Phenomenology was one one the main threads of Western philosophy in the 20th century. It involved a new way of thinking about how we can act as we do in reality that emphasized the fact that we are inextricably immersed in a web of perceptions and interactions with the physical and biological and social worlds we inhabit.
We've been looking at one of the latest developments in phenomenology in the past few weeks; ie ecological psychology. A key concept for me in phenomenology is that what we perceive is meaningful to us AS we experience it. To an amazing extent we just do not perceive stuff around us that isn't meaningful in some way.
The thrust of this way of thinking has focus on how we actually experience our world, in contrast with earlier philosophic traditions which tried to figure out how the world MUST BE. And this approach has been very fruitful.
Via thinkers like Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Wittgenstein, and Quine we have come to see that meaning isn't found in reality. Meaning is found in our mutual dance of interpreting each other and our environment all the time - a dance that never stops. And this way of thinking is consistent with the strange (from an ancient perspective) scientific theories like relativity and quantum mechanics and evolution that transformed our world.
Phenomenology gave us the idea of the distinction between reality and our world. Reality is what exists. Our world is that subset of reality that is meaningful to us. And by the hypothesis nothing is meaningful to us without interaction.
But I have to say - useful as this set of concepts is it seems to me to be quite incomplete. For instance, a theory of affordances nicely explains in the macro what happens when we reach for a doorknob. Our bodies know how to respond to our situation; we don't have to figure it out.
In fact, if we did have to consciously control all of the cells in our body to reach for a doorknob we couldn't do anything. We've learned that consciousness isn't the core of our being that we thought before.
So how is phenomenology incomplete?
I think it's because of the link between perception and meaning. That link works when I'm walking down the street only paying attention to the stuff that's relevant to my project. But how about things we perceive that are not particularly meaningful.
These days I've found I've taken pleasure in the feeling of my feet. I just noticed it. I don't know how the concept of meaning could be relevant for something like that. When somebody is walking down the street talking to the voices in his head how is the idea of interaction with environment the sole consideration?
Or I wake up in the middle of the night with a muscle cramp. These are all experiences that I can't easily cram into the mold of perception is meaningful AS it is perceived.
Phenomenology also is incomplete when it comes to accounting for how we can create new things.
I'm aware of this as an artist and writer.
Right now I'm sitting composing this essay - what is it in the idea that perception depends on meaning that is relevant to that?
Each week I sit down to a blank screen and just decide what meaning I'll create with the words I write.
Each week I write in the same physical environment - and each week I write something new.
How does phenomenology account for that?
So what would Post Phenomenology look like?
It would be a bit like the linking of quantum mechanincs and relativity in physics. It would integrate the wholistic phenomenological way of thinking with concepts like evolution that have a huge role in explaining whatever world we occupy.
For instance, I suggest that memetics is a post phenomenological way of thinking. It is compatible with a wholistic philosophy but also give explanations about why certain ideas propagate through a population that phenomenology can't offer.
Post Phenomenolgy will also be interested in how something can possibly be interpretted by anything. It's not enough to say that perception is meaningful AS perceived. We need to see how meat like us implements the concept of meaning.
And I think Ray Kurzweil for one has done good work on that front.
He talks about how there are simple neuronal structures that interpret. They take information and produce different outputs depending on the information. He has shown how networks of such interpreters can actually go from raw data to meaning. He's the guy that developed the Optical Character Recognition systems that let a scanned text be turned into editable text And invented speech recognition systems that google uses when I speak my destination into the navigator on my tablet. The systems that Kurzweil works with are physical and have particular limitations based on that physicality. Those limits have not been explored.
What sort of thoughts CAN'T we have because of the structure of our brains? Isn't that an interesting philosophic question?
What do you think?