As a movement and a method, as a "first philosophy," phenomenology owes its life to Edmund Husserl (1859–1938), a German-Czech (Moravian) philosopher who started out as a mathematician in the late nineteenth century and wrote a book on the philosophy of mathematics, Philosophie der Arithmetik (1891; The Philosophy of Arithmetic). His view was that there was a strict empiricism, but on being shown (by the great German logician Gottlob Frege) that such an analysis could not possibly succeed, Husserl shifted his ground and started to defend the idea that the truths of arithmetic had a kind of necessity that could not be accounted for by empiricism. Thus, one of the main themes of his next book, Logische Untersuchungen (1913, 1921; The Logical Investigations), was a protracted argument against "psychologism," the thesis that truth is dependent on the human mind. Rather, Husserl argues that necessary truths are not reducible to our psychology. Phenomenology was Husserl's continuing and continuously revised effort to develop a method for grounding necessary truth.
Given Husserl's beginnings in the rigorous field of mathematics, one must appreciate the temperament that he brought to his new discipline. By the end of the nineteenth century, a new perspectivism (or some would say a relativism) had come into philosophy. Friedrich Nietzsche, in particular, had argued that all knowledge is perspectival and that philosophy could not be reduced to a single perspective, that philosophy might be relative to a people, or to our particular species, or even to individual psychology. Husserl's contemporary Wilhelm Dilthey defended a milder but similar thesis, and the "sociology of knowledge" was just beginning its ascension. Against any such relativism, Husserl insisted on philosophy as a singular, rigorous science, and his phenomenology was to provide the key.
It is often debated whether phenomenology is a philosophy or a method, but it is both. As a "first philosophy," without presuppositions, it lays the basis for all further philosophical and scientific investigations. Husserl defines phenomenology as the scientific study of the essential structures of consciousness. By describing those structures, Husserl promises us, we can find certainty, which philosophy has always sought. To do that, Husserl describes a method—or rather, a series of continuously revised methods—for taking up a peculiarly phenomenological standpoint, "bracketing out" everything that is not essential, thereby understanding the basic rules or constitutive processes through which consciousness does its work of knowing the world.
The central doctrine of Husserl's phenomenology is the thesis that consciousness is intentional, a doctrine that is borrowed from Franz Brentano. That is, every act of consciousness is directed at some object or other, perhaps a material object, perhaps an "ideal" object—as in mathematics. Thus, the phenomenologist can distinguish and describe the nature of the intentional acts of consciousness and the intentional objects of consciousness, which are defined through the content of consciousness. It is important to note that one can describe the content of consciousness and, accordingly, the object of consciousness without any particular commitment to the actuality or existence of that object. Thus, one can describe the content of a dream in much the same terms that one describes the view from a window or a scene from a novel.
In Ideas: A General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology (1931), Husserl distinguishes between the natural standpoint and the phenomenological standpoint. The former is our ordinary everyday viewpoint and the ordinary stance of the natural sciences, describing things and states-of-affairs. The latter is the special viewpoint achieved by the phenomenologist as he or she focuses not on things but on our consciousness of things. (This is sometimes confused by the fact that Husserl insists that the phenomenologist pay attention to "the things themselves," by which he means the phenomena, or our conscious ideas of things, not natural objects.) One arrives at the phenomenological standpoint by way of a series of phenomenological "reductions," which eliminate certain aspects of our experience from consideration. Husserl formulates several of these, and their nature shifts throughout his career, but two of them deserve special mention. The first and best-known is the epoché or "suspension" that he describes in Ideas, in which the phenomenologist "brackets" all questions of truth or reality and simply describes the contents of consciousness. (The word is borrowed from both the early Skeptics and René Descartes.) The second reduction (or set of reductions) eliminates the merely empirical content of consciousness and focuses instead on the essential features, the meanings of consciousness. Thus Husserl (like Kant) defends a notion of "intuition" that differs from and is more specialized than the ordinary notion of "experience." We have intuitions that are eidetic, meaning that we recognize meanings and necessary truths in them, and not merely the contingent things of the natural world.
In his early work, including Ideas, Husserl defends a strong realist position—that is, the things that are perceived by consciousness are assumed to be not only objects of consciousness but also the things themselves. A decade or so later, Husserl made a shift in his emphasis from the intentionality of the objects to the nature of consciousness as such. His phenomenology became increasingly and self-consciously Cartesian, as his philosophy moved to the study of the ego and its essential structures. In 1931 Husserl was invited to lecture at the Sorbonne in Paris, and on the basis of those lectures published his Cartesianische Meditationen (1938; Cartesian Meditations, 1960). (The Paris Lectures were also published some years later.) He argues there that "the monadically concrete ego includes the whole of actual and potential conscious life" and "the phenomenology of this self-constitution coincides with phenomenology as a whole (including objects)" (Cartesian Meditations, 68, para. 33). These statements suggest the strong idealist tendency in his later philosophy.
As in the 1930s, Husserl again reinvented phenomenology, this time with a shift toward the practical, or what some might call the more "existential" dimension of human knowledge. Warning of a "crisis" in European civilization based on rampant relativism and irrationalism (an alarm that the logical positivists were raising about the same time in Vienna), Husserl published his Krisis der Europäischen Wissenschaften (1937; Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology). In Crisis, the focus turned to the "lifeworld" and the nature of social existence, topics that played little role in his earlier investigations of the philosophy of arithmetic and the nature of individual consciousness but would come to play a much greater role in the "existential" phenomenology that would follow. But it is much to Husserl's credit that he continued to see the inadequacies of his own method and correct them, in ever-new efforts to get phenomenology right.
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