THE OBSERVER

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A physicist might explain the theory of general relativity in terms of one or more observers. “Let us imagine a spacious chest resembling a room with an observer inside,” Einstein writes. For a phenomenologist, however, this term “observer” is much too restrictive. Human ways of revealing and comporting to things extend far beyond mere observation. The term becomes especially problematical phenomenologically because it presupposes that we are already taking a quasi-theoretical distance, thus a determinate stance (one of objective observation), toward the world, while ignoring other ways of relating, ways that are much more crucial to our being able to gain an understanding of human comportment generally.

What’s more, we have to untangle an ambiguity in this term “subject,” particularly in how it’s used by scientists on the one hand and philosophers on the other. In a clinical setting, the “subject” is a kind of object, viz., an objectified other being observed for some scientific purpose. If we refer to “the subject” during an experiment, we are likely referring to a human guinea pig. In contrast, our philosophical use of the word never refers to an objectified other but to the first person as an irreducible occurrence: e.g., to the viewpoint of the scientist who is doing the observing.

The important point is that phenomenology takes all modes of the subject’s comportment into consideration, including all theoretic-scientific modes. Hence the thematic object of phenomenology (the phenomenon) is subjectively polyvalent. Because the phenomenon always corresponds to our ways of relating to it, the scientifically studied object is taken as scientifically studied, the clinically observed as clinically observed, the desired as desired, the holy as holy, the revered as revered, the feared as feared, the reviled as reviled, the touched as touched, the heard as heard, the remembered as remembered, the imagined as imagined, the ugly as ugly, the joyful as joyful, the timed as timed, the weighed as weighed, the politically expedient as politically expedient, etc. One and the same thing can be taken practically, ethically, aesthetically, mathematically, politically. These ways of taking them often overlap, but the point is that even objective ways of considering the world remain subjective in this fundamental sense. Since only some of those ways are theoretic-scientific, the phenomenon is more, not less, than the thing considered objectively. At the same time, there is always a sense in which the thing exceeds our finite ability to grasp it, even when we attempt to do so clinically.

Thus the objection that phenomenology only considers reality subjectively, and that it therefore doesn’t get at reality at all, is quite misguided. A perfectly scientific or mathematical consideration of reality is itself one of the ways the subject reveals, assesses, relates to, and otherwise makes sense of its world. While we can always ask about matter as something that subsists independently of human existence, as cut off from the manifold ways of relating to, interacting with, disclosing, and understanding the world, the question remains hypothetical since no such “independent” object is ever given to anyone, even to a scientist. Once something is revealed, it is immediately brought into the sense-making context of human relevance, a context on which science is quietly parasitic. In short, phenomenology always sees the investigator as part of the system being investigated while seeing investigation itself as only one of the ways we have of making sense of the world, ways that make the world appear (that is, reveal it) differently depending on each mode of access.

 

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4 responses to “THE OBSERVER

  1. To the extent that I understand your comments, I tend to agree with them. But we must say more, I think. Imagine Madame Curie in her lab. She leaves a photographic plate over some ptichblende overnight. In the morning she finds that the photographic plate, while not exposed to light, was blackened. In this she is said to have discovered “radioactivity.” But there is much in this story that goes undiscovered. Were someone off the street to enter the scene, they would find no photographic plate, nor pitchblende, nor the recent suggestion of “uranic” rays. Such a person would have discovered nothing, or perhaps what Marie had for lunch. There was for Marie an extant context, without which the radioactivity would not have been disclosed. Our visitor would see perhaps the blackened plate and the pile of mineral, but little more. The phenomena had to be embed in a context that is not explicitly part of the phenomena. You speak of a the role of a theoretical stance. It is as if we are able to stand in some ethereal abstract realm. Can we really ever do this? We remain embodied, temporal, and finite. We see this plate at this time. These are the phenomena. We must somehow lift them up out of this realm. Perhaps we do this always in seeing something as something. It is not clear how phenomena are sawed up to fit into this ethereal abstract realm that I do not understand. How is the particular lifted up. Mustn’t it always be made less and remade into something else. As Hume reminds us, we cannot “see” causation. Is this merely a reminder of this mystery: that the particular is lifted up. Causation doesn’t exist in the “lowest” phenomenological level, but neither does the robin. They both exist in a “higher” level. What I don’t understand is where we stand. Who is this I? All I know is that it requires no effort to see this computer as a computer, but that it wasn’t always so. We may not be observers at all, as if we could get outside the world. They are inextricably married: this world I live in and the mind that perceives it. They cannot be teased apart. What is not already prepared en mente will not be seen in the world. What is to be understood is how anything new is disclosed.

    • By a theoretical stance I don’t mean anything like an “ethereal abstract realm” (as you put it) but a way of relating to and viewing the world, one achieved through education and training—specifically by way of abstracting from the actual situation. For example, think of a baseball game, the cheering crowds, the emotion and excitement, the competitiveness of the players, everything that would normally be occurring and what everyone would be experiencing. Now you’re assigned a task that completely changes the way you consider the game. You’re told to calculate how far the ball will travel if it encounters a certain amount of force in the other direction, or you’re given any other theoretical objective. The phenomenon now changes, conforming to the goal that has to be accomplished.

