Archive for the ‘Phenomenology’ Category


Imagination And Anticipation by Robert Sokolowski

July 27, 2012

Another set of phenomenological descriptions to develop an idea of what what phenomenological analysis is and why it is philosophical. There is, within human experience a role played by the structures of parts and wholes, identity in manifolds, and by presence and absence. We can amplify all these themes by examining perception, memory and imagination. These essays come from a precious little book titled Introduction to Phenomenology by the philosopher Robert Sokolowski. I featured four of them earlier in these posts that begin here.


Memory and imagination are structurally very similar, and one easily slips into the other. The same sort of displacement of the ego or the self that we find in memory also occurs in imagination. In both forms of intentionality, I here and now can mentally live in another place and time: in memory the there and then is specific and past, but in imagination it is in a kind of nowhere and “nowhen,” but even in imagination it is different from the here and now I actually inhabit. I am displaced into an imaginary world, even as I live in the real one. Furthermore, an object in imagination, an imaginary object, might well be taken from my real perceptions or from my memories, but it is now projected into situations and transactions that did not occur.

The major difference between memory and imagination lies in the doxic [vocab: of, relating to, or based on such intellectual processes as belief or opinion.]modality proper to each. Memory operates with belief. The memories I call up, or that intrude on me, are of what really happened and what I did experience and do. It is not the case that I first have the memories and then add belief to them; rather, they originally come with belief (of how it was), just as my perceptions come with belief (of how it is) . We have to make an effort to delete the belief in memory, or to change it into another modality, such as doubt or denial.

Imagination, on the other hand, is pervaded by a kind of suspension of belief, a turn into the mode of “as if.” This modal change is a kind of neutralizing, but one different from the kind that comes into play in the transcendental reduction. In imagination I displace myself into an imaginary world, but the real world around me remains as the believed-in, default context within which I imagine, from which I am displaced. All the things I imagine are pervaded with a sense of unreality; imagined events do not strap me with the true regret or terror that horrible events from my past can inflict on me. It may be the case that an overactive imagination can skew my memories and make me think that some things happened that did not, but such a breach of the boundary between memory and imagination is possible only if imagination and memory are indeed two different kinds of intentionalities.

However, even when I imagine, the identity synthesis that is proper to all intentionality remains in force. An imaginary object stays one and the same through many imaginings of it. There is a manifold with an identity at its core even in imagination. We can take things we have actually perceived and enroll them into imaginary scenarios, and the things remain the same; or we can fabricate purely imaginary things and put them into an imaginary routine, and they too remain the same throughout.

Obviously, imaginary objects do not have the thick solidity of perceived objects, since we can fantasize them into all sorts of improbable situations, but we are not totally free even in our imaginings; the things we imagine put some restrictions on what we can fantasize about them. If the thing is to remain itself, certain things cannot be imagined about it; if they were to be proposed, the thing would become something else. I can imagine a cat flying through the air (although I cannot remember a cat doing this), but I cannot truly imagine a cat being read as a poem, or a cat smiling and talking to me. A cat is not the kind of thing that can be read out loud, and a cat that smiled and spoke would not be just a cat any longer. It makes no sense to blend “ideas” or even the images in that way.

Imagination therefore works in a doxic modality different from that of perception and memory; it is unreal, only “as if.” However, there is a form of imagination that has to get realistic, that has to move back into the mode of belief. It is the kind of imagination we engage in when we are planning something, when we imagine ourselves in some future condition that we can bring about through the choices that we make. This is an anticipatory form of imagination, and it brings us back to earth, so to speak, from the flights of pure fantasy. Suppose that we wish to buy a house. We look at several homes, we narrow the possible options down to two or three, and then we deliberate about which to buy. Part of our deliberation involves imagining ourselves living in each of the houses, using the rooms, walking outside, and the like. Such projections come back to a doxic mode analogous to that of memory; we come back to a mode of belief, correlated with a sense of reality in what we imagine.

If we are serious about buying the house, we do not imagine ourselves floating over it like a balloon or crawling through the walls like a termite. That sort of imaginary projection is all right for dreams and fantasy, but it is not helpful in buying a house. (It is interesting to note how television advertising takes advantage of the difference between fantasy and serious projection. It displays all sorts of attractive but totally unreal situations — a car surrounded by beautiful people, a truck flying over the Grand Canyon, a romantic encounter facilitated by toothpaste — with the intention of getting the viewer to realistically imagine himself into a future in which he buys the product.)

The advance experience of ourselves in a new situation is a displacement of the self, but it is the reverse of memory. Instead of reviving an earlier experience, we anticipate a future one. Since the future has not yet been determined, we can realistically anticipate ourselves in several possible futures and not only one: we imagine how we will have been if the choice has been made, and we can at this point still imagine ourselves in several different circumstances. We project ourselves into the future perfect in different ways. In the enterprise of buying a house, we project ourselves as living in three or four different homes; we try them on for size. We might do so while actually visiting the houses or else afterward, when we daydream about what it would be like.

We may take such projections of the self for granted and assume that anyone can easily perform them, but in some situations it takes considerable ego strength to be able to carry them out effectively. For some people at some times the strain of realistically imagining themselves into new circumstances is too great; they collapse emotionally and get all confused, and their self does not have the flexibility plus the identity to project into circumstances they have not yet lived through. They may panic at the thought of moving to a new place or changing a job or leaving a certain person. Part of the terror of death lies in the fact that our imagination turns blank in the face of it.

One might object that deliberation about future action is more intellectual than this. When we deliberate, we set down our goals, we draw up lists of advantages and disadvantages, and we figure out the means by which we can attain what we want. We weigh the pros and cons and make our decision. Such rational calculation is indeed part of deliberation, but the whole sense of its being deliberation about the future is given to us first of all by our imaginative projection.

The list of pros and cons only applies if we realize that this information has to do with the way we will be in the future, and it is our imaginative projections that open that dimension to us. We sample in advance our future selves. We imagine certain wished-for satisfactions. We may in some cases find that our anticipations were quite wrong; things may not turn out as we imagined they would; but such errors are possible only because we are dealing with the future in the first place.

That new dimension, of a future that has a range of possibilities that can be determined into actuality by the choices we make, is opened up to us not by rational lists, but by imaginative projections. Only because we can imagine can we live in the future. And the imaginative projections also enter into the motivations that nudge us into this choice or that; we feel more “comfortable,” as the saying goes, with one particular future perfect than with others, and so we are inclined to make the choices that lead to that one. The intellectual lists are played off against the imaginative anticipation.


Remembering by Robert Sokolowski

July 26, 2012

Remembering the Twin Towers

I present here a set of phenomenological descriptions to develop an idea of what what phenomenological analysis is and why it is philosophical. There is, within human experience a role played by the structures of parts and wholes, identity in manifolds, and by presence and absence. We can amplify all these themes by examining perception, memory and imagination. These essays come from a precious little book titled Introduction to Phenomenology by the philosopher Robert Sokolowski. I featured four of them earlier in these posts that begin here.


Perception directly presents an object to us, and this object is always given in a mixture of presences and absences. When one side is given, others are absent. Some parts of the object conceal other parts: the front hides the back, the surface hides the inside. If the object is one that we hear, then hearing it at one place excludes the aspects of sound that would be available at another.

We can overcome such absences, but only at the cost of losing presences we have, which become absent. Throughout this dynamic blending of presence and absence, throughout this manifold of presentation, one and the same object continues to present itself to us. The identity is given in a dimension different from that of the sides, aspects, and profiles; the identity never shows up as one of the sides, aspects, or profiles.

But the identity can also be given when the object is remembered.  Remembering provides another set of appearances, another manifold through which one and the same object is given to us. Memory involves a much more radical kind of absence than does the coin-tending of absent sides during perception, but it still presents the same object. It presents the same object but with a new noematic layer: as remembered, as past. [Vocab: Husserl distinguishes between the noetic--that which experiences, the experiencing--and the noematic--that which is experienced, being experienced.]

We might be tempted to think of memory in the following way: when we remember something, we call up a mental image of the thing and recognize this picture as presenting the same thing we once saw. In this view, remembering would be not all that much different from looking at a photograph of someone and recognizing who the person is and the setting in which the photograph was taken. The only difference would be that the photograph is in the “extramental” world, while the memory image is in the “intramental” world.

This interpretation of remembering is very wrong. It confuses remembering with another kind of intentionality, picturing. It is not surprising that we tend to confuse these two types; it does seem that we have inner images in the mind’s eye, and once we learn about the brain it seems inevitable that we are going to postulate some sort of projection of some sort of image on some sort of screen in the brain. But the incoherence of this interpretation becomes obvious when we consider the type of identity that occurs in remembering.

In picturing, we look at one object that depicts another. We look at this piece of colored canvas or that piece of paper, and in it we see something else: a woman, a rustic scene. In remembering, we do not look at one object that depicts another. We simply “see” or visualize the object directly. Remembering is more like perceiving than like picturing something. In memory I do not see something that looks like what I remember; I remember that object itself, at another time. If we are pestered by a memory that will not leave us, we should, strictly speaking, not say, “I can’t get that image out of my mind!” Rather, we should exclaim, “I can’t stop visualizing that thing!”

Suppose we are willing to say that we do not look at internal pictures when we remember; what else are we supposed to say? How can we express, from the transcendental viewpoint, what happens in remembering? If we do not look at inner pictures, why does it seem that we do, and how can we account for what seems to show up in our mind’s eye or our mind’s ear?

Our reply to such questions can be put this way: what we store up as memories is not images of things we perceived at one time. Rather, we store up the earlier perceptions themselves. We store up the perceptions we once lived through. Then, when we actually remember, we do not call up images; rather, we call up those earlier perceptions. When these perceptions are called up and reenacted, they bring along their objects, their objective correlates.

What happens in remembering is that we relive earlier perceptions, and we remember the objects as they were given at that time. We capture that earlier part of our intentional life. We bring it to life again. That is why memories can be so nostalgic. They are not just reminders, they are the activity of reliving. The past comes to life again, along with the things in it, but it comes to life with a special kind of absence, one that we cannot bridge by going anywhere, as we can bridge the absences of the other side of the table by going over to another part of the room and looking at it from there.

A new blend of presences and absences arises through memory, a new manifold of appearance through which one and the same object can be given in its identity. In memory we reactivate not just an object but an object as presenting itself there and then, and yet presenting itself again here and now, but only as past. This is the noematic form that remembered objects take on, a form different from that of perceived objects, which are only here and now, not there and then.

We could put the difference between picturing and remembering in the following rather tricky way: when we see a picture, we see something that seems to be something else; but in remembering, we seem to be seeing something else. This cryptic formulation catches the difference between the two forms of intentionality.

Someone might object, “This sort of thing is nonsense. How could I relive a past perception? How could the very same thing, there and then, be given to me again here and now? This is impossible; there must be a picture of it that I look at.” But such reliving of an experience is just what remembering is. It is quite marvelous, but that is how we are wired. We can relive an earlier part of our conscious life, we can reactivate an intentionality. Clearly, there must be some sort of neurological basis for this.

The neural activity that is involved in perception is somehow reactivated, the conscious perception is reenacted, and it presents the very same object it had at its original venue. If we are to be faithful to the phenomenon, we have to describe it as it is and not project our wishes onto it. We do stretch into the past through memory; we bring back an elapsed world and a situation in it. We can live in the past as well as in the present. In fact, unless we had the general sense of the past that comes to us through memory, how could we interpret a “mental picture” as an image of something we saw in the past? How would the sense of pastness ever arise for us? The very dimension or horizon of the past is given to us through remembering, as we have described it phenomenologically.

