In-depth interview with Denis Džanić – part II: Realism and Phenomenology

Read part I of the interview here.

In part I of the interview we talked about Denis Džanić’s formation years and his understanding of the transcendental. In part II of the interview Denis talks about the problem of the transcendental reduction, his take on the problem of ancestrality….and a lot more!

Joachim: Can you tell us what your view of the transcendental reduction is?

Denis: Obviously, when discussing phenomenology, one of the central points is always going to be the idea of the reduction, the phenomenological reduction or the transcendental reduction – whichever way you choose to phrase it. Now, I agree with Husserl in his understanding of the reduction as the primal act – not only of phenomenology but in fact of philosophy itself. It seems to me that you really do need to employ some sort of an initial reductive move in order to be able to do philosophy, and, consequently, phenomenology. However, the reduction doesn’t mean closing your eyes and imagining that nothing exists, as Husserl is sometimes misconstrued as claiming. So we cannot operate with any naïve way of understanding the reduction. Indeed, Husserl’s view of the reduction is very complex and, occasionally, as vague as it is elaborate. One of the most important philosophers here is Eugen Fink, who famously tried to develop a transcendental theory of method in phenomenology. In fact, I see in him a kind of a bridge or binding figure between Husserl and the French reception, because Fink – while agreeing with Husserl that the reduction is the necessary first step in order to be able to do philosophy – shows how the reduction is an immensely complex act. He removes what might be one of the last bits of naïveté in Husserl by showing that the reduction is much more difficult and complex than it might have been initially thought – especially in the early Husserl. One of the most important findings of Fink’s work is the insight that the reduction can never be completely done, that it’s ‘an infinite task’, which, of course, clearly leads us to Merleau-Ponty and Derrida: Merleau-Ponty with the famous proclamation that the reduction is always going to have some sort of a remainder, and Derrida’s later idea of the reduction of the reduction itself, which again ties him back to Fink and the notion of a phenomenology of phenomenology. When we make this full circle from Husserl to Fink to Merleau-Ponty to Derrida, and perhaps to a couple more thinkers, and tie this all back into the Husserlian framework we will discover that transcendental phenomenology is not only a never-ending task, but is also much more complex in that it entails many different ways of never-ending, so to speak. So it’s not only a never-ending task in the sense that one person cannot do all the phenomenology and that further generations are going to have to do phenomenology as well in order to asymptotically, constantly approach the final goal – it is also never-ending in the opposite direction in that it is fully and necessarily historical. So it is a never-ending task in both directions.

Joachim: According to Merleau-Ponty, the reduction seems to be a very simple process: In the Introduction to the Phenomenology of Perception he writes about the reduction and says something to the effect of the reduction being a stepping back from the involvement with the world and a looking into the transcendental and constitutive threads spanning from consciousness to the world. Sticking to this paraphrase, the reduction seems to be a simple process, because it seems as if it were a reflective step back in order to look over one’s own shoulder, as it were, and view the constitutive process. In what regard does Merleau-Ponty, for example, still think that the reduction is something complex?

Denis: The Introduction to the Phenomenology of Perception is one of the inaugural text in the French reception of Husserl. First of all, we mustn’t forget the way Merleau-Ponty opens this text, this incredibly influential text, [namely] by saying it still makes sense – even today – to ask what phenomenology is. If the reduction were so simple we probably would have had an answer to the question of what phenomenology was already. We also mustn’t forget that the way the book itself then opens after the Introduction is by mentioning the Leibnizian idea of a view from nowhere and comparing that to the idea of a view from everywhere, and that it was precisely Merleau-Ponty who really tried to hammer home the idea that the reduction was in no way a stepping back; that it was not an attempt to pick up a bird’s eye view on the things, because such a thing was impossible. It is always us who are doing the reduction. I don’t think it would be correct to say that Merleau-Ponty in any way considered the reduction to be a simple thing. Perhaps more particularly: when one considers what is usually taken to be the main achievement of Merleau-Ponty’s early work, one usually thinks of the body and embodiment. The thing is, even that is not as simple in Merleau-Ponty as it may sound, because he himself knew that Nietzschean lesson very well: An inversion of Platonism doesn’t get us any further away from Platonism – or to use Heideggerian vocabulary: An “Umdrehung” is never a “Herausdrehung”, it is simply turning the thing upside down, but you’re still within the very same framework. Even earlier than the Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty was on the right track when he closes his first book, The Structure of Behaviour, by saying that we are now in need of a new transcendental philosophy in general, which would then turn out to be transcendental phenomenology – or a type of it. So in that sense, I think Merleau-Ponty, from the very start onwards, is already a highly complex and a highly ambiguous phenomenologist, which is not purely by accident. We know historically that he was in fact one of the first readers of Fink in France. It was Gaston Berger who took the manuscript of the Sixth Cartesian Meditation with him to France, and it was Merleau-Ponty who was the first or the second reader of the text itself. So this link is very tangible. When one traces the whole arc of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophical work, from the very first book to the very last one, one sees this philosophy of ambiguity and of complexity throughout the whole span. And of course Derrida takes this up fully as well. I think there is something to the idea of Fink being the missing link – bridging this gap between Husserl and what seems to be a very un-Husserlian type of doing phenomenology, that you have in Merleau-Ponty and Derrida. We also have to consider one of the lesser known works in phenomenology from roughly the same period, namely Jean-François Lyotard’s introduction to Phenomenology, which is a small book, one of his first books. He offers a very interesting description of what the reduction is, where he says at the very start of the book that the phenomenological reduction was, for Husserl, a shedding of an entire culture and of an entire history. When you think about it, it is a very naïve understanding of the reduction. That is precisely one of the main insights of Husserl and of the later phenomenologists, namely that reduction can never mean a shedding of an entire history, it can never mean a full step back from my own history and of the history of the world I live in, or of the culture I live in. I think Merleau-Ponty is precisely one of the figures one has to turn to if one wants to get a real glimpse of just how complex and how difficult the idea of phenomenological research and reduction is.

