joys and limitations of phenomenology

Very close descriptions of human experience can move us by provoking empathy for the person who offers the account and by reminding us of the complexity and richness of our own inner lives.

We are evolved animals, composed of things like cells and liquids and electrical charges, yet some of our experiences seem elusive and mysterious. I am thinking of phenomena like the passage of time, an awareness of another’s thought, or a free-seeming choice. Maybe it’s only due to our cognitive limitations that these experiences appear complex; another kind of creature could easily analyze and describe our condition.* Yet our halting efforts at self-understanding make the world seem elusive and mysterious.

My dog knows things I cannot, like the significance of the smells on all the tree trunks on our block. But he also has tangible experiences that point beyond his ken. For instance, that tag that jingles under his neck says the name of our town, which is why he is allowed to play off-leash in the local park; and our town’s authority derives from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He is not wired to be able to understand much of that. In similar ways, when we investigate phenomena like our own consciousness and choice (no matter how skillfully and effectively), we are exploring the edges of things that we are not well designed to comprehend. I find this difficulty and mystery consoling. It helps to re-enchant the inner life.

It is one gift of certain fictional and poetic texts. Lately, I have also enjoyed works by the classic phenomenologists Husserl and Heidegger. Yet I am worried about two methodological limitations (which must be already discussed at length in secondary literature): social biases and the influence of socially constructed vocabulary.

For instance, Heidegger offers an 89-page-long analysis of boredom, presenting it as a door to fundamental truths about time and being and an opportunity to discover one’s existential freedom (Heidegger 1930/1995 §19-38; discussed by Slaby 2010).

(Yes, the idea of voluntarily reading many pages by Heidegger--about boredom!–invites parody, but the material is actually quite interesting.)

Heidegger builds his account on three successively “profound” examples of boredom. In the first, the narrator is bored while waiting for a train “in the tasteless station of some lonely minor railway.” Time, which is usually invisible, painfully drags. In the second, the narrator experiences a perfectly pleasant social evening, during which time passes normally. “We come home quite satisfied. We cast a quick glance at the work we interrupted that evening, make a rough assessment of things and look ahead to the next day—and then it comes: I was bored after all on this evening.” Here time does not perceptively drag, yet there is a retrospective appraisal that time was lost and wasted, which hints at insights about the person’s whole life. Third, one makes a judgment without actually going through the experience at all, as in the general statement: “‘it is boring for one’ to walk through the streets of a large city on a Sunday afternoon.” Close inspection of these examples poses the question “Has man in the end become boring to himself?” (Heidegger 1930/1995, §23a, §24b, §30).

Heidegger writes about the boring railway station in the first-person plural: “We are sitting [“Wir sitzen] … We look at the clock—only a quarter hour has gone by” (Heidegger 1930/1995 §23a, emphasis added). The grammar seems inclusive; the reader is expected to be part of the “we.” In fact, the test of the validity of a phenomenological analysis is whether it feels familiar.

However, the writer happens to be an increasingly famous philosophy professor whose experiences will become more engaging soon after the train ride is over. In short, he is privileged. His bias emerges in passages like this:

Is not every station boring, even though trains constantly arrive and depart and crowds of people throng? Perhaps it is not only all stations that are boring for us. Perhaps, even though trains constantly enter and leave, bringing people with them, there is still a peculiar sense of something more in these stations which anyone who passes tenement blocks in large cities has experienced. One could say that, while it may be like this for us, some peasant from the Black Forest will take enormous pleasure in it, and therefore boredom is a matter of taste

(Heidegger 1930/1995 §23d).

Evidently, neither the reader nor the author lives in a tenement house or identifies as a peasant.

Compare a type of experience that is prominent in early 20th century modernist literature by women (of whom Virginia Woolf is the most famous). Here, boredom “can appear as emptiness or deadness, a lack, or simply passive dissatisfaction.” In this feminist literature, the word “is used, sometimes interchangeably, with a number of other terms defining psychic, spiritual, moral, and physical states in which the self has difficulty accessing authenticity, productivity, and desire—all qualities attributed to one’s success as an individual” (Pease 2021, vii).

