Published in Issue #01 — Globalized Nature
The Synergy of Philosophy and Anthropology in the Quest for a Critical Understanding of Cultural Meanings
Having started as a digital dialogue during the phase of the pandemic, the exchange between HIAS Fellow Thiemo Breyer and his tandem partner from the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Hamburg, Michael Schnegg, has in the meantime developed into a manifest interpersonal and international collaboration. A jointly written journal article and a co-organized workshop are two of the first outcomes of this ongoing cooperation:
The journal article titled «Empathy Beyond the Human: The Social Construction of a Multispecies World» (published 2022 in ETHNOS) explores the intersection of Breyer’s and Schnegg’s disciplines in the study of empathy, subjectivity, and intersubjectivity in a world inhabited not only by humans but also by various non-human beings. The article acknowledges the growing recognition within the field of anthropology of the need to expand subjectivity beyond the human realm. It highlights the challenges in doing so, including conceptual and methodological complexities. The central questions posed are: How do non-human beings perceive the world, and how can we come to understand their conscious experiences and perspectives? Furthermore, the article investigates how these non-human perspectives influence the collective reality or multispecies world. Empathy is introduced as a conceptual tool to tackle these questions. The authors emphasize that empathy, in this context, is not driven by ethical considerations but rather as a means to access the subjectivity of others, human and non-human alike. It becomes a tool for understanding how different beings experience the world, encompassing their feelings, beliefs, and desires.
To bridge the gap between human and non-human subjectivity, the authors turn to phenomenology, specifically drawing upon Edith Stein’s concept ‹Einfühlung›. Stein’s model of empathy offers a structured approach to understanding how individuals perceive and connect with the consciousness of others. Importantly, it does not assume a human mind as the sole warrant of subjectivity, making it applicable to non-human entities as well. The model is composed of several steps, allowing for a nuanced exploration of other-understandings. This stepwise approach accommodates the diversity of subjectivities found in the multispecies world, ranging from animals like elephants to spirits such as tricksters and even natural entities like winds. By employing philosophy, the authors aim to provide a conceptual framework that can capture the varying degrees of empathy and its consequences when extended beyond human subjects. The ethnographic research conducted by Schnegg in Northwestern Namibia, focusing on the Damara pastoralists who coexist with a multitude of beings, both human and non-human, allows to examine the practical applications of empathy in a multispecies context.
For empirical subjects—individuals immersed in their lifeworlds—the fundamental relationality of intentionality combines two essential elements: their ways of experiencing the world and the societal context that defines the norms and conditions within which they operate, especially in the public sphere.
The workshop «Normalised Consciousness: Anthropology, Phenomenology, and Critique,» organized by Breyer and Schnegg at the HIAS in June 2023, highlighted the potential of phenomenologically informed ethnography in critically reflecting on social processes. The workshop’s central proposition was rooted in the phenomenological perspective, which encourages an exploration of how something appeares as something for somebody. At its core, phenomenology prioritizes the first-person perspective, acknowledging that subjective experience plays a crucial role in shaping any understanding of the world. This approach invited the international assembly of speakers and discussants to consider not just what is observed (e.g., through the participant observation of classical ethnography), but also how it is experienced, emphasizing the subjective nature of human consciousness. For empirical subjects—individuals immersed in their lifeworlds—the fundamental relationality of intentionality combines two essential elements: their ways of experiencing the world and the societal context that defines the norms and conditions within which they operate, especially in the public sphere. These two dimensions leave indelible traces on what individuals perceive as phenomena. This dual influence shapes the lens through which individuals view themselves and interpret their surroundings.
Moreover, the workshop highlighted the significance of «quasi-transcendental structures,» a term used recently by critical phenomenology. These structures encompass the normalised ways of seeing, feeling, and thinking that are deeply influenced by societal norms and values. Quasi-transcendental structures are the hidden scaffolding of our consciousness, shaping our perceptions and interpretations of reality within the context of our cultural milieu. Thereby, a central goal of the workshop was to bridge the gap between abstract philosophical inquiry and empirical investigation. It encouraged scholars to explore how these quasi-transcendental structures are formed, transformed, and manifest themselves in the experiences of individuals and groups. This empirical turn in phenomenology involves the application of philosophical methods such as description, epoché, reduction, and both static and genetic analysis to examine lived experiences within their social contexts. Ethnographic discussions play a vital role in illustrating how these structures function in specific experiential states, such as feelings, volitions, or cognitions. Ethnography serves as a window into the tangible ways in which norms and values influence experiences, actions, beliefs, and interactions. Through ethnographic accounts, scholars can unveil the often concealed traces of normalised structures within individual consciousness.
The intensive and sometimes controversial discussions at the HIAS event underscored the synergistic potential of philosophy and anthropology.
The workshop’s ultimate objective was to cultivate a phenomenologically informed critique of societal norms. By scrutinizing the interplay between transcendental and quasi-transcendental structures, participants could pinpoint the sources of normativity within a given cultural setting. This critical analysis opened avenues for understanding how societal norms permeate individuals’ lifeworlds, generating both what Edmund Husserl termed «home worlds» and «alien worlds» within their experiences.
The intensive and sometimes controversial discussions at the HIAS event underscored the synergistic potential of philosophy and anthropology. By embracing the first-person perspective and bridging the gap between phenomenological analysis and empirical investigation, the interlocutors could uncover the intricate interplay between individual experience, societal context, cultural meanings, and normative orders in a variety of cases from different places around the world. This assembly of perspectives and regional expertise invited them to explore the rich terrain where phenomenology and ethnography can converge, offering new insights into the nature of normalized consciousness and its implications for human existence. As they continue to navigate the complexities of the human condition, this interdisciplinary approach promises to deepen our understanding of the forces that shaped our perceptions, actions, and interactions in the world. As a more far-reaching outcome of the workshop and their reciprocal cooperation, Breyer and Schnegg plan to publish a co-authored book on the topic of «Phenomenological Anthropology: A Critical Introduction».
A continuation of the workshop is planned for the summer of 2024. Then, the focus will be on one of the central theoretical concepts in ethnology and phenomenology: «What is experience?»
Thiemo Breyer is Professor of Phenomenology and Anthropology at the Department of Philosophy at University of Cologne and Director of the Husserl Archive there. His HIAS Fellowship 2022/2023 was funded by the Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Hamburg.
Cow, Liggend rund, op de rug gezien, Marcus de Bye, after Paulus Potter, 1728—c. 1761—Search—Rijksmuseum, Rijksmuseum, Public Domain with credits.
Farmer in Namibia, IMG_0734, Michael Schnegg