MWP 1.2.d: The Phenomenological Use of Terms

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The phenomenological method was devised by Edmund Husserl, and consists in an attempt to use reflection and analysis to purge our language of metaphysical assumptions, and reach a point of certainty through a process of “universal epoché with respect to the being or non-being of the world”[1]. Husserl was trying to reach a point where our language reflected only experience or the necessary structure of that experience, without prior assumptions interfering with its adequacy. In a sense, whenever we reflect on experience so as to try to avoid both positive and negative metaphysical assumptions in Middle Way Philosophy, we are engaging in a process that in some ways resembles Husserl’s and could be called ‘phenomenological’. However, some important distinctions also need to be made.

Husserl’s approach was based on what he took to be the major insight of Descartes, that if we can manage to make deductions based on experience and its conditions alone, then we will have achieved sceptic-proof certainty. However, in 1.b I have already argued that this is not the case. Descartes’ claims are still subject to linguistic scepticism which points out the possibility of changes in meaning over time or ambiguities in the term “I”. Husserl was engaged in the same fruitless quest for certainty, although he used Kant’s apperceptional self as the basis of his deductions rather than the empirical self. However, linguistic scepticism means that any deduction whatsoever, even a=a, is uncertain, as I argued in 1.f. Far from enabling us to reach certainty, breaking off our assumptions with respect to being or non-being is a way of removing false certainty and leaving us with uncertainty.

Nevertheless, phenomenological analysis can be useful as a way of removing metaphysical assumptions to the best of our ability, and thus making our claims better candidates for a degree of incremental objectivity. Some kinds of claims stand up better to phenomenological analysis than others, as even though they are not certain they have avoided forms of metaphysical assumptions that commonly hamper us. For example, in 1.j I suggested “I want therefore I exist”. This is not philosophically true if “I” is taken to be a self rather than an ego, but its aim is to divert our view of ourselves from the fixed self to the changing ego, and thus to avoid the particular problems associated with metaphysical fixation on the self.

It will not help me very much to turn object-language into phenomenological language, and very often this is only a formalistic exercise which fails to take into account the limitations of language in the first place. If instead of “I see a white convolvulus flower”, I were to write “I see a soft white irregular cylinder shape flared out at one end”, I have gained only in verbosity and ambiguity, and the attempt to rule out object-language is no less subject to scepticism than the ordinary English. The dropping of all mention of object nouns or mentions of existence misses the point that noun-language can be used just as well to describe our provisional representations of a theoretical universe as it can to describe an absolute metaphysical claim. Metaphysics is created, not just by language, but by intentions and contextual interpretations that are only roughly represented in language. 

The use of terms in Middle Way Philosophy, then, needs to be understood as phenomenological only in the sense of its “universal epoché with respect to the being or non-being of the world”. The process of removing our reliance on metaphysical claims, however, is not merely a matter of phenomenological analysis (in fact, not very much a matter of phenomenological analysis at all!) but rather a psychological process in which the way we hold a belief becomes more provisional. Changing our language to make it phenomenologically compatible involves the removal of obviously metaphysical points for identification (such as ‘God’, ‘Nature’ etc, or their denials) but not noun-extraction, and the result of our phenomenological approach is not a Cartesian absolute but a provisional standpoint.

[1] Husserl (1960) section 15