1. Phenomenological Reduction
Husserl placed the 'phenomenological reduction' at the heart of the phenomenological method, meaning by this the suspension or 'bracketing' of any naturalistic or 'positivistic' mindset which 'naturally assumed' or theoretically posited an objective world of pre-given entities independent of or inaccessible to subjectivity or awareness.
2. The Phenomenological Rule
By the 'phenomenological rule' I refer to Heidegger's principle that "All explanation reaches only so far as the explication of that which is to be explained." The rule demands that before attempting an explanation of a phenomenon we should also bracket pre-conceived ideas of what the phenomenon in question is, and what the term by its designation essentially names. For example, to explain the 'causes' of phenomena such as anxiety, stress or depression and find a 'cure' is to break this rule. For it is to assume, without further ado that we already all know what it is that is designated with the terms 'anxiety', 'stress' and 'depression'. Physical-scientific methods determine in advance what phenomena are deemed scientifically significant and how those phenomena are understood. Thus 'depression' is understood today as a chemical imbalance of the brain even though there have been no experiments done to prove this claim, and no evidence of this 'fact' exists. Despite this, psychopharmacology has gone on to posit explanatory 'causes' of this chemical imbalance and to 'cure' it with drugs. Freud explained the causes of 'hysteria' and claimed to find a cure for it in psychoanalysis. At the time it was taken as a pre-given thing in defiance of the phenomenological reduction. Now the word 'hysteria' no longer even figures in the medical-scientific lexicon, and its existence as a medical disease entity - a 'thing in itself' is doubted. Were the phenomenological rule to have been applied in the first place, the question would not have been 'how to explain the causes of hysteria and cure' it but 'what is hysteria?' i.e. what essentially is the phenomenon that is designated by the word 'hysteria'? This is not the sort of question that can be answered by simply grouping a set of psychiatric symptoms under a common diagnostic term. The question requires us to not only look at the designated phenomenon as a phenomenon - to see what modes of being in the world it brings to light (phainesthai). It also requires us to examine the word itself as a word, to be aware not only of its current usage and denotation but of its history and connotations.
3. Phenomenological Reading
If words such as 'depression' or 'hysteria' are taken literally, seen as designations for some underlying disorder or disease, which is taken as a thing in itself, then a patient's symptoms are taken simply as 'signs' of this pre-given thing - the disease or disorder. No attempt is made to read these signs in any other way, to understand their felt sense or significance for the patient themselves. Medicine treats symptoms as bodily words without any communicative sense or meaning. It is as if we would seek to understand the meaning or significance of the written or spoken word itself without any regard for what an individual was saying with them. Instead we set about 'scientifically' analysing the physical components of LCD screens, the chemical make up of ink and paper, or the vibrations of sound waves in the air, seeking chemical or vibrational causes for any unusual, 'unhealthy' or 'unsound' language. Reading phenomena, like reading words, is something quite different from turning them into objects of scientific scrutiny or analysis.
4. Phenomenological Relation
The felt sense or significance of a word or phenomenon will vary from person to person, culture to culture. Similarly, our reading of a word or phenomenon is determined by our own relation to it. This does not render all phenomenological insight into something personally or culturally 'relative'. On the contrary, it allows us to become aware of our existing relation to specific phenomena, and by altering or deepening that relation to understand them in new and deeper ways. It was Heidegger who first marked out the Phenomenological Relation as a basic principle of the phenomenological method, indicating that the modern terms 'relativity' or 'relativism' conceal the deeper truth that all knowledge is relational. "Knowing is a relation in which we ourselves are related, and in which this relation vibrates through our basic comportment". Reading phenomena like reading words or reading people, is impossible without awareness of our own relation to them and without a preparedness to alter and deepen that relation. The principle of The Phenomenological Relation can be summed up as follows: scientific knowledge of relationships between phenomena, for example between things and between people, can only be deepened by deepening our own aware relation to them.
It may be objected that the above-stated principles of phenomenological science and the phenomenological method, whilst perhaps suitable for 'qualitative' research in human sciences such as psychology, sociology or anthropology, is nevertheless quite inadequate in dealing with the 'objects' of physical-scientific research - such as light, heat, gravity, time and space etc. To contrast modern scientific methods deriving from the physical sciences with phenomenological science and phenomenological methods is therefore inappropriate - notwithstanding the fact that the human sciences have themselves come more and more under the domination of quantitative methods deriving from the physical sciences. To this objection it is necessary to state a number of further, hitherto unthought and unstated principles of the phenomenological method, undeveloped by Husserl but decisively hinted at by Heidegger. It is only on the basis of these principles that the phenomenological method can be understood as a method fundamental to all the sciences, and accomplish its transformation into what I call Fundamental Science.
