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Husserl and Phenomenology

In looking at Idealism, we have so far considered ways in which philosophers have proposed ontological theories based on the limitations of conscious experience of sensory information. Husserl’s concern was not with theories about the nature of what we consciously perceive or the cause of such perceptions but with how we perceive them. In this, he makes use of an idea reintroduced from scholastic philosophy by Brentano (a psychologist and philosopher at the University of Vienna, onetime Roman Catholic priest, and mentor of Husserl) – the idea of intentionality. This is the observation that, in being conscious, we are conscious of something.
Husserl’s Phenomenology was thus a study of the structures of consciousness or experience. But it was not an objective study; instead it was a systematic study from a first-person, or subjective, point of view. This distinguishes it categorically from the other main fields of philosophy – ontology, epistemology, logic, and ethics. It is essentially a study of phenomena (hence the name), things as they appear in our experience, or what it is like to experience things. For these reasons, it cannot be an objective study.

Phenomenology makes use of the method of epoché, which is a process intended to block biases and preconceived notions in the attempt to explain phenomena and which helps the phenomenologist to understand a phenomenon in terms of its own inherent system or mechanism of meaning. There are many different ways in which an object can be constituted for consciousness – ways in which a phenomenon can be about an object. For example, the aboutness can be a perception, a judgement, an emotion, a memory.

Husserl spent a lot of effort on the phenomenology of time. He considered that there were three types of time:

  • 1. Worldly, or objective time (our everyday notion of time),
  • 2. Personal, or subjective time,
  • 3. Our consciousness of internal time.

We consider objective time to be a series of discrete, atomistic, “nows” but this conception cannot explain how consciousness experiences a temporal object. We experience temporal objects, e.g. a melody or a sentence, as single things despite the fact that we experience them as successions of very thin “nows”; if, at any moment, all we are experiencing is a “now”, how do we synthesize the “nows” into the sentence or the melody? Husserl’s enquiry addresses this problem as number 3 in our list. Number 2 is not of interest in Husserl’s enquiry although an explanation of why the years go by at ever increasing speed as we get older, or why we experience time dilation when faced with immediate peril would be of general interest to the rest of us.

Husserl concludes that, in order to synthesize the nows, our consciousness must have a ‘width’; indeed, it must have a sense of the past and the future to begin with. He argues that consciousness has a living present – it extends to retain past moments and capture future ones. His reasoning becomes increasingly abstruse from here on and I have too little space in these brief notes to properly come to terms with it.

Husserl was the first, but certainly not the last, phenomenologist. Heidegger (his pupil) was soon to follow with his own version and not too far behind were the French existentialists Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty with theirs. Other philosophers, such as Scheler, Ricoeur, and Lévinas, were also influenced.

There is a considerable amount of information on the internet and I would especially recommend The Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy for a detailed and somewhat technical treatment of phenomenology. As usual though, I would like you to see what you can find on the internet and come to the next meeting with questions and information.
John Gibbs