Part 2

I want to continue discussing some of the more important structures of experience that may be reduced by the use of the phenomenological method. Remember that by this method, attributes of consciousness may be singled out, adumbrated and relevated into the clear light of awareness for study. One's own mind has become the naturalistic field of research. Notice that the very act of performing a reduction transforms the field of experience. Indeed, as any mature contemplative knows, the transformation of consciousness that may be brought about by intense meditation can be radical. Perhaps in meditating upon the dots you may have come to the experience that the "thing" the dots constituted dropped away, and there was only the dots left.


The sphere of experience during each moment of consciousness is a field, a dynamic totality that shifts and renews itself continuously. To differentiate something out of the stream of experience is an act of cognition, a projection of a recognized pattern onto the stream. To then categorize and label things is a further abstraction of pattern from the stream. To then collect many patterns and group them together based upon similarity continues the process of abstraction until the point where the stream is largely lost to awareness and one is aware of the categories and labels.

Of course we may have categories and labels for categories that are empty of real things. Mathematics is only possible because we are capable of exercising our capacity to form categories without necessarily filling those categories. The category 'X' can mean anything we want it to mean. And we can define 'X' very precisely so that what is an 'X' cannot be a 'Y', and visa versa.

But natural categories , the categories we use to discern real things and talk about them are rarely that precise. In fact the semantic boundaries of natural categories are relatively fuzzy in terms of what we consider to be in and out of a category. Fuzziness refers to the relatively soft boundaries to membership in a category, categories being the way we cognitively group things together as "same" or "similar." Fuzzy sets are categories with graded membership, and constraints upon membership in a category are elastic. Instead of an object either belonging to, or not belonging to a category, the object may be more or less a member of a category. Examples of fuzzy categories often cited in the literature include "young child," "good person," "tall man" and "beautiful woman." Fuzzy numbers include notions like "lots," "several," "occasional," "a bunch," "a few," etc.

By the same token, fuzzy reasoning or logic considers something may be more or less ("sort of," "maybe," "fairly," "pretty much") true, or more or less false. For example, a witness to a crime may make a formal statement of what they saw, and this statement may be considered more or less accurate, more or less true, relative to the statements of other witnesses.

Fuzziness is often signalled in natural language by the use of hedges . Such terms as "sort of," "very," "unlikely," "kind of like," "more or less," "almost," "practically," etc., are commonly used in English to signal fuzzy intent and to modify the meaning of the focal term.

Fuzziness is contrasted with crispness . Crispness refers to precise membership within a category. The crispness of categories we require in scientific theory, description, measurement and discourse is actually abnormal when considered either phenomenologically or cross-culturally, especially as regards religious knowledge. Indeed, that kind of crispness is rare in our own everyday lives.

How can we work phenomenologically with categories? Well, perhaps the easiest way in is to consider the way Buddhist phenomenology handles the task. Perception in Buddhist psychology is the integration of two processes, naming (or nama ) and forming (or rupa ). These two processes, happen so quickly in our everyday experience that they merge into a single effect -- naming/forming (or namarupa ).

Remembering that the cognitive imperative of your brain is to not only generate a stream of experience, but to recognize what is happening in that stream, a phenomenological investigation of the naming/forming process should center upon watching how your mind manufactures redundancy in experience - - you know, "been there, seen that, got the T-shirt!"

The easiest exercise to do is a modification of the sphere of sound meditation. It can be done anywhere, but is best done outside in a comfortable place where you can sit and calm out. Once you are settled down, close your eyes and pay attention to the sounds around you. Don't pay attention to any one sound, but rather be open to all the sound around you. You will notice perhaps that the sounds change. The sphere of sound around you is dynamic. This is the stream of auditory consciousness you are constructing for yourself.

