Methods of Phenomenology

by G Gordon Worley III10 min read30th Dec 20173 comments

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NB: Originally posted on Map and Territory on Medium, so some of the internal series links go there.

In the previous post we looked at phenomenology and the thinking that motivates it. We saw that it is based on taking a naive, skeptical, beginner’s view to asking “why?” and choosing to address the question using only knowledge we can obtain from experience. We also saw that experience is intentional: that it is directed from subject to object and forms an inseparable, arity 3 relation called a phenomenon. Taken together this gave us a feel for the shape of phenomenological philosophy and allowed us to glimpse some of the consequences of taking this view seriously.

We now have the context to begin exploring phenomenology’s details, and the first detail to explore is the methods of exploration themselves because phenomenology is highly integrative and our assumptions — that we know the world only through experience and that experience is intentional — determine what sorts of methods we can use. Thus if we are to approach phenomenology we must first gain some familiarity with its practices.

Now if I’m honest there is only really one method of phenomenology — the phenomenological reduction — but that’s a bit like telling you that the only method of decision making is Bayes’s Theorem: in a sense it’s true, but it’s not likely to help you understand anything in the same way that telling you that you are already enlightened doesn’t make you enlightened. To explain how phenomenologists think, it’s more useful to talk about a broad base of specific methods and through them approach the reduction proper. Luckily, there are many methods, and you are almost certainly already familiar with several of them, so let’s take a look!

Science

It might seem a little surprising to you that science is a method of phenomenology since, historically, phenomenology emerged in part from Husserl noticing the inadequacy of natural science for addressing conscious experience, and, in the latter-half of the 20th century, phenomenologically inspired thinkers in the post-modern movement sometimes took anti-scientific stances. But Husserl viewed science as part of phenomenology, and some consider phenomenology a science of consciousness, so there’s more to the relationship between science and phenomenology than some surface level antagonism.

Like phenomenology, science starts from a place of empiricism — the idea that knowledge is obtained through experience and observation. To the extent that science is systematized empiricism, phenomenology is a science, but “science” usually refers to a more specific practice of the scientific method with certain standards of evidence that phenomenology doesn’t always hold itself to. In particular, science considers only phenomena where subjects and intentionality can be ignored because the objects and the experiences of them remain relatively unchanged between subjects. We call such truncated, replicable experiences of objects objective or natural phenomena.

One of the foundational issues of science is to decide exactly what the criteria for objective phenomenon are, but generally objective phenomena are those that describe sufficiently similar experiences of objects no matter who or what the subject is, like the way a beam of light will be experienced as having the same wavelength no matter who sees it or what measures it. By limiting itself to these objective phenomena, science is able to make predictions about the world that it expects to hold for all subjects, which is to say that what is true of a few phenomena will be true of all similar phenomena. This let’s us uncover patterns science calls theories that make strong predictions about the world.

As so far described, science is compatible with phenomenology and allows us to make much more confident statements about the world when objective phenomena are available than when they are not. But objective phenomena cannot always be reliably constructed. Because objective phenomena are not actually phenomena but patterns of statistical regularity observed over many phenomena, there is necessarily information lost in the creation of objective phenomena, limiting what can be known through them. This might seem like an obscure, technical issue for philosophers of science, but it has implications for when science, in the sense of understanding the world through the use of objective phenomena, is an appropriate method.

Phenomenology views science as extremely useful but sees it running aground the closer it gets to exploring topics where the intentional nature of experience matters and objective phenomena are less available, such as in the study of consciousness. Thus science is a great method for exploring questions of physics, chemistry, and biology; pretty good for studying economics and archeology; workable in psychology and anthropology; and of limited direct usefulness in philosophy and philology. For those topics where science cannot cover all the epistemology ground, other phenomenological methods are necessary.

An Aside on Scientism, Irrationality, and Their Kin

Now I’d rather not have to write this part but I suspect some readers may be upset at me for presenting the relationship between phenomenology and science as prosaic. The technical issue of determining how much we can figure out with science alone has and does get mixed up with all sorts of discussions about other things, so I think it’s worth saying a few words about this to at least acknowledge the issue and direct you to additional reading if this topic is of interest.

Humans are political animals, so when there is disagreement on something it often sparks or gets sucked into a larger battle between groups. One of these battles is along a dimension we might call “rationality” between those who value the modern worldview and those who don’t. The details get complicated, but you can basically imagine it as if there were two political parties vying for control of a country, the Pro-Rationality Party and the Anti-Rationality Party, and it’s into this milieu that phenomenology and science are thrown.

The Pros claim science for their own, so the Antis reject it. Phenomenology says science is useful for understanding many things but not literally all things, so the extremists on the Pro side reject phenomenology for being “impure”. The Anti side then takes phenomenology in and plays up the limits-of-science thing while downplaying the usefulness-of-science part. As a result phenomenologists more often find themselves having to defend their ideas against material realism, scientism, and other ideas on the Pro side and less against irrationality, mysticism, and other incompatible positions on the Anti side. This creates a skewed picture that implies phenomenology is anti-science by association, and it doesn’t help that some phenomenologists, being humans, may actually take up sides in this debate.

