Phenomenology is a philosophy that examines and describes how we interact with our world, other people, with things that surround us, and with our thoughts and memories, imagination, emotions and desires. In ‘philosophy-speak’, phenomenology attempts to understand subjective meaning and the significance of our embodied experiences. The phenomenology of the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) is the kind I am the most familiar with, although I have read only his Phenomenology of Perception so I will not attempt to summarise Merleau-Ponty’s work other than point out he attempted to analyse our perception of embodied experiences, otherwise known as phenomena. I enjoy Merleau-Ponty’s work because he believes art and the philosophy of lived experience have:
the same kind of attentiveness and wonder, the same demand for awareness, the same will to seize the meaning of the world…
I also like phenomenology because when we think about lived experience we need to set aside, or ‘bracket’, any assumptions we have about the phenomenon we are contemplating.
Phenomenology is the basis for a method of research often used in health care that involves interviewing and observing both clients and health care workers as they provide or receive care. A typical question asked by the researcher is,
How did you experience this situation and what does the experience mean to you?
A key component of phenomenology and, therefore, this kind of research, is description. My chief interest is, of course, learning about a person’s subjective perception and experience of writing as therapy. Let’s imagine I ask you to describe your subjective perception and experience of writing a short story about a difficult incident in your life. Imagine you are one of many people taking part in the research and the data I collect includes your description of how you feel. Once I have a number of responses I transcribe each one and carefully read and re-read the material until I find several themes or ‘units of meaning’ that can be linked together. These themes might provide me with information about how and why people write and, more importantly, the meaning people gain from therapeutic writing. This method has the potential to yield rich insights into not only therapeutic writing, but writing in general.
One of the problems many philosophers have with phenomenology is that it is subjective. Phenomenologists, however, believe that embodied awareness is always located in a particular time and culture and is always intersubjective. This is because our perceptions can only ever be of the world that surrounds us; perceiving (noticing, sensing, feeling) the world means we must interact with the world as is, and with whatever, or whoever, appears to us. Because of this we cannot help but interact with the world and, yes, this confronts us with our inherent subjectivity. It also confronts us with the subjectivity (bias, prejudice, partiality) of others. In other words, if we really take notice of what is going on around us we can’t help but notice what is going on for the people around us. By listening and paying attention to the person we are with, we gain an enhanced awareness of his or her perceptions of the world; we ‘experience’ another’s perceptions.
My father used to tell me that I should never judge another person until I walked around in their shoes. When I studied Merleau-Ponty I realised both he and my father were onto something. One of my favourite Merleau-Ponty quotations is this:
solitude and communication cannot be the two horns of a dilemma, but two “moments” of one phenomenon.
I think what he means by this is that we are essentially ‘alone’, in our heads, in our own little world but the elusive ‘two moments’ can occur because the embodied experience of being always and only our self is, at the very same time, never fully the self as we perceive it; it is different from the self as perceived by another. In other words, we are at the same time subject and object. It is a bit like sitting opposite a person on the bus and thinking ‘I am me and you are you’ while that person, at the very same time, thinks, ‘I am me and that person opposite me is ‘you’, which means they are definitely not me!’
How do we escape the lonely trap of ‘me’ as subject and ‘you’ as object that causes us to question whether we will have anything in common with another person, particularly one who is a different race (or gender, religion, sexuality), from us? We could try and think of every encounter with another person, either a fictional character or the person sitting across from us at the breakfast table, or on the train, as a chance to seize one ‘moment of time’ and convert it to two moments of one time and allow ourselves to experience a phenomenon from two different perspectives.
I think in order to achieve this we need to practice being reflective, conducting:
a dialogue with the self […] a critical enquiry into our own thought processes, prejudices and habitual assumptions about […] power and authority, professional role, diversity and the match between [our] values and principles.
In other words, we need to ditch our self-importance and give the other people in our life a little more space to be themselves. Is it possible that people who read a lot tend to be better at critically inquiring into their thought processes? Is it is easier to put aside our habits, assumptions and prejudices about a fictional character than it is with the people we love?
Does this mean we should try to ‘read’ our friends, family and workmates as if they are a character from a book? I wonder what would happen if we tried? What could we learn about ourselves and others? Have you ever experienced one moment through two different perspectives? What happened? What did it feel like? What did you learn?
I also wonder if, as well as experiencing the perceptions of another ‘real’ human being, a writer experiences an intersubjective relationship with a character they create. Could writing fiction, where fictional characters experience events (or phenomena) based on the therapeutic writer’s life be more healing than writing autobiographical material? What do you think?
 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. by Colin Smith (London: Routledge Classics, 2002), p. xxi.
 Linda Finlay, Phenomenology for Therapists: Researching the Lived World (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), p. 8.
 Merleau-Ponty, p. 418.
 Gillie Bolton, ‘Who is Telling the Story? The Critical Role of the Narrator in Reflective and Reflexive writing’, Educational Reflective Practices, 2.1, (2012), 35-54 (p. 46).