WORD: EPOCHÉ

ART & ORGANISM

Word of the Week

EPOCHÉ


 

“… now “reality” (like “truth”) as a term has enough problems of its own: so we invoke epoché—

(bracketing something imperfect so we can move on with a view to returning to it later)

We do not (cannot) ignore or neglect our congenital and acquired biases (including limitations on what we can perceive), but we can do our best to bracket them–put them aside to enable unimpaired creative thinking now. A process phenomenolgist’s refer to as epoche.

Piet Hut writes admiringly of the usefulness of EPOCHÉ as developed by “… Husserl as a “tool for making systematic explorations of tacit assumptions underlying our everyday view of the world….”  It is employed as “a form of suspense of judgment — a way to let the phenomena speak while `bracketing’ the usual presuppositions that are in force in any given situation.  [He] sees two major applications for the epoche in science, one internal, and one external.”    The internal applications of the epoche in science is in fact manifest in “the actual way that scientists engage in scientific research. … It does not carry a specific name, and it is not seen to be connected in any way with the school of philosophy called phenomenology. Most scientists probably have never heard of the school of phenomenology, and hardly any of them know the word epoche. And yet something akin to the epoche is being taught implicitly in any good science class.

All major breakthroughs in science stem from a form of epoche. Galileo, when looking at how the Sun seems to revolve around the Earth, bracketed the common belief that the Earth itself is immovable. It was then easy to see that a rotating Earth and a fixed Sun would give rise to exactly the same phenomena. By separating the phenomena from the belief structures in which these phenomena had always been embedded, he found new interpretations which opened new doors for scientific exploration.

Newton, when interpreting gravity as action at a distance, bracketed the belief that any form of action should occur through material contact. Einstein explored the consequences of Maxwell’s equations, while bracketing all the presuppositions that had been used to derive those equations in the first place, including the absolute character of space and time. From purely phenomenological thought experiments, he thus derived the relativity of space and time, together with the precise rules according to which they can be transformed into each other.

Bohr bracketed the notion that a particle must have a definite state before one makes a measurement, when he developed his Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. The list can be extended almost indefinitely, from the most important breakthroughs down to the day-to-day little `aha’s of laboratory research and pencil-and-paper derivations in theoretical research. Whenever we seem to be stuck, we `wiggle the wires’ of our presuppositions, to see where we can find a way out, by bracketing one or more of those presuppositions.

In daily life, too, a similar pattern holds. I am convinced that I have parked my car in a particular section of the parking lot, where I always park my car. It is not there. Is it stolen? Before calling the police, I bracket my conviction that I left my car there, this morning. By doing so, I make more room for the possibility to recall what I exactly did, this particular morning, rather than falling back on my justified belief that I (almost) always park in this particular section of the parking lot. And indeed, I then remember that this morning there was a particular and highly exceptional reason for me to park the car elsewhere.

There seems to be a continuum running through all these examples, from the most brilliant breakthrough to the most mundane form of problem solving. The main difference between bracketing prejudices in science and in daily life is the fact that science has developed systematic structures that encourage bracketing. The scientific system of peer review, together with its encouragement of new ideas combined with a very critical attitude in testing those new ideas, has been refined over the last four centuries into a remarkably efficient enterprise.

5. External Applications of the Epoche in Science

For all its strengths, the scientific attitude has a major weakness in that it is not designed to be applied to itself. Science does not encourage bracketing of itself, lock, stock and barrel. Scientists, no matter how flexible and ingenious in exploring new approaches within specific areas of science, are rarely willing to apply the very same method they have been using all their life to science itself.

Sure, scientists are willing to question the foundations of science, because they know from experience that what are called foundations actually have more of ornamental function. The foundations of each discipline have repeatedly been replaced, while work on the higher floors of the discipline went on without a glitch — try doing that with a real building! From a practical point of view, what really grounds science is not the principles that seem to capture the most parsimonious summary of the state of the field at any given moment, but rather the sum total of the activities that make that field what it is: science is what scientists do.

In my experience, scientists are willing to question the `foundations’ of what they do, and they are willing to question any of the particular actions and presuppositions they are working with. However, they seem to be very ill at ease in the face of a form of questioning that addresses the status of the scientific view of the world. The very notion of doubting the truth of science simply goes against the grain.

My proposal is: let us try to find a way to open the discussion about the role of science in a modern world view, by using the notion of the epoche. After all, the epoche is already such a familiar tool for the working scientist, and as such is can play a bridge function from science to phenomenology.

For such a discussion to be successful, two ingredients are needed. Philosophers must help us to clarify the very notion of what is means to perform an epoche, and scientists must find a way to overcome their reluctance to question the ultimate truth of that which they are immersed in.

To start with the latter, the reluctance of scientists to question their own enterprise is reminiscent of the reluctance with which former rulers approach the notion of democracy. The very idea to have to defend your ideas in the marketplace, with others attacking you, is not very appealing. It requires considerable practice to separate an attack on your ideas from an attack on yourself and your own personal integrity. For those not raised in a democratic culture, any form of debate can feel like a threat. Unfortunately, the recent `science wars’ have shown how some scientists can come across as equally dogmatic as fundamentalists in various religions. To find ways of letting scientists lower their defenses against what might at first look like an attack on the scientific `truth’, is a high priority.

An equally high priority is to find ways for philosophers to offer a technique, a systematic approach (scientists love systematic approaches) that can help to unpack and bring into focus the layers of sedimented unquestioned assumptions that have accumulated in science. These assumptions are passed on from one generation to the next, by osmosis during the undergraduate years of college, and are further polished and sealed off in graduate school. A beginning student quickly learns which questions to ask and which not to ask. And after years of not asking, even remote memories of those questions fade into the background. Reviving those questions, in more mature ways, is one step towards an attempt to regain innocence, to retain a beginner’s mind, and from that viewpoint to look at science as a whole.

 

From:  Piet Hut (2001) The Role of Husserl’s Epoche for Science: A View from a Physicist. paper presented at the 31st Husserl Circle conference in Bloomington, IN, in February 2001. Online at  http://archive.is/oxDc; downloaded Friday, April 07, 2017

 

Epoché (“bracketing”) is an important concept in PHENOMENOLOGY — but isn’t “the willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” (Coleridge) much the same thing? [i] 

 


[i]Samuel Taylor Coleridge  (1817.) in  Biographia Literaria , ch..4 p314 in Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. by H.J. Jackson, Oxford, 1985.  (Samuel T. Coleridge (1772-1834) wrote in Chapter XIV of his autobiography, Biographia Literaria, the following:  “In this idea originated the plan of the “Lyrical Ballads”; in which it was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic; yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith. Mr. Wordsworth, on the other hand, was to propose to himself as his object, to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which, in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.”   And see Wittgenstein on PERCEPTION.)

 


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