This post first appeared on my St. John’s alumni blog on 10/11/2006. It describes an early encounter with phenomenological thought here in the clinical psychology program at Duquesne. Since I began the program a few months ago, I’ve been trying to reconcile the kind of thinking that goes on here with what goes on at St. John’s. I’ve been meeting it with variations of ambivalence and delight. Here’s a taste:
Is anyone familiar with the history of how Erwin Straus’ “Upright Posture” ended up in our freshman lab manuals? I’m reading this paper again next week in my Phenomenology of Human Development class. There are a lot of connections between this class, which in part aims to teach phenomenological observation (teach our vision to unfold all the meanings in an appearance, to “really look!”), and freshman lab. Drawing flowers and magnolia trees is certainly an exercise in retraining vision, with the message that the first step in building a science or making the world comprehensible is perception. In my first lab class, Mr. Sinnett dropped a book in the middle of the lab table and said, “What do you see?” In our bewilderment, what recourse did we have but honest looking, and to take note of the meanings, the schemas we employed, and to discard them (or at least, put them in parentheses)? Especially when answers like, “I see that the book is on the table,” yielded responses like, “What do you mean by ‘on’?”
This is like and unlike the experience and lesson of my first day of Phenomenology class. Dr. Eva-Maria Simms put a rock in my hand and said, “Tell me about the rock.” Meanings unfolded, associations, memories, perceptions, desires and actions. A few of us wanted to hold onto the rock, or throw it, or pass it between our hands slowly. I put the rock on the desk in front of me and revealed my inclination to observe the world from a reasonable distance and with a pen in my hand before testing it’s weight, size, shape. The rock was ripe. It produced infinite associations– it belonged to as many worlds as we could name.
I’ve been trying to articulate the differences between these two instances of looking. The rock observation was all about what was happening between me and the rock. It was certainly a more romantic exercise. I was much bigger in that room, and as our looking went on, the space between the observers and the observed diminished. Eventually we were discussing co-existentiality, the ways in which we reached toward or “intended” the rock. We discussed embodiment, how being in a body changed how we saw the rock– we were intensely present in all our details, the phenomenon was happening in the (perhaps illusory) space between us. It was impure, frustrating in its fluidity, inconclusive/ unconcludable, and admitted felt silly or childlike. This exercise was, in fact, partly intended as an introduction to the experiential world of the infant and young child…
“Put in parentheses” is a reference to Husserl’s phenomenological reduction. It is the process by which one sets aside one’s “natural attitude,” the habitual way of seeing, in order to allow other modes of seeing. Husserl describes it as Cartesian doubt without actually doubting– everything is put into a doubtful mode, but rather than demolished, it is simply set aside (bracketed) as one of any number of possibilities.