Philosophy conference discusses ‘phenomenology’ with international audience, speakers


Denis Dažnić, graduate student at University of Vienna, Austria, responds to a question following his speech at the Husserl Conference in downtown Kent on Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017.

Cameron Gorman

Scholars, students, and those interested in philosopher Edmund Husserl and his ideas — namely his movement, “phenomenology” — gathered Sunday for the last day of “Husserl in a New Generation,” a conference hosted by the department of philosophy.

“What’s impressed me is the fulfilment of the theme of the conference, which is Husserl in a New Generation, and to see all the younger people developing this thought and taking it in new directions or developing old directions, and that’s impressive,” said Anthony Steinbock, a philosophy professor and chair at Southern Illinois University, as well as director of the Phenomenology Research Center at the university and a featured speaker. “So, it’s still kind of a living style of thinking, living style of philosophy, and to see that go on in that way I think is what’s really impressive.”

Other speakers at the last day of the conference included Donn Welton of Stony Brook University, who presented “The Actional Roots of Husserl’s Transcendental Theory of Perceptual Intentionality,” Denis Dažnić of the University of Vienna, Austria, who won an award and plaque for his graduate work and Gina Zavota, co-organizer of the conference and associate professor at Kent State.

In her presentation, Zavota explained her belief that phenomenology — a philosophical movement that focuses on events as we experience them  — has been unfairly characterized as an anti-realist philosophy — and Husserl, its founder, has been maligned as a “correlationist” by fellow philosopher Quentin Meillassoux.

This critique, according to Zavota, contends that if you are a phenomenologist, the only way to think about events before human perception would be to rationalize them with evidence from modernity — not to realize that events before observance were true in and of themselves.

“A general defense of phenomenology against the charges that Meillassoux levels could easily fill a book, so my goal here will just be limited to suggesting some ways in which Husserl’s thought ventures outside the correlationist circle,” Zavota said. “In fact, I contend that, at that point, it seems that Husserl is even considering some of the same fundamental questions as Meillassoux and perhaps arriving at the same place in the end.”

“As his thought matured, and certainly in the generations of phenomenologists that have written since him, it’s gotten away from that kind of simplistic characterization,” Zavota said. “So anyone in 2008, I think, to be saying that phenomenology is this strictly anti-realist or idealist position — it’s a simplistic argument that is in no way reflective of what phenomenology is today or even what a lot of Husserl’s thought was all about.”

Those in the audience responded to Zavota’s presentation with questions and ideas on the topic of their own.

“I think that she gave a very clear and concise portrayal of a problem that phenomenology has to answer, and I think as we saw in the Q&A, we can give some gestures towards that answer, or maybe try to dissolve the problem,” said Ted Mark, a graduate student from the University of Kentucky. “But I thought it was a productive way to kind of engage with this issue.”

Mark said he was drawn to the conference due to its unique offerings.

“One of the interesting things about this conference is it’s attempting to engage with non-phenomenological perspectives, so it’s an interesting way to approach a thing that I’m familiar with in an unfamiliar term,” Mark said.

One of the main hopes for the conference was to establish a sharing of ideas and new takes on phenomenology and Husserl’s method and approach to topics.

“It’s not just talking about Husserl, but it’s also discussing what Husserl was describing. That’s what keeps it alive,” Steinbock said. “If it’s just a matter of discussing what Husserl said, then it becomes merely academic and static — it’s always attentive to talking about the things in the ways in which Husserl approached them. And that we have a very robust sense of method in Husserl that allows us to continue to develop it.”

The conference concluded after two final presentations and conference organizers Zavota and Deborah Barnbaum’s closing remarks. Barnbaum, who is also a chair and professor of philosophy, said that the next conference, which will occur in two years, will definitely take place — though the philosopher has not yet been chosen.

“I will say that one of the things we’re looking for is (philosophers who) people are talking about right now, and who cross boundaries,” Barnbaum said. “We’re looking for people who build bridges and break down boundaries.”

Cameron Gorman is the humanities reporter. Contact her at [email protected].