Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Phenomenology of the Mailbox: Much Ado about Nothing

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Phenomenology of the Mailbox: Much Ado about Nothing

Article excerpt

Early in the twentieth century Adolph Reinach, one of Husserl's pupils, devoted an entire semester to a course on the phenomenology of the mailbox. Given the great questions of human origins and destiny, human freedom and responsibility, and the meaning of the cosmos, such inquiry seems trivial. However, these larger questions arise on the basis of certain features of the field of human experience in their different relations. And it is the features that appear in the field of experience in their peculiar modes of togetherness that furnish the evidence for testing the larger claims. People are free to make whatever ultimate claims they wish, but it is only appropriate evidence that tests the validity of those claims. So the prior quest should be a making explicit of the initial forms of evidence that found our theoretical claims. Such is the role of phenomenology or the discipline that attends to the essential features of what is given within the field of experience. Such givenness entails both features of objects of attention and the always, but usually only implicitly, present features of the conscious subject in the togetherness of his or her different acts of attending.

The mailbox has a certain advantage in that recognizing and using it involves several different strata of givenness. It is first of all an object within our sensory fields: we see it and take hold of it. When we open it, it emits a certain sound. We might also smell and, less likely, taste it. Secondly, it makes its appearance in and through the peculiar structures of the conscious being who is the locus of its manifestation. Thirdly, it is an artifact that exhibits features over and beyond its being like sensory objects of nature. Fourthly, it functions within the mediations of institutions like the production and exchange systems that manufacture and sell mailboxes. But we buy it in order to function within the postal system. Fifthly, it presents the written word, which is to be set in contrast with and in relation to the spoken word. Sixthly, it involves the absence of the communicator, which is to be set in contrast with and in relation to his or her presence. We could go on to consider other features, but let us limit ourselves to the six we have listed-at least for the time being: empirical objectivity in general, subjectivity, artifaction, institutional mediation, writing and speech, inter-subjective presence and absence.

For purposes of illustrating some points better, let us consider a rural mailbox set on a post on a roadside separated by some distance from the house and encompassed by the rolling fields of farmland. Because we are interested in essential rather than in individual empirical features, we need not attend to a particular mailbox but only to an imaginatively constructed mailbox. Indeed, it is in imaginative variation that the essential stands out from the contingency, the non-essential involved in the individual instances.

Consider first the mailbox as a visual object. It has a kind of silver-gray surface set upon a light brown post. On one side it has a little red flag attached to a pivot. To appear as a visual object it must exhibit a certain color or set of colors. Even the so-called color-blind see shades of black, white, and gray. What appears as colored must be extended, ultimately linked to three-dimensional solids which have an inside and an outside. In the case of the mailbox proper, there is a hollow inside. In the case of the post upon which it is mounted, there is a full inside. Further, post and mailbox can only appear in a space separated from the viewer and filled with light. They can also only appear surrounded by other things. We look out beyond the mailbox to the surrounding hills; beyond them we see perhaps the sky and the clouds. But the filled space has a limit: it appears within a horizon as the limit to the field of vision. Such horizoned space moves ahead of us as we move forward. We carry it with us as a kind of psychic hoop skirt-though, as a relation to what is outside our circumscribed bodies, it is not merely psychic. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.