Phenomenological Reviews

Journal | Volume | Article


Giovanni Piana

the epistemic virtues of phenomenology as method

Emanuele Caminada(Husserl-Archives, KU Leuven)Michela Summa(Wurzburg University)

pp. 7-15


1Giovanni Piana (1940–2019) left us an important body of original works—collected by himself in the 29 volumes of his Opere Complete. These include original works devoted to philosophy of perception, Gestalt theory, epistemology, aesthetics, philosophy of mathematics, logic and mereology, as well as to interpretations of other philosophers (e.g. Hume, Schopenhauer, Husserl, Wittgenstein, Cassirer, and Bachelard). Besides this body of work, Piana also published classical philosophical works and seminal Italian translations (e.g. Husserl’s Logical Investigations and Critical History of Ideas and Lukács’ History and Class Consciousness). Piana studied philosophy at the University of Milan, particularly working under the supervision of Enzo Paci. Very early in his philosophical career, he visited the Husserl Archives in Freiburg in order to read Husserl’s unpublished manuscripts (cf. Fersini, this volume).

2Piana counts among the most representative figures of the Milan School of phenomenology, one of the liveliest phenomenological research groups in Italy, which has had a strong impact on the next generations of phenomenological researchers (cf. Buongiorno et al. 2020, and particularly Miraglia 2020). In this philosophical milieu and at a time when most texts in Husserl’s Nachlass were still unpublished, Piana significantly contributed to the reception of Husserl’s phenomenology in Italy. His contribution is not only remarkable for the way in which it clarifies complex issues in Husserl’s work—particularly valuable, in this sense, is the discussion of Husserl’s theory of wholes and parts, published as “Introduction” to the Third and Fourth Logical Investigation (Piana 1977). It is also important because it operatively shows that phenomenology is primarily a philosophy that departs from speculations in favor of the logic of display. In this sense, Piana’s work on philosophers not belonging to the phenomenological tradition (notably Plato, Schopenhauer, Hume, Wittgenstein, etc.) often suggests that—if we consider phenomeno|logy fundamentally as a method and not as an already formed theory—we should be able to recognize that an implicit phenomenology can be retraced also in the texts of other philosophers. Additionally, Piana’s works are particularly influential because they are never restricted to reconstruction or interpretation, but rather they do phenomenology. Even when they are focused on the interpretation of other authors’ work, they gather the impulses from other thinkers and develop them, sometimes showing their implications and sometimes even overturning the explicit results. Both in the concrete phenomenological analyses and in the works devoted to the interpretation of other philosophers, Piana remains deeply faithful to the phenomenoloical quest to return to the things themselves. To him, this means primarily to grasp the ‘theoretical’ core of the discussed problem and to unravel it, by finding the appropriate concepts to describe and analyze the phenomenon under consideration and, contextually, by discerning and amending ‘ideological’ motives or biases that may affect conceptual clarity or jeopardize the awareness of the conceptual scope.

3These aspects are closely related to Piana’s understanding of phenome|nology primarily as a method (Piana 2016). Such an apparently harmless characterization actually implies a twofold delimitation. First, phenome|nology should not be understood as a school or as a philosophical trend alongside many others. To be sure, we can also identify historically and culturally different schools of phenomenology. But, like Husserl’s, Piana’s conception of phenomenology is more ambitious: phenomenology provides a method that aspires to be transversal to philosophical traditions because it is primarily interested in advancing research on concrete problems and not in interpreting texts or systematizing a given approach. To be more precise, and here we come to the second delimitation: phenomenology does not simply elaborate on a method to be learned and followed as a procedure; it is such a method. In fact, Piana clearly thematizes the methodological divergences between phenomenology and neopositivism, refuses the continental jargon and engages in a critical discussion of Gestalt theory. However, his aim thereby is not so much to elaborate on what is distinctive about the phenomenological method. Rather, Piana’s aim is to reassess the very nature of phenomenological philosophy ‘as method’. This qualification is significant, because it indicates, on the one hand, that method is not something extrinsic to the object of investigation and, on the other hand, that phenomenology should not be understood as an elaborated and concluded theory, but as a viable research path. According to Piana, giving up the ambition to conduct phenomenological research and focusing exclusively on meta-theoretical scholarly debates or exegetic issues means turning a genuine philosophical project into ideology, i.e. transforming phenomenology into a historically and geographically closed school or tradition of thought. Conceiving phenomenology as a method counteracts this tendency. In fact, conceived as method, phenomenology owes its critical attitude and epistemic virtue to its capacity to avoid ungrounded constructions and empty speculations. Thereby, phenomenology remains adherent to experience, while “bringing some clarity to our thoughts” (Piana 2016, 186), which means at the same time to bring clarity to that which appears, by identifying its characteristic structures and elaborating on appropriate concepts that are capable to linguistically articulate these structures. This approach to phenomenological research is connected with what, at first look, appears to be a matter of style: the sobriety of language, which we can recognize in all of Piana’s writings. To be sure, the stylistic choice of sober language and clarity is not extrinsic to the very idea of philosophy Piana defends. In his own words, he defends

