Phenomenology: The Basics
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Phenomenology: The Basics

Dan Zahavi

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eBook - ePub

Phenomenology: The Basics

Dan Zahavi

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Phenomenology: The Basics is a concise and engaging introduction to one of the dominant philosophical movements of the 20th century. This lively and lucid book provides an introduction to the essential phenomenological concepts that are crucial for understanding great thinkers such as Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty. Written by a leading expert in the field, Dan Zahavi examines and explains key questions such as:

  • What is a phenomenological analysis?
  • What are the methodological foundations of phenomenology?
  • What does phenomenology have to say about embodiment and intersubjectivity?
  • How is phenomenology distinguished from, and related to, other fields in philosophy?
  • How do ideas from classic phenomenology relate to ongoing debates in psychology and qualitative research?

With a glossary of key terms and suggestions for further reading, the book considers key philosophical arguments around phenomenology, making this an ideal starting point for anyone seeking a concise and accessible introduction to the rich and complex study of phenomenology.

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The aim of the following six chapters it to offer a basic overview of what phenomenology is all about. What kind of exploration is it engaged in? Is phenomenology primarily or even exclusively focused on the mind or is it equally about the world? What is a phenomenon in the first place, and how do we go about investigating it? What are the different ways in which we can relate to the world? What is the difference between talking about a tree and perceiving it? How does the world of science relate to the world we know from everyday experience? And what does it mean to say that phenomenology is a form of transcendental philosophy? The chapters will present some of the overarching themes and problems of phenomenology, describe its method(s), and outline its development.
Strictly speaking, phenomenology means the science or study of the phenomena. But what is a phenomenon? And what kind of phenomena do phenomenologists investigate? Are they mainly interested in spectacular phenomena, in truly phenomenal phenomena? In her autobiography, Simone de Beauvoir recounts how Sartre was first introduced to phenomenology. They were both visiting a cocktail bar with their friend Raymond Aron, who had just returned from Germany, and Aron then pointed to the apricot cocktail he had ordered and said to Sartre: ‚ÄúYou see, my dear fellow, if you are a phenomenologist, you can talk about this cocktail and make philosophy out of it!‚ÄĚ1 Aron was quite right. Even the everyday experience of simple objects can serve as the point of departure for a phenomenological analysis. Indeed, if philosophy is to avoid the dead end of stale abstractions, it has to reconnect to the richness of everyday life. Importantly, however, phenomenology is primarily interested in the how rather than in the what of objects. Rather than focusing on, say, the weight, rarity, or chemical composition of the object, phenomenology is concerned with the way in which the object shows or displays itself, i.e., in how it appears. There are important differences between the ways in which a physical object, a utensil, a work of art, a melody, a state of affairs, a number, or another human being presents itself. Moreover, it is possible for one and the same object to appear in a variety of different ways: From this or that perspective, in strong or faint illumination, as perceived, imagined, wished for, feared, anticipated, or recollected. Briefly stated, phenomenology can be seen as a philosophical analysis of these different types of givenness.
This will all sound very abstract, and perhaps also a bit esoteric, so let us consider a concrete example. I am on the lookout for a birthday present to a friend of mine and am searching in a vintage shop in central Copenhagen. At some point, I notice an antique alarm clock. How does an alarm clock appear? What kind of phenomenon is it? To start with, we should recognize that there is no simple answer to this question, since an alarm clock can appear in numerous ways. Not only can I see, touch, and hear it, but it can also appear in thought, just as I might see a picture of it, or simply make use of it. To keep matters simple for now, let us just focus on the way the alarm clock appears in the situation in question, namely perceptually. Depending on the illumination (natural sunlight, neon lights, spotlights, etc.), the alarm clock will appear differently. Regardless of the circumstances, however, and even under optimal lighting conditions, I will never be able to see the entire alarm clock, since it will always appear perspectivally. If I look at the alarm clock as it is positioned on the desk in the shop, I might be able to see its top, and two of its sides, but I cannot see its backside or bottom or inside. If I move around the desk, I might be able to see the backside of the alarm clock. If I lift it from the desk, I might be able to inspect