Philosophy professor Stephen Käufer talks phenomenology at Common Hour

By Christa Rodriguez || Campus Life Editor

Photo courtesy of fandm.edu

Stephen Käufer, John Williamson Nevin Memorial Professor of Philosophy, gave this past Thursday’s Common Hour talk in Barshinger Concert Hall instead of the regular Mayser Gymnasium location. His talk was titled “Prior to Equal and Unequal: What Phenomenology Can Tell Us About Perception.” Käufer is the recipient of numerous fellowships and recently coauthored Phenomenology: An Introduction, which provided the information for his Common Hour presentation.

At the start of his talk, he recognized that some people in the audience might be less familiar with philosophy. His slideshow had a few questions listed for the audience to briefly consider. Käufer said that these all could be answered by taking a philosophy course. He pointed to the final question on the slide, “Do we see and perceive with our whole bodies?,” as this was a question he would discuss for the rest of the talk.

Käufer talked about phenomenology in terms of our visual perception. Perception helps us make sense of the world, but under some conditions, he said we are blind to what we see or hear right in front of us. While he spoke, Käufer had a flickering image on screen. After a while, he pointed out the fact that the engine under the airplane in the picture kept disappearing and reappearing as the image flickered. Most audience members did not notice it right away, which shows how people cannot always trust what we see since we tend to miss things.

Käufer spoke about the philosophical idea that humans experience objects, and it is our body that perceives them, not just our eyes. He outlined the different explanations for visual limitations, such as blind spots and other ways we process images through our eyes. Through our vision, we don’t see the world fully as it is. Phenomenology says more is going on, as the “body is our vehicle of being in the world.” To Käufer, we get the world through our body, which shapes our experiences.

Käufer demonstrated that “the world looks different according to what your body is like” through two images. Both were taken of the same place, but one from a shorter person and the other from a tall person. The difference in how each person saw the location was apparent to the audience. Käufer also discussed how lighting can change perceptions, giving “the dress” as an infamous example of how lighting can change our perceptions of color.

Additionally, Käufer discussed how we perceive space, especially depth. This depends on where one’s eyes are. Moving the body is important to perceiving depth, especially when there are two perspectives that one needs to resolve. Käufer explained the limitations of looking at pictures on a slide versus actually experiencing objects or space. To illustrate this, he showed two photos of a supermoon. The first image was a close-up image, which represented how we would actually perceive it in reality. The next image was a picture taken by one of his students that showed a tiny dot in the sky, which is what the camera was able to capture. Käufer emphasized that when we see two objects in the same space, but not in the same plane, they may appear to be different sizes, but that comparison does not measure to the reality.

According to Käufer, phenomenology may challenge some aspects of philosophy and psychology, but demonstrates how we experience and engage with the world through our bodies.

Junior Christa Rodriguez is the Campus Life Editor. Her email is crodrigu@fandm.edu.

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