Wednesday, April 05, 2006

A Phenomenological Observation

Phenomenologists and pragmatists tend to emphasize that when we perceive an object, we do not just perceive its immediate sensory qualities. We have an intuitive sense of what we can do with the object. Most of the world, on this account, is perceived the way a carpenter perceives a hammer. You don't just know it is long and heavy. You immediately perceive which end to hold it by, how to swing it, and what it is for. The world is a network of affordances or opportunities or ready-to-handedness or something.

My perception does not work like that. Most objects I perceive seem to come with obligations. I don’t just perceive their gross sensible qualities. I perceive a deadline, generally one that is fast approaching or that I have already missed. The paradigm object is not a hammer, but an email that I was supposed to reply to, but didn’t, because I don’t have all the right information and don’t feel like getting it.

You might think, given this lifeworld, that I have a lot of responsibilities. But I really don’t have more than the next person. In fact, I’ve spent much of my life ducking responsibility. The problem is that responsibilities are foregrounded in my perception in an oppressive way that makes me want to avoid getting more responsibilities. Responsibility foregrounding doesn’t even help me get things done, because the weight of obligation is just depressing, so I go to bed.

There have been plenty of phenomenological theories that emphasize negative aspects of experience. Dread. Nausea at the sheer materiality of things. But no phenomenologist that I know of has really captured my personal brand of neurotic experience. And this is the true failing of continental philosophy.


Anonymous said...

I also feel like this all the time. I am sure twenty years from now, we will have a great syndromic name for it, like inforegressionism.

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

I like "Inforegressionism", but its not quite what I feel. You need to have some root word for obligation in the word.