SECTION SIX OF A PHILOSOPHY OF GLIMPSES

What Is A Phenomenology of Lacks?

From the Discussions of Javier Rivera, Thomas Jockin, and O.G. Rose

Photo by Pawel Czerwinski

Phenomenology is an “art-form” of observation and careful distinctions based on our experience. We draw distinctions between “love” and “like” by taking into consideration how one “unfolds” versus the other. Since x “unfolds” y way while b “unfolds” c way, there is “reason to believe” that x and b aren’t identical. Maybe they are somehow, maybe they overlap here and there, etc., but if “love” unfolds y way and something “like love” folds z way, then there is reason to think that the thing “like love” must not be identical to “love.” And on these grounds, we now have reason to continue or conclude a new philosophical investigation.

I

Audio Reading

As has already been argued, phenomenology is not firstly a study of “is-ness” but of “unfolding,” for we don’t in phenomenology try to determine what a thing “is” by directly thinking about it, but instead try an indirect route of describing it’s attributes and the experience(s) of it.1 To put it another way, while a “classical philosopher” may sit down to write a paper when trying to define beauty, gathering up all the great minds as a scaffolding for his or her “cathedral,” the phenomenologist first ventures outside to find a beautiful experience, and only then does he or she return to the desk to write about “what the experience was like.” Certainly, these categories of philosophical inquiry overlap, but whereas a classical philosopher could view our subjective experience of a rock asgetting in the way” of a definition for rocks, the phenomenologist believes our subjective experience of a rock is essentially part of a rock (and its definition). For the classical philosopher, subjectivity is to be “bracketed out,” while the phenomenologist wants to “integrate it in.”

Why is all this important? Because we can begin to understand how a “phenomenology of lacks” is possible: if I must “get at things directly” to discuss them, “lacks” will be a difficult subject to approach. But if instead I aim to “get at what things are ‘like,’ ” I can then outline them, for it’s very possible to draw a line around a hole. Even if I never experience a meteor directly, I can easily walk along its crater to make guesses about its size, speed, age, etc.

What if the most important subjects in our lives like love, beauty, goodness, justice, and so on can only be experienced as “lacks?” If this was the case, then since phenomenology is uniquely positioned and capable of discussing “lacks” through discussing how things are “like” and “unfold,” then phenomenology is the best method for approaching life’s biggest questions. If it is the case that classical philosophy, in its desire to “bracket out” subjectivity, also did away with phenomenology, then classical philosophy threw aside its best tool for staying relevant. Perhaps it is not by chance that philosophy seems to be in decline.

II

Are love, beauty, goodness, justice, freedom, and even God experienced as “lacks?” I believe so, but a case for each subject, one by one, greatly exceeds the scope of this work (though is taken up throughout the works of O.G. Rose).2 But even if we only consider this a possibility, then phenomenology becomes a necessary enterprise to determine if such is the case. This is because phenomenology is uniquely able to “outline” and “trace around” (what ultimately might be inaccessible), and so even if we want to make a case against the practice, phenomenology must be done to make sure that all we ever can “trace (out)” are scribbly lines that make no sense. There’s no other option: classical philosophy, in its “directness,” cannot determine what is and isn’t a “lack,” only phenomenology. Consequently, if we want to argue “lacks don’t exist,” we must do so through phenomenology.

But of course, what would it look like to argue from the experience of beauty that beauty is not there? How would we disprove “lacks?” I think the strongest argument would be to say that the phenomenologist is “misnaming” something and then claiming “(the wrong name)” is not present, thus (wrongly) proving its existence. For example: I may look at a dead body and say, “beauty is lacking,” and by that mean a transcendent dimension of some kind, and then argue that since something cannot be “lacking” that doesn’t exist, beauty must exist. But the person with me may counter that what is actually lacking is “life” and that I am misnaming “life” as “beauty.” Hence, the phenomenologist is rebutted.

Or perhaps not? The phenomenologist may reply that actually the other person is misnaming “beauty” as “life,” and also say that “beautiful things are ‘in’ life somehow, but it does not follow that everything alive is therefore beautiful.” In other words, based on experience, we have reason to think there is a meaningful difference between “life” and “beauty,” and that the dead body is perhaps lacking both life and beauty, but from this it does not mean life and beauty are identical.