the adherence to a conception of philosophy, to an intellectual attitude that is weary of empty rhetoric and logorrhea, or indeed of those truths that for being too “profound” are often also profoundly incomprehensible (Piana, this volume).

4The emphasis on the need for clarity and sobriety characterizes Piana’s philosophical production as a whole—and particularly the works devoted to the theory of experience (e.g. Piana 1979, 1988) and to the interpretation of Husserl’s philosophy (e.g. Piana 1977, 2013b).

5In his “Phenomenology as a Philosophical Method”, Piana uses an eloquent image in order to present why we need method in philosophy and how method should be understood: the image of tangled threads. Like these threads, a problem can get tangled “and it needs to be unraveled” (Piana 2016, 186). Is there properly a method to unravel tangle threads and tangled problems? Is there only one method? How should we understand this method? As Piana writes, answering these questions is not trivial:

We cannot say: first you shall do this, then that, and then, if this happens, you shall do that. It is thus doubtless that if we think of a method as a determinate series of steps and procedures that can be clearly codified, there are good reasons to claim that there is no method in philosophy. However, it is quite certain that, in order to untangle a knot, we cannot proceed as we please. For instance, we cannot just randomly pick one thread and pull it toward us; nor can we just plunge our hands in the knot and pull any thread in any direction, hoping to unravel the knot in this way. Certainly, some philosophers do precisely this, but it is not how one should philosophize. (Piana 2016, 186-187)

6The image of the tangled threads and of how we should and should not approach them tells us something obvious but sometimes underestimated: that the problems of philosophy are complex, that they are tangled and difficult to unravel. And yet, it also tells us that what appears to be chaotically and randomly arranged may have a structure. The first step to unravel tangled threads may be precisely that of recognizing the complexity and trying to find out which is the right thread to begin with. Stepping out of the metaphor: the process of solving a philosophical problem begins with the very identification of the problem and proceeds with the attempt to find the right question to ask in order to begin to address it. Subsequently, the labor should proceed with patience, step by step, trying to find the right way and the right order. Such as we should not just randomly pull from different sides when we try to unravel tangled threads, but should rather try to sort the threads out, in the same way we should sort out problems, separate and connect them. This can allow us to see that there is, after all, a structure in the entanglement. Within this framework, phenomenology consists in the successive steps that lead to the recognition and the making explicit of the structures of what is given.

7Not only the idea of patience in philosophical thinking lies behind this image. Also, and more importantly, the three following and reciprocally connected ideas are implied in it: (i) that there is an order and a structuration in the way we formulate and face philosophical problems; (ii) that this order of thought needs to be appropriate to the order or structuration of the things themselves; and (iii) that we mostly cannot say how we should proceed from the very beginning, but we should elaborate the method while we are confronted with the singular problems, that is to say we should proceed in a kind of zig-zag way. Let us try to expand on these aspects.

8The idea of ‘structure’ and ‘structuration’ brings to the fore the crucial aspect of Piana’s understanding of phenomenology. Such an understanding is not meant as an integration of the phenomenological method with the structuralist method developed in semiotics and applied to such different disciplines as anthropology or the theory of literature. By designating his philosophical approach as ‘phenomenological structuralism’, Piana (this volume) intends rather to emphasize that phenomenology is primarily a method that aims to elucidate the structures of experience, i.e. its intrinsic order, lawfulness, and organization. In fact, Piana considers ‘structure’ as the most appropriate translation of the German ‘Wesen’ (see Costa, this volume). In such a way, he emphasizes that ‘structure’ is what qualifies the intrinsic constitution, the ‘skeleton’ of specific kinds of experiences according to the way in which they intend their objects.