But ultimately the Pro/Anti battle is more about how humans relate to ideas than the ideas themselves, and methods like debate magnify this confusion. Thankfully, phenomenologists and other philosophers have an alternative to debate that functions better at collaborative truth seeking: the dialectic.

Dialectic

Philosophers have a special way of talking to each other in good faith that cuts to the heart of their disagreements. Once they find these disagreements they can build toward mutual understanding and possible agreement. We generically call this process dialect and I’ve written about it before:

Debate and Dialectic
Election season is over in the US, but folks are still talking about how divided political conversation is. We hear…mapandterritory.org

In case you don’t want to click the link, the short version is that the dialectical method is to consider a position or idea, called the thesis, find something that contradicts it, an antithesis, and then try to find a synthesis of thesis and antithesis that sublimates/overcomes them with new understanding. That new understanding becomes a new thesis, and the process repeats until it converges to consensus or diverges to logical inconsistency.

Dialectic differs from debate so long as the antithesis and synthesis are formed in good faith. With good faith, dialectic can get at the heart of a dispute to find agreement, but with bad faith dialectic devolves into debate and drives a wedge between people and ideas. Since phenomenology gives primacy to phenomena, including those non-objective experiences we might call “subjective”, it strongly encourages good faith and is able to make extensive use of dialectic as a tool for building understanding.

There is not always disagreement or apparent contradiction to power a dialectic, though. In those cases phenomenologists must explore the world in other ways, and more closely examining the phenomena themselves often yields dividends.

Hermeneutics

When we write, speak, or otherwise communicate, we engage in an act of creating phenomena for others by giving them objects to experience. We can try to anticipate how they will experience these objects — to predict the phenomena our audiences will find themselves subject to when they read our writing, hear our words, or see our art — but there will inevitably be variation in their experiences. This means that for all experiences of the same object there will be different experiences had by different subjects. This opens up the opportunity to compare and study the differences in experiences, and we call this study hermeneutics.

Although technically it is possible to perform hermeneutics on phenomena of non-conscious subjects, we generally consider that practice a part of applied science or engineering, so hermeneutics generally refers to the process of interpreting the experiences of conscious subjects. Originally hermeneutics primarily focused on interpretation of sacred experiences, especially of messages believed to have been sent by the gods, but Heidegger generalized the notion within phenomenology to interpretation of experience and developed the hermeneutic circle as his primary philosophical technique. Philologists then mixed Heidegger’s philosophical hermeneutics with their own methods and developed techniques we now think of as literary criticism, historical analysis, and other methods of critical study in the humanities.

I think of hermeneutics as a kind of meditation on the experiences of others where people report their experiences and we think on those reports to create our own experiences of them. We only have access to our own experiences, but from our experiences we can reason about the world that made possible the experiences of others and so gain partial, indirect knowledge of objects of experience we never experienced ourselves. In this sense hermeneutics is what we do whenever we read a book, listen to a friend talk, or empathize with the experiences of others.

We can similarly think of meditation as hermeneutical analysis of our own experiences, but this would be selling meditation short because, unlike when analyzing the reported experiences of others, we are the subjects of our own experiences and can, at least in theory, know more about them. Turning this theory to practice is not easy, though, so meditation is a method of phenomenological epistemology worth exploring on its own.

Meditation

“Meditation” is a word with a lot of meanings. In one sense it means focused thinking on a topic, and you might say my writings are often meditations of this sort. There’s another sense in which meditation is the practice of entering trances and other altered states of consciousness, possibly associated with spiritual experiences, and while this is interesting because it may produce qualia not otherwise generated, it’s not a phenomenological technique so much as a source of capta. Instead the sense in which we care about meditation is as a method of cultivating awareness of the world and our interactions within it so that we may learn everything we can from our experiences.

There are many specific meditative practices that can serve phenomenological purposes. For example, the meditation of early phenomenologists was heavily influenced by yogacara, I practice zazen, and any technique that teaches the ability to observe phenomena without interpretation will work. The key is learning to withhold judgement so that, as much as possible, the world may be seen as it is. From gaining such a clear picture of the world we may start our naive, skeptical, beginner’s investigation of it.

Being skeptical, it’s fair to ask how much value we can derive from meditation. After all, psychology is littered with disproved theories that drew much of their evidence from introspection, so there seems reason to be suspect of anyone claiming knowledge solely based on their own experiences. But just as science abandoned those theories when their evidence did not reproduce, the phenomenological framework similarly does not ask you to accept the evidence provided by others (or yourself!) blindly. If someone reports an experience that seems false to you in some way, you should try to understand it, and if you desire to know more you should try meditating on similar experiences yourself to see what you learn. If you get different results than others, that can be a starting point for dialectic and hermeneutics.

