Critical Phenomenology as a Good Friend

by | 2 Feb 2023

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When people ask me ‘why phenomenology?’ I usually point to emerging research in psychology and cognitive science that affirms the observations of classical phenomenology. The answer goes to the heart of why I think other people should care, namely that these findings show the contingent and embedded nature of our perception and therefore call into question key assumptions that underscore orthodox theories of law. However, as accurate as this response might be, it doesn’t capture the joy that I feel when engaging with the phenomenological method. It doesn’t express the curiosity and sense of hope that the phenomenological disposition provides when examining subjects that are of concern to critical theory. So, this is my revised answer to ‘why (critical) phenomenology?’  

Phenomenology as a method brings me joy because it has the qualities of a good friend to whom you can bring a problem. 

But first, what is (critical) phenomenology? 

Given the diverse, and often contradictory, approaches in philosophical phenomenology, it may be a misnomer to call it a ‘method’. There is however a shared disposition that loosely ties it together as a style of thinking. Classical phenomenology is concerned with the structure of experience and consciousness – in other words, what is it like to have certain experiences, what makes it possible for us to be conscious of phenomena, how do experiences give rise to meaning, and so on. A key point is that philosophical phenomenology is not about collecting and aggregating specific experiences to identify themes, rather it looks at the processes that make (or fail to make) certain experiences possible. Thus, classical phenomenologists such as Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and Sartre directed energy towards developing accounts of things such as temporality, attention, spatial awareness, embodiment, self and other consciousness, that underscore most of our experiences in the world. 

The emerging area of critical phenomenology takes up traditional concerns alongside investigations into the way power structures shape and inform our understanding of experiences.  While the explicit term ‘critical phenomenology’ is relatively new, many early phenomenologists were concerned with how political and social structures shape oppression. Phenomenologists such as Beauvoir, Arendt, Fanon and Levinas are obvious examples.  

So, how is phenomenology a good friend? 

I am not claiming phenomenology is the swiss army knife of friends/methods, but I do think that an approach that is capable of careful listening is important in the critical legal space. I mean, we all know those people we can’t go to with problems; they jump straight into fixing mode, or they say you’re mistaken about your position and tell you what you should think or feel, or they refuse to engage citing a responsibility to stay ‘neutral’, or they straight-up don’t listen. I think the law can be a bit like this. 

By contrast, phenomenology is a great listener. For one, phenomenology suspends their habitual assumptions and listens to me earnestly; striving to understand the issue as I see it from my positioning. Phenomenology doesn’t enter the conversation with a pre-determined solution or condescendingly presumes to know better than I. Instead, they ask me how I experience my body, time, space; prompting me to explain myself in such detail that I come to see my own lived experience more clearly. They help articulate tactile descriptions of what it means to occupy a gendered body and historically situated descriptions of occupying a racial stereotype. In a climate that frequently ignores or co-opts these experiences, providing a genuine description can itself be critically validating. 

Now, this focus of phenomenology on positioning and experience has led to accusation of solipsism, but this is a misunderstanding of what they are trying to do. Phenomenology is not merely about the way something appears to someone, or even to a particular culture. But equally phenomenology is not under the illusion that we can access an ‘objective’ abstracted gods-eye view of a phenomena. Instead, phenomenology focuses on the process of how something comes to appear in my perception, consciousness, and experience. A process that is always undertaken by someone who is situated in a shared physical, social, and cultural world. For phenomenology it is not about privileging either objectivity or subjectivity over the other, it is about understanding how they are necessarily bound together. 

In this way, phenomenology doesn’t just listen and affirm our position—but orients my issue within a shared context so as to open up graspable possibilities for how things could be otherwise. Phenomenology understands that things such as habits, assumptions, inter-subjective encounters can all give rise to very real sites of systemic oppression. That is, that the day-to-day lived experiences of discrimination are the polluting particles that make up the suffocating atmosphere of oppression. By helping me articulate detailed descriptions of these every-day sites, they point to a concrete starting point for making change; phenomenology gives me hope. An example of this is Alia Al-Saji’s work on the potential of hesitation to disrupt habitual racializing vision. 

But what about joy? 

Having a method that listens carefully is therapeutic and cathartic in itself, but the feeling of joy suggests something more generative; joy is not just about the lifting of burdens but the injection of a lightness of being. Like any good friendship, the joy of phenomenology also comes from what it allows me to experience and how it changes me as a person. For one, adopting phenomenology as my primary method of inquiry has etched away at the adversarial defensiveness that, at times, doing law can instil you with. As Merleau-Ponty famously asserted, ‘the most important lesson which the [phenomenological] reduction teaches us is the impossibility of a complete reduction’. Knowing that whatever work I produce is perpetually incomplete nudges me towards seeing diverging perspectives as potential opportunities to co-create richer understandings of the phenomena I examine. I think it is this habituation of curiosity without the pressure of a complete answer that makes adopting the phenomenological method so joyful. 

Beyond this conceptual delight, phenomenology also shapes my academic landscape by carving out spaces of joy. Phenomenology operates from the assumption that a holistic understanding of a phenomena is achieved by weaving together multiple perspectives. Thus, practically, it makes sense to work with others who occupy different positionalities when addressing phenomenological questions. I think that this is the true joy of the phenomenological method. Doing critical work can be exhausting, disheartening, and at times void of hope. But to have a method that actively invites genuine curiosity, conversation, and cocreation pushes me towards creating genuinely collaborative spaces, classrooms, and working relationships. It is these intersubjective interactions, and the knowledge that can be creates within them, that I find the real joy of being part of academia. I don’t know if you need phenomenology to achieve this, but I think learning how to listen in the way phenomenology listens helps to create these joyful exchanges.  

*Joy Twemlow is a PhD candidate at Durham law school, she researches the application of critical phenomenology to legal concepts and practices.


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