9Such an understanding of ‘phenomenological structuralism’ is presupposed by Piana’s ‘theory of experience’, which grounds all of his philoso|phical projects, including in particular the theory of knowledge and aesthetics. Accordingly, phenomenology is defined as descriptive research of the differentiating structures of the acts and of the objects of experience (see Piana this volume). Such an emphasis on the primacy of experience not only characterizes Piana’s critique of subjectivism, idealism, and constructivism. It also underlies Piana’s departure from Paci’s overemphasizing of the ethical pathos implied in Husserl’s later discussion of the crisis of the European sciences and the need to return to the lifeworld (Piana 2013a). On Piana’s interpretation of the theoretical core of Husserl’s phenomenology, recognizing the primacy of experience as embedded in the lifeworld should not be conceived in strict opposition to the philosophy of science, nor should the aims of the phenomenology of life-world experience be conflated with those endorsed by vitalism. The return to the lifeworld should instead accomplish a program that is proper to phenomeno|logy from its very beginning: retracing the sources of meaningfulness and knowledge within the self-structuration of experience and reassessing the processes and configurations that lead from simpler to more complex forms of structuration (see Piana 1996).

10Piana’s idea of a phenomenological structuralism is connected with a reassessment of the role of intuition in phenomenology. In this respect, Piana follows Husserl’s path and appeals to the return to intuitive givenness in order to ground possible knowledge. Just as for Husserl, for Piana this does neither mean endorsing a kind of naïve intuitionism, nor endorsing the—equally naïve—ideal of a radically presuppositionless philosophy. For presuppositions notoriously operate “behind our backs”, and accordingly assuming that we could perform an act of liberation, capable of chasing away all prejudices at once, would “only be a pure philosophical abstraction” (Piana 2016, 185). These observations come close to Merleau-Ponty’s well-known remarks in the ‘Preface’ of his Perception Phenomenology of Perception, according to which the main outcome concerning the reduction is the discovery that reduction can never be complete (Merleau-Ponty 1945/1958, vii-xxiv). But for Piana this remark is almost obvious: how can one even think that philosophy can be the absence of all prejudices? Isn’t it something obvious that thought is always conditioned by contingent, material, social ideological moments?

11If one takes this seriously, then the keystones of phenomenological method—the epoché and the reductions—are not aimed at eliminating prejudices. They are, rather, the expression of a critical attitude, needed in order to identify what potentially affects our thinking, what can act as prejudice. The quest for a return to intuition, to the things themselves, then, should be understood as aiming to uncover and make explicit those implicit presuppositions, assumptions, and preconceptions, thereby maintaining the awareness that we cannot in principle free ourselves from all prejudices. This is a critical attitude primarily because it leads us to question ourselves, not to take the legitimacy of our assumptions for granted. Moreover, it is a critical attitude because it prompts us to wakefulness, and thus to search where prejudice can nest.

12Yet, not only naïve intuitionism and the nexus between intuition and introspection should be rejected if we take phenomenology as method. Also, the alleged metaphysical significance and privilege of intuition is called into question. Intuition is not the source of a special kind of know|ledge that would disclose “some otherwise inaccessible truths” (Piana 2016, 191). Rather, the reliance on intuition as the ground for cognition should be understood in relation to the idea that “[t]he being of beings shall be traced back to their modes of appearing” (Piana 2016, 193). And this idea expresses the core meaning of the phenomenological reduction.

13Phenomenological intuition is not limited to individual entities, but also extends to a priori truths, laws, essences, or ‘structures’: these are not constructed by thought operations, but rather ‘seen’, grasped, in and through the concrete individual appearances. What we have in individual experience exemplifies and at the same time embodies structures (Husserl 1973, 258 f.). On this account, eidetic intuition does not refer to the vision of essences located somewhere beyond experience. It is instead the intuition of the structures that articulate experience itself, that is, that articulate what is empirically given, even if they are not reducible to what is empirically given. For this reason, imagination—or phantasy—plays such a crucial role in eidetic intuition: varying the initial appearance through phantasy-modifications, allows us to take that appearance as exemplary and makes it possible to intuit structures as the skeleton of what appears in an analogous way. The phenomenological account of the a priori, thus, is based on a methodological articulation of intuition-based knowledge, which is not reducible to psychological introspection and to special accomplishments of mental faculties.

