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The Laws of Thought

A Thematic Compilation by Avi Sion

7. A New Phenomenology


1.     Phenomenology


Phenomenology may be defined as the study of appearances as such. By an ‘appearance’ is meant any existent which impinges on consciousness, anything cognized, irrespective of any judgment as to whether it be ‘real’ or ‘illusory.’ The evaluation of a particular appearance (an existent within the field of consciousness) as an illusion (existing only in consciousness) or a reality (existing not merely in consciousness, but also before it, after it, without it or beyond its range) is a complex process, involving inductive and deductive logical principles and activities. Opinion has to earn the status of strict knowledge. To begin with, appearance must be taken neutrally, at face value, as the common ground of reality and illusion (i.e. one of a triad).

An appearance is whatever it seems to be. At this level of consideration, the verbs ‘to seem’ and ‘to be’ are one and the same. It is only at the next level, where an assessment of status is involved, that they have to be separated.

Since appearing is being known, phenomenology can be regarded as a branch of both Ontology (the study of being as such; or more restrictively, of real being) and Epistemology (the study of knowledge as such; or more restrictively, of true knowledge). Phenomenology differs from ontology in being less presumptive as to the nature or status of the object dealt with, and it is for this reason a study essential to epistemology. The basic insight or premise of phenomenology is that knowledge develops from neutral appearance. The common-sense view of knowledge would seem to be that knowledge develops from data considered at the outset as ‘sensory,’ but as we shall see this view involves logical difficulties. The phenomenological approach is an attempt to overcome these difficulties, and propose a more coherent order of development.

As I have shown in my work Future Logic, no item of apparent knowledge, not even a percept, is ever immediately and definitively ‘true’ all by itself. An item may initially seem to be true, or contain some truth; but it is only in relation to all other items, which likewise seem to be true, that the judgment as to whether it is really or entirely true can be made. Even the various criteria and tests involved in such terminal judgments are themselves to start with merely seemingly true. The science of phenomenology is built on the same basic insight.

In this volume, we shall understand the term ‘appearance’ very broadly as including: (a) objects of perception, i.e. concretes or phenomena in the physical or mental domains; (b) objects of intuition, i.e. one’s subjective self, cognitions, volitions and valuations; and/or (c) objects of conception, i.e. simple or complex abstracts of preceding appearances. Abstraction relies on apprehensions of sameness and difference between appearances (including received or projected appearances, and projected negations of appearances). Abstracts are firstly simply summaries of information, and at a later stage more complex hypothetical entities. Coherence in knowledge (perceptual, intuitive and conceptual) is maintained by apprehensions of compatibility or incompatibility.

With regard to terminology, the reader is advised to keep in mind that in philosophy, and in this particular philosophical treatise, we use words somewhat differently or more specifically than in common parlance. Contrary to the impression given by the term ‘phenomenology,’ it should be understood as a study not merely of ‘phenomena,’ but of all appearances, including intuited particulars and abstract data[1]. The word ‘appearance’ is often confused with ‘illusion,’ but here includes ‘reality.’ It is about equivalent in scope to the term ‘object’ (content of consciousness) or ‘thing’ in logic (anything existing or thought of). Note well that here ‘experiences’ refers not only to the phenomena of physical perception, but includes mental percepts, and even intuited data. In common parlance, the term can be more restrictive (limited to sensory inputs) or even coextensive with ‘appearances’ (e.g. ‘my life experiences’ includes my abstract thoughts). And so forth – all terms will be made clear in due course. See Illustrations at the end of the book.

Phenomenology is a science based primarily on attentive detailed observation of one’s own experience and discursive behavior, and only secondarily on careful logical analysis and ordering of such observations. Thus, practice of meditation is a prerequisite to development of this philosophical discipline, and our success in the latter depends on our skills in the former. Although philosophical awareness and thinking are ultimately obstacles to meditation (which rises above intellectual pursuits), the former can in the interim still draw significant lessons from the latter. Labeling phenomena as “phenomena”, or making distinctions between them, or distinguishing them from intuitive experiences or from abstractions – such acts are all non-meditative; but they may well occur and be remembered in the course of meditation.


2.     Knowledge is Based On Appearance


Our primary consideration ought to be just what is apparent to our awareness at each and every moment. Nothing can be granted offhand except this first given. Appearance is immediately granted – because there is nothing else to discuss or refer to, because discourse arises solely in reaction and in relation to it. Thereafter, we may stage by stage show how knowledge in general, including our alleged knowledge of those stages, develops.

The core thesis of phenomenology, thus, is that knowledge is based on appearance. This is in stark contrast to other approaches to epistemology, which propose that knowledge is based on ‘external reality’ or on ‘subjective truth’ or some such premature thesis. Moreover, phenomenology regards as essential that the sequence in which knowledge arises and develops out of appearance be clarified. A notion or suggestion may be appropriate if intelligently placed in the ‘order of things,’ but very misleading if misplaced.

