Interview with Steven Galt Crowell

© Steven Galt Crowell and Figure/Ground
Dr. Crowell was interviewed by Laureano Ralón. June 22th, 2011.

Steven Galt Crowell (PhD, Yale) is Joseph and Joanna Nazro Mullen Professor of Philosophy at Rice University, where he has taught since 1983. He is the author of numerous articles on issues and figures in what is called “Continental” philosophy, but his primary fields are transcendental philosophy and phenomenology. Areas of particular interest include philosophy of mind, meta-ethics, philosophy of art, and philosophy of history. He is the author of Husserl, Heidegger, and the Space of Meaning: Paths Toward Transcendental Phenomenology (2001), which lays out the neo-Kantian background of the phenomenological project of investigating intentionality and argues for a closer relation between Husserl and Heidegger than is usually recognized. Subsequent work has explored the dependence of meaning or intelligibility on our responsiveness to the normative, or “measure.” He is co-editor, with Jeff Malpas, of Transcendental Heidegger (2007) and editor of the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to Existentialism. Crowell also serves as co-editor of the journal Husserl Studies.

How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?

As a child I always planned to follow in the footsteps of my maternal grandfather and become a doctor. I had a keen interest in (though not much aptitude for) science. When I went to UC Santa Cruz as an undergraduate I pursued those studies for a couple of years but I also fell, so to speak, “under the spell” of some excellent philosophy teachers there: Paul Lee, first, who taught the Greeks and also Kierkegaard, and then definitively Maurice Natanson and Albert Hofstadter, who got me going on phenomenology. I also studied (if that is the right word) with Norman O. Brown and put all of these things together into an independent major, which I called “Ephemeral Studies.” At some point I had let the science courses lapse, but I never really thought about what I would do when I graduated. I didn’t really think of my major as “philosophy” since it was quite interdisciplinary. But as the date for graduation neared I realized I did not want to stop doing what I was doing – reading, thinking, and writing about philosophy and related issues – so I thought it might be good to go to graduate school in philosophy, where I could do just that. I was very late in applying, but Natanson pointed me in the direction of the Masters program at Northern Illinois University, where they offered me a fellowship. I thought, “well, that is a pretty traditional program, not really like UC Santa Cruz. If I still enjoy philosophy while I’m working there, then perhaps it might have longer-term potential as a career.” And so it did. The “decision” to become a university professor, in other words, was just more or less a consequence of the fact that I had found something I very much enjoyed doing; it was just a natural extension of that.

Joshua Meyrowitz’ thesis in No Sense of Place is that when media change, situations and roles change. In your experience, how did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student? 

Interpreted quite broadly, Meyrowitz’s thesis seems right (though I have not read the book): situations and roles change when media change, if for no other reason than that one has to deal in some way or other with those changes. And while it seems that “situations” change essentially when media change (since situations are just defined by what elements are in them), it is not clear that “roles” change essentially, as opposed to changing some of their contingent features. Thus, for instance, it is certainly true that the role of a university professor now involves a lot more interfacing with technology than it did when I was a student, but has this changed the role essentially? Maybe it’s just me (and I started my career as a professor just as the first Macintosh was hitting campuses), but I don’t see my role as all that different from that of my teachers. Sure, I have to navigate the latest “interfaces” – a lot of course administration is done on line now, and email has made me more accessible to students than my teachers ever were – but my role is the same, at least as I see it: provide a context in which students can learn something about philosophy and grasp its importance to their lives and concerns. If I were to say where the role has threatened to change essentially, it would have less to do with new media than with larger economic forces: there is extraordinary pressure on professors to conceive their role as that of a “content provider,” where students are positioned (and are encouraged to think of themselves) as “consumers” or, indeed, “customers.” And we know that the customer is always right in a market economy. I reject this model. What the professor has to offer is not a product and students are not consumers. But I certainly understand why such ideas have taken root in the university.

What makes a good teacher today? How do you manage to command attention in an “age of interruption” characterized by fractured attention and information overload? 

