«RECONCILING SEARLE AND DREYFUS Closing the Gap: Phenomenology and Logical Analysis By Sean Dorrance Kelly I I AGREED TO WRITE THIS ARTICLE ON T IS ...»
Just as I think Searle’s position underplays the importance of phenomenology, however, I believe that in this claim Dreyfus overstates the problem with logical analysis. For there does not seem to me to be anything in principle about Searle’s first-person analytical method that requires him to miss the phenomenological facts.20 It is true as a matter of fact, I believe, that Searle misses aspects of the phenomena of intentionality and social reality, and as I have argued for the cases of perception and money already, the phenomenological facts are essential to the logical analysis of these domains. Dreyfus misdirects his critique of Searle, however, because he himself misses the central fact about the phenomenology of everyday engaged activity.
Why does Dreyfus think that logical analysis covers up the structure of the phenomena of engaged activity? In the interview he gives at least two different reasons. First, he suggests that the phenomena are in some essential way unclear or vague, so the crystalline clarity of logical analysis is inappropriate for them.
As he says on p. 127, “You can’t turn Merleau-Ponty into analytic philosophy, but you can make his work as clear as you can, and then show how the indeterminacy of the phenomena just can’t be grasped any more clearly.” And on p. 140, when the interviewer asks whether he is “suggesting that background coping has a special kind of vagueness,” Dreyfus responds “Yes. It is not directed at any specific object or affordance.” In addition to its vagueness and lack of clarity, Dreyfus suggests also that there is something about the particularity of the phenomena that resists the generality for which analysis aims. The logical analyst, according to Dreyfus, if he is to talk about absorbed coping at all, can only “say in retrospect that you have achieved this particular goal, pointing at the very specific goal in all of its contextual particularity” (p. 141).
In contrast to Dreyfus’s version of the story, I believe that lack of clarity is not an essential feature of the phenomenology of absorbed coping at all, and that the particularity of this phenomenon only hints at what is truly important about it. Rather, I believe, the essential feature of skillful, absorbed coping is that it is a way of engaging normatively with the world instead of a way of describing it.
When I use the terminology of normativity I do not, of course, intend to invoke any full-blown kind of ethical or moral norms. Rather, the affordances that solicit me to act when I am absorbedly coping with tools or obstacles or escape routes are normative in the sense that they draw a certain action out of me; escaping over here feels “right,” like it is the thing that is “called for,” like it is what I am “drawn” to do. To describe properly the phenomenology of these kinds of activities I cannot but use a vocabulary that is rich in normative significance. By first invoking the Gibsonian notion of affordances in his description of the phenomena, Dreyfus implicitly recognizes this normative dimension. But he never manages to nail it down.
THE HARVARD REVIEW OF PHILOSOPHY vol.XIII no.2 2005 Closing the Gap: Phenomenology and Logical Analysis 17 Of course, Searle’s first-person logical analysis misses the normativity of absorbed coping as well. But unlike the essential “vagueness” or “lack of clarity” that Dreyfus says characterizes the phenomena, there is no reason in principle that the first-person logical analyst could not account for this phenomenological fact. To do so, however, requires a new kind of analysis, one that goes beyond the tools and categories already in Searle’s analytical toolkit.
One of the best ways to see what is important and interesting about the normativity of absorbed coping, therefore, is to see why this new analysis is required. As always, it is best to start with an example.
To a first approximation, at least, skillful, absorbed coping is what one is engaged in when one performs activities without paying attention to the fact that one is performing them. So for instance, when I am walking along with a friend, lost in a philosophical conversation, I nevertheless am able skillfully to reach out, grasp the doorknob, and open the door; without even noticing that it is happening, my hand forms itself naturally to the shape of the knob. The Gibsonian way of talking about this is to say that the doorknob affords or solicits grasping. Phenomenologically we can say that a certain grasp is called for, and my body is drawn into forming it. What should the logical analyst say about such a case?
