Reading the Epoché Against Essentialism

The following is a small section from the paper I just delivered at the revolting peripheries conference in Bielsko-Biala, Poland. This particular section contains some very basic thoughts on trying to read the epoche in Husserl against colonial logics that posit subjects in a particularly active way, projecting categories of understanding on the world. I am posting it here since this section in particular will form part of an article I hope to submit for publication in the next month and I want to continue to think through the links between philosophies of immanence, early phenomenological method and critiques of colonial logic. Somewhere in there too is a latent engagement with Meillassoux that I need to more explicitly bring out.

There is only what is, which is to say there is no essence, only the actual.

The epoché in Husserl’s thought functions to allow for cognition of entities as they manifest in phenomena, in givenness, contrary to the ways in which people normally proceed in thinking the world. Normal modes of cognition take form in a posture Husserl refers to as the “natural attitude.” This ‘natural attitude’ of people is a particular posture toward the world and other people in which apriori categories undergird the person’s activity in and interpretation of the world. An example of this kind of thinking is the basic formation of Kantian subjectivity in which the active mind imposes categories for understanding upon the world. The best that one can hope for in this schema, with regard to cognition of those autonomous features of the world, is a mild agnosticism, affirming only the possibility of their existence but neglecting the import of their autonomy for human reason and use.

Important to note here is the fundamental role the recognition of one’s immanent situatedness in-the-world plays for Husserl’s thinking on this point. It is important because to gesture toward givenness is to summon up a basic tension between a concept of active subjectivity, which is the primary agent of cognition, and a realist sense of the world, in which one grants the world autonomy even in the process of cognition. Givenness appears to denote something of a flux between the two. There is a tension between the place in which a person constitutes herself in the recognition of her own thereness in-the-world and the place from which one recognizes that her situatedness denotes a primary posture of being as encounter, namely, with those aspects of autonomy and otherness that constitute the world in which she is a participant.

Husserl writes, “Enough now of absurd theories. No conceivable theory can make us err with respect to the principle of all principles: that every originary presentive intuition is a legitimizing source of cognition, that everything originarily offered to us in “intuition” is to be accepted simply as what is presented as being, but also only within the limits in which it is presented there.”[1] Here Husserl’s language reflects the tension above, implying both an aspect of activity on the part of the subject and the characteristic of otherness in given phenomenon. The point we should take here is, namely, that what is primary for cognition is not anything other than what presents itself in and as the world in sheer givenness of actuality.

For our purposes I want to say that the tension between revolting and being subsumed within overarching structures of power reflect the tension between givenness and its alternative. That is to say, the tension between an affirmation of sheer givenness and a notion of subjectivity that makes the subject’s prior categories for understanding the basis for intelligibility and order in the world is precisely the struggle for how to speak of the constitution of people without such speech subjugating them to authoritarian pronouncements. The latter sort of configuration predicates itself upon the assumption of essentialist definitions of identity. Contrary to essentialist forms of reason, the point to take away from a recourse to phenomenological givenness is that whatever is actual, is. Actuality is the only place from which to think self-possession, and actuality is always a matter of givenness unbound by any transcendental notion of essences.

What I want from the epoché, then, is a wider application that points us toward particular moments of givenness when we try to talk about revolting identities. In this sense, what we are doing in speaking of revolting peripheries is affirming the integrity of something already there in-the-world, without the need of any authoritarian transcendental to guide our affirmation. We seek to bracket what is our natural attitude with all of its essentialist content, we reject all of its concerns and we look toward something immanently given in our experience of oppression to constitute ourselves for ourselves.

To affirm actuality in this way is to undercut colonial logics of being. Colonial logic does work to impose its categories for understanding upon the actual world. Insofar as this type of logic functions to impose such a causal order upon the world, it functions very much like what Heidegger refers to as onto-theology, which is the logic that forces one to ground everything in essentialist definitions that correspond to transcendent notions of pure categorical essences. If this is how thinking of the subject occurs, then it is not too far to state that a colonialist ideology is our natural attitude

The real issue is not then an onto-theological constitution of metaphysics, but more accurately an onto-colonialist constitution. I think this is interesting, especially as Sean and I continue to discuss how to think concepts of “hope” in ways that jettison the impulse for teleological grounding for political or other actions. Political teleology is onto-theologic proper. It is that way of thinking which necessitates a regress into a transcendently given ground for proper cognition and reason. Such logic pronounces judgment upon revolutionary acts that do not think, that cannot think, in terms of what comes next due to the vast powers that are set against them. Colonialist ideology is exactly onto-theology insofar as it seeks to prescribe the structures of being in-the-world for those in the periphery. This is an authoritarian move that consigns all native speech that does not align into categories of non-being or unintelligibility.