I may not be the best person to answer these questions. The good teachers that I had in college had a kind of integrity (in the sense of being obviously passionate about their subjects and able to communicate it with depth and mastery) that drew me to them, made me want to be where they were, inhabit the world of what they were teaching. I have tried to exemplify those virtues, but this is a very indirect thing. In the Platonic model, this would be called the “erotic” character of pedagogy: as the student participates in thinking about what is being said by the teacher, in questioning and discussing it, he or she is confronted with not only with a cluster of teachable “information” but also with what it means for him or her to be. To “learn” in this sense is to trust one’s partner (the teacher) to care about one’s own involvement in the learning process, to care about one’s “self” – not in the sense of being all concerned with a student’s personal problems, or being friends in the usual sense, but in believing in the importance of the common enterprise. Thus, in my own experience as a student, there was never a question of how my teachers (who all had very different styles) could “command my attention.” It was not a strategy with them; they were just who they were, and they were not teachers to everyone. Beyond trying to exemplify the kind of integrity I mentioned above, I don’t know what more it might take to be a good teacher. Certainly, this model is a far cry from the demand that one try to overcome the sorts of distractions that you mention: “attention deficit and information overflow.” I don’t think there is any recipe for this. One thing I do, perhaps, is to take a stand on some point that is diametrically opposed to what passes for obvious these days, argue it as though the opposite were obvious. This can sometimes dislodge students from a certain complacence, as can “irony” (as Socrates knew well). Some of my colleagues are great entertainers – and I don’t mean this in a pejorative sense (though sometimes mere entertainment substitutes for teaching). In the best case, such teachers are able to cut through attention deficit and get students to focus during the class period. Whether any real teaching goes on after that, it’s not for me to say. I’m not an entertainer, and it has been my great good fortune not to have to capture the attention of students in large lecture courses filled with those who would rather not be there. I’m not sure I would be able to function well in such an environment, but my hat is off to those who succeed there. It is by far the hardest thing a teacher can be asked to do.

What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors?

Follow your bliss, and don’t try to over-strategize about a “career”. These days – when graduate school is far more “professionalizing” than it was when I went – this can be hard to do. Students are asked to publish earlier and earlier, and there is more demand on them to teach their own classes and give papers at conferences. All of this is important, and is certainly part of the profession. And most students enjoy doing it. However, it can detract from time spent really digging deeply into the subject and also from time that would otherwise be available for random exploring, reading, and thinking about stuff that seems not directly related to your subject, or thesis, or whatever. But unless you devote time to such explorations in grad school – to really reading widely and deeply in ways not immediately tied to some paper you are writing for a class or a conference – you may never learn what the “freedom” of the mind is. In philosophy, at least, the most important thing is to find your own voice, your own stance, an ability to deal with whatever comes your way from a flexible, yet coherent, point of view. And this is a skill that is not necessarily well developed by writing for publication and thinking always in terms of the next line on the vita.

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan declared, in reference to the university environment that, “departmental sovereignties have melted away as rapidly as national sovereignties under conditions of electric speed.” This claim can be viewed as an endorsement of interdisciplinary studies, but it could also be regarded as a statement about the changing nature of academia. Do you think the university as an institution is in crisis or at least under threat in this age of information?

This is a big question. One might be tempted to say that the university is always in some crisis or another, but I do think that the question of “departmental sovereignties” (as McLuhan put it) is particularly perplexing today. The modern research university has, roughly, the disciplinary structure bequeathed to it from the 19th century model developed in Germany by Wilhelm von Humboldt, in which there was something like an ordering of the sciences, with philosophy providing both the principle of order and an overall account, in terms of the “Idea,” of the various scientific domains. Today this is all but gone. As Lyotard pointed out (inThe Postmodern Condition), the “grand narratives” that traditionally served to organize knowledge no longer command acceptance, and there is nothing that has replaced them. Lyotard himself suggested that a new conception of knowledge – roughly, one that values making “connections” between various far-flung bits of information rather than going deeply into traditional problems in traditional fields: a “network” model that dispenses with ideas like progress, growth of knowledge, etc. – is emerging, and maybe he is right. But if that is so, it has not stabilized itself into a form that is easily managed in the university as an institution. Without reverting to the cliché that before you can be interdisciplinary you need to know something about the disciplines, it does seem to me that an awful lot of work done in the university (or at least in the humanities, which I know best) now is done without any clear standards (or understanding) of what would constitute success. There are countless interdisciplinary formations which change all the time, but the sense of what needs to be mastered in order to do such work in a rigorous way seems elusive, at least to me. Such studies often seem to borrow very selectively from traditional fields and methods – history, sociology, philosophy, and so on – and produce ideas that are “suggestive” and perhaps empowering or “critical,” but in the end quite transient. It all reminds me of things like Wikipedia: lots of people adding their two-cents, which is all fine and good until it becomes a battle over which version of Paul Revere’s ride is the right one. In the 1980s culture wars, people were urged to “teach the conflict,” which is fine as far as it goes. But without the idea that there is something like a “right” version of the story (or at least a much better one), I don’t really see the point of having an institution – the university – in which to focus on the conflict. The real world provides plenty of space for that. And at least so far, the turn to anthropology or history to replace philosophy as a kind of organizing discourse for university studies has not provided a clear alternative.

