Why Phenomenology needs Science against Post-Structuralism

It is a view which has become so prevalent that one hardly needs to summon arguments: if men are more agressive than women “it’s because of discourse and socialization”, if conservatives are more industrious than liberals, “it’s discourse and socialization”, and if some people have higher measured intelligence than others, “it’s all a result of privileged upbringing and imperialist discourse which validates certain kinds of knowledge over others”. In other words, when we look to explain certain phenomena in our late-modernist, post-structuralist world, we look to discursive and socio-economic factors and those alone to account for the observed differences between people or groups.

There are good reasons why we do this. 19th century Marxist explanations of social phenomena were a bulwark against social darwinist biological reductionism which sought not just to explain social phenomena in terms of biology, but to use that explained biological origin as a justification for inequality and oppression. And 20th century discourse analysis has been a key form of social critique – it reveals to us the epistemic framework within which certain “facts” appear as normal, but which are in fact products of a language which reproduces certain power relations – and which can be changed to make the world more greatly accord with our values.

“Change” is really the key, I believe, to the dominance of economic and discursive analysis’ prevalence – because discourse and socio-economic conditions are explanations for social phenomena that do not essentialize or reify the phenomena, progressives like them. Progressives love things that can be changed because it means that suffering in the world is evil rather than tragic – and that’s a good thing because it’s empowering and it places responsibility on those studying it to do something about it. On the other hand, biological explanations for social phenomena seem to explain to us the world as we can’t change it – as it simply “is”, fixed in a genetic essence.

Such a strong duality between explanations of phenomena which are “fixed”, and which are changeable is, however, deceptive and closes us off from recognizing the particularity of bodies. Bodies are not merely the products of their socialization (which, in the larger sense, includes discourse), because the way a body copes with a situation is always in the style of its particularity. To believe otherwise would be to say babies are entirely blank slates, and that there is nothing about their bodies that is the motivating cause of their style of dealing with different situations. Of course, the style of the body is developed always within a social-discursive context, but to deny the explanatory power of the biological is to reject the idea that the style of the body in any way (or, at least, any measurable way) exceeds the disciplining and educating of that body.

The particularity of bodies is measured by social sciences within the epistemic framework of biology and genetics. This can be a problem, because as a reductive approach to the bodies particularity, biology often fails to understand the way biological particularity is intertwined with the body’s development of capacities through exposure and dealing with social situations and navigating discourses. But at the same time, we can’t be too hard on biology’s place within the social sciences – for instance, in mental health the new dominant approach to biology is as part of the Biopsychosocial model, which explicitly rejects the reduction of mental phenomena to any one explanatory mode.

In order to infer the biological level of motivation behind phenomena, social sciences employs statistics. This means that social science itself is about as far from phenomenology than one could imagine – rather than getting up close to the thing itself, it tries to screen out the noise and find data correlations within large groups that reveal motivating causes which appear to be irreducible to socio-economic or discursive factors. The extent to which it succeeds in any particular instance is always up for debate, and those so inclined are free to attempt to reduce its results to economic and discursive factors. However, the extent to which they do so compulsively functions not only as a rejection of biological reductionism, but as a denial that the body could possess, in-itself, a style which tends to manifest in specific ways which are not independent of, but perhaps we could say shine through its particular conditions of discursive socialization.

Phenomenology, as the study of phenomena, should never take a particular ontological framework as normatively required – for phenomenologists, metaphysics is transcendental philosophy, which means ways of understanding the world must show up the world as it shows itself, and if the world shows itself in a way that bends those understandings, those understandings must be allowed to bend with the phenomena. Phenomenology is not post-modernism, it does not reduce everything to a copy of a copy of a copy, and it refuses to be taken in by facile one sided explanations of phenomena which hold to certain modes of explanation for political reasons. Phenomenology must take the phenomena seriously, which means holding open the possibility that perhaps some things about the world can not be changed in accordance with one’s desire.

If, therefore, some of our values may be motivated by not only how we have been raised but accidental facts about our bodies – in other words by our body’s particular style – and if this has an impact on social and political life, as phenomenologists we can’t reject this phenomena and endlessly reduce it to shades of a power discourse. Of course the style of our bodies always circulated within socialization and power, but social power picks up our bodies as it finds them to work itself out as institutions of socializing power. If our bodies didn’t have particular styles, then they wouldn’t have any particularity – and actually, they wouldn’t exist. What those who reduce everything to images and copies want to believe is not that our bodies have no style, but that the extent to which our style is biological is the extent to which we are all the same. But this is irresponsible – on what evidence are we all the same? The actual evidence shows that we are very different, and that biological factors seem to play a significant role in our cognitive and social development, and in the personality traits and values that we take on as we circulate within political and social systems. For instance, if identical twins are separated at birth, the twin in the richer home tends to develop a higher I.Q. – but not by as much as you’d think, in fact, it takes a three standard deviation shift in income to correlate with a one standard deviation shift in I.Q. This suggests that how fluid we are with ideas has a lot to do with our body’s particularity, our biological pre-dispositions to be in the world in particular ways.

The use of I.Q. as a piece of evidence for the biological style of our bodies within society requires another post, to respond to the myriad criticisms of I.Q. But for now, I’m just trying to illustrate what the argument for the role of biology as explanation within a phenomenological approach to the social might look like – as a way of recognizing the need to take the particularity of bodies seriously, and yet study that particularity at a social rather than individual level.




One Comment

  1. Two problems here.

    From the philosophical side, why continue to beat what looks like the Husserlian phenomenological drum? What Husserl tried to do is extend Cartesianism to the psychological. What he accomplished (unintentionally) is to vividly reveal the weakness of Cartesianism. These weaknesses were then exploited by Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger, Gadamer, Rorty and others, so that by the end of the 20th C. there was no such thing as “the things themselves”.

    You are right: to think of everything as only socially conditioned is more Marxist than anything else. Marxism is structuralism. Marxism is not post-structural. But the post-structural does not deny the body, nor insist that the body doesn’t have its own horizon. Rather, that we only know the body through the forestructures that we bring to it, and those are socially coloured, if nothing else. We can’t “bracket” the social, and find Husserl’s beloved essences.

    From the biological point of view, I think you posit a false dichotomy: either that the biological is “fixed”. Our brains are biological; our brains are plastic; as are the rest of our bodies. Not infinitely so. Certainly not… but sufficiently so as make the notions of “fixed” as wrong as the notion of “tabula rasa”. Any reading of the works of neurologists, or of autistic authors, shows that people have different bodies, and that different bodies construct different worlds. Biological “fixism” depends on the idea that some of these worlds are “normal” and others “abnormal”. But this idea is, for sure, social, as there is nothing in biology that would specify one world as more “normal” than the other (other than, perhaps, commonness, which is not quite the same thing.)

    Whenever we declare some aspect of our world “fixed”—take for instance colour vision—because it is a clear product of our biology, we also have to take into account that:

    – different individuals in our species see colour differently
    – different cultures see colour boundaries differently
    – some people don’t see colour at all.

    And that when we describe any of these, we are describing them from the perspective of some kind of socialised, embodied being(s): the author of the description; the community of scientists; etc.

    From a biological point of view, all that post-structuralism tells us that any knowledge we have of biology is itself a biological formation within the bodies of certain members of certain species. There is no guarantee that the biological formation is the “same” in each of the individuals in which it is identified, because identifying sameness is itself a biological function, which we cannot say to be the same, except through other biological processes, and so on through infinite regress.

    Because all knowing is biological, there is no foundation for knowledge. And because evolution is non-teleological, there is no stability to truth.


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