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The term “phenomenology,” as it is used by Edmund Husserl and his disciples, designates first of all a principle of philosophical and scientific method. The usual method of natural science proceeds from a body of accepted truth and seeks to extend its conquest of the unknown by putting questions to...

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The term “phenomenology,” as it is used by Edmund Husserl and his disciples, designates first of all a principle of philosophical and scientific method. The usual method of natural science proceeds from a body of accepted truth and seeks to extend its conquest of the unknown by putting questions to nature and compelling it to answer. The phenomenological method adopts a softer approach. Setting aside all presuppositions and suppressing hypotheses, it seeks to devise techniques of observation, description, and classification that will permit it to disclose structures and connections in nature that do not yield to experimental techniques. It has been widely fruitful in psychology and the social sciences, as well as in epistemology and value theory.

Husserl, in his Logische Untersuchungen (1900-1901; Logical Investigations, 1970, 2 volumes), did much to advance general phenomenological studies. However, he had in view a specifically philosophical application of the technique that many of his associates did not completely grasp or failed to share. Ideas was written with a view to clearing up the distinction between phenomenological psychology, which he regarded as a legitimate but secondary science, and phenomenological philosophy, which, he was prepared to maintain, is the foundation of all science. When a sociologist or psychologist conducts a phenomenological investigation, he or she puts aside all the usual theories and assumptions that have governed research in that field, but he or she cannot shed all presuppositions (such as, for example, the belief in the existence of the external world, the constancy of nature). As Greek philosopher Plato saw, every science must proceed upon some assumptions—except philosophy. To fulfill its promise, the phenomenological approach must bring one at last to an absolutely presuppositionless science. Pure phenomenology, or phenomenological philosophy, is, in Husserl’s opinion, precisely that. It has long been the aspiration of philosophers to make their science an absolute one, one that rids itself of all presuppositions and stands with open countenance before pure Being. Husserl stands in this tradition.

Phenomenology is not to be confused with “phenomenalism,” a name sometimes given to extreme forms of empiricism, such as that of philosopher Ernst Mach, which maintains that nothing is real except sense-data. In fact, this is one of the misconceptions that phenomenology is designed to overcome. If the empiricists are right, the unity and order which one is accustomed to find in the world are not given in experience but put there by the activity of the mind. Genetic psychology, which seeks to explain the origin of various mental habits and responses, would therefore hold the key to understanding one’s whole view of the world. A good example is philosopher John Stuart Mill, who in his A System of Logic (1843) undertook to explain the force of syllogistic reasoning in terms of associationist psychology. Other positivists and pragmatists have attempted to create a psychological theory of knowledge and of valuation. Husserl argued, however, that the empiricists were wrong, that they did not come to their conviction about the absence of order and intelligibility in the pure data of experience by examining what is given there, but had it as an Idol of the Theater (to use philosopher Francis Bacon’s term). It follows that they have misconceived the task of psychology in supposing that it can discover in the mind laws that give rise to the meaning of the world and that it is incumbent upon one to set about developing new accounts of logic, knowledge theory, aesthetics, and ethics that stand on their own evidence. In place of psychologism (a misconceived psychology or science of the soul), what is needed, if justice is to be done to experience, is phenomenology (a science of phenomena, or appearances).

Husserl takes his place, then, in the forefront of those twentieth century philosophers who have sought to reaffirm the autonomy of various philosophical disciplines against psychology. He was equally concerned to turn back the tide of the popular-scientific view of the world that he called naturalism. The particular sciences, by nature, are dogmatic. That is to say, they proceed without examining the conditions under which knowledge is possible. This is not to be held against them. However, when anyone attempts to build a natural philosophy on the findings of the sciences, this uncritical procedure opens the way to skepticism because the categories in terms of which one grasps natural events are unsuited to take account of conscious events, including the pursuit of scientific truth. It seems innocent enough to explain consciousness in terms of natural causes until one recollects that matter and the laws that govern its behavior are themselves part of experience. This, according to Husserl, is the point at which philosophers must step in. Their primary task, in fact, will be to distinguish within experience the part that experiences from the part that is experienced.

Suspending Belief

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There are many overtones of the French philosopher René Descartes in Husserl’s writings. Descartes, in order to escape from the ambiguities and uncertainties of ordinary, natural experience, developed a method of doubting. By bringing under question the whole phenomenal world, he laid bare a world of logical forms that he could not doubt. Husserl adopts a similar method. He talks of “suspending” natural beliefs, including the fundamental conviction of every healthy mind that there is a world “out there,” that there are other selves, and so on. People are asked to “alter” this natural standpoint, to “disconnect” their beliefs about causation and motion, to “put them out of action.” This is, of course, only a methodological procedure, in order to help people overcome their animal bias and make it possible for them to take a coolly intellectual view of things. Greek philosophy used the term epoch to indicate the suspense of judgment. Husserl presses this term into his service.