its bottom, but regardless of what I do, the alarm clock will continue to appear perspectivally. When new aspects are revealed, former aspects will disappear from view. This might seem like a fairly trivial observation, something so taken for granted in daily life that no further thoughts are required, but in the hands of the phenomenologists, it contains the key to a wealth of insights. Consider first the fact that although we never see the entire alarm clock, we do not doubt or in any way question that there is more to the alarm clock than what appears. It has parts and properties which are not perceptually present. In fact, these absent aspects play a role in our perception, even when absent. Without them, the front of the alarm clock would not appear as a front. Perceptual experience consequently involves an interplay of presence and absence. When we perceive an object, we always experience more than what is intuitively presented. The front that we do see points to other sides of the alarm clock that are momentarily absent, but which can be revealed by further exploration. More generally speaking, what we see is never given in isolation, but is surrounded by and situated in a horizon that affects the meaning of what we see.
This horizon encompasses more than simply the momentarily unseen aspects of the object in question. After all, we never encounter isolated objects, but only objects that are embedded within a larger context. The alarm clock I am looking at is standing on a desk that is located in a particular room, and depending on whether the room in question is a salesroom, a study, or a lawyer’s office, the alarm clock will appear in different ways, with different meanings.
My field of consciousness is not exhausted by the alarm clock, even if I am attending to it. The alarm clock might be surrounded by other watches, cups, pens, a couple of books, etc. When focusing on the alarm clock, I do not pay attention to its surroundings. But I am not oblivious to the other utensils, the floor I am standing on, the illumination in the room, etc. I am merely conscious of them as ground, i.e., they are parts of the totality which serve as the background of attending to the alarm clock. And although these objects belong to the background, they can become themes in their own right through a change of attention. Indeed, the possibility of such a thematic change is exactly based on the fact that my theme is situated in a field that is co-given with it, and in which I can mentally move around.
To proceed further in our analysis, let us consider for a moment what it means to say that the alarm clock appears perspectivally. When the alarm clock appears perceptually, it always appears at a certain angle and at a certain distance from the perceiver. But what does this tell us about the perceiver? For the alarm clock to appear in the way it does, the perceiver must be located in the same space that is occupied by the alarm clock. But for the perceiver to be spatially located is for the perceiver to be embodied. A truly disembodied perceiver would have no spatial location, or, to put it differently, the alarm clock can only appear the way it does to an embodied perceiver. There is no purely intellectual point of view and there is no view from nowhere, there is only an embodied point of view.
That the body plays a crucial role in perception, can also be illustrated in a slightly different manner. Even if we initially are only confronted with a very limited perspective on the object, we rarely remain satisfied with a first glimpse. As Husserl points out, the object beckons us to explore further:
There is still more to see here, turn me so you can see all my sides, let your gaze run through me, draw closer to me, open me up, divide me up; keep on looking me over again and again, turning me to see all sides. You will get to know me like this, all that I am, all my surface qualities, all my inner sensible qualities.2
How do we carry out such an exploration? How do we get to know the alarm clock better? By picking it up by hand and turning it around, or by walking around the desk so that we can observe its backside. But all of this calls for and involves bodily engagement and interaction. We consequently learn that perceptual exploration, rather than being a question of an immobile intake of information, is a bodily activity. We move our eyes, our head, our torso, our arms and hands, and our entire body. This activity, this bodily exploration, this getting to know the alarm clock better by discovering more and more of its aspects, is not instantaneous. It takes time. And time does indeed play a crucial role as well. When first looking at the front of the alarm clock and then moving around to observe its back, the front might gradually disappear from sight, but not from mind. Our familiarity with the alarm clock increases because we are able to retain that which we have seen in the past. When executing a change of perspective and position, we do not first experience the front of the alarm clock and then its side and then its back as if we were viewing three distinct snapshots. If we pick up the alarm clock and turn it around in our hand, we experience how its appearance changes gradually, rather than abruptly. But for the alarm clock to appear in this