To begin with, the logical analyst could try saying that there are standard conditions of satisfaction for the activity—that the action of reaching out to grasp the doorknob represents the knob as being of a certain shape, and that if it turns out to be some other shape then those conditions are not satisfied.
This is a start, but I do not think it gets the full story right. To see this, notice first that there are lots of ways of representing the doorknob to have a given shape. A seventeenth-century Dutch realist painter represents the doorknob to have a certain shape by looking at it and deciding how to paint that shape.
Even if the painter represents the doorknob as having the same shape that my unreflective grasping hand represents it to have, however, these experiences of the doorknob are very different. They may represent the very same feature of the doorknob—its shape—and the two representations may even agree about what shape the doorknob is. But the detached attitude of painting and the engaged attitude of grasping represent the same shape in very different ways.
By giving them identical conditions of satisfaction, our logical analyst has missed this important distinction. Using the standard terminology we can say that conditions of satisfaction like this are extensionally adequate but leave out the Fregean “mode of presentation.” Modes of presentation are, of course, a central tool in the first-person logical analyst’s kit, so the need for them ought not to be a particular concern.
But the way in which we understand an object when we are unreflectively engaged in acting with respect to it—that is certainly a special and strange way of understanding the thing. What is the mode of presentation of the doorknob, then, when I am unreflectively engaged in reaching out to grasp it? For obvious reasons this is a hard question to answer. After all, the point of the activity is that I am unreflectively performing it, that I am reaching out to grasp the doorknob without paying attention to the fact that that is what I am doing. To describe how I experience the doorknob when I am not paying attention to the vol.XIII no.2 2005 THE HARVARD REVIEW OF PHILOSOPHY 18 Sean Dorrance Kelly fact that I am acting with respect to it—that sounds like a difficult task indeed.
But it is the task of phenomenology, and we have managed a bit of progress with respect to it.
The most important step is to notice that in such an unreflective activity, although I do not explicitly notice the doorknob (ex hypothesi), it nevertheless directs or leads my grasp. The doorknob solicits my hand to form a certain shape. Of course, it does so by figuring in my experience, at least in a marginal way; if it did not figure in my experience at all, I would constantly be shocked to discover that my body was engaged in any activity at all, the way I am constantly shocked to feel my foot going up when the doctor taps on the patella tendon. But I am not shocked to discover, at least not usually or in that way, that my body has reached out to grasp the doorknob, has sidestepped or avoided the obstacle, has optimized the distance between people in an elevator, and so on. My body is constantly taking care of these coordination issues for me, and although I do not explicitly notice that it is doing so (indeed paying attention to what my body is doing for me can easily mess it up), nevertheless there is a marginal way in which the sense that my body is responding efficiently to its environment informs my overall experience of the world.
Now, I have said that this marginal sense is properly described using normative vocabulary. In unreflectively reaching out to grasp it, the doorknob draws a certain grasp formation out of my hand. This normative issue is very different from the issue of particularity that Dreyfus emphasizes. It is true, of course, that the shape of my grasp is very particular, so that what grasp formation is called for will change as the shape of the doorknob changes, as the angle of approach changes, as my own perceived sense of my strength changes (and this perceived sense can be affected by my mood), and so on. But this kind of particularity is built into language as well—properly understood, it is the characteristic feature of demonstrative as opposed to descriptive utterances.
What is really important about engaged activity, what distinguishes it both from any characterization of the world using language and also from any detached perceptual experience of the world, is that the content of my engaged activity is not a description of the world, even one that uses bare demonstratives;
rather it is a response to the world’s demands.