To make his meaning clear, Husserl uses the example of looking with pleasure into a garden where an apple tree is blossoming. From the natural standpoint, the tree is something that has transcendent reality in space and time, and the joy of perceiving it has reality in the psyche of a human being. However, Descartes reminds one that perceptions are sometimes hallucinations. One passes, therefore, from the natural to the phenomenological standpoint, bracketing the claims of both the knower and the known to natural being. This leaves one with “a nexus of exotic experiences of perception and pleasure valuation.” One can now speak of the content and structure of the situation without any reference to external existence. Nothing is really taken away from the experience; it is all there in a new manner. One can now speak of “tree,” “plant,” “material thing,” “blossoming,” “white,” “sweet,” and so forth and be sure that one is talking about only things that belong to the essence of our experience. Similarly, at the opposite pole, one can distinguish “perceiving,” “attending,” “enjoying,” and other ego acts. These each have their special characters and repay analysis.

Acts and Objects

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Husserl was at one time a student of philosopher Franz Brentano, who had said that what distinguishes mental acts from nonmental acts is that the former invariably refer to something other than themselves. Drawing from the Scholastics, he said that these acts are “intentional.” Husserl makes constant use of this discovery. To designate the ego acts, which are not limited to cognition but also include various attitudes such as doubting and supposing as well as volitions and feelings, he uses the Greek word noesis (literally, a perceiving). To designate the corresponding objects, for instance, “tree,” “fruitful,” and “charming,” he uses the corresponding word noema (literally, that which is perceived).

An important part of the analysis of consciousness consists in tracing the relation between these. In each case, the noesis is real and fundamental, but noema is dependent and, strictly speaking, unreal. In the example, “the perceiving of the tree” is actual and constitutive of “the tree perceived.” However, conversely, though it does not have reality, noema has being, which is lacking to noesis: That is, noesis is composed entirely of essences, which are eternally what they are and stand in necessary or a priori relations with each other. The same thing is true of volition and other modes. “The valuing of the tree” is a noesis. It has the same reality as “the perceiving of the tree.” Correspondingly, “the value of the tree” is a noema. It does not have reality, but it has the same kind of essential being as the structure and properties that make up the object of cognition. The value characters likewise take their place in an a priori system together with other values.

As long as one’s interest is directed primarily toward the life of the mind, one will be chiefly interested in exploring the various noeses. Husserl’s delineation of these is subtle and perceptive and goes a long way toward persuading the reader of the necessity of this descriptive groundwork, although, as is sometimes true of the drawings of a microscopist, one may have difficulty in recognizing in it the familiar features of the mind. His account of “meaning,” for example, should be studied by those who are interested in semantics, and his analysis of “sentiment” and “volition” provides an instructive approach to the question of the relation between emotions and values. One thing is common to all noeses, according to Husserl: All are at bottom thetic, or postulational. Husserl speaks of them as doxa (Plato’s word for “opinion”). This does not imply that some noeses are not characterized by “certainty,” just as others are characterized by a “sense of likelihood” or “doubt.” However, in any case, this certainty is what is commonly called a “moral certainty.” The conviction is a mode of the “perceiving” rather than a function of anything lying in the “perceived.”

However, in the present work, Husserl does not consider mental acts per se. He studies them because they provide the key to the various grades and types of objects that make up the noemata. Corresponding to “perception,” there is the realm of “colors,” “shapes,” and “sizes”; and corresponding to “perceptual enjoyment,” there are “dainty” pink and “gloriously” scented. These qualities owe their actuality in consciousness to the noeses, but they are part of an order of being that is absolute and independent. Husserl calls all such absolute forms or essences Eideia, to avoid the ambiguities of such words as ideas and essences. They are eternal possibilities, each perfectly definite and distinct from every other but also linked with every other in a system of eternal relations. Thus, “pink,” “white,” and “green” are species under the genus “color”; and “color” itself stands in a hierarchy of perceptual “qualities.” A similar hierarchical structure embraces the noema of value.

Universal Relations

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Husserl, who began his philosophical studies as a logician, was preeminently interested in the grammar of meaning. He claims that, on a very abstract level, all noema exemplify universal relations that can be formulated in a Mathesis Universalis such as Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz conceived. However, the theorizing logician does not do justice to the wealth of formal relations that lie before the phenomenologist:Its field is the analysis of the a priori shown forth in immediate intuition, the fixing of immediately transparent essence and essential connexions and their descriptive cognition in the systematic union of all strata in pure transcendental consciousness.

It begins by distinguishing various regional ontologies, of which the “formal region” exploited by the logician is only one. “Material regions” are numerous.

