Phenomenology Ditty

(A few months ago I contributed this to a panel on Existentialism and Phenomenology at The Gnus Room, here in Auburn.  I had fewer than ten minutes and was addressing a group of students and townsfolk.)

Philosophy moves in mysterious ways.  It perhaps moves most mysteriously in phenomenology.  Typically, when we reflect on philosophy, what stands out is the peculiar conflict between what philosophy tells us and what common sense tells us, and the feeling of discovery that accompanies that conflict.  We take ourselves, for example, to see stuff:  other people, chairs, cars, rainbows, flames, stars and mirror images.  But the philosopher tells us that, as a matter of strict visual fact, what we see is not that stuff, but other stuff:  sense-data.  Think of sense-data as infinitely thin ethereal photographs that appear and disappear before the mind’s eye.[1]  When I see a chair, what I really see is a sense-datum of the chair, an infinitely thin ethereal photograph of the chair.  (Who took it?  God knows. Maybe He took it.)  That sense-datum is what my actual seeing of a chair and my hallucinatory seeing of a chair have in common.  And in fact, it is the hallucinatory seeing of chairs that seem to require sense-data.  The actual seeing of a chair and the hallucinatory seeing of a chair are, after all, hard to tell apart, otherwise we would scarcely be taken in by our hallucinatory seeing.  –So the thought goes; and so we decide that there must in fact be something that the two do have in common:  Lo! Sense-data.  The philosopher thus tells us something that conflicts with common sense and that feels like a discovery.  We do not see chairs, ever, really; we see chair-ish sense data.

I said that you could think of sense-data as infinitely thin ethereal photographs.  A photograph, as you know, always presents its subject perspectivally.  If I photograph a chair, I do so from a particular angle, perhaps a little above it and standing just off to the side of it.  The photograph then forever presents the chair from just that perspective.  Of course, I can change my perspective on the photograph of the chair itself, but that does not change the perspective of the photograph on the chair.  That is settled, fixed, forever.  Ditto, almost, for the sense-datum of a chair.  It, too, presents the chair from a particular perspective.  But I cannot change my perspective on the sense-datum.  In fact, I have no perspective, really, on the sense-datum.  It represents the chair from some visual angle or other, but I have no angle on the sense-datum.  The sense-datum is, after all, at no visual distance from me.  It is not only infinitely thin; it is infinitely intimate, closer to me than I am to myself.  I cannot wave my hand between the sense-datum and myself.  All that happens in such a case is I replace my intimate sense-datum of a chair with an equally intimate sense-datum of a hand in front of a chair.  There is no visual space between that sense-datum and me.  I cannot move so as to see a sense-datum better; if I move, I simply change sense-data.

What has happened is that the sort of thing I took myself to be able to see, a chair, has been replaced by sense-datum of a chair.  The chair I took to transcend my consciousness of it—by which I mean that I took there to be more to my visual object, the chair, than met my eye at any given moment.  But it turns out that my actual visual object, the sense-datum of the chair, is exhausted in my vision of it.  Let’s call its being exhausted its being immanent to my consciousness of it.  Actual chairs have visual secrets, a kind of visual modesty—paint smears, or scratches or stuck-on wads of gum that cannot be seen from my current perspective on the chair.  But sense-data have no visual secrets, no visual modesty at all.  They are all display.

I have been trying to get you into the spirit of what is sometimes called phenomenalism.  Phenomenalism easily gets confused with phenomenology.  But they are quite different.  I can give you a sense of what phenomenology is by doing a bit of it so as to show its contrast with phenomenalism.

For phenomenology, perception is perspectival:  but that is as much to characterize the objects of perception, as it is to characterize perceptions.  Chairs, to revert to our comfortable example, are perspectival.  What does that mean?  Well, it means that they are such as to have visual secrets, to be visually modest, to come to us as “inexhaustibly rich”; it means that they are things.  My seeing a chair perspectivally is not a subjective distortion of an ideal objective experience of seeing all-of-the-chair all-at-once.  The chair is not displaying all of itself all-at-once; it is not all display.  To take it as if it were is to treat the chair as if it could all be seen all-at-once.  But that it true of sense-data; it is not true of chairs.  Rather, my seeing the chair perspectivally assures me that I am communing with a real world, one richer than I currently know or could ever know, one in which there are discoveries to be made—with my eyes and not with the eye of the mind.  But to rightly understand this, we must bear in mind that my perspectival seeing does not interpose itself between the chair and me—as if the chair seen in perspective was itself more like a door than a window—but is instead the chair manifesting itself to my eyes.  My perspectival seeing of a chair is a seeing of the chair.  The perspectival seeing of the chair is not related to the chair in-itself as a herald is to the coming king, or as a sign is to a city about to be entered.  My perspectival seeing of the chair introduces me to its bodily reality.  True, the chair transcends my seeing of it, it is not immanent to my consciousness, but its very transcendence is open to my knowledge, to further visual investigation, for example.  Its transcendence does not supply content to my ignorance, as it were.  It instead beckons my knowing, my seeing, farther along.  Its transcendence awaits my knowing, my seeing, like the young girls awaiting the wedding of the Bridegroom.

