Care Ethics and Phenomenology: a Contested Kinship?

Care Ethics and Phenomenology: a Contested Kinship, edited by Frans Vosman en Per Nortvedt, investigates the relationship between philosophical phenomenology and ethics of care, elucidating the normative significance of human experience, emotion and embodiment.

Unfortunately, Frans Vosman was not able to finish his own contribution to this collection of articles. An additional article by his hand would undoubtedly have enhanced the balance in the book between phenomenology and (critical) ethics of care.

Nevertheless, remaining authors have probed “the contested kinship between phenomenology and care ethics“ from various interesting angles of approach. The introduction by editors Vosman and Nortvedt gives some guidance within this kaleidoscope.

Aim of the book is to contribute to clarify “the intriguing relationship between philosophical phenomenology and the ethics of care” mainly from the point of view of care ethics.

Whereas care ethics is inspired in particular by feminism and moral psychology, it also has strong meta-ethical presuppositions. Concepts such as relational autonomy, dependency, vulnerability, and responsibility are central to care ethics, while phenomenology addresses interdependency and embodiment, as well as responsibility and the sources (epistemological and metaphysical) of moral demands. According to the editors, on this philosophical and conceptual level interaction is possible and potentially fruitful.

The editors hasten to emphasize that the scope of care ethics is broader than that of phenomenology: care ethics has developed into a politico-ethical theory, and it comprises an epistemology of power: whose knowledge is obscured, whose knowledge counts as knowledge?

Phenomenology, however, also comprises an epistemology, in the sense that phenomenology in its various forms addresses the basis for human understanding of the world and human embodiment in the world, by investigating human experience and how phenomena show up in human experience.

Phenomenology also has a metaphysical basis, in particular in the sense that it addresses the essence and possibility of consciousness and the problems connected with that possibility for understanding human subjectivity and the relationship between mind and matter.

Phenomenology, and in particular the works of Edmund Husserl, Emmanuel Levinas, Knud Ejler Løgstrup, Hans Jonas, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, have important normative connotations that are relevant to care ethics.

Philosophical phenomenology shows how the sources of moral demands are theorized and regarded as embedded in the human encounter and in relationship with other persons. These moral demands are discussed in care ethics as well, but mostly on a more concrete and practical level.

This book firstly brings together care ethicists of different scholarly generations and from different countries (Belgium, Norway, USA, the Netherlands) who each explain their turn to a version of phenomenology, and secondly it includes three of today’s prominent German phenomenologists who have reflected on care.

Part one is about care ethics and its diverse uses of phenomenology, taken as a philosophical approach and as a “method” in qualitative empirical research of care and welfare. The latter is linked to growing interest in care ethics on account of its emphasis on perception, perception of what actually shows itself in caring practices.

The questions here are: 1. what kind of care ethics is looking for what kind of phenomenology and for which reasons? 2. Which combination (blend) is appropriate, given the critical aims of care ethics and –much earlier– of phenomenology with its critique of Modernity.

Part two contains contributions by three phenomenologists who look at care and at practices of caring. The central question in this part is: what kind of phenomenology is suitable for reflection on care and caring practices?

Klaartje Klaver contributes in chapter 2 with “Being attentive as a researcher addresses the significance of moral attentiveness from the perspective of the researcher. The value of Waldenfels’ phenomenology for care ethical empirical study of attentiveness in healthcare”. She addresses attentiveness as a central notion in ethics and in care ethics in particular, drawing on phenomenology as developed by Bernhard Waldenfels.

In chapter 3, “Care ethical phenomenological research: bodiliness as a central feature,” Hanneke van der Meide writes about phenomenological research and bodiliness, particularly within the context of care ethical empirical research in a general hospital.

In “Being professional is also daring to be a human being: Kari Martinsen’s phenomenological approach to care and its relevance for medicine” (chapter 4), Elin Håkonsen Martinsen elaborates on the philosophy of care developed by the Norwegian phenomenologist and nurse Kari Martinsen, and in particular from a medical point of view.

In chapter 5, the American philosopher Maurice Hamington discusses neoliberalism within the context of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology. In his “Confronting Neoliberal Precarity: The Hyperdialectic of Care” he argues that Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology provides a tool for care ethicists to criticize the individualization of citizens by neoliberalism and its influence in today’s globalized world.

The Belgian scholars Linus Vanlaere and Roger Burggraeve, in their contribution “Care ethics as relational responsibility. An approach by way of Emmanuel Levinas” (chapter 6), present a phenomenology of different forms and modes of suffering. What is so characteristic of suffering that it becomes an ethical appeal?

The Norwegian medical ethicist Per Nortvedt calls attention to the importance of Levinas in his contribution “Phenomenology and Care—Reflections on the Foundation of Morality” (chapter 7). He argues that, compared to some phenomenological positions, care ethics has a rather sparse understanding of the fundamental sources of human morality. According to Nortvedt, moral demands show up in intuitive and relational experiences. He draws on the work of the American philosopher Lisa Tessman to state his argument about the significant normativity of certain moral intuitions of not harming the other person.

Gernot Böhme, in his two contributions (chapters 9 and 10), “Sovereignty and the Ethics of Pathos,” and “Ethics in a Quandary,” first discusses the notion and concept of sovereignty in relation to the balance of preserving oneself (autonomy) and losing oneself in the sense of suffering for the other (an ethics of pathos).

