What we think becoming, others call unseemly

Again, have you never perceived the neck of the dove changing colour so as to assume a countless variety of hues in the rays of the sun? Is it not by turns red, and purple and fiery coloured, and cinereous, and again pale, and ruddy, and every other variety of colour, the very names of which it is not easy to enumerate?

Philo of Alexandria, On Drunkenness 173

What can we be sure of?

What can we be sure of about our writing and about ourselves as writers?

Is our writing good? How do we know?

Are we brave writers? Do we write hard and clear?

Aenesidemus (founder of Pyrrhonian Skepticism, 1CE) was a member of Plato’s Academy led by Philo. Frustrated by dogmatism in the Academy he developed a foundation for the idea that the judgements and knowledge we claim about things is dependent on a series of contingent and changing conditions. For example, people perceive the world differently to other animals, people perceive the world differently to each other, our own bodily senses offers us differing perceptions of the same thing and so forth.

For Aenesidemus, this flux means we cannot unconditionally confirm most of the claims we make about the world, ourselves and others. We can say some things that may be true in particular circumstances, but nothing holds true outside the conditions, or modes, he describes.

What happens if we see our writing as the neck of a dove? Letting it change in the light; seeing with all our senses, not restricting ourselves to the narrow mutterings of our internal one-eyed critic.

Can we now sit and write?

Is the writing the philosophy, or the object of a philosophical process?

Husserl tends to describe the written artefact of phenomenological investigation as “Ausdruck” (expression) and “Deskription Ausdruck” (descriptive expression), “beschreibungen” (descriptions). The written down phenomenological findings are not meant to ‘represent’ the observed phenomenological experience of the past but serve to be a “predictive synthesis”.  (Predictive synthesis of doxa, for example, or predictive synthesis for the future horizon implicit in all perception). We write-out the ‘aspects’ of a phenomenon (experience) as they are, which encompasses their potential.

Writing, then, is for the future, for the possibilities. We write phenomenological descriptions from observation not to capture the ended temporalities, but to open the future to risk, prospect, chance.

Wonderful, yes?

Is pain a pleasure through ‘some strange alchemy’?

Ever bitten into a tiny raw chilli? Or ordered a twice-hot curry for dinner? What was your experience? And, importantly, how can you bring that experience into the best lights through your personal form of writing?

In A Defence of Masochism, Phillips says ‘…if pain can become pleasure through some strange alchemy, perhaps pleasure itself it not so easily understood” (p35).

Putting the straw-person aside (i.e. who ever said pleasure was easily understood?) there is a glaring deficiency in Phillips’ argument; namely the use of the phrase “through some strange alchemy.” I see this deficiency repeated in many philosophical explorations. Furthermore, rather than pausing to do the hard work to resolve or account for the deficiency, Phillips skips to the next premise, hoping that the wilful act of writing down the words will be sufficient for advancing the argument. But, of course, it is not sufficient.

If you, in your own work, are struggling to express or understand a problem, such as pain, consciousness, symbolism, culture, life, etc., you will reach for grout that permits you to lay the next tile in your thought and development. In Phillips, “through some strange alchemy” is that grout, gap-filler. These pseudo-claims are a useful tool and should be used in early draft work. They keep an argument in motion.

Published texts, however, such as A Defence of Masochism, are devalued as a whole when lazy, magical, hand-wavy putty work is not replaced with a sincere struggle towards candid articulation.

Pain and pleasure are so deeply embedded in our narrative and cultural structures that is it indisputably difficult to experience these phenomena as they appear. The accepted homilies that pass for knowledge, e.g. we are adverse to pain and seek pleasure, dominate pain studies in philosophy. A potentially disruptive text, such as A Defence of Masochism, cannot afford to accept “some strange alchemy” as a satisfactory contribution if it is to challenge orthodoxy with effect.

Pain and pleasure are refreshingly complex experiences. When we describe them as they appear, we may first notice the many discrepancies. Holes appear, for example, between accepted narratives such as pain being painful, pain being undesirable, when contrasted with the experienced pleasure of burning and sweating from a painfully hot meal. The experience of pain and pleasure do not align with our accepted knowledge.