This kind of boredom involves long periods of time (months or years) in which not enough of perceived value occurs to make the individual feel satisfied with life. The hours may be filled with specific activities and events that make time pass so that it is not unpleasant or perceived to drag, but boredom is the subject’s appraisal of a whole period of life. It’s like never being able to leave Heidegger’s dinner party (which is not a problem that he encounters).

Since academic research is, almost by definition, conducted by people who hold currently bourgeois roles–albeit often precarious ones–it is crucial not to let first-person phenomenology supplant literary criticism and social science. Researchers and professors need to learn what an experience feels like to other kinds of people.

The other problem involves language. Phenomenology typically connects an inner experience to a word or phrase that names it. The word in question may have a history of being used in diverse ways. A feeling, such as boredom, that we experience as immediate and direct is socially constructed insofar as it has a name with well-known implications (Goodstein 2005, 4). Therefore, changes in the meaning of words may affect our experiences.

Classic phenomenologists sometimes tried to avoid the ambiguous and inconsistent connotations of existing words by coining new ones, which is one source of the difficulty of their texts. But one cannot write with neologisms alone. We need phenomenological accounts of widely used words, in order to reason about how best to use those words.

Heidegger emphasizes the literal root of the German word for boredom, Langeweile, or “long-while” (Heidegger 1930/1995, §19). This etymology will not influence an English-speaker who reflects on being “bored” or a French speaker who experiences ennui. The French word may suggest a degree of superiority, since it comes from the Latin odio, to hate, as in Horace’s famous “Odi profanum vulgus et arceo” (“I hate and shun the vulgar crowd”).

It is difficult to reconstruct the experience of boredom before the English word emerged (only ca. 1750), but it must have been different from today’s experience, if only because in those days it was unnamed and lacked conventional moral connotations. Today, a child who is taught that it is bad to be bored may experience boredom with guilt, resentment, or both.

Goodstein argues that “modern boredom” has loose connections with older ideas, such as melancholy and acedia (spiritual apathy), but “it can be identified with none of them. … Each of these forms of discontent is embedded in an historically and culturally specific way of understanding human experience—in which I call a rhetoric of reflection.” For instance, the pre-modern word “melancholy” assumed that humors could get out of balance: a disease model. Acedia implied that the sinner had become estranged from God. Modern boredom—“the experience without qualities”—is “the plague of the enlightened subject, whose skeptical distance from the certainties of faith, tradition, sensation renders the immediacy of quotidian meaning hollow or inaccessible.” Individuals suffering from modern boredom are out of harmony with society and alienated from their “own doing and being” (Goodstein 2005, 4, 10). Modern people who see themselves as bored are liable to be conscious of their individuality and alienation. They might perceive others as also bored: that is a common experience in school. Even so, all those individual students are alienated from the institution.

In short, Heidegger’s “we” is limited by both his social position and historical period. He has an idiosyncratic and not very empirical understanding of history, and virtually no awareness of his limited social perspective.

Like other works of phenomenology, Heidegger’s account can move us and inform us by resonating with our own experiences, but we must be careful to not to attend only to people who resemble ourselves.

*Heidegger explicitly disagrees that the “particular difficulties” of understanding Being are “grounded in any shortcomings of the cognitive powers with which we are endowed, or in the lack of a suitable way of conceiving—a lack which seemingly would not be hard to remedy” (Being and Time, H.16, Maquarrie & Robinson trans.). But he dismisses the validity of scientific research on human beings, and I think that’s a mistake.

Sources: Heidegger, M. 1930/1995.The fundamental concepts of metaphysics: world, finitude, solitude, trans. W. McNeil & N. Walker. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1995 Heidegger. 1930/1983. I also consulted some passages in Die Grundbegriffe der Metaphysik: Welt—Endlichkeit—Einsamkeit, in Gesamtausgabe (collected works) 1923-1944, vol 29/30, Frankfurt: Vittorio Klostermann, 1983. Also: Goodstein, E. S. 2005. Experience without qualities: boredom and modernity.  Stanford University Press; Pease, A. 2012. Modernism, feminism and the culture of boredom. Cambridge University Press; and Slaby, J. 2010. The other side of existence: Heidegger on boredom, in Jan Söffner, Sabine Flach, eds, Habitus in habitat II: other sides of cognition. Bern: Peter Lang, 101-120. See also: introspect to reenchant the inner life; nature includes our inner lives; and a Husserlian meditation.

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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.