From WikiEducator
Jump to: navigation, search

Research Commentaries

Stewart and Mickunas 1990


Stewart, David, and Algis Mickunas. Exploring Phenomenology: a Guide to the Field and its Literature. Athens, OH: Ohio Univ. Pr., 1990 [1974].

Date Entered: 22 February 2003

Date Read: February 2003


'Behaviorism introduced a further paradox: although the task of psychology is to describe human behavior, the describer, who is conscious of that behavior (or even the originator of it) is left unaccounted for. By attempting to explain all mental or "spiritual" (in the sense of the German word Geist) phenomena in terms of physical processes, psychology reduced thought to physical processes, secretions of the brain, which in principle were to be explained by chemical or physiological laws. The objections made by the phenomenologists to this kind of reductionistic psychology were not objections to the empirical method as such but to the assumptions on which it was based. In its attempt to describe the total human subject in completely quantitative terms, psychology had eliminated the importance of human consciousness itself. But additionally, it led to further difficulties. If logic can be accounted for by psychology as merely a psychophysical process (presumably occurring in the human brain), then there is no criterion to distinguish one such process (the one occurring in my brain) as logically superior to another process (the one occurring in your brain). All thinking processes, including contradictory ones, would have to be viewed as equally valid if a strictly psychologistic interpretation of logic is assumed, for logic can produce no criteria by which true statements can be distinguished from false ones' (18).

Stewart and Mickunas point out the inherent problem in reducing all cognition and consciousness to physical processes in the brain: the truth of its own position can only be understood as an expression of psychophysical processes in human brains, and if the process were different, then our understanding would have to be. Psychology must appeal to some external standard, whether logic or reality, in order to establish itself as a discipline.

'Among other aspects, Husserl's method amounted to an expansion of the meaning of the term experience. Instead of limiting its use to those things known by means of sense perception, Husserl applied it to anything of which one is conscious. There are many different things of which one can be aware: natural objects, mathematical entities, values, affective states, volitions, melodies, moods, desires feelings—all these are things (Sachen) of which one is aware. All of these things Husserl calls phenomena. Phenomenology, then, became a program for a systematic investigation of the content of consciousness' (23).

Stewart and Mickunas describe how Husserl broadened the notion of human experience that could be observed beyond the merely physical and perceptual.

'To underscore the phenomenological view of consciousness, Husserl introduced new terminology which would avoid the subject-object dualism of older philosophical views while respecting the polar structure of consciousness. The activity of consciousness he called noesis . . . , whereas the essence to which this mental activity is correlated he called noema . . . . Still a word of caution is needed: the subject-object way of thinking is so ingrained in habits of thought that one would fail to understand Husserl if he identified the noetic with the subject and the noematic with the object. Husserl stressed repeatedly that noetic activity cannot be identified with psychological activity, for it deals not with psychic processes but with the meaning of those processes. Similarly, the noematic cannot be identified with the empirical object, for it deals not with the physical experience but with the meaning of that experience. This unity of meanings is another indication of the importance of the intentional structure of consciousness. The noetic-noematic structure of consciousness cannot be identified either with the subject or object (in more traditional terminology) for it is the condition for the possibility of experiencing both the subject and the object. One never finds the noetic and noematic in isolation form each other but always correlated; they are two sides of the same coin' (37-8).

Stewart and Mickunas distinguish between previous dichotomies of subject-object and the poles of the phenomena, called noetic and noematic. These are meanings of the experience of subject and object in union as the phenomenon.

'To emphasize the active role of consciousness in this unification, Husserl referred to this activity as constitution. It is transcendental in the sense that such constitution is a necessary condition for the unified experience of particular entities. Transcendental constitution, however, is a formal capacity of consciousness. In other words, consciousness does not create the impressions or the object around which the impressions are synthesized. It rather constitutes a unity out of the multitude of impressions in terms of the experience itself. In short, transcendental constitution is the necessary prerequisite for all experience' (45).

Stewart and Mickunas explain Husserl's notion of constitution as the hermeneutic whereby the observer makes the various impressions those of the "same" thing. It is not that we "invent" a reality from our impressions, but that we understand reality as a unification of our experiences.

'A popular and pervasive explanation of mind is that mental activity can be totally accounted for in terms of physical processes which are the proper domain of psychophysiology. In turn, this kind of explanation further reduces its principles of understanding to those natural laws investigated by chemistry and, ultimately, physics. . . . This kind of response to traditional philosophical problems signals a radical reductionism which phenomenologists often refer to as "nothing but" philosophy" mental activity is "nothing but" physical processes in the brain; freedom is "nothing but" an illusion due to a lack of proper knowledge of causal relationships; values are "nothing but" emotional preferences explainable in terms of chemical imbalance; perception is "nothing but" the physical interaction of different states of matter. The basic assumption underlying all such explanations is that reality is "nothing but" the sum total of physical entities. Phenomenology's response is to insist that all such assumptions be bracketed (the phenomenological epoche). By suspending these presuppositions, the phenomenologist does not thereby conclude that such explanations are incorrect but that they must be set aside, put in parentheses as it were, until they can be philosophically validated. In short, phenomenology insists that phenomena be investigated as they present themselves to consciousness; then and only then can they be placed in the proper perspective, taking care that no area of conscious experience be excluded or reduced to something other than what is being experienced. Before one can conclude that mental activity is "nothing but" physical processes in the brain, he must already know the mental activity as it is in itself. But the only way one can know mental activity as it is in itself is by examining it as phenomnenon, that is as it appears in conscious experience. The phenomenological method offers a way of doing this' (91).

Stewart and Mickunas point out the superficiality of explaining human cognition solely in physical terms. There is a crucial assumption in such a move that invalidates its own agenda. If thought is only the product of chemical processes, then there can be no verification of such processes; chemical processes can be neither valid, nor invalid, merely in process, blocked, past, or future.

'The distinguishing features of the phenomenological view of perception can best be seen when contrasted with the traditional view which is dominated by the causal model. In this view the mind is understood as an organism (usually thought of as a passive receptacle for sensations) causally related to physical objects. The physical object emits or reflects waves and particles which impinge on the brain and are then translated into a copy of the object being experienced. . . . The phenomenological analysis of perception admits that there is a causal link between the organism and the object which is being experienced, but it insists that perception involves more than this. In line with its method, phenomenology goes directly to the experience of perception itself and in doing so points out a major difficulty with the causal model of perception. Science would describe sound, for example, as the movement of energy waves transmitted by the particles of air which impinge upon the organic structures of the ear and are thus transmitted to the brain. But this kind of explanation leaves out the most important part, namely the sound itself. For one does not experience the movement of particles in the air or the organic process described by science but rather the sound of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, for example. A physical description of the instruments in the orchestra and a physical account of the action of the ear are inadequate to account for the sound of the symphony. Sound certainly involves these aspects, but as a phenomenon it cannot be fully accounted for on these terms alone. . . . Viewed phenomenologically, perception is seen as intentional; that is, perception is always perception of . . . . [These ellipsis dots are in the original.]This means that in perception the structures of perception themselves are not given. What is given is the perceived object in the world' (99).

Stewart and Mickunas do not reject the traditional account of perception, but point out the tenuousness of the assumptions underlying the account.

'Basic to the phenomenological view of language is an emphasis upon its intentional structure. Language is always about . . . [These ellipsis dots are in the original.], just as consciousness is always consciousness of . . . . [These ellipsis dots are in the original.] Language is an expression of conscious intentionality in terms of meaning. Being the basic mode of expression if the intentional structure of consciousness, language understood phenomenologically includes all the ways consciousness expresses its relation to the world. The gesture, the look, bodily stances, as well as formal systems of communication must be included in the notion of language' (105).

Stewart and Mickunas posit that language behaviour is a sub-category of communicative behaviour such that an understanding of the larger category provides insight into the lesser one.

