Friday, 19 June 2015

Husserl's Phenomenology and its Significance for Thinking about Education and Technology

Although the intellectual history of thinking about experience and consciousness really begins with Husserl, Kant had prepared the foundations for considering the mind’s role in constituting the world. More importantly, Brentano had drawn attention to the inner ‘intentional’ nature of human experience by casting back to the medieval philosophy of mind of Augustine and Aquinas:
“Every mental phenomenon is characterized by what the Scholastics of the Middle Ages called the intentional (or mental) inexistence of an object, and what we might call, though not wholly unambiguously, reference to a content, direction toward an object (which is not to be understood here as meaning a thing), or immanent objectivity. Every mental phenomenon includes something as object within itself”

However, it is Husserl who argued that consciousness was structured, and that its structure could be the object of scientific inquiry. The challenge was to explore methods for doing this. The reductive methods proposed by Husserl and the insights and challenges they presented spawned a new intellectual current in 20th century thought that led from Husserl’s immediate circle which included Heidegger, Scheler and Schutz, through to French philosophy of Merleau-Ponty, Sartre and Derrida. Although diverse in its various incarnations, the thread of phenomenology hangs together in the idea that a reflexive philosophy of consciousness must strip away philosophical foundations: phenomenology is presuppositionless.

The desire to eschew foundations makes phenomenology a powerful countervailing force against those ways of thinking about the world which are grounded in some conception of materiality (the foundations of Marxist thought, for example), or the presuppositions of scientistic measurement of functionalism. However, eschewing foundations introduces very profound problems, and phenomenology remains one of the most difficult domains of philosophy where simple presentations of ideas like “phenomenological reduction” can obscure the subtlety and nuance of the thinking of phenomenologists. Fundamentally, phenomenology entails an endless process of critique as thinking constantly turns in on itself continually guarding against the inevitable manifestation of foundational thought. Husserl himself epitomised this attitude. Morgan argues that Husserl was continually “struggling to clarify his insights and to articulate the method by which he arrived at them and which he thought justified them”.

Husserl’s relentless self-criticism and pursuit of intellectual objectives is in stark contrast to the facile way in which “experience” is treated today as a marker of ‘evidence’ in support of a policy. Today, when educational leaders talk about the ‘learning experience’ they hope to point to the aggregated questionnaire responses of learners which will demonstrate a rising line in accordance with the policy interventions for which they wish to claim credit! The gap between these cultures of “experience” provides one reason why Husserl’s intellectual struggles are worth getting to grips with. However, a more concerning problem is the fact that the shallow capturing of “experience” through questionnaires, data analysis and evidence-based policy has evolved through a series of misinterpretations of the phenomenology project that Husserl established, where Husserl himself accused some of his closest followers (including Heidegger) of misunderstanding him. Understanding Husserl and how his ideas have been interpreted means understanding how it is we have arrived at such shallow research practices in education.

Although Husserl’s work is highly complex, and the evolution of phenomenology after him can appear as a series disparate yet profound propositions concerning consciousness with tenuous connections to one another, understanding Husserl’s starting point, the problems he faced and the solutions he proposed can provide a way of approaching the topic which sees a clearer intellectual thread that runs through from the work of Heidegger to Derrida.  This inquiry began with a critique of Frege’s mathematically-oriented distinction between sense (Sinn) and reference (Bedeutung).

On the face of it, Frege’s concerns mirrored those of Husserl. Like Husserl, Frege opposed the psychologism that pervaded much intellectual thought at the time. This made Frege antipathetic towards any kind of epistemological account of being, and more inclined to defend an objectivist account. Husserl, by contrast, distrusted objectivism, and argued for a deeper and more scientific epistemology. In pursuing a scientific epistemology, Husserl was ahead of his time: this was an objective shared by cybernetics in in the late 1940s, and Husserl’s concept of phenomenological reduction bears strong similarities to Von Foerster’s ideas concerning recursion in perception.

Frege’s solution to the problem of sense and reference made a distinction between the presentation of things and their meaning. In Husserl’s view, the separation between modes of presentation (sense) and meaning masked a set of assumptions about the workings of consciousness by which meaning was determined. Frege’s objectivist account of meaning might be compared to the arguments presented by ‘big data’ analysts today, who argue that meaning can be mathematically deduced through the analysis of communications on the internet, or the articulation of (many instances of) “sense”. Husserl objected to Frege as he would probably have objected to ‘big data’. For Husserl, underlying the structures of logical connections between appearances and meanings were the structures and operations of consciousness.

Behind Frege’s objectivist ‘appearances’ lie “essences” where process by which meaning is attached to appearances is a process whereby consciousness structures itself around essences. To understand the workings of consciousness is to understand the relationship between thought processes and the essences those processes are directed towards. However, Husserl did not present an individualised account of consciousness: thinking happens in a world which humans share. As his work progressed (over many years) the methods of identifying the structure and workings of consciousness became richer and more socialised, with Husserl articulating a theory of subjectivity and reality that placed human relations centre-stage (again, an intellectual move consistent with later cybernetics).