Though classical philosophers stuck in their ivy tower can lack the experience of beauty “unfolding” to provide them with “reason to think” that “beauty” and “life” are distinct, phenomenologists put themselves in places to experience love “unfold” x way and beauty “unfold” y way out in the world (the “ivy tower” of the phenomenologist is the earth, and it is a tower made of glass, for seeing all around). Though classical philosophers can lack “experiential resources” to be sure they are not misnaming something (and so remain unable to take the step of saying “x is lacking versus y”), the phenomenologist experientially knows that “life” and “beauty” are not identical: the phenomenological argument is primarily not rational or syllogistic but based on the experiences of life “unfolding” x way and beauty “unfolding” z way. To use the language of “On Thinking and Perceiving” by O.G. Rose, phenomenology primarily emerges out of perceiving the world more than thinking about it. Considering that perception is “thoughtless,” perception is meditative and even Zen-like, while thinking is “meaningful” and hence focused and constructive.

Unfortunately, the more I translate my experiences into something I can write about, I translate them into thought, and the perception slips away. In this way, phenomenology can only communicate about its (perceived) material in terms the material is not in (thought), and in this way phenomenologists make it seem like they are on the same “playing field” as classical philosophers. But phenomenologists are playing a different game: the world the phenomenologist describes is constructed on premises found “outside the head,” while classical philosophers construct their world on premises created out of deep “internal” reflection. However, since both must ultimately translate their ideas and experiences into spoken or written text/thoughts, both “seem” to be doing the same thing. The medium is the mask.

Don’t get me wrong: phenomenologists who can’t “deeply reflect internally” will prove sophomoric in their philosophical conclusions, but classical philosophers who “think too much” will arrive at conclusions which we in the world might struggle to use. The phenomenologist and classical philosopher must both ultimately render their ideas into meaning, and so both seem to be working with the same base material, but while the phenomenologist uses experiences for bricks and clay, the classical philosopher primarily uses ideas. The phenomenologist believes experiences are valuable precisely because there is a subjectivity involved that makes it possible to understand how things “unfold,” while the classical philosopher tends to believe that subjectivity taints the possibility of reliable conclusions. And certainly, we can go too far with subjectivity, but we can also go too far into impenetrable darkness without it.

This suggests the need for us to be dialectical, to “move between” thought and perception, objectivity and subjectivity — we need to live in a tension (as discussed in “The Dialectic Between Meaningful Memories and Pure Experiences” by O.G. Rose). This brings to focus an advantage for phenomenologists, precisely in the fact that they must translate perceptions into thoughts, which though a disadvantage in that it makes the phenomenologist and classical philosopher seem identical, is an advantage in that it forces the phenomenologist to be dialectical. Classical philosophers work in thought and stay in thought, and so they are never forced into dialectics, but if dialectics are indeed necessary for us to approach truth (as argued throughout O.G. Rose), then the “purity” and “lack of tension” in classical thought is a liability. Due to a lack of existential tension, it might feel like an advantage, but ultimately it is not (especially if Cadell Last is correct and unities are “death drives”).

III

“A phenomenology of lacks” is a philosophical orientation that will take seriously distinctions between different kinds of “nothingness.” This might sound strange, for how can “nothingness” entails distinctions? This is where the Kyoto School can again prove useful, and hopefully I will not fail to adequately use their profound and rich terminology.

The Kyoto School was particularly interested in different kinds of orientation to “nothingness”: “nihilism,” “absolute nothingness,” and so on. “Nihilism” was reductionistic and deconstructive for them, an “eternal regression” which resulted from overthinking and a failure to balance “thought” with “perception.” For the Kyoto School, the West was in danger of falling into nihilism due to its emphasis on thinking above everything else (including “living”), and if we consider the fact that “autonomous rationality” is impossible (as we learn from David Hume), this makes sense: thinking cannot be its own “grounding,” so if it tries, it must deconstruct itself into nothing. In other words, thinking cannot establish its own axioms (or “truth”), because thinking must assent to axioms before it can even begin being itself. Why? That case is elaborated on in “Deconstructing Common Life” by O.G. Rose.