Let’s get technical. In one of his books, Guerrilla MetaphysicsGraham Harman, one of the co-founders of the philosophical movement known as Speculative Realism, makes a powerful critique of phenomenology. First, he identifies some inherent contradictions: “The cumulative lesson of this book so far is that phenomenology is caught at the midpoint of two intersections: (1) On the one hand, we deal only with objects, since sheer formless sense data are never encountered; on the other hand, an “objects-only” world could not be tangible or experienceable in any way, since objects always elude us. (2) On the one hand, phenomena are united with our consciousness in a single intentional act, while on the other hand they are clearly separate, since they fascinate us as end points of awareness rather then melting indistinguishably into us.” Second, he accuses phenomenology of remaining a “philosophy of access” and neglecting to recognize what his colleague Levi R. Bryant has called a “Democracy of Objects.” Harman writes: “Of any philosophy we encounter, it can be asked whether it has anything at all to tell us about the impact of inanimate objects upon one another, apart from any human awareness of this fact. If the answer is “yes,” then we have a philosophy of objects. This does not require a model of solid cinder blocks existing in a vacuum without context, but only a standpoint equally capable of treating human and inhuman entities on an equal footing. If the answer is “no,” then we have the philosophy of access, which for all practical purposes is idealism, even if no explicit denial is made of a world outside of human cognition.” What do you make of Harman’s critique of phenomenology and his new brand of realism? 

Having not read this book (though a very good grad student in the English department who was taking my phenomenology seminar introduced me to some of its ideas), I don’t think I can comment responsibly on it; but the characterization of phenomenology seems insensitive to the crucial distinction between transcendental-phenomenological idealism and metaphysical or subjective idealism. In simplest terms: I reject the idea that phenomenology does not give us the world as it is. It is indeed a “philosophy of access,” but it is access to the world as it is. And I would also argue that it is a standpoint “equally capable of treating human and inhuman entities on an equal footing,” if by “equal footing” one means: attending to the things themselves, not setting up one entity as the measure of all the others, but letting entities show themselves as they are. However, I find the idea that one could do this without any concern for “access,” in a broad sense, very naive. For instance, it seems plausible to say that physics tells us about “the impact of inanimate objects upon one another, apart from any human awareness of this fact,” but presumably this is not what the author means. There are the standard examples from quantum mechanics about the influence of the observer, and the like. But beyond that, there is the fact that physics is a theory and a set of practices which provide normative conditions that allow for distinctions to be made between genuine interactions and mere “artefacts” of one’s standpoint, etc. Do these theories and practices count as a mode of “awareness”? If so, then physics must still be too idealistic. But I doubt that any scientific or philosophical position is conceivable that does not involve theories and practices that establish such normative conditions, and if that is so, then Speculative Realism will also involve some reference to conditions of our “awareness” of the objects it references. Transcendental phenomenology strives to do justice to this fact, and if that is a kind of “idealism,” it is one I can live with. As Husserl pointed out, the “transcendental subject” is not the “human being” as this is envisioned in the question, and I would argue that the same holds for Heidegger’s position. I am not impressed by positions that try to circumvent this point by appeal to primordial “events” or to a kind of post-humanism that most often merely borrows – very selectively – from biology and the like to answer philosophical questions. One does not need to make a fetish out of method to believe that certain questions need to be approached differently than others; in particular, philosophical questions have a reference to access built into them, and there’s nothing wrong with that. As for a “democracy of objects,” where does the “subject” fit in? If it is just another object, then we have lost our grip on the distinction.

Toward the end of his life, McLuhan declared: “Phenomenology [is] that which I have been presenting for many years in non-technical terms.” Do you think phenomenology is still relevant in this age of information and digital interactive media?

