21. What is phenomenology?

Imagine I hold up some object to show to you: a hammer. You can see the hammer with your eyes, but you’re never actually seeing the whole hammer at the same time. If I rotate the hammer around, your brain infers and combines the different views of the hammer into a single integrated object in your perception. Not only do you recognize the hammer as a single 3d object integrated over time, but also you recognize the hammer as “a hammer”; an object which has a handle that you could grip with your hand, and a head that’s used for banging things. You inherently experience the object as not only what it looks like, but also what it’s for, what the object is about. Phenomenologists call this about-ness ‘intentionality‘.

On top of all this, recognizing all this when seeing the hammer isn’t a rational experience. You’re not thinking about it as a series of logical inductive steps, such as “ok there is a wooden component which looks like it could be smooth to the touch, which my hand may be able to grasp, as well as a metal component…” and so on. You might, if you’d never seen a hammer before. But if you know what a hammer is, recognizing it is a kind of gestalt all-at-once experience. You see it as what it’s for and what it can do, as a tool in the world.

Let’s expand on this further. When you are using a hammer, you stop noticing the hammer. The hammer ceases to exist as an independent object in your perception. Your consciousness extends around the hammer as an extension of your arm and suited for solving a particular problem at hand. The hammer recedes from your experience, and thus you can focus on the nail and not the hammer itself. Heidegger refers to this experience of the hammer as being ‘ready-to-hand

Similarly when you drive a car: after learning to drive and getting comfortable with the car, you have the experience of knowing how much space the car roughly takes up, what it’s capable of, and how to make it move where you intend. You cease to notice the steering wheel even while continuing to knowledgeably use it. You drive the car as if it were an extension of your body. All this is an object acting as ready-to-hand.

When the car breaks down, it somewhat ceases to be a car. Your perception shifts to the car as an object rather than as an extension of the self. You see the car as a collection of parts to be fiddled with and reconfigured or repaired. Heidegger says in this experience the object becomes ‘present-to-hand‘. It no longer appears as a tool for doing something, but as something to rationally examine.

Similarly, when I’m typing on this keyboard the keyboard fades out of my perception. The entire computer fades out of my perception. I just focus on the text I’m typing out and the thought I’m thinking through. And the second the computer stops working well, the keyboard lags or the program crashes there’s an experience of the lights flicking on and my consciousness expands to consider the computer as an object to be debugged–maybe by restarting the program, or by clicking around to see if the lag clears up, or whatever. I shift from using the tool to trying to fix the tool.

All this explores how our perception of tools fades out as we become comfortable with the tools. It points to how we don’t notice that our body and and appendages are also a tool of sorts, which can fade out of our direct perception while in use, but it all comes rushing back (present-to-hand) when something hurts or breaks.

This is just the beginning of phenomenology, explained through some examples that are the simplest to grasp for our tool-using minds. Expanding from here, phenomenology considers the shape and quality of any part of our experience, including our experience of ourselves as entities which exist over time. Similar to the hammer, we never see all parts of our selves, the self fades out of perception when it’s in use (or until something goes wrong). This inability to recognize the self outside of individual events is both touched on by western philosophers such as Hume and Heidegger, but is also exactly the buddhist idea of anattā. It’s likely that Heidegger was directly influenced by zen and daoist texts.

The self is also only considered in relation to the experience it’s having, there’s no moment of experiencing the self as such, instead there’s moments of experiencing the self in relation to or in reaction to other various experiences. For Heidegger, the self is not only inherently considered in relation to its experiences, but also in relation to others. I understand myself in relation to the world and in relation to other people. My existence necessarily refers to the existence of others.

We’re just scratching the surface of this exploration. I haven’t touched on (or understood yet) concepts like Dasein and exactly what Heidegger is talking about with his focus on Being.

Phenomenology also includes entire swaths of our language when we’re using it to describe our experience or link experience to other past experiences–when describing the flavor notes of a glass of wine or a perfume, for instance. The phenomenology of qualia. Phenomena often appear to us not only with about-ness but also with valence; whether we think they’re good or bad, how they make us feel.

There’s gold in these hills, maybe we can find it.


Phenomenology in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Heidegger’s Ways of Being

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