“So the days pass and nothing is done”

Below, a quote from Conrad; three sentences in eight hours, all erased.

I sit down religiously every morning, I sit down to eight hours every day—and the sitting down is all. In the course of that working day of eight hours I write three sentences which I erase before leaving the table in despair. There’s not a single word to send you. Not one! … sometimes it takes all my resolution and power of self-control to refrain from butting my head against the wall. I want to howl and foam at the mouth but I daren’t do it for fear of waking the baby and alarming my wife. … So the days pass and nothing is done. At night I sleep. In the morning I get up with the horror of that powerlessness I must face through a day of vain efforts.

Conrad, J. 1898. The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad

Is philosophy a result or a process? A done thing or a doing?

In philosophy, particular symbolic acts are valued while others are devalued. For example, clarity is valued and vagueness is not. Order is valued, disorder not. Articulate philosophy is safe, while tongue-tied philosophy is a risk. Consistency is esteemed, contradiction admonished.

Yet, to be alive philosophy ought to be an inconsistency; a struggle to understand, a process of gaining clearness, always shouldering haze and obscurity.

Phenomenology, philosophy ‘performed’ as a descriptive process, has the capacity to turn away from analytic forms and turn towards writing. Writing is our entry into the incoherent. Use the checklist below to rate your words as good philosophical process writing. If you can tick three or more descriptors, congratulations. Keep writing.

 

CHECKLIST

My philosophical writing is,

  • Stupid
  • Messy
  • Disjointed
  • Difficult
  • Nonsensical
  • Frustrating
  • Incomplete
  • Confused
  • Struggling
  • Unfinished

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?

No.

  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.

 

[Buy me a coffee]

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

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