The Way of Phenomenology
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.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.
Being and Time, 249/H205.
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.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.
History of the Concept of Time, Theodore Kisiel, trans. (Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 1985), 26.
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).
- 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.