PHENOMENOLOGY: THE VITAL PHILOSOPHY
BY JOSHUA NEWMAN
Phenomenology suffers from a name which can seem off-puttingly arcane for a school of thought which, at its base, calls for a philosophically refreshing return to our actual lived experience. That said, the major texts of this broad movement make a formidable line up of Heidegger’s Being and Time, Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, and Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, with Husserl being generally considered the originator of the school. Phenomenology concerns itself with reality as it appears to us. It rejects the distinction, commonly assumed by much of the modern philosophical canon, between the world as it appears and the world as it really is. Although phenomenology came to be associated with French thought in the first half of the twentieth century, the German philosophers, Husserl and Heidegger, coined the two vital concepts of Lebenswelt (the lived world) and In-der-Welt-Sein (Being-in-the-world) respectively. Both of these ideas stress a constant engagement with the world, not as a static collection of objects that we perceive and judge, but as a horizon of experience with which we interact and which, in turn, informs our experience.
This is radically different from the more intuitive picture of reality which rests on the subject-object distinction in which we, the subjects, perceive static objects via some form of sensory mechanism. Heidegger calls humans Dasein, meaning being-there. The basic implication of this is that as humans we are always somewhere, standing in some particular relation to the world, and with a particular mood. The most important characteristic of Dasein is care. The world for Dasein is not some abstract arrangement of objects; the arrangement of these objects always matters to us, even when we take it so much for granted that we do not notice (which is probably most of the time for most of us). This is why Merleau-Ponty demands a process of going right back to the beginning of our experience, to reflect upon the unreflected. To illustrate this, Heidegger points out that we really become aware of this care when something is missing, or incorrect. For example, if a hammer breaks in a workshop, the view of the world as a collection of mere objects would have to say that a piece of wood and metal has become separated, but phenomenology can claim that the world has changed more dramatically than that. The hammer has gone from being an object that is ‘ready-to-hand’ (zuhanden), one that calls out to be used in a certain way at a certain time, to one that is merely ‘there-at-hand’ (vorhanden). At least these are Heidegger’s terms. Chairs call out to us to be sat in, not tasted, an ajar door does not offer itself up as a suitable surface to lean on, whereas the wall next to it might. This forces us to consider the nature of perception, and Merleau-Ponty considers the structure of perception to be the key to an accurate description of our phenomenological reality.
Phenomenology is set up against two strands of philosophy that were dominant at the end of the 19th Century: idealism and empiricism. Idealism claims basically that all we can be aware of is our own sensations, in some cases even that only mental content exists (George Berkeley claims, for example, that ‘to be is to be perceived’). Empiricism is a more familiar approach to us now and assumes an objective world about which we can be more or less sure depending on the reliability of our experience. Merleau-Ponty thinks that these two philosophies share the mistake of assuming the validity of objective thought, and then take that central error in two different directions. This is not to say that it is impossible to be intelligible or accurate in phenomenological terms, but it does mean that the common foundations of truth and error based on a simple objective experience of the world around us are shaken.
An unfortunate consequence of this is that it can be quite challenging to defend a philosophy in which the foundations of truth are deliberately elusive against someone who questions the fundamental assumptions of that philosophy. It is true that phenomenology does not seek to answer the ‘traditional’ questions of philosophy such as questions of ethics, value, or theology; it is an attempt at ontology, that is, simply to describe what makes up reality and what it is like. If someone does not accept the phenomenological method of a return to our field of perceptual experience then there is little to be done but adopt Merleau-Ponty’s strategy of highlighting the prejudiced assumptions of much ‘common sense’ and traditional philosophical thought and to point to aspects of our experience which we presumably have in common but often overlook.
It is perhaps unsurprising that Merleau-Ponty and Sartre were openly Marxists. Their brand of phenomenology emphasises the reciprocity of our relationship with the world and the philosophical significance of any aspect, however seemingly insignificant, of our experience of reality. This latter side to their thought clearly opens philosophy up to a potentially limitless audience of people whose experience is no longer something to be dismissed out of hand, but something to be taken up and seriously examined. The importance of reciprocity relates slightly more subtly to Marx’s dialectical materialism. For Marx, elements of consciousness are at least largely determined by people’s material conditions. You could not claim that Sartre and Merleau-Ponty are getting at the same thing as Marx here, but it seems like the dialectical engagement with the material conditions of reality being a defining feature of our consciousness exhibits the crucial, necessary, link between the world and consciousness that phenomenology strives to maintain. In short, the impossibility of being abstracted from our circumstances.
In some interpretations of Marx, the economic base of society and the superstructure (all the more visible elements of society that we might try to analyse, such as ideology or consciousness) stand in a reciprocal relation where the latter is defined by the former, but that consciousness can feed back into the economic base, creating vast cycles of historical influence. With this in mind, phenomenology can be explored in terms of political engagement and linked to a Marxist approach that joins up the political process with the rest of our lived experience.
The great value of phenomenology is that it allows us to discuss elements of our experience in a serious philosophical way that competing schools of thought simply cannot deal with, if they even bother to acknowledge them. The most insignificant details of anyone’s lived experience can be packed with philosophical interest which makes this philosophy more readily available than most, but also more hands-on.
There is a well-worn anecdote that Sartre was having a drink in a Parisian café when he was thrilled to realise that he could philosophize about the apricot cocktail he had ordered. The example is glib but it is true that there is something hugely appealing about the thought that any seemingly banal aspect of our experience might be a key to a fuller understanding of reality. This is at the heart of phenomenology’s great vitality; it is not a philosophy which abstracts itself from our actual reality but instead lives in that reality.
Anglo-American, analytic philosophy tends to assume a fixed, objective world which it is at least theoretically possible to capture with the logical structure of our language. Phenomenology gives us a picture of a world which is at the same time much more, but also much less, knowable than that. By the structure of our perception and the nature of how the world presents itself, the world must remain not-fully-knowable. But it may be that this is simply an accurate description of our ultimate grasp of reality, and one which we should learn to embrace fully for all its vital, life-affirming benefits.