You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please SUBSCRIBE!


Print Print

Email Email

Email Discuss

Facebook Twitter Reddit Google+
StumbleUpon Pinterest Delicious Digg

Being and Becoming

Christopher Macann explains the basis of his ‘genetic’ system of phenomenology.

In Raphael’s painting The School of Athens, we see an elderly Plato pointing upward and a middle-aged Aristotle standing beside him, with his right palm held horizontally over the ground. This conjunction has been interpreted as the upward-oriented philosophy of the master (Plato) contrasting with the down-to-earth ideas of the pupil (Aristotle). This is by no means the only instance of a philosophy of heights contrasted with a philosophy of depths. Kant’s upward-oriented, ‘transcendental’ philosophy set in motion a reaction which led through Fichte and Schelling to the ‘ontological’ philosophy of Hegel. Again, Heidegger in Being and Time was prompted to transform Edmund Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology of pure essences into an ontological phenomenology of existence. That in two of these instances (Aristotle and Heidegger) the figure who transformed the ‘transcendental’ philosophy of heights into an ‘ontological’ philosophy of depths started out as a pupil of the transcendentalist gives us even more reason to doubt the accidental character of this relationship.

Whoever speaks of heights and depths implies a middle ground, a point of departure for the philosophical movement upward or downward. For Plato, this middle ground was appearance and opinion, which was transformed upwards by his theory of Forms into an investigation into reality and knowledge. And however differently Aristotle may have conceived of the transformation, nevertheless his movement downwards from the transcendent world of Forms to ethics and science also seeks to get to the bottom of things, to the truth of the matter as against what is commonly believed. With Kant the point of departure was the empirical world, with its two basic supports, sense experience and rational thought. In order to comprehend how these two supports made objective knowledge possible, Kant thought it necessary to presuppose a higher, transcendental dimension of consciousness, capable of reflecting upon the conditions of the possibility of objective knowledge. With Husserl, science and common sense are brought under a common head as the ‘natural attitude’ of thought. This ‘natural attitude’ is then suspended through a procedure he calls ‘the phenomenological reduction’, which makes possible the transition to a higher, transcendental consciousness capable of reflecting upon the structures of personal experience upon which objective experience and knowledge are founded. Husserl’s ‘natural attitude’ then becomes Heidegger’s realm of the ‘ontic’, the task now becoming one of investigating the ontological ground of the unity in experience of the dichotomies which characterize our having objective knowledge. Thus Husserl and Heidegger share the same point of departure, in the middle ground represented by the natural attitude, but they go about the business of phenomenology in diametrically opposed ways. Husserl appeals to the higher foundation of transcendental reflection, Heidegger to the lower ground of an ontological analysis of being. So it is that the basic structures of Heidegger’s Being and Time take the form of an inversion of Husserl’s own analyses. The being-out-of-the-world of Husserl’s transcendental ego becomes the being-in-the-world of Heidegger’s Dasein; Husserl’s time of inner time consciousness becomes Heidegger’s existential time; transcendental aloneness becomes being-with.

Right away, a new possibility springs to mind – that of linking and connecting the three levels in an ordered sequence. Starting from the bottom, with an ontological investigation of the nature of experience prior to self-reflection, we can proceed through the middle ground characterized by science and common sense, before concluding with the higher transcendental sphere capable of reflecting upon the conditions of the possibility of the two lower levels of consciousness. I call this a genetic investigation into phenomenology, because it involves analysing the processes that give birth to experience.