In The Crisis of the European Sciences Husserl said, “I seek not to instruct but only to lead, to point out and describe what I see. I claim no other right than that of speaking according to my best lights, principally before myself but in the same manner also before others…” If we commit and follow through our right to speak out the experience of the world for our own self, in our best lights, we will find the stamina to write past lame “alchemy” claims into productive description. Pain studies, from the clinical to the erotic, are in need of quality first person experiential description.


Phillips, A. 1998. A Defence of Masochism. London: Faber and Faber


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**Hats off to a treasured reader for the Phillips text.

Opening into the dog; how phenomenology gives us fresh eyes

Phenomenology goes against the tide. It embraces the first-person, or subjective experience, as authorised, logical, valid and legitimate. In phenomenology the first-person point of view is generous, trustworthy and valuable. To understand the strength and uniqueness of the first person requires we release particular stories or myths about the world and how we perceive it.

We are given a script for how the world works yet often, if we stop and look beyond the script, we can see the story fails to fit, to varying degrees. The world itself differs to the story. Our experience of the world exceeds the structures we have constructed. And, if we allow the old story to crumble, we may see the world with fresh eyes, as it is, not as we narrate it.

Many elements of the script, or story, can be safely discharged. Below is my first suggestion.

First, we must reject the idea of perception as a script between two parties; the seer or perceiver and the seen or perceived. The accepted story of perception is that you look at, for example, a dog. You then perform a mysterious, cognitive, internal, private magic called cognition, perception, thinking, representing, etc..

Many textbooks contain a version of a familiar diagram that claims to depict ‘the act of perception’. In this, a drawing of your eyeball may project an arrow onto the form of a dog. From the dog, a second arrow draws out and targets your eyeball. Inside your skull, or above your head in a fluffy cloud, sits a smaller version of the dog. This script has two roles: there is you, looking, and there is the dog, being looked at.

Yet, what of the arrows? Looking is not an act of the eye upon an object. Looking contains not two ‘performances’ in the looker and the looked. To see is a three part event. Seer, seen and seeing itself. The experience of looking seeing, perceiving is not one of cognising then representing to oneself.

If we are standing beside each other, both having an experience that includes looking at a dog and I ask you, “Where is the dog?” you do not point at your head. You point to the dog. When we perceive the dog, we are putting ourselves ‘in’ the dog. We are not creating a small dog within us. We are, instead, reaching out, accepting the givenness, opening into the dog.

Phenomenology is built on the idea that when we experience, we are experiencing something. That is, that consciousness is always a consciousness of something. ‘Of’, which seems a small word here, is actually doing an incredible amount of muscle work. The phenomenological idea of intentionality is often defined as “consciousness of something” yet this ‘definition’ tends to produce fog not clarity. The key is the power of ‘of’.

The experience of perceiving a dog is an experience whereby our consciousness is sited within the dog. Our act of intentionality is to find that consciousness there.

Let me know what you think of this idea.

And look out for the next few posts where we will challenge other aspects of ‘the script’ about perception through the clean-cutting power of phenomenology.


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How does phenomenology generate knowledge?

Too often, phenomenology is reduced to a simple schema or steps that must be followed. Let’s take Woodruff-Smith as an example of an over-simplified phenomenology,

“By etymology, phenomenology is the study of phenomena, in the root meaning of appearances; or, better, the ways things appear to us in our experience, the ways we experience things in the world around us. We practice phenomenology (with or without the name) whenever we pause in reflection and ask, “What do I see?,” “How do I feel?,” “What am I thinking?,” “What do I intend to do?,” answering in the first person, specifying the way I experience what I see, feel, think and so on. We produce a phenomenological description of an experience as we declare, attending to our own experience, “I see that fishing boat in the fog,” “I feel angry about what was just said,” “I think that Husserl read Hume,” “I intend to sweep the patio tomorrow” (Woodruff-Smith).


So, in Woodruff-Smith’s process we,

  1. Declare our experience,
  2. The declaration describes, and
  3. phenomenology is done.

It is that simple?