I know that is a lot to take in.  But notice this about it:  my little bit of phenomenology, although it may strike you as odd or as otherwise unusual, should not strike you as itself conflicting with common sense nor as providing a feeling of discovery.  If you followed it, what you should have had a sense of was not conflict and discovery, but rather of the efflorescence of the familiar.  In other words, if my little bit of phenomenology is at all successful, it should make you feel that seeing has bloomed, that both your sight and the objects of your sight have stepped forward, so that you know them again as if for the first time.  Think of it as like a second First Kiss.

Phenomenology declares itself descriptive, not explanatory.  I take that to mean that when it is successful, what it tells us does seem to conflict with common sense and does not seem as if it involved a discovery.  Instead, it gives us new knowledge of what we already know; it deepens our acquaintance with and tightens our ties to things.  Phenomenology is philosophy—but not philosophy as we typically think of it.


[1] But not before your eyes, blue or brown or green.   Our eyes may be involved in the story of the sort of sense-datum that appears before the mind’s eye (it has only one, cyclopic), they may be involved in the sense-datum being classified as visual; but the sense-datum is not something we see with our eyes.

14 responses

  1. I’m trying to square this with Schopenhauer’s TWWR. When he says,

    It then becomes clear and certain to him that he does not know a sun and an earth, […]

    Is he rejecting phenomenalism? Does this picture represent the immanence of sense-data? And, when he says,

    […] but only an eye that sees a sun, a hand that feels an earth […]

    Is he embracing phenomenology? Is it this distance that opens perspectival viewing?

    Or do I have this exactly backwards?

    • Michael, you ask a ticklish question. That passage from TWWR has always been my go-to passage for a direct statement of Schopenhauer’s idealism. But Schopenhauer’s idealism is hard to pin down. He sort of understands Kant’s distinction between empirical and transcendental idealism, and he (Schopenhauer) aims to be a transcendental idealist. But he careens from lane to lane; I fear he ultimately is a sort of empirical idealist (or, if he is a transcendental one, he is not so in Kant’s way). Look, for example, at his related essays in vol. 2 or TWWR to see what I mean: his arguments there are almost all such that the only sort of idealist conclusion they secure is an empirical sort. Given that, I think the passage is best read as in essential relationship with phenomenalism. Complicating factors are Schopenhauer’s account of the body and his intertwining of the body and the understanding. Those are dark, albeit fascinating features of the view, and they make treating Schopenhauer as a simple phenomenalist difficult, if not impossible. But he is no phenomenologist, either, simple or complex. –Schopenhauer’s Appendix on Kant is a good place to look to take the measure of his distances from Kant. He gets much of Kant right, much wrong, but what he gets right does not integrate cleanly into his own view and what he gets wrong looks often essential to his view.

      • I hope you don’t mind if I unpack the assumptions that lead me to ask that question so you can help me clear away my confusion. So I thought that Schopenhauer treated the will as noumenal and knowable through the body as immediate object/direct manifestation, or something like that. And in that sense, I can see the empirical idealism view. But I also thought that his ethics — to detach oneself from the will — opens the transcendental view. I suppose what I wanted to ask was: can phenomenology be done on that transcendental view? I mean, I thought that Husserl was making things in themselves irrelevant. And if it’s right to read Schopenhauer as advancing transcendentalism — once the will is severed — then can’t I read him as making things in themselves irrelevant? And can’t phenomenology be done there?

      • Michael, there’s more here than I can respond to readily. It might help if you took a look at this excerpt from an essay of mine. The essay crosses Schopenhauer’s path in Section 18 of TWWR. Although the essay has other concerns, what I say about metaphysics and phenomenology in the excerpt should provide a framework for talking more about Schopenhauer. Let’s put Husserl off to one side, at least for now.

        Phenomenology Paper Excerpt

      • Assuming you’ve looked at the excerpt, and that it hasn’t created so many new problems that the old one has been crowded out, I want now to say something about your “assumptions”. Forgive me–what I am about to do is ham-handed and fat-fingered.

        Yes, Schopenhauer takes it that each of us has a portal, so to speak, on the noumenal, on the will, since each of us is more than just a winged cherub, a disembodied knower. Each of us is; each of us exists and knows herself as will. This is to know the noumenal, or something damn close to it. We are not trapped wholly in the phenomenal.

        But we have to be careful here. The ‘phenomenal’ that is the contrast term for ‘noumenal’ is not quite the ‘phenomenal’ that gets inflected into ‘phenomenalist’ in my Ditty post. There are similarities of course, but not synonymy. Schopenhauer’s “ethics”, as you understand it, does involve progressive detachment from the will, from willing. But that detachment is a volitional matter, not an epistemological one or a metaphysical one. It is not as though growing detachment from the will somehow obviates the distinction between the phenomenal and the noumenal as it matters epistemologically or metaphysically. (How could it?) So that detachment cannot serve to open the way to phenomenology, as I think you are taking it to do.

