A Phenomenology of Dialectical Being in the World
Part One
by Kathy Kundalini

Table of Contents


"In its rational form the dialectic is a scandal and abomination to the bourgeoisie and its doctrinaire spokesman because it includes in its positive understanding of the existing state of things at the same time an understanding of its negation, of its necessary disappearance, because it regards every historically developed social form as in a fluid movement, interpreting it from its transitional side; because it lets nothing impose on it and is in its essence critical and revolutionary." [c1]

This paper is conceived to be in two parts.

The first part will establish the critical methodology with which I feel it is necessary to approach questions of epistemology and perception. It is necessary to spend at least this much space and energy to outline this methodology, because it moves absolutely against the methods and procedures of all 'empiricism', and 'positivism', and thus against the established methods of present-day American philosophy. I must spend some time outlining exactly what I am trying to say, for this approach, my terms, and motives may be unfamiliar to the reader.

The second part of this paper will move into the realm of knowledge of our presently constituted reality .elucidating the implications of my approach. the basis of my approach is dialectical materialism., I realize that when I say this, I immediately run the risk of being pigeon-holed as a "crude materialist", but this is not the case.

First, as will be seen below, my materialism has an Hegelian and phenomenological core and is not of a mechanical, determinist form. Also, authentic dialectical materialism does not imply uncritical acceptance of the result of anyone's investigations. While it is traditionally founded on the 'scientific' formulations of Karl Marx, it is not a 'belief' in any sacred text, nor the uncritical assimilation of any ideology. Rather, it refers to an orientation towards the concrete dialectics of reality and an attitude and method of investigation whose core is anti-ideological in essence. Dialectical materialism is a dynamic, creative philosophy which explains human consciousness as a part of human self-creation, and this human self-creation occurs as a dialectical process, through the creation and transformation of the world, through sensuous human activity. The premise of this 'philosophy' is that we are real individuals in a real world with our consciousness interwoven in the material and social conditions in which we live. As Marx wrote to a friend:

"We do not face the world in doctrinaire fashion with a new principle declaring 'Here is truth, kneel here!'. We develop new principles for the world out of the principles of the world." [c2]

This anti-ideological practical-critical approach is the essence of phenomenological dialectical materialism. The core of the human dialectic exists in the subject/object relation, and obviously, knowledge and perception can be understood only on the basis of understanding subjectivity/objectivity. Dialectical materialism expresses the continuous inter-penetrating, counter-referential relation of human beings and the reality which embraces them, between human subjects and the objective world which they produce. This relation is contained in reality as the humanization of the world. The conscious knowledge of reality from a theoretical perspective, must thus be related to the creation of reality from a practical perspective. Humans create human reality as a part of the nature of their being, and thus have an organic, sensuous connection to objects. Existence is a product of the process through which human beings create themselves. Both Hegel and Marx understood our human world as the self-creation of people through our activity, our labor. Hegel's Phenomenology presents the 'self-creation of man', which means the process in which man (as an organic, living being) becomes what he/she is according to his essence — i.e., human essence. Man's 'act of creation' is an act of self-genesis, i.e., man gives his essence to himself: he must first make himself what he is, 'posit' himself, produce himself. The process as a whole stands under the title of 'objectification'. The history of man thus occurs and fulfills itself as objectification: the reality of man consists of creating real objects out of all his 'species powers', or the establishing of a real, objective world.

As is well known, Marx critically appropriated Hegel's dialectic of activity, or "praxis". Praxis is active self-realization, always superseding, transforming, and revolutionizing the established historical context and immediate facticity. Marx pointed out that Hegel's basic mistake was to substitute 'Mind' for the objective human subjects of this praxis. Hence, for Marx, "the only labor which Hegel knows and recognizes is abstract mental labor". [c3] But this does not alter the fact that Hegel grasped labor as man's essence, despite the idealization of history presented in the Phenomenology. The primary concept through which history is explicated is transforming activity. Thus, socially produced, active human beings in continuous interchange with the processes of history and nature form the vital basis of the human subject/object dialectic. Unless this factor of human social activity, labor, praxis, is taken into consideration, human being-ness, which is by no means a brute fact or a given, cannot be understood. Thus the phenomenological dialectical materialism which I am putting forward is operating with the following general definitions:

To the extent that these human operations are themselves historical, they occur in a context conditioned by the developments and 'sedimentations' of the past and present, which affects all human subjects in reality. Thus, living phenomenology is dialectical and materialist, and vice-versa. Severing this relation leads to the abstract death of both.

