What is Phenomenology?

[Originally published 26 February, 2013]

Phenomenology is concerned with articulating the ‘conditions of possibility’ of our experience. The lifeworld is a core concept in phenomenology. It is the collection of all the situations in which we find ourselves involved. It is our lived world as it opens up for us in all its possibilities.  Our experiences are charged  with significance and meaning. Phenomenology seeks to analyze the meaningful background for all our possible and actual actions. Most of the time this lifeworld goes un-noticed, or is taken for granted by us. Phenomenology tries to show us how phenomena manifest themselves to our consciousness, along with its shape and structure. It is an enterprise which tries to describe things as they appear to our consciousness.

One of its core ideas is that we as agents of thought and action are already situated in a world. Instead of examining experiences as they are empirically perceived as some type of ‘real fact,’ it is concerned with examining the pure essences of experience as they are intuitively given to us in their generality. It seeks to describe the experience of meaning. There is no ‘first fact’ which is preceded by a series of other facts. Instead, our instances of consciousness are already situated in a specific circumstance. There is an emphasis on ‘intentionality’ – all of our experiences are of or about some object or state of affairs. We as agents are already in-the-world engaged in pragmatic and socially defined projects.

This approach does not support the reductionistic tendencies we see in some sciences. Instead of being concerned with how things in reality actually are, it is instead focused on how we experience things in consciousness. Consciousness is our window onto the world.  All the knowledge we possess comes to us through consciousness. This is why phenomenologists give primacy to this, over how things ‘actually are in reality.’ Since, epistemologically speaking, our conscious perspective comes first, we need to be concerned about the condition of our perspectival window onto the world first, before we can attempt to understand what is outside this window.

Consider the following ‘naturalistic’ explanation of the phenomenal world, and compare it with the phenomenological description just below. First, ponder this quote from the philosopher W.V.O. Quine (from the ‘Ways of Paradox’):

“I am a physical object sitting in a physical world.  Some of the forces of this physical world impinge on my surface.  Light rays strike my retinas; molecules bombard my eardrums and fingertips.  I strike back, emanating concentric air waves.  These waves take the form of a torrent of discourse about tables, people, molecules, light rays, retinas, air waves, prime numbers, infinite classes, joy and sorrow, good and evil.”

Now compare that with this piece from Edmund Husserl’s Ideas:

“I am conscious of a world endlessly spread out in space, endlessly becoming and having endlessly become in time.  I am conscious of it: that signifies, above all, that intuitively I find it immediately, that I experience it.  By my seeing, touching, hearing, and so forth, and in the different modes of sensuous perception, corporeal physical things with some spatial distribution or other are simply there for me, ‘on hand’ in the literal or figurative sense, whether or not I am particularly heedful of them and busied with them in my considering, thinking, feeling, or willing.  Animate beings too – human beings, let us say – are immediately there for me: I look up; I see them; I hear their approach; I grasp their hands; talking with them I understand immediately what they mean and think, what feelings stir within them, what they wish or will.”

Edmund Husserl, instead of trying to use empirical methods, attempted to use a ‘transcendental attitude’ and implement a ‘transcendental reduction.’ He sought out the conditions of possbility for knowledge. Martin Heidegger thought that what shows itself to us is not necessarily the things in consciousness, but to some degree Being itself. He engaged in an examination of the question of the meaning of Being – fundamental ontology – via the manner in which it appears – or is hidden – to us in our experience. There is a high degree of hermeneutics (or interpretation) in phenomenology as practiced by Heiddeger. Maurice Merleau-Ponty shifted the approach and attempted to integrate phenomenology with psychology and neurology, with an emphasis on the body and our embodied existence. He drew heavily on experimental case studies to understand more clearly phenomenological experience.  He tried to bring phenomenology into the sciences to show how life is lived. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir tied phenomenology in with existentialism, and Karl Jaspers put it to work in psychiatry. It’s incorporation into guiding and influencing scientific approaches, analysis, and practice, have resulted in the creation of Existential Phenomenological Counselling and Daseinanalysis, and the influence of Ecological-Embodied-Enactive Cognition in recent Cogntive Science.

Whereas early on Husserl was sceptical of phenomenology becoming ‘naturalized,’ it has progressed much since, and in recent years there have been several attempts to ‘naturalize’ phenomenology. Nowadays there are three main approaches. One is ‘formalized’ phenomenology, where the phenomenological analysis of lived experience that has been done is translated into a formal (almost mathematized) language that allows areas like psychology to improve their ability to formulate experienced intersubjective shared meaning. ‘Neurophenomenology’ utilizes dynamic systems theory to try and show that we can’t just rely on explanations that are based on purely mechanical interactions of parts in isolated moments of time. Genuine interaction is non-linear, and is based on reciprocal, dynamic interaction. There is a process of self-organization and sense-making based on our brain/body/environment coupling together. To do neurophenomenology practicioners need to be trained in phenomenological methods. Lastly, we have what is called ‘front-loaded’ phenomenology. Instead of beginning with empirical results (such as ‘formalized’ phenomenology), or with training subjects (as is done in ‘neurophenomenology), front-loaded phenomenology begins with the specific design of experiments based on the insights of phenomenology.

