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.


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