A Short History of Phenomenology


Phenomenology, as the movement inaugurated by Edmund Husserl (1859– 1938), is now a century old. Although the great precursor is Franz Brentano it would be Husserl in the Introduction to the Second Volume of the First Edition of his Logische Untersuchungen (Logical Investigations, 1900– 1901), when, in discussing the need for a wide-ranging theory of knowledge, he speaks of “the phenomenology of the experiences of thinking and knowing”.1 So phenomenology was first and foremost in the tradition of those German Idealists concerned with epistemology or a theory of knowledge and how we know, consciousness and the structure of consciousness. As Husserl states it:

This phenomenology, like the more inclusive pure phenomenology of experiences in general, has, as its exclusive concern, experiences intuitively seizable and analysable in the pure generality of their essence, not experiences empirically perceived and treated as real facts, as experiences of human or animal experients in the phenomenal world that we posit as an empirical fact. This phenomenology must bring to pure expression, must describe in terms of their essential concepts and their governing formulae of essence, the essences which directly make themselves known in intuition, and the connections which have their roots purely in such essences. Each such statement of essence is an a priori statement in the highest sense of the word. (LI, Intro. § 1, p. 249; Hua XIX/ 1 6)

In the above one sees a reaction against empirical and naturalist description and forms of experience and knowledge as the hallmark, along with the turn toward the Kantian intuitionism and expressionism of concepts of essence and essentiality, and the a priori deduction over empirical observation.

Husserl’s philosophy is a latter strain of Transcendental Idealism in the tradition of Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel. In fact for Husserl phenomenology is foremost an a priori transcendental science of pure consciousness as such.2 Husserl saw his as a grand pedagogical mission, with himself as the Moses of a new Transcendental science leading his flock toward the new subjectivity. As Dermot tells us Husserl thought phenomenological practice required a radical shift in viewpoint, a suspension or bracketing of the everyday natural attitude and all ‘world-positing’ intentional acts which assumed the existence of the world, until the practitioner is led back into the domain of pure transcendental subjectivity. Without this leading back, this reduction, genuine phenomenological insight would be impossible in Husserl’s eyes; at best it would be no more than a naturalistic psychology of consciousness, which treated consciousness as just “a little tag-end of the world”. (Dermot, p. 2)

Although Husserl was influential very few would follow him down the path of reduction, perceiving Husserl’s intuitionism as a resurgence of Kant’s idealism so that in later years he often quipped that he was a “leader without followers”. Martin Heidegger along with Levinas, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and Derrida would all deviate and provide varying heretical turns away from their Master in the years to follow. (Dermot, p. 3) Franz Brentano was the forerunner and it was Brentano’s contribution, namely his rediscovery of the intentional structure of consciousness and his project of scientific description of consciousness that became the cornerstone of the phenomenological method. (Dermot, pp. 3-4)

Intentionality is usually defined as the directedness of the mind toward something other than itself. My desire for a coca cola is directed at the cold bottle of viscous liquid in front of me. Much of consciousness is intentional, my conscious experiences are usually directed at something. However, conscious experiences typically have a phenomenal character: there is something it is like for me to see the deep drifts of snow and to feel the breath of a frosty wind scraping over my feet, and to smell the crisp snowy-breeze. An important question to answer concerning the relationship between intentionality and consciousness is whether all conscious states are intentional? Another question concerns the explanatory priority of intentionality and phenomenal character: Can phenomenal character be explained in terms of intentionality? Or is it the case that intentionality should be understood in terms of phenomenology? Philosophers from the analytic, phenomenological, and naturalistic traditions have all made important contributions to our understanding of intentionality and consciousness.

One of the contemporary debates is that phenomenology and its intentionalism no longer provide descriptions for our current understanding of Mind or the natural order. The very notion of intentionality have come under scrutiny in the neurosciences along with such notions as free-will and our affective relations. There is also various trends in philosophy toward new approaches to the old dilemma of Kant’s noumenon which was never resolves. Phenomenology addresses only consciousness and the intuition and leaves all aspects of the ontic and ontology to bound to finitude and the limits of reason and appearance. Whatever is outside the phenomenal domain is not phenomenology’s concern. So various philosophies have arisen against this from dialectical materialism, new materialisms, speculative realisms, new realisms, flat ontologies, Object-Oriented philosophy etc., all promoting alternatives to a now depleted tradition of phenomenology.

Of course there were many other strong currents in philosophy prominent at the outset of the twentieth century, alongside, for example, Neo-Kantianism in its various schools (e.g. Rickert, Natorp, Cassirer, Windelband, Lotze), idealism (Green, Bradley, McTaggart), logicism (Frege, Russell), hermeneutics (Dilthey, Bultmann), pragmatism (Dewey, Peirce, James), Lebensphilosophie (Bergson, Simmel), Existenz philosophy (Kierkegaard and Nietzsche), as well as the empiricism of Hume’s followers (e.g. J. S. Mill), and the positivism and empirio-criticism of Comte, Mach, Avinarius, and, somewhat later, of the Vienna Circle. Each having various other traditions that will not concern us here.

Ultimately phenomenology was a philosophy that claimed above all to be a radical way of doing philosophy, a practice rather than a system. Phenomenology is best understood as a radical, anti-traditional style of philosophising, which emphasises the attempt to get to the truth of matters, to describe phenomena, in the broadest sense as whatever appears in the manner in which it appears, that is as it manifests itself to consciousness, to the experiencer. As such, phenomenology’s first step is to seek to avoid all misconstructions and impositions placed on experience in advance, whether these are drawn from religious or cultural traditions, from everyday common sense, or, indeed, from science itself. Explanations are not to be imposed before the phenomena have been understood from within. (Dermot, p. 4)

This sense of intuitively apprehending phenomena from within, of revealing the core of what appears as it appears in the presence of a specific individual consciousness without imposing any extraneous thought or concept upon the object in question, this was the heart of phenomenology. As Dermot relates it phenomenology was seen as reviving our living contact with reality, and as being remote from the arid and academic discussion of philosophical problems found in nineteenth-century philosophy, for example in the Neo-Kantian tradition. (Dermot, p. 5) The point here is that phenomenologists believed above all they could gain a direct apprehension and description of things as they are through intuition. It’s against this that most of our current philosophies of indirect apprehension of the Real struggle.

  1. J. N. Findlay, Logical Investigations, 2 vols (New York: Humanities Press, 1970), Vol. 1, p. 249.
  2. Moran, Dermot (2002-06-01). Introduction to Phenomenology (p. 2). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.


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