'Language, understood as spoken or written expression, comprises two aspects—the empirical dimension and the sphere of meaning, which are never given one without the other. The empirical aspect of language includes sounds and visual marks, whereas the meaning of language is that which is expressed through sounds and visual signs. It is a mistake, however, to equate the meaning of language with the arbitrary system of signs constituting that language. The meaning of any spoken or written expression is not reducible to such a system, for different systems may express the same meaning, or different meanings may be expressed by the same system. Whereas a given system consists only of a finite number of sounds or visual signs, it can express an infinite number of meanings. From a phenomenological point of view, language is never closed but, like consciousness itself, is open to an infinite number of possibilities' (105-6).

Stewart and Mickunas note that all of language is a form-meaning composite (as Pike 1982, said) and move away from the traditional view that language is an arbitrary system of signs (Cf. Pike 1964).

'In analyzing language, phenomenology deals not only with the formal language system itself but with the intended meaning, which is always directed to something other than language. This has led, particularly in the work of Heidegger, to the notion of language as logos . . . As logos, language is the bearer of meanings, and these meanings are meanings about the world that are grasped by consciousness. Language, however, cannot be understood in an abstract sense but only in its concrete situation. A single word in isolation from its context has no meaning; the meaning of the word derives its unity from the total situation, which includes the outward expression as well as the objective context. In short, language, like consciousness, is always situated. The situatedness of language is a life-situation, not a series of lexical meanings as one would find in a dictionary, for the situation in which language functions prescribes what the words of language mean. Lexical meanings are defined with reference to the meanings of other words in what is essentially a closed system. But in experience, one finds that language is not a closed system, for with a finite number of signs (letters, sounds, grammatical rules) one can express an infinite number of meanings. This kind of analysis shows that the possibility of new meanings arises out of the lived-situation. Failure to take this lived-situation into one's account of language will not give a full understanding of language as it is experienced. In short, phenomenology finds the meaning of language in the context of "worldly" situations as they are lived' (106).

Stewart and Mickunas explain that the meaning of language comes from life, not a formal property of the system. As such, the lived context is what needs description for an account of the meaning of a language text.

'Phenomenology is critical of traditional psychology for focusing on only the noematic dimension of experience and for interpreting the noetic in a materialistic sense. By basing its approach on a method borrowed from natural science, traditional psychology could not help but be concerned only with the observable and measurable aspects of human behavior. The cause and effect model became the explanation of all human activity; mental processes were reduced to empirical phenomena observable within a causal chain. It was only a short step to determinism, which claims that all mental phenomena are explainable in terms of reactions to prior stimuli and that the relationship between different mental events is mechanistic. This is another instance of the "nothing but" approach to psychology: thoughts are "nothing but" displacements in the brain of material particles; consciousness is "nothing but" the sum of these displacements; and all mental activity is "nothing but" the functioning of a highly complex mechanism reacting to its environment' (119).

Stewart and Mickunas point out that psychologists crucially assume stances in regard to the subject matter of their field. These stances contradict the findings of phenomenology concerning consciousness.

'All this is antithetical to phenomenology for the reason that it leaves out the noetic structures of consciousness and their nonmaterial noematic correlates. In short, phenomenology charges that mechanistic psychology omits the most important aspect of human behavior, namely, its meaning. And in so doing it reduces itself to a subjectivistic contradiction: if all mental processes are caused by physical events, then the explanations of behavioural psychology are likewise caused by physical conditions and therefore have no universal validity. And yet by making the claim that all behavior is "nothing but" the results of physical processes and reactions to an environment, behaviorism is making a claim to the universal validity of its explanations. If behavioural psychologists eliminate the meaning of mental activity from their area of investigation, they cannot then claim that their explanations have any meaning. But it is precisely the meaning of psychic events that phenomenology investigates' (119-20).

Stewart and Mickunas reiterate that psychologists lack a true explanation of mental events in terms of meaning at just the point where they posit physical causes for psychical events. It is not that phenomenology advocates a dualist understanding of body plus mind; but rather that human mental operations are essentially meaningful.

'Phenomenology does not limit the term "social sciences" only to the study of the structures of society but includes all areas of human life— education, literature, business and economics, history, as well as anthropology and sociology. In all these areas of inquiry, phenomenology's method of approach is rooted in the notion of the lived-world . . . Thus, we act in the world rather than observe it as disinterested scientists, and in the lived-world questions of epistemology, ontology, or the meaning of the world do not arise. In fact they cannot even be admitted since they are not recognized as part of the lived-world' (126).

Stewart and Mickunas advance that phenomenology examines the disciplines of the social sciences in a way foundationally different from that of the empirical scientist, who does not act as a participant in the events being described.

'The social sciences, phenomenologically considered, deal not with the question of the reality of the world but rather with human relationships within this world. Thus, intersubjective relations and the question of knowledge of the other person are of primary importance for phenomenology. . . . When encountering another individual, I encounter a person without having to go through the process of drawing an inference based on anatomical details that would allow me to classify him as a member of the human species. . . . From the moment that I encounter the other, I am thou oriented, not in terms of a theoretical judgment but in an immediate lived-experience' (127).

Stewart and Mickunas insist that our experience of others in the world is not based upon empirical observation and reasoning or theory, but rather upon an extension from our own lived experience of ourselves.

'As is true of any living discipline which has not yet rigidified into a formalism, phenomenology faces a number of unresolved issues. Not the least of these is the confusion in the minds of many persons as to the process of phenomenological analysis itself. Because of phenomenology's emphasis upon description as the primary task of philosophy, it is tempting to label any description as phenomenological. But this is most decidedly a distortion of the intent of phenomenology. Not just any description of experience is phenomenological, for basic to the phenomenological method is the exclusion of naturalistic assumptions about the ontological status of the world, including one's subjective reactions to it. Therefore, an ongoing task of phenomenology is constantly to clarify the naturalistic assumptions operative in description and to make apparent the experiential factors inherent in that description' (143).

Stewart and Mickunas identify one of the ongoing tasks of phenomenology to make its procedures clear to those scholars who would consider using phenomenology in application to their fields of study.

'As phenomenology addresses itself to the foundational questions of the human sciences, it has come up against the fact that these other disciplines cannot be reduced to the principles of one philosophical system. What is needed is a bridge between phenomenology and the various methodologies of the human sciences—such as anthropology, sociology, psychology, history of religions, and so forth. Phenomenology, however, sees its task as providing an analysis of the basic assumptions lying behind the methods employed in these disciplines, but in order to accomplish this philosophy must first show the possible ways of interpreting these assumptions. These principles of interpretation constitute a method referred to as hermeneutics . . . Hermeneutics is an attempt to show the prephilosophical understanding of man in the world that is basic to these various disciplines so that this understanding can become the basis of philosophical reflection' (145).

Stewart and Mickunas show the connection between the projects of phenomenology and those of philosophical hermeneutics.

Valdés 1987


Valdés, Mario J. 1987. Philosophical hermeneutics and the study of literature. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Pr.


My point is a simple one and I do not want to belabour it: if we can consider the persistence of a formal sequence a first criterion of identity, the second criterion for the identification of the text is its historicity. If a text were to be deprived of its history, it would also be deprived of meaning (32).

Valdés avoids the notion that persistence of meaning is the second criterion, because the event of meaning is a volatile entity: How can we know that any given experience of meaning is the same as any other?

We can speak of the implied reader as part of the very process of meaning, together with form and historicity. Such is the first part of my argument, that the identity of a text is directly tied to the potential for completion of meaning as reading matter (32).

According to Valdés, the third criterion for the identification of a text is that of the potential of being read, which leads to the implication of a reader.

Let us construe this final criterion of identity as fully as possible. In spoken discourse the dialogic situation provides the full realm of identity, but a written text is addressed to unknown readers and potentially to countless readers in the future, all of whom have the capacity and the interest to read it. This universalization of the audience can lead to only one conclusion, and that is that identity can never be completely fixed; it will change, for it is the response of the present and the future, and each makes and will continue to make the text relatively important of unimportant. This potential for multiple readings is the dialectical counterpart of the semantic autonomy of the text. It therefore follows that the appropriation of the text is a process that generates the whole dynamics of interpretation and concludes with a temporary sense of identity (33).

