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What Is Phenomenology and Its Role in Consciousness?

Leonard Kelley holds a bachelor's in physics with a minor in mathematics. He loves the academic world and strives to constantly explore it.

Many different theories of consciousness exist and yet no further convergence on what could be a universal theory seems achievable. It’s not only frustrating but also troubling, for we would hope to be able to rely on science for the answer and yet no clear direction for victory is in sight. So why bring up a new one in this piece? Well, phenomenology attempts to be a science rather than relying on pure philosophy to delve into human consciousness. This isn’t to say that we won’t use that here. Rather, we are attempting a merger of the two and seeing where that takes us in our search to explain human consciousness.

Intentions

The main pulse that is phenomenology is that “every act of consciousness we perform, every experience we have, is intentional” and is tied to a specific object. We must be careful here with the use of intent, because we are referring to it with respect to a “theory of knowledge” rather than that of human action. Instead of its usual context, when we talk about intent we are really establishing the relationship between a person and an object. This seems obvious but then again so are conscious experiences and yet no good theory exists to talk about those. Part of the predicament is the seemingly subjective nature of our experiences, and so phenomenology tried to gain a scientific, objective approach that can then be applied to everyone. We need that commonality otherwise how can we put faith in common sense and reliable pieces of truth? If not, then relativism rules and chaos ensues. We want that commonality so we can have confidence in truths of conscious experiences (Sokolowski 8-10).

Definitely a piece of the problem is the mind/body debate of the self and the lack of definability with that. It is because of this “epistemological dilemma” that we develop the idea of intentionality. Phenomenology uses this to see how the mind acts to the outside world and the consequences of that. Through intention, phenomenology “helps us reassume our human condition as agents of truth.” By helping us get to the core of “thinking, reasoning, and perception.” It recognizes the reality and truth values of phenomena rather than the assigned values put onto them. Objects do impact our judgments and so we use data along with ideas and concepts for judging the world accordingly. We try to fight “the bias against the reality of the appearance of things,” for “appearances…belong to being.” We do project value onto objects that might distort their truth value and so via phenomenology we try to demonstrate how the object informs us to that perception (11-15).

Parts and Wholes

To help clarify some phenomenological concepts, it’s useful to break things down into parts and wholes in order to talk about pieces and moments. Pieces are parts which can exist away from the whole. I can talk about pages from a notebook within that context and also separated from it, for example. With enough pieces I can make a whole. A moment is a part which cannot be separated from a whole. Colors would be an example of this, because they need an object to exist with if we are to identify it. Parts, therefore, can be pieces or moments depending on the context at hand (22-4).

All this talk of pieces and moments is a critical component of philosophy. Specifically, “artificial philosophical problems” can manifest as a result of the mistaken identity of a moment as a piece. This leads to imperfect wholes that we seek to uncover. We therefore must tread with care in establishing our piece or proving it false so we can see and attack our philosophical problems with accuracy. Many philosophical debates could be put to rest if those in them recognized the mistaken identity one accidentally made. So many debates over the theory of mind would fall under this umbrella, for many theories look at the mind only without regard for other factors. We are mistaking a part as a whole, and so we should really establish the relationship the part has to the whole before delving into such theories. But sometimes the fault can also lie in the language used, leading to mistaken abstractions. This then leads to “a separation where we simply make a distinction” (25-6).

Identity and Manifolds

Information can be conveyed in many different ways and we call this collection a manifold. Finding the meaning of this set can be tricky, because we don’t want to associate it with a literal sentence. We instead want to compare meanings across the contents and see if any are identical in the manifold if we wish to select it. And manifolds can grow in meaning, for “the thing can always be presented in more ways than we already know.” Subjects like history, science, and such would be manifolds. How the manifold appears to us reveals its identity and yet fully defining that can often seem beyond our grasp. When we undertake a phenomenological analysis, we “describe the manifold that is proper to a given kind of object.” It may be easier to distinguish based off differences between manifolds and that can be achieved with the arrival of other people. They may process the information we need that escapes us and provide the clarification we need (27-32).

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The World

In our study of phenomenology it’s important to know the natural attitude we all bring to the table. That is, “the focus we have when we are involved in our original, world-directed stance” with all of its intentions and objects. Humans are excellent with placing intentions on the world, especially with locations we have never been to. Those “will always remain the target of empty intentions rather than fulfillments or perceptions.” But what about the world itself? It isn’t the sum of all which is/has been/can be expressed despite our expectation of it being so. Rather, for each individual it is “more like a context, a setting, a background, or a horizon for all the things they are, all the things that can be intended and given to us…a concept related to our immediate experience.” Though this, we reinsert our need to be there though the intending we naturally do (42-4).

But of course a talk about the world wouldn’t be complete without mentioning ego, that subjective center of the world we all process and deem unique to all existence and therefore “a thing like no other.” Ego is a piece of the world and yet in procession of the whole world also. It seems contradictory and yet ego has arisen via the rational mind expressing itself. It presents a conflict of intention that can get quite convoluted and has led to a whole sort of issues with determining how to best address it (44).

This is where the phenomenological attitude has arisen as a solution to this problem. This is the “focus we have when we reflect upon the natural attitude and all the intentionalities that occur within it.” Basically, remove yourself from the situation and look at how those intentionalities impacted our view of the world. We are not saying to abandon them, for we do have practical aspects to them. Rather, this allows us to develop reasonings for our transitions between intentions. By becoming a “detached observer” we are no longer simply a participant but an actual engage in the process. We don’t make any choices on our manifolds until the evidence is clear and then we order the world according to the intentions from the natural attitude. We gain insight into the difference between the perception of the thing and the being of the thing. The objective and the subjective. The ontological difference (47-50).

Philosophy as a Science?

One major piece of flak that philosophers get all the time is the wishy-washy nature of the subject matter compared to science. One has respect in academia while the other is often seen as an amusing fancy to occupy oneself with. But could we establish philosophy as a legitimate science? To be clear, we are not implying that our phenomenological attitude is the sole key to this. Rather, is there a way to find said attitude within the natural attitude we have toward an object? That’s tough because the natural attitude has appearances contained within it and those can prevent us from finding the intentions within. We have a clarifying process, and therefore we need to develop an ontological reduction (51-2).

I know I can lose some people here with this, but the subjective side to reality is important. Science likes to focus solely on the objective portions and just the subjective as trim to be thrown away. It seems to say that “we have truths about things, but we have no truth about our possession of these things.” But the subjective component gives science its soul, the drive for many who practice and study it. The phenomenological attitude gives us a reflective ability to see the larger intentions at play beyond the specific topic. With this aiding the ontological reduction, we gain partial sciences to complete the main ones, leaving no stone unturned. After all, if “sciences do not look at the activity by which they are achieved, they are really abstract.” Phenomenology therefore offers us the big picture of it all (52-3).

Works Cited

Sokolowski, Robert. Introduction to Phenomenology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK. 2000. Print. 8-15, 22-32, 42-4, 47-53.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Leonard Kelley

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