First of all, thanks very much to John Schwenkler for inviting to me to blog about Experiencing Phenomenology (Routledge 2016). Long-time lurker, first-time blogger.
Experiencing Phenomenology is an introductory book and, as such, these posts will take something of a different format to some of their (excellent) predecessors. In the book I am not chiefly concerned to advance my own arguments or present my own opinions on the topics that I discuss. These four posts, then, are primarily intended to introduce some issues, rather than present arguments in favour of particular views.
Perhaps my main aim in writing the book was to show how the philosophical work of the ‘classical Phenomenologists’ is closer in spirit to debates in contemporary philosophy of mind than is sometimes supposed. Phenomenology is sometimes thought to fall within the domain of so-called ‘Continental Philosophy’, rather than so-called ‘Analytic Philosophy’. Insofar as I understand what that distinction amounts to, which isn’t very far at all, that seems to me to be a wholly implausible idea. Classical Phenomenology—by which I mean to include the work of Husserl, (early) Heidegger, Stein, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty, among many others—addresses a range of issues continuous with both traditions. It is in that ecumenical spirit that I attempt to approach these authors. The book isn’t an ‘analytic’ attempt to appropriate phenomenology, any more than it is an attempt to phenomenologize the philosophy of mind. Rather, it is an attempt to pursue lines of thought that are equally accessible from a number of different perspectives.
Phenomenology, as I understand it, is primarily concerned with the concept of experience and, correlatively, that of appearance (or, equivalently, phenomena). The primary phenomenological questions, then, concern the nature of experience in all its varieties (perception, reflection, imagination, emotion, etc.), and of things as they appear in experience. One might ask, for example, what it is to visualise something; how visualising differs from visually perceiving something; and what the similarities and differences are between how things appear in those two forms of experience.
This way of characterising phenomenology is distinctively Husserlian (see, for example, Husserl 1917). On his account, phenomenology is, first and foremost, a method rather than a body of substantive claims. Two notions are central: the phenomenological reduction (or epoché) and the eidetic reduction. The role of the former is to enable accurate description by reflectively focusing the attention on experience. The phenomenological reduction involves bracketing the belief that we have in the existence of the things of which we are aware. Typically, we take things to transcend our awareness of them. Within the phenomenological reduction, that assumption is set aside. What remains, at least according the Husserl, is a realm of phenomena: entities that are ‘given absolutely’, in the sense that there is nothing more to learn of them beyond how they are given in experience.
Phenomena are, on Husserl’s view, to be described and the reduction allows us to engage in that activity without any hidden presuppositions; without undue influence being exerted by our beliefs about what the objects of experience really are. But the task is not simply to describe how things happen to appear to me, but to describe the essence of appearance. This is where the eidetic reduction comes in—Husserl asks us to bracket the merely contingent features of experience. This, he tells us, we do by taking some phenomenon and varying it imagination, thereby coming to know what is and isn’t essential to phenomena of that kind. So, I see a tree. Adopting the phenomenological reduction I bracket the real existence of the tree, limiting myself to the ‘visually apparent tree’. Now, I imaginatively vary the tree: could it have been a different colour? Yes. Could it have been a different shape? Yes. Could it have lacked a shape? No. Aha! Apparent shape must be essential to visually appearing things.
So the story goes. But the history of phenomenology is, amongst other things, the history of reasons to be sceptical of Husserl’s account. Both Heidegger (1927a) and Merleau-Ponty (1945), for example, are often interpreted as, for various reasons, rejecting the phenomenological reduction. One worry, that brings the issue into contact with some contemporary debates, concerns the Husserlian claim that the phenomenological reduction allows us to practice phenomenology in a way that is presuppositionless. The thought is that by suspending belief in the actual existence of the objects of experience one can capture how things are given in a way that is independent of the question of whether there is really a thing there at all. But this seemingly involves a commitment to what McDowell (1994) calls the ‘highest common factor’ view of experience and is, on the face of it, inconsistent with naïve realist views according to which a relation to the actually existing tree that I see is partly constitutive of the phenomenal character of my visual experience in seeing it. That is, if one supposes that an accurate description of how visually presented things appear requires the postulation of a relation between the perceiver and the perceived, then one will have reason to doubt the phenomenological reduction. Of course inconsistency with naïve realism is not itself a reason to reject the phenomenological reduction, but it would seem to indicate that Husserl’s ‘presuppositionless’ apriori science of experience is in fact no such thing.
A different worry about presuppositionless is to be found in Heidegger’s response to Husserl, and can be approached via the eidetic reduction. What, we might ask, guides our judgements as to whether an imaginatively varied phenomenon counts as an instance of a particular kind? It is implausible, one might think, to suppose that we simply describe what we see; that we read off such information from the phenomena. Rather, claims Heidegger (1927b), it is our ‘pre-ontological understanding of being’ which guides us here. We possess an implicit understanding of what the objects of the various forms of experience are and this means that phenomenology can be neither presuppositionless nor purely descriptive. Not presuppositionless as our ‘pre-ontological understanding’ guides us; not purely descriptive because what is required is an interpretation of phenomena in the light of this pre-ontological understanding.
OK, there are some thoughts about what phenomenology is. Next up, intentionality and perception.
Heidegger, Martin. 1927a. Being and Time. Translated by Joan Stambaugh. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2010.
Heidegger, Martin. 1927b. Basic Problems of Phenomenology. Revised edition, translated by Albert Hofstadter. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.
Husserl, Edmund. 1917. Pure Phenomenology, its Method, and its Field of Investigation. In Dermot Moran & Timothy Mooney, eds. The Phenomenology Reader. London: Routledge, 2002, pp.124-133.
McDowell, John. 1994. Mind and World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1945. Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by Donald Landes. London: Routledge, 2012.