Upon examining the possibility of combining philosophical methods on inquiry to reinforce the discipline of history, I came upon several fascinating features of a specific Kyoto School affiliated philosopher that’s ideas were incredibly applicable to the field of Oral and Food history. This post can be read as an extension of the phenomenology portion of my short essay titled “Talking While Eating”: Combining the Methodological Frameworks of Food and Oral History. 

The two works that were drawn from was Fūdo (literally wind and earth) and a subsection of his work on Ethics namely Ningen (the Japanese term for humans). Both of these texts provide different perspectives on the nature of the individual experience. In many ways, one supports the other. Where Fūdo explains the interaction between the individual and nature. His Rinri 

(text on ethics) looks at the construction of Ethics in this context and extends it further into society. One may ask, what relevance does this have to the field of Oral and Food History? Let’s first tackle the oral history component.

Oral history is a field that has struggled with its subjectivity, specifically the subjectivity of memory. Alistair Thomson’s “Four Paradigm Transformations of Oral History” discusses how Oral History as a discipline in its current state ‘celebrates’ this subjectivity, while still finding ways to ensure the efficacy of its craft. Phenomenology is an especially suitable philosophical perspective when it comes to dealing with subjectivity. Instead of focusing on obtaining the “objective” view on history, through this perspective, we can accept that subjectivity is fundamentally a part of knowledge. However, as a perspective, it doesn’t take this at face value, things that are subjective need to be interpreted in a way that makes them useful. Because phenomenology’s focus on why and how we experience things, we can apply this directly to the construction and interpretation of memory.

For example, one of the biggest problems of Oral history is the bias of the interviewer as a conduit for knowledge. The way that the interviewer asks questions, can potentially impact the way that the interviewee responds or reacts to the question. Conventional phenomenological practices point to the use of something called “bracketing”, which essentially suspending our assumptions of reality to glean knowledge. Furthermore, the understanding of Oral Historians that we essentially ‘live in and influence society’ is essentially a phenomenological understanding of the world.

Tetsurō takes this fundamental assumption further in Ningen in the ethical sense by explaining that the source of ethics exists in the spaces “between” individual consciousness. That is “The individual, though fundamentally different from society, is effaced on society”. This is not unlike how Oral Historians understand the interaction between shared and individual histories. Where Tetsurō applies this to ethics, historians can understand it from a more practical perspective as the space where memory forms. My assertion from this point is that instead of treating individuals and society as distinct analytical entities, we can form them into some sort of “analytical nexus” and form new methodologies around that. This is still very much an idea in development, and I would appreciate suggestions on the matter.

The second part of Tetsurō’s philosophy is more pertinent to Food History. This concept of Fūdo, where the environment and climate impact the existence of an individual, resonates very strongly with Food History. In a rough line of logic, environment and climate “spawns” or are more likely to allow for the developments of certain types of food. In a practical sense, different foods have different geographical points of origin. That is, we see wheat more often in the North of China than we do in the South, where rice dominates. Instead of taking for granted that one region of the country eats wheat and the other rice, we as historians need to ask how the experience of eating rice or eating wheat, has an impact on the history of an area. This can also be more widely applied to the growth of say, papyrus reed in a certain region, and it’s link to the creation of paper. This way as historians we can relate environmental factors to historical processes in a more concrete manner.

These two ideas are just preliminary developments of a possible underpinning framework that could make a lot of sense in the practical investigation of history. I will be pursuing this vein and endeavour to deepen my understanding of phenomenology to understand it’s application to history.  

A Deeper Dive into using Phenomenology in Oral and Food History (things that didn’t make it into my essay)

One thought on “A Deeper Dive into using Phenomenology in Oral and Food History (things that didn’t make it into my essay)

  • March 22, 2021 at 11:45 am

    Roger, I found this entry very interesting and I agree with your evaluation that these Kyoto School affiliated texts, Fūdo and Ningen, offer a different perspective on Oral and Food history. The discussion about subjectivity in relation to oral history in particular peaked my interest because in my own research I have come across many texts which attest to the massive role subjectivity plays in oral histories, and in history writing more generally. As you point out, the way the interviewer asks questions can impact how the interviewee responds or reacts to the question. Daisy Deomampo explains how the way the interviewee characterizes the interviewer also affects how they respond to questions. An Asian American female anthropologist, Deomampo was researching commercial surrogacy in India and although she was a foreigner, her subjects often assumed her to be Indian or Nepali, which helped narrow the perceived social distance between herself and the people she was researching. She also notes that being a woman was beneficial because it allowed her to access the intimate spaces where surrogate women reside, and contributed to her subjects comfort level which led to them sharing information with her. More generally, my research has shown that historians shape the narrative of the histories they are telling and therefore have the power to affect the course of history if they are writing about recent or current events.

    I find your assertion, “that instead of treating individuals and society as distinct analytical entities, we can form them into some sort of “analytical nexus” and form new methodologies around that” to be sound and convincing. It seems to me that for any historical account to be convincing, the historian involved must take account of both the individual and societal level, and look at how these two levels of analysis interact. They are quite intimately related; a failure to look at both may result in a historical analysis which is too focused on either the system level or the individual level.

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