Bracketing is one of those philosophical terms that is nearly synonymous with the flavor of philosophy from which it comes. In this narrow sense, bracketing, epoché or the phenomenological reduction is derived from the philosophy of Edmund Husserl and refers to the act of suspending judgment about the natural world that precedes phenomenological analysis. Specifically, bracketing serves the intrepid phenomenologist by allowing her to ignore–for the purposes of deriving a clearer analysis–the question of whether the object of perception maps onto some object in the world. Thus, by bracketing my experience of pink elephants from the possibility that said perception is only the result of too many celebratory drinks, I may scrutinize the pachyderms to greater effect.
Furthermore, such bracketing allows a phenomenological unpacking of the perception as layers upon layers of reference, symbol, and allusion until only the thing as a meaning remains.
If you made it through the preceding paragraph you are either a philosopher or a glutton for punishment. The narrow species of the phenomenological bracket is not the topic of this post. Instead, I intend to deploy the term as referring to several bracketing activities that seem analogous to the narrower species, but are applicable to a wider field of inquiry. Specifically, I intend to argue that certain bracketing activities are essential to and nearly synonymous with the practice of philosophy. Or
bracketing = philosophy
1) Philosophy [agreement] – With the term “philosophy bracketing agreement” I mean that it is an essential skill and discipline of the philosopher to bracket off their experience of a text from the subjective experience of agreement/disagreement, love/hate, enjoyment/frustration etc. elicited by that text. There is no task in philosophy more difficult than creating a nuanced reading of particular text while one is angrily scrawling notes in the margin and cursing Nietzsche’s birth–I mean, that is, a philosopher that makes one with visit their grave in order sow it with salt as a warning to all that follow. On the other hand, it is no less difficult to parse a difficult argument while fluffy unicorns are attending one’s every attempt. That is to say, both a generous reading of a philosophical hero and a skeptical reading of a particularly onerous academic require the bracketing of one’s agreement or disagreement in order to produce the most transparent reading possible.
2) Philosophy [history] – Bracketing history means ignoring–for the time being–accidents of historical event or association for the purposes to doing philosophy. Now, I do not mean that one may ignore the historically determined meanings of philosophical terms within the writer’s epoch or the historically determined conversation partners to which a particular text must necessarily be speaking. Indeed, it is essential to consider the essential, constituting conversation into which a text was meant to speak. However, there are accidents of history that are often used to misread or even dismiss essential thinkers and their texts. The most egregious–and contentious–example of the need for [history] is one Martin Heidegger. A most dear friend referred to the tendency to discredit any position taken by Heidegger–because he was a Nazi–the phenomena of “The Hitler Hammer.” It seems obvious–to this philosopher at least–that all of Heidegger’s work cannot be disposable because of his accidental association with the Nazi Regime anymore than all of Levina’s work must be praise-worthy because of his accidental appearance in a German prisoner camp.
Now, both these examples are contentious because plausible arguments have been made that Heidegger’s association with Nazism and Levina’s experience as a POW are not merely accidental to their philosophy, but these experiences are constitutive of their philosophy. I will not argue against those strong claims here, but am arguing the weaker claim that even if the premise is granted that Heidegger’s philosophy is inherently “Nazi-istic” and Levina’s philosophy is inherently “oppressed” it does not follow that either may be written off as unworthy of the label “true” or automatically worthy of reception as gospel. (Hee-hee). Less often recognized species of failure to [history] are dismissal of ancient philosophers because they are so old, dismissal of philosophers because they were or are homosexual, pedophilic, or French.
3) Philosophy [truth] – There is no more essential skill to the young philosopher than the ability to consider an argument or text without regard to its truth. Here, as with [history] careful attention must be paid to how I am understanding both “bracketing” and “truth.” Just as phenomenological bracketing is neither denying nor positing the existence of things behind the things of experience, bracketing truth is neither denying nor accepting the claims behind a text, but taking the argument of the text as coherent and valid–albeit possibly not coherent with your presuppositions or valid according to your faith commitments.
The worst case example of a failure to [truth] for the sake of clear philosophical thinking was a particular philosophy undergrad at my alma mater who, when presented with a new philosopher or philosophy simply checked his Bible’s concordance to find all verses applicable to the philosophy’s claims and then proceeded to either accept or reject the philosophy according to its apparent agreement or disagreement with the passages. In my view this young philosopher wasn’t–that is he wasn’t a philosopher so long as the measure of all philosophy was its agreement with his presuppositions regarding the interpretation of “Holy Scripture.” That is to say, philosophy as the interplay and clash of competing ideas cannot–definitionally–be practiced when one has already decided the winner of all games and victor of all competitions a priori–or more specifically, according to one’s presuppositions.
To summarize, I am arguing that bracketing is not merely the tool of phenomenology, but indicative of a whole host of investigative tools that are employed to allow for–in as much as it is possible–careful analysis of ideas as ideas–not as agreeable or disagreeable, nor as indicative of historical happenstance, nor as true or false according to one’s presuppositions. As such, bracketing is an essential skill and discipline that must be mastered by the young philosopher as quickly as possible if he or she is to do philosophy.
Tomorrow – Part 2: Bracketing Truth