Friday, June 09, 2006

The Way of Phenomenology

Over at Douglas Groothuis' blog, Culture Watch: Thoughts of a Constructive Curmudgeon, I got into the usual discussion about the supposed faults of postmodern/continental thought from hardcore analytic philosophers. There I promised one of the posters that I would discuss my claim that logic is not ontologically fundamental. I do not think that I can address this directly, as a few waypoints need to be discussed before I can present a coherent case. As such, I'm starting with a brief look at the "way of phenomenology"--what it is, how it is done, and what we can expect from it. Naturally, this isn't meant to be a description of all phenomenological schools of thought, but a short meditation on how I have come to understand phenomenology through my own reading of Heideggerian thought.

What is Phenomenology?
Phenomenology, simply put, is the examination of phenomena--the cultural and the historical, the scientific and the literary, the spectacular and the everyday. It follows the dictate of Husserl's famous phrase--"to the things themselves." What does this dictate demand of us and what does it say about "things"? Phenomenology demands that we closely examine how beings appear--as meaningful, edible, facile, silly, demeaning, commendable, mundane, or extraordinary. When a being appears we are to describe it in its appearing, examine its structure, and see how it appears and as what. By doing so we let the phenomena guide our thinking, we attempt to surrender our preconceptions and expectations to that which the phenomena presents to us. Naturally, we cannot surrender all of our preconceptions and expectations--questioning itself would be impossible without them--but we must be willing to put those preconceptions and expectations to the question, to let them also be molded, changed, or abandoned in light of the phenomena. To many this will look like classical skepticism and phenomenology runs the risk of not being able to say anything at all, as everything we can say can then be questioned. This is a real danger, but it does have a safeguard in the phenomena itself.

In saying "to the things themselves" we put our faith in the phenomena, in that which appears. To quote Merleau-Ponty, "If the philosopher questions, and hence feigns ignorance of the world and of the vision of the world which are operative and take form continually within him, he does so precisely in order to make them speak, because he believes in them and expects from them all his future science" (The Visible and the Invisible, 4). But to say that we "believe" in the world/beings is too weak, as we realize that our ability to think and speak requires this discourse between man and phenomena, between man and being. Thus, it is not that we merely believe (or 'assume') that the phenomena can speak back to us, but that we are 'always already' in this discourse, which discourse makes questioning possible.

One question that may come to mind is, "But aren't you assuming something about things in the dictate, 'to the things themselves,' such as that they exist or that we have access to them?" The best response would be to refer to the hermeneutic circle: examine your experience of beings and see where the phenomena lead you. You will already have some understanding of the being, some of which may be true, but by moving from that obscure understanding to the phenomena itself you can improve that understanding, only to again spring back to the phenomena to see what else it can say. This is not circular reasoning whereby we simply prove what we originally thought, but rather the dialectical movement between our understanding and beings. One thing that is learned early on (as stated above) is that we do not 'assume' the existence of phenomena and the world, but they are a necessary aspect of our questioning, that without which questioning would be impossible. The question of 'demonstrating' that the world exists, then, is a foregone question, one that is essentially answered in the questioning itself. A famous quote by Heidegger:

