Monday, 27 August 2018

Edmund Husserl and The Beginnings of Phenomenology

Edmund Husserl
Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology which became a major philosophical movement in the 20th century, defines phenomenology as a descriptive analysis of the essence of pure consciousness. He interprets pure or transcendental phenomenology as an a priori science.

Richard Cobb-Stevens, in his essay, “The beginnings of phenomenology: Husserl and his predecessors,” (Chapter 1; Continental Philosophy in the Twentieth Century, edited by Richard Kearney), says that Husserl’s “principal contribution to philosophy was his development of the concept of intentionality. He reasserted and revitalized the premodern thesis that our cognitional acts are intentional, i.e., that they reach out beyond sensa to things in the world. When we think or speak about things, and when we perceive them, we deal with those things and not with mental intermediaries. Intentionality is our openness to the world, our transcending mode of being. Husserl also developed the implications of this fundamental thesis. He repudiated Locke’s interpretation of ‘mind’ as an inner space set off from the rest of nature, and he rejected Kant’s distinction between phenomena and things-in-themselves. He also rejected the view that the task of philosophy is to guarantee that our concepts and theories somehow mirror the world.”

In his 1931 book Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology, Husserl offers a detailed explanation of the phenomenological method. But he first articulated his ideas on phenomenology in his lectures given at Gottingen University in 1906-7.  In these lectures he characterizes his phenomenology in explicit transcendent terms and introduces the notions of the epoche and reduction (the terms are often interchangeable), while also clarifying the notions of immanence and transcendence.

By positing a distinction between phenomenology as a science of pure consciousness, and psychology as a science of empirical facts, Husserl tries to negate the reductionist tendencies in psychology. He notes that the domain of pure consciousness is different from the domain of real experience, and that phenomenology is a study of pure phenomena and not of actual experiences, or actual facts and realities. Here’s an excerpt from the essay by Richard Cobb-Stevens:

“According to Husserl, modern descriptions of the relationship between immanence and transcendence tend to invoke two complementary themes: inside versus outside and accessibility versus inaccessibility. When immanence is described as an enclosure containing mental processes and impressions, transcendence is correspondingly defined as whatever remains outside of that enclosure. When immanence is described as a region of indubitable givenness, transcendence is defined as a region populated by unknowable things-in-themselves. Most epistemologies combine these two senses of the relationship between immanence and transcendence. They first conflate mental acts and their contents by describing both as ‘contained’ within the mind’s psychic processes. They then construe the enigma of cognition as a problem of how to establish a connection between intra-mental representations and extra-mental things. The ‘unspoken assumption’ of these theories is that our cognitive processes are devoid of intentional import. This, according to Husserl, is the ‘fatal mistake’ of modern philosophy. Husserl praises Hume for acknowledging that this way of formulating the problem would in the end lead only to scepticism, but he adds that Hume’s scepticism is itself riddled with contradictions. On the one hand, Hume degrades to the status of fictions everything that transcends impressions and ideas. On the other hand, he ascribes to the processes of mind the same sort of reality as the transcendent things that we would reach if we could somehow break out of the circle of immanence. Husserl concludes that whenever philosophers ask about the possibility of cognition in a way that implies that ‘cognition is a thing apart from its object’, or that ‘cognition is given but the object of cognition is not given’, they introduce an inappropriate notion of transcendence, which in turn entails an inappropriate interpretation of immanence.”

Husserl is of the view that philosophy needs a new way of thinking and a new critique of reason. He proposes a radical method which requires the bracketing (epoche) or suspension of natural convictions. He holds that when empirical data is bracketed away from further investigation, it will leave pure consciousness, pure phenomena, and the pure ego as the residue of phenomenological reduction. Richard Cobb-Stevens points out that Husserl immediately distinguishes his new method from Descartes’ doubt:

“Descartes’ goal was to establish certitude about the existence of the thinking self and transcendent things. Husserl has no interest in such a project. His goal is simply to uncover the essence of cognition. He points out that Descartes failed to grasp the essence of cognition because he defined himself, qua, inquirer, as a ‘thinking thing’ having the same status as the transcendent things whose existence he had called into doubt. The purpose of the new method is to free us from this incoherent interpretation of transcendence, and consequently to enable us to redefine both transcendence and immanence. When we bracket everything within the realm of transcendence (as it is understood by Descartes and Hume), we in fact exclude nothing more than the incoherent interpretation of transcendent being as a region situated beyond the range of our knowledge. In so far as the mind’s ‘inside’ is interpreted as having the same sort of ontological status, it too must be bracketed. This approach permits us to redefine immanence, in a broader sense, as the zone of all manifestation, wherein both immanent objects (considered now, in a narrower sense, as reflectively intuited experiences) and their intentional correlates (transcendent things) appear to us. Immanent and transcendent objects are now distinguished in terms of their different styles of appearing, rather than by appeal to the difference between intra-mental appearance and extra-mental being.”

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