Why Epistemology Still Matters for Phenomenology: An Engagement with Neal DeRoo

By J. Aaron Simmons
Originally published at The Other Journal – The Church and Postmodernism as part of a Review Symposium on Neal Deroo’s Futurity in Phenomenology (Fordham UP, 2013).

Let me begin by saying that Neal DeRoo’s Futurity in Phenomenology is an excellent book and a significant contribution to the contemporary debates in at least two ways.

First, DeRoo offers a nuanced and compelling argument for why the new phenomenology of Levinas and Derrida should rightly be considered phenomenology. Though this book is not primarily about the philosophy of religion, DeRoo rightly challenges recent claims that new phenomenology has abandoned phenomenology and has, instead, turned into thinly-veiled confessional theology.  Better than any other book of which I am aware, DeRoo’s text shows in detail the ways in which Levinas and Derrida continue the Husserlian phenomenological project, even while pushing it in directions that Husserl himself might not have pursued.  Yet, one of the main theses of the book, I take it, is that Husserlian phenomenology was defined by a robust openness—to phenomena, to interpretive frameworks, to the future, etc.  As such, what might be sometimes judged as the phenomenological “heresy” of Levinas and Derrida (as suggested by Dominique Janicaud, but also at some points even by Levinas and Derrida themselves) is better understood as an extension of the methodological and hermeneutic openness (we might term it “hospitality” (Derrida) or “charity” (Marion)) of phenomenology itself.

Second, by offering such a sophisticated account of the ways in which futurity gets cashed out in phenomenology, DeRoo ultimately offers a vision for the future of phenomenology. This future is one that we might describe as positive and promissory. That is, when we see how futurity amounts to a constitutive relation to the Other, it invites an essential openness to that future/Other. As such, attending to this relation invites (and, indeed, encourages) behaviors, institutions, and structures that would enable the future to come on its own terms.  In other words, the future is not something that we should close off and, hence, we should practice hospitality and charity to this future as our mode of living here and now. “Communities and institutions, and not just individuals,” DeRoo explains, “are called to live in, as, and up to the promise” (152).  He continues on to show the way in which this brings the descriptive analysis (and tradition) of phenomenology to bear upon normative questions about social existence of concern to our shared future:

“Phenomenology bears on issues that are communal and institutional and therefore political, ethical, ecological, juridical, religious, and so on. Phenomenology is not confined to speaking strictly of the individual and its acts, and therefore its insights and breakthroughs are similarly not confined strictly to the individual. Hence employing a (quasi-)transcendental move does not prevent us from acting or thinking positively, contra Rorty and Wood. Rather in undertaking a genuinely transcendental analysis, we can come to understand the sense that our actions, communities, and institutions have received via traditionality and therefore, in turn, the sense that they pass on, via that same traditionality, to others. Such a transcendental analysis is, in and of itself, not merely a negation but a positive, ethical action” (152-3).

Now, for anyone who has read my own work, it probably won’t come as much of a surprise that I am impressed by DeRoo’s book. I have also argued at length for the phenomenological legitimacy of new phenomenology (see: The New Phenomenology: A Philosophical Introduction). Additionally, I have argued for what I consider the important ethical, political, and religious possibilities that are opened by taking the potential normative implications of contemporary phenomenology quite seriously (see: God and the Other: Ethics and Politics After the Theological Turn; and Reexamining Deconstruction and Determinate Religion). Indeed, I have even contended that quasi-transcendental argumentation is precisely what needs to be rehabilitated for such ends within a phenomenological context. That said, my initial desire when I set out to write this response to DeRoo was to explore issues related to political existence in light of DeRoo’s account. For example, how ought we to incorporate both the appreciation of tradition and also the promissory anticipation into political life? Does the emphasis on tradition yield a surprisingly conservative approach to governance and social institutions? Or, perhaps the constitutive anticipation and eschatological orientation invite a radical political vision of perpetual change? Moreover, how does openness to the future avoid giving rise to chaotic indeterminacy and undecidability about social realities? Surely the future is not absolutely open in the sense that we would unflinchingly affirm simply whatever may come. The future might bring new possibilities for charity, but it also might bring new realities of exclusion and violence. How does DeRoo see his decidedly technical account of contemporary phenomenology to respond to such worries?

Although I am deeply interested in having such a conversation with DeRoo and many others who are engaged in these issues in the literature, I want to go a slightly different direction in the remainder of my brief remarks here. Rather than asking these practical questions about social existence and political theory, I want to engage in some meta-philosophical speculation about the very conditions under which these questions could be most effectively asked (and perhaps answered).  Specifically, I want to think about DeRoo’s account of a “nonepistemological phenomenology” that he suggests to emerge especially in Levinas, but also in Derrida (see 57, 62, 69, 82, 86, 142, 151).  My tentative suggestion is that, despite very good reasons to resist some aspects of what Charles Taylor terms “the epistemological tradition” (e.g., the problematic notions of self-evidence and certainty that can be sometimes found within that tradition), contemporary phenomenologists should be wary of being viewed as engaged in “nonepistemological” inquiry—well, at least not without significant qualification.