A Phenomenology of Dialectical Being in the World

"The chief defect of ail previous materialism (including Feuerbach's) is that the object, actuality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object of perception, but not as sensuous human activity, practice (Praxis), not subjectively. Hence in opposition to materialism the active side was developed by idealism — but only abstractly since idealism does not know actual sensuous activity as such. Feuerbach wants sensuous objects actually different from thought objects: but he does not comprehend human activity as objective." [c4]

Marx's first thesis on Feuerbach contains the vital core of Marxism and a most clear and concise formulation of the dialectical unity of the subject/object relation. For those who understand and experience this relation, activity and consciousness are always subjective and objective, not one or the other. This state of affairs is the human situation of being in the world, in which all of our activity and awareness is always directed towards an object-of-action and cannot be reduced to an "empty" thought process, while every object is always an object-of-action which expresses an active state of awareness. To put this as concisely as possible, subjectivity is an activity whose content is always objective, while objectivity is a content whose form is always subjective. This circular mutual interdependence is the essence of the dialectical relation of subject and object.

To grasp the implications of dialectics requires, first of all, to understand and experience this inseparability of subjectivity and objectivity and awareness of their continuous dialectical oscillation. Subjectivity refers to an active "field of presence", an "awareness" whose content is nothing other than its constituted events of determination, its "objects" of awareness. Such a field is always a field of real events, and never an abstract field of "consciousness-in-itself". Simultaneously, the events always occur within this field and are never abstract or detached "things-in-themselves". Experience is active awareness of being in the field, of being present in an ongoing process in which events appear within the field and co-exist with it. Attempting to abstractly mutilate this relation can only lead to an empty "consciousness" on the one hand, or a datum of a "blind" material "given" on the other. Conversely, the truth of the dialectical relation can be expressed by the formula "the experimenter is always part of the experimental system". Subjectivity is in the world as an objective fact which determines the immediate reality by its active presence as a subject/object, while simultaneously the objective content of the subjective determines the field of relation, the terrain of subject/object activity.

If the reader has grasped the essential of the above, it will now be possible to distill many of the complex dialectical relations which follow from this basis of awareness. In dialectical awareness all elements (events in the field) are grasped as objects of relation. Relation, interaction, and transformation constitute the nature of all objects. Any abstractly isolated object, an "in-itself", is an empty one-sided determination which can only "exist" as such in alienation from its context of the total process. Dialectical awareness is the experience of the inseparablenessof objects which constitute the field of awareness. Any distinction, that is, any focused, concentrated consciousness "upon" an object (any observation, definition, measurement, conceptualization, or any such activity) is conditioned by the field, the presence-context which exists as the context-negation of the particular object. Neither the object of its context exist outside this dialectical relation, but rather both exist as an inseparable unity of these opposites. The fixation upon a particular object is an activity of the subject. It is the determinant concentration within the field upon the figure, which only exists as figure within its context, its "background", and is only determined as the figure by the directedness of concentrated consciousness. Thus, each element in the field (including the field itself) are circularly-referential. Each element exists as such through mutual determination, in a totality of fluidity, flexibility, and dynamic life.

However, and there will be more on this later, just as the determinants of any object are a function of the directedness of consciousness which delineates the object as particular object in the figure/background relation, so the form and contents of this consciousness will equally be "determined" by the objective determinations of the total field. Thus, the "forms of the mind" are a function of the structures emerging from the ensemble of concrete historical relations in which human beings are enmeshed (and which they create). One cannot stop the world and get off, even for a moment. All activity — thinking, feeling, acting, meditating, making abstraction or making love, etc., — is part of a concrete totality of interrelatedness in motion, the self-creation of the species.

