Phenomenology and the Crisis of Civilization

Because such fingers need to knit

That subtle knot, which makes us man…

John Donne, The Ecstasy


With these dozen or so words the sixteenth century British metaphysical poet, preacher, and elegist, John Donne, foreshadowed the core challenge haunting our late post-modern world, while at roughly the same time a French philosopher and mathematician, Rene Descartes, was busy laying its oft-heralded foundations.  Today we are heirs to the one and, like our forebear Descartes, skeptical of the other.

Our current, hyper-rational post-industrial culture is indebted to Cartesian doubt, along with its skeptical bifurcation of subject and object, mind and body, self and world.  But this foundation itself rests upon prior constructions laid down by Aristotle and before him by the Greek Stoics. And even the categories of these ancients germinated in soils hearkening back yet further in human history, to the earliest divisions of labor and specializations that emerged with the burgeoning of urban life and the pre-reflective creation of institutional hierarchies six millennia ago. These several historical layers have left us with a diminished conception of thinking, dominated by Aristotle’s syllogistic, and with a diminished conception of community, the post-modern state.

With the enforced separation of an objective, externalized universe, presumably independent of the knowing and contemplating subject, scientific hypothesis formation was able to provide us with an ever-expanding toolbox allowing us to manipulate and finally control that external environment.  Such a set of tools would eventually be applied not only to objective nature, so conceived, and to those wild creatures populating the natural world, but to human beings as well.  So our control and manipulation would finally extend to the very “soul of those who were by nature our own equals… our fellow men” (Augustine, de Doctrina Christiana).

It was not until early in the twentieth century, with the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, another French philosopher, that the wrong turn initiated by Descartes was made clearly evident to trained philosophers.  An earnest student of phenomenology and psychology, and with an uncanny commitment to the primacy of perception, Merleau-Ponty was able to disclose the fleshy “intertwining” of the sentient subject and the earthly sensuous, in short, the “body-subject (le corps-sujet), and the world-as-lived-by-the-body.  It is this philosophical recollection of the inter-animation of body and world that may assist us in understanding the roots of our current crisis today – the crisis of Western civilization.


We “first-worlders” tend to believe that our sciences and our technologies represent the best human ingenuity has to offer, that they demonstrate our unquestionable historical advancement and justify our global supremacy.  We feel that we have overcome the more primitive and undeveloped aspects of the origins of our species, which, not in the least, is demonstrated through our increasing mastery over nature.  In his Introduction to Metaphysics, Martin Heidegger challenges this very assumption of the modern temperament.

The fundamental error that underlies [modern sciences, natural and human] is the opinion that the inception…is primitive and backward, clumsy and weak. The opposite is true. The inception is what is most uncanny and mightiest. What follows is not a development but flattening down as mere widening out… a perversion of what is great, into greatness and extension purely in the sense of number and mass. The uncanniest is what it is because it harbors such an inception in which, from over-abundance, everything breaks out at once into what is overwhelming…. (165)

Here Heidegger overturns, as he frequently does, the commonly accepted view of things.  This world of ours, the product of modern science, rather than representing a development is really a regression – a truncation, abbreviation, and reduction of the original richness and fullness of existence to mere numerical coefficients, mere extensions in space-time. The world has become emptied out by modern consciousness, reduced in simplest terms to a set of mathematical equations or legalistic syllogisms.

In all his later work, Heidegger was possessed with this state of affairs and with the curious relationship obtaining between thinking, being, and truth.  He came to see that the original nature of human dwelling, of our being-in-the-world, was covered over by the not-so-artful constructs of modern consciousness, and that the truth of being lay hidden in our collective forgetfulness.  In fact, he came to rely increasingly upon the concept of truth as unconcealment or disclosedness, seeking to articulate the original intertwining of thinking and dwelling – a condition of openness that he termed Gelassenheit.  He recovered the concept of truth from its ancient roots in Greek myth, deriving rather circuitously from the word lethe, the river of forgetfulness, one of the five rivers of the underworld in Greek mythology.  The term lethe in classical Greek literally meant “oblivion,” “forgetfulness,” or “concealment.”  The word for “truth” on the other hand, from whence Heidegger rescues our own concept, is aletheia (ἀλήθεια), meaning un-forgetfulness, un-concealment, or disclosedness. The event of truth would be exposing that which had been essentially concealed or hidden and letting it again shine-forth.

