The Role of Phenomenology in Existential Anthropology

A Philosophical Perspective on Anthropological Methodology

Academic Paper 2020 22 Pages

Pedagogy - Science, Theory, Anthropology



1. Introduction

2. The Method of Phenomenology
2.1. Prejudices and Horizons
2.2. Static and Genetic Phenomenology

3. The Demands of Phenomenology
3.1. Experience and Dialogical Practice
3.2. Existence and the Everyday

4. Criticism of Phenomenology and Existentialism

5. Concluding Remarks

6. Literature

1. Introduction

It is no coincidence that a small section of Hieronymus Bosch's painting 'The Garden of Earthly Delight' was selected for the book cover of 'What is Existential Anthropology?' (2017) by Michael Jackson and Albert Piette. In Bosch's paintings, the images teem with colorful details and individual figures. The whole painting only becomes truly interesting by exploring these individual symbols and characters. Jackson and Piette use the same approach for their Existential Anthropology. Life as it is lived by individual beings is the goal-oriented field of investigation for this anthropological school. The individual has more value than the general (Jackson & Piette, 2017: 5). It cannot be subsumed under a neutral totality or theory.

The same approach can be found in other disciplines in the Humanities such as psychoanalytic anthropology (Gammeltoft & Segal, 2016: 406) and especially in philosophical phenomenology (cf. Fellmann, 2015). With these two disciplines, it is also important to take a close look at the details and the individual and not be influenced by preconceived opinions and prejudices, but to explain the phenomena of everyday life as precisely and extensively as possible (Rohbeck in Meyer, 2016: 249). Psychoanalysis, however, mainly investigates unconsciousness and pathological disorders, whereas philosophical phenomenology focuses on experience itself. Phenomenology does not investigate what exists, but rather how something is experienced. The basic structures that are necessary for such experiences become decisive for that investigation. It is therefore not surprising that Existential Anthropology and philosophical phenomenology have certain parallels in terms of method and demands (Jackson & Piette, 2017: 11). This is probably connected to the fact that many existentialists have also dealt with phenomenological topics in their works (e.g. Heidegger, 2006, Lévinas, 2014, and Sartre, 2017). They all start from the assumption that human life as it is lived cannot be reduced to a scientific explanation. In the end, such a scientific reduction only leads to a reification of the human being, overlooking exactly what constitutes human life. Rather, in order to really understand life, a close look at individuals is required. This phenomenological perspective enables a deeper understanding than if life were to be understood on the basis of different theories, structures or social functions (Knibbe & Versteeg, 2008: 49).

How exactly can philosophical phenomenology be transferred to social and cultural anthropology as a method and a demand? This question will structure the present paper. A number of approaches from an anthropological perspective on how philosophical phenomenology can be transferred to anthropology already exist (cf. Knibbe & Versteeg, 2008 and Desjarlais & Throop, 2011). However, I want to analyze this topic from a philosophical perspective. This approach will therefore be more theoretical and will refer to examples for illustrative purposes only. Ethnography will take a back seat here, even though I still consider this essay an interdisciplinary anthropological work. The application of philosophical phenomenology will be limited to Existential Anthropology as an anthropological school. It will be shown that precisely this phenomenological perspective can enrich Existential Anthropology and that it is therefore useful for research anthropologists when they want to deal with Existential Anthropology.

This essay is neither an introduction to philosophical phenomenology nor to Existential Anthropology (for phenomenology see, e.g., Fellmann, 2015, Husserl, 2012 and Smith 2003 and for Existential Anthropology Jackson, 2015 and Jackson & Piette, 2017). It is rather my aim to describe the concepts, methods and demands of philosophical phenomenology upon Existential Anthropology and to try to show where certain aspects need to be changed, which can be retained, and which have been neglected by other authors who have dealt with similar questions. My aim is to show that while the transfer of philosophical phenomenology can retain its form, several changes are necessary to incorporate it into Existential Anthropology.

