Dr. Louis N. Sandowsky
Phenomenology and Existentialism
Lecture One: The Horizon[s] of Phenomenology
The old ontological doctrine, that the knowledge of 'possibilities' must precede that of actualities (Wirklichkeiten) is, in my opinion, in so far as it is rightly understood and properly utilized, a really great truth.
Edmund Husserl. Ideas 1. sec 79.
1. What is Phenomenology?
The word phenomenology is derived from two Greek components. The meaning of phenomenon is that which shows itself in itself or from itself. Logos makes reference to reason, the word, speech.
In principle phenomeno-logy literally means the science of letting that which shows itself from itself give itself precisely as it speaks.
Here, the word phenomenon does not specifically refer to any existent material. It precedes any existential or metaphysical standpoint because it first indicates the possibility of ‘the showing’ or ‘visibility’ of that which we would accord actuality status as a presently existing Thing.
The ‘giving,’ like the ‘standing-outside-itself’ of the word ekstaticon, also refers to both more and less than presence. It expresses the opening of a ‘horizon’ as distinct from any particular Thing. Extension, in spatial terms, such as depth, foreground and background, and extension of a temporal order, are not simply added to present or existing things. The ‘showing,’ ‘giving,’ ‘standing-out,’ or ‘extending’ about which phenomenology speaks all refer to the pre-conditional horizon of the possibility of a presently existing Thing.
The word logos refers to a kind of ‘giving’ or ‘standing-out,’ which, in line with Martin Heidegger’s definition (in Sein und Zeit / Being and Time) as speech (rede), expresses a ‘speaking-out.’ We find the sense of such a speaking in the phenomenological call: To return to the things or matters themselves. On first appearance, this seems to be a direct challenge to Imannuel Kant’s claim that we cannot know Things as they are in themselves (see the Critique of Pure Reason). Actually, Kant says that we must still allow room for faith, but this is a faith that is in service to a residual metaphysic, which is undermined by his own methodological orientation.
Edmund Husserl, the father of modern phenomenology, has a serious (and radical) aim when, in contradistinction to Kant, he maintains that phenomenology actually directs itself to-the-things / matters-themselves. However, the project is not to establish yet another metaphysical ‘system.’ There is a kind of super-skeptical form of methodology in play that prohibits such construction. However, this does not lead to the inverse form: negative theology. In one sense, Husserl’s directive parodies the Kantian standpoint.
To say that we cannot know things-as-they-are-in-themselves is to cling to a traditional metaphysical divide that places consciousness in a box. Kant constructed an incredibly rich and complex map of consciousness and its structures – the ways in which experience is organized. However, he does not sufficiently escape the container-view of the mind and still leaves us with the impression of a certain insufficiency in consciousness that somehow cuts it off from existents. Husserl suspends judgement (abstains from taking up a position) concerning the actuality or inactuality of that which touches us in our experience. If we are to look for ‘evidence’ of existence then this is articulated by experience itself. Existence stands-out in terms of complexes of meaning. The ‘actual’ signs itself upon and through experience. Such signatures are the proper subject of study for a descriptive phenomenology, which seeks to avoid metaphysical explanation.
Although Kant’s ground-breaking, Critique of Pure Reason, establishes the horizon of a possible phenomenology, it is not a work of phenomenology as such. It is still mesmerized by the chimera of that which is postulated to lie ‘beyond’ experience.’
In sum, the phenomenological standpoint turns toward ‘evidence.’ Therefore, according to Husserl, it is senseless to look for evidence outside experience. Evidence is the speaking-out of things through experience. In these terms, the logos of phenomenology makes reference to the ‘style’ of the speaking-out of that which shows itself: the ‘as-it-gives-itself.’
