The Czech mathematician Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) published his first book in 1900. The philosophical context of the past century had generated an impasse between realists who, in epistemology, argued for the independence of the 'object', the known, and idealists who emphasised the subject, the knower. Husserl's synthesis of these opposing viewpoints was phenomenology, a pure description of 'what is'.
"Anyone who seriously intends to become a philosopher must "once in his life" withdraw into himself and attempt to build anew all the sciences that, up to then, he has been accepting."
Phenomenology describes experiences and objects directly, avoiding metaphysical speculation. Husserl described it as a science of consciousness, not empirical things. His aim was to provide a solid basis for philosophy and he used the Cartesian method of scepticism to achieve this. He was at first a convinced empiricist and was influenced by the writings of John Stuart Mill.
However the author disagreed with early empiricist like Locke, Berkley and Hume whom, he believed, had presuppositions on how experience was conceived. They divided experience into concepts such as 'ideas' and 'impressions' which, Husserl argued, laid an artificial layer on consciousness that obfuscated the search for useful knowledge. He preferred to disregard ideas about the outside world and relate conscious phenomena with natural processes within ourselves.
Husserl is considered within the “Continental” tradition of mainly German and French philosophers such as Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Gadamer, Levinas or Derrida, who insist on a historical, psychological, and sociological approach to philosophy, rather than the scientific emphasis of the later “Analytic” school.
Phenomenology began as a critique of psychologism and naturalism:
Naturalism is the concept that Nature can be analysed through the hard sciences. However, Husserl argued that consciousness must be studied differently from Nature. He rejected the scientific analytical procedure of induction for consciousness and instead researched through the study of particular examples, bypassing theoretical presuppositions. He then asked what was essential and necessary to these experiences.
Psychologism argues that logic is a part of psychology and that psychological facts, laws, or entities are central in explaining certain non-psychological facts, laws, or entities. Husserl disagrees by demonstrating that psychologism would result in the relativity of logical laws since empirical rules are not universally valid.
Husserl's primary motivation was to find a philosophical justification for the knowledge of mathematics which he believed to be objective. (It is noteworthy to remark that Pythagoras had proposed numbers as the essence of the Cosmos.)
He aimed at renewing philosophy through science by applying "transcendental phenomenology", a description of meaning stripped of all theoretical and speculative conceptions. His objective is phenomenological reduction: going "back to the things themselves". It is a description of being as being. Transcendental phenomenology can be viewed as a synthesis of the empiricism and rationalism through making empirical data a conscious activity.
The psychological approach of Nietzsche which stated that all perceptions of phenomenon were based on a subjective perspective did not completely convince Husserl. Neither did the historical viewpoint of Hegel. He thus designed his own epistemology based on the Kantian concept of human interaction with phenomena.
Husserl thought that consciousness could be evaluated objectively through a series of concepts connected to the perception of phenomena. He argued that consciousness always involves 'intentionality', that is, awareness of something. He contended that the study of consciousness itself was the path to the evaluation of human knowledge.
The author did not distinguish between the awareness of a real or an imagined object since he affirmed that the mind could not perceive the form which transcended consciousness. Awareness is immediate to experience and he rejects any transcendence of consciousness. (Transcendental consciousness in Husserl is the residue that remains after considering everything which is not experienced based. It is not a phenomenon, but a type of pure consciousness.)
Logical Investigations was published in two volumes (1900-1901). Volume 1, Prolegomena to Pure Logic is a critical appraisal of psychologist theory. Volume 2 Investigations in Phenomenology and Knowledge investigates expression and meaning, universals, the formal ontology of parts and wholes, the “syntactical” and mereological structure of meaning, the nature and structure of intentionality together with the interrelation of truth, intuition and cognition.
Husserl's Logical Investigations presents phenomenology as the scientific study of the structure of internal experiences and intentional objects. It also investigates the basic relationships between them. Its aim is to clarify pure logic, including mathematics. His approach begins with logic as a technology and he works from there to achieve a scientific theory based on formal logic. His final aim is:
"a universal theory of formal deductive systems."
The author proposes a method called eidictic variation consisting in the comparison of several intentional objects in order to underline a common essence and study its possibilities. Another approach of the method is mereology, the theory of wholes and parts. It distinguishes between independent and non-independent aspects of intentional objects.
Phenomenology for Husserl was the attempt to comprehend human experience by offering an account of phenomena as they appear to our consciousness of subjective experience. It deals with the nature and structure of that experience.
"To begin with, we put the proposition: pure phenomenology is the science of pure consciousness."