I will first deal with the method (Chapter 2) and then with the demands (Chapter 3) of philosophical phenomenology and examine how they can be applied within Existential Anthropology. Afterwards, a few points of criticism will be discussed (Chapter 4). The investigation will be rounded off with a summary and some concluding remarks (Chapter 5). In this way it will be possible to pay attention to the individual details all together and not lose sight of the bigger picture, but to understand it better and more clearly in the end.

2. The Method of Phenomenology

Philosophical phenomenology is a discipline which can be examined in terms of its tradition, its method, and its demands. There is little point in dealing with the tradition here. This is due to two reasons: First, some positions of the phenomenological thinkers will be introduced in the following chapters anyway. An overview of the entire tradition, however, would lead too far away from the topic. Secondly, philosophical phenomenology must be distinguished from existentialism. Not all phenomenologists, such as Scheler or Merleau-Ponty, for example, have dealt with existentialism. And not all existentialists, such as De Beauvoir or Camus, have dealt with phenomenology. So if I wish to deal with Existential Anthropology, some limitations must be made here. Accordingly, this chapter will explain the method of philosophical phenomenology, and only those points that are advocated by most phenomenologists. I will first describe the phenomenological understanding (Chapter 2.1.) and then show how this can be applied to the phenomenon of life (Chapter 2.2.). Both will be examined with regard to their application in Existential Anthropology.

2.1. Prejudices and Horizons

Phenomenological studies do not examine ontologies and social structures, but rather researchers start from the experience as lived (Husserl, 2018: 147). In doing so, the experience as lived - as it is - is examined, both that of the anthropologists and that of those being researched. For example, if the researcher wants to analyze a religious experience, the question is not whether God serves as part of the structuralist 'superstructure', or what functional role the religious ceremony plays within a political discourse. Rather, the question is what it is like to experience this religious phenomenon. The same applies to attention. Do I only describe what most obviously strikes me, or do I also try to describe what is missing or what only appears on the edges or within ruptures in my experience? Thus, no attempt is made to derive this experience from established theories or to interpret it using classical concepts. Rather, the aim is to describe the experience directly (Knibbe & Versteeg, 2008: 51). The phenomenologist thus goes to the things themselves, as Husserl said. This does not mean, however, that a kind of patchwork anthropology is pursued, as it is the case with Tsing (2005), for example. Patchwork anthropology collects data and then tries to embed them in a theoretical framework. Philosophical phenomenology, on the other hand, goes one step further. Instead of taking the collected data as given, other theories are inhibited, and with it those background assumptions that determine whether or not the phenomenon can be regarded as a unit of information and thus as data.

The founder of philosophical phenomenology as a discipline, Edmund Husserl, insisted on this method and it is still applied today (Fellmann, 2015: 28). Two consequences follow from this aspired inhibition of theory: First, it deliberately excludes concepts that have not been questioned so far from the observation process but which still had an implicit influence in the scientific research. This results in a more direct and thus also more adequate understanding of the phenomenon. Secondly, this close scrutiny allows complexities to be identified before they are reduced or subsumed under a common denominator (Jackson & Piette, 2017: 3). Both points are very important for Existential Anthropology. If one wants to grasp life anthropologically, as it is lived in its respective situationality, there is the possibility that theories and preconceived opinions make direct access impossible. Human life recedes thereby into the background. A phenomenological look, however, permits one to fade out theories (for the time being) and to describe the experiences as lived directly. In doing so, aporias, dilemmas and other contradictions become apparent, which are worth investigating instead of being excluded from the preconceived theories and structures. I will address this point in more detail in chapter (3.2.).