The 'scandal of philosophy' is not that [a proof for the existence of the external world] has yet to be given, but that such proofs are expected and attempted again and again. Such expectations, aims, and demands arise from an ontologically inadequate way of starting with something of such a character that independently of it and 'outside' of it a 'world' is to be proved as present-at-hand [merely spatially present]. It is not that the proofs are inadequate, but that the kind of Being of the entity which does the proving and makes requests for proofs [i.e. man] has not been made definite enough.
Being and Time, 249/H205.
It is because we have not properly attended to the phenomena of human existence and the 'being of beings' that we are not properly grounded ontologically to answer the question (or see its ungrounded basis). To put it in other terms, we have not adequately brought the phenomena of 'human being,' 'world,' and 'beings' to light so we are left with explaining something that we have not adequately disclosed. Heidegger believes that much of the Western tradition has done this: they have merely assumed a general theory about being human based on limited phenomena without adequately examining the phenomena itself, without letting that phenomena guide their theorizing. Thus mankind is thought to be a rational animal, a mere collection of biological processes, a socially constructed/determined entity, etc. and conclusions are made from this theoretical basis. Also of significance is the fact that mankind often understands itself in terms of its current technology--in terms of gears/levers, phone lines, and, modernly, computers. This brings to light the ontological connection made by many between technology and ontology--that we tend to understand the latter in terms of the former. As with the scientific process, these theorists attempt to find data to 'validate' these metaphors, letting the theory guide their research. The precarious nature of this endeavor (despite its being commonplace in modern research) should be obvious, like trying to shove a square peg into a round hole, disregarding all non-square phenomena as mere 'aberrations,' 'irregularities,' or 'discontinuities' that eventually (just around the corner, in just a few years) will be seen as manifestations of the grounding theory. Which brings us to the question of how one does phenomenology.

How Does One Do Phenomenology?
There is no single way or 'methodology' for doing phenomenology since doing so by its very nature attempts to force phenomena into a predisposed theory, which has the real danger of not letting the phenomena appear as it is. Because of this, phenomenology is not a science; it does not follow anything like a 'scientific method' nor can one be taught to do phenomenology through established criterion. Even in The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, where Heidegger saw phenomenology as "the method of scientific philosophy in general" (3) and speaks negatively of those philosophies that "not only imperil but even negate its character as science pure and simple" (4), he says that "ontology has nothing in common with any method of any of the other sciences" (19). A few years later, in The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, he disavows the connection between philosophy/phenomenology and science, referring instead to phenomenology as an "attunement," as a state of openness determined by "homesickness"--a desire to be "at home everywhere" when, instead, we find "restlessness" (4). Within this homesickness beings are enigmatic: "At bottom, the ordinary is not ordinary; it is extra-ordinary, uncanny" ("The Origin of the Work of Art," in Poetry, Language, Thought, 53). It is because of the enigmatic nature of every being that philosophy's task is to make things difficult--as the open attunement to beings, philosophy tries to bring the hidden in every positive disclosure of beings to light, thereby making things difficult for any established theory (which is also one possible way of understanding deconstruction).

So how does one do phenomenology? By continuously interrogating and being open to beings. By not being content with any given success in explicating how a being comes to light or with one particular way of bringing them to light. This cannot be thematized--first, sit back, close your eyes, and try to clear your mind; second, open your eyes and examine the phenomena; third, describe what you see. Even if the above were an adequate beginning (the first might be guilty of a theoretical detachment that is inimical for phenomenology, the second may not adequately question the nature of seeing itself and, thus, might assume a theory of vision, and the last could be done in so many different ways as to be useless as a method), it really tells you little: what do you look for? How do you know it when you see it? The best answer, for all its lack of clarity, is, "to the things themselves." For Heidegger this means addressing ordinary objects, those things that we do not give any particular significance, as they occur in ordinary situations. We must address not only how beings appear in extraordinary situations such as in the laboratory, but also in art, literature, moods, or drinking from a mug; nothing must escape our examination nor does any particular activity or being have prominence as beings appear in every situation. If the same structures--be they apriori unities of apperception or some biological decoding of neurochemical signals--constitute how beings of every kind come to light, then no particular being nor any particular way of approaching beings should or can have priority.1 It is not only in the laboratory or in the systematic categorization of species or arguments that we find truth, but even in such simple activities as getting out of bed, opening the door, and walking somewhere.

The question of how to do phenomenology, of how to become attuned to beings, must be left open. On the one hand, we are already attuned to beings in some way; on the other, this attunement may be ambiguous and, thus, stands in need of further clarification. To assume a methodology is also to assume something about beings, to jeopardize how they can appear by forcing them into a theoretical construct. I may, however, suggest three particular ways that may help in developing this sensitivity--first, read the works of the good phenomenologists. Become familiar with Heidegger, Levinas, Gadamer, or Ricoeur, including their commentators, Dreyfus, Kelly, and Taylor. No one familiar with Heidegger's work will say that it is easy, but the thinking of those who came after Heidegger's revolution might (and often do) have clearer ways of speaking about his work than Heidegger himself.

