Phenomenology and Zen

In their introduction to Dogen’s Eihei Shingi (the collection of his writings about the organization and standard practices in a Buddhist monastery), Leighton and Okumura explain that the practice of zazen ‘promotes active attentiveness to our present life experience just as it is.’ Zen monastic life is ‘directed at helping practitioners together to embody and actualize this awareness in every aspect of ordinary life’ (Leighton and Okumura 1996, 16).

Phenomenology (and philosophy), as Peirce described it, begins with this same ‘attentiveness to our present life experience,’ but then proceeds to a description or analysis of it, with the goal of articulating what is essential to any possible experience, quite apart from anything peculiar to any individual subject of that experience. In other words, it generalizes from present experience to Experiencing. The formulations arrived at in this way furnish ‘fundamental principles’ to philosophy and other sciences (EP 2:258) in their quest for truth.

Innocent experience

Innocence is a word for the advent of an experience before meaning arrived to subdue and relegate it to the background.

Annie Dillard (1974) writes of the ‘newly sighted,’ people given a visual world by removal of cataracts after years or lifetimes of blindness: some refused the gift of sight and space because it was too disturbing. Likewise, mind-blind autistics may reject whatever interferes with their familiar routines, preferring to remain in oblivion unless dragged out of it by the concerted efforts of others (Baron-Cohen 1995, Park 2001).

Our whole experience of the external world arrives by way of perturbations, often accompanied by a sense of loss. As Dillard says, ‘Form is condemned to an eternal danse macabre with meaning’ (1974, 35). ‘The fluttering patch I saw in my nursery window – silver and green and shape-shifting blue – is gone; a row of Lombardy poplars takes its place, mute, across the distant lawn’ (36). They are mute because they turned out to be what the fluttering patch had to say, and once this has been heard, the magic is gone. We are driven out of the mythical Garden when we feel this sense of loss. Yet the emergence of meaning is hardly less amazing, when we step back from that. And those condemned to live in a world of pure ‘magic’ undiluted by memory – like Zasetsky in Luria (1972), or amnesics like Clive Wearing (Restak 1998, 29-31) – feel an even greater sense of loss, feel as if they have been dead or asleep up to now.

Reading the Net

Adding a search function to Turning Signs has caused me to reflect a bit on different modes of reading and the effect of the internet on them. Searching – looking for something very specific in a text or a network of texts – has been vastly speeded up and extended by access to search engines, as compared to the searching one can do in printed texts.

local browser

Browsing – meandering casually from text to text (site to site, page to page) on the chance of finding something interesting – is almost the opposite of searching, but has also been facilitated by the internet. It’s no accident that the software you are using to read this webpage is called a ‘browser’; it’s optimized for dealing with the miscellaneous. But if you have actually read this far into the page, you’ve entered a different reading mode, either skimming or scanning.

Skimming is the speed-reading mode you use for a newspaper or facebook page, when you just want to get the gist of the information offered there without getting deeply involved in the text (which you don’t expect to be carefully constructed). Scanning is a much more intense and concentrated mode in which you study the text closely without skipping over any of the details. However, even scanning does not necessarily involve the kind of deep immersion in a text that i call whole-body reading or the experiencing of a turning sign. In order to do that, you have to focus on the dynamic object of the sign through the text, in order to deepen your experience of it, your intimacy with it.

Using the internet for this last and deepest kind of reading is certainly possible, but the practice seems to get swept aside by the habits of skimming and browsing encouraged by this medium. When we do get immersed in an e-text, it’s often something we found by searching, which makes it all too likely that it will confirm our prejudices instead of challenging them. This will discourage critical thinking – which is an important part of experiencing or deep reading – unless we make a conscious effort to choose our modes of reading with care.

Doing what it says

Can you act on scripture without understanding it? This would be like claiming to understand scripture without reading it. Reading it without understanding will not furnish guidance, and how can you know that your understanding is right? (Perhaps you feel you know because you simply can’t imagine any other understandings.)

A reading or ‘recital’ of scripture is a performance; an actual interpretation of it is a more extended kind of performance. And the more compressed and seedlike the scripture, the more the performer has to improvise in the realization of its interpretant. However much faith we invest in the text, the true guide in the end is trial and error, experiment – as in science.