5. Phenomenological Realism
We see that an object, a tree or table for example, is there. We take this as evidence of its existence. But the existence, 'is-ness' or 'being-ness' of the tree or table that is there - in other words its 'Dasein', 'being there', is not in itself any natural or manufactured 'thing', nor is it the object of any possible visual perception. The German word 'Da' can mean either 'here' or 'there'. As far as we are concerned, we stand here and the object that we see stands there. But our seeing of the table is neither here nor there. It is not itself an object we can localize in space, either in the space around us or in some body-object such as eyes, optic nerves or brain. We do not see the object only because it stands in the light. A blind person can be aware of the table or tree, know its shape and sense its distance and in this sense 'see' it, even without functioning eyes. Whether we direct our vision or our thoughts towards the tree or table, turning it into what Husserl called an "intentional object" of consciousness, is irrelevant. For not only our perception of a thing but the very thoughts we have about it arise within a non-localized field of awareness. This field of awareness is not itself a possible object of consciousness for a 'subject'. It is not in itself an "intentional object". On the contrary, awareness, in its non-local or field character, is the very condition of emergence of any localized objects for any localized subject or 'intentional' consciousness, and thus more fundamentally real than the latter.
6. The Phenomenological Reversal
Heidegger designated the non-local or field character of awareness through a poetic use of the words Feldung and Lichtung - a cleared field or forest 'clearing' in which things stand out in the light and first come to light. Light, as we know, plays a major role in modern physics. Not only Einstein's famous equation but also quantum physics makes it into a linchpin phenomenon for the physical-scientific research of the intimate relationship between matter and energy. But can light be truly regarded as a purely physical phenomenon at all? Things become visible only in the light of our own awareness of them, not simply because they radiate or reflect physical light. Both the physics of light and the neurophysiology of visual perception still fail to address, let alone answer, the fundamental questions of optics - namely, what sort of 'light' is it with which the brain supposedly produces illuminated perceptual images of physical objects - not only in the waking state, but also in our dreams? Recent research has shown that a two-way relation exists between brain and eye, the brain actually sending signals via the optic nerve to the eye in waking life as it does when we dream. But even such research offers no answer to the fundamental question, which can be put as follows: what is the relation between our awareness of light on the one hand, and the light of awareness on the other?
Within the spiritual traditions of the past, light, and with it, enlightenment and illumination, played as central a role as it does in physical science today. Today however, terms such as enlightenment or 'light of awareness' are seen as mere poetic metaphors. In this stance, modern science stands in gross contradiction to itself. More specifically the physics of light stands in gross contradiction to neurophysiology, which claims that what appear as illuminated objects, are images or effigies created by the brain. Classical optics claimed that to explain visual perception, it was necessary to distinguish two types of light - the natural light received by the eye (lumen) and the subjective light radiated by the eye (lux). The neurophysiological understanding of optical perception is a concealed version of classical optics, recognizing that what we perceive as objects in the world are subjectively projected and illuminated. The cosmologist however, though making use of optical instruments to perceive the stars, decisively ignores all fundamental questions to do with the nature of optical perception as a subjective spatial projection of images, and a subjective projection of spatial distance and depth. Optics as a science transcending the division of 'objective' and 'subjective' reality remains the Achilles heel of the physical scientific account of reality, requiring from both the physicist and the brain physiologist what Heidegger called a type of "double or triple accounting".
"When it is claimed that brain research is a scientific foundation for our understanding of human beings, the claim implies that the true and real relationship of one human being to another is an interaction of brain processes, and that in brain research itself, nothing else is happening but that one brain is in some way 'informing' another. Then, for example, the statue of a god in the Akropolis museum, viewed during the term break, that is to say outside the research work, is in reality and truth nothing but the meeting of a brain process in the observer with the product of a brain process, the statue exhibited. Reassuring us, during the holidays, that this is not what is really implied, means living with a certain double or triple accounting that clearly doesn't rest easily with the much faulted rigor of science."
As Ronchi rightly suggests, ancient physics was closer "in our modern terminology, to the physiology of the senses". Or rather the essential focus of ancient physics was neither human physiology nor the physics of the cosmos per se, but on man's sentient awareness of the cosmos. Where modern physics speaks of 'light', 'heat', 'gravity' and 'sound' as entities independent of the senses, the focus of ancient physics was on our sentient awareness of light and darkness, warmth and coldness, weight and lightness, as well as of elemental qualities of fluidity or solidity, airiness or fieriness. Dreams made it self-evident to the ancients that sentience in all its forms had an intrinsically subjective character. The change to the modern scientific world view began with optics, which began as a science of visual perception involving an aware and sentient perceiver and has ended up as a wave optics bearing no relation to our own sentient awareness of light (lumen) and denying the very existence of a subjective light of awareness (lux).