In memory the object that was once perceived is given as past, as remembered. Moreover, it is given as it was then perceived; if I saw an automobile accident, I remember it from the same angle, with the same sides, aspects, and profiles, from which I saw it. One and the same accident is given to me again, and if I have to testify about the accident, I may have to rerun the event a few times to try to bring the details back to mind. (“Try to remember: Did the pedestrian step into the street before or after the traffic light changed?”) When I do rerun the event, I do not inspect an inner picture; I try to exercise again the perception I had then and bring back the thing I saw, and I do this the way it is done when we remember things.

Of course, errors do creep in; often I project things into the remembered event that I want to see or that I think I should be seeing. I oscillate between memory and imagination. Memories are notoriously elusive; they are not tamper proof, but such are the limitations of memory. Because memories are often wrong does not mean that they do not exist or that they are always wrong. Only because there are memories can they be sometimes deceptive.

Furthermore, their way of being right and their way of being wrong are different from the ways of being right and wrong in perception. A new manifold, a new possibility of identity, is introduced by memory, and new possibilities of error arise as well. It is the task of phenomenology to bring out the structures in question and to distinguish them from those at work in perception and in other kinds of intentionality.

So far in this treatment of remembering we have been focusing on the noematic side, on the object remembered. We have mentioned the noetic side when we said that remembering is not the perception of an image but a revival of a perception. But we must move a bit farther to the subjective and talk about the self who is the agent of remembering. New dimensions of the object arise through memory, but new dimensions of the self arise as well.

When remember something past, I also displace myself into the past. A distinction arises between me here and now, sitting in a chair in a room in a room and perceiving the walls, windows, and sounds around me, then watching an accident occur on the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Macomb Street yesterday, or me involved in a painful farewell last week. The revival of my earlier perception involves a revival of myself as perceiving at that time. Just as the past past object is brought to light again, so my past self as an agent of that experience is brought to light again. Through memory a distinction is introduced between the remembering self and the remembered self.

We might be tempted to say that my “real self” is the one here and now, the one doing the remembering. The reactivated self is only an image of some sort. But this would be inaccurate. It would be more appropriate to say that my self is the identity constituted between myself now remembering and myself then remembered. My self, the self, is established precisely in the interplay that occurs between perception and memory. This displacement of myself into the past introduces a whole new dimension into my mental or inner life. I am not confined to the here and now; I can not only refer to the past (and to the future, as we shall see), but I can also live in it through memory.

Sometimes this living in the past can be troublesome. If we have done things we are deeply ashamed of, or if we were caught up in traumatic incidents, we may be unable to rid ourselves of the experiences in question. They help constitute my self, and I cannot cut loose from them; no matter how far away we travel, we take them with us. We are glued to them.

The mountaineer Peter Hillary, speaking of brushes with death he experienced in the Himalayas, says, “Surviving is sometimes the most painful role to play in this life. You … re-enact in your mind those closing scenes again and again and again” (“Everest is Mighty, We Are Fragile,” New York Times, Saturday, May 25, 1996, p. A19).

A man involved in the killing of prisoners says, “I have spent many nights sleeping in the plazas of Buenos Aires with a bottle of wine, trying to forget. I have ruined my life. I have to have the radio or television on at all times or something to distract me. Sometimes I am afraid to be alone with my thoughts” (“Argentine Tells of Dumping `Dirty War’ Captives,” New York Times, Monday, March 13, 1995, p. A1).

A man who had been in an automobile accident is quoted as saying, “For months, I relived the crash in slow motion.” We are something like spectators when we reenact things in memory, but we are not just spectators, and we are not like viewers of a separate scene. We are engaged in what happened then. We are the same ones who were involved in the action; the memory brings us back as acting and experiencing there and then. Without memory and the displacement it brings we would not be fully actualized as selves and as human beings, for good and for ill. Identity syntheses occur on both the noetic and the noematic side of memory.


Loneliness Can Connect Us With God – Mark Davies

June 27, 2012

Aloneness and Loneliness
As part of my trying to understand other individual’s experience of loneliness I asked a friend if wouldn’t mind sharing a time of his life when he was lonely. Though happily married and one of the least lonely persons I know, I also know him to be very sensitive and intuitive about such matters. He agreed and I suggested that we get together for lunch. “Fine,” he said, “say next Thursday, at the hospital cafeteria around 12.” I thought this a somewhat a strange place for a luncheon, but it was certainly convenient for me and I agreed.

He began our luncheon by asking if I remembered any of the girls I went out with in high school. That surprised me, and immediately I began to review some of my old flames (when I broke up with them or they with me-how lonely was I then!). Then he shared about a girl in his high school called Nancy. He even showed me an old picture he had of her, and I could see instantly why he was quite taken with her. She was a beautiful girl with long blond hair and an incredible smile. Though he became friends with her he never went out with her. She always had another boyfriend. Yet all through high school and even into university he was in love with her. But she never reciprocated.

He concluded his story by telling me, “The last place she ever worked before moving away was here at this hospital as a nurse. She met some doctor here, and they married and moved away. That was over ten years ago and I don’t know what ever became of her. But you know what? I still have dreams about her. Maybe one or two a year. For the last four years I’ve been keeping them in my journal. I have my journal divided into sections: one titled God; another titled life; another for memories. Yet I’ve kept my “Nancy dreams” under the heading of loneliness. I’ve never been able to figure out why.”

I was transfixed as he continued on with his fascinating story, “Mark, you know me. You know I am happily married, and that I love my children. I couldn’t ask for more in life. But for years after she had gone I used to come to this hospital and walk through the cafeteria looking and hoping. ‘Maybe she will be here. Maybe I’ll see her again.’ I’m not sure what I was looking and hoping for, only now I don’t think that it was her. I think that I was looking for something else.” Then he sighed, apologized for not being what he considered very helpful, and after an awkward time of silence said, “Maybe it’s just me, but sometimes I find life to be a lonely affair.”

His words and his pain were real. I too have felt this loneliness that is not so much of an experience as it is part of life. It’s not something foreign to our existence, some sort of disease that strikes us like some social leprosy. There is something deeper to this loneliness. That somehow, no matter how good life, gets it is never going to completely answer our loneliness.

I remember the first time I ever realized that I was truly alone. It was on a summer holiday with my wife and children. We had come to a Northern Ontario lake where I vacationed when I was a boy. It was here that I first learned how to swim and fish and drive a boat. The lake itself is spectacular and I had not seen it since I was a teenager. Upon arriving I could hardly contain myself. Immediately I borrowed a boat from the owner of the Lodge and piled my family in. Off we were to explore the lake. It was almost overwhelming for me to return to this most special of all places when I was a boy. Yet the further out in the lake we went, the more bays and inlets I recognized and pointed out, the more bored my family became with it all.

By the time we returned I was furious. How could they find this wonderful lake boring? It felt like a slap on the face. After some harsh words with my wife, they left me down at the beach alone. It was a long time before my anger dissipated. It was replaced by depression. And then standing there looking out over the soft water it hit me: here I was with the people I loved most in this world, and who loved me most in this world yet no matter how hard I tried, or how hard they tried they could not see this lake the same way I did. They could not know me like I did. No one could. The only constant traveling companion I have known throughout my life is me. It was there on that beach that I felt, not just lonely, but really alone in life. Stark naked alone.

I no longer felt any relationship with this familiar lake and its shoreline and its rocks and trees. Like a tree planted in the ground I was there, a complete and utter entity unto myself. Bounded by my own skin and breath. And it was frightening. To really understand in an undeniable way I journey through this life alone. That no one (except God) can really know my story, my life my being.

Could it be that what the existentialists suggest is true? That ultimately in this life we are alone? Is loneliness a passing experience that we seek to escape? Is it some sort of companion that only makes itself present when we are vulnerable to it?

The mystics suggest that it is only through accepting and exploring our loneliness that we will become connected with that which matters most-God. That through the often difficult journey of solitude we will find our true identity, and be rightly connected to God, to ourselves, and to others-the holy trinity of relationships. Yet rarely if ever do we meet our loneliness by seeking solitude. We may isolate ourselves from others, but this is a shutting off, rather than a way of seeking. St. Augustine in his Confessions noted that “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in Thee” (1961, p.21). Is loneliness that eternal part of who we are?

Going Home
As I round the corner I see the white house with the black trim that I was raised in. Something in me beats a little faster. The house that is so familiar seems somehow fresh and new. Inside it are my loved ones: my mom and dad, my wife and children. This is the place where I was raised. The place where I learned to skate with the little girl next door. The place where I remember Christmas dinners with my brothers, sister-in-laws, nephews, nieces, aunts and uncles. The place where, sitting on the verandah on a hot summer’s day, friends who were driving by would stop for something cold to drink.

I know that this was a place where I knew lonely times as well. But for the life of me I can’t remember them. I know there are people who have never known home. People who never felt like they were wanted, or loved, or accepted. Theirs must be a deep seeded loneliness. An incredible emptiness.

I mount the front stairs two at a time I and no longer feel any loneliness. Quite the opposite. There is nothing missing. I feel complete and at peace. Home is the place of deep meaningful relationships, with myself, my family, my friends. It is what I know, and what knows me. Home holds warmth and security where life’s wounds can be healed. It is a place of identity and acceptance. You belong and you know you belong. You don’t need to prove it, or even accept it. Its just there, part of you. As I enter the front door there is only the anticipation of my loved ones. Home is being connected: it is the antithesis of loneliness.

Perhaps there is some loneliness that we should never even attempt to cure or rid ourselves of. Perhaps loneliness is that which calls us to deeper more meaningful relationships with ourselves, our God, and others? One of the great paradoxes of loneliness is that it is at once one of the most personal experiences we will ever have, yet one of the most universal. We are all lonely in our own way. If we were never lonely, would we ever reach out to others, or inward to ourselves? I am tempted to say that I know the cure for loneliness: it is called home. But I know that my cure is incomplete. Loneliness is too complex, too personal for easy answers.


Loneliness As Withdrawal Pains Of The Soul – Mark Davies

June 26, 2012

The Vulnerability of Loneliness –
Natalie was raised in an Eastern bloc country and when she was quite young her parents divorced. The State decided that she was to go and live with her father. She did not want to be taken away from her mother and when the police came for her, she was hysterical, As they were physically dragged her out of the house, she managed to snatch one of her mother’s blouses draped across the back of a chair and took it with her. She remembers lying there in the darkness that night in a strange room, in a strange bed and crying herself to sleep. All the while holding her mother’s blouse close to her face, smelling the odor that was her mother.

Is there any lonelier cry than that of a child for her parent? Perhaps we so identify with this child because, when we are lonely, we too feel vulnerable and scared. When we are alone and frightened we too want someone to come and hold us and make us “feel all better.” Is it an embarrassing condition for an adult to be that vulnerable? Could this be why we are so ashamed to admit that we are lonely? Because we are admitting that we need someone else? That we need give and receive love, and care? That we need to tell others our story, and know that we are part of theirs?

Loneliness creates in us a doubt about ourselves. We wonder, “what’s wrong with me?” We experience anxiety about our very being. Deep inside we feel as helpless and as frustrated as the child who comes crying to mommy because, “no one will play with me.” As adults we may smile at the “cuteness” of such a scene. But as adults it does not seem so funny when we can’t find anyone to play with, or share something with, or go for a walk with. And there is no mommy to run to. The hurt is deep, for when we are alone there is no one who will wipe away our own tears of loneliness.