  1. I see wind playing in leaves.
  2. Last night’s mackerel makes me weary.
  3. I wonder who you are.

These descriptions follow Woodruff-Smith’s rules but fail as phenomenology.


One of the books closest to the heart of phenomenology is Husserl’s Ideen zur einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie. Zweites Buch: Phänomenologische Untersuchungen zur Konstitution (Ideen II). (Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, Second Book: Studies in the Phenomenology of Constitution.)

Ideen II begins with frankness. Husserl observes that nature, as the object of natural science, is not ‘natural’; to perceive nature in this way is itself a constructed perception, an attitude. “Das wird sich verstehen,” says Husserl,“wenn wir die Art der Einstellung des naturwissenschaftlich anschauenden und denkenden Subjekts genauer betrachten wir werden durch ihre phänomenologische Beschreibung erkennen, daß, was es Natur nennt, eben das intentionale Korrelat der in dieser Einstellung vollzogenen Erfahrung ist”.

From within an attitude, the act of looking (noesis) creates a perception of what is seen. Perception is itself an object.

This will be understood,” says Husserl, “if we consider the nature of the setting of scientific intuiting and the thinking subject in more detail, we can recognise through a phenomenological description of it that the object it calls Nature, is precisely the intentional correlate that is accomplished in this setting experience” (emphasis added).

In phenomenology, knowledge is in-from-the writing-reading. Husserl, above, says it is “through” the phenomenological description that we come to understand. He does not say “owing to”, “subsequently from” nor “as a result of”. In passage “through” phenomenological description may we open into knowledge. Knowledge is not a place we arrive at nor a consequence of having consumed. “Through” phenomenological description is the knowledge.

Writing description is not a second turn at living. A statement of experience is not a description. Phenomenology is not a system for producing conclusions. “Through” phenomenological description is the knowledge.


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Husserl, E., 1994. Briefwechsel. [Correspondence.]. The Hague: Kluwer Academic.

Woodruff-Smith, D., 2013. Husserl. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.

What can you do with a Stupid Detector?

I have an organic machine that gives me quantified readings of the stupidity of things in the world. My machine almost broke beyond repair as I read Christian Tewes ‘The Phenomenology of Habits.’ Below is the last report my machine provided about this article and why it achieved such a high ranking in stupid.

The article claims to be based on “phenomenology in the Husserlian sense.” Instead of doing the hard work of struggling through with Husserl and his words, the article is absent of any of Husserl’s writing. Instead, the article draws from a range of off-topic, online journal articles. Stupid.

This leads to the second stupid. The article has an odd, and rather ‘special’, view as to what “phenomenology in the Husserlian sense” involves. “Phenomenology in the Husserlian sense aims at discovering essential structures of phenomenal experiences. One can differentiate here between the pre-reflexive … everyday experiences and the specification of these experiences from a reflexive stance, the so-called ‘phenomenological reduction’ … . After having suspended the natural attitude toward everyday experiences, the next step in a phenomenological analysis is to find, in a quasi-mathematical spirit, the ideal possibilities or conceptual structures involved in these experiences…”. Stupid.

Let’s recap the generally agreed upon tenets of what can be considered Husserlian phenomenology. It is the study, not the “discovery” of the structures of experience. The study of these structures is partly achieved through writing a particular type of description from the experience, not “about” the experience. This all takes place from the free of charge, egalitarian and non-academic learning centre known as ‘you’; the first-person, the subjective.

This is the salve of phenomenology in our science-greedy, number-crunching, depersonalised era. Phenomenology is a means to rich and meaningful knowledge about ourselves as people. It can help us shape our world to fit us, rather than the reverse which bears out the negative consequences we see around us today. People who feel alienated, ill-suited, failed. Groups of people who experience exclusion or invisibility. The voiceless living—plants, animals, eco-systems—sacrificed for short-thought economies. Phenomenology has the capacity to ‘tell it like it is’ from your experience as binding and authorised.

