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Edmund Husserl's Contributions to Phenomenology
Edmund Husserl's Contributions to Phenomenology
This post continues the series on phenomenology. The previous post in this series was on phenomenology prior to the twentieth century.
In the early Twentieth Century, Edmund Husserl sought a new way to understand reality that could be more comprehensive and more reliable than any that had been proposed up to that point. At that time, there were some philosophers who were idealists and some who were material realists. The idealists of the day, often times being rationalists, tended to think of reality as ultimately being in the mind and that everything that one perceives is entirely mental. Material realists of the day, most often being empiricists, believed that perceptions gave one knowledge of the external world, and some material realists believed that they could directly perceive objects that are external to ones self while other empiricists believed that perceptions merely represented external objects.
It is through the assumption of empiricism that the scientific method becomes possible. In the centuries leading up to Husserl’s time, scientific methodology had become increasingly detailed and the results gained from scientific experiments were increasingly reliable and allowed people to understand the world in a way that was never before possible. In the century since, the belief in empiricism among those pursuing a greater understanding of nature has helped make incredible achievements happen. Amazing progress has been made in widely diverse areas of inquiry and continues to be made every day.
Husserl realized the usefulness of science in his day, but he wished to apply it in a way that was slightly different than that of its empiricist roots. He seems have been operating under the assumption of radical empiricism, though he does not use this term. He thought that the introspective study of consciousness could become a rigorous science and through this one could understand reality better than any based solely on the naturalized epistemology or scientism of his day. He tried to develop a set of methodology for this new science-like discipline, which he called phenomenology. Now, the first person study of the structures of consciousness had a history prior to Husserl, but he was the first to develop a methodology for this. Though the word “phenomenology” was used by Immanuel Kant and also Georg Hegel, prior to Husserl the definition of this word was not clearly established.
Husserl argued that the preconceived notions that people have about things, such as beliefs about how the mind works and of physical science, keep them from understanding the truth about reality. He argued that the best way to understand things in a truly objective manor and to understand the true essence of objects is to suspend all prior judgments, which is a process he called epoche. Husserl argued that one can take anything that they believe, even those most central to their life, and “bracket” them, which means to set them aside during careful and systematic introspection and reflection. In this he took inspiration from Rene Descartes, who detailed in his Meditations how he tried to doubt everything he believed to be true as much as he could and found that the one thing he could not doubt was his own existence. Similar to Descartes, Husserl argued that it is possible for anyone to suspend all existing preconceptions of reality and to re-interpret everything in terms of immediate experience. He said that phenomenology is a presupposition-less discipline and that therefore it cannot take into account the result of any other science.
Husserl highly emphasized intuition in his formulation of what he called the “principle of principles” which he describes as “that every originary presentive intuition is a legitimizing source of cognition, that everything originarily (so to speak in its 'personal' actuality) offered to us in 'intuition' is to be accepted simply as what it is presented as being, but also only within the limits in which it is presented there.” (Ideas I Sec 24, p. 44). What this means is that if one goes through the process of epoche and eliminates all preconceived notions, including all assumed scientific knowledge and ordinary matters of fact, and then focuses solely on what is immediately given to them by experience, that they should be able to intuitively grasp the essence of any object.
My own work has been much influenced by Husserl's. I believe that Husserl made great advancements in philosophy and that his work is quite underrated. I will have to say, though, that Husserl was wrong that one can simply bracket out all of their prior knowledge and preconceptions and then to grasp the objective essence of any object. Epoche, to the extent that Husserl described it, is simply not possible. One's thoughts will always be slightly contaminated with their preconceptions, no matter how hard they try to bracket them out.
I do like that Husserl emphasized the importance of trying to bracket out preconceptions and trying to grasp the essence of things through introspection and reflection. I believe that we can understand much more about reality by using his methods in conjunction with the methods of modern science. This is one of the main purposes of the Enlightened Worldview Project and I will explain more about phenomenology and science and how they work together in future postings.