Notes on Phenomenology from a Freshman Perspective

The concept of college, from applications to attendance, is interlaced with the goal of identifying who you are. This is obvious from the very beginning of the college search process. “What schools will help you accomplish your goals?” “Which will offer the best programs for exploring your interests?” Such rhetoric was ubiquitous by junior or even sophomore year and became monotonous by senior year. It pushes you towards an inevitable thought process of evaluating who you are and understanding which schools align with your identity. Certainly, this analysis of the self is difficult for most college-aged adults, let alone 16- and 17-year-olds, to experience. Students continue to be challenged not only by the imposed word limit and prompts but also by the additional requirements of eloquence, narrative, and creativity to top everything off.

One would think this process would be complete after acceptance into college. The task of constant self-reflection on one’s life is tiresome. Burdensome even. It’s natural that one would want it to have a set date for when this will end. But in fact, college, as everyone comes to understand, is only the beginning of the process of self-exploration, rather than the end. Though in the middle of this transition, I have yet to come to terms with that reality. In fact, I kept going back to the same question: why does the concept of understanding who you are, something that is typically celebrated, feel like such a burden to me?

            While I have yet to find a direct answer to this question, a reading assigned to me in my philosophy class seems to provide some clarity.

The text in reference is called “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” by Louis Althusser, a prominent phenomenologist. In it, he focuses on the concept of ideologies, specifically, how they are defined, what forms they take, and, most significantly, what impacts they have on individuals. In short, Althusser defines ideologies as systems of belief. They are not just simple thoughts but also existent in practices, rituals, and actions. But the part that stuck out to me was his interpretation of how ideologies impact the individuals. According to Althusser, ideologies interpellate or hail individuals, turning them into subjects. The “interpellation” in this sense is a way to define the fact that the ideologies you interact with aren’t derived by you. Rather, they are concepts applied onto you which you must either accept or question.  No longer are you an individual. Ideologies make you a consumer, a daughter, a student — all in all an ideological subject. In understanding that role,you must confront the belief systems that it stems from; it is at that point where understanding the self becomes not only complex but burdensome.

When you learn that who you are may be shaped by the beliefs imposed on you by apparatuses or institutions, it initially may be hard to fathom. After spending a lifetime in such conditions, it’s impossible to imagine yourself separate from those influences. I struggled with the same question in class. Where does one stop being a subject and start existing as an individual? Sadly, the answer I received spoke to the impossibility of ending one’s subjectivity. The fact of the matter is that you will always live in a society in which ideologies and beliefs are imposed upon you. As such, you will always be a subject. You’re stuck in a place where you are forced to evaluate the conditions of your existence whilst being powerless to change them. The weight of that reality is burdensome, and I believe one has a similar experience when trying to understand themselves as well. In understanding who you are, you also end up in situations where nothing you do will change who you are. It’s troubling, and at times, it feels like understanding the self isn’t as admirable of a goal as those around you insist it is.

Without a doubt, self-reflection is important. However, it’s also often difficult, uncomfortable, and dispiriting. In reading Althusser, I got some clarity as to why I felt that way. This is not a sign to stop trying to discover who you are.  Reflection is an act that is needed no matter how uncomfortable or difficult it makes you feel. It is essential in understanding our relationships with others and identifying whether the ideas we endorse are those that we truly believe in. But perhaps phenomenology and evaluating the extent at which other people’s ideologies have on one’s development as an individual can help some cope with the difficulties that form in trying to understand one’s self.

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