Because, Valdés says, the third criterion for identifying a text relates to the potential reader, the final identity of any given text is never entirely defined. In Hopper’s terms, the text is an emergent entity, since the new reader is always capable of experiencing something from reading a text that no one prior has experienced. This does not mean that Hopper and Valdés are saying the same things, only that there is a certain resonance between what the former understood of language and what the latter is arguing for literature.

To my mind the highest form of self-deception is to believe that we can know the truth about ourselves by knowing a set of objective facts (34).

While this statement by Valdés would make a remarkable motto or proverb generally, it has specific force contrary to certain developments in psychology, linguistics, and other humanities, that would make our understanding of humanity a matter of adherence to a creed of ‘objective facts’.

For purposes of clarity I would like to limit the field of inquiry: a text for our purposes is any written discourse, and a literary text is written discourse whose capacity for redescription of the world has been acknowledged (36-7).

Valdés provides a helpful description of what he understands about written discourse and literature. However, it would be good to note that the capacity for redescribing the world is always present in all communication. The operative term in his description is acknowledged. Literature is a socially-defined object, which is not to say that its capacities are in any way limited by society’s assessment of a text as ‘non-literary’.

Following Gadamer I hold to the idea that what a text signifies does not coincide with what the author meant. From the moment the text is completed and given to the reader, textual meaning and author intentions have separate and often far-removed destinies. Thus a third and also basic characteristic of a literary text is that it transcends its author’s psychological and sociological conditions of production. In the words of Umberto Eco it opens to an unlimited series of readings, each of which will have a specific historicity of particular psychological and sociological dimensions. In other worlds the loss of original context, which is only partial and often mitigated by historical scholarship, gives way to the necessary creation of a new context that belongs to the reader-text relationship (38).

While Valdés might want this to be taken as narrowly applicable to literature, because of its implicit purpose of being read by unknown readers in a time and place radically different from that of the composition, it does not need to be so restricted. As I have pointed out, such things as Freudian slips provide helpful understanding that the meaning experience of any communication is more than merely the intent of the source of the utterance or writing.

Language is bound by an essential temporality; it is, in Humboldt’s terms, energy and can never be fixed into presence without its being altered. Even as we become aware of the sense of language, it has already moved beyond us, so that at the very moment of presence it is already absent. The form that sense takes in our reading is what Derrida calls trace. The essential point to be made here is that all language is available only as a trace. This is to say that, in order for us to be aware of meaning, it must have already happened (50).

The notion of temporality of communication articulated by Valdés may be consonant with Harris’ idea of the necessary integration of all communication into its context. In addition, his notion that ‘fixing language’ alters it may be similar to Harris’ notion that segregationist linguistics distorts communication.

Phenomenological hermeneutics is not another way of knowing that can be assigned its role by deconstructionist critics. It is more accurate to characterize it as another way of coping with reality, and one that includes post-structuralist scepticism. Therefore there is one fundamental point of disagreement between phenomenological hermeneutics and the post-structuralist deconstruction of Jacques Derrida and his North American colleagues. They do not recognize the essential reality of literary criticism as a shared experience. On the contrary, phenomenological hermeneutics has postulated its domain as the world of social action and the concept of community. A community is defined by a shared activity. It is the engagement in social action marked by a feeling of a unity but also an activity wherein individual participation is completely willing and not forced or coerced. In short, for there to be a community there must be a consciousness of the collective identity and there must also exist a strong sense of purposive sharing among its members’ (55).

As Valdés contrasts the community and traditions of literary criticism with the isolationism that deconstructive criticism would appear to prescribe, he also builds a conceptual foundation upon which a theory of all human behaviour may be built: shared experience, identity, action. My terms for these would be communion, community, and communication, respectively.

Fraser 1992


Fraser, Helen. 1992.The subject of speech perception: an analysis of the philosophical foundations of the information-processing model. London: MacMillan Pr.


‘The project reported here has been very much one of analysis and exploration. It is an attempt to understand, clarify and explicate some underlying assumptions of the information-processing model of human speech perception. My original motivation in undertaking this analysis was a general dissatisfaction or unease with information processing models as an account of human speech perception...This book is the result of my attempt to understand the metatheoretical position I disagreed with, and pinpoint the reasons for that disagreement. It can be seen as an extended argument in justification of my reaction: “But people aren’t like that!”’ (xi).

Fraser began with an understanding that people aren’t as the accounts of human behaviour that were based upon the model by which human cognition is seen as a complex version of the circuitry of a computer.

‘The book does not contain reports of any new experiments; it is not about a new way of “doing speech perception”. It is about a new way of thinking about speech perception, from which I hope experimental work will grow’ (xi).

Helen Fraser summarises the process of communication assumed by researchers who follow the information processing model of human cognition in the following way.

‘Speech communication is seen as a process of message transfer, in which the speaker converts a meaning (the message) into sound (articulatory gestures with acoustic consequences) which is transferred to the ear of the hearer. The hearer receives the sound and matches it against meanings, similar to those of the speaker, stored as part of his or her own linguistics knowledge. The goal of speech perception is thus the retrieval of the speaker’s meaning.... Speech perception is the “decoding” operation of matching the sound against meanings, or transforming the sound into meaning, or extracting meaning from the sound’ (3).

This understanding is based upon the conduit metaphor and the code model of communication. Telementation, whereby the thoughts of a communicator are transferred to the mind of another, is a foundational assumption regarding communication.

‘Contrary to expectations, the speech signal is not naturally or obviously divisible into any clearly defined, linguistically relevant units. In an acoustic description, the signal is a quasi-continuous stream; the breaks or segmentations that do occur are not obviously correlated with any of the units or segments that appear to the hearer to be “there”, ready to be matched with their meanings’ (5).

While undoubtedly, there are breaks at larger levels (breath groups, pause groups, rhythm groups) certainly segmentation of the speech stream is a precise and technical process requiring disciplined and lengthy training and well beyond the capability of most communicators.

‘Phoneme monitoring experiments, as well as other evidence, suggests that the phoneme level is not always accessed in order before higher levels – those with larger units... it is not always the case that all stages are traversed in order, with acoustic features being combined to give small linguistic units and larger linguistic units being built up on the basis of information in the intermediate stages’ (21).

An important implication of this is that processing must not be a matter of concatenating sounds into larger and larger units giving sense to the message. If such a procedure is not a given when processing is done, there is also no reason why linearity must be a feature of the generative process either.

Fraser believes that the information-processing model of cognition is inadequate in several ways, which

‘stem precisely from its presupposition of a processing system which is not a possible description of a human being as a perceiver of speech.... There is ... an alternative approach – of starting with an understanding of the nature of human beings and human cognition in general, and then narrowing the focus to account for speech perception in terms of the more general principles’ (36-7).

Fraser uses this approach, beginning with the work of Husserl and Heidegger on human lived experience and building an understanding that cannot be reconciled with the model of human cognition based upon the function of computers.

Agar 1994


Agar, Michael. 1994. Language shock: understanding the culture of conversation. New York: Morrow and Co.


‘If you’re a professional student of languaculture, you’ll have a head full of similarities to use that you’ve learned already. If you’re not, you’ll still have a head full of similarities that you’re using, but you might not be aware of them. So, the first problem, for the pro or the amateur, is, What similarities are you using to see the differences with? . . . The second problem, for pro or amateur, is to remember that any languaculture is much richer than any similarity can handle. If the similarity you start with gets you only so far, but not far enough, then add on more similarities, enrich the structure so that it can handle more. . . . The usual academic bias is to use content to check out the similarity, or, to put it another ways, data to test a theory. My bias is that content comes first. If the similarities solve some problems but leave others confused, the fatten up the similarities. If they still can’t handle it, then drag in the content anyway. Theoretically confused understanding is better than missing the point in a theoretically elegant way’ (86).

Agar views the creation of “languaculture”–his neologism for an integrated view of language-and-culture as a single entity– as “filling in the spaces between the learner’s understanding of how people operate in a society generally and how this specific societal group functions. In his view language and culture are transparent and invisible to people in society; it is as if they don’t exist unless you step outside of them to consider them. What people tend to see as culture is rather the difference between what they are used to and what they are experiencing as a result of contact with a new group. Agar believes that we all begin by looking at similarities and differences and build understanding based upon these perceptions.