It is this condition of forgetfulness that Heidegger wants so desperately to reverse in his final writings; he wants to let-shine-forth what was forgotten and covered-over at the origins of modern thought even prior to Aristotle.  It is for this reason that he looks to Greek mythology and to the pre-Socratics to help excavate the ground of this forgetting, and begin to uncover the rich origins of human dwelling, and our primal openness (Gelassenheit) to the mystery of Dasein or Being-there.


But it was with Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s work that the locus of human dwelling was finally rediscovered philosophically, recovered from the oblivion of Western rationalism, scientism and metaphysics.  It was his relentless focus on le corps sujet (the body-subject) that broke open that mysterious chiasm, the foundational “intertwining” of my body with the world-as-lived (my flesh, the flesh of the world), affording the very possibility of sentient experience — of touching and being touched, of seeing and being seen, of hearing and being heard, of smelling and being smelled, of tasting and being tasted (The Visible and the Invisible).

More important yet was his analysis of the problematic of unidirectional time, helping to break the spell of historical consciousness that had been cast like a pall over humanity for nearly six millennia.  No longer were we to be chained to the treadmill of clock time’s forward march.  As he wrote in The Phenomenology of Perception:

We say that time passes or flows by. We speak of the course of time.  The water that I see rolling by was made ready a few days ago in the mountains, with the melting glacier… If time is similar to a river, it flows from the past towards the present and the future.  The present is the consequence of the past, and the future of the present.  But this often repeated metaphor is in reality extremely confused. For, looking at the things themselves, the melting snows and what results from this are not successive events, or rather the very notion of event has no place in the objective world… if I consider the world itself, there is simply one indivisible and changeless being in it… The objective world is too much a plenum for there to be time. (411-412)

“…Too much a plenum for there to be time?” More than a challenging metaphor, this statement appears to be an indictment of Enlightenment hypothesizing and post-Enlightenment reasoning.  Perhaps a not so indirect allusion to Descartes and Newton (De Gravitatione), Merleau-Ponty’s words here suggest a fundamental overturning of our now commonsense view, while recollecting the pre-reflective nature of human dwelling within the fullness (plenus) of the lived-body-world, what he later calls “the thickness of the pre-objective present, in which we find our bodily being, our social being, and the pre-existence of the world.” (421, italics mine)

Merleau-Ponty seemed aware that there is something hidden or forgotten underlying our mundane experience of this reconstituted and modified environment; something linking us to the earth we inhabit and enlivening our presence here — something more primal than the hypotheticals of space and time generated by our scientists and our specialists.


Heidegger understood that the emergence of scientific hypotheses concerning pure extension and temporal duration, and so our commonsense conceptions of space and time, represented abstractions, transformations and perversions of a more primal and overwhelming experience of Being — perhaps what the Pacific Islanders referred to as “mana.”  For the Islanders, there was apparently no such thing as empty space or simple, objective material extension, as was the documented case among many other pre-urban tribes and hunter-gatherer societies; their world was filled with living, animate, sentient and powerful subjectivities lurking everywhere and residing almost anywhere – in the wind, the water, the stone, or the bush.  (We first-worlders called it, condescendingly, animism.)  So too, there is good reason to suggest that indigenous tribes had no genuine concept of pure linear duration either, no time, as we have come to know it, flowing from past to future (see Dorothy D. Lee, Freedom and Culture).  The natural cyclicality of life breathed around, through, and within them: the rising and setting of the sun, the lunar cycle, seasonal changes, the repetition of ritual archetypal behavior.  In Heidegger’s terms what happened with the emergence of thought from these auspicious and pregnant beginnings was a “flattening out” of an originally uncanny and overwhelming primal moment.

