A review of Phenomenology of the Human Person, by Robert Sokolowski

The quarrel between the ancients and moderns is one of the commonplaces in the history of philosophy, and in history, period. As with all such disputes, there is a quarrel about whether it is really a quarrel and, if so, what the quarrel is about. One defensible account: the ancients, in various ways, took a rich notion of nature as a standard for individual persons and human societies. The moderns, in equally various ways, came to regard nature—at the very moment that modern science was coming to know the universe better than ever—as something either hostile or indifferent to us that provided little guidance in human affairs. Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and the great medieval thinkers like Thomas Aquinas all belong with the ancients. Machiavelli, Hobbes, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, and many more recent figures stand among the moderns. Several private and public matters that appear to be simple questions of preference in fact reflect a fundamental disagreement over the very nature of the world and our relationship to it. A great deal hangs in the balance and the quarrel has not been very well conducted. As Leo Strauss once put it, "La querelle des anciens et des modernes must be renewed—it must be repeated with much greater fairness and greater knowledge than it was done in the 17th and 18th centuries."

Robert Sokolowski is one of the great living phenomenologists, a modern philosophical school whose very name typically evokes a certain dread of Teutonic heaviness and interminable wrangling over abstruse terminology. But he writes with a lucidity and pointedness that is hard to come upon in Edmund Husserl, the 20th-century father of the movement, to say nothing of Husserl's more famous students such as Martin Heidegger. InPhenomenology of the Human Person, Sokolowski, a philosophy professor at the Catholic University of America, tackles an astonishing range of questions and resolves a number of intellectual confusions without sinking beneath the weight of conceptual complexity. And as he says towards the end of this enlightening text,

The resources provided by phenomenology allow us, I believe, to transcend the difference between ancients and moderns. They offer a way to pursue philosophy as such, without being forced to be contemporary only at the price of turning away from the ancients. They permit us to read classical writings not just as historical phenomena but as material for recapitulation.

Sokolowski makes this claim after a dense but consistently insightful parsing of the forms of human thought, thought's contents, how the body and human action are related to thought, perception, wishes, and choices, and a host of other issues. The advantage of the phenomenological method is that it tries to get at the phenomena—appearances, but not mere appearances as those have been understood since the Cartesian split between the mind and the world. By reflecting on and describing a great range of things and events that are clearly formulable in our experience, we can in fact affirm in defensible ways some of the realist insights of the ancients.

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The three figures Sokolowski chooses to illustrate his methods and conclusions in the final section of the book are Aristotle, Aquinas, and Henry James. The first two are, of course, not surprising. What he tries to show is that, for the most part, Aristotle and Aquinas provide us with a different and more humanly fruitful epistemology, which is to say an account of human being and knowledge in the world. In their different ways, those two figures emphasize knowledge as a kind of unity between knower and known, with very careful spelling out of the nature of that unity. Intermediaries—those odd representations, images, impressions that come between us and the world in so many of the moderns—in his view are either to be differently conceived or reduced to a minimum. In Descartes, Hume, Kant, and several related figures, for example, the only things we know are representations in the mind. Then the problem becomes how do we connect these representations within us to the world outside us? As has often been pointed out if the problem is conceptualized this way, it has no solution. If you start with internal impressions, you can't ever really get outside those impressions to anything else.

Phenomenology as Husserl conceived of it begins at a different point, though even Husserl was not always consistent about his main insight, which confronts the Cartesian split that divides us from the world. Husserl assumes that we and the world are already in some relationship (why would we even think there's an external world if all we have are impressions inside our heads?). To assume that we exist in a world means that we must regard the world as possessing qualities that allow it to disclose itself. And our minds must possess qualities that allow us to be involved with that disclosure in ways that make us see that part of the description of the human person involves titles such as "agent of truth." At its best, phenomenology traces out features of this relationship and shows how even phenomena like error and illusion do not invalidate the basic insight, which allows us to re-read the ancients with profit while taking into account the challenges of the moderns.

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Our relationship with the truth of the world is complex and many layered, which is perhaps why Sokolowski chooses to end his analysis with a chapter on that subtlest of novelists, Henry James. James writes often of this or that character "taking in" some reality. As we know from our own experience, such "taking in" may range from the very casual—taking in a movie or a landscape—to the highly complex: say, a particle physicist's piecing together of some new subatomic relationship; or Lambert Strether's realization in James's The Ambassadors of the meaning of an intricate web of human relationships, a conclusion built up over time out of bits of knowledge of various kinds and shadings, reflecting realities of similarly varied natures. The mere awareness of these multitudinous forms of existence gives phenomenology, in the right hands, a grasp of the world that often makes both ancient and modern models of cognition appear quite crude.