When people are indifferent, and exclusive, our existence is insulted. We feel shocked and exasperated. “How dare they not care! How dare they shut me out! I’m worth something! I’m a somebody you know!” When others ignore us, and invalidate us we feel angry. But behind the anger is often a deep sense of loneliness. Esteem takes its blows. Loneliness feels like the bruise of this insult. We feel like no one cares. No one cares whether or not we are alive or dead. In times of loneliness even if others do care we may not be able to receive it. In self pity we may shut ourselves off from the care of others.

We used to go down the disco every weekend. I remember this one night, no one had asked me or my friend to dance. And I can remember that Lynn and I just stared at each other and I knew she was thinking the same thinking the same thing I was: Will anyone ask me to dance? Am I good looking enough? Am I attractive enough? Am I worthy enough?.

The child sits silently in the classroom impervious to all that is going on around her, simply staring out the window, not understanding why her parents do not live together anymore. The class clown, is working his audience well and everyone is laughing, but nevertheless he worries whether or not he is really accepted. The single secretary notices the new salesman in the office and wonders if maybe he might ask her out. His children bid him farewell and run out to the car where his ex-wife waits: it will be another two weeks before he sees them again, and suddenly the apartment feels so silent and empty.

In our loneliness we cry out like Seneca, “Here I am! Behold me in my nakedness, my wounds, my secret grief, my despair, my betrayal, my pain, my tongue which cannot express my sorrow, my terror, my abandonment. Listen to me for a day-an hour! -a moment! lest I expire in my terrible wilderness, my lonely silence! O God, is there not one to listen?” (cited in Caldwell, 1960). After 35 years of marriage May died and a year after her death May’s husband shared his loneliness:

I walk into the kitchen and am already half way through my sentence before I realize May isn’t there. I don’t know how many times a day this happens. In the kitchen, in the bedroom, in the car. I turn, expecting her to be there and she’s not. It’s like, where did she go? When did she go? Then there is nothing. Just emptiness. It’s like I’ve lost my way. Now I have no one to witness my life.

Perhaps that’s what loneliness is – being invisible. No one really sees us. Not the physical part of ourselves, but they do not see who we are as a person. The anonymous student; or the student begging for attention; the secretary who is an animated part of the office furniture; the old many on the street. We feel invisible when we are lonely. Now who will witness my life? And yet how many of us can remember a time where we were recognized. Where someone saw us for who we were. A teacher, or boss, or worker, or parent, or lover. They saw us!

The teacher who made us the class helper, the coach who made sure we were included, the friend who phoned, the thoughtful note from our spouse. And almost as if by magic loneliness disappeared. But it seems we live in a world that has too many other important items on its agenda, than to simply take the time to see the other as an individual in her or his own right. And that is where all the lonely people come from.

We long to be validated, to belong, to make a difference in someone’s life.

The Absence of Relationship?
The nakedness and vulnerability of loneliness is painful and often there is a racing desperateness about it. We go to great lengths to escape our loneliness- singles bars, video games, porno movies, TV, radio, walking the mall- anything so long as we no longer have to listen to the deafening silence of being all alone. And while these activities divert us for a time, the loneliness is still there waiting – waiting to return as soon as the anesthetic we are using at the time wears off.

It seems like nothing will suffice. Even sex between two individuals is not enough, if it is outside of true relationship. Casual sex is pseudo-love. After the night of physical union and ecstasy, where we were locked in passion with another, in the morning there is nothing but a hangover of emptiness that was there before the evening began. There is the mumbled excuse, the awkwardness and then the leaving, all alone. What is it we crave most when we are lonely? What is it that fills our inner emptiness? Sex? Entertainment? The company of others?

Or is it relationship? Real meaningful relationship. Someone with whom we can share our lives and who will share his or her life with us. Someone who will receive the gift of ourselves when we give it to them, and someone who gives us the gift of themselves. Someone who walks down life’s path with us. Is relationship the antithesis of loneliness?

When one is hungry but unable to find food one often becomes even more acutely aware of one’s hunger. So it is with us when we cannot find relief from our loneliness. But with physical hunger even if one eats enough junk food, the emptiness goes away. One can say that one is full.

Not so with loneliness. The junk food of relationships that we find offered by the TV or in the singles bar may distract us, but the hunger of loneliness is still there. Loneliness seems to have its own appetite, its own desires. At times a simple word of recognition from a teacher, a phone call from a friend, laughter at a party, a kiss from a lover can instantly dissipate any loneliness that we may be feeling at the time. Yet at other times each of these events can serve only to increase our loneliness. What is the difference between merely masking our true condition, and answering it?

When I was 25 I spent my first New Year’s Eve alone. I had moved to a new city where I did not know anyone but my roommate. He was going out to some party that someone from his work was having and invited me. But I declined. I just couldn’t face the prospect of pretending I was having a good time getting drunk with a bunch of strangers.

That was a long and boring evening. In this eternity I was angry and hurt and upset and depressed and restless all at once. I felt like everyone else in the whole world was out there having a good time. Everyone but me, and it hurt. Yet still, I preferred the honest loneliness of my empty apartment to the pretense of togetherness. I did not want a party where all those people would only serve to remind me that I didn’t know them, nor they me.

Loneliness is feeling all alone, even when one is among people. Billy Joel (1971) looked into the lives of those who frequent piano bars and observed that “they’re sharing a drink they call loneliness, but it’s better than drinking alone.”

Some of the most painful times of loneliness come when we are in the presence of others. The child whose classmates ignore her, the single bridesmaid at the reception whom no one asks to dance, the lone figure walking down a street filled with strangers – strangers who all seem to be with someone else. The presence of others do not fill our inner emptiness, our inner longing. They magnify it.

Perhaps loneliness is a measure of the distance we feel between ourselves and others. Yet some have never known intimacy or relationship at all in their lives. The forgotten child, battered and bereft. They have never experienced a warm, nurturing relationship while growing up. When it is offered to them at school, or as an adult, they do not know what to do with such an offer. It is foreign to them. Yet still, somehow, intuitively, they understand that they are lonely.

Being in relationship to others seems instinctual to us as humans. It is part of our humanity. Yet if no one teaches the forgotten child how to be in relationship, are they condemned to a life of loneliness? Yet how many of us know the dilemma of wanting relationship, but fearing relationship.

I’ve never told my children that I love them. I do. I just could never tell them that. See, my first wife died when they were quite young. She died of M.S. We didn’t know what it was back then. She was just Gawd-awful sick, and that was all I knew. I’ve never told anyone about this. Not even my boys.

When she finally died, it tore me apart. And I never wanted to hurt like that again. I didn’t want to lose another one I loved. I guess I tried to protect myself. But then my oldest boy got it, and just a few years ago he died. I wanted to tell him how much I loved him, but I just couldn’t. I want to tell them all but I can’t…it hurts…….Almost every night after supper I go for long walks. sometimes with my wife. Sometimes alone.

In many ways we too have gone on our lonely walks. Many of us carry within us such loneliness. The pain of never knowing relationship, the pain of unconsummated relationship, the pain of love that has been lost. Each pain is unique and personal, but it is often what we call loneliness. Yet the alternative often frightens us. There is such risk in relationship. The risk of disappointment, the risk of intimacy, the risk of pain, and perhaps worst of all, the risk of rejection. Suppose we should lose them? Suppose they betray us? Suppose they do not like me?

So we hold back. Withdraw from intimacy and relationship. We often fear the vulnerability of intimacy and relationship. Instead we chose the ache of loneliness. It too is painful, but at least there are no surprises. We know what to expect. What kind of person can draw us out from our fear and insecurity? Who is it that is safe? Who can we really trust?

As one gets older and more experienced in life the more we are able to anticipate our times of loneliness. Research consistently shows that contrary to popular belief, the elderly typically report less loneliness than teenagers (Anderson, Horowitz and French, 1983; West, Kellner, and Moore-West, 1983). What is it that they have learned? Have they learned how to be make more friends as time goes on? Or have they simply learned how to be with themselves? But the elderly are not impervious to loneliness. Sometimes it comes quite suddenly and unexpectedly. Like with the death of a spouse. You just can’t plan for it.

But the loneliness of loss is different than the loneliness of social isolation. Something has been lost. Something clearly is missing. Something that was there before. Its more than just the death of a person. Its the loss of that which is familiar. The loss of one whom we shared our lives with. What is that impulse in us that sees something beautiful and immediately we want to share it with another?

In this act of sharing, the object becomes even more beautiful. So we share-our lives with theirs, and their lives with ours. In sharing we become connected with the other. But when we lose the other, and there is no one to share with, we feel like we have lost a part of ourselves. We realize that so much of what we held precious in life, so much of what we built our lives on is now gone. All we are left with is ourselves. Our aloneness.

At least in part, loneliness is withdrawal pains of the soul. We look for a time, often a long time for that which is no longer there. Loneliness is the pain of not finding it. Finally, hopefully, our search changes and we find that which we never even knew we were looking for. And we know that we’ve found it because loneliness is no longer there. Loneliness is the ache of this state of non-relatedness. Loneliness is what suggests to us that we are to be in relationship with others.


Loneliness – Mark Davies

June 25, 2012

This is a monograph from phenomenology online that is an examination of loneliness. After the extended reading selections from Robert Sokolowski’s Introduction to Phenomenology, I felt it was instructive to hunt down some phenomenological writings to get a better feel of how phenomenologists look at things. There are several such examples that are on phenomenology online, this one here of course and a second one I found interesting about depression (later posts). Davies is going to tell us something about loneliness but he introduces his own experiences and demonstrates a distance, a phenomenological attitude as I thought Sokolowski had described, as he broaches his topic.

Pay attention to the awareness that Davies has of feelings and thoughts and how he examines them.


Loneliness as Searching
Its only four in the afternoon, but the overcast sky makes it seem later. I step off a curb, careful to miss the puddle along the gutter. The road is blacker than usual with the pebbles of the asphalt holding the rain in their crevices. The whole day seems gray, as the drizzle falls lightly and slowly to the ground. I look down the rows of houses along the street that fade into the mist. I remember this place well. It is the street where I grew up. The place where I was a boy.

Now, many years later, I have returned with my wife and children. It is our bi-annual pilgrimage that we make from far away Alberta back to Ontario to visit my parents and family. On this lazy Sunday, I have decided to prowl the old haunts of my childhood. I have not done this in a long time. Despite the rain I set off alone on my quest. My walk is uneventful and relaxing. I stroll past places and things that were once a part of who I was. I take in the scenery quite unconsciously and think of nothing in particular, yet I feel that something is not quite right. Something is amiss. I am not sure what it is and keep walking.

As I reach the end of the street and cross over, I note that the old Methodist church is still there. The aged bricks of the building appears even more severe contrasted against the dullness of an overcast day. Something about this building has caught my attention. Strange! All those years that church was at the end of my street and never once did I venture inside. In fact, the only thing I can recall about it is when the minister kicked us off the parking lot one afternoon while we were playing ball hockey. Then I remember. Just around the corner of this old building is a crevice in the corner.

An architectural anomaly in which the side wall of the church almost abuts the front wall of the church, but instead it recedes back, then in and around, leaving the most perfect space for hide ‘n go seek. This was where, as a youth, I would come and play secret games of my own invention. Hiding behind the wall in joyous delight, knowing that those who passed by on the street had no idea that I was there. Now, many years later, even though I know it is there, still I want to check to make sure. And so around the corner I go to investigate, and sure enough it is still there: my secret hiding place. However, something seems to be missing. What can it be? I feel somewhat foolish, and look around (perhaps someone saw me!). I quickly retreat to the street and resume my walk.