For the Kyoto School, people need “absolute nothingness,” which sounds like nihilism, yet is arguably its complete opposite. “Absolute nothingness” is a state of “thoughtless” perception (or at least that’s how I understand it), a state where I look at my hand and deeply take in the reality that “I can’t think about my hand.” This may sound strange, for surely I can think about my hand, yes? And yet I cannot: I can only think about an idea about my hand, which strongly “seems like” my actual hand, but ideas are not experiences.

The Kyoto School wanted us to understand that we cannot “take in” the fullness of my hand — each vein, each atom, each sensation, each memory of things it was previously used for holding — my hand is always “beyond me,” like wine overflowing and spilling out of the cup of my thoughts. And so, we should learn to quiet our minds and just “take things in” — a meditative practice — and when I turn off my thinking, there is a very real sense in which I am “toward” a kind of nothingness. It’s as if my hand is “nothing” because my thinking is off, but really my hand is only nothing “relative to my mind.” Relative to my full ability to experience and “take in,” I’m arguably experiencing my hand better than ever before in “the nothingness” (of thoughtlessness). Thought can be in the way of awareness, even though it seems to be all awareness is (an easy mistake) and ultimately necessary to (dialectically) translate awareness into meaningfulness. Perception though helps me grasp the “smallness” of thinking, which though in one way can be frightful, in another way can be thrilling, for I realize the “incompleteness” of thinking in the act of perceiving and realizing I am not stuck in thought.

In this way, the “absolute nothingness” of perception is a state of trying to be utterly aware of the world. It is a quieting of the mind for the sake of making the world’s song more audible. It is a kind of nothingness, but it is not the deconstructive nihilism of thought. Arguably, it is nihilism’s exact opposite, for whereas nihilism is a result of overthinking (to the point of trying to make thought its own foundation), “absolute nothingness” is an acceptance of the reality that “I cannot think about my hand,” that I ultimately cannot translate all of being into terms of thought. Being is too vast, and when being so overflows, in exceeding my intellectual capacities, it’s “as if” being is “nothing,” for what I cannot conceive in thought is something that seems to not exist. And if I lack a meaningful distinction between “thinking” and “perceiving,” indeed, a thing that cannot be thought doesn’t exist, but all this changes once “thinking” ceases to be the only game in town.

Grasping the full distinction between “thinking” and “perceiving” requires living it (like a religion), and if in experience we meet the conditions of “quieting our minds,” we can experience the distinction (note here that in this way the “New Metaphysics” is “conditional,” though often “traditional metaphysics” are associated with universality and generality). If we don’t meet that condition though (say by practicing meditation), we will “have reason to think” there is no meaningful distinction between “thinking” and “perceiving.” In this way, failing to practice phenomenology is not inconsequential, for we are always being shaped by our experience and “towardness” one way or the other. Consciously owning our phenomenology and experience is one of the main tenets and focuses of the “New Metaphysics,” and by embracing perception, we can experience “absolute nothingness” and own the importance of “lacks.”

IV

We have established that metaphysics needs to be phenomenological, and in so being, can avoid the deconstruction of Derrida. We have also established that a main focus of phenomenology is “tracing out” “lacks,” and we proceeded to argue why we can’t disregard the subject of “lacks” as merely misnaming (by defining differences between phenomenologists and classical philosophers). Lastly, we also established that phenomenologists are more dialectical in being forced to engage seriously in both perception and thought (not just one or the other), and suggested that dialectical thinking is necessary for discovering truth.

Phenomenology focuses on how things “unfold,” on the way a meteor strikes the planet and leaves a crater. If the things are never “fully present,” if we never observe the meteor in the sky, it does not matter: what is always “lacking” can still be discussed. “A metaphysical phenomenology of lacks” is still very possible and what a “New Metaphysics” must entail (which we could perhaps associate with “negative theology,” describing God by “what God is not” versus “what God is,” to speak generally).

Alright, if “lacks” or “between entities” exist, what does that say about human beings? Well, it would suggest that we ourselves are “between entities”: we aren’t merely “metaphysical” or “physical,” but “(meta)physical”; we aren’t merely causal or willing, but causal/willing.

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For more, please enjoy the work of Javier Rivera, Thomas Jockin, and O.G. Rose. Follow on Instagram (JR, TJ, Rose) and Twitter (TJ, Rose).

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