Did You Say Phenomenology and Ontology?

August 9, 2016 | Adam Clay

This post is going to be a quick, ambitious and imperfect attempt at reconsidering, together with Heidegger and a soft toy called “Fluffy”, how we experience things and what we see them as being. So take a deep breath (was that a sigh?), here we go.

To the salesperson and the health and safety scientist, Fluffy might be just a soft toy in a batch of a hundred identical ones. But to the little boy who won’t fall asleep without it, Fluffy is something irreplaceable and entirely different. If it got lost or stolen, the boy would feel almost bereaved, and getting a new, even identical, toy would be of little consolation, just as would being told that Fluffy was a cheap soft toy among thousands.

It can be argued that Fluffy has, in this story, two kinds of being. On the one hand, Fluffy is a friend and companion, a confidant and a solace. On the other, Fluffy is a 10x15cm, polyester and cotton, commercial product manufactured in China. You might think that the first understanding of Fluffy’s being corresponds to a ‘subjective’ point of view, while the second one is ‘objective’. You might also be tempted to think that the first one comes ‘on top’ of the second, more ‘fundamental’ being. There are, however, problems with this way of thinking; the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) pointed some of these out as he sought to move beyond the ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ distinction. More specifically, he argued that thinking in such a binary way (and seeing the ‘objective’ as primary) can be reductive and misleading both phenomenologically and ontologically (that is to say, both as far as our experience of things and their being is concerned).

“What we ‘first’ hear is never noises or complexes of noises, but the creaking wagon, the motor-cycle” (B&T, 207) 

Analysing how we encounter things, Heidegger for instance writes that “What we ‘first’ hear is never noises or complexes of sounds, but the creaking wagon, the motor-cycle” (B&T, 207). By this he means that things in our environments are part of a network of meaning in which they already make sense for us: we are not objective beholders of raw data which we then interpret subjectively at a later stage, through our personal lenses. Rather, our experience of things is always already, first and foremost, interpretative and meaning-ascribing. Consequently, the so-called ‘objective’ stance is a subsequent attempt at re-interpreting sounds, like that of the motor-cycle, as ‘pure sensory data’. Heidegger adds:“It requires a very artificial and complicated frame of mind to ‘hear’ a ‘pure noise’” (ibid.). This means that in Fluffly’s story, instead of ‘subjective’ or ‘objective’ vantage points, there are two different relationships to Fluffy produced by two different networks of meaning: one in which Fluffy is one of many manufactured commercial products, and one in which it is the ever so attentive companion.

The consequence of this phenomenological argument (that is to say, given this analysis of our encounter with things) is therefore ontological; in other words, what things are (their very being) can be thought of differently. Things are not ‘first and foremost’ neutral ‘objects’ which we ‘subjects’ then interpret or have opinions on ‘afterwards,’ they are already meaning-laden entities; they arise in our networks of meaning which frame our relationships to them and explain our understandings of their being. ‘10x15cm, Chinese polyester and cotton object’ is therefore not a more ‘fundamental’ part of Fluffy’s being, nor what Fluffy more ‘genuinely or primarily’ is compared to ‘friend, companion, confidant and solace.’ Heidegger develops his arguments on what things are in his later essays such as “The Thing” or “Building Dwelling Thinking” in which he writes: “the bridge, if it is a true bridge, is never first of all a mere bridge and then afterward a symbol” (PLT, 151).

the river Ganges

Reducing a real bridge to its mathematical or physical properties, Heidegger argues, is a subsequent step that overlooks many essential aspects of the bridge’s fundamental being (the bridge might, for example, have been built as a symbol of peace uniting two communities). Likewise, to use examples beyond Heidegger’s, the hills of Niyamgiri in Eastern India [1] are not ‘objectively’ and “first of all mere” mounds of earth containing profitable bauxite before being, “then afterward” and ‘subjectively’ sacred, just as Ganga (the river Ganges) is not ‘primarily’ or ‘more fundamentally’ H2O than it is a goddess. 

It is tempting to think that so-called ‘objective’ definitions of things are what they ‘primarily’ and ‘genuinely’ are as opposed to ‘subsequent’ and more ‘subjective’ definitions. Such a reasoning is, however, phenomenologically flawed and ontologically reductive, as Heidegger points out. Asking the little boy to stop defining Fluffy ‘subjectively’ in order to see what it ‘fundamentally’ is in fact amounts to asking him to adopt an additional, subsequent and more “artificial and complicated frame of mind”. In this new framework, Fluffy is defined in solely scientific and technical terms that reduce its being to what fits this new network of meaning. Moving beyond Fluffy, it is perhaps worth thinking about how we consider other things or events: what do we, for example, see love, a person, or even death as “first of all” and genuinely being? Have we settled for their “mere” biological definitions, on the grounds that they are more ‘objective’? If so, do we not overlook how these are (phenomenologically) experienced, and do we not (ontologically) reduce what they are?

About Adam

With a focus on Heidegger and Emerson, Adam’s PhD looks at how poetry implies care. Beyond his interests in such areas where philosophy and literature intersect, Adam is an enthusiastic and qualified language teacher with three nationalities (French, English and Polish). He is also skilled in Aikido and enjoys photography.

Article edited by Bridget Moynihan and Sarah Stewart.


[1]: For more information: http://www.survivalinternational.org/about/niyamgiri

Works Cited

B&T: Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translation: John Macquarrie and                    Edward Robinson. Oxford: Blackwell, 1962. Print.

PLT: —. Poetry, Language, Thought. Translation Albert Hofstadter. New York, NY:           Perennial Classics, HarperCollins, 2001. Print.

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