Now, moving specifically to the problem of subjectivity and objectivity, we can see that any "self" or subject which is by dialectical necessity in relation to the "world" must itself function as a world-conditioned self and never as a detached spirit contemplating abstract spiritual forms. Subjectivity can only express an active subject-object dialectic. It is not the domain of one-sided idealism. Consciousness cannot be anything other than conscious existence; thus every subjective act is a bodily act. This intrinsically human activity is sensually and practically related to the world as a condition for its very existence. The human self is always a body-self which functions through physical relatedness to an environment on which it depends for its life energy (and to follow the dialectic, the body-selves transform this environment, in historical and social relations, creating the dynamic relation between humans and nature which results in the humanization of nature).

This relation between self-body and world can only be understood as a totally interrelated phenomena. The various "aspects" of this dialectical totality are only moments of our awareness of human self-creation. For example, the body-self is a product of "anthropological" development, "social" development, historically created economic and political development, the individual's development, etc.. Any "philosophic" analysis or stance toward this totality must take into account the truth of all these moments of our self-development. For example, on a physiological "level", it is interesting to note that the skin and the brain, or the organ which "senses", and the organ which coordinates and "thinks", are actually organic modifications of the same basic tissue, the ectoderm. Or also, the eyes are basically a particular extension of the brain which has extended itself out of the skull and become directly sensitive to light, as part of the self-differentiation of the evolution of life laboring upon itself. Thus, a singular process of dialectical relation exists through this chemical-electronic nerve complex in which the "sensory end" relates the body to its "physical" functions in an environment while the "thinking" end coordinates and synthesizes the various modalities of sensation into a totality, the field. The sensation and thinking are inseparable. We feel with our brain and think with our skin just as much as the other way around. Sensing is at once mental interpretation while mental interpretation is sensual activity. And, of course, the subjective process is an active objective process whose determinations are not ideal or eternal, but concrete aspects of human sensibility in [self]-creation.

"Only through the objectively unfolded richness of subjective human sensibility (a musical ear, an eye for beauty of form — in short, senses capable of human gratification, senses affirming themselves as essential powers of man) either cultivated or brought into being. For not only the five senses but also the so-called mental senses — the practical senses (will, love, etc.) — in a word, human sense — the human nature of senses — comes to be by virtue of its object, by virtue of humanized nature. The forming of the five senses is a labor of the entire history of the world down to the present." [c5]

Further, a dialectical knowledge of the relation of subject and object expresses not only a world-conditioned self, but at the same time a self-conditioned world. The field, the "psychic totality" is "held together" by a self-universalizing sense — the thread of the self which ties together the various inter-related yet distinct events of experience that are sensed, creating the "reality" and "meaning". Further, not only is the self or field which perceives the world as its content itself a part of that world, but the world which it perceives is in turn conditioned by its being present within a field of subjectivity. Once one transcends the "mind vs. matter" game and comes to understand their dialectical unity and co-relativity, then not only must mind appear materialized (and the self embodied), but matter must appear in "mind form" (and the world perceived through self-hood). Just as mind never functions as detached idealism in non-material relations, matter never appears as an alienated mechanism of materiality void of subjectivity and "meaning". And, further, due to the reality of the inherent social existence of individuals (more on this later), the self-as-a-world experiences itself as being sensed by the world-as-a-self. While the world appears as an "externalized" subjectivity (the activity of the mind synthesizing its field), the self appears as an "internalized" event-structure "both" of which exist in the field relatedness of a society which creates universalizing event-forms.