Crease points out that experiments have the character of ‘performances.’ What enters into a performance is more than the script or score. It includes a whole background of intuitive practices. All sorts of trials and errors, hunches and wildly derived ideas enter into the design of experiments. In a laboratory many improvised moves occur. One may employ procedures that lack theory for years, as well as theory that lacks procedures.

— Gendlin (1997)

Dewey (1929) argued that an intelligent ethical (guidance) system treats every course of action as an experiment, i.e. considers every principle modifiable by experience.

Turning insight

When the reading of a sign bestows a feeling of insight into the deeper process of living, i call that a turning sign.

— Only a feeling? What about real insight?

Only practice guided by the insight, and reflection on that practice, will decide whether the insight is real; but practice does not happen without feeling.

A turning sign triggers the guidance system to restructure itself. The guidance emerging can only be evaluated recursively.

The range of experience tapped in a turning sign is always greater than any number of readings will reveal.

From flow to habit

Reading is recognition of experience as symbolized by the text in its context; meaning is experiencing prompted by the text. The recognition can always become more fine-grained (subtle, articulate, ….. ) as the reading proceeds, because experiencing is never complete as long as it lives. Habits on the other hand must simplify (reducing or eliminating subtleties) in order to actualize guidance.

The text is the instrument; the body is the player; meaning is the music. Practice is the dance.

Wisdom does not accumulate; it flows in continuous current through any open channel. However, the effects of the flow can accumulate (like sediment) as instructions, constructions, obstructions, records and habits. Of course the longest-lasting effect of the flow is the channel itself. ‘The stream of water that wears a bed for itself is forming a habit’ (Peirce, EP2:418).

Does anything feel?

We are in the habit of attributing experience to other humans, to a lesser degree to other primates, and so on to other life forms in proportion to their similarity to us, and perhaps their complexity. We don’t usually attribute experience to simple nonliving entities; we don’t feel that a stone feels anything. Why not?

Everything has some quality, which in Peircean terms is its Firstness. But according to Peirce, Firstness can only be apprehended as a mode of feeling, and ‘whatever is First is ipso facto sentient’ (CP 6.201, RLT 260).

Firstness may be defined as follows: It is the mode in which anything would be for itself, irrespective of anything else, so that it would not make any difference though nothing else existed, or ever had existed, or could exist. Now this mode of being can only be apprehended as a mode of feeling. For there is no other mode of being which we can conceive as having no relation to the possibility of anything else. In the second place, the First must be without parts. For a part of an object is something other than the object itself. Remembering these points, you will perceive that any color, say magenta, has and is a positive mode of feeling, irrespective of every other. Because, Firstness is all that it is, irrespective of anything else, when viewed from without (and therefore no longer in the original fullness of firstness) the firstnesses are all the different possible sense-qualities, embracing endless varieties of which all we can feel are but minute fragments. Each of these is just as simple as any other. It is impossible for a sense quality to be otherwise than absolutely simple. It is only complex to the eye of comparison, not in itself.

— Peirce, RLT 147, PM 167 (1898)

When we say that a stone has its quality, its Firstness, we are taking its itness – separate existence, identity – for granted. We are viewing it from without, which precludes seeing ‘the original fullness of firstness.’ Like the stone itself, any qualities we attribute to it have become other to something else, and thus lost the indeterminacy and spontaneity which is theirs as possibilities rather than actualities. This is why we do not think of the stone (or its quality) as sentient, or as experiencing. And yet, the life and fullness of Firstness has not departed, according to Peirce, but is still here in ‘the mode of being of that which is whatever it is regardless of anything else’ (CD ‘Firstness’). Can you sense it?

Index to experience

A language is a symbol system, but some words are relatively indexical. Pronouns, by directing attention to specific individuals in a context rather than general types, work indexically better than nouns do.

It is impossible to express what an assertion refers to except by means of an index. A pronoun is an index. A noun, on the other hand, does not indicate the object it denotes; and when a noun is used to show what one is talking about, the experience of the hearer is relied upon to make up for the incapacity of a noun for doing what the pronoun does at once. Thus, a noun is an imperfect substitute for a pronoun.… A pronoun ought to be defined as a word which may indicate anything to which the first and second persons have suitable real connections, by calling the attention of the second person to it.