Joachim: When writing your PhD thesis and developing this argument on how ‘the story of phenomenology progresses’, do you have to perform the reduction as well before writing it? How much phenomenology do you have to do yourself in order to write this PhD thesis about phenomenology? Is it a phenomenology of phenomenology or is it completely different? In other words, what is the actual method – or are there different methods implied in your work?

Denis: That is a very good question, and something I constantly grapple with myself. First of all, if I were simply – in a very dry, academic manner – to describe my thesis I would say that it’s partly historical, but in a much larger part systematic. I am not sure if a systematic work on phenomenology entails doing phenomenology. I certainly don’t have the feeling that it is so and I don’t really, quite honestly, feel that I am doing much phenomenology while writing my thesis. On the other hand I certainly wouldn’t call what I am doing a phenomenology of phenomenology either, because when we take up this phrase, which by the way not only appears in Fink but also in Husserl himself, we see that it is still very much a phenomenology. So I would say that I don’t think that I am at either of those two levels at work in what I am currently doing. But then again, going back to one of my previous points: If we understand the reduction as a kind of a guided, conscientious, methodically driven approach to thinking about phenomenology, philosophy and the world and so on and so on, then yes, of course, I would say I am operating, on some level, under a certain reduction or with a certain reductive approach.

Joachim: Earlier we already talked about the distinction of analytic and continental philosophy. I wanted to ask you if you think that there is any sense in having this distinction and also how you regard this distinction as someone who is versed in both traditions?

Denis: The distinction is very problematic. You know analytic philosophy when you see it. The same goes for continental as well. But as soon as you start thinking about it, it turns out that the lines become very blurred between the two, and it becomes difficult to disentangle them and to say what exactly is analytic and what exactly is continental – starting with the simplest point possible: The names themselves are abysmally bad. ‘Analytic philosophy’, but there is absolutely a lot of analysis in continental philosophy as well – or analytical methods. On the other hand: What could ‘continental’ possibly mean? There are a lot of continental philosophers working in the States or anywhere else around the world. It’s a geographical term which means nothing here. It simply doesn’t make any sense. So, I think that, first of all, the distinction has done and still is doing more bad than good to philosophy. I don’t find it particularly useful. On the other hand, what I personally discovered, is that the most interesting philosophers for me were always those who were somehow between the two traditions, who somehow had parts of both.

Joachim: Who would you regard as thinkers who stand between those traditions?

Denis: Well, for example, two of my favourite analytic philosophers are Wilfrid Sellars and Donald Davidson. And both have elements that tie them strongly to the continental tradition as well – if not in style then definitely in the consequences of their philosophy and sometimes in the approaches that they take. There are indeed works dedicated to showing those connections. For example there are works showing the connections between Davidson and Derrida and so on. Rorty would also be a very good example of someone standing exactly between the two traditions and more or less collapsing the distinction itself. On the other hand, when I take a look at some of my favourite authors who would roughly fall into the continental tradition, you would of course have Husserl. And I don’t think anyone can say that Husserl wasn’t a very analytically oriented and minded thinker. Also, for example, Deleuze is very difficult to read, a very dry author, but also an author who takes great pride in a very precise language. It might not necessarily be a clear language, but it is very precise. The same goes – in my mind – for at least some of the works of Derrida and a lot of Merleau-Ponty as well. I am always trying to read the continental authors as analytic authors and the other way around. Both sides seem to me to bring a lot of good stuff to the table and divorcing them and artificially trying to install this huge gap between the two would leave us with too little on each side. There are of course those classical explanations – something like the following: continental philosophy is more interested in literature, history, human existence in general, whereas the analytic tradition often doesn’t have much to say about those topics, but is in fact oriented much more towards technical issues, which at a first glance might not have too much to do with the human existence. But I think one doesn’t really make much sense without the other. So I try not to think too much about this distinction and simply concentrate on those authors who I think are useful for what I try to do.

