Entering the Phenomenological Cul-de Sac

My last post ended with a modest conclusion about the relationship between pragmatist accounts of agency and world-hood:

“For Davidson, and for pragmatists more generally, then, the ability to interpret and be interpreted in turn is a condition of intentionality and thus agency. But this requires both that each agent understand the other to believe that they belong to a shared world. Moreover, it requires that there be such a world – in some sense: absent this condition, there would be nothing to interpret.

But what is this idea of a shared world an idea of?

Under what conditions can two creatures be said to belong to one?”

Clearly, one way we might parse this notion of co-worldliness involves a form of a metaphysical realism owing little to phenomenological approaches.

There are different ways of expressing this realist account. We might say that reality is what some uniquely complete and true theory represents, or perhaps that it is the totality of states of objects on which the accuracy or truth of such representations hinges.

However, in the face of Putnam-style objections to the effect that there can be no such unique theory, the metaphysical realist can opt for a more minimal formulation: claiming only that the non-mental parts of the world exist independently of minded creatures, and that its nature is likewise independent of how it is thought. This does not commit realists to there being “one true and complete description of the world” (Devitt 1984: 229). There seems nothing incoherent in supposing that the best theories of the real might be incomplete and partial.

Indeed, the world as a whole might not be representable at all because there can be no complete representation of it, or because there are aspects of reality which are not representable at all.

But at this point the commonality of the real seems to be receding. If reality can only be described discrepantly, or if it is not fully representable, then what content can we attach to the idea of a shared world in Davidson’s conditions of interpretation and communication? According to idealists this idea of reality is not even intelligible. So if the common world is the world according to metaphysical realism, this may threaten the intelligibility of pragmatism and thus the local correlationism regarding agency which falls out of it.

I think this is a problem for any account in which, as as Robert Brandom “meaning and understanding are co-ordinate concepts, in the sense that neither can be properly understood or explicated except as part of a story that includes the other” (). For such understanding must be exhibited practically in a social field in which estimates of what speakers say or think are updated given the circumstances in which they are said or acted upon. Different theorists may describe these interpretations using different or discrepant vocabularies, but the presupposition of commonality seems to be built into any theory for which content is manifested through practice.

If pragmatist accounts of thought and agency require a common world, then perhaps they need an idea of world that is not an abstract metaphysical posit, but somehow implicated in agency and thought itself. And this is where phenomenology stands to pick up the slack left by metaphysical realism.

Phenomenologists frequently describe this experience of world-hood in terms of experience of things occurring in contexts or “horizons”. When I see a hammer, I see it from a certain viewpoint, or hear it falling off a workbench as the cat passes by. I may think of it as a force amplifier or a birthday present; but each thought or experience implies the possibility of perspectives further down the line. The hammer cannot be reduced to any of these: it is not determinate but, rather, determinable. Its objectivity consists of being always in excess of its appearances (Mooney 1992). A horizon is that aspect of an experience that implies non-actual possibilities for experience.

Roughly, we share worlds if my horizons overlap with yours. For example, I might not immediately grasp the significance of basil in your cookery, but could, given the opportunity to share food with you. My relationship to basil as it figures your life is not a formal semantic relationship. My conception of basil may involve different stereotypes – desiccated leaves on supermarket shelves, say – whereas you are punctilious about picking it fresh from the herb garden. Still your relation to basil is a determinable for me, even if it bears no relation to the way in which I currently prepare salads and sauces.

So, to recapitulate: local correlationism for agency (Condition 3) or Davidson’s observability assumption is best understood as falling out of pragmatism with regard to psychological and semantic concepts. And pragmatism (I have suggested) needs a correlational account of a world – a world likewise determinable in practice, rather than the transcendent world of metaphysical realism.

Admittedly, this seems to commit the pragmatist to a transcendental account of the world that might sit uneasily with the modestly naturalistic accounts of practices and norms in which such accounts are generally expressed. It also commits the pragmatist to anti-realism since the the world is not a determinate existing thing; nor could there be one transcending determinability (or verification).

But the relationship between pragmatism, realism and naturalism is debatable for other reasons, so it is not clear that naturalistic scruple alone should debar the inference from a pragmatist account of agency and subjectivity to a phenomenological theory of the world.

In Donald Davidson and the Mirror of Meaning, Jeff Malpas argues that interpretation must have this horizontal structure. All interpretation occurs in a context fixed by certain interests and projects. Any particular project can be frustrated or break down (Malpas 1992: 128). Any project must, moreover, open onto the constitution of a new project, just as each view of the hammer implies the possibility of other views. Thus pragmatism assumes that each project of understanding is “nested” within further possible projects.

This  interleaving of interpretative projects is correlatively an interleaving of things. Beliefs cannot be identified independently of the determinables that believers engage with. By the same token, the identification of salient collections of objects and events occurs against the background of the interpreter’s experience and interests. The nested structure of projects described by Malpas thus constitutes a plausible candidate for a non-reified “world” – a world not of things, but of potential “correlations” between intentional agents and determinable objects.

This interleaving is only intelligible if we assume each project to have a hermeneutic structure referred to as “fore-having” within the hermeneutic tradition. Each interpretation must potentially fan out onto future revisionary interpretations (Caputo 1984: 158). Without appeal to this tacit or virtual structure, there is little content that can be given to the idea of a single intersubjective world that Davidson and the other pragmatists must appeal to.

It is precisely at this point, according to Malpas, that static concepts of a determinate world seem wholly inadequate and the temporalized models of intentionality and understanding developed in the phenomenological/hermeneutic tradition assume importance.

However, I think it is very doubtful that any phenomenological method can even tell us what its putative subject matter (“phenomenology”) is. This, as I will argue, is disastrous for idea of a temporally structured horizon that otherwise seemed so serviceable for the pragmatist.


Caputo, J. D. 1984. “Husserl, Heidegger and the Question of a ‘Hermeneutic’ Phenomenology”. Husserl Studies 1(1): 157–78.

Devitt, Michael. 1991. “Aberrations of the Realism Debate”. Philosophical Studies 61(1): 43–63.

Malpas, J. E. 1992. Donald Davidson and the Mirror of Meaning: Holism, Truth, Interpretation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mooney, T. 1999. “Derrida’s Empirical Realism”. Philosophy & Social Criticism

25(5): 33–56.

Roden, David. 2013. “Nature’s Dark Domain: An Argument for a Naturalised Phenomenology”. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements 72: 169–88.

Roden, David (2014), Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. London: Routledge.

Roden, David (Forthcoming). “On Reason and Spectral Machines: an Anti-Normativist Response to Bounded Posthumanism”. To appear in Philosophy After Nature edited by Rosie Braidotti and Rick Dolphijn.

3 thoughts on “Entering the Phenomenological Cul-de Sac

  1. http://www.softmachines.org/wordpress/?p=1890
    “Given the massive scale of change Hanson is anticipating in his post-human economy, it’s difficult to see why we shouldn’t expect the emergence an entirely new package of values, which to us would probably seem very alien, rather than a reversion to a set of values supposed to be appropriate to some previous historical state.”

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