Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Notes on Phenomenological Description (PD)

How can I pull together what I sense are certain related ideas and enthusiasms: philosophical phenomenology, embodied cognition (and metaphor), urban design, facilitation and just...making stuff?

Start here:

Basically, phenomenology studies the structure of various types of experience ranging from perception, thought, memory, imagination, emotion, desire, and volition to bodily awareness, embodied action, and social activity, including linguistic activity. The structure of these forms of experience typically involves what Husserl called “intentionality”, that is, the directedness of experience toward things in the world, the property of consciousness that it is a consciousness of or about something. According to classical Husserlian phenomenology, our experience is directed toward — represents or “intends” — things only through particular concepts, thoughts, ideas, images, etc. These make up the meaning or content of a given experience, and are distinct from the things they present or mean.

Husserl and Merleau-Ponty spoke of pure description of lived experience. (...while...) Heidegger and his followers spoke of hermeneutics, the art of interpretation in context, especially social and linguistic context. 

How does this jibe with the kind of phenomenology Bachelard uses to explore "house"....or relate to "embodied cognition" as Lakoff and Johnson might use it, or Matthew Crawford's grounded experience of the skilled worker attending to her materials? And how can it realte to the work of Christopher Alexander's efforts to do a more humane kind of architecture?

Getting back to things themselves seems to be the trick. One blogger <> explains the phenomenological description (PD) process this way:

The first step is to consider the memory of a very recent experience—phenomenology is not normally done in real time—and subject it to a process known variously as epoché, bracketing, or phenomenological reduction. Much like the Cartesian method of doubt, epoché is a temporary suspension of any external beliefs, placing one’s focus solely on the “raw” experience itself. The goal is to ignore empirical data—along with intuitions and judgments—and simply describe your experience in detail.

In other words, PD is trying to get down to what you "see" and "feel" not just what you "think is there".  It's what the facilitator, working with those reviewing student work, try to get folk to do by enforcing the protocol that asks "what do you see here?"

In all encounters, in conversation, there is great value to be had by dropping my frames and presumptions, and just taking it all in. Indeed, the other person is "in me" and growing in me, but the more I can take them at face value, the more i will see and hear, the closer I come to understanding.

Embodied cognition tells us that much of our daily experience is derived from pre-existing frames and "objects" constructed out of earlier experience. We do so because processing all that data moment to moment is too taxing for the tiny, conscious tips of our minds.  

Phenomenological description is a very taxing activity. It requires setting aside our quick mental toolset (forms, templates, precedents, filters, etc.) and applying our more primitive receptors. It's felt as slow, and effortful, at least at first. It is done (see above) in post-time, yet it must draw on content received in real-time, at the encounter itself.  

So, when do we do PD--in real time or later? This is helpful:

Conscious experience is the starting point of phenomenology, but experience shades off into less overtly conscious phenomena. (as when bodily experience is employed via metaphor). 

As Husserl and others stressed, we are only vaguely aware of things in the margin or periphery of attention, and we are only implicitly aware of the wider horizon of things in the world around us. Moreover, as Heidegger stressed, in practical activities like walking along, or hammering a nail, or speaking our native tongue, we are not explicitly conscious of our habitual patterns of action. Furthermore, as psychoanalysts have stressed, much of our intentional mental activity is not conscious at all, but may become conscious in the process of therapy or interrogation, as we come to realize how we feel or think about something. We should allow, then, that the domain of phenomenology — our own experience — spreads out from conscious experience into semi-conscious and even unconscious mental activity, along with relevant background conditions implicitly invoked in our experience.

Phenomenology began with Plato, and the parable of the cave. He characterized daily experience of the world as illusory, and that the "real" world of forms, like the shadow-theater of the cave, lies beyond our unstudied experience. Now, of course we know he was right, but he was wrong. Right, that we live in a shadow-theater (the body, or more strictly the way the body manages its existence in a world it need not know directly in order to eat, excrete and reproduce), yet wrong in the notion of "forms" as the ground of reality. That reality, as quantum vs. Newtonian reality suggests, is still beyond us. 

So, how do we tie phenomenology to embodied cognition, per Lakoff and Johnson and Gibbs, et al? Through Merleau-Ponty.

Merleau-Ponty looked to experimental psychology, analyzing the reported experience of amputees who felt sensations in a phantom limb. (He)... focused on the “body image”, our experience of our own body and its significance in our activities. Extending Husserl's account of the lived body (as opposed to the physical body), Merleau-Ponty resisted the traditional Cartesian separation of mind and body. For the body image is neither in the mental realm nor in the mechanical-physical realm. Rather, my body is, as it were, me in my engaged action with things I perceive including other people.

And Aleaxander? His work, especially in A Pattern Language (APL), reflects a similar kind of return to more direct description of experience. His was expressed in a reaction to modernist, geometric abstraction and buildings-as-expressionist sculptures. 

His APL was not an invention of new architectural forms but their discovery within something already out there: vernacular architecture.  

CA may have begun with a gut revulsion to modernism. He then became an acute observer of vernacular forms he found more pleasing, and abstracted out those certain building forms ("patterns" taken from medieval pattern books used by artisans), expressed not in feet, or degrees, or by "historical styles" but by relations between human shelter, settlement, and social activity. After he wrote APL, he tries to more fully abstract these out in The Phenomenon of Life.  

In this sense, he began with a phenomenological description, not seeing buildings as pure design, but as a reflection of something emergent, shaped by countless experiences of human, situated activity.

Here is where I am right now: we cannot ever get beyond an embodied knowledge of ourselves or others or the outside world, period (except for math! JK). We can, however, learn a great deal more from our immediate experience IF we can subdue our fast-mind templating of a provisional reality in the interests of getting to the manifold impressions that same body provides for us from moment to moment, but which we typically ignore. 

Less processing, more raw data FIRST. 

Things are not just in-themselves, but are a product of our intentionality towards them and those first-person reports we tune into.

Thus, in a group setting, reviewing a work-product, we withhold judgement when we respond to "....what do you see?". We listen to what we have just said, as though for the first time.

Thus, in recalling a conversation with a friend just the other day, we ask ourselves "what were you feeling, but did not act on in that moment?" We feel again what we had felt, as though for the first time.

Thus, we can look at a text (or recorded speech) and ask "what's the metaphor here? What are its yields and its limits? We refer to our mental maps, as though for the first time.

And in the shop, I learn from my direct encounter with materials. 
A lot of my ideas don't work here. I bend things until they break. I ruin the finish on a new piece. I make joints that fall apart the next day. 
I stay with it. 
New things come up off the workbench. Surprises, happy accidents occur. 
I sand the block until it gleams, I knock the new joint with a hammer and hear it ring. 
My fingers, eyes and ears bring new reports. 
What I can imagine and what I can do seem to come closer.
My skills grow slowly. 
Delight comes with mastery, with closer attunement to the nature of things. 

The "real world", the world of things in themselves, will remain, as ever, just over the horizon. We shall never see them, but we may understand them better by seeing them again, as though for the first time.