Thus, we may here reconfigure Heidegger’s insight, in conjunction with this reading of the epoche, claiming that onto-theologic is not a matter of ideologically neutral ‘reason,’ but rather, a recourse to an onto-colonialist vision of the self, which is our natural attitude in contemporary western societies. Enrique Dussel notes, “That ontology did not come from nowhere. It arose from a previous experience of domination over other persons…Before the ego cogito there is an ego conquiro; I conquer.”[1] The conquering subject sets the parameters for all subsequent attempts to think self-possession. Insofar as this is the case, the colonial powers maintain the ability to subsume attempts at criticism, forcing them into categories of intelligibility.


[1] Dussel, E.D., Philosophy of liberation. 1985, Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books. p. 3.


[1]Husserl, E., Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy. Collected works/ Edmund Husserl. 1982, The Hague: Nijhoff. p. 45.

Theology, Science, and Critical Discourse (Part 1)

I’ve been immersed in neo-Kantianism this whole year between reading and rereading Weber as well as the literature that surrounds his work. This last quarter, I worked through a handful of texts that came from the Baden School of neo-Kantianism, spending most of my time in Heinrich Rickert’s The Limits of Concept Formation in Natural Science. Two seemingly unrelated questions were raised as I worked my way through it: (1) What sort of discipline is theology? and (2) What is the status of valuation in critical discourse. I have a number of friends working on the relationship between theology and science, something I too have waded into since my time in seminary, and I think Rickert provides some ways of thinking about the relationship between the natural sciences and the humanities/social sciences that have begun to change how I think about theology’s place in that spectrum. It also, I think, provides another way of conceiving materiality in relation to theology and some good reasons for why a materialist theology, carefully defined, is ultimately the most fruitful way forward.

This is going to take a few posts. In this one, I’m just going to lay out Rickert’s philosophy of history, and at the end, I’ll allude to what I’m going to do in the next post, which is to start talking about theology in relation to Rickert.

Rickert’s primary aim is to illuminate a logical opposition between concept formation in the human (historical) sciences and the natural sciences as a means of establishing what it means to conceptualize what he calls “historical individuals.” When Rickert is writing at the turn of the 20th century, historical study (broadly, what we call the humanities) is still emerging as a collection of disciplines in its own right over against the natural sciences with its own methodology and authority. Prior to Rickert, the study of history was regarded more or less as one of two things: the study of antiquity (what we call “Classics” today) or the far more contepmorary positivist sociology. The latter, championed by the French positivist philosopher Auguste Comte, argued that the study of history was just like the study of the natural sciences: the goal is to collect the data and abstract from it general categories and universal laws. This was untenable for Rickert, who, following his mentor Wilhelm Windelband, argued that general concepts destroy that which precisely makes history what it is: uniqueness and individuality.

Rickert is neo-Kantian in the sense that he doesn’t think that our knowledge is about reality as such. So when he’s setting up this logical opposition between concept formation in the natural and human sciences, it’s on the basis of how we regard our experience of reality. In other words, the difference between the natural and the human science is not in the ontology of their objects but the phenomenology of them. They share the same real objects as they come to us in experience but regard that experience differently. That experience, Rickert says, comes to us as an infinite stream of individuals. It’s actually doubly infinite in that there is an infinite number of individuals (extensive infinity) and each individual itself is infinitely complex (intensive infinity.) Because this is how we experience reality, general concepts are always less real than our immediate experience, i.e. they can never represent our experience of reality as that infinite stream of individuals. That doesn’t mean that they don’t produce knowledge though. General concepts still hold validity for empirical reality. They just can’t give us any knowledge of individuals in their unique individuality. This is a logical impossibility, says Rickert, because the very definition of general concept precludes uniqueness. The goal of the scientific method is to erase anomaly (uniqueness) in favor of repeatability (which we usually call verifiability.)

It’s also, then, logically impossible for general concepts to apply to history. History is by definition unique and therefore unrepeatable in that uniqueness–at least, the history that interests us (more on this in a minute.) The data that eventually becomes “history” in the sense Rickert is after has the same nature as empirical reality (doubly infinite) and, by definition, cannot be made sense of in the same way that natural science makes sense of the infinite manifold. Rickert’s explication of concept formation in natural science shows us that there is this piece missing from our knowledge that natural science cannot provide–a concept of the individual. But now there’s a further problem: How is a concept of the individual possible if individuals are doubly infinite and unique? Up until this point, concepts have only ever been general. Historical concepts have to be something else that isn’t abstracted from the exact historical material in question but is instead formed out of something else.

