Experience I: The background world of potentially meaningful entities

I have in my garden a number of trees. There is a Rowan, a Fig, and an Acer among others. My favourite however is a Pin Oak.

My favourite is a Pin Oak

My favourite is a Pin Oak

This North American tree, a Quercus Palustris, is a pyramidal, deciduous tree of the black oak family; its leaves have edgy lobes with sharp teeth protruding like points, and these lobes and sinuses are alternately, as opposed to symmetrically, placed on either side of the leaf. In describing this more elegant member of the oak family, note how indebted I am to comparison and evaluation, to metaphor and analogy, to human cultural reference. ‘North America’ is a name afforded something that predates all capable of naming things. This species of tree does not literally possess sinuses or lobes in the sense that I do. It does not have elegance in the same way that I might attribute it to the actress Audrey Hepburn or to buildings such as the Taj Mahal or the Hermitage. Accordingly, indebted to comparison, I might describe the way that oaks of this ‘family’ grow ‘successfully’ in acidic, rich, well-drained and to a lesser extent, water-logged clay soils.

…a range of trees can be found in my garden


The elegant leaves of the pin oak

The elegant leaves of the pin oak

Two things are noticeable. Whilst I am speaking about matters of fact I am not speaking factually about this particular tree until I speak about its own leaves and  its own soil tolerance. Secondly, though I might discuss the life-distributing properties of a tree’s ‘phloem’ or describe beneath that the growth stimulating ‘auxins’ and the cellulose fibrous heartwood that give the tree its strength, this empirical data is derivative of the primitive presence of trees in human experience; it is the cross-referenced subjective investigation of trees that has furnished such factual knowledge. The empirical background of the environment we live in is not secondary in import or concrete veracity, nevertheless for the questioning being as a species, and for this questioning being in particular, it is the phenomena ‘trees’, and importantly ‘this tree’, that conveys the context for a conceptualisation of ‘lobes’ and ‘sinuses’, ‘phloem’ and ‘auxins’. Importantly too, such a conceptualisation cannot be exclusively compartmentalised from the rest of human experiencing and remain a living experience. Through subjective experience we discover our embeddedness in a conceptually-negotiated factual world.

In my garden the Pin Oak is not favoured for its marvellous auxins, nor do I relish the rigour of its angular leaves with reference to the terms described above. One of my favourite places in the garden is beneath its ‘limbs’, glancing up through its iconic leaves to a blue sky above. I am fascinated by my oak tree which has grown in a shape suggestive of the outline of the British Isles and by the way that it dominates the garden like a firework in early autumn and disappears to little more than a pencil outline when it sheds its leaves. This example illustrates a vexing epistemological problem that is a legacy of the mediational account of reality; ‘Which kind of description is cognitive?’. These are the properties of such and such a type of tree; here are those defining characteristics. Or, these are the experiences this type of tree might evoke and here are the experiences it has prompted for me. Is a mutually negating dichotomy unavoidable?

So extensive is the philosophical discussion about the need to choose, between those elements of one’s world that are demonstrably matters of fact for all, and those elements of one’s world that are experientially matters of fact for oneself, that I can only consider some of its contributors in this thesis. To do so is necessary however in order to clarify the worldly embodiment and embeddedness that is essential to the questioning being.

It has been argued that phenomenologists, such as the later Husserl, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty display in their work a form of ‘semantic idealism’ which ‘does not allow for irreducibly de re references to objects. All references to objects are interpreted as being within the scope of some phenomenological operator, such as Dasein or transcendental consciousness’.[1]

Because this term ‘idealism’ has led to some confusion,  the alternative ‘perspectivalism’, has been employed instead to highlight the phenomenologist  tendency, ‘to treat the perspective from which something is regarded’, as ‘somehow part of its ontology’.[2] This criticism, regarding epistemological and ontological issues, does not however disapprove of any phenomenological agenda that references itself as an ‘examination of the structure of consciousness’. My position, holds that to be found in the myriad perspectives of human experiencing is an ontological disclosure de re of one entity alone- the questioning being and the structure of its identity. I argue furthermore that the background to the phenomenal world of experience is that intersubjectively discovered pregiven world whose empirical properties come to be understood de re thereby. It seems to me irrefutable that all irreducible de re references to objects posited by empiricism are those that have been so discovered as such.

