In-depth interview with Denis Džanić – part I: Rethinking the Transcendental

Joachim Raich

15th January 2018

Recently I sat down with the PhD-student and Husserl scholar Denis Džanić for an interview. We talked about his way into philosophy and phenomenology, his early influences and his research today. Central topics to phenomenology were discussed, like the problem of the reduction and the transcendental. What’s more, we also delved into gripping questions of transcendental empiricism, the distinction between the analytic and continental traditions and the problem of ancestrality.

Joachim: Thanks again for taking the time to have this conversation.

Denis: Thank you very much for giving me this opportunity. The general idea behind this blog, to show that young researchers also have something to say, something meaningful to contribute, is very helpful for us all.

Joachim: Yes, thank you for being here. We are really interested to hear what your take on phenomenology is and what your main research is about. Let me start with a very general question: What drew you to philosophy in the first place? In many countries one already has philosophy as a subject in High School, like I had in Italy. Was it like that in Bosnia as well or was your experience different?

Denis: It was actually very similar. I was in grammar school and I graduated from it in 2008. We first had logic and sociology in our 3rd year, and then, in our senior year, philosophy. I had thought, however, that I had already made up my mind on what I wanted to study, namely English Language and Literature. I can still remember the moment in which I realized that philosophy might be something that I wanted to spend – well, hopefully – the rest of my life doing. It was during one of the very first lectures, and the topic was Socrates. At that moment I realized, okay, this might actually be something interesting and worthwhile. At the same time, I developed a very deep interest in literature – I discovered authors like Camus, Sartre, Dostoevsky, Kafka. They chimed well with my budding interest in philosophy. Those were important, formative moments for me. As the year went on I decided that that was definitely what I wanted to do and after graduating from high school I enrolled at the University of Sarajevo. I studied philosophy and sociology for my BA.

Joachim: You already told me about the first authors you got into once you started your studies. You told me about Frege, whom you read a lot in the first year, then in the second year you discovered Quine and Davidson. And in the third year, I think, it was that you discovered Husserl and Derrida. So, in a sense you could say that you had a lot of interaction with analytic thinkers, if you want to call them that, before you got around to phenomenology.

Denis: Exactly. I think that was one of the advantages of the department where I studied philosophy. It was – it still is – a relatively small department, but it manages to cover a lot of ground. One thing people sometimes forget is that studying philosophy is not just about discovering authors and reading the classics, but it’s also about ‘discovering’ the people who teach you the classics. In that regard I was very lucky to have met and to have learned from some interesting people, people who knew their stuff very well. It so happened that the first professor who really fascinated me was teaching Logic and Epistemology at the time, and he got me into this whole thing with Frege and, a bit later on, Wittgenstein. A happy coincidence was that there had been this ongoing project that finally took shape and started functioning as an ‘incubator’ for young researchers just as I arrived in Sarajevo and started with my studies. So I quickly got into that project as well – I had a couple of duties there, worked on some stuff, contributed a bit to publishing a journal for young researchers, etc. Those were my first experiences in research. There were a lot of different happy coincidences there. In my second year I met professor Ugo Vlaisavljević, an expert in the field of French philosophy and phenomenology, who would later become my supervisor for both my BA and MA theses. He has had a pivotal role in my studies, and has greatly influenced my understanding of philosophy in many ways.

Joachim: Could you already tell at that point what phenomenology would bring to the table of philosophy, or what different perspectives phenomenology would open up for you?

Denis: I don’t think I was quite aware of that during my BA studies, for example. I did my BA thesis on John Austin’s speech act theory and Derrida. That was the first time I somehow caught a glimpse of what Derrida and, consequently, French philosophy might mean to me down the road. But I don’t think I had a very good grasp of what phenomenology actually was, and to be honest, I hadn’t really done that much reading of Husserl either. It was only during my MA-studies that I – but again through Derrida – became a lot more interested in Husserl. I suppose that this partly confirms a point raised by Christopher Watkin, who says that Husserl today is more of a philosopher’s philosopher, someone whom you don’t really read for his sake anymore, but rather as a springboard for later philosophers. Even though that was true for me at that particular moment in time, I later discovered just how important Husserl might really be for my work. So I did my MA-thesis on Husserl, Heidegger, and Derrida. But, of course, my understanding of what Husserl brings to the table deepens every day and I am still discovering what phenomenology, and Husserl in particular, might mean for my own work, yes.

Joachim: So, could one say that one of your main fields of interest was philosophy of language in your BA?