[The above discussion drew heavily from the following books (shown below): ‘Phenomenology’, by Shaun Gallagher.  ‘Understanding Phenomenology’, by David R. Cerbone.  ‘Introduction to Phenomenology’, by Dermot Moran.]



What is a Person?

[Originally published 19 December, 2012]
Here is a philosophical question for you all to ponder – What is a ‘Person’? When would we assign personhood to some entity? Dan Dennett has put forth six (necessary but not sufficient) Conditions of Personhood. They are:

1. Rationality. A person is a rational being.

2. Subjects of Intentional ascriptions. They are beings to which we attribute states of consciousness.

3. A certain stance or attitude is taken toward them. This brings in the idea that they are to be treated as moral objects.

4. Reciprocity. They can reciprocate when a certain stance is taken in regard to them. This introduces the idea that they are moral agents.

5. They are users of verbal language.

6. They are distinguished from other entities by being conscious in some special way (such as self-conscious).


What do you think – are these what you would consider the necessary conditions of Personhood?

Think about this in relation to a foetus developing into an infant – when does personhood emerge, is it after they achieve all of these categories?

Think about other animals – are they ‘persons’ under these criteria? What about a computer/machine – are these the right criteria to apply to artificially created entities?

What about some potential alien lifeforms – what would it take before we consider them ‘persons’?

And of course, in the US, corporations have been given personhood – do they meet these criteria?


One philosopher – Kathleen Wilkes – has said we should add a seventh category – Construction and Use of Tools. She argues that this is just as significant as language use.


Would you add or subtract any of these conditions?

Our Alienation in the Modern World Today – are Rollo May’s view still relevant?

[Originally published 20 July, 2013]

I have some questions regarding modern society for those who are up for a bit of philosophical reflection. I have been reading the book ‘Man’s Search for Himself,’ which was written by existential psychologist Rollo May in 1953. It seems to me that his observations 60 years ago still ring true to a significant degree today. I am curious as to what other people think (keep in mind he was writing for primarily an American audience, but I think it can fit other societies as well).

His starts off early on with: “people today no longer live under the authority of church or moral laws, but under ‘anonymous authorites’ like public opinion.  The authority is the public itself, but this public is merely a collection of many individuals each with his radar set adjusted to finding out what the others expect of him.” (p.12)

It is in part because of this that he says we feel ‘hollow’ – that we have a sense of alienation and loneliness in the world.  A few pages later he elaborates on this idea:

“[O]ur society lays such a great emphasis on being socially accepted.  It is our chief way of allaying anxiety, and our chief mark of prestige.  Thus we always have to prove we are a ‘social success.'” (p.14)

Regarding how we communicate, May says “What is important is not what is said, but that some talk be continually going on.” (p.16)  “Every human being gets much of his sense of his own reality out of what others say to him and think about him.” (p.17)

Assuming you think this might have been true in his time, do you think it is still true now with the advent of things like the internet and online social media?  Is it worse now?  Better?  Different somehow?

What about our modern mind-set or worldview?  May thinks that some of the problem has to do with our impersonal, mechanical worldview:

“Modern Western man, trained through four centuries of emphasis on rationality, uniformity, and mechanics, has consistently endeavored, with unfortunate success, to repress the aspects of himself which do not fit these uniform and mechanical standards.” (p.18)

In May’s time he saw this reflected in fascist and nazi totalitarianism (think Hitler or Mussolini, which were quite prominent in his mind at the time since WWII had just recently ended).  If his assessement of ‘modern’ anxiety has truth to it, in what ways might it be reflected in our even more recent world – what current events might align themselves and support this interpretation?

One of the roots of our malady, according to May, was that we were experiencing the loss of the centre of our societal values.  Here are his thoughts on the progression of our values and goals over time:

“One of the two central beliefs in the modern period since the Renaissance has been in the value of individual competition.  The conviction was that the more a man worked to further his own economic self-interest and to become wealthy, the more he would contribute to the material progress of the community. […] In our present day of giant business and monopoly capitalism how many people can become successful as individual competitors?” (p.28, 29)

“The second central belief in our modern age has been the faith in individual reason…individual reason also meant ‘universal reason’ […] reason became separated from ’emotion’ and ‘will’ […] we find reason (now transformed into intellectualistic rationalization) used in the service of compartmentalizing the personality.” (p.30-31)

What of these two points – is our focus on individual competition still workable in a world of global corporations stomping out home-grown businesses?  What about the separation of intellect and emotion (with the emphasis on intellect and rationality being ‘good’ and emotion being ‘less good’)?

