Friday, November 14, 2008

Do distinctions = dualism?

Neal wrote "while also calling into question some assumptions of the nature-nurture distinction, but that's a topic for another day"

Ah... well, today is a new day. That's exactly what I'd like to talk about.

First let me point to a famous example: the Molyneux problem. When a blind person gets her sight restored, can she see immediately or must she acquire sight? This seems to be "just" a problem of perception... but the problem is bigger than just blindness (just as the Phenomenology Perception is not "just" about perception). It asks how much we are preconditioned by nature to experience and how much we must acquire in experience. Even sight, it turns out, must be ‘acquired’ … we don’t “naturally” see like normal adults. (here’s a recent study)

From the perspective of embodied phenomenology (a phrase I'm practicing using instead of just "as Merleau-Ponty would say”), we can't have a nature/culture division ... or any of the related divisions: subject/object, a priori / a posteriori, or for-itself/in-itself. All of these can happen in reflection, but not in original experience. If we assume there’s a unity to experience, a naturalness to it, we can’t go look outside of experience for some “culture”; that would be kind of like the kid saying “What’s bigger than the universe?”

I think embodied phenomenology (Husserl's passive synthesis description and Merleau-Ponty's own similar description) works well at certain levels of intentionality... but I worry whether it really helps us as higher levels of intentionality like those you describe in the situation of gender. At a perceptual level, we are sensitive (another term to avoid the passive/active distinction) to colors; they call out to us and we act with them in a certain way prereflectively. But is this a phenomenology of all action? It seems not. Merleau-Ponty says for example "I cannot say that I see blue ... in the sense in which ... I decide to devote my life to mathematics." In the case of colors, I am sensitive, whereas personal acts create a situation and I am a mathematician because I decided to be.

Neal suggests that we act similarly in relation to people of different genders; prereflectivley tending toward certain actions with women. But at what level of intentionality do we get to start deciding? That is, when are we in control? When can we exercise the freedom needed for ethical choice? Neal writes “Each judgment is also an experience, that then becomes part of our horizons of past experiences and expectation.” But how and when can we intervene? I want to think that an embodied phenomenology can describe experience all the way down and all the way up… but, if at some point, we have to start positing a special consciousness with distance from all this prereflective “tending-towards” behavior, then we are still preserving distinctions of dualism.

That is… how can I grow up as a young girl watching others, men and women, behave in certain ways, acquire tendencies of behavior myself and then decide to do something different? Noah suggests that “the child learns to fit into her community by internalizing its customs as habits.” But when does she learn not to fit in? To perform differently, as Butler would like.

And to complicate things further, getting rid of these distinctions also seems sort of tautological and inauthentic to experience. Don’t we also affirm in experience that nature and culture are different?

To close, let me just toss this out: I think, when and if we do make decisions, it has something to do with our capacity for productive imagination, for creativity and genesis in general. I’d say that would have to work something like mutation in evolution: along with repeating standard habits, we also have the capacity to (often accidentally) vary them… and choice (and ethics) comes in when we affirm one of those variations as better than our usual habits. So… perhaps we don’t plan ahead to do something new and better; we just do it accidentally and then have the capacity to judge it as better. But gosh ... this sounds like a pretty weak version ethics!