Unfortunately, this orderly genesis of awareness through these three levels of experience fails to do justice to one salient feature of the historical examples presented above. It would seem that the ontological realm of unreflected experience is where a genetic investigation ought to begin – with what is most primordial in experience. And yet, in every historical instance an ontological investigation seems to come after the transcendental – depth philosophy following upon the philosophy of heights: Aristotle coming after Plato, Heidegger after Husserl. How can we account for this discrepancy? And what if the ontological realm featured twice, once at the outset, and again as the outcome of the genesis? As Heidegger put it, what is closest to us in being is furthest from us in analysis. We have ontological experience at the core of being human: this is why it takes the long detour via reflection for us to come to terms with what we are. But not only would a double instantiation of the origin ­– at the beginning and also at the end of thought, so to speak – make it possible to resolve the historical difficulty, it would transform a linear conception of the genesis of thought into an equivalent cyclical form, and so make it possible to conform to a principle fundamental of Hegel’s own cyclical genesis, where “The goal is the ground and the ground, the goal.” (see the beginning of the first Book of the Science of Logic, § 56.) Here a full awareness of experience is reached. So what we now have is a genesis which assumes four rather than three stages, although the fourth stage turns out to be nothing other than the reflective recuperation of the first – “reflection upon the unreflected” to employ Merleau-Ponty’s memorable phrase.

Now that Merleau-Ponty has been brought into the picture, perhaps we can use his path-breaking Phenomenology of Perception to provide a grounding principle for the ontological stage, the ‘being’ of human being. The Phenomenology of Perception talks incessantly about embodiment without ever talking about the question of being. Heidegger’s Being and Time, on the other hand, talks incessantly about the question of being without ever talking about embodiment. So what could be more obvious than bringing the thinking of these two philosophers together by defining the grounds of human being in terms of its being a body? But if the principle of embodiment can thus serve to ground the first and original stage in the genesis of consciousness, what of the two further stages? Are we to refuse any ontological status to the objective and reflective stages of thought? And if an ontological status is to be accorded to these two subsequent stages in the genesis, what kind of being can be attributed to such stages?If, as I suppose, the development of consciousness through successive stages presupposes a progressive separation of the self from its body and from the world, then what sense does it make to continue to accord ontological status to these subsequent stages?

My answer is that since it must always be some relation to the body which upholds the ontological status of each stage, not only must the original coincidence of consciousness and the body give way to a derivative ‘distinction’ and then ‘abstraction’ from the body, this must also confer some kind of ontological status upon the respective stages. This is where it becomes pertinent to appeal to Descartes. For, as we all know, Descartes defined the being of the self (as ‘soul’) in terms of its distinction from the body. Even if, at the second stage of the genesis of consciousness, the self now distances itself from its body, this ‘distinction’ from the body still suffices to give an ontological status to this second, objective stage. What then of the contemporary tendency to reject the Cartesian origins of modern philosophy in a principle of dis-embodiment?

However hostile contemporary analytical philosophy might be to continental philosophy, the two schools of thought tend to agree on one thing: their common opposition to Descartes and the dichotomies and dualities he introduced into philosophy – mind-body, subject-object, subject-other subject. Gilbert Ryle’s objection to the ‘ghost in the machine’ finds an echo in Heidegger’s refusal of all talk about consciousness, mentality, spirituality and so on – which means that both are in agreement in dismissing Husserl’s phenomenology of consciousness as “transcendental twaddle,” to employ Wittgenstein’s picturesque phrase. A genetic methodology makes it possible to reinstate Descartes in his rightful place as the ‘father of modern philosophy’, while at the same time doing justice to the contemporary ambition to overcome Cartesian dualities. The being of human being can be defined initially in terms of its being a body, just as long as this original condition is allowed to give way to a derivative principle of dis-embodiment (cf Descartes’ two-fold definition of substance as both physical and spiritual).

The Scheme of Being and Becoming

Now it’s time to put my cards on the table in the form of an outline of the scheme of the first volume of my work. To the three stages which characterize the progressive genesis of awareness I have given the names ‘originary’, ‘objective’ and ‘reflective’. Each of these three stages is defined in terms of a formal principle that determines the nature of the relation which prevails between consciousness and the body at that stage in the genesis. The first and original stage is defined in terms of a coincidence of consciousness and the body; the second, objective stage, in terms of a distinction of consciousness and the body; while the third, reflective stage is defined in terms of an abstraction of consciousness from the body. Furthermore, the relation between the self and its body is taken to pre-determine an equivalent relation between the self and anything other than self. Anyone possessing the slightest acquaintance with Descartes’ philosophy will understand what is meant by saying that the mind-body distinction goes along with, or even pre-determines, an equivalent distinction between the thinking subject and the object (or the world of objects).

