The study of things as they appear
Phenomenology, as a philosophical doctrine, has been a component of Continental Philosophy, one of the most challenging movements that emerged in the mainland European continent during the 20th century. It is rather difficult to come up with an agreed-upon definition of what forms Continental Philosophy. This term, exactly like “analytic philosophy,” evades a clear-cut definition and the body of knowledge that comes to be subsumed under the Continental Philosophy draws on across disparate philosophical trends and traditions. Notwithstanding the ambiguity surrounding this philosophical creed, some scholars have ventured to identify common themes typically characterized in continental philosophy. Since Phenomenology is one of the dominant contours of the former, it will be useful for us to have a look at the characteristic features of the European Continental Philosophy first before we launch ourselves into the study of Phenomenology.
1. Stress on Agent’s lived experience: The subjective experience of a conscious agent is remarkably foregrounded and idealized in the writings of continental philosophers. We can call the latter having a more “human-centered approach” to philosophy.
2. Rejection of Scientism: The proponents of the aforementioned movement rejected outright the Scientism (excessive belief in the power of scientific knowledge as the only objective means to determine the parameters of truth). They hold that science and scientific knowledge are inadequate to get to all the phenomena. Instead, they count on what can be called the “pre-theoretical substrate of experience,” a form of lived experience personal to an agent.
3. Experience relative to certain factors: Unlike Analytic Philosophy, which treats a subject capable of being analyzed apart from its historical origins, under Continental Philosophy, the given conditions of experience are subject to a number of determinatives. The possible experience is, at least, partly determined by such discrete factors as space, time, context, history, language, and culture, etc. In other words, the thinkers from this school assert that it is virtually self-defeating for a philosophical problem to be divorced from the textual and contextual conditions of its historical origin.
4. The conditions of given experience are capable of being altered: It is asserted that these conditions of possible experience are liable to be modified, adjusted and readjusted by a conscious human agency: if human experience is contingent on a wide array of externalities, then can’t an agent endowed with the faculty of consciousness manipulate, change, create and recreate those external factors in a myriad of ways by factoring in some and factoring out others?
The above four themes are best grounded in the philosophy of Phenomenology. Established by Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), one of the most influential German philosophers and mathematicians, the school of Phenomenology rose as a vigorous project in 20th-century European philosophy.
It is a philosophy of experience in which the lived human experience is projected as the ultimate source of all meaning and value. All philosophical systems, scientific theories, or ethical and aesthetic judgments are abstractions or threads pulled together by conscious being and in a lived world. Technically, it is the investigation of phenomena (things that exist and can be seen, felt, tasted, etc.) and how we experience them. It must be added here that as is the case with different theoretical perspectives, phenomenology is also a broad concept with varied offshoots, traditions and interpretations.
Moran proposes a concise definition of it stating that the only unifying idea behind phenomenology is an intense concern about the way the world appears to the person experiencing the world.
As a systematic approach, it ventures into inquiring the subjectivity of the given observer. However, it is not to suggest that it is merely confined to individual experiences. It does take up the task of examining our shared experiences – the way we get together to share a similar understanding of the world. At the collective level, phenomenologists focus on what is called “Inter-subjectivity” – an image of the given phenomena shared by more than one conscious mind.
Husserl believed that philosophizing and speculating on things, which are out of reach of human comprehension, is a futile exercise. The focus instead needs to be redirected to the things personally experienced by us as subjects in our lives. We should immerse ourselves in the pursuit of getting a deeper understanding of experience(s) and the nature of experience itself. However, as it logically follows, the same pursuit involves setting aside our assumptions about the existence of any external, physical objects.
According to Husserl, by the application of a scientific approach to the study of consciousness, and from accumulated experiences from a first-person point of view, it is highly likely to have definite answers to the fundamental questions. By the same token, Phenomenology, asserted Husserl, is the science of phenomena of consciousness. Furthermore, he goes on to make a differentiation between phenomena and objects. Phenomena are the things as they appear to us – whether or not they exist as material objects, while objects can have their physical existence outside our consciousness.
Take an example: There is an object, say a flower. In relation to this object, we have corresponding phenomena, that is to say, the flower as to the way we perceive it. It is possible for us to remember or have the image of a flower in our mind even if we might have destroyed that flower. Therefore, the phenomena is able to survive the object.
Phenomenology unearths the structures of various types of experience(s) ranging from ordinary thoughts, perceptions, imaginations to emotions, memories and desires, etc. Needless to say, all of our mental acts are in relation to something, namely an object towards which the mind is directed. In other words, whenever we think of, see, remember, imagine, or desire something, our very act of thinking of, seeing, remembering, imagining, or desiring is correlated with a given thing. This directing of the mind towards something is called “Intentionality” and the things towards which the mind is directed are called “Intentional Objects”. Thus, we are given to observe and engage with many physical things in the world, but we are not apt to experience them in the first-person perspective, though our experience is always conscious. What makes an experience conscious is a certain awareness one has of the experience while living through or performing it.
Consciousness can have the power of both ‘affirmation’, ‘negation’, and “manipulation”. Why? How? Our consciousness is not just a passive receiver. We act and react in given situations; we impose values on our world and life. In diverse contexts, our mental and emotional responses are adjusted and readjusted in response to particular impetus. For instance, courage or cowardice is not something of virtue or vice that we are born with. A person decides, through his or her actions, to be a coward or to be courageous as per the multiple factors.
The writer is an author and a faculty member at Begum Nusrat Bhutto Women University Sukkur.