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Phenomenology – Mystical or mystifying?

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Day 302. Phenomenology. David Mulder via Flickr

Phenomenology is one of those words that crops up in undergrad sociology and philosophy courses. Whenever I heard it I felt sort of dumb, like when you hear a big word and don’t know what it means. And I think some people just used it to appear smart.

Academe games…

Edmund Husserl 1910s via Wikipedia

So early on I made a quick fix. Phenomenology is about personal experience. How a person sees it, I told myself, burning that simple definition into memory so I wouldn’t be caught off guard in seminars and the like. (Sometimes those seminars were really nasty).

When I need to force myself to remember something with a little trick, it usually means the concept doesn’t resonate with me.

I know pretty much all of Freud and especially Jung’s concepts by heart because they seem to have more relevance and richness than the simple, slightly mystifying word phenomenology.

But that’s just me. I’m sure many philosophy majors would love that word, which opens many doors for them.

Turns out the term is a bit more complicated and varied than my youthful quick fix would suggest (the top image is only one of many meanings). But that fix did get me through school okay. I never pursued the term much further because, as I say, it just didn’t personally connect.

Philosophers tend to get tangled up in their own concepts. Many seem to lack genuine insight and miss their own blind spots.

That’s how I see it. A huge generalization, it’s true. But overall, I much preferred the depth psychologists and mystics (I say preferred past tense because I’m always moving into new areas).

Edmund Husserl is usually mentioned when the word phenomenology comes up. Husserl wanted to study ‘structures’ of consciousness (whatever that means) and also phenomena that come into consciousness. At least, that’s how I understand it.

The history of the word is fairly interesting. I’ve used Highly highlighter to outline part of a Wikipedia summary. I could have rewritten this, but as I say, it’s not really my direct interest:

So looking at the above it seems that Kant believes there is a unknowable aspect to reality, whereas Hegel believes we can gradually come to know spiritual truth.

The problem with this Wikipedia comparison, as I see it, is that knowing (or not knowing) the “thing-in-itself” aspect of an object (noumena) is not the same as learning about spiritual presences (numinous).¹ The above quote doesn’t recognize the difference. But elsewhere Wikipedia does recognize it:

Numinous is an English adjective, derived in the 17th century from the Latin numen, that is (especially in ancient Roman religion) a “deity or spirit presiding over a thing or space”. Meaning “denoting or relating to a numen”, it describes the power or presence or realisation of a divinity. It is etymologically unrelated to Immanuel Kant’s noumenon, a Greek term referring to an unknowable reality underlying all things [emphasis added].²

Bottom line?

Don’t read anything uncritically. Even the venerable Wikipedia can be misleading if you don’t do a little digging.

PortalPhilosophers

PortalPhilosophers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

¹ A similar distinction can be made, I think, between matter/energy on the one hand, and spirit, on the other hand. Some New Age writers confuse these two ideas, which to me says they don’t know what they’re talking about. Or to put it more nicely, they’re sort of like newborns who have yet to learn how to differentiate among different types of spiritual experience.

² https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Numinous

Related » David Hume, Science

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