Lately, my head has been (figuratively) stuck in a book of Husserl’s introductory lectures on phenomenology.
It’s not easy and the understanding I have and continue to develop is an amorphous cloud through which some vague silhouettes of concepts which, when I try to articulate, I articulate poorly.
So following is a poor articulation of the same. If this is a topic you, dear reader, know something about, please share with me your insights; this is very far from an authorative description.
What is Phenomenology?
Before engaging with ‘what’ it is, it might be best to first consider ‘where’ it is in the landscape of studies and sciences. Husserl places phenomenology as a science, neither in agreement with, nor in challenge against, but in parallel to the natural sciences. While he does not deny natural-science, and nor does he pose that the natural world is not real, he simply rejects the claim that we can reliably know it’s real. As such, any interacting or measuring as is practiced in natural science is not meaningful. He puts forward phenomenology as a science, in that we must take a scientific rigour and line of questioning to the one thing we can reliably know as real; our experiencing of the natural world. In this way, Husserl ‘puts aside’ the natural world and all questions to do with it directly, or what he calls ‘bracketing’.
Hence phenomenology begins with the assertion that all we can legitimately rely on is ‘that we experience‘, (maybe ‘that we experience experience‘) or more simply, ‘the phenomenon of human experience’. The quest of phenomenology then, is to understand this most fundamental reality. Husserl asks, ‘Without leaning on the crutch that is the natural (physical) world, what could we know of reality?’.
How can we do that?
The first preparations to begin this quest require that we scrupulously examine and remove any beliefs or assumptions we have about reality which we attained from observations of the natural world. Assuming the legitimacy of any such beliefs would be fraudulent, as we are not certain of the legitimacy of the ‘reality’ from which they came.
So by only scrutinising our own conscious, and nothing else, what can we notice?
One thing Husserl noticed is that it doesn’t seem to exist in itself, or in stasis, but only seems to exist when it is ‘about’ something. You cannot ‘think’, you can only ‘think about’, and similarly you cannot ‘experience’ but only have an ‘experience of’ something. This property of ‘aboutism’ introduces us to something of a vector property to experience, which is in terms of a model for the mind, quite a departure from the classical ‘mind as a machine’. More on this later.
(Without caution, one might come to think this property contradicts the fundamental axiom of phenomenology, that ‘aboutism’ contradicts ‘bracketing’, as it might be thought that natural world is then a necessary part of phenomenological discourse. We can’t experience anything other than stimuli from the natural world, and so how can the natural world be ‘bracketed out’? Husserl addresses this at length but for our purposes, we can say that the experience of something is more reliably real than the object ‘about which’ the experience is had. It may help here to consider that an experience can be had about illusionary or otherwise non-real objects, and so being conscious of something does not indicate any valid realness to the thing about which one is conscious. The natural world stays bracketed.)
Husserl also notices that ‘identicality’ is not a property found in conscious; that one thing would be agreeably identical to two or more people. Concepts like ‘time’ and ‘space’ do exist in phenomenology but in very different ways to how we are used to thinking of them in natural space. For example, time in the ‘natural’ world is a very well defined and regulated measurement of transition from one state to another, whereas in ‘conscious’ time exists in the transition of conscious states, and follows a predictable path of experienced states (eg. expectation, experience, recollection). As such ‘phenomenological space’ and ‘phenomenological time’ become useful terms.
However, perhaps the most powerful tools that Husserl’s considerations yield to us are that of “phenomenological reduction” and, subsequently, “eidetic reduction”.
Phenomenological and Eidetic Reduction
The process discussed up to this point; the bracketing of the natural world, the focusing only on that which is found in conscious, the rigours scrutiny of different aspects, stages and states of conscious and consideration of how these connect and relate to one another is very much the practice of phenomenological reduction.
The purpose of phenomenological reduction is to sift out that which is unreliably founded (in the natural world) and be left only with that which is founded purely in conscious.
It might be fair to consider eidetic reduction as something of a ‘second differentiation’ of phenomenological reduction; a second, finer sieve through which the remnants of phenomenological reduction are further refined. Once the thinker (though we imagine Husserl might prefer a different word, ‘experiencer’ perhaps, or ‘be’er) has eliminated the unreliable or ‘nature bound’ elements of their experience, and is left only with phenomenological objects (objects of consciousness), he may apply then an eidetic reduction to those objects. The purpose this time is no longer of course to distinguish between phenomenological and non-phenomenological objects, but to take one such object, and ‘take away’ as much as possible of it while it can still be maintained and recognised as itself. The purpose of the eidetic reduction is to ‘distil off’ the unnecessary elements of the object so that it’s truest form can be revealed; a form which when present makes the object recognisable as itself, and which any less would make it unrecognisable as itself.
Phenomenology, Descartes and Psychology; A brief note
That the fundamental premise of phenomenology, ‘that we experience conscious’ as the only reliable starting place for further investigation, has echoes of Descartes’ “cogito ergo sum” is a correct observation and one Husserl recognises openly. However, it is in this moment, and this moment only, that they agree. The moment following, Descartes leaves behind what was to become the phenomenological investigation into consciousness, and instead returns to a focus on an ‘objective reality’. This divergence happens one step into Descartes’ line of thinking, and so his and Husserl’s philosophy have only that initial observation, and nothing else, in common.
Secondly, one might easily slip into saying ‘phenomenology is a branch of psychology as they both consider the mind’, but this is a very loose and unhelpful association; they consider the mind from unrecognisably different perspectives. Psychology could be said to be an ‘outside looking in’ approach; it casts the mind as something of a mechanical object, with rules and functions, causal results, and (more or less) replicable processes. We might be tempted to then say Husserl’s phenomenology is an ‘inside looking out’ approach, but this too would be misleading as, to Husserl, the ‘out’ is of no concern whatsoever. It might be more appropriate, though less pithy, to describe it as an ‘inside looking at the interface of the inside and outside’. It has also been likened to an intense and disciplined form of meditation; a focused way of being that slowly and incrementally removes falseness that commonly go assumed as true.
Phenomenology and Collaboration
These might seem like unlikely bed-fellows at first, but I don’t believe they are.
As I mentioned with respect to Bernard Weiner’s Attribution Theory and the role that plays in Collaboration, approaching collaborative interactions with objectivity as a ‘default’ mindset (and objectivity I suspect is an easy default to fall into) can be destructive. In reading Husserl, I found there to be an incredible and immense carefulness with respect to identifying the processes and states of conscious.
It also takes the implication of abstaining from considerations on objectivity a step further than Weiner; where Weiner does not address the concept of objectivity, or addresses it by omission, Husserl is careful to make sure that we ‘put it away’ entirely. He scrutinises every step of his argument to make sure that at no point does any conclusion or deduction rely in any way on there being an objective reality, and in recognition of the unreliability that there is, establishes the reliability of phenomenology.
I suspect that phenomenology has a role to play in collaborative practice in developing and practising the skill of recognising our own states of mind as our own states of mind. Husserl has a lot to contribute here not just in the practice of this skill, but in terms of recognising the legitimacy of the conscious as well, as something with its own mechanics, tendencies, and something and the inherent absence of identificability.
It may support would-be collaborators quite well to remind that what they have in their minds is both uniquely and profoundly their own, and has inherent legitimacy outside of any objective reality.
I also wonder if it could be a valuable and task suitably challenging as to require a group of people to practice phenomenological and eidetic reduction on concepts such as learning, thinking and development.