Second, go and do thou likewise. As you struggle with understanding these difficult thinkers you will start to get a feel for how they approach beings, how they interrogate them and let them speak. Start doing the same thing, whether it is a phenomenon that they didn't examine or perhaps in an attempt to gain a better grasp of a phenomenon that they did examine. Do not assume that the phenomenon of boredom has been exhausted just because Heidegger spent more than 100 pages interrogating it (and reading those pages might give you the opportunity to examine boredom itself); examine the phenomenon and see if it appears as Heidegger says it does.

Third, try to find those whom you can discuss these things with, preferably someone who is familiar with phenomenology. For those of us who have blogs, I think I can safely say that we do not mind queries from our readers, if only for the reassurance that people actually read what we write. I've consistently found that discussion helps just as much, if not more, with comprehension than sustained reading. Given the nature of phenomenology, this shouldn't be surprising--not only must we be open to what beings may have to say, but also to what others may see that we currently do not.

What Can We Expect from Phenomenology?
From the above it is quite tempting to answer this question with, "Not much." After all, what can you do with a philosophy that doesn't attempt to create all-encompassing worldviews/theories that can be clearly described and logically argued? Also, as a non-science, phenomenology gives us nothing with which we can do something; it is impractical. Heidegger himself said of phenomenology,

It is of the essence of phenomenological investigations that they cannot be reviewed summarily but must in each case be rehearsed and repeated anew. Any further synopsis which merely summarizes the contents of this work would thus be, phenomenologically speaking, a misunderstanding.
History of the Concept of Time, Theodore Kisiel, trans. (Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 1985), 26.
Other than what I have already said on this topic, I would add that phenomenology helps us get a better grasp of what it is our theories are trying to describe. Phenomenology does not present itself as an all-encompassing worldview, or the "only game in town" for understand beings. What it attempts to do is ground phenomena, to see the limits of what we can and cannot say, and even to understanding saying itself (an important question that is addressed by every Heideggerian phenomenologist in relation to different fields--ethics, hermeneutics, psychology, etc.). Only from such a proper understanding can our theories have real force, for fear of positing things that cannot be grounded in how beings appear.

The call of phenomenology might be summed up in such catchphrases as, "See things more clearly," "To the things themselves," or perhaps even, "Disclosing the Other." But, as with every slogan, these statements themselves are meaningless when divorced from the thing that they are describing; as summaries of phenomenology, they are inherently inadequate. So what is phenomenology? It is an attunement to beings, a way (not a map or destination), or an attitude (not a theory or dogma).


  1. Here I am speaking about beings other than man (Dasein). As the being that asks the question, that has access to beings, and that speaks of being/beings, Dasein does have a priority in that if we misunderstand his access to beings then we will likewise misunderstand how beings come to light. This claim, then, applies only to non-Dasein beings.


Blogger Clark Goble said...

What would it even mean for logic to be ontologically fundamental? Has anyone worked out the ontological implications of this? Does one end up committed to something akin to the commitments of a mathematical Platonist?

It seems those who make comments like this fully leave as unanalyzed the whole issue of repetition and difference. Not surprisingly it is in those two categories that the third generation of phenomenologists have focused their attention. (i.e. Derrida, Deleuze and others) One need not agree with these figures to recognize that one has to at least take up these issues.

12:42 PM  
Blogger Clark Goble said...

Just to add, the problem with appealing to phenomenology as a way to justify that logic isn't fundamental is that it demands that one accept phenomenology (of the various stripes) as a useful approach to philosophy. Something that many don't see a need to do.