14Connecting the observations regarding the need for clarity, order, and articulation in philosophy with those regarding intuition and evidence, Piana observes:

We shall especially refer—in relation to the problem of our thoughts getting tangled, or risking to get tangled—to an exemplary situation, which can be perceptively or imaginatively grasped, and thus described and freely varied to be redescribed anew. We shall draw the attention to the relations characterizing that situation and to its internal interconnections (Piana 2016, 194).

15Such an understanding of phenomenological intuition as intuition of structures also has normative implications which only apparently go beyond the explicit appeal to description in phenomenology. Piana does not merely describe what we can do in order to disentangle tangled threads; he rather clarifies which is the most appropriate way to do so, i.e., he indicates what we should and should not do with it. The normativity of philosophical method—notably of phenomenological method, fundamentally based on the above-discussed appeal to ‘evidence’—is not expressed in a codified procedure or a list of prescriptions (first you should do this, then that, etc.). Instead, the rule one has to follow is exemplarily shown: in a ostensive way, one can say, whereby one should be careful in clarifying that what is shown in the singular instance has a general or generalizable meaning. Single-case descriptions—for instance, how I phenomenologically describe my present perception of a book on my table, the signitive consciousness of the meaning of words written in that book, or the awareness of an image in it—all this can become exemplary and offer threads to grasp what perceptions, meaning-giving acts, and image consciousness are. Also, in a performative way, such descriptions become exemplary for the way one should describe those acts appropriately. Exemplifying, in this latter sense, is not merely accessory, something we use in order to clarify something that might be understood otherwise, on a more abstract level. Exemplifying is instead a central component of the phenomenological method: it is the way in which the generality of a rule can be grasped and communicated. This is the way in which, according to Piana, Socrates proceeds, when it comes to the construction of a square: “The way in which Socrates’ discourses and actions develop can then be described with the very same expressions we used before. Socrates draws the attention; Socrates points this or that out, until the right relation is finally grasped.” (Piana 2016, 197). When exemplifying, Socrates does not expose or demonstrates rules, instead he shows how the rule, or the structure, is graspable in and through what is given.

16As a tribute to Giovanni Piana’s legacy, this special issue of Phenomeno|logical Reviews aims to offer international scholars some hints of his exemplary model of rigorous philosophical ethos that opened concrete paths of phenomenological research that deserve to be further explored. Collecting articles by both his direct students and researchers who have more indirectly been influenced by Piana’s work, this Special Issue is organized in two main section. In the first section, systematic contributions in the main areas of Piana’s research are published. Particularly, the contributions focus in the three following main areas: (i) phenomenological theory of experience, notably focusing on the structures of sensible and imaginative experience as well as on the constitution of values (Vincenzo Costa, Vittorio De Palma, Paolo Spinicci, Francesca Forlé, and Roberta de Monticelli); (ii) phenomenologically grounded epistemology (Andrea Staiti and Paola Basso); phenomenological aesthetics and the phenomenology of musical experience (Carlo Serra, Matteo Ravasio, Riccardo Martinelli, and Filippo Marani Tassinari & Matteo Meda). The second main section is devoted to more personal tributes to Piana and contains contributions by Francesco Fersini, Sergio Lanza, Stefano Cardini, Nicola Pedone, Anna Lombardo, and Valentino Piana.

17By collecting contributions from authors who develop, respond to, or take up aspects of Piana’s philosophical work, this volume also aims at introducing this work to an international audience. A related project will be the translation of some of Piana’s texts into English. As a step in this direction, we publish in this volume the Italian, English and German version of Piana’s “Ideas for a phenomenological structuralism”, translated by Patrick Flack (English) and Renato Cristin and Thomas Vongehr (German).

18Acknowledgements: We wish to thank Patrick Flack for his generous invitation to organize a special issue in honor of Giovanni Piana, as well as Lukas Beckmann for his support in proofreading and editing the articles included in this volume

Publication details

Published in:

Caminada Emanuele, Summa Michela (2020) Giovanni Piana. Phenomenological Reviews Special Issue 1.

Pages: 7-15

DOI: 10.19079/PR.s1.1

Full citation:

Caminada Emanuele, Summa Michela (2020) „Giovanni Piana: the epistemic virtues of phenomenology as method“. Phenomenological Reviews 1, 7–15.