Section Two of a Philosophy of Glimpses
What Is Phenomenology?
From the Discussions of Javier Rivera, Thomas Jockin, and O.G. Rose
Phenomenology is the study of how things “unfold.” It is concerned about what x is “like” primarily, with estimations of what x “is” following only secondarily. Even if Kant is correct and the noumenon proves uncrossable, the fact x “unfolds” like y instead of z will give us reason to think x “is” more like b than c.
Phenomenology is a method that brings to mind a line from Flannery O’Connor:
‘The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his attention.’
Under the “New Metaphysics,” what O’Connor said about the writer applies to the philosopher, for both must be intimately involved with the aesthetic. Additionally, the line from Religion and Nothingness proves relevant again, on how we rarely ‘become the very things [we see].’¹
Nishitani meditates upon a passage of Dostoevsky where the narrator deeply reflects on a nearby farmhouse, and Nishitani notes that ‘for such commonplace things [the farm, person working, etc.] to become the focus of so intense a concentration, to capture one’s attention to that almost abnormal degree, is by no means an everyday occurrence.’² This is true, but the hope of a “New Metaphysics” is that we could cultivate this aesthetic and profound experience of apprehension so that it occurred more often, while simultaneously convincing us that we need to place such experiences at the foundation of our thinking, versus believe they are simply pleasant occurences that have nothing to do with “the life of the mind.”
For a long time, philosophers like Descartes have sought to place at the bottom of our thinking some “axiom of pure thought,” but our “New Metaphysics” seeks to ground our thinking in profound apprehensions of life. ‘[T]he self-realization of reality can only take place by causing our existence to become truly real’: by traditionally grounding our thinking in thinking versus perception, we have failed to be “truly real.”³ Fortunately, phenomenology can help us redeem lost time.
There is a lot of talk “about” phenomenology, but it doesn’t seem like phenomenology is “used” nearly as much as it is referenced. This is unfortunate, for phenomenology is a useful methodology for helping us explore metaphysics. In fact, it could be the best method, and it might not be by chance that the loss of phenomenology has corresponded with the loss of metaphysics more generally.
There is reason to think that the methodology of a “New Metaphysics” will primarily be phenomenological, and a reason for this is because phenomenology is not reductionist. It does not primarily ask us what x is “made of” or what x “really is,” as if x is some kind of mask that there is something “more real” behind. In a sense, phenomenology treats “surfaces” as if they matter, and it frankly assumes that whatever “deep truth” might be out there is partially composed of surfaces, and so to disregard surfaces is to disregard truth. The proper metaphor for phenomenology is less a veil and more a glacier.
In the West, it seems that we mostly treat surfaces like illusions, meaning that when we ask, “What is an apple?” we eventually get to the place where we say “It’s atoms,” as if the redness and shape of the fruit were somehow “hiding” the atoms found on the quantum level. Surfaces and what we experience are practically treated like illusions, and though we may claim to be positivists who take what we experience seriously, we practically treat what we experience with no seriousness at all. We tend to dismiss experiences in favor of composition, all while claiming we are positivists who revere empirical observation. In a sense, the phenomenologist is more observant than the atomistic scientist who treats the reality of things as that found in its composition, for while the phenomenologist treats what is experienced as part of “the thing in of itself,” the modern scientist treats what is experienced with suspicion until what is experienced is broken apart. For a phenomenologist, to break a thing apart can be to lose it; at best, it can be to create new things entirely.
The atomistic scientist practically treats surfaces as existing in a dualistic relationship with what is found beneath surfaces (there is something Cartesian about their disposition). The phenomenologist though treats surfaces as extensions of whatever lies beneath the surfaces: surfaces and depths are treated equally as dimensions of the same glacier. The phenomenologist believes we can learn something about “the depths” based on what is found on “the surface” and does not believe we need to “get through” the surface to “get to” the “real truth.” In fact, the phenomenologist believes that if the surface is disregarded, the “whole truth” becomes impossible to achieve. After all, “the surface” is part of “the whole.”
Phenomenology is not satisfied with explanations that “bracket out” experience. Yes, composition matters, but composition by itself is never enough. If we are to really “get back to the things themselves” (as Husserl put it), our account of things must include our experiences of them. To use language from the last section, if we leave behind the surface for depths, we leave behind the thing in favor of a depth that cannot exist without its surface. C.S. Lewis had an idea called “The First Things First Principle” where he argued that if we put first things first, we obtain second things also, but if we put second things first, we lost both. Similarly, when we put depth before surface, we end up with neither depth nor surface. The phenomenologist works to correct this mistake.