When you are all comfy and settled into the awareness of the sphere of sound, then shift your task to paying attention to new sounds as they appear in the sphere. Notice how they "demand" attention. You will now be working with novelty. So watch how your mind maps redundancy onto the novelty. Watch how the recognition process happens. Watch how meaning reaches out to meet the sounds, and how meaning and sound-form merge so that it isn't just a sound it is the sound of X (bird, truck, voice, etc.).

What you are doing here is deceptively simple. You can of course work this exercise with the other sense modes. But the sphere of sound is particularly good to start with. If you are deaf, then use sight. What you want to be able to do eventually is to recognize the process of naming/forming in every sense mode and in daily life. When you can do this at any time you wish, you have mastered the naming/forming reduction.

You will have also noticed along the way that sometimes the forming happens first and the naming reaches out to merge with the form, and at other times the naming comes before the forming. The system of recognition isn't passive. We often go in search for the form that will match the name in our minds. This was what Husserl called the "filling" function. We might say we go searching for sensations that fulfil our expected category. We hear a sound and it sounds like X and we turn our head to see if it is indeed X. The visual form fulfils our expectation that it is X.

Now, mature contemplatives are able to exercise very intense concentration in such exercises. It is a common experience that concentration upon the field of dots making up an object gets so intense that the object itself disappears from awareness. The object may be, say, speech from a radio. One may pay so much attention to the attributes of the voicing that the meaning of the words is lost. This amounts to the forming becoming so accentuated in consciousness that the naming process shuts down. And, in intense meditative experiences, a mature contemplative may experience a very, very brief lag occurring between the arising of a form and the recognition of the form. For a brief instant the form is just a form, not a recognized thing.

Returning to our beloved anthropology, a real problem we face is that most theories of human categorization used in ethnology are more or less derived from cognitive psychology and few give other than passing reference to fuzzy set theory and fuzzy logic (you may want to take a look at my paper on this topic over on the articles page -- I give some exceptions). This is unfortunate, because ethnologists utilizing cognitive psychological theories are often uncritical of inherent weaknesses in the cognitive psychological approach.

One severe weaknesses is that few cognitive psychology models are grounded in the neurosciences. That means that it is often hard or impossible to map the inferred structures of perception and cognition defined in these theories onto what we have come to know about how the human brain works. This is pretty much the same problem many of us found with Claude Levi-Strauss' semiotic structuralism in the 1970s.

Moreover, there is considerable controversy in psychology over how categories are learned and whether categorical recognition involves holistic or analytical strategies. Despite these considerations, there does exist a relevant literature on the psychophysiology of natural category construction in the nervous system.

It is easy to see from this type of psychophysiological research that "fuzziness" of natural categories in both perception and cognition may be due in part to the additive effect of components (see especially the writings of Irving Bieterman of SUNY-Buffalo on this topic). A robin will trigger more components characteristic of "birdliness" than will a chicken or a bat (some folks do consider a bat a kind of bird, while others do not). I suspect, however, that we will find the picture much more complex than can be modelled by theories of additive components. As you will understand if you have been following this tutorial, adult perceptual and cognitive structures should be understood to develop from neurognostic structures that are "already there" in the lifeworld of the newborn and infant. It may well be that the origins of developed components are to be found in retinal neurognosis, as well as the deeper neurocognitive structures mediating perceptual and cognitive categories. There is considerable evidence in favor of this view with respect to, say, facial and hand recognition in humans and non-human primates.


Direct experience of any kind, whether it arises during the course of our everyday experience, during transpersonal experiences or during contemplation, is accompanied by a sense of necessity or certainty that Edmund Husserl called apodicticity (see my paper on this topic listed on the articles page). In its simplest manifestation in my everyday life, apodicticity is the sense that what I am experiencing really exists, and exists in precisely the way I am experiencing it. This is the quality of experience that leads to the presumption that what I experience is real .

