My preferred method of philosophy is phenomenology. “What is philosophy?” and “What is phenomenology?” are love-hate questions for me. I want to explain, because I think they’re beautiful and important. But they’re so beautiful and important that, no matter what I say, it seems clumsy and ignorant and ugly compared to the answer I feel I should be able to give. But, feck it, we’re on snow lockdown here — and my health has not been great lately so I don’t have any interesting new fitness activities to reflect on — so here goes. What is phenomenology, you ask? Well…
A lot of people seem to like the idea of phenomenology. It has been taken up in disciplines like psychology and nursing studies, where researchers want to do serious theoretical research without getting too far away the real experiences of actual people who might be affected by their research. Philosophy can often seem arcane and confusing, so there is something appealing about a method of philosophy that prioritises concrete experience over abstract theory. But there is more to phenomenology than just talking about individual experiences. To do phenomenology is not just to pay attention to experience, but to carefully and critically sift through that experience, looking for patterns and structures, thinking not just about particular experiences but about experience in general.
There are different ways of doing phenomenology, but what they all have in common is that focus on direct experience. My kind of phenomenology is that described by Edmund Husserl in the early 20th century. Husserl said that every experience we have can be a source of real, certain knowledge – if we learn how to analyse it properly. Lots of people are familiar with Descartes’ famous claim, “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes meant that I cannot fail to believe in my own existence, because even by doubting that I exist, I’m proving that I exist. I might be completely mistaken about my true nature – maybe I’m dreaming, maybe I’m in the Matrix, maybe I’m a Cylon … – but I must be something because something must be doing this wondering right now. For Husserl, this was the beginning of a whole new approach to philosophy. Descartes (according to Husserl) went off on the wrong track, trying to use logic and inference to argue that if I exist, other things must also be true. But Husserl thought that, instead of trying to use my existence as logical proof of something else, I could just stay with the experience itself, and examine it to see what else it might be able to teach me.
In a way, Husserlian phenomenology is a bit like mindfulness meditation. (Oddly, I don’t mind talking about meditation even though I’m absolutely not an expert and I’m almost certainly getting it wrong or only giving a very limited account of it. I suppose I feel with philosophy and phenomenology I should be able to explain, but with mindfulness, it’s okay that I’m not an expert.) In meditation, as I understand it, we try to simply be receptive to our experience as it comes to us, without judgement, without getting caught up in stories of the past or the future. We try to simply be with what is here now. We focus on what it is like to be breathing, what it is like to have hands or feet, what it is like to be able to hear sounds or watch a candle flame. It doesn’t matter what we focus on. Meditation (at least in the Buddhist-influenced mindfulness tradition as it’s come to be taught in the west) is not about withdrawal from the world. It is not about falling asleep. It is about waking up to the present moment. The same is true of phenomenology. The goal is see what is really given in experience. Husserl says we need to ‘bracket’ our assumptions and prejudices. We can’t just decide not to have them. They are there. But we can choose not to act as if they are true. A person in the desert might realise that the oasis she sees in the distance is probably just a mirage, but that doesn’t mean her experience of the mirage vanishes. She might still see it. But she can choose not to waste her energy trying to get to it. In the same way, in meditation, I might have a thought that I need to immediately get up from my cushion and go running off to make a phone call or take out the rubbish or whatever. But I can recognise that this is just a thought and I can choose not to act on it. I can choose to stay on the cushion for a few more minutes, knowing that the phone and the rubbish will still be there when I’m finished. I can choose not to waste energy on fighting the thought. I don’t have to tell myself I’m a failure for getting distracted. I can just let the thought be there, but refrain from acting on it.
Phenomenology, as Husserl describes it, can be said to begin with a kind of philosophical meditation. In order to do phenomenological investigation, I start with my own experience, as best I can letting it all be there, without assuming it is real or illusory, without feeling I need to rush to argue with it or act on it. In meditation, if I am focusing on my breathing, I’m focusing on my experience of breath. My goal is not to think about breathing. I’m not trying to label my breathing with words (shallow, deep, even, ragged), and I’m not trying to figure out how breathing works from a biological point of view. I may find myself doing these things, but once I realise I’m doing them, I gently try to shift my focus back to the direct experience itself.
Meditation works by accepting that we cannot stop thoughts or distractions or reactions, but we can cultivate a state of mind in which we are able to ‘wake up’ again and again. Over time, we become more awake, more able to stay with our experience itself. Phenomenology is a method of applying this ‘woken up’ state to philosophical questions. It starts with the recognition that we never get outside our own experience. Even when we think we’re being ‘objective’ or ‘neutral’, this is just another kind of experience. That doesn’t make it wrong or illusory, but it does mean I must be careful to distinguish what is really happening in the experience from what I am just assuming about it.
Like meditation, phenomenology reveals that our experience is more all-encompassing than we think, but also more limited than we think. If I look out the window, I can only see one side of my neighbour’s house, but I experience this as a whole house. When I look out the window, I don’t think, “Oh look, the neighbour’s put up that Blazing Saddles fake house façade again today.” I really do experience the whole house – and any knowledge or access to this house that I ever have will always come to me via some form of experience. Yet even if I explored it from foundation to attic, I could only ever see the house in partial, fragmented views. We could go hard-line sceptical and say this means all our experience is some kind of crazy delusion. Or we can take this as a pretty useful piece of knowledge: Whatever houses are, this is how they are experienced.
Meditation and phenomenology are not the same in every respect. They don’t always have the same goals. Phenomenology can be used for strictly academic purposes, while meditation is often undertaken for spiritual reasons. But both meditation and phenomenology can be seen as philosophical methods. Philosophy is, literally, etymologically, the love of wisdom. What is wisdom but the ability to know and accept what really is, as it is, in all its isness?