On the Dialogues of Philosophy and Science

PHENOMENOLOGIES OF TIME

Conclusion

This exploration of a few accounts of time in the phenomenological tradition, of these ‘phenomenologies of time’, was set against the backdrop of anterior theories of time. It is generally accepted that these older theories of time, through Newton or Kant, are those that were followed in most of the scientific community. As I recalled, the first works of the phenomenological tradition were directly set as a further extension of the scientific project. Before them, Kant had already reverted Newton’s external and absolute time into the form of a mental dimension, without which, according to him, humans could not cognise anything. A century later, as the discipline of psychology would slowly emerge, the focus would be brought to the realm of these mental processes in particular. Afterwards, with Brentano and Husserl, the attention could be even more precise, on the specific phenomenon of consciousness as such.

From the postulates of a time as absolute, eternal and observer-free with Newton, three centuries later, an investigation of time was reached that would be narrowed down to the parameters of the conscious being who is cognising it. But with Heidegger and Levinas, the separation would become even more evident: according to Heidegger, it is not the consciousness of any being that philosophy should explore, but the consciousness of Dasein, the human being, as the only being, following his definition, who has a pre-cognitive intuition of being. If Husserl’s phenomenology, and the concept of time-consciousness, could still be used to improve the advances of scientific disciplines like psychology or cognitive sciences, the same could hardly be said for Heidegger. Indeed, for Heidegger, the source or raw material serving as a basis for any process of enquiry, philosophical or scientific, were to remain largely what he called Befindlichkeit, possibly translated as the “modes of receptive attunement, instantiated by moods.” 1 Exemplified with the states of angst, solitude, etc., such sensibilities are hardly acceptable in a classical scientific setting: they are not observable, and they are entirely based on the introspective method the philosopher is using at the same time as he posits and comments on them. This kind of reflection would be opposed to the objective pretentions of the scientific work, and could only be philosophy, or, even worse, literature.

guill top right

Continental philosophers would agree to listen to scientists at the condition that they admit their incapacity to reach an objective or observer-free truth; while the scientists would look at the works of continental philosophers at the condition that they move away from introspective propositions, influenced by social and historical contexts, to attain a truth more general, more universal. If a dialogue is, by definition, supposed to be mutual, one would need both parties to put their assumptions aside in order to cross the border and discover new views.

guill bottom left

This state of affairs, depressing and pessimistic as it may sound, is still prevalent today. Presenting phenomenological interpretations of time before the classical theories of time would then appear as a naïve enterprise: there is, and could be, hardly any dialogue between classical science and phenomenology. And the onus of this deadlock would not necessarily be on science’s allegedly passé quest for an absolute knowledge, neutral, objective and observer-free. The intensity of certain assumptions of philosophy, in particular in its continental branches, are as marked, and could appear as equally dogmatic, as these supposedly unquestioned assumptions of science. Speaking of a ‘dialogue of science and philosophy’ would thus be an attractive motto for a politically correct discourse, but it would represent hardly any realistic or plausible scenario. Unless one reduces, here, philosophy to its analytic sub-branch, which indeed, truly leans towards the more familiar metaphysics of classical science, via its sympathy with cognitive sciences. The dialogue of science and philosophy would thus only be partial, and the continental despise for the pretentious and irrelevant ‘objectivity’ of the scientific approach would remain intact. Continental philosophers would agree to listen to scientists at the condition that they admit their incapacity to reach an objective or observer-free truth; while the scientists would look at the works of continental philosophers at the condition that they move away from introspective propositions, influenced by social and historical contexts, to attain a truth more general, more universal. If a dialogue is, by definition, supposed to be mutual, one would need both parties to put their assumptions aside in order to cross the border and discover new views.

But since this essay is one of philosophy, looking at a tradition belonging, in particular, to continental philosophy, the critique of approaches must focus on that side first. What can continental philosophers do to remain open to the claims of science? Perhaps not to engage in endless turf wars aiming at debunking the methodological and epistemological inadequacies of the scientific apparatus (theory, practice, measurement, laws, models, objectivity…). This can only lead to reinforcing the non-dialogue between two otherwise profoundly insightful and relevant ways of understanding the world. A more constructive path could be the sustained effort by philosophers of the continental tradition, to try and understand the underlying metaphysical assumptions followed by science, and the propositions it submits, in its own terms, and in a bracketed manner, à la phenomenology. That is: following the explanatory discourses of science in spite of possibly evident disagreements on the method, even if those are felt from the start. Through this path, continental philosophy could not only converse with science, but it could also bring into its fold numbers of new and creative ways to improve philosophy’s relevance as a discourse on reality, the world and the human. Such a philosophical understanding of science, or a reformulation of science in the language of philosophy, would be certainly more constructive.

[placenotes]
References

Image courtesy: BlackRainbow

Share!

Footnotes

  1. Simon Glendinning, In the Name of Phenomenology (Oxford & New York: Routledge, 2007), 87.