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  • Return of the First-Person Singular: The Science of Subjectivity and the Sciences
  • Alphonso Lingis

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Edmund Husserl launched phenomenology as a rigorous and positivist science of subjectivity. It was set up to deal with specific problems in other scientific disciplines. The discovery of paradoxes in mathematics had put in question the ultimate rationality of mathematics and of the mathematized empirical sciences. Husserl’s phenomenology worked to trace mathematics and logic back to their fundamental units and operations and to exhibit the mental acts in which they are constituted. Subsequently he judged that every scientific discipline was in need of a phenomenological investigation of the subjective acts in which the distinctive objects studied by that discipline are constituted, given to intuition and their meanings ascribed.

Empirical and ideal objects—the essences with which objects are identified and classified—are given in intuition; intuition constitutes them as objects. Intuition occurs in acts in the first-person singular—“I see.” These acts can be brought to light by a specific kind of reflection, also an act in the first-person singular. The successive intuitive and meaning-ascribing acts, and the second-order intuition that is reflection, retain and anticipate one another, forming a distinctive and individual stream of consciousness [End Page 163] that is the first-person singular. The science of subjectivity is based on the reality of the first-person singular.

By midcentury developments in other sciences led to discrediting the phenomenological conception of subjectivity. Structural linguistics had exhibited system in the phonetics and syntaxes of languages and demonstrated that languages change in systematic ways. The meanings of words and expressions form within language and are determined by the existing vocabulary, grammar, and paradigms of a language; they are not the products of individual subjective acts.

Anthropology discarded, as post-Enlightenment Western, the concept of individual subjectivity as an abiding identity and source productive of meanings, judgments, decisions, and initiatives.1 It is cultural symbols that, Clifford Geertz affirms, first articulate, generate, and regenerate thought. To think is to identify things and relate them with words and other cultural symbols. Symbols are external to the thinker; they are words and also images, markings, gestures, rituals, graven idols, water holes, and tools.2 Their meanings are in their uses, and the ways they are used are accessible to observation without divining the minds of the users. “The meanings that symbols, the material vehicles of thought, embody are often elusive, vague, fluctuating, and convoluted, but,” Geertz affirms, “they are, in principle, as capable of being discovered through systematic empirical investigation . . . as the atomic weight of hydrogen or the function of the adrenal glands.”3 Thus anthropology can dispense with the dubious methods to access other minds and become a natural science like any other.4 Claude Lévi-Strauss set out to show the underlying structures, not explicitly conscious, in kinship systems, myths, garb and adornment, and cuisine. He set out to show that fundamental generative structures are universal across cultures.

Emotions surge focused by words and symbols. Indignation, a feeling of injustice, of frustration of our expectations and plans, envy, jealousy, triumph—words and cultural symbols, not produced by the individual mind, make them possible. “Not only ideas, but emotions too, are cultural artifacts in man,” Geertz declares.5

For the postmodern philosophy of mind meanings are articulated in the taxonomic contrasts, semantic systems, grammatical forms, and rhetorical paradigms of languages, which are social and institutional productions. The meanings of speech acts produced by individuals are determined from the specific tongue, milieu, profession, and social and practical situation [End Page 164] in which they are uttered and from the distribution, condensations, and displacements of signifiers in the unconscious. Perceived things and events are not only identified with language; the vocabulary, grammar, and rhetoric of a specific language determine what we perceive and how. Action is ordered by the material imperatives of things and the cues, watchwords, and orders of social institutions.

For postmodernism, Ellen Fox Keller explains, “subjects are . . . constructed by culturally specific discursive regimes (marked by race, gender, sexual orientation, and so on), and subjectivity itself is more properly viewed as the consequence of actions...


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pp. 163-174
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