Joachim: Some further observations about the distinction might also be that the analytic tradition is traditionally more interested in philosophy of language, that it has a bit more of an ahistoric approach, meaning that it roughly starts out with Kant and doesn’t really deal with what happened before Kant in a systematic way, and also that it is bit more closely connected to the natural sciences. You have a range of different analytical thinkers like John Searle or David Chalmers, who think that one of the most pressing or fundamental questions of philosophy is how to integrate consciousness into their conception of nature – their conception of nature being tightly linked with the scientific view of nature: Either physics or chemistry tells us what nature consists of (atoms or molecules) and then you try to reconcile consciousness with that view of nature. That is, I’d say, – at least – a very tailored perspective on how to tackle the problem of nature and mind. What do you think about these characterizations?

Denis: One need not go any further than Husserl here. When you look at his 1911 paper “Philosophie als strengeWissenschaft” you will actually find these two conflicting perspectives, which may as well be mirror-images of the continental and analytical tradition. We have historicism on the one hand and the naturalistic framework of the analytic tradition on the other, which then seeks to somehow integrate consciousness into it, whereas the historicist tradition then has difficulties with integrating scientific insights, which seemingly are ahistoric in a sense. This is of course something where Hume already could be perfectly viable and useful as a reference point. I don’t think I would say that the analytic tradition is ahistoric in the sense that they don’t care about the history of philosophy at all. Of course, there are many analytic philosophers who do go a lot further back than Kant, who work on Aristotle or Plato, not to mention Bacon and Hume and Locke. But on the other hand, I think, what is ahistoric about the analytic tradition are the problems that they try to tackle. I think that is the main mark of their approach: the attempt to snatch philosophical problems out of their context and try to tackle them head on – be those problems in formal semantics or ethics or whatever; whereas the continental tradition seems to want to recognize the necessary embeddedness of every single possible philosophical problem into a history, and that means caring about the text itself, but also its pretext and context.

Joachim: Having already spoken about transcendental empiricism and the transformation of the transcendental in a way: How do you view newer developments in philosophy, like New Realism or Speculative Realism, as developed by Quentin Meillassoux? Perhaps with regard to one of the challenges he has raised, namely the problem of ancestrality. Do you think that this, if one works with a different  conception of the transcendental, isn’t so much a challenge for phenomenology as it would be if one still held on to a subjective type of transcendentality?

Denis: I think there are some mild affinities between what I am trying to do and some of the ideas behind the Speculative Realism movement (if it’s a movement at all) or the object-oriented ontology. While I am no expert in that field I do know a bit about it and have read some of the relevant literature. I actually wrote a review of one of the books, which is in a sense part of that tradition. It was a review of Tom Sparrow’s The End of Phenomenology – Metaphysics and the New Realism. Now, that particular book might not be the best example, it might not be speculative materialism or object oriented ontology at its best. In any case, I was very critical of it and I generally think that there are quite a few problems with those movements: On the one hand, while Meillassoux’s After Finitude seemed to me to be an interesting book, it didn’t really seem to me to bring anything particularly new to the table. And, in fact, the omission of any sort of a solution to the problem it poses was so glaring that one cannot really even accept it as a manifesto just yet. While Meillassoux does announce the necessity for some sort of a hyper-deduction of reality, there isn’t one to be found in his book, and I am having great troubles imagining what something like that might even look like. So I think, while there are some merits to the highly critical approach those movements take to the older traditions, so to speak, I don’t think they are fully worked out yet. That is Meillassoux and Speculative Materialism. On the other hand you have the object-oriented ontology of Graham Harman, which in my opinion isn’t as revolutionary as it might seem or it might present itself, because on the one hand this is an approach that somehow promises to deliver philosophy from the binds of the subjectivity-objectivity correlation, but it still remains completely entangled in anthropological metaphors. It prides itself on a kind of general and essential openness which is in no way different, or at least isn’t shown to be different, from the openness of phenomenology. On the other hand, it presents a very rich vocabulary to describe the world, but doesn’t really succeed in showing why this rich vocabulary is in any way a step forward for ontology. Because you could simply take that same vocabulary with a lot of different adjectives and put it back into phenomenology and be none the wiser, so to speak. I do have to say that my general impression while reading some of Harman, Meillassoux, Sparrow, Timothy Morton – authors like that – is that they may really only refer to and attack a kind of a caricature of Husserl – and not just Husserl, there is Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, who are seen as useful authors, but authors who are still nonetheless wrong. I think obviously one of the most important things in philosophy is to refer to the strongest and the best arguments of the position you are trying to take down. They seem to me to be adopting a very simplified, and occasionally downright wrong perspective on Husserl for example. Of course, when you completely disregard the seventy years of secondary and tertiary literature and responsible scholarly work – and all the new volumes of Husserl himself – when you simply limit yourself to Ideas I and the Cartesian Meditations and try to present that as a full picture of Husserlian phenomenology, then you are either begging the question or you are simply not informed enough.