The familiarity of all that surrounds me brings me comfort, yet I am aware that something is different. I realize that while this was once my home, it is no longer my home. I have left it and moved on. I am no longer part of all of this and I feel the invisible barrier. I pass another walker on the street and we both politely nod and make room for each other. I do not know this person, and the encounter reminds me of how it used to be. Of the time when I knew everyone on my street. But now for the most part they are gone and so am I. I feel like a ghost invisibly passing through a place of which I was once part. And then suddenly it dawns on me — I realize what it is about my walk that has been bothering me-I feel lonely.

This realization breaks over me gradually. It is not the desperate, racing loneliness that I have know at other times in my life. This is a gentle, sad loneliness. One that makes me even more aware of all that surrounds me, and all that I am experiencing. I am somewhat surprised. Is this what loneliness is like? This isn’t how I usually understand loneliness. Could it be something else? Perhaps it is nostalgia? But nostalgia is connecting with something that once was in our lives and feeling the joy of that connection. What I am experiencing feels like the moment after nostalgia. Just past the joy is the sadness. The sadness of loss and emptiness. And somehow deep within myself I know this is the sadness of loneliness. How do I know its loneliness? I am not sure, yet something deep within me acknowledges that I am indeed lonely. Immediately, out of habit, I begin to fight my loneliness and attempt to talk myself out of it.

How can I be lonely! I am only a few blocks away from those who love me; I am here in the very cradle of my birthplace; I still have many friends here in my hometown. Yet these arguments prove useless in shaking my feeling of loneliness. Since this loneliness is not so painful as other times I resign myself to it. I allow myself to feel it. My loneliness becomes my companion as I walk down this rainy street. The irony of my situation is unmistakable: I used to be most lonely in life when I left home, not when I returned home.

Typically we are aware of loneliness only when it is present. Seldom do we think of it when we are not lonely. We do not say to ourselves, “I am feeling not lonely right now.” Thus we often conceptualize loneliness as something foreign or alien to us. When we are lonely we sense that something is wrong, something is out of place. Is it wrong to be lonely? Or is it, as Szalita suggests, “the price we pay for being human” (1984, p.234).

Certainly loneliness is a universal experience. I suspect that there are more people in the world who understand the word “loneliness” than there are those who understand the word “love.” Yet we throw the words “lonely” and “loneliness” carelessly about, smugly implying we all know what they mean: that there is one universal experience of loneliness and once you’ve had that experience you will never forget it.

So when I say I am lonely you know exactly what I mean. But do you? For me this hometown loneliness is a different kind than I am used to. It is a sadness, but not a terrible sadness. In a strange way it is comforting. This loneliness is soft, like the mist falling from the grey skies. It is not a torrential downpour that loneliness can be, nor is it the Chinese water torture that beats one mercilessly one unending drop after another. Certainly my loneliness walking down Russell Street has caught me quite by surprise. The necessary preconditions that I associate with loneliness aren’t there. My loved ones are close by, emotionally I am well rested, I am not bored, I do not really feel shut out from anything. Yet strangely I feel like a piece of a puzzle that has not found its rightful place.

I am not connected in the right way. There is something that does not fit. What was it I was looking for in the corner of that church? What have I lost? What am I looking for? Am I searching for that which cannot be found? So often what we assume about the lonely person is that they simply need to “get out and be with others?” Is that truly the answer?

What is the lonely person looking for?

The Emptiness of Loneliness
A common method of punishing problem prisoners has been to place them in solitary confinement. This punishment was originally used by the Quakers, whose intent was that by being alone the prisoner would reflect upon their crime, come to a point of repentance and then experience the forgiveness of God. However today, “solitary” is conceived as being one of the most painful psychological punishments there is.

Rather than being an integrating experience, it is a disintegrating experience. It is like a black hole collapsing in on itself in the middle of our being. Sometimes the loneliness is so heavy we feel its ache in the middle of our chest. When our homes or apartments are void of meaningful relationships, when they are empty it can seem like solitary confinement. Like a prisoner in solitary, we too want to escape our loneliness.

Loneliness is aloneness that is uninvited and unwelcomed. It is always there, just below the surface waiting for the moment when we are vulnerable. Loneliness is the guest who comes to us when no one else will. Loneliness is a deep sense of inner aloneness that overtakes us and at times can even consume us.

In one psychological research study the most frequently stated description of loneliness by the subjects was “it feels like there is a hole or space inside my chest” (Rubenstein & Shaver, 1982). Loneliness is a missing of something, an ache anything. It comes in many guises: as pain, self pity, craving, sadness, or desperation. Loneliness is no longer being a part of that which once was, it is not being a part of that which currently is. Loneliness can be an acute psychological state, or a chronic way of life. Loneliness is the restless painful side of aloneness.

After my divorce I found myself living alone for the very first time. I hated it. I dreaded the thought of coming home to that empty apartment. Finally I decided to move to my new apartment. Its right across from the mall. At least now on the nights I don’t have anything to do, I can go across to the mall and be where people are.

There are times when we may be unable to escape our loneliness: when we move to a new city; when we are away on business; when our loved ones are away; when we realize we have no loved ones. Our sense of loneliness follows us wherever we go, it waits for us, for that time when we are vulnerable to its presence. A presence that is marked by emptiness. The anxiety increases sometimes to the point of fear and our senses sharpen. We have a heightened sense of being sealed inside our own skin. Whether we like it or not the focus has been turned on us and our situation-that we are alone. We become painfully aware that we are all we’ve got.

As this awareness grows so does our sense of isolation. We become restless, bored, agitated. Time grinds by slowly rather than flowing quickly. We experience the growing desperation of a addict who needs to find his or her next fix. Who can we phone? Where can we go? What can we do? The urgency of our own inner emptiness is palatable. Often we are so agitated by our aloneness that our judgment is clouded and rationality is dimmed. Rarely do we stop long enough to ask what our discomfort is seeking to tell us. We just want to get away from this gnawing feeling within. And when our aloneness becomes loneliness we are willing to accept almost anything or anyone that will take our boredom, our restlessness, our hunger.

The awareness of our condition grows, like someone gradually and continually turning up the volume on a stereo. The difference is that the sound one hears is silence. A silence that grows to deafening proportions. The silence that is outside ourselves. Margret despaired that if she died tomorrow no one would even miss her. When I asked her how she knew this she replied, “Simple, I come home every night after work and the first thing I do is look to see if there are any messages left on my answering machine. There never is.” The answering machine is silent. The apartment is silent. And this silence that becomes mysteriously loudest at night.

Why is it the night time is so lonely? Why are we so afraid of the silence? Is it because of what we might hear? Or because we are afraid that that is all there is? Is the silence really “out there” or is it deep within ourselves? In our modern technological world to experience silence is foreign to us. We stand on the mountain top wearing a walkman. We drown out our own inner silence through our own restlessness and the inner voice that cries out for us to do something about out condition. Silence is an unmistakable sign that we are alone, yet rather than condemning us to loneliness, perhaps silence offers answers to our loneliness.

One of the loneliest times of my life occurred after I had left all my family and friends back in Ontario and moved to Alberta.

I was living in the basement of an empty house, in a city where I knew no one. I remember one evening walking down to the local theater to watch “The 39 Steps”. For two hours I sat there in the dark, alone and managed to lose myself in the movie. After the movie ended, I noticed a woman exiting ahead of me. She had come from the movie and was alone too. My heart quickened with hope – she was walking the same way home that I was. There was a desperation to me; the kind that is unmistakable. Like a starving person walking by a bakery, I walked behind her wanting to overtake her and just talk to her, just introduce myself to her and learn her name and tell her my name.

-To go for a coffee and talk about the movie, or work, or home or anything at all. But she kept looking back at me nervously and increasing the pace of her walk. The hope died within. She didn’t want any part of me. I felt condemned again to loneliness. Looking back I realize the irony of the situation – she was afraid of being alone with me – and so was I.

Yet there are times in our lives when we actively seek to be alone. When we have had too much of the company of others. Armed with the safety of being related to others in meaningful ways, we have dared to strike out alone. Unlike the aloneness that is loneliness, it is us who initiates the aloneness. we choose the time, and more importantly the place.

Solitude is best for me in the mountains, or even better yet, at a cottage on a lake where the lonely cry of the loon echoes at sunset. When I come to these places I experience some loneliness, but not much. The freedom I feel outweighs the trappedness of loneliness. As I gently push my canoe with my paddle in the water I feel strong, in control, both of the canoe and of myself. The fear, desperation and vulnerability of loneliness are gone. I am no longer dancing to some crazy frenetic tune played out on the rush hour highways of the city. The act of paddling makes me feel that at least for the moment I have caught the rhythm of the universe.

Here in my solitude I find that there is so little effort to the act of living. No desperation, no anxiety, just acceptance of all there is. In these places of solitude I feel like I am in sync. Solitude, unlike loneliness, is filled with peace rather than restlessness. Could it be that the difference between the aloneness of solitude and the aloneness of loneliness is that the former is a filling that we accept, while the latter is an emptiness that we reject? How is it that our aloneness can be both so painful and so beautiful? What makes the difference between aloneness that is solitude and aloneness that is loneliness?


Reading Selections from Robert Sokolowski’s Introduction to Phenomenology 4

June 22, 2012

Cave at evening by Joseph Wright, 1774

 In recent philosophy of mind, the term “phenomenology” is often restricted to the characterization of sensory qualities of seeing, hearing, etc.: what it is like to have sensations of various kinds. However, our experience is normally much richer in content than mere sensation. Accordingly, in the phenomenological tradition, phenomenology is given a much wider range, addressing the meaning things have in our experience, notably, the significance of objects, events, tools, the flow of time, the self, and others, as these things arise and are experienced in our “life-world”. Phenomenology as a discipline has been central to the tradition of continental European philosophy throughout the 20th century, while philosophy of mind has evolved in the Austro-Anglo-American tradition of analytic philosophy that developed throughout the 20th century. Yet the fundamental character of our mental activity is pursued in overlapping ways within these two traditions.


There are a number of other issues that can help us define the phenomenological attitude more precisely. The treatment of them will be essentially an explanation of several terms in the phenomenological vocabulary.

Our experience and analysis from within the phenomenological viewpoint yields assertions that are, in principle, apodictic [vocab: expressing or of the nature of necessary truth or absolute certainty]. Apodictic statements express things that could not be otherwise; they express necessary truths. Moreover, they are seen to express such necessary truths. We see that what they say could not be otherwise. There is philosophical necessity in the evidences presented to the phenomenological attitude.

Consider, for example, the statement that a material, spatial object like a cube can only be given in a manifold of profiles, aspects, and sides, and that the cube is the identity given in such appearances. Consider also the statement that an identity is given to us in a blend of presences and absences, or the statement that we can only have a temporal present played off against a past and future. These statements are apodictic. We see that a cube could not be given in any other way, and that the present is never specious but always involves the past and future.

Someone might object that such statements are apodictic because they are so obvious, so trivial, almost so gratuitous; but that is exactly the point. Phenomenological statements, like philosophical statements generally, state the obvious and the necessary. They tell us what we already know. They are not new information, but even if they do not tell us anything new, they can still be important and illuminating, because we often are very confused about just such trivialities and necessities. When we think of how most people understand memory (as the viewing of internal pictures), or how poorly many philosophers have described perception (as, for example, the intake of impressions on some sort of internal screen in the brain), then the importance of stating the obvious becomes obvious itself.