This ‘something else’ also can’t be arbitrary, which is the other problem facing historical concept formation. As we’ve seen, natural science has the advantage of repeatability in forming its general concepts. Kant showed us this. Scientific observation is about the perception of a sequence (not a sequence of perceptions.) The repeatability of any sequence of perceptions is what eventually becomes knowledge in natural science. Clearly, historical knowledge doesn’t have that advantage within the data itself because in order for a datum to qualify as “historical” it cannot be repeatable. Returning to the idea of interest that I mentioned earlier, Rickert acknowledges that there are many more individuals (infinitely more, actually) within empirical reality than what we could actually study according to the methods of historical science. You can look at every leaf on a tree, every dog, every lump of coal in its unique individuality. But why would anyone do that? Though these individuals, in our immediate experience of them, are unique and individual, they are almost just as quickly subsumed under a general concept, which is what allows us to take in an infinite manifold and not be driven insane by the unique individuality of an infinite number of objects who are infinitely complex. So instead of trying to take in and consider each individual leaf, dog, rock, etc. we instead have leaves, dogs, and rocks as general concepts

But why don’t we do this with every individual? What’s the difference between Goethe and a guy at Tuesday’s open mic night? We can just as easily refer to both as “poets,” “humans,” “men,” etc. as we can examine them in their individuality and uniqueness. What non-arbitrary ground could there be for selecting one over the other as the proper object of historical study? How can we justify our interest in one over the other? Rickert’s answer is that there are two types of individuals: those which become automatically subsumed and “in-dividuals”–those whose uniqueness simply isn’t subsumable under a general category because of the values that intersect it.

Values, for Rickert, are very similar to general concepts in natural science. They have no empirically real content–they are ideal–but they do hold validity for reality. In other words, they are true insofar as they are valid. (“Truth,” by the way, is also a value for Rickert, which may be a problem in how he defines values, but we’ll table that for now.) Thus, Rickert establishes a number of “spheres” which he believes exist in every society–but they have variable content. Examples include art, religion, science, ethics, sexuality, etc. Each sphere has a value relation attached to it, i.e. art-beauty, religion-spirituality, science-truth, ethics-morality. The claim, then, is that the scholar selects historical individuals of interest to conceptualize based upon the ways in which they intersect these values as those values hold validity within the culture and time period in question. Goethe, rather than the guy at the open mic night, intersects beauty, spirituality, etc. in a way that one can identify within German culture at the time that he was alive but also perhaps today and certainly within other cultures as well (especially in the West.) The open mic guy just doesn’t do that in the same way.

That last paragraph probably made anyone familiar with critical discourse cringe. There’s an obvious tendency in this theory that leans toward old white guys deciding what’s culturally valuable, and certainly that’s how this panned out during the majority of the 20th century in the social sciences and humanities. Without giving Rickert more credit than he’s due on this point, I actually don’t think he was interested in the superiority of any one culture (unlike Hegel who clearly thought Germany represented the pinnacle of all civilization and that the history of any non-Western civilization was totally irrelevant to the progression of absolute spirit.) Rickert insisted on a rigorous value neutrality when it came to the scholar’s own personal valuations. This should be familiar to any of us in a social scientific field. It’s one of the challenges of being a theologian in a religious studies department. Value neutrality is still one of the most important aspects of good social science today.

The story should sound much more familiar now. The combination of these two aspects of Rickert’s method, value relations without valuation, inadvertently introduced into humanities/social science discourse the possibility for a normative colonial, patriarchal, bourgeois, and even Protestant agenda disguised as value neutrality, intentional or not–a truly catastrophic combination if there ever was one. This has in turn created the necessary space for genealogical critiques of social scientific disciplines (Foucault), particularly religious studies (Asad), as well as the post-structural critiques of social science found in Derrida, et. al.

All of those discourses have been and continue to be necessary tools, helping to pry open the door for important voices to speak in all of the humanities and social science disciplines, and theology has been no different. In the next post, I’m going to turn to the earliest theological critic of modern sociology, Ernst Troeltsch. Troeltsch is more often than not seen as the first theologian to embrace the modern social scientific method–and he is–but he did not do so uncritically.  It is in his critique of the value neutrality found in Rickert and his close friend Max Weber that we begin to find the answers to the two questions we started with: In what sense can theology be a science and given critical discourse, can theology engage in positing normative values?