“Phenomenology” is the study of “phenomena.”
In ordinary language, a “phenomenon” is “a happening.”
In technical philosophical vocabulary, a “phenomenon” is “a happening in someone’s consciousness.” It’s a thought, a perception, an emotion, a dream image.
German philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) coined the term “phenomenology” so he could share his method for studying his own consciousness.
The essence of his method is very simple:
Learn to recognize the difference between what actually happens in the world and the interpretation that you add to it.
This is not our natural way of thinking.
In the “natural attitude,” as Husserl calls it, we think everything that happens in our consciousness is a simple report on the external world. For example, when I feel angry, it’s because someone else has behaved poorly. When I am afraid, it’s a response to a threat. When I am distracted, something is happening that I need to attend to.
With this attitude, however, we will never be able to understand our own consciousness, because every look inside will lead us right back outside.
So, Husserl created a simple tool of discernment he calls “bracketing.” When we practice it, we simply place brackets around the external world. We pay attention only to the relationships between items in our consciousness.
We discover things about the “natural attitudes” of consciousness. We gain insight into the ways we think and feel and perceive every day.
Husserl himself discovered things.
Like: we cannot actually see a coin. We see one facet, perhaps part of a rim.
But our impatient, interpreting minds imagine the rest.
Husserl tested the discovery, to see if it was a general rule. And he concluded that it is.
We do not actually see, hear, or feel physical objects. Instead, we perceive a series of facets or perspectives. Gradually, we learn to weave the perspectives into coherent perceptions of objects. Our mature minds hold many schemas for coordinating and filling in our perceptions.
From Husserl, I learned that the nature of any physical object is revealed to us gradually.
And I realized this is also true of persons.
In the “natural attitude,” I cannot see all sides of a person. In one encounter, I might see a person’s fear. At another time, I might see their organizational ability, their empathy, or even their anger.
Yet each time, my impatient interpreting mind constructs a complete picture of the person based on the encounter at hand.
Even though I know: the nature of any person is revealed to us gradually.
So now I tell myself: Be careful when you judge situations and people. Your first judgment won’t be right.
Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), French-Lithuanian-Jewish philosopher, also used the “bracketing” method to understand his natural response to people.
Levinas discovered things.
Like: When we bracket all our judgments about another person, we see only a face hoping for a response.
From Levinas, I learned: it is possible to integrate “bracketing” in everyday life.
Because if I don’t, I will always be present to others with the “natural” habits of my mind – filling in the blanks, imagining, projecting, judging.
And I would rather be able, at least sometimes, to see through my interpretations and discern a face seeking recognition.
I would rather respond from a sense of “response-ability” than from a sense of judgment.
Of course, with this desire, I create for myself a great sense of responsibility. One I could never live up to.
But that is a story for another day.