A Short Piece

Phenomenology as a Method for Avoiding Formalism

We need definitions and structures, but how can we create them without risking arbitrary restriction and oppression?

Formalism is the act of creating structures in which entities like “beauty,” “goodness,” and “truth” can be defined and judged. It’s a kind of philosophical recipe where we say that if we have a little x, a spoonful of y, and a pinch of z, we’ll have ourselves a beautiful painting. Formalism is extremely tempting because it creates a clear standard by which to judge things, to create things, to strive for things to become like, and so on. Without formalism, we can feel like we’re lost in a sea of chaos, but the cost of not feeling lost is restriction.

If the formula says that for x to be x, it must do y and z, then x is restricted and forced to do y and z. This might be comforting to x in one sense, but in another, it might be discouraging. But thanks to the formula, we don’t have to worry about someone coming along and saying “actually, x isn’t x because it does y and z” (and we lacking any strong defense against the claim). Formalism saves us from radical relativism and meaninglessness, but formalism isn’t risk free. If John defines “x as “good” for doing y and z,” then if I believe x needs to do “c and g’ in order to be “good,” John might laugh at me and — if he was a professor of a class I was in — flunk me. But who is John to say that x must do y and z to be “good?” Is John right, or is John just crushing all dissenters? Who can say?

Formalism is dangerous, for it entails a risk of oppression, but it’s also dangerous in the sense that if I have a formula for concluding “x is good,” then I can stop thinking on my own and let the formula “do my thinking for me.” After all, the formula says, “x is good,” and everyone tells me that I can trust the formula, so what’s there to think about? Thus, a “thoughtlessness” can develop (the kind Hannah Arendt warned could contribute to “the banality of evil”).

But if there are no formulas, isn’t there chaos? That could be a problem: if we want to resist saying “this is the formula for beauty,” for example, then mustn’t we say there is no formula and thus any and everything is beautiful? How can we have definitions without formulas?

Well, to start, I don’t want to say formulas/definitions/standards/etc. are innately bad, or that we shouldn’t live with any of them, only that they are risky, and that we should be slow to apply them. However, the key I want to note is that I don’t think “the problem of restrictive definition” is so grave when dealing with physical objects like a rock or a cat. I can walk over and observe the rock, pick it up, feel it — I can apprehend it through multiple ways, not just through mental apprehension.

The problem of formulism is “checked and balanced” by the very physicality of the rock and the fact that multiple people can observe and experience it. Even if I were to theoretically claim “there is no valid definition for rocks,” the physical existence of the rock would not vanish in front of me: I could still pick it up and “experience” the rock. Hence, I can only deconstruct the rock but so much.

But beauty, on the other hand, seems like a description, and it does not have an obvious physical representation average people may agree on easily. Regarding metaphysical entities, the problem of formalism becomes apparent. Who am I to say what is beauty? Who am I to say what is good? But if no one can say, is beauty just utterly relative and devoid of standards? That seems chaotic and even nihilistic.

Alternative to formalism, regarding the metaphysical, there could be an “emergent order” resulting from each individual taking on the responsibility to introspect themselves and live according to “internal formulas.” This way, the is order instead of chaos, but not an oppressive order. And do note that I said everyone has “internal formulas,” not just hunches or emotional inclinations: people must literally take the time to define and understand the metaphysical for themselves. They haven’t just wandered into ideas of “what is good,” etc., but made a point to arrive at a destination that they then bind themselves by and commit themselves to. If we did this, we could own our ideas versus our ideas own us.

Additionally, I think we can help establish systematic understandings of things like beauty while at the same time avoiding formalism by basing our definitions and systems in phenomenology, the full body experience of the metaphysical entity versus only our mental approach to it. I attempt this in my paper “On Beauty,” for example, where I seek to define “beauty” without making qualitative judgments or establishing a hard formula. Instead, I try to describe “what it’s like to experience beauty” and what that experience means, as opposed to say “what makes a thing beautiful,” thus setting a standards things must reach. Here, I try to balance relativism with objectivity, an effort I think phenomenology might help with on many other topics, because experience is concrete — it is real, not imaginary — and thus provides a non-relative foundation for definitions and formulations that at the same time leaves “space open” for individual differences.

To speak generally, the main problem with formalism is formalism that is based exclusively on mental apprehension; formalism that is based on multiple forms of apprehension (mental, emotional, social, kinetic, etc.) is not so prone to trouble. This is a reason phenomenology can be so valuable: it allows for what could be called “open formalism” versus the traditional “closed formalism” that plaques philosophy, theology, and abstract thought in general. Phenomenology makes possible a structure of understanding that is erected “from the ground up” versus from out of the mind “down and over.”

Regarding definitions, it is important we strike a balance between structure and freedom, that we avoid being overly-restrictive without becoming chaotic. Methods of thinking that are purely mental (that engage in the “autonomous rationality” Hume warned against) have proven themselves not up for the task, and in response, philosophers and thinkers have abandoned projects of definition, ontology, metaphysics, and the like. I can certainly understand why, but thinkers should instead just change their approach to phenomenology. Experience can provide a groundwork for definition, systems, and structures that are “open” instead of “closed,” and if we don’t do this, then fields where answers are needed — ontology, aesthetics, metaphysics, etc. — will be left unharvested. We require answers to the big questions to survive and to thrive in our political environment (for example), and if we can’t produce any meaningful answers, we will not thrive.

Considering all this, avoiding “open formalism” requires introspection and a keen awareness of experience (we have to learn, like Flannery O’Connor said, to ‘never be ashamed of staring’). If a phenomenology definition of beauty is provided, it will still be up to individuals to introspect and figure out how and if their experiences of beauty “fit” into that definition: no one else will be able to tell them if they fit or not based on some “recipe.” Hence, an “open system” is freer, but keeping that freedom requires robust individual introspection. If this is correct, where introspection is lacking, there will likely be “closed formalism,” and if such formalism is dangerous, then people will be in danger. Personally, this suggests why it is hard for me to imagine a society that stays free without introspective ability, and if the capacity to introspect is tied to how well it has studied and learned the humanities (as I think it does), then a society that fails to teach the humanities and cultivate aesthetic sensibilities is one that will not be able to handle “open formalism.” In this circumstance, I don’t think it is likely freedom will be maintained.

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