They should be wary for two reasons. First, they should hesitate because the idea of “nonepistemological phenomenology” risks offering a reductive reading of the history of philosophy and equivocating on what “epistemology” means. Second, they should hesitate because they want to avoid the problem of self-refutation that seems to emerge when one offers reasons to resist traditional approaches to epistemology. That is, reason-giving requires serious thinking about what will count as evidence, how justification operates, and what knowledge requires—all of which are decidedly epistemological considerations. In the end, one could only argue for a “nonepistemological” approach to something if one is engaged (at least implicitly) in epistemological inquiry.  One could avoid such a problem of self-refutation by abandoning the task of reason-giving, of course, but that hardly seems a promising strategy for philosophical engagement. Ultimately, appearing to reject epistemology comes at too high a cost: it either invites being perceived as a weak thinker, or not being a thinker at all.

I do not think that Levinas, Derrida, or DeRoo are weak thinkers and I think that they all give very good reasons to take their accounts seriously.  As such, let me all-too-briefly try to reframe the notion of “nonepistemological phenomenology” as a more defensible notion. It may turn out that this is what DeRoo himself has in mind, but it is worth getting clear on this. My suggestion is that by better understanding epistemology itself (especially as formulated in contemporary analytic debates), we are better able to argue for the decidedly bright future of phenomenology. What is required, then, is not “nonepistemological phenomenology,” but a more robust appropriation of contemporary epistemology by those working in phenomenology (and continental philosophy, more broadly). Minimally, this appropriation is necessary in order that phenomenologists make a compelling case for phenomenology itself.

My suggestion is that when we talk about the “nonepistemological” phenomenological project of someone like Levinas, what we must mean is that he resists the priority of epistemology to ethics. Surely that is right about Levinas, and probably right about ethics itself. Indeed, Levinas often claims that the ethical relation is not a matter (primarily) of knowledge, but is a constitutive encounter that inaugurates my very subjectivity as a response. For Levinas, as for others such as Jean-Louis Chrétien, this encounter is what makes possible subsequent epistemological inquiry.  Simply put, only because I am called to respond by the Other can that task of reason-giving, say, be something that presses upon me. As Judith Butler suggests, “giving an account of oneself” is something that is called-forth by others. Ethics opens the very space for epistemology. So far so good, in this sense it seems entirely appropriate to suggest that Levinas’s ethical philosophy is a “nonepistemological” phenomenology.  And yet . . .

The problem is that the nonepistemological dimension is only something that can be presented, accounted for, explained, outlined, etc., by engaging in epistemic discourse.  Only by considering what would count as evidence for the Levinasian account of “originary peace” as a better alternative than the Hobbesian account of “originary war,” for example, could the Levinasian alternative be weighed and considered on its own terms. Indeed, one of the ways in which DeRoo nicely demonstrates the Husserlian aspects of Levinas’s thought is by focusing on the ways in which Levinas appropriates “the principle of all principles” in new ways—and thus, allows for a more expanded conception of evidence itself. Importantly, though Levinas compellingly argues that ontology is not fundamental (at least as early as 1951), he argues for this conclusion!  Moreover, even if ontology is not fundamental, that does not mean that we are able to be non-ontologically situated.  In other words, the account we give of the ethical relation is never adequate to the relation itself, but the relation is something only taken up in the accounts we offer of it—hence the importance and radicality of Levinas’s very project.

Despite the frequency with which DeRoo talks about a nonepistemological phenomenology, toward the end of the book, he offers a more nuanced account of what is going on in new phenomenology.  It is not as if there is an epistemological phenomenology (Husserl) and a nonepistemological phenomenology (Levinas and Derrida), but instead that phenomenology (when broadly considered in light of its commitment to openness) displays both epistemic and nonepistemic dimensions. This seems exactly right, but hardly surprising. Surely a methodology and tradition defined by a commitment to considering that which gives itself in its very mode of givenness would require a variety of ways of making sense of such givenness. Some phenomena are given in ways that easily allow for primarily epistemic consideration, but others resist such consideration because they present themselves “of themselves” in such a way as to challenge the supremacy of epistemic consideration itself—e.g., the face of the Other, the trace of God, the event, etc. And yet, such nonepistemic dimensions require epistemic analysis just as the epistemic dimensions require being located and challenged by ethical and or ethico-religious interruption.

Ultimately, then, continental philosophers should be careful in seeming to reject epistemology. To do so would be to reject the very conditions according to which such a rejection could be justified. And, one of the central upshots of the ethical relation is that such a demand for justification—for one’s beliefs, actions, and very selfhood—is required because of the primacy of sociality. Rather than defending a nonepistemological phenomenology, my suggestion is that we need a phenomenological intervention into contemporary epistemology. We should be able to offer good reasons (as I take DeRoo to do) for why phenomenology deserves to be considered a viable participant in the future of philosophical inquiry.

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