"Man much as he may be a particular individual (and it is precisely his particularity which makes him an individual, and a real individual social being), is just as much the totality — the ideal totality — the subjective existence of thought and experienced society for itself; just as he exists also in the real world as the awareness and the real mind of social existence, and as a totality of human manifestation of life." [c6]

We have now laid the groundwork for understanding a dialectical phenomenology as the basis for experiencing consciousness and existence. We can see the dialectical relation of subject and object in which the content of the subject is objective entities within the subjective field and the subjective field exists as the objective person through which the form of objects is manifested in the subjectively/objectively constituted environment. As Marx put it:

"Thinking and being are thus no doubt distinct, but at the same time they are in unity with each other." [c7]

Mind and matter are but two "sides" of a single human praxis, which cannot be severed without destroying it. All mental activity is grounded in the physical and practical activity of a body in the world, while the world with which the body is inseparable, is a knowable meaningful world, whose form is the product of universal human activity, both "mental" activity and "practical" activity. People make themselves in continual interchange with Nature, which exists as our "inorganic body". Nature as it exists for people cannot be detached from its human significance. There does not exist a nature, without human form, and then "man". There is only nature at the human level, nature as experienced and transformed through human activity in definite social relations, nature, neither purely objective nor subjective, nature produced by human beings — seen, touched, tasted, worked upon, and transformed by living beings.

Thus, the basic position of dialectical phenomenology is of an evolving creative philosophy which develops according to the principles of (1) concrete presence in the world, and (2) the dialectical necessity of interaction and mutual co-relation. The first principle gives expression to the need to regard concrete presence and experience as the field process within which events, mediations, and concepts occur and appear. Experience is the context of its interrelated products. The second principle expresses the relation between the field and its "localizations", its particular determinations as designated by concentrated consciousness. It expresses the mutuality between context and objects, a mutuality which must reflect this co-relative, co-creative process. This mutual co-determination of all elements in a field means that each element is a function of the whole field, and the whole field is a function of each and all the elements. The co-determination will generate relations and counter-relations between all terms giving rise to a dialectical matrix in which the whole is greater than the sum of all the isolated parts. The totality of the field is not a mere additive result of the sum of its parts, but the super-additive result or a dialectical self-interacting totality. The parts of the whole continually and dynamically interact and develop. Reality is not a "set" or jumble of parts, but an organism. A qualitative change occurs in reality and our awareness of reality when we pass from the (abstract) separate existence of elements to their integration into a common whole.

Dialectics is then the study of laws of the self-movement (self-negation and sell-reposition) of totalities, the development according to the dynamics of negation and transcendence of states and relations. This self-movement is dialectical in the sense that the totality acts upon itself in its unfolding. Self-activity is a self-relation of the subject and object. The relations of the parts of a whole to each other form a self-relation of the whole. In the subject-object dialectic, this self-relation is self-action and self-reflection,  which means that each reflective transformation or negation is in its turn negated, each self-posit is reposited, each turn is followed, by a return, and the effects of all negations are cumulative and irreversible. The development of reality, then, is not an ever-repeating circle, but an open-ended development. For human beings, the dialectic occurs through their subjective/objective activity, their praxis, their labor. Like the nature which it transforms, this praxis is potentially unlimited.

From a dialectical phenomenological viewpoint, nature, the world, is not an object of contemplation, but is always co-active with human beings as a functioning totality. In this totality, a dialogue of mutual interaction occurs whose mediator is human activity or labor (labor, in a general sense, meaning the transformation of nature according to human need, sensory activity, "mental" activity, the history-long labor of humans upon themselves in relation to nature, human evolution, human social development, economic development, scientific development, etc., all of which form a totality of the self-development of the species).

It is active relation of humans and nature which Marx in that first theses on Feuerbach called "sensuous human activity, practice (praxis), subjectivity." I, as subject, relate actively, subjectively, with my environment. All events in my field which appear as objective, whether they be atoms, stars, flowers, or expressed ideas, are dynamic expressions of mutual interplay and resonance with my subjective/objective being. I am not a detached idea and they are not isolated dead things. Our mutual relations are not eternal or static, but develop in nature, scope and depth in the unfolding of human labor and social relations in and through our humanized universe. This process is "the objectively unfolded richness of subjective human sensibility". As Marx put it:

"... [ed: this reality] as fully developed naturalism equals humanism, and as fully developed humanism, equals naturalism; it is the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and between man and man — the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence, between objectification and self-confirmation, between freedom and necessity, between the individual and the species." [c8]



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