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,...

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Suspending Belief

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

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”...

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Universal Relations

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...

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

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