A Husserlian meditation

This is a breath: in and out.

I experience it without noticing it. Then I decide to think about it. Given my cultural milieu, my first thoughts sound scientific: my lungs must be absorbing oxygen from the air. My nervous system responds positively to that sensation.

Then I realize that I am not sure whether these statements are well-founded or what their underlying concepts (such as causality and consciousness) mean. I resolve to focus on what I actually experience.

The phenomenon of my breath has certain features. It is a breath for me. I feel it and feel grateful for it. It belongs to the sequence of events that unfold in my inner time, occupying a short but not instantaneous period. It is located in my body, which occupies a specific place. It is an intentional act, yet it could have happened without my conscious attention. It has a purpose that I can know.

I can imagine a breath that lasts twice as long or sounds twice as loud, but a breath that is ceaseless is no longer a breath.

Soon that breath is gone. But another one comes; and even while I was experiencing the earlier breath, I implicitly knew that it was one in a series. Future breaths were phenomena that I could anticipate and even count on. Past breaths were phenomena that I could recollect if I chose to, or could imagine if I had forgotten them. All these breaths have a temporal rhythm that I can know in any one moment, meaning that they coexist in my present, albeit as different kinds of phenomena–memories, hopes, unnoticed experiences.

When I form a thought about my breathing, I know that I may return to that thought at will.

I can envision my body breathing one of the breaths of my own past. I can experience myself as then and there instead of now and here. This is very much like envisioning you and your experience, for you are there just as I am here.

My experience of you is mine; it belongs to the flow of my inner life. But my experience of you is not like my experience of myself, or my breath, or my past, or a number. It has peculiar features, such as the possibility of empathy. Once I know you, I know that you are real rather than imaginary and that we inhabit a shared world, because these are features of my own experience, which is an experience of you by and for me.

In truth, I may not know you, the reader of these words, but I can know what it’s like to breathe while one reads these words and imagines my experience.

My breath unfolds in the time of the world, which is jointly constituted by you and me and all other sentient beings. I cannot be a self that experiences this world without being in communion with others like me.

Each self is its own whole world. Everything that it experiences is its own experience. Yet every self is also a potential phenomenon for the other selves and needs the others to constitute and inhabit a world.

Each of my breaths reveals elaborate complexity when I examine it closely. One of the things I learn is that your breath is the same.

See also: a Hegelian meditation; Philosophy as a Way of Life (on Pierre Hadot); freedom of the will or freedom from the will? etc. I have benefitted from and recommend: Li, Jingjing. Same Road, Different Tracks a Comparative Study of Edmund Husserl’s Phenomenology and Chinese Yogacara Philosophy. McGill University (Canada), 2019; and an article derived from that dissertation: Li, Jingjing. “Buddhist phenomenology and the problem of essence.” Comparative Philosophy 7.1 (2016): 7. Most of my own recent and direct knowledge of Husserl comes from his Cartesian Meditations (1929) as translated by Dorian Cairns.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.