        Ask yourself: Is Kant’s distinction between the phenomenal and the noumenal in his 2nd Critique really the same distinction as that in the 1st? I am not saying it isn’t; I’m not saying it is. I am suggesting that the answer is complicated, and that the complications bear on your question mutatis mutandis.

  2. So I see where I dither between talk of volitional “detachment” from the will and metaphysical/epistemological “severing” of the will. It’s like the difference between standing in the natural attitude with an eye toward agency qua agency vs. abandoning the natural attitude and the agential in order to stand only in the spectatorial (which would be senseless because, for Schopenhauer, that’s pure representation, and without the agential there’d be nothing to represent). The latter is a vitalizing phenomenology (of the Cartesian sort).

    Is that a fair correction?

    • I’ll have to think about the agential stuff. But I am glad what I said helped you to see that you were dithering a bit. (Keep in mind that the agential stuff is not really what I wanted to highlight in the excerpt, rather just the fact, as I take it, that Schopenhauer’s account of the body, which I read phenomenologically, was not so read by Schopenhauer.)

      • Regarding the agential stuff: I see now that I misread the last paragraph of section four. I wanted to say: “The volitional ‘detachment’ is like standing in the natural attitude with an eye towards the upshots of one’s agency.” My bad.

      • No problem. Bear in mind that the agential/spectatorial distinction really has no place to house talk of Schopenhauerian detachment. It may be that there is something to analogize to detachment, but that is all, I think.

      • I’m slowly moving through The World as Will: Second Aspect right now so I can try to make that analogy somewhat competently.

        I think what unsettles me most about the standard reading of Schopenhauer — a reading from which I’m obviously not immune — is that it takes him to be advancing a sideways-on view where non-conceptual content is incurably located on the other side of the phenomena. And I don’t doubt that Schopenhauer might have taken himself to be saying that. But I want to say that, since he thinks of the will as prior to knowledge, and the will as completely expressed in man, one can just as easily take him to — unintentionally — imply that human nature is noumenal in the sense that Thoreau does. And if human nature is essential and conceptual, then wouldn’t that put Schopenhauer’s implicit view head-on?

  3. Dr. Jolley, could you please clarify what is meant by the ‘dark features of the view’ (‘Those are dark, albeit fascinating features of the view …’)? Why would you qualify them as being ‘dark’?
    Thank you.

    Congratulations for this entry on phenomenology. Greetings. Cristian C.

    • Oh, I meant nothing of great interest; I just find those features of Schopenhauer’s view difficult to understand. I also find them deeply attractive, fascinating, despite their darkness. I wish I understood them more clearly.

  4. I find the following quite interesting:

    […] my perspectival seeing does not interpose itself between the chair and me—as if the chair seen in perspective was itself more like a door than a window—but is instead the chair manifesting itself to my eyes. My perspectival seeing of a chair is a seeing of the chair. The perspectival seeing of the chair is not related to the chair in-itself as a herald is to the coming king, or as a sign is to a city about to be entered. My perspectival seeing of the chair introduces me to its bodily reality. True, the chair transcends my seeing of it, it is not immanent to my consciousness, but its very transcendence is open to my knowledge, to further visual investigation, for example. Its transcendence does not supply content to my ignorance, as it were. It instead beckons my knowing, my seeing, farther along.

    But I’m sure I don’t understand it. It strikes me somewhat like an evocative attempt to get at the conceptual joints between our awareness/knowledge of primary versus secondary properties.

    Is the perspectival seeing of the chair related to the chair-in-itself? This seems to me the clearest way to take the claim that the chair is not immanent to consciousness (and a fortiori, to the seeing), but that the seeing is still of the chair. Is some such relation a part of what you’d appeal to in unpacking the claim that its “very transcendence is open to knowledge”?

    • No, I’m not trying to get at the primary/secondary properties of the chair–but I think I see how you might take me to be.

      I’m interested in this: that perception is perspectival; that anything we perceive has a figure/ground structure. The business about the chair is thus an attempt to treat the chair as itself structured in a figure/ground way for vision: we see the chair perspectivally, and so, in one sense, do not see all the chair; but what we do not see is itself the ground (or part of the ground) for what we do see; and so, in another sense, we see the chair, sans phrase. What I do not see in the first sense, what I call the ‘transcendence’ of the chair, is seen in another sense, and, as so seen, it ‘beckons’ further investigation, further seeing in the first sense. (And notice, it is not that what is seen in the first sense is secondary properties of the chair; and what seen in the second, primary properties. Nor is it a relationship between two objects, so to speak, a perspectival-seeing-of-a-chair and a chair. No, what is seen in both senses is the chair, the very same chair. And the seeing is perspectival.)

      Part of the trouble is the compression of what I wrote. For example, I never make it fully clear that I am, as a matter of fact, rejecting the chair-in-itself as well as anything that might function as its ‘herald’.

      I’ve no especial interest in pushing this line, for all that I do think it is on to something important. (For those who know, I understand myself here as attempting to re-address perceptual features thematized in Merleau-Ponty. But I may misunderstand him or may have lost his insights in ‘translation’.) I do think it a fair attempt at representing a central line of phenomenological investigation.

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