Husserl Phenomenology


Husserl was a German Jewish philosopher. Being Jewish put him at a disadvantage due to the times and the place. After gaining his Ph.D in mathematics at Berlin university, he lectured at the universities of Göttingen and Freiburg. The Nazis had him relocated in favor of his previous apprentice, Heidegger. Husserl believed that the political and social crisis followed from an intellectual crisis. Modern science was unsuccessful to provide its promised answers.

Husserl wanted to produce a philosophy that would offer a firm establishment of certain understanding upon which all other sciences would rest. His phenomenology was to be a philosophy of drastic rejuvenation through which mankind would learn to see the world anew. All prejudices would be eliminated; all simplistic answers to fundamental questions would be balanced, all taken for granted attitudes abandoned. The result - a "Europe founded on truth".
"Only one need absorbs me: I must win clarity else I cannot live; I cannot bear life unless I can believe that I will achieve it."

(H. Spielberg "The Phenomenological Movement" Vol. 1 1865 p. 76 n.1, p. 82.) Husserl dedicated himself to a search for the very foundation of human knowledge. His first passion had been mathematics and he became gripped by a vision of a philosophy that provided the surefire certainty found in mathematics. He wanted to create a philosophy that was a "rigorous science". Yet his focus was not on the so-called "objective" truths of empirical science, but on the "subjective" process of human thinking; not on so-called "facts" but on "phenomena", things as they appear to the mind.

Edmund Husserl saw modern science in crisis. Its claims to objectivity failed to recognize the active role of consciousness in developing human understanding. He developed phenomenology, a methodology designed to examine the contents of one's own consciousness. The examination of pure phenomena is seen as a means to return to the fundaments of knowledge and how the world first appears to the consciousness. The focus is on the subjective process of thinking rather than on what others would consider the objective facts of empirical science.

His method of phenomenological reduction requires the suspension of all assumptions about the external causes and results of the contents of consciousness. The aim is to distinguish the essential nature of mental acts and thus the truths that are the sources of human knowledge. Thinking is always intentional, aimed at a specific object. But the difference between thinking and acting is that the "intentional object", what the mind is thinking about, need not be present. It may not even exist. The difference between mental acts and other acts is that the objects of mental acts may be "intentionally inexistent". This does not, however, mean they have no reality. The act of thinking gives them a meaning and significance; they become "objects of our consciousness". It is these objects of consciousness, phenomena, that are the focus of Husserl's philosophy.

Husserl saw modern science in crisis precisely because its claims to objectivity had failed to recognize the active role of consciousness in developing human understanding. Any theory of knowledge must be based on an understanding of the workings of the human consciousness. The natural sciences give the appearance of rational, objective knowledge. But the "natural attitude" of the scientific method fails to acknowledge the role of consciousness in constituting meaning. It denies the essential status of objects of consciousness as living intentional experiences.

"The mind and only the mind is a being in itself and for itself; it is autonomous and capable of being handled in a rational, genuinely and thoroughly scientific way... Thus the science of nature presupposes the science of the mind." ("Philosophy and the Crisis of European Man")

Phenomenology claims to be absolutely original and scientific in a genuine sense. It abandons the tentative notions that science mistakes for reality and the pseudo-scientific pretenses of naturalism. Husserl is not denying a legitimate role for natural science. He is simply arguing that its very legitimacy assumes a phenomenological investigation of the intentional origins of knowledge. A solid foundation for knowledge can only be secured by a meticulous method that returns to the intuitive evidence of the immediate experience of consciousness. Phenomenology is therefore a science of science.

Attempts by Franz Brentano to establish psychology as an empirical science inspired an interest in mental phenomena. It was Brentano who first stressed the "intentionality" of consciousness. Brentano realized that it was impossible to study behavior without recognizing that behavior constitutes acts of consciousness. It involved interaction between the subjective conscious self and the objective outside world. Empirical psychology, he concluded, must first seek to understand the subjective experience by way of intuition. Brentano appears to have had greater influence on the phenomenologists than on the world of experimental psychology.

Heidegger was at one time pupil of Husserl, a pupil who succeeded his master as professor at Freiburg University, not so much because of his philosophical genius but because of his political affiliation. Heidegger's commitment to National Socialism saw his promotion to rector of the university in 1933. Meanwhile, Husserl was subjected to harassment and his career inhibited because of his Jewish background.