Phenomenological assertions claim to be apodictic because they are so basic and so unavoidable, so ineluctable. Their apodicticity does not stem from the fact that the people who make them enjoy some special revelation of exotic truths that other people have never heard about.

Furthermore, the fact that phenomenological statements and evidences are apodictic does not mean that we can never improve on them or deepen our understanding of them. A philosophical statement can be apodictic and yet fail in adequacy. Adequacy means that all vagueness has been purged from the statement. All the dimensions of the thing have been brought out; all the implications have been drawn. Practically nothing can be so fully presented to us, even in philosophy.

The result is that phenomenological statements can be seen to be necessary (we can see that they could not be otherwise), but they can also call for further clarification. It is perfectly possible to know, for example, that the present necessarily involves The past and future but to be unclear about the full meaning of present, past, and future. We can know apodictically that an object is identified in blends of presence and absence, but we can still be vague about the full import of what it is to be present and what it is to be absent.

The phenomenological reduction and the phenomenological attitude are often called transcendental. We speak of the transcendental reduction and the transcendental attitude. One even encounters the rather clumsy phrases, “the transcendental-phenomenological reduction” and “the transcendental-phenomenological viewpoint.” What does the term “transcendental” mean?

The word means “going beyond,” based on its Latin root, transcendere , to climb over or go beyond, from trans and scando. Consciousness, even in the natural attitude, is transcendental because it reaches beyond itself to the identities and things that are given to it. The ego can be called transcendental insofar as it is involved, in cognition, in reaching out to things. The transcendental ego is the ego or self as the agent of truth. The transcendental reduction is the turn toward the ego as the agent of truth, and the transcendental attitude is the stance we take up when we make this ego and its intentionalities thematic.

When we enter into the phenomenological or transcendental attitude we have to make appropriate modifications in the words that we use. The new context, since it is so unique, requires adjustments in our natural language. Let us call the new language that results from these changes transcendentalese, and let us call the language we speak in the natural attitude mundanese. The two attitudes in are constituted by the kind of intentionalities proper to each, and the languages spoken in each reflect the differences in perspective. The study of the interplay between the two languages, transcendentalese and mundanese, is a good way of teasing out the differences between philosophy and natural experience.

Some of the words in transcendentalese are drawn from mundanese, words such as “identity,” “appearance,” “presence and absence,” and “ego,” but we need to remember that the terms take on a subtle shift in meaning when they are absorbed into the new, philosophical language. The word “science,” for example, takes on a sense different from that of physics and biology when it is said that philosophy is a rigorous science. A new kind of exactness is introduced. Phenomenology is a science in a way different from the sciences of the natural attitude, and the whole argument associated with the transcendental reduction is supposed to help us see what the new sense is.

There are also some words that are coined especially for transcendentalese, words that have no basis in the natural attitude or in mundanese. Two of these are noema and its correlative, noesis. The term “noema” refers to the objective correlates of intentionalities; it refers to whatever is intended by the intentions of our natural attitude: a material object, a picture, a word, a mathematical entity, another person.

But more specifically, it refers to such objective correlates precisely as being looked at from the transcendental attitude. It refers to them as having been bracketed by the transcendental-phenomenological reduction. Sometimes the term can be used adjectivally and adverbially: we can be said to provide a noematic analysis, we can study the noematic structure of some thing, we can consider objects noematically. Any phrases in which these words are used are uttered in transcendentalese. They are philosophical phrases. They presume that the neutrality modification proper to philosophy has been introduced. The use of the term noema signals that we are in phenomenology, in philosophical discourse, and that the things being talked about are being discussed from a philosophical viewpoint, not from one of the viewpoints within the natural attitude.

These points need to be emphasized because the noema can easily be misunderstood. The noema is often taken to be an entity of some sort, something like a concept or a “sense” distinct from the object of consciousness, something that serves as the vehicle by which consciousness becomes referred to a particular thing. The noema is thought to be that by which intentionality is bestowed on consciousness, as though awareness would be self-enclosed if noemas were not added to it. The noema is also thought to be the entity through which consciousness targets this or that particular object, that by which our consciousness is referred to some specific item in the world outside: the noema is taken as a kind of bombsight for intentionality.

This understanding of the noema as a mediating entity is, I believe, incorrect. Later, we will see in greater detail why it is problematic and misleading. At present it is sufficient if I introduce the term and give an initial explanation of what it means. The noema is any object of intentionality, any objective correlate, but considered from the phenomenological attitude, considered just as experienced. It is not a copy of any object, not a substitute for any object, not a sense that refers us to the object; it is the object itself, but considered from the philosophical standpoint.

The term noesis is less misleading, but it also assumes that we have entered into phenomenology. Noesis refers to the intentional acts by which we intend things: perceptions, signifying acts, empty intentions, filled intentions, judgings, rememberings. But it refers to them precisely as looked at from the phenomenological standpoint. It assumes that we have carried out the transcendental reduction. It considers those acts of consciousness after they have been suspended or put out of action by the phenomenological epoché. Noeses are less controversial than noemas because we are not tempted by the term to posit another shadow act parallel to the original one, as we are tempted by the term “noema” to posit a shadow “object” or a “sense” parallel to the real object.

The reason we are less tempted to posit a noesis between ourselves and our psychological acts is that we, living in the Cartesian tradition, have become habituated to accept our introspections as realistic, as putting us in direct touch with our own mental life. This same tradition makes us inclined to deny that we have a direct exposure to things in the world; it makes us demand an intermediary, a representation (the noema), to connect us to the things outside.

We might also mention the fact that noesis and noema, both of which were coined in phenomenology, have the same Greek root, the verb noein, which means “to think,” “to consider,” “to perceive.” The Greek term noesis means an act of thinking, and the term noema means that which is thought. In Greek the suffix -ma added to a verb stem signifies the result or effect of the action expressed in the verb. Thus, phantasms signifies the object of fantasizing, politeuma means the effect of politicizing (the political entity), rhema signifies the effect of speaking (the word), horama means the object of seeing (the view, as in “panorama”), and migma means the effect of mixing (the mixture). The term noema then means the thing being thought or the thing we are aware of.

The adaptation of the Greek term to phenomenology is appropriate. The noema is any object of thought, but considered precisely as such, as being thought about or intended, as the correlate of an intentionality. The viewpoint from which we look at it in that way is the phenomenological attitude. The word “noema” is therefore uttered only from within that attitude. What happens, unfortunately, is that people often take noema in a psychological, epistemological, or semantic sense. They miss the difference of focus between the transcendental attitude and the natural, and they take the noema naturalistically, epistemologically, or semantically. They posit the noema as an intermediary between the self and things in the world, when it should be seen as the things in the world viewed from a phenomenological perspective. Instead of seeing it as a “moment” (an abstract part) in the manifestation of things, they reify it and make it serve as the link between the mind and things.

The remarks in this section about various terms relating to the phenomenological reduction are not a matter of mere verbal convention. They bring out important aspects of the new attitude that defines phenomenology. Also, the definition of the terms will make it easier to express certain doctrines in phenomenology. Mastery of an appropriate vocabulary is not an incidental matter in a domain of knowledge; the things in question cannot be properly brought to light without the words that name them.

Why Is The Transcendental Reduction Important?
At first glance, we might be tempted to think that phenomenology is essentially an exercise in the theory of knowledge, a study in epistemology, but it is far more than that. It does not just try to deal with “the problem of knowledge,” with trying to establish whether or not there is any truth, and with whether or not we can get to the “real world” or the “extramental” world.

Phenomenology did arise in the historical period during which epistemology was the major philosophical concern, and some of its vocabulary and argument sound very epistemological, but it succeeded in breaking out of this restrictive context. It surpasses its origins. It comes to terms with modern philosophy and learns from it, but it also overcomes some of its limitations and reestablishes a link with ancient thought. Most of the misunderstandings of phenomenology come from interpretations that are still so caught up in the problems and positions of modern thinking, still so trapped by the Cartesian and Lockean tradition, that they fail to grasp what is new in phenomenology.

Phenomenology calls for a major readjustment in the understanding of what philosophy is, and many people cannot make this change, because they cannot free themselves from their background and their cultural context. Phenomenology restores the possibilities of ancient philosophy, even while accounting for new dimensions such as the presence of modern science. Phenomenology provides one of the best examples of how a tradition can be reappropriated and brought to life again in a new context.

The doctrine of the transcendental reduction is especially important because it gives a new definition of how philosophy can be related to pre-philosophical life and experience. One of the dangers to philosophy is that it may think that it can replace the pre-philosophical life. It is true that philosophy reaches the summit of reason. It encompasses other exercises of reason, such as those found in the particular sciences and in practical life. It studies how all such partial exercises are related to one another and how they fit into a final context.

Because philosophy complements pre-philosophical reason, it may be tempted to think that it can substitute for such exercises of reason. It may begin to think that it can do better what the more specialized kinds of thinking accomplish. Philosophy may begin to think that it can carry out political life better than the statesmen, better than those who are involved in the perpetual discussion about how our life in community should be led. It may begin to think that it can do a better job than religious persons do in spelling out what the sacred and the ultimate are. It may begin to think that it can replace special sciences such as chemistry or biology or linguistics, because none of them has a sense of the whole. If philosophy tries to substitute for pre-philosophical thinking, the result is rationalism, the kind of rationalism introduced into modern philosophy by Machiavelli in regard to political and moral life, and by Descartes in regard to theoretic matters.

The most important contribution phenomenology has made to culture and the intellectual life is to have validated the truth of pre-philosophical life, experience, and thinking. It insists that the exercises of reason that are carried out in the natural attitude are valid and true. Truth is achieved before philosophy comes on the scene. The natural intentionalities do reach fulfillment and evidence, and philosophy can never substitute for what they do. Phenomenology is parasitic on the natural attitude and all the achievements thereof. Phenomenology has no access to the things and disclosures of the world except through the natural attitude and its intentionalities.

Phenomenology comes only later. It has to be modest; it must recognize the true and valid achievements of the natural attitude, in both its practical and theoretic exercise. It then contemplates these achievements and their correlative subjective activities, but if the achievements were not there, there would be nothing for philosophy to think about. There must be true opinion, there must be prior doxa, if there is to be philosophy. Phenomenology may help the natural intentionalities clarify what they are after, but it never replaces them.

When phenomenology “neutralizes” the intentionalities at work in the natural attitude, it does not dilute, destroy, upset, or ridicule them. It merely adopts a contemplative stance toward them, a stance from which it can theorize them. Phenomenology complements the natural attitude; philosophy complements true opinion and science. Phenomenology may also point out the limitations of the truth and evidences achieved in the natural attitude, but the various arts and sciences already are aware of the fact that they are each partial and limited, although they may not be able to formulate their limitations very exactly. And sometimes the particular arts and sciences may want to become imperialistic themselves and dominate over all the others: physics may try to say that it explains the whole and everything in it, or linguistics may try to do so, or psychology, or history.

When such partial arts and sciences try to master the whole and the other arts and sciences, they become pseudo philosophies, but philosophy can also falsify itself when it tries to lord it over the pre-philosophical forms of knowledge, when it tries to substitute for them. Phenomenology provides a major cultural restoration by recognizing the validity of the arts and sciences in the natural attitude, and also the validity of common sense, of prudence in the practical order. There is a rationalist tendency in modern thought that wants to make philosophy the perfect substitute for all pre-philosophical forms of reason, and phenomenology counteracts this tendency. The modern rationalist trend has, in recent years, broken down into postmodernism, which recoils to the other extreme and denies any center to reason at all. Phenomenology avoids this negative extreme as well, because it never adopted the rationalist position in the first place.

