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[ Notice what's hiding in plain sight! ]"Always ask yourself: 'What is this [whatever] an instance of?'" (Louis Forsdale)
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Husserlian phenomenological philosophy has the notion of "bracketing" (epoché). What use could this arcane idea have for daily life? I propose that it "changes everything" (to borrow from a recent Chrysler Automobile Co. advertising slogan).

The concept of "bracketing" can be operationalized simply: Treat anything -- a belief, proposition, liking, disliking, etc. --, not straightforwardly as the [belief, proposition, liking, disliking...] it presents itself as being, but rather as an instance of the kind of thing it purports to be [i.e.: a belief, proposition, liking, disliking, etc.]. What difference does this make? The thing's claim on us is loosened. We gain distance from it. From being caught up in it as something we are already committed to, we become interested in it as a theme of reflective inquiry, assessment, etc.

[ John F. Kennedy asking Americans to ask not... ]The implications of this change of attitude are massive. For one: It "brackets" ("suspends", "deconstructs", "kills"...) enthusiasm, which is the motor of so many things -- from high school cheer rallies, to megabuck competitive sports and business activities, to the mobilization of armies and peoples to go to war. It's a lot easier to get persons to die for: "The Homeland", than to get them to die for: "something someone has called a: 'The Homeland' (Motherland, Fatherland, etc.), and which that person also asserted was a: 'something worth dying for'". Formally stated, the exercise is to practice:

For all 'X', where 'X' is anything toward which a person 'Y', for any person 'Y', takes up or could take up the attitude 'Z', for any attitude 'Z', examine the phenomenon: "'Y' adopts attitude 'Z' toward 'X'."

[ In hoc signo vinces! ]--Thus, we go from being the lady who climbs up on a table to escape a mouse (I actually saw this happen once in the employee cafeteria of Maryland National Bank...), to examining what being a lady who climbs up on a table and shrieks, to escape a mouse is like. Or: Instead of grabbing a sword and racing to enter heaven on The Jihad du jour, we examine what it is like for a person to grab a sword in the belief that there is a heaven, that what in the specific place and time the person happens to be living calls itself "Jihad" is a cause worth dying for, etc.... Of course, the attitudes and objects most relevant to study are not "somebody else's", but "one's own" (i.e.: in each case my own!): those of the schoolroom for students (teachers), the workplace for employees (managers)....

In less politically portentious situations, this attitude is often called names like: "killjoy" or "spoilsport" (see my analysis of "surprise endings"!). Instead of losing self and community in enthusiasm, this attitude can help us cultivate self and community in connoisseurship. Phenomenological bracketing both exorcises received meanings' spell over us (myths, etc.) and nurtures us to create our own critically-defensible meaning in personal and social life. Bracketing does not deny meanings, but it does turn the tables on them, so that we use the meanings instead of the meanings using us.

Self-accountable choices in-form-ed by critically reflecting on one's beliefs and customs, should cultivate meaning far better than those merely socially conditioned beliefs and rituals ever could, because the meaning in the latter is founded on meaninglessness (unreflected social conditioning), whereas here we aim to found meaning on meaning, i.e., on mutually self-selected and critically defensible social interactions. If, e.g., circumcision was an occasion for celebrating the birth of a child, we can decide that celebrating a new person's entry into our world is good, but that we don't want to hurt the child to do it.

Bracketing is not, however, "just negative". It in no way denies meanings, only "belief in" them, and, instead of simply taking for granted the meaning as it happens to be part of life, this activity tries to "tease out" and bring to light as many aspects of the meaning as possible. It is the "conviction" that one should be part of the Jihad which this activity "brackets"; but study of all aspects of "what a Jihad is" and what wanting to go on one is like, is encouraged (just like study of everything else). We see that, in this way, "bracketing" encourages the imagination to be enriched with ever more -- and, more important: ever more nuanced -- [what Ernst Cassirer called:] symbolic forms: meanings of all kinds, which provide for the individual an ever richer "smorgasbord" ("specimen collection", "parts bin", "junk yard"...) of semiotic raw material to use in creating new meanings, which, even apart from Husserl's epoché, frequently deploy bracketing even in presently existing forms of everyday life (e.g., novels and short stories, which nobody believes are "true").

Even in presently existing forms of everyday life, persons do not generally believe the figures in a novel or a joke actually lived and did what the novel or joke says they did; and persons generally choose an interesting work of fiction over something that accurately reports boring and "useless" real events (things that are real but lack meaning). Similarly, a painting is not valued because it accurately reproduces an image from life, but because it is "beautiful", i.e., because the meaning in it "speaks" to us simply as meaning and not as putatively true reference. We come full circle when we note that real community can be founded and nourish itself on shared interest in meaning qua meaning, and not just on real manipulations of "real things" (i.e., meaning instances that happen to be "believed in").

Aside for philosphers: Obviously, the foregoing does not exhaust Husserl's philosophical notion of epoché, bracketing, "reduction", etc. But I do propose that it is not alien, or, a fortiori, inimical to what Husserl was about. I got the question: "Always ask yourself: 'What is this [whatever] an instance of?'" from a teacher who never heard of Husserl's phenomenology. And that's what struck me about the question: that it was an independent approach that yet seemed to lead toward similar progress in self-understanding and orientation in life.

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 [ Notice what's hiding in plain sight! ]
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