Updated: Dec 21, 2021
Visual By Reshu
Phenomenology primarily comes from the work ‘Ideas’ by philosopher Edmund Husserl and the work of Merleau-Ponty, both of whom emphasised the presence of historical context in our experiences. Joan Wallach Scott, a poststructuralist American historian of France with contributions in gender history, has also written ‘A Phenomenology of Gender.’ In layman’s terms, phenomenology is all about focussing on what we experience, i.e., how we experience our experiences.
There is also a marked shift from ‘objectivity,’ which is the way scientists view the world. For instance, whenever we come across something in our everyday lives, the experience of viewing that ‘something’ (viewing is that act of experiencing here) can bring up questions related to the past, present, future, along with a wave of memories. Even my experience of writing these words differs from the reader’s (i.e., yours) experience of reading the same. Both of us will experience the last sentence in different ways.
Lisa Guenther has also explored the different ways of experiencing. In her work, ‘Solitary Confinement,’ she explores the idea of perceiving a rectangular envelope merely as a piece of paper with ink molecules printed on it or handwritten. This is an objective way of looking at the envelope. For others, the envelope might contain a letter from a loved one, or news about admission to their dream university, or about the passing away of a close friend. Essentially, we do not experience the envelope just as any other object but as something with values and meanings attached to it. In terms of phenomenology, the concepts of ‘immediate seeing’ and ‘experience being primordially given’ are at work here. This, in Stoller’s words, is not simply observing and taking note of an individual’s surroundings, but getting involved within the natural experience and reflecting upon it through meaning-making processes.
Phenomenology is essentially about the philosophy of experience and the articulation of lived experience, which is always mediated and not just self-evident in its entirety. A phenomenological analysis examines the embodied experiences of individuals, articulating the construction of their meanings. At first glance, it seems as if experiences are bound by the duality of time and space but these boundaries are porous.
An alternative way to define phenomenology is “You cannot not experience”. Phenomenology is grounded on the critique of ‘Classical Empiricism,’ which has used “experience” as the foundation of knowledge. Experience is indeed fundamental but not an unquestionable starting point. The focus is primarily on making structures of experience visible, taking historicity into account (but not in a narrow sense) and highlighting their phenomenological content. Siliva Stoller in ‘Phenomenology and the post-structural critique of experience’ also makes a necessary clarification — phenomenology does not consider experience to be an epistemological foundation or source of knowledge— instead, it focuses on the subject addressed by phenomenology. The subject of experience is always an active participant in its creation which problematises the immediacy of the same. A close reading of lived experiences brings to surface the assumptions about the way we experience.
Stoller makes another crucial contribution while discussing ‘the violence of experience’. As individuals we are likely to exclude some ways of experiencing, inflicting violence on ourselves. Since this act of exclusion shapes our reality, it becomes crucial to study the same for understanding how we shape our experiences. Adding to this, she also highlights the need for embodied experience to focus not just on discourse (something done by poststructuralists) but also on the experience itself.
As humans, we see the world as a collection of values and meanings that we experience, not just facts and objects. Interestingly, we do the same with gender. Phenomenology also opens up the possibility of describing phenomenological experiences of different genders. In essence, we are not getting rid of experience but instead historicising and conceptualising it. As a researcher, phenomenology can be a point of conflict while differentiating between philosophy and methodology during research. The overt focus on the philosophical aspects might lead to the danger of marking the mind separate from the body, in the context of gender, which is a grave error for feminist researchers.
Stoller’s work also examines the concept of experience theorised by Joan Scott in her work ‘Experience’, adding on how the experience as understood through phenomenology can significantly contribute to feminist political philosophy. It works in tandem with theorising the ‘authentic female experience’ as there is a close reading and not just mere observation and taking notes, a positivist approach. She also looks at Butler’s account of ‘performativity’ to theorise how the act of replaying the experiences can lead to either a structural change or reproduction of the same ideological systems that mediate our experiences. Stoller’s work is crucial as phenomenology, like most of philosophy, has been conceptualised in a gender-blind, masculinist manner, making for a flawed concept application.
Stoller, S. (2009). Phenomenology and the poststructural critique of experience. International Journal of Philosophical Studies, 17(5), 707-737.
Starks, H., & Brown Trinidad, S. (2007). Choose your method: A comparison of phenomenology, discourse analysis, and grounded theory. Qualitative health research, 17(10), 1372-1380.
Scott, J. W. (1991). The evidence of experience. Critical inquiry, 17(4), 773-797.
Husserl, E. (2012). Ideas: General introduction to pure phenomenology. Routledge.
Jordan Peterson’s Ideology | Philosophy Tube, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m81q-ZkfBm0&t=1155s