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A 1991 Forward to "Reconsidering Empiricism" (1982)

Henry Flynt

(c)1991 Henry A. Flynt, Jr.

A. I disposed of empiricism as an absolute philosophical issue in Philosophy Proper (1961). Nevertheless, I invoked empiricism thereafter as a methodological slogan or device. I coined the phrases literal empiricism, radical empiricism, nihilistic empiricism, and beliefless empiricism--and perhaps best, heuristic empiricism. Let me explain. (Before I say anything about whether I was entitled to use the word, which the founders of empiricism, Locke and Mach, used so differently.)

Empiricism is the standpoint:

(#) "Only (my) immediate sense-contents are real."

Part of what I meant by literal empiricism was that one cannot validate conventional reality from this standpoint. (The scandal of Locke and Mach was that they wanted to have it both ways, on just this issue.) (#), as a dogmatic proposition, is trivially self-defeating. The proposition could not get its meaning from immediate sense-contents--not even as private language. To repeat, my absolute philosophical texts are clear on that. But that is not the end of the matter, because I practice astute hypocracy, in which I engage with received belief-systems in order to destabilize or disassemble them. The premises of the target belief-system invite me to speak. I speak, observing that claims of realities outside immediate sensation can only be "beliefs." They are therefore discredited by my absolute philosophical insights. As I invoke it, then, empiricism always misstates, but its effect is to sever everything but immediate sensations as discreditable. As wordlessness, empiricism is not "false."

If I am so extreme that I renounce everything but immediate sense-contents, everything but wordlessness, then isn't this text preposterous? No, because it is a dynamic undermining maneuver carried out within the received culture. Conventional culture cannot object to a discourse which narrows the frame to immediate sense-contents or uses descriptive language (with necessary modifications) to mention sense-contents. Meanwhile, a non-affirming Cheshire-cat exercise discredits everything outside the frame.

The contribution of my empiricism as a methodological device is to deepen astute hypocracy. I can crystallize "alternative realities" within the empirical realm which are nearer to wordlessness. ("Dreams and Reality"; "Intersensory Discorrelation.") The objective is not the discourse in the received medium of communication, but the determination of reality and the fragment of language which specifies the correlative evaluational processing of experience. In some cases, language is invoked only for its apparitional meaning.

A further observation about this application of empiricism is possible. The impoverished "worlds" of abstractions posited by natural science are reductionist. Insofar as they are imaginative fictions, they are reductionist half-fictions. I suggest that the determinations of reality which I reach through heuristic empiricism are "flatter" than the common-sense "reality" without being reductionist. I designate them as non-reductionist modules. (Critical Notes on Personhood, Part V, 1991.)

Meanwhile, I continue to say "I do this" in the received medium of communication. And, as a further hypocritical gesture, I note that there is a cultural history in which empiricism means something altogether different from what I have just explained.

Everything that the enemies of Locke and Mach have said about them is probably true. Evidently Locke and Mach told themselves that all "our" conventional "knowledge" of "objective reality" comes via immediate sensations. That's beyond insanity; it's mentally retarded. What is worse, Locke proposed to establish observational truths about psychological development speaking from the armchair, a priori. And Mach, infuriatingly, said that physics was built up from immediate visual sensations (for example) and then turned around and deduced the visual sensations from the unexperienceable (such as the frequency of light waves, about 1016 per second).

On the other hand, there is some excuse for my adoption of the problematic philosophical slogan "empiricism." Locke and Mach did advance the idea of narrowing the frame to immediate sensations. It's just that they didn't mean it; or that they had a preposterous notion that doing so could yield a fully validated conformist reality.

To summarize, for me, literal empiricism gives astute hypocracy and meta-technology a window onto wordless uncanniness. Again, the early successes were "Dreams and Reality" and "Intersensory Discorrelation." Aspects of the "Choice Chronology Project" (not yet finished) were literally empiricist. Also, the "Epistemic Calculus," etc.


B. As every student knows, Kant and Husserl philosophized against Hume and Mach. I don't see that Husserl made any new beginning; rather, he adapted and stretched Kant's "Refutation of Idealism," transcendental Ego, and thought-forms of the mind.

Husserl evidently felt menaced by non-affirming empiricism; by the notorious skepticism of Hume's A Treatise of Human Nature; in other words, by something like the literal empiricism I have presented here. As every student knows, Husserl claimed to disprove empiricism by finding a polarity, a polar or diametrical counterposition of subject and object in immediate experience. Even "my" visual-table-experience--a visual table-apparition--breaks apart into the seeing I at this end, and the seen and autonomous table at that end. And by calling attention to phenomena at perception's margins, Husserl widened the sphere of the immediately real--until it encompassed the infinite universe.

Again, this is not a new beginning. The student may consult the early pages of F.W.J. Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism--also an offshoot of Kantianism.

My literal empiricism has a role to play relative to this discussion: it exposes it as apologistic sophistry. (The irony is that philosophy students trained in the Sixties told me that my respect for empiricism had been discredited by Husserl.)

Literal empiricism's terminal concern is a sort of philosophical anthropology of nameless experience. Admittedly, again, the exercise is hypocritical, as it is conducted in the received medium of communication. When I address the extinction of belief in lived experience, I am writing instructions for the ineffable. This discourse must comprise an exercise in astute hypocracy, not directed to a new science. But that is no so bad, because the benefit is the wordless insight left at the end.

It is a corollary of this analysis of wordless experience that all of Husserl's rigid structure in Egoic experience is mirage. Husserl finds an Ego which turns to a table and foregrounds it relative to a periphery or background--because he is not being literal about immediate sensation.