Joachim: Meillassoux famously posed the problem of ancestrality. Do you see the problem of ancestrality as a real challenge to phenomenology or is it connected – following up on what you said – to a caricature of phenomenology, in other words, is it just a pseudo-problem?

Denis: The problem of ancestrality simply put would be, for example: How would phenomenology explain dinosaurs? What’s the ontological status of all the stuff that came before us or that will come after us or how do we even envisage a science of such phenomena from a phenomenological perspective? Now, I think this might be a problem, again, for a caricature of Husserl. So if you have this model of Husserlian phenomenology in mind where it’s a strongly and explicitly idealist position – borderline solipsistic, fully internalist in the sense that all epistemic justification necessarily has to go through the mechanism of your particular own subjectivity and so on, then I could see how that could be a problem for phenomenology. But that is simply not the way I understand Husserl and it is most definitely not the way Husserl himself understood himself. This is clear from a number of his texts. The problem of ancestrality only exists for those who already have a bone to pick with phenomenology. Let’s not forget that Husserl was never against science in any way, but only opposed scientism! In other words, the findings of science are completely unproblematic. The task of transcendental phenomenology is to see how the sense of these findings is constituted, while keeping in mind that science is something that is built in the interplay of history, knowledge, and logic, and going back and forth intergenerationally, intersubjectively, and interinstitutionally. But of course, as I have said, it really comes down to the interpretation you subscribe to then.

Joachim: Pressing you a bit on this issue: You could still maintain that experience is necessary in some fashion for the whole constitutive process – even if you don’t think that subjectivity is the central constitutive part of the whole thing. Because the challenge would be: What about that time even before the dinosaurs when there was no consciousness at all [in the world]? In what way did the world exist? In what way were those things at that time and not just retrospectively, when we can look back and say: well of course they exist insofar as we can reconstruct this whole past. So, phrased in another way: Was there a present without consciousness of those things – which must have existed so that we exist now today?

Denis: My answer to that would be a clear and resounding yes! Of course! So, again, as I have said, this ultimately comes down to how you interpret Husserl. My take on this is: Of course there was a present before there was a consciousness for it to be present to or for. But then you have to say: It doesn’t really make sense to even call it a present. It’s simply an existing world, the same one that is presupposed as existing once subjectivity becomes able to reflect transcendentally on its own accomplishments. So, in that sense I have absolutely no problem with tying Husserl to an explicit metaphysical realism – absolute full-blown realism, which doesn’t mince words and says that of course there was a world before us. We do have to be very careful here not to conflate what Husserl might have thought about a particular problem with what we might think while maintaining a generally Husserlian perspective. This is now a hermeneutical point. But my goal is not to reconstruct exactly what Husserl meant and perhaps simply omitted to write down – it’s to reconstruct the best possible position in a Husserlian framework – and of course this framework is at some places going to go outside of Husserl’s writings. In some places it’s going to stray relatively far away from the borders of Husserl’s writings. Trying to build the most comprehensive, plausible and attractive position while taking Husserl as a starting point is my ultimate goal and I think this can be done precisely by transforming the idea of transcendental phenomenology into something much more grounded, so to speak.

Joachim: So, as a way of concluding this pleasant and thorough conversation I would just like to ask you what your future plans and projects are.

Denis: I’m currently finishing up a paper on the concept of the pre-given world in Husserl. I hope to polish it enough for publication. Other than that, my plan is to work as hard as I can on the doctoral project. After hopefully successfully completing the dissertation and obtaining the PhD I will definitely do all I can to find some sort of a position and hopefully work on a Habilitationsschrift afterwards.

Joachim: Very well. All the best for all these future projects and thank you very much for this interesting conversation.

Denis: Thank you very much!

Denis Džanić on


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