Phenomenology indicates a ‘descriptive’ form of interrogation that is oriented toward that which stands-out precisely as it ‘gives’ itself. In other words, it names an attitude that listens to that which speaks; it is not concerned with the development of a ‘system’ that would speak on its behalf. Phenomenology is not a philosophical monologue. It is concerned, at a methodological level, to avoid simply bouncing up against its own projections. The form of its movement and encounter is to be continually engaged in dialogue with phenomena. To paraphrase Gaston Bachelard’s comment concerning the ways in which perception projects its own character onto the world (see, The Psychoanalysis of Fire), we may say that phenomenology inaugurates itself in the understanding that much of what we think we know about the world actually tells us far more about ourselves than it does about the world.
Thus, phenomenology is primarily a ‘method of description’ that maintains a healthy critical relation to its own modes of orientation. There is a double-edged form to phenomenological movement that is best summed up by the title of Husserl’s published text of 1913: Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie (Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy). The focus of the practicing phenomenologist must not restrict itself to the object of interrogation. There must be also a distanciating shift in perspective through which the motivation and form of the interrogation itself is taken into account. Most importantly, the structurality of its movement and the style of its passage are to be made thematic. A pure phenomenology works hand in hand with a phenomenological psychology / philosophy.
2. Intentionality: Phenomenology and Consciousness
Husserl’s intentional phenomenology is not to be confused with Hegel’s dialectical philosophy. Although there is a degree of methodological overlap, Hegel erects a formidable ‘system’ with which the method becomes confused in metaphysical speculation. Husserl’s intentional phenomenology utilizes a methodology that specifically suspends the moment of metaphysical decision. The only Absolute is the directedness of consciousness in its multifarious forms of comportment: its intentionality.
Husserl’s discourse on intentionality has little to do with ‘psychological’ intentions. It concerns a deeper dimension, which is the primordial condition of possibility of their constitution. The term intentionality refers to the fundamental character of consciousness and its engagement with phenomena: its transitivity.
Consciousness is always consciousness of something.
The preposition ‘of’ is the sign of the principal defining quality of consciousness. Every desiring has a desired, for every perception there is something that is perceived. Of course, in these general terms, we do not necessarily need to speak of existents. Many different kinds of phenomena speak to consciousness, e.g., the imagined of the imagining, the remembered of the remembering, the anticipated of the anticipating, etc. The existent, or that which is actual, is only one kind of phenomenological value. It is not primary. The only primary existential value is consciousness in its directedness toward something. This is not to say that it is only consciousness that is fundamentally real. Even consciousness itself is nothing without its fundamental structure of directedness: its intentionality. We do not speak of consciousness and existence in terms of two distinct regions that fortuitously come into contact with one another, but of the originary intertwining of an encounter. The classic bi-polar models of existence suggest independent, hermetically sealed regions in themselves (e.g., the Cartesian dyad, res cogitans and res extensa), which somehow enter into relation. In a sense, this is to put the cart before the horse. Such polarization already involves an encounter / a relation through which their crystallization can first be constituted – through which they can give themselves from themselves. They stand-out through a relation of differentiation. In other words, they give themselves from themselves by standing out from one another.
Imagine two circles intersecting one another. In this instance, neither circle represents a particular existential domain in itself (also consider the ‘one’ image of two sides of the same coin). Only when the two circles overlap can we address the issue of existence. The space of the overlap – the between – is the horizon of phenomenological investigation.
Far from being imprisoned in a box, consciousness is already out amongst the things. It exists through its encounter. It is only by virtue of the fact that consciousness stands-outside itself (is self-transcendent) that there is consciousness at all.
3. The Cartesian Problem
Descartes’s metaphysical dualism – res cogitans and res extensa – is responsible for virtually three centuries of feverish scientific and philosophical inquiry into what constitutes the interface that connects them. Descartes’s own efforts to uncover how these two dimensions interact with one another led him to suggest that the interface is situated in the pineal gland of the brain. Needless to say, he was not able to substantiate his claim.
There have been countless mind / brain identity theories, but all of them stem from the following basic perspectives.
orientation: which maintains that because there is interaction between mental
events, it only appears that there is interaction with physical events.