I actually think it is more relevant than ever. I think a lot of work in philosophy is phenomenological even if it doesn’t fly under that banner – work in moral psychology, philosophy of mind, and epistemology, to give just a few examples. Phenomenology is committed to the analysis of first-person experience, and while this is not the only approach possible to the problems of “this age of information and digital interactive media,” of course, there are certain questions that it is best in a position to address. For instance, what is meant by “information”? There are a great many theories out there that appeal to this notion, but can it really do the work it is expected to do? There are theories that try to account for our awareness of a world of meaningful things – that is, intentionality as consciousness of something as something – in terms of information processing, but phenomenology has developed some trenchant criticisms of this project: information is not intrinsically norm-governed, whereas meaning is. To study the conditions of meaning, then (which are also the conditions that make us able to recognize something as “information” or as a “digitally interactive medium” and to appreciate their essential relations to one another, such as they are), is to stumble, inevitably, into phenomenology at some point. And at that point, everything depends on whether one does it well or badly. Of course, one might want to be reductive about the concept of meaning, but phenomenology has also laid out some pretty good reasons why such a project must fail.

The following question was drafted by Iain Thomson“What do you see as the future of phenomenology in a world that seems to be increasingly dominated by naturalism?” 

Here again, I see some very promising convergences. The kind of naturalism that most concerned Husserl and Heidegger, and against which phenomenology distinguished itself, was both reductive and scientistic. As Husserl put it, the “naturalization of consciousness” – by which he understood the attempt to conceive consciousness as entirely embedded in the nexus of nature understood as a system closed under causal law – entailed the naturalization of all “norms and ideals,” and therewith their reduction to mere matters of fact. Husserl held this to entail both scepticism and relativism – that is, such naturalism, as aphilosophical theory, undermined the very conditions for the validity of thescientific theories upon which it depended for its premises. Under such circumstances, one must either argue that such epistemological paradoxes are of no importance (this was something like Rorty’s conclusion and, in a somewhat different way, informs movements like the Social Studies of Science program) or else find a way around them. That is what Husserl tried to do in developing a “phenomenology” of consciousness, and I believe that Heidegger followed him in this in distinguishing the inquiry into Dasein from all “psychology, biology, and anthropology.” But the situation is somewhat different today, partly thanks to developments in phenomenology itself. For one thing, the idea that nature can be identified with a system closed under causal law (the basis for what McDowell calls “bald naturalism”) is no longer as prevalent as it once was. Whereas in Husserl’s time physics was the paradigm of scientific rationality and the positivistic model of unified science based ultimately on physics held sway, post-Kuhnian philosophy and history of science has challenged this view of things. Our concept of nature is being shaped more by work in the biological or life sciences, and our sense of scientific rationality is itself more complicated, more informed by phenomenological accounts of the interplay between experience, language, practices, and so on. I’m thinking here of the work of Joe Rouse and of my colleague in the history department, John Zammito, but this is only the tip of the iceberg. In such works, a concept of nature is projected that attempts to overcome the gap – between the normative and the natural, fact and value – that constituted the basis for the phenomenological critique of earlier naturalism. Whether this can be accomplished without taking seriously the claims of transcendental phenomenology to a certain priority – one based on the fact that all meaning and normativity, including that involved in the practices and discourses that go to constitute the new approach to “nature,” must in the last analysis be “owned” – remains to be seen. There is still a tendency in post-positivistic philosophy of science to privilege third-person points of view and to believe that the first-person perspective is little more than a function of such practices and discourses, whereas I (following John Haugeland) believe that the phenomenon of commitment is normatively (and so philosophically) primary. But this sort of challenge is not specifically a naturalistic one. In any case, once the concept of nature has grown so capacious as to include what McDowell calls “second nature” and all the (quasi?) teleological processes and (quasi?) rational bootstrapping that the post-positivist philosophers of science find there, there is little point in phenomenology defining itself in opposition to “naturalism.” The word has at this point pretty much lost whatever clear contours it had.