To this day there are some excellent studies that correctly point to the spread of agriculture and the birth of cities as the principal focus of our changed material relations with the world.  Yet even these analyses typically make the underlying and pre-thematic assumption that the perceptions and consciousness of our preliterate, pre-civilized predecessors were roughly identical to our own; that we perceive the same world and experience our place therein as did our “primitive” forebears.  But to infer that primal humans reasoned and conceptualized as we do today would be an unsustainable inference (see Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances). Indeed, the opposite assumption is more likely the case; that they reflected quite differently on the plenum and on themselves than we do, and that this was in large measure a result of how differently they perceived and felt themselves within the world.  There is certainly nothing in the anthropological, paleontological, or ethnographic record that would contradict such an assumption.  In fact, there may be much, both in mythology and ethnography, to recommend it (see Mircea Eliade, Cosmos and History, Daniel Everett, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes).

Specifically, our conceptions of pure extension and duration, of mere materiality and unidirectional time, themselves conceptually linked to a reification and radicalization of an objective and internalized sense of self – removed from the world and observing it from afar – locked us into a specific place in history and to our own unique histories; this is a large part of that difference, and this is largely responsible not only for the emergence of civilization, but for the evolving crisis we now face. It is to this primeval transformation of consciousness that we must look for the inchoate but emergent beginnings of our crisis, even at the misty origins of Western civilization.


There appears now to be a fork in the road we are traveling; but since, as we have suggested, the present is all we really have, there is not much sense in talking about having passed the point of no return.  So, while the culture itself may appear to be locked in a self-inflicted death spiral, each of us still has a choice.  Let’s briefly consider the options.

On the one hand, we could simply do nothing at all and allow calendrical time, the relentless march of civilized history, to define us and continue its course unabated.  In other words, we can maintain our commitment to this ancient trajectory that was set in motion as far back as Sumer, codified later by Aristotle, and more fully articulated in the Enlightenment and beyond; or we can personally choose to minimize or even terminate our participation in the unfolding spectacle, and find a more compelling way of being-in-the-world.

This brings us to the second option – recollection.  We can each personally make an effort to recollect that genetic memory trace, recalling from within the hiddenness and forgetfulness of our own isolated egos the “subtle knot” that grounds our primal intertwining with the world-as-lived-by-the-body.  In this way we might experience again that feral openness which first made the earthly sensuous and our own sentience possible.

The bigger challenge is for the collective, and the footprint we have made as a civilization.  There have been global reverberations from this change of perception and consciousness that were set in motion so many millennia ago.  There has been ecological, social, psychological, and economic fallout.  How do we find a footpath back from those hypotheses, both social and natural scientific, that have led us to this point and continue to bind us collectively to this spectacle?  It seems to me that Merleau-Ponty’s reflections, while necessary for understanding the specific gravity of our situated presence, may not be sufficient for overcoming our current dilemma and slowing down or reversing its momentum or its negative effects.  But, perhaps with some effort we can yet find something that will at least reduce this cold tyranny of reason and its brainchildren – the syllogism and the modern state.

State is the name of the coldest of all cold monsters… State, where the slow suicide of all – is called ‘life.’ (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, The New Idol)

