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

How writing rescues us from being dull and blind

Of the experience in writing phenomenology, van Manen says, “it is like falling into a twilight zone, where things are no longer recognizably the same, where words are displaced, where I can lose my orientation, where anything can happen.” A partial loss of self is how van Manen describes his experience of writing. Yet, if we wish to discuss this as one’s relationship to oneself, I think it is not an experience of loss but of suspension and adaptation. We are somewhere other than our Körper place. We are in the space of our Leib self; sensing and animated without the threats of material life and death.

Below is an example from one of Behnke’s phenomenological experiments in perceiving kinaesthetic affectivity. In simple terms, it is an observation made from a practice that creates a space of bodily openness. In this space intersubjective empathetic responses to other bodies can move from being anonymous, or ignored, to being seen and observed. When you read this passage, imagine Behnke gently walking around parts of her urban environment with an awareness of her self as a body and the bodies of nearby ‘anothers’. We enter the description as she is pushing open a door in readiness of walking through the doorway.

“On closer examination, however, one can begin to sense, for instance, how one’s hand is already holding a door open rather than letting it go, in a way whose timing is already coordinated with the movement of others who are about to go through the same door. Or one can feel the pressure of the shopping cart’s handle against one’s hands as one is already checking its motion to make way for another shopper even before consciously ‘‘steering’’ one way or another. (Behnke)

The push of your hand on a shopping trolley, or door-knob, in a named consciousness towards other nearby bodies she calls “interkinaesthetic civility” which “weaves a fabric of reciprocity”. Even without the complicated back-of-house phenomenological theory this description is beautiful and stands with strength on its own. How did Behnke achieve this? How does she write such insightful passages?

In describing a phenomenon we may not know what needs to be chosen and highlighted from the infinitude of experience until the choice is made. Such selections are felt in the process of writing. As we scrawl, one sentence another follows; a sentence is not an idea or meaning but a metaphor (literally a carry-over). As Ingarden insightfully saw, when we describe an aspect of an object we do not describe the object.  “In fact, it is quite the opposite. If the aspects were described, then what is represented in the work would be, not the objectivity that is to appear in them, but the aspects themselves… and the corresponding object would either totally disappear… or would belong to the work only as something that is indirectly represented”. Phenomenology as a practice of writing description is our path around anonymity, dull consensus and predictability to the phenomena as it essentially appears. We can begin to see the truths of the world not through observation but through written description and that is the practice of phenomenology.


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

Ingarden, R., 1973. The Cognition of the Literary Work of Art. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

van Manen, M., 2002. Writing in the Dark: Phenomenological Studies in Interpretive Inquiry. London(Ontario): University of Western Ontario.


Phenomenology & Description II

Writing a phenomenological description is ‘poem-ing’. The experience of poem-ing is evident in the act of writing down a phenomenological description. We must not confuse this experience with writing words, nor characterise it as words. We tend to over-emphasise the importance of words in a written work. Experientially, words play an important but slight role in the act of phenomenological writing compared to other characteristics of description.

Roman Ingarden, stratifies the place of words in his phenomenological investigations of literature. Ingarden’s broad project is to analyse the shared characteristics within a group of written works (“literary art”). He argues for essentially present properties that operate in relational strata within a given work. In this, the qualities of words are only one of four strata that constitute a written work.

Ingarden’s third stratum, schematised aspects, offers the interesting concept of ‘held-in-readiness’. Schematised aspects in a literary work are the qualities and actions that build an intentional object. The intentional object of a wickerman, for example, is built through the described coherent aspects such woven sticks, eerie bearing, vast height and inner cavity. We perceive aspects in a concrete way, as sensations within our body and imagination, in the absence of a corresponding material object.

Aspects, as complex descriptions, are held-in-readiness. It is as if they are prepared for the opportunity to be thought and imagined in consciousness. Waiting in the wings to be given over in intentionality. Aspects (appearances), held-in-readiness, move from possible to actual in a written work; however, it is not the “…actuality of a concretely experienced aspect, nor is it simple potentiality” (Ingarden). Holding-in-readiness has a peculiarly unreal-real quality. The unreal quality we easily understand: the written lacks a Körper aliveness but exhibits a Körper existence. Holding-in-readiness has an experience of non-material dimensionality felt materially.

Holding-in-readiness is the space for ‘from’. We are being in the holding, we are held as we write, until we achieve those moments where the writing is from, not of. Once we are writing from, we are there. Held in the space-process of poem-ing. Heidegger says poetry is the unconcelament of being – it is the ‘how’ of how we get to ‘there’ in our ‘here’. In an example of phenomenological writing from Langveld, we can begin to see the influence of this manifold of poem-ing.

In this extract, Langveld is reaching into the secret, still world of children by describing the magic and experience of certain types of solitary hiding.

“How deep is the stillness behind the heavy curtains even when the room is full of noise and conversation. All the more reason to keep oneself quiet and still. For just as the transparency of the window pane opens up both the outer and the inner world, so the curtain allows sounds to pass through. And just as through the window one sees and is seen, so behind the curtain one hears and is heard. So much more reason to be quiet and unobtrusive behind the curtain. All that this curtain shows us -its snake-like boundary at the floor, the unpredictability even of this shifting and easily moved border, its pliancy, which betrays one at the slightest movement-all of this urges us to remain quietly within our boundaries. Don’t move! Don’t touch the curtain!” (Langveld).

The held-in-readiness is clearly sensed in this slice of description. We can sense the held-in-readiness of each aspect as it meets us. We are then in that room where the writing-reading corridor leads; where the body can sense in material ways the aspects of non-material spaces.