That there should be an original coincidence of consciousness and the body, that consciousness and the body should initially be one, makes perfectly good sense, but it might seem odd to say that this coincidence of the self with its body also makes possible an equivalent coincidence of self and other. But as soon as we appeal to Heidegger’s Being and Time this difficulty vanishes. Heidegger argues that human existence can’t be envisaged independently of its world – a world which makes up a part of its very own being. And Merleau-Ponty says nothing different when he talks about the world in which an originally embodied human being lives and moves and has its being.

What of the third principle, of ‘abstraction’? Again, to say the transcendental dimension of consciousness is grounded in an abstraction of consciousness from the body does not sound too extravagant (and statements by Husserl can be found to support this concept). The basic idea is that an ‘abstraction’ from the body involves the taking up of an even greater distance of the self from itself and from the world than does ‘distinction’. One way to see this is in terms of the new, transcendental possibility of making consciousness itself an object of consciousness. Whereas the ‘distinction’ of mind and body only makes possible the objectification of whatever does not pertain to the self, abstraction makes possible an objectification of the self itself qua consciousness (in other words, reflection, properly so called). But whereas the empirical self remains individual and relative, the transcendental self is regarded by Kant as ‘universal’ and by Husserl as ‘absolute’. Indeed, statements can be found in which Husserl talks explicitly of the emergence of an absolute and universal transcendental consciousness as conditioned by an ‘abstraction’ from the body. As for the complementary abstraction from the world, it is here that Husserl’s concept of the ‘phenomenological reduction’ comes to the rescue. For, following Descartes’ method of doubt, Husserl insists that the way to discover a transcendental dimension of consciousness is to suspend belief in an external world beyond my consciousness. Instead of simply assuming the existence of an external world, we have to reduce the world to its ‘being for me’, to ‘pure appearance’, to its being a mere ‘object of consciousness’ – and nothing more.

Whenever a personal pronoun is needed to characterize the self of an original mode of being, I use the pronoun ‘It’. (Freud and his conception of an ‘unconscious consciousness’ are relevant here. Sigmund Freud called the unconscious an Es, which is most straightforwardly translated into English as the pronoun ‘It’, but which Strachey’s translation of Freud unfortunately rendered as the Latin id.) Whenever a personal pronoun is needed to characterize the self at the objective (‘knowledge’) stage, I use the pronoun ‘I’. Finally, whenever a personal pronoun is needed to characterize the self at the reflective stage, I use the pronoun ‘One’. The aim here is to imply that the self which reflects thereby achieves a certain universality.

The universality of transcendental consciousness is apparent in the very method Kant used to justify the transcendental deduction of the categories in his Critique of Pure Reason. For Kant simply takes for granted that whatever a transcendental consciousness discovers to be true of its self will be true of any self which possesses a transcendental (self-reflective) status. Hence the absence of any theory of intersubjectivity for Kant. And nothing is more critical to Kant’s ethics (in his Critique of Practical Reason) than the principle of universalizability; the idea that whatever moral judgments a self discovers to be morally valid for itself are by the same token binding upon all other moral agents. Far from being an abstruse notion, placing other selves on a par with myself is implied by any doctrine of the equality of all citizens before the law, and by any conception of inalienable human rights.