— Peirce (EP2:15 fn., emphasis his)

The thing to which a pronoun calls attention must exist in the situational context of both of these persons in order for communication to succeed. In order for a noun (even a proper noun) to direct attention to the object of a symbol such as a sentence, the prior experience of the hearer is called upon – not only her memory of prior language usage, but also her memory of previous acquaintance (collateral experience) with the object of the symbol. This memory makes the difference between ‘the inexperienced and the experienced person meeting the same man and noticing the same peculiarities, which to the experienced man indicate a whole history, but to the inexperienced reveal nothing’ (EP2:8).

The ‘experienced’ reader of a text (i.e. the reader well acquainted with its context) will also notice ‘peculiarities’ which not only ‘indicate a whole history’ but also point to previously unnoticed relationships among parts of that object recalled to memory. My ‘real connection’ with a place becomes more finely articulated as i walk through it, even if i have taken that same path before, as long as i am attentive to its twists and turns on this walk. In my experience, reading and re-reading the works of a writer such as Peirce can likewise sharpen the sense of what he is writing about. For the ‘experienced’ reader, the very nouns in that text can act more like pronouns, drawing renewed attention to features of its object in order to regenerate its interpretant. No book can transmit acquaintance with such a ‘whole history’ or whole system; yet the writer works in the hope that some future reader may be able to recreate or resurrect it.


Does the concept of ‘experience’ require a subject/object distinction? Can the mind be called the subject of experience, or the phenomenon the object? Peirce does call it the ‘object of thought’ (CP 1.343, 1903). But he also declared in 1902 (CP 7.364) that ‘feeling is nothing but the inward aspect of things, while mind on the contrary is essentially an external phenomenon.’ He often makes ‘mind’ and ‘thought’ pretty much synonymous, as also are ‘feeling’ and ‘consciousness.’

Only take care not to make the blunder of supposing that Self-consciousness is meant, and it will be seen that consciousness is nothing but Feeling, in general,— not feeling in the German sense, but more generally, the immediate element of experience generalized to its utmost.

CP 7.365

But the polyversity of such terms continues to prevail a century later.

If experiencing is the interplay of subject bodymind and its world, perception is the collision and/or collusion of subject and object. But when we speak of experience, we often think of it as internal, while the world consists of external objects. We say that your capacity to experience is your ‘inner life.’ The image schema or root metaphor of the container seems to be involved here, but its role is ambigous (as Heidegger pointed out in Being and Time).

What sense does it make then to attach the prefix ex-, meaning ‘out,’ to the original Greek root -peir-, as Latin did to produce the verb experior and the nouns experientia and experimentum? The ex- prefix can serve as a reminder that the “view from within” is naturally oriented outwards. It’s like the e- of emotion:

The departure from a state of calm rest without anticipation is aptly named: e(x)motion (‘ex’ = ‘outward’). An emotional state need not be revealed in immediate overt actions, but it certainly implies the high probability of actions that will soon be directed outward from an individual into the world.

— Walter Freeman (2000, 213)

The Determinator

Philosophy has only to state, to make explicit, the difference between events which are challenges to thought and events which have met the challenge and hence possess meaning. It has only to note that bare occurrence in the way of having, being, or undergoing is the provocation and invitation to thought – seeking and finding unapparent connections, so that thinking terminates when an object is present: namely, when a challenging event is endowed with stable meanings through relationship to something extrinsic but connected.

— Dewey (1929, 265)

In more Peircean terms, semiosis always involves an object, but it must also produce an interpretant: if the mediation of the sign were to finally accomplish its purpose of stabilizing the act of meaning and complete the process of determining its interpretant, that would be the end of the process (as it is already the end in the sense of purpose). The triadic sign relation would then collapse into a simple static unit, which is what Dewey calls a ‘present’ object, something taken for granted and no longer challenging. Likewise Heidegger (1927) called such a relatively lifeless object vorhanden, ‘present-at-hand.’

‘Experience begins when objects come into existence’ (Deely 2004, 57). It continues until they have arrived, turns its attention to the world that is still coming, and ends when everything is meaningful and all the connections are known – or would end if that could ever happen.