I have some sympathy with the empirical critique nevertheless; fundamental to it and my thesis too, is this question, ‘How do we account for our conceptions of ourselves as a certain sort of human being in a universe that we know consists entirely of physical particles in fields of force?’[3] My sympathy is somewhat qualified however by the strident certainty this question is couched in. Empiricism of this sophistication must recognise not only that we are latecomers in this universe, but also as I have rehearsed above, all the apparatus of certainty is wielded in, and directed at human experiences obtained so far. The objective matters of fact, ushered into the foreground of our lives through the medium of human understanding, reveal that the universe consists of physical particles in fields of force some of which at the very least display non-physical properties. I wonder whether empirical science now claims to legislate Nature’s behaviour or will concede that still it stands by and describes it? 

The criticism further enquires how we are to give an account of ourselves as ‘conscious, intentionalistic, rational, speech-act performing, ethical, free-will possessing, political and social animals in a world that consists entirely of mindless, meaningless brute physical particles?[4]  Certainly there are on all levels of human meaning-making, uncomfortable questions and, one central to the notion of human identity might be, ‘How can unconscious bits of matter in the skull cause consciousness, and how can irreducibly subjective states of consciousness exist in an entirely ‘physical’ world?’.[5] Though I suspect an inference from some quarters, that this and problems of its type are somehow unworthy of investigation, that cannot be. Given that subjective states of consciousness are demonstrably and repeatably experienced, the judgement that there are only physical entities in this world is itself a perspectival inference.

Some of the world is ours purposively and significantly

Some of the world is ours purposively and significantly

How then indeed does the questioning being fit into the reality, the ‘basic reality’ of the world? The radical empiricist response to this question as seen above, is to confidently assert that the entire universe consists of entities  approximating to ‘particles’ and exist in fields of force organized typically into systems. Equally confidently, it is asserted that ‘we know’ that we and all living systems have evolved over a period of billions of years through the process of natural selection. Phenomenologically however this is problematic; no human witness with infallible apparatus followed the course of events and knows of these phenomenon thereby, and undoubtedly, though it is unpopular to say it, human reasoning has here imposed a retrospective certainty upon the past based on the needs of the present. Rather than regarding these as effective theories of science however, they are to be affirmed as securely identified and publicly owned truth. Again I have to admit some perplexity at the assumption that assertion and conjecture alone render these incomplete theories, however superb their explanatory power, accomplished, or all detractors silenced.

Be this as it may, in addition to the atomic theory of matter and the evolutionary theory of biology, empiricism holds out as almost watertight, the neurobiological basis of all mental life, contending that all consciousness and intentionality is reducible to neurobiological processes and neurobiological systems. Let us suppose then that for the empiricist in general, these are ‘basic facts’ which disclose  ‘basic reality’. The question is now more pressing; what relation obtains between human reality and basic reality?

It is my claim, that such marvellous knowledge as these facts represent, constitute a solid but generalised background to my life; they are brought into the foreground for me, and rendered significant, when I learn them, make room for them and employ them successfully. They are not however rendered true by this signification, that is, their veracity does not depend upon it; not only do I not argue for this, I do not find that the later Husserl claims this either.

There is not a real world, and a world of experience; just a world, some of which I appropriate

There is not a real world, and a world of experience; just a world, some of which I appropriate

That the human world is an aspect of one world, not something different, seems to me to be well established. In speaking of the empirical world and the Lifeworld I do not posit two worlds, nor indeed do I see a Cartesian solution to the conundrum as to how the human reality can ‘relate to the more fundamental reality?’[6] I merely take objection to the assertion that empirical reality is the more fundamental. Its processes, its regularities and its particles and fields I have no doubt are as old as the universe itself –whatever age that turns out to be, but their status as truth for the human species Hume has shown, owes a great deal to the ordering of the human mind. As Henri Poincare is reputed to have said ‘Facts don’t speak’. My interest in this thesis is of course that of human identity. This topic however is pertinent to that interest for upon it hinges the discussion of what facts pertain to human identity and what weight is to be afforded to identity-sense.

