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An Introduction to Phenomenology

Sam Taylor

Posted on April 21, 2021 22:34

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Phenomenology is a fundamental aspect of philosophy. It’s a domain which seeks to describe our conscious experiences⁠—the ‘what-it-is-likeness’ of things. In this piece, I provide a brief introduction to this fascinating realm of philosophy.

What is it like to see red? To touch a rough surface? To feel confident enough to do something? How can these primitive feelings, inexplicable to those who don’t experience them, be characterized philosophically? 


These questions comprise the realm of phenomenology: the study of the structure and qualities of conscious experiences. Whenever we experience something (e.g., numbness following extreme cold), there’s an associated feeling we apprehend: the ‘what-it-is-likeness’ of the experience. In phenomenological literature, this feeling is termed ‘the phenomenal character’ of an experience. 


Inevitably, this phenomenal character is, to a degree, indescribable: it cannot be aptly explained to someone who’s never been acquainted with a similar character. I can’t describe the phenomenal character of seeing red to a blind man, nor the experiential qualities of boreal coldness to one who has only known extreme heat. Thus, there is a degree of ‘observer-exclusivity’ in phenomenal character: experience is something we can term, but not something we can objectively describe. 


This makes phenomenology unique in philosophical domains. Its focus is constrained to the subjective, to the way things seem to individual observers. So, some may ask, what’s the point? Why has an entire domain of philosophy been built around subjective phenomena? What objective questions can be answered through this study? 


An answer comes when one recognizes the apparent link between subjective experience and objective reality. Every instance of conscious experience elicits a corresponding construal of reality (called ‘the phenomenal content’ of the experience). When I see a red object, I come to believe the object has the qualities necessary to produce my experience⁠—that it exhibits properties which produce the ‘what-it-is-likeness’ of red. I thus derive objective conclusions from a subjective experience, my notion of reality derivative of my personal feeling. 


Phenomenologists might model this dynamic with the following mouthful: the veridicality (or accuracy) of an experience’s phenomenal character (the ‘what-it-is-likeness’) is conditioned on the obtainment (the accuracy) of the experience’s phenomenal content (the construal of reality), with the validity of the latter indicating the veracity of the former. (I wrote this out in ‘academic terminology’ to show that many philosophical concepts that sound complicated really aren’t all that bad.)

In English, this means our experiences create certain ideas of reality, and that, due to the evidential value we innately put on our experiences (e.g., the simple fact that we believe an object with the properties to produce red exists where we experience a red object), our experiences can evince theories on objective reality. While this may seem blatantly obvious⁠—and thus in no need of philosophical elucidation⁠—it has counterintuitive implications for how we reason. 


If we accept the connection between the subjective and objective, phenomenology becomes a tool for discerning the nature of reality. Our personal experiences of action, morality, free will, and so on inform the realities of such things⁠, and in the end, illustrate that a primary basis we have for delineating objective truth stems from the inexplicable seemings of subjectivity.

Sam Taylor

Posted on April 21, 2021 22:34

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Source: Entrepreneur

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