Phenomenologists frequently claim that their philosophical approach does not establish a philosophical system or a set of premises, but introduces and refines a certain philosophical method. Maurice Merleau-Ponty traces its roots far back through the history of philosophy, claiming that "phenomenology can be practiced and identified as a manner or style of thinking, that it existed as a movement before arriving at complete awareness of itself as a philosophy."<ref>Merleau-Ponty, 1962, p.8</ref>
Thus, while being a philosophical neighbor to psychology of perception and to German Gestaltpsychologie (which boomed shortly before Merleau-Pontys writings), it does not want to replace psychology, but mirror and amend it in the field of philosophy.<ref>Bermes, C. (2017). Maurice Merleau-Ponty zur Einführung. Junius Verlag, p. 25.</ref> Phenomenology as developed by Edmund Husserl and picked up by Maurice Merleau-Ponty is primary concerned with the conditions and essence of human 'access to the world', e.g. universal features of intentional consciousness (consciousness is always consciousness of something) and of perception. In order to identify these conditions and essences, phenomenological inquiry often tentatively aims for a primitive, naive and pre-conceptual point of observation, even though such an immediate access to the world ultimately remains unreachable. The idea is that by stepping back from the theory-laden everyday mode of perception, one might bring to light how this experience has already been shaped by the knowledge and ideas one has of a particular object of perception.
Phenomenological Reduction ("Bracketing")
First introduced by Husserl, Bracketing (German: Einklammerung) is an eliminative method in phenomenology that tries to strip experience of meaning and judgement that participate in its making. Acknowledging that all perception is thoroughly shaped by categorizations ("This is a hammer", "This is a tool") and functional attributions ("This is something you use to hit nails to build stuff"), bracketing consists of the ongoing effort to temporarily suspend all such activity. By trying to identify and suspend any activity that facilitates perception, while usually being taken for granted and going unnoticed, such activity might be brought into view. Frequently, the analogy of peeling away the layers of an onion is evoked here.
- “It is because we are through and through compounded of relationships with the world that for us the only way to become aware of the fact is to suspend the resultant activity, to refuse it our complicity (to look at it ohne mitzumachen, as Husserl often says)” <ref>Merleau-Ponty, 1962, p.15</ref>
Turning away from the activity of judgement may allow to focus on features of the stream of consciousness and perception, and of its background that goes by unnoticed when focusing on specific objects of perception (termed its horizon in phenomenology).
Phenomenology and Psychopathology
In his writings, Merleau-Ponty included a rich body of examples from psychopathological conditions. In a similar way, the class discussed the links between phenomenological methods and dissociative disorders such as depersonalization/derealization disorder. The detachment induced by these conditions might bring about more pure and radical forms of the voluntary suppression of involvement in what is perceived that bracketing aims for.
Phenomenology and the moving image
Just like psychopathological conditions, movies and virtual reality could be an interesting object of study for phenomenology, as they approximate real-life perception, all the while missing or possibly altering several of its features. For example, Merleau-Ponty claims that "the screen has no horizons":
- "When, in a film, the camera is trained on an object and moves nearer to it to give a close-up view, we can remember that we are being shown the ash tray or an actor’s hand, we do not actually identify it. This is because the screen has no horizons. In normal vision, on the other hand, I direct my gaze upon a sector of the landscape, which comes to life and is disclosed, while the other objects recede into the periphery and become dormant, while, however, not ceasing to be there."
The borders of the screen cut off what in natural vision remains, blurred out, at the extremes of my field of vision, ready to be brought into focus at any time by a redirection of my gaze. Virtual reality in part resolves this issue, while to date still not being able to offer the same realism when it comes to altering focus between closer and more distant objects. However, VR might be interesting for phenomenological studies because it allows to selectively alter and to suspend certain conditions of real life perception to examine their consequences on the immersed experience.