Wednesday, July 11, 2012

stars, constellations, experience and judgment

I tried to come up with a good analogy to help explain to my non-phenomenological-philosopher friends why reading Husserl's account of meaningful perceptual experience is so exciting to me. I started to write it out, drawing out all the little teeny micro-analogies that make the overall analogy so excellent. That meant I was writing in and explaining technical Husserlian phenomenological jargon.

So I'm not going to share the whole analogy, just the broad outline. We can talk about the rest.

Husserl's goal is kind of like this: Why do we see constellations, and not just stars? (To get even closer, what he's asking is more like: why do we see stars, and not little weird imperfections in the black velvet night sky? -- but constellations will work better.)

Constellations, physically speaking, aren't out there. For one thing, we perceive them from a viewpoint that places stars in close relationships or groupings that have no astronomical basis at all. Besides which, from the stars' standpoint, there aren't constellations, because they're just big balls of fiery gas (but enough about Newt Gingrich).

And yet, from our terrestrial spot, and from our various cultural spots, there are constellations. Why do we see them? Or, to put it a little closer to Husserl without getting too technical, why are we led from our seeing stars to make the judgment that they're grouped into constellations? What goes on, from mere awareness on up through active perception, to imbuing with cultural significance, such that we end up with constellations?

(At this point in Experience and Judgment, Husserl is dealing with some not very heavenly examples, like a red ball, or a pen in a penholder next to a pencil. In terms of the phenomenological investigation of meaning, those are still very interesting examples, but I realize constellations are a lot groovier.)

Where this is going in this book is pretty cool, too. Not only do we see constellations, but our seeing them becomes the basis for our saying things about them that can be true or false:

"Hey, look," (I could say to you), "it's the Big Dipper!"

"You doofus," (you could reply), "that's the Little Dipper."


"Ah, there's lovely Cassiopeia," (I could say). "I forget, was she one of Zeus' illegitimate kids he had pretending to be a goat or something?"

"No, no, no," (you could say), "she's Cepheus' wife, the one who pissed off Poseidon because she was hotter than the sea-nymphs."

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