Hoping to bring back into philosophical circulation such antiquated words as ‘Soul’ and ‘Spirit’, I have chosen to call the first and original stage of the genesis of consciousness a ‘Doctrine of Soul’ – using the word in the same sense as Hegel’s Seele. The second stage I call a ‘Doctrine of Mind’. Here the reference to the philosophy of mind which occupies a central place in analytic philosophy is entirely appropriate. The use of the term ‘Doctrine of Spirit’ to characterize the third, reflective stage of consciousness is meant to bring back into circulation the sense of the German word Geist, which readers may recognize from the German title of Hegel’s best-known work The Phenomenology of Spirit. There is nothing ghostly or spooky about the use of these terms in the context of my genetic ontology. Far from it. ‘Soul’ for instance refers to the being of the self insofar as it is fully and completely integrated with its bodily being, and so with the world in which it finds itself. Although Iemploy the word ‘Spirit’ in a more remote and abstract sense, it denotes another genuine possibility of being, which requires of the self that it abstract from itself, with a view to overcoming its lower self, and so becoming that ‘higher’ self which each and every one of us has it in us to be.

To develop the full wealth of material required by any attempt to adequately explain the development of self-awareness, the originary stage had to be further differentiated. Here I borrowed from Hegel, in that I sub-divide the originary stage along the same lines as those which characterize the threefold division of the overall genesis. As Hegel employed his threefold division of the ‘In-itself’, ‘For-itself’ and the ‘In-and-For-itself’ in a further subdivision of each of these stages along the same lines, so I have sub-divided each of the originary, objective and reflective stages into originary, objective and reflective sub-divisions. And precisely because the originary stage is the most ‘ontological’ stage, the sub-divisions are most important at this stage – if only because they pre-figure the further development of the overall genesis. Following a format developed by Hegel in his Anthropology, I have adopted the terms ‘Natural Soul’, ‘World Soul’ and ‘Actual Soul’ to characterize the three sub-divisions of the originary stage. The ‘Natural Soul’ has its being in pure being (nature), the ‘World Soul’, in the world, while the awareness of the ‘Actual Soul’ is restricted to itself. That is, the Actual Soul no longer has its being in anything other than itself, no longer experiences itself as ‘integrated in’ or ‘belonging to’ the world in which it finds itself – even though the Actual Soul has not yet become the subject. This progressive restriction of the being-in of the self is expressed in a principle I call ‘the ontological delimitation of transcendence’. The most extensive dwelling of the self in being per se gives way to a less extensive dwelling in the world, which, in turn, gives way to the least extensive dwelling of the self in itself. By staging the withdrawal of the self from being in this way, I am able to prepare the way for a transformation which brings with it a polarization of being. The mind-body, subject-object distinctions are seen to be the outcome of this progressive withdrawal; a diminishment of being which at the same time conditions and makes possible an augmentation of consciousness.

These three original sub-stages of the Doctrine of the Soul concern an investigation of the way in which the experience of the objective universe is progressively constructed by the self. So far from being hostile to empirical evidence, I do my best to find confirmation of my theory in the relevant disciplines, in particular child psychology (for the original being of the self as an individual), anthropology (for the original being of the self as a species) and cultural anthropology (for the primordial expressions of the original mode of human being). Implied here is a hypothesis to the effect that the logic of the genesis of consciousness applies to the development of the species, the development of the individual and even to the development of cultural expressions of our being in the world – with philosophy as the eventual outcome. Being and Becoming further extends this system with a logic of the genesis of philosophy, with the paradoxical twist that it is the highest and most remote form of philosophical thinking that is alone capable of effecting the movement of return to the origin.

So now we have an ontological phenomenology which, so far from excluding transcendental philosophy and dismissing empirical, positivist, pragmatic, analytic philosophy, includes all these as stages in the genesis of human consciousness. From this we find that the development of consciousness is paid for at the cost of a diminishment of the being-relation. The more human being develops itself, its conscious resources, the less it remains one with itself and with that in which it finds itself. To employ an expression borrowed from Heidegger: “the more consciousness, the less being.” Is this not the very predicament we face today, as thinking subjects capable of a scientific understanding and a technological mastery and domination over the material universe? In the 19th century people assumed scientific progress would automatically bring with it an unlimited extension of human well-being – only for us to discover that this very same science and technology is bringing us to the brink of destruction. Where previously we tended to disparage so-called ‘primitive’ cultures and civilizations, we now study them assiduously, to learn from them how to live in a symbiotic relation with nature and at peace with ourselves.

