn the “Social” into an issue by bracketing the assumption of my field and by coming to philosophy, and more specifically to phenomenology, where “social” and, in a minimal way, “intersubjectivity”, are still debated. In other words, my aim was to reconnect with a way of thinking that takes the social dimension of everyone’s life as an enigmatic phenomenon to be explained in order to shed light on the very nature of collective beings. Hence, the Center for Subjectivity Research was undoubtedly the place to visit in order to carry out my project.
The phenomenological tradition treats ego as an extremely complex notion, which is related to temporal dimension, passivity, first-person perspective, and so on. I shall explore these rich insights of the phenomenological tradition (mainly Husserl) on the ego. Undoubtedly, one of the most important contributions of Husserl’s phenomenology is the thorough analysis of the ego. Since Ideas I, where the pure ego is introduced in phenomenology, Husserl continuously develops and deepens his analysis of ego. Then, in Ideas II, he introduces the personal ego and relates it with the pure ego. Finally, he differentiates the ego into two egos, namely primal-ego (Ur-ich) and pre-ego (Vor-ich) in his later period.