Johnson, Galen

Advisor Department





phenomenology, anthropology, merleau-ponty, husserl, human sciences, sociology

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Creative Commons License
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The Implications of Merleau-Ponty for the Human Sciences Ryan Marcotte Cobb Faculty Sponsor: Galen Johnson, Philosophy The American Anthropology Association (AAA) made headlines in November 2010 due to a controversial change in their 'Long-Range Plan.' The revised AAA mission statement omits all mention of the word 'science' and this omission has sparked a fierce debate within the anthropology community. The debate reveals that the study of social phenomena can be approached from two competing points of view – a scientific and a non-scientific perspective. This project is concerned with the historical and intellectual developments that led to this competition between science and other forms of knowing within the domain of social inquiry. Furthermore, I argue that the AAA was correct in supporting alternative knowledge systems; in particular, phenomenological philosophy has much to offer social inquiry. I support Edmund Husserl’s claim that the sciences have undergone a radical transformation since their inception in Ancient Greek thought, which conceived of both science and philosophy as two manifestations of the same theoretical attitude. After the technization of science during the late Renaissance, science and philosophy grew distant and the methods and common assumptions of scientific practice were conceived of as an exclusive source of knowledge generation. This scientific rationality reached its peak of popularity during the positivist movement of the early 20th century in both natural scienceand linguistics. The positivist rationality, however, that all intelligible aspects of existence can be clarified through the application of a particular empirical method, will not suffice to answer the questions that mankind finds most burning – questions of the meaningfulness of human existence and relations. An examination of positivist social science methods reveals its inability to explain social phenomena that are familiar to us in our everyday experiences. In particular, positivist social science cannot take into account the meaning of human behavior and social relations since meaning is a conceptual instead of an empirical problem. In light of the difficulties within positivist social science, philosophers like Peter Winch argue that, as a conceptual problem, social phenomena can be clarified by philosophical analysis. Not every philosophy, however, is able to clarify social relations; only a philosophy that accounts for intersubjectivity can explain meaningful behavior. The phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty is the philosophy best suited for social inquiry because it takes intersubjectivity as its starting point. The later works of Merleau-Ponty call for a new philosophy of science and a new metaphysics to inform our understanding of social phenomena. If any meaningful knowledge of the social world is possible, Merleau-Ponty gives us the concepts through which we must speak of it. The social world is a shared world of overlapping existential situations and social structures. No matter how much our situation might bind us, however, Merleau-Ponty explicates the phenomenological notion of freedom that allows us to transcend the given situation and alter the social reality in which we live. My honors project is a study of key texts by Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty regarding the significance of phenomenology as a philosophy of science, particularly as a philosophy of the human sciences.

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