‘Never mind that his is difficult, to passionately commit to the flow of experience and keep your distance at the same time. The concept expresses the right contradiction. Besides, participant observation hides Malinowski’s secret about culture. Like Boas and Whorf, he wrote about culture as what “those people” have. But participant observation carries with it a commitment to connect, to put your body and mind on the line, to engage what “those people” are doing and figure out why, at first, you didn’t understand. Participant observation signals that culture has to get personal’ (92).

Agar articulates his understanding that an awareness of culture cannot really be that of an outsider with the culture as an object of study. Rather, one must participate in a people’s activities in order to understand the nature of the meanings and world that they live in.

‘The confusion of the outsider signals a rich point, but so does immediate native-speaker recognition followed by wild disagreement’ (101).

Agar believes that when a learner “runs up against a difference between the way s/he would talk or act and the way the group talks or acts, this provides an opportunity to learn, which he calls a rich point. Generally Agar believes that the greater the confusion, the greater the “richness” of the rich point. Native speakers disclose rich points in their discussions when they argue over meanings found in language or culture.

‘The answer to my cosmic null hypothesis was clear. Everyone in the transportation field had variables and lists. But I, like any other anthropologist with a comparative, holistic, field-oriented perspective, had built patterns out of my encounter, and patterns were news’ (119).

Agar’s “null hypothesis” was that there was no information that the industry was lacking. He worked at connecting the bits of information in relation to each other to show pattern. The people at the conference he was speaking at were aware of all the bits he was talking about (data) but were previously unaware that they fell into a pattern.

‘The problem with culture is where it came from. In the good old days, anthropology invented an idea of what it studied. It studied small groups of people who lived in some bounded space. These people didn’t read or have TVs. They produced what they needed to live. Maybe they were tied to a couple of other groups to find spouses, and maybe there was a small market town nearby where they went to get the few things they didn’t produce themselves. But by and large, the circle around the group pretty much included all the things they did. . . . The idea was a fiction then, because small groups weren’t that isolated and traditions changed from generation to generation. And it was especially a fiction because it left out the way the personal experience of culture led to the results. But it was a fiction that was close enough to reality so that the cracks between real and ideal didn’t rupture the concept’ (121).

There was never the sort of isolation between culture groups that was modelled in the early theory. Much of ethnographic practice has grown up around this faulty idea of how a culture is constituted.

Culture grew up as a concept to cover the description of isolated traditional communities. Now I want to use it to describe why two people who are different in some way have trouble communicating and what they can do about it. Culture needs to be hooked on to langua. If the concept is to have a chance, it has to be changed. . . . If what culture used to label is gone, then culture has to label something else. And whatever it labels, it won’t be a closed, traditional society in which an individual always and only participates’ (122-3).

This is Agar’s explanation for the necessity of the neologism; neither language or culture are adequate to explain the phenomenon and both come with too many poor associations and wrong meanings to be salvaged. There must be the creation of a new term to describe this new way of looking at people groups.

‘Differences. Think differences. Culture is supposed to explain differences, to take rich points and make them understandable. And it’s supposed to explain those difference by hooking them to a common human denominator, to similarities, to the human bridge between you and them. It’s supposed to be a guide to the personal experience of culture, a guide that shows how to stretch consciousness to include an understanding of rich points that puzzled you at first’ (124).

Without the context of different ways of speaking, different meanings, different actions and expectations, there would be no need to study culture. Beyond this, though, Agar claims that culture itself only exists in these differences. However, perception of differences is not enough.

‘Mexico is an example of how I took my first step beyond the simple link of difference with identity. I took the step by noticing ties between two differences, one in the pace of business negotiations and one in a metaphor from the bullfight. I started to put together something coherent, something that started to show how one difference tied in with another, something that launched me into a series of questions, as yet unanswered. The two rich points—slow pace and bullfight metaphor—moved me beyond identity plus difference. They started me on a journey to change my consciousness, to see alternatives to my “natural” way to do things, to understand that I needed to build something new to understand business negotiations in a fundamentally different way’ (127).

The elements and entities are not enough to produce understanding. Agar posits that connection between items must be pursued. The goal of such exploration is coherence and relation between items identified.

‘The trick is to find out how the difference is related to other difference, to assemble a coherent picture of how they all fit together to make up a grand difference between you and them, a difference that leads to a different way of seeing and doing things’ (127-8).

Agar does not see this coherence as rigid or formal, more as a matter of constraints a loose framework within which expectation and understanding grow.

‘Whatever it is that you build to start making sense of rich points, whatever story you tell to show how those differences cohere into a different way of seeing and acting from the one you brought with you, you could call culture. . . . You call that culture? It’s weird compared to the old way the term was used. Culture isn’t something a group of people “have”; it’s something you make up to fill in the spaces between them and you. Culture isn’t an exhaustive description of everything inside a closed space; it’s something that handles rich points and uses similarities to organize them. Culture isn’t tied just to the kinds of identities that anthropologists used to deal with, like Australian aborigines; it might be tied to any identity, including occupation, ethnicity, leisure time activity, or gender. . . . And culture, once you make it up, doesn’t leave you where you were when you started. When you’re done with the job, you’re aware of something about your own identity that used to lurk on the edges of consciousness as the natural order of things. And you understand an alternative to who you are, and now imagine that probably there are many more. . . . If you hit a rich point, think you’ve solved it, and haven’t changed, then you haven’t got it right’ (128).

As Agar would put it, the term cultural difference would be redundant, since the culture is the difference. Agar also points to another effect of proper participant observation that validates study: change on the part of the student is a requisite part of valid exploration and experience.

‘Once you trip over a rich point, you stand at the door of the culture half of languaculture. Say you figure out what that difference means. That’s not enough; you only wind up with a long list of differences. Long lists of disconnected things keep you on the surface, keep you from the deeper threads that tie the differences together. There’s no pattern, and without pattern, there’s no coherence, and without coherence, there’s no culture. . . . Coherence is what happens as you move from lists through connections to system’ (129).

While there will always be certain things that are unconnected to the general system that one’s understanding builds in encountering new situations, the goal is to move toward integration and connection between the items noticed. Agar introduces the idea of frames from artificial intelligence studies to explain this integration and system.

‘Frames stretch language beyond the circle, and frames act like culture. Frames take language and culture and make them inseparable. The “and” disappears, and we’re left with languaculture.’ (132).

Agar is not the first linguist or anthropologist to use the notion of frames (Cf. Winograd) to understand social behaviour. Frames provide expectation within the world of the text. Within the restaurant frame (in our society), people expect to find such things as tables, chairs, plates, cutlery, waiters/waitresses, and so forth. Each situation we encounter provides a frame whereby we learn to anticipate certain concepts, activities, and so on. New situations may be opportunities for us to experience unexpected entities and relations; this is how we build culture, according to Agar. However, Agar points out that this does not apply to life in a rigorous way.

‘The meanings that frames organize are expectations, not certainties. In the jargon of the computernauts, such expectations are called default values. Most computer users know the term by now. When you fire up a word processor, it sets the page for 8 ½ by 11 and 66 lines unless you tell it otherwise. Those are the default values for a page in the United States’ (134).

Because the expectations are default values, they are subject to modification. What this means is that life within the group is never necessarily boring; there are always new situations to explore within relationship to other people in the group.

‘Culture, the experience of it, starts when you go bottom-up. You’re struck by differences you don’t know how to make sense out of. Your default values aren’t met, but instead of holding the world responsible, you figure maybe there are other frames out there with other default values that are being met, and you try to figure out what those frames might be. Once you’ve built a new frame, you go into top-down mode and carry it around and apply it to new situations. You compare the situation you built it in with new situations where it should work. If it doesn’t work, you go bottom-up again and fix it, the go top-down and try again. . . . When the frames coherently organize several rich points that work with people of a particular social identity, be it nationality, ethnicity, gender, occupation, or social style, then you’ve built a languaculture of the identity, from your point of view. I have to add “your point of view,” because culture isn’t something that “they” have; it’s something that fills the spaces between you and tem, and the nature of that space depends on you as well as them. . . . What happens if you change the “you,” change the nature of the space between by changing the one doing the frame building? Then the frames might change as well. This is as subversive as anything Whorf ever said. It’s enough to make an old-time scientist break out in a rash. There is no unique set of frames that organize the differences between people. There are some that work and some that don’t, and the trick is to figure out how to tell the difference’ (135).

