Book Review: Folk Phenomenology: Education, Study, and the Human Person

Book Review: Folk Phenomenology: Education, Study, and the Human Person, by Samuel D. Rocha

Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications (2015) pp. 150. Pb. $18.00

Reviewed by Kevin Froner

In his first major work, Folk Phenomenology: Education, Study and the Human Person, Samuel Rocha attempts to extend the phenomenological accounts of Husserl, Heidegger, and Marion, by offering an ambitious fourth way, which Rocha has termed the trinitarian lens of being, subsistence, and existence.  If Husserl treats phenomena as ‘objects,’ Heidegger as ‘Being,’ and Marion as ‘giveness,’ Rocha presents his ‘offering’, as a phenomenology that attempts to ‘imagine the real’ (p. 15) and to reconceptualize being within eros.

Rocha’s phenomenology is an exploration into origination, not simply as an ontogeny, but as an account of things. It moves beyond the metaphysical, to the subject that both precedes and supersedes the thing, which for Rocha is art: ‘To assert “art precedes metaphysics” implies that art exceeds metaphysics in the sense that it comes first in the order of things’ (p. 4).  Rocha believes that this is a matter of both anthropology and ontology, in the sense that works of art are, in essence, crafts of thing-making or making things, which must precede the origin of the thing itself. Art, thus, becomes the offering and, as Rocha suggests, ‘everything that shows, offers’ (p. 6), though without a rigidity and linearity.

Folk phenomenology or, as Rocha terms it, ‘folkloric reversal’, attempts to uncover the ontology of education in the zeitgeist of our current model, which has standardized and concretized teaching to the point where what is real cannot be imagined unless it can be tested.  Not only art, but also love, a word Rocha is unafraid to use, transcend such distortions of reality. 

Education, in this context, moves beyond schooling and becomes an ontological matter.  Through the many deaths of humanity’s authoritative imperatives, and ultimately the death of man himself, we find education as a potential replacement for how we understand and interpret the world.  Though he makes a very clear distinction between schooling and education, Rocha still finds a place for teaching: ‘When a teacher is present, when there is being in love, even death is powerless in the face and eye of the offering’ (p. 7).   Here, Rocha is not only reimagining but also elevating and reasserting the role of the teacher, a being who makes his or her offering in love and with love.

In parallel to the trinitarian lens of being, subsistence, and existence, Rocha provides the trio of education, study, and the human person as an expression of the ontological elements of the trinitarian supposition through the lived world. This ontology is cleverly framed through an encounter with Rocha’s son, in which the author has a deep realization of the power of naming through his son’s profound reaction to being called a ‘silly goose’. For the child it was not simply a playful moniker, but an identification that created an ontological and existential crisis in the young boy, who asserts over and over again, ‘I am not a goose’. This provokes Rocha to question the very nature of things, including the human person, and becomes a prelude to the three central chapters on being/education, subsistence/study, and existence/human person.

On education, Rocha focuses his lens on a contrast of being and knowledge. This juxtaposition begins the construction of a phenomenology that places ontology over epistemology. Rocha’s ontology is of a very specific variety, and it is here that he distinguishes himself and his lens by coupling being with eros.  Eroticism, for Rocha, is not of a sexual nature but is love. Not necessarily as an act (as in giving) of love, but as the very beingness of the experience, or the being within being. A hand and foot are both of the body but neither would claim ownership of the bodily context, nor would we suggest it redundant to label the two.  It is in this respect that being must be within being and love within art, which for Rocha is eros.   

Returning to Rochas’ son, Tomas, we find that it is not simply being within being, but all three elements within each other, that coexist within an ontological confluence: ‘When Tomas exclaims, “I am not a goose!”, he is not merely telling me what he is not…He is teaching me that in order to seek, sense, and see him as he is, to know him as an ontological, erotic trinity, complete within context (Being), among life forces (subsistence) and a material body (existence)…I must attempt to return to him, to what is real’ (p. 21). By treating the triad as a non-linear confluence, Rocha likens it to Heidegger’s Dasein, while providing an approach to the human person that requires not only a suspension of linearity in the acceptance of being within being, or existence with existence, but also an understanding of the mediating force of subsistence. 

Education as being is also education in being and is not knowing about. Repeatedly, Rocha returns to the ontological/epistemological divide in education.  In Chapter Three  we find one of Rocha’s more pointed critiques. He argues that, by valuing experience over context, Dewey ignored the ontology of education. So, what is education?  This question is never fully addressed; however, Rocha is not hesitant to say what it is not – schooling. That is, one of a particular nature, wrapped in fear, testing, and neoliberal discourse.  Though teetering on these meatier issues, Rocha returns to his phenomenological lens, and likens the question, ‘What is education?’, to ‘Who am I?’ (p. 49). If they really are synonymous, then the answer to the first question cannot be addressed in this 134-page book, nor indeed in 134 books. Yet the parallel provides a unique point of entry to a process that peels away schooling from education.                  

In the transition from education to study, Rocha moves from being to subsistence, and returns to eros as the study/subsistence construct is framed as an erotic force.  This force, Rocha believes, mediates being and existence through a physiopsychology of the physical body and mind. Here, however, is where Rocha’s signifier/signified coupling, in this case subsistence and study, begins to fracture, which leaves the reader wondering if the signified was really necessary in the first place.  The fourth chapter ends with a reframing of study as memory and repetition that does not quite fit with his ontological inquiry into the question ‘What is study?’. The eros of study, which in this instance is really more about the eros of subsistence, is intended to serve as a bridge between the trinitarian lens and consciousness.  To liken consciousness to study, which Rocha clearly attempts, appears forced, however.  Study might fit within a parallel lens, but it does not lend itself to the confluence Rocha attempts. To suggest that physiopsychology and ‘fortune’ lead us to subsistence – accepting, of course, that fortune provides Rocha with an additional expression of eros – may fit within his general thesis on love and art, but to then tie this to the subsistence of study, as he does, renders study superfluous. 

In arriving at the final element of the trinitarian lens, Rocha takes us to the human person, whom he likens to the public school. Like the school in both its most limited and unpredictable dichotomy, the person is presented through the linguistic duality of the ‘Latin “person” (a legal term) and the Greek person (a radical thing)…fertile, tragic and phenomenologically honest’ (p. 96). Rocha sees the legal man as a dead man (in a Foucauldian sense) confounded by a neoliberal world in direct conflict with eros and, ultimately, love. Rocha returns to this love by using Jean-Luc Marion to reimagine Descartes. He expresses this by citing Augustine declaring: ‘in other words I do not think and therefore I exist, as Descartes would have it; I love and therefore exist and think and love again (and again and again)’ (p. 101). In this proclamation of love we find Rocha’s courageous offering to phenomenology itself, inserting eros into the fray of the phenomenological and ontogenetic discourse of being. 

If we begin and end in love what does this mean for education, study, and the human person? Folk Phenomenology brings us back to the beginning of things, to the place where Derrida, through deconstruction, offered us nothingness, and where Levinas, in that same nothingness, introduced the other.  As Rocha places eros in each element of the trinitarian lens, we find that love is the being in which being, subsistence, and existence reside.  This is a profound claim, and surely one possibility of reality; however, is it truly the beginning of beginning or does it pull us into a discourse Plato began more than two centuries ago in the Symposium, seeking an answer to the question, What is love?

Read an interview with Sam Rocha, author of Folk Phenomenology, here.