16 Responses to Phenomenology and the Crisis of Civilization

  1. Pingback: Phenomenology and the Crisis of Civilization | kulturcritic

  2. Straycat says:

    A beautifully written exposition. While I agree with you that the alienation of the individual from the whole of the world, the suburbanization of humans, so to speak, I would submit that the in the present appreciation of the past is not lost to us, and does not require a harking back to the pre civilized past, but requires a moving forward to an appreciation of the wholeness of every individual, realizing that the body, mind and spirit are one, indivisible entity. That the soul of a human is the result of bioelectrical processes, mediated by hormones, informed by virtually every organ of the person, the persons whole history, perceptions and what the individual selects as “truths” does not diminish the wonder or beauty of it all.
    The terrible cost of civilization is the imposition of time constraints and thought constraints by the rulers, sometimes government, but more often the profit making institutions by whatever name. The Ceo’s and other officers delegate their moral sense to the lowest common standard called for by the assault on people for profit. Profit produces personal and institutional power, which many equate with security.
    It has become obvious that security derived from the rat race which depends upon the approval of one by one’s natural competitors and enemies is no security at all. Thus, the very institutions that provide wealth, and as an afterthought produce “goods” and “services” are at the root of the problems you so elegantly outline. We will never be free from the false elements of true civilization so long as we are tricked into or willfully become enslaved by these shiny objects. The very problem of authenticity arises from the expensive, breakable and, in the end, unsatisfying toys and entertainment that passes for living. Most of us, including myself, spend too much of our time, fat and lazy, pretending that we live in the best of all worlds, swatting away the nagging, even painful suspicion that we are wasting our lives. Those of us who garden, sail, explore, read and argue are seen as wierdos, strange, uncomfortable people who words impinge on the passive comfort of our friends and family. We do not understand the hostility, nor perceive that those who we know do not ever, or have not for a very long time felt the electrical excitement and fundamental peace and well being arising from a new adventure, and new person, a new thought. Seeing a new thought and integrating it, testing it, fondling it is so satisfying, that I cannot conceive that there are persons who have not experienced it, of if they have, fail to seek such as much as their life permits. Or am I blind to the obvious and so blind as to miss the fact that most people do experience these moments and I cannot find it in their communications?

    • kulturcritic says:

      Straycat – I am glad you enjoyed this article. I think the issues are critical to the rehabilitation of our humanity. But, the problem of time perception is a key element in this rehabilitation. From your comments, I am not sure if you agree. The delusion of unidirectional time has laid the foundation for the issue of cause and effect in science as much as in law and politics. It is what drives the systems of civilized social and economic organization. It remains a primal source of our enslavement and our self-estrangement.

      And regarding your comment: “We will never be free from the false elements of true civilization so long as we are tricked into or willfully become enslaved by these shiny objects.”

      What is “true civilization?”

      • Straycat says:

        I agree that time, and the constraints imposed by agriculture and later industrial production are critical. Civility, meaning the equal and respectful treatment of all citizens unless they act criminally, is essential to true civilization. The recognition, as Abraham Lincoln noted, that all capital came originally from labor, ought to lead to a different treatment of the two elements of economic well being. Somewhere along the line, those who have accumulated capital, often without any action on their part, have aggregated to themselves a superiority of place and power. Workers, serfs, peasants and industrial workers are trapped in time limits, whether their work is completed. The production run can be completed, but the laborer must stay and twiddle his or her thumbs until the shift ends. The boss can play golf at 1:00 if he chooses.
        Today, time is even more precious. TV, soccer, social events, sports, groceries, hair appointments, etc. There is little or no time to think, to contemplate or individual and collective condition. Noise everywhere. We have been robbed of our own time, and as modern industrial and agricultural methods have freed many, the social demands created by the predator class have deprived the people of the time that was saved for the purpose of consumer spending and to keep us from thinking clearly. The empty language of mass discourse disallows any inquiry or protest, because the sophistic language gives no purchase, no grip on the notions afloat on the net and in the news.

        • kulturcritic says:

          By why is “time” more precious now? Well, here is what Dr. Marvin Bram wrote in the Foreword to my book, The Recovery of Ecstasy.

