This past semester I completed an excellent course with Dr. William Frank entitled, “Studies in Phenomenological Thought.” Below are some reflections from the course. I may post more in the future as well.
The term “life-world” (Lebenswelt) speaks of the world which we inhabit. The term was birthed in phenomenology and stands over against the modern scientific view of (exact) objects. Modern science, by way of its “methods,” presents us with a world of exact objects, which in effect presents us with two images of the world-the manifest and the scientific image. Certain philosophers (e.g., Wilfrid Sellars) have incorporated this two-image view of the world into their philosophy. As one might expect, given the success of modern science, such a philosophy gives priority to the scientific image and de-values the manifest image, which is only true to the extent that it either conforms to the scientific image or can be justified by it. An example of the dominance of the scientific image in modern philosophy can be seen in the distinction between primary verses secondary qualities, where primary qualities give us the “real” truth.
Phenomenology, however, rejects a reductionist move which wants to absorb and flatten the manifest world into scientific categories. In contrast, phenomenology attempts to present a view that preserves the “best of both worlds.” In order to do this, phenomenology gives an account of the intentionalities that constitute the objects of science. Robert Sokolowski, in his excellent book, Introduction to Phenomenology, describes the process of idealization that occurs when science presents us with its ideal objects. Science begins with a given experienced via the senses (e.g., a rough surface). Then through a process of approximation, we project by way of our imagination a kind of “pure surface” that has no imperfections. Eventually, we arrive at our ideal object or exact essence, which becomes the limit to which everything else of this kind is a mere approximation. However, one must not forget the relationship of the first experience (e.g., the direct perception of the rough surface) with the projected ideal object. Unfortunately, scientists (and some philosophers) tend to reify these human constructs, and forget that these ideal objects are works of reason constituted via a specific method and exhibit an exactitude that we do not encounter in our lived experience.
Exact essences are then contrasted with morphological essences, which include: perception, categorial intentions/propositions, the self, dogs, cats etc. Regarding morphological essences, two points should be emphasized: (1) not all morphological essences can be projected as exact essences (e.g., there is no perfect cat, perception etc.). Imperfections are part of our experiences in the world and of ourselves, and the attempt by some in modern science (and philosophy) to eliminate imperfection and vagueness is in a sense an attempt to eradicate mystery and the hiddenness of being-a kind of move to make everything presence with no interplay of absence.
As Sokolowski points out, not only does phenomenology reject the two-world view, but it also argues that science cannot account for its own existence. That is, science itself must rely on perception, memory etc. in order to engage in its specific work, yet it cannot account for these things (whereas phenomenology can). In addition, the precision and exactitude demanded by science has a tendency to lead to determinism which of course has no room for choice, freedom and hence moral responsibility.
We also have what phenomenologists call eidetic essences, which manifest a special kind of identity. There are three levels by which we proceed in our approach to understanding what an essence is: (1) Typicality. We experience many things and find similarities among them. For example, we see an X that f’s, a Y that f’s, and a Z that f’s. All three things share the same predicate, but the predicate is not univocal in meaning. Here all we have are three discrete observations that are similar. In other words, the predicates only state what is similar, not what is the same. So the f’s are just as discrete and “individual” as the X, Y, and Z. Then we move to (2) where X, Y, and Z have the same property, f. At this level, when I see an L, M, N, or O, I expect it to f as well. Now we see not simply similarities but a one-in-many-ness. This is called an “empirical universal,” which is still open to the possibility of being falsified (e.g., if I were to encounter a G that does not f). However, once we reach (3), the eidetic universal, a necessity comes into play-all A’s, B’s, C’s etc., must f. This is a not only a move beyond regularity and sameness to necessity, but it is a move beyond experience and is based on a work of the imagination. For example, let’s say that you have a melody and you begin to wonder whether it is possible to have a melody that is not permeated with time, with temporal sequence. One cannot imagine such a melody-it is not possible for a melody to be without temporal succession. So here a universal claim, viz., “music involves temporal progression,” is posited, and one attempts imagine whether it is the case that the feature in view (temporal unfolding) must always be present. Here we are dealing with the work of nous, which, along with imagination and other factors, influences our judgment.