Furthermore, it is generally said that there is not any inherent connectedness
between physical states. (Note:
Psychophysical parallelism: which states that things merely coincide through some form of pre-established grace.
Occasionalism: says something similar to psychophysical parallelism in that it is maintained that the relation of congruence between things and / or two horizons is not of a horizontal order (between two dimensions), but a vertical relation through God – as the first cause or divine architect.
Epiphenomenalism: is a radical physicalist doctrine, which likens mental events to the image of smoke above a factory. The essential point is that mind is said to be an emergent process and that mental events do not actually interact with one another. It is argued that all interaction occurs purely at the physical level in the factory of the brain (this is the precise inverse to Berkeleyan idealism).
Descartes’s philosophy organized itself on the basis of a subject / attribute logic in the discourse on consciousness and the ego. The shift from the recognition that doubt, as a mode of consciousness, cannot doubt itself to the idea that this consciousness must be the property of a thinking Ego / Thing / substance constitutes a massive metaphysical leap.
With the statement cogito ergo sum, Rene Descartes found the key to the door of phenomenology. He even placed this key in the lock and turned it. However, he failed to open the door. He was primarily interested in reconstructing the world according to a traditional metaphysical schema. He failed to see that the work of de-con-struction is a horizon of research in its own right.
Any attempt to push out beyond consciousness as a hermetically sealed sphere of mental objects inevitably leads to an infinite regress. How can the criteria of verification exist beyond consciousness?
...Consider the third man argument.
...However, this is not to say that consciousness is simply a sphere of representations of representations...
In contrast to
traditional image-theories, phenomenology maintains that Objects (in the broad
sense) are not inherent in consciousness itself. They are intentional objects.
The form of the encounter is described in terms of the noetic-noematic
parallelism of intentional consciousness. The noetic is the seeing (the
extending of interest toward the world) and the noematic is the seen precisely as it is seen. For example, when one
speaks of the victor at
The relation between noeses and noemata is not a doubling of the relation of inner and outer, the subjective and objective, or experience and world. It is a relation of intentionality, which originally constitutes such a framework. It marks out the horizon of any encounter or dialogue. This structure, arrived at through the movement of phenomenological and eidetic reductions (eidetic / eidos = shape, form, essence), is that which is always already at the core of any possible discourse on consciousness and world.
4. 4. David Hume and the Problem of Personal Identity: Proto-Phenomenology
For Hume, the mind is nothing more than a ‘bundle of impressions.’ He maintains that consciousness is a flux of rapidly changing experiences – and that there is no abiding impression of Self that remains throughout the movement (see A Treatise of Human Nature, the section ‘Of Personal Identity’). Hume was the most radical of the empiricists in that he utilized the methods of empiricism so rigorously that it was pushed to the moment of aporia. He showed that even empiricism must ultimately fall back on certain metaphysical presuppositions and, therefore, it is undermined by its own internal principles and language. These aporetic traces remain insoluble within its stated limits.
In this sense, Hume’s empirical method is not in service to an empiricism. This means that the empirical method is turned upon itself in the form of a critique (a deconstruction) of its own metaphysical assumptions.
However, Hume did not effectively take into account the question of how consciousness can be aware of itself as a flux of changing impressions. There is an ‘abiding’ of some kind, even if one can no longer invoke the ego or some Thing. The form of this abiding or continuity is, of course, TIME.
Hume could not solve the problem of the continuity of experience within the logical borders of the language that he put into use. His own comments in on this issue (in the appendix to the Treatise) express his frustration and the hope that either he or someone else will eventually solve the problem.
Husserl’s lectures on internal time-consciousness can be seen as a positive response to the Humean dilemma, which provide some intelligible solutions.
5. The Kantian Transcendental Aesthetic
to Kant, space and time are not objects that are out in the world. They are forms of experience. In other words,
they organize that which is experienced rather than actually being experienced
in themselves. We seem to know what space and time are only until we actually
try to describe them. Space and time are the pre-conditions of the possibility
of description itself, but they tend to resist adequate description in
themselves. This is not an absolute, it is just that special care must be taken
when they are brought into account in any form of descriptive discourse. In the
case of time, some of the most penetrating meditations on this problem can be
Space is the form of all outer experience.