What's more interesting to me about Derrida is that he works from within other texts pointing out gaps. Of course he unfortunately wrote in a fashion that no one committed to the texts he descontructs is apt to be persuaded. So I tend to think that as a practical matter he didn't accomplish much. (i.e. his points can typically be found easier by adopting the Heideggerian phenomenology explicity.)

My sense is that logic is taken to be fundamental since given Internalism and that whole line of thought ushered in by Descartes it has to be fundamental for there to be the possibility of justification. And justification is necessary for the possibility of knowledge. Since no philosopher wants to be an extreme relativist, sollipsist or even skeptic, logical grounding and correspondence are very attractive. It's akin to Kant. Given our approach to existence why not simply assume we have the things we want and work out what might make it possible.

The approach Heidegger ushered in when he saw the failings of Husserl's phenomenology (which was itself very Cartesian) was a return to the pre-Cartesian externalism. While this doesn't resolve everything it does make things a little easier to understand. It's unfortunate that this, probably Heidegger's greatest contribution, is so often buried under the difficult prose and logic of most phenomenologists.

12:52 PM  
Blogger Kevin Winters said...


As I understand it the claim entails two things:

1) Everything that exists cannot break the basic laws of logic (law of excluded middle, etc).
2) All relations (physical, psychical, etc.) are explicable using logical relations.

I'll see if I can get Tim--the person I primarily talked to on Groothuis' blog--to come here and comment.

12:54 PM  
Blogger Tim said...


I think your 1) is close, though I'd rather rephrase it: no truth about anything is a violation of logic. So, for example, no statement of the form

a is X and a isn't X

can be literally true if the terms are used univocally.

That's not to say that we can't create a certain effect by equivocation. We might say, for instance, "Joe's a bachelor, but he's not a bachelor (if you know what I mean)" to indicate that Joe, though technically not married, has been in a serious and stable relationship for so long that one would be justified in inferring about him many of the things one might infer about a married man. But this is no challenge to logic.

I'm considerably less clear on what claim 2) means. If it's the claim that the vocabulary of some particular formal system is adequate to capture all meaningful discourse, this seems to be false, at least regarding all formal systems on offer. They're none the worse for that; every formal system is designed to capture some things and not others. But it would be unfair to criticize such languages for failing to do something they were never designed to do. The claim that logic is a constraint on reality is better understood in the sense of 1), as explicated above, than in the sense of 2).

There was a brief period during the middle of the 20th century in which a very small group of people got excited about the idea of creating a logically perfect language. This subgroup of the positivists never made a very big splash, and they had mostly died out by the end of the 1960s. Apart from a few of Gustav Bergmann's disciples who carry on out of filial piety, I don't know whether any of the breed remain.

2:15 PM  
Blogger Kevin Winters said...


Thanks for the clarification and ideas. I do have one question that does make me a little dubious as to your claim: it has been stated on various blogs (including, I think, Groothuis') that if we make a proposition than that proposition must follow a formal structure in order to be true. Is this allowed in your claims where language is not logically perfect? Perhaps a better way to put it: are there true statements that are logically imperfect, ambiguous, or even escape the possibility of logical formulation?

2:24 PM  
Blogger Tim said...


I'm not quite clear on what you're asking. The sense in which it's important that a claim "follow a formal structure" in order to be true would be simply that it must not violate 1) as I described it above. Statements that are ambiguous or vague may be suggestive, insulting, inspiring, or what have you, but it's hard to see how they can be true until they're clarified. Regimenting language is one way to tidy up these things, but the large-scale project of ideal language philosophy gets the cart before the horse, trying to wedge all language into a preconceived formal structure instead of starting with the admittedly messy language we have and striving, sometimes by formal means, sometimes not, to make it clearer and more precise.

As for escaping the possibility of logical formulation, give me an example and we can discuss it.

4:56 PM  
Blogger Kevin Winters said...

This might seem simplistic, but what of the simple phrase, "This is a hammer"? How would you give meaning to this statement?

5:32 PM  
Blogger Clark Goble said...