The region of the physical thing will serve as an example. The question presents itself as follows: How are we to describe systematically the noeses and noemata that belong to the unity of the intuitionally presenting thing-consciousness? Leaving aside the noetic factor, the problem is to analyze the essential connections by which “appearances” present themselves as “one and the same thing.” The analysis discloses that a mere res extensa is conceivable apart from the idea of a res materialis and a res temporalis. However, as a matter of fact, a thing as presented to people involves all three of these. Hence, there are strata and formations constituting the thing. Each of these unities must be analyzed in turn. The problem of “presentation in space” must here be faced. Although, according to Husserl, its meaning has never yet been completely grasped, it now appears in clear light—namely, by “the phenomenological analysis of the essential nature of all the noematic (and noetic) phenomena, wherein space exhibits itself intuitionally and as the unity of appearances.”

In the present volume, as is proper in an introduction, Husserl is able only to indicate the direction that the investigation must take. One must look to his other works and those of his disciples to see the analyses carried out in detail. Although Husserl worked chiefly in the field of epistemology, his disciples carried the method into axiology and philosophical anthropology (Max Scheler), aesthetics (Theodor Lipps), sociology (Karl Mannheim), comparative religion (Rudolph Otto), and ethics (Nicolai Hartmann), not to mention the “existentialism” of Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre. For the ordinary reader, these developments are probably more interesting and fruitful than is pure phenomenology.

Husserl’s significance as a philosopher is that, like philosophers René Descartes and Immanuel Kant, he appeared at a time when the foundations of science were themselves threatened, and irrationalism, skepticism, and nihilism threatened the very nerve of Western civilization. He sought to revive knowledge, to make possible once again a rational view of the world and of the human enterprise. He was conscious of being the continuer of a long tradition and, with some reluctance, admitted to falling under the classification of idealist. He most resembles Kant, and his work can be summed up as the search for the transcendental conditions that make “meaning” (scientific, ethical, aesthetic, religious) possible.


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Additional Reading

Dreyfus, Hubert L., ed. Husserl and Cognitive Science. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1982. An attempt to build bridges between Edmund Husserl and current developments in analytic philosophy, philosophy of language, and cognitive psychology. The text focuses on Husserl’s notion of intentionality as the key to such dialogue.

Farber, Marvin. The Foundation of Phenomenology: Edmund Husserl and the Quest for a Rigorous Science of Philosophy. 3d ed. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1968. A still unrivaled comprehensive and clear explanation of Husserl’s life work.

Hopkins, Burt C., ed. Husserl in Contemporary Context: Prospects and Projects for Phenomenology. Boston: Kluwer, 1997. Examination of Husserl’s thought and its contribution to phenomenology.

Kockelmans, Joseph. Edmund Husserl’s Phenomenology. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1994. Kockelmans provides an overview of the principal themes of Husserl’s thought that is both faithful and clear. He focuses especially on Husserl’s own summary of phenomenology in his article for the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Landgrebe, Ludwig. The Phenomenology of Edmund Husserl. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1981. As one of Husserl’s closest coworkers, Landgrebe understood that Husserl’s phenomenology was a process of continually inquiring into its own foundations, radicalizing itself by this process of a never-ending return to its origins. In this text, Landgrebe continues that Husserlian dialogue, taking several of Husserl’s basic themes and continuing that work of reflection.

Mensch, James R. After Modernity: Husserlian Reflections on a Philosophical Tradition. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996. A lucid examination of Husserl’s thoughts.

Mohanty, J. Edmund Husserl’s Theory of Meaning. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1964. This remains the clearest summary of Husserl’s ideas about meaning from his Logical Investigations. Mohanty looks at Husserl’s thought in the light of subsequent developments while being very faithful in his presentation of Husserl’s own ideas.

Natanson, Maurice. Edmund Husserl: Philosopher of Infinite Tasks. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1973. A very lucid introduction to Husserl’s thought, examining it fully in the light of his later developments of the concepts of the life-world and transcendental subjectivity. Striking illustrations make difficult points remarkably clear.

Ricur, Paul. Husserl: An Analysis of His Phenomenology. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1967. Ricur presents a perceptive yet critical view of Husserl’s thought, especially by examining the texts Ideas and Cartesian Meditations. Ricur’s commentary, while very fair, also anticipates his own development of a more existential and hermeneutical phenomenology.

Sallis, John, ed. Husserl and Contemporary Thought. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1983. Sallis assembled a most cogent group of essays. Prominent Husserl scholars examine Husserl’s work in the light of recent philosophical argumentation.

Sokolowski, Robert. Husserlian Meditations. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1974. This exposition and commentary on Husserl’s thought is wide-ranging, systematic, and remarkably clear. It focuses particularly on meaning and truth, or “how words present things.”

Steinbock, Anthony. Home and Beyond: Generative Phenomenology After Husserl. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1995. Steinbock demonstrates the value of Husserl’s thought by applying Husserlian phenomenology in an original study of the social world and the concrete matters of life and how to live it. In doing so, he aptly refutes critiques of Husserl’s thought as too formalistic or abstract.

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