Phenomenology= Pragmatism: Reconstructing Philosophical Methodology with Michel Henry and John Dewey

Schewel, Benjamin Burbank, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia
Hart, Kevin, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia

My aim in this thesis is to counter what I title “Rorty’s choice,” his analysis that contemporary philosophy must ultimately choose between Dewey’s path of instrumental pragmatism and Heidegger’s quest for the ineffable. I find cause to resist what I take to be Rorty’s inner dismemberment of philosophical methodology from the very outset, insofar as Rorty conceives of both Dewey and Heidegger’s movements of thought as radicalizations of similar movements performed by Plato, the quest for certainty and the quest for purity respectively. How was Plato able to hold these two movements together without falling into hopeless inner division? If Plato philosophized harmoniously within both the quest for certainty and the quest for purity, why is contemporary philosophy unable to do so? Why cannot phenomenology and pragmatism be instead synthesized into a single movement of thought? Tracing both Dewey’s pragmatism and Heidegger’s phenomenology back to their roots in Platonic thought, it becomes clear that Rorty’s analysis of the conflict between Heidegger and Dewey is true: Dewey’s thought offers an unapologetic exaltation of life, while Heidegger constantly seeks to downplay the importance of human life in favor of being itself. This divergence, though, is not the inevitable result of phenomenology’s underlying telos, but rather of philosophical preference. It has to do more with Heidegger and Dewey than it does phenomenology and pragmatism. In order to bolster this insight, I highlight the strong and essential purifying moment within Dewey’s thought, showing its deep resonance with the basic movements of phenomenology. I then turn to Michel Henry’s phenomenology in order to demonstrate phenomenology’s life affirming possibilities. Henry ends up with an account of immanent affective life that incorporates the thrust of Dewey’s pragmatic insights into the organism-­-environment relationship and the harmony seeking movement that guides all forms of living praxis, and Henry does so by radicalizing phenomenology to an even further extent than Heidegger. Having come to such a harmonious account of the insights of Deweyan pragmatism and Henry’s phenomenology, I explore how their methodologies are best described as acts of “reconstruction,” though they emphasize certain moments of this reconstructive process. As a result, I arrive at a preliminary account of a single methodology that incorporates the fruits of both phenomenological and pragmatic inquiry, thereby transcending the limits of Rorty’s analyses.

MA (Master of Arts)
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