Kevin, I'm certainly not opposed to talking about existence following such things as the law of excluded middle. Relationships might be more difficult depending upon the kind of relation. However I'm not at all convinced what is real and what exists necessarily are the same set. Thus when we talk of the real we can have situations where the law of excluded middle doesn't hold. But that whole debate gets into the nominalist/realist debate and probably isn't what is meant.

The problem with such claims is the problem of vagueness. That is those making the claims you suggest often are committed to a denial of vagueness. That is how do we predicate vague properties? And how do we talk about the truth of such propositions?

6:27 PM  
Blogger Tim said...


You ask:

... what of the simple phrase, "This is a hammer"? How would you give meaning to this statement?

I'm not sure what you have in mind, or what this has to do with logic. Are you asking for a semantic analysis? Are you wondering about how demonstratives like "this" refer to physical items? Or are you trying to make a point about the use of the term "hammer"?

7:43 PM  
Blogger Clark Goble said...

I think Tim he is suggesting that the logical analysis presupposes the conclusion to the semantic analysis.

11:41 PM  
Blogger Brandon said...

This is a different question entirely from the rest of the comments, since it's a purely historical question about the passage from Heidegger you summarize (about homesickness etc.). Novalis, I think, is the first person to describe philosophy as 'homesickness' and 'the urge to be everywhere at home' (in the Draft for a General Encyclopedia) so I was wondering whether Heidegger makes any explicit connection with the philosophy as understood by the German Romantics?

12:55 AM  
Blogger Kevin Winters said...


I am asking for a logical analysis of what that sentence means, essentially asking if the formalities of logic are sufficient to explicate the meaning of the sentence. The issue, to borrow a phrase from Hubert Dreyfus, is the primacy of phenomenological analysis over logical analysis. I chose a simple phrase, using a simple object, to see how one would analyize and perhaps symbolize the phrase with a logical analysis and whether that is sufficient. If I'm still not being clear, please let me know.

10:18 AM  
Blogger Kevin Winters said...


Yes, Heidegger does explicitly use Novalis in The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics; I just couldn't find a good way to say this, so I left it out. However we should be careful not to equate Heidegger's later philosophy with Romanticism. He believes they have something positive to say, but is wary of their individualistic views. He is not dabbling in irrationalism, but trying to make the pre-rationalism that makes rationalism possible explicit.

10:21 AM  
Blogger Kevin Winters said...


When you differentiate "what is real" with "what exists," do you have in mind something like Heidegger's distinction between "beings" and "entities" (B&T 255/H211-212)? If not, what do you mean by it?

5:52 PM  
Blogger Clark Goble said...

I think it parallels in certain ways Heidegger's distinction between the ontic and the ontological. But I was more thinking of Peirce's conception of reality as that which is true independent of any single person thinking of it and existence as roughly that which acts. The distinction in Peirce is necessary as he is a scholastic realist. That is he thinks generals or universals are real even though they don't exist.

9:50 PM  
Blogger Clark Goble said...

Just to note Kevin, the difference isn't exactly the same as the ontic/ontological divide. As you might know this is the main issue I've been struggling with the past year or two in attempting to understand. Not just Heidegger (who may be wrong after all) but the issue itself. This is tied in with Derrida as well and the issue of what is at stake in the difference between differance and the ontological difference.

The question of universals, generals and reality in Heidegger is an interesting one. But not one I'm too prepared to say much on right now.

1:31 AM  
Blogger Kevin Winters said...


In my reading the last few days I stumbled on the following and want to ask if it describes your view and, if not, how:

"...what [is] seen as the proper procedures of rational thought [i.e. inference from premises to conclusions] [are] read into the very constitution of the mind and made part of its very structure" (Charles Taylor, "Engaged Agency and Background in Heidegger," in The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger, 317-318).

11:41 AM  
Blogger Kevin Winters said...


I should also ask if, as an Evangelical, you would extend this view to God's mind?

11:42 AM  
Blogger Tim said...