Denis: It absolutely was. As I have said, some of my favourite authors were Frege, Quine, Davidson, and Wittgenstein. So, the giants within philosophy of language – and my first real exposure to Husserl was through his Logical Investigations, and to this day the two of my favourite Logical Investigations are the 1st and the 4th, that deal with philosophy of language in the most explicit way. I recognize now that that is a relatively strange path to take towards Husserl.

Joachim: Perhaps your path is a bit similar to Husserl’s. Because he too started out with Logical Investigations, where, in my reading, he tried to put aside all ontological implications and matters, and then moved on to those question with his phenomenological method. You have written a Master’s thesis on the ontology of the sign and Husserl’s, Heidegger’s and Derrida’s views of it. Is your path in philosophy similar and have you moved on to ontological questions?

Denis: I would say so.

Joachim:What do you regard as your present or most important fields of interest in philosophy?

Denis: I think one of the turning points of my studies has been the discovery of the work of Ernst Tugendhat, and, more specifically, his lectures on Traditional and Analytical Philosophy. It was from Tugendhat that I first learned that language and ontology were not two separate and distant fields, but were in fact deeply intertwined. Moving with this insight forward I then started seeing just how many contributions Husserl might offer here. It was in Husserl in particular that I recognized this tendency towards starting with questions that at first seem like questions of language and then ending up in a sort of ontology. To be sure, one cannot really talk about ontology in Husserl without implicitly talking about his epistemology as well. Furthermore, you probably cannot talk about those two without implicitly talking about a certain philosophy of language embedded within phenomenology as well. However, if I had to put it in one word, I would say that ontology is my current main interest within the field of phenomenology, and particularly within Husserlian phenomenology. It was in French phenomenologists that I first was first struck by this focus on ontological, rather than epistemological questions in phenomenology. When you take a look at the classical, traditional picture of Husserl – especially if you are exposed to Husserl through the lens of analytic philosophy – you might think that this is a classical Cartesian philosopher doing armchair speculation. It was from the French tradition and reception of phenomenology that I first learned that Husserl doesn’t necessarily have to be confined to this outdated picture. Some of the most important texts for me in that regard were Sartre’s The Transcendence of the Ego, one of the early texts in the French reception of Husserl, then Merleau-Ponty, especially his The Visible and the Invisible, and of course Derrida with the translation of, and introduction to, Husserl’s The Origin of Geometry, and, later, Voice and Phenomenon.

Joachim: After your MA, after you graduated in philosophy in Sarajevo you decided to come to Vienna and do a PhD. What led you to Vienna?

Denis: It was, again, a series of happy coincidences. I had spent a whole year in Bosnia after my MA doing nothing really, thinking about a potential dissertation project. It so happened that for some personal reasons Austria was a particularly attractive destination for me. Given its history in philosophy, and a prestigious department with a lot of possibilities for scholars in phenomenology, Vienna turned out to be the logical choice. I was very fortunate to find a very nice and knowledgeable supervisor, Privatdozent Michael Staudigl, who has also done a lot of work on the crossroads between phenomenology and French reception of phenomenology and whose doctoral thesis is thematically very close to my project right now. In that sense, I was very lucky.

Joachim: Can you tell us a little bit more about your PhD project and what you try to do there?

Denis: Most generally put, the idea is to work out a theory of Husserlian transcendental phenomenology that would be divorced from any remnants of transcendental idealism. This, as it turns out, requires a transformation of the concepts of the ‘transcendental’ and ‘subjectivity’. Merleau-Ponty and Derrida seem to me to be very important in this respect, and I rely on their work a lot. I initially had plans to incorporate some bits of Deleuze as well. I am still not sure if I am going to do that, but the dissertation project, in any case, is about Husserl, with the help of Merleau-Ponty and Derrida. My goal is to offer a compelling form of transcendental phenomenology that wouldn’t rely solely on a strong conception of transcendental subjectivity.

Joachim: How do you conceive of a transcendental that is not tied to the subject anymore?

