A scholastic account of a phenomenological claim

One way to translate a fundamental claim of phenomenology into Thomist terms is to say that before Phenomenology, everyone was working from an unrealized negative abstraction from their actual experience of the world.

Thomism developed to recognize several different sorts of abstraction. There were at least two sorts of positive abstraction, sc. the abstraction of a universal whole from its parts (like when we get the idea “placental mammal” by looking at pigs and cows) and the abstraction of a form from the-thing-with-the-form (like when we get the idea of “redness” from “red” or the idea of a circle from looking at a wheel.) Both of these abstractions, however, presuppose the more general reality of negative abstraction, which is simply the act of considering one thing without another. This allows not only for positive abstraction but also the mere act of paying attention or focusing on one thing and letting others fall from consciousness, e.g. we can consider the color of a rose without considering its scent. This sort of “abstraction” is found in any finite cognitive power – a cat focusing on something will tune other things out.

The claim of phenomenology is that pre-phenomenological thinkers all made an unrealized negative abstraction from the world as actually experienced. Experience comes to us as a totality, but science and philosophy all try to start from some part divided from that whole. Aristotle, for example, starts with “substance”. He separates, say, a cow from the field of experience, lets everything else drop from view, and quietly assumes that the world is an enumeration of these substances. But experience does not come to us like this. We see the whole first and then divide it into parts (like “substance”) by various turns of focus. True, if we are to study anything, we need to let this initial totality fall into the subconscious, but this only means that any act of learning involves a submersion of a vast section of the world as it comes to us. This is one application of Heidegger’s idea that every disclosure of being also hides it.

Arguably, by overlooking this initial totality of experience, we have fallen into the idea that analysis is fundamental, or that ultimate reality is the part. Our ontologies are thus all searches for the ultimate part. We seek reality in what is most isolated and cut off from things.

1 Comment

  1. Pseudonoma said,

    September 5, 2013 at 4:20 am

    “We see the whole first and then divide it into parts (like “substance”) by various turns of focus. True, if we are to study anything, we need to let this initial totality fall into the subconscious, but this only means that any act of learning involves a submersion of a vast section of the world as it comes to us. This is one application of Heidegger’s idea that every disclosure of being also hides it”

    This is another admirably succinct formulation –one which I am quite pleased you attempted. It is important when introducing others to, e.g. Heidegger’s understanding of how unverborgenheit is evidence in the transition from zuhanden- to vorhandensein that one makes a deliberate effort to initially avoid these terms and their English translation equivalents like “readiness to hand” and “presence at hand”. Your “scholastic account” does a nice job easing us into realizing that Heidegger is not talking inchoately even if he is talking something we first encounter in a manner inchoate. In all of my years studying Heidegger’s thought I have come to realize that accurate formulations of this thought all of them carry with them a certain dyanamism of something more to be unfolded. This is in fact, one of the marks of their accuaracy (the reason why this is so is in fact addressed as a part of the core content of Heidegger’s thought). In the case of your post we have a certain clue here:

    “if we are to study anything, we need to let this initial totality fall into the subconscious”

    Here what must be realized is that the concept of consciousness and the concepts it supports like “subconscious” is a concept itself presupposing precisely this “negative abstraction” named in your post: First we encounter individual things and then we discover some are, building our interpretation further, conscious. Therefore the inherent problem worth pursuing is: our we accurate characterizing the act of negative abstraction when we speak of letting “this initial totality fall into the subconscious”? Indeed, are not we misconstruing the concealment of the totality when we speak of it as a function of consciousness, since the latter depends on the former? And if the phenomenon in question is not properly named or thought in the designation “consciousness” then a very exciting possibility awaits to be thought: the possibility that this change does not happen in some merely subjective sphere, that it is not merely a gestalt shift or change in perspective — in other words the possibility that the Being of these beings has in some way changed.


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