What I call the Phenomenological Reversal is the insight that the term light of awareness is no mere metaphor but points to something more real and fundamental than the body's sensory awareness of physical light, even though both physicist and physiologist alike still cling, contradictorily, to the myth that the latter is somehow primary. Behind this insight lies the recognition that awareness as such is not something neutral, a mere passive receptacle of thoughts and perceptions, but something that is always qualitatively coloured, toned and weighted in a particular way.
The chiasm fundamental to the Phenomenological Reversal reads:
awareness of light / light of awareness
It can also read:
awareness of forms / forms of awareness,
awareness of weight / weightedness of awareness,
awareness of space / spatiality of awareness,
awareness of time / temporality of awareness.
In each case the Phenomenological Reversal understands the second term in the chiasm as primary rather than secondary. Treating it as a secondary or 'metaphorical' result, as in the case of light, is a logical self-contradiction. It also offends our everyday experience that awareness is always mooded - toned and tuned, coloured and shaped in a particular way. A common sense which knows too that no physical-scientific understanding of light and no neuro-physiological understandings of the brain will eve r be able to explain even the simplest phenomena of everyday and 'everynight' consciousness - to say how 'wavelengths' of light become conscious perceptions of colour for example, or how brain activity 'produces' a consciousness of luminous dream landscapes and visions.
The word 'physics' derives from the Greek phuein - to emerge or arise. The word phenomenon derives from the Greek phainesthai - to come to light. Physical phenomena arise or emerge (phuein) as phenomena only within fields of awareness. Doing so, they bring to light (phainesthai) specific field-qualities and field-patterns of awareness. It is in the experience of dreaming however, that we can actually experience 'physics' as phusis or emergence in this sense, experiencing perceived phenomena as a 'coming to light' of particular moods or colorations, forms and figurations of awareness. Only in dreaming have we the opportunity to experience, for example the transformation of a particular bright or dark mood or colouration of awareness into what emerges and appears to us, phenomenally, as the physical image of a bright or dark dream sky or landscape.
Neither Husserl nor Heidegger fully recognized the fundamental scientific implications of the Phenomenological Reversal, for it amounts to a reversal in the understanding of phenomenology itself. With the Phenomenological Reversal goes the understanding that the true focus on phenomenological science, indeed the fundamental nature of reality itself does not consist of physical phenomena such as waves and particles, light and colour, vibration and sound, intensities and polarity, fluid currents and stable forms or patterned structures etc. Rather its focus, and the fundamental nature of reality, is composed of wave and particle-like qualities of awareness, luminosities and colourations of awareness, vibrational pitches and tonalities of awareness, fluid currents and patterned structures of awareness. Fundamental reality does not consist essentially of any sensory physical phenomena we are aware of - but sensual field-qualities and field-patterns of awareness. It is this reversal in our understanding of the fundamental nature of reality and of phenomenology itself that accomplishes the transformation of phenomenological science into a Fundamental Science of equal relevance to the human and natural sciences.
7. Phenomenological Reciprocity
Just as Husserl understood consciousness as intentional - consciousness of something, so Freud compared consciousness to a searchlight, something that can be aimed at an object. Physics too, understands light as something that 'travels' in one direction, like the light emanating from a torch or lighthouse beacon. How is it however, with the light of awareness? We do not simply experience the world in the light of our own awareness of it. We also experience ourselves in the light of the things and people around us. As long as we think of awareness as some sort of uni-directional light radiated by a localized source - a conscious subject - we ignore not only its field character but its intrinsically reciprocal nature. For wherever, whatever and whoever we direct the 'searchlight' of our consciousness towards, at another level we are constantly aware of ourselves in the light of all that we behold around us. Whether it is a thing or thought, a place or person, a fact or feeling, a past or future event that we direct our attention to, makes no difference. Our awareness of ourselves is altered in the light of whatever it is we are aware of. Not only can we not witness an accident or crime without feeling changed, if only thankful not to have been involved, we cannot so much as walk down a street or stand next to another person without our self-awareness being subtly altered by them. Standing next to a short person we feel taller. Walking down a shabby street in smart clothes, we may feel out of place. Our awareness of ourselves and of the world are inseparable and in constant reciprocal interaction. Our relationship to both objects and people hinge s on the reciprocal character of awareness. What Freud called the 'unconscious' is this other side to his uni-directional searchlight of 'consciousness' - our awareness of ourselves in the light of the things around, or in the light of other people's consciousness of us.
