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Can you suspend belief in everything? An intellectual challenge

Unthinkable: Phenomenology may make your head hurt but it’s trying ‘to teach us to see again’

Hold up a freshly brewed cup of coffee. What’s going on? Do you see the liquid, the colours decorating the cup and steam rising? Or is all of this “showing itself” to you?

Welcome to the weird world of phenomenology. Or welcome back for those readers whose appetites were whetted by this column's recent venture into "philosophy's answer to jazz".

According to the German thinker Martin Heidegger, phenomenology is "to let that which shows itself be seen from itself in the very way in which it shows itself from itself".

Well, that's clear then.

In plainer English, "phenomenology tries to teach us to see again", says Trinity College Dublin assistant professor Lilian Alweiss, and for this reason she believes it is worth persevering with.


By intellectually dissecting the nature of human experience, it seeks to expose our tacit assumptions about reality. A cup of coffee could be described by a list of abstract properties – hot, milky and so on – but a cup of coffee in your own hands, as you take a time-out from the daily chores, for example, is an altogether different thing.

This kind of analysis is not just fancy wordplay, it's a way of reminding us of our uniqueness as humans, according to phenomenologists. "Hubert Dreyfus is very influential in regard to this trend," says Alweiss. A common assumption in artificial intelligence (AI) research is that the mind works like a computer program, but "Dreyfus believed that phenomenology has shown that the mind is nothing like a digital computer. Human expertise is quite different from what computers can do.

“Important for [Dreyfus] is Heidegger’s claim that we don’t primarily know objects theoretically through observation but through their use – our ‘know how’ or knowing how to operate with them. Dreyfus believed computers are able to search through combinations of possibilities and can thus simulate our theoretical knowledge, but they cannot simulate our practical-knowledge ‘knowing how’, which is based on our practices, upbringing and social skills.”

A computer is able to know, for example, that coffee oils human relations, but it cannot understand just how a cup of coffee – or indeed tea – can create intimacy, pleasure or solidarity. In that distinction phenomenology may be crucial to asserting human value in an AI-controlled future. Not an entirely pointless exercise, then.

Alweiss explains further as this week’s Unthinkable guest.

How would you define phenomenology?

"Phenomenology is not so much a school of thought as a method that studies the structure of experience or consciousness. Its motto is to return to 'the things themselves as they show themselves'. Literally, phenomenology is the study of the structure of phenomena.

“This may sound rather banal, but it turns out that describing the manner in which phenomena manifest themselves is no easy task and has significant metaphysical implications. The problem is that we operate with certain theoretical presuppositions which distort the way we see.

“Before phenomenology can thus get off the ground, it first needs to teach us to ‘see’ again – to see the world, our fellow beings, animate and inanimate objects as they show themselves in contrast to the way theory makes us believe they must show themselves. I think this is one of its most exciting and innovative claims: that we need to learn to see again.”

Husserl's notion of "bracketing" seems to be core to the phenomenological method. Can you explain how that works?

"Bracketing is a central theme in Husserl's phenomenology and has been much criticised and misunderstood. It refers to the 'suspension' of those judgments or theoretical presuppositions that cheat us of really seeing.

“Let me illustrate what is at issue. When I hold up a box in front of you and ask you what you see, you will most likely say, ‘I see a box.’ And you will assume that this box exists in the same way as the room and, indeed, the world exist independently of whether anyone is thinking about, or perceiving, them. Philosophy calls such a position realism, and Husserl argues that all of us are realists.

“But if I ask you, ‘How do you know that the box exists?’ I assume you will have difficulties in answering this question, as you believe that the box, just as the world, exists outside of your mind and, indeed, exists independently of you knowing it. This gives rise to scepticism: you come to question whether knowledge of anything that is outside of the mind is actually possible.

“Husserl claims this realist position is nonsensical. The problem is that we assume the existence of such a world yet at the same time admit that we can never know it as we are imprisoned in our mind. But if we do not have access to such a world, how can we ever justify our belief in its existence in the first place?

“Realism thus turns out to be the presupposition we need to bracket. This may sound quite straightforward, but I challenge anyone to try to describe what shows itself without operating with such a presupposition.

"Phenomenology thus asks for a radical reorientation; it forces us to leave behind the framework that has informed all aspects of our lives. It is not surprising that Heidegger later refers to the phenomenon of anxiety – or angst – to describe such a move; a feeling which is triggered when our picture of the world which has given us reassurance dissipates.

“At the same time ‘bracketing’ can also be seen as a form of freedom. It allows us to transcend our current world view, so that we no longer have to take it as a given. And we can see how the existentialist movement draws on these phenomenological insights.”

In terms of phenomenology as a philosophical movement, how influential has it been? It seems to overlap with a general drift in western culture towards subjectivity, or the notion that everyone has their own truth. Is that a fair comment?

"You are right phenomenology is not only a method but also a movement. Names that are associated with that movement are thinkers such as Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Derrida and Levinas.

“What unites all these thinkers is that each one of them attempts to unearth further presuppositions. We should not only describe but also interpret and look for certain structures, hidden narratives, assumptions which led to our current picture of the world. And I think with this I come to address your question about truth. We need to arrive at an account of truth that ‘shows’ itself. But this means that whatever we call ‘truth’ and ‘objectivity’ has to be in relation to us. It cannot refer to an absolute truth. It must be ‘for us’, ie, it must show itself.”

Is phenomenology designed to have practical value?

"In many ways, like philosophy in general, phenomenology does not have a direct practical value, as its primary aim is to enable us to achieve a clear understanding of how things are, a clear view of how things show themselves to be. It is thus engaged in a form of descriptive metaphysics.

“This has an intrinsic philosophical value. However, as phenomenology is a method, it can be applied outside of the phenomenological framework.

“Phenomenological insights indeed have become influential in psychiatry, cognitive science and AI. In neuroscience there is a growing awareness that if we wish to study the way the brain works, we cannot do this from a third-person – or observational – perspective alone but need to take into consideration the first-person perspective. There are scientists who thus advocate what they call a neurophenomenology.

“Equally, phenomenology can have significant sociopolitical implications. It encourages us to see how our current world view depends on presuppositions. These can be the untold stories, the gaps, the unconscious bias, the power structures that shape our current discourse.”


What future awaits us?
Martin Heidegger replies: "Homelessness is coming to be the destiny of the world."