What Attention Lays Bare

Sunday May 27, 2007

Singing Bird

I’ve been thinking quite a lot lately about phenomenology – the philosophical movement started by Edmund Husserl that aimed to pay careful attention to the nature of experience, rather than getting tangled in those philosophical old chestnuts about the possibility of an objective world or what have you. Husserl, when he set out on this approach to philosophy, thought that it would ultimately found the sciences on a secure objective basis, and lead to the spiritual renewal of humankind. This, it seems reasonable to note, has not exactly happened, and phenomenology has become over the years more an abstruse pastime for the philosophically inclined than the means to the securing of a future utopia.

Anyway, the reason I am writing about phenomenology here (other than having spent the last five or six years reading the stuff) is that what has always attracted me to phenomenology is the matter of attentiveness to phenomena. The demand to pay close attention to things, and the suggestion that by paying closer attention to things we can actually come to a greater understanding, is one that has served biologists and their like very well down the years, but one that seems lost on many philosophers who, as we all know, would go out in the morning without their trousers on if their spouses didn’t stop them doing so.

For Husserl, at least early on in his career, this attentiveness was a royal road to truth and certainty, to a slowly developing, but absolutely certain understanding of things that would resolve once and for all all those pesky philosophical problems. And whilst this doesn’t seem like an unreasonable gamble – that closer attention leads to greater certainty – I find myself increasingly wondering if the reverse is the case, and that what attention lays bare is not certainty so much as the quivering uncertainty of things, their complexity, their tendency to slip from our grasp.

Take, for example, the idea of the “mind”. When I started meditating, I remember thinking that perhaps the mind was some vast and undiscovered territory just waiting to be explored, that through meditative attention, I would come to understand the peaks and the valleys and the bits in between. I used to like reading Gerard Manley Hopkins, when he said,

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there.

But these days, I am not so sure, for all the poetic seductions of this view. Indeed, what attention seems to lay bare is not some inner territory with its epic landscapes, but rather the strangely equivocal nature of experience itself. As the Tibetans like to say, the phenomena that we pay attention to seem to dissolve under analysis. So even if I start out thinking, “Oh, there’s a bird singing. I’m hearing the singing of a bird”, the more I pay attention to the fine grain of this experience, the fluctuation, the more this straightforward sense of things breaks down. For example, I might ask myself: OK, so the bird is singing, but now that I’ve noticed it singing, I also notice it has been singing for some time and yet I’ve only just become aware of it. So, two second ago, ten seconds ago, was I hearing it or not? Or I ask myself, who is hearing this? Or else, where is the sound – in some inner realm of “experience”, out there, somewhere in between?

The more I ask myself questions such as these, the more they multiply, and my puzzlement only seems to deepen, and such attempts to get to the bottom of what is going on in experience seems not to lead to certainty so much as towards ever greater intrigues and perplexities in which my views about the nature of experience are all overturned so that, the more I reflect upon it, the more I wonder whether our philosophical and commonsense categories through which we make sense of the world can really do justice to that about which they presume to speak. Not, I should add, because something mystical and otherworldly is going on – I have no interest in these kinds of speculations – but because our assumptions about our experience, our assumptions about selves and others, our assumptions about the nature of thinking, our assumptions about bodies and minds and so on – are themselves based upon deeply metaphysical categories that we can’t even begin to know how to call into question.

But then again, sometimes as I sit the questions and the stories subside. And when then is left? Not some great shining truth, but something simpler. The wren sings. The breath comes and goes. Thoughts flicker. Sitting quietly, doing nothing, as those Zen folks like to say, spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.

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#1 · Bill Webb

28 May 2007

Very nice indeed!

#2 · David Chapman

19 May 2008

When I was reading phenomenology, I was usually frustrated that the authors didn’t seem to do much of it, as far as I could tell. It always seemed impossibly abstract. The topics of phenomenologizing were things like “time consciousness”. How could you expect to get anywhere definite with that?

My onetime colleague Phil Agre (http://polaris.gseis.ucla.edu/pagre/) and I launched a “phenomenology of breakfast” project, as an attempt to ground in something concrete. He published some interesting observations somewhere or other. I didn’t.

(Just to disagree with myself — I’ve found your observations on the phenomenology of free will very interesting, however.)

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