Your current research centers on the relation between intentionality and normativity, i.e., the relation between phenomenological experience of a meaningful world and the ability to respond to norms (standards, ideals, measures, rules, etc.). Well, Slavoj Žižek once claimed that ideology is the “unknown-knowns” – those things we don’t know that we know. I wonder if you think there is a difference and/or similarity between Žižek’s definition of ideology and the notions of “skilful coping” and “mindless everyday coping,” which are often invoked to illustrate the state of being playfully absorbed in the task at hand, of being solicited by the world to make use of its affordances, following Heidegger… 

The ideas of “ skillful coping” and “mindless everyday coping” derive from Hubert Dreyfus’s work, and there the point is, among other things, to show how our perceptual (and cognitive) awareness of objects is made possible by a kind of practical engagement in the world that does not have a propositional, conceptual structure. Dreyfus distinguished between Searle’s idea of “satisfaction conditions” (which he construed as conceptual and thus as, at least in principle, expressible as rules) and “conditions of improvement,” thanks to which we are able to adapt our behaviour to the circumstances in “better and worse” ways without being in possession of any expressible standard of what would count as the best. I find this distinction elusive, but quite important. But I think that Dreyfus (and I) would resist the equation of such conditions with ideology in Zizek’s sense. To call them “unknown-knowns” seems to bring it back into a cognitivist model: “rules” I follow without knowing what they are. On the other hand, if by “ideology” one means certain prevailing assumptions, in a given social formation, about the way things are, assumptions that reflect and reinforce structural power-imbalances within that social formation, then I do think that much of what we say and think – and so also, much of how things appear to us as this or that in an everyday way – is “ideological.” This, I think, is the import of Heidegger’s concept of the One (das Man). The implication is that there is no “ideology free” standpoint, but this does not entail that rational criticism is not possible.

Your most recent book is provocatively entitled Transcendental Heidegger– a title which suggests a position somewhat contrarian to that of, say, Dreyfus, and his attempts to distinguish Heidegger from Husserl and Sartre. Recently, however, that divide has been called into question by a number of critics. In a recent interview with Figure/Ground, for example, Andrew Feenberg declared: “There is a tendency to construct an idealist straw man out of Husserl in order to make Heidegger seem more original than he was. I don’t buy that.” Should Heidegger be read as a “realist” corrective to Husserl’s idealism, in your view? 

I agree with Feenberg, though I’m not sure that the “realism/idealism” debate is the best context for locating what Dreyfus is doing in his attempt to distinguish Heidegger from Husserl and Sartre. The latter two represent what might be called a “philosophy of consciousness,” where individual consciousness has a certain priority in the constitution of meaning (or disclosure of a meaningful world). Dreyfus rejects that appeal to consciousness, but he also acknowledges the dependence of a meaningful world on Dasein’s capacity for disclosing worlds on the basis of its practices. To my mind, this is not all that different from the kind of “idealism” that I think is both defensible and indispensible (see my answer to question 6), and Heidegger too claims, in Being and Time, that (traditional) idealism has the advantage over (traditional) realism in that it at least recognizes that Being (intelligibility, meaning) “cannot be explained through entities.” But that’s a long story. Where your question gets a grip on this matter is, however, precisely in relation to the transcendental. The book you mention is one that Jeff Malpas and I edited in order to explore the various connections between Heidegger and the tradition of transcendental philosophy. This is not something that interests Dreyfus, for whom the very notion of the transcendental carries an essential reference to a kind of foundationalism which he rejects in favour of a more “hermeneutic” or “existential” conception of phenomenology. I don’t think that transcendental philosophy as developed by Husserl involves a dubious foundationalism, though it does preserve strong essentialist and a-prioristic elements. But that’s another long story. And I do think that Heidegger continues the kind of transcendental phenomenology inaugurated by Husserl. From the point of view of that project, the differences between them are quite subtle and require careful explication. They cannot be captured by standard oppositions like “internalist/externalist,” “idealist/realist,” and so on.

What are you currently working on?

The main project on the horizon is a book on Heidegger and reason. Heidegger’s criticisms of rationalism in all its forms, and of the over-valuation of reason in philosophy and culture generally, are well known. But what might be called the “place” of reason – positively considered, and not merely in connection with Heidegger’s negative stance toward how reason has been understood in the tradition – in Heidegger’s account of Dasein (and then also in the later works) has not been adequately explored or developed. I think that much can be learned by following up the question, in detail, of how ‘care’ is supposed to be ‘prior’ to reason, how the ‘rational animal’ is a function of that being in whose being that very being is an issue for it.

© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to
Steven Crowell and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Ralon, L. (2011). “Interview with Steven Crowell,” Figure/Ground. June 22nd.
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