The hermeneutic tradition in philosophy, however, has reacted to this aspired inhibition of theory of phenomenology with criticism. Understanding is only possible on a background of previous knowledge (Heidegger, 2006: 145). It is not possible to observe a situation and understand it with a neutral, non-conceptual view. For this reason, all fieldwork develops itself on the shoulders of preconceived assumptions and ideologies, even if the researcher is not necessarily aware of them. Such prejudices and assumptions not only determine the researcher's horizon of understanding, but are also transferred to the persons engaged in fieldwork (Maier in Reichmayer, 2016: 42). This influences not only the ontological assumptions but also the focus on which the anthropologist directs his or her attention. This is visible, for example, in the ethnographies of Premawardhana and Lucht (both in Jackson & Piette, 2017). Premawardhana investigates the various ontologies and identities of believers in Mozambique, which are not stable but rather are malleable at existential moments (Premawardhana in Jackson & Piette, 2017: 47). His considerations that he brings into the research are therefore relativized at the end of the article and he propagates the idea of using the concepts of religion only instrumentally. Lucht also explains his presuppositions and shows how these influence his research, using the example of migrants and their assistants in Niger (Lucht in Jackson & Piette, 2017: 121). In this way he interprets many elements into the psyche of the people that he investigates, thinking that he can better decipher their motives and actions, and thereby discovers that he is distorting research. Both examples show how presumptions influence the investigation. How, then, should one handle it if fieldwork, even if phenomenological, has always been influenced by prejudices and assumptions?

The answer can be found in phenomenological hermeneutics in Gadamer (2010) and Ricoeur (1981). A similar discussion can be found in the Writing Culture Debate (cf. Clifford & Marcus, 1986) within anthropology. Here I will rely more on the philosophical perspective. The prejudices and assumptions must be made explicit for research (cf. Brandom, 2000). This is the only way to justify a phenomenological view. The production of anthropological knowledge is thus not a state of one-time knowledge but remains a continuous process that can be further investigated and criticized (Kinibbe & Versteeg, 2008: 58). This also applies to knowledge that has been acquired phenomenologically. For example, ontological determinations can be criticized, or attention can be shifted or corrected.

If one wants to understand life and human existence phenomenologically, one must try to merge one’s horizon of understanding with the other horizons. This merging of horizons refers both to those people who are being studied in fieldwork as well as to the scientists and producers of theories the researcher is working with. Only in this way does a deeper and more adequate understanding become possible, when it becomes explicit and open to criticism. Knowledge is not the sole domain of the researcher, which I will discuss in more detail in chapter (3.1.). Hermeneutics and phenomenology are thus closely related (Ricoeur, 1981: 101). Phenomenological fieldwork has therefore always been an interpretation. This does not mean that philosophical phenomenology fails as a desired freedom from theories. By making the prejudices and assumptions explicit and reflecting the interpretative act of research, it is still possible to conduct phenomenological research. For example, it is possible to explore the question of the meaning of the situation under study in more detail (Piette in Jackson & Piette, 2017: 184). However, it is necessary to trace and disclose the individual steps of understanding and to point out aspects that have been neglected.

How is this finally applied to Existential Anthropology? It is not possible to examine life as a whole and to investigate it anthropologically. However, the researcher can try to describe the individual situations observed as they were experienced and lived by the participants, without already unconsciously or unreflectively relying on theories or ideologies. This applies to the existentialist theories such as those of Heidegger or Sartre as well. Rather, the experience as lived is the focus of the research. Making the presuppositions explicit and the added scientific reflection make it possible to point out blind spots that have been neglected so far in research. In the end, this leads to something like a thick description (Jackson & Piette, 2017: 17 and Geertz, 2015). The individual situations of life can thus be observed and analyzed as precisely as possible in many different and complementary facets.

2.2. Static and Genetic Phenomenology

If one adopts the idea of the thick description, there are different possibilities how human existence can be investigated anthropologically. A phenomenological investigation is never fully completed (Fellmann, 2015: 44). It is always possible to add a further perspective. How these different perspectives can be related to each other must first be clarified. It is therefore not surprising that the studies of Jackson and Piette are so different. While Piette focuses more on the different levels of a single situation, Jackson examines the juxtaposition of different situations and how meaning is created from them (Denizeau in Jackson & Piette, 2017: 219). I would like to categorize this distinction systematically and call the former perspective 'static' and the latter 'genetic' phenomenology (see Donohoe, 2016: 24). Both perspectives will be briefly explained here.