          We in the West live inside our calendars, wearing our watches. What are the arguments for this recent and remarkable self-relegation to timekeeping being absolutely necessary? merely a convenience? a full-fledged curse?
          We’re happy to make a to-us obvious distinction among the past, the present, and the future. We look at the present date on a calendar, and it’s a simple matter to find the month and day something happened in the past. It may have been a pleasant thing that happened, but it may have been an embarrassment we can’t get out of our mind, or something terrible, or something important that went undone. So it’s a mixed enterprise, looking back at the past.
          The future is more interesting. Its days and months are marked on the calendar too. It goes without saying that none of those days has happened yet, but we’re especially absorbed with them because our planning involves the future. On a particular future day, perhaps at a particular time on that day, we want something to happen. We’re probably making arrangements in the present for that future event; that’s one of our major activities. So it appears that planning for the future isn’t the mixed enterprise that looking back at the past probably is. We maximize our interests when we plan intelligently.
          That’s not quite true. The selfsame future in which we plan our next and better job, or arrange for a wedding or for college, is the only site on the temporal scheme past/present/future in which we will cease to live. We die in the future. Here is a hypothesis: the more absorbed with planning a person is, the more likely that fear of death will become a continuous presence for that person.
          It appears that thinking about the past represents a low-intensity, mixed use of the mind, sometimes rather positive emotionally, sometimes rather negative. Thinking about the future, on the other hand, is high intensity itself. Yes, thank God, I’ve arranged for Buster to go to Harvard. Oh no, I’m going to die.
          Something more remains to be said about the middle term of the scheme. First, the present is the only place we are living, acting, thinking, feeling. We’re done with the past, and the future hasn’t happened. And the nature of that living? It may well be that our present is preoccupied, one way or another, with the past and the future! The only place we’re actually living has been made thin by two uses of the mind that are in fact recent mental habits taught us in civilizations like our own. The present, for more of us than we want to acknowledge, can thin out to near-emptiness in this way. “My life is empty,” means more than it seems to mean.
          If living in the past and future instead of the present is a recent phenomenon, and not, “the way things are and have always been,” then was there once another way to live? Indeed there was. In particular, was the curse of personal death-terror once non-existent? Even more to the point, can the curse of your and my death-terrors be lifted? We can handle the low-intensity features of thinking about the past, although it might be good if we could get something in the way of positive high intensity from the past.
          Sandy Krolick has worked out a way to do both of those things, rid ourselves of the suffering of death-terror and re-conceive the past so that the new conception fills rather than empties each present moment. From one direction, take away arguably the deepest source of human suffering; from the other direction bring back arguably the deepest source of human happiness.
          Krolick accomplishes both the removal of the one and the addition of the other in one move. Fulfilling the early promise of his groundbreaking work Recollective Resolve: A Phenomenological Understanding of Time and Myth (1987), he again takes up Martin Heidegger’s notion of “being-toward-death,” or anticipatory resolve. It’s an unsatisfactory notion, imprisoned in the calendar. Krolick rotates Heidegger 180 degrees and unearths the strikingly satisfactory “being-toward–the-beginning,” or recollective resolve. By looking back rather than forward, he exposes the trick looking forward plays on us: we must look at death, Heidegger says; no we needn’t, Krolick rejoinders. The future is dissolved in thin air, where it belongs. As for looking into the past: the calendar-and-clock past doesn’t deserve our attention. It’s trivial. If instead we overleap the trivial past to land on “the beginning,” again, not a calendrical beginning but an ahistorical kairotic moment, a Big Bang containing the energy of life itself, then we can bring that energy forward into each of our present moments. Krolick gives us an intensely positive “past” at the same time he relieves us of a future that contains our death.
          Krolick has lived a complex life in different parts of the world, sometimes among people who still have one foot in that kairotic moment. In this book, he takes us along on a journey, sharing with us his own adventure of self-discovery, return, and renewal. You will find that the light shed on this adventure by his presumption of recollective resolve will spill over into your own life. You will find it possible to identify your “feral self,” who yearns to live in the moment, unburdened by a heavy and cheerless past the 21st century ardently wants to place on your shoulders and by a future with which the 21st century ardently wants to sicken you. This double liberation Krolick calls the recovery of ecstasy.
          Marvin Bram, Ph.D., L.H.D.

  3. Straycat says:

    Sorry about the missing sentence parts. That’s what I get for sloppy editing.

    • kulturcritic says:

      Maybe the missing parts are a source of my confusion??? lol

      • StrayCat says:

        Am rereading your posts from the beginning in concert with other readings beginning with Dewey, Hegel and Heidigger. Your reflections on time are newly appreciated, and comport with some of my strongly felt but ti date unexamined feelings about being in the present. Being in the present certainly is more satisfying and full. How do we encompass that wholly and plan to act toward forestalling or averting some of the consequences of the end of this Empire. Certainly. preserving the ability to live in the present by maintaining an environment conducive to that is primary, but to do that, we must look into and at the past to understand the thought patterns, actions and omissions that brought us to this point. And being at this point assumes past as well as it assumes being. These are practical matters to me. If one sees the present as a consequence of the past 6,000 years, and wishes to change the the fundamental ground of understanding of oneself in the world it seems to me that two kinds of thinking are required. And this may be my fundamental misunderstanding. While I understand that I must turn inward and examine the basics of my present way of seeing the world, it is this present understanding that motivates me to undertake such a difficult journey, and the basis for evaluating how material changes will move me and mine in a good direction or directions. Or is directionality also a function of the curriculum?