Agar explains the personal nature of linguistic and cultural behaviour, by observing that languaculture is what is built between people in order to understand their relationship to each other, how they should act, and what to understand about each other based upon those actions. The method seems to be trial and error, and validity seems to be defined as what appears to work in the business of “getting along” with others. This is a very phenomenological understanding of culture and language, especially near the end of the quote.

‘As far as communication goes, the culture part of languaculture can be more important that the language part’ (144)

Because language and culture are so transparent to speakers within their comfortable surroundings, Agar has found that the structures of language rarely cause the sort of profound misunderstandings that result from the “outside the circle” part of language, the part that is often considered to be “culture”.

‘This is a different breed of language cat. The rich point isn’t some particular word or grammatical rule; instead, it’s something people are doing with them. The rich point isn’t sitting out there in public; usually you can’t point to a single word and find the problem; the problem isn’t a word; the problem is you don’t know what’s happening or how to do it’ (144).

Agar introduces the notion of the speech act, or what we do with words, to show how language moves “beyond the circle” (of what generative theory would describe as language) into culture and society. He also claims that these sorts of rich points are much more profound than the sort involving mere linguistic structures.

‘The philosophers obsessed over single sentences that were examples of single speech acts. I’m obsessing over discourse that exemplifies several frames. Speech acts are a step in the right direction, but there’s a ways to go’ (150).

Agar noticed that much of the use of language in society rarely reduces itself to the consideration of mere sentences as wholes within a group setting. There is much more going on; there are multiple factors influencing things, but there are also multiple intents and speech acts going on in a given monologue.

‘Language is more than words and sentences. Understanding language involves more than what the words alone carry. You have to understand the acts that language is a part of. You have to understand what the language counts as. And once you know that language counts as paying the bill, having a conversation, or telling a lie, you have to figure out if paying the bill, having a conversation, or telling a lie is the same kind of act that you have always assumed it was, because chances are, it’s not’ (151).

Thus, the analysis of role, not merely as a linguistic structure but as a feature of person and life, is important to communication. The same sentence may not have the same purpose in a different social setting, and probably will not. Agar’s point here is also that these sorts of purposes will serve to define very high level units in the social functioning of people, and thus will change the perception of roles at much lower levels.

‘The kinds of rich points you notice in discourse depend on the kinds of expectations you have and the kinds of frames you build to solve the problem will depend on which expectations need changing’ (161).

For Agar, our high-level perceptions of what is happening can completely obliterate lower-level rich points. We can be so out-of-tune with what people around us are doing, that we completely miss the point of discussions that we are part of. Statements that we take as promises will turn out not to have been such, and we will often turn out to have promised things totally without the intent to do so.

‘The idea is as old as Freud and as recent as the sociology of Jürgen Habermas. When people depart from the frames that everyone agrees should be guiding the speech acts, then some other speech act might be pushing against the surface trying to get out. The differences between what people are officially doing and what they actually do may teach you something about the cracks in the social facts, cracks that let you glimpse contradictions in current ideas about what the world is and how it works’ (204).

This is a very interesting and exciting part of ethnolinguistic work, getting at the heart of people who are often at a certain amount of variance with the “social facts” of their existence. The description provides a metaphor both for understanding the patterns of social interactions and for variation from the patterns established.

‘Learning a new languaculture isn’t just a trip from outside to inside. No sooner do you feel that you’ve started inside than the process starts all over. An infinite job stretches out in front of you, a job in which there will always be new rich points, new frames, new links between one frame and another’ (204-5).

Agar’s point here is that such work is the project of a lifetime, with continual expansion of understanding from “within” after the initial process of “getting in” is accomplished. There will always be more about people to learn and to grow in relationship with them.

‘The emphasis isn’t on developing and filling out frameworks of similarities; instead, it’s on finding the connections among different rich points at different levels, in different places at different times with different people. The emphasis is on finding a story, the story that pulls the rich points together into an understanding of how they all cohere, a story that sketches the broader historical and political moment of which you, the former outsider, are now a part. The loose version of “frame” I’ve used here lets you do that; narrow theories of similarities, useful as they might be in solving specific problems, don’t’ (210).

There is an important point here between Agar and Ricoeur, what might be called the pre-eminence of narrative in human perception. This might provide a basis for both Virtanen’s theory of narrative as a basic sort of text and an understanding of all referential structure as essentially narration-building whether “story” is the immediate purpose or not.

'Coherence in Austria taught me something about coherence in my home languaculture: the similarity that let me travel between the two illuminated characteristics of both. That’s what the experience of culture is supposed to do, move you in a new direction that changes who you are, in both the old territory and the new. You turn from passive student into active participant in the new territory, but you also participate differently in the old. Culture has to do with who you are, with what you become when you take a rainbow of rich points and follow them to a coherent pot of gold, however tarnished that gold might turn out to be’ (210).

Agar has no illusions of solving the world’s problems by getting everyone to become his sort of ethnographer. However, he does see properly pursued participant observation as a means for individual growth, and he believes the growth allows a people to see greater overall coherence in the world of people around them.

‘As soon as language is stretched out into languaculture, Spanish in Spain and Spanish in Mexico, Serbian and Croatian, Hindi and Urdu, American English and British English aren’t the same at all. The inside-the-circle linguists try to handle the differences with “dialect” or “variant,” but if languaculture is what you’re after, the differences go well beyond what those concepts suggest’ (213).

One question arising from this has to do with expectations coming from the fact that these languages may, in fact, be deemed “the same” for some purposes (Cf. Peter Ladefoged’s comments of 1997 (LSA Linguistic Institute)), while acknowledging the differences as profound.

‘Rising above that languacultural ceiling calls for the sort of frame building I’ve talked about in this book. It calls for a sacrifice of the security of the one-dimensional languacultural life in favor of new frames, a new view of things that is different from the one you started with, a new self that is neither what you were nor the way those other people are, but something that can handle both’ (215).

The languacultural ceiling Agar is talking about here is the tendency for people in one culture to view another culture in terms of what they lack.

‘Nation and state identities are candidates to tag the scope of what you’ve learned, but use them with care. They are neither automatic nor comprehensive in their coverage. Part of what I learned from my business partners in Mexico I’ll bet I can wind up calling “Mexican,” because I’ll find it works all over the country, though I worry about repeated sayings that the North is a different country, “more like the United States,” and that the South is, too—“very Indian” is what they say in Mexico City’ (220).

Even the circle around languaculture, if one were to draw one, would be too limiting. All such entities are affected by their contexts.

‘Some variation is due to the peculiar twist a particular individual offers the world. But some of it is due to other social identities, more fine-grained than nation or state, and, sometimes, in conflict with them’ (221).

Many of the factors are those explored in R. Walker’s chart of “sociolinguistic repertoire” used in CanIL’s Language and Society course.

‘Once you’re inside a languaculture, rich points don’t stop. They demonstrate variation among different social identities—between investors and academics, between men and women, between workers and entrepreneurs, and between socialists and conservatives. And these identities, born of economics, gender, and politics, only top a long, long list’ (223).

Wherever social factors correlate with communication differences, rich points exist, whether across, or within, languages. (See a BBC summary of John Gumperz’ work entitled Crosstalk).

‘A journal called World English features the different ways people in different countries use English as a world language. Some article show that just because people are using the same grammar and dictionary, it doesn’t mean they’re using the same language. That truth is no surprise here. . . . John Gumperz’s work moved sociolinguistics in this direction. All I’m trying to do is move it a little further’ (226).

Anything relevant to an understanding of people in verbal or written communication with each other is the domain of linguistic investigation, not merely that which falls within the circle of grammar and lexicographic study.

‘Life, I think, is more loaded with rich points than it ever has been before, more interesting or more terrifying, depending on how comfortable with culture you are. But languaculture is still a social fact. It has to be or society can’t operate. It sets limits on what you can do if you want to participate in the social flow. Languacultures have to have edges, not as clear and crisp as Saussure suggested, but border areas all the same’ (231).

