Phenomenological Psychology

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Cosmology and Consciousness

April 4th, 2007 by David Kronemyer · No Comments

When I matriculated at U.C. Berkeley in the early 1970s, there were two topics I was interested in that were off-limits, as far as respectful academia was concerned. These were: “cosmology,” and “consciousness.” By “cosmology,” I mean: issues about the origin of the universe, what was there (or not) before the “big bang,” and what lies outside the edge of the universe, as it expands. By “consciousness,” I mean: issues about the brain, its relationship to mental events, the nature of self-consciousness, and what is involved in phenomena such as emotions and intentionality. The reason why these subjects were off-limits is because they were regarded as beyond the provenance of scientific inquiry; they were too indeterminate, even squishy, to matter.

Now, the situation is much different. Both cosmology and consciousness are in vogue. Cosmology: as evidenced, e.g., by the physics-cum-pop-culture works of writers such as Fred Adams, Greg Laughlin, Michio Kaku, Steven Weinberg, Neil Tyson, Donald Goldsmith, Leonard Suskin, K. C. Cole, Brian Greene, and Stephen Hawking (apologies to anybody whom I’ve missed). Consciousness: as evidenced by the new emphasis on “cognitive studies” at prestigious institutions, such as, say, U.C. Berkeley.

Needless to say, for me, at least, this presents a somewhat ironic situation. This irony is exacerbated by the roles being played by two prominent philosophers on (ostensibly) different sides of the debate, who are, John Searle and Hubert Dreyfus. Who were the professors from whom I took the most classes, when I was at Berkeley.

At the time, Searle’s primary interest was philosophy of language – topics such as reference, meaning, and the logic of conversational discourse. He studied at Oxford, and was influenced by philosophers such as Bertrand Russell, Peter Strawson, and J.L. Austin. There came a time, however – after I left – when his interests migrated towards philosophy of mind. He wrote what now is considered a classic book in the field, Intentionality.

Dreyfus’ primary interest was, and remains, what broadly might be referred to as “continental philosophy.” He probably is the foremost interpreter of Martin Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Derrida, Cassirer, and others. His book Being-in-the-World – derived (with a long chain of emendations) from lecture notes taken contemporaneously with a class I attended – is the most cogent, lucid work on Heidegger ever written.

Far be it for me to start analyzing Searle’s position vis-à-vis Dreyfus, and vice versa. A detailed exposition appears at Searle, J., “The Limits of Phenomenology”, in Wrathall, M. & Malpas, J. (eds.), Heidegger, Coping and Cognitive Science. Essays in Honour of Hubert Dreyfus, vol. 2 71 – 92 (2000). Let me observe, however, one more irony about all of this. Which is that Searle’s position, particularly with regards to issues such as mind/body, more closely resembles that of Edmund Husserl, a predecessor to Heidegger. In fact, ultimately, Searle’s lineage on these questions traces back to Descartes. How ironic is it, then, for a died-in-the-wool empiricist like Searle, ultimately to come to embrace what essentially is a Cartesian perspective.

And while Dreyfus has remained securely rooted in Heidegger, he not infrequently cites the American philosopher, Charles S. Peirce, a founder of semiotics.

Both Searle and Dreyfus are incredibly brilliant. One of the highlights of my undergraduate career was taking a graduate-level seminar, which Searle graciously lead at his own home. At one meeting, talk turned to Husserl’s Logical Investigations, one of his earlier works. I happened to have a copy, and said so; I lent it to him (though I don’t know to what effect it influenced him, if at all!). I remember being struck by the sight of a larger-than-life bust of Prof. Searle’s head, as I walked into his study.

Our son, Andrew, now is a senior at Berkeley, and our daughter, Lauren, has been accepted for admission. I swear to God I did not influence them one way or the other to attend Berkeley. We took both of them on separate excursions to the east coast to check out Ivy League schools. Andrew typically plays his cards pretty close to his vest, but at the close of this process, revealed it was his (until then, secret) desire to attend Berkeley, all along. I have to say he has thrived there, as I knew he would, seeing as how Berkeley is the omphaloscepsis of Western culture. He is majoring in History and Religious Studies, and also is Managing Director of the Suitcase Clinic, a facility for Berkeley’s expansive homeless population.

When I took Andrew up to Berkeley for some kind of an orientation weekend, I said, on lark, “let me show you where I used to spend a lot of time hanging out!” Meaning, of course, Moses Hall, home of the Dep’t of Philosophy. We walked by the door to Prof. Searle’s office. On a whim, I knocked, and who should pop out, like a rabbit out of its warren, than Prof. Searle himself. I introduced myself and Andrew – Prof. Searle said he remembered who I was, and even though (thousands of students later) I’m inclined to doubt whether this is so, it nonetheless was a nice touch. Furthermore, I’ve managed to reconnect with Prof. Dreyfus, whose work now seems to interest me more than ever.

Oh well, maybe I just should be an undergraduate again.