  • Consider, for instance, Naïve Realism (or Materialism or Objectivism)[2]. This philosophy proposes that we have a body with sense-organs, that when these come in contact with external objects sensations are produced, which in turn produce primary ideas (images) in the mind, which are what we experience and build more complex ideas (abstract concepts) from. At first glance, this thesis may appear obvious and worthy of universal belief. But upon reflection, we see that it leads to serious logical problems. If, as it suggests, ideas ‘represent’ external reality, how do we know that they indeed ‘correspond’ to it? If, as this theory implies, all we know are ideas (sense-data and their combinations), how can we even get to know that there is an external reality at all, let alone a body with sense organs in which our minds reside? Thus, surprisingly enough, this approach to knowledge is internally inconsistent.
  • In reaction to this conundrum, some philosophers have opted for the opposite extreme, a Mentalism (or Idealism or Subjectivism)[3]. They have, in fact, accepted the core tenet of Naïve Realism that what we perceive and build knowledge on are mental substances called ideas, while simply dropping its thesis that these ideas originate in physical sensations in response to stimuli from external objects. The trouble with this thesis is that it involves a stolen concept, since it would be hard put to define mentality after having done away with that of materiality. Moreover, it does not really explain the mass of data at hand – it merely explains it away as illusory happenstance. It does not elucidate why there would appear to be an enormous universe of matter 15 billion years old, composed of innumerable galaxies, stars, atoms, quarks, including on a small planet called Earth apparent human beings, with apparent bodies, with apparent sense organs. Mentalism just ignores all this, or discards it as sheer fantasy; it does not make it comprehensible. It is therefore incomplete.

Having grasped the problem inherent in the former theory, we might be tempted to opt for the latter, however imperfect, were it not for the possibility of another approach, that of Phenomenology, which presents neither the flaw of internal inconsistency nor that of incompleteness. Phenomenology brings together the best in both those theories, while weeding out their faulty elements.

  • Phenomenology starts like Mentalism with the given content of consciousness, but identifies that content neutrally as ‘appearance,’ instead of taking up the prejudice that it is something mental (idea). For it must be realized that the concept of mind was built in contrast to that of matter; it has no meaning by itself, and would not have arisen were it not for the concept of matter. Phenomenology therefore posits a concept of appearance, which leaves the question of mind or matter open to begin with, a question to be answered in a larger context.
  • Phenomenology ends like Naïve Realism with a belief in matter as well as mind, but it does not get to that thesis in the same manner. The error of Naïve Realism is not essentially its notion of a physical body having sensations that generate ideas, but the fact that it takes this notion for immediately granted, treating it effectively as a mere observation. Phenomenology avoids this error by understanding the notion in question as a hypothetical model, through which we manage to organize appearances into an orderly and consistent whole called knowledge.

Our premise is that the starting point of epistemology is never a blank mind in a social vacuum, but the belief framework of ordinary persons in a given historical and geographical cultural context. Researchers in epistemology are themselves such ordinary persons in a given societal climate, with their particular viewpoints, though hopefully outstanding intellectual capacities. Any theory such researchers propose must ultimately convincingly explain the genesis of the ordinary frameworks. Whether the latter are thus wholly justified, or demonstrated to be aberrant to some extent, they can neither be ignored nor entirely rejected without logical absurdity.

It is worth making a comment here, parenthetically, about the cultural context. A man like me, born in the 20th Century and educated in the West, normally takes the Realist viewpoint for granted, and assumes that everyone else in the world naturally does too. People with an opposite perspective seem at first unnatural (philosophical nitpickers or weirdo mystics), if not nonexistent. But it must be kept in mind that in other regions of the world and in other periods of history, there have been humans who sincerely held very different worldviews (consider animism or shamanism, for instances). One should remain open minded.


Drawn from Phenomenology (2003), Chapter 1 (sections 1 & 2).



[1]          There is no point in coining a new term, even though the term phenomenon is in the present volume used in its primary sense of material or mental concrete particular, in contradistinction to intuited objects or abstracts. But note that in practice the term is often used more loosely with reference to complex appearances like ‘a social phenomenon’ – which include not only concretes, but also intuitive experiences and even abstracts.

[2]          Historically, at least in its modern version in the West, we owe this philosophy to John Locke (English, 1632-1704). The difficulties inherent in it were noticed implicitly by his predecessor René Descartes (French, 1596-1650), and later by the likes of David Hume (Scottish, 1711-76) and Immanuel Kant (German, 1724-1804). Notwithstanding, Naïve Realism has remained a basic belief, and a source of considerable confusion, for many people, including philosophers and scientists.

[3]          For example, the Yogachara school of Buddhist philosophy.

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