It is at this point that Pike’s notions of identity, variation, and distribution can open up descriptive means for us. The entity has a distribution through its context, with variation found in relation to that context. The context helps in understanding the variation.

‘The social identity, and the languaculture that goes with it, spills into family and social life in a way that, say, typing letters all day on a word processor doesn’t. Independent trucking is high density; word processing, low density’ (233).

Some jobs have a different effect on one’s total existence, are harder to leave “at work”, than others.

‘A friend of mine worked among the Bemba in Africa as a missionary. Once he met an older man who spoke English, but the man kept throwing in weird guttural and hissing sounds as he spoke. It turned out that the man had learned much of his English by listening to BBC radio broadcasts on an old radio suspended in a tree in the middle of a village. The cracks and pops and static of the distant broadcast, he assumed, were part of the sound system of English’ (234).

Anytime someone observes a thing only in one context, it can be hard to sort out “thing” from “context”.

‘The social identity people had put on me and the frames they’d organized around it fell like an old building when the dynamite goes off. They looked at me and wondered, and that gave me a chance to be somebody besides who they’d already decided I was. So important is that to me, so sacred, that I started referring to chicken fried steak as a sacrament’ (237).

Since Agar had been a university professor from New York, he was assumed to be a Yankee intellectual and probably Jewish; this stereotype was forcibly dismantled in the face of someone calling for the common chicken-fried steak.

‘My purpose here was to shift the reader’s view from language to languaculture, from grammar and dictionary to discourse plus frames, from linguistic competence to communicative competence. My purpose here was to erase the circle around language, to leave readers with a strange new word, languaculture, that would remind them of their inseparable bond’ (240).

This is the main point of Agar’s entire book, referred to in many places. He wants to have the reader see language as part of, and intimately related to, something that is entirely outside of the control of language.

‘Imagine a three-step process on the way to culture. Step one is a mistake. Something goes wrong. Step two is awareness of frames and possible alternatives. Step three is repair, tinkering with old frames, now brought to consciousness, and building new ones, untile the gaps between you and them are filled in’ (242).

Agar sets forth a research strategy (MAR) for making progress and learning to function in another culture.

‘Repair stretches consciousness in two directions: sideways, to accommodate new frames for the new languaculture, and upward, to grow a biographical self that includes what you used to be and organizes what you’ve become. Biography thickens with new identities and stretches to accommodate them’ (244).

At the same time people come to understand communication more, they also make themselves grow.

‘The point is to break away from the idea that LC1 and LC2 are separate entities afloat in some objective dish. The point is to start thinking about what happens inside the person who sails the MAR, who has the experience of culture, who turns into an immigrant, who learns a new languaculture and acquires the ability to function in both the old and the new one’ (249).

The goal is growth, not mere movement, from one culture into another. However, this is more difficult than mere language learning, because much of cultural behaviour has such moral overtones. Sometimes culturally adaptable people incur the wrath of both cultures they have learned, when it is evident that they move too freely among them.

Reeder 1986


Reeder, Harry P. 1986. The theory and practice of Husserl’s phenomenology. Lanham, MD: The Univ. Pr. of America.


Perhaps the most basic term in phenomenology is “evidence.” Husserl’s central focus, and the core of phenomenology, is the lived evidence we have for our claims. For Husserl, the ideal of evidence is self-givenness. Self-givenness is the presence, in lived evidence, of a “thing” itself. For instance, if I mention a horse to you, you hear a word, a “verbal sound infused with sense.” This is one form of evidence about horses --but a fuller, more fundamental form of evidence is acquired by standing directly before a horse. Talk about horses provides self-evidence for words, concepts, etc. Seeing, touching, smelling horses provides self-evidence for horses. Husserl, following in the tradition of empiricism (but expanding its concept of evidence), wished to provide a method for examining our experience to find what is really self-given there, in order to avoid projections and speculations. Thus the method of phenomenology, called phenomenological reduction and description, is a method for isolating, examining and then describing in detail the structures of our experience. It describes the phenomena as they appear, rather than attempting to explain why they appear as they do. (Reeder 1986:4)

Much of modern linguistics moves too quickly from a description of what is present to an explanation of the data. Husserl’s agenda involves a more thorough observation of what is present to the observer, together with an avoidance of explanatory attempts. This quote also points out the difference between experience of a word and experience of its referent.

Now that we have seen an example of eidetic reduction, a word should be said about what Husserl means (and does not mean) by his use of the term “essence.” The essence of something is a lived meaning-structure, the universal features of that thing as we experience it. As such, the experience of essences has both a priori and a posteriori features. Essences are universal and a priori meaning-structures in that they are atemporal, possible meanings.… But, of course, one would not talk about the essence of, e.g., “chair,” if one had not had some a posteriori, lived experience of chairs (or ideas of chairs). Recall here that the essence of x is found phenomenologically by starting from an experience of an X, which is held in retention, bracketed, and subjected to free variation.

Although Husserl recognizes essences as the a priori possibility of enacted lived meanings, he does not posit them as existing, in the way that Plato seems to have done. For Husserl there is no evidence for such an existence. Rather, they are said to “obtain,” as logicians and mathematicians say about rules, theorems, etc. They are general meaning structures which we discover as identically present in many actual (and possible) cases. (Reeder 1986:9-11)

For Husserl (and Reeder) essences are real, and though they are lived meanings, they are not mere mental constructs, divorced from “objective reality”.

Notice that, although some experiential structures must be identical for two experiences to be experiences of the same object, the whole of the experiences need not be identical. If you experience the amount “one million dollars” as an example in a phenomenology text, it is in part very different from experiencing that same amount as the recipient of lottery winnings. Although the core meaning is the same, the surrounding context gives the lived meaning as a whole a very different texture or gestalt. Husserl thus distinguishes the theme, the aspect of an experience which is focused upon, from the horizons, those aspects of the experience which are consciously present, but which are not focused upon or made thematic. As you read this page, your focus is neither upon the individual words, nor upon the feel of your chair against your back. But these horizonal elements may be disclosed phenomenologically by a careful examination of the experience held in retention.

Notice that horizons may provide either essential or inessential features of an experience. As you read this page, the chair beneath you may feel hot and sticky, cold and hard, or warm and soft. You may even read standing up (if, for instance, you had been unfortunate enough to sit upon a porcupine yesterday). Thus the horizonality of being located in a chair is inessential to the theme “reading the page.” However, try to imagine seeing the page without its being imbedded in a spatio-temporal horizon. This is impossible, because the spatio-temporal horizon is essential to every experience of physical objects in the world. Such considerations as these led Husserl to distinguish essential structures of the various sorts of experiences, as outlined in Section 5 above and in Chapter 5 below. (Reeder 1986:11)

The meaning of an object may be changed because of its relationship to its context. Note how this perspective resonates with M. Walrod’s favourite “inevitable contextual imbeddedness of all discourse” phrase.

Because the phenomenologist uses words to describe experiences, and because a large and crucially important portion of our experience is linguistic, language plays a key role in both phenomenology and the phenomenology of phenomenology. Indeed, an analysis of linguistic expressions provides the starting point of the First Logical Investigation, and of the later Formal and Transcendental Logic. The relationship between experience, thought, concept, and language is analyzed again and again by Husserl, with elements of the analysis appearing in virtually all of his works.

Husserl makes it clear that experience itself is not always linguistic --even after our learning a language has provided us with a set of partial “cultural blinders” --partial, because at least in some cases we can recover the sort of originary evidences from which linguistic conventions derive. Nonetheless, there is a danger in phenomenology, which must be guarded against, that when we conceptualize and verbalize our experiences we may lose sight of the non-linguistic and pre-conceptual experiential origins of some phenomenological descriptions. One way to avoid this danger is to remind oneself that phenomenological speech is about experiences, and that no one string of words can provide the “uniquely correct” description of a phenomenon. Recognizing the contextual nature of linguistic meanings, Husserl notes that phenomenological terminology must be fluid, shifting as new levels of clarity are reached about a particular phenomenon, as will be seen in Chapter 7, below. We must be willing to keep trying new sets of words, to clarify and articulate our linguistic account of experience. Above all, we must avoid letting the words we use get between us and “the things themselves,” the phenomena. This is why it is a grave error to confuse phenomenology with conceptual analysis. Phenomenology begins from a concrete, lived experience which is at most partially linguistic, and must often look beyond words, beyond concepts, to pre-linguistic or non-linguistic experience. (Reeder 1986:15-16)

Reeder distinguishes between conceptual analysis and phenomenology, and also comments upon how much the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis would be allowed to control our perspective on life and the world around us.