Denis: That is, of course, the crucial question. The answer boils down to how you understand transcendentality. We know that Husserl is closely tied to several strands of classical German Idealism. There have been books and works connecting Husserl to Kant, Fichte, parts of Hegel and even parts of Schelling, with Fichte and Kant being the most prominent ones. Of course, the Kantian conception of the transcendental is very closely tied to a very strong conception of the subject. So in that sense it might seem like a contradictio in adjecto to talk about a transcendental philosophy without necessarily including a strongly idealist conception of the subject – this being either a subject that constitutes or even creates the world, or some sort of a super-solipsistic conception of the subject, or at the very least a subject that is somehow completely intertwined with the world in such a way that you could never say that the world comes before the subject. However, when we take a look at Husserl, we find that his understanding of the transcendental changes throughout the years and I very much like Dermot Moran’s take on this, when he says that the Husserlian conception of the transcendental ends up being a baroque conception or understanding of the transcendental, incredibly wide-reaching and ambitious, but consequently very unclear. Of course, the question now becomes this: If you are trying to divorce transcendentality from the subject, what do you do about Husserl’s explicit commitment to transcendental idealism? If you try to do away with the idealism-part of Husserl, what are you left with? Now, of course, the obvious alternative to transcendental idealism would be something like a transcendental empiricism. We know that not only does the phrase ‘transcendental empiricism’ feature prominently in French philosophy – especially and most notably in Deleuze – , but it features in Husserl himself. On several different occasions he talks about a transcendental science of experience or even explicitly of transcendental empiricism. These are, of course, scattered remarks. However, it obviously can be thought of – even from Husserl’s perspective. So, what are you left with? I think the most important thing that the French readers of Husserl teach is that the concept of the transcendental can be understood in many different ways. One of those ways would be to think of the transcendental as a kind of an impersonal field, a transcendental field instead of a subject. This is one of the most famous images of the transcendental within the French receptionof Husserl. The phrase ‘transcendental field’ appears for the first time in Sartre’s Transcendence of the Ego, it is sporadically taken up again by Merleau-Ponty in his Phenomenology of Perception, then by Derrida, and of course by Deleuze as well. Interestingly enough, there is something very similar that we find in Bergson as well. It is obviously an idea with some merit and an idea with strong leanings on the Husserlian tradition. The biggest problem is: How do we conceive of the transcendental field? Do we simply say that we will now be talking about a transcendental life instead of a transcendental subject, or are we going to be talking about a field of events – in a Deleuzian sense for example? If we are going to try and integrate this back into a Husserlian framework, what do we talk about? How do we conceive of the transcendental? I think this is where the latest parts of Husserl come into play most prominently and I would say that the transcendental in the late Husserl becomes dispersed to many different subjects and over many different generations, so that it doesn’t make any sense anymore to speak of a transcendental subject – perhaps not even of a transcendental intersubjectivity, but in fact of a transcendental field of interacting human beings – interacting not only locally and interacting not only in the present, but interacting in fact over the entire course of history and in many different ways, ways which cover the whole field of experience starting with the most primitive perceptual experiences and ending out with the most advanced scientific types of experience including scientific theories and knowledge. There are some very short and potentially important, but relatively secluded passages in Husserl, where he talks about the idea of a transcendental sociology. I think that is ultimately what I see as the most fruitful type of understanding transcendentality in Husserl. Now, this may sound like a plausible theory, but it opens up an entire host of different problems or rather questions. How do we conceive of experience in phenomenology then? How do we conceive of ontology in phenomenology? How do we conceive of the phenomenological work itself and phenomenological research if we accept such a transcendental sociology as the ultimate field of explanation?

Joachim: What consequences does transcendental empiricism, or something similar to it, have for the conception of experience? In what ways does it transform the notion of experience?

Denis: I think part of the answer is mirrored in a relatively recent paper that I wrote and presented recently at a conference. In the paper I try to talk about the parallels and connections between Husserl and classical externalist accounts of experience. Now, we talked a bit about the traditional, outdated model of Husserl and of his phenomenology. One of the most logical next steps with this outdated model is to connect him closely to an internalist conception of experience. Without going into detail about what internalism and externalism might mean and entail here, I would say that the type of transcendental phenomenology that I just vaguely described is necessarily tied to various explicit types of externalism, with regard to both content and justification. In that broad sense, I would say that this image of transcendental phenomenology binds us to an externalist account of experience in phenomenology. This externalist account would then mean that we have to develop an externalist account of not only language, but in fact perceptual experience and an externalist account of science itself in phenomenology. So, this is a very ambitious and a very wide-ranging undertaking, and a basis for many different potential projects. What I am going to try to do first will be to offer a plausible and attractive general platform for this type of further research in phenomenology. I will try to show how a careful reading of the French tradition of reading Husserl affords us a platform for phenomenological work which is externalist, heavily historical and which, in a sense, implies a certain sociological philosophy.

Joachim: Thus you try in your PhD to delineate the development of phenomenology in the French reception, how it is transformed within it, and to show how it provides an attractive new platform for further research. We have already touched upon some aspects of this transformation.

Let us now turn to what your view of the transcendental reduction is.

In part II of the interview (coming up soon) Denis talks about the problem of the transcendental reduction, his take on the problem of ancestrality….and a lot more!

Denis Džanić on