Among the many things that result from such an analysis is an appreciation for parts and wholes, which have marvelous technical meanings in phenomenology. Philosophy is in a sense the way we recognize and think through these meanings. For example, Sokolowski remarks, "The physics of nature ultimately makes a place for what John Archibald Wheeler calls observation and measurement, what Niels Bohr calls registration, and what Michael Oakeshott calls verdicts, all of which are part of intelligent life." And one of the things that has a place made for it is our sense of how these various levels of existence fit together as a whole:

It is wondrous indeed that the cosmos contains a part that can discover something about the whole, but that same part also engages in more ephemeral and localized pursuits. It decides to fight or to flee, it gives and it takes, it befriends and betrays. It undergoes attachments and loss because it wants to be happy, and its syntax of action is no less subtle than the grammar of its speech. It carries out its actions through the understanding it has of the situation in which at the moment it finds itself, in response to the other agents and speakers who are involved with it. It can declaratively say "I" when engaged in such practical activity and such emotional involvements. It can use that sign design because its action is based on an understanding that occurs within articulated syntax. Moral syntax can be casual and relaxed, but it can also react with fierce intensity; even a brief encounter can be a transaction whose syntax gets so tangled that the protagonists destroy themselves—or almost destroy themselves—under the strain.

In a way, this description is merely a very eloquent statement of common sense. But in another it recovers a wide range of experience and human action often present only in fragments for philosophical analysis, when it is present at all.

In that regard, the phenomenology of the human person as Sokolowski presents it enriches the philosophical reading of both ancients and moderns because it emphasizes the full and public nature of knowledge and action. Oddly, given its basic thrust, phenomenology has not produced very much in terms of political philosophy. In that, too, perhaps it resembles Henry James, who looked hard at the competing attractions of the esthetic and the political in The Princess Casamassima, but otherwise rarely gives the impression that he thought social and political affairs a major dimension of human life. Sokolowski briefly touches on and illuminates political questions at many points without himself developing any of them fully, perhaps because he regards philosophical discourse at its deepest as something different and almost sui generis in the modern world:

Machiavelli and Hobbes force the philosophical speaker or writer back into being one of the contenders in the natural attitude [towards things] and the practical order. For them, ruling is the best life, not thinking, and the mind essentially governs and does not contemplate. In canceling the philosophical attitude, they cash out the theoretic life in order to buy the effective truth of things.

As this remark might also suggest, there may be something peculiar about modern states that discourages examining them for deep truths. In The Republic, Socrates famously remarks that he is going to try to explain human beings by looking at political structures because the latter are a kind of human person writ large, and therefore make human features easier to read. In our time, the truths that phenomenology uncovers at the other end of the spectrum—the nature and functions of the concrete human person—are eminently suited to supplement some of the narrowness of scope and looseness of conception that mark many modern democratic systems. But this analysis of the person also lays quite a bit of emphasis on things like the public nature of reason, which are generally downplayed in modern thought.

Sokolowski's phenomenological account of the human person, then, is the kind of preliminary work that needs to be undertaken if we want to be able to think about public life and human communities as having some sort of purpose rooted in nature and human nature rather than as merely the aggregate of untethered individual choices. Phenomenology may have a fair chance at doing this precisely because of its thick Jamesian sense of reality:

The philosophical desideratum is not simply to return to Aristotle but to restore the validity of what he describes within the context set by the great transformation brought about by modern thought, and one of the elements in such a restoration is the recovery of the publicness of the mind that executes judgments. Along with this restoration of mind is the rediscovery of things as having essences, properties, and ends, which govern the purposes we set for ourselves.

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Leo Strauss's suggestion that the quarrel between ancients and moderns needs to be revisited with greater knowledge and greater fairness may have, in effect, been taken up in Sokolowski's work. How else can you characterize the intellectual generosity of a man whose touchstones are Aristotle, Aquinas, and James, and yet can write:

Hume's Treatise and John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding are marvelous works of metaphysics…. They make many wonderful observations, but they spoil it all by claiming that everything they say applies only to the walls of the cabinet of their minds, to ideas, impressions, or perceptions, not to the being of things…. If we could use something like a philosophical virus scan to clear away the distorting subjectivism infecting these writings, we would be left with metaphysical treatises that compared favorably to the classics of that genre.

Sokolowski has made considerable strides towards that and many other highly desirable goals.