Time is the form of all inner experience.
It is Kant’s transcendental aesthetic (in relation to his “Refutation of Idealism) that goes some way toward reconciling some of the main principles of rationalism and empiricism. It is acknowledged that all knowledge begins with experience, but it is also demonstrated that there are structures that condition the possibility of its constitution (which are not actually the Cartesian innate ideas against which the empiricists polemicized so vigorously).
However, Kant’s conception of time and space as forms of experience is basically Euclidean in character. So, these forms are principally linear in character and come ready-made. Husserl developed a transcendental aesthetical discourse of his own that focused on the constitution of the many different forms of these forms. According to his phenomenological inquiries on the issue of temporal experience, the linearity, which we take so much for granted, is also constituted. Husserl digs deeper than Kant.
6. Phenomenology and its Relation to Existentialism
Existentialism is a particular application of the language and methods of phenomenology. It is ‘phenomenological-ontology.’
The existentialist orientation begins with the intentionality of consciousness – as self-transcending comportment in the world. Consciousness is pure transcendence. Transcendence is part of its essence – that is, if we were permitted to speak of essence here. Actually, we are not really at liberty to do so because consciousness, as an existential projection, necessarily precedes its essence while simultaneously extending beyond it (e.g., Sartre’s classic formulation: consciousness as Being-for-itself (Être pour soi] is what it is not and is not what it is). This signs a shift from “to be is to do” to “to do is to be.” Since consciousness is pure nothingness without its engagement-with the world (where the nothingness opens the space of meaning), existentialism deals with the manifold structures at work in the different forms of comportment that make up the life of consciousness as a whole. Here, the expression ‘whole’ is not to be confused with completeness. There cannot be completion. The only terminus is death, which, in a sense, is to end without finishing. In life, death is the only certainty. Only the date is uncertain.
Martin Heidegger (the father of existentialism), a former pupil of Husserl, puts this at the centre of his inquiries in his magnum opus, Being and Time. The discourse on time is not that of the infinite time of traditional scientific and philosophical discourse, but the lived temporality of ‘finitude.’ Temporality is not an abstract object that we come to out of simple scientific curiosity. It is the very source and structuration of our existential motivation. Heidegger’s whole philosophy basically says – it is time to live because we are eventually going to die!
7. The Methodological Epoché
At the heart of phenomenological interrogation is a method known as the reduction or epoché. This is one of the most important elements in phenomenological thought. Lecture Two will explore this theme.
The texts that are given in the General Bibliography below are particularly relevant for the themes that are adumbrated in this lecture. Take a look at some of them and see if you get some kind of feedback. The important thing is to familiarize your self with the basic themes discussed here. To this end, any secondary text on phenomenology will be useful. Phenomenology is a notoriously difficult field when it comes to the availability of good introductions. Try and find some kind of introduction to this field with which you feel comfortable. The situation gets a lot better when it comes to secondary texts on the more popular field of existentialism. For the first few weeks of this course, the point is to develop a basic awareness of the principal themes in phenomenology that extend into existentialist writing. The book list will become more specific as we move into the latter sphere.
For now, the most important existentialist texts to obtain are:
1. The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus.
2. Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre.
* * *
Confessions. Trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin. Penguin.
Guide for Translating Husserl.
The Fall. (1957). Translated from the French (La Chute) by Justin O’Brien. Published by Alfred A. Knopf.
The Myth of Sisyphus. Penguin.
Edmund Husserl's "Origin of
Geometry": An Introduction by Jacques
Derrida. Translated with a preface and afterword by John Leavey, Jr. University
Margins of Philosophy.
Trans. Alan Bass. The Harvester Press. 1982. Marges de la Philosophie.