Classical Greek and medieval thought understood that pre-philosophical reason achieves truth and evidence, and that philosophical reflection comes afterward and does not disturb what goes before it. Aristotle did not tamper with the political life or with mathematics; he only tried to understand what they were and perhaps to clarify them to themselves. Phenomenology joins this classical understanding, but what it can add to it is the explicit discussion of the change of locus that is required to enter into the philosophical life. The doctrine about the epochē, the distinction between the natural and the phenomenological attitude, the idea of neutralizing the intentions in the natural attitude, the role of the world and world belief, are all clarifications of what it means to adopt philosophical detachment and to enter into philosophical thinking.

These doctrines are associated with the reduction are not mind-bending conundrums that try to make us obsessively introspective, or puzzles about whether we can get out of ourselves into the “extramental” world; they are clarifications of the nature of philosophy. They are useful in showing how philosophical discourse, transcendentalese, differs from the discourse of human practice and the arts and sciences, mundanese, the language of the natural attitude. When properly understood they can illuminate both the pre-philosophical and the philosophical life.

Finally, the transcendental reduction should not be seen as an escape from the question of being or the study of being as being; quite the contrary. When we shift from the natural attitude to the phenomenological we raise the question of being, because we begin to look at things precisely as they are given to us, precisely as they are manifested, precisely as they are determined by “form,” which is the principle of disclosure in things. We begin to look at things in their truth and evidencing. This is to look at them in their being. We also begin to look at the self as the dative to whom beings are disclosed: we look at the self as the dative of manifestation. This is to look at it in its being, because the core of its being is to inquire into the being of things.

“Being” is not just “thing-like”; being involves disclosure or truth, and phenomenology looks at being primarily under its rubric of being truthful. It looks at “human” being as the place in the world where truth occurs. Through all its Cartesian-sounding remarks about the ways to reduction, phenomenology is able to recover the ancient issue of being, which is always new.


More Reading Selections from Robert Sokolowski’s Introduction to Phenomenology

June 21, 2012

Descartes’ attempt to initiate philosophy by making a “once in a lifetime” decision to doubt all the judgments he holds as true. Descartes introduces this methodic doubt because he thinks that the judgments he has absorbed from others are contaminated by prejudices. After adopting this universal doubt, he will go on to accept as true only those judgments that he himself can justify, according to the method he has developed.

The problem with Descartes’ attempt to begin philosophy is that it changes all our natural doxic modalities into doubted ones. He moves from several natural modalities — certainty, suspicion, verified ;acceptance, possibility, probability — into another natural modality: doubtfulness. His doubt may only be methodical, but it still is doubt. Descartes tries to lift himself into philosophy, but he succeeds only in sliding over into another one of the natural attitudes; and a radically skeptical one at that. His attempt to put philosophy on the road to being a rigorous science misfires. He veers off to the side, with disastrous consequences for philosophy and science.


Are There Arguments That Can Lead Us Into The Phenomenological Attitude?
Now that we have some sense of the difference between the natural and the phenomenological attitude, we can raise the question of whether there is some way to explain and justify, to other people, the shift between the first and the second. This question amounts to asking whether there is some sort of argument that can persuade someone else to become philosophical, or prove to him that he should do so. The question is not trivial; it asks whether philosophy can introduce itself, explain what it is, and legitimate itself before those who are not philosophers. It also asks whether philosophy can justify itself to itself, whether it can clarify its own origins and thus attempt to be a science without presuppositions.

The issue of the beginning of philosophy is raised in phenomenology under the rubric of the various ways to reduction. We are given various “ways” or arguments to help us attain the phenomenological “reduction.” As we have seen, the phenomenological reduction is the move from the natural attitude to the phenomenological; it is the restriction of our intentionality from its expansive natural attitude, which targets any and all things in the world, to the apparently more confined phenomenological attitude, which targets our own intentional life, with its correlated objects and world.

We must be careful not to make our task more difficult than it needs to be. We might be tempted to think that the natural attitude is purely natural, purely non-philosophical, without a shred of philosophy in it, and that the turn to phenomenology is a move into something totally unheard of in the natural focus. If this were the case, it would seem almost impossible for us to convey an idea of what philosophy is to those who have not yet entered it. But in fact, there are anticipations of the philosophical attitude within the natural.

There are pseudopods (vocab: The false foot (pseudopod) extends from the amoeba. Then the main part of the amoeba flows into that pseudopod and the amoeba has changed its place.) toward philosophy in the natural attitude. Simply as rational beings, we already have a sense of the whole, a sense of self, a sense of intentionality and appearance. However, the trouble is that we try to handle all these things with categories that belong to the natural attitude. We mythologize,psychologize, phenomenalize, or substantialize them; we make the world a thing, appearances become barriers, the self is substantialized, intentions are psychologized. We do not get the terms and distinctions right.

The ways to reduction do not try to open up an absolutely new and unanticipated dimension; rather, they try to clarify a distinction that we already possess, between the natural and the philosophical, and they try to explain the transition between the two attitudes. They help us to get the philosophical stance right by showing the change in perspective that occurs when we move into philosophy, and the shift in the meanings of our terms that must follow. We will consider two ways to reduction, the ontological and the Cartesian. These are two approaches that were developed by Husserl.

The Ontological Way To Reduction
The ontological way to reduction is the less frightening of the two. (The Cartesian seems to plunge us into the most radical doubt and phenomenalism.) The ontological way appeals to the human desire to be truly and fully scientific. It points out that when we scientifically explore a domain of being, we acquire a treasure of knowledge, a system of judgments, about the things in question.

Let us say that we have achieved a rather thorough understanding of a field, such as molecular biology or solid state physics. No matter how complete our knowledge of the things in question may be, we still will not have explored the subjective correlatives of the truths that have been achieved. The objective side may be quite completely known, but the subjective accomplishments that are correlated with the objective will have been neglected: the kind of intentions that present the things being studied, the manner of verification proper to the objects, the methods followed, the forms of intersubjective correction and confirmation, and so on.

So long as a science is merely objective, it is lost in positivity. We have truth about things, but we have no truth about our possession of these things. We forget ourselves and lose ourselves even as we are fascinated by the things we know. The scientific truths are left floating and unpossessed. They seem to be nobody’s truth. To round out the science, to be fully scientific, we would need to investigate the subjective structural activities at work in the science, and to do so is not simply to continue doing molecular biology or solid state physics. It is to turn from such sciences and to enter into a new, reflective stance, the phenomenological, which does justice to the intentionalities that we exercise but do not make thematic in our prior scientific endeavors.

Once we make this turn for molecular biology and solid state physics, we come to see that we cannot do phenomenology just for these two disciplines; we have to expand our effort to cover intentionality as such and even the world as such (as the objective correlate of intentionality), because the intentionalities in any partial science cannot be understood except as completed by wider aspects of intentionality. We could not speak about recognizing the identities in molecular biology without speaking about recognizing identities as such.

By a gradual expansion, therefore, the ontological way to reduction helps us to complete the partial sciences. We move out to wider and wider contexts, until we come to the kind of widest context provided by the phenomenological attitude. The motivation to our expansion is the desire to be fully scientific, to avoid leaving out any dimension that is relevant to the inquiry in question. There may be a kind of partial completeness in a positive science, in molecular biology or solid state physics, but any science that wants to be comprehensive will ultimately have to inquire into the very achieving of the science, into the intentionalities that establish it.

So long as these are left out, the science is left dangling and incomplete, lacking its proper context. The ontological way to reduction reminds us of Aristotle’s remark in Metaphysics IV/1 about the need to go beyond partial sciences to the science of the whole, the science of being as being (and not being simply as material, or quantified, or living, or economic).

It should be clear from these remarks about the ontological way to reduction that phenomenology as a science, as a rigorous, explicit, self-conscious enterprise, is in fact a more concrete science than any of the partial inquiries. We might think that physics or biology is the most concrete of all sciences because it studies the material things right there before us, but so long as such sciences do not look at the activity by which they are achieved, they are really abstract. They leave out an essential part not only of the world but of themselves.

The science of phenomenology complements and completes these partial sciences, while retaining them and their validities, so that, paradoxically enough, phenomenology is the most concrete of the sciences. It recovers the wider whole, the greater context. It overcomes the self-forgetfulness of the partial sciences. It considers dimensions the other sciences abstract from, the dimensions of intentionality and appearance. It shows how science itself is a kind of display, and hence it shows the naïveté of objectivism, the belief that being is indifferent to display. The reduction, therefore, really is not a confinement, not a “leading away” from anything. It preserves the natural attitude and everything in it, even as it distances us from it. It amplifies and does not deprive.

The Cartesian Way To Reduction
We get a very different impression from the Cartesian way to reduction. This approach to phenomenology is modeled on Descartes’ attempt to initiate philosophy by making a “once in a lifetime” decision to doubt all the judgments he holds as true. Descartes introduces this methodic doubt because he thinks that the judgments he has absorbed from others are contaminated by prejudices. After adopting this universal doubt, he will go on to accept as true only those judgments that he himself can justify, according to the method he has developed.

The problem with Descartes’ attempt to begin philosophy is that it changes all our natural doxic modalities into doubted ones. He moves from several natural modalities — certainty, suspicion, verified ;acceptance, possibility, probability — into another natural modality: doubtfulness. His doubt may only be methodical, but it still is doubt. Descartes tries to lift himself into philosophy, but he succeeds only in sliding over into another one of the natural attitudes; and a radically skeptical one at that. His attempt to put philosophy on the road to being a rigorous science misfires. He veers off to the side, with disastrous consequences for philosophy and science.

The Cartesian way to reduction in phenomenology is an attempt to take up what Descartes was trying to get at and to do it properly. It does not propose that we initiate a universal doubt. Rather, it suggests that we adopt the attitude of attempting to doubt our various intentions. This may look like a small difference, but it is crucial. The attempt to doubt is very different from doubt.

What happens when we attempt to doubt one of our beliefs is that we adopt a neutral stance toward that conviction; we do not yet doubt it, we only suspend our belief. We stop to see whether we should doubt it. This attempt, this stop, however, is not doubt, but it is something like the neutralization we achieve when we enter into philosophy. This neutral stance then serves as a kind of keyhole through which we can get a sense of what the phenomenological attitude is, the attitude in which we neutralize and contemplate all our intentionalities.

Another important feature of the attempt to doubt is the following. We cannot truly doubt anything unless we have reasons to doubt it. Suppose I know that the door to this room is white, and suppose I see the cat walking into the room. I cannot go on to say that I doubt that the door is white or that the cat is walking across the threshold unless I have reasons to doubt that these apparent things are true: I may suddenly realize that it is the light that makes the door brighter than normal, and that it may be a shade of gray; I may suddenly realize that there is a mirror near the door, and that I may really be seeing only a reflection of the cat walking into another room. As one of the modalities in the natural attitude, doubt needs to be motivated by reasons. I cannot just say I doubt things.

The attempt to doubt, however, is subject to our free choice. We can attempt to doubt anything, even the most obvious fact before us or the most established opinion. In a similar way, we are free to initiate the neutralization that occurs when we turn to the phenomenological perspective, the suspension or “putting out of action” of our intentionalities, the bracketing of things and the world; these things are in our power and subject to our free choice. We can decide that we want to carry out this kind of life.

