Imagine you are looking at a tree. You view the tree from a particular perspective. You see one side of the tree, but you do not see the other side of the tree. If you are standing on the ground, you probably cannot see the top of the tree. If the tree is alive and well, you probably cannot see inside of the tree, either. On a sunny Spring day, you observe some of the vividly green leaves, but you do not see every leaf.
As you move around the tree, previously hidden aspects of the tree are revealed by occupying new perspectives. But there is a reciprocal hiddenness — as you saunter around the tree, previously perceptible aspects of the tree are now hidden. The tree is never given to you in total.
This is the basic idea behind what Edmund Husserl, “the principal founder of phenomenology,” refers to as adumbrations (Beyer, 2020).
Adumbrations, according to Husserl, occur in relation to a spatial object (Sawicki, n.d.). That is, any spatial object, such as a tree, dog, table, or person are adumbrated — they are only ever partially perceptible. The perceptible parts of any given thing, then, are limited by our relative perspective.
The Importance of Perspective
As we perceive a given object, we gain an implicit understanding of perspective. Namely, that each perspective we take toward an object is but an instance, or adumbration, of the given object, and that innumerable other instances, or adumbrations, are available and contribute to the overall understanding of that object.
Occupying one perspective in relation to a given object allows access to a restricted number of adumbrations concerning that object. As a result, the understanding we gain from such a restricted perspective produces an impoverished understanding of the object.
One would not know, for example, that the brick building across the street has a cathedral ceiling or beautiful murals inside of it unless one walks inside, sees a photograph, or is told that this is the case by someone that occupied the necessary perspective which revealed this instance of the brick building.
Adumbrations, then, are connected to, and dependent on, one’s perspective in relation to a given object. If one hopes to gain a greater understanding of an object, one must occupy various perspectives through which an array of adumbrations are revealed.
Now, you might be thinking, isn’t this “greater understanding” a superficial understanding? After all, we have been talking about how something looks, we have been discussing its appearance, and there is more to a thing than meets the eye, right? Adumbrations, however, can be extended beyond sight.
For example, if you look at a field of roses from afar, you will miss out on the notable scent that they are emitting. This scent is another adumbration which contributes to a more enriched understanding — a deeper knowing — of the roses.
Further yet, you could view a piece of intricately woven silk from a variety of perspectives, but you would be missing out on the tactile adumbration of the silk, which is perhaps one of the most significant perspectives that you could take toward the woven silk.
Without this tactile understanding, you might be left wondering why woven silk is a cherished commodity, and you might react with confusion when someone refers to certain textures, which are not compositionally made of silk, as “silky.” This tactile adumbration of silk, then, both enriches your understanding of silk and informs particular cultural references of tactile sensation.
I want to push the idea further, however, and extend the idea of adumbrations to intellectual understanding. That is, I want to extend this multi-perspectival approach, which enriches understanding, to include our intellectual representations of reality.
Intellectual Representations as Adumbrations
Now, when I talk about “intellectual representations,” I am referring to a representation of reality or some particular thing in reality that requires a cognitive or intellectual methodological approach.
This might include a physical representation of my dog as made up of particles or excitations within a set of interacting quantum fields, a chemical representation of my dog as composed of particular molecules, a dynamic social representation of my dog as being capable of forming strong bonds with other animals (including my two cats), a practical representation of my dog as a guardian, or a poetic representation of my dog as the beautiful embodiment of innocence and honest emotional expression.
The aforementioned representations are by no means exhaustive — but I hope you get the picture. Namely, that there are innumerable approaches to intellectually representing and relating to the world. We can think of each representation as an instance, or adumbration, which enriches understanding, contributes to the beauty of life, recognizes the complexity of reality, and increases the appreciation with which we view the world.
The Concluding Takeaway
If any single intellectual adumbration is isolated and elevated as the absolute way in which to represent or cognize reality, much of the richness, complexity, beauty, appreciation, and understanding of life and world becomes hidden. This is no different than standing in one spot while viewing the tree and then claiming that you have, from this single perspective and limited set of adumbrations, a complete picture of the tree.
Just as you would move around the tree if you wanted to reveal the hidden adumbrations of it, you would likewise move around an idea, concept, or intellectual representation; occupying a variety of perspectives, revealing the multitudinous adumbrations on offer, each of which expands the horizon of intelligibility which contributes to a more holistic understanding of the world.
As we traverse the intellectual landscape, we begin to occupy distinctive, divergent, and sometimes conflicting perspectives. This can provide a glimpse into how someone else perceives reality.
That is, by temporarily occupying the intellectual perspective from which someone else views the world, we can better relate to that person with increased compassion when we return to our own perspective.
This approach can lead to a deeper connection with others by increasing the depth and breadth with which we can engage in meaningful and compassionate dialogue with our fellow thinking creatures, further revealing unique intellectual adumbrations through this more intimate act of dialectic. This results in an enriched, holistic, and mutual understanding of life, world, and reality.
Beyer, C. (2020, November 18). Edmund Husserl. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/husserl/.
Sawicki, M. (n.d.). Husserl, Edmund. Internet encyclopedia of philosophy. https://iep.utm.edu/husserl/.