Letter from the Editor

Letter from the Editor

Kevin Boileau

Autumn, 2014

At the Existential Psychoanalytic Institute, we study the individual, social, historical, and cultural processes involved in subjectivity and inter-subjectivity. Although we focus our research, education, and training in the areas of phenomenology, psychoanalysis, and critical theory, we also examine related discourses in mathematics, neuroscience, anthropology, and other emerging fields of interest. We have discovered that cross-disciplinary analysis provides a richer and deeper understanding that anyone discourse alone.

Phenomenology tries to relocate the origins of meaning in our lived experience prior to the impersonal objectivism of the natural attitude. Existential phenomenology is a critical tool for understanding and executing positive and constructive social, political, and individual transformations. Psychoanalytic structuralism looks for unconscious structures of language that underwrite current discourses of meaning. Traditional critical theory interrogates capitalist, industrial, and socio-political ideologies. More importantly, the so-called neutral analysis of logic and language can simply not be accomplished without critical inquiry into these cultural and historical constructions upon which such analysis rests.

All three discourses challenge the sort of scientific positivism that is based on the empirical methods of the natural sciences. This reductionism, which focuses on objective facts, avoids the historical, cultural, human, and structural factors that determine the meaning of these so-called facts. This is the realm of interpretation that analyzes these meanings. Thus, in contrast to positivism, which constricts the phenomena of analysis to a one-dimensional sort of observation, our three theoretical discourses investigate those dimensions below the surface of that positivism. For phenomenology it is the intentional activity of consciousness (and the unconscious!) and its relation to world meanings; for critical theory it is the historical relations of domination and liberation; and for the structuralism it is the relation of individual speech to the unconscious coding in language that grounds the spoken and written word. All three interrogate meaning.

Critical theory uses dialectical methods, focuses on concrete thinking, and argues that meaning cannot be separated from historical, political, and cultural context. This requires, therefore, a repudiation of mechanistic materialism, speculative metaphysics, and what became scientific positivism. Thinking in this discipline argues that the interpretation of meaning in terms of economic determinism must always be mediated by history and society; without it, we would strip ourselves of our humanity. In short, we want to avoid falling into dehumanizing and alienating traps of positivism.

Marx published his 1844 Manuscripts, which humanized materialist explanations of social and political behavior, and Marcuse redefined Marx’s critique as a humanist, revolutionary praxis that accelerated the import of Hegelian dialectic. More importantly, Marcuse, along with Horkheimer and Adorno, argued that we should re-interpret Marx’s concept of labor outside of the confines of economic determinism, redefining it as central to human [individual and social] transformation. Viewed in this new way, labor is viewed as a practice and as a foundation for understanding (which I have written about in my book, Manifesto for Solidarity, 2013). Marcuse pushed these points further in his arguments that we must stop treating humans as reified objects subject to inevitable mechanism. By analyzing historical conditions that underlie social, economic, and cultural life dimensions, and by seeking underlying creative and aesthetic resources, we can overcome the dominations and alienations of each and all of us.

Structuralism penetrates below the surface level of the meanings of words to reveal hidden laws that predetermine this meaning. In this methodology, we would view everyday utterances as ciphers, meaning something other than what they appear to mean. This perspective rejects the idea that ordinary language can express what we actually intend. It also rejects the notion that we can easily and clearly express what we mean. For a structuralist, language is always masked and is never transparent: it always requires a deciphering. Furthermore, it follows Saussure’s system of signs—as expressed by Barthes—a semiology that describes all forms, including mass media and popular culture. There were several famous structuralists: Lacan in symptoms of the unconscious, Levi-Strauss to anthropology, Foucault to discourses about power/knowledge, Althusser to the distinction between science and ideology, and Kristeva to the signifying practices of literature and art. The shared goal of these thinkers was to dismantle the Western notion of the autonomous subject, an antagonist to humanism and existentialism. In contrast to the formula that we can humans can transcendentally speak language, structuralists make the claim that “language speaks us.” Incidentally, this is one of the deep problems that we face—whether we can adduce a method that can fairly and accurately interrogate meaning, more importantly raising the question about who is doing this interrogating, which leads us to phenomenology. This is the question concerning our human anthropology as understood by the discourses that interrogate meaning.

In general, phenomenology replaces speculative, abstract thinking with concrete thinking by returning, as Husserl argued, to the “things themselves. In this “method,” we can [for Heidegger], understand Being in terms of everyday experience. We can do this by focusing on our concrete moods, concerns, and projects. This allows us to ground science in living acts of consciousness by focusing on how things originally appear to us. In this view we consider the world as an experience that we live before it becomes an object that we know in a detached way. Merleau-Ponty argues that phenomenology allows us to bring more directly into consciousness the actual, lived elements of our bodily experience rather than just our intellectualizing our idealizing of them. Sartre applies the same sort of intention to the issue of human freedom and liberation. There are now many forms of phenomenology, including transcendental (Husserl), existential (Sartre, Heidegger), hermeneutic (Ricoeur), ordinal (Corrington), critical existential (K. Boileau), and the deconstructive interpretation of Derrida. In existential phenomenology, we can think in a way that corrects the [distorted] beliefs and values that have guided us to the present moment. Anyone can apply the methods and considerations of existential phenomenology to do this, but it requires a courageous challenge of our sedimentations. More particularly, we can explore EP’s ability to access the living present in a primordial way with a non-reductive view of meaning, and its practice of thinking the Transcendent in ways that open up channels for the radical reconstitution of the thinking of society and culture, as well as the radical reconstitution of the self on an individual level. I also believe that, in an Existential Phenomenological framework, by shifting the source of meaning from the subject toward the object we can avoid the overly subjective element of lived experience that EP has been prone to even for Heidegger’s notion of “Dasein.” By revealing unforeseen ontological conditions we reveal new ontological possibilities, individual, intersubjectively, socially, culturally, and historically.

It is now apparent that EP can overcome the reductions and lacunae of naturalism and intellectualism, opening up new directions and pathways for social and individual development. As method, it can reveal great possibilities for critical analysis of ourselves individually and of our culture, alongside other forms of valuable criticism such as psychoanalysis and critical theory. Perhaps in some ways, EP offers the most by exposing—genealogically—what lies beneath the values and the truths that we have chosen. EP conflicts with post-modern positivisms and reductionisms in its mission to re-expose the lived world, by bracketing the question of meaning in ways that allow other discourses such as psychoanalysis and critical theory to offer additional resources and understanding as a part of our quest for the cultural, social, and individual development toward the Good. They were together in a cross-disciplinary and co-extensive way, once we “translate” their pronouncements about the self into useful meta-text.

The papers in this issue of the EPIS Journal, Presencing EPIS, represent individual attempts to contribute to the great dialogues about who we humans are, along with questions of meaning. Most of these essays are drawn from the annual EPIS summer conference; others from institute members and researchers. They do not represent the summation of all the thoughts circulating in our psychoanalytic institute, but they do suggest new ideas and thinking about the processes of the contemporary self and intersubjectivity.

Writing in Missoula