Noesis (originally posted 3-14-2009)

Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology is just one of the 20th century’s fascinating schools of philosophical thought that is directly relevant to notions of knowledge and information. I have been experimenting with the differentiation of otherwise like entities by attempting to identify their perceptual differences–Husserl calls this noesis, or the act of perception through one’s own ego. Trivial examples are most entertaining so here are two. This sign from a hotel in Amsterdam puzzled me for years:

The text says “Wat to doen bij brand,” which as you can see means “what to do in case of fire.” (The photo is fuzzy, which is a shame, because it means I will have to fly back to Amsterdam to take a better picture!) The first time I encountered this I was rather jet-lagged and thought “how odd, instead of running apparently you are supposed to scream.” What did I know of Dutch culture? But the more times I pointed this out to people in the hotel the more times they said to me “looks like he’s dancing.” So there you have it–the picture shows a person by a fire. I see someone screaming, many others see a person dancing. Those are ego-acts–noesis–self-experiential interpretations. It is one reason classification can be so difficult, because the same thing can mean different things to different people. Here is a set of pictures from the intersection of Frauentorgrabe and Kartäusergasse in Nuremberg; this is where you turn to approach the Germanisches Nationalmuseum:

Clearly, in Germany in order to cross the street one must stand atop a bicycle. Note that if the light is red one is compelled to balance there at rest until it turns green. Obviously this is problematic for some citizens–the older gentleman in the last photo has acquired the requisite bicycle, but although the light is green he is hesitant to leap onto the bar to cross the street.

Okay–point made? I always think it is an interesting philosophical exercise to approach a scene as though one were a creature from outer space and ask oneself “what am I seeing here?” Do you see that long line of earthlings on the right in that third picture? They have evolved to a high capacity and even seem to float as though on wheels; when they become excited their eyes shine enough to brighten even the night. Unfortunately, all of them are infested with two-legged parasites. Their civilization must learn to deal with these infestations before we can settle among them.

(Are you curious about how much traffic I stopped taking these pictures? I’m interested to know whether anyone has noticed I’ve taken hundreds of infrastructure photos around the world recently as part of this study!)

What is the use of this research stream? At present an obvious implication is the explanation of divergence in Web 2.0 applications–when is a tag meaningful and to whom? But there is much more potential here as well. For instance, in my paper for last summer’s ISKO conference I developed the idea of noesis as the synthesis of perception. Here is the abstract:

Perception is a crucial element in the viability of any knowledge organization system because it acts as a filter that provides contextual information about phenomena, including potential categorical membership. Perception is moderated culturally, but “social” systems exercise little or no cultural conformity. “Every day classification” is rife throughout human experience; but classification arises as a system of formal constraints that embody cultural assumptions about the categories that are the products of human cognition. Noesis is a perceptual component of Husserl’s phenomenological approach to human experience. How we perceive a thing is filtered by our experiential feelings about it. The purpose of this research is to increase understanding of the role of cognition in every day classification by developing a fuller profile of perception. Photographs of mailboxes (a mundane, every-day example) from different locales are compared to demonstrate the noetic process. Tag clouds are analyzed to demonstrate the kinds of perceptual differences that suggest different user perceptions among those contributing tags.

(“Noesis: Perception and Every Day Classification.” In Arsenault, Clement, and Tennis, Joseph, eds. 2008. Culture and identity in knowledge organization: Proceedings of the 10th International ISKO Conference, Montreal, 5-8 August 2008. Advances in knowledge organization 11. Wurzburg: Ergon Verlag, pp. 249-53.)

While trying to illustrate this process I realized that the heretofore supposed origin of perception is not in the information object itself, but rather is in each person who interprets it. So this accords with the phenomenon of instantiation. Instantiation says there are many perceivable iterations of information, and phenomenology says there are many potential noetic acts of perception. What is the chance that any two of these streams will meet in a human mind and form an understandable chain? A million research questions now follow; stay tuned.

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Posted November 17, 2010 by lazykoblog in phenomenology

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