How phenomenology can help us see things more clearly6 min read

The assumption trap

Everyday we make assumptions about what’s going on around us. It’s unavoidable and, in large part, of great benefit. After all, our assumptions help us make split-second predictions, which in turn help us navigate our way through the world. To put it another way, could you imagine if you had to figure things out everyday as if for the first time – the word nightmare springs to mind. But as helpful as predictive assumptions can be, they can sometimes be inaccurate, distort our perceptions, and lead us to the wrong conclusions. Fortunately, continental philosophy offers a useful path towards clarity.

Through a glass subjectively

We all view the world through a subjective lens, constructed from past experiences and beliefs about what the world is like. We also project this worldview [1] out onto the world that we see around us. This means two people can experience the same event, but experience it in very different ways. Two friends visit a restaurant; while one marvels at the candlelit ambience, the other is wondering whether the tablecloths are flame-retardant and if the restaurant will burn down. On the way home, the first sees a group of rowdy young men and anticipates trouble, while the other indulgently smiles, remembering her own youthful excesses. Same time, same place – two very different experiences. And just because we all see the world through different lenses, it doesn’t necessarily mean mine is better or worse than yours, just different [2].

As we’ve read, the assumptions that spring from our worldviews are typically beneficial – but they can distort our perceptions and lead us astray. This is where phenomenology comes to our assistance.

Phenomenology shines a light

Phenomenology is a branch of European philosophy concerned with consciousness and the nature of human experiencing. Although the phenomenological method is intended for rigorous philosophical inquiry rather than everyday life, it still offers a useful informal guide for setting aside our assumptions and suspending the interpretations we project onto the world around us. And this allows us to see things with greater clarity. This is how.

Rule 1.  The Rule of Epoché (Bracketing)

The rule of epoché encourages us to set aside or bracket our assumptions, biases, and prejudices when we first encounter something or someone, because our assumptions can obscure what’s really going on.  I see a bald man and I might assume they’re a Buddhist or a thug or maybe something else. But the one thing I won’t see is the person as they really are.  Setting aside our assumptions creates a space for the true picture to emerge – in this case, a person who happens to have no hair, whether by choice or not. Our initial assumptions might have been right all along – but you’d be a rare person if you’d never misinterpreted what’s going on around you, so it’s useful to hold our assumptions lightly. Stevie Smith’s 1957 poem Not Waving But Drowning also captures the spirit of misintepretation that phenomenology tries to correct.

Rule 2.  The Rule of Description

The rule of description suggests we describe what we see instead of firing-off interpretations of what’s going on. Without useful and detailed insider knowledge, my interpretations will likely be built on something I’ve invented – and that means they’re going to be a fiction.  If I’m in interpreting mode and I see someone dressed like a thug and frowning as they run down the street, I might assume he’s up to no good. I’d be attributing motives and causes before it’s clear what’s actually going on [3].  We can generate a far better account of what’s actually going on by simply describing what we see, until the full picture emerges – that way we’ll stay closer to the truth and avoid falling into a fictional invention [4].

Rule 3.  The Rule of Horizontalisation

The rule of horizontalisation teaches us to give all new information equal (ie. horizontal) weight until the significant elements begin to take shape. When we’re observing something, it’s easy to over-emphasise what we’ve seen or heard so far. Take this.

I’m walking along and I hear raised voices as I approach a junction. I imagine something unpleasant or maybe even dangerous around the corner and decide to turn around and take an alternate route. Later, I discover that a street theatre group had been performing where the raised voices came from – with a modern day Romeo tangling with the Capulets. Rather than a mid-afternoon fracas, it was theatre! Now I know it’s an unlikely scenario, but it demonstrates the point. If I’d treated the raised voices with a certain lightness or indifference, I would have seen the whole picture unfold until the most significant element emerged – the street performance of Romeo and Juliet.  Instead, I was guided by my assumptions and missed out.

So, to recap, the phenomenological method tells us to set aside our assumptions and prejudices, avoid interpreting what we’re seeing, and wait until the full picture emerges before drawing conclusions [5].

Putting things into practice

However inadvertent, a newspaper television advert captures this brilliantly:

A man who looks to all appearances like a thug is running along a street and appears to accost an older man.  It’s only when you see the full picture that it becomes clear that the first guy is actually saving the other one from almost-certain death.  The moral, of course, is to bracket your assumptions (the protagonist is not a thug, despite appearances), describe what you’re seeing rather than interpreting (with all its implicit judgments), and treat everything equally until the significant element – the man being saved – comes to light.

The phenomenological method is intended for more formal inquiries – but it’s a useful way of gaining a clearer perception of what’s going on.  By setting aside our assumptions, refraining from interpreting what we’re seeing, and letting things unfold until there’s a big enough picture to really see what’s going on, we’ll gain clarity. And greater clarity allows us to communicate and understand each other more effectively, make better decisions, and deal with things in our lives from a position of greater certainty.


[1] The worldview is the framework through which we see and understand the world – it includes ideas about whether or not God exists, whether people are inherently good or bad, whether people have free will or are essentially determined by past events. Mark E. Koltko-Rivera’s Psychology of Worldviews is a great place to find out more.
[2] There are some obvious exceptions to this.
[3] It’s true, of course, that someone running along the street with a frown on their face could be up to no good. But there’s nothing about a frowning running man that’s inherently suspect.
[4] A further note of caution – sometimes we do need to react in the moment and stopping to watch things unfold could be unwise.
[5] This overview of the phenomenological method has been adapted from Ernesto Spinelli’s Practising Existential Psychotherapy: The Relational World.

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