The word “discovery” makes the structures of experience sound like the dark side of the moon, but they are right there in front of us—we ‘do’ them all the time. We don’t ‘discover’ them, any more than I discover my hand at the end of my arm when I wake up in the morning. And the little word “about” tells us the source of the problem: Tewes thinks of us, in writing, taking up a standpoint outside our experiences; but this is to miss … well, everything—it is to miss phenomenology.

Tewes wants us to know one more piece of stupid; this repeated in various ways throughout the article. “It is important to highlight that the concrete findings of such a procedure are open to falsification.” “The results of such phenomenological-informed neuropsychological research projects would, of course, be open to falsification.”

And this is the heart of stupid. At once using the word ‘phenomenology’ as a handmaiden for a socially destructive agenda while at the very same time not having the courage to trust. Life is open to falsification. Experience is open to falsification. If a loved one tells you about their bad day, do you listen with sympathy knowing that their whole description is, fundamentally, open to falsification?

What is it that makes Tewes so insecure? Why cling to tools that have no place in this domain? Why employ phenomenology with such insincerity? My organic stupid machine cannot answer these questions. I have to figure them out for myself.

Tewes, C. 2018. ‘The Phenomenology of Habits: Integrating First-Person and Neuropsychological Studies of Memory,’ Frontiers in Psychology 9, p1176

Touched and touching: beyond neural evidence models

Touch something. Reach.

Grasp. Grope.

Use the quality of your hand to surround something.

Possess it.

Touch is always with you.


It is not experienced as a temporary state of sensorimotorism.

Most consciousness studies tend towards a positivist, deterministic model for research. They infer findings from non-material neural strata which is claimed to be representative of experience. This neural ‘evidence’, however, is only ever drawn from selective material data.

It is not my task to refute the consciousness corpus. I can only gesture towards a richer alternative that is already evidenced; does not need inventing.

Experience (the core of phenomenology) tells through written description. In this we can read structures that are already present; we do not need impose, nor ‘retro-fit’, structures that justify our per-existing narratives about things. Description from first-person experience shows the ‘how it is’ of our world.

A good example of this, in action, is Husserl’s phenomenological description of touch in §36, Ideen II. Husserl’s phenomenology does not specify the content of tactual perception. Husserl does not itemise what we perceive by the sense of touch. This is a very different method to our usual approach to touch. Representationists, for example, assume that “what needs to be explained is how we tactually perceive spatial properties” (Mattens 2009:118).

No. This is not “what needs to be explained”. In fact, there is nothing that “needs to be explained.” What we need is to perceive from a different stance, then we can be altered. I do not make this assertion in support of a mental determinism, but, instead, that if we structure the space of our body from an experiential perspective, we may find ourselves at the doorway of Janus with paths to modification, healing, alterity and understanding.


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**To complement the bibliographical resource “Phenomenology of Touch: An Ongoing Bibliography“, curated by Adam van Sertima, I offer these sources of phenomenological writing about touch; some are good, some are less so.


Al Saji, A., 2000. The Site of Affect in Husserl’s Phenomenology: Sensations and the Constitution of the Lived Body. Philosophy Today 44, pp. 51-59.

Al-Saji, A., 2010. Bodies and sensings: On the uses of Husserlian phenomenology for feminist theory. Continental Philosophy Review 43 (1), pp. 13-37.

Almog, M. 2016. From Husserl to Merleau-Ponty: On the Metamorphosis of a Philosophical Example. The European Legacy 21 (5-6), pp. 525-534.

Behnke, E. A., 2008. Interkinaesthetic Affectivity: A Phenomenological Approach. Continental Philosophy Review, Volume 41, pp. 143-161.

Bower, M. 2015. Developing open intersubjectivity: On the interpersonal shaping of experience. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 14 (3), pp. 455-474.

Buytendik, F. J. J., 1973 [1961]. Pain. Westport(Connecticut): Greenwood.

Catena, M., 2005. Touch and the Constitution of the Thing in Husserl’ s Vorlesungen of 1907. Archivio di Storia Della Cultura 18.

Davila, M. E. A., 2013. From Hands to the Whole of the Body. Husserl’s Double Sensation in Thinking and Experience. Filozofia 68 (5), pp. 358-366.