Experiences cannot generally be falsified and yet experiences are real and mean something. If a friend of mine smiles one day, and suddenly my friendship with her turns into something deeper, I cannot falsify that something just happened called “falling in love” (it could be the case that I just “think” I fell in love, etc.), nor could I carry out an experiment to verify that I indeed successfully “apprehended” a real change. And yet I could be absolutely right, and the fact that I have suddenly moved from “liking” to “loving” will mean a lot to me (and could entail a lot of consequences). The truth that liking has changed to loving is to be found in the change in my experience, and an examination of how things have suddenly changed “in their unfolding” will add credence to the case.
Furthermore, to determine if I am “really serious” about being in love with this friend, how can I be sure I’m not self-deceived or self-deluded? Can a scientist or experiment tell me? Can determining “the composition” of the relationship help? Not at all: what can help is “paying attention” to what’s happening in experience. How do I act? How does she act? And here we can begin to see how phenomenology could help with questions of virtue, for I can also ask “How should I act?” “How should a loving relationship unfold?” (though the topic of virtue will need to be expanded on elsewhere). Also, phenomenology becomes especially useful if I realize that if “liking” and “loving” “unfold” in the same way, then I cannot meaningfully draw a distinction between “liking” and “loving,” and thus I need to carry out a phenomenological investigation to meaningfully define “love” and “like” apart (or “loving” and “nice,” etc.). (This methodology is used in the paper “On Love” by O.G. Rose, and reviewing that paper could help illuminate the point being made.)
In this way, phenomenology can help me get to the truth. By paying attention to how “like” and “love” “unfold,” I can determine meaningful differences between them, and so better get at “the truth” of what “liking” is actually like in comparison to what “love” is actually like. And this brings us back to Kant: no, I cannot access “love” or “liking” directly to compare differences between “the things in themselves,” but by examining the differences in experience, I can give myself “reason to think” what the real differences are like. Yes, one might argue here that Kant is referring to “things” while I’m talking about emotions, but remember it is always a “thing” or “person” which is loving and liking. If I can meaningfully determine differences between “love” and “like,” then I can determine which a “thing” is actually doing, and if I determine the “thing” is actually “loving,” then I can conclude that “this thing is a thing that loves versus a thing that likes.” And the very fact that this holds true and/or plausible about “the thing” could give me better resources for determining what “the thing” is actually like in of itself. In this way, phenomenology can help us determine what could be across the noumenon, even if we ourselves can never cross it. Not with certainly, no, but confidence will do.
In closing, even if it was true that parts were more real than wholes, that depths were more real than surfaces, and so on, we would still have to live with wholes, surfaces, and experiences — a disregard of phenomenology is impractical. Love cannot be explained to us in a way that is meaningful by disclosing its chemical composition: if I am told I feel love because of chemicals, my experience of love will not suddenly become an experience of chemicals. I will still feel my heart racing; I will still feel wonderful; I will still feel beauty. Learning about the composition of love does not change the experience, and so I must still figure out how to live with the experience. I must learn how the experience “unfolds” to determine what it means; I must learn how to love based on how love “unfolds.”
I do not experience chemicals when I experience love, and knowing love is caused by chemicals does not help me determine how I should treat someone I love. Nor does it help me figure out what it’s “like” to “love” someone as opposed to say “like” someone, and if I can’t determine the difference between “love” and “like,” this could have practical impacts on my life that I couldn’t simply avoid by figuring out that love results from chemicals. Personally, I’m yet to meet someone whose marriage improved once they learned that love corresponded with releases of dopamine.
To review, phenomenology:
A. Studies what things are “like” primarily, and what things “are” secondarily (if at all).⁴
B. Does not believe depths are more real than surfaces, that parts are more real than wholes, and so on. Surfaces “unveil” something about depths and vice-versa, as wholes “unveil” something about parts. Phenomenology studies and catches glances of glaciers, per se, not tear off veils.⁵
C. Focuses on apprehending what things are “like” more than judging what those things are in of themselves.
Phenomenology is the methodology of the “New Metaphysics.” And critically, phenomenology is primarily an act of apprehension and “moments” versus an act of judgment and systematizing. The reason this is important to grasp is because it will help us determine why Derrida did not deconstruct all of metaphysics, which we will explore next.
¹Nishitani, Keiji. Religion and Nothingness. Berkeley, CA. University of California Press, 1983: 9.
²Nishitani, Keiji. Religion and Nothingness. Berkeley, CA. University of California Press, 1983: 8.
³Nishitani, Keiji. Religion and Nothingness. Berkeley, CA. University of California Press, 1983: 6.
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