There is a contradiction in what I want to do in this project — that is, find a way to teach people about things that do not yet exist. I envision these blog entries (and the book that may or may not come from them) as things that might guide a class of, say, capable third-year undergraduates, people who are invested in learning, but not necessarily the technical apparatus of continental philosophy. For many, their ultimate purpose — one I applaud — is to find a job and be a productive member of society. My job is to give them those tools (and push them on the second part, which isn’t always necessarily forefront in their minds).

Doing phenomenology without the technical language does not mean abandoning rigor, but that is one risk I run. The tendency within the social sciences is to use method to demonstrate rigor, but an over-reliance on method reduces inquiry to a series of motions to work through. If we “do method” by rote, we turn the object we study into a static thing. (Worse yet, if we “do method” to study people, we reduce them to mere objects to be known.) I don’t want the techniques I teach to devolve into method in this sense, a somnambulist’s habit. We must attune ourselves to technologies, and each attunement is a singular, unrepeatable act.

But already I’m falling into a different trap: I’m writing in the flowery language that comes all too naturally after so many years of reading hard books. So, to talk about how we do what we’re about to do, I want to offer a metaphor, one that I’m borrowing from my friend Sam Rocha, from a book on “folk phenomenology” he’s publishing in 2015 with Atropos Press.

As you read his description of fig sauce, the result of a culinary reduction, pay attention to how it causes you to think differently about figs. How does it sharpen the experience you imagine? How does it draw your attention to aspects of taste and smell that you might not have paid attention to before?

We can understand the meaning of phenomenological “reduction” in a preliminary way by considering a culinary reduction. Taking its literal work as a way to seek, sense, and see things, we can understand what a “phenomenological reduction” does. A culinary reduction is the process where a liquid of some sort (usually a stock, sauce, or gravy) is simmered. This simmering allows certain parts of the liquid to evaporate which has the effect of rendering a more intensely flavorful and rich substance, like a fig reduction. There is no doubt to the palate of anyone eating a fig that the reduction tastes “figly,” although the flavor always exceeds our capacity to experience it completely, it saturates our sense of taste. The most radical reduction imaginable would simply disappear. In the very same way, phenomenological reduction is how we go about knowing phenomena or things as best we can by taking them as they are and moving inward through a gentle caress (like evaporation) of the imagination to intensify them and render them more radically saturated as they are.

As chance would have it, I was eating a fig when I first read this passage. (No, really — I keep dried fruit in my office, and figs are my favorite.) Imagine my surprise when I arrived at this passage, the way the word “figly” focused my attention on the fruit, which I had been eating rather mindlessly.

That act of refocusing — of turning one’s attention to the experience itself — is the phenomenological reduction.

One more example. I’m a beer snob. When I went to Wisconsin for graduate school, I wasn’t, but I hung out with beer snobs, and I’m not one to turn down hospitality. So we ended up exploring beers together, and I developed a vocabulary for what I was tasting. When someone pointed out the banana-like flavor you find in a high-alcohol Belgian beer, it sharpened my enjoyment, because I began to pay attention to the sensual experience of beer. I didn’t think of it then, but that was an experiment in phenomenology, an instance of the reduction I will describe in more technical terms in my next post.