Husserl regarded phenomenology as a “scientific” philosophy. Because our everyday view of science is different from Husserl’s wider view of science, this requires some explication. The central features of any approach meriting the adjective “scientific” might be summarized as: evidence, criticism (including self-criticism), explication and logical unity. Science, in this wide sense of trying to understand ourselves and our world, requires evidence to avoid being arbitrary. It requires criticism to avoid error and dogmatic complacency. It requires explication to clarify claims and to avoid hidden assumptions. And it requires logical unity to avoid contradiction: no two statements may enter into scientific discourse if they lead irrevocably to a logical contradiction.

These central features of science do not --and indeed cannot --reject the appeal to “subjective experience,” if only because all evidence is subjectively lived. There is an irreducibly subjective element to all evidence. (Reeder 1986:16)

To say that something is “scientific” is not the same as saying that something is empirically objective, though that may often be thought of as the meaning of scientific. However, the only alternative to this view does not leave us with radical subjectivity, as one might think (and as “postmodernism” may be thought to assert). Phenomenology asserts the reality of evidence, even though it has an “irreducibly subjective element”.

Husserl began as a mathematician: the project of his Philosophie der Arithmetik (Philosophy of Arithmetic) was to provide a psychologistic account of arithmetic, that is, to find an explanation of arithmetic based upon the way human beings think. Psychologism, which Husserl came to see as gravely mistaken, reduces the objectivity of mathematics (and logic) —that is, how we should think if we are to avoid errors —to the factual nature of the way we do think. One way of pointing out the error in psychologism is to note that, on its view, a factual change such as a mutation in the structure of the human brain could alter the nature of mathematical truth. Husserl would counter that, if we all began adding 2 plus 2 and getting 5 due to some physical change, this would not make “2+2=5” true. We would simply be wrong (unless we made some appropriate changes to the axiomatization of arithmetic) Husserl’s project in the Philosophie der Arithmetik failed —but this work contained many descriptive analyses to which Husserl later referred back, re-reading them “in a new key.” It is in this context, that of the meaning of the mathematical justification, that Husserl “broke through” into phenomenology. (Reeder 1986:20)

This is a crucial difference between phenomenology and some approaches that are called “cognitive”. Cognitive science is often seen as an outgrowth of phenomenology, and rightly so. But often the common view of cognitive science comes down to an essential belief that reality as a “cognitive construct” is only mentally real, that the realities we perceive are only mentally real. Husserl points out why this is untrue.

We have seen that phenomenology was originally developed to solve the problem of the epistemological clarification of logic. In order to account for the normative nature of logical thought on the basis of empirical description, Husserl found himself required to abandon the traditional empirical standpoint. In this sense, he was led to his Cartesianism by his Brentanian empiricism. However, once he began trying to describe the normative objects of logic from the standpoint of lived evidence he found it necessary to make a radical break both with the rationalists and the empiricists, to develop a methodology which was more solidly self-critical. Thus his investigations began with descriptions of the linguistic acts through which the de jure laws of logic (which are normative and a priori) achieve de facto instanciation (in a posteriori experience). Because of the nature of these logical objects, Husserl was forced to travel “in zig-zag fashion,” describing these same linguistic acts again and again, as deeper levels of epistemological foundation were reached. (Reeder 1986:37)

Husserl’s Cartesianism (from Descartes) is introspective and rationalist; his Brentanian (from Brentano) empiricism could lead to positivism, but did not do so for Husserl. However, in important ways Husserl takes strong exception to Descartes’ findings about the world. The rationalist elements of Husserl could lead to speculative philosophy that would have little to do with Husserl’s (and Reeder’s) agenda in phenomenological methodology.

Within the phenomena — i.e. the lived evidence — Husserl sought to discover the general, objective structures of the way things appear, in strictly descriptive fashion. The four basic features of phenomenology’s study of “the things themselves” are: intentionality, theme and horizon, retention and reflection, and phenomenological reduction. (Reeder 1986:45)

All of these elements are strictly opposed to a “context-free” grammar which is posited as an abstract, unlearned system within the mind of man. Human motives are central elements of intentionality (as well as the intentional acts of language use); horizon is another word for context; retention is necessary to understand how one is listening, at a given moment, to a text and not merely voweln in syllablen in wordn, etc.; and the phenomenological reduction brings the first three elements in focus to the observer in systematic ways.

When you see an object as an example of a universal, both the individual and the universal (or essence) are present to the mind. Husserl discusses the irreducible nature of the experience of the essence at great length in the Logical Investigations. There he makes clear that the experience of essence is not any sort of mental picture (whether individual or general), and offers many arguments and examples to clarify its nature (incidentally, anticipating most of Wittgenstein’s arguments on this subject). This intuition of essence, or Wesensschau, is to some degree present whenever language is used, since we apply universal terms to particular objects. (Reeder 1986:53)

When we as observers encounter an object, we encounter it as a particular “instance” and as a member of a category of things. These are the two phases of our experience; we see a cat and perhaps say, “I have never seen a cat with quite that colour before”. In this statement we can see both aspects: If we were not aware of the category “cat”, we would not be able to use the term. On the other hand, if we were limited in our experience to only cats of colours we had seen before, we would likewise not tend to use the term “cat”. The fact that we can simultaneously so confidently assert 1) that this is a cat and 2) that we have never seen this cat before proves that when we encounter a cat we encounter both the particular and the universal, even though the universal cannot present itself, in terms of our senses, in the same way as the particular does.

The ego is the source of all lived unities of experience including not only, e.g. the synthesis (based in retention) of different perceptual glimpses of a chair into the unity “chair,” but also the lived unity of the ego itself. using the term “constitution” to refer to the living act of meaning something (perceptually, intuitively, imaginatively, etc.), Husserl explains that the ego constitutes both objects and the ego itself in a temporal synthesis. (Reeder 1986:70)

According to Husserl, it is the operation of a human observer upon the world to constitute “wholes” from fragmentary experiences, whether the encountering of “the same” object from multiple approaches, or the encountering of a category from multiple instances.

Husserl’s phenomenology is not concerned solely with what actually occurs in conscious living as such, but rather uses the method of bracketing and eidetic reduction to uncover essences, which are the transcendental warranting or de jure structures governing actual (de facto) lived experiences. This Chapter will examine Husserl’s account of essence, to clarify this notion. The discussion will focus upon four important aspects of this account: the nature of essence . . ., the “seeing” or givenness of essence . . ., the method of free variation in phantasy . . ., and the relation between essence and actuality (or reality). (Reeder 1986:87)

When we encounter an animal, how different does the “cat” have to be before we call it something else? How different does it have to be before we object to its being called a “cat”. In the case of monotremes (platypus, echidna) why are they understood to be “mammals that lay eggs”, rather than birds who nurse their young?

Husserl’s descriptive and non-causal account of essence has a further implication. Essences are not to be construed (either nominalistically or ideally) as “mental constructs” or psychological products” (including the social kind of “form of life” which Wittgenstein relies upon to reject the very notion of essence). To be sure, the essences appear in mental acts — but one identical essence may be the object of many acts. (Reeder 1986:90)

Intersubjectivity is not the same as “collective consciousness”; intersubjective reality is not only in the heads of humans in community. This has important implications in our discussion of whether the meaning of language is “in the words” or “in the hearers”.

