Sunday, April 1, 2012

Phenemonology between Husserl and Heidegger

Cy Twombly, The First Part of the Return from Parnassus (1961)

Regular readers of this blog will have noticed the relatively recent addition of a blog-roll, in the form of a themed list of 'blogs we read.' That list is for active blogs, in my opinion, but I've found an inactive blog that I wanted to highlight because I think it speaks to some issues meaningful to the motivations of this endeavor for communication across disciplines and specializations: some of our themes of open access, vernacular writing on the web, and increasingly, phenomenology.

The blog, Between Husserl and Heidegger, is clearly an outcome of a graduate-level course in phenomenology at an American university, most likely one taught from a philosophy department or a department arrayed around the disciplinary study of philosophy. The posts are all summaries of the readings written by students in the class. I've written these kinds of excursus myself in graduate school, and have asked them of my own students. Writing a careful, detail-oriented account of someone else's argument is a great exercise in close and attentive reading, and hones sensitivity to the craft of constructing concepts.

So, the blog is a fragment of a course that has been left lying around on the web. It's useful in a number of ways for precisely this reason. For a specialist, it's a nice summary of names and books that reflects an interesting and informed syllabus. For non-specialists, it's an insight into how teaching and learning works in the humanities. For anyone interested in phenomenology, it's a great open-access bibliography — a source for the vocabularies, ideas, and contemporary histories of a topic I'm well aware isn't the most accessible out there.

The URL for the blog is erlebnis - the German word for 'lived experience' which acts as a central, motivating concept in all strands of twentieth-century phenomenology — as the blog's author himself notes. In keeping with his excellent taste, I've taken the image for this post from one of my favorite Cy Twombly paintings in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.


  1. I've just read the article early on in that blog that describes what phenomenology is. I can say with confidence that a (i.e. from physics) "beyond the standard model phenomenologist" is a completely different thing and I would be quite surprised if the two terms arose in a way that is at all connected. I expect the physics one will have come from the mundane definition of phenomenon, meaning "stuff that happens".

    Having said that, it does seem that phenomenology and the more abstract sciences have things to say to each other. I think I'm also starting to see where you're coming from in your emphasis that "knowing the smell of space" would have great value and your interest in the Scale of space and ChronoZoom applications. I imagine that when studying phenomenology you're always trying to extract out that lived experience and for a human being this must come down to smells, and images, etc because those are the things we actually do experience and so know how to speak about in terms of experience.

    However, I think this is going to miss the best parts when discussing these abstract sciences. They haven't and won't be "experienced" in the ordinary sense of that word. We can only ever infer the existence of the things we discover. It might be interesting and quaint to discuss the smell of space and to try to speak of it in the language of the rest of phenomenology, but there are much more interesting and more profound things going on. We would gain so much more from attempting to analyse these other things under the label of aesthetics and/or phenomenology - despite the other things being the lived experiences.

    I'm going to digress for a paragrpah. It is this lack of lived experience and necessity of finding stuff out through inference that I think is one of the biggest problems science faces in the community today. People can't understand what science discovers using just their everyday experience and so it is easy to doubt it. This is even an issue between sciences. This problem even becomes politically relevant with issues like climate change and the teaching of intelligent design in science classes. Because of this I am a big fan of the idea of teaching "science-methodology" and "science-culture" at high-school, rather than just "science-facts". I would even advocate that "science-culture" should be more cumpolsory than science itself, simply because you will never satisfactorily teach all of science, so it is best to give students the tools to learn science and trust its results, than to teach the 1% of it that is easily taught and often not the most relevant to later life (of the public or a scientist) anyway.

    1. No edit... cumpolsory=compulsory.

      There are other typos, but that one bothered me the most.

  2. Back to phenomenology. Clearly there is *something* that can be written about these abstract parts of science. If we've discovered something, it is there *and* we have interacted with it somehow. That interaction is the thing that I think needs described, not an attempt to re-write the discovery in terms of everyday human experiences, which I think is doomed to a certain degree of tackiness. I'm not meaning to suggest that phenomenology itself is without merit, I think attempts to describe and analyse bare, lived experiences are an extremely worthwhile source of getting at what it means to be a human. The point though, is that taking that discipline and applying it without change to something like cosmology will entirely miss what is most aesthetically pleasing about cosmology. And, more importantly, trying to describe some of modern physics in terms of lived experiences will inevitably result in the physics itself being incorrectly presented - there simply is no comparable lived experience for quantum mechanics.

    The problem is that understanding things in much of modern physics relies so much on inference, or more precisely, inference upon inference upon inference. Each inference is extremely robust, but there are lots of them. The final lived experience is the awe the cosmologist feels when looking at the acoustic peaks in the microwave background, but the true source of that awe comes from the fact that these peaks are telling him/her something about the universe 14 billion years ago.

    It is hard though. It seems to me to require a lot more communication between the fields, or someone to study both. Except that, if someone were to study both and have some extremely profound observations, nobody else would appreciate it because nobody else would have walked both paths. If a collaboration were to make the observations it migth be translatable, but I still expect there would require effort from both sides of the collaboration to convince their peers that what is being said is interesting.

    Long story short... trying to understand much of modern science using the tools that our lives have given us is doomed to miss the most interesting aesthetic aspects of the gained knowledge, and even worse, will inevitably result in distorted and wrong impressions of what the universe is actually like. It requires new tools. From the perspective of a philosopher, I don't know what those tools are.

  3. In short, Shaun, I agree! Perhaps those untrained in mathematics and science don't (can't?) really understand that an equation, or some data, can have just as profound an emotional impact as a sight, or smell, or sound.