Phenomenology 1

Phenomenology 1

In this post I intend to sketch out the parameters of the phenomenology project and say something about what I take phenomenology to be.

Although not the first to touch on this approach to philosophy, the founder of contemporary phenomenology was Edmund Husserl (1859-1938). His investigations into the ways we direct our conscious experience towards and give meaning to the objects of our attention opened up a field research that has proved immensely rich and has provided may insights. His ideas were taken up and developed, often into something else entirely, by many others, including Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger and Sartre.

The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy says of Husserl’s approach and what phenomenology has become:

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.

The basic intentional structure of consciousness, we find in reflection or analysis, involves further forms of experience. Thus, phenomenology develops a complex account of temporal awareness (within the stream of consciousness), spatial awareness (notably in perception), attention (distinguishing focal and marginal or “horizonal” awareness), awareness of one’s own experience (self-consciousness, in one sense), self-awareness (awareness-of-oneself), the self in different roles (as thinking, acting, etc.), embodied action (including kinesthetic awareness of one’s movement), purpose or intention in action (more or less explicit), awareness of other persons (in empathy, intersubjectivity, collectivity), linguistic activity (involving meaning, communication, understanding others), social interaction (including collective action), and everyday activity in our surrounding life-world (in a particular culture).

Anyone who runs regularly will recognise that all the topics of the second paragraph quoted above could be considered as substantial for a description and analysis of what it is like to run, particularly over longer distances. Both Lars and I have tried to say something about the stream of consciousness aspects of running, what we think and think about when running; and I suspect my concerns for ‘being’ in the running experience are part of this, together with how awareness-of-oneself presents itself (or indeed absents itself at times). Both these areas of investigation will be central to my analysis. But additionally, as I have already indicated, a phenomenology of running will of necessity address kinaesthetic awareness and embodiment, together with the role of intentions and goal-setting (or otherwise). What I have not thought about including, until now, is analysis of awareness of other people, communication and social interaction. At first I thought these might be optional and dependent on whether one runs alone or with others. However, when I run I see others and communicate, and others see and communicate with me, even if this is just at a road crossing, or passing on a country path. So we could ask: to what extent does this seeing and being seen as a runner influence the experience of running? I cannot think of a run when I have encountered no one at all, and, of course, mass-participation events, such as the marathons I take part in, present a whole new set of experiences, with others running and watching. So I think the social and collective experience also has to be part of the account I want to give. Finally, I am hoping that Lars will be able to make valuable contributions on the last point in particular, the place of running in everyday activity, since he and I have discussed this off-line on many occasions; and in any case, there is a dimension of running as culture that shapes what it is and what we experience that simply cannot be ignored.

This gives the following core topics:

  1. Spatial and temporal awareness when running. The focus of attention and how it develops and changes as the distance of the run increases; stages of attention.
  2. Self-consciousness and self-awareness in running; how being is experienced in movement and the skill of running.
  3. The felt experience of a body running; fitness, illness, stress and effort.
  4. The goal and purpose of running; running without goals; running every day.
  5. Running with others, in the presence of others, and for others (in the sense of running for a charitable cause).
  6. The culture of running and how it alters or affects all of the above.

I think this takes me a little bit further forward in what I want to do and say about running. If you think I have missed anything, please feel free to comment.

Subjects and Bodies

Recently I have been reading a book by the philosopher Roger Scruton: On Human Nature. While I find much to disagree with in Scruton’s political philosophy, when he writes about aspects of human experience and the centrality of the subject, intentionality and the I-you relationship in our morality, he weaves a compelling theory about the eliminability of the subjective. I think he is mistaken about some of the conclusions he draws from his arguments, which follow his oft repeated conservative narrative, but the core thesis is, I find, sound and deeply insightful. The humanities can never be replaced or find a substitute in objective scientific accounts of human nature.

Running is a real encounter with the raw experience of embodied animal nature mediated through our choice to run, to go beyond what basic physical feedback would tell us is possible or desirable. In doing so we both live within and recognise our fleshy objective nature,  and explore the ways we can transcend that as a subject whose experience of running is more than as just an animal.

This is all particularly true in a marathon. There is a point where you are running beyond what is physically good for you and for longer than your body wants to; for me this around 20 miles / 30km / 3.5 hours. This means that, perhaps counterintuitively, from that point you are in full contact with the subjective nature of running even as your body is exhausted.  I am beginning to wonder how this idea might be further explored and connected to my other thoughts on the Zen nature of running.

Not every run is a good run, but every run is good

On Sunday I completed the long run I planned. All 17km of it, up and down tracks and trails, roads and highways; very little of it was flat. The weather was wet and windy. And cold. I was wearing shorts and had no gloves, and my legs and hands quickly became numb and red. I felt like I had no energy at all. I was so slow that several faster runners overtook me on the road with very little effort, before I had really even got going. The rain soaked through all my gear making me feel even more heavy and sluggish. Towards the end my phone decided to shut down so I couldn’t even accurately log the full run in mapmyrun. And throughout I felt niggling pains in my ankles and knees. In other words, it was, at the level of details, an awful run.