If there are junctures in perception which genuinely test "literal empiricism," they are far more subtle than what Husserl spoke about. What is a mental act of expectation? Who or what believes a belief, and is deceived if the belief is deceiving? When, in a dream, I have a disembodied vantage-point, and another person is inside my body, or my viewpoint moves far outside my body, how does empiricism make an immediate sensation out of the episode? (I cannot avoid comportment to contexts of objectivity in a dream.) These are important questions. But they have nothing to do with Husserl's enterprise, which guaranteed a longitudinal Ego counterposed to the world by the simple device of positing an empirically inaccessible (sic!) Ego which would remain unscathed even if the universe were annihilated.

Another central ploy used by all modern philosophers to combat skepticism was the threat. If you don't accept the unperceivable objectivity, then you won't be able to validate the conformist reality which we all desperately want. That threat has no effect here.

Continuing, Husserl doesn't address the moment (the immediate sensation). He is concerned with moments of the Ego collated over a lifetime as the reified Ego shifts from one vantage point to another or does one thing or another. And yet, as I have often noted, Husserl has given no reason to deny the discontinuity of modes as between waking, dreaming, hypnagogic hallucinations, fever, morning amnesia, psychedelic episodes, etc..

When I was proclaiming "empiricism" as the method, I paid no attention to the moment or phase called intentionality. That is because intentionality is an affection of the Ego which transcends sensation--as does identity of the self over time, or unity of the seeing Ego and the hearing Ego.


Let me consider two cases which would seem to support phenomenology.

a. Suppose you hold up your finger before a background and gaze in front of you. You must focus either on the background or on your finger. The object not focused on will be blurred. Further, you can change focus, and experience doing so as a rapid process, because the finger image will divide or unite as you do so. So the adoption of vantage-points and their correlation to projected completions are experienceable.

But phenomenology is only preaching to the converted. To use psychological language, there can be a table in (my) visual-field. Then "I" can customarily classify the table as non-mental--differentiating it from e.g. mental counting (or from a visualization of the table with eyes closed). Table-apparition and counting are portions of a present experience(-field). There is no basis whatever here to claim a thematic, longitudinal Ego comporting to autonomous things. So the case of shifting finger-apparitions in the center of the visual field does not prove intentionality. If anything, it shows the incompleteness of the customary distinction between non-mental and mental apparitions (double finger; blurred background).

One may speak of visualizations, emotions, self-observations as "self"-aspects. But as far as consciousness or selfhood is concerned, it may as well be considered to be "out there" with "my" table-apparition. More properly, the "out there" notion is nonsensical.

The notion of a unitary, thematic, longitudinal Ego depends on appealing to stretches of the personal past to delineate it. That is what phenomenology does when it invokes sustained purposive activity or sustained emotional perturbations to prove the Ego's adoption of vantage-points. But this evidence is not found in the immediate, in what phenomenology calls the veritable present.

The transitions in focus of the finger supposedly prove that the veritable present is temporally extended. But phenomenology overlooks that a temporally extended "now" would be logically inconsistent. If phenomenology accepts the terminology of past instant, present instant, and future instant, and then wants to claim that we apprehend them together, that cannot be, because these phases are defined as mutually exclusive. Past and future cannot be together with the present in experience--or simultaneous with each other. Or rather, to posit simultaneity would mean foregoing the familiar, rectilinear model of time to which phenomenology is desperately committed.

The activity of an intending self, counterposed to object-contents in "experiences," cannot be proved if the frame is narrowed to the given apparition.

b. Suppose I am playing catch with another person, and expect that the ball will be thrown back to me. Here, perhaps, is a belief about the instantaneous future. Then doesn't there have to be a substantial self to espouse this belief?

When a belief is mentally present, by whom or what is the belief believed? Empiricism's answer--the believer of belief is not to be reified, the believer of belief is present in the same moment as the belief. This does not establish a longitudinal thematic Ego. And yet--for my empiricism it is critical that you can deceive yourself. But to deceive yourself, the immediate must be differentiated. Does literal empiricism deny qualitative variation in the immediate? No.

Probing questions, but they would be too extreme for Husserl.

The foregoing is meant to confront phenomenology with my analysis of nameless experience. If I merely wanted to crush Husserl, it would be enough to demand that Husserl define his use of Erfahrung (or that he defend his dogmatic placing of Erlebnis in your mind, head).


C. But my transactions with phenomenology are not completed. In 1980 I decided that astute hypocracy needed to take not mathematics or physics as its target, but the self-world encounter as self-world encounter. I needed to get a grasp on the juncture--no matter whether "real" or not (a dreamed episode would be fully legitimate)--called personhood. (Modern thought has no science for this juncture, certainly not psychology.) Here, then, it seemed that I wanted to accommodate Husserl. But it was immediately clear that the investigation was something altogether new--incompatible with phenomenology. Personhood theory was not interested in providing a chain of sophistries to validate conformist reality. It wanted to focus personalistic subjectivity in the self-world encounter. I insisted on the different modes such as waking, dreaming, fever, morning amnesia, etc. (I found counter-examples to Husserl's laws of experience in these modes, by the way. E.g. in a hypnagogic hallucination, the visual field need not have a periphery. In dreams, my self's firm placement in my body is violated.) I insisted that autonomous, objective worlds of science were reductionist half-fantasies; also that inaccessible consciousness was unacceptable.


D. During the early phase of personhood theory, I conducted a debate with myself which pitted literal empiricism against personhood theory. Which of the approaches discerned--identified--"experience" more accurately? The result was a long, rambling manuscript called "Reconsidering Empiricism" (1982). I have revised this manuscript in 1991, and it is a major resource on philosophical issues posed by perception and selfhood, as at the end of (B) above.

I returned to these questions again and again. "Studies in the Person-World" (1985), Section C, is a further major statement.