So nothing is more crucial to the message offered by Being and Becoming than the movement of return. This is the fourth stage, and it brings with it a return to the first stage. It turns the progressive genesis back upon itself, and so makes possible a regression to the origin. The goal and the ground are now one. In other words, the ultimate goal of the genesis of consciousness is nothing less than a full comprehension of what it basically means to be human, to be a body, involved in a world with others, with all that that implies for our natural and social well-being.

What happens when the movement of return makes possible a reflective recuperation (awareness) of the origin, a higher awareness of being? Three possibilities arise: ontological psychology as the reflective recuperation in self of the Soul, ontological cosmology as the reflective recuperation in the world of the Soul; and ontological theology as the reflective recuperation in being (‘Being’) of the Soul. Kant undertook a review of ontological psychology, ontological cosmology and ontological theology in the context of his critique of the illusions of pure reason. To some extent I have taken over Kant’s terminology, transforming his dismissal into a positive doctrine. Ontological psychology ceases to be what Kant took it to be (a spurious deduction of the immortality of the soul from the principle of self-identity) and becomes instead what might be called a doctrine of self-actualization, a phrase made famous in Maslow’s Psychology of Being. Self-actualization becomes even more plausible in the context of a cyclical genesis, where it represents “the reflective recuperation of the Actual Soul.” My ontological cosmology has nothing to do with Kant’s critique of any attempt to determine the spatial or temporal limits of the universe, and becomes instead a theory of the ‘work’ of art. After all, it pertains to the work of art, as Heidegger never ceased to remind us, to re-create a world – the world of the art work. Finally, ontological theology represents “the reflective recuperation of the Natural Soul.” Identifying God with Being and so seeking in ontology (the science of being) a foundation for a theology is just the kind of project to which Tillich committed himself in his three volume Systematic Theology.

Hegel’s dialectical genesis culminates in what he called an ‘Absolute Consciousness’, whose topics he depicted as Art, Religion and Philosophy. These topics of Absolute Consciousness are better expressed as human ideals, discovered through the question, ‘What is the ultimate point and purpose of being human?’ Since philosophy is the means by which this question gets asked, I would insist that philosophy itself can not represent the ideal (the question is not its own answer), and that Hegel’s attempt to make philosophy the ultimate reason for being represents a pompous form of self-glorification. But the question of purpose still stands. And to that question I would offer the answers, Self-actualization, Art and Religion. Becoming who one is, is a matter of developing oneself existentially, of expressing oneself artistically, and of entering into that kind of relation with Being (God) which alone offers a prospect of salvation.

© Professor Christopher Macann 2007

Prof Macann is a former student of Paul Ricoeur and has recently lectured at the Universities of London and Bordeaux.

• This article has been limited to an overview of Being and Becoming Vol 1, devoted to General Metaphysics. This first volume is succeeded by three others, devoted to Natural Philosophy (Time and Space), Social Philosophy (Personal Relations and Language) and Practical Philosophy (Freedom and Ethics). Each of the subsequent volumes applies the genetic format laid out in the first volume to their various topics. (Genesis is the process of coming into being.)

Some Useful Definitions

Phenomenology is the analysis of experience.

Ontology is the enquiry into the nature of the being of human experience.

Transcendental means above or prior to experience.

Transcendental consciousness is eg thinking that can be aware of and reflect upon itself.

Genesis is the process of coming into being.

Being and Becoming

Professor Macann has just completed a vast philosophical project in four parts entitled Being and Becoming. 1,700 pages long and 26 years in the writing, its publishers hope it will do for the English-speaking world what Heidegger’s Being and Time did for German philosophy, or what Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception did for French philosophy.

More details can be found at


This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy.