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Wednesday, August 29, 2018

What Exactly is Phenomenology?

Sarah Bakewell, in her book At The Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails, offers a simple explanation for Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology. Here’s an excerpt:
So what exactly is phenomenology? It is essentially a method rather than a set of theories, and — at the risk of wildly oversimplifying — its basic approach can be conveyed through a two-word command: DESCRIBE PHENOMENA.  
The first part of this is straightforward: a phenomenologist’s job is to describe. This is the activity that Husserl kept reminding his students to do. It meant stripping away distractions, habits, clichés of thought, presumptions and received ideas, in order to return our attention to what he called the ‘things themselves’. We must fix our beady gaze on them and capture them exactly as they appear, rather than as we think they are supposed to be.  
The things that we describe so carefully are called phenomena — the second element in the definition. The word phenomenon has a special meaning to phenomenologists: it denotes any ordinary thing or object or event as it presents itself to my experience, rather than as it may or may not be in reality.   
She elucidates the phenomenological method through a cup of coffee. How will you define a cup of coffee? You can define it in terms of its chemical composition and its origin in a coffee plant; you can talk about how the coffee beans are grown, transported and processed; how people prepare the coffee drink at home, how they ingest it, and the effect that coffee has on the human body.  You can even analyze a cup of coffee in terms of your sentimental memories of coffee drinking. But such descriptions will not give you an understanding of the cup of coffee as a phenomena. Bakewell describes the phenomena of the cup of coffee in these words:
[T]his cup of coffee is a rich aroma, at once earthy and perfumed; it is the lazy movement of a curlicue of steam rising from its surface. As I lift it to my lips, it is a placidly shifting liquid and a weight in my hand inside its thick-rimmed cup. It is an approaching warmth, then an intense dark flavour on my tongue, starting with a slightly austere jolt and then relaxing into a comforting warmth, which spreads from the cup into my body, bringing the promise of lasting alertness and refreshment. The promise, the anticipated sensations, the smell, the colour and the flavour are all part of the coffee as phenomenon. They all emerge by being experienced.
So everything from the chemical composition of the coffee bean, to the growing of coffee plants, the transportation of coffee beans, their processing, and my personal sentimental association with coffee is not relevant to the phenomenologist. He is only concerned with the phenomena of the cup of coffee that is present as a certainty before him. Bakewell goes on to present Husserl’s perspective on phenomenology:
Husserl therefore says that, to phenomenologically describe a cup of coffee, I should set aside both the abstract suppositions and any intrusive emotional associations. Then I can concentrate on the dark, fragrant, rich phenomenon in front of me now. This ‘setting aside’ or ‘bracketing out’ of speculative add-ons Husserl called epoché — a term borrowed from the ancient Sceptics, who used it to mean a general suspension of judgement about the world. Husserl sometimes referred to it as a phenomenological ‘reduction’ instead: the process of boiling away extra theorising about what coffee ‘really’ is, so that we are left only with the intense and immediate flavour — the phenomenon. 
But what is the use of phenomenology? Bakewell talks about the contributions that phenomenology can make in psychology and certain medical procedures. She also offers a perspective on the political use of the phenomenological method. As phenomenology forces us to focus only on our own experience, it can become a tool for looking at the political reality after bracketing out all the “isms,” and the political and cultural propaganda—if it’s done correctly, the phenomenological analysis of the political situation can have a revolutionary impact.

1 comment:

Sprudlum said...

Raymond Chandler's metaphorical approach to the description of a cup of coffee tells the reader more about the phenomenon than Husserl does :

"I went out the kitchen to make coffee - yards of coffee. Rich, strong, bitter, boiling hot, ruthless, depraved. The life blood of tired men."

From The Long Goodbye, his best novel.