      Now you begin theorizing. It is no longer about enjoying the game and cheering on the team you care about or any of that. Maybe one of the players is someone you know, your son or daughter, and you have an invested interest in the outcome. All that goes out the window. It’s not even a game anymore; the whole thing turns into a math problem. Now you have to think in terms of force, motion, velocity, torque, angles, quantities, parabolas, vectors, etc. Now you have to invent—or, since they have already been invented for you by others, you merely have to employ—abstract units in order to make the exact measurements you need to calculate the problem. Now space becomes a matter of millimeters, centimeters, inches, yards (whatever units you’re using). Now you have to do the same to time. It is no longer the unbroken duration you were experiencing while you enjoyed the game, the time you experienced together with your enjoyment, the time animated and infused by and at one with it. Time is no longer the living present in which the past was retained in the present and the present projected into the future as being gladly or hesitantly anticipated. You now see time only as a linear construction, an abstraction. Just as you did with space, you now have to break up time into units so you can accurately measure it and calculate the problem. Now you’re thinking about time in geometrical terms: one homogeneous unit, one second that’s exactly like every other second (which is never the case in real life) follows after another on a neutral timeline. Here time has been totally standardized, homogenized, leveled, flattened, abstracted from everything. Time is no longer something lived and experienced; it has become theoretically objectified. Now think of the equipment. The baseball is no longer part of the overall context of equipment. It really isn’t even viewed as equipment anymore. It gets abstracted from the overall context. It’s mostly just a weight you have to determine. To weigh the ball, you again have to invent or employ abstract units, ounces, etc. And the entire earth becomes merely a body that exerts gravity on another body (the ball). The air is taken account of as a mere force exerting a drag on the ball.

      All of this theorizing refers to reality, of course, but in a highly abstract way. People seem not even to exist here at all except as bodies that exert forces on other bodies. In fact, the focus might be narrowed down to only include the bat and ball posited merely as two quantities just like space and time are being posited as two quantities. Everything personal and subjective has been theoretically removed. Of course, a lot of theory is built into our daily lives today, and that includes our sports. Theoretical thinking has become part of the game. We largely take it for granted. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, that’s precisely where I approve. Theoretical thinking isn’t reality itself but an intellectual tool being used to help us understand (and to a certain extent predict and control) nature. Where I object is when that type of thinking becomes an objectivISM that seeks to turn objectivity into an overall philosophical theory of reality that becomes blind to the positive role of subjectivity in constructing that very reality. That is what happens when you try to turn objectivity into a worldview. Meanwhile, subjectivity is seen only as the source of error, as something to be eliminated from the system, rather than a constructive part of it. Of course, the subject is the only thing in the system for whom the truth has any significance at all and to whom reality is revealed AS reality in the first place. The subject provides access to reality through its disclosure of the world in a meaningful, sense-making way. The subject cares about things and thereby makes them relevant. It is this caring that science is quietly parasitic on. Nature isn’t blind. If we see, it sees. If we care, it cares. Nature loves and cares through us. All the “merely psychological stuff” is actually of the utmost importance to understanding reality.

      • I think I was trying to get at two things. First, is that we are always theorizing, though probably not in the way that you mean. The way I would say it is that there is meaning all the way down. Second, I am puzzled by what theorizing is as distinct from non-theorizing. Maybe this is like asking what thinking is, and how it is distinct from not thinking. It seems to me that we are always experiencing, but what are we experiencing when we are “thinking”? We are always being subjects, but it still seems that we do have a sense of an objective/subjective distinction. It is as if thinking is a different kind of feeling than feeling the warm sun on my face. Anyway, that’s what I was trying to explore.

  2. If I understand you correctly, your question is whether there’s some line we cross where we suddenly enter some theoretical state of mind that we weren’t in before we started theorizing—or whether, as you put it, we’re always theorizing. Your objection seems to be that I discuss theorizing as though it were some special state distinct from our usual way of going about things.

    I agree with you to the extent that I believe theoretical thinking is a radicalization of a tendency already inherent in ordinary behavior. Your question calls for clarifying the terms “theorizing” and “thinking.” What “thinking” refers to is already a challenge. Is it something that necessarily involves language? I can decide that I need to organize my office or put some books back on the shelf without verbalizing it to myself. I can assess something without bringing words into it. Should we call that sort of thing “thinking”? Let’s leave that question aside for now and concentrate on what I mean by theorizing.

    You probably know the common distinction between theory and practice. Our conception of theory in the West is rooted in the ancient Greeks. Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says,

    “theory 1597, conception, mental scheme, in Hooker’s Ecclesiastical Polity; borrowed from Late Latin theōria, from Greek theōríā contemplation, speculation, a looking at, thing looked at, from theōreîn to consider, speculate, look at, from theōrós spectator. Greek theōrós is formed from théā a view; see THEATER + horós seeing, related to horân to see.”

    As you can tell from the word’s origin, theory is related to looking, seeing. Instead of being actively involved in some practice, being theoretical means that you cease to be engaged and absorbed in work and instead take a step back in order to observe, to contemplate. As the word evolved through history, it began to refer to the principles and methods of an art rather than its practice. One derives a theory from observation, reasoning.

    I believe you’re right in the sense that the distinction between theory and practice isn’t as neat as the tradition would have it. One might say that the distinction between theory and practice is itself theoretical. For example, a scientific experiment often involves a lot of setting up of equipment, of practical work, as well as observation. Heidegger points out that both theory and practice are modes of our care and concern for things in the world, a care which is rooted in a concern with and for our own being. Nevertheless, I do think the distinction between theory and practice is valid to a certain extent. I hope I understood your objection, and that I at least partly answered your question.

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