Static Phenomenology studies the shape of human consciousness and thus various phenomena that play an important role in Existential Anthropology. A possible starting point for investigating the human experience as lived is to introduce a first subdivision: Into that which is experienced (Noema) and into that how it is thought of, believed, fantasized, hoped for, etc. (Noesis). Here it is possible to examine many different influences on the given situation. These include language, emotions, feelings and attitudes (Heidegger, 2006: 133). In addition, it is also possible to investigate interruptions of these experiences and, in general, how the attention of the researched person is directed to the situation (Desjarlais & Throop, 2011: 90). People's attention fluctuates and looking closely at, when and why they deviate from the given situation, are possible points of reference for interpretative explanations. Piette himself describes this phenomenon as 'minor mode' (Piette in Jackson & Piette, 2017: 183). A further starting point is the observation of how the person being investigated behaves towards himself in this moment of study. Is he or she aware of himself or herself, is he or she absorbed in the activity or thought, or does the consciousness oscillate back and forth between these two modes (Sartre, 2017: 123)? The last point of entry for a static phenomenological investigation presented here lies in the physicality and in the spatiality. Experiences are made through and with the body (see Eriksen, 2010: 60 and Jackson, 1983). It must therefore not be neglected in the phenomenological investigation. Furthermore, one can also identify emotions, moods, atmospheres and other phenomena in spatiality and investigate them in the respective situation (cf. e.g. Schmitz, 2019). As described in chapter (2.1.), it is important not to start from a rigid model, but to be open to the way in which the phenomena are developed in the fieldwork.

In this sense, static phenomenology is a multilayered snapshot of a single situation, which can take up and investigate as many aspects of human existence as possible within that moment. The individual levels that are thereby uncovered in a phenomenological way finally come together to form a thick description of the single situation.

Genetic phenomenology as a second perspective focuses rather on temporality. The analysis is accordingly diachronic, because it seeks to examine the interrelationship of different situations. Experience can only come about in a temporal horizon (Desjarlais & Throop, 2011: 88). One situation follows the next. The anthropologist can try to grasp the horizon of understanding of the people being researched. How are past, present and future interrelated (Jackson & Piette, 2017: 17)? What is overlooked? How are the people being researched influenced by their own historicity with regard to their own way of life? How is this reflected in everyday life and how does it affect important decisions? Comparative studies are also of interest here to determine how different situations have been experienced by other people. In so doing, other strands of meaning are developed, whereby differences arise. It is not necessary to determine in advance how long the time span to be studied will be. In contrast to static phenomenology, however, genetic phenomenology is more interested in development and change than in the given situation.

Although Piette's and Jackson's approaches differ, this does not mean that one perspective is better than the other, or that the approaches are mutually exclusive. Both are better suited for the investigation of some specific phenomena. Rather, the approaches complement each other and thus lead to a richer information content. If, as in anthropology, one takes an inductive qualitative approach, it is worth considering both approaches for one's own investigation, or at least taking both seriously into consideration. The question inevitably arises as to what should happen if contradictory meanings are revealed. It is possible to maintain different, inconsistent levels of meaning simultaneously (cf. Lambek in Jackson & Piette, 2017 as well as Priest, 2006). Phenomenological research need not be based on Aristotelian logic that excludes contradictions. However, this does not free the researcher from the task of critically reflecting on his research results.

This chapter has looked at the phenomenological method and how it can be applied to Existential Anthropology. Two main currents have emerged that can complement each other (static and genetic phenomenology). I will now turn to the demands of philosophical phenomenology and consider how these can be applied to Existential Anthropology.



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University of Bern – Institut für Sozialanthropologie
anthropological anthropology existential methodology perspective phenomenology philosophical role



Title: The Role of Phenomenology in Existential Anthropology