        • kulturcritic says:

          SC – exceptional questions you raise. In a real sense, yes there are two divergent modes of comporting oneself with respect to time and presence. The future directed mode is a function of the past 6,000 years of human history in large measure; while the other mode is really a moderation on the cyclicality of nature, presence itself really a function of rootedness to place along with the ebb and flow of natural cycles. But, in truth, we are so indebted to the curriculum of the West that we cannot ever simply turn back and become who we were. But, there is the possibility of living a life in- between, and to some extent we must do that because one half is who we are by nature, the other, who we have become by culture. There is no way out, I am afraid.

  4. derekthered says:

    this will have to wait until this evening, got to go to work, looks really interesting.

  5. derektherd says:

    ok, i have read it. i don’t think the conception of ‘future” started with settled cities and socrates, i think cave men dried meat for the winter and stored found food also. yes, the conception of time was tied more to natural cycles, that just makes sense.

    now, a point to be made is the artificial way we think about storage, consider our concept of capital, stocks, bonds, social security payments, any number of things; we talk about bonds “maturing” as if they are plants, they are not. you can’t eat stocks and bonds, or dollars, you can only exchange them for the necessities of life. our system of capital defies the natural world, lays claims against life itself, turns the world into an abstraction. a realistic economy would take account of the fact that we are dependent upon the processes of nature, and that we are using up what it took nature eons to develop.

    here we come to the marxist notion of labor as dead capital, which of course makes capitalism a death cult, as capital is given sway over man and nature. it is my thesis that this worship of death has twisted our entire conception of ourselves and the cosmos.

    what worries me is humanity being turned into clockwork, even in our own minds, where we consider our bodies something to be exploited, an internalization of the capitalist ethos, where our being is mined to exploit whatever thrill we seek at the time.

    i appreciate your points, i think we travel different paths.

    • kulturcritic says:

      I am not sure you fully grasped the piece, derek. But ai appreciate your reading it. I am not certain I understand your concern with storage. However, the concept does indicate a future for which to prepare.

      • derekthered says:

        no, i grasped it all right. the storage bit is about the valuation of goods and services which haven’t even been produced yet. i understand concepts in my mind, but am unable to articulate them.

        what got me down this path is the social security trust fund, promises against the future that has yet to arrive, this flows out of the concept of dead labour. we have erected an abstract system which flies in the face of observable reality; nature operates on a seasonal basis, not 50 year maturities.

        in our species arrogance we try to force nature to fit our conceits, the result of this is species extinction, diminishing topsoil, all the ills afflicting modern society. i agree with you that this flows from the greek way of thinking, a way of thinking which has been held up as the scientific ideal, but which i have been questioning for years, before i ever ran across your blog.

        where we diverge is what you see as solutions may very well be a part of, or a result of, the problem.

        • kulturcritic says:

          Derek – I agree whole heartedly with your exposition here. The only thing a bit odd is that you think I have a solution. That’s funny. I really don’t. I am a cynic to the core on the macro-level. But I think your analysis here is right on!!

          • derekthered says:

            i thought i had the franchise on cynicism, but i keep getting back up after being knocked down…………..
            here lately i have come to the point where i just can’t take it on, i’m worn out. of course the abuse i suffered as a child created the hyper-responsible personality type which is so common in our society………………
            casting off conditioning is so difficult, it’s hard to tell what is healthy and what’s not. as i have said before, my case is just a reflection of society as a whole, the crap mi padre was full of he learned from his dad, who learned it god knows where.
            right now my main concern is helping my kids, and what i am seeing is that the peace and kindness i attempt to teach is undone by the thugs they deal with on a daily basis.
            sometimes i wonder if the violent aggressive people are not the healthiest, such as Alex in a clockwork orange.
            meanwhile i will try to take the middle path.

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