I will return to the question of realism in a later section of this tutorial because it is a critical issue relative to postmodernism. Suffice to say here that I am not merely experiencing this cup of coffee or this word processor in some detached, abstract way. They are palpably real for me. They are sensory objects before my mind, and their reality is part of my experience of them . My activities in relation to them are conditioned by my intuitive presumption of their reality. Apodicticity is an inherent, essential ingredient in the construction of my experience, whether that experience is of a person, a thing, an event, a vista, or what have you.

Tell the truth, I suspect apodicticity has been an ingredient of my experience for my entire life, at least since birth. I suspect that apodicticity is an inherent quality of that "already there-ness" of the infant lifeworld. In existential terms, the newborn is already experiencing itself as a "being in the world."

Keeping in mind our work with natural categories above, we may conclude on phenomenological grounds that the categories "cup" and "word processor" are also real for me. These particular objects, the cup and the word processor, are instances of the general categories and ideas I have about things. I do not distinguish between the "naming" and the "forming" in my everyday experience. The cup-form and word processor-form are real, and the categories they instantiate are also real, no matter how fuzzily they may be defined in my language and culture.

Take another example. The geometrical shape we call the "pyramid" is real, and the Temple of Kukulcan at Chichen Itza is real -- the latter being one of countless thousands of material instances of the pyramid in the world. "Pyramids" are real and the Temple of Kukulcan is real. The abstract idea of the pyramid is realized in the experience of the Temple of Kukulcan, and the Temple is an instance of the notion of pyramid. I certainly do not make a distinction in my everyday life between an unreal mind-thing "pyramid" and a real thing "Temple of Kukulcan" in my lifeworld. And, the category "pyramid" applies to all sorts of "pyramid-like" forms from the clearest exemplars like the Temple of Kukulcan to less clear exemplars like a sloppy pile of children's blocks or certain types of organization charts and get-rich- quick schemes.

I am referring here to the sense of reality that is natural to the experience of each and every one of us, regardless of cultural background. I am not talking about some quaint distinction posited by ethnocentric academic philosophers. The kind of doubt Descartes raised about existence is very heady and very rare in the actual lives of people -- even, I suspect, in the lives of philosophers. The point is that abstract cognitions and general categories merge with sensorial formations in the construction of experience of people under normal conditions in which the existence of neither the general nor the instance is called into doubt.

These same considerations apply for apodicticity in the context of transpersonal experiences. The same relationship obtains between general religious ideas like God, Nirvana, Holy Wind, blessings of the deity, spirit possession, out-of- body experiences, abductions by ETs, etc., and individual direct experiences that instantiate those notions. For example, one may have an intense ecstatic experience accompanied by white light and know with absolute certainty that one has "seen" or been "blessed by" the Christ. One's friend, a Buddhist, might have a similar experience, but with equal certainty know that they have "seen" one of the Lesser Lights, and know that the experience is a precursor to the ultimate experience of the Clear Light of Nirvana. Both individuals have instantiated general -- or eidetic to use Husserl's favorite term -- knowledge and hold their respective interpretations to be unequivocally real and true.

The point to be made here is that we can directly confirm, by applying the phenomenological reduction, that our sense of reality is an ingredient in our everyday experience. Reality is part of the "already there-ness" of experience. And not only the form real, but so too is the name, the recognition. This is important, for it is phenomenological evidence that realness is neurognostic, and not the product of the application of rational analysis, as is presumed by various philosophies of truth. What happens in phenomenologically naive philosophies is that the sense of reality is partially adumbrated, conceptualized and then reified as if the sense itself were the product of rational analysis.

Armed with phenomenological certainty about the source of our sense of reality, we can see that both animals with brains and babies before they become "rational" are experiencing a neurognostic sense of reality they take for granted in the same way we adult humans do most of the time. Arguments against animal and pre- and perinatal consciousness based upon rationalist and linguistic models that require the rational attribution of reality are thus seen to be phenomenologically wanting.

I will be continuing on with listing some more of the structures of experience we can examine by the method of phenomenological reduction. But you may wish to return to the Day Seven discussion of transpersonal anthropology, or to the tutorial index .