For most people who know something of Husserl’s work, the concept most commonly apprehended is that of the ‘bracketing’ the everyday appearances so as to reveal distilled essences of experiences underneath. Today, students in the social sciences are introduced to bracketing and phenomenological reduction in a melange of techniques which are intended to provide grounding for practical research techniques that can produce findings from raw data. On the surface it seems that Husserl’s phenomenological reductions (there are a number of different types) fit well with the “coding” of interview questionnaire responses and the identification of “themes”. However, to defend ‘coding’ as consistent with phenomenological reduction is to misrepresent Husserl. The extent of the misrepresentation can be seen in the contemporary obsession with surveying the learning experience of students. The results of questionnaires and surveys produce information in the form of rankings and bar graphs. Where Husserl would question the relationship between the “experiences” recounted in learning experience surveys and deeper issues of consciousness, today such techniques simply are used to generate ‘evidence’ for good or bad institutional practice. Yet such information today becomes part of the shared environment of education: what Husserl calls the “lifeworld”.

The purpose of Husserl’s phenomenological reduction methods was that thought could distil itself by transcending the manifest world, or what he called the ‘natural attitude’ to arrive at an assumed or transcendental root that was supposed to underpin it: he wished to render thought “an object for philosophical scrutiny and in order to account for its essential structure.” (Natanson, quoted by Burrell and Morgan, p233). In order to do this, he had to address some difficult questions about the nature of subjective experience. If subjectivity was conceived as individual, then the phenomenological reduction would lead to solipsism. However, subjective experience is experience of a world of others and their subjectivity and a shared environment. He termed this everyday world the ‘lifeworld’, arguing that the shared experience in the lifeworld played a fundamental role in the structure of consciousness, and that experience of each other’s experience – what he called “inter-subjectivity” was a fundamental part of the lifeworld. But how does the consciousness of each person structure itself with regard to the lifeworld?

Husserl argued that conscious experience was one of the continual construction and adaptation of a “horizon of meanings” or “epistemological horizon” - effectively a set of expectations and orientations towards the world. One of Husserl's followers, the mathematician Hermann Weyl, explained that the epistemological horizon amounted to a set of possibilities of not-necessarily realised things:
“Under the eidetic reduction in the epistemological horizon of pure consciousness, a potential for the coming-to-presence of one’s knowledge-of-something exists in pure subjectivity as perceptions of unarticulated sensory data [...] Furthermore, “the possibility of this potential for awareness is not itself a constituted object per se. Within its infinite range of likelihood, a possibility as such is not a thing to be known as actually real in a world of objective things, although the probability of something could usually be presumed as an idealized outcome of constitutive life.” (Weyl, 1940, 289-95).

Husserl’s ideas about ‘intersubjectivity’ stand in sharp contrast to contemporary efforts to understand consciousness. Today many neuroscientists operate with the view that consciousness is in individual heads as the product of the interactions of neurons. Husserl would have objected that this couldn’t be right and that the subjectivity of consciousness had to be relational. Husserl’s ideas about intersubjectivity were critiqued and developed by some of his followers – most notably Alfred Schutz. In considering Husserl’s view of intersubjectivity, Schutz noted that Husserl tends to concentrate of one-to-one relationships: “Husserl takes as the model of the social situation the case of the bodily presence of the participants in a community of time and space, so that the one find himself in the perceptual field and the range of the Other.” Schutz then argues that “the social world has near and far zones: the surrounding world […] in which you and I experience one another in spatial and temporal immediacy, may pass over into the world of my contemporaries, who are not given to me in spatial immediacy; and in multiple transitions, there are worlds of both predecessors and successors.” (Schutz, “The Problem of Transcendental Intersubjectivity in Husserl”, p81)

Schutz’s objection to Husserl’s account of intersubjectivity is important when we consider the different ways humans engage in communication – particularly in education. Husserl’s concentration on the one-to-one relationship does seem too narrow and tending to make the assumption of equivalence between what Schutz calls the ‘far zone’ communication and the ‘near zone’. This is an uninspected assumption which also is evident in among those educational technologists who have promoted technological means of communicating and acting as functionally equivalent to face-to-face interactions. In arguing that this is a mistake, Schutz identifies a gap in Husserl’s thought whilst making a distinction that helps us think about the differences between communicating with people face-to-face and communicating with them using the many technological means we now have for ‘far zone’ interaction.

One of the problems with difficult academic work is the scope that it presents for misinterpretation. Husserl failed to convince his followers that his idea of phenomenological reduction to reveal the transcendental essences of consciousness could be practical or indeed was the right path. He believed his failure was a failure of his students to properly understand him rather than the result of legitimate critique. In this, he was probably right. Husserl regarded Heidegger’s “Being and Time”, which was dedicated to Husserl, as a betrayal of his ideas. 

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