Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving

“How do you move your thinking?”

June 4th, 2005

I told my host family last night that I’d been able to move my thinking forward in terms of the kinds of questions to ask interpreters going into the week in Strasbourg. Helena asked how. It’s actually still a bit vague in my own mind, so perhaps I can write out loud and gain clarity. I’ll use Van Manen as my reference point, because the notion of phenomenology – interpreter’s consciousness and their awareness of self/other consciousness – is a move that the discourse enables. (This reflective writing doubles as a note-taking exercise clarifying my phenomenological research methodology.)

Van Manen’s object is pedagogy &emdash; teaching and parenting; so whenever I quote or paraphrase one of his ideas, I’m either substituting interpreting for pedagogy or generalizing. In pursuing knowledge, he says we should always refer questions back to the lifeworld “where knowledge speaks through our lived experiences” (46). One way I’m moving my thinking then, is being responsive to the knowledge(s) evident in the experiences interpreters tell &emdash; which (type of?) stories, what (kind of?) examples, which adjectives, as well as how they seem to relate to the experience of talking with me and responding to my questions. Van Manen talks about the iconicity of questions &emdash; such that the question itself serves as an example of it seeks to clarify (46). My questions are not yet this honed. I am struggling with the asking, but what is exciting is the sense of my interlocutors struggling with me &emdash; there are many close-to-the-surface responses, but as the conversation goes on it often deepens and some interpreters begin to articulate less formed, more-or-less “new” thoughts, generating their own questions. The extent to which I can facilitate this kind of reflection will enrich the whole process &emdash; at the immediate level of the face-to-face conversation, the discourse’s trajectory, and any results or findings that come out of it.
Of course, this shows how deeply involved I am with the entire process, which many might criticize as “un-scientific” on the basis of “not being objective.” But this is the essence of phenomenological inquiry. I have not posed a static question to carry forth and ask in the same way of every interlocutor in order to demonstrate some kind of proof. I’ve posed, instead, a living question which interlocutors and I experience together. The methodological challenge, then, is not “how consistently I hold to the original formulation of the question.” Rather, it is, “how attentive and responsive can I be to the nuances and shades of relevance in the things interpreters actually say?” This is an issue of my flexibility and skill at allowing myself to be subjected to the discourse, instead of seeking to guide or direct it, while not losing focus on the core question: what do interpreters know about the world and the place of language in it?
Van Manen refers to Gadamer (1975:266) who said the essence of the question is the opening of possibilities &emdash; opening them up and keeping them open. “To truly question something is to interrogate something from the heart of our existence, from the center of our being…. research [is] going back again and again to the things themselves until that which is put to question begins to reveal something of its essential nature” (43). As I continue to return, I live the questioning and it lives in and through me. To discover what it’s “really like” to be an interpreter, I must stay attuned to what it’s “really like” for me to investigate interpreting (40).
In this regard, there is “a distinction between appearance and essence, between the things of our experience and that which grounds the things of our experience…phenomenological research consists of reflectively bringing into nearness that which tends to be obscure, that which tends to evade the intelligibility of our natural attitude of everyday life” (32). Movement in thinking, therefore, is the effect of reflection. Such movement responds to the dialectic between appearance (particular words, phrases, descriptions) and essence (the feelings accompanying such).
Perceiving this dialectic is, I think, a function of esoteric epistemology. In contrast with poetry and literature, which leaves its wisdom implicit and particular, Van Manen argues that “phenomenology aims at making explicit and seeking universal meaning” albeit in still evocative and animating ways (italics in original, 19). A qualification on universality is necessary: “The object of a phenomenological interest is [according to Merleau-Ponty, 1964a] “neither eternal and without roots in the present nor a mere event destined to be replaced by another event tomorrow, and consequently deprived of any intrinsic value (p. 92)…phenomenology [continues Van Manen] consists in mediating in a personal way the antinomy of particularity (being interested in concreteness, difference, and what is unique) and universality (being interested in the essential, in difference that makes a difference)” (emphasis mine, 23).
[Note: return to the phenomenology/hermeneutic debate on p. 25-26.]

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