Phenomenology

Phenomenology is the appropriate philosophy of experience for any multicultural country. I will defend this thesis firstly by describing the two other (more) popular outlooks in their insufficiencies.

Idealism, this is the thesis that the content of the world is entirely put together into its logical connectiveness in our heads. Kant is the greatest idealist, because his idealism does not amout to “a brain in a vat” but rather attempts to show why all human beings “appercieve” the world in the same way. There is no logic inherent in the world – the logical catagories by which we can succesfully describe experience are sourced from ourselves. It’s a kind of reversal of Shakespear’s “The faults lie not in the stars but in ourselves”, except for instead of “faults” you say, “truths of science”.

The politics idealism leads to is a politics of inclusion – it is supposed that all human beings have the same catagories of experience, and therefore can all potentially understand each other in their entirety. Different social outlook is a temporary state of confusion and disorder which can be worked out because, inherently, our minds all work in the same way. Needless to say, this is not a politics of difference – it ignores the differences which underlie us and attributes them all to social and educational inadaquacy. The political end of idealism is a cosmopolitanism that celebrates difference in its appearence, but holds unity to be more fundamental.

Materialism is the thesis that everything that is a material thing, determined by other material things. The logic that underlies the world lies not in ourselves, but in the world itself. This is why it is in materialism that we find the great theories of world history. However, in reducing human being to social being, the differences between us that arise from our sometimes shared and sometimes distinct epistomologies cannot be taken account of. Also, materialism can never take account of its own epistomology, which is just as essentially greek as Idealism’s. This epistomology is what the Greeks called “poesis”, which means roughly that the being of the thing is completely exausted in its presentation. There is nothing, thus, about the thing which neccesarily conceals itself from us in the things presentation to us. Of course, a thing’s initial presentation may be misleading, we may need better analytical devices or scientific tools to analyze the thing, but all of the things being is potentially there for presentation to us. It is difficult for us to concieve of this as simply a “western supposition”, because it is essential all of our science, philosophy and literature. (Even Hume, when he denied causality because of our inability to detect the actual forces of causation was operating on this model, because he choose between the dichotomy: either causality was potentially discoverable for us and therefore potentially is, or causality is not possibly detectable by us and therefore is not, although we may still act as if it is). Thus, the politics of materialism can never comprehend the meaning of a ‘culture’ such that it would require protection, because a culture’s bounds are often not only social but epistemic. Further, materialism encourages us to find a logic underlying in history which, once found, requires us either to act with revolutionary violence (if we believe that we must be intentional actors actualizing history), or with conservative complacency (if we believe that history actualizes itself through our fullfillment of our social norms, as if unconcious of any greater logic).

Phenomenology, however, splits the difference halfway. Unlike materialism, Phenomenology takes account of the catagories by which we understand experience, and how our modes of thought shape the world that we percieve. However, unlike idealism, Phenomenology admits the world’s underlying being and logic without our appercieving it. Phenomnologists like to speak of experience in terms of “worlds”. Through a sense, we construct a world – for example, it is because we have tactile nerve receptors that there is a tactile world for us which we can encounter. However, it is because of the properties of the things themselves that certain things show themselves in this world. So the hardness of the table is not a product merely of my imagination (it’s not as bad as that, “imagination’ is a technical term for Kant meaning the production of images), nor simply a material out there – it is the product of my encounter with the table itself in my world of tactile experience. The best metaphor I’ve found is to allegorize phenomenology in electromagnetic field theory. Create an electromagnetic field – and things with magnetic properties will show themselves. The recognition of the things in the magnetic field is due both to the scientist looking for them with a certain medium, and due to the fact that the objects showed themselves in the medium because of their own properties.

But why is this philosophy of experience (the term says about as much as “the botany of plants”) better for the Canadian landscape than the two others? Firstly, phenomenology does not suppose all humans to percieve the world in fundamentally the same way. We might have different modes of analysis, which would allow different aspects of reality to shine through. However, although we might all live in different worlds, we all live in the same country, and furthermore we can always learn new modes of anlaysis – so anything understandable by one human being is essentially comprehensible by any other given enough attempt at understanding. So, phenomenology is a philosophy of difference which allows for possible comprehension. The extent of this comprehension is limited by human contingency, (i.e. we are only born once), so some experiences can still be maintained as essentially singular or culturally specific, and a degree of respect for the absolute unknowability for the other is required at the same time as much knowledge remains possible through learning.

Secondly, phenomenology does not allow for any underlying universal logic of history, because there is no one “world” in which such a logic could be written. Rather, there is historical facticity – the actual conditions of history in which we live our lives. Our possibilty as humans is not neccesarily limited by but to an extent determined by this historical facticity. The minimal extent of this limiting is in our origin – for example, we might become wealthy middle class, but if we were born and given up for adoption and never knew our parents, our origin will always be as orphan, our origin will always remain unknown. No amount of success will ever erase or change (although it may compensate for, arguably) our lack of origin. Origin is immutable. But origin does not determine outcome, outcome is determined by choice and contingency made in the environment of origin. Phenomenology thus fits well with the ideals of a social democratic welfare state.

We might even say – as the Canadian Tire commericials do, “Where you end up, has a lot to do with where you start”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s