manner, our stream of consciousness cannot be a series of instantaneous and disconnected perceptions, but must have a particular temporal structure and configuration, must somehow be temporally and experientially unified. In addition, time also plays a different role here. When highlighting the importance of context and horizon, we shouldn‚Äôt merely think of this in spatial terms, but also in temporal terms. We encounter the present on the basis of the past, and with plans and expectations for the future. Our past experiences are not lost and do not leave us untouched. When noticing the alarm clock, I decided to investigate it further, not only because I knew from past experiences that my friend is a heavy sleeper, but also because of my plans for the future ‚Äď I intended to present him with a gift.
This brings me to the last point I want to extract from this example. When the alarm clock appears, it appears to me, but it does not appear to me as my private object. Rather, it is very much given to me as a public object, as one that others can also observe and utilize. Which, of course, is also why I would consider buying it in the first place. Even if the alarm clock only presents part of itself to me, others can simultaneously perceive aspects of it that are currently unavailable to me.
But what is the relevance of all of this, one might ask. By focusing on how various objects appear, phenomenology only tells us something about the phenomena, i.e., about the apparent nature of objects, about what objects apparently are. And surely this must be contrasted with the goal of science, which is to grasp the objects as they truly are.
In much of the philosophical tradition, the phenomenon has indeed been defined as the way the object appears to us, as seen with our eyes (and thought with our categories), and has been contrasted with the object as it is in itself. The assumption has then been that if one wishes to discover and determine what the object really is like, then one has to go beyond the merely phenomenal. Had it been this concept of phenomenon that phenomenology was employing, phenomenology would have been the study of the merely subjective, apparent, or superficial. But this is not the case. As Heidegger points out in section 7 of Being and Time, phenomenology is drawing on and employing a very different and more classical conception of phenomenon, according to which the phenomenon is that which shows itself, that which reveals itself.3 Phenomenology is, consequently, not a theory about the merely apparent, as Heidegger also pointed out in a lecture course given a few years before Being and Time:
It is phenomenologically absurd to speak of the phenomenon as if it were something behind which there would be something else of which it would be a phenomenon in the sense of the appearance which represents and expresses [this something else]. A phenomenon is nothing behind which there would be something else. More accurately stated, one cannot ask for something behind the phenomenon at all, since what the phenomenon gives is precisely that something in itself.4
Whereas some might claim that the phenomenon is something merely subjective, a veil or smoke screen, that conceals the objectively existing reality, phenomenologists reject what is called the two-world doctrine, i.e., the proposal that we have to make a principled distinction between the world that presents itself to and can be understood by us and the world as it is in itself. This is certainly not to deny the distinction between mere appearance and reality ‚Äď after all, some appearances are misleading ‚Äď but, for phenomenologists, this distinction is not a distinction between two separate realms (falling in the province of phenomenology and science, respectively), but a distinction between two modes of manifestation. It is a distinction between how the objects might appear at a superficial glance, and how they might appear in the best of circumstances, for instance as a result of a thorough scientific investigation. Indeed, phenomenologists will typically claim that the world that appears to us, be it perceptually, in our daily use, or in scientific analysis, has all the required reality and objectivity. To claim that there, in addition, exists a behind-the-scenes world, a hidden world that transcends every type of givenness, every type of evidence, and that this is the really real reality, is rejected as an empty speculative claim by the phenomenologists. In fact, they would insist that the very proposal involves a category-mistake, a misapplication and abuse of the very concept of reality. Rather than defining objective reality in terms of an inaccessible and ungraspable beyond, phenomenologists would argue that the right place to locate objectivity is in, rather than beyond, the appearing world.
Given what has been said so far, what should one conclude regarding the very scope and domain of the phenomenological investigation? What are ultimately at stake in phenomenological analyses? Are they primarily to be understood as careful investigations of consciousness? As should be clear by now, phenomenology is not primarily (or even exclusively) focused on the structure of the mind. Rather, the proper focus of phenom...

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