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Ingarden, R., 1973. The Cognition of the Literary Work of Art. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Langveld, M. J., 1983. The Stillness of the Secret Place. Phenomenology + Pedagogy, 1(1), pp. 11-17


Writing description as ‘doing’

Phenomenological writing can be extraordinary, sumptuous and insightful. Listen to this taste of Lingis exploring lust,

“Encrusting one’s body with stones and silver or steel, saturating one’s skin with cream and lubricants till they glisten like mucous membrane, sinking into marble baths full of champagne bubbles or into the soft mud of rice paddies, feeling the grasses of the meadow or the algae tingling one’s flesh like nerves, dissolving into perfumed air and not flickering twilight, lust seeks the transubstantiations of matter with a body in transubstantiation (p64-5).

How do we we write good phenomenological description?

Let’s think of ourselves observing a pyramid, perhaps a desk ornament that sits upon our flat open palm. We hold the pyramid looking at the plane facing our null-point of ‘here’. We can see the drawn away-ness of the sides. We co-give the rear that we cannot directly perceive. After this, can we say that we have conducted a phenomenological investigation? Or is it only here, in these scratchings, these “black marks,” that phenomenology can be said to be done? Must we make a material ‘object’ of the perception? To an extent, to act phenomenologically is a process that incorporates recording, conveying, connecting. If we only ‘investigate’ through observation and do not write thereafter, we cannot claim that phenomenology has been ‘done’. Yet, phenomenology is also not a mere ‘report back’ from observation.

Typically, the object of classical phenomenological study is a written object. While there is much authored about writing as a general pursuit, this literature does not channel into a stream of practical writing about the creation of concrete phenomenology. Max van Manen is a practitioner in this field. Van Manen lists half a dozen verbs for describing what he calls “the act of phenomenological writing”. They include drawing, entering, gazing, seeking, touching, traversing. His description of phenomenological writing is not exceptionally phenomenological; it makes sense as a description but it does not capture, precisely, the phenomena of “the act of phenomenological writing”. Of interest for our purpose, however, is van Manen’s consistent use of verbs in categorising phenomenological writing. Van Manen is not using abstracted concepts or adjectives to describe the phenomenological writing process; he uses words that refer to an active state of being.


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Lingis, A., 1996. Sensation Intelligibility in Sensibility. New Jersey: Humanity Books.

van Manen, M., 2002. Writing in the Dark: Phenomenological Studies in Interpretive Inquiry. London(Ontario): University of Western Ontario.

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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Sketches from phenomenology: Writer’s Block

Phenomenology is a philosophy as well as a practice. Some of phenomenology seeks to know what a thing is at its core, at its essence.


Phenomenology also, in my reading of Husserl et al, demands exegetic writing align ‘content’ and ‘experience’ to be genuinely phenomenological. This piece, therefore, requires and recognises the experience of both reading and writing within a reflection on the nature of writer’s block.




Drill: Imagine peeling the skin from a Royal Gala apple


A man sets out on a journey to a place he has never been before. Another man comes back. A man comes to a place that has no name, that has no landmarks to tell him where he is.

Another man decides to come back. A man writes letters from nowhere, from the white space that has opened up in his mind. The letters are never received. The letters are never sent.

Another man sets out on a journey in search of the first man. This second man becomes more and more like the first man, until he, too, is swallowed up by the whiteness. A third man

sets out on a journey with no hope of ever getting anywhere. He wanders. He continues to wander. For as long as he remains in the realm of the naked eye, he continues to wander. (Auster 1980)

Auster, in this passage from White Spaces is talking about writer’s block. About setting out, trying to set out, coming back having been nowhere.


Drill: Feed a page into a typewriter. Type. Pull the sheet out.


What if writing is not as we think it? This is convention—the writer, adorned in accoutrements, tempts moments to ‘create’. We build. We attach symbols to a surface. We lay down black marks that create meaning. Writing is assumed an active role while the page is mere support. What if we take writing as a process, that is, not what is written but the movement of writing itself as an experience, as a phenomenon?


Drill: Speak the following paragraph while also walking


Writing then becomes a different beast to the mind-centred capture of idea, to the scribe wielding symbolic patterns. Flusser argues that the gesture of writing is carving, taking away; from the first writing in 3100BCE, we pressed pictograms into palm-cupped Mesopotamian clay tablets.


Drill: cup your palm


If writing is subtractive, carving—what is being carved?

In the experience of writing, the carved is The Page.

In one type of phenomenological reduction, to find the thing itself, we can experiment by removing primary qualities of the thing until we reach the tipping point—until we cross the line where are our object ceases to be what it is.

Can we take away red and still have an apple? Yes. Thus an apple is not essentially red.


Drill: Sit down, write on paper


Writing is movement and movement needs space. The one thing we cannot remove from the page without losing the phenomenon is space. The Page is space. White space, silence, emptiness without which we can never move, never write.

What if writing is sculpting, carving space?

What then becomes of writer’s block?


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Auster, P., 1980. White Spaces. New York: Station Hill.

Flusser, V., 1991. Gestures. In: A Note on ‘The Gesture of Writing’ by Vilém Flusser and The Gesture of Writing, trans. Nancy A. Roth. pp. 25-41.

Husserl, E., 1952. Ideen zu einer reinen Phanomenologie und phanomenologischen Philosophie II. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

Husserl, E., 1969. Ideas. General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology. First Book.. London: George Allen and Unwin.

Husserl, E., 1989. Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy. Second Book. Dordrecht: Kluwer.