May saw authoritarianism appearing and growing in business, politics, religion, and science.  He also thought that where – during the Renaissance – there was an enthusiasm for nature in its many forms, that since (at least) the 19th c., the world has become ‘disenchanted,’ and that our primary concern is now to ‘master and manipulate nature’ (there is now a clear dualistic separation between ‘us’ and ‘nature’ which further increases our alienation and sense of anxiety and loneliness).  Is this true?

Lastly (for what I want to cover in this note), what about our selfhood and the way we go about living our lives? Consider one of the modern trends in our society – activity.  May thinks we use activity as a substitute for awareness:

“By activism we mean the tendency, so common in this country, to assume that the more one is acting, the more one is alive…Many people keep busy all the time as a way of covering up anxiety; their activism is a way of running from themselves.  They get a pseudo and temporary sense of aliveness by being in a hurry, as though something is going on if they are but moving, and as though being busy is a proof of one’s importance. [He thinks we should re-think this:] Aliveness often means the capactity not to act, to be creatively idle…Self-awareness…brings back into the picture the quieter kinds of aliveness.” (p.83, emphasis mine)

What do you think – are we too busy rushing around trying to ‘do things’ and convincing ourselves that this is good and healthy for us?  Are all these so-called ‘accomplishements’ we think we are achieving necessary or even real?

What Is Religion?

[Originally published 25 August, 2014]

Religion can be difficult to define – what should be included or excluded in the definition?  Scholars in different disciplines have emphasized different aspects of what religion might encompass.  In the book ‘Expressing the Sacred,’ James L. Cox initially puts forth 17 definitions which have been organized into 5 categories (although a definition might actually fit within more than one category, and you might even want to mix and match definitions, or even think there are other and better definitions that aren’t covered in the list provided).  I present the list below.

What Do You Think?  Do these definitions provide you with an agreeable definition of what religion is and what it encompasses?


1. Theological definitions (A theological definition makes the central criterion of religion belief in a transcendent power which is usually personified as a Supreme Being, but is sometimes conceived as being diffused through powerful spiritual beings, or is held to be an impersonal, mysterious, supernatural force):

a. Religion is believing in God.

b. Religion is belief in spiritual beings.

c. Religion is the life of God in the soul of man.

d. Religion is a mystery, at once awesome and attractive.


2. Moral definitions (A moral definition makes the central criterion of religion a code of correct behaviour generally affirmed by believers as having its source in an unquestioned and unquestionable authority):

a. Religion is leading a good life.

b. Religion is morality tinged with emotion.

c. Religion is the recognition of all our duties as divine commands.

d. Religion is a sum of scruples which impede the free use of our faculties.


3. Philosophical definitions (A philosophical definition makes the central criterion for religion the posting of an idea or concept which the believer interprets as ultimate or final in relation to the cosmic order and to human existence):

a. Religion is what man does with his solitariness. 

b. Religion is the relation of man to his own being, but as a being outside of himself.

c. Religion is ultimate concern.


4. Psychological definitions (A psychological definition makes the central criterion of religion feelings or emotions within people which cause them to appeal to forces greater than themselves to satisfy those feelings):

a. Religion is the result of seeking comfort in a world which, dispassionately considered, is a kind of terrifying wilderness.

b. Religion is some kind of profound inner experience.

c. Religion is a universal obsessive neurosis.


5. Sociological definitions (A sociological definition makes the central criterion of religion the existence of a community of people which is identified, bound together and maintained by its beliefs in powers or forces greater than the community itself):

a. Religion is the opium of the people.

b. Religion is the conservation of values.

c. Religion is the co-operative quest after a completely satisifying life.


Looking through the list above (and confining ourselves to just what is on the list), I think religion probably possesses elements that can be drawn from all 5 of the categories.  So for the ‘average’ religious believer (whatever that might mean!) I might think that religion is most basically connected with 3c (ultimate concern), but this idea then gets narrowed down and more focused when you include the belief in spiritual beings (1b), a desire on the part of the religious person to lead a good life (2a), a need to engage in a co-operative quest after a satisfying life (5c), and a seeking for some kind of profound inner experience (4c).


Alternatively, if we were to look at a fundamentalist religious individual, then we might find that they believe in a God (1a), seek a being outside of themselves (3b), they may recognize all duties as divine commands (2c), their conservatism might enforce a conservation of values (5b), and they may very well have an obsessive neurosis (4c).


I think we also have to ask – what of non-religious people?  Do they fit within any of these categories?  If so, are we all to some degree religious, or do we need to come up with a new term?


[The above table was taken from: James L. Cox, “Expressing the Sacred: An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion” (1996), pages 4-8.]