Speech and Phenomena. Trans. David B. Allison. [Preface by
Discourse on Method and The Meditations. Translated with an introduction by F. E. Sutcliffe. Penguin.
Article: "Phenomenological Deconstruction: Husserl's Method of Abbau." The British Society For Phenomenology. Vol.21. No.1. January. 1990.
The Basic Problems of Phenomenology. Trans. Albert Hofstadter.
Being and Time. Trans. J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson (7th edition). Blackwell. 1962. Sein und Zeit Tubingen: Max Niemeyer. 1927.
Poetry, Language, Thought. Trans. Albert Hofstadter. (Copyright 1971 – Heidegger).
A Treatise of Human Nature. Analytical index by L.A. Selby-Bigge. Second Edition with
text revised and notes by P.H. Nidditch.
Cartesian Meditations. Trans. Dorion
The Crisis of European Sciences and
Transcendental Phenomenology. Trans. David
Carr. Northwestern University Press. Hua
VI: Die Krisis der Europäischen Wissenschaften und die Transzendentale
Experience and Judgement: Investigations in a
Genealogical Logic. Revised and edited by
Ludwig Landgrebe. Trans. James S. Churchill and Karl Ameriks. Introduced by J.
S. Churchill and Lothar Eley. Northwestern University Press. 1973. – Erfahrung und Urteil. Edited by Ludwig
Husserl: Shorter Works. Edited by Peter McCormick and Frederick Elliston.
Foreword by Walter Biemel. Copublished by
The Idea of Phenomenology. Trans. W.P. Alston and G. Nakhnikian. Martinus Nijhoff.
1950. [lectures of 1907]. Hua II: Die
Idee der Phänomenologie. Edited by Walter Biemel.
Ideas: General Introduction to Pure
Phenomenology. Trans. W.R. Boyce Gibson.
Collier/Macmillan. [first translation 1931] Original German text – 1913. Hua III.1: Ideen zu einer reinen
Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie: Erstes Buch. Edited by
The Phenomenology of Internal Time
Consciousness. Edited by Martin Heidegger.
Trans. J.S. Churchill.
Critique of Pure Reason. Trans. Norman Kemp Smith. 1929 Macmillan. [Original German text – 1787].
Kockelmans, Joseph [editor]
Phenomenology: The Philosophy of Husserl and its Interpretation. Doubleday & Co. Inc. [Anchor Books]. 1967.
The Phenomenology of Edmund Husserl. Edited by Donn Welton [various translators] Cornell University Press. 1981.
The Theory of Intuition in Husserl's
Phenomenology. Trans. Andre Orianne. Northwestern
University Press. 1973. [First published in
Phenomenology of Perception. Trans. Colin Smith. R.K.P. 1962.
The Primacy of Perception. Edited, with an Introduction by James M. Edie. Northwestern University Press. 1964.
Edmund Husserl's Theory of Meaning. Martinus Nijhoff. 1969.
Murphy, Richard T.
Hume and Husserl: Towards a Radical Subjectivism. Martinus/Nijhoff. 1980.
Husserl: An Analysis of his Phenomenology. Trans. E.G. Ballard and L.E. Embree. Northwestern University Press. 1967.
Being and Nothingness. Trans. Hazel E. Barnes.
Existentialism and Humanism.
Nausea. Trans. Robert Baldick. Penguin. [Originally published in 1938].
Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions. Trans. by Philip Mairet. Preface by Mary Warnock.
The Transcendence of the Ego. Trans. Forrest Williams and Robert Kirkpatrick. Octagon. 1972. [Original French text, 1936-7].
Husserlian Meditations. Northwestern University Press. 1974.
The Deconstruction of Time. Humanities Press. 1989.
Derrida: A Critical Reader. Edited by David Wood. Blackwell. 1992.
"Différance and the Problem of Strategy." [from Derrida and Différance.] Parousia Press. Edited by David Wood and Robert Bernasconi.1985.
Philosophy at the Limit. Unwin/Hyman.1990.