If this normativity really is essential to the phenomenology of engaged activity—if it is a central feature of the mode of presentation of objects when I am unreflectively engaging with them—then how might our logical analyst account for this phenomenon? Well, if the phenomenology of engaged activity involves an immediate response to the world’s demands, then perhaps the logical analyst should treat it as a case in which the world performs a speech act that is like a command. This is an odd suggestion—after all, the world does not perform speech acts—but at least it is one that is articulable using the standard analytic tools. This approach is inadequate to the phenomenology as well, however, and it is extremely instructive to see why this approach is doomed to fail.
Directives like commands tell us how we ought to act, at least in some sense of ought, and so their analysis is attentive to the relevant kind of normativity. Consider the following example: it is bad for one’s health to smoke, so a smoker who knows this might formulate the policy for himself, “Don’t THE HARVARD REVIEW OF PHILOSOPHY vol.XIII no.2 2005 Closing the Gap: Phenomenology and Logical Analysis 19 smoke!” The characteristic feature of this command, in Searle’s terminology, is that it has world-to-word direction of fit: when there is a mismatch between what the utterance commands and what the agent in the world does, then the agent in the world is in some sense wrong. Declarative utterances, by contrast, have word-to-world direction of fit. If I say, “It is snowing,” but it is not snowing, then it is my utterance rather than the world that has gone astray.
Now, the important thing about direction of fit is that it tells us which party is responsible—roughly speaking, the subject or the world—when there is a mismatch between them. And we have known since Plato that in the case of commands such as “Don’t smoke!” there will often be a mismatch; akrasia is a common phenomenon. The reason, of course, is that knowing what one ought to do is no guarantee that one will do it. But this is not the way affordances work. Even though responding to an affordance is in some way like responding to a command—the doorknob solicits a certain grasp the way the command demands a certain activity—there is nevertheless an important difference between them: genuine solicitations to act cannot go astray. Without the possibility of a mismatch between what activity is afforded and what activity is performed, the whole idea of direction of fit, which is at the root of the standard analysis of directives, falls by the wayside. Even so, the normativity of affordances, the fact that in engaged activity the world is experienced directly in terms of the activity it draws out of me, is essential to their phenomenological structure.
I have said that genuine solicitations to act cannot go astray, but one needs to be careful in evaluating this claim. Of course it is true that my grip can fail to match the shape of the doorknob. Of course it is true that I can bump into obstacles. Of course it is true that someone can stand too close in a conversation. The claim that solicitations to act cannot go astray is not the claim that things can never go wrong. But when things do go wrong it is never because my body has performed some activity that does not match with the activity afforded.
That kind of mismatch can never occur. The reason for this is simple: being solicited to grasp the doorknob in a particular way is not like knowing that I ought to do it; the gap that exists between knowing what I ought to do and doing it does not exist between affordances and absorbed activity. When I know that I ought to do something, there is always the possibility of not doing it anyway. Plato once thought that this was not the case—he thought that knowledge of the good was intrinsically motivating—but if that were right then akrasia would not be possible; since it is not only possible but prevalent, Plato was forced to rethink his account. But even if knowledge of the good is not intrinsically motivating, solicitations to act in a certain way are.
To say that solicitations are intrinsically motivating is to say that there is no room for slippage between what the solicitation calls for and what my body is motivated to do. To see this, note first that a subject is in no position to resist the pull of an affordance unless he explicitly notices the effect it is having on him. I cannot keep my hand from reaching out to grasp the doorknob, for example, or form a grip other than the one solicited, unless I notice what my hand is doing and try to make it do something else. But the very act of noticing what my hand is doing at the same time breaks the spell that the world had vol.XIII no.2 2005 THE HARVARD REVIEW OF PHILOSOPHY 20 Sean Dorrance Kelly over it. Solicitations to act, in other words, always and necessarily happen at the margins of awareness, they occur in the background of my experience; for once I pay attention to the shape of my hand or to the features of the doorknob, instead of remaining engaged in the activity of responding to the affordance, the solicitation to form a certain grip disappears. The conditions for comporting myself differently from the way I am solicited to, therefore, are sufficient to undermine the solicitation itself.