The author's pure phenomenology (contrasted with his followers' existential phenomenology), contends that people generally lead their lives using a 'natural attitude', the belief that their reality can be separated from their experience of it. Husserl makes the claim that with a 'phenomenological attitude', that is by suspending (bracketing) their natural attitude they will realise that this separation does not lead to true knowledge. This suspension, also called epoche, allows humans to investigate their own consciousness of experience. This research which involves bracketing, recording and identifying is named pheomenological reduction. Its aim is to lead back to the source of meaning and existence of pure experience. However, our interpretation of phenomena must take into account that these objects possess meaningful features which can offer contradiction or confirmation of our interpretations.
This is a technique for investigating the essence of the consciousness of an experience. It distinguishes the essential components of a phenomenon compared to other experiences. Experience of Time has unique characteristics, for example. The technique has two moments:
- reduction to immanence: the suspension of the natural attitude and beliefs in immaterial phenomena that make an experience possible such as feelings, thoughts, experiences and memories.
- movement from fact to essence: this is a shift from considering things not as realities but idealities, that is possibilities, not actualities. Objects pass from materiality to essences: meanings, categories, ideal types, and laws. It is a change from perception to intuition. In perception a person is conscious of perceiving; intuition is an insight into the nature and meaning of an experience.
To achieve the moment of intuition Husserl employs imaginary variation. In the example of the question 'what is a table?' the perceiver would describe the table's shape and use: 'A table is made of wood' then ask negative questions about its attributes of shape and use: 'Would it still be a table if it is not made of wood?'
Consciousness is intentional which means that it us an act about something. However, awareness is secondary to experience since this relates not to itself but to phenomena in the world.
All forms of perception, according to Husserl, presuppose an intentional structure of consciousness, and it is in this intentional structure that the primordial link between consciousness and the world is to be sought.
Intentionality refers to two things: consciousness is a behaviour, an activity; it is always referring to something. In the example of the table the activity is thinking about it and the reference is to the table as an object (noema). Awareness is a dynamic referential process.
Mereology is the logic of the relationship of parts to wholes. Parts are elements such as colour, shape and extension; the whole is the intentional object. However, he makes a further distinction between dependent and independent parts. He gives the example of a head which can be shown apart from the whole person, whereas a colour or form needs a substrate in order to be noticed. Colour cannot be independent.
Husserl concludes that this analysis tells us something about our human experience. Colour, extension and shape are necessary to our experience of reality and so shed light on metaphysical facts about our physical experience. In this sense phenomenology can synthesise the physical and metaphysical.
Mereology also responds to Kant's challenge to produce a single synthetic proposition belonging to metaphysics which would prove a priori dogmatically. Husserl has shown that our experience in parts and wholes presents consistent regularities akin to laws.
Husserl’s main goal in phenomenology was to establish ways of studying the subjective experience of consciousness. He included reason as well as subjective and relational elements in his quest. Ironically it is intersubjectivity that determines the concept of objectivity since this is established through agreement among subjective minds.
"If all consciousness is subject to essential laws in a manner similar to that in which spatial reality is subject to mathematical laws, then these essential laws will be of most fertile significance in investigating facts of the conscious life of human and brute animals."
Husserl conceived consciousness as intentionality. This offered an alternative view to the philosophical tradition which regarded consciousness as a container of ideas. The awareness concepts most pursued by Husserl's followers are time-consciousness, self-awareness and other-awareness.
- Time-consciousness focuses on the concept of an extended present which includes retentions (the past) and protentions (the future). However these latter are not intentional acts. On experiencing an object through the senses the individual has recourse to part experiences (retentions) and anticipations (protentions) to furnish the experience.
Husserl's example is music. On hearing a melody we do not experience it note by note, but rather consciousness retains a sense of the previous note and anticipates the next sound. This constitues the perception of melodies. Watching a film shown at 24 frames per second may be another example of retention and protention. It is the structure of consciousness which permits this temporal presentation.
Time-consciouness has three levels in Husserl: intentional experiences (non-intentional contents); experienced objects (intentional contents); the fundamental level of flow of time-constituting consciousness.
For Husserl, the self ("the monad"), is the totality of life experiences. Primary self-awareness is pre-reflective which corresponds to the absolute flow of time-consciousness.
If you describe a pain then that is reflective self-awareness. Pre-reflective self-consciouness is an awareness you have before describing the pain and is an implicit form of awareness. Husserl maintains that consciousness always has a self-appearance.