Steven Shaviro: On David Roden’s Dark Phenomenlogy

Steven Shaviro discusses David Roden‘s notions of Dark Phenomenology in the first chapter of his book, Discogniton (“Thinking Like a Philosopher”), Thinking like a Philosopher in Discognition – and I quote:

“When we no longer have concepts to guide our intuitions, we are in the realm of what David Roden calls dark phenonemology. Roden extends the arguments of Kant, Sellars, and Metzinger. Since I am able to experience the subtlety of red, but I can only conceive and remember this experience as one of red in general, there must be, within consciousness itself, a radical “gulf between discrimination and identification”. This leads to the ironic consequence that first-person experience cannot be captured adequately by first-person observation and reflection. “What the subject claims to experience should not be granted special epistemic authority since it is possible for us to have a very partial and incomplete grasp of its nature”.

“In other words, rather than claiming (as Dennett does, for instance) that noncognitive phenomenal experience is somehow illusory, Roden accepts such experience, espousing a full “phenomenal realism”. But the conclusion he draws from this non-eliminativist realism is that much of first-person experience “is not intuitively accessible”. I do not necessarily know what I am sensing or thinking. It may well be that I can only figure out the nature of my own experiences indirectly, in the same ways – through observation, inference, and reporting – that I figure out the nature of other people’s experiences. Introspective phenomenological description therefore “requires supplementation through other modes of enquiry”. Roden concludes that we can only examine the “dark” areas of our own phenomenal experience objectively, from the outside, by means of “naturalistic modes of enquiry… such as those employed by cognitive scientists, neuroscientists and cognitive modelers”.

“Roden’s account of dark phenomenology is compelling; but I find his conclusion questionable. For surely the crucial distinction is not between first person and third person modes of comprehension, so much as between what can be cognized, and what cannot. Phenomenological introspection and empirical experimentation are rival ways of capturing and characterizing the nature of subjective experience. But dark phenomenology points to a mode of experience that resists both sorts of conceptualization.” (Kindle Locations: 490-560)1

In the above passage one discovers the differences within the neuroscientific community of the sciences, and the philosophical community: the neurosciences are stripping the lineaments of Kantian intuition and/or ‘phenomenological introspection’ (first person) out of the equation altogether; while those within the philosophical world seek to save the last bastion of Kantian thought from the veritable erosion in a sea of technological systems outside the purview of consciousness. This is the battle confronting 21st Century thought. The Neurosciences vs. Philosophy. On the one hand you have those who believe philosophy should not be seen as opposing so much the sciences as being the guardian of thought itself; maintaining that without philosophy the scientists would not have the theoretical frameworks within which to carry on their conceptual discourses. On the other you have the neuroscientists who could care less about the specifics of thought, but rather seek an understanding of the very real and empirical operations and functions of the brain that gives rise to thought. It’s this intermediary realm between material/immaterial that is at issue. In older forms the physicalist arguments reduced everything to the brain, but newer neurosciences are taking into consideration that things are not so easily reduced; yet, there is no agreement among scientists or philosophers as to what this gap or blank is between the material and immaterial, or even if such questions are pertinent to the task. So that for scientists it’s not so much about frameworks as it is about the pragmatic truth of actual process in real-time that have nothing to do with philosophical intuitionism and much more about the way the brain interacts with the environments within which it is folded.

Already neurosciences, imaging technologies (i.e., fRMI, etc.), and interface tech are bridging the material/immaterial gap without understanding the full details of the processes involved. Along with computer/brain interfaces that can be applied intrinsically and extrinsically to a person, allowing for new and exciting abilities for those whose bodies were otherwise incapacitated access to speech, communication, and computing systems, there is the interoperative collusion of biochemical and hardware intermediation that up till recently would have been seen as impossible. Yet, in our time technology and invention is bringing a revolution in such splicings of human and machine. More and more those like Andy Clarke are being proven right that humans are already becoming Cyborgs… are, maybe we always already were. Technology that we create is in return changing who and what we are as humans. Some say this is the posthuman divide, a crossing of the Rubicon between human and technology that will change our mode of being in the world forever. What it will lead to is anyone’s guess. David Roden will term it the disconnection thesis: a point beyond which we just don’t know is being reached, one we can only speak of speculatively rather than ontologically with any depth of resolution.

Only time will tell who will come out on top, here; but I suspect if history has a say, that the sciences will uncover the processes of thought in the brain as being outside the control of the first-person navigator we term the Subject altogether. Philosophers want to retain a connection to our sense of Self and Personality, to hold onto the metaphysical basis of human thought and exceptionalism. But the sciences day by day are eroding the very ground and foundations of human subjectivity and self upon which western metaphysics since Plato has encircled itself. The battle continues… and, as Steven suggests, Roden’s “dark phenomenology points to a mode of experience that resists both sorts of conceptualization.” Where it will lead we will need to follow…

1. Steven Shaviro. Discognition. Repeater (April 19, 2016)


You’ll have to read the book to understand the rest of the story…

1. Shaviro, Steven (2016-04-19). Discognition (Kindle Locations 204-205). Watkins Media. Kindle Edition.

3 thoughts on “Steven Shaviro: On David Roden’s Dark Phenomenlogy

  1. Robert Brandom’s essay, , seems pertinent here. I think a traumatic point of the Brandom’s text is its questioning of what the cognitive scientists, especially the neuroscientists, are supposed to do with philosophy. Are philosophers and neuroscientists talking about the same thing when it comes to thinking, reasoning, making inferences, etc?


      • I know that philosophers read neuroscience but I am not sure whether neuroscientists read philosophy. On an institutional level, I know that literature on neuroscience tends to be a must-read for philosophy students, but a lot of science students tend to go through their formal education without taking a philosophy class. However, I am not sure what this means.


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