Phenomenological method

This method can be used to achieve greater objectivity in relation to personal experiences (linked above to common sense). It has been already recognised that scientific observation, as a method, is somewhat limited. It cannot penetrate ‘below' the surface of the observable. This is a statement from mathematician Srivastava:

Gödel's theorem states that, loosely speaking, in any mathematical system which has the natural numbers (the numbers 0, 1, 2, and so on) as a subset, questions exist which cannot be answered yes and no... What all this means is that science is basically handicapped or limited in its capabilities. It is not possible by a series of experiments and related analytical reasoning to fathom the depth of the universe. To fathom the universe, man has another tool: direct perception, direct experience of reality (in Singh, 1988, p.177-178).

The problem is, however, that this ‘direct experience' typically remains on the surface of personal bias, and cannot claim universality. If there is any ‘essence', it has to lie below the objective surface of the reality and the subjective surface of individuals. So, only in the depths can the dichotomy between objectivism and subjectivism be overcome. Such objectivity is not based on facts ‘out there' or on a social consensus. It is not achieved by moving outwards and away from oneself, but by moving inwards, reaching underneath personal subjectivity, finding what is universal in one's experience[1]. This is achieved by submerging oneself below interpretations based on superficial perception, collective pre-assumptions or one's own prejudices and preferences.

The method that can assist this process is called phenomenological reduction. The term was coined by philosopher Husserl at the beginning of the 20th century, but interpreted in a broad sense (as a method rather than a philosophical doctrine) it has been practised since ancient times. This is its clearest and shortest definition:

Phenomenology is [...] a turn to subjectivity with the intention of arriving at objective truth. (Solomon, 1988, p.130)

The aim is to get insights about essence from experience alone rather than through the veil of existing mental constructs. In other words, the object of phenomenological description is ‘to... go beyond the various ‘facts' of experience and the reality of theories and practices to those features of experience which are "absolutely given in immediate intuition"... Not the evidence of the senses but of the consciousness as such' (Solomon, 1988, p.131). In fact, all personal experiences are phenomenological and as such they are real and true. What, however, can be distorted (intentionally or not) is their interpretations. An extreme example is hallucination, where an internal experience is interpreted as an external event. Interpretations are, of course, necessary and useful, but they are usually contaminated by past experiences, expectations, judgements etc. Phenomenological method means being able to examine experience as it is, prior to these possible distortions[2]. To achieve this, one needs to become aware of what comes from the phenomena experienced and what does not. This is not as easy as it may seem. It requires vigilance and discipline in ‘bracketing' (putting aside) any pre-assumptions that are added to an experience.

Phenomenological method is indispensable if insights from personal experiences are to have a degree of universality (a greater level of objectivity). However, it falls short of providing a way to construct reliable interpretations from them (to bring them back to the surface). And yet, interpretation is necessary in order to communicate these insights. Furthermore (as already pointed in The limitations of common sense, p.9), personal experiences are somewhat limited in their scope. So, this method is insufficient on its own and needs to be combined with others.

  • [1]. Polanyi makes the same point: ‘...man can transcend his own subjectivity by striving passionately to fulfil his personal obligations to universal standards' (1958, p.17).
  • [2]. To quote again the historian of philosophy, Solomon, ‘it is... a description of experience and a philosophy that is without presuppositions, and experience of experience as such, an opportunity to see clearly and without doubts the essential structures of not only one's own consciousness but of every possible consciousness' (1988, p.138).