We do not need to be forced into it by reasons like those that force us into doubt or suspicion. So, whereas doubt is not a good model to use to help us into the phenomenological turn, the attempt to doubt is. The attempt to doubt gives us a good glimpse of what the phenomenological neutralization of our intentions is like. In this manner, the Cartesian way to reduction tries to “kick” us into the philosophical attitude.

Descartes introduced a radical skepticism into the intellectual life that continues to plague the thought that he inspires. Still, it is useful to adopt the Cartesian theme and to modify it in the service of phenomenology, as we have done, because the turn from the natural attitude to the phenomenological is mistakenly seen by many as a relapse into Cartesianism. Even some prominent interpreters of phenomenology cannot get this straight. It is important, therefore, for us to make the distinction between what Descartes does and what phenomenology achieves.

One of the seriously pernicious effects of Descartes’ error is that he discredits the intentionalities of the natural attitude. He undermines our natural and valid belief in the reality of the things we experience, the identities we recognize. He introduces the habit of skepticism that makes us tend to believe nothing until it has been proved to us. But this desire for a proof for everything is unreasonable. Proof is only possible on the basis of some truths that are not provable, truths that have their evidence within themselves and do not need proof. We cannot prove everything; we know many things that do not need to be proved.

Phenomenology restores the validity of the convictions we have in the natural attitude. It acknowledges that our intentions do, in their various ways, reach the things themselves. It distinguishes and describes how the various intentions are fulfilled and confirmed. It also realizes that we often go beyond the evidence, that we often are vague in what we intend, and that errors are common; but the presence of error does not discredit everything. It only shows that we must be careful. By clarifying the various intentionalities and distinguishing them from one another, phenomenology helps us to be careful.

Finally, we should note the difference between the ontological and the Cartesian ways to reduction. The ontological way proceeds incrementally. It begins with scientific achievements and adds dimensions to them step-by-step, nudging us all the way along, until it arrives at the phenomenological attitude. The Cartesian way tries to do it all in a hurry, in one step. It suspends all the intentionalities at once. It does highlight a little better than the ontological way the new kind of modality, the neutralization, that comes into play in philosophy, but like anything else done in a hurry it can seriously mislead us. It can make us think of phenomenology as skeptical and phenomenalistic, and as depriving us of the real world and the things in it. It even seems to lead to solipsism.

The ontological way is slow but sure; the Cartesian way is quick but risky. The best approach is to use both of them, correcting the weaknesses of each by the strengths of the other. In both approaches, however, the key thing is to get a feeling for the difference between the natural attitude and the phenomenological, between our natural involvements and philosophical detachment.


Reading Selections from Robert Sokolowski’s Introduction to Phenomenology 2

June 19, 2012


Jussi Kittie Demonstrates Phenomenological Reduction — note the neutralization of doxic modalities

We’ve examined the structural elements that belong to the natural attitude. There is still one more item in the natural attitude that we must examine before we move on to discuss the phenomenological attitude. We must examine the kind of conviction that pervades the natural attitude.


The Conviction of the Natural Attitude
The manner in which we accept the things in the world, and the world itself, is one of belief.
As we experience other people, trees, buildings, cats, stones, and the sun and stars, we experience them as being there, as true, as real. The basic character, the default mode of our acceptance of the world and things in it, is one of belief or, to use the Greek term, doxa. Our belief is correlated with the being of things, which first and foremost is simply accepted as such. As time goes on and we become older and more clever, we introduce modalities into our belief; after finding we were mistaken in some instances, we gradually introduce the dimensions of illusion, error, deception, or “mere” appearance.

We gradually come to know that things are not always as they seem; a distinction between being and seeming comes into play, but this distinction is exercised only episodically, and it takes great sophistication to bring it about. We may find that this “cat” is only a toy, or that this person’s speech was deceptive, or that that “man” was only a shadow, or that the “glass” we seemed to see was really ice; such occasional mistakes, however, do not cause us to become suspicious about everything we experience and everything that is said. The default condition remains one of belief. However, this belief, as fundamental, is now contrasted with a whole array of possible alternatives: suspicion, doubt, rejection, probability, possibility, negation, refutation, all the possible doxic modalities that our intentionality can take on.

Prominent among all our beliefs is the belief we have in the world as a whole. This belief, which we could call not just a doxa but the Ur-doxa (if we may combine a German and a Greek term), not just a belief but the basic belief, underlies all the specific beliefs we have. World belief is not subject to correction or refutation the way any particular belief is. If we are alive at all as conscious beings, world belief is there undergirding any particular conviction we may exercise.

We never really learn or acquire our world belief, the way we might achieve our belief in, say, the Empire State Building or the San Juan River in Utah. All such particular beliefs arise concomitantly when we experience or hear about the thing in question, when we come to acknowledge its identity through the manifolds in which it is given to us, whether in presence or in absence. But we could never learn or acquire our world belief. What would be our state prior to learning it? We would have to be in a mute and encapsulated solipsism, a sheer awareness that was not aware of anything. Such a state is inconceivable; it would require that the ego think of itself as both the center of things and the sum of things, a hub without a radius. And even if we were to grant its possibility, what on earth (or even outside the earth) could jar us out of such a state? How could the very idea of something “outside” ever arise if it were not there from the beginning?

We cannot start off in the egocentric predicament; our world belief is there from the start, even before we are born, as far back as we go. Even our most rudimentary sense of self could not arise except on the basis of world belief. Similarly, even if we discover that we were wrong about very many things, our world belief remains untouched and the world is still there, no matter how ragged and tattered, unless perhaps we lost our sense of self entirely and fell into a kind of autistic isolation; but even there, some sense of what there is would surely remain, if there is awareness at all. The suffering that must exist in autism is there precisely because the world belief is still at work; if it were not, there would be no awareness at all and no sense of self.

Since we live in the paradoxical condition of both having the world and yet being part of it, we know that when we die the world will still go on, since we are only a part of the world, but in another sense the world that is there for me, behind all the things I know, will be extinguished when I am no longer part of it. Such an extinction is part of the loss we suffer when a close friend dies; it is not just that he is no longer there, but the way the world was for him has also been lost for us. The world has lost a way of being given, one that had been built up over a lifetime.

Both the world and the self invoke the idea of a whole. The paradoxes of set theory, the problem of whether the ultimate set includes itself or not, are less difficult than the problems of the logic of the world and the self: How do these wholes, the world and the self, include or exclude one another, and how are their totalities related to the sum of the things that exist? It may be the case that the paradoxes of set theory are only formalized versions of the problems of how the world contains everything, including the self, and how the self can intend all things, including the world and also itself.

In conclusion, then, in the spontaneous, natural attitude we are directed toward all sorts of things, but we are also directed toward the world as the horizon or context for all the things that can be given, and correlative to the world is the self or the ego, the agent of the natural attitude, the one to whom the world and its things are given, who is both part of the world and yet in intentional possession of it.

The Phenomenological Attitude
The reader must have noticed that everything that has been said here about the natural attitude could not have been stated from within the natural attitude. That is, without having drawn attention to it, we have been considering these matters all along from within the phenomenological attitude; we have been doing so in the past several pages and, indeed, practically throughout this entire book on pehnomenology, with the exception of the introduction, which had to be written from within the natural attitude. When we considered intentionality and perceiving a cube earlier, we considered these subjects from the phenomenological viewpoint.

There are many different viewpoints and attitudes even within the natural attitude. There is the viewpoint of ordinary life, there is the viewpoint of the mathematician, that of the medical specialist, the physicist, the politician, and so on, and there are even several special kinds of reflective attitudes, as we shall see.

But the phenomenological attitude is not like any of these. It is more radical and comprehensive. All the other shifts in viewpoint and focus remain cushioned by our underlying world belief, which always remains in force, and all the shifts define themselves as moving from one viewpoint into another among the many that are open to us.

The shift into the phenomenological attitude, however, is an “all or nothing” kind of move that disengages completely from the natural attitude and focuses, in a reflective way, on everything in the natural attitude, including the underlying world belief. In moving into the phenomenological attitude we get “nudged upstairs” in a way that is unique. To move into the phenomenological attitude is not to become a specialist in one form of knowledge or another, but to become a philosopher. From the phenomenological viewpoint we look at and describe, analytically, all the particular intentionalities and their correlates, and world belief as well, with the world as its correlative.

If we are to give a descriptive analysis of any and all of the intentionalities in the natural attitude, we cannot share in any of them. We must take a distance to, reflect upon, and make thematic any and all of them. This means that while we are in the phenomenological attitude, we suspend all the intentionalities that we are examining. We neutralize them. This change of focus most emphatically does not mean, however, that we begin to doubt these intentionalities and the objects they have; we do not change them from, say, doxic assurance to doubt.

We do not change our intentionalities, we keep them as they are, but we contemplate them. If we contemplate them, we do not exercise them at that moment. However, we would not be able to contemplate them for what they are if we were to change them from one modality to another; if our move into philosophical reflection meant that we changed, say, our conviction into doubt, or our certainty into suspicion, then we could not contemplate conviction or certainty. Changes from one modality to another take place within the natural attitude. They have to be motivated. We have to have reasons to move from conviction to doubt, from certainty to suspicion; without such reasons, the change in our modality would be irrational and arbitrary.

When we move into the phenomenological attitude, we become something like detached observers of the passing scene or like spectators at a game. We become onlookers. We contemplate the involvements we have with the world and with things in it, and we contemplate the world in its human involvement. We are no longer simply participants in the world; we contemplate what it is to be a participant in the world and in manifestations. But the intentionalities that we contemplate — the convictions, doubts, suspicions, certainties, and perceptions that we examine and describe — are still our intentions. We have not lost them; we only contemplate them. They remain exactly as they were, and their objects remain exactly as they were, with the same correlations between intentions and objects still in force.

In a very curious way, we suspend them all just as they are, we “freeze” them in place. And we who become philosophical are also the same selves who exercise natural intentionalities. A kind of enhancement of the self occurs, in which the same self that lived in the natural attitude begins to live explicitly in the phenomenological attitude and begins to carry on the philosophical life.

All human beings, all selves, do this sort of reflective philosophical analysis from time to time, but when most people enter into this kind of life they usually are very confused about what they are doing. They think they are just getting glimpses of some sort of general truths, some sort of laws of nature. They tend to take the move into philosophy as one more adjustment in the natural attitude; they do not see how different it is. The point of our discussion about the phenomenological attitude is to help us to make the shift into philosophy explicitly and clearly, with a fuller appreciation of the difference between the natural and the philosophical attitudes. We make a definite distinction, whereas most people wander unclearly back and forth across the border.

The turn to the phenomenological attitude is called the phenomenological reduction, a term that signifies the “leading away” from the natural targets of our concern, “back” to what seems to be a more restricted viewpoint, one that simply targets the intentionalities themselves. Reduction, with the Latin root re-ducere, is a leading back, a withholding or a withdrawal. When we enter into this new viewpoint, we suspend the intentionalities we now contemplate. This suspension, this neutralization of our doxic modalities, is also called the epochē, a term taken from Greek skepticism, where it signifies the restraint the Skeptics said we should have toward our judgments about things; they said we should refrain from judging until the evidence is clear. Although phenomenology takes this term from Greek skepticism, the skeptical overtone of the term is not kept. The epochē in phenomenology is simply the neutralizing of natural intentions that must occur when we contemplate those intentions.

Finally, to complete this brief treatment of terminology, let us speak of the term bracketing. When we enter into the phenomenological attitude, we suspend our beliefs, and we bracket the world and all the things in the world. We put the world and the things in it “into brackets” or “into parentheses.” When we so bracket the world or some particular object, we do not turn it into a mere appearance, an illusion, a mere idea, or any other sort of merely subjective impression. Rather, we now consider it precisely as it is intended by an intentionality in the natural attitude.

