On Philosophy

February 21, 2007

Phenomenology’s Bad Assumption

Filed under: Mind — Peter @ 12:05 am

There are some, phenomenologists, who attempt to study experience from the first person perspective. After all, they reason, since we are the ones who live through experience who could be in a better position to report on and study it? I do agree that experience is lived through by the subject, meaning that they are the closest person to it, but this doesn’t necessarily give the subject a good position to study that experience. It may very well be that an external observer really can know more about the structure of an experience than the subject of that very same experience.

This may seem contradictory, but it arises from the simple reason that experience is had pre-reflectively, which is to say that we simply have experiences, they aren’t presented to us in a formal or structured manner as an object of study. And this means that reflecting on our experiences in order to study them is not something that we can do while we have them, rather it is something we must do from a bit of a distance, through a second act that has our previous experience as its object. How do I know that we can’t reflect on our experiences as we have them? Well, if we could we would be able to have the experience of reflecting upon the experience of reflecting upon the experience of … ad infinitum. But we never have experiences with this infinite depth. Even when I contemplate reflection itself it is always through a third act about that previous reflection, and to think about that reflection requires a fourth act, and so on.

Of course just because there is some distance between our thoughts about the experience and the experience itself doesn’t necessarily mean that they are in error. There is some distance, in this sense, between my perception of a cup and the cup itself, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that my perception of the cup is in error. But it does allow for the possibility of error, which the phenomenologist might otherwise be tempted to deny (because the subject is supposed to be in a privileged position).

Consider then this picture:

What is it about, what is its structure? If I asked different people I would probably get different answers, some would see one kind of structure, some would see another. I maintain that experience, when reflected upon is in some ways like this picture, it doesn’t really have a fixed structure. However, when we reflect upon it we impose a structure on it, a structure that is partly determined by what we expect to find there. Now I am not saying that the original experience, as we have it, is vague or unstructured in this way, I suspect that it is anything but. But my conclusion that experience has structure is not based on my experience of reflecting upon my experience alone, I assume that it is structured because I am able to formulate distinct thoughts about the content of experience (which can be expressed in words), which implies that experience isn’t vague, otherwise the thoughts that were motivated by that experience would probably be vague as well.

And the reason that I think that the content of reflection upon our own experiences doesn’t have a definite structure is that if it did there would be no disagreement in phenomenology. It would be like describing the shape of an object we can see visually; if everyone’s eyes are working there is rarely any disagreement, and if there is it is easily cleared up. But there is plenty of disagreement in phenomenology, some give experience one structure, some another, and they cannot be brought into agreement with each other. There are two possible explanations for this. One is that everyone’s experience has a unique structure, a structure that can differ greatly from the structure of the experience of others. But I find this explanation unlikely because in most other ways the minds of different people have many similarities. They process information in similar ways, they react in similar ways; they even develop the same kind of mental problems when exposed to certain stresses. Although everyone’s mind is unique it is not completely unique, and so it seems reasonable to expect that the structure of experience would have some similarities, but, as a survey of phenomenology will reveal, the similarities are far outweighed by the differences. The other explanation, of course, is the one I put forward earlier, that the remembered experience that is available to our reflective act is vague, and that by reflecting on it we impose structure, unconsciously, on it. And this is phenomenology’s mistake, it assumes that the reflective acts through which phenomenology is conducted capture the real structure of experience, when there is the real possibility that they don’t

Naturally this raises two question: why don’t our reflective acts capture the structure of experience, and how could be get at the real structure of experience? In response to the first I would hypothesize that there was simply no evolutionary advantage to being able to reflect upon experience as experienced, unlike, for example, the advantage in remembering things as we saw them, and thus we didn’t develop it. As for the real structure of experience, well I suspect that cognitive science is on the right track; you design experiments to test what information is available to people from moment to moment, and how that information is connected. And this reveals at least some of the content and structure of experience. But phenomenology is not the solution, at best it will only reveal facts about how we reflect on our experience, and it seems that those facts are very idiosyncratic, and thus don’t reveal many universal truths to us.

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