Posts tagged ‘intentionality’



I should like phenomenology. Ontology is about existing, epistemology is about knowing, morality is about good and bad and valuing, but phenomenology is about subjective experience; about experiencing from the inside.

The relevant reason that I should like that, is that an ongoing project of mine (not one that I necessarily work on, but one that I think about, which is at least as good) is to start with whatever it is that is given, or Given, which I like to call The Experience Storm, and to see how everything else (existing and knowing and valuing) can (or cannot) be built up from that. To take, that is, the subject matter of phenomenology as foundational, and see what happens when we try to build everything else on top of it.

This is hardly an original thought. :) Descartes’ cogito is sort of that, taking that which he cannot doubt and seeing what could be built on that. I disagree with him about just what he cannot doubt (or at least I’m able to doubt lots of stuff he claimed he couldn’t), but it’s the same general project. Empiricism is also an approach to the same project, where The Given is something on the order of sense experience, which turns out to be wrong, but again it’s basically the same project.

If we look up phenomenology on the interwebs, a typical sort of thing we find is, for instance:

“The discipline of phenomenology is defined by its domain of study, its methods, and its main results.

“Phenomenology studies structures of conscious experience as experienced from the first-person point of view, along with relevant conditions of experience. The central structure of an experience is its intentionality, the way it is directed through its content or meaning toward a certain object in the world.”

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, revised 2013l

which starts out fine for a couple of sentences, but then I am all like whaaaaat.

As I’ve said before in a just slightly different context, I find the whole “aboutness” and intentionality thing silly and unconvincing. And one of the reasons for that is especially relevant here: not only are there all sorts of experiences that aren’t about some object in the world (what is the experience of boredom about, for instance?), but in the foundationalist project, it can’t be fundamental to experience that it be made of things that are “about” “objects” in the “world”, because we don’t yet have a “world”, or any “objects”, or any relationship like “about”.

I talked about this a little on Mastodon the other day, and someone (who I now see is “lead of the graphics kernel team at Microsoft”??) commented usefully that, basically, people usually take phenomenology as not-foundational, as the study of how experience is given that we already know more or less how it all fits into the world, and what the world is like. (Not what they said exactly, but that’s what I read in it.)

And that’s fine, but I think it’s significantly less interesting.

Now, how do we actually build up a world from the Experience Storm? What happens when we try to? Or, perhaps more appropriately, how do I do it, and what happens when I try, since I haven’t established that you even exist yet. And vice-versa. :)

I haven’t worked that all out entirely yet, but an early interesting question is just what the Experience Storm is like: what it consists of, how it’s structures, what entities and properties and relationships it has. Descartes talked mostly as though what is Given is a bunch of propositions, and they include not just “I am thinking” and “I exist”, but really complicated stuff like “there must be at least as much reality in the efficient and total cause as in the effect of that cause,” which is just whacky, and leads to stuff like theism. I don’t know whether he was also unable to doubt “I am reasoning correctly in all this stuff”, or if that occurred to him at all.

The standard empiricist viewpoint is (or one might even say, was) that what is given and undoubtable is sense experience, which is along the lines of two-dimensional red blobs, and rising tones, and whatnot. I think it’s fair to say that it turns out that that isn’t really how we experience the world, although (this being philosophy) the details (and even the broad outlines) remain controversial (see for instance I dunno maybe this).

My tentative hypothesis is that, first, what is given, the Experience Storm, is exactly this, and that any verbal description will be significantly wrong (very Zen, that, at least for my values of “Zen”). But if we forge ahead and write down verbal descriptions anyway, we get not only something like “raw feels”, but much more complex things that have big fat semantic labels attached, and relationships between them, and lots of stuff like that. And those labels (properties) and relationships are just as much part of what is given and indubitable as the rawer and more feel-like things that are also in there, and to which they are in some sense associated or “attached”.

And one can continue from there in various ways :) to build up more stuff on that, always keeping in mind that the words that one is writing down are significantly wrong. But it’s getting late at night, and I’m happy to have written this much down.

It’s a pity that the word “phenomenology” has this whole concept of Aboutness associated with it. Is there a good word for taking subjective experience (whatever that turns out to be like), and building the rest of the universe up from there? Probably there is, and I once knew it even, maybe forty years ago. :)