We consider it as correlated with whatever intentionality targets it. If it is a perceived object, we examine it as perceived; if it is a remembered object, we now examine it as remembered; if it is a mathematical entity, we consider it as correlated with a mathematical intention; if it is a merely possible object, or a verified one, we consider it as the object for an intentionality that intends something only possible, or an intentionality that intends something verified. Bracketing retains exactly the modality and the mode of manifestation that the object has for the subject in the natural attitude.

‘l’hus, when we enter into phenomenological reflection, we do not restrict our focus just to the subjective side of consciousness; we do not focus only on the intentionalities. We also focus on the objects that are given to us, but we focus on them as appearing to us in our natural attitude. In the natural attitude we head directly toward the object; we go right through the object’s appearances to the object itself. From the philosophically reflective stance, we make the appearances thematic. We look at what we normally look through. We focus, for example, on the sides, aspects, and profiles through which the cube presents itself as an identity. We focus on the manifold of appearances through which the object is given to us.

When we do so, however, we do not turn the identity of the object into one of the “mere” appearances; quite on the contrary, we are better able to distinguish the object from its appearances, we are better able to preserve the reality of the thing itself. We are also better able to provide an appropriate description of the nature of “the world.” If we were to try to speak about the world from the natural attitude, we would tend to take it as a large entity or as the sum of all entities. Only from the phenomenological perspective can we get the right terminology to speak about the world as the context for the manifestation of things.

To use a somewhat crude spatial metaphor, when we enter into the phenomenological attitude, we crawl out of the natural attitude, rise above it, theorize it, and distinguish and describe both the subjective and the objective correlates that make it up. From our philosophical perch, we describe the various intentionalities and their various objects, as well as the self and the world.

We distinguish between a thing and its appearances, a distinction that has been called by Heidegger the “ontological difference,” the difference between a thing and the presenting (or absenting) of the thing. This distinction can be properly made only from the phenomenological perspective.

If we try to make the distinction between thing and appearance from within the natural standpoint, either we will tend to substantialize appearances, because in that standpoint we tend to take everything we focus on as a substantial thing, or we will tend to reduce the thing just to its appearances, to being the sum of its appearances. We will be likely either to posit appearances as barriers between us and things, or to make things into mere ideas. We will not get the phenomenological attitude right, and we will not properly understand the natural attitude either.


Reading Selections from Robert Sokolowski’s Introduction to Phenomenology

June 18, 2012

Phenomenology is the study of human experience and of the ways things present themselves to us in and through such experience. It attempts to restore the sense of philosophy one finds in Plato. It is, moreover, not just an antiquarian revival, but one that confronts the issues raised by modern thought. It goes beyond ancients and moderns and strives to reactivate the philosophical life in our present circumstances. This book is written, therefore, not just to inform readers about a particular philosophical movement, but to offer the possibility of philosophical thinking at a time when such thinking is seriously called into question or largely ignored.

Because this book is an introduction to phenomenology, I use the philosophical vocabulary developed in that tradition. I employ words like “intentionality,” “evidence,” “constitution,” “categorial intuition,” the “life world,” and “eidetic intuition.” However, I do not comment on these terms as though they were alien to my own thinking; I use them.

I think they name important phenomena, and I want to make these phenomena available to the readers of this book. I do not, in this work, trace the manner in which these and other terms arose in Husserl’s writings and in the work of Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and other phenomenologists; I use the words directly because they still have life in them. It is legitimate, for example, to speak about evidence as such, and not only about what Husserl said about evidence. These terms need not be explained only by showing how other people have used them. We do not have to pin them to the wall in order to profit from them. Phenomenology can continue to make an important contribution to current philosophy. Its intellectual capital is far from spent, and its philosophical energy is still largely unexploited.

I will leave a historical survey of phenomenology for the appendix to this book. For the moment, let us simply recall that Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) was the founder of phenomenology, and that his work Logical Investigations can justly be considered the initial statement of the movement. The book appeared in two parts, in 1900 and 1901, so phenomenology began with the dawn of the new century. As we now stand at the end of that period of time, we can look back at almost precisely one hundred years of the movement’s history. Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), a disciple, colleague; and later rival of Husserl, was the other major figure in German phenomenology.

The movement also flourished in France, where it was represented by such authors as Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) Jean-Paul Sartre (19055-1980), Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1907-1960), and Paul Ricoeur (b. 1913). There were significant developments in prerevolutionary Russia and in Belgium, Spain, Italy Poland, England, and the United States. Phenomenology influenced many other philosophical and cultural movements, such as hermeneutics, structuralism, literary formalism, and deconstruction. Through the whole of the twentieth century, it has been the major component in what is called “continental” philosophy, as opposed to the “analytic” tradition that has typified philosophy in England and the United States.

Phenomenology And The Issue Of Appearances
Phenomenology is a significant philosophical movement because it deals so well with the problem of appearances. The issue of appearances has been part of the human question from the beginning of philosophy.
The Sophists manipulated appearances through the magic of words, and Plato responded to what they said. Since then, appearances have been multiplied and magnified enormously. We generate them not only by words spoken or written by one person, to another, but by microphones, telephones, movies, and television as well as by computers and the Internet, and by propaganda and advertising. Modes of presentation and representation proliferate and fascinating issues arise: How is an e-mail message different from a telephone call and a letter? Who is addressing us when we read a Web page? How are speakers, listeners, and conversation modified by the way we communicate now?

One of the dangers we face is that with the technological expansion of images and words, everything seems to fall apart into appearances. We might formulate this problem in terms of the themes of parts and wholes, identity in manifolds, and presence and absence: it seems that we now are flooded by fragments without any wholes, by manifolds bereft of identities, and by multiple absences without any enduring real presence. We have bricolage and nothing else, and we think we can even invent ourselves at random by assembling convenient and pleasing but transient identities out of the bits and pieces we find around us. We pick up fragments to shore against our ruin.

In contrast with this postmodern understanding of appearance, phenomenology, in its classical form, insists that parts are only understood against the background of appropriate wholes, that manifolds of appearance harbor identities, and that absences make no sense except as played off against the presences that can be achieved through them. Phenomenology insists that identity and intelligibility are available in things, and that we ourselves are defined as the ones to whom such identities and intelligibilities are given. We can evidence the way things are; when we do so, we discover objects, but we also discover ourselves, precisely as datives of disclosure, as those to whom things appear. Not only can we think the things given to us in experience; we can also understand ourselves as thinking them.

Phenomenology is precisely this sort of understanding: phenomenology is reason’s self-discovery in the presence of intelligible objects. The analyses in this book are presented to the reader as a clarification of what it means for us to let things appear and to be the datives for their appearance. Many philosophers have claimed that we must learn to live without “truth” and “rationality,” but this book tries to show that we can and must exercise responsibility and truthfulness if we are to be human.


What Phenomenology Is
In order to understand what phenomenology is, we must make a distinction between two attitudes or perspectives that we can adopt. We must distinguish between the natural attitude and the phenomenological attitude. The natural attitude is the focus we have when we are involved in our original, world-directed stance, when we intend things, situations, facts, and any other kinds of objects. The natural attitude is, we might say, the default perspective, the one we start off from, the one we are in originally. We do not move into it from anything more basic.

The phenomenological attitude, on the other hand, is the focus we have when we reflect upon the natural attitude and all the intentionalities that occur within it. It is within the phenomenological attitude that we carry out philosophical analyses. The phenomenological attitude is also sometimes called the transcendental attitude. Let us examine both attitudes or focuses, the natural and the phenomenological. We can understand each precisely in its contrast with the other.

The Natural Attitude
In our ordinary living, we are directly caught up with the various things in the world. As we sit conversing with others at the dinner table, as we walk to work, or as we fill out an application for a passport or for a driver’s license, we have material objects presented to us, we identify them through the sides, aspects, and profiles through which they are given, we speak about and articulate them, we have emotional responses to things that are attractive or repellent, we find some things pleasant to look at or hear and others unpleasant and disruptive, and so on. Some things are present to us and other things are absent, we overcome some of the absences and bring things to presence, but we also let other things go out of presence into absences.

We identify and recognize one thing after another: the chairs and pictures in our room, the birds singing outside, the car going by down the street, the wind blowing through the trees. Furthermore, in addition to such substantial things, the world also contains mathematical entities such as triangles and squares, closed and open sets, rational and irrational numbers. Such mathematical things require a special kind of intentionality, but they still present themselves as nested within, the world, even though they exist in a manner different from trees and trucks. There are also political constitutions, laws, contracts, international agreements, elections, acts of generosity and courage, as well as acts of hatred and cowardice. All such things can be identified within the world in which we live; all such things in their identities are correlated with our intendings.

Moreover, our world does not contain only the things that we have directly experienced. We also intend, emptily, many things that we take to be real even though we have never experienced them. I have never been to China, but from time to time I do intend China, its mountains and rivers, its foreign and domestic policy, its economic condition. The same is true of Brazil, Antarctica, and Greenland. If I were to visit Antarctica I would fulfill many of my empty intentions, some in surprising and others in unsurprising ways. The world we live in expands beyond our immediate experience and beyond our possible experience: we also perceive a domain in the heavens that we could never reach bodily. We might get to the moon or some of the planets, but it is impossible for us to reach to the farthest parts of the universe. We can learn a lot about those places, but much of it will always remain the target of empty intentions rather than fulfillments or perceptions.

So there are many things in the world, all given in different manners of presentation. There is also the world itself, which is given in still a different way. The world is not a large “thing,” nor is it the sum of the things that have been or can be experienced. The world is not like a sphere floating in space, nor is it a collection of moving objects. The world is more like a context, a setting, a background, or a horizon for all the things there are, all the things that can be intended and given to us; the world is not another thing competing with them. It is the whole for them all, not the sum of them all, and it is given to us as a special kind of identity. We could never have the world given to us as one item among many, nor even as a single item: it is given only as encompassing all the items. It contains everything, but not like any worldly container.

The term “world” is a singulare tantum; there could only be one of them. There may be many galaxies, there may be many home planets for conscious beings (although there is only one for us), but there is only one world. “The world” is not an astronomical concept; it is a concept related to our immediate experience. The world is the ultimate setting for ourselves and for all the things we experience. The world is the concrete and actual whole forensic .

Another important singularity in our spontaneous experience is the self, the ego, the I. If the world is the widest whole and the most encompassing context, the I is the center around which this widest whole, with all the things in it is arranged. Paradoxically, the I is a thing in the world, but it is a thing like no other: it is a thing in the world that also cognitively has the world, the thing to whom the world as a whole, with all the things in it, manifests itself.

The I is the dative of manifestation. It is the entity to whom the world and all the things in it can be given, the one who can receive the world in knowledge. Of course, there are many I’s, many egos, many selves, but even among all of them one stands out as the preeminent center, namely me (that is, you, as you read these words and think them through for yourself). These strange facts about the self or the ego are not just tricks of language, not just peculiarities of the first and second person singular; they belong to the kind of being a rational creature is, a creature that can think, that can say “I,” and that can have the world even while being a part of the world.

The rational soul, as Aristotle says, is somehow all things. The world as a whole and the I as the center are the two singularities between which all other things can be placed. The world and the I are correlated with one another in a way different from the manner in which a particular intentionality is correlated with the thing that it intends. The world and the ego provide an ultimate dual, elliptical context for everything.


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