The influence of both Husserl and Heidegger on existentialists like Sartre is undeniable. Later phenomenologists failed to follow Husserl's thinking in its entirety. They make the more modest claim to explore the many ways in which consciousness itself provides the structure and the feeling of being in the world. Still the existentialists' focus on the life-world of the conscious being finds its origins here. Husserl envisioned a process of exploring the intentionality of pure consciousness and hence producing universally valid knowledge free from corruption by individual and communal experiences and understanding. This would involve a number of stages.
• Bracketing - suspension of all empirical and metaphysical presuppositions
• Reduction - allowing a return to a presuppositionless world
• Free variation - imaginary variation of the reduced thing to a common variation or essence (eidos)
• Intuition - an awareness of the essence as it emerges passively from the overlap of the varying acts of intentionality
• Description - of the essential structures of of both the intended thing (noema) and the intending consciousness (noesis).
The descriptive phase includes all the stages and renders essential intuitions permanent and hence communicable to others in the universal pursuit of knowledge.

Phenomenology is in search of a "pure" or "reduced" object or process, its very essence. It seeks to strip individual objects of all that makes them particular, seeking the pure essence - what they share with other objects of the same sort. This requires putting to one side all beliefs characteristic of common sense and science, a process called "bracketing". Bracketing concentrates our awareness on the ways in which meanings appear to us as pure phenomena regardless of whether they exist as empirical entities outside of our consciousness. The mind is thus freed from the literal "reality" we normally take for granted and comes to know its own intentionality more intimately and more accurately.

From the outset, Husserl argued that the main purpose of phenomenology is a return to the fundaments of knowledge. Its aim is to relocate the primary point of contact between man and the world, to redirect philosophical attention to the primordial ways we perceive the world. Phenomenology works to recover the forgotten origins of scientific knowledge, to retrace a pre-objective intuition of "things themselves" in "their flesh and blood presence" in the "life-world". It asks us to rediscover the hidden “intentionalities” of consciousness, to examine their essential structures in a new manner without presuppositions.

Phenomenology places much importance on imagination and intuition. After bracketing, there occurs free variation where meaning unfolds in a free play of pure possibilities. In the unregulated horizon of our imagination, we can liberally vary or modify anything until an invariant structure is revealed. This is the essence of the thing intended. It emerges passively from the overlap of the multiple acts of our freely varying intentionality. In a single intuitive act of recognition we are taken back to the interface between consciousness and its intended object. In this way, phenomenology arranges to repeat the pre-reflective acts of our intentional experience in a reflective fashion.
Husserl's analysis focuses not just on the objects of consciousness but also on the acts of consciousness - perception, imagination, signification etc. which intend the object. The method culminates in a description of the essential structures of both the intended thing (noema) and intending consciousness (noesis), as these essences emerge from the free variation of imagination into the grasp of a united intuition. Through the process of phenomenological reduction, Husserl believed that one can also discover one's own "transcendental ego". This ego, as pure consciousness, is quite distinct from the "psychical self" that is of interest to psychology.
Husserl believed that his phenomenological method overcame the difficulties that Kant had identified in coming to know either "things-in-themselves" or the "transcendental self". By means of phenomenological reduction, Husserl believed that we could regain access to a presuppositionless world of transcendental immediacy where being becomes identical with its manifestation to consciousness. Being becomes reduced in a non-reductive sense of being retrieved and opened up to the meaning of being .

Husserl's analysis focuses not just on the objects of consciousness but also on the acts of consciousness - perception, imagination, signification etc. which intend the object. The method culminates in a description of the essential structures of both the intended thing (noema) and intending consciousness (noesis), as these essences emerge from the free variation of imagination into the grasp of a united intuition. Through the process of phenomenological reduction, Husserl believed that one can also discover one's own "transcendental ego". This ego, as pure consciousness, is quite distinct from the "psychical self" that is of interest to psychology.

Husserl believed that his phenomenological method overcame the difficulties that Kant had identified in coming to know either "things-in-themselves" or the "transcendental self". By means of phenomenological reduction, Husserl believed that we could regain access to a presuppositionless world of transcendental immediacy where being becomes identical with its manifestation to consciousness. Being becomes reduced in a non-reductive sense of being retrieved and opened up to the meaning of being.

Husserl was fixed that a new scientific philosophy would not treat consciousness from the "natural" viewpoint, as object. Truth lies, not in the mind, nor in the "natural" objects of perception, but in the interaction between the two. As soon as we encounter the world, we, as conscious subjects, start to give it meaning. A solid foundation for knowledge can only be secured by a scrupulous method that returns us to the immediate experience of consciousness. We can only hope to know the "things themselves" by interrogating the life of the consciousness which intends these things - that "transcendental self" which alone is capable of producing valid universal knowledge.

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