Beginning the Study of Religion: wk 5

This week, we looked at Phenomenology. This was the most challenging topic so far, but I feel that my understanding of phenomenology has improved after spending a bit of time looking over the seminar notes and PowerPoint at home as well as in university.

Phenomenology: The study the study of “phenomena”: appearances of things, or things as they appear in our experience, or the ways we experience things, thus the meanings things have in our experience. Phenomenology studies conscious experience as experienced from the subjective or first person point of view.

Also, the study of phenomena through lived experience asks ‘how is religion experienced in the moment?’. At first, this was still a bit daunting, but after looking further into the subject, it made more sense.

One particular thinker we looked at in relation to phenomenology was Edmund Husserl. Husserl stated that phenomenology is a doctrine concerned with what things are, not whether things are. He is not interested in the metaphysical world, and neither seeks nor accepts evidence other than that offered by consciousness itself. Above all, for Husserl, phenomenology is a method and attitude of mind.

The aim in the phenomenological study of religion is to provide a straight forward account of religious phenomena, untainted by conscious polemic assumptions. This type of study of religion allows religious believers to speak for themselves, and record and categorise what they say.

We then moved on to look at the idea of phenomenological reduction, which Husserl calls bracketing away/suspending/disconnecting. Phenomenological reduction aims to effectively erase unnecessary speculation by returning the subject to their primitive experience of the matter, whether the object of inquiry is a feeling, an idea or a perception.

The idea of bracketing is to put aside any information we add to something when we see it. For example, when we see an object, we may see it from an aesthetic (purely physical, visual) point of view, however, we will use logic to deduce things about the object, assuming it means one thing, when in fact, it may have originally meant something completely different to someone else. The swastika is a prime example of this. It was used around 5,000 years before Hitler came to power, and comes from the Sanskrit word svastika, which means “good fortune” or “well-being.” To this day it is a sacred symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. However, because of the information we have now, we presume a different meaning for the swastika without looking at it for what it really is in someone else’s terms.

Because of this, Husserl states that we must bracket things out. The brackets go round categories of information. These categories are then tossed from our minds. In this way, we will be left with the object itself, which is what we must study. The conclusions we draw will better represent the object of study, as we will deduce purely from what the object is, not from what we believe it to be out of context.

Phenomenological reduction helps us to free ourselves from our prejudices and remain completely detached so we can encounter ‘things as they really are in themselves’. Sharpe (1975) said that the phenomenological approach ‘provided a path to the verstehen (understanding) of religion, and a grasp of its wesen (essence)’.

Lastly, we touched upon the idea of Empathic Objectivity. Phenomenologist J.L Cox argues that a non-believer can appreciate the meaning of religion in the believer’s own terms because he has suspended his own personal or academic presuppositions by temporarily placing them in brackets. The idea of empathy fits perfectly with the idea of bracketing as to work, each relies on the other. If one did not have empathy, one could not sufficiently bracket our own beliefs/thoughts, and conversely, if one did not bracket their opinions, they would not be fully empathetic towards someone else.

 

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