Dreams let in the 'unconscious' because in them the separation between our self-awareness and our awareness of the world, the light of our own consciousness of others, and the light of their consciousness of us, breaks down. In this sense dreaming is indeed a return of the repressed, a return of a repressed reciprocity in which our everyday self-awareness is altered not only in the light of others but in the light of those other parts of ourselves that link us to them within a larger field of 'intersubjectivity'. But the term 'intersubjectivity' is far from adequate for grasping the nature of this field. For it suggests that the reciprocity of awareness is the product or an interaction between two pre-given subjects, each with their own distinct consciousness of self. In fact, that very consciousness of self is itself a product of an ongoing reciprocity of awareness. It is the 'particle' dimension of awareness, whose complementary wave character allows a two-way flow, allowing our awareness to merge with that of others and form ever-changing field patterns of identity that are the private property of neither one self or subject nor the other. The 'light of awareness' is no metaphor. It is relativity theory and the quantum physics of light that are the metaphors - scientific metaphors of a complex and multi-dimensional field-dynamics of awareness as such.
8. Phenomenological Retrieval
Our normal view of consciousness is that it is simply a receptacle for our sensory perception of physical objects and their qualities. In Freud, however, we find an unusually contrasting definition of consciousness as "a sense organ for the perception of psychical qualities". By "psychical qualities" Freud is thinking in particular of the emotions and of experiences of pain and pleasure. Fundamental Science extends the concept of psychical qualities to include all the psychical counterparts of physical qualities such as light and darkness, warmth and coldness, distance and closeness. How close or distant we feel from another person, the lightness or darkness of their mood, and the warmth or coolness of our relation to them, are, in our everyday experience, not less but more fundamentally real to the human being than measurable distance in space that separates us from them, the intensity of the ambient light they reflect, or the measurable temperature of the human body. Nevertheless, these physical parameters are meaningful to us as expression of their psychical counterparts. If we are separated by a physical distance from someone close to us, we may feel either less close or, conversely, even closer to them psychically than before. The meaning or sense that physical qualities and relationships have for us, has to do with how they reflect or refract their psychical qualities. The latter are not merely subjective qualities induced by sensory experiences - we do not feel warm towards another person just because we sense warmth in our own bodies or in theirs. On the contrary, our bodies may measurably warm up as a result of feeling warmed by the presence of another human being. To speak of 'psychical' as opposed to 'physical qualities' should not be taken to imply some form of psycho-physical dualism. For one thing physical qualities are themselves qualities of our own sensory awareness, and in this sense also 'psychical'. Nevertheless, any sensory qualities we are aware of through our bodies remain distinct in character from those sensual qualities of awareness which determine our relation to other beings - the warmth with which we regard them or the closeness we feel to them for example.
Perhaps the single most important misconception of phenomenology is that its focus lies on our direct sensory experience of the world rather than on the felt meaning or sense of that experience. The Phenomenological Reversal allows us to fully overcome this misconception, and to appreciate instead that lived experience, and the felt sense or meaning of that experience are quite distinct. Meaning or sense has to do with the psychical qualities that find expression as phenomena in lived sensory experiences. All physical phenomena we are aware of serve as signifiers of psychical qualities - that is to say, of qualitative dimensions of awareness. The latter constitute the felt meaning or sense of physical events and experiences.
What we call 'life' is essentially an ongoing process of 'semiosis' - by which I understand not just as a process of 'sign making' but as the overall process by we which make sense of our lived experience. We do so in two primary ways. One way is to signify felt senses (for example signifying the sense of warmth we feel towards another person through our words, deeds or body language). Another way is by feeling sense or significances (for example, sensing in another person's words, deeds or body language a feeling of warmth towards us). What I call the Phenomenological Retrieval is the process by which, in recollecting our lived experiences, we retrieve a felt sense of its significance, which we might not have had at the time. A manager coming home from a hard day's work at the office for example, may be aware of sensations of tension in the neck or pain in their head, and say that they have a headache. The headache is then constituted mentally as objectified physical and bodily phenomenon - a thing in itself. Alternatively, the same manager might come home from the office, aware of the same bodily sensations of tension and pain, and in recollecting all that took place in the office that day, retrieve a felt sense of a tense mood or mode of awareness that permeated the atmosphere in the office that day, one that was mentally ignored as people got on with their tasks, but which found expression in people tensing themselves up in bodily ways, feeling emotionally 'stressed' and signifying their own tension and stress by behaving in particular ways. Continuing to recollect the day's events, and to dwell within their felt sense of the office atmosphere as an intersubjective 'field-state' of awareness, the manager might then begin to discern some underlying meaning within it - not merely blaming it on the behaviour of those who might be considered its 'cause', but seeing the atmosphere and this behaviour as the indirect expression or 'signifier' of certain unspoken conflicts of interest that were not directly communicated. In doing so, our manager may also come to understand their own role in ignoring these felt resentments and not dealing with the unspoken conflicts, and come to understand their own headache symptoms as a lingering bodily signifier of something that had gone amiss - of the still unsensed significance of their lived experience of that day and its still unthought or unsignified sense.