However, even as I was slogging though the woods on a lonely track at around the 14km point, with the chilling rain running down inside my waterproof, I was struck how ‘in the moment’ of things I can become when running. The trees were hung with the emerald green of mosses dripping with life from the water in the air; the firs smelt fresh and sharp with rising sap; the greens and browns and greys of the woods were rich and intense; the uneven path under my feet was full of ancient stones connecting me to billions of years of Earth’s history. At the moment, cold and drained though I was, I was there, completely in that environment and moving though it. I thought back to earlier points in the run and though they were now just memory and the past, they had contained similar richness and were replete with lessons had I chosen to pay attention … That moment in the woods is now memory too, of course, although I made a special note to myself to write about it later.

This got me wondering about consciousness itself. It’s an enormous topic and very much at the forefront of research in cognitive science, neuroscience, psychology and philosophy. However, I approach the subject from a slightly different direction. In her great little book Zen and the Art Consciousness, Susan Blackmore notes that we pay less attention to the real phenomenology of consciousness than we should. During meditation she explored various aspects of conscious experience, including her sense of self, now, time, continuity of awareness and wholeness. She found all of these to be other than we think they are in our ‘common sense’ view of the world (one that is largely the product of our cultural, religious and intellectual history, I suspect). I have found similar things myself in meditation (although that is not the point of meditation). But I think running provides similar insights. Consciousness seems to flicker into slices of time. I find I am much more aware of the non-continuity of consciousness when running. I find myself suddenly snapping back into it from breaks in the stream of complete consciousness; in the breaks my body has just been running. And in that moment of ‘snapping back’ everything that I have not noticed somehow gets filled in, in a sketchy kind of way. Similarly for my sense of time. (I will write more about this soon, because I think there is something worth pursuing here.)

And so I think even a bad run provides a means for exploring who we are. I guess that is one answer I would give to Lars’s question about why we run: it is self-understanding: from the limits and possibilities of physical being, right down to the level of conscious experience. All running is good!


Ordinary authenticity

My running is now back on and seems fine. It’s always a tad ropey picking up after a lay-off of more than a couple of days, but all seems well. I should get around 8kms under my belt this afternoon (maybe 11km, depending on my pace). Thinking about running, however, is not running. Running is something that we just do. Knowing how to run is a ‘know-how’ rather than a ‘know-that’. Additionally, unlike other sports, it is extremely simple in its fundamentals, a very ordinary and everyday kind of thing to do for anyone able-bodied and at an ordinary level of fitness. Two philosophers, giants of twentieth century thinking, concerned themselves with the everyday experiences of life: Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Both Heidegger and Wittgenstein spent a great deal of time showing how we get so much of philosophy wrong. They approached the task in different ways, but essentially tried to demonstrate that the ordinariness of life – embodied, physical, skilled, messy, connected, meaningful, linguistic, diverse, directed, goal-oriented, social … – is all the metaphysics we need. All the rest, the problems and questions about the ‘fundamental’ nature of things are based on mistakes. There is a good book by the philosopher Lee Braver, Groundless Grounds (Braver, 2012), that explores many themes that overlap in the work of Heidegger and Wittgenstein, which I highly recommend.
On Heidegger’s side of things, his central concern throughout his life was to investigate ‘Being’, that is, the way things are, how they turn up in our world. He wanted to overturn the idea that best way to understand things and ourselves is from a perspective of abstract reflection and a passive ‘objectivity’, and to show that things have a variety of different meanings and different ways of being in how they are used and interact with us. Additionally, the being that we are, which he calls Dasein (‘being there’, ‘existence’ or ‘presence’), is rather more than a mere ‘rational animal’. In fact, people have written vast tracts on what Dasein is, but, very crudely, it is a being with some awareness of its own way of being in the world (being-in-the-world), and with a concern for its nature and its connectedness to everything else. In that Being, it is our projects and goals that really shape our existence, the vast majority of which are ordinary, everyday acts and orientations. Sometimes, however, we choose to do things that develop a deeper skill or a use of ourselves that heightens (or deepens?) our awareness of our being while we are engaged in it: it becomes what Heidegger would call an expression of authenticity. Of course, as already suggested at the top of this post, we can’t effectively reflect on this being or authenticity, only do it and, perhaps, catch it in language that does not repeat the errors of metaphysics (which I have failed to do here!). So, perhaps, running – or more specifically, training and improving – while ordinary and everyday, can become deeply authentic. Something else to explore further …

BRAVER, L. 2012. Groundless grounds : a study of Wittgenstein and Heidegger, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press.