Jack Lovell Price - Max Scheler, Critic of Phenomenology

This is one of the papers from our 2017 Annual Conference. Information and the full conference booklet can be found at www.britishphenomenology.org.uk

A careful reading and interpretation of Max Scheler’s work highlights a thinker concerned with the diversity and multiplicity of human life. As a vehement critic of reductionism, determinism and the focus of phenomenology on the individual subject, Scheler offers trenchant insights and arguments which retain their power today.

This paper begins by outlining Scheler’s conception of the human being, highlighting its distinction from a classical Husserlian model. For Scheler, it is wrong to conceive of the mind as reason alone. Instead, he offers a broadly tripartite division of mind into the drives and instincts common to the lowest forms of life, habitual and adaptive intelligent behaviours developed by higher animals, and finally self-reflective, rational spirit as the specifically human achievement. Perceptions, and especially intentions, operate on a pre-rational level. Pure experience, free of intentionality and interpretation, is therefore impossible: meanings are hardwired into any conscious experience and any attempt to bracket them away will fail.

Sympathy likewise works at a pre-rational level; it is, for Scheler, the means through which we come to know ourselves. We recognise the other as an individual, and it is through our interaction with them (in particular, through love) that we come to be an individual ourselves. ‘Our’ world is therefore not our own. It is given form and substance by our social–cultural environment and the interactions we have with others. The problem of other minds, which so plagued Husserl, is thereby dissolved. We have, for Scheler, simply got it the wrong way around.

Evaluating Scheler’s arguments, I conclude that it is important not only to see Scheler as a contributor to the grand phenomenological tradition, but to appreciate his role as an original and insightful critic of that tradition, with much to contribute to current problems.

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