It seems the radical empiricist view holds that because we now have a wealth of knowledge that is certain, objective and universal, this excludes as irrelevant the telling of that knowledge and the experiencing of that reality. To argue that you cannot, for example, ‘send men to the moon and back and seriously doubt the external world exists’[7], may be compelling, but I cannot experience the objective facts of matter except as a Subject. Modern empiricism overlooks the experiential thickness of a subjective account of lived reality; consider distance for example. I can know a distance as an objective fact but be unable to experience it in any objective manner.

In this thesis I do not argue for Husserl’s scepticism regarding the world, however I do argue that humans cannot experience objective facts objectively. If I send men to the moon I must believe that the moon exists, but empiricists particularly will be the first to assert that this experience has little bearing on establishing the moon’s veridical status as a basic fact. As I have already noted, the fact about the distance between the earth and the moon is not a fact until we are speaking about a particular journey to be made. For example, the Moon’s elliptical path around the Earth means the notional distance of 384,403 km, is an average one. At perigee, the Moon is only 363,104 km, distant, whilst at its apogee, the Moon removes to 406,696 km. The distance from Earth to Moon can vary by 43,592 km. Not only might I travel to the moon many times and not travel 384,403 km distance, were I to travel the same vast distance many times I would not experience the objectively agreed distance in the same way each time.

How is an experience of the moon to be measured?

How is an experience of the moon to be measured?

This brings me to my second observation; in order for the entities that comprise the background to our lives to become foreground knowledge they must be experienced as significant or purposeful, only then can they return to the background of existence as facts. This is fundamental to human knowing, but precisely because of its diverse impact on singular human receptors the transmission of universalised facts as such is only a part of the story. We are receptors that are changed by the receiving of knowledge. What does it feel like to travel such a distance to the moon? I might sleep, or daydream, worry or calculate throughout the journey. Arguably it feels different for each astronaut or cosmonaut that makes the flight. For Stuart Roosa, astronaut with Apollo 14, it was the ‘abject smallness of the earth’ that ‘brought the distance home to him’.[8] The subjective knowing of basic reality bring us no nearer to a universal scale of fact. If one were to examine empirically the composition of ‘moondust’ one would not assume that its smell would be that of burnt gunpowder, nor indeed could one predict that some astronauts would like it. If the foreground of human reality is experiential while the basic reality of the background rendered significant is averaged and abstracted we are brought back to the tetheredness of human existence and its receptive idiosyncrasies so dependent on states of mind.

The world’s objective realities I construe as the background to my life; depending upon the imperatives of my life these facts, remote until imbued with significant and purposive relevance, are given meaning and step forward into the intentional foreground, my Lifeworld. It is Husserl’ contention that the primacy of the background to my experienced world has been shrouded by the interpretive veil of the natural sciences and its import devalued; I explore this evaluation in my next post.

“Absolute space, that is to say, the mark to which it would be necessary to refer the earth to know whether it really moves, has no objective existence” Jules Henri Poincare, Science and Hypothesis

“Absolute space, that is to say, the mark to which it would be necessary to refer the earth to know whether it really moves, has no objective existence”
Jules Henri Poincare, Science and Hypothesis


[1] Searle, J. The Phenomenological Illusion, in Philosophy in a New Century: Selected Essays, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2008/2012, 317 accessed online at http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~jsearle/PhenomenologicalIllusion.pdf, 10th April 2014, 22.33

[2] Ibid

[3] (italics mine) Searle, 2012, ibid, 318.

[4] Ibid

[5] Searle, 2012, ibid

[6] Searle, 2012, ibid, 319

[7] Ibid

[8] Roosa S. Quoted in Craig Nelson, Rocket Men, New York Viking Press, 2009, accessed online at http://www.spacequotations.com/earth.html  10th April 2014, 22.54


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