A Phenomenological Initiation

Monkey mind: “unsettled; restless; capricious; whimsical” sums up my reading practise.

Last week I began Dylan Trigg’s The Memory of Place, which is intriguing, but I felt that my inadequate comprehension of phenomenology was restricting my grasp of the book’s depths. I decided to pause and fill in some gaps before reading further. I’m slowly reading Robert Sokolowski’s Introduction to Phenomenology, a benchmark phenomenology primer. Sokolowski, if one shrugs off infrequent religious allusions, (Sokolowski is a man of the cloth) opens up the subject with remarkable clarity.

To move into the phenomenological attitude is not to become a specialist in one form of knowledge or another, but to become a philosopher.

Though I understood the premise of phenomenology as ‘the study of human experience and of the way things present themselves to us in and through such experience,’ I had failed to fully appreciate phenomenology as an (the?) alternative to Descartes’ attempt to initiate ‘philosophy by making a “once in a lifetime” decision to doubt all the judgements’ he held as true. This understanding, and a dissatisfaction with the Cartesian approach, galvanises my wish to go deeper.

The following passage deals with the belief that we have in the world as a whole, the Ur-doxa. I hope it demonstrates the vitality of the writing.

We cannot start off in the egocentric predicament; our world belief is there from the start, even before we are born, as far back as we go. Even the most rudimentary sense of self could not arise except on the basis of world belief. Similarly, even if we discover that we were wrong about very many things, our world belief remains untouched and the world is still there, no matter how ragged and tattered, unless perhaps we lost our sense of self entirely and fell into a kind of autistic isolation; but even there, some sense of what there is would surely remain, if there is awareness at all. The suffering that must exist in autism is there precisely because the world belief is still at work; if it were not, there would be no awareness at all and no sense of self.

Since we live in the paradoxical condition of both having the world and yet being part of it, we know that when we die the world will still go on, since we are only part of the world, but in another sense the world that is there for me, behind all the things I know, will be extinguished when I am no longer part of it. Such an extinction is part of the loss we suffer when a close friend dies; it is not just that he is no longer there, but the way the world was for him has also been lost for us. The world has lost a way of being given, one that had been built over a lifetime.

Phenomenology is likely to remain an idée fixe for some time. I bought Dermot Moran’s comprehensive Introduction to Philosophy as a complement, principally because it delves deeper into the work of phenomenology’s most famous thinkers.