In his second contribution, he addresses suffering as a central category in ethics in light of the Aristotelian distinction between praxis and poièsis. His radical thesis is that ethics can only be restored to a whole when humanity reaches a new conception of itself.

In “Care of the Self and Care of the Other” (chapter 11), Bernard Waldenfels discusses the distinction between care of the Self and care of the Other within the context of Heideggerian philosophy, as well as Victor von Weizsäcker’s medical anthropology. In the last section of his contribution, he addresses what he calls “responsive therapy,” which he argues represents a radicalization of care for the other person.

Hermann Schmitz reflects on the situational character of all care. His short chapter (chapter 12), entitled “Care as Encounter in Situations,” will encourage readers to further explore his phenomenology of the body and matter.

To what extent now, does a contested kinship between phenomenology and care ethics emerge in this book and what, according to its authors, could this relation bring us?

Actually, reading this book confronts me with another contested kinship, i.e. between phenomenological strains of speculative thinking and the phenomenological experience, i.e. ways of perception, attentiveness etc. Some authors in the collection are elaborating on epistemo- and psycho-logical ideas, even ontological frames of consciousness and relations, which are sometimes mesmerizing with their promise of understanding and judging human behavior, its ethical conditions and boundaries.

In the few years I had the pleasure to accompany Frans Vosman once in a while, I learned to appreciate to put more focus on phenomenological methods of observing, attentiveness and the like, withholding judgements and trying to find out what’s going on out there, beyond my own busy mind and presuppositions. That’s why I find it such a pity that a full-text contribution of Frans Vosman is missing in this book, although several authors in the book elaborate extensively on phenomenological methods of perception.

Mind you, I enjoyed the articles of Klaartje Klaver, Maurice Hamington, Per Nortvedt and Bernard Waldenfels , their texts are taken from the heart, that is my philosophical heart and head. Just like them, I cherish following the traces of Husserl, Levinas, Merleau-Ponty and, indeed, Bernard Waldenfels himself, all the way up to the Waldenfels’s magisterial ideas of the other as alien and the precarious vulnerability of our responsiveness as first and last resort of our existence. To my own understanding, in Waldenfels we encounter a pinnacle of western Atlantic phenomenological thinking from the last two centuries.

At the same time, from another, very concerned perspective, this might be all for the birds. Put it aside for a while if you can, and try to find out what’s actually happening out there, look in the ‘Frans Vosman’ way—what is happening to those trying to survive anywhere on our planet, but also very close to us, maybe even living in the same street, wonder if we are aware of that. Wonder if we are aware of our own political and ecological footprint right now.

Excuse me for this non-academic turn, but what I am trying to say is that if we speak about contested kinship with respect to phenomenology and care ethics, the contested kinship which matters to me is not between these two disciplines, but right in the center of each of them, namely between discourses of the mind, the “Geist” on the one hand, and those of lived experience, bodily perceptions, on the other hand, experiences not yet patronized by theoretical discourse.

The latter, lived experience and pre-cognitive relevancies are about as much attended to in phenomenology, as they are in care ethics. Often held up against the politics and powers of ideas and preferable preconceived ‘moralia’.

Referring to a contested kinship means there are no clear and distinctive borders, separating neatly two modes of approach, as science would like to have it.
For example, what is implied with Waldenfels’ notion of vulnerability to the alien in the other and in ourself, is not difficult to transpose to situations in which we refrain from caring, from leaving our comfort zones, to enter the ‘place of trouble’.

In other words: theoretical frames devised to explain all our deepest motivations are certainly applicable to some if not many situations, but we have to be very careful, as Vosman would emphasize, to check whether nuts and bolts do really fit in given situations.

Let me conclude this short blog with a return to the contested kinship of Care Ethics and Phenomenology as it is probably meant by the editors of this collection.
The source of this theme is to be found in Nortvedt’s article, where he juxtaposes alleged firm foundations of phenomenology with feebly supported socio-psychological assumptions prevailing in care ethics.
I have some difficulty understanding Nortvedt’s argument: the kinship between phenomenology and care ethics is very obvious throughout the book, yet the contested part not so much, unless you would assume that phenomenology is all and only about rock solid fundamental morality, which is unattainable in care ethics, however hard one tries. Not so.

In my opinion, both disciplines are oscillating between theory and experience, be it that phenomenologists have build some phenomenal cathedrals, which care ethicists are better of to avoid.

Nonetheless, many care ethicist make good use of phenomenological ideas, and many phenomenologists find their way to care ethics quite naturally. As I have tried to argue, the contested kinship that matters is not between, but right inside each discipline, i.e. between Mind and bodily matters, ‘Geist’ and ‘Leib’.

Vosman, F.J.H. ; Nortvedt, P. (eds) Care Ethics and Phenomenology: a Contested Kinship Series Ethics of Care Volume 9 Leuven : Peeters Publishers, 2020


About the author: Richard Brons

Richard Brons

Richard Brons (1950) graduated in philosophy and literary studies at University of Amsterdam and VU Amsterdam (NL). At the University of Humanistic Studies in Utrecht (NL), he completed a NWO PhD research on J.F Lyotard's ethics of Differend, about the injustice of speechlessness. Since 2012, he is responsible for the final editing of Waardenwerk Magazine, a continuation of the Journal of Humanistic Studies. Currently he is interested in confronting postmodern critical voices of male protagoniists like Lyotard and Foucault with the different voices of feminists like Gilligan, Benjamin and Butler.

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