Derrida, J., 2005. On Touching – Jean-Luc Nancy. Standford: Standford University Press.

Gallagher, S., 1986. Hyletic Experience and the Lived Body. Husserl Studies, 3(2), pp. 131-166.

Gallagher, S., 2011. Embodiment and Phenomenal Qualities: An Enactive Interpretation. Philosophical Topics, 39(1), pp. 1-14.

Husserl, E., 2000 [1989]. Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, Second Book. Studies in the Phenomenology of Constitution. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Landgrebe, L., 1982. Der Phänomenologische Begriff der Erfahrung. In: Faktizität und Individuation. Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag, pp. 58-70.

Landgrebe, L., 1982. Faktizität und Individuation. Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag.

Marcelle, D., 2011. The Phenomenological Problem of Sense Data in Perception: Aron Gurwitsch and Edmund Husserl on the Doctrine of Hyletic Data. Investigaciones Fenomenológicas: Anuario de la Sociedad Española de Fenomenología, Volume 8, pp. 61-76.

Mattens, F., 2009. Perception, Body, and the Sense of Touch: Phenomenology and Philosophy of Mind. Husserl Studies, Volume 25, pp. 97–120.

Moran, D., 2010. Husserl and Merleau-Ponty on Embodied Experience. In: T. Nenon & P. Blosser, eds. Dordrecht: Springer, pp. 175-195.

Rabanaque, L. R., 2003. Hyle, Genesis and Noema. Husserl Studies, 19(3), pp. 205-215.

Richardson, L., 2013. Bodily Sensation and Tactile Perception. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 86 (1), pp. 134-154.

Sawicki, M., 1997. Body, text and science : The literacy of investigative practices and the phenomenology of Edith Stein. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Sevenant, A., 2002. Love for the Mediate: Derrida’s Philosophy of Touching. Tijdschrift voor Filosofie 64, pp. 231-252.

Sheets-Johnstone, M., 2015. Embodiment on trial: a phenomenological investigation. Continental Philosophy Review 48 (1), pp. 23-39.

Welton, D., 2000. Touching Hands. Veritas 45, pp. 83-102.

Welton, D., 2005. Soft Smooth Hands Husserl’s Phenomenology of the Lived Body. In: Bernet, ed. Edmund Husserl: The Nexus of Phenomena: Intentionality, Perception, and Temporality. London: Routledge, pp. 172-191.

Zahavi, D., 1994. Husserl’s Phenomenology of the Body. Études Phénoménologiques, 10(19), pp. 63-84

Zahavi, D., 2012. Empathy and mirroring: Husserl and Gallese. In: Life, Subjectivity & Art. Dordrecht: Springer, pp. 217-254.

Phenomenology & Description I

Writing is beautiful. The commitment, the invention, the body and occasion. Falling into a good piece of phenomenological description rivals any epic poem or classic novel. Writing is the flesh of phenomenology. It is, in fact, difficult to imagine phenomenology without it’s body of writing. From the start, Husserl tends to describe the written artefact of phenomenological investigation as “expression”. The written down phenomenological findings are not meant to ‘represent’ the observed phenomenological experience of the past but serve to be a “predictive form derived from it” (Husserl Ideas I p355).

We write for the future. We write phenomenological descriptions from observation not to capture the ended temporalities, but to open the future. From that starting point of Husserl and, more or less, onwards, there has been little attendance to the process and experience of writing phenomenological description.

There are many texts written on phenomenological method. Take for example Kersten’s Phenomenological Method: Theory and Practice. In these 433 pages is the familiar pattern of how we understand phenomenology in its two stages; one spoken, one silent.  First we observe; we then describe, thus producing a written text (which we can call a ‘phenomenological description’). What we find in this book, and many similar other texts, are careful and rigorous treatments of the standard methodological techniques for undertaking phenomenological observations (reduction, the noetic-noematic distinction, unbuilding, bracketing, orientation, critical reflection, etc.). What we do not find, are any discussions of what is involved in the process of writing phenomenology.


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