Evan Thompson on Dark Phenomena


In a Notre Dame review of Phenomenology and Naturalism: Examining the Relationship between Human Experience and Nature, edited by Havi Carel and Darian Meacham, Evan Thomson criticizes my claim that the existence of dark phenomenology implies that phenomenology must be a naturalistic discipline without transcendental warrant. He is correct about my aims and provides a neat summary of my account of dark phenomenology:

David Roden argues that phenomenology should be retained only as a descriptive, empirical method for providing data about experience. This method must be recognized as limited, because it cannot penetrate “dark phenomena” that are not available to introspection or reflective intuition, such as very fine-grained perceptual discriminations of shades of color that cannot be held in memory, or the deep structure of temporal experience. Roden’s discussion of these dark phenomena is illuminating, but his conclusion about the status of phenomenology does not follow. Although he is right that phenomenology cannot be a completely autonomous investigation, but rather must be informed by experimental investigations, it hardly follows that all that phenomenology can do is provide data about what is available to introspection. On the contrary, as the articles by Zahavi, Ratcliffe, Wheeler, and Morris demonstrate, phenomenology can provide new concepts and models for enriching our understanding of nature.

However, I don’t think Thomson’s objection will do as it stands. The position developed in “Nature’s Dark Domain” is consistent with phenomenology being conceptually productive and revealing about nature. If phenomenology is not completely “dark”, it could not be otherwise. I only argue that phenomenological reflection cannot provide future proof (a priori) grounds for claims about invariants of experience or being because – alone and unaided – it cannot tell us what our phenomenology is.

For this reason, my position differs from Mike Wheeler’s “Science Friction: Phenomenology, Naturalism and Cognitive Science” from the same volume. There Wheeler argues that transcendental phenomenology can unpack the “constitutive” conditions of cognition and agency – which tell us what it is, in general, to be an agent or a cognizer – while cognitive science reveals the causal “enabling” conditions for cognition and agency. For example, he claims that Heidegger’s phenomenology of coping is illuminated by experiments in situated robotics using action-oriented representations – which represent an agent’s world in terms of the way it interacts with its body.

So the transcendental/constitutive conditions for agency may require that contextual relevance and an understanding of affordances is necessary for agency, while action-oriented representations reveal one way in which contextual relevance is enabled in representational mechanisms (Wheeler 2013: 143, 152; 2005 197).

According to Wheeler, this model furnishes a minimal naturalism which “domesticates” the transcendental: constitutive conditions are subject to empirically-motivated revision.

However, the kind of revision that Wheeler envisages in his essay seems modest. For example, Heidegger’s account of temporality as thrownness implies that the human agent always encounters the world “embedded within a pre-structured field of intelligibility into which she has been enculturated.” (Wheeler 2013: 158) Wheeler allows that both the mechanisms and the cultural forms of this field can be revealed scientifically (e.g. via cognitive science or ethology):

A consequence of this temporality-driven cultural conditioning of the transcendental is that although there will be specific factors that are transcendentally presupposed by any particular act of sense-making there is no expectation that those factors will be permanently fixed for all human psychological phenomena across space and time (160)

Earlier in his essay, Wheeler provides a succinct account of the epistemological commitments of naturalism: namely that for the naturalist, science and philosophy are continuous. If so, there is no point in this continuum that can be immune from revision in principle – even transcendental claims about the structure of temporality in human agents. It follows that all constitutive claims are empirically defeasible. There is no interesting epistemological boundary to be called between the transcendentally constitutive structure and the various “fillers” for that structure revealed by science Now, this is just what we would expect if – as I argue – the deep structures posited by phenomenology give only limited insight to bare reflection or phenomenological interpretation.

Thus if the deep structure of lived time is not given to us we have a limited first-person grasp of its nature and scope. A deconstructive reading of Heideggerian temporality, for example, implies that the differential or “ecstatic” model of temporality generalizes well beyond transcendental subjects to structures of “generalized writing” found at all levels of biological and technological existence (Stiegler 1998; Hägglund 2008, 2011). The point being not that deconstruction provides a wider-ranging transcendental warrant but that it reveals an indeterminacy in the more narrowly phenomenological ones. If we do not know what temporality is or what must “have it”, we cannot claim to know that all serious agents must have a culturally pre-structured field, for we have produced only a loose, holistic  model of a process whose underlying nature is not reflectively available to us, and which may not even be holistic in the phenomenological sense. If the depth-structure of temporality is dark, the constitutive features of all the phenomena where it is supposedly involved as are also occluded. Thus claims about constitutive conditions of cognition and agency are fodder for empirical defeat even where they yield passing insight into nature.


Hägglund, M. 2008. Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

____2011. “The Trace of Time and the Death of Life: Bergson, Heidegger, Derrida”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9qqaHGUiew4 (accessed November 2011).

Roden, D. 2013. Nature’s Dark Domain: an Argument for a Naturalised Phenomenology. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement, 72, 169-188.

Stiegler, B. 1998. Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus, Vol. 1. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Wheeler, M. 2005. Reconstructing the Cognitive World: The Next Step. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

____ 2013. Science Friction: Phenomenology, Naturalism and Cognitive Science. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement, 72, 135-167.



4 thoughts on “Evan Thompson on Dark Phenomena

  1. Way cool. An eliminativist like me would suggest that as soon as you admit the possibility of empirical revision it’s like game over. To genuinely remain ‘open’ to empirical discovery, transcendental speculation must also confront the possibility that the transcendental is *nothing more* than a perspectival artifact.

    So if something like Blind Brain Theory is confirmed, ‘thrownness,’ the perpetual always already ‘beginning’ of experience, is best understood as a kind of metacognitive illusion. Since deliberative reflection can never access its actual temporal precursors, we suffer metacognitive ‘time blindness,’ and the concurrent illusions of ‘throwness,’ ‘nowness,’ and ecstatic time more generally. Lacking information regarding the time of timing means lacking the capacity to distinguish the before and after of before and after, means the default metacognitive intuition of identity, and thus the paradoxicality of the now, which can be understood as a kind of bistable image, the ‘sameness in difference’ that is the cornerstone of so much phenomenological thought.

    As it so happens, this is precisely the kind of illusion we should expect reflection to suffer, given what the science is telling us. On my reading, the Derrida’s deconstruction of ecstatic unity amounts to a semantic account of the way the irreflexivity of the natural renders the apparent reflexivity of the phenomenological impossible. But since he can’t situate his account naturalistically, he can’t explain what’s happening, and so presumes he’s found the aporetic basement of our paradoxical subjectivity.

    For all the empirical verbiage Thomson and others spill, they are stranded (by their own admission) with gerrymandered continuities between the first and third person, and also lack any means whatsoever of explaining why their should be such an antipathy in the first place. They are rhetorically committed to affirming what you’re saying, David, but there’s no way they can follow you down the rabbit hole.

    We’re quite alone, my friend – for the nonce!

  2. Your encapsulation of the deconstruction of time is great. As you’ve argued elsewhere, I think we need to be careful about granting too much to the deconstructive reading – though, I admit, I’m inclined to tip over the edge in places.

    I suppose we could interpret Heidegger’s doctrine of throwness in terms of the kind of opacity we’re concerned with. But if so, it doesn’t furnish anything remotely transcendental. Thanks for the contact, Scott, as always.

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