First, on "This is a hammer," you can symbolize it easily enough if you have syntax appropriate for handling demonstratives:


will do the job. Of course, demonstratives are context-sensitive; linguists know that uses of "this" require an appropriate gesture to fix reference rigidly.

Beyond that, I don't see it as the purpose of logic (or the job of the logician) to analyze sentences like this. If your question is intended to point out some flaw or shortcoming in logic, I suspect you are ascribing to the logicians a claim they don't endorse.

Taylor's comment looks very odd to me. I don't think logic can properly be identified as part of the structure of the mind, and even beyond that I don't think that any particular human being is perfectly rational anyway. I would say that God is perfectly rational, if that is what you are asking. But I suspect it isn't.

I'm not sure whether I qualify as an evangelical, though I am not averse to the label. I attend a liturgical church. Does this disqualify me?

1:46 PM  
Blogger Clark Goble said...

Just to add this paper by Cathy Legg on universals and realism might be of interest as well, even for those not taken by Peirce. It's contrasting Armstrong and Peirce but I think those familiar with Heidegger should find several of the issues familiar.

3:13 PM  
Blogger Barkie said...

Kevin Winters said...
This might seem simplistic, but what of the simple phrase, "This is a hammer"? How would you give meaning to this statement?

This object before my eyes which I interpret as being 'a hammer'is a hammer because it appears to conform to my minds pattern from my previous experience/s of hammers which tells me it looks like a hammer, so it possibly is one but being an archaeology student and archaeologist I want to get further into prehistoric hammer-thingness so I have to examine not simply my assumptions about hammers I have seen and used but this 'hammer' and question the object, is it a hammer or a badge of office, an heirloom or a common used and discarded tool or has it a symbolic meaning and has it been placed in a context ... it can be more than what it appears to be. Am I on the right track?

9:40 AM  
Blogger Kevin Winters said...


Sorry for the delay. The hammer's being is not determined because of its conformity to some mental description or representation, nor does the mind "tell you" that it looks like a hammer. The hammer is a hammer because of the nexus of relations in which it is found, its context. It is seen as something to hammer with because it has been brought into the context of building, of human needs and wants, of various building and artistic practices, etc. Its being as a hammer extends far beyond my individual mind, as it necessarily includes not only the hammer but a nexus of social relations which are inherently beyond my "control."

If you recontextualize your first comment in this way, the second part of your response gets closer to the truth (at least as Heidegger sees it). The hammer, in its "thingness," exceeds any given interpretation, any given disclosure of beings. The hammer can be a "badge of office, an heirloom or a common used and discarded tool." Heidegger's discovery (on this matter) is that any discussion we have of the being of an object, whether as a tool or as a (supposedly non-contextual) substance with properties, inherently depends on a context in which that object is disclosed.

Let me know if that helps.

7:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Kevin. I am hugely impressed by your knowledge and understanding of Heidegger and I wonder whether you can help me. I am anxious to find a quote from one of Heidegger's works that expresses his view that in phenomenological research, "bracketing", ie putting aside the researcher's bias, is not possible. If you could direct me to a book and, even better, a page number, I would be enormously grateful! Sarah

3:30 PM  
Blogger Kevin Winters said...


Oddly enough, the first person who came to my mind with your question is Charles Sanders Pierce. However, though I can't give an exact reference, I would say that the hermenutical circle is probably what you are looking for: we need to begin with a particular understanding, a particular grasp of the situation, in order for (1) the thing we are researching to make some initial sense and (2) for there to be a meaningful change in our understanding of it, or challenge to what we are reading. If we don't have (1) then we would have no basis from which to analyze, judge, critique, or modify what we are reading, so no 'progress' can be made. Therefore there must be a pre-understanding, including biases, explicit theories, and even including desires for particular results (without desire then we would also have no reason to do the research). To claim that we can bracket this is disingenuous and would completely destroy any capacity to have a meaningful relationship with what one is researching.

I hope that is useful. If anything else comes to mind I'll let you know.

5:45 PM  

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