Thus it’s important to be clear that meditation is like science, dialectic, and hermeneutics in that it does not stand on its own. Meditation cannot give us perfect knowledge even as it helps us to approach the limits of our knowledge imposed by the intentional nature of experience. But how close can we get to those limits? Husserl believed it was possible to get so close as to feel yourself transcending them, but any such feeling of transcendence must itself be an experience that can be suspended and examined, so it seems at best we can reach an equilibrium of continuously experiencing the experience of experiencing experience. To make sense of such deeply self-referential phenomena, Husserl developed the phenomenological reduction, the foundational method of phenomenology.

The Phenomenological Reduction

All phenomenological methods are expressions of the phenomenological reduction. They’re not like this because they were designed this way: most phenomenological methods predate the idea of phenomenology itself. Instead, the phenomenological reduction is the core movement available to us as we explore the world via phenomena, and so all other methods are naturally expressions of it. That we do not always use the naked reduction directly reflects the difficulty of carrying out the reduction in full.

The reduction is not very easy to describe, either. It consists of a single movement with two motions — epoche and epistrophe. “Epoche” is the Greek word Husserl used to refer to the process of suspending, stepping back from, or bracketing an experience so that it may be examined, and epistrophe is the dual or reverse process of epoche where we return, reintegrate, or reduce our understanding back from suspension. Confusingly Husserl didn’t use the term “epistrophe” to match “epoche” but instead referred to epistrophe as “the reduction proper” (German: das eigentliche Reduzieren, “the reduction in its own light”) based on the original Latin meaning of reducere from re- meaning “back” or “again” and ducere meaning “lead” or “bring”. Given the confusion this invites both because it gives too similar names to the method and one of its motions and because “reduction” is now philosophically cognate with reductionism, I choose to use “epistrophe” instead.

Notice that I called epoche and epistrophe motions and not steps or parts. This is intentional because the reduction is a complete movement where one motion naturally follows the other. You might think of epoche as breathing in, epistrophe as breathing out, and reduction as breathing: you have to breathe in and breathe out to breathe, if you breathe in you necessarily breathe out, and if you breathe out you will almost certainly breath in again. Thus although we may talk about the two motions separately, they fundamentally imply one another.

To see the reduction at work, let’s perform its motions on a classic example from phenomenology, seeing a cup.

We first perform epoche by suspending the action of seeing the cup to experience the phenomenon of seeing a cup as phenomenon. That is, we quote the phenomenon “I see a cup” so that we can consider it apart from our participation in it. From there we might bracket the phenomenon further to find that, for example, what we think of as a cup is actually our mind interpreting particular sensations as a cup, and those sensations are themselves further phenomena of cells in our body producing chemical-electrical signals in response to light. We can continue epoche until the phenomena we wish to examine have been bracketed or we lack the insight to see a further suspension.

We then move into epistrophe to reconstruct what we deconstructed via epoche having gained a broader perspective. Before a cup was just a cup; now we can see a cup as a construction of multiple layers of phenomena adding bits of meaning — what we might also call ontology, categorization, modeling, pattern matching, or the map — leading up to an experience of seeing a cup as a cup. Along the way we get a picture of how a cup comes to be and how it is differentiated from other things, and if we still do not see reality as clearly as we need to after this, we move back into epoche to begin the reduction again.

The cycle of epoche and epistrophe forces us to be parsimonious. If we leave in epicycles or other sorts of complex assumptions during epoche or construct them during epistrophe, we will merely find ourselves needing to further bracket our perceptions until we can explain them to ourselves. And if we repeat the reduction long enough and take our thinking far enough, we end up doing what Husserl said made the reduction “radical”: we gain gnosis of consciousness and being. We’ll return to issues of consciousness soon enough, so for now let’s wrap up by seeing how reduction connects all of our methods.

Being trained in mathematical thinking, I often engage in a formal version of the phenomenological reduction to make my thinking clear (cf. how I showed my epoche in the introduction to phenomenological AI alignment). Husserl preferred to practice radical self-meditation, as he put it, to perform the phenomenological reduction. Heidegger’s hermeneutic circle is a thin layer on top of phenomenological reduction, focused on seeing things alternately as made of parts and as wholes rather than as a movement between epoche and epistrophe. Dialectics often play out as epoche until they converge and enable epistrophe. And science most of all cherishes epoche as its method of suspending judgement to see the world as it is so that theories may be developed under formal rules of epistrophe. All, when done from a phenomenological perspective, embody the motions of the reduction and the method of phenomenology.

Next time we’ll begin exploring aspects of the world from a phenomenological perspective to prepare us for talking about noematological alignment in AIs. See you then!

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There’s another sense in which meditation is the practice of entering trances and other altered states of consciousness, possibly associated with spiritual experiences, and while this is interesting because it may produce qualia not otherwise generated, it’s not a phenomenological technique so much as [a source of capta](https://qualiacomputing.com/2016/03/29/peaceful-qualia-the-manhattan-project-of-consciousness/).

What's "capta"?

"Capta" is the phenomenological equivalent of "data". The word doesn't have much currency, but it's main point is to make clear the broader sense of evidence phenomenological methods consider compared to scientific methods where "data" is often used to reference admissable evidence.