© Dan Zahavi and Figure/Ground Communication.
Dr. Zahavi was interviewed by Laureano Ralon on August 1st, 2010.
Dan Zahavi is a Professor in the Department of Media, Cognition, and Communication at the University of Copenhagen, where he specializes in the social dimension of self-experience; the nature of empathy and its relevance for social cognition; the relation between phenomenology and naturalism; selfhood and unity of consciousness with particular focus on no-self doctrines. He is the director of the Danish National Research Foundation’s Center for Subjectivity Research and has taught at a number of post-secondary institutions, including The University of Central Florida, The State University of New York. He is the author of numerous books, including one on Edmund Husserl.
How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?
I was an avid reader when I was a child. In the books I read, I kept coming across references to philosophers, and didn’t quite understand what it meant. When I was 12, I asked my mother to purchase Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy: the Lives and Opinions of the Greater Philosophers. Can’t claim to have understood much at that age, but his account of Plato was still so inspiring that I there and then decided that I wanted to study philosophy. And that was basically a decision I stuck to, and which I have never regretted. As for being a professor of philosophy, well that was kind of the obvious end point if you wanted to do an academic career in the field.
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?
There has certainly been many changes, but I am not sure they are mainly due to changes in media. The two major factors has on the one hand been the increasing change to a mass university, this has necessitated changes in the study structure, in the curriculum and in the forms of examination. The other change has been an increasing internationalization. In contrast to the situation back then, there is now a clear expectation that a university professor, and also one from the humanities, is part of an international network, is capable of attracting external funding, and most importantly, is publishing internationally (i.e., not merely for a local Danish audience).
What makes a good teacher today? How do you manage to command attention in an age of interruption characterized by fractured attention and information overflow?
My own way of teaching is pretty old style. I don’t use power points, but is basically lecturing to the students. And I am by no means convinced that that is an example to follow. But at least it seems to capture their attention.
What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors?
The job market these days is so tough, and there are so many qualified people who in the end are unable to procure permanent positions, so one advice is to only go down this road if you are sure it is the kind of life you want to live. Another advice concerns the choice of specialization. When I started out working in phenomenology and philosophy of mind, many were convinced it was a dead-end, also career-wise, but things changed. It can be hard to predict what will be hot 10-15 years in the future, so it might be better to choose your specialization on the basis of your own interests, than on the basis of some strategic calculation.
You are the Director of the Danish National Research Foundation’s Center for Subjectivity Research at the University of Copenhagen. How did the Center come into being, what is its mandate, and what are some of the activities being organized by it?
The Center is mainly funded by generous funding from the Danish National Research Foundation, and was established on the basis of a successful application to that agency. We received core funding for 10 years (2002-2012), in order to do research on issues related to subjectivity and the nature of self. A characteristic feature of the research undertaken has been the bridge building involved. We have made links not only between different philosophical traditions (mainly phenomenology, hermeneutics and philosophy of mind), but also between philosophy and empirical science (mainly psychiatry, developmental psychology and neuroscience). The main reason for this outreach has been the conviction that the issues at stake are so complex that complementary research traditions and methodologies are required if headway is to be made. Recently, we have been successful in obtaining new funding from other sources for the period 2011-2015, this time for research on social cognition. So for the time being the future of the Center is secured.
One of your recent books is Subjectivity and Selfhood: Investigating the First-Person Perspective (2005). I notice the terms Selfhood and Subjectivity tend to be used interchangeably in mainstream discourse. Do they mean the same thing to you?
I have been defending a minimal notion of self, and on that account selfhood is in fact identical with the subjectivity (first-personal character) of experience. However, I also think we need to distinguish various dimensions or aspects of selfhood, say, interpersonal and narrative dimensions, and I wouldn’t identify those dimensions simply with the subjectivity of experience.
Is phenomenology exclusively a first-person philosophy/method? If so, what to make of second generation (existential) phenomenologists such as Heidegger, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty? I’m thinking of Heidegger’s notion of existence as an ecstatically temporal stretching-and-awaiting that is always already, amidst things and pressing toward future possibilities, or even Sartre’s three-fold program: being-in-itself, being-for-itself and being-for-others…
No, I don’t think so. Phenomenology is concerned with the first-person perspective, but not exclusively. In fact, I think it is important to remember that phenomenology has a lot to say on the topic of interpersonal understanding, and in so doing might be said to pay a lot of attention to the second-person perspective as well. As for your reference to Heidegger and Sartre, I don’t see their emphasis on, say, existence or being-for-others as being in conflict with a focus on subjectivity and the first-person perspective. Rather, it is better to see the former notions as attempts to explicate and elaborate the latter concepts.
I assume you’re somewhat familiar with Hubert Dreyfus’ reading of Heidegger, which centers on the notion of “skilful coping” as a way of rejecting the cognitivist/constructivist conception of human beings as information-processing machines. What do you make of his interpretation? Do you think there is a tendency to think of ourselves as machines?
One worry I have with Dreyfus’ notion of skilful coping is that he sometime presents it as a form of mindless coping, i.e. one that lacks first-personal character and subjectivity. I don’t think that is the right way to characterize our being-in-the-world, and in particular, I don’t think it is a good alternative to a conception of human beings as information-processing machines, since it equally threatens to turn us all into some kind of zombies. As for whether or not there is a tendency to think of ourselves as machines, I think this is something we very rarely do in the first-person case, i.e., when thinking about ourselves. It might be more widespread when thinking about human beings in the abstract.
Toward the end of his life, Marshall McLuhan declared: “Phenomenology [is] that which I have been presenting for many years in non-technical terms.” How can phenomenology and communication studies reinforce each other in this age of information?
One obvious area concerns the topic of interpersonal understanding. Classical phenomenology has frequently focused on, and emphasized the importance of, face-to-face communication. On the one hand, this focus on the embodied and environmentally embedded context of communication is important to bear in mind. On the other hand, technologies are increasingly allowing for real-time communication and interaction between people who are far apart. New kinds of communities are thereby enabled, and this is something the implication of which phenomenology still has to think through.
The following question was drafted by Professor Dermot Moran: “Are you a naturalist down deep or do you think that in some real sense consciousness escapes nature?”
It all depends on what we mean by nature, and as long as there is no clear consensus on the meaning of that term, it is kind of hard to answer the question. But let me rephrase the question in a twofold manner. If asked whether I think that a consideration of culture is required in order to do full justice to human consciousness, my reply will be yes. If asked whether I think that an examination of consciousness that exclusively takes it as an object in the world can be exhaustive, my reply will be no.
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