It is because certain eidetic structures are constitutive of the very objective meaning of objects that Husserl extends essence beyond the bounds of human cognitive activity . . . . Note that this does not mean that there cannot be other creatures with other modes of thinking and computing, but rather than communication and mutual understanding with them would require the discovery of relevant eidetic structures (Reeder 1986:91)

This is often thought of as the “common ground” required for communication to succeed. Husserl related this common ground to what he calls eidetic structures, the essences we encounter in objects of the world around us.

Categorial intuition is based in a new form of act, which Husserl calls founded acts, in which the fulfillment is not provided by a mere sensuous content, but rather by an intuition which includes the sensuous intuition as a part. . . . Thus when you look at a page (say, this one) and have the meaning-intention “this page,” the intention is fulfilled directly by the sensuous content of your perception. But when you see the same page with the meaning-intention “a page” you are taking the sensuous content as a mere arbitrary example of “pages in general.” And of course “pages in general” is not the sort of object which could be seen sensuously. However, just because it cannot be sensuously seen, does not mean that it cannot be “seen” or brought to self-givenness in a wider sense of “seeing” or “intuition. . . . So far, then, we have seen that essences are universal meaning-structures, that they can become self-given in founded acts of categorial intuition, and that such founded acts intuitively present objects of a different type (and in a different way) than individual objects. (Reeder 1986:95)

This is another attempt to explain the difference between the two sorts of awareness we have of an object, both as a particular and as exemplary of a category. As Reeder explains we are not able to sense an objects membership in a category, but we still have a very real perception of the object as an instance of a category, and our awareness is not made more remote by its being less encountered as sensory.

As you read this Chapter you are vaguely protending its end, not in the sense (hopefully) of a conscious expectation of its end, but more in the sense that you know its length is roughly set by the length of the book and the number of chapters to follow, and without looking ahead you are aware vaguely of the number of pages remaining, and at any rate, while I continually qualify this statement, adding one parenthetical expression after another, qualifying the qualifiers, and otherwise prolonging an already excruciatingly long and drawn-out sentence, rather like a writer who is paid by the word, you certainly have by now become aware that it is high time for me to end the present sentence. Now, as the previous sentence grew longer and longer, you at first probably felt vaguely unsettled, until after it grew totally out of proportion and you became aware that you did in fact protend the end of the sentence. You didn’t protend a particular end for it, because, unlike the theme from Beethoven’s Fifth, you are not familiar with the content of this Chapter. As the example shows, one of the best ways to find protentions is through the vaguely unsettled feeling of their frustration. (Reeder 1986:117-8)

Reeder here gives us a superb example of the sort of uncomfortable feeling we get when the expectations that arise because of our faculty of protention is frustrated. This is the same sort of faculty that illusionists take advantage of in their performances. It is also the faculty that both allows and compels some people to finish other people’s sentences when they hesitate beyond a certain expected or allowable time frame.

Because of its commitment to description of lived experience the phenomenology of language does not begin with an analysis of syntax, semantics, grammar, or propositions, but rather with analysis of the linguistic meaning-intention, that is, the intentional experience of meaningful language-use. Husserl uses the meaning-expressive act (a speech-act as described phenomenologically) as a paradigm for his analysis of language. This starting point does not, however, limit the phenomenology of language to a descriptive psychology of the speaker. Many features of language-use are quite objective — but the phenomenologist must discover these objective features in subjective acts of lived evidence, to maintain phenomenology’s commitment to a rigorously empirical and evidential approach. (Reeder 1986:123-4)

The area that phenomenology would appear to focus on in language is what many people would call pragmatics. However, it is important to note that, just as phenomenology would not merely focus upon descriptive psychology of speakers, it would also not merely focus upon language use as an “objective data” field of study. Rather, it would approach language use as a very human interaction with the world and with other humans. Whereas much of pragmatics concentrates on explanation of use patterns of communities, phenomenology would continue to focus upon descriptions of language use, just as it would with any other observed phenomena.

The meaning or content of an expressive act is not an intimated mental state or an act of a particular ego, but the objective structure inserted in such an act. (Reeder 1986:128)

Here, Reeder appears to be thinking along very “conduit-ish” lines, with the act viewed as a container which we infuse with meaning. I don’t think he would be very settled in such a dualistic notion. His main point is not to distinguish act from meaning, but rather to distinguish meaning as resident in the act from meaning as resident in the minds of observers.

An expression not only says something, it refers to an intentional object or objective correlate. The intentional object of an expression is what is spoken of, while the meaning of an expression is the manner of addressing that object. (Reeder 1986:129)

This is the same as Frege’s distinction between the reference and the sense, with the latter of Frege being what Reeder calls the “manner” of addressing the object.

For Husserl, not all lived meanings are linguistic: meaning is a wider category than linguistic meaning. Thus Husserl sometimes uses the term “meaning” to refer to the a priori, essential possibility of linguistically expressed meaning or conceptual construction. When a meaning is grasped (the ideal of this grasp being an intuitive fulfillment), we may construct a concept. (Reeder 1986:133-4)

There are three important implications that arise once the possibility of meanings that are non-linguistic is accepted. First, the possibility of experience, thought, and knowledge that is non-linguistic in essence (although, necessarily, capable of being articulated only in language) also arises. Secondly, the possibility that meaning is not reducible to sets of propositions arises. Finally (and dependent upon the second possibility), the possibility that not all linguistic communication is propositional in essence arises.

It might be said that phenomenology itself provides a basis for understanding the nature of language and linguistic change. The phenomenologist, like any speaker, does not invent language, but rather finds and appropriates a pre-existing language which has a history, grammar and vocabulary of its own. In this sense, language, like a stone tool or a dwelling, is an objective, cultural artifact. However, language itself grows and evolves through its use. (Reeder 1986:135)

Though this quote might seem to assume a priori grammar, among the various structures that a speaker would use, the notion here expressed need not be taken in that way. There is room in Reeder’s approach to grammar for Hopper’s idea of emergent grammar.

Because of the shift of focus accomplished by the reduction, phenomenologists must describe familiar (naïve or ordinary) experiences from an “un-familiar” (bracketed, reduced) point of view. The reduction thus affects a shift in language, or better, a shift in the phenomenologist’s use of language. Thus phenomenological texts use terms which in all but our phenomenological lives mean something different. In the naïve attitude, our “normal” state, our experience — including our living of language — is imbued with the metaphysical presumptions of naïve realism. (Reeder 1986:159)

This explains why so much of phenomenological discussion involves the use of “quotation marks”, hyphenated-expressions, and neologisms. The use of former terms seems so wrong in light of newly discovered understanding that the old language seems incorrect and in need of some change to alert the reader of something very different from what was talked about before.

Under the reduction the [exemplar] tree still appears as a tree, but instead of passively accepting the naïve realist belief in its “reality,” the experience of the tree is focused upon to highlight how it appears as real. The methodological reduction of an object to its appearances is rejected by Husserl. He nonetheless recognizes the intentional embedding of any object of consciousness in the overall conscious life of the ego which is intentionally related to that object. The object is not reduced to a concatenation of appearances (phenomenalism). Rather, the mode of givenness, the concrete living presence of the object is described. . . . Thus, the phenomenological reduction does not reduce objects to a set of appearances, but rather helps us to describe the way in which objects are concretely experienced. (Reeder 1986:164)

Though phenomenology admits that the sensory perceptions of an object from various viewpoints is fragmentary and disjointed, the object is asserted as real and whole, and its holism is not dependent upon mere interpretation of the subject, but also upon the nature of the object.

Any experience can, in principle, be examined phenomenologically. But of course there are many practical limitations. Not only are there periods when one simply cannot achieve the intense concentration required for phenomenological description (for whatever reasons of fatigue or circumstances), but also some experiences themselves to varying degrees resist phenomenological scrutiny. Emotions, prejudices and deep-seated beliefs all tend to defy reflection and reflexion. (Reeder 1986:177)

Anything can thus be a candidate for observation, but not everything is equally accessible. In addition, some objects are harder to observe (as a beginning phenomenologist) than others. Language is a fertile area for observations, but not a suitable beginning point for learning the methods of phenomenology. The beginner would be best served to use objects that seem (whether they are familiar or unfamiliar) more concrete and directly present to the senses (more static might be a way of thinking about it) than language data.

New Entry