I use this example to emphasize that Phenomenological Retrieval, like the other principles of the Phenomenological Method, is not merely part of some artificially constructed theory or technique to be applied to academic, philosophical and scientific research. It is itself inherent to and a part of everyday life. In the case of the Phenomenological Retrieval however, it is a part of the process of making sense of our lives which people rarely make time for. Instead they leave it to the psychical life of their dreams or the somatic life of their bodies to express the unsensed significance and unsignified sense of their lived experience. But what applies in life, applies also to science. And in both life and science another method tends to be applied to make sense of experienced events and phenomena. This other method seeks to fit all experiences into a pre-conceived pattern of signification in which what Gendlin calls felt sense or directly cognized meaning has no role. In the case of the example, a person's behaviour that day is immediately identified as part of their particular pattern of behaviour, and taken as further evidence of the existence of this pattern. No-one asks what the pattern itself signifies, what it itself might be an expression of. Similarly, if the manager begins to suffer regular and periodic headaches, and because of this goes to see a physician, the latter may take the symptoms as a signifier of some 'thing' - an organic disorder for example - seeking to fit it into some already established pattern of diagnostic signification. The question of what, assuming it exists, the organic disorder might itself be a symbol or signifier of, is not asked.
The assumption is that a phenomenon, taken as a sign, must be a sign of some actual thing or already understood pattern - whether a disease pattern, a market pattern or a pattern of behaviour. In the case of the manager's headaches, the true sense of the symptoms as signs, does not lie in anything actual but in something still potential - the manager's still undeveloped capacity to consciously retrieve their own felt understanding of their own lived experience and of the 'behaviour patterns' of other employees - and thereby respond to them differently.
9. The Re-embodiment of Phenomenological Research
The link between life and scientific research lies in the fact that science too, is an attempt to make sense of life and of our experience of the world, albeit as part of a larger universe. The thematic link between them lies in the fact that the process of sense-making or semiosis not only influences our very perception of the physical universe, but belongs to its fundamental dynamics. The interaction and behaviour of particles, for example, also makes sense of energetic relationships - bringing them to light as manifest and measurable scientific phenomena. They do so in exactly the same way that social events make sense of intersubjective relationships between beings - bringing them to manifestation as observable patterns of human behaviour and interaction. Phenomenological research in the social sciences focuses on the methods of sense-making through which individuals shape their interactions and co-constitute an agreed consensual reality. Phenomenological research in the natural sciences focuses on the sensed psychical counterparts of physical phenomena such as light and colour, sound and resonance, weight and gravity, density and form etc. The exploration is not experimental but meditational, exploring the nature and relationship of these phenomena in the most direct way possible - through the felt body of the researcher. As a physical body the human being is a part of nature and intimately connected to the universe as a whole. Only through Re-embodiment - meditative exploration of the felt body - can Phenomenological Research explore those field-dimensions, field-qualities and field-patterns of awareness that find expression in our body's sensory awareness of the physical universe. The felt body is the bearer of those unsensed dimensions of significance and unsignified dimension of meaning or sense that form part of the experience of both human nature and the natural world. That is why Phenomenological Re-embodiment is central not only to the Phenomenological Retrieval but to the Phenomenological Method and to Phenomenological Research in all areas. For the purpose of the latter aims not simply to provide a descriptive account of the lived experience of natural or social phenomena and interactions but to retrieve their intrinsic meaning or sense - not by enframing it within pre-given theoretical or mathematical patterns of signification but through meditative insights into those unsensed dimensions of significance to which we have access only through felt sense and the felt body. These are insights no less amenable to mutual validation on the part of independent researchers than those sought through the method of the physical sciences.
© Peter Wilberg 2002