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Phenomenology

To understand the world, we need to understand our direct experience of it. It is all we are capable of knowing anyway.

It’s rather useless to try and imagine a world separate from our experience of it. Is that glass of wine really burgundy red, with an aroma of strawberries, liquorice and peach, or are my senses and brain converting a raw substance into that particular experience?

Because we have no way of knowing about a world outside of our experience, Edmund Husserl ( † 1938 ) was not interested in that world. All that interested him was the direct, human, subjective experience of that world, and developing a method to describe this experience as clear, concise and essential as possible. For Husserl, philosophy should be nothing more than describing these experiences. It is by stripping away personal emotions or memories, handed-down ideas, presumptions, hearsay, clichés, distractions and habits that we get access to the true essence of things – the “things themselves”.

Let’s get back to the wine. What do you really see and taste when you focus on that wine, that particular glass of wine, that particular glass of wine only? You may know that its grapes were grown in France, but bracket that, that’s hearsay, not part of your immediate, subjective experience. You may know that it has been stored in oak for twelve months, but bracket that too, that’s indirect information. The wine’s aroma may evoke personal memories. Bracket that too, memories only confuse and clutter your direct experience. So what’s left? What is left, is a direct, subjective experience of a glass of red wine, right there and then, which you can now, with certainty, go on and describe in its essence.

I see parallels with a more contemporary concept, mindfulness, the “process of purposely bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment without judgment.” The difference between mindfulness and phenomenology however is that the former is aimed at therapeutic psychological relief, while the latter has as its purpose describing phenomena in the world. The former is focused on me and my well-being, the latter tries to say something about everything else.

Husserl’s method was widely adopted, applied and extended by mid-twentieth-century intellectuals, including philosophers and psychologists, but equally embraced by the medical profession and religions. Among many others, Martin Heidegger ( † 1976 ) ran with it, and so did the existentialist philosophers. It was a whole new way of looking at, describing and thinking about the world. No longer should we look for, and make claims about objects and events in the world. We’re wasting our time if we try. Rather, we should focus on the experience of these phenomena, on how these objects and events present themselves directly to our subjective experience. It allows us to describe experiences with certainty, methodologically and rigorously, without having to make the connection to the outside world. The patient can tell the doctor how she really feels, regardless of academically recognised symptoms. The religious believer can claim that he really feels the presence of God, without needing to provide proof that relates to a world outside of him.

If one’s experience is such and such, there is no need to prove that one can only be right or certain if the world is such and such. One’s subjective experience suffices …

Hello, I'm Jeroen. I study philosophy at the Universities of Oxford and Stellenbosch. I use this website to gently wrap my head around the new concepts I learn, to practise my writing skills, and to occasionally vent an opinion. Here's one: I like hats. [+]