Trying to get an overview of Phenomenology

July 31, 2013 — Leave a comment

Phenomenology is typically said to be:

a return to things in themselves
a descriptive method (not explanatory)
centered on the use of intuition
the study of appearances or ways of appearing
the study of the structures of consciousness
based on a method of reduction
opposed to naturalism (viewing everything in scientific terms)

Existentialism is typically said to be:

concerned with concrete/individual subjects
deny that there is a fixed human nature (‘existence prior to essence’)
emphasize personal freedom and responsibility
consider the meaningfulness of human life
be concerned with individuality and self-fulfillment (as opposed to mass identity)
highlight the transformative power of certain kinds of subjective experiences/emotions (anxiety/nausea) or extreme situations
be ‘anticartesian’

These terms are not particularly illuminating and it seems evident that no two philosophers would discuss any of these labels in the same way. Never-the-less, a starting point for building a map needs to come together. Something to attempt as I go on to read the various Phenomenologists (Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty) is to map out the similarities and differences between them; searching for connections. What’s the connection between Phenomenology and Existentialism??

In his Introduction to the Second Volume of the First Edition of his Logische Untersuchungen (Logical Investigations 1900 – 1901) Husserl speaks of “the phenomenology of the experiences of thinking and knowing”. He is discussing the need for a wide-ranging theory of knowledge. Husserl is treating ‘experience’ in a complex and new way:

“This phenomenology, like the more inclusive pure phenomenology of experiences in general, has, as its exclusive concern, experiences intuitively seizable and analysable in the pure generality of their essence, not experiences empirically perceived and treated as real facts, as experiences of human or animal experients in the phenomenal world that we posit as an empirical fact. This phenomenology must bring to pure expression, must describe in terms of their essential concepts and their governing formulae of essence, the essences which directly make themselves known in intuition, and the connections which have their roots purely in such essences. Each such statement of essence is an a priori statement in the highest sense of the word.”

Dermot Moran describes this project as an ‘a priori transcendental science of pure consciousness”. (p2) Husserl argues for a ‘reduction’ wherein the subject suspends or brackets the everyday natural attitude and all intentional acts which assume the existence of the world. The practitioner is led back into the domain of pure transcendental subjectivity. Importantly, this has to be more than a psychology of consciousness which suggests consciousness as a ‘tag end’ of the world. The philosophical practice has to stem from consciousness unassuming of the real world. Dermot Moran frames phenomenology as a thoroughly modernist outlook as it has its origins in the newly emerged science of psychology (Franz Brentano).

So to study experiences in such a pure form with regards to the experiencer, phenomenology’s first step is to avoid in advance all misconstructions and impostions (relgious, cultural traditions – language as with Gadamer, time as with Heidegger). Phenomenology aims at gaining perspective over the history of philosophical questions. Husserl and Heidegger believed that the real philosophical issue in the traditional skeptical worry about the existence of the external world was not the need to find rational grounds to justify our natural belief in this world, but rather to explain how this kind of worry could have arisen in the first place. (p4)

“But experience is not an opening through which a world, existing prior to all experience, shines into a room of consciousness; it is not a mere taking of something alien to consciousness into consciousness… Experience is the performance in which for me, the experiencer, experienced being “is there”, and is there as what it is, with the whole content and the mode of being that experience itself, by the performance going on in its intentionality, attributes to it.” (Husserl, Formal and Transcendental Logic)

This quotation comes close to painting a picture of what Husserl seeks to posit as experience and consciousness and the relationship between the two terms, but still manages to be elusive. He suggests that there is a directional element to conceptualizing phenomena: that is, we do not consider experience as information from the pre-existing world entering into a pre-existing consciousness. This much is OK. More clarity is needed on experience as